Dear Senthuran, A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

This was an interesting follow up to the fiction/auto-fiction debut novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which I thought was a stunning and original book, an unforgettable read.

A Black Spirit Memoir OgbanjeDear Senthuran is a collection of letters to what we might call Emezi’s inner circle, past and present.
Emezi was raised in Nigeria and is of Nigerian/Malaysian heritage; they are an ogbanje, a non-human Black spirit being, currently incarnated in human form.

If you read Freshwater, you understand the basis from which this comes from, the overlapping realities they inhabit.

I live there, inhabiting simultaneous realities that are usually considered mutually exclusive. What can we call the dysphoria experienced by spirits who find themselves embodied in human form?

The memoir is thus a record of the period in their life leading up to the publication of that debut novel, of a year spent in an MFA program and both the highs and lows of that experience. It is about world-bending, living in a way that is true to who they are, thus rather than being flexible to how the world works, it is like the opposite, bending the world to meet them.

Emezi lives in America but is not of that culture and it shows in this work, in how confident and fearless they come across, which is one of the reasons it was difficult to align with their student peers, many of whom held much self-doubt regarding their writing ability and expectations, common to their culture of origin.

I call this a culture because that’s what it was. I’ve seen it in several places: people bonding over insecurities and self-deprecation, constantly saying they didn’t think their work was good, looking to the faculty for validation, someone to tell them they were real writers, to give them direction and guidance and a map to where they wanted to go. Institutions love that, I think. It makes you need them. And all those feelings are valid, but the resentment and hostility when you don’t play along, when you don’t shit on your own work, when you don’t wear doubt like a blanket around your shoulders? That’s the part I have a problem with. It reminds me of that thing back home where people want you to “humble yourself” and sometimes their demand is quiet, sometimes it’s blatant, but either way, they make sure you feel it.

Akwaeke Emezi Black Spirit MemoirEmezi writes about the experience and feelings of being unsupported during some of the challenges they faced and about their determination not to compromise when it became clear the debut novel was going to sell.

There is much reflection on writing, the work, they are prolific, determined and have achieved success in a relatively short period of time, despite numerous challenges. They create and share a spell for storytellers, for those trying to create books. Clearly it worked!

With my spell, I drew a map of the future I wanted, then I took those defined lines and pulled them across time, dragging them into the present. Time bends very easily; you can fold it like this with little trouble.

Most of the letters are in appreciation and record events they do not wish to forget, that mark the rise.

f3toni morrison

Toni Morrison

One of the more memorable letters is to the late, great inspirational Toni Morrison. Emezi shares a quote, words she heard her speak in an interview after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. She remembers how Morrison’s work agitated many of the students, ‘because you wrote people who did horrific things, but you didn’t tell the reader how to feel about these people‘ and how delighted they were to discover you could ‘just show a terrible thing and let the showing be the strength of it’.

The words that changed everything for Emezi though were these:

“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central, claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

It is another of the spells they are using to become free.

Throughout the letters, there are references to ‘the magician’, at a certain point the reader asks who or what this presence is: a lover, a boyfriend and if one of those, is it going to endure for the duration of the book? It is a little mystery that eventually becomes a more direct subject of one or two of the letters, another record of events that transpire, of growth that occurs, of pain and hurt, of revenge even. Nothing is exempt in pursuit of the dream, to be the successful writer they desire.

A couple of the letters are to friends who are also human, non-humans, those in their life who totally get it without needing explanation, who accept their reality, with whom they can speak openly, fearlessly.

These humans are so loud in how they press down, in how they enforce their realities…It’s actually impressive, how someone can work so hard to crush a thing they can’t see.

Friendship provides a balm, and many of the letters, while they show the pain and suffering of someone growing into their adult self, lack the mature self-awareness that comes with age and wisdom. They demonstrate the importance of friendship and acceptance along the way.

In a letter To Kathleen on the subject of Worldbending they write:

The last time we texted, you wrote, I need you and our time this break. I know what you mean. The world can be a grit that sands away at us, and love can be a shelter from that…We are safer with each other. We see the world’s we’re trying to make, and we lend our power to each other’s spells.

Shiny Akwaeke Emezi Godhouse

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

After the publication of Freshwater, Emezi buys a house in New Orleans and names it Shiny. It is part of the plan, part of the future they are dreaming into being. Not everything in their lives is how they want it, but fortunately there is now a therapist in their lives, some of the reflections come from the raised consciousness of being in that process.

The house felt too big for me; it felt wrong, like I should have bought it years into my career, not thirteen months after my first book. For weeks, I didn’t sleep well there, worried that God would punish me for being so bold, for bending the world like this. It was Ann who talked me down, who told me that the house was oversized precisely so I could grow into it, so I could have the space to learn to unfurl. I needed that much room, as vast as it felt.

Writing To Jahra, another human/non-human entity, in Home, Emezi describes a return to her birth country, on a pilgrimage to a shrine of their deity, Ala. At the site, they feel seen, the entity nourished.

In a letter To Ann, called Anointing they write of the power of naming themselves, a form of disempowerment of those who want to label, categorise, bully by naming.

