Gender, Sex and Identity in Recent Fiction

I love the serendipity of reading two or more books on similar topics in quick succession. It must be the subconscious at work rather than deliberate choice, but through this enforced proximity the books always end up illuminating and enhancing each other.

watchdisappearEva Dolan: Watch Her Disappear

You know by now how fond I am of Eva Dolan’s work, which is a sophisticated mix of police procedural and social commentary via the Hate Crimes Unit in Peterborough. Her writing style in the first two books was very rich, of such literary quality that almost every sentence begged to be read twice, to become fully aware of all the implications. Since then, perhaps because of editorial pressure, her style has become a little more down-to-earth. Although I miss the earlier style, I have to admit that this does make for much faster reading, without ever becoming pedestrian.

The plot: middle-aged but attractive Corinne Sawyer is attacked and killed while out jogging by the river. At first the police suspect it might be a serial rapist escalating his crimes, but when it turns out that Corinne was Colin until a few years ago, the Hate Crime unit gets called in. Zigic and Ferreira soon discover that she was not the first trans woman who has been violently attacked in the local area. As usual with this hate-crime-fighting duo, they encounter deep-seated prejudice, accusations of being bigoted themselves, and families where resentment and bad feelings rule supreme.

The author has the knack to take on really difficult and topical subjects, and make us question our assumptions about them. We get to see not only the unhappiness and fear of transgender and transvestite people, the lack of understanding and support which they experience, but we also come to see the impact it has on their friends and families. These are complex situation which deserve sensitive treatment and our loyalty is often conflicted, our sympathies lying with both sides. There is just the right balance between compassion and judgement, sadness and justice.

Dolan seems to have covered now nearly all aspects of hate crimes with her series set in Peterborough: migrant labour, white supremacists, disability and now the trans community. There are hints that their unit might be wound up and I wonder if that is because the author fear she may be running out of topics to write about without repeating herself. Sadly, the hate crimes themselves seem to be here to stay.

guapaSaleem Haddad: Guapa

If Dolan’s book makes you think it’s hard being a transvestite or transgender in England, you should try being that – or gay – in a Middle Eastern city (unspecified country, although there were bits which reminded me of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria). A fish out of water regardless of where he goes, both in the US and in his home town, Rasa describes 24 hours of his life after he has been discovered having sex with a man by his grandmother. Politics, hypocrisy, corruption, violence and shame all jostle in a world where nothing is quite what it seems but the truth seems far too dangerous to discuss openly.

Rasa is an interpreter for Western journalists by day, an occasional protestor during the Arab Spring and, at night, he parties at Guapa (which means ‘beautiful’ in Spanish), an underground club catering for the ‘hidden’ LGBT community in the city. He is also desperately in love with Taymour, who is about to get married to a girl in order to please his family. After Rasa’s grandmother makes her shocking discovery, one of Rasa’s friends, the drag queen Majid, is arrested by the police for political protest.

Within the space of 24 hours, the novel gives us a generous slice of Rasa’s world, showing an increasing alienation from both Western culture and his own, as he tries to untangle his own ‘betwixt and between’ identity. The author himself is a mix of Lebanese-Palestinian and Iraqi-German, has grown up in Jordan, Canada and Britain, and worked for Médecins Sans Frontières, so he knows what he is talking about.

The prose is slightly pedestrian at times, and there are occasional instances of information dumping. Some readers might be put off by the polemical discussions between Rasa and his friends about what constitutes eib (shame, unclean), or between Rasa and his fellow students in the US about Islam. It can sound more like a treatise than fiction at times. However, for me it was quite eye-opening: being a double outsider in a world where so much is forbidden, and even more is swept under the carpet. A nuanced insight into a world that to us in the West is often presented as a straightforward dichotomy: black and white, extreme poverty and obscene wealth, inner city rubble or luxurious hotels and oil sheikhs in fast cars.

 

 

Review: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

bookofmemoryMemory is an albino black woman, the only woman on death row in the maximum security prison in Zimbabwe. She writes the story of her life, her childhood with her birth parents in a poor township, the way she was shunned by others because of her appearance and over-sensitive, sunburnt skin. She remembers with shame and hostility that her parents sold her to a white man called Lloyd Hendricks, who raised her like a foster daughter and paid for her education. Yet it is her foster father whom she is accused of killing, so we follow with a sense of foreboding the events leading up to that fateful day, as they are gradually revealed to us. Is Memory the most reliable narrator, though, or is memory itself a malleable substance that we can change and reinterpret as it suits us?

Petina Gappah’s debut novel is a richly evocative portrayal of full of a township childhood in Zimbabwe just before and after independence: the colours, the smells, the food, the voices and native languages (including untranslated Shona expressions that you have to guess from context), the gossip and superstitions.

Our house, all our houses, had rickety doors and thin, thin windows that shook as the doors were opened and closed, and shook even harder when my mother banged them. There was a small garden around our house; there we had a banana plant. Our neighbours had half-attempted orchards with mango trees and, occasionally, naartjies… MaiPrincess and her family … had a large avocado tree and wanted to keep each avocado to themselves, but we did not always give back the fruit that fell and rolled under the tarpauling covering my father’s wood and tools. We mashed up MaiPrincess’s avocadoes and spread them on bread.

The story moves between past and present, between childhood in the townships and then in an upscale white suburb of Harare, and life in Section D (for ‘Dangerous, for Deadly, for Death’) in Chikurubi Prison.

House in Harare which was the inspiration for Lloyd's house, from Goodreads interview with Petina Gappah.
House in Harare which was the inspiration for Lloyd’s house, from Goodreads interview with Petina Gappah.

Prison life is sombre, of course, especially in a poor country, but there is much humour in the interaction between the women prisoners and their guards, the malapropisms of Verity the fraudster and prison guard Patience, the arguments and practice sessions for their appearance in court, their commentary about life as they see it.

The biggest surprise about prison is the laughter. There is laughter to go with sudden quarrels; there is malice and gossip along with acts of generosity… It is not possible to sustain one emotion for too long. It is too taxing on the mind to always be angry, or always sorrowful.

Here is Patience berating the inmates in English, for she is training to become a court interpreter:

‘Irregardless of the absence of water, you should make sure the hoarse pipes are connected. You must make sure your plates and bowels are clean.’ ‘You have the wrongful number,’ she screamed into her phone the other day, ‘I said this is the wrongful number!’

Despite these lighter-hearted moments, the story is predictably sad. The part of the book where Memory grows up, leaves the country to study and work abroad, and then returns to her foster father’s home was too sketchy for my liking, too short compared to the build-up preceding it. At 270 pages, the novel is not very long and the author could have taken her time to recreate Memory’s adulthood and return to Zimbabwe with as much care as she has done for the childhood and school years. Perhaps the author wanted to avoid making the novel too political. The outside world is perceived mostly through the eyes of the deliberately uninformed fellow prisoners. (Their newspapers are censored, with all the criminal and court news, the political sections and business news cut out).  There is a brief mention of opposition parties and upcoming elections, and a bit more about forcible seizure of land from whites, but it’s the women’s irreverent reactions to politics and public policy which are most memorable.

There is a project funded by the European Union that is persuading women to give up prostitution in exchange for working together on a co-operative farm. The thought came to me that they should call it the ‘Hoes for Whores’ programme. I could not keep a straight face as Jimmy explained that she was only doing this as long as she has to report to the parole office. ‘As soon as they forget about me, I will stop. They are insane, these Europeans. Like I can’t get more money in thirty minutes on my back than a month on my feet.’

Petina Gappah in Morges.
Petina Gappah in Morges.

Memory herself is an enigmatic character, a blend of cultural influences, a mix of advanced education and narrow-minded prejudices, desperately unsure of her exact place in the world yet occasionally bordering on arrogance. Her apparent lack of remorse about Lloyd’s death did not greatly endear her to me, although I felt sorry about her ‘outcast’ status as a child.

I’ve seen the bubbly, exuberant Petina Gappah in action at the Morges Literary Festival in September, and this book is as unforgettable as its author. There is much poetry and richness here, as well as a keen sense of setting with rumblings of race and ostracism and a country undergoing tremendous change.

 

Hausfrau, Anna Karenina, a Poem and the Search for Identity

I’m not sure whether I should be reviewing Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel ‘Hausfrau’ (the German for ‘housewife’) yet, as it’s not due to come out until May 2015. It’s the only book I’ve been pleading with publishers and publicists to send me an advance copy, because I felt I was born to review it. After all, it’s about the emptiness of an expat woman’s life in neatly-boxed-in, high-quality-of-life-is-assured-if-you-stick-to-the-rules Switzerland… Ring any bells? I may live just across the border in France now, but it’s still something I know both from personal experience and through my work.

In fact, I’d started planning a novel based on my experience as a ‘trailing spouse’ and was convinced that Essbaum had written that book. That turns out not to be the case (my mind is more filled with murderous intent than hers, obviously), but what a moving read it has been! Add to this the fact that Essbaum is an acclaimed poet and this is her debut novel, and you have pretty much all of my reasons to admire her (and be just a wee bit envious). Here is the blurb:

Anna Benz, an American woman in her late thirties, married Bruno, a Swiss banker, and made a new life with him in Dietlikon, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich, where they live in comfort and affluence with their three young children. But just as the neat and tidy exterior of Zurich and Dietlikon obscures the darker, more complicated aspects of living in Switzerland so is Anna, despite the tranquility and order of her domestic life, falling apart inside.

Described as ‘a literary page-turner with echoes of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina’, it also deals with themes such as loneliness, a woman’s quest for personal identity (apart from that of wife and mother), culture shock, alienation and the need for beauty in one’s life (which leads us to search for it in all the wrong places). I will review it in more detail closer to the release date, which will almost certainly involve some re-reading. No bad thing, since I gulped this down in just two evenings!

