Rain, Steam, and Speed – Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers

Rain, Steam, and Speed – Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers

Moving Journals Beyond the Banal

Twenty years ago I was sent to a tough inner-city school in San Francisco. It served kids from three of the most difficult housing projects in the city, one of which, a high-rise, has since been torn down because of its dangerous conditions.

I was new to teaching English; my preceding decade had been spent in the lovely labor of working with very young children in early childhood education. These new kids—middle-schoolers, some taller than I, many heavier than I—astonished me. They swaggered. They swore. They were quick to anger, both at other students and at teachers. They were tough-skinned (they needed to be), but slowly, over the course of months, revealed an inner tenderness and vulnerability that moved me deeply. They were kids, after all, and subject to the same emotional storms kids weather. Only their storms had more torment to them, and often had to do with matters of life and death.

AN ADMISSION: EARLY ERRORS

A writer, I wanted my students to write—to jump-start a process that could sharpen their articulation. Writing was easy for me, and I wanted them to discover it to be easy. But with a few exceptions, their skills were low. They’d write a sentence where a paragraph was called for, a paragraph instead of a well-developed essay.

Did they have anything to write about? They sure did: day-to-day experiences so deep that I was in awe, experiences that—embarrassed as I am to admit it now—the writer in me envied. Such material!

I’d read a little about kids’ having success in writing journals. So why not try journals? A good idea, certain to succeed.

The kids were given folders. Write “My Journal” on these, I told them, and your name. We were off on our writing adventure, I thought. Now, for the next five min- utes of the period, write in your journal. You can write anything you want.

What a liberal feeling: empowering students to write their thoughts and feel- ings. Surely this largesse would engender more fluent writing; surely this would lead to the Elysian fields of write-at-a-moment’s-notice fluency. And imagine! A ready-made activity to get kids to settle down during the first five minutes of class!

But instead of focused—or even discursive—mini-essays on the deep love and violence and complexity each student was experiencing every day, here’s what I got on Monday:

I woke up at 7:00 today. Right on time. I ate breakfast. The bus was on time. I was on time for school, but I went to the donut shop so I was late. My teacher yelled.

Then, on Tuesday,

I woke up at 7:10 today. My alarm didn’t go off. I didn’t have time to eat break- fast. But the bus was on time. I was on time for school. No donut shop today. My teacher didn’t yell.

And so on, from student after student, day after day.

Were they writing? Yes, they were writing. And yes, too, the class was quiet for five minutes, the students compliant. But I was disappointed: why wasn’t I get- ting the depth that I sought? Why were their entries so short? Aha: that was it. Too little time!

The next day I announced, OK, you guys. These journals are really short. I’m going to raise the time to ten minutes so that you can get more writing done. So starting today. . . .

You’ve probably predicted what I got:
Monday:
I woke up at 7:00 today. I was really, really, really sleepy. I took a shower. I ate

breakfast. It was frosted flakes. The bus was late, so I was late for school. Half an hour late. My teacher got mad. It was my fourth time to be late for her class. She got really mad this time.

Was it more writing? Sure. Meaningful? Not what I was hoping for: a mere sequential recall of the morning’s events. The journals weren’t working.

Teachers reading this book have probably had a good laugh already. These were a rookie’s mistakes: too little setup (“anticipatory set,” as it’s sometimes called), instructions far too vague, time far too short, and an overall sense of nonchalance on the teacher’s part that invited reciprocal nonchalance in students. Overarching goals? Absent. Assessment? None. Student responsibility? None. Doomed: the journals were a dismal failure.

The year proceeded, English-teacher-overwhelm occurred by November, and by January I’d abandoned the journals. Journals just don’t work for me, I decided, and focused instead on essay practice.

Yet, not surprisingly, my essay practice failed, too. Though I was proudly liberal- minded in allowing students to make copious spelling errors in early drafts and twist their syntax like grammatical contortionists, their essays remained thin in both volume and content: emaciated reflections of who they were as human beings.

A new year started. I took workshops. One workshop turned me on to response journals, sometimes called “dialectical journals,” in which kids write, on the left side of a vertically folded paper, a textual quote, and record their responses on the right. There was success with that, and, perhaps desperate for any elicited writing, I used dialectical journals madly, daily, and “ran them into the ground” with the kids. They couldn’t stand them after four months.

More workshops, then: about “exchange-response journals,” wherein students write, exchange papers with another, write responses, and repeat the process.

Those worked well, but I had a difficult time using exchange journals consistently while controlling what I perceived to be gossip entries. I wanted to give kids freedom, a sense of ownership over their own writing, yet I didn’t want my English class to degenerate into a roomful of kids writing teacher-approved notes in class, all under the aegis of “freewriting,” rationalized by the idea that kids will achieve fluency and ultimate writing depth if they scribble notes to each other on subjects of their own choosing—often, alas, about crushes on boys, on girls, or about par- ties. So the peer journals went their way, too, and another year passed.

Another year, another workshop. This time, the presenter, a teacher, casually mentioned that he’d had some recent success in journal entries in which kids needed to write a certain amount in a certain time. The idea intrigued me, but seemed anti-intellectual. It implied that quantity and not quality was important. It seemed to ignore kids who were thoughtful, introspective, or slow thinkers and writers. It was artificial. (And what about subject matter? Could a student be expected to do a genuine “freewrite” given a time and length limit? Wouldn’t such an idea kill any modicum of creativity? And how would you grade the darned things?)

Surprisingly, though, when I tried timed freewrites I noticed that about half of my students responded: they rose to the occasion and wrote more volubly than ever before. Some, I was shocked to discover, even ventured past the invisible fence of mere recapitulation of daily routines and out into realm of ideas. Oh boy, oh boy, I thought; their journals reflected less a diary gestalt and more an overall sense of “journalness”—a focused, sometimes discursive, lively reflection on a subject I’d suggest.

I was onto something; I knew it. I read: Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, others. Though the years were passing, I now felt closer to the locus of what I believed was truly elicited, “student-owned” writing.

I made some decisions. I stayed with the timed journal (a good thing), institutionalized it as a twice-weekly activity (another good thing), and succeeded in communicating to kids that the endeavor was important.

But I continued making mistakes, too. The prompts I wrote on the board were sometimes ambiguous and always too short, giving kids little to work with. I expected lots of writing per session, yet was vague on exactly how much was satisfactory. I gave kids too little time to work, and a sense of frustration and hostility gradually arose around the journals. When I increased the time allotted, I began having class management problems in keeping kids quiet. I tried playing music on my cheap stereo boom box, and though it seemed to help, the music sent through those tinny speakers was banal tripe from a limited repertoire.

However, beyond a doubt, I was getting better writing in these journals than ever before—in essay work kids were writing more fluently than previous classes. Nonetheless, the process needed refining. It lacked clarity, and the kids—quite cooperative, really—let me know explicitly and implicitly.

The summer’s break gave me time to think. I felt that the skeletal structure of the journal program was strong, but it needed some muscle on its bones. When I went back that next September, things broke loose in these journals, and they’ve been a wild, wonderful ride ever since—the highest, most joyous experience of my teaching every year.

WHAT CHANGED?

A few things changed, and their alteration made all the difference. The prompts I wrote on the board were longer, more energetic, their subject matter unafraid; they were multilayered in what they asked of kids. While sticking with the twice-weekly schedule, I increased the time to twenty minutes to give kids room to do what I asked: write long, thoughtful, focused entries.

Usually there are a bunch of questions up on the board. I usually answer each question in a paragraph so everything would be in place. I think the questions really help because it gets us really thinking.

—Anderson Ren

I gave the kids prerogative: choose the topic on the board or write on a topic of their own, as long as theirs was on a subject and not a mere laundry list of what they did yesterday or last Tuesday.

I usually write on something else; I don’t like to write on the topic. I write fast because
I write on things I like, and when it is interesting I can write very fast.

—Betty Yee

It might be second nature to many teachers, but local teacher research has demonstrated the motivational value of giving students choice in learning. Stu- dent buy-in to content as well as process grows dramatically when they have an opportunity to make selections about what they will study. (See “Tim’s Advice” in Appendix D to read about the power of choice.)

I established clear guidelines for grading, and while retaining my relaxed stance on spelling and syntax (journals are first-draft work, after all), insisted on a modicum of neatness. Finally, I bought a decent but inexpensive stereo and began collecting and playing instrumental music of many genres—each among the best of its kind.

One thing that really helps is the music. It’s not too loud because it doesn’t distract me from doing my journal. Actually, it helps me even write more. It makes me feel calm. None of the music has words. If it did, I think it would be distracting.

—Anderson Ren

I’ve stayed with it, refined it, queried the kids at midyear and year-end toward improving the process, implemented many of their suggestions, and established in my classroom a program that still stuns me. (As I write this, the picture of my student Teakeysha is still fresh: Teakeysha, who yesterday got my attention during Journal Time, silently holding up her paper, on which in a dozen minutes she’d easily filled an entire side. I see the proud look on her face: Teakeysha—the one who complained mightily when I explained our journal protocol three weeks ago. . . .)

What comes next, then, dear colleague, is a step-by-step rendering of that pro- gram, carved with the blade of kids’ imperatives: imperatives both voiced by them and communicated behaviorally. This program works if one of your aims is to achieve fluency in student writing, depth in the subject matter, and “drop of a dime” ability in students to write in a way that is either focused or discursive, depending upon the moment’s demand.

This journal process has grown as I have grown. In it I have found not only convincing evidence of writing growth in individual students but also a real plumb- ing of the depths in their writing. And, not least, I’ve found the bonus of a contagious and communal joy.

So what I’ll lay out here is the protocol for what I’ve come to call Fluency Journals: words on assessing the journals, what works and why it works (some- times what doesn’t and why it doesn’t), other issues germane to the practice, and enough “prompts” from which to choose for more than an entire school year.

FLUENCY JOURNALS AS PRACTICE

I use the word practice less in the sense of repetition—connoting, at its most negative, a child forced to practice piano—and more in the Buddhist sense: a kind of meditation to which one (the teacher, the student) is committed, and to which one attends, is present for, regularly. It is a quiet study: a study for the teacher in getting to know the students deeply, and a study for students in self-discovery.

I like Journal Time because it’s peaceful.

—Amy Yan

When Mr. Fleming puts his music on, it’s like relax- ing your mind and it puts you to think more.

—Eva Velasquez

Before long, community is created: community not of master and acolytes but of guide and guided: a guide whose role it is to establish and maintain safety, to suggest—even if such suggestions sometimes go ignored by the guided, who, quickly familiar with the lay of the land, feel confident to move on.

That’s what we’re all about, isn’t it? INSPIRATION FOR THE NAME

The name of the program, Rain, Steam, and Speed, is based on a mid-nineteenth- century English painting by J.M.W. Turner. The scene is of a steam train rushing forward through driving rain, framed on one side by people boating, and on the other, by folks plowing a field. The picture is associated with the railway frenzy that swept across England at this time. To us it suggests the power of determination and focus in developing thoughtful literacy.

In the classroom, the “Rain” tying the scene together is the music strand that sup- ports the students’ deep focus and steady writing; the “Steam”—the driving force— is the set of prompts that provide writing departure points to tap students’ interests and open them to the larger world, and the “Speed” is the momentum built by the structured routine for writing that students follow twice a week. When the rhythm of these three components gets established, we think you will find that your students’ writing will become more thoughtful, more correct, and more substantial. In addition, students will develop more confidence as writers and thinkers.

Moving Journals Beyond the Banal 11

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I would say journal writing has greatly improved my writing because I feel less shy about expressing my ideas and thoughts. . . . Before, I hated express- ing my ideas in fear that people would make a pub- lic mockery of me or my ideas.

—Elena Escalante

Through validation, feedback, systematic practice, and examples, students will be able to transfer what they’ve learned to expository writing assignments and projects in other subjects. Finally, the fluency development program presented here provides significant student support for the demands of the many writing tests re- quired of students.

This time produces a mind quick to react to any topic given spontaneously, and that would be more than useful in the torturous SAT-9 (standardized test).

—Charles Kwan

As you observe improved fluency in your students, we hope that Rain, Steam, and Speed will alter the way you (teachers!) think about journal writing. Unlike so many journal programs that are largely busywork, lack focus, and present enor- mous reading demands for teachers without a clearly defined purpose, Rain, Steam, and Speed contains a system of accountability that directs improvement and sim- plifies evaluation. Come explore the simple power of Rain, Steam, and Speed.

I am able to write almost two times as much as I started with. I used to hate writing, but it is different now.


First published in
Rain, Steam, and Speed – Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers, Jossey-Bas, 2004.

Gerald Fleming is the author of One (Hanging Loose Press, 2016), The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.

Therapy Cat

Therapy Cat

THERAPY CAT BY MEG POKRASS

Therapy Cat

It was not a snub. The therapy cat he brought on our second date, sitting like a bodyguard on his lap at Zito’s Pasteria. Me showing sufficient cleavage, he with his therapy cat, called Uma Thurman.

This was useful, he said, for all of us.

“We all need a bit of it,” he said.

I agreed. However, I hadn’t known (I explained) that there was such a creature. I knew about therapy dogs of course. But not cats.

“Oh yes”, he said, with his thick, boyish hair. “They’re growing in acceptance.”

The cat was white and very round. I found myself feeling a bit less than romantic, leaning forward and attempting to be even the tiniest bit showy. She owned his lap. Her back arched, but so did mine. She was probably fixed. So was I.

He said the goodness of a therapy animal ripples. I agreed. I used to have a husband. In a way, he was my therapy animal, until we stopped being good for one another. Good for the soul is good for everyone, of course.

We had ordered crab, and the cat looked angry. In spy movies, cats are diabolical animals, as cold and murderous as their owners. This was never true. “This is my second date in the last thirty-five years,” he said. I nodded. It was my fifteenth date since my divorce, a date that was obviously going nowhere. He had lost his wife. She died. He said they never really dated, he and his wife. “Nah. We just hit it off, and that was that,” he said.

He stroked Uma Thurman, therapy cat. “Uma knows,” he said.

“So listen. Let’s not look at this as a date at all,” I suggested. He looked at me as if to say something, then readjusted the way the cat was sitting on his lap. “Yes, well, there is a lot of bacon in the world. It all smells great but then you find out what it does to your heart,” he said.

It seemed unfair, how cute this man was. Red and gold hair, not quite smiling. I imagined how frisky a man like this could be without all of the scar tissue.

“May I pet Uma?” I asked. I knew that I’d never see him again, and there was always something soothing about petting an animal.

Meg Pokrass is the author of four collections and one award winning book of prose poetry. Her books include Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) My Very End of the Universe— Five Mini-Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press, 2014), Bird Envy (2014), Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Book Award winner,  2016)) and The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down (Etruscan Press, 2016).  Her stories and poems have appeared and are forthcoming in over 250 literary magazines including Five Points, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Gigantic, Great Jones Street, Matchbook, Newfound, New World Writing, Bayou, Rattle, 100-Word Story, Wigleaf, Green Mountains Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Talking Writing, Every Writer’s Resource, The Rumpus, Failbetter, storySouth, decomP,  Flash Magazine, and two Norton anthologies:  New Microfiction (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Showcased by Adweek and Galleycat/Media Bistro as “Digital Author to Watch”, sheis considered an innovator in the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for writers. Meg serves as an international writing competition judge, Fiction Curator for the innovative Great Jones Street App, and Festival Curator for the new The Bath Flash Fiction Festival.

