Monthly Archives: October 2020

Just Us by Claudia Rankine

The pandemic is denying us so much that we value: travel, spending time with friends and family, being part of an interest group, drinking in pubs after 10 … But from time to time we can find things that have opened up new experiences. Many arts organisations have worked very hard to bring people experiences that they would otherwise miss. Some of these are not new, like transmitting performances from before Covid-19. Others are new: on-line courses, workshops and seminars. And also lectures and Q&A sessions.

I miss living in London for the distance it put between me and experiences such as readers’ talks, courses at City Lit as well as lectures and special viewings and my friends. So I bought a ticket to a at the South Bank Centre session featuring Claudia Rankin, talking about her newly published book Just Us: an American conversatioabout racism in the US.

Claudia Rankine, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 7, 2016

Claudia Rankine on-line

After technical difficulties – where would we be without those? – I enjoyed the conversation she had with Gary Younge. There he was, spot-lit in the darkened Festival Hall, and she was at home on the East Coast somewhere and I was looking in at my kitchen table in Devon. This is so civilised, and unlikely to have happened without the current restrictions.

I had read a little of the book in advance and already had my interest alerted by its unusual layout. The main text of the book is printed on the right hand page. On the left-hand side are notes, fact checks, illustrations, references to points in the text, indicated with a red spot – side notes. In response to a question she made it clear that this was part of an attempt to be conversational, not put off readers with footnotes or notes at the end of the book. Some are included without either comment or correspondence indicted to the main text. Others show up precisely what she is referring to. In the current speak it allows for intersectionality and makes more personal, more individual the experience of living with racism and how racism operates.

Claudia Rankine also made clear that she is not providing solutions to the problems of racism in America (or the rest of the world). But she has produced a book to counter the divisiveness of current discourses on racism, many of which force people into opposing positions. She suggests that demanding defensiveness or justification does not move us forward. Let’s understand together and see how it works, is the invitation to the reader.

She reminded us that racism serves a purpose for some people and they have an interest in promoting the ideas and structure that keep it operational within society. Sadly, education cannot, therefore, be the whole answer. But conversations are essential, and hence the title of the book, which looks at conversations the writer has witnessed or had reported, and invites us into a conversation about it.

The title is, of course, a riff on justice, possibly also just US?

Just Us: an American conversation

Since the evening of the on-line conversation with Gary Younge I have returned to the book, Just Us, several time. Engaging with a book is such a privilege, feeling myself being challenged, and enlightened. It reminds me of studying for an MA some years ago, stimulating and opening my mind.

The book invited such interactions, as I have suggested, through its structure, placing sources and other material alongside the text. The style of the writing is also invitational: poetry, many questions, doubts and inner thoughts, accounts and reflections on events and interactions. 

Color blind?

I have returned to two of these in particular. One concerns white male privilege and how white men understand it, and sometimes defend it, and sometimes defend it aggressively. She explores several incidents in airports when white men, and occasionally women, push in the line for first class boarding. And she decides to ask men about the experience of privilege, trying not to be confrontational. One man tells her about diversity training at work and adds, “I don’t see color.”

All I could think to say was “Ain’t I a black woman?” I asked the question slowly, as if testing the air quality. Did he get the riff on Sojourner Truth? Or did he think the ungrammatical construction was a sign of blackness? Or did he think I was mocking white people’s understanding of black intelligence? “Aren’t you a white man,” I then asked. “Can’t you see that? Because if you can’t see race, you can’t see racism.” I repeated that sentence, which I read not long before in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. (51)

It seems we are about to enter the debate about privilege and race and possibly gender in the UK as a result of the government’s ludicrous claim that teaching pupils in schools that ‘white privilege’ is an uncontested fact is breaking the law. There needs to be a balanced and impartial treatment of opposing views, according to  Kemi Badenoch, the women and equalities minister, herself a woman of colour. See Guardian report on Tuesday 20thOctober.

to name the problem is to become the problem

The other episode in About Us to which I return concerns a social situation, the dinner party. Claudia Rankine has suggested to the other guests that, rather than an unpredictable electorate, racism played a large part in the 2016 Presidential Election, sometimes under cover of other issues, such as Obamacare, immigration and ‘the Wall’. But the discussion is diverted when another guest tries to move the conversation away from the issues raised by the author, with a reference to beautiful brownies. And she questions whether she should have created this social awkwardness through her challenge or followed the path as invited and thereby colluded by staying silent or accepting a brownie. She reminds us of what Sara Ahmed says: 

to name the problem is to become the problem. [introduction to The Cultural Politics of Emotion]

‘Am I being silenced?’ wonders Claudia Rankine. ‘I understand inadvertently causing someone to feel shame isn’t cool,’ but she concludes this section with these observations.

