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There’s been a notably high number of dystopian novels being published in recent years and it feels like this reflects a widespread anxiety. Novels such as “Station Eleven”, “The Country of Ice Cream Star”, “The Power” and “Hazards of Time Travel” have all taken very different approaches to creating scarily convincing counter-realities to our present landscape, especially in regards to misogynistic attitudes towards women. It’s always interesting to see how new dystopian fiction tries to create an urgent, radical dialogue with society today. The presumption being: if we don’t pay attention to what’s happening around us this nightmarish landscape might come sooner than we think. In the case of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Atwood has famously said the novel contains nothing which hasn’t already happened in the world.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel “Leila” deals directly with issues of the caste system in India which has such a far-reaching, complex history and continues to incite horrific instances of violence. The novel takes the divisions between castes to the extreme where physical walls are erected to separate communities from each other, shore in resources for members of “elite” castes and strive towards a “purity” of race and social status. This is filtered through the perspective of Shalini who mourns the disappearance of her daughter Leila when she was suddenly lost after Shalini was seized and taken to a government-sanctioned reform camp. For years she’s secretly schemed how to find her daughter again amidst an aggressively conservative and strict system. Finally her plans might be carried out. We follow her journey as she puts her plot into action and recalls the horrific events which led to this dire situation.

I feel like some of the references in the novel were definitely lost on me because I have such a slim understanding of how the caste system works in India. There’s such a profusion of subcastes and subtleties to the way religion and social status play into how classifications of caste dictate the position of individuals in society that I sometimes felt disorientated and confused. I don’t think that mattered though because what carried me through the story was Shalini’s plight, the urgent concerns of motherhood and the egregious violence inflicted upon her mind and body. I felt the impact of her struggle and Akbar renders scenes of trauma with skilled clarity. Shalini was living quite a comfortable existence in a liberal lifestyle though she was aware that regressive attitudes and mob-like violence inflicted by a puritanical group called the Repeaters were increasing. But all this felt quite removed from her life until it reaches her doorstep and when it does it’s really effective.

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What’s particularly interesting about Akbar’s narrative is that, though Shalini is a very sympathetic character, it gradually becomes apparent that she has her own prejudices and ignorance about the suffering of members of different castes. At the same time, she’s just an ordinary woman whose primary concern is for the welfare of her daughter. But, when the political landscape changes and a woman named Sapna who used to be Shalini’s nanny has acquired a very different social position, Shalini is forced to consider what mental walls she maintained against others. While this shift might feel overstated at points, it’s nonetheless effective in creating a multifaceted story which is as riveting in its mystery as it is in prompting readers to consider how we might all possess forms of  blindness to the suffering of people who are different from us. Akbar’s writing also has a beautiful fluidity which is a pleasure to read. He formerly worked as a journalist and it’s striking how his concern for investigating social issues has now translated into fiction.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPrayaag Akbar
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It may have one of the longest prize names around, but it’s always exciting to follow The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with Warwick University to see what exciting new writing talent is highlighted and celebrated. Past winners include great authors such as Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Naomi Alderman, Adam Foulds, Sarah Howe, Sally Rooney and Max Porter (who won the main prize in 2016 when I was on the official shadow panel.) It’s quite unique how eligibility is open to authors whose first book is fiction, non-fiction or poetry so there’s always a diversity of disciplines included in the shortlist.

This year’s prize is particularly exciting since one of the judges is Kamila Shamsie (who has had a very busy year around book awards winning the Women’s Prize and also judging The Golden Man Booker Prize). The 2018 shortlist includes two novels and two books of non-fiction. Unsurprisingly (since I mostly read fiction) I’ve read the novels but not the other two. I was entranced by the rich, imaginative journey of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” and captivated by the intimate familial and social struggles at the heart of Fiona Mozley’s “Elmet”. Both authors are very different in their choice of style and subject matter but equally talented and I hope they’ll have long careers as novelists. Having listened to the authors speak at a special event for the prize, I’m very intrigued to read Laura Freeman’s memoir about overcoming an eating disorder and Adam Weymouth’s book about an Alaskan river journey. 

 The 2018 shortlisted authors & judge Andrew Holgate

The 2018 shortlisted authors & judge Andrew Holgate

The Shadow Panel this year has written really engaging reactions to all the books and it’s exciting to see their winner is Imogen Hermes Gowar. However, The Shadow Panel decision doesn’t always sync with the actual judges’ decision. When I participated in this we chose Jessie Greengrass’ story collection as our winner. Although I’d be delighted to see Gowar or Mozley win the prize, I wonder if one of the non-fiction books might take the prize this year since it’s been some time since a non-fiction book has won. The winner will be announced this evening, but whatever author the judges select as the winner I’m glad that this award continues to encourage some of our best modern writers.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Sometimes I feel like fiction that falls somewhere between short stories and a novel is my favourite kind of writing. This sort of book probably occurs for practical reasons when the author initially started writing short stories and then groups them together with some connecting characters (since novels traditionally sell better than collections of short stories.) But I think this form allows an opportunity for the author to explore many different perspectives or themes using different narrative styles and points of view. The effect can be really powerful in how it shows a multifaceted view of a story.  Some examples of books like this are “Send Me” by Patrick Ryan, “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout, “All That Man Is” by David Szalay, “Vertigo” by Joanna Walsh, “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang and “The Shore” by Sara Taylor. Adding to this style of storytelling is the debut book by JM Holmes “How Are You Going to Save Yourself?” which follows the stories of four black men living in Rhode Island as they progress through the tricky stages of young adulthood.

Holmes often uses dialogue with great precision to evoke character and create dramatic tension in different stages of these men’s lives. The book begins with a conversation between friends Gio, Dub, Rye and Rolls as they share stories about sex and relationships with white girls. Discussions about sex as power play, economic disparity and institutionalised racism feature throughout the book making for some edgy exchanges that reveal a deeper kind of truth. Holmes is unflinchingly honest in presenting the boys’ vulnerability such as a scene where a black man feels self-conscious about being naked in front of a white woman “I told myself I wasn’t on an auction block in front of her.” But some of the most unsettling stories focus more on the perspective of female teenagers or young women that these boys are dating. He sharply portrays egregious instances of misogyny and violence towards women such as when a girl is coerced into having sex with multiple boys: “He stared Tayla straight in the eye and she felt her body tense. They were all focused on her, but not really her, some imagined girl. Their eyes were buried in her body.” These descriptions of sex strikingly show the interplay between the gaze and the imagination, as well as how prejudice and fear can be deeply internalised. The stories expose how girls and women are unfortunately often the recipients of abuse because of these issues and the power dynamics involved. They also describe how when people are totally stripped down (both physically and mentally) unconscious concerns about skin colour suddenly fill the minds of the parties involved.

