Dark Chapter – Winnie M. Li

Trigger warning: This book focuses on the sexual assault of a young woman and its aftermath.

I am not the same person. I am different. I am now a rape victim.

Dark Chapter tells the story of two people: Vivian, a young woman who is raped in a park just outside Belfast, and Johnny, a fifteen-year-old traveller boy and Vivian’s rapist.

Vivian is an educated woman. Her family, who own a dry-cleaners, have pushed her to go to Harvard. She wants to see the world and owns a map pinpointing the trails she wants to walk. Johnny’s memories of his childhood are of his mum and dad splitting up, his older brother Michael being caught stealing by the police and the prejudice his family faced.

The overall structure of the book is in four sections: the first covers the characters’ childhoods/youth up to and including the rape; the second looks at the aftermath of the rape; the third the trial, and the final section sees how their lives change following the verdict. Within the sections themselves, the point-of-view moves between Vivian and Johnny, juxtaposing their lives.

Both structural decisions are interesting; in choosing to cover such an extended period of time, Li’s focus is wider than the rape itself. She considers events in Johnny’s life that might have led to the sense of entitlement he has, particularly in the way misogyny and rape culture pervade our society. The police process and victim support is looked at in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before, demonstrating how arduous it is for the survivor as well as the lack of resources and funding that are available. And she shows how it is possible to build a new life, both for the survivor and the perpetrator.

It’s a brave and shocking decision to tell the story from both sides. While Johnny’s actions are horrific, by delving into his backstory, Li humanises him. While it’s impossible to like him, it is possible to understand the way culture and some of the people he associates with might have influenced his reading of the world and his place in it. Li avoids demonising traveller communities by including Johnny’s family, who have a range of reactions to his behaviour. His dad, in particular, has a very interesting response.

The other focus of the book is the way women are allowed to move through the world. When Vivian’s roommate thinks she’s ‘nuts’ for wanting to hike trails alone, Vivian sees the solitariness as key:

After all, isn’t that the whole point? Thoreau living in solitude, off in his cabin by Walden Pond. Walt Whitman waxing lyrical about leaves of grass, writing under a tree while his beard grew longer and shaggier with the passing seasons. Edward Abbey drifting down a vast canyon in the American Southwest, the rock walls rising on either side of him, just him and the canyon.

It’s notable that all the examples Vivian thinks of are men. Why can’t women move through the world in the same way? Well, the answer is in the various examples Li provides of some of Vivian’s travels, both before and after the rape. Sometimes everything’s absolutely fine, at other times it isn’t.

Dark Chapter is a compelling novel. Li tells a rounded tale of the lives of two people utterly altered by one horrific event. It’s an important and timely book.

I spoke to Winnie M. Li about her decision to write the book, being a woman in the world and winning The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

Thanks to Winnie M. Li and Imogen Harris for the interview and to Legend Press for the review copy.

 

 

The Handsworth Times – Sharon Duggal + interview

In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.

The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.

The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.

The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:

‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’

Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.

It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.

I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.

The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?

It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.

I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?

The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?

I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.

I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.

The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?

It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.

There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?

I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.

You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?

I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.

The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?

Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.

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

Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.

Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.

Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

 

Jersey Festival of Words, Days Three and Four: Changing the Conversation

Day three of the festival begins with me chairing two events. The first is Cathy Rentzenbrink who I interview at Jersey Hospice. It’s an amazing setting, a £5 million facility on a hill overlooking the sea. The event goes well; if you haven’t seen Cathy speak about her books and her experiences, I highly recommend it. She speaks so eloquently, full of heart and compassion and makes time for everyone who comes to share their experiences with her too. She’s also very funny and that feels important considering the subject matter.

The second event is a panel on fake news and social media curation with Felicia Yap, author of the dystopian thriller Yesterday; Miranda Doyle, author of the memoir A Book of Untruths, and Peter Mourant, Picture Editor of the Jersey Evening Post. We discuss their work’s relation to the truth, Twitter and Donald Trump. I recommend both books, very different but both very interesting.

The last four events I watch, over the remainder of Saturday and into Sunday, all have something in common: they’re about books that are beginning to change the conversation. Whether that conversation is about women and sexuality, trans women, Muslim women or the stigma around mental health, each contributes to the shift that’s beginning to take place around these topics (colour me an optimist).

First up is Rhyannon Styles, author of the The New Girl, a memoir about her transition. The interview gets off to a poor start when the interviewer uses Rhyannon’s dead name twice in the introduction. She corrects him from off-stage.

Rhyannon has lots of interesting things to say about her experiences and there’s plenty for us to hear about the way trans gender people are treated. She talks about recognising something of herself in Madonna in the Beautiful Stranger video. Art college was ‘the breath of fresh air I needed’ and where she first met people with similar interests – music, film, artists. At the time she identified as a gay male, ‘I let the role of a gay male dictate my sexuality’. She describes the nightclub Heaven as ‘monumental’ for her. It was a safe place to express herself and she began dressing and performing as female. In 2011, she saw the TV programme My Transsexual Summer which she describes as ‘the key to the door’.

‘You don’t transition on a whim,’ says Rhyannon, describing it as a long, hard, arduous process. The psychologist she saw was sexist, asking her whether she wore dresses and heels when she attended her appointment in jeans and a sweater. There was an 18-month waiting list at the gender clinic so Rhyannon bought hormones online and began taking them.

She discusses the other elements of her transition: the changes to her body; the laser hair removal treatment she describes as ‘eighteen session of torture’; the speech therapy, and the clothing experiments. ‘Some of my outfits are still mental…I was like the kid in the sweetshop.’

Early in the interview, Rhyannon’s asked what’s acceptable in terms of language. She explains that trans is an umbrella term. The best way to approach the issue would be to say, ‘Hi, Rhyannon, how would you like me to describe you? What’s your preferred pronoun?’

