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.
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.
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?”
this piece as with several others, food is metonymic for fidelity to one’s
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Or you can carry on reading the review. Up to you. But don’t say I didn’t
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
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
Book Review: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, by Alice Jolly
Many moons ago, at my
special measures secondary school, my love for history was most definitely not
ignited. We learnt by rote modern German history in the main, with a thimbleful
of revolutionary Russian just to mix things up. Fascinating as modern European
history undeniably is, my historical knowledge of the UK was … lacking. Not any
more. Not thanks to novels. So I was at first happy to be reading and reviewing
this book. Having been a fan of historical fiction for many a year now, I was
drawn to its bulk. Nothing like a big, fat story to get lost in. Give me any
era, from commercial to literary, but I love especially the Tudor period, my
biggest loves being Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, different ends of the literary
spectrum. So hurrah to receive a copy of the beautifully packaged Mary Ann
But I hadn’t quite
computed the fact that the 600-odd pages were written in vernacular prose
poetry. I love poetry, but not 600-odd pages of one poem. And I thought: am I
clever enough for this? Can my soggy old brain compute? The literary and
literal heft of the book felt off-putting, the narrative told in the voice and
language of a Victorian orphan in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s, a plain slip
of a girl with a hare lip. An apparent imbecile. Not Tudor, nor very linear.
Was such a book for the likes of me?
But soon the rhythm and
pace and language of the narrative opened up Mary Anne Sate’s tale, and there I
was in rural Gloucestershire, as if being whispered the story from the
protagonist. Tiny, hare-lipped orphan Mary Ann Sate – persecuted for her “devil’s
mark” and dismissed as a halfwit – is taken in by Mr Harland Cottrell as a
servant in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s. Living in total obscurity, she dies
without leaving a trace, it seems, beyond a single line in the local death
register: “Mary Ann Sate, 9 October 1887, Imbecile”. But Mary Ann was cleverer
and more observant than those around her credited.
With the inevitable march of industrialist England playing out in the background, the burgeoning trade unionism, the Chartists, the history is very much a minor but important character in the novel. Mary Ann narrates her childhood and adolescence, living within numerous households, experiencing the whims of her masters – sometimes kind, often cruel, her harelip and alleged imbecility often commented upon. But as we learn, Mary Ann is not an imbecile. She is a storyteller, and she is a scholar, a reader, a dreamer, a visionary, though not any of these things openly – someone from her sex and station wasn’t allowed to be any of those things, not in those times, maybe not in ours. She’s not a Christian but she sees angels, like Blake. She writes like Gerald Manley Hopkins, infusing observation of natural world with spirituality. Blake and Hopkins are a potent mix. This is history from the point of view of the forgotten, the unimportant, the millions of people who’ve walked the earth before us who never get the chance to get into history books. Fictional, yes, but upon finishing the book I raised a drink to the many women who worked, mothered, dreamt and died before us, all but forgotten.
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
– 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
– 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
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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
A highly entertaining read with the bonus that you will learn a thing or two about research on the all-important sense of smell.
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 Conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Author of Stubborn Archivist
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
CW: Does it feel
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
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
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
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.]
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
CW: Are you reading
anything right now or listening to any audio books? You know, for fun?
YRF: Oh my god, can
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.
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.
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
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.
I had high expectations for this play based merely on the humorous and dark title: “Does My Bomb Look Big in This?”, hoping to find both those themes throughout. Nyla Levy’s debut fictional play doesn’t disappoint. Writing and starring alongside two talented actors, Halema Hussain and Eleanor Williams, who portray authentic youth growing up in the political turmoil that is Britain today, Levy shines as a new voice to watch.
Levy began writing this play many years before the British IS bride made headlines this year when the British government stripped her of her citizenship and her newborn died when she was refused repatriation to Britain from the Syrian refugee camp. She was fifteen years old when she and her two friends left Britain to join IS in Syria, and many in Britain reading the headlines were hard pressed to understand why teenage girls, who enjoyed the freedoms and education available in Britain, would choose to join what invariably is a patriarchal, militaristic cult.