While I was waiting for the ARC of ‘Hausfrau’, however, I wrote a poem about Anna Karenina, which fits in rather well with the atmosphere of this novel. Here it is in its unedited first draft:

DVDtalk

 

She walks into the station as if

nothing could reach out or jostle

her intent; as if

the icy sheen on her forehead

gives her an armour of aloofness, invisible

to mortals.

Her foresight is complete, her pockets emptied of clues.

No noise to pierce her eardrums, she glides through crowds

erect and poised.

Her spine gains inches as if

the stone-weight of family has left her shoulders.

She drifts up the staircase, and crowds part

at the gauntness of her stare.

First up, then down,

directions cease to matter

if the journey’s end is one.

She’ll catch a moment when

they’re wrapped up in their small partings, their music and their emails,

their lives overwhelmed with tasks.

One breath

and she takes flight.

The screech of that train

branding scarlet letters on herds

trapped in search for romance.

 

 

Poetics: Those Pesky Questions of Identity

P1010657It is with great pleasure that I am playing host once more over at dVerse Poets Pub. This time I am asking all our friends, poets and pub-goers to ask themselves some tough questions about identity and belonging. Based on the work of the poet Bhanu Kapil, I gave them a choice of four questions. My effort below is in response to the question:

What lingers when all is said and done?

 

So… where do you come from?

And where is home?

That long gap before I can answer             if I can answer.

 

Who helped make you? What? You are? What else am I…

too much to share

for fear of overwhelming.

When you get there, will you know?

Will you know what you are trying?

When will you know to prove

 

to myself and others oh mother mother

 

P1010651If not here, where from?

If not now, how will you know?

Who lingers when all is said and done,

who lingers when all done is said?

 

Effanineffable Name

This brief explanation of my pseudonym, dating from March 2012, first appeared on the storytelling site Cowbird, where I discovered manyNamepic wonderful personal stories and even shared some of my own.  The title is taken from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot (which goes to show that even the most serious poet has a fun side).

Marina Sofia is not the name I was born with. It was the name I wanted to give to my daughter. ‘Marina’ I associated with the sea, with boats, with feeling the wind in your hair and daring to sail forth and explore. I wanted my daughter to be a fearless pirate. ‘Sofia’ of course is wisdom. I wanted my daughter to be curious, informed, fair, learning from people and from experience.

So I waited.

And then I had a son. So I kept the name for my second child. And then he was a son too. So I learnt to love boys. I put the name up on a high shelf, out of sight.

But then, a few weeks ago, a wonderful thing happened. After many years of silence, a creative person inside of me started to break out. She was me and yet not me, she needed a different name. So I took a stepladder, picked up the name from the shelf, dusted it with one swift puff of breath.

And now it is so my own, I cannot imagine being without it anymore.

Poetry Workshop: Ideas and Results

Aracelis Girmay

This past weekend I had the rare pleasure and luxury of thinking of nothing else but words, writing and poetry.  I attended a poetry workshop organised by the indefatigable Geneva Writers’ Group and our guest instructor was the vibrant, beautiful poet Aracelis Girmay.  She invited us to play and experiment, to explore bewilderment and mysteries, to climb down the ladder of writing head-first.

It was the first full-length poetry workshop that I ever attended and, boy, did I need it!  Poetry is an old love that I have only recently come back to, after many years of neglect.  I am still struggling to shed the adolescent overcoat that lies over it (yes, it is that long ago since I wrote poetry).  I have been writing a lot of it this year, but is it all therapeutical outpourings of infuriating sentimentality? I needed to push myself. I needed to learn to play, watch words appear and disappear. So here is an interesting experiment we conducted.  Based on Bhanu Kapil‘s thought-provoking questions from her book ‘The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers’, we were asked to create our own questions about a subject that preoccupied us.  I picked ‘Identity and Belonging’, and here are my questions (it’s not really a poem, more like a prompt to spark thinking):

Where do you come from?

Who helped make you what you are?

If not here, where?

How will you know when you get there?

What are you trying to prove?

When will you know and tell?

If not now, when?

What else are you?

What has not been mentioned before?

Why do you need to make the fragments whole?

Who lingers when all is said and done?

But then – and this is where it gets interesting – we had to reshape our questions, leave gaps and rearrange syntax.  We were Isis finding all of the fragments of Osiris and trying to put them back together.  And I was startled to find a much more powerful way of thinking hiding under my initial, conventional questions.  Here is the outcome:

Where do you come from? Who helped make you?

What? You are? What else you are?

When you get there, will you know?

Will you know what you are trying?

When will you know and prove?

If not here, where from? If not now, how will you know?

Who lingers when all is said and done,

Who lingers when all done is said?

What do you think?  Which version do you prefer?  Is this an experiment that might be useful to your own writing?  Can we change our way of thinking by changing the structure of our sentences?  What does the lack of information, that frightening gap, tell us about ourselves?