Raise Me with Sunrise: A Review of ‘My Name is Why’ by Lemn Sissay

Raise me with sunrise

Bathe me in light

Wash all the shadows

That fell from the night.


Imagine having to piece together your life and your identity from a series of index cards and minuted committee meetings! Imagine finding out age 16 that even your name is a lie. This is the experience that poet Lemn Sissay relates.

Even if you don’t know who you are from an emotional point of view, at least you have a name.  Perhaps it is the right name.  It is the one written on your birth certificate which someone will have stored in a shoebox in the bottom of a wardrobe.  Whether you like this name or not it was the name given to you at birth and it cannot be changed without legal process.   

But what happens when the name you have lived with, and the family you have lived with turn out to be a lie?  A chimera?  What happens when someone hides your birth certificate from you and presents you with other official looking documents which contain a different name?   Who are you then?

Lemn Sissay grew up as Norman Greenwood.  Born in 1967 it was not until 1982 that Sissay was shown papers which proved that his mother had been an Ethiopian student who had been forced to give him up but had tried to get him back.  In the intervening years, he was placed with an incapable foster family who rejected him when he was 12, and an increasingly pentitential series of children’s homes, including in 1984, Wood End, which has since been connected with abuse scandals in the press. Wood End was an experience which Sissay writes gave him nightmares ‘until my forties’.

“ This really was George Orwell’s 1984.  I was right. I was right about the entire dysfunctional system which pretended it could care for me while knowing in its heart that it couldn’t.  This horrific place was where the system stopped pretending.”

How many other children have similar stories?  When Sissay blogged about his experiences in Wood End a number of people came forward to say that they had been ‘dumped’ there too.

Sissay fought the Local Authority for 30 years to get access to his records.  This book is the result of him finally being sent – in 2015 –  four folders of notes of meetings and decisions, in none of which he was involved or consulted, that constituted the first 18 years of his life.  Yet although this book is inevitably a quest for identity, it is also a story of a man who recognised his inner poetic light very early on.

Although Sissay now has success and recognition and could rest on his laurels, this is not his style. I get the impression this is not a man that does laurels – except for poetic ones. He is still achieving, still working in the vanguard of the fight for justice for children in care. He is still fighting against the possibility that any other child will have to endure what he did. My Name is Why is a manifesto against systemic ignorance and hypocrisy, and on the side of the human rights of the child.


Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA nominated, award-winning international writer and broadcaster.  He has authored collections of poetry and plays.  His Landmark poems are visible in London, Manchester, Huddersfield and Addis Ababa.  He has been made an Honorary Doctor by the Universities of Manchester, Huddersfield and Brunel. Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature and in 2019 received the Pen Pinter Prize.  He is Chancellor of the University of Manchester. He is British and Ethopian.

A Brief Survival Guide

Reach for a cigarette as soon as things don’t go your way? Eat too many chocolate covered cream cakes with strawberry jam when you get nervous? Stay awake half the night to kill zombies? Does the recyling bank constantly rings to the tune of shattered glass in your efforts to keep the world at bay?

Stop. Think. I can offer a new, healthy obsession – it doesn’t cost very much at all and doesn’t put on an ounce of weight or give you lung cancer. It’s called poetry. 

Try this from Jaan Kaplinski (Trans. Jans Kaplinski and Fiona Sampson),Bloodaxe, 2004 and tell me you don’t feel better.

Evening Brings Everything Back.

I could say: I got out of the bus,

stepping onto the dusty verge where

a young maple and a wild rose grow.

In reality I jumped into silence

and there was no ground to step on.

The silence closed over my head like water:

I barely noticed the bus leaving

and as I sank deeper and deeper

I heard only my own heartbeats,

seeing the way home glide past

in its own rhthym: lilies of the valley sprouting

wood sorrel already nearly in blossom,

the anthill covered as if by a brownish quivering veil –

the ants themselves. The Big Pine. The Big Spruce.

Drying hurdles. Sand pit. Traces of a fire

White birch trunks. The Big Boulder

And many memories. Silence, the inland sea,

nameless background of all these names,

of all our names.


‘The Company they Kept:  Writers on Unforgettable Friendships (NewYorkReviewofBooks, 2006)  Ed. Robert B Silvers and Barbara Epstein.