“Does My Bomb Look Big in This” does more than the job of helping “us” understand this question of why, but as we follow these three British girls, we are reminded that teenagers are vulnerable, emotional, and flawed children in oversized, sexually formed bodies. We are reminded that they make mistakes. They follow the wrong people. And often, if they realise their mistakes, they truly are sorry. Holding young people to account as adults for crimes they commit when they are still dealing with puberty and navigating their entrance into the adult world, is a travesty.
Mingyu Lin’s direction made the scene transitions from past to present and to breaking the fourth wall flow without confusion or jarring the audience, adding a modern touch akin to the popular show Fleabag. Conrad Kira, the sound designer, and Tanya Stephenson, the lighting designer, brought the musical transitions to life, and at times it felt like the stage had transformed into a music video. In these scenes, Yasmin (Levy) shines as a spoken word poet-cum-political rapper. She had so much potential, but the political unrest and discrimination within contemporary British society let her down.
Go see this play! It will make you laugh, it will make you think, and it may even make you cry, but the best thing about “Does My Bomb Look Big in This? is seeing how teenagers behave in their everyday lives. It reminds us how flawed they are, yet how wonderful it is to be young. There is hope in our youth today if we can open our minds and judge them not with our fears but with a view to what our world could become if we let them shape it. (Five Stars)
At the age of thirteen, Sinéad Gleeson found herself in pain: ‘The
synovial fluid in my left hip began to evaporate like rain. The bones ground
together, literally turning to dust’. She was diagnosed with monoarticular
arthritis and missed months of school, her teenage years marred by long stays
in hospital and numerous operations, including a major one to fuse her hip
joint together with metal plates. Then, at twenty-eight, six months after she
got married, she found out she had leukaemia. Although the outlook was bleak,
Gleeson promised her mother: ‘I’m not going to die. I’m going to write a book’.
Constellations is that book,
a collection of raw, beautifully charged, wide-ranging essays about living in
an imperfect body, specifically a female body in Ireland, where historically
women have been denied their right of corporeal self-governance. Gleeson knows
that ‘the patient is never in charge’, and one feels this is particularly the
case for women in an overwhelming male medical establishment.
When, as a ‘self-conscious girl’, Gleeson was made to wear a swimsuit
while being checked for scoliosis and cried from the shame, her doctor threw
her a towel and asked: ‘“There, is that better?”’ In one harrowing scene, she recalls
how a doctor took a saw to the cast running from her chest bone to her toe tips.
As ‘blade meets skin’ she feels ‘a scald of heat spreading’ but he tells her
she’s ‘overacting’. Her mother, unable to withstand her screams, is forced to
leave the room as ‘this man urges it on, like a horse in a race’. Years later,
after the difficult birth of her second baby, a male surgeon responds to her
complaint of terrible pain in her hips with the suggestion of ‘baby blues’.
Gleeson’s lens is close, intensely intimate, but devoid of self-pity. Her book – entitled Constellations for all the metal in her body, which she sees as artificial stars – is not a lament for her misfortune. Nor is it a triumphant account of recovery against all odds. It’s deeper and more interesting, a memoir of a body that radiates out to discuss politics, literature, art, science and history. Comparisons to fellow Irish writer Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self are inevitable: both books take in birth, death and grief, both writers are brave, wise and true. But Gleeson also sits alongside Maggie Nelson, Siri Hustvedt and Olivia Laing for the rigour of her debate and interrogation of ideas.
In ‘A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’, one of the most dazzling essays
in the collection, Gleeson explores the work of three women who transformed
their damaged bodies into art: Frida Kahlo, Lucy Grealy and Jo Spence. She
recalls finding Kahlo – who broke her pelvis, collarbone, ribs and leg in a bus
accident when she was eighteen – while she was in hospital, similarly confined in
a cast as a teen. Although reluctant to equate their suffering, she holds up
Kahlo, alongside Grealy and Spence, as ‘lights in the dark’. Whereas she viewed
her plaster cast as a ‘tomb’, Kahlo decorated hers, creating a language of
beauty in place of sickness and death. Similarly, Grealy’s searing account of
her deformity Autobiography of a Face
and Spence’s unflinching pre- and post-surgery photographs are shown to be powerful
acts of self-assertion and reclamation. By bringing the private world of sickness
into a public space, these women refused to succumb and disappear, showing Gleeson
that ‘it’s possible to have an illness and not to be the illness’.
The quest to find a language to express pain recurs throughout the
book. In ‘Where Does It Hurt?’ Gleeson responds to the McGill pain index, a
vocabulary-based scale developed by practitioners, with twenty poems exposing
her unique, personal experience. One poem on scars depicts ‘a mouth sewn up
with metal’. Another conveys the terrible heartburn she suffered while
pregnant, her throat ‘hotter than coals’. In ‘Our Mutual Friend’ Gleeson
intersperses prose with poetry to describe how her former boyfriend introduced
her to her husband and then, at the age of twenty-four, died after a tragic
fall. One gets the feeling that pain cannot be contained within neat, orderly
sentences. Gleeson quotes from Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’, showing how the
sufferer must coin new words, ‘his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound
in the other’.
Formal experiment is also evident in ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’, as
Gleeson interweaves the history of blood-group identification with tales from
art and religion, her own transfusions and her treatment for leukaemia. During
chemotherapy, she takes a drug to stop her periods, ‘a moratorium on one aspect
of being female.’
A woman’s right to govern her own body is addressed most powerfully in ‘Twelve
Stories of Bodily Autonomy’, a fiercely argued essay about the 2018 referendum
on abortion. Gleeson reminds us that ‘Ireland’s history – for women – is the
history of their bodies’. From reproduction to sexuality to motherhood, women
have been reduced to their physical form, their choices taken away, their
freedom legislated against. By sharing the stories of women who have suffered
and died, Gleeson shows that change has been hard won, that it has been paid
for in blood. Taking her daughter with her to the polling booth, she reflects
on how the change in law will affect the next generation and ends with a note
of hope: ‘She takes my hand and we walk into the cool air of the hall, to
change the future.’
Constellations contains a political spark, but it is a collection fuelled by acceptance and solidarity. Early in the book, Gleeson recounts a school trip to Lourdes where ‘in the shadow of the grotto’ she receives not a healing miracle but a kind of peace: ‘I know that I will go home, and that I will live with my imperfection; that my surgically altered bones will carry me through the years’. Despite her pain and suffering, the repeated betrayals and frequent operations, she is not at war with the body that has borne her two children. While Gleeson is right that ‘pain – unlike passion – has no commonality with another being’, there is unity in the way she links the fragments of life, the loose ends and tangents, the cycles of birth, blood, motherhood, death and ghosts. For pain is a human experience, one shared and endured by generations of women in their mortal bodies.
“Common People is a collection of original essays, poems and memoir written in celebration, not apology.” So it says on the back cover.
There is no doubt that
the publishing world does not reflect the demographics of the world we live in.
And I think as readers we suffer as a result.
But there you go! This
is 2019. The UK is still run by the public-school Oxbridge elite (and happens
to be up a famous creek without a paddle – not that I’m drawing a conclusion
about that – just saying).
But back to the book,
there are some angry polemics here – so far, so predictable but not – to be
fair – unjustified. And a lot of the stories and essays were written by writers
writing about being writers and the writing experience as a (working-class)
writer. That’s great and everything, but I didn’t feel these writers were
saying anything new.
I was also confused by
the notion that if you’re not working class – that is, growing up on a council
estate – you have a land rover in the drive, stables in the garden and are
probably “setting foot in the Bullingdon club”. This rags-to-riches contrast
cropped up in a few of the pieces and I found it irksome.
Aren’t most of us
somewhere between the council estate and the country manor? Isn’t Britain full
of streets with semi-detached and terraced houses that go on for miles? And
what about all those redbrick estates full of houses – like the one where Harry
Potter lived before he went to Hogwarts? Most of us live in places like that,
so how come when some of the writers who contributed to Common People left
their council estates, they only seemed to meet people privileged Tories?
But aside from all
this, Common People has some real
gems – too many to list here, but definitely Chris McCrudden’s “Shy Bairns Get
Nowt”,which drew on his own
experience and family history to explore perceptions of class. “For some
people, class is a vector… For others it’s a fixed point.”
And I loved Katy
Massey’s clever and entertaining account of her mother’s business and life in a
brothel, which showed the intersection of class prejudice and misogyny. And Jodie
Russian-Red’s “The Wedding and the Funeral” was a great piece of storytelling.
