Gendering my bookshelves

A conversation on another bookish refuge of mine about the gender of the authors we tend to read has been both informative and unnerving. It has had me standing before the random selection of bookcases in my house taking stock of the novels lining the shelves. I have conducted no scientific calculation but I would hazard to guess that over 90% of the fiction collected, read and to be read, has been written by male authors. And that is without even digging up my electronic files.

Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.
Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.

I console myself by calling to mind a number of women peopling my hypothetical list of intentional reads for the upcoming year. But I know myself. I am idiosyncratic and tangential in my reading proclivities. I find myself unable to create a stack or list of titles and systematically make my way through from top to bottom. And although I do not intend it, novels by women are frequently pushed down the line by something else that comes into view.

Perhaps there is a question of subject and style. I am presently reading with a strong critical intention to exploring a way of telling a story that I have to tell and, for better or worse, the authors who are coming to my attention tend to be men. That may be accidental rather than intentional on my part. But my bookshelves hold a record running back over decades and the gender imbalance is consistent (and, by the way, not reflected in my non-fiction collection which tends to have a much more equal divide).

Now I could launch a defense for this heavily weighted scale. I suspect I do know some of the reasons why I am drawn to certain tales told from a male perspective, reasons rooted in my own differently gendered history, but at the end of the day I am only accountable to myself for that reality. I do not believe that I eschew female novelists on the basis of gender alone, but there are certainly stories and themes that do not draw me in. And I do not feel obligated to read women writers to understand women better, I spent the better part of four decades trying to jam my own square self into that round hole and accept that there are things I am not programmed to learn. I have female friends. I have a beautiful daughter. And it is not like I never read or fall in love with books by female authors. I am open to the opportunity to explore more. But setting a quota is disingenuous.

And feeling guilty wastes precious time that could be spent reading.

Channeling Bernhard in the Balkans: The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis meets Bernhard’s Gargoyles

SonThere comes a moment in Andrej Nikolaidis’ novel The Son where the unnamed misanthropic narrator, confronted with a hideously deformed family of lepers who have taken up residence in an abandoned car park in the Montenegrin city of Ulcinj, imagines that he is “a piper with a funny Tyrollean cap, which Thomas Bernhard would find laughable, and (…) dressed in green knickerbockers with suspenders like Heidegger used to wear” who proceeds to march through the streets of his home town gathering a following of the wretched, desperate, and diseased denizens of the streets, dark corners and hovels and leading them right down to the seashore, where he proceeds, walking out across the water, while the “grisly army” he has amassed disappears beneath the waves.

The Son is a dark, unrelenting journey into all the misery and disappointment that life and, those who claim to be your friends, family and lovers can bring. Our anti-hero is not a warm, generous soul. Admitting to his own perverse, gruesome obsessions in the early pages, he reports that his wife has just left him and he is bitterly alienated from his father. He perseverates about the cruelty of the forgiveness his father repeatedly bestowed upon him regardless of the destructive nature of his actions. He manages to vent anger at everyone he encounters, remarking at one point that he was “reminded once again that the nicest things we can say about a person is that one day they will die and cease to bother us.” As readers we are swept along on a scotch fueled odyssey into the heart of the city where a series of old acquaintances and disreputable characters seem to fall into his path where they are treated with a curious mixture of revulsion, pity and disdain. He is, in essence, the most vitriolic Bernhard monologuist transported from Austria to Montenegro and boiled down to the meanest bare essentials. By contrast, my current Bernhard read, his early break through novel Gargoyles, seems airy and light.

LosersPublished in 1967, Gargolyes was given its title in the English translation (the original German translates closer to something like distress or disturbance) presumably drawing attention to the grotesque series of characters encountered by the narrator, a son home from school, as he accompanies his father, a rural doctor, on his rounds to a series of isolated, ill and mentally unstable patients. The themes of madness, isolation and suicide recur as they make their way to Hochgobernitz where the aging Prince Saurau takes centre stage for the second half of the book, embarking on an increasingly intense monologue, mourning his own estranged relationship with his son who is away studying in London, and philosophizing about the hopeless and inevitable destruction and collapse of human society.

