The stars used to be on our side: Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets

There is a very eerie atmosphere that envelopes the stories in Yevgenia Belorusets’ collection, Lucky Breaks. This is a collection that examines the impact years of covert military action on civilians, in this case the conflict in the impoverished Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has been ongoing since 2014. But, by terrible coincidence, the release of this work in English came on the heels of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine and these tales of loss, displacement and trauma have suddenly been cast into sharper relief. This slender volume has become more vital than it already was. As I write this I am following the author’s daily diary updates from Kyiv and her words have become an essential aspect of my emotional connection to a situation that seems to so difficult to understand. That is in no small part because she is deeply interested in ordinary people whose stories are so often unheard, caught up in events they did not choose and cannot control, detailing her character’s situations with a measure of ironic humour and serious respect for the remarkable resilience that keeps them going against the odds.

Fate delivered her to Kyiv. She didn’t know what to do about it. She came from Donetsk, where she had lived her whole life in her parents’ small one-family house. She had enough money in her purse. That’s what they say, “in her purse,” although her actual purse was empty, full of wind. The wind part, really, is a hyperbole. She simply possessed something in her name, that’s it. That’s how they say it around here, “to her name,” although her name had nothing to do with it; she was not a name brand. In short, she had some inviolable reserves that she had to unseal and start systematically spending.  (from “The Lonely Woman”)

Belorusets is a photojournalist and writer whose work is informed by political activism. Her intention is to call attention to communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in the media. Her writing is an extension of this practice. In her collection Modern Animal (reviewed here) she worked with people she had interviewed during her years in the Donbas to reimagine their painful experiences in stories and allegories involving animals. In her “Note Before the Preface”, she indicates that in this volume, her activity with the tales she tells is still a form of documentation, not of the conflict itself, but “the surmounting of the conflict through a dialectical process—by means of phantasmagoria, narrative, conversation, and the disclosure of certain situations to the viewer.” Alongside the stories there are two photographic sequences: But I Insist: It’s Not Even Yesterday Yet and War in the Park. The grainy black and white images are not labeled and are not related to any of the stories, rather the three threads are presented as a means of showing how different contexts collide and unsettle narrative certainty. I will also mention, and I don’t know if it is intentional, but the font used is unusually small, effectively slowing the reading process and forcing the reader to remain longer in each of these relatively short stories.

The protagonists of Belorusets’ stories are almost exclusively women, told either directly through the character’s voice, presented as conversations or interrogations, or recounted as the experiences of someone the narrator knows or knows of. As such, the author’s own voice may be reflected in some of the accounts. Refugees and others displaced by war are common. Many find themselves lost and disoriented in Kyiv, longing for a past life or trying to build some kind of existence in the city. They look for work where they can find it. Others belong to an uncertain fate. Like the story of a florist so attuned to her art that she hardly exists outside her shop in Donetsk, but what happens to her when her home and shop are destroyed? Some characters arrive in Kyiv bearing the scars of the traumas they’ve endured, like the woman who keeps trying to rid herself of a broken black umbrella she carries only to rush to retrieve it, scolding it, pouring her pain into this tattered object. There are dreamers and horoscope readers and a woman who visits a cosmetologist as one might a therapist, in the belief that her hands can somehow massage, however temporarily, the griefs she carries right off her skin. Through their troubled, often eccentric circumstances, the characters who inhabit these thirty-two stories contribute to a narrative of life under hostilities in a state of persistent, slow burn. The heat has since been turned on full and these tales become at once more affectionately folkish and more disturbingly real. The stakes are even higher. One recurring character advises the narrator that she wants her identity hidden, and challenges her motives for recording her story at all:

“At least this is why it’s better for you and me if no one knows about me. I could be called to account, couldn’t I? But is there anything I can change? Not only can I not change anything, I don’t dare to. You’re taking my words down, you must be counting on something. Maybe a tearjerker about how we’re all full of hope for a new future, or how the country that we loved became our prison. We’re left to eke out a life in small towns, to die in plundered hospitals, in dirty public wards, or in empty little apartments where there’s no hot water for months and the lights go out at night. Someone will want to hear about us, and then you will be the one invited to a grand festive table, you will be the one they’ll raise a toast to.” (from “Lilacs”)

In allowing such passionate, disaffected voices to come through, Belorusets has, in Lucky Breaks documented a mood existing in Ukraine before  the barrage of headlines that have come to dominate our understanding of her country. That is what a documentarian does. And she is still doing it as bombs fall.