Alligators at Night

Alligators at Night

ou remember when you lived in Florida briefly, walking to the store with your husband in the middle of the night. You remember the sound of alligators crooning like deranged, nocturnal cows, all the way to the Seven-Eleven, from each side of the highway. You remember thinking that they must regularly sing to people on their way to the Seven-Eleven, mostly a welcome sound, because there is a three-hour walk there, and a three-hour walk home, and the night sky is so velvety in the summer, and the singing alligators are like jazz. It’s like you’re in a jazz club, but walking outside.

Walking to the Seven-Eleven, what you sometimes want is to never actually get there. Because you are holding hands, feeling his warm, fine skin. He has not yet had his dose of whiskey and his breath has not yet become thick as a mushroom cloud. You have not yet said you have a migraine, and that you don’t really feel like snuggling because your body is so sweaty after the six-hour walk. You have not yet cried or threatened to leave and you have not yet been quieted by your husband with his body half asleep and given up the fight.

You remember that your walk to the Seven-Eleven is glorious, you are both present but so quiet, the two of you loving the sound of strange overgrown creatures who are so close to you, but attached to their watery homes. Sometimes you can imagine these animals are chasing you and your husband all the way to the Seven-Eleven, but mostly you just think of them there in the dark, without alcohol and probably without love.

 

Guarding the Heart

Guarding the Heart

Since our French Bulldog, Jean-Paul, passed away, I attend Pet-Loss Support meetings. My husband refuses to join me—that's alright. Some of them are entertaining, so I don’t mind going alone.

Last meeting, a man handed me a picture of his daughter's dead Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. He smiled at me in a secret kind of way.

"We called her ‘Fluff.’”

I almost smiled back. I could not imagine caring about a cockroach, even an exotic one. But human nature is strange, and one must guard the heart.

Lately, I find my eyes landing on the faces of a few male mourners, amazed by their nobility.

A woman with curly hair and an inexplicable yellow umbrella-hat stands up and sighs. She explains that her late rabbit was a confidante stronger than her father.

"Yes!" an attractive middle-aged man shouts.

I had a less-than-sympathetic father once. I wanted to shout “yes!” also.

Another symptom of emotional pain; removing my wedding ring before meetings, burying it in the pocket of my gym bag.

Jean-Paul died of old age, but looked so young. The day he died he could have passed for a puppy.

I tell my husband about how helpful the meetings are.

"Absolute bullshit!” he snips. This from a man who never swore before our dog died. Now he’s angered easily about so many things. Mourning a beloved pet can do this to regular people, quietly. They may lose a sense of scale—and sometimes, a sense of decency.

I’ll never bring home another pet. It would kill us.

Meg Pokrass is the author of four collections and one award winning book of prose poetry. Her books include Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) My Very End of the Universe— Five Mini-Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press, 2014), Bird Envy (2014), Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Book Award winner,  2016)) and The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down (Etruscan Press, 2016).   Her stories and poems have appeared and are forthcoming in over 250 literary magazines including Five Points, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Gigantic, Great Jones Street, Matchbook, Newfound, New World Writing, Bayou, Rattle, 100-Word Story, Wigleaf, Green Mountains Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Talking Writing, Every Writer’s Resource, The Rumpus, Failbetter, storySouth, decomP,  Flash Magazine, and two Norton anthologies:  New Microfiction (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Showcased by Adweek and Galleycat/Media Bistro as “Digital Author to Watch”, sheis considered an innovator in the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for writers. Meg serves as an international writing competition judge, Fiction Curator for the innovative Great Jones Street App, and Festival Curator for the new The Bath Flash Fiction Festival.

A Woman Told Me This - Five Pieces

A Woman Told Me This - Five Pieces

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances. 
–SYLVIA PLATH
“Arial”

Perhaps I am his hope. But then she is his present.
And if she is his present, I am not his present.
Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no-one has noticed
I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me. For I am utterly collapsed.
I lounge with glazed
eyes, or weep tears of sheer weakness.
–ELIZABETH SMART
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Photographs by Catherine McNamara

 

A Woman Told Me This

A woman told me this: when her lover died, she went to the church and sat in the second-to-last pew, where she knew she would attract little attention for they had been colleagues for a stretch. At the front of the church stood the man’s wife with her shredded curls, and the two sons whose foibles and brushes with the law and opulent tattoos she knew as intimately as those of the children she’d never had. Did she feel robbed of a life? He had told her that she would. That one day it would seize up inside of her, the wish to uproot all he had ever planted in her, every gasp and cell and flourish of his liquid and the burning of her skin and parts. He had told her she would want to eviscerate her own bowels to be emptied of him, and remove her heart from its safe cage as a wild native, splashing it to the ground with its torn tubes. Her lover had been a dramatic, vital man who liked to toy with their darkest entwined currents, especially as he stroked her hair in bed, or his knuckles drew across her belly.

The woman told me these things, adding that the embrace of this man was the only thing that she would take from this earth.

 

The Not Sought-After Truth

We would have preferred ignorance, in this case. It’s as though you have been harbouring her and she has been eating our flesh. Eating through our fingertips and blackening them with her poison. How many years now? Ten or so? You never troubled yourself to think there would be a brutal ending, it is only brutal endings that give pure relief. Not battered agreements or smoothed-out divisions as though on cloth. We’re not having any of that. If you ever wanted her locked in your bowels, her fingers extended into you, giving you that disgusting pleasure you deserve, then feed her in her cage, give her more of the scraps and bones she has lived on till now.

Do not tell me this because I am your son. Your truths will dissolve within you, putrid water into soil. I hear the crashing of your implosion and we are clean.

 

catherine-mcnamara-5b.jpg

My Family

He says My Family and the furthest reaches of your organism, regions that have dwelled in peace within your being as an undiscovered species, are incinerated by light. He says, My Family, and you are awash outside a citadel where the walls run into the sky and these are walls that would repel you with a charge, send you smashing across a room.

He says My Family, and you know you have reached your last bastion of hope, and there will be further chains, and no water.

He says My Family and you remember you were once chaste.

He says, My Family, and you imagine the song of their flesh, her cries, his body sweeping, their original compulsion; the shifted radiance, the old radiance.

He says My Family and you wonder how that pointing of his body felt within the sleeve of yours.

He says My Family and you remember feeling wishful, all intuition jammed.

 

The Things You Will Never Know About Your Lover

When your lover walks away to the queue at the airport after you’ve drawn a long hair from his shirt and this is not the time to cry has been whispered against your damp neck, a Ute Lemper song flings into your head. Little Water Song. You watch the assembly of his face, the stones are piling on your chest. Cairns and shrines should be made of your dry ribs. What do you know right now, and then before, about this man whose back you have inhaled as though you had given birth to him? Would you even recognise the face he wears over that border, in the worn car and kitchen, in the sedate bedroom with its cries? Would you even recognise the notes in that voice? 

He waves and your guesses are so childish. 

 

Foundation Song

He describes the persimmon tree as an equilibrium of weight and colour, a tree Gauguin would have liked. They stand at the bottom of her wrangled garden. The wet branches are clotted with scathing orange balls you could plunge a finger into and it would come out sullied with orange jelly, like you were poking inside breasts. 

In her language the fruit is called caco. There is no path between the two words.

They go to a concert which is King Arthur by Handel. When the King dies in the snow she can feel the capitulation of the army of her cells and the oozing inertness of her body. 

After the concert he collects their coats. His phone rings and he stands on the ruffled carpet of the auditorium with his phone cupped to his ear. 

In the car he tells her that his son has a disease and he will fly back to his country tomorrow. The disease is in its early stages and curable. He says he will stay there as long as it takes the boy to fight this malady. 

How she misses him already. It's like a tourniquet applied to thrusts of blood. 

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She studied African and Asian Modern History and was a secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, photographer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others is forthcoming with Unbound UK, and her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Catherine's short stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated, shortlisted and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. She lives in northern Italy and has impressive collections of West African art and Italian heels. 

MY CREATIVE PROCESS

Can you tell us a little about the origins of these flash fictions and why you wrote them?
'A Woman Told Me This - Five Pieces' is a selection from a larger work of flash fiction, dealing shamelessly with the fallout from complicated love - the way it slides within the bodily organs and makes itself felt, the way love can last a lifetime, bearing flaws and agony but still one of the deepest feelings our bodies will know. It was inspired by By Grand Central Central I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, and Ariel by Sylvia Plath.

Why do you write?
As a quiet child I read copiously, and dreamed of writing short stories and novels. I started early with corny, illustrated texts. After a family tragedy involving my young cousin I found solace in reading, and felt closer to writers than to living humans for many years, revelling in this evasion. Later, I read translations of the Russians and the French in original language. It became an obsession that chased me to Paris when I was twenty-one, where I finally stepped outside into the vivid world with all its risks and pleasures. Living above a sweatshop in the then-drug-ridden-but-now-chic 11th arrondisement, I began to write.
As a young woman, I married an Italian economist and moved to East Africa. There I quickly learned that what I wished to write about was home-brewed and not yet enriched by true experience. I left off with writing and went back to work, a pattern that would continue throughout my twelve years in Africa, where I moved between the world of isolated creation and back to the world of employment or child-rearing - ever guilty in either sphere that I was neglecting the other. But these non-writing phases - embassy secretary in Mogadishu, translator from Italian to English, co-manager of a bar and art gallery in Accra - charged the short stories I had begun publishing in literary reviews, providing characters and contrasts and blueprints that triggered my imagination and fuelled my words. I travelled extensively in East and West Africa, lived hard and my personal trials were many. I learned to listen and observe and step outside of myself, not only to make myself a better writer, but for the joy of being human, and my enduring love of story-telling.
I continue to write because I enjoy the act of creation, the collusion of experience, observation and invention. The themes that inspire me most include the impact of historical injustice upon contemporary life and migration, the human experience of cultural displacement and adaptation - these are the areas where I attempt to make a meaningful and heartening contribution.

Who introduced you to literature? Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
My mother was a pianist and music teacher so I studied classical piano throughout my childhood. But my father raced speedboats and listened to Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin. So I grew up on Bach, Mozart, Lizst, Wonder and Joplin. But I was a shy, brainy kid who read a lot and very quickly aspired to write.
The books and poetry I studied at high school became companions for life. I was thrilled by language. John Donne, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, Joseph Conrad, Simone de Beauvoir were my core interests and I devoured their works. However, at university, I studied French and Modern African and Asian History - not wishing to have my love of literature conditioned by study.
I received a copy of my first published short story when I was a new mother with a baby in a basket on the floor, living in Mogadishu. Throughout those years in Africa I began to write and submit work, although feedback and interaction were rare. The solitude was challenging, but this was when I developed my craft, made many of my beginners' mistakes, and felt my way blindly ahead, all the while waiting - this was pre-internet - for the diplomatic pouch to deliver my latest rejection letters.
When I returned to Europe after almost a decade in Ghana I settled in northeastern Italy. Again I found myself isolated by language, although this linguistic island in truth allows one to work and explore ideas with tranquility, while the knowledge of another tongue (in my case Italian and French) also provides another plane of thought. Gradually, I built up my editing and submission skills, published further, and began to go to conferences and festivals when I could. In London I participated in masterclasses with authors I admired, and when my first books came out I learned to read and discuss my work in public. I consider myself a self-taught, grassroots writer who is still learning her craft.

Your writing is very visual. What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I am also interested in music and photography, and find I often have characters who are involved in these worlds. When younger, I was torn between the image and the word, and to date there is a strong visual component in my work. The riches of music and performance are often present also, and the vicisstudes of the artist's life.
In our household we often discuss the merits of each art form - my daughter is a soprano - and while literature is where I have experience in expressing myself, I have great admiration for singers and classical musicians, who live their art through performance. It seems to capture the present in a vital, resounding way.
My dream is to see one of my stories produced as a film and I am currently working towards this.

Can you tell us about your film collaboration and some of your current projects?
My short story collection The Cartography of Others is coming out with Unbound UK in 2018. The stories speak of the geography of the mind and the migration of the heart, and are set from Hong Kong to Bamako, from Sydney to Paris, from London to Accra. Several of the stories have been shortlisted in competitions, with one Pushcart nomination. Hilary Mantel wrote 'stongly atmospheric from the first sentence' of my story 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him'.
I have also completed a flash fiction collection which is ready for submission, and had two stories in this year's Wigleaf Top 50. I am currently working on a novella.
I am collaborating with a film producer to adapt my short story "Three Days in Hong Kong" as a short film.
Short stories remain my passion and I continue to write these with joy and trepidation.

The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him

The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him

 

“I was the subject of an experiment in love. I lived my life
under her gaze, undergoing certain trials for her so that she
would not have to undergo them for herself. But, how are our certainties
 forged, except by the sweat and tears of other people?” 
–HILARY MANTEL
An Experiment in Love

Shortlisted for the Hilary Mantel/Kingston University Short Story Competition
Photo by Catherine McNamara

 

My new colleagues were backstabbing and merciless and came through inching, dust-choked traffic from the hinterlands to work. In turn, they wasted no time in slamming each other over milky Liptons in plastic mugs or warm Guinness bottles passed across the desk. Very quickly the office mystery was established as Meredith. Meredith was filmy white, coiled blonde hair dropping down her back and the way she moved was staunch. I was informed that Meredith slept with her dogs.

The dimensions of the Accra agency were tighter than the huge Jo’burg office where I’d been stationed before but there was just as much piss-taking with the accounts. Everyone else was tar-black except the caramel secretary. I was looked at warily (mixed-race, shaven head, Eraserhead T-shirt) for good reason amongst their yellowing business shirts, and they didn’t ease up until Kwame Djoleto made a smouldering crack and they could see I wasn’t a jerk.

More than once Meredith glided from the staff room with a floral mug wearing a pleated apricot skirt, a shade of Sunday bazaar. Someone blurted that the husband had left her for a Nigerian hooker three years ago and she was frozen here, the sickly salary better than any amputated return to her confectioned home town. Kwame said the hooker had been squealing on top and Meredith had burst in with a gun from the kitchen, the dogs howling and the husband in grovelling tears.

This brought forth light, worn-through sniggers.

The company had given me a bungalow off a road of better streets and I was told that Meredith was a neighbour. She’d had to scale down when the husband’s salary moved away. I didn’t envisage us having awkward drinks on the porch but Meredith, one afternoon while handing in a budget estimate, said it was a quiet part of town. Ingrained along her forehead and the grooves either side of her mouth, were fresh and deepening lines of hardiness. I asked what breed were her dogs.

‘Labradors. Black Labradors. They suffer the heat.’

Never once in my life had I owned a dog, wished for a dog, even studied a dog. I find them breathy.

In the mornings a group of local soldiers jogged along the street in front of my place. This area of town backed onto the sprawling military camp with its lurching fences and colonial shacks. The soldiers carried guns across their bodies and shouted marines’ chants as they jogged to the end of the street. Every morning I watched their caps and olive shirts through the blinds. Some time afterwards, just before the driver swung around the corner to take me to work, Meredith would engineer two glossy black shapes down the empty street. Their spines snaked along, their thick tails levered and whacked around, their mouths were large, pink, wet.

*

At the nucleus of my clan of colleagues I soon realised it was not Kwame Djoleto, who made a lot of noise and was wide and pungent, but a thin man named Solomon who did little more than retrieve the post. Solomon sat straight-backed on his seat. He walked with a polio limp. A son of Solomon’s had died recently and the funeral notice was still on the staff board, showing a bright boy with buck teeth. Though I was the boss I realised that it was Solomon who commanded the team’s fluctuations and temperament. He looked congenial, long-suffering.

All hands came on deck any time there was a photo shoot as these were few and far between, dogged by many interpretations of the theme at hand. Take cooking oil. Weeks were spent on divergent storyboards, meetings were left in disgust. Brainstorming in the small overheated conference room took on the dimensions of frank warfare as each colleague within the creative department (and several others without) unfolded his or her heartfelt story of Frylove. Kwame Djoleto wanted a romantic scene: husband comes home, embraces wife from behind while she is cooking. There was a valid debate about the trappings of the kitchen, about whether the wife should wear Western dress; whether the husband should be fat or slim. How dark their skins should be. I noticed Meredith paying attention in a freefall way. Was she thinking about her dogs? When a handful of ideas had been cobbled together Solomon was consulted and the fine-boned man mentioned his preferences while twisting a leaky pen. Kwame’s scene, for example, didn’t involve any offspring. The grasp of the husband could be perceived as sexual (guffaws). Western dress was better, though the food should be rigorously local. As Kwame attempted baldly to defend his idea I stopped scribbling and saw that Meredith’s eyes like a watershed were upon me. But I was just in the way of her blinding thoughts. It was not the dogs she was thinking about.

Discussion reignited in a bullying way when Kwame insisted upon the wife’s fair tones and narrow waist. I glimpsed Meredith roll her eyes.

The two black Labradors were also walked in the evening. That was when I sat on the porch with a neat gin. Like Meredith, my spouse had taken off. But deservedly. I hadn’t had an email since. I watched Meredith’s arid walk behind the two animals with their slack leather leads. The dogs progressed slowly, heat-stricken in the musk air, heads bobbing, tongues gluey. Meredith filled out a tracksuit and wore a peaked cap.

I was still sitting there in the dark eating peanuts when Kwame Djoleto and two of the others made the visit they had been promising, wearing tight open shirts. Kwame was carrying a further bottle of gin. Their faces were beaded and the smallest man wiped his temples with a handkerchief. Kwame looked up at the rusted fan blades suspended from the teak-cladded ceiling and said that Solomon knew a good electrician. The fluorescent light made my skin look green, while they were a trio of black faces with violet flints. I brought out extra glasses.

Kwame drove us up through the suburbs to a nightclub called the Red Onion. I held onto a bottle of beer as women became wavy before me. Cocks were crowing when with ears ringing we came outside into the damp. I wondered whether Meredith in the arms of her Labradors was awake.

*

Solomon was absent and the office was in disarray. It was not known whether it was something connected to the son’s recent funeral, or whether fresh problems had arisen in his household. No one knew where Solomon lived. No one knew which trotro he caught to work. We went ahead with the Frylove photo shoot. The kitchen of the house next door served as a set. Lights on stands were placed apart and Meredith positioned fans. But there was an uncertainty, a negligence, in the air. Everyone looked lethargic. Kwame snapped at the Frylove models under the hot lights. The woman who was the ‘wife’ snapped back at him and folded her thin arms, while the ‘husband’ slumped in a kitchen chair and sent text after text. Any sort of orchestration dispersed. Meredith came across with her folder, standing between Kwame and the woman. I couldn’t understand Twi and didn’t know if Meredith in all her years of living here had grasped their tongue. It didn’t seem to be the case. As she led the woman up the hall to the bathroom I heard her say,

‘Now just come this way, Nana. You don’t want to spoil your makeup now.’

The model ‘children’ rolled up bits of paper and flicked them about the room.

As boss, I knew I had to call Kwame into line and re-establish the dynamic of the day. Kwame scowled at me in anticipation, his head swinging on his considerable neck as he looked around for Solomon amongst the helpers one last time. The maps under his armpits clung to his skin. He went over to the cooking pot and stirred the cold brown stew. He checked the yellow Frylove bottle was in sharp light. He told the unruly girl and boy to behave themselves before he took them outside to beat them. After Jo’burg’s tetchy egos and gauzy models it was hard not to laugh.

Meredith brought the ‘wife’ back from the bathroom. They had agreed upon a tawny girl, far too young to have produced the ten and twelve-year-old at the table. Meredith positioned her over the pot, showing the lumpy ‘husband’ how to clasp her. Kwame nodded. Someone had handed him a plastic mug of milky tea. I waved away mine and watched the white woman giving a honey-I’m-home embrace to the ticklish Frylove ‘wife’.

The end of the day produced two feasible shots we uploaded onto the computer. ‘The Hug’ and ‘At the Table’, an alternative which showed the mother placing a platter of jollof rice and chicken on the printed tablecloth, flanked by husband and children. Given ‘The Hug’ was devoid of any sort of sexual or marketing charge, I preferred the rigid table shot with its acidic yellows and greens, its gasping comedian faces. There was an irresistible lyricism at the base of its poor logic and composition.

Kwame wasn’t happy with either and roamed the set like a lost dog. Two weeks later the table shot plus titles was on billboards about the town.

Solomon refused to surface over the next few days and voices trailed along the corridors. Where did he come from? Was it Teshie? Did he catch a bus from Nungua? A chair was kept for him at the next round of meetings, where Kwame clashed severely with a colleague called Patrice. It was a hair straightening product, an ongoing campaign. Patrice’s first ideas were overturned and sliced in the belly, then given a final pounding on the head. I noticed Meredith looked distracted, someone or something had pulled the plug on her concentration. The conference room was small and full of bad breath.

I watched Meredith walk the dogs in the evening and almost felt like calling out to her from my porch. One of the dogs seemed to lag a little, and directly outside my scrappy hedge she crouched to the road and massaged the dog’s ears while the big dog licked her face. I recoiled. The other dog turned around limply.

*

A staff member who travelled a long way into town along the coast had found a funeral notice on the trotro. It was Solomon’s. Employees gathered in the office foyer and the poorly printed sheet was passed around. Kwame pushed into my office. Clutched in his hands was the streaky photograph showing Solomon’s face tilted upward, the mouth open and his front teeth tugged slightly out of line. It was now clear he was the father of the bright boy with buck teeth. Kwame cast down the sheet of paper, taking out a handkerchief to wipe his face. His trousers had an oil stain on the thigh and I saw he had small, clutched ears that wanted to hear very little.

Meredith entered the office and examined the page with a depleted expression. Outside a man burst into tears while a woman named Comfort led a procession into the conference room where murmuring and sobbing began. Kwame followed his colleagues and I soon heard his voice lifting above in a reverent, stilted backwash. Meredith and I stood staring at each other. I felt as though I were bagged inside her head and looking at myself. I saw my jaw clench and lines buckling my forehead.

Meredith flushed and we followed the others into the room.

What I in no way expected was to see a hired trotro parked outside the office a few days later and a coffin being unloaded under Kwame’s sweaty direction, then slipped through the narrow front doors. The driver squatted by a roadside tree in ragged shorts as staff members filed into the building after the swaying cargo.

Inside the conference room the tables were jammed together and I heard shoes scuffing and the squeaking of wood. I stood transfixed in the doorway to my office, fingers hooked in the belt of my jeans. Meredith walked grimly to the staff room, came back with a floral mug of tea. I heard the box jimmied open and there was a chasm of silence, a collective exhalation mixing with the aura of Solomon’s embalmed body. A questioning, chemical smell arose. My stomach heaved. I turned away to my desk and switched on the monstrous air conditioner plugged into the wall. Then Kwame was at my back looking like a man plummeting, his fists empty and his face stripped. The whites of his eyes had red hairline cracks.

Solomon’s face was puffy, like he was in a process of chewing a big mouthful of food. His skin looked finer, the lines on his forehead fleeting. The stretch of skin between upper lip and nostrils was more rounded than it had been when he had sat here twisting the leaky pen. He wore reading glasses, a beige suit, a bow-tie, a late-70s Elvis shirt with ruffles. A part of my brain was laughing, scavenging this experience, while another examined the brown shoes like boats on his feet, the crooked tennis socks, and wanted to buckle over. The body already looked flattened and false, a rasping snakeskin with all moisture erased though there was oil or shea butter through his hair. I stood in the line around the tables as each staff member waited for a moment with the odourless corpse. When my turn came I spoke softly, a few words. But as I walked away I felt a powerful excavation in my body. I wanted to shit, or vomit, writhe on the ground, pluck my own eyes from my head. I wanted rapture before it would come to me. At the door I turned back to the coffin with a pit in my chest, currents shunting in the soft ellipsis of my brain, each organ inside of me vaporous. I sat on the loo for a good ten minutes then poured gin for everybody.

Solomon’s funeral notice joined that of his bright young son on the staff notice board and they became a pair of comrade saints. Staff members glanced at Solomon’s easygoing photograph as they passed and Kwame, hands on hips in conversation, looked up to his quiet colleague as though for confirmation or advice. Kwame’s aggression moved someplace else and Patrice’s ideas for the hair straightening campaign were revived.

*

There was excellent dope to be had in this country. After a string of demolishing hangovers I organised a good supply of undoctored weed and smoked every evening. Kwame disapproved. He refused even the slightest puff, folding his arms like an old woman and curiously watching me filling a skin. Tonight he sat on the porch and stared at me lighting up, his forearms on his thighs and his large hands pummelled together. He eased back into the cushions to avoid the cloud I exhaled. He had no companions this evening. His shirt burst apart in scallops and dark lozenges of his belly showed through. His chest was hairless and his neck had thick rings of flesh. His eyes travelled over the rusty fan I had failed to have fixed, its tilted blades on their axis and the knot of wires escaping the dislodged plastic cup. I knew he was kicking himself for not finding out in which Tudu slum Solomon’s electrician lived before Solomon had died.

I inhaled again, beginning to feel the easy fissuring, the wandering explosions. I dropped my head back on the thick bamboo of the chair. Kwame shifted and I told him there were more beers in the fridge. He came outside, uncapping the bottle tops in some mysterious local way, his movement wobbling the light given off by three candles on a saucer. Tonight there was no power. The neighbourhood lay black and dense beyond us. I inhaled a third time and the memory of love in my bowels, my brain rank with it, sprang forth inexplicably. My heart rate surged and I felt my body veering. I looked down at my belly and thighs, my arms chucked on the varnished bamboo armrests.

Kwame stared into the darkness. In Solomon’s absence the office staff clustered around him and I knew he felt wrought. I knew Kwame came to sit here in silence. Perhaps he had begun to understand his own deference to the smaller man, and the serenity of listeners when Solomon had whispered his words. Kwame saw me studying him and he twisted around to point out a bright beacon of electricity up the road through the trees. A generator rattered loudly. It was where Meredith resided, he said.

Sniggering, I asked him who the hell had started the rumour about her sleeping with the dogs, whether it was some sort of fixation or score-settling or a sick way of wanting the broad blonde woman.

‘I did,’ said Kwame.

His teeth appeared in the darkness and we both laughed loudly, crazily, until our laughs tailed off. I did not ask him why. I now felt the full throttle of the overloaded spliff and wanted to roll downward, brakeless, curl in a ball, think of Solomon on his flight meeting the buck-toothed boy on a corner somewhere in a place as merciless and rundown as this.

*

Meredith came to me with a problem. She said that Patrice’s ideas for the hair straightening campaign had been plagiarised. She pulled out an African-American magazine and I could see why Patrice’s lavish storyboard had initially been slaughtered by Kwame. It was damned good. A light twinkled on above Patrice’s head.

I convened a meeting in the conference room. I decided to exclude Meredith and not reveal my source. I sat there, Kwame and Patrice before me nursing milky tea, both bristling slightly. I saw that their newfound collaboration had thin and tangled roots.

I swung around the magazine. Kwame glowered. Patrice’s eyes popped out. Kwame instantly began a tirade in local language which I allowed him to terminate. He apologised to me. But not to Patrice who sat glumly in the chair, his first gainful moments now stamped in the dust. He confessed he had found the magazine at his sister’s house, she was just back from Atlanta.

Kwame shook his pointed finger in Patrice’s face and both men shouted. I wondered whether I should have told Meredith to pipe down and take her magazine home with her. But the company was a conglomerate, our work traversed borders; lawyers might have been flown out. I tapped my pen on the desk and neither of the men heeded me. I had a flash of the most galvanising moments of my previous life. The sense of being a faceless, fleshless absentee in the room.

‘Kwame,’ I said.

Kwame pushed back his chair and stood. He suggested I sack Patrice on the spot.

‘Otherwise I will be leaving here this noon,’ Kwame said.

Here I longed for Solomon’s counsel. I knew enough of Kwame’s volatility not to want to agitate him further. I noticed the small deaf ears were like creased flowers, the deepening central folds bearing no stamen. I saw that nothing would stop him from travelling this tangent to its absurd end.

‘You will choose. One of us will go.’ Kwame walked over to the frosted windows with his hands on hips. Patrice stared at the desk. I saw he’d put a lot of effort into his hair cut. He was an earnest young man, an asset. I looked at his crinkled, embarrassed face and remembered when a priest had placed his fingers on my forehead at school. My prime thought had been to knee him in the groin. Until a current had passed through the intersection of our skins. Heat. Transmission. An everlasting imprint.

I heard Meredith pass outside in her squeaky wedges.

‘Patrice, you will leave us,’ I said. ‘You realise this is a very serious error in judgement. It’s unacceptable, as Kwame has pointed out.’

Kwame nodded at the window without looking satisfied or easing his stance.

I left the room. Meredith tagged after me in the hall and I turned around and looked at her face. It was downy, it had been licked by dogs. I thanked her for her astuteness and her lips pursed.

I closed my office door and made a strong cup of instant coffee from a tin of Nestlé and the kettle atop a filing cabinet. I sat there downing the hot, dirty drink. I turned on my computer and began an email to my estranged wife.

*

The following day a shabbily-dressed woman stood in the hall and was ignored by everybody. Finally Kwame swung around and demanded to know what she wanted. I had just visited the bathroom for the third time and saw him descend upon her. Her voice was inaudible as Kwame bent over. She wore busted flip-flops that had been wired together and her feet were skirted in dust.

Kwame turned to me and his face was draped in guilt. He took the woman’s fine arm, leading her to the conference room. I saw her hair had been straightened many times and she had lost patches of it. As they walked Kwame’s hand opened on her back.

