War and remembrance: This Is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson

The key thread running through Lara Pawson’s fragmented, fresh, and frightening memoir, This Is the Place to Be, is an honest account of her years working as a journalist for the BBC in Africa between 1996 and 2007. However, it is much more than that. The epigraph is an extended quote from James Baldwin about androgyny and identity, about the way we are not male or female, black or white, but rather one within the other. Her opening admission (and this book is essentially a series of admissions that unfold, fold, and circle back on themselves) takes off from this observation, reading:

When I was about seven the owner of a watch and clock shop mistook me for a boy. Twenty-four years later, a Nigerian man, following my radio reports from Angola, mistook me for a Nigerian. Omolara was what he called me.

Identity and identification. The personal and the political. These are the forces that push this honest, sometimes conflicted, often unsettling account forward.

The book had its genesis as a piece composed for a sound installation called ‘After A War.’ Pawson’s contribution, Non-Correspondence, was presented as a 22,000-word looping monologue inspired by her experiences as a witness to war in Angola and the Ivory Coast—experiences that she found could not be isolated from other aspects of her life. A series of conversations and encounters over the following year or two led to the expansion of the original work into a book, an intensely personal collection of reflections, insecurities, emotions, and memories. The format is non-linear and, in keeping with the development of the project, it retains the feeling of an extended conversation to which we, as readers, are invited.

Second guessing her confessions and questioning the reliability of her memory heightens the immediacy and conversational feel. There is a sense of self-consciousness that lingers behind the intimate revelations, and a willingness to acknowledge a mixture of emotions as she recounts her experiences at home and abroad, in youth and in the present day. Life is messy. She is not afraid to admit this.

The corruption, devastation, and futility of war form the central focus of this book, but what Pawson manages to bring to light through her accounts and anecdotes is the complexity of sentiments that arise when one is close to the action in the dangerous, yet privileged, position of a correspondent. There is a curious exhilaration, and an attachment to the people. However, she is still an observer, there with a job to do, and home is, ultimately, elsewhere. She will admit that she was, for a time, infatuated with the idea of settling in Luanda taking on the life of a revolutionary , recalling fondly the first time she was called camarada. But, in the end, she must leave. She was disillusioned with mainstream media and the sense that she was contributing to the exploitation of the pain of others. And worried about becoming inured to it:

Another reason I left Angola was because I was afraid that I was becoming too thick-skinned. I didn’t want stop being shocked by what I saw and by what was happening. I was also feeling increasingly unhinged.

Letting go is not easy. Returning to life in London is not smooth. In many respects, This I the Place to Be is a love song to Angola. She confides that there are times when she wishes she was still in Luanda: “Moments when I still get desperate pangs for the place.” Her affection for the country is palpable, its lasting impact at times unexpected. She tells us:

When I came back to the UK, I started reading books by Samuel Beckett. I had read bits of his work before, in my early twenties because I ought to, but it was only after experiencing real conflict that I got any kind of handle on the man. The way I see it, Angola taught me Beckett.

Against and woven into her experience in war zones are memories of childhood and youth, reflections on race and class, and anecdotes about her marriage and her social idiosyncrasies. The insecurity of identity—being mistaken for a boy, for a transwoman, for Jamie Lee Curtis—is another recurring theme. (Here her observations were of particular interest to me, given the themes that drive my own memoirish experiments.) Although it may sound that all this would make for a disjointed read, the result is quite the opposite. There is an ebb and flow between ideas that link this series of admissions. By allowing the fragments to flow in a manner that retains a natural and organic quality, the tangential transitions in time and place occur in much the same way they do when we are engaged in conversation with one another.

The fragmentary memoir seems to be an increasingly popular means of telling stories from life. However, it only works when it is not forced or contrived. Pawson leaves room for humility, for guilt, for insecurity. This keeps her book real. As the end nears, the intensity builds. We trust her. We are invested. And she leaves us where her heart lies. In Angola.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

In praise of small publishers

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my growing obsession for small publishers. Once you start to turn your attention to non-mainstream literature, follow literary journals and publications online, or seek out works in translation; the world of independent publishers invariably opens up. As readers we live in a global world, and we engage in discussions with fellow readers spread far and wide, so it seems natural that you will hear about intriguing works that are not available wherever you happen to live. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of time but years can separate releases in North America from those in the UK and Australia. Here in Canada we sometimes end up in between the two. Some small publishers do not yet have distribution on one side of the planet or the other, some may never manage it, but I would argue it is still worth trying to support independent publishers no matter where they are, whenever possible.