However, too many of
the pieces focused on childhood memories and it would have been nice to have
more variation, like Dalgit Nagra’s beautiful profile of a contemporary, “Steve”,
and Paul Allen’s wonderful memoir of life as a bricky, “No lay, no pay”.
I also loved “Little
Boxes”by Stuart Maconie, which is
full of history about housing, Nye Bevan and facts about architecture,
interwoven with his experience of growing up on an estate where streets were
named after literary figures. An utterly informative and captivating piece of
With over thirty
contributions from as many writers, Common
People shines a light on the huge diversity of people in the United Kingdom
and celebrates this richness loudly. I loved the variety of dialect, racial
heritage and regional culture.
Considering the UK is
quite a small collection of islands and nations, it is incredibly rich in
language and culture and the publishing / literary world is missing a trick not
Kit de Waal and Common People have done a great job of highlighting that.
To Work or Not to Work? A Review : Not Working, by Josh Cohen and The Joy of Work, by Bruce Daisley
A few weeks ago, I missed the
christening of my friend’s first baby. ‘I’d love to be there,’ I texted by way
of apology, ‘but I have to work.’ She – and (if I’m honest) I – knew that I
didn’t have to work. It was Sunday morning.
I am not a doctor. No lives were in my hands. But my to-do list felt like a
matter of life and death. I had an edit to finish and a book to review. My
washing basket was full, while the fridge stood empty. I’d told myself I’d go
for a run. How could I rest until I’d ticked off every last thing?
Realising I needed to find a way to subdue the musts and shoulds ruling my schedule, I turned to two books published in January: Not Working by Josh Cohen, and The Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley. Although these books sound antithetical – one advocating an end to work, the other celebrating its pleasures and rewards – both contest the value of our current workaholic culture.
In Not Working, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen argues that relentless
activity is making us ill. We have become ‘creatures of action and purpose’, driven
by a need to achieve, accumulate and compete. Work is no longer confined to
office hours. Our smart phones bombard us with information from the moment we
wake up to the moment we go to sleep. We are constantly connected, always on,
primed to fill every interval of rest or silence, on the train or at the dinner
table, with a stream of emails, social media, videos and games. Is it any
wonder we are exhausted and burnt out?
In Japan in the early 1990s,
psychiatrist Saito Tamaki came across so many young people who had become
withdrawn, retreating to their homes in a bid to isolate themselves from
society, that he came up with a name for them, the hikikomori. Swamped by choice and possibility, and irritated by
their own reluctance to participate, they could find no place for themselves in
the world. For Cohen, the hikikomori are
the collateral damage of our culture of ‘permanent distraction and activity’ –
and the only way for us to avoid a similar fate is to stop.
Drawing on Freud’s idea of our ‘desire
for non-desire’, Cohen rejects work as its own justification. He urges us to be rather than simply do and looks to art to provide a model for
personal fulfilment. Of his four archetypes – the burnout (Andy Warhol), the
slob (Orson Welles), the daydreamer (Emily Dickinson) and the slacker (David
Foster Wallace) – I identify most closely with the burnout, compelled to do too
much, yet secretly wanting to do nothing at all.
Cohen belongs with the dreamers and
slackers. He grew up with his head in the clouds, struggling to pay attention
to anything that didn’t interest or excite him. His heroes were fictional
dissidents and shirkers: Homer Simpson, Jeff Lebowski, Garfield and Snoopy.
During his PhD, he began to feel anxious and ashamed of his tendency to idle
until he realised the rhythms of his curiosity did not adhere to the standard
working day. He could spend an enjoyable week doing not very much at all and
then respond to a burst of creativity by pulling several all-nighters. Rather
than discipline, he links his productivity to indiscipline.
It’s a persuasive and compassionate
view. In a culture that values work and demonises idleness, how comforting to
be told it’s all right to stop and not lose meaning or creativity in our lives.
Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal into solitude is shown not to stem from failure or
disappointment but a bid for ‘personal and literary independence and
imaginative freedom.’ Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation My Bed is beautiful and essential. By preserving the tangled towels
and sheets, empty vodka bottles, cigarettes, tampons, condoms and tissues of
her breakdown, she honours the role inertia played in helping her to recover
But Cohen’s examples from the world of art and literature are rather extreme. While he touches on universal basic income and increasing automation and looks ahead to a time without the necessity of work when we might be able to discover what we truly want to do and who we want to be, he doesn’t provide a code for stopping now. I also can’t help but wonder about the work of parenthood, and how those with small children could hope to achieve ‘pure selfhood’ given the daily demands on their time and energy.
