Corregidora by Gayl Jones (1975)

This is a raw, visceral read and I’m glad I read it in a group discussion. First published in 1975 and edited by Toni Morrison, it was Gayl Jone’s debut novel. 

Corregidor Gayl JonesWritten when the author was 26 years old, a similar age to her young protagonist Ursa Corrie (Corregidora) when we first encounter her. Ursa sings blues in a bar, the first paragraph of the book, reads like a piece of flash fiction, a story in 150 words. Of her marriage to Mutt in Dec 1947, his dislike of her singing after their marriage because he believed marriage changed all that.

“I said I sang because it was something I had to do.”

And in April 1948 after threatening publicly to remove her from the stage, other men throw him out, but he is there waiting for her outside at the end, after that evening her short-lived marriage is over and another man waits for her.

Much of the novel is relayed in dialogue and in sections that reconnect with the past, with things her mother told her, that her grandmother has said to her, and conversations that took place between the grandmother and the great grandmother that Ursa asks her mother about. She visits her mother to ask more about the unsaid.

She sat with her hands on the table.
‘It’s good to see you, baby,’ she said again.
I looked away. It was almost like I was realizing for the first time how lonely it must be for her with them gone, and that maybe she was even making a plea for me to come back and be a part of what wasn’t anymore.

There are things she wants to know, an oral history that is supposed to be passed down to protect them, however there are subjects her mother hasn’t opened up about. About Corregidora, a 19th century slavemaster who fathered both her mother and grandmother. And who her father was.

‘He made them make love to anyone, so they couldn’t love anyone.’

Corregidora Gayl Jones Black Woman Diva

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Ursa feels those things in her, the inherited trauma, but doesn’t understand it. We witness her reactions to things, the duality of her strength at standing up for herself alongside her inability to speak at all.

She has both strength and reticence.

The attack by her husband landed her in hospital, and resulted in doctors removing her womb, the forced sterilisation of Black women part of America’s eugenics policy at the time. This causes Ursa to reflect on the broken line, the passing down of the oral history, the need to ‘create generations’. What is her place now that she is the end of a lineage.

But I am different now, I was thinking. I have everything they had, except the generations. I can’t make generations. And even if I still had my womb, even if the first baby had come – what would I have done then? Would I have kept it? Would I have been like her, or them?

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Trauma experienced pre-conception changes a persons DNA and is passed on. It need not be explained, it is most often not understood, it is lived out through experiences and reactions to them. Present from conception, inherited without notice, it is no wonder that children who inherit both the trauma of the victim (slave or slave descendant) and the DNA of the perpetrator (slave master) are confused, both one thing and its opposite, neither nor, either or.

It was as if she had more than learned it off by heart, though. It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong. But now she was Mama again.

As James Baldwin put it,

“it dares to confront the absolute terror which lives at the heart of love”

Further Reading

Virago Press: Where To Start With Gayl Jones

Article, New Yorker: Gayl Jones’s Novels of Oppression by Hilton Als

Article, The Atlantic: The Best American Novelist Whose Name You May Not Know by Calvin Baker
Essay, New York Times: She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared. In Search of Gayl Jones, whose new novel breaks 22 years of silence by Imani Perry

Gayl Jones, Author

Corregidora The Healing Palmares Oral tradition storytelling Black African American WomenGayl Jones was born in Kentucky in 1949. She attended Connecticut College and Brown University. She is a novelist, poet playwright, professor and literary critic.

She wrote Corregidora (1975), Eva’s Man (1976), and The Healing (1998) which have all recently been republished as Virago Modern Classics.

The Healing was a fiction finalist for the National Book Awards in 1988.

Her most recent and long awaited novel is Palmares (2021). 

My Place by Sally Morgan

Originally published in 1987, this nonfiction title is both a mini biography (of Sally Morgan’s Great Uncle Arthur, her mother Gladys and her Nan, Daisy) and part memoir.

Sally Morgan, an Australian of Aboriginal descent, begins the book writing about her childhood from the perspective of not knowing her own identity. Thus the reader too, reads from this perspective as Sally recounts events in her life as they happen and as a child would, refrains from analysing or questioning them. Until she finds out.

autobiography memoir australia indigenousThe children at school ask about her skin colour and ethnic origin.

One day, I tackled Mum about it as she washed the dishes.

‘What do you mean “Where do we come from?” ‘

‘I mean what country. The kids at school want to know what country we come from. They reckon we’re not Aussies. Are we Aussies Mum?’

Mum was silent. Nan grunted in a cross sort of way, then got up from the table and walked outside.

‘Come on Mum, what are we?’

‘What do the kids at school say?’

‘Anything. Italian, Greek, Indian.’

‘Tell them you’re Indian.’

‘I got really excited then. ‘Are we really? Indian!’ It sounded so exotic.

‘When did we come here?’ I added.

‘A long time ago’, Mum replied. ‘Now no more questions. You just tell them you’re Indian.’

It was good to finally have an answer and it satisfied our playmates. They could well believe we were Indian, they just didn’t want us pretending we were Aussies when we weren’t.

At home, they live with their mother Gladys and father Bill, who is unwell and sometimes dangerous. He is a WWII war veteran of able body, suffering from what today would be diagnosed as PTSD.

Bill was a strange man, he wasn’t prejudiced against other groups, just Aboriginals. He never liked us having our people to the house. We had to cut ourselves off. I think it was his upbringing.