This desire to learn seems at odds with other parts of the interview, however. The story about the parents who removed their son from a school because of a transgender child in his class is raised. The interviewer mentions The Daily Mail to which Rhyannon replies, ‘The Daily Mail is hysterical’. On the subject of uniform rules and clothes for school she says, ‘Clothes are all made from the same fabric, they’re just cut in different ways’. The interviewer pushes her asking if she can understand the parents’ perspective. I don’t see why Rhyannon, or any other trans person, should be expected to understand the point of view of someone who’s transphobic.

Towards the end of the interview, the conversation turns back to Rhyannon’s body. At the end of the book, she discusses gender reassignment surgery. She says she thinks it’s an acceptable topic of discussion for the interview as she’s included in her book, however, some trans people think it’s unacceptable and it reduces them to their genitalia. Unfortunately, the interviewer states that it was the one thing he wanted to know and bemoans the fact he had to wait until the end of the book to discover the answer. Rhyannon turns the discussion back to her experience and thoughts. She says the NHS offered her surgery but it made her wonder whether the decision was about her or whether it was about what society expects her to look like. ‘My womanhood was for me to define; I don’t think having a vaginoplasty makes me a woman.’ She says she fell for an idea of completeness and that it’s not about the physical, it’s about the mental. Something for many of us to think about.

Daisy Buchanan talks to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest book, How to Be a Grown Up. It’s aimed at 20-somethings, although I’m pretty certain I could still do with some help at 39.

Daisy describes her 20s as ‘difficult’ consisting of crap boyfriends, dreadful jobs and hangovers. At 27, she went freelance and met someone lovely and now at 29, she feels that some things have fallen into place. She’s still poor at managing money though, she reveals. She’s fantasised about there being an adult auditor and says she wanted to write a book you could pull off the shelf at 3am and feel that you could find some help and support.

She talks about the jobs she had before she went freelance. At 22, she was a Mortgage PR, ‘It wasn’t for me’. She says there are parallels between jobs and relationships in the sense that you decided you’d quite like to be a particular type of person so you force yourself into things. She says ‘Be yourself’ is crap advice; ‘You don’t know, when you’re 22, who you are.’

The discussion turns to social media, of which Daisy says she’s a big fan. It’s where she met her husband and is an easy way of continuing friendships. However, she says it used to be a mix between a house party, a bar and a coffee morning and you could wander away. You can’t do that as much anymore. She comments that it’s difficult to have boundaries on social media, it creates a false sense of intimacy.

Cathy asks about sex and masturbation as it’s a topic Daisy’s written on regularly as well as there being a section in the book on it. Daisy says she has a fear and fascination of it. She was raised as a Catholic which meant that going to hell was a greater fear than getting pregnant but getting pregnant meant there’d be evidence of your sins. ‘We demonise women wanting to have agency over their own bodies.’

Daisy’s mother wrote to her school so she wasn’t allowed to take part in sex ed. Her writing about sex openly is Daisy’s way of covering what she wishes she’d know. She says we’re so quick to demonise porn that we’re not learning from it and how it can lead to expectations and male entitlement. They’ve grown up in a world that says this is okay. She says there needs to be a sexual revolution around pleasure, comfort and desire and there needs to be a language for women to express this.

Sunday begins with Ayisha Malik, author of Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged and The Other Half of Happiness. She talks about conceiving Sofia Khan as a Muslim version of Bridget Jones. She was Muslim dating at the time and had stories which her friends convinced her to write. ‘I never read about Muslim characters who aren’t oppressed,’ she says, ‘I just wanted her to be a normal human being’.

She uses humour because, she says, any situation that arises to do with racism, if you meet it with humour, it reduces it and the person doing it. It’s also an antidote to identity politics. On the reaction to the books, she comments, ‘I’ve not had a fatwa out against me, which is great.’

Khan talks about not wanting to be confined to writing one kind of book. She states her inspirations as Jane Austen, Nora Ephron, Anne Enright and Ruth Ozeki. The novel she’s working on at the moment is about a man trying to fulfil his mum’s dying wish by building a mosque in a West Dorset village. She links the idea to recent bombings saying, ‘When the perpetrator claims to share your faith that has a profound effect on you. Why should I always have to defend my beliefs?’ She says being a Muslim woman has made her ‘grittier’ and describes Muslim women as ‘Unashamed of our multiple identities. We’re multifaceted’.

She says she was honoured to be asked to ghost write Nadia Hussein’s novels (the second has recently been completed), although it ‘might be because I’m the only hijabi Muslim in publishing right now’. She describes the process as ‘a very different kind of writing. It’s quite prescriptive; the ideas are very much hers. I take myself completely out of it. I think that’s part and parcel of the process’. She agreed to do it because the publishers were transparent that it was Malik doing the writing.

The final event of the festival is one designed to help our mental health. Rachel Kelly is a former reporter for The Times and the author of Walking on Sunshine. She begins the event by asking us to stand if we or a member of our family has ever experienced a form of mental illness. If there’s anyone left seated, I can’t see them. She then asks us to remain standing if we’ve felt we could speak openly about it. Around 50% of the audience sits down. Kelly says she hopes she can contribute to changing that stigma.

Kelly tells her story: in 1997, she was working at The Times and had two small children. One night she couldn’t sleep. Her heartrate speeded up, she felt sick. She gripped the bed because she felt as though she was falling. She started to think that if she couldn’t get to sleep, she wouldn’t be able to go to work. If she couldn’t go to work, she wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage which would result in her losing the house and then her children. She was ruminating and catastrophising. She didn’t sleep for a further two nights. On the third night, she assumed she was having a heart attack and went to A&E. At the hospital she saw a psychiatrist who told Kelly her fight or flight response had become chronic.

She tells us that mental illness happens in a context and you can alter that context. (I think that’s too simplistic a response which doesn’t take structural factors into account.) However, Kelly didn’t change anything in her life except for taking the medication she was prescribed for a period of time.

