Author Archives: pgcwwn

Interview with Blythe Beresford

Interview with Blythe Beresford

One of our steering group members, Jade Hinchliffe, recently interviewed a friend and colleague Blythe Beresford to discuss all things literary! The steering group would like to thank Blythe for taking the time to answer our questions and give advice to budding creatives. We wish her the best of luck with her many exciting projects.

Blythe Beresford graduated from the University of Huddersfield in 2017 with her BA in English Literature with Creative Writing. Currently, she is studying towards her Masters by Research in Creative Writing, which will consist of a small collection of short stories examining human consciousness and alternative brains. Previously, she has finished a manuscript of her novel, Demeter Wept, and is currently on a fourth re-write of her first novel, Lines. It’ll get finished one day. When she’s not writing she enjoys rock climbing, cultivating exotic plants, and independent foreign cinema.

Which authors inspire you?

I’ve always loved Dianne Wynne Jones—I read quite a lot of her stuff when I was younger. It’s all very varied, some parts magic realism, other parts pure fantasy. The same goes for Chris Wooding and William Nicholson. I suppose these are the authors I most want to emulate and most inspire my actual work. I was fortunate enough when I was younger to have my mum working as a teaching assistant at my junior school, and part of her role there included sourcing books for our tiny school library. She’d always pick out the best stuff for me and “keep it to one side”. I suppose there wasn’t really any need because I was the most avid reader at the school at that time, but it’s the thought that counts.
Anyway, probably my favourite author of more recent years has to be Becky Chambers. Her characterisation is unlike anything I’ve ever read before relatable, realistic characters you could imagine being friends with. She’s not the first and certainly not the last, but it’s the style and subtle elegance of how she achieves this that I think I enjoy most. If you’re talking non-fiction, I enjoy Naomi Klein. She’s approaching non-fiction and harsh topics in an approachable way.

Are there any particular genres or styles of writing that interest you? I know you thoroughly enjoyed graphic novels, short stories and science fiction when we were undergraduates.

All of the above, and more! Throw some high fantasy and magic realism, new weird, all types of speculative fiction at me. Bring me your dystopias and your Young Adult fiction and your contemporary ought-to-be-classics. I do enjoy writing scripts for various mediums too, because it’s sort of freer than novels or short stories. You cut away all the extra and you focus in on the dialogue and that’s a really interesting way to write.

How would you describe your writing style?

Varied—mostly because I don’t like to stick to one type of style if I can help it, and like to push myself to try new viewpoints and styles and genres. I thought for a long time that I didn’t have a style, but I’ve had other writers describe my style as “economical”, which is something I definitely strive for. Don’t use ten words where one will do is some old adage by some famous writer, I’m sure (I’m terrible with names). Other ways my writing has been described is “visceral” and also that my way with words is like the way a painter uses paint sparingly to have the greatest effect.

What are you working on/up to at the moment?

I’ve got a lot of little irons in the fire—obviously for the past almost 18 months I’ve been trying to work solely on my short story collection, which is the portfolio portion of my Masters by Research. I’m not going to lie; I have both loved and hated working on this. But, overall, I think it’s taught me a lot of valuable lessons about myself as a writer and the process and loads of other things that I can take away from the experience. At the end of it I hope to have a pretty solid collection of work that I can use to get a foot in the door with an agent, with a view to getting the collection published somewhere.
Besides that I’ve got some ideas which have been brewing for follow-up issues to this comic script I wrote back in 2016/2017 for a science fiction comic called Greenhouse. I’ve also got a full overhaul of my second novel Demeter Wept to sort out, and then I’ve got this other project called Lines which is … probably one of my most loved and most hated things that I’ve been working on for about ten years and it’s evolved and evolved and it’s sort of getting somewhere and then I change my mind about it all over again. Anyway, I had some break-throughs with that in the last two years so that’s a good thing. And you know, this is very indicative of my process—it’ll brew and brew and brew for ages and ages and I’ll keep chipping away at it and then suddenly I’ll decide to sit down and hash it out and battle with it and then take a knife to it and hack away and paste bits on. It’s a very messy process and it’s different every time.

How did your degree/masters and the university environment help you to develop as a writer?

Oh, it helped immensely. I’ve sort of always had this romantic idea of myself as a “writer” but I think perhaps university sort of helped me to realise a lot of things about that. It’s not romantic and it’s a long, hard, lonely slog.
It’s also a very fun vocation and it was such a lovely surprise to be suddenly surrounded by all these people with all these amazing, creative ideas, and they all had such a different approach and you’re there under the tutelage of people who have actually been published, you get to meet people in the industry and you realise that … it IS work and it IS hard. But honestly, it cultivated a work ethic in me with regards to writing and helped me to share more and more and REALLY honed my constructive critic, my inner editor, showed me that I’m a lot better than I thought I was. I could write a lot about this but in essence it gave me a bit more of a guided path and drove home the fact that yes I can do this if I want to and I’m capable and you can’t be afraid to reach out for support because it’s there and other writers are a great, great resource.

Have you any plans for future projects that you can share with us?

I’m a bit all over the place at the minute to be honest with you— this must be the same for other writers and creatives, but I find the more you write and the more you create the more the ideas bloom and it’s like they’re breeding inside you. So it’s been really hard to try not to talk with too many people about my projects and ideas because as much as I want to share things, it makes other things blossom and then I get carried away. I know about myself that I’m really bad for picking up projects for a little while and then getting distracted like a magpie by something else which takes my fancy for a while, and then coming back to the other project months later. So for now I’ve tried to get my head down and finish this postgrad degree, because after that I’ve got all the time to focus on other things.
With that said, though… I have picked up two clients that I’ve been working with on their manuscripts and guiding them through the creative process and helping them to edit. So I’ve sort of set myself up as a creative consultant and it’s working, it’s slow but its working and I really enjoy doing it.
I’m also possibly working with a group of local writers on getting a little zine together. I’ve had this long standing idea for about five years with intentions for the possibility of a small publication to promote new writing. I don’t know of anything else like this locally around Huddersfield, although perhaps that’s just because I haven’t done my research properly! If anyone wants to get in touch with me about this then feel free—my email address is blythe.e.beresford@gmail.com or I can be reached on Facebook through my writer’s page.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be involved in writing and publishing?

Be patient and work hard at it. Anything worth doing isn’t easy. You are good and you probably are talented but talent is like 5% of most things.
For writers: share your work with everyone. Share it with your friends and your family and other writers. Don’t be afraid of other writers. We are too bothered about our own ideas to steal yours. Read a lot of stuff, and not just in genres you like. Read non-fiction. Watch films in different languages. Follow works from directors, read books that films are based off. Remember that inspiration comes from very unexpected places. Don’t wait for the mood to strike you. Any writing advice you see repeated over and over is probably solid advice (e.g. “write every day!”). If you don’t share your work you can’t know whether it’s good or not. It probably is good. And remember that a first draft is a first draft. Diamonds don’t come out of the rock looking like they’re ready to go straight into a jeweller’s shop window.
For publishing: try to network. I think that’s maybe the only way to get into this industry. It’s competitive. Find an alternative way in. Work in a book shop. Start a blog. Get a Youtube channel (I don’t know what the kids do these days). Start reviewing books and films and any kind of literature. Get a Twitter presence and follow a bunch of people. Above all perhaps just find something which works for you. Publishing is a really odd industry and it’s changing a lot all the time—and very quickly, too—and maybe just fire off a bunch of emails and tweets to relevant people in the industry. Sometimes it’s all about seeing what sticks when you throw stuff at the wall!

Do you have any dream jobs/companies that you would like to work with?

