The Lure of London’s Literary Links

I tried to find more ‘l’ words to add to the alliteration, but this will have to do for now.

Petina Gappah in The Independent.
Petina Gappah in The Independent.

One of the advantages of moving back to the UK and living just a short train hop from London is that I can now attend some of the bookish events which I could previously only dream about and retweet enviously. Let me tell you about a couple I’ve attended and some which I won’t be able to attend, but which sound intriguing.

The Word Factory Salon: Sex and Death and Anais Nin (Waterstones Piccadilly, 10th Sept.)

Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.
Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.

An unusual evening, as it covered multiple topics: the launch of a short story anthology Sex and Death, edited by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall, with readings from the book;¬†reading from a previously unpublished story by Anais Nin (which caused¬†a little bit of embarrassment); and a lively, informal¬†literary debate about Jane Eyre, squirmishness¬†in writing about sex, and cultural approaches to death.¬†I had the pleasure of seeing two writers formerly associated with the Geneva Writers’ Group at this event: Petina Gappah has lived and worked in Geneva for a number of years, while Mich√®le Roberts was an unforgettable guest instructor. Petina is one of the funniest panelists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, while Mich√®le is thoughtful and perfectly candid at all times.

I have made a note of Word Factory, a national organisation dedicated to studying and celebrating the short story form, and hope to attend more of their events.

Lunch with Zygmunt MiŇāoszewski (19th Sept.)

Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.
Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.

One of the most promising Polish authors of recent years, MiŇāoszewski is best known for his gritty crime fiction trilogy featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but he has explored other genres (horror, young adult fantasy) and is currently writing a literary novel about an old couple who get the chance to relive their lives in an alternative post-war¬†Poland. I love the way Zygmunt discusses¬†insidious problems in contemporary Polish society via his crime novels, and getting a chance to talk to him about the ways in which our respective countries have changed since ‘opening up to the West’ was enlightening. This was also an opportunity to meet¬†Zygmunt’s translator, the ebullient Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who taught herself Polish (after studying Russian at university), and several reviewers whose knowledge I hugely admire, such as Barry Forshaw (of Brit Noir and Nordic Noir fame), Karen Robinson from the Sunday Times and Boyd Tonkin, great supporter of translated fiction and founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

In case you are wondering what on earth I was doing in such elevated company РI was representing the Crime Fiction Lover website (our editor Garrick Webster lives a bit further away from London and passed on his invitation to me). Thank you, Midas PR, for my first literary lunch!

Launch of Louise Beech’s second book (Waterstones Piccadilly, 22nd Sept.)

I wasn’t actually aware that the launch of Louise Beech’s novel The Mountain in My Shoe¬†was happening that very evening, but I was going to London anyway to attend the event just below. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books told me about it on Twitter, so I couldn’t resist. Where would I be without my Twitter recommendations?

Crime in the Court (Goldsboro Books, 22nd Sept.)

Did you know that the very first trip I made when I came to London to study was to Cecil Court to see the (now-defunct) Dance Bookshop and leaf through the books at all the other glorious bookshops on that hidden corner of central London? It’s a very special place to me, and so I can’t think of a better venue for a crime writing¬†mingle with many of my favourite authors attending: Sarah Hilary,¬†Alex Marwood, Kate Medina, Stav Sherez, Sarah Ward, Belinda Bauer and many more.

Pictures from last year's event, from Goldsboro Books website.
Pictures from last year’s event, from Goldsboro Books website.

Below are events which I¬†sadly won’t¬†be able to attend, as I also have to earn a living rather than just spend money on train tickets:

First Monday for Crime (City University, 3rd Oct.)

SJ Watson, Antonia Hodgson, Stuart Neville and William Ryan will talk about their books and crime in general, in a panel moderated by Karen Robinson.

London Literature Festival (South Bank, 5-16 October)

In a world which is starting to be frighteningly close to the realm of science fiction, how can the imagination give us access to other worlds which cast light back on our own? And what role can writers play in showing us better worlds to come? That’s the theme of this year’s festival in and around the South Bank, where writers, futurologists and transhumanists (whatever that might be) will come together¬†to celebrate the power of the imagination to take us beyond our expectations as a species. I am trying to convince my older son that he would love the Young Adult Weekender event.

Words at King’s Place

I once attended an excellent event on translation here, during one of my multiple business trips to London. It’s a new cultural venue and has a varied and extremely tempting programme of classical music, jazz and spoken word events. I’ve been wistfully¬†eyeing the Poetry London Autumn Launch, the homage to John Berger, and ‘Up at a Villa’ – about that fateful summer of 1816 when Frankenstein and other monsters were unleashed on the world. And all from the shores of placid Lake Geneva! [This is the next best thing to actually staying in the villa itself.]

Villa Diodati, Geneva
Villa Diodati, Geneva

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.

 

Signed, Seen and Just Missed: Morges 2015

I couldn’t resist the siren call of the literary festival in Morges called¬†Le Livre sur les Quais¬†this weekend, although I should have been working and packing for an upcoming business trip. But who can resist a boat trip on Lake Geneva in the company of the wise and witty Tessa Hadley?

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Watching chateaux and villas (usually invisible from the road) sliding smoothly by in all their glory, while listening to fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group reading from their latest book (there were more people than that at the readings, but I forgot my camera and was late to remember my mobile phone). The full list of authors reading (with links to the books they were reading from): Lesley Lawson-Botez, Ellen Wallace, Katie Hayoz, Massimo Marino, Olivia Wildenstein, Nancy Freund, Gary Edward Gedall, Peter St. John, Daniela Norris, Susan Tiberghien and Leonie van Daalen, who was also celebrating her 63rd wedding anniversary onboard.

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The tent where books, authors and readers meet each other was constantly full, even at lunch time, but I forgot to take pictures of the authors I did get to see.

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To arouse your envy, here’s a short list of authors I spoke to (some of them I also got to see later in panel discussions): Christos Tsiolkas, Ben Okri, Petina Gappah, Michelle Bailat Jones, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Dinaw Mengestu. And not just English-speaking ones: Yasmina Khadra, Alain Mabanckou, Metin Arditi, Romain, Slocombe, Gregoire Delacourt, Joseph Incardona (who actually remembered me from last year – I was very flattered). The pictures I did remember to take at the panel discussions are not very good, unfortunately.

Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest Unites States respectively.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest United States respectively.

Sadly, I did not get to see any of the Greek writers who were the guests of honour at the festival: Petros Markaris, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Yannis Kiourtsakis, Takis Theodoropoulos. Nor did I have enough time to go back to the tent and meet the following authors who are very much on my TBR list: Peter Stamm, Emilie de Turckheim, Sophie Divry, Mathias Enard, Hadrien Laroche.

In its sixth edition now, the festival is becoming perhaps just a little too big to be able to see everyone and attend all the sessions you would want (many of the most interesting ones were concurrent). To me, however, it’s¬†an unmissable event in my annual literary calendar. And when the sun comes out, it’s even more beautiful.

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A good book haul ensued as well – all with rather lovely dedications. Meanwhile, a little part of Morges will be accompanying me on my business trip: Michelle Bailat-Jones’ ‘Fog Island Mountains’ will be coming with me to Japan, where it is set.

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Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac L√©man. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timoth√©e de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Berni√®res, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis,¬†Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an¬†experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a¬†hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.