Give me better ghosts: Nekhau by Rico Craig

When we are one hundred and thirty
pages old and it is still night, you place your hand
on my shoulder and still the shovel I’ve been swinging

into darkness. This is place of many walls,
many arms, endless caverns where we are
always at work turning what was into what will be.

(from “Caverns”)

Nekhau is my second encounter with the work of Australian poet Rico Craig. It’s his third collection. I read and wrote about his debut collection, Bone Ink, back in 2017 when I was still building my confidence as an amateur reviewer of poetry. In the meantime I have published a few of my own poems and written about a variety of poetic collections, but I still see myself as someone who lacks the language to critically analyze poetry and am quite comfortable with simply allowing myself to respond or, as I suggested when I set out to review Bone Ink, write through the experience of reading a collection.

With this new work, the focus is love, that most essential and ancient poetic theme. Craig is, as he says, asking the reader to “sit with love, to share hopes and fears.” Swimming through the collection, offering a shimmering thread of connection, are fish—real and talismanic alike. The “nekhau” of the title are small metal fish-shaped amulets created by Ancient Egyptian craftsmen to be attached to a loved one’s hair as protection against drowning. These charms are echoed explicitly and implicitly throughout:

These nekhau-poems aim to preserve and shield: they are reminders of dangers near, distant, even imagined, that bear upon our experience of love. Their existence becomes a rehearsal of loss and an expression of hope.

The lyric “I,” then, carries the capacity to speak for any of us, our loved ones, friends and families, as the poet mines the intricate and intimate dynamics of our interrelationships with one another, in a world born of flesh and dreams.

Nekhau is divided into three sections—End, Nekhau, Future—and to move from one to another there is a sense of a change of environmental awareness. The first and longest section, “End,” seems to speak to an abstracted space in which corporeal and chimerical worlds meet; a dream-like quality infuses the poems. The central section which opens with the title poem, “Nekhau”, a piece that also appears in fragments sprinkled throughout the book, holds to a more immediate domesticity and familial themes, again with an otherworldly tint, while many of the poems in the final part, “Future,” are set in locations abroad or otherwise marked by an a away-from-homeness. Across the collection, in addition to the small fish glimmering through the verses, distinct motifs link poems directly and indirectly, erupting in a visceral language that transcends experience. I could quote endlessly from this delicious collection but this, a length of the closing passage of “Black Swans” speaks volumes, distilling the power of Craig’s poetic imagination:

The river is a misshapen question and we answer, waking,
white air, the love beneath an eyelid. Our molecules crush
against pale ether; our songs float on water, fill culverts,
push against the scarp. All night we protect the rocks,
hide them in our sleeves; and when sunrise wakes us,
we lift from earth. I’m floating above the bed,
beside you, in a half-dream light shines into. My ears are filled
with sounds—lungs expanding, the river expelling life.
There are shapes hidden below our skin and each morning
I remember you as clearly as blood remembers a vein.
Love is cellular, in the sky, and you are still beside me. We will rise
and move into the day, encased in the people we are; we will drift
from this place, there will be buses to catch, clouds to be;
and for a moment it is impossible to know what has become of me,
become of you, if there is an I. It’s possible the scientists
have been truthful and we are clouds of swirling

matter, and only our pact with vision keeps us solid.

With his debut collection, Bone Ink, Craig was engaged a form of storytelling, slipping into characters, taking a frustrated attempt at prose writing and turning it into fragments of stories of suburban youth and riffing on artistic and historical themes. Now, two collections later his canvas is broader, more ethereal, but not divorced from quotidian routines or harsh contemporary realities. As he carries his reader (listener?) along a current sparked by the magic and the mundane, summoning fear and hope, one sense that the nekhau he invokes as a theme are also guiding his own passage, and growth, as a poet.

We are home you say, and I recognise nothing

of this darkness, only artefacts we have collected,
on we have rubbed across our skin,
treasures you have polished from dust.

(from “Caverns”)

Nekhau by Rico Craig is published by Recent Work Press.

No one’s immune from miracles: Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui

The destiny that now draws me far away from here is still called life, but I have to admit it’s like a leap into the void. They say that before he hits the ground a man falling from a great height sees all the moments of his existence come together and drain from him in batches of images.

And for me, it’s in batches of mingled words—that the life that brought me here is melting away.

In what unfolds as one final personal war of words, echoing against the darkness that surrounds him, the speaker at the heart of Shadow of Things to Come explains what has brought him to the edge of an uncertain future. Piece by piece he pulls together the memories that comprise his twenty-one years of life, essentially setting down the details of his past and readying himself to let go of all he has ever been and known. As he recounts his story, he chooses his words carefully, holding onto them in the shifting moonlight, for his is a society in which language has been reduced to meaningless nicknames and slogans. Through a spare and cautious narrative, the image of an Orwellian nightmare slowly takes shape.

This novella by Togolese author and playwright, Kossi Efoui, is set in an unnamed African nation which has fallen under some kind of dictatorial rule in which, during the first stage—the “Time of Annexation”—people are disappeared and forced to work at a place known as the Plantation until relieved by death or madness. Once the “commodity” (oil) is discovered, everything shifts. The disappearances stop and a new future is imagined. Now, in the service of “Mother Rebirth,” an aggressive campaign begins to bring tribal forest dwelling peoples into the “modern” world—for their own good and to secure pipeline passage for the precious resource. Although Efoui has lived in self-imposed exile in France in opposition to the Gnassingbé regime, since 1992, it would be misleading to read this dystopic work as any kind of direct analogy for his homeland or any specific historical or political condition. The origin of the society his characters live in is never explored. As a result, this tale has an  amorphous quality that makes it widely applicable in space and time. And all the more disquieting for it.

