To celebrate International Women’s Day here at The Contemporary Small Press, our editors and reviewers have selected a few works by women writers to comment on and recommend. Day 3 – Choices from the small press archives…
Ann Quin, Berg (1964, John Calder)
Like his contemporary Peter Owen, John Calder championed the publishing of experimental literature in the 1960s, publishing works by – among others – Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, Henry Miller and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Berg, by Ann Quin, published in 1964 has been described as ‘a Graham Greene thriller as if reworked by a somewhat romantic Burroughs’ (2001, Introduction).
Berg‘s narrative is immersive in its indeterminacy and contradiction, leaving both the characters and the reader afloat in a sea of uncertainty. In Berg, the inner meets the outer, the self meets the other and these binary oppositions are troubled by the indistinction between fiction and reality within the novel’s plot – ‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. …’ . Freidman and Fuchs (1989) suggest that in Berg, ‘truth and reality, father and son, fantasy (murder) and action (murder) are presented as temporary imaginative or linguistic configurations momentarily privileged and then dissipating’ (29).
In encountering Berg, the reader is constantly challenged with the task of identification with the other, with the collapsing of neatly-drawn boundary lines between reality and fiction, and with the interpenetration of internal and external spaces and experiences. Read this novel for its gritty subject matter, its sleazy seaside setting, its darkly morbid humour; read it for its farcical reworking of the family dynamic; or read it for its disintegration of patriarchal narrative structures – Berg richly offers readers all this and more.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (1982, Tanam Press)
Originally published in 1982 by New York small publisher Tanam Press, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee redefines reading. Juliana Spahr (2001) defines Dictee as a ‘reader-centered text’ : a text whose meaning doesn’t yield itself easily by following the well-trodden lines of narrative expectation and authorial determination, but which must be at least partly constructed by the reader via the disjunctions, contradictions and silent interstices that enable this text to become more than the sum of its (visible/verbal) parts.
Dictee explores the limits of the lyric form through the figures of the diseuse and the martyr, whose evacuated subjectivity creates a void to be filled (or not) by the voices of others. It’s been described by Maria Lauret (2014) as an artist book as it sets its own agenda through collaged forms, images, blank and silent spaces. Readers encountering Dictee will find a work that is part biography, part history, part fiction, part language exercise, part poetry, part autobiography, part photography – and more.
Dictee is now published by the University of California Press, which has published a number of Cha’s collected works; the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha archive is held at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013, Galley Beggar Press)
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, originally published by Galley Beggar Press, is a huge success story not only for women’s writing but also for the contemporary small press scene in the UK. Described by Sam Jordison, editor at Galley Beggar, as a novel that is ‘moving modernism forward’, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing defies patriarchal syntax and linear narrative structures to create a reading experience that’s as immersive and visceral as it is isolating and distant. Narrated by a young woman who is only ever named as I, ‘My name for me,’ the novel submerges the reader within the life and language of the protagonist who struggles for self-recognition in the family, religious and social structures of contemporary Ireland while coping with the traumatic impact of her brother’s brain tumour.
The experimental, broken syntax may at first present a barrier to understanding between the reader and the narrator, creating the uncomfortable feeling of otherness and separation from a story that forms the subjective experience and internal world of the protagonist – a world from which we as readers are separated by an impossible gulf. Yet slowly, the essential rhythms of the narrative begin to reveal their own patterns of relationship, forming their own logic on their own terms. Once these rhythms and patterns become apparent, it’s easier to sink into them as a reader, and in return they begin to seep into the reading experience in an almost physical way.
A new way of reading is demanded: reading that at once skims over the surface like a stone, gleaning meaning from an accumulation of the whole, rather than from the isolation of distinct individual parts, and that in the process becomes immersed in the emotional turmoil of the narrative in ways that feel surprisingly physical. This is reading that touches the body internally as the barriers between inner and outer, self and other, writer and reader are gradually stripped away.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing has won a total of five literary awards to date, including the inaugural 2013 Goldsmith’s Prize and the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is now published by Faber and Faber, and has been adapted into a stage-play currently being performed at the Young Vic in London. Meanwhile, Galley Beggar and other small presses continue to take risks in publishing exciting and innovative new fiction from previously unknown writers.
Reviews by Sally-Shakti Willow
Did you see our choices for Day 1 and Day 2? We’d love to know what you thought of our recommendations, and which books from the small presses you would recommend for International Women’s Day. Leave us a comment below!