To find balance in a changing world: Insomnia by Aamer Hussein

My introduction to Pakistani-British writer Aamer Hussein was oddly serendipitous. It came through an unsolicited essay submitted to me for possible publication at 3:AM Magazine. I had no sooner read the piece through before I ordered a copy of one of the short story collections mentioned. Then I wrote a letter of acceptance.

Born in Karachi, Hussein moved to London in 1970 when he was just fifteen years old. An accomplished writer, critic, and translator, influential in both his native country and his adopted home, his work is curiously underappreciated in North America. Yet his stories which so deftly capture the amorphous, shifting atmosphere of living a life that crosses borders and cultures in a way that feels both timeless and timely, draw on a wide and diverse range of influences:

I love classical Persian and Urdu poetry from Attar to Iqbal, from Jami to Ghalib and Mir, from Rumi to Faiz. In the Western canon, I started off being influenced by the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov; and the fiction of Pushkin, Kleist, Flaubert, Karen Blixen, Tennessee Williams, Cesare Pavese, Marguerite Duras – oh, so many. (2011 interview)

Although Hussein has more recently explored the longer novella form and has even begun to write in his mother tongue, Urdu, his short fiction is especially impressive and seemed like a good placed to begin my acquaintance.

Published in 2007, his fourth collection, Insomnia, is comprised of seven stories that feature a variety of Pakistani-born narrators or protagonists negotiating new or changing environments—travelling in Europe as Islamophobia is on the rise, adapting to life in London as a teenager, balancing political idealism fed abroad with a longing to return home, or slowly building a writing career against the backdrop of the Second World War, Indian Independence and Partition. A sense of displacement is common, as is a quiet, aching nostalgia for something that is missed but cannot quite be clearly defined.

The longest story in the book, “The Crane Girl,” is set in London of the 1970s. Murad has, like the author, arrived from Karachi at the age of fifteen to complete his schooling. He becomes infatuated with Tsuru, a mercurial Japanese girl several years his senior. With her he learns to smoke and listens to the music of the day—James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens. But then, without warning, she disappears. Murad is at a loss, awkwardly trying to socialize with Tsuru’s former flatmates, a Canadian boy and an Australian girl, until he meets another Japanese youth, Shigeo. Seemingly self-assured, his new friend turns out to be a moody, manipulative boy with a penchant for Spanish guitar and an uncertain attraction to Murad.

This is a story in which, like adolescence itself, meanings and desires are murky, motives and truths are unclear. A newcomer among other newcomers, Murad allows himself to drift for some time before he begins to be able to set limits and pull away when his friend’s behaviour bothers him:

Murad didn’t like asserting his views and tastes the way Shigeo did. (Recently, when the trouble had begun between the east and west wings of Pakistan, Shigeo had asked him about the situation as if he wanted to pick a fight, and Murad had uncharacteristically retaliated by bringing up Japan’s treatment of Korea. But that was a long time ago, Shigeo said, Japan had learned its lesson.) What, after all, did they really have in common, apart from their loneliness? Being foreign boys in London? Their dark hair and eyes? It wasn’t as if Murad was planning to drop Shigeo: he’d just avoid him for a while. Their friendship had become too much like a habit.

And then, of course, Tsuru returns, as suddenly as she had disappeared, and the situation becomes more complicated. Again, just like adolescence.

The political and the personal overlap in the haunting “Hibiscus Days” in which the narrator,  dedicated to translating the final poems and fables of his friend, Armaan, finds himself lost to memories, mysteries and regrets. The story retraces the relationship between four friends, two couples, all from Pakistan, who meet when they are studying in England. When Armaan and Aliza decide to return to Karachi and get married, they appear to be opting for more conventional middle class lives while the narrator and his girlfriend who stay in London become more committed to a political idealism. The complexities of exercising one’s politics at home and abroad are ultimately thrown into harsh relief, in this sad and beautiful tale.

Finally, another outstanding story, perhaps my favourite, is “The Angelic Disposition.” Set primarily in Delhi, this is a female writer and artist’s account of  her life and career, directed to her friend and mentor, Rafi Durrani, an established writer with whom she had a writerly relationship primarily conducted through letters.

Rafi was of medium height and medium colouring, and he seemed surprisingly weightless. In his world darkness seemed not to exist. And yet I could recognise compassion in him, too: his wasn’t the wit of callousness or disdain. He wasn’t a Marxist; neither was I.

But to sing so blithely about love in a time before siege? Those were strange days. We—the scholarly, the teachers and doctors and lawyers—were trying to find a place in a world that we were increasingly aware was no longer our own; and we felt obliged to write about change, to write to change it all.

Rafi encourages her to write for children, sometimes adding illustrations to her work. Theirs becomes a friendship born of mutual respect. It’s not romantic, they each are married to others, but his willingness to listen to her and share stories about his own life is critical to the support of her career, which is, at the time, quite unconventional for a woman.