For my money, the characters that inhabit the pages of The Son are every bit as grotesque as those in Gargoyles, if not more. In both cases they serve as extreme, cartoon-like voices for exploring themes that are in turn horrific, humourous and deeply human, pivoting coincidentally around the relationships between fathers and sons. Amidst the rants against man’s inhumanity to man and musings about the madness and disease of modern society; a desperate compassion comes through. That is the compulsive beauty of reading Bernhard and, for those curious but afraid of the endless single paragraph style typical of most of his work, Gargoyles is a perfect introduction. For his part, Nikolaidis seamlessly transports the energy of Bernhard to the post Balkan War reality of a country he clearly loves passionately. As with his earlier book The Coming, it is also a dark meditation on Montenegro’s rich, complex past and uncertain future.

In a guest blogpost for Winstonsdad’s Blog (a great resource for works in translation), Andrej Nikolaidis reflected on his love for Bernhard and the influence he has had on his own work. Upon his first encounter with The Loser, (also my first introduction), the Balkan war was raging and he could see timely parallels in Bernhard’s existential analysis of Austrian society in a state of decay and collapse. He also finds in Bernhard the prose response to poet Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Fugue of Death’ or ‘Todesfuge’. He hears the rhythms of Bach ring through the works of both men – and Bernhard was a musician first – envisioning Celan as a character who could have walked out of a Bernhard novel. With The Son, and a sound track updated to incorporate the noisy sound styling of Sonic Youth, Nikolaidis’ work carries the banner forward.

The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis (trans Will Firth) – Istros Books                                     Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard (trans Richard and Clara Winston) – Vintage Books

Hard to remember when the world had colour

- Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
– Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Granted midwinter in my part of the world is not the best place to find colour in nature. Branches are bare, grass is bunched and brown, snow is patchy and grey. But when I look back over the past year I can see how difficult it has been for me to register any enthusiasm to take my camera out. I walk a lot but I seem to want to stay in my head, maintain a fast pace, measure the rhythm of my boots against the ground. I circle the neighbourhood, walk with purpose on errands, but avoid the pathways and parks I have documented season after season these past few years.

Photography was a diversion, a relaxation and an isolated activity against a busy life at work and home. I would wander forest trails, across grassland parks or along the edges of rivers and lakes, framing and reframing the view and listening to recorded podcasts – discussions about books, philosophy, current events. It was a meandering, escapist pursuit. If I look back I have to wonder what I was escaping and where I had lost the capacity to dream.

Madness, mental illness if you prefer that term, brings back the capacity to dream because all the parameters are changed. For me it has brought words to the foreground but pushed the pictures to the background. Walking has become a means to expel restless energy, drive out the demons of anxiety and despair that keep reaching in. If I want to drown out the city noises I listen to music, the words in my head are my own.

Without being able to return to work at this time, I do feel a certain loneliness. But when I reflect on the years I devoted to a job that I believed validated and defined me, I realize that I was never more isolated than when I was working. Invisibility and an unwillingness to call attention to myself was not a measure of my successful transition. It was denial. To hide the fact that my past contained realities inconsistent with the man everyone knew, I believed I could not afford to allow anyone to get close. I captured colour in the outside world but painted myself with the blandest palatte possible.

A manic episode and all of the reckless behaviour and poor judgment it entails has left me with a professional legacy that I may never be able to salvage. I don’t even know if I want it back. Reclaiming my identity, being comfortable with my own history of sex and gender is a work in progress but I have to trust that it might lead me to a better more authentic place. It might even bring some colour back into my life.

Home is wherever you find yourself: The Alphabet of Birds by S.J. Naudé

birdsFor all my best intentions to read the stack of books I had planned to tackle with the new year, I keep getting side lined by new releases. And I am, it would seem, still caught in a South African vortex. This time I have been swept into the hypnotic landscape of words and images that is The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naudé. Originally published in Afrikaans, this debut collection of short stories has just been released in the UK and America in the author’s own English translation. A fascinating communication between Naudé and fellow countryman Ivan Vladislavic posted on the Granta website drew my attention to his work and I was not disappointed by a single story in this amazing collection.

Trained as a lawyer, Naudé spent many years working in New York and London before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in writing. As a result, most of the stories in The Alphabet of Birds explore the complicated existences of ex-pat South Africans who find themselves losing their footing abroad but are uncertain how to negotiate the emotional dynamics of family and the socio-economic realities of a new South Africa. Home is increasingly elusive, fleeting attempts to find meaning fall into emptiness. In one of my favourite stories, “A Master from Germany,” the desire to escape a soulless corporate existence leads to a fantastical hedonistic adventure that turns into an achingly sad domestic vigil at a parent’s bedside. There is a profound sense of alienation that runs through all of these tales: a husband unable to rescue his wife from herself, scattered siblings across the globe, men seeking solace with male lovers who are either too elusive or too intrusive.

These are not stories for those who prefer a traditional narrative arc. Naudé writes with a cinematic eye. The violent storms that stretch across the open South African skies in “The Van” are breathtaking, the slow and painful disintegration of a parent dying of cancer portrayed “A Master from Germany” and “War, Blossoms” are heartrending. Images and motifs recur. Illness and death. Sex and drugs. Love and loss. Music and birds. With a language that is poetic and precise, he focuses his attention on sounds and silences, brutality and fragility; opening wounds and blurring boundaries between identities. His characters tend to become increasingly opaque, mysterious even to themselves: “simultaneously armour-plated and flayed.”

I have been slow in coming to appreciate what can be done within the medium of the short story. In the Granta discussion Naudé explores his fascination with the processes at play in the work of W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, among others. As those two writers are a key focus for me as a critical reader this year, I was keen to see how such influences would play out in his work. In terms of possibilities for storytelling I find myself very excited by this collection. I simply did not want it to end.

The themes of borderlessness and alienation that drive these tales are very human and have far reaching relevance beyond the South African experience. Now that it is available to an English speaking audience, thanks to the subscription funded publisher And Other Stories (I just had to subscribe too), The Alphabet of Birds will hopefully reach a wider audience. I suspect it will likely be one of my favourite reads of the year too, and it’s only January.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010

Imagine: A church for those who don’t trust church

“Imagine”

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

Copyright JJM Schreiber, 2011
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2011

Church music? Apparently and rightly so. Last week I emerged from the church I have been attending, despairing that a deep ambivalence about my own ability to connect with faith may stand in the way of my search for community. This morning I remembered why, if there is a church that I can connect with, the one I have been attending may be as close as I can get. John Lennon’s Imagine, performed by a soloist set the framework for the reflections of the pastor.

Imagine? Yes, imagine hearing a pastor admit that in the 25 years since his ordination in the United Church of Canada, he never thought he would be looking at the works of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and think, maybe they have a point there. One does not have to look far to see how religion is perpetuating hatred, within families and communities, between ethic groups and countries. And it is not a new phenomenon. Is the problem religion? An atheist does not hesitate to answer, but what causes a pastor to ponder? And what does that mean for churches like Calgary’s Hillhurst United? My own anxieties about faith aside, it is a church that practices what it preaches: welcome and advocacy for the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalized; outreach and full acceptance of everyone regardless of age, ability, sexuality or gender identity. Yet the pastor, John Pentland, is accustomed to meeting newcomers who share that they have no problem telling someone that they are gay, but don’t want anyone to know they go to church.

Is religion always at odds with all that could be positive and affirming about faith?

I am not sure yet. But I did spend Saturday at the church helping set up for a performance by Australian-Canadian queer trans artist, Sunny Drake. In the evening as the church hosted homeless families in the gymnasium, the pews of the Sanctuary were filled with a diverse audience treated to an outrageously funny performance about the trials and tribulations of a gay transgendered man trying to quit his addiction to romance. Honest in language and content that one would not generally not expect to find in a church, but together with the panel discussion that followed, this partnership with the city’s only queer theatre, Third Street Theatre, offers a vital opportunity to improve communication and understanding within and beyond the LGBTQ community. And yet another indication that at this church Affirming means much more than hanging a rainbow flag in the corner.

As someone who often feels as alienated within the LGBTQ community as within a larger community of faith, this weekend was an important indication of just what a church that seeks to embrace rather than exclude, can be.

Dreams and determination: A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

It is, of course, a harsh coincidence, perhaps no more than that, but the first two murders of the year in my city took the lives of two young members of our 5,000 strong Somali community. The first of the two unrelated incidents occurred just ten blocks from my home in the early hours of New Year’s Day, the second the following day. To many here in Canada, Somalis, if they are thought of at all, are conflated with pirates.

I have watched with dismay, the rise of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the increased visible ethnic diversity that has spread across the country, changing the face of a city that was, when I was young, predominately white. My city that is only 130 years old, most of us have come from elsewhere recently or within a few short generations. And those who were here before, our First Nations, still have to struggle to call attention to their circumstances. But we are lucky, this is a land of peace, a land of promise.

GoodhopeAgainst this context, a review in The Observer drew my attention to A Man of Good Hope, a new book by South African writer Jonny Steinberg. In my work I encountered and supported many young men from the troubled Horn of Africa, but the depth and complexity of the political and human realities that have been endured by many of the refugees who ultimately make their way to our shores are far beyond my imagining from my safe space. However, I was not quite prepared for just how difficult that journey can be.

The life of Asad Abdullahi, the young Somali man at the heart of this biography, is changed forever when his mother is shot by militiamen in Mogadishu when he is 8 years old. As he flees with relatives he begins a long, at times circular, journey of hopes and repeatedly dashed dreams. Lacking formal education he is gifted with determination, a proud sense of identity, an unflagging work ethic and an ability to assess any situation to determine where a living can be made. But at every turn there are losses, challenges and continued threats to life and limb that mount and threaten to drag him down. He is forced to grow up fast. Eventually he makes his way to South Africa seeking the wealth and security he hears fellow Somalis talk of only to find that even for the successful migrant, the end can be sudden and brutal.

Economic opportunities for newcomers like Asad, who are forced to live with temporary documents, are limited and often place them into the hostile and difficult environment of the townships where loyalties can turn on a dime. His beloved wife, unwilling to face the rising danger, heads home to family with his children. He stays, holding on to the dreams of America that have long called to him and endures the rising xenophobic violence perpetrated by black South Africans against the tide of incoming African migrants. His diligence will be rewarded, but not without great sacrifice.

Steinberg recounts, with care and compassion, a tale that has more breath taking twists than a thriller but exists on a plane on which dreams, hopes, memories and regrets blend to create a story that is at once deeply human and ultimately elusive. On a more immediate level, the view into the the ancestral dynamics of Somali history and culture that provides a background to Asad’s story has added, for me, extra poignancy to the recent New Year’s Day killing near my home. The victim shared the family name Abdullahi.

Melancholia

Just before Christmas he returned to church, entertaining the hope that the community of faith, especially one welcoming to all, might help fill the emptiness he carried inside. It almost worked, for a few weeks.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2014

After this Sunday’s service he retreated down the stone steps into the shadow of a void that no sermon could fill. It is not the church. It is him. He had hoped that faith might come back, comfort him as once it had when… well I can’t really remember when it last provided respite… but there was a time. He worried now that believing was beyond him. To be denied like other comforts. Perhaps one can only fall away from faith so many times before it is impossible to return.

You can only be lifted if you will yourself to let go, you can only be held if you allow yourself to be touched, you can only be loved if you dare to love first. But once you believe you have rendered yourself unlovable, the stalemate is long and sad and lonely.

I suppose I could say he is depressed and that this will pass. I could also admit that he is me and that there is something more fundamental at work.