In his informative Afterword, translator Eugene Ostashevsky describes Belorusets’ writing as being most indebted to the early stories of Nikolai Gogol and early Soviet era avant-gardist Daniil Kharms. Elements of the supernatural and the absurd normalized within the realm of the everyday and a concern with narrative fiction appear in her work. Ostashevsky also discusses her controversial choice to write in Russian which raises political and logistical challenges for a Ukrainian writer in a country where most people can speak both languages, but Ukrainian is increasingly favoured and protected. He does admit, however, that her Russian is subtly different from that spoken in the Russian Federation: “it is based on the rhythms and intonations of the Russian of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and continues the Russian-language line of Ukrainian literature.”

Despite the grim subject matter that underlies (and sometimes surfaces) in this collection, Lucky Breaks is filled with warmth and humour. Belorusets’ characters exhibit much the same mix of anxiety and resolve that can be seen in the people she meets today as she wanders the streets of Kyiv and compiles her journal that is, at this time, being translated and shared with followers around the world on a daily basis. However, I can only hope that a wartime diary is not required too much longer.

Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets is translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and published by New Directions in North America. It will be released in the UK by Pushkin Press in May.

Sympathy for the misanthrope: Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen

The world isn’t what it used to be. For example, it takes more time to live now. I’m well into my eighties but it isn’t enough. I’m far too healthy, though I have nothing to be healthy for. But life won’t let go of me. He who has nothing to live for has nothing to die for. Maybe that’s why. (from “Chess”)

Norwegian writer Kjell Askildsen (1929–2021) is considered one of the greatest shorty-story writers of all time, a master of a spare, ascetic style in which quiet tension builds around what is unspoken. His themes tend to be sombre, with a dark, dry wit most reminiscent of Beckett, while his protagonists—all male—tend to be irritated, misanthropic and lacking empathy. Typically they find themselves isolated, often through their own behaviors or choices. There is little resolution in Askildsen’s world. Everything Like Before, gathers a selection of thirty-six of his stories spanning 1953–2015—including the entirety of his award-winning collection Thomas F’s Final Notes to the Public—that offers a generous taste of his idiosyncratic, if  bleak, worldview.

In such an extensive collection, within which many of the stories are very short, only two or three pages, the strongest pieces are often the longer ones—those which give the author more room to develop a scene or scenario. Some that really stand out for me include “The Encounter,” “A Sudden Liberating Thought,” “Mardon’s Night,” “Midsummer,” “The Wake,” “An Uplifting Funeral” and “Carl Lange.” Askildsen has a wonderful way with cranky, eccentric octagenarians in particular, but I did find that his fondness for stories involving husbands caught in marriages plagued by either tedium or restlessness—at least from their own dispassionate perspectives—frustrating for the persistent lack of communication, despite the fact that some of these pieces actually rely extensively on dialogue. Couples talking a lot, saying nothing.

However, his treatment of strained or difficult dynamics between fathers and sons is more effective. In “Mardon’s Night,” an older man named Mardon makes his way through an unfamiliar town to visit a his son, also named Mardon, whom he has not seen in many years. The exact nature of their estrangement is not clear, but the son is certainly odd and difficult. Their encounter is awkward, mediated by Vera, the son’s neighbour and at least occasional lover, one of the most fully realized female characters in the entire collection. But the visit fails to ease the distance of accumulated years, as neither man can or will make an effort.

Mardon lit a cigarette and said: We can’t actually do anything about who we are, can we? We’re completely at the mercy of our pasts, aren’t we, and we didn’t have a hand in creating our pasts. We’re arrows flying from the womb and landing in a graveyard. And what does it matter how high we flew at the moment we land? Or how far we flew, or how many we hurt along the way? That, Vera said, can’t be the whole truth.

As self-centred and insensitive as the younger Mardon may be, he echoes the view so many of Askildsen’s protagonists seem to have. A motivation for improvement, of one’s self or relationships, is lacking. The women, although we rarely see their emotional perspectives, often appear to demonstrate more will, much to the dismay of the men in their lives. Genderwise Askildsen tends to view the world through an odd one-way mirror—though that may in fact be the point he is making about his male characters. We as readers do not come to know the women because the men do not care to know what they really think.

Another highlight, “Carl Lange,” a story from the Thomas F collection, is a comedy of errors driven by paranoia. When two policemen arrive on Carl Lange’s doorstep and suggest that a man matching his description has been accused of the rape of an underage girl he is shocked. But, even though there is no reason to believe he is guilty, the suggestion triggers a series of increasingly neurotic and thus incriminating behaviours. Askildsen captures the gears turning inside our hapless protagonist so vividly that, as his reckless actions and antagonism directed at the investigating officer escalates, the tale is not only funny, but increasingly distressing as we watch a man careening into his own self-created disaster.

At best, these stories—whether long or short—open up haunting, unsettled spaces inhabited by characters who fail to connect, or do so only by awkward chance. There is a variation of form, not surprising given the wide span of Askildsen’s career covered here, but, taken too many at a time, the stories can, at times, flatten out and run into one another, as a certain sameness blunts the sharpness of his wit. In that respect, this collection, like other longer volumes, may be best enjoyed a handful of stories at a time.

Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen is translated by Sean Kinsella and published by Archipelago Books.

The Kindness of Strangers: Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rishøi

Those of us who live in northern countries know that winter is not just a season, it is a state of mind. Ice and snow, cold and short days can test resources and strengthen resolve. Everything, good and bad, can be heightened at this time of year. This is the mood that permeates Norwegian writer Ingvild H. Rishøi’s third collection Winter Stories, her first to appear in English. This volume contains three stories, two almost novella length, set in winter and featuring working class characters and their children or siblings. As such it is a book about families, what to means to be a family. Each story is anchored in a strong, distinct narrative voice—a protagonist caught up in a situation he or she had not anticipated, circumstances they cannot escape. They know they have some agency, but it is not that simple—their own families of origin are damaged, wounded, marked by poverty, mental illness, violence. Yet in each case the central figure holds to the hope that they can break the cycle, that things can be better, for the sake of the young children in their lives, the children who give their lives meaning.

The first and shortest story “We Can’t Help Everybody” features a very young single mother and her sensitive observant kindergarten-aged daughter as they make their way home from school on a rainy, cold afternoon. The mother, down to her last 60 kroner, is worried about how they will make it through the weekend. She is overwhelmed by the responsibility of parenthood, the weight of poverty, and, one gathers, little support from the child’s father. As her daughter argues that they must help a young man begging on the street, the narrator thinks back to her own childhood, growing up in a caravan. The picture she sketches of a troubled mother, and emotional instability, is scant but telling. The insecurities linger, but:

Now everything is so different.  One thing after another has changed, and now I have a job and a daughter and days like this, and here I sit on the pavement and she is five years old and shakes her head, and squeezes her eyes shut, but the sound of the rain creates something light in me.

That everything can be different again.

Everything can be fine.

On the surface, the challenges that emerge in this short piece may seem small—the decision to help a beggar, the desire to buy a new pair of underpants—but if you have ever faced the inability to meet basic expenses for your children, as I have, you know the feeling of despair can be crushing. And the smallest of miracles pure magic. This story captures a reality many know too well.

The second and third stories, each running to about 70 pages apiece, also take place over a short span of time, but offer the space for a greater development of the protagonist’s character, background and the circumstances behind the immediate events. In “The Right Thomas,” a man recently released from prison is preparing for his young son’s first overnight visit in over a year. He has studied the recipe he plans to cook, and with only a few hours to spare, sets out to buy a pillow for his son’s bed. Only thirty-three himself, Thomas’ route to fatherhood is a little unconventional. A one-night stand led Leon’s conception, and when the panicked mother-to-be manages to track him down, she makes it clear that she expects him to take on the role of co-parent, but she neither wants a relationship nor does she need his financial support. Thomas has a difficult past, with an abusive, violent father and a troubled recent history, but he longs to be a better man, a new man.

Now, back in the outside world, ready to make good on his resolution, Thomas still reads threats and accusations into even the most mild interactions. What he fears most is his own anger, that it will be triggered, erupt, be uncontrollable. It is a legacy he wishes to leave behind, but it stalks him everywhere, mitigated only by the words of his prison psychologist that echo in his thoughts:

‘You want to buy a child’s pillow,’ she says.

But this isn’t an attack. This is just something I don’t master, if you’ve felt under attack for your entire life, this is how you react, that is Stone Age biology, the psychologist said, the fear is embedded in the brain, but I’m not going to behave like a caveman, because I live in a time period with pillow shops and psychologists and traffic lights and if I continue to feel suffocated and lose it, then the same things will happen to Leon, my father scared the bejesus out of me, and I scare the bejesus out of him, but I don’t want to.

I want Leon to sleep peacefully in his bed.

His sincere wish is that his son can enjoy the confidence and success he feels his upbringing and failures have denied him. But will he even manage to make it through to this important opportunity to start over again?

