Genius frustrated

The Heart is a Lonely HunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McCullers adopts an omniscient author pose as completely as the anonymous teller of fairy or folk tale, her sentences as rhythmic, martial, unequivocal as their subjects are opaque, suggestive, unnerving. They get inside your mind-corners like sand into your clothes and sandwiches on a windy day at the beach. Similarly, characters like Mick, superficially unattractive as people, soon fill my heart to bursting with love and sympathy. Mick’s fervent love for music and her desperate need to be sometimes alone, sometimes with others who can recognise her, are tragic and touching, yet can’t appear the least cloying in the aridity of McCullers’ prose and the harsh, rough texture of the lives she portrays. The impression is one of absolute control over atmosphere, but I never feel manipulated

McCullers always has orginal themes or an original angle on classic themes. Here, genius frustrated is explored tragically through Mick’s obvious gift and passion for music, which she has the narrowest possible opportunities to express and develop. I of course found it tempting to see this as a loss to the whole world but more importantly her hindrance hampers her self-actualisation, saps her effervescent mental energy and destroys her natural ecstasy. Mick is truly confined in a society that cannot offer what she needs to flourish.

Gender is another theme that McCullers approaches rebelliously aslant, asserting through restaurant owner Biff that ‘everyone is both sexes’ and demonstrating that there is little difference between male and female folks. Biff, and another male character, Antonapoulos, are both pictured sewing or knitting, and this weaving work draws attention to certain stereotypically ‘wifely’ or feminine aspects of their characters such as cooking for other men, having a skilled attention to detail and visual design, and a desire to care for children. McCullers unwrites the borders of gender by offering the vision of male competence in these areas, and by showing them at weaving work she perhaps suggests that men must do the work of bridging the gender gap and battleline carved out by (heteronormative settler colonial white supremacist capitalist) patriarchy, healing and combining genders as they bring together threads.

Biff bent close over his sewing and meditated on many things. He sewed skillfully, and the calluses on the tips of his fingers were so hard that he pushed the needle through the cloth without a thimble.

(Why must men do this feminist work? Because women already do ‘men’s work’ and occupy ‘male’ roles. Such roles are vaunted while ‘female’ roles are denigrated, and men rarely enter them. Only last week a woman commentator on a film awards event said ‘if you want to be taken seriously, don’t wear a ridiculous frock’. I dispute that it is feminist not to wear silly frocks. Feminism will have achieved something when a person wearing a ‘silly frock’ is ‘taken seriously’)

Having first met Mick climbing a roof in her shorts, I struggled to imagine her in long dresses, and almost felt that these less practical garments symbolised the constraints on her creativity, though this was not directly suggested.

The corrosive effect of poverty is another heartbreakingly illuminated theme; the outcome of a casual, ill-starred flaring of Mick’s brother’s incipient enculturation into male violence is economic tragedy. The episode is striking to me because I come away with the sense of Bubber’s innocence. McCullers thus crafts a highly complex situation that indicts the wider culture and the razor thin edge of the wedge of complicity. The aftermath gives weight to the terrible sense of dissolution in this portrait of the South, the waste and dissipation of energy embodied perhaps most poignantly by the politically ennervated Jake struggling with futile rage.

Fighting this dissolution is Dr Copeland, a black medical doctor (and vegetarian) tormented by the plight of black people in the South; mostly living in poverty, inadequately housed and ill-fed, they suffer from poor health and die young, wearing down the doctor’s optimism. Yet his torment is exacerbated by his inability to spread the commitment to ‘uplift’ the community through mutual support and education. He feels fury and loneliness at the internalised white supremacy expressed by his father-in-law:

‘I reason I will get to stand before Jesus with all my childrens… and kinfolks and friends and I say to him “Jesus Christ, us is all sad coloured peoples.” And he will place his holy hand upon our heads and straightway us will be white as cotton.’

The book contains some less gloomy images of black life, such as Dr Copeland’s pleasant house, where he holds a Christmas party, and his daughter Portia’s relationship with her brother and husband, who support each other and go out together for fun on Saturday nights, the men dressed in white suits – what a vision!

