Book Lists for All Humans #1

This morning, the Independent ran a book list, ‘13 books everyone should read‘. It popped up on my Twitter feed when someone I follow (a white male) tweeted it with the words, ’13/13 men, 13/13 white. Seriously?’ Clicking the link led to the discovery that the list was voted for by reddit users. My only surprise on discovering this was that House of Leaves wasn’t one of the books on the list.

What isn’t a surprise though is that yet another book list is all-male and all-white. It happens a lot in the media. Last year I got into a debate on Twitter as to whether those writers who selected 10 books related to whichever subject their latest work is on for The Guardian should be given guidelines stating/advising/suggesting they consider a diverse list. Someone (a white male) argued that because they were personal choices they should be allowed to reflect that person’s taste. A point that would be perfectly valid if structural inequality didn’t exist and the majority of people writing these lists weren’t white. At that time, Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets, counteracted the largely male, all-white, list of Top Ten Summers in Fiction.

I’ve long been riled by this situation: when I used to include lists in In the Media, I spent a disproportionate amount of time checking whether the lists were gender balanced. Most were not. Include the balance of white to brown writers and there would’ve been barely any lists left. Every time one appears, I think I should counteract it with an all-female list of writers of a variety of skin tones and today I’m riled enough that I’m doing just that.

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Welcome to the first in a series! Here’s my take on 13 Books Everyone Should Read. I’m aware there’s many more I could’ve chosen so please, leave your suggestions in the comments. I’m hoping this will become an series of excellent crowdsourced book recommendations. Then, maybe, the media might just have a word with itself and compile lists reflective of the actual world rather than its own narrow one.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronté

Americanah – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

Push – Sapphire

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

(Links are to my reviews.)

In the Media, May 2016, Part Three

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Books in translation have been having a moment following Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian. They wrote, ‘It is fascinating to ponder the possibili­ties of language‘ for The Guardian; Charles Montgomery wrote, ‘The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Sophie Hughes wrote, ‘On the Joyful Tears of a Translator‘ on Literary Hub. Judith Vonberg writes, ‘Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?‘ in The New Statesman and Anjali Enjeti asks, ‘Do Americans Hate Foreign Fiction‘ on Literary Hub

‘The abiding memory of my childhood is being unwelcome wherever we went’… Nina Stibbe.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

Tracey Thorn photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review

The regular columnists:

In the Media: March 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced this fortnight. While former winner, Lionel Shriver declared ‘Women’s literary prizes are ‘problematic’‘.

And the Wellcome Book Prize announced their shortlist with four (out of six) female writers on it, as did the YA Book Prize with eight women writers on its ten book shortlist.

Elena Ferrante is hot news in the literary world once again after Corriere della Sera published an article in which Marco Santagata claimed to know her identity. Rachel Donadio wrote, ‘Who Is Elena Ferrante? An Educated Guess Causes a Stir‘ in The New York Times; Jonathan Sturgeon said, ‘We Already Know the Identity of Elena Ferrante‘ on Flavorwire; Lincoln Michel asked, ‘Why Do We Care Who the “Real” Elena Ferrante Is?‘ on Electric Literature; Stassa Edwards asked, ‘What’s Really Behind Our Obsession Over Unmasking Elena Ferrante?‘ on Jezebel; John Dugdale wrote, ‘Will Elena Ferrante outlast Louisa May Alcott’s secret alter ego?‘ in The Guardian, and Jessica Roy declared, ‘Leave Elena Ferrante Alone‘ in The Cut.

Anita Brookner died. Rebecca Hawkes wrote her obituary while Linda Grant wrote, ‘Why Anita Brookner’s funny, sharp novels got under your skin‘ both in The Telegraph.

The best of the rest:

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On or about books/writers/language:

Sara Novic

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media, March 2016, part one

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

Jackie Kay

It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK today, so inevitably there’s been lots of writing about mothers – being one, having one, not having one – this week. Contributors including Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Helen Simpson wrote about ‘… my mother before I knew her‘ inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Before You Were Mine’ in The Guardian; Liz Dashwood asks, ‘What do I *really* want for Mother’s Day?‘ on The Pool; Rivka Galchen talked about ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men‘ in The New Yorker; Robyn Wilder wrote, ‘Maternity leave: the reality versus the expectations‘, Emily Eades wrote, ‘Becoming a mother without your own mother to rely on‘ and Sinéad Gleeson wrote, ‘Mothers, and the pram-in-the-hall problem‘ all on The Pool (Do follow the link to the Anne Enright clip on that last piece. Spot on and very funny); Susan Briante wrote, ‘Mother Is Marxist‘ on Guernica; Kate Townshend asked, ‘Is it possible for a mother and daughter to be *too* close?‘, Samira Shackle said, ‘Returning to my mother’s homeland helped me to make sense of my place in the world‘, Cathy Rentzenbrink said, ‘There is no such thing as a smug mother, we’re all terrified and struggling‘ and Rosalind Powell wrote, ‘I didn’t give birth, but I became a mother‘ all on The Pool; Sarah Turner wrote, ‘Mother’s Day Without Mum‘ on The Unmumsy Mum

Louise Rennison

Sadly, Louise Rennison died this week. Philip Ardagh wrote, ‘My Hero: Louise Rennison‘ in The Guardian. Shannon Maughan wrote her obituary for Publishers Weekly.

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The woman with the most coverage this fortnight is Sanjida Kay with ‘Where’s the Diversity in Grip-Lit?‘ on The Asian Writer; ‘on Switching Genres‘ on The Literary Sofa, and ‘Fairytales‘ on Women Writers, Women’s Books

Exciting news as forthcoming novels from Jilly Cooper, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith were announced this fortnight.

And I’ve added Kaushana Cauley’s new Intersections column for Catapult to the regulars list at the bottom of the links. It’s well worth a read.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Rosalind Jana

 

Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

Author Petina Gappah 'brilliantly exposes the gap between rich and poor.'

The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: January 2016

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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January’s been living up to it’s reputation as the most miserable month in the calendar. There’s been the misogynistic and racist response to Sarah Howe’s Young Writer of the Year Award and TS Eliot Award wins. Poet, Katy Evans-Bush responded with ‘TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful – and Chinese?‘ in The Guardian.

The deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman at least inspired some great writing: Stacey May Fowles, ‘Reconciling David Bowie‘ on Hazlitt and Sali Hughes, ‘I’ve had it up to here with the grief police‘ on The Pool. Gwendolyn Smith, ‘Forget Snape – in concentrating on him, we leave out one of the greatest roles Alan Rickman ever performed‘ in The Independent and Daisy Buchanan, ‘Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon taught me an important lesson about love‘ on The Pool

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In happier news, there were a number of other prize wins for female writers: Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel PrizeAnuradha Roy won the 2016 DSC prize for south Asian literature; A.S. Byatt won the Erasmus Prize, and the writers shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award were revealed, including Annalisa Crawford, Peggy Riley and Erin Soros.

Glamour welcomed a transgender columnist: Juno Dawson will chart her journey in the magazine. I’ll add Juno’s column to the regular columnists list once it has a permanent URL.

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The Observer revealed their New Faces of Fiction for 2016 and Joanna Cannon wrote this great piece – The Monster Under the Bed – about her inclusion.

And the woman with the most publicity of late is Amy Liptrot with ‘I swam in the cold ocean and dyed my hair a furious blue… I was moving upwards slowly‘ in The Guardian; interviews in The Independent and The Pool.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ Han Kang at Foyles, Charing Cross Road

On Wednesday I travelled to London for one of Han Kang’s few UK appearances. In the event space at the top of the Foyles’ flagship store, Kang spoke for over an hour with Philippe Sands, supported by her translator Yunjung Sun Kim. It was a fascinating discussion.

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Sands began by asking Kang to explain a bit about her latest novel just published in English (brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith) Human Acts.

