Celebrating forty years of Seagull Books

I’ve always maintained that I’m an accidental reviewer, writer and editor. These paths, almost exclusively volunteer, opened up when my professional life imploded in my mid-fifties. But I have always been a reader. The best part of this unexpected second-life has been the many enthusiastic readers, talented translators and dedicated small publishers I have come to know from around the world.  Many I’ve been lucky to meet in person as, for the first time in my life, I travelled beyond North America. To South Africa, Australia and India.

A common connection between many of the readers and translators I’ve come to know over the years is the inimitable Seagull Books in Calcutta. Thanks to an intriguing post on a blog I follow, I bought my first Seagull—The Loss Library by Ivan Vladislavić—sometime in 2015 and was instantly impressed by the presentation and the unique content. Before long I was a committed fan and in early 2018 I made my first “pilgrimage” to visit their office. At the time they were coming up on their thirty-sixth anniversary, celebrating a slow and steady climb from very humble beginnings to their present status as world-class publisher of international literature—all while maintaining their humility and remaining  close to their Calcutta roots. An interview I conducted with founding publisher, Naveen Kishore following my visit was published at 3:AM Magazine. One year later I was back and, had Covid not intervened, I would have been back again by now.

Now,in 2022, Seagull Books are celebrating forty years of producing beautiful books, many that would never have been picked up by other publishers, and supporting and encouraging writers, translators and independent publishers in India and around the world. The occasion has been marked by awards, interviews and articles like this recent one about their stunning office and bookstore in Architectural Digest India.

As an avid supporter of my friends at Seagull I also wanted to do something special to honour this milestone. I have, I confess, amassed a healthy collection of Seagull books over the years, many as kind gifts and many more with the assistance of my credit card, so I’ve set myself a reading goal for the balance of the year. Now, to read and review forty books would be ideal, but I’m not that fast a reader and it’s already September. However, I have read and reviewed nine of their books so far this year and I hope to add at least another eleven by year’s end. Twenty for forty. With this little side project I hope to call some attention to the range of books they publish. And enjoy plenty of good reading, of course!

Pride Reading—Three: Love and Reparation by Danish Sheikh

My first two Pride reads for June 2022 were works by trans women, from India and the US respectively. My third read returns my attention to the Subcontinent, and dramatizes the impact of two important legal milestones impacting the Indian LGBT community over the past few decades. Part of Seagull Books’ Pride List, Love and Reparation: A Theatrical Response to the Section 377 Litigation in India is playwright and activist lawyer Danish Sheikh’s professional and personal reckoning with the effort to overturn Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the colonial era prohibition against “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” which had long been used to target members of the LGBT community, and the strange emotions that can arise when a lengthy battle is finally won. If that sounds like dry subject matter for theatre it is anything but. Sheikh deftly weaves material drawn from court transcripts and witness affidavits, with his own experiences and those of others to create a multi-voiced, engaging response to a life-altering legal decision.

It was, of course, not an easy road to decriminalization. Love and Reparation gathers two plays into one volume, a pairing that reads as both complimentary and necessary. Section 377 was first overturned in 2009, following a long, ultimately successful challenge of its constitutionality, in Delhi High Court, by the NAZ Foundation, an NGO. This welcome release would prove to be short lived; a week later an astrologer filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. In 2012, the final arguments in the case were heard over a six-week period. The first play, Contempt, draws on the court proceedings to creatively stage the legal arguments and affidavits that were presented to the judges. It is grounded in reality, as the playwright puts it, but is allowed to wander into passionate and poetic musings as witnesses share their experiences. The play ends with the judges’ fateful decision. In December 2013, the Delhi High Court ruling was reversed and same sex activity was once again criminalized.

A series of petitions challenging the validity of the judgement followed and after much delay, a five-judge bench was finally assembled to hear the matter in 2018. In September of that year, the earlier ruling was overturned, effectually decriminalizing queer sexual relations, in privacy, between consenting adults. The second play Pride, dramatizes the state the community finds itself in once the battle is over—both joy and uncertainty arise once the unifying bonds of the battle are no longer holding people together or framing their engagements with one another. The what now? moment. As Sheikh says:

Pride was my attempt to come to terms with—what? This time around, the object of my dissent was less clear. All I knew was that I had to write my way through this tangle.

Or, perhaps, to wrought this tangle into shape.

The drama revolves around sessions between a gay man and his therapist. He is trying to figure out why love seems so elusive to him. A character chorus of voices spread through the audience, speak to the legal case and the post-ruling experiences and presence of LGBT persons in Indian society.

For each play the setting and stage directions are simple and clear. That makes them easy to read and imagine in performance. By incorporating a blend of history, legal argument, personal accounts, and literary references, Sheikh has created drama that is both moving and at times surprisingly funny. In Contempt, the judges unwittingly supply the humour, pushing the lawyer to the point of absurdity at times and taking a little too much interest in the exact nature of unnatural carnal knowledge. The playwright admits he didn’t need to alter their words as found in the transcripts. The dramatized witness statements from a gay man, two lesbians and a transgender woman bring to life the reality of forced psychiatric interventions, innocent love affairs and brutal treatment from the police.

Pride demonstrates that legalization is not the end. There are, of course, more battles to wage to level the playing field for LGBT people, but there is also an uncertainty about how to live and love in a decriminalized landscape. How to repair all the years of existence up against the fear of being arrested simply for loving, for being yourself. The dynamic between the older female therapist and the young gay man whose conversations form the core of the play is very effective, and gives the drama it immediate emotional energy. As A. recounts his multiple failed attempts to find someone to love, T. challenges his conclusions.

A.  How does it work? How can it just come and go without warning? How is this not the most terrifying thing in the world, how can I wake up one morning and realize I’m out of love with this man who is otherwise perfect for me? How could Socrates wake up one morning and realize he’s out of love with me?

T.  Maybe he wasn’t perfect for you?

A.  Maybe

T.  And you know you weren’t perfect for Socrates.

A.  Possibly

T.  And then there’s the other thing.

A.  That I’m terrible at this stuff?

T.  That nobody is actually perfect for anybody else. It’s never not work. Sometimes you choose to do the work. Sometimes you decide it isn’t worth the work. You can’t choose how you feel, you can’t choose when it comes and goes. But that other part—that you can choose.

Their sessions are broken up by interludes during which the chorus of voices/characters speak to the legal fight against Section 377, the ways their lives have or have not changed since it was ruled unconstitutional, and, as needed, taking on a role within the therapy sections.

As an non-Indian LGBT person, I was not aware of the exact status of queer people in the country until more recently, but the final decision on Section 377 did come down following my first visit to the country, so it was of great interest to me. No matter what concerns face LGBT folk in the west, especially with the increasing pressure of more extreme right-wing conservative political influence, we are still accustomed to much more freedom and access to resources than our brothers, sisters and peers in many countries. The interesting thing for me in this book, particularly with Pride, is the examination of the degree to which achieving a measure of freedom can lead to a confusion or loss of meaning. It occurs at the level of the “community” leading to splintering and divisions, but it also happens in a deeply private way. Given my own personal journey, I have always held that I feel no shame but cannot embrace the concept of Pride. Without disclosing the protagonist’s revelation, I will say that this play has really caused me to question my conviction.

I feel this pair of plays holds much to appeal to readers interested in contemporary drama, legal debate, social justice and the evolution of LGBT rights, in India and beyond. The playwright clearly frames his motivation and inspiration for the writing of these plays in his introduction, while a timeline and an extensive resource list round out the supporting material. But most critically, at the heart of both plays are very important recognizable, sometimes disturbing, human stories that deserve to be heard.

Love and Reparation: A Theatrical Response to the Section 377 Litigation in India by Danish Sheikh is published by Seagull Books as part of their Pride List series.

Pride Reading—Two: This Body I Wore by Diana Goetsch

The second trans-themed nonfiction book I chose to read this month is, in contrast to my first (My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi), a literary memoir, but the transgender journey it details differs from the one that is commonly told because the details of the author’s actual transition are minimal and confined to the closing chapters. It is, rather, the story of one woman’s fifty-year-long odyssey to finally come to acknowledge what she had sensed from a very early age—that despite being born male, she was, and always had been female. So why did it take so long to acknowledge the truth? This Body I Wore is Diana Goetsch’s answer to that question, an eloquent chronicle of life that conspired to cloud the reality haunting her relationships and filling her closets for so long.

Goetsch’s account opens with her early unsuccessful attempts to form romantic or sexual relationships and her first forays out into the culture inhabited by cross-dressers. She is in 1980s New York City. The push-pull of her attraction to women and women’s clothing is exciting and confusing. She graduates college, lands a teaching position at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School and soon finds herself juggling secrets, while trying to build friendships and find a girlfriend.  By her early thirties she seems to be dropping all or most of the balls. That leads her back into her past to begin to trace the roots of her predicament.

The childhood described in This Body I Wore is one marked by little affection and an unhealthy measure of abuse. The youngest of two boys, Diana—or rather Doug (and briefly I am using male pronouns, this book spans decades of evolving and context specific usage)—is told by his mother that he was an “accident,” that is, unintended and unwanted. He grows up on Long Island, an athletic, sports-minded young man who seems to become increasingly and inexplicably unpopular. Although he is determined to keep his secret fascination with girl’s shoes and dresses and feminine undergarments to himself, it’s almost as if others sense a difference. Friends fall away. Doug cannot understand why; by the end of high school, unable to secure a college placement he feels left behind. I wonder how many trans people have experienced similar sensations of being out of step? I know I did.

The bulk of this memoir follows Diana’s efforts to build relationships with a series of women, most of whom she comes out to as a cross-dresser and with whom she explores social outings as female, but again and again her own male body becomes a barrier to full sexual expression. A trail of broken hearts and extended periods of loneliness carry her into middle age. Professionally, she spends a number of years teaching in a youth correctional facility, begins writing and publishing poetry, and tries to build a career as a writing teacher. Meanwhile, she increasingly dedicates her weary spirit to Buddhism, attending retreats and developing her practice to a point where she finally finds a way into her deepest self. Throughout the course of more than two decades she moves in and out a female identity that can be outfitted and carefully applied, then washed away and returned to the drawer. The decision to move forward is liberating, and increasingly magic as it gradually becomes her normal, everyday existence.