The speaker, from the room in which he is hiding, recalls that he was five years old when his father, a saxophonist, was spirited away by two shadowy figures. The removals appeared random. Agents would arrive with the common incantation: On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest, and forcibly take their chosen target or targets away. But before they left, they would take all photographic evidence of the human forms they had come to retrieve. At the time it was unknown where all these unfortunate souls had been taken, only that “temporary,” like so much of the language employed, was devoid of meaning. Appropriate language was but another regulated item in a society in which compliance to an ever changing set of rules and guidelines was inforced:

Words themselves seemed to suffer the same restrictions as the circulation of approved commodities. The word ‘annexation,’ for example, was not to be heard anywhere. The way things were in my childhood, we kept silent a lot.

That degradation…says the speaker.

The loss of the speaker’s father drove his mother mad, she was soon committed to an institution and he was left in the care of Mama Maize, an eccentric woman who cared for a large group of abandoned or orphaned children, supporting herself by whatever means possible. Her goal was to pass on to them the tools, practical and emotional, that they would need to survive. Her moto was: No one’s immune from miracles.

And one day a miracle does occur. The speaker’s father returns, one of a minority of those who managed to survive removal. The speaker is nine years old by this point, The End of the Times of Annexation has been marked by celebrations of Independence and Rebirth, and when he has long given up hope of a reunion, out of the dust and shadows a man emerges still holding a saxophone case, “barely a skeleton, almost membraneless, wholly incapable of embracing—and voiceless.” The occasion is immediately recorded by a photographer.

The condition of the speaker’s father affords him a pension and a place to live in this new world order. Father and son move into this unit along with Ikko, an abandoned boy from Mama Maize’s home who is mistakenly added to the family group and becomes the speaker’s “administrative brother.” Our hero is a bright boy and this leads to his acceptance into the Spearhead Institute several years later. He is on his way to a promising future within the country’s societal structure but the confrontational atmosphere of the school puts him off. In time he finds himself skipping classes to hang out at Antique Editions, a bookstore run by Axil Kemal, a man who becomes a big brother or surrogate father, and offers an introduction to a world that runs against the norms of the rigid dictates of the state. It will be a mind opening relationship:

That’s what he was for me, the guide for my curiosity. At an age when you learn to believe in ‘thinking masters’, Axis Kemal was my laughing master and, sheltered beneath that laughter, my mind was kept safe from the diseases of truth, he said—that acne of the soul, he said.

It will also be a vital connection when the speaker has to make a decision about his own commitment to the future that is being laid out for him in a duplicitous society where what is said cannot be trusted and what is not being said cannot be fully imagined.

Shadow of Things to Come is, above all, a story about language and communication. The narrative itself is one step removed from a straight first person account—the protagonist’s reflections are being reported by an unknown third person narrator, who is listening to him, occasionally referring to him as “the speaker.” This undefined relationship, given the circumstances, adds a layer of uncertainty and potential threat. Whether he aware of his audience or not, the speaker is attentive to the power of words. To their use and misuse. He regularly comments on his ability, learned at an early age, to read the hidden intentions of others by the slightest creases in their faces. This is a skill that allows him to decipher the truths behind words, those spoken and left unsaid. But lack of communication, as with his mute and damaged father, troubles him deeply, as do the strange markings his adopted brother Ikko makes after returning from his conscripted service in the so-called “Frontier Challenge.” The tendency of people to fall back on slogans and stock phrases undermines communication and blurs the truth, but, of course, that is the point. When you can no longer trust what anyone says, one either goes with the program or looks for a way out. And to escape you may have to leave even your words behind.

Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui is translated from the French by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books.

At the back of the west wind: Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance  in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

These words of Marx occur twice in course of Eric Dupont’s Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution: early on, underlined in the book lying open on the lap of the protagonist’s recently deceased mother, and again as the story nears an end. But between the two occurrences it’s pure farce—even the tragic bits.

One has to wonder what goes on in the imagination of Dupont, the Quebec writer whose works have won awards and garnered impressive nominations in both the original French and in English translation. With his latest release from QC Fiction, he has defied the odds of conventional storytelling to pull folktale magic, Marxist idealism, sex work, the politics of language and culture, and a curse reaching back through the centuries into one oddly contemporary tale. From the outset it is probably best allow yourself plenty of rational wiggle room, accept the premise of the proposed wild goose chase or fool’s errand at the heart of Rosa’s grand adventure, assured that however unlikely, the novel’s internal logic will be disclosed before the last page is turned. And ten to one you won’t see it coming!

Our heroine here is Rosa, named after the famous revolutionary socialist, raised by her trade unionist mother, Terese Ost, and Aunt Zenaida, an anachronistic old woman, one hundred years behind the times, who literally emerged from a large block of ice Terese and her daughter found on the shore near their village and dragged back home to thaw before the stove. Home is Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot, a tiny hamlet “forgotten by God and all of humankind” out on the Gaspé Peninsula “where the wind can be a crutch to lean on.” Until it’s not. Little Rosa is raised on a healthy diet of Marxist ideology and regular rounds of Scrabble, but things are not good in Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot. The paper mill has closed down, and the local economy has been forced to rely on a mysterious gas called Boredom which is tapped and sold to foreign interests.

And then, one day, the wind suddenly stops just as a leak occurs in one of the pipes accessing the source of the precious, albeit poisonous, gaseous commodity. Soon, people start dying of Boredom, beginning with Rosa’s mother. Without the wind to disperse the fumes, the village is doomed. Rosa tries to find solace in her socialist texts but to no avail. Instead, the potential solution comes to her when she finds a giant winkle shell on the shore, places the massive mollusc to her ear, and hears her mother’s voice advise her that the wind comes from the west—from Montreal. Immediately Rosa, who is now twenty, knows what she must do.

