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.

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair.

The longer I stretch the act of the happily married couple, the more I dodge his anger. It’s not a test of talent alone. My life depends upon it.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife tells the story of a marriage between a university professor and a young, unnamed woman.

There are not many things a woman can become when she is a housewife in a strange town that does not speak any of her mother-tongues. Not when her life revolves around her husband. Not when she has been trapped for two months in the space of three rooms and a veranda.

The husband expects her to be perfect. To look and dress as he believes a wife should dress. To keep house and ensure that too is perfect. We soon learn, as the narrator did, that meeting his standards is impossible.

Initially the wife’s perceived failure results in the husband inflicting harm upon himself; he lights matches, extinguishing them on his own skin until she agrees to close her Facebook account.

When I am forced to leave Facebook, my final message is not: Trouble in Second Week of Marriage: Husband-Moron Insistent I Stay Isolated. Mr Control Freak Blackmailed Me Into Deactivating Account. Writer At Risk! SOS!

Instead my swansong is serious and formal; I write about the intertwining double helix of projects and looming deadlines. I compose the picture of being a busy woman, and maintain the act to precise proportions. I write out the formulaic pretence of living the writer’s life. No one gets a clue of how precariously alone I feel.

What follows is the inevitable descent into violence against the narrator.

One of the things that’s interesting about When I Hit You is that it’s a middle class university lecturer perpetrating acts of violence against a middle class, educated, woman. Kandasamy pushes against the idea that domestic violence is confined to a particular class or stereotype.

She also – as she did in The Gypsy Goddess – brings politics into the discussion. The narrator’s class and political leanings become another area for the Communist husband to berate her about. Here Kandasamy opens up a long overdue discussion about the misogyny of the far left which is utterly relevant to current society.

However, as the subtitle of the novel makes clear, this isn’t purely the story of a marriage steeped in fear, it is the story of a young woman becoming a writer. This is made clear from the beginning of the book with two framing devices; the first is the writer’s mother who, five years on, has claimed the story for herself. The narrator objects:

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

The second is when she reframes the story as though she is an actor playing the dutiful wife. While this could work to distance the reader, it actually provokes more empathy for the unnamed narrator; what is so bad that she has to pretend she is someone else to survive? As the novel progresses, however, it is the writing that the narrator does in secret that saves a part of herself.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a stunning piece of work. The writing is sharp, ratcheting the tension and horror at a steady pace until it is all-consuming. Kandasamy isn’t afraid to portray an intelligent woman being subjected to manipulation and violent acts. She isn’t afraid to question the portrayal of ‘upstanding’ men, the role of the political left and how a feminist can find herself in this situation. Kandasamy is an incredible talent and When I Hit You is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

I interviewed Meena Kandasamy about the novel; we discussed autofiction, politics and reframing women’s experiences.

You can buy When I Hit You from AmazonWaterstones, or support your local independent bookshop.

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

Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review copy and to Kirsty Doole and Meena Kandasamy 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.

The best place to be you – Guest Post by Olumide Popoola

The blurb for Olumide Popoola’s new novel When We Speak of Nothing says:

Best mates Karl and Abu who are both 17 and live near Kings Cross. Its 2011 and racial tensions are set to explode across London. Abu is infatuated with gorgeous classmate Nalini but dares not speak to her. Meanwhile, Karl is the target of the local “wannabe” thugs just for being different. When Karl finds out his father lives in Nigeria, he decides that Port Harcourt is the best place to escape the sound and fury of London, and connect with a Dad he’s never known. Rejected on arrival, Karl befriends Nakale, an activist who wants to expose the ecocide in the Niger Delta to the world, and falls headlong for his feisty cousin Janoma. Meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan triggers a full-scale riot in London. Abu finds himself in its midst, leading to a near-tragedy that forces Karl to race back home.When We Speak of Nothing launches a powerful new voice onto the literary stage.The fluid prose, peppered with contemporary slang, captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.

My review will be up in a few weeks along with an interview with Popoola. In the meantime, do check out Eric’s excellent review over on Lonesome Reader.

