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.

Two Narratives of Slavery

How do you escape slavery mentally even if you manage to physically? Do you ever? These are questions more relevant than ever in view of the events of recent weeks and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Colson Whitehead in his book The Underground Railroad (Fleet,2017) touches on this, with a speech by Lander, one of his characters, prefiguring Martin Luther King by a century.

In the first half of the 18th century, ideas of freedom were ever present. But an idea of organized freedom for enslaved peoples was then in its infancy.  The central characters in both books escape the plantations in the South where they are enslaved, by using a system called the underground railroad. But the conception of this system in the two books is different.

Avoiding the terminology ‘black’ and ‘white’, in Coates’ book The Water Dancer slaves are the Tasked and owners are the Quality.

“And what was this Underground? It was said among the Tasked that a secret society of colored men had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps.”

the-new-york-public-library-mOhXYbJmSiI-unsplash

Thanks to The New York Public Library for sharing their work on Unsplash.

To enslave another race is an act of pure violence so therefore it is impossible to separate  cruelty from the slave narrative.  Coates’ book is more soft focus – the bad stuff happens but tends to happen off screen. In Whitehead’s book it’s a bit more in your face.  Coates book contains fantasy elements combined with its slavery narrative, and I wasn’t sure how well the two sat together.

At the commencement of The Water Dancer, the protagonist Hiram Walker is still a child, his mother is sold by her owner (also Hiram’s father) and the boy is left alone, then raised by a strange, solitary woman called Thena.

Hiram’s almost perfect recall ability indicates a mysterious power known as conduction which involves mysterious physical travel based on the power of memory.  This power relies on deep memory – specifically memories related to Hiram’s mother.

Not everything needs to be realist. But it struck me as a little incongruous to involve what is effectively magic and fantasy within a narrative of lives when all too often such things were woefully lacking.  This I found to be interesting – a dichotomy.  Fiction is fiction, yes you can make the whole thing up. But against such an historical background what are the duties and responsibilities of the writer?   It is an enquiry into the ultimate power of memory – perhaps.  If we can come to terms with our memories, that is itself a form of freedom.

Whatever questions The Water Dancer asks, and however lyrical its prose or rounded its characterization, in terms of its plot structure I found it  lacking. And because of this, I also found it difficult to believe in any real sense of risk to the protagonist, Hiram Walker.

The story is this.  Hiram is noticed by his slave owning father for having a photographic memory, he is taken up to the big house Lockless, as a servant and educated by his father. Hiram is ‘tasked’ with looking out for his half brother Maynard – heir to the fading Lockless estate – a duty in which it could be said he signally fails when, Hiram driving on the return from a trip to town – the carriage plunges into the river Goose and Maynard drowns. Hiram survives.

If you were a slave and driving the horse and carriage and took the master’s son with you into the River Goose – even though it wasn’t your fault – there would be some sort of penalty to pay, surely? Yet Hiram seems to escape retribution.  This was only one of the plot turns that I found less than credible.

Nevertheless enslaved  even in relative comfort is still enslaved. Taking the decision to run, Hiram gets himself into all sorts of difficulties and adventures before eventually finding those involved in the underground, the work of resistance and the abolition movement called the underground, a series of sympathisers, abolitionists and safe houses.

***

In Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, the protagonist Cora is a very different person to Hiram.   Her mother has run off leaving her daughter behind aged 8.   Unlike Hiram, Cora has no-one to take on the role of her absent mother and is left to fend for herself on the plantation – coping both with the overseers and masters as well as the behaviour of other slaves.   She is old enough to carry the memory of her abandonment by her mother – whom she believes to have escaped to safety.

In this story the railroad is conceived as an actual railway, buried black and deep in the earth run by an eclectic and jolly mix of boy/men depositing frightened and starving runaways into abandoned mines, earthworks or ruined cottages.  A brilliant idea.  It is pure gothic. When Cora asks who built it, the reply comes the same people who build everything.

Because she has been abandoned by her mother she has difficulty relating to anyone at all, even her co-slaves.    She is not going to be anyone’s pushover though.  Even aged 8, Cora first shows her mettle when taking a hatchet to the property of another slave who has decided to build a kennel for his dog on her patch.  The dog escapes.  Just.

Cora comes from a long line of such hardship.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times… passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

In both books, we see the impossibility of escape, how well the opposition is organized using informers of all creeds and colours – whereas any organization on the slave side is left to a courageous few prepared to risk everything.

Who do you trust?  In both Virginia and Georgia as well as South Carolina and other places where these novels are set–– the slave system was buttressed not only by the masters and owners but by gangs of ruthless men who had nothing better to do than roam the land hunting down escaped slaves for the bounty money offered for their return. One such man is called Ridgeway – and he has a particular grudge against Cora.  We feel his malign presence throughout her struggle.

Colson Whitehead interleaves some of his chapters with excerpts from real ads taken from a Californian archive for the return of escaped ‘property’ in case any reader is inclined to think,  its just a novel.

If freedom is gained, then what? How are memories of persecution expunged?  This is the part of the story as yet unwritten.

I enjoyed both these books.  But for me Whitehead’s book has the edge in terms of delivering a believable narrative.  I am delighted to discover both these authors and will be looking out for more of their work.

 

 

‘Like a Ghostly Roll of Drums’: Four Inspirational Women Writers Beat the Measure of Life

I’ve been posting about people who have changed or are changing the way we see the world as part of my inspiration for Spring series.  Last week was the turn of the guys . Here are my four  inspirational women writers.

Virginia Woolf

virginia_woolf_quote

In Hermione Lee’s 800 page biography of  Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, 1996) there is a photograph of Virginia  wearing her mother’s dress, taken for Vogue in 1926.   The dress appears to be of taffeta silk,  has voluminous puffed sleeves and a lace collar, a fitted waist barely visible in the picture.  It is a lovely photograph, taken at an age when Virginia was in her forties – no longer to be strictly defined as young,  yet she looks it, young, very thin and fragile.

This was the year she wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’.    In the same year there was a general strike and the first ‘talkie’ films would shortly be produced.  In two years time women over 21 would receive the vote.

Perhaps we think of Virginia as fragile in some respects, her illnesses and need to be secreted away from her London life.  But what enormous strength she must have required as a writer and founder of a new way of seeing, as minute examiner of the internal life of her characters (no one reads a Woolf novel for the plot).   Few would argue that Woolf was one the great writers of the 20th century.  Her work created, witnessed and recorded the extraordinary from the ordinary, the epiphanic moment in going to buy the flowers oneself.

Virginia was also a survivor of sexual abuse and incest.  A sufferer from mental illness – for which she became outcast to Richmond from her accustomed London circles, and scion of the famous Bloomsbury group.   She was wife to Leonard and lover to Vita Sackville-West.

I am fascinated as to why she would choose to be photographed in Vogue.  Perhaps it was just an appealing idea;  who doesn’t love to dress up and have a professional quality photo taken?   But perhaps also she was aware of being watched, as a woman, as an artist,  aware of being visible in ways that women were not meant to be visible.

In the novel Orlando, Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the hero Orlando starts life as a man but along the way goes into a trance like state and emerges as a woman.  As Lee points out Orlando’s biographer keeps disassembling then re-assembling Orlando’s selves: a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s sense of her own great variety of selves….

“Her life can be seen as a complicated range of performances.’

Maybe.  But I believe Virginia’s life can also be seen as having been lived to its best and fullest range and as inviting us to a different way of seeing.

****

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit in 2010

This leading light of the feminist movement and author of the famed essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which eventually gave rise to the use of the term ‘mansplaining’, is also a climate activist and documentarian of the changes that urgently need to be made before ‘we see the world in full colour’.

I have reviewed her autobiography Recollections of my Non Existence here.

For decades Solnit has been writing about unconscious bias against women in society and picking apart the ‘normality’ of ways in which women have every aspect of their lives dictated to them – not just women but persons of colour and non-straight people.

“One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality.”

If marginalised and repressed groups are now reclaiming their own realities and ownership of their stories – including herstories – it is because writers like Solnit are helping to highlight the operation of (mainly, white male) power structures and the many ways such people have previously been silenced.

 

****

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg 2016 portrait.jpg

Someone who understood those power structures,  and spent her life fighting them especially within the US legal system, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This lady has quite a CV and I will briefly reiterate a few elements of it because if this was my CV I would definitely want someone to briefly reiterate a few elements!

  • Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. RBG was one of nine women at Harvard (class of ‘56) – in a class of approximately 500.   She went on to Columbia Law School and to teach and practise law, becoming Professor at Rutgers School of law in 1963.
  • Only the second woman in history to be appointed to the US Supreme Court as a Judge (the first was Sandra Day O’Connor) Ginsburg is the recipient of numerous awards, was listed as an Icon in Time 100 (2015) and by Fortune as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.
  • Dedicating her life to equality for women, Ginsburg was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

In the preface to her book My Own Words (Simon & Schuster, 2016) she writes:

“[in the 1970’s] …  we were engaged in moving the law in the direction of recognizing women’s equal citizenship stature.”

My Own Words  is a collection of Ginsburg’s articles, reviews, essays and speeches including a moving remembrance speech for a colleague and friend – Justice Scalia – who had died unexpectedly.

“I will miss the challenges and the laughter Justice Scalia provoked., his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp, the roses be brought me on my birthday, the chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera.”

Her book can be a challenging read at times but it is incredibly generous, with constant references to others that have paved the way for women in the legal profession.

****

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland

Born in Dublin in 1944, Boland published her first volume of poetry New Territory in 1967 when she was 22.

That early realisation about the complex relationship between power, politics and poetry came to Boland when as a young mother living in Dublin in the early seventies she came to see that her life experience was not included in the male and bardic traditions of Irish poetry that she had grown up reading.

How then to write, if what you wrote was based on someone else’s history?

Eavan Boland said in an interview in 1989:

 “As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent.  There were none in the nineteenth century or early part of the twentieth.  You didn’t have thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets and what you did have was a very compelling and at times oppressive relationship between Irish poetry and the national tradition.”

Through ten books of poetry and numerous essays Boland wrote herself into numerous awards and Honorary Doctorates but more importantly, she wrote herself and all women into being in a new lyrical and feminist writing,  and in so doing altered the course of Irish poetry as well as opening up its history to include untold stories.

The late Irish poet Seán Dunne wrote:  “She has widened the landscape to include things that were always a part of it, but were ignored.”

 

“You can see nothing of her but her head

Bent over the page, her hand moving

Moving again, and her hair.

I wrote like that once.

But this is different.

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.

 

From:  Is it Still the Same?

(References and poem in Eavan Boland : A Sourcebook (Carcanet) 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration for Spring: People Who Changed the Way we See The World

There are many who would qualify as having changed the way we see the world,  but I could only pick four, both for my sanity and yours.  Before anyone gets in touch and says they’re all guys, next week I shall be writing about four ladies that changed the way we see the world.

***

Is there any more inspiring artist than Van Gogh  both in the intense suffering of his personal life and the transformative and (still) stunningly original nature of his art?.

In letters to his brother Theo (The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics, 1997), Vincent wrote:

“I don’t know myself how I paint it.”

VanGogh

Although Vincent was unable to describe his working methods,  from his substantial body of letters it is possible to follow the workings of his mind and stand in awe of his  powers of observation.   For example this description of a wood.

Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red ground, is a sky of a very delicate blue-grey, warm, hardly blue at all sparkling.  And against it there is a hazy border of greenness and a network of saplings and yellowish leaves.  A few figures of wood gatherers are foraging about, dark masses of mysterious shadows.

In 1884 Van Gogh wrote to Theo after the latter had complained about the quality of some drawings Vincent had sent and told him his work needed to improve a great deal!

Vincent’s reply was:

“As far as saleability or unsaleability  is concerned, that’s a dead horse I don’t intend to go on flogging.”

One of the prime lessons  Van Gogh’s  life offers us is how to believe in yourself as an artist, when the rest of the world doesn’t.  I often wonder what would he and Theo make of the crowd control measures now necessary outside the Van Gogh Museum in Amerstdam?

***

Including poems inspired by the work of Vincent Van Gogh –  No Enemies,  No Hatred  is the title of  a collection of writings by  dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017).

For the role he played in drafting and advocating the human rights manifesto called Charter 08 which called for democratic reform in China,   Liu Xiaobo was arrested and in December 2009 sentenced to 11 years in Jinzhou prison.

In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize much to the chagrin of the authorities in China who tried to prevent any celebration of this award.  Unable even to send a family member to Oslo,   Liu’s Nobel lecture speech was given in absentia and read by the actress Liv Ullman.   He died in July 2017.  Here is an extract from his speech:

“But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed … twenty years ago – I have no enemies and no hatred.  None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.  Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity ….”

 

And on free speech:

“Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.” ~ Liu Xiaobo

***

Daisaku Ikeda is one of the world’s foremost living Buddhist philosophers, spiritual leader to millions across the globe who practise Nichiren Buddhism.  He is the recipient of numerous peace and humanitarian awards and author of more than sixty books.

Here he is on the power of reading.

Ikeda

“Reading is dialogue with oneself, it is self-reflection which cultivates profound humanity. Reading is therefore essential to our development.  It expands and enriches the personality like a seed that germinates after a long time and sends forth many blossom laden branches.

People who can say of a book “this changed my life” truly understand the meaning of happiness.  Reading that sparks inner revolution is desperately needed to escape drowning in the rapidly advancing information society,  Reading is more than intellectual  ornamentation, it is a battle for the establishment of the self, a ceaseless challenge that keeps us young and vigorous.”

(Middleway Press, 2006)

***

No post on inspiration can be complete without a poet.  But which poet to choose?  I have decided on Rainer Maria Rilke not because I can read him in the original which I can’t sadly, but because the soul tearing profundity of his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is the same in any language.

On Solitude:

And to speak again of solitude, it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something we can choose or reject.  We are solitary.  We can delude ourselves about it, and pretend that it is not so.  That is all.  But how much better it is to realise that we are thus, to start directly from that very point.  Then to be sure, it will come about that we grow dizzy; for all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is infinitely far.

Next week I shall be posting about four inspirational ladies who changed (or are changing)  the way we see the world.

 

 

 

Pussy Riot – voices of protest in the new revolution

Lacking nothing of courage and determination to fight for human rights,  comes this book  Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina a member of the collective Pussy Riot, a new generation of Russian dissidents who made world headlines when in 2012 they performed, a punk rock song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in support of feminist and LGBT issues and in  protest against Putin whom Alyokhina describes as “the little grey KGB agent”.

Riot Days

After the Church episode, Alyokhina and another band member were arrested, granted no bail and held in prison for months until their trial whereupon they received two year sentences for ‘hooliganism and religious hatred’.  Whilst in prison Alokyina kept a record of various trials and tribulations suffered by herself and fellow prisoners and worked to protect the prisoners rights.

‘Riot is always a thing of beauty.  That is how I got interested,’ writes Alyokhina.  Certainly she must have needed every ounce of that vision to survive what was to come.   Following on in the footsteps of Varlam Shalamov, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Osip Mandelstam (not in literary achievement but definitely in courage)  this energetic and thought provoking diary deals briefly with the events themselves which led to her arrest, and more fully with her time in prison.  Described variously by critics as the ‘literary equivalent of guerrilla street art’ and ‘a punk call to arms’, what came across most for me was the writer’s refusal to lie down and accept the lethal logic of an oppressive system even when it would have been easier for her to do so.  At the end of the day how many people have the courage to go to prison for their beliefs – especially a prison in Russia! Only a handful of human beings.

Activism is always the hardest choice.  Who wouldn’t rather be at home – Aloykhina is the mother of a child –  than freezing on a pavement somewhere or in prison?  But the point of activism is that those who undertake it, feel they have no choice.    And Russia has a long history of people who felt they had no choice.

***

Anna Akhmatova was able to document the suffering of her country in sublime poetry.  Although she herself was not imprisoned – they took away her son Lev and banned her from the Writers Union and from selling her poems so that she almost starved to death.  She wrote:

Our separation is imaginary:

We are inseparable,

My shadow is on your walls,

My reflection in your canals,

The sound of my footsteps in the Hermitage halls

Where my friend walked with me

And in the ancient  Volkov Field

Where I can freely weep

Over the silence of common graves.

 ‘Poem without a Hero’. The Collected Poems of Anna Akhmatova.

Trans. Judith Hemschemeyer

 

Osip Mandelstam I have read although of course only in translation and the two volumes Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned written by Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda about their life together under Stalin’s murderous regime, trailing from place to place,  exile to exile, trying to keep body, soul and papers together.  Mandelstam died in a transit camp, awaiting deportation to the gulag.  He had signed his own death warrant writing a 13 line poem calling Stalin a murderer and peasant slayer.

What a tormented relationship Russia has with its literati.    The poet Irina Ratushinskaya wrote two books Grey is the Colour of Hope in which she describes the punishing conditions of women prisoners in a labour camp where she was sent in 1983, aged only 28, for writing poems about freedom and in which she endured four years of  brutality and extreme deprivation.

After the success of this book, Ratushinskaya wrote a prequel In the Beginning in which she wrote of her formative years and childhood in Odessa, meeting her future husband Igor Geraschenko,  her growing awareness of human rights abuses and the desire to do something about it and how the two of them worked together to circulate samizdat literature (illegal books like the works of Solzhenitsyn).  Although Ratushinskaya survived her time in the camp – eventually leaving Russia and going to live in the US, there is no doubt that the privations, hunger and illness she suffered during her time in prison shortened her life.

 

Read this book and never touch a computer or smartphone again

#Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Who out there has not heard of Snowden?   Few I imagine.  He is the NSA and CIA worker who blew the whistle  on the massive surveillance dragnet that the US government (the UK as well and every other government that has access to a terminal) perpetrates routinely on its private citizens – who are no longer private citizens at all but mere data subjects.

snowdencover

Although it’s not in the book, I remember Snowden being quoted as saying we are building the greatest weapon for oppression of mankind that has been seen.  He was talking about the internet.

When I listened to the interview that he did on the podcast The Joe Rogan Experience (it’s still available on Overcast at the time of writing) I was shocked to hear Rogan admit that he hadn’t read Snowden’s book.  Why I wondered to myself would you go into a three hour interview with one of the most famous whistleblowers of the 21st century without having read his book?

I have read the book.  And I was happy to see it.  Having watched Laura Poitras film Citizenfour (2014), and knowing that Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill the Guardian journalists who broke the Snowden story  – have all raised their profiles and had stories out of this young man’s sacrifice, it was time that we heard his own story.  And here it is, beautifully written and entertaining as well as vitally important.

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.

The book starts with the author’s childhood,

“Many of the first 2000 or so nights of my life ended in civil disobedience – until the night I turned six years old – I discovered direct action.  The authorities weren’t interested in calls for reform,”

moves on to his love of tech born of playing early console games,   a chequered school career dogged by illness, boredom and parental divorce and his attempt to join special forces which was cut brutally short by a training injury.

He felt that tech was too easy for him – that he didn’t want computers to be the way he earned his living.   But it seems the digital writing was already on the wall.   Snowden was catapaulted forward by determination, and the need to earn a living.

What followed was a meteoric rise within the intelligence community.

“It’s only in hindsight that I’m able to appreciate just how high my star had risen.  I’d gone from being the student who couldn’t speak in class to being the teacher of the language of a new age….  In just seven short years of my career, I’d climbed from maintaining local servers to crafting and maintaining globally deployed systems – from graveyard-shift security guard to key master of the puzzle palace.”

But his unfettered access to documents set him on his path to questioning … and the questioning led to his discovery of a program called XKEYSCORE.  He describes this as the exact point of the interface between the state and its surveillance targets.

 ‘Everyone’s communications were in the system – everyone’s.’

And this information we learn is being kept, stored in gigantic underground servers somewhere, forever.

The book covers his flight to Hong Kong and the breaking of the story to the world’s press, the US authorities cancelling his passport stranding him in Russia (where he still lives) and his partner (now wife) Lindsay’s unfailing support despite being targeted herself after he left.

Recently someone tweeted “Why is there only one whistleblower?”   Snowden’s response? “Gee, I wonder!”

Changes have to come.  In the EU we now have the General Data Protection Regulations which posits the data as the property of the person it represents, not of the body collecting it.  But the internet, as Snowden points out, is global and we all have numerous digital selves wandering about out there stateless.

What started out in the 80s as a few capable people exchanging geeky programming language with one another across the globe, has turned into an instrument of state oppression the Stasi would have wept to possess.

“Any elected government that relies on surveillance to maintain control of a citizenry that regards surveillance as anathema to democracy has effectively ceased to be a democracy.  Such cognitive dissonance on a geopolitical scale has helped to bring individual privacy concerns back into the international dialogue within the context of human rights.”

I sincerely hope that the US and all of our so-called democracies can move past the fearmongering to more humanistic models of society which recognise and uphold individual freedoms,  and that one day this courageous young man will be allowed to return home.

The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour (Doubleday)

Partly fiction, but mostly not,  the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.

The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.

‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques.   The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’

The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service.  He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives.   When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.

On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest.  His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased.  Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.

This sense of freedom is shortlived.  In fact his problems are truly just starting.   By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service,  his country has plunged into Civil War.

The regime would never dare, they said.  As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react.  They said.

Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs.  The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches  as the bombs start falling.

Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay.   More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.

The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble.   Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible.   Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because.  Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.

This is not a political book.  It is a book about a humanitarian disaster.  If the author  makes judgement at all,  is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other.    These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.

Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds.  It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness. 

He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with.  That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires.   Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.

The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:

 I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.

No! The woman replied.  We must save the cats not shoot them.

I meant photograph them, Sami replied.

Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book.   Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey.  Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says:  look,  this happened. This is still happening.   What did you do when you knew?

***

 

 

#TheStrayCatsOfHoms #NetGalley  

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.

 

 

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.

Stone. Bread. Salt: Poems by Norbert Hirschhorn (Holland Park Press)

 

I have owned so many identities – or had them given to me since day 1 on this planet: child, girl, girlchild, schoolgirl,  daughter, Jew,  niece,  adolescent, woman, female,  administrator, wife, mother, writer, poet, storyteller,  sister, oldie, second generation survivor.     What did I survive – I who have never been nearer to a concentration camp than peering at piles of hair and spectacles at Yad Vashem?

To be Jewish was something to be feared, the cause of the perpetration of nameless horrors upon my father and his family members most of whom were not around to explain and the ones that were, didn’t.   I was subscribed automatically upon birth to this club of suffering which could never be left, for to leave it would mean profoundly disrespecting the lives (and more importantly the deaths) of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents.  A disease of belonging for which there is no cure even beyond the grave.

The poet Norbert Hirschhorn writes in the preface to his latest collection Stone. Bread. Salt. (Holland Park Press, 2018):

“In Judaism, the Hebrew word tshuva is a vital concept.  It means return but also repentance.  It is said that God first created repentance, then the universe.  Over the past decade I have made my own return, a journey to rediscover my Jewishness.”

Thus when I first picked up this volume of poems, when I shared a reading with Hirschorn at the Poetry Café in London, I thought I would have no vocabulary with which to offer a review; reviewing after all requires context. In the end that was only partially true.  The book has made me think about my own  relationship with an impossible status.

Some stages from my list of life’s identities were here:  ‘layette, baby clothes, bike, treadmill, bloodpressure cuff, wheelchair, shroud …’ . (Life Course Department Store)

My parents prayed I’d learn what it meant to be Jewish

The Rabbi discerned I lacked the mien to be Jewish

I hated shul, longed for pork

(Self-Portrait)

This I understood.   No Rabbi ever discerned that I lacked the mien to be Jewish because I was a female and so that was the be all and end all of my mien.  I wasn’t required to do much during any service except sit on a balcony and stare down at my patriarchal elders and betters.  I think I was about 8 years old when the Jewish faith and I parted company and the rest is, if not history, a history of guilt.   Whether or not I subscribe to the tenets of the Jewish faith – and I don’t – the essence of Jewishness was scorched into my psyche, so much so, that newly married I recall bursting into floods of tears at the sight of a printed row of numbers on the cork of a winebottle my poor bewildered husband had opened.  Although I realise now that I confused being Jewish with being tormented for being Jewish.  In my own mind, and probably in the minds of many others, the two have become inseparable.

I was in my 50s when a Rabbi refused to shake my hand at my mother’s funeral.  I should have known of course, should never have proffered the offending hand.  But I had forgotten so much during the intervening years, had forgotten my place.

A Rebbe and his young disciple were on pilgrimage … when they came across a stream in spate.  Near them was a young woman in long dress and head scarf afraid to cross. The Rebbe lifted her gently onto his back, strode into the stream and crossed …. The men walked silently for a while on the other side.  Thenthe disciple said Master pardon me but you shouldn’t have touched that woman. The Rebbe thought a moment and replied, I put her down some time ago.  Why are you still carrying her?

Stone, Bread, Salt, p.76

If I am Jewish, have always been Jewish,  what need is there to go looking for the substance of that Jewishness?  And if I am not Jewish,   what would be the point?  The very fact of my existence – I who was never intended to live – and the existence of my children who were never intended to be born –  this is the victory.

In Hirschhorn’s poem ‘Self-Portrait’ the narrator goes to a wise woman to ask what does it mean to be Jewish.  We’re a people with history. We’re your passport to the past.

Where to unlock a people’s history, other than through its cultural soul and where else to find that soul except in language, stories,  poetry, songs, music.  In Hirschorn’s last collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days he returned to Yiddish folksongs, the language of his grandparents and great grandparents.   Ah, the passport to the past.   And yet …

The past is not necessarily any kind of a passport.   Even if we could arrive there- at that other country where they do things differently – what would it avail us?   Being Jewish raises questions that our very history, condition, status, ideology – call it what you will –  renders unanswerable;   being Jewish is a condition impossible to describe without reference to shattered glass and yellow stars,  ergo it is impossible to describe.    I once wrote a poem (or tried to) about the Golem of Old Prague which had holocaust references in it.  I was gently reproved by a learned academic friend who read my piece – the holocaust was neither born nor thought of in 16th century Prague.  Maybe.   The golem was a creation metaphor, another insoluble problem.

Although I believe completely in holocaust education in the interests of it never happening again, I also believe too many of us are still wearing our yellow stars.  It is time to lay them down.  As Hirschorn says:

‘I trace my own ancestors to the earliest time of life on earth, and before that to the stars.  For this I stand in awe.’

That sense of shared humanity is a good starting point.  A good point of return.  So although this has not strictly been a book review, it is a statement of gratitude for making me think.  Perhaps that is the best review of all.