The final story, “Siblings,” opens with seventeen year-old Rebekka ready to run away, essentially from social services, with her two young half-siblings. The children have no idea what is going on, but they trust her, even if she is not sure she trusts herself. She picks up the children after school, dumps their books in the garbage, fills their rucksacks with clothes she has stashed, and hurries them off to catch a bus out of town. As the story unfolds and the challenges that threaten her careful plans mount, the complexity of the underlying factors behind this sudden flight are revealed.

This is excellent classic story telling; as a reader it is impossible not to become invested in each scenario as it plays out. With empathy and a keen poetic sensibility, Rishøi creates deeply human, interesting characters and gives each one a compelling voice. She excels at building narrative tension, fueled as much by the outside circumstances that arise as by her protagonists’ own insecurities and growing doubts that they will fail those who depend on them most. They take risks, stumble and pull themselves together again. Success is not certain, there are no happy endings, but there is promise. And, sometimes, promise is enough.

Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rostøi is translated by Diane Oatley and published by Seagull Books.

Bedtime stories for insomniacs: To See Out the Night by David Clerson

In 2016, a feisty new imprint, dedicated to introducing English speaking audiences to a new generation of young Quebecois writers, emerged with their first release. Over the past five years, this small Canadian publishing venture has maintained an annual three-title season, their books garnering nominations, awards and international attention along the way. QC Fiction has now introduced their 2021-2022 line-up with To See Out the Night, a short story collection by David Clerson, the same author whose novella Brothers closed their first season.

A work of haunting minimalism, Brothers is a stark fable about the adventures of two misshapen boys who live with their mother in a desolate world—a place that exists somewhere between epic childhood fantasy and post-apocalyptic despair. Together the siblings craft a ramshackle boat and set off in search of their father, a wild dog. The tale that unfolds is one of tragedy and resilience, played out on a stage that is spare, surreal, and yet strangely alive. With broad brush strokes Clerson creates a work of such visual energy that I cannot help but imagine it as an animated film or graphic novel.

His new work, first published in French in 2019, carries some of the same qualities or tendencies as Brothers. Although the characters and settings have greater density—they are fleshed out a little more—but there is still much left unsaid. A porous line separates the real and the unreal. The narratives, if grounded in a more recognizable world, explore the middle ground between primal and modern energies. In keeping with its title then, one could think of the dozen short fables of To See Out the Night as bedtime stories for insomniacs, those caught between waking and sleep. As it turns out, night—alternate dream realities, night shift workers, the exploration of strange nocturnal spaces—feature in many of the stories.

Clerson has a fondness for the socially awkward character, someone who tends to isolate or struggle with finding a balance between the disparate elements of their life. He typically places most of his protagonists in distinctly Quebec settings, both urban and rural, but in most cases a weirdness awaits, one that warps otherwise ordinary existences, perhaps mildly, perhaps stretched far beyond the norm. This may even involve, as with the boys’ animal/human parentage in Brothers, a crossing of boundaries between man and beast. In the opening piece, “The Ape Within,” an unemployed night watchman experiences a compelling sense of connection with an orangutan on a nature documentary and soon becomes convinced he is possessed, from inside, by the ape. On vacation, the protagonist of “Jellyfish” is entered by an aquatic creature that will completely transform his life. In “The Language of Hunters,” the narrator’s encounter with a bear carcass, killed by a hunter but abandoned to the birds and forest animals, leads into an account of the impact his father’s suicide has left on him:

I felt like I couldn’t leave, like I wanted to dig a grave for the bear or take it with me, gut it, cut through its flesh, remove its animal skin and put it on. The hunter hadn’t bothered to take the fur or the meat, and I wondered why we taxidermied animals but not humans, why we tried to preserve animals in some approximation of life but hid the bodies of our loved ones until we forgot about them, until there was nothing left.

In each tale, an oddness of motivation or intent colours the engagements between the characters and the worlds they find themselves in. Clerson’s gift lies in taking apparently ordinary actors, setting them in an environment, real or surreal or both, and twisting the circumstances to see not simply how, but if they will respond. The touch is light, the tone is matter-of-fact regardless of context, be it realistic or fabulist in nature and, beneath the surface, existential questions percolate. Quietly yet consistently off-centre, To See Out the Night offers a charismatic collection of apocryphal tales for our times.

To See Out the Night by David Clerson is translated by Katia Grubisic (who also translated Brothers) and published by QC Fiction.

What have we done to our planet? Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change by Vinita Agrawal (ed)

The green recedes like a hairline,
blue, blue is our future. And the rains
come like an ominous doorbell. And the fire
comes like a lion devouring, and the earth’s despaired-rumble
in her belly. Under muted breath, Hindus mutter pralaya,
a continent slips through an orifice,
glaciers slide innocently into the sea like a friendly
handshake, and we leave the seventh cause of
climate change nameless.

– Usha Akella, “Adam Walking Backward”

It is either coincidental or inevitable that I started reading Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change on the same day the collapse of a Himalayan glacier and subsequent deadly flooding in Uttarakhand, India, made international news. I finished it to reports of the exceptional winter weather and power outages that left many Texans dead. Accounts of disappearing sea ice, habitat loss, raging fires, too much or too little moisture, extended tropical storm seasons and more have become a constant soundtrack, humming along beneath the chorus of a global pandemic, too insistent to ignore. Of course, countless industries and governments are doing their best to do just that, thus the importance of responses from a multitude of disciplines, including art and literature.

Open Your Eyes is one such effort. Edited by poet Vinita Agrawal and published in India, this attractive volume gathers poetic and prose reflections from a wide range of writers, from India and from around the world including Ranjit Hoskote, Ruth Padel, Abhay K, Anjali Purohit, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Ayaz Rasool Nazki, Barnali Ray Shukla, Esther Vincent Xueming, Indira Chandrasekhar, Kiriti Sengupta, Longbir Terang, Nabina Das, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Sophia Naz and many, many more. For a concern so commonly associated with young western activists, this anthology offers a broader, more diverse response to the threats facing our planet, something that is by no means the province of the young. The oldest contributor here is ninety-two year-old Jayanta Mahapatra who offers a new poem, the mournful “I Am Today,” to the project. He joins sixty-two others raising their voices to call attention to the reality and risks of climate change.

It is November.
You know it from the susurration of light –
unclotted light, its guest-like tone
On my nephew’s face
the light is like a muscle,
quickening as he pedals.
The sweat still a secret –
armpits fold of private skin.

He’s seven,
as old as the ancient duration of exile.
The world’s grown warmer since his birth.
That is all I’m able to say
when he points to graffiti on the way –
‘What is Global Warming?’

– Sumana Roy, “’Global Warming’”

Concern about the health of our planet and its inhabitants is hardly new. When I was growing up in Canada, during the 1960s and 70s and on into my university years, we fretted about overpopulation and starvation, pollution, acid rain and holes in the ozone. Today, as manmade threats to the earth are increasingly urgent, governments such as the provincial one I live under are almost hostile to the notion of “Global Warming” as if it is a notion dreamed up yesterday by nefarious enemies of Capitalism and the Economy. It’s not that simple.

Given the theme of this anthology, it is hardly surprising that natural imagery runs a strong course through many of the poems and stories that comprise this book—birds and insects, rivers and forests, floods and drought, violent storms and heavy silence. The gathered offerings are strong; these themes are explored with fresh energy, rarely slipping toward the cliched or the overly sentimental. Sorrow crossed with anger tends to be the driving force; an inclination to preach gives way to the power of the image. In Rohan Chhetri’s “Fish Cross the River in the Rain” for instance, the speaker and his father go down to a river where electrofishing is being practiced:

To stand on the wave-nipped bank as shoal
after stunned shoal heave their nets. The fish
wake older, dreaming brief new lives huddled
in a foreign prison gasping at each other’s
gills blinded like a sack of mirrors.

The poets and writers contributing their work to Open Your Eyes bring, along with love of language, a lived wisdom that informs their varied approaches to the theme. Theirs is a passionate and often surprising engagement with the crisis at hand—a willingness to engage with the past, speak to the present and envision the all-too-likely future, as Sudeep Sen illustrates in his striking “Disembodied” which opens:

My body carved from abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
.                                      from minaret shards of an old mosque
.           from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
                          from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly       as they should—
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
.                            patches and etch-corrects my orientation—
magnetic pulses prove potent.

 

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
.                                                        blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by the brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
.                         echo asthmatic, a new vinyl dub-remix.

His poem ends with a portrait of an ominous near future, or nearly present. The prose pieces which close out the book take, for the most part, a more explicit glance into a possible world to come, employing elements magic and speculative fiction to imagine more anxious allegories of what could lie ahead. Open Your Eyes is an important contribution to the growing literature addressing the reality of climate change, yet one has to ask, is a project like this a call to arms, or evidence that, in the wilderness, a chorus of voices were shouting even if we refused to listen? I know what it should be.

Walking along the beach in Kochi with a friend we watched dogs searching among the refuse, trash and plastic washed upon the shore.

*

Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change is edited by Vinita Agrawal and published by Hawakal Publishers. I will confess that I ordered this book (which appears to be readily available outside India) because a number of my friends have work included within its pages, but that, in the end, turned out to be a welcome door to discovering many writers I might not have encountered otherwise.