People want to be the ones drawing the lines, building the boxes, making the names. Maybe because stories live inside all those structures, and if you’re the one controlling the stories, then you’re the one in power. So they get really angry when you name yourself, especially if you’re the type of thing they were expecting to name. You know how it works: they form a circle around you, point, and call you a name you’re supposed to flinch from, a name you’re supposed to deny and be afraid of. That way, their naming becomes a weapon and what you are becomes a shame, a sentence, a tire around your neck rich with fire. Witch. Demon. Ogbanje. When you name yourself, however, you take the power from the wet, foaming flesh of their mouths and mold it in your hand as if it’s nothing, swallow waiting to slide down your throat, slickened with the soup of your self-knowing.
I thought about this a lot with Freshwater – what it meant, first of all, to publicly name myself ogbanje.

Emezi writes for people like them, for people who might think themselves in the margins, as an example of how to live when that perspective is shifted, when the centre is moved. There are costs when you choose or move a centre, costs they are willing to bear. They have been taught how aggressive they need to be with their wellness in order to survive.

Let the world move over, you said, and I obeyed.

It is an astonishing memoir, written from a frank perspective that doesn’t care whether the reader understands or not, it is for those who understand or are curious, the open-minded. And while it may appear self-indulgent, at times arrogant, narcissistic even, their work is making a splash.

I gave a talk at Yale recently, and at the reception afterward, a woman told me about a paper she wrote on Freshwater, how she was taking it to a medical conference to argue for recognising indigenous realities in treating people. It made me so happy, because it felt like a ripple, you know? You make one thing, and someone makes something else from that, and from there the world is changed, one fraction at a time.

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater

My review of The Death of Vivek Oji

NPR: Letters Reveal Author’s Strength In A World Of Destructive Noise by Hope Wabuke, June 9, 2021

New York Times: Akwaeke Emezi: ‘Imagine Being Ogbanje, Like Me’ by Kim Tran, June 7, 2021

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet was the winning novel of the Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2020 and won the fiction prize at the National Book Critics Circle Awards (2020). It was author Maggie O’Farrell’s eighth novel.

Behind Every Great Man…Is An Often Untold Story

Anne Hathaway Shakespeares wife HamletSet in 1580’s Stratford, Warwickshire, the novel is about the meeting of two young people, their respective families, the life they create and the effect their twin children have on it.

Though the husband will become a famous playwright and name one of his plays after the son they lose, this isn’t a story that centres around him or his work, neither is it really about the son – those names are more like the bright lights that make us curious to see what the fuss is about.

Delightfully, it’s all about Agnes.

“If you ask someone what they know about Shakespeare’s wife, you’ll probably receive one of two answers. Either: he hated her. Or: she tricked him into marriage. Historians and biographers and critics have for a long time inexplicably vilified and criticized her, creating a very misogynistic version of her. I wanted to persuade people to think again, to not rush to conclusions.

We are so accustomed to calling her ‘Anne Hathaway’ but her father’s will clearly names her as ‘Agnes’. That was an electrifying, defining moment in the writing of the book. In giving her what is presumably her birth name, I’m asking readers to discard what we think we know about her and see her anew.” Maggie O’Farrell

Twin Everything

I expected to be gripped early on, so was surprised that it took a while to get into sync with the very descriptive, present tense, third person, omniscient narrative perspective. Initially it felt like listening to someone -while looking through a camera – describe in minute detail every single detail in the frame as it was moving quickly forward. 

It’s written in a dual narrative timeline in alternate chapters; the year that the twins fall ill and the year that these young parents meet. It is divided into two parts, Part 1 takes place before the death of Hamnet and the shorter Part 2, the aftermath.

The initial scene puts us in the eyes of this boy Hamnet as he rushes through his home and that of his grandparents, looking for someone, anyone, due to the sudden onset of deathly pestilence in his twin sister Judith.

Love Always Finds A Way

As the chapters switch between Hamnet’s alarm given the pending emergency and the year his parents met, we get to know his father, a Latin tutor, son of a glove maker/tyrant and his mother Agnes, a farmer’s daughter, living with her disapproving stepmother.

These young people become each others refuge from family situations they’d both like to escape. Agnes is highly intuitive, has an in-depth knowledge of herbalism and possesses a kestrel the local priest gave her. She is unlike other young women, self-possessed, ‘knowing’.

“Some have asked Susanna how her mother does it. They have sidled up to her in the market or out in the streets to demand how Agnes divines what a body needs or lacks or bursts with, how she can tell if a soul is restive or hankering, how she knows what a person or a heart hides.”

The novel traces their relationship, marriage and the sacrificial act that came from her ability to perceive what was best for her husband (facilitating his venturing to London to find and pursue his purpose) and what best for her three children, while highlighting the tragic demise of their son, a turning point in their relationship.

“She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

Even in the boys passing there is something mystical in the way it is rendered. The boy is a twin, but also the son of a woman in touch with nature and with a feeling for ‘the other side’. What Hamnet did to save his sister comes of both those mysteries.

How Women Shape The Lives of Others

Forget that the playwright Shakespeare is a character in this novel and read it for the unique individuals they might have been, as ordinary people in a community, coming together against the odds. I really enjoyed that this was so much more about Agnes and that she had gifts she seemed able to live with and use as a mature woman, without persecution. A result and reward of a difficult childhood, after the untimely death of her own mother.