Gio’s father Lonnie is a former footballer whose star has faded. References to his complicated life are threaded throughout several of the stories so that he is like a mythological figure in the boys’ minds, but I found it especially powerful when it’s described how the sport had a long-lasting physical impact upon him: “His body was riddled with scars thick as butter knives.” Equally, changes to the boys’ bodies as they work in various different jobs are presented in a striking way such as when Rye becomes a fireman. Others pursue more cerebral jobs such as teaching or abstract art. Their choices take them upon divergent paths and it’s poignant how they grow apart in different ways while still maintaining a common bond. In this way the book functions as a coming of age tale, but it’s so creatively presented as these boys variously make different compromises and struggle to figure out where they fit in society.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJM Holmes
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The bold premise of Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel is that it’s primarily narrated – not by Ada, the girl whose coming-of-age tale is at this novel’s centre - but from the perspective of multiple deities and cosmic forces that inhabit her. Ada’s parents are Saul, a Nigerian Catholic doctor, and Saachi, a Malaysian nurse, but Ada is also an ogbanje (child spirit destined to be born and die multiple times) and a child of Ala, an Igbo deity. As such, she doesn’t exist as a singular individual but a plurality of selves encased within one being. Ada’s life is plotted out to us from birth to young adulthood, but rather than following the nuanced emotion of her development we’re given details from the many spirits who inhabit her. The narrative alternates between a collective “we” and others who appear over the course of her life, especially a spirit named Asughara who crucially appears around the time of Ada’s puberty. These entities plot and scheme from within her, influence her actions, strategize to protect her and act as bemused witnesses to Ada’s human concerns. This radical choice in perspective demands that the reader accept their presence as a reality rather than imaginary manifestations of a troubled girl. In doing so, this courageous and inventive novel challenges Western assumptions about identity.

Being so ensconced in the perspectives of these spirits does create a curious distance from the central character. This is exacerbated by frequent references to her as “The Ada” rather than just Ada because they see her as a physical vessel who will only temporarily house them before they move on. Curiously, Ada is both central and secondary within the story as she herself describes: “In many ways, I am not even real. I am not even here.” Ada experiences many issues which other novels would expand upon in great detail such as self-harm, sexual abuse, an eating disorder, suicidal tendencies, bisexuality and being transgendered. However, rather than view these as conditions which need counselling or treatment, the narrative lists them as effects that arise out of Ada’s being inhabited by multiple spirits. This may frustrate readers who aren’t accustomed to considering issues in this way or having them treated so glancingly. Ada’s development is centred more on her being able to accept and coexist with these entities rather than seeking to suppress, ignore or dismiss them. The novel traces how she names these spirits which inhabit her and adopts different identity labels which best suit her because “When you name something, it comes into existence-did you know that? There is strength there, bone-white power injected in a rush, like a trembling drug.”

It’s refreshing how the novel approaches a story of fractured national and racial identity quite differently from novels that deal with similar themes. Where great novels such as “We Need New Names” or “Americanah” focus on the struggle of girls caught between two cultures, Emezi’s novel charts the way in which Ada comes to trust her inner reality rather than adjusting to what the external world wants to impose upon her. The supernatural state of being portrayed in “Freshwater” might be classified as an offspring of magical realism if this were not a term that has become so politically complicated and fraught. In his novel “Augustown”, Kei Miller wrote powerfully about the way this genre has become linked to Western views about supernatural stories that come from cultures deemed by some to be “primitive”. Emezi is forthright and unambiguous about the way she posits Ada’s story. It’s not a question of believing in the supernatural parts of her story, but in respecting the integrity of someone who comes from another culture.

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Less convincing is that fact that the novel doesn’t deal with morally complicated aspects of the Nigerian culture that Ada eventually identifies and reconnects with. Given the fact that Nigeria actively legislates against LGBT rights and by the end Ada identifies as transgendered, it feels troublesome that discussions of potential clashes don’t ever arise. Nor is it addressed how female circumcision was sometimes practiced to correct individuals who were thought to be ogbanje. Certainly these laws and practices don’t encompass the beliefs of the entire country and Igbo culture has a distinct tradition of same-sex couples. But nevertheless, it feels like the belief systems that Ada adopts after returning to Nigeria are somewhat idealized without allowing any room to question how they are sometimes practiced. I also took issue with the way Ada’s brief forays with same sex desire are only expressed through the creation of another entity that inhabits her who she names Saint Vincent. When Ada tries to kiss a girl it’s not with her own lips, but this man within her who uses her lips. That same-sex desire can only be realized through the mediation of gendered identities feels oddly regressive for a novel that in many other ways respects the integrity of the individual.  

Despite these reservations, the impassioned point of view and inventive writing in “Freshwater” is something very worth celebrating.

This post also appeared on Open Letters Review: https://openlettersreview.com/open-letters-review/freshwater-by-akwaeke-emezi

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAkwaeke Emezi
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It’s a common trope in Young Adult novels to feature a teenage protagonist in a dystopian future who is penalized for fighting against an oppressive system. That’s exactly the story Joyce Carol Oates writes in her new novel HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL. However, this is not a Young Adult novel. Oates is certainly familiar with the form and nature of YA fiction having written several books in this genre. It’d be natural to assume that she’s utilizing her expertise in this form and is also making a departure from her typically realistic fiction to branch into feminist dystopian fiction. There is a cycle of novels in this form particularly prevalent in literature today (as described by Alexandra Alter in a recent New York Times article ‘How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety’ in which she cites Oates’s novel.) But the journey and outcome of Oates’s highly unusual new novel is much more startling and darkly subversive than any tale that could be categorized as Young Adult. Instead, HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL engages with ideas of behavioural psychology and Cold War politics to form an utterly unique commentary on society today. It also incorporates many autobiographical elements which surprisingly might make it one of Oates’s most personal and reflective novels yet.

The year is NAS-23 in the 16th Federal District, Eastern-Atlantic States. To put this in perspective, this novel actually takes place only a few years in the future. History proceeding the 9/11 attacks has been erased and dates in the North American States (NAS) begin from this point. In this newly reconstituted country which has absorbed the territories of Mexico and Canada, free speech and private thoughts are tightly controlled by the government. People are segmented into official racial categories determined by skin colour. Adriane Strohl is a curious and intelligent high school student who has been recognized as the class valedictorian and she’s invited to give a speech to the student body. She takes this opportunity to ask general questions which the government doesn’t like to be asked. As a consequence she’s punished by being designated an EI (Exiled Individual) and transported back through time to Zone 9. Here it is the year 1959 and she’s required to attend a university in Wisconsin “to train yourself in a socially useful profession.” She is equipped only with a new name (Mary Ellen Enright) and a list of instructions which prohibit her from leaving the area, developing intimate relationships or speaking about the future. Adriane knows that any deviation will result in her being “Deleted” – an example of what being deleted entails is vividly and terrifyingly portrayed in an opening section. From this point, she sets out to navigate this tricky and unfamiliar landscape of the past.

According to Greg Johnson’s biography of Oates, INVISIBLE WRITER, the author was also a valedictorian given the dubious honour of making a speech to the student body. Like Adriane, Oates was terrified about making this speech. It’s interesting how Oates’ own apparent fears and preoccupations manifest throughout the entire novel. In effect, Adriane is transported back in time to live through Joyce Carol Oates’ own university years in a region analogous to Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the author earned her graduate and post-graduate degrees. Like Oates, Adriane/Mary Ellen finds it necessary to earn her keep while she’s a student by working gruelling hours in a part time job in a library for a pitiful amount of money. Some of Oates’s fiction, most notably MARYA: A LIFE and I’LL TAKE YOU THERE, revolve around periods of adolescent experience which are very similar to Oates’ own. HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL is a novel that seems to borrow more freely from her autobiographical experience. As such, I believe the author uses her own past as a metafictional device to creatively explore issues concerning memory, guilt, free will, psychology and history.

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At university Adriane is plagued by feelings of loneliness and she becomes fixated with an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. Not only does she feel a romantic desire towards him, but he is also revealed to be an Exiled Individual from the future serving out a punishment. At one point, Wolfman calls into question the validity of their surroundings: “’Exile’? ‘Teletransportation’? ‘Zone Nine’? None of this is real, Adriane. It’s a construct.” This introduces dilemmas poised somewhere between the metaphysical issues raised in the films Blade Runner and The Matrix. Are these characters only imagining that they’re from the future? If they’ve been exiled to the past are they really being monitored? Is their “rehabilitation” really a part of a larger design? Adding to these sinister questions are those raised by Adriane’s classes on B.F. Skinner and his morally dubious behaviouralist experiments. The novel begins with the epigram from Skinner “A self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses.” Are Adriane’s choices and decisions ultimately the result of her environment and the government she lives under? How much agency does she have to enact change in her surroundings and determine her own future? These questions pile on top of each other over the course of the story and build into a fever of paranoia and uncertainty so that the novel’s conclusion (which would be considered positive in any other circumstance) feels incredibly sinister and horrific.

The many issues this novel raises over the course of the story powerfully coalesce to reflect anxieties and fears about the current political climate in America today. It also allows Oates opportunities for more playful commentary about the direction our culture is taking. In NAS-23 there are no democrats or republicans; there is just the Patriot Party. Voting is performed by placing a smiling emoji next to the candidate of choice. But Oates also pokes fun of some antiquated aspects of culture from the 50s and 60s. Adriane observes how agonizing it is wearing hair curlers to bed. Paper feels horribly inadequate to her as a reading device. Adriane’s unique point of view also casts new light on the Red Scare and threat of nuclear war which coloured this time period. By considering a period of personal and political upheaval in US history through this form of speculative fiction, Oates prompts us to question what are the real threats to the country as well as deeper anxieties about how our society is evolving. At one point Adriane/Mary Ellen states “time turns back upon itself. You believe that you are making progress, but it is an illusion. Yet, this is progress of a kind.” Given our proximity in time to NAS-23, Oates appears to be postulating how we need to step back before leaping forward.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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If I hadn’t read some articles in the past (such as ‘Bridging the gap: the east-west divide in art’), I’d have entirely believed the central story of Mathias Enard’s new novel. It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were invited by Turkish rulers in Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn, but neither ever journeyed to this Eastern superpower. However, “Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants” imagines Michelangelo travelling to work for the sultan in the summer of 1506. He’s embittered by Pope Julius II failing to deliver timely payments for commissions and enlivened by the thought of surpassing the talent of his rival Leonardo da Vinci whose design was rejected. During this stolen season, Michelangelo comes into contact with Muslim culture and people outside of his staunch Christian beliefs. An encounter with a mesmerising androgynous dancer also prompts him to adopt a more fluid attitude towards sexuality and gender. It’s a brilliantly told fantastical tale that plays on ideas concerning history and the power of story-telling.

Enard does a lot to support the seeming validity of his novel including letters, lists of ship cargo and sketches of Michelangelo’s proposed bridge. Like Damien Hirst’s famous ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ exhibit/documentary which assemble rare art objects he claims to have retrieved from the bottom of the ocean, Enard’s novel is an elaborate joke and entirely serious in its quest to reconstruct an imagined period of Michelangelo’s life. Art and literature not only reflect the culture they emerge from but fashion versions of how that civilization wants to be remembered. We can also retrospectively read into these artefacts myths around their creation and how we’re positioned within their lineage. So part of why Enard’s novel feels so believable is because we want to believe in this great exchange between the Renaissance and the Orient (or the European fantasy of the East.) However, it never really happened and the fact of Enard’s construct says as much as the content of his intricate fable. With this novel he forms a radical confrontation with lost corners of history and the marginalized invisible people whose stories aren’t often reflected in art.

Interspersed with descriptions of Michelangelo’s time working for The Grand Vizier are accounts by the nameless androgynous dancer that mesmerised him. This performer speaks to the artist while he sleeps in an ingenious kind of counter-narrative to “One Thousand and One Nights”. Instead of trying to lull him to sleep the dancer urgently wants to open Michelangelo’s eyes to the people he doesn’t see, what is left out of his art and the consequences of the legacy he leaves. The dancer is a slave stolen from another place entirely as are several people the artist encounters in Constantinople. Most of their stories have vanished from history just as they have lost their countries of origin. I kept thinking back to the recent novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which describes a mass kidnapping and enslavement of Icelandic people by Barbary pirates.

The dancer is aware how being slighted in story-telling amounts to an erasure of being. Imperialism functions through myth-making as much as it does through brute force. The dancer observes how “You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings and elephants and marvellous beings… But you will know, since you are here pressed against me, you ill-smelling Frank whom chance has brought to my hands, you will know that all this is nothing but a perfumed veil hiding the eternal suffering of night.” Through constructing Michelangelo’s imagined journey, Enard enables this voice from the past to cut through time with the power of a knife.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMathias Enard
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The third part of Sattouf's graphic memoir begins when Riad is seven years old and living in a small village in Syria. While reading Parts 1 & 2 in this series, I've grown increasingly distressed about the uncomfortable position his mother's been cornered into living in a crumbling home with two small children far from her native France and in a culture very different from her own. Added to this is the father’s increasing stubbornness, reactionary views and snobbishness. It’s not surprising to find his parents locked into a battle which grows increasingly hostile as further developments are revealed over the course of this book. One of the most alarming changes in the book is Riad’s own domineering attitude directed at his younger brother Yahya. It shows how the violence he witnesses and (at times) experiences is shaping his character in a disturbing way. However, as with the previous books, these darker issues are presented in a way that allow you to feel the comic absurdity of the characters’ egotism and insecurities. It’s heartening to see as the series progresses that Riad isn’t a saint either. Nevertheless, I deeply feel for the precariousness of his position as a child in difficult circumstances who feels caught between Eastern and Western cultures.

It’s interesting how Riad’s role models have changed throughout the series. Where he first saw Georges Brassens as a God-like figure under his mother’s influence in Part 1, Riad is now drawn to Conan the Barbarian. It inspires him to the point of reproducing scenes from the film in drawings of his own and it’s poignant to see glimpses of the author’s artistic talent at its inception. The boy also is starting to test out different belief systems under his own initiative. Although he’s not asked to, he chooses to participate in Ramadan (albeit very briefly.) More subtly, there are dynamic conflicts portrayed in his parents’ lives. His father prides himself on establishing connections with an influential figure but it’s evident that he’s only being used for a specific purpose. The father also shows signs that he feels oppressed by his own past as he violently and spontaneously bursts out in anger against his own elderly mother at one point shouting “You ruined my life you stupid ignorant peasant!” It dismaying how his own evident conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures are being similarly imparted on his son.

