BOOK REVIEW: Vahni Capildeo’s “Skin Can Hold”

Vahni Capildeo’s Skin Can Hold bursts with ideas, electric with the joy of words. Capildeo is a writer enamoured with language, and her book offers up sextina, rondeau, motet, dialogue, oulipo game, just about everything you can imagine; her tone shifts in emotion too, from angry, to playful, to puzzled, to scholarly. “Panting, ending, burning, invading, weeping, / burning, caressing, longing! Reworking / thickens the trunk of the text,” she writes. Language becomes the source of everything: rapport, stultification, light-heartedness, violence. Grammar links to the body, and through such extreme love of language we discover new forms of love itself.

Already-existing forms of language can make us feel distanced or separated from intimate connection with others, so part of Capildeo’s task as a poet is “unpicking lexicons”. Her attention to language means she’s fascinated by advertisements and announcements, by the sounds of words, by onomatopoeia (“tapped, tripped, trapped”), by repetitive structures (“I come, I seize, I erase”), by languages other than English as well as the many varieties of English from regions of the United Kingdom, the Indian diaspora, the Caribbean and other ex-colonized territories.

Some of this interest derives from her own Trinidadian-Scottish background — we all start somewhere, before we open ourselves to the vastnesses that exist beyond the accident of immediate context. Some come from the places she’s lived, some from her linguistic training (she has a PhD in Anglo-Saxon Literature from Oxford and has worked as a lexicographer), some from friends, some from a realm of the imagination never before heard or seen on this planet.

Across her many collections, including Simple Complex Shapes, Measures of Expatriation, Seas and Trees and Venus as a Bear, Capildeo’s playfulness with language becomes a kind of resistance to forms of identity that insist on a supposed purity or authenticity. Her literature makes different sources clash, not only inhabiting but also creating new voices and traditions, producing associative-chains between sources that wouldn’t often come into contact in a single person, or in recorded History itself. Building another zone for linguistic play that’s hard to pin down in space and time is a never-ending project, since there’s forever “still more chaos effectively to organize”. But she does it, with wit and humour, as a master of parody, drawing out rhetoric a little farther than it tends to go, to demonstrate its flexibility or absurdity, for instance with bureaucratic directives: “Customers travelling with children must ensure that every child / travelling on the brown bag service is individually brown-bagged.”

There’s a similar movement at work in her performance instructions, which begin as more or less something to follow, and end in abstraction and interior space. Modern theatre often focuses more on evoking emotions than on movements of plot, but here words are distanced to the limit from possible interpretation: “He reads with the abstraction of a bichon frisé abandoned in the Hofgarten. You stoop, stretch, circle, segment, re-attach the relation of your body to the space around him.” The work contains its own critique, and mention of “an alternative version of this performance” occurs in the instructions themselves. Performance itself is less the point, maybe, than possibilities.

This section ends with the beginnings of language, as a girl, alone, sings vowels to herself: “No performance, such as untying ribbons to give to passersby, is involved.” The suggestion here is that engagement with others is itself a kind of performance, an idea that also appears in other poems. There are a few in the first person, notably “Shame”, about humilation of all kinds, sexual, professional, collateral, and so on: “The occurrence of the pretence as play; the occurrence of protest as pretend play; the performance of self-harm as protest: with its roots in the shade of the netted tree, this was shame (…) Shame on behalf of others is tiring. I hold it in the bowl of my pelvis, as empty as a night of timed-out stars. Shame on behalf of others flips into fury.”

But it would be a mistake to think of her as primarily an autobiographical poet. One of the things that fascinates me about Capildeo is precisely that she’s shifty, that her trompe l’oeil surfaces don’t say what you think they will, or at least not in that way. She’s a slippery fish who wriggles away from the reassuring poles of sociological discourse. Multiple times the idea of policing of literature comes up, for instance, as in her reflection on the “online angloamerican feminist group ‘protoform’” which cancelled several of its own, or her comment that “the frauds / claim exotic identities and needs”, an ambiguity that becomes interesting given how Capildeo is often herself positioned as a mouthpiece of this kind in the British poetic firmament.

Given her twin preoccupations with language and performance, it’s natural that when Capildeo finds her way to Shakespeare and other texts from the traditional canon of English literature, she juggles them into something new. Several poems list “sources” at the end of pieces, often combining a more classic work with something contemporary like Wikipedia. This incongruity might feel alienating or academic, and it’s true that many times I felt the texts gave me the slip, in a way they wouldn’t if I understood the original reference, or made the effort to study more. Isn’t that the modernist idea, I berate myself, that the poet makes demands of the reader, that she’s expected to capture the heady allusions?

Yet another part of me rebels against this, and claims my right to enjoy the poems without fully understanding them. I think Capildeo would like this, too. In a video for the University of York, she insists that the readers should pay attention to the pleasure of language for its own sake, and the ways it makes one want to write something of one’s own. And in her work on Martin Carter (which I’ll discuss further on), she writes: “Place ingrained in feeling seems to encourage researched reading. Sparse details can be unfurled into Guyanese realities. We, on the contrary, appreciated without wanting to dwell.”

The stage directions in “her” Shakespeares are, again, fascinating in how they serve to disorient as much as orient. As she says later in the book, “Directions arrive as if / translated from the more helpful souls / in Dante’s hell.” Shakespeare, like Capildeo herself, is agile as a carp and “alive, you type, and inconveniently alive in quick vertical, like on social media once, where a set of honest and original poets said no white actor should presume to play Othello since his is the only part black actors can without ripping the expensive delicate illusion of good theatre. I took by the throat these angels of the house, and clicked unlike”. Again, there’s no space here for saying what one can’t do, for invention will permit no red tape, closed signs, or boards laid in a forbidding “X” over locked doors.

Capildeo defends the idea of honestly and intimately metamorphosing into other bodies, minds, spaces and eras, to make hybrid creatures, greenhouse flowers and alien beings that you recognize in the mirror. The title of this poem, “Radical Shakespeare”, is perhaps a bit too on the nose for my taste, but one appreciates what she’s doing here. Because for her, and so many others — for most people I think — there isn’t any so-called “authentic” single identity to return to at all. We read widely, and wildly, and the thing that marks out a good from a bad reader isn’t how much she knows but how sensitive she is to the project of what the other is doing — which she might then find interesting and take up, or sweep aside.

Capildeo’s shifts in tense between past, present and future destabilize the notion of what was, is and will be, and her activity itself suggests that all classics might be rewritten this way, with other voices such as those of women (for Capildeo, who self-defines as “they” and writes that she “self-presents” as a woman, an ample concept), on the sidetracks and rusty roads untaken left behind by the history of victors, where the trace remains:

There are too many women in this play,

all of an age to bleed; none bore children.

Lunar and silent, they have spread a field

of blood beneath the action. Dirt has skirts,

smooth roads rust, tiled surfaces tainted

with vinegar; nothing wipes nothing out,

nothing can be reached directly; nothing

that does not shed a lining, shudder, rubbish

the chance to make one clean sweet queen bee line.

Behind this bringing together of different registers, ideas and voices, there is an idea exploring such areas of shadow and rust, of going back to unexplored veins of history to discover the violence there but also the untapped joy, instead of resigning ourselves to the grey bureaucratic everyday to which we find ourselves confined.

To imagine other stories in history, and not just those linked to one’s own identity, is a form of resistance and holds liberating potential. After all, the “identity” we currently hold and the words we use are linked to such historical, colonial violence, which affected language. Everything is contingent, all is a counterhistory. What other parallel universes might exist? Capildeo helps us to explore them. As one of her personas writes: “When the British and the Spanish and the French and the Dutch and the Yankees and the Portuguese took away your language, I grew strong eating your tongues.” Such violence behind history comes through in Capildeo’s style, too, with its phrases that smash into each other, refuse a “clean” read, and leave a measure of incomprehension, but are also sown with possibility, “seeded with unfoldings”.

All of this might sound heavy, but it isn’t — thanks in large part to the light tone, the playful formats, and the ambiguity of the speaker herself. One of Capildeo’s preferred characters is the Fool, the one who makes language jokes like “gecko in a wall-zone” the one who through performative clowning can say what others do not, the one who speaks the truth. Thus Capildeo, with ludic skill, erases many givens, erasures necessary to create something new: “put a line through: meaning (…) put a line through: my”. But what’s left after we get rid of the drive toward sense, the established versions of history, the autobiographical first-person? Temporarily we might get closer to tree and plant life: “You’re indecipherable like a tree, and treelike you proliferate your gestures.” I don’t think it’s a mistake that so much writing these days is coming back to ideas of nature, as a source of poetry, as consolation, as another track through the foliage of events: “Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.” Capildeo goes farther with her non-anthropomorphism, becoming not just objects but determinants from biology, sociology, physics:

I was the hurt that hobble the angel foot. I was the rot that spread in the forest’s root. (…) I am the nerves that push the mad president’s hand to push the button. I am the last words that you forget to utter. (…) I am the child bride hymen beneath the fingernails of the lawyer, I am the coat hanger in the cupboard of the priest wife room, I am the terrorist vampire from the Lapeyrouse tomb (…) I am the biological vector that turns the suicidal farmer’s harvest to ash. I am the force that shatters the astronomer of freedom’s telescope to splinter in his eye, I am the widespread lack of education that blind your comrade and make him cry.

These lines come from my favourite piece in the book, “Midnight Robber Monologue”, taken from a supposed play in which “Robbers duel in Tamarind Square, challenging each other with their sweeping actions and speeches that beat back the aeroplane Concorde breaking the sound barrier”. The force of this voice is a whirlwind, otherworldly. “The Robber is older than you can ever understand. He seizes the present. He is Fear itself. He is the eternal shadow underpinning all the five continents’ shifty land.” Time itself is undone:

At the age of minus six hundred and sixty six, I met the seraphim and cut off their pricks. At the age of minus seven, I cast down heaven into the Labasse. At the age of zero I forged my own cutlass. At the age of five I took your life, and your life, and your life. Your lives were sweet, and zombification was complete. At the age of nine, darkness was all mine. From the age of ten I operate as a ageless robber douen.

Faced with such “other” forces, we confront an impossibility of contact. This failure of communication, the silences made by others without our consent, and those we ourselves make for which we are responsible, is another theme. There are always things unknown even between the poet and the reader: “there is always, / even between the lines that speak / of breaks & brakes, / always someone else / who was present in writing – / when you thought you / knew – who you thought you were reading – / no means – in the garden singing”. The silent body outside of the text is a constant in all the mysteries: love, violence, writing. Capildeo notes the connection: “Love’s an enigma like murder.” Her most love-filled poem, “Reading for Compass: Response to Zaffar Kunial, Us”, is filled with a sense of the sacred and the aura of an appointment somewhere beyond, a rendezvous in some mirage of night with a fellow poet:

This isn’t what I’m used to. I grew up
as an inventor of voices for dead
books, impossible, inherited, odd
volumes, middle slices missing, made up;
colonial texts for memorisation
autoexecuted in rolling tones;
‘Indo-European’ languages drunk
like milk alchemised from blood, acquired
history. I know in my bones a desert,
or somesuch suddenly green lush place, where
our ancestors could have met with opposed
weaponry. What has survived of this is
us. And your advice: take heed of the vowels.

Repeatedly, in her work, as here, Capildeo defines and challenges what poetry is or does. “Every poem an ouroboros,” she says at one point. At another: “Reading this returns me to my body.” Elsewhere: “Who said which language / the book had to be in, anyway? / Fuck that shit. Now that’s a poem.” We are some ways beyond (or lateral to) Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”. The section of the book with Capildeo’s versions of Muriel Spark, an exploration of Scottishness, further complicate what poetry is through the incorporation of folk songs, wolf tales, and other popular materials.

The heart of the book, in my view, is a section that initially seems a jarringly non-fictional, near scholarly exploration of the life of Guyanese writer Martin Carter (1927-1997). In the context of the book as a whole, it makes sense. Capildeo’s interest in Carter has to do with her interest in performance, and with relivings (not responses or reworkings, she emphasizes). Out of the work of Carter, with “his naturally enigmatic and quasi-modernist intellectual approach to innovation”, she has created new “syntax poems” to be performed by several voices and bodies. For several pages she describes the elaborate performance on the basis of her poems made from Carter’s, “a living, not anatomised, version of practical criticism and close reading” with the goal that the audience will have “participated in a sense of call and response, cry and chorus, intimate camaraderie”. Carter’s original poem “I Am No Soldier” is rousing and soul-stirring: “O come astronomer of freedom / Come comrade stargazer / Look at the sky told you I had seen / The glittering seeds that germinate in darkness”, and Capildeo’s version turns this into a bewildering yet sensuous experience. Martin Carter is a “comrade stargazer”, and all of us are brothers and sisters on this earth together, linking arms and looking toward the heavens.

While the original poem is more or less comprehensible, the vertigo-inducing new form necessitates a return to the page, to elucidate the concept behind the work. These pages in writing, Capildeo says, are both “a record of the ephemeral”, and an instruction kit: “These materials are primarily an encouragement to readers to prepare their own kinetic, immersive, or collaborative responses (should they so wish) to any text of their choice.” The seating instructions for a colonial classroom, chart and student exercises at the end are partly serious, partly a devilish wink at the poetry apparatus that provides exercises meant for students to “understand” poems.

I do wonder about the relationship of this kind of poetry to academia, since it seems to require a restitching after the unpicking. (Capildeo wrote this when she held the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship from 2014 to 2016, at the University of Cambridge.) An interesting sort of academia might perhaps forge an atmosphere beyond the accelerated news-cycle-driven world to explore some of the avenues of difficult poetry, which Capildeo lays out.

A new criticism would involve not just the page, but the body, and would explore the connection between units of sense and their connection to physical movement: “What is the smallest unit of sense that arises from the joining-up made by the eye-movement (or that catches the inner ear as the eye moves)?” Capildeo, in her notes, pays close attention to breathing, rhythms, invocations, and repetitions, and treasures a constant movement, with a lack of interest in settling. The performance itself ends with a dance: “we had to anchor ourselves in the text and live out its twists and turns, in order to make sure we did not get physically stuck at any random or significant point in the set-that-was-not-a-set.”

The last few poems felt a little miscellaneous, or at least I’d have put them before the climax of the Martin Carter poem. But I appreciated their inclusion, especially “Poems for the Douma 4”, about four people abducted from the Violations Documentation Centre, in Syria: “Nuance has more off switches than lovers. Men stormed. Men do not storm. These are not natural phenomena. Sometimes I hate my trained mind.” Such interrogations of language, which gut it, draw out its viscera, sew it up into new beasts, then dance the unidentifiable forms into life, make any reified notion of identity seem unbearably tedious. There is so much more we can do.




Book Review: Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami

Although a translation of her short novel Ms Ice Sandwich was brought out by Pushkin Press in 2017, Breasts and Eggs is the full-length fiction by Mieko Kawakami to appear in English.

The initial part, originally published as a novella in 2008, is a first-person narrative about a few days in the life of 30 year old Natsuko. She’s moved to Tokyo from Osaka and dreams of artistic success while living on the breadline. Her big sister Makiko, who brought her up, is visiting. Makiko works in a hostess club and has come to the capital to finalise her cherished plan to get breast implants. Makiko is accompanied by her 12 year old daughter Midoriko, who has retreated into silence, confiding only in her journal. 

Midoriko’s diary, which punctuates the narrative, is the highlight of Part One. She is a female Adrian Mole, a working class kid, struggling to make sense of a dysfunctional adult world. But while Sue Townsend’s take on the world is gently humorous, Kawakami dishes up stronger fare. Adrian’s changing body causes him mild embarrassment, but Midoriko feels horror about impending puberty. She is equally disgusted by her mother’s determination to have surgery. (A girl may face truths that women do their utmost to repress.)

Breast and Eggs is a book of two, unbalanced, halves. In the much longer second part Natsuko is keeping afloat as a freelance writer – albeit one with a bad case of novelist’s block. The baton of angst, previously borne by sister and niece, has been passed to her. Natsuko is consumed by the wish to have a child. Because sexual desire was absent in her one long-ago relationship, she has concluded sperm donation is the answer.

The theme of insemination has the potential for comedy gold. And this is delivered in the scene where Natsuko meets Onda, a potential donor whose prolixity equals that of Austen’s Mr Collins. But while Midoriko’s fears of womanhood, Makiko’s dreams of a perfect bosom, are served with liberal doses of authorial irony, satire is off the menu when it comes to Kawakami’s chief protagonist. 

The narrator’s alternating decision and indecision – her exchanges with equally unhappy friends – would entertain as lifestyle journalism pieces or entries to a blog. But when joined up as chapters in a novel, they have their longueurs.  

At times Breasts and Eggs is reminiscent of a Buy-One-Get-One-Free supermarket offer. Part One is the brilliant debut novel and Part Two the ‘difficult’ successor. This unevenness may arise because Kawakami doesn’t feel bound to fulfil our expectations of what a novelist ‘should’ do. She may be seen as a latter day DH Lawrence. Brilliantly poetic and powerful at some points – at others repetitive and didactic. And, like Lawrence in his time, Kawakami has attracted both censure and adulation.

Happily the first DH is at the helm as the  novel draws towards its close. The chapters in which  Natsuko returns to visit her childhood home., when she has her baby, are extraordinary.

Here Kawakami makes a significant addition to the feminist line of alternative birth narratives begun by Mary Shelley. Natsuko also takes her place in a parade of  heroines – Jane Eyre, Jeanette in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – who exult in their own happy ending.

The labour of reading Breasts and Eggs becomes wholly worthwhile. 

Breasts and Eggs is published by Europa Editions.




Book Review: Night of the Long Goodbyes, by Erik Martiny

In Night of the Long Goodbyes, Erik Martiny takes us into a dystopian near-future. Set in the mid-21st century, Britain is in the grip of hyperpopulist post-Brexit politics. With the electorate sleepwalking into what turns out to be the final general election, a coalition of right-wing parties have taken power and are using it to find what they believe to be the quintessential essence of Britishness, each party looking further and further back in history to find its own acceptable version of gene purity. The Night of the Long Goodbyes, otherwise known as The Great Purge, refers to the terrifying mass deportation of anyone not deemed to be British enough. As if this isn’t awful enough, add in catastrophic climate change and a pandemic that suddenly sweeps through the population and renders people needing biotech in order to feel anything and … well, you get where this is going.

And then comes the Blue, a snow-like substance that simply starts falling one day and covers everything. It doesn’t melt and, for a while, provides some much-needed relief to the population, but then it hardens and contorts, and people are stuck in despair once again.

At this point in the novel our narrator, Kvist, decides to take a journey. He is obsessed by the Blue and so he sets out to tour Britain in the hope of finding out what it is and where it came from, planning to write the definitive guide to it. His journey is also one of self-discovery, as Kvist is desperately trying to piece together his own fragmented psyche and find some peace in the face of both his mental and physical decline.

At the start of the book there is a dedication, which reads: “In memory of Angela Carter”, and it’s when Kvist starts his journey that things do take a distinctly Carter-esque turn (it reminded me of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman). As he tours the country, furiously writing and recording everything, he meets a bizarre cast of characters and gets embroiled in an increasingly absurd set of adventures, leading to an ultimately tragic finale.

Night of the Long Goodbyes is a humorous novel, albeit a macabre humour in places. One of the most memorable encounters is with Bora Johnson, the shape-shifting Lord Mayor of Brexishire who has an aerated mop of blonde hair. Things happen with Bora that I won’t repeat here, but just be prepared to both chuckle and squirm in horror while reading it.

We never get an explanation of what the Blue really is because ultimately, of course, it can be read as a metaphor for many different things and while our narrator has his own theories, it’s up to the reader to decide what it means to them. And as absurd as it all is – I’m fairly hopeful that we won’t wake up in a few years to see the world covered in blue snow – there is much in Martiny’s novel that resonates, making it a compelling, sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying read.

Night of the Long Goodbyes is published by River Boat Books.




Book Review: Lake of Urine, by Guillermo Stitch

Read Litro’s interview with Guillermo Stitch.

Lake of Urine is original and absorbing, a mad whirly-gig romp through the lives of the Wakeling family. A post-modern fairy tale told in the absurdist tradition. There is a house in the woods, a heroine, an anti-heroine, a madman, a witch, a magical lake and a house brimming with secrets. It is daring, exuberant, stuffed with satire and literary tropes from Dickens to Barthelme, Calvino to Angela Carter, and totally exhausting.

Subtitled “a love story”, the novel is set in an ambiguous American outback, in an era where smock-wearing peasants drive horse and carts as well as cars, talk on mobiles and live in proximity to multinational corporations. What passes for “love” is unclear. The long list of encounters which comprise a large part of the novel are brutish, debauched, and devoid of any intimacy. Romance is as sparse as the string which holds the story together.

The novel follows the story of The Wakeling family, who live in “the compound” on Swan Hill. It begins in the snowy chill of winter with Seiler, the family factotum, who recounts his unrequited love for Emma Wakeling’s daughter Noranbole, and his intense dislike of her sister Urine, before embarking on his misguided vanity project to measure the depth of Swan Hill lake with a length of string; the consequences of which are both fantastic and surreal.

The second part of the novel is given over to Noranbole’s escape from the backwoods to the Big City with her fiancé Bernard. It’s a savagely satirical commentary on capitalism, consumerism, vacuous celebrity, and corporate America, where Bernard’s incomprehensible utterances (in Spanish, hybrid European, Asian and binary code) appear cogent in the land of corporate strategy, think tanks, and management speak; where conglomerates talk of radical rethinks and hammer out exponential crisis in unchartered waters. Language is nonsensical, reduced to a post-modern Mall of Babel. The more they speak, the less they say.

In the third, and most conventional part of the novel, Emma Wakeling tells the story of her eight husbands. Each husband, if not downright brutish, has more than their fair share of perversities and infidelities in these tales of Gothic backwoods courtships. Told with wit and economy, the story of Emma’s desultory marriages is deftly woven between descriptions of the rooms of the Wakeling house, all of which bear witness to private perversions, secrets, and misdeeds, recounting the story of Emma’s conception, birth, her courtships and why things in the attic go clunk.

The final part of the book returns to Swan Hill sometime hence. Spring blossoms but things are getting ugly. New etiquette and laws are needed. The overreaching arm of the state is omnipresent as Seiler revisits the scene of the crime in one last bid to measure the depth of the lake. Mysteries are solved, the jigsaw slots neatly together in true fairy-tale tradition. Magic abounds. Urine reappears. Noranbole escapes, and Seiler gets his comeuppance.

In an interview with Litro, Stitch claims Lake of Urine should not be considered as a cultural critique. He rejects the absurdist tag, preferring the term fabulism, invoking the ghosts of Aesop and Calvino. While the novel clearly contains elements of metafiction, hybridity, fantasy wrapped up in a convincing real-world setting, it lacks the depths associated with these works. Stitch is at his best subverting rather than narrating. Despite his reticence to be thought of as cultural critique, it is the dazzling pyrotechnics of language and satire that bind the book together; the quest for meaning in world which clearly has none. The characters are tissue thin, the plot lurches like a dodgem in spastic motion, in stops and starts, yet none of this seems to matter. For sheer exuberance and energy alone, the journey’s worth taking. No one emerges from the Wakeling compound unscathed.

Lake of Urine is published by Sagging Meniscus.




Interview with Guillermo Stitch, author of Lake of Urine

Guillermo Stitch is the author of the award-winning novella, Literature™, and the novel, Lake of Urine: A Love Story (Sagging Meniscus, 2020). His work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Entropy and Maudlin House. He lives in Spain.