I used to—I used to dream about working with DC or Image comics or getting published by Orion books, but honestly at this point I’d take anyone and anything who might publish my work, as long as I can say “I did it!” just once in my life. Mostly my dream is to sign a book for someone and maybe have a book tour and some kind of book launch event, which would be sweet. I guess I got a bit disillusioned with the publishing industry a while ago, because you have no idea just how many people want to be writers and make it big until you start researching the industry and then it’s just this massive, massive thing. It really put me off for a few years until I realised that the traditional route and the big five houses weren’t the be all and end all of publishing and there were way, way more avenues I hadn’t even thought about, let alone imagined. So, life uh, finds a way?
My dream job isn’t really a job. I don’t know whether I’d want to be an author or a novelist as a job. Neil Gaiman is just a writer. He writes stuff. I guess I’d be happy with the same! I’d also love to edit other people’s work, but I think I prefer the small-scale things, you know? I’m never going to be in it for the money.

Is there anything else you want to discuss or ask that I haven’t already mentioned?

I don’t think so! Thanks for taking the time to interview me— if anyone wants to get in touch my website and email are both in here and you can also find me on Facebook (sometimes) and Twitter (rarely). I went through a period of time of putting myself out there and getting a large social media presence but honestly real life took over and I prefer to spend my time actually thinking up new ideas and getting some words down on the page now. Adios for now amigos, I have to go away and submit something to a competition…

If you enjoyed this interview and would like to learn more about Blythe’s creative projects and her other delights then head over to her author website: http://www.blytheberesford.com and you can also find her on twitter @fr00tsalad

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2019 Welcome Post

2019: New Year, New Start

Dear All,

Recently, things have been a little quiet on here because we have been busy handing over roles to the new members, however we are currently in the process of planning some exciting events for the coming year! Firstly, we would like to say a big thank you to Emma Parker and Fiona Martinez-Mancz who have done a wonderful job with the pgcwwn and we wish them every success in their future! Secondly, we have two new members Jade and Olivia who have joined the pgcwwn alongside Isabelle and you can learn more about the group on the Steering Group page. We are currently in the process of planning the 2019 biennial conference and more information will be posted about this in the next few months so keep your eyes peeled! All information will be posted on our website, Facebook and twitter pages however we would also encourage you to sign up to our newsletter by emailing us at info@pgcwwn.org

The Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network is also looking for short articles, reviews and interviews to feature on its website, which celebrates and promotes the study of modern female writers. We warmly invite postgraduate students, at all levels, to approach us with ideas for short pieces, of roughly 600-1500 words, on any aspect of contemporary women’s literature, both in the UK and abroad.

We are open to suggestions but authors for consideration might include Jackie Kay, Rupi Kaur, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hilary Mantel, Andrea Levy, Toni Morrison, Ursula K Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Maya Angelou, Jhumpa Lahiri, Barbara Kingsolver and Elena Ferrante.

If you have a idea for piece, a first draft, or are just curious to find out more, please contact Isabelle at info@pgcwwn.org

We look forward to hearing from you and are excited to meet some of you at our future event!

All best wishes,

Isabelle, Jade and Olivia.
-Steering Committee, The Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network

Meet Laydeez Do Comics: Individual Stories in the Comics Collective by Emma Parker

Launched in 2009 by artists Dr Nicola Streeten and Dr Sarah Lightman, Laydeez Do Comics is the UKs first women-led comics forum, championing the works of female-identifying cartoonists, comics artists and graphic novelists. LDCs monthly events, which take place across the UK and beyond, are open to all and feature illustrated presentations from comics artists, filmmakers, writers, researchers, curators and more. 

In 2018, responding to the pronounced gender imbalance in British comics artists, Laydeez do Comics launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for the first Laydeez Award, the UKs first womens prize for graphic novels. 

Nicola and Sarah have both completed doctorates in graphic narratives and are themselves comics creators. Nicola is the author of Billy, Me & You (Myriad 2011), an acclaimed graphic memoir chronicling her bereavement following the death of Billy, her two-year old son. She is also the co-editor of The Inkling Woman (Myriad 2018), a groundbreaking celebration of 250 years of female comics artists and cartoonists in Britain. Sarah is currently working on The Book of Sarah , a visual autobiography which is due to be published by Myriad in 2019.  She’s also the editor of the Eisner-winning Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews (McFarland 2014). 

Nicola and Sarah kindly agreed to chat to Emma Parker, a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, to discuss their work as creators, academic researchers and Laydeez Do Comics.  

How has your collaborative work with Laydeez Do Comics influenced your own practice as comics artists?  

Nicola Streeten: It has been the most important influence for both my practice as a comics artist and my research as an academic. As a practitioner, it enabled me to align my work, in terms of both content and style.  

LDC very quickly allowed us to learn what women in Britain are working on. Because the landscape was rather sparse in 2009 for comics social activities in London, and because the comics community in Britain is so small, we quite quickly became known. This enabled us to have a “passport” to approaching high-profile women, inviting them to be guests at our events. Within academia we have both had the additional help of postgraduate status. The combination of these two positions has opened doors for us both, and we hope it will do the same for people who attend LDC events.  

Sarah Lightman: Every time I attend a Laydeez do Comics event I feel inspired and delighted by the speakers and their work. I am so proud of the space Nicola and I, and the other Laydeez, have created.  

Laydeez do Comics has helped me, as an individual, feel part of a wider comics movement, it’s been a supportive background chorus for my own creative work”

My artistic style for The Book of Sarah is very different from many of the works that are presented at Laydeez. However, it is the autobiographical aspect that I share with many of the artists of LDC. We are all searching to tell a personal truth and to record our vulnerable journeys. Through this process we often critique society and transform ourselves. The bravery in the artworks shared in LDC is a reminder to me to be brave as well, and never to forget that exposing individual wounds, moments and revelations, often has the most universal impact. 

sarah lightman painting outgrowth copy

Copyright: Sarah Lightman

Has the need for a supportive community of female comics creators increased, or lessened, in the nine years since you launched LDC?  

NS: It is difficult to answer. The landscape is unrecognizable compared to 10 years ago. We like to think that we were part of early initiatives that spurred people to set up their own groups and/or collectives, both in the UK and globally. The supportive community for female creators has definitely expanded with many more opportunities. For example, Broken Frontier, Andy Oliver’s blog supports small press creators and ensures platforms for many women creators. Myriad Editions has always had a good gender balance, and their bi-annual first graphic novel award has seen a healthy representation in their shortlists of women and people of colour.  

However, what is important about LDC (and other meet up groups) is the inclusion of physical meet ups. There is a lot of online activity, and it is important to balance this with social and fairly informal opportunities to talk to people face to face. 

There is an ever-increasing appetite amongst readers for graphic memoirsMarjane SatrapiPersepolis and Alison BechdelFun Home are international bestsellers. How important is the autobiographical within your own comics 

NS:  We begin with what moves us, taken from our life experience and ask questions from that.

“The autobiographical is the starting point in everything I do, and I think this is true for most people, including academics in a range of disciplines.”

Thus, the cartoons I began with for my PhD research were the ones I remembered from my early twenties as somehow quietly formative in the way I understood the world as a woman. 

screen shot 2019-01-04 at 11.50.33

Copyright: Nicola Streeten. Extract from Billy, Me & You: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery (Myriad, 2011)

Both of you have doctorates exploring graphic narratives: whats the relationship between your work as academic researchers, and your work as creators?  

NS: My position through LDC was the reason I embarked confidently on a PhD. By looking specifically at British women’s cartoons and comics, I had access to the women whose works I wanted to consider. The research became about conversations with friends.

Through a double articulation as creator and academic, I had a direct way to reach other women artists. By using feminist theory and history as a methodological tool, I was also able to identify similarities in the organizational details and decisions around how LDC operates to strategies employed in both first and second wave feminism. This has continued to inform the way we think and analyse future plans for development. 