It’s about Gwangju in 1980 when an event took place which some refer to as an uprising and others a massacre. There was a military coup, power was seized and demonstrations took place. The response to these demonstrations was mass shootings. The troops then retreated for ten days, during which there was civilian autonomy. At the end of those ten days, the army returned with tanks.

He then asked Kang about the personal nature of the book for her.

She said she was born in Gwangju in 1970 and lived there until she was nine years and two months old when her family moved to Seoul. It was a coincidence they left before the uprising took place. ‘We were not hurt because we were not there.’ She said they were left with survivors’ guilt.

Photobooks were circulated secretly to let survivors know the truth about the dead. The books contained photographs of corpses. ‘My parents wanted to protect me from that book.’ But Kang looked at one in her parents’ house. ‘I was scared.’ If she’d been older, she might have been filled with rage and hatred but at ten, it left her scared of human cruelty. She said it raised two riddles for her: the first was ‘How can human beings be so violent?’ and the second, ‘How could people do something against extreme violence?’ She said these riddles were ‘…imprinted on my mind. A defining experience for me.’

Sands pushed her on the building that Dong-Ho, the main character lives in, being the building Kang and her family lived in and Dong-Ho himself being a boy she knew but Kang sidestepped the question telling us that the book’s 80% fact, 20% fiction. It was clear throughout the interview that the massacre and it’s affect on her is a painful subject to discuss.

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At this point there was a reading, taken from the editor’s chapter [chapter three] when the editor goes to see a theatre production of a script that was very heavily censored by the authorities. Deborah Smith came onstage to read the English translation which was followed by Han Kang reading the same section in Korean. It was really interesting to hear a section read by the writer in the original language.

Sands then asked what caused Kang to choose this subject and why she chose to treat it in this form.

She referred again to the two riddles. They were her internal motivation. ‘I wanted to figure out why I’m struggling to embrace human beings.’ She said she had to figure out the answers to her questions or she couldn’t go anywhere with her writing.

Her external motivation was the social cleansing which took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009. Five residents and one police officer died when a fire started in a building where people were protesting against the eviction of the residents to make way for developers. She said she was watching the news in a ‘warm and comfortable’ room. ‘I bet it’s Gwangju,’ she said. ‘I realised Gwangju is all around us.’

Who are you writing the book for? Sands asked.

Kang said she mostly started to write the book because of her internal questions. She began to collect materials and realised there was no room for her self-consciousness in the novel. ‘I was not important anymore. I wanted to lend my life to them. To the people who were killed there.’

She did more research, reading about Bosnia and Auschwitz. She said she felt a threat that she’d lose all her trust in mankind.

The change in her thinking came when she read a diary entry by a civilian killed on the last night of the massacre. A high school teacher in the civilian militia’s provincial office. She said it read like a prayer and led to her wanting to reach human dignity even though she started the novel from human violence.

She said of the boy at the centre of the novel: ‘Sometimes he was dragging me towards the second riddle’ and of the book: ‘That process has transformed me’. She talked of a moment in the mother’s chapter of the book [the one that I found most difficult to read] where the boy’s holding his mother’s hand and he leads her to the flowers on the brighter side of the road. ‘This book is just for the boy. The boy has written this novel, not me.’

Sands commented that the book is an incredibly brutal journey. How was it written and what was Kang’s decision-making process in writing the opening?

She talked about the opening being in the darkest place and the boy wanting to light candles. He covers the body with white sheets and then there’s the lighting of candles again. ‘It looks brutal…but I believe there are chords of this warming.’ She said in the second chapter [when the boy’s friend’s body is laid in a pile of corpses and he tells us about his life] that the boy’s life was dignified. ‘The face of human dignity’ is there, she said.

Sands asked her what she was hoping to achieve and the techniques she used in creating the novel.

‘I felt this was the only way to talk about the boy’s life and death.’

She said she used the second person perspective because ‘You is someone who is present’ and she wanted the boy to be present. He comes back throughout the book because the survivors want to remember him; they call him to the present. [The book ends in 2013.] She said readers could also assemble the broken moments of the boys last days and hours through the survivors’ stories. ‘The boy is coming to the present. That’s what I wanted.’

She didn’t know how to structure the novel. She said she was ‘lost’ while researching until she found the citizen’s diary and then she arranged it into six chapters. She didn’t restructure again after that. She said sometimes she’s confident in arranging chapters, ‘Sometimes I get lost’.

How was the book received in South Korea? asked Sands.

It was well received. ‘More than I expected. Maybe they wanted to remember this massacre for a long time. They didn’t want to erase these memories.’ Human Acts was on the bestseller list for a year in South Korea.

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The discussion was then opened up to questions from the audience.

Where there people who didn’t want the stories to be told?

Kang said that so many years had passed so she didn’t have to interview people. ‘I didn’t have to hurt anyone.’ She said that painful testimonies had already been given. She repeated, ‘I didn’t hurt anyone’ two more times.

Has the novel been published in other countries and what was the response?

She mentioned the Netherlands and France in the future. She said it’s weird to meet readers in the UK, ‘It’s a very personal book of mine’ but that we share human ideas.

She was asked specifically about publication in China. ‘Maybe it’s impossible.’ She said she’s spoken to the Chinese publisher but because the book deals with massacre and censorship it might not be possible to publish it.

How much of the truth about Gwangju has come out?

In the 1980s information was destroyed. The event was isolated. In 1997 it was memorialised. The current regime doesn’t want to remember though.

The discussion leads on to the single textbook the current regime is proposing. Kang said it’s concerning that no one knows who’s going to write it.

Sands commented that it would be fantastic to have Human Acts on the curriculum.

‘Some people have talked about it! I hoped many students could read this novel. I did my best to promote this book as much as I could.’

She said she’s been to schools to talk about the book and the massacre. 15-year-olds in South Korea were quite ignorant about it. She said the events in the book frightened them but they were relieved that they’d realised the truth.

Did Gwangju affect her other novel (The Vegetarian)?

She said they’re both a personal or inner conflict about humans.

Why did it take so long to write about Gwangju?

She said she revised some stories she wrote in her early 20s and there was human violence in them. The Vegetarian is about whether it’s possible to be perfectly innocent in this violent world, which is why the central character wants to become a plant. ‘The two books are intertwined. It’s like a pair.’

‘Writing is questioning for me.’ The question that she’s asking in Human Acts is ‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ She said, ‘I lost my trust to human beings since I looked at the photobook. How can I embrace human beings?’

Sands asked whether she had any more of an answer as to how humans can inflict such violence on each other?

Kang replied that Human Acts is also very anti-human acts. She said she read a piece by a Korean essayist who was on a bus when war broke out, looking at the life around him. He realised that he was crying and came to the conclusion, ‘Maybe I love human beings’.

While writing the novel, ‘I came to thinking about my pain’. She said that readers might do the same as they’re reading. Maybe we feel pain about human atrocity and maybe this is the key to preserving human dignity. Maybe we love human beings.

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At this point Sands invited Deborah Smith back to the stage to discuss the process of translating the book. How? he asked.

‘It was a hell of a challenge. The language will allow you to do things in Korean you can’t do in English.’ In Korean you don’t need to state the subject all the time. The book moves ‘swiftly and subtly…between the individuals…and then pans out to a…national, political, social level. The lack of a stated subject allows the we and the I to blend together.’ This is disorientating but effective.

Sands asked about the exchange between Kang and Smith.

Smith said that she translated the whole thing and then Max Porter edited that draft. Kang then read that draft meticulously, picking up mistakes in the subtext and making incredibly detailed notes for Smith. These notes included the historical context and Kang’s inspirations, intentions and stylistic decisions. Smith then returned to the translation and reworked it.

Smith said that for Human Acts Kang had to explain the context and the dialects.