To kick off a week long blog tour for the book (details of which are below), Popoola explains her reasons for setting a novel looking at legal and societal acceptance of LGBT people in both the UK and Nigeria.

The best place to be you

A few years ago the BBC ran a programme called ‘The world’s worst place to be gay?’. The programme presenter travelled to Uganda which was on the brink of passing a new law that could have introduced the death penalty for being gay, the so called Kill The Gays Bill. In the end an amended version was approved, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2014. Nigeria has its own version and introduced the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in January 2014. The BBC programme looked in detail at the reasons that made the Kill The Gays Bill possible, especially the connection to right-wing, fundamentalist evangelists from the US, who are using Uganda (and other places) as their playground for playing god.

I found the framing of the narrative unnecessary, difficult, especially with the title. It is too close to the self-congratulating notion that the West is progressive – ‘see, all the marriage equality laws we have now?’ – while in this assumption the global South is portrayed as archaic, queerphobic by nature, and the worst place to be when you live your life outside the heteronormative status quo. No mistaking, these anti-LGBT laws are horrible and do real life threatening damage. They legitimise queer- and transphobic attacks and criminalise sexuality and gender. They need to be contested and fought because they infringe on human rights.

On the other hand they do not tell you who will accept you, or where you might feel safe in your day to day life. And laws are not always a reflection of the cultural possibilities.

This type of framing – The Worst Place To Be Gay – also erases cultural histories and opportunities.

Esu Elegba, the Yoruba god of the crossroads was my writing patron for When we Speak of Nothing. Esu is widely accepted to be androgynous, simultaneously a beautiful woman and a potent man. If you thought through the mythology from a contemporary standpoint, with current discussions around gender in mind, it is easy to see Esu as a possible patron for trans persons.

In When We Speak of Nothing I reverse the notion that law equals acceptance. Karl, the trans protagonist, has a much harder time finding widespread acceptance in London, than in Nigeria. In Nigeria Mena, the cook at the bottom of the apartment complex Karl stays in, makes links to other Nigerians who have openly lived gender as the continuum it is. She references Charly Boy, a musician and entertainer who wore women’s makeup and hairstyles. And Area Scatter, a 1960s musician widely described as cross-dressing but  who allegedly, by his own accounts, went into the wilderness to return seven month later as a woman.

When we look at how far we have come in the UK, celebrating 50 years of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, it is good to look at the whole picture: hate crimes do exists, even in cool urban places like London. And Nigeria, like Uganda, has a thriving LGBT scene. Perhaps underground but nonetheless. There is activism and advocacy, scholarly work and artist expression.

It was important for me to show in When We Speak of Nothing that understanding can come easily, despite horrible laws. To show how complex it is, understanding and love, how we cannot know who will embrace us the most. Even if on paper we are in the wrong place.

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.

All the Good Things – Clare Fisher

I was trying to figure out how to tell him that earning £7 an hour was the opposite of fun. That having to smile all day at people, some of whom were rude, others of whom were nice, most of whom just looked through you as though you were a human shaped machine, emptied the ‘you’ out of you. That having £2 left over when you’ve paid your bills and bought your food and the odd drink in Wetherspoon’s doesn’t bring much relief, because what about next month? What if you get less shifts next month? What if you lose your Oyster Card? What if someone jacks your purse with your last £20? What if one of the soles you’ve been walking around for months with holes in finally falls off? What then?

21-year-old Beth is in prison. We meet her after her counsellor, Erica, has asked her to write a list of good things about herself. Beth’s response to this is to call it ‘retarded’; Fisher uses this as a way to quickly reveal both Beth and Erica’s personalities. Erica asks her to explain the use of the word, while Beth protests that she’s ‘not a retard’ becoming defensive. Once Erica begins to explain the word to her, there’s a glimpse of how scared and vulnerable Beth is.

Each chapter is titled with the good thing Beth is writing about, for example, chapter two is ‘Running until your body is a good place to be’ in which Beth reveals herself to a talented runner. Besides metaphorically, this can never come to anything because of course Beth’s mum and subsequent foster carers can’t afford to buy her good equipment, take her to meets and so on. But it is Beth’s behaviour which sees her thrown out of the school club. She relates times when she mimicked the coach in the changing room:

Behind me I heard a sad screech, like the ones cats make when you step on their tails. It was the coach she’d seen me […] I wanted to run out to the coach and tell her I was sorry and that my favourite way of falling asleep was to replay all the good things she’d said to me, but I’d never said anything like that to anyone, and I didn’t know how to start.

Each of Beth’s journal entries are written to her child who she no longer sees. On family days, she is the only inmate of the group she hangs around with who doesn’t have any visitors.

Fisher shows how the system fails vulnerable people. While teachers and social workers and foster carers do their best, there are cracks large enough for someone to fall through: what if someone decides fostering isn’t for them? What if a foster carer becomes ill? What if a social worker leaves and isn’t replaced immediately? What if a teacher tries to report something within their own school and is told it’s been resolved? By writing the novel in Beth’s voice, Fisher explores all of these things without it becoming a polemic. The reader sees and understands the things happening to Beth, even if Beth doesn’t fully understand the mechanisms herself.

Beth’s voice is convincing and also prevents Fisher from making the novel sentimental. The closest it comes is when Beth reads Of Mice and Men to one of the other inmates so she can talk to her teenage son about it, who’s studying it at school. It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking section of the book.

Some of Beth’s behaviour is bad and shocking but even at its worst, we can see what’s led to it. There’s a perfect metaphor for this towards the end of the book. Beth has attempted to run away from her life but, not knowing what else to do, she finds herself back on a train to London without a ticket.

‘No,’ I said. The part of me I lied with had run out. ‘No, I don’t have a ticket. I’ve never had one.’
‘But you have to,’ he said. ‘You have to get one before you board.’
‘I tried,’ I said. ‘I’ve been asking for one. My whole fucking life I’ve been asking. But they wouldn’t give one to me.’
The inspector raised his eyebrows and I wondered, was I meant to know him? Was he some uncle I didn’t remember?
That,’ he said, ‘I find very hard to believe. Leicester is well served for ticket offices.’
‘You don’t get it,’ I said, and at this point, I felt other people looking at me. I peered around the old man and yep, sure enough, the strangers in the next scene were looking up from their phones and their Kindles. ‘None of you do. You never will.’

All the Good Things is perfectly timed considering the state of the society we’re living in.

All the Good Things is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t an independent near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Viking 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.

“It’s important that writers remain dangerous.’ Arundhati Roy at Manchester Literature Festival

It’s a sunny evening in Manchester as I arrive at the Royal Northern College of Music for ‘An Evening with Arundhati Roy’. It’s one of a number of events which Manchester Literature Festival run throughout the year and it’s clear from many audience members that we’re excited to see a big star of world literature brought to the city.

The evening begins with a six minute video, an introduction to Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, created by her friends. It introduces us to lines from the book and the sights and sounds of its setting.

Roy comes on stage to huge applause. When it begins to die down, she says, ‘Thank you so much and congratulations on the [M]omentum’, fist raised. Once the second round of applause dies down, she reads from the book.

The interview’s conducted by journalist Rachel Cooke who begins by asking if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the result of everything that’s happened since the first novel – twenty years of political activism – and how the two books connect?

‘In the case of books, the newer one is the older sister,’ says Roy. However she does go on to say that Anjum would be the child of Estha and Rahel if they’d had a child. Writers get fascinated by certain things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the result of twenty years of travelling into and looking at stories deliberately kept out of narratives.

Cooke comments that Roy’s been writing polemics, essays with specific targets, since The God of Small Things; how did she find the quiet space to write a novel?

Roy begins by saying that a few months after The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize, the government in India changed and moved sharply to Hindu nationalists. Public discoursed changed in light of this and the previously unacceptable became acceptable. Writing essays deepened her way of seeing. Solidarity is important, she says. What she does best is telling the story of struggles and blowing open closed down spaces.

