MyPast.jpg

For some reason I’ve been drawn to reading a number of memoirs recently. I’m not sure if this is just a coincidence or if it’s because I’m especially drawn to real stories of lives so different from my own. Certainly (on the surface) Zeba Talkhani’s history is very distant from my own upbringing and path in life. She grew up as a Muslim girl of Indian descent in Saudi Arabia before moving to study in India, Germany and England. Yet I came to feel such a strong sense of kinship with her over the course of reading her powerful and inspiring memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country”. I connected strongly to her sensibility in a number of ways from a small detail like her love for the wonderful film ‘Violette’ or larger issues such as how physical distance from our homelands has allowed us a broader perspective on our upbringing and cultures. But, aside from the ways I personally connected to this book, I felt an overall admiration and respect for the development of her identity as a proud feminist, Muslim and intellectual.

Talkhani describes her childhood in Jeddah and the expectations placed upon her there as a girl. From an early age she was sensitive to the fact men and women were treated differently. She naturally questioned this and other aspects of the predominantly patriarchal society but “My questioning was considered a kind of lewdness.” However, she was unwilling to fully cede to the dictation of this social order and continued to query the many written and unwritten rules governing how women were meant to conduct themselves. Of course, it’d be a simplification to present Saudi Arabia only as a place where there is an issue with sexism. Crucially, Talkhani highlights the way in which this region is in some ways more progressive in its attitudes towards women. She identifies how “The problem wasn’t so much my culture, but the universal reverence we placed on men of faith, and the reputation of men in general.” What she identifies are the power structures that are in place which reinforce the patriarchy and how this manifests in different ways throughout the world regardless of the nation or predominant religion. That’s not to excuse the cases of egregious sexism she highlights in particular places, but to point out that they spring out of common issues to do with male dominated societies.  

It’s really moving the way Talkhani charts how she grows and learns as an individual. A crucial issue she struggled with in her adolescence and adult life is with hair loss. This caused many more issues for her as a young woman than it would for men – especially because of the emphasis her family and community placed upon marriage and finding a suitable husband. Her condition challenged her sense of self-worth when being judged by those around her but it’s heartening to read how she developed an inner-resolve and certainty of self: “Investing in my sense of self and divorcing it from the perceptions of others not only kept me afloat as a teenager but it protected me from making life-altering choices from a place of insecurity. I knew my value and I wasn’t going to waste my precious time enabling fragile, toxic masculinity.” This is such an inspiring message for anyone who is vulnerable to letting such judgements defeat them.

It’s interesting how throughout her life Talkhani has been part of a minority whether it was living with her Indian heritage in Saudi Arabia, as a Muslim in India and as both these things in Europe. While this naturally led her to feeling ostracised at times it also allowed her to achieve a unique perspective on the assumptions and ideologies which guided the different societies she lived in. It’s given her an insight into the way in which societies differently discriminate against people based upon their gender, faith, race or nationality. This occurs in both subtle and overt ways whether it’s meeting potential suitors or being part of a predominantly white book group, but are all related to how different groups can have parochial views about those who are different. What’s truly admirable is the way Talkhani doesn’t allow the judgement of others affect her personally because “Nothing was personal, it was just how the patriarchy worked.” She comes to this conclusion partly by drawing upon many different writers and philosophers from Sylvia Plath to Simone de Beauvoir to better inform and frame her understanding of the world. After a long challenging journey she understands that it’s only her opinion of herself that matters. She articulates this beautifully in the later parts of the book as well as sympathetically describing issues of insecurity she still wrestles with.

One of the most striking points of connection I felt with the author was when she conveys in her recollections how she’d repeatedly hide her vulnerability. At a few different points in her life she describes suppressing tears or closing down rather than expressing sadness or anger to those around her (even if people close to her recognize she’s in pain and are trying to comfort her.) It’s a pernicious sort of defence mechanism whereby feelings are internalized and it ironically blocks us off from the support of people who love us when we need them the most. Talkhani movingly describes how she learns to open up and express herself more. This adds to how this memoir demonstrates an admirable maturity. Her vital perspective contains so much wisdom and insight for anyone who has felt marginalized or been pressured to conform to the status quo.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZeba Talkhani
All the Lives We Ever Lived by Katharine Smyth.JPG

Any author who describes her passionate engagement with Virginia Woolf’s writing will instantly grab my attention. So when I saw how Katharine Smyth’s memoir “All the Lives We Ever Lived” is about her process of finding solace in reading Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” amidst the prolonged illness and death of her father I was drawn to it. My experience was further enhanced by reading this book along with fellow YouTubers Britta Bohler and Kendra Winchester. We left each other wonderfully long geeky messages about our reactions to the book and general thoughts about Virginia Woolf’s life and work. I think this is what makes this book something more than a traditional memoir – it’s a communion for anyone who has been deeply affected by Woolf’s writing. Smyth mimics the structure of “To the Lighthouse” to tell her own experiences before, during and after her father’s illness to mirror the three sections of Woolf’s novel. But she also interjects how her experiences and emotions are informed by her reading as well as meditating on the life of Woolf herself. In this way the author creatively approaches the experience of grief and mourning, the complexity of how we feel about our families and how our relationship with art and literature is often deeply personal.

Smyth powerfully captures that revelatory sensation we can sometimes get as readers where we feel so connected to the text of a book. After quoting a section from “To the Lighthouse” she describes how “I was drawn to that darkness and depth; it actually hurt to read a sentence like the one above; it was so apt, it was so beautiful; I longed for Woolf’s genius, yes, but I also longed for Mrs. Ramsay herself, for her as my mother, for her as my friend; I wanted to be her – that’s how painful I found the distance between us, the distance between me and that text. I might have swallowed the page.” This total immersion in a book is the kind of spellbinding experience which makes reading so important and unique. Smyth chronicles how certain sections of Woolf’s novel spoke to her at different times and how her feelings about the characters change over time. She shows how the experience of reading and rereading yields ever-shifting meanings as we navigate different challenges throughout our lives.

“To the Lighthouse” is a fictional memorial to Woolf’s mother where she sought to capture something of her essence in the character of Mrs Ramsay. Smyth is doing the same with her father but, rather than just neatly draw parallels between him and Mrs Ramsay, Smyth freely makes connections with other figures as well. For instance, she considers how Mr Ramsay strives for intellectual achievement and doesn’t achieve as much as he hoped for. Similarly her father encounters different personal and professional set-backs and disappointments. But Smyth freely admits that her quest to connect life and text doesn’t always work so neatly: “Such is the nature of Woolfian failure, which, despite my urge to conflate them, turns out to be a different breed from my father’s own.” In many ways her experiences and the events in Woolf’s novel are very different. But her process doesn’t feel forced; it’s more of a meandering journey through this significant time in her life while reflecting on how the universal meaning found in “To the Lighthouse” speaks to her experience.

One of the most moving and melancholy sections of the book is the last where she describes her experiences in the aftermath of her father’s death. Here she’s confronted with an absence in the same way the characters in “To the Lighthouse” live with a palpable loss in the final section. It’s an all-consuming sensation of grief and Smyth feels that Woolf’s novel wholly captures the reality of this experience. She poignantly describes the knowledge she gleaned from the book and how “To grieve is to be floored, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that, put to paper, sound painfully banal. To grieve is likewise to be plagued by questions that can only gesture towards the clarity we seek and occasionally find – these are the shorthand by which we must stumble through an experience too vast and too disorientating to express in its totality.” Woolf’s writing frequently gestures at thoughts and feelings which can’t be contained in language and Smyth equally finds that her experience can’t be summarised. Rather, she points to the way time moves onward. Lives end, homes are transformed or destroyed and memories are lost.

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

Godrevy Lighthouse - Woolf’s inspiration for the lighthouse in her novel

I’ve always felt one of the most difficult dimensions of grief is how it can valorise those who have been lost over those who are still living. Death can highlight the cruel reality of how we value certain people in our lives over others. Some people in mourning might even wish that other family members had died rather than the person that’s been lost. This dark reality is described in “To the Lighthouse” where some of the Ramsay children resent Mr Ramsay’s presence when Mrs Ramsay’s absence is so painfully felt. It’s striking how Smyth admits how she valued the love of her father over her mother because “how uneventful it is to be loved by her, a person whose very existence was so dependable that I rarely, if ever, considered it.” So it’s moving how she finds one of the most revelatory experiences of losing her father is the appreciation and connection she makes with her mother “it wasn’t until well after his death that I finally took the time to ask for her memories, to listen to her own account of grief. She surprised me”.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Smyth’s style of writing at times mimics Woolf’s own – especially when describing certain places or the presence of light. But I don’t think this is intended as imitation. It’s more a gesture at how Woolf’s sensibility has permeated the way she actually senses and interprets the world around her. It signals the way Woolf’s writing has enveloped her life as a way of understanding daily existence in the wake of this significant loss. Moreover, this reinforces how the experience of reading this memoir is akin to enjoying a conversation with a fellow Woolf lover. But, for this reason, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t read Woolf before. I don’t know how meaningful Smyth’s analysis and connection to Woolf’s text would be for anyone who hasn’t read “To the Lighthouse” – although, I’d be fascinated to hear what anyone who has read this memoir but never read Woolf thinks about “All the Lives We Ever Lived”. Regardless, I found this book very moving and it’s made me want to go back to reading Woolf – yet again!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKatharine Smyth
2 CommentsPost a comment
MindonFire.jpg

As I described in a recent post about the novel “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti”, the Wellcome Book Prize is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and I decided to explore this year's shortlist a bit more. One of the judges of this year's award is Elif Shafak and one of the shortlisted books is Ottessa Moshfegh's “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. While I'm naturally drawn to reading more fiction than nonfiction, this award encompasses both kinds of writing so it's a good chance for me to read a nonfiction book I probably wouldn't have got to otherwise. The prize centres around new books that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. Arnold Thomas Fanning's “Mind on Fire” recounts his lifelong struggle with mental health issues. He vividly describes the unwieldy chaos of manic episodes where extreme feelings and fantasies lead him to take drastic action as he careens through cities and airports shocking or outright terrifying people along the way. It's powerful how he conveys that to his manic mind he's following a logical course of action, but of course on the outside his actions are insensible. He also discloses the sensations of debilitating depression when he sometimes physically can't move and his thoughts revolve constantly around suicide. He eloquently expresses how all-consuming these states are and that “Within it there is no without it.” This illness not only wreaks havoc on his own health, but severely impinges upon the lives of his family and friends as well. Fanning powerfully documents his heartrending, difficult journey. 

One of the biggest difficulties in understanding manifestations of mania and depression is how these conditions can exist both as a mental health issue and normal human emotions. It's common for people who suffer from severe cases of this to not have it taken as a medical condition. Instead they are encouraged to buck up and smile instead of frowning as Fanning is encouraged to do by an acquaintance at one point. Fanning concedes that feelings may arise that “may be related to my bipolar disorder, but they are also common human experiences that I share with others. At times I am happy; at times I am sad and I suffer. I have good times, and not so good times. This is life, not illness.” The culmination of his journey marks a point he reaches where he's able to live a stable and productive life, but the extremity of his emotions in this period are very distinct from periods where he was unwell and unable to function. He cites the elements needed for recovery and wellness as being “therapy, medication, exercise, meaningful work (creative, as well as occupational) and a loving relationship and relationships with friends and family.” However, it's extremely difficult to achieve all of these things at once when resources such as money, health care or employment aren't available or support from friends or family isn't available. This combined with a stigma surrounding mental health issues and Fanning's own overwhelming feelings of self-defeat make his path to recovery a long and difficult one.

