It Takes Blood and Guts – Skin with Lucy O’Brien #DiverseDecember #10

It’s like I carry the weight of every black female-fronted band on my shoulders – if I mess up, they’re not letting anyone else in.

In the 90s, Skunk Anansie became one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Fronted by Skin, a queer Black British woman with a shaven head and a powerful voice, they stood out amongst the legions of Britpop acts and US grunge bands. In It Takes Blood and Guts, Skin covers the Brixton childhood, with three brothers and a largely absent father, that formed her. Her sexuality, her politics, her interest in art, music and fashion are all discussed in depth. How these shaped the band along with insights into what it’s like to tour the world, including the impact it has on wellbeing, relationships and friendships; the difference having a female manager makes, and the way the industry works creates an engaging and fascinating portrait of a pioneer. 

It Takes Blood and Guts is published by Simon & Schuster. The copy I read was my own purchase.

Exquisite Cadavers – Meena Kandasamy #DiverseDecember #9

Meena Kandasamy’s second novel When I Hit You was a huge success; shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Jhalak Prize, longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, and acclaimed as a Book of the Year by numerous publications. A work of auto-fiction, it was repeatedly described by reviewers as a memoir. As Kandasamy writes in the preface of Exquisite Cadavers:

…some reviewers were side-stepping the entire artistic edifice on which the work stood, and were instead solely defining me by my experience: raped Indian woman, beaten-up wife. I felt annoyed in the beginning and later angered that as a woman writer I was not even given the autonomy of deciding the genre to which the book I had spent years writing, belonged. 

Exquisite Cadavers is Kandasamy’s response. Taking the title from the game of chance, she set out to write an Oulipo style work in which she writes a story about a couple far removed from her own situation and confines herself to the margins.

The main story concerns Karim and Maya, a young couple who live in London. He is a film student whose ideas are constantly being knocked back by the research committee who think he should be creating something around his own identity. She is white-passing and has to deal with microaggressions from her family and colleagues about her marriage. However, the story is centred on their relationship; the way they perceive each other and their roles.

Early on in the marginalia Kandasamy writes If everything goes to plan, there will be no seepage, no bleeding from her own life into those of Karim and Maya. This proves impossible though as concerns about Brexit, the Prevent Strategy, and the fates of Indian activists appear in the fictional narrative.

Part of what’s really interesting about the book is making the links between the two stories; seeing how life is reconstituted in art. Although, technically, Kandasamy fails in her intention to create an entirely separate fictional story, what she does achieve demonstrates to those who failed to recognise the artistry in When I Hit You that events and ideas can be taken and sculpted into something new, something rooted in fiction. 

Again, early on in the marginalia Kandasamy says:

No one discusses process with us. [Writers ‘from a place where horrible things happen [… / ] have happened to us’.]

No one discusses our work in the framework of the novel as an evolving form.

No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived.

With Exquisite Cadavers Kandasamy has forced that conversation to the forefront through an intriguing and deftly executed piece of work.

Exquisite Cadavers is published by Atlantic Books. Thanks to the publisher for my review copy.

Seduce – Désirée Reynolds #DiverseDecember #8

Black women carry di worl between we legs an pan we shoulder, carry it an carry it.

On Church Island, a small mythical place in the Caribbean, Seduce is dead and mourners gather. Seduce was a complex woman. Her job as a Lampis – the women who cooked and served fish on the docks but made most of their money through sex work – set her at odds with many in the community. Religious, upstanding Hyacinth says Seduce was responsible for her husband leaving. Seduce’s daughter, Glory, wants to protect her in death but had a difficult relationship with her in life. Mikey, Seduce’s lover is devastated and defends her. 

The island is poised at a point of change. Tensions are evident in religious practises, the role of the island’s colonisers and the treatment of women. As secrets are revealed, the hypocrisy at the heart of the island’s people is exposed.

A polyphonic novel, each character – including Seduce – is given a chance to tell their part of the story. Reynolds creates a distinct voice for each person using the accent(s) and dialect of the island. It creates a lyrical tale in the oral tradition; at points it feels akin to a play. Seduce is an absorbing tale that questions the social, political and religious constructs that a society is built from and the consequences for those within it, whether or not they choose to play by the rules.

Seduce is published by Peepal Tree Press. The copy I read is my own purchase.  