I enjoyed this book very much, it is a poetic and finely crafted tale. I will confess that I was reluctant to take it on. I have an uncomfortable reaction to memoirs, especially those with recreated dialogue and the inclusion of the stories that belong in equal part to those who come in and out of the story. Goetsch handles this well, with respect, but I did at times wonder about the women whose lives were exposed along the way. However, my greater concern was, as I mentioned in my previous Pride post, a general anxiety about trans stories, fiction or nonfiction, which I can never entertain as an impartial reader. As a transitioned man it’s impossible not to read myself into and against the stories of others and very often I find it an alienating and depressing adventure. Yet, This Body I Wore was a pleasant surprise.

Trans women and trans men typically have rather different trajectories, in both the coming to a decision to transition and in the treatment available. At least twenty or more years ago, the accepted norm for a “transsexual” man was a childhood as a tomboy, attraction to women, and commonly, for lack of any other place to seek an understanding of oneself, questioning sexuality or living as a lesbian. By contrast, my early reaction to the feeling that there was “a boy inside me” was not a desire to be male but the fear that my body carried signs of my wrongness, something I hoped I could learn to overcome. Although I could not believe it, I was pretty and reasonably feminine, not athletic or a tomboy or attracted to girls, but the gender insecurity was deep and increased as I grew older. I married and eventually had children, pushing to the back any careers or opportunities that I feared might reveal the truth about me. In the absence of any notion that trans men existed or what testosterone could accomplish, it would take thirty-eight years and an incredible emotional and mental toll before I knew I was not alone. Within two years of realizing the male feeling I’d fought against was me I was starting to transition. But my extended confusion, the searching for clues, the fear of revealing or even exploring what was happening, mirrors in a way the cross-dresser to trans woman scenario much more closely than the tomboy to butch to trans man route. In truth of course, transgender people are as diverse as any other people with unique social, cultural and emotional journeys to finally come home, but it is not uncommon for us to wonder, and debate, what it means to be “trans enough”.

It also struck me after finishing this book how flat Goetsch’s depiction of Doug seemed through the mid-section—the long adult years of exile. When Diana finally comes out to herself an entirely fresh energy enters the narrative, her excitement and growing confidence is palpable. Not surprising when I reflected on my own early years post transition. Once I was passing consistently and had established a new career and identity, I was forced to live stealth in my professional life so as to be able to keep a job and support my children—that is, I came out only to disappear into a closet. Still, the daily validation as a man and the thrill of no longer having to try to feel female, cast an unreal light on the past. It’s as if that life belonged to someone else as it drifted into the distance. No matter how lyrical the language, how vulnerable the account, I sensed a similar estrangement permeating the text. It makes sense and at the same time it’s refreshing because transgender memoirs can sometimes be combative and defensive. Goetsch avoids a tendency to overwrite her former existence; I imagine her maturity and her Buddhist grounding are at play. Transitioning later in life brings up such a sense of lost time, a mourning for what might have been, and that comes up here too, but briefly and with empathy and grace. In my own experience, transition is an ongoing adjustment and reframing for oneself in relation to a life lived across time and gender lines that leads to an understanding that those years “before” are not lost but a fundamental part of the person we become that a compatible sex/gender history could never afford.

This Body I Wore by Diana Goetsch is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Pride Reading 2022 – One: My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi

I have touched on the question of Pride before here on roughghosts. Each year as June comes around I face the increasing onslaught of rainbow enthusiasm with trepidation. It brings up a lot of complicated emotions for me as someone who technically falls within the LGBTQ spectrum but has never managed to find a home within that space. I am not ashamed of who I am, but I feel no thrill of connection with the notion of Pride and have some very painful memories of the rejection and intolerance I’ve encountered from within that “community.” However, every June I promise myself that I will face my anxieties head on with some sort of nod to the season, and, since my city does not celebrate Pride until late August, it’s more of an abstract goal. I don’t have to be out there, so to speak. I can read my way through.

This year I decided to read three books, two from India, one from the US. Two of these books are trans-specific, one of the Indian titles and the American work, both nonfiction. I don’t think I’ve read any trans-related nonfiction for at least twenty years, since the time when I myself was exploring transition and beginning my own journey. The works I have on my shelves and the common language and perspectives typically held within the transgender male support networks that saw me through the early years tend to be, to a new, vocal generation, offensively outdated. Distance and experience shape each trans person but, unfortunately, true diversity is not always applauded within groups of marginalized people who tend to be just as capable as any other group of fracturing along lines of race, class, sex, sexuality and gender, and insisting that those who are not like them do not belong. Trans people seem to be centre stage right now, inspiring plenty of negative and positive reactions in the process, but my own feelings about all of this, more than twenty years post-transition, are conflicted. I will just say that I am glad I came out and transitioned before the advent of social media.