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Interviewed by Erik Martiny.

Your novel Lake of Urine has a rather provocative title. Did you consider other titles? Were you not worried that a title like that would put off some of the more high-brow reviewing newspapers, not to mention publishers and readers?

I can’t remember the precise moment of settling upon the title, but it was early on and it was immediately obvious to me that it was the only possible title. Authentically, anyway – the truth is I did subsequently consider alternatives, especially as the book accrued a complement of rejections. Some of them were OK, I think, but I won’t give them an airing here – in comparison with Lake of Urine, which my stellar publisher has never even queried by the way, they tended rather toward the twee.

If the title puts a reader off, then that wasn’t my reader, so the problem resolves itself, but I know what you mean about critics and publications. The book has yet to find its place in the world, so I’ll have to wait and see. I think the implication of your question is that some might dismiss the book as daft or puerile or both without having read it or, having reached whatever lazy conclusion based on the title, read the book inattentively. You may be right. Risks, you know? Risks and rewards.

Can you tell us the inspiration behind your beautifully mysterious pseudonym?

The point of using a pseudonym for me is that it allows me to maintain a certain degree of anonymity or, if that proves impossible in the age of social media, at least a degree of distance. With that in mind I must remain circumspect here, but I’ll say two things.

Firstly, part of the reason it’s difficult to answer this question is that I am still making the answer up.

Secondly, do you remember how Alfred Hitchcock would always give himself a fleeting, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it cameo in his movies? As a child, I thought that was cool and would watch intently, pretty much oblivious to plot. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever – just cool. Well, there’s an element of that.

Your pseudonym is as playful as the names given to your characters. Was Dickens your main influence when choosing these?

Yes. Dickens could be delightfully on-the-nose with his names and I suppose in naming my characters I felt licensed by that. Nobody else casts such a long shadow over the book, especially the third and longest part.

Swift also makes cameo appearances in your novel, most notably in the Brobdingnag Semiconductors. How far-reaching was his influence?

Specifically? Not very. It’s obviously just about impossible to imagine a world (or an imagination [or a literature of the fantastic]) without Gulliver in it. But that’s as far as it goes, I think. Maybe that sense of a cleansed, “blue sky” allegorical space? Maybe it’s Swift that I have to thank for that.

Do you see yourself as a specifically Irish writer or are your sympathies more cosmopolitan?

I see myself as a person who has spent what probably amounts to way too much time in the spare room, making things up. Two of your questions this time round begin with the words “Do you see yourself as…” and they stump me, I have to say. I think I would rather not see myself, preferring the outward gaze. I am very fortunate in that a book of mine will see the light of day. And after that perhaps another, and then maybe more. If the work gets any attention at all, then there will be that process, won’t there? Other people will decide, maybe reach some sort of consensus, on what it is that I’ve produced and what its value is, if it has any. That’s as it should be.

I’m a writer and I’m Irish, so there’s some compelling evidence. I’ve been conscious of Irish writers all my life but then also of Europeans, Americans, Africans, Russians, South Americans … was it Iggy Pop who said “It’s all disco”?

Do you therefore have no interest in autobiographical writing?

I suppose I subscribe to the view, today anyway, that autobiographical writing is inescapable – that in a sense it is the only kind of writing. I am not absent from my work; I’m all over it like a cheap suit, in fact, but endlessly reiterated. There might be a bit of me in this character or that, a bit of my story in this scene or that – but it’s an inevitability, not a deliberate act.

I think when you leave something of yourself in your work inadvertently, it will be all the more revealing for the reader who is looking for that kind of thing.

But the challenge for good fiction – am I wrong about this? – is that the reader should find themselves in there, not me. Were I to consciously seek to present myself, assert myself, via my work, I would feel like an intruder in an intimate encounter between reader and text, as if I were hiding in the wardrobe, horribly aware that my socks were still on the floor beside the bed.

Some of your characters’ names (like Amerideath and Vacuity) suggest allegorical heightening. Did you intend the novel primarily as a critique of American culture?

Amerideth is a real surname, you know – I just dropped the “a” in.

No, I don’t think I would want the book to be considered a critique. Not primarily, anyway – I obviously take swipes and there are clear satirical elements but I think a book, a story, should be too rich and animated a thing to be primarily anything.

Lake of Urine is a particularly playful novel. Was the spirit of American postmodernism a driving force behind your stylistic and formal approach to storytelling? I’m thinking of Donald Barthelme in particular. Do you see yourself as a belated postmodernist or a neo-postmodernist?

I hope I’m not a belated anything. I’ve always considered myself to be quite a punctual person. I’m aware of the traditions, the delineations – but I am not driven by them. I love Barthelme but not because he’s postmodern. I could fill a page with the names of writers who have produced work I love, and all of the named would by now have been placed within a tradition by critical theory, but I don’t love any of those books because of those traditions.

What drives me is much more personal and much more rooted in early life, I think. It was when I put theoretical concerns aside that writing became possible, for me.

There’s also a postmodernist fairy tale atmosphere to your novel. What are the fairy tales that you had in mind when you were writing?

Noranbole’s arc is that of a subverted Cinderella. There’s also a kind of Fairy Godmother, and a sort of Wicked Witch. I don’t want to get too close here to explaining specifics, but Pinocchio is in there. The Goose that Laid the Golden egg. The book has a fragmentary relationship to a number of old tales. Broken bits of them show up as shards in its mosaic.

How close do you feel to the concerns of magic realism?

See my above observations regarding critical theory and my relationship with it. If anything, I am marginally more comfortable with the term fabulism – which invokes both Aesop and Calvino – to describe my work.

Don’t get me wrong – the reader who turns to my fiction looking for something akin to the wisdom of Aesop needs a good talking to.

But I am drawn to this idea that what we are after a story is different, and better, from what we were before. That when our fictions hit the truest notes, we are transformed.

I have always liked the term magic realism though. Magic is … well, it’s magic, isn’t it? And reality … is OK too, after the second coffee. And the combination of the two words works well to circumvent this supposed distinction between realism – the realist project – and other strategies.

Are you aware of American Weird fiction? Do you feel close to it or part of any movement similar to it?

In matters of membership or affiliation, I am a devotee of Groucho Marx.

Some of your characters speak in several different languages in the course of a single conversation with the same person. Bernard for instance even speaks in binary computer code, but Noranbole understands him perfectly. What was your aim in doing that? Is Bernard supposed to be some kind of robot or enhanced human being?

Bernard is … misunderstood. But not by Noranbole.

Can you tell us about your process?

When I am in the throes of a thing, I get up early, take care of any domestic tasks which might otherwise be hanging over me, break a quick sweat running, then sit down and write. After between four and six hours I dry up, or shut down or however you want to put it, but go back to things late at night. In fact a lot of the ideas that move a thing on come late at night.

I do not allocate distinct blocks of time to writing, editing, research and other elements. They all go in the mix together.

I am slow. Things need to brew.

Are you working on something new at the moment or giving it a rest after the writing of Lake of Urine?

I’ve been working on something ever since finishing Lake of Urine, although the various things that need to be done in the run up to publishing a book are distracting.

I published a component part of it a couple of years ago, in novella form, under the title Literature™.

I will call it a novel, I think, if only to help me convince people to read it.

Lake of Urine is published by Sagging Meniscus.




Book Review: El Llano in flames, by Juan Rulfo

Set in the years following the Mexican Revolution, El Llano in Flames is a collection of stark and violent short stories translated by Stephen Beechinor.

It’s the first book to be published by Structo Press and was recently longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. You might at first think it’s an unusual choice for a first. It’s not an easy read, but it is worthwhile.

It’s not by a famous or living author, although it turns out Juan Rulfo came highly recommended by Gabriel García Márquez, who compared the timelessness of his writing to that of Sophocles. And these stories have, I’ve been told, earned their place as classics in Latin American literature.

I’m not surprised.

In the collection, originally published in 1953 in Mexico City, Juan Rulfo tells the stories of the rural poor – those who didn’t benefit from the Revolution which took place between 1910 and 1920.

It’s the story equivalent to a dusty old gummed-up photo album, where nameless dead people stare out from moody sepia, eyes flecked with panic.

The book begins with “They gave us land”, which follows a group of people making their way through the desert…

“…out walking since dawn. By now it must be about four in the afternoon. Someone cranes up at the sky, strains his eyes towards where the sun hangs…”

We’re not sure where they’re going or why. But we’re dragged with them, with each laboured step, as the prose pulsates like blood pressure rising in the hot sun.

This is one of the recurring features of these stories: vivid scene setting and atmosphere, told in a simple sparing style that reminded me of early Ernest Hemingway short stories, except these had more colour.

There were many moments while I was reading that I felt compelled to pause, go back and reread and relive. Many pictures from this book that I can still see and believe will stay with me.

This is Juan Rulfo’s only collection of short stories, and while they are unified by time and place, they differ hugely in style and structure.

“Paso de Norte” is written mostly as a script. A kind of bookended symmetry wraps around “At first light”, where the beauty of nature and simple rural life is tainted by incest and violence.

The title story, “El Llano in flames” sits at the centre of the book depicting a battle in a rhythm that pushes you forward and echoes the sharp shooting of war. “Remember” lulls you in, confides in you with small town gossip. While “Macario” is a matter-of-fact account of being “jammed full of demons” told by a psychopathic child.

Many of the stories border on torturous, and this collection is never an easy read. Apparently The Guardian said you could read it in two days. I wouldn’t advise that – especially not in lockdown. It might give you nightmares. And anyway, why rush a good book?

Take your time and savour it. Let it drag you along with its sepia characters, and jam you full of demons as you follow their laboured steps.

El Llano in flames is published in the UK by Structo Press.




Book Review:Only a Lodger . . . And Hardly That, by Vesna Main

“I am puzzled by narratives of belonging,” Vesna Main said in an interview with Elsewhere magazine, “I don’t think of home as a place, or a geographical region. Therefore, it can be anywhere and nowhere,” which is a good an introduction as any to her new novel, Only a Lodger … And Hardly That. The title’s borrowed from the eighteenth-century writer and composer Charles Ignatius Sancho, who gained notoriety as the first British African eligible to vote in a general election. Asked by his friend, Laurence Sterne, for an opinion on a particular political issue, he declined to comment, saying he was: “Only a lodger … and hardly that.”

Billed as a “fictional biography” (real
or fictitious, we’ll come to that), the novel unpicks the lives of Main’s
paternal and maternal grandparents in five separate stories. In the first, “The Eye/I”, the narrator reflects on what it means to retell
one’s story. Is it possible to reduce pivotal moments from one’s past to
explain personality: the kneeling on a sheet of white paper, a dislike of
street urchins, an inability to memorise a poem? Were these the reasons the
narrator ended up being a writer who fell in love with the dead Croatian poet, Antun
Gustav Matoš?

The second story, “Acrobat”, is a lovely magical realism
poem which tells of Maria’s encounters with the circus that did or did not come
to town, the tightrope walker Fabrizzio she fell in love with (who flew or did
not fly), and the wealthy older suitor she rejected in favour of marrying Francis.

The stories in “The
Dead” and “The Poet”
belong to the two grandfathers, Pavel and Francis. “The Dead” takes the form of a conventional memoir, describing Victor’s
reinvention as Pavel, a home-schooled scholar, who derived pleasure from
selecting and sending books anonymously to his granddaughter, the narrator of “The Eye/I”.  Borrowing from Sebald, “The Poet”moves seamlessly between personal history and the wider cultural
context through a series of family photographs Main compares to paintings by
Leonardo Da Vinci and Edouard Manet.

In the last story, Gustav Otto Wagner, Maria’s spurned suitor,
offers an outsider’s view of the Ondruš family. Besotted and beguiled, he sits
with his apple strudel in the same café where Maria fell in love with the
famous dead poet, Matoš, pondering the origins of Maria’s mysterious illness;
whether it was caused, as her father said, by an incident at the circus which
did or did not come to town.