By contrast, Bruce Daisley, European Vice-President for Twitter, promises a more practical approach in his book The Joy of Work. Like Cohen, he views our culture of work as broken, citing one study that found over half the UK workforce were feeling burnt out. He refuses to celebrate overwork at Twitter and wants to eliminate ‘hurry sickness’ (the fear that no matter how hard we try we won’t be able to get everything done). But rather than opting out, he believes we can fall back in love with our jobs by adhering to his thirty hints and tips to make what we do more fulfilling, productive and enjoyable.
Several of his strategies involve
stopping or at least pausing. To combat distraction, he advocates ‘Monk Mode’,
where employees engage in several hours of creative deep work away from the office
and the constant interruption of emails. He recommends headphones to combat background
noise, working fewer hours to preserve focus, reclaiming one’s lunch hour, keeping
meetings small and turning off notifications. So far, so good – but not especially
More interesting is Daisley’s
discussion of loneliness, which he lists alongside distraction and busyness as
a key failing of the modern workplace. Open plan was designed to bring people
closer but in a vast sea of seats individuals can feel isolated and anonymous,
unable to reach out or connect on a personal level with colleagues. While collective
tea breaks, social meetings and taking time to say hello when someone starts
might seem trivial, Daisley argues that these add up to an environment where
workers feel supported, energised, able to ask questions, challenge and
In short, Daisley wants us to be while we do. He acknowledges the role that work plays in our lives, that it provides meaning and purpose, and believes we can improve our lot within the system. Cohen’s edict to stop is more revolutionary but no less sympathetic. His assertion that we are not machines, set to perpetual motion until we break, is utterly convincing. Neither author sees work simply as means to an end, nor is it the end. If we are to thrive rather than merely survive, we must value non-work alongside work, and make a space for simply being. While I suspect that cutting back is quite hard in practice, both books have encouraged me to re-evaluate my priorities and how I spend my time. Note to self: the washing can wait.
Book Review: London Undercurrents, by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire
To give London Undercurrents its full title is to understand both the process and the product of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collaboration: The hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines north and south of the river. Sparkes and Hilaire have divided in two the work of unearthing and voicing by location, with Sparkes taking North and Hilaire the South of London, demarcated by the river that bisects the city. The Thames itself provides a thread which weaves this collection together, its shape bobbing across the page of each new section, with words from Sparkes hovering in the North-East of Islington, Hilaire’s in the South-West of Battersea, each their respective homes and the place from which they reflect on their own feel of London. Within each section, themes such as work, family, protest and war, through every age of London, are explored from either side of the river, with an (N) or (S) in the top right-hand corner of each page denoting both the location and author of each poem.
The collection begins
with the theme of the characteristic pull of London for outsiders: “Paved with
Gold”. Opportunity and the struggle that precedes success is experienced and
explored in “First Crop” by a Huguenot asparagus farmer tending to the soil and
the spears “as rude / and round / and succulent / as fantasy allows”. A quick
flick to the Background Notes section of the South poems reveals that an
investigation into the unusual name of the poet’s local pub (The Asparagus)
lead to the discovery that Battersea is thought to be the first place in Britain
where asparagus was grown, the poem’s subtitle offering the date 1685. In “Livestock”
three experiences of the dairy business are brought together in a three-part
poem. The cry of an Islington cheese and cream street seller from 1575 combines
with Mrs Nicholls’ aching despair at the slaughter of her cattle to prevent the
further spread of plague: “Each bolt to the head / shatters our bones. / City
air thickens / deep with lowing, / as London turns Heifer, / mourns her lost
calves” (again the North Notes section clarifies the scale of an 1895 outbreak
which decimated most of London’s cows); and a Cardiff cattle herder’s wife
coming to Holloway in 1811 remarking “Such a sight – great grey teats full of
gold coin / aching to spill on the floor. Quick! Get our pails / underneath and
open our mouths.”
Gathering and grouping
the poetic products of Sparkes and Hilaire’s combined research in this way,
that is to say thematically as opposed to chronologically or separated into two
authored halves of the North and South of the city, allows each piece and each
voice to converse in a way that builds connections; by-lines that travel
between the experiences of women through the landscape of the city and into the
past. In this way London becomes an industrial place populated by industrious
and tenacious people, such as a thirteen-year-old coin forger detailing her and
her family’s endeavours in a thirteen-point to-do list. Or an 1892 White Lead
Works factory worker “Dodging the Doctor” in order to avoid a diagnosis that
would prevent her from making wages by clambering “barefoot / up the drying
scaffold, / hide at the top on rough planks. / Hup I go.” “Hup” really
sings as an example of the ways the voices of these women are written:
carefully, thoughtfully and often playfully. “Thames Crossing, Second Attempt:
19th August 1861” illustrates Selina Young’s successful tightrope
walk from Battersea to Cremorne Gardens as if viewed from above. Her rope
becomes a taut line across two pages, her balance pole perpendicular to this,
cries from the crowd populate two stanza banks (“look at her go! man alive – / those skirts must weigh / a tonne!”),
and the boats on the river lurk between. As expected from a collection that
brings together such a variety of voices, the challenges encountered by women
range from feats of physical endurance to acts of acknowledgement as in “Dido
Belle Sits For Her Portrait” where Belle, a woman born into slavery then
brought by her grandfather 1st Earl of Mansfield to Hampstead, is given the
complexity she deserves and not afforded when the portrait, up until the 1990s,
was simply known as The Lady Elizabeth Murray: “No corn-fed, / cotton-raised
statue am I / nor decoration / picked for porcelain shine… I am a gift”. It is
in this way that voices are given a chance to respond, making these poems feel
full of possibility even in desperate situations, and in other moments, gleeful
and utterly joyous. In “Battersea Women’s Pub Outing” a June 1947 daytrip has
the women of the Mason’s Arms “let loose in Margate” with “voices in rollicking
singalong / kicking our legs high” in such infectious humour it seems possible
to feel as if we might have been there ourselves when on “every ride / Little
Lottie roars so much / she heaves her dinner up / soon as she’s off the Big
At the end of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collection both poets take a moment in their respective biographies to reflect on the experience of unearthing the stories and voices of the women that combine to create London Undercurrents. “It should not be so hard to find them”, remarks Sparkes; Hilaire writes that “I’ll keep on digging,” suggesting there is much work still to be done. And that’s possibly what’s so remarkable about this collection: the appetite it engenders for more. I can imagine the voices of yet unheard women in every village, town and city of the UK emerging to create sequels and chapters of the Undercurrents project. It’s disheartening to realise what an endeavour this might be, to seek and find the histories of women, but the rewards that occur through this work are so striking. The richness and variety, intrigue and emotion, together provides an illustration of London as a tumultuous and exhilarating place, occupied by women throughout its history who have built and shaped its terrain from the bottom up and from the top down.
Going through a one-way journey. Going through dramatic changes and traumatic experiences. Going through national borders and language barriers. This is what young Nour has to endure in Going Through, the UK version of Estelle Savasta’s French play Traversée, which premiered at the Bush Theatre under the impeccable direction of Omar Elerian. The journey is as humanly intense as it is visually absorbing.
The cast is made up of only two actors, and the set design consists of a handful of white sliding panels. But then again there’s spoken word, British Sign Language, face expressions and meaningful objects. There’s audio, creative captioning, music, (mesmeric) lights and projections. The result is extraordinary. With the best use of its simple elements, the play (literally) takes us places, through visionary and poetic storytelling. It’s one of those productions where everything, including the font of the captions, has a deep significance, and it’s a pleasure to see such a meaningful attention to detail.
Nour (Charmaine Wombwell) lives with Youmna (Nadia Nadarajah), the woman who raised her with tenderness and care in a tiny little house. Their peaceful life is brought to a sudden end when a man comes to pick Nour up, to drive her to her real mother, somewhere far away. Disguised as a boy, tossed from one person to another, travelling in one means of transport after the other, Nour undertakes a journey where uncertainty is the only constant.
