Warwick Prize for Women in Translation Longlist 2021

This £1000 prize was established by the University of Warwick in 2017 to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership. The list includes titles published in the UK, translated into English.

In 2020, A Multi-generational Saga

Last year the prize was awarded to The Eighth Life (a family saga that begins with the daughters of a Georgian chocolatier, through wars, revolutions and generations), by Nino Haratischvili, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

The 2021 prize is judged by Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin and Susan Bassnett.

“These long-listed titles not only span cultures and continents from China to Georgia, and from Thailand to Poland, they also cover a spectrum of literary forms. The list includes poetry, fiction of many kinds – from futuristic fables to family sagas – as well as a range of imaginative non-fiction, from family memoir and biographical essay to social history.

In every case, the artistry of the translator keeps pace with the invention of the author. Each book created its own world in its own voice. The judges warmly recommend them all.”

The 2021 Longlist

From 115 eligible entries representing 28 languages, seventeen titles have been longlisted for the prize. (Book descriptions below are extracted via Goodreads)

The longlist covers ten languages with French, German, Japanese and Russian represented more than once. Translations from Georgian and Thai are represented on the longlist for the first time in 2021.

women in translation prize 2021

Maria Stepanova and her translator from Russian Sasha Dugdale feature twice on the longlist with In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe Books). Also longlisted are previous winners of the prize Annie Ernaux and translator Alison L. Strayer who won in 2019 for The Years. Writers Jenny Erpenbeck, Hiromi Kawakami, Esther Kinsky and Yan Ge, and translators Elisabeth Jaquette, Frank Wynne, are all on the longlist for the second time.

The shortlist for the prize will be published in early November. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on Wednesday 24 November.

The Longlist

Nana EkvtimishviliThe Pear Field, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Fiction/Historical) (Peirene Press, 2020)

The Pear FieldIn post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020) (Memoir)

A Girls Story Annie ErnauxAnnie Ernaux revisits the summer of 1958, spent working as a holiday camp instructor in Normandy, and recounts the first night she spent with a man. When he moves on, she realizes she has submitted her will to his and finds that she is a slave without a master. Now, sixty years later, she finds she can obliterate the intervening years and return to consider this young woman whom she wanted to forget completely. In writing A Girl’s Story, which brings to life her indelible memories of that summer, Ernaux discovers that here was the vital, violent and dolorous origin of her writing life, built out of shame, violence and betrayal.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Not a Novel, translated from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, 2020) (Essays/Nonfiction)

Not a Novel Jenny ErpenbeckA collection of intimate and explosive essays on literature, life, history, politics and place. Drawing from her 25 years of thinking and writing, the book plots a journey through the works and subjects that have inspired and influenced her.

Written with the same clarity and insight that characterize her fiction, the pieces range from literary criticism and reflections on Germany’s history, to the autobiographical essays where Erpenbeck forgoes the literary cloak to write from a deeply personal perspective about life and politics, hope and despair, and the role of the writer in grappling with these forces.

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Fantasy/Science Fiction) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Strange Beasts of China Yan GeIn the fictional Chinese town of Yong’an, human beings live alongside spirits and monsters, some of almost indistinguishable from people. Told in the form of a bestiary, each chapter introduces us to a new creature – from the Sacrificial Beasts who can’t seem to stop dying, to the Besotted Beasts, an artificial breed engineered by scientists to be as loveable as possible. The narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist, is on a mission to track down each breed, but in the process discovers that she might not be as human as she thought.

Hiromi KawakamiPeople from My Neighbourhood, translated from Japanese by Ted Goossen (short stories/magic realism) (Granta, 2020)

People From My NeighbourhoodFrom the author of the internationally bestselling Strange Weather in Tokyo, a collection of interlinking stories that blend the mundane and the mythical—“fairy tales in the best Brothers Grimm tradition: naif, magical, and frequently veering into the macabre”.

A bossy child who lives under a white cloth near a t­ree; a schoolgirl who keeps doll’s brains in a desk drawer; an old man with two shadows, one docile and one rebellious; a diplomat no one has ever seen goes fishing on a lake no one has heard of. These are some of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood. In their lives, details of the local and everyday—the lunch menu at a tiny drinking place called the Love, the color and shape of the roof of the tax office—slip into accounts of duels, prophetic dreams, revolutions, and visitations from ghosts and gods.

Mieko KawakamiBreasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Fiction/Feminism) (Picador, 2020)

Breast and EggsBreasts and Eggs explores the inner conflicts of an adolescent girl who refuses to communicate with her mother except through writing.

Through the story of these women, Kawakami paints a portrait of womanhood in contemporary Japan, probing questions of gender and beauty norms and how time works on the female body.