In 2007, she became ill for a second time. This lasted for two years. This time around she became aware there was a pattern emerging and that if a form of mental illness occurs once it’s more likely to occur again. She changed her lifestyle.

The rest of the event consists of Kelly giving us some ideas as to how we can help ourselves. She begins with a breathing exercise during which we close our eyes and she talks to us about focusing on our breathing and our bodies. The reason for this is that we can only breathe in the present; it helps slow the sensation of time down. If you’re physically relaxed, your mentally relaxed, she says.

Kelly goes on to tell us some jokes about cheese – for example, Which kind of cheese do you use to disguise a small horse? Mascarpone – because laughter is good for us. She also recommends exercise and happy foods, which she says are oily fish, dark green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate. She tells us she’s providing us with a toolkit and knows that not all of her suggestions will work for everyone.

The final two things she mentions are the ones that appeal to me the most: first, we have to do an active listening exercise in which we tell someone we’ve never met before three things we’re grateful for and then they do the same. The idea is that we focus on the good things in our lives but, to be honest, I’m more interested in the other person’s story and we have a good chat about our lives. It’s a nice reminder that I like meeting new people and finding out about them. The second is about the idea of Flow as documented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I haven’t thought about this in years (there was a point when it was trendy to discuss it in relation to teaching and learning) even though I know I love it when I’m in a state of flow reading a book or playing music. Kelly says that she learns poems off by heart and proves it by performing Love by George Herbert for us. I think about how much time I spend on social media and vow to book myself some long promised piano lessons when I get home.

Then it’s all over bar the long journey home for me. Jersey Festival of Words 2017 was bigger and more interesting than ever. I’m already looking forward to 2018.

Jersey Festival of Words, Day Two: Aren’t Women Inspiring?

I only attend one event on the second day of the festival because it’s a male heavy day, but what an event I attend. Clare Balding needs no introduction if you’re from or live in the UK. To most of us, she’s the most prominent female sports presenter on television. If you’re a child, she’s the author or two books about Charlie Bass and her family, which includes the horse Noble Warrior and the dog Boris.

Balding’s event is part of the school’s programme and I arrive at Jersey Opera House to find 600 very excited children. As soon as the lights dim and a promotional video for The Racehorse Who Disappeared begins to play, they’re all captivated.

‘Who’s got a brother or sister?’ Balding asks as she takes the stage. Most of the auditorium raises their hand. ‘Keep your hand up if your brother or sister is the most annoying person in the world.’ The majority of hands remain in the air, including those of the adults. [Soz, bro.] They know you better than anyone else which is why they can annoy you better than anyone else, Balding tells us by way of introducing the two brothers in her books, Harry and Larry.

On the screen are illustrations from the book and she asks the kids if they know who the illustrator is. Tony Ross is the answer and then the kids tell Balding where they’ve seen his work before: David Walliams’ books, Horrid Henry, The Little Princess and, apparently, a book called Who’s in the Loo? You can imagine how the mention of that goes down with 600 kids.

Balding says she writes about racehorses and a little girl with a close relationship with her dog because that was her when she was young. She talks about falling off her Shetland pony, aged two, and breaking her collar bone. Her father told Balding and her brother that you had to fall off and break your collar bone one hundred times before you could become a jockey, so they set about doing it. ‘If in life you see something that scares you, do it anyway,’ she tells the kids.

‘Has a female jockey ever ridden a winner of the Derby?’ The answer, it transpires, depends how you look at the question. During the actual race? No. But Balding rode Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby winner, after he recovered from the broken leg which ended his career. During his recovery, Mill Reef was kept at Balding’s father’s yard and she was one of the few people light enough to be able to sit on him without causing further damage to his leg.

The story which inspired the first Charlie Bass book, The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, is based on another horse that was trained at Balding’s father’s yard; Loch Song got better at racing as she got older but more badly behaved in the yard, refusing to do the jumps. But then she fell in love with Balding’s father’s horse, Quirk, so they positioned him at the bottom of the gallops to encourage Quirk to jump them.

Charlie learns from Olympians in the books too. Balding displays a slide featuring Victoria Pendleton, Charlotte Dujardin and the Brownlee brothers on it. She tells their stories using one of the kids to demonstrate Alistair helping Jonny over the line in Mexico. The slide also includes a picture of Beyoncé. ‘Don’t let anyone tell you Beyoncé is not an athlete, she is an athlete.’ Balding tells of her own insecurities around her body when she was younger saying, ‘I now realise that is a ridiculous thing to spend your time worrying about’. She comments on the powerful thighs of Beyoncé, Serena Williams and Angela Merkel.

The latest book, The Racehorse Who Disappeared, is inspired by the story of Shergar. Balding tells the kids the story of Shergar’s disappearance before moving on to the athletes Charlie is inspired by in this book: Steph Houghton and the England women’s football team; the British women’s hockey team and Maddie Hinch, ‘who made goal keeping cool’; Nicola Adams, who became a boxer when she was told girls didn’t box; the Paralympian swimmer, Ellie Simmonds, with three Paralympic appearances at the age of 22, and Ellie Robinson, also a Paralympic swimmer, who approached the pool in the oversized jacket she’d been provided with, hood up, arms spread, turning an oversight into a statement. ‘You can wear confidence like a cloak,’ Balding tells the kids.

While the kids are fascinated by the stories of all these athletes, Balding’s barely got to Maddie Hinch before I realise I’m crying. To see all these women and girls on a huge screen, in a huge venue, having their achievements celebrated by a prominent female television presenter, in front of a group of school children, feels revolutionary. I buy both of the books for my 11-year-old stepson so we can read them together.

The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop – Clare Balding

The Racehorse Who Disappeared – Clare Balding

Jersey Festival of Words, Day One: Sensory Perception

It’s the third year of Jersey Festival of Words and the third time I’ve been invited. This year I’m delighted at the broadening of the program which is more inclusive and representative than in previous years. Just after I finish writing this, I’m going to see national treasure Clare Balding do an event for 500 school children. On Saturday, I’m chairing a panel which includes dystopian thriller writer Felicia Yap, which is followed by an event with trans woman, Rhyannon Styles. On Sunday, the romantic comedy author Ayisha Malik is here.