In any exchange of letters there’s a writer and a reader: this is invariable. It’s hard to explain. I have something to say, to impart, to confess. You listen. And sometimes you, too, start singing, your triumphs, your failures and your little tribulations. But you could be saying all this to anyone. You’re writing to make me write, that’s all.

After his early death, fighting for Britain in the Second World War, she continues to address Rafi, as an angelic presence and inspiration. He may be her hero, but her gift and passion for art and literature are her own and will see her through the difficult years of the twentieth century. The true strength of this beautifully crafted tale, lies in the quietly dignified and powerful narrator whose presence lingers long after the story comes to a close.

This is an extremely satisfying collection and I am certain that my first experience of the work of Aamer Hussein will not be my last. And, in case you’re interested, the essay that sparked my interest, “Silence as Resistance in Aamer Hussein’s Stories” by Ali Raz, can be found here.

Insomnia by Aamer Hussein is published by Telegram.

Some measure of an innovative response to Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature

So I’m sitting here at looking at my copy of Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature and feeling sick when I think about whether or not I can, or should, write about it. Which makes it sound like I did not enjoy the book. Or that it is not worth reading. I did. And it is.

But, can I talk about the way it also twists me up inside? That a book that I should connect with on a level beyond the written word leaves me wondering if there is a space for me? On the back cover (which on my copy is terribly warped after a fall on snow-covered ice landed me with a concussion) editor Isabel Waidner is quoted:

If there were a literary avant-garde that were relevant now, it would be what the queers and their allies are doing, at the intersections, across disciplines. This avant-garde would be inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left).

I like the sound of this. But is this what the queers and their allies are doing? Possibly. I am the ineptest (gosh I didn’t even know “ineptest” was a word, but Word suggested it and I kind of like it) queer writer ever because, off the page, queer is the loneliest reality I’ve ever known, and the many queer writers included here seem to have lives in which their queerness is essential, not accidental. And that makes me feel as alienated as my real life adventures in queer spaces do. I’m awfully pasty white and ordinary, and although my mother’s family were, at one time, potato famine refugees from Ireland, and I was not born in the country where I live, I am a migrant on an axis other than the here-to-there displacement in space. The only true migration I have ever made—the one that I am always making—is the one from female to male.

And I am not even certain how to think about “working class.” If it’s about wage-labour, a blue- and pink- collar, and sometimes white collar existence, then for the exception of about one decade of my life, I’m your man. But I’ve always preferred to think of myself as under-employed, as if the status was temporary, collarless. Over-educated. Just barely keeping my head above poverty level. You know: What are you going to do with an arts degree? Or two? When things are good where I live, blue collar workers can haul in six-figure incomes. Classless, misfit, my work-life fits into no definable category.

At 57, I’m not even under-employed any more. I’m not employed at all. And too old to start over. (Which leads me to wonder, while we’re being all diverse and intersectional, where disability lies in this re-invigorated literary avant-garde.)

But, enough wound-nursing and equivocating. Back to the task at hand.

I do love the idea of literature that is innovative, experimental, and breaks boundaries especially in my arena, that of the essay/memoir. And, did I mention that nowhere in Isabel’s detailed and entertaining introduction (check it out, if you want, at 3:AM) does that over-used term “genre-bending” appear? The writing she invites the reader to envision, “itself must transgress the various structures through which the avant-garde literary canon has perpetuated itself and its exclusiveness.” Okay, now we’re talking. She goes on to say:

To reiterate, the writing needs to work across various systems of oppression (intersectionality), across formal distinction (prose and poetry, critical and creative, and the various genres), and across disciplines. Same goes for publishing, editing, reading, referencing and designing curricula. Change literature (or what is defined as such) and the discipline will diversify. Diversify the discipline and the literature itself will change. Liberating the canon depends on inclusion and formal innovation in equal measures. The two are interrelated.

And the question then becomes: Just how liberated is this canon? How much of a meaningful advancement have we made toward this ambitious goal by the selections gathered in this anthology?

Honestly, I am not so sure. (Maybe I am.)

I already tend to read a fair amount of innovative literature, and have admitted to a hunger for work that pushes the confines of literary style and form, so the more experimental pieces really, uh, turn me on. The contributions from Mojilsola Abedayo, Joanna Walsh, Isabel Waidner, Timothy Thornton, Mira Mattar, Nisha Ramayyar, Richard Brammer (cheating I skipped this having already the entire book from whence it came) and Nat Raha were, for me, standouts. The most explicitly trans pieces were my least favourite, pushing subject more than form, but as an idiosyncratic, fickle reader—a body dysmorphic, ex-gender dysphoric soul—I am looking for a transvant-garde that speaks to trans in a way that would make me say “HELL, YES.”