Moments like these make me understand that the noncomprehension of what is known on the part of whiteness is an active investment in not wanting to know if that involves taking into account the lives of people of colour. And the perceived tiresome insistence on presenting one’s knowledge on the part of blackness might be a fruitless and childish exercise. Do I believe either of these positions enough to change my ways? Might as well stop the weather from coming. (156-7) 

I also especially enjoyed the section on women with dyed blonde hair and what people see when they look at blonde women. (complicit freedoms)

I found Just Us compelling and erudite while not offending or challenging aggressively my white privilege. I was invited.

Just Us: an American conversation by Claudia Rankine, published in 2020 by Allen Lane. 342pp

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In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes

I found the following story very funny when I was trying hard to be an intellectual 6th former. At an encounter group they are playing ‘who am I?’ to get to know each other. One person says: I have issues with my mother. All the participants think: that’s me! Mothers! We all have issues with our own and/or being one.

In a Country of Mothers is my choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). It was published by Virago in 1994. AM Homes also wrote May We Be Forgiven, which won the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. My notes when I read that book recorded that 

she is a vivid and brave writer, with a wonderful sense of the absurd, the absurd but possible, and with a tender aspect as well.

So as we reach the end of the century we recognise the world of this writer: therapy, aeroplanes, summer holidays, graduate education. We have come a long way through the twentieth century, from the first book in this year’s project, when the main character was battling with Victorian attitudes.

In a Country of Mothers

Claire is a successful therapist, with a lucrative if not satisfying practice in Manhattan. She is married to Sam, a lawyer, and they have two sons. They live in a small flat on Fifth Avenue. Her two boys cause her great concern and worry, to the point of obsession.

“Shit,” Jake said.
“What?”
It wasn’t like Jake to swear. The beginning of the end: in the morning he’d come down to breakfast with an unfiltered Camel hanging out of the corner of his eleven-year-old mouth. (15)

Claire gave up a child for adoption, under pressure from her parents, 25 years before. She thinks about this lost daugter every day, and later it is revealed has bought her birthday presents every year. 

Jody is her new patient. She is 25, and works as an assistant to a famous director and has just achieved her dream of a place at UCLA film school. She is finding difficulty with this career move. In therapy it emerges that Jody was adopted about 25 years ago, as a replacement for a son that died aged 7. She can never be sure that her parents love her enough, and she finds herself continually arguing with her mother, even though they speak every night on the phone. Her mother is not quite enough and too clingy all at the same time. 

Jody comes for therapy on the recommendation of her previous therapist (who once knew Claire). Claire is immediately attracted to Jody who is spikey, creative and very sharp. When the summer comes Jody moves to LA and Claire goes on holiday with her family to the beach for a month. Suddenly both women realise how much they are missing: Claire misses her ‘daughter’ and Jody misses her ‘mother’.

When Jody falls ill in LA Claire steps out of her therapist role and insists that Jody’s mother brings her back to New York. She becomes more and more intrusive in Jody’s life, finding her a physician, even meeting the parents not just to ensure the care of Jody but also to find out facts about the adoption. Jody does not recover, and Claire becomes more and more obsessed and neither of them can find a way out of the ties that binds them together. It all ends very badly. Neither understands themselves or each other. 

The obsessive need for a mother or daughter and the impossibility of anyone living up to the role becomes more destructive every moment. Jody’s mother can never get it right, always refers stuff back to herself. Towards the end of the novel Jody comes to see that she had wanted her mother to be different. 