The book also meaningfully describes how recovery is never a state which will be absolute or constant. There are periods where he seems to have stabilised but due to changes in medication, pitfalls in his creative endeavours in playwriting and screenwriting career or his employment status and/or difficulties in his relationships or environment can send him spiralling into extreme episodes again. His story shows how the fear of relapse can add more anxiety to his state of being. Equally there can be a crushing sense of guilt surrounding the justified wariness from the people closest to him who've been negatively impacted by his breakdowns. Fanning's memoir poignantly conveys all these things and his overall journey gives a moving personal take on issues surrounding mental health. However, there were sections which lingered on details to do with his childhood, certain relationships or creative aspirations which detracted from the momentum of his tale and the impact of his message. I appreciate how he wanted to fully flesh out his life, but the focus at times strayed from the main focus of the issues involved. Nevertheless, I was touched by the honesty of his story and enlightened by the long winding journey of his struggles.

TheYears.jpg

When this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced it included French book “The Years” by Annie Ernaux. Some people scratched their heads at its inclusion – not because of its perceived quality – but because the English version was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo with their recognizable plain white covers and blue lettering. This signifies it’s a book of essays or nonfiction (as opposed to their plain blue covers with white lettering which signifies it’s a work of fiction.) But the Man Booker International Prize is only open to fiction. What gives? Well, when “The Years” first appeared in its native French language it was classified as a novel. So apparently Fitzcarraldo asked the Booker if “The Years” could be submitted as a novel even though they originally classified it as nonfiction. The Booker accepted.

This titbit of gossip doesn’t matter, but it shows how the form of “The Years” doesn’t follow any neat classification. It’s part fiction, part essay, part autobiography. Personally, I don’t care how books are categorized or which shelf they sit on in a bookstore. What is important is how this revolutionary book conveys a sense of history, consciousness and national identity like no other book I’ve read before. Narrated in a unique collective “we” voice it follows a woman and those around her from post-WWII through to the current Information Age. In doing so it provides such a unique shifting sense of time as it speaks from the perspective of people in an era of rapid change. Also it regularly focuses on jarringly precise details that come close to poetry. Somehow it achieves the startling feat of being both intimately personal while also speaking as the collective voice of a generation. It’s extraordinary, beautiful and warrants prizes no matter what label it’s published under.

One of the absolutely fascinating things “The Years” does is openly discuss its protagonist’s desire to write a book and the struggle to find the right form for doing so. Normally such self-consciousness can be distracting, but in this book it’s very poignant how it captures our desire to catalogue our experiences and lives in a way which will both memorialise them and articulate their true meaning. In fact, in the later part of the book she explicitly states the mission of why she’s written the book in this way: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” She does this by referencing a number of photographs taken throughout the protagonist’s life and it’s through the lens of these different stages of an individual life that she touches upon the sensibility of a generation. For instance, with a picture of the adolescent girl she devises “that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.”

I also felt I could strongly relate to how she discusses the process of maturity. As we age our perception of time and our own personalities change as well. As a precocious teenager she feels: “She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say to what. The life behind her is made up of disjointed images. She feels she is nowhere, 'inside' nothing except knowledge and literature.” This beautifully captures a sense of moving from childhood to a different form of engagement with society where we become preoccupied with intellectual questions rather than just looking at the world with wonder. Later there’s an especially poignant moment where she feels her life is passing her by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” This so elegantly and tragically describes a heightened sense of self-consciousness where we see our lives like a movie or the story of a novel. And we feel that it’s being captured in some essential way, but in reality our experiences only exist on the periphery of other people’s and aren’t memorialized except in fleeting memories or photographs.

It’s so interesting how personal details are often only referred to in asides. We’re fleetingly aware the protagonist gets married, works, has children and gets divorced but these aren’t the central tenants of the plot. What this book is more concerned with is capturing the mood in stages of time and how this individual’s personality is informed by and reflects the changing society. The sense of a collective voice powerfully shows the social change and predominant ideology of a certain section of French society at different times. As she moves through the decades of the 60s and 70s there’s a growing sense of feminism and social progress. Later on there’s a critique of capitalism and material obsession in the 80s and a sense of how our relationship to world events changes with the advent of the Information Age. But there is also an expression of regressive values and xenophobia which periodically emerge in views about immigrants and Arabs. In response to acts of terrorism there are some jarring statements where its expressed “That people could murder each other over religion was beyond our comprehension. It seemed to prove that these populations had remained at an earlier stage of evolution.” Ernaux describes how these pervasive feelings of prejudice spread throughout cultures at certain times, the way in which sections of society can form elitist views and subject different cultures to a form of “otherness” which divides people in the country.

TheYears2.jpg

I admire how daring the author was in self-consciously plotting out the book’s structure while also creating such an enjoyable and moving reading experience. I felt I could connect with the story so powerfully though it’s so wrapped up in a time, place and people very different from my own. The novel is beautifully framed at the beginning and end with certain images which seem plucked at random but have taken on such importance for the protagonist. There are several points in the book when she recalls the memory of a woman pissing out in the open and though it was just a fleeting observation it stays with her so vividly. I love how this reflects the way we can become obsessed with certain experiences or memories which linger in our minds – not because they have any great significance but they have been defined by our point of view. They are “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone.” This shows how it’s not the fact of events in history which resound in the collective memory but our unique perceptions of them. This is one of the many brilliant ways this novel expresses so much about personality, time and the state of being.

Now that “The Years” has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (and even though I still have three other books to read on the list) I hope Annie Ernaux wins.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Ernaux
4 CommentsPost a comment
Constellations.jpg

In this group of memoirist essays art and life intersect to create a powerfully moving portrait of cultural and personal change. It feels like this book has been a long time coming and in later essays Sinéad Gleeson refers to its gradual creation as well as obstacles which sharpened its focus. I’ve been familiar with Gleeson’s work as a journalist and a curator since she edited two stunning anthologies of Irish short fiction by women: “The Long Gaze Back” and “The Glass Shore”. So I was already familiar with her stance as a feminist and aesthete, but it wasn’t till reading this gripping and mesmerising book that I understood how her personal history partly informs her conversation with literature and the arts. The essays roughly follow the trajectory of her life from childhood to adulthood and the severely challenging medical issues she’s faced along the way. These health issues presented many heartrending and difficult obstacles, but they also gave Gleeson a unique perspective of the world around her as a woman, citizen, friend, mother and intellectual. She charts how her beliefs and feelings have evolved alongside the society around her. Certainly she’s lived through many personal challenges, but she’s never let them define her. Rather, they’ve inspired a deeper form of engagement with the world and fervent belief that “Art is about interpreting our own experience.”