So off she goes. Waiting for the bus to take her into the city she meets an international troop of strippers (as one does), and much to their collective surprise, a woman pulls up in a minivan and offers to give them all a lift. This savoir is Jeanne Joyal and it just so happens that she runs a boarding house for young women where Rosa is welcome to stay. All too perfect? All too perfectly weird, I’d say. Naive and trusting, Rosa arrives in Montreal dressed like someone from a distant era and immediately finds a job in a pay-by-the-hour motel, across from a club where her new friends perform Communist infused lurid acts for an audience containing more than a few national political figures . Of course, she has no idea what she has just walked into, but her simplicity and openly accepting character inspires the strippers and hookers in her work environment to look out for her and gently educate her about the less savoury aspects of the world.

What makes this most unlikely scenario work is the central character, the fabulously innocent Rosa Ost. She evolves and hardens as time goes on, but her trust and dedication to her seemingly impossible task is endearing. At her lodgings, she learns that her landlady is tough, set in her ways and determined to educate her young charges, Rosa and three others, in the intricacies of Quebec history whether they want it or not. Our protagonist is often the one to take a risk and stand up in defense of her roommates. Like a good socialist.

There is romance, there is betrayal and there is mystery against a backdrop of political realities true to the timing of the narrative—late 2000, following the death of Pierre Elliot Trudeau—and still valid today. Language and cultural tensions are growing, the climate is an increasing concern and attitudes toward women, especially those in the sex trade, are marked by double standards that still prevail. The weakest link in this wild tale is a running gag about dialects that doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly. For it to work one has to read the Gaspé and Acadian seasoned dialogue with the correct accent. In English it risks falling flat. But it’s not a huge element within the narrative overall. Playful and irreverent this improbable farce is a fun read with a strangely satisfying, if bizarre, ending that ties up the loose ends in the wildest of knots.

Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont in translated by Peter McCambridge and published by QC Fiction.

“I was a soldier and this is the nation’s soil!” No Windmills in Basra by Diaa Jubaili

Basra, in southeastern Iraq, is the country’s principle port city, best known to lovers of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, as the site from which Sinbad set sail. But over the course of its long history, from the time it was first founded as a military camp in 635 CE to the present day, it has had a rich, diverse, and often troubled history. More recent times have been marked by the repeated onslaught of violence and destruction during the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. Imagine, then, this grim reality as a back drop—sometimes distant, sometimes immediate—for whimsical, melancholy and magical flash fiction and you have an idea what Diaa Jubaili’s newly released collection No Windmills in Basra has in store. Of course, with seventy-five brief stories and one more expansive piece, many variations of joy and heartache play out across the pages of this lively, inventive volume.

Born in Basra in 1977, Jubaili has published eight novels and two earlier collections of short stories, but No Windmills in Basra is his first book to be translated into English and his first foray into the territory of flash fiction. In an interview with Chip Rossetti, the translator of his new book, he explained this move:

I chose this genre because there are ideas that can’t sustain elaboration or filling in gaps with things that don’t mean much to the reader. Getting an idea across with the least number of words is a difficult task, but just the challenge of doing it isn’t enough: the writer has to have an exceptional ability to create surprise. But I’ve loved this genre of concentrated narrative for a long time, and I read a lot about it before I tried writing the first text.

He goes on to talk about the importance of using vivid, poetic language to build a scene and provoke questions in the mind of the reader. Puns and play on meanings also appeal to him, an energy that charges his powerful, often surprising conclusions.

The stories in this collection are divided thematically—wars, love, mothers, women, children, poets and miscellaneous—but, as one might expect, key elements like war, love and family reappear throughout. Jubaili’s preparatory work serves him well—his tales are tightly woven, witty and affecting. Fantastical elements abound, a reflection of the importance of magic in Arabic folktales, often employed with humour, irony and black comedy. For instance, in one story, a man returning to his hometown after the end of the Iran-Iraq War finds his family plot of land has turned into a wasteland of salt. Tirelessly he and his sons work to rejuvenate the soil, hoping to restore it and once again harvest fruits and vegetables. But to their surprise they awaken the rotting corpses of soldiers, fallen there over the intervening years, who bitterly complain that with the salt gone they have been deprived of all they had left—the taste of death. In another, a woman suddenly loses her sense of taste after eating her first banana. As time goes on she loses her sense of smell, then she loses her colour. She grows weaker while everything else thrives around her. In the end she has become water. Elsewhere, we encounter a child who develops a plan to deal with dreaded stealth bombers, a young woman with sparrows in her ribcage and a blind woman searching for and finding a particular photo of her dead son by its scent. Ranging in length from a single paragraph to a few pages, this collection moves from the capricious to the tragic and back again.

At times Jubaili calls on traditional folklore and stories from the Quran (briefly explained in translator’s notes, as needed), but he also references and often invokes a wide range of western and international literary figures, sometimes even making them central characters as in the story “Death Stones” where Mrs. Woolf, collecting stones to fill her pockets for her fateful final walk, keeps setting her collection aside to pursue more, only to return and find her stash gone. Eventually she crosses the river, sets down a new collection, and watches from behind a tree as a young girl, also named Virginia, picks up the stones and skips them across the water’s surface. In another, Flaubert and Tolstoy meet and decide to exchange characters. And on it goes. It is impossible to offer more than the most minimal sampling of what this endlessly surprising collection contains, but across seventy-six brief stories, there is much to delight and entertain. At the same time, we are also granted a vision of Basra and life during wartime in a fashion that only flash fiction can deliver.

No Windmills in Basra by Diaa Jubaili is translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti and published by Deep Vellum.

There is always a coming storm: Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri

(W)ere it not for the troubling discoloration of my skin, one could even think that I am merely sleeping out in the open; it is only September after all, and is not September the perfect month for resting under the bruised sky?

Novels narrated by the dead are not an entirely unique literary phenomenon, but typically the deceased speaker takes the reigns to unravel a mystery, look back on a life, or observe future happenings from beyond the grave. Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri opens with the statement, “I died on the twelfth of September, at the height of happiness,” but proceeds as uncertain meditation on this strange state of being no more, yet continuing to be. It could be described as an exercise in imagining experience unguided by expectation that begins when a woman slips out of life while sitting in the garden beneath a chestnut tree and becomes, ultimately, a kind of existential post-mortem of the self.

Disembodied is a novel with only an intimation of plot. It is a speculative journey, reader with writer—one in which the destination is no more evident to the former than the latter. But that is not to imply that this is a ghostly narrative that wanders widely and recklessly, rather it is one in which that narrator is still bound somehow to her own corpse, neither really inside nor outside. It is not what she might have anticipated, to be consciousness still tethered to a body, immobile yet somehow sensible, slowly embarking on a new relationship with reality, tangible and intangible.

She is a woman becoming a memory. An unstable and fragmented one.

Memories visit, moments from childhood and from the most recent tasks left unfinished in her nearby house. But critical biographical details escape her—she can’t remember what she might have once done for a living and, although she can recall people from her past, she can bring no faces to mind. She can sketch out a pattern of decisions that led her to move to an isolated location, she can talk of illness and pain, but death has disconnected her from the compass of time:

There are moments in which it feels as if months have gone by, that it has been months, even years since I fell here, and there are others when I am certain that it happened mere seconds ago, moments when I think I will get back up and return to my day as if nothing had happened, and I wish I knew now a little something about brain activity after death, about how consciousness is connected to the physiological functioning of the brain and how death severs that connection—about the very process of death, if not something, then everything, in great detail.

Being dead is not, in itself, a problem for our narrator. It is as if its early arrival—she figures she is probably in her mid-thirties—is something she anticipated, a probable outcome of an illness she had accepted, even sought to meet in solitude. And yet to be incompletely disembodied was unforeseen. She feels, or imagines she feels rain and falling leaves touch her skin. At times her body seems to be preparing to return to nature, while at other times she longs to move, weighed down by the burden of the illusion of breathing, an embodied remembrance that feeds the sensation that she could simply arise and return to her day. It remains, then, for her to reflect on life and death, the abstracted joys and sorrows that don’t quite fit into a complete picture, unable to shut out a parade of fragmented memories—experienced or read in a book or caught in a dream. “At rest” there is no rest.

Here in the presence of no other human being, with eyes that burn like embers in my skull, eyes that I don’t even know whether they belong to me or how I would recognize them if someone were to hold a mirror above, under this chestnut tree that looks nothing like the one I once knew, in this garden that I have seen in my dreams over and over again, long before ever actually finding the house, I let words crawl out of my mind and out of my mouth, only to waste them on speaking of something I have not thought of in years, to waste words and to waste myself on suffocation one final time.

Her questions become increasingly existential, focused on the matter of what kind of matter might account for this continued consciousness. A soul? An awareness that does not depend on functioning senses? The philosophical expansiveness becomes a kind of freedom, a freedom without answers, only more questions, but even as she drifts she cannot escape the pull of the longing to be. Again and again she returns to anchor herself, under a tree, in the garden. The tangible remnants of recent life, her nearby house, her library, a cup of coffee, an unfinished letter call to her.

There are echoes here of Tudor-Sideri’s first book, Under the Sign of the Labyrinth, a memoir/meditation on embodied experience that draws on myths and traditions of the Romania of her childhood to explore what it means to exist in corporeal form, wounded, mortal. But this is a philosophical/fictional exercise that extends beyond what we can know, open-ended and unrestrained. As she explains in a collection of interview fragments gathered in Minor Literature[s]:

I felt an urge to allow myself more: to play with something different, more permissive, although permissive is not necessarily what I mean – I needed a larger playground, as simple as that. And the novel, a dash of fiction, allowed me to do so. I did not plan anything, I did not know where I would arrive, I had nothing in mind aside from the beginning, which I pulled from a dream, same as a few other scenes […]

This openness and resistance to any specific genre, allows her to entertain the kind of problems that rarely trouble the typical post-death narrator and present a most intriguing possibility—that dying might not be exactly the release we imagine. The narrative style—a single, unbroken paragraph—enhances the claustrophobia of the speaker, often troubled that her thoughts and memories won’t release her. I might have preferred an occasional line break here and there, but when I think about it that’s a question of my comfort. A dead narrator doesn’t need to stop to catch her breath.

Disembodied by Christina Tudor-Sideri is published by Sublunary Editions.

A chronicle of pain: Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi

The pain had come at eight in the evening. Hem with all her experience had said, It won’t take time, Ma. The womb has started pushing it out. Hem held her hands and said, Let all be well. Let God bring you back, the two of you separate.

Sujata’s story is framed and defined by pain. As it opens she is asleep, her dreams have transported her back twenty-two years, to the morning following an agonizing night of labour and emergency surgery when she gave birth to her fourth child and second son, Brati. Now she is awoken by searing pain once more, on the same date, January seventeenth, but this time an inflamed appendix is to blame. Once her abdominal distress begins to settle, a glance at the calendar takes her back to the early hours of yet another January seventeenth, just two years earlier, when the telephone suddenly rang. At the other end of the line, a voice summoned her to the morgue. There she would find her beloved son reduced to a numbered corpse, 1084.

