Or ‘Autumn’, for those of us who are still resisting the encroachment of Americanisms into our daily speech. With photography by Olaya Barr, visual arts, drama, non-fiction, poetry, fiction and reviews, there is something for everyone here.
So many goodies to explore! As usual, the sheer ambition and mix of languages is dazzling. 31 countries featured in this issue alone. Togo is represented here for the first time, bringing the total of countries in the archives up to 122. The number of languages featured is now at 102, with the inclusion of Q’anjob’al from Guatemala.
Just a few of the things I want to read at leisure during my holidays, if I have internet connection:
the special feature on Catalan fiction, about which I still know far too little beyond Mercè Rodoreda and Jaume Cabré
Phillip Lopate talking about the personal essay as ‘a mode of being’
Abdellah Taïa about why he chooses to write in French – asking himself if he even likes this language anymore, this has real emotional resonance with me, since I too write in my ‘non-native’ language
An intriguing review about the unfinished novel of one of the great losses to Chinese literature Xiao Hong.
The contrast between intriguing possibility and depressing probability is perhaps widest of all with Xiao Hong, who, in her brief thirty-one years on this planet, managed to write some of the finest Chinese fiction of the twentieth century. I wonder what would have happened to her had she lived another few decades, but I doubt it would have been anything good.
Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs Moscow Diaries 1917-22, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell.
It has just occurred to me that for someone who likes to read and write poetry so much, I should have read more poetry by women in translation this month (which would have been easier than novels too, and would have allowed me to feature more women). Ah, well, as they say in Romania – give the Romanian the mind in retrospect!
So let me try to make up for it a tiny bit by reviewing a poet’s diaries. Marina Tsvetaeva is often described as the most Russian of poets, even though she claimed her first language was German and it was German poetry she turned to most for inspiration. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, and her life was full of political and personal drama, culminating in her suicide at the age of 48 during the Second World War, when practically her entire family was taken into labour camps by the Soviets. Here is a fragment from one of my favourite poems by her; entitled ‘Homesickness’, it encapsulates the feeling of loss, betrayal, anger of a writer in exile:
And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet
(or by what readers, swallowing
newspring, squeezing for gossip?)
They all belong to the twentieth
century, and I am before time
stunned, like a long left
behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
is the same, and it may be the most
indifferent of all are these
signs and tokens which once were
native but the dates have been
rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere.
For my country has taken so little care
of me that even the sharpest spy could
go over my whole spirit and would
detect no native stain there.
Houses are alien, churches are empty
everything is the same:
But if by the side of the path one
particular bush rises
However, in these diaries of 1917-22, she is still in the country that will disenchant her and she comes across a very strong, resilient person and artist, who manages to keep her brain working and her pen flowing even when faced with revolution (she was from a wealthy family and lost everything), civil war (her side lost), her husband missing in war for three years, mind-numbing job, starvation (her younger daughter died of malnutrition) and a hostile environment around her. She makes me feel like a snowflake for ever complaining about hardship or not having time to create:
The brilliant advice of S. (the son of an artist). At some point during the winter, I complained (laughing, of course!) that I had absolutely no time to write. ‘I work till five, then there is the fire to light, then the wash, then bathing, then putting the children to bed.’
‘Write at night!’
In this there was: disdain for my body, trust of my spirit, a high mercilessness, which honored both S. and me.
The highest tribute of an artist – to an artist.
She is almost comically inept in all practical matters, too outspoken for her own good, soldiering on, fierce, indomitable, at times desperate, but also abrasive and satirical. Her description of her rival (although she would not deign to regard him as such), the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov, for instance, in the section A Hero of Labor is utterly, delightfully wicked. She mocks his introduction to a poetry reading by nine women poets that he has organised:
Woman. Love. Passion. Woman, from the beginning of time, has known how to sing only of love and passion. The only passion of woman – is love. Every love of a woman – is passion. Outside of love, woman – in creative work, is nothing. Take passion away from woman… Woman… Love… Passion…
She describes sordid details of everyday life, almost too painful to contemplate, but also manages to rise above them with witty, acerbic observations:
There are almost no men: in the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women: previously in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack: with holes. And you carry it anyway.)
She has no illusions about Communism although she doesn’t seem to have too much nostalgia about the past either. She may regret losing her old home, but on the whole:
The difference between the old and new orders:
The old order: ‘A soldier came by… We made pancakes… Our grandmother died.’
Soldiers still come, grandmothers die, only no one makes pancakes anymore.
I have long regretted that I am only able to read this poet in translation (I’d have learnt Russian for her and Dostoevsky alone), for most translators agree her voice is very difficult to capture. Yet Joseph Brodsky also has this interesting observation about her:
Tsvetaeva’s voice had the sound of something unfamiliar and frightening to the Russian ear: the unacceptability of the world. It was not the reaction of a revolutionary or a progressive demanding changes for the better, nor was it the conservatism or snobbery of an aristocrat who remembers better days. On the level of content, it was a question of the tragedy of existence in general, par excellence, outside a temporal context.
These diaries are such a wonderful insight into the mind and tormented life of a fascinating and controversial poet (I keep wondering if people would have been more lenient with her if she had been a tormented genius of a man). I filled them with pagemarkers and post-its, and will be returning to them again and again.
I couldn’t get enough of fairy tales and stories (from all countries: I remember my parents reading 1001 Nights, folktales from Russia, China and Romania, the Greek myths, as well as the usual Grimm, Andersen and Perrault). I went to an English school for a while and my favourite teachers were the ones who would read out loud to us while we did arts and crafts (which I NEVER excelled in), so that I could get lost in the world of Paddington Bear, Olga da Polga, The Wind in the Willows. Luckily, I was always surrounded by international friends, so I grew up with the Moomins, Asterix and Obelix in multiple translations as well as the original, Christiane Nöstlinger (who very sadly died just a few weeks ago), Räuber Hotzenplotz (I had great fun playing him with a drawn-on moustache and beard in a school play), Pippi Longstocking, Emil and the Detectives, White Fang and the Chalet school.
In stark contrast to my happy, diverse and very liberal childhood, I hit a wall when I moved back to Romania during the Communist period. My reading was suddenly censored. I tried to sign up for the British Council library, the French cultural institute, the Goethe Institut, to keep up my languages and love of literature, but my visits there were very carefully monitored, so for a long time I had to rely on other people taking books out for me. (It was OK to go to the Schiller Institut, which was the GDR version of the Goethe). But of course teenagers relish challenges, so this made books (particularly foreign language books) even more precious to me.
This was the decade of poetry. With typical adolescent dramatics, I dressed in black as soon as I got out of my school uniform and moodily recited French poetry in particular (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine). I WAS Sylvia Plath (at least on those days when I wasn’t Anne Sexton or Colette or Virginia Woolf or Marina Tsvetaeva, all women who inspired me with their poetry and their lifestyles). I also fell in love with Romanian poetry (Octavian Goga, Tudor Arghezi, George Bacovia and Lucian Blaga) and the romantic, lyrical and often quite funny writing of Ionel Teodoreanu’s trilogy of nostalgic novels about life in the Romanian countryside before Communism La Medeleni.
This was a busy decade. At university I succumbed to the philosophy and lit crit craze and liberally sprinkled my essays and discussions with references to Derrida, Lacan, Chomsky, Julia Kristeva, Emil Cioran, Eliade… basically, anything that was as far removed from dialectical materialism as possible. I also discovered the joys of Japanese literature and quickly developed a passion for Dazai Osamu, Yosano Akiko and Akutagawa which has never left me since. In our small Japanese group of students, there were two camps: the Kawabata fans and the Mishima fans. I have to admit I was (perhaps the only one?) in the latter camp, although I became a much more critical reader later on.
I also discovered social anthropology in this decade and the works of Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Max Weber became as exciting to me as any novels. I came to it just on the cusp of the criticism of the paternalistic attitudes, the role of the anthropologist as an observer and the biases that they bring into the field or how their very presence affects the communities which they claim to observe in a non-interfering way.
You might argue that I was exhausted after all of my studies or too tired after having children, but I have no qualms at all about shifting almost entirely to crime fiction in my 30s. I had always read some crime (obvious contenders like Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Simenon), but now I devoured all of the crime fiction I could find at my local library. I particularly enjoyed books which really captured the atmosphere of a city or country, like Michael Dibdin’s Zen series set in Italy, Ian Rankin’s Rebus of Edinburgh, Martin Beck’s Sweden, Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul, Fred Vargas bringing historical touches to contemporary France, Jakob Arjouni’s beneath-the-surface of boring old Frankfurt, Qiu Xialong’s Shanghai stuck between the past and the present. But I never turned down any of the regional or cosy crime writers either: Veronica Stallwood’s Oxford, for example, or M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin.
The decade when I rediscovered writing, as well as reading far more widely, reviewing and blogging. I’ve returned to poetry, I still keep up with crime fiction, I still enjoy books set in the whole wide world, opening me up to new cultures, ideas and ways of being. You can discover many of the new authors I got to appreciate in the past few years by looking back at my blog, for example: Jean-Claude Izzo, Pascal Garnier, Romain Gary, to mention just the French (well, I did spend quite a large chunk of time in France). I’ve discovered far too many new crime fiction authors to mention in one post, and I’ve also stretched my wings to take in more world literature (beyond my comfort zone of Europe and Japan).
I would love to hear about your own bookish journey through the decades, either in the comments below or perhaps on your own blog. It’s funny how you start to see certain patterns emerging…
Your Honour, we were students, not in the money
for a wedding, anticipated trouble, so my then-honey
and I kept our nuptials secret from our parents,
only informed them a good while after the events.
By then mine had bought a flat for me alone,
or so they thought. Its value soared like a drone,
so we got our next house, and the next. Twenty years later
we’ve had many more donations from the pater…
Mr Judge Sir I protest…
This woman thinks she’s the best,
but she kicked me out less than three years after she found out
that I’d had moments of joy with another. But I called her out,
‘cos it was her lack of uncritical admiration
and the general sense of deprivation
that I could not rule with absolute decree
which drove me to the arms of Gina, Becky, Lee.
She expected me to be apologetic – more like apoplectic
wouldn’t cook or do my laundry while I was texting
the latest mistress I was sexting.
Now I have to pay a massive rent to get a house of similar size –
so what if the kids only spend 6 days here a month – in their eyes
it’s got to be attractive, have room to fit 88 inch TV and Playstation,
while she complains of boiler repairs, lording it in the old location.
That’s the state of our nation.
His salary is high, his pension secure, why do we have to drown in manure, when it’s clear as day, eat or pray, doom and gloom, the boys are mainly spending time in my room? I feed and clothe them, know all the ins and outs of school…
Your Honour, it’s time to overrule. Food bills are such a drag
why bring up the subject? I don’t mean to brag
but the science the boys get from me
are worth 3 of your books, theatre or history.
Just admit it, you’ll never be as good
as my mother tells me I am. That’s understood.
They’re boys, they need a father to set an example or else
they’ll end up as unhappy as I was
when she made me pick them up from school while she was travelling.
All the while my social life was unravelling,
couldn’t go out for beers more than twice a week.
I’ll teach them to be manly not so weak.
I spend as much on my children as she does, or does she believe
that holidays chasing solar eclipses come through charity relief?
Cinema tickets, theme parks all cost money,
so curb your spending on socks, shoes and school trips, honey!
And if you don’t know, now you know…
With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Cabinet Battle in Hamilton, which inspired this.
