Autonomy

Autonomy, Edited by Kathy D’Arcy: New Binary Press, 2018

a book about taking our selves back

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, defines ‘autonomy’ in the book’s Foreword as, ‘our ability to make our own life choices, [which] sits behind the principle of respect for bodily integrity, the belief that our bodies are our own to control and that, providing we cause no harm to others, our bodies are free for us to control’.  The book itself was put together in support of the campaign in Ireland to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and was published several weeks before the referendum vote confirmed the country’s intention to do so.  Amid a rising tide of feminism and growing calls for equality – marked also by the 2015 referendum on same sex marriage – the book engages with the issue from a wide variety of perspectives.  This, for me, is one of the most exciting aspects of the way this anthology about ‘taking our selves back’ has been selected and edited by Kathy D’Arcy.

In almost three hundred pages of stories, poems, plays, memoirs and manifestoes, the book brings together the voices of a strikingly representative cross-section of the community – including cis-gendered women who have and have not experienced abortion first-hand, those born into families wracked by post-natal depression and electro-convulsive therapy as a result of enforced pregnancies, and speakers from marginalised communities including the Irish Traveller Community, the community of Sex Workers and the LGBTQI+ community.  Recognising from the outset that ‘respect for our bodily integrity’ includes far wider issues of autonomy and inclusion that affect people across the intersectional spectrum.  It’s incredibly radical and affirming to find essays such as ‘Repealing the Eighth and why it’s a LGBTQI+ issue’ by Sharon Nolan, which outlines the urgent need to recognise issues of bodily autonomy and reproductive equality for people who are gay, bi, and/or trans, and which outlines the ways that the language used in campaigns such as this can ultimately either exclude or include trans women. The book, with its wide arc of inclusivity and diversity, reminds readers that the struggle for reproductive rights is not only a struggle for cis-gendered, heterosexual women, but a common concern for all those whose bodies make them a target for marginalisation, oppression, violence and abuse.

Opening with the poem, ‘Kindling’ by Sinéad Gleeson, which likens the Irish landscape to the contours of a pregnant body and declares, ‘We light fires, not candles / We choose protest, not prayer’, Autonomy speaks with defiance, tenderness, humour, anger and compassion as it gives voice to those who demand to be heard on the issue of bodily autonomy. The book also contains extracts from Fiona O’Connor’s poetic play, ‘she had a ticket in mind’, which was performed in London as part of the anthology’s launch.  The play explores and interweaves the histories of the Magdalene Laundries, young girls’ journeys to England for secret abortions, children taken away to America for adoption, post-natal depression, and gives voice to some of the silent/silenced women from Ireland’s national history and literary culture.  Autonomy ends with the cautiously-positive affirmation, ‘I do not feel different, after.  Just, lighter’ from Emilie Roberts’ short story, ‘Edges’.  This feels like an appropriate starting point for the post-referendum air of hope granted by the decision to repeal the Eighth Amendment, as Ireland prepares to enter a new era in relation to bodily autonomy, equality and reproductive justice.

Click here to order Autonomy direct from New Binary Press.

 

autonomy-cover

About the Publisher:

New Binary Press is a Cork-based small press, publishing work by writers outside the Irish literary mainstream.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics and performs poetry as ritual to open up [r]evolutionary space for positive transformation.  She teaches poetry and creative writing at the University of Westminster.  Her poems have been published by Adjacent Pineapple, Eyewear, The Projectionist’s Playground and Zarf.  Chapbooks to date: The Unfinished Dream (Sad Press, 2016) and Atha (forthcoming with Knives, Forks and Spoons). Find her on Twitter: @Spaewitch.

Advertisements

Darker with the Lights On

Darker with the Lights On, David Hayden: Little Island Press

Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018

“The mind is a slope and the words run off like water and who knows where they go?” (from ‘Memory House‘)

Darker with the Lights On is a collection of 20 short stories by David Hayden, a prolific writer of short fiction, published by Little Island Press.  

With an abundance of imagination through surreal and unbounded worlds beyond and beneath the world we inhabit, Darker with the Lights On is like taking a train in the dark, the carriage so brightly lit that you struggle to see a world you know is there, beyond the pane of glass. You cup your hands around your eyes and press your nose against the window, trying to see into the darkness, only to be confronted by your own reflection. You cannot see past the ghost of yourself. If only they’d turn the lights off, so you might see clearly the world outside. It is this strange juxtaposition of sense, sensation and rationalising that Hayden captures so brilliantly in this collection.

“The dark was outside, thick and blue, while in the dining room light glinted off silk and silver becoming general glitter that, if seen from the night, would have signified a happy party.” (from ‘The Bread that was Broken’)

Hayden inhabits nowhere places and nothings as intrinsic parts of life. He asks what it means to call somewhere a place and what it means, in fact, to say or do anything at all.

“The train travelled through quiet places with unused piles of gravel, abandoned cars, hard patch farms […] Michael paid close attention to the gradual aggregation of the city, trying to discover the point at which nowhere became somewhere.” (from ‘Last Call for the Hated’)

The stories are works of metafiction that assert the idea that the most radical, surreal, illusory imaginings can be brought to the page:

“Words are just mute smudges until you know what they mean, and when you put them together they can tell all manner of things. There’s plenty you can’t say with words. You can fall through words down into a seething belly world of billions of objects and notions, all shrieking and hiding.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)

Darker+With+the+Ligths+On+fcp

Hayden constructs pockets of hyper-reality that are nonsensical and radiant: “When you die – when you die – you revive in the world of the last book you were reading before your… demise” (from ‘Reading’). It is writing that reaches for the depths of our minds’ possibility. It asks: what can be imagined? Beyond sense, rationality, logic. On reading, I admit, I became confrontational, annoyed, indifferent, dozing off. How dare you, Hayden, try to test the limits of my mind! But I caught glimpses, symbolic moments of meaning, which pulled me in, and continue to do so. Mine was the response of a reader tired, rushed, distracted, shut off, but I fought the shadow of myself to find ways into the text that Hayden offers wholeheartedly.

“I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down.” (from ‘Memory House’)

Much lies dormant beneath the juddering page inflicted with Hayden’s prose, poised to ambush the reader with its brilliance. This is writing that it is a pleasure to write about – to think about with as much vigour as if it were your own. That is what it asks of you: to be curious, clenched and to grapple with consciousness in the act of reading.

“Books let you circle around time, find the root of time, lose time, recover time.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)

Often returning to the first line in the last, each story picks words out of themselves, repeating and filtering down its own language. Time is a curious factor throughout, how it passes and how it is experienced. Each story balances philosophical, psychological and physiological elements, and contributes to the balance of the collection as a whole. Not a balance serene and unwavering, but a struggling and unstable attempt at equilibrium that is inexplicably human. 

Click here to buy David Hayden’s Darker with the Lights On direct from Little Island Press.

About the Publisher:

Little Island Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry and essays. Founded in 2016, it publishes innovative, intellectually ambitious writing in elegant editions designed by the award-winning design studio typographic research unit.

Review by Kirsty Watling

Kirsty Watling is a writer, bookseller and recent Literature graduate specialising in twentieth century literature, visual culture and critical theory.

 

Liberating the Canon

Liberating the Canon, Isabel Waidner (ed.): Dostoyevsky Wannabe (January 2018)

Isabel Waidner makes some bold claims in her introduction to Liberating the Canon, ‘Liberating the Canon: Intersectionality and Innovation in Literature’ (you can read it here, and I wholly recommend that you do – it’s a manifesto for literature in our times), all of which are fully realised in the anthology’s project. The broad (and specific) aim of the anthology is to counter the exclusion of marginalised voices from UK avant-garde aesthetics. As Waidner argues: ‘Bringing together intersectionality and literary innovation, Liberating the Canon is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts and the institution “Innovative Literature” as such’ (7). This is accomplished not only by showcasing work from traditionally marginalised writers at the intersections of sociopolitical identities such as BAME, LGBTQI, woman, working class, but also by very deliberately working across formal distinctions and disciplines to ‘unrepress’ the “multiplicity of writing” (Raymond Williams, 1977). Waidner argues, in a deeply visceral rallying cry for innovative literature at the intersections, that, ‘in order to ensure that this kind of work can be written and published, what counts as literary innovation has got to change’ (10). Liberating the Canon is at the forefront of that making that change happen in the UK.

‘Bringing together intersectionality and literary innovation, Liberating the Canon is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts and the institution “Innovative Literature” as such’

Although most of the contributions to this anthology are written in experimental/poetic/cross-genre prose, many of the contributors – such as Nisha Ramayya, Steven J. Fowler, Timothy Thornton and Eley Williams – are also/better known for their poetry, reflecting the way the canon must be liberated from the constraints associated with a strict division between forms and genres/genders. Mojisola Adebayo’s contribution is a multi-form play exploring female genital mutilation, which incorporates West African griot style storytelling, projected animation film and music as well as dialogue, monologue and poetry to reject and overcome the ‘duel of dualisms … / Repeated the world over’ (46). Nat Raha’s poetry from ‘£/€xtinctions’ collages language in a visual/visceral cut-and-paste style materialising the body’s broken contours, its torn edges, its unintentional and violent collisions/caresses.

Prose forms merge and blend, with many stories blurring any discernible distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Isabel Waidner writes from life – with a style that demonstrates language knows no boundary between experience and imagination, and which includes quotations from her reading of both philosophy and popular culture. In ‘Deep Desert’, Jess Arndt shows that language has the capacity to disorientate as well as to illuminate. The writing in this piece veers between times and locations, dreams and actualities, never settling and never allowing the reader to settle into easy assimilation. Timothy Thornton blends magic spells, popular mythology and a spoof academic style in his contributions from ‘Birds, Magic, and Counting’, while in ‘Ragged Sigils’ the lyric/autobiographical ‘I’ surfaces to both foreground and question the act of writing.

liberating_the_canon

What I find most exciting about this anthology are the numerous and various ways that consciousness of the act of writing frequently breaks the surface to make me aware of the constructedness of language use, only to submerge itself again in a memory or dream, or take flight in imagination that carries me along for sentences, paragraphs, or pages, in a rush of bewildering sensation like an itch that can’t be scratched.  Liberating the canon by injecting an awareness of the constructedness of language leads one to ask questions about the constructedness of the canon itself. Whose constructions are we reading, and what purposes do they serve? Nisha Ramayya foregrounds these questions in the procedural construction of ‘Fainting Away’, which responds to colonial and postcolonial experiences of being British-Indian by adopting the structure of a nineteenth century lexicographer’s classifications for the Sanskrit word smaradaśā, translated as ‘love-state’ – raising implicit questions around categorisation, classification, construction and cultural appropriation.

Fiction pieces such as Eley Williams ‘The Flood and the Keeper’, Rosie Šnajdr’s ‘Bingo the Drunkman’ and Steven J. Fowler’s ‘The Bassment Gallery’ also pique our awareness of the language used in their construction in various ways. Williams’ character-driven story chooses the deliberately understated use of the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ in referring to the story’s protagonist, ‘the child’, as well as producing a linguistic flood that raises questions about writing, grammar and who is language’s ‘keeper’. Fowler’s ‘Bassment Gallery’ includes minor unedited typos and errors, shifting the meaning, multiplying the possibilities and subtly unsettling the fiction of language’s fixity. Šnajdr’s potent shot of explosive linguistic liquor is a flash fiction complete with its own list of ‘Errata’, yielding more and more each time it is returned to. Language is foregrounded in this piece, but it is certainly not at the expense of meaning.

Jay Bernard plays with the visual conventions of a written text, creating a reading experience that’s unsettling and disorientating, which some may find a challenge to read. Reproducing the feeling of seasickness that can accompany certain reading difficulties such as dyslexia, again the reader is invited to experience the alienation and discomfort suffered by so many who find themselves excluded from the literary canon.  In ‘Supermarket Revelations’, Seabright D. Mortimer explores language as an environment and its relationship with the body:

‘If language is an environment, that must mean words have a physicality and belong to an ecology. Speech is a psycho-physical act that is ‘produced by the body’. It is a physical process, one intrinsic to our sense of self, our relationship with gender, and it dictates how our bodies move around in the world. Verbal language, the product of bodied speech, does not have to shore up existing de facto systems and ecologies. It can be used to resist and underwrite them. Language is a weird material crying to be punched I say.’ (176).

Mortimer’s argument that language ‘can be used to resist and underwrite’ the existing systems serves as a kind of coda to the anthology’s project. It’s a project that every contributing writer is writing at the forefront of, a project ebulliently outlined by Waidner in her Introduction, and a project often made possible by the growing number of innovative small presses in the UK and Ireland.

In her introduction, Waidner recognizes the work of the UK small presses in creating an environment of resistance to the existing publishing system. She writes:

‘As part of the wider digital disruption of UK publishing (driven by journals including 3:AM, Berfrois, Gorse, Minor Literature[s] and Queen Mob’s Teahouse), independent publishers like Dostoyevsky Wannabe, And Other Stories, Book Works, Dead Ink, Dodo Ink, Galley Beggar, Influx Press, or Tilted Axis are drastically changing what and whose work is being published, and as a result, what work is being written, by who’ (17).

Liberating the Canon makes this disruption visible; it gives voice and shape to its project, bringing together writers at the intersections of sociopolitical marginalization and literary innovation; and it bellows a rallying cry that can no longer be ignored. This is a vital anthology of literature at the intersections, full of great writing that’s ‘doing exactly the kind of literary work that needs doing now’ (Waidner, 19).

Click here to buy Liberating the Canon (ed. Isabel Waidner) from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

About the Publisher:

Dostoyevsky Wannabe work with a nonprofit publishing ethos, that is, they sell their books via Amazon at cost price in order to make them affordable to as broad a readership as possible.  Publishers, designer, editor and authors are working for free, and mostly without institutional support.  The aim is to produce books that challenge literary conventions, and to precipitate the ongoing disruption of the British publishing establishment’ (quoted from the Introduction to Liberating the Canon).

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster, where she is also a visiting lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing. Her writing has been published by Adjacent Pineapple, Eyewear, The Projectionist’s Playground and Zarf. The Unfinished Dream, a collaborative chapbook with visual artist Joe Evans, was published by Sad Press in 2016. She is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press project, and is on the judging panel for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. @Spaewitch

 

Fine Writing

On Monday 11th December 2017, short fiction writer Diane Williams visited the University of Westminster to give a reading and to talk about her writing processes in conversation with novelist Toby Litt.  The evening was introduced by Leigh Wilson from the University of Westminster’s Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture.  Diane Williams then read from selected collections of her fiction, including Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, published in the UK in 2016 by CB editions.

Diane Williams reading from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
Diane Williams reading from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, with Toby Litt. University of Westminster, 11 December 2017

In the ensuing conversation, Williams spoke candidly about her writing and her writing processes, in response to Litt’s insightful comments and questions.  Williams’ short stories are minuscule fragments of strangely unsettling and wittily observed realism, always with an uncanny and unnerving twist that leaves them open and on the verge of beginning anew just at the point at which they ought to offer the closure of an ending.  Her short form fictions range from a few sentences to two or three pages, and their brevity is part of their crystalline form, giving them the precision and density of poetry.   On this ultra-short-form, Williams remarks that, ‘I work to my skills … Six pages feels like a saga to me,’ insisting that her writing is about ‘writing what you can, writing “my way” rather than anybody else’s way… not trying to fit a particular literary genre’.  This ensures, she says, that your writing is your own, its distinctive rather than imitative.

‘Writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’

Part of what makes Williams’ short fictions so fragmentary and unsettling, however, might be her sense that she is ‘writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’  For Williams ‘[my] stories issue from a sense of pain or fright or bewilderment, of not feeling like I belonged in my own house’.  It is that sense of the uncanny that carries over into the bewildering realism of her works.  Toby Litt commented on how that is implemented formally in Williams’ writing, saying: ‘Diane Williams’ sentences are bendy: they don’t go where you expect them to’.  At the level of the sentence, Williams admits that, ‘So much of my writing is reorganising the connections between sentences. … To keep a lively pace, I don’t want to get bored’.  The emphasis here is on re-writing, the vital importance of redrafting, restructuring and reshaping the words down to the finest detail of the connections between sentences to maintain pace, interest and innovation.  To continually shift expectations and ‘fracture what [we] knew’.

As a final thought, Williams added: ‘My theory is that one ought to be able to say anything about anything’ in literature. ‘I have to pretend to be bold’.  Diane Williams demonstrates this theory again and again in her fiction, embodying a pulsing, fleshy eroticism of both form and content in her intense rhythms and choice of subjects.  In addition to Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Williams read from her 1992 collection Some Sexual Success Stories, which she has been editing for her forthcoming collected works.  If you’re not already familiar with Williams’ writing, now is a great time to get to know her through her books.

Thanks to Diane Williams, Toby Litt, Charles Boyle, and everyone who came to this illuminating event at the University of Westminster.

Diane Williams has been publishing her wholly distinctive short fiction in the US for the past quarter of a century. She is the author of eight books, including a collection of her selected stories, and is the founder and editor of the literary annual NOON. Her most recent book, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was published by CB editions in 2016 and is the first UK publication of her new book of stories.

Toby Litt is the author of five books of short stories and ten novels. His new novel, Notes for a Young Gentleman, will be published by Seagull Press in December. Toby’s most recent book is Mutants: Selected Essays, also published by Seagull. Toby teaches creative writing at Birkbeck College. He blogs about writing at www.tobylitt.com.

An Indie Press Christmas

Writer Anna Vaught puts together a Small Press Christmas List.  Inspiring and uplifting new books that bring comfort and joy all year round…

I love Christmas and have been on a mission to denude the whole thing of anxiety in recent years. For example, no worrying about what you’re supposed to be doing; no massive present spend I cannot really afford; some slow and steady shopping so that I actually enjoy the gift-giving side of things. And I never want anything much, really, for myself. I loathe clutter and waste and basically all I do want is fudge, marzipan, the essential box of sugared almonds, fires, routine, dossing about, lots of food and no fuss, inviting anyone in who’s alone or looks sad, my annual reading to the community – candlelit house; mulled wine (please come?) – of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and – I’m getting there – some books. So I thought…which new or newish books have given me most pleasure over the past two years or so, when I really – arriving foolishly, negligently late to the party – discovered the independent presses of the British Isles? I started to publish with them and that was what led me there. I now write for more, buy from more for myself, have started to review indie books for assorted publications and I love to buy them as presents. Friends say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard of that!’ or, when I posted on social media about my favourite books of the year so far, ‘Where do you find out about these books?’ One aim of this article is to help you with that.

…TA DA! Here is something rather fabulous to do for Christmas. I’m going to:

  • tell you where to look for indie titles
  • suggest presents that also support the work of the presses
  • tell you about books, particularly anthologies, that have a philanthropic purpose; that are fund-raising. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the last eighteen months or so really hard. I’m frustrated and jaded by the tirade of Brexit-Trump. Why not – and in so doing boost your spirits – lift your sights and see who needs you nearby?

So, readers and present-buyers, where do you look for indie titles?

First stop, if you have a good local bookshop anywhere near you, go in and ask. There is pretty much nothing that makes me feel as jolly as a joyous, bookish conversation in a great indie bookshop. And they’re not all in London. Oh no. I don’t want to name names here, so please feel free to list a shop you’ve loved below. Not sure which independent presses there are? Fancy buying direct from one near you? Here is an interactive map started by Salt Press. The presses have added to it since it was published. Why not click on your area and see what comes up? Buy locally, but think globally, see? You can click through to the list of small presses on The Contemporary Small Press website here. While I’m at it, if you are a writer as well as a reader – or rather the person for whom you’re buying presents wants to write – then the Mslexia Guide to Independent Presses is pretty exhaustive.

Where else to go? Author Neil Griffiths set up the Republic of Consciousness Prize two years ago. It’s the only UK literary prize dedicated exclusively to books published by the small presses.  A great way to get involved is by supporting the prize fund.  You’ll find great prize packages and publisher subscriptions available, with the added bonus of investing in this worthwhile literary prize.  Or why not pick from the longlist, which will be out in December in time for Christmas shopping? It will be a beautifully curated selection. Also, the Small Publishers’ Fair happens in November and if you look at this list of launches, you’ll seem some very interesting things that someone might just love. Go on; do it now.

Right then. What about presents?

What I cannot do here is tell you which books you absolutely have to go and buy. (Well I could, but I won’t – although of my top five, four are indie and you can see what I’ve said on twitter and go and follow the indie presses or ask them directly!) No. I mean something that is a substantial book gift and maybe lasts a year or more.

What about subscribing or being part of a buddy scheme? For example, if you buddy up with Galley Beggar, for £30 or £50, you get a number of rather lovely things. Books through the year, signed by the author (I’ve enjoyed this so much) free ebooks, funny postcards that make you smile, invitations to all the new book launches with pop and fun and substantial discounts of the books. Also your name is in the back of each book because, as a subscriber, your contribution to a new work of art is vital.  I’d be delighted if someone bought that for me. No-one did, so I bought it for myself. However, I have two subscriptions from And Other Stories; one for me and one for my husband for a Christmas present. I know; it’s very sweet. His ‘n’ hers. This is a daring range of literature, with a special focus on translation and, I see from himself’s latest subscription book post, authors who should have had more attention when they were alive. Again, there are levels of subscription, but what a lovely gift that keeps giving through the year.

I’d posit that it is wonderful and life-affirming just to be part of something new and innovative so why not pledge to a really exciting project from Dead Ink, who have recently acquired the backlist of the Eden Book Society: that’s a whole lot of horror and it would be a brilliant present. You can subscribe at different levels, from name in the book to books through the year. I’ve asked for the £40 level from husband and the little bookworms, so I can receive novellas through the year.

There will be more in this cornucopia. Go hunt and, indie presses, stick your suggestions in the comment box.

How about buying some book bundles or trying some book offers?

These are a good value way to experience what the small presses get up to. Bluemoose is currently doing a ‘2 for £10’ deal. (Excuse me a moment: I’m popping this on my own Christmas list with the Dead Ink pledge because there’s a couple on the Bluemoose list I’m yet to read…right: I’m back in the room.) There are eight titles to choose from. Charco Press are offering a wonderfully festive ChocLit package on all their titles – combining great Latin American literature in translation with delicious artisan chocolate in delightfully matching colour schemes.  Or, at Patrician Press, you’ll see that the publisher has Christmas in mind, with three choices of book bundle, three books in each. One is for children, the others take in a range of novel, novella, short stories and the first of the fund-raising anthologies which the press has commissioned.

And finally, linking from that, philanthropy. Good stuff. An expansion not a battening down. There are too many books to mention that enlarge our view – arguably, don’t all books? – of course, so I will focus on those books which are fund-raising. Patrician Press’s (see above) Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers gives profits to the charity Help Refugees. The two anthologies of Refugee Tales from Comma Press give all profits to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees.

Recent titles at Unbound include 24 Stories (out next year and funded, but you can still pledge), edited by Kathy Burke, an anthology of stories, put together to aid PTSD related needs of survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire and Trauma Response Network. I’m pleased to say my name’s going in that book because I pledged for it, as it will be for Others, funding at the moment. This is sure to be stunning and it will raise funds for refugee and anti-hate charities. And the point is, more broadly – as I’ve said above – that it’s a wonderful thing to be contributing to an artistic endeavour; here, the double present is that you are contributing to essential debate, fostering links between people through open discussion and you are also helping to fund those most in need.

I’m not saying such bookish extravangance is what everyone wants for Christmas, but My Dear Lord, Santa, it’d make my heart beat faster.

Christmas Books

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Keep your chins up and keep reading. Anna x

 

Feature by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Books three and four out on submission at the moment. Anna is working on her fifth novel.

Diane Williams Reading and In Conversation with Toby Litt

Diane Williams, author of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine from CB editions will be reading and in conversation with Toby Litt at the University of Westminster on Monday 11th December, 6.30-8.30pm.

Tickets are FREE but registration is essential.  Click here for more details: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/diane-williams-reading-and-in-conversation-with-toby-litt-tickets-39826440957

Diane Williams Flier 2

 

Women Having to Huddle Under Kiosk Roofs

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated by Jen Calleja: Peirene Press, 2017
Dance by the Canal, or Tanz am Kanal, as Peirene promises, can be read in a single two-hour sitting. The category of the ‘single-sitting’ novel is one Dance by the Canal fulfils in all aspects; engaging, complicated and addictive. This novel in translation is a haunting reminder of German history and of the all too familiar challenges unresolved in our current world. Kerstin Hensel, born in Karl-Marx Stadt in the German Democratic Republic, is a prize-winning poet. She also studied in Leipzig, the basis for the fictional industrial town of Leibnitz in East Germany, where the bulk of the story occurs. This is probably why the sense of place that surrounds the novel is so strong and not at all lost in the translation:

‘Katka knew a place under the Green Bridge for forbidden things and other thrills.
Goldenrod and something that looked like giant rhubarb grew on the embankment.’

dance_canal_2000px-568x900

The story begins in 1994 with the protagonist and narrator, Gabriela von Haßlau, feeling joy for the first time in years because she has decided to write a book, an autobiography on whatever blank scraps, she can find to write on. The reasons she has not felt joy for so long soon become abundantly clear, starting with the fact revealed on page one that she lives under a canal bridge, which is very definitively her bridge, with only the comfort of a thin, grey blanket (two in the winter months) from the homeless shelter to keep her warm. From then on, we are flung into two narratives, the one of her writing, living under her bridge, and the one of what she has already written, and how she ended up there. The switch in time flows beautifully, answering questions from the present through the past with just enough room for the reader to speculate.

Her memories begin with five-year old Gabriela being presented with a violin, ‘-Repeat after me! Vi-o- lin! Vi-o- lin!’ Her father, a successful vascular surgeon, tells her. Because language and words, words which belong to certain people, are so important to this story. A particular focus throughout being the ffffon in Gabriel von Haßlau that every character besides her mother and father take note of. They take note because von is a symbol of wealth; something which Gabriela, along with the rest of Eastern Germany in the 1960s, do not have. The von Haßlaus are living under communist rule and there is no place for their von any longer. Combined with the ‘I’ marked next to Gabriela’s name on the register for Intelligent it would appear she would be at an advantage, but her von and her ‘I’ are only the beginning of her downfall.
Being unfamiliar with the history of the GDR, there were observations, I am sure, that
were lost on me. The general consensus seems to be that us younger Brits do not
have enough knowledge of this particular period of German history to fully grasp the
extent of the truth underlying this story. It would possibly be helpful to read up on the subject before embarking on this book, for example knowing more about the huge
social, economic and political differences between East and West Germany, and
how they became unified, what the longer term consequences were for people living
in the East. However, not knowing the history does not impinge on the overall impact of the novel. Since the number of people sleeping rough in Britain has more than doubled in the last two years, and has risen by 134% since 2010, this is a novel not only about the past, but about the present, and how it doesn’t take much change for someone to lose everything. In the brief foreword that founder of Peirene, Meike Ziervogal, writes in every Peirene novel, she states “This book will make you think.” It certainly has.

Click here to order Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
About the publisher:
Peirene Press is a boutique small press publishing house, specializing in contemporary
European novellas and short novels in English translation. Peirene Press publishes its
translated European novellas in trios and Dance by the Canal is the final instalment of the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series.
Review Laurie Robertson
Laurie Robertson is a recent Literature and Creative Writing graduate from the University of Westminster, currently working at Penguin, DK in non-fiction works, craving the kind of fiction that the Contemporary Small Press reviews!