Kanda for Christmas – Guest Post by Yemisi Aribisala

If you read my interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of the Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, you might have noticed that one of the books listed in her current favourites wasn’t published at the time of writing. That book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala is now available, published by Cassava Republic. Aribisala’s aim in writing it is to bring Nigerian cooking to a wider audience via a mix of cultural history, memoir and recipes. It’s beautifully written and I’m delighted to share with you a special piece, not in the book, in which Aribisala looks at Christmas in Nigeria.

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Kanda for Christmas

On the morning of Christmas Eve of 2009, my neighbour’s husband came around to express nervous concern. He had opened the pots and found nothing but Kanda (pomo, long-sufferingly boiled cowhide) there. Was he to take this as a sign of what Christmas day held? Everyone found his concern hilarious. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. Deep down we were as nervous as he was. There was a cloud of misery over Christmas in Calabar that year. It was tall, deep, wide, dense as the humidity that cloaked many of the days in the month of December. As if to commemorate the eccentricity of that year, even Harmattan winds failed to bring expected freshness in the mornings and evenings. The air was hot and heavy from morning till night, day after day, distended by the incessant grinding of running generators boring into our brains already overwhelmed with keeping count of the amount of diesel being guzzled by hard-working engines. Someone brought a food hamper round and then came back for it a couple of hours later because he’d made a mistake – it wasn’t for us. We desperately needed something to laugh out loud about, so we laughed at my neighbor and his nervousness about eating Kanda for Christmas. We kept him handy for when reality wanted to steal on us, to remind us there was hunger at our gates and in the city and everywhere. We cried out aloud and crowned the declarations with more laughter – “God in your infinite mercy, please don’t let Kanda be what is on the menu this Christmas.”

What did I end up eating that Christmas? I ate everything.  If it was possible to eat the sofa, I would have done so.  Slow roasted chicken marinated with coriander, cloves, cardamom, hot-peppers, garlic, ginger, raisins and coconut milk; the gamiest most tender he-goat oven-cooked with garam masala spices eaten with fluffy bowls of basmati rice; barbecued pork cooked with Cameroonian peppers on an outside grill, the aroma of charred fresh meat and sweet peppers carrying all the way to Akpabuyo; creamy potato salad made creamier by soft yielding potatoes; sweet fat plantains roasted on the grill alongside the meat, too sweet and soft to be boli eaten with groundnuts, not sweet and soft enough to be mashed into stew then scooped up into your mouth; more plantains fried with sprinklings of cinnamon and pepper, drenched in pineapple juice-then fried in coconut oil. There was freshly juiced pineapples and ginger root served with chilled sprigs of mint; supple clouds of fufu eaten with briskly cooked Afang and Kundi; mugs of Milo made up with peppermint teabags eaten with staggeringly drunk Christmas cake; freshly brewed coffee laced with Irish-cream eaten with almond, raisin and coconut flapjacks. Some mornings, breakfast was hot puff-puffs fried in chili-pepper infused oil eaten with a whole cafeterie of black coffee.

In other words, the more I thought of world hunger and local hunger and recessions and depressions, the more I evoked the shell-shocked expressions in people’s faces in the market place, the weary despondency of light in Goshen and darkness everywhere else in Egypt.  The cracks in buying power and dinner plates between the haves and have-very little and have-nots; the middle-class falling into the crevices and disappearing altogether the more I ate.  I engaged all the different joys and rationales of eating: comfort eating, Christmas entitlement eating, eating in company so that people don’t feel bad that you are not eating, eating the left-overs so they don’t spoil, eating what the neighbour sent round because you can’t very well throw good food away. And, let’s not forget that I am a food writer so I must eat to fulfill my purpose, Thank God!

The peppery puff-puffs, Cameroonian coffee, barbecued pork and potato salad were courtesy of my neighbours whose pots had hitherto only exhibited Kanda till Christmas Eve. My neighbour’s wife’s love for Kanda was passionate – so passionate that the rolls of cow-hide had to feature in most of her pots of soup throughout the year. But at Christmas, that love had to be abruptly filed as inordinate for everyone’s sake in order not to attract the misfortune hanging around waiting to pounce. Beneath the under-toned laughter we ate and gave thanks.

The most interesting aspect of Nigerian Christmas fare for me is the snubbing of the food we would normally eat, for food that we consider festive even if the preferred food makes no real festive sense. If you served the most spectacular Afang soup at Christmas, the most beautifully dressed, stuffed roast turkey with the most expensive ingredients in the world, it would still come second place to Rice and Chicken, just rice and chicken. There must of course be stew. Nigerian Christmas stew is 70% psychological fare and 30% gastronomical fanfare.  The psychological and gastronomical balance for Christmas stew, rice and chicken adds up and exceeds the psychological and gastronomical balance of roast turkey plus everything under the sun to go with it. For many years, I wanted to write a Christmas column for the Nigerian, to explain how we feast with modesty, to commend the uncomplicatedness of our requirements of rice, lots of rice, rice flowing down the streets, rice bags rolling everywhere with hens running around the place to become chicken, stew, bottles of Guldier and Star Beer, a new wrappa, dresses for little girls, new shirts and trousers for little boys.  I wanted to say that the emphasis was on being with family: sitting around with them and laughing a lot, slaughtering chickens and stewing them into juicy chunks on steaming white rice, visiting people and eating their food and letting them come over and eat yours.