Set over the late sixties and early seventies, during the first phase of the Maoist-inspired Naxalite insurgency in West Bengal, Mother of 1084 by Indian writer and activist, Mahasweta Devi (1926–2016), is a focused examination of the impact of targeted violence on those left behind through the story of one woman stranded in her loss and grief. Sujata comes from a background of privilege, raised in a wealthy Calcutta family and afforded an education, but in marriage her life is constrained by the roles her social class expects of her. At the time of the critical events in this novel, she is in her early fifties. Her oldest son and daughter, Jyoti and Neepa, are both married and each have one child. Jyoti and his family, as custom would have it, lives in the family home. The younger daughter, Tuli, has a serious boyfriend. Her husband, Dibyananth—or as he is often described, “Jyoti’s father”—is a successful businessman with, once his wife decided she wanted no more children, a string of mistresses on the side. Sujata also has a job at a banking office, taken on her own initiative when her mother-in-law was still alive and commanding the daily affairs of the household. It is something she has refused to give up.

Brati, the youngest son, had always been unlike his other siblings. Imaginative and sensitive, he was easily frightened and deeply attached to his mother. From his earliest years on through adolescence, their bond was close while there was little love lost between Dibyananth and his second son. Naturally Sujata was blamed for spoiling him and making him weak. When Brati is killed with a group of young Naxalite revolutionaries, his father’s immediate concern is to assure that no one knows of his involvement. He pulls a few strings and Brati’s name is omitted from the news reports while at home all evidence of his existence is cleared away and locked in his bedroom on the uppermost floor. Sujata finds herself on the wrong side of her own family, on the side of the dead man who had failed to consider the shame and embarrassment he would cause. She is left alone to try to make sense of why her son had been drawn to such a radical movement and to understand the events of the night on the eve of his twentieth birthday that had cost him his life. It was a death that could not be classified in any of the usual ways—illness, accident, crime:

All that Brati could be charged with was that he had lost faith in the social system itself. Brati had decided for himself that freedom could not come from the path society and the state offered. Brati had not remained content with writing slogans on the wall, he had come to commit himself to the slogans. There lay his offence.

Extending from morning to evening over the course of a single day, exactly two years after his death, Mother of 1084 chronicles Sujata’s attempt to honour her son’s memory and perhaps find some sense of closure. At home, Tuli is preparing to hold her engagement party. Although it is her brother’s birth anniversary, the date has been determined by her future mother-in-law’s American guru—her own mother’s feelings be damned. Between attending to the necessary arrangements in the house, Sujata will make two excursions that will help fill in some of the missing information she craves, but not necessarily bring any peace.

In the afternoon she travels out from central Calcutta to the colony where the mother of Somu, one of Brati’s friends, lives. The young men killed had spent their last hours in her house. Sujata had first met Somu’s mother when she went to identify her son’s body and she had found in this poor woman a kind of a kindred spirit, another mother who understood the loss. But face to face with the graphic details of that fateful night and the absolutely devastating effect it has had on this impoverished family, she is reminded that her social status will forever be a barrier that cannot be wished away. The two women, brought together in shock and pain at the morgue and the crematorium, share an affinity that can never be more than temporary:

Time was stronger than grief. Grief is the bank. Time the flowing river, heaping earth upon earth upon grief.

Later that afternoon, Sujata makes another outing, this one closer in location and class, but again one with a divide that cannot be breached. For the first and last time, she visits Brati’s girlfriend Nandini who has recently been released from prison, bearing the injuries of torture and incarceration. In this encounter there is a bitter demonstration of the activist’s unshakable resolve, something the grieving mother will never fully appreciate. Upon returning home to where guests are gathered, Sujata is clearly affected by her experiences, and all of the memories and details that have come back to her over the course of that day. But even as pain rips through her abdomen, she must once more attempt to play her role as wife and mother. At least for the moment.

One of Devi’s most widely-read books, Mother of 1084 is not explicitly concerned with the broader political context of the Naxalite insurgency, rather it turns its attention to the intimate human experience—the appeal of the movement to individuals from different backgrounds, the reality of betrayal, the brutality of the violence, and the wide range of responses from the families and communities affected. That is not to suggest that this is not an intensely political work, but by centring an apolitical protagonist who finds herself navigating the space between the shocking indifference of her family and social class, the devastation of the bereaved who exist in the midst of conflict and destitution, and the anger of the activist committed to the cause at all costs, Devi crafts a powerful, unforgiving narrative. Sujata is the troubled conscience of this tightly woven novella but one is ever aware how very small she is against society’s pretense of normality in a time of upheaval.

Mother of 1084 by Mahasweta Devi is translated from the Bengali by Samik Bandyopadhyay and published by Seagull Books.

So much space to fill: Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou

Today it’s twenty-five years since I killed my sister.

Nobody has ever said it out loud, but I can hear other people’s thoughts loud and clear. And the unmanageable ones have a special sound: they make a low constant rumble like waves crashing against docks, like high heels as you carry on walking, resisting and smiling.

My mother says it wasn’t my fault.

My mother wears them often, high heels that is.

The voice of Maria, the narrator of Erica Mou’s debut novel Thirsty Sea, sings with a heady mix of guilt, defiance and insecurity. Not always likeable, sometimes driven to over dramatic metaphor, she manages to maintain an irresistible, infectious flow that carries you right along with her, even if you may sometimes wonder how or why other the characters in her life put up with her at all. She’s a little injured perhaps, but you can’t help hoping she will find a way to start to heal. It makes for a strangely captivating read.

Thirsty Sea is the first offering of Héloïse Press, a new venture dedicated to publishing contemporary female narrative that launched in the UK earlier this year. Mou is an award winning Italian indie singer-songwriter who brings a free-spirited musical energy to her writing, a vitality that is captured with creativity by translator Clarissa Botsford. In her introductory note, Botsford describes the challenges inherent in translating the work of an author who delights in playing with double meanings. It was necessary at times to make changes and alterations, especially to the short poems that occur within and at the close of each chapter. These brief verses have a title that reflects back on the theme just covered and, as such, it was not always possible or desirable to translate directly from Italian to English. Fortunately she had an opportunity to meet and work with Mou herself and the author was more than open to the idea of “trans-creating.” As she said: “It’s my text. We can do with it what we like.”

