Wrapping up another year in reading: Farewell to 2019 and a long decade

The end of a another year is upon us and, at the same time, another decade is also drawing to a close. Both have offered a mix of joy and pain. I have written enough about the personal challenges and the opportunities these past years have brought. Suffice to say I approached the 20-teens, so to speak, with confidence, prepared to face my fifties as a time of increased professional growth as I assumed day-to-day parenting would become less pressing. I could not have imagined what life would look like heading into the year during which I will turn sixty. I still have a troubled now-thirty-year-old child at home, my career imploded years ago, I have lost dear friends and family members, and today I look around the world to see fires raging, Arctic ice melting, right-wing Nationalist movements rising, and hatred and instability spreading, often in countries that have nuclear capabilities.

We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

Thankfully I still have books. And writing. And an international literary community — one that has expanded my horizons in ways I could never have anticipated.

The Himalya on the horizon above Nepal.

As avid readers roll out their annual lists of favourite books of the year, I’ve noticed many efforts to celebrate a personal book (or books) of the decade. I couldn’t even begin to do that. It would be like trying to hit a moving target. My reading has changed a lot, especially since I started actively writing reviews and publishing my own work. Chances are it will change again. Reading, like most things, is dynamic. As it is, it’s hard enough to narrow down a selection of favourites at the end of the year. There are so many that get left out. However, even though I keep promising myself I will give up on the regular spectacle, come the end of December, I find it impossible to resist shining a light on some of the books I especially enjoyed (and to be honest, I always like to see what others have been up to as well).

Now that I have them together, I’m surprised to see that my top reads for 2019  were all published this year save one — I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. However, reading the poems of a 14th century Kashmiri mystic in the same month the Indian government revoked Article 370 triggering a crisis in Kashmir that is still ongoing made it disturbingly timely. As well, all are translations.

Absent from this photo because I do not own a hard copy is Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, tr. by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić from Istros Books, a tale of an unhappy marriage with a wonderfully engaging narrator.

The balance of my selection, arranged for aesthetics not relative value, includes:

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia, tr. by Rawley Grau) an evocative, filmic Holocaust tale set in the north eastern region of Slovenia lying between the Mura River and the Hungarian border.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Kashmir, tr. by Ranjit Hoskote). Not only is this book timely given the state of affairs in Kashmir, but because the body of work attributed to Lalla was likely created, in her name and honour, over the centuries by contributors reflecting a range of faith communities, ages, genders and backgrounds. Thus her example is critical at a time when forces are tearing at the threads of India’s diverse heritage.
Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos (Argentina, tr. Alice Whitmore) features a troubled difficult narrator who does not relate to others in a “normal” way — a challenge for author and reader, but I found much to recognize in her lack of social skills. Brilliantly realized.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger, (Swiss/German, tr. by Megan Ewing). Reading like a performance piece rather than a conventional narrative, this confident, complex, intelligent novel circling around the subject of borders and migration is one of the most original works I’ve encountered in a long time. Stunning.
Herbert by Naburan Bhattacharya (India/Bengali, tr. Sunandini Banjerjee). A new translation of this Bengali cult classic was also published as Harbart in North America. Both that edition and the Calcutta-based Seagull Books edit are boisterous and fun, but as an editor I was surprised to see how much was smoothed out of the former.
Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa/Afrikaans, tr. Marius Swart) this wonderful collection of interconnected stories by the inimitable Marlene van Niekerk, one of my favourite authors, is an example of how an English translation can maintain elements of Afrikaans and Dutch without alienating readers — if you trust your audience. These are stories about the magic of language, where the magic is allowed to shine through.
The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in Their Heavens by Raoul Schrott (Austria/German, tr. by Karen Leeder). Undefinable, indescribably beautiful, this text — best described as a prose poem paired with haunting illustrations by Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O — is etheral, heavenly and bound to the earth all at once.
Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat by Michel Leiris (France, tr. by Christine Pichini). As soon as I learned of the release of this text, the last major work by one of my literary heroes, I knew I had to have it and write about it.  A moving exploration of art, writing and aging by one of the most important French intellectuals of the twentieth century.

At the City Palace, Jaipur

This year I made two trips to India, both over a month long. Presently I am watching tensions rise there with concern, aware that I am an outsider, but it is impossible to ignore hateful rhetoric no matter where it arises. None of our countries or communities are immune from divisive discontent or politicians prepared to capitalize on it. And yet I still think about going back, about the places I have yet to visit, people I want to meet up with or see again. The restless loneliness of being home settles in quickly and India has become important to me. But I suspect it will be a while. . .

As I look ahead to the coming year, my primary objective is to write. Seriously this time. I know I have said that before, but my writer’s block has eased. I now need discipline. My goal is to have a draft of a nonfiction manuscript of perhaps 100 pages complete before my birthday in October. All other writing, reading, and volunteer editing will have to fit around that goal.

And so I go. Into a new decade.

Solstice, solemn solstice

The sky has closed in around us today. It is warm, but the world feels wrung out and weary as the decade draws to a close. I am aware of an abiding sense of  quiet sorrow, Weltschmerz. This time of year is always difficult. Christmas has become a melancholic, meditative season for me. It has been this way since my parents passed away more than three years ago. I have learned to embrace a degree of aloneness as a time to recalibrate. But this year the “Joy to the World” spirit my religious upbringing taught me to embrace seems especially anachronistic. It seems there is so much hatred coursing through veins of this tired planet.

On a personal level, the passage from last December to this one has been marked by a little more mental instability than I’ve experienced in recent years. Twice I needed medication adjustments while in therapy I began to make some progress opening up channels into exploring grief and trauma. But progress is slow and subject to diversions and setbacks.

In an effort to cope with a variety of stresses at home I sought to escape. Run away, perhaps. To India. Twice. And now I’m back at home anxiously watching political unrest threaten to explode there; worried about my friends and a country I have grown to care about, and worried about the way hatred has been allowed to grow and spread so freely through democratic nations across the globe. Even my own country, still modest compared to its loud neighbour to the south, is not immune. Ignorance of history, distrust of science, and intolerance of difference are fueling fires that won’t be easily extinguished.

Tonight as I decorated my Christmas tree with the many angels my mother collected for as long as I can remember, I tried to call on her presence and only ended up missing her more. Were she here she would be as worried as I am. No, I’m afraid she would despair even more despite the fact she was a believer in a way I have never been able to be.

So, as winter settles in here in the northern hemisphere, all I can do—what I must do—is to try to hold to some faith (even if I am uncertain where it is rooted) that the lengthening days will hold a little promise that things will get better going forward. For all of us. Everywhere.

Travel, writing and poetry: A link to my new poem at RIC Journal

I have a new poem up today at RIC Journal.  I’ve called it “Indian Autumn Elegy.” For some reason, this most recent visit to India, my third in two years, has so far resisted my dedicated efforts to capture it in prose. At least not for this blog.  As I process my cumulative experiences, not simply in India but in the other countries I’ve spent time in over the past few years, South Africa and Australia, I am coming to understand that much of what I want to draw to the surface belongs to another, longer dedicated writing project. One that has long been a vague intention but is now beginning to fill empty pages.

In the meantime though, there are reflections and observations too restless to wait, and those seem to be slipping into poetic exercises.

Like this one.

The first sketches of this poem were composed last month, on the train between Delhi and Jaipur. It speaks to a recognition that something I have often told myself I was seeking through travel—a kind of validation I hoped I might find by losing myself in a crowd—is neither necessary nor possible.

“Indian Autumn Elegy” can be found here.

“We are creatures of this world”: Reflections on Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander

I have numbered these pages
And find the ground very uneven

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Solitaire”

Meena Alexander’s name was unknown to me until she passed away almost exactly a year ago, as I write this. Sadly this is not an uncommon occurrence, that we come to know a writer only after they have left us. This book, Atmospheric Embroidery, came to me from a friend who slipped it to me before I was about to embark on a trip, assuring me that the slender volume should not impact my carefully measured effort to keep my bags below carry-on weight restrictions. I carried it with me through the narrow congested streets of Kathmandu, read it in the air as the snow-capped Himalayas drifted away to my right on my return flight to India, felt the rhythm of its verses play against the rocking of the train from Delhi to Jaipur, and returned to it yet again after a day visiting the forts standing high above the marvellous “Pink City.”

I am writing this review, or response, in Kochi, deep in the south of India where I feel that, in large part through my engagement with these poems, the inability to read and write that has plagued me in these recent months is starting to thaw. Isn’t  that one of the gifts of poetry? Its capacity to spark, rekindle, and loosen a flow of words?

Meena Alexander was born to a Syrian Christian family in the Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, and raised in India and in Sudan. She would spend most of her life living and teaching in New York City, but her writing speaks to a sense of displacement, of distances crossed over oceans and desert sands, in a language that is sparse, yet fierce in its beauty and, at times, its brutality. Drawing on the diverse cultural and linguistic  influences that marked her experiences, her poetry almost seems to hover above the page, unwilling to be closely fixed to any one space or time:

Be fearless with destiny
you whisper to me
it too is an accumulation of longing.
A sideways swipe at the stars.

We are leaving one
Language for the other,
Always and ever—
What crossing enjoins.

—from “Indian Ocean Blues: Syncopation”

Although she was also well known for her prose, it is in the lyric form of poetry that Alexander found her preferred and greatest personal and political expression according to a memorial published at Scroll.in after her death. Poetry allowed her to steer away from the commercial expectations postcolonial writers from the Indian diaspora often face to appeal to the interests of western audiences. The portraits she paints are far more complex, both on an intimate and and broadly focused level:

She plumbed the depths of bodily trauma and memory in her lyrics, essays, and memoirs. Yet her work ranged from these deeply personal experiences to issues of global trauma and violence. She remained committed to a vision of gender, religious, and racial justice and used the symbolic form of poetry to envision cultural hybridity in India and the United States.

This present collection, published in 2015, is the final work published in her lifetime. Her poetry, which is finely honed, clean and spare, needs to be read with attention as much to the words and phrases, as to the silences—listening to what is not said, to what must be imagined. That is, her poems need to be returned to repeatedly, their treasures open up with reengagement.

Certain pieces of poetry or artwork stand as starting points or inspiration in many of the poems, as do her own experiences in India, North Africa, and the US. As well as the lives and stories of others on the margins, today or in the past. Movement, chosen or forced, from one place to another, the sense of being far from home or not really knowing where home lies, where one belongs, imbues her poetry with a restlessness, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, sometimes angry, and, as in the cycle of poems inspired by drawings by children from Darfur living in refugee camps by the Chad border, filled with sorrow, fear:

I am singing, stones fill with music.
Do not touch my hair, I cried. They forced me
To uncover my head then beat me when my veil slipped,
Not the pink one I am wearing now, with stripes — this
My aunt gave me. I am not an animal,
They are more free, birds in the trees, horses too.

—from “Green Leaves of El Fasher”

At the heart of this collection is the 14 piece cycle “Indian Ocean Blues.” She notes that this poem arises, in part, from the annual journeys she would undertake across the Indian Ocean from Sudan, where her family was living, to visit India. She recalls the power she found in Aimé Césaire’s Cahier de Retour au Pays Natal, and his Corps Perdu—how she “could hear the waves beat in his lines.” She listened to music while composing the work to mark a rhythm and provide solace and inspiration. Finally, she draws on the Ramayana, taking Sita, cast out by her husband Rama, the earth opening up to provide her refuge, and imagines her in Manhattan:

Rama cast her out,
Lava storms cooled her
Dirt cloaked her,
A shimmering stole.

Days later, on Dyckman Street,
As cobbles crack
She slips into a manhole,
Waves at me.

This cycle of poems evokes childhood adventure, historical passages, Hindu mythology, desperate refugees and contemporary migrants. Spanning half a globe, temporally unbound, this is a piece that speaks to an Indian poet weaving memories and reference points into an idiosyncratic song of loss, longing and new connections.

Reading Atmospheric Embroidery on my third trip to India in two years, my longest yet, I am finding echoes of questions I ask myself as I try to figure out what draws me here, to a country where I have no roots, from a country where, if I were to be honest, I have no particular roots either. If Meena’s family followed her father’s employment to Khartoum, my family followed my father’s insistent desire to be as far from others as he could comfortably manage. My parents started their lives in Toronto and New York City and ended them in a little cottage outside a small village across the continent from all extended family. The forces that lead to displacement  work in multiple directions—permanently, temporarily, haphazardly. At an age when I should feel settled I am more restless than ever, spinning some kind of uncertain tapestry of my own, now with yet a new companion—this book.

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander is published by Hachette India and by Triquarterly.

My latest passage to India

Each visit to India brings its own rewards, but as one spends more time in another country, the cultural differences become more apparent. There are the obvious ones—fascinating and wonderful to observe. Like the great honour I had to share in a family Diwali celebration, from a respectful distance, delighted and deeply grateful for the experience. I was in Wardha with a friend—a city on few Western tourist’s agendas—a place that revelled in the celebrations. I visited Sevagram, Ghandi’s ashram, and had an opportunity to get out into the beautiful countryside of central India.

It is an experience I will always treasure. Perhaps, when I find the spirit, I will write more.

Until then there is a little pain that requires healing though that may not be possible.

In the meantime, the opportunity to get to know a Twitter friend, his wife and his unruly canine and feline household, has been wonderful, and with a Lit Fest happening here in Bangalore this weekend and Nepal, Jaipur, Kochi and Pune ahead, I hope to find some of the creative inspiration I was hoping for.

For now I’m just checking in.

My new friend.

Remembering a friend on World Mental Heath Day

When I started this blog in 2014, I was reeling in the aftermath of a major manic episode. One that effectively cost me my career. My early posts were angry, fueled by the shame and trauma of having endured such a public breakdown, and the complete insensitivity of my employer, a situation compounded by the fact that I had worked in the disability and mental health field and had never denied my own mental health history. But when I needed someone to step in and guide me to medical care there was no one.

On this day it would be good to stand up and say: Yes, I’m a survivor. Truth is, I’m lucky. I respond well to a long standing medical treatment (if I’m not so reckless as to believe I don’t need it) and I was able to coast for about seventeen years between breakdowns and, after losing everything in my mid-fifties, finally access solid supportive psychiatric and psychological care.

Over the past year I have needed that support twice when stability waned.

That’s actually a rather dismal situation, truth be told, but like I said, I am lucky, I respond well to medication and compared to many other people with bipolar disorder, I’ve been able to function well—most of the time. My son has faced much greater obstacles.

But today I want to talk about Ulla.

When I appeared online as a rough ghost, I quickly became connected with a group of fellow bloggers dealing with mental health challenges. Ulla, who went by the name Blahpolar was funny, outrageous, tragic, and queer. She lived in South Africa, a country I had long been interested in, and she was a huge fan of Canadian literature. We bonded almost instantly. We could joke and riff off each other as if we’d been friends forever. A little more than a year after we met online, I flew to South Africa and spent a week with her in the Eastern Cape Province. We were as comfortable together in person as we had been online.

But Ulla was struggling.

She had had a rough life. Her illness had only been diagnosed recently, at age forty-five. But the damage ran deep, complicated by so many factors. And yet she was one of the most  gifted writers and wonderful people I ever met.

By the time I got to know her she was unable to work, living on saving s in a small house she’d inherited from her mother, in a remote seaside community. But the blackness was closing in fast, even at the time we met. Every rand stretched, she tried everything she could afford to fight it off.  No treatment—not even shock therapy—seemed to have any effect.

She survived the first suicide attempt. Succeeded the second time, a little over three years ago now.

I say “succeeded” because it is selfish of me to insist that a woman of forty-six, who has waged many long and bitter battles, does not have the right to say: I cannot live this way. But it breaks my heart that she is gone, and angers me that in the end, she had to die alone.

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows was her favourite book. A bold plea for assisted death for those with severe depression who see no other option.

Who has the right to weigh another’s pain?

Unaware that World Mental Heath Day was approaching, I pulled out the elegy I wrote for her the other night and tried to read it through. When I composed it, three months after her death, I was numb. My parents had died less than two months before her and all those losses were deeply intertwined. They are only breaking loose now.

I can’t get through this piece right any more. A sob rises in my chest just thinking about it. But on his day I wish to share it once again.

It is the best way to honour my friend Ulla. And everyone else who has reached the point where they felt no option but to join “that nocturnal tribe.” One should not wish that on anyone, but we cannot judge them. Least of all those of us who have known some measure of the pain depression and bipolar can bring. We can only try to ensure that support, understanding, and services are available for those who need it.

So, once again, for Ulla Kelly, And I Will Tell You Something.

Too old to write? Indulging in a little writerly insecurity.

From time to time I’ll see a flurry of comments cross my social media pathways, complaining and commiserating about rejections and the frustration that comes from having one’s literary labours unappreciated routinely. I have also received a few rejections myself of course, but the more unfortunate reality is that I have rarely written and completed anything worth submitting unsolicited to any publication—and certainly nothing that would come close to resembling a manuscript to set loose in the world in search of a publisher. For critical work I always pitch first, but even then my rate of production has dwindled to exactly two reviews last year and one this year which has yet to see the light. Add a few small somewhat poetic efforts and a commissioned essay for a book that is supposed to come out sometime next year and that’s about the sum extent of my writing outside this space.

So, while I have submitted and pitched little, I have certainly written a lot of rejection letters since joining 3:AM Magazine almost two years ago. At certain times of the year, and this is one, I shudder every time Gmail pings on my iPad because the submissions and pitches roll in at a steady rate. I debate acceptances and agonize over rejections. I do enjoy editing, and I think I am a good and respectful editor, but because I edit for a publication that defines its own rules by essentially refusing to have any hard and fast guidelines, I have often opted to take on ambitious younger writers with what I think is a cool and original idea—maybe one they’d be hard pressed to sell elsewhere—even if it means that a lot of time may need to go into making that idea come to life. If I worked on a clock it would be reckless to allow accept such projects. But I’m not, so what is costing?

Quite honestly, I’m afraid it’s beginning to cost any pretensions to a writing life I my have ever entertained. I’ve never seen writing as a way to make a living, all the more power to those who need to, but at this point in my life it’s about trying to tell a story. My own.

However, I am beginning to wonder for whom and for what.

In early March I came home from a wonderful month in India with a notebook full of essay ideas. I felt I had turned an important corner in my own journey of self-acceptance. I carried a renewed sense of personal value. Within weeks a crisis erupted at 3:AM which was not only a very stressful lesson in the speed at which intolerance—in multiple directions—can spiral out of control and the damage it causes. I stayed on but with a greatly increased workload. Add to that, a difficult spring spiralling through grief, revisited traumas, family stress, and mental health challenges, and, at this point, all of those essay ideas sit exactly as I left them. Unexplored.

The one thing I am pleased with is this blog (or literary site as I call it when I want to sound serious). I’m not super prolific and my reading rate has been dismally slow, but I have written a couple of longer essayish meditations and, although I no longer review everything I read, I tend to treat the reviews a do write with more critical attention—equivalent to what I might seek to publish elsewhere. I am aware that I have a significant readership and that many of these reviews, especially if publishers pick them up and link to them, attract traffic and readership as well, if not better, than many lit sites. I am extraordinarily selective when I do accept a book for review and I feel no obligation to finish or write about a book that’s not working for me on some level—which is not to say one has to love a book to engage with it on a critical level, but there must be something of interest to talk about in a meaningful way. However, that’s another debate altogether. It’s my space, here I set the rules.

I can even engage in a little self-indulgent navel gazing like this when I need to.

Thing is, to go back to where I started, I not only see writers measuring their lives in accumulated rejections, I also see writers within my little network publishing. Books, maybe, which I don’t begrudge anyone, but also on literary sites and journals—and sometimes at a regular pace. Which leads me to think other writers have a collection of finished, or nearly finished, stories, essays, and poems sitting in file folders, virtual or otherwise, or being tossed to the vagaries of unpredictable editors like myself at all times. Or they write constantly.

This past June I started a daily writing practice with the encouragement of a dear friend and mentor, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books. The first night I write a few prosaic words to myself about goals. The second night I emptied a couple of pages of anger and frustration until I nearly made myself physically ill. I’ve written about grief and loss, rehearsed a number of blog posts and essay fragments (like this one you are reading now), and at times I have used it as a journal to record my thoughts, activities, and goals. When all inspiration fails I have switched to the Devanagari keyboard and sputtered away in my rudimentary Hindi. I have revisited my entries several times, retracing my way through the accumulated pages, gathering words and ideas for use elsewhere; reminding myself how far I have travelled emotionally these past few months.

But still I am left with the questions: Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? What am I writing towards?

I can’t help but wonder if I am simply too old to start anything significant. Have I missed this train? Or rather is there just too much baggage now packed into nearly six decades and two gendered lives to unpack and make sense of? What if I do unpack it and find barely a story worth telling? Or worse, a story I cannot tell because I don’t know where it lies anymore. I am increasingly aware, as our world becomes ever more polarized on every axis—as we hunker down in our little glass houses with a pile of stones at the ready—that I look like a middle-aged white man (and I’ll admit it’s a handy façade on occasion) even if the actual truth of my being is so much more complicated and even ticks a few of the popular diversity boxes quite readily, should I want to define myself in such terms.  But, in the end, all the labels I could wear are simply part of complex real life lived.

Just like anyone else’s.