Throughout the novel, Main employs recurring motifs to
connect and deepen the narratives – Matoš’s famous poem, “The Consolation of the
Hair”, white collars and white gloves make their presence felt down the years. Fact
and fiction blur: the paper, the poet and the gloves are real; Pavel’s identity
is borrowed; the acrobat exists only in Maria’s mind. The past cannot be pinned
to a singular narrative, it belongs to many voices, has many interpretations,
and many ways of telling. And this is the novel’s beauty: a fictional biography
that belongs to a fictitious narrator who grew up, like Main, in Croatia; who, also
like Main, loves the English language and studied Shakespeare. What difference
do facts make to history? Main appears to ask.

Only a Lodger… And
Hardly That
is both a search for identity and a
rebuttal that such a search could yield any meaning. Belonging and alienation
exist side by side. In the Elsewhere interview, Main also said: “None of the characters I create in my novels or short
stories is me, but I share with them their sense of alienation, the feeling of
being citizens of everywhere and nowhere.”

The language is playful, sometimes dense, but always
intelligent and original as Main dips in and out of the authorial voice, subject
and observer. The stories can be enjoyed in their own right, but sequentially, they
form a substantial work; a book which travels far beyond nineteeth-century
Mitteleuropa to probe the meaning of our place in the world today; the fragile
foundations that shape identity, whether chosen or inherited.

Only a Lodger . . . And Hardly That is published by Seagull Books.

You might also like these short stories written by Vesna Main, My Sinister Side and Live and Let Live.




Book Review: Corregidora, by Gayl Jones

A classic of Black
literature, Corregidora was originally published in 1975 and reissued in
2019. It follows the story of Ursa Corregidora, a Kentucky blues singer. The
novel opens with Ursa recounting a violent attack at the hands of her husband,
Mutt, which leaves her with life-changing injuries. After a shift singing at
Happy’s Café Mutt, who is drunk both on alcohol and jealousy, pushes his wife
down some stairs as she is leaving the club. She is seriously injured and loses
both the baby she is carrying and her womb.

This loss is pivotal to
the rest of the novel because, for her entire life, Ursa has been charged with
making future generations in order to keep alive the stories of rape,
prostitution and brutalization that her great grandmother and her grandmother
suffered at the hands of Portuguese slave owner, Corregidora. As well as having
Corrgeidora’s patronymic, Ursa also has his blood because he fathered both her
grandmother and her mother, and she in turn is driven by the inherited, inescapable
hatred of the man who abused her relatives.

Ursa has heard these
stories from a very young age, told over and over in stark detail by the older
women, and they have been drilled into her until they become her own story too.
It is vital for these women to bear witness to the past as there are no paper
records left; when slavery was abolished all the paper records were destroyed so
there was no evidence of what had happened. But the women have refused to let
their experiences be taken from them, telling and retelling them, making each
generation of Corregidora women pass it onto the next so that they are never
forgotten.

But now, unable to have a
child and make that crucial next generation, Ursa has to find a new way of
passing them on. Music is her world so she uses her voice as her weapon and
sings the blues, writing her inherited history, as well as her lived
experiences, into her songs.

Although Ursa and her
mother never encountered Corregidora in person, they have still been traumatised
by his actions. They have also been objectified and violated by the men in
their own lives. Ursa doesn’t know much about her father until later, when she
visits her mother to find out what has always been left unsaid between them.
What she hears is another story of coercion, ownership and violence,
culminating in a beating that leaves her mother bruised and bloodied in the
street. Ursa fares no better at the hands of her husbands. As the novel goes on,
we learn that prior to Mutt’s vicious assault on her he has mentally abused her
for months, trying to force her to stop singing at the café because he is
jealous of the way other men look at her, and withholding sex from her as a
powerplay. Her second husband also tries to stamp his ownership on her,
eventually cheating on her with a fifteen-year-old girl.

Psychologically scarred
by the stories she is forced to carry Ursa struggles with her own sexuality,
and another rich seam running through the book is her journey to come to terms
with her sexual identity and find fulfilment. She is detached from the men she
sleeps with, which only adds to their frustration and the futile, dangerous need
for them to try to fully possess her, and there are hints of an unspoken desire
towards some of the women in her life.

Structurally the novel
skips backwards and forwards in time, mixing up Ursa’s recollections with those
of her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Written as an interior
monologue, with stream of consciousness recollections of the stories she was
told, the language is visceral and raw, unflinching in its descriptions of sex
and violence. Corregidora isn’t always an easy read, but it’s an
important one.

Corregidora is published in the UK by Virago.




Book Review: The Heartsick Diaspora, by Elaine Chiew

Elaine Chiew is ethnic Chinese from Malaysia; she was educated in the USA and then moved to the UK. She is currently living in Singapore. Her debut collection of short stories reflects this background. The stories examine the lives of the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese diaspora across the USA, Britain, and internationally. These are doubly hyphenated identities: the immigrant children of a Chinese community that established itself in the Straits Settlements in the early twentieth century. At one point a character’s mother visiting from Singapore is impressed by London’s Chinatown. “It’s just like China!” Her daughter wryly remarks, “Although she’d never been to China.”

The diversity of voices across the collection reflects not only Chiew’s talent, but perhaps also the long span of years over which they were written. The earliest published piece won the Bridport International Prize in 2008, a feat nicely bookended by the title story winning Second Prize a full decade later in 2018. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and in Unthology 10. She edited the anthology Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World, and this familiarity with food culture makes more than a cameo appearance in this collection.

Chiew
writes with equal facility and insight from the perspective of the older
generation of immigrants who never became proficient in English, and the younger,
college graduates and professionals, whose comprehension of the Chinese vernacular
is increasingly sketchy. In the drama-filled “Run of the Molars”, a mother arrives from Singapore to visit her
three daughters in London. It’s a recipe for much concealing of secrets,
putting up with whining, and unsolicited moral judgements. The reader need know
nothing of Chinese culture to appreciate the sheer passive-aggressive contrariness
of a mother who, when served platters of (London) Chinese food by her daughters,
narrows her mouth and asks for two slices of white bread. All the repressed
family dynamics seethe to the surface in this story of great heart and sardonic
observation of cultural differences.

Lily
is portrayed as the most progressive of the three daughters. Her sister,
despite at one point referring to the mother as a “hillbilly”, launches a
caustic attack on Lily for becoming too westernised: “Why do we have to talk
about everything? You’re so fierce westernised, just because you’ve married an ang moh. Put you on a couch, Freudy-dreudy,
this solves everything, eh?”

In
this piece as with several others, food is metonymic for fidelity to one’s
heritage.

In
the mythology-warping satire “Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer”, the
writer-narrator gazes in the mirror examining his zits and trying to descry his
true face: Model-Minority face, Fresh-Off-The-Boat face, Charlie Chan face. A
little later he ponders over whether it is ever permissible to use the description
“nice sloe eyes”, even in jest. The farcical tribulations of our Ethnic Writer
should serve as a caution not to read these stories too reductively as
explorations of ethnic identity. They are stories of family bonds and
friendships and struggles to establish one’s place in the world. Often a wry
distance is maintained from the characters, allowing space for the reader to
revise their opinion and see the larger picture.

This
authorial skill of allowing room for differing perspectives comes to the fore
in “Friends of the Kookaburra”.
Sansan receives a surprise call from an old college friend, the Madonna-idolising
Irene, seeking to renew contact. Twelve years before they had been “thick as
thieves”, done voluntary work together, camped out cramming for exams. But they
grew apart: Irene began to hang out with the more popular students. “Irene’s
wild talk, throwing around buzzwords like ‘sectarian politics’, ‘cultural
hegemony’, ‘power dialectic’.” Fast-forward the years, and this friend comes
across as effusive and presumptuous. Given the nature (and title) of the book,
the reader may be disposed to sympathise with the Malaysian-Chinese Sansan.
It’s a finely balanced portrayal, but we begin to warm to Irene’s brash
frankness. “Her eyes scan Sansan’s face for residual historic friendship.” The vexing
and elusive question intrudes nevertheless: is the tension between these old friends
a clash of Western individualism with Confucian values, or is it a personality
clash?

Irene
turns the tables in a dramatic fashion – no spoilers here. If the modern short
story is frequently charged with a lack of narrative and contrived subtle
endings, Chiew is never guilty of this.

“Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur” is a comedy,
verging on tragicomedy, about the Chinese owner/chef of La Lumière – a French restaurant
in Manhattan. Due to a sequence of events involving a lethally bilious food
blogger and the local loan-shark goons, Kara finds herself pretending the vacuous,
Grecian-god-looking Bernard is the executive chef. It’s a role Bernard takes on
with panache and a splash of cologne (in the kitchen!). This might not be the outstanding
story of the collection, but it shows the range of Chiew’s voices. Another
story gives us a would-be “tiger mother” trying to integrate with the other fearsome
moms hot-housing their kids through an intimidating prep school. In a nod to
Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger
Mother
, this mother composes extempore rap, not hymns, to express what she
dare not speak aloud.

The
title story is meticulously structured and a deserving winner of the Bridport
Prize, but it’s in “Chinese Almanac”
that Chiew pulls out all the stops. The writing here buzzes with just the right
amount of confusion. Fragmented syntax, untranslated Chinese characters, and
unexpected bawdiness depict, and replicate in the reader, the feeling of joining
the festive table of the extended family of one’s new girlfriend/boyfriend. The
necessity for slapstick should rightfully trump any writer’s notions of keeping
the writing restrained. Manboobs, dildoes, death, and Jesus all find their way
into the dinner-table conversation. When the egg foo young lands on the floor
and the meal comes to an abrupt end, the daughter hesitantly asks her bashful
beau if he would like to visit again. “He gives an emphatic nod.”

The
writing is exquisitely precise. The narrator’s father, a mathematics graduate who
came to America and always worked at menial jobs, is now going through a process
of estrangement from his wife. In a sentence to make any writer envious, the
son describes the attempt at flirting with the middle-aged Korean woman who
runs the drycleaners: “I watch this interaction with a portion of incredulity,
a portion of amusement, a portion of ineffable catch-in-my-throat.”

A
recurring theme is the dual nature of family bonds, on the one hand supportive
and on the other hand they can be stifling. On the whole such bonds come out
positively, even in the case where a young man hides his sexuality from his
parents. “There’s a hierarchy of sins: being gay is not as heinous as being
unfilial,” he says.

A
calmly optimistic humanist view of human nature informs the fictions. An
immigrant in dire straits steals twenty dollars from the cash register only to
replace it the next day. The revelation that an uncle sought to have sex with a
transsexual is regarded as a perplexing disorder of the libido. A mother whips
her piteous, ghost-haunted son and the ensuing scandal forces her to publicly
apologise to him. A Confucian worldview, perhaps, but Chiew has already
cautioned us against seeing characters as determined by their ethnicities.

Chiew
also works as a visual arts researcher. She has written elsewhere of being
attentive in her fiction to the potential and meanings of objects, events, and
dialogue, and to their linkages and echoes off each other. As well as food, a
chamber pot or dialect phrase can become a recurring motif and resonate with
meaning.

Three
of the stories are historical fiction, written in a more classic style of
prose. These stories, for this reader, seem to show that the generational
divide rivals that of the east-west cultural divide, though this may not have
been the writer’s intention.

Geopolitical
realities are changing rapidly. Singaporeans are now the sixth richest people
in the world. The world of Amy Tan’s novels is gone. Chiew’s characters are university
students (fees for international students are notoriously high), accounts
managers, restaurant owners, insurance underwriters – global nomads as one
character says. In two stories they are low-wage workers. “The Chinese Nanny” is perhaps the
sole story where ethnicity feels like a limitation to be overcome. It’s a good
story, though without that feeling of entanglement the others induce, where the
reader is unsure where to commit their sympathies.

In
a collection with such a range of themes and styles, there’s going to be
something that’s not to the reader’s taste. For me it was the mythological
parody “Confessions of an Irresolute
Ethnic Writer”, which hardly deserved so many pages, clocking in at the
second longest.