This is a series of pieces, originally published in the New York Review of Books when writers talk about their … er… unforgettable friendships.  I love this sort of book – I have a writer’s unquenchable fascination with the detail of the writing process and the day to day lives of other writers, since none ever seem as day to day as mine.

Derek Walcott states in an article about the poet Robert Lowell, that biographies of poets are hard to believe.   The moment they are published they become fiction, subject to the same symmetry of plot, incident, dialogue as the novel.     

Of Lowell, Walcott writes:

The life itself is shattering.  Lowell died at sixty.  Most of that life had been spent recovering from, and dreading, mental attacks, of having to say early ‘my mind’s not right’ but more than drugs restored him.  The force that is the making of poetry, while it took its toll of his mind, also saved him.  His heroism is primal, his servitude to it savage.  Bedlam, asylum, hospital,  his bouts of mania never left him, but they also never left him mad.

I highly recommend this book.  The pieces are not long and can be dipped into at odd moments.     The Company they Kept is ideal for drowning out white noise.

Susan Sontag’s contribution in this volume is on Paul Goodman.  She starts: 

“I am writing this in Paris, in a room about 4′ by 10′, sitting on a wicker chair at a typing table in front of a window which looks onto a garden; at my back is a cot and a night table; on the floor and under the table are manuscripts, notebooks and two or three paperback books.  …  I have been living and working for more than a year in such small bare quarters … I have no books … I spend too many hours writing to have time to talk to anyone.”


So here is my brief survival guide for the next half-century.

First off – don’t retire until you’re 90. Don’t worry about the social cost in terms of youth unemployment, it will all be fine – somehow.   Next just after your 90th birthday  busy yourself digging the allotment (if you don’t have one, join the queue) or make constructive contributions to society in the form of voluntary work, jam-making or calligraphy classes. This way should you wish, you can live to 102. There will be no resources to care for you when you finally do lay down your trowel/pen of course.

The new busy is really a philosophy based on fear.  

What we fear most is silent inactivity. The staring down the metaphorical black hole. But, here’s a thought, poets and writers do that for a living (at least any who do make a living) so enjoy the fruits of their labours.


Photo by eHeritage on Pexels.com

 I came across a paperback copy of  William Wordsworth’s poetry with my mother’s name written on the flyleaf, dated  September1966.  She paid 7shillings and sixpence for it – about 35p.

Lines written above Tintern Abbey

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! and again I hear

These waters rolling from their mountain spring

With a soft inland murmur. – Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs

Which on a wild, secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

4 Books on the Power of Transcendence and Vision in a Divided World

I shall be leaving fiction for a while and returning to non-fiction, specifically philosophy and biography.    Here is a list of four books that I shall be reading and reviewing over the coming weeks. 


Wild Silence

Raynor Winn (author)

Hardback (03 Sep 2020) | English

I am beyond excited to be awaiting my copy of Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence.  Her previous – and debut – book The Salt Path tells the story of how after being made suddenly and shockingly homeless after a saga of a lawsuit that sets your teeth grinding on edge and makes you want to run into the court room and start shouting.  The couple have nowhere else to go other than the home they are now forced to sell and no money either. 

As if that is not enough, Moth, Winn’s beloved husband has received a terminal diagnosis. What to do under such circumstances?  The answer may not be obvious to everyone but it was to Winn  and Moth as they set out to walk the 600 odd miles of the South West Coast Path. 

The Salt Path is a book about walking of course but so much more it is a journal of struggle and discovery, of the natural world but also of self-discovery – which many of us perhaps will never make because we are not forced into the position of having to make it.   The book is also a love letter to the natural landscape through which they pass aching mile by aching mile, the creatures human and otherwise that inhabit those coastal swathes, and to the man with whom Winn has spent her whole life. 

This author could turn a shopping list into a poetic endeavour and I am agog to read her new book which charts the couple’s return home and attempt to go back to ‘normal’ living. 

The publisher’s synopsis states:

After walking 630 miles homeless along The Salt Path, the windswept and wild English coastline now feels like their home.

And despite Moth’s terminal diagnosis, against all medical odds, he seems revitalized in nature – outside, they discover that anything is possible.

Now, life beyond The Salt Path awaits. As they return to four walls, the sense of home is illusive and returning to normality is proving difficult – until an incredible gesture by someone who reads their story changes everything.”


Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times

Jonathan Sacks (author)

Hardback (05 Mar 2020) | English

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses the many extreme pressures under which we are currently living and how it is possible to find a way forward through a common moral foundation.

Synopsis:  Delivering a devastatingly insightful critique of our modern condition, and assessing its roots and causes from the ancient Greeks through the Reformation and Enlightenment to the present day, Sacks argues that there is no liberty without morality, and no freedom without responsibility.

If we care about the future of western civilisation, all of us must play our part in rebuilding our common moral foundation. Then we will discover afresh the life-transforming and counterintuitive truths that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, and rich when it cares for the poor.

Here is an inspiring vision of a world in which we can all find our place, and face the future without fear.

(My thanks to SLZ who told me about this book).

It is a short step from a philosophy of inclusiveness to buddhism which leads me to my next book.

From a Mountain in Tibet A Monk’s Journey

Yeshe Losal (author)

Hardback (27 Aug 2020) | English

Synopsis

Lama Yeshe didn’t see a car until he was fifteen years old. In his quiet village, he and other children ran through fields with yaks and mastiffs. The rhythm of life was anchored by the pastoral cycles.

The arrival of Chinese army cars in 1959 changed everything. In the wake of the deadly Tibetan Uprising, he escaped to India through the Himalayas as a refugee. One of only 13 survivors out of 300 travellers, he spent the next few years in America, experiencing the excesses of the Woodstock generation before reforming in Europe.

Now in his seventies and a leading monk at the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland – the first Buddhist centre in the West – Lama Yeshe casts a hopeful look back at his momentous life. From his learnings on self-compassion and discipline to his trials and tribulations with loss and failure, his poignant story mirrors our own struggles.

Written with erudition and humour, From a Mountain in Tibet shines a light on how the most desperate of situations can help us to uncover vital life lessons and attain lasting peace and contentment.


My Name Is Why

Lemn Sissay (author)

Paperback (02 Jul 2020) | English

I am a great fan of biographies of poets particularly Elaine Feinstein’s biographies of Anna Akhmatova and Ted Hughes.

(I am struggling to get hold of a copy of Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Marina Tsvetaeva if anyone knows of one please let me know?)

I have never read a contemporary autobiography of a living poet before so I am fascinated to find this one from Lemn Sissay.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be in foster and care homes all your life and then suddenly discover that your name is not the name someone gave you and your mother has been pleading to have you back since your birth.  I do not have to imagine it as  Sissay’s the book will tell me what this was like because this happened to him: 

Synopsis


At the age of seventeen, after a childhood in a foster family followed by six years in care homes, Norman Greenwood was given his birth certificate. He learned that his real name was not Norman. It was Lemn Sissay. He was British and Ethiopian. And he learned that his mother had been pleading for his safe return to her since his birth.

This is Lemn’s story: a story of neglect and determination, misfortune and hope, cruelty and triumph.

Sissay reflects on his childhood, self-expression and Britishness, and in doing so explores the institutional care system, race, family and the meaning of home. Written with all the lyricism and power you would expect from one of the nation’s best-loved poets, this moving, frank and timely memoir is the result of a life spent asking questions, and a celebration of the redemptive power of creativity.


Eyes on the Prize

Is this one of the emptiest motivational statements ever invented? I mean it must come close right? No-one sits down to write a prize winning work – it’s enough pressure just filling out a page with a few hundred words.  The worry over the next bit of dialogue,  the next chapter,  the next paragraph, this character background, that description.  The whole thing coming together in some sort of cohesive, sensible, whole.  Every word having to be dragged forth from the depths of somewhere. These are the things that concern writers.

Publishers and marketeers however like prizes.    Prizes achieve two things; increased visibility and money – both of which a writer needs.  But to win a prize is also an encouragement so I should get down off my high horse and start trying to answer the main question of today which is who will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020?    

Or if it is not a big question in terms of global pandemics, it is a big question for book bloggers who care about such things. 

So far on the 2020 shortlist I have read:

Bernardine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other

Natalie Haynes 1000 Ships

Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet (Reviewed Below)

Jennie Offill Weather

Photograph of Frensham Ponds. By Frances Spurrier

I have not managed to read Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light and I have not managed to read Dominicana by Angie Cruz

I have thus read only four out of the six shortlisted titles.  Yet today, 9th September, at 7pm UK time the winner is being announced.   So I have run out of time.  While it is not normal to  choose a winner on the basis of having read four out of six shortlisted books (!)  I am in the fortunate position of being a blogger and not a judge.   

