Kanda for Christmas – Guest Post by Yemisi Aribisala

If you read my interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of the Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, you might have noticed that one of the books listed in her current favourites wasn’t published at the time of writing. That book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala is now available, published by Cassava Republic. Aribisala’s aim in writing it is to bring Nigerian cooking to a wider audience via a mix of cultural history, memoir and recipes. It’s beautifully written and I’m delighted to share with you a special piece, not in the book, in which Aribisala looks at Christmas in Nigeria.

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Kanda for Christmas

On the morning of Christmas Eve of 2009, my neighbour’s husband came around to express nervous concern. He had opened the pots and found nothing but Kanda (pomo, long-sufferingly boiled cowhide) there. Was he to take this as a sign of what Christmas day held? Everyone found his concern hilarious. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. Deep down we were as nervous as he was. There was a cloud of misery over Christmas in Calabar that year. It was tall, deep, wide, dense as the humidity that cloaked many of the days in the month of December. As if to commemorate the eccentricity of that year, even Harmattan winds failed to bring expected freshness in the mornings and evenings. The air was hot and heavy from morning till night, day after day, distended by the incessant grinding of running generators boring into our brains already overwhelmed with keeping count of the amount of diesel being guzzled by hard-working engines. Someone brought a food hamper round and then came back for it a couple of hours later because he’d made a mistake – it wasn’t for us. We desperately needed something to laugh out loud about, so we laughed at my neighbor and his nervousness about eating Kanda for Christmas. We kept him handy for when reality wanted to steal on us, to remind us there was hunger at our gates and in the city and everywhere. We cried out aloud and crowned the declarations with more laughter – “God in your infinite mercy, please don’t let Kanda be what is on the menu this Christmas.”

What did I end up eating that Christmas? I ate everything.  If it was possible to eat the sofa, I would have done so.  Slow roasted chicken marinated with coriander, cloves, cardamom, hot-peppers, garlic, ginger, raisins and coconut milk; the gamiest most tender he-goat oven-cooked with garam masala spices eaten with fluffy bowls of basmati rice; barbecued pork cooked with Cameroonian peppers on an outside grill, the aroma of charred fresh meat and sweet peppers carrying all the way to Akpabuyo; creamy potato salad made creamier by soft yielding potatoes; sweet fat plantains roasted on the grill alongside the meat, too sweet and soft to be boli eaten with groundnuts, not sweet and soft enough to be mashed into stew then scooped up into your mouth; more plantains fried with sprinklings of cinnamon and pepper, drenched in pineapple juice-then fried in coconut oil. There was freshly juiced pineapples and ginger root served with chilled sprigs of mint; supple clouds of fufu eaten with briskly cooked Afang and Kundi; mugs of Milo made up with peppermint teabags eaten with staggeringly drunk Christmas cake; freshly brewed coffee laced with Irish-cream eaten with almond, raisin and coconut flapjacks. Some mornings, breakfast was hot puff-puffs fried in chili-pepper infused oil eaten with a whole cafeterie of black coffee.

In other words, the more I thought of world hunger and local hunger and recessions and depressions, the more I evoked the shell-shocked expressions in people’s faces in the market place, the weary despondency of light in Goshen and darkness everywhere else in Egypt.  The cracks in buying power and dinner plates between the haves and have-very little and have-nots; the middle-class falling into the crevices and disappearing altogether the more I ate.  I engaged all the different joys and rationales of eating: comfort eating, Christmas entitlement eating, eating in company so that people don’t feel bad that you are not eating, eating the left-overs so they don’t spoil, eating what the neighbour sent round because you can’t very well throw good food away. And, let’s not forget that I am a food writer so I must eat to fulfill my purpose, Thank God!

The peppery puff-puffs, Cameroonian coffee, barbecued pork and potato salad were courtesy of my neighbours whose pots had hitherto only exhibited Kanda till Christmas Eve. My neighbour’s wife’s love for Kanda was passionate – so passionate that the rolls of cow-hide had to feature in most of her pots of soup throughout the year. But at Christmas, that love had to be abruptly filed as inordinate for everyone’s sake in order not to attract the misfortune hanging around waiting to pounce. Beneath the under-toned laughter we ate and gave thanks.

The most interesting aspect of Nigerian Christmas fare for me is the snubbing of the food we would normally eat, for food that we consider festive even if the preferred food makes no real festive sense. If you served the most spectacular Afang soup at Christmas, the most beautifully dressed, stuffed roast turkey with the most expensive ingredients in the world, it would still come second place to Rice and Chicken, just rice and chicken. There must of course be stew. Nigerian Christmas stew is 70% psychological fare and 30% gastronomical fanfare.  The psychological and gastronomical balance for Christmas stew, rice and chicken adds up and exceeds the psychological and gastronomical balance of roast turkey plus everything under the sun to go with it. For many years, I wanted to write a Christmas column for the Nigerian, to explain how we feast with modesty, to commend the uncomplicatedness of our requirements of rice, lots of rice, rice flowing down the streets, rice bags rolling everywhere with hens running around the place to become chicken, stew, bottles of Guldier and Star Beer, a new wrappa, dresses for little girls, new shirts and trousers for little boys.  I wanted to say that the emphasis was on being with family: sitting around with them and laughing a lot, slaughtering chickens and stewing them into juicy chunks on steaming white rice, visiting people and eating their food and letting them come over and eat yours.

And then my good intentions got run over by the years, and by successive governments and economic downturns and inflation and grief. The truth is that the food writer at Christmas is a hoggish callous character – she must emphasise the glory of food regardless of other people’s hunger. She must contemplate food, eat food, intellectualise gluttony and suppress guilt. The gathering of words together in one place to eulogise food is ever more so irritatingly elitist when contrasted with real life, so much more vividly callous in times of national celebration. If we thought things were bad in 2009, in 2016, the Christmas stew became officially endangered from the middle of the year, when a basket of tomatoes became more expensive than a barrel of crude oil. Then rice because of high foreign exchange rates became unaffordable. In essence even our chosen simple fare became imperiled, and with it our willingness to entertain guests and burden others with our visits. If we laughed at my neighbour in 2009 at his snubbing of Kanda, in 2016 we can’t laugh because we understand that food is no longer a “safe topic”, a topic that we can laugh at; a topic we can resort to when there are no other uniting colloquialisms, when soccer has failed and politics is unapproachable. We are expecting famine in 2017, and whole parts of Nigeria are already starving, the images of starvation on social media is heartbreaking, mandatory and crushing.

What is one to do with the obligation to celebrate Christmas in light of all this strong painful awareness?   I’m all for gratitude for well-cooked stewed Kanda as a good starting point. The simplicity of meals reassures me that I am alive. How lucky the person is who loves stewed Kanda in the first instance – they won’t feel hard done by if required to eat it. They will be happy eating it whenever – Christmas, New Year, Monday, Friday, Sunday. I suspect my neighbour’s wife had spent a few lean Christmases before her marriage and had learnt to be happy with little or with plenty on her plate. Whatever manner of Christmas she thus encountered after those lean ones, she met them with happiness and gratitude.

This year I’m not going to pretend that my job requires the eating of everything in sight. I’m not going to eat the sofa, the cushions and the remote controls for the television. In honour of the insufficiently acknowledged resilience of Nigerians, the long fought battle of retaining basic happiness and good hope in-spite of many dire twists and turns of life; in consideration of those in real danger of starvation, in commending those still willing to share a meal with a neighbour, in earnest prayers that God in his infinite mercies won’t let the coming year be one of famine for the sake of us all, I’m not writing a Christmas column for the food writer, but for that woman, my neighbour who circuitously predicted that in seven years our self-entitlement would have to be curtailed, our snobbery discarded, our people embraced tighter.  She intimated so long ago that we would have to eat less, laugh at ourselves more, give away more and eat Kanda with thanks.

Huge thanks to Yemisi Aribisala and Cassava Republic for the guest post. This post is part of a blog tour. Please do visit the sites listed below to read more from and about this wonderful book.

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Zadie Smith at Manchester Literature Festival

If I were to create a list of literary fiction writers I admire Zadie Smith would be up there in the ‘gods’ section. It’s not just her writing – which is wonderful – but her intellect and her dress sense (see Smith’s comments later in this piece) which combine to make her a fascinating figure. I went to see her at Manchester Library as a ‘Bookend’ event hosted by Manchester Literature Festival. The interview was conducted by Katie Popperwell.

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Popperwell begins by asking Smith about living between NYC and London. She says that writers think of themselves as having no roots. There’s a delusion amongst writers that they’d be fine in prison as you think you’d only need books and your work. Having children reminds you you’re not independent, she says.

Smith thinks NYC creates nostalgia for her. She says she’s become one of those sentimental English people like Sting and mentions D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce – the further they travelled the more they wrote about home. Going backwards and forwards is a shock. She remembers the first time being back in London after an extended period in NYC and seeing an Evening Standard headline mentioning The Duke of York. That was a culture shock: is he going up the hill?

The discussion moves to Swing Time. Smith says she regrets writing about dancing because it’s taking something joyful and intellectualising it. It was a part of her life that she’d compartmentalised. Dancing is central to her family. She describes her immediate family and Jamaican relatives getting very low on the dance floor at parties. She talks about going on dates when she was younger and how it can be a terrible shock when a date leads to a dancefloor. ‘Something’s being revealed when people dance and that’s what I like about them.’ She thinks you see something of a person’s spirit in dancing and it’s the same in writing. She separates writing from the writer’s personality though. She says it’s true and not true that they’re the same thing. She uses Colm Toíbín as an example: there’s a stately elegance in his writing but he’s like a stand-up on stage!

‘Loving something that’s awful is complicated,’ she says on her deep passion for musicals. She reveals that she watched them as a child because it gave her a connection to her father’s childhood. She also comments on what it was like to watch television as a black kid in the ’70s and ’80s, trying to be part of the country. She says her family would be watching a comedy and half way through there would be a joke about blackness. They’d separate it from their viewing because ‘you were always looking for a black or brown face’ on television. This is another of the reasons why Smith used to watch old films, ‘There were many more people like me in them. Even if it was problematic.’

Popperwell asks about recent world events, focusing on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. ‘It’s an amazing time to be publicising a book about tap dancing,’ Smith deadpans. Her U.S. book tour began the day after the election and she describes herself as being more like a therapist during it. She says, however, that Swing Time is a book about tribes and it was clear ‘the world was getting more tribalistic’ as she was writing it. She says there’s a sense of inevitability in Britain and France in terms of the rise of the far right. Possibly also soon to happen in France, Austria and Germany ‘if we’re really unlucky’.

With regards to the role of the writer during times like these, Smith says ‘pompous, pious things’ have been said about that role. However, she sees it as a ‘comic opportunity to wind a single man up so easily. Bait him all the way to impeachment’. She finds this ‘quite an optimistic thing’, commenting on his lack of control and the way he’s already in a fury.

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Smith’s interested in the idea that people have capacities within them which create abilities that they can’t fully express. She says she’s only interested in economics in terms of the great swathes of people who find their abilities ‘cast aside and forgotten’. She works backwards to find the political and social structures preventing her characters from fully expressing themselves. In this she includes domestic talents such as cooking, baking and making things. People are separated from these capacities of making dinner and making clothes, she says. They’ve been removed in the name of capitalism. Many people don’t want to know who made their clothes. We now have ‘nations employed under other nations’. She says doing these things ourselves might bring us pleasure and self-esteem but they’ve been replaced by free-moving global capital which doesn’t seem to make people happy.

The discussion moves on to people who have mastery over many areas of their lives. ‘What do they deserve because of that? Do they get to have everything?’ Smith talks about the character Aimee in Swing Time saying she doesn’t think she’s ‘a bad character. She makes errors’ but she puts money and time into her project. Her problem is that she has to have some idea of what a better life would be. She’s trying to export her idea without changing it to suit the culture she’s taking it to. ‘The good life’ looks different in different places. Smith says ‘Is your life meaningful?’ might be a more important question than are you happy. She says gratitude, a certain amount of pain and melancholy are all valuable feelings. She says melancholy’s become depression which has to be treated immediately. She describes ‘endless happiness’ as ‘a lot of effort’.

Popperwell asks about writing in first person and the unnamed narrator of Swing Time. Smith says she doesn’t feel ‘the force of I’. She wanted to think about how people affect us. ‘You’re not anybody apart from the actions you have done’, that’s what defines you in people’s minds. ‘Anything else is a decorative attempt by you.’ She says she ‘resists the ides that [the political identity] is the whole truth of human identity’. She’s interested in what used to be called the soul ‘but not has no language which cannot be ridiculed’ now.

Race is the next topic, which is described as a biological idea which doesn’t exist. However, that doesn’t mean ‘it can’t be a joy and a place of interest’ says Smith. She cites the playfulness of her mother going to Ascot in a hat and long dress with her hair styled in dreds. She says there’s ambiguity in the way people look within her own family and she’s ‘aware of us not being in control’ of other people’s interpretations of their identity. She describes it as both an annoyance but also a joy and a source of humour. She’s been mistaken many times for different roles.

The difference between race in England and race in America is that in England you’re told ‘don’t go on about it’ while in America there’s a freedom to go on about it. ‘Blackness in America is culturally constructed.’ The ‘one drop rule’ which underpinned slavery ‘has become naturalised as a state’ so there’s a huge group who identify as ‘non-white’, including women who were part of the Black Panther movement who Smith describes as paler than her but who are very certain of their identity. She says there’s a certain relief in being able to openly discuss race.

Popperwell mentions the amount of discussion around clothes in the novel. ‘I like clothes,’ says Smith. No matter how poor an area you’re in, the ability of women to construct themselves from clothes is never taken from them. Women perform in the way they dress even in the most straitened circumstances. She talks about the idea that ‘silly women get dressed’, describing her own outfit as her ‘serious’ reading outfit, then goes on to talk about the female academics she sees at work [Smith teaches at New York University] who dress seriously for important lectures. The men know they’ll be taken seriously regardless, she says. She likes the idea that women can tell a story about themselves when they leave the house and we need to make a point not to denigrate it to our daughters.

Smith reveals she doesn’t have a smartphone. ‘I guess I’m living in that sublime [kidlike world] all the time. The difference is now I’m alone.’ She sometimes finds a connection with very old people who are also walking around looking at their surroundings. She jokes that she could rob everyone in an airport departure lounge as none of them are paying attention to what’s going on around them. She imagines that at some point young people will say ‘fuck this’, although she describes how soothing television is for children. ‘Something about a screen is different. Something narcotic. It’s about people deciding which pill they wanted to take.’

They discuss the recently televised version of Smith’s fourth novel NW. Smith says she cried watching Felix. The actor was different to her vision of him, so he felt like a real person. She was shocked by the brutality of it. ‘I ended up writing all kinds of things I never would have imagined’ she says.

She thinks musicals are creeping back in because the economy’s in the dumps. She talks about the Dennis Potter series being significant when she was a child and that she’s considering Swing Time as a musical having seen people tolerating the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Questions are opened to the audience. Two strike me as particularly interesting. The first questioner cites the article Smith recently wrote about dancing for The Guardian and asks if she could learn a single dance by either Beyoncé, Janet Jackson or Madonna, which would it be. Smith plumps for Single Ladies in which ‘everything seems to be moving backwards. Beyoncé ‘has an odd way about her’, she says. As a child she loved Vogue but thinks that would be a much easier routine to master.

The other is about state of the nation novels. Smith says ‘even our big novels like Middlemarch are obsessively local and weird’ and that she thinks the interesting things being written in America aren’t the big American novels but work by Ottessa Moshfegh, Alexandra Kleeman and Rivka Galchen.

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.

We, the reader, meet the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, Swing Time, at the end of her story. She’s been sacked from her job and is holed up in a flat in St John’s Wood. When she’s given the all clear by the doorman, she goes for a walk, finding herself at an event at the Royal Festival Hall where a clip from the Frank Sinatra film Swing Time is played.

I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I always had tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

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The narrator returns to her early days, to meeting Tracey at the dance class in the church hall. The narrator and Tracey’s mothers couldn’t be more different: the narrator’s mother is a femininst, a student, wears ‘her hair in a half-inch Afro’ and dresses ‘for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive’; Tracey’s mother is ‘white, obese, afflicted with acne’, wears her hair in a ‘Kilburn facelift’ and is covered in diamantes. Perhaps the difference between the two is most perfectly summarised:

We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times – and failed – to ‘get on the disability’.)

In terms of class, they might be part of the same economic group but their styles mark them as different types of people.

Two stories are told simultaneous in the novel: the first is that of the narrator’s friendship with Tracey, through dance, through school, through hanging out at each other’s houses watching musicals and Michael Jackson videos. The second is the that of the narrator’s early-adult life, of her role as a PA to a world-famous pop star.

The narrator meets Aimee when she comes to the YTV studios where the narrator works. Although she thinks she’s made a bad impression, the narrator is invited to an interview with Aimee soon after. The bulk of the Aimee section of the novel covers the school project which she undertakes in a village in West Africa.

Governments are useless, they can’t be trusted, Aimee explained to me, and charities have their own agendas, churches care more for souls than for bodies. And so if we want to see real change in the world…then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, yes, we have to be the change we want to see. By ‘we’ she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune. It was a moral category but also an economic one. And if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness – or potential for goodness – a person possessed.

However, Aimee wants to impose her version of change, what she thinks is necessary, onto a culture which doesn’t necessarily agree. Her work in West Africa causes problems not only for the community but also for some individuals who become heavily involved in the project. It’s not difficult to substitute a number of big-name stars for Aimee nor the white Western world collectively.

Through the story of two mixed-race girls from the same North London estate, Smith considers talent and the barriers to success; the role of culture in society; race, particularly the West’s role in/on the African continent; politics; friendship, and the mother/daughter relationship. It feels like a lot for a novel to hold but it’s skilfully done; there isn’t a single moment when the book feels like a polemic rather than a novel.

The structure of the book moves between the two stories. Smith runs them practically side-by-side, moving towards the point when the narrator loses her job. By doing so, she asks questions about the impact of the past on our present/future and whether we truly leave our experiences and upbringing behind.

Swing Time is an entertaining, thoughtful novel which engages both on a storytelling level and on one of broader questions about society and its role in individual’s lives.

 

Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy

In the Media, November 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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This fortnight’s been dominated by post-election coverage:

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And the woman with the most publicity this fortnight is Zadie Smith. She’s interviewed on Literary Hub, Nylon, Waterstones, Lenny, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and profiled by Sarah Hughes in The Observer.

Rupi Kaur, author of Milk and Honey

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

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Photograph by Kevin Day

Society and Politics:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Good Girls Don’t Tell – Liselotte Roll (translated by Ian Giles) + Guest Post

Good Girls Don’t Tell begins with the gruesome murder of Erik Berggren. Strapped to a kitchen table, mouth taped shut, he’s scalded with boiling water and stabbed through the heart. Details of his murder are passed to Inspector Magnus Kalo and his team. Magnus, once enjoyed his job, ‘Now it just felt like he was rowing up and down shit creek without getting too much of it on himself’.

As the investigation begins, Magnus goes to the nursing home in which Eric’s mother, Gunvor, lives to deliver the news of her son’s murder. Arriving at her room, he thinks she’s dead but when he hears her wheeze he steps forward.

The woman staring back at him expressionlessly had spatters of blood on her face, and the lower part of her body was a maelstrom of red flesh. She was looking at him in confusion. Her eyes expressed no pain – they were shiny and questioning.

Both Gunvor and Erik have had their genitals burned with boiling water.

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Magnus’ wife, Lina, is a therapist, and interested in the case. As Magnus (unprofessionally) shares some details with her, she begins to wonder whether this is about gender and sexuality, but can’t see a link between the two victims. At the same time, Magnus and his team are wondering whether the perpetrator is female after a woman was spotted leaving the nursing home around the time Magnus went to Gunvor’s room.

The case is complicated by two things: the first occurs when Magnus and his colleague, Roger, visit the farm the Berggren’s used to own. The place is currently unoccupied, having been bought by a couple who’ve never got round to doing it up.

When they returned to the courtyard it was almost completely dark, but they were both eager to make sure they had time to search the house before leaving so they made haste toward the building. Neither of them noticed the figure slowly rising out of the hay behind them, carefully through a crack in the barn wall.

That figure will go on to terrify Lina and Magnus.

The second is a connection to Argentina via Eric’s father, Gösta, who worked there in the 1950s and has since died. There is a connection here to the military junta and also an accusation of rape, for which Gösta was never convicted. The inquiries around that case open up memories of torture and also ask questions around gender and sexuality, demonstrating how damaging patriarchal ideas can be for both genders.

Good Girls Don’t Tell is a violent, gruesome, often scary novel. It is also fast-paced and gripping and will appeal to those who like a page-turning plot with some social and political thinking driving it.

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I’m delighted to host Liselotte, discussing gender and violence in Good Girls Don’t Tell.

2016. Half of the world’s population, women, are still being oppressed in countless ways. In many countries women are considered minors, they can´t vote, go to school, drive or even leave their home without the company of a male relative, in some countries a man can beat his wife, his sister or daughter without any consequences whatsoever. This is not news. But oppression is not only a problem for women in countries far away, it´s always, vibrating beneath the surface even in the UK or in Sweden, places that are actually considered to be two of the best countries for little girls to grow up.

In America, disillusioned white men and surprisingly even a large number of women have just elected their first sexist and misogynist President.  In fact the newspapers report that one out of five Americans say they won´t vote for any woman whoever she might be. So it´s a fact folks, women are being oppressed everywhere, don´t ignore it, don´t pretend that it´s not a problem and that you don´t have to deal with it. We are all a part of this, and our children too.

The gruesome violence in my thriller Good Girls Don´t Tell might be horrifying, but the truth is that gender violence in real life is worse, considerably worse. Having a little girl myself I have thought a lot about her future in this world that no longer seems to be progressing very rapidly when it comes to women’s rights. I have thought of what I can do, if there are any organisations I might be able to join, but this isn´t the seventies and here in Sweden there a few, if any, left. I have come to the conclusion that the best thing to do right now is to enforce my daughter, to let her know that everything is possible even though she might need to work harder than any man to get what she wants in life. I can make her and her brother aware of what’s going on in this patriarchal society, and make them notice small things that can be important as well. Like for example in Sweden we usually name plastic toy figures ”little men” even though they might just as well be women. So oppression is seeping through society, even in the language when it is filled with words that makes men the norm. I believe we have a huge responsibility to teach our children to see these little things, to reveal the unpleasant truth so that they can react and slowly change the world by acting differently than earlier generations. They should never accept lower women’s wages, mistreatment, degrading language or gender based violence, which is the ultimate degradation.

My thriller Good Girls Don´t Tell is scary reading. Still it´s entertainment, as thrillers are. I asked myself if it was right to write about such brutal gender based violence and I came to the conclusion that it was. If we can´t talk or write about this kind of violence it somehow seems as if we accept it. It is like pulling down the blinds, and I want to keep my eyes open.

Huge thanks to Liselotte Roll for the guest post and to World Editions for the review copy. This post is part of a blog tour, see above for other sites to visit throughout the week.

In the Media: November 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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What else can begin this fortnight’s coverage?

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Photograph by Nye’Lyn Tho

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Interview with Anakana Schofield

In the final of my Goldsmiths Prize posts before the winner is announced this evening, I’m very pleased to welcome Anakana Schofield to the blog to discuss her novel Martin John.

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Where did the initial idea for writing about an inadequate molester come from?

In my first novel, Malarky, there’s a character towards the end called Beirut. He is the man in the opposite bed in the psychiatric ward from the main character, Our Woman. He’s a man who believes he’d been to Beirut, is fixated on it. There’s a footnote that says ‘See Martin John: A footnote novel’ which I inserted as devilment. It was an act of self-provocation; I didn’t know whether I’d ever write that novel.

The original title of the novel was Martin John: A Footnote Novel but the publishers requested I remove the subtitle and I agreed as once the works were complete, they’re very much separate, independent works. Although they are a diptych.

The first line of Martin John is ‘Martin John has not been to Beirut’ because the last time we met Martin John he was babbling on about Beirut. In Malarky, he was a jolly, eccentric, harmless, benign seeming man, rather a nice character and then I took him to a very, very dark place.

The idea for writing about an inadequate molester came from the recent plethora of  clerical abuse reports. There’s been an unveiling on the scale of incursions made into women’s bodies. (I say women because I’m interested in women but there are lots of men were abused.) I’m also interested specifically in the incursions that are made in public space, so was curious to explore a flasher. We tend to think of molesters, sex offenders as a distant aberration rather than at the kitchen table, on the bus. They are us. We don’t that idea, we like the idea that they are somehow separate.

I had to respond to the fact that there had been a particularly important moment in the consciousness of these deviant, criminal acts and the impact they have. There’s no geographic limit on these acts; there were clerical abuse reports in England, Boston, Ireland and dreadful clerical sexual abuse in First Nations residential schools and commuities here in Canada.

The novel’s written in a third person subjective narrative voice. It’s very much from the perspective of Martin John (and occasionally his mother). How did it feel to spend an extended period of time living in that character’s head?

The writing of the book was deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting and very challenging. However, I don’t write novels in a conventional way and I don’t conceive of writing them in that way. It’s not a process where I entered his head in any kind of sequential, linear manner. My entry point is form and language; I have to find the language to create that man’s head. In Martin John that’s clear because I’m creating recursive prose. The real challenge was how to deploy language to get into his head.

In this book, I took the idea of form as content into the shape of the syntax. It had to be that way because it was predicated on this idea of cycles: cycle of reoffending, cycle of mental illness, cycle of complicity. Martin John has these refrains roiling around his head and they govern much of his response to his behaviour.

It was unpleasant: I had to spend time in his groin more than his head. That was challenging. You have to be prepared to do the work the novel demands and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant but I find myself able for the job. If I’m not, I ask myself why and then I tell myself, ‘Don’t turn away’.

The character of the mother really interests me; she left me questioning what I would do if Martin John was my son. How do you feel about the mother and the way society sees his behaviour as her fault?

We meet Martin John’s mother through him. Her voice is in his head. That speaks to guilt and shame. His mother’s voice is relayed narratively through his head, yet the reader also knows how she feels. I like to innovate with point of view. However, I try not to have or impose feelings about my characters because, as a novelist, I’m not here to sit in judgement or program how the reader responds to them. Beckett had a great line in one of his letters where he’d been asked to explain some aspect of his work: ‘Hamm as stated, Clov as stated, together as stated’. I think that perfectly sums up your question. I don’t prescribe feelings for the reader; I give you his mother, I give you Martin John, I give you the two of them and then the reader takes over. If I decide how I feel, it won’t make for a complex portrait. They’re difficult questions I’m positing.

There was a period of time during the seventies and eighties when the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know how a woman who was living in a Catholic culture where the church and priests and shame had such power would have known what to do. How would she have gotten help? I don’t find it that difficult to imagine the quandary his mother has and her fear of what’s my son doing? What am I going to do about this behaviour? Her response entails telling him to stop it, repeatedly, and then dispatching him away to London and still telling him to stop it.

I don’t know if society sees his behaviour as her fault. I don’t know whether I sought to set it up that way. This is what’s so interesting about the reader’s relationship with a text; the completion of the parsing of the writer and the reader and what takes place in between. Blanchot had that great line where he said the writer is the first reader of the work and to some extent that’s true; I learn things from the reader’s interface with my work. Also, I can find it very frustrating when the terms of literary engagement can be so lacking.

What’s interesting about Martin John though is that the response has been incredible. I’m deeply grateful for the engagement; it makes me optimistic because fiction has been through a fairly conservative time. There are occasions when people will recoil from my novel, they’ll make decisions about it before they’ve read a line of it. That’s troubled me but when I’ve considered it further, that response to the novel mimics our response to the complex psychosexual problems of molesters, flashers, sex offenders, even mental illness to an extent. We recoil from it and don’t want to deal with it. If I hadn’t had that response, the novel would have failed on some level because the form is the content and the form the reader brings – this emotional response – reflects the content.

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The novel has a non-linear structure. Was it obvious to you that this story needed to be structured in this way or did it develop as you began to write?

I don’t plan; the structure emerges and then IF it fails I have to go back and keep digging. With Martin John, there was a moment quite far into the process where I decided to impose an entirely new structure on it. I deployed refrains and I had to overhaul everything about it. I remember thinking it will either work and you’ll have a book or it will fail and you’ll have to go back to where you were before. It was risky.

I have to be prepared to fail, that’s very important. I go down lots of ravines and sometimes off cliff faces then belay back up. The beginning – where I’m thinking what I’m interested in – is fun, but the actual writing of the work isn’t fun. It’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve just writtenand published an essay about process, imagination and the devaluing of imagination in an anthology called Alchemy. A lot of novel writing is about putting value on the imagination, being willing to do trapeze in an imaginative realm.

I love the rhythm of your sentences, the repetition and the word play. Is this something that came easily or is it the result of the redrafting process?

It’s very much a result of arduous redrafting. It became slowly obvious that I was going to go further than I went with Malarky and it would be right into the syntax. The conceptual ideas I was working with were the idea of the loop, the circle, the cyclical, the way in which blood travels around the body, the DNA, the genetics. The sentences loop, they repeat and they repeat in different directions. I was playing with language as the means to create form.

I’m also just not interested in the traditional narrative arc at all; that seems like a falsehood. Especially when considering the social class of the people I’m writing about. Those lives don’t add up to neat crescendos where things get fixed and sorted. It’s important for me to create works that don’t necessarily end. Novels that acknowledge that these people carry on amidst quiet despair. So as a mother, how do you save your kid? Well, good luck with that one. Is it unreasonable to think a mother might protect her child to the detriment of another child? I wanted to ask that question and it seemed to me it wasn’t an unreasonable thing. What would drive a mother? What might you ignore about your offspring? That’s where it gets interesting for me. I don’t want to create novels that are just descriptive  sentences.

How do you feel about Martin John being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I feel ecstatic! It’s very surprising and a mighty thing for my work. It’s a very special prize because it rewards innovation. I don’t think there could be a finer compliment for a writer who’s deeply interested in breaking and challenging literary form and curious about what the novel might become.

And what a shortlist!

I’m back with my women: Rachel Cusk and I were on the Giller shortlist together. I think she’s a marvellous writer and a marvellous woman. I think Eimear McBride is an absolute genius; our books are definitely in conversation with each other. You’re only as good as the work you sit beside so it’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to discovering Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s work. Deborah Levy is creating a very interesting body of work. I’m familiar with Mike McCormack’s earlier work; he wears very significant hats. It’s great.

The readings are taking place in Peckham; I got very exciting when I discovered that. It was a very difficult book to write so I’m very happy to be going to Peckham.

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Malarky and Martin John are part of a quartet of novels. I’m working on the last two novels in the sequence. Number three is a novel about the character Bina, who appears in Malarky. The final novel brings us to Vancouver and completes the quartet. I’m thinking of them as 4 musical notes in a bar.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

So many it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end; my bedroom is a dormitory of women authors.

Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Margarite Duras, Elfriede Jellinek, Jenny Diski, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Rosa Luxumberg, Annabel Lyon, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Eimear McBride, Thalia Field (whose new novel is extraordinary), Rachel Cusk, Nuala O’Connor, Sinéad Gleeson’s essays are terrific,  Meghan Bradbury’s debut novel is on my to read list.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne wrote a lovely novel called The Dancers Dancing written from the point of view of some young girls on their way to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. I felt as though I was hearing them speaking and thinking in the Irish language but I was reading it in English. I thought it was the most marvellous thing to achieve.

I’ve just discovered the South African writer, Yewande Omotoso. She wrote the novel The Woman Next Door. It’s just wonderful. There’s a warm narrative voice in it.

I could simply keep typing names here all night long, but I have to jog out in the darkness and go to dinner with a woman writer instead!

Huge thanks to Anakana Schofield for the interview.