These stories do what short fiction does best: point a light at lives rarely given voice, and depict dramatic situations which involve and vex the reader.

The Heartsick Diaspora is published by Myriad and Penguin SEA.




Book Review: Winter in Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Located in South Korea, Sokcho is a small city that bustles in the summertime with tourists. It’s the gateway to many areas of natural beauty, including Seoraksan National Park – a small city that is a-thrum and a-hum with the motion of tourists throughout summer. But when the summer disappears, Sokcho empties of the commercial buzz; it loses the boost of transitory, touristy cash. In the winter the city battens down, the cold sweep of ice a constant from the nearby East Sea. And the shadow of North Korea falls pretty close.

It is in this bitterness of cold we meet the
receptionist, half French and half Korean, in her twenties, working in a guest
house, a guest house which still has guests, despite the lack of summer season.
A French guest – Yan Kerrand – arrives,
a graphic novelist, his work in motion. He seeks new ideas as he seeks new
places to travel to. She is drawn to him, and he seems fairly intrigued by her
too. A quiet friendship occurs, and she takes him to see many of the local
tourist sights together. A relationship between the two always feels imminent;
at one point their bedrooms are separated by a thin wall within the guesthouse,
its narrow width separating these two worlds, paper-thin and yet impenetrable.
Two worlds which can’t quite mesh.

Weaved
throughout the story is the heroine’s relationship with her mother, a local
fish woman. Fish feature throughout, literally, the food which feeds the frozen
town through the blast of winter, cooked into various stocks and sauces, fish
like the women, pummelled and pushed into shape, how they should look, how they
should be – indeed, there is a woman recovering in the guest house from plastic
surgery, quite literally pummelled and pushed into how she thinks she should
look. There are octopuses, fish scales, gut and blood, slippery and surreal.

Winter
in Sokcho
reads like
a muted fairy tale. We never quite get under the skin of the main characters,
this girl in her guesthouse who is never named. It’s interesting that Yan Kerrand
is a creator of other worlds – not quite from this one, not quite from another.
But a creator and a recorder of stories nevertheless. The sex in the book is
cold and clinical, the food constant, sustenance through the cold winter. The
fish. There is no sunshine at any time in the narrative. It’s a cold and lonely
place. And the fact that Sokcho borders the two Koreas – it feels like we’re on
the edge of the world itself, the border of the world.

Winter in Sokcho is a dream novel, a brief glimpse into a young woman not quite coming of age, frozen in the ice of both her home city and her family situation. Her mother kills, chops and cooks fish. The French guest tries to capture the world he sees around with ink on paper. The receptionist is in stasis, trapped in the ice of this winter. Her French father abandoned her at a young age, his existence still a cause of gossip to the local women. A brief dream of a novel, which opens up our worlds.

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books.




Book Review: Shelf Life, by Livia Franchini

Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life is bookended by
shopping lists. Both written by Ruth, a thirty-year-old nurse working in a care
home. The first comes shortly after Neil, her partner of ten years, abruptly
terminates the relationship, to “share his love with more than one person”. In
the midst of the break-up, Ruth is charged with organising a hen party for her
frenemy Alana, who within hours of Ruth’s split, announces her wedding.

Starting with Eggs, each item on the list provides
a clue as to what went wrong with the relationship, from its inception in Rome
to its demise in a dimly lit west-facing kitchen in England. In Tampons, we
learn Ruth was regarded as an outsider by teenage schoolfriends. In Sugar, we
follow Ruth and Neil’s first meeting. Whole Chicken turns to Ruth’s
relationship with her mother, played out over a truly bizarre chicken supper, where
not a morsel is consumed. Spanning ten years of the relationship, the list
jumps between the distant and close past, switching perspectives from Ruth to
Neil to Alana, interspersed by random email exchanges, sent by the predatory Cumulonimbus to women on his sexual
radar.

Franchini is a poet and translator, with the
originality and skills to whip up lives from the unremarkable and commonplace. Eggs
begins with a lovely contemplation on the nature of weight: “Here are some
things I know about weight. A pound of feathers weighs as much as a pound of
bricks, but a pound of bricks is easier to carry.” She has a keen ear for the vernacular.
And, at her best, is inventive, observant and lyrical: “These days, sleeping
feels like a kind of drunkenness, like travelling at sea.” However, while there’s
lots to admire in Shelf Life, its main character, Ruth, is frustratingly
unsatisfying: who she is, what she loves and hates, her reasons for starting a
relationship with Neil, let alone remaining in it, remain obscure. This may be
a deliberate Deleuzian ploy – a take on identity which suggests personality is
formed through experiences and differences; thus, the reader is never intended
to “know” Ruth, as none of us can truly be “known”. But literature is not life.
And what this means on the page is that we simply don’t know enough about Ruth
to care. Paradoxically, Neil, for all his toxic, sexually aggressive behaviour,
likely to have the #MeToo Gen shuddering in their sleep, offers a clearer semblance
of motive and character. And we are left in no doubt as to why he has too much
love for one person.

The final shopping list in the book is by far the
most interesting. The devil is always in the detail, and it’s the detail that arouses
our curiosity. This list is proof of Ruth’s recovered self, her identity, now sharply
etched in: Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio, Aussie
Miracle Cure
and Heinz Tomato Soup. Reading this list, it’s impossible
not to think of the late, great sociologist, Erving Goffman, who said: Show me
what newspaper a man reads and I’ll tell you where he lives, how he decorates his
front room and how he makes love to his wife.

A character who’s forged from the neutral labels of
wine or pudding is always going to be a harder challenge than one who can
easily be known through her choice of flavours, brands, and market positioning.
Or, as Goffman might say: Show me a woman with a bottle of Yellow Tail and 2 Gu
Chocolate Puddings
and I’ll tell you whyher relationship started, endured and finally faltered.

Shelf Life is out now in paperback from Penguin.




Book Review: Pharricide, by Vincent de Swarte; translated by Nicholas Royle

Pharricide has taken me ages to review, partly because I couldn’t stop reading to make notes. That’s how good it is. I didn’t want to stop and question or think about the story as I read. I wanted to linger in the protagonist’s lighthouse, watching him, being him and seeing the world through his eyes. I read it once and had to reread it, but I didn’t read the blurb.

(I never read book blurbs until I’ve finished reading a book. They give
too much away. I have to make sure I don’t leave a book upside down anywhere. I
don’t want catch a few words of blurb inadvertently as I’m getting into bed.)

So here’s my recommendation: don’t read the blurb and stop reading this
review now. Take it on trust. If you love cleverly constructed mind-bending
literature, you’ll appreciate Pharricide. Buy it. Or pick it up at the
library.

Or you can carry on reading the review. Up to you. But don’t say I didn’t
warn you.

Geoffroy Lafayen is a lighthouse keeper. At first, he seems sympathetic,
even warm. We learn he was bullied as a child, a bit of an outcast. There are
hints of a tragic past. While he says he’s “not particularly sociable,” he
confesses to being kind – “I feel it warming me from inside, this kindness” –
and describes himself as “a big soft doggie”.

You’d have to be a monster not to feel some affection for a big soft
doggie, wouldn’t you?

His past emerges in his random thoughts and memories throughout this
first-person narrative, and with it his tormented and complex character. Details
are drip-fed in throwaway phrases, bracketed in explanatory asides: “(who
looked after me after my mother was sectioned)”. This understatement and lack
of drama make the narrative all the more haunting.

But even Geoffroy’s fondest memories, like eating crayfish with his
mother as a child, are tainted. And slowly the threads of the story are woven
together and the terrible truth is unlayered, so that the reader faces a
reckoning.

Pharricide is Geoffroy Lafayen’s diary, so as he shares his story,
he assumes the reader sees the world the way he sees it. I’d like to call him
an “unreliable narrator”, but then again, he’s far more honest than many
fictional narrators. He’d pass any lie-detector test. This story is his truth
and while you might not want to find yourself alone in a lighthouse with him,
he is strangely likeable.

His steady uncluttered description of what happens means that when
Geoffroy behaves badly, it’s all the more shocking.

(I won’t go into detail here on how badly Geoffroy behaves, let’s just
call it “badly”. I feel uneasy about giving that much away, but then again, I
did warn you not to read the review.)

Geoffroy is not responsible for what he does. He has no control. “It was
as if I had been taken over by my actions,” he tells us. And later, “The great
mass of the lighthouse wrapped me in its blackness.”

There’s a deliberate blurring of the lines between creativity and
destruction, the artist and the psychopath, life and death, that makes Pharricide
much more than a crime novel.

Nicholas Royle’s translation is vivid and raw, and it’s wonderful that
he’s brought this exquisite novel to an English-speaking audience.

When it was first published in France in 1998, it was awarded the Prix
Charles Brisset by the Association Francaise de Psychiatrie – testament to the
authenticity of Geoffroy’s state of mind.

There are layers of significance to explore, not least the symbolism of
the “lighthouse”. This edition includes an interesting afterward by Alison
Moore, which examines that. And there are many questions to ask about recurring
themes in the book: Egypt, for example, or eyes, or two Geoffroys, two Rogers.
What’s that about? But I don’t want to give away too much. I’ve already said
enough.

Pharricide is out now from Cōnfingō Publishing.




Book Review: Good Day?, by Vesna Main

Vesna Main’s latest novel, Good Day?, is a masterpiece of understatement and inquiry into intimacy, fidelity, memory, and the business of fiction itself; a novel within a novel, told entirely in dialogue between husband and wife. All we know of the couple is that the wife is a writer, her husband is an academic. They’ve been married for twenty-four years, and have two grown-up children, rather, in fact, like Richard and Anna, the protagonists of the wife’s novel.

The exchanges take the form of the
husband’s commentary on the novel his wife is writing which focusses on Richard’s
revelation that he has been visiting prostitutes for the last eight years. Right
from the beginning, the gender lines are clearly drawn. The husband sympathises
with Richard, complaining Anna is “controlling”. The wife claims Richard gets
what he deserves. As the story progresses, conversation meanders from the
fictional marriage to the husband and wife’s own relationship, fragilities are
exposed, the boundaries between fiction and reality begin to dissolve.

– So Anna’s not me? [The wife
says.]

– More or less she is.

– Are you Richard?

– You’re building him out of me.

Despite the husband’s misgivings,
the wife cannibalises their marriage to flesh out characters and furnish them
with backstory: Richard is given her husband’s job and boss, two grown-up
children hover in the wings, a scene from the wife’s previous love affair is
exhumed, and intimate details of their first meeting are lifted hook, line and
sinker and inserted into the novel. Truth and fiction blur the role of reader
and writer in a never ending hall of mirrors until the reader can no longer
sure which novel they are reading, only that their presence is vital as a moral
arbitrator, voyeur and literary critic.

– Who are you writing for? [Richard
asks.]

– An intelligent active reader,
someone who is prepared to make an effort. [Anna replies.]

It is both story and commentary on
the literary process; the surveillance and compartmentalisation of our modern
lives. There are the clever self-referential texts to the wife plagiarising Vesna
Main’s work, Richard has his own alter ego called Alan Roberts, a prostitute
called Tanya is mistaken for a student. Anonymity is an aspiration; allowing characters
to act out fantasies without taking responsibility. Surveillance is ever
present in the form of the couple’s friends and children; a reminder that the
ultimate goal of any surveillance society is not only to remind us of the
watchful eye, but to inculcate self-censorship into its citizens.

– People who know us will
recognise it is as you and they’ll assume the story is ours.

– People who know us will be able
to see this is fiction. [The wife replies.]

The sole use of dialogue as
narrative structure reduces the plot to its essential elements without
compromising or diminishing the story in any way. In fact, stripping away
descriptions, settings and narrative summary, allows the voices to burn more brilliantly
in the darkness, and starts to make other novels look a little bloated by
comparison.

Good Day?’s meta structure raises serious questions about fiction
and ethics: how much of fiction is really fact? Who do joint memories belong
to? How much of a writer’s life can be brought into the work without compromising
those they love? And, through the other end of the telescope, it asks what
effect fiction has on our own lives. At one point in the novel, the wife says: “This
story makes me question our own life, our own marriage.”

In Good Day?, Main has created a clever, and thought-provoking story
which engages as it delights. Its deceptively simple prose slices through
layers of thematic enquiry to address contemporary concerns over identity,
gender and representation. For all this, it’s an easy and compelling read, as
tense as a thriller, twisting and turning, right down to its last postscript.

Main, whose work includes a collection of short stories, claims to admire the work of Kafka, Sebald and Beckett. The influences are clear in Good Day?, the sparse minimalistic prose, diversionary, experimental, all wrapped up in a luminous dialogue.

Good Day? is out now from Salt.




Book Review: Trans Like Me, by CN Lester

Ever wondered what life is like for trans people? Trans Like Me will give you an insight into the trans experience, not by rummaging in the voyeuristic detail that delights the tabloids, but because CN Lester gives a frank account of their own life.

As well as being an LGBT and transgender rights activist, Lester is an
academic, and a classical and alternative singer-songwriter. They share their
everyday experiences of living and working to illustrate what everyday life is
like living as a trans person, having to navigate between the prejudices and
abuse, and being part of a supportive trans community.

Who knew that if you want to transition, there’s this
jumping-through-hoops process called the Real Life Test? Who’s heard of the
Orwellian sounding governmental Gender Recognition Committee?

Trans people, that’s who! Perhaps largely because – as Lester points out –
there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Trans people and their lives are
“far more likely to be written about [their italics] as an ‘issue’ than
we are to be recording our experiences and insights as equal participants”.

The book goes a long way to changing that and setting the record straight,
debunking pop science – “flawed methodology of all kinds, tiny sample sizes,
incorrect forms of analysis, guesswork and unexamined bias” – to show how
skewed and distorted our everyday assumptions about sex and gender really are.

Maybe it’s because, as a woman, I’ve been getting upset about these
“studies” for decades. But how delighted was I to read what I’ve always
suspected about male and female brains!

“Not only is there generally great overlap in ‘male’ and ‘female’
patterns, but also … Neuroscientists can’t even tell them apart at the
individual level.”

Lester challenges the dull and limiting gender stereotypes that blight
all our lives.

“We need to wake up to the fact that treating sex as a fixed and
oppositional binary is not only a distortion of reality, but is doing active,
extreme harm to a significant percentage of our population.”

Trans people – like so many other groups in the story of humankind – have
been largely written out of history. Lester goes some way to rectify this (while
also being irrepressibly hacked off about the film The Danish Girl, which I haven’t seen).

They detail
stories and writings from the 1900s, and “other” genders featuring in the
Byzantine Empire, as well as Ancient Greek and Roman culture, and the role of
Castrati in European music.

“There have
always been people and categories of people that have troubled and challenged a
strict binary of male and female,” they write. And they ask, “What would it
mean, to trans people now, if our history were common knowledge?”

All of this is interesting and informative, and alone makes Trans Like
Me
worth reading. But even better, the book is very readable even though
the author’s an academic!

There were a few points at which I found the extent to which the word “which”
was overused, very irritating! But Lester more than made up for that with their
conversational tone, friendly, intimate voice, and moments of beautiful writing
like their description of what body dysphoria feels like: “like missing a step
in the dark … It’s not wanting a different body: it’s knowing how your body
should be, and living with the continual pain of discord, as wrong as a broken
bone”.

I hope to read more from CN Lester in the future – perhaps about trans history. And in the meantime very much recommend this book if you enjoy well researched non-fiction that marries facts and data with lived experience.

Trans Like Me is published by Virago.




Book Review: The Farm, by Joanne Ramos

Several years ago, Joanne Ramos picked up a copy of the Wall Street
Journal
and read a small article about a surrogacy facility in India that made
her wonder, what if…? What if clients weren’t just well-off but super-rich?
What if a business model for pregnancy existed in an ultra-capitalist economy?

Golden Oaks is the titular ‘farm’, a ‘gestational retreat’ in rural
upstate New York where the surrogates – labelled ‘Hosts’ – have access to the
very best healthcare and are pampered with massages, yoga classes,
chef-prepared meals and cashmere loungewear. On the surface it sounds pretty
cushy, until you realise there are rules and restrictions that mean the facility
is more like an Orwellian prison than a spa.

The Hosts, who are mostly black or Filipino, have signed away their rights
to decide what happens to their own bodies. They are monitored via cameras and
wristbands that track their every move. They are made to give up their cell
phones and must earn visitation rights. They can’t take pain medication in case
it harms the baby. Chocolate bars are off limits. To go for a walk, they must take
a companion. And all of this for a small salary, as the draw – the big fat
bonus – is only paid upon delivery of a healthy child.

Ramos, who was born in the Philippines and moved to the US as a child, tells the story through the experiences of four women. At the heart of the novel are Jane, a Filipino new mother struggling to provide for her baby, and her elderly cousin Ate, with whom she shares a dorm room in Queens. Ate is driven and entrepreneurial – a baby nurse so adored by her wealthy white clients that they plan their pregnancies around her availability. Her plan to set Jane up as a nanny fails when Jane is sacked for suckling her client’s newborn, and so she recommends Golden Oaks, where ‘The work is easy and the money is big!’

At the Farm, Jane meets Regan: white, pretty, educated, and thus
considered to be a ‘Premium Host’. Regan has been recruited by the facility’s ruthlessly
ambitious director Mae Yu, a Harvard School Business graduate. While idealistic
Regan would like financial independence from her domineering father, surrogacy offers
her something far more valuable: a purpose, the conviction that she is doing
some good in the world. Conversely, Mae has her eye firmly on the prize. She wants
to match Regan with ageing billionaire Madame Deng, anticipating a
‘record-breaking year-end bonus’ that will allow her to remodel her bathroom
and buy her mother a Hermès bag.

Despite the obvious comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mae is not made in Aunt Lydia’s brutal image. She is the epitome of hard-nosed corporate ambition, commoditising her employees by referring to them by number rather than name (Jane is 84, Regan, 82). But she also believes they should be treated well and compensated fairly for their labour. In a free market economy, she sees surrogacy as a golden opportunity, a fair exchange through which the Client and the Host both become better off. Ramos’s background in finance renders Mae’s business-speak utterly convincing – her baby farm, a five-minutes-in-the-future reality rather than dystopian fiction.

The Farm is perfect for book clubs because, as with The Help, issues of race, class, power and inequality emerge from a brilliantly page-turning, character-driven narrative. Ramos possess a sharp wit, and her satire of the Manhattan elite is particularly enjoyable. When Mrs Richards, well-meaning Upper East Side white saviour, tries to film Jane with her iPhone for a documentary she’s making about Filipino help, and little Lulu begins to choke on her ‘superfood’ snack, her not-wholly-appropriate emotional reaction says it all: ‘Those. Blueberries. Will. STAIN.’

But on the important issue of surrogacy, Ramos refuses to moralise. Jane, Ate, Regan and Mae are delicately drawn, and despite their different levels of education and wealth, they are united in striving for a better life, motivated – primarily – by the bedrock of family. Race and gender do not determine which side of the argument the women are on, and it is left up to the reader to decide where they stand on the rights and wrongs of consent in a system of privilege.

I suspect some readers will find the ending too neat. Mae is redeemed through the birth of her own child, and Jane seems happy to be employed as her live-in nanny. Are we to believe, then, that friendliness and compassion legitimise the system? Early in the novel, Ate asserts, ‘I have relationships, not only clients’, and produces holiday cards as evidence of her status within the families she’s cared for. But where are they when she falls ill and can’t work? Who is there to look after her? By upholding the status quo, I believe Ramos is challenging us to evaluate the immigrant experience and a certain kind of blind servitude to the American Dream. One thing is certain, this entirely plausible snapshot of a future baby economy will spark debate.

The Farm is out now from Bloomsbury.




Book Review: The DNA of You and Me, by Andrea Rothman

The DNA of You and Me is the story of scientist Emily
Aspell as she looks back on her life and beginnings in the world of science
just before she is about to receive an important award for her work in olfactory
research. An award that summarises what her life has been all about, the points
of no return and the choices made along the way.

Smell is an illusion,
my father used to tell me: invisible molecules in the air converted by my brain
into cinnamon, cut grass, burning wood.” And so, it starts. Recently graduated,
Emily moves from Chicago to New York to work in Justin McKinnion’s lab only to
find out she is joining Aeden Doherty and Allegra Meltzer, a team conducting
very similar research on the sense of smell. Aeden almost immediately tells
Emily that she’ll need to find a new topic to research. Let the war begin!

It is here where Rothman, a scientist herself who studied
neurobiology and olfaction, completely submerges the reader in the fascinating
world of microscopes, test tubes, petri dishes and testing mice. She makes the
world of scientific research exciting and accessible to the everyday reader. We
witness tensions among colleagues, the fascinating lab politics, the pressure
of conducting experiments and the need to get results ahead of rival labs. The
novel brilliantly depicts the speed of the race for knowledge that has the
improvement of human health at stake. I have no scientific background at all
but the atmosphere in The DNA of You and
Me
felt real and I think that is a huge achievement.

It is no surprise that Emily and Aeden will move from
colleagues to lovers. Their relationship is far from standard, and it is sometimes
rather uncomfortable to witness. Emily has fallen for him but Aeden keeps the
relationship secret, cold and detached. On their sexual encounters, Aeden
performs some very questionable behaviour, leaving Emily constantly sad, hurt, confused,
and feeling lonely. She is in love, but he is reluctant to take the relationship
outside the lab’s walls. Is this your conventional love story? No. And the
reason it’s not is Emily Aspell and what she represents as a female character.
As the story progresses, Aeden is finally ready to take the relationship to the
next level and settle down. But it comes at a cost. He finds a new job in a new
lab away from New York and wants Emily to come along, to “Choose us”, as he
puts it. In convincing Emily to go with him, there is a serious ethical breach
involved that I will leave to the reader to discover. Emily chooses her work,
her lab and to stay true to herself.

In recent years, we have been flooded with discourses stating
the importance of empowering young women to take roles that are traditionally
male dominated. Science is just the perfect example. In creating Emily Apell,
Rothman is a step ahead introducing a character that truly reflects the life
choices that women are making in today’s world. Emily is passionate about
science and will eventually face the ultimate question of choosing career vs
family life. I hope women reading The DNA
of You and Me
will be inspired by Emily’s character to take absolute
control of their lives, to think big and find their place in the world. It’s ok
to be unconventional and to not follow the path that society expects women to
follow. It may be a road of tough choices, but it is ultimately a rewarding
one.

A highly entertaining read with the bonus that you will learn a thing or two about research on the all-important sense of smell.

The DNA of You and Me is out now.




Treading the path of loss: Thoughts on A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold

Psychoanalyst Adams Phillips writes, “Our lives are defined by loss”. For when we lose things they disappear, yet we remember, recall, and, in turn, we become inhabited by that which is no longer there. Lost things live on in us, vacillating between absence and presence.

Set in a crumbling post-WW2 London, A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold is a book about loss, a delicate, haunting meditation on a generation both engulfed and shattered by war. The Allies have been victorious, and everyone should be celebrating, but inside the tiny house in Llanvanor Road, Sylvie has lost one of her twin sons at birth; she seems to be losing her mind. Two years later, Sylvie and her husband Gerald adopt little Arthur, a concentration-camp survivor, as a replacement for their dead baby. The child has been dispossessed of his own identity, is given the name of the deceased twin. He is “someone else’s little someone”. The father, Gerald, has also lost, or is trying to lose, his family’s Jewish identity. The book translates intelligently the unshakable fear Gerald still feels of being Jewish in Europe. His hands shake relentlessly and he is suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. The war is over, yet things for the family will never be the same again. It is, Gerald believes, “tabulae rasae … records had been scattered, blanks left pending…”

A Small Dark Quiet is also the story of how we fill these blanks, how we live with the real and metaphysical horrifying gaps, described by Edna St Vincent Millay as the “hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” “Let’s find her smile. Let’s find her smile,” Gerald repeats cruelly to Sylvie in their kitchen, trying to recover, resuscitate, the Sylvie he once knew. “My Sylvie had a nice smile,” he says.

