The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong)

The first half of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child.

Mia is spoilt: she has a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils from one of her fathers; her every need is met. The only potential problem in her life is that one of the fathers isn’t aware that the other exists.

Early in the novel, Mia declares that she’s going to buy a fountain pen when she grows up. She read in a book that you can use it to kill someone.

But, of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t understand the words death or kill. She is a lucky child, and she lacks the passion, let alone the opportunity, to kill someone; she doesn’t yet know that people kill even in the absence of emotions such as hatred. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s skull from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat, a fact she would have learned if she had read more books. But she is interested only in detective novels, and because there are more things that she doesn’t know than she does know, her world is simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, I’m going to buy a fountain pen when I grow up, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.

Like Chekov’s gun, Han has planted the idea of violence in the opening pages of the novel and, at some point, it has to detonate.

The Child is in Mia’s class at school.

She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.

The Child is abused and neglected. She spends most of her time in pain from a range of sources: her fingernails, cut so short the flesh below is exposed; her stomach, from hunger or the anticipation of what’s to come at home. While Mia is in trouble for a story spread about another classmate killing chicks, the Child has stolen the key to the school classroom. She uses it to enter after school and add sentences to the journals which the pupils write. Her own journal masks the reality of her situation:

No trace must be left. She must disappear instantly, as though she has never existed, not even for an instant. She, too, writes in her journal. But she records nothing. Nothing about herself. Every time the journal is returned to her, she learns how to camouflage more and more words with other words. Cheek with leaf, bruise with wind, blister with light breeze, fingernail with butterfly, curse with song, calf muscle with stick, tongue with ice cream, palm with moon, hair with stars, sigh with whistling, grip with tree branch, shoe heel with footprint, glass shard with sky, spine with dog, thigh with cat, stick with streetlight, crying with bird, pain with bright colors. When I opened the window a light breeze blew in. I wanted ice cream, so I went to the store. There was dew on green leaves. I saw the yellow cat’s family. It was strange that their eyes were green.

The Child makes a decision about the journals which leads to trouble for the whole class. While the teacher tries to resolve the situation with threats, the violence the children perpetuate escalates, leading to a fatal incident.

The second half of the book plays with what we’ve encountered in the first. The narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel.

You look like you’re twelve, and you also look like you’re twenty. According to simple arithmetic, you’re probably twenty-seven years old now, but no one would be able to guess that. Twelve years old and twenty years old, somewhere in between those two ages, time was torn and crumpled, repeatedly, until it finally disappeared.

Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives. She considers the overlap of time and whether different versions of ourselves can co-exist – does the person we were at twelve still live? Are they running around in our world, narrowly missing bumping into our older self?

There are no answers to this conundrum, of course, but there’s a hypnotic beauty in the repetition of language and ideas Han uses to interrogate the idea. Credit to Janet Hong for what cannot have been an easy text to translate. Han’s wordplay where she links meaning and concepts in a stream of consciousness exploration can’t always directly translate. It seems that Hong manages to maintain the intention and meaning of the original text, even if specific words have had to be substituted.

Water isn’t beautiful at all. When water freezes, it becomes ice. Ice is more beautiful than water. But neither water nor ice is beautiful. Water flows. Ice is slippery. I’ve run on ice before. No one was on my back. Every time my hooves touched the ice, I heard a strange noise. It was the sound of me slipping, on and onward. So I guess I can’t say that I ran on ice. Can I say that the ice slipped? The ice slipped up. I was afraid that the slipped-up ice would crack, I was afraid that the water colder than ice would drench me, so on and onward I went.

The Impossible Fairytale is an innovative exploration of the bounds of storytelling. The first of Han Yujoo’s work to be translated into English, I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

I spoke to Han Yujoo about fiction, the collapsing of time and working with a translator.

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press, I have five copies of The Impossible Fairytale to give away. To win, leave a comment either here or underneath my interview with Han Yujoo on YouTube by 6pm UK time on Sunday 24th September. Giveaway is UK only. Winners will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

The giveaway winners are Ann Bradley, Christabel, Lara Alonso Corona, Victoria Goodbody and Eva. Please check you email for further details. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Books mentioned:

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo

Madame Zero – Sarah Hall

The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy and the giveaway and to Han Yujoo for the interview.

When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.

 

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The Other Half of Happiness is the sequel to Malik’s debut, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. While the books can be read individually, I can’t write about The Other Half of Happiness without spoiling the end of the first book. You have been warned!

‘I’ll be shot for saying this,’ said Sakib, ‘but I always thought women preferred romance to feminism.’

Brammers shook her head while he wasn’t looking, as if it was just the typical thing a man would say.

I took another biscuit, thinking about Conall. Romance versus feminism. ‘Whoever said you can’t have both?’

We re-join Sofia on 1st January 2013 in bed with Conall, to whom she is now married. They are living in Karachi while Conall works on his documentary with Hamida, a situation which Sofia isn’t thrilled about. She still dislikes Hamida and she’s missing London and her friends. While Conall sleeps, she exchanges messages with Suj, Foz and Hannah.

Sofia’s mum’s upset that she’s married without telling anyone and, on a Skype call with her sister, Maars, some family grievances are aired:

‘It was all very quick.’ She leaned into the screen, her eyes looking bigger than usual. ‘I mean, how well do you actually know him?’

‘It’s Conall.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Yeah, but who’s his family?’

‘I didn’t realise we were living in a Regency novel.’

‘You can tell a lot about a person from their family,’ she said.

‘I hope not,’ I replied as she stuck her finger up at me.

She handed Adam a rusk and added: ‘You never just marry one person. You marry their whole family.’

The latter comment is what lies at the nub of the novel. Conall rarely mentions his family but, when Sofia ends up back in London, Sofia’s mum decides Sofia and Conall are having another wedding. Amongst the 300 guests, Sofia’s mum invites Conall’s parents. His mum attends and, before the wedding’s barely over, Sofia discovers a huge secret Conall’s been keeping from her.

While the problems which ensue form the main plot of the novel, there’s a number of subplots. Sofia’s back in London because Katie, her editor, and her new co-worker, Sakib, have proposed she writes a guide to marriage from her unique perspective. Her mum’s getting remarried to a man she knew 40 years ago who she’s rediscovered via Facebook and her Auntie and friends have a variety of different issues in their own lives, mostly around relationships and children.

Malik explores life beyond the ‘happy ever after’ with the added twist of a marriage between a Muslim woman of colour and a white, Irish man who’s converted to Islam. This allows her to look at the way in which the practices related to Islam are treated with suspicion. She also expands her look at diversity in publishing, which she touched on in the first book, by introducing Sakib, who’s name Katie can’t even pronounce:

‘Sakib’s here to build our list of diverse authors,’ said Brammers. ‘He’s of Indian descent and Muslim. Like you,’ she added.

‘I’m Pakistani,’ I said.

While the novel’s still very funny, it’s much darker than the first instalment and, I would argue, better for it. Sofia and her friends have steep learning curves which feel intense and realistic. She comes to realise that life doesn’t always work out as you intended it to but sometimes it’s the events you don’t expect that lead to a more interesting path.

People talk of milestones in life – graduating from university, getting your first job, buying a house, getting married, etc. – but no one really thinks about the milestones that are offered to you. And how they can mean so much more when they’re unprecedented.

Malik challenges the traditional trajectory of the romantic comedy with the strong feminist streak that runs throughout the book. I was so invested in the outcomes for Sofia, that when she did choose her path, I found myself sobbing over her decision. The Other Half of Happiness is an empowering, feminist novel and one of my books of the year.

I spoke to Ayisha Malik about writing romantic comedy, female friendships and being a ghostwriter.

You can buy The Other Half of Happiness from AmazonWaterstones
or support your local independent bookshop.

You can buy Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged from AmazonWaterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy and to Ayisha Malik and Emily Burns for the interview.

The Last Wave – Gillian Best

Turning to face the sea, I shouted, ‘I will swim the Channel. I will not get out until I reach England.’
In return, the water threw salty spray in my face.
I squared my shoulders and stood up to it as though it were a schoolyard bully. ‘I need to do this. I need to prove to myself that I can. I need to show everyone at home that I am more than a wife and a mother. They need to see that…’

Martha is dead. Cancer. Her husband John has Alzheimer’s and when The Last Wave begins, we meet him confused, missing her, believing that she’s gone out to swim in the sea. Despite this, Martha is the character this tale of a family hinges on. Returned to life for the second chapter, she relates a story of herself as a ten-year-old girl out fishing with her father.