SL: My PhD was entitled “Dressing Eve and Other Reparative Acts” addressing feminist re-appropriations of biblical texts and iconography in women’s comics.  My own experiences as a woman and an artist are reflected in the comics I examine in my thesis, and I identified strongly with the challenges the protagonists face as daughters, partners and mothers. The title derives from a four page comic, “The Star Sapphire”, by Sharon Rudahl, where the artist borrows the pose of Eve in Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1424–1428) from the Brancacci Chapel inside the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. In “The Star Sapphire”, Sharon is drawn stepping out of the synagogue, the patriarchal biblical sphere that defined and undermined her, into a contemporary and autonomous world. That has been my own journey over the last few years. I also loved researching and writing my PhD. I felt the process transformed me, and my thinking. I not only engaged with feminist literary criticism, and feminist art history, but more specifically with Jewish and Christian feminist theology, allowing me to position The Book of Sarah alongside a literary and creative lineage. 

screen shot 2019-01-04 at 11.56.46

Copyright: Sarah Lightman

 The relationship between my academic research and creative work is evolving. It was a challenge to write about my graphic novel in my fourth chapter, as I was still drawing and needed to retain an academic voice within a very personal project. But using my own artwork in my thesis enacted feminist theories which champion the personal within academic research. Carolyn Heilbrun writes in Writing a Womans Life that “I could not speak of the problem of women today without speaking of my own life” (1979:22). By bringing my creative autobiographical output into an academic PhD I broke new ground for both myself and my University department. My next project will develop these interests, as I currently hold an Honorary Research Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London (2018-19), researching Jewish women and comics about Motherhood, Miscarriages and IVF. My output this time will be a personal visual essay in the form of a painted graphic novel and I want to develop this style of working in a post-doctorate. 

 Youve both recently launched the exciting Laydeez Award, championing new talent among female comics artistsWhich publications from comics artists and graphic novelists should we be looking out for in 2019 

SL: There are so many UK names to look out for, including Rachael Ball, Wallis Eates, The Surreal McCoy, Richy K. Chandler, Lucy Sullivan and others. These are just a start but I suggest people attend an LDC talk, and also follow our blog to keep discovering new talent! 

For more information about Laydeez do Comics please visit: https://laydeezdocomics.wordpress.com/ 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Marjorie Lotfi Gill by Marta Donati

Marjorie Lotfi Gill was born in New Orleans, spent her childhood in Teheran and lived in the USA before moving to London in 1999 and finally Edinburgh in 2005. She is a poet, performer and creative writing facilitator. She runs Open Book, a project that promotes reading groups for the vulnerable and for adults in the community. She also works with schoolchildren and adults in community settings, exploring issues of journey, assimilation, flight and immigration through her initiative The Belonging Project. Her poetry has been performed on BBC Radio 4, has won several competitions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has recently published a collection of poems, Refuge (2018), based on her experiences in Iran in the 1970s. More about Open Book can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/open-book/ More about The Belonging Project can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/projects/the-belonging-project/

Marta Donati: Your recent collection of poems, Refuge, is a remarkable meditation on the concept of leaving, be it a house, a country or a family. Could you tell me about the genesis of the collection?

Marjorie Lotfi GillGiven the current crisis around refugees and migrants, I’m often asked to read my poems about Iran and my family’s experiences of living through a revolution, loss and assimilation. I thought it would be a good idea to put all those poems in one place, so that reading them together might give you a more complete picture of how those experiences might change a family, or affect your outlook. The sequence of poems “Pilgrim”, which is loosely based on my father’s life and makes up the second half of the pamphlet, was commissioned by the St Magnus Festival in Orkney to accompany some new musical compositions by Stuart MacRae. I decided to include it because it feels a kind of parallel to the other poems in the pamphlet as it follows many of the same experiences through the eyes of one person.

MD: Refuge seems to be concerned with two different kind of ‘spaces’ that naturally influence each other: the space of the self, which is personal and related to family roots, and the space of politics, which is filled with news reports and photographs. How do you navigate this relationship between the personal and the political?

MLG: In short, I don’t. My poem “On seeing Iran in the news” is making that exact point: I wrote that poem because when people ask me what I think of Iranian politics, I never know what to say because my views are shaped by personal experiences. I’m not trying to make a political statement with the poems, but expose the living breathing world that politics impacts. (The most political poem in the book is possibly “Route”, which was written in a fury at the BBC’s suggestion that one might understand the real dilemmas of refugees by playing an online game.)

MD: You often write in response to art. The poem that gives its name to the collection – Refuge – is written in response to ‘Les Voyageurs’, a series of sculptures by French artist Bruno Catalano. Each sculpture shows a person in motion, holding a suitcase, but missing parts of their body. They are, in a sense, characters you can ‘see through’: they blend with their surroundings. There is a tension between the movement of these bodies, and the sense of disembodiment provoked by migration. Could you say a bit more about your encounter with Catalano’s work and why you decided to write a response to it? Does poetry help you understand and relate to other works of art?

MLG: I wrote “Refuge” because when I first encountered that Catalano sculpture, I immediately recognised the life of a refugee. To me, the sculpture is remarkable because it actually stands, despite missing such a large part of the body, and on first encounter I spent time initially trying to figure out how it worked. That puzzle is true for refugees too: despite having lost so much, they manage to hold on to their suitcases and stand up, keep going. The end of that poem refers both to our unwillingness to allow refugees into our societies (written at a time when refugees are often kept in “camps”) and the inability of some refugees to do more that simply make it onshore, and hope for more for the next generation.

I find that artwork helps me express what I’m trying to say in poetry, rather than the other way around. If I’m struggling with a subject that I want to write about, often the form of an artwork will help me. (This sculpture of an oversized rifle by Cornelia Parker, for example, helped me to articulate the way that we’ve grown accustomed to guns in America in this poem – https://www.rattle.com/the-gun-in-its-holster-by-marjorie-lotfi-gill/.) Of course, the act of observing an artwork closely in order to use it in writing does help me to understand the work better, to consider it more closely, and to draw connections between it and my own experiences, so I’m sure that the result works both ways!

MD: Reading your work, I often felt that art and poetry are somehow telling a ‘truth’ that news, television and reportages are not. One of my favourite poems of the collection is Route, which I read as a particularly angry and frustrated piece. In this poem you respond to BBC’s interactive Syrian ‘journey’: ‘if you were fleeing Europe, what choices would you make for you and your family? Take our journey to understand the real dilemmas the refugees face’. Does poetry represent a kind of ‘activist’ counterpart to the rhetoric of television and journalism in your mind? Would you say it is a healing device?

MLG: I don’t think of poetry as much as a device for healing as an expression or revelation of where we are right now. So that poem, for example, was intended to point out the madness in suggesting that anyone, even someone with life experiences like mine, could ever understand the “real dilemmas refugees face” from the comfort of their living rooms. I’m coming to the conclusion that the job or poetry – or at least one of its jobs – is to hold a mirror to the world, unmask what we’re too busy, or tired or distracted to see. It’s up to the reader to do something with that information.

MD: I’d like to speak a bit about your role as a performer. Do you generally write poetry that is already destined to be performed? What kind of layer of meaning does performing add to your writing?

MLG: I don’t think of performance when I write, but I do want the poems I write to be in my voice. Part of the process is reading drafts of poems out loud, to hear what they sound like (where the natural pauses are, where the line breaks could help with a play on language), and to make sure it sounds like me. (The danger, of course, is that you write the same poem over and over again!) Each time you perform a poem, it’s a different poem because the audience is different, is listening for different things; it would be impossible to write a poem with a particular audience or performance in mind. (That said, I did write “Pilgrim” sequence for performance at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney.

The written form in Refuge is slightly different from that performance draft because I knew the audience wouldn’t have a chance to see it again, and would need things to be a little more laid out, a little more joined up.)

MD: Throughout your career, you have worked with women’s charities, refugee groups, LGBTQ+ groups, disadvantaged children. Your poetry is filled with moments of solidarity: the opening poem of the collection, Gift, narrates a beautiful encounter between your Muslim grandmother and your Methodist mother in Teheran. Could you tell me about your work for and with the community and could you share with me a ‘gift’ you have received, a moment that has proven particularly meaningful to you and your writing?

MLG: My aim in writing with these communities of women (whether it’s refugee and migrant women, or those living with domestic violence) is always to honour their experiences. I don’t regularly ask about difficult times (though of course they often come up), but want to know about the other parts of their lives, to let these women know that they are valued, worthy, that their experiences as a whole person matter. We do that often by writing as a group, weaving the offerings of those around a table into a communal poem, which not only allows those who feel less confident to participate, but also brings the group together as a whole. My latest joy is training others to do this work through Open Book, so we can expand how many groups we can support in the long run.

I have been so lucky with gifts – I am regularly given the gift of trust, when women I’m working with tell me their stories, and trust me to use them wisely. I’m also often thanked by participants for this work, for listening and valuing where they come from, rather than their difficulties – and each one of those bits of feedback feels a gift to be treasured. To offset this kind of intense work, I was exceedingly lucky to be offered the Poet in Residence role at Jupiter Artland, where I was given the precious gift of time, silence and space for two years to walk alone in their woods and write whatever I wanted. Most importantly, I’ve been given the gift of encouragement by my husband, who suggested I return to poetry rather than law when my youngest child went to school, and has made space for my work ever since.

MD: Finally, I am curious to know about the poetry that inspires you and that you would recommend to others. Do you have a favourite poet and a favourite poem?

MLG: I have loved the work of Adrienne Rich since I was in my early 20s – and since then have added others like Sharon Olds and Sinead Morrissey. Philip Levine’s poems, particularly the close up look at the every day, stay with me wherever I go. John Glenday’s poems have a stillness with depth that I admire and return to again and again. And last but not least are the poems of John Burnside; I almost always carry his poems with me because his poems are a good reminder of the duality of our daily life, the inward and the outward.

One favourite poem?! Really? It would have to be an Adrienne Rich poem – maybe “Roofwalker” or “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” or likely “What is Possible (for its lines “If the mind were clear/ and if the mind were simple you could take this mind/ this particular state and say/ This is how I would live if I could choose: /this is what is possible.”). The last lines are a challenge to myself that I carry with me

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Review by Amber Lascelles

Review: Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays (St Ives: Penguin Random House, 2018)

Zadie Smith’s latest essay collection, Feel Free, accompanied me on the train to London en route to a Black British Writing conference at Goldsmiths. Opening its azure blue cover, I read ‘North-west London blues’ as the train sped through Watford Junction into the centre of the city. How fitting, then, were Smith’s wistful words about gentrification in the London borough where she grew up, writing about Willesden Bookshop, soon to be turned into a block of luxury flats. She assuredly states that the owner (a formidable book-worm named Helen) ‘gave the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted’. For Smith, the bookshop’s carefully curated collection of ‘radical’ ‘weird’ and ‘classical’ fiction was an antidote to the market-driven logic of neoliberal capitalism currently driving small, community-focused businesses out of London. Smith is masterful at stressing the local and the personal whilst mapping her thoughts onto a global world of shifting politics, economics and injustices. Indeed, this first essay is reminiscent of a blues song; an elegy dedicated to the ghosts of Britain’s state-supported libraries and independent businesses buried in the graveyards of inner city London which luxury apartment blocks and Instagrammable cereal cafés perch upon. Gentrification is certainly bleak, but Smith suggests we can find glimmers of hope if we look closely enough. Above the tiny library that replaced the Willesden Bookshop a beautiful local museum has taken up some of the property developers’ precious space. For culture to survive within the consumer-materialism logic of late capitalism, we must advocate its value and its relevance. This is what Feel Free seeks to do, carefully considering the value of cultural forms in the world and in our lives.

Feel Free.jpg

Although Feel Free is Smith’s second authored work of non-fiction, she remains best known for her novels. Her award-winning debut, White Teeth (1999) is a tale of multicultural Britain that draws inspiration from Greek epics as it chronicles the intertwined lives of a Bangladeshi and a mixed Jamaican-English family. In the early 2000s, White Teeth propelled Smith to the centre stage as the young voice of multicultural Britain. This label has remained problematic for Smith, particularly in light of Britain’s constant denial of its imperial history in tandem with a diversity agenda which obscures the realities of life for people of colour, especially under its pro-Brexit Conservative government. In Feel Free, Smith subtly challenges the fiction of Britain itself. The essays are organised under fitting sub-headings. In Part I (‘In the World’) Her meditations on Brexit and the ‘fencing off’ of communities as the nation continuously erects borders in both public and private spaces, and the Wordsworthian language considering England’s changing seasons due to climate change, lament what modern Britain seems to have lost. But this is Smith, and the hopeful, convivial vision of White Teeth is not yet lost, even within the decidedly bleaker genre of critical non-fiction. Part of Feel Free’s redemptive vision of the world lies within Smith’s attention to beauty, to art, and to reimagining the everyday spaces and places we inhabit. Notably, Smith quotes quotes Zora Neale Hurston in the epigraph: ‘People can be slave-ships in shoes.’ Feel Free is a container, a mass, and a plethora of ideas with the ability to spark infinite possibilities in the mind of its reader.

Throughout the essays, Smith crosses genres effortlessly to explore what seemingly disparate art forms can learn from another. In Part II (‘In the Audience’) Smith considers the relationship between writing and dancing, and the lessons of ‘position, attitude, rhythm and style’ that writers can learn. If Fred Astaire portrays the aristocracy and Gene Kelly represents the proletariat through their specific styles of dance, this appears to Smith as a choice between ‘the grounded and the floating’. Here dance sets up a dichotomy between the ‘commonsense’ language of the everyday, loaded with intent, versus the language of the surreal and the transcendent, which leads us to questions rather than answers. Whilst Beyoncé commands armies of fans with her covetable brand of female empowerment (her body obeys her, like her male dancers and her fanbase), Prince appears like a mirage on the stage, fleeting and mysterious like a secret. It is interesting that different responses to culture, positionality, place and space breed different forms of creativity.

At times, the essays in part III (‘In the Gallery’) feel a little idiosyncratic due to their particularity; some pieces are perhaps most relevant to the direct consumers of the particular painting or film the essay focuses on. Speaking personally, I found some of the essays about books I have not yet read or films I’m not familiar with slightly alienating. However, the range of the collection means there is something everyone can engage with. It is also worth noting that whilst care has been taken to make the essays flow coherently, the constraints of certain writing styles are sometimes evident. The Jay-Z interview, published in The New York Times, is one example of this: we miss Smith’s presence in this piece, and we are left wondering if the rap mogul was indeed able to reach Smith’s high expectations as a self-confessed ‘hip-hop head’. A stand-out essay is Smith’s response to American photographer Jerry Dantzic’s photographs of Billie Holiday. She chooses a form of ventriloquy to interpret an image of Holiday in lipstick and pearls, adorned in a fur jacket outside a grocery store. Holiday reads like a captivating fictional character. Smith’s words, in the second person, are simultaneously dark, satirical and playful (‘You boil an egg in twinset and pearls’) as she attempts to articulate the black pain and joy in Holiday’s music. Yet, she is still illusive to us, and Smith obscures as much as she reveals, just like the photograph.

In the final section (‘Feel Free’), ‘Love in the Gardens’ comforts us, suggesting that despite the fences being erected across Europe we can still find solace in some public spaces. After Smith’s father died, she moved to Rome in a moment of grief-stricken spontaneity. She meanders through the memories of trips to Italy with her father to deliver a nuanced point: borders can open up to people in the form of public gardens. Smith moves from the impossibly perfect, yet inaccessible beauty of the English country garden, to the Borghese Gardens in Rome where tourists and locals alike abandon Italian sensibilities in a cosmopolitan space. These are her ideas of freedom: ‘In Italy, where so many kinds of gates are closed to so many people, there is something especially beautiful in the freedom of a garden.’

In the foreword, Smith humbly mentions her writer’s anxiety that came with stepping out of her fiction comfort-zone. She is not an academic or a trained philosopher; her ‘evidence’ is ‘intimacy’, the quotidian moments that spark a thought or feeling about the world. There is something tongue-in-cheek in this, as there often is in Smith’s prose: isn’t all writing simply thoughts and ideas on a page? In this sense, Feel Free invites us to think about our own ways of seeing the world. In the foreword, she notes that the essays were written in a pre-Trump world but the book has been published in a post-election landscape. Smith is very much in dialogue with her readers, as she offers a final word: ‘To the reader still curious about freedom I offer these essays – to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!’ It is this humility, rare to find in writing charged with such political and emotional relevance, that makes Feel Free a blue-sky antidote to these dark times.

Amber Lascelles is a PhD student at the University of Leeds researching neoliberalism, black feminism and the body in the works of four contemporary black women writers.

 

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Review by Sarah Clouston 

Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet (1998) takes place in the aftermath of jazz musician Joss Moody’s death.[1] Set in both London in 1997 and Glasgow’s music scene in the 1960s, it moves between the narrative of Joss’ life, and the events following his death. In a eulogistic style Kay’s narrative provides responses from several characters who knew Joss, with each providing different perspectives on his demise once his biological gender is revealed to be female. This revelation causes a media frenzy, and so Trumpet begins with his wife Millie, hiding from the paparazzi. The novel recognizes and explores the separation between a person’s biological gender and their identity. Joss’ adopted son Colman struggles to understand the news that his father was born biologically female and subsequently releases details about his father’s life to an unfeeling, self-serving journalist, Sophie Stones, who is ruthlessly seeking material for her forthcoming book. Meanwhile Joss’ wife, Millie, exhausted from the constant media attention, escapes to their Scottish seaside home to work through her grief alone. Colman ultimately decides to cancel the exposé on his father and finds some peace in accepting his father’s identity.

Jackie Kay Trumpet

Kay has stated that the novel is loosely based on the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton, who like the character of Joss, lived the majority of his adult life as male, yet was biologically born female. Individual cultural identity or heritage is a notable interest throughout Jackie Kay’s work and Trumpet articulates many of the themes prominent in her writing: identity, adoption, displacement, beginnings, and gender. Sex and gender are positioned through the private and public spheres in which the novel takes place. Different accounts of Joss are given from his wife, his son, a journalist, a fellow musician, a doctor, a registrar and an undertaker. These multiple perspectives allow Kay to present opinions from a varied number of narrators, including those who did not know Joss well, in order to consider the reception of transgender persons in British society. Eventually, most of Kay’s characters consider Joss’ sexuality to be separate from his gender and identity.

Joss poses challenges to normative conceptions of gender when a doctor and funeral director both struggle to categorize him on his death certificate. Kay suggests a need to expound the myth that gender and sexuality are co-dependent, using a distinctive jazz aesthetic throughout the novel as a platform to explore the fluidity of gender, suggesting that the creation of identity can be continuously remade and performed. During a solo Joss becomes ‘a girl. A man. Everything, nothing. He is sickness, health. The sun. The moon. Black, white. Nothing weighs him down. Not the past or the future. He hangs on to the high C and then he lets go’ (136).

Questions and concerns surrounding race are also central to Trumpet. Born to a black father and white mother, Joss is disapproved of by Millie’s mother. Joss’ song, ‘Fantasy Africa’ invokes the African diaspora and experiences of displacement. Joss claims, ‘Every black person has a fantasy Africa’, but believes that to visit ‘the real Africa’ would have a significant  ‘affect’ on his music (Trumpet, 34). Kay subsequently situates her readers within Black diasporic communities in twentieth-century Britain but, by connecting Joss’ heritage with jazz music, she suggests an improvisational approach towards identity. She reminds readers of Joss’ Scottishness in an attempt to recalibrate what it means to be Scottish, English, or Black British. Kay focuses not only on the issue of transphobia surrounding these characters, but also the impact of colonial histories within modern Britain.

Kay also explores the effects of adoption on the self, as Colman, struggling with his identity, feels that he doesn’t belong to either Joss, Millie, his birthparents, Scotland or England. Colman subsequently seeks company in the tabloid journalist Sophie Stones, who can only offer insult to both Colman and his father. Meanwhile, his struggles with identity are compounded by similar attempts to understand his own masculinity. Irene Rose identifies Trumpet as a ‘resolutely post-patriarchal display of multiplicity of masculinities’.[2] Joss’ anatomy complicates Colman’s understanding of what masculinity should look like, but in his final acceptance of reading his father’s letter we are presented with how alternative masculinities may be expressed. Importantly, the letter between father and son is the first time Joss is afforded a narrative voice in Trumpet. Kay’s novel ends with a positive, openminded vision for countering social injustice as Joss tells Colman, ‘You will be my father telling my story’ (Trumpet, 277).  Kay suggests the potential and productivity that can arise from both tolerance and creative writing if Colman challenges his energies into generative forms of storytelling, rather than fuelling a tell-all exposé.

 Interestingly, each chapter of Trumpet is labelled after sections in a magazine or newspaper: ‘House and Home’, ‘People’, ‘Interview Exclusive’ etc. Here Kay crosses the boundaries between public and private lives and reflects upon a sensationalised tabloid press culture withinBritain. Constant references to the exposé nature of the novel which Stones intends to write about Joss reminds us of the media’s ability to present fiction as news. Learning about Joss’ life and choices through other characters’ narrative voices offers us, as readers, the opportunity to gain a more nuanced view of Joss’ personality. Kay’s choice of form further inscribes the separation between gender and sexuality as Joss’ sexuality is not connected to his gender until the newspapers tie them together after his death.

Ultimately, jazz culture binds this novel together. Jazz enables Joss to ‘lose his sex, his race, his memory’ (Trumpet, 131). Despite the unforgiving responses to Joss’ sexuality, his musical talent cannot be denied, and remains untouched by the media. The swinging London music scene of the 1960s provide a crucial setting for the liberation of the self, where identities can be remade and renegotiated. Kay brings jazz and identity most poignantly together when the registrar hands the pen to Millie to complete the ‘gender’ section of Joss’ death certificate: ‘It was as if the pen was asking her to dance’ (Trumpet, 81).

This novel is seminal to transgender thinking. Published just before the turn of the new century, Kay offers us, her readers, new non-binary modes of thinking about identity, sex and gender. Just as her chapters mirror the compositional technique of call and response, Trumpet calls its reader to action their understandings of non-heteronormative sexualities, racial differences and gender constructions. Kay denies any silencing of non-normative identities and in doing so has created a striking, thought-provoking novel.

References

1 Jackie Kay, Trumpet (London: Picador, 1998).

2 Irene Rose, ‘Heralding New Possibilities: Female Masculinity in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet’, in Posting the Male: Masculinities in Post-War and Contemporary British Literature, ed. by Daniel Lea and Berthold Schoene (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), pp. 144-6.

Sarah Clouston is a full-time postgraduate student at the University of Leeds reading an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature. Her dissertation researches the phenomena of Modernist magazine culture: ‘little magazines’, and the poetry of Mina Loy. Her other research interests include postcolonial Britain, indigenous literature and Modernist poetry. She holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Leeds.

Symposium: Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing

An Events Report by Lucy Sheerman

I went to the PGCWWN conference on Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre with a sense of burning shame. I wanted to address a theme from the conference call out that fascinates me – the idea of shame which is so often linked to reading romantic fiction, namely ‘The perception of romance as a low-brow genre, and the extent to which this perception offers critical and intellectual insights into debates about how we define women’s writing and cultural contribution’.

In answer to the question about why romance is so often and so frequently denigrated Sarah Wendell editor of the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Fiction writes, ‘Are you a woman? Look in your pants. That could be why.’ It is a genre ‘written mostly by women, mostly for women’ with what Nora Roberts calls ‘the hat trick of easy targets: emotions, relationships and sex’.

I had been struck by the descriptions on Wendell’s website of how readers had had their romance books confiscated, thrown away and even burned and the resonance with Charlotte Bronte’s description of how her father burned her collection of ‘foolish love stories’ which had belonged to her mother. It seems that the idea of shame is rooted in the earliest origins of and attitudes to romantic fiction. Later, her husband Arthur Bell Nichols insisted that her friend must ‘burn’ Bronte’s letters to her. According to Bronte their ‘communication’ was something which ‘men don’t seem to understand’ and ‘dangerous as lucifer matches’.

The representation and correlation of sexual desire with both shame and fire is pivotal in Jane Eyre and in its subsequent iterations, Rebecca and Fifty Shades of Grey. In Jane Eyre desire erupts in the flames set by the passionate wife, flames which also threaten to engulf Jane literally and metaphorically. In Rebecca the narrator’s gaze is continually drawn to DeWinter’s compulsive smoking which masks the blaze or blush of his own shame and the experience of repressed and conflicted desire. Fire and burning, the heat and blaze of skin, eyes and touch in Fifty Shades of Grey is figured as sexual arousal and desire without literal fire. No longer a metaphor it is the experience and state of desire and climax. What does such a shift in meaning suggest and what has happened to the representation of ‘burning shame’?

My focus has mostly been on the authorial process at work in romance – I am interested in how writers use the conventions of the form and how these can, in turn, be read. The PGCWWN symposium offered a wide-ranging analysis of romantic fiction with approaches ranging from literary theory to social history and political manifesto.

Amy Burge gave a keynote on the representation of masculinity and nationality in the Mills & Boon Modern series. She looked at how the representation of otherness – foreignness and masculinity – is portrayed in the figure of the exotic Alpha heroes of these books. Her talk included a meticulous breakdown of the frequency of different nationalities for heroes, (how many Italians, Greeks, Sheiks, etc – the made-up tiny European principality had its own category) as well as a rather stunning spreadsheet of the buzzword titles which look like putative and subversive titles in their own right:

His, Billionaire, Millionaire, Boss, Tycoon

Italian, Sicilian, Billionaire, Boss

Greek, Tycoon, His, Boss, Millionaire

Martina Vitackova, by contrast, gave an account of the huge success of a white South African author writing romance novels in Afrikaans which, despite the focus on white protagonists, attracts diverse and widespread readership and sales. In part this must be because, according to Vitackova, it is almost the only contemporary romantic fiction currently available in the language. However the reception resonates with the link between escapism offered by reading romantic fiction and the process of othering or displacing desire which this can also permit implicit in Burge’s work and in Jane Eyre. I’m thinking, in part, of Esther Wang’s article ‘Watching And Reading About White People Having Sex Is My Escape’ about the experience of racial dissonance between the reading and written worlds.       https://www.buzzfeed.com/estherwang/why-i-love-watching-and-reading-about-white-people-having-30?utm_term=.fdDEEQgqPD#.mmz33pwdqa

Many of the papers concerned themselves with the nature of the metaphoric freight which sexual desire carries in romance novels. Political ideology, social and sexual dissonance, the othering of desire onto a foreign, domineering male challenger, the possibility of happiness within a compromised and far from ideal social order, sexual agency and control are played out within the trope of sexual attraction, desire and consummation. Fran Tomlin considered the use of the romance genre in the work of A.L.Kennedy and in particular its negotiation and resistance of the HEA (Happy Ever After) trope. Val Derbyshire discussed how Penny Jordan reflected the social impact of economic recession through characterisation and story arc in two of her Mills&Boon titles. Alicia Williams also took an instrumental view of category romance and the degree to which writers engaged with social issues. She looked specifically at the way in which the ‘Dear Reader’ letters which open many books set up direct communication between reader and author. This gesture, she argued, subverts the assumption that these books are only to be viewed as escapist fantasy and have been abstracted from real-world concerns.

Veera Mäkelä looked at the development of female agency in the novels of Mary Balogh while Deborah Madden, considered novels of1930s Spain and Portugal whose politically engaged heroines subvert the tropes of romantic love and an HEA in narratives which mirror their own resistance of the social and political worlds they inhabit. Fiona Martinez also considered the link between feminism and romance and the degree to which the tropes of romance permit a place to renegotiate and interrogate the feminine.

And so back to burning shame. The OED gives the roots of the word shame as ‘infamous man or woman’ and ‘to cover .. covering oneself being the natural expression of shame’. In her paper Elizabeth Dimmock discussed Fifty Shades of Grey in relation to Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. The reception and readership of the book linked to a ritualistic subversion of normative behaviours ‘played out via kindle under a cloak of erotic invisibility’ which reflects that of its protagonist whose sexual contract with his lover specifies ‘no piercing of skin’. Grey masks the redness and soreness he causes by spanking with the application of cream – an act both tender and dissembling as the evidence of his desire and need for control is covered up.

All in all? A shame it had to end so soon. So much to think about – I’m still mulling over the talks and chatting to participants and following up leads that were tantalisingly trailed throughout the day like so many breadcrumbs into the forest. Laura Vivanco gave a detailed review of all of the papers on her blog which is a comprehensive record of an inspiring day: http://www.vivanco.me.uk/blog

I’m enormously grateful for the chance to take part and for the generous award of a bursary which supported my travel and accommodation expenses.

The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson

Review by Carly Robinson

The Photographer's WifeThe title of Joinson’s second novel belies the main focus of the story which is essentially the life and experiences of the protagonist Prudence Ashton. Naming the book after one of the key influential but periphery characters is indicative of the evasive and shifting nature of the narrative. Joinson weaves intricate character interactions within a somewhat convoluted plot which make up the complex web of relationships and their subsequent unfolding. Moving through two main time frames, Joinson runs two parallel stories of Prue’s life side by side as the reader skips backwards and forwards between her privileged but lonely childhood in 1920’s Jerusalem, and her starkly contrasted adulthood in an English seaside town, bringing up her young son as a single parent and struggling artist.

We first meet Prue as she encounters one of the pivotal characters of the novel; William Harrington, as he travels to meet his new employer, and Prue’s father, Charles Ashton. This initial meeting where eleven year old Prue deduces Harrington’s identity but is overlooked by him on the train is somewhat indicative of the alienation and distance in operation between all of the characters within the novel. Prue’s father is an architect tasked with a bizarre endeavour to redesign the Holy City and the 1920’s sections of the narrative follow the disparate characters he has drafted together to help him ‘modernise’ the city as well as those opposing his seemingly colonial enterprise; setting the scene of political, social and cultural unrest in early 1920’s Jerusalem.