The first half of the play is quite a-temporal: we are given no details of Nour’s age or the countries she journeys through. While potentially unsettling, this works well in the context of heavily focalised narration: we don’t know where Nour is going because she doesn’t know herself. We can’t tell how long she spends travelling, or who are the people she meets, because she has no clue. The agony of ignorance is as real for her just as it is for us. In the third and final part, things become factual, concrete and measurable, giving immediacy to Nour’s experience as a child migrant in the UK. Especially at the end, we are shown the shocking reality of having to leave everything behind and to be reduced to a human being with no papers. Nour manages to find a new dignity and identity in pursuing a career as a midwife, but this mitigates only in part the lacerating sadness of her story.
Utterly beautiful is the poetic language that runs through the script, transposed from the original French by brilliant translator Kirsten Hazel Smith. Lines like “Time stretches out like a cat that has slept too much” or “[Her] hand on my back as if she was smoothing out a beautiful, crumpled-up love letter” could easily be taken from a poem by Sylvia Plath. Each and every word comes with its own weight, and by taking a variety of shapes (gestures, text, spoken word), it makes the script feel all the more precious.
Both Nadarajah and Wombwell deliver arresting performances. Informed by their personal experience and training in physical theatre, they embody the real essence of motherly love on the one hand and the fear of isolation on the other. They bring a further level of accomplishment to a thoroughly well-crafted production.
Going Through runs until 27 April at the Bush Theatre.
Book Review: The Choke, by Sofie Laguna
Sofie Laguna’s novel, The Choke, opens with the narrator’s half-brother Kirk chasing her through the scrub with his slingshot: “this is going to hurt,” he yells, before firing. Reader be warned. From the arrival of Ray, Justine’s absent father in the dead of the night, to the Mauser gun locked in the cupboard, the feuding Worlleys on the neighbouring farm, and the Isa Browns scratching in the dust, you know it’s not going to be an easy ride for ten-year-old Justine.
Set in the Australian outback, on
the meagre scratchings of “Pop’s Three”, Justine lives with her grandfather, a
beer-swilling Korean vet, visited occasionally by her half-brothers, Kirk and
Stevie. Rather than offering the fatherly affection or attention Justine
craves, Ray’s return only exposes the impossibility of her situation. She’s motherless,
dyslexic, and isolated; the only friendship on offer comes from her classmate,
Michael, who’s ostracised by the other children because of his disability.
Through “overheard conversations” Justine
learns what happened to her mother, to Pop’s wife, about Ray’s history of violence,
and the feud with the Worlleys. While she’s too young to understand the
significance of these events, or interpret them wisely, by the time Ray arrives
at Stacey Worlleys’ door, the reader is well primed to cross their fingers and
The past casts long shadows across
the present. Characters are trapped by circumstances, doomed to repeat the
mistakes of previous generations, as they bid to break free from a cycle of poverty,
addiction and violence. Disparate lives are finely knitted together against the
landscape of the Murray River; its scale and sparsity adds to the growing sense
of isolation and tension, “We leaned against the fence. A weight hung over us.
It was as if the sky was made of the same concrete as Relle’s yard.”
The Choke is rich with symbolism:
guns that don’t go off, chooks who dominate the landscape but are caged, eggs
which don’t hatch. There’s little kindness or support on offer. Michael must
manage his own disability; the half-brothers leave Justine in the lurch when
she needs help. Relle ignores her, Rita has her own problems with the family.
You’re on your own, so get on with it; the message loud and clear. Yet Laguna deftly
avoids sympathy or mawkishness. The narrative is economic and finely tuned. The
plot twists and turns, always at least two steps ahead of the reader – from the
Mauser in the first act which, as Chekhov so famously said, “must go off by the
fourth act” (and it does, but not in a way you predict). The result is an emotionally
wrenching story which keeps the reader trailing by the seats of their pants until
the last page. Then it delivers the rarest of gifts in contemporary novels, a
satisfying and unexpected ending, arising seamlessly from the plot, which
manages to extract redemption for Justine, while resisting the temptation to
provide all the answers.
Laguna is an accomplished writer of young adult fiction. The Choke is her third adult novel. Her second, The Eye of the Sheep, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in her native Australia, and won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award (past company includes Patrick White, Tim Winton, Peter Carey). The Choke has already been shortlisted for a slew of awards, all of which it thoroughly deserves.