My time at this year’s festival begins with a panel event focused on books where the protagonist/the writer has difficulty communicating. The panel consists of Penny Joelson, author of YA thriller I Have No Secrets; Vanessa Potter, author of the non-fiction book Patient H69: The Story of My Second Sight, and Jem Lester, author of the novel Shtum. The panel’s chaired by broadcaster Sara Palmer.

I’ll briefly mention Lester because, as you know, I don’t cover books by male writers. Shtum is a novel about ten-year-old Jonah who’s profoundly autistic and doesn’t speak. While Lester says the father isn’t based on him, the son is based on his own child. I love his reading and what he has to say so much that I buy the book.

Joelson’s novel tells the story of Jemma, a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy who is unable to move or communicate. She is told the identity of a murderer but is unable to tell anyone else. In keeping with the theme of the panel, Joelson reads from two sections of the book which highlight what daily life is like for Jemma and the frustrations when a new carer assumes she isn’t intelligent because she can’t communicate.

Palmer asks how Joelson ensured Jemma’s voice in the novel was authentic. Joelson explains that she worked with children with disabilities although not specifically with cerebral palsy. She got feedback on her manuscript from people with cerebral palsy, people who communicate using alternative means, and from families of people with cerebral palsy. She says the feedback suggested that it did reflect the experience of people with similar difficulties to Jemma.

An audience member asks about the cover and she says she really likes it, it’s a striking image. [I agree, it’s great.] The same person asks if there’s anything that was left out of the book she really wanted to include. Joelson says that there was so much editing, she’d had enough by the end so hadn’t really considered it!

When asked what impact she hopes the novel will have, Joelsen says that she hopes it will help the carers who work with people with communication difficulties to understand their patients better. She also talks about an entire industry based around communication technology she didn’t know existed and hopes more people will discover it. There’s research and technology that desperately needs more funding and she hopes someone will come forward to help.

Potter’s book tells her own story of the day she woke up in October 2012 to discover that her sight had begun to blur and there was a numbness in the middle finger of her right hand. The numbness began to spread, her vision deteriorated and in three days she was blind and paralysed with no idea why. As a television producer used to being in control, she began to record a diary to document her experiences. The book is based on the recordings, the blog she began to write as her sight returned, and interactions with Cambridge scientists who tried to help her understand what had happened to her. She says, ‘If it was going to take something away from me – it wiped out my career – it was going to give me something back’. Her vision returned in layers which she describes as a ‘misty fog’ moving to lines which appeared to be moving around to contrasts to colours. She describes it as ‘like having David Hockney inside your head sketching things back in’. She experienced synaesthesia, describing the colour blue as fizzing and spitting.

Palmer asks about the use of humour in dark times and Potter tells of the stories that were told, retold and expanded during the sixteen days she spent in the hospital. They were needed in the middle of a desperate situation. She goes on to say that the situation she was facing when she returned home meant that roles within the family were reversed and her daughter became her carer. Her children pushed her though. Potter was walking with a stick and if she put it down, they would steal it to force her to walk unaided. Her daughter also made Potter feed her, in order to use her muscles in her hand to grip the cutlery. ‘They were little sods!’

Unusually, Potter designed her own book cover which is based on the Snellen eye chart. She came up with it after spending a lot of time squinting at the bottom letters. In terms of what was left out of the book, she says 90% of what happened isn’t in it and a lot of the science was left out.

She had a lot of dealings with the NHS and says that documenting and writing about her experience has been useful for rehab and neurological specialists as the condition she had affects 0.0004% of people. ‘The NHS was amazing but they were scratching their heads.’

An audience member asks if she misses anything about the experience and she says the acquired synaesthesia. She says the exploding blues were ‘the most incredible, frightening, curious experience. So unique and very much mine’.

The panel was so fascinating that I kept forgetting to take notes and I bought all three writers’ books after the event (which I very rarely do).

The second event of the evening, I was much more sceptical about. Prior to it, all I knew about Deliciously Ella came from her association with the clean eating movement which I think is joyless, dangerous bullshit (and I’ve been vegetarian for almost twenty-five years).

Ella describes her success as ‘an amazing accident’. She had no interest in cooking and was ‘a complete sugar monster’. However, at the end of her second year of university she was diagnosed with a condition which meant she was unable to control her heart rate. This led to problems with her digestion, chronic fatigue and her immune system. Bedbound while her university friends were out enjoying themselves, she began to take some responsibility for herself starting with reading the stories of others online who’d successfully gained some control over their health by changing their diet. [Now, this I do have time for: my best friend’s husband has Crohn’s Disease and changing his diet has made huge improvements to his life. However, as someone who can eat what they choose – lucky me – his diet looks utterly joyless to me and not something you would choose out of anything other than necessity.] Ella started cooking as a hobby, thinking she had nothing to lose and it might help her both physically and mentally. In early 2012 a friend suggested she set up a blog. In 2013, she opened an Instagram account. She replied to everyone who commented and built a community which has translated into a business.

‘I wanted to turn a negative into a positive.’ She wanted to build something useful with a social conscience and says the community element is the most important part. She still personally replies to comments and emails.

Paul Bisson, who’s chairing the event, asks whether the blog had a definite voice from the start. Ella says that English was her worst subject and that she achieved a U in her first piece of GCSE coursework, which her brother then rewrote for her and achieved an A. However, she loved art and thinks this translated to the way she communicates through Instagram. She says she brought herself completely to it. Her mum commented on how often she uses the word ‘awesome’ and the number of exclamation marks. She says her style was very colloquial and she overused superlatives. She describes it as a ‘very open and transparent brand’.

Bisson asks about the BBC documentary she took part in and her association with the clean eating movement. Ella says she wants to be honest. ‘I believe in food, I believe in the power of it.’ She goes on to say that nothing in life should be that conflicted and that we need to elevate broccoli, cauliflower, lentils but not at the expense of pizza and so on. ‘We’ve got to make broccoli cool.’ Bisson says that vegetables are her passion and she replies, ‘How sad does that sound?’ She says there’s a stigma related to healthy eating which is linked to diets and calories and bland food. She says she wants to move us ‘totally away from that rabbit food scenario’ to delicious food presented in an interesting and exciting way. ‘If we’re ever going to get people eating fruit and vegetables we need to make it part of our lives.’

Ella discusses the style of her cookbooks saying they describe and celebrate ingredients and flavours. She makes them as accessible and friendly as possible, avoiding a sense of ‘If you don’t do it like this, you are doing it wrong’. She repeatedly mentions that no one has to commit to this way of eating full time. ‘Take, adapt and include in your life. Dip in and out.’

I leave without being won over but agreeing with more than I thought I would. I do think we should eat a balanced diet and that eating one should be accessible to everyone. I do think making vegetables tasty is relatively easy and we should do more to make them delicious and interesting. However, you’re not going to find me rejecting processed foods in their entirety: coconut oil for butter? Only if it’s really going to make a difference to your health.

I Have No Secrets – Penny Joelson

Patient H69 – Victoria Potter

Deliciously Ella with Friends – Ella Mills

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.

The Tryst – Monique Roffey (with Interview)

She had hoped for so much more in life, more than Bill. But mostly, she had wanted more from sex. But she had never foraged, been out there to find it. Most human females don’t, to be fair, for they get labelled sluts and sluts in the human realm aren’t respected, let alone celebrated as they should be.

Jane and Bill are happily married and madly in love, but their sex life is non-existent. We meet them on a night out with a friend of Jane’s and soon discover that Jane spends some of her time daydreaming about her sexual fantasies.

In the bar that evening is a woman named Lilah Hopkins. In the time it takes Jane to go to the bar and buy another round of drinks, Lilah has joined their table.

The change she provoked in my husband fascinated me. Bill was devoted to me, had been devoted since we met. It was love at first sight for him. He had never, ever, openly admired another woman in all our time together. But he was gazing, wide-eyed, at Lilah. My dear husband: my other kidney, my sound, reliable, decent, wholesome, utterly faithful husband was checking Lilah out.

Jane thinks Lilah is ‘incredible’ but also ‘cheap’ but, as the story’s told in retrospect, she also acknowledges that ‘I didn’t see her fully that night in that nondescript bar, barely guessed’.

Jane decides that Lilah is the solution to the lack of sex in her marriage and invites her back to her and Bill’s home. Eventually, Jane goes to bed alone, leaving Bill and Lilah talking, fully aware that they’re likely to have sex. What Jane doesn’t anticipate is both the size of the effect this will have on Bill and the effect Bill will have on Lilah.

Told from all three perspectives, The Tryst reveals a game being played between the women and Bill. Each member of the triangle is unaware of the extent to which they’re being manipulated by the others, each believing they have some control over the situation. What Jane’s failed to notice is that Lilah isn’t human: she’s a descent of Lilith, first wife of Adam, an imp from a race of enchanting Lovers (Roffey’s capitalisation). What Lilah doesn’t see is that she’s met her match in Bill.

Oh – what a pleasant surprise. This Bill was a Lover, after all. Not a Fucker, like the majority of human males. Not all please-my-cock-now neediness. He had skill and timing and he knew how to give, how to meet a woman and see to her needs before his own. This was a first.

Roffey explores desire and the effect it can have on a heterosexual couple and, also, on relationships between women. She questions whether sexless marriages can be fixed, even when they appear to be irrevocably broken. She’s unafraid – and unashamed – to write no-holds barred sex scenes and it pays off. The Tryst is an engrossing tale of love, sex and power.

I met Monique Roffey to discuss The Tryst.

At the very end of the book there’s an author note where one of the things you talk about is that the book developed over 14 years. Where did the idea for the book come from and how did it change over that time?

The idea came from meeting a particular woman, who was very short and had flaming red hair and who was sexually incredibly dynamic. The kind of person who you just think her clothes are about to blow off. A younger woman. I met her about 15 years ago. The Lilah in the book is really based on someone I met. She became a friend. She was a really intelligent, fellow author.

I was in a relationship a little bit like the one Jane and Bill are in, which was a really loving and stable relationship but there was something wrong with it, which was the sexuality part. I certainly felt there was something I didn’t know how to go about. I didn’t know how to resource myself on fixing it or what was wrong. How was it wrong if you love someone so much? It was an enormous problem for me.

I was busy writing the second novel but The Tryst was leaking out. I remember the opening line, ‘She had pointy ears’, that just manifest itself. Fifteen years ago, I wrote it down in a Moleskin notebook and I’ve still got that notebook. Something was leaking out; I leaked the book out and the character Jane leaks Lilah so there’s life imitating art.

I was a younger writer and I was less experienced about how to handle [the work]. I knew there were three points of view, how would I handle that? Would it work? How to make it work? Then, of course, there’s the whole shame thing which is a big feminist issue around writing about sex. When I was a younger woman in my 30s, I hadn’t quite breached that crossroads yet. I hadn’t crossed over into where I am today. I’ve been on a huge journey around sexuality. I was a bit like Jane, I was underdeveloped in my sexuality.

I was ashamed of what I was writing, to a certain extent. It took years; I kept putting it down and picking it up. It followed me round on different laptops. I knew it was good, I knew I had something. It wasn’t until 2012 I began to tweak it and then I saw the whole Lilah resonance, the Lilith story .Then I knew I had a really workable project. In 2013, I sold it to Simon & Schuster.

Now it’s been published by Dodo Ink. What happened with it?

