Sunday, 26 May 2019

Invincible Spirits/ Dipika Mukherjee

I have no language in Itaparica, for I speak very little Portuguese, yet less than two months on this Brazilian island on a Sacatar Foundation Fellowship and I'm already feeling at home

My face is a template on which people write ethnicity. In this small island too, I look local, and a translator in Salvador asks whether I feel the discrimination because I look indigenous. In Malaysia, Tamilians think I’m too proud to speak Tamil, in Texas a Mexican woman once berated me outside a Houston megastore for not speaking Spanish; I have a face and coloring that blends into many places, but here the island smiles easily.

Cecília Meireles, the Brazilian poet who visited India in 1953, wrote: As far as Indian life is concerned, I confess it seems as familiar to me as if I had always lived here. She published a book-length collection of impressionistic poems titled, Poemas Escritos na India on Indian cities (including Calcutta) and Indian personalities, and wrote chronicles about her trip to India. I am channeling Meireles in reverse, feeling this sense of déjà vu she felt, so far away from the home. 

I am housed in a large beachside mansion with tall gates and resident guards but when I open the gate to go outside, the destitution of this island is evident in the half-built structures, and large families living together in small tenements. If it weren’t for the bahian statues placed on windows -- a female form gazing into the distance, waiting -- I would think I was in back in the crumbling much-beloved parts of old Calcutta coexisting with the new.

This island has the same invincibility of spirit, and simmers with the same multiplicity of stories and oral storytellers. The stories may be factual, or fabulous, or magical, but they are all woven through the breeze and the sand of this land and have persisted through the centuries of slavery and colonialism and unbearable loss.

Thus is this land is permeated with heft of saudade, a quintessential Portuguese word that is both nostalgia or profound melancholy, often with the subliminal knowledge that what is lost may never return. English translates it as “missingness”, but that does not convey a recollection of feelings which once brought intense joy, and even in memory, still triggers the senses. It is not Pamuk's hüzün of Istanbul, for it goes beyond a communal melancholy; it has no synonym in any of my four languages. Saudade is a state simultaneously evoking happiness for what was, and the sadness that it is now past, and Brazil commemorates the day of Saudade on January 30th.

I came here to write my third novel but, steeped in this sense of saudade, I found myself working on my first book of creative nonfiction instead. I found Calcutta at every corner, and although the Portuguese settled in Bandel in Bengal for some time, it is Goa, which was a Portuguese colony until 1961, where there is still a street named Rua de Saudades. Here, in Itaparica, I find Calcutta everywhere.

The 2017 Oxfam report details the huge gap between the country’s richest and the rest of the population: Brazil’s six richest men have the same wealth as poorest 50 percent of the population of around 100 million people and the country's richest 5 percent have the same income as the remaining 95 percent. Brazil feels like India, with the same colorism, and wealth jostling with poverty. And as in the City of Joy, there is the great effervescence of community spirit in celebrating the spiritual.

Itaparica’s most famous writer is João Ubaldo Ribeiro, a homegrown hero who has a street named after him, as well as educational institutions. An Invincible Memory, published in English in 1989, is 504 pages of a family saga that spans 400 years. Brazil’s history of cannibalism, murder, slavery, whaling, colonialism and much more is detailed in a lyricism that is gorgeous, but also feels weighty. He uses history and magic realism, and is described as a cross between Melville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (The author's bilingualism is remarkable as he wrote this book in a year, then translated it into English himself, a process that took another three years).

This book is an excellent gateway into Brazilian literature, for as I soon discovered, there is a paucity of Brazilian books in translation. An Invincible Memory is the story of a 19th century paterfamilias and conman, long-suffering passive-aggressive wives, priests and poets and soldiers and slaves and leaders, and some vivid native characters and sorcerers and bandit queens. A bestseller in Brazil, the novel is still relevant to the understanding of the the terrible cruelty inflicted by whites on blacks, mulattos and Indians, although the multiplicity of voices can get wearying for the foreign reader.

As much as fiction can hold up a mirror to the reality of Brazil, this book opens doors to an unfamiliar world in a criollismo style, offering snapshots of deep prejudices as well as archetypes:

They were sorcerers, that’s what they were, witches of the night, wizardly as can be, people versed in the secrets of the Crystal Stone, of the power of souls and of the deities brought over from Africa under the worst conditions, people adept at using wild plants to infuse the most terrible poisonous philters and the most irresistible love potions, at sewing and binding spirits through all kinds of sortileges, at seeing the future in all kinds of presages, at seeing the magical side of all things. (109)

This island stills holds the ruins of an ancient church from the times Ribeiro writes about, for Our Lord Of Vera Cruz was built by Jesuits in 1560. It is now cleaved through by a gameleira tree, sacred to the religion of candomblé. This tree possibly keeps the ruin erect, an ironic fusion of the Jesuit faith and the Afro-Brazilian religion that the current authorities are still trying to ban. There is the heft of history in the candomblé tradition that continues to flourish even as it is under siege, but amidst the beauty of these ruins, under the canopy of leaves that soars like a nave into the sky, there is also sadness. The susurration of the wind through the gameleira leaves, passing through the ancient cemetery bordering the ruins, drizzles bereavement.

I attended two candomblé celebrations, one to honour Exú, and the other Xangô. Then I interviewed a House Mother for Iansã; she ended our meeting by casting cowrie shells into an enchanted circle of beads and reading my fortune. 

Paulo Coelho is the best-selling Brazilian novelist of all time, and his sentimental books offer an easy band-aid for modern angst. But I wanted to find the Brazilians who write eviscerating political literature. I found, Garopaba mon amour, published in the book Pedras de Calcutta (1977) by the writer Caio Fernando Abreu, and there it was again: Calcutta. I swallowed this story whole in one reading. Abreu writes about resistance to state violence and residual trauma at a time when a dictatorial government ruled Brazil, and I discovered his work, translated beautifully by Jennifer Alexander, in Becoming Brazilfeaturing the works of two dozen Brazilian writers published as an edition of Mānoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing.

Brazil has fired my imagination in ways I did not anticipate. In the almost two months here, I have worked on three pieces of non-fiction, written a couple of poems, and had a short story accepted for Chicago Quarterly Review’s 25th anniversary issue. 

And finally, the work I came here for: I have 81188 words of my manuscript. These are raw unedited words, chapters as placeholders, thoughts rambling and unfocused. Certainly one third or much more will be excised in rewrites. But it feels like I have accomplished what I came here to do, and I have been listening to Bengali poetry being sung through the breezy Itaparican nights while writing. I will leave enriched by a list of Brazilian books to be read. I wish there was more available in translation from this fascinating country for I am as intoxicated as the madman in Salgado Maranhão’s poem (translated by Alexis Levitin)Delirica X:

A madman sniffing
at the moon
captures instances of you.
And everywhere, forever,
fire, water, time, and breath

Dipika Mukherjee’s work, focusing on the politics of modern Asian societies, includes the novels Shambala Junction (which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction), and Ode to Broken Things (longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize as Thunder Demons). She has been mentoring Southeast Asian writers for over two decades and has edited five anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction. She lives in Chicago and is affiliated to the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University and is Core Faculty at Story Studio Chicago. She is currently a Sacatar Foundation Fellow.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

The Walled Orchard: A Review --- Susan Price

The only real regret I have about growing so old is the fact that I shan't live long enough to read the scathing dismemberment of the clowns who presently infest our public life by a historian who has access to all the evidence and can expose every lie, reveal the source of every pay-off and back-hander, can trace the cause and effect of every stupid blunder. But then, if I could last long enough to read the book, the rage induced by it would certainly finish me off.

I've been taking refuge in historical novels. I enjoy them. I enjoy trying to imagine myself in a world different to mine in almost every way, and understanding that world from a different mind-set.

