Here is another writer who takes everyday difficulties seriously. (The ‘other’ is Kent Haruf, recently reviewed on the blog). Typically her main character is socially inept in some way, but has carved out a life in which they manage. Her novels are concerned with what happens when their world is challenged. Who can forget Macon in The Accidental Tourist, trying to deal with grief and being forced into a wider set of social interactions? Or his family of grown up siblings who store their groceries alphabetically: elbow macaroni belonging in a different place on the shelf to noodles or ordinary macaroni! Wonderful!
She is kind to her characters, affectionate even while providing a little amusement at their expense. This is as true for Micah Mortimer as it is for Macon Leary.
Redhead by the Side of the Road
Micah Mortimer lives in Baltimore, working as a janitor and he also provides computer services. He lives alone having had a small number of failed relationships. He is a man of routine, but also of kindness, but with no insight into the impression he makes on others. The title refers to what he glimpses every day on his daily run, which quickly resolves into a fire hydrant. The novel begins when his latest woman friend, Cass, tells him that she may be made homeless. She gives up on him when his response is not what she wanted.
Anne Tyler is at her most perceptive when she observes the young man who turns up after an argument at home. Brink claims, even hopes, that Micah might be his father as his mother was Micah’s first girlfriend. The youth seems to have no plans beyond finding Micah, who is able to say categorically that he is not Brink’s father. Her description of this awkward youth is very apt and illustrates his inability to deal with the problems he has caused.
Meanwhile Micah’s large family are dismayed at Cass’s departure. He also finds it hard to understand why she left. And he is not sure what to do about Brink when the boy first runs away and then returns. But he does the right thing and manages to reunite Brink with his mother and stepfather. The occasion helps him to gain some insight into how other people see him when his ex-girlfriend explains a thing or two.
Between scenes that move the plot on we follow Micah to his various jobs, see other isolated and incompetent people. There are some rich cameos and typical computer problems which allows us to see that Micah is a thoughtful man and a good problem-solver when is dealing with technical things. But personal problems seem beyond him until he helps resolve Brink’s problems and going in search of Cass.
Micah makes it through with affectionate support from his family and some understanding he gains from the episode with Brink. Life goes on. Its upsets are not great. Her main characters have some kind of flaw which enables one to view them sympathetically. In fact one may even identify a little with these people.
I loved reading this book for two reasons. First, it validated being a difficult woman, that is considered to be difficult every time I objected to something sexist. Second, it was my history. I am solidly and proudly a ’second wave’ feminist. Additionally, it provided perspective on some developments in gender politics during my life.
Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights
The full title gives you an idea of the content and structure of this book. Helen Lewis explores eleven fights in the history of feminism and you could probably predict what they are. Some have not yet been won, others began a very long time ago. Each one, as Helen Lewis shows, was pushed forward by one or more women who were seen as very difficult.
Christabel Pankhurst and the fight for the vote Marie Stopes and sex Jayaben Desai and the Grunwick strike Maureen Colquhoun, the first openly Lesbian MP Sophia Jex-Blake and women’s medical education Erin Pizzey and women’s refuges And and and
In each of the eleven fights women refused to be quiet or withdraw their objections, and each of them were vindicated in the longer term.
In my own past I think of access to contraception for unmarried women, divorce reform, abortion rights, equal pay, maternity leave and childcare. I became a pregnancy counsellor for the centre in a nearby city after being active in the campaign to provide access to abortions in my local area. I learned so much from that work, not least about the agonies for women contemplating abortions.
I was one of the first to apply for maternity leave in the same city, in 1977. It was granted, but the vitriol meted out to me by my colleagues was hard to take. I was taking a man’s job, I was told. I learned the truth of the phrase she quotes more than once: to have it all you must do it all. I became a single mother, wanting to progress my career, to be able to take advantage of living in London, but finding that my life was exceedingly tough for several years.
And so my personal struggles were often feminist struggles. This is true for Helen Lewis too, although she is at least a generation younger than me. As we used to say – the personal is political.
Two omissions from this book sadden me. I spent my professional life working in schools or on school improvement in the university. I worked in London schools from 1982. These were the years of school curriculum reform, and analysing classrooms from perspectives such as racism, sexism and class. We considered the curriculum that we had inherited and adjusted it for all the children in our schools. From 1988 such freedom was removed from teachers and the curriculum became defined as the knowledge and skills that children needed to acquire at certain points in their lives.
We also looked at how gender relations operated in classrooms. How boys dominated, demanded attention, and occupied the extremes of behaviour. We looked at how teachers prejudged children, by gender, race and class background within seconds of meeting them and considered how to change this. We looked at girls’ aspirations beyond school and tried to raise them. My first published book was on the subject of gender and pastoral care. I was an editor and had a chapter in it.
All this feminist work in schools is overlooked by Helen Lewis, as she focuses only on Higher Education and training men to be teachers in primary schools.
More curious for the overall story of feminist fights is her silence on the Greenham Common protest, a hugely significant political struggle and a very feminist form of activism, women protesting without men. It is mentioned once in relation to contradictory press coverage of the participants. I remember Greenham as an existential battle to remove US missiles from Berkshire, one led by women who sacrificed large parts of their lives to set up a camp around the base and stay there. I joined them in the Embrace-the-base event in 1982, along with my mother, and my sister and our three children. We had a banner quoting Mrs Thatcher on The Falklands: the wishes of the islanders are paramount.