This canon still needs to be loosened a little further, I suppose. Or rather, the liberation is just starting.

This book could be considered a primer. An Anglophone primer. An anthology of primarily UK based writers with a few US contributors tossed in for good measure. How about round two? With a glance to Canada (where I am), Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and desi (South Asian and diaspora) writers.

Ah, one can dream. But if this book can exist, anything is possible.

So, there you have it. I have written about Liberating the Canon without really writing about any of the varied pieces contained within. You’ll have to read it, if you dare. Or desire. Or are simply curious.

It’s worth the risk.

Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature, edited by Isabel Waidner is available from your friends at Dostoyevsky Wannabe.  To be printed at your pleasure, and obtained through a distributor like that place that starts with A.

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 Storiesby Eley Williams is published by Influx Press.

A delicate exposition of the everyday: Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

“New Year’s Day on the sofa. I folded my life in on itself, seven times. The last few folds only bent. I was surprised it was so bulky.”

The cover of the book is simple. Pale yellow lettering across the horizon that separates a gray sky from the gray waters below. Vertigo. Joanna Walsh. Inside fourteen stories, elemental evocations of a woman’s existence, from the gently dissected vantage point of early mid-life, rolling out, reflecting back on one another, like waves lapping up against the shore. Emerging from the waters as the book draws to close, it is difficult to find words to encapsulate the experience of encountering this work.

vertigoThroughout this spare collection, Walsh demonstrates a stunning ability to pinpoint the imperceptible, bring it to the surface and spin a story around it. Her narrators, who may or may not all be the same woman, perseverate, observe, double check and doubt themselves. They are acutely aware of their bodies: bodies that are aging. They are aware of their clothes, of how their clothes fit, how they arrange their legs, if the man at the next table has noticed their legs. They turn their focus inward to the very act of breathing – in, out, or barely breathing at all. They are mothers, they are wives, they are ex-wives, they are daughters. Perspectives shift, sometimes even within the frame of the same story.

“I say ‘you’. Of course I mean ‘me’.”

The title story, “Vertigo”, is the account of a family vacation. The narrator, her husband and children have travelled to an unnamed country to spend as little money as possible, time is the currency of the holiday. Vertigo, she tells us, is “the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” The drive up the mountain to their guesthouse with a drop off to one side of the road is the worst. During the day the family visits a tourist site, ruins where the temptation arises to remove a stone or even a piece of the rubble from the original structure. This stirs anxieties the woman recognizes as echoes of her mother rising through her and creating conflict with her own role now as mother to her children. Meditative, her thoughts roam with the sun drenched unanchored processing that we often fall into when removed from the routine of ordinary life. It feels as if Walsh has simply opened her hands to capture her character’s reflections and spilled them gently across the page. It is almost impossible to pinpoint how it works, but it does.

The minute attention to the inner moment, pared down to its most essential, is the quality that sets these stories apart. The conscious detachment of the self from the body of the mother waiting in the hospital while her son undergoes surgery in “The Children’s Ward” is especially poignant and will ring true for any parent who has placed their emotions on hold, not daring to think too much about possibilities, waiting, just waiting, distracting oneself with mind games when the brain will often not even distract itself with a book or magazine. Waiting for Charlotte (whoever Charlotte is, she does not know) to update her, the mother wonders:

“If Charlotte comes with her words comes to tell me it all went wrong how would my body know it? How long before the parts of my body realized, independently, that something was wrong and arrived, severally, at panic? Panic is still a thing. I have felt it before: each limb nerve organ coming into extreme alert unrelated to any other, ready for action, but who knows what action, as there is no action that could help here.”

Many pieces are very short, prose pieces rather than stories perhaps, each finely honed. The voices are wryly observant, tuned in to an inner monologue that mediates between the self and the self in the world. One becomes ensnared in the mesh of words, even in the simplest of stories. In “Relativity” a woman is traveling by bus to see her mother. She compares herself to her teenage daughter beside her and to the other women on the bus:

“Among other middle-aged women I don’t look too neat, and this pleases me.

I am dressed for, what? For anything that might happen to me: keep it coming! I’ve learned that it does. I am dressed for things that are not. I am not too sexy, not too casual, not too unassumingly unassuming. I do not look like I have made an effort, but I do look like I might have made an effort to look like I have not made an effort, which is only polite. And I will not fall over if required to run in my shoes.”

I don’t want to say too much about the individual stories here. They are best encountered on their own terms. This is a book that invites a slow reading. It is not long, or difficult. But you want to savour each piece. This is fiction infused with fine imagery, charged with an electric current, shockingly alive to new possibilities of rendering the mundane exquisite. If you are not watchful it could leave you with a sense of vertigo.

Or maybe that is the goal.

Vertigo is published by the Dorothy Project in North America. The UK edition will be released by And Other Stories in 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.