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Like in the previous books, the children Riad encounters frighteningly mimic the attitudes and prejudices of the adults. Riad’s cousins tease him for being Jewish when they notice he’s uncircumcised which betrays their fundamental misunderstanding about the way the religion is practiced and how their prejudice is truly rooted in pure naivety. This unfortunately leads to one of the most disturbing scenes in this volume when Riad’s father decides to “correct” his son’s physically to fit with the other boys in Syria. The author has a special talent for portraying some truly squeamish imagery. But casual violence isn’t limited to instances in Syria because when Riad returns to France for a brief period there is also a disturbing scene involving kittens. But, no less unsettling, is the portrayal of the erosive effect of living in stultifying circumstances for a long period of time. This affects Riad’s mother the worst. Her desultory days are spent piecing together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of a scene from her family’s French port town as if meditating on the heritage and counter life she’s lost. It’s a welcome relief when she makes a fleeting connection with Riad’s aunt Khadija who shows herself to be both an ally and someone with innate hidden intelligence.

I find it touching how imagery of the toy bull which first made an appearance at the start of the series still continues to haunt Riad. This menacing beast continues to plague him in vividly depicted nightmares but, as Riad adopts figures who inspire him to establish his own individuality separate from the values of his parents and society, we can see him finding tools to combat his inner demons/fears. My concerns for Riad and other characters in the book haven’t been allayed by the developments in this volume (in fact, they’ve been heightened by the suspenseful ending to volume 3!) But it’s made me all the more curious to see how the series will continue. I was delighted to discover recently that a fourth volume has been published in French, but it hasn’t been translated yet. I eagerly await to discover what happens next in this cleverly wrought graphic memoir!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf
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Like many people, I eagerly read Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” as soon as it was published this week. It’s important that this book has come out now and there’s many reasons to be excited about it. I’m not only excited about it because she’s a former first lady as well as being an icon in her own right or her historic importance as the first African American First Lady who is the great great granddaughter of a slave. And not just because this book finally gives insight to her own private thoughts on things ranging from her evolving romance with Barack or the painful transition to the current presidency after they left the White House. And I’m not even excited just because I have silly fantasies about what it’d be like to be Michelle’s best friend and closest confidant and listening to the 19 hours and 3 minutes of the audio book meant Michelle was speaking about her private reflections directly into my ear. I’m excited about this book because I need a dose of wisdom and optimism in a period of time when the world seems so bleak and I feel so uncertain and frightened about my own future and the future of our society that I sometimes feel a creeping cynicism overcome me.

Having just read the book I’m filled with emotion and admiration and, yes, more hope because of the striking insights and heartfelt openness of Michelle’s story. This is someone who has been put under such brutal public scrutiny because of who she is and her position but I love how she emphasizes the importance of telling our own stories. She describes how through this book she is “slaying the caricatures and stereotypes with my own words.” So she tells the story of her life from childhood up until moving into a new home after leaving the White House. And through this she reveals her qualities as well as her flaws, her triumphs and disappointments, her difficult compromises and forthrightness (of being a girl who bravely talked back to her cantankerous grandfather – while realising in retrospect that he was grappling with his own disappointments in life.) She also reveals how throughout her life she’s continuously asked herself the worrying question “Am I good enough?” In being so candid she restores the humanity of her being which endless media and tabloid scrutiny have taken from her.

I think this is really important because I was just at a book prize ceremony the other night and as a nonfiction award was being given out the presenter announced how he hoped the broadening interests being covered in nonfiction published today would hail the death of the celebrity memoir. And, of course, I think a diversity of nonfiction is great and there are plenty of sensationalist celebrity memoirs which probably aren’t worth our time, but the huge response to Michelle’s book being published is a sign that we’re desperate for an intelligent role model we can look up to whose had a significant political and cultural influence in world history.

Here is a favourite quote which gives a glimpse about why I find this book so inspirational: “So many of us go through life with our stories hidden feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there is only one way to be American. That if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country then we don’t belong. That is until someone dares to start telling that story differently.” So this book does give us a different story and one many of us are desperate to hear.

I found it so fascinating reading about how she grew up in Chicago and how her neighbourhood slowly emptied of white and affluent families when it was labelled a “ghetto”. When her academic achievements landed her in a well-regarded school she gradually learned that there exists an African American elite and a ‘Jack and Jill’ club. And I found this particularly fascinating having read Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland a couple years ago which goes into this subject in a lot more detail and coincidentally covers a lot of the same time period living in Chicago in the 50s and 60s. An insight Michelle takes from this period of her life is learning about the “apparatus of privilege and connections. What seemed like a network of half hidden ladders and guide ropes that lead into the sky.” She gains a deeper understanding of the world and its secret privileges which exist from the smallest community all the way up through the mechanism of government.

We discover about how she learned to play the piano from a young age, about her father’s growing disability (multiple sclerosis), of going to the drive-in to watch Planet of the Apes movies, being good friends with Rev Jesse Jackson’s daughter in high school which was her initial early brush with politics, the pain of breaking with her first important boyfriend on leaving to study at Princeton. And there’s little personal insights like how she loves the “tidy triumph delivered by a home makeover show”, the panic of re-election night when her phone service goes out and she assumes it’s bad news when no one responds to her text messages, sneaking out of the White House with one of her daughters to see it illuminated by rainbow lights after same-sex marriage becomes a right after a Supreme Court ruling. There are encounters with famous world figures like chatting about uncomfortable shoes with Queen Elizabeth and having a private conversation with Nelson Mandela. She confides how she’s not someone naturally drawn to politics and she found a supreme simple comfort in making cheese toast in their new home after moving out of the White House.

Of course, there’s also all the wonderful insight into meeting Barack and their relationship. How she wasn’t impressed by him on their very first (professional) meeting because he was late. She was assigned to be his mentor at the law firm she worked for (even though he’s 3 years older than her) and how she told him off for smoking cigarettes on that first meeting. How Barack spent any spare change he had on books and reads political philosophy for pleasure. And there’s all the romance of how they left halfway through a production of Les Mis because neither were enjoying it, how she calls him a unicorn and fact man (since he has an almost photographic memory), the sexual tension when she allows the thought of a romance with him and their first kiss over ice cream. She notes how she gets him to watch Sex & the City. And there are also insights into how their different types of personalities complement each other: where she’s fastidious and fast moving, he’s laid back and patient. About how they had differing views on marriage and how she found living with someone with a strong sense of purpose was something she had to get used to. It’s really powerful how she writes candidly about having a miscarriage and receiving IVF treatments. The real difficulty of balancing a work and home life as a mother which leaves her feeling like she’s only doing things half well. Many female friends of mine have described being in similar positions as young mothers.

So the book is filled with these specific but very relatable details. And it’s great because it reveals how she’s a much more dynamic individual than most people give her credit for. For instance, one of her big platforms as first lady was to dissuade obesity in children by encouraging nutrition and she establishes a garden at the White House, but she also reveals how she occasionally enjoys a Chipotle meal or McDonald’s cheeseburger. Of course she does! So many people do but rather than see this as a contradiction it shows that she’s just human but really cares about trying to be more healthy and conscientious about what she eats as well as inspiring real change in school lunches across America and lowering the sugar content in mainstream foods. And she explores how many of her initiatives grew out of a really personal place for her from establishing mentoring programs for girls and young women to speaking out for stronger gun control laws and introducing a poetry and spoken word event at the White House – at which Lin-Manuel Miranda performed workings from what would become his show Hamilton.

 Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama - painted by Amy Sherald

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama - painted by Amy Sherald

I appreciated the way she captures how being a First Lady is not technically a job and she has no executive power but she has (as she describes) a “soft power” to influence and change through her speeches, her actions and her demeanour. And, of course, this comes with a lot of ridiculous unwanted things like the public’s obsession with her clothes when she really wants to focus on issues. It’s interesting how she points out that every powerful women in the public eye needs to have a stylist, hairdresser and makeup artist and that this really is “a built in fee for our societal double standard” where Barack only has to wear a suit but so much more is read into the way she looks. So she shows in a really powerful way how she’s aware of the responsibility and privileges of her position, but also demonstrates how she handles it with intelligence, strength and faith – and how her optimism is a form of faith.

For all these reasons, I found this memoir so inspiring and insightful. And I don’t want to spoil it but she does sadly mention in the end how she has “no intention for running ever” because she really isn’t naturally drawn to politics. But we can live and hope that maybe Michelle will won day be America’s president. If not her, than I hope someone equally inspiring and optimistic as she is will one day come forward to lead because the country desperately needs what Michelle embodies.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMichelle Obama
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When I was at university I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s highly acclaimed 1988 novel “Nervous Conditions”. Earlier this year, the BBC named this novel as one of the top 100 books that shaped the world and it’s claimed that this was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. The story focuses on the story of Tambu who is a young woman who strives to obtain an education in her post-Rhodesian society. The book explores some of the conflicts she encounters including gender inequality and racism in the educational system which is still influenced by colonialism. The author has continued to write about her character Tambu’s struggles in society in two further novels “The Book of Not” which was published in 2006 and “This Mournable Body” which was published this year. That means this trilogy has been thirty years in the making! I find it fascinating how Dangarembga has spent so long living with this character, especially since the most autobiographical character in this trilogy isn’t Tambu but her cousin Nyasha whose educational background and work most closely resembles Dangarembga’s. I think the long gestation of this trilogy’s creation works to both its fault and benefit.

“This Mournable Body” takes its title from an article by Teju Cole called ‘Unmournable Bodies’ which poignantly addresses the issue of free speech and how public opinion in Western countries often chooses not to recognize the victims who speak out against their own state’s power. The novel begins with Tambu living in a precarious state of being. She’s unemployed and seeking accommodation somewhere other than the hostel which she is technically too old to still inhabit. Dangarembga narrates her account in the second person, but it remains closely aligned to Tambu’s point of view so it’s as if Tambu is viewing herself from the outside and also highly conscious that she is being scrutinized by those around her. While this style of narrative offers opportunities to uniquely examine a kind of self-consciousness in a character, I felt the novel largely failed to take advantage of opportunities to explore this complexity. Throughout the novel Tambu is primarily a very passive character observing those around her. We’re introduced to different characters and situations before quickly moving on from them. So the story touches on subjects such as misogynistic violence against women, a failing education system, mental healthcare and the continued exploitation of Zimbabwe’s black working class by Westerners. However, I found it frustrating that the novel doesn’t dramatize these issues very effectively in the story because of the style of narration. Since Tambu doesn’t actually have much contact with people there’s little sense of the distinction between how she feels about herself and how people around Tambu are perceiving her.

The sections of the book which came to life the most for me were when Tambu must interact with others in different jobs she holds, first as a teacher and later as an executive and innovator in a travel agency. Here her aspirations to find a secure place in society and her daydreams to acquire wealth and status are met with cold reality. Because attaining her desires is so difficult given her status and the state of her country, she often acts out in selfish or violent ways. It’s so interesting how Dangarembga sees this as symptomatic of how Zimbabwean women feel they must be immoral in order to wrestle back any sense of agency. She states: “Zimbabwean women, you remind yourself, know how to order things to go away. They shriek with grief and throw themselves around. They go to war. They drug patients in order to get ahead. They get on with it. If one thing doesn't turn out, Zimbabwean woman simply turns to another.”

This is such a fascinating perspective and I enjoy it when novels explore so-called “difficult” characters, but unfortunately I think the way Dangarembga told this story prevented her from realising its full potential. Very intense scenes when a woman on public transportation is attacked for dressing provocatively or when Tambu violently beats a girl are lost in murky poetic descriptions of Tambu’s emotional state. Other brief interactions with her cousin Nyasha who worries about her children receiving corporal punishment at school or Tambu’s sister who was left disabled after losing her leg during a battle only touch upon issues which really deserve their own novels. I feel that if Dangarembga has concentrated on just one period of Tambu’s life where she worked at a particular institution it would have given more space in the novel to address the full complexities involved and it would have created a more engaging story.  

 Author Tsitsi Dangarembga

Author Tsitsi Dangarembga

There were certain images and scenes which I felt were really powerful. Throughout Tambu’s journey it describes how she laboriously lugs around a sack of mealie meal, a kind of cheap maize that can be used to make porridge. This is a staple food her mother gave her which she doesn’t want to eat because she desires other food, but she can’t bring herself to dispose of it. So the sack slowly rots and grows more disgusting while existing as a symbol of her family’s lower class rural life that she wants to distance herself from. Later, when Tambu returns to her village and interacts with her mother again she observes how “the patina of what your mother, with stinging distaste, labelled ‘The Englishness,’ which you acquired at the Young Ladies’ College of the Sacred Heart, at last turns into a grand advantage. How restoring it is, even as you plod toward middle age, to reap a positive outcome from the convent that, while it educated you, rendered you ‘them,’ ‘they,’ ‘the Africans.’” I felt this was such an interesting way of approaching Tambu’s conflict in identity being a Zimbabwean with a Western education. It shows how the subtleties of this struggle have continued to evolve since the first novel of Dangarembga’s trilogy. Yet these flashes of insight fell too far in between sections of the novel which plod through an over-complicated narrative style.

