Crazy in love with words: Attrib. by Eley Williams

Many year-end lists, especially those with an eye to the world of indie publishing, have been abuzz with praise for the linguistic gymnastics of Eley Williams and her debut collection Attrib. and Other Stories. And rightly so. Even those readers who might be strangers to experimental fiction have found themselves captivated by the slippery, dazzling wordplay on display. This book—which I read with this month’s Guardian Reading Group, a forum I’ve scarce had time for in recent years but where I probably first learned to analyze, articulate and defend my response to literary works—is certainly a highly entertaining, intelligent, tightly crafted foray into a slightly surreal space where words have a weight and reality that seems to hang in the air, creating the ground for an unusual assortment of narratives.

However, as one might expect, some stories are more effective than others, and though each reader is likely to measure impact differently, I couldn’t help feeling that the whole was somewhat more than the sum of its parts. This is a book well worth experiencing, but one might wonder where Williams could take this type of wordplay from here. Could it be expanded to novel length or does she have her sights on other literary visions? Fortunately, as Reading Group participants, we were able to pose our questions to her yesterday, and rather than rehash that discussion here, I would suggest anyone interested in getting a sense of the exuberance and energy that virtually bounces off the pages of Attrib., to have a glance at the webchat —the same spirit and charm comes through in her responses.

The stories that comprise Attrib. find their origins in the simplest ideas. In the most basic pieces, dictionary definitions and wordplay spark clever scenarios; in the more substantial offerings, her protagonists have odd occupations, want to express how they feel but lose themselves in microscopic self-inspection, or are beset by strange psychological afflictions. Somehow Williams manages to have fun and touch at real anxieties and emotions at the same time, even in the most curious tales.

Her gift for juggling words is evident from the opening entry, “The Alphabet,” artfully subtitled: “(or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice)”. Here the narrator is dealing with a progressive form of aphasia, trying to hang on to her ability to use language as it erodes and, along with it, her relationship:

The plot, yes—the condition of its being lost. I have a great deal of nostalgia for having the plot and a full vocabulary. Both have been lost gradually along with the—what is it—marbles. My marbles, specifically. We have come to specific marbles. I have lost it, I have lost my marbles and I have lost the plot—the Holy Trinity of losing I have lost my faith in—wham bam thank you m’—ma—mate. Maybe the plot was connected with my marbles in some way. Maybe one plays marbles on a plot, plot being synonymous with pitch or field or court. I lost them all long ago is what’s important. Two weeks ago. You took my marbles and it with you and I appear to have mislaid the plot.

In my years working in brain injury, I encountered many people dealing with varying degrees of aphasia, and this bittersweet story captures beautifully, the spirit of losing one’s facility with language.

The title story, “Attrib.”, which, according to her Guardian Q&A was completed just before the manuscript of this collection was submitted, is a stand out—the magic of inspiration under pressure, perhaps? The narrator who has a hypersensitivity for sound, is Foley artist working to create incidental sounds for a soundtrack to accompany a gallery exhibition on Michelangelo which will feature reproductions of his major works. How exactly do you capture just the right sound to signify the Creation of Eve anyway? The theological and practical considerations that arise make for a most amusing dilemma.

While Williams shows herself capable of spinning the simplest idea into delightful yarn, one of my favourite pieces, “Bulk,” demonstrates her ability to orchestrate an eccentric cast to create a story with surprising depth of character. The narrator is a natural history museum employee who joins a collection of onlookers gathered around the carcass of a dead whale washed up on the shore. The protagonist, ostensibly the professional in the situation betrays a lack of confidence and unwillingness to take control that seems, more than anything, to reflect the smallness of humanity against the mass of the proud creature who has met such an unfortunate, undignified end:

‘I will touch it!’ declared the young woman suddenly with a renewed vigour and she slipped from her partner’s arm and ran in an arc out towards the head of the whale, picking out a route over the rocks with shoeless feet. There was an ungainliness about her small size next to the great bulk of the whale. There was an unbalance to the scene on the shoreline generally, as if a note was being sung off-key, or somewhere a pair of parentheses had been left unclosed.

