Cut from the Same Cloth edited by Sabeena Akhtar

Occasionally I use this blog to write about projects that I think are important/necessary. Today it’s one that’s being crowdfunded via the innovative publisher Unbound. Cut from the Same Cloth is an anthology of essays written by British hijabis and edited by the brilliant Sabeena Akhtar, who you might know from her work with Media Diversified, Bare Lit Festival and Tilted Axis Press.

From the Unbound website:

Perceived as the visual representation of Islam, hijab-wearing Muslim women are often harangued at work, at home and in public life yet are rarely afforded a platform of their own.

In books and in the media we are spoken on behalf of often by men, non-hijabis, and non-Muslims. Whether it is radical commentators sensationalising our existence or stereotypical norms being perpetuated by the same old faces, hijabis are tired. Too often we are seen to exist only in statistics, whilst others gain a platform off the back of the hostilities we face.

Cut from the Same Cloth seeks to tip the balance back in our favour. The collection will feature essays from 15 middle and working class women of all ages and races who will look beyond the tired tropes exhausted by the media and offer honest insight into the issues that really affect our lives. From modern pop culture to anti-blackness, women’s rights, working life; this first of its kind anthology will examine a cross section of British hijabis and the breadth of our experiences. It’s time we, as a society, stopped the hijab-splaining and listened to the people who know.

It’s time for change.

This anthology will include essays from Sabeena Akhtar, Azeezat Johnson, Hodan Yusuf, Myriam Francois, Ra’ifah Rafiq, Raisa Hassan, Rumana Lasker, Shaista Aziz, Sofia Rehman, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Suma Din, Sumaya Kassim and Yvonne Ridley.

Back in December 2015, I was part of the #DiverseDecember campaign. It feels as though things have begun to move on since then – The Jhalak Prize was founded in 2016; The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded in three days, went on to be a best seller and was voted the British public’s favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards; four of the six books that make up this year’s shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction are written by women of colour. But there remains a hierarchy of acceptability with regards to whose voices appear on our shelves and in our media, whose voices we listen to. I’ve contributed to Cut from the Same Cloth because, to quote Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. As I type, the project is 69% funded; if you’re able and would like to contribute to the project, the crowdfunding page is here.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns – Alice Jolly

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a book from those brilliant people at Unbound. If you haven’t come across this independent publishing house yet, its basic premise is that authors pitch books on the site and if you like the sound of their idea, you pledge to fund the book, buying a copy and possibly other rewards in the process. They’ve had great success in particular with Letters of Note and The Wake by Paul Kingsolver, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

I was one of the people who pledged to fund Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns. You would probably assume I did so because I wanted to read it but actually I had little intention of ever opening the front cover. I helped to fund the book because I have two close friends who, between them, have suffered miscarriages, a stillbirth and an infant death. I’ve seen one of them go through multiple rounds of IVF and the other wrestle with depression. Having never been or ever wanted to be pregnant, with no desire to have children of my own (I’m an accidental step-parent: I fell in love with someone who already had a young son and a stepdaughter), I can see what wanting to be a parent means to other people but I only have a limited understanding of it myself. I contributed to the funding because I could see that Jolly’s story was important even if I couldn’t identify with it.

I ended up reading it because Jolly and I have a mutual friend through whom Jolly contacted me and asked if I’d take part in a blog tour for the book. I agreed and then kept forgetting about it. On remembering I’d think, oh goodness, I’m going to have to read it. I put it off until the latest I knew I could get away with and still manage to read the whole thing and write a review in time for my slot on the tour. That was Saturday lunchtime. By the time I went to bed that evening, I was fifty pages from the end, having done little else other than read the book for the rest of the day. Not because I knew I had to but because it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.

Although I’m a writer by profession, I have always felt sure that I would never write a memoir. I do not trust them, never have. Me-me-me, moi-moi-moi. But now our legal team – one law firm in America, two law firms in England and a barrister – have been in touch to say that I need to write a twenty-page statement explaining everything that happened. They need this in preparation for our hearing in the High Court.

The hearing at the High Court is almost the end of Jolly’s story – or at least the end of the one she’s written. Before we get there, she takes us chronologically from the beginning, when her son, Thomas, is two and she is sixteen weeks pregnant. She’s already bled briefly at eleven weeks but it’s begun again and the hospital in Brussels, two miles from their house, tells her to go in for a scan.

There seems to be some delay with the appointments…Apparently there’s an emergency so some routine appointments will have to wait. Stephen and I nod at each other. We are polite and reasonable people, the kind of people who almost relish an opportunity to stand aside and let some other more needy person take our place. Another doctor emerges, peers at me, disappears.

Then I understand. I am the emergency.

The scan reveals that the placenta is partly detached. It’s possible the baby will survive but Jolly is at serious risk of infection. The only thing they can do is wait and hope they don’t lose the baby at six or seven months. Trying to get as much rest as possible while looking after a two-year-old, Jolly continues to bleed regularly.