I read these essays in chronological order and, while they would certainly be just as impactful read in isolation, it’s touching following her journey from a childhood as a devote Catholic visiting Lourdes hoping for a miracle cure to an adult political activist canvassing from door to door to help overturn Ireland’s abortion ban. We see different angles of her experiences with illness such as a rare disorder that caused her bones to deteriorate and later battles with cancer. She also recounts how her past illnesses created complications for her pregnancies. Her many visits to the hospital inform her ontological understanding of the body as a physical and social being. She perceives how “The pregnant body is not solely its owner’s domain. In gestating another person you become public property. The world – doctors, friendly neighbours, women in shop queues – feels entitled to an opinion on it.” Her experiences with doctors and legislation involving the body sharpen her resolve about the importance of individual autonomy and respecting what a person wants and needs.

Frida.jpg

There are also many very perceptive assessments of the work of numerous visual and performance artists as well as writers. Gleeson poignantly reflects on her personal connection to their themes and subject matter. For instance, she describes how she’s moved by the work of Frida Kahlo as someone whose body was similarly physically restricted through medical procedures. She notes how “Immobility is gasoline for the imagination: in convalescence, the mind craves open spaces, dark alleys, moon landings.” Gleeson seeks out artists who meaningfully frame their experiences in a way that broaden the political conversation and offer moments of personal solace. The essay 'The Adventure Narrative' also honours cavalier women who have set out to explore the world since this is traditionally seen as a masculine activity – as explored in Abi Andrews’ novel “The Word for Woman is Wilderness”. But, aside from noteworthy female explorers and impactful women artists, Gleeson also chronicles the experience of women who have been left out of the history books such as in the essay 'Second Mother' where she memorializes the life of a great woman who inspired her passion for reading.

I was utterly entranced by this book. It’s incredibly brave to write so openly about such personal subject matter. In writing so thoughtfully about her life Gleeson compellingly explores many larger ideas and issues, showing how they connect to a shared sense of culture and society. For all the heartache and struggle these essays cover, this is also a wonderfully optimistic and uplifting book that ought to be treasured.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
2 CommentsPost a comment
Calypso David Sedaris.jpg

It’s become something of an annual tradition that my boyfriend and I read to each other David Sedaris’ ‘Santaland Diaries’ around Christmas time. So when we got his new book “Calypso” I gradually read him the entire collection over a period of several weeks. Sedaris’ hilariously black humour is perfect for being shared publicly and read aloud – which is why Sedaris has become so successful touring and reading aloud from the memoirist essays in his bestselling books. This, in turn, has fuelled new stories in some of his most recent essays included in this book which recount how he frequently travels to entertain audiences. This can result in funny and bizarre encounters with the public. One audience member even took him back to her house where she cut out a benign tumour from David’s body. He didn’t want this procedure to take place in a hospital because the law required they dispose of the tumour and David had an unfathomable compulsion to save his tumour to feed to a disfigured wild turtle. Such freakish desires and occurrences are commonplace in Sedaris’ writing. His unique point of view and sense of humour are so bombastic while being oddly relatable to make his essays relentlessly entertaining.

However, many of these most recent essays are also tinged with a sense of grief and a growing awareness of his own mortality. Many centre around family get-togethers Sedaris orchestrates after purchasing a vacation beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina – a place he hilariously names The Sea Section. The family used to regularly take trips to a rented property in this area when David was growing up. Now he’s reinstated this tradition with the added bonus that, because he owns the property, he gets to set the rules and assign who takes each bedroom. But absent from these new family trips are his mother who died a number of years ago and sister Tiffany who committed suicide after a prolonged struggle with mental problems and substance abuse. David was estranged from her for a number of years after a sad final parting so David’s sense of grief is also mixed with feelings of guilt and frustration. It’s interesting how there’s been a shift in these essays which have become more reflective and sombre while still retaining his trademark sense of humour and appreciation for the absurd.

There’s also a political slant to some of the essays which reflect the widening gulf of conservative and liberal opinion where David’s elderly father frequently spouts Trump-inspired rhetoric. He’s an individual oddly similar to the reactionary grandfather in Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel “Unsheltered” and I wonder if this is because they represent an older contingent of US citizen particularly prone to the paranoid indignation of conservative chat shows. Anyway, adding to the dark sense of absence left by some family members in Sedaris’ essays is an awareness of how little time he has left with his father and how difficult it is for them to speak to each other. Nevertheless, encounters with his father are frequently very funny and the weird blend of personalities which include his stalwart partner Hugh and wacky sister Amy make for some absolutely hilarious scenes. It’s always a gas following David’s antics and his family experiences - all captured with his mordantly humorous slant on life.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Sedaris
WhoKilledMyFather.jpg

Édouard Louis’ voice is so passionate and urgent in how he writes about class and sexuality in relation to his personal experiences. It’s no wonder he’s gained a global audience since the English publication of his debut novel “The End of Eddy” in 2017. Now, at the age of 26, he’s published his third book and I wonder if his productivity is outpacing the power of his ideas. “Who Killed My Father” is categorized as a ‘memoir/essay’ and his inspiration for writing it is based on recent visits to his father who is only in his 50s but severely physically debilitated. He queries throughout the book what brought his father to this point, but begins with the premise that his father is condemned to “the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” Through emotionally-charged reflections in three parts which criss-cross over time Louis considers the many culprits that he deems responsible. While I agree with many of his ideas and felt moved by the sections of his life that are portrayed, I feel his arguments lack some nuance and are fuelled more by anger than complex reasoning.

Part of the difficulty with feeling fully engaged by the essayistic sections of this book is that Louis keeps falling back on generalities like “male privilege”, “ruling class” and “politics” as pernicious agents. But continuously making accusations against these amorphous concepts begins to feel like throwing stones into the dark. Louis shows how they have a personal effect in multiple ways. The author, his family and the people in his village are perniciously effected by ideas of masculinity. He names politicians in the third section and how their callous policies dismiss the struggles of the working class. His polemic is a valuable reminder to see connections in how society operates and that we shouldn’t be complacent. Yet I hope for more subtlety and proactive ideas if he’s going to make a broad pronouncement like “what we need is a revolution.”  

The author’s reminiscences are really powerful in how he considers the unseen forces at work behind his family’s actions. But an odd feature of this very short book is that references are made to scenes from “The End of Eddy”. So, even though it’s such a brief book, it can feel repetitive if you are familiar with his first novel. I felt the most striking section was the second part where Louis holds himself to account for instigating a violent fight between his big brother and father to get revenge on his mother. It’s to his credit that the author is equally ardent in excoriating his own participation in the violent relationships he quite rightly identifies in society. Louis’ guilt is palpable and probably many of us are guilty of intentionally trying to emotionally or physically hurt our parents at some point in our immature years – especially if a parent maligns us.

When I heard the author presenting his first novel I remember him remarking how the question of whether or not he loves his parents isn’t important to him. But in this new book he expresses his love for his father by seeking justice for his father’s premature flailing heath and by explicating stating his feelings. This shows a really touching emotional maturity since his first book. There’s no doubt that his voice is important - I just wish this book had more of an impact and didn’t read like just a sketch of a number of ideas. He’s such an intelligent and thoughtful writer that I hope his rigorous analytical abilities continue to progress in his future books.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdouard Louis
Kill the black one first Michael Fuller.jpg

The title of Michael Fuller’s memoir “Kill the Black One First” is a startling statement - as it’s meant to be. This was something which was shouted by the public while he was the sole black police officer in a group of white officers trying to keep the peace during the Brixton riots in 1981 (an infamous confrontation amidst racial tension between police and protesters in South London that led to many injuries and widespread destruction.) The phrase epitomises the dire dilemma Fuller found himself in for much of his life working for the Metropolitan Police where he was often subjected to racism from within the predominantly white police force on one side and suspicious anger from sections of the black community who labelled him “coconut” on the other. Fuller recounts his life from his beginning growing up in a care home in the 1960s to eventually being appointed the first black chief constable in the UK in 2004. This is the story of a diligent, bright and sensitive individual who cares passionately about justice. Being a good conscientious police officer was his primary motivation in life. But, because of the colour of his skin, he faced innumerable obstacles which would have deterred many from pursuing this profession or abandoning it (Fuller highlights how few black police officers made a career at the Met due to feeling so isolated.) His journey is utterly inspiring and it powerfully illuminates the dynamics of racial conflict in England over the past fifty years from someone who was in a very unique position.

At the heart of Fuller’s journey is a quest to belong. Margaret, the young woman who ran the care home he was raised in for much of his childhood provided him with crucial guidance which gave him a strong moral core and taught him to “recognise that something’s offensive without being hurt by it. Stop. Think. Decide how you want to react.” This is a somewhat more constructive variation from what RuPaul’s mother famously advised him as a child: “People have been talking since the beginning of time. Unless they’re paying your bills pay them bitches no mind.” Anyway, Margaret’s advice proved invaluable throughout Fuller’s life as he encountered assumptions, prejudice and hatred from many people who seemed to believe that racism was an unchangeable part of English society. Fuller learned not to lash out when confronted with these dogmatic beliefs as it wouldn’t be productive and distance him from his fellow officers: “It made me wonder if I should speak up more often when, for example, my colleagues used racist language. But that could only create divisions, and I had spent the year trying to fit in with my shift, laughing and joking with them and not calling them to account.” However, this also created a tremendous mental burden and feelings of intense loneliness as he was often maligned by both the predominantly white police force and the black community. It sometimes lead him to feel he didn’t belong anywhere and he’s made painfully aware that “I’d been isolated by my colour all my life.”

Anyone who has encountered prejudice or injustice knows how one of the most debilitating consequences of it is how alone it makes you feel. Fuller observes how “Racism is a painful, humiliating thing to experience but the key to that pain is isolation. When others protest, offer support, turn that isolation back on the racists, the pain is greatly eased. Feeling alone with the hurt is far, far worse.” There are several instances where people realised that Fuller was experiencing racial abuse, but failed to speak up and defend him. It takes a lot of conviction to stand up to a bully when you’re not directly involved in the conflict. Probably all of us have experienced prejudice in some form and no one witnessing it intervened. We’ve also most certainly witnessed someone being victimised and not come to their defence. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of being a participant in society. But thankfully Fuller found some allies along his journey who were prepared to stand up to racism alongside him.

michael_fuller.jpg

When he was just beginning his career Fuller’s father and friends mocked his desire to become a policeman: “You’re joining the police because you hate injustice! The police ARE injustice!” It’s heart breaking reading about the derision he faced when walking on the beat: “young, black males remained by far the most aggressive demographic towards me.” He faced a long challenging journey to help restore the public’s faith in the police force and institute changes within the police so that officers didn’t practice racial profiling or discrimination. He was instrumentally involved in landmark changes such as installing CCTV cameras in investigation rooms, using computers to look for crime patterns, instituting changes to prosecute hate crimes and helping the community and police to work together through an innovative initiative called Operation Trident. This involved a great deal of creative thinking and personal sacrifice as he frequently put himself at personal risk. It was also an unanticipated extension of his duty and drive as a policeman which was to catch criminals. It shows how police work is a much more complicated and nuanced job than that.

Fuller recounts many dramatic scenes and emotional encounters when reflecting on his long and distinguished career. It was shocking to learn how apathetically some policemen reacted to crime when they knew there was little chance of resolution or conviction – especially with instances of domestic violence or gang-on-gang warfare. An inconceivable amount of resolve was required to stay dedicated to his profession and maintain an active role in helping every victim of a crime. It’s also sobering to realise how the police force and country might not have benefited from his skills in bettering our communities if he’d found venture capitalists willing to take a punt on a very savvy business plan he formulated at one point to open a chain of coffee shops in London (before this became a booming business in the city.) Thankfully he remained with the Met and rose in the ranks to a point where he could implement changes that have utterly transformed police-community relations. He also serves as an invaluable figure of inspiration and hope. The full circle journey Fuller takes us on throughout this memoir is executed with considerable skill, but more than anything I feel in awe of this good man and loyal police officer.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMichael Fuller
Educated.jpg

When I put out a call for what 2018 books I should read before the end of the year, one of the most popular suggestions people made was “Educated” by Tara Westover. This was listed on many people’s books of the year lists – not only book bloggers and booktubers, but everyone from Michelle Obama to Bill Gates. So expectations were high, but I wasn’t let down. This is an extraordinary story and an artfully composed memoir. Westover relates her tale of growing up in an extremely religious Mormon fundamentalist family with a domineering survivalist father in rural Idaho. Her childhood is so removed from the larger world she doesn’t go to school and her birth was never even registered. But in her teenage years she takes her first steps to starting formal education and integrating into society. The conflict of this break from her family and establishing her individuality is so heartrending, but it’s also inspiring in the way it shows how a person’s innate intelligence and resiliency can help them grow into the person they are meant to be.

I’ve previously read some impactful novels (notably Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”) about unstable fathers who try to live in a self sufficient way because they are convinced society is coming to an end and they force their daughters to live in a sheltered way with them. But reading a real account of someone who really grew up in an atmosphere of paranoia and fear was so striking. It really shows the danger both physically and mentally of tearing people away from larger society. For most of Tara’s childhood, her father scrapes a living together collecting and selling metal from a junkyard and he forces his children to work alongside him. He often actively dissuades his children from wearing protective gear which leads to many gruesome injuries. Just as shocking is her mother’s work as a midwife where she uses only natural, home-brewed medicine and faith practices.

Reading about the real physical danger that children born in these situations are exposed to is terrifying enough, but what’s worse is how badly Tara and other children are prepared for dealing with the outside world. It’s a form of abuse that can’t be measured because the debilitating effects aren’t always immediately apparent. Only when Tara goes to college does she understand how sheltered her life has been. Her father believes “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around” but Tara quickly understands how having no schooling gives her no frame of reference for things which are obvious to other people. For instance, she naively asks in class what the Holocaust was when it comes up in a discussion.

Educated2.jpg

Tara and some of her siblings are naturally drawn to escaping the circumstances of their childhood to connect with the larger world while others stay in place. The defectors of the family not only discover more about society, but about how harmful some of the practices they lived under were. Tara and some of her siblings learned to live with the frequent physical abuse they suffered from an older brother. Consciously or not, her family built a narrative about his pattern of violent behaviour to normalise it and it’s only when Tara gets outside of it that she can see how abhorrent it really is. It’s harrowing reading about her journey towards being able to tell her own story: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” But this memoir is ultimately hopeful in testifying how individuals can rise above their circumstances and learn to speak for themselves – even if it means they must leave everything they’ve known and believed behind.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTara Westover
unpunishedvce.jpg

Reading Edmund White’s books is always a pleasurable experience whether he’s chronicling the contemporary, sashaying back to the distant past in his two excellent historical novels or examining the riveting details of his own experiences. His most recent book “The Unpunished Vice” gives us the rare opportunity to consider his life as a reader and how this naturally coincides with his life as a writer. This account is a natural development for White who has written many book reviews in his life and biographies of a few notable writers including a beautifully voluminous account of Jean Genet and purposefully brief but insightful looks at Proust and Rimbaud. He’s both an avid fan and brilliant participant in the culture of world literature. So it’s absolutely fascinating to read this chronicle of how his experiences have drawn him to certain books and how they've influenced his writing. He gives absorbing commentary on several books as well as the community of authors he knows and interacts with. As a quintessential reader he understands that “Reading is a hobby that never grows stale - and an unpunished vice.”

White may wryly comment on his disorganized approach to reading, but his range of references and the amount of books he alludes to is impressive. He expounds upon classics such as “The Tale of Genji”, “The Sound of the Mountain”, “The Charterhouse of Parma”, “Pale Fire”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby Dick”, “In Search of Lost Time” and “Anna Karenina”. These are all books he illuminates with fresh insight and his favourite choices aren’t just due to their critical stature. There’s an ever-mutating canon of literature which slowly changes due to academic reading lists, literary prizes and ardent cheerleading critics. So he easily brushes off some writers who don’t jell with his sensibility like when he observes “I found Thomas Mann rough sledding”. White also comments upon the careers and reputations of writers such as Colette, Cocteau, Jean Giono, Henry Green, Rebecca West, Curzio Malaparte, Emmanuel Carrere, Ronald Firbank, Penelope Fitzgerald and Neel Mukherjee. He expounds upon the social and political influence writers’ ideologies and reputations have had upon their careers and how this sometimes determines whether they remain in print. His perspective on contemporaries and friends such as Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Carey and Yiyun Li also come with tantalizing details of his personal relationships to them – as well as his deep admiration for his husband, the writer Michael Carroll.

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures for readers is to discover complementary or wildly different opinions on books we personally hold in high or low regard. So it gave me a sly smile reading how White writes “I disliked Yukio Mishima, whom everyone praised” because the only Mishima novel I’ve read left me a little puzzled and nonplussed. But my hackles were raised when White curtly observes how the characters in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” speak in a way which is indistinguishable from each other. Certainly the style of their sub-conscious speech is of a single poetic tone, but their personalities and perspectives vary dramatically. This is my favourite novel so naturally I’d be touchy about it. But I enjoyed how White’s readings and commentary hits this kind of sweet spotof bookish debate which is somewhere between literary analysis and a book club. Not only did it make me think more dynamically about what I've read, but the idiosyncratic ways we approach books. Against the prevailing tide of readers who look for themselves in literature White quips “People assume that we read to see our reflection, but this reader, at least, prizes difference, strangeness.” 

