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.

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.


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

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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

“I Had Been at Camusfeàrna Eight Years Before I Piped Water to the House ….” A Review of Gavin Maxwell’s trilogy ‘Ring of Bright Water’

Prior to that, the water was brought up from the burn in a bucket.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life Gavin Maxwell chose in remote Camusfeàrna   where he lived with  no made up road, no electricity, one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop,  were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  Gavin wrote a trilogy of books about his life in this isolated place,  in a rented cottage overlooking the Sound of Sleat on Scotland’s west coast between the years of 1948 and 1968.

Here he lived with his various otters,  Mijbil, Edal, Mossy and Monday.    The books Ring of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother became bestsellers and made Gavin Maxwell famous but now inevitably feel elegiac representing as they do things permanently lost.  And like all fame, his did not come without a price.

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More than this,  many of the deep and true country ways of life were vanishing under an onslaught of new roads and telegraph poles even at the time Gavin was writing,  but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has since taken place on so many levels and in so many parts of the country,   Ring of Bright Water (which was made into a film with Virginia McKenna) is less of an elegy and more of an epitaph.

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture round the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea and on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance.”

What I loved about these books – more even than their feel of a Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of what is called the new nature writing.   But Maxwell’s writing feels different. He was pioneer of the ‘new nature writing’ before the term was born or thought of and the empathy that he truly had with his otters and with the natural landscape of Camusfeàrna – and how those elements reflected back at him his own sense of unbelonging –  is made manifest on the page through his lyrical writing.

It  is as if Maxwell writes from the inside out.

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After reading the trilogy, I looked for a biography of the author as I felt generally ignorant of all matters concerning his life.   For example, I didn’t even know that the title of the book Ring of Bright Water is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems:

“He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water

Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea…

‘The Ring’

a poet with whom Maxwell had a tempestuous affair and who is said to have laid a curse on a Rowan tree at Camusfearna, after he threw her out  quite literally in the middle of the night.   The book I found was Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting (Eland) apparently the only authorised biography, other attempts at biography according to Botting having come up against ‘the twin obstacles of family and estate’.

Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland and at one time date of Princess Margaret.  His CV included wartime instructor in the SOE,  Guards Officer, Adventurer, Traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond).  Hero club that is if you discount throwing ladies out of isolated habitions in the middle of nowhere at midnight, which I personally do not discount.

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own writing and from Douglas Botting’s biography,  that Maxwell was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.

These aspects of his life are more acutely realised in the work than any enduring human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for the many trips and adventures he undertook –  there was always an old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

Sadly though it seems Kathleen Raine’s curse may have taken effect.  The final book in the trilogy charts Gavin’s series of financial and personal misfortunes which would lead to his death in 1969.

Perhaps the final irony of Maxwell’s life was that the overwhelming success of Ring of Bright Water  and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved and to which these books are in memoriam.

***

Review of The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy, Gavin Maxwell (Viking, 2000)

 

 

Inspirations for Spring: Travel in a Time of Quarantine

Although we are all locked down  in our homes, our apartments, our lofts and rooms, travel books are a way to free ourselves without getting stopped by the police! Here are three of my all time top traveller/writers whose lives inspire me as well as their writing.

***

Patrick Leigh Fermor  (1915-2011)

Not many travel writers can claim that Dirk Bogarde played them in the film of their own life.  Paddy could.     On 8th December 1933, aged 18, he left home to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul) taking only  a few items of clothing, a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace’s Odes.

This journey he would later record in two books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).  Both of which I  loved.   Joyful and exuberant every page of the writing seems to bounce with possibility, with hope .  These are truly books to get lost in.  Yet they are set in times and in places which – even as Paddy walked – were already vanishing as war clouds gathered.   A third volume in this trilogy  The Broken Road, was authored by Artemis Cooper after Leigh Fermor’s death using his handwritten notes.    Many decades had elapsed between the young Patrick’s journey and this last book,   which to me didn’t have quite the same feel about it as the earlier works.

Once described by a BBC journalist as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,  Patrick Leigh Fermor was a not only a linguist,  traveller and gifted author, he was a decorated soldier who took a prominent part in the Battle for Crete during the second world war.

When I reviewed Crete: the Battle and the Resistance by Anthony Beevor I said:

One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman,  who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker –  was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels.  Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun.    He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete,  the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water as well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

Paddy Leigh Fermor’s   received a Distinguished Service Order and was Knighted in 2004.

***

Less than a year after 18 year old Paddy Leigh-Fermor set out to walk the length of Europe, another young man (aged 19) left his home in the village of Slad in  Gloucestershire early on a June morning and waved goodbye to his mother as she stood “waist deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool.”

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Laurie Lee, Robert MacFarlane]

Taking no volume of Horace’s odes – at least none that is recorded –  but “a rolled up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle, biscuits and some cheeses” he started a journey mostly on foot,  that would end in Spain at the time of the Civil War.

He was of course Laurie Lee (1914-1997) who would later become famous for his memoir Cider with Rosie – beloved prop of many an exam syllabus – and As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning.   This is the second in a trilogy of books which describes how he walked to London from his home in Gloucestershire,  sleeping rough in fields, journeying on through Wiltshire from Salisbury to Southampton where he plied his trade as fiddler to earn himself some cash.  Thence along the coast to Gosport, Chichester, Worthing  and finally North to London.

Lee obtains work on a building site in Putney pushing wheelbarrows.   He remembers the buildings – a block of flats –  as being ugly:

  “we raised three unbeautiful blocks of flats – squat, complacent, with mean leaded windows, bogus balconies and imitation baronials.”

When the building of the flats draws to a close Laurie knows he will soon be out of a job but it doesn’t worry him.  He is young, free and the world is full of possibility.

He buys himself a ticket on a ship bound for Spain.  A poet as well as prose writer, Lee’s books are full of poetry.

“I’d known nothing till then but the smoother surfaces of England, and Vigo struck me like an apparition.  It seemed to rise from the sea like some rust-corroded wreck, as old and bleached as the rocks around it.”

The third book in the trilogy “A Moment of War” is an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.

***

Dervla Murphy (1931)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/91/Full_Tilt.jpg

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Dervla Murphy.  The beautiful cover of the original book published by John Murray in 1965.

Travelling is many things to many people but it is rarely – at least if you do it properly – easy or comfortable.  Especially not if you are a woman alone and travel long distances by bike.

People travel to change their outlook, their mindset, their lives, their relationships, their careers, their writing,  as well as their location.  People travel for work, for history, for information, for vision, for education: they travel to lose themselves or to find themselves.   But I do not think it unfair to say that travel is harder for a woman alone, than for a man alone.  I think this is true even today.  It was certainly true in 1960.

Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Laurie Lee both sometimes had prickly relationships with their families – who does not – but their lives were never subsumed by caring duties. They exploited the education and sense of adventure that culturally they had absorbed as their birthright and they did it brilliantly well.   Neither would ever find themselves having to write what cyclist, traveller and author Dervla Murphy (born 1931) wrote in her autobiography Wheels within Wheels : The Making of a Traveller (Eland,  2010):

“For more than sixteen years every day had been lived in the shadow of my mother’s need.  Even on holidays my movements had had to be exactly regulated so that I would unfailingly arrive home on a  certain date.”

Not an ideal resume for an inveterate traveller in the making.  Yet in her thirtieth year, as her caring responsibilities come to an end after her mother’s death,  Murphy admits to a sense of freedom without guilt,

… feeling currents of an appreciation of liberty running through my body…

She visits friends in County Wicklow and sets in motion her plans to visit India.  By bike! taking with her only her bicycle Roz (named after Rozinante, Don Quixote’s steed).

“Having for the past twenty years intended to make this journey, it did not strike me as in any way an odd idea.  I thought then as I still do that if someone enjoys cycling and wishes to go to India, the obvious thing is to cycle there.  Soon, however, I realised that most people were regarding me as either a lunatic or an embryonic heroine…”

The latter I think.  Definitely the latter.  As well as writing books on her experiences in India, Dervla went on to write The Waiting Land about volunteering with refugees in Nepal, and of her further adventures in  Ethopia, Cuba,  Gaza, Israel and Palestine.  She has also written A Place Apart about  Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  All Dervla’s books are available from Eland.

***

Do you have any writers who particularly inspire you in this difficult Spring?  I am looking for suggestions for my next reads so please leave me a comment below.

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Existence is a Skill Learned Early: Review of ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’ by Rebecca Solnit

Recollections of my Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit

Recollections of My Non-Existence by [Rebecca Solnit]

“Most urban women, you know, live as though in a war zone …”

When I started Recollections I expected that I might feel some passages were exaggerated or unpalatable.   What is unpalatable of course is not the book – but the gruesome stories Solnit recounts of abuse, rape, murder of female victims – a virulent flow largely unstaunched even today by law making institutions.

What I found instead was a picture of my own life as a young woman only without Solnit’s awareness.  I have lived my own life in fear but considered it normal.   I lived unaware of the compromises I routinely had to make, so normalised were they, adapting what I ‘should’ wear, the things I ‘should’ talk about – especially any needs or wishes of my own. I have left unvisited places I could not safely visit alone or at night.

Even if it is ‘only’ a constant stream of wolf whistles and inappropriate comments that are faced when a woman walks down the street, the message is the same.  They are entitled.  She puts up with it.  Or faces ridicule – no,  hostile disbelief – or blame  and inaction. So she remains silent.

Non existence is a skill learned early.

I have made these adjustments to my life the perfectly valid reason of wishing to remain unmolested, unraped.  But until I read Solnit’s work I never questioned why my universe had to be this way.

A war zone indeed, and one from which the only escape is to grow old.

The adjustments that women have to make in their lives are so normalised and unquestioned that the assumptions upon which our lives are built – any man can treat any woman as he wishes without condemnation or fear of the law – go equally unquestioned.  This may not be the case in the letter of the law.  But the letter of the law is not available to most, and the law is useless where unenforced.

Recollections is Solnit’s own story.  Growing up in San Francisco, her first apartment, friends she made and lost, the choices she made as an artist and a writer, as a reader.   Years of finding a lyrical way of writing away from mere journalism.  Yet much of this book feels elegiac.  As if it has been written for the thousands – probably millions of women – who have been abused and even died at the hands of violent men. Who have been silenced.

What is changing is not – despite Weinstein –  the fact of the matter, but the dialogue. The conversation. The awareness.  And that this is changing is due to some very courageous women.  As Solnit has written sexual assault thrives on the silence of its victims, but not all women are prepared to stay silent any longer.

“I understood that not everyone would welcome my information, and I was prepared for a variety of outcomes, including being dismissed.”

said Dr Christine Blasey Ford who questioned Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to be appointed as a Justice to the Supreme Court of the US alleging that he had sexually assaulted her in 1982.

Yes, we have had the #MeToo movement which claimed Weinstein as a high profile victim and yes we have had the TimesUp movement.  Yet many thousands of attackers and rapists walk the streets without any of the fear of condemnation or blame that their victims must daily suffer.

Solnit is not anti-man.  It is a barb easily thrown at any feminist, a cheap shot offered up by people of both sexes to avoid any questioning of the status quo.  She does not assume that every man is violent –  of course not every man is violent.  Most are not.  But in cultures all over the world the dice are loaded against women in all sorts of ways.

Society is even now reluctant to hear the stories of abused women.  Last autumn I found myself sitting with a friend in the waiting room of a police station (waiting for someone else!) when a young woman came in and started talking to us. She had she said been assaulted at the local college that she attended but had been unable to get the college authorities to intervene or to take any action to support her.   In short, she was not believed.  But at least she had found the courage to bring herself to the police station.

I believe this is due in part to writers like Rebecca Solnit.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Granta Publications for this review copy.

 

 

 

 

 

If you do not like the way we tell our story then you are an enemy of the state…

Who shall have control over the story? The grand narratives.  Who allows or disallows them? Who decides what punishments shall follow on from perceived breaches?

Salman Rushdie’s  posed this question in his autobiographical work Joseph Anton (2012) which I have recently re-read.   It is a question that is more urgent than ever.    For the ‘crime’ of having written The Satanic Verses – a novel claimed to be anti-Islam – Rushdie was sentenced to death, by a citizen he had never met of a country he had never visited.



 

Attempts to control ‘the story’ are only increasing as the world turns back to nationalistic governments and the word ‘security’ is regularly  used as carte blanche for  breaches of human rights.

Famed whistleblowers, journalists, artist and writers await their fate either in prison or exile, it is a question more urgent than ever.   Do we know how much fear stalks the world of writing and publishing ?   For those who peddle it, fear is its own reward.

Right now, there are countries in the world where journalists and writers live under constant threat of imprisonment or worse. Bloggers too.  Pen International, an organization that works to protect freedom of thought and expression, regularly updates its website and hosts a Day of the Imprisoned Writer which reminds us:

Without literature, there can be no meaningful freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, there can be no meaningful literature…

With a murderous team of jihadists after his blood Rushdie entered  a tunnel of fear, surveillance and protection, for himself and his family as well (at the time he had a young son), a scenario mostly terrifying, sometimes bleakly comic,   trailing from borrowed property to borrowed property with a team of protection officers with varying degrees of patience.

He was fortunate (if that’s the right term) that these events just predated the internet age.  At least someone had to look you in the eye to kill you back then.  In fact the author admits that is probably the only reason he survived.

The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered; there were savage attacks on the Italian and Norwegian translators of the book although the latter two thankfully survived. These were people stood up with courage for their beliefs that somewhere, there has to be a bottom line.  But what was the bottom line? Rushdie describes it as:

  “the freedom of the imagination and the overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech, and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own countries without fear.”

We think that (within the laws of libel) we are free to think and write as we wish but it isn’t true.   Whose story is this and who has the right to tell it?  Who owns our history, our mythology, our religions? As Rushdie states:

In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased.  It was the argument itself that mattered.  The argument was freedom.  But in a closed society those who possessed  political or ideological power tried to shut down these debates.  We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means.  We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it any other way.  If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state…

In the age of Julian Assange, the questions posed by this book are as relevant as ever.  Perhaps not for people who like to believe everything they’re told by the newspapers, but for the rest of us, I recommend it.

 

 

 

 

2019 goodbye to all that …

As 2020 is upon us,  here is a brief look at some of the titles I reviewed in 2019. I would like to wish everyone a Happy – and not at all volatile – New Year.

January I looked at Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:

“Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.”

April

VanGogh

“Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.’

This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.”

May

I reviewed this savage memoir of rape and childhood trauma

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe,  Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

 

 Also in May I looked at a collection of essays by Mary Oliver,

 

He was probably only looking for a partner. So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear.    This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to,  as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.”

 

 

June – From bears to invisible women,  Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I reviewed Caroline Criado Perez research on the data bias that causes invisibility of the female in data about ‘mankind’.  Essential reading for anyone who assumes that in the 21st century equality of the sexes is a done deal.

 

July – Virginia Hall’s daredevil exploits during World War 2

Review:

“her service is even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.”

 

In September – my book of the year,  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

At once both ultra contemporary and completely ageless, this book sums up societies both sides of the Atlantic as they ruthlessly are rather than as we might like to see ourselves.

” Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK.”

 

In November Edward Snowden came to tell us about the world we are creating for ourselves through unbridled and poorly understood – yes even by those who are supposed to know  – technology.

snowdencover

 

“I was worried that the book might be quite technical and I wouldn’t understand it.  But I need not have worried.  Permanent Record is much more about the why rather than the how.  Why a young man might give up his whole life as he knows it – home, family, friends, extremely well paid job – for his principles.”

 

In December, Harry Lee Poe’s  biography of writer C.S. Lewis

“Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.”

 

 

 

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list.  In whatever genre.  Forget genres.  Here is something new.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old,  the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to  the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot  prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.

I do not know what there is to say about this book.  Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.

On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her.  In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind,  in Hartford,Connecticut

…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight.  The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town  checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business

… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt

Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK

“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.

If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I.  “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s  back cover.  But I would say this.  Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future.  This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.

And still no-one will know how he did this.

 

 

Inconvenient truths

monochrome photo of woman sitting on floor
Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Caroline Criado Perez. Invisble Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men(Chatto & Windus, 2019

Women are used to queuing when they go out.  Says Caroline Criado Perez in her book “Invisible Women” Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for men”.  She meant for the loo of course.  Any lady who has been to the theatre or opera or ballet or cinema in London or any city is used to queuing round the block in the interval, while the men pop in and out of their unencumbered spaces and have plenty of time to rock up at the bar for a nice cooling drink.   Gender neutral only makes things worse.  Because guess what.  Women need cubicles and can’t use urinals.  Men don’t – and can.    Sorry if that came as a bit of a shock,  Barbican management.

Apparently the Barbican hadn’t thought of that when they casually announced that all their loos – simply by changing to the sign on the door – were now Gender Neutral.  Tada!! Fabulous.  How many politically correct boxes that must have ticked with no effort or cost whatsoever.

But then, shock horror.  It was discovered that the ‘gender neutral’ urinals were only being used by men who were of course also entitled – should they choose – to use the cubicles.  All the Barbican had succeeded in doing is  increase provision for men and exclude women.   Needless to say, no sanitary bins had been provided in the so called ‘gender neutral’ urinals.   The supposedly equal provision of loos had been done with men in mind.  A male dominated management team, you think?

Another anecdote – if it can be called that – related by Perez is when a senior member of Google Sheryl Sandberg became pregnant and her feet swelled up, it came to her notice that she was having to walk miles across the car park because there was no provision for pregnant women to park nearer the main entrance. When she approached Google’s founder Sergei Brin about reserved parking for pregnant women he said he had never thought of it but that arrangements would be made.   No wonder he had never thought of it.  He is a man and will never be pregnant nor have to consider policy for those that will and are unless it is spelled out to him in words of one syllable.   It had never presumably occurred to Sandberg either until it happened that she found herself unable to struggle across the car park.

And no,  this is not a mere inconvenience if you’ll excuse the pun, easily rectified.  It is part of a cultural and economic exclusion which even in the 21stcentury is still rampant across all cultures.  One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap, says the author is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate.  Quite the opposite it is a way of thinking that has been around for millennia, and is therefore a kind of not thinking.

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

 

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

This is a tough read but beautifully written and poetic if such a thing is possible on dealing with the subject of child rape.  The author was raped at age 9 by a man who is finally brought to justice on the chance of a random DNA sample – more than two decades later.  By this time the author has married and had a son.  But  she painfully charts her mental and physical collapse – and her efforts to recover, the therapies she undergoes,  the Court case. Traumatic memory is such that the part of the brain that deals with autobiographical memory (the prefontal cortex) cannot access the trauma which has been buried away by the amygdala that can only be treated by those with specialist knowledge of PTSD relating to sexual violence,  all too often poorly recognised or understood.

‘How ugly ignorance is when it is concealed under learned airs,’ says the author.  And she has good reason to know.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is the list of names, not unlike a eulogy,  of those women (all victims of this same man)  who could not bring themselves to attend Court. Who risk criminal penalties for failing to answer a subpoena rather than be forced to recount in public over and over again lurid details of what happened to them when they were six, seven, eight or nine.   They are part of what is described as the ‘black number’ of victims of sexual violence. An estimated 90% of the victims of rape do not report it, and this number is even higher for child victims