Esther KinskyGrove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fiction/Travel) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove Esther KinskyAn unnamed narrator, recently bereaved, travels to Olevano, a small village south-east of Rome. It is winter, and from her temporary residence on a hill between village and cemetery, she embarks on walks and outings, exploring the banal and the sublime with equal dedication and intensity. Seeing, describing, naming the world around her is her way of redefining her place within it. Written in a rich and poetic style, Grove is an exquisite novel of grief, love and landscapes.

Camille LaurensLittle Dancer Aged Fourteen, translated from French by Willard Wood (Nonfiction/Art/Biography) (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged FourteenThis absorbing, heartfelt work tells the story of the real dancer behind Degas’s now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century bohemian life of Paris.

Famous throughout the world, how many know her name? Admired in paintings in Washington, Paris, London and New York but where is she buried? We know her age, 14, and the grueling work she did, at an age when children today are in school. In the 1880s, she danced as a “little rat” at the Paris Opera; what is a dream for girls now wasn’t a dream then. Fired after  years of hard work when the director had had enough of her repeated absences, she had been working another job as the few pennies the Opera paid weren’t enough to keep her family fed. A model, she posed for painters or sculptors, among them Edgar Degas.

Drawing on a wealth of historical material and her own love of ballet and personal experience of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world of the artists’ models themselves, often overlooked in the history of art.

Scholastique MukasongaOur Lady of the Nile, translated from French by Melanie Mauthner (Fiction/Rwanda) (Daunt Books Publishing, 2021)

Our Lady of the Nile Scholastique MukasongaParents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens, to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. The young ladies are expected to learn, eat, and live together, presided over by the colonial white nuns.

It is 15 years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a quota permits only two Tutsi students for every twenty pupils. As Gloriosa, the school’s Hutu queen bee, tries on her parents’ preconceptions and prejudices, Veronica and Virginia, both Tutsis, are determined to find a place for themselves and their history. In the struggle for power and acceptance, the lycée is transformed into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. During the interminable rainy season, everything slowly unfolds behind the school’s closed doors: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, and persecution.

A landmark novel about a country divided and a society hurtling towards horror. In gorgeous and devastating prose, Mukasonga captures the dreams, ambitions and prejudices of young women growing up as their country falls apart.

Duanwad PimwanaArid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (short stories) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Arid Dreams Duanwad PumwanaIn 13 stories that investigate ordinary and working-class Thailand, characters aspire for more but remain suspended in routine. They bide their time, waiting for an extraordinary event to end their stasis. A politician’s wife imagines her life had her husband’s accident been fatal, a man on death row requests that a friend clear up a misunderstanding with a prostitute, and an elevator attendant feels himself wasting away while trapped, immobile, at his station all day.

With curious wit, this collection offers revelatory insight and subtle critique, exploring class, gender, and disenchantment in a changing country.

Olga RavnThe Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Science Fiction) (Lolli Editions, 2020)

The Elpmoyees Olga RavnA workplace novel of the 22nd century. The near-distant future. Millions of kilometres from Earth.

The crew of the Six-Thousand ship consists of those who were born, and those who were created. Those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike find themselves longing for the same things: warmth and intimacy. Loved ones who have passed. Our shared, far-away Earth, now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see themselves in a new light, each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether their work can carry on as before – what it means to be truly alive.

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, Ravn’s crackling prose is as chilling as it is moving, as exhilarating as it is foreboding. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Judith SchalanskyAn Inventory of Losses, translated from German by Jackie Smith (Essays/Experimental) MacLehose Press, 2020)

An Inventory of Losses Judith SchalanskyA dazzling cabinet of curiosities from one of Europe’s most acclaimed and inventive writers.

Each of the pieces, following the conventions of a different genre, considers something that is irretrievably lost to the world, including the paradisal pacific island of Tuanaki, the Caspian Tiger, the Villa Sacchetti in Rome, Sappho’s love poems, Greta Garbo’s fading beauty, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the former East Germany’s Palace of the Republic.

As a child of the former East Germany, the dominant emotion in Schalansky’s work is “loss” and its aftermath, in an engaging mixture of intellectual curiosity, with a down-to-earth grasp of life’s pitiless vitality, ironic humour, stylistic elegance and intensity of feeling that combine to make this one of the most original and beautifully designed books to be published in 2020.

Adania ShibliMinor Detail, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fiction/Palestine) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Minor Detail Adrania ShibliMinor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – the catastrophe that led to the displacement and expulsion of more than 700,000 people – and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history. A haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, Minor Detail cuts to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment.

Małgorzata SzejnertEllis Island: A People’s History, translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Nonfiction/History) (Scribe UK, 2020)

Ellis Island A Peoples HistoryA landmark work of history that brings voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant experience.

Whilst living in New York, journalist Małgorzata Szejnert would gaze out from lower Manhattan at Ellis Island, a dark outline on the horizon. How many stories did this tiny patch of land hold? How many people had joyfully embarked on a new life there — or known the despair of being turned away? How many were held there against their will?

Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs and correspondence from internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses — all of whom knew they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.

It tells many stories of the island, from Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first to be processed there, to the diaries of Fiorello La Guardia, who worked at the station before going on to become one of New York City’s mayors, to depicting the ordeal the island went through on 9/11. At the book’s core are letters recovered from the Russian State Archive, a heartrending trove of correspondence from migrants to their loved ones back home. Their letters never reached their destination: they were confiscated by intelligence services and remained largely unseen.

Far from the open-door policy of myth, we see that deportations from Ellis Island were often based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Sometimes families were broken up, and new arrivals were held in detention at the Island for days, weeks, or months under quarantine. Indeed the island compound spent longer as an internment camp than a migration station.

Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants that reshaped the US. Its true history reveals that today’s immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique photographs.

Maria StepanovaIn Memory of Memory, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (essay/fiction/memoir/travelogue/historical) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

In Memory of Memory Maria StepanovaWith the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Maria StepanovaWar of the Beasts and the Animals, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Poetry/Experimental) (Bloodaxe Books, 2021)

War of the Beats Maria StepanovaStepanova is one of Russia’s most innovative and exciting poets and thinkers. Immensely high-profile in Russia, her reputation has lagged behind in the West.

War of the Beasts and the Animals includes recent long poems of conflict ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’, written during the Donbas conflict, as well as a third long poem ‘The Body Returns’, commemorates the Centenary of WWI. In all three poems Stepanova’s assured and experimental use of form, her modernist appropriation of poetic texts from around the world and her consideration of the way that culture, memory and contemporary life are interwoven make her work pleasurable and relevant.

This collection includes two sequences of poems from her 2015 collection Kireevsky: sequences of ‘weird’ ballads and songs, subtly changed folk and popular songs and poems that combine historical lyricism and a contemporary understanding of the effects of conflict and trauma. Stepanova uses the forms of ballads and songs, but alters them so they almost appear to be refracted in moonlit water. The forms seem recognisable, but the words are fragmented and suggestive, they weave together well-known refrains of songs, familiar images, subtle half-nods to films and music.

Alice ZeniterThe Art of Losing, translated from French by Frank Wynne (Historical Fiction/Algeria) (Picador, 2021)

The Art of LOsing Alice ZeniterNaïma has always known  her family came from Algeria – until now, that meant little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French housing estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.

Of the past, the family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?

Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society. Now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask questions about her family’s history that till now, have had no answers.

Spanning three generations across seventy years, The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, an identity, a way to speak to your children. It’s a story of colonisation and immigration, and how in some ways, we are a product of the things we’ve left behind.

* * * * *

I haven’t read any of these, though many are familiar, as I have seen them reviewed and discussed. The range of genres is impressive, making it an eclectic selection. I’m interested in The Lady of the Nile, Minor Detail, and Annie Ernaux is an author I’m keen to read, though where to start, as she has seven short memoirs now in English and I keep thinking I ought to read a few in French.

Have you read or heard of any of these titles? Tempted by anything?

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

Photo by Dan on Pexels.com

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.

Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat tr. Marilyn Booth

Those Who Are Lost

Lebanese Arabic LiteratureWritten in three parts, this award winning novel by Lebanese author Hada Barakat, is composed of a series of six letters written in a stream of consciousness narrative that are interlinked.  The letters are read, but not by their intended recipient, found between the pages of a book, dug out of a bin or otherwise encountered. They prompt the finder to write their own letter.

They are a kind of confession, written by the marginalised, floundering in exile. The letters excavate a depth of feeling that is raw, that traverses memory, hurts, an indifferent ability to cause pain, love, sorrow, longing, an abuse of kindness, a deterioration of the psyche.

“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”

Some of the letters are written to a family member, others to a lover, others to nameless recipients.

They are all experiencing deep loss having either been removed from all they’ve known or been connected to, or have been abandoned. Below, I’ve chosen a quote from each letter to give a sense of the narrative.

An undocumented immigrant writes to his former lover. He is unkind and doesn’t understand why she tolerates him. We learn that his mother put him on a train alone when he was eight or nine, effectively abandoning him, a sacrifice to gift him the education she never had. A man across from him is watching him through the window. Paranoia.

I’ve never written a letter in my life. Not a single one. There was a letter in my mind, which I brooded over for years, rewriting it in my head again and again. But I never wrote it down. After all, my mother could hardly read, and so I expect she would have taken my letter to one of the village men with enough education to read it to her. That would have been a disaster though!

a book in arabic writings

Photo by SafaPexels.com

A woman in a hotel room writes to a man from her past. She finds a perplexing letter in the pages of the telephone directory in the room. She wonders whether it was the man who penned it or the woman to which he wrote who left it there and why. It was clearly unfinished. She recalls the sweet succulence of the medlar fruits they ate walking the streets of Beirut.

This sweetness has nothing to do with the act of remembering. It’s not the delicious and sweet because it is linked to the past, to the time of our youth, where nostalgia for that time gives everything we can’t bring back a more beautiful sheen. Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I once was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

flowers desk pen letter

Photo by KoolShootersPexels.com

An escaped torturer recounts his crimes to his mother. He got the idea to write a letter from observing a woman taking some folded papers from her handbag, read them, then tear them in half and drop them in a bin. He retrieves them.

You would say I deserve all this. You might even disown me, calling me the Devil’s offspring. And if I think of my father, I’d have to admit that you have a point. Still, after all that I’ve been through, is there any point in believing that if I asked you to pardon me, you might do it?

I know you won’t, I know there’s really no hope.

A former prostitute writes to her brother. She is on a plane that had been delayed due to the arrest of a passenger. She found a crumpled up letter shoved between the seat and the wall.

I know why security took him away in handcuffs, because I have a letter in my pocket that this man wrote to his mother. He must have tried to hide it before they reached him, because it’s not the kind of letter anyone would just forget about or be careless enough to lose.

A young queer man recounts to his estranged father his partner’s battle with AIDS. He stumbles across a letter written by a woman in a storage locker at a bar he worked in. That was two years ago, recently he reread it.

I read it again and again, as if I knew that woman personally. Or as if I could actually see her in front of me, asking someone’s forgiveness but discovering she could not get it. And not just because her letter would never arrive. It’s about the need we all have for someone to listen to us, and then to decide they will pardon us no matter what we have done.

Those Who Are Searching

In this second part, brief extracts focused on those who have some connection to the letter writers, those who are trying to find their place, searching, also at a loss.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Finally, the mailman leaves his own note, sheltering in the bombed out remains of the post office.

Neither the internet nor anything else would do away with the need for my rounds, not even after internet cafés were springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

Displaced, at a loss, rootless, untethered. Like the roll of the dice they were born into a place and era where stability, home and belonging would be denied them.

Haunting, at times disturbing, it is a compelling read, the rootlessness and isolation felt by the reader, due to the manner in which the letters are written. The edge of despair palpable. It’s as if the one who stayed, surrounded by destruction, is the only one left with a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Article: The Return of the NonProdigal Sons by Hoda Barakat

Hoda Barakat

Winner International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She has worked in teaching and journalism and lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs, as well as contributing to books written in French. Her work has been translated into a number of languages.

She received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002 and the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ in 2008.

Her novels include: The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), The Tiller of Waters (2000) which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and My Master and my Lover (2004). The Kingdom of This Earth (2012) reached the IPAF longlist in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, given (at that time) every two years to honour a writer’s achievement in fiction. Voices of the Lost won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ((IPAF) in 2019.

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me a review copy

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This second volume of Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography trilogy has a completely different feel to the first Things I Don’t Want to Know, stuck as that first volume was, between the parameters of George Orwell’s four motivations in Why I Write and Levy’s own resistance to engaging with aspects of her subject that were rearing up to confront her.

Things I Didn’t Want to Know But Have Discovered

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoirSo we now know a little of her motivation, however now comes the struggle, as she must balance writing with the cost of living; her circumstances have changed and we are going to learn how she manages as a single, independent mother.

This time she creates her own structure, using a series of 14 interlinked vignettes, episodes within the journey of releasing herself from a life lived within what were once deemed the acceptable parameters of a societal construct “marriage”, into the undoing of and reconstruction of something like “the pursuit of” but not quite, freedom.

In the opening, a 19 year old woman character is being chatted up by a man referred to as ‘Big Silver’, he is the wrong audience for the young woman’s story, however Levy decides she is the right reader for this one:

“To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take”.

The young woman has the audacity to interrupt the man’s narrative sharing her own poignant story, as Levy introduces us to one of the recurring themes of her book, minor and major characters.

It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be a minor character and him the major character. In this sense she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with usual rituals.

Using the Master’s Tools

Levy’s observations are astute, comical and laced with self-irony, questioning the role and discovering the tenacity of the woman writer, though her verse is peppered with an abundance of references hailing from the tradition of well documented and taught, dead white men.

In the opening sentence she reminds us that Orson Welles once said, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. His words will frame the book and are thought provoking sure, but he was also known for saying there were three intolerable things in life, cold coffee, lukewarm champagne and overexcited women.

Was this irony ?

Or was it the result of a slanted education of a certain era/affiliation. It speaks to what is being read and consumed and to an old monopoly on ideas, that rendered a canon of white men the originators of knowledge.

louise_bourgeois_maman

Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’

For this reader, it was taken too far when redecorating her bedroom, upon rejecting the bright yellow, embraced too soon (overexcited), she repainted the walls white and chose to hang a portrait of Oscar Wilde, while on the same page, looked at photos of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth and French artist Louise Bourgeois that graced her fridge and wrote of them “the forms they were inventing gave them beauty without measure,” additionally sharing that the moths seem to like landing on those two.