I was so curious about why Dangarembga chose to narrate this novel in the second person and I came across an interview she did with The Rumpus book club. In it she states: “I wrote it in the second person because that was the only way I could access the subject matter in a way that I felt made sense. I just didn’t have the heart to use the first person. I needed distance and I imagined the reader would to. On the other hand, I didn’t want to jump into the third person when the other two books were in the first. I also thought that might be too much distance. So I tried it out in the second and I liked the effect.” While it’s an intriguing experiment, I felt this style of narration confused the author’s proximity to her character and this was to the detriment of the story. If the book had been narrated in the third person it would have allowed the reader a bigger picture of Tambu’s life. Before even reading about how the author is more autobiographically aligned with Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, I felt like Dangarembga’s sympathy and sense of justice resided more with this peripheral character. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Tambu ultimately finds solace living and working alongside Nyasha. It functions as a kind of homecoming where the author and her fictional counterpart can be one. This has a certain poignancy to it, but ultimately I felt this novel didn’t succeed in realising its vision and it’s extremely disappointing because I felt it had so much potential.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There’s an interesting tradition of feminist utopian novels which speculate about futures or alternative societies that feature populations dominated by or entirely composed of women. These range from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland Trilogy” to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s witty parody “Sultana’s Dream” to Marge Piercy’s science fiction classic “Woman on the Edge of Time” to Mary E. Bradley’s “Mizora” where women can reproduce through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization.) These imaginative works radically envision places where men are of secondary importance or become entirely irrelevant. These idealistic visions offer a breath of fresh air and a welcome counter-reality to the patriarchy which has dominated society for centuries.

Given enormous recent advances in science, it’s not hard to imagine the prospect of a technology which enables women to reproduce without men. That’s exactly the premise of Angela Chadwick’s enthralling debut novel “XX” which tells the story of lesbian couple Rosie and Jules who enrol in the trial stage of a ground-breaking new Ovum-to-Ovum treatment. It allows them to become pregnant through an IVF technique using two eggs rather than needing a sperm-donor. Since there is no XY sex-determination system at play in this method of reproduction it means the child will always be born with the sex chromosome XX and must be female. But Chadwick doesn’t posit this advancement as an opportunity for a world-dominating matriarchy; it’s exactly the opposite. The great drama of the novel comes from the wide-scale social resistance to such an advancement which will enable a small group of isolated individuals a unique opportunity to reproduce together. A conservative backlash perceives this technology as a threat to the status quo as they assert all children need a mother and father. They also fear boys will be phased out of the species. Rosie and Jules find themselves at the centre of a horrific and politically-contentious media storm. It’s a vivid story of personal struggle reflecting how any advancement with society is sadly met with reactionary politics.

It’s a difficult fact for many same-sex couples who wish to have children that some alternative method is currently required to assist them in becoming parents. This can be very painful and complicated because it means both people in the relationship don’t have an equal genetic stake in their child. I admire how Chadwick addresses this issue in her novel by offering a solution and exploring the challenges that would arise from this. In doing so, she addresses how pregnancy, relationships and family life are filled with infinite complexities so the road to becoming parents is never simple or easy. But, in the case of this couple it’s particularly complicated given how they become the focus of media scrutiny from becoming pregnant with the first O-O child. The story is told through the perspective of Jules whose partner Rosie becomes pregnant from the treatment. As a journalist at a local newspaper, she finds herself in a unique position of being a reporter who is herself the top news story.

 Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner editing their 1985 documentary ‘Choosing Children’ about lesbians who become parents

Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner editing their 1985 documentary ‘Choosing Children’ about lesbians who become parents

Jules strives to keep her personal life and work separate, but this sadly becomes impossible. The novel serves as an interesting commentary on our sensational media system which exploits individuals for the sake of broader attention-grabbing contentious issues. A local Tory politician named Richard Prior emerges as a spokesman and campaigner for an organization called the Alliance for Natural Reproduction. He’s recognizable as a composite of right-wing figures who develop platforms to rile up the public with paranoias and fears about threats to the “natural” order of things. The story meaningfully reflects how such cases have become more and more common in recent years regarding a whole range of issues including marriage rights, health care, education and immigration. It also comments on how a large section of the population now consumes such news stories by “flick-throughs and social media posts” and form opinions about issues without engaging with their full complexity or considering the real facts. It’s striking how Chadwick realistically envisions how an optimistic advancement such as this would be blown up into a much larger political issue with a vicious backlash.

“XX” is one of the debut titles from an exciting new imprint called Dialogue Books. The imprint’s goal is to publish writers and reach audiences from areas and groups of people currently under-represented by the mainstream publishing industry. It aims to spark a dialogue across different communities about subjects we ought to be talking about. This novel certainly touches on a number of subjects that feel relevant today and takes a refreshing perspective. It does this through a well-plotted story and characters that I grew increasingly attached to. There’s nothing flashy about the prose, but this feels completely appropriate for a story about a normal couple that find themselves swept into an extraordinary situation. It also feels positive how we might no longer need stories of extravagant extremes that envision all female societies as a correction for the gender imbalances in our world. Instead, Chadwick offers a very rational and practical vision of how incremental steps can be taken to create more inclusive communities and dynamic families for everyone.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAngela Chadwick
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We’ve all had those nights when we wake up in some dark hour and can’t get back to sleep no matter what method we use to try to trick ourselves back into unconsciousness. I’ve found watching a good nature or outer space programme can often lull me, but sometimes nothing works. Although I occasionally go through periods when sleeplessness plagues me night after night leaving me exhausted and bleary-eyed throughout the workday, I’ve never considered it to be a serious or chronic problem. But other people experience more severe cases that are seriously debilitating – such as my partner who has tried many different treatments.

Most books about insomnia offer advice or methods for overcoming it, but what I appreciate so much about Marina Benjamin’s short, impactful and beautifully-written book “Insomnia” is that she approaches the condition from a more philosophical point of view. It’s a deeply personal account because she’s someone who has suffered from insomnia for years and tried just about every scheme out there to sleep better. But rather than write a guidebook she offers a different kind of solace in how we’re all unified by sleep or the lack of it. She draws upon references from mythology, psychology, art and literature to illuminate how we often have an uneasy relationship with our night time selves.

I enjoyed how the author gives such a radically different look at the condition and the meaning of sleep itself. She challenges the conception of sleep as a peaceful state noting how the body can often be restless during the night and a realistic version of Sleeping Beauty probably wouldn’t keep her name if she were pictured snoring and sweating. She’s also mistrustful of viewing mindfulness as a form of tranquillity when she sees it as a tragic kind of stasis: “It leaves the world unchanged.” These observations are really helpful at encouraging us to rethink how we consider and relate to sleeping.

 ‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

She also raises many good points about the portrayal of women in relation to sleep in fairy tales and mythology. She draws upon a dizzying range of fascinating references, but they remain in context and illuminate different ways of considering sleep. I was most drawn to her reflections about the odd loneliness which accompanies insomnia but she observes how “Imprisoned within these solitary cells of wakefulness, insomniacs make for a strange kind of collective… No doubt we could easily spew a textbookful of shared anxieties. Yet we cannot commune with one another.” It feels like this relates to ideas (central to this blog) about how reading is such an essential lonely activity, yet it also unites us in a cultural conversation. Any solitary space where we can consider ideas with such concentrated intensity seems to come attached to a feeling of melancholy because those ideas won’t ever flourish as fully in the blunt arena of normality.