Tom Holt is best known for writing comic fantasies -- a Rhine Maiden twisting modern men around her little finger, a modern international company being managed by a dwarf from the Nibelungenlied. If you want to read a darkly comic satire on office politics and how they're merely a pale reflection of the true power struggle between immortal gods and nymphs, Tom Holt is your man.

The Walled Orchard, Tom Holt
After enjoying several of his fantasies, I came across his The Walled Orchard, which is very different. It's set in the Athens of Socrates (who has a minor walk-on part) and is an exceptionally good historical novel. On first reading it, many years ago, and reading it again recently, I was surprised that Holt isn't far better known as a historical novelist.

The thing that struck me about The Walled Orchard both times I've read it,  is that there's no gasp about it.  I think most historicals have a gasp: -- either a gasp of horror and thankfulness that things were so horrible then and aren't any longer, or else a gasp of longing for a lost age of more Grace, Grandeur, Freedom or whatever the author imagines the past had and the present doesn't.
Wikimedia: Frankie Boyle

But the narrative of The Walled Orchard does not gasp. I can't think of another historical novel that so completely envelops you in its time.  It finds ancient Athens completely ordinary and rather grubby, every day, annoying and disappointing. Just like today, in fact. The book cares nothing for the future or its judgement.  It's funny, scathing, angry -- reading it is like listening to some honest, forthright and witty person raging about the bunch of numpties that have somehow inveigled themselves into power in our day. In fact, think Frankie Boyle in chiton and sandals.

The narrator of The Walled Orchard is Eupolis, a gentleman farmer whose vocation is writing comedies for the festival of Dionysus -- he hasn't much time for tragedies, finding them tiresome in the extreme, but he does know Euripedes a bit and is willing to gossip about him. (He also knows Aristophanes, his rival in the comedy stakes. He hates him.)

Eupolis' stock in trade is making fun of Athens' famous democracy and its famously democratic politicians and much of the book is a great rant about the stupidity and greed of the politicians and the (possibly) even greater stupidity and greed of the citizens -- not the slaves or the poor or the women, of course. They don't have votes and don't count in this fine democracy. (And Eupolis is fine with that.)

Eupolis admits to his own stupidity -- it led to him becoming embroiled in Athens' stupid, greedy attempt to conquer Sicily, which ended badly. The Athenian citzen chosen to be the army's general is ill and has no military experience whatsoever, while the Athenian navy and army are complacent and over-confident, certain that beating the Syracusans will 'be easy'. Oh, so easy.

Eupolis gives us an account of the Syracusan war, of a battle fought by night, where the Athenian army gets lost (several times) and then attacks itself and its allies (several times) because it can't tell who is who in the dark. It's both funny and appalling.

You can't help but be reminded of another bunch of incompetent, complacent boneheads, much nearer us in time and space, who are clattering around in the dark, attacking the wrong people and blaming everyone except themselves. Holt wrote the book 22 years ago but it's suddenly taken on a very contemporary ring.

Eupolis manages to get himself back to Athens, arriving before the news of the Athenian army's extermination. On learning about the defeat, and about the men and ships that have been lost, the city reels in shock -- and then looks round for a scapegoat. Its gaze falls on Eupolis.

There's much more to the book. The small details of everyday life in Athens are thick on every page but placed so deftly that you don't notice the skill with which they're introduced -- until you catch yourself believing that you're reading the memoirs of a man who lived that life, in that city and actually saw and did all these things.

Among all the down-to-earth, everyday gossip about what Euripides was really like, and how to improve your soil and increase your olive yield, and how to farm between Spartan invasions, there are a couple of supernatural episodes, which are unexpected and chilling.

Eupolis tells us how, as a boy, he nearly died in the plague outbreak that did kill his immediate family. He wakes, weak and dazed, in his deserted street and meets Dionysus, with whom he has a chat (recognising Him by His theatrical mask and prop leather phallus.) The God tells him that He kept Eupolis alive because He has a purpose for him. We'll meet again, says the God, and tells Eupolis where -- and they do meet there, in a thrown-away moment, all the more chilling for its sudden matter-of-factness. At this second meeting, Dionysus also informs him of a third and final meeting, which Eupolis is still awaiting in the book's closing pages.