Evaristo’s book concerns itself with the experiences of 12 different women of colour in contemporary UK with bits set in the US.  Natalie Haynes book is of women’s experiences as survivors of war in ancient Greece at the time of the Trojan wars and Hamnet  – in 16th century Stratford on Avon where Maggie O’Farrell lays her tale  (incidentally also a time when theatres are shut because of the plague) is about a woman and two children whom history has forgotten while canonising her playwright husband.    

Photo by Jarod Lovekamp on Pexels.com

These books are all works of vision, the writing is lucid the characterisation articulate, they are all executed with compelling panache.   These authors have created story where there was no story before,  just absence, silence and history’s marginal note.  These authors have produced strong and highly visible stories of women from times and places where women have been most silenced and most invisible.  Only Jenny Offill has dealt with the future.  Without the imperative of historical context,  she alone considers how we are moving into an unknown territory of climate destruction and for a while she was my front runner.    

Then as I read each one of these books I thought that this must be the one that wins. Until I move on to the next and then think, no, this one.  Ultimately perhaps it does not matter.  All these books are here to stay.  Today I vote with my heart rather than my head.  I do not think I shall ever again envisage the life of the bard of Stratford without seeing it as O’Farrell has written it, without seeing him married to the Agnes of this book, or parent to the Hamnet of her devising,  an unknown child whose name was given to one of the world’s most famous plays.  O’Farrell has written a scene for Hamnet and his twin sister Judith which will bare comparison with anything that was penned by their famous father, and this is my choice for winner


Hamnet

The name Shakespeare overwhelms every thought that one might have of writing about him.  I mean unless from a purely biographical point of view and that must be hard enough.  In any book that is ‘about’ him, he must automatically be the most important character must he not?

How do you overcome that?  This is the genius of O’Farrell’s book.  In the whole 372 pages the man himself is referred to as the husband, the son, the father, even the latin tutor, or ‘Latin Boy’ by Bartholomew, his brother in law, but never is the name Shakespeare mentioned.  Not even a ‘Will’.  And although it sounds as though it cannot be made to work, it does work and I was half way through the novel before I even thought about it.   This is what gives the other characters in the book room to breathe and particular his wife Agnes and son Hamnet.

“How can he live without her?  He cannot.  It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain.”

So what new do we learn about the bard? Nothing.  At least nothing except that he did not do it all on his own, that he had support.  That the cost of all that success was not borne solely by him.

“The father comes to the new house twice, sometimes three times a year.  He is home for a month in the second year they live in the house.  There have been food riots in the city he tells them, with apprentices marching on Southwark and pillaging shops.  It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut.”  

Some things just don’t change.

Miracles Leave No Trace: A Review of ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

“Miracles leave no trace.  He had decided, hearing his father preach on the subject, that they happened once as a sort of commentary on the blandness and inadequacy of the reality they break in on, and then vanish, leaving a world behind that refutes the very idea that such a thing could have happened.”

Jack is the protagonist of the fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series – if series it can be called.   I question the word because I am not sure if it is one the author would have considered or wanted.  All these books can be read individually,  although they are connected by family stories and by underlying philosophical questions. 

The first book Gilead is an epistolary novel narrated in the unique voice of Presbyterian Minister Reverend John Ames and set in a fictional Iowan town.  The text of Gilead is framed as a letter from Ames to his young son, a child born to him late in life.    Wise and kind, Ames’ letters are his legacy to the child – a legacy of grace in all senses of the word, of familial love and sometimes quiet humour.    

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

“For a dying man I feel pretty good and that is a blessing.  Of course, your mother knows about it.  She said if I feel good maybe the Doctor is wrong.  But at my age there is a limit to how wrong he can be.”

Gilead was followed by the second book Lila – the story of how Reverend Ames meets and marries a younger woman.  Lila  has lived a hard, itinerant life and has arrived in Gilead purely by chance, accepting a lift from a stranger from St. Louis.     At the time she meets Ames, Lila has set up home in an abandoned shack.

The term vagrant carries a perjorative meaning because society has imbued it with such.   It shows everywhere in our treatment of homeless people,  of Romany folk,  of anyone who isn’t apparently towing the line.  This is a state of being that is examined in Robinson’s new novel as Jack too is a character who is often homeless and jobless, although as I read I felt the author was asking less what it means to be an outsider, so much as compassionately recognising the outsider in all of us.

In an interview posted on Goodreads in 2017 Marilynne Robinson says of Lila: “there is a way in which her destitution has made her purely soul… .” 

 

Now Jack has his own story.      If you asked him, Jack would no doubt tell you that he is the black sheep of the Boughton family, the itinerant one, the tormented one. Being the son of one preacher and named for another is as good way as any to develop problems with your own identity, your own faith.

“I don’t know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment without giving anyone any grounds for hope, ” says Reverend Ames of Jack … “the lost sheep, the lost coin.”

When we first meet Jack, it is the early 1950s.  He is a bit of a drinker, a bit of a down and out,  of no fixed abode, jobless mostly, he’s even done a spell in prison.  He is a man on the brink of despair who carries round the address of his own tombstone in his pocket.   He calls himself the Prince of Darkness.

“- a bum, a grifter. A draft dodger was what he was.  Even that was a lie, no matter who had dampened his brown with it. Also his manners and the words he used and the immutable habits of his mind.  Sweet Jesus, there was no bottom to it, nothing he could say about himself finally.  He was acquainted with despair.”

But there is a way in which Jack too is purely soul.  He quotes Milton and Whitman with ease,  is a haunter of libraries and bookshops.     Many characters in the book may judge him for all the things that have gone wrong in his life, but the reader does not. Jack punishes himself in ways even the most vengeful god probably wouldn’t manage – and he is kind to stray cats.

Now a man in his forties, Jack  is drifting aimlessly around St. Louis when he meets Della the daughter of an important black family and herself the child of a preacher. The two fall in love.  Given the time and the place this is illegal.  For any suspicion of cohabitation,  they risk not only condemnation from both sides of the divide, but prison. 

This fraught but somehow beautiful relationship kicks off in the unlikely setting of a cemetery at midnight with a discussion about predestination. He believes in it being of Presbyterian stock.  She doesn’t being Methodist.

Well she said, this is all very interesting.  But don’t quote Scripture ironically.  It makes me very uneasy when you do that.”

“I am the Prince of Darkness.”

“No you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”

It is not in the nature of truly bad people to think themselves truly bad.  Methinks Jack protests too much about his dubious nature. Far from being duplicitous or evil, he suffers it seemed to me through being overly honest.  He loves Della but he cannot be with Della, it is unthinkable what would happen to him. It is more unthinkable what would happen to her, a teacher and daughter of a respected family.   

And it doesn’t matter how many ministers Jack goes to for advice, he will never find one of any creed or colour to bless this particular union.  Those whom God hath joined…let no man put asunder.  But it’s hard to be married to someone when it is not legal for you to sit together on a bus. 

“The cosmic disorder. The disorder of things. There were no books with these titles, so far as he could discover, and he had looked.” 

Jack and Della’s story is a romantic story and can be read simply as a tale of love against the odds.  But it is inevitably a complex story concerning as it does motives and choices which once made, cannot be unmade, dashed familial hopes, the burdening of the next generation.  What is the emotional and societal cost of personal transformation?  What, as Jack asks, is the difference between faith and presumption.

Prohibitions against interracial marriage may be a thing of the past. But history has a way of coming round again in some form or another and there are and have been – and will continue to be – many other times and other situations in which people are not free to be with whoever they choose, or to love whoever they love.  Because there is culture, there is prescription there is prejudice, there is law which has arisen out of culture, prescription and prejudice. 

Many critics will claim for this or that book that it contains an examination of what it means to be human – but perhaps Robinson comes closer than most in a genuine philosophical search for an answer.

***

My thanks to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and NetGalley for this review copy.

20 Books of What on Earth Happened to Summer

Well it happened as we knew it would.  We worried and dreaded our way through Spring in a mute silence broken only by newly enfranchised birds and emergency sirens.   We looked forward to a potentially sickness free Summer, hoped for warmth and  a chance to escape from the same view of the same four walls.  