It was the first day I got wet.
I fell head first towards the water but it happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to think about taking a breath. I remembered hitting the water and thinking that it was strange that hurt so much, it felt as though I had hit something solid and hard. That moment changed the way I looked at the sea forever. Before it had been a vastness that had nothing to do with me, it was there and I knew it was cold and though I had been wading once or twice before, I had only felt the water move around me, and make way for me. But when I hit the water that day I understood that it was able to be more than one thing.

Martha’s accident is kept from her mother, as are the initial swimming lessons she has with her father’s friend, Jim. By the time her mother finds out and forbids her from continuing, Matha’s love of swimming in the sea has already taken hold.

The novel’s told from multiple perspectives, incorporating the views of Martha and Jim’s children, their daughter’s partner, their granddaughter and their next-door-neighbour. Each has a thread of their own – the daughter, Harriet, is gay, something her father is hugely uncomfortable with; the granddaughter, Myrtle, wants to follow in the waves of the grandmother she’s never met; the son, Ian, has moved to Australia, the furthest away he’s able to go, and the next-door-neighbour has a secret of his own. Best deftly weaves the character’s stories together. Not only does she move between their tales, she jumps along the chronology, leaving the reader to piece together the order of events. This is far less confusing than it sounds and makes for an engaging drama which maintains a narrative tension without obviously withholding information or making any dramatic twists.

While Best’s characters play out the type of scenarios you might expect from a fairly typical family coping with life’s challenges, they are underpinned by Martha’s extraordinary achievement: multiple swims across the English Channel. She’s a woman determined to defy the odds and convention. There’s a wonderful scene when John brings his manager home for dinner, hoping to land a promotion. Martha, sparked by a journalist’s comments that afternoon, has been swimming in the sea for the first time since their marriage. She arrives home, dripping wet, dinner uncooked.

He turned to look at Charlie through the glass doors. ‘There’s no way he’ll give me that promotion now. How can I control an entire department of men if I can’t even control my own wife?’
‘A wife isn’t for controlling,’ I said. ‘I have to do more than laundry. I want to do something bigger.’ I stepped forward, intending to change out of my dripping clothes, but he would not let me pass.
He looked furious – with me or himself I couldn’t tell.
‘I’m going to put some dry clothes on. Then I will come down and cook you and Charlie your dinner. And then, John, I’m going to swim the Channel.’
‘What is so bloody important about swimming the Channel?’ he shouted.
‘My life depends on it.’

I spoke to Gillian Best about Martha, swimming and telling stories.

You can buy The Last Wave from AmazonWaterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Freight Books for the review copy and to Gillian Best for the interview.

 

Flesh of the Peach – Helen McClory

She was overburdened with her thoughts. A wish for comfort, for palm against palm and fingers latched. No one ever knew how to give her it. What could she want, given that she seemed to everyone a pretty cactus or a thistle pitched all by itself among the rocks, casting a twisted shadow.

We meet Sarah at the top of the Empire State building. Her mother, who was back in Cornwall, has died of cancer; she’s lost her job, and her married lover has ended their affair after her husband found out about it.

And all she was was an émigré deadmother wifefucker in pieces, spines, vibrating at an awful screeching pitch.

From there, to the Empire State building. From there, her pieces  sent out to be hopeful and reformative – somewhere other.

Sarah does the American thing and sets off on a road trip, by Greyhound bus, to the cabin her mother owned in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.

Between encounters with a range of other passengers and Sarah’s thoughts about her current situation, we learn about Sarah’s relationship with her artist mother. Her mother was fleetingly famous and verbally cruel. She used the mixed-race Sarah as a model for her paintings but always rendered the girl as a typical English rose. Her behaviour, of course, had an impact on Sarah:

And you try not to remember how on another day it was the same stillness, creation-new. And how Lucy’s face had turned in the moments after you cut open your mother’s hand. Pillow blood, sheet blood. Cousin Lucy very still as Maud woke shrieking and gasping.

When Sarah arrives at the cabin, she becomes entangled with Theo, the young man who lives with his mother in the nearest cabin. As their relationship progresses, Sarah tries to reconcile herself with who she is.

McClory describes the book as a novel told in flash fiction: none of the chapters exceed 1000 words. This allows for the story to be told in snapshots and for a range of thoughts, ideas and events to be covered – we get Sarah’s views on art, guns, footnotes, the hierarchy of pain and much more. It also means that the writing is taught and condensed, moving between the poetic and the blunt. Often it is funny, quite often at the expense of mediocre men.

What really makes Flesh of the Peach stand out though is its unflinching portrayal of a young woman being messy and unpredictable and human. Some of her behaviour is appalling but it feels like the behaviour of someone trying to find out who they are and why that’s who they’ve become. How do you come to terms with the death of your self-centered mother? How do you rebuild a life when every part of it seems to have broken at the same time?

Flesh of the Peach is refreshing: as a road trip novel with a female protagonist, as a combination of short and long form prose writing, as a portrait of a woman.

I interviewed Helen McClory about the novel. We discussed unlikeable female protagonists, road trips and flash fiction.

You can buy Flesh of the Peach from AmazonWaterstones,
or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Helen McClory for the interview and to Freight Books for the review copy.

Attrib. and other stories – Eley Williams

I should start with a confession: I love Eley Williams’ work. I’ve loved it since ‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ was shortlisted for The White Review Prize in 2015. It’s a story I read repeatedly when I was trying to work out whether my own writing was experimental or not and it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s not even the best piece in Williams’ debut collection.

Williams’ stories are primarily concerned with three things: language, love (in many forms) and animals. These three things are woven together in almost every story.

The collection begins with ‘The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice)’. The plot of this is not and will not be obvious begins the narrator. It’s such a bold statement I wonder whether it’s an intention for the collection. With regards to the story, it’s because the narrator has aphasia.

I completely lost it (the plot, not the glasses – they’re only mislaid) about two weeks ago around the same time that I mislaid you. If you were here you would make a filthy joke about my use of that word, about you being miss laid. Scratch that, then. Screw it or unscrew that work out of place. Two weeks ago is when I lost it – the plot – round about the same time that you were not mislaid by me but were misplaced. When you misplaced me. Two weeks ago is when we ceased to converge by the bedside table, beneath the sofa, by the fridge.

There’s a point towards the end of this piece where I’ve noted ‘There’s a real emotional oomf in this’, the loss of not just words but a lover, the two tied together as though they would be the worst two things to happen at the same time, which, for a lover of words, they just might be.

Williams uses a lot of humour in her work. The set up for ‘Alight at the Next’ is funny in itself: the narrator wants to ask their date to come home with them. They’re just working up to the speech they’ve composed to deliver in time with the slowing motion of the train

when the doors are opening and you are standing closer to me than you ever have, and I have been counting, and measuring, and the doors have opened and

 / / a man / / pushes on / / to get inside / / the carriage / / before I’ve had time / / to step down

so without thinking and certainly without hinges I am holding out my hand and placing a finger in the middle of his forehead.

The rest of the story takes place while the narrator holds the man by his forehead, preventing him from embarking.

As for the animals, well, look away if you’re an animal lover…

In many ways my workplace is the loveliest in the whole country. They are still songbirds, after all, even when they are screaming in the pot.

so begins ‘Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef’. In ‘Bulk’ a whale’s body is washed up on the beach; in ‘Mischief’ we encounter a rat trained to detect landmines, and in the final story of the collection, ‘Spins’ (shortlisted for The White Review Prize 2014), a spider weaves its web in the corner of the room an hour after the narrator’s lover has left them. A tip for beginners: spiders are not great conversationalists.

Williams’ work is clever, funny and thoughtful without being pretentious but what makes Attrib. and other stories one of the best books I’ve read so far this year is the huge beating heart at the centre of it all. There were points in some of the stories where I was so willing the narrator on in their quest to connect with someone that I found I couldn’t breathe. It’s a sign of a great writer when they can make you care so deeply about an unnamed fictional creation. Williams is a great writer and I have no doubt there’s even better to come from her.

I interviewed Eley about the collection, the state of the short story and completing creative work as part of a PhD thesis.

Did Eley insert a made up word in her collection?

You can buy Attrib. and other stories from Amazon and Waterstones or support your local independent book shop. If, like me, you don’t have one, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Eley for the interview and to Influx Press for the review copy.

The Writes of Woman Interviews Salena Godden

If you’re active on social media or a regular at live spoken word events, it’s unlikely you won’t have heard of Salena Godden. It seems as though she’s been everywhere – geographically and media wise – for the last few years and with good reason. A regular (and when I say regular I mean practically every night) on the spoken word scene, 2016 also saw her included in the bestselling, award winning essay collection The Good Immigrant while the beginning of 2017 brought a shortlisting for the Ted Hughes Award for the album LIVEwire.

LIVEwire is a mixture of poems and extracts of prose (from Godden’s memoir Springfield Road). It’s a mixture of live performances and studio recordings. It’s a mixture of unaccompanied and accompanied (Godden sings during some pieces) verse.

It begins with ‘Swan’, a tale of a relationship between two people grown old together, ‘We never agree about the temperature, maps and train timetables’. It prepares the listener for the thread about relationships which runs through the collection, not just romance as in ‘You Like that One’ about the dating scene and ‘Snooker’ where Godden uses snooker as a metaphor for being hit on in a bar but also friendship. In ‘Under the Pier’ teenage girls hang out drinking and talking. This is the softer side of Godden’s work and makes an interesting contrast to the more political pieces (small and capital ‘p’).

Politics emerges as both public and personal in the collection. There are direct responses to the Paris attacks in ‘November, Paris Blue’, ‘It stinks the way they continue to lie and conspire, to make money, to trade arms, enslave and murder people’ and ‘Titanic’, which initially appears to be about the Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio starring film but takes a swift turn part-way through, ‘I used to love that film Titanic…but now it looks like the Channel 4 news’. Winslet is mentioned again in ‘Public Service Announcement’:

Kate Winslet has had three children from three different fathers
Three children from three different fathers
She has clearly been doing what the fuck she likes with her own vagina.
We have contacted her
We have scrutinised her choices
And we’ve gone through her bins

There is a feminist streak which runs through Godden’s work, although she’s not uncritical of the movement itself; ‘My Tits Are More Feminist than Your Tits’ parodies the in-fighting which take place on social media and in the press as to who’s doing feminism right.

Godden’s delivery varies from solemn to shouty, the contrast striking a good balance for the listener. The moments where she shouts lines, often repeatedly, carry a real punch and appear to be Godden at both her most passionate and her funniest. In ‘I Want Love’, written 20 years ago when she was 20, Godden descends into laughter as she sends up her younger self. She demonstrates an understanding of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly – and also a self-awareness which means the human behind the words is often present, providing a connection to the points Godden’s making, however shocking.

LIVEwire has something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of poetry/a regular on the poetry scene or someone new to the form looking for a way in. It’s a joy to listen to the capture of Godden’s live performances, the passion with which she delivers her thoughts. I can’t recommend her work highly enough.

I interviewed Salena Godden in Manchester last month. The photographs were taken by Matt Abbott.

You can find Salena on her blog, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

You can buy LiveWIRE from Amazon
Springfield Road from Amazon or Waterstones
The Good Immigrant from Amazon, Waterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Salena Godden and Matt Abbott for the interview and to Nymphs and Thugs for the review copy.

The Writes of Woman Interviews Olivia Sudjic, author of Sympathy

“Origin stories make us feel secure; untangling them can undo us.”

Twenty-three-year-old Alice Hare doesn’t know who she is; adopted, mixed-race, born in New York but having lived in London and Tokyo, with an absent father and a mother she doesn’t get on with, she sets out for birthplace and her adopted paternal grandmother, Silvia.

In the end I guess it was that which hooked me – the idea of another beginning, begun right. Although Sylvia had offered to help me understand at least part of my origins (not my birth parents, written out entirely except for lost adoption forms), I wanted to build – half reconstruction, half my own design – a version that belonged entirely to me.

We know from the very beginning of the novel that Alice has become obsessed with Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer living in New York. As we meet Alice she’s waiting to see whether Mizuko accepts her ‘Follow’ request on an unidentified social media site (it could be one of many). As Alice relates the events in hindsight, we know that Mizuko was ill, infested with a parasite, at the time of Alice’s excruciating wait; we also know that there is a remaining distance in their relationship, although it will be the end of the novel before the reasons for this are revealed. What comes between these two points is the tale of a young woman who, via a number of coincidences, finds herself obsessed with an older women. Whether she wants to be Mizuko or be with Mizuko isn’t clear to Alice herself. The key to this unknowing seems to lie in the fact that the version of Mizuko Alice knows is the one she’s created via her internet stalking, she actually spends very little time with the woman herself.

When we met, we were both online constantly. In fact, I would say I was online constantly because she was, and I was monitoring her usage. For her, the Internet was primarily a tool of self-promotion and reinforcement for her multiple selves while for me it became a tool designed for the sole purpose of observing her. It was the only way I could have been brave enough to approach her in real life, having dissected the pictorial equivalent of her DNA in advance.

What Sudjic has created is a multi-layered commentary on the impact of the internet on our lives, particularly those considered ‘Digital Natives’ (born after 1980 and having never known life without internet access). Rather than bringing us relevant information faster than ever, in Sudjic’s world the internet brings information overload and few answers. She combines Alice’s quest with comments on the Hadron Collider (Alice’s adopted father worked on an early version) and the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Alice is in an interesting character; while she’s largely passive, she’s also not particularly likeable and that strikes me as a brave decision in this climate where readers (and some publishers) rail against unlikeable women in novels (by unlikeable I mean like real human women). Sudjic allows her to be complex and unsure of herself. She’s trying to work out who she might be and she does so by appropriating someone else’s story, or at least a version of it.

Sympathy is an impressive debut: complex, bold, intelligent, unafraid to tackle big ideas. If Sudjic doesn’t always quite pull it off, it’s forgivable for the sheer scope of her undertaking; she means business and it’s impossible not to applaud her ambition. Sympathy’s well worth your time and I’m delighted to see a young female novelist begin her career with such aplomb.

In the first of my new series, The Writes of Woman Interviews… I was thrilled to be able to speak to Olivia Sudjic about the book and hear her read from the novel.

(Apologies for the quality of the picture; I am learning on the job and messed up a setting. If it’s too excruciating to watch, there is an audio only version below.)

You can buy Sympathy from Amazon or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy of Sympathy and Tabitha Pelly and Olivia Sudjic for the interview.

The Power – Naomi Alderman + interview

Helen Simpson’s latest collection, Cockfosters, contains a short story called ‘Erewhon’. The bulk of the tale takes place between 3.29am and 5.20am as the narrator lies awake in bed worrying about their work as a teacher; not knowing how to approach their partner to discuss going part-time; thinking about the parent who told them about the domestic abuse they’re suffering; considering unrealistic media images of people their age, and so on. It sounds like a familiar tale, until you know that the narrator is male. Simpson subverts stereotypes, creating a picture of domesticity as it might be in a matriarchy. In her fourth novel The Power, Naomi Alderman mines a similar vein but on a global scale.

A framing device introduces the reader to the idea that the book we’re about to read has been written by a male academic which he’s sent to an academic called Naomi, seeking her opinion on it. He describes it as ‘a sort of hybrid piece […] Not quite history, not quite a novel’.

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The book he’s written begins with the Day of the Girls. It’s the day that the world at large discovers that young women contain a power within them, a power they can harness and use. Tunde, a twenty-one-year-old journalism student in Lagos, becomes aware of this power when he flirts with and then grabs a girl at a swimming pool. On the Day of the Girls, he’s in a shop where he witnesses a man harassing a teenage girl. Aware that she’s about to use her power, he films the incident on his phone.

Tunde is recording when she turns around. The screen of his phone fuzzes for a moment when she strikes. Other than that, he gets the whole thing very clearly. There she is, bringing her hand to his arm while he smiles and thinks she is performing mock-fury for his amusement. If you pause the video for a moment at this point, you can see the charge jump. There’s the trace of a Lichtenberg figure, swirling and branching like a river along his skin up from wrist to elbow as the capillaries burst.

Tunde posts the video online which triggers a wave of films and a wave of incidents.

The story follows three key females: Roxy, Margot and Allie.

Fourteen-year-old Roxy is the daughter of a London gangster. Her story begins when she witnesses her mother’s murder in their house. She’s one of the first to discover the power, using it to disarm one of the men attempting to kill her mum.

Margot, the mayor of a town in Wisconsin, has to make decisions about how to manage the girls and their new found powers. When her daughter Jos is sent home for fighting with a boy, Margot asks her to demonstrate how the power works. What she doesn’t expect is for the power to awaken within her too.

Allie, the sixteen-year-old, mixed-race, foster daughter of white Christians Mr and Mrs Montgomery-Taylor, discovers her power as Mrs Montgomery-Taylor sits in her living room listening to the radio and sipping sherry while Mr Montgomery-Taylor rapes her in her bedroom, as he does most evenings. She kills him, leaves through her bedroom window and walks until she finds a convent where they take her in. There a voice speaks to her. She takes the name Mother Eve and preaches about a new nation run by women.