‘Fiction is not an argument, fiction is a universe.’ The characters began to populate her house and she wrote in chaos. ‘Nothing terrifies me more than when people offer me retreats.’

How does the book emerge?

Roy says, ‘The world is like a city’. There are new parts, old parts, blind allies and winding roads. She thinks there are ways of trying to domesticate a novel in publishing but each of the things that form fundamental parts in the novel don’t have power. She says there’s an urge in work to specialise and compares it to an NGO funding proposal. ‘A novel can break that and put it all on the table.’

Cooke comments that this demands patience. How much control does Roy have? Is she the ringmaster?

Roy had conversations with the characters but wasn’t the ringmaster. ‘Why you fly a kite, you have to let it go and then rein it back in.’ She says that the city is a character in its own right, a walled city which turns into a big modern metropolis. She wanted the background to become the foreground sometimes. This isn’t a television series, there is a combination of controlling and letting go.

Anjum was ‘born a hermaphrodite’ says Cooke. Are the hijra a metaphor for India and turmoil?

[I have an issue with the use of the term ‘hermaphrodite’ as it’s a pejorative and outdated term. It also isn’t a direct translation of hijra, which is India’s third gender and more akin to an intersex person or a transgender person, depending on their gender identity. I’ll comment further when I review the book.]

Roy sidesteps the question somewhat by stating that Anjum moves in with people of diverse genders and religions. All the characters have ‘incendiary bodies’ running through them. One character, for example, converts to Islam and calls himself Saddam Hussein. Characters are on the border of caste and religious conversion. There’s a fine mesh of divisions designed to preclude any type of solidarity.

Cooke says that Roy has an ‘almost dreamlike’ way of describing violence and that the book cuts dramatically to the war in Kashmir. She asks about writing these sections.

Anjum has had terrible things happen to her because she’s a Muslim. Roy describes the violence in Kashmir as ‘egregious’. ‘You can’t actually tell the truth about Kashmir except in fiction.’ She says there are the Indians who allow it and celebrate it and the Kashmiris who live with it. It’s the most densely populated militarised zone in the world. What does it do to the air? What does it do to the mind? What does it do to survival? What does it do to the living who become the dead? ‘It’s turned a fighting force into a bloated administration.’ What does the moral corruption do eventually?

What kind of time is it to be a writer in India? How does she think the novel will be received there?

There isn’t one single reaction, she says. There is ‘so much unrest in the universities’, the opposition has crumbled. ‘We’re set to go through a pretty dark time.’ In literature and art anything can happen. ‘One has to do what one has to do.’ A novel is never about an immediate utilitarian political goal, she didn’t write it thinking about those people, she says.

Cooke’s final question is whether it’s going to be another twenty years before the next novel?

‘Who knows. I never felt to was my duty to keep writing books. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Roy says she’s laid back about writing and that she allows things to take their time.

The discussion opens to audience questions, of which I’ll cover a selection.

Why’s the book dedicated to John Berger?

Berger was a friend of Roy’s, he understood the connection between her fiction and her non-fiction work, describing them as ‘the two legs you walk on’. He was the only person who knew the title of her second novel years ago and called her ‘Utmost’. He referred to himself as ‘Jumbo’ after a day he told Roy to imagine him standing behind her, as an elephant, flapping his ears to keep her cool. She says that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was the last book Berger read before he died.

What’s the role of journalists in current society?

Roy refers to a modified version of the Finley Peter Dunne quotation, ‘it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and says that the structure of ownership of mainstream media means that it ‘afflicts the powerless and comforts the powerful’. When a president wants to lock up journalists, that’s a good sign. ‘It’s extremely important that whatever can be recorded is recorded.’

Why do you write in English?

‘If you write in English they take more notice of you.’ In India, language is complicated because there are so many languages and dialects that aren’t languages which have swallowed languages. She tries to capture the cadences of the language, which was easier in The God of Small Things, but The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set in the North where Hindi, Kashmiri and Urdu are spoken, amongst others. How do you absorb those cadences without turning it into a gimmicky translation? Her work has been translated into many Indian languages but each translation isolates while English widens, she says.