After the plague leaves almost all his family dead, the young Eupolis finds himself rich from inheritances, in possession of enough land to join the city's upper classes. He not unnaturally concludes that Dionysus wants him to become a comic poet in His honour -- and he sets about serving the God by mocking and lambasting the city, its people and its politicians.

He hates Athens, he hates her stupid populace, he hates Tragedies and all other comic poets; he hates democracy and he hates his wife -- and he loves all of them, can't leave them, can't give them up.

Eupolis mentions that the plague has left him bald and with a twisted face -- he has a permanent, involuntary grin. His wife, Phaedra, a fearsome and unfaithful termagant, is beautiful when he first marries her but is later involved in a cart accident, where she is kicked in the face by a mule. Her broken jaw, badly set, leaves her with a permanent grin. So not only are they like an Athenian Punch and Judy, a knockabout stage comedy couple but they both grin like a couple of Comedy masks. Both of them mask their own natures too -- and perhaps Athens' theatre of noble tragedies and tragic heroes is a mask that hides the city's true spirit, which might be thought closer to the phalluses, scatology, abuse and violence of the comedies.

Comedy is always about real life, baseness and failure, while Tragedy is about the sublime: impossible Gods and heroes. Eupolis lives and ends his life as a comic hero -- a failure as a husband and a father, a playwright who knows his plays will be forgotten and who didn't even mean as much to His God as he thought he did. He advises us to heed the one thing he's learned in life which is: While travelling, go and have something to eat immediately and leave the sight-seeing until later. Then at least you've had a good meal.

The Walled Orchard certainly isn't a failure. It's impressive and it achieves this difficult thing: it makes you see ancient Athens as clearly and realistically as it's perhaps possible for us to see it: as completely ordinary and a bit squalid. No gasp at all. 

Tom Holt's other novels set in ancient Greece are also well worth a read:

can be found here.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Who cares if I've never seen Game of Thrones? Jo Carroll

Ah ... Game of Thrones. It's an excitement that has passed me by.

Why? Well, it's not on Freeview, and that's the only television I watch. And even that is only turned on before nine in the evening if it's something special.

'Think what you're missing,' I hear you cry. 'It costs next to nothing to pay for Sky, or Virgin, or Netflix ... all gateways to a world of wonderfulness.'

'But,' I reply, 'I spend enough time with screens. I write on a screen. I do a lot of my research on a screen. I catch up with the News on a screen. I drop by social media occasionally. And when that is done I want to look up from the screen and read a book, or go for a walk, or simply sit on my balcony and listen to the birds sing.'

Does this exclude me from the mainstream? Possibly. It reminds me of my schooldays. Unlike almost everyone else in my class, we didn't have a television until I was 16. This meant I felt shut out of vital discussions about Top of the Pops or Ready Steady Go. But I had one ally - one other girl with no television who could discuss The Navy Lark or Round the Horn. We were in a minority of two and it wasn't always comfortable.

That was then. Now - I feel, at times, comparably excluded. But this time it's my choice, and I'm happy with that.

If there's a problem, I see it as lying with those who look astonished when I admit I have no idea what they are talking about when they launch into a Game of Thrones discussion. I have no problem with their choices, yet it seems that my choice to read a book is enough to brand me a Luddite. 

Oh well, so be it. I'm sure I'm not alone in never having seen Game of Thrones - and good luck to all those who love it. 

If you want to read what I've been writing while Game of Thrones has enthralled millions, you can find The Planter's Daughter here.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self Publishing IX

For the last year or so, I have been listing examples of books that prove that self-publishing does not necessarily mean low-quality, lazy writing. Over the past year a few things have happened that prove my point.

In response to the Georgia Writers Association deciding to no longer accept self-published books for their Author of the Year Award (despite their once being praised for doing so),  The Southern Pen Bookshop of Monroe, Georgia, decided to sponsor its own award: The Georgia Independent Author of the Year Award, geared to writers of self-published and small press books, as the capstone event to their first annual writer's conference geared mainly for independent writers.

The conference was held this past weekend in Monroe, and I was proud to present a workshop on creating effective antagonists (adapted from this earlier blog post).

The conference was very informative, covering topics ranging from writing to marketing to legal issues. I was particularly surprised to see how well attended the conference was for such a small venue and for a first-year conference. There were attendees from all over Georgia, of course, but also few from as far away as New York.

I was also excited to learn that not only was the third volume of my Western fantasy series, Guns of the Waste Land, a finalist in the Historical Fiction Category of the award, but that I received Honorable Mention for it once the winners were announced.

This conference and this award hopefully imply that things are getting better for self-publishers and independent writers despite the narrow-minded opinions of The Georgia Writers Association.

Anyway, as Casey Kasem was so fond of saying: On with the Countdown!

Or: "Like, Zoinks, Scoob! Here we go again!"
Dream Weavers & Truth Seekers (series) by Cecilia Dominic

I am a sucker for mythology-based fantasy. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite living writers (so much so I was going to tell you my favorite novel of his and literally just spent an hour trying to narrow it down and failing. They're all great), primarily because he deftly weaves mythology (both his own as in the Sandman graphic novels, and traditional mythology, as in American Gods, Good Omens, and Stardust). That is essentially the same thing that draws me to Cecilia Dominic's series.

The series revolves around a plot by a group of Faerie and other supernatural beings, to insidiously regain control of the waking world through otherworldly portals connecting all of the "real" world through a chain of popular coffee houses that have sprung up all over the world: "The chain's fairy logo should have tipped us off."
Yes, that one.
Opposing this cabal are the Truth Seekers, a group of immortal magicians, led by none other than King Arthur's counselor, Merlin, and Arthur's forgotten aunt Margaret of Cornwall (or "Maggie" but never "Mags"), who protect the mortal realm from malignant supernatural incursion.

Though they try not to include mortals in their plans, inevitably those mortals with "strong" perception inevitably find themselves mixed up in them, usually through their own blundering. For example, Emma, the protagonist of the first story "Perchance to Dream," unknowingly accepts an invitation to the Dream Realm (aka the Collective Unconscious) when she agrees to share a cup of tea with a psychic reader. Phillippe, the protagonist of the second story, the novella Truth Seeker, finds himself lost in the portals after sneaking into the back of the coffee house on a dare.

There are two things that I really like about this series. The first, of course, is the masterful blend of the modern, realistic world and the mythology, primarily Greco-Roman and Celtic with other supernatural folklore such as vampires and ghosts. I mentioned Neil Gaiman earlier because his work, particularly Neverwhere and American Gods, is exactly what I thought about after reading the first two stories in the series. So often when writers attempt to blend fantasy and realistic elements, it becomes either heavy handed and distracting or so subtle the fantastic elements get lost. Dominic handles both aspects of her stories like a master, making the magical aspects feel like perfectly natural if uncommon qualities of the mundane world.

The stories themselves are really good, and each volume is self-contained. A lot of series claim this, but they're usually not so much. Dominic's stories truly are, and that leads me to the second thing that really sets this series apart for me: While it's true that each one is its own, individual story with beginning middle and definitive conclusion, the "real" story, the plot that ties the series together, about the beings from the dream world invading the mortal realm, happens off stage and between books. In the first tale, the supernatural antagonists are attempting to find a way into our world by manipulating the protagonist Emma, and even though she appears to thwart them, by the beginning of the next story, not only have they managed a way into our world, they have created magical portals linking almost every city in the world in order to provide themselves a way to travel within the mundane realm. The clues to how this was accomplished are implied and revealed within each story if the reader reads closely.

In short, this series is well worth your time, especially if, like me, you enjoy a smart, modern fantasy incorporating ancient myths and folklore into the normal, everyday world. At present there are four stories in the Dream Weavers & Truth Seekers series: a short story prequel, "Perchance to Dream"; a novella, Truth Seeker; and two full novels: Tangled Dreams and Web of Truth.

Give them a go; you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

A Listening Project: Ali Bacon finds her audio book a bit too relaxing

Ali Bacon out and about
Time was when I regularly listened to audio books  that was when I had a part-time job involving a half-hour commute - perfect for picking up a story and letting go of home or work preoccupations. This was some time ago, of course and my audio books were on cassette - sets of tapes encased in big library boxes and taking several hours of listening. For some reason after I left that job,  and even though I still spent considerable periods driving, I somehow lost the habit of audio books. Possibly this was because I had started writing and spent most journeys worrying over my own characters.

Remember these?
I do remember the pleasure of those journeys and how the narrat out and aboutor was as important as the book. I discovered a penchant for a quiet American voice, perhaps because I also like quiet American books. and particularly remember losing myself in the cult hit of the time The Bridges of Madison County, to the extent of arriving at work a bit hot under the collar! But I think my choices depended mostly on what was available on the library shelves. So I listened to a travelogue about the Hindu Kush and a fairly dull (Anita Brookner?) novel which I enjoyed just for the sound of Anna Massey reading it.

Fast forward thirty (ouch!) years and with several of my friends heavily into the audio book habit I think it's time to partake of this forgotten pleasure. On the other hand I'm not sure if it will suit me so rather than taking up the eternal offers from Audible I plump for our public library service which quaintly involves borrowing for a limited period and and having to wait for a copy of a favoured title to become available. These restrictions seem odd but I assume there are licensing issues and hey, it's FREE! It's relatively easy to download the app for my Libraries West account and sign up to audio books. 

Libraries West Audio Book Service
The service is provided by a third party Borrow Box and I'm now sure what selection criteria are operating. It looks like browsing works better than searching but I don't immediately see anything I fancy. On a whim I search on 'historical' and get a very good selection embracing genre and literary historical novels. Although those I fancy are all on loan and have to be reserved, I click on Helen Dunmore's Birdcage Walk. Hurrah! I love Dunmore and this is high on my TBR list. A couple of days later I have a message to say it's available. So far so good!

The book arrives when I'm on holiday and maybe a period of down time after a strenuous walk is not the best time to begin. The soothing experience of being read to sends me straight to sleep - twice! I quickly learn the options for rewinding. 

Back at home I start again in the car and I'm glad to say this  goes much better with no falling asleep at the wheel, although short journeys mean I don't get much listening time. Of course my phone is always with me so when Mr B is watching something not to my taste on TV I can get on with my knitting and listen as I click my needles. Even so I had forgotten how long it takes to listen to a book unabridged. I note I still have 6 hours left and when I stupidly  put down the knitting and let the Eurovision Song Contest play in the background, the inevitable occurs ... I hear the Netherlands won, but where did this new character spring from in my book? Time to rewind yet again. So yes, listening is relaxing - sometimes too relaxing!

Or is it the book? Dunmore is a favourite author (The Siege and Exposure particularly memorable) and this one is set in my home town of Bristol, but I'm not sure it's doing it for me. The narrator strikes me as efficient rather than engaging and a few chapters in I'm interested but not enthralled. Most of all, the listening experience doesn't let me ignore bits that seem repetitive, or skim over the extracts from pamphlets and newspaper reports which remind us of the historical and political context somewhat at the expense of narrative pace. Of course it's common knowledge amongst writers that reading aloud is a great way to see flaws in your own work, and though it's too early (5 hours to go!) to say this book is flawed, I can see that the audio format is an unforgiving one.

So at this point in my life I have yet to be totally won over by the audio book, but whether or not I finish Birdcage Walk (a sneak peak at reviews suggests I should) I think I will keep one on the go, while remembering all the while to stick to the knitting! 

In the Blink of an Eye, Ali Bacon's historical novel, is available in paperback and e-book from Linen Pressonline stores and all good bookshops.