Book Lists for All Humans #1

This morning, the Independent ran a book list, ‘13 books everyone should read‘. It popped up on my Twitter feed when someone I follow (a white male) tweeted it with the words, ’13/13 men, 13/13 white. Seriously?’ Clicking the link led to the discovery that the list was voted for by reddit users. My only surprise on discovering this was that House of Leaves wasn’t one of the books on the list.

What isn’t a surprise though is that yet another book list is all-male and all-white. It happens a lot in the media. Last year I got into a debate on Twitter as to whether those writers who selected 10 books related to whichever subject their latest work is on for The Guardian should be given guidelines stating/advising/suggesting they consider a diverse list. Someone (a white male) argued that because they were personal choices they should be allowed to reflect that person’s taste. A point that would be perfectly valid if structural inequality didn’t exist and the majority of people writing these lists weren’t white. At that time, Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets, counteracted the largely male, all-white, list of Top Ten Summers in Fiction.

I’ve long been riled by this situation: when I used to include lists in In the Media, I spent a disproportionate amount of time checking whether the lists were gender balanced. Most were not. Include the balance of white to brown writers and there would’ve been barely any lists left. Every time one appears, I think I should counteract it with an all-female list of writers of a variety of skin tones and today I’m riled enough that I’m doing just that.

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Welcome to the first in a series! Here’s my take on 13 Books Everyone Should Read. I’m aware there’s many more I could’ve chosen so please, leave your suggestions in the comments. I’m hoping this will become an series of excellent crowdsourced book recommendations. Then, maybe, the media might just have a word with itself and compile lists reflective of the actual world rather than its own narrow one.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronté

Americanah – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

Push – Sapphire

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

(Links are to my reviews.)

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu – Yi Shun Lai

Marty Wu lives in NYC and works in advertising at Retirees’ Review. This is not, however, her dream job.

Halloween is our one night a year to dress up and feel okay doing it. What if my shop, my little storefront, became the place where people came to see what it was like to slip into another skin. What if we made costuming something that people did, a leisure activity, just like we go out to dinner? What if masquerade balls weren’t something only the one-percenters did? Wouldn’t that be fun, to let people try on someone else’s life? Wouldn’t it be awesome, to let people imagine themselves as someone else, more than once a year?

The problem is that Marty doesn’t have the finances to realise her dream. In order to get them, she needs to land the big advertising deal with Irving Liquors and use the commission to open a costume shop. It’s clear from the beginning of the book though, when Marty is late to her meeting after a lengthy phone call from her mother and then spilling coffee over herself and her boss/ex-boyfriend, Stafford, that this is not going to go smoothly. It doesn’t go smoothly at a Las Vegas subscribers’ expo in a very big way.

To avoid the subsequent fall-out, Marty goes to Taiwan with her mother to stay with family for a while, including her brother who remained there to be brought up by his aunt when Marty and their parents moved to New York.

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Marty’s mother is overbearing and over critical of her daughter:

Everything you do is a waste of time, everything, everything! I so ashamed of you. Did you know, whenever my friends ask what you do for living, I must say I don’t know? You buy friends, you know, that’s what people who work in advertising do. On television, they never talk about people in advertising. They talk about editors and writers. Why can’t you be one of those? At least then I hold my head up high.

Whilst Marty spends time in Taiwan whether pursuing her dream is a viable option, she also begins to see the extent of her mother’s control on her life. This revelation partly comes courtesy of her best friend and her family who guide her to see when her mother’s behaviour is unreasonable. Through them Marty is able to wear her mother as a costume, beginning to understand her mother’s psyche and how that affects them both, and also a new costume for herself, one which might help her achieve her ambitions.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu makes an interesting comparison to Not Working by Lisa Owens. Both protagonists are about the same age and are faced with similar issues but while Not Working is fragmented in structure and doesn’t really come to a clear resolution, Not a Self-Help Book is more linear and there are a number of resolutions for Marty and her family.

I found Marty’s voice incredibly irritating at the beginning of the novel: I suspect I’m too old for the verbal tics of the Millennials which Lai accurately conveys here. However, by the end of the book I’d warmed to Marty and her clumsy progress through life.

The mother/daughter relationship was the most interesting strand of the book, exploring the tensions between the two characters, revealing where the issues between them stemmed from and reaching a somewhat unexpected, but rather interesting, conclusion. Perhaps life is better if sometimes you can try on someone else’s skin and occasionally see it all from a different perspective.

 

Thanks to Shade Mountain Press for the review copy.

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

In simple terms The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery, but the slightness of the book and its short sections belie the depth of thought which surrounds these events.

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Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

For it doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn’t punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.

It is this, I think, which demonstrates the power of Nelson’s writing. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour: embedded quotations from the likes of Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed and Luce Irigaray appear throughout the book. Nelson is also comfortable expressing her insecurities and allowing the reader to see her working through her relationship with Dodge.

Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers”, you called them.

 

I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised in compassion, compassion disguised as anger.

Don’t you get it yet? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.

The Argonauts explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth.

Nelson juxtaposes ideas surrounding these topics with personal anecdotes, shifting seamlessly from one to another, circling around ideas returning to them again and again. She makes the structure appear effortless but this non-chronological weaving is difficult to pull off, but pull it off is exactly what she does, making the book compelling. I did, however, find myself pausing often to think through the points Nelson was making, she packs a significant amount into some of the shortest paragraphs.

Maggie Nelson is one of a number of female writers currently using the essay form in creative ways – Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Katherine Angel, to name a few – writing interesting, intellectual pieces exploring society/the political through the personal. The Argonauts is a welcome addition to this body of work. Rigorous and fascinating.

 

Thanks to Melville House UK for the review copy.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Doctor Morayo Da Silva has led quite a life. Married at twenty-two to thirty-seven year old ambassador, Caesar, she’s seen the world. Discovering Caesar had another wife and finding it difficult to conjure up any enthusiasm for menu planning and protocol, Moraya undertook a Masters degree and became an academic. Eventually she left Caesar. By the time we meet her, she’s been living in an apartment in San Francisco for twenty years with a ‘magnifique’ view and hundreds of books, having ‘outfoxed the [Nigerian] life expectancy by nearly two decades’.

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Morayo tells us that her having lived in the same building in a rent controlled city for so long, must be annoying for the landlady but

the landlady must know what she loses in rent, she gains by having someone reliable like me keeping a watchful eye on the property.

However, Morayo’s reliability is soon brought into question, firstly by her attitude towards bills:

They don’t give you much time to pay these days, but I don’t let this trouble me. Once upon a time I was diligent, extraordinarily diligent, but life’s too short to fuss over such small things. That at least is what I tell myself until the diligence, never truly lost, reappears, and I return to the post.

Secondly, what Morayo discovers in that post is a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles, the deadline for a response to which was the previous week. When she contacts them, it’s to be told she’s been reported for careless or reckless driving.

Thirdly, as Morayo’s tale unfolds, Manyika moves the narration between a number of characters: Dawud who owns a shop on Morayo’s street; Sunshine, Morayo’s former neighbour; a homeless woman Morayo passes on the street; Reggie Bailey; Caesar, and a chef. This patchwork of narrators shouldn’t work but it does. It works partly because Manyika interweaves her themes about belonging, immigration, race, privilege, age and being a woman throughout and also because she uses it as a device to highlight the disparity between Morayo’s view of herself and other people’s view of her. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Morayo reveals that she’s been thinking about returning to Lagos. The comment is provoked by the smell in the folds of the cloth she considers wearing that day.

I sigh, putting the original fabric aside and opting for another – this one gold and green, wafting eco-friendly, lavender-scented detergent. I wrap the material around my waist keeping my legs spread hip distance so as not to pull too tightly, then I wrap it again and finish with a secure tuck at the side. I choose a contrasting yellow material to wind around my hair and then check in the bathroom mirror, patting down the top of my afro.

This is contrasted with Dawud’s view of her in the following chapter:

He chuckles, thinking that once upon a time she must have been stunning – such a tall woman with a fine ass, even now. She was probably even stylish, although now, at her age, all these bright colours with the pencil and flowers sticking out of her hair only made her look odd.

