I’ve lived in London for almost twenty years now. It’s been disturbing and fascinating for me as an immigrant to Britain from America to have witnessed the politically and socially disastrous onset of Brexit last year. Inextricably linked to this public vote was the issue of immigration and no matter who claims this was only about job protection it was really about race, class, language and power. Conservative white colleagues in my office vociferously complained about how we need to stop the flood of immigrants who steal British jobs and drain the benefits system. Amidst my angry arguments with them it felt pertinent to point out that I’m an immigrant as well. I first came to this country on a temporary work visa and took a job which could easily have been filled by a British native before I eventually became a citizen. I also took a British boyfriend who was dating a girl at the time we met. So, watch out people of Britain! I’m taking your jobs and your men! But, of course, my colleagues don’t include me as a threat in their paranoid critique because I’m white, educated, often dress in bland jeans/t-shirts and speak English as a first language (albeit softly with amusing American inflections). Their hatred was really directed at the brown men who deliver their mail and the women in burkas pushing prams in their London neighbourhoods. So rather than listen anymore to the feckless ranting of my colleagues I’d much rather listen to the inspiring range of diverse voices contained in the anthology “The Good Immigrant.”

In the same way that the “Black Lives Matter” campaign reinforces a message that should be perfectly obvious, this anthology makes a simple statement that unfortunately needs to be announced in bold lettering in order to be understood. These essays include a multitude of differing views, opinions, ideas and stories which are consistently engaging because they are written with such personal feeling. The authors include a range of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) British individuals: artists, comedians, writers, academics, professionals and journalists whose voices speak powerfully about the experience of being seen as “other” or “foreign” within their own country. They include heartrending testimonies about the way people who are not white are regularly marginalized and under-represented within British society. Speaking specifically about depictions of Chinese people Wei Ming Kam observes “We're not seen as human, because we never get to be complex individuals. Our defining characteristic is generally our foreignness.” These essays range from lightly humorous recollections to provocative thoughts to shocking accounts of racial stigma and abuse. It’s so refreshing reading these huge ranging points of view that I found the experience of reading this anthology utterly absorbing.

Several of the essays are written by actors whose combined testimony makes an interesting reflection on the way their profession of performing oftentimes intersects with the compulsion to feel one must perform within racial expectations. These include Riz Ahmed pointing out the extraordinary irony of being rigorously searched at airports when travelling for auditions or acting jobs whilst having just famously portrayed a wrongly incarcerated man in the film The Road to Guantanamo. He also eloquently reflects on the levels of internalized identity conflict which results from such continuous “random” searches and type casting. Actor Daniel York Loh beautifully reflects on his East Asian wrestling role model who was in actuality something very different from what he expected and how his recollections have been muddled by the mechanics of memory. Actress Miss L states how after years and years of acting training she’s doled out the role of a wife of a terrorist and how “being told you can only play one role because of how you look is quite the rap across the jazz hands.” Actor Himesh Patel gives another viewpoint where he explains how he never felt self conscious about being racially different in the small English village he grew up in, but unexpectedly became more uncomfortably aware of it when moving to London. These actors consistently point out how often the non-white roles available to them tragically lack any sort of nuance and it leads a self-confessed fan of television and films like Bim Adewunmi to reasonably complain in her essay that “I like to see myself in the surrounding culture.” So a show like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air.

It’s interesting to think about these perspectives on available acting roles in relation to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s contemplation of how black identity can be partly filtered through characters on television and how dangerous it is to subscribe to the conformist values which Bill Cosby declared in an infamous speech. As an alternative, Eddo-Lodge urges black individuals to “make your own version of blackness in any way you can – trying on all the different versions, altering them until they fit.” A self consciousness about the way to be black in a predominantly white society is also reflected in several other essays including Varaidzo’s exceptional 'A Guide to Being Black' where she notes how someone might be unaware of one's own racial heritage when others expect you to be an expert on it and how race is both “a performance and a permanence.” Salena Godden compellingly thinks through the social connotations of skin shade and Coco Khan recounts her experience of becoming sexually active. After a white lover points out to her that she is his first Asian she finds that when she meets a new lover she frets “does this person actually want me or am I a brown-shaped thing that will do?”

Other essays fascinatingly contemplate the way language and names are entwined with racial identity. Some words are incorrectly appropriated into the British lexicon as noted in Nikesh Shukla essay 'Namaste' where he describes the frustrating experience of being a tired father with casually racist noisy neighbours. Chimene Suleyman considers the ramifications of feeling compelled to change one's name to make it easier for people to pronounce/remember. Vera Chok dissects the way race labels are used differently while also pointing out stereotypes about the perceived sexual submission/compliance of Chinese women. Inua Ellams ingeniously structures his survey of what men talk about in barber shops within different African countries to illuminate and challenge blanket notions of what it is to be African and a black man. Amidst Kieran Yates’ very articulate contemplation on her dual national identity she notes “Even when you get the language, unless you shed your accent, you're continually reminded of your difference.” While she reflects on the pain of not entirely fitting within either her Punjabi or British culture, I found it very enlightening and moving how she also describes the sometimes advantageous position of being an outsider: “that I have a stake in two worlds is what makes me able to love and respect them and absorb the details that simultaneously empower and disempower me.” There's pain in this “plurality of strangeness” but there's wisdom and strength in it too because “Being aware of inadequacies or seeing your own strangeness through different eyes, gives us a wholeness that allows us to see the world with humour, nuance, and complexity.”

This anthology does so much more than politicians’ empty platitudes about wanting an inclusive society. It reflects the experience and complicated sensation of being made to feel like an outsider in your own neighbourhood. It informs and suggests strategies for keeping the conversation going - especially Darren Chetty's forceful essay about including books with racial diversity in schools. It articulates the frustration that so many people must have felt, but never had the chance to express. It annihilates the fantastical notion of idiots who want to “take back Britain” that there could be or ever has been a Britain that isn’t made of individuals with many different skin colours, cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Sabrina Mahfouz astutely observes “The rhetoric around the term 'British' insidiously attempts to equate it with a pre-multicultural England.” This anthology is a book that enriches our understanding of what Britain is. Personally, I would have liked to read one or two more essays about the unique experience of being a queer BAME individual. Other than some references and Musa Okwonga's mention of his bisexuality there isn't much discussion of sexuality in this book. Of course, that's not the focus but I think there's a unique range of experiences there to explore. For recent examples of this writing I’d direct you to new publications like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story ‘The Other Man’ in his collection “The Refugees” or “No One Can Pronounce My Name” by Rakesh Satyal or Olumide Popoola’s exciting forthcoming novel “When We Speak of Nothing.” Otherwise, I’d highly recommend reading “The Good Immigrant” for its rich range of humour, intelligence, heart and enlightening perspectives. It also makes a wonderful companion to the anthology “An Unreliable Guide to London” which gives a multi-layered diverse picture of the capital.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNikesh Shukla
8 CommentsPost a comment

It feels fortuitous that I picked a remote location to read Megan Hunter's extraordinary debut novel “The End We Start From.” Over the long Easter weekend I stayed at the Living Architecture property A House for Essex designed by Grayson Perry. This is a remote building filled with art and surrounded by fields of yellow rapeseed plants alongside the coast; it’d make an ideal spot to be holed up in if an apocalypse were ever to happen like it does in Hunter’s book. In this brief powerful novel London is flooded at the same time its narrator gives birth to her first child. She and her husband flee to stay with his parents on higher ground, but society quickly unravels in a nightmarish way. However, for the narrator life has just begun as she discovers the reality of motherhood caring for her baby son named Z. The novel gives an extraordinary sense of the way life alters both internally and externally as she struggles to survive.

The characters in this novel are known only by their initials which adds to the creepy sense of anonymity – as if without the language and structure of society people become nothing but faceless groups to be shepherded into temporary camps. Not only do these refugees from the devastated capital become faceless to the government, but friends, family and lovers become estranged and lose each other. The initials also give a sense of how insulated the narrator’s life becomes as her whole world becomes about this child while the civilization around her swiftly collapses. People go missing. Food becomes scarce. Rogue groups seek out isolated havens. Her life is concentrated solely on keeping her new son alive and nurturing him through this crisis.

Watch my vlog staying at A House for Essex & reading this novel.

This is a short book and tumultuous changes taking place over a long period of time are conveyed in brief passages. It’s commendable the way Hunter uses language so sparely with just enough detail to spark the reader’s imagination; a few lines are all it takes to convey a horribly tense dynamic surrounding the central character and her baby. The prose are so stripped down they almost turn poetic. Passages about the world’s end taken from different religious texts are interspersed throughout the narrative. This gives a curious sense of timelessness to the catastrophic proceedings and the feeling of cyclical change. It conveys a sense how the world is always coming to the end, but it’s also rejuvenated through change and new life.

Apocalyptic stories are common fodder for fiction as a way of exploring the unease we feel about the future of our society. Emily St. John Mandel did this so powerfully in her novel “Station Eleven” which (among other things) contemplates the way culture might morph and persist even after a devastating global illness. In “The End We Start From” Hunter flips a refugee crisis on its head so it’s the citizens of a wealthy world city that must flee for the hills seeking shelter. But it doesn’t do this in a polemical way. Rather it strips life down to philosophically enquire what makes us who we are when the people in our lives and place we live in are swept away. At one point she remarks how “Home is another word that has lost itself. I try to make it into something, to wrap its sounds around a shape. All I get is the opening of my mouth and its closing, the way my lips press together at the end. Home.” The story asks us to consider how resilient we would be if forced into an uncertain peripatetic life, but also how strong our sense of self is when transitioning between being a wife and mother, a husband and father or being a citizen and nomad. These are weighty and pertinent things to think about with such uncertain times ahead for all of us.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMegan Hunter
3 CommentsPost a comment
IMG_7592.JPG

What compels us to read so much? What relationship is formed between the author and reader in the process? How does our understanding of a book change over the course of our lives? I think there are moments in every committed reader's life when they find themselves reflecting upon these and similar questions – caught as we are in the strange alchemy of this intensely private and oftentimes lonely activity which connects us to the rest of humanity. Yiyun Li intelligently and movingly addresses these concerns and many more through recollections about her life and experience as a reader and writer. Probably not since reading Annie Dillard or Antoine de Saint-Exupery have I encountered memoirist essays that speak so profoundly about the experience of living. The title of this book is taken from a line in Katherine Mansfield's notebooks. Li takes this concept of the way written language straddles time and particular existence to reflect on a life in literature.

I took my time reading these essays over a couple of months, dipping in and out, copying lines and spending a lot of time thinking about their meaning. Li packs a lot into each sentence with concepts that frequently comfort, intrigue or provoke. In an afterward to one essay she explains how long she took over writing the book. It shows in the density of the writing that she spent a lot of time fretting over and reworking her ideas. She seems torn about whether she's getting it right or if writing about herself should even be allowed: “I am not an autobiographical writer – one cannot be without a solid and explicable self – and read all autobiographical writers with the same curiosity. What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject?” This says a lot about the intensity of her process and the emotionally tumultuous period in which she wrote this book. References are occasionally made to two different times she spent in a hospital and her suicide attempt.

Reading is her anchor and the thing which makes her feel what she most desires which is to be alone and invisible: “If aloneness is inevitable, I want to believe that aloneness is what I have desired because it is happiness itself.” She suggests in this line that what she must believe (without wanting to) is that the human instinct is to connect to others. Reading is the method which provides such contact that takes her out of the immediacy of time and removes others from witnessing her. Contact with others causes intense self-consciousness: “The indifference of strangers is not far from that of characters, yet the latter do not make one feel exposed.” Although writing provides a more comfortable one step of removal from people she also feels that “to write betrays one's instinct to curl up and hide.” But the process is a necessary one because it assuages her from the sense that existence is pointless: “Often I think that if writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one's private language.”

The Portrait of Marguerite van Mons by Theo van Rysselberghe on the cover of Li’s paperback edition of Bowen’s The Death of the Heart

The Portrait of Marguerite van Mons by Theo van Rysselberghe on the cover of Li’s paperback edition of Bowen’s The Death of the Heart

In these essays Li considers the writing and interactions between authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, John McGahern, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Turgenev, William Trevor and Virginia Woolf. The essays focus upon subjects such as relationships in literature (between reader/writer, writer/writer, teacher/prodigy), the role of melodrama in our lives and literature, writing exclusively in a second language, creating characters in fiction and the way we mentally turn real people into characters and the challenges of the writing process. She recounts her state as a Chinese immigrant to America, her conviction to become a writer over her profession as a scientist, disturbing/poignant encounters with readers of her own writing and her connections with other writers. Li is beautifully adept at teasing out contradictions between her instincts and logic. For instance, she believes that “A writer and a reader should never be allowed to meet. They live in different time frames. When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer.” So she fully realizes the irony in successfully seeking out a friendship with William Trevor whose writing she worships.

“Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” inspires that special kind of feeling of being so personal to its author, yet it feels like it was written especially for you. A connection which is more meaningful than ever meeting in person is that contact through the page. Yiyun Li beautifully articulates that special kind of intimacy. It's a book I know I'll permanently keep on a nearby shelf to return to - like a friend I don’t necessarily want frequent contact with but who I want to know is near beside me.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYiyun Li
2 CommentsPost a comment
FeverDream.jpg

This gripping novel made me immediately flip back to the beginning to search for details I might have missed. I also felt compelled to search for other people’s opinions online to try to figure out what happened. “Fever Dream” is an incredibly creepy and mesmerising story about a woman named Amanda confined in a rural hospital having a tense conversation with her neighbour’s son David. She discusses with him her arrival at a holiday home with her daughter Nina (her husband is due to arrive later) and events involving David’s mother Carla. At first I found this to be quite a disorientating story because it’s largely composed of dialogue taking place in two distinct time periods, but once I had a good handle on the characters I felt completely wrapped in the mystery. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening, but I knew a lot was at stake as David continuously prompts Amanda to skip over parts of the story that are “not important.” Time is limited because he tells Amanda that her life is drawing to a close.

Reading “Fever Dream” felt like the experience of watching a Guillermo del Toro film where reality is slightly distorted as something very sinister is happening just beneath the surface of all the events taking place. We’re in that blurry territory that borders the fantastical and the psychologically disturbed. In this way, the novel accurately recreates the experience of being in a feverish state of mind. There are horses that go missing, a boy that turns into a monster, dead ducks, a disease that’s “like worms” and a poison that permeates the environment. Because of Amanda’s hazy sense of consciousness and uncertain memory, this story has an infectious hallucinatory effect that left me highly unsettled and grasping for understanding.

One of the prevailing themes of the novel is the degree to which we’re connected to the people we love the most. Amanda frequently expresses concern throughout the story that she wants to keep her daughter Nina within “rescue distance,” which is another way of saying within the bounds of her protective reach. She envisions it like an invisible rope connecting them and if Nina roams too far away this virtual rope will snap. This accurately reflects the way the people we love inhabit our consciousness – something which causes us happiness but also anxiety because we fear for their safety. In her debilitated state in the hospital, Amanda repeatedly expresses concern for the whereabouts of Nina. David assures her that this isn’t important, but of course for Amanda her daughter’s safety is the most important thing. The way in which children are individuals we alternately fear and fear for reminded me of the similarly gothic novel “The Children’s Home” by Charles Lambert. It could be that David is reminding Amanda that in the end we are quintessentially alone or he could be a sinister force compelling Amanda to break her connection with the person she cares for the most.

The tension over whether Amanda should trust David or his mother Carla is so interesting. Carla is mistrustful of her son, yet she seems to be the one preventing Amanda from leaving this uneasy environment when she becomes alarmed. Schweblin drops in tantalizing imagery such as the way Carla wears a gold bikini or the ominous dampness which covers Nina’s clothes which Amanda mistakenly assumes is dew from the grass. These are details which feel intensely vivid, yet their meaning is uncertain. The story needles the reader’s sub-conscious playing upon our unexpressed fears and anxieties in a way that simulates how we are helpless participants within a nightmare. For such a short novel “Fever Dream” makes an incredibly compelling and satisfying puzzle.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment

There's something really compelling and endearing about the prolific maverick Argentinian writer César Aira. He takes an idea and runs with it pulling the reader through madcap, existential or surreal adventures. Previously, I've only read his novel “The Seamstress and the Wind” but I can tell likes to take his characters on trips: both physical journeys and through altered psychological states that warp reality. “The Little Buddhist Monk” (first published in 2005 under the title “El Pequeño Monje Budista”) is about a diminutive monk who feels his life was meant for something much larger than the circumscribed existence in his native Korea. French couple Napoleon and Jacqueline arrive in the country seeking artistic inspiration and cultural edification. The small man has difficulty being seen, but once they notice him he offers to take them to an out of the way monastery. What at first appears like a realistic cross-cultural experience gradually morphs into something much more strange and abstract. In this way, Aira challenges and surprises while making uncommon connections.