The first book on my list is one I’ve been curious about for years, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, a trans woman and activist from India. Published in 2016, this book is a follow up to her popular memoir, The Truth About Me (2010). She does include an overview of her own basic life experiences: growing up longing to be a girl, running away from home to join a hijra community, her family’s often violent reaction, her eagerness to have surgery—castration for which she was awake—the dynamics within hijra society and the necessity to engage in begging and sex work for lack of other options. The world she describes is one which provides support but is also strictly hierarchical and sometimes cruel. It is an honest account, nothing is idealized, but she expresses pride in herself as woman and has tirelessly advocated for hijra and other transgender communities.

Revathi’s account of her work within not-for-profit agencies dedicated to supporting sexual and gender minorities, is quite telling. Initially she was welcomed to help expand their mandate, but it was often a fraught relationship in which, as a non-English speaking trans woman, she still battled the stigmas faced by hijras and other gender different persons. As her advocacy opened up to include the concerns of lower caste, dalit and adivasi (tribal) populations, the persistence of class biases even within organizations devoted to marginal groups ran deep. She spent a decade working with an agency in Bengaluru, an experience which offered a dignified, if less lucrative alternative to sex work, and taught her how to effectively advocate for trans people,  fight for their (and her own) basic rights—ID cards, passports—provide crisis support and legal resources, speak to international audiences, and much more. However, in the end it became clear she would never gain real respect from her co-workers. As she says:

We say that we work for the non-English speaking working class, for sexual and gender minorities. But I realized that as a director you are respected only if you are upper class and English speaking.

After leaving the agency, Revathi was again faced with the question of making a living without returning to the only avenues typically available to hijra. She decided to write a book. Sharing her story brought her attention and increased opportunities to speak for transgender people. Her memoir, originally published in her native Tamil, has subsequently been translated into English and a number of other Indian languages. Although a current of financial insecurity, family conflict and the tragic loss of friends and “chosen family” members runs through her life, I found her enthusiasm and heartaches to be endlessly moving. She seems to be forward looking, ever seeking to improve her own life and that of her community even when it has meant resisting the norms of traditional hijra culture. At the same time she alludes to moments of devastating despair along the way. Although my own experiences were not complicated by the extremes of class inequality and poverty faced by so many trans people in India, it was not and has not been easy. Discrimination, loss and isolation are very real for many of us. But what really excited me about this book is the extensive coverage of trans men who not only tend to be less visible, but lack the type of support network available to hijra who in turn frequently look at them with distrust, refusing to accept them as men. Revathi admits that she also had to overcome her own initial skepticism about the validity of the female to male experience—no surprise, I’m aware that many people, even trans women, still do not know we exist.

Included in My Life in Trans Activism are five profiles of trans men, transcribed from interviews the author collected, and two autobiographical pieces. I recognized these stories, but within the Indian context poverty, social class and the severe expectations and limitations placed on girls and women, especially in villages and small towns, vastly increase the challenges faced. The two personal essays were of particular interest to me, especially “Emperor Penguins” by Gee Imaan Semmalar who was involved in the theatre at the time of publication of this book but is now (I just had to search) a PhD candidate at the University of Kent. His account is striking because his mother, like mine, was supportive and his top surgery botched. Similarly, a long, lonely search for other trans men, a difficult decision to transition, then saving and searching for surgeons within a nascent resource network were challenges familiar to me, but this passage spoke clearly to concerns that never go away:

Health care (or the lack of it) is one glaring example of how trans people across caste along with the millions of poor dalits, Muslims, and adivasis of this subcontinent are denied basic rights. And so, every time a speeding ambulance goes past me on the streets, I relive my worst nightmare—of being in an accident and taken to a hospital on time, unconscious, with nobody to ‘explain’ why my body looks the way it does.

Health care where I live, even in an emergency, has been remarkably safe and respectful, but over the past few years I began to travel. I’ve made several trips to India where I am keenly aware of the relative security looking like a man affords me on streets where I sometimes see few women alone. But the thought of an accident or illness that would send me to hospital with a body that would instantly betray me is unsettling. I do have friends in the country who are aware of my status but I don’t think any realize what a predicament I could find myself in.

My Life in Trans Activism has an accessible, colloquial quality. Revathi was unable to physically write the book due to back problems, so she told her story in Tamil to Nandini Murali who translated it into English. Both women describe their working relationship as a special friendship and as such the narrative retains a natural conversational feel. What comes through repeatedly is Revathi’s passion and vision. She has observed divisions arise among members of the trans community within organizational settings, a not uncommon phenomenon within the wider LGBTQ community as well, but she continually speaks to unity that respects diversity, among trans people:

I believe that we are who we are. Being a transgender is all about who you are deep inside, not how you appear on the outside. Whether we call ourselves male to female trans persons, female to male trans persons, gender queer, we have to negotiate our transitions and our place in the world and struggle against oppression.

This is then, in many senses, a manifesto, one that ends with hope for a better world in which differences no longer tear people apart. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that may yet be a long way off.