This was the woman who had loved her to the best of her abilities, however limited they might have been. She’d loved Jody to the limit of her fear. She’d taken a stranger’s child and claimed it as her own. How could Jody hope that her mother would magically become someone else? If Jody wanted someone else, she’d have to become that person herself. (161)

It is uncomfortable to realise that the therapist-client relationship may easily lead to difficulties, easily spill beyond the roles of therapist and patient. But, one is forced to ask, isn’t that what happens?

It’s an uncomfortable book, but that is the kind of writer that AM Homes is. She explores acute situations and characters at full stretch. Her novels are therefore often controversial.

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes first published in 1993 and by Virago in 1994. I read the Granta edition published in 2013. 275pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I have been exploring novels by women. I framed my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from a book published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices have included rereads, classics and some new discoveries. In December I will review the year’s blogs for the project, but in November I will be looking at a collection of stories published by Virago during the Century.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

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Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

It is a very significant conjunction of women’s lives, social change and geography that are linked in this absorbing account of five women who lived in Mecklenburgh Square, not all at the same time, from the years after the First World War and into the Blitz. They were pioneers in their own literary fields and also in the way they chose to live their lives. 

I loved this book, for the details of the five lives:

  • HD (Hilda Doolittle), an imagist poet and novelist;
  • Dorothy L Sayers, one of the first Cambridge graduates and mostly known for her mystery novels;
  • Jane Harrison, a classicist and scholar in Cambridge who revolutionised idea about women in the archaeological past;
  • Eileen Power, who became a historian of the Middle Ages, specialising in the economic and female histories of that time, a professor at the LSE;
  • and Virginia Woolf, bombed out of Tavistock Square, an important novelist, essayist and publisher.

Further, the manner in which Francesca Wade brings the lives together in this one London square enriches the account. The subtitle of this book reveals something of its contents: Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars.

The women in this book were hungry for knowledge in all its forms: knowledge of history and literature, knowledge of the wider world, and self-knowledge, no less difficult to obtain. A drive to expand ‘the province of women’ into new realms characterised all these lives, manifesting in their search for education, in their travels, their friendships, their work and in the way they made their homes. Their pursuit of a fulfilling way to live has resounded through the twentieth century. (337-8)

We read of their struggles to  be treated on an equal footing with men in educational institutions, as students and teachers. We read of their passionate involvement in issues of the day, especially in securing a lasting peace after the end of the First World War. And most poignant perhaps, their attempts to find relationships with men that did not subsume their independence or their careers. All of the women, except Jane Harrison, married but often late in life, after negotiating terms that would allow them to continue their fulfilling lives. One thinks of Harriet Vane’s struggles with Lord Peter Wimsey’s regular marriage proposals in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

Each of the women lived for a time in Mecklenburgh Square, with its mixed housing, including boarding houses, near to Bloomsbury. They were each seeking freedom from expectations of dependence in marriage and they enjoyed the intellectual society which allowed each of them to find a way to live. They struggled with the Victorian messages of their childhoods, and they tried to carve out more satisfying approaches in their personal lives as well as in their different literary and professional spheres.

Virginia Woolf permeates this account, setting the tone with the title which comes from her diary:

I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting. (20th April 1925)

She famously argued that women needed a private income and a room of their own in order to write. 

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. [A Room of One’s Own, 1928 (6)]

Mecklenburgh Square was Virginia Woolf’s last London home. It is pleasing that Francesca Wade did not define Virginia Woolf’s life by her death (suicide), but shows us how her life interacted with so many literary people of the time, and how her work as a publisher was important in promoting their writing. 

Their stories are well told, especially Virginia Woolf’s. And I was presented with some surprising information about Dorothy L Sayers’s life in the square. We learn of their contribution of all five women to the emancipation struggle, and to women’s literary achievements. An excellent book. 

Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars by Francesca Wade published in 2020 by Faber & Faber. 422pp

Related posts

An excellent review of Square Haunting by Karen Langley (of the blog Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) can be found on the Shiny New Books review site, in which she points to the research that enriches Francesca Wade’s accounts of the lives of these women by relating it to the history of the square.

I reviewed Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers last year on Bookword, asking whether it is a who dunnit, or a romantic novel, or a feminist book? 

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was posted on Bookword in March 2018. 

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We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Earlier this year I posted a themed review on the subject of outsiders in fiction on Bookword. I invited further suggestions. This novel, We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, was recommended by another blogger and lent to me by a friend. The author is popular with some readers and bloggers, but I have to admit that I have not read anything else by Shirley Jackson, although I knew her name. It’s a very dark book, with plenty of violence, magic, and wicked acts together with some humorous incidents.

 

We have always lived in the Castle

The novel is narrated by Merricat who is 18 and lives with her sister Constance who is somewhat older. Together with Uncle Julien they live in a big house, separate from the village in Vermont. He is old and infirm and requires a wheelchair and does not appear to see Merricat. He was damaged in an arsenic attack six years previously which killed the other members of the family: the sisters’ parents and brother, and Julian’s wife. It is pretty clear from the first page who it was that carried out the murders. Constance was tried and acquitted. It also becomes evident that the truth is known by both sisters, although they do not refer to it until there is a crisis.

Since her trial Constance is a recluse, and people in the village continue to believe she was the murderer despite the acquittal. The villagers dislike the Blackwood family. The father had sealed off a path and the whole estate. Now Merricat must go to the village twice a week to collect supplies. The trio live in a very restricted and routinised way: days for going to the village, or dusting; meals prepared by Constance; Merricat not allowed to touch food or to do various things. She behaves more like an 8 year old than a person of 18.

Their routine is interrupted when cousin Charles arrives hoping to find some of the family money. He begins to dominate the household, and to sway Constance. He suggests that Julien should be in a home and Merricat disciplined or something worse.

Merricat practices some of her magic to get rid of him. She has already protected their estate by burying certain items and by nailing a book to a tree. When the book falls down she knows that their lives are going to be disturbed. She tries to get rid of Charles by ignoring him, by being rude, by disturbing his belongings. Ultimately a fire is started by his pipe in his bedroom and the upper floors of the house are destroyed. The crowd on onlookers trash the house and its contents in one of the most horrific scenes of the book. 

Above it all, most horrible, was the laughter. I saw one of the Dresden figures thrown and break against the porch rail, and the other fell unbroken and rolled along the grass. I heard Constance’s harp go over with a musical cry, and a sound which I knew was a chair being smashed against the wall. 
“Listen,” said Charles from somewhere, “will a couple of you guys help me with this safe?”
Then through the laughter, someone began, “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” It was rhythmic and insistent. I am on the moon, I thought, please let me be on the moon. Then I heard the sound of dishes smashing and at that minute realised that we stood outside the tall windows of the dining room and they were coming very close. (106)

Uncle Julien dies of a heart attack in the excitement. After the crowds have gone, Merricat and Constance clear up as best they can and continue living in the house that now resembles a castle. When the young women have remade a home in the ruins of the house the villagers gradually begin to leave presents of food in expiation. Charles returns to try to get back in the house, but the sisters ignore him, and he leaves. A new set of quiet routines is established and the two sisters do not have to engage with anyone.

It’s a very black story, some of it funny. The ostracism by the village, the othering of Constance and Merricat is a reminder of some dark social evil. In part it is a justification of the seclusion sought by the Blackwood sisters, and is thought to represent Shirley Jackson’s experience of living in North Bennington, Vermont with her family. 

The co-dependence of the sisters, and the determination of Merricat to control everything are also unnerving. As is their obsession with food. 

Shirley Jackson

Born in 1916, Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965, not long after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle. It was her last book. She had published six novels as well as around 200 short stories and also earned money from her journalism. 

It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-nine, shortly after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism and morbid obesity; negligent of her health for years, she is said to have spoken openly of not expecting to live to be fifty, and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom – as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We have always lived in the Castle. (154-5) From the Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates

She is known as a writer of horror and mystery. This book is less of a mystery, more of an unfolding horror story. 

Cover of first edition in US

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1962. I was lent the 2009 version in the Penguin Modern Classics series. 158pp Thanks Anne!

Some relevant links

My post on Outsiders in Fiction on Bookword, February 2020

Reviewed by Heavenali in March 2016, who loved it.

Reviewed enthusiastically on JacquiWine’s Journal in October 2017, and it was she who recommended I added this to the list of outsiders.