I’d been with Simon & Schuster for a very long time and they’d published four or five of my books. In that period of time, which was about a decade, I’d had three or four different editors. One of them we had a fantastic relationship with but the one I inherited when she left, we had a weak relationship. She bought The Tryst, I think she felt she ought to, then she got cold feet. Interestingly, she said, ‘What if it wins the Bad Sex Award?’ and now people are saying it should win a good sex award. She just didn’t have it in her to take this book to publication. A deal was undone and Dodo Ink bought it about a year later.

It’s interesting that you mention the Bad Sex Award; did the thought of that put you off at any point?

Not in the writing of it but it certainly put my editor off. I think it puts a lot of writers off but not me at the time. I was so committed and I was so in this book and then I grew with it. I had this great sexual journey in my 40s which was why I wrote my memoir. As I grew more intelligent and more articulate and more experienced and I met more and more women, I became a lot more confident about what I was writing.

One of the things I really loved about the book was the different women in it and the way you talk about different women and sex. What made you decide to write about sex and the way women are seen?

Here we are in the West and the West is Judeo-Christian so we rest on these really ancient myths and ideas about womanhood. There was Adam and then there was Lilith and Lilith is a big whore who refuses to lay underneath Adam and is banished because she’s way too unruly. Then they make Eve – they try again with a wife for Adam and this time they make it from his ribs so it’s likely she’s not going to be so feisty. Of course, she causes the fall of mankind and then we have Magdalen. So we have these very sexually powerful women in our most ancient mythology and our understanding of the whole romantic dynamic or the male/female dynamic. Then we have Mary, the Mother of Christ, who’s a virgin, never had sex. It’s all quite fucked up. But those ideas of a split between the mother, Mary, who’s a virgin – she’s not sexual, she’s asexual, she above sex, she’s too spiritual to have a sex drive – is really still with us. We do have this split in femininity around motherhood and mothers being more chaste. God knows how they give birth to children. There’s definitely a split: there’s the whore and the mother and they’re diametrically opposed types.

I was in psychoanalysis for years and I’ve come across another archetype, which I feel I strongly identify with, which is the Tara. A lot of women who are very creative and have written – Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Wolff – and stayed unmarried and have not had children is the kind of opposite of the mother.

Lilah and Jane are basically playing out these polar opposites in womanhood. The direction I wanted to send the book in was towards an integration for Jane. She manifests Lilah from her dreams and she calls her in, she invites her in. My plan for her was that she ingests her. Lilah devastates them and also heals them. I wanted to look at this really well known split in female sexuality and I wanted Jane, at the end, to have it all. To have eaten Lilah, in a way.

You considered publishing The Tryst under a pseudonym; how does it feel to have it out under your own name?

It’s a good thing. When I was thinking about the pseudonyms, I think it was way before the memoir even. This book is a prequel to the memoir. I was writing it before the memoir. People pointed out to me: Monique, you’ve already written about sex under your own name, it’s ridiculous. With sex writing there’s a lot of shame, I’ve got all sorts of friends who’ve used pen names but that never works, eventually people get outed – horribly – often by other women. It’s horrendous. So I decided I wanted to be on the right side of the fence and, also, if you out yourself, no one can hurt you. No one’s going to shame you because you’re out, you own whatever’s dark and difficult, transgressive. I’ve got my name on it, that’s all true, so no nasty, weird stories are going to turn up about me. There’s no kiss and tell, no photographs. I wanted to be able to own everything that I’ve done and it has worked.

I want to go back a little bit to Lilah and the magical element. You’ve already mentioned she comes from a type. She talks about being a woodland type and there are conversations about whether she’s a nymph or a spirit. Why did you bring the supernatural element into it, rather than it being a straightforward love triangle?

That’s a really good question; I’m not even sure I’ve got an answer for that because this is a novel and you can do what you like with a novel, it doesn’t have to make sense. What I’ve been told is we can’t sell it in France or in Europe because they like a literal [story]. I even went to a well-known festival director – he really wanted to read the book – and he said, ‘I don’t understand it, she’s a pixie’. In a way, it’s a big risk but Lilah is a descendent of Lilith, in the book, and she’s also a manifestation of Jane’s erotic trysts, her dreams and her fantasies. She just turns up, she’s dreamed her into her life and she banishes her. She wins. She gets to live a dream, in a way, so I really wanted that otherworldly possibility. Otherwise you’ve just got bog standard realism, haven’t you? They met a woman, she’s a bit of a whore and I don’t want to stigmatise the whore. Lilah’s quite evil but she’s also very beautiful, isn’t she? I think she is. She’s a devil.

I liked the idea that she could possibly have just been a manifestation of Jane’s imagination. That she changed everything herself.

I think at some point in the book I say, ‘By the time I was so lost, I was so lost and overwhelmed by all my fantasies, by the time Lilah turned up, I couldn’t work out whether it was me that dreamed her up. Was she just another dream?’

There’s a power in that, isn’t there?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we all know that. Sexual energy is also really directly related to creative energy. Sexual energy is powerful. Women don’t really understand how powerful we are, let alone how to direct that energy, how to use it to get what we want, overtly, subtly. It’s all there for us to explore. Modern women haven’t really got the teachers, I don’t think, to show them the way to use their sexual power. Not just to get what they want out of the world but to be creative. Most creative women, I would say, are very in touch with their libido.

You’ve mentioned there about power and sexuality and there is a real power struggle in the novel. I wondered whether it was there to drive the narrative or whether there was more to that, whether you’d got something to say about sex and the way the two work together?

There is a power struggle, there is a triangle but before there’s a triangle, there’s a couple. I think in many relationships where there’s no sex happening, the person who doesn’t want it has the power. That person is the one who is silently calling the shots. Meanwhile, the other person is silently suffering. Sometimes they’re both suffering but there’s definitely the whole thing about it’s his house, it’s his mother’s house, she redecorated. All those subtle forms of co-existing between men and women. He ends up in the shed, he hasn’t really dealt with his ex-wife, he’s been depressed, he hasn’t really dealt with his mum. He’s got issues building up, she hasn’t dealt with her pain so there’s a whole lot of complex love story before Lilah turns up. And, of course, Lilah really just wants to fuck them up and hurt them and to say, I’ll probably be good for you, but she then loses her footing and gets drawn in and then, all of a sudden, she’s lost her power. She’s omnipotently powerful and conscious and aware of what she’s doing. Really in a different ballpark to the quite naïve and innocent Bill and Jane. She’s just come in there with a bag of tricks, everything she’s got to bring, and she slips because she’s met by Bill, which is a huge surprise.

I hope it’s one of the big surprises in the book that I’ve written a male who’s a really good lover and meets this witch, this little imp, and they fall in love. There’s something going on between them. I wanted them all to underestimate each other. Lilah sneers at them, Jane sneers at her – she’s quite cheap, stonewashed, court platforms, bangles, looks cheap, ‘like a novelty bar of soap’, she says, Alabama. She doesn’t realise that this woman is just playing her along. That’s what women do, don’t we? We size each other up, we’ve all got each other covered. We know who’s the Alpha Female, we know whether or not to get on the right side of that person, if we’re in with her, if we’re not, do we care? Are we Alpha? Who are we? All this stuff’s going on. Jane is an Alpha Female and Lilah is like a triple Alpha Female.

One of the thing’s that’s really nice in the book is the way they start to reveal they’re all playing each other and everyone thinks they’re not. That comes out in the narration. You’ve written it from all three points of view. Did you start with that or did it develop as you went along? And how do you tell the same scenes without making it repetitive?

I’m so glad you think it’s not repetitive because that was why this book’s taken so long. Initially we had three stories and it was all of Jane, followed by all of Bill, followed by all of Leilah. One after the other, they were all telling one long narrative and I just realised it was really boring. And you’d forgotten Jane by the time you were with Lilah. I realised it needed to be cut up, concertinaed, and if I split it right, then you would get overlap but you wouldn’t get repetition. I wanted them all to be giving us their different point of view because it’s really different, what they’re all thinking. And, also, that Bill’s no fool, he gets it. He’s in there, along for the ride. They’ve all got their grief, they’ve all got their story. I also had a really good editor who helped.

Back to your writing more generally. You’ve written books looking at a wide range of topics. The last one was House of Ashes, which I loved. It was my Book of the Year.

You’re kidding!

No, I absolutely loved it. I wondered how important it is to you to write about different subjects.

Well, I only think I’ve tackled two, which is sex and I’m also known for writing books which are based in the Caribbean, where I come from, where my family live. I think it’s really important to keep testing yourself and pushing yourself and trying new things but also staying within the realms of your expertise of what you think about, what’s important to you, what you know about, what other people don’t. For example, I teach creative writing up in Manchester and many of my students are from the north and they don’t seem to be interested in their own back yard. That is your world, I don’t know your world. I can’t write about the north, I’d get it so wrong.

For me, I’ve ploughed my areas, I’ve ploughed my back yard. For example, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’s all about my mum and dad and my family. This bloody bicycle which she brought with her from England. Archipelago’s all about my brother and this flood which destroyed his house. And then House of Ashes was a huge leap because, for the first time, I wasn’t writing about me. I’d been really worried because it’s historical fiction and the people who perpetrated this coup are still alive. They never got tried. Spent two years in prison and they were all released. There was that issue. And then, incredibly, as I decided to go ahead with it, to do some research, there was a commissioned enquiry, in Trinidad, 24 years later. So I got to go to court and I got all the witness testimony’s online and I got to meet people and witness them. That, again, is magical. When you decide to commit to a book that’s really risky and then the door just opens and goes here’s all the information you need. That’s my favourite book too. It got nominated for a couple of prizes but it didn’t sell very well because who’s interested in a coup in the Caribbean? I don’t know.

I definitely hope that there’s going to be more. There’s another Caribbean book, that’s now at second draft stage, about a mermaid. Most mermaids are not happy creatures, they’ve been cursed. If you seal up a woman’s legs, you’re sealing up her sexuality. She can no longer have periods, she can no longer have sex. This myth is an old Cuban myth. There was a beautiful ingénue woman who was singing. The men were so entranced by her that the women of the village banished her to a rock. The men still found their way up to see her sing and to try and win her. Eventually, they got the goddess down and said, what do we do with her? The goddess said, I will send a hurricane and we’ll send her into the sea. This young woman is banished, sealed up, sexuality sealed. Away, off, forever. If you curse someone today – and we live 70 years and die – that person’s still cursed. She’s still living with that curse long after those women have cursed her. She gets caught in the modern time so we have an old Shamanic woman who’s been cursed to be a mermaid with old language, old ideas, not quite Neanderthal, people who were living in the Caribbean four or five thousand years ago. So she comes back, has a love affair.

My blog’s about female writers. I always ask everyone if they’ve read anything really interesting by a female writer recently that they’d recommend to us.

I’ve just read, for the first time, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. It’s absolutely, rivetingly brilliant. I’ve got so much to say about it; I’m teaching it next year at MMU [Manchester Metropolitan University]. It’s a thriller told from the point of view of the killer. He’s this kind of likeable sociopath, Tom Ripley. I’ve been asked to teach the novel, so I’m now ploughing my way through 10 novels and it was the first one I read and I was like, wow because I’m not really a thriller reader, generally.

A Caribbean writer who I think is just amazing, an amazing poet who’s going to be published in the autumn is called Shivanee Ramlochan who has a collection out called Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting. I think that Shivanee is going to be really famous and hugely influential in the Caribbean. She’s got a queer perspective and writes about Lilith, sexual violence, rape, queerness, women, folklore creatures. She’s just got an amazing range, she just has this rich inner world: magic and realism and lore and reality. Everyday things and mum and dad and family. I think she’s amazing.

