A seed, planted and nurtured: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

In this era of social media, similar bookish souls do tend to loosely gather, and I cannot be the only one who has been set off on the search for a book on the basis of a shared image and a few good words from a trusted fellow reader. Such was the case with a curiously titled book called How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy. The title and cover art caught my attention. I looked it up and was shocked at the price demanded for the few copies I could find online. Consequently, it took me a long time to track down a copy. When in India I would forget the author’s name or not know what section to look in. Finally, back at home, I lucked out, placed my order and after a long wait, welcomed this most unusual volume into my library.

So what kind of a book is it?

Quite simply it’s a love song to plants and trees, part natural history, part personal exploration—a most unusual memoir/meditation, shot through with striking observations, and fascinating characters, both human and tree-like, drawn from science, spirituality and literature.

Sumana Roy is a freelance writer, novelist and poet writing from, as her bio puts it, Siliguri, a city in the northernmost reaches of the state of West Bengal, India. Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, she is in the perfect space for a woman who finds herself, in mid-life, growing toward a desire to become a tree. Strange, perhaps, but it’s a notion that has deep roots in her own life. And although her inclinations are uniquely hers, she finds well-worn paths filled with kindred spirits in her journey to come to understand and articulate what it might mean to adopt a plant-like existence. To be a tree.

How I Became a Tree opens with a series of most unexpected observations:

At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees do not wear bras.

Then it had to do with the spectre of violence. I loved the way in which trees coped with dark and lonely places while sunlessness decided curfew hours for me. I liked too how trees thrived on things that were still freely available—water, air and sunlight; and no mortgage in spite of their lifelong occupation of land.

The early chapters expand on these themes in a quietly dramatic unfolding of her shifting sense of self and awareness of the ways humanity and plantness intersect in life and literature. Drawn to the silence, the sturdiness, the slowness of trees, she is opening up the questions and notions stirring inside, and beginning to mark out the types of pathways she will follow in the pages ahead. Setting the tone.

There is a gentle meandering feel to this work even though it is actually carefully tended, like a beautiful garden. Each section wanders down a different trail, looking for connections, searching for possible answers. Roy analyzes her own obsessions, even her parent-like concern for her plant children (much perhaps to her patient husband’s wonder). She passionately describes the devotion of the remarkable Bengali scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose—formerly unknown to me—who among other important findings, invented a number of hyper-sensitive instruments to measure the most minute movements in plants, hoping to be able to determine if they could feel and communicate. And, not surprisingly, she brings in many literary elements, reading widely in English literature, but reserving special attention for Italian author Jean Giorno, and Bengali writers Tagore, Bhanaphool (whom I recently wrote about), Syed Mustafa Siraj and Bibhutibhushan Bhandyopadhyaya.

The latter of these authors may be known to those who received a copy of his novel Aranyak when it was Seagull Books’ contribution to the Asymptote Book Club in 2018. I brought my copy home from my first trip to Calcutta and, although I did not write about it here, the vivid imagery has stayed with me. It is the story of a young man who, like the author himself, takes a job far from the city, as an administrator in the forests of Bihar. He is captivated by the jungles and by the subsistence farmers who make their living there. It is not only richly descriptive, but, set in the 1920s, it is also an early account of pending ecological destruction for commercial exploitation. Roy connects deeply to the narrator, to his evolution and immersion in the world dominated by trees, plants and flowers. Her reading is detailed and will be of particular interest to anyone familiar with Aranyak.

As Roy’s journey brings her closer to an understanding of her own motivations for her strange longing, and her appreciation for the multi-faceted appeal of trees, this memoir/meditation left me thinking more and more about trees as I have encountered them in poetry and literature and, more importantly as I have known them in my own life. You see, I too, have a deep affection for trees. I even live in a neighbourhood called Spruce Cliff, where every non-numbered street has a tree name. I live on Cedar Crescent. The balcony of my apartment is embraced by the thick arms of a tree that towers over the three story complex. And a six or seven hundred year old stand of Douglas fir trees extends along the embankment below me. The trail that runs through there, a tough hike, washed out in spots, instantly transports me an hour west to the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been walking it for the better part of the last thirty years and have many tree “friends” I look forward to visiting each time. But trees are more than roots, trunks, branches and leaves. When Roy muses about shadows early on in her book:

That there is no history of shadows is one of the saddest absences in our archives. In that laziness is also the refusal to see any worth in the transient, the old privileging of, say, a romantic ‘forever’ over the ‘affair’. Shadows are affairs, short-lived and short-sighted ones.

I think about the spot at the beginning of the long descent at the east of the trail that never fails to catch my breath, no matter the season, when the sun throws shadows across its way. It is always magical. The shadows are as essential as oxygen in that space.

Then there are the trees I’ve met in my travels. Palm trees, of course, so exotic to a northerner like me. The ghost gums in the red centre of Australia. And in India—my newly found refuge for greenery when bare, brown and patchy snow defines our winter landscape. I don’t even know most of the names of the trees but there is always something green, something flowering, and plants that I almost kill as houseplants growing tall and healthy by the roadside. And finally, there are all the trees I had to say good-bye to—a number of sixty-foot spruce, an aging mountain ash, an apple tree and an untameable row of hawthorns—around the house I sold, only a kilometer away from where I live now. Every spring I mourn them. Two newly built houses now share the lot and only two spruce remain standing.

And from other years, in other places I have lived and visited, there are more.

That is the beauty of a book like this. It brings forth the tree lover that dwells in so many of us, ignites memories, and inspires further reading (there is a bibliography). Sumana Roy invites her reader to join her on an entirely singular journey, one that is her own, yet one that cannot but offer moments of insight and reflection, unique to and belonging to the individual reader alone. After all, it’s perhaps not so much a book about wanting to be a tree, than a book about what it means to find the way one wants to be a human in the world.

How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy is published by Aleph Book Company.

