Tag Archives: Canongate

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

I loved reading this book. Previously I had read and hugely enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was a great pleasure to settle down with her new novel for hours at a time. But I have been puzzled about how to present it on this blog. It is so full of ideas, of writing skill, of adventurousness, of themes that resonate with our predicaments at the moment that I haven’t known where to start. 

The Book of Form & Emptiness

Perhaps a good place to start is with the story, for the narrative drive is strong in this book, despite everything else she gives us. Benny Oh is twelve when his father dies, killed by a rubbish truck in the alley behind his house. Benny lives in a city near the Pacific coast of the US. Locations in this novel are vague, unlike the timeframe: Trump’s election as President features, for example. But we are never given the name of the city Benny inhabits.

Benny’s father was a Korean-Japanese jazz clarinettist. His mother is Annabelle, who works as a scissors woman, clipping newspapers for a media organisation. Benny is mixed race, and one theme of the novel is how he negotiates this in present day America. 

Grief overcomes mother and son. Benny hears voices, or rather voices speak to Benny, things speak to Benny, but he resists them. The scissors that tell him to stab his teacher, for example, he can only resist by stabbing himself. This reaction brings Benny to the attention of his school’s mental health services.

The significance of things, what they mean to us, their existence, their connection to the environmental problems of our world, these are also important themes of this novel. Annabelle becomes something of a hoarder, packing her news clippings in plastic bags, keeping Kenji’s shirts to make a memory quilt, storing her craft materials in the bath until the flat is stuffed with things and the only tidy space is Benny’s bedroom.

Then a little book, Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, jumps into her shopping trolley one day, and leads her, and us, into a different world of ideas about things, especially domestic possessions. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest. 

Meanwhile Benny’s behaviour having attracted the attention of child psychiatrists, means he spends time in a Pedpsych ward where he meets the Alef (see Jorge Luis Borges’s short story) who is following in the path of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement. I looked that one up too. One of the Alef’s messages takes Benny to the Library, where much of this novel is located. Here he meets the B-Man who is a Slavic poet in a wheelchair, the small librarian, and even Ruth Ozeki who is typing away in a remote corner of the library. 

An older woman sat in the other [carrel], typing very fast on her laptop computer. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, part Asian like him, maybe, with black-framed glasses and gray-streaked hair. She must have sensed his presence, because she lifted her head and looked at him, and all the while her fingers typed on, never pausing. (141-2)

And now a word about one of the narrators

Some of the story is told by an omniscient narrator, where it concerns Annabelle’s actions, or slips into the concerns of the doctors, or librarians, or retells the life of the Zen Buddhist priest Aikon, who wrote Tidy Magic.

But Benny’s story is told to him by his Book. Benny introduces it:

Shhh … Listen!
That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it?
It’s okay if you can’t, though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously, and obviously the book is speaking to you, so try something more challenging.  … (3)

And the Book continues to tell Benny’s story, from Kenji’s death to the final pages which are a collaboration between Benny and his narrator some 500 pages later.

The novel is full of ideas about books, quotations from Walter Benjamin, including the story of his final, lost book as he fled from the Nazis to Spain; about the physicality of ‘real’ books; about writing and the writer (think the woman in the carrel in the library) and the reader; and about finding one’s feet in a shifting and dangerous world.

For example, Slavoj, the Slavic bottle-man ,who is writing an epic poem called Earth, tells Benny about writing poetry:

“Let me tell you something about poetry, young schoolboy. Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I haf created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem.”: He sighed. “In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.” (276-7)

We have taken in some jazz, some theories of poetry, the randomness of Fluxus, ideas about connectedness, and the ecological dangers we have created for ourselves. And I haven’t even mentioned the crows.

Ruth Ozeki has explained her title by reference to impermanence and interconnection in this interview extract:

The phrase “form and emptiness” comes from the Heart Sutra, one of the core Mahayana Buddhist texts. The line we chant is “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Emptiness, in this sense, refers to impermanence, and the way all things, all beings, are impermanent and exist in a perpetual state of interdependent flux, or dependent co-arising. None of us—human beings, animals, insects, books, stones, trees—has a fixed, essential self or identity independent of everything and everyone else, and this sense of interconnectedness is, I think, what Benny comes to appreciate in the novel. His relationship with his mother. His relationships with his friends. His relationship with his book. [From the Lion’s Roar, Buddhist Wisdom for our Time, an interview with Nancy Chu. September 2021]

There is so much in this book, so many ideas, such a call for the recognition and importance of difference and connection that I would like to encourage readers to pick it up and enjoy it as I did. This generous novel seems to be bursting out of its pages. 

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki: WikiCommons LMU Library: 2016

Born in 1956, Ruth Ozeki was brought up in Connecticut. Like Benny she has mixed parentage. She has worked in film and has now published four award-winning novels and a short memoir. Since 2010 has been a Zen Buddhist priest. She teaches creative writing at Smith College.

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki published in 2021, by Canongate. 546pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Related post

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (November 2013)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, poetry, Reading, Reviews

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

I have not reviewed a book in the older woman in fiction series for some months. I correct this here with a thriller from Korea, specifically put my way by Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

What I liked about The Old Woman with the Knife was the serious way it undermined common ideas about how older women should behave, and how they decline physically. Older women often say that they have become invisible, meaning that they are not noticed, do not stand out from other people. The main character exploits this in order to carry out her trade: contract killing.