‘It’s important that writers remain dangerous but not a martyr.’ She ends by saying ‘It’s the right time to publish this book in India, I don’t know if it’s the right time to be the author of it’.

The event ends with a second reading from the book which includes a glorious bit of swearing, leaving me keen to get on with reading the rest.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2017

And the winner is… The Power by Naomi Alderman. Good choice and very fitting for this prize, I think. I loved Alderman’s comment that the women’s movement meant more to her than electricity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend it – I bought several copies as Christmas presents, which isn’t something I do often. If you want to know more, I interviewed Alderman in October.

The Gender Games – Juno Dawson

Juno Dawson had me at:

Gender is not sex.
Gender is something else.
If that’s all you take away from this book, I’ve won.
Gender, as convincing as he is, is full of shit.
If you take that away from this book, even better.

Gender, despite anything he might tell us to the contrary, is nothing but characteristics we have assigned to the sexes. Like a group of horny teenagers with a Ouija board, Gender was summoned into being by us.

Yes, yes, YES. Not only do I agree with this, I love that Dawson gives gender a male pronoun and the connotations which come with this.

The Gender Games then is part-memoir, part-gender theory, part-cultural critique. Dawson interweaves all three of these aspects to discuss her transition from cis male to trans woman, considering the effect her transition has had (and is still having) on herself and her family.

The book begins with a reimagining of the day Dawson’s mother went into labour.

‘Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Dawson. You have a healthy baby boy.’
And that was where it all went wrong.

Once upon a time there was a little girl.
No.
Once upon a time there was a little boy.

Also no. Any creative writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that a great story never starts at the beginning, it starts when something changes. On 6 August 2015, I told my mother that I was a woman.

Her reply was, ‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’

Dawson alternates between snapshots of her life – from growing up in Bingley, West Yorkshire, to being ‘a right pair of little cunts’ with a friend at school, to coming out as a gay man, to being a primary school teacher, to deciding to transition and the process of that so far – and discussions around gender theory. As someone who’s studying the latter as part of their PhD work, I found Dawson’s relaying of the key ideas of performative gender theory (the idea that gender isn’t fixed) to be clear, succinct and well-researched (there are footnotes) while maintaining the conversational tone in which she has chosen to write. As an introduction to gender theory alone, The Gender Games is worth reading.

There are many other things I loved about this book too: Dawson’s honesty is striking; she’s no holds barred in terms of discussing the shape her life has taken, including her sex life (a section which comes with four pages of warning for her parents encouraging them to skip this bit). She talks about being a teacher and the limits of the education system – just how bloody difficult it is to work in a system that values results over the well-being of students, teachers and parents. And she discusses the impact of culture on the way we view ourselves:

Culture and society are a two-way mirror. Ropey and clichéd, but life does imitate art as much as art imitates life. ‘The media is the message and the messenger,’ said Pat Mitchell, former CEO of PBS, in the fantastic 2011 documentary Miss Representation.

She looks at TV, film and music. She discusses wanting to be a Spice Girl, the impact Madonna has had on our view of women, and the idea of ‘strong female characters’ – a term Dawson seems to dislike as much as I do while acknowledging that these representations are beginning to shift our society’s view of women.

Dawson is very clear that she isn’t representing the trans community, this is her transition and her story. What I do think she does very well which she does – and should – own as representative, is discuss feminism and what it can do for women and men from her position as a modern-day Tiresias:

My credentials to speak on such issues have been challenged, but I think trans voices are uniquely positioned to discuss inequality. For thirty years, I was given access to the ultimate prize: white male privilege. As you’ll learn, I never ‘passed’ as a straight man, so it’s hard to say what power I ever really had at my disposal, but I have lived as both a man and a woman while at the same time never being accepted wholly as either. Like some mad soothsayer in mythology, I’ve lived slightly outside of my gender my whole life – and I’ve seen both sides.

The Gender Games isn’t just a cracking good read, for the times we live in and the fight we still need to win over the destruction gender wreaks on us and our society, it’s an essential one.

The Gender Games is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t an independent near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Two Roads for the review copy.