And then my good intentions got run over by the years, and by successive governments and economic downturns and inflation and grief. The truth is that the food writer at Christmas is a hoggish callous character – she must emphasise the glory of food regardless of other people’s hunger. She must contemplate food, eat food, intellectualise gluttony and suppress guilt. The gathering of words together in one place to eulogise food is ever more so irritatingly elitist when contrasted with real life, so much more vividly callous in times of national celebration. If we thought things were bad in 2009, in 2016, the Christmas stew became officially endangered from the middle of the year, when a basket of tomatoes became more expensive than a barrel of crude oil. Then rice because of high foreign exchange rates became unaffordable. In essence even our chosen simple fare became imperiled, and with it our willingness to entertain guests and burden others with our visits. If we laughed at my neighbour in 2009 at his snubbing of Kanda, in 2016 we can’t laugh because we understand that food is no longer a “safe topic”, a topic that we can laugh at; a topic we can resort to when there are no other uniting colloquialisms, when soccer has failed and politics is unapproachable. We are expecting famine in 2017, and whole parts of Nigeria are already starving, the images of starvation on social media is heartbreaking, mandatory and crushing.

What is one to do with the obligation to celebrate Christmas in light of all this strong painful awareness?   I’m all for gratitude for well-cooked stewed Kanda as a good starting point. The simplicity of meals reassures me that I am alive. How lucky the person is who loves stewed Kanda in the first instance – they won’t feel hard done by if required to eat it. They will be happy eating it whenever – Christmas, New Year, Monday, Friday, Sunday. I suspect my neighbour’s wife had spent a few lean Christmases before her marriage and had learnt to be happy with little or with plenty on her plate. Whatever manner of Christmas she thus encountered after those lean ones, she met them with happiness and gratitude.

This year I’m not going to pretend that my job requires the eating of everything in sight. I’m not going to eat the sofa, the cushions and the remote controls for the television. In honour of the insufficiently acknowledged resilience of Nigerians, the long fought battle of retaining basic happiness and good hope in-spite of many dire twists and turns of life; in consideration of those in real danger of starvation, in commending those still willing to share a meal with a neighbour, in earnest prayers that God in his infinite mercies won’t let the coming year be one of famine for the sake of us all, I’m not writing a Christmas column for the food writer, but for that woman, my neighbour who circuitously predicted that in seven years our self-entitlement would have to be curtailed, our snobbery discarded, our people embraced tighter.  She intimated so long ago that we would have to eat less, laugh at ourselves more, give away more and eat Kanda with thanks.

Huge thanks to Yemisi Aribisala and Cassava Republic for the guest post. This post is part of a blog tour. Please do visit the sites listed below to read more from and about this wonderful book.

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Swing Time – Zadie Smith

If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.

We, the reader, meet the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, Swing Time, at the end of her story. She’s been sacked from her job and is holed up in a flat in St John’s Wood. When she’s given the all clear by the doorman, she goes for a walk, finding herself at an event at the Royal Festival Hall where a clip from the Fred Astaire film Swing Time is played.

I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I always had tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

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The narrator returns to her early days, to meeting Tracey at the dance class in the church hall. The narrator and Tracey’s mothers couldn’t be more different: the narrator’s mother is a femininst, a student, wears ‘her hair in a half-inch Afro’ and dresses ‘for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive’; Tracey’s mother is ‘white, obese, afflicted with acne’, wears her hair in a ‘Kilburn facelift’ and is covered in diamantes. Perhaps the difference between the two is most perfectly summarised:

We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times – and failed – to ‘get on the disability’.)

In terms of class, they might be part of the same economic group but their styles mark them as different types of people.

Two stories are told simultaneous in the novel: the first is that of the narrator’s friendship with Tracey, through dance, through school, through hanging out at each other’s houses watching musicals and Michael Jackson videos. The second is the that of the narrator’s early-adult life, of her role as a PA to a world-famous pop star.

The narrator meets Aimee when she comes to the YTV studios where the narrator works. Although she thinks she’s made a bad impression, the narrator is invited to an interview with Aimee soon after. The bulk of the Aimee section of the novel covers the school project which she undertakes in a village in West Africa.

Governments are useless, they can’t be trusted, Aimee explained to me, and charities have their own agendas, churches care more for souls than for bodies. And so if we want to see real change in the world…then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, yes, we have to be the change we want to see. By ‘we’ she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune. It was a moral category but also an economic one. And if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness – or potential for goodness – a person possessed.

However, Aimee wants to impose her version of change, what she thinks is necessary, onto a culture which doesn’t necessarily agree. Her work in West Africa causes problems not only for the community but also for some individuals who become heavily involved in the project. It’s not difficult to substitute a number of big-name stars for Aimee nor the white Western world collectively.