A revolution begins: women take power in the streets, in their homes, in political administrations, in religious affairs. Tunde travels the world, documenting the changes taking place.

The novel’s so compelling, the world Alderman creates so complete and believable that when the framing device returned at the end, I’d forgotten I was supposed to be reading a text written by a male academic. What’s so clever about this though is that Alderman uses it to question almost everything the academic has included which contradicts the established narrative in their society. You can tell how much fun she had writing it:

What you’ve written here contradicts so many of the history books we all read as children; and they’re based on traditional accounts going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. What is it that you think happened? Are you really suggesting that everyone lied on a monumental scale about the past?

All love, Naomi

What’s particularly brilliant about Alderman’s approach to all this is she refuses to allow her matriarchal society to be the soft, caring, fluffy world that some like to argue women in charge would bring. Alderman’s women are interested in power, in taking charge, in ruling the world. There is violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse.

When I first came across Simpson’s story ‘Erewhon’, I was present at an event where she read it aloud. It was hilarious, I howled with laughter the whole way through. As I read The Power I also found myself thrilled at moments, laughing and feeling as though I could punch the air. Hurrah for women on top, it’s about time! But seconds later as the full horror of the women’s actions were revealed, the joy turned to disgust. It’s not funny when you remember that the worries and fears of Simpson’s narrator and the actions and desires of Alderman’s characters are things women deal with every day in our current society. Here’s hoping that these stories allow more people to see this and they become catalysts for change.

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Photograph by David Levene

I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome Naomi Alderman to the blog to answer some questions about her work.

Where did the idea for a matriarchal society where women have special power come from?

Heh. Really, it came from living in a patriarchal society where men have a specially large amount of upper body strength! I imagine an alien from a planet without gender asking me this question and being very puzzled by sexual dimorphism, but as we do have gender all I had to do was turn it over and see how it looked upside down.

I took a long time thinking about exactly what power I could give women that would flip it over without feeling too unbalanced or different to what men have. It couldn’t be something that gave a total upper hand: men don’t have laser beams coming out of their eyes, their physical strength advantage (on average) only works in a fight at close quarters. And I didn’t want it to feel too *silly*. The power I give women in this novel is exactly what electric eels and other electric fish have – so at least it exists in a species that evolved on the same planet as us. Those genes exist, they could theoretically have evolved in us, given the right push at the right moment.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about unlikeable female characters. All of your lead females have unlikeable aspects to different degrees; how do you feel about these elements of your characters and the debate in general?

I really like difficult women. Ballsy, aggressive, demanding women are my bag. If I see that a woman is mouthy, if she’s ambitious and spikey and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, I make a beeline for her.

I find people who need to be liked very exhausting. Like children doing forward rolls and constantly looking back to see if you noticed and asking for approval. I mean that’s fine for children, but it’s not really the thing if you’re 43 years old with an MBA and are CEO of a company.

One of the best things I ever did for myself was to realise that not everyone will like me; and that’s not just OK, it is *desireable*. The only people who are actually liked by everyone are those who are so anodyne that no one really knows what they think about anything. They show no passion, no temper, nothing but a smooth bland facade of received opinions. For the most part, and within normal parameters of human decency: if you’re really hated by some people it means that other people will really really love you.

All of this is to say, I love the women in The Power because none of them are trying to be likeable, and those are my favourite women in the world. And honestly, how much of a shit would you give about whether people liked you if you could electrocute people with your fingertips?

There are moments in The Power which make quite uncomfortable reading. For me, this was because there’s something quite thrilling about women in positions of power until you realise that some of their actions are really quite horrific. Was this the reaction you were aiming for?

Oh yes, of course. We live in a world mediated by and patrolled by threats and reports of violence. If you don’t believe me, just think how comfortable you’d be as a woman alone walking home at 3am. And then think how often you’ve tried it, or known a woman who tried it, and how often a woman you *actually know* has been attacked. Not that it doesn’t happen of course. But mostly the violence we imagine all around us has been taught to us as a story about what it means to be a woman. And I’m offering a new story. Of course it’s thrilling, it would be!

So: of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence. The only conceivable route to freedom is to become the aggressor. So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor.

Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

You interweave a number of recent events into the narrative, I’m thinking particularly of the Egyptian uprisings and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Did you find the story changing as current events took place?

The wonderful thing about writing a novel about gender is that it touches everything; gender is everywhere, gender biases and assumptions are wild in our culture and in the way we think about everything. This is also the massive *problem* with writing a novel about gender! I had a first draft that was about 200,000 words long and I knew I’d either have to rewrite it from scratch or write another 200,000 and turn it into a trilogy. (I threw it out and started again.)

So yes, the story was able to touch on anything that seemed important and of-the-moment. It didn’t *change* the story exactly, but current events gave it an interesting flavour.

The journalist who reports on these events is a young African male. Why did you decide to have a male character witness this change in society?

It seemed to me that, right at the start, men would still have the feeling they have now: that the world is open to them, free and exciting and that there are very few if any places where they’re not allowed to go. Most women don’t have this feeling, and it would take us a while to get there. So Tunde made sense as the character who would instantly set off to investigate the changed world. And of course it gives him a nice series of realisations about how slowly and insidiously his freedom’s been curtailed.

It also became clear to me that if I didn’t have a man’s perspective in at the start of the novel, I’d have – in essence – no ‘woman’s’ perspective in by the end. Where the ‘woman’s’ perspective isn’t about genitals but about a position in the world, and a mental shift.

You use a framing device which suggests a male academic has written the text of The Power, while a female colleague critiques and questions the validity of the text. Why did you choose to frame the novel in this way?

In a way it was: to make myself laugh. Because I wanted to be able to write a bit of *full reversal*, where the whole thing was done and dusted several thousand years ago and this new world order is now just normal. But once I’d decided to do it, I found there were so many useful things I could talk about this way. One was: the uses of history. We use the stories we choose to remember from history as a way of justifying and shoring-up the society we live in: it must be this way, it’s always been this way. We forget the parts of history that don’t fit with our smooth narrative. I thought that if this really had happened there would be a lot of forces wanting our world, this strange “world ruled by men” to be forgotten. And that seemed a pretty mind-bending place to end up. And I love a mind-bending story.

A conversation about religion seems to be a significant part of your writing – in earlier novels as well as in The Power. Is writing about religion a way of working out your own feelings about it?

Funnily enough, I feel fairly settled in my own feelings about religion these days. I grew up an Orthodox Jew and now I say that God is somewhere between my imaginary friend and my ex-boyfriend. So: my ex-imaginary-boyfriend. We used to spend a lot of time together, and not all of it was terrible or I wouldn’t have stayed so long, but in the end I decided that I was better out of that relationship. This is – pleasingly to me – an answer that will satisfy neither the religious nor the atheists nor, I suspect, even the agnostics. I don’t think that “does God exist?” is anywhere near being the most interesting question about God or religion at all.

So why do I write about religion? Because I think that Matthew Arnold was wrong and the sea of faith hasn’t really receded – or it’s only receded among a smallish group of people in a smallish area of the world. Most people on the planet still worship, pray, practice their faith, for billions of people their religious life is the centre of their day or week. Or near the centre, anyway. I think the instinct to religion is as inevitable as the instinct to violence; of course we can learn to do and think differently, and maybe it’s advisable that we do, but that doesn’t mean the instincts will ever fully go away. I think at a time of global cataclysm – the kind that might happen if all the women suddenly developed the power to electrocute people at will! – some world religions would have a field day. Or would offer people wonderfully helpful comfort. Maybe those are the same thing.

You were paired with Margaret Atwood through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. What influence has she had on your writing in general and on The Power specifically?

Margaret is my dear friend now – as are her family! So her – and their – influence has been as much on my life as on my writing. She’s introduced me to some wild places in the world: we went birdwatching in Cuba and travelled to the Arctic together. That’s rearranged my head in some interesting ways. And I’ve been able to see the disciplined daily schedule that means that Margaret Atwood is able to get her writing done wherever she is in the world: inspirational and strangely calming, because all that brilliance doesn’t just come effortlessly. Good writers work hard.

As for The Power: it was Margaret who first suggested the word ‘convents’ to me in this context. So that was a good steer.

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

Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Han Kang, Joanna Russ, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Knox, Daphne Du Maurier, Josephine Tey, Elizabeth Goudge. I could go on, and on, and on….

Huge thanks to Naomi Alderman for the interview and to Penguin for the review copy.