Drawing draws us in: On Being Drawn by Peter Cole and Terry Winters

What would it mean to translate a drawing into a poem? To render the experience of a piece of art into words? Ekphrasis as translation. And, following from that idea, to what extent can one view translation as a form of ekphrasis? These are the questions that propel On Being Drawn, the most recent offering in the Cahier Series—the joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. The result, a unique collaborative project between artist Terry Winters and poet and translator Peter Cole, is a multilayered, dynamic exploration of the translational interrelationship between different forms of artistic expression.

Each addition to this collection of beautifully presented hand-sown booklets pairs a story, essay, or poetry with illustrations. The subjects, always in some way an examination of the idea of writing or translating—or both—are as varied as the writers invited to contribute. The artwork chosen to accompany the text is always striking and engaging in its own right, but there is not necessarily an intentional or existing  relationship between the writer and illustrator, so the final product is a complementary yet parallel effort. Sometimes, as with Éric Chevillard’s QWERTY Invectives, the artist (in this case Philippe Favier) comments on and reaches beyond the text. But with On Being Drawn, artist and author share equal billing. The connection between the two, as such, is essential. It originated with Winters’ request for some poems from Cole for a catalogue for an art show he was preparing. The selected images and poems are included here along with Cole’s later reflections on the act of translating images into words. Therein lies the true magic of this booklet: the commentary is poetic, open-ended and thought-provoking, enriching the entire experience.

There are different levels of interest and connection at play in a work like this. The initial exercise is one of ekphrasis—literary description or commentary on a visual piece of art—but an ekphrastic engagement undertaken in which, as Cole says: “I wanted to see what would happen if I consciously approached the writing as I would a translation.” The secondary project is a reflection, from a temporal distance, on the composition of these poems, and a closer meditation on the question: Is ekphrasis a kind of translation? And can the reverse be true?

These are two very different inquiries. The first might seem more obvious: ekphrasis renders the value, essence or meaning of an artwork into another medium. One expressed with words. Of course, it must be noted that Winters’ drawings are sometimes drawn from natural objects, but most (or at least those that Cole was drawn to) are abstracted—circles, lines, patterns. The poems generated are sometimes descriptive, but often rely on word games, playing with language against the image, engaging in a sort of lyrical Rorschach test. But then again, this results in a translation of the spirit of a work of art that does not appear to be anything specific but could, for the viewer, be almost anything. As they exist together in this work, the twelve selected drawings belong to part of an artist’s larger body of work; the poems are, in a sense, birthed in response to them. The poet’s musings are born of further reflections on translation as ekphrasis.

One of my favourite pairings, drawing and poem alike, is this one, simply called Untitled, 1988, to which Cole responds:

The nerve and zinc ascent of it
descending extension in every direction –
knots of cinder and brightness as one
wash of ash through which it hums
beneath the skin       these paths are thought.

Within the passage that follows this (nicely set off in a fainter print than the poems) he reflects, moving from art to literary translation:

‘My small skill to save a likeness’ John Berger writes of his own sketching his father’s final face in his coffin.

But in the case of these almost abstract sketches, a likeness of what? And how might that ‘what’ be tricked into speech?

It isn’t always pleasant. The act itself and the realization – that part of a translation’s depth derives from its movement through death. The total identification with an original leading to its replacement, so that another’s name and lines live on. so the present unfurls as a rickety bridge of resemblances and resurrections. And the translator, too, passes away again and again through self-effacement faced. For now. And after? An afterlife, after all?

It is perhaps, then, no accident that tracing a line from art to writing poetry to questions of literary translation offers such a rich avenue of exploration for Peter Cole, a translator from Arabic and Hebrew.

When the symbolic rendering of the two languages through which a translator navigates differ the letter acquires a certain significance. Cole is attuned to the shapes of letters surfacing through some of the images. As he reminds us:

The materiality of the letter, of all letters – as building block and spirit trap, a grounding but insurgent tactility – lurks beneath our talk and verse, bringing us back to what matters, as matter, involving continual return to beginnings and incessant permutation.

This brief volume, scarcely more than 40 pages, provides an especially rewarding opportunity for engagement. The art work is varied, representing the full range of the artist’s career, the poems are accessible yet well matched—curiously they often pick up on movement and energy in the drawings. And the commentary is insightful yet unobtrusive, faded so as not to upstage the initial connections. As ever, a welcome addition to a rich collection.

On Being Drawn, The Cahier Series, no. 36, by Peter Cole and Terry Winters is published by the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Dark folksongs for a new millennium: I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig

we don’t know each other yet. I don’t even know
myself. every morning I get up and I don’t have a clue:
is it me, Almut? Ulrike? just who was that child under
its mother’s skirts? I am the mother, I am the daughter
I am the shadow for you to hide beneath

No question here. This is German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, an artist for whom performance and collaboration—with other poets, musicians and filmmakers—is very important. She is a literary multi-instrumentalist and that sensibility colours her very distinctive poetry. From the outset, her approach was less than conventional. She began by pasting her poems to lampposts and distributing them as flyers and free postcards—reaching out to those resistant to poetry by making it readily accessible through the use of familiar images, comforting rhythms and experimental presentation. Yet, like the traditional folktales from which she derives so much of her inspiration, Sandig’s simple, fanciful poems hide a darkly serious heart. Beneath the allure and beauty of her language, her work boldly addresses some of the most important political issues of the day.

The whimsically titled I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other is her second collection to be released in English translation, following 2018’s much more modestly named Thick Of It. Both works are translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books. The title not only reflects the names of the sections within the book, but is contained and echoed in a couple of pieces. As with her earlier volume, tracks and traces wind their way through her poetry, sowing connections, entertaining dialogue, evoking natural and fantastic elements, and openly comment on modern warfare, the misuse of science, the fate of migrants, and the rise of Right Wing sentiments. She is like a bright radical spirit emerging from a world of shadowy forests and bleak fairy tales.

Compared to Thick of It (reviewed here) which was originally published in German in 2011, I am A Field which originally appeared five years later (2016) is a much more complex and unapologetically political exercise. ballad of the abolition of night (Sandig’s titles are always presented in bold either as headers or within the text—a convention I will hold to here) bluntly depicts instances of torture reported in American “Black Sites” or detainee camps, each verse beginning with the refrain

underneath the utterly cloudless sky
of a state lagging somewhat behind
on the historical timeline of our kind
in a camp for detainees

and each situation, so uncomfortably familiar from the news, loses none of its horror in poetic form.