“She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married. She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be.”

By deliberately not mentioning the husband’s name, we imagine this couple encountering each other, evolving together, moving apart and coming back together, for nothing can both unite and divide a couple quite like the grief of losing a child.

“What is given may be taken away at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors; they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or a brigand. The trick is to never let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget that they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye; borne away from you like thistledown.”

A novel of an auspicious pairing of souls, of longing and grief, of sacrifice and regret, I really enjoyed it after the slow start, despite the narrative perspective at times keeping me at a distance from the characters.  O’Farrell does such a brilliant job in re-imagining this much maligned character, it makes you want to read and know much more about Agnes. About the women whose lives were rarely scribed.

Maggie O’Farrell, Author

Hamnet The Marriage Portrait Shakespeares WifeMaggie O’Farrell is a Northern Irish novelist, now one of Britain’s most acclaimed and popular contemporary fiction authors whose work has been translated into over 30 languages. Her debut novel After You’d Gone won the Betty Trask Award and The Hand That First Held Mine the Costa Novel Award (2010).

She has written 9 novels and a superb memoir, I’ve reviewed here: I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes With Death.

Her latest book set in Renaissance Italy, The Marriage Portrait, tells the story of a 16-year-old duchess and her fateful marriage to the Duke of Ferrara – based on the short life of Lucrezia de’ Medici.

Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame

This novel grew on me the more I read it and the less I expected from it.

A Kiwi Writer In London

London Homesickness New Zealand writers abroadThe story takes place over one weekend when a young New Zealand novelist named Grace Cleave, who is living in London, takes a train to spend the weekend with Philip, a journalist, his wife and two young children. She has escaped the city for a while after accepting an invitation to visit the family following an interview about her work and ambitions.

She is the author of a few published novels, a writer with an expanding reputation, living in a small, cold, uninspiring flat, moving between her writing desk, her therapist and a nagging yearning to be elsewhere. 

Keen to take up the opportunity to escape and the familiarity the visit may offer (they have a connection to her home country), she is disappointed to be confronted by dreadful anxiety once she arrives. Her tendency to analyse everything and to express herself more articulately in her thoughts (or on paper) than in actual conversation makes her feel shameful.  She has been invited in her capacity as a writer; she feels sure they expect more from her and sees herself as a disappointment, not measuring up to the perception created by her talent.

Grace was stricken with the terrible certainties and uncertainties of speech…The ritual of spoken communication is so firmly accepted that few people question it or dare to rearrange it. If you look towards someone, speak to that person, saying You, you, you, then what you say refers to that person; it’s all so simple.
Not being a human being and not being practiced in the art of verbal communication, Grace was used to experiencing moments of terror when her mind questioned or rearranged the established ritual; when commonplace certainties became, from her point of view, alarming uncertainties.

Homesickness

New Zealand landscape cabbage tree Janet FrameDuring the visit, many instances, objects and mutterings remind her of her own faraway home, memories of childhood intercede and brilliant metaphors come to her fully formed. It was as if she were being filled with future content and yet the contrast with how she came across to others was painful for her to witness.

Filled with longing born out of the loneliness of her self-imposed exile, she hoped to fill that void by being with someone who valued her work and understood her connection to a landscape elsewhere.

“So I, a migratory bird, am suffering from the need to return to the place I have come from before the season and sun are right for my return. Do I meet spring summer or winter? Here I live in a perpetual other season unable to read in the sky, the sun, the temperature, the signs for returning. Is it homesickness – ‘I know a place whereon…’ the matagouri, the manuka, the cabbage tree grow…”

A Migratory Bird

In her dream life, day or night, there are moments when Grace thinks of herself as a migratory bird.  It adds something to her work, to be able to retreat into this imagined form and see things from another perspective.

“A certain pleasure was added to Grace’s relief at establishing herself as a migratory bird. She found that she understood the characters in her novel. Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.”

Semi-Autobiographical

It is all the more brilliant, having learned that it was published posthumously, that it is semi autobiographical, though written twenty years before any of her own autobiographical works. She set the novel aside referring to it as ’embarrassingly personal’. The character of Philip was based on a Guardian journalist who had interviewed her.

“I matter. I fly alone, apart from the flock, on long journeys through storm and clear skies to another summer. Hear me!”

Highly recommended for Janet Frame fans.

migratory bird, get on your bird, Janet Frame Towards Another Summer

Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

Janet Frame, Author

Janet Frame died on January 29 2004 at the age of 79. She wrote novels, poems, and a three-volume autobiography that were read and admired worldwide. She won many awards and was short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Further Reading

‘a sharp drama, of fleeing and missing, home’ – Guardian review by Catherine Taylor

Short Biography of Janet Frame – by Patrick Evans Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

The Janet Frame Collection, NZ On Screen – a collection of films and material relating to Janet Frame

Wrestling With the Angel – a brilliant biography written by esteemed historian Michael King

 

Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton

This book was such an enticing premise and clearly a passionate endeavour on the part of the author, who spent years researching her family and understanding the modern tools available through AncestryDNA and 23andMe that I couldn’t wait to read it and started it immediately it arrived in my letterbox.

A Hobby Becomes an Obsession

To a large extent, it was the Mormons who made the larger-scale practice of genealogy among Americans possible. Over time, to achieve its mandate of baptizing all forbears of Mormons, the LDS has collected records from a vast and ever-increasing number of populations, converted them into millions of reels of microfilm and microfiche, and stored them in a massive climate-controlled vault carved out of the Granite Mountains of Utah.

The internet and the rise in popularity of DNA testing transformed genealogy into the mainstream hobby – come obsession, it has become today, with sophisticated tools and avenues of research that can make it a compelling pursuit.

With all the tools at their disposal, contemporary genealogists can test rumours passed down like pocketknives. They can also rebut lies, expose secrets, and heal fractures.

DNA and Family Trees, the secrets they reveal

Ancestor Trouble Maud NewtonThis work of nonfiction is both the author’s personal project and an exploration of the meaning of genetic genealogy, of observations of ancestor behaviour and achievements, their inclinations and attitudes, their better moments and worst traits. Her desire to know what is inherited versus what is learned and the implications that has on her own character, drives her forward.

Maud Newton explores society’s experiments with eugenics and ponders her own father’s marriage, a choice he made based on trying to create “smart kids”. She delves into persecuted women, including a female relative accused of being a witch, and discovers a clear line of personality inclinations that have born down the female line of her family.

Maud Newton (the name a pseudonym inspired by one of her relatives) is both curious and wary. Curious to know who these people were and whether there was any connection to the way her own personality had manifested in this world and wary of the darker aspects she was aware of and had uncovered. Those present in her father, (from whom she was estranged), and that of the plantation and slave owning ancestors she was descended from.

To understand ourselves, Carl Jung argued, we need to understand our ancestors. “Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors,” he wrote in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. “The ‘newness’ in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied re-combination of age-old components…The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves.

Nature versus Nurture

Exploring the concept of nature versus nurture, Newton studied their faces and read of their ailments, looking for physical resemblance and a possible forecast of health parameters that might need to have been monitored. This is something that DNA companies have dabbled with in the past, a subject that has created controversy as people make decisions about their health based on speculative, not always reliable genetic information; creating databases that insurance companies would pay handsomely for.

The genes we inherit from our ancestors have a lot to do with the odors we give off. It’s even possible that newborns recognize their own biological mothers by scent and that mothers can identify their biological newborns the same way.

One of the most incredible aspects of the DNA results, was how many times her profile has changed over the years and how extreme the changes were, making one wonder what is real and what is a fiction, as the databases are added to over time, causing everyone’s results to constantly adjust significantly.

An Open-Minded Approach

In the end, having explored all the archives, the registry’s, the DNA results and her own observations and those of her living relatives, she takes a more open minded, imaginative route.  Attending an “ancestral lineage healing intensive” workshop/retreat in North Carolina, she meets others interested in connecting with their ancestors and learns of age old ceremonies that had been long forgotten in some cultures, traditions that are beginning to be revived. She is open enough to it, to have had an interesting experience, which was likely to have been healing in some way.

At times there was a lot of family detail, but it’s written in a way that kept me captivated while reading. I appreciated the depth which with she explained how to get the most of DNA information, the risks of obsessing about it and the number of extended family one is likely to encounter. I particularly enjoyed the more spiritual journey she took at the end and the dedication with which the project was realized.

An excellent and informative read. Highly Recommended and a great festive read or gift.

Further Reading/Listening

In ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ Maud Newton wrestles with her family history  – review by Kristen Martin, NPR

From Family Trees to 23andMe, and Back Again – review by Kerri Arsenault, New York Times

Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Northern Irish Literature nonfiction memoir troublThin Places is something of an enigma, when I bought it, I thought it was in the nature writing genre, the inside cover calls it a mix of memoir, history and nature writing – such a simplistic description of the reading experience, which for me was something else.

Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.

This book is a kind of cathartic experience of being inside the experience of someone who has experienced trauma, who has yet to awaken from its implications, or be conscious of its effect – but who by the end will by necessity awaken to it, because it can no longer be contained inside the mind, the body and for the good of the soul, it must be expressed, broken down, if there is to be any change of coming out the other side.

Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures.

So the first part of the book I can only describe as “being in the fog”. We know Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry on the border of the North and South of Ireland, at the height of the troubles, that her parents were of mixed heritage, a Protestant father and Catholic mother;  the family existed in the oftentime dangerous in-between, safe in neither space or only temporarily, always moving, never truly belonging.

We have a somewhat difficult relationship with the word ‘tradition’ in Ireland, particularly in the North. The way that religion has latched itself onto the politics of this land has left many people with no desire to look at the imagery of their ancestors; the story of their past. We have lost, broken, murdered, burned, stolen, hidden and undone – all in the false name of tradition. Lives, places and stories have been ripped out by their roots because ‘that’s how it has always been’. I wonder, I wonder so very much these days, what wealth of imagery and meaning was lost when we became so focused on our differences here, that we buried the things that had once tied us together, the things that might still know a way through, for us all.