In June, the Greek Government asked citizens from the UK to kindly not visit this year which was apparently a signal for the Prime Minister’s father to leap onto a plane and go anyway,  while the rest of us dreamed of bougainvillea on sunny white walls, with accompanying lizards, and wept silently.

This summer became the time that taking a train required the same courage – and roughly the same amount of kit – as climbing Mt. Everest, neither activity being advisable or even possible.   Those who didn’t have to go to offices were grateful, while those who did worried.

Normal isn’t normal and nearly all escape routes are closed down by quarantine restrictions. July and August hurtled by with unprecedented temperatures (in the UK), forest fires, floods, hurricanes.   It seems like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are having a bit of a laugh.

And here we are September 1st.   

Mmm. Well on the book front I have made 16 out of 20 books of summer which given the rest of the above isn’t bad and five out of four books for Women in Translation month which has also ended. I can only manage six images as the new block editor makes me want to scream.

But now Summer is fleeing with its remaining unread titles and we are approaching the short and leaf strewn days of Autumn. A season of new books to read. Next up my review of Marilynne Robinson’s Jack the fourth book in her Iowan based series which began with Gilead and Lila about the Ames/Boughton families.

Enough with the Gloom Already – Two Delightful Books to Lift the Spirits

 I felt completely lost when I’d finished this book.  I wanted it to be twice, three times as long.    I wanted it to never end. I wanted to go and meet the real Edward and I particularly wanted to eat some of his delicious cooking. This is not fiction but the true story of (as described on the cover) an unexpected friendship.

What a character Edward is.   A nonagenarian who cooks like an angel – and such food, apple galettes, martinis (the real ones made with gin and served in a chilled glass ) apricot souffles, poached flounder.  

When the author first starts to visit Edward -a nonegenarian – she thinks she is doing a favour for his daughter who is a friend of hers. It is in fact her own life which will change.

Vincent’s story is a revelation. In an age of individualism and me-ism, there are still people choosing to live differently. Edward is one of them.

At the start of the book, he has just lost his wife Paula, aged 95. It is a remarkable thing to witness the strength of their love for each other, even though it is necessarily told at second hand.

In some ways Edward is part of another age, but he is the best part of another age,  the part that still has time for courtesy and consideration.    The part that believes our lives have meaning – not because of the position we hold in this or that corporation – but because of how we have regarded those we’ve befriended and those we have loved.

“The secret said Edward is to treat guests as family and family as guests. “

This book is a testament to a friendship that changed two lives and the world is a better place for it.

Dinner with Edward, Isabel Vincent. Pushkin Press. 2016

15/20 Books of Summer

***

Had it not been for WIT month I wouldn’t have known that there was an English translation available of  Eiko Kadono’s book Kiki’s Delivery Service. For fans of Studio Ghibli or just for those who believe a big of magic helps the world go round, this delightful story about a young witch trying to make her way in the world is warm hearted reading for anyone dreading the onslaught of cold autumn winds and rain which if you live in the northern hemisphere you may currently be facing.

I haven’t reviewed any children’s literature before. This I must do more of.

Kiki is a witch and coming of age for a witch happens quite young.  Batmitzvah style, coming of age is 13 for Kiki.  But rather than just have a party, she is expected to leave home and make her own way in a strange town which she must find for herself, where her skills as a witch can do some good for the community.

Kiki’s broom is not strictly hers but her mother’s old one. She has a talking cat – as all good witches must – and together they fly off to find somewhere new, strange and challenging.

They land in a town called Koriko and scarcely has the broom touched down in this new and strange town by the sea than Kiki is asked to deliver a baby’s lost pacifier to an unpacified baby, which she does, and thus she achieves her first challenge and thus is born  Kiki’s Delivery Service.

This book, which inspired the great film maker Miyazaki, is illustrated in black and white by Joe Todd-Stanton. Kiki ‘s Delivery Service is a complete delight from beginning to end. 

Kiki’s Delivery Service. Eiko Kadano, (Penguin Random House 2020)

5/4 Women in Translation Month

16/20 Books of Summer

A Thank you Letter to my Followers … Lessons from the Wildflowers … and Why I Blog

Living takes courage. 

Even writing a blog takes some courage.  Will anyone read it?  Does it matter what I think about this book or that?  Is this a good use of time? 