One night, lying in bed, I hear a loud and rhythmic banging coming from next door. It echoes through the walls of the house and thumps inside my head. It seems odd that our neighbours should start doing building work late at night – and what are they doing which involves this loud and regular hammering? Stephen comes up to bed and I mention that the noise is keeping me awake. He tells me that there is no noise. And I realise that what I’m hearing is my own fear.

I won’t keep quoting at length although it would be so easy to do so. Jolly writes with her novelist’s eyes and ears. The prose is precise and detailed, the sentences rhythmic and often repetitive, highlighting Jolly’s feelings – So this is it then. Our baby has died – and the mundanity of the everyday churning on while she faces such wrenching moments, days, months: I put the washing machine on, hang clothes on the line, load the dishwasher, write a short story, wipe Thomas’ nose.

The detached placenta is only the beginning of the story. A sudden fever strikes Jolly a few days from the twenty-four weeks along she needs to be for her baby to be delivered prematurely. At the point when she thinks the infection is clearing her waters break and her baby, Laura, is delivered stillborn.

Photograph by Sylvain Guenot

Jolly describes the book as ‘Laura’s story’ and she is ever present in the rest of the book as Jolly begins to read the stories of others who’ve had stillborn babies, as she goes through the trauma of being told they should try for another baby soon because of her age, as she has several more miscarriages, as they go through IVF treatment, as they try to adopt, as she sees friends become pregnant and deliver live, healthy babies.

Listed like that, the events that occur in Jolly’s life (at least those she focuses on in the book) sound relentlessly grim. But the book is not. This results from a combination of Laura being alive throughout the book, Jolly’s discussions regarding faith, the hierarchy of grief, the moral arguments around IVF and adoption, her son, her friends, and Jolly’s tone which I can only describe as straight to the point of bluntness. There is no dressing up the continuous horror of losing babies, of the attempts to find a way to have a second child, and neither is it mawkish. Although on the surface we have little in common, I find myself thinking I’d probably like her a lot.

The reason for Jolly writing the twenty-pages for the High Court mentioned earlier is that she and her husband eventually decide to have a baby via a surrogate. This is illegal in the UK so they go through an American agency. This is complicated and costly as well as coming loaded with preconceptions from others. As with the rest of the book, Jolly is precise as to the steps her and her husband go through as well as how she feels at different stages of the procedure. It’s a fascinating story.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is an important book; I suspect it could be seminal for women who’ve been through similar losses to Jolly. It is also beautifully crafted and compelling. I’m so glad I did read it, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

In the Media: 9th November 2014

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

It’s awards time again this week. Congratulations to Helen Macdonald who won the Samuel Johnson Prize with her stunning memoir H is for Hawk. There’s an article about it and an interview, both in The Guardian. You can also listen to interviews with all the shortlisted writers on BBC Radio 4.

While in France, Lydie Salvayre won the Prix Goncourt with Pas Pleurer.

The Green Carnation shortlist was announced this week and there are four women on the shortlist of six – congratulations to Kerry Hudson, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh and Laurie Penny. Prior to the announcement, Antonia Honeywell wrote her thoughts on the longlist.

The National Book Awards (UK) shortlists were also announced this week. Lots of books by women worth a read on there too.

And the Saltaire Society shortlisted a self-published book for their First Book AwardThe Last Pair of Ears by Mary F. McDonough. The first self-published book to be shortlisted for a Scottish Prize.

That might make you think about Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake which was the first crowd funded novel to be longlisted for The Man Booker Prize earlier this year. Well, Unbound, Kingsnorth’s publishers have announced a Women in Print campaign to try to increase the number of female authors published.

This week has also seen The Bookseller’s report on diversity in publishing – still not good enough, is the overriding conclusion.

It wouldn’t be an average week these days without a Lena Dunham story. Accused by a right-wing journalist of sexually molesting her younger sister following a confessional passage in her book, discussion ensued from Emily Gould, Katie McDonough, Mary Elizabeth Williams and Carolyn Edgar on Salon; Sarah Seltzer on Flavorwire; Emma Gannon on The Debrief; Grace Dent in The Independent. To cheer you up after that, here are 37 Funny and Inspired Thoughts from her book tour on Buzzfeed.

In more cheering news about prominent females, Mallory Ortberg, founder of The Toast, had her book Texts for Jane Eyre published in America this week. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Mesle wrote a stunning essay/review about the book’s feminist credentials. She’s interviewed on Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post and The Guardian. And you can read an extract, 7 Brutal Literary Breakup Texts on Buzzfeed.

And the Amy Poehler stories are still going. The woman herself answers the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair. Here’s 5 Unexpected Things Marie Claire learned from Poehler’s book. Jessica Valenti has (mis?) read the book and declared ‘bitchiness’ the secret to Poehler’s success in The Guardian. Also in The Guardian, Hadley Freeman told us ‘Why Amy Poehler is the Ultimate Role Model for British Women‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

In translation:

  • Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky) ‘Homesick for Sadness’ on the fall of the Berlin Wall in The Paris Review
  • Julie Winters Carpenter interviewed about translating Japanese poetry on the Asymptote Blog

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the 13 (I tried to keep it to 10 but it’s been a very good week) best things I’ve seen this week: