Dearly Departed: A Conversation with Anu Lakhan

Novel Niche is thrilled to unveil this exclusive interview with Anu Lakhan, Trinidadian poet, fiction writer, editor and debut chapbookist. First published by Argotiers Press in 2018, Letters to K is hilarious and heartbreaking, audacious and abashed, like no other letter-set to a dead writer you’ve ever read before. 

Here, I sit with Lakhan over metaphysical tea, and let her tell me all about the elusive J_L_, our protagonist writing missives to Kafka. I might know less for certain at the end of this interview than at its beginning: rarely is a fate so entrancing as when Lakhan’s pen is in the inkwell.

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Novel Niche: Letters to K lets us in on a writer’s deep love for Franz Kafka. Tell us how you feel about Kafka, yourself.

Anu Lakhan: Does she love him? I think there’s a way to go before she feels love—real love—such as one might feel for a mother or a pet. Right now she’s really just looking for someone to talk to.

I, on the other hand, definitely have something rather like love for him. It is very easy to love and admire a dead man. I already know he will not contradict me or shame me in any way. I miss him as if there’d been a time when we were together. Not only his fiction, but his letters and journals are so extensive it’s hard to understand how more people do not find themselves feeling this loss.

He was really quite a noodle. Funny. A funny, silly man in many ways. And yet the work is sharp, dangerous, immaculate. Impossible not to love him.

NN: The chapbook is a perfect vehicle for a series of (one-sided) letters. Is this your first standalone epistolary project? How did it come into being?

AL: This is the longest one so far. I’ve done one-off missives to Kafka before (in which an adolescent girl emails him to ask for help with her homework); to Dorothy Parker (in which a wife writes an agony aunt letter to Ms Parker about uncomfortable, bargain-priced beds); and most recently to the bracing poet Eric Roach as part of a Caribbean Literary Heritage project (in which I break off our engagement because of prevailing weather conditions and extinct animals).

Still want to know how we got to the letters from J_ L_?

J is a character who has long been looking for someone she feels comfortable with. She’s tried—over various stories—to be fine with her own company, with family and friends, and friends of the family (outcomes unsatisfactory). She has enjoyed and found solace in cats, dogs and horses. Occasionally it occurs to her that she should make some greater effort with other humans. So what kind of person would suit? She does not think like Kafka, but she likes how he thinks. She does not believe living as he did would work for her but she admires that he tried. That doesn’t seem like a bad place to start imagining a good companion.

NN: Fundamental loneliness, the narrator J_ L_ tells Kafka, is one of the truths she best shares with the deceased author. Do you think that the lonely turn frequently to the dead, in letters or outside of them?

AL: Not enough. Sure, lots of people talk to deceased loved ones. They may even keep journals that look like they’re addressing specific people.

Dear Mother,
I really needed your help with the garden today.

Dear X,
I miss you and would prefer to be dead at the bottom of a well rather than go another day without you.

That sort of thing. I hear it’s quite soothing. And of course, as Caribbean people, the spirit world is never far from us. But I don’t know if we’ve worked out healthy, non-desperate ways to engage with those not living. This answer holds for both the lonely and the not-so-lonely.

NN: Would the register and intimacy of these letters change if they were purely digital? Would VoiceNotes to K, or WhatsApps to K, be a different sort of endeavour?

AL: They would not be sent by J, so from the beginning the undertaking would be very other. If she seems confuffled in writing, only imagine how she’d trip over herself with VoiceNotes. How many times have you started sending one simple message and ended up saying everything wrong and had to send three or three dozen more to clarify your original thought? Or worse: she might start and after two words be reduced to whimpering. The shame. WhatsApps—equally a no-go. She’d go mad waiting to see the little blue ticks and then she’d fret about his lack of response.

These other options are not open to her because they have a force of immediacy. She’d fall prey to expectations. That wouldn’t do.

NN: Would J_ L_ Skype with Kafka, in another place, another time?

AL: Again, immediate and intimate. It’s too intimate. Kafka could barely bring himself to endure face-to-face meetings with his myriad fiancees. Whenever personal contact was threatened, he wilted. Unless they both kept the video off, Skype would have been a disaster.

The letters were the only things that made sense because they made sense for him as well as J. The same beloved women he couldn’t face, he harassed them into writing him. He demanded letters. Three a day if possible. Gods! They had jobs. They were busy. He was busy. Prague and environs must have had the best postal service ever. If in this time, present time, we had anything like such a good service, email might never have been dreamed up.

NN: Letters to K made me reach for my old, secret correspondences, patterned boxes of love-and-eventual-hate-mail. Which published or private letters do you reach for, in your own life?

AL: I don’t. They usually hurt. I write new ones.

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NN: I read this book aloud for pure pleasure: it would make an excellent audiobook. Who would your dream narrator be? Would you give them any directorial notes?

AL: If J is a young Trinidadian woman, it would be my niece Jaya with her gorgeous sandy voice. Imagine Stevie Nicks young. And Caribbean. And less nasal. That’s my niece.

If J can be from anywhere, I have in mind Saoirse Ronan (as is), Dolores O’Riordan (alive) or Sinéad Cusack (younger). Apparently any woman with a tricky Irish name will do.

I didn’t have much of a J voice in my head (really had to think about it). I heard Kafka reading the letters to himself. Sometimes quietly, sometimes riotously. Kafka would be Adrien Brody with a German accent. Obviously he’d have to spend months in front of open windows, naked, in the Prague winter, preparing for this. Because, of course, K was all about that kind of thing.

Apart from the Brody-naked-window thing, no directions. That’s because I think I’d be a maniac as a director. Better to leave those things to professional maniacs.

NN: An illustration of a piano, done by Kevin Bhall, falls as if in slow-motion throughout the chapbook. What music is on the sheets we see, fluttering to the floor?

AL: A few songs, actually. The pianist who was unfortunate enough to lose his instrument in this—tragically—the most common type of piano fatality, was playing around with:

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant – Billy Joel

Coronita de Flores – Juan Luis Guerra

Last Dance – Donna Summer

Sweet Child of Mine – Guns N’ Roses

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Duke Ellington

See, it doesn’t matter what’s playing when a piano is ready to fall on your head. I’ve found the happier the music being played, the more likely it is the piano is on its way down.

NN: “I am not trying to elevate myself in the literary world,” J_ L_ explains in one of her early letters to Kafka. A writer as a hermit, scornful of and stressed by the literary social scene, is a popular trope… but do you think it makes for better writing?

AL: Oh, hell no. It’s horrible. I know some of the finest writers have lived like this but I think their work is brilliant in spite of such a disposition, not because of it. That is a bitter, bitter world. Somebody is paying in blood and insomnia for it.

By the by, J is not trying to elevate herself in the literary world not because she disdains it but because she’s not in the literary world. She’s not a writer.

NN: In the last of her letters, J_ L_ tells Franz that she’s always felt like an outsider. Are the best stories told from the fringes, and not the centre?

AL: I’m afraid this question is beyond me. I don’t think I’m always sure of the difference between fringe and centre. And as told by whom? The narrator or the writer? Do we always know we’re in the middle? Isn’t it beyond dreadful when we discover we’re on the outside when we’d been thinking we were in?

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Buy Letters to K here.
Read Paper Based Bookshop’s spotlight of Letters to K here.

Letters to K is Anu Lakhan’s first chapbook. She is a poet, writer, editor, friend to cats and Kafka. Born and living in Trinidad and Tobago, she has never knowingly sent a letter to anyone in Czechia, living or dead.

All images © Anu Lakhan.

K. Jared Hosein’s Top 20 Book Influences – Part Two

To kickstart Novel Niche’s year in litblogging, I invited emerging Caribbean author K. Jared Hosein to share the top twenty books that have most influenced his writing: here’s part one of that post, featuring his first ten picks. Today, we round up the list in K.’s company, and find out what he’s most recently been up to in the literary world.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz) chronicles the lives of the titular character, Oscar Wao; his sister, Lola; his mother and grandfather. Oscar must deal with being overweight, a virgin and a Dominican still haunted by the ghost of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo. What lands this book here might be a strange one. It’s mainly because of the numerous accolades Díaz has received for it. Normally, I didn’t think people cared for the type of brash and vulgar storytelling employed in Oscar Wao. And honestly, it was right down my alley (writing-wise). When I saw that Díaz’s work could be accepted by the Pulitzer committee, I thought, “Why not mine?” As I said, strange reason. But it’s a damn unique and interesting book, nevertheless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby) is a memoir ‘written’ by a man who has locked-in syndrome. See, Mr. Bauby had been debilitated by a stroke, which rendered all but his left eye motionless. He blinked to the rhythm of a cautiously rearranged alphabet, and with a very, very patient nurse, this book exists. Just being able to read the book is a miracle, if you ask me. Within it contains the musings and memories of a man that thought he would be stuck in the deep, blue sea for the rest of his life. But now, from behind the steel cage of his diving bell, we can hear his voice. If this doesn’t readily reassure your belief in the power of the written word, I don’t know what will.

BoyBoy (Roald Dahl) is the first part of the autobiographical work by Dahl (the second part being Going Solo). It almost reads as an epistolary novel, as Dahl pastes clippings of letters, photographs and other family documents to relate his past in a whimsical manner. The chapters in Boy relate to a prank gone wrong at a candy shop, a grisly car accident and warming the toilet seats for the older boys at a school in Derbyshire. Despite its bursts of humour, it is the most serious book I’ve read from the author. Boy does not overshadow his fictional works, but it made me think: Life is remembered by how you tell it. If that makes sense.

Miguel Street (V.S. Naipaul) is my second favourite Caribbean book (the first being Oscar Wao). My first encounter with the book, if I remember correctly, was a chapter featured in a primary school “Reading Book”. The chapter was about B. Wordsworth, a mysterious man who “felt like a poet but could never be one”. The story was strange and heartbreaking in its feeling of incompleteness. But there was nothing more to be said of B. Wordsworth, and the story was over. I think this was the first time I had read a truly sad ending to a story. The collection of stories in Miguel Street is well worth it, but I won’t forget that experience with B. Wordsworth.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) is the hardest book I’ve ever read, that I’ve ever finished (the hardest book I’ve never finished is The Scarlet Letter… trust me, fucking ridiculous!) Fury was my introduction to the much-beleaguered writing style known as stream-of-consciousness. In prose, anyway. Does Beat generation poetry count? It centers around the Compson family, sections devoted to various family members. The two that stood out the most to me were Benjy and Quentin. The non-linear narratives that rely on Benjy’s diminished mental capacity and Quentin’s disjointed and emotionally affected recollection of his family and his sister, Caddy, require multiple re-readings. I remember being on campus, busily dissecting the book during Biology lectures. It was my first experience with frustration that somehow felt rewarding simultaneously. Once you are willing to decipher it, it’s worth it.

Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) was a novel I received for free at a writing workshop when I was twenty. We were given a week to read the book for an upcoming book-club type discussion of character and theme. The story itself concerns David Lurie, a college professor fired for misconduct, who loses most of his reputation and integrity in the process. Yes, it is as depressing as it sounds. But there was one thing that stood out for me as I read this book: the present tense. I had never given it much thought before that. The present tense is quite effective once used properly. Not necessarily to build suspense or (no pun intended) tension or anything, but just to hold the reader in that moment of disarray and imminent disarray. I’ve been trying to re-create that ever since.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), to me, is the paragon of a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age tale), especially one that involves identity (most of them do, though, don’t they?) It’s a thick book, but that’s because it goes into so much detail with our protagonist, Cal, and his family’s migration from Asia Minor. The hook? Call is intersexed, afflicted with a genetic condition known as 5-ARD. The males are often mistaken for females all the way up to puberty, and are raised as such. The question isn’t about how this can be fixed, but: should it be fixed? Now, Eugenides’ style is verbose, be warned. But from the two books I’ve by him, it’s fitting and beautiful. When it comes to the dense, thorny theme of identity, I don’t think there could be enough words.

The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is a shorter book than Eugenides’ Middlesex, but it’s no less loaded with purple prose. The story is told by a group of men as they recall and muse upon the sudden suicides of the reclusive Lisbon girls in their neighbourhood. Their actual interaction with them was minimal, so they resort to filling in the blanks with theories of domestic horror. However, The Virgin Suicides never wanders into any gruesome vision. It is probably the least angsty book about suicide I’ve read. Instead, the story focuses on teenage whimsy and puppy love in light of what has happened, as if the girls themselves were pixies perched on mushrooms, or some other magical beings. The book feels like magical realism, though entirely grounded in drama and disillusioned romance. Why this book is here is because it holds that intangible quality that separates melancholy from melodrama. It remains my key to written emotion.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) concerns a father and son’s journey across a wasteland, the near-shell of a once-verdant world. The technique employed by McCarthy to show the stark emptiness of this situation? The abandonment of punctuation. While I had experienced the fiddlings of grammatical structure before, like with ee cummings, I never reckoned any operative utilisation of it with a novel. Like The Call of the Wild, The Road is written with a complex simplicity (you’ve probably figured out that I’ve an inclination for this odd oxymoron). It describes desolation in brief whispers. Hopelessness in dying breaths. No need for abundance of any sort here.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) concerns Christopher Boone as he plays detective to discover who stabbed his neighbour’s dog, and ultimately uncovers the dark secrets kept by his family. Christopher, however, lives with an autistic spectrum condition and experiences great difficulty accepting the hard realities of his findings. The book is told from first person and is much easier to read than Benjy’s portion in The Sound and the Fury and is more on par with the emotional journey in Flowers for Algernon, though it does require patience when Christopher’s OCD steps in and prevents the plot from advancing. This is all done for effect, however, and works most of the time. This book lands a place on this list for its ability to integrate Christopher’s medical condition into the narrative, not as a gimmick or technique, but to show how different people process different situations. How I may have reacted to Christopher’s findings might have been much different, but this is his story. And everyone should have a story, shouldn’t they?

Here’s a lagniappe for you: for a limited time, K. Jared’s debut book, Littletown Secrets, is available for free as a Kindle download! The author has also produced a lovely, spooky little trailer to accompany the book’s e-release:

(The download link’s in the description section of that video, so don’t be shy about grabbing your free copy, while you can!) You can also keep up with the author’s updates, via his official Facebook page, Littletown Secrets.

Parts One and Two of this post were originally shared by the author on his Tumblr, under the title “Books, Writing, Ideas, Growing Up.

K. Jared Hosein’s Top 20 Book Influences – Part One

Happy New Year, Novel Nichers! May it bring you an abundance of good, thought-provoking, stay-up-all-nighting reads. I’m thrilled that my first post of 2014 isn’t actually *mine*: it’s a guest post from K. Jared Hosein, author of Littletown Secrets (Potbake Productions), in which he discusses the top twenty books that’ve influenced the vein, tone and weight of his own writing.

I recently named Littletown Secrets one of the best Caribbean books of 2013 in a Trinidad Guardian article, so it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of Hosein’s writing. I’m so intrigued by his picks that it’s motivating me to make a top 20 list of my own. More of that later — for now, here’s K. Jared!

You can’t write well if you don’t read.

And I would like to say that if there were ever some objective Euclidean list of axioms for literature, this would be at the top. But literature does not deal with absolutes, theorems or laws, but rather codes of conduct. Literature remains subjective and every person gravitates (or falls victim) to their own taste. I have never been the biggest fan of classical literature. There are some I enjoyed, but of my opinions: A Tale of Two Cities is egregiously over-written; The Scarlet Letter is barely readable; The Last of the Mohicans is dreadfully boring; and I’d prefer watch Kenneth Branagh do Shakespearean adaptations on the silver screen than actually read Shakespeare.

I grew up not liking to read, because these were the books presented to me as a child. I finished a book, like I would finish a plate of lentils. I didn’t enjoy it, but I knew it was probably good for me. It was actually the storytelling in 90’s role-playing fantasy videogames that first piqued my interest in the craft. It was from there that I wrote a story, which was published for the local Sunday Guardian. The “payment” I received was a book of my choice from a select store. I wasn’t too thrilled with this.

K short story

But when I went, the lady at the counter recommended what she had probably recommended for every little boy my age: Enid Blyton. I devoured it in one sitting. Pretty soon, I had a stack of Blyton books. As I got older, my preference changed. And it’s still rapidly changing. I think that must be a sign of maturation. Not an evolution of taste, I would say, but the hunger for different styles, tones and grooves marks the moment to further oneself. I stress, literature is anything but absolute, which is what makes it even more exciting to explore.

I’ve snapped a picture of twenty books that I believe have influenced my feelings and ideas about writing. They are not the best books I’ve ever read. But a book doesn’t have to be Pulitzer material for it to affect your belief in some way. I try not to idolize any work too much, as I fear finding myself craving to “live up to something else”. Though ambition and inspiration usually join hands and the craving is, thus, inevitable from time to time.

These books span from my childhood to just one year ago. I’m going to append each title with a mini-rationale for its placing.

The Pleasures of the Damned (Charles Bukowski) is a collection of poems by, well, Charles Bukowski. In my review for this book, I said that Bukowski is overbearingly honest in most of his poetry. He creates dystopia without apocalypse. The ordinary degenerate. There’s nothing else to it, since basically he was a degenerate. The collection, however, made me view poetry in a different light when I first discovered Bukowski at fifteen. Poetry didn’t have to be embellished or written with finely curled letters. It could be simple and ugly. Not even well-articulated hatred, like Sylvia Plath. Just raw, pithy imagery about toughness, like a one-eyed cat, a tough motherfucker, chasing blind mice.

Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut) concerns Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time”. After being abducted by a strange group of aliens, Billy finds that he can see his entire life (and even past his death, until the end of the universe itself). I read this in university and it changed my perspective on how science fiction could be written. Vonnegut, to me, seems to write with an extraterrestrial readership in mind. There is a certain humour in the simplicity we take for granted. Vonnegut captured that here. It is something I hope to also.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) concerns Arnold Spirit, as he grows up in the ‘rez’ (Indian reservation), surrounded by disillusioned, drunk and temperamental Native Americans. This is the quintessential young-adult book, yes, complete with bullying, falling in love and illustrations. And it is quite remarkable. Young-adult authors engineer their books to extract an emotional catharsis, I believe. Finding humour in degradation. And the great fear that settles when one is told of their own home, “This place will kill you.” Living in a crime-ridden country, I can relate. Also, who knew comic strip cartoons could go so well with prose?

CatcherThe Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) is a book we all know, or should know. It is a polarizing book, not for its content so much, but because it has been read by some of the most irritating people. Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of Pencey Prep and wanders around New York City for a few days before returning home. He also wears a red hunting cap. That’s it. That’s the book. And I’ve read it, no exaggeration, about ten times. I read this when I was fourteen after I borrowed it from my school library. Didn’t know anything about it when I did, but damn, it was hard to do my homework the night I started it. I don’t love Holden. I don’t even like him. But I realise: I don’t have to. It helps, yes, to feel something for a narrator. But I realised that they don’t always have to be affable. Just intriguing, as character is the greatest tool we have to elevating plot.

Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo) is similar to another book I have on this list, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, though they are both here for different reasons. Joe Bonham awakens in a hospital and eventually deduces that he is basically a living torso. Yes, his face is gone and his appendages have all been blown off by an artillery shell. He’s a prisoner in his own body. It is a poignant and extremely depressing novel. It is here because of its attention to sensory detail and use of flashback during the recall of Joe’s life and family. It also shows the influence the written word can have against a behemoth such as World War I.

The Gunslinger (Stephen King) is the first book of the Dark Tower series, the magnum opus of King’s career, and I’ve put it here to represent both itself and the series. Though I’ve only read up to its fourth installment, the series is a detailed and expansive work that treads through the wasteland of a world that can only be described as where “the rest of the world has moved on”. Characters from previous novels make appearances, affecting the plot and reinforcing the idea that all King’s work is set in one universe. A haunting western setting along with deliberate anachronisms showed me that there really is no boundary to the worlds you can conjure up. Everything is acceptable, once done calculatingly and professionally.

Everything’s Eventual (Stephen King) is a short story collection, of which I wish to discuss only the titular story. “Everything’s Eventual” concerns Dinky Earnshaw, who has the ability to construct symbols that elicit strong suicidal feelings for those who view them. Dinky doesn’t understand his ability, and doesn’t use it until he is convinced to do it to rid evildoers in his city. I was thirteen when I read this, and I had never even imagined that such a Jedi-like mind trick could be taken seriously out of a Star Wars setting. King made it work, however. From an early age, because of this story, I realised how limitless writing really was. Sorcery could exist in suburbia, and that was fine.

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) is an epistolary novel (and I actually didn’t know what that meant until I read it) about Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged janitor whose rapidly increasing intellect affects his life and those around him. As it is an epistolary novel, the story takes place in entries from Charlie’s journal. The result is quite effective, as it shows both Charlie’s own changes in his thought processes, and clarity of events in hindsight. I came across this in a second hand book kiosk while I was in high school, and I actually had no idea at the time that books could be structured that way successfully.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) is a book that most high school students around my time might have done for their O’ Level Literature class. Though I didn’t study Literature, I read the book anyway. I was probably thirteen at the time. The story concerns David, one of a group of telepathic children whom live in Labrador. The people of Labrador believe that any deviation of the human anatomy (or ability) must be banished to the “Fringes”. It’s one of those classical allegory stories that youngsters are told to read, like Animal Farm. And while Animal Farm carried a strong message, it didn’t affect me as much as Chrysalids’. It carries one that is central to literature itself: never stop analysing everything.

The Call of the Wild (Jack London) concerns Buck, a domesticated dog that has been sold to become an Alaskan sled dog. The language is straightforward yet descriptive and the primal themes retain power in their simplicity, so when I read this at a very young age, it hit hard. It’s probably one of the most effective books I’ve read. It doesn’t miss a beat and the theme of “returning to nature” will always be relevant to literature, to society, to any persona one may hold. We all must be animals when the time comes.

Stay tuned — soon, we’ll be visiting the second half of K. Jared’s list — plus catching up on what’s new in his own writing world!

The 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest – A Blogger’s Logbook [Day Two]

Those who weren’t involved in the second day of Bocas activities this year, but were in Port of Spain as afternoon dripped into evening, will likely remember it as “that time it rained semi-profusely, and Town flooded”. (My friend and colleague Kevin Hosein blogged briefly about Bocas, and more indepthly about the extreme floodiness of the day, over at his Tumblog, Little Jumbie.) Admittedly, the gushing grey rivers of drainwater looping around the traffic-clogged roads prompted minor alterations to the Bocas schedule’s last few events of the day, since a handful of scheduled panelists were trapped within their hotels, unable to reach the National Library for neither love nor pirogue access.

Despite this, Day Two of #bocas2013 was as engaging and imaginatively challenging as Day One. The Bocas team donned their (mostly metaphorical) galoshes and steered the festival participants and attendees through the evening’s dampness — if you were already at the Library by the time the rains hit, I’ll wager it was one of the few places in Town where the spirits were enthusiastically treading water and clamouring for more words.

Here’s my Blogger’s Logbook, Day Two. Click on the summary titles in bold to go to the full posts on the official Bocas website!

One on One – Marina Warner

Marina Warner responds to a question from the audience, during her panel.
Marina Warner responds to a question from the audience, during her panel.

Writer and mythographer, Marina Warner, in conversation with novelist Lawrence Scott (author of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize longlisted Light Falling on Bamboo.) Warner spoke principally of her seminal, recently reissued work, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, as well as her 2011 book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights.

New Talent Showcase – Sonia Farmer

Sonia Farmer, with Loretta Collins Klobah's 2012 OCM Bocas Poetry prizewinning collection, The Twelve Foot Neon Woman.
Sonia Farmer, with Loretta Collins Klobah’s 2012 OCM Bocas Poetry prizewinning collection, The Twelve Foot Neon Woman.

The second of this year’s New Talent Showcase readers, Bahamian poet and publisher Sonia Farmer shared selections of her writing. She also displayed stunning handcrafted and letterpressed titles released by her small press, Poinciana Paper Press.

One on One with Olive Senior

Olive Senior addresses her rapt audience during her One on One session.
Olive Senior addresses her rapt audience during her One on One session.

The veteran Jamaican writer held court — if you were there, and witnessed not a solitary free seat to be acquired, you know what I mean! — on her poetry; on the experience of writing a novel later on in her life; on inspiration and advice for young writers, and many other gems, in conversation with Michael Bucknor.

One on One – Irvine Welsh

Scottish author Irvine Welsh, engaging with a question at the Bocas Lit Fest.
Scottish author Irvine Welsh, engaging with a question at the Bocas Lit Fest.

The author of Trainspotting; Skagboys and several other novels; short fiction collections and plays, talked with BC Pires about the “spectacularity” of failure and the ways in which the publishing world has evolved — not necessarily wholly for the better. (Also, kudos were given to Margaret Thatcher.)

Next up – Day Three of the Blogger’s Logbook!

Previous entries:
Blogger’s Logbook, Day One.

All photographs by Maria Nunes, Official Festival Photographer.

The 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest – A Blogger’s Logbook [Day One]

For the first time this week, when I woke up this morning I didn’t feel compelled to race into Port of Spain with my notebook at the ready and a blue Staff Badge slung around my neck. Goodness, I thought, it’s over. This year’s Bocas is actually over. 

Anyone who’s been behind the scenes at a literary festival can likely understand my simultaneous physical and mental exhaustion-elation combo. The Bocas Lit Fest continues to be a whirling dervish of an institution, picking up momentum and reach with each passing year. This was the festival’s third, and I’m thrilled to have reprised my role as Festival Blogger and Social Media Coordinator, which means I spent each of the four festival days (April 25th to 28th) mad-enthusiastically livetweeting and liveFacebooking. Now that the literary dust is beginning to settle, I’ve begun my comprehensive post-festival blog coverage. Today was Blogger’s Logbook Day One! Here’s a tidy breakdown of what I covered — click on the summary titles in bold to go to the full posts on the official Bocas website!

Festival Welcome – Writers vs. Politicians

Festival foundress Marina Salandy-Brown gives the official Festival Welcome address!

This was the festival’s first official event, which served to set the tone for one of our Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference panels on Day Three, titled “Should Literature be Political?” (more of that on Day Three’s coverage!). Four local luminaries read excerpts from politically-charged passages of fiction, written by four Caribbean authors.

Father Figures – Colin Grant and Hannah Lowe

Poet Hannah Lowe reads from her collection, Chick.

A panel of poetry and memoir, featuring the work of Hannah Lowe and Colin Grant, both writing about their Jamaican-British fathers, as well as the complicatedness of family life and the experience of enacting remembrance through writing.

New Talent Showcase – Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné

Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné reads a selection of her prizewinning poems.
Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné reads a selection of her prizewinning poems.

Each year, Bocas selects three emerging writers of great promise who are close to completing their first manuscript of work. This year, Trinidadian poet (and my friend) Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné was the first to be featured. I wax lyrical and occasionally mushy in my blog post, so to hear me gush over her brilliant and heartstopping verse, go there!

Fiction – Courttia Newland and Ifeona Fulani

Courttia Newland, author of The Gospel According to Cane, responds to a question.
Courttia Newland, author of The Gospel According to Cane, responds to a question.

Two fiction writers, Courttia Newland and Ifeona Fulani, read from their newly released books and discuss technique; form and dialogue use in their own narratives, as well as in the stories of others.

Join me tomorrow, as I wrap up Day One’s blogs, and cover a cross-section of panels, readings and events from Day Two!

All photographs by Maria Nunes, Official Festival Photographer.

On [actually] buying books again: of Bread and Literature.

Glorious deckle edges! My best friend was appropriately gleeful.
Glorious deckle edges! My best friend was appropriately gleeful.

Goodness, it’s been a while, Novel Niche.

I’ve been girding my loins getting ready for the third annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest, a celebration of books, writers, publishers and literary folk of every description, that takes place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the last few days of each April since 2011. Working for the Bocas Lit Fest is both a pleasure and a gauntlet: it reinforces the best reasons (and perhaps even some of the inconvenient truths!) revolving around why I love this reading and writing life. It also packs a wallop: this year’s festival features over sixty events within a four day period (official festival programme here) — and this year, I’ve the terrifying distinction of being on the actual programme as a member of the New Talent Showcase: i.e. a spotlight on an up an coming writer of promise. Yes. Appropriately thrilled and terrified.

Recentlyish, I went book-hunting for a collector’s edition of To Kill a Mockingbird as a birthday present for my best friend. Her boyfriend and I ventured to The Reader’s Bookshop in St. James, a money-sucking, brilliant indie shop consecrated to otherwise elusive fictive finds. We scored Harper Lee in glorious deckle-edgedness, to be sure, and for the first time in what seems like a long time, I bought books for myself, too. My reading life has been guided greatly by work purpose; I’ve been reading the fiction, poetry and non-fiction submissions that have been sent into my review piles. I’ve not had to reach for my wallet for the sake of good literature for quite some time, and this makes me lucky, I know.

Reading voraciously becomes an expensive habit, and I’ve had conversations with myself that meandered along an interior dialogue of “Do I really want this new A. S. Byatt? Oh, yes. Will I be content to borrow it from the library? Oh, no. Am I really attached to the idea of buying that brand-name bread? Nope. Byatt wins.” I cannot fathom that I’ll always have a steady stream of review books in my future, either — is it quite mad to think that I look forward to more “bread or literature” talks with myself? Because I do. It’s a good reminder of being grateful for what matters within the weird realm of my own personal hierarchy of needs. Sometimes scripture is more essential than pumpernickel.

Here’s what I bought.

Antes Que Anochezcathe Spanish language Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas (incidentally, I bought my best friend the English translation last Christmas, and wrote about it briefly in my last Yuletide & Resolution blog post). Arenas was both prolific and persecuted, a Cuban writer of plays, poems and novels. Antes Que Anochezca is his 1992 autobiography, and it marks the first Spanish work I’ll read, in full, after a long hiatus from this, my second tongue. Spanish often makes crisp, instant sense to me in ways that English doesn’t always — which may seem addled, but possibly resonates with other bilingual folk. My reading will be rusty; I’ll probably borrow Best Friend’s copy of the English version and read the pair in tandem, chapter by chapter. The revelations are sure to be immense, intense, and catalytic in terms of fleshing out my Spanish reading to the places I would like it to journey.

EarthTrembleAny novel titled And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers  becomes an “I must have you in lieu of bread” acquisition. This is the first novel of Gonzalo Celorio’s to have been translated into English, an undertaking of the Texas Pan American Literature in Translation series. (Marginalia: in its original 1999 Spanish publication, it was released by the same Tusquets Editores who released Antes Que Anochezca on their Fábula line.) It’s translated by Dick Gerdes, and foreworded by Ruben Gallo, author of Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysiswho says in his opening comments that Celorio’s novel “belongs to a genre with a long history in Mexican letters: the literary portrait of Mexico City.” And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers hailed me out on the strength of its seeming wondrous weirdness: a tenet that goes far with me in writing, if the weird is shored up by skill and storyline.

Since it was published in 2010, I’ve thought about Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night more than occasionally. Peer, a Kashmiri journalist and political commentator, writes about the “culture of intimidation” in his homeland: of censorship, violence and the horrific relationship between the two. The first memoir on Kashmir by a Kashmiri on growing up in that valley, the book is described by reviewer Shelly Walia (full review in The Hindu here) as “a heart-rending account of a placid valley where life has been made sour by the ignominy of politics, where the language of politics has excluded the voices of the people.” Walia concludes that Curfewed Night’s laurelling achievement is that the work is neither parochial nor ethnocentric, but human. Seeing it on the non-fiction shelves was a jolt to the heart: a reminder of what I owe it to myself to read. A beautiful hardcover, it was too expensive and worth the price of many loaves of bread. No way I would have been happy leaving the shop without it.

I also ordered a book from the shop. I went back to collect it yesterday.

PEA literary treatment I’ve admired on my colleague’s blogs for some time is a multi-tiered reading project: handling an impressive beast of a tome in segments, and offering a reader’s diary alongside the gradual covering of sections. Currently, Iris on Books is doing it with the daunting War and Peace (here’s her most recent check-in) and I’m fairly certain that on the heels of the successful musical film adaptation, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is enjoying similar, concerted analysis on book sites. While not as long as either Les Mis or War and Peace, the tetralogy of Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford is a formidable slog, standing at 836 pages in that dense, vaguely offputting-but-not-really-once-you-get-into-it 10.5 Dante MT typeface. It is, if the rumours are true, the quintessential novel about war, and has been heralded as “possibly the greatest 20th-century novel in English” by John Gray, the New Statesman‘s principal book reviewer (snippet quote here). I’ve seen the BBC Two miniseries, gorgeously written for the screen by Tom Stoppard, and can attest to it being a stunning, trenchant production. I’m really looking forward to reading Parade’s End meticulously and thoroughly, and to sharing my annotations, essays and musings on the blog as I go (I already predict character sketches; reviews of each tetralogy; themed postings on WWI, desire and gender!) — it will, I think, be a consummately nerdy, cerebral experience.

I have become less and less interested in the long-term acquisition of Things, in almost every area save books. If it’s true that every time we spend money, we cast a vote for the kind of world we’d like to create, then I suppose based on my wallet habits, my ideal world would resemble a cavernous library, with nominal shelf space for my odd earrings; sheaves of handmade paper; sensible shoes, and bread.

Yuletide Books of 2012, and a 2013 Resolution

Last year, if you recall, I didn’t get my mother any Christmas books (it was a shameful moment, not necessarily redeemed by the fact that I got her loads of other shiny pretties), so this year, I improved my previous standings: I got her one. (In my 2011 Yule haul post, I mentioned getting my mum three others, but those were all given to her at different occasions during the year — Valentine’s, Easter and the like. Yes, Easter/Divali/the Summer Solstice can be for book giving too, Nichers!)

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (2012, Harper) is, at first glance, an almost outrageously handsome book. It seems to tell you, by the very look of it, that it will be both durable to hold and magnificent to read. Coplin’s story is described by Holloway McCandless (what a gorgeous name, right) of Shelf Awareness as “an extraordinarily ambitious and authoritative debut”, which, when one thinks of debuts, is what one wants to hear. Set in the rural reaches of the Pacific Northwest at the end of the twentieth century, The Orchardist has one of those plots that gives you faint goosebumps under your arms and across your nape, just considering it. It involves a kind, reclusive man interfacing with two young pregnant girls who trespass on the fringes of his land and the cockles of his heart. There’s trauma, and acts of redemption, and the bedrock of an America that scarcely resembles the one of 2013. My mother has already read it, and loved it. She deemed it “serious, important writing”, a moving, beautiful story, movingly and beautifully told.

I gave more than one Christmas book last year, however. To my best friend, I gifted Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas (1994 reprint, Penguin). It is her favourite memoir in film, and we both predict/hopefully anticipate that it will be her favourite memoir in print, too. (An outrageously goodlooking image of Javier Bardem from the 2000 movie is plastered across its front cover, which, one imagines, would spike impulse sales considerably.) The New York Times Review of Books describes Arenas’ prose reminiscences as “a book above all about being free”, charting in often painfully honest chapters the episodes of sexual persecution that have defined his queer autonomy, and political suppression that has stifled his creative work. Nor, one notes grimly, are the two methods of censorship mutually exclusive. This is the world on which so much of the Cuban writer’s fiction is founded, and Before Night Falls grants the reader the freedom of access to anti-regime, anti-persecutory reading: freedoms that Arenas himself often worked and lived without.

My brothers gave me three books, two of which suit each others’ company as impeccably as cucumber sandwiches and Darjeeling tea: North Parade Publishing collector’s edition copies of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. Perhaps alarmingly, or predictably, I’ve read no Austen in her totality other than that which I studied, because, well… I don’t know. One needs to be in the precisely perfect alignment of mind and disposition to delve into Austen for pleasure. These volumes might well lend themselves to that faster than the others in my possession. Incredibly portable, endearingly tiny, and interspersed with charming black and white illustrations, these are true keepsakes. I will endeavour to fill out my collection with the remaining titles, and actually strive to read them all.

The third of the books from my brothers is the hauntingly-covered Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (2009, Alfred A. Knopf), whose super popular The Time Traveller’s Wife endeared me in no way towards it. (Please remember that I am a book snob, and that book seemed to have “Oprah’s Book Club” smeared all over it. For all I know, it could be a good read.) Her Fearful Symmetry seems more promising, telling the tale of two intensely bonded sisters, Julia and Valentina, and their acquisition of a London apartment that looks over the impressive Highgate Cemetery, home to the bodies of several departed luminaries. As ghost stories go, it seems a juicy, engrossing tale, with, I hope, a shiver or two tucked inside.

My mother gave me seven books this year, a diverse and merrily motley lot. James McBride’s Song Yet Sung (2008, Riverhead), is heralded by the New York Daily News as “a gripping tale filled with acts of cruelty and humanity that surface at unexpected times — and in unexpected people.” Set in the days preceding the Civil War, it hones in on the fugitive journey of Liz Spocott, a runaway slave cursed/blessed with visions of a disturbing future. Beset by bounty hunters, wading through swampland, Liz’s journey is at once intensely personal and emblematic of a larger, more disquieting conversation, one that McBride explores with utter candour and grace. The only reason I don’t read books like this immediately is because I’m afraid of what they’ll do to my insides. I always get around to them, though. They are necessary.

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love (2005 reprint, Barnes & Noble Books) is widely celebrated as one of that prolific Russian author’s most favoured pieces of short fiction. “Anyone who has ever been in love,” the blurb of this edition proclaims, “will be touched by this tale of passion and disillusionment.” Given that my previous year was characterized by mostly contemporary reads in both fiction and non-, First Love feels both mirthful and apropos: a reminder that a look, a glance, a well-considered waltz backwards into the archives of classical literature can elicit rejuvenating effects. Coming in at just under seventy pages, I don’t think I’d be remiss in casting this slim volume as a potential Story Sunday pick, sometime later down in the 2013 calendar.

Run by Ann Patchett (2008 reprint, Harper) is touted by Jonathan Yardley of Washington Post Book World as “a thoroughly intelligent book, an intimate domestic drama,” one that deals, above all else, with concerns of family. Patchett’s fourth novel, Bel Canto, thrust her into the spotlight: the three books that preceded it received acclaim, certainly, but not quite in the way that the PEN/Faulkner award-winning Bel Canto did. Run‘s biggest worry, out the gate, must have been on how it would stack up –even if Patchett didn’t trouble herself on this issue, the critics would. The author is talked up by The New York Times Book Review as being “more hammer and nails than glue and lace”, which is enough to make me wheel back and take serious note, on its own. I haven’t even read Bel Canto, though, so here’s what I’ll do: read Ann Patchett backwards, like my fingers are tamped down on a VCR’s rewind button. We’ll see what insights and revelations emerge.

1Q84Arguably the sexiest thing beneath the Christmas tree addressed to me, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (2012 reprint, Vintage) is going to be the first book I read by this legend of an author. I am excited. I am so excited. This book seems strange and compelling and entirely unpredictable, and I want to know it, the way you would want to know the dark, Aragorn-esque stranger in the corner of the tavern. The Times calls it “a work of maddening brilliance”, and so wide is the net of global recognition flavoured with quirky, creatively fecund singularity that Murakami’s cast around him, one is inclined to agree vigorously even before reading the first page. Set in Tokyo’s 1984, the novel follows the intertwined stories of Tengo and Aomame as they venture deeper and further down rabbit holes of parallel worlds and suspicious ghostwriting assignments. I would like to repeat, just for the record, that I am so excited.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2012 reprint, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is described in the last lines of its blurb as a novel that dares to push the envelope where historical fiction is concerned. It illuminates the life of Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist whose humanitarian work deeply discomfited those accused of its crimes, notably the British in Northern Ireland. Convicted and executed by the British, stripped of his rank and title, Casement’s pioneering work was so sullied by his disgraceful end that real interest in his legacy only peaked again in the 1960s. This novel feels formidable, masterful and deeply rewarding. I shall have to acquire a copy in its original Spanish, and read the two side by side.

Edited by R. V. Branham, Curse + Berate in 69+ Languages (2008, Soft Skull Press) is a reminder that my mum is possibly more of a badass than I will ever be. There is very little I can say explicitly about this irreverent, whimsical, yet clearly superbly researched book that won’t get Novel Niche slapped with an NC-17 rating, which really is the core of the compendium’s, er, charms. Disclaimer: Wanting to use several of these gorgeous, filthy expressions doesn’t make you a bad person, but inventing and engineering social encounters so that they escalate into verbal bloodbaths, just so you can shout out “trust fund hippie” in French, or “five-faced hypocrite” in Tagalog: well, that’ll probably get your Miss Manners card revoked.

I’m not joking. My Fantasies: An Erotica Journal by David Russell and Gary Silver (2006, Clarkson/Potter Publishers, Random House) is precisely the sort of book my mother would give me, with or without any expectations that I’d fill in the lined pages, which feature helpful prompts such as “Here are my instructions for the perfect massage…” This gift, I think, is most telling: of how few boundaries there are in the discussion of what governs good and bad in printed matter, in the creator & progeny relationship of which I am one half. What is even more endearing, and comforting, is that this is the way it has always been — not that my mum was giving me erotica to read when I was in pinafores, no, but that the conversation on reading has never felt stilted, blinkered or reined in by dictates of “You shouldn’t”, or “Good/chaste/charming girls don’t read those awful things.” Panelled with quotes by the usual suspects (Pablo Neruda; Gustave Flaubert; The Kama Sutra; Rumi), and tastefully (yet pulse-tinglingly?) peppered with illustrations in unobtrusive sepia, this pocket journal is precious, darling: a fitting accoutrement to the love you’re making or dreaming up.

From she who knows the mettle and measure of my reading life with as much intimacy as my mother, I received The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt (2009, Alfred A. Knopf). For a long time in my teenaged years, I would tell anyone who asked that my favourite book was Byatt’s Possession. It was. Never had I read something so perfectly, ornately itself, if that’s at all coherent — this unabashed love letter to epistolary ardour, to the secret lives of writers and the conventions of two ages colliding into each other. Everything Byatt writes feels forged in a master (a mistress!) class of writing well, and I cannot fathom that The Children’s Book, loosely based on the life of English children’s book author E. Nesbit, will feel any differently. I don’t have the full measure of The Children’s Book (and when does one have the full measure of a book, ever, really?) but I can tell that it will lend itself to cloistered, intense readings. I will read it so fixedly that the rest of the world will fall away, and people and places will seem strange, when I return to them again.

Now, to my resolution. It’s simple, really.

In 2013, I resolve to read for pleasure as I damned well please. 

I know that sounds a little repetitive and haughty, but let me explain. Over the past year, the work I do has been sharply characterized more and more by what could be called professional reading: reading tailored to published reviews, blog posts, and social media commentary. It’s like what I do at Novel Niche, but also not quite: each job owns its distinctive tone, and none is a mirror image of the way I write about books and an involved reading life here. Vast tracts of my time are spent with books in various official review piles, and this is bloody fantastic, but it’s also work. The distinctions are subtle but the end tasks remain thrilling. There are precious few things I would rather be doing professionally.

That said, when I read for pleasure, without a deadline or copy edit attached, I intend to do so while revelling in the freeness of choice, and the fullness of that particular range. Maybe I’ll read a book on a carousel, or in a park with a vagrant sitting next to me all day, muttering about the weather. Maybe I’ll read at a funeral. Maybe I’ll read manga and review it like classical literature. I might finally begin reading more books in Spanish, in public transit. Incomplete memoirs published without endings; Japanese erotica with or without tentacles; books I’ve had stowed away with the best intentions for years; books that Rory and Jess enjoyed poring over together in between smooches; books that Jesus Christ might pick up in a Barnes and Noble: I’m cutting any vestiges of reading propriety that could potentially be lingering.

A reading life isn’t a prolonged Advanced Honours Literature class, or at least it shouldn’t be. There is no way to do it wrong, unless perhaps you never open a cover. So this year, I’m resolved on making no resolutions other than opening as many covers for pure pleasure as I can lay my hands on. I look forward to your company, Novel Nichers, and to the continued joys of the round circle of commentary, clickage and steadily good vibrations that I always want to encourage here. Merry, mirthful 2013!

Yourself in Books, Day Two.

Day Two: When last did you catch an incontrovertible glance of yourself in fiction, and did you like the way you looked?

I read Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente in the last month of last year. Whenever I thought of reviewing it for Novel Niche, I felt that it wasn’t time. I felt, specifically, that there would be no way I could speak critically of a novel that had made me feel so much in love: in love with words and storytelling; in love with sexually-shared cityscapes, and in love with one of the four main characters of the story: November Aguilar, the beekeeper with a face that shows the places she has been in stark, difficult detail.

There is a way that the habits that seem most shameful or embarrassing in ourselves suddenly reveal themselves as pure, clear tenets, when written by others, or when enacted in plays we love, books we hoard. Early into our meeting with November, we learn that she loves to make lists. Listmaking seems like a paltry thing, or worse, a paranoiac one, but not the way that Valente describes it as part of November’s province.

“The keeping of lists was for November an exercise kin to the repeating of a rosary. She considered it neither obsessive nor compulsive, but a ritual, an essential ordering of the world into tall, thin jars containing perfect nouns. Enough nouns connected one to the other create a verb, and verbs had created everything, had skittered across the face of the void like pebbles across a frozen pond.”

A consummate chronicler, and a woman fiercely dedicated to preserving her private sanctuary of these lists, November makes me think instantly of the person I am and hope, in essence, always to be: that is, weird, quite frankly. Weird and by that banner of strangeness, immediately identifiable to those who were weird as I, fellow carnies, bearded ladies and sideshow freaks.

I think Palimpsest is a remarkable, ambitious work. I believe it’s written in a specific way that makes you swear allegiance to one of its main characters — it’s because we’re drawn to archetype. We can’t help it. We discerning readers know that people are more than the sum of their parts, both in fiction and on the streets, but we still love these decisions, don’t we? Which of the nine muses would we be? (Calliope.) Where would we most want the Sorting Hat to plop us? (Slytherin.) Under whose Westerosi house sigils would we bear our standards with the most pride? (The surly golden kraken of the Greyjoy sigil.) Maybe we love these distinctions as much as we do because there are precious few of them in 2012, and those most prominent are the dubious emblems of which football team we hope hoists that huge metal trophy.

I won’t say which archetype November best represents — only that for me, she is at once a mirror and a portrait, and an unforgettable woman in literature. She understands sadness, and the importance of archiving, and sacrifice. She is eerily close to the way I’d want to be held up for scrutiny in someone’s work of art. The novel is peppered with her lists, which are haunting, palatable, earnest fragments, such as this brief tabulation following an assignation with a lover called Xiaohui (the very woman whose parting gift is an inscription that November can never erase):

“Things that are left in the morning: memory, thought, snow. Light. Work. Disease. Dreams.”

How difficult it is to write a post like this — it says so much about the way you want to be seen; the way you see yourself; the things you conceal and reveal in cycles and in increments. I might look back on this post in five years, or ten, and think, “I was addicted to the notion of suffering well, and beautifully, for the sake of creating something larger than myself that had its point of origination in me.” For now, though, I love November. She feels like so many places I have been, and have yet to visit. She is beloved by those who are both compassionate and cruel. There are marks on her body that can never be erased.

Maybe it is something she learns that reminds me of what I want to imprint on the way I live and conduct my living: an archivist can be thrown out of her cavern of solitude, too — what’s more, she can flourish; she can rule there as well as anywhere else.

This post is part of a series.
Day One: Which fiction to film adaptation broke your heart into several messy, inconsolable pieces?

Yourself in Books, Day One.

Self-portrait, date unrecorded, but probably 2009.

I am far too impersonal on Novel Niche, I’ve been told. Where are my blog posts in dedication of family events, the births of small creatures, the beginnings and endings of milestones? I will never overtly document those things in this space, dear readers. What I say about myself, is, I think, glaringly evident in the way I talk about books, or hope to talk about them. If you read my reviews, all the way back from Carol Shields’ Unlesstil now, you will find a weird sketch of the person who is weird Shivanee. You might learn more about me than you ever wanted.

I intended, tonight, to take part in the 30 Day Book and Literature Challenge that’s popular among the Internet’s bookworms. However, after wrinkling my brow and bitching, “What does that even mean?” to several of the questions, I realized that this challenge, while admirable and far-ranging, simply wasn’t the right literary brew from which I wished to drink, not this time around. Startlingly, I discovered that I wanted to answer questions that were more — bare.

That’s the way I write fiction and poetry. I pare things down to bone and marrow; I investigate what’s uncomfortable, feral and queer: not because it’s especially delightful to do so (though it sometimes is), but because that’s what writing signifies to me, at 26. I write to fill people, including myself, with terror and arousal and giddy, aching awareness. It becomes less and less possible to apologize for that as time goes on.

So I’m going to ask myself questions about books for thirty, non-consecutive days. Probing, unflinching questions. Questions that might make Christiane Amanpour proud, were she a steely librarian. If you’d like to answer my questions, too, please do so in the comments, or wherever takes your fancy. I would be honoured to have your company during the length and breadth of this experiment. This project will tell you more about me than any Christmas family portrait ever could. Perhaps we will learn more than we bargained for about each other, and about the books that have stood by our sides, on our dressing tables and in our satchels for all our lives so far.

Here we go. Wow, I’m actually a little nervous.

Day One: Which fiction to film adaptation broke your heart into several messy, inconsolable pieces?

When I read A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, a few years ago, I remember being stunned, and discomfited, by his chronicle of the curious, unsanitary ways in which people come together, and then cast themselves asunder. Cunningham seemed to be holding up not just the relationship triangle in the novel, but every unconventional friend-and-romanceship algorithm, asking us to question the meaning we put into structures of marriage and long-term commitment. I just tugged my paperback copy from the bookshelf at my side, brushed off the thin grey film of dust on its spine, and cracked open the book to a familiar page, to the opening paragraph of a chapter that describes the way a mother loves her infant.

“I never expected this, a love so ravenous it’s barely personal. A love that displaces you, pushes you out of shape. I knew that if I was crossing the street with the baby and a car screamed around the corner, horn blaring, I’d shield her with my body. I’d do it automatically, the way you protect your head or heart by holding up your arms. You defend your vital parts with your tougher, more expendable ones. In that way, motherhood worked as promised. But I found that I loved her without a true sense of charity or goodwill. It was a howling, floodlit love; a frightening thing. I would shield her from a speeding car but I’d curse her as I did it, like a prisoner cursing the executioner.”

Love like that is what makes life worth living, all the great poets would have you believe. It isn’t exclusive to a lover, either — indeed, sometimes it seems like the particular province of how your heart works, or doesn’t, once you’ve given birth.

The book on its own broke my heart, but it took a late, late night viewing of the film to drive the chisel in properly. I was suffering through the post-salad days of a dying relationship, then. I remember, during the closing credits, dialling a phone number, my face wet and my speech incomprehensible. I wanted some sort of assurance — a manifesto of good faith that we wouldn’t fall off the edges of each others’ lists of favourite people. It was a request made from so much intense gibberish, and it was met with irritation and bemusement by the person on the other end of the line, torn from their sleep by my Michael Cunningham-fuelled ramblings.

I don’t remember now whether the movie was spectacular or not. I thought of it as its own territory, divorced from the book but sharing living space non-rancorously. What galvanized me into that phone call, I think, was the sensation of the shortness of time. We spend so little of our wakeful hours treating the people we love with unabashed adoration. Our mothers aren’t always goddesses; sometimes they’re the shrews berating you for a laundry list of disappointments. Sometimes your glowing girlfriend isn’t just the love of your life and all the lives to come; she’s also the evil bitchface casting longing looks at your cousin in the parking lot after a drunken New Year’s Eve party. We love and bicker with so much complication.

I think my phone call was motivated by the desire to be good. I wanted to remind the other of my unfailing love (which, of course, had failed us both on more than a few occasions). As I was reminded then, and as I reflect now, wanting desperately to make those phone calls is almost always a sign that they will be too late. Even though the recipient of the 2:45 am post-film-viewing call is someone who no longer occupies space on my list of favourite people (or, really, a list of people I contact via phone or smoke-signal), A Home at the End of the World will always make me think of early morning sobfests and crumpled tissue, good intentions wasting themselves away in the hard, undeniable light of a new day.

Morgan Kelly’s Musings on Genre, Fiction-Tradition, and Reading What You Love

I was thrilled to launch November, my month of daily posts at Novel Niche, with my review of Morgan Kelly’s stunning, audacious debut novel, Midnight in Your Arms. NN is generally considered (I’ve been told) to be a “serious site” — as opposed, one supposes, to a bouncy blog. The inevitable question I found myself fielding was this: “You mean… you reviewed a romance novel? Really? That doesn’t seem like your style.” Derivative, poorly-written, cloying romance writing isn’t my style, no, but Kelly’s novel is none of those things, as anyone lucky enough to read Midnight in Your Arms will see within its opening pages.

This issue of how genre-labelling defines and guides our next bookstore or library selection is dear to Morgan Kelly’s heart, too. Without further ado, here are her thoughts on that oft-perilous system of classification, combined with reflections on her writing, and reading career. Thank you, Morgan, for choosing Novel Niche as your resting-place for the end of your official blog tour! I am honoured, and thrilled, to keep company with you here.

Morgan Kelly and her publisher, Avon Impulse/HarperCollins, are generously offering one free e-copy of Midnight in Your Arms. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post (along with your email address, or another reliable method of contact.) This giveaway is open internationally, and the winner will be contacted in one week. 

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto

When I first became a reader, I didn’t know there was any such thing as genre. When I did come to understand the concept of genre, it was only in the sense that books needed to be categorized by topic and style so that the reader could choose one for herself that best fitted her tastes or mood. This was back in the days when reading was for me so pure and unalloyed a pleasure that another person’s opinion of my reading matter didn’t even enter into it. No one really had opinions on what I read—people were just glad to see that I had in fact learned to read, that I took to it with no difficulty. My teacher had done her job. My mother had done hers. I had done mine. All was right with the world.

Fast forward a decade into the future. Suddenly, there was a spectre haunting the banquet at which I had previously feasted unencumbered by a sense of literary pretention or elitism—the spectre of public opinion. I felt a strange pressure to decide what sort of reader I was going to be, closely akin to and perhaps even indistinguishable from the decision about what sort of human being I was going to be.

Instead of saying “Sir, may I have some more!” of everything I could get my hands on, I was expected to become “discerning”. To read books that were chosen not for pleasure or curiosity alone, but for how they would make me look to the people who saw me reading them. There were suddenly public books, and private books. Books I read out in the open, judiciously approved, and those I read when no one else was in the house. Books I would brag about reading, and books I would hide beneath the mattress, like someone addicted to and ashamed of her subscription to Hustler.

These contraband books were of varying genres. I hid my magic-ridden fantasy and gruesome horror from my religious relatives. I hid my historical romances from, well—everybody! Because those sorts of books, the ones of the dripping butcher knives, midnight séances, and riven bodices were not considered literature. They would be detrimental to my developing mind and intellect. I was to be ashamed of them.

Let me tell you, literary elitism has never come easy to me. I’ve always read anything, everything, and lots of it. With more on the side. And yet, I had the distinct feeling, from teachers, literary friends, and everyone else involved in my development as a reader, that I should curtail my base bibliomaniacal tendencies and read only works of substance. So I learned to be a secretive reader. A reader ashamed. It took a long time and a few years of independence and self-possession before I got mostly over it. And there was always a great deal of defiance inside of me that railed against the oppression of public opinion about reading material, and yet, I still felt compelled to hide what I read.

When I became a writer, I naturally began writing “literary fiction”—a term that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but what I define for myself as anything that: A) doesn’t fit into an actual genre of popular fiction B) People are smugly proud of reading on public transit C) a book the title of which people drop all over the place like the name of a celebrity with whom they once rode in an elevator D) might have an infinitesimal chance of being published in the New Yorker.

I wrote literary fiction because it was serious, and I was and remain a serious writer. By which I mean that I am deeply serious about the craft of writing itself, a feeling that got entirely mixed up with the need to be taken seriously as a writer. Two very different things, but somehow irreparably conjoined in public consciousness. And I knew without needing to be told that to be taken seriously as a serious writer, one must not write genre fiction, just as one must not (admit to) read(ing) it in order to be taken seriously as a reader. So I didn’t write genre fiction.

            And I didn’t write it.

            And I didn’t write it.

            And then, I did.

Lisa Kleypas’ Mine Till Midnight

I had never stopped reading it, enjoying it, or hiding it. But I think when I started to think about actually writing it that something shifted inside of me—the Writer Self began speaking to the Reader Self on a much deeper level. The Reader Self reminded the Writer Self of the fact that I only write because I’m a reader. Writers who don’t read don’t make sense to me—and believe me, I have met more than a few. My Reader Self reminded me that my entire business is to tell stories that people want to read. To tell as many stories as I have in me. And that there is no story unworthy of being told well. That I should write whatever was in me as best I could, spanning genre and thumbing my nose at its strictures, too.

I reminded myself that the reason I enjoy reading modern horror is because a woman named Mary Shelley wrote the genre-defining novel that is considered by many to be the greatest horror novel ever written, a classic masterpiece of writerly genius. There would be no Stephen King without Mary Shelley. There would also be no Stephen King without Dickens, who wrote gripping, human stories about the people and for the people for a penny a word. People forget that he wrote popular pulp fiction. So did Shakespeare. It’s only historical retrospect that labels their works superior to the books being written in the same genres now.

The Brontë sisters wrote Gothic romances.  So did Sir Walter Scott and Horace Walpole (in fact, he arguably wrote the first one, the Castle of Otranto, in 1764—a book that saw a lot of action from beneath the mattresses of the Georgians). Classic literature created the molds for much of what is considered trashy pulp now, from horror to romance and back again. And yet, we are taught to scorn the people who read and write the modern descendants of the novels people clutch to their bosoms as though fondling holy relics in a cathedral.

This year, after publishing only literary fiction and poetry, I sold and published my first historical romance to HarperCollins. My dream of signing the dotted line on a contract emblazoned with the header of one of the Big Six had finally come true.

And yet, I admit I felt nervous.

I felt as if I had somehow, possibly, betrayed some aesthetic and artistic code by writing genre fiction. This is really hard to admit, but I was worried that my “literary” writer and reader friends wouldn’t accept me as a newly minted romance novelist. That I was choosing genre-fiction over literary fiction, and there was no going back. That I had gone down a highway with no chance of a U-Turn. That I didn’t know who I was as a writer anymore. Which is weird, because I have always known who I am as a reader. Even though I didn’t always advertise my reading material, I’ve never really worried that reading pulp fiction would injure my delicate readerly sensibilities. Why, then, do I worry so much about genre and writing? It doesn’t make sense. It’s hypocritical. I may not always discuss my predilection for historical romance with the same people with whom I discuss Proust and A.S Byatt, but I still continue to enjoy it. It’s like flipping a secret switch inside my brain, a switch that didn’t come with the model—it was a mod. At some point in my reading life I had been neatly bisected down the middle, my “serious” literary self on one side, and my carefree, genre-fiction loving self on the other.

But it isn’t that easy, is it? It’s not so cut-and-dried. How can anyone claim that someone like Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, who writes “genre” fiction, isn’t a master writer and a modern-day literary genius? Because she is. And so, in my opinion, is Stephen King. And among my romance-writing colleagues, there are many a Shakespearean professor and History PhD. among them. Which sounds like I am saying that the genre is therefore redeemed because Ivy-League educated women write them. That’s not what I mean. What I am really trying to get at is that genre-elitism is divisive and pretentious.  It doesn’t matter what you read and write. Anything can be a work of beauty and meaning, or a load of rubbish, or simply an enjoyable distraction from the difficult business of being alive. Why do we ascribe status and hierarchy to every word that passes before our eyes? It’s exhausting. And most likely pointless. It certainly doesn’t save us from reading bad books. Nor does it make sure we read all the good ones. And if it does neither of those things, I don’t see what the point of literary segregation is.

Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars

As Oscar Wilde said, “Books are either well-written or badly-written”. He said absolutely nothing about genre. I’ve read as many badly-written serious “literary” novels as I have counterpart genre (aka page-turner, pot-boiler fluff) fiction. Why are they redeemed in public consciousness simply by virtue of their genre, and books with heaving bosoms or Halloween masks on the cover are condemned by the notion that they are not literary, no matter how riveting the plot or elegant the style in which it was written? Why is Mary Shelley okay and not Stephen King? Why is Jane Austen marvelous but not Julia Quinn? And why are some of if not many of the people I know averting their gaze from the fact that I just had my first novel published by one of the biggest publishing houses in the world as if I have made an alarming and very public and humiliating faux-pas? If I had written a different style of novel, someone would have thrown me a party by now. As it is, I feel like I am supposed to be apologizing—justifying myself as a fallen writer.

And you know what? I don’t want to! I’ve written a book I am proud of, in a genre I enjoy reading. I am excited that perfect strangers all over the planet are reading the words I wrote for them. And when they decide whether or not it is a bad book or a good book, I hope genre won’t come into it. I am not saying I am the next Emily Brontë. I’m not saying I am equal to the celebrated Julia Quinn. What I am saying is that I think we could, the three of us, sit down at a table together and have a lot to talk about. The same person could read novels written by all three of us, and Stephen King, and anyone else they damned well pleased, and not wonder what it says about them. It says enough that s/he is reading.

Dear Reader, what I am saying is this: read a lot. Read whatever you want. Don’t read anything you don’t want to read because you think you should. Let’s just read. Anything. Everything. As much as possible for as long as we can. I will work on sewing the two halves of my Reader Self together again, because really, there is so much bleed-through going on, I don’t think the vivisection ever really took.

We don’t need to be ashamed of what we read and write. We don’t need to judge other people for what they read and write. Let’s just remember that it’s all personal taste and opinion. Let’s keep it civil. Let’s remember that when the novel was first invented, it didn’t matter what genre it was, people were supposed to be ashamed of reading one. We’ve come a long way since then. Let’s keep on going. We’re not done yet.

Morgan Kelly’s Midnight in Your Arms

I’ll write stories, whatever I have in me. I’ll read everything I can get my hands on. You do the same. Then let’s sit down and discuss the latest Lisa Kleypas, contrasted and compared with the most recent A.S Byatt, before moving on to the relative merits of E.L. James. We don’t have to like what each other reads. Hell, we don’t even have to like what we read. We can think it utter crap, or literary perfection, or a pleasant post-tea and pre-nap afternoon diversion. But not because of genre. Clear out the bedsprings, my friends! Air out your literary laundry. Let the end of Genre Bigotry dawn. Who knows but the next Thomas Hardy could be lurking at the bottom of your massive, teetering pile of refuse-to-reads. Or at the bottom of mine. I’ll check now, and let you know. You can borrow it as long as you give it back or pass it on to someone who might love or hate it, too. And then pick up another book and do it all again, ad infinitum and beyond.

Morgan Kelly reads and writes in every conceivable genre. A Brontëite, a Whovian, a Xenaphile, and a Buffyonian, she loves storylines with kick-ass heroines, brooding heroes with fine style, and meaningful, witty dialogue. Her first spooky Gothic historical romance novel came out this year with Avon/HarperCollins. She likes to think Midnight In Your Arms is the bastard love child of Daphne Du Maurier and Ernest Hemingway with Emily Brontë as a Godmother. Her ideal tea party would include Sylvia Plath, Lou Reed, Her Majesty the Queen of England, and you. You can be her fan on Facebook; friend, fan, or follow her reviews on Goodreads, and read her blog posts on her official website.