Interweaving scenes from 1950s and 1960s, darting between Freud’s mourning and melancholia, as the book advances, author Miranda Gold reveals the stories the characters have told themselves to make sense of their trauma. Each of them tries to deal with their past selves, those which they have relentlessly tried to get rid of, as Roxanne Gay describes, “I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere.” We follow Arthur through his own attempt to build an adult life, to understand where he belongs. We meet other characters living with “small dark quiets”: a Polish caretaker with a number tattooed on his arm. Lydia, Arthur’s lover, who is repairing her own past by playacting the role of her previous employer, Mrs Simons. Lydia was the Simons’ nanny, and has stolen the family’s two dolls, and now, grotesquely, pretends they are her children.

In the novel, the strongest, most haunting image of loss and its replacement is the infant Sylvie fabricates from twigs and minuscule buds of white flowers to replace (or make living) her dead baby. This “twig baby” encapsulates “the story of the other little Arthur that Arthur never was…” In the novel, Sylvie believes her baby is buried in the park and visits the grave every Thursday, trying to find “a grave that would keep him.” In one exquisitely painful scene, she takes Arthur to the park; they dig in the soil and grass, hands muddy, trying to find the baby. Gold’s visceral image is macabre and tender, frightening and soft. Sylvie clutches a bundle of twigs, placing her hope, her longing in withered ivory petals.

In A Small Dark Quiet, Miranda Gold’s force is her concentration on ordinary darkness, the banal, yet ruthless effects of war and trauma on the everyday. In keeping with this focus on the intimate life of a family, the book takes place in restricted locations: Llanvanor Road, the park, Arthur’s workplace, the squalid room he rents when he seeks independence and meets the unstable Sylvie. Yet, while the cast and places of the book are clearly identified, the writing darts endlessly back and forth in time. Whilst this is in keeping with the effects of trauma, which exists outside of time, the latter part of the book can be confusing to follow.

Overall, however, A Small Dark Quiet is a highly perceptive, beautifully crafted, lyrical book, highlighting aspects of the trauma of WW2 often ignored. Books like this must be written and read, for as the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, “to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” This is a loss we cannot neglect.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.




A Conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Author of Stubborn Archivist

SONY DSC

Cindy Withjack: Hi! How is your day?

Yara Rodrigues Fowler:
Yeah, good. Having a book out is weird, though. I get a lot of people from
school, from like ten years ago, messaging: “Hi, I read your book; I have
feelings.”

CW: Does it feel
surreal?

YRF: It feels both
surreal and good, but also like, “Wow. This takes years, and I’m really ready
for it to be out in the world.”

CW: How long did you
work on Stubborn Archivist?

YRF: I wrote a first
draft that was much shorter. I finished that in 2016. [My agent] took it out to
publishers, and they loved the voice but wanted it to be a normal book length.

CW: Was it previously
more like a novella?

YRF: Yeah, because I
was thinking about The House on Mango
Street
. I don’t know how many words that is, but it must be quite short.
[Publishers] didn’t really want something that short.

CW: You ended up with
an absolutely gorgeous novel. My immediate thought when reading the first few
pages was how great it was that you were write candidly about a woman who
experiences real, explicit bodily functions and troubles. You write about her
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and how it is potentially anxiety-related or
trauma-related. Did you feel like it was a statement
to write about a woman shitting?

YRF: It really did feel natural, but it also felt like a big statement.
I think it felt natural because it’s part of everyday life, why shouldn’t it be
in a novel? When you’re reading a realist novel and it leaves out things that
are part of a person’s everyday experience it reminds you that while realism
pretends to be super true-to-life – it’s not; of course, it’s super
constructed. Things – like bowel movements – are left in or out depending on
whether they are deemed appropriate or worthy of literary representation. I
wanted to disrupt that convention, show some of those things. For this
character, like you said, it’s not totally clear but the IBS seems to be
anxiety-related and tied up with her mental health and also her relationship,
maybe, to trauma and sex. She often feels quite alienated from her body, from
her femininity. IBS is really common, and it’s not something that has come up
in Stubborn Archivist reviews or
interviews, so I’m really glad you’re bringing it up.

CW: It’s annoying that I was so ecstatic to see that you had written
about something so natural. It actually made me think of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands. It’s a contentious novel
because of how Roche writes about sexuality and the body. In general, readers
seem to find it off-putting or disgusting because the novel is hyper-focused on
a female character who has a serious anal injury. And, like with your novel, I
wonder if the reaction would be so extreme if the character had been a man.
Usually bodily functions for men are written to be fairly comedic – puberty or
masturbation – while for female characters it’s seen as scandalous or gross.

YRF: The thing that I
think is cool about including it is that it isn’t just a way of talking about
trauma that is very survivor focused but also, it’s a way of talking about the
gendered body and the kind of alienation that you might feel from the kind of
gender performance and sexuality that the world expects of you – especially
with this character who is hyper-sexualized. I wanted to write about a gendered
body and a female body that wasn’t just woman
equals ovaries and vagina
, which can be essentialist and has been very
overdone.

CW: I’ve marked up the
portion of Stubborn Archivist where
the protagonist is struggling with her inner dialogue – I think it’s possibly
my favourite section of the novel. She’s trying to convince herself of
something by saying, “There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.”
There’s a clear perspective change throughout that section. Is she having a
conversation with herself or with someone else?

YRF: I think that is
one of the more complex parts of the novel. Certainly, it can be read as a
dialogue with herself, but it’s also a dialogue with the text, or whoever is in
charge of the text: her, the writer, the reader. She could also be talking to
different versions of herself in time. At that point in the novel, she is attempting
to move into a place where she can name what happened to her because [the
sexual abuse that occurred] was part of an intimate relationship.

CW: That makes me
think of the tense scene during which the protagonist confronts her ex-partner.
You did such a great job of making his character a layered person because
people are rarely just one thing or one way. Did you have the inclination to
make him a bad guy or did you always
see him as more complicated than that?

YRF: At the start of Stubborn Archivist, what we get of his
character is filtered through her memory or her looking through his Facebook
page. I wanted to capture how it is now – it can feel like you’re involved in
someone’s life just by looking through their social media. Partly because,
maybe, they haunt you for some reason, but also because we can just look at
people whenever. It’s this feeling of sharing space in a very immediate way. In
the scene you’re talking about, the experience is so different from how the
reader was introduced to him. It’s almost as if there are two of this man
because she shows who he is through her memory, then in that scene he’s there,
live and speaking in the moment. But no he’s not a monster – rapists generally
aren’t, they’re more likely to be our brothers, uncles, partners etc. If
anything he is more of a blank. A site of terror and banality.

CW: It feels like
something she is doing very much for herself, in that scene, by confronting
him. Even though his reaction is so base, it’s clear to the reader that she
hasn’t arranged this meeting to illicit a reaction from him. Because you didn’t
villainize him, it highlights how confusing the situation really is for her – this
wasn’t a stranger, this was someone she shared her life with, with whom she had
a long-term, loving relationship.

YRF: It was really
important for me to make him a really average guy; he plays football with his
mates, he’s probably quite conventionally attractive, he’s on his way to
becoming a doctor. It’s likely there will never be any sense of justice [for
what he did] in any sense of the word. I wanted to show the abuse that can so
often happen within a loving relationship, and we often don’t have the words
for it when it happens.

CW: When you were
drafting Stubborn Archivist, did you
ever plan to include any scenes depicting the abuse?

YRF: Before I started writing, I thought a lot about how trauma lives in different texts and the ethics of that. I thought about it less actually from a psychological framework and more from a literary framework. I studied Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat – thinking specifically about the way they write about dictatorship in the Caribbean and Latin America. For example, if you create a war documentary and all you’ve included is pain and roll credits then, assuming the audience don’t directly share that specific experience, all you’ve really done is say, “Look how awful this is.” What that framework doesn’t explain is how the pain came to happen nor does it explore how the reader is complicit in that experience. In Edwidge Danticat’s book The Dew Breaker there are several chapters that are linked together by the behaviour of a torturer, and what it does is show the sprawling, spidery aftereffects of what happened [to the victims]. When I was writing Stubborn Archivist, I wanted to focus specifically on the impact abuse has on survivors and ask where that comes from – not letting the reader off without a sense of complicity. It’s not a “Me Too” text, in the sense of how the movement became popularized (rather than what Tarana Burke created). Stubborn Archivist is not a novel that ever tries to convince you of something. That was important because I didn’t want it to be a novel for people who needed to be convinced of something. I wanted it to be a novel for survivors. I take issue with this idea of offering “proof.” I think that’s part of the stubbornness of the text – the withholding that it provides.

CW: That’s so
beautiful.

YRF: Thank you.

CW: Was the
confrontation scene ever longer? I imagine the conversation didn’t exactly end
there with his reaction, “I loved you so much.”

YRF: It’s really like,
she said these things to him and what kind of a response is, “I loved you so
much.” It’s also about the fact that the way people love can be violent, and
often in that situation the person being violent will claim that their violent behaviour
is actually loving or that because you love each other something is owed. I
wanted him to say something that could potentially make a reader feel sympathetic
toward him, then question, “Wait. Do I really sympathize with this guy?” It
sort of takes us back to the fact he’s not a “monster”. I originally wrote that
scene as a standalone piece with the man in second person, and the challenge
was almost like getting the reader to see him humanized and sympathetic,
thinking that maybe what had happened was actually OK until the end of the
conversation. Eventually, that didn’t feel appropriate to me in the context of
the novel to make him you. I wanted
the reader to really feel a potential ambivalence in her, that pull she feels
for this person she loved who also abused her. And that’s quite ugly, isn’t it?
A shameful, confusing feeling.

CW: Is this male
character the same character who talks about Brazilian pornography? Is that
significant to his abuse?

YRF: Yes, I think we
assume that. Interestingly, there was one review that brings up how he asks the
protagonist to speak Portuguese in bed – but she offers to do that on her own.
So, [as readers] we don’t really know how much the pornography and [exoticism]
plays into things. From the male characters’ point of view, pornography is a
large part of how young men understand sex and certainly how sex works and how
to treat a woman during sex. There are so many kinds of racialized pornography
and illusions around how different types of women should be sexual or what
their preferences are based on that racialization. But it’s more complex than
his character watching a degrading porn video and now he’s going to be abusive.
I wanted to document the complexity of her idea of her own sexuality – what she
believes, at a young age, to be sexy and powerful.

CW: That is so evident
in the chapters where the protagonist is a child and strangers often comment on
how beautiful she is, and how pretty her eyes are, and so on. I think it’s very
powerful that you didn’t start with that – you showed her as a sexualized adult
and backtracked to how that sexualisation isn’t something new to her.

YRF: There’s an
environment of hyper-sexualisation that she feels ambivalent towards when she’s
young. Eventually it’s about that moment of recognition, especially when you’re
young, that the world finds you “sexy.” Originally that can make someone feel
quite powerful – the novel shows her getting dressed up and being able to get
into clubs. That’s why I reference Lydia Bennet [from Pride and Prejudice]. It’s a sexuality that is projected onto my
protagonist; it’s not something that she’s chosen, and it takes quite a while
for her to define sexuality on her own terms.

CW: There is an air of
coming into her own and feeling empowered by the end of the novel. There’s a
focus on her own connection to her body and the langue of that last section, “Leaving
(Coming)”, feels quite positive and powerful. Is that because she confronted
her abuser and has physically returned to a place that is culturally
significant to her identity?