unpunishedvce2.jpg

It's moving reading about White's motives for wanting to write and engage with literary culture. In addition to his reflections on the craft “For me writing is a performance art”, there's an emotional vulnerability in his analysis of himself and what literature has meant to him. But some of the most powerful parts of this chronicle are in White's pithy summations about the nature of reading and our relationship with books. He remarks how “We live in a world of accidents, contingency, constant change; fiction prepares us for that. It is the only art form that places us in the mind of a perceiver. That is its greatest gift.” Reading is both a way of escaping ourselves and better understanding each other - desires which White vividly describes amidst laying out his lifelong ambitions for literary recognition. In this book he charts the way literature lives with us observing how “We never read the same book twice. But each time it is our book, locked in our innermost heart as we move and change through time.” Just as there have always been communities of authors, there have always been communities of readers. White clearly knows and understands the inherent greediness of bookworms who endlessly desire to read more and more.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdmund White
4 CommentsPost a comment
Becoming.jpg

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMichelle Obama
9 CommentsPost a comment
CostofLiving.jpg

Deborah Levy has a unique style of writing which references a disparate range of influences and layers in a lot of symbolism in order to tease out some of the most essential questions about life. I admired the way her novel “Hot Milk” looks at what happens when familial roles are reversed or become more fluid. So it's absolutely fascinating reading “The Cost of Living” which is part of what's been branded Levy's “living autobiography” and follows the time period in which she wrote “Hot Milk”. She describes the state of flux her life was in this period with the death of her mother and a separation from her longtime husband, but also the professional success she was experiencing with her novel “Swimming Home” being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and its being optioned for a film. But rather than focusing on the mechanics and reasons behind all these changes she traces an everyday account of her life moving forward: renting a small writing studio at the back of someone's garden and considering her position in life because she surmises “We either die of the past or we become an artist.” It's an emotionally arresting account that makes many pithy observations about gender, identity and the writing life.

One of the themes Levy frequently meditates on is the gender roles for women as wives, mothers and writers. The book begins and ends with reference to the breakup of her marriage without going into the specifics of why they separated so her meditation on this subject becomes especially poignant for what Levy leaves unsaid about why her marriage ended. For instance she notes when talking to men at parties or on a train that they don't refer to their wives by name, but simply call them “my wife”. Similarly Levy refers to some of the most important men in her life not by name but by their actions such as “the man who cried at the funeral”. This is a humorous way of highlighting the glaring way men define women by their roles in life rather than acknowledging the complexity of their being.

Levy meditates on the way wives can become trapped in their status and actually transform their identities to fit in with expectations. She reflects how “The moody politics of the modern home had become complicated and confusing… Orwell, in his 1936 essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, noted that the imperialist ‘wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it’. The wife also wears a mask and her face grows to fit it, in all its variations.” The situation becomes further complicated with the introduction of children and the different levels of freedom allowed to the father over the mother: “When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.” Levy herself resolves to work at the writing life amidst mounting financial pressures, obligations and the responsibility of motherhood. She also poignantly describes her role as a creative writing teacher to hone her students' prose and the way she helps young female writers to embrace the legitimacy of their voices.

Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

While Levy takes her subjects very seriously there is also a wonderful levity to her accounts which include the absurdity of the world and the comic roles we often inadvertently play. For instance she rides her electronic bike to an important meeting and encounters trouble on it, but only realises after the meeting how she had leaves and mud in her hair throughout the day. Or in the desperate last days of her mother's life she manically sought out ice lollies of a certain flavour because they were the only things her dying mother could bear to consume. These add a welcome level of humanity to what could otherwise be ponderous reflections that are too intense.

Readers can sometimes tire of the insular nature of writers who write about the process of writing. But Levy's writing is so expansive in its account of states of being that it always feels refreshing and relatable with a pressing desire to connect. Moreover it comes across as simply honest. Levy notes how “To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take” but thankfully she exerts her freedom to candidly and poignantly speak about what she feels most intensely.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDeborah Levy
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

It’s especially emotional reading a book about someone’s real experiences when it feels like they could have so easily been my own. As a teenager in Maine during the mid-90s, I came to terms with my sexuality and defiantly came out to my family at an early age. Although it was incredibly difficult and damaging in some ways, I feel extremely lucky that some help was available to me. A counsellor at my school advised my parents that this was healthy and a local LGBT youth support group provided me with connections to other teenagers like me – this was something so important and dearly needed after feeling for so long like I was the only one. Without this institutional support I think things could have turned out very differently. I could have been pushed back in the closet or worse. So it feels like with a twist of fate I could have gone through what the author does in this heartrending and beautifully written memoir. It describes a period of young adulthood when Conley entered into “treatment” at an ex-gay therapy religious organization after he was outed as gay to his parents. He recounts this painful experience as well as the events leading up to them in a way which masterfully examines his development and the way in which it was severely interrupted by this dangerous ill-founded program.

At one point Conley and another man listen to 'Pagan Poetry' on a loop in a way which reminded me of my young adulthood.

One of the things I found most touching about the book is the poetic way Conley describes a period in his teenage life when he played video games with a hypnotic obsession. Like many teenagers, I did the same. This is an activity many young people devout countless hours to and it’s often remarked that this is a mindless exercise. But Conley gets in this memoir how it’s more like a period of gestation where an adolescent can slip in and out of the self while coming to terms with the reality of new desires. Certainly it can be a way of avoiding reality, but it’d be wrong to think that nothing is going on in the mind of a boy completing adventurous quests on his game console. It’s not so much a way of wasting time as allowing oneself to float free from the constrictions that you’ve only just realized you’re entangled in.