My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi, as told to Nandini Murali, is published by Zubaan. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book in the fall of 2022. I imagine it may be updated as some of the legal circumstances impacting sexual and gender minorities in India have changed in the past few years. If so I will be curious to know her response to the current state of affairs.

Life keeps writing my story for me: A personal reflection on my mother’s birthday

May 2, 2022. My mother would have been eighty-eight today. This week just passed, between my father’s birthday on April 26 and today, is always the time when I think most of my parents. When they feel closest to me, like stars circling the planet. When their memories haunt me. This summer, they will have both been gone six years. But this past week has been a whirlwind of emotion in its own right and I’m afraid the time I wanted to set aside to be with them has evaporated.

Which has led me to think about what family means. About how much love and pain we can bear. And yet, what I can really say at this moment is guarded.

Same trail, same time, last year.

Last Sunday, April 24, I took a fall on a muddy, icy trail and fractured my left fibula above the ankle. At the time, I was still a treacherous distance from a point where I hoped medical attention might reach me and I knew from the screaming pain in my leg that I would never be able to walk all the way back up the hill to my home. Or, for that matter, drive my small standard transmission vehicle to the urgent care clinic to get it checked out. But I was still hoping on the idea of a “bad sprain,” so I called my son and asked him to come down with a trekking pole and I started to limp toward the access point.

I was inching my way down an incline thick with mud, clinging to a rope railing, when a young man came along. He was new to the city and new to the trail but he didn’t want to leave me alone. There was no place to sit without putting undue pressure on my injured leg so we waited until my son Thomas arrived and together the three of us continued down and then across a desperately slippery sheet of mud-covered ice. Soon a third helper arrived, one of the men I regularly meet and talk to on this path, and he provided extra support as we made our way up another hill and down a flight of rough steps to an open paved area. I called the emergency line and we tried to figure out how I might be reached. The normal access road is still impassable at this time of year, but a paramedic in an SUV was able to reach me on the bike trail and drive me out to where an ambulance was waiting.

Of course, there was still a long wait ahead, five hours at least, just to see a doctor at the clinic. With x-rays I had the verdict that leg was indeed broken. I was incredulous. I have some early bone loss and my diet and daily exercise have been focused on strengthening my body, but in the end it only took a rather classic fall to produce a common fracture. Common in athletes, I might add, if that is to make me feel better because I did not take up trail running until I was fifty-nine and never imagined myself even a casual “athlete.”

One week later, a little grief and depression has settled in along with the discomfort and agonizing difficulty of accomplishing absolutely anything on one leg and a pair of crutches. My injured leg can bear no weight at all for at least the rest of the month. I return to the orthopedic surgeon on June 1. I did rent a wheelchair for outings (assuming someone is available to carry it down a flight of stairs from my second floor apartment while I cautiously and gracelessly make my way down on my bottom end. I am terrified of falling on the narrow, old staircase. Chances are that could spell my end.  And no cruise around the neighbourhood will replace my daily walks and runs on my beloved trail—especially as spring arrives in force.

In the meantime, I have my adult son close at hand to help out. But I’m afraid that the responsibility and fear heightened his anxiety to the point that he turned to even more alcohol than usual and we had some very difficult moments. That’s all I will say at this time, because it seems like a change may finally be on the horizon (or a bottom has been reached). It won’t be easy but I’m willing to provide as much emotional caregiving as I can along the way.

It is this situation, however, that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. For years I have fussed with the idea of a “memoirish” project while, at the same time, memoir and autofiction has exploded into a genre of often very dubious quality with authors who seem to be able to drop boundaries and expose everything about themselves and those close to them without thinking twice. That holds no appeal to me. As a writer or as a reader. There are ideas I want to explore about living with mental illness, having a gender-different history and parenting a child with his own challenges. But my questions have always been more metaphysical than personal-detail-oriented, and I believe that my experiences, if interesting in themselves, are at once unique to me and in some sense universal to this messy business of living we all engage in. I am also aware that, even though both of my children are intrinsic to my story, they each have their own stories (or versions of my story) that I do not own.

How can one tell a “true,” yet necessarily subjective story that involves others closely and still respect their dignity and boundaries? There is a lot of anger, grief and joy in my story, like any other, but how can one write toward that emotion without exposing too much of one’s self or others? I know I keep waiting to move beyond all that before writing while knowing at the same time that writing is possibly the only way I will ever understand what I feel.

In recent years, I have published a few personal essays and poems in which I have sought to strike a chord between the raw and the abstract, but more recently I have been frozen. I only feel safe writing about the words of others. My own words about my life have remained strangely out of reach. However, of late, the desire to find them has returned.

So, on my mother’s birthday, with at least a month of down time ahead, as my son is making his own resolutions, I’m thinking it is perhaps time to open that work-in-progress file again. For my parents and my children and myself.

And maybe someone else will want to read it too.

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore (and a few words about Seagull Books for World Book Day 2022)

As I write this, it is World Book Day, April 23, 2022 and it seems the perfect time to call attention to a man who has dedicated his life to making important, challenging books available to eager readers and celebrating the book itself as a work of art, an object as delightful to look at and hold as it is to read. And now, that man, Naveen Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books, has a book of his own, Knotted Grief—a collection of piercing, spare poems that turns its attention to sorrow and anguish as experienced in both national and intimate spaces.

Poetry is, for Kishore, as I understand it, the product of a daily practice of writing—of putting words to the page every day, regardless of available time or present situation. As a friend, it is a discipline he has recommended to me, rather insistently in fact, but I fear I fell off the page some time ago and am only just climbing back on. His poetry has also been shared with those around him, appearing online here and there, even arriving on occasion in my own email inbox. One could even say that poetry tends to inform and permeate his prose and his speech—as if it has become, not a vocation or an exercise so much as a way of being in the world.

Knotted Grief, coalesces around “Kashmiriyat,” an extended cycle inspired by the devastating events in Kashmir in recent years. Across 105 spare verses Kishore paints a pained portrait of violence, misery and loss. The flickering light of candles, personified shadows, cold winter winds, bloodied earth, strangled silence—images of war fold in on one another, frozen by the photographer-poet’s eye and trimmed to their bare essentials, then revisited again and again.

6
bird stripped
of sight
seeking
refuge
in a sky
full
of bullet wounds

Most of the verses are short, a handful of lines, but midway through the sequence—50, 52, 55—stretch out, with anger and desperation rising:

elsewhere the echoes
of a candle flame muffled
by fingers that knew no pain

the stone floor
beginning to feel the cold
as bare footsteps walked over its grave

like a whisper
the angel gliding past
its silhouette fighting shy of the firelight

on a clear and blue sky is heard
the song of the winter wind
utterly and completely silent

a child’s memory of the future? (from 55)

Sadly, armed conflict and occupation are not unique to any one place or time and to read this poem as war rages in Ukraine and elsewhere, the words are not in any way diluted. Rather they dig deeper, strike closer to the core. In the following sequence, “Street Full of Widows” the painful universality of the human cost of war strikes hard:

Go gather the flowers               for the wreaths
go                   from door to door
                      gathering
.                            sheets for the shrouds

 

there is no time to grieve

When, then, we might ask, is the time to grieve? Grief is a fundamental part of life and living, complex and compounded as we grow older, and this theme in its more intimate sense guides the balance of the poems in this collection. The weight of sorrow is, at times, heavy, and Kashmir still lingers in the shadows, while the interplay of memory, dreams and desires carry the later pieces in a more fanciful and uplifting direction. Throughout, an unmistakable energy lifts and carries the poetry, rising and falling in mood and intensity, the weight and balance of each line carefully measured. One might imagine that the poet’s background in stage lighting serves him well. Certainly Naveen Kishore’s deep association with theatre, literature and photography stretching back over more than four decades fuels this moving debut.

Writing about books these past few years has opened for me a network of independent publishers I might never have encountered had I continued to let the literary bestseller lists guide my fortunes. It is, I suppose, one of the small gifts of having to leave my profession earlier than planned. I bought my first Seagull Book in 2015 and made my first pilgrimage to Calcutta in 2018. I’ve been back to the city once but hope that, if all goes well—as the world conspires against us daily—I will be able to visit Naveen and the rest of the Seagull family on this, the fortieth anniversary year of operations for a publisher that believes in the power and beauty of literature.

Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore is published in India by Speaking Tiger and in Australia by Gazebo Books

Some thoughts about two months of reading Norwegian literature

I started 2022 with a personal decision to focus on Norwegian fiction for at least January and February. There was no particular reason apart from a couple authors I wanted to visit or revisit and a general sense of Norwegian literature fitting nicely into a Canadian winter. Canada is a similarly northern country, albeit much larger, and I have often felt “at home” in the climate and landscape that emerges in much of what I’ve read from Norway. Of course, although I had a number of Norwegian books already on my shelves, this little project inspired the purchase of more, a trend that continued during the reading.

So, I have some thoughts about this experience. I read a total of seven novels or short story collections by five male and two female writers. This was the first issue. I had difficulty finding female authors of interest, although I have since become aware of a number I’d like to explore. My initial searches brought up a predominance of writers of noir and historical fiction—neither genres of particular interest. And then I inadvertently purchased a few titles that turned out to be Danish, not Norwegian, enough that I could probably do a month of reading female Danish authors. I will confess, though, that I was curious to read recent work by male authors my age or a little older, and in that respect, four of the novels I chose fit the bill.

I really enjoyed five of my selections, had a few minor issues with a sixth and was decidedly underwhelmed by a seventh. I decided not to review that title, as I felt there was little to gain by dissecting a novel I found so disappointing—I’m ready to accept that the problem is probably with me—but my response does deserve a few words here. The book is The Other Name: Septology I–II by Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls–Transit Books/Fitzcarraldo). I have yet to read anything but praise for this work which extends for seven parts over three volumes and I honestly expected it to be a book I would have liked. But, not so.

It’s the story of an aging artist, a widower, who is a misanthropic loner with a rather religious temperament. In the nearby city lives another artist with the same name, matching the same description, whose life has followed a very different course. He is drinking himself to death. Other characters in this small cast also echo one another in name and biographical details but live different lives. Or so it seems, because our narrator, Asle #1 as I thought of him, and no one around him, appears to notice the duplication beyond the name. The story unfolds in a ponderous leaden prose—a glacial stream of consciousness—ostensibly a single sentence, but one that reads more like “sentences” with an absence of full stops. Other punctuation occurs and any dialogue is off-set in the text. However, I could not help but feel that the author has given himself too much runway for the story he is trying to tell. It not only drags on, but his imagined memory episodes, like two sections where Asle watches (and listens to) a young couple (obviously himself and his late wife) in a park, made me irritated rather than impressed. The general narrative style and the potential metaphysical questions at play appeal to me, but the execution did not. I did finish it, if only to see if I caught the spark others have felt, but although the second part was an improvement, I can’t imagine going any further.

I could not help but wonder if The Other Name suffered in part from the fact that I picked it up, halfway through this project, after beginning with two books that I loved, my favourites overall as it turned out. Tomas Espedal’s The Year is a stream of consciousness novel in verse about aging and loss that is intelligent, humorous and sad, whereas The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is likewise a deeply internalized narrative, dark and meditative that also deals with grief and matters of faith. These first two reads were so strong—that is, perfect for me at this moment—that I filled in the rest of my Espedal collection and bought Ørstavik’s earlier novella Love. It’s worth noting that I was not put off Fosse altogether either, but rather than looking ahead to complete his Septology, I bought one of his very short novellas. I think I might appreciate his work more in a very tight space.

The balance of my Norwegian project featured three new-two-me authors, Thorvald Steen (The White Bathing Hut), Ingvild H Rishøi (Winter Stories), Kjell Askildsen (Everything Like Before)  and one long-time favourite, Per Petterson (Men in My Situation). When I think about it, the one theme that binds every one of the  books I read is isolation. That is, perhaps, a significant aspect of the appeal for me.

All in all, this little Norwegian project has been a rewarding experience—I read a lot of great books and bought even more. This is the first time I have set a solid goal early in the year and met it. I have also read and reviewed several nonfiction and poetry collections and one other short story collection since the beginning of January. It feels good have been so productive, slow reader that I am, but it will also feel good now to think about reading without any strict self-imposed objectives for a change. However, I do hope it bodes well for 2022, reading wise. I mean, we’re still dealing with the pandemic despite the willingness of many governments to believe it’s over and the worsening situation in Ukraine and ongoing conflicts elsewhere are terrifying. Then, of course, there’s climate change and so much more. I would suggest we need literature and art more than ever at this time.

“I am, overall, quite glad to be human” Modern Animal by Yevgenia Belorusets

The small volume fits in the palm of your hand. It opens with a series of lectures. The speakers are human or animal, the audiences composed of individuals who may be one or the other, neither or both. The line between what it means to be a human or nonhuman animal is necessarily blurred. What strange hybrid world is this? Fantasy? Allegory? Yes, no. It is, in reality, fiction extracted from raw facts and experiences too terrible to be accessed directly. This collection of stories, musings, questioning and philosophizing is drawn from real life as understood through animal metaphors. The speakers in each piece are victims of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas who find voice in a form that illustrates the confusion, despair, resistance and resilience of the Ukrainian people in a way that conventional reportage can only hint at. Yevgenia Belorusets wrote this book, Modern Animal, just last year in 2021 after six years interviewing those living in the contested region. Now, with a full-scale invasion underway, the strangeness and horror of life during wartime is being played out across the entire country.

Belorusets is a Ukrainian journalist, photographer and writer, writing between Russian and Ukrainian, who has dedicated herself to documenting the lives of the disenfranchised—even the non-human—who exist on the shifting borders of social, economic and political realities. As I write this she is in Kyiv, reporting daily from the street level, photographing when possible, recording her encounters, and describing her contacts with friends caught elsewhere in worse situations. Each day at 4:00 pm ET, the publisher of this volume, isolarii, posts her latest update to their site and I wait for it, just to know she is okay. This missive with its growing mix of melancholy and resolve gains new followers every day. Having read Modern Animal it feels like life imitating art imitating life, but now filtered through a lens of stark realism.

When I first received a copy of this book months ago, I confess that I was not quite sure what to make of it. Each chapter was so different that I wondered if it was building to a larger fictional construct that I needed to track, to make sense of. Mentions of war and allusions to notions of ethnic cleansing emerge early on, but foolishly I was not putting two and two together. Perhaps I was not well informed about events in Ukraine and, of course, at that point Russia had not yet started amassing forces on its wider borders. And even then, few expected full scale invasion. But as soon as the wind changed I reached for Modern Animal and started from the beginning again.

It may seem a small act, but literature can bring foreign truths home in a way straight nonfiction, news media and internet interaction cannot. That is the brilliance of Belorusets’ approach, though I’m sure she would not have wished for it to be doubly necessary in this way. The entries in this book are presented as lectures, documents, accounts and fables. There is a dreamlike quality that often reminded me of the writing of experimental Chinese author Can Xue. Off-side, if you like. In one chapter, for example, called “Migetti (fourth lecture-document: interview with a viewer)” the speaker talks about being very sensitive to the emotions of animals and describes a German language animal video that she found especially moving. The film chronicled the adventures of a she-wolf named Migetti, whose entire pack was killed during an outbreak of canine distemper. As the lone survivor, she sets out in search of another pack to accept her. Her journey is difficult, the viewer is terribly worried about her fate and overjoyed when she is finally successful in finding a new community. But the final paragraph is telling:

Oftentimes, we don’t feel anything, even when major tragedies strike. We see earthquakes, explosions, wars, but we can avoid thinking about these narratives as though we’re walking down a separate road. But here, it all happened differently. She still haunts me.

Questions of fate and the nature of humanity recur. Narrators describe their connections to cats, dogs, birds, and horses. Some stories are melancholic, others cruel, but many carry a stubborn magic—like the wonderful tale of a hen who carries the soul of a woman who died in a city hospital far from her mountain village back home, but then continues to share her body with the dead woman’s soul for the rest of  her life. With the recent exodus of refugees from Ukraine, this fable bears its message of hope in a new context.

Sadly Modern Animal has become a sharply prescient text of late. One of the most striking entries, simply titled “A Small Aside” begins with mention of American interference and even reference to Afghanistan, followed by a tirade about war (and dogs) but ends with the speaker’s expression of his refusal to take up arms in the present conflict in Donbas:

I won’t go fight this time, not for this side, not for that one.

What kind of war is it when no one even calls it a war.

Only if tanks roll into Kiev, then I’ll pick up my gun and go defend my house and family! I’ll stand on the roads to Kiev! I’ll stand like a boulder, I won’t let anyone get past me.

I am aware that the attention Russia’s invasion has garnered has drawn questions about the many ongoing conflicts around the world that seem to be forever under the radar. And that is a very important issue. But as this small book demonstrates, war was simmering in this corner of Ukraine for years. We human animals are, if anything, very good at looking away.

Modern Animal is a haunting read, an often entertaining and disturbing treatise on life during war—a collaborative, animal-sensitive effort between Belorusets as author, documentarian and photographer, and the people who have already been living with conflict for half a dozen years. Important when published, it is now essential reading.

Modern Animal by Yevgenia Belorusets is translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich and published as part of isolarii’s series of “island books.” It has been reissued and can be purchased here. One hundred percent of the proceeds will be donated to support Ukrainian charities.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

Changes: Ever in search of balance – A reflection

I don’t know when I ceased to exist, or how I fell off the face of the earth. 

I wrote this line in my journal on July 15 of this year. I’d been plagued by a persistent emotional heaviness for months, but over the summer that weight seemed to intensify. I began to look to the future with anxiety, to wonder how to find the will to keep existing. I had not written a single creative piece in the better part of the year. I struggled to read. I had given up editing because the necessary focus was gone. The only thing I could manage consistently was to put on my shoes, head out the door, and walk and run.

I have not missed a day.

Calgary, Alberta: Bow River Pathway

Of course, these days everything  is tinted by the pandemic. Normal is a nebulous concept. Where I live, our fourth wave is rising fast, we are once again leading the country in all metrics except vaccinations. Hospitals are beyond capacity and those who work the frontlines are exhausted and demoralized. All for lack of political will. The situation fuels stress, anger and concern. But I’m not alone in my reaction—in fact to feel less would be worrying.

My own condition has held firm no matter.

Calgary, Alberta: Bow River Pathway

A few weeks ago I made two decisions. One after extensive consideration, the other under relentless pressure. First I decided to go back onto the medication I went off a year ago last July following a diagnosis with bone loss. I’d taken that drug for twenty years and it seemed that a change might be good. But the transition onto the new (to me) treatment was extended, difficult, and, as I discovered, cost a vital aspect of my creative spirit.

Second, the day after beginning to add the target med, I agreed to take on a supervisor role at our unnecessary federal election—on the first day of confusing new COVID restrictions. When I expressed my concern about side effects and a sixteen hour day requiring some ability to focus, my worries were waved off. I made it through the day but it was blur. Somehow it seems that if you have a mental illness but can still tie your own shoes and drive a car, your symptoms are disregarded either at the beginning or during treatment. And it seems like this medication change is shaping up to be another. I was so excited when I finally decided to return to my old treatment. I was looking forward to catching up on reading and reviews. I had not factored in letters that would appear to dance across the page  or the associated nausea and instability.

I sure hope I can still read when I get to the other side. And run too.

Calgary, Alberta: Douglas Fir Trail

Meanwhile autumn has settled in around here. There’s a chill in the air and the trees are bursting with colour but a certain sadness lurks in the vibrant leaves. All those branches will soon be bare. Life is but one change after another, seasons tumbling down the years.

All photos by Joseph Schreiber