Bourgeois had unfashionably declared that she made art because her emotions were bigger than herself.

Unable to relate to the women, it is towards Proust she inclined, when he said:

Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart.

Sister Outsider Speaks to Me

As I let this frustration percolate, trying to understand it, I wondered about the difference between gender politics and feminism. I admit that my annoyance has much to do with a decision to address an imbalance in my own reading when I started counting and analysing what I read and discovered too much of the same thing by the same type of people. So forgive me for projecting.

Sister OutsiderA voice repeated in my mind, ‘the master’s tools, the master’s house’ – you know when you recall a fragment of a quote but can’t quite remember it. It was the passionate sage wisdom of Audre Lorde reminding me of her essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House in Sister Outsider (1984). Four pages of thought provoking, mind opening courageous speech.

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection that is feared by the patriarchal world.”

Audre Lorde speaks too of those standing outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women and suggests that it is learning how to stand alone, unpopular, sometimes reviled, and to make common cause with others identified as outside the structures, that we can create a world in which we can all flourish.

“It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Freedom Hurts

Freedom is not to be pursued lightly, as she discovers when she exits her marriage and Victorian home as she enters her 50’s and a 6th floor apartment with her two daughters, soon developing the physical and energetic strength to endure it.

Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

Each vignette explores this struggle to cope and live with this new freedom, through a series of anecdotes that allow certain themes to repeat and by the time we read Gravity, she has been loaned a shed in the bottom of a garden in which to write and is kept to task by random apples that fall on the roof.

As I begin to read The Body Electric the writing energy and pace picks up a notch, we are out of the apartment and the shed, out of her head and on the road and what a hazardous place it is, but what energy and humour it brings to the narrative. Cycling became an obsession and kept her rage off the page.

I cursed and shouted at drivers when they opened their front doors in a way that toppled me on to the road. I had road rage. Yes, I had graduated to road rage on my electric bicycle. That is to say, I had a lot of rage from my old life and it expressed itself on the road.

There is the tiresome neighbour who waits for her to arrive to tell her off about temporary parking, intent on making her life more difficult, a situation various friends are keen to advise her on. But Jean is essential to the narrative, her ability to irritate prompts the author to ponder on what a woman is, on what she should be, or not be, a question she has no time to ask Jean.

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it was coming to an end. Femininity as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?

yellow flowers in brown woven basket on bicycle

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

And in the middle of The Black and Bluish Darkness as she is riding up the hill in the rain, comes the most tender and humorous moment, we can afford to laugh reading in the comfort of home, but imagining the scene (no spoilers) and the reminder of the underlying reality, feels a little heart-breaking – except we know she does not indulge in self-pity, and has wonderful friends to call on. She recovers well, reaching out to one of them, who arrives with a box of strawberries and runs a bath for her. There it is, that redemptive power, those good, reliable female friends that no woman can do without.

Levy further explores the lives of other role models and how they managed to write, love, being woman and further reflects on her own role model, her mother, who even after she has passed, whose loss results in Levy sometimes literally getting lost, severed from her origins, somehow manages to remain present, symbolically.

It is certainly the case that there are fewer references and tomes written by women in previous centuries that analyse the sacrifices they make to pursue their art and ideas. That freer life a writer desires comes with a cost of living and women have long been making it easier for others to manifest their dreams while either sacrificing their own, or sacrificing something else in their determination to attain them.

Making her lived experience the lens through which she observes the role of the woman writer, Levy provokes us all to think more about the choices and sacrifices we make and the balancing act required to pursue our creativity and passions.

Next Up : Real Estate!

Further Reading

Guardian Review: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – a memoir and feminist manifesto

Article: Why Not Ask a Powerful Man What He’s Doing to Help Women? By Stella Bugbee

Article France Culture: Louise Bourgeois, “une femme enragée et agrippée” (1911-2010)

Review: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was looking forward to reading this after it won the Women’s Prize for fiction and having been tempted by her earlier work, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but put off by the length of it.

Piranesi Winner Susanna ClarkeFantasy isn’t a genre I read very often, but one I have a nostalgic feeling for, having loved it when I was a child. The problem usually being that it becomes harder to evoke the magical feeling that a child’s imagination is capable of creating. However I was willing to try and decided to read it on a day I’d have few interruptions.

I learned after finished it, that the name Piranesi, is likely to have been inspired by the 18th century Italian classical archaeologist, architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1728) and his series of 16 etchings, Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, depicting enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and towers and bas-relief type sculptures.

If Jonathan Strange was a riotous meeting of Austen and Dickens, then Piranesi’s pole stars are Jorge Luis Borges and CS Lewis. “I found Lewis at a very impressionable age and then he sort of organised the inside of my head,” she says. “And that’s just the way it has been ever since.”