Women also played a significant and differentiated role in supporting that other great political battle of the 1980s, the miners’ strike. The miners’ wives were heroic and inspirational in their attempts to support the fight against the miners’ unions.
One thing Helen Lewis does capture is the long tradition of divisions within the feminist movement, or rather feminist movements. Caring passionately about something means you disagree passionately with others who might also be engaged in change. We label each other and thereby exclude fellow travellers; sometimes we heap scorn and fury on them. Helen Lewis describes how, having become deputy editor of the New Statesman, she earned the opprobrium of many women, who were able to publicly voice their views on social media and in other fora.
I find myself wanting to avoid the current differences in the views about transgender people, not clear about my own opinions, not clear about the issues involved, but witnessing great hurt and anger in the exchanges.
Helen Lewis finishes Difficult Women with a call to put every advance, every step gained into the structures of our society and with a manifesto for difficult women. It begins like this:
The Difficult Woman is not rude, petty or mean. She is simply willing to be awkward, if the situation demands it; demanding if the situation requires it; and obstinate, if someone tries to fob her off. She does not care if ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. She is unmoved by the suggestion that it’s ‘natural’ for women to act a certain way or accept a lower status. It probably isn’t, and even if it is – so is dying from preventable diseases. No one thinks we should succumb to cholera just because it’s traditional. The Difficult Woman has strong beliefs … (329)
Her writing style is journalistic, which makes it lively. While she draws on her own experiences there is also plenty of evidence to support the arguments, referred to in the text, and listed in the final pages. She’s currently a staff writer on The Atlantic. Wikipedia reports that in 2012 she coined a useful note-to-self called Lewis’s Law
the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.
Difficult Women: a history of feminism in 11 fights by Helen Lewis, first published in 2020. Available in paperback from Vintage. 356pp
Any writer admired by Ursula Le Guin is worthy of our attention. In a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night she noted the quality of his writing:
Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter, 213)
All his work is marked by great sensitivity and respect for his characters and their community, and a beautiful even tone which is reassuring and inspiring and helps you believe that there is good in the world, a great deal of good in the world.
It with great sadness that we learned that Kent Haruf died in 2014, so there will be no more novels set in Holt, the small town in Colorado. No more stories where paths cross, and some characters appear in more than one novel and where each of his small number of novels can stand on its own.
Many of the people whose stories we follow in Eventide are not coping very well. Some will buckle under the challenges, others will be able to take advantage of the kindness of others, which is a feature of this novel.
Betty and her lumbering husband Luther fear the removal of their children by the social services. She has already had to give up one child in this way and is trying hard to look after the two children she has with Luther. One of the most poignant scenes is the brief moment when Betty’s first daughter turns up, having run away from foster care. They have not seen each other for sixteen years but the visit is not a success, and within two days Donna has gone again.
We met Raymond and Harold McPheron in Plainsong in a moving story where these two old men, as close as twins, running a ranch outside the town, take in Victoria when her mother throws her out. Now we meet them again as Victoria sets out with her baby to attend college. Soon after, Raymond has to witness and survive the death of his brother and his grief nearly overwhelms him, despite Victoria’s assistance.
DJ is a young lad who lives with and looks after his grandfather, who is old and frail. They live next door to a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. DJ‘s only friend is her daughter, Dena. They make a den in an abandoned hut. After a bad car accident and an affair, the mother and her daughters move to a town two hours away. DJ is left alone.
The most destructive force in the book is Hoyt Raines, Betty’s uncle, who is a bully and without any social responsibility. He is violent to those weaker than him, women and children and unassertive men. He disrupts the lives of several people in Holt before moving on, no doubt to continue as before. He too is not coping with life.
Many of the inhabitants of Holt provide support, large and small, to others when they need it. The friendly barmaid who helps DJ, Guthrie who works on Raymond’s farm when he is short-handed, even the cashier at the supermarket mildly rejects the criticism by another customer who comments on Betty and Luther’s shopping.
The man behind them shook his head at the checkout woman. Would you look at that. They’re eating better than you and me and they’re on food stamps. Oh, let them be, the woman said. Are they hurting you? They’re eating a steak dinner and I’m eating beans. That’s hurting me. But would you want to be them? I’m not saying that. What are you saying? I’m not saying that. (41)
Women are among the most generous of Kent Haruf’s characters. We met Maggie Jones, a teacher, in Plainsong, and she reappears here to introduce Raymond to Rose. Rose is perhaps the most generous of Holt’s residents. She is a widow who works in the social services. She deals sensitively and persistently with Betty, Luther and their children. She also develops a generous relationship with Raymond.
The stories of these characters cross over and affect each other. Every event has ripples which bring people together or tears them apart. There is great kindness, and much gentleness, and neighbourliness. Food is provided, lonely people included in social events, spaces opened up for listening. All of this creates a pervading sense of the value of community. From small or official acts, to the big life-changing events, someone is there to stand by and assist.
Eventide is beautifully written with calm and careful prose, appropriate vocabulary, and no extra punctuation to interrupt the flow of life. The author appears to step away and allows the stories to unfold before you.
Here are Raymond and Victoria, in the hospital, talking about Harold, after he has died. Raymond makes a comment about his brother.
Harold was pretty set in his ways. They were good ways though, Victoria said. Weren’t they. I think they were, Raymond said. He was a awful good brother to me. He was good to me too, Victoria said. I keep expecting him to come walking in that door any minute now, saying something funny, and wearing that old dirty hat of his, like he always did. That was him, wasn’t it, Raymond said. My brother always did have his own way of wearing a hat. You could tell Harold from a distance anywhere. You tell him two blocks away. Oh hell. I miss him already. I do too, she said. I don’t imagine I’ll ever get over missing him, Raymond said. Some things you don’t get over. I believe this’ll be one of them. (95-6)
I love the way this passage shows the affection between Victoria, Raymond and the dead man. And how the speech is authentic, even slightly quirky, honest. How Raymond and Victoria are consoling each other. And how important Harold’s memory will be to them.
I am so pleased that I still have Benediction to read.
Eventide byKent Haruf, published in 2005 by Picador. 317pp
We all remember those other worldly images of people in Hazmat suits treating victims of Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. There were also images of people waiting in compounds; others stricken with grief but unable to touch their dead; and teams with sprays, and hastily created burial grounds with bodies wrapped in plastic. It was terrible, but how relieved we were that it was happening in West Africa, far away from us.
And perhaps we now wish we had taken more notice, for some of the worst hit areas by our current pandemic seem to be as chaotic and dreadful as those. We should have heeded the warnings of experts and history: pandemics happen. There was the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV/Aids, SARs, MERs and Ebola.
In the Company of Men was the choice for February of the Asymptote Book Club.
In the Company of Men
Ebola began when infected bushmeat was consumed in the forests of West Africa. The Ebola virus spread quickly through contact, helped by ignorance. And also by lack of knowledge and resources to confront the rapid spread of infections. The illness seemed excruciatingly disgusting, melting the internal organs of the infected body.
Véronique Tadjo explores the sense to be made of the outbreak. The figures seem low to us, now faced with Covid-19: 28,646 cases and 11,323 dead. But it caused mayhem, destroying lives, beliefs, economies and confidence. The author uses the possibilities of the novel to look at the impacts and experiences of many of its victims, including the Ebola virus itself.
So each of the short chapters are related by people or other living creatures affected by the outbreak. There are the medical teams who had so little to fight with and could only ease a patient through the illness to recoveryor death by hydrating them, providing painkillers and trying to alleviate anxiety. Stuffed inside their protective gear, sweating in the African heat, dealing with victims who were often terrified, their working conditions were terrible.
There are the survivors, still viewed with suspicion; the foster carer for an Ebola orphan; the volunteers who built the Ebola centres; the other staff whose job it was to bury the dead in conditions that transgressed against the cultural customs of their families; and the outreach teams who had to go into villages to ensure restrictions and behaviours were in accordance with preventative measures, but against all customs.
A leader of an outreach team explains some of the difficulties.
The outreach team have to exercise patience. They need to find the right words. Because when people are afraid, they will act irrationally. The contradictory claims and rumors going around about Ebola create a lot of uncertainty in peoples’ minds. The rate at which it spreads, its virulence, that’s all too much to grasp, and very hard to accept. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to yourself. It’s easier simply to disbelieve the evidence before your eyes, in your own village, in your own neighborhood. Despite the public notices, many prefer to hide the sick, or even, if the threat becomes real, to die with them. What’s the point, they say, it was a losing game right from the start. The most vulnerable members of society, women and children, have to bow to the decrees of the elders. They’re excluded from the discussions, and thus have no inkling of the dangers waiting for them. (80-81)
She writes from the perspective of the virus, and from the bat that had been its host. The bat suggests that humans are not facing up to the situation, instead pursuing their empty dream of purity and perfection, in the Ebola epidemic to find a scientific solution to its eradication. The bat suggests that this dream of perfection is not the way forward, because it is aggressive and destructive.
[Humans say] ‘We save more lives than we kill. We discover medicines that cure and vaccines that protect. Our advanced technologies will provide solutions for our problems and innovations will alleviate global hunger and warfare.’ … But I know none of this will actually happen unless they learn to share with one another, and with us, and with every creature yet to be born. … Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small. Instead of trying to rise above their earthly origins. Instead of wanting to conceal the presence of death by dint of ever-more-sophisticated invention.(132-3)
The use of multiple voices by Véronique Tadjo extends to quoting from songs and poems that circulated at the time or were already well-known in the countries affected.
So the reader finishes this short novel with the sense that we need to see the Ebola outbreak not as an aberration, but absorb its history and how to confront it into our understanding of the world. The bat has already said that, the virus is more critical of human capacity to destroy, but the Baobab tree echoes the more positive note.
These ancient and revered trees are often the meeting place for a village and are seen as trees that hold knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’ When the outbreak is finally over, the tree welcomes back the activity of humans. It has the final word:
And the destiny of Man will become one with ours. (141)
Everything that I read in In the Company of Men applies to Covid-19. The scale is larger, but the ability of literature to show us the familiar in new ways is reflected in this book.
Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist academic and artist from Côte d’Ivoire with an interest in many African countries.
In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp
Elizabeth Bowen caught the essence of Table Two when she said in her review for the Tatler in 1942 that it was
the most striking novel about women war workers that this war has, as far as I know, produced.
The location of the action is the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in central London, where translators sit at designated tables. It is early September 1940 and Londoners are convinced that the RAF will not allow the Luftwaffe through to bomb the city.
While the plot is not very strong, there is plenty to engage the reader in this novel, the only one written by Marjorie Wilenski. It was clearly written from first-hand experience of the Blitz and of war work.
The table of the title is the workstation for the women who feature in this novel.
The Translation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence made all the translations of the Ministry’s foreign documents and letters. Everyone on the staff of the Department knew some foreign languages and most of them knew several and knew them well. The Department worked in a large room on the first floor of the Ministry’s new building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The room had windows down both sides and it looked like a schoolroom because it had groups of flat-topped desks, set nine together on each side of a central gangway. Each group of desks was used by nine translators known as a Table, and what looked like the teacher’s desk at the top was used by the Language Supervisor. (11)
It is late summer in 1940 in London and Table Two is about to receive a new translator. Many of the women who work there, all women, had supported themselves in various jobs abroad. On their return to London they need the money. Some women are doing their bit for the war. Marjorie Wilenski is interested in how this group of women do and don’t get along.
There are a range of characters: Mrs Jolly who can’t stop talking; Mrs Doweson with aristocratic connections who likes fresh air; Mrs Just, the deputy who ensures order in the work despite Mrs Saltman the disorganised Supervisor. There are those who love disaster, a childish woman in dress and behaviour, a woman who can’t stop eating and so on.
Two women are the focus of the story. Elsie Pearne is much despised for her sour disposition, and she believes herself suited for better work, with some justification.
Elsie was a tall gaunt woman of forty-eight. She carried her head forward and her shoulders were rounded because she was always stooping to talk to people less tall than herself. She walked with a long ungainly rather mannish stride and there was something mannish in her clothes – the plain black coat and skirt, white bouse with collar and tie, and round felt hat. She had a long thin face, long thin nose and a long thin mouth with lips set in a straight line that turned down at the corners, and her eyes under wide brows were small. […]
Elsie Pearne was not much loved at the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence. She was generally referred to as rude and difficult to get on with. Most people thought that her long mouth turned down simply from bad nature and ill-temper though there were some more kindly who guessed at disappointments and hard times, neither opinion being in fact quite right. (1-2)
In contrast, Anne Shepley-Rice, is the new translator, younger and prettier than the others, and with the prospect of dinners with young servicemen and even marriage ahead of her.
Although they are in contrast to each other, Elsie takes Anne under her wing, and then becomes possessive. Unfortunately, when she doesn’t get her way Elsie can be rather nasty and Anne does not wish to be controlled by her older colleague. This is not a happy friendship.
In the first days of Anne’s employment there are frequent air raid warnings which force the workers into idleness in the basement. The translators are very frustrated because they do not believe that the German bombers will penetrate central London. They are wrong and at the end of the first week in September the Blitz begins and does not let up until May the following summer. The author describes how the population adapts to the new situation.
For the next week the guns were rarely silent. Sometimes they seemed to go on without stopping for the whole twenty-four hours. Soon their sounds became the background to ordinary life – that ordinary life that was so extraordinary but which Londoners had to pretend was ordinary because only in that way was it possible to live at all. For the extraordinary had to be tamed as quickly as could be done; conditions were chaotic but chaos had to be conquered. The first thing everywhere and all the time was to get the small things straight. There was no time to stand and stare, there were too many practical problems to solve. True, a country cousin up for the day to look at London’s ruins might gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets; these immense fantastic holes only astonished Cockneys on Monday – by Friday they were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to the traffic, there were too many other things to think of – how to get to work, how to get hoe again, how to cook the breakfast on the faint glimmer of gas that was all most people could coax from their burners, how to make the tea, let alone how to wash or bath, when there was no water at all in the pipes. Scrambling over the broken houses, through the dust and the rubble, picking their way through the broken glass and the broken pavement stones, few people had time to look up at the battle that went on by day and by night. (108-9)
Meanwhile Anne is falling in love with Seb, an injured RAF pilot who is working in the ministry while he recovers. Their relationship is a source of anguish to Elsie.
Mrs Just plans to leave her position as deputy supervisor and every woman, except Anne, thinks they are the most suited to the post. The ability of the women to delude themselves is amusing. Elsie, who could do it, is given a trial and is hopeless as she has such a forbidding way with others. Anne is chosen for promotion.
Everything seems to be going well for Anne: she has become engaged, she narrowly misses being badly hurt by a collapsing building, she is to be promoted to deputy supervisor. But then she is entrusted with a confidential Portuguese document, and it goes missing. She is suspended.
While the plot weaves its way to provide happiness to both Anne and Elsie, the other women get on with their chatter, stories about getting to work, knitting, raising money for the Spitfire fund, and supporting each other in their difficulties.
I enjoyed the account of London in the Blitz and how it affected the women workers. The paragraph quoted above impressed me because I saw parallels with the current need in the face of a pandemic to adapt to an impossible situation. Great obstacles have become familiar and tiresome obstructions to how we would rather live.
Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski, first published in 1942. Reissued by Dean Street Press in 2019. 224pp
Today’s post, featuring a fictional older woman, is from northern Europe. The novel was written in Finnish and is set in Estonia. Estonia has been occupied and claimed for centuries by its neighbours, even since the end of the First World War, and with considerable bloodshed and hardship. The lives of the two women in the novel, one older another two generations younger, are shaped by these events, and they have received abuse about their loyalties and been exploited for them. The fractured history of the country has broken families and friendships and most people have left the countryside. The novel is set in the village of Läänemaa and in 1992 it is dying.
This is the 53rd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. It was recommended by a reader of my guest posts on the Global Literature in Libraries blog in August 2019. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.
We meet Aliide Truu as an old woman, apparently abandoned in her family home in the Estonian forest at the end of the 20th Century. Estonia is an independent country, recently freed from the hated Soviet influence. Aliide is the widow of Martin, a supporter of the Communist regime. She appears to be a harmless old lady, cooking up her brews, living a very small existence, with habits of suspicion and frugality. She is fearful for she must manage her house on her own and she is still taunted by village people for her Communist connections, although the village is more or less deserted. The young go to Tallin.
Her life is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Zara, who is trying to escape from the traffickers who control her life. She is in a bad way. She has deliberately searched for this house and for Aliide. Reluctantly, suspiciously, Aliide allows her into the house and feeds her.
The book hops about in time, through the German occupation and the Soviet years. Neither was good for the village and its inhabitants. We learn more about Aliide’s past and her childhood in the village with her sister, Ingel. The re-evaluation of Aliide begins for the reader when we find that she had always been jealous of her sister’s beauty and accomplishments, and she resented her sister’s marriage to Hans, with whom Aliide is obsessed.
The Communists have wanted to find Hans who opposed Communist rule, but the sisters hide him in secret places on their farm. Some brutal questioning takes place, including of Ingel’s child, Linda. The men involved reappear from time to time in the later narrative, and always have a terrible effect upon Aliide.
Through Aliide’s contrivance using her husband Martin’s position, Ingel and Linda are exiled to Siberia, ending up in Vladivostok. This is the purge of the title, Stalin’s purge of Estonia’s collaborators with the German occupation. Aliide regains possession of the cottage and the care of Hans. Hidden from Martin and the village Hans becomes Aliide ‘s prisoner for several years, but he remains cold towards her.
In the present of the novel, that is 1992, Zara’s traffickers are searching for her, and they have a good idea that she is near Aliide Truu’s cottage. She only managed her escape, after several years of sexual slavery, by violent means. Zara can speak Estonian, for it emerges that she is Linda’s daughter, Aliide’s great niece. As Pasha and Lavrenti close in on Zara, Aliide hides her as she hid Hans.
Brutality creates more brutality and finally, by appearing to be the sweet old lady we met at the start of the novel, Aliide finds a way to resolve Zara’s immediate difficulties.
This novel has been issued in the ‘cult classics’ series by the publisher. Cult is a word that sometimes signals violence, and there is plenty of that in this book, especially violence against women. Suffering and mayhem has been visited on this village and its people and Estonia itself over the decades. The future is not likely to give Aliide a better life, although Zara can move on from her time as a sexual slave.
Purge does not offer any cosy solutions, or happy endings, or any comfortable idea that women working together will improve the world. Instead, it shows how deeply wounding the troubled history of northern Europe has been on women. The price of survival, and of collusion, is very high and includes damaged relationships, trauma, suspicion and violence, even within families, with no suggestion of resolutions. Perhaps the best image of this is the blowfly, which at the start of the novel is looking for rotting flesh in Aliide’s kitchen. It is also reproduced as a cut-out on the cover.
Born in Finland, with a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, Sofi Oksanen is well known in her homeland for her writing, plays, journalism and novels. Purge is her only novel to have been translated into English. It was first conceived as a play, then a novel and since its publication it has also been turned into an opera and adapted as a film.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen, first published in Finnish in 2008, and the English translation by Lola Rogers by Atlantic Books in 2010. 262pp.
Other European titles in the series: Older Women in Fiction
In the last year I have been promoting books by women of colour on this blog. Every month I have read and reviewed a book and every week I have promoted a post from this blog about a book by a woman of colour on my twitter account. My intention is to amplify the marginalised voices, contribute to the discussion generated by these writers.
I recently read an article by Yaa Gyasi that got me going, made me question my motives and effectiveness, as I expect she intended. It was published in the Guardian in March 2021 and headlined
Yaa Gyasi is the Ghanaian-American author of Homegoing (2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (2020). She lives in the US. In her article she argues that white people are not moving quickly enough, are still imbued with racist attitudes. In the US ‘they have failed to contend with the legacy of slavery’. I would say that in the UK we have failed to deal with the legacy of colonialism.
Public interest in her work was revived by the Black Lives Matters movement last summer and Homegoing appeared on anti-racist reading lists. But she found this very disappointing for the questions being asked of her at literary events had already been answered, she claims, by James Baldwin in the ‘60s and Toni Morrison in the ‘80s.
She concludes that white people are responding inadequately when they just buy books by black authors. The ‘just’ refers to not going further and reading them.
So many of the writers of colour I know have had white people treat their work as though it were a kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow in order to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time. They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. [Guardian article 20th March 2021]
I’m going to note in passing that she cannot know that white people treat the books in this way, although many of us might. More important is the question she goes on to ask:
What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in “reading” like that? To enter the world of fiction with such a tainted mission is to doom the novel or short story to fail you on its most essential levels.
This tokenism – look at the shelves behind my face on zoom and you can see lots of books by black writers! – this taking your medicine – I’ve bought the books, I’ve done my bit – is clearly an inadequate response. She quotes Lauren Michelle saying
Someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading.
Yaa Gyasi declares
… I also know that buying books by black authors is but a theoretical, grievously belated and utterly impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm.
I must point out that that sentence I have just quoted begins with this clause:
While I do devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change, I also know …
I am not sure how the two parts of the sentence are connected unless she is saying that she knows that the books aren’t read, because things are not changing, the power of literature is not being realised.
Promoting books by Women of Colour
I too believe in the power of literature to challenge, expose, provide alternatives, to deepen understanding and even to change. I will continue to buy, put on my shelves, and read books by women of colour and blog about them. I don’t regard it as taking my medicine. I will enjoy reading the books because they are books, and many of them are excellent, revealing, eye-opening and brilliant.
I hope to read them without believing they were written for me and people like me, a white middle class woman of a certain age. Recently I read and reviewed Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). She is a Zimbabwean writer, and this was her first published book. The introduction made it clear that one of its notable features was that it did not assume a European reader. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2019), set in Ethiopia at the time when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (as it was known), also makes few concessions to European readers in its use of indigenous vocabulary and names.
I hope to see beyond the story to the deeper currents. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) keeps peeling back the layers to expose the damage done physically, psychologically, socially, financially, politically, even lexically by slavery. Her ‘highly vocal ghosts’ must be heard.
Some writing provides joy. In Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016) I was pleased to meet Morayo da Silva, a flamboyant, generous, educated older woman born in Lagos, living in San Francisco, created by a Nigerian-American. You should meet her too.
I loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) and the richness of the characters in her multi-layered novel. The novel is innovative in form and structure, her restless style reflecting life in the city. The best book I read in 2019.
And so on.
These are great books, not medicine, not tokens, books worth reading for their own merits. I treasure their challenge, what they give me in depth and how they contribute to my determination to be part of change.
So, I have bought a copy of Homegoing, and it is not on my shelf yet, but in my tall pile of books to be read. I’ll go on reading and reviewing and promoting books by women of colour. I know this alone will not bring about the change I want, but it’s a step and, at the moment, it’s the least I can do.
It is so often the case that if you are female your childhood will be tougher than your brother’s, especially if you are also Black and born into a rural setting in a colonial country. Nervous Conditions is set in Zimbabwe when it was still Southern Rhodesia and under British rule. Rural poverty is a real impediment to Tambudzai; as a girl she has responsibility for collecting water, cleaning latrines, laying the dung floor, child care. Her cousin Nyasha has spent some of her childhood in London. She has forgotten her first language, Shona, and many of the ways of her family. Both girls live with nervous conditions, despite their differences.
Tsitsi Dangarembga quotes Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) as the novel’s epithet and source of her title:
The condition of native is nervous condition.
Tambu is born and lives her early childhood in the rural homestead of her family. She has two younger sisters and a brother. Her mother finds life hard and her father is feckless. Her brother is privileged, receiving education at the local school. Her UK-educated Uncle provides fees for her brother and when he is older takes him to the mission school where he is headteacher.
Meanwhile Tambu had to give up schooling because the family don’t have the money for her fees. She is so keen to go to school that she begs mealie seeds from her father raises her own small crop to sell. Her brother steals the mealies. Later he dies while away at the mission school. Tambu now becomes the privileged sibling.
I was not sorry when my brother died. (11)
This is the rather shocking but realistic opening sentence of the novel. It pitches us immediately into the different trajectories of girls and boys.
Tambu takes her brother’s place at the mission school, leaving the homestead behind. Tambu and her cousin Nyasha become friends and allies in their Uncle’s very fine house, even though their attitudes are so different. Nyasha questions everything, but Tambu is grateful to her uncle for the opportunities he provides.
We see how her education takes Tambu away from her rural roots when she returns to the homestead for holidays and family gatherings. These provide the setting for some great drama and humour. A dare takes place, a kind of council of men, to discuss the difficult problem of Lucia. Lucia is a splendid character, full of self-worth, and undaunted by the menfolk. She undermines the dare and achieves her aims of employment and education.
Tambu, Nyasha and Lucia are all beholden to Bamabukuru, the headmaster uncle, for the advantages they gain. Tambu is especially torn when he opposes her ambitions to enter the White Catholic Convent in Salisbury. She depends upon him for her advantages, but chafes at his rule. This is the fate of peoples who are colonised and patronised everywhere.
Nyasha, with her UK experiences, finds his most pompous pronouncements and rules unbearable and defies her father, while also seeking to improve her future through education. After Tambu leaves for the convent, Nyasha declines into bulimia.
Tambu’s mother finds it hard that daughter’s aspirations and Bamabukuru’s patronage will remove Tambu from her family roots.
‘Tell me, Tambudzai, does that man want to kill me, to kill me with his kindness, fattening my children only to take them away, like cattle fattened for the slaughter? Tell me, daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time. He-e, Mummy this, he-e, Mummy that. Like that cousin of yours. I have seen it happen – we saw it happen in our own home. Truly that man is calling down a curse of bad luck on my head. You have survived the mission so now he must send you even further away. I’ve had enough, I tell you, I’ve had enough of that man dividing me from my children. Dividing me from my children and ruling my life. He says this and we jump […] If I were a witch I would enfeeble his mind, truly I would do it, and then we would see how his education and his money helped him.’ (269)
This is the cry of the colonised to the colonial power, caught in a dependent relationship that mostly benefits the colonizer. This novel was set only a few years before Zimbabwe fought a bitter battle to end colonial rule and written after Independence was gained in 1980.
I read this book for three reasons: it is the first of a trilogy whose third volume This Mournable Body has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. My second reason is that I spent a month in Zimbabwe when it was still young, in 1986. It was a country of such hope and possibilities at that time. I heard Tsitsi Dangarembga interviewed recently and that too inspired me to read the trilogy: Nervous Conditions (1988) The Book of Not(2006), This Mournable Body (2020).
She was born in Matoku in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1959, and spent some of her childhood in England, her childhood resembling Nyasha’s more than Tambu’s. She had planned to read medicine at Cambridge but returned to Zimbabwe University to read psychology and become involved in theatre and film as well as writing fiction. Last year she made international news when she was arrested for taking part in a peaceful anti-corruption demonstration in Zimbabwe.
She says of Nervous Conditions
I wrote it as a fugitive. A fugitive from my first memories and of what my life had become. [from Guardian 27th March 2021.]
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published by the Women’s Press in 1988. I read the Faber edition published in 2021. 298pp
The BBC poll of 100 books that shaped the world placed Nervous Conditions at #66.
You can find Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 10 reading recommendations here.
Mary Cholmondeley is another or those neglected female writers of the early twentieth century, despite having published 13 novels. I had never heard of her or of her books until I read a post on Heavenali’s blog last June. I was intrigued enough to order a copy, which eventually came to the top of my tbr pile. It’s a strange book, and I wasn’t helped by the title or the cover of the print-on-demand copy that I received – a renaissance lad in a fetching flat hat, looking wan and interesting.
Despite all of this I enjoyed the book and thank Heavenali for drawing my attention to it.
Two young women must negotiate their early adulthood in a society that has no respect for their independence. The reading public were most shocked by the portrayal of two young women, unmarried and not guided by men so much as their principles. Rachel is an orphan, not especially good looking or celebrated by cultured society until she becomes very rich as a result of an inheritance. Hugh Scarlett is attracted to her, just at the moment when he has decided to end his adulterous liaison with Lady Newhaven.
Hester is Rachel’s great friend, but she too has experienced misfortune when her aunt died. Hester must live with her brother, a vicar. She is a published novelist and is determined to complete her novel while in the household. Hester’s brother, Mr Gresley, is a pompous and obnoxious man who mistakes his opinions for truth sanctioned by his position in the church.
Meanwhile Hugh Scarlett’s treachery has been discovered by Lord Newhaven who offers him an alternative to a duel: one of them will end his life within four months and the unfortunate one will be decided by picking the shorter taper. Lady Newhaven overhears them deciding on this process but fails to establish which one draws the short taper.
The story of Red Pottage reveals a huge amount of hypocrisy. The women suffer from it and from a lack of honesty by some of the most significant men in their lives. Much of the hypocrisy of these well-heeled people is very funny. The society women fancy themselves as cultured, sympathetic and intellectual. They are not.
The title refers to an incident from Genesis 25. Easau had been working in the field and is very hungry. His younger twin demands Esau’s birth right in exchange for some pottage (vegetable stew, so not an exotic meal). Esau holds his privilege so lightly that he agrees. The red of the pottage is thought to be a play on his name, which of course links to Hugh Scarlett, who towards the end of the novel find himself understanding, that he has sacrificed all for the worthless love of Lady Newhaven. He hopes his love for Rachel will redeem him. It does not work out as he intended.
Mr Gresley commits a crime against his sister, so grievous that she nearly dies. He does this because he claims that he knows better than her. But his destructive actions reveal his lack of true Christian feeling.
In contrast, Dick, who has returned from Australia, is much less constrained by society’s manners and plays an important part in challenging them, proving himself to be much more generous than Mr Gresley.
There are others who do well by the two young women, and eventually it all sorts itself out. But there has been much heartache, and uncovering of secrets before the conclusion.
The tension about who will kill themselves when the time comes is played out among the characters, and at times we are left asking plot questions (what did Lord Newhaven leave with the Bishop before he went to London, or why did he save Hugh Scarlett’s life) there is much entertainment at the behaviour of the self-important. Mr Gresley’s temperance meeting is disrupted because he had not taken enough note of one of the invited speakers. I laughed out loud at this early example of mansplaining when at a dinner party Rachel is addressed by ‘the great’ Mr Harvey.
“I trust, Miss West” said the deep voice of Mr Harvey revolving himself and his solitaire [diamond ring?] slowly towards her, “that I have your sympathy in the great cause to which I have dedicated myself, the emancipation of woman.” “I thought that the new woman had effected her own emancipation,” said Rachel. Mr Harvey paid no more attention to her remark than anyone with a theory to propound which must be delivered to the world as a whole. “I venture to think,” he continue, his heavy lustreless eyes roaming to a standstill upon her, “that though I accept in all reverence the position of woman as the equal of man, as promulgated in The Princess, by the lion-hearted Laureate [Tennyson], nevertheless I advance beyond him in that respect. I hold” – in a voice calculated to impress the whole table – “that woman is man’s superior, and that she degrades herself when she endeavours to place herself on an equality with him.” (119)
At times Mary Cholmondeley’s style is as florid as Mr Harvey’s. These paragraphs provide a beat in a scene beside the river where Rachel knows she is about to receive and reject a proposal from a former lover.
It was an afternoon the secret of which Autumn and Spring will never tell to Winter and Summer, when the wildest dreams of love might come true, when even the dead might come down and put warm lips to ours, and we should feel no surprise. A kingfisher flashed across the open on his way back to the brook near at hand, fleeing from the still splendour of the sun-fired woods, where he was but a courtier, to the little winding world of grey stones and water, where he was king. (133)
Mr Tristram is confident that Rachel will accept his renewed attentions, despite having jilted her painfully some years before, when she was poor. We know better, and this overblown prose precisely conjures his self-importance and misplaced confidence. When Mary Cholmondeley celebrates the qualities of honesty, openness and loyalty her prose is more direct.
Mary Cholmondeley was born in Shropshire in 1859. She was the third of eight children of a vicar and the family moved around a great deal. She never married but lived with her sister in London and Suffolk after the death of their father. She wrote 13 novels. Red Pottage was considered a bit scandalous when it was first published in 1899 as it was seen as a satire on clergy and dealt with adultery and independent woman and their emancipation. She died in 1925.
Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley appeared in 1899. I read the print on demand edition by AEgypan Books (no dated). 283 pp. It was also published in the Virago Modern Classics series.
The American Dream – anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Bart Judson is the son of freed slaves, who makes a good living in Boston selling fruit. His speciality is bananas. He married another southerner, Cleo, who is very pretty and very light skinned and very ambitious. Boston is a city that prides itself on its liberal attitudes to its Black population.
Some of Cleo’s ambition is shared with Lutie Johnson, the protagonist of Ann Petry’s novel The Street published two years earlier than The Living is Easy in 1946. These two novels offer a complementary view of trying to make it in the US as a Black person in the first half of the 20th Century. Lutie belongs in the poor Black fiction of the time. Cleo has the advantage of money. However, in both novels the American Dream is shown to be a chimera, offered in good times to everybody.
The Living is Easy
The novel begins in Boston at the turn of the century. Cleo is married to a rich black businessman, and they have both made their way from the South. In Boston, they pride themselves on treating their black brethren decently. However, race pervades everything. Passing, if you can, is normal, the lighter your skin the more acceptable your social status.
Cleo is ambitious for herself. In the opening chapters we see how she successfully rents a larger house in a higher status district. Dependent upon her husband for money, we see how she will manipulate the situation to skim off a little of the rent money every month. She conceives a desire to recreate the close family ties of her childhood and schemes to bring her three married sisters to Boston, leaving their husbands behind.
While Cleo continues to lie and plot to gain every advantage from every situation the economic environment is changing. In Boston immigration is changing the city. More and more Black families are coming to the city, many of them poor, in contrast to their predecessors who were doctors, lawyers and business men. In addition a large number of Irish families are also changing the population.
The First World War begins to have an effect on trade, especially trade that relies on shipping as Bart Judson’s does. There is less money, the sisters have to go out to work, Cleo has to resort to inadequate repairs on the house. Bart ends up broke after the war and must go and seek his fortune in a new place.
Despite Boston’s pride in its attitudes to its successful Black residents, racism lies close to the surface. One of the most shocking moments in this novel is when Cleo agrees to rent the house and its owner Mr Van Ryper explains why he is leaving it.
“Best house on the block. Sorry to leave it, but I’m too old to temper my prejudices.”(45)
Cleo assumes a poor Black family has moved in next door and asks where in the South they come from. Mr Van Ryper clarifies matters.
Mr Van Ryper rose to his feet. His face purpled with anger. “Madam, my father was a leader of the Underground Movement. I was brought up in an Abolitionist household. Your accusation of color prejudice is grossly impertinent. I believe in man’s inalienable right to liberty.” (46)
He lectures her for a while and then, when she says it’s nice that he isn’t prejudiced, he contradicts her again.
“Madam, I am distinctly prejudiced against the Irish,” Mr Van Ryper said wearily, thinking that colored women, for all they had had to endure, were as addlepated as their fairer-skinned sisters. “The Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians. They did not come here in chains or by special invitation.” (47)
So Mr Van Ryper is happy to be prejudiced against the Irish and all women. The difficult position of women is referred to again later when Bart is asked for funds for two of the sisters to return to the South to bury their father.
He saw with bitter clarity his situation and theirs. Cleo could not go to her dead father nor Serena to her doomed husband unless he gave them a few miserable dollars for train fare. The dependency of women had been the thing he cherished them for. Yet in this moment he was sharply aware of the brutal weapon dependency wielded. (277)
Cleo has caused a great deal of damage and suffering with her scheming and manipulations. Her sisters’ marriages are destroyed, their husbands abandoned, and throughout her marriage she has seen her husband as an enemy to be thwarted. She’s a hard character to like, but women and especially Black women might respond as she did to the limited lives they could live.
For some of this novel she was living an easy life, but change brought by economic forces, to the demography of Boston, to her husband’s business, meant that a life built on lies and deceit could not remain easy. I doubt whether a life built on good principles could have stood against the pressures she endured, and there are examples of people of integrity in this novel, not least Bart Judson who sees his business fail. The Living is Easy shows the reader that the American Dream has no more substance for Cleo and Bart Judson than it did for Lutie Johnson.
Dorothy West was born in Boston in June 1907 and died in Martha’s Vineyard in August 1998. Her parents had been born in slavery. Dorothy West wrote and was published from an early age and was educated at Boston University and Columbia. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance, mixing with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other writers of the time. She visited Russia with Langston Hughes and edited a literary journal. She worked on a federal writers project during the war.
She began spending more time on Martha’s Vineyard and wrote both her novels there. She contributed stories to the local paper and issued collections of short stories. Her second novel The Wedding was not published until 1985. She was included in the Daughters of Africa collection in 1992.
At a time when people were writing about poor Blacks, she provided a new perspective from more prosperous Black lives.
The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, first published in 1948. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics from 1987. 362pp