The fate of refugees fleeing twenty-first century conflict is another theme that reappears several times throughout. This is captured with particular power in almost thirteen questions about Idomeni, 2016 AD. Based on an article about an expanding community of migrants trapped on the Greek border, it begins:

and what if love is not the answer after all?
and what if that dove doesn’t go out and
fetch the first leaf it finds and bring it
back as a sign: land in sight? and what if
there’s no daylight on the waters ahead
but instead just women and children
sinking? and what if there’s not a single
jot of good Deutsch to be found in this
Land of mine, but tarred and feathered
pity as a hyperlink, until I go and forget
my own language too?

Unforgiving in its sentiment, the poem highlights apathy and an unwillingness to engage with the plight of the migrants one way or another, ending with reference to the gorier original version of Cinderella:

coocoo, coocoo Idomeni, there’s blood in
the shoe. I wash my hands in the rain.

At the end of the day, there’s no question who will be disfigured and who will feign innocence.

As in Sandig’s earlier work, European folklore is an important influence—she reimagines nursery rhymes and fairy tales and, along with a fondness for lowercase letters and limited punctuation, this lends a magical atmosphere to her poems. However, not unlike the tradition she is calling on, these elements often serve as the perfect vehicles to explore the brutality of human nature. In I Am a Field, this aspect is pronounced with the inclusion of the “Grimm” cycle which is explicitly based on tales from The Children’s and Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unsanitized original versions, could be gruesome and unsettling to say the least. In Fitcher’s Bird, for example, she gives poetic voice to the young woman who disguises herself to rescue and reanimate her older sisters who’ve been murdered and dismembered by an evil sorcerer:

I dipped myself in
a barrel of honey
slit open the bed and
rolled in the feathers.
now I am an odd
bird, nobody
knows me, I
scarcely know
myself. a globe is
stuck in my throat
I can’t get it down:
a monstrous great
round chamber
of wonders racing
through the dark.

Yet, in rescuing her sisters, the narrator is extending her intention to heal all who have been butchered. Other poems in this cycle evoke drone warfare, IS converts, and the reality of life for migrants in Germany and other contemporary realities. In her generous end notes which provide basic background, as needed, to the political and/or lyrical inspiration of many of the pieces, translator Karen Leeder indicates that knowledge of the fairy tales is not necessary to appreciate the Grimm poems, but that German readers might identify intertextual phrases and references even if their origins might not be immediately recognized. And since many of the stories may be lesser known, her short notes offer a little guidance to any interested reader who wishes to know more. She  adds:

The German word “Grimm” also, however, means rage: a rage that permeates the cycle as a reaction to the darkness in the collective German consciousness.

I would suggest that some of that rage underscores much of the collection as a whole, as an invigorating energy that refuses to be silenced. There is beauty and ugliness here, balanced against anger and hope: a collection as strange and strangely intriguing as its wonderfully eccentric title.

I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Noticing the unnoticed: Wildfire by Banaphool

Those who love my writing need no introduction to it. Those who do not, need it even less. As for those who are unfamiliar with my writing, they will recognize my nature as soon as they read my stories. I have nothing particular to say to them, either.

In this brief introduction to the collected volumes of his short stories which, over the course of his lifetime amounted to some 578, the Bengali author Banaphool sets out all one really needs to know about his writing. Or to be more exact, the spirit of his work.

While maintaining a busy medical practice in Bhagalpur, Bihar, Dr. Balaichand Mukhopaghyay (1899-1979) produced an astonishing quantity of stories, poems, novels, plays and essays that reflect his deep sensitivity to the human condition and do full justice to his chosen pen-name Banaphool, which means “wildflower” in Bengali. As he was advised by Rabindranath Tagore, the wildflower blooms along the roadside, unnoticed but by creative vision. For a writer who wished to bloom outside the formal literary garden and from this unique vantage point, notice the complexities of the human condition that were often otherwise unnoticed, the name was a perfect fit. Frequently compared to O. Henry and Chekov, two authors he came to know of only after he himself started producing fiction, the similarities are there, but his world is distinctly Indian. The tensions and anxieties that ripple through many of his stories not only reflect the nation’s troubled emergence from colonial rule, but are still tragically disruptive today.

Wildfire is a collection of forty-four pieces translated by Somnath Zutshi, published by Seagull Books in 1999 and reissued in 2018. Most are very short, three to four pages or less, stark and straight to the point with little build up or fuss. There are fables, morality tales, ghost stories and character studies. Banaphool does not shy away from timeless philosophical questions, contemporary politics, or long-standing issues of caste and social class, but he does not proselytize. He expects his reader to fill in the blanks. To read between the lines. He creates characters who are either brave or blemished (or both) with compassion and without judgement. Petty rivalries can have tragic consequences, and vanities can invite supernatural intervention, frequently of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for variety. As such, a measure of moral messiness is typically allowed; his stories often end with an unexpected twist, a surprise revelation, an act of courage, or an unembellished sucker punch to the gut.

The range of the tales in this collection reflects the author’s extensive exposure to a wide range of human personality and behaviour in the course of his work, but although many of his protagonists are also doctors or other middle class professionals, he grants voices to people from all backgrounds as well as natural objects, animals, the dead, and, in one striking example, “Creator”, to a piece of paper whose screams of protest are inaudible to the artist applying paint to its surface. In this way, his work reaches across traditions, but never feels dated. Psychological themes are common, as in “The Human Mind” which tells the tale of two brothers, one devoted to science, the other to religion, similar only in their shared devotion to their orphaned nephew whom they have raised together. When the boy becomes gravely ill their differences are tested.  Other tales examine the vagaries of pride, greed, love and loss.

However, it is notable that a number of the stories speak to political discontents that are still very current in his native country. I brought this book home earlier this year, not long after the deadly riots in northeast Delhi, in late February. By chance the first story I happened upon was “During the Riots” set during the Bihar riots of late 1946. It opens:

Even the air had stopped moving in terror of the Hindu-Muslim riots. The days passed somehow but the nights seemed to last for ever. The blare of the conch shell from one direction, shouts of ‘Vande Mataram’ from another! At the slightest hint of a disturbance, we scrambled up to the terrace. Not a lot happened, generally; things quieted down in a couple of minutes. Moreover, the bitter cold made it impossible to stay on the terrace. My wife spent her time checking to see the various doors and windows were bolted and secured. We took turns staying awake.

As the narrator and his household struggle to arm themselves against certain attack, he thinks about the Muslim man who ran his father’s farm, whose wife had suckled him at her own breast. At several points the interdependence of the two communities is laid bare. But the speed and ferocity with which rumour spreads as tension rises demonstrate that even without WhatsApp and Twitter, misinformation is rampant. Through the narrator’s rising panic, encouraged by his neighbours, Banaphool deftly brings the story to a devastaing conclusion. One that sounds so freshly familiar.

Finally, included with the multitude of short short stories is one novella length addition, “Bhuvan Shome”, the quiet, extended study of a bitter, isolated Railways official who learns a valuable life-altering lesson from a young peasant girl on his annual hunting trip. A slow, complex character study, both sad and comic, this story was made into a Hindi-language movie by celebrated Indian film maker Minal Sen. The narrative takes much more time to build, at first a sharp contrast to the other condensed tales that populate this collection, and yet, even in this longer piece, the initially unpleasant main character is presented with empathy, encouraging the reader to hear what is not being said, and to realize what Bhuvan Shome, for all his self-obsessed rumination, cannot see. He is a classic Banaphool protagonist. An embodiment of the adage that there are none so blind as those who do not wish to see. It is to his good fortune that he comes to recognize the fact before it’s too late—so many of the characters who haunt these pages are not so fortunate.

But such is the view from the roadside sometimes. . .

Wildfire by Banaphool is translated with an introduction by Somnath Zutshi and published by Seagull Books.

Everything sings if you listen hard: A History of What I’ll Become by Jill Jones

I want to say that this is not poetry for the young. Of course anyone can read it, admire the wit and the wordplay, lose track of the number of perfect lines that emerge, page after page. But there is something else. I looked back to my review of one of Jones’ earlier books Brink, my introduction to her work and to date the only one of her many collections I’ve been able to readily obtain. I was surprised to see my response to that work so very closely echoed my reaction to this book two years on. My review reflects the fact. From the mention of a conversation I had with Caribbean-Canadian poet NourbeSe Philip about how, at its best, poetry comes from lived experience, and decades of it, to the way I found in the queerness of Jones’ poems a rare, even unlikely, resonance with my own strangely gendered history. These very same ideas came to mind when I started thinking about how to write about A History of What I’ll Become, but I can’t simply tread the same paths again. And fortunately, I don’t have to.

As her twelfth full-length book of poetry, this new collection carries many of the threads that thrilled me in her earlier work, qualities of her poetic sensibility no doubt, but somehow it feels larger, bolder, more intense, and yet as wise, linguistically playful and physically fragile. At times I am aware that I don’t know enough about the craft of writing poetry to appreciate the forms, inspirations and influences she may be drawing on. I notice the improvisations and the poems constructed of her own dismantled and reorganized present and earlier material. But what’s important is the final measure; what comes across on the page. That’s what matters. I read, write about and even occasionally write poetry in appreciative ignorance. I attend to the impact of the emotion, the power of the word. And there is something thrillingly immediate in Jones’ language. She knows how to “listen hard” for the song; there are stanzas and passages in which I instantly recognize my own existence. Strangely (or perhaps not so), I feel comforted and challenged to be able to grow older in her poetic company.

There’s nothing sacred about me.    I was born under stars
that kept moving.   Outside I could smell lost temperatures
stolen dust    my blood tainted with history.
But here I am without a prayer    looking for gods in everything
that’s melting.   I watch the littlest sparrow.   It knows
where the crumbs are.

– from “This Crumbling Aura”

Jones’ native habitat tends to be urban, domestic but not domesticated. Backyards and city streets. Places for coming together, in the passions of remembered youth or the sensuous intimacy of long-term loving. Spaces for fracturing and falling apart, relationships and bodies fragmenting against the passage of time. If Brink was a more intentionally ecopoetic exercise—natural imagery and elements are a significant presence—I want to say that, in A History, nature rides on a deeper, personal, existential current. Nature reflecting the poet back to herself.

I’m less articulate than grass.
I hobble on my syllables
hoping something will surrender
a thought, maybe, a kindness,
a practicality.
A gap in the trees before sunset
does more.

The wind picks up
as the horizon I stare at
slips away from
the slope of today’s sun.
In some places there are no days.
I could write it down
but who knows what colour
anything is?

– from “A Gap in the Trees”

Yet what strikes me most in this book is the sensation of being alive, of life as it stretches out and shapes us from the time we are born—our temperaments, genders, identities, attractions—to a growing awareness of our limitations, aging, death. This is very much an embodied process, or rather, a coming to peace with the body, a learning to live with one’s body. I’m not certain this can ever be but a lifetime journey, one with different stages, elements and aspects. Not over until its over, perhaps. But it also exists apart from the body, in our memories, our expectations and our dreams. In our own histories of what we will become. That is the force that drives this collection for me, reinforced through the recurrence of lines in the “Improvising” series that runs throughout, and in the pieces that appear at the halfway mark, especially this, “Dream Home” which begins:

I sometimes dream of always dreaming.
I don’t think of that as death. But when will I wake?
When will I turn to you, go to you, come to you,
carrying night with me, the things I can’t tell?
   (As if it’s loss that remains, that no tongue
    can assemble within daylight.)
Maybe this dreaming is the immortal body,
dormant except in sleep, a kind of bliss that evaporates
each day, a kind of dread that escapes the waking
of shape and sinew.

And ends with the couplet:

To wake is not the opposite of dreaming.
To dream is to be unowned by anything but the dream.

Or, to be honest, where else but in sleep can we truly surrender to a dream? In waking life, especially these days, too many uncertainties persist. Dreaming is possibly that place in which time can extend in more than one direction, often simultaneously, making this poem a perfect point of balance for collection that looks to the past and the future, with room for both heady nostalgia and lingering uncertainty. But then, that’s just my reading. I would encourage you to entertain your own.

A History of What I’ll Become by Jill Jones is published by UWA Publishing.

Song for a stolen land: Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel

The Chagos. An archipelago with a name silken as a caress, fervid as regret, brutal as death . . .

The prologue that opens Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos presents a sharp juxtaposition: A boy in war-torn Afghanistan looks up as a B-52 bomber soars in, dropping a bomb that will tear his mother’s body apart before returning to its base far to the south on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago that rises in the Indian Ocean. Further south again, off the east coast of Africa on the island nation of Mauritius, another boy, another mother. Her eyes are fixed on the vast blue horizon, and although she stands intact, she too has been torn apart on the inside. Two scenes, bound by emptiness, confusion and pain.

What follows is a spare, unflinching fictionalized account of a piece of recent history little known to many. In the late 1960s, when Mauritius negotiated their autonomy from Britain, they agreed to  relinquish control of the Chagos Islands unaware that the US wanted it for a military base. In strategic terms the location was  perfect save for one small fact—the islands were not uninhabited. The population, primarily descendants of slaves brought to work on coconut plantations some three hundred years earlier had, after slavery was abolished, enjoyed a simple but secure, comfortable existence with guaranteed employment, a rich culture and cuisine, and a strong community life. However, once a deal was made between the British and the Americans, they were suddenly expendable. Between 1968 and 1973, all of the residents were forcibly relocated, mostly to Mauritius.

Devastated and heartbroken by this abrupt upheaval, the Chagossians have long sought to right the injustice done to them, taking their claim up to the highest levels of the International Courts but after fifty years, and several rulings in their favour, they remain in exile. Silence of the Chagos, first published in French in 2005 and now available in English in a translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman, is an attempt to give these displaced people a voice, to tell their stories. Author Shenaz Patel, herself a native of Mauritius, found that the Chagossians she had come to know and care about were openly willing to trust their tales to her. In turn, her words honour their spirit while the retention of elements of Kreol in this translated text reinforces a sense of existential loss and longing.

Employing a third person narrative with an unadorned yet passionate energy, the account unfolds through the thoughts and experiences of three primary characters as they attempt to cope with and understand their circumstances. Along the way, several cameo appearances fill in some of the missing perspectives—even the boat that carried the final load of confused residents away is granted a personified dream sequence within which one of the most horrifying moments—the brutal destruction of the islander’s pet dogs—is recounted. The result is a tale that rides on a rolling wave of sorrow and bitter nostalgia, a persistent soul deep melancholia—“lasagrin”—that claimed the lives of many transplanted Chagos Islanders and has carried on into a generation denied any actual experience of their ancestral land.

The novel begins with the 1968 Independence Day celebrations on Mauritius. We meet Charlesia who, with her family, were brought to stay in a slum in Port Louis on the pretext that her husband would receive the medical care he needed there, but now, with his health restored she cannot understand why a boat has not come to carry them back to Diego. The place she has found herself in is strange, unnatural, alien.

Nothing was right here. Streets with tight curves, cul-de-sacs, stopping people in their tracks as they headed downhill. Walking here made no sense. Back there, she had glided down the natural slope of the sand with her eyes shut, the sea before her, the sea behind her, calm and beautiful, caressing and stroking their land like a languid body held close by its lover.

Her memories will fuel her stubbornness and ultimately her activism. In the following chapter we learn why. It takes us back a few years, to 1963 on Diego Garcia, when life was normal and Charlesia was where she belonged. Her life sounds a little odd on first encounter—every morning, the adults of the community would rise and head down to be assigned their tasks for the day, either in the administrator’s quarters or on the coconut plantation. But the workday ends early; Charlesia is able to go home, spend the afternoon fishing while the children are still at school, and lovingly prepare a coconut curry for supper. On Saturday evenings community groups would gather to sing and dance and celebrate well into the night before hurrying church on Sunday morning. All of that is lost, when she lands on Mauritius.

Midway through the novel, the narrative shifts away from Charlesia’s story. When we meet Désiré, a young man completely unaware of his origins; Mauritius is the only home he has known. But there is something odd. Something missing. Confused by a strange nickname he is often given, Nordver, or Nord, he finally confronts his mother, Raymonde. After having long protected her youngest child from the truth of his origins, she confesses that the name refers to the Nordvaer, the boat on which he was born. But who was she protecting? Him or herself? She hardly knows where to start:

His birth, the boat, the land, the other land. The real one. The one that spreads outward in her mind and her heart, in her belly and her guts, every night. The land before.

Before fear, incomprehension.

Before loneliness and the sea’s wild anguish.

Before the thieving boat that had turned what ought to have been great pleasure into pain.

Before this land of high, indifferent mountains, of sneering, distant inhabitants.

With her family, Raymonde had been among the last boatload of Chagossians to be removed from Diego Garcia in 1973—they were given no explanation and no more than an hour’s warning to gather all they could carry. Heavily pregnant with her fourth child she is not fit to travel but clearance is given after a cursory exam. Out on the high seas, she frets about her shack back home, wondering if she turned the stove off, regretting that she hadn’t had time to tidy up. Unable to imagine she’d never return. And then her water breaks and she goes into labour.

Raymonde’s vivid account, and the agonizing details of her son’s unconventional birth hold the narrative connection—the metaphorical umbilical cord—between the Chagossian’s homeland and their exile. Yet, for Désiré, life on Mauritius is not easy, even for his (almost) having been born there. His heritage makes it very difficult for him to secure work. It is used against him at every turn.  And the peculiar circumstances of his birth and the homeland he has never known haunt him. He truly feels like he belongs nowhere. Getting to know Charlesia years later will begin to bring the cycle of longing full circle. But to what end?

As a novel, Silence of the Chagos raises more questions than it is able to answer. The story is, as yet, unfinished, even now fifteen years after it was originally published. The historical course of events is not directly dissected in the text, at least not until the end, in the final chapter, and in the author’s afterword. Rather, the narrative form which allows hints to arise both in conversation and in the agony of the main characters, effectively captures the lack of understanding, the absence of words, and the inability to express  loss—a loss that displaced peoples continue to face in a postcolonial reality that fails to take them into account.

Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel is translated by Jeffery Zuckerman and published by Restless Books.

Half a dozen years and counting: Another year of roughghosting passes

Like clockwork, WordPress has kindly reminded me that I have been managing this small corner of the internet for six years. In the context of the Golden Age of literary blogs I have heard tell of,  I arrived after its lamented demise, but that’s okay. I have never aspired to greatness, nor do I think of myself as a literary, or rather, book blogger in any formal sense. Roughghosts is a space for idle musings like this and occasional reviews, some more formal than others. I like the freedom that affords even as accepted review copies pile up around me. It means that I can generally read what I want, if I can find the time, and write about it if moved to do so. Increasingly time is precious, the days and years pass too quickly, and I often find myself picking up books for deeply personal reasons that I do not want, or am not ready, to discuss out in the vast virtual open space.

Looking back through my archives I notice that I skipped this annual stock-taking activity last year, but my offering from the year before, May 31, 2018, still stands as if it could have been written yesterday. More or less. Do I really evolve so little? I’ve riffed on the same themes more than once over the years, but today I feel a heaviness that is not entirely accountable to the worldwide spread of a virus that is testing our resilience and laying bare the inequities that divide us within and between national borders or the civil unrest currently sweeping across the US…

For the past year I have been little more than treading water as an editor—a volunteer editor at that—a commitment that has left little time for me to amuse my inclination to think of myself as either a critic or a writer. From the background I have witnessed and very often nursed a great many essays and reviews into existence while realizing as I close in on sixty that the likelihood that I will ever write anything worth publishing myself is slim.  This feeling has been exacerbated by the fact that I’ll be unable to travel this year, and very likely well into next. I miss being able to connect with friends and fellow writers face to face; I mourn the loss of the opportunity to step away from editing pressures and the ongoing despair of living with an adult child who continues to drink whenever he manages to get his hands on money. If COVID-19 has forced us into ourselves, for many of us it’s a lonely and isolating space.

And so, roughghosts goes on. Traffic is respectable even though I rarely post more than five or six times a month and make little effort to promote my work. I’m always pleased and a little surprised that people actually read my offerings; invite me to review their books. I grateful for the attention, it means a lot, but to be honest, I maintain this humble corner of the internet for myself, more than anything. It’s a place for reading, reviewing, writing and wondering, and every now and then, shouting into the darkness.

Thanks for being here with me.

The human animal in the room: The Grass Library by David Brooks

Central to Australian writer David Brooks’ meditation on the ethics and implications of existing in a truly honest and respectful relationship with the nonhuman creatures who share this planet with us, is the question of how one can properly write about animal experience at all without filtering it through a decidedly anthropocentric lens. Are words, as we know and employ them, even up to the task? These are neither easy nor straightforward questions, but the search for possible answers is a journey that Brooks stumbles into willingly, and frets about, fumbles through, marvels over, and shares with surprising humility in this engaging—and endearing—collection of interrelated essays.

It all begins with a sudden life shift when Brook’s partner, T., announces over dinner one night that she can no longer continue to consume meat. He takes it well, but when this declaration is soon further refined to exclude all food that comes from animals, he finds himself accepting, if at first a little mournfully, a vegan diet. Where this path will ultimately lead them he can hardly imagine at that moment, but within a few years they will have left their rented house in Sydney and moved—cautiously at first and with an intermediary purchase—to a small farm in the Blue Mountains where he, T. and  their dog Charlie will find themselves living with a growing “herd” of rescue sheep, not to mention the snake, ducks, rats, and all the other creatures that come and go. The resulting account is not a book about veganism or guilt but it is a book detailing one man’s ongoing effort to realign his values in accord with respect for animals. More importantly it is a lyrical philosophical tale of “discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.”

But first, to set the stage, there is the move. Reluctant to cut ties with the city cold turkey, so to speak, they buy a house in a mountain town, but continue to rent in Sydney. When they finally try to make a permanent move to their new home, a variety of factors prevent them from settling in and feeling at peace. So, when they hear about a farm on the edge of town, they check it out. Two sloping acres, an old farmhouse and a small cabin just begging to be converted into a library. It seems to be perfect given a number of circumstances and dreams that are beginning to colour their thoughts of the future, so they buy it, move in, and within a few months are joined by a couple of rescue sheep—Jonathan and Henry-Lee.

The genesis of the text that will become The Grass Library lies in a vegan friend’s challenge to Brooks that he should write about animals. However, if that was, at least for the friend, envisioned to be part of a grander exposé about animal cruelty, this book is smaller, more intimate and close to home, but it raises fundamental philosophical questions all the same. He draws, for example, on the writings of Kierkegaard and on Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am. But the true beauty lies in the self-reflective exploration of what it means to write on behalf of another creature with an openness to possibility of experience—ours and theirs. Uncertain how to start, Brooks decides to begin with their rescue dog, Charlie, and his curious dusk anxiety. A window on the life of another, a life that overlaps with but is not contained within those of his human companions. See the problem? “Owners” is a fraught term. Even writing this review echoes the challenges of writing about animals—what can we ever fully know about anyone who shares our lives with us, even if they are of the same species, let alone if they belong to another species or even order of being? Brooks struggles to tell Charlie’s story as Charlie might, an exercise, at best never more than approximate and subject to an endless double guessing that he will continue to practice as the group of nonhuman animals who become part of his life and narrative expands.

The true nature of the nervousness Charlie displays as the day comes to a close is never fully understood despite efforts to analyze or assuage it, but it seems that once his family relocates to the farm, where he quickly takes to his fleecy new friends, he finds a comfort zone of sorts. Once “the boys” arrive, followed in time by an orphaned lamb, little  Orpheus Pumpkin, Brooks’ creature considerations extend and, for much of the book revolve around sheep. Living with these characters (and they are definitely distinct individuals) offers countless opportunities for observation, contemplation and, on occasion, serious concern. As for example, when David and T. decide that it would be an act of complicated kindness to have Henry castrated. A ram who exhibits a desperate longing for the ladies whenever ewes are nearby, they worry that he will either injure himself trying to reach them or harass his poor companion Jonathan, a wether, to the point of distraction. But whose comfort is really on the line?

The surgery does not go well, prompting worry, guilt and doubt, though Henry eventually does recover and seem calmer and, dare one say, happier. But, of course, Brooks cannot be entirely certain they did the right thing:

We began this process of—I don’t even know what to call it: stewardship? protection? attempted redress?—so naïvely, despite all the thinking that had gone before. But of course that had been thinking about the animal, in the absence of the animal. No one told us—who was there to do so?—that we’d encounter, almost inevitably, these pitfalls, dark holes, perilous places. As we open up to these creatures, as we apprehend more and more of their Being, or think we do, we’re dealing more and more with lives no less complicated, painful, traumatised, or liable to trauma than our own—indeed we’re dealing in most cases with lives that have been much more traumatised than ours are ever likely to be.

There are, as one can see, more questions than answers, and throughout this book, among the accounts, humorous and tragic alike, of daily life on the farm, Brooks invites the reader into his internal queries and quandaries. The closer he aligns himself with the ethics and obligations of animal advocacy, the more he is forced to re-evaluate his own childhood interactions—the shovel to the head of a snake, for instance—and, perhaps even more painfully, his enthusiasm for some of the literature and authors he once loved as he comes to recognize aspects of their attitudes toward animals as debatable, even distasteful.

Of course, in his evolving effort to articulate this growing self-awareness, Brooks’ engagement is not limited to animals, birds or reptiles. One of my favourite chapters is “Cicada Summer.” Referring to the insects as his “almost-totem,” this piece which could easily be read as an elegant and thoughtful stand-alone essay, describes the emergence of one particular season’s generation of cicadas from their waiting larval refuges buried deep on the roots of trees. He marvels at the fragile beauty of discarded carapaces, and even finds, with sadness, a nymph that has died in a failed effort to free itself from its shell. The song of the insects is the soundtrack of the season, implying in its consistency, an ongoing eruption of these otherwise short lived creatures—short lived, that is, in this stage of their lives. But of course, the cicada offer more than an opportunity for a little speculative natural history. In their epic drama, lies a lesson for us: “If we think we are anything other than creature,” he warns,—have crawled very far beyond it—we are kidding ourselves.”

He then goes on to draw a striking parallel between the discarded carapace of the larval cicada and the creative acts we human creatures engage in:

A book, a poem is like that: the shell of something that has emerged, gone. Writers work hard at those shells, but as soon as we finish them—a poem, a novel, an essay—there’s a sense in which we’re not there any longer. A cicada, I note, sheds multiple shells before the one we see clinging to the bark of a tree; and humans too—human animals—have to shed carapaces, create shells, whether they’re authors or not, if they are to mature. That can be agony, pulling oneself out of oneself.

The further Brooks’ effort to write about animals—and to write about writing about animals—takes him, the more it brings him write back to the human animal in the room: himself. And, for that matter, the rest of us too. As he recounts his and T.’s adventures with ducklings in the swimming pool, a persistent rat in the kitchen, or little Orpheus Pumpkin who spends his early weeks living in the house (and, like his fellow sheep, falling in love with T.), practical and philosophical musings and digressions are frequent. As such, the book has a sense of active construction—tentative, meditative, worked and reworked. Brooks is unafraid to confess to missteps, let the seams show, leave possibilities raised, but unresolved.

And then, through it all, there is the beautiful, poetic prose. It is as if all of Brooks’ years as a poet, essayist, novelist, and short story writer have been channelled into what has become a deeply personal life project. At the end, as he stands out in the paddock with Charlie, surrounded by all of “the boys”—Henry, Jonathan, Orpheus Pumpkin, and the latest arrival, Jason—there is a sense of a man at peace with the world. At least, perhaps, until the next, creature in need arrives on the scene.

The Grass Library is published in Australia by Brandl & Schlesinger and will be released in North America by Ashland Creek Press in June.

Of insects and island men: Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan

Bees are disciplined and predictable, but the outcome of their labour is uncertain, the same as happens with the deeds of men…

The setting is Elba, the year, 1814. Napoleon having abdicated in Fontainbleu, has been exiled to the Italian island where Andrea Pasolini, a beekeeper with a secret passion for philosophy, awaits anxiously for an expected encounter with the Emperor. It seems that, along with an innate island sensibility, the two men share a fascination with and passion for bees. This is the simple premise of Napoleon’s Beekeeper, a fanciful novella by Spanish writer José Luis De Juan. Combining details from history with a contemporary understanding of apiculture, he constructs, through a series of short, crisscrossing chapters, a vivid portrait of two very different men whose lives seemed destined to intersect at what could be a critical moment in history.

Elba’s honey had, at the time, gained a far reaching reputation for its quality and curative powers. Passolini inherited his official vocation from his father, but his true love, nurtured under the tutelage of a free thinking priest, Father Anselmo, who had been, like Napoleon, exiled on the island for a number of years, lies elsewhere. Through him, the farmer’s son had been introduced to philosophical thinking far beyond the accepted scope of the Church. Reading became his greatest love, one he took great pains to keep hidden, first from the townsfolk and later from his own wife and family. But when he can find time he retreats to a room hidden in his cellar where he reads and fills notebooks with his thoughts and experiences. This most unusual beekeeper exercises a careful pattern of behaviour to reveal his private pursuits to no one, even more so now that Bonaparte is on Elba.

It so happens that Passolini has dedicated himself to studying the Corsican’s career for decades, inspired by an anonymous account of an odd behaviour observed during the Marengo battle which caused him to suspect that the Emperor’s adoption of the bee as a symbol and his apparent appreciation of varieties of honey signified a deeper obsession.

From that day forward, after he learned of the connection between Bonaparte and bees, Passolini’s routine as a beekeeper found a new release. He started foraging in the backrooms of booksellers located in Pisa, Luca and Florence, getting hold of the tiniest booklets with some special tidbit about the First Consul, the most intimate detail, the most secret.

Over time, the beekeeper begins to see, in the behaviour of the colony and the structure of the hive, a key to understanding, even predicting, the outcome of military actions. He comes to view Napoleon through the hexagonal lens of the honeycomb. However, this knowledge also has him caught as a pawn in a larger political scheme he no longer wants to be part of. Now that the object of his attention is close at hand and interested in meeting and touring the island’s hives with him, his anxiety and paranoia grows steadily.

Meanwhile, the Emperor spends his early months in exile keeping his leadership muscles as toned as they can be under the circumstances. Down but not defeated. However, the days begin to drag and soon Napoleon finds himself alternately frustrated by circumstances and troubled by doubts and insecurity. He passes his days with a measure of regimented boredom as he rules over his diminished domain. The glory he once tasted begins to feel more distant, less possible:

I confess I’m an impostor. I was never the youngest general of France. I never conquered the north of Italy or reached as far as Naples to cleanse the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of its bandits. My great Alexander dream was just a boozy night in a tavern. I no longer make the foolish claim of having kept the Revolution from turning against itself, of having tackled the Terror, promoted civil justice, set the lazy clock of the centuries racing.

Of course, relieved, at least temporarily, from the full demands of his former existence, Mr. Bonaparte has time to indulge his interest in apiculture and from his arrival on his present island realm, that is one of his goals. He was already aware of Passolini, having received an unexpected missive from the modest beekeeper many years earlier and imagines the humble farmer to be a suitable guide to the island’s apiaries. Arrangements are made.

As the narrative inches toward their planned meeting, moving not chronologically but rather slipping in and out of the past to sketch out and fill in the characters of the Emperor and his would-be beekeeper, dropping into their dreams and nightmares along the way, a lyrical, slightly magical story unfolds. This is historical fiction at its most spare and whimsical, but grounded in possibility, that ultimately becomes a double stranded portrait of two sad figures longing to escape their circumstances.

Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Giramondo.

Imagining the exotic: A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira

As a child of the temperate zone, there is no way that the palm tree can ever be redefined as ordinary. Raised and nurtured amid aspen, spruce and pine, the palm was that magical backdrop to postcard perfect white sands and crashing waves, the defining feature of the gawdy Hawaiian shirt, the label of Malibu Rum. When I was growing up, the closest I ever came to the real thing was the handful of leaves I brought home from church on Palm Sunday (the most crowded mass of the year my mother insisted, nothing like getting something free to put bums in the pews). I would take my leaves home and carefully tuck them behind the cross that hung above my bed. At the end of the year, as another Palm Sunday approached the old leaves were to be burned, but somehow we never were allowed to witness that ritual, if it even occurred in our house.

My first encounters with palms growing where palms can grow were in thoroughly domesticated urban settings—first in San Francisco and years later in Cape Town where many of the variants I met were shorter, bulky affairs, but they still made my heart soar. The first truly natural palms I encountered were entirely unexpected, stunted bush like desert palms tucked into sudden lush eruptions aside (typically) dry river beds along the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Red Centre. But it was in India where I was finally able to embrace palms that matched my imagination—casually lining the roadside, reaching their tousled heads above city skylines, growing free in open spaces. And although it is the perennial green that has drawn me to the country more than once in the depth of our bleak midwinters, palms hold a special allure. They symbolize, for me, the exotic like no other tree.

No surprise then that I was immediately attracted to Jessica Sequeira’s new book, A Luminous History of the Palm, the latest miniature masterpiece from Sublunary Editions. Here the palm is the common thread that binds a collection of imagined anecdotes, microfictional histories interspersed with brief meditations on luminosity—what it is and how it makes itself manifest in the way one entertains, orders and translates meaning in the world. Quite simply, this book follows a trail of associations, luminous associations, through time, across the globe, where the palm figures in some way, whether close at hand or only, as I once knew them, imagined from afar:

A luminous history seeks to make connections beyond the surface level of great events and statistical data. To do so it takes a symbol, any symbol, as a seed to create anecdotes.

The luminous begins from the small and everyday, the particular and the peculiar.

It is a very simple and delightful notion, perfectly suited to this sort of slender, pocket-sized book. Each anecdote gives voice to a fictional character, from a healer in Yemen, to, among others, a Thai rice farmer engaged in an illicit flirtation,  an opera singer performing for a young Mozart, a plastic surgeon in Australia and ultimately a cyclist in Chile, who may or may not be the author herself. Perhaps we have gone from the distant to the immediate, but  along the way a window has been opened on a wide variety of personalities and locales. The palm is sometimes an important element, but more often it passes by, almost unnoticed in the scene. Every story is different, nothing is predictable although it would be remiss if the original procession forever reproduced on Palm Sunday was not also among the histories—and of course, it is.

If the palm is the unifying theme, however quietly it might slip into any individual narrative, the meditations on luminosity and reflections on the project unfolding hold the work together. They give it depth, make it special and are, in themselves, worth returning to repeatedly for the inspiration they offer—for their ability to illuminate creativity:

To be luminous is not the same as to be enlightened. Enlightenment comes from the outside and implies progress. To be luminous is to generate affections and affiliations from the heart, belly and bowels of a situation in time, and form part of an organic system that is possibly infinite. It is to avoid abstraction, at least at the start, to prefer the concrete and the sensual, the soft light forged by the bodies of stories as they crush together in violence or embrace.

 This is the promise and excitement on offer. As the author, our luminous historian, describes her compact treatise: “it can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract.”  I would argue it is not a question of either/or—this little book can, and should be read as both. Sequeira explains that she chose the palm for its vital presence, but she invites the reader to repeat the exercise with a plant or animal of their own choice. The soil is fertile, she assures us; all we need to do is plant a seed. This is, then, a book with no end but infinite potential beginnings.

A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira is published by Sublunary Editions, purveyor of fine short texts, and available here.