Before Kwame strode in to inform me I knew what he would say. The woman was Solomon’s sister. She needed money. I felt another cramp shifting through my gut.

‘I cannot believe,’ said Kwame. He sat opposite me at the desk, his head rocking in his hands. ‘That we have forgotten his family. This cannot be.’

I asked what was the common practice here.

‘Gifts of rice,’ he murmured. ‘Gifts of rice.’

I opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet and took out a wad of greasy cash in an elastic band.

‘How much?’

These words seemed to devastate Kwame a great deal.

‘How much is a man’s life worth? And a small lifeless son?’

I stood there waiting. I felt very light-headed.

‘Might it be better to send someone out to buy some bags of rice?’ I said.

Kwame released a mighty humph! ‘Who now shall go out to buy rice? When we are even without Patrice?’

I handed him the wad of cash. The money came from my own pocket. Kwame’s shirt was tight across his back as he crossed the hallway.

Three days later a second woman was standing in the hall. Where the first woman was eroded and unobtrusive, this woman was large and gay, staring up and down at everyone who passed. She wore a bright print and her feet and cheeks were plump and scented. A glittery scarf was tied over her hair. Kwame stopped by her soon after she struggled up the outdoor steps and let the door slam. She announced that she was Solomon’s wife.

I stepped back into my office with the armful of back files Meredith had just retrieved. The dust made me sneeze and the massive splutter travelled down the ratchets of my spine. By now the dysentery had made a wreck of my body and I was living on flat Coke and rice crackers. I saw Kwame march her into the conference room and command a cup of tea. I half-closed the door and sat down. I pushed the files aside and stared at my hands on the table. They were shaking. I wondered if you starved a human body of love or food or kinship – which loss would be the most ruinous? I continued to look at my hands, recalling the lifeless morsels alongside Solomon’s body. I touched my fingertips to my neck and they were cold. I heard Meredith politely bring in two mugs of Liptons and open a can of Ideal milk before the woman’s eyes. Kwame thanked her. He introduced Solomon’s spouse. Other office staff joined the trio in the conference room and I heard laughter. It sounded as though the woman was telling stories. Kwame led an eerie applause that travelled through the building.

I juggled with the idea of making an appearance but felt that Kwame would have called me if my presence were required. I was not informed of the arrangement he came to with the woman, and when I next went to the bathroom Solomon’s spouse was gone. The office was quiet for the next few hours. Kwame and two colleagues had gone to scout for a location. Before lunch I abandoned the dusty files and had the driver take me to the house where I dropped to my bed, head pounding.

I rose in the afternoon. I showered and the water was icy on my skin. I ate some cold rice and opened a tin of local tuna. On the porch the heavy air felt chilly. I wore an old sweater of my wife’s that was laced with her smell. I sat there in the midst of the neighbourhood. Children were crying out; there was an argument at the fruit stall down the road; a shoe shine boy trudging along tapped his wooden box with his brush. I made a cup of hot black tea and sat with its fusty heat beneath my face, making me perspire. I opened my laptop to the email I had begun to my wife a week ago, on the day I had sacked Patrice. I wrote two more sentences before all sense, all emotion, failed me. She had used the word irretrievable, many times.

Meredith appeared at the far end of the street, heading out from her gate with a single dog this time, on its leather lead. I watched her pace down the road. She wore a peaked cap that darkened most of her face, but today she held her head higher. Swinging around, it looked strangely mobile and engaged. The dog’s head was low, close to the road surface, a slinking along more than a walk. The lead slackened between them. When Meredith was level with my house she looked directly into my porch and saw my eyes trained upon her. She stopped. I had the feeling she had been hoping I was there. I waved, motioning to her to open the gate. I lifted out of the chair and moved to the railing as she crossed the small stones. The dog cast glances from side to side, nose roving over the new terrain.

‘Hello, Meredith. Anything I can do?’

Meredith’s erect walk became a stagger and I saw how hard she had been pushing herself originally. Why the fuck had she stayed on here?

‘It’s Bobby McGee,’ she announced, hauling herself closer in the scalding sun. ‘My other dog. I think he’s dead.’

Now a suffering shudder collapsed her shoulders. She removed the peaked cap and brought her hands to her eyes, her pink forehead rippling and bright. The dog folded its black shape on the ground.

Meredith peered up. ‘Would you mind coming to see?’

I closed my computer and trod down the steps. She pulled her cap back over her coiled blonde hair. I felt her eyes comb my chest and realised I was wearing a woman’s sweater. I did not wish to explain. I looked down at the orange laces in her running shoes.

‘This is Janis,’ she said, indicating the Labrador now swaying a thick tail.

I opened the gate for Meredith and the dog, and followed them the short distance down the street. In this direction the houses became slightly larger before the road reached the crooked fences of the military camp. Meredith’s was freshly painted and ringed by leafy coleus plants, with two travellers’ palms crammed between the house and the fence. She unlocked the metal grills over carved front doors.

I followed her down the hall. The house smelt as I would have imagined. Soap and hair products: it was now clear how much Meredith prized the long blonde coils. There were no photographs, just clean surfaces, empty chairs, a shocking emptiness. I wondered if her cheating husband and the Nigerian hooker had lasted longer than three months. It was probable that they had. I thought of young, bright Patrice who had been quashed by Kwame Djoleto, and how Djoleto would soon have the final word on every project in the office. I thought of the last time I had made love with my beautiful wife, how we had lain there erased, the bed sheets blank, the room vacant, our fluids slid away from us into crevices where they would drain away and there would be no embodiment.

Meredith showed me the dead animal lying on her bed. The front paws were crossed, the hind legs a little astray. There was urine on the sheets and the belly seemed swollen. She had left the air conditioning on high so there was no smell. The dog’s eyes were open. Meredith sat on the end of the bed. I stood there looking at the dense black carcass thinking of the weed sitting in a drawer of the wall unit at home, thinking that if I phoned Kwame he would know who the hell to call and what to do with this.

"The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him" was first published in What Lies Beneath, Kingston University Press 2015

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She studied African and Asian Modern History and was a secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, photographer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others is forthcoming with Unbound UK, and her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Catherine's short stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated, shortlisted and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. She lives in northern Italy and has impressive collections of West African art and Italian heels.

MY CREATIVE PROCESS

Can you tell us a little about the origins of this piece and why you wrote it?
'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him' was directly inspired by my experience in running a small advertising agency in Accra, Ghana, and watching colleagues at work with the larger agencies in town. I wanted to talk about localcharacters, and foreignerscoming to terms with the environment, bringing in all the humour of cultural exchange and the low stream of tragedies somewhat frequent in West Africa. Aligned with that, I wanted to mention love, broken-heartedness. And dogs.

Why do you write?
As a quiet child I read copiously, and dreamed of writing short stories and novels. I started early with corny, illustrated texts. After a family tragedy involving my young cousin I found solace in reading, and felt closer to writers than to living humans for many years, revelling in this evasion. Later, I read translations of the Russians and the Frenchin original language. It became an obsession that chased me to Paris when I was twenty-one, where I finally stepped outside into the vivid world with all its risks and pleasures. Living above a sweatshop in the then-drug-ridden-but-now-chic 11th arrondisement, I began to write.
As a young woman, I married an Italian economist and moved to East Africa. There I quickly learned that what I wished to write about was home-brewed and not yet enriched by true experience. I left off with writing and went back to work, a pattern that would continue throughout my twelve years in Africa, where I moved between the world of isolated creation and back to the world of employment or child-rearing - ever guilty in either sphere that I was neglecting the other. But these non-writing phases - embassy secretary in Mogadishu, translator from Italian to English, co-manager of a bar and art gallery in Accra - charged the short stories I had begun publishing in literary reviews, providing characters and contrasts and blueprints that triggered my imagination and fuelled my words. I travelled extensively in East and West Africa, lived hard and my personal trials were many. I learned to listen and observe and step outside of myself, not only to make myself a better writer, but for the joy of being human, and my enduring love of story-telling.
I continue to write because I enjoy the act of creation, the collusion of experience, observation and invention. The themes that inspire me most include the impact of historical injustice upon contemporary life and migration, the human experience of cultural displacement and adaptation - these are the areas where I attempt to make a meaningful and heartening contribution.

Who introduced you to literature? Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
My mother was a pianist and music teacher so I studied classical piano throughout my childhood. But my father raced speedboats and listened to Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin. So I grew up on Bach, Mozart, Lizst, Wonder and Joplin. But I was a shy, brainy kid who read a lot and very quickly aspired to write.
The books and poetry I studied at high school became companions for life. I was thrilled by language. John Donne, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, Joseph Conrad, Simone de Beauvoir were my core interests and I devoured their works. However, at university, I studied French and Modern African and Asian History - not wishing to have my love of literature conditioned by study.
I received a copy of my first published short story when I was a new mother with a baby in a basket on the floor, living in Mogadishu. Throughout those years in Africa I began to write and submit work, although feedback and interaction were rare. The solitude was challenging, but this was when I developed my craft, made many of my beginners' mistakes, and felt my way blindly ahead, all the while waiting - this was pre-internet - for the diplomatic pouch to deliver my latest rejection letters.
When I returned to Europe after almost a decade in Ghana I settled in northeastern Italy. Again I found myself isolated by language, although this linguistic island in truth allows one to work and explore ideas with tranquility, while the knowledge of another tongue (in my case Italian and French) also provides another plane of thought. Gradually, I built up my editing and submission skills, published further, and began to go to conferences and festivals when I could. In London I participated in masterclasses with authors I admired, and when my first books came out I learned to read and discuss my work in public. I consider myself a self-taught, grassroots writer who is still learning her craft.

Your writing is very visual. What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I am also interested in music and photography, and find I often have characters who are involved in these worlds. When younger, I was torn between the image and the word, and to date there is a strong visual component in my work. The riches of music and performance are often present also, and the vicisstudes of the artist's life.
In our household we often discuss the merits of each art form - my daughter is a soprano - and while literature is where I have experience in expressing myself, I have great admiration for singers and classical musicians, who live their art through performance. It seems to capture the present in a vital, resounding way.
My dream is to see one of my stories produced as a film and I am currently working towards this.

Can you tell us about your film collaboration and some of your current projects?
My short story collection The Cartography of Others is coming out with Unbound UK in 2018. The stories speak of the geography of the mind and the migration of the heart, and are set from Hong Kong to Bamako, from Sydney to Paris, from London to Accra. Several of the stories have been shortlisted in competitions, with one Pushcart nomination. Hilary Mantel wrote 'stongly atmospheric from the first sentence' of my story 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him'.
I have also completed a flash fiction collection which is ready for submission, and had two stories in this year's Wigleaf Top 50. I am currently working on a novella.
I am collaborating with a film producer to adapt my short story "Three Days in Hong Kong" as a short film.
Short stories remain my passion and I continue to write these with joy and trepidation.

Silkworms, Swathes and the Dead

Silkworms, Swathes and the Dead

 

'Epigraph'

So…

It feels, again, like being a silkworm

Cocooned in a shell built upon its own saliva,

Reflecting the memory-aches,

With one thread hanging out of the shell

Living beyond time and space,

Which might be inferred as a calculation inside the cocoon.

The illusion, that it isn’t dark, inside, could be smudged easily

For darkness always stays in each corner

Wherever there is the name of a god.

(1)

The ‘Roza’ felt betrayed for the first time, in the naïve summer,

When the caramel of your lips was offered, a perquisite.

The religion had died many years ago, in my dry womb,

Before it could see the light of day as an infant,

And, before it could suckle the usual fluid

Of naivety from the nipples of slumber.

In retrospect… I feel, I can do the same again

For that ride to the wonderland. For one kiss.

Feet intersecting, mine placed upon yours,

Souls worshiping the void while standing

In the middle of another void,

With number seventeen at the end of its name.

 

(2)

The smell of the neon light grows stronger,

More and more intense as time transforms…

I could feel the gangrene

Growing in your stomach

Gesticulating omnipotent.

(3)

The blues stay with us

In the saliva of that one kiss

Which remains our first and last

Ride to the wonderland.

Ramsha Ashraf is a Pakistani poet who tries not to let any tradition confine her individuality. She is the author of the poetry collection Enmeshed (Sanjh Publications, 2015).

MY CREATIVE PROCESS
What drew you to this subject matter?

I think the silkworm could be considered, or at least it appears to me, the most potent metaphor for creativity. It provides you a cage of paradox to live in; a sense of liberation yet a Promethean chain keeps you tied to an unknown responsibility. I write without knowing any legitimate reason to why I write... But, I guess, this is why art and literature is considered an apt barometer of mirroring and measuring what is called, and known in a much simpler context as, life.

Can you tell us a little about the origins of "Silkworms, Swathes and the Dead " and why you wrote it?
Well, the Muslim month of Ramadan has been observed all over the world. So, it brings a few sweet-bitter memories spent in the arms of a not-so-religious yet pious lover.

Why do you write?
I guess, I write because I just cannot accept the fact that time is going to erase my voice from the surface. Although, I am fully aware of the futility of my act.

 

Ache

Ache

They made love in the dunes by the old Air Force base—gone the war games there, gone the men who played them. Miles of high dunes, as in old films where some sunburnt Brit garbed in white has come to set things straight.

For years the young man had passed them—she had, too—he in his gray car, she in her red. They met one night at a blues bar, had their first date on a weekday.

Was it hard to get the day off? he asked.

Don’t have it off. Had to switch shifts.

What’d you tell them?

She looked at him.

I told them I ached. That knocked him back, & for a long time he was mute as they walked those dunes, turned once in a while to see their tracks. They chose a smooth dune to spread their quilt on.

This sea’s too blue, she said, as they laid out their food, poured the red wine, leaned back.

This is an old bomb range, you know, he said. They’ve cleaned it up, but I bet if we looked hard we could find some shells.

So how would the headline read, she asked: “Two Felled by Sheathed Shells at the Seashore?” I’ll pass. But I guess if you make a pass at me…

Late that day he said You know, I could just stay, end my life right here, let gulls pick me clean, let sand blow past my bones for years, and I’d be gone—all of me, gone. I mean, don’t you just feel it? The thrill of it?

Oh, for Christ’s sake, she said. I’m late for work.

They picked up their things, found their tracks, walked back to the car.

 

At a Late Age

At a Late Age

We sat in the place, asked for a half-jug of white wine; it was day when we sat down, just night when we left, & what we got was this: rain clouds goose-wing grey from the west but not near—this to be the next day’s rain—& as dark fell the lamps in the square came on, jaune, & from a soapstone dome flowed a font whose sound was new to us by night—how had we not heard it? But the best, this: the young, who sat on the rim of that font, black baseball caps, some bent as if to throw dice, some to their long-haired loves, French lips to French lips, all limned black in new night, backlit with lamplight as in an old snapshot, that same light caught now in a bank of glass from a fifth-floor flat, sent back to us—then from nowhere, somewhere, in full sail, a half moon.

Can this be real? you said. Don’t pull back the veil.


Gerald Fleming is the author of One (Hanging Loose Press, 2016), The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.

 

Anniversaries / Per molts anys!

Anniversaries / Per molts anys!

If wind asked permission
we might wait and listen
as if night stopped its blue
curtain and wheat bent without scattering
its hope of what happens in the dark,

and happens by accident.
–JOHN FREEMAN
"On Love"


[1] Why this particular stupid, savage method of causing pain, and no other? Why not stick pins into the shoulder of some other part of the body, compress the hands or feet in a vise, or something like that?

English / Spanish version

Every morning, when I wake up under the blanket of the sky, I feel that for me it is our anniversary. Opening the wood shutters to let in the fresh air, I am greeted by the thought of you. Again! Damp rises from the street. Today will be a special day. Greens, sprouts, health foods to celebrate our birthday! I am eating better for you. Oh I hope so! Why not? Today will be a special day.

Waiting for your call. Waiting. As far as human temporality the day is infinite even with the light changing or growing darker. I crawl into bed and out. Take another walk by the river and hear the water tremble and sigh—that night! Night comes but still the same day hangs about: per molts anys! Years that will surely come. It will surely come (it must come!). I will die if it doesn’t.

Waiting for the call that will come and take place of absence and of the knowledge of absence. How I lie! There are ghosts in the village for sure! Se ha dado cuenta: in the year 1313 there were 13 jueus catalans here. Jewish families that is. It is the anniversary of their absence. A fire que frio because of «that» (auctoritate nostra ignis iudicio concremandos). BUT I just cannot take you seriously and in comic sans no less.

What do I think of the language of love? Cliché like a stupid anniversary. Still you could cut me some slack. Your presence or a Hermès Handbag.

Six years ago or six months. The same for me. We shared what happens in the dark, and happens by accident. The next morning you were surprised I'd woke up into desire. Then I marked up a piece of paper and drew a grid. Miss your private messages. I prefer a hard copy. Better to have those little hand-drawn numbers to count in the corners. Feels more real. They say you remember more what you read on paper. But really who cares what they will say!

I wait enveloped in your absence. Am hungry again, a stomach aches. Cross off another day. Burn the paper. Mark up another. Drawn here, a fool that waits. Your fool. I peel back the skin on another ingrown hair. See: red! It hurts to fall and I sprain my ankle. My aunt has an accident and there is blood in her skull. I recall your absence and that pain is real and take refuge in being vulnerable again.

They say that chronology is the backbone of history. But we also need to accept that there are four or five fundamental dates that every good person keeps lodged in their brain, which have played bad tricks on history. Happy anniversaries. Per molts anys! Such dates are indifferent to desire… I say let’s begin again! Love is here and I open the shutters. It’s you, it’s the inquisition

Juliana Nalerio currently resides in Hostalric, Catalunya and at Stanford in the Modern Thought & Literature program. As a transatlantic Ph.D. student she is fascinated by looking, writing, and waxing poetic. She works on race, literature, and critical theory with a historical slant. She has also studied at the Universities of Valladolid and Salamanca in Spain.

 

Aniversarios / Per molts anys!

Traducido del inglés por Natasha Hakimi Zapata

[1] ¿Por qué este particular método estúpido
y salvaje de causar dolor, y no otro? ¿Por qué no
pegar los pasadores en el hombro de alguna otra
parte del cuerpo, comprimir las manos o los pies
en un tornillo de banco, o algo así?

Cada mañana, cuando me despierto bajo la manta del cielo, siento que para mí es nuestro aniversario. Abriendo las persianas de madera para dejar entrar el aire fresco, soy saludada por el pensamiento de ti. ¡Otra vez! La humedad se alza por la calle que frunce el ceño. Hoy será un día especial. ¡Verdes, brotes, alimentos saludables para celebrar nuestro cumpleaños! Estoy comiendo mejor para ti. ¡Oh espero que sí! ¿Por qué no? Hoy será un día especial.

Esperando tu llamada. Esperando. En cuanto a la temporalidad humana, el día es infinito, incluso cuando la luz cambia y se oscurece. Me meto en la cama y me salgo. Tomo otro paseo por el río y escucho el agua temblar y suspirar — ¡esa noche! La noche llega pero el mismo día sigue pendiente: ¡per molts anys! Años que seguramente vendrán. Seguramente vendrá (¡tiene que venir!). Voy a morir si no lo hace.

Esperando la llamada que llegará a tomar el lugar de ausencia y del conocimiento de ausencia. ¡Cómo miento! ¡Hay fantasmas en el pueblo, seguro! Se ha dado cuenta: en el año 1313 había 13 jueus catalans aquí! Es decir, familias judías. Es el aniversario de su ausencia. Un fuego que frío por «eso» (auctoritate nostra ignis iudicio concremandos). PERO simplemente no te puedo tomar en serio, ni siquiera en comic sans.

¿Qué pienso del lenguaje del amor? Cliché como un estúpido aniversario. Aún así me podrías dar un descanso de tanta tortura. Tu presencia o un bolso de Hermes.

Hace seis años o seis meses. Lo mismo para mi. Compartimos lo que ocurre en la oscuridad y sucede por accidente. La mañana siguiente te sorprendió que me despertara en el deseo. Luego marqué un trozo de papel endeble, dibujé una rejilla. Echando de menos tus mensajes privados, prefiero una copia impresa. Es mejor tener esos pequeños números dibujados a mano para contar en las esquinas. Se siente más real. Dicen que recuerdas más lo que lees en el papel. ¡Pero realmente a quién le importa lo que dirán!

Espero envuelto en tu ausencia. Tengo hambre de nuevo, me duele el estómago. Tacho otro día. Quemo el papel. Marco otro. Dibujado aquí, una idiota que espera. Tu idiota. Retiro la piel de otro pelo encarnado. ¡Ve, rojo! Me duele caer y me torcí el tobillo. Mi tía tiene un accidente y hay sangre en su cráneo. Recuerdo tu ausencia y ese dolor es real y me refugio en ser vulnerable otra vez.

Dicen que la cronología es la columna vertebral de la historia. Pero también tenemos que aceptar que hay cuatro o cinco fechas fundamentales que cada buena persona mantiene alojados en su cerebro, que han jugado malos trucos en la historia. Feliz aniversario. Per molts anys! Tales fechas son indiferentes al deseo. ¡Yo digo, empecemos de nuevo! El amor está aquí y abro las persianas. Eres tú, es la inquisición

Natasha Hakimi Zapata is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain, and an assistant editor at Webby award winning site Truthdig. Hakimi also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Most recently, she won a 2016 L.A. Press Club Award for her book review of the poetry collection "I Am the Beggar of the World." Also in 2016, Literal Publishing released bilingual editions of her translations of Alicia Borinsky’s My Husband’s Woman and Liliana Lukin’s Theater of Operations. 

Maria and the Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio

Maria and the Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio

“A woman must continually watch herself.
She is almost continually accompanied by her own
image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room
or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can
scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping."
–JOHN BERGER
Ways of Seeing

 

Maria stares resolutely at the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio; she has been wondering about the lives of the aristocracy since discovering that her great-grandfather was a nobleman in the service of the British empire. He was a colonel in the East India Company’s army and was sent to India to oversee the administration of the Company’s trading regulations. He became a Resident in one of the Indian states and married an Indian woman of high caste. Maria’s great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her sixth daughter; the townsfolk gossiped about the curse of the White Man’s blood. Maria’s relationship with her aristocratic family is laced with tension; any questions of her family history met with either a defensive silence or a click of her grandmother’s fiery tongue. Maria learnt long ago not to rock the family boat.

Ginevra’s skin has a peachy glow; her cheeks are accentuated with a muted rose tone blusher. Maria is mesmerised by Ginevra’s immaculate creamy complexion, she has skin so fair that its almost translucent; Maria’s is three shades darker by comparison, a result of the tropical sun and her Indian father whom she never met. Yet, her grandmother insists that they are of British stock. The mystery of grandmother’s obsession with skin tones never ceases to amuse Maria; her grandmother who has an olive complexion was always trying to lighten it by washing herself in lemon juice. How many shades of brown can there really be? Claudine, Maria’s mother, is obsessed with Vitamin D much to her mother’s vexing. Claudine who has dark green eyes with a hint of blue is constantly trying to make her skin a shade tanner. Maria stays out of the UV rays because she knows that the sun can cause aging.

Maria notes that Ginevra’s chin shows some signs of aging; Ginevra would be about 38 years old; maybe even 40. Maria is a facial therapist, she knows faces. It’s her job to advice women on the conditions of their skins and how to combat signs of aging through regular facial treatments and products made by skin labs in Europe. Her clients are mostly wealthy women - old money - as this strata of society is called in Delhi who are preoccupied with staying young and fair-skinned.

There is a slight sagging of the chin just below the jaw line but the artist has painted Ginevra in a good light. There are no visible wrinkles around her left eye; an opening, a window perhaps, shows the city below; Ginevra is looking out, her gaze fixed at a point not visible to Maria. Ginevra’s eyes are set deep and framed by a faint brow which has been pruned according to the beauty requirements of Ginevra’s time. There is a stoic resignation in her thin lips which belie any emotion. Maria can’t tell if this aristocrat is happy or sad; her face gives away nothing. Maria, by contrast, wears her heart on her sleeves.

“This child has the mannerisms of a peasant,” grandmother’s voice penetrates the silence of the room where Ginevra’s portrait hangs. Grandmother is always present in the grey mass of Maria’s subconscious.

It intrigues Maria that aristocrats extol certain ways of behaving. Grandmama - with an inflection on the last syllable ‘ma’ - as her grandmother preferred to be called, used to say that princesses would never behave this way if Maria were to slip out of line during their routine Sunday lunches at her grandparents'. Claudine simply chewed her meal in silence and glugged down her wine. It’s bad form to drink so heavily and noisily, Claudine knows, but she is past caring about how her mother feels. The wine is the only liquid that would calm her nerves when chai wasn't available. Claudine doesn't stop her mother from chastising Maria; there is no ammunition powerful enough to combat an angry dragon. The hurt of being a kutcha butcha has led to years of unresolved rage and Claudine can only shield her daughter so much as she grapples about how she can save herself. Her defiance in keeping the bastard child of a summer fling with an Indian intern at the bank resulted in a wave of unmitigated rage in her mother. Claudine’s English father remained determined that her rebellion was to spite him for insisting on remaining in India when many of Claudine’s cousins had left for Canada or England. Robert FitzWilliams was born in India to English expatriates and India was where he wanted to remain. Little did he know, it was really Claudine’s insistence on brining an Indian child into this world that was the reason for keeping Maria. She would bring Maria up Indian and Feminist.

The sudden discovery of blue blood in her family connected the missing dot for Maria. It explains why grandmama insisted so incessantly on her keeping out of the sun and why she should refrain from being too dark-skinned. This discovery led Maria to researching her family roots, of probing into a racial category of people known previously as the Eurasians before finally being called Anglo-Indians.

Since then she is enveloped by a sense of calm; Maria also knows now why her mother insists on a bohemian existence in the city where she teaches yoga and meditation. Yoga helps in focusing the mind and meditation helps in keeping the mind still; both are ancient practices that predate Hinduism and Buddhism; importantly, both are practices that Claudine chose to mark her identity as Indian.

As for Maria, she has never doubted her Indian identity. She is resolute about who she is and remains so even after discovering that she has blue blood.

Ercole de’ Roberti (c. 1451 - 1496) was an important painter in the Early Renaissance. He was one of the painters of the School of Ferrara. Ferrara was ruled by the Este family who was well known for being patrons of the arts. Ercole de’ Roberti rose to being a court painter for the Este family.

The art historian Giorgio Vasari documented de’ Roberti’s life and work in his famous book which is still used today by scholars of the Renaissance to understand artists from that period. Vasari writes that de’ Roberti was a bon vivant. De’ Roberti died young from his excesses; his paintings are few and many of his works have been destroyed. Those that survive show his skills and talent.

This portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio has a partner: The portrait of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Ginevra’s husband, who was known for being tyrant. The two portraits can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Portraits were symbols of status during the Renaissance. Only the wealthy and powerful had the means to commission artists to paint them in their true likeness. Portraits were also documents of fashion and style; Renaissance scholars are able to understand how the wealthy families in Italy dressed and looked by studying their portraits. De’ Roberti painted Ginevra Bentivoglio so meticulously that her pearls and gems seem real. I like this painting for its realistic reflection of Ginevra’s dress and head dress. I see lines and shapes in her profile and bust which indicate de’ Roberti’s skills as a draughtsman.

Apart from portraits, de’ Roberti also painted diptychs and icons. The National Gallery in London exhibits ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘The Dead Christ’. The two portraits form ‘The Este Diptych’ and were bound together in purple silk velvet. They belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara who was also the consort of Ercole I d’Este. She would have used the portraits as an aid to meditation and prayer.

Eva Wong Nava lives between two worlds.  She combines her love for art with writing personal reviews and anecdotes; she sometimes turns these anecdotes into fiction.  She reads copiously and writes voraciously, flash fiction being her preferred genre.  Her flash fiction is published and forthcoming in various places, including Jellyfish Review, Peacock Journal, and Flash Fiction Magazine.  Her art writings have appeared in several independent arts magazines.  

She holds a degree in English Literature and Language; a Post-Graduate Teaching Certificate and has a qualification in Art Writing.  A MA in Art History is on the way. Meanwhile, she teaches children and adults how they can use writing for communication and play. 

Eva is also the founder of CarpeArte Journal, an online space for fiction, essays and ramblings of the art sort.  She is interested in the intersection between art and words and the stories that meander within us when we look at visual art. You can find her stories here. 

Is she really a woman?

Is she really a woman?

Is she really a woman or a rock face?

On the first floor of the museum, hidden in the darkness that surrounds windows on sunny days, is a small canvas. She could either be a quartz cliff or a draped, half-naked woman with nothing in her eyes. The canvas makes a rock stack of her – the Old Woman of Hoy maybe, further out at sea, surrounded by turbulent water to the point of turning water to wine and honey at night. Brushstrokes solidify her.

Like all small canvases, she draws you nearer. Smell the hydrangea heads and roses from the garden, chosen for perfume more than lifespan. Linger there. She is taller than man, she is taller than sea. Her neck is Leda’s Swan. And the closer you get, the deeper her dark becomes, the more holds you can identify in her drapes and in the shapes of her breasts, to make your way up with rope, slings and the right cams, some skill, from toe to head. Some crack climbing up the drape-like section to her crotch, a small roof at her waist and an easy climb from nipple to collarbone on an inward incline. She would not move.

In the room where she’s displayed, George Sand tolerated Chopin’s whining and his telling and re-telling of his near-death story by wild doctors in Majorca.

‘Three doctors visited me, the first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die,’ he said.

‘Maybe we are always all three,’ she said.

 

But on the ripped silk of this exhibition room walls, a plaque reads that here is Margaret holding her dead child. Not rock. Not canvas. Margaret who is holding her dead child. Like my own grandmother, Marged, who gave birth to a dead boy; its blood, that baby’s, the wrong colour, blue, all blue instead of red; a biological mistake. Marged, breasts exposed and ready to suckle, eyes matt and fixed on something we don’t see or isn’t there. So, in this painting of a stranger, my grandmother lives and her dead child lives and with them Sand and Chopin who rattled about and argued in this bedroom, and me in the same art-safe light, bending over to understand.

I look again at a dead baby, rock-climbing on cotton: what I didn’t want to see. Its hip against its mother’s hip, right foot ready to swing for a foothold, right arm reaching for a crevice. It does its damndest to nuzzle nose-first through her bellybutton, back to the womb.

And the sea of wine and honey is not that at all but men coming into shape. Two men look up from what was before the sea, one unable to raise his eyes and burying his head, the other with eyes as gold as the gilt-frame, sets his gaze at nothing but the sorrows of earth in a blanket at Marguerite’s bellybutton.

1 At a party hosted by Marie d’Agoult, Chopin met the French author George Sand. She repelled Chopin – ‘what an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?’

Siân Melangell Dafydd is an author, poet and translator. Her first published novel, Y Trydydd Peth (The Third Thing; Gomer, 2009) won her the coveted 2009 National Eisteddfod Literature Medal. She writes in both Welsh and English and often collaborates with artists of other disciplines (dancer Sioned Huws’ Aomori Project; the book Ancestral Houses: the Lost Mansions of Wales/Tai Mawr a Mieri: Plastai Coll Cymru with poet Damian Walford Davies and artist Paul White [Gomer 2012]). She was the co-editor of the literary review Taliesin and Y Neuadd online literary magazine for six years. Her second Welsh language novel and a collection of hybrid literature, Spitting Distance are forthcoming. She works with authors and poets internationally to translate literature between minority languages and is undertaking research in yoga and writing as parallel practices. Check out her yoga and creative writing workshops and retreats all over Europe. She works as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the American University of Paris, France and course leader of the MRes in Transnational Writing at Bath Spa University, England.

A Search

A Search

"We know the truth of life, which is that everything
comes and goes; everything is conditional. So how do you
make a joyful, productive life in the face of that knowledge?"
–GEORGE SAUNDERS


I sometimes look back at my life and wonder, how did I end up here? I have been fortunate enough to study the things that I wanted to, without thinking too much of where it might lead me. I have followed my instincts and chosen paths that called me. At times, however, these choices have seemed to be contradictory, mutually exclusive even.

In search of meaning, I decided to study theology at the University of Helsinki. I felt the call of the sacred, of God, if you like. Nothing else seemed important. Or at least as important. After a few years, I decided to apply to a music school - almost as if I was giving music one last chance before I let it go. Music had followed me my whole life and I didn’t quite know how to stop it. But neither did I know how to find a meaningful place for it in my life. And just to confuse matters further, I was accepted. I had to start the long process of painting a picture of myself where both of these sides coexisted.

Of course, we all know that we are much more than what we do, but to me both fields seemed to demand my whole self. Or nothing. After years of studying both subjects at the same time, I first graduated from Uni and, two years later, the music school. I then had to start making some decisions – ideally I would have made them a lot earlier, but what can I say, a classic generation Y situation?! Suddenly I was asking The Big Questions, like - What will I do with my life? Which path should I continue on? The result was, I started doubting everything I had ever chosen. All at once it seemed to me that there was no logic to my life. Did I just keep running in different directions at random? I may even at one point have Googled “What do I do if my life is a mess?” Incidentally, that question gets about 37 million(!) hits. I was not alone.

Now, let me take a step back in time. My goal with my theology studies was to become a pastor in the protestant church in Finland. I have always been interested in what people actually feel when they say they believe in God, or indeed any divinity or higher power. What is it that makes them believe that they believe? What do they experience? How would they describe this experience of ‘the divine’? During my religious studies I came across a definition that appealed to me. According to some line of thought ‘the holy’ can be described as something ‘wholly other’ or ‘separate from the mundane’. To me this made perfect sense. The idea of ‘the holy’ being simply something Other than our everyday lives – things that we can see and feel, hear or touch - gave words to the experience that I had had.

However strong these experiences were, during my studies I started to doubt. To the point that I realized that I couldn’t say the words which would be required of me, with sincerity. When I realized that I wasn’t at all sure that ‘the holy’ could be found in the theological frameworks that I knew and had grown up with, I was understandably doubtful about the kind of pastor I would make... I realized that my problem was not with the idea of God, but with the words that were used to express and contain him. Her. It. You see my point.

This didn’t mean that my search for something Other was cancelled. I still felt ‘the call’ - I just needed to figure out where it was coming from.

I remember once listening to a piece by the Baroque composer Georg Muffat (I strongly recommend his concertos if you feel like listening to some beautiful baroque music) when I felt that my heart was being simultaneously torn to pieces and mended by the extreme beauty of the harmonies. The experience was so profound and surprising I felt out of breath and ready to cry. I probably was in an emotionally receptive state anyway, but that doesn’t matter. The experience of beauty was something not of this world.

But can I call it a holy experience?

According to some I could. According to me I could. This realization gave so much sense to my life. It hasn’t been random. It hasn’t been illogical. It has always been a journey in search of beauty, of something beyond the mundane.

Someone said that, ‘... sacred moments allow us to enter again and again that timeless and transforming psychological space from which renewal and creativity emerge.’ I found that space. For me - and of course this is a completely subjective experience - the theological words prevented me from freely experiencing beauty, but in music I found a way to let myself feel, truly and profoundly. That is why I choose to be on the path I am on. I have to keep walking it. I have a deep need to be surrounded by a beauty that touches my soul over and over again – I find this beauty in music.

I guess my point with this story is that weather it is God or Krishna, music, a peaceful landscape or you know, a perfect balance between the taste of lingonberry and caramel sauce, that gives you a feel of something beyond the immediate reality, hold on to it. Cherish it. It is beautiful and gives hope.

Like anyone, I still wonder who am I and where I’m going, but the experience of beauty makes it easier.


Eerika Pynnönen is a Finnish musician. She has a classical training in viola and music education and is currently exploring her opportunities in Paris. She has a background in theology, where she focused her studies on New Testament exegetics and the social situation of the first Christians in particular. She is composing music for one of the short films we are doing in collaboration with leading film schools, writers and the StoryVid initiative.

Possible Wor(l)ds: The Social and Literary Significance of Spanish to English Code-Switch Tags in Junot Díaz

Possible Wor(l)ds: The Social and Literary Significance of Spanish to English Code-Switch Tags in Junot Díaz

Any exploded society, like the Dominican Republic, in some ways
you could say has multiple existences. It’s funny how some people
in the Dominican diaspora don’t see any diaspora whatsoever—
who believe that somehow, miraculously, at some imaginary level,
that a nation exists as some sort of pure territorial space, and that therefore

the insane level of connectivity that late modern capitalism brought and
that international divisions of labor, which produced a lot of
fucking waves of immigration – that all of these things don’t exist.

–JUNOT DÍAZ, 2009

Junot Díaz’s stories emanate from a hybrid, translated linguistic landscape that politicizes language as the setting of a very real conflict. The Dominican-born author and his work do not fight to inhabit a nation of land, but rather to expand and enrich a nation of words. Via his short stories and novels, Díaz actively participates in a discursive battle taking place at the level of language, although it is effectively and operationally larger, intertwined with society itself. The conflict in question, concerned with what language(s) may be used, and in what world(s), is particularly heated in the author’s country of residence, the USA. In fact, many will remember that Díaz’s literary project was criticized for its overuse of “Spanglish” much before it was accepted, even renowned, as it is today. The academy’s initial criticism of Díaz and his use of Spanish peppered English was just one battle in the war over (discursive) national boundaries under discussion. In essence, it is a conflict over the American lexicon which continues today, occurring at every level, from the personal to the political. In the idiosyncrasies of a Díaz text this conflict is expressed lexically, or formally, in the alternating use of English and Spanish popularly conceived of as his distinctive prose style. It has also been critically assessed as Díaz’s particular brand of literary code-switching (see Eugenia Casielles-Suarez) different from the bilingual style of other authors like Giannina Braschi or Susana Chavez-Silverman. The goal of this paper is a dually linguistic and theoretical analysis of “lexical setting,” or what I call “linguistic territoriality,” in Díaz’s short story collection This is How You Lose Her (2012). To clarify, the use of “setting” here should not be confused with the once conventional notion of setting as a mere backdrop where plot and conflict occur. Rather, this study prescribes to a postmodern notion of setting that is exceedingly aware of language and brings the linguistic component of narration to the fore. Ergo, more than the rivers and suburban compounds of New Jersey populate Díaz’s short stories, it is within the language of the narration itself that the author’s most heated and byzantine conflicts unfold.

Historically, it goes nearly without saying that the Earth’s finite inhabitable land masses were the primary territory fought over by neighbors and enemies. For most of the history of civilization, the foreign foe’s particular parlance, the language they happened to speak, seemed far less important than that key terrestrial asset. A select few, the Greeks among them, placed limited importance on the strange sounds made by foreigners as a means to distinguish between “us and them,” between the citizens and the barbarians (who made nonsense sounds i.e. bar bar). More representative of history are the feudal societies, for example, which concentrated power in the landholding few, leaving the rest to squabble and tillage in poverty. Nevertheless, it can also go nearly without saying that in contemporary times, however, the majority of land and sea areas have been colonized and staunchly partitioned by the power invested in the modern nation-state and government. As a consequence, it is land that has finally succeeded to language as the territory up for disputei. In Díaz’s brief but pertinent analysis of the Dominican Republic above he provides us with a site-specific explanation as to why the prevalence of language as disputed territory is a consequence of our postmodern and postcolonial times.

Following Díaz, Dominican society is reeling from the social ramifications of globalization and is now fragmented, mobile, and unsettled. He goes so far in the quote as to insist that the Dominican Republic (furthermore the DR) be thought of as an “exploded society,” selecting the particular adjective exploded in order to invoke a set of specific cultural characteristics caused by the explosive globalization process. Interestingly, those features are near equivalents to those described as “liquid” by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In Bauman’s theory of postmodernity, our current fluid experience of time and space is the result of the dismantling of modernity’s solid promises by late capitalism. The overlap of their ideas is apparent when Díaz explains that “late modern capitalism” detonated the Dominican explosion via its globalizing effects and aftereffects. Espousing essentially the same argument as Bauman and many other social theorists of our time, Díaz asserts that late decadent capitalism is both an effect of, and cause for, the organization of society today. The same thought process informs Bauman’s complex argument in his many published books on the subject (see Liquid Modernity, Liquid Love, and Globalization: The Human Consequences). Díaz moves a step further in concretizing this notion by ascribing it to a particular nation—the DR—and mimetically exploring the way modernity has altered the conventions and spaces of that society via the literary exercise. By asserting that the once island-inhabiting society is currently in a diasporic state—or “not a nation that exists as some sort of pure territorial space”—and that one would be crazy not to see it, he implies another feature: that is, that the nation exists in the Andersonian sense of an imagined community wedded by a shared language and culture, but importantly in the case of the DR, not by a homeland. In other words the territory or island of the historical DR itself no longer solidly defines the Dominican nation having been cast into diaspora by liquid modernity. As a member of that diaspora and author, Díaz’s literary project reflects this “homelessness” in that it emphasizes the search and fight for language as an attempt to construct a Dominican identity in diaspora.

Arguably, the explosion of Dominican society as a result of globalization intensified an emergent conflict over language to which Díaz was and is connected via live wire. By and large, it is not at all atypical for communities in diaspora to fight to maintain the use of their heritage language as a way to identify with their larger body politic, scattered as they may be. As a result language often becomes one of the dominant politicized features of those communities (and may radiate outwards, unsettling the lexical communities into which they arrive, as well). Therefore, for the Dominican community in exile, a subsequent effect of the aforementioned “explosion” has been the posterior development of a novel linguistic landscape outside of the DR. On the US side, this lexicon, we argue, took on “liquid” or “smooth” characteristics as they are described by Bauman and Deleuze and Guattari, respectively (explored later on in this paper). Ultimately, as a consequence we might anticipate that the confluence of these occurrences be displayed in novel and innovative language derivations, in particular, at the contact zones where the fight for rights to language and identity are underway—in literature as much as in the street. Such is the case with the work of Díaz. His texts represent and figure this “discursive battle” at the lexical level through the uninhibited use of code-switching between his native language, Spanish, and his second language, English. In addition, a further theoretical dimension of this analysis claims that in this discursive battle to occupy the cultural space of language and to dominate it, the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of language occurs so that what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) refer to as a smoothening of striated space—in this case linguistic space—also takes place across Díaz’s texts.

First see that, yes, language is a highly politicized cultural space. For centuries, the historical Jewish diaspora identified the Israelite nation not with a specific territorial space but in the declaration of themselves as “the people of the book,” or, “the nation of the book.ii” This is to say that imagined communities territorialize and claim rights to language as much as to physical spaces, a tendency we have been arguing is exacerbated by the diasporic condition. In reality, today, in postcolonial America, hybridic-diaspora is the norm and not the deviation. A fact that, as pointed out by critic and theorist Shirley Geok-Lin Lim,iii carries with it an array of cultural consequences: the contestation of the notions of purity, of homeland, and the deterritorialization of language. The deterritorializing motion is away from singular, purist readings of language such as that of Octavio Paziv and towards reimagined contemplations of both novelistic and/or organic language that see it for what it has always been—the hybrid form that Bhaktin problematizes back in the 1930s, unpacking its double nature in The Dialogic Imagination (358-360). Contemporary society’s preoccupation with what has been labeled “code-switching” is endemic to this cultural development, a feature of our postcoloniality.

“Code-switching” is on everybody’s lips, a trend word fast turning into the quickest mediation for a fascinating socio-linguistic phenomenon: the hybridization of language. With its widening appeal, the sense of what it means to code-switch has transformed. For some scholars, to code-switch means to utilize any notable alternation in register even within a single language. According to other scholars of linguistics, code-switching rather designates “the alternation of two languages within a single discourse, sentence or constituent,” (Poplack 583). Qualifying code-switching as the alternation of two distinct languages by a speaker rather than as merely of two or more registers in the same language is essential when considering its relevance to the linguistic struggles pertinent to diaspora; clearly, the linguist’s definition is the more viable for this analysis. Nevertheless, still further sub-categories exist within the linguistic notion of code-switching.

In the 1980s text of seminal importance to the theory and research of code-switching, Shana Poplack’s Sometimes I Start a Sentence in Spanish Y Termino en Español: towards a topology of code-switching, Poplack presents research findings from a case study of twenty Puerto Rican heritage New Yorkers living in East Harlem. Poplack’s sample is in fact not a distant linguistic match from Díaz’s primary speaker in This is How You Lose Her, Yunior. The Díaz protagonist is, similarly, a first-generation Dominican American living in the New York metropolitan tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut during his later childhood and into adulthood. Returning to Poplack’s linguistic study, the sample of heritage and immigrant Spanish/English speakers she analyzes is divided following the types of code-switches they perform. The two main types Poplack identifies are (1) “intra-sentential” and (2) “emblematic” code-switches. The first type, labeled as more intimate and complex:

i This thesis is a derivation on the theme of Foucault’s biopolitics. Foucault scholar Giorgio Agamben explains that “According to Foucault, a society’s “threshold of biological modernity” is situated at the point at which the species and the individual as a simple living body become what is at stake in a society’s political strategies. After 1977, the courses at the Collège de France start to focus on the passage from the “territorial State” to the “State of population […]” (10). This is what we also try to address, the turn away from “territorial” politics to a politics of agency, voice, and language in this case.

ii The book was the Torah, or Old Testament.

iii Lim writes, “as people move from their natal territories, notions of individual and group identity, grounded in ideas of geographical location as a national homelands and of segregated racial purity become contested and weakened. The literatures being produced today by immigrant populations and by nationalists reflect, address, express, and reconstruct the late-twentieth century preoccupation with and interrogation of concepts of “identity,” “home,” and “nation” (294).

iv Literary critic Ilan Stevens quotes Octavio Paz in his book, Spanglish: the Making of a New American Language, as having said of the mixing of English and Spanish, “ni es bueno ni es malo, sino abominable” (4).

[I]nvolves a high proportion of intra-sentential switching as in (7) below.
(7) a. Why make Carol SENTARSE ATRAS PA’ QUE [...] everybody has to movePA’ QUE SALGA [...]? ( 589)

According to Poplack, linguists agree that intra-sentential code switching is the “real” code-switching (589). Her definition and example cited above emphasize that “intra-sentential” code-switches involve alternations between two code systems that must fit together grammatically. Surely, that an intra-sentential switch displays greater grammatical complexity in comparison to the other code-switch forms contributes to the large interest it holds for linguists. Of more interest to our own argument are the second type, the “emblematic” switches that are also called “tag-switches,” or simply “tags.” They are referred to as being ‘emblematic’ in that they are considered a type of emblem of the speaker’s ethnic identification. They implicate a change in a single noun or noun group, giving them the name “tag,” and are considered to be grammatically less complex although more culturally charged:

Another [type] is characterized by relatively more tag switches and single noun switches. These are often heavily loaded in ethnic content and would be placed low on a scale of translatability, as in (8).

(8) a. Vendía arroz [...] ‘N SHIT.

      b. Salían en sus carros y en sus [...] SNOWMOBILES. (589)

Poplack’s topology of code-switching affirms the social significance of its practice, especially to those who make use of “emblematic” switches, as in above. The definition of the emblematic code-switch (furthermore ‘tag’) provides us with the grounds to further along our argument about Díaz’s own use of code-switching: first off, based on the token sample and definition Poplack provides here (Vendía arroz n’ shit) it is apparent that Díaz exploits ‘tags’ or “emblematic” code-switches in his work more than any other type of code-switches. His strategy “goes from the sentence and even the phrasal level inwards down to the word level” (Casielles-Suarez 2013: 485). In the paragraph below, we provide examples of Díaz at work with tags for comparison. More importantly, Poplack also establishes that this code-switch type is most often performed as a kind of identity politics: she writes, tags are “heavily loaded in ethnic content” and “constitute an emblematic part of the speaker’s monolingual style” (589). She goes on to say that the use of a tag signifies something about the speaker’s membership in a group (589). Specifically, the use of tag-switches increases when a speaker is interacting with a non-group member, whereas the use of intra-sentential code-switching increases during communication with in-group members (599). Explained colloquially, tags are dominant when it is necessary to “defend one's turf,” or assert oneself in a foreign context—as does Díaz in the space of the English language.

In the particularities of Díaz’s code alternation, we can observe in his texts that the most frequent speaker, Yunior, tags the American English Black Vernacular he grew up with emblematic tokens from the Dominican lexicon. Words such as “pópola” (2012: 47), “deguabinao,” and “estribao” (2012: 101) appear alongside more normative American Latino formulations, such as “hijo de la gran puta” (2012:134) or “gringo children” (2012:133). However, his code-switch tags are at their strongest in alternations that meld and fuse languages seamlessly in novel and delicious sounding noun-groupings such as, “for the record I didn’t think Pura was so bad […] Guapisima as hell: tall and indiecita,” (2012:101). Guapisima as hell sounds incredibly natural to the English-Spanish bilingual, so much so that it nearly hurts to see its novelization, as if it had been co-opted from a friend’s mouth. Another telling example: “These viejas were my mother’s old friends […] and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes,” (2012: 92). Campo jokes. These tags produce an in-group feeling that transmits insider cultural knowledge and reminders of folk identities from the island to inside readers, but more importantly, they provide outsiders with an equally out-of-group feeling, making the English language strange to the most native and “pure” English speakers/readers.

Ultimately, tags are also a way to invade and occupy, to territorialize the major language one is forced to use, with the minor language that constitutes an aspect of speaker identity. It is a politic. Tags are part and parcel of what I have been calling the discursive battle to occupy the cultural space that is language. Let us think about this from a different angle for the length of a few paragraphs. Metaphorically, a code-switch tag functions almost identically to the visual tag of the graffiti artist. Both are means of declaring and asserting one’s own culture and alliances over others in the encounter with an Other who may not share the same background. As Poplack affirms about the tags of code-switching, the “tagz” of graffiti are also “heavily loaded in ethnic content;” that tags/z are considered “emblematic” of an artist and their particular style rings at least equally as true to those enmeshed in the world of graffiti (if not more so) as to those cognizant of the world of linguistic tagging. At their most obvious, both linguistic and graffiti tags/z are a type of swag a type of style fashioned to be seen by others. Appreciated subtly, tags/z communicate details about an individual’s personal, ethnic, and group identity to the rest of the world (i.e. non-group members). The tagz of the street writer, after all, are most often an epithet for the name of the graffiti artist and their artistic persona. The characteristic word is then painted in unique form on numerous city walls and abandoned buildings in a very public fight “to get up,”or to dominate, on the “scene.”

New York City Tag In Process

New York City Tag In Process

Also important is that each interlocutor in this battle hopes to dominate over other authors as much as to sabotage and threaten the bureaucratic space of the city wall. The tag embodies something of lawlessness, transgression of the codes and norms of society—something buccaneer. Whether it be leaving your personal mark on a public or ordered space as in the graffiti artist, or tagging a major language with a minor one i.e. Díaz, both graffiti tagz and code-switch tags are a means of reterritorializing established linguistic spaces and rearranging them to give way to an author’s (minor) idiosyncratic language. In “Bombing modernism: Graffiti and its Relationship to the (Built) Environment,” design writer Amos Klausner explains graffiti’s subversive signifying potentiality: 

[It has the] ability to reconsider letter forms, reformulate language, and destroy the accepted hierarchies of communication. With no artificially imposed order and the inherent decentralization of postmodernism as its guide, graffiti writers used irony (in the form of the oppressor becoming the oppressed), double coding (writers communicated simultaneous messages to different social groups), and paradox (the inherent illegibility of their work), as tools to change our shared expectations of how, where, and why we communicate. It [graffiti] is an archetypal study in semiotics where signs and symbols are used to recognize how meaning is formulated and perceived. (3)

In the essay, “The Smooth and the Striated,” Deleuze and Guattari develop an ontology of (cultural) space offering a series of explanations throguh various “models” of the dialectic between the two (1987: 474-500). As the title suggests the smooth (rather than the smooth-en-ed) is the original space of departure, of unbridled creativity and immanence. The striated always implies a once smooth space. Deleuze and Guattari cite the ocean in all its “intensities” as the representation of original smooth space par excellence (though other examples include the smooth space of the fetal uterus in the early stages of gestation, for example) until “maritime space” was striated by measures, bearings and maps, and its striation set forth by the Portuguese in 1440 (1987:479). In addition, Deleuze and Guattari establish smooth space as nomadic space, drawing heavily on examples of cultural artifacts and practices of nomadic people to illustrate inhabited smooth space throughout the chapter. When the smooth versus striated (or nomad versus state) opposition is applied to language, we can say with some certainty that the striated textual fabric of today’s linguistic landscape has its origins in the smooth. The oral traditions of traveling storytellers and poets were at some point commodified and transformed into the institution of the Western Book (Manzanas and Benito 2003: 13). In literature, the bourgeoisie novel more than poetry has traditionally been a striated space, the artifice representing a striated linguistic and social environment back to itself. Also consider the strict categorization of literature by nationality, the staunch editing procedures of the publishing house. Yet, we are at a turning point and the hype around code-switching likely reflects a smoothening linguistic landscape across levels and cultural spheres. What Junot Díaz does in his work—smoothing the striated linguistic space of published literature—is a symptom of the times.

Before remarking on what makes Junot Díaz particularly “nomadic” in the Deleuzian sense, a few preliminary words should be said on the author in general. Díaz is aggressively creative. Having been criticized for his use of English interspersed with Spanish, and measured against a status quo instituted by language purists who set up impassable barriers, he was eventually embraced, even glorified by the establishment, teaching creative writing at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He is on the board of the world-renowned Pulitzer Prize. The purpose of this anecdote is not to suggest that Díaz in particular has been successful at elevating code-switching in the eyes of the literary establishment, but that this event reflects transformations underway in even the most firmly-ensconced institutions’ relationship with language. One might even say that the cultural boundaries dividing languages are in the process of being gutted and reformulated.

As further exploration, let us begin with reflections on the (textual) city. Described by Deleuze and Guattari as “the striated space par excellence,” (1987:481) the city is and also represents the established, striated, codes of modernity. From the unmoving asphalt wall, up to the gridlocked skyscrapers of the metropolis, we find striated spaces stifling creative vision and movement. In that same vein, the catalogued Spanish of the Academia Real Española and the measured English of Oxford’s Cambridge English exams striate linguistic spaces: classifying, subordinating, restricting. Just as city buildings subordinate pedestrians to specific trajectories, as Deleuze and Guattari explain: “in striated spaces, lines or trajectories tend to be subordinated to the trajectory: one goes from one point to another” (1987: 478) without wandering or questioning. In another seminal text on the urban landscape, “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau examines the human inhabitation of cities in their spatial and metaphorical aspects, concluding about the act of being a pedestrian: “they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read” (93). The code of the city dictates to its users, as language to its speakers, to blindly follow the preordained path from one point to another with little to no awareness of their implicit participation in etching the boundaries still deeper, its stories rigorously and staunchly conventional.

Yet we return to the fight, which disrupts and rewrites the code that encourage a blind surrender to fixed boundaries. Díaz and other taggers’ rebuttal in this dually discursive and urban battle is the practice of developing what Deleuze and Guattari call nomadic smooth spaces (1987: 481). Their minds and imaginations become smooth spaces that liberate trajectories of intellectual and imaginative wandering As a result, their innovations can presumably smoothen the striated. Returning to Díaz, he himself has remarked that his use of code-switching is a result of a kind of liberation of his tongue, or in his English-Spanish lexicon:

One of the things that’s helped me is that I have a particular amount of shamelessness around these different idioms that I love. […] I’ve never felt any shame of misusing the language that I grew up with […] It takes so much more energy keeping these things apart. (2009)

His code-switching is the result of an organic mixing of languages that ultimately comes more naturally to him than maintaining their striation and maintaining apart his multilingual capacities. Although the tags and code-switches present in his work are arguably carefully planned representations (re-formulations) of an authentic linguistic vernacular, they re-establish an uninhibited non-order across the linguistic landscape of the text and bring the reader to (surprised) attention and to unanticipated feelings and readings. It is from this point that a “migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city,” (DeCerteau 93). Meandering through the enclosed frontiers of striated factual space, dodging the mines and pitfalls detonated by a threatened literary status quo, Díaz and other nomadic taggers at their most effective “insinuate other routes into the functionalist and historical order of movement,” (105) smoothening and liberating striated urban and linguistic landscapes.

As in the picture on pg. 18, the graffiti artists’ tagging, or “bombing,” completes much the same function across the code of the city landscape. After the artist's nomadic quest through the city to find an appealing space, their tags will reroute and rewrite the code of the striated space of the urban wall via novel, rhizomatic and chaotic lines and trajectories. The nomads mark their turf in the reterritorializing process. As DeCerteau suggests and Deleuze and Guattari aptly point out once again, striated spaces can at times become smooth, depending on the trajectories and manners of the sentient beings that live in that space and how they occupy it:

[I]t is possible to live striated on the deserts, steppes, or seas; it is possible to live smooth even in the cities, to be an urban nomad (for example, a stroll taken by Henry Miller in Clichy or Brooklyn is a nomadic transit in smooth space; he makes the city disgorge a patchwork, differentials of speed, delays and accelerations, changes in orientation, continuous variations […] (1987: 482)

Deleuze and Guattari offer Henry Miller’s occupation and movement through the city landscape as an example of “living smooth” in a striated urban space. Similarly, Junot Díaz’s code-switches are a way of living, writing, and speaking smooth; linguistic meandering is part of his hybrid identity, forged in a linguistic landscape complicated by the diasporic condition. Like Henry Miller’s path through the city, Díaz and the other speakers sampled by Poplack in her landmark study mark a new path through linguistic space; their free code alternations make striated language space “disgorge a patchwork” and “change orientation” in that they inhabit a creative, diasporic wandering between the world(s) of Spanish and English, shamelessly discarding conventions of parlance. Combining guapisima as hell with the Foucalt-referencing (Díaz 2012: 15) theory and jargon part of his vocabulary as a university professor, Díaz etches a unique path through the city: through linguistic registers pertaining to various socioeconomic classes and races, he is able to narrate the language heteroglossia that authoritative discourse would rather deny. Díaz’s insistence on the relevance of Spanish words and phrases to his literary project, in the face of an outspoken American public majority xenophobically declaring the Star-Spangled Banner (the American national anthem) be recited in English only, is powerful.

In this paper, we have observed a unique link between the signifying of the lexical tags in Junot Díaz’s narrations with the tagz of the graffiti artist. Tags and tagz seem to overlap in shared meaning; attesting to a battle of the discursive sort being waged in the frontier lands of North America, and globally as the contact zones between cultures inevitably expand. In a move resembling the linguist’s analysis of demographic and language-oriented features of a sample, I have presented tokens of the Díaz protagonist Yunior’s code-switching in This is How You Lose Her for the analysis of its language, not as a closed system, but as a socially situated tool. We did not propose to undertake a rigorous empirical linguistic analysis of the Junot Díaz short story collection This is How…. Rather, this peculiar metalinguistic, discourse analysis has been offered in support of broader claims about the changing linguistic landscape of postmodernity—with special attention payed to a concrete analysis of the hybridity that postcolonial critics, for example, have been referencing for the past fifty years. Furthermore, we have argued for the popular manifestation of code-switching as a form of identity politics, not only site-specific to Diaz’s literary texts, but observable in the general linguistic landscape particular to our society today. We have also tried to demonstrate this feature as a symptom of a “smooth-en-ing,” in the Deleuzian and Guatarrian sense of the linguistic landscape occurring in today’s globalized and—perhaps Díaz says it best himself—exploded societies. 

Juliana Nalerio is a PhD researcher at the University of Valladolid, Spain, in American Studies and Comparative Literature. Working at the intersection of literature and critical theory, her research explores the aesthetics and ethics of modern American literature in the continental sense. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, a project that attempts to unpack literary violence in its symbolic, systemic, and subjective forms in both North and South American novels and short story texts. She holds a master's degree from The University of Valladolid (Premio extraordinario) and a B.A. from New College of Florida-the Honors College of Florida, as well as certificates from studies at Middlebury College, The University of Chicago, The University of Edinburgh, as well as Birkbeck, University of London, and Texas A&M University (upcoming).

Juliana is a member of the national research group, "A Critical History of Ethnic American Literature: An Intercultural Approach," directed by Dr. Jesús Benito Sánchez.

The Virtue of Hilary Mantel

The Virtue of Hilary Mantel

When I chose to make Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety the subject of my dissertation, there was a dearth of scholarly work available on the author. But by the time I replaced A Place of Greater Safety with Mantel’s second Booker-winner, Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel had become, in the words of the chairman of the judges of the 2012 Booker panel, “‘the greatest modern English prose writer’ working today” (Stothard qtd. in Brown). For three decades—from her completion of A Place of Great Safety in 1979 to the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009—Mantel persevered with her work not only as a novelist but also as a reviewer and journalist, creating an impressive collection of novels, short stories, reviews, sharp-witted social critiques, and a memoir. Yet, until the breakthrough of Wolf Hall, Mantel’s fiction was “relatively neglected” (Wallace 211). Her first historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), was dismissed by one British reviewer as “upmarket soap opera” (Smith). Yet Mantel’s persistence in avoiding narratives about “sweet people” (Atwood) in favor of exploring the “dark purposes” (Atwood) of the human condition paid off. The story of her emergence as a preeminent author following her two Booker-Prize wins is one of how Mantel developed an awareness of evil at an early age, overcame the prejudice of misogynistic literary critics, and persisted in the exploration of the “dark purposes” of men and women, but returned to exploring it in the public and private lives of historical power brokers.

A child’s early experience with evil—or even the suggestion of an evil presence that Mantel’s medium from Beyond Black, Alison Hart, would have detected—can irrevocably influence that child’s worldview. When Mantel was seven, as she recalls in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she encountered a malevolent force, nothing more than the “faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air” (Ghost 93): something neither visual nor audible, yet something that with “its motion, its insolent shift, [made her] stomach heave” (93). The effect on young Mantel was the dark underbelly of an epiphany: “Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse” (93). After this experience, Mantel confesses that she “ceased to expect much good from the world” (Ghost 108). She identified the apparition in the garden as evil, ever since trying to understand it:

“Is evil simply—simply?—an outgrowth of human nature, or is it detachable from the human, a force at large in the world like a mercenary for hire, looking for a human master to serve, never without one for long and always worth the whistle?” (Ghost 109)

Mantel first began to explore humanity’s “dark purposes” in A Place of Greater Safety, a dense, long narrative about the power, corruption, and Machiavellian-style of virtue1 amongst three leaders of the French Revolution: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. Its length of nearly nine hundred pages no doubt contributed to the novel initially being rejected by publishers. The first novel Mantel did publish, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was an exploration of a modern-day, vitriolic relationship between a failed medium, her socially deviant daughter, and the social worker obliged to save them. Her next novel, Vacant Possession, is set ten years after the end of the previous novel and focuses on the manipulative, vengeful daughter, recently released from an asylum. Mantel recalls in a 2009 interview that her first two novels were read as women’s domestic fiction and, as such, were “read as domestic black comedies” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”), despite her intention that one is a condition of England novel: “[Vacant Possession] was set in 1984! It’s a bit of a clue” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Her third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street—based on Mantel’s own experience living in Saudi Arabia when her husband was posted there—was similarly categorized as a domestic story, despite Mantel’s insistence on its insights into Islamic fundamentalism (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Set in the 1980s, the book is also an interesting study of a reversal of the kind of imperialism that saw the Middle-Eastern countries around Saudi Arabia overtaken by the British, the Americans, and other Europeans in between the two world wars. The protagonist, Frances Shore, is a cartographer who is not only unable to map Jeddah—the colonizers’ first endeavour to bring under control a perceived-barbaric country—but finds her identity subsumed into the purgatory of women’s lives in that country. If these three novels failed to receive serious literary attention, perhaps it is because those reviews were influenced by the preponderance of male literary critics found in the magazines and newspapers that publish book reviews.

In 2009, Vida: Women in Literary Arts first documented the gender imbalance found in the underrepresentation of female reviewers at publications such as The Atlantic, the Boston Review, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. This discouraging statistic was matched by the underrepresentation of reviews of female authors’ works in those same publications. No Vida count was made prior to 2009, but, ironically, it was a female critic for the Independent who said, in a review of Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Mantel’s fifth published book), that Mantel’s novel is an “upmarket soap opera” (Smith) compared with the venerable Simon Schama’s chronicle, Citizens: the “French Revolution as human tragedy” (Smith). Moreover, in a New York Times review, Mantel’s huge historical novel is criticized for leaving the reader stranded on the uncertainty of whether “we [are] reading history amplified by the empathy of the novelist or fiction dressed up in historical costume” (Bernier), an uncertainty the male reviewer says is never resolved. Despite this negative criticism, Mantel received growing respect as a “gifted writer” (Bernier), something that would solidify as female scholars found reasons to celebrate Mantel in their assessment of historical fiction in Britain.

In one of her essays about historical fiction, A. S. Byatt returns to the above-mentioned “uncertainty” in A Place of Greater Safety, about the unresolved areas of fact and fiction that are endemic to historical fiction. Byatt argues that “there is a new aesthetic energy to be gained from the borderlines of fact and the unknown” (55), suggesting that Mantel, rather than disappointing readers, is leading them in a new, unexplored direction. She compares Mantel’s use of the present tense in A Place of Greater Safety (the same tense she uses in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) as something the author shares in common with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Byatt further praises Mantel’s “apparently straightforward, realist narrative . . . recreating the intellectual and emotional turmoil of the time both on the grand scale and with precise images of small, local details of pain, excitement, curiosity, terror and desire” (54). What she found in its “innocently realist[ic]” story was an “old-fashioned psychological narrative which is the imaginative form she gives to the lives of real, partially known men” (55). Byatt praises Mantel equally with Pat Barker—a Booker Prize winner for The Ghost Road in 1995—for the intimate focus the authors provide through their unnamed narrators. She is not the only literary scholar to compare Mantel to Barker.

In 2005, when Mantel published Beyond Black, Diana Wallace released a study of historical fiction written by British female authors across the decades of the twentieth century. She also finds similarities between Mantel and Barker, as well as between Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, because these authors appear, superficially, to be writing in the realist tradition while using strategies that also subvert that tradition. In Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, Wallace argues that, although Mantel focuses the story on three major, historical figures, she situates the reader in and amongst them rather than giving a bird’s-eye view of these men and their roles in history. Wallace also argues that Mantel’s strategy of presenting dialogue in the form of a dramatic play “disrupts the usual practice of the realist novel and thus draws attention to its fictionality” (Wallace 205). Moreover, Wallace identifies an aspect of Mantel’s fictional exploration of historical characters that re-emerges in her Cromwell novels: “Mantel . . . is particularly interested in the disjunctions between the private early lives of [Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulin], when little is known of them, and their public personae as world historical figures” (205). By identifying this preoccupation of Mantel’s, Wallace emphasizes the author’s precision at re-imagining the private lives of men before they become famous, but also their navigation of the competing demands of the public and private realms when they are at the height of their power.

When Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker prize, journalistic attention on Mantel increased; more importantly, the reviews revealed excitement and respect for her prose. The Guardian praised the novel for being “[l]yrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances . . . it’s not like much else in contemporary British fiction” (Tayler). Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt declared the novel “a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely . . . to arouse any sympathy at all” (Greenblatt). But it was perhaps Christopher Hitchens—who gave his review of Wolf Hall the title “The Men Who Made England”—who best reflects the impression the novel has made on many of its readers. He begins his review by reminding his readers how the effects of the English Reformation can still be felt today, before describing how the novel engages with “the origins of this once world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty” and acclaiming it a novel of “quite astonishing power” (Hitchens). In a review that features many excerpts from the novel and a scathing attack on the Robert Bolt representation of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Hitchens ends by declaring Mantel to be “in the very first rank of historical novelists” (Hitchens). This kind of praise only escalated with the release and subsequent Booker win of Wolf Hall’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. In her review of the latter novel, Margaret Atwood summarized Mantel’s oeuvre as a general avoidance of “sweet people” in preference to the exploration of “dark purposes” and Mantel’s writing as “deft and verbally adroit” (Atwood). However, at least one other female author, who had endured the same kind of literary sexual discrimination as Mantel had, was sceptical about whether Mantel’s historical, second-Booker win meant anything had really changed for female authors:

Well, it’s tempting to be cynical about it and note that, after a respectable but underappreciated career of writing mainly about women, she was finally recognized as a literary heavyweight once she produced a novel that was all about men. . . . Maybe it’s more simple—maybe it’s just that, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel has hit her stride as a novelist; that her writing, now, is too good for anyone to ignore. (Waters qtd. in Mantel, “Unquiet Mind”)

As if to affirm Sarah Waters’s reflection that Mantel had become “too good for anyone to ignore,” Mantel’s previously maligned historical novel about the French Revolution has recently received the attention of a scholar honoured by the Modern Language Association with an Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement: Fredric Jameson.

In Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson praises Hilary Mantel’s representation of Maximilien Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. According to Jameson, Mantel “turn[s] Robespierre into a believable character” (277), far removed from the “satiric weight of political vilification and the caricature of his personality and private habits” (278). According to Jameson, the benefit of the rehabilitation of an infamous historical power broker like Robespierre, often portrayed as a two-dimensional villain, is that his “political program [of the politics of Virtue] can now again be taken seriously” (278-79). Jameson emphasizes the contemporary significance of Robespierre’s stance against corruption, most notably explored in a speech that Robespierre gave to the Convention on 5 February 1794, in which he outlines his emphasis on the role that virtue plays in politics. In reaction to the corruption under which the former French aristocracy operated—the regime that the Revolution had ousted—Robespierre insisted that his fellow deputies always strive to “maintain[n] and develo[p] virtue . . . that which is immoral is impolitic, that which is corrupting is counterrevolutionary” (Robespierre qtd. in Shusterman 216). Jameson suggests this approach of Robespierre’s is an antidote to “the universal tolerance of corruption” (279) that thrives today.

Since her childhood haunting by an evil presence, Mantel has been attuned to the darkness in her world: of people, of society, of politics, of power, of history. In her fiction, she has explored the nature of evil in slim narratives about mothers and daughters, children and parents, women and society, men and women, and women and the spiritual world. Despite the dismissiveness of male literary critics during the years when Mantel devoted herself to exploring how evil can be “a ripple, a disturbance of the air” and “a force at large in the world (Ghost 93). Despite the disappointing—mostly male—reviews, Mantel continued to write, honing her skills in various forms of writing, building her creative strength for the novel that she’d been wanting to write since the 1970s (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”): a novel about Thomas Cromwell. By finally succumbing to the “robust[ness]” (“accumulated an anger”) of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has reached the position of an author respected for her “ingenuity, skill, and ability” (Bondanella 93) and an author “who will be read and studied forever” (Hamilton qtd. in “accumulated and anger”).

Terri Baker is an instructor at two institutions in Calgary, Alberta: Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. Her dissertation, “‘Beneath every history, another history:’ History, Memory, and Nation in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies,” examines the contemporary social critique Mantel makes in the novels and was defended in 2014. Her publications include a review of Mary Novik’s Muse for Canadian Literature, an essay on Ian McEwan’s Saturday for the anthology Writing Difference: Nationalism, Identity and Literature, and an essay contribution on Victorian women collectors for the anthology Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the fate of Things. Other publications include numerous book reviews and a feature article on Mary Novik’s Muse for the Historical Novel Review.

 

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “The downfall of Anne Boleyn.” Rev. of Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Theguardian. The Guardian News and Media Limited4 May 2012. Web. 10 May 2012.

Bernier, Olivier. ‘Guillotine Dreams. Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. The

New York Times, 9 May 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/11/specials/mantel-place.html. Accessed 27 Dec 2016.

Bondanella, Peter, translator and editor. The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli, Oxford UP, 2005.

Brown, Mark. “Hilary Mantel Wins Man Booker Prize for Second Time.” Theguardian, 16 Oct. 

2012, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/16/hilary-mantel-wins-booker-prize

Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

Byatt, A. S. “Forefathers.” On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. Chatto & Windus, 2000, pp. 36-64.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “How it must have been.” Review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The New York Review of Books, 5 Nov. 2009, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/11/05/how-it-must-have-been/. 10 April 2012.

Hitchens, Christopher. “The Men Who made England: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.” Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Arguably, Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011, pp. 146-151.

Jameson, Fredric. Antinomies of Realism, Verso, 2013.

Mantel, Hilary. Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir. Fourth Estate, 2003. 

---. “I accumulated an anger that would rip a roof off.” Theguardian,16 Oct. 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2009/sep/12/hilary-mantel-booker-prize-interview. Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

---. “The Unquiet Mind of Hilary Mantel.” Interview by Sophie Elmhirst. NewStatesman, 3 Oct. 2012, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/10/unquiet-mind-hilary-mantel. Accessed 25 Nov. 2013.

---. Wolf Hall, 4th Estate, 2009.

Smith, Joan. “The rough and tumbril of history.” Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary 

Mantel. Independent, 5 Sep 1992, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-the-rough-and-tumbril-of-history-a-place-of-greater-safety-hilary-mantel-viking-pounds-1549781.html. Accessed 27 Dec 2016.

Shusterman, Noah. The French Revolution : Faith, Desire and Politics. London, GB: Routledge, 

2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 December 2016.

Tayler, Christopher. Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. theguardian, 2 May 2009

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/02/wolf-hall-hilary-mantelAccessed 28 

Dec 2016. 

Wallace, Diana. The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000, Palgrave 

Macmillan, 2005.

1 In his translation of The Prince, Peter Bondanella defines the concept of the virtue of which Machiavelli alludes as “a decidedly masculine quality, denoting ingenuity, skill, and ability (93).

A Night in Belgrade
The Dream of a New Way to Read Comics

The Dream of a New Way to Read Comics

Notes about the possible worlds and the implicit readers in ¨Calliope¨ by Neil Gaiman

The new reader of comics

The comic book is a format that combines literary text and image in a balanced way, within which the superhero comic is just a genre. The problem arose when this genre acquired such predominance that it started to be regarded by the general public as ¨The Comic¨, which resulted in much prejudice. Even today, a common estimation of comics is that it is a highly limited genre, aimed at a very particular readership, who remain quite underestimated. The typical suits, the multiple universes, the crossing of characters in the different series, the iterative time form, the horizon of expectations of comic readers in the USA, readers who constituted a well-defined market which big editorials aimed at. In contrast, in the mid 80’s there appeared a series of works that flocked behind the title graphic novel, a term that, from the very beginning, marks a direct link with what we will call ¨high literature¨.

In 1986, three of the great works that became the forerunners of the movement were published: Maus by Art Siegelman, a work of biographical and