Finally, the majority of the stories are first person narratives and in most cases, the gender of the narrator and, if relevant, the love interest is left unspecified. As a differently gendered reader I tend to be both gender sensitive and gender ambivalent. I like the openness that this approach allows in the reading, and I often prefer it to the awkwardness that sometimes comes through in cross-gendered narratives (authors writing from the opposite gender perspective), but whereas one can develop the personality of the narrator in a short space, the “you” addressed in the more romantically themed pieces can reduce the potential emotional depth of the situations. It is even more challenging when this kind of approach is extended over a longer format. This was the nature of the question I posed to Eley Williams in the chat (you can see it under my uncreative user name “jmschrei”). She responded that she left gender unspecified when she did not think it was crucial to the story but admitted:

I didn’t find writing ‘genderlessness’ a constraint, not wittingly anyway: I think for a reader confused acts of heroism don’t require specific or non-specific awareness of genitals.

Nice answer. I wish real life was more like that.

Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams is published by Influx Press.

The seduction of ideological extremes: The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann

For months The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, sat on my shelf unread. I had bought it in anticipation of the recent release, in translation, of his last major work, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem. However, for some reason, I could not bring myself to read it. I have never been especially attracted to World War II literature, and with the current resurgence of neo-Nazi sentiments and far-right movements in North America and Europe, I was uncertain if I wanted to venture into a series of stories in which an East German writer traces a path from his enthusiastic adoption of fascist rhetoric as a youth, on through his experiences as a German soldier during the war, to his eventual rejection of Nazi ideology and acceptance of socialism in a Soviet POW camp. I wondered if I had the heart for it, and yet the translator of both volumes, Isabel Fargo Cole, advised me that Fühmann’s personal reflections in At the Burning Abyss would have greater impact and resonance with the background afforded by The Jew Car.

Born in 1922, Fühmann grew up in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the son of an apothecary who encouraged the development of a strong German nationalism. From the age of ten to fourteen, he attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg but found the atmosphere stifling. In 1936, he transferred to a school in Reichenberg, where he lived on his own for the first time and became involved in the Sudeten Fascist movement. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he joined the SA. 1941, he was assigned to the signal corps serving in various locations in the Ukraine before being moved to Greece as Germany’s fortunes declined. He was captured by Soviet forces in 1945. During his years spent as a POW, he would embrace socialism and upon his release in 1949, he finally found himself on German soil for the first time, settling in the GDR where he would spend the rest of his life.

Originally published in 1962, the stories in The Jew Car, which is subtitled Fourteen Days from Two Decades, follow the trajectory of Fühmann’s life between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. Presented with dramatic colour, they offer an attempt to explore the progression of his ideological development during this period. Through an engaging, often ironic voice and well-framed narratives, we watch Fühmann’s fictional alter-ego confront the psychological seduction of the persistent propaganda machine and engage in the mental gymnastics required to continually readjust to accommodate or explain away any evidence that failed to fit with what he has been led to believe.

The title story opens the collection. Set in 1929, the seven year-old narrator is caught up in a wave of rumours sweeping through his grade school. The children listen with a mixture of rapture and fear, to breathless tales of a four Jews in a yellow car who are said to have been travelling through the surrounding countryside, snatching and murdering innocent young girls. When our hero happens to spy a brown car carrying three people one afternoon, it becomes, in his imagination, vividly transformed into the feared mysterious vehicle exactly as described. At school the next day, he is the centre of attention, holding his classmates in thrall until the one person he dearly wishes to impress the most, the girl “with the short, fair hair” neatly puts him in his place. Yet rather than causing him to question his hasty assumptions about the car he actually saw, his humiliation is turned into an increased, abstracted hatred of Jews.

And so the process begins.

Fühmann manages to capture the mixture of naïve enthusiasm, patriotic fervour, and boredom that he and his friends regularly encounter as the tides of history are building around them. He is young, the air is charged with excitement mingled with fear of the dreaded Commune and the anticipation of liberation. At times his young narrator is surprised to catch the worried looks on the faces of his parents and other adults. His faith in the Führer is unshakable and he believes that the German Reich will not abandon the Sudeten German population to murderous cutthroats. This conviction is well captured in the story “The Defense of the Reichenberg Gymnasium.” (September, 1938) Although no violence has yet occurred in his corner of the region at this point, when an alarm summons him and his comrades from the Gymnastic Society to defend the Reichenberg gymnasium from imminent attack, he is ready and eager:

I was excited: I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating, and wondered suddenly how it feels when a knife slips between the ribs. My steps faltered; I didn’t think about the knife, I saw it, and as I passed Ferdl, a sausage vendor who stood not far from the gymnasium, I even thought of stealing off down an alley, but then I scolded myself and walked quickly into the building.

But, as uneventful hours begin to stretch well past lunch time, boredom and hunger start to set in. Ultimately it is decided to send forth a series of provisioning parties to remedy the situation. Young Fühmann is assigned to the third group:

It was a puerile game we were playing, childish antics, and yet murderous, and the awful thing was that we felt neither the puerility no the murderousness. We were in action, under orders, advancing through enemy territory, and so, the five-man shopping commando in the middle and the three-man protective flanks to the left and right, we casually strolled up the street, turned off without incident, made our way back down the parallel street through the tide of workers, Germans and Czechs coming from the morning shift, cut through the arcade, side by side, and at discreet intervals each bought twenty pairs of sausages with rolls and beer.

Fühmann is a gifted storyteller whose poetic prose and ironic tone are pitch perfect, especially in the earlier stories. He creates a portrait of his younger self that is not sentimental or idealized. His moments of empathy for individuals otherwise thought to be inferior are quickly reframed with racist convictions. He does not speak too much about his involvement in direct anti-Semitic actions (though he will in later works). What comes through most strikingly in The Jew Car is the sense of rational isolation that surrounds the individual. Information is strictly mediated, so that otherwise intelligent individuals lose any frame of reference or develop extreme responses to the continual routine of work and deprivation. His steadfast devotion to the military structure will start to weaken as he discovers poetry, although his first published efforts during the war are very much on message. Fühmann will not become a dissident poet until much later, long after the war is over.

The tone of the later stories is soberer, more contained. The narrator describes his conversion to Socialism in terms that border on the religious. He talks about having “scales fall from his eyes” during his training, describes reading Marx, encountered before but now understood in a new light. But he never provides detailed justification—he believes with conviction and is not ready to be swayed. The final tale which describes his arrival in East Germany after his release from imprisonment to join his mother and sister who have been relocated there, is forced and marked by Soviet style melodrama.

In his afterword to the 1979 reissue of The Jew Car, which aimed to address some of the editorial changes made to the original publication, Fühmann noted a shift in tone that impacted the overall flow of the collection:

Probably even while writing I began to sense the inconsistency in this work, expression of a fractured mindset, a switch from self-irony to affirmative pathos that had to lead to a decline in literary quality such as that between the first and last story…

However, although they are autobiographical in nature, these stories are essentially fictionalized—this is not an essay or memoir. That lends the collection a particular power and energy. Yet, there is a clear sense that the ending is idealized and incomplete, as indeed it is. As Isabel Cole’s Afterword goes on to explain, Fühmann’s infatuation with the socialist vision of the GDR will fade as he chafes against the rigid restrictions imposed on individual and creative expression. He will, nonetheless, remain in East Germany for the rest of his life. In 1982, two years before his death, he will publish an in-depth exploration of his personal evolution through his discovery of and affection for the poetry of Georg Trakl. To that work, At the Burning Abyss, my attention can now turn…

The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books.

This review, together with my review of Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann represents my contribution to this year’s German Literature Month. Also related: See my recent interview with translator Isabel Cole, primarily regarding Wolfgang Hilbig, but also touching on Fühmann, which was published at 3:AM Magazine this past month.

Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

We all have our secrets; the habits, hopes, histories, and horrors that we keep to ourselves. We all hold something inside that we never talk about. It may be painful; it might be embarrassing. It can be major, it can be insignificant, but either way we all have a truth to guard.

This is the concept behind an inventive collaboration between Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon, two Quebecois writers, actors and directors who created thirty-seven short confessional monologues to be performed live, and then gathered into a book titled Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. However, a unique and daring thing happened as this collection made its way from French into English. Thirty-seven different translators were invited along for the ride. The result, I Never Talk About It, is the latest release from QC Fiction, and further evidence of this ambitious young publisher’s determination to offer Canadian and international audiences original, exciting new work from Quebec.

The prose pieces that comprise this book demonstrate a wide range in structure and voice from unsophisticated and straightforward, to quirky stream of consciousness, to stylized and experimental. This variety creates the perfect environment in which to explore the considerations and decisions a translator faces in guiding a text from one language to another.

The translators invited into this intriguing exercise come from around the world and include seasoned professionals alongside first-timers without any specialized training or experience. Some are Francophones more accustomed to moving from English to French, while others have little or no familiarity with Quebecois usage and culture. There are teachers, students, and authors.  Each story is followed by a brief biography of the translator along with his or her comments about the challenges they faced and the approach they employed. Because, as editor and translator Peter McCambridge indicates in his introduction:

…there’s always an approach, always a slant, always a distortion or deviation from the original, however slight or well-intentioned. Often it makes for a smoother reading experience in English. But it’s nice to know it’s there, all the same…. Because there are few wrong answers. Because any translation is a question and then an answer.

And yes, there may be few wrong answers, but as a reader with a special fondness for translated and international literature, there are certainly approaches that, in the reading, seem to work better than others. However, unless we hear about the choices that are made we cannot know what we might be missing, or why some books leave us wondering: Is it the original or the translation that seems off?

 The greatest reward offered by a book like I Never Talk About It is a space to explore one’s own reaction to concise pieces, first on their own and then in the light of the translator’s reflections.

Because the original works are essentially performative, with variations in tone and flow, many translators mention the challenge of maintaining the energy of the French text. Often the chosen approach involves an intensive engagement with the text. Pablo Strauss describes translating as:

…a slow, unscientific process of writing and rewriting until you can’t look at the piece any more. Experience has taught me that translation has no rules; the translations I love are at once loose and careful.

Later on, Lori Saint-Martin admits that:

I read the piece about 786 times, a couple of times out loud, mentally thinking of avenues without writing anything down; then I did a really fast, intuitive draft as if writing it creatively myself…put it aside, and rewrote it three more times, pulling it closer to the original sometimes, sometimes a bit further away to boomerang it back closer.

It’s probably a coincidence but the stories they translated, “Nightmares” and “Constellation” were among my favourites.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to translated or even international literature originally written in English, is that decisions are sometimes made to make the work more palatable to an American or British audience. In this collection two translators chose to relocate the specifics and tone of their pieces—one to the US, the other to the UK—removing the Quebec (which were also essentially Canadian) references. To my ear, the results were out of place and disappointing. As a frequent reader of South African literature I have seen this tendency too, whether English originals or translations from Afrikaans, all the bakkies are turned into pick-up trucks and so on. For me it amounts to unfortunate accommodation and contributes to the homogenization of international literature lest any local flavour be off-putting.

In the end, I Never Talk About It is more than an enlightening glimpse into the myriad of ways that texts can be approached by a translator; it is an entertaining, and often deeply moving, look into the private anxieties, obsessions, confessions, and passions of a diverse cast of characters.

To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of the day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound as long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without the hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains. (“Outside”)

For Isabelle Eberhardt, the open road was the ultimate image of freedom—a symbol of liberty that called to her again and again. As such, she had a special affinity for vagrants or wayfarers. They feature regularly in her collection of short stories and vignettes, The Oblivion Seekers. To be confined—by physical walls, by obligations, or by the restraints of fin de siècle European society—is unbearable. Her characters give up comfort, security, even love, to find a place where they belong. Quite often it is a life of solitary independence they choose. Singular in her defiance, her passion, and her determination to set her own course, it is impossible to appreciate her writing without at least a cursory look at the remarkable life from which it emerged.

Born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Nihilist, Eberhardt was an unconventional free spirit who lived a charmed, if short, life filled with drama and adventure. Her father set the groundwork, insisting she labour alongside her brothers when she was young, learn to handle a horse properly, and appear regularly in public dressed in men’s clothing. He was inadvertently preparing her for the rigors of life in the deserts of North Africa, while his demanding expectations likely fueled her longing to escape. By the time she was twenty, she had already made her first trip to Algeria and converted to Islam.

Apart from a few short trips back to Europe, Africa had claimed her soul. Yet for the French colonists, her lifestyle was nothing short of scandalous. Her preference for men’s clothing—and Arab styled at that—was looked on with suspicion. She adopted a male persona, although she rarely fooled anyone with respect to her gender, and could often be found in the café, smoking hashish, perhaps inviting a soldier home for the night. The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love.

Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes. She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. In 1901, only a stroke of dumb luck saved her from a would-be assassin when her attacker’s sword bounced off a wire, missing her head but nearly removing her arm. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles. With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married. In 1902, the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by 1904, hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. After a near fatal bout of malaria, she left the hospital against doctor’s orders to meet up with her husband. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.

At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one. The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.

Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. “Taalith” tells the tale of a young widow who chooses death over forced marriage to an older man, while “The Rival” paints the portrait of a vagrant who abandons the wandering life to settle with his beloved only to discover that his bliss cannot withstand the pull of the road; his desire for his other mistress, “tyrannical and drunk with sun” draws him back. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:

Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.

Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy.

He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. (The Rival)

Considering the time and her background, Eberhardt’s stories are particularly striking. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative. She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. This is especially powerful in the title story, “The Oblivion Seekers,” one of the few first person narratives, which describes a setting she knew well personally—a kif den in Kenadsa in the Sahara Desert. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages. Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco’s underworld such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight. (The Oblivion Seekers)

There is a mesmerizing quality to Eberhardt’s prose. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. As Bowles notes in his Preface: “Her wisdom lay in knowing that what she sought was unreachable. ‘We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us.’”

Wise words still.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabell Eberhardt is translated by Paul Bowles, and published by City Lights Books.

Fans of Fleur Jaeggy rejoice: A link to my review of I Am the Brother of XX and These Possible Lives at Numéro Cinq

Any one who has fallen under the spell of the shimmering spare prose of Swiss-born Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy is well aware of her uncanny ability to evoke subtle shades of darkness and weave tales that linger in the imagination. However, for English speaking readers it has been a long wait for new work to emerge in translation. Fourteen years to be precise. That patience is finally rewarded, as this month sees the highly anticipated release of not one, but two recent collections: I Am the Brother of XX, a compilation of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three hyper-condensed biographical essays.

These works, not surprisingly, reflect a more personal, reflective quality than her earlier fiction, directly featuring, at times, other writers with whom she became friends over the years. Familiar themes are also revisited, lines between light and dark are blurred. Her prose is, as ever, sharp, essential, charged with spine-tingling beauty. And applied to biographical subjects—De Quincey, Keats and Marcel Schwob—it is quite wonderful indeed.

I invite you to read my full review of these new releases at Numéro Cinq. Here is a taste. Please link through at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Sacred Inertia | Review of I Am the Brother of XX & These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy — Joseph Schreiber

One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.” You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.

Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”

Continue reading here:

Read the story “The Black Lace Veil” here:

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 2), Canada: This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Okay, so maybe I was looking the other way and missed the sheer force of poetic nature that is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, but after reading her latest collection of stories and songs, This Accident of Being Lost, I can only sit here and think: Where have I been? To balance my review of the Australian anthology, This country anytime anywhere, I was hungry for something vital and exciting from my own country—not that I didn’t think I wouldn’t find it from an Indigenous writer here, but I didn’t know where to look. I wanted something different than the fine, but more conventional narrative novels I’ve read in the past. I wanted something passionate, something that would challenge, discomfit.

And here it is.

Simpson is an acclaimed writer, musician, academic, and activist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry. She draws on the storytelling traditions of her people, merging them with elements of contemporary realism, speculative fiction, and spoken-word poetry. In turns introspective and political, her work is raw and uncompromising—shifting shape and stretching time—to bring the harsh realities of decolonization into focus through poems and stories that are vibrant, unexpected, and sometimes brutally funny.

Simpson’s writing erupts with an immediacy and intimacy that catches the reader off guard. The world she opens up is one where the uneasy ground between a self-centred, ego-driven contemporary culture, one with roots deep in the motivation and mentality of the colonial mindset that helped shape North American culture, meets an Indigenous worldview that values the dynamic interrelationships between family, community, ancestors, nature and the environment. This is the tension at the heart of the decolonial process. It is, at many levels, still a matter of paying lip-service, at best, to the legacy of the injustices endured by our Indigenous peoples. I may like to imagine myself “concerned” and “compassionate,” but reconciliation is meaningless unless otherwise unheard voices are truly heard.

This collection of short, often fragmented pieces does not endeavour to soft-peddle a message for easy consumption. Honest, frequently conflicted emotions—anger and bitterness, confusion and self-doubt, sadness and injury—come through; as does a deeply abiding respect and concern for the environment. As a storyteller and poet, Simpson’s power lies in the lyrical beauty of her language, and the vulnerability and sarcastic humour of her narrators. This is work that is at once engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

An underlying theme in This Accident of Being Lost, is the reality of being an Indigenous woman today and the disorientation that can create. The protagonists are searching for connection, to others and to their heritage. The poetic pieces tend to feel more political in tone, either as direct protest songs, or in a more plaintive evocation of loss and pain such as “travel to me now” which begins:

the wind has worn my edges
the cold pricked away brittle skin
bones lying here in front of you
lost before they can begin

there’s red on the ice of the lake
there’s bruises that never heal
there’s past collapsing on present
she took things i didn’t know you could steal

As much as I enjoyed the poetry in this collection, it was the prose pieces, at least on this first reading, that made me fall in love (yes, love), with Simpson’s writing. She weaves a selection of original, often fragmentary, stories, that drop the reader into the imaginations, concerns, and anxieties of her narrators in a way that is abrupt and intimate.