It feels like this is a memoir which has become increasingly relevant considering that Mike Pence will become the next vice-President of the United States. This is a Congressman who advocated for funding conversion therapy and opposed LGBT rights. This ridiculous form of pseudo-treatment has been decreasing in America recently, but it could very well grow again if the prevailing sentiments expressed by the government are anti-LGBT. Conley powerfully describes the perverse way people who enter ex-gay therapy are expected to surrender aspects which are vital to their personality: “We had to give over our memories, our desires, our ideas of freedom, to Jesus our master.” The book movingly works up to the reasons why its author entered this program and how it felt like there was no other option. It drives home how vulnerable young people are and how easily they can be manipulated when brought under misguided influences. This is a book with a lot of heart that has something important to say.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGarrard Conley
3 CommentsPost a comment

It’s absolutely fascinating reading about Jean Rhys’ life directly from the source – especially after recently revisiting a group of her novels in this Jean Rhys Reading Week. So many of her recurrent themes and ideas are laid out bare here for the reader to understand her experiences and how she felt about them in her own words. Unfortunately, we only get her life story up until her initial time in Paris with her first husband when the chapters turn more into anecdotal sketches or cryptic diary entries for what would have come if Rhys had lived long enough to complete the book. Nevertheless, reading about Rhys’ early life is utterly compelling. The book has an excellent preface by her editor Diana Athill which explains how difficult the writing/editing process was for Rhys, her perfectionism and the development of this unfinished book in the final years of Rhys’ life. Apparently at the time there was a lot of speculation surrounding Rhys’ origins and her life in relation to her work; this was her attempt to set the record straight. Consequently, “Smile Please” gives exciting insights into Rhys’ novels as well as being a beautifully written and oftentimes startling memoir in its own right.

Since I’m freshly familiar with Rhys’ fiction it was a strange sensation reading about Rhys’ straightforward recollections of her early life. Personally, I always resist reading fiction as a veiled form autobiography. Certainly an author’s experiences often informs their fiction, but the artistic process of distilling life into a story is so complex I think its best to mostly enjoy prose fiction on its own. Yet, one can’t read Rhys’ novels with their frank portrayals of women’s difficult lives and inner turmoil (particularly if you read her novels all together) and not instinctively feel that these women are (in large part) Rhys herself. So it’s somewhat of a relief to read about details of Rhys’ early life that confirm what a reader of her fiction suspects as being true.

For instance, Rhys was highly aware of her family’s precarious social standing amongst some of the black population of Dominica and the conflicts they encountered. She was particularly troubled by a nurse named Meta who become such an antagonist to Rhys with her verbal and physical punishments that she states “Meta had shown me a world of fear and distrust, and I am still in that world.” This gives me a very haunting feeling when thinking about Rhys’ characters who are so filled with suspicion and retreat from conflict or difficult situations with others. Also, she writes “It was Meta who talked so much about zombies, soucriants, and loup-garoux.” These mythological beings obviously made a strong impact upon Rhys’ imagination as they loom large in her novels in moments of crisis such as descriptions in “Wide Sargasso Sea” or towards the end of “Voyage in the Dark”. Equally, this novel echoes Rhys’ desire to change her skin colour. Her character Anna states “I wanted to be black. I always wanted to be black.” and Rhys writes in her memoir: “Once I heard her say that black babies were prettier than white ones. Was this the reason why I prayed so ardently to be black, and would run to the looking-glass in the morning to see if the miracle had happened?” Frequently while reading “Smile Please” I felt a chime of understanding that what I read in Rhys’ fiction had in fact come straight out of her heart.

There are passages of intense feeling such as when she describes how beautiful her native country was but how she felt it rejected her. On another occasion she tries to befriend a striking older black girl who sits next to her in class only to receive her absolute contempt. Her feelings about Rhys didn’t even need to be verbalized as Rhys asserts “if you think that a child cannot recognise hatred and remember it for life you are most damnably mistaken.” Clearly these painful memories have hounded Rhys throughout her life and found expression in her psychically-wounded characters. Later in her life in London when she works as a chorus girl she starts going with men who she is initially repulsed by, but later she develops intense feelings for them. Again, this is very consistent with Anna’s experiences in “Voyage in the Dark” whose protagonist has recently arrived in England from an upbringing in the Caribbean following the same timeline of much of “Smile Please”.

Other sections of this memoir come as a surprise. For instance, it’s curious to learn that there was a period of Rhys’ life when she attended a Catholic school and desired for a time to become a nun. Religious sentiment showed up again later in her life even though she felt herself to be a total atheist. When her first child becomes terminally ill shortly after his birth while she’s living with her first husband Jean in Paris, she experiences an intense wish for him to be baptised. I can see how these complicated feelings about losing a child filtered into her writing "Good Morning, Midnight". A somewhat humorous discovery is Rhys’ descriptions of being hired by families in Paris - not exactly as a nanny - but just to speak to their children in English. One of these engagements proved to be one of Rhys’ few truly happy experiences and another turned into a calamitous disaster.

Jean Rhys looking chic in Vienna

Jean Rhys looking chic in Vienna

A really touching section comes when Rhys describes her time renting an apartment in London and becoming entranced with writing diaries in notebooks in an all-consuming way. She becomes so enraptured with getting her experiences and thoughts down she stays up all night writing, pacing, crying and laughing to herself. She doesn’t realize how disruptive she’s being until the landlady tells her she’s received complaints, but Rhys is entirely unapologetic about her behaviour. I can so vividly picture Rhys’ emotional writing process and the awkward encounters that ensued from her bothering those around her as the words spilled out onto innumerable pages. What a challenging tenant Rhys must have been! Landladies generally didn’t like Rhys and she didn’t like them.

What comes through most powerfully in this memoir is Rhys’ inner sense of utter estrangement from men, women, black people, her family, the Caribbean, England and society in general (although outwardly she appeared to be quite social.) She states “I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care… I wanted nothing.” Given her sense of total alienation it’s not surprising that she and her characters were so prone to despair. It led her to want nothing but to recline in bed simply existing while fretting about the years and years she’d have to endure ahead of her. What irony that Rhys lived to the late age of eighty-eight! Even if she claimed to be unimpressed by the resurged interest in her writing immediately prior to and following the publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” I can’t help feeling she must have found it in some ways deeply satisfying.

It’s a shame that “Smile Please” wasn’t completed – particularly in how it would have given a fuller picture of her adult writing life and her interactions with the literary community. We only get a hint of her introduction to Ford Madox Ford at the end. But these early chapters are gems of rough-hewn beauty which can be greatly enjoyed and treasured.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJean Rhys
7 CommentsPost a comment