The introduction to this collection of essays exploring what it means to be, or have been, working class begins with the question I also began with: Who exactly is working class these days?
Are you still working class if you’ve been to university? If you have a good job? If you studied the arts or, more specifically for this collection, English or creative writing? Or, as Nathan Connelly – the book’s editor and founder of its publishing house, Dead Ink – puts it: ‘Is it something as simple as Costa coffee and avocados for lunch that makes you middle class?’
Many ‘soft traits’ of working-classness are highlighted in Know Your Place (a beautiful optical illusion of a title, which can be read either in the tone of a pointed authoritarian finger or that of a determined fist held tightly over a heart). These traits – the often overlooked psychological fallout of working-class childhoods – if not explicit in the essays, are humming along in the background: doubt, unworthiness, a feeling of not-belonging in later life.
It’s a book that, if you identify as working class, unrelentingly resonates. Undefinable notions you might have had about your past, your character, the world around you, are all here in this army of voices. As I turned the pages, my inner monologue was repeatedly drumming its inner fist on my inner table, saying, yes, that’s it, that is exactly right.
The essays in this collection are personal, lyrical and, occasionally, highly narrative: life histories and anti-apologies for the hesitations of former selves. There is an accessible, un-academic feel to the book; no frills, just the brutal truth. Educated but genuine. As Connelly states, ‘most of everybody’s life is about waking up, going about your day and then going to sleep again. And that too is political.’ It feels political. What may normally be dismissed as anecdote, or reserved for asides to close friends are here given wider context and audience. Confessions such as Laura Waddell’s, ‘For many years, I’d eat plain pasta with margarine and salt, suspicious of sauces whose herbed depths seemed mysterious and not for the likes of me,’ are unlikely to be offloaded in a job interview or executive meeting.
Many of the writers speak of a necessity to hide one’s roots, to ‘smooth out one’s words’, elongate vowels, or (as in Sian Norris’ essay) simply sit-through an awkward silence as someone assumes the only reason you’re a writer is because your father is an academic. The 23 essays contained herein are all manifestations of the same cultural violence – a belittling, a silencing – and often one that is further amplified by other forms of exclusion from the dominant discourse, be that race, gender, sexuality, immigrant heritage, Northernness.
There are some wonderful individual moments in this book. Kit de Waal tells of watching BBC weather as a teenager: ‘after the presenter had covered the cold in Lancashire and the rain in Kent he smiled and pointed at Switzerland. “At least we’ll have some snow on the slopes for half-term.”’ Or, in Waddell’s The Pleasure Button, where she says, ‘Comedians sometimes laugh at the unsophistication of food in Glasgow… what they are really laughing at are the poor.’ Some of these sentences hit like a punch in the gut, like a stomach in turbulence rising to the pit of a throat. And then you realise it is everywhere – all of the time. Your class is written all over you like a shaved eyebrow after one-too-many beers on a wild night out.
From Sylvia Arthur’s ‘downplaying everything about myself, from the way I spoke to what I read, [whereas] at UCL, by contrast, everything was amplified – accents, achievements, aspirations,’’ to Ben Gwalchmai’s ‘my own family wanted me to be a good student but later feared that I’d “swallowed a dictionary,”’ this cast-outness of the educated working class is what, to me, this collection highlights the most. With the authors having self-identified as working class (and let that phrase feel as awkward as it is), it is a specific type of story we find again and again in these pages, not quite rags to riches, more rags to the world of media or academia to not having any idea if you’re wearing or saying the right thing in a room full of strangers who might turn on you at a moment’s notice if you drop a T or admit to having never heard anyone say hors d’oeuvres out loud.
These are lives lived in battle, balancing a wealth of contradictions (Lee Rourke: ‘we are outsiders looking in on ourselves looking out’), trying to ‘get ahead’ but not realising the potential loss of access to your past that this social mobility also contains. I was at a beer festival in Lancashire once and I remember arguing with the bar tender for a good fifteen minutes trying to convince him that this is where I grew up, this is where I was born. Often when you leave, you are not allowed back in. Education can be a one-way process. And, unfortunately, as these essays make obvious, once outside there are still plenty of other closed doors to navigate.
That being said, this collection is also a celebration (of heritage, of community, of place). A declaration of proud ownership of these multiple identities. An ability to adapt, to traverse worlds, to be one thing and at the same time another. To be open to so many experiences that others might dismiss (see Gwalchmai’s Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold). To both belong and not-belong. This inbetweenness is what makes us interesting; the ability to change masks, to take people by surprise.
This is an important book, but it feels like this is only the tip of the conversation. It makes me want to join in, to talk back, to sing with the chorus. I imagine an Everyday Sexism-style website, ‘Working Class Confessions’ where we share those difficult moments. I’ll offer one of my own because it is too hard not to (this book feels like a party to which I am invited): age 17, working as a cashier in a supermarket, green vegetable coming at me on the conveyor belt. I had to ask the well-dressed lady before me if it was a cabbage or a lettuce before I could scan it in. Working-class children are playing catch-up before they even know they’re competing.
And I’ll end with the hopeful and rallying call of Durre Shahwar Mughal: ‘I see my presence in certain spaces as a necessary disruption.’
Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class / Nathan Connolly (Editor) / Dead Ink / 15 Sept. 2017 (Paperback)
Lydia Unsworth’s fiction and poetry has appeared in Ambit, Pank, KillAuthor, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, The Forge, Rainy City Stories, Sentence: Journal of Prose Poetics, etc. Her debut collection of poetry, Certain Manoeuvres, is available from Knives Forks & Spoons Press. Recent winner of the 2018 Erbacce poetry prize, her second collection, Nostalgia for Bodies, is forthcoming from Erbacce Press. Based in Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter: @lydiowanie
Today’s word is from Finnish and comes to us via travel and Nordic enthusiast Max Savage. Kalsarikänni (noun) the act of getting drunk in your underwear at home. This oddly specific yet relatable term is illustrated by Winnipeg based artist and illustrator Matea Radic. You can find more of her work at her website.
This new edition of Untranslatable, an irregular blog series of artists’ illustrations of untranslatable words, features the Faroese word Andøva, meaning ‘to keep a boat in place by rowing against the wind or currents’.
The word comes from our associate editor Matthew Landrum. He writes, “this word was part of a grammar example in Faroese: A Language Course for Beginners. It captures how much the Faroese are linked to the sea. Rowing competitions between towns are still big news there. I love the concept of action producing a negation.” Our multi-media art piece for the word comes from Lancaster based artist Emmy Ingle. You can see more of her work at www.emmyingle.com.
In the words of Laleh Khalili, whose essay on the Anti-Iraq War protest of 2003 ends this new anthology of protest writing from Comma Press, dissent often takes the form of a ‘joyous, raucous “no”’. This was the cry – voiced or unvoiced – of all those who demonstrated on that day, one which echoed ‘throughout London … and so many other cities of the world’. It also echoes through seven centuries of sedition, petition, and civil disobedience, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, to the recent ‘live-in’ protests of Greenham Common and Occupy, as well as the more feral and combustible 2011 London riots, and anti-austerity protests. While these last three aren’t covered in this timely, rigorous, inspiring book, most of the major protests since the fourteenth century (and a few less well known) are explored in a chronological series of short stories, each followed by an erudite contextual piece from an academic or an eyewitness. It’s an organising principle that pays dividends, providing an effective panoptic view of the time-honoured tradition of social revolt in Britain over many hundreds of years.
The challenge, of course, for the writer of fiction, is to add something to the historical record, to evoke the times and the dilemmas of its participants. Most of the twenty authors here do just that. Sara Maitland memorably describes the Peasants’ Revolt as ‘hot, powerful, strong … ripping and breaking and singing and laughing’; and in Holly Pester’s take on the Midland Uprising of 1607, which opposed enclosure, children are told to ‘Invent justices … Be like the worms in the soil. Be in revolt with every bit of your fleshy bodies’. Like many of the tales, Pester’s story plucks a single, semi-forgotten name from history and dramatises the conflict around them to vivid effect. Laura Hird’s long story about the Scottish Insurrection of 1820 focuses on the young radical Andrew White, while never losing sight of the era and its political context, with mention of both Peterloo and the Cato Street conspiracy in the first pages. The cruel pragmatism of the land clearances are summed up by the line ‘Sheep are more profitable use for Laird Munro’s land, allowing him more to spend on his art collection’.
Elsewhere, entirely fictional figures are used to bring to life protests both well-known and obscure. The suffragette protagonist of Michelle Green’s story, when asked if she’s preparing for martyrdom, replies pragmatically: ‘The dead can’t fight.’ Here the notorious force-feeding of incarcerated suffragettes in Holloway Prison is given lyrical expression by Whitman’s line, ‘Your very flesh shall be a great poem’. In the essay that follows by Elizabeth Crawford, we learn that ‘Whitman’s words and philosophy had been absorbed from a young age by those brought up in radical households … cherished by mill girls and middle-class suffragettes alike’. Kit De Waal’s story about a fictional black widower, Alfonse Maynard, who lived through the Smethwick colour bar of the mid-60s while courting a white woman, is full of heart, close observation, and quiet anger. With its sly title, ‘Exterior Paint’ (alluding to how the colour of one’s skin dictates everything), the racist, segregated pubs of the1960s Midlands are seen as the beginning of a slippery slope unless intolerance is nipped in the bud: ‘It could get like America with the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, segregation, assassinations’. Again, the illuminating essay that follows by Avtar Singh Jouhl explains how the now unthinkable segregation in bars and restaurants prior to the 1965 Race Relations Act only came about because of lobbying by anti-racist organisations, and the bravery of men like Alfonse. Jouhl also links the Smethwick racists to the rhetoric of last year’s EU Referendum: ‘Writing this in 2016, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote … I can’t help but feel a shudder of familiarity, recollecting the atmosphere in 1964 and 1965’.
Two more stories that explore the great explosion of 60s activism, by Alexei Sayle and David Constantine, vividly take us into the heart of the conflict and the ideological dilemmas of those taking part. Sayle’s story takes place on a journey to the Anti-Vietnam War Demo in Grosvenor Square in 1968, comically dramatising the argument between non-violent and violent struggle as an activists’ van travels towards London. The demo itself, which ended in violent intervention by the police, and its repercussions for free assembly and dissent, are examined by Russ Hickman, who was there. ‘I had glimpsed behind the curtain of respectability that screens us from the workings of the state when it is under threat. A sight not easily forgotten’. David Constantine also takes a glimpse behind this curtain in a story that addresses the Oxford May Day March of 1968, following Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. Taking the form of a duologue, a fragmented picture of the day’s events emerge. Its final image of children crossing Oxford’s Cowley Road is a celebration of diversity that, as David’s brother Stephen Constantine notes in his essay, is a scene ‘I defy anyone not to be moved by’. Certainly, multiculturalism was put under fire as never before by ideologues such as Powell, and he goes on to note that the Race Relations Act of 1971 only came into force in 1973, ‘when, by coincidence, the UK joined the European Economic Community’. Like other commentators in Protest, he can only stand astonished at how the clock is being turned back by Brexit, and the ‘anti-immigrant feeling and racial abuse whipped up by the lies and rhetoric of some of the anti-EU Leave campaigners … my brother’s inspirational image remains as yet an aspiration’.
While some of the stories feel slightly unbalanced by the imperative to provide exciting incidents, rather than a quieter, more subtle take on events, the commentaries that follow are never less than fascinating. In Michael Randle’s afterword following Stuart Evers’ story about the Aldermaston Marches we learn about the formation of CND, and how the famous symbol came about: ‘semaphore positions for N (Nuclear) and D (Disarmament), enclosed in a circle’. Randle, too, is pessimistic about the future, post-Brexit, feeling the need for direct action is more urgent than ever in the 21st century:
‘Most clearly, however, the Aldermaston marches, and anti-nuclear movement … contributed an important new element to the long tradition of dissent and resistance in this country as recorded in this volume by combining radical direct action with a commitment to maintaining a non-violent spirit and discipline. In the age of Trump, Putin and Brexit, and with the resurgence of right wing populism across Europe, that commitment and technique may again be urgently required’.
Indeed, this sentiment more that justifies the existence of a book such as Protest, especially when contemporary literary fiction seems to be abdicating the responsibility of confronting what the Chinese proverb calls ‘interesting times’. Adam Gopnick, in a recent essay commenting on Updike and Roth, claims they both ‘did what real writers ought to do – bear witness … rather than pretend it hasn’t happened’. This anthology most certainly bears witness, and while one might miss a discussion of how, say, overseas insurrections such as the American and French Revolutions had a direct impact on British radicalism (they radicalised Wordsworth, for one), sticking to purely British struggles, and keeping to a chronological timeline, disciplines and focuses a book that might have become dissipated by too broad a scope. By the time we get to the 70s, 80s and 90s, the reader begins to see how the successes (and even the failures) of previous protest movements informed those that come later. For instance, the Night Cleaners’ Strike of 1972 that Maggie Gee tackles in her story would be hard to imagine without the victories gained by the Suffragettes. The same goes for Jacob Ross’s take on the Brixton Riots, whose flashpoint was the New Cross Fire (Thirteen dead and nothing said, blood ah go run in ‘81 unless justice come, as a contemporary slogan ran). While the Smethwick protest was non-violent, by the 80s, Britain’s black population had had enough. Likewise, Martyn Bedford’s story about the miners’ strike recalls the capitalist-worker struggles of the 1840s and 50s, dramatised by the social problem novels of Dickens and Gaskell. In Joanna Quinn’s Greenham Common tale, and in the essay that follows, both writers illustrate how ‘creative, symbolic, supportive acts of disobedience’, or NVDA – Non Violent Direct Action – ‘empowered women, from all classes, races, sexualities and religions’. They also paved the way for later live-in protests by Greenpeace, and the Occupy movement. Finally, Courttia Newland’s compelling story about the Poll Tax Riots, one of the last in the volume, contains echoes of the Peasants’ Revolt and its outrage at an unfair financial levy placed on the worst-off in society. This provides a nice sense of circularity, as it was with Wat Tyler’s men that the volume began.
All these neat echoes and allusions don’t, however, distract us from the truth that protest is only ever ‘a joyous, raucous “no”’, and never something that can be relied upon to create enduring political change. This is perfectly expressed by the narrator of Maggie Gee’s story: ‘History. It is so hard to catch. Looking backwards, it all looks obvious, the way the workers won their rights. But at the time, everything hung in the balance’.
Protest: Stories of Resistance / Ra Page (ed.) / Comma Press / 5 April 2018 (Paperback)
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, New Statesman, TLS, Review 31and 3AM Magazine.His essays and short fiction have appeared in The Stockholm Review, The Tangerine, Structo, Storgy, Litro, Long Story Short and Staple magazine. In 2017, he was longlisted for the Pin Drop RA short story award.
Our associate Matthew Landrum editor caught up with Eva Milner, the lead singer of the German band Hundreds, in the middle of their summer tour. They talked singing in second languages, Bob Dylan, and nuclear apocalypse.
Matthew: What is the relationship between German and English in your life? Where do you use which?
Eva: I watch movies in English, I read a lot in English. But I don’t talk that much in English. So, it is like a language for storytelling to me. I would never write lyrics for songs in German, it would feel wrong. I listen to a lot of German bands whose lyrics are great and poetic. But I could not be on stage and sing the same stuff I sing in English translated in German. I would feel naked. The English language is a playground for me. Also, I like the sound better, especially if you have to sing it. German is quite harsh sounding. English feels like a peppermint soft candy to me.
Matthew: What language do you dream in?
Eva: German. But when I spent some weeks only speaking English, while travelling, I started dreaming in English.
Matthew: In which does a song begin?
Eva: Usually, when I start writing lyrics, I have a feeling about the mood and the topic. And then I start searching for a word to start, sometimes in books, sometimes in other songs. I love reading lyrics from other artists. Also, I like experimenting with the sounds of the words. So, I sing and write at the same time, to try if it works.
Matthew: There’s a lovely strangeness in your songs. In “Let’s Write the Streets,” you sing, “Could you sit with me under the icicles? Give me your trembling hands. I don’t wear kid gloves.” Could you talk about the mood and word experimentation that that song grew out of?
Eva: “Let’s Write the Streets” was our first hit. But only in Berlin. It is a song we still play a lot and people are always wooing when the Philipp plays the first chords. It is meant to be an uplifting, motivational song. I first had the picture in my mind: We draw our own map and find new paths, we are pure and innocent, so let’s discover the world with new eyes. I wrote it to a friend of mine, who was afraid take control over his life. He was always waiting for something great to happen. But nothing ever happens, if you only react. He was kind of depressed and I deeply care about him. I thought a lot about his problems. So, this is where the song came from.
The first picture I found was: “We are whitest sheets, let’s write the streets”. This is also the chorus. Could you sit with me under the icicles? means: We are in a dangerous place, it is cold and an icicle could fall down anytime. But I stay here with you. I will take care of you and also, I will speak the truth. That’s why I don’t wear kid gloves. In German, there is the expression of wearing velvet gloves. It means you have to be very careful with someone because that person is highly sensitive. And when you don’t wear them you are just honest.
Matthew: Your last two albums are Aftermath and Wilderness. Are those words your experimenting with for the vision of the album? Do you have a working title or word you’re experimenting with for your next album?
Eva: Aftermath is a word I really liked for a long time. The first time I heard it was in a beautiful song of the Danish band Kashmir. It is called “The Aftermath”. The song is from 2003, I think. Then I met the word again in 2010 in a song called “Foamborn,” which was played by our supporting act Touchy Mob on our shared tour. We made a cover of this song. I really love the lyrics: “Lukewarm, you promised. I burned my foot in the bath. Who’d ever mind the aftermath.” (The whole song’s lyrics are unbelievably good in my opinion. Bob Dylanesque). So, the word was around for a long time. It really fits into the mood of the album. And also, it was our second album. It was kind of an “aftermath state” we were in.
Wilderness was the first song we wrote for the new album. And for us, it was such a different sound and approach. It doesn’t have a normal song structure. It just builds up and builds up until it explodes in a thunderstorm. This felt really liberating. Also, the lyrics are the guideline for the rest of the album, which examines the apocalypse. Sounds strange, but I really had to get this subject out of my system.
We’re just about to start with the next album. So, no. We don’t have a word, but I hope it will find me soon.
Matthew: You had the apocalypse in your system. Could you explain more on that?
Eva: When I was a little girl I read a book from a german youth book’s author called Gudrun Pausewang. The Book is called ” Die Kinder von Schewenborn”. It is a novel about three young children, who are losing their parents, because of a catastrophic nuclear accident, happening right in the middle of Germany. Her descriptions were full of details about the bodily changes, like hair loss caused by radiation sickness, the children are going through. Everything is poisonous, animals are dying, you can’t trust anyone, because the surviving population goes crazy. I guess Pausewang’s intention was to educate even young children about the risks of having nuclear power plants standing around. For me it was purest horror. I couldn’t understand, why in the world would mankind invent such a horrible thing! Something got broken inside of me. I was afraid and that’s when my thoughts about apocalypse, caused by stupid humans, began to develop. I have a deep incomprehension for all that kind of stuff. Atom bombs. Bombs at all. Waste in the oceans. So, I am kind of a pessimist, when it comes to mankind.
Matthew: And music helps you process all this.
Eva: I love good lyrics, in particular, when they come accompanied by great music, sung by a special voice. So, that’s why I started writing them in the first place (my all-time favourite writer when it comes to song lyrics: Joni Mitchells “Ladies of the Canyon”). But of course, the main part is the music, not the lyrics. I tried to bring solace on the first album. On the second album, I talked about my inner fears and things that I miss, like childhood friendships, being a child in general. The third album was about the apocalypse, a topic that followed me for a long time.
Matthew: Speaking of Bob Dylan, what are your thoughts on his controversial Noble Prize in Literature?
Eva: I adore his lyrics and songs. Especially his early stuff. So, I think it is well earned. Even if he is not a poet or author in the classical sense.
Matthew: What are some all-time favourite books and what are you reading right now?
Eva: My Little Helper, when I am writing: John Burnside. His poems are always with me. In English.
I love Siri Hustvedt. I think all of her books are my favourite, especially What I Loved. But, it is hard to decide.
I love American literature: Paul Auster, Jonathan Frantzen, T.C. Boyle, Joey Goebbel … I also love older stuff like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Silvia Plath, Katherine Mansfield. My all-time favourite is Virginia Woolfe.
The list could go on and on and on.
Dystopias have never been more popular. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the appearance of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ there has been renewed interest in George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (aided by a well-received televised series) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, among others.
Perhaps readers are seeking meaning, understanding or even solace in times where the old standards no longer seem to be relevant and truth can be whatever the teller says it is.
2084 is a collection of short stories by writers notable mostly for their work in science fiction and alternative fiction. The editor, George Sandison, notes that this is not a book about the future as ‘dystopias are about today.’ In 1984, readers found truths about their world and we continue to do so 70 years later. Sandison notes that we can find truths in dystopias even if their predictions are proved incorrect. A prediction that has not yet come to pass is very different to one that has been proved wrong, but nevertheless the central premise of ‘truth from despair’ rings true.
Despite the title, 2084 is not meant to be a reworking, or a sci-fi re-imagining, of 1984. Instead, the writers attempt to capture some of the ‘truth’ that has made 1984 so enduring. Like Orwell, most of the authors in this collection look at worrying trends in today’s world and extrapolate this into the future unchecked.
‘Babylon’ by Dave Hutchison tells the story of Da’uud, a refugee on a mission across the Aegean Sea, which is covered by European surveillance devices. The story has a lovely, but very strange, idea of a toxic seed from North Korea being planted in the ground to give future refugees hope. Hope and compassion are the defining messages, a juxtaposition to the abandonment of hope by Orwell.
‘Here Comes the Flood’ by Desirina Boskovich tells the story of four generations of one family living together in a small apartment in a city block where access to the natural world is provided through simulated parks. The overpopulated city-block as prison/haven in is reminiscent of Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. The outside world has been ruined by catastrophic climate change and the population are kept calm with show trials on different channels that compete for viewers. The interactions between the family members are funny and the cantankerous, unapologetic grandmother is particularly amusing. As well as the more obvious and real fears about climate change, the story touches on intergenerational strife and refugees. ‘Uniquo’ by Unsung regular Aliya Whiteley looks at themes of aging, the dreams of the young and the fears of the old.
‘Fly Away Peter’ by Ian Hocking is possibly the most chilling tale in the collection, telling of a future in which children are brutalised, hardened and killed. This seemed closest to the shock and despair that readers experience on first reading 1984.
‘A Good Citizen’ by Anne Charnock is a first-person narrative. The narrator is a fitness instructor in a state where it is compulsory to take fitness classes. The population is distracted and made to feel included by weekly referenda.
Control by distraction rather than brutality is a theme that many of the stories share. Aldous Huxley argued that rulers would find it more effective to stay in power by keeping the population in a comforting state of ‘narco-hypnosis’ rather than by brute force. ‘March, April, May’ by Malcolm Devlin also considers how social media can act, without State control, as ‘big brother’ to force herding behaviour and impose social control.
‘The Endling Market’ by E J Swift looks at wildlife conservation. Not a new message by any means but the writing was absorbing and captures the wonder of the Snow Leopard.
‘Degrees of Ellision’ by Cassandra Khaw is cinematic and very well written. The story revolves around and editor of the past (much as Winston Smith edited history in 1984) as he comes to terms with his own past, which it is impossible to hide.
Many of the themes chosen would be familiar to George Orwell and, indeed, he wrote about many including the subordination of the individual to the collective, censorship, compulsory exercise, the encouragement to betray those not sufficiently enthusiastic about the regime and the sedation of the population with alcohol, porn and gambling. This collection of short stories is a successful re-examination of the historical fears that have made the dystopia popular again, as well as some new ones that we may hope never come to pass, even if they may not be proven wrong by 2084.
2084 / George Sandison (ed.) / Unsung Stories / 18 September 2017
Richard Bryant’s desk-jockeying skills pay the bills, but he’d sooner be reading. More of his book reviews can be found at mishnory.wordpress.com
In Not a Place on Any Map, an experimental memoir published in 2016 by Vine Leaves Press, Alexis Paige recounts her life up to the present through a series of what might be termed, depending on whom you ask, prose vignettes, flash lyric essays, or short pieces of nonfiction: brief, stand-alone scenes that focus on significant and often traumatic moments set in the many places she has lived. Any element that might be considered artificial or secondary (exposition, plot development, characterization) has been minimized or discarded; to steal a sentence from Reality Hunger that David Shields himself steals from Nietzsche, Paige’s formal goal seems to be “to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book.” Unfortunately, the result often feels hollow, less like a fully-realized project than a sheaf of notes.
The cycle of five pieces that depict the years Paige lives in San Francisco exemplifies this. We have known since the introductory essay that her spiral into substance abuse and one-night stands picks up in San Francisco: that city will be “all [hers] to fuck up,” she prophecies. However, when we arrive in San Francisco, the fucking-up seems in short supply. “San Francisco Muse, 2002” strikes a happy note (she’s with a guy who makes her “laugh for what seemed like forever”), while “Soliloquy, Tiburon Ferry, San Francisco Bay, 2001” and “Vermont Letter, 1998–2001” mix yearning and nostalgia. Only “Not-Quite One-Night Stand in San Francisco” somewhat describes what she means by “fuck up.” She has fallen from living with her boyfriend to living with “a friend from the bar,” and from buying drugs from “a petite white woman…with fake tits” to buying the cocaine she needs “to get out of bed” from a “black man, as big as a nightclub bouncer.”
Nonetheless, the conclusion to this cycle, “Skyline, Rapt, 2004,” acts as though it wraps up a longer, more harrowing work. The scene places Paige on the heights, that ancient space of epiphany, and in a modern variation on the millennia-old scene, lays the polluted city at her feet. She “[climbs] to the top of Russian Hill,” and as she “[looks] down upon the dark bay and North Beach,” she hears, not the still, small voice of some divinity, but the voice of her therapist, advising her “to practice breathing.” So she practices breathing, and her epiphany duly arrives: “To be so excruciatingly alive is what hurts, the mystery of inertia, and the waiting around to get better. I think of Seurat and the way you have to pull back to see the shape of the thing. I am a million dots of light and dark shaping, pulling back in surprise on my body, tight as a fist.”
This is the kind of “insight” that (to invoke Shields again) “you [would have had] to read seven hundred pages to get” were Paige working in a more traditional form. Yet because this realization derives from three years of experiences she has muted, it does not resonate. How has Paige been “excruciatingly alive”? How has being alive “hurt”? What does she mean by “the mystery of inertia”? And how has she been “waiting around to get better”? Narrative development, for all its padding, would have at least provided “the shape of the thing.” As it is, the scene feels unearned.
A similar sense pervades the cycle that treats the time she spends in jail after causing a three-car pile-up while driving under the influence, but here what elsewhere might be a minor problem becomes genuinely problematic.
Paige has written about this experience before in a more traditional form. “The Right to Remain,” a full-length essay first published in The Rumpus, focuses on the hours Paige spends in jail immediately afterward, examining the ways, both large and small, that her racial and economic privilege distinguishes her from the other “mostly black and brown” inmates. She is “so white” because she wants the other inmates to quiet down instead of protest when the guards tell them the blankets are “at laundry,” and she is bailed out the next morning instead of being taken to “county” because, as someone she identifies as “Big Bird” points out, she “[has] people.”
When Paige treats similar material in the shorter forms of Not a Place on Any Map, however, she replaces these complicated interactions with meditations on the special emotional bond they forged. At one point, she remembers the women she met in jail as her “mislaid sisters”; at another, when she develops the habit of crying in the middle of the night for reasons not entirely clear to herself, she wonders if she is “thinking of Yolanda….Or the other inmates.” In both cases, we are forced to infer the existence of relationships we have barely seen develop and of people we have scarcely met, and we are left asking questions that range from basic to complicated. Who is Yolanda, besides being Paige’s “Bunkie”? Who are the “other inmates,” these “sisters” of hers? And how has she earned this “sisterhood” despite the “having-people” racial and economic differences that separate her from them? Without any specific support, these proclamations seem at worst a presumptuous recapitulation of uncomplicated notions of race relations, and at best a provoking I-know-something-you-don’t-know response to the fraught question of the constraints on interracial friendship in a systemically-racist society.
All told, Not a Place on Any Map demonstrates certain risks inherent in the form it essays. Many serious readers find recapitulations of nineteenth-century techniques played out and untrue; most readers no longer want to read “seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights [a] book was written.” But reading Not a Place on Any Map, I wonder if cutting everything but those “handful of insights,” as Paige seems to do, actually solves the problem. Perhaps literature, like life, needs some boredom to develop. In any case, this particular form does not seem entirely suited to capture a life as complex as Paige’s, and I, for one, leave the book wishing she had treated her material as she had in “The Right to Remain,” and hoping that the memoir-in-progress mentioned on her website either takes a similar approach, or develops the genre in a different direction.
Not a Place on Any Map / Alexis Paige / Vine Leaves Press / 5 December 2016
William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation.
Having enjoyed Alison Jean Lester’s debut, Lillian on Life, I was eager to see where the author would take her readers in this, her second novel. Lillian was a woman of a certain age looking back over decades lived. This latest work is again told as a recollection, this time of a much younger woman looking back to a pivotal few months when she was in her early twenties. From the first sentence of Yuki Means Happiness the reader is aware that the adventure will not end well.
The story opens in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1996. Diana, a trained nurse, is meeting Naoki Yoshimura, the father of two year Yuki. Naoki had employed Diana as a maternity nurse when his wife, Emi, travelled to Boston to give birth. Now he informs her that Emi has left him. He offers Diana a generous salary to work in Tokyo as Yuki’s nanny. Diana is in a relationship but unsure of the commitment she is willing to offer. She regards this job as a chance for adventure and also escape. Key events in her life to date have made her wary of men and their intentions. Her boyfriend is ignorant of this personal history and declares his willingness to wait.
Diana travels to Tokyo unable to speak any Japanese. Naoki’s home is next door to that of his wealthy parents – it was built in their garden. Naoki’s mother is polite but distant. She helps with Yuki when requested and keeps a watchful eye on her son’s interests.
The sense of place evoked as Diana settles into her new role is beautifully rendered. As a young and inexperienced woman Diana finds herself irritated but compliant with the demands made on her time by her employer. She grows to adore Yuki and relishes the insights she is gaining into the culture and expectations of the Japanese.
Life within the Yoshimura household begins to shift when Naoki brings home a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Diana has started meeting up with Naoki’s ex-wife, discovering that their marital breakup was not everything Diana had been led to believe. When she is accused of leaving Yuki in the care of a man, Naoki displays an anger that frightens the young nanny. His subsequent actions suggest Yuki could also be in danger.
The unfolding tale is nuanced and layered, presented with a subtlety that belies its depth. The emotional threads of the novel may be complex, but the writing remains accessible and engaging. Japan is portrayed with warmth and honesty, while its customs, however alluring, are shown to provide a means to exert dominance.
The understated intricacy of the story development is impressive, and the setting, plot and structure are deftly painted. There is much to reflect on after turning the final page.
Yuki Means Happiness / Alison Jean Lester / John Murray / 27 July 2017
This is Structo 18. It features 96 pages of outstanding fiction and poetry, including by the winner of the inaugural Austrian Cultural Forum Writing Prize and Translation Prize, photography by Meredith Heuer and an interview with
Lemony Snicket Daniel Handler.