Strange Beasts of China – Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang) #DiverseDecember #7

In the city of Yong’an, a young woman who’s a writer and an amateur cryptozoologist writes the stories of the city’s fabled beasts. From the sorrowful beasts who die if they smile to the ancient returning beasts who live underground, the narrator relates episodic tales through which she discovers more about the lives of her friends and ultimately herself. Aided and often obstructed by her friend Charley, her university professor, and the professor’s student Zhong Liang, these relationships create moments of humour as well as enlightenment. The beasts are often metaphors for the way in which societies treat people considered other, but, as the novel progresses, the boundaries between human and beast become blurred. 

The narrator is a great creation; she’s young, takes no nonsense, lives alone and drinks alone in her local bar – a play on the white, male, western noir detective. The novel is partly a detective story, but also a meditation on the nature of humanity. It’s being filmed for Chinese TV, but if there is ever to be an American remake Guillermo del Toro would be the perfect director.

Strange Beasts of China is published by Tilted Axis Press. The copy I read is my own purchase.

4 Brown Girls Who Write #DiverseDecember #6

4 Brown Girls Who Write are a collective who’ve recently published a set of pamphlets of solo works with Rough Trade Books.

Shadow Work by Roshini Goyate is a collection of poems examining things in the shadows both personally and globally. Goyate examines capitalism, motherhood, racism, domestic abuse and identity. ‘A Brief Return’ which considers a woman present in her ‘normal’ life after becoming a mother and riffs off Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’ is a highlight. So too is the short and powerful ‘My Flame’. 

In Hatch, Sharan Hunjan takes an experimental approach to work on reconciling her identity through her mother tongue and her Cockney English; the body pre- and post-motherhood, and the women who’ve inspired her. ‘Breasts’ experiments with typography, considering the different ways this body part is represented in life. It is a highlight, but this whole collection is really impressive.

Sheena Patel’s This Is What Love Is is the only prose work in the selection. A searing piece of memoir, it charts Patel’s relationship with two men – the unreliable H and C with whom Patel has ‘the best sex of my life’. Running alongside this is the increasingly hostile environment in the UK and the trauma this inflicts on Patel. It’s an open, piercing piece that covers emotional abuse, racism, abortion, sex, friendship and family. It’s a stunning piece of work. 

The brilliantly titled I Don’t Know How to Forgive You When You Make No Apology for This Haunting by Sunnah Khan completes the collection. The echoes of an absent father lead to poems on childhood, the weight carried by wife/mother and daughter, an emotional and physical legacy, and also the impact of being the child of an immigrant in the UK. The title poem is a particularly heart-wrenching depiction of the legacy of absence.

While there is some overlap in the themes of each of the pamphlets, Goyate, Hunjan, Patel and Khan have distinctive voices and styles. An impressive introduction to four young writers; I’m already looking forward to more of their work.

The copy of 4 Brown Girls Who Write is my own. 

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie & Earthseed – Octavia E. Butler #DiverseDecember #4 #5

Life intervened yesterday, so it’s a double bill of #DiverseDecember recommendations today.

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie’s short stories are unpredictable, wild, inventive, magical and often heart-wrenching rides. In Nudibranch we meet – amongst others – a woman losing herself; time-travelling silent monks; some unexpected zombies; a heart-eating goddess; mechanical boys, and an albino man who brings fountains to a small town in Mozambique. 

Perhaps the standout story in the collection is the winner of the 2020 AKO Cane Prize for African Writing ‘Grace Jones’. The tale of a Grace Jones’ impersonator, Okojie is interested in who this woman really is; what is she hiding behind her lookalike costume? It’s a breath-taking, hard hitting story and you can read it here.

Earthseed: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents – Octavia E. Butler

In a dystopian North America, Lauren Oya Olamina lives in a gated community with her family – her academic / preacher father, her stepmum and her siblings. Lauren is hyperempathetic which means she feels the pain of other living creatures. This creates a vulnerability that can be dangerous for her. When the compound is attacked, she begins a journey north, collecting other people along the way. Lauren decides to start preaching her ideas for a new religion which believes that ‘God is Change’. 

Parable of the Talents is narrated by Lauren’s daughter Asha Vere along with diary entries from Lauren. These help Asha to understand her mother and how she has ended up in her current situation. While the first book is focused on community, there is a shift in the second to family. Events are played out against a backdrop of a rising political figure called Andrew Steele Jarret. Jarret is a Christian fundamentalist / White supremacist whose slogan is ‘Make America Great Again’. Yes, really. These books are gripping and fascinating. 

Nudibranch is published by Dialogue Books; Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are published by Headline. All copies are my own.

A Small Silence – Jumoke Verissimo #DiverseDecember #3

‘I’ve always considered how some stories will never get told. It’s the way it is, Ireti. Silence is where we go to listen to those stories. Sit in silence and listen. Silence tells stories too, you know.’

In a corner of Lagos, Prof, newly released from 10 years in prison, returns to a house that he shrouds in darkness and silence. He refuses to turn the lights on; he refuses to admit his best friend, Kano, and his mother too. Both return repeatedly to knock on the door and beg to be allowed in. 

Desire, a university student, lives nearby with her friend, Remilekun. A chance encounter with Prof when she was a young girl was a catalyst for Desire’s love of reading. Now, she is fascinated by Prof’s return. Dared to knock on his door by Remilekun, Desire returns each night and eventually is allowed into Prof’s house. 

Desire’s life is further complicated by her relationship with student union presidential candidate Ireti, who looks similar to Prof, and Remilekun’s relationship with a man only referred to as Mr. America.

A Small Silence considers what happens in the gaps, in the dark, in the stories that aren’t spoken aloud. Whether that’s in families, in relationships or in prison. It considers the consequences of toxic masculinity, particularly domestic violence and cycles that persist. Absent fathers abound. 

Desire reflected on how society placed so much emphasis on family, yet there was more dysfunction than normality. 

There is hope, however, as characters’ support for each other leads to quiet revelations and new perspectives. Verissimo’s occasional use of relating a scene from both Desire and Prof’s perspectives allows her to create an unexpected, satisfying and fresh conclusion. A thoughtful accomplished novel.

A Small Silence recently won the 2020 Aidoo-Snyder Prize for Best Creative Work by the Women’s Caucus at the African Studies Association. It is published by Cassava Republic, a small press founded in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006 and with an office in London since 2016. They also published one of my all-time favourite books, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. You can buy all their titles directly from them on their website. They are currently running a pre-order campaign to support the publication of their forthcoming Spring 2021 titles. More information here.

The copy of A Small Silence I read was my own purchase.

In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado #DiverseDecember #2

In the Dream House is a ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive relationship. Ground-breaking in that it is one of only a handful of examples of an abusive relationship between partners who share the same gender identity and also in terms of the form Machado chooses for it.

Machado takes us into the dream house via three epigraphs, each on a separate page. It is clear from the start that she is building something new, shifting our perspective on ideas and structures that already exist, asking us to look at the gaps and see what’s missing from our understanding of the world.

Sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive – it is not considered important enough to record, or if it is, not important enough to preserve. Sometimes there is a deliberate act of destruction […]. What gets left behind? Gaps where people never see themselves of find information about themselves. Holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context. Crevices people fall into. Impenetrable silence. 

As Machado relates the story of meeting the woman who becomes her abuser and the ways in which this abuse manifests, she plays with literary devices, genres, tropes and references to popular culture, naming each chapter after one of these. For example, the first time Machado is late to meet her girlfriend due to supporting someone in distress, her girlfriend is furious and her reaction disproportionate to the situation. The chapter is titled ‘Dream House as Omen’. 

Possibly the most effective use of this structure comes in the ‘Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®’. Those of us who read these books in childhood will recall that you read a passage and then have to choose what the next move will be. Once you’ve chosen you turn to the relevant page and keep going until you either run out of options or are successful in overcoming all the obstacles and completing the quest. Machado turns this into a circular exercise from which there is no escape. Her approach mirrors exactly how it feels to be trapped in a situation where there is no correct answer and you’re left questioning your own judgement and your self-worth. 

In the Dream House succeeds on every level. It is a heart-breaking account of emotional abuse in a shared gender identity relationship and a piece of experimental non-fiction which breaks and remakes canonical ideas and structures. It is an incredible piece of work. 

In the Dream House is published by Serpent’s Tail. The copy I read was my own purchase.

Bad Love – Maame Blue #DiverseDecember #1

It’s the first day of #DiverseDecember and my plan is an advent style post a day from now until the 24th. There will be more post-Christmas, but more on that later. Lots of my recommendations will be from small / indie presses. You can buy books direct from many of them and there will be links at the end of each post. A reminder that you can follow @DiverseDecember on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where I’ll be posting recommendations every day and sharing those from other bloggers / reviewers.

My Day 1 recommendation is Bad Love by Maame Blue

I am not a romantic. I do not know how to tell those kinds of stories, the ones filled with magic and laughter and a purple hue. Romance has never connected with me in that way. But love – hard, bad, rough love – well, I could speak on that all day.

Ekuah begins her story by introducing us to herself and to Dee. When the book starts, they are both students. Young and wary, they dance around each other, obviously attracted but playing a game of push and pull. Ekuah likes to feel needed and arranges much of her life around Dee’s movements. He’s a musician, just starting out, which often makes his appearances irregular and unpredictable.

Following a trip to Venice to stay with her cousin and a violent incident while she’s there, Ekuah returns with a changed outlook and begins volunteering at an after-school club. During an evening at a spoken word night, Ekuah meets Jay Stanley. English teacher by day, spoken word event coordinator by night, Jay brings some stability to Ekuah’s life. Dee never quite disappears though, and through her relationship to both men, Ekuah has to work out what sort of life she wants to live. 

In the background to all this, there’s a significant subplot about Ekuah’s parent’s marriage. They are clearly having some issues that neither of them wants to confront, at least not in Ekuah’s presence. Their story provides an interesting counterpoint to Ekuah’s.

Maame Blue weaves a story of a young woman navigating significant decisions about the work she wants to do, the lifestyle she wants to have, and the type of love she wants in her life. Of course, all of these things overlap, and Blue creates a skilful and nuanced portrait of how Ekuah comes to this realisation. Although I was interested in the men she was involved with, my feelings about each of them shifting with each interaction, I was rooting for Ekuah. What I wanted, more than anything, was for her to invest in herself. Whether or not she manages it, you’ll have to find out yourself!

Bad Love is an absorbing portrait of a young woman learning how to love and how to live. I loved it.

Bad Love is one of Jacaranda Books’ Twenty in 2020 publications. You can read more (and buy the books!) via their website.

The copy of the book I read was my own purchase.

#DiverseDecember

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time might remember that in 2015 I co-ran a reading project / campaign called Diverse December. Well, it’s happening again this year and I would love you to join in.

#DiverseDecember is a month of reading and recommending books by Black, brown and indigenous writers. It is an opportunity to discover new books, to consider our reading habits and to make a permanent change in what we choose to read.

The campaign was created in 2015 by Dan Lipscombe in response to an all-white list for World Book Night. This year, I’m running it in reaction to the pledges many of us made to do better following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

How do you join in? Read and recommend at least one book by a Black, brown or indigenous writer during December. Use the hashtag #DiverseDecember so your recommendations can be seen and shared.

You can also follow the campaign on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. On those channels, over the next week, I’ll be highlighting some of the publishers, organisations and individuals who’ve been doing this work for some time. Follow, listen, support them. 

FAQs

Why are you – a white person – running this?

Because I don’t believe that the burden of encouraging white people to read books by Black, brown and indigenous writers should keep falling on Black, brown and indigenous people. Because I love books and want to shout about all the superb ones by Black, brown and indigenous writers. If you’re not reading books by these writers, you’re missing out on some of the best writing and that’s a real shame. 

Won’t the best books rise to the top anyway? 

Unfortunately, in an industry dominated by middle class white people at all levels, this often isn’t the case, particularly when it comes to books written by Black, brown and indigenous writers. Spread the Word’s recent report ‘Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing’ highlighted several of the issues. They included the idea that ‘publishers fear that books by writers of colour are too niche and will not appeal to their core audience’. That ‘a narrow conception of [the industry’s] audience makes it harder for books by ‘BAME’ writers to break out as resources are distributed according to how well a book is expected to ‘perform’, and that ‘the monoculturalism of the decision makers [i.e. major retail outlet buyers] poses an obstacle to the backing of books by ‘BAME’ authors’. You can read the full report HERE.

Shouldn’t diversity include LGBTQ+, working class and disabled people?

Yes and there are Black, brown and indigenous writers who are also LGBTQ+ / working class / disabled. White writers who are LGBTQ+ / working class / disabled still have white privilege. This campaign was specifically created due to racial imbalance and that continues to be its focus.

Why are you using the term Black, brown and indigenous writers?

To try and be as inclusive as possible. It is difficult to select a term which encompasses the diverse backgrounds and identities of the many individuals included in this group.