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. 

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.

Diversity’s Not Just for December #ReadDiverse2016

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When my friend and fellow blogger Dan started the diverse December hashtag, I sent him a message that read ‘I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to tweet the shit out of #diversedecember. I think it’s a brilliant idea.’ It ended with us conceiving a plan to work on it together. However, neither of us could have envisaged how well it would be received, how many people would tweet recommendations and change their reading plans, nor that the hashtag would make the front of the Guardian Review.

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Fairly early on we began to discuss taking the project into 2016. I’ll let Dan take it from here with an extract from a post on his blog. You can read the full piece here.

I didn’t expect the reception to be so huge when I coined #diversedecember. Bloggers, readers, journalists and publishers have taken the hashtag and begun to explore diverse voices and stories. Although this initiative was conceived after the World Book Night list announcement, it’s clear that diversity needs to be considered at all times when reading. Over December, so far, Naomi and I have been inundated with recommendations for writers of colour, which is wonderful to see. We want that to continue and so we have decided that #diversedecember will carry on throughout 2016. Of course, we can’t use that hashtag any longer and there are many other fantastic initiatives promoting writers of colour, so we had a think about what we wanted to achieve.

#ReadDiverse2016 will focus on BAME books just as Diverse December has done, however, it’s clear from our interactions on Twitter that the hashtag has begun to touch on many ideas of diversity. Going forward, we hope to help and promote authors that identify as LGBTIQ, those who are disabled and those who suffer from mental health conditions. As this idea sparked from a lack of BAME representation, that will remain our primary focus, but we can’t have diversity without every single voice. Hashtags such as #TranslationThurs and #ReadWomen are already doing stellar work, as are The Green Carnation Prize. They each do a great job in highlighting books by authors that readers want to relate to – we’d like to add to that.

#diversedecember has taught me one very important thing – books are universal and everyone should have an equal opportunity to tell their story in their voice. Without Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic authors getting the recognition they deserve, we could be losing out on future generations of creative people who may believe that there is no place for them.

I hope that you’ll join in with me and Naomi as we promote diversity with the #ReadDiverse2016 hashtag on Twitter.

I’ll talk more about my plans on the 1st of January, I look forward to hearing about yours.

The Private Live of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

In the line at a train station ticket counter, Renuka Sharma meets Vineet Seghal, a thirty-year-old hotel manager who lives with his mother. They see each other several times a week on the station platform until they eventually strike up a friendship.

He had walked up to me at the station on Wednesday and asked me if I would like to go with him for a short outing on his motorbike, which had just come back from the workshop. See, I was not born yesterday. I know what it can mean, I know how it can feel, to ride behind a man on a two-wheeler. I know how the man could slowly lean back into the woman sitting behind him until his body is pressing into her chest, while the woman’s hands could move from the handlebar behind her to the man’s waist and then finally rest on his thighs as she leans forward against him. But I also know that this can only happen if a woman allows it to happen, which, obviously, I would never ever do.

If Vineet had asked Renuka Sharma any question about herself, he would’ve discovered that she’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law, a flat they moved into when her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, went to work in Dubai.

Renuka works as a receptionist for ‘Dr Raghubir Singh…a world-famous gynaecologist and obstetrician’, a job that she took after her mother became ill and her father spent all his money on medical bills, suffering two heart attacks as a consequence. Her ambition is to ‘start a training academy for Office Management, Computer Proficiency, Personality Development and Grooming, Business English, everything.’ She is fastidious, making the cleaner at the clinic ‘use sellotape to pull off any fallen hairs on the carpet in the waiting room’. Very clear of her duties, the reason Dheeraj has been in Dubai working tax-free and sharing a flat with four other men for eighteen months is because they need the money.

Sometimes I want to ask these people, these people who go on and on with their pity, who make me seen like I am some stone-hearted witch, sometimes I want to ask them one question, just one simple question. When my inlaws’ medical bills grow into lakhs of rupees, when my son has to do his further studies, who will save us? Will love and romance save us?

She’s adamant that Bobby will do an MBA even though he wants to be a chef and becomes almost obsessive about buying him a suit.

The book is a character study, Renuka’s narrative moving between her meetings with Vineet and telling the reader about her life, her thoughts and feelings. Soon it becomes clear she’s not quite as prim and proper as she initially comes across. She tells us about the times she and her husband turned the washing machine on in their flat so Bobby wouldn’t hear them having sex.

And from time to time I touch myself and there is nothing wrong with that. A long time ago I read in one of the magazines at the clinic that masturbation, even for women, is normal and healthy, and a doctor wrote that magazine article…And, actually, many women masturbate. They are just too ashamed to say that they do. I know all about sex. I have been married a long time. I even know about porn…And I know how men think, I know what they want. At the clinic, for example, day after day men come in with their wives and take small, little plastic cups into the toilet to collect their semen. I think that some of those men think about me when they are inside the toilet. I see how they look at me.

The novel’s structured like a corkscrew: tightly wound, seemingly returning in circles to the same ideas – her husband’s absence, her need for her son to study for an MBA and wear a suit, her desire to start her own business – whilst swirling ever deeper and darker. The veneer which Mrs Sharma paints at the beginning of the book wears thin as it progresses and her private life, that which she contains within herself, is revealed.

I think this book’s as close to perfect as it gets. The repetition of thoughts and ideas while the action moves forward, the precision of the language, the slow cracking of Mrs Sharma, is all brilliantly done. The character and the atmosphere of the book reminded me of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs although The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is more restrained in its delivery. All the literary editors who called in people’s books of the year choices weeks ago should be kicking themselves, The Private Life of Mrs Sharma deserves to be on every list.

 

 

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.