Words and Women: One (ed. Lynne Bryan & Belona Greenwood)

-By Richard T. Watson

Shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2014, Unthank’s Words and Women: One is an anthology of stories by women living in the East of England. The stories – fiction, memoir and creative non-fiction – were chosen through a competition run by the Words and Women organisation, who plan this as the first in a series. Although not the eventual winner, Susan Dean’s ‘Suenos’ for me best encapsulates the combination of words and women in the anthology’s title: it features a Cuban hotel maid who reads and writes whenever she has spare time, breathing literature, and a Western female tourist, also a writer. Their attempts to communicate their different – although undoubtedly similar – lives, and to support and share with each other, sums up the spirit of the anthology.

Words and Women: One

These stories – and even the non-fiction entries are telling stories – are about the experience of being a woman. While there’s a focus on women in the West (perhaps inevitable, given the geographic focus of the publisher and editors), the themes and experiences are broadly universal: loss, sex, death, growing up, motherhood (and childlessness), illness, ageing, violence and relationships with men. Others, more Western-specific, include balancing a career with a family and the guilt of a missing schoolgirl’s mother. The editors, Lynne Bryan and Belona Greenwood, say they’re providing a platform for voices they feel need to be heard; those voices are all female (so represent female opinion), and many are well worth hearing.

It would be easy to consider this a work of tub-thumping literary feminism, but it’s more subtle than that. Rather than, say, giving us stories where women attack a man’s world or win a victory of some kind over a man, Words and Women: One makes a more concerted, longer-term effort to even up the gender disparity in literature. Compare, for example, the Pankhearst Collective’s approach to centralising female characters who are often rough, tough independent bruisers who take violent revenge on the patriarchy. Instead, the stories here subvert patriarchal narratives, which have become almost standard, by simply placing women in the central position so often occupied by male characters. They aren’t all rough and tough, most are just trying to live their lives, lives which may be undramatic but are not lacking in emotion and impact on a reader. Their independence and self-sufficiency doesn’t need to be worn on their sleeves, and might be their greatest strength. The more stories we have where women are central, the more easily society can accept women as central actors in their own lives and the life of society at large. In that respect, Words and Women: One sets out for, and achieves, an admirable aim.

That’s not to say that women are central or narrating characters in every entry here. A couple have male perspectives, and that seems a healthy balancing factor; after all, equality will require the input of both genders. Although the church rector in Caroline Jackson’s ‘The Call’ is male, the story is really about a community coming together to celebrate the passing of one of their matriarchs, a woman whose presence looms large throughout the story even though she never appears. She lives on in the folk-memory of her many descendants and friends, and that idea of sharing grief, of coming to terms with loss, recurs throughout this anthology.

‘Len’s Whole Life’, by Alice Kent, while being a wonderful character study and lightly humourous take on mental illness, doesn’t necessarily add much to the conversation about women’s experience beyond the idea that men sometimes look at women. That doesn’t seem new or revelatory, but it’s a peripheral part of the story which, in a way, seems a fitting reflection of the way men sometimes (too often) perceive women’s experiences.

But enough about the men – as the editors point out, there’s an inequality in publishing already, and this anthology should open up the conversation to more female voices.

The competition-winner was Dani Redd’s ‘My Sister’s Haircut’, a dark coming-of-age story involving a controlling boyfriend whose girlfriend is eager to please him even to the point of denying her own wishes and autonomy. It’s a scary example to be setting her younger sister, whose narration picks up on the hints of something darker, and the promise of a girl growing into a young woman, without dwelling on them or revealing too much. Redd treads a fine line between innocence and cynicism, witnessing a classic example of a relationship doomed to inequality, unhappiness and eventually serious abuse. It’s sobering to think that this is probably quite a common experience.

‘The Deal’, by Wendy Gill who also featured in Arachne Press’ Stations anthology, stands out as a story containing the microcosm of the work-life balance struggle in one day. It’s a story that doesn’t necessarily add much to the debate around working mothers – although surely few are juggling business flights between Heathrow and fog-bound Jersey with their husband’s London tennis club and babysitting – but manages to capture a fully-realised world, and marriage, in very few words. It left me torn between exasperation with the husband and admiration for the wife, and that, I suspect, was rather the point.

So, have I learnt anything about the experience of women? I think so. More importantly, this is a challenge to the idea that the male narrative is central – in literature, as in life – and I look forward to Words and Women: Two. Publishers take note: more of this sort of thing!

Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan

-Reviewed by Eleanor Hemsley-

Things To Make And Break by May-Lan Tan is one of the most perfect collections of short stories I have ever come across. From an unforgettable abortion to a young girl’s abuse, the stories are each unique but with a certain, unpinnable similarity that makes them work perfectly together as a collection.

Things to Make and Break - May-Lan Tan

Each story hosts a new narrator, a different character to tell us the tale. The strongest narrator is the first, in ‘Legendary’. Perhaps it was the unusual obsession for her boyfriend’s exes, or perhaps it was the way in which she viewed them as women as if she herself were not one, but something about the storyteller drew me in. Not to say the other narrators were weak, far from it. Just this one caught hold of me the most and stayed with me the longest after reading.

I was surprised to find when starting ‘101’ that the narrator was addressing me, using ‘you’. Usually I hate this, it feels like I’m being accused and shouted at, but here it was done well. It made a nice contrast to the previous stories and made me feel as if it were a letter written to the real ‘you’. However, using this in a second story overdid it and took away the novelty. It became hard to read and I found myself wishing to be me once more, rather than the narrator’s lover.

The point of views are forever changing throughout the stories, with no two being alike. The writer even manages to write convincingly from both a male and female point of view, from a variety of different ages. May-Lan Tan’s ability to write from these perspectives impresses me to the extent that I even believe she could write a story from the point of view of an elderly cat (which I would very much like to see).

The stories differ in layout as well as narration, with one even being a script. Although when I first saw this I thought it was perhaps there merely to force a change upon me, I soon realised that it was more. The narrator is an actress and all the dialogue and scene changes are written in script format, with her thoughts in prose between. This is done so cleverly that it feels natural and we believe we’re seeing things through her eyes. So not only does this provide another distinction between this story and all the others, but it also brings us closer to the character.

Don’t for a second though think that this collection of stories will brighten your day. It won’t. Although the stories are all really sad, they all have some sort of meaning and make a point about something important in life, about an issue that needs to be faced. One story in particular is about a man who has had a sex change to become a woman. Although she is perfectly happy with being a woman, she doesn’t like that everyone in her life knows about her past, so to get away from this she wants to leave everything and everyone behind and start fresh to be ‘normal’. But to her ‘normal’ seems to be where no one knows her struggles or who she really is, where she has to deny the fact she loves girls so she can marry a man and be ‘normal’. This highlights the fact that even now, in our most accepting of times, we still have a long way to go to help everyone to feel comfortable and accepted in their own skin.

Despite this though, May-Lan Tan uses some of the most beautiful and poetic language in her stories, like ‘you kissed me with the green apple taste of the pool on your tongue’. I find this not only poetic but unique, a new way of describing things, and it’s very refreshing. And then of course there are the small hints of humour, like when one female narrator says ‘people say the first one is the one you’ll love forever, so I pop my cherry with a coke bottle’. By far one of my favourite lines in any short story. It says so much with so few words.

But not everything makes you laugh. The writer seems to have a skill of being able to make you think hard with just one sentence. One story about a woman who has an abortion around the same time her sister announces her own pregnancy has a very thoughtful line filled with sadness. When the narrator sees her sister’s baby for the first time, a baby who has the same DNA as her own would have had, she says ‘I think I’m lucky. Most people never know exactly what they’ve missed’. Wow.

Things To Make And Break is a collection of stories definitely worth reading. It’s one of the best collections I’ve seen for a very long time and is full of fresh ideas with hard-hitting storylines that invite you in to the trials of life. May-Lan Tan is a very talented writer, and I just can’t wait for her next book to come out.

Posthumous Stories by David Rose

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

Posthumous Stories by David Rose, published by Salt, runs to over 200 pages and comprises sixteen pieces of fiction. The title may mislead some readers: these aren’t stories collected together to memorialise a deceased writer – Rose is very much alive. Rather, as the blurb on the jacket informs, the stories were ‘written over the past twenty-five years’. The collection offers up a mix of tales, threaded together by an array of characters (often unnamed) who share feelings of detachment and isolation in their distinct and differing lives. This was my first reading of Rose’s work – his novel, Vault (2011, also published by Salt), was well reviewed in The Guardian, with the reviewer drawing attention to ‘Rose’s gift for creating scenes that embed in the memory’. This gift is also apparent in Posthumous Stories; the collection is challenging, even playful, with some passages deliberately constructed (I suggest) to overwhelm or test the reader.

Posthumous Stories by David Rose

This obfuscation is evident in the stories clustered with references to classical music and the art world which, for this decidedly uncultured reader, initially led to a sense of disengagement from the text. See, for example, ‘The Fall’; a story about a germane eco-warrior-of-sorts, who is part of a mysterious, religious sect. When he is not engaged in playing havoc with railway points, thus disrupting the transportation of nuclear waste, or finding sexual release with lovers who come and go, he harbours an

impulse, almost a thirst, to listen to some Mahler. […] I chose The Song of the Earth – Das Lied Von Der Erde – in the Kathleen Ferrier/Bruno Walter recording of 1952; Ferrier’s swan song. […] The ripe and astringent chromaticism pointing up, cushioning the frail voices. Petulant scherzo of ‘The Drunkard in Spring’. Then the long-drawn breath, almost stasis, of the orchestral bridge to the final song, ‘Der Absched’. ‘The Farewell’.

The structure of this passage is polished and beautiful; however, whilst I might recognise some of Mahler’s pieces were I to hear them, the detailed references to his work and the emphasis on nuanced, musical expression left me with the residual impression that a particular way of interpreting the text, or understanding the central character, was closed off to me.

However, when reading the collection as a whole, it seems that Rose plays with the concept of over-emphasising aspects of art and culture. For example, in ‘Viyborg’, Mahler is referenced again, along with other composers, as well as descriptions of paintings in the National Gallery. Such detail at first led to the feeling that I could not understand or empathise with the central character, being unfamiliar with the works – but this is the story’s point. The story reads as an editor’s review of a work-in-progress, and contains narrative interjections which highlight the disjointedness a reader might feel when trying to understand the piece: ‘(opus 9, as if we need to know)’; ‘[c]larification would have been welcome.’

Similarly, ‘Rectilinear’ is a curious tale that again plays with the art and its representation. The story is about a man so obsessed with clean, Modernist architecture that he lives in a house shaped like a ‘perfect white cube’. He allows his personal life to fall into disrepair because of his fixations: when his partner begins to wear dresses with ‘vivid […] primary colours’, he begins ‘to suspect her of having an affair’.

In ‘Dedication’, Rose again delves into the theme of dissonance between private knowledge and a public desire to categorise and consume art and music. The first half of the story takes the form of an interview with Stevie, a man to whom a piece of music was dedicated when he was a child. Public interest in the piece (prompted, possibly, by the composer’s suicide and ‘preoccupation with children’) compels the interviewer to ‘track[…] down’ the now adult Stevie, in order to discuss his take on the work. Stevie resents that the piece ‘rather blighted one’s life’, and the interviewer’s detailed questioning and interpretation of the music jars rather comically, and sadly, with Stevie’s reluctant reminiscences:

– The notorious eleven-note chord […]. Maybe we could discuss it a little. […] The chord is held, then the orchestra dies away, leaving the violin’s B exposed, becoming fortissimo, at which point the orchestra repeats its chord, only to fade again, leaving the violin’s still fortissimo B, which then falls to B flat before the violin too dies into silence. Was this as shocking as you remembered it?

– I had only remembered the crash of the last chord and my mother’s curses at trying to play it. […]

The second part of the story is a gathering of Stevie’s childhood memories of the composer, written as a stream-of-consciousness: ‘his proud lone B    awaiting    whisper of blade crackle of hairs on his throat as it kisses into flesh […]’. These final passages offer a raw and visceral coda to the formalised, expert questions of the interviewer, reinforcing the idea of a real, lived life beneath the art that represents it.

It is a concept Rose returns to in ‘The Fifth Beatle’, a sweetly drawn tale of a housewife who happened to be pictured in the infamous Abbey Road cover (I know what this picture looks like). The housewife’s life, told in blunt, spare prose, is juxtaposed with a distant, staged description of the scene. The woman’s main thought when she realises she’s been snapped in an iconic image is ‘I wish I’d taken my overall off’. She recalls that she didn’t quite understand what the Beatles were doing, or who they were. I had a similar feeling: Posthumous Stories offers the reader an intriguing, challenging, and occasionally baffling set of tales, which require patient unpacking in order to be fully appreciated.

Box[Ed.] #1

-Reviewed by Cathy Dreyer

box

Box[Ed.], a new magazine from a group of MA students at Kent University’s School of English, arrived in a buff-coloured box, its contents huddled together like a pile of leaves in an Autumn garden.

I felt quite protective of this small assortment, as if I ought to guard it from the chaotic winds of my desk which might scatter it at any moment. I handled the pieces with care.

I liked the evident haphazardness of their presentation. Editors typically spend a great deal of time thinking about the order of contents and the reader must engage with the intentions behind that order, and how it contextualises the content, almost before s/he can engage with the goods themselves. I worry about this and often start at the back of things.

So I found it very refreshing that the team at Box[Ed.] are content to let the vicissitudes of the postie’s sack decide which of their contributors is first out of the box.

The box held twenty six pieces which are, broadly, a mixture of prose fiction, visual art and poetry in a variety of formats from postcards to hand-made pamphlets. I couldn’t discern any unifying themes, although almost a quarter of the pieces played with the idea of water in some form, from baths to the sea.

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I also wondered if I was seeing the influence of twitter and other social media on some writers here. There were a couple of very short pieces, if not quite 140 characters then not far off. It seems as if the pleasure of finding an online home for our micro-thoughts is something people now want to bring to print.

Beau Jackson’s ‘Some things I have accepted that I will never understand’ seemed to me pitched in an enjoyably light tone which I often encounter online. Her three line list piece includes this fragment:

  • The feeling, similar to guilt, that you get when getting into a bath that’s too hot.

I spent a long and happy time thinking about this, frustratedly unable to remember how I feel when I burn my toes while attempting to bathe, but convinced that there is a distinct feeling which that experience always evokes, and that it is close to guilt. I’m currently plumping for ‘mild shame’.

Julia Horeftari’s short ‘Check if Applicable’took the form of a metaphorical, check-list which you might find in a set of instructions for putting together furniture, here figuratively applied to the human condition, or aspects of it.

I enjoyed the playfulness of Horeftari’s format and imagery, if not the bleakness of her vision.

‘Indiana’, by Rathe Temple-Green, is another very short piece, at just seven lines, but took me back to more traditional, lineated poetry.

This was another piece in which I invested significant time. As it is short, I quote it in full.

A good friend of mine
went to buy a cake —

Anyway he went to get his keys out of his coat pocket
before he found them
he took out a tub of chocolate porridge
then his passport.

This is what being prepared for anything means

Reading this, I stumbled at line four, expecting the sense of the line to be ‘before he left’, so that ‘before he found them’ came as a surprise, just as the narrator experienced a surprise at the contents of her good friend’s pocket.

Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, feeling what s/he felt, connecting, is such a pleasure.

I enjoyed the skill of this, and the commentary on the risks and opportunities of idiom.

Of the longer prose pieces I found Julia Fermentto’s ‘Clattering Forks in Manta Ray’ the most successful.

The narrator’s voice seduced me into liking her almost instantly. Fermentto’s skilful exploitation of the ironic potential of unreliable narration meant it was only close to the end that the doubts about, and finally horror at, the events described set in and I was forced to re-understand everything from the beginning.

I understood the piece as a parable about the difficulty of multi-cultural society, principally due to the limitations of empathy and the ubiquity of narcissism. When I learnt from Box[Ed.]’s notes on contributors (confusingly called ‘Contents’) that Fermentto is an Israeli writer based in Tel Aviv, her story took on a sharper edge, especially in the context of recent, tragic events in Gaza.

Gaza also sprang to mind when I picked up Helen Theodoridou’s photograph ‘Echoes’. It shows a scene of devastation and seemed to me to be asking where have you seen this before? and, perhaps, how many more times will we see this?

My mind became a gallery of unbearable images from Gaza, through Grozny and Baghdad, to burnt out villages in the Congo, and all the way back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as 1940s London and Dresden. A powerful piece, which uses synaesthesia to great effect.

Some pieces were frustratingly unrealised. Two of the longer prose pieces showed verve but left me either disappointed after a great start (Alex Hough) or confused despite a format with plenty of potential (Tom Luck).

On balance, though, this collection of ‘experimental, creative and … odd’ pieces, as Editor Jane Summerfield puts it, repaid my time and attention with lots of pleasure and interest. I’ll put the pieces back in their box and keep it somewhere safe. I’d like to read the next edition.

                                                                                   

The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim by Craig Hawes

 -Reviewed by Sarah Gonnet

Reading the stories in The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim is a process of transportation. The tales in the book take you to the dramatic landscapes of Dubai; and then let you explore the alien places through the rhythm of narrative. Craig Hawes’ ability to create an absorbing sense of place is beautiful. There are also numerous signs of invading globalization within the stories. Coca-cola, iPads, Native American dream catchers, and Skype are all casually mentioned alongside traditional elements of Dubai’s culture. Globalization itself isn’t directly mentioned in the text, but by being frequently suggested it becomes an ominous background hum throughout.

The characters in the stories are just as complex as the different environments of Dubai. Many of the characters are immoral or detached from life, yet they refuse to adhere to 2D ‘evil’ motives. Instead Hawes takes the opportunity to explore his flawed characters with a sense of humour and honesty. The result of Hawes’ courage is a collection that boldly makes a statement about each area of what it means to be human.

The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim Craig Hawes

The stories are a real mixture, and this is despite them all being set in one country. Hawes doesn’t feel obliged to necessarily fulfil the usual story structure, causing some of the stories to be more like situations than a full-length short. However this only adds to the pace of the book and keeps the reader on their toes. In a similar fashion the stories each have an individual tone, though they all end up encompassing some kind of tragedy in their own way. The misfortune of Hawes’ characters gives the reader a point to fixate on, and possibly compare to their own life experiences. Yet the same grim outlook makes a couple of the stories almost impenetrable (not always a bad thing). The sense of mystery is added to because ultimately the only answers Hawes provides are in the form of metaphors or riddles. For example the image that can be found in the final paragraph of ‘Pictures in the Dust’ – ‘An intricate and perfectly symmetrical butterfly freeing itself from a cocoon, dangling from a palm tree’. What exactly this means is left to the reader’s own mind.

The most alarming story of the collection is ‘Whorelands’; a story that juxtaposes war with sex (not unlike Sarah Kane’s play Blasted). ‘Whorelands’ shows an unusual, non-sexual, relationship between a prostitute and a soldier, over one night in HOR AL ANZ (AKA Whorelands) a place that contains what the name suggests. However, sex is attempted and failed early on, leaving in its place a piercing emptiness that plays with ideas of survival, loneliness and the impact of physical human contact. This one story gives the entire collection a focus, and puts all of the other stories into perspective. All of the other plots lead to themes of isolation and basic human contact. Each story explores a slightly different form of these themes and in very different ways, yet they are most definitively explored in this one story. All emotional roads in the book seem to lead back to HOR AL ANZ; the soldier who is passing through exotic places without ever getting a chance to see them; and the prostitute who is trapped in her shell of a life.

Some of the other stories in the book make reference to ‘Whorelands’. Linking the stories like this creates the illusion of them appearing more realistic. The links make Hawes’ world seem more cohesive and planned out; they also push the story of ‘Whorelands’ further into its position as the centrepiece of the collection.

The two characters in ‘Whorelands’, alongside the others in the collection, could plausibly be placed anywhere in the world, but Hawes chooses to put them in Dubai- a country with a massive rich/poor divide, and a religious state. The environment of Dubai exaggerates the themes he has chosen to express. Humanity seems at its most desperate in a culture so dramatically ripped apart by class and religious differences. The partitioned society of Dubai also allows Hawes to look at a wider range of human experiences. Some of his characters are wealthy, some are dismally poor, some are ex-pats, some are locals, some are extremely religious and others break as many religious rules as possible. They all live in the same country, yet their environments are all very different.

The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim is a book perfect for any aspiring traveller (whether you travel in your imagination or physically is up to you). It takes on a huge breadth of themes, and refuses to be unoriginal or dishonest whilst examining them. Dubai may be a foreign country to most of Hawes’ readers, but he makes it accessible to an audience from any culture.