Ah … time, that elusive quality of being.  There is never enough it seems. We wish for more of it or sometimes less; it moves unbearably slowly, drags us down with its weighty refusals.  Time and comparing ourselves with others.   Those twin pressures can sometimes feel paralysing.  

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Pexels.com

This much I know.  To give air time to books encourages authors –  and to encourage authors is to encourage literacy and education. To encourage any art form – as opposed to the mechanisms of publication – is to create value towards a more egalitarian way of being.  It is to encourage dialogue.  When we take the decision to write, or paint or draw or dance, whether we are recognised or not, paid or not, we take a stand for culture and for education. And it is these things – rather than politics or economics – that are the bedrock of peaceful societies.

All we can really decide as Gandalf said to Frodo in the LOTR trilogy,  is what to do with the time allotted to us.

Time is that great unknown.  We are all going to run out of it someday but until that moment comes we want to use our time in the best, most creative way.  What that creative way is will be different for everyone but encouraging someone – the most creative of all acts – is something everyone can do even if we are not the next Ishiguro or the next Damien Hirst.

Photo: Llangrannog, West Wales by Frances Spurrier

One thing that everyone on this planet has in common is our DNA – and our desire for peace.   Our hope.  But it seems we can’t agree on how to get to that place.  An essential part of any peace process has always been dialogue – and writing is part of a dialogue.

A Buddhist philosopher says a candle can light up a place that has been dark for thousands of years.   The setting of the sun promises a bright tomorrow.

Nothing is easy, but from this moment on is always an opportunity for change.  Even things which seem entrenched can be changed and sometimes opportunities come in disguise.  It took the pandemic only a few weeks to dismantle systems that previously were thought inviolable.  Far from being the individual being powerless, we discovered a new term ‘key workers’ and learned that individual actions count for everything.

Wildflowers are neither vain nor haughty, neither jealous nor servile.  They neither envy other flowers nor belittle them … they take pride in their individuality, knowing that each is a flower with a bloom like no other. 

Daisaku Ikeda

King Kong Theory – If Only it Was All Just History

If it had not been for Women in Translation month I might never have got to these books, so it’s been a valuable lesson for me. I’m still waiting for my copy of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Meanwhile, here are two more books from Indie presses: a translation from the French of Virginie Despentes’ book, King Kong Theory and a translation from the Spanish by Selva Almada’s The Wind that Lays Waste.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated by Frank Wynne.

This book is a guided tour around the cultural realities which underlie society’s attitude to rape, prostitution, pornography and violence to women.  These are subjects on which Despentes is more than qualified to write, having worked as a prostitute, made porn films and been raped herself.  She is also a highly articulate writer whose book Vernon Subutex 1 was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018.

While men use the services of prostitutes with impunity, Despentes writes,  the girls who undertake the work are castigated and criminalised.  Even if they voluntary do this work for good money, the girls will still be subject a wall of do-goodery telling them to turn back while yet they may, to undertake something more valuable and worthwhile (like working in a supermarket for the minimum wage). 

Motherhood is still touted as ‘the quintessential female experience’.  Why?  This seems archaic if not ridiculous given climate change and global economic collapse.   You may not have a job, or a job that pays very well, even if you do have those things there is no guarantee that you will keep it – especially not if you are a woman with a child to care for – but hey have a baby! Preferably two or three.  Never mind that in 2020,  30% of all children in the UK are living below the poverty line.

“It’s not about pitting the miserable gains of women against the miserable gains of men. It’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.”

Quite.  But what whole thing?  According to the author,  what women have internalised over the centuries is less about our own inferiority – although that is of course a given – but that our burgeoning independence is dangerous in and of itself.  Women are the threat.

Since we women managed to unshackle ourselves from the kitchen sink (although most of us haven’t, we just do everything) we are always off somewhere frightening men, making them behave in ways they never would have done if we had simply stepped out of the way a bit quicker, been less provocative, shut up a bit more, dressed more modestly, been prettier, uglier, more silent, fatter, thinner. 

Feminism takes many guises.  Some campaign for more girls of school age to take science and maths courses, some to close the gender pay gap, some like to analyse the glass ceiling.  But  the fact that girls are less like to join science courses, less likely to earn a decent wage or even the same as a man in the same job, less likely to break that glass ceiling,  are symptoms of a deeper malaise around attitudes to women that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but somehow haven’t. 

This book was originally published in 2006. The fight it seems goes on. Written in a ferocious style and with an abundance of sexual swear words, this is not a book for the squeamish.  It would be wonderful if we could read King Kong Theory as a history book and say, what a struggle that all was but it’s over now. 

Sadly it isn’t and we can’t.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Selva Almada, The Wind that Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews, Charco Press.

Originally published in Spanish, the story concerns an itinerant preacher, Reverend Pearson and his daughter Leni as they travel to visit a friend of her father’s, Pastor Zack, in Northern Argentina. We learn that this is the only life Leni knows, travelling and staying in run down hotels ‘near the old bus terminal – overlooking the red light district’ with her evangelist father. The only memory she has of her mother is one of the mother being left on a road somewhere with a suitcase and the Reverend driving away with young Leni in the back watching.

“The boss comes and speaks to you with strong dependable words, making promises for the future. He speaks like a father. After hearing him you say to each other: How well he spoke; his words are simple and true; he speaks to us as if we were his children… But I say to you, beware of strong words, beautiful words…”

This extract is from one of Reverend Pearson’s sermons, ironically those who are persuaded by him might equally beware in his strong words… beautiful words.

Leni is now 16 years old. On this particular journey, their car breaks down and so begins a powerful story of belief, guilt, sacrifice and manipulation worthy of the best work of Carson McCullers and Alice Munro. You think you are reading a book in which nothing happens except a car breaks down on a boiling hot day, but then you realise the car’s engine is the the least of what needs fixing among the lives of the characters.

4 out of 4 WIT month

14/20 Books of Summer

Winter in Sokcho

The town was entombed in frost ….

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Winter in Sokcho is a debut and already prizewinning novel from Elisa Shua Dusapin with a strong sense of atmosphere and place.   At 154 pages it’s a quick to read and an engaging story set in the seaside resort of Sokcho on the border of South and North Korea.   

A young woman works in the reception of a sparsely attended guesthouse her mother sells fish in the market:

“My mother lived at the port, above the loading bays, in one of the apartments reserved for fishmongers. Noisy, Cheap. My childhood home.”

Despite her inauspicious surroundings the narrator likes where she lives. 

 

She has a boyfriend called Jun-oh who is off to Seoul to enroll on a modelling course (as in him becoming a model rather than making models out of clay). 

Theirs is a modern relationship:

“He stood up, checked himself out in the mirror , said he didn’t think they’d expect him to have surgery, but if they did, he was prepared to have his nose, chin and eyes done.  He turned to face me.  Clinics were offering deals, by the way, I should look into it, he’d bring me some brochures for facial surgery.”

The girl’s mother seems to want her to have facial surgery too.  If there is a quicker way than this to have an identity crisis I’m not sure what it is and the poor kid already has some kind of eating disorder.   Interestingly another young lady – one of the few guests staying at the drab guesthouse – has her face all bandaged up, presumably as a result of having accepted one of the deals offered by the clinic. 

Virginie Despentes says in her feminist text King Kong Theory (reviewed next):

“No society has ever demanded such complete submission to aesthetic diktats, so many modifications  that purport to feminise the body.” 

Whose ideals are we trying to live up to here? And why? This is one of the points that Dusapin makes but she does not push an agenda.  Things in Sokcho simply are what they are. Take it or leave it.  

A Frenchman – a comic book artist called Yan Kerrand – turns up at the guest house.  We are not sure whether he will take it or leave it.   He and the girl develop a semi- friendship and she accompanies him on a trip to the borderland between South and North. 

This is a Korea of plastic waste and urban sprawl alongside the fishmarkets. 

 

There is a lot of food, mostly fish, scowling, often unappetising sounding or even poisonous.  The Frenchman declines the food,  surviving off Dunkin’ Donuts during his stay.   She is keen for him to set a story locally perhaps secretly she wants to be in the story. 

I enjoyed this book, the way the landscape and Kerrand’s pen and ink drawings of it form a backdrop to the interior lives of the characters.  The way he struggles to form a character – a line drawing – and how it slips frustratingly away in the composition. 

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.  Translated into English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Published by Daunt Books Originals 2020

2 out of 4 Women in Translation Month

12/20  Books of Summer

Question: does anyone else find the wordpress blocks editor slow, cumbersome, non-intuitive, inflexible, clunky and boring? Or maybe its just me.