An island to hold in the palm of your hand: Purple Perilla by Can Xue

Imagine. Islands of words, small self-contained worlds of ideas, stories, exploration. Points of reference in a sea that is increasingly uneasy, uncertain to navigate. This is the vision of isolarii, a project designed to revive the notion of “island books”—collections of literature and art united on a singular idea and bound into a single volume—that first appeared during the Renaissance, but was lost as other literary forms began to take precedence. Now, under a bimonthly subscription model, the tradition has been reborn in miniature.

Purple Perilla by Chinese experimental writer Can Xue is the third offering in this series. Beautifully presented, complete with a translucent dust jacket, this tiny book is about the size of a deck of cards and contains, in just under 150 pages, three delightful short stories: “An Affair,” “Mountain Ants,” and “Purple Perilla.” Xue offers these tales, which move from an urban to a wild setting, as a lyrical reaction to our contemporary condition. Her trademark measure of unreality permeates each piece.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Can Xue is a very idiosyncratic writer. She allows her fiction to spill forth in what will be its finished state—she writes, one hour a day, without rereading or edits. As a result, her stories and novels have a wandering quality, with a real, yet unreal atmosphere. Much like a dream. The best way to approach such work is to read as Xue writes, one word at a time. This is against an attentive reader’s natural instincts, but looking for patterns and clues will not help. However, this is not to say there is no form, no direction, no meaning—only that one is forced to be patient, to listen and see where the story takes you, not worrying if it seems to tumble along freely at times. Reader and author are essentially on a journey together. As Can Xue says:

Reading my fiction requires a certain creativity. This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author’s.

“An Affair” tells the story of Fay, a thirty-six year old teacher, living in a city, who receives a most unusual love letter from a man who claims he has seen her on the bus. He neither reveals his name nor provides a return address, admitting he does not expect she would want to write back. This odd, enigmatic correspondence haunts Fay, leading her to wonder what kind of hold this mysterious man has on her imagination. Eventually she sets out to find him, or find out more about him, by travelling to the far end of the city where he told her he works at a cigarette factory. What she discovers on her strange, convoluted mission seems to tell her more about herself than any mysterious suitor.

The second tale, “Mountain Ants,” is set in a small city surrounded by mountains. Lin Mai lives with his parents in a mansion which is oddly isolated despite being surrounded by buildings. Visitors are rare. The boy spends much of his free time interacting with a large nest of ants in his yard. One day an old man appears at his gate. He tells Lin Mai that he lives in the mountains and has followed the ants to his home. This man, who is called Grandpa Wu, shares some knowledge about the ants and promises that one day he will take Lin Mai up a mountain. As this magical story unfolds, Lin Mai learns some curious information about his parents, the beggar known as Grandpa Wu, and the importance of tending to his own and several other mountain ant colonies in the city.

The final story “Purple Perilla,” the most dreamlike and magical of the three, ultimately carries the narrator into the wilderness, where a friend and his grandma have gone to live among the wolves. To young Chickadee this friend, a boy he has long admired, has uncanny qualities:

Unwittingly, I followed Nigu. He was so profound that he wasn’t like a child, but like … what was he like?

“I’m my grandfather’s grandfather.” Nigu turned around and spoke to me. I was stunned—he actually knew what I was thinking!

“I’m really like my grandfather’s grandfather. I think I am. Chickadee, don’t be afraid of me; I won’t hurt anyone…”

Read as a cycle, these short stories walk headfirst into the unknown. Here, questions are transformative in themselves—it’s less a matter of securing answers than of finding comfort in mystery. Bound together in this portable format, they offer a direct engagement with the magic and vision of one of China’s most inventive writers.

Each volume in the isolarii series is accompanied by several forewords. Presently, Scholastique Mukasonga’s prose riffing in response to a sentence or two from each of Can Xue’s stories is available online. It can be found here. Reading this small volume is a uniquely pleasurable experience. And, it’s worth noting that although the book is small in size, the font is not nor do the stories feel compressed or compromised in any way. It has been a while since I last wandered in Can Xue’s world and my first encounter with her short fiction, but I am now keen to return, before long, to her dreamscapes in a longer work or collection.

Purple Perilla by Can Xue is translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. It is the third volume in the isolarii series published by Common Era Inc.

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.

Older than yesterday, younger than God: 926 Years by Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster

The universe is a big empty space, small clusters of stars and planets stretch across impossible horizons and, even if you are lucky enough to find yourself on one of the statistically unlikely chunks of rock that might just support (apparently) intelligent life, the chances that you will gather around yourself a few precious like-minded souls to nourish your own creative dreams and endeavours within spitting distance is another statistical unlikelihood, though much less unlikely than finding enough oxygen and water available to allow for your own existential possibility. Period.