‘I really enjoyed exchanging emails,’ Kang added.

The event had to end there as it had run well over time. It was an incredible evening. The audience was rapt with attention, partly because Kang is so softly spoken but also because of the nature of the discussion. It was a privilege to be there.

If you’re interesting in knowing more about the process of translating Human Acts, Deborah Smith has written an excellent essay published in Asymptote.

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Last January, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was published in English garnering critical acclaim from the broadsheet press and bloggers alike, including this one: I included it in my Books of 2015 list. The tale of a woman who became a vegetarian despite cultural stigma leading to the breakdown of her marriage and family relations before the deterioration of her mental and physical self, it’s an unusual book and one which images from linger long after reading.

On the surface Human Acts appears to be more straightforward. It’s the story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. It begins with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium. He’s listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify. After the service, he returns inside to continue helping those who arrive looking for missing friends and relatives. Kang makes this section all the more effective by narrating it in second person:

When you first saw her, she was still recognisably a smallish woman in her late teens or early twenties; now, her decomposing body has bloated to the size of a grown man. Every time you pull back the cloth for someone who has come to find a daughter or younger sister, the sheer rate of decomposition stuns you. Stab wounds slash down from her forehead to her left eye, her cheekbone to her jaw, her left breast to her armpit, gaping gashes where the raw flesh shows through. The right side of her skull has completely caved in, seemingly the work of a club, and the meat of her brain is visible.

We soon learn that Dong-Ho initially came to the gym to search for his own friend but ended up becoming part of the team on realising how chronically understaffed they were. By this point, all the morgues were full so the dead were being brought straight to the gym.

The second section moves to the voice of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae:

Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross.

The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body then.

His soul starts to leave his body as it begins to rot, eventually leaving it altogether when soldiers return and set fire to the pile of corpses. It’s a section that sounds like it shouldn’t work but it’s deeply affecting. Kang contrasts Jeong-dae’s descriptions of the pile of bodies and its surroundings with memories of his sister whom he also knows is dead.

The novel progresses through sections told by an editor in 1985, a prisoner in 1990, a factory girl in 2002, Dong-Ho’s mother in 2010 and ‘the writer’ in 2013. Through them the events of the uprising and its brutal suppression are shown. Dong-Ho’s personal story is central to Kang’s narrative; as it unravels, some shocking betrayals are revealed. What also connects these strands is the violence of the state. The editor, who is Kim Eun-sook, the woman who convinced Dong-ho to stay and help in the municipal gymnasium, tells her part of the story through the seven slaps she was given by an interrogator. Kang subjects the reader to this violence suddenly. It’s repeatedly shocking, not only due to the brutality of it but also because of the way in which it’s juxtaposed with calmer passages.

It’s difficult to comment on a translation when you don’t speak the original language but what’s clear is that Smith has made each voice consistently distinct, a challenging task for any writer without the addition of faithfully translating another’s words. The prose is sharp, brutal and affecting.

What Human Acts has in common with The Vegetarian is a similarity in structure, a story told from multiple points of view, and Kang’s offbeat way of viewing the world: she comes at this story from unusual perspectives and it’s all the better for it. Human Acts is a triumph.

 

If you’re in London next week, Han Kang is making two appearances. The first is at the Free Word Centre on Monday 11th where she’ll be interviewed by Susie Orbach. The second is at Foyles Charing Cross Road where she’ll be interviewed by Philippe Sands. If you can’t make either, I’ll be at the latter and will be blogging about the event afterwards.

 

Thanks to Deborah Smith for the review copy.

Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications

Here we are then, the books from this year I’ve read and rated most highly. I’m basing my choices on the very unscientific, I thought it was brilliant at the time and I’m still thinking about it. I was concerned this would skew the list towards the end of the year but it hasn’t at all – two thirds of the books are from the first half of 2015. Publication dates are UK (where applicable) and if you click on the cover it will take you to my review.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine 

A superb book. An examination of race and the treatment of black people in present day America. Rankine uses flash fiction, essays and poetry to explore the way people of colour ‘…feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ and, by implication, how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background. Short, sharp and powerful, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household, taught in schools and university, and added to the canon. If you believe art can change the world, this is a book that should be able to do so.


A Little Life
– Hanya Yanagihara

It’s divided readers and critics but I make no apologies for including this book for several reasons: it’s utterly absorbing, I felt as though I’d been entombed in Yanagihara’s world; it focuses on male friendship which I think is unusual; the friendship group consists of four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and Yanagihara has written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through. It’s huge and harrowing and clearly not for everyone but I’m still thinking about it six months on.

 

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (translated by Alison Entrekin)

A short, sharp tale told in fragments. At the centre of the book is the story of the key given to the unnamed narrator by her grandfather: the key to his old house in Turkey, in Smyrna. There are four threads to the book: the narrator’s journey to her grandfather’s house; the grandfather’s journey from the house to the woman who became the narrator’s grandmother; the narrator’s relationship with her dead mother, and the narrator’s passionate affair with an unnamed man. A shocking and beautiful novella about exile in many different forms.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika
Kapur 

Mrs Sharma’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, has been working in Dubai for over a year in a bid to raise enough money to cover his parents’ medical bills and send his son to college to do an MBA in business. She works as a receptionist in a gynaecological clinic and dreams of starting her own business. Mrs Sharma’s veneer begins to crack when she meets Vineet Seghal on a station platform. Tightly plotted with precise, often repetitive, language, this is a brilliant book about an unfulfilled woman.

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. She’s particularly annoyed and frustrated by the way men objectify women and the consequences of this behaviour. Donning a superhero costume for a fancy dress party, she stops a mugging and gets a taste for the vigilante lifestyle. Before long, she’s on the tale of someone who’s attacking teenage girls. A gripping and believable look at the concerns of a middle-aged woman and her life.

 

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her sixteen-year-old brother, Matty, was hit by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. The book is Rentzenbrink’s story of the effect of Matty’s accident on her and her family. Told in an unflinching first person account with a huge amount of love and dollops of humour, Rentzenbrink brings the Matty she loved back to life and pays tribute to her parents without descending into mawkishness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Buy tissues before reading, I’m welling up just thinking about it.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A companion piece to Life After LifeA God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy and those who’ve shared his life – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he served alongside in the RAF. The structure’s non-chronological, creating a jigsaw puzzle of Teddy’s life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct; every chapter capable of standing alone as a story in its own right. The chapters set in the war are some of Atkinson’s best writing but this is more than a character study, it’s a book that explores what fiction is. Superb.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Mr Cheong chose his wife, Yeong-Ho, because she’s passive. But then, due to a set of reoccurring dreams, she turns vegetarian; a highly unorthodox act in South Korea. The reactions of Mr Cheong and Yeong-Ho’s family turn dark and sometimes violent quite quickly. But Yeong-Ho’s brother-in-law is fascinated with her and her mongolian mark which leads to him creating a physical work of art with her. A disconcerting story that explores society’s treatment of a woman who defies expectations and how her internalisation of those expectations affects her psyche.

 

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell 

In the not so distant future where banks have collapsed, the homeless population is out of control, food is scarce and the military rule, Lalage is protected by her father, Michael Paul, and his creation, the ship. The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. As it sets sail with Michael Paul’s chosen people on it, Lalage begins to question her father’s motives and what she really wants from life. The Ship raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It’s futuristic setting is misleading, this is really a novel about what’s happening to society now.

The First Bad Man – Miranda July 

Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for a company who make self-defence, fitness DVDs. She has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy, the son of her parents’ friends. Cheryl’s bosses ask if their daughter, Clee, can move in with her until she finds a job. First Clee trashes Cheryl’s system for keeping the house clean and tidy, then she’s physically fighting Cheryl for extended periods before Cheryl begins imagining herself as Phillip having sex with Clee. It sounds absurd but it’s a sharp exploration of loneliness which transforms into something emotionally fulfilling.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation but an unplanned pregnancy, the death of her mother and the offer of a job supporting the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to Great Britain sees her returning to the Lake District. The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. The precision of the language, particularly in the descriptions of the Lake District and the wolves, is superb as is the characterisation of Rachel. One of our best novelists, probably her best book.

Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex 
 – Joanna Walsh

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword of Grow a Pair transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas. Walsh mixes retellings of traditional fairytales like ‘The Princess and the Penis’ with new pieces. Filled with as many moments of humour as it is ones of magical realism, the collection allows its women to take control of their own sexuality and fulfilment. Entertaining, smart and thoughtful.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

A dual narrative following two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land with her bear, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, living on a tiny island by the graveyard and performing Restings for the dead. North has a number of issues to deal with – she’s engaged to Ainsel and his father wants them to live on land, but she doesn’t want either of these things; Ainsel’s mother is jealous, and North is pregnant to someone else. She’s also tied to Callanish in ways that only begin to reveal themselves when the two meet. A beautifully rendered world.

 

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay 

Mirelle is kidnapped in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly outside the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars. He refuses, assuming they will return her unharmed. She’s repeatedly raped and tortured. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath, looking at whether it’s possible to rebuild a life, a marriage, a familial relationship after such horror. An interesting examination of power and privilege.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven

Angela’s short-term ambition is for her and her best friend, Lorraine, to lose their virginity over the summer holidays. Long-term, she wants to move away from the council scheme she’s grown up on and attend Glasgow School of Art. Her parents are determined she’s getting a job. Over one summer in the 1980s, Angela and Lorraine’s friendship will deteriorate thanks to Pamela aka Little Miss Brown Nose and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘a total ride’. Class, religion, family and friendships are all explored but it’s the perceptive look at women’s sexuality and the use of Scots dialect that really make this a stand out read.

 

Honourable mentions also go to The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey; Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller.

Inter-Media

A few pieces I’ve enjoyed/found interesting in the last month.

Books wise the focus continues on the lack of coverage of books by women and on diversity in publishing. Syl Saller writes, ‘Why women-only initiatives are vital for the arts‘ followed by Alison Flood’s piece, ‘Publisher finds that writers’ influences are mostly male‘ both in The Guardian. The publisher is Sarah Davis-Gough of Tramp Press. Also quoted in the article is Deborah Smith, translator and publisher at Tilted Axis Press. On the And Other Books blog, she explains why Tilted Axis are having a year of publishing women. A woman much in the media of late is Harper Lee. Glynnis MacNichol writes ‘Harper Lee: the ‘great lie’ she didn’t write Mockingbird rears its head again‘ looking not just at Lee but other women who’s authorship has also been questioned.

Kerry Hudson gets angry and offers some solutions on the Writers’ Centre, Norwich’s website, ‘Lost Stories, Unheard Voices – Diversity in Literature‘. (Do read the piece by Nikesh Shukla that’s linked to at the bottom of that page also, you’ll be astonished.) In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Susan Barker, author of The Incarnations, looks at her own experience as someone mixed-race English and Chinese, raised in Britain but writing about China; ‘Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?

It’s unlikely you haven’t noticed that the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced this week. Dawn Foster wrote, ‘Summer’s here – so it’s time to grab a Booker and start reading‘ in The Independent and there are excellent interviews with longlisted authors Hanya Yanagihara and Anna Smaill.

In other recent topics, Roxane Gay writes about the outpouring for Cecil the Lion while Samuel DuBose, Sandra Bland and the 681 other black people killed by police in the USA so far this year. Aisha Mirza asks, ‘London’s super-diversity is a joy. Why would you ever want to leave?‘ in The Guardian.

While Nina Stibbe looks at her experience of moving to the countryside in The Independent, ‘When village life turns nasty: An author reveals the dark heart of the English countryside‘ and Hazel Davis looks at the power of online friendships in Standard Issue, ‘iFriends‘.

Lots of good things on The Pool, as always. Sali Hughes writes, ‘A magazine cover that can make the world better for women‘, ‘“Housing benefit saved me as a teenager”‘ and ‘Hasn’t lying about your age gotten really old?‘. Lauren Laverne asks ‘Is work/life balance a big, fat waste of time?‘, ‘Who’s looking after all those successful men’s kids?‘ and ‘Too busy to sleep?‘. Sam Baker met Amy Poehler and I’m not remotely envious. Honest. Anna James looks at the 10 ways J.K. Rowling changed our lives and Alexandra Heminsley celebrates marketing campaigns finally realising ‘Exercise is not about getting skinny‘.

There’s been a number of other articles about women’s bodies recently. Eva Wiseman looks at the damage done to children through anti-obesity messages, ‘Learning to love our bodies‘ in The Observer. Lindy West writes, ‘My wedding was perfect – and I was fat as hell the whole time‘ in The Guardian and Shelley Harris says, ‘This Woman Can‘ on her blog in relation to Daisy Buchanan’s ‘A Letter I Wrote To Myself About Getting Fat‘ on her blog.

Elizabeth Day’s ‘Stop Calling Women ‘Lovely’!‘ for Elle UK makes me want to punch the air and shout ‘Fuck, yes!’

And being Yorkshire born and bred and having left and returned to the county twice, I love Sophie Heawood’s piece ‘I’ve lived half my life in London, but I’ll always be a Yorkshire lass at heart‘ in The Guardian.

In the Media: 22nd March 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

The big news this week is that Kath Viner became the first woman appointed to the role of editor-in-chief at The Guardian in its 194 year history. The first woman to edit a UK broadsheet and only the second EIC of The Guardian to have attended a (selective) state school.

Unfortunately, the other trend in articles this week have been about the abuse women have suffered from a variety of sources; Heidi Stevens wrote in the Chicago Tribune ‘Hate mail lesson: Uncombed hair threatens the natural order‘; Sarah Xerta wrote ‘The Brick Wall: The Intersection of Patriarchy, Privilege, Anger, and Language‘ on VIDA; Juliet Annan ‘is a Lazy Feminist‘ in publishing on the Penguin Blog; Sara Pascoe wrote ‘The hymen remains an evolutionary mystery – and the focus of the oppression of women’s sexuality‘ in The Guardian; Katie McDonough wrote ‘If you’re shocked by this Penn State frat’s nude photo ring, you’re not paying attention‘ on Salon; Jessie Burton took ‘Speakers’ Corner‘ on Hunger TV; Claire Byrne wrote, ‘One sordid, gross and offensive comment must have been thought up while he sat there scratching himself in his grey fading jocks. I wonder what makes people think it’s acceptable to make comments like that?‘ in the Irish Independent, and Ashley Judd wrote, ‘Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass‘ on Mic.

And there’s been a number of articles about race; Rebecca Carroll wrote ‘Calling out one racist doesn’t make white people any less complicit in supremacy‘ in The Guardian; Jia Tolentino wrote ‘How to Talk About Race With Your Starbucks Barista: A Guide‘ in Jezebel; Maya Goodfellow wrote, ‘Climate change is easier to ignore because right now it’s people of colour who suffer the most‘ on Media Diversified; Vulture interviewed Claudia Rankine on ‘Serena, Indian Wells, and Race‘ and KCRW’s Bookworm asked her about writing the racial ‘other’.

This week’s Harper Lee news: To Kill a Mockingbird was named #78 on The Guardian list of The 100 Best Novels; Casey N. Cep reported on ‘Harper Lee’s Abandoned True-Crime Novel‘ in The New Yorker, and Jonathon Sturgeon asked ‘Is It Time to Get Hopeful About Harper Lee?‘ on Flavorwire.

And prizes this week went to Louise O’Neill who won the inaugural YA Book Prize and Louise Erdrich won the Library of Congress Award.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists: