The BBC National Short Story Award Shortlist: Eley Williams

The BBC National Short Story Award always highlights some absolute gems. This year there are three womxn on the shortlist: Jan Carson, Sarah Hall and Eley Williams. I had the pleasure of speaking to all three of them about their short stories. You can watch my interview with Jan Carson here and read my interview with Sarah Hall here.

Eley Williams is shortlisted for Scrimshaw. We discuss walruses, anxiety, tangents and humour.

The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 6th October on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlist anthology is out now from Comma Press and the stories are available to listen to on BBC Sounds.

The BBC National Short Story Award Shortlist: Sarah Hall

The BBC National Short Story Award always highlights some absolute gems. This year there are three womxn on the shortlist: Jan Carson, Sarah Hall and Eley Williams. I had the pleasure of speaking to all three of them about their short stories. You can watch my interview with Jan Carson here. My interview with Eley Williams will be posted on Friday.

Sarah Hall is the author of five novels and three short story collections. Her novels The Electric Michelangelo and How to Paint a Dead Man were both nominated for the Booker Prize and in 2013 she won the BBC National Short Story Award with ‘Mrs Fox’. This year she became the only writer to have been shortlisted four times for the BBC National Short Story Award

I spoke to Sarah Hall via phone. We discussed family units, coercive control and political and societal structures.

There’s so much within ‘The Grotesques’. For you, did it start with the characters or the ideas? Is there an image that sparks things?

Like any short story, it’s a combination. I tend to store these things away in my brain and they accumulate and begin to work with each other. I have a background in art history and the images are obviously there. The story starts with this terrible image of a vagrant man who has been subject to this awful class joke by wealthy students, but the idea of grotesques was always very interesting to me. The idea that there’s a kind of horror and disgust and comedy combined. Wherever there’s cognitive dissonance, I’m very interested. Each of my short stories seems to have something of that in it, so there’s a repellent thing, an empathetic thing and a sympathetic thing as well with these characters. What’s behind the face? And it is a mask; it’s a presentation to the world. If you start with that idea and think about human beings, that’s quite interesting. What’s presented to the world? How are messages conveyed? 

There was a lot in the press at the time about the growing gap between rich and poor and a return to the disparity between those with power and entitlement and those without it. That’s the background of the story; the political and social layer. Then it’s always very interesting to examine the psychology of a family unit, or any unit, where there are power structures that mirror what might be going on in the bigger scheme of things. So, you have this inner story of a family unit where there’s covert control; there’s a presentation to the world in one way; there’s something going on behind masks, and the main character is very lost in this world. She’s stunted. There’s a paralysis to her development and you realise later she’s much older than you think she is. Short stories are great for layering in these meanings. 

I’m interested in the psychology of it as well. In all the stories I write there is generally a kind of psychology being examined or being questioned. A very good friend of mine is a psychologist, so I always send my stories to him and we talk about how it all works and the character dynamics.

My main family unit is quite small, but I come from quite a big family with loads of cousins, so I’m interested in the idea of controlling a unit. I’ve written about this in novels as well. It’s not just the family, it could be a female army. How do you get individuals to be loyal to a unit? In some ways there’s a bit of mind control going on. When do you give up your individuality for the good of the group? Whether that’s an army or a family or whatever it is that makes you feel like you belong and function best inside it. That theme has always been there in my work; the idea of the individual in the society somehow.

There’s a lot in the story about the narratives we create, whether that’s within a group of people or the individual narrative we present to the group. How does this fit with the class dynamic in ‘The Grotesques’?

I think it’s true that your existence in life is about the story that you tell yourself about your life, or your perception of it. We can see that written quite starkly in politics now. The idea that you can just say, ‘I don’t agree with your version of events’, ‘That’s a false truth’ or ‘That didn’t really happen’, even if it’s a fact. This undermining of the very essence of what has happened is very interesting to me. There’s a lot of that goes on in families, that I’ve noticed. The shifting sands. It is about power. It’s about maintaining a position of authority within a family or getting people to do what you want them to do. Or it’s the sense of keeping a unit together by scapegoating. The scapegoat is a very important image in the story. To cohere any unit – a country, a family, a couple – often there is this notion of the other, the scapegoat. All the dysfunction of that unit is put onto something outside to make the unit cohere. The thing that keeps people together is this story about this is us and how we do it and the goodness of us and our righteous superiority and this is the bad that’s outside that we have to attack and that makes us join together even stronger. When you notice that going on, in politics, in families, it’s fascinating. Even capitalism. A very good friend of mine is a philosopher and he’s just written a book about scapegoating capitalism by saying capitalism is this terrible thing. It is, but it has been created by us and it facilitates our darker commercial motives and operating systems of having and having not, so we can scapegoat these things and say ‘oh, that’s a terrible thing’, but it’s created by us. I quite like these honest examinations in stories of holding onto power. A kind of selfishness. Those observations are always fascinating and they’re everywhere. It’s how we operate now.

There’s a sense that the family are middle class do-gooders. The narrator thinks about what her mother would’ve done if she’d seen Charlie-bo, the vagrant man. The nuance in the characters, which considers the idea of the version of their lives they tell themselves, is interesting.

I suppose I’ve become interested in liberalism and what that means now. Whether it’s authentic. Because liberalism can dismiss a lot of stuff and forgive a lot of stuff in some ways. True liberalism is not what we think it is, so I think this questioning of what that means politically, and in our lives, is very interesting. I would consider myself, hopefully, a true liberal. But that means holding people to account, not excusing them. I’m horrified of the loss of a liberal party in Britain – not because I’d necessarily vote for them, or I think they should be voted into office – but just the idea that we’re no longer really questioning – or maybe we are again – what liberalism really is and what it should do. So, you’ve got this family who are, outwardly facing, very left-wing, in some ways, but actually are as power hungry or controlling as the very right-wing structures that seem to control things; because of money, because of having, because of entitlement, because of the wheels behind the wheels. It’s interesting to me that you can be outwardly facing one thing but operationally very different. I do see that in politics as well; the sense of the loss of authenticity in politics. It’s back to this shifting sands of what things mean and what they don’t mean and what you say you are and what you’re actually doing. That dissonance and discrepancy. That notion of things seeming to work together, and we allow it to work together in our brains, but the meaning is lost. Things cancel each other out in some ways. That’s what I was hoping for with this particular family unit. There’s obviously a very strong matriarch and an absent father figure. He’s left the family, or he’s been kicked out of the family. You only really hear about the dad at the end; is he going to come and say happy birthday? He’s passed that message on through someone else. What has happened to this girl so her father’s passing on happy birthday messages through somebody else? It’s horrific. 

Once you become a parent, it’s not unlimited power, but you have to be very careful in thinking this child is my child but actually this child isn’t. This child is a borrowed person, who I’m looking after for a while, and they are their own person. How do you helpfully create individuation rather than enmeshment for your own purposes? You need to really question yourself as a parent. We maybe do it too much now and certainly my mum’s generation didn’t do it; they spent less time with their kids, and they worried less about it. Now we spend more time with our kids, and we worry more about it. What’s going on there? Once you get into the bracket of having children rather than not, you have to take these things on, I think. You really have to work through the minefield of being a benefactor or an influence on that small, vulnerable person. 

The woman in the story appears to be a girl, but she’s thirty. You meet her and you think she might be a teenager; she’s out doing chores for her mum. And in the end, the sad thing is, her choice is almost to stay in the safe unit where she’s defined as somebody else. This is the damage of a certain kind of family unit and perhaps it’s being the youngest one in that family unit as well and being vulnerable. Again, I’ve seen it in large families and extended families; you can see the pecking order. You can see where somebody’s influence has become dangerous. And the results of that are tragic. 

There’s ambiguity to the story as well. Dilly’s collecting things from town and she’s sitting by the river and she zones out. Towards the end you hear this news of the body that’s been dragged out of the river and, in one scenario, has she killed herself to escape because she knows that the face underneath all the faces is hers? And that’s awful, but at the same time, she’s given herself up to this way of being. She has access to a psychiatrist down the road but doesn’t actually say anything. She gets no help; not that any help was really intended. There are choices we make about our identity, in realising that we’re a product of certain upbringings or certain expectations, and what do we do about it once we’re aware of it? Becoming aware of it is the key, isn’t it? You can be a product, or you can become aware of the things that have made you and start to question them. Or decide that questioning them is too difficult. So that’s the real interplay for her. And that’s where we are, I suppose, now, isn’t it? We have access to psychiatry and psychology, but to what extent are people aware of who they are and who they want to be and what mistakes they’re making and what repetitions they’re making? That’s really interesting. That’s always fascinating. Progress. How do you progress in your life? 

I really felt that sense of Dilly being trapped at the end. That she felt as though she had to give herself up to it. There was a sense that everyone knew everything about her. The psychiatrist knows her mum and Dilly’s family are setting up a job for her with an acquaintance. There’s a sense of it being nepotistic. She can get the help because she’s part of the structure, but also being part of that structure traps her in it. 

That’s is. It’s about those mechanisms. I did it in The Carhullan Army as well. If you’re training someone to resist interrogation and torture, you do certain techniques on them to make sure they can withstand it. Some of these things are to do with food restriction and again, it’s like Dilly who’s really restricted from eating. You see this a lot, don’t you? In ‘Case Story 2’, the story that I wrote for Madame Zero, there’s a kid who’s being raised in a commune and he’s anorexic. He’s only eating three snails a day. It’s a system of control. In the story it broke my heart to write the part where Dilly gets an extra scone and the relief she feels. That level of control is through very simple, but fundamental means. Her position is terrible. 

It’s really supposed to be a psychological minefield and that’s the great thing about short stories; you can present these scenarios that are psychologically mined and people walk through and they’re setting stuff off in themselves. That’s the ideal for a short story. I think it’s supposed to take you into a zone that’s full of conflict, and you bring to it your own morality or disquiet or scenario or understanding of things or questioning of things. Hopefully the two things meet. It’s dark territory really. 

I wanted to talk about the setting because it’s set in Cambridge – 

Well, it’s not, it’s an amalgamation. The Corpus Clock is in there, so people think it’s Cambridge and that’s obviously lifted from Cambridge. But as many people have read it and said it’s Oxford, it’s Norwich, and it’s an amalgamation of those places. The setting is a very rich and entitled university town, so that limits it to a few places, but the bridges are renamed and mixed up and there are places in Norwich, where I live, that are in there. St. Giles, places like that. Some people though it was Oxford too because there’s a patisserie and the landscape, but those two towns have similarities, obviously. 

Were you thinking about how the setting ties to political ideas, for example the Bullingdon Club, that class of political leaders?

Definitely there are those. Like in The Wolf Border there are the political class that I don’t know much about really. I’ve seen it a bit. That is of interest to me, the wheels that operate and the immense wealth and the immense power; the snowball wealth in this country. We cannot think this is a true liberal democracy because it isn’t. We might be doing a good impression of it at certain times, we might hope that’s what we are, and we want to become more that way, but that isn’t how this country functions really. It’s quite hard to get at that in literature. Again, a short story can touch on it in one layer and ask questions about it. 

The family in the story have got no association with the colleges really. The mother might have come from a working class town somewhere in the country, so there’s a sense of pulling up to the middle class. I suppose that has interested me, because my mum’s generation came out of that Thatcher zone of thinking. It split people; there was a kind of violence to thinking ‘I have to pull away from my working class roots; I don’t want to be that, I must be middle class. I have to disavow everything that’s gone before and recreate myself into this’. Or the digging in of pride; ‘there’s nothing wrong with being working class’. There’s a violent split that was performed in that period and since then. I have been thinking about what’s going on now. How do we define ourselves in terms of class and self-perceive what that means? The story is in some ways asking questions about that too. About what you leave behind. What you recreate yourself as and why? And the violence that performs on you and on others, in some ways. None of these questions are in any way really answered in the story, but then a short story doesn’t have to answer questions, I don’t think. It just has to ask them. It’s a hard thing to write about and there are no rights and wrongs. Why wouldn’t you aspire? That’s a good thing, but if some self-loathing is brought in then that’s an extremely damaging thing. But at the same time, again with liberalism, what’s it trying to excuse? At what point is there agency – individual agency or community agency. I’m just interested in these stories that swirl around. I’m from Cumbria, which is a region which probably should be independent. Lots of counties or regions should devolve, I think, because they’ve got very little to do with London or other parts of the country.

This is your fourth shortlisting for the BBC National Short Story Award. What’s your secret? Did you celebrate and, if you did, how?

It’s a surprise. It was a surprise the three other times as well!

I’ve been really bad at celebrating. It’s been a really rough ride over the last few months. These things happen and I should take the time, but with who? And how? Also, I’m a bit of a workhorse. I think you’ve got to get on with it and ignore the good and the bad. I am actually delighted, I really am. Short stories feel harder. It’s not my métier. There’s something about the structure, there’s something about the content of short stories that seems to suit my preoccupations and make me a better writer in some ways. I really like the form. I hope they’re working and it’s really nice to think they are working. 

I’ve judged that prize. It’s very hard. You don’t get hundreds of brilliant short stories written. On the other hand, people that have somehow caught hold of something about the form are able to accomplish things that are in some ways more exciting and satisfying than novels. When you’re judging a short story prize and you get those ones in and think ‘oh my god, this is like a gymnast’, other short story writers are able to perform these amazing literary feats that you can’t really do in a poem or in a novel, and it’s really exciting. I don’t know what the key is really; I’m still trying to work it out. I do love doing it; I love short stories. I wanted to be a poet when I first started; I’ve written novels, but something about me and short stories come together, hopefully. 

Who are your favourite short story writers? Who do you read and take inspiration from?

It’s always difficult to mention other writers. In Britain, Jon McGregor and Tessa Hadley are doing brilliant things. Helen Oyeyemi is a brilliant short story writer. And they’re all doing different things. They’re able to innovate or seem like a classicist but actually be really subversive underneath, which is great. The form allows for that. 

There are writers that I like and think are really brilliant, but in some ways it’s the individual stories. Again, having judged something, you might only ever write ten brilliant short stories in your lifetime and the rest are pretty good, but ten were brilliant. There are brilliant novelists who’ve written a couple of brilliant short stories and you think okay, something arrives at some point that has to be a short story and it’s brilliant. You’re waiting for that oddity to come along.  

The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 6th October on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlist anthology is out now from Comma Press and the stories are available to listen to on BBC Sounds.

The BBC National Short Story Award Shortlist: Jan Carson

The BBC National Short Story Award always highlights some absolute gems. This year there are three womxn on the shortlist: Jan Carson, Sarah Hall and Eley Williams. I had the pleasure of speaking to all three of them about their short stories. The interviews will be posted throughout the week, in alphabetical order.

First up is Jan Carson who’s shortlisted for In the Car with the Rain Coming Down. We discuss family tensions, picnics in the car in the rain, and the pace of change.

The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 6th October on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlist anthology is out now from Comma Press and the stories are available to listen to on BBC Sounds.

America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo + interview

You’ve just turned twenty-nine years old, your accent still hasn’t left, and you’re starting to understand what it means to have baggage. Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how far you immigrate, there are countries in you you’ll never leave.

America Is Not the Heart begins with a thirty-page, second person prologue which tells the story of Paz from her early childhood in the Philippines to the moment she gives birth to her daughter in a hospital in America. While Paz recedes into the background for most of the book, she remains at the core of the story. It is Paz who works two jobs, sending money to a variety of relatives and it is Paz who Hero, the protagonist of the novel, upsets on her arrival to America.

First impressions didn’t have to be everything, but she didn’t yet know that Paz was the kind of person who made judgements about people based on whether or not they treated her like she was beneath them, that she was a sensitive scanner of gaze-overs and under-words, that those judgements helped move Paz through the world, told her whom she could laugh with her mouth wide open in front of, and who she had to wear perfume next to. There were a thousand ways Hero could have walked into the house in Milpitas that day to begin things, but Paz lifted the suitcase again, straightened her back, and closed off her heart.

Hero is the niece of Pol, Paz’s middle class husband. She arrives at their house as an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a captive of war who’s been tortured and has two broken thumbs which have healed badly. Unable to work, she spends her time cleaning the house and looking after Paz and Pol’s daughter, Roni. It’s her care of Roni which will introduce Hero to a new group of friends and a relationship with Rosalyn.

Castillo explores ideas of home – what does it mean and where do we find it – through family, friends, food, music, politics and love. She considers how someone rebuilds their life after trauma and how that differs for people belonging to different classes.

Although Hero is the protagonist of the novel, Castillo moves between viewpoints. Two-thirds of the way into the book, there is a second chapter written in second person. This time from the perspective of Hero’s lover Rosalyn.

The first time you ate a girl out was in 1985, somewhere south of Echo Park, your first time out of the Bay since you’d arrived from Manila when you were five.

Castillo’s writing is fierce and absorbing. She builds a portrait of a community through a web of relationships, a lot of food and the integration of the languages spoken into the text of the novel. Her characters are complex – intriguing and infuriating in equal measure – and it is this which renders them as human. America Is Not the Heart is a bold, compelling debut novel.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Castillo on the date of the UK publication of the book. We discussed bi-visibility, writing in second person and telling stories of immigrant communities.

Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy and to Elaine Castillo and Kirsty Doole for the interview.

A Secret Sisterhood – Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

A Secret Sisterhood, the story of the friendships of a number of women writers, is out in paperback this week. It’s a book I think is important for what I assume are obvious reasons. Because of that, I’m reposting my original review from last year and the interview I did with the book’s authors Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, there’s every possibility you’ve also come across another brilliant blog about women writers: Something Rhymed. Something Rhymed is the work of writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. It looks at friendships between women writers. A Secret Sisterhood is the book that grew out of that blog.

A Secret Sisterhood looks at the friendships of a number of well-known writers. In some of the pairings, both writers are famous, as in George Eliot and Harriet Beacher-Stowe as well as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, while for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë they’re the well-known halves of their pairings.

The book is structured in chronological order beginning with Jane Austen. Austen’s featured friendship was with a governess in her brother’s house, a woman called Anne Sharp who wrote plays. Midorikawa and Sweeney reconstruct how the friendship might have played out from unpublished letters and notebooks, ‘largely unmined by literary critics’ written by Fanny, Austen’s niece and Sharp’s charge. This friendship is particularly fascinating as it crosses the class divide and no doubt made Austen’s brother uncomfortable. I can’t discuss this section of the book without mentioning one sentence in particular; it refers to Anne Sharp whose mother died in 1803, the year before she began her employment for the Austen’s. I’ll just leave it here for your delight:

In the early nineteenth century, a single woman in her position, without affluent male relatives to support her, would have faced the unenviable task of securing a respectable way to earn her keep.

Charlotte Brontë’s friendship was with Mary Taylor, author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, although they were schoolchildren when they first met. They did not hit it off immediately:

The girl looked miserable and antiquated to Mary – a sharp contrast with the fashionable young ladies of the school. Like the newcomer, Mary and her boisterous sister Martha were far from stylish. The blue cloth coats they wore outdoors were too short for them, their black beaver bonnets only plainly trimmed. They even had to take the extra precaution of stitching over new pairs of gloves to try to make them last. But, rather than empathising with Charlotte, Mary scorned the girl’s outdated dress and cowed demeanour. Why, she noted to herself, she looks like ‘a little old woman’.

They bonded instead over intelligence and common interests – politics and literature – the best type of female friendships, I find.

George Eliot and Harriet Beacher Stowe’s friendship is particularly interesting as they never actually met. It seems some literary scholars have underestimated the strength of their friendship on the basis that they were pen pals. Despite this, the two confided in each other about their families and their work.

Despite marked differences in their temperaments – Harriet being the livelier and more impulsive of the two – their shared experiences as the most celebrated living female authors either side of the Atlantic immediately drew them close. That the pair shared this extraordinary status makes it all the more surprising that their friendship has not gone down in history.

Finally, the friendship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield is revealed to be a friendship, rather than the mere rivalry it’s been painted to be.

At their best, both women recognised that when ‘afflicted with jealousy’, as Virginia would put it, ‘the only thing is to confess’. This lesson allowed these two ambitious women to benefit from their creative competition – a process that proved as valuable to their shared art as that experienced by better-mythologised male writing duos.

The book is well-written and curated, turning historical documents into something between recreation and critique. My only criticism is that I would’ve liked more – more pairings, specifically including a wider demographic of women, the choices are very white, anglo-centric. However, I do recognise what a difficult sell this book would have been and am glad it exists.

A Secret Sisterhood is an engaging look at the little written about female friendships of significant women writers. It’s a delight to see women as the focus of this type of work; here’s hoping there’s a sequel!

Dark Chapter – Winnie M. Li

Trigger warning: This book focuses on the sexual assault of a young woman and its aftermath.

I am not the same person. I am different. I am now a rape victim.

Dark Chapter tells the story of two people: Vivian, a young woman who is raped in a park just outside Belfast, and Johnny, a fifteen-year-old traveller boy and Vivian’s rapist.

Vivian is an educated woman. Her family, who own a dry-cleaners, have pushed her to go to Harvard. She wants to see the world and owns a map pinpointing the trails she wants to walk. Johnny’s memories of his childhood are of his mum and dad splitting up, his older brother Michael being caught stealing by the police and the prejudice his family faced.

The overall structure of the book is in four sections: the first covers the characters’ childhoods/youth up to and including the rape; the second looks at the aftermath of the rape; the third the trial, and the final section sees how their lives change following the verdict. Within the sections themselves, the point-of-view moves between Vivian and Johnny, juxtaposing their lives.

Both structural decisions are interesting; in choosing to cover such an extended period of time, Li’s focus is wider than the rape itself. She considers events in Johnny’s life that might have led to the sense of entitlement he has, particularly in the way misogyny and rape culture pervade our society. The police process and victim support is looked at in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before, demonstrating how arduous it is for the survivor as well as the lack of resources and funding that are available. And she shows how it is possible to build a new life, both for the survivor and the perpetrator.

It’s a brave and shocking decision to tell the story from both sides. While Johnny’s actions are horrific, by delving into his backstory, Li humanises him. While it’s impossible to like him, it is possible to understand the way culture and some of the people he associates with might have influenced his reading of the world and his place in it. Li avoids demonising traveller communities by including Johnny’s family, who have a range of reactions to his behaviour. His dad, in particular, has a very interesting response.

The other focus of the book is the way women are allowed to move through the world. When Vivian’s roommate thinks she’s ‘nuts’ for wanting to hike trails alone, Vivian sees the solitariness as key:

After all, isn’t that the whole point? Thoreau living in solitude, off in his cabin by Walden Pond. Walt Whitman waxing lyrical about leaves of grass, writing under a tree while his beard grew longer and shaggier with the passing seasons. Edward Abbey drifting down a vast canyon in the American Southwest, the rock walls rising on either side of him, just him and the canyon.

It’s notable that all the examples Vivian thinks of are men. Why can’t women move through the world in the same way? Well, the answer is in the various examples Li provides of some of Vivian’s travels, both before and after the rape. Sometimes everything’s absolutely fine, at other times it isn’t.

Dark Chapter is a compelling novel. Li tells a rounded tale of the lives of two people utterly altered by one horrific event. It’s an important and timely book.

I spoke to Winnie M. Li about her decision to write the book, being a woman in the world and winning The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

Thanks to Winnie M. Li and Imogen Harris for the interview and to Legend Press for the review copy.

 

 

The Handsworth Times – Sharon Duggal + interview

In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.

The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.

The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.

The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:

‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’

Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.

It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.

I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.

The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?

It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.

I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?

The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?

I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.

I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.

The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?

It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.

There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?

I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.

You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?

I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.

The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?

Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.

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

Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.

Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.

Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong)

The first half of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child.

Mia is spoilt: she has a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils from one of her fathers; her every need is met. The only potential problem in her life is that one of the fathers isn’t aware that the other exists.

Early in the novel, Mia declares that she’s going to buy a fountain pen when she grows up. She read in a book that you can use it to kill someone.

But, of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t understand the words death or kill. She is a lucky child, and she lacks the passion, let alone the opportunity, to kill someone; she doesn’t yet know that people kill even in the absence of emotions such as hatred. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s skull from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat, a fact she would have learned if she had read more books. But she is interested only in detective novels, and because there are more things that she doesn’t know than she does know, her world is simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, I’m going to buy a fountain pen when I grow up, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.

Like Chekov’s gun, Han has planted the idea of violence in the opening pages of the novel and, at some point, it has to detonate.

The Child is in Mia’s class at school.

She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.

The Child is abused and neglected. She spends most of her time in pain from a range of sources: her fingernails, cut so short the flesh below is exposed; her stomach, from hunger or the anticipation of what’s to come at home. While Mia is in trouble for a story spread about another classmate killing chicks, the Child has stolen the key to the school classroom. She uses it to enter after school and add sentences to the journals which the pupils write. Her own journal masks the reality of her situation:

No trace must be left. She must disappear instantly, as though she has never existed, not even for an instant. She, too, writes in her journal. But she records nothing. Nothing about herself. Every time the journal is returned to her, she learns how to camouflage more and more words with other words. Cheek with leaf, bruise with wind, blister with light breeze, fingernail with butterfly, curse with song, calf muscle with stick, tongue with ice cream, palm with moon, hair with stars, sigh with whistling, grip with tree branch, shoe heel with footprint, glass shard with sky, spine with dog, thigh with cat, stick with streetlight, crying with bird, pain with bright colors. When I opened the window a light breeze blew in. I wanted ice cream, so I went to the store. There was dew on green leaves. I saw the yellow cat’s family. It was strange that their eyes were green.

The Child makes a decision about the journals which leads to trouble for the whole class. While the teacher tries to resolve the situation with threats, the violence the children perpetuate escalates, leading to a fatal incident.

The second half of the book plays with what we’ve encountered in the first. The narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel.

You look like you’re twelve, and you also look like you’re twenty. According to simple arithmetic, you’re probably twenty-seven years old now, but no one would be able to guess that. Twelve years old and twenty years old, somewhere in between those two ages, time was torn and crumpled, repeatedly, until it finally disappeared.

Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives. She considers the overlap of time and whether different versions of ourselves can co-exist – does the person we were at twelve still live? Are they running around in our world, narrowly missing bumping into our older self?

There are no answers to this conundrum, of course, but there’s a hypnotic beauty in the repetition of language and ideas Han uses to interrogate the idea. Credit to Janet Hong for what cannot have been an easy text to translate. Han’s wordplay where she links meaning and concepts in a stream of consciousness exploration can’t always directly translate. It seems that Hong manages to maintain the intention and meaning of the original text, even if specific words have had to be substituted.

Water isn’t beautiful at all. When water freezes, it becomes ice. Ice is more beautiful than water. But neither water nor ice is beautiful. Water flows. Ice is slippery. I’ve run on ice before. No one was on my back. Every time my hooves touched the ice, I heard a strange noise. It was the sound of me slipping, on and onward. So I guess I can’t say that I ran on ice. Can I say that the ice slipped? The ice slipped up. I was afraid that the slipped-up ice would crack, I was afraid that the water colder than ice would drench me, so on and onward I went.

The Impossible Fairytale is an innovative exploration of the bounds of storytelling. The first of Han Yujoo’s work to be translated into English, I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

I spoke to Han Yujoo about fiction, the collapsing of time and working with a translator.

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press, I have five copies of The Impossible Fairytale to give away. To win, leave a comment either here or underneath my interview with Han Yujoo on YouTube by 6pm UK time on Sunday 24th September. Giveaway is UK only. Winners will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

The giveaway winners are Ann Bradley, Christabel, Lara Alonso Corona, Victoria Goodbody and Eva. Please check you email for further details. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Books mentioned:

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo

Madame Zero – Sarah Hall

The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy and the giveaway and to Han Yujoo for the interview.

The Tryst – Monique Roffey (with Interview)

She had hoped for so much more in life, more than Bill. But mostly, she had wanted more from sex. But she had never foraged, been out there to find it. Most human females don’t, to be fair, for they get labelled sluts and sluts in the human realm aren’t respected, let alone celebrated as they should be.

Jane and Bill are happily married and madly in love, but their sex life is non-existent. We meet them on a night out with a friend of Jane’s and soon discover that Jane spends some of her time daydreaming about her sexual fantasies.

In the bar that evening is a woman named Lilah Hopkins. In the time it takes Jane to go to the bar and buy another round of drinks, Lilah has joined their table.

The change she provoked in my husband fascinated me. Bill was devoted to me, had been devoted since we met. It was love at first sight for him. He had never, ever, openly admired another woman in all our time together. But he was gazing, wide-eyed, at Lilah. My dear husband: my other kidney, my sound, reliable, decent, wholesome, utterly faithful husband was checking Lilah out.

Jane thinks Lilah is ‘incredible’ but also ‘cheap’ but, as the story’s told in retrospect, she also acknowledges that ‘I didn’t see her fully that night in that nondescript bar, barely guessed’.

Jane decides that Lilah is the solution to the lack of sex in her marriage and invites her back to her and Bill’s home. Eventually, Jane goes to bed alone, leaving Bill and Lilah talking, fully aware that they’re likely to have sex. What Jane doesn’t anticipate is both the size of the effect this will have on Bill and the effect Bill will have on Lilah.

Told from all three perspectives, The Tryst reveals a game being played between the women and Bill. Each member of the triangle is unaware of the extent to which they’re being manipulated by the others, each believing they have some control over the situation. What Jane’s failed to notice is that Lilah isn’t human: she’s a descent of Lilith, first wife of Adam, an imp from a race of enchanting Lovers (Roffey’s capitalisation). What Lilah doesn’t see is that she’s met her match in Bill.

Oh – what a pleasant surprise. This Bill was a Lover, after all. Not a Fucker, like the majority of human males. Not all please-my-cock-now neediness. He had skill and timing and he knew how to give, how to meet a woman and see to her needs before his own. This was a first.

Roffey explores desire and the effect it can have on a heterosexual couple and, also, on relationships between women. She questions whether sexless marriages can be fixed, even when they appear to be irrevocably broken. She’s unafraid – and unashamed – to write no-holds barred sex scenes and it pays off. The Tryst is an engrossing tale of love, sex and power.

I met Monique Roffey to discuss The Tryst.

At the very end of the book there’s an author note where one of the things you talk about is that the book developed over 14 years. Where did the idea for the book come from and how did it change over that time?

The idea came from meeting a particular woman, who was very short and had flaming red hair and who was sexually incredibly dynamic. The kind of person who you just think her clothes are about to blow off. A younger woman. I met her about 15 years ago. The Lilah in the book is really based on someone I met. She became a friend. She was a really intelligent, fellow author.

I was in a relationship a little bit like the one Jane and Bill are in, which was a really loving and stable relationship but there was something wrong with it, which was the sexuality part. I certainly felt there was something I didn’t know how to go about. I didn’t know how to resource myself on fixing it or what was wrong. How was it wrong if you love someone so much? It was an enormous problem for me.

I was busy writing the second novel but The Tryst was leaking out. I remember the opening line, ‘She had pointy ears’, that just manifest itself. Fifteen years ago, I wrote it down in a Moleskin notebook and I’ve still got that notebook. Something was leaking out; I leaked the book out and the character Jane leaks Lilah so there’s life imitating art.

I was a younger writer and I was less experienced about how to handle [the work]. I knew there were three points of view, how would I handle that? Would it work? How to make it work? Then, of course, there’s the whole shame thing which is a big feminist issue around writing about sex. When I was a younger woman in my 30s, I hadn’t quite breached that crossroads yet. I hadn’t crossed over into where I am today. I’ve been on a huge journey around sexuality. I was a bit like Jane, I was underdeveloped in my sexuality.

I was ashamed of what I was writing, to a certain extent. It took years; I kept putting it down and picking it up. It followed me round on different laptops. I knew it was good, I knew I had something. It wasn’t until 2012 I began to tweak it and then I saw the whole Lilah resonance, the Lilith story .Then I knew I had a really workable project. In 2013, I sold it to Simon & Schuster.

Now it’s been published by Dodo Ink. What happened with it?

I’d been with Simon & Schuster for a very long time and they’d published four or five of my books. In that period of time, which was about a decade, I’d had three or four different editors. One of them we had a fantastic relationship with but the one I inherited when she left, we had a weak relationship. She bought The Tryst, I think she felt she ought to, then she got cold feet. Interestingly, she said, ‘What if it wins the Bad Sex Award?’ and now people are saying it should win a good sex award. She just didn’t have it in her to take this book to publication. A deal was undone and Dodo Ink bought it about a year later.

It’s interesting that you mention the Bad Sex Award; did the thought of that put you off at any point?

Not in the writing of it but it certainly put my editor off. I think it puts a lot of writers off but not me at the time. I was so committed and I was so in this book and then I grew with it. I had this great sexual journey in my 40s which was why I wrote my memoir. As I grew more intelligent and more articulate and more experienced and I met more and more women, I became a lot more confident about what I was writing.

One of the things I really loved about the book was the different women in it and the way you talk about different women and sex. What made you decide to write about sex and the way women are seen?

Here we are in the West and the West is Judeo-Christian so we rest on these really ancient myths and ideas about womanhood. There was Adam and then there was Lilith and Lilith is a big whore who refuses to lay underneath Adam and is banished because she’s way too unruly. Then they make Eve – they try again with a wife for Adam and this time they make it from his ribs so it’s likely she’s not going to be so feisty. Of course, she causes the fall of mankind and then we have Magdalen. So we have these very sexually powerful women in our most ancient mythology and our understanding of the whole romantic dynamic or the male/female dynamic. Then we have Mary, the Mother of Christ, who’s a virgin, never had sex. It’s all quite fucked up. But those ideas of a split between the mother, Mary, who’s a virgin – she’s not sexual, she’s asexual, she above sex, she’s too spiritual to have a sex drive – is really still with us. We do have this split in femininity around motherhood and mothers being more chaste. God knows how they give birth to children. There’s definitely a split: there’s the whore and the mother and they’re diametrically opposed types.

I was in psychoanalysis for years and I’ve come across another archetype, which I feel I strongly identify with, which is the Tara. A lot of women who are very creative and have written – Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Wolff – and stayed unmarried and have not had children is the kind of opposite of the mother.

Lilah and Jane are basically playing out these polar opposites in womanhood. The direction I wanted to send the book in was towards an integration for Jane. She manifests Lilah from her dreams and she calls her in, she invites her in. My plan for her was that she ingests her. Lilah devastates them and also heals them. I wanted to look at this really well known split in female sexuality and I wanted Jane, at the end, to have it all. To have eaten Lilah, in a way.

You considered publishing The Tryst under a pseudonym; how does it feel to have it out under your own name?

It’s a good thing. When I was thinking about the pseudonyms, I think it was way before the memoir even. This book is a prequel to the memoir. I was writing it before the memoir. People pointed out to me: Monique, you’ve already written about sex under your own name, it’s ridiculous. With sex writing there’s a lot of shame, I’ve got all sorts of friends who’ve used pen names but that never works, eventually people get outed – horribly – often by other women. It’s horrendous. So I decided I wanted to be on the right side of the fence and, also, if you out yourself, no one can hurt you. No one’s going to shame you because you’re out, you own whatever’s dark and difficult, transgressive. I’ve got my name on it, that’s all true, so no nasty, weird stories are going to turn up about me. There’s no kiss and tell, no photographs. I wanted to be able to own everything that I’ve done and it has worked.

I want to go back a little bit to Lilah and the magical element. You’ve already mentioned she comes from a type. She talks about being a woodland type and there are conversations about whether she’s a nymph or a spirit. Why did you bring the supernatural element into it, rather than it being a straightforward love triangle?

That’s a really good question; I’m not even sure I’ve got an answer for that because this is a novel and you can do what you like with a novel, it doesn’t have to make sense. What I’ve been told is we can’t sell it in France or in Europe because they like a literal [story]. I even went to a well-known festival director – he really wanted to read the book – and he said, ‘I don’t understand it, she’s a pixie’. In a way, it’s a big risk but Lilah is a descendent of Lilith, in the book, and she’s also a manifestation of Jane’s erotic trysts, her dreams and her fantasies. She just turns up, she’s dreamed her into her life and she banishes her. She wins. She gets to live a dream, in a way, so I really wanted that otherworldly possibility. Otherwise you’ve just got bog standard realism, haven’t you? They met a woman, she’s a bit of a whore and I don’t want to stigmatise the whore. Lilah’s quite evil but she’s also very beautiful, isn’t she? I think she is. She’s a devil.

I liked the idea that she could possibly have just been a manifestation of Jane’s imagination. That she changed everything herself.

I think at some point in the book I say, ‘By the time I was so lost, I was so lost and overwhelmed by all my fantasies, by the time Lilah turned up, I couldn’t work out whether it was me that dreamed her up. Was she just another dream?’

There’s a power in that, isn’t there?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we all know that. Sexual energy is also really directly related to creative energy. Sexual energy is powerful. Women don’t really understand how powerful we are, let alone how to direct that energy, how to use it to get what we want, overtly, subtly. It’s all there for us to explore. Modern women haven’t really got the teachers, I don’t think, to show them the way to use their sexual power. Not just to get what they want out of the world but to be creative. Most creative women, I would say, are very in touch with their libido.

You’ve mentioned there about power and sexuality and there is a real power struggle in the novel. I wondered whether it was there to drive the narrative or whether there was more to that, whether you’d got something to say about sex and the way the two work together?

There is a power struggle, there is a triangle but before there’s a triangle, there’s a couple. I think in many relationships where there’s no sex happening, the person who doesn’t want it has the power. That person is the one who is silently calling the shots. Meanwhile, the other person is silently suffering. Sometimes they’re both suffering but there’s definitely the whole thing about it’s his house, it’s his mother’s house, she redecorated. All those subtle forms of co-existing between men and women. He ends up in the shed, he hasn’t really dealt with his ex-wife, he’s been depressed, he hasn’t really dealt with his mum. He’s got issues building up, she hasn’t dealt with her pain so there’s a whole lot of complex love story before Lilah turns up. And, of course, Lilah really just wants to fuck them up and hurt them and to say, I’ll probably be good for you, but she then loses her footing and gets drawn in and then, all of a sudden, she’s lost her power. She’s omnipotently powerful and conscious and aware of what she’s doing. Really in a different ballpark to the quite naïve and innocent Bill and Jane. She’s just come in there with a bag of tricks, everything she’s got to bring, and she slips because she’s met by Bill, which is a huge surprise.

I hope it’s one of the big surprises in the book that I’ve written a male who’s a really good lover and meets this witch, this little imp, and they fall in love. There’s something going on between them. I wanted them all to underestimate each other. Lilah sneers at them, Jane sneers at her – she’s quite cheap, stonewashed, court platforms, bangles, looks cheap, ‘like a novelty bar of soap’, she says, Alabama. She doesn’t realise that this woman is just playing her along. That’s what women do, don’t we? We size each other up, we’ve all got each other covered. We know who’s the Alpha Female, we know whether or not to get on the right side of that person, if we’re in with her, if we’re not, do we care? Are we Alpha? Who are we? All this stuff’s going on. Jane is an Alpha Female and Lilah is like a triple Alpha Female.

One of the thing’s that’s really nice in the book is the way they start to reveal they’re all playing each other and everyone thinks they’re not. That comes out in the narration. You’ve written it from all three points of view. Did you start with that or did it develop as you went along? And how do you tell the same scenes without making it repetitive?

I’m so glad you think it’s not repetitive because that was why this book’s taken so long. Initially we had three stories and it was all of Jane, followed by all of Bill, followed by all of Leilah. One after the other, they were all telling one long narrative and I just realised it was really boring. And you’d forgotten Jane by the time you were with Lilah. I realised it needed to be cut up, concertinaed, and if I split it right, then you would get overlap but you wouldn’t get repetition. I wanted them all to be giving us their different point of view because it’s really different, what they’re all thinking. And, also, that Bill’s no fool, he gets it. He’s in there, along for the ride. They’ve all got their grief, they’ve all got their story. I also had a really good editor who helped.

Back to your writing more generally. You’ve written books looking at a wide range of topics. The last one was House of Ashes, which I loved. It was my Book of the Year.

You’re kidding!

No, I absolutely loved it. I wondered how important it is to you to write about different subjects.

Well, I only think I’ve tackled two, which is sex and I’m also known for writing books which are based in the Caribbean, where I come from, where my family live. I think it’s really important to keep testing yourself and pushing yourself and trying new things but also staying within the realms of your expertise of what you think about, what’s important to you, what you know about, what other people don’t. For example, I teach creative writing up in Manchester and many of my students are from the north and they don’t seem to be interested in their own back yard. That is your world, I don’t know your world. I can’t write about the north, I’d get it so wrong.

For me, I’ve ploughed my areas, I’ve ploughed my back yard. For example, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’s all about my mum and dad and my family. This bloody bicycle which she brought with her from England. Archipelago’s all about my brother and this flood which destroyed his house. And then House of Ashes was a huge leap because, for the first time, I wasn’t writing about me. I’d been really worried because it’s historical fiction and the people who perpetrated this coup are still alive. They never got tried. Spent two years in prison and they were all released. There was that issue. And then, incredibly, as I decided to go ahead with it, to do some research, there was a commissioned enquiry, in Trinidad, 24 years later. So I got to go to court and I got all the witness testimony’s online and I got to meet people and witness them. That, again, is magical. When you decide to commit to a book that’s really risky and then the door just opens and goes here’s all the information you need. That’s my favourite book too. It got nominated for a couple of prizes but it didn’t sell very well because who’s interested in a coup in the Caribbean? I don’t know.

I definitely hope that there’s going to be more. There’s another Caribbean book, that’s now at second draft stage, about a mermaid. Most mermaids are not happy creatures, they’ve been cursed. If you seal up a woman’s legs, you’re sealing up her sexuality. She can no longer have periods, she can no longer have sex. This myth is an old Cuban myth. There was a beautiful ingénue woman who was singing. The men were so entranced by her that the women of the village banished her to a rock. The men still found their way up to see her sing and to try and win her. Eventually, they got the goddess down and said, what do we do with her? The goddess said, I will send a hurricane and we’ll send her into the sea. This young woman is banished, sealed up, sexuality sealed. Away, off, forever. If you curse someone today – and we live 70 years and die – that person’s still cursed. She’s still living with that curse long after those women have cursed her. She gets caught in the modern time so we have an old Shamanic woman who’s been cursed to be a mermaid with old language, old ideas, not quite Neanderthal, people who were living in the Caribbean four or five thousand years ago. So she comes back, has a love affair.

My blog’s about female writers. I always ask everyone if they’ve read anything really interesting by a female writer recently that they’d recommend to us.

I’ve just read, for the first time, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. It’s absolutely, rivetingly brilliant. I’ve got so much to say about it; I’m teaching it next year at MMU [Manchester Metropolitan University]. It’s a thriller told from the point of view of the killer. He’s this kind of likeable sociopath, Tom Ripley. I’ve been asked to teach the novel, so I’m now ploughing my way through 10 novels and it was the first one I read and I was like, wow because I’m not really a thriller reader, generally.

A Caribbean writer who I think is just amazing, an amazing poet who’s going to be published in the autumn is called Shivanee Ramlochan who has a collection out called Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting. I think that Shivanee is going to be really famous and hugely influential in the Caribbean. She’s got a queer perspective and writes about Lilith, sexual violence, rape, queerness, women, folklore creatures. She’s just got an amazing range, she just has this rich inner world: magic and realism and lore and reality. Everyday things and mum and dad and family. I think she’s amazing.

Rosamond King, another Caribbean poet. I read a lot of Caribbean literature.

Huge thanks to Monique Roffey for the interview and to Dodo Ink for the review copy.

Books mentioned:

The Tryst – Monique Roffey

House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle – Monique Roffey

Archipelago – Monique Roffey

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting – Shivanee Ramlochan

Rosamond King

When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.