Through the story of two mixed-race girls from the same North London estate, Smith considers talent and the barriers to success; the role of culture in society; race, particularly the West’s role in/on the African continent; politics; friendship, and the mother/daughter relationship. It feels like a lot for a novel to hold but it’s skilfully done; there isn’t a single moment when the book feels like a polemic rather than a novel.

The structure of the book moves between the two stories. Smith runs them practically side-by-side, moving towards the point when the narrator loses her job. By doing so, she asks questions about the impact of the past on our present/future and whether we truly leave our experiences and upbringing behind.

Swing Time is an entertaining, thoughtful novel which engages both on a storytelling level and on one of broader questions about society and its role in individual’s lives.

 

Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy

Coverage of Experimental Fiction Writing Is a Half-Formed Thing

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The brilliant Tilted Axis Press, who this year have published fantastic experimental fiction books by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay and Hwang Jungeun, asked me to write something for their blog. Anything I liked, they said. So I wrote about the lack of coverage of experimental fiction written by women. And I wrote it in an experimental non-fiction style. Because, why not? You can read it here.

(Sincere apologies to Eimear McBride for the title but it was too good/bad to pass up.)

Interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika

When the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced, there were two books I was thrilled to see on the list. One was Martin John by Anakana Schofield and the other was Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Both books made a huge impression on me when I read them earlier in the year. I’ve re-read them both since and I stand by my initial thoughts, they’re both brilliant. I’m absolutely delighted then to have had the opportunity to interview Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who, I hope you’ll agree, gives good interview.

Your protagonist, Dr. Morayo de Silva, is glorious: turning 75, well-travelled, well-educated, lives alone, aware of her sexuality, drives a sports car, dresses in colourful clothes and planning her first tattoo. Where did she come from?

Toni Morrison is quoted as saying that if there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t yet been written, than you must write it yourself. This was what drove me to write Morayo’s story. I was finding plenty of books about older men but few about older women and even fewer about the lives of black women. Yet, all around me I kept meeting older women who’d led colourful lives. There was my neighbour, an opera singer in her eighties, who upon seeing my handsome, septuagenarian father inquired as to whether he was single. He wasn’t, but that didn’t stop her fancying him. And then there is my 95-year-old Zimbabwean relative who recently acquired her first cell phone and keeps it hidden in a bright blue purse tucked into her bra. When the phone rings, she announces to the world, “phone ringing,” but doesn’t bother to answer. She simply enjoys the sound of it ringing. Another woman that inspired my writing was a single, elderly Jewish woman, whom I met when I first moved to San Francisco. She was not as flamboyant as many others that I’d met, but she was just as fiercely independent. The last few years of her life were difficult ones and so I wrote this story – a more upbeat story, one that I would perhaps have wished for her.

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Sarah with her 95-year-old relative

I love the way you use books in the story, particularly when Morayo’s torn ones are thrown away and how Morayo writes her own version of Auster’s Winter Journal at the back of her copy of the book. How do you see books and the idea of writing our own narratives as part of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?

I believe that all books are in conversation with books that came before. And because Morayo’s books are in a very real sense her friends, her conversation with them is an embodiment of such conversations. Morayo, like me, is particularly attuned to some of the gaps in literature – to those voices and characters, that don’t often appear. Morayo, as an elderly black woman in San Francisco, is one such person. I find myself drawn to characters that are invisible due to socioeconomic status, age, gender and ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in how the so-called “outsiders” think of themselves in contrast to how others see them.

The story’s told from multiple viewpoints, which is some feat for a novella. How did you manage this so the reader wasn’t jolted from the story by a shifting perspective?

When I first started writing this story, I wrote it in the third person, but after some time, my characters grew tired of being represented by the omniscient third person and walked off the page in protest.

“Enough with the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’,” they announced in a cacophony of multiple firsts.

“Absolutely not!” I said. “This isn’t The Sound and the Fury! You’re just a short novel, so how can I possibly have you all talking in the first person. Readers will just get confused.”

“Says who?” asked my main character.

“Convention!”

“Convention?” she scoffed, “But aren’t you the one that keeps saying that people like us hardly appear in literature? Why keep restraining us then?”

“We’re just trying to be helpful,” replied Morayo’s best friend.

“Yeah,” added another of Morayo’s friends, “and personally, I’m tired of people looking at me like I need pity ‘n shit. So if you don’t wanna hear our voices, count me out.”

The novella’s dense with themes – age, the lack of understanding people have of other people’s cultures, homelessness, women’s roles – how did you ensure the story didn’t collapse under them? 

I wrote the book, leading with character rather than theme. In this way, I let the themes emerge organically. There were times, however, when some of my personal concerns threatened to sink parts of the narrative. I was writing this book at a time when videotapes of police brutality against black men and women filled the news. I was, and still am, angry and horrified by the persistence of racism and police brutality in America and elsewhere. I quickly realized, however, that Morayo’s story was not the place to vent my personal frustrations. While racism inevitably features in the novel, I chose the vehicle of nonfiction to address racism more fully.

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You published your first novel In Dependence with UK publisher, Legend Press, but Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is published by Cassava Republic, an African Press. Was it a conscious decision to go with an African publisher?

Yes, it was a conscious decision to choose Cassava Republic Press, a publishing company based out of Nigeria and now the U.K. I realized that by granting world rights to an African publisher I could, in a small way, attempt to address the imbalance of power in a world where the gatekeepers of literature, even for so-called African stories, remain firmly rooted in the west. Also, when I presented Cassava Republic Press with my manuscript, a novella, they didn’t shy away from a genre that is currently perceived by its European and American competitors as an “awkward sales and marketing proposition”.  Being shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize is an honour that I share with my publishers.

How do you feel about the novella being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I’m delighted, thrilled, happy as lark, and also still stunned … a bit like a mule that’s over the moon and on cloud nine, surprised to find her load of ice cream, still intact. And what an honour to be shortlisted with such an incredible group of writers! The beauty of prizes is that it expands a writer’s readership. All of a sudden I have readers that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of my work. It’s particularly exciting to be shortlisted for a prize that rewards the unconventional. Many people told me that a short novel wasn’t a good idea, that it wasn’t advisable to frequently switch viewpoints, not to mention writing a story about an older black woman. Who would read it?

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m currently working on some nonfiction. San Francisco has a large homeless population and this is one of the things I’m writing about.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Several years ago, when I realized how few women writers I’d read, I decided to rectify that. I started with Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and what a treat that book was – so deceptively quiet, so deeply profound. I then eagerly raced through books by Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf and revelled in these authors’ ability to write so confidently while experimenting with form and style. I also enjoyed the way these authors depicted the so-called “ordinary” and domestic spheres of life in a way that I found fresh and exciting. Since then I’ve been racing to catch up on what I’d been missing. I’m grateful for blogs such as The Writes of Woman that feature and highlight women’s voices. I don’t have favourite writers but I do have favourite books. Here are some current favourites:

Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds – Yemisi Aribisala

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo

Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy

Home – Toni Morrison

Happiness Like Water – Chinelo Okparanta

The Face – Ruth Ozeki

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

 

Huge thanks to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for the interview.

One Hundred Shadows – Hwang Jungeun (translated by Jung Yewon)

I saw a shadow in the woods. I didn’t know it was a shadow at first. I saw it slip through a thicket and followed it in, wondering if there was a path there, and thinking how familiar it looked. The woods grew more dense the deeper in I went, but I kept on going deeper and deeper because the deeper I went, the more the shadow drew me in.

Hwang Jungeun’s novella One Hundred Shadows has a fairytale quality to it, one of shadows that rise up, woods, darkness and lovers. Walking in the woods with our narrator, Eungyo, is a young man, Mujae. It is he who stops her following the shadow deeper into the woods, into the darkness. As they try to find their way out, sodden from the rain, Mujae tells Eungyo a story about a shadow.

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The story concerns Mujae’s father and the day his shadow rose. He followed it a little way and then confessed to Mujae’s mother. Mujae’s mother makes his father promise not to follow it again, but the fact he grows thinner and dies leads Mujae to believe his father did follow his shadow:

If you spot someone who looks just like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once its risen.

Tied up with Mujae’s story is the fact of his parents getting into debt looking after him and his six older sisters. When he describes getting into debt as ‘inevitable’, Eungyo challenges him. He responds:

I don’t really like people who go around saying they don’t have any debt. This might sound a little harsh, but I think people who claim to be in no debt of any kind are shameless, unless they sprang up naked in the woods one day without having borrowed anyone’s belly, and live without a single thread on their back, and without any industrial products.[…]A lot of things can happen in the manufacturing process, can’t they, when it’s the kind of mass production that uses all sorts of materials and chemicals? Rivers could get polluted, the payment for the labour could be too low. What I’m saying is, even if you buy so much as a cheap pair of socks, that low price is only possible because a debt is incurred somewhere along the line.

Eungyo works at an electronics market, manning the customer services desk and running errands for Mr. Yeo’s repair shop. Mujae’s an apprentice at a transformer workshop. This is where the three elements of the story coincide: Eungyo and Mujae’s growing relationship; knowledge about the shadows, and the idea of debt linked particularly with progress in manufacturing.

In her introduction to the book, Han Kang says:

This is a world in which those living on the edges of society, at the very bottom of the social scale, are being brought to the limits of what they can endure.

As Eungyo and Mujae’s place of work is threatened, their very selves – and those around them – are threatened by the rising of their shadows. Jungeun asks whether love can survive in a place overtaken by such darkness.

One Hundred Shadows is smoothly translated into English by Jung Yewon, leading the reader alongside the lovers as they navigate a landscape both familiar and utterly alien. It’s a short, unusual and compelling tale.

 

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy.

Susan Barker at Manchester Literature Festival

In 2014, Doubleday published Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations. Set in contemporary Beijing but spanning 1000 years of Chinese history, it’s an inventive, intelligent, engrossing novel. It went on to win a Jerwood Fiction Prize in 2015 and to garner rave reviews in the broadsheets both in the UK and the USA.