Review

Piranesi, the main character of the novel, lives in a house that has walls and multiple levels and statues and tides and fish and the bones of 13 bodies. More than a house, this is his world. Nothing outside this house exists for Piranesi and as we read we slowly begin to imagine it ourselves.

I spent today working at my usual tasks: fishing, gathering seaweed, working on my Catalogue of Statues.

Piranesi is content, though inquisitive. There is only one other person in his world, whom he refers to as The Other. The Other calls him Piranesi.

Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and I must proceed according to the evidence. Of the fifteen people whose existence is verifiable, only Myself and the Other are living.

It is clear to the reader that Piranesi is more open and honest with The Other than he is with Piranesi. Thus the mystery underlying the story, about who he is and what he is withholding from Piranesi.

Piranesi keeps journals, using his own calendar creation and indexing system. These will help him understand.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.

Piranesi CoverDespite Piranesi’s scientific status, he is developing a connection to the World within he lives, in which he is able to ask questions and intuit answers.

The Other warns him about things that may happen and Piranesi has to use what knowledge he has and his developing ability to sense things, to navigate this new situation. To understand messages and develop meaning from his observations that inspire those intuitive nudges.

The warning of the birds – if that was what it was – seemed on the face of it nonsensical, but I decided nonetheless to follow this unusual line of reasoning and see where it took me.

I enjoyed reading it and the slow way that the reader is made to experience something of Piranesi’s own “forgetting”, by only seeing and understanding what is around him, without an appreciation for what exists outside the world, the House, he currently resides in. And his development of that other sense that provides meaning.

This realisation – the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge – came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there.

I loved the not knowing, and that process of beginning to understand, the sense of there being an acknowledgment of so much more than what was in the story. Of the natural world, connectedness, a sense of the divine, that all these things are seen as transgressive, the act of forgetting due to rational thought and science becoming the only true authority.

If anything, I felt it stopped short and wondered if this might not have been a longer story, had it been able to develop further, perhaps it reflects the state of where the world is, stuck in this era of rational thought, on the precipice of rediscovering ancient knowledge and intuitive power, of realising who and what we really are, our capacity if we can move beyond the current limitations. I enjoyed it in the moment of reading it, but due to the limitations and sparseness of his world, I’m not sure that it stay long with me.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Taking on uncanny relevance this year, this austere story of one man’s isolation explores profound questions of freedom by Justine Jordan

Guardian Interview – how the celebration of solitude in Piranesi, grew from her experience of a long illness

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

Winter Flowers Angélique VilleneuveWinter Flowers (Les Fleurs d’hiver) by Angélique Villenueuve, translated by Adriana Hunter is published Oct 7 by Peirene Press, a boutique publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary European novellas that can be read in an afternoon.

Review

A young woman in 1918 Paris is considered one of the fortunate, when her husband returns from war injured. Wearing a face mask. He lived. He is not the same man who left. When Toussaint Caillet was transferred from the department of facial injuries at Val-de-Grâce military hospital, he sent Jeanne a one sentence note ordering her not to visit.

They have a 3 year old daughter who only knows her father by the portrait of the soldier on the wall of their cramped quarters. She has two fathers, the Papa who left and the man who returned.

Of course she’d expected that the war and his injury would have changed him, but she’d never tried to imagine the scale or even the nature of this disruption. The letter he’d sent her in January 1917 had been a dark window and, once she’d stomached the pain of it, she’d made a point of not reopening it.

Jeanne works from home making artificial flowers, she is trying to be patient and understanding, but her husband’s refusal to engage inflames her.

Sitting at her table, Jeanne senses nothing. It has to be said that the huge red dahlias, whose wound-like qualities are accentuated by the light of the oil lamp, completely absorb her in a swirl of scarlet. The repeated gestures gradually steal over her body, leaving no part of her in which she can drift. When Jeanne sleeps or closes her eyes, when she’s most absent in mind or body, she knows this much: the flowers are still there and always will be.

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

When he finally leaves the room, she follows him. It is not the first time.

Her neighbour Sidonie, a seamstress, has lost almost everything, they support each other. She is about to be tipped over the edge.

Winter Flowers exquisitely renders a situation many lived through and few understood. The silence and destruction of men who survived, who came back traumatised. Who never spoke of what happened. Who may or may not have healed. And the women who stood beside them, who persevered, who sacrificed and learned to live with the reality of what they too had lost.

Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country  were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.

And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.

Despite the terrible events and circumstances, the hopes and fears, the woman too must participate and receive the words of recognition from those in power, despite their grief, unable to express their truth.

The mayor’s words are incomprehensible they come and go and sting. Jeanne doesn’t know whether it’s up to them, the women here, these workwomen, to tame the words and arrange them in the correct order, whether it’s really to them that they’re addressed. They flow too quickly. They fly too high. There are too many of them.

Thunder and fire, men freezing and caked in mud and half poisoned by noxious gases, heroes, brothers, love, defeat, hope, victory, history peace, blood, martyrs, children. His speech is riddled with these impassioned fragments. And, just like the battles experienced by those who are now dead, these official words accumulate terrifyingly, chaotically over the gathering. It’s a bombardment, and Jeanne, busy as she is shoring up her neighbour’s faltering frame, struggles to withstand its fire for more than a few minutes.

It is a lament, a form of consolation, a living mourning, of how a family rebuilds itself after an event that has wreaked devastation on them all. Day by day, acknowledging the small wins, with patience, forgiveness, empathy and imagination.

I loved it.  A heart-rending, visceral account of loss and the accompanying overwhelm of steadfast perseverance. The tidal-like edge of madness and the surreal act of continuing despite it. Women.

Every few pages, I marked passages, highlighted sentences and rereading them as I write this, felt like going back to beginning and reading it over again, so rare is it to encounter this perspective, to share how it might have been for those who waited and wailed, who persevered and attempted to recreate a new life from the wreck of what returned.

Angélique Villeneuve writes with great empathy, sensitivity and understanding in narrating a story from the little explored perspective of the young working woman dealing with the aftermath of war, in which they have all changed and must live in a post traumatic world, with little knowledge of how to navigate it.

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

Born in Paris in 1965, Angélique Villeneuve lived in Sweden and India before returning to her native France. The author of eight novels, she has also written numerous children’s books and poetry.

Les Fleurs d’hiver, originally published in 2014, won four literary prizes: the 2014 Prix Millepages, the 2015 Prix La Passerelle and Prix de la Ville de Rambouillet, and the 2016 Prix du Livre de Caractère de Quintin.

Villeneuve’s novel Maria (2018), won the SGDL Grand Prix for fiction. Her most recent work, La Belle Lumière (2020), is a fictional account of the life of Helen Keller’s mother.

Winter Flowers is the first of her books to be translated into English.

Adriana Hunter, Translator

An award-winning British translator, Adriana Hunter has translated over ninety books from French, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Peirene Press, 2010) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W. Her translations have been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize.

N.B. Thank you to Peirene Press for providing me a review copy.

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:

things-i-dont-want-to-know-deborah-levy1. just open it and start reading taking in what is actually shared at face value, a woman on the cusp of a life change, whose suppressed emotions will no longer stay down, who leaves town to try and figure them out, looks back at her childhood and adolescence for inspiration, then decides to look forward instead and begins to write (on the last page);

or,

2. consider the framework within which she writes; a response to the essay ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, who claimed 4 chief motivations, in this order:
i. sheer egoism
ii. aesthetic enthusiasm
iii. historical impulse
iv. political purpose

which Levy moves around, addressing but not – in the following rearranged order.

i. political purpose – her feminist awakening opening, as she ponders her role and her desire, supported by poignant quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Margurite Duras and others, culminating in a brief getaway, escape to Palma, Mallorca, reading her journal ‘Poland 1988‘ in which she witnesses a soldier’s farewell to his mother, sister, girlfriend.

What interests me (in my sheriff’s notebook) is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.

ii. historical impulse – her white South African childhood in which her father is imprisoned and her mother sends her to stay with relatives whose political leanings are opposite to her father’s. Everywhere there are signs, reminding them of their privilege.

There was something I was beginning to understand at seven years old. It was to do with not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

iii. sheer egoism – the sadness of exile, adolescence and separation in London, England, writing on paper serviettes in a greasy spoon cafe, avoiding home life. The first tentative steps towards becoming a writer.

I was born in one country and grew up in another, but I was not sure which one I belonged to. And another thing. I did not want to know this thing, but I did know all the same.

iv. aesthetic enthusiasm – in which she has dinner with the Chinese shopkeeper, a continuation of the story  begun in the opening section – and there it is, the reflection of that kiss in the middle of a catastrophe.  I skipped forward after i. to read this section second, it being clear from the beginning that this was a framing device, I was immediately drawn to read it whole, not in parts. It’s not like other books, it doesn’t spoil the story to read the end before the middle.

At first I found it annoying, that the framework of Orwell had been used and quoted on the back of the book, while the contributions from the feminist writer’s in her opening section had so much more to contribute to her reasoning. I asked, Why not create your own framework? Then later, thought, perhaps she does, disguised as it is, within the infamous outline of the other. Making the reader try and read between the lines.

Levy places the life of a woman writer (herself) into this construct created by a male writer, his opinion on  the motives of writing – already an act of rebellion, and though it doesn’t work entirely, perhaps it was never intended to, though it may have lured some otherwise reluctant readers in.

Joan Didion Writer Essayist

Joan Didion, Author

Joan Didion also wrote an essay Why I Write in 1976, prompted by the same source. Ignoring Orwell’s framework she delved immediately into sharing her flaws and inability to conform, out of which grew her own singular way of seeing, observing and recording answers to her own curious questions, the flexing of imagination.

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Joan Didion

When Levy writes, there is an absence, a reluctance. It is admitted in the title, it stems from a childhood, continues into an adolescence and confronts her in middle age as she rides the escalator and can no longer keep it down. It threatens to overflow and engulf her.  Those things she does not want to know. That she laughs off.

It occurred to me that both Maria and I were on the run in the twenty-first century, just like George Sand whose name was also Amantine was on the run in the nineteenth century, and Maria whose name was also Zama was looking for somewhere to recover and rest in the twentieth. We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off.

She is left with her question. What do we do with the things we do not want to know?
She realises she can not accept her own question. She will continue to write and perhaps find the answer in the next book. I will read it and find out whether she has the courage.

In the meantime Didion persevered with hers:

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Joan Didion

Further Reading

NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner

Guardian Review: Kate KellawayDeborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy On Writing and Living

Deborah Levy, Author

Deborah Levy is the author of seven novels: including Swimming Home, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything and a short story collection Black Vodka. She has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has also written for The Royal Shakespeare Company and her pioneering theatre writing is collected in Levy: Plays 1.  She has written a trilogy of memoirs, referred to as a living autobiography on writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020. The final volume, Real Estate, was  published in 2021.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

Sugar by Bernice McFadden

I just love the way that right from the first pages Bernice McFadden’s characters jump off the page and in this case Sugar Lacey makes her grand entrance, dragging her suitcase, strutting through the small town of the deep south, Bigelow, Arkansas (1950’s) in her high heels, tight dress, brightly coloured wig and nonchalant attitude,  peering through the window of the hairdresser knowing that would be where all the talk happens, and on to number 10 Grove Street, her new abode, right next door to Pearl and Joe.

Sugar Lacey Vintage ClassicPearl has promised the Reverend to welcome this newcomer, but she wasn’t expecting the shock of seeing Sugar’s face and who it reminds her of, nor the sudden flurry of visitors who want to sit in her kitchen in case they get a peek at this unwelcome new resident, whom they’re so inquisitive of.

Was this the woman the Reverend spoke of? The woman Pearl had been asked to guide and help eventually lead into the flock? Was this her? This woman didn’t look like she’d ever spent a second in a house of worship, much less knew what one was. But there was something else too. A slither of something familiar that Pearl was yet to put her finger on.

When they do spot her, they’re certainly given more to talk about.

Sugar has grown up not knowing her family, raised by the three Lacey sisters before setting out and discovering how much tougher life is on your own. Pearl still hasn’t got over the loss of her daughter Jude and many things about her life, date from that moment, who she was before and who she is now.

When she finally plucks up the courage to go next door and introduce herself, she can’t herself from commenting on what she thinks is an unusual name, asking Sugar if that’s her nickname.

“No, that’s my Christian name. Why? Don’t you know sugar is brown first? White folks couldn’t stand the fact that something so sweet shared the same colour as the people who cut the cane, slopped the hogs and picked the cotton. So they bleached it to resemble them, and now they done gone and fooled everybody. You included.”

Pearl and Sugar develop an unlikely friendship, the one challenging the other to change perspective, enabling them both to meet somewhere in the middle, an improvement for both of them in the way they had been living their lives.

As we know, life never sits still, change and disruption often arrive uninvited and when they do Sugar must make a decision. The book closes with a few threads indicating that there could be more to come and indeed there is, Sugar being the first in the Sugar Lacey trilogy of novels.

In this wonderful debut novel, 20 years after being first published, now available in the UK, we encounter the enchanting, captivating and entertaining storytelling of Bernice McFadden, her unforgettable characters and the community that surrounds them.

McFadden is an author who I will happily read all her work, there’s something reliable and comforting when you sit down with one of her works, knowing you’re not going to want to put it down until it’s finished, but forcing yourself to do so, because you want the experience to linger.

The second novel This Bitter Earth will be published in the UK by Vintage Classics in August 2022 and sees Sugar leaving Bigelow and returning to her childhood home, where she learns the truth about her parentage: a terrible tale of unrequited love, of one man’s enduring hatred, and of the black magic that has cursed generations of Lacey women.

Bernice L. McFadden

Bernice McFaddenBernice L. McFadden is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award.

Her most recent novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies (Jacaranda Books), was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2019. Sugar featured in the Richard and Judy Autumn 2021 Bookclub.

She is a three-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA. McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Other Works by Bernice McFadden Reviewed Here

Praise SongPraise Song For the Butterflies

– a visit to Ghana in 2007 where she met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi are the inspiration for this intriguing, excellent novel.

The Book of HarlanThe Book of Harlan

– one of my top reads of 2020, a truly immersive read, inspired by the lives of some of the authors ancestors and the little known history of Black Americans in Paris circa WWII.