Book Review: The Forward Book Of Poetry 2021

The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 by Various Poets | Waterstones

This year’s edition of the Forward compendium acts, as ever, as a shimmering primer of essential contemporary talent

Edition published by: Bookmark, 2020

Many would take it as given that the most resonant poems have the strongest narrative arcs. For me, that’s not always the case – take the likes of Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things, or much of Thomas Hardy’s poetry. But in the case of The Forward Book of Poetry 2021, it’s pretty much always true.

While many of them have clearly defined themes and influences, their pace and connotations often outrun their parameters. For this review, I’ve honed-in on three multi-faceted themes specifically, but that’s just a microcosm of what the collection entails.  

Femininity

Straight away, Caroline Bird’s Dive Bar reflects a sisterhood; there’s a sense of togetherness, a specific experience becoming a ribbon for universal femininity. The really startling words are almost mumbled over; ‘swaying’ and ‘swallowing’ connoting adaptation and imprisonment in pure ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ style.

Vickie Feaver’s timeless 1974 highlights societal pressure on women and the extremities that can drive them too, and how unchanging those schisms are. Sarah Tsiang’s Dick Pics acerbically explores double standards and the removal of innocence. In Ella Frears’ Sestina For Caroline Bergvall, ‘the edge’ and the backs of heads become synonymous with comfort for women, while Rachel Long’s The Omen leaves women’s futures ominously open-ended, especially as mothers.

Perhaps most affecting of all is Regi Claire’s spellbinding (Un)certainties, written in tribute to her sister who died in a boating accident. A constant guessing game, Claire’s poem is a perfect reflection of the ambiguity of trauma and soul-searching, a mirage of idioms and half-truths. But by the end, assertions become more certain and it’s possible to read the options as excuses – excuses as to why society has let women down again. This is brought full-circle beautifully at its close:

‘When I tried to explain, he did not understand.
Could not’.

Claire’s mourning has highlighted just how much distance exists between men and women, especially regarding personal loss.

Form

Form is employed relatively conservatively across the collection, but when it’s not, the pieces shimmer and sting like proper guttural cries.

Nina Mingya Powles’ Conversational Chinese is the most stirring early example. Taken from her Collection Magnolia and described as one of many ‘love letters to Shanghai’ and ‘retracing steps to a language you’ve lost’, the blanks connote holes in personal and historical identity, and there’s a stark see-sawing between aspects she can’t remember and perhaps those she’s wilfully forgotten. The specificity of answering questions in full sentences also speaks volumes about the weighty expectations enacted on migrant communities.

Elsewhere, Carolyn Forche embodies the immensely tough and unyielding imagery in Museum of Stones. Likewise, the brutalist foundations of Francesca Lock’s On insomnia reflect the imprisonment perfectly, and likely resonant to anyone who has ever struggled with sleeplessness. As she says; ‘this is forever’.

In Shane McCrae’s The Hastily Assembled Angel on Care and Vitality, spaces act as cracks, a flickering image where perceptions don’t align until the very end, tangible feeling reserved for the final couplet as well.

Distance

The dichotomy between roots, belonging and identity has unsurprisingly been extensively explored by poets over the last five years – trauma for migrant communities in particular has been inescapable on a global scale. And all the ruminations on that subject here offer some unique angle; Pascale Petit’s luscious Tiger Gran, Chen Chen’s Year’s End and both of Nina Mingya Powles’ poems are exceptional highlights in that regard.

The mercurial Dean Atta tackles plenty with The Making, but there’s a clear sense of what you can learn from further afield, as well as the melding of the human and technology, of the tangible and the distant. In Fucking In Cornwall, Ella Frears finds connection in coldness, while in Maria Ferguson’s My Letters, anxiety and mundanity are far more comfortable than confronting a direct relationship.

The nature of compendiums like this are that certain selections feel slightly at odds without their entire contexts. Whilst beautiful, that’s certainly true of poems from the likes of Natalie Diaz and Martha Sprackland.

But what the Forward Book of Poetry always does best is show the extent to which resonant, powerful poetry is in rude health. The best way to view it is as exactly what it is; a primer for serious, essential talent in contemporary writing.

You can buy The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 here.

Book Review: David Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders

Skelton's Guide to Suitcase Murders: 2 (Skelton's Guides) (Skelton's Guides,  2): Amazon.co.uk: David Stafford: 9780749026882: Books

Renowned literary chameleon David Stafford’s new novel is a hugely fun, humorous and accessible take on the 1920s murder mystery dynamic

Edition Published by: Allison & Busby, 2021

There are few who understand multi-faceted drama quite as well as David Stafford. His experience spans decades across media for theatre, TV and radio, crafting work with the likes of Benjamin Zepheniah and Alexei Sayle.

It’s no surprise, then, that the trademarks of his addictive style – genuine laugh-out-loud humour and a wry approach to societal ills – run rampant in Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders.

Set in 1929 Britain, barrister Arthur Skelton’s life is uprooted when a woman’s dismembered body appears in a suitcase. Faced with the task of proving the murdered woman’s husband – Dr Ibrahim Aziz – innocent, Skelton and his clerk Edgar Hobbes embark on a gritty journey that’ll see them traverse London, Yorkshire and Scotland to find the true culprit before Aziz is sentenced to hang. 

Quiet Humour and Potent Ethics

Right from the off, Stafford indulges in rich character dynamics and descriptions, as well as a sense of real childlike wonder; the possibilities eeked out of bleak, rural Britain seem endless:

‘One of the great things about the gravel pit was, just like it had ate the kid who died, sometimes it sicked stuff up’.

Like a lot of the best British comedies, Stafford draws humour out of the relatively mundane; Cluedo, for example, or discussions about the sizes of suitcases. But it’s always instantly recognisable. And the relationship between Skelton and his wife, or Skelton and Edgar, thrives and is brought to life by that brilliantly dry timing.

And as theatrical as the dialogue can be, it’s also fulsome and always well realised. Just as humour quickly rises out of thin air, so too does ethical potency:

Mila: ‘Flying isn’t a matter of brute strength; it’s a matter of endurance. And women endure. Women endure’.
Skelton: ‘Yes, they do. I’ve noticed that’.

Sure-fire Political Designs

Thanks to intricate crafting and sensitivity, the morality in the book never seems crowbarred-in. Where issues of race and gender arise, he tests the temperature of modernity and mixes it with 1920s sentiment perfectly.

In the early stages of the book there are reflections of dark truths come to light at the BBC in recent years and critical thinkers who subscribed to a poisonous Eugenics mentality. And he clearly understands the political dynamic between Britain and Egypt in the early 20th century. It’s direct in its social commentary, whether it be taking aim at racism or religion. And the progression of young legal student Rose Critchlow is a whirlwind come the novel’s end.

The Most Readable Murder Mystery of 2021?

Stafford brings everything full circle with a light, deft and nuanced hand. The narrative conclusions for most of the characters are as hilarious as they are touching.

Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders can be considered one of the truly accessible, down-to-earth murder mysteries, helped in spades by rich portraits and human tangibility. It’s always immense fun and might just be one of the most readable murder mysteries of 2021.

You can buy Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders from Allison & Busby now.

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Book Review: The Middle Of A Sentence

The Common Breath on Twitter: "And, 4 / 4. 'THE MIDDLE OF A SENTENCE' - our  anthology, due out 01.12.20 The incredible list of included stories &  writers can be viewed via

A new short prose anthology from Scottish indie publisher The Common Breath, The Middle Of A Sentence tackles the staring chasms ever-present in modern western society in beautiful, evergreen and shape-shifting ways.

Edition Published by: The Common Breath, 2020

The debate between the power of the novel as compared to short fiction is ages old. How can one build a world as illustrious as Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall, or as vivid as Khaled Khalifa’s Syria, with less than a few thousand words?

It’s a view that Brian Hamill, literary standard bearer, mastermind behind The Common Breath and editor of The Middle of A Sentence admits to holding previously in his introduction. It wasn’t until reading Carol Joyce Oates’ 1988 collection The Assignation that he realised:

‘… stories of such brevity did not have to rely purely on arch humour or abrupt non-sequitur for their effect, but could provide a truly great depth of characterisation and emotion also.’

That sense of world-building is easily achievable via short prose, and The Middle Of A Sentence proves it. And the myriad angles, traumas and societal commentaries that the anthology offers each react to our reality and speedily convey an alternative one, where normality and anguish become whatever the reader makes them.

I’ve attempted to sum up some – and by no means all – of the ways in this review.

Lockdown As A Mirror

If the short prose format offers a unique opportunity for experimentation, then it makes perfect sense for it to react to zeitgeist crises. As open-ended as many of these stories might be, they can at least be viewed as lockdown adjacent. Essentially, they take mundanity and run with it, but allow it to become as lucid and bizarre as any imagination might do when confined to the same four walls, 24 hours a day.

This is apparent from early on, with Jenni Fagan’s The Ship exploring notions of compassion and stagnancy in gripping, hallucinogenic style. Sometimes the assertions are direct: ‘it’s been going on for months’, ruminations on failing to get dressed, hand sanitiser and dancing words all proving weirdly relatable. But in the end, it’s only caring for somebody else that unfries our protagonist’s brain.

Fagan’s work with various vulnerable groups as well as female prisoners places her neatly and astutely at the epicentre of much of Scotland’s literary genetic make-up. The endearing desire to give something back to society on an everyman level has always existed in Scottish literature, and The Ship uses that Irvine Welsh-ian angle of weirdness as underpinning communal spirit.

There’s a pervasive sense of some of these stories being reactions to *our* reactions to lockdown, too. Take Donna McLean’s Signal, for instance. Technology – and in particular social media – is so nefariously dominant in our hands and lives these days that it’s impossible to ignore this story’s evergreen assertions. Indeed, its sinister suspense hints at a far larger imbalance, in both technology and gender relations. Its ending is multi-faceted:

‘Signal. Where all our secrets disappear’.

But I found it especially cloying given how inescapable it makes technology seem. When your only route to public expression is via social media, some people’s secrets are – often rightly – impossible to mask. Signal eradicates the distance between a user and what they might post on social media. During lockdown, when even the tiniest senses of self-obsession need a release, many people have seemed to deny themselves the choice in looking for worth online.

Similarly, the magnification of what are often everyday concerns feel totally consuming when viewed in an isolated reality. These moments don’t so much represent the abyss gazing back at you as they do make the abyss take on a multitude of different, distinctly tangible shapes. The loneliness in Kevin Williamson’s Ponderous Stuff could reflect sibling rivalry as much as either communal consciousness or struggling romance:

‘Scared of being together. Scared of being alone’.

Examples of what might have previously been written-off as absurdist hilarity now seem weirdly believable. Stewart Home’s A Hypno Kink Princess is the epitome of this, using masculinity and its commodification of sex as a step ladder to domestic embarrassment that’s probably far more widespread than many people would care to admit. Shortly afterwards, Howard Colyer’s two-line Ready embodies the same sense of losing oneself to nothingness in brilliant, beautiful style.

It also takes on far more poignant shades. The ebb and flow between stark reality and hallucinogenic mindfulness in Wayne Conolly’s quietly heart-breaking Blood Cancer seems to be as much a complete disconnection from self as it is searching for meaning and solace.

And while Stuart Murray’s How Ye Keepin Anyway is ostensibly a play on the fairly obvious notion that isolation might lead to alcoholism, its simplicity also connotes another inescapable truism: addictions might seem easy to avoid, but they’re far easier to succumb to.

How informed by lockdown any of the stories are, I’m not sure. But that’s another secret beauty to open-ended storytelling. If people see a version of themselves that has only been prevalent for the last year in these stories, then that can only be a connector. The slew of lockdown novels, albums and films has already permeated to a kind of tiresome extent, but short prose’s advantage – only having a finite time to convey anything – conversely makes them more everlasting than you might expect.

Racial Prejudice and Anti-Imperialist Sentiment

Unfortunately, oftentimes these days it seems that society’s reaction to trauma is contained by brevity. It’s a sentiment encapsulated brutally and distressingly by rapper Killer Mike in the Run The Jewels song ‘Walking In The Snow’ from last year:

‘The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy’.

How revitalising it is, then, that the myriad variations on short prose in The Middle Of A Sentence prove that brevity doesn’t have to be a shallow pit. In fact, in the hands of these writers that sense of having very little time to say something massive is melded into beautiful, if bleak, forms.

A large part of that bleakness is confronting societal ills that exist around us all the time, and that here in Britain we’re depressingly adapted to ignoring. Whether dealing with toxic masculinity, race or sexual abuse, at their most powerful the stories here make you feel queasily uncomfortable.

Rachael Fulton’s Blood is one devastating example. Whilst ‘shock factor’ is a terminally overused phrase, when Blood appears in the sequencing here it’s like a sucker punch to all the ribs at once. The seething putrescence of the mindset depicted, the hatred and embedded culture of peer pressure are all recognisably commonplace in Britain today. But again, its domesticity and vulnerability of the protagonist are its calling card; it forces society’s cracks open and a patriarchal, toxic, largely right-leaning society to gawp at itself.

Admittedly, for those of us on the left it’s pretty much preaching to the choir. With political entrenchment so thorough as it is now, showing Blood to an EDL member might not change anything. But it also calls us on the left to account for allowing this to happen. Nowhere near enough has been done about the growing far-right presence, and to some extent it has festered so much because we’ve let it.

It’s crucial to view these injustices from a non-white lens too, of course, and the anthology delivers on that front too. In Two Happy Meals, Nigerian writer Chiga Unigwe channels the paranoia of emigrating to a society (in this case the US) where the totally unwelcoming infrastructure is embodied by that most over-arching symbol of western consumerism: McDonald’s. In a sense it’s about desperately trying to be a part of something that doesn’t want you. But also – as the awful denouement contends – it’s about the realisation that maybe it was ever thus. The palpable sense of distrust she feels is inarguable in the most evidence-based way.

Ranbir Sidhu’s That Here They Call Castles offers the same distrust but in a UK environment, and almost more earthy sense in his description of ‘Ealing sidewalks’ as being wonky, ‘as if the builders were drunk or ever searching for that which was never in front of them’. It gets more direct as it goes on:

‘No one smiles here, it is a land colonized by a single expression, the lips flat, tight, they eyes unmoving’.

Sidhu’s castles, or ‘dungeons’ that are the ‘ill-lit living rooms’ become a reproach to everything that symbolises English comfort. As we know, what’s comfortable to the wealthy barely masks the societal superiority complex that pervades it. In a way, Sidhu’s perspective as an outsider looking in is the ultimate advantage; it offers the British what they cannot see for themselves, and with far more cultural sensitivity than many of us could dream of. And yet there’s no mollycoddling; British comfort allows nothing for anybody else.

Masculinity, Class & Looking Inwards

Let me be clear: it’s important, to me, not to give any credence to the ‘war on men’ narrative. And that seems to be one aim of The Middle Of A Sentence too. In fact, pretty much all portrayals of masculinity here are steeped in suitably soul-searching pathos. Given the events of the last two weeks particularly, that feels right.

And besides, literature has had enough of definitively masculine perceptions. In a society where individual dominance is still valued above any sense of equitable outcome, portrayals of masculinity like those here cannot come often enough.

There are many examples, not least Brian Hamill’s hilarious self-deprecation. On the surface, both The Marriage That Was Ended By Rice and The fucking pest control are about the breakdown of a relationship. But there’s also a massive helping of self-denial. In the former its paramount. When his parents confront him about his part in the break-up, he shoves them off:

‘But it was. I know it was. If I’d never said that about the rice, that moment would never have presented itself’.

In the latter, it unfurls more slowly. Unhealthy drinking habits and an unwillingness for confrontation gradually conspire to create an undoing that he recognises full well, but will do literally anything to keep unacknowledged, except in fleeting moments: ‘I should say her name’.

Garry Cox’s Jesus Christ, 6 Days Short Of His 53rd Birthday rolls down the same road but simultaneously takes on more cultural, communal male inadequacies. It gets back on the absurdist bike, making the divine and unreachable hilarious and not so unfathomable after all; ‘Buddhism is the only religion he feels he might someday commit to’, he writes, before he’s enlightened by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and becomes consumed by trying to reduce his Union Credit.

It’s almost as though our narrator, just like Christ himself, accepts his lot; he does what he has to do. But it also suggests that Christ is just a hyper-extension of man, probably invented by someone looking for some higher presence. And isn’t that what all of us – and maybe especially middle-aged men – are trying to do in life?

But just as masculinity needs to be considered and deconstructed societally, so too must we look inwards to injustices in class and health. Julie Rea’s The First To Leave is one of the most ferocious examples, tackling personal displacement which ends in tragedy inadvertently created by the protagonist. Seemingly set within the framework of a care system, we learn that a lady has ‘a garden full of scrap metal and garbage, and she’d been given 30 days to clear it’. When our protagonist arrives ‘one stifling afternoon with a rusty lawnmower’, one wonders whether it’s an allegory for the decimation of the NHS.

Graeme Armstrong’s Landit is also ultimately about a failed state:

‘C***s like him never last, the madness that fills them takes them n they perish’.

There’s a terrible sense of potential avoidance, exasperated and undone by the notion that middle-class carers can never truly understand working-class desperations. The drug epidemic that throttled working class communities across Scotland will permeate for as long as austerity works to view those communities as unequal.

Recovery From Trauma And abuse

A crucial element to men looking inwards is amplifying female voices, and accepting their perspectives without taking anything personally. There’s always been room for that in literature, but the sense that literary standards have been too male for too long is still hard to escape.

Frequently, that sense of a system which automatically devalues the work of women is felt acutely. Though this anthology was published in late 2020, they take on an extra urgent tone in a world where women aren’t safe even from people whose job it is to protect them.

That’s done in various ways. Kirsten Andersen’s The Space Between uses cavernous blanks and formatting discombobulation to relay perceptions of bodily and sexual autonomy, a break-up, freedom of choice, recovery from trauma, suicide and the extent to which – in a patriarchy – self-determination can achieve anything.

Ultimately, more and more we seem to exist in a world where ‘she believed she could, so she did’ seems a maxim hard to grasp, and that’s reflected in its repetition and consistent isolation on the pages. Self-determination for women is easy to out as a lie, it seems.

Farah Ahamed’s Thin Air shames us even more. It’s prescient just now that – like all great examples of brevity – you might read it and consider Ahamed some sort of seer. But this is the way things have always been. There’s no sense of futurism or foreshadowing here; this is how life has always been for women.

Sarah Ward’s The Bridge is fascinatingly bleak, excavating the cruel effect both demonisation of femininity and toxic masculinity can have on women. There’s also a sense that it reflects the collapse of society, and how this country – which is amped up to be a hive of equality-based modernity – offers nothing to young women in particularly.

And Hattie Atkins’ Food And Wine replicates a heightened sense of emptiness and desperation in a setting we can all recognise. By re-defining a constantly changing activity – cooking – to be something regimented in tandem with enormous personal loss again reflects the cyclical and constant unease many women live with.

Language And Meaning

There are several spell-binding approaches to language and dialect in The Middle Of A Sentence which, if you’ve been following The Common Breath’s catalogue & online activity, will come as no surprise.