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On the second day of Manchester Literature Festival 2016, I’m in the International Anthony Burgess Centre to see a sold out talk by Barker about her writing of the novel. She begins by telling us that it’s about the six lives of the taxi driver Wang Jun, one in Beijing in 2008, where he’s a taxi driver and five across the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War and the Cultural Revolution.

Barker says she had two strategies when researching the novel. The first was for the historical sections which were largely text based, although she did visit sites of historical interest too. The second, for the contemporary sections, in which she wanted to show the rapid societal and economic changes that had taken place in Beijing, she took an artists’ residency in the city in 2007 and ended up staying for five years.

While she lived in the city, the idea of the narrator’s occupation came from a conversation Barker had with some taxi drivers on a cigarette break in December 2007. She talked to them, practising her ‘bad Chinese’ and decided that a taxi driver would give the reader ‘a panoramic view of the city’ and allow Beijing to have a central presence in the novel.

She lived in a flat that had previously belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture and housed some of its workers. This is the flat in which Wang lives during the novel. As Barker moved to Beijing as the city was gearing up for the Olympics, the atmosphere at the time ‘swept its way into the book’. This atmosphere took several forms: renovation, celebration and surveillance. She tells us of building supervisors carrying out checks on people’s papers and of the government cleaning the streets of the homeless and the mentally ill whom they detained for the duration of the Olympics.

Barker began by reading books that gave broad overviews of Chinese history and then carried out further research into those most interesting to her. She wasn’t sure how she was going to structure the novel until she came up with the idea of reincarnation and the epistolian nature of the book. This meant that the structure would link past to present; Barker also liked the idea of human nature repeating/history reoccurring and this became one of the central themes.

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We’re then treated to a bit of a history lesson as Barker takes us through the settings of the five letters in the novel. The first is set in the Tang Dynasty which, she says, was comparatively open and cosmopolitan compared to some of periods of Chinese rule. This period produced some of Barker’s favourite cultural highlights. The story written with this period as the backdrop is during the rule of Tang Taizong, the 2nd Emperor of the dynasty. He was entertained by courtesans who would sing, dance, recite poetry and be witty conversationalists. Only eunuchs were permitted to serve the emperor to ensure purity of the imperial lineage. Barker was interested in the psychological effects of castration: some men found it purifying, others distressing, so she explored this in the story set in this period.

The second is the Jin Dynasty, 1215, during the invasion of Genghis Khan into north China. The Siege of Zhangdu was his most ambitious. 70,000 horseback warriors surrounded the city until one million inhabitants began to starve and turned to cannibalism. When the city fell, the Mongols went through systematically and raised it to the ground. The only people who survived were people with skills. The story told in The Incarnations is about two people who lie that they have skills but, Barker tells us that Genghis Khan is ‘very much the beating heart of the story’. She was interested in what it was like to be a powerless individual swept up by this historical force.

Emperor Jiajing, the most sadistic of the Ming Dynasty – ‘Which is quite impressive!’ –  is the ruler during the time in which the third story takes place. Jiajing was mostly interested in his own mortality. He had a harem of 200 concubines and it was rumoured he’d tortured and murdered some of them. In October 1542, sixteen concubines plotted to kill him. ‘In a sense they were the most powerful women in China’, Barker says, but they were also prisoners who took their fate into their own hands. The story follows the women as they carry out their plot.

The fourth story takes place in Canton, the city now known as Guangzhou, during the Opium Wars. Barker includes the Tankas, a group who live on junks and have their own subculture and the British. She explores the psychological climate: the Chinese and British attitudes to each other. There were deeply ingrained racial prejudices that were very difficult to overcome, she says.

The Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls in the People’s Republic of China is the setting for the fifth story. Barker was interested in class at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the way in which it began with education with schools being given the freedom to persecute teachers. She read Colin Febron’s Behind the Wall which was written in the 1980s not long after the Cultural Revolution ended. In it he describes the revolution as ‘The collective madness as of an entire nation’. Barker thinks this assessment is harsh but she is interested in how loyalty to Mao Zedong overrode rationality. She’s interested in what it was like to live in a totalitarian society so the story takes place from the interior view of someone who’s being brainwashed.

The themes of the novel are power and power struggles. This is both between individuals in their relationships and between the state – the minority who rule – and the people – the majority who are subjugated. Barker’s interested in how these reoccurs generation after generation. States of peace and stability are always precarious, she says. The contemporary section of the book is set during the most stable time but Wang Jun is disengaged and passive. He’s not interested in wealth and gaining status through it. Instead he’s seduced by the letters left in his taxi and the idea of someone loving him so passionately. The relationship between the taxi driver and the anonymous letter writer is ‘the final power struggle of the book’.

Interview with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

If you’ve read my reviews of One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions, you’ll know how impressed I’ve been with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s work. I was thrilled, therefore, when Pushkin Press asked me if I’d like to interview her to celebrate the paperback publication of Waking Lions. Here’s what we talked about…

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Waking Lions combines a moral dilemma, people’s attitudes to immigrants and a portrait of a marriage in crisis; was it one particular idea that made you decide to write this book or a combination of things?