Bill had spent a lot of his childhood in country towns. I think that moulded his attitudes to Aboriginal people. Down South, Aboriginals were really looked down upon. Bill would have been brought up with that.

Sally Morgan My Place

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During those difficult years with her Dad, one of the few things Sally enjoyed about school were the Wednesday afternoon stories, listening to Winnie the Pooh, a character who lived in a world of his own and believed in magic, just like she did. While Pooh was obsessed with honey, Sally was obsessed with drawing.

My drawings were very personal. I hated anyone watching me draw. I didn’t even like people seeing my drawings when they were finished. I drew for myself, not anyone else. One day, Mum asked me why I always drew sad things. I hadn’t realised until then that my drawings were sad. I was shocked to see my feelings glaring up at me from the page. I became even more secretive about anything I drew after that.

Nan also lives with them and as Sally gets to know Nan’s brother Arthur, she learns that they are not Indian, they are of Aboriginal origin. Confronting her grandmother elicits no information at all, she refuses to speak of her past, nor of who her father was and suggests Sally forget about it.

Arthur agrees to tell his story and over a period of 3 months, in his 90’s, she records their conversations and learns about his life and a little more about his sister’s, her Nan. They are the children of an Aboriginal woman and the white stationmaster whose farm they lived and worked on.

They grew up in an era referred to as “living under the Act” when Australia had laws that not only dispossessed Aboriginal people of their land, culture and traditions, but forcibly removed their children from them, did not allow them to raise their children, in effect owned them and treated them similar to slaves. People like Nan grew up under this Act and lived their lives under the effect of the trauma it brought about. The only way they could see to protect their children was to lie about who they were and withhold their heritage from their children and grandchildren.

My Place Indigenous Voices Australia Aboriginal Heritage

Heritage by Sally Morgan (1990)

This story is Sally’s persistent endeavour to find that lineage, those lost family members and that heritage and to find out the story of her grandmother who was too scared to tell it and said she would take her secrets to the grave. To understand what it meant to belong to a heritage.

What did it really mean to be Aboriginal? I’d never lived off the land and been a hunter or gatherer. I’ve never participated in corroborees or heard stories of the Dreamtime. I’d lived all my life in suburbia  and told everyone I was Indian. I hardly knew any Aboriginal people. What did it mean for someone like me?

I absolutely loved every word of it, the way it is told, the close connection this family has to each other, the evidence of a spiritual connection to their ancestry and the spirits, even though they have not been raised with this knowledge.

The real life characters are vividly drawn, the dialogue authentic and the story’s of Arthur, Gladys and Daisy (Nan) beautifully recollected. Though it tells of a terrible time in Australia’s past, of children taken from their mothers, of slavery, abuse, fear and judgement because of skin colour, it is also a legacy for this family, a gift to the Australian nation and the world at large, to be given the opportunity to gain insight into a period of history, little known or heard from this important perspective.

Highly Recommended.

Sally Morgan, Author, Painter

Sally Morgan Indigenous Aboriginal AuthorSally Morgan is one of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal artists and writers.

For as long as she can remember, Sally wanted to paint and write but at school she was discouraged from expressing herself through her art because her teachers failed to see the promise in her individual style. It was not until she researched her family history and discovered her Aboriginal identity that she found meaning in her images and gained the confidence to pick up her paints again.

Sally’s widely-acclaimed first book, My Place, has sold over half a million copies in Australia. Sally Morgan’s second book, Wanamurraganya, was a biography of her grandfather.

My Place won the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission humanitarian award in 1987, the Western Australia Week literary award for non-fiction in 1988, and the 1990 Order of Australia Book Prize.

In 1993, international art historians selected Morgan’s print Outback, as one of 30 paintings and sculptures for reproduction on a stamp, celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Her children’s picture story books include Little Piggies and Hurry Up Oscar. She has collaborated with artist and illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft on several picture books including Dan’s Grampa. Curly and the Fent was written by Sally in collaboration with her children Ambelin, Blaze and Ezekiel.

Sally is the Director at the Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts at the University of Western Australia and lives in Perth.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Delighted to pick this up at a book sale in the small French village of Ansouis recently, it contains two pieces previously published in other formats, brought together in this slim but powerful book, originally published in 1963, a period of time when he had returned from eight years living in Paris and before he returned to live in the south of France for the last 17 years of his life.

I have read one of Baldwin’s novels If Beale Street Could Talk (also made into a film in 2018) and listened to his 1965 impassioned speech in the historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?“.

Letter to My Nephew

The Fire Next Time James BaldwinThe first ‘Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation’ entitled My Dungeon Shook originally appeared in the Progressive Madison, Wisconsin – a magazine known for its strong pacifism, championing grassroots progressive politics, civil liberties, human rights, economic justice, a healthy environment, and a reinvigorated democracy, is a letter to his 15 year old nephew James (who appears in a photo with his author Uncle on the cover of the book I read).

He shares with him what and who he sees in him, that comes from within the family, qualities that endear and those to be careful of, all from a place of deep love.

He writes to him too of his country and what it means to be of this country, to be black, to be at home in it despite all, to retain dignity and remember, to take inspiration from the long line of poets he comes from and remember one of them who said:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

A Letter to Me and You

The second is an essay Down at the Cross first appeared in the New Yorker as Letter from a Region of My Mind and is a wonderful talking through of his own development of self-awareness as he entered adolescence, describing how he and his peers came into a change that transformed girls and boys into something other and the refuges they seemed destined for, given how much beyond childhood wasn’t available to them.