Imagine, then, the good fortune that led one somewhat cynical Australian writer in Sydney to chance upon the work of an American (sorry but I have no idea what his temperamental tendencies are) writer from Louisville, Kentucky in the 17th issue of The White Review. What started as writerly admiration grew, thanks to the magic of email, into a friendship and now, some three years or so later a book-shaped collaboration. Twenty-two pieces of micro fiction. A literary game of call and response. A sideways glance into 926 cumulative years of human existence.

Each story, or vignette, is titled after the central character and his or her age. One imagines each author taking turns, challenging the other, triggering the next effort. Perhaps there were complex rules, elaborate algorithms. Perhaps a roll of the dice or a measure of blind faith. I don’t know. Entering one world after another, spaces filled with souls that seem somehow disconnected from their lives—from their jobs, their relationships, their health, or from the simpler beings around them—a curious reader (okay, I’m guilty) might be inclined to look for points of reference loosely linking one story to the next. Yet, the opportunity to slip in and out of a variety of experiences is its own reward. A connection to the unconnected. Like 47 year-old Larry Hoavis, sitting in his rural backyard, reflecting on the radio towers in the distance, their lights flashing in the darkness:

Why does it feel lonely, sitting and watching? Nature in its subtle power and monotony, pre-Internet to the core, unconscious of its enormity. No one. No one even knows he’s here. The house at his back. Divorced. His ex elsewhere , how he loved her, hurt her, himself. Why’s it beautiful, why’s it comforting, that no one knows? The crickets bleeping in the grass around him, the corn growing before him. Far lights pulsing like heartbeats, waiting for lives and bodies to grow around. Loneliness, it’s inarguable isn’t it? Crowns a person like some kind of common wisdom. Then overthrows him.

Each moment, painful, precious, perfect.

926 Years by Kyle-Coma Thompson and Tristan Foster, the American and Australian co-conspirators, is the second small book to emerge from Joshua Rothes’ Sublunary Editions (I reviewed the first, Falstaff: Apotheosis here, and interviewed Rothes for 3:AM Magazine here). The collaborative effort—not just between the authors but with the editor/publisher—gives this project its energy and sets a wonderfully realistic and realizable model for creating literature that is fresh and original. One that invites and encourages other like-minded spirits to imagine their own projects and help make this lonely habitable rock a little less lonely.

Where There Are Monsters by Breanne McIvor: Some thoughts and a link to my review at 3:AM

With my editing responsibilities at 3:AM Magazine occupying more of my time in recent months, I have not been able to find the time or energy to pitch or submit reviews to publications, preferring to rely on my blog for critical writing. However, this past week saw the publication of an off-site review at—of all places—3:AM. We have collaborated with the Republic of Consciousness Prize to publish a monthly review of their corresponding Book of the Month Club. I was invited to contribute a review for the May title.

Where There Are Monsters, the debut collection of short stories by Trinidadian writer Breanne McIvor was a very pleasant surprise that I might not have heard of save for this opportunity. Published by UK-based Peepal Tree Press, who specialize in promoting the work of Caribbean and Black British writers, McIvor presents a bold contemporary vision of her native country where wealth and poverty co-exist; crafting memorable tales that feature characters from both sides of the social and economic divide.  However, woven into this modern landscape are myths and monsters drawn from traditional folklore—often where one least expects them—lending her stories a distinctly gothic feel.

The opening passage of my review is reproduced below. You can read the rest of it here:

In an era when the happy ending may seem elusive, naive or, at the very least, ill-suited to the realm of serious literature, it is natural to long for a conclusion that, if not exactly happily-ever-after, is happier than expected. To that end, perhaps the most memorable feature of Breanne McIvor’s debut collection of short stories Where There Are Monsters is that, even if a shadowy quality simmers throughout, so many of her stories feature characters who are intrinsically kind and good, or capable of rising above the difficulties or legacies bequeathed them. Those who cannot are most often quite literally, well, monsters — beings possessed by a darkness deeply rooted in the folklore of Trinidad — and even then, the desire to override the evil impulses buried inside flickers with a desperate, if inadequate, humanity.

Folktales for a new world: Rain and Other Stories by Mia Couto

In the preface to his newly translated collection, Rain and Other Stories, Mozambican writer Mia Couto tells us that the stories we are about to read were written after his country’s long and bloody civil war. The conflict which erupted in 1977, two years after the African nation achieved independence from Portugal, would last for fifteen years, leaving over one million dead and devastating the country’s infrastructure. As the majority of the white Portuguese fled, they left behind an impoverished, uneducated population. Yet, where Couto had anticipated total ruin and destruction, he found that seeds of life and hope had survived. Not all was lost.

These tales speak to this land we are remaking and where we soak our faces in this rain of hope, this water of benedreamtion. Of this land where each man is the same, like this: pretending he’s here, dreaming of going away, imagining his return.

The twenty-six stories that follow are very short—most are but a handful of pages—and although they spring from the immediate aftermath of a contemporary battle, signalling the end of both Soviet-backed Cold War alliances and white domination in Southern Africa, the roots and spirits of these tales seem to run deep into the very bedrock of the earth. They are uniquely Mozambican and yet timeless. These are the fables, folktales, comic and magical imaginings of human folly and resilience. They are a telling of a shattered world back into being.

Couto, the winner of the Neustadt International Prize, and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, has an uncanny ability to create miniature worlds peopled with wonderful characters, images and happenings. In some tales war is still a present quantity, in others it is past but only barely. These are the people caught in the “transition from the tragedy of war to the misery of peace.” We encounter ordinary folk trying to deal with love, its loss, infidelity, old age, even an errant hippopotamus. Some tales are apocryphal in tone, others tragic, yet others simply enchanting. Throughout the collection, the accounts are seasoned with witticisms, aphorisms, and gentle wisdom.

“Blind Estrelinho” is an early and particularly captivating example. The title character is a “man of no moment,”entirely dependent on his guide Gigito Efraim to lead him through the world and open it to his unseeing eyes. And what a world it is! Little Gigito:

described what wasn’t there. The work he detailed was fantasies and fine-lacery. The guide’s imagination bore more fruit than a papaya tree. The blind man’s mouth filled with waters:
What marvellousity, this world. Tell me everything, Gigito!

When his young guide is taken away to war, the blind man’s world falls dark. Gigito’s sister arrives to take her brother’s place but she describes the world as it truly is, and Estrelinho’s loss is magnified. Until he discovers that a girl offers other, shall we say, insights. But the story does not end there.

Some tales are disturbing, like “The Flag in the Sunset” about a boy who, needing to bleed to dream, would ask his grandma to cut him. For his failure to salute the flag he meets an untimely and bloody end, taking another life with him, and haunting all who pass where the flagpole once stood—a resounding comment on forced allegiance, and the degree to which flags “detract from the celestial blues.” “Lamentations of a Coconut Tree” recounts the report, verified by the Nation’s newspaper, of the experience of the narrator’s friend Suleimane Ibraimo who, upon splitting the shell of a coconut finds that:

the fruit didn’t gush the usual sweet water, but blood. Exactly so: blood. But that wasn’t the only astonishing thing. The fruit cried and lamented in a human voice. Suleimane took no exaggerated measures: his wide-open hands dropped the coconut, the red stains spread. He stood there, dumbfounded and overwhelmed, spent. The shock made his soul vanish into the low tide.

The narrator rushes to help, finding his friend sunken but with all traces of the incident cleaned away. Naturally he is distrustful: “Doubt, we know,” he says, “is the envy that the unbelievable hasn’t happened to us.”

One of Couto’s real strengths lies in his ability to sketch out larger-than-life characters in the span of a few pages, like the man who worries about what his enjoyment of his formerly frigid wife’s newfound manly intensity says about him, the night watchman who confronts a hippopotamus ravaging a schoolroom or Professor Novesfora, the protagonist of “The Hapless Calculus of Happiness,” a mathematically minded man who weighs and measures everything, allowing algebraic operations to guide his world view:

He also divided out his affections in calculated doses, limiting love to its numerical equivalent. Love affairs, women, children: all those things were null hypotheses. Feelings, he was fond of saying, have no logarithm. For that reason, there was no reason to even solve the equation. Since he was a child, he’d abstained from affection. From an algebraic point of view, he would say, tenderness is absurd. Like a negative zero.

Until the day he falls for an underage student and all the calculations change!

Rain and Other Stories, is a rich and rewarding collection of fables that capture the cultural and ethnic diversity of post colonial Mozambique rebuilding itself after prolonged conflict between the Marxist government and right wing insurgents, each backed by outside players with their own agendas, had nearly torn the fledgling nation apart. Translator Eric M. B. Becker captures the sheer magic of Couto’s playful Portuguese, and his simple but powerful imagery. This is writing toward healing, toward a celebration of life, but with a clear caution that darkness is never far away.

Rain and Other Stories is published by Bibioasis.