I always start with a particular idea, a specific question I have in mind. In “Waking Lions” it was the hit and run. It wasn’t a literary question, but a real event which struck me: I was twenty years old when I met the protagonist of this novel. I was travelling in India and met a young Israeli who just sat in the guesthouse and stared for nights. He had a dreamy face and long, light coloured hair. He was just out of military service and was supposed to be having the adventure of his life. But there was something wrong with him. The guy looked frozen. He didn’t speak, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do anything. He just lay on the hammock in the guesthouse and stared at the sky. Something was eating him up inside, that was clear.

Eventually I went to him and asked if he was alright. He admitted to me that several days ago he had hit an Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.

I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it, and one of the reasons was that I couldn’t find the right path for the protagonist. I didn’t want to write a 300 page-novel about a white guy feeling guilty and contemplating it in his decorated living room. Only after I realized that this person is blackmailed by the widow of the refugee he killed did I sit down to write.

Your characters are complex human beings; does your background in Clinical Psychology help you in creating realistic characters?

I think both jobs demand that you’d be willing to leave your own skin for a while, and try to enter someone else’s mind. When you meet a patient who has done things that you morally disagree with – hit his children, for instance – you have to be able to try and understand his motivations. Otherwise you won’t be able to help him, or stop him from doing it again. In everyday life, when we hear of someone doing something bad we just say “asshole” and move on. As a writer and as a psychologist, you don’t have this privilege. If someone has killed his landlord, you want to know why. And to do that, you have to find the place within yourself that’s capable of murder.

However, I do try my best to keep writing and therapy separate. When you write a novel you are the master of the world you create. When you meet a patient you must never forget that this is another man’s story here, he’s the narrator, and you’re just there to help him create a better narrative than the one he’s trapped in.

I’m interested in your female characters. Both of your novels have male protagonists but it’s women – Sirkit in Waking Lions, Bella and Sonya in One Night, Markovitch – that are catalysts for change; can you explain why you chose women to take such roles?

That’s a great question.

It was clear to me that the hit and run driver was a white man, the most powerful animal in the food chain. At first, I didn’t know if it would be a man or a woman who would witness the accident. But the more I thought about it, I realized it had to be a woman. The traditional female role – watch, and be quiet – is suddenly changed. Because what she sees when she observes the accident gives her power over this man. The roles are switched.

It was very important for me that Sirkit wasn’t this “black angel”, a saint, an African Maria. I wanted her to be a real human being, with dreams and desires and powerful ambitions. I think to portray her as a saint is just as dehumanising as portraying her as the ultimate evil. A “refugee” is no more a saint than a “middle-class man”. Both are labels, and behind those labels there are real people – who love, cheat, hate and trust.

Again in both novels, you mention people’s passions – in One Night, Markovitch there are many examples, including Yaacov’s passion for Bella, Bella’s passion for Rachel’s poetry and the passion of the soldiers who storm the fortress; in Waking Lions Sirkit’s passion for learning is something that Eitan recognises in her. What’s your interest in people’s passions?

I think passion and fear are the biggest motivators. It’s either what you long for, or what you’re running away from. When I think about my characters I always try to identify both. That’s the moment they start dancing on the paper

 

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Waking Lions is a gripping, tightly structured book with a number of twists. How did you go about plotting the novel? Were the twists decided in the planning or did some surprise you during the writing process?

When I write the plot I see myself as the first reader of the novel: I don’t want to get bored. So I try to ask myself: what would surprise you on the next page? It’s a bit like playing hide and seek with yourself.  In both  my novels, I had no idea how the story was going to end until the very end of the writing process. It’s like going on a hike – you don’t want to know how the view from the highest point looks until you actually get there.

Waking Lions is very different in terms to tone, style and central idea to One Night, Markovitch; did you deliberately set out to write a very different book?

No. I had no conscious thought of “what’s the next move”. I finished the first novel, and I missed the characters. After spending so much time together, it was like losing a close friend. And then suddenly I met this new story within me, and I followed it. When the second novel was finished I gave it to some friends, and they warned me that readers who expected a light tone – as in the first novel – would be shocked by the second one. But the reason I love writing is because it’s the only playground open to adults. The only place where you don’t have to remain coherent, clear, predictable. You can do what you want, be who you want, whether it’s a tale set sixty years ago, like Markovitch or something much more rigid and realistic like Waking Lions. I’m working on my third novel now, and once again I’m using my right to do exactly what I want to do, regardless of what’s gone before.

Both of your novels have been translated into English by Sondra Silverston; did you work closely with her on the translations? How do you feel about having your words translated into another language?

It’s really weird: my English is not good enough to read literature. I only read “Harry Potter” in English in high-school. So imagine what it is for me to open my own novel, and not recognise half the words! I simply trust Sondra that these are indeed the right words, with the right music.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?

Just that I’m working. Hard.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?

I owe Virginia Woolf every word that I wrote after the birth of my first child. “A Room of One’s Own” is for me one of the most important texts ever written.  It made me feel that I’m entitled to close the door and write, even if I’m a mother.

I also admire Elena Ferrante, “My Brilliant Friend” is my book of the year.

The Hebrew poet Yona Wallach is a big inspiration, both as a writer and as a therapist.

 

Huge thanks to Ayelet and to Pushkin Press.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is the author of Waking Lions and One Night, Markovitch, both published by Pushkin Press. Waking Lions is published in paperback on 1st September, £8.99 pushkinpress.com 

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

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Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are friends. Indeed, Feinberg is Markovitch’s only friend and the pair couldn’t be more different:

[…]there are people who walk through the world as if they were there by mistake, as if at any moment someone would put a hand on their shoulder and shout in their ears, “What is this? Who let you in? Get out, fast.” And there are people who don’t walk through the world at all. Just the opposite, they sail through it, slicing the water in two wherever they pass, like a boat full of confidence.

Feinberg is the latter, while Markovitch is ‘gloriously average […his] face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onwards to other objects’.

The book begins with Markovitch saving Feinberg’s life; a young Arab almost shoots him as he has sex with Rachel Mandelbaum. However, Rachel is the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer, who will not hesitate to kill. The following morning when the moustache rash on Rachel’s chest confirms that she was having sex with Feinberg, he and Markovitch are forced to go on the run.

The men go to see the deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s. He sends them to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain.

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Three women form the backbone of the story: Rachel Mandelbaum, Sonya, and Bella Zeigerman.

Rachel Mandelbaum came to Palestine five years prior to the beginning of the book. As she stood at the port, Avraham arrived, as he had every few weeks, looking for some one to fill his loneliness.

In her green dress she looked to him like a bottle that had been thrown out to sea and washed up on the shore, and he, the lonely survivor, would pick it up and read what was inside it. He took her home and married her but never succeeded in deciphering the words that were in the bottle.

Rachel never reveals herself to anyone. She abandons the German language of her childhood and keeps the Austrian soldier she loved locked inside her. Her story is one of loneliness and sadness.

Sonya is Feinberg’s girlfriend who he swears he’ll marry once he and Markovitch return from Europe because:

[…] that woman has the strength of ten men […] a heart the size of a dove, and a vagina of sweet water. […]she can make you laugh until your balls twist themselves around each other.

While Feinberg is gone, Sonya spends every day standing at the edge of the water, waiting for his return.

[…] if she was doomed to wait, even if she was cursed with the humiliating tendency of women everywhere to find a piece of sand on which to stand and look at the sea, waiting for their man to return, at least she had the strength to be angry about it. And so she cursed Zeev Feinberg with all her heart and soul, loudly and resolutely.

But after the deputy commander of the Irgun returns a visit she paid to him, she finds herself in bed with Feinberg’s friend through sheer boredom. Unfortunately, she has quite an affect on the deputy commander and it isn’t sated by her marriage to Feinberg on his return.

Bella Zeigerman is the woman Yaacov Markovitch marries in Europe.

[…]Bella Zeigerman was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful woman in the apartment. And although, unlike Yaacov Markovitch, [Feinberg] didn’t think she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, she undeniably belonged to the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.

On their return, Markovitch refuses to divorce her and the two stay locked in a frosty marriage which sees Markovitch fall out with his best friend, Bella leave and return, and Markovitch raise someone else’s child.

Gundar-Goshen covers several, intertwined lives in this novel. The ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here. The relationships and the children, born to different fathers struck me as Shakespearian. These twists could have become farcical and the fact that they do not demonstrates Gundar-Goshen’s ability to plot on a large scale. Her characters are fully-rounded and it was refreshing to read about three women who were distinctly different people.

Credit must also go to the translator, Sondra Silverston: the writing fizzes throughout. It was an utter joy to read.

I finished reading One Night, Markovitch bathed in a warm glow. Although the novel has difficult and sometimes tragic elements to it, there’s something truly life-affirming about it. Like all great literature, it has eternal truths about humanity at its core, while telling a truly individual story. It is a wonderful book.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

 

Panty – Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha)

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So, ultimately, she – who had no name, no identity, no family, no city or village, no property or assets – had still retained a religion.

A woman arrives at an apartment at eleven o’clock at night. She lets herself in only to discover that none of the lights work. She showers and lies on the bed. The next day, the man who owns the flat calls twice.

The phone rang again. It was him. ‘Should I call your friend and tell her you’ve settled down?’

‘Please, no. There’s no need to tell her anything. I…I want to be lost to everyone forever. Just tell her I’ve arrived.’

He tells her she can stay as long as she likes.

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The following day, the woman unpacks her few belongings. When she looks in the wardrobe she finds a pair of crumpled leopard print knickers. She examines them, discovers a white, mouldy stain inside them and then, feeling that they offer a presence in the flat, throws them back inside the wardrobe.

After meeting a man later that evening, she’s lying in bed when she realises her period has started. Not having a second pair of knickers with her, she decides to wear the leopard print ones, thinking that the sanitary towel will provide a layer between her skin and the mouldy stain on the knickers.

I slipped into the panty.

What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.

I stepped into her womanhood.

Her sexuality, her love.

I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.[…]Although I do not admit that I fell asleep, it is undeniable that I was woken by a series of sounds in the room.

They were making out. Kissing. Fucking wildly. They were panting, but could not stop. Hours seemed to pass this way. They remained engaged in their sex – till I passed out.

I had not understood them that first night. I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were on the wall.

The couple appear on the days she wears the leopard print knickers.

Panty is a fragmented tale of a woman unsure of her own identity. The chapters – which run in a seemingly random order (29, 15, 11…) – build a picture of a mother, a lover, a writer, an escapee but it’s impossible to pin down a true sense of this woman. She’s also waiting for surgery, for what we’re never told, but this adds to the sense of a shifting identity.

This is a bold book both in terms of the content, which caused a furore in the world of Bengali literature, and the enigmatic style and structure. I’m sure there are readers that would find this book infuriating but if you prefer your literature to be elusive, challenging and require some work to decipher what the writer’s intensions might be then Panty is a great and fascinating book.

 

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press for the review copy.

Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump)

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Clarisse Rivière felt herself floating back and forth on a warm, thick swell, whose density stilled any move she might try to make. […] She had to place her faith in the mindless but confident perseverance of the heavy, dense tide now carrying her off, and when she spotted the edge of the dark, overgrown forest, its treetops towering and black against the black sky, her only thought was “I’ve never been in a deep forest”, but she put up no resistance, certain that there she would be just where she was meant to be.

Ladivine is the story of three generations of women from the same family. It centres on Clarisse Rivière, a woman who has reinvented herself, denying her past.

On the first Tuesday of each month, Clarisse Rivière reverts to being Malinka and visits her mother. Throughout the period of time in which these visits take place, Clarisse marries and has a child – a daughter – who grows to adulthood. She never mentions any aspect of her life to her mother and her mother never asks. Clarisse is embarrassed of her upbringing: a mother who worked as a servant and cleaner in offices and apartments in Paris; two tiny rooms to live in, and an absent father.

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During a summer in Arcachon looking after the children she babysits in Paris, Malinka decides she doesn’t have to stay at home with her mother. On their return, she resigns and leaves for Bordeaux. She changes her name to Clarisse and becomes a waitress. Her mother finds her, taking a room and a cleaning job but then Clarisse meets Richard Rivière, a car salesman, and follows him to Langon.

Was it then, Clarisse Rivière would later wonder, that she’d first vowed forever to be good to Richard Rivière, a vow that would determine the whole of her life with him?

Because she must have realised, then or just a little later, that there was no other escape from what she had deliberately done to the servant, Malinka’s mother, who was never to know of Clarisse Rivière, never to delight in anything good that happened to her daughter, never to broaden her narrow circle to include those her daughter loved most, on whom she herself might lavish her vast, unused love – no, no other escape from that violence, that shame, than the deepest, most indisputable goodness in every other way.

That goodness, however, the veneer Clarisse constructs, is what eventually leads to Richard Rivière leaving her. At that point, when their daughter is an adult with her own husband and children, Clarisse meets a man who she finally opens up to. She takes Freddy Molinger to meet her mother, who thinks he’s wonderful. But Molinger is a dangerous man and his appearance in their lives will have shattering consequences.

In Ladivine, NDiaye explores the role of women in society and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Clarisse, while partially rejecting her mother, is unfailingly ‘good’ in the other areas of her life, meeting society’s expectations of how a woman should behave. This isn’t enough for either of the men in her life, however. Her daughter, Ladivine, whose story comes to the fore in the second half of the novel, seems destined to repeat her mother’s actions. She has physically distanced herself from her parents by moving to Berlin. Her father has never met his grandchildren and Clarisse only sees them occasionally.

Ladivine’s story becomes one of coincidences, déjà vu, violence and hauntings. A layer of terror hangs over her, partially driven by the loss of their luggage in the unnamed place in which they are on holiday and partially by the appearance of a dog which follows Ladivine. This may or may not be the same dog Richard Rivière’s parents acquired to guard their shop around the same time that Ladivine was born:

The dog was lying on Ladivine’s bed, a little crib whose bars were lowered on one side so the baby could be picked up more easily, and its outstretched head, lightly grazing the child’s, had a deathly stillness about it.

Equally immobile, Clarisse saw in a single sweeping glance, were the baby’s body, her colourless face, her wide eyes looking deep into the dog’s staring gaze, as if she’d plunged into an abyss of sibylline knowledge and perhaps become lost.

Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger for the child. Not for a moment did she doubt the dog’s good intentions.

Ladivine is not an easy read; it asks questions about identity, erasure and women’s place in society. It moves into dark, occasionally fantastical, territory and has an ending that some readers will hate. However, it marks NDiaye out as a talented writer, unafraid to transgress boundaries and left this reader keen for more.

 

Thanks to MacLehose for the review copy.