While for me Mick was by far the most compelling character and the story’s true centre of gravity, the narrative revolves more centrally around John Singer, an intelligent, generous and sociable deaf man who takes lodgings in Mick’s family’s guest house and eats in Biff’s restaurant. Since John does not speak, but is an attentive and sympathetic audience, all the other characters over-interpret his comprehension of them and project their wishes onto him. This device allows the reader to appreciate the severity of deprivation and the depth of needs that this society somehow functions with, but Singer has deep preoccupations of his own, quickly removed from the scene of the action but never ceasing to work on him. Singer’s love for his friend is almost farcical in its wasteful intensity; when he wrote the letter mentioning a conference event where he might meet other deaf people who he could sign with I almost groaned out loud at his ‘of course I could never go without you’. But what business is it of mine? The heart is a lonely hunter.

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Carrying the Keys

The Woman from TantouraThe Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This narrative opens with a gloriously ambiguous, searingly romantic image that heralds a lyrical portrait of life in the narrator’s idyllic home town on the Palestinian coast. The seeds of a story are sown and I joyfully anticipate a woman-centred tale of love, tradition and modernity set in this paradise and told in the voice of a poet. By whetting our appetite for this tale, by showing that it would be worth the telling as well as worth the living, Ashour imparts bitter anguish and loss when that future is torn away by the Nakba. That the witness and victim whose eyes we peer through on the Catastrophe is a fourteen year old girl allows the full emotional impact of destroyed hopes to crash into my heart, while the more gruesome facts, the historical facts, that the people of the town were turned out of their houses by soldiers who stole valuables, lined men up and slaughtered them, are numbly reported, too impossibly horrific to be conveyed by adjectives.

I found the realism of Ruqayya’s narrative breathtaking, and caught myself constantly forgetting that it is fiction. Part of what gives it the fire of truth is the reality of the events that shape it, never as a backdrop, but as hubs and spokes of relationships and hooks and poles of the warp and weft of daily life where Ashour maintains her foci. Realism is also created through Ruqqaya’s patchy, selective recall, which so exactly resembles geniune memoir. However, this apparently simple, though brilliantly deployed and effective device, is counterpointed and complicated by stylistic and structural complexity.

For example, without warning, only a few pages into the novel, we are with Ruqayya as a grandmother, telling stories and describing an annual gathering, in a lucid, conversational style distinct from the sonorous, charged sections of recall. In this scene, she also abruptly answers several of the broad questions about her own future that the initial scenes, particularly the funny and touching recollection of her mother’s fears, had set me wondering about. Narrative convention led me to expect a measured, ponderous unfolding of these plot points; but this is not allowed to happen, the plot is severed by the occupation like lives and limbs.

In my opinion, the power of this work is that Ashour refuses the occupation – she insistently draws us (not uncritically) back to life, to the gendered spaces of domesticity, to an inner world of contemplation. There is a passage of description of the sun setting over the sea in Tantoura at the start of the novel that is extraordinarily gorgeous and original, where Ruqayya reads and paints the landscape full of ambivalence, creating a shimmering, fragmentary surface that reflects the agitation of the novel’s timeline and subject, but also itself forms a break in the flow of the plot as dictated by the violent agenda of an occupying force. This fiercely beautiful interlude underlines the endurance of nature and Palestinians’ relationships with the land. The text itself, like the reiteration of memory, is an act of resistance. Indeed, telling the ‘female’ perspective is resistance, since the social domain embodies and reproduces that which is worth fighting for in the right of return. I was reminded of this video of Rafeef Ziadeh speaking her poem ‘we teach life, sir’

Presenting her novel as a memoir unwillingly written by an intelligent but not highly educated woman whose violently exiled life contains, alongside unspeakable suffering and grief, many joys and countless acts of love, care, friendship, generosity, Ashour blazingly illuminates the will to endure and live above and beyond the misery of waiting, above and beyond survival. She questions the emotional truth of Homer’s account of Penelope waiting for Odysseus – nobody, she declares, would undo the work of social reproduction painstakingly woven. The fruits of her own labours are dazzling; she somehow raises three brilliant, idiosyncratic sons and then a daughter who startles her constantly with her intelligence and maturity. I could not hold back my tears at the close of this vivid portrait of a life that cannot be occupied by hatred and death, that is outlined in love and defiant hope like a glittering constellation, lighting the way home.