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The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

This is such a strange book. When I had finished reading I asked myself what on earth was it about? I wrote two pages of A4 notes to help me answer that question and to prepare this blog post. You had better read the novel yourself if you can’t make out anything from what I say. 

The Towers of Trebizond is my contribution to the #1956Club. I have read two other novels by Rose Macaulay recently (much earlier ones, see below) and have several copies of her other works which I inherited from my mother. The edition I read was a 1959 reprint, from the Reprint Society. You can find out more about the #1956Club at two blogs: KaggysBookishRamblings and Simon at StuckinaBook.

The Towers of Trebizond

The novel is set in the decade following the end of the Second World War. It follows a small group of missionaries who go to Turkey to convert the population. There is Aunt Dot, probably in her fifties, who owns a camel and is an inveterate traveller. She wishes to emancipate the women of Turkey. Then there is Father Chauntry-Pigg who is rather high church and has an interest in certain styles of churches. He keep relics in his pockets. With them goes Laurie, Dot’s niece and the narrator, who has not much more to do that offer to be a companion and to write and illustrate the travel aspects of Dot’s projected book. She also helps care for the camel.

This foursome are joined by others from time to time. They arrive in Istanbul and pick up Halide, a doctor, converted to Anglicanism while studying in England and in love with a Turkish man, who wants a Muslim wife. There is David and Charles and a complicated case of plagiarism, connected with another book about travelling in Turkey. And Laurie’s married lover Vere meets her on the Mediterranean coast.

From Istanbul the missionary party set off for the eastern sea board of the Black Sea, and for Trebizond (modern day Trabzon) a city that once was at the heart of the Empire of Trebizond. Rose Macaulay writes beautiful passages about their travels. They move on to Armenia, close to the Russian border, and Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear. Laurie suspects they have entered Russia, behind the Iron Curtain at this time. With no news of them she travels on by herself with the camel. She meets her lover and after some time in Palestine and Syria crosses into Israel. From here she travels home, her journey having taken her to many biblical and archaeological sites. I greatly enjoyed the lively descriptions of her travels and of the history of the places she visited.

The pace changes when she get home as she (and we) wait for Aunt Dot and her companion to reappear. There is a sub plot about a book David is writing using the works of Charles, about his travel in Turkey. Charles was eaten by a shark. There are other ongoing dramas as well, including about spying (Dot and her companion spend time with Philby and McLean in Moscow) and lots and lots about the influence of the church on places, buildings, morality etc etc. And there is an episode about training an ape to play chess, go to church, drive etc etc.

It’s all pretty bonkers, especially when there is a fatality in the penultimate chapter. This seems like a huge plot event to raise at this point in the novel. But we have been given a tour of many different things, and Rose Macaulay appears to be saying – embrace everything, reject nothing.

Rose Macaulay

Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. The Towers of Trebizond is perhaps her best known novel. It was her last. She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained which is a shame as she has things to say to us today. 

In this novel she writes about the need to emancipate women, which was her lifelong concern. She was also interested in Anglicanism and the role of the church, as well as in adultery. She was no advocate of any particular system, and her comments on Soviet Russia would have horrified staunch supporters of the Cold War at the time. She was also critical of the creation of Israel for the suffering caused to the Palestinians. 

The narrator adopts a rather flat, even naïve style to report on the fantastic adventures. A wide-eyed traveller is a good basis for travel writing. She offers little judgement on the characters, or on the events, although there is discussion of the moral basis for their behaviours. This serves to underline the difficulties of truth and goodness in Europe in 1956. There is much discussion of spies, for example.

And then there’s the camel which provides possibly the second or third most famous opening line in fiction:

“Take my camel, dear,” said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (7)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1956. I used an edition from the Reprint Society, published in 1959. 256pp Both NYRB and Flamingo have published paperback versions.

Related posts

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, published in 1920 (on Bookword).

Non-Combatants and Other: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, published in 1916 (also on Bookword).

HeavenAli’s review in December 2018, who enjoyed The Towers of Trebizond while finding it ‘all wonderfully bonkers’. 

And StuckinaBook relishes its style, the humour and the ramble. Simon is one the hosts of the #1956Club.

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