Autonomous Voices

An interview with poet/activist, Kathy D’Arcy, editor of Autonomy, a women-led anthology on taking back the body, published by New Binary Press (March 20th). The collection includes writing by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Sinead Gleeson, amongst many others, and makes a literary contribution to raising awareness in the campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment. Profits from the sale of the book go towards funding those involved in reproductive healthcare for women, including safe, legal abortion.

Editor Kathy D’Arcy originally trained as a medical doctor. She is completing a Creative Writing PhD at University College Cork, where she teaches with the Women’s Studies and Creative Writing Departments.

Fiona O’Connor is a writer and Visiting Lecturer at University of Westminster. Her one act play, she had a ticket in mind, has its London launch at Etcetera Theatre, Camden, April 5th – 7th. Excerpts from the play are included in Autonomy.

 

 

Fiona O’Connor: Kathy, can you speak about the origins of this project?

Kathy D’Arcy: I wanted to do something unusual and creative to raise funds for the campaign. And because I love reading creative writing, and because I think stories have a lot more power to engage people than academic work, or even sometimes facts, or the kind of angry tones that can happen in a debate like this, I wanted to gather a collection of writings exploring what it means to have bodily autonomy. I wanted to show how this is a complex concept, and so through all these stories and all of these experiences we can reach an understanding of the importance of this idea.

FO’C: How did you go about gathering these narratives?

KD’A: This had to be a collaborative project. I believe very strongly in activist collaboration. And particularly because this is a people-powered campaign – this fight is people powered, people on the ground, their experiences, their stories. It’s all about collaboration. So all I did really was put the word out – I just kept tweeting about it – making a call for stories, wanting anyone who wanted to, to get in touch – they didn’t have to be established writers or experts or anything like that. The book now is exactly what I wanted: it’s a very diverse collection of perspectives with many different genres, from memoir to poetry, to academic writing, to green plays, dramatic scripts, and people from all different levels and kinds of experience. Some are established writers and some are just beginning to write, some are bloggers, some people have never written creatively before and some people are well-established academics. So it’s a huge range. The launch too is a collaborative effort, taken over by contributors, and going really well throughout the country.

FO’C: It strikes me that this is literature moving forward in a new way. Do you feel the advance of the indie publishing industry, powered by technological developments, contributed to this people-powered initiative?

KD’A: I think we are very lucky to have so many new dynamic small presses. And I’m particularly lucky that we have New Binary Press here in Cork – only a few years old and run by James O’Sullivan, a lecturer in Digital Humanities at University College, Cork. James feels very strongly about opening out the range of publications available. He publishes very interesting, challenging books. And books like mine that I would never have been able to pitch to any kind of mainstream or commercial publisher, where the focus is going to be on profit. The importance of small literary presses like this can’t be overestimated in getting a more diverse voice out there. When we only have lots of large, commercially driven presses the voice gets very homogenous and monolithic. And so many perspectives and stories get left behind, which is so bad for literature, and culture. So it was fantastic that New Binary Press said yes, and is behind this project, willing to publish this book and to be part of the campaign.

FO’C: The Autonomy project seems to have been accomplished at a fast pace – from idea to the book in hand – just a few months. Is that something also more available to the small press industry? That they can get in behind an initiative like this and then produce something, which is so packed, almost instantaneously, as this seems to have been, to create an intervention in a political campaign?

KD’A: Well, I know from friends who work in some of the larger presses that things tend to be planned for years in advance. There is much less scope for spontaneity. New Binary Press moves from project to project, across disciplines and sectionalities. I think we have in Ireland a history of vibrant small presses that will explore issues larger presses wouldn’t touch. Controversial issues around power and class – and gender and equality. I think there’s often something subversive about smaller presses. And that’s so important.

FO’C: Then there’s also the role of this publication, not only in feeding into the debate, the discourse on feminism, women’s bodily autonomy, but also actually being part of the effort to raise funds, as well as awareness, something novel perhaps in relation to small, literary presses?

KD’A : Well, I think it’s something I’m seeing happen more and more – I’m thinking of work like Terry O’Brien’s anthology, Look at the Stars, a collection of work by contemporary writers about homelessness. That collection raised over £20,000 for the Simon Community charity working with rough sleepers in Ireland. For me it’s a no brainer – specifically on these kinds of issues, which people feel passionate about – they want to read stories and be involved in thinking these things through. And if they can do that, and contribute to the cause at the same time, and contribute to keeping small presses alive, which is after all, contributing to a richer literature for us all, I feel it’s one of the most useful things you can do with regard to publishing, because of the social value of publishing. So yes, contemporary literature can be a vital force for change.

The London launch of Autonomy takes place April 7th at Etcetera Theatre, Camden following performance of she had a ticket in mind.

Click here to pre-order Autonomy from New Binary Press.

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Paisley: Political Poetry

Paisley, Poems by Rakhshan Rizwan: The Emma Press, 2017

Rakhshan Rizwan is described on the back of this slim poetry pamphlet as “an emerging Pakistani poet”. The focus on nationality is apposite because Rizwan’s poetry bears all the marks of a postcolonial history and perspective, with an emphasis on politics of identity, resistance and belonging. However, the focus on the nationality of the author is somewhat misleading as the work deals largely with the migrant experience in Western Europe rather than with Pakistan. The introduction to the work, by Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese writer, emphasises this aspect of the writing as well as its preoccupation with language and languages. The poetry is thus not confined by the parochial dimensions of nation, but enlarged through engagement with the clash of East and West and its situation within the larger frameworks of contemporary globalisation. Furthermore, in its exploration of issues of gender, the work clearly marks itself out as “intersectional”. That is, gender and race overlap and inform the perspective.

Paisley

The figure of the paisley, which is woven into the fabric of several poems, stands as a symbol not just for the work, but also the poet. This originally Persian design became popular in the west and eventually took on an English name. The poet herself, like paisley, comes from the East and yet writes poetry in English, speaks other European languages, as the symbol of the paisley now does, beyond its original language, and lives in European countries, like our paisley shirts belong to English fashions. Rizwan’s identification with this appropriated and displaced figure is therefore resonant on several levels which are explored. One instance is when Rizwan engages with how Westerners say her name differently from its originally intended pronunciation in “Noon”. She writes further in “Migrant” how no one in the West can understand her. The emphasis is on how the symbols, and the people and language of one culture cannot be understood by another but are always productively misunderstood and aligned with the structures of meaning which are peculiar to one society over the meanings that other groups bestow on them.

Paisley also has another significance which adds a larger dimension to the work. The design is formed like a teardrop. It is the symbol of suffering. Rizwan’s work is wracked by the spectre of suffering. In “Buffet”, Rizwan explores the “gaping hole” (5) which the spectacle of suffering in the media caters to, yet image upon image in this collection obsessively encounters the same sight and panders to the same appetite. Atrocities against Pakistani women by men are listed in “Eve”, a short prose poem and the theme is continued in the poem named after the title of the collection. In other poems we are presented with the bleak picture of life as a misunderstood and marginalised migrant woman who sheds pounds “working two jobs,/ in hopes of securing/ a paper-thin/ ticket home” (15).

This collection of poetry is thoroughly familiar to a British Asian reader such as myself. I know the themes it explores well and have met many people and writers with similar life experiences and preoccupations. The writing style of the work did not particularly appeal to me, hence I have concentrated on subject matter in this review. In my opinion, the poet is suitably described as an “emerging” voice as the collection is clearly the work of a promising young hand. However, I do not wish to lavish too much praise on this collection, which is certainly worth reading. In places, the work suffers from that exuberance and cock-sure confidence of youth by becoming preachy and insisting on the points that are made quite repetitively. Sometimes the work marginalizes the perspective of competing voices which is worrying in a work which aims to disclose a migrant perspective which has itself been marginalised.

In “Eve”, critiques of western feminists, with their western ethos, are presented as deluded monsters who uphold atrocities against women. Certainly, men can pretend that all Pakistani or Indian families are perfectly happy when all is not well and there are real and even widespread issues of domestic violence, exploitation and rape in society. Some men do want to sugar-coat reality in their own interests. However, the “deluded monsters” still make a perfectively valid point in “Eve”: that western structures of thought like Western feminism can’t just be transplanted and exported everywhere as though they were incontestable, universally valid and applicable ideas about people and institutions like the family. It is perhaps surprising, but ultimately revealing, that Rizwan’s postcolonial outlook conflicts with her feminism in this example. It begs the larger question of how coherent an intersectional approach to life can be and how near and far we are as a people from colonial and neo-colonial structures of thought.

The collection as a whole, however, is a serious instigator of thought. It will certainly appeal to a Western audience so that they can see what integration means to those that that they want to integrate and what kinds of things their ethnic minority brothers and sisters from the Sub-Continent are experiencing and thinking about.

Click here to buy Rakhshan Rizwan’s Paisley direct from The Emma Press. 

About the Publisher:

The Emma Press is an independent poetry publisher based in Birmingham, UK and founded in 2012. The Press is dedicated to producing what it calls “beautiful, thought-provoking books”. The Press states that it is “passionate about making poetry welcome and accessible”.

Review by Suneel Mehmi:

Suneel Mehmi is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, songwriter, musician and artist. He is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster. He has published academic work on the concept of Law and it relationship to violence in the adult short stories of Roald Dahl. He has previously contributed scholarly book reviews to the Literary London journal and to the London Fictions website.

 

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