The reader first becomes attuned to something off-kilter about Aira’s landscape when the monk and French couple travel to the monastery. Individuals periodically pull the emergency brake on the train and exit onto stations which look slightly off to Napoleon and Jacqueline. The monk confides to them that these people have been enchanted by witches that inhabit the surrounding environment and find it fun to prank travellers into stopping at stations which don’t really exist. This concept of people being controlled by unknown forces repeats in later revelations about the monk’s state of being. It prompts questions about the degree of liberty people are capable of possessing. We often dream of living beyond the bounds of the lives we’re born into, but few people are actually able to break out of the paths created through our particular circumstances and culture. It also asks the degree of difference between one place and another in the modern world: “globalisation, which nowadays had converted all civilisations into one.” The French couple travel to experience some “authentic” kind of other, yet find themselves in a reality that has merely been formatted for their consumption.

Another dominant concept of the novel is about the question of perspective. Napoleon is a photographer who takes 360 degree photos as a way of trying to capture the totality of a particular time and place. The mischievous monks at the monastery dart in and out of the picture frame because they find it funny, but their image isn’t captured due to the long exposure. So does Napoleon’s photo fully capture the reality of this place? Aira questions the validity of realism in artwork stating “The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.” It could be that through his absurdist storytelling, the author more fully engages with our psychological reality rather than novels that render a landscape within nature’s laws. One of the final concepts this novel poses is a television program which the monk is desperate to watch as it claims to definitively map female genitalia. This is a humorous joke about some men’s inability to sexually satisfy women because they can’t locate the pleasure spot, but it also says something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down.

It’s challenging to get the reader to truly care about the journey of the characters in such cerebral writing. But I feel Aira shows real empathy for his characters’ situations and takes their struggles seriously even while driving them through the funhouse of his creation. There’s tension in the French couple’s relationship when Jacqueline sees no place for herself in Napoleon’s all-encompassing photographs. She finds that “In real life there were no enchanted princesses, only hopes extinguished by routine, by prosaic and gradual deaths.” Their many journeys abroad do little to bring the pair emotionally closer together. I was even more compelled by the monk’s dilemma who seeks to become larger than the small existence he’s been programmed to live.

Aira is such a curious writer, but I think his novels only manage to be so compelling because they are so brief. There are now over eighty of them! His style of leaping from idea to idea around a central story concept wouldn’t be sustained very well in a larger fictional work. For instance, I don’t think he could pull off a novel as long as Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsolled” or "The Buried Giant" which follow dream-like structures. Nevertheless, Aira’s absurdist imagery peppered with philosophical musing has such a seductive appeal. It’s invigorating writing that has a curious way of lingering in the reader’s imagination.

It's so intriguing coming to “The Blood Miracles” after reading Lisa McInerney's rhapsodic debut “The Glorious Heresies” about the lives of several disparate individuals in modern day Cork. This new book is a continuation of that story, but she narrows the focus onto Ryan who we first met as a teenager with his longterm girlfriend Karine. Ryan's initial involvement working for drug dealer Dan has morphed into becoming a key player in Dan's gangster circle. But these aren't the kind of modern gangsters portrayed in The Sopranos (as Ryan quite clearly states at one point.) I don't think it's necessary to have read “The Glorious Heresies” before reading this new book as Ryan's past and current situation are quite clearly explained at the beginning. However, it's interesting for me having first read McInerney's writing in her short story 'Berghain' from the anthology “The Long Gaze Back.” The style of this new novel more closely resembles that initial story. It captures the heady atmosphere of a young group of working class Irish men and women struggling to find their place in an economically-strained society. McInerney is particularly adept at portraying this conflict in her hero Ryan who finds himself at a crisis point in this novel without any strong role models or institutional support to guide him.

Ryan is just turning twenty-one and considering important decisions about which direction his life will take. His passion and talent is for making music, but dealing drugs is so lucrative it's hard to resist. Plus he's so ensconced in Dan's circle that it's difficult to safely get out, especially now that Dan is planning on channeling a new form of ecstasy or “yokes” from Italy which will make them all big players in the underworld. Ryan relationship with Karine has also turned very rocky, especially after he becomes enamoured with a charismatic new girl named Natalie. Things start to go badly wrong and Ryan finds himself caught between warring gangs and girlfriends.

Amidst his journey through these conflicts Ryan continuously thinks about his lost mother and persists in keeping an internal dialogue with her which is marked in italics. This is rendered in a way which is deeply poignant: “I was hungry but the hunger felt right. I needed to miss you more than I needed to eat.” Her absence is intensely felt as he's desperately in need of some guidance. Although he knows what he wants to do in life he finds himself drawn into self-destructive behaviour: “It does not escape his notice that he was set for something other than this, that his mother had laid such foundations. Instead of playing and composing on piano Ryan does it on a monitor; instead of practicing he is out on the lash.” He finds himself pulled deeper into self-destructive patterns of behaviour and dangerous circles which are increasingly difficult to extricate himself from.

Although Ryan's internal struggle is movingly rendered, the dialogue-heavy scenes where he bounces between different factions of the gangs and the women he's involved with become a bit strained. The arguments he has with these different parties are realistic, but they start to feel too circular. The stakes increase with a new stream of pills coming from Italy and there's a high level of paranoia within Ryan's gangster circle when things start to go wrong. But the dramatic urgency of this crisis where Ryan fears for his life begins to wane when things don't change or progress fast enough. Something about the thrust of the story feels lost when it's stretched out so far – whereas I think it would have kept its tension if it were just one part of a multi-threaded panoramic view of Cork-life as rendered in “The Glorious Heresies.”  However, excitement really builds when "The Blood Miracles" reaches its climax.

Ryan is a compelling character filled with good-hearted flaws who often makes bad decisions. He's at his most endearing when his best intentions lead to nothing so you can feel and relate to the frustration of his struggle: “You talk enough and soon enough none of it matters; it’s all just words, pauses, silence-and-sound.” As a big fan of “The Glorious Heresies” it's also interesting to see how central characters from the first novel such as Ryan's father Tony, gangster boss Jimmy and Maureen re-enter the story. It'll be fascinating to see how McInerney develops the characters and story further in the planned third novel in this trilogy.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLisa McInerney
2 CommentsPost a comment

Boys face particular challenges growing up. There’s often a weight of expectation to conform to certain gender stereotypes: to be strong, aggressive and withhold emotion. As adults we can more easily see how hollow this armour is, but when we’re young it’s difficult not to modify your personality trying to fit in with this brotherhood of masculinity. I grew up in a rural environment where I certainly felt this pressure. Men I knew hunted and made jokes while carving and gutting the corpses of deer they shot. They fished for the sport of it and released their living catch to swim frantically away, trailing a line of blood behind them in the water. Boys chased and sexually teased girls and laughed at them when they cried. I was ordered to chop wood outside for our fireplace while my sister had to stay inside to help with the housework. Whenever I questioned these gender roles I was laughed at or ignored. But most of the time I didn’t see the stark gender divisions in my community because it was all I ever knew.

I was deeply moved reading Daniel Magariel debut novel “One of the Boys” by the way he presents an intense domestic situation of a boy living with his older brother and domineering father. He learns about what it means to join in with this cult of masculinity: its benefits and its pitfalls. There’s an exquisitely played out tension between his desire for validation from the men in his life and his desire to supersede or reject them. He and his brother choose to live with his mother over his father because “our loyalty had always been to our dad. He was stronger. We feared him. He needed us. His approval always meant so much more than hers – it filled me up.” The way in which they creatively expunge their mother from their lives is truly horrifying. His father continues to act badly becoming a habitual drug user, bullying people who oppose him and physically abusing his boys. What’s especially tragic about this is how the boy narrator learns that “My father would get away with this for a lifetime – the arrogance, the self-regard, the lack of consequences.” Boys see how abominably and brashly men can act without being taken to task for it and the result is that many of those boys grow into men who act the same.

What’s so impressive about Magariel’s style of writing is the crisp way he presents these ideas about gender in short declarative sentences that cut right to the heart of the boy’s experience and emotions. For example, after long periods of abuse from his father he paradoxically finds that “I didn’t want his kindness. His cruelty was less confusing.” With deft, impactful prose the author conveys complex ideas about the way this boy’s specific upbringing warps his conception about his identity, life and the way men should behave. This is also a short book, but the depth of this dramatic story of addiction, betrayal and poverty runs deep. It makes an interesting contrast to Edouard Louis’ recently translated novel “The End of Eddy” which presents a different portrait of how boys are inducted into typical masculine behaviour – especially when growing up in a working class community. It also reminds me of Justin Torres’ powerful novel about brotherhood “We the Animals” and interestingly Torres has a blurb on the book calling it “a captivating portrait of a wayward father.” With its moving story, this novel delicately prompts readers to consider how gender played a role in their own childhood and, for that reason, I think it will continue to resonate with me for a long time.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDaniel Magariel

I was drawn to reading this debut short story collection by the beauty of its deep-blue, silver-illustrated cover and the strength of blurbs from excellent cutting-edge writers Helen Oyeyemi and Sjon. These imaginative stories do feel in some fundamental way to be aligned with these authors because of the way they similarly bend reality to give new insight into society, language and our perceptions of the past. The subjects of Tharoor's stories are far-ranging from a town awaiting its imminent destruction by an invading army to a conqueror cursed with impotence to a Russian ship hedged in by icebergs. They span great swaths of time from soldiers conversing in a heated battle in 190 BC to diplomats from dying nations marooned on a luxury spaceship in a dystopian future. Yet, there is a curious unity between these invigorating and fascinating tales which ponder the evolution of our civilization by focusing on migration, storytelling and what's left in and selected out of recorded history: “Humanity, after all, was nothing but a library.”

Several stories consider the way in which different cultures intermingle by appropriating, borrowing, learning and stealing from each other. In some voyages the explorers set out to discover and plunder, but instead find their dreams of conquest stymied by violent confrontations with the unknown. The erratic and far-reaching story ‘Letters Home’ considers many kinds of these journeys all over the world which are cut short. There's a sense of possible touchstones between civilizations which are lost through accidental blunders and chance. The story 'The Astrolabe' features a captain who has lost his ship and crew before washing on the shore of a strange island. What could have been a tale like 'The Tempest' or Robinson Crusoe hands its story over to the island's native population who consider the captain's “advancements” and dramatically reject him. Other stories consider the cross-flow of cultures in more contemporary settings such as 'Cultural Property' where a student contemplates reclaiming an artefact found on a university campus or 'The Loss of Muzaffar' where a dazzlingly talented immigrant chef caters to a wealthy NYC family against the backdrop of 9/11.

Two compelling stories show a more academic meeting point between one person and another from dramatically different social and economic groups to consider issues of cultural appropriation. In the title story ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ an elderly woman's voice is recorded by ethnographers as she is the last person to speak her native language. She considers how “Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” Also, the story gives a deeply fascinating perspective on the social meaning of words and language's evolution. It incorporates the way folklore is imbued with personal and political stories. The story ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’ depicts a Skype conversation between a magazine photographer and a miner discussing how the meaning his life and family appear in photographs that were taken. There is some fundamental break happening in the translation between the subject, the photograph and the viewer which creates a “chronic voyeuristic relation” as described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay 'On Photography'. This conversation is further complicated by the translator who is necessary for the photographer to speak to his subject.

Iskandar in battle

Iskandar in battle

One of the most sustained sections of the book features a series of short retellings of legends from Arabic literature that depict Alexander the Great or Iskandar (as Muslim hero). Here the leader's insatiable lust for power and control over the world sees him rampage through different nations and even journey to the bottom of the ocean to claim it for his own. This conqueror's perspective is the opposite of the view we're given in 'Tale of the Teahouse' where we feel the increasing alarm of a city about to be invaded. Tharoor has a flair for depicting clashes for power and dominance that is both dramatic and meditative. His writing reminds me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories – not so much in style, but the way they contemplate the philosophical meaning of how people throughout history have flung themselves out into the great unknown to reshape civilization and their understanding of themselves. “Swimmer Among the Stars” is a deeply thoughtful book as well as being a delight to read for its imaginative leaps in storytelling.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKanishk Tharoor