Landit offers language as another essential arm of its assertions of class. Literature written in Scottish dialect has often been a target for sneering (mostly English) middle classes, either dismissed as being ‘too hard to read’, or fetishized as a composite glimpse into working-class Scotland. Graeme Armstrong changes the dynamic of that perception dramatically. Given that it’s a piece of memoir, it’s strikingly direct, but there is a sense of distance between the narration and the subject. Scottish dialect, here, is not so much an embodiment of class as it is deeply entrenched, rising out of a divide that, ultimately, snobbery has created.

That new spin offers Landit a unique position as a purveyor of the impact of words when reformed to fit certain perspectives. Bernard McLaverty reforms the idea of a sentence itself in The Fountain Pen, in so doing proving its liquidous endlessness and all the time keeping tabs on self-expression. Essentially, the anthology ends on a rumination on what the actual point of words is, or more specifically, saying too much or not enough. And both sides of that coin are explored in other examples too.

Sherwood Anderson’s The Dumb Man – one of several examples of short prose from the late 19th/early 20th century – is an exercise in literal non-storytelling. It creates a deeply cinematic, vivid narrative out of what isn’t said. To me, it seems ostensibly about how love is the cure for death. But via sardonic humour, Anderson suggests that words might be over-powerful in the context of love and death, even unwarranted:

‘Why was I not given words? Why am I dumb?


I have a wonderful story to tell but no way of telling it.’

It’s a viewpoint rebuffed by Kirsten Anderson in The Space Between, and one paragraph in particular:

‘Chaos often lives here, in the space between
words and feelings.
Thriving on the manufactured masochism of being misunderstood.
Again and again we try to be understood.
Yet we ask each other to read between our lines.
Why offer up spaces instead of words?
People are ridiculous’.

How much Anderson believes that is unclear; indeed, she offers a different perspective in the following paragraph. But either way, it’s a testament to the power of each and every person’s voice, whereas Sherwood Anderson might argue that there are too many voices in the crowd. The Space Between excavates the dynamics in both words and spaces, challenging the idea that the human condition can be neatly pocketed by interpersonal relationships, and should be more clearly defined by individual thought.

Conclusion

It felt quite resonant to be reading The Middle Of A Sentence in the same week that the new Arab Strap LP came out. Aidan Moffat’s writing has always belonged in the same lineage as that of James Kelman or Alan Warner – both of whom feature here – and seems tied up in many of the same, bleak machinations in navigating 2021 society.

What Moffat and many of these writers share is the ability to eek reality out of absurdity. The distinction is in the sense of fun in Arab Strap’s music, and the sense of wariness in many of these stories. But no matter what you take from The Middle Of A Sentence, the glaring sensitive accuracy throughout the whole anthology is incredible. It’s genuinely very rare for every story in a collection of this kind to strike a chord with me, but each one did, in spades.

You can buy The Middle Of A Sentence here.

BOOK REVIEW: Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry

Soumen Daschoudhury's review of A Star Called Henry

Whilst there’s occasionally interesting stuff in A Star Called Henry, it’s marred by grossly outdated sexual politics that leave a nasty taste in the mouth

Edition published: Vintage, 2000

Acclaim is a strange thing. And as much as people like to state that they don’t care about/pay attention to critical acclaim, it almost always leaves a resonant taste in the mouth.

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, the first in his The Last Roundup series, is certainly critically acclaimed. There are many who consider Doyle one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, if not *the* greatest. It’s narrated, in coarse and strikingly frank style, by the teenage protagonist Henry Smart, from his earliest years in poverty in Dublin through his ascension in the IRA and his involvement in both the Easter Rising and The Irish War of Independence.

Sympathy with the Devil

From the off, Henry Smart is a deeply dislikeable voice, but Doyle measures that with his own sense of flare. His prose, whilst poetically loose, is accessibly lyrical. He presents a massive, glitzy Dublin alongside the seedy underbelly which is his emphasis with conviction.

His depictions of violence and the factional nature of the IRA, the paranoia and distrust are vivid and authentic. And there are some genuinely moving moments in the first third of the book; certain deaths and predicaments are shocking, some realisations evergreen and pertinent.

‘1916 is about contested memory and history’. A BBC Newsnight commemoration of the Easter Rising, 100 years on.

But rather quickly, as Henry becomes more involved with atrocities and delivers mean-spirited assertions, the question becomes as to how much sympathy one has with the protagonist. Essentially, how much do you care about their fate?

And by about halfway through, I didn’t care. And there’s a massive, ugly elephant in the room that seems to have been almost routinely ignored.

Gender Roles from the Middle Ages

That aforementioned elephant is that the sex/gender politics in A Star Called Henry are staggeringly misguided, even by the standards of 1999.

Firstly, the way Doyle writes sex is entirely devoid of romance – though one would expect that from the perspective of a 14-year-old. Its voyeuristic cringe-worthiness is just about manageable until incidents of statutory rape – involving Henry and one of his former teachers – become frequent.

Henry loses his virginity to that teacher, who is twice his age, at 14, and continues to have sexual relations with another older woman. He eventually marries the teacher, Miss O’Shea, at the age of 17 (he fakes his birth certificate to say that he’s 22) – she is 32. At no point is there any sense of impropriety at these happenings, neither in the novel nor in critical reception.

But just as offensive is that every woman in the novel exists entirely as a sex object for Henry. Miss O’Shea is given 1.1-dimensional portrayal via her willingness to partake in revolutionary violence, but that lasts for about two pages.

About 2/3 through, we meet a woman who is just as coarse and brutal as Henry. *Finally*, I sighed. A female character who might amount to more than a twisted take on desire. But no – Doyle writes her out as quickly as she appeared by saying that she wants to ‘rape’ Henry. I wish I was making that up.

Authenticity Vs. Distastefulness

It seems, from his own acknowledgements, Doyle did a fair amount of research into the era he focussed on. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. His gross approach to femininity and women on the page would be pig-headed in any decade.

To still have the same acclaim behind his writing, one assumes that Roddy Doyle has become better at writing women since A Star Called Henry. I’m not sure I’ll trouble myself to find out, though.  

An old, fractured image of Michael Collins, one of Irish Independence’s loudest voices. Image Credit: National Library of Ireland Flickr.

You can buy A Star Called Henry here.

World Book History #7: Music In A Crisis

It has been said a thousand times: music is the great healer.

From the earliest days of ritualistic dancing to cathedral choirs, music has always been the most direct form of creative expression. And many people will be feeling that as keenly as ever right now.

In desperate times, it’s always music that brings people together. Its value has been explored in literature for decades, but never is its impact more powerful for any community than when in a crisis.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that the Coronavirus is inspiring writers to ponder its resonance. Back in March, online music publication Pitchfork published this article detailing which albums its writers were listening to in order to ‘ease the lockdown’.

This article features three books which examine the impact of music in a crisis. From Northern Ireland to South Africa via Serbia, they exemplify just how universal the curative power of music is. They explore not just how music unifies people, but also the way it tracks cultural upheaval.  

‘Trouble Songs’, and music in Northern Ireland

Written by the legendary music journalist and activist Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs is the definitive examination of music in Northern Ireland. Spanning the entire four-decade conflict of The Troubles, Bailie’s book traverses from the early days of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Radio Free Derry in 1969, right through to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. Along the way he touches on seminal figures like Terri Hooley, John Lennon’s contrarian support for the IRA and the revelatory power of punk music.

Central to Bailie’s narrative is the way in which music acted as a revolutionary motion for the normal people of Northern Ireland. For many, it was a literal escape from an otherwise disastrous probability. As Jim Reilly of the punk group Stiff Little Fingers says: ‘All my friends I grew up with – they all ended up in the IRA doing long years in prison. And simply because I was playing music that kept me away from that’ (Bailie, 2019).

Stiff Little Fingers onstage in Berlin. Image Credit: Montecruz Foto Flickr

And in Northern Ireland, music counted for the truest representation of the community – a counter to the bias that was appearing elsewhere. Late on, Paul Hartnoll, one half of the English duo Orbital talks about their super-hit ‘Belfast’;

‘We just thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to actually make something that’s beautiful and lovely and soft about Belfast and put it out in England where everybody has a completely different view of the place?’’ (Bailie, 2019).

Bailie proves that during the Troubles, music was both a reaction to the violence and how people come together to rise above it.

How can Electronic Music Save Communities?

Rave culture also has a well-documented history of inclusiveness, from its early beginnings as minority expressionism in the US to the fall-out from the Berlin Wall in 1989. Matthew Collin’s Rave On is meant as an exploration of clubbing across the world, but many of the communities he visits turned to electronic music culture as – just like in Northern Ireland – a reaction to their dire surroundings.

The most obvious example is techno’s birthplace, Detroit. Throughout the book, he hands the narrative over to those who were there at the time, including choice quotes from the likes of scene originator Juan Atkins; ‘There’s nothing to do here. There’s nowhere to go; the scene is dead. That’s why our stuff sounds like it does’ (Atkins, 1988).

The story is similar in Israel, where the psytrance scene has consistently seen Israelis and Arabs push beyond the never-ending conflict and conservatism there. Like in Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs, Collin emphasises how it’s most notably the everyday, normal people that come together to push back against distasteful politics and partisan atrocities.

And in his chapter about the impact of house music in South Africa, he examines why it means so much in a country still marred by racial division. But again, in places like Cape Town and the suburbs of Durban, music is what unites black and white people above everything else. When talking about black and white kids partying together for the first time, he makes a profound assertion; ‘rave culture, with its implicit message of tolerance, suggested… that another way might at least be possible’.

What toll does a crisis take on music?

The Troubles saw a high physical cost to musicians. The horrific case of the Miami Showband Massacre is the most infamous example.

But Asne Seierstad, in her wonderfully human With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia, navigates the mental cost in the final chapter with Yugoslav pop/rock titan Rambo Amadeus.

From the beginning Amadeus’ music reflected civilians’ distrust and their suppression by a malignant regime. He has always cultivated himself as a protest against the uber-nationalistic musical fare that dominated the Serbian charts – and pretty much acted as a propaganda machine – in the late ‘80s.

Rambo Amadeus. Image credit: zeljkoo Flickr

On the one hand, Seierstad spends a lot of time dealing with Amadeus’ cultural importance. When she observes his gigs at the time of writing (1999/2000), he remains as popular and performative as ever, providing welcome relief to students suffering the perennial economic hardships since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

But as he reveals at one point; ‘I’ve asked my parents not to tell me anything related to politics – I’m just sick of hearing everyone complain while nothing happens’. Amadeus expresses what we know many musicians come to feel; that kicking back against oppressive governments – and dealing with everyday political life – is exhausting, and ultimately devoid of romance.

Conclusion

During the coronavirus, many people will have sought solace from music. But a literary approach to why and how it has that power is a useful tool.

Music provides an escape from political wrangling and Machiavellian point-scoring. While much of the press will be focusing on how politicians across the world deal with crises, explorations of music are far more human and relatable.

Music accompanies change, growth and development on a global scale. The three books here, alongside others, are prime examples of why that’s so important.  

Purchase Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from Waterstones here.

Pick up Matthew Collin’s Rave On for an insight into how dance music has also changed Shanghai, New York and more.

And head here to purchase Asne Seierstad’s now classic With Their Backs to the World: Portraits From Serbia.

World Book History #6: Terrorism in Western Literature

How do you write about a lived experience which is not your own? More importantly, *should* you?

Those are questions which must haunt fiction writers all the time. And they need to be considered whenever writing think pieces, articles or blog posts too. It’s clearly not true that everything worth writing has already been written. But when considering certain contexts, there is a discussion to be had around who should be doing the writing.

9/11 and Its Impact on Literature

Post-9/11, terrorism in literature became a small zeitgeist movement in the West. Unsurprisingly, most of that occurred in the US. That horrific day cemented in Western minds the terrifying reality that Arabic, African and Central Asian countries had been experiencing for decades. Terrorism is obviously a well-found fear, but paranoia can be a very dangerous tool as well.

And Western literature hasn’t risen above the more pernicious, xenophobic elements of the aftermath either. It’s not alone in that; that paranoia has been capitalised on right across Western entertainment media. Numerous Hollywood box office hits have laid themselves on a dubious bed bolted together by a distrust of foreigners since.

Unfortunately, in the hands of writers, that same alarm-ism can be wielded in just as worrying a fashion. Just like how war films are often showcases of patriotism without any real nuance or second glancing at the wider situation, authors can be fuelled by the darker connotations of the society around them.

At its core, American Sniper is about white fear
Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s 2014 blockbuster American Sniper.

Notably, you don’t see the same misguided one-sidedness in much Middle Eastern literature. Why? The difference is in that idea of a lived experience.

The Lived Experience

The history of violence in the Middle East is impossible to surmise quickly. It’s as much a result of despotic power structures and foreign intervention as it might be religious zeal or the desire to protect one’s livelihood. The issue with Western authors writing about these situations is that they often have no understanding of them beyond how their media frames them. The distinction comes down to what writers have actually seen.

An example of the dichotomy between an American lifestyle and lived experience is Khaled Housseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, a novel whose acclaim transcends the cultural divide. Housseini has lived in America since the age of fifteen but sought political asylum during the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s. It’s the beauty of the liquid and emotional praise which makes his book so appealing, and Housseini’s ability to challenge Western readers with both distant horror and relatability.

But when approached by writers who have no lived experience, it becomes problematic. Take the American author Richard Updike, for example. He has famously admitted that the majority of research for his 2006 novel ‘Terrorist’ was conducted via a book called ‘The Koran For Dummies’. It’s an attitude problem. If my friend comes to me and says that he hates immigrants based on the Brexit Party’s manifesto, then it reflects the same desire to absorb the quickest or most reactionary reading material.

A good example of writing which encapsulates the entire complexities surrounding extremism is Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s ‘In Praise of Hatred’. Amidst a maelstrom of violence, torture and hateful worldviews, Khalifa manages (at points) to make one feel pity for some perpetrators, without ever choosing a side. There’s a caveat in this case, in that Khalifa is a man writing from a woman’s perspective. But he writes with the kind of sensitivity and understanding that many Westerners lack towards Arabic gender politics. 

Open letter from Khaled Khalifa
Khaled Khalifa, the author of ‘In Praise of Hatred’.

There are exceptions to the rule. As Ruth Franklin highlights, books like Lorraine Adams’ ‘Harbor’ provides an example of a US author with the nous to intricately research and shape their characters’ perspective and journey. And there’s plenty of ‘Troubles’ fiction which uses drama as a tool for exposing the wider reality, rather than making it a baseless, narrow pool. Brian Moore’s ‘Lies of Silence’, for example, mirrors a lot of Middle Eastern literature in that it depicts the everyday people, who want nothing to do with the violence, as the pivotal victims.

An interview with US author and former intelligence officer J. A. Walsh on writing about terrorism.

Representation of Arabic Writing in Education

Representation and format are to blame too. In the UK, there’s no foreign literature on secondary school educational syllabi at all, so readers are required to seek it out for themselves. They’re often published in anthologies, but as Ruth Franklin wrote for the New Republic; ‘anthologies are panoramas, not stereoscopes; the picture they present is wide not deep’ (2016).

The short story format suffers from the same limitations. For example, in ‘Girl, Balancing’, Helen Dunmore’s 14-page-long ‘A Thousand Roses’ – which revolves around a woman who believes her foreign lodger named Khalid may be planting bombs in her suitcase – falls prey to that very ‘Middle England’ ignorance. But the format doesn’t allow for it either. 

There’s also the tenuous reality of translation of Arabic literature. The translations are re-configured to fit in with Western reading sensibilities. That means that there’s room for the messages to get lost in translation with regards to how the author intended them to be received.

Alongside all this is the long-standing issue of reach and distribution. As outlined in this paper about Saudi Arabian writing, much of the most evocative literature hasn’t travelled ‘beyond the Arab world’s periphery’ (Moghales et al., 2018). Obviously Arabic literature is far from the only type to be undervalued in this way. But on an issue like terrorism, it exposes Western publishing prejudices against certain perspectives.

By extension, the educational value of terrorist literature in the west in general is reduced. By fuelling the inward-facing, arrogant dialogue that has seen the ascendancy of Trump, this model suggests that despite having actually lived these things, Arabian authors’ stories cannot possibly be of as much value as Western writers.

Ultimately, The Answer Is Research

Without any desire to actually understand the people they’re writing about, Western authors will only create more literature that’s shallow and vacuous. If one has not or cannot live the experience they’re writing about, then they have to trust in the perspectives of those who have.

For readers, starting from within a culture and then venturing out is the best way to get the most balanced perspective. It’s just a shame that that option has never been as accessible as it should be.

World Book History #1: The Girls of Riyadh

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. Credit: ujahabdul

Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyadh is one of the most famous modern Arabic novels. First published in Lebanon in 2005 and immediately banned in her home country of Saudi Arabia, it’s certainly had its fair share of controversy.

Following the lives of four young women struggling with notions of romance and life in privileged but suppressive Riyadh society, it immediately inhabits a world unfamiliar to us here in the West. Observations of Islam and Arabic writing via the Qu’ran are at a dangerous fever pitch in 2019, so the book is certainly as relevant now as it was then, if not more so.  

Within the last few years we’ve seen a proposed travel band on Muslims in the USA. We’ve seen the increased prevalence of the far-right anti-Islam group the EDL here in the UK (though thankfully they now seem to be more forced onto the fringes).

We’ve seen would-be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson say that women in full burqas resemble ‘letterboxes’. Though Saudi Arabia lags behind other states still in terms of equality, all of those assertions have been made without any insight into everyday life for these women.

US President Donald Trump, whose Muslim travel ban made headlines around the world. Credit: Gage Skidmore

In the World Economic Forum report for Global Gender Gap parity in 2018, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 149, which is higher than previous years. Progressive attitudes towards women in Saudi Arabia have been incredibly recent.

Some of the changes, as further outlined by this article, have only occurred in the last five years:

  • The first university that women could attend, the Riyadh College for Education, wasn’t opened until 1970
  • It wasn’t until 2015 that women could legally vote and get elected to government
  • Until 2018, there was a driving ban for women.

The Girls of Riyadh doesn’t shy away from or deny some of the seemingly bizarre restrictions that dominate Saudi law. But the main philosophical sticking point of the novel is living within one’s means within the world around you. It’s something that all humans have to contend with, and especially women. It’s easy to think of the UK and US as egalitarian utopias, but the rise of fourth wave feminism has had to fight on many a hill.

Women in the West want to be successful, independent and stable, just like women in Saudi Arabia. By bridging that gap, Alsanea reduces the idea that the way Arabic women think, behave and exist is alien. The issues the four female protagonists deal with are issues experienced by most women; the societal parameters in which they operate are merely different.

There has been some controversy around the book’s misrepresentation following its translation from Arabic to English. But Alsanea herself has always been happy with the end result. In an interview with Penguin Random House in 2008, she said: ‘there aren’t many books Arabic books translated into other languages and that’s why people know so little about us’.

True enough, the translation has been a certified smash. It’s a bestseller across Europe and the US. But as more dangerous rhetoric becomes enabled, nuance is glossed over. Even if you think you’re well-informed but still find Islamic society mysterious, The Girls of Riyadh would at least provide you with an insider’s perspective.

The Girls of Riyadh is available from all good book shops and Amazon. Open your mind and bridge the cultural gap today.