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My Castle…

I Capture the CastleI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

Cassandra is mostly wisely honest with herself as well as being generous spirited and loving, and the combination makes for pleasant reading. There is a feast of interesting details, though the castle makes me feel cold, and some nicely sketched characters – the vicar got some good lines, and Thomas the younger brother delighted me at every appearance, reminding me of my own lil bro. I wish Leda Fox-Cotton weren’t so mistreated. It’s necessary to see right through Cassandra’s prejudice, which is hard because she’s very sympathetic. I found it funny that she loves animals so much and wishes owls were vegetarian, but eats meat herself without a shadow of a critical thought.

I liked her casual explanation of England being special to her:
‘oh not the flag and Kipling and outposts of Empire and so on, but the country[side] and London’

There is a neatly written section in which the vicar and Miss Marcy both casually encourage the stricken Cassandra to whom they are offering succour and comfort that is like water in a desert to her, to take up their own interests: religion! you might like it. helping others! you might like it. Cassandra is tempted, but then she decides that these characters are taking refuge from pain and thus from life itself in these absorbing pursuits. Cassandra even reflects that they are like children because they haven’t really lived. The conclusion – that she should not throw herself into religion or good works – feels refreshing, and appropriate to the form of a novel (a medium that draws or produces the subjectivity of the subject) but… really? The only real life is one devoted to pursuing the most fully felt personal joy and suffering? Is this the only way we can imagine self actualisation? I can’t accept that autonomy requires the rejection of the mortar of community. When Cassandra receives help and then pities her helpers for helping, it seems to me she affirms her class privilege even more thoroughly than her materialistic sister does when she counts her expensive new possessions.

I also started my journal when I was 17. Here’s a random chunk from 2005!

April 15th

There is a kind of light rain which, when falling just at the very beginning of twilight, can make any landscape resemble paradise.
I was reading the focus bulletin and there was a page about pomegranate juice “the pomegranate originated in Persia” and there was a verse from Shakespeare:
Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day
It was the nightingale, not the lark
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree –
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale
Romeo and Juliet III 5

Made me feel wretched for not reading enough, when such riches are so easily come by that a miserable marketing department posts them out to us, their hired zombies

April 17th

Today I saw a mermaid, her hair was in braids, fat murky green at the roots, thin and blue, clear Caribbean blue at the ends. Some had come loose and hung in heavy ringlets like trailing weeds. She had a ring in her nose and an American twang, and her eyes were black and fierce as a storm in the Atlantic.

April 19th

This morning we saw the film “Crumb” Robert Crumb’s room full of old blues records had a heavy American desk, chair, strip of dark, patterned carpet and great dusty lampshade breathing dusty yellow light. The America of David Lynch. The American interior of the intellectual mind. Ginsberg wrote in a room like that. Dreary, grand, American room, stuffy with spoiled dreams.

The problem with the past is that we do not understand it. It seems worthless to us now, because the Gods of the present & the believers in the next world have pointed out to us that we only have today and Jesus will forgive us. Largely, the stories that make up history have lost their significance. A few stand out clear and speak down to us from the depths. But the better part is like a story told by a great grandparent – the facts are useless, foreign objects you can turn over like washed up shells, their contents long ago emptied out, because the story teller saw everything differently then.

May 3rd

When the first time traveller (I hope it is some dignified person, I am nostalgic for the gentleman amateur) goes into the future, everyone there will be waiting for them, whatever kind of world it is. You’ll step out of the capsule and see everyone, banners and cheering or ragged scientists or children with stones, waiting. Today there was a waterfall from the sky. Shoes soaked. Cellar flooded.

May 15th

Yesterday the mermaid came back. Her blue hair was tied up, grown out sun-bleached brown, her eyes had turned pale from being so long ashore.
Today a fairy princess came in with a goblin. Her body trembled with the effort of being. I think she was kidnapped.

The suited ones walk to their offices
Their faces are shut
for the daytime, purged of hopes
Sweet yellow sun caresses steel & glass,
throws long human shadows like walking dead

The air, heavy and pure with the night’s silence
receives the sound of their shod feet on stones
Politicians wake in a cold sweat.

June 10th

You should be alone
everything resonates
the night is lovely and in the cold of situations…
Reflected in the city light the beauty of your own soul
How can I write with your NOISE?

July 18th

I looked out through the skylight with corrected vision.
Blue and dark, black red cloud like a landmass on a map, meeting the cloudy sea A PAINTING OF HEAVEN & the stars like hope, faint and unreachable, an immense vista, a desert. Must go up with glasses on. I miss my seven sisters. I have unburied my books. In so doing I unbury myself. The dampish old cardboard, almost become precious, by
association, sits out in the recycle bin.
The house is full of books
It is a joyful meeting
Sylvia, Heller, Marx. I missed you! I even missed Plato.
I can play Queen Adreena. Hands tremble.

The self should not be held so dear, it is dangerous. My history, fine sheets, written in
verse on linen, like scripture

August 9th
Horas non numero nisi serenas
-motto on a sundial near Venice
(I count only the serene hours)

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arts & spirits of cloth

Black StyleBlack Style by Carol Tulloch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ordered this online and I wasn’t expecting the content to be so great (fashion books can be so much marshmallow). My only complaint is that it’s such a slim volume, though its lack of heft did make it easier to read in bed of an evening. A fabulously illustrated visual celebration and a multi-stranded academic text, it will stay on my shelves as a treasure, and it’s so beautiful it makes me wish for a coffee table

John Picton’s long piece ‘What to Wear in West Africa: Textile Design, Dress and Self-Representation’ kicks off the collection of essays, providing insight into the roots of the diaspora black styles that the other essays explore. It’s a descriptive piece like the words you find on museum walls, with joyous loving depth. Love of and appreciation for cloth, whether for the skill and artistry of the maker reflected in it, its beauty or shininess, or its expression of some message or meaning is a key tenet, and thus also is ‘maximum use of the cloth’. Picton notes that large, loose garments look elegant in movement. He notes that beloved and admired garments may require constant attention and adjustment, and I gathered that this attention is a way of taking pleasure in the clothes. In conclusion, he offers an evocative quotation from an Anlo weaver

the cloth must flow well… they want it to feel smooth and soft… good cloth moves with the person, it catches the sunlight… it makes people feel proud of our past

Susan Kaiser, Leslie Rabine, Carol Hall and Karyl Ketchum have contributed an utterly wonderful essay on African American style to this book: Beyond Binaries: Respecting the Improvisation in Black Style. They speak of the concept of respect and its relation to style, and of style as resistance, as expressing ideas of beauty different from the white supremacist hegemony, as carrying an aesthetic memory even from Africa, where creative, often eclectic combination communicates the wearer’s intelligence and artfulness to draw respect. (Such values, I note, inherently celebrate diversity and exchange of ideas.) African traders who wore Western clothes in innovative ways according to their long tradition of absorbing and reflecting new influences in their personal style were mistakenly seen as attempting to copy whites. Slave traders usually took people’s clothes from them and they were separated from members of their community so that they would lose their languages and cultures, so a distinctive, collectively improvised culture drawing on a mix of West African traditions, including aesthetics and dress developed. European styles were remixed to create ‘an aesthetic of resistance’ which has had and continues to exist in countless manifestations. In a context of ongoing struggle against anti-blackness, it’s not just what is worn, but how it’s worn, that styles the body and commands respect…

The theme of improvisation is developed by Carolyn Cooper in her essay Dancehall Dress: Competing Codes of Decency in Jamaica. She posits glamourous, erotic ‘dancehall style’ as a fairytale transformation of the body/image, emphasising the artfulness of clothes, engineered hair styles and make up. While aspects of dancehall style reflect the influence of investment in white supremacist patriarchy, Cooper draws attention to the insufficiency of this as the basis for explanation (for example, long blond hair maybe styled high and extravagantly accessorized) – the style belongs to its wearers who thoughtfully, skilfully and artistically create it, drawing on African values of creativity, originality, dramatic (as in theatrical) effect and feminine (curvy) beauty or sex appeal. I reflected that this contrasts with the conformist and materialist values of white fashion, such as appropriateness (appearing to belong) tastefulness (restraint and respectability) luxury (economic status) and emulation (following the ‘leaders’ eg celebrities and designers).

Carol Tulloch’s final brief essay on Black British style touches on a spread of topics – style contexts, style aspects, style statements, style diversity – people dressed in gorgeous Nigerian garments, all rich colours and textured embellishment, women with nails so long and so fabulously painted they couldn’t possibly be expected to do any manual labour, carnival revellers in cropped joggers and bikini tops, young girls in delicately finished lace skirts, fashion without borders, style without limits.

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A really important book

No Place to Call Home: Gypsies, Travellers, and the Road Beyond Dale FarmNo Place to Call Home: Gypsies, Travellers, and the Road Beyond Dale Farm by Katharine Quarmby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quarmby discusses the history of GRT* persecution drawing heavily on the work of Romani academic Ian Hancock and other historians. British legal history includes waves of hostility towards ‘vagrants’ and ‘itinerants’ and Gypsies were repeatedly expelled, criminalised or executed for being nomadic or on racial grounds. Enclosure affected Traveller groups profoundly as it did settled workers on the land. The romaticisation of nomadic lifestyles and Romany people as exotic ethnic others with a fading old world culture parallels views of Plains Indians and other First Nation peoples elsewhere. Confronted with actual flesh-and-blood gypsies settlers tend to regard them as degraded remnants or imposters assuming the identity of the sentimentalised ideal compared to which they fall short by being insufficiently ‘noble savage’: this is a genocidal strategy working in tandem with the stealing of Travellers’ children and draconian residence policies aimed at enforcing assimilation. It is significant that the Nuremburg report barely mentioned the killing of the Roma, despite the fact that historians believe a quarter of their European population was wiped out in the camps, considering that anti-Semites deny or underplay the atrocities committed against the Jews during and before the Nazi Holocaust. The ongoing virulent racism against GRT people is made comfortable by settled people’s failure to acknowledge or forgetting of the Porrajmos

Hostility from settled locals is a running theme, but the history Quarmby traces reveals that the state led the violence and shaping of attitudes towards nomadic/’vagrant’ people. It could be said that this is still the case: the state in the form of local councils everywhere continues to persecute. However, I suspect it does so on behalf of the landowners who hold such wide ranging influence over HM gov here (see George Monbiot’s excellent blog for multiple demonstrations of this fact, with receipts). Of course, GRTs are discriminated against even as landowners as the case of Dale Farm shows, but this only reveals the underlying class structure silently regulating property rights.

Zygmunt Baumann suggests reasons for the hostile, perennially genocidal attitude on the part of sedentary, homogenous and increaingly materialistic populations towards traditionally nomadic people that has persisted so long in Europe and especially the UK. Nomadic lifeways represent oppositional knowledges and ways of being to the coloniser capitalist state and its supporting mythologies of white supremacy and occupation-as-work. They have the potential to retain ecological integration that settled communities forgot in the ‘Enlightenment’ and horizontal colonial periods when ‘nature’ (in all its forms, outside and inside us) was to be conquered and subdued. New Traveller Tony Thomson has pointed out that nomadism has been the human habit for over 500,000 years: settling is a tiny blip. He also mentions that it directs us to a closer and more thoughtful relationship to the land and resources, which threatens an economic model based on the unsustainable exploitation of scarce materials. Quarmby quotes various politicians and who repeat genocidal opinions, tellingly

I think you are endeavouring to defend something that is historically outdated: the tinker and the wanderer. There may be places for them in other parts of the world, but there isn’t in an industrialised urban community

Since I and the political class issuing such statements live inside a sedentarist industrialised colonial mindset it can be difficult for us to notice that there is very little left of community in the context we have built. One of the most wonderful things in the book, although it is compromised by Quarmby’s rather conservative, objective tone (she strives to be even-handed) is the description of a large community of Eastern European Roma that moved into Govanhill in Strathclyde. They spent their evenings ‘shooting the breeze’ singing, making music and dancing in the street. (A local Chief Inspector opines ‘if you are a middle aged white female and you have lived all your life in Govanhill, then… all you see is foreign faces, your natural reaction is. “I don’t like this”‘. I’m enraged by this standard use of the white woman as frail creature to be defended (in which white feminism has all too often been complicit and worse) in order to justify racist attitudes and associated excessive policing and surveillance). Of course, it would annoy me, I need to sleep, I need to go to work in the morning, but doesn’t that reveal unambiguously how deeply my very emotions and physical needs are structurally and forcibly invested in an economic model that deprives me of communal leisure and ways of knowing and being in mutuality?

Yet the fear of and hostility towards GRT people extends from the settler/nomad binary and beyond actual (as opposed to assumed) lifestyle differences since the majority of people with these origins no longer travel, because many of the traditional services they once provided as they roved, such as seasonal agricultural work, heritage skills like mending pots and pans and dealing in scrap metal have been regulated or industrialised out of existence. Yet as well as significant structural disadvantages people identified as gypsies or travellers are subjected to overt racist abuse such as having their homes bombed, vandalised and terrorised, racial slurs, violent personal assault, being excluded from pubs, shops and wedding venues sometimes by ‘no gypsies’ signs and by inflammatory media reporting, exclusion from employment, exclusion from school and bullying, low teacher expectations and ignorance** and microagressions. English Gypsy Noah Burton reflects lucidly on his lifelong experience of ‘passing’, denying his origins in order to protect his livelihood and avoid being abused and excluded. Reflecting on the civil rights struggles of black and Asian people he says ‘They couldn’t pass. Maybe if we had been in that situation we would fight harder against racism against us’.

Quarmby’s book is ambitiously broad in scope, but goes into the Dale Farm furore in depth, as well as the rather different stand-off at Meriden. In the former case, I was most interested in and perturbed by the complicated and certainly not entirely positive role of non-Traveller activists, self-proclaimed allies, who set up camp at the site in force, organised by long-time GRT supporter Grattan Puxon. At Meriden, I was most intrigued by the machinations of the organisation that opposed the establishment of a site for the Gypsy group, whose protagonists became ‘consultants’, charging handsome fees for their services to other local groups seeking to oppose coucil plans to create legal sites for Gypsies and Travellers. Councils under legal pressure to find sites are hampered not only by internal reluctance but by nimbyist activism, now part funded by the taxpayer courtesy of the coalition government’s ‘Localism’ bill.

The book is full of GRT voices from the spectrum of communities, and Quarmby tries to reflect all sides of multifaceted conflicts and tensions. Other voices also offer food for thought, notably Luton-based CofE chaplain Martin Burrell who says

The Roma are an ethnic group of some twelve million people who say that they don’t want a patch each, just somewhere to live

And that may just be the height of radicalism in the days of late capitalism and the nation state as economic unit.

*GRT is an abbreviation standing for Gypsy/Roma/Traveller, an adjectival phrase which even in its compoundness fails to capture the full spectrum of people it attempts to describe, who include (without being limited to) Irish and Scottish Travellers, English, Scotch and Welsh Kale Romanies, Eastern European Roma and Sinti, Showpeople, Boaters and New Age Travellers

**I speak of teacher ignorance advisedly. When I took my PGCE we had to complete a diversity portfolio, one part of which was a very well organised task in which groups of three researched a topic and produced a workshop for the rest of the cohort, as well as producing an individual academic write-up. (That was in 2010-11, so ‘austerity’ cuts have widely phased this quality of diversity training out of initial teacher training altogether) My extensive research and discussions had a profound effect on me, but our group was still stunned when we gave our workshop by the entrenched anti-GRT attitudes of many of our peers. I hail, by the way, from a town so white that my primary school of 300 local children had only two recognisably non-‘Caucasian’ pupils in the whole time I was there, but which has a local authority traveller site on the edge of town, by the rubbish tip***. It is not particularly uncommon even to meet a woman or teenage girl in the market square selling sprigs of heather and telling fortunes in a lilting accent, dressed unexotically in jeans and tank top. (I have had my fortune told many times, and I am moderately confident that I will have a happy life, with some challenges.) We sedents of the rural provinces owe it to our nomad and other GRT neighbours to educate ourselves

***Quarmby reports on the ubiquitous practice on the part of local authorities of placing GRT sites, when they finally do create them, on contaminated, unsuitable or unsafe land.

The very best thing in the book for me is this from the brief section on GRT art and culture, by part-Romani poet-ecologist David Morley, an imagined conversation between C19th poet John Clare and his friend Wisdom Smith, a local Gypsy

The Act

A chorredo has burreder peeas than a Romany chal
(a tramp has more fun than a Gypsy)

Wisdom swings to his feet as if pulled by an invisible hand.
‘I shall show how this world wags without making one sound.’
And the Gypsy transforms himself first into a lawyer. He bends
a burning eye on invisible jurors. He simpers. He stands on his head
as the Judge and thunders silent sentence. Then Wisdom levitates
to tip-toe in pity and pride as a Reverend bent over his Bible
while an invisible scaffold gasps and bounces from a rope’s recoil.
The Gypsy hangs kicking until hacked down by invisible blades.
The world grinds to a stop on invisible springs, bearings and axis.
‘Do you ever tell lies Wisdom?’ ‘All the long day through, brother,’
laughs the Gypsy. He lights his long pipe beneath his hat’s brim.
‘But the brassiest of lies’ – the Gypsy plucks – ‘are like this heather:
a charm against visible harm and’ – he crushes it – ‘invisible harm.’
And the friends look at each other across the invisible stage of grass.

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Dreaming from a dark place

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a compulsive page-turner for me.

Compared with at least one contemporary USian perspective, say, that of the low waged service worker, Lauren lives in one version of utopia: a close-knit community, like a village, shaped by an ethics of care and mutual support. She does not have to work, except to share the unalienated labour of social reproduction (childcare, food preparation, education of the young) which leaves her time to pursue her own preoccupations*. The person in her family who provides money only has to go out to work for it one day per week, leaving him plenty of time to spend at home participating in social reproduction and leisure. Food production is local; families grow and share vegetables, fruits, and nuts. There is no light pollution, so the stars are brightly visible, inspiring Lauren’s dreams.

The early exchange between Lauren (who’s Black) as a young child and her (Euro-Latina) stepmom Cory, in which Cory says she would like the city lights back while Lauren says she prefers the stars for me represents a ‘choice’ (the choice is for authors and readers, but of course this reverberates…) between an increasingly struggling and desperate ‘developed’ civilisation and its collapse: a collapse that gives the biosphere time to recover from our ravages and the stars a clean dark background against which to be seen. By the privileged few who remain.

Butler of course, confronts us absolutely unsparingly with the victims of such a (horrifically realistic) collapse, not as faceless numbers of convenient dead, but angry, naked, filthy, wounded, diseased, maddened, threatening living, screaming, tormented, starved dying, rotting, dismembered, wormy, stinking, half-eaten corpses. And just in case you thought you could ignore all this, Butler afflicts her narrator with ‘hyperempathy syndrome’ which causes her to feel all the pain she sees other humans and even some animals feeling. At one point, Lauren reflects that there might be some benefit in others experiencing this illness: ‘a biological conscience is better than none’ but in a context so bristling with merciless violence it leaves her appallingly, terrifyingly vulnerable. It is pointed out that this would be a very ‘useful’ quality in a slave.

This quality of utopia reminded me of Le Guin’s fable The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas. This could be thought of as an inside-out version, and thus one cannot walk away, because one is surrounded by the mirror of horror. This also speaks to the situation we live in of the carceral state. Prisons exist in The Parable of the Sower but what can they be like? The police are completely ineffectual and corrupt, but if they weren’t, who would be left outside the jails? And to what extent can the residents of walled neighbourhoods terrified to go outside be considered free? Butler invites us to speculate on realistic possibilities of (re)enslavement as wages fall, climate stability falters and corporate power sheds ever more fetters.

Lauren’s ‘discovery’ (as she feels it) and articulation of the religion she founds was extremely thought provoking for me as I tried to feel my way into it – this aspect of the book functioned as a kind of backdoor world-building that allowed deeper insight than other modes of description, supplementing Lauren’s austere narration (which gave the book a young adult feel) but also something fresh and exciting in itself. The element of possibility modelling was thrilling: sure, a black teenage girl can found an empowering, non-hierarchical religion in terrifying conditions of social collapse. Why not?

Well why not? Butler quietly indicates a few obstacles. As soon as Lauren begins to talk about her own carefully worked out, deeply felt ideas, a white guy demands some documentation. Race is a low key issue in Lauren’s peaceful birth community and in the one she creates, but Butler makes clear that outside white supremacy is more or less as lumpily operative as it is today, and shows that corporate power and state corruption and disintegration exacerbate it. Also, many young women and girls have predictably become chattel, without any discernible ideological shift towards more regressive gender frameworks in evidence. Butler has, it seems to me, taken a realistic image of USian culture, shifted a few contextual (broadly ecological) parameters and hit ‘run simulation’. I’m an outsider saying this, but I hear the word from over the pond, and the UK isn’t so different.

Among future dystopia type novels, this puts others in the shade for me on a lot of levels. Instead of focussing on the extension of state power, Butler envisions a scenario of extreme privatisation, climate change and widespread desperate poverty. The state has apparently ceased to provide education, so most people cannot read. Most of the jobs available pay only ‘room and board’ or company scrip – Butler exposes this as debt slavery. Police (and other emergency services) are corrupt, useless, profit making, just licensed thieves, although some people are still inclined to trust them. So yeah, this feels a lot more prescient today than, say, Brave New World or even 1984. While state power is increasing on the level of surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties, state responsibility to provide anything whatsoever – health and social care, welfare, education, decent pay and conditions for workers and so on is being gradually dismantled, sold off to profiteers, swept away, CUT.

*Hito Styerl has written that work has become occupation. Thus, playing on words, a preoccupation could be what defends you from an occupation

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Short Strong Stalks

The Granta Book of the African Short StoryThe Granta Book of the African Short Story by Helon Habila
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Helon Habila has done a damn fine job of selecting a diverse and striking stories for this in my opinion, but he has made one editorial decision that didn’t suit me: putting the pieces in reverse chronological order. Cool idea, but… I didn’t want to go along with it – what can I say? I’m an unruly kid. So I read the last story first and carried on that way – sorry Helon! Here are a few of my highlights.

Alex La Guma – Slipper Satin
I love this little snapshot of social tensions, patriarchy and (blood) sisterly solidarity. I felt Myra and Ada’s lives going on beyond the edges of the frame…

Abdulrazak Gurnah – Cages
As well as Gurnah in Paradise, I have to thank Doris Lessing for imparting to me some of the resonance, the deathliness, the complicated awfulness of the store as it haunts the literature of African authors, a miserable symbol of colonial expropriation, enforced dependency, embodying white supremacy and the grind of poverty, disappointment, monotony. In this story, Gurnah sketches the store as a quagmire, swallowing health and dignity, binding Hamid in its moribund grip. The flicker of hope that comes is full of ambiguity. What price will Hamid pay to escape?

Milly Jafta – The Homecoming
This story gracefully dramatises a simple gesture to show the resolute strength of social fabric and the elasticity of family ties. It has the glow of felt truth.

George Makana Clark – The Centre of the World
I love George Makana Clark’s expansive, exuberant style (reminding me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez), which draws on all the senses to enhance its vibrancy, and hastens its bounding pace by cramming in details and asides, some of which venerate stories and their tellers. I wanted more, I wanted a whole book…

Leila Aboulela – Missing Out
This story certainly whet my appetite to read the several Aboulela works on my to-read list. I love writers who can render the texture of a certain style of everyday life so vividly that I feel all its complexity, all its conflicts, tensions, consolations. In a simple tale full of incidental details, Aboulela quietly celebrates, without sentimentality: parental support, generosity, routine, faith, against the grain of London’s casually practiced religion of freedom from all ties, independence, individualism. It remains to be seen if bridges can be (re)built to a compromise…

Aminatta Forna – Haywards Heath
This tale leads me to smile at the strangeness and melancholy and comedy of growing old and forgetting. It’s touching to think that a partial memory can create a mixture of freshness and nostalgia, a source of both pleasure and pain.

Fatou Diome – Preference Nationale
This piece has the style of a barside monologue delivered at a leisurely pace over the span of an evening drinking with a friend, a friend of colour who gets it, who knows what it’s like to be treated as a third class citizen. Its wry humour finds the mark.

Binyavanga Wainaina‘s story Ships in High Transit is, unsurprisingly, at least partly a biting satire on the exotification and exploitation of Africa by Euro-Usians. Only it’s all horribly plausible, and there is no reductive simplification. Rather, Wainaina packs the tale with realistic, sane thoughts and conversations that serve to enhance the cringe-factor several-fold.

Uwem Akpan – An Ex-mas Feast I could hardly bear to read this story of a family living in desperate squalor, told from the point of view of a little boy who seems all too adult. I could not have imagined these lives. Nothing has ever imprinted my consciousness more deeply, more painfully, with the corrosive effects of deprivation, than the portrait here of Jigana’s intelligent, resourceful, determined twelve year old sister Maisha and her chest of belongings, cumbersome and precariously preserved at the expense of comfort and trust. Even small hopes, bitter hopes, ambiguous hopes, are terribly expensive.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Arrangers of Marriage This is my favourite piece, blending page-turning, gossipy storytelling with incisive social and cultural critique. How does she do it so naturalistically? I can’t get enough of her writing.

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