He dissects his own choice to simultaneously seek refuge and revenge by going into the Church and the clarification it gave him, having seen beneath the veneer of that institution, while equally learning to use the tools it flexed to bring about an objective.

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church  merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher – a Young Minister – and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons – for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy.”

He also speaks of his meeting and audience with Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, and analyses what he perceives of this man and their intentions, beyond the religious element.

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It is noteworthy to consider this organisation that brought together religion and a population suffering from racism, when one thinks about the fact that most wars come about over religious difference, what terrible outcome might have occurred should they have been successful in the aim of their conversion, to make Islam the religion of Black American people, thus turning an issue of race into one of ideology.

“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

Ultimately Baldwin’s message is one of love, for standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. His words seem as relevant today as they were at the time he wrote them.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.”  James Baldwin

Highly Recommended.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James_Baldwin_in_his_house_in_Saint-Paul_de_Vence

Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence

James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright, novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement. His essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in the society of the United States during the mid twentieth-century. 

An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film, the visual essay currently showing on Netflix (in France) I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Other notable works include Go Tell It On The Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Further Reading

Interview: Paris Review – The Art of Fiction James Baldwin talking with  Jordan Elgrably

New York Times: James Baldwin – His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language by Toni Morrison

LA Times: 30 Years After His Death James Baldwin Has Another Pop Culture Moment by Scott Timberg

 

Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Reading Ireland 2021

During March every year Cathy at 746 Books runs a Reading Ireland Month, inviting other readers to participate, so it’s a good time to check what’s sitting on the shelf, to read in the company of others on something of a common theme.

I’m already participating in her year long Brian Moore at 100 ReadAlong and when Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s nonfiction book A Ghost in the Throat became my Outstanding Read of 2021, I began to seek out more titles by Irish Women Writers.

So I can also recommend my recent reads by Sara Baume, her beautiful work of creative nonfiction Handiwork that tracks the course of a year as she writes and sculpts small birds and vainly attempts to lure a few passing migratory species into her small garden. So entranced by her words, I ventured into her fiction and loved Spill Wither Falter Simmer and still have one more, A Line Made By Walking to read.

This week the focus was on short stories, so I chose to read Tangleweed and Brine and next week nonfiction, so I have two titles lined up Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, which I am currently reading and Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh a story of a wild Ireland, a mix of memoir, nature writing and social history, which looks very promising.

Disruptive Feminist Retellings of Classic Fairy Tales

I picked up Deirdre Sullivan’s two books for a change of genre and due to the intrigue of what her work promised. In 2020 I read Savage Her Reply a retelling of the Children of Lir, a fairy tale I wasn’t familiar with, but thoroughly enjoyed, not just the storytelling but the use of calligrams, poems and the language of Ogham, morsels on the side but subjects that a reader can get quite carried away with, inspiring one’s own creativity, as I found out, collecting small branches, twigs and leaves to adorn the word poems.

Tangleweed and Brine

Tangleweed and BrineWhile Savage Her Reply was a long version of just one tale, in Tangleweed and Brine, we have an entire collection, cleverly separated into seven tangled tales of earth, and six salty tales of water. They can be dipped in and out of and are best read over a period of time, because they demand our attention, require reflection and strip the old tales of their illusory inclinations, suggesting quite frankly what really was going on with Red Riding Hood and her fellow heroines.

It helps to be familiar with the tales before reading, because they aren’t told as they might be to a child. These stories are narrated by the author, often in the second person “you” voice, acknowledging and bearing witness to our heroine, recounting what she experienced back to her and to us, the reader – we who thought we knew, because you know, we read those stories or had them read to us – we now sit back and read in shock, the harsh reality of these women’s lives. Sullivan is paying homage, setting the record straight, we must not turn away. No longer.

So which tales are twisted, those that glorified these heroines lives and made us believe in Prince Charming, bad witches and vicious wolves or these tales that tell of brave and resilient heroines, surviving betrayals, neglect, judgement, cruelty, abandonment and finally have their stories told by the courageous, intuitive teacher, seer, Ms Sullivan.

Part One – Tangleweed

Slippershod (Cinderella)

Cast thoughts aside of which slipper she wears and what she dreams of, Cinderella has a different destiny and the memory of a truer love, she is resourceful and retains her inner self-worth; She is patient and knows when to act.

“Stretching on the bed, with soft bread in your mouth, the taste of butter, you wonder what they are doing at the ball. Who the prince will dance with. The love he’ll choose, the girls he will discard. There’s nothing gentle in that kind of power. You close your eyes. There is a different world. Where people do things, make things. Carve them out. You breathe the thick, soft air. It smells of hops. You smile and square your shoulders. Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spread wide and you have flown, you’ve flown.”

The Woodcutter’s Bride (Red Riding Hood)

Tangleweed and Brine Deirdre SullivanThis tale can be told by the title and beautiful illustration by Karen Vaughan. There is one picture for every story and within them often lurk clues. As I read the opening paragraphs and saw the illustration, the reality of who really was the wolf, the colour of that cape, hit me like a punch. The horror of those trophies. 

“When I was a small girl something happened to me in the forest. I can’t recall exactly what it was. It’s hard to trust tales from the lips of grandmothers; they come out wrong, too dirty or too clean. Since then I have not felt the same about the forest, I liked it once I think or I think I think. It’s beautiful but on its inky edges  something stirs to fidget with my gut. It’s getting dark; my husband will be home soon. I bite down on my lips to make them red.

Come Live Here and Be Loved (Rapunzel)

“Your husband’s face afraid when you inform him. A happy sort of fear.  To grow a person is no little thing. It isn’t like a turnip or a spud. It’s not so simple, weaving vein and bone. Your sense of smell wolf-sharp and, oh, the hunger. You ache with it.  It gnaws at you, untrammelled through your gut. The pang of it so sharp, like teeth, like fury. A starving ache that cannot be suppressed.”

You Shall Not Suffer (Hansel and Gretel)

She lives in a world that discards the weak easily, she prefers to save lives, to nurture, or at least try to save them. She doesn’t fit the mould of what is expected, so she chooses another way, another life, a way to be herself, a house in the woods. When they abandon their litters now, they blame the witch in the woods, yet still they come to her for help, seek her healing powers.

“You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft thing small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sister Fair (Fair, Brown and Trembling)

This is an Irish fairy tale of three sisters, that was unknown to me, one of jealousy, betrayal and redemption.

“It’s not about being sensible, or strong. It’s not about being kind. It’s not about the  soft touch and the kind heart.  Beauty and a womb. That’s all you are.”

Ash Pale (Snow White)

coniferous trees covered with snow in sunny winter day

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This story turns the classic tale on its head and Snow White uses skills Her mother taught her to ensure she isn’t dispossessed of her place, when her father remarries. 

“You look at her the same way you always did. Perhaps a little kinder. Now that she’s disappearing. Not a threat. You can see her folding into herself like crumpled parchment. Changing who she is to please him.”


Part Two – Brine

Consume Or Be Consumed (A Little Mermaid)

This was actually the first tale I read, especially after finishing Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters in which we are led to believe that one of the protagonists is seduced by a siren. Here the mermaid spends time among humans and sees what it is to be a woman, the sacrifice.

“These things with half of you on pairs of legs. They don’t look right.  There’s something off about it.  You often stare. Sometimes you close your eyes. So many of them. So much of this world.

On land, a woman doesn’t matter much.  You miss it. Or you used to. Your skin is slightly tinged with subtle blue.  They think that makes you lady-like. The colour of a person matters here. Who were you once, and what was done to you. They speculate. A quiet thing is often seen as docile. They say their secrets, spew out all their bile as you sit silently beside the window. Staring at the waters, lapping out. Everything is still here, always, always. And it should move. You long for it to move.”

Doing Well (The Frog Prince)

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A terrible tale of a princess born into bondage, to a frog, she has no choice, no say, no rights. She belongs to this slimy amphibian and must do his bidding, worse than a slave.

“You have been marked from birth for just this purpose. Cloistered with the others. Secret spaces deep within this space where girls are trained. But there are passageways to keep you safe.”

The Tender Weight (Bluebeard)

Originally a French folktale, this story is given a different twist, though the inevitability of its outcome remains. A story of repetitions, of a curse, of an attempt to break it, of an unfounded reputation, a desire to break free.

“You do not have to ask him what he did.  You know that it was nothing. There doesn’t have to be a reason here The world will steal what little crumbs you grasp. The loves you have can die and be reborn.The memory of pain will cling. Will cling. And you will never let yourself forget. That this has happened.”

Riverbed (Donkeyskin)

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Another French fairytale originally from 1695, in which a daughter has to resort to extremes to protect herself from her father’s indecorous intentions. In this retelling,rather than hide and wait for him to come to his senses and she retain her good virtue, the young woman is uncompromising, will time her strike, will be as effective and more virtuous in her rule. And pay homage to the innocnet hard-working, long-suffering donkey.

“There is a soft rebellion to a donkey. It is a working thing. But it resents. I am fond of this. When I am cold or lonely in the castle. When I’m afraid, I often find myself around the stables, stroking them as long as they permit. Which is a goodly time. They trust me now. I earned it. Growing up, and being gentle, kind.”

The Little Gift (The Goose Girl)

Another from the Brothers Grimm collection, originally this story tells the tale of a maid servant who turns on her princess when they are travelling and forces her to swap places, making an oath never to tell. The princess becomes the maid who cares for the geese, until the prince learns of what took place and tricks the false princess into choosing her punishment. In the retelling, we learn whose idea it was to change places, the reneging on a promise, betrayal. What some will do for love, the selfishness of the entitled.

“A goose can try its best to be a swan. Conceal the ruddy beak, the grating honk. But swans as geese? The air cries out to them. It’s not enough. They want clean sheets and gold. The softer life. And when I visit and stroke her face, I see her clear blue eyes upon my jewels. She does not see their weight, only their lustre. She knows they should be hers. She wants them back.”

Beauty and the  Board (Beauty and the Beast)

The death of the mother leaves Beauty vulnerable, but there is a presence she can contact through the board, invite in for her protection, to deal with the ever present danger. She becomes they.

“You are a thing. A beast without a home. I know that, how it feels. And I would have you share a place in me.”

Further Reading

Article: What Will Build and Break a Girl: Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Tangleweed and Brine is a book about women within fairy-tales. And their internal lives, as they realise their place in the world. How trapped they are. Some of them rebel, and some retreat. I wanted to write about different sorts of women, quiet ones and strong ones, women with different shaped bodies, different shaped brains. I wanted to take the stories of my childhood, and put the things we learn early on into a world where marrying a stranger is seen as a happy ending, and pride is something women shouldn’t feel.


Potiki by Patricia Grace

Brilliant. Republished in 2020 as a Penguin Modern classic, originally published in 1986, a year before the New Zealand government finally recognised Māori as an official language, I hope many more people get to read this poignant novella.

Literature Awakens the Past

This book evoked so many thoughts, memories and dug up much buried deep within me, that it was at times difficult to concentrate on the story. I read and reread pages and deliberately took my time, scribbling in the margins, remembering stories and experiences from my primary school days, learning the Māori language, flax weaving, poi dances, sticks, songs, the legends and the gods, occasional participation in marae activities, including school attendance of a funeral for someone important in the community, and the cautionary tales of the taniwha.

Potiki – the last born

Maori culture literature New Zealand Potiki ClassicPotiki is the story of a family and the encroachment on their lives of the now dominant culture that is trying to usurp their way of life, a land developer wants to turn their coastal ancestral land into a holiday park, and will use whatever tactics necessary to do it.

In some ways the new culture has already succeeded in subverting their own, colonial style education conditions young minds, severing them from their language and traditions, causing divisions within the community as some are enticed by the individualism and material benefits of a capitalist mentality.

Told in three parts, the story is narrated by Hemi, his wife Roimata and the son they bring into their family Toko, raising him with their three children.

Each of them have their own stories, James’s of the earth and the universe, Tangimoana’s of the sea, Manu, in fear of disappearing, can not find his stories.

Roimata worries for Manu when he is due to start school:

What would be right then for a little one who called out in sleep, and whose eyes let too much in? What would be right for one who didn’t belong in schools, or rather, to whom schools didn’t belong?

Nurturing Stories and Life

Rather than go out to become a teacher as initially planned, she becomes the keeper, listener and narrator of stories, a writer and reader of stories, enactor, collector and maker of stories. Of continuity.

Then I knew that nothing need be different. ‘Everything we need is here. We learn what we need and want to learn, and all of it is here,’ I said to Hemi, but he had always known it. We needed just to live our lives, seek out our stories and share them with each other.

Their home, their land and community is under threat from outsiders, who covet their location and do everything they can to entice them to give it up, to sell, using the offer of money, then more threatening measures to get what they want.

Two cultures collide, but only one side is listening, the other is used to getting their way, is used to their tactics winning over. This family and community understand too well what they will lose if they let go of their land, they have already witnessed it. And though it is not them that fight, for their way is to talk openly, there are others who will intervene.

Ancestral Lands and the Tangata Whenua

Hemi worked the land in his youth but went out to work when his grandfather passed on. Now there is no job, he is back to caring for and caretaking the land.

They still had their land and that was something to feel good about. Still had everything except the hills. The hills had gone but that was before his time and there was nothing he could do about that, nothing anyone could do. What had happened there wasn’t right, but it was over and done with. Now, at least, the family was still here, on ancestral land. They still had their urupa and their wharenui, and there was clean water out front.

It is a new era, there is more determination which created hope, that turned into confidence and created an energy to confront the situation and demand the protection of the language, customs and way of life wherever possible.

Land, their homes, the meeting house, the food-house, the cemetery are part of a community that allows its members to leave or return, to be independent knowing they can come back to a place where family can come together, a refuge for the lost and broken.

The Gift Inherent Within All

Toko is visionary, a child that almost wasn’t, one with a special gift, who sees the stories changing and will become part of the story that is carved into the meeting house, remembered in wood and in the eloquent words of Patricia Grace’s reflection on the loss of an extraordinary one.

We have known what it is to have had a gift, and have not ever questioned from where the gift came, only sometimes wondered. The gift has not been taken away because gifts are legacies, that once given cannot be taken away. They may pass from hand to hand, but once held they are always yours. The gift we were given is with us still.

Shared narratives move from one to another in a spiral, in the way of their culture, detailing their progress and regression, their ability to support and nurture and their deceptions, their desire to make the other understand, and their failure to be heard or respected.

It is not a tale with a logical solution, but a demonstration of the cultural differences that exist in Aotearoa, New Zealand and how the actions of those in power, with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.

Further Reading

Patricia Grace, Biography – NZ novelist, short story writer and children’s writer of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent.

NZ History – Te reo Māori recognised as official language, 1 August 1987

Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy tr. Aylmer Maude

The Kindness of Enemies Shamil ImamI read Hadji Murad because it was referenced in the last pages of Leila Aboulela’s excellent The Kindness of Enemies and is set in the same location as the historical part of her book, 1850’s Caucasus. Aboulela’s book centres on the kidnap of A Russian Princess and her time in captivity under the protection of the Highlander Shamil Imam. He wishes to trade her for his son, help captive by the Russians for more than ten years.

Tolstoy was in the Russian army for a time and clearly witnessed many missions. One of the events he had knowledge of and wrote about, though this novella was published post-humously by his wife, was the defection to Russia and subsequent killing of one of Shamil Khan’s chieftans, another Highlander, Hadji Murad.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the classics, there are some exceptions and I did enjoy Anna Karenina, however having read Aboulela’s version which really brings the characters alive and highlights their dilemmas so openly, I found it hard to connect with Tolstoy’s tale, which rarely touches on lives other than the soldiers and noble decision makers.

Hadji Murad Thistle Leo Tolstoy

Photo by nastia on Pexels.com

The opening scene though is brilliant, the ploughed field, bereft of life, everything turned over, leaves only one sturdy thistle, half destroyed but for that one stalk still standing tall, the flower head emitting its bold crimson colour.

The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen; it was all black. “Ah, what a destructive creature is man… How many different plant lives he destroys to support his own experience!” thought I, involuntarily looking round for some living thing in this lifeless black field.

It is the scene that brings back the memory of this man Hadji Murad and compels him to write out those pages, perhaps purging himself of a ghastly memory.

“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.” And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.

It does make me think that he had intended not to publish it, that perhaps it was written for another purpose altogether. Particularly as, at the time he wrote it (1896-1903)

he was spending most of his time writing his virulent tracts against the art of fiction and denouncing some of the best writers in the world, including Shakespeare.

In conclusion, it highlights to me the importance of reading various perspectives of history, not just one side or the other, but also across gender. It is refreshing to read a female historian’s fictional version of an age old conflict, inhabiting characters who observe from positions of lesser power, of oppression, for their powers of observation are that much stronger than the privileged, it being one of their necessary survival instincts.

Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Savage Her Reply Deirdre SullivanI was drawn to read this having never heard of the Irish myth, fairytale The Children of Lir and I was intrigued by the Gaelic names and words. I’m planning to read Tangleweed and Brine, a collection of shorter retold stories by the same author as well.

I loved the structure of the book, the italicised pages preceding some chapters that narrate a classic version of the tale, followed by the author’s chapter which provides greater depth and is told from the point of view of Aife, the middle sister, married off to Lir after her sister died in childbirth, who casts a spell on these children that disgraces her forever, and is punished in turn.

In an interview the author speaks of having an affection for the story since first encountering an illustrated version, as a child in the Galway City Library.

I was pulled to her, so much of the narrative unfolds because of the force of her, her need for love, her anger and her strength, but she disappears once she has been shamed and punished, transformed into a demon of the air. I didn’t know what a demon of the air was, but I wanted to know.

Fostered, Remarried & Step-Mothered

I can imagine she is usually depicted as sinister, she is a stepmother after all and they seemed destined to not be capable of any act of kindness or heroism in storytelling across all cultures, so I suppose we ought to be grateful that at least she will encounter forgiveness. I did hold out hope that perhaps the author might have dug deeper or stretched the imagination to somehow redeem this woman’s callous actions even more. I wish there could have been room for more engagement with the source of her pain and regret.

It is a strange tale as her actions seem to be on account of her character – or perhaps due to a deep unacknowledged resentment at having been severed and separated, along with her two sisters, from their parents at a young age – rather than any apparent bad treatment by the husband or father as one might expect. Something in her motive remains a mystery despite the little soul searching she does.

“Perhaps I am a dark, unpleasant creature. But I am my own creature. I am mine, my feet on the earth and the water in my soul and fire in my heart. And when all is taken from me I will still have my anger and my pain and they will feed me.”

Calligrams, Poems and the Artful Language Of Ogham

The artwork and use of feathers is brilliant, I enjoyed that each chapter had a mysterious, almost cryptic illustration of calligrams and poems laid out in particular shapes, their titles words from a language I’d never heard of. The shapes mimic the characters (and many letters are said to be linked to trees), using letters of the earliest Irish medieval alphabet Ogham.

I couldn’t help but add my own little autumn tree representation to some of the pages below, the photos can be seen and read more clearly in this thread I created here. It is a day for rituals after all.

Reaffirming once again (having just read A Ghost in the Throat) the importance of poetry, storytelling and creativity to Irish myth and culture, in its many forms.

The Author, Deirdre Sullivan

is an award winning author from Galway, Ireland and this is her tenth book, which has been shortlisted for an Irish Book Award 2020. Her collection of dark and witchy fairytale retellings, Tangleweed and Brine won Book of the Year at the 2018 Children’s Books Ireland awards and Young Adult Book of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Her play Wake was performed at No Ropes theatre company in February 2019.

Further Reading

Interview: A Deeply Felt Book: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

I really enjoyed Passing, but I might be in the minority when I say I loved Quicksand which I read first, even more. Quicksand adds into its complexity that little known element of being a TCK (third culture kid), Helga is not only of mixed race, but she was born and is growing up in a culture (America) that neither of her parents were born into or belonged to, there is no extended family for her to mould into, whereas in Passing, we meet two women who have a stronger sense of family and there is more of a focus on belonging to a race and by extension, its culture.

Passing Nella Larsen Harlem Renaissance ClassicBook Review

In Passing, we meet Irene who has just received a letter from an old friend, one who twice in her life she believed she would never see again and with distaste realises this letter is evidence of her reappearance in her life. Intending to resist seeing her, she ignores it.

The narrative then goes back in time to the earlier encounter when Irene was visiting Chicago where her parents live, doing last minute shopping for her children, overcome by the heat, she hails a cab and asks the driver to take her to a rooftop hotel. It is here that Irene practices her version of ‘passing’ as a white bourgeoise person, alone, unobserved, quietly taking tea by a window where no one is near, a moment to recuperate.

“It’s funny about ‘passing’. We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

To her horror, a man and woman appear and take the table next to her. The man leaves and the woman stares at her in an unsettling manner. Fear pervades her as the woman approaches, recognising her.

“About her clung that dim suggestion of polite insolence with which a few women are born and which some acquire with the coming of riches or importance.”

Passing is taut with tension beginning with this scene, Irene is careful, her old school friend Clare takes what to Irene  are unbearable risks, something she wants to distance herself from, doing all she can not to fall into her manipulative ways. But her charm is near impossible to resist, she is more practiced in passing and in getting what she wants, in ways Irene wouldn’t dare imagine.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925Irene has strong and angry thoughts on Claire’s predicament, but in her presence is unable to act in accordance with them. She is stuck between loyalty to her race and guilt at her ability to pass for the thing that so oppresses them.

“Mingled with her disbelief and resentment was another feeling, a question. Why hadn’t she spoken that day? Why, in the face of Bellew’s ignorant hate and aversion, had she concealed her own origin? What had she allowed him to make his assertions and express his misconceptions undisputed?”

The fear Irene has turns it into something of a psychological suspense novel, use of the word dangerous planting the seed of it early on.

“Her brows came together in a tiny frown. The frown, however, was more from perplexity than from annoyance; though there was in her thoughts an element of both. She was wholly unable to comprehend such an attitude towards danger as she was sure the letter’s contents would reveal; and she disliked the idea of opening and reading it.”

Neither woman is totally content with the life decisions they have made, each of them reaching for something that eludes now them, witnessing it in the other, living with a pervasive level of anxiety that threatens to disrupt their lives. Their predicaments provide an insight into the country’s turbulent feelings towards integration and race relations in the 1920 -1930’s

Further Reading

My review of Quicksand by Nella Larsen

My review of From Caucasia With Love by Danza Senna

Lapham’s Quarterly: Passing Through by Michelle Dean: Nella Larsen made a career of not quite belonging

Essay in Electric Literature by Emily Bernard: In Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing,’ Whiteness Isn’t Just About Race

New York Times: Overlooked Obituaries – Nella Larsen (1891-1964) Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage
informed her modernist take on the topic of race by Bonnie Wertheim

Harlem Renaissance Titles Reviewed Here

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Good Behavior by Molly Keane

Thoughts On A Novel

I read this book with great discomfort all the way through. I have a sense of having being conned. It was mentioned more than once in an Irish Times article Laugh in the time of Corona: Favourite funny books. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, Hilary Mantel calls it an ‘overlooked classic’.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was also mentioned and I agree, there were many laugh out moments for me there and great compassion too, some recompense for the underlying sadness of a woman spending the end of her days in a hotel with strangers who become almost friends and the unexpected gift of a complicit friendship with a young man who makes up for an absent grandson.

In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, not only were there no laugh out loud moments, I may have grimaced all the way through. So utterly did I dislike the story and the characters, I questioned my understanding of the word behaviour, there wasn’t any good behaviour, even when the characters denied their true thoughts and said things to cover them, the behaviour remained appalling. The only exception being the maid Rose who kept the household going, working and caring her way through the narrative, shifting her alliances towards whichever household member required her attention.

The Anglo-Irish & Big Houses

Although Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright, it felt like I was reading an old English novel and I saw many refer to her as Anglo-Irish, so I had to fill myself in on what that influence I could feel in the text was about. So for those like me who didn’t grow up in either of those countries, a quick explanation on what it meant to be Anglo-Irish.

Coolbawn House, County Wexford burned in 1923 By Mike Searle, CC BY-SA

The Anglo-Irish social class made up most of the professional and landed class from the 17th century up to Irish Independence around 1920, they were until that time the ruling aristocracy. They identified as Irish but retained English habits in business, politics, culture and society. They participated in English sports, they loved horse sports, racing, fox hunting, would send their children to boarding schools in England if possible and often intermarried with the ruling classes in Great Britain.

Many constructed large country houses in the first half of the 18th century, ranging from palatial mansions to more modest ‘large’ houses known as Big Houses, a symbol of their class dominance in Irish society. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 is one of the original Big House novels. Elizabeth Bowen chronicled the decline of the Big House in The Last September.

275 were destroyed, deliberately burned by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Irish revolutionary period (1919-1921) including Molly Keane’s family’s own estate, her father ignoring warnings to leave and take his family to England, refusing to leave the place even when he saw them coming to burn it down.

Book Review

The protagonist of Good Behaviour is Iris Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, who grows up with her brother Hubert in ‘Temple Alice’ one of the ‘Big Houses’, built by an ancestor as his temporary residence until inheriting his titles and estates.

Now the title extinct and estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house (a house intended as the residence of a widow), came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property.

While the novel opens with a chapter when she is fifty-seven-years old at her mother’s death-bed, the remainder of the novel focuses on their life under the tutelage of a governess Mrs Brock up until her sudden departure through to her twenties when she is an unhappy, overweight, unmarried daughter without prospect, living a life of gross deception and delusion. Seeds of her discontent are sown early on, with a mother lacking in maternal feeling.

She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.

Animals, food and her brother are her consolation, her mother rarely responds even when Aroon reports that she thinks her baby brother is dead, she enquires where the staff are. Her father responds and inspires hope. She seeks out his company, a kind word, favour, he seeks comfort elsewhere.

We adored Papa, and his hopeless disapproval paralysed any scrap of confidence or pleasure we had ever had in ourselves or our ponies.

When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head.

In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice, even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered;  their courage was fitting and credible. A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society. It appeared to Papa that Mrs Brock has rescued our honour and his credit.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

An awkward teen she revels in her brother’s company and his friend Richard. The time the three spend together is the height of her happiness, little realising they too are indulging in ‘good behaviour’ masking an ulterior motive, using her as an alibi. Her self-deception knows no bounds.

Here, to my delight , Hubert and Richard danced with me in turn. I almost preferred dancing with Hubert because I loved showing off to Richard…I was fulfilled by them. I felt complete. There was no more to ask.

Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it. She lacks empathy and is unaware of her own bitterness, so we have little sympathy for her predicament.

The family live in denial of their escalating debt, living beyond their means and incapable of doing anything for themselves. When her father returns from war injured, Aroon tries to get close to him and is thwarted once again. Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed.

And then a final twist.

And yet. The thirty years in-between the beginning and the end leave a lot more unsaid.

Selina Guiness in the Irish Times says Keane writes the most spectacularly “nasty” black comedies in Irish Big House fiction and Keane herself request her daughter to make the biography she wrote about her more like a novel adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”

Perhaps it is this that so disturbs, I like a book in which a character can in some way redeem themself, can change or transform, ‘nasty, black comedies’ and characters that take pleasure in using their wounds as weapons against another isn’t entertaining for me, I am unable to wear a mask and pretend otherwise.

I know I’m in the minority as this is a popular English novel, but I’m wondering if anyone else read this with a similar feeling of discomfort?

On Molly Keane

She was full of uncertainties, anxieties, even fears, capable of striking out in anger and of little streaks of prejudice and snobbery, but in spite of all of this, Molly’s essence was in the generosity, kindness and wisdom which won her so many instant friends. It was almost as though there were two of her, one shaped by class and family circumstances, against which she often rebelled but from which she would never quite escape, and the other which stirred into life whenever she worked her way through to writing level, and this Molly became able to see through her first self with calm amusement.  Diana Athill

Further Reading

An excellent review by a reader who loved (5 star) the book – I do know how to behave – believe me, because I know. I have always known. Dear Molly, by Juliana Brina

Diana Athill on editing and befriending Molly Keane 

Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish life: ‘Courage, glamour and fantasy’

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a popular English novelist who wrote 12 novels, was compared by Anne Tyler to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, she described them as “soul sisters all”.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was named by the Guardian as one of ‘the 100 best novels,‘ and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It is a humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man at a time in her life when she has little to look forward to.

We meet Mrs Palfrey as she is checking in for a long stay at the hotel, after having visited her only daughter in Scotland. A widow who is not ready for a nursing home, she joins an eccentric group of fellow residents, doing their best to maintain their dignity and cope with boredom while competing with each other over the calibre of their visitors.

‘And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?’ Mrs Arbuthmot asked, probing.

Mrs Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it. ‘I doubt if I could stand that climate,’ she replied.

Regrettably, she mentions the existence of her grandson Desmond, who works at the British museum and for whom she is knitting a sweater. It comes to their notice that he hasn’t visited.

‘If we don’t see him soon, we shall begin to think he doesn’t exist.’

‘Oh, he will come’ Mrs Palfrey said, and she smiled. She really believed that he soon would.

Photo by tom balabaud on Pexels.com

He doesn’t come and it causes her to participate in her age old habit of ‘saving face’ which also involved small lies and having to keep track of what she’d said, which became a strain.

One day on her return from the library she falls and is helped by a young man named Ludo, whom she learns is a struggling but determined writer. She misunderstands when he says he works in Harrods.

‘Oh no, I don’t work for Harrods. I work at Harrods. In the Banking Hall. I take my writing and few sandwiches there. It’s nice and warm and they’re such comfortable chairs. And I save lighting this gas-fire, which eats up money.’

To thank him, she invites him to dine with her at the hotel and when letting the waiter know she would be expecting a guest on Saturday, declines to correct one of the residents. It is a fortuitous meeting and the beginning of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship.

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last’, Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason she searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word.

Photo by Jordan Benton on Pexels.com

And so the comedy begins, Ludo relishing his role as Desmond and the opportunity to observe them all, seeing it all as research for his novel, which he renames after one of Mrs Palfrey’s comments at dinner.

‘Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’

‘It has entered her soul.’

”But we aren’t allowed to die here.’

He threw back his head and laughed….He thought, I mayn’t write it down, but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here by Ludovic Myers.

It’s like watching an old style, witty English television series, you read the lines and can imagine the way they speak, with air of pompous superiority, which has become even more elevated in the bourgeois elderly.

I loved the little lie Mrs Palfrey tells and the consequence it brings her, it’s perhaps the most interesting thing that happens to her and that she really looks forward to in her time at the Claremont, a random connection with a stranger, a budding new relationship, the envy of others and for him, a character study, a kind of mother figure of a different kind, and the title of his novel.

It was interesting how in this era people lived in inexpensive hotels as an alternative to independent living, not having to cook or clean or take care of any of the infrastructural requirements of a house or apartment. I’ve just read another novel about a woman who lived in a hotel in France, Colette’s The Shackle, only her protagonist was close to 40 years old, so she and her “hotel companions” got out and about more and their escapades were of a different nature.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels?

Further Reading

Guardian: The 100 best novels: No 87 – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Buy a Copy of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont via Book Depository