Marina Benjamin playfully refers to her partner as Zzz (because he often is asleep while she’s still awake.) It creates a unique sort of estrangement being perpetually awake while your partner is asleep and this adds another dimension to the loneliness of insomnia. She observes how “Zzz is next to me, but miles away. In those lonesome hours when I fear I might drown in a well of unspecified longing, I sense a danger that my most intimate space might also become my most alienated. Estranged from the night, I am locked out of my own rest. If I reached out to Zzz would I even find him?” It feels only natural that the overactive sleepless mind becomes consumed with paranoias, fears and poetic turns of thought. Being exposed to too much night we think of the daytime and night time self as being two distinct states of being, but this impactful book does a lot to creatively bridge the space between them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarina Benjamin
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I bought this book several weeks ago but after far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil last week and I read author Julián Fuks’ powerful response in this Guardian article I felt prompted to prioritize reading his novel “Resistance”. It’s a very meditative story about the narrator’s reflections on his family history – in particular his adopted brother’s troubled life and his parents’ move from Argentina to Brazil after living under a tyrannical dictatorship. It felt ominously prescient when I came to the line “Dictatorships can come back, I know, and I also know that the arbitrariness, the oppressions, the suffering, exist in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of regimes, even when hordes of citizens march biennially to the ballot box”. But, of course, Fuks must have experienced and read about many shifts in leadership over the years to see how frighteningly quickly oppressive political leaderships can take control of a country. So yes, this is a novel about personal and political resistance to these tyrannical governments, but it’s more about a resistance to the categories and interpretations of history which diminish its reality.

The narrator struggles to describe his pressing concerns about his brother without stating this sibling was adopted. He’s anxious that just stating this fact will encourage all sorts of presumptions about why his brother grew into being a certain kind of man. This inner-conflict about giving details is echoed throughout the novel where the narrator questions both his memory and the meaning such information has in truly understanding the past and his family’s situation. It’s an anxiety I really understand and can relate to because of the way creating narratives necessarily means taking a certain slant on the past and it can impose limitations. This is especially true in families when a child or relative is defined in family stories as being a certain type of person. It perpetuates a certain understanding of them and can become a self-perpetuating thing which inhibits the freedom of an individual. The same is true when looking at the history of a country or a community of people who have lived through certain events. The narrator is just as reticent to define his parents’ political affiliations and the events which led to their defection from Argentina. This makes a compelling conflict that runs throughout the novel where the author not only questions the truth about the past, but about how it’s related.

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Barely any names are used throughout the book and I think the narrator abstains from using them because of this same reason of not wanting to limit or define his family members. However, one character who is named is Martha Brea, a colleague of his mother's who is abruptly taken away in a car, executed and her body isn’t found until many years later. The narrator describes how “her absence lived in our house, and her absence lives in infinite circles around other unknown houses – the absences of many Marthas, different in their unrecovered remains, in their distorted features, in their silent ruins.” The novel describes the way many families experienced personal loss because of people who were “disappeared” for political reasons and the development of the famous movement by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to recover children stolen under Argentine dictatorship. It’s powerful how the narrator considers the way his parents would have undoubtably been lost as well if they hadn’t taken the step to flee the country.

“Resistance” was a very different novel from what I was expecting but I was glad to be surprised by its deep thoughtfulness and philosophical quest to question the way we define family and history. Although the circumstances described are quite specific, Fuks’ unique methodology means the story takes on a much more universal meaning as the reader reflects on their own family and country. It certainly prompted me to rethink how I consider my own. In the coming years we’ll hopefully see many more strong Brazilian voices like Julián Fuks being heard and published as the country lives through this difficult period of time.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJulián Fuks
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It’s been frequently observed how retellings of Greek myths have dominated literary fiction lately - from Madeline Miller’s “Circe” to Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” to modern retakes like “Home Fire” and “Everything Under”. You’d think with this prolific focus on the same characters and situations it’d come to feel repetitive, but I’m finding the more retellings I read the more engaged I am. It was particularly interesting coming to “The Silence of the Girls” having read “The Song of Achilles” and “House of Names” since they take different perspectives on the same cast. Pat Barker’s narrator is Briseis, a queen of Lyrnessus who is captured when Achilles attacks her city and kills her family. She becomes a trophy lover and a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon amidst their squabbling in the Trojan War. This status allows her unique access to some of the most intimate moments leading to the downfall of Troy, but she incisively recounts how painfully dehumanizing these men treat her and how her “privileged” status is in reality no more than that of a slave. It’s a refreshing reassessment of the positions of many characters associated with these tales of war who’ve traditionally been treated as peripheral and the novel’s vividly engaging storytelling kept me gripped.

Briseis is viewed as a possession and exclusively for Achilles’ sexual use. At some points I became frustrated that the focus is placed so much on Achilles rather than taking more time to explore the lives of Briseis and the enslaved women she lives with (such as when they work in the infirmary producing herbal mixtures to treat the wounded soldiers.) But it makes sense that her entire world is consumed with Achilles since she’s completely controlled by him and the other Greeks. Their coupling gives her such an interesting perspective on his private life – especially his issues concerning his mother and male lover. Achilles is presented as such a dynamic and fascinating figure (as well as being a thug.) There are humorous observations such as “no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield” as well as more subtle takes on his uniquely intimate relationship with Patroclus: “what I saw on the beach that night went beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love.” So it feels natural at one point when the narrative is basically handed over to Achilles and Patroclus, but thankfully the focus comes back around to Briseis.

 ‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

It feels like there is modern relevance in the way Pat Barker writes about several characters and situations. The bloated sense of entitlement and tyrannical egotism of Agamemnon can be seen in any number of bolshy political leaders we have today. The figure of Helen is publicly despised “for the part she’d played in starting this ruinous war” yet all the men want to bed her and the women seek to imitate how she dresses and looks. It feels like there have been modern equivalents in women entangled in sex scandals with political leaders/celebrities who are simultaneously envied and reviled. But the strongest message of the novel is in its insistence on giving voice to the stories of women who’ve traditionally been dismissed or seen as less interesting than the men who subjugated them.  

Briseis is magnanimous in recognizing the hardship and suffering of men, many of whom are young and forced to go to war. But she’s absolutely clear in the imbalance that existed between men and women: “They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.” As the novel goes on and the legend of the male figures around her grows, she seems to be cognizant of the diminutive place she’ll take in the songs and stories about them that will live through time. Her frustration about the unbalanced value given to men’s suffering over her own is palpable: “I’d been trying hard to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story – his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.” This novel wonderfully wrestles back control of that narrative to give visibility to the emotions and perspectives of the many women sidelined in traditional recitations of The Odyssey.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPat Barker
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No doubt Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut novel will catch many people’s eye for the novelty that its young author is from Greenland, but its real appeal and power resides in its diversity of assertive young voices. The narrative follows five different characters whose romantic and familial entanglements with each other produce moments of self-revelation and big life changes over a night of drinking and partying in the city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. “Crimson” is heavily inflected with Greenlandic and Danish language, references and culture, but its themes of young adults trying to come to terms with their gender and sexuality have a much more global outlook. The characters communicate with each other through Facebook and SMS text messages, sum up their moods in hashtags and search Google for answers to life’s questions. These are young people you could meet anywhere in the world. I found it poignant how the characters corner themselves into moments of intense self-reflection through these intensely private and confessional forms of electronic communication. In this virtual space they gradually sift through ways of being to discover who they really are and what they really want. By relating their different points of view in a finely-orchestrated succession, Korneliussen builds an engaging story with many revelations and forms a picture of a modern generation in microcosm.