YRF: It’s definitely
both. The confrontation is important and shortly after that scene she is on an
airplane going to Brazil. I wanted the third and last section of the novel to
face forward. I’m very wary of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls the “nostalgia
for lost origins.” It’s not like if the protagonist moves to Brazil she will
suddenly find inner peace. What I wanted to do by using the present tense in
that last chapter – especially because there is a lot of relevant political
tension, the world around her is falling apart – is show the joy and presence
she now feels within her own body. In that last scene she’s dancing, which is a
very “in your body” thing to do, and there’s a character with her, Gabi, who
asks, “Do English people have to be drunk to dance?” And it’s sort of like,
maybe? Maybe she is an English person? And maybe she does have to be a bit
drunk to dance in Brazil? But she’s still there, dancing, in her own body, and
that’s OK. She doesn’t verbalize the movements of her body – the line is, “Her
body moves.” It’s such a contrast to the start of the novel and the “broken
body” and the bodily alienation that she felt. There’s also a very quiet,
perhaps queerness in that dancing scene, as well. And all of that combined
isn’t exactly a forever resolution, it’s a joy. It’s not that we have to see
her in a new relationship or living happily ever after. It’s very much that she
arrived at a place where joy is possible. I thought a lot about what I wanted
to offer my readers in terms of Stubborn
Archivist
being a survivor-centred text. It was important to me to offer
some joy.

CW: There’s a visual
passing narrative throughout the novel because she is blue-eyed and
light-skinned, but there’s another element of passing because her trauma goes
unseen. She has that experience when a stranger says to her, “You don’t look
like you’re from here,” and she responds, “Well, I am from here.”

YRF: That’s such an
interesting way of looking at it – passing in those two different ways. She
doesn’t reveal much to her parents. We know that by the end of the novel she’s
spoken with her friends about what happened. At the start of the novel it’s
clear that she feels very much alone, remarkably alone. A lot of the novel is
about balancing that isolation, and in a lot of ways she’s frustratingly
private person. Part of the passing narrative that I think is important is the
way she’s seen around her Brazilian family, which is really European and white.
I wanted to flag that in Latin America there are white people, there’s a white
ruling class, and there’s white supremacy. It doesn’t make sense to talk about
Brazil without including that. I wanted to show the everyday ways that
whiteness is elevated and thought of as beautiful – the constant comments about
the protagonist’s eyes and her small nose.

CW: Writing a novel is
deep labour, mentally and otherwise. How was it writing this particular
character who is so intense and guarded?

YRF: I wrote a much
shorter version that focused more on silence. It was really hard to flesh
because that’s such a significant aspect of the text: not everything is
translatable, things are withheld. I was working fulltime while I wrote Stubborn Archivist. It was lonely. It
was quite a lot mentally. I’ve been very privileged but it’s always hard
writing a novel under capitalism I think. [Laughs.]

CW: [Laughs.]

YRF: In terms of
actually writing the novel, I thought so much about the ethics of writing this
particular story, from a really theoretical perspective as well. There’s so
much about translation theory that went into Stubborn Archivist – not so much the theory of translating literature,
but thinking about what it means to live
in translation
– how migrants live and the politics of explaining,
conforming, assimilating into a majority language or culture. So while I was
concerned with the story, I was much more concerned with form and the
possibility of writing with silence and gaps, and of course untranslated Portuguese.
I wanted to create a novel that had oral texture and lots of women talking.
Something I did was record myself reading a section or a chapter out loud.

CW: It’s such a
conversational novel, so it makes sense that you worked on it in that way.

YRF: That’s also how I
worked on the novel while commuting – I could listen to it and decide what
sounded right.

CW: Are you reading
anything right now or listening to any audio books? You know, for fun?

YRF: Oh my god, can
you imagine?

CW: [Laughs.]

YRF: Reading books is
such a privilege. It’s fun that publishers are sending me free books. Whenever
I do events with authors, I make sure to read their books. Reading feels like work
these days, and I suppose it is. I’m currently reading for my second book – very
serious texts about politics and race and Brazil. I was recently sent a novel
called The Sun on My Head by Geovani
Martins who is a Brazilian author. It’s coming out in the UK later this year.
It’s a collection of “contos”, which is like short stories. It focuses on a
world comprised of the same people, but it’s not a novel. The English-language
translation is interesting, though it does leave in a few Portuguese words. The Sun on My Head is a really powerful
book. I’m also rereading Oranges Are Not
the Only Fruit
. Sometimes it’s nice to read something familiar.

CW: I imagine it’s all
still quite overwhelming. There’s a comfort in rereading novels.

YRF: Definitely. When
I wrote Stubborn Archivist I wanted
to bookmark this period of time, 1991–2015, which has been a time of relative
political peace – in Brazil and globally, as well as in the Amado family,
because of the end of the Cold War. Or it felt peaceful at the time at least.
Although I was aware of the rise of the right wing in Brazil, I had no idea
when I was writing that there would be a coup or that someone like Bolsonaro
would be elected. The themes in Stubborn
Archivist
, that underlie the story I’m telling about an upper-class
Brazilian family and its relationship to Europe – white supremacy, patriarchy,
colonial violence in brazil and the dictatorship – feel more urgent than
before. (And perhaps it was naive not to have felt that urgency before.) It
feels more urgent to me as a writer to tell stories that remember the
foundational violence that Brazil was built on – slavery, the genocide of
indigenous people, how sexual violence was weaponised, how white supremacy was
intellectualised – and how they’ve taken us to where we are now. Both in Brazil
and in the UK. I feel my task is somehow to create writing that remembers these
things – a place for slow thinking and remembering – but that also brings of
joy and helps the reader imagine a better way for things to be.

CW: Stubborn Archivist is such a force.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.

YRF: It’s such an honour and a privilege to have readers like you who ask such fantastic questions. It really is a joy.

Stubborn Archivist is out now from Little, Brown.




Book Review: Punch, by Kate North

Cars, restaurants and foreign
travel feature heavily in Kate North’s new collection of short stories. A mask
on a wall of a rented villa speaks out, a car and van collide on a roundabout,
a couple sit in a Venetian trattoria discussing Pope Pius’s penis. Characters
are routinely displaced and forced to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Over one
third of the stories are set abroad, while those closer to home focus on the
unfamiliar, the sudden losses or discoveries which unsettle and expose the hotchpotch
of emotions simmering below the everyday calm. A few push beyond the
commonplace into the realms of the surreal. In “Fifteen Arthur Crescent”,a couple move into their “bargain” new
house to discover disappearing ladders, walls which stencil themselves and
underwear mysteriously relocated. “Lick”follows
a male protagonist who wakes after his thirtieth birthday to find a lump on his
hand. Embarrassed rather than concerned it may be a symptom of something sinister,
he worries about how he can disguise it as he embarks on an important first
date: “…because the growth was flatish, it lay along his palm like one of those
fortune telling fish you get from Christmas crackers. It didn’t stick out an at
angle or anything.”

The majority of stories in this
collection involve couples, often unnamed and of indeterminate age and gender –
which may be intended as a reflection of our anxieties about gender identity
and politics – but which often gets in the way of the story. Who are these
people? I found myself asking, flicking back over pages to check I hadn’t
missed something. Many of the stories employ the second-person epistolary narrative:
“‘Front, middle or back,’ I asked and you pointed to the front row where there
was room at the edge of the bench. We took our places and you munched on the
almonds.” This device often works in fiction to create a sense of voyeurism or
proximity, yet in these stories it has the curious effect of creating a glassy
distance between text and reader, and this is the problem. Even when characters
are named or appear in third person, they are etched lightly. In “Beaujolais
Day”, we learn that Nick has been with Debbie for a year, has bought an old
chapel, earns enough money to eat at a good French restaurant, and knows his
Bordeaux from his Beaujolais, but when he’s confronted by a waiter who once
bullied him at school, and takes his revenge, instead of rooting for him we
feel so little that we barely care.

North is an excellent social
observer. She ably chronicles a country full of curiosities, ambiguities and
hypocrisies, from our preoccupation with house ownership, cut-price travel and
road rage, to a land of CCTV, polytunnels, and department stores closing down.
She has a keen ear for dialogue, as the opening lines of Punch brutally
demonstrate: “Fat fucking cow. Fat fucking dyke. Your brother’s a spaz,” and is
gifted with a poet’s eye when it comes to detail: “The rain sounds like someone
drumming their fingers softly against a coffee table.”

There are many flashes of
original, incisive writing (“Black & White Buttons”, “The Largest Bull in
Europe”) in this collection, yet too many of these stories left me with a
feeling of: “So what?” It may be fair to say that slice-of-life stories do not
turn on a plot, conflict or exposition, but then they must elevate or
illuminate the everyday to something startling and revelatory; to haunt and
unsettle. In this collection North has created incisively told anecdotes filled
with a sense of anticipation, of something struggling to rise to the surface –
yet it rarely does, leaving the reader instead with a sense of frustration, of
a blow one’s been waiting for which lands wide of the mark.

Punch is published by Cinnamon Press.




Book Review: This Paradise, by Ruby Cowling

This Paradise by Ruby Cowling offers the most original short stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s one of the titles from the newly launched Boiler House Press, based at the University of East Anglia.

The collection opens with
“Edith Aleksander, b. 1929”. It’s one
of the shortest stories but one that will stay with you for a long time. The
narrator, Edith Aleksander, is presented with pair of tiny white doll wings
from her granddaughter. She feels them moving. This gesture triggers a touching
recollection of her life, as she stares at the children playing outside. There
is an element of peace as Edith witness the joy and innocence of childhood that
serves as a mirror of a life that is coming to an end. This story is about the small
things that really matter in life and it’s beautifully wrapped around the
powerful image of those tiny wings. A stunning story, under five pages long,
that deserves to be read and reread.

A display of
extraordinary narrative talent, is found in “The Ground is Considerably
Distorted”. This is the story of a
political scandal, of politically incorrect comments, overheard by a journalist,
that make it into the headlines. I believe this is an astonishing example of a
polyphonic story, a term coined by the Russian literary theorist M. Bahktin. In
“The Ground is Considerably Distorted” we hear the narrator’s voice, a Japanese
journalist; at the same time, and cleverly displayed on the side of the page,
we hear the voice of a newsreader giving the developments in the story. On top
of that, a series of tweets and a chat on a mobile phone are brilliantly intertwined
in the narration. And it works, those dialogues give the story a fresh and
current perspective on the way we communicate with one another, presenting a
very recognisable portrait of our relationship with the news, social media
platforms and overall, human interaction.

The story that gives name
to the collection, “This Paradise”, is one of the most conventional in terms of
structure but touches several topics of how we see one another in moments of
despair. The story starts with an au pair, Cara, looking after two small
children as they are informed of the imminent arrival of a hurricane. Nothing
more unpredictable than the course of nature’s most terrifying and destructive
forces. As everyone prepares for it, the boys grow concerned for the wellbeing
of their Haitian gardener and his family. Suddenly, they are nowhere to be
seen. Once again, Ruby Cowling builds the tension in the story in an incredibly
skilled way: the torrential rain, the missing children, and the very unexpected
ending. Brilliant.

Human relations are a
topic that prevails across this collection of short stories. For me, the talent
of Ruby Cowling shines even more in the shorter stories. In “[SUPERFAR]”the atmosphere feels dangerously
current but also completely futuristic. With dashes of sci-fi the reader
becomes a witness to an odd and slightly uncomfortable exchange of cyber
messages as the two characters try to explain to one another the worlds they
live in. Is this virtual reality? Are these parallel worlds? Don’t be surprised
if this short story ends up being made into an episode of Black Mirror, it’s that good.

This Paradise offers an incredibly diverse range of topics, from luna moths, to everyday family life, odd encounters at massage parlours and more. There is something very refreshing about these short stories; they are original, current, entertaining, and relevant. Highly recommended.

This Paradise is published by Boiler House Press.