Watermark

All you needed to do was pick me up and shine a light
to see whether I’d ever been there

Maria, named after her two Maria grandmothers, is a thirty-two year-old woman living in Bari, Italy, with her extraordinarily patient partner Nicola. He is a pilot and she is the proprietor of a rather unlikely business, a gift-finding service—unlikely because she herself has never liked receiving gifts. This resistance, like most of the self-imposed roadblocks in her life and relationships, has its origins in the tragic death of her younger sister, Summer, when Maria was seven and her sister three. Despite frequent reassurances from her mother and several therapists, Maria cannot let go of a sense that she was somehow at fault, that everyone who knows of the situation sees her as a murderer. Her unyielding monologue continually turns comments, questions and recollections into varieties of self-accusation. Her sharp tongue is turned on herself and everyone else, though, for the most part, she manages to keep from expressing her harsher observations out loud.

Unfolding over the course of one twenty-four hour period, from one evening to the next, Maria gradually fills in details from her life, colouring in a self-portrait of a woman burdened by guilt, feeling crushed by her mother, alienated from her father and stifled by Nicola who wants to have a baby. She is weighed down by a block of marble she imagines carrying in her chest. Everything with Maria is intensified, technicolour, against the grey backdrop of her mother, her father’s crumbling edifice and Nicola’s pristine white palette. Almost the only person she trusts with the occasional honest expression of her feelings is Ruth, an American she met while visiting London in her youth. But what comes through loudest is the sense that Maria is truly isolated by her own inability trust herself. She cannot shake the trauma of her sister’s death no matter how unaffected she attempts to sound.

As the narrative unfolds and the pieces start to fall into place, tension builds. By this point we are attached to this wounded but entirely relatable soul as she nears a critical turning point. All we can do at that moment is trust that she will know what is right. For her. With Maria, Erica Mou has created a truly engaging, oddly eccentric character and a well-paced narrative that leaves one wondering where the future will take her. Definitely a writer to watch.

Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou is translated by Clarissa Botsford and published by Héloïse Press.

The conversation we can’t have: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik

Loss and grief are experiences that inspire and drive so much literature. For a writer there seems to be a compelling need to try to sort out the complicated flood of emotions that the injury, illness or death of a loved one releases with the only tool that makes sense—the pen. But that response typically requires a certain degree of distance before the diaries and records can be weighed against whatever it is one feels at the time and in the aftermath. The exercise of writing immediate grief is much more difficult. In his memoir, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke seeks an element of closure by writing about his mother within two months of her death. He wants to honour her life without slipping into sentimentalism but discovers the peace he seeks is elusive, he cannot keep himself out of the story, and that is the best part of this raw, affecting meditation. More successful precisely because it was never intended for publication, is Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary. This collection of fragments, scribbled on scraps of paper during the first days, weeks and years following his beloved mother’s death is entirely unselfconscious, honest and stripped to the barest essential emotions. As such it is one of the very few books a recently bereaved person can turn to for company. There are no conclusions, no prescriptions, and many unanswerable questions.

One could say that Hanne Ørstavik’s Ti Amo is also an exercise is immediate grief writing, but she turns to fiction, choosing to hold close to the details of her own life, and at the time of writing—or at least beginning to write—her ailing husband is still alive. Her unnamed narrator, a Norwegian novelist, is living in Milan with her Italian husband who is dying of cancer. The work she is writing, addressed to the man she loves, is an attempt to put some kind of meaning to a time in which their relationship, and the expectations and dreams they once had, is shifting, losing direction. It is an effort to reach out across the space that has opened up between their respective realities:

Why can’t we speak the truth? Why can’t we say things the way they are? Why do they have to hide your death from you? Do you really not want to know, not be in contact with, not feel, the truth about yourself?

“Ti amo”—I love you—is the phrase that links the narrator and her husband, becoming in moments of physical and psychological distance, a mantra that reaches out through the fogginess of medication and the void created by that which is not being said. At the time when he first became ill, they were still in the early, heady years of a mid-life romance. He was her Italian publisher and, as their desire to be together intensified, she relocated from Norway to Milan, immersing herself in a foreign culture and language. Their lives were filled with travel, literary events, social engagements. When the first indications that something was wrong appeared, they both tried to imagine it was nothing but before long his symptoms could no longer be ignored. A diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy followed but the cancer is refuses to be stayed. In the present moment of the emerging text, it is early 2020. Their relationship goes back only four years and almost half of that time has unfolded under the shadow of serious illness. Even their marriage, the formal recognition of their partnership, was a response, at his insistence, to the suddenly altered circumstances.

Tracing the onset and progression of illness against an account of their lives before and after diagnosis, the narrator is continually seeking to understand what she feels and who she is in relation to a man who often seems so helplessly far away. Through the maze of appointments and tests and endless trips to the pharmacy in the hope that the prescribed pain meds have finally arrived, small things, the simple moments together—stopping for hot chocolate, buying suet for wild birds, tea in the morning—take on an added poignancy. The narrative is nonlinear but regularly circles back to January, 2020, as the last of the normal treatment options have been exhausted. And still, they are not together in accepting the one truth that hangs in the air.

Ti Amo is novel of passion, commitment and confusion. It is an open window into the complicated, often conflicted, emotions of caregiving without the numbing effects afforded by time and distance. Details of the ravages of an aggressive cancer are laid bare, woven into a story of two people brought together by a love of literature, art and travel. Two different natures, she reasons at one point, recalling that he always exhibited a certain degree of hesitancy while she always carried “a compulsion for truth that feels like my very life force itself.” Is that why they can’t approach the topic of death?