This novel was first published in its native language with the title “Homo Sapienne” in 2014, but has now been translated into English. It’s just been published in the UK under the title “Crimson” but the American publication in January 2019 will publish it with the title “Last Night in Nuuk”. The UK title no doubt arose from the song ‘Crimson and Clover’ by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts which in the story plays in the bar on the night in question and is referenced several times throughout the text. The song’s dream-like quality and expression of spontaneous sensual intimacy amidst emotional confusion sums up the tone of the novel quite well. I’d have projected this book would take on a kind of cult status a generation ago, but it feels like its decidedly queer perspective will have a much more mainstream appeal today. I can imagine many kinds of young people relating to it and many mature people appreciating it. It’s not so much a novel that recognizably comes from a Nordic literary tradition, but from that of a new generation. It’s more in line with a novel such as “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney which is an Irish novel that doesn’t carry many hallmarks which make it specifically Irish. There’s something exciting about an emerging literary movement which isn’t restrained by national borders and alights on common experiences mediated through the digital world.

The five different characters may share a kind of frenetic energy and express different forms of queer experience, but each voice is quite distinct in its timbre and point of view. The opening section is narrated by Fia whose rapid-fire train of thought sparks with intriguing moments of reflection: “I make up my mind because death won’t leave my mind. There has always been something missing here.” She finds it challenging to articulately sum up how her desire can be defined and instead humorously relates her abrupt break with her boyfriend by stating “My thoughts make no sense. I’m simply tired of sausages.” Fia’s brother Inuk wrestles more combatively with issues of sexuality and national identity to show how deeply ingrained traditions die hard.

Later in the novel, the character of Ivik is more assertive in volleying back society’s confusion so as not to limit how he’s defined: “I was an enigma to my friends. They didn’t know which box to put me in. When they began to question me, I began to question them. I began to question why they called me into question. My parents, siblings and family began to be uncertain about me. They were uncertain about who I was. Since my family were uncertain about me, I began to be uncertain about myself. I was uncertain about why they were uncertain about me.” I enjoy how this string of logic takes on a musical quality in its repetition of words. But it’s also really powerful in how it shows the inner dialogue which takes place in response to being made to feel like a social outcast or oddity. I found it especially striking how Korneliussen captures Ivik’s emotional confusion in how physical barriers arise from sexual contact.

When the novel arrives at the final perspective of Sara it’s striking how the story takes on a much more hopeful tone. Throughout “Crimson” the characters must naturally stumble through a lot of messy drunkenness and unwieldy sexual encounters to gain insight into their own motivations. Sara discovers profundity and solace in the pleasure of really knowing oneself: “Being alone isn’t all bad. It’s enough that somebody loves you and you love somebody. If you love yourself, you’re not lonely when you’re alone.” Korneliussen is a welcome new voice in global fiction not because of the specifics of her geography, but because she captures so perceptively and vividly the expansive heart of a new generation.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Painter to the King Amy Sackville.jpg

One of my highlights of visiting Madrid for the first time was being able to go to the Museo del Prado and see Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas in person. This is a painting I’d studied in art history at university and appreciated for its technique, but there’s something so arresting about seeing it in person with its odd composition and the confrontational stares from several figures depicted. So I was enticed to read Amy Sackville’s most recent novel because it portrays the life of Velázquez in his appointment to the royal court of King Philip IV of Spain. I wasn’t prepared for what a unique take the author gives on the historical novel which doesn’t simply tell the story the painter, the king and people associated with his court, but Sackville inserts her own voice and invites the reader to participate as well. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Duncker’s “Sophie and the Sybil” which depicts George Eliot’s tangled relationships as well as Duncker’s own feelings towards Eliot. In “Painter to the King” we’re led through Velázquez’s major paintings and shown the scenes and social milieu they sprung out of. But we’re also drawn to focus on certain aspects of the paintings (as pictorial details are reproduced throughout the text) and paintings which have been lost but which we know about through historical references. Sackville queries the gaps in history and the way the figures involved wanted their images and time period to be remembered. It forms such an original take on the past which invites the reader to participate in looking at its many layers as well as enjoying the experience of it in the story.

Philip IV of Spain is a fascinating figure as he was married to a French princess at the age of ten and made king of Spain and Portugal at the age of fifteen. That’s quite a responsibility for such a young boy! Of course, throughout his life he was bred and trained to uphold the Spanish Empire and pressured to secure his lineage with a son. Sackville refers to the urgency he feels to produce a healthy son throughout the novel and as the story progresses it becomes evident this isn’t a novel so much about Velázquez, but about this boy trapped in an impossibly high pressure situation. The painter faithfully records the toll Philip’s royal position takes on him with wrinkles and shadows around his eyes. I felt a growing sympathy for him as Philip frequently takes refuge in the quiet periods he spends with Velázquez while being painted. Sackville also compelling describes the way Philip struggles with his duties, urges, faith and fidelity. At the same time there is a tension between the professional and personal relationship Philip and Velázquez share. But Philip emerges as the most dynamic and fully rounded character in the novel.

 Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Many other fascinating figures emerge as Sackville records this period of the royal court in Spain. There’s a red haired actress who sacrifices her promising career to be Philip’s long term mistress and she bears him the healthy son he always longed for but this boy must be classified as illegitimate. There’s also Sor Maria or Mary of Jesus of Ágreda who was a visionary abbess and spiritual writer that Philip takes as a trusted advisor and he corresponds with her throughout his life. So I felt somewhat disappointed that Sackville dipped into the stories of figures like this, but didn’t develop them further. I appreciated that doing so would have taken over the narrative and strayed from the central focus of the novel. I felt the author’s primary intent with this story is summed up in this quote where she’s writing about Velázquez’s process of painting: “To describe a thing, you describe the space around it; until you encounter the brim, the fringe, the outline, where the thing’s edges meet the world you find it in.” But it sometimes detracted from the pleasure of the novel that Sackville so determinedly portrays the outlines of life at court and glimpses of its most intriguing figures without going further into the heart of their stories.

However, overall I really enjoyed and appreciated how much more Sackville adds to the experience of a historical novel. It was fascinating to consider how this accumulation of paintings of the king must have made Philip reflective in a way not many other people could be in the 1600s because most wouldn’t have a visual record of their lives. It’s interesting to consider how this compares to our experience today since so many people now do have free access to photography which casually records our images over the years. Just as Philip must consider the way Velázquez has chosen to interpret his reign, we consider the way we’ve selected and catalogued out images to give a certain slant to our lives. Though I sometimes felt ambiguous about the authorial intrusion of the narrative, it felt poignant in how Sackville expresses how looking at paintings is a desire for a shared experience. There’s a tragedy in never really knowing how personal experience syncs with or differs from the figures and mood captured in paint. It’s a complex way of engaging with the past and I admire how Sackville gives so many unique ways of seeing this beguiling period of history.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmy Sackville
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