Prue is the driver through which we meet the other characters and view their interactions, but this presents a challenge to the reader in terms of identifying with the characters and understanding their motives and the interplay of relations. I was unsure whether this tangible distancing was an intentional philosophical commentary on the true nature of the self as a lone survivor of life’s traumas, or a failing to convince of any real connections. Joinson holds all her characters in what feels like suspended animation, moving through a  series of startling and disturbing events, some of which seem thrown in for shock value, rather than adding great character insight or value to the story. This is a real shame as she tackles a vast array of complex issues within the plot; the nature of love both sexual and familial, jealousy and conflict within relationships and the self combines with a social and historical commentary of Jerusalem in the interwar period.

Some of the tensions wrought between these characters have real depth and insight, with the potential to be developed into a stronger analysis of human relations. The divided narrative is a compelling use of form as it does keep the reader engaged to find out what happens in each time frame. Joinson’s insightful portrayal of Prue’s loneliness and lack of confidence as an only child is compounded by the inadvertent neglect by her father, lack of peer group friendships and a series of traumatic incidents throughout her life which leave her a fractured survivor, questioning her abilities as a mother.

Both sections of the novel are pulled together at the end as Joinson employs a mystery style plot structure weaving the past into the present as the reader attempts to understand what Harrington wants from Prue all these years later. Using this increasingly hostile interaction with Harrington as a catalyst, Joinson represents a resolution of Prue’s inner turmoil and conflict in the final crescendo of the plot, as Harrington’s revelation and actions kick start Prue’s maternal protectiveness and enable her to move on with her life through the production of her artwork.

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Review by Jahnavi Misra

Rush Oh by Shirley BarrettShirley Barrett is a screenwriter and film director, and Rush Oh! is her first novel. It depicts a small Australian whaling community from the early nineteen hundreds, in the disingenuous and unembellished narrative voice of the protagonist – Mary Davidson. The thrill and the tragedy inherent in traditional, small-scale hunting of a creature as majestic as a whale is vividly brought out through an unobtrusive recounting of whaling incidents. These whaling sequences are accompanied by tiny illustrations that bring the experience to life.

The story is told from the perspective of Mary, who is the daughter of a celebrated whaler, George Davidson. The book is a record of a year of her life as a young girl, growing up in the company of raucous whalers in Eden, New South Wales. While the first part of the book is about her as a young girl, the later chapters reveal to the reader that Mary is now a middle-aged woman, writing this story to better acquaint her nephew with his whaling ancestry. The digressions into Mary’s personal stories through the first half of the narrative – her need for romantic love, her affection and resentment towards her sister, her eulogy for her brothers – have greater emotional impact in the fade-out of the later chapters, when the reader is told that she had simply wanted to write a straightforward record of the whaling culture. It is almost as if the other, more personal parts of the story had furtively found their way into the narrative of their own accord. The reader, thus, not only gets a glimpse of a unique and declining whaling lifestyle, but also becomes privy to Mary’s personal joys and frustrations, especially in relation to her short-lived romance with John Beck – the part of the narrative that she hopes to remove before showing it to her nephew.

The novel portrays a time of transition – whaling is dying out, race relations between the aborigines and settlers is changing, and World War I is breaking out; all of which effects the Davidson family quite directly. These transitions mean that almost no relationship survives without considerable scars – one such relationship that stands out in the novel is between Mary and her sister, Louisa. The pretty and hard headed Louisa is lost to her family and the reader when she elopes with an aborigine whaler, Darcy. She, like John Beck, never returns to Mary, and the reader is left with a tragic portrait of a woman who has constantly been thwarted in her affections, but has never let cynicism get the better of her. Mary, although much older, is still alive and kicking, having thrown herself headlong into church activities, and awaiting the arrival of an exciting new Reverend, to replace the old, boring one.

Rush Oh! is a novel that is full of heart, effortlessly transporting its audience to the small town of Eden, as it was in the year 1908. Mary is a robust and elevating narrator who does not linger on her heart-breaking experiences for so long as to make them seem maudlin, or so fleetingly as to make them seem superficial. Mary strikes a note so exact that the reader comes to trust her implicitly, never questioning her perspective of all the beauty and tragedy that surrounds her.

An Interview with Gail Jones

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Gail Jones is the author of two short-story collections, a critical monograph, and the novels Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams Of Speaking, Sorry, Five Bells and A Guide to Berlin (longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize). She is currently Professor of Writing at Western Sydney University.

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V.B.: Over a timespan of twenty-five years you have achieved recognition as an important female author, not only on the Australian but also on the international literary scene. Your fiction has been translated into thirteen languages; it has, among other distinctions, been longlisted for the Orange prize, and has won many prizes including the Nita B. Kibble Award. These two mentioned literary prizes all share a particular interest in work produced by women. To what extent has your increasing international readership, with its specific expectations and demands and also with its diverse national and cultural backgrounds, influenced your own writing as an Australian female author? Has there been any evolution to your views about the role that female writers play, or ought to play, on the literary scene and marketplace nowadays?

G.J.: Imagined readership is not something I attend to in the writing of my fiction. I feel I have a commitment to the integrity of any project – its internal logic, such as it is; its wish to create a vivid and cogent world; its dedication to a spirit of openness in human encounters – these rather abstract principles guide my thinking and writing. The desire to recommend oneself as an exemplar of any kind seems to me a paralysing model of literary production. I also feel very humble about my own work – always hoping simply to “fail better” with each text – and try to detach as much as possible from the peculiar value system of prizes. I’m of course conscious of my role as a woman writer – but also see this more as a ground of possibility, as it were, than a determination of content or a fixed subject position on the world.

V.B.: Your latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, is named after a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. Interestingly, in the last section of Nabokov’s ‘guide’, the narrator, while watching a child observing the inside of a pub, muses in what appears to be a moment of revelation: “There is one thing I know. Whatever happens to him in life, he will always remember the picture he saw every day of his childhood from the little room where he was fed his soup. […] I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollections” (Vladimir Nabokov. 1976. Details of A Sunset and other Stories. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 98). What is it that appeals to you in this idea of future recollections, which seems to crop up repeatedly in your more recent writing – I am thinking in particular of the last chapter of Five Bells, in which this forward-backward movement in time, and the verbatim repetition of the phrase “will remember,” is particularly striking?

G.J.: Yes, you’re right: this is a preoccupation of mine. What moves me about the conclusion to A Guide to Berlin is that the ‘guide’ imagines that the little boy eating soup will remember him, with “(my) empty right sleeve and scarred face”. There’s a lovely tenderness here: the narrator of the story imagines that his own mutilated body will be recalled by the child in the future, registered in its moment and location, preserved in a kind of delayed understanding. This encapsulates one of the truths of our relationships, that we know each other materially, through real-time contact and presence, but also immaterially, in recollection and the mysterious persistence of word and image traces. So this moment at the end of Nabokov’s story captures something essential about the way people matter to each other, and how we must cherish those apparently inconsequential encounters. It’s a small thought which recognizes the capacity of the ordinary to constitute memory and the apprehension that there’s a temporal and even metaphysical dimension in which, as Nabokov puts it earlier in his story, “every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right.” In phenomenological and existential terms we’re always in a forward-backward rhythm, not often fully here in the present moment – or rather our present is inflected and intercepted by the past and the future, pleated and folded. Likewise if we were to see our contemporary world with the eyes of the future, we might see it suddenly aestheticized and made endearingly strange.

V.B.: In some ways A Guide to Berlin can be considered a companion-piece to Five Bells’. Indeed, both novels narrate the coming together in one city of individuals carrying very different childhood stories and national histories. However, whereas (in Five Bells) the five characters meet unknowingly and form a community on the level of discourse, the six international travellers in A Guide to Berlin form a less unwitting literary community, based on a mutual passion for Nabokov’s oeuvre. Significantly, both communities experience a terrible fate, characterised by loss, grief and mourning. In a sense, it is only through your knitted readership that a certain type of community seems to re-emerge in the larger world. Hence my question: what redemptive narrative responsibility does the writer wish to shoulder in the face of this sense of the precariousness and ephemerality of communities in the actual world?

G.J.: That’s a difficult question. Communities are indeed precarious, and A Guide to Berlin is perhaps a pessimistic take on capacity of narrative to establish genuine community. But I hope too it’s affirming random beauty, the mystery of patterns, and a final insistence that we share deep pleasures in language, story and friendship. One of the differences between the texts is the Japanese lovers – they are characters not damaged or enigmatic in the way the others are, but have been rescued by love, and are joyful and artistic. The Japanese perception of the fleetingness of things is for them both an explanatory mode and a sense of meaning –  this is ‘redemption’ on a small scale, if you like. The film theorist Siegfried Kracauer talks about “the redemption of the real” through acts like photographic looking: this was the kind of thing I had in mind. Particularized redemption – and not as a general project. I like to think this book honours the final irreducibility of other people. We think we know the characters in A Guide, because of the candour of their disclosures, but there is always something held back, perhaps even wordless, that lies at the centre of their being. Judith Butler talks (in Giving an Account of Oneself) about how it is the opacity of others that finally obliges us to construct a robust interpersonal ethics: I like this idea.

V.B.: The five characters in Five Bells come to Circular Quay on the same train. In A Guide to Berlin, two characters, the Australian Cass and the Italian Gino, are obsessed with trains, stations, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. More generally, the characters in your stories travel a lot, not only through space but also through time. To what extent do you see time and space as being interrelated, interwoven, and perhaps even interdependent?

G.J.: I’ve been teaching an MA level course on “time” and reading a lot of philosophy. I’m genuinely intrigued by space-time (Einstein’s formulation of the indisociability of space and time), but also by figures like Michel Serres and Bruno Latour – especially Latour’s mischievous model of the polytemporal. We all exist in many times simultaneously. It seems to me that lyric time matters (the time of stasis in which Being seems to unfold before you), but so does lost time, accelerated or decelerated time, and the various metaphors we engage to try to personalize this experience (rivers, folds, spirals, etc.) also have an effect on our being-in-the-world. Superimposition interests me. Nabokov famously wrote: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.”

As to trains: in western modernity trains radically over-signify – speed, industrialization, even the holocaust –  and this fascinates me. I like the fact that trains, seen at night, resemble old-fashioned film-strips, an image I discovered Nabokov also loved (the tram on a bridge at night). They carry our seeing, as much as they carry our bodies; and somehow differently to cars, since they’re haphazardly communal and allow us a corridor of to walk against the direction we’re moving in. So yes, interdependence and interrelation is at the base of this kind of knowing, and this principle offers all kinds of poetic and symbolic satisfactions.

V.B.: During one of their meetings, the six international travellers of A Guide to Berlin exchange their views on their favourite places in the city. There is the Berlin aquarium with its jellyfish and Nabokovian tortoise, the fountains, among which the enigmatic Medusa head in Henriettenplatz, the Stattbad, a former swimming pool turned into a club, and the Bebelplatz, which commemorates the book burning of 1933. Interestingly, Cass and Gino respectively choose, as their favourites, the trains (the U-Bahn and S-Bahn), and the ruin of the Anhalter Bahnhof (the former point of departure for Jews sent to Theresienstadt). More generally, your own guide seems to focus more on interstitial places and spaces, as well as on timeless worlds and monuments. Why this particular, non-touristic approach?

G.J.: These days Berlin is celebrated for its hipster life-style and artistic freedom. It has always been a space of avant-gardist ideas and art movements. But my first impressions of Berlin (and these have in part remained) were of its rubble, its melancholy and its devotion to memorials.  It was enormously moving to contemplate Eisenman’s ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, which is of course almost entirely abstract, with no figuration, numbers or words.  Moving through obdurate shapes – the 2,711 slabs – obliges solemnity, reflection, some awareness of what eroded or destroyed representation might be, some need to imagine loss in wholly unsentimental terms. This was one of the starting points for my text – the places that exist, in Benjaminian terms, committed to the philosophy of ruins. Wordless places, thinking places: these ought to be especially meaningful to writers and readers. This all sounds rather grim, so I took care to include the spaces that also animate and enliven us – the aquarium, full of visions – those that generate wonder and delight.

V.B.: Quite ironically, A Guide to Berlin is a successful story dealing with “the failure of any tale”, to quote directly from it. It invites its reader to silent propinquity, shared understandings and empathetic imagination, and yet, by the same token, it acknowledges the failure of its extraordinary community of six when it comes to narrativising personal truths and secrets: its quintessence then lies in all that remains hidden and unspoken. Thus, beyond the nod in the direction of Nabokov, A Guide to Berlin includes a reference to itself as a meta-discursive avatar of Gino’s personal, undisclosed guide. To what extent does your novel strive to encapsulate your personal acknowledgment of the failure of words to fully come to terms with traumatic events?

G.J.: Ah, “fail better”, once again! I’m pleased you recognize that there’s a commitment in this text to the principle of silent propinquity – the standing with an other, the sharing of delights and griefs.  But it’s true too that there are many “guides” spiralling in this book, including Gino’s inaccessible text, which may (hypothetically) be the most reliable.  I’m hoping not to stick to Nabokov so much as to ask: what guides us? When we are in a city not our own, what surfaces in us symbolically to make sense of the signs we encounter? And as you state, there’s a space here too for the wordless world of trauma, which does not always enter into linguistic expression. In these ways, yes, it’s a deeply personal book, though I’m not Cass (I’m much more joyful!) and usually retreat – shy and embarrassed –  from autobiographical readings.

V.B.: You seem to share with Cass an obsession with snow. Indeed, “Snow” is the title of the first short story collected in Fetish Lives; there is of course Stella’s recurrent snow dream in Sorry; Pei Xing in Five Bells is mesmerized by snow; and, in A Guide to Berlin, it turns into an obsession for both Cass and Gino. What is it that fascinates you so dearly with snow? Can you comment on your decision to approach it as an “aestheticizing medium”, as you termed it in an interview conducted by Eleanor Wachtel?

G.J.: Yes, I am dearly fascinated by snow. In this text I decided simply to indulge my own enchantment, since the gorgeous transmogrifications of snow still seem a secular magic to me. I didn’t see snowfall until I was an adult, and found the experience crazily exhilarating. Deeply sensual, world-changing, a combination of wholly unanticipated physical and cognitive effects. There’s no doubt a kind of naivety to this response, a daft unworldliness, but I’ve tried to preserve those first immersions in a new sensorium as an experience of the poetic. As a child, swimming in the ocean with snorkel and goggles gave me the same sensory overload and sense of imaginative reconstruction.

V.B.: In A Guide to Berlin, Gino takes Cass along to the refugee-camps on Oranienplatz. One year after your twelve-month stay in Berlin in the context of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, the media are certainly arguing that ‘the refugee crisis’ has reached worse than ever proportions in Europe. What role should literature play, in your view, towards reflecting and interpreting the severities and the injustices of today’s world-wide migration phenomena?

G.J.: The plight of refugees today deeply concerns me. Like many readers and writers I consider this one of the great moral challenges of our times: how to be welcoming and open, how to combat racism and prejudice, how to imagine a future in which we better share global resources and opportunities. The distress of refugees is heart-breaking to witness, even televisually. The Oranienplatz camp was a big issue in 2013 (I spent a bitterly cold month in Berlin in March 2013); but was dismantled at the beginning of 2014. So there’s a strange untimeliness and repetition to my writing of this episode: I wanted to emplace a refugee narrative at the centre of the text, but as a kind of provocation, and one unresolved and uncertain. Now, it seems a much harder idea to contemplate, since there’s a different sense of scale and urgency. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that literature has an ethical charter, and that imagination has a moral dimension.