This is, of course, a one-sided story. The narrator’s husband is hostage to pain and its pacifiers, grasping at normal whenever he has the strength, and much of the time that entails going into the office. As if a semblance of work will keep him alive. But isn’t that what the narrator turns to as well? Her own work? “I write novels,” she says, “It’s my way of existing in the world…” If he will not or cannot ease her through her fear of bereavement by bravely accepting his own death (for is that not what lies behind her sense of loneliness?), she will turn their situation into a novelized love letter.

The resulting brief novella, written in just ten days, overflows with warmth, tenderness and  grief rendered in spare, poetic prose. Through her looping narrative style, Ørstavik allows emotional tension to build, in her protagonist and her reader, as a moment of reckoning dawns for the narrator and her husband in their separate but parallel journeys. However, the end, as such, lies outside the frame of the story. The author’s real-life husband, Italian publisher, translator and painter Luigi Spagnol, died on June 14, 2020. Ti Amo, in arising so directly from her experiences and emotions in his final months, is more than autobiographical fiction or memoir—it is also a deeply personal tribute to power of love.

Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and will be published by Archipelago Books in North America and And Other Stories in the UK in September.

Somewhere between night and day: Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy

Dark, endless,
lampless
behind the windowpanes

the night

Yet even it
ends up famished
can be heard fidgeting,
shrinking to better flee,
suddenly escaping
over the roofs

Spare, essential in its spirit, the voice of Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy strikes a distinctive note  from the first lines of “The Corridor,” the poem that opens Before the Night, the first part of her book Trás-os-Montes—a note that continues to rise off all the pages that follow. Born in Lausanne in 1954, Tappy is a highly respected writer, researcher and translator. The present collection of poetry, her seventh, was awarded the prestigious Swiss Prize for Literature in 2019 and is now available in a dual language French / English edition in John Taylor’s translation. (Her first six books were released in a single volume as Sheds / Hangars in 2014, again in Taylor’s translation, available from Bitter Oleander Press.)

In his Preface, Taylor provides an overview of the key poetic elements at play in the poems, linking them, where appropriate, to a continuation or development of approaches emerging in Tappy’s earlier poetry. His long association with the poet and her work allows him to contextualize the themes that arise, but a conversation between poet and translator recorded and published in translation in The Fortnightly Review, offers a valuable opportunity to hear Tappy discuss her poetic philosophy and this work in particular. In speaking about her own poetic evolution, she notes that Spanish and Latin American poets have had an abiding presence in her life and writing. Taylor wonders how this influence is reflected and she responds:

Surely natural elements in all their intensity: the Mediterranean, the arid lands, the most deserted landscapes, or the poorest landscapes. This is where my imagination goes and where I recover my roots. I have spent many moments of my life on one of the Balearic islands, and I came of age in the midst of an environment that was at once solar and maritime — and very harsh, where sunlight can be hostile, the vegetation overgrown and inhospitable, where the violence of nature demands a strong existential response from a human being. The southern European landscapes and their inhabitants, the harshness of their daily lives, have always accompanied me: Spain, but also Sicily, Greece, and Portugal.

This sensitivity to the human-natural interplay of intense landscapes is directly evident in Trás-os-Montes which is set in Portugal and Spain, along with an extended poetic epigram set in Greece. The first series of poems, Before the Night, feature a village woman, Maria, as she tends to the tasks of her daily life in “Trás-os-Montes” (which means “on the other side of the mountains”), an impoverished, isolated region of northern Portugal with an aging population clustered in small villages, almost forgotten by the rest of the country, bound to this austere lifestyle by deep ancestral roots.

Tiny and bent over
the sink, so far from us
in her blue apron, lost
in her rain boots, she’s sorting
the black cherries, setting the ripest
off to the side, separating them
from the rotten ones

She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips

behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains

We see her tending her garden, cleaning her home, straightening a fence, heading off to market, engaging in communal activities. But this is more than a quotidian cataloguing of chores or portrayal of a life shaped by the forces of nature and defined by time. The precise, economical language carries its own emotional and existential weight. Through the speaker’s observations of this woman who is at once a real person and someone who stands for a kind of “universal humanity,” Tappy is exercising a form of distanced depiction to ask questions about what life means. She says:

This book does not draw her portrait, nor address her (she will obviously never read me!). It’s actually the opposite that happens. . . Without her knowing so, this discreet hardworking woman holds out a mirror to me, and in this mirror I look at myself. This woman is a lamp for me. She illumines me and helps me to think, to think about myself.

This sequence of poems, then, lays the groundwork for those of the second section, The Blank Hour. Here the tone is more personal, while landscape—natural and man-made—becomes an even stronger feature, as trails and roads lead the speaker into an encounter with an intimate past.  Although in neither section is a location explicitly stated, these poems are ostensibly set in the Balearic Islands of Spain where Tappy has spent much time during her life. The imagery is bleak and beautiful, coloured with an atmosphere of memory and loss that grows deeper as the sequence proceeds.

But for those who go afar
with neither lamp nor landmark
under a sky of black snow,
the earth with its lighthouses,
its bits of bone, its rockets,
the earth so noisy during the day,
every evening closes up
like a wooden chest
over hope

There is, again, a real person at the centre of The Blank Hour, someone Tappy once loved who has passed away. Her speaker, the lyric “I” which she understands as “an ‘augmented I,’ as it were, composed of personal experiences but also of projections of my imagination,” addresses this individual and encounters his absence in the places they once knew together. Her language, so evocative, illuminates the experience of sorrow and grief so perfectly. Our losses always seem magnified, not only by specific locations but by the vastness of the universe itself.