Though we are told this, the uninitiated reader doesn’t really understand what that means, how it actually manifests on the human level, on a day to day basis – until she arrives at the point where she realises, she needs to confront the reality of the things that happened – because she is losing it – and finding it harder and harder to function in the bubble of denial that allows her to go about her day, to work, to live.

The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deeply I try to bury it. So many different things – situations, times of year, people – made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it – any of it – stop.

Derry River Foyle Ireland

Photo by Ducky on Pexels.com

Only after finishing Part 1 Blood and Bone did I comprehend what I was reading, a woman’s life from childhood up to the age of 28 striving to not give in to the effects of trauma, in the opening chapters, she alludes to those things, though is unable to write directly about them, until realising the nightmares will never stop if she doesn’t, the numbing eventually worse than the pain.

And so she begins to share the events. And it’s tough to read, to absorb as we imagine the magnitude of the effect these events must have had on a child, on an adolescent, a young adult. But what courage, to make that decision, to visit that dark place, to express those thoughts, recount those events, relive the disappointments, feel again the sense of abandonment, to trust that writing about it might bring one towards healing.

While there are those moments of how nature and the many metaphors and symbolism of it kept her sane, this is more about the nature of mind and the necessity of finding and/or making meaning in navigating the troubles of life, in order to overcome past hurts, reconcile traumatic events and find a way to live again, to believe in hope, to elevate one’s self-worth and be able to function in a relationship.

thin places between worlds trauma spiritual healing

Photo by Leigh Heasley on Pexels.com

It is a tough and unrelenting read, that at times I needed to take a break from, but it is one that we as readers are privileged to gain insight from, because Kerri ni Dochartaigh could very easily not be here, and yet she is – and I like to believe that in part that is because the sharing of her experience and path to healing are an important part of her soul’s purpose in this life.

This extraordinary book is part of her life’s work, she has found a way to articulate to the many, the terrible destructive effect of divisiveness , prejudice and intolerance on young people, the effect of not feeling safe during childhood and adolescence and the difficulty of becoming something other than what you knew growing up – of learning to trust, to love, of connecting to the natural environment, learning a near lost language that connects the Irish to their environment and dwelling in just being.

Naming things, in the language that should always have been offered to you, is a way to sculpt loss. A way to protect that which we still have.

Hard going at times, but extraordinary, a beating, bleeding heart, ripped open to heal.

Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Author

Born in 1983, in Derry-Londonderry at the border between the North and South of Ireland. She read English Literature and Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin and trained as a Waldorf teacher in Edinburgh. She taught in Edinburgh and Bristol, before returning to Ireland in her early thirties.

She writes about nature, literature and place for the Irish Times, Dublin Review of Books, Caught by the River and others. She has also written for the Guardian, BBC, Winter Papers. Thin Places was highly commended by the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021.

The China Factory by Mary Costello

It’s week three of Reading Ireland Month and today I’m sharing thoughts on a book of short stories by Irish author Mary Costello, The China Factory.

Threads of Inspiration

Irish Literature Reading Ireland MonthI’ve heard many say good things about her debut novel Academy Street and when her most recent novel The River Capture was published, a self-confessed homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, I decided I would start at the beginning with Costello’s short stories.

I will read The River Capture later, as April is the One Dublin, One Book initiative and their chosen read for 2022 is Nora by Nuala O’Connor another book with a James Joyce connection. It is a bold reimagining of the life of James Joyce’s wife and muse, Nora, the model for his character Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

The Dublin City Libraries initiative encourages people to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year.

Capturing a Voice

The China Factory Mary Costello

Photo by cottonbro Pexels.com

The 12 stories that make up The China Factory create a strong sense of authorial voice. Highly observant, sensitive characters, steeped in melancholy. They are practiced at holding back, trying not to make a ripple in the external world, until unforseen events pitch them into interactions, all the while controlling that emotional seepage.

In the opening story, The China Factory, a young woman works a summer job in a china factory, catching a ride with a quiet man named Gus, who she is distantly related to. She works at the sponger’s station, wiping off lines the moulds leave on clay cups.

I smiled when I passed the other girls those first days, and longed to speak, but feared that words would betray the yearning for friendship that I felt inside.

For a while she becomes closer to the girls, listening to their gossip, they quiz her about Gus, the freak, sharing an overheard story of his childhood that disturbs her. When a wayward man appears with a gun, Gus will surprise them all, and years later the impact of that summer job, his actions and her guilt will continue to haunt her.

dreamy woman with crossed legs sitting near window

Photo by L.SummerPexels.com

In Things I See a woman lies in bed, hyper aware of her husbands movements downstairs, she relays scenes in her mind of being close to him, but even in her imagination she holds back. She fears not growing old, but of growing different.

There is something severe and imperious in Don’s bearing that makes me resist.

She works full time and her husband cares for their six year old child. Her sister Lucy who is visiting, seems more at ease in the family than she does. The things she sees, hears, picks up on, imagines, occupy her mind, creating a distance, a corner from which she has entrapped herself. A witness. Stifled. Knowing she will not change anything, though her indecision will imprint itself on her face and in her demeanour.

And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that am cornered too, and I will remain, because I can not unlove him.

Drudgery, Dignity and Denial

The stories examine aspects of everyday life and highlight the hidden selves, the thoughts beneath the actions, the things that people hide from each other, from themselves, the cover stories and meaningless conversations that patch over the cracks that might reveal the reality.

In The Patio Man, a gardener knows nothing about his employer, a young frail woman observes him from the window, she struggles to articulate what she requires from him, until the moment she must ask him to drive her to the hospital. Still nothing is ever said, just small talk that takes the mind elsewhere, far from the catastrophic event occurring in the present.

The collection opens with an epigram from Rilke’s poem Autumn:

And night by night, down into solitude,

the heavy earth falls far from every star.

We are all falling. This hand’s falling too –

all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

which sets the tone and theme of falling – into and out of love, of relationships, to one’s death, in and out of the kaleidoscope of emotions, whether expressed or suppressed, no one is immune to the falling-sickness.

While the stories capture that voice particular to the author, that melancholy can wear on the reader, repeated time and again as it does, manifesting in the many losses and unfortunate events each story portrays, the quiet outer acceptance of discordant inner turmoil.

That said, I am looking forward to engaging with a longer story, hoping for the chance of redemption a novel might bring.

Mary Costello, Author

Academy Street The China Factory River CaptureMary Costello is an Irish short story writer and novelist from Galway now living in Dublin.

Her collection of short stories, The China Factory ( 2012), was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award.

Her second book and first novel, Academy Street, was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa First Novel Prize and the EU Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel went on to win the Irish Novel of the Year Award as well as the Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel The River Capture was published in 2019.

The Last Resort by Jan Carson

The only downside in reading The Last Resort is that it was so short!

Northern Irish Literature short storiesThis is the novel I have been waiting for Jan Carson to write, for here is a writer who in her ordinary life as an arts facilitator has brought together people from opposite sides in their way of thinking, encouraging them to sit down and write little stories, enabling them to imagine from within the shoes of an(other) – teaching the practice of empathy.

Her novel The Fire Starters comes from that place of darkness and indifference, when there is no empathy. I found it disturbing. I’ve since realised gothic novels aren’t my thing.

Here, Carson digs deeper into the psyche of the many that make up their community and finds a common thread that connects them, something that both pushes them forward and holds them back and shows it in its many guises, through a kaleidoscope of colourful characters. Everyone has their own mini drama and troubling perspective, that coming together might create a shift away from.

Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, as the book opens we meet Pete, who now (reluctantly) runs the caravan park and Frankie, who has gathered a few friends for the 50th anniversary of Lynette, for whom they will place a memorial bench with a brass plaque at the top of the cliff.

A caravan on the North Coast was the height of luxury, somewhere you could escape to at the weekend. They felt safe here. Or they did until that bomb went off in the car park.

the last resort ballycastle jan carson ireland

Photo Y. ShuraevPexels.com

It’s the first day of the holiday season and most of these people have been coming here for years, though for some this may be their last visit. Not everyone is happy to be here, like Alma and her two siblings, especially when they wake up one morning to discover their phones and her iPad are missing.

Alma is into Agatha Christie and when she discovers they are not the only family that has something missing she decides to investigate, even if there hasn’t been a murder. Yet. No really, there’s no murder.

It’d be easy to push someone over that cliff. It’s so crumbly. You could make it look like an accident. I can think of at least three different times Agatha Christie killed somebody by shoving them off a cliff. If my iPad wasn’t gone I’d google to see if there were more. I’m raging about losing my iPad. Now I have to run my investigation the old-fashioned way. Snooping around. Observing suspects. Taking notes on my jotter. Maybe it’s better like this. Poirot never looked anything up on Wikipedia or checked suspects’ alibis on Facebook. If Poirot was here, he’d say, forget the iPad, Alma. Use your leetle grey cells. I’m doing my best. I’m watching everyone, even Mum. It’s always the person you least suspect.

Alma’s Mum Lois has a PhD in mythology and her thing is sea monsters. Monsters, wizards and demons, that’s her parents thing, Harry Potter is for kids, Alma likes the real world, way scarier.

Seacliff Northern Ireland The Last Resort

Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters in the caravan park and about each family we learn what is holding them back, what consumes their minds. And while there is not a murder, no smoking gun, there is the cliff – and from the beginning you sense its ominous presence, the way it draws everyone to its apex.

We meet Alma again (my favourite character) as she trails around the caravan park interrogating her disapproving adult suspects. She’s brilliant.

Richard is a complete empath, hiding it from his family as if it were a sign of weakness, a position likely to be exposed given he has used his father’s caravan to house sixteen homeless men, many of them immigrants.

I couldn’t tell Dad about them. I’ve never really told him what I really do. He wouldn’t understand. In his world, you work hard, and you do well. There’s no reason to end up on the street, hawking The Big Issue, unless you’ve brought it on yourself.

Kathleen struggles to accept her daughter for who she is, because of societal expectations, but finds it hard to follow through with her disapproval because she desperately wants a relationship with her grandson Max. She finds Alma strange, intense and curious.

Lois answers all her questions. She talks to her weans like they’re adults. When she split up with her husband, Alma was fit to tell me the ins and outs of the whole divorce. She was only ten. You have to protect a child that age. They’re not old enough to know everything. Still, I have to say I envy them – calearied as they are – at least they talk to each other, really properly talk. We’re all adults in this caravan but we’ll spend the whole weekend talking about nothing. The weather. The baby. Whether or not to put the kettle on. Avoiding the elephant in the room because nobody wants to cause a scene.