Not only does this particular example show the gap between Marayo’s view of herself and Dawud’s view, but his comments also highlight the way society not only expects women to look and dress but how society expects older women to look and dress – ‘at her age’.

As Morayo prepares for her seventy-fifth birthday, she tries on the new red suede wedge heeled shoes she’s bought – new shoes being her first birthday tradition – whilst contemplating the tattoo she’s getting to fulfil her second birthday tradition – ‘to do something new and daring with each passing year’ – and balances on the edge of the bath to get a better view in the mirror. She twists, slips, and breaks her hip. The rest of the novel merges Morayo’s recovery, people’s treatment of her and further revelations about her life.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika packs an incredible amount into the 128 pages of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. She covers a number of big themes without the book ever feeling less than a cracking story; she blends a number of narrative voices in a way which works brilliantly even though in theory it really shouldn’t; she makes every single word in the book earn its place. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a wonderful character: a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour.

If I still haven’t convinced you that you really should read this book, I’ll leave you with my favourite quotation, one which I’m sure all book lovers will sympathise with. While Morayo’s recuperating from the hip operation, Sunshine has her flat cleaned and a number of Morayo’s books are thrown out.

‘You’ve just got so many books. You’ve even got more than one copy of some of them.’

‘Well of course I do! Just like you have dozens of pairs of yoga pants and lipsticks and shoes, don’t you? How would you feel if someone went through all your “stuff” and got rid of what they thought were just duplicates or extras? Just because you would never buy more than one fucking book doesn’t mean others wouldn’t. Doesn’t mean there isn’t a very good reason why I do!’

 

Thanks to Cassava Republic for the review copy

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (Translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

Conflicts. I guess I’m the kind who attracts conflicts but has no idea how to resolve them. I clash frequently in big ways and small ones with loved ones such as my boyfriend and my mother. Lots of my relationships have ended this way. The only person I’ve stayed close with, despite the endless conflict, is my mother. If we weren’t blood relations, we’d probably have gone our separate ways in the end too. That’s partly why you find me here, walking the streets of this foreign country on my own.

Jiaying, a successful writer, tells of the period in her life when she stayed in a six-bed female dorm in a youth hostel in Seoul. The only other occupant of the room is Judy, a Westerner who doesn’t begin to speak to Jiaying until she discovers she’s Taiwanese so she can speak to her in Mandarin. A few days later, Judy tells Jiaying about an abusive relationship she was in with a Chinese classmate whilst she was studying in Tokyo. It’s the end of Jiaying’s own interracial relationship which has led to her traveling to Seoul.

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The novel’s made up of twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. This is also evident in an earlier passage where Fat Luo berates Jiaying for rejecting him:

“Why are you brushing me off, Jiaying? Have you no affection for this land we live in? Is that why you look down at Asian men – and Taiwanese men in particular? Is that why you’re dating your Western guy? They’ve got bigger dicks, their countries are superpowers, they’re wealthier, stronger and better looking than us. Is that why you ignore my letters? Do you know how it breaks my heart to see you with that Western guy? It feels like having a knife plunged through my heart! It’s like when all those superpowers forced their way into the Forbidden City, plundered our treasures and razed the Old Summer Palace to the ground. But this time the treasures these Western powers have taken is you! We are the ones who will give you true happiness. Mark my words: when you grow weary, I will be the only one by your side. Oh fuck, my hands are trembling as I write these words.”

The conflict at the heart of the book is that of globalisation. Jiaying states, interracial relationships ‘just like internet cafes, started to proliferate every major city at the turn of the century. Just like the concepts of globalisation and the global village, these relationships started to appear among my group of friends of different cultures, nationalities and skin colour’. But humans don’t like change and when change takes place at unprecedented rates, threatening the things which give them a sense of identity, something that they feel makes them unique, they cling to whatever that thing is ferociously. In Masked Dolls that thing is national identity and masculinity. The conflicts which stem from the globalisation shown in the novel are ones of gender, of colonialism, of love – romantic and familial.

Translators Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland convey the brutality of these conflicts, leaving the reader feeling as battered and bruised as if they’d been on the receiving end of one of the instances of physical conflict in the book.

Masked Dolls is an unusual look at how the metaphorical shrinking of the world affects people at an individual level. It considers a number of consequences, particularly for women: the novel never fails to remind us that we live in a patriarchal society which will not tolerate interracial relationships. Masked Dolls is one of those rare books which after reading reveals itself to be greater than the sum of its parts. Brutal, intense, fascinating.

 

Thanks to Balestier Press for the review copy.

The Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist

After four weeks of reading and discussion, our shadow panel have decided upon the following shortlist. Like the official judges, we will be re-reading our choices and deciding upon a winner at the beginning of June. The official shortlist is announced this evening; we’re looking forward to seeing how it compares.

If you click the covers of the novels, they will take you to my reviews.

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Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. But it became much more than that when the middle-class black families marched:

…they marched on city hall, the school board, even the Department of Public Works, holding out the collective votes of a brand-new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians previously reluctant to consider the needs of a new Negro middle class, and sealing, in the process, the neighbourhood’s political power, which would become legend over the next four decades.

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The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.

Since we last saw Jay in Black Water Rising, he’s taken on a huge civil case against Cole Oil Industries and bought a dilapidated house to use as an office. When he arrives there having been alerted to the break-in, he waits in his car for the cops to arrive. Locke uses the scene to comment upon police treatment of black men.

The officers pulled to a stop at an angle that brought the front end of their cruiser to rest nearly at Jay’s feet at the curb, its headlights hitting him square in the chest. He instinctively raised his hands.

“Porter,” he said, loud and clear. “This is my place.”

Once the police have searched the building, found it empty, filled out an incident report and left, Jay hears someone upstairs. He finds a nineteen or twenty-year-old male in his conference room. After the kid kicks the remaining pieces of glass from the frame of the window he’s broken, Jay has the opportunity – legally – to shoot him. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t shoot this kid in the back.

Currently, Jay’s only case is Pleasantville v. ProFerma Labs, a case which has come from two explosions at ProFerma’s chemical plant that threatened to burn Pleasantville to the ground. Jay assumed it would be over quickly but ProFerma still haven’t made a serious settlement offer. Jay’s down to the one case because of his home-life: Bernie’s dead and he has two children, fifteen-year-old Ellie and ten-year-old Ben, to raise alone. Soon though, Jay’s caught up in trying to discover the whereabouts of the missing girl, Alicia Nowell. Two other girls, Deanne Duchon and Tina Wells, also went missing from Pleasantville, one in 1994, the other in 1995. In both cases, the girls were found dead six days after their abductions. While investigating any links to the earlier cases knowing time is against the girl and the community, Jay discovers there’s someone watching him, someone driving a stolen Nissan Z. As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre.

In Pleasantville, Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power. She clearly ties some of the strategies used in Pleasantville to win voters to the campaign for the Bush/Gore election in 2000 when it came down to a handful of votes across the country. It’s a scenario that could be bone dry in a less exciting writer’s hands, but Locke knows how to tie the personal with the political and does so both with the Hathorne family and Jay’s own situation.

The novel has real pace to it, twist and turns every few pages none of which are either predictable or implausible and this alone would mark Locke as an excellent political thriller writer. However, the fact that she writes about black communities; that her characters are almost all black or Hispanic; that while her stories couldn’t be transposed to a white community, her characters are every bit as rounded, human, good, bad and changeable as novels peopled with only white characters, makes her work stand out in a block of pale, stereotyped tales.

Pleasantville is an intelligent, rip-roaring insight into the political process and an astute look at the dynamics of family – blood or created – and how they change following significant life events. Attica Locke is a superb writer and fast becoming one of my personal favourites.

 

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

Until the reprieve that Vernah is fighting for comes, if it comes at all, I write this in the shadow of the gallows. If the Department of Public Prosecution and the Department of Prisons have their way, I will swing from a rope and hang until my neck lengthens to breaking point or it snaps and my bowels open and my life is extinct and I am given a pauper’s funeral and an unmarked grave.

Memory is a category D prisoner in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. Convicted of killing a white man, as she waits for her death sentence to be carried out, she writes her story down for Melinda Carter, a Washington based journalist.

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Memory was born into poverty in the Mufakose township in Harare:

We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible.

Memory relates stories of her childhood, her brother and sisters, her parents. Everything she tells the reader is underpinned by two things: that her parents sold her to a white academic, Lloyd Hendricks, whose murder she now stands accused of and that she is an albino and, therefore, treated differently. She tells us of the attitude of the children she grew up with, commenting that the papers focused on her condition in the initial reports of the murder:

Their attitude was implicitly rooted in the language itself. Bofu is in noun class five, denoting things, just like benzi, the word for a mad person. Chirema, like a chimumumum, is in noun class seven, also denoting things, objects, lifeless objects or incomplete, deficient persons. But murungudunhu is heavy with meaning. As a murungudunhu, I am a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, of privilege, but of dunhu, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness.

What’s interesting, as the book and Memory’s story unravels, is that her sale to Lloyd Hendricks is not as sinister as I was expecting it to be. I was braced for a tale of abuse but what Lloyd actually gives Memory is an education and a place in a privileged white society few have access to. Gappah exploits the two parts of Memory’s skin colour – the condition that makes me black but not black, white but not white – to show two very different lifestyles being led in the same Zimbabwean capital. Regardless, however, both sides carry dark secrets which have to be hidden from society.

The novel considers race, colonialism, class, gender and memory. The fourteen category D prisoners whom Memory spends most of her time with are mentioned throughout the novel in relation to their daily lives and the prison conditions. We are told near the beginning of the novel what their crimes consist of but Gappah largely puts these aside as she writes about women who are human beings above all. As for Memory’s memory, the big question, of course, is whether it’s reliable or not and how much does she really know about her childhood?

The Book of Memory is a gripping tale of a life which led to death row. Devoid of sensationalism, Gappah focuses on how universal themes and ideas affect individuals on a daily basis. While she grapples with these themes, they are mostly only present in the context of the story and it’s perfectly possible to read the novel purely as an interesting tale of two sets of lives. A multi-layered, fascinating tale. The best type of novel, I find. The Book of Memory is a gem.

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Inside the old house Ruby was sleeping, which was rare. Ruby did not sleep – much. For her mind tangled like a fine gold chain, knotted, she was certain, beyond all repair. Still she tried each day to trace the links, only to lose them again and again.

Ruby Bell has returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City and become the talk of the town.

She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses as thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of legs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.

It’s well known that Ruby’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. No one notices Ephram, ‘he was just another thick horse brown man with a ratted cap and a stooped gait’, but Ruby does.

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When Ruby lies for three hours in a stagnant pool left by Hurricane Beulah:

Ephram Jennings saw that Ruby had become the still water. He saw her liquid deep skin, her hair splayed by onyx river vines.

As rain began to fall upon her, Ephram saw her splash and swell and spill out of the small ravine. Ephram Jennings knew. That is when Ruby lifted her head like a rising wave and noticed Ephram. In that moment the two knowings met.

The first third of the book concerns Ephram’s journey to Ruby’s house. It’s interspersed with Ephram’s story – how his sister, Celia, has raised him since he was eight and she was fourteen when their mother was incarcerated in Dearing State Mental-Colored Ward and their father, the Reverend Jennings, went preaching on the road for ten months of the year, as well as tales from Ruby and Ephram’s childhood including one about them and Ruby’s friend, Maggie, visiting Ma Tante, the local ‘witch doctor’.

“You was born with a glaze over your face. Come out the womb with the white gel what let you see into the gray world. Yes?”

Ruby just barely nodded in agreement.

Ma Tante reached out and grabbed Ruby’s right hand. She turned over her palm and pointed. “You got da mystic star. There.” She took her other hand. “There too. Lord child you ain’t nothing but a doorway. How many haints you count at your heels?”

Ruby stopped dead. It was the first time anyone had seen. It meant she couldn’t pretend it was a game anymore, or a piece of a bad dream.

Finally she answered, “Three.”

“Your count be off. And more on the way.”

The adult Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which live with her whilst she tries to care for them in a way they weren’t cared for during their lives. As she gives over her faculties to them, the men of the town rape her repeatedly, congratulating themselves on finding a woman who’ll let them do anything they want.

She simply kept her limbs numb and her eyes empty as she had since she was fifteen. Since she was twelve. Seven. Six. Five. When the first man had ripped the cotton of her panties, explaining that this is what happens to very bad little girls. When the first man had sun smiled, “Training time…”

Ruby is very much about what men do to women: how they control them through sex and shame and religion; how they pit women against each other, using the age old divide and rule formula. As the story unfolds, the connection between Ruby and Ephram becomes clearer – his sister, Celia, playing a key part in both the connection when they were children and the attempt to keep Ephram from Ruby as an adult.

Ruby’s story also highlights the intersections of gender, class and race in the parts of the novel which recall her time in New York City. There it is men and white women who are responsible for the abuse she experiences.

All of this makes the novel sound as though it’s incredibly bleak and it is bleak but there’s also an underlying thread of hope; it’s carried in Ephram but also in Ruby herself and the care she administers to the haints. The novel’s also lifted by Bond’s beautiful use of language, something I hope is evident in the quotations I’ve chosen – I highlighted many many more as I was reading. In the USA, Ruby was chosen by Oprah for her book club and I’m astonished more people in the UK aren’t talking about this novel. Ruby is an incredible book, one I wanted to start reading again from the beginning as I turned the final page.

Sarayu Srivatsa on If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here

One of my ‘Ones to Read in 2016‘ was Sarayu Srivatsa’s Man Asian Literary Prize longlisted  If You Look For Me, I Am Not HereEngrossing and innovative in terms of language use and its take on gender, I absolutely loved it. I’m delighted to welcome Sarayu to the blog to talk about the book.

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Where did the idea for If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here come from?

I have lived in Mumbai (Bombay) for 30 years and I belong to the architectural and building fraternity. The first draft of the novel was about architecture and building; its characters were shaped from a combination of people I knew. It was set in Bombay. But then I thought if I were to write about someone, somewhere and about something I didn’t know, the work would be more imaginative.

I chose one character from the first draft, an entirely imagined one – Siva, a 60-year-old male lawyer, who likes to dress up in women’s clothes just before an important case. I needed to know why he did this so I started the story at the very beginning – before he was born. I hadn’t come across any person like Siva; he was entirely shaped in my mind.

I chose Machilipatnam – a small town on the east coast of India as the setting for the story. I have never been to Machilipatnam. I don’t know anyone who lives there or has been there. I created the town based on basic research about its history, geography, climate etc.. I drew a map of the town actually – the quarter where the protagonist lives, and followed it consistently through the book.

When the MS was almost ready I presented the story at a workshop conducted by the London Script Factory organised by the British Council in Mumbai. I had misgivings about the story and wondered if I should abandon it. I met a young scriptwriter who told me the story had touched him. His mother had brought him up as a girl since she had had 3 boys and she longed for a daughter. His father was forced to send him to boarding school to distance him for his mother. His life story encouraged me to stick to my imagined one.

As I was working with an unfamiliar subject and character I needed to do serious exploration. I talked to doctors and psychologists. At one point in the writing of the novel I couldn’t relate to Siva’s thoughts and feelings. His was a difficult life. I came across an advert on hypnosis. I met the hypnotherapist on a whim, and asked her if she would hypnotise me as Siva. He was in my head after all. The therapist, rather surprised, as she had never before done this, warned me of the consequences – I would have to deal with stuff of my own life I may have blocked in my mind, she said. After the hypnosis session, which helped me focus deep, I must admit, the story was clearer to me, at least from Siva’s point of view.

The novel looks at gender and the idea of one body containing both the masculine and the feminine. What made you decide to explore this issue?

The idea of a body containing both the masculine and feminine is not new to Hindu religion. (I am not religious, I must quickly add). God Shiva in his ardhnareshwari avatar (in translation the word means half-woman) is half man and woman. The Gods Krishna and Vishnu are capable of changing into their female incarnations at will. Hijras or transwomen (male-to female transsexual or transgender individuals) are an integral part of Indian society. I had a long converstion with a hijra once (when I was working on a non-fiction book), and perhaps, subconsciously, this prompted me to explore the gender issue. Besides, I wanted to examine the idea of nurture versus nature in connection to gender at birth and after. Heredity determines physiological differences in males and females. On the other hand, how a child is raised influences its psychologiacl development. Every culture promotes gender-specific behaviors for males and females.  Any deviation from traditional gender stereotypes becames glaringly obvious. I tried to to explore this in the novel.

You play with language throughout the novel. I particularly loved the way you use it to recreate the sound of the weather and the attempts at words young children make. Why did you decide to do so rather than describe these things to the reader?

My father was in government service and was posted to villages when I was a child. I didn’t get to go to a school. My mother taught me English (her kind) and maths at home. I didn’t have any access to children’s books. I depended on my instincts and imagination. The sounds of nature became my language. Besides, I learnt Indian classical dance from a very young age. Rhythm and sound are the skin of my thoughts, and often I find myself using words because of the quality of their sound, rather than just their meaning. In my mind I have a feeling for words that soar, plunge or are inert and flat. The selection of words is so instinctive that I am unaware of the choices I make. Indian English, the way it’s spoken, differs from state to state in this country – this adds a curious and amusing local flavour to the language. Language is inventive in India – and children invent their very own language.

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Why did you decide to incorporate a different type of text in the form of George Gibbs’ ledger?

Machilipatnam is known for its vegetable dyes and the craft of dying cloth. It is also a port where the English East India Company set up their trading post to export dyes and cloth to England. I felt compelled to use both these facts in the novel. The idea of George Gibbs, an East India Company factor, who traded in dyes, was born as a result. George Gibbs story although a parallel but a shorter one to Siva’s establishes the historical reference for the town. But it was difficult to incorporate it within the main idea i.e. Siva’s story. At first I started the book with Gibbs’ story leading on to Siva’s but this didn’t seem to work. I tried alternate chapters but George’s part was very short, and therefore inconstant. Consequently, I fattened up his story a bit, got hold of a very ancient ledger and coaxed it into it. I made the ledger appear at fitting times intercepting Siva’s story. I used a different type of text so that it could at once be recognised as Gibbs’ story, separate from Siva’s.

When it was published in India (as The Last Pretence) the novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize; how did it feel to be placed on such a prestigious list?

I remember I was travelling when my agent called me with the news. All I could do in response was giggle. For one thing, I am not a trained writer, for another, I use the English language differently and in my own way; I feel discomfited about this, and feel a bit anxious amongst people who use the language confidently. I found it rather amusing that my work should get selected for an international prize. It was only much later and particularly when the media chose to write about it that it dawned on me – that my MS had made it to a prestigious list. The unexpected is so much more flavoursome.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?

I have been working on another novel. It is a sequel of sorts – a number of lives in the novel – If you look for me – have to be sorted out. I had finished the MS more than a year ago but I had left it to marinate in my mind. Now that the novel – If you look for me – is out and it has had some response to it, I intend to continue work on the second MS.

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

Here are some of my favourite authors and their books I like –

Murasaki Shikibu – The tale of Genji

Sei Shonagon – The pillow book

Liza Dalby – East wind melts the ice

Djuna Barnes – Nightwood (a difficult book though)

Toni Morrison – Home

Doris Lessing – Ben, in the world

Iris Murdoch – The sea, the sea

Joan Didion – The year of magical thinking

A S Byatt – The Matisse stories

Amelie Nothomb – The character of Rain

Banana Yoshimoto – Asleep

Maya Angelou – I know why the caged bird sings

Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea

Nadine Gordimer – The Pickup

Carol Shields – Unless

Shani Montoo – Cereus blooms at night

 

A huge thanks to Sarayu Srivatsa for the interview and to Bluemoose Books. If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here is available now.