Why? Small publishers uncover challenging, interesting works, take chances, bring long ignored literature back into circulation, or into translation. Or both.

2015-04-23 13.08.58My two favourite books last year introduced me to two small publishers: CB Editions with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist and Istros Books with Selvedin Avdić’s Seven Terrors. Sadly both are publishers without North American distribution. That does not mean, of course that their books can’t be sourced, but the magic of a browsing reader happening to stumble across one of their titles on a bookstore shelf is lost. The joy of random discovery is denied.

After paying extra attention to the IFFP and BTBA longlists this year, I will now be watching out for titles from Pushkin, Open Letter, Deep Vellum, Archipelago among many others. Becoming more engaged as a book blogger and negotiating twitter has caused me to be distracted by some irresistible “shiny objects” – treasures like the stunning A Gothic Soul which arrived earlier this week, in a package covered in Czechoslovakian stamps, direct from Twisted Spoon Press. Oh yes, I could have downloaded it from Amazon for almost a third of what I paid but that would have been a pale substitute for what is truly a work of art and devotion from a small not-for-profit press.

2015-04-23 13.10.55And then there is And Other Stories. I don’t know how I was so late to the party but it was the release of The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé in January that put them on my radar. Dovetailing nicely with my interest in South African literature, their publication of this brilliant debut of stories translated from Afrikaans as well as their ongoing release of works by Ivan Vladislavić was an obvious draw. But as soon as I learned about their grassroots funding of initial releases with subscription support and their engagement of readers in the process of exploring potential writers from around the world… well, I was sold. I subscribed right away. My only regret is that temporary financial uncertainty led me to opt for a 4-book rather than a 6-book subscription. A number of other publishers utilize subscriber support models so I hope in the future to extend my support further and wider.

Today my biggest thrill comes from walking into one of our local indie bookstores and finding a gem on the shelves. Of course I still end up placing special orders, through the same stores or from overseas. And, when there seems to be no option I order e-books but my preference for paper copies has grown after an initial blush of affection for the digital. I am even the sort of person who, having truly fallen in love with a book read electronically or borrowed from the library, just has to own a hard copy.

There must be diagnosis for this illness. But I don’t want to be cured.

The Absent Therapist or listen now, can you hear the voices…

“ When I was a child I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t want one. I was neither boy nor girl, male nor female. I was just a pair of eyes, a nose, some ears. Receiving the world, the brilliant blue sky, people talking above me.”
                                         Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Oh yes I thought, but then they gave me a designation and it made no sense.

A-ha moments like this surfaced throughout my engagement with the slim volume that is Will Eaves’ brilliant The Absent Therapist. Deceptively simple, the fragmented pieces that form this most unusual, experimental, but achingly human novella are carefully crafted and finely polished moments in time.

20797992Described on the cover as a “miniature but infinite novel”, I found myself returning over and over to my favourite strands and marking them in the margins. Although some fragments appear to be linked or feature the same characters or themes, the overall experience is akin to floating through the ether, engaging momentarily with the thoughts, frustrations, memories, and conversations – internal or external – that swirl through the mind. Your mind. The minds of others.

At times reflective and philosophical, at times obscure, at times laugh out loud funny (“I went to the Spanking Club once…”) these little pieces reminded me of the snippets of the stories we tell ourselves and others as we knit together and make sense of our lives. As we engage our own absent therapist.

I had heard of this book, and am familiar with the author’s more conventional work, but when I saw it appear on a couple of the “best of 2014” lists of reviewers I particularly respect, I became desperate to get my hands on it. Not an easy feat since it is not available here in Canada (even though as readers we spend time on the west coast and Vancouver on this little journey of fragments). I ordered it from the UK and coincidentally it arrived earlier this week as I was out on my way to my very present and vital therapist.

Rarely has such slight book offered so much, this is a company of voices to which the sensitive reader can return again and again. Relate to the lonely, commiserate with the angry, recognize the nostalgia expressed. Marvel at the philosophical musings, those poetic moments we strive to find meaning and guidance in, but that too frequently pass and get lost under the crush of everyday life. I would even dare the same reader to not mark favourites in the margin.

“ The balm of consolation is too strong for some. Its most powerful ingredient is not the emollient lie that time heals, but the more astringent perception that whether we heal or not, the wound was deep and real and ours.”

Indeed.