So many great lines, so much humour, angst, regret, camaraderie as the story leads to its wild denouement on the seacliff, as the thing that’s been holding them all together, holding them back, demands to be released.

Just brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Best Caravans in Fiction (A List in Progress), Jan Carson

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her debut novel Malcom Orange Disappears (2014) was published to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020).

Her second novel The Fire Starters (2019) translated into French by Dominique Goy-Blanquet as Les Lanceurs de Feu, won the EU Prize for Literature, was shortlisted for two prestigious French literary awards the Prix Femina and Prix Médicis in 2021 and was also shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award.

Her third novel The Raptures was released in Jan 2022.

A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume

I was hesitant to start this knowing it was the last of Sara Baume’s books I had on my shelf to read. I find her work so nourishing and unique, she’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. So what joy, part way through reading this, to learn there is a novel due out in Apr 2022, Seven Steeples.

Navigating the In-Between

Irish literary fiction Visual ArtistA Line Made By Walking takes place over one summer when 26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and returns briefly to her parent’s home, before deciding to move temporarily into her grandmother’s slightly decrepit cottage that has long been on the market, since her death over a year ago.

It is a place where she can wallow and wait out a period of depression, create something meaningful, take walks, cycle and test herself on works of art. Her art school days are over, but finding meaning through artistic expression, looking for and noticing it around her, remains important, necessary.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Art Creates Structure

Each chapter is titled with a different roadkill or animal species (not living) she has encountered nearby. Everything in the vicinity, plus her stream of consciousness thoughts, link together to create a seamless narrative, like the ripples of a stream bubbling over stones, moving around obstacles. Separate but part of something whole.

Sara Baume Irish literature Bicycle Cycling Ireland

Photo by Bogdan R. Anton on Pexels.com

Though she is not herself at this time, Frankie creates purpose in each day, and while not under observation, makes slow progress. Her mother worries, but allows her the freedom she needs. She resists conventional treatment and takes quiet charge of her own healing.

My parents did not want me to come here to stay. They are, like everybody, fearful of being completely alone and suspicious of people who choose to be. They hesitate, like everybody, to understand how it could heal me, as I believe it can. I believe: I am less fearful of being alone than I am of not being alone.

She fixes the bicycle in the shed and establishes a routine and purpose, an affirmation of the natural order of things, that all life passes. Her grandmother, the dog, a robin, rabbit, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. Her photographs grace each chapter.

“Here is another rule for my project: no pets, only wild things. So it can be about the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.”

Artwork Word Association

Though it possesses the barest of plots, I loved it’s meandering style and waymarker structure through an incredible recollection of over seventy art installations, like rabbit holes the reader can burrow into, something Baume encourages us to do.

I urge readers to seek out, perceive and interpret these artworks for themselves.

A Line Made By Walking Sara BaumeThe line made by walking crops up three or four times in the novel, in reference to artworks, the first time in Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) and represents the division between the field and sky, the sadness inherent in life. It was his final painting.

Having left the city behind, the narrative is as much immersed in the observations of nature around her, in the discoveries to be made on a walk, a cycle, a drive, a visit somewhere; her poetic voice making even the mundane mesmerising.

Again, the novel reads for me, as if the author is speaking, I forget there is a fictional protagonist, after reading her nonfiction Handiwork and listening to Sara Baume talk about her own art making projects, her presence is always there, lurking within the brush strokes of her characters.

Absolutely loved it.

Further Reading/Listening

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain : “An artist, first and foremost”. An Interview with Sara Baume by Margarita Estévez-Saá

Guardian Interview: Sara Baume: ‘I always wanted to be an art monster’ Feb 2017, Alex Clark

Sara Baume, Author, Visual Artist

Sara Baume Irish AuthorSara Baume, born in 1984, was raised and now lives in County Cork, after having studied Fine Art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art, and Design and Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin.

Her fiction and criticism have been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals such as Irish Times, the Guardian, the Stinging Fly and Granta.

She has published two critically acclaimed novels, spill simmer falter wither (2015) winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and A Line Made by Walking (2017) shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and a work of creative nonfiction Handiwork (2020).

“Baume’s protagonists in both her novels and short stories are solitary people, misfits of our society, mostly representatives of those human beings who find it difficult to adapt themselves to contemporary standards and conventions and who look for different ways of living or rather try to establish alternative communities of life.”

Pre-Order Seven Steeples

If you are interested in the forthcoming novel, it’s available to pre-order as a Limited Edition here

It is a novel about a couple that pushes against traditional expectations, moving with their dogs to the Irish countryside where they embed themselves in nature and make attempts to disappear from society.

Seven Steeples Sara Baume

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

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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?

abstract close up cobweb connection

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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). 

Sensitive is the New Strong by Anita Moorjani

The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh World

Another excellent work from Anita Moorjani, who had a life-changing experience that gave her a heart-based perspective of reality beyond the three dimensional, externally focused world, we inhabit. Leaving that story aside, she now shares more insights that assist those who already relate a little or a lot to this perspective.

I have read both her previous books Dying to Be Me and What if THIS is Heaven? and I have listened to her speak, it is here where she is fluent, spontaneous and highly relatable, her most authentic and resonant. I love her books, but listening to her YouTube series Tea With Anita (this episode on empaths) and this one on Forgiveness, has for me, been life-affirming.

Become Aware, Develop Appropriate Resources

The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh WorldHere, she focuses particularly on the experience of those who are empaths, no matter where on the spectrum of empathy they sit. It explains and supports how they feel, expanding awareness and helps them understand how to cope with certain situations and why it is important that they play a larger role in our societies.

Having listened to her speak on the subject, I’m aware there are different categories of empath, depending on certain characteristics. Some people are highly sensitive but may not be as affected by the energy of other people in their presence, or some may have already learned coping mechanisms.

Anita Moorjani shares her experience, which is unique and sees the gift in being this way, identifying some of the ways to mitigate the negative effects of what an empath absorbs and suggests ways to focus on their own well-being.

She writes of appreciating the gift and beauty of our sensitivity, seeing the strength in it, recognising the responses and behaviours in our society that may have contributed to it being devalued.

The Beauty of Your Sensitivity

“Your sensitivity opens up six sensory world. It’s connected to the other side. If you block your sensitivity, you block what’s coming in from the other realm. The thing is to be aware that you’re giving your power to the outside world, and to start giving it to your own inner world or to your higher self.”

And the consequence of suppressing it:

“It’s when you give your power to the outside world that you lose your connection to your inner sense of knowing, and your life starts spirally downward.”

To make the most of the gift of sensitivity, and to develop one’s intuitive capacity, it is necessary to quiet the noise coming from external sources.

Dealing With Sensory Overload

Sensory overload quiet the mind

Photo: Taryn Elliott, Pexels.com

Each chapter provides a short mantras and a meditative text that specifically address the aspect encouraged in that chapter, so that it becomes not just something theoretical, that we read and understand, but something with a practical aspect, an action one can take, something that many who are inclined to read this, will no doubt already be practicing.

“The outside world is loud and demanding so the first step in honing our powers is learning to deal effectively with sensory overload. We have to identify and manage the things that jam our inner guidance system. And that involves turning down the volume on the outside world so we can hear what’s going on inside.”

There are also practical ways to protect one’s energetic body, to recognise the impact  negative influences have on it, and a variety of ways to protect it. This is something I encounter frequently talking with other practitioner’s, how to proactively protect oneself from unwanted energies, and in a case where we have absorbed something, what to do immediately afterwards to remove it and to remember to prevent it in future.

Protect Your Energetic Body (Aura)

1. Carry black tourmaline with you.
2. Smudge your aura with white sage (especially after being in and around groups of people)
3. Strengthen your aura by using colour and learning how to expand and contract it, learning to contract it, helps avoid picking up unwanted energies.
4. Keep your body healthy – drink plenty of water, exercise, go outside (clears energy, centres you)

Connect With the Web of Consciousness

Creativity the Souls purposeOne of the best rewards of dealing with the imbalances and disequilibrium is the creativity that awaits expression, something that is there within, buried beneath layers of issues that once addressed, reveal potential.

“As with Michelangelo finding his angel in the block of marble, we need to strip away these layers and chip away at the false beliefs, thought patterns, fears and unnecessary pressures that jam our internal radar and hinder our connection to our inner mystics.”

Ego and Conscious Awareness

Ego often gets a bad rap. Anita Moorjani puts it in context by considering it one of two elements required in balance, ego and conscious awareness – that it is only when one or other are out of balance with each other that problems arise. If the ego dial is on high and conscious awareness is low egocentricity results. Likewise, raised conscious awareness with little or no ego, results in an ability to act or change. A healthy ego and conscious awareness aligns us with our  purpose and brings meaning into our lives.

“Ego serves a huge purpose. It offsets a tendency to second guess oneself or give power away.”

Imagination Unveils a Calling

“A clue to finding one’s purpose is to use your imagination. When I set my imagination free, I connect with something that is exciting and beautiful: for me, it’s my sixth sense, my intuition, and my higher self.”

Giving the example from her own life experience, from within one of the cultures within which she was raised, she shows how each culture puts upon us a set of differing beliefs, that are often in conflict with each other, which adds to our confusion. And shows how suppressing one’s inner guidance and giving our power away to an authoritative cultural figure can have a detrimental effect.

“Death taught me that I had to recognise my own divinity first before I could be or do anything of value to others.”

Being Your Authentic Self, Empowered Within

“Good teachers help you believe in yourself, rather than cultivate a belief in them. They teach you to connect to the divinity within you.”

There is so much I highlighted throughout the book that I could share. If any of this resonates, I highly recommend reading it, the messages are reassuring, it’s a book I have already passed on to another with whom I have discussed these issues.

One way empaths deal with the effect of this characteristic is to share stories and methods to resolve the associated dilemmas we face, to empower each other, to overcome the obstacles, because the reward of being able to use that quality as a strength is not just beneficial to oneself, but to all we come into contact with, a quality we need more of in this world.

“Accept that your inner world is real. It’s real and you have to empower it.”

Anita Moorjani