Rosamond King, another Caribbean poet. I read a lot of Caribbean literature.

Huge thanks to Monique Roffey for the interview and to Dodo Ink for the review copy.

Books mentioned:

The Tryst – Monique Roffey

House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle – Monique Roffey

Archipelago – Monique Roffey

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting – Shivanee Ramlochan

Rosamond King

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Seeing Red begins with a brutal, violent incident that happens at a house party the narrator, Lucina/Lina, is attending with her partner:

And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most gorgeous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.

Her other eye begins to fill with blood soon after and by three a.m. ‘even the most powerful magnifying glass wouldn’t have helped me’. The only compensation is that the following morning Lucina finds the blood in her left eye has sunk to the bottom leaving a slither of light.

In simple terms, what follows is the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with what is happening to her. Of course, the changes that will be wrought in her life are anything other than simple.

The ophthalmologist tells her that she’s ineligible for an experimental transplant and all that can be done for now is ‘to just keep an eye on it’. If the worst happens, he concludes ‘we would have to see’. Lucina is furious.

We follow Lucina as she begins to negotiate her terrain by learning to count the number of steps between places, by attempting to rely on her other senses which sometimes fail her, by having to rely on her partner, Ignacio.

Some of the chapters are bracketed and written directly to Ignacio, detailing the way in which their relationship is changing:

And you were there, and it was as if you were one-eyed, too, you couldn’t understand what had happened. You couldn’t calculate the gravity. You couldn’t bring yourself to ask the questions. You balled them up and stuffed them, like now, in your pockets.

Meruane explores the impact of forced dependency on an independent, ambitious woman. Lucina progresses from telling Ignacio, ‘I am only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambitious in the trade’ to telling her mother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get better. I have to learn how to be blind. You’re not helping’. These two relationships, with her partner and her mother, are the key ones in her life and, almost inevitably, the ones which take most of the strain. As the book progresses, Lucina becomes angrier and the narrative more violent.

The tension that builds throughout the novel is aided by the short, flash fiction style chapters and the intensity of Meruane’s use of language and grammar, superbly translated by McDowell. Sentences are short and spiky, they cut off before they are finished. Words are picked up and played with, repetition and association are used to brilliant effect.

Seeing Red is a taut, brutal, horrifying novel. Fierce and unmissable.

I spoke to Lina Meruane about autobiographical writing, family relationships and women in translation.

My review of Hot Milk is here.

Books mentioned:

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Amazon

Waterstones

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Amazon

Waterstones

Darkness Visible – William Styron

Amazon

Waterstones

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Amazon 

Waterstones

Thanks to Lina Meruane and Kirsty Doole for the interview and to Atlantic Books for the review copy.

The Core of the Sun – Johanna Sinisalo (translated by Lola Rogers)

Finland, 2016.

I lift my skirt, pull aside the waistband of my underwear, and push my index finger in to test the sample.

The seller’s eyes go wide. The maple tree’s branches and sparse leaves splash shadows over his face, the whites of his eyes flash, and I can see his Adam’s apple as he swallows.

Vanna/Vera is a chilli addict, a banned substance which she buys from dealers who advertise using a covert system of keywords and pictures.

As well as including chillis on their banned substances list, Finnish society has divided women into two groups: Elois and Morlocks, terms taken from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Elois or femiwomen are allowed to reproduce. There are dedicated ‘to the overall advancement of the male sex’. Morlocks or neuterwomen are excluded from reproducing and made to do routine work tasks. These are intelligent women who might disrupt the status quo; they are supressed by sterilisation and drudgery.

Vanna/Vera is an unusual woman; thanks to her quick-thinking grandmother, she is a Morlock disguised as an Eloi. Vanna is her Eloi name – all Eloi names end in ‘na’ – but she maintains her original name in the hope that one day she’ll be able to use it again. She has a boyfriend, Jare, in name only. Essentially, he protects her identity and ensures that she sources enough chilli for her needs. Her need for chilli is linked to Vanna/Vera’s other desire: to find her sister, Manna. Manna’s been missing for some time, having disappeared from her and Vanna/Vera’s childhood home where Manna was living with her husband, Harri. Despite there being a grave for Manna, Vanna/Vera’s convinced she’s still alive and is determined to find her. However, dealing with her disappearance often leads Vanna/Vera to what she terms ‘the cellar’:

The door to the cellar is in the back of my head.

Sometimes the door to the Cellar is made of solid steel with clunking metal bolts and rusty, creaking hinges – heavy. Sometimes it’s made of rotten wood, sometimes gauze that flutters in the wind. Sometimes there’s no door at all, and the ice-cold wind blows out of it.

[…]

At the bottom of the Cellar, dark, ominous water splashes. It seeps out of openings the size of molecules through walls sealed with nuclear fire. I can bear the black wind, the merciless mist, but when the deep water starts to lap at the threshold of the Cellar and threatens to flood the rooms in my head, I know how close I am to drowning.

During the first half of the novel, Vanna/Vera writes to Manna, recounting moments from their childhood and revealing to the reader the depth of their grandmother’s deception. It also details how Jare came into Vanna/Vera’s life and the problems this caused them. As a device, this could grate but Sinisalo uses it as a way for Vanna/Vera to work up to and through the reasons her sister might have disappeared. The letters are never intended to be sent. Sinisalo also interweaves definitions, a re-written fairytale and extracts into the text in order to world build while keeping the focus on Vanna/Vera and the chase for chilli.

In the second half of the book, the chase becomes more significant as Jare meets a group of Gaians who are farming fresh chilli and are on a quest which might offer both Jare and Vanna/Vera a means of escape.

The Core of the Sun is an engaging tale of two female siblings divided by a patriarchal society and a quest for the ultimate high. The Handmaid’s Tale meets Breaking Bad.

Thanks to Grove Press for the review copy.

 

 

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.