Today the tamarisks
covered with dust from the trucks,
pink stars become gray
that you’ll never see again,
persist,
and the enamel-bright houses
bunch together. In silence
they stand, staving off
absence

A single fault line suffices, however,
and that look from the past returns,
slipping by mistake
into the heart, reopening
what had been locked up so well

a nearby star twinkling
and ripping

In reading Trás-os-Montes, one has a sense of journeying alongside the speaker, yet at the end we are each, poet and reader alike, left alone to understand the destinations we have reached. Tappy’s poetic process is openly existential in a way that prescribes no specific conclusion. The story she is telling, she claims, is not her own but rather a means to self-understanding: “By writing, I get myself going on a path, towards a deeper, renewed self.” As such, the story we read, is, at least to some degree, our own, shaped and coloured by our lives and experiences. And that is the true beauty and power of poetry.

Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy is translated from the French by John Taylor and published by MadHat Press.

Welcome to Casablanca: Blood Feast by Malika Moustadraf

First, read the stories. Unsettling, allow them to assault your senses. Enter a world marred by poverty and illness, poisoned by the values of traditional patriarchal society, infused with everyday magic and superstition where women and men are trapped in roles defined by factors beyond their immediate control. This is the Casablanca of Malika Moustadraf’s fictional landscape, the space in which she ignites fires, large and small, and lets them burn. Finally, turn to the Translator’s Note and realize just how important and tragically small this remarkable work truly is.

Blood Feast (published in the UK as Something Strange Like Hunger) is a slender volume containing all of the stories the Moroccan Arabic-language writer wrote during her short life—fourteen tales, some only a few pages long. Together with one novel (Wounds of the Soul and Body) self-published in 1999, they form the sum total of her literary output. During her lifetime she was, through her writing, an out-spoken activist, with a style and thematic focus on gender, sexuality and class under patriarchy that challenged what was acceptable for turn of the twenty-first century female writers in her home country. Yet, until recently all of this work had long been out of print in Arabic and none was available in translation. Today she is recognized and celebrated as a feminist icon.

But, again let’s have a look at the stories. The first ten pieces were published in Arabic in 2004 as Trente-six, a project supported by the Moroccan Short Story Research Group. Her settings tend to be squalid, pungent and unpleasant. As are the people that inhabit them. Slang, harsh language, and cultural references abound. Her female narrators, are typically facing the consequences of severe gendered oppression, propagated by callous fathers, abusive partners, or the demands of unreasonable, outdated social norms. Her male narrators often echo the sexist attitudes of the system they were raised in, unable or unwilling to rise above it. And yet there is a defiance, a resilience, and a conscious weighing of the odds motivating many of her protagonists’ actions—even those that are unlikely to improve their situations. The narrator of “A Woman in Love, A Woman Defeated,” for example, visits a seer to find out how to make her husband return even though she herself wonders why she even wants him back. Looking out at her very pregnant cat, she says:

She left home a while back, chasing after a scabby tom who had seduced her, and then later she came back, rubbing herself up against me like nothing had happened. I did the same thing, left everyone behind and followed him. He wasn’t handsome. He looked like a little bald bear with a saggy paunch hanging down past his genitals, and he had a huge ass and a round face. I always hated men with huge asses and round faces. So how did I fall in love with him? Love is like that, it always shows up without an appointment. Love is like death, like illness, always arriving when we least expect it, at the most peculiar times and places. Love makes us behave like irrational children. Why can’t they just invent a vaccine against it?

Within the tight scope of her characteristically brief stories Moustadraf was able to paint claustrophobic portraits that often explored territory that was extraordinarily progressive, given the time when she was writing. The narrator of “Just Different,” for instance, is a gender non-conforming prostitute whose identity is never clearly defined. Perhaps an effeminate gay man or a transfemale or even intersexed person—that which is undefined leaves possibilities open— reflecting, on a quiet night working the street, back on childhood and their father’s brutal hostility toward any hint of feminine mannerisms. Later in this collection, among the four stories completed following the publication of Trente-six (three of which were published after her death), her protagonists appear to have somewhat more agency, and two even engage in online flirtation—probably, as the translator suggests, “the first ever published literary depictions of cybersex in Arabic.” One can only wonder what she might have produced if her health and economic situation had not conspired against her.

As it was, she died in 2006 at the age of thirty-seven, from the complications of chronic kidney disease and her inability to obtain the life-saving surgery she needed. The exact biographical details of her life are not well known but she seems to have been diagnosed with kidney disease and started on dialysis in her teens. She famously resented the fact that women writers were assumed to be only capable of writing autobiographical fiction, denying that they, like men, could have access to a robust imagination. However, the title story of the present collection, “Blood Feast,” can be read as a powerful exception to her rejection of autobiographically inspired themes. In this story, dedicated to her sister Karima from whom she received an unsuccessful transplant, the male narrator is struck with kidney disease shortly after his wedding. The bride is blamed, alternate understandings are sought, and the proclamation of the female doctor is met with distrust. But when he finds himself flat on his back in a putrid hospital, he becomes the unwillingly captive audience of his smoking fellow patient who imparts his wisdom about navigating the almost hopeless process of applying for financial assistance for the necessary treatments in a corroded semi-privatized system, a reality the author knew only too well.

Moustadraf faced her own host of impossible barriers in her journey, yet as her illness progressed, her literary spirit only burned brighter. Writing was her way of coping, one that paradoxically weakened her health when she had to go without medications to be able to afford to self-publish her novel. The challenges she faced, physically and artistically, to bring her work to light adds an important context and power to her bold voice, amplifying it far beyond her relatively small oeuvre. And at last she is getting her due, in no small part, thanks to the dedication of her translator Alice Guthrie who literally fell in love with her work when first invited to translate a piece for the online journal Words Without Borders several years ago. She has ensured that Malika Moustadraf is no longer forgotten.

Blood Feast by Malika Moustadraf is translated by Alice Guthrie and published in North America by Feminist Press. In the UK, this same collection was published by Saqi Books under the title Something Strange Like Hunger.