You are probably suffering from Hay Festival fatigue by now as you notice that just 2 1/2 days spent there produced a whole week’s worth of output. Anyway, after a short lull yesterday, here is the last of the posts on this topic.
I mentioned in my first post that Hay Festival does feel a bit like it should be part of the Henley Regatta, Ascot Races, Wimbledon summer circuit, although in a fairly muted way. But the festival organisers are trying hard to incorporate more diverse voices into the programme and some of these events have been attracting a considerable crowd. Nevertheless, it is amusing to play the game of ‘spot the false liberal’, who’ve come to the event to establish their ‘tolerance credentials’ and are slightly nonplussed or unmoved by what is being said. [I suppose this is where my status as an ‘outsider’, albeit a white one who speaks English with a flawless accent, comes in handy. I lull them with a false sense of security and the then – wham! – am hit with a vicious side-glance or nervous rictus.]
The Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi is perhaps the kind of black man that the Hay audiences are most comfortable: born in Zambia, he came to the UK as a child, is well-educated and widely read and speaks with the required accent (this is important when I compare him to the other two below), has published two poetry pamphlets before his debut volume Kumukanda, and has been winning accolades from the established literary community, including residencies, shortlistings, judging poetry competitions, being poetry associate at the ICA and so on. In other words, he has played by the rules and been successful, so we can think of him as a ‘good immigrant’. If he had arrived in a suit and tie, it would have been like Sydney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’.
I’m not saying this to make fun of the poet, who was indeed most impressive and felt no need to pander to the audience. Yet it has to be said: he was signalling all those things which the largely pale and posh audience could understand and accept. But I really enjoyed it when he started talking about growing up in a multilingual home, that Bemba was his first language but English is the only one he can express himself in poetically, and that he feels the loss of that native tongue. He talked about the different texture of languages when you grow up multilingual, how you search for the chewiness of a particular word which might be missing in the other language. He was very modest about his poetry, saying that the moments when he feels most like a poet are when a word or line or poem takes on a life of its own and he says to himself: ‘That’s not absolutely awful!’. But that feeling never lasts too long.
Kumukanda is a rite of passage in his ancestral tribe, one that he never undertook back home, so in his poetry he describes the rites of passage of an immigrant black child in Britain. He told us about being discriminated against, listening to pirate stations and rap and making mix tapes, his discomfort with his own admiration for Eminem, the ‘white man’ who made rap acceptable. Yet in his poetry he warns against those easy generalisations, against typecasting of black people. His poetry is witty and just the right amount of angry without sounding resigned or bitter. I wonder to what extent the poem below is autobiographical, but it doesn’t matter, because it will be familiar to many.
My agent says I have to use my street voice.
Though my talent is for rakes and fops I’ll drop
the necessary octaves, stifle a laugh
at the playwright’s misplaced get me blud and safe.
If I get it they’ll ask me how long it takes me
to grow cornrows without the small screen’s knowing
wink. Three years RADA, two years rep and I’m sick
of playing lean dark men who may have guns.
I have a book of poems in my rucksack,
blank pad, two pens, tattered A-Z, headphones
that know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul
So the content of his poetry is less comforting than his appearance might make you believe.
Akala is the less acceptable face of black youth: with dreads, hip-hop artist, poet, political activist, founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare company, brother of Ms Dynamite, he has produced a book called Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He talked eloquently about growing up poor and mixed race in Camden, about suddenly realising that his mother was white and the conflict that led to during his teens, how he very nearly became a bad boy and certainly had plenty of friends who did, but how he was treated very differently in Jamaica because of his lighter skin and British accent. He considers himself lucky because although he was economically poor, he was culturally rich. He’s been called ‘unpatriotic’, Britain hater, but as he said: ‘If you’ve got a problem in the family, you don’t do anyone a favour by avoiding talking about it. So perhaps what people are trying to tell me when I dare to criticize anything about Britain, is that I am not really part of the family.’
He explained why he thought that a lot of the present-day discourse about black on black crime is not based on actual statistics, but about stoking the flames of fear, about pitting class against race and thus not having to deal with either. ‘We can’t afford racism and classism as a society, because it leads to so much wasted potential.’
Last but not least, it was fascinating to see Anthony Anaxagorou again, this time in action with a predominantly young British audience (you might remember I brought him over to Geneva Writers Group for a memorable workshop on performance poetry). He ruffled a few feathers back then but had a mostly rapturous reception, and it was the same now. The young people loved him, while their parents were somewhat less sure about his ‘working class London accent’. He talked very openly about growing up without many books and aspirations, but how he taught himself the craft of poetry while being stuck in a series of dead-end jobs. I can personally vouch that he has reached an almost encyclopaedic level of knowledge of poetry and literature by now, and that he can speak to a wide range of audiences. He also spoke about how he very nearly got caught up in a life of petty crime, how he often gets asked ‘But where are you from?’ because Cypriots are racially somewhat ambiguous, too dark for some, too light for others. And he is very openly political, because, although he often talks about things he hasn’t experienced personally, he feels that as a poet he has to highlight the problems – although it’s policies, not poetry, that can offer solutions.
‘Poets are perceived as nouns but we’re actually verbs. Poeting is a way of engaging with the world. I can’t do anything else but try to organise the world’s turmoil through a sequence of words.’
I was very sad to miss his evening performance at the Hay Poetry Slam (together with Emmeline Armitage, Sabrina Mahfouz, Sophie McKean, Zena Edwards, Rufus Mufasa and Akala), but I was facing a very long drive home and, after getting lost on my way there, I was afraid that I would do the same on the way back, but this time in the rain and dark. I’m sure they put on an amazing show, however.
Last but not least, if you want to see a literary festival that has diversity at its very core, and hopefully diverse members of the audience as well as participants, then you should check out the Bradford Literature Festival.
However we might feel about the subjectivity and inclusiveness of literary prizes, they certainly help to raise the profile of authors and books that a more general audience might not come across otherwise. So I’m all for this ‘democratisation’ of literature. In the queue for Olga Tokarczuk (and her translator Jennifer Croft, who share the Man Booker International Prize for 2018), most of the people I spoke to admitted they had neither read Flights nor heard anything about the author, but were curious to find out more. And after the very charismatic duet that the two of them gave with moderator Gaby Wood, almost everyone in the audience was charmed and rushed off to buy the book and get it signed by her. Hurrah!
I’d just recently read her book and was smitten with it and with the possibilities it offered for fiction (review forthcoming). And I am also very proud to say that Asymptote Journal was the first to publish an excerpt from it back in 2016, so we have a good eye for quality! (Actually, of the 6 authors and 9 translators featured on the Man Booker International Shortlist, we could count 3 authors and 5 translators amongst our contributors). And there was some satisfaction in Tokarczuk attending the prize-giving ceremony wearing the earrings she had bought with her paltry salary when she was working as a chambermaid in London 15 years ago. I will write a separate post on Iconoclasts (writers who go against the grain, do not fit into the established literary norms), but it would be fair to say that Olga fits into this category as well.
First of all, her approach to the novel is completely unconventional. I kept thinking Flights was non-fiction, but the first person narrator is not Olga herself, although she shares certain characteristics. However, the narrator is the only solid base to cling to in this dazzling and dizzying array of stories, situations, reflections, sudden shifts of gear and locations. This is what the author herself calls a ‘constellation novel’: just like the human eye creates patterns in the night sky to orient themselves, this novel is full of disparate shapes and themes and stories, and each reader will create their own pattern, dependent on their past experience, mood, how they come to the reading of the book. She described how she assembled the book by printing it all out, putting the different sections on the floor and then rearranging visually from a high point within the room (very much how I approach a poetry collection), so that the tyranny of linearity of writing on a computer is destroyed. Why write like that? Because Olga believes that the traditional 19th century door-stopper novel no longer fits with the way we lead our lives now. Everything seems to be fragmentary perceptions, from many different sources (some often contradictory), with brief flashes of insight. Stories are a great way to perceive reality, but sometimes they are not quite enough, so it’s important to juxtapose them with facts, lecture-like discourse and other elements.
Meanwhile, it became clear just how crucial her translator Jennifer Croft was in bringing her work to the English-speaking audience. She encountered Tokarczuk’s work while on a study year in Poland and has been a champion for it ever since (approaching publishing houses on her behalf, running her English language Facebook page, touring with her etc.). Jennifer also pointed out that, although the novel is conceptually very ambitious and seems ‘difficult’, the language is very clear and accessible, making it a fun and easy read. I certainly look forward to reading more by Olga – and two of her books will be coming out later this year and in 2019 respectively. Meanwhile, back in Poland she is very well known, has published 10 novels, one of her books has been filmed by Agnieszka Holland and she has become political almost without intending to. She somewhat ruefully said that her generation thought that after the collapse of Communism politics was over in Poland and most of the writers switched to introverted style and inner-life topics. But now it appears that any personal opinions, such as feminism, animal rights, love of democracy, have become political in her home country.
The InternationalDylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi was the second event I attended and it is once again extremely gratifying to see the prize awarded to poetry at long last. Founded in 2006, this £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. Furthermore, Kayo is of Nigerian descent, growing up in the UK, and English was not his first language, so I will present his talk in more detail in the post on Iconoclasts, but suffice it to say he blew me away with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his sensitivity to nuances and the world around him. (Well, most poets are like that!) Plus, he likes Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and other such poets that I admire!
I wasn’t planning to attend the 10 a.m. panel on Sunday morning on the Golden Man Booker Prize, but I’m glad I changed my mind, because the three panellists were thoughtful and funny and brilliant, as you might expect with Elif Shafak (I adore that woman and that writer!), Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Philippe Sands. All of them brought a distinctly international flavour to this celebration of English-speaking literature (mostly the former Empire and more recently opened to the US – which was once former Empire as well, let’s not forget). To celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker, five judges were each assigned a ‘decade’ and asked to select one winner. The shortlist was announced at they Hay Festival on the 26th of May and readers can vote for their favourite online. The panellists talked about their favourites, their surprises and disappointments in re-reading or reading the shortlist, with Philippe Sand admitting he found he had to work too hard for something he did not enjoy with Lincoln in the Bardo, while Vasquez admitted what a huge influence Naipaul’s book had been on him as a writer. Overall, it appears that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, surprise winner over Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, were the favourites both with the panel and with the audience in the tent.
They pointed out of course just how different the novels are both thematically and stylistically. Yet in some way, they are all about ways of dealing with the past, how an individual gets swept up by the course of history, and they all demonstrate that there is no single truth but rather a multiplicity of versions of history. Perhaps because both Shafak and Vasquez come from very different storytelling traditions, they did not enjoy so much Hilary Mantel’s linearity, while Sands reminded the audience that Mantel criticised Ondaatje’s lack of linearity back in 1993.
‘The English language is very open and welcoming to new words in the vocabulary, unlike Turkish, but its literature is much more inflexible and not so open to new forms, to stories within stories, which are simply other traditional ways of telling stories that clash with linearity.’ (Shafak)
‘I’ve seen many a Spanish or French book destroyed in the British reviews because they contain multiple stories that have nothing to do with each other or contain digressions that shouldn’t really be there.’ (Vasquez)
Could it be that Tokarczuk’s win marks the start of a new era? That the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo on that list also means something? That English-language literature is opening itself up to less rigid consecutive structures and experimenting more with simultaneous stories with no unique interpretations or clear answers?