We see attempts to reclaim Indigenous cultural practices in altered spaces. Stories delivered with pointed sarcasm. In “Plight,” a group of women engage in the guerilla-styled tapping of maple syrup from the trees in a Toronto park (albeit marking the trees before the leaves fall in the autumn to be certain they have the right ones), while in “Circles Upon Circles,” a family tries to revive the practice of harvesting wild rice from a lake now bordered with summer cottages. In both cases, white residents have to be appeased: “Listen to their paternalistic bullshit and feedback…. Let them bask in the plight of the Native people so they can feel self-righteous.” It is an emotionally exhausting process.

There are also a number of pieces that play with the way modern technology impacts communication. Online obsessions mediate relationships built around social media—intensifying insecurities and fragilities when texts don’t arrive, chat messages are ignored, and “real life” encounters are anticipated. But that is not where electronic interaction ends. The spirit world is also online. In the wonderful story “Big Water,” the narrator is engaged in text communication with Niibish, the surprisingly security-concerned spirit of Lake Ontario (Chi’Niibish to the Nishnaabeg people) as the lake waters rise, threatening the city of Toronto with extensive flooding. The lake is sending a message: “We’re in a mid-life crisis, out of shape and overcompensating because it’s too late to change any of that. Beaver’s doing push-ups on the soggy grass. Bear’s doing power squats and bragging about his seven-minute workout app and the option of having a hippie with a whistle to call out the next exercise.” It’s very funny, and yet it’s not. The message is serious.

Some of the narrators are delightfully sharp-witted, navigating settings—a firearms class or a daughter’s dance course—where they manage to hold their own. But it is in the more open, fluid pieces that explore the strained, breath- and bone-deep emotion of the search for connectedness with lovers, with the land, and even within the vagaries of modern society, that Simpson’s work speaks to me and to the “otherness” I struggle with. Her prose is exquisite, she handles longing and sadness so beautifully. In “Brown Against Blue,” a woman is heading out on a hunting trip with a man she loves, in the way that love is complicated and fragile. She doesn’t want to ruin the experience but fears she will. Her partner asks why things can’t just be “good” and she tells herself that one reason is because she is always “straddling the eroding edge of pathos.” But that’s not quite right:

I never teeter on the edge of things. I live there. I cheat on myself with Sad and she never abandons me. In a way that will sound awful to you, but not to me, she is the only one that loves me in the way I need to be loved. My constant lover, Sad, as muted, dysmorphic entrapment.

Another answer is that he lives in his own muted, dysmorphic entrapment that is slightly different than mine.

Songs and stories together, there are thirty pieces in this slim collection. They invite, and reward, re-reading. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began collecting traditional narratives and essays in her earlier publications, before releasing her first collection of fiction, Islands of Decolonial Love, in 2013. That was where I had originally wanted to start, but I could not find it locally. I now want to explore her earlier writing, her music, and see what other writers and artists this leads me to.

This Accident of Being Lost is published by House of Anansi Press.

Listening to Indigenous Voices (part 1), Australia: This country anytime anywhere

Over the past decade, I’d like to think that my reading has broadened in scope. I used to scour and select books from mainstream literary reviews, major award longlists, and end-of-year round-ups. Reading works in translation, turning to smaller independent publishers, seeking more experimental writing, and allowing myself to follow my own idiosyncratic fancies have all served to expand the borders of my attentions (and the limits of my bookshelf real estate). But every now and then it doesn’t hurt to take stock and think: What are the gaps I might want to fill? What voices am I not listening to?

This year, when my friend Lisa of ANZ LitLovers announced her annual Indigenous Literature Week, I immediately thought of a book I picked up in Alice Springs this May: This country anytime anywhere: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing from the Northern Territory. However, if I was going to read and write about an Australian publication, I promised myself that I would balance my efforts with the work of an Indigenous writer from Canada. That review will follow in a few days.

Published in 2010, This country anytime anywhere is a joint project of the NT Writer’s Centre and IAD Press. The initial phase involved workshops and consultations with over 100 Indigenous people—some established writers, but the majority beginners interested in telling their stories. The resulting collection of poems and stories is diverse, featuring writers who range from teenagers to elders and hail from urban, rural, and remote backgrounds. Critically, eight Indigenous languages and English are represented. There are several bilingual offerings and two submissions for which no comfortable English language translator could be found. This is an indication of the precarious state of some of these Indigenous languages.

The range of offerings in this slender volume is impressive—from family histories, to traditional folktales, to poetic expressions of anger, and narrative songs and stories. The variety of styles and subject matter is impressive. Many evoke a simple, unadorned voice. Magical, or more accurately, spiritual elements are often woven into the fabric of mundane, everyday life, speaking to the connection to a heritage and land that extends back centuries, millennia. But, as one might expect, these poems and stories echo sadness, loss and grief. Fallout from the Stolen Generation, the years (1910-1970) when many children were removed from their families, is still very present. The ravages of alcohol, mental illness, injury, and suicide are not ignored. But there are also stories of hope and survival.

One of the most widely known contributors, writer and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, is represented with two bilingual (English/Pitjantjatjara) poems and two stories. “Spirit Gate,” which she describes as a “satirical work of fiction based on hope,” imagines the sudden disappearance of all the Aboriginal people from Alice Springs. The main character, Trevor, is awakened in his Melbourne home by the disembodied voice of his grandfather. The Song he hears is a summoning and he promptly leaves for Alice. Light-skinned, he arrives without attracting attention, to a community distraught by the disappearances. At a café, he listens to the clientele—“artists, social and youth workers, hippie-types and government ‘yuppie experts’”—debating the strange circumstances:

Snippets of conversation confirmed that all Aboriginal people had vacated the township region about a week ago. There had been no warning of the exile, no specific signs to the exodus, and most people had failed to notice the blackfellas had gone for several days. People had just assumed they’d gone for another funeral, or collecting royalty money somewhere.

Trevor learns that the non-Indigenous population feels “jilted and hurt.” Business and the tourist trade are threatened. Unruly behaviour on the streets and drinking on public lawns indicate that the Dry Town rules are being violated. It is a world turned upside down. Though the tone is tongue-in-cheek, Cobby Eckermann is taking a pointed stab at the industries that benefit from the Aborginal presence. In the end, the protagonist goes out to join his own people who have gathered beyond a spirit “Gate” to be renewed and regain the dignity they have lost.

Having just been out and spent time in Alice Springs and beyond (observing the town as an outsider but having an opportunity to engage with those who live and work there), this and a couple of the other pieces set in the community had an extra resonance. The desert imagery was also especially poignant for me—even after a short stay, the land gets into your system. The natural world is a common theme in much the poetry in this collection. For example, “Red Desert” by Maureen Nampijinpa O’Keefe opens:

See the thorny lizard walking along the red desert dunes.
See the snake slithering across the red desert sand.
See how high the eagle flies, hovering above the desert.

The spinifex glistens golden in the sun,
as the desert winds blow softly amongst the ghost gums.
See the leaves swaying to the desert wind.
Listen to the leaves rustle as the squawking of the white cuckatoos
breaks the desert’s silence.

This collection offers an interesting insight into contemporary writing from the Northern Territory. The poetry tends to have a plaintive, political undertone, while the prose pieces showcase the legacy of the long storytelling traditions of the Indigenous cultures. However, these are very much stories of the 21st century. And they are often brutal. Of note is “The Tree” (Gloria Daylight Corliss), a short piece that shifts between a third person narrative recounting a man’s memories of playing, camping and fishing beneath a large banyan tree, and a first person tale of personal loss and environmental degradation. What begins with a boy playing on the branches of the tree ends with the grown man hanging from the same tree. The urban-set “The Irony of that…” (Jessie Bonson) is a darkly playful tale of a teen-aged would-be writer who creates horrifying scenarios only to routinely erase them: “Edit – Select All – Delete.” But woven into the tapestry of her fantastic scenes are the very real domestic terrors that haunt her and her mother.

For the participants in this project, writing is healing. Since I traveled to central Australia to take part in a fundraising event in support of an Indigenous Women’s Council, this collection (which happens to feature female writers by a ratio of about 3 to 1) is a fitting complement to that incredible experience.