This is the 57th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Old Woman with the Knife

Hornclaw is 65 and has managed to survive as a contract killer in Korea. We meet her on the subway, when she is very deliberately not standing out from the crowd.

…she is a model senior citizen, wholesome and refined and respectable. Rather than making a show of how deserving she is of a seat, she stands by the full senior section at the end of the car and doesn’t complain. Her clothing is appropriate for a middle-class senior citizen, perfectly aligned with the standard of old age: off-brand but decent clothes, down to her hat and shoes, purchased at Dongdaermun Market or on sale at a department store. Unlike some, she doesn’t bellow songs, her face ruddy with drink, taking up space with various kinds of sporting equipment. She exists like an extra in a movie, woven seamlessly into a scene, behaving as if she had always been there, a retiree thrilled to take care of her grandchildren in her golden years, living the rest of her days with a frugality baked into her bones. People stare at their phones, headphones in their ears, shrinking from and swaying with the unending wave of humanity, quickly forgetting an old person has entered their midst. They excise her from their consciousness as if she’s unimportant, recyclable. Or they never even saw her to begin with. (13)

Many older women readers will recognise the idea of being ‘like an extra in a movie’, being passed over or not seen to begin with. Perhaps it happens to men too.

She has bought her survival as a contract killer at the cost of loneliness, close only to her dog, Deadweight. She has lost everyone she cared for along the way. She began life in a poor family, was sent to live as an unpaid servant in a distant cousin‘s household and abandoned there by her family. She had to find her own way and was helped and then more or less adopted by the mysterious Ryu. It was Ryu who rescued her, taught her the trade of murder and set up a company in which she was the chief worker. Even after many decades it is his voice that she hears guiding her to remain unremarked in a crowd.

In the opening chapter Hornclaw kills a commuter. He was behaving in an obnoxious way towards a young female passenger on the subway. There is, I admit, a small satisfaction in such a man being despatched. On leaving the cloakroom where Hornclaw cleans her poisoned knife she nearly collides with the emergency service workers who are rushing to the scene. 

When completing a job in a busy place and turning the corner …
Didn’t I tell you to slow down or stick to the edges but to make a big loop? What if you bump into someone and drop something? You would be announcing, here’s all the evidence, to the whole world.
She can recall Ryu’s expression when he told her that as if it were yesterday, and so she will trace the most complicated route home possible. (20)

But as she had grown older things have changed. In the agency for whom she works a younger male colleague seems bent on ruining her reputation and her effectiveness. A small mistake takes her to the doctor at the clinic, and she develops affection for Dr Kang and his family. This weakness is exploited by her rival and there is a violent showdown.

While I loved the feminist and anti-ageist stance of the story, I also found myself disconcerted by the lack of questioning of the morality of extra-judicial or contract killing. Perhaps I am asking too much. It’s a fantasy after all. But I find it hard to read about such things as though the victims are merely extras in a film, or disposable characters in a video game.

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1976. She made her literary debut in 2009 when her novelWizard Bakery won the second Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her 2015 short-story collection Geugeosi namaneun anigireul received the Today’s Writer Award and Hwang Sun-won New Writers’ Award. This is her third novel, and the first to be translated into the English language. [From the Canongate website]

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, first published in 2013, and in the English translation by Canongate in 2022. 281pp. The English version was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

I seem to be in the middle of a spate of novels about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is such an interesting period. I was fortunate enough to study the 1790s under the late EP Thompson at the University of Warwick, when I specialised by studying Mary Wollestonecraft. At that time there was no biography of her.

A Room Made of Leaves had several things to recommend it. In the first place it was given to me by my dear friend Sarah. Her recommendations are always interesting. Second, the author was known to me as the writer of The Idea of Perfection (2001) which I remember won the Orange Prize for Fiction, as the Women’s Prize was then called. It made a strong impression on me at the time. Then the cover is splendidly exotic, designed to reflect the lush vegetation that settlers found when they arrived in Australia. And finally, it set in the period of my interest, beginning in Devon, and moving to the other side of the world to the new penal colony of Australia.

A Room Made of Leaves

The novel is framed as the recently discovered memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur and so is written in the first person. Born in humble beginnings in Devon, Elizabeth became unwanted by her mother, and although devoted to her grandfather, a sheep farmer, she was taken in by the local vicar and made his ward partly on account of her close relationship to his daughter. But her friendship with the daughter ends when Elizabeth unwisely becomes involved with a reckless and volatile soldier John Macarthur. His prospects are poor as he is on half pay at the end of the French wars. A brief conquest beside a hedge leads to pregnancy, marriage and life controlled by Macarthur. 

Elizabeth finds herself to be the wife of a man who is almost pathologically interested in his own advancement, desperate to be recognised as a gentleman. A posting to Australia is one step in his plan for advancement. Nothing will get in his way, not a weak leader, aboriginal inhabitants, even his own temper. In fact, he uses these to his own advantage.

Elizabeth learns to manage her situation as the wife of this very difficult man. She is one of the few women among the military society of the colony. She establishes a salon where she learns to understand and manipulate the men and situations that come to her. She recognises that she had to become as devious as her husband in order to maintain her integrity.

Key to her independence of mind is her affair with the astronomer, Mr Dawes. Men with his skills and knowledge were required by the Royal Navy at this time, to read the stars and navigate successfully across the oceans of the world. Mr Dawes, like Elizabeth, was an outsider in the new colony. He was unlike the other naval officers for he was a man of science, interested in the indigenous peoples of the area around Sydney, and in the fauna of this unknown land. Lessons for Elizabeth in astronomy became trysts for the lovers, meeting in the bower he created that gives the book its title: a room made of leaves.

John Macarthur manages to gain land in the new colony, and after a while his power extends and he is also able to acquire some land in Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. The farmland proved excellent for sheep and drawing on the expertise of a convict, transported for stealing a sheep, and her own experience in Devon with her grandfather, they developed an excellent breed of merino sheep. 

As Sarah said to me in an email, 

The thing I loved about the Kate Grenville – well, one of the things – was the way Elizabeth builds a true life for herself out of a very shitty situation

The ‘editor’ of Elizabeth’s memoirs says

Australian history, like most histories, is mainly about men. (1)

She has suggested a plausible alternative to the official history.

Australians of my generation had it dinned into them that ‘our nation rides of the sheep’s back’ – meaning that wool was the basis of our economy – and that John Macarthur was ‘the father of the wool industry’. Streets and swimming pools and parks all over Australia are named after him in gratitude. 
But here’s the thing: the Australian merino – the sheep we rode on the back of – was mostly developed during the years that John Macarthur was in England. It looks very much as though the Father of the Wool Industry must actually have been the Mother of the Wool Industry: his wife. (3)

The book has lots to say about the position of women, and a life lived in the shadow of a bully, and about colonialism and racism and its effects on the indigenous peoples in early Australian history. The descriptions of the countryside in Devon, the landscape of London and the lush area around Sydney are all vivid and enjoyable. 

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville, WikiCommons Daniel Bagnato March 2017

The author was born in 1950 as is known for her writing about early Australian history. She has won many awards, for her nine novels, and has also written The Writing Book guidance for writers, for example (2010). She had a career in films, which perhaps partly explains her strong visual writing.

My thanks to my friend Sarah, for the gift of this book, and for the many conversations we have had about novels and other writing over the years and those to come.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, published in 2020 by Canongate. 321pp

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

This book bowled me over. We chose it for the January meeting of our book group, and the next day I found it on the shelf at our new (yes NEW) bookshop, and began reading it immediately. The Shadow King tells a great story, especially of the women warriors who fought against Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Because I have visited Ethiopia and because the history of the first half of the twentieth century absorbs me I was predisposed to like this book. 

What I found was a novel, worthy of the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize, and all the critical acclaim it has garnered. In addition it is written by a woman of colour from Ethiopia. 

The Shadow King

The Shadow King tells a very good story, and all the better for being based in truth. It has some very appealing elements: such as the ultimate success of the underdogs. When Mussolini invaded, a latecomer to the European scramble to colonise Africa, he brought his mechanised army to defeat the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians had very little with which to prevent the invasion. They did have the memory of the successful campaign against the previous Italian invasion in the 1890s, as the weapons retained from that struggle. They also had a determination not to be conquered, inspired by their Emperor Haile Selassie. And they knew the terrain, and how to work with the people who lived there. 

The story begins in a very small and restricted setting. Hirut is a young girl, an orphan, who has been taken in by Kidane, who owed her parents. She lives in a tiny shed with the cook, and under the watchful and jealous eye of Aster, Kidane’s wife. 

Hirut hears Aster shouting her name, calling for her in a voice threatening to break from strain. Hirut looks up from the slow burning fire she is tending in a corner of the courtyard. She is hunched into a stool, next to a pile of onions waiting to be peeled. The cook is behind her in the kitchen, chopping meat for the evening meal. Aster should be drinking coffee in bed, tucked inside a soft blanket, perhaps looking out the window and gazing at her flowers. This should be a quiet morning. Hirut stiffens at the intrusion. (11)

The quiet morning is interrupted by more than Aster’s slightly deranged attempts to implicate Hirut in the theft of a missing necklace when Kidane returns from recruiting troops. He takes an old rifle from Hirut, the only thing she has from her father, because the Emperor needs all the weapons he can get. And we can see that her life, Aster’s, Kidane’s and even the cook’s will be upended and broadened by the campaign to drive back the Italians. 

Aster and Hirut join Kidane’s army to support their men by caring for the wounded and providing food. When things go badly and the Emperor leaves Ethiopia for exile in Bath, it is Hirut who suggests a way to provide the people with the inspiration of a shadow king. Hirut and Aster become his bodyguards and when needed take up arms with other women to fight the Italians. 

The story also is told from the point of view of a photographer in the Italian army. His commanding officer is known for his ferocity, and his cruelty is shown to the reader early in the story. But Ettore is Jewish and as anti-Semitism is promoted in Italy he becomes more and more detached from the official view and the actions of his commander, while powerless to refuse commands.

The climax of the story comes when Fucelli has captured Hirut and Aster, and waits for Kidane’s army to come to rescue them.

At times the novel is hard to read because of the atrocities committed. No one who survives comes out of the war without damage. Everyone has had to compromise themselves.

The telling of the story

While Hirut is the central character and the person we see gradually changing from that insignificant servant girl into a strong warrior, we also see the war from the perspectives of other people. What is clear is that the opposing sides have little understanding of each other. Here is Ettore looking at Hirut, who is in prison and refusing to respond to her captors.

That he has not managed to see more than a resolute and stubborn girl is proof of the Ethiopian native’s unfamiliarity with all that he finds commonplace. She has no reference points that intersect with his: no myths or fables, no ideas on science or philosophy. She is unlearned and unschooled, illiterate and limited. Unknowing and thus, unknowable. She lacks the imaginative capacity to consider an existence beyond her frames of reference: these mountains, her village, the hut where she was born. What rests behind that face and in that mind are sturdy, thick thoughts of survival and routine, and nothing else. (339)

Hirut has been stubbornly refusing to respond to Ettore, or any of the soldiers. She has been studying the enemy’s routines and waiting for signs of the rescue. She has her pride too.

Because this is one thing that neither the ascari [African soldiers in the Italian army] nor Fucelli nor this stupid soldato staring at her with a gaping mouth will ever know: she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Gerey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her. (338) 

Many scenes are framed by the photographer, and in the final battle by a film crew. This device, showing us photographs, describing the way the light falls, what Ettore captured in his images, is powerful way of telling of the story. It reminds us of the fascist dictators’ love of images. But it also has the effect of putting a distance between us and the most difficult passages. Two photographs bookend the text, but while they are both of women it is not clear why they were chosen. The narrative based in Ethiopia is interrupted every now and again by sections on his meditations on leaving his country. The only section that I found jarring was a long vision by Haile Selassie towards the end of the novel.

For the most part, Maaza Mengiste’s narrative is skilful and even lyrical. Her prose has rhythm and pace, even littered with Amharic and Italian words. She manages to convey what matters to the characters, the stories of the Ethiopian characters, the conflicts of Ettore and even Fucelli’s fears. These are people living through the upheavals of the 1930s. 

The plotlines wind around each other, and details are revealed, small actions and major battles without reducing the tension: the action of spies, the cook, the ascari, Haile Selassie in exile, and Hirut’s part in the armed struggle. The themes are played out at an individual level, Hirut and Ettore, but also at macro level: Italy vs Ethiopia, evil against humaneness.

Maaza Mengiste  

The author published her first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze in 2010. She was born in Addis Ababa in 1974, but has lived most of her life outside Ethiopia, and now teaches in New York. Her own grandmothers were involved in the war and her researches were extensive as she revealed in this podcast from History Extra (link here. )

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp

Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Podcast, Reading, Women of Colour

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

Those of us who have never had to leave our country because of fear of torture or death might assume that that refugees should express gratitude to those who provide them with a place of safety. Is that right? This book by former refugee Dina Nayeri questions this assumption, turns it round even. Not what should our attitude to refugees be, but how should refugees view their new home? There is, she says, no debt to repay. And if we want to build better communities that include refugees, then we should pay attention to those things that help build communities and good relationships. 

The Ungrateful Refugee

In her previous books Dina Nayeri drew on her own life to write her fiction: Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea. This book is not fiction. She tells the story of her escape with her mother and her brother from Iran when she was eight years old in 1988. They went first to Abu Dhabi as tourists and, when the visas ran out, to Italy where they were accommodated in a hotel, converted to a refugee camp, near Rome. Finally they were allowed to settle in Oklahoma. 

Her mother was a doctor, persecuted in Iran for her Christianity. Her father was a dentist, but arrested more than once for opium abuse. He did not accompany them, although he provided passports, money and contacts that enabled their flight. 

The difficulties of fitting into Oklahoma society were huge. Her mother’s medical credentials were never accepted. Her brother gained credibility because he played sports. Dina endured years of being an outsider in school, but became determined, fixated even, on going to Harvard, seeing it as the pathway to acceptance in the US. She has lived in other countries, recently moving from London to Paris. And has spent time in Amsterdam.

Her story is interwoven with more recent ones, often from men who found it harder than her family to escape to safety as more and more barriers are erected to keep refugees out. These men came from Syria or Afghanistan. She writes a great deal about immigration systems that make people wait, that try to catch out asylum seekers in minor inconsistencies. Often these people end up in detention with the threat of deportation unresolved. The effects of these policies, condemning good people to years of uncertainty and living on the margins, cannot be justified. Some do not survive. Others, by luck, manage to thrive.

The story of being saved

People in their new country want to hear refugees’ stories of escape, the stories of their gratitude. They act as if they are owed it. But they never ask about the life the family lived before they left Iran, the food, the family members, the family history and so on. The story is all about coming to the US, or Britain or the Netherlands.

Likewise, the assumption is that certain actions and behaviours by the immigrants will mean that refugees can fit right in. But coming to a new life is a relational thing: it requires a response. Those lucky enough to have been born in this place should shuffle up and welcome those who want to share their bounty; especially where they have been damaged, physically and/or mentally by their home country. Communities, new families, new relationships, social, economic, political connections, these will create a sense of having a place in the new country. 

We need each other to make a community – the immigrant can’t transform by sheer will.  … A lasting, progressive kind of assimilation requires reciprocation. It is mutual and humble and intertwined with multiculturalism, never at odds with it. It’s about allowing newcomers to affect you on your native soil, to change you.  (341-2)

Instead  of reciprocity, the onus has all been on the incomer, and made more difficult by an increase in hostility to refugees, in government policies and attitudes among some groups in some countries. I attended a lecture and discussion recently on refugee literature, for which this book was recommended reading. It was suggested that people who are hostile feel they are too close to becoming refugees themselves. 

I think that something darker is at work. Refugees are reminders to hostile people of the fragility of their lives; but more significantly refugees remind us of the shame and destruction inflicted by our countries’ foreign policies, that our countries have contributed to situations that the refugees are fleeing. Think of the refugees from Viet Nam, those who went to the US (see for example The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which we also discussed in that session. You can find my reaction to these brilliant short stories here.) 

Look at the chaos in those middle eastern countries in which the US and UK have been militarily involved: Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq … We can be ashamed too of our lack of generosity towards people in difficulties. And there is a strong thread of racism in all this. For these reasons, shame and racism in particular, the government in the UK perpetuates the hostile environment to keep refugees out. And sections of our society support that.

I was pleased to hear Dina Nayeri say in an interview that in her experience Londoners were responding positively to the changing population in the city, to the presence of refugees in their community. She said that she thought the people of London might be at odds with their government on this. (Interview on Perspectiveon breaking down misconceptions about immigrants, September 2019).

Thanks to Trudi Tate at Literature Cambridge for the on-line session on Refugee Literature. 

The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

My experience of facing children with unfamiliar names began when in 1972 Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda. Some of the families arrived in Coventry, and some of their children began attending the school where I taught history. At the time it seemed to me that a name is the only thing a young person brings to school that is theirs. We had to learn unfamiliar names.

All my professional life I have found it hard to learn names, but it is important for every person, a way of showing respect. So I was shocked to learn that a child, born in Wigan in 1967, but immediately taken into care, was renamed Norman by the social services. His mother had given him the Amharic word for why as his name: Lemn. This was the first act in a history of offensive behaviours that affected this child as he grew up in care. This is the treatment he describes in his memoir: My Name is Why.

My Name is Why

Lemn Sissay’s mother was an unmarried Ethiopian student who had to return home soon after his birth in 1967 because her father was ill. She refused to sign adoption papers for the child. Contact between her and Wigan Social Services Department was lost over time. He was taken into care by Wigan Children’s Department and renamed Norman. Perhaps they thought that as they were not able arrange for an adoption a less strange name would make it more likely that a mixed race child would be found a suitable foster home.

He was fostered by a couple who had no children at that time. Initially the placement was successful and three more children were born into the family. As he entered adolescence relationships began to break down as the parents were rather strict.

Over the next few years Lemn was placed in accommodation that was more and more restrictive and unsuitable. He was also nicknamed Chalky White – cruel playground humour that was common and tolerated in those days. He became more and more unhappy, began to do badly at school, and developed depression. In part this was because he believed that both his mother and his foster family had rejected him. Towards the end of his time in care at 18 he discovered that his mother had wanted him and that his name was neither Norman nor Chalky, but Lemn, the Amharic word for ‘why’. 

The short chapters are illustrated with extracts from the files from Wigan, much of it from his sympathetic social worker, Norman Mills. It took 30 years for these files to be prised out of the local authority. They illustrate the lack of departmental understanding or care for the children for whom they had responsibility, and the racism that informed the decisions taken on his behalf, beginning with his name. 

Each chapter starts with four lines of verse, perhaps written at the time, that also illuminate his emotional state. The ‘happy ever after’ part of this sad story is that Lemn Sissay has overcome these initial disadvantages caused by the actions of the social services. He has become an acclaimed poet.

A connection with this story

Many of the schools in which I worked in the ‘70s-‘90s were in run down places in Coventry, Rugby and London. There were always children in care, and always children of mixed race attending the schools. And there is continued concern that the achievement of these children remains too low, and that schools are less and less able to provide adequate support for those who need it.

During the same time my mother was a social worker, specializing in child care in Leeds and in Essex. She would have recognised the situation described in this memoir and how the young Lemn was treated. She believed passionately in listening to young people, in enabling them to speak out, now – fashionably – to have ‘a voice’. And so she would have been pleased that there is a mention of WHO CARES in this book, an organisation that supported young people to speak up, to speak out. 

The Sunday Times reviewer called My Name is Why ‘an extraordinary story’, and while some of it is, the shame is that the lack of care and racism he experienced has been experienced by so many other children in care. Sadly it is not an extraordinary story. 

As I finished this book I read about the large number of children ‘looked after‘ by local authorities who are currently placed in unregulated accommodation because there is a shortage of placements. Such lack of care and oversight has been implicated in the county lines recruitment as well as leaving many young people vulnerable to other criminal and to sexual exploitation. The care system is under severe threat. Here is the link to the article:

Revealed: thousands of children in care placed in unregulated homes [from Guardian 26.12.19]

This book then is a reminder of how things were. It confirms that personal success can still emerge from difficulties. But it must also serve as a warning about how plausibly justified inhumane treatment can be, especially to vulnerable young people. We need to be careful in every sense.

My Name is Why: a memoir by Lemn Sissay (2019) Canongate. 193pp

2 Comments

Filed under Books, poetry, Reading, Reviews

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About half a century ago I went skiing during the school holidays in the newly opened resort of Aviemore in the Cairngorms in the highlands of Scotland. I was with a group of young friends and my brother heroically drove our Bedford van the whole way from South Wales. I chiefly remember the bitter cold in the newly erected dormitories. Was there any heating in that building? And relentless damp fog. And the nightlife, which was boozy and fun. Of the Cairngorms I saw almost nothing. I have never been skiing again.

I have learned more about the Cairngorms from Nan Shepherd’s short book, The Living Mountain, than I did on that visit long ago. She writes about the fog, the mist, and the cold. And she writes about discovering the mountains at other times of year and in other weathers. And in other ways. She loved them.

The Living Mountainby Nan Shepherd

Like many people I was made aware of the existence of this book when I read Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. I wanted to read it from that moment and now the time has arrived. My good friend Jane gave me a copy for my birthday, and my book group will discuss Nan Shepherd’s biography by Charlotte Peacock (Into the Mountain) in a few weeks.

The substance ofThe Living Mountain is twelve chapters each exploring an aspect of the Cairngorms: the plateau, water, mist, sleep, life, the senses and so on. I am amazed that a writer can so fully convey the sense of a place. The writing digs deeply into her love of the Cairngorms and her extensive experience of exploring them. She offers us more than a version of what she knows of the place. She also explains how she came to experience the mountains, how she has learned to be in the living mountain.

The title reveals her sense of the connectedness of all aspects of the mountain. It is a living thing; not just a series of summits to be conquered, not just a host for the fauna, flora and humankind. But also the geology, the topography, the weather and the deep history of the granite range. She was describing an ecosystem before the phrase was coined.

As I have indicated, her precious gift to the reader is that she teaches us that there are other ways to enjoy the mountains than to rush to the summits, or make heroic climbs. Rather, people can perceive the mountains through all their senses, and especially by sleeping and awakening in them.

Respect for the natural world, approaching it with humility and openheartedness, learning to use all the senses, sometimes just being quiet, this is what Nan Shepherd teaches us.

Once, on a night of such clear cold silence, long past midnight, lying awake outside the tent, my eyes on the plateau where an afterwash of light was lingering. I heard in the stillness a soft, an almost imperceptible thud. It was enough to make me turn my head. There on the tent pole a tawny owl stare down at me. I could just discern his shape against the sky. I stared back. He turned his head about, now one eye upon me, now the other, then melted down into the air so silently that had I not been watching him I could not have known he was gone. To have heard the movement of the midnight owl – that was rare, it was a minor triumph. (96-7)

Her writing in this book has a particular quality: it is often in the use of a very sensual and unexpected adjective in her descriptions. ‘clear, cold silence’ and ‘melted down into the air’ in the previous extract. Also::

tang of height (9) a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped (12), water is speaking (22), whips of wind (37), the thin silver singing among the last trees that tell me the tits are there (68).

And it is her philosophical approach that may of her readers find great pleasure. Here is her final paragraph.

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that takes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain. (108)

This classic study of the mountains was written at the end of the Second World War but it seems that Nan Shepherd did not believe there was a market for such a book so it was not published until much later – 1977.

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) was a feminist, who lived all her life in North Deeside, and never married. She did adopt a child. Her life was unconventional. Having graduated from the University of Aberdeen, she taught English Literature at a teacher training college. And she wrote three novels, all based in her home area.

There is a long and very helpful introduction by Robert Macfarlane in the Canongate edition.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherdfirst published in 1977. I used the edition from Canongate with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. 114pp

Please re-subscribe to this blog to receive email notifications of future posts. Enter your email address in the box. Recent difficulties with this blog resulted in the loss of my previous database.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Mass Observation and the writer

Mass Observation sounds like something George Orwell invented for 1984, but actually it is an invitation to pro-social writing. In the last 80 years people have been providing their observations of everyday life, what they hear, see and experience in their own worlds and writing it down it for the Mass Observation Archives. You write and give it away, yes, for free. It’s like a combination of blood donation and planting saplings. You don’t benefit, and indeed the outcomes of your donation might not be seen for years.

A Brief History

Mass Observation was set up in 1937 by Tom Harrisson (anthropologist), Charles Madge (poet and journalist) and Humphrey Jennings (film maker) to support ‘anthropology of ourselves’. They set out to collect material about the everyday life of British Islanders. The Worktown Project, for example, collected material in Bolton.

We are studying the beliefs and behaviour of the British Islanders … the function of Mass-Observation is to get written down the unwritten laws and to make the invisible forces visible … [From First Year’s Work by Mass Observation 1938]

In the Second World War civilian life was studied using surveys and observations. But after the war the organisation moved more into consumer research.

The Archives were transferred to the University of Sussex in the 1970s and Mass Observation was re-launched in 1981, continuing to add to the archives of everyday experiences and making them available for research.

A panel of volunteers have been answering specific questions every year since 1981. These have ranged from questions about Being Overweight, Using the Telephone, Body Piercing and Tattooing, responses to General Elections, and most recently to the EU Referendum one year on. Applications to become volunteers are only accepted in particular categories.

Since 2000 Mass Observation has made 12th May its special day by inviting anyone to send an account of their day.

Books and Mass Observation

Not surprisingly many academic publications are produced from this rich resource. While writing The New Age of Ageing, the authors attended research conferences, including one where a researcher drew on the archives to explore how attitudes to the old had and had not changed.

And there are also publications for a more general market. Here are two.

Nella Last’s War: the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49’ (1981) Edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. Published by Profile Books. Living in Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, Nella Last documented her war-time daily life for Mass Observation. It is touching, moving and at times very funny.

Victoria Wood brought Nella Last to a wider audience in 2006 with her adaptation for tv: Housewife 49.

The second book is A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. I posted my review on this blog here.

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries which she began when she was 15. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). The diaries lack hindsight. We know what happened, but those living through those times did not know how their world would change. It’s a long book, but full of wit, humour and humanity. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

For more on this splendid resource, making the invisible visible, writing down the unwritten laws visit their website at www.massobs.org.uk

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Writing

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

Jean Pratt was 15 when she began her diaries.

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later. (Saturday 18th April 1925)

She did write it for years and years, sixty-one years, until 1986. And it is awfully amusing to read it later. The version by Simon Garfield is necessarily edited, yet is still over 700 pages. But she lived long. She did not always prosper.

History

Most history, as we know it, was written by men, and about men. When I was at school our teachers tried to break away from the rote learning of dates, events involving famous men. Their approach, to try to understand what had happened, influenced my decision to read history at university. There I came in to contact with the great EP Thomson (Making of the English Working Class) and came to see that what interested me was the ordinary, the everyday.

We shall discover in time that history is made by people. It is not a series of reigns, battles, and party politics, but an unending story of events created by living people moved by emotions, ideals, passions …

We shall learn not that the Duke of Marlborough won the battle of Blenheim in 1704 and so saved Vienna from the Elector of Bavaria and the line of James II from being restored in England, but why this battle was fought. We shall ask questions back and back until we come to the motives that governed the actions of people. We shall find them – the people, crippled with jealousy and greed and fear; we shall ask why and go seeking further. (Monday 28th October 1940)

I am old enough that my childhood is now history, post war history. I am interested enough in history to want to read about those things that affected me, such as the post war years. Here is a great resource.

Jean Pratt

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). Her mother died just before the diaries begin, and her father just as the Second World War broke out. She grew up in Wembley, her father was an architect, and she had an older brother who soon went off to work abroad for the Cable and Wireless Company.

She was a woman of her time, ruefully reflecting, from time to time, that she was one of the 3 million ‘surplus women’ of her generation. She never married, although she dearly wished to. The phrase ‘surplus woman’ reflects the view of the time that a woman is only of value when married to a man. Jean argued against this position, but felt it emotionally. She also reflected on her requirement for a companionship in marriage, a man she could respect. She met few men like this.

The question of marriage. I cannot help now and then reflecting that there is much in what N. [a friend] preaches (and Joan, but with less virulence) – that marriage is not necessarily the only fulfilment for a woman. I have always found ordinary day-to-day living with someone else fearfully irksome. I enjoy my solitude and independence and take it now so much for granted that when I get these spams for ‘love’ and marriage I don’t take into account what it would be like to have to adjust myself to someone else day after day, however deeply in love I might be. I am a self centred selfish creature – it is so much easier, so much more comfortable and convenient to live alone.

And yet, and yet … No one has ever wanted (or said so at least) to live with me. That is what at forty makes me feel such a failure, that I have made such a poor show of my personal life. All my lovers slip away, as DB has done, without saying goodbye. Away they go, ghostly, unsatisfying, across the sea, to their death in a car, to study medicine, to Australia, to write plays, and that is the end. (Friday 21st October 1949)

As a young woman she took courses at London University to become and architect and then switched to journalism. She made many friends at this time, friends to whom she remained loyal until death. At the start of the war she had not yet made a career for herself, and rented a cottage in Burnham Beeches in Surrey, where she lived for the rest of her life.

To support herself during the war she took up work in High Duty Alloy Company, as well as volunteering with the Red Cross. After she tried to earn a living through writing, taking in paying guests in her cottage, and finally ran a small local bookshop, specialising in books about cats. Money problems dogged her throughout her life, although she was able to buy Wee Cottage eventually.

Burnham Beeches pond

The times

Jean Pratt lived through the most interesting of times. Society was changing, and she records her own beliefs, her explorations of new ideas, and reflects some of the contradictions and shifting attitudes of the time. Her attitude towards sex and marriage, for example, might have shocked her mother. She flirted with socialism and Fabianism before finding a roost in the Liberal Party. She sought psychoanalysis to help her with her dissatisfactions as early at 1939. She loved to have her fortune told, and believed in faith healing for a while.

The defining events of her lifetime were those of the Second World War. Just about to enter her 30s when it began, England had changed utterly by the time it ended. As early as 1934 she was trying to understand what it would mean. Remember she was an architectural student at the time.

War … war … the muttering goes on on all sides. War in the air. England’s lovely countryside devastated. No escape anywhere.

Yet supposing it happened. Bombs dropping, bombs bursting away the slums of London and Leeds, and the dirt and depression of all our big cities. Life will be lost of course, blood will flow in the streets, beauty will be desecrated. But afterwards – for it couldn’t last long this war in the air – if any of us have survived, if any of us can still pick up the torn threads of our lives and go on, what a magnificent chance for us to begin again. Given men of foresight and wisdom and sensitiveness, we have every opportunity of creating an age more golden than the Elizabethan. (Thursday 26th July 1934)

One of the charms of the diaries is that they lack hindsight. We know what happened, but as the war years dragged on those living through those times could not have known how long it would last, or what the effects would be on their lives.

It’s a long book, but is full of wit, humour, humanity and a questioning stance. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. 714pp

Related posts.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (November 2016). A Blitz memoir.

To subscribe and receive email notification of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

I grew up with Margaret Drabble’s novels, keeping step as she pushed the boundaries with A Summer Bird Cage and The Millstone, looking at the lives of intelligent young women in the 60s. The Dark Flood Rises is her 20th novel and still she is asking questions that concern me, and people of my age. This novel is about growing older and facing death in the 21st Century.

The title is taken from DH Lawrence’s The Ship of Death.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

Has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

302-dark-flood-cover

This is the 24th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can see the complete list of reviews and readers recommendations on the page About the Older Women in Fiction Series at the top of the blog.

‘What I do worry about is living’

Margaret Drabble wrote about death and approaching death in an article in the Guardian in October just before the publication of this novel. She referred to ‘the delusion of an afterlife’, no longer shared by many, if it ever was. But we still ‘struggle with the meaning of death’, she suggests. And she has this to add about increased longevity, faced by many of us.

Through our mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a biological phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death. We can no longer look forward to the possibility of a sudden, unexpected, merciful release, or falling asleep in bed reading a book (as my mother did), or ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Nor can we make plans to celebrate our departure as a grand culmination of our life’s endeavours, with gracious and grateful and possibly public farewell. That’s because we know that officious folk are going to strive to keep us alive for as long as they possibly can, until we can no longer enjoy anything. Just to prove that hey can. [Guardian 29th October 2016]

I disagree with much of this, believing we should celebrate increased longevity and take advantage of it in others as well as in ourselves. Indeed I have co-written about this and published a book on it this year. (The New Age of Ageing).

But increased longevity does mean paying more attention to that period we call old age. ‘What I do worry about is living,’ says Margaret Drabble. I agree with her. This is new territory, and as the author has said, (in the Paris Review in 1978) it is the function of fiction to explore it, and she has made an accessible approach with The Dark Flood Rises.

A summary

Fran and older people connected to her, and some younger ones, look at death. Fran is in her 70s but fit, caring for her bedbound ex-husband by preparing and delivering meals for him. Her son Christopher lost his partner suddenly in the Canaries. He returns there and is befriended by two gay men, Bennett Carpenter renown but sinking slowly into genteel disability, and Ivor increasingly acting as Bennett’s carer rather than his partner. They are trapped by European economics, and the failure to invest when they had capital. Fran’s daughter Poppet is concerned about the death of the earth. Two of Fran’s older female friends face and then undergo death.

Fran

It is Fran’s story with which the novel opens and to which we return at frequent intervals. She is doing ageing very well: she has a no-nonsense approach to it, keeps healthy and active, even undertaking paid work advising on meeting the housing needs of the elderly. This is a good device for some discrete observations about how these needs are widely neglected. Fran is determined not to become a burden on others, in fact to remain useful. She is, we can see, doing all the right things. This does not make her happy (see below for the opening paragraph).

Margaret Drabble is not afraid to enumerate the physical aspects of the ageing body. Or to refer to those things that are no longer problematic. There is a kind of tongue in cheek pleasure in the writing about these, for example the dream Fran has about Tampax. She has driven to a hotel the day before and in the morning she puts her reaction to the dream in order.

… she wonders whether it had sprung from the redness of the meal of the night before, or from her motorway thoughts about Macbeth, or from some new and about-to-be-apprehended aspect of time and the ageing experience.

For ageing is, says Fran to herself gamely as she presses the lift button to go down to her breakfast, a fascinating journey into the unknown. Or that’s one rather good way of looking at it. The thin flow was the blood of life, not of death, reminding her that she is still the same woman, she who once had been the bleeding girl. (20)

The writing

The novel is not divided into chapters, but into short segments. And it is written in the present tense. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, from Fran’s point of view.

She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in the world will prove to be ‘You bloody old fool’ or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, ‘you fucking idiot’. As the speeding car hits the tree, or the unserviced boiler explodes, or the smoke and flames fill the hallway, or the grip on the high guttering gives way, those will be her last words. She isn’t to know for sure that it will be so, but she suspects it. In her latter years, she’s become deeply interested in the phrase ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’. Or no woman come to that. ‘Call no woman happy until she is dead.’ (1)

The present tense narration brings a curious slow but immediate impact. It reminds us that these people live alongside us, are us. Time moves onwards, but we can linger in this time of life. The prose has a slightly superior tone, which may be intended to represent the mindset of this group of older people.

The novel does not stay with Fran, but roams among the other characters as they pass their days in the shadow of death’s approach. We see the preoccupations of Fran’s women friends, her ex-husband Claude, Bennett and Ivor trapped in the Canaries and attend a hospital bed and a funeral or two.

43 Wreath & Hide

There are many erudite references in The Dark Flood Rises. One I especially enjoyed was to Elizabeth Taylor, and her novel A Wreath of Roses. Margaret Drabble is very well read and her well-educated cast of characters have various interests which enable her to refer to many other writers and what they said about ageing and dying.

There is a great deal of humour, and pathos, in the doings of these characters. There is selflessness and selfishness, affluence and poverty, friendship and admiration. Some of these people have been very eminent in their professional lives in earlier times. Bennett Carpenter is a notable historian of Spain. Claude was a highly regarded surgeon. Some of the older people are immersing themselves in rather narrow interests. For example, Jo develops a researcher’s interest in novels about marriage to the DWS (deceased wife’s sister). Claude wants to listen to endless Maria Callas, while cuddling his carer. Many of these old people are lonely, have lost partners and are fearful of intruding upon their children’s lives.

And I want to mention that the story references population movements too, especially across the Mediterranean and especially the treacherous, desperate voyages that see the end of so many lives as people escape violence.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble, published by Canongate in 2016. 326 pp

Related posts

Margaret Drabble’s article in the Guardian, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I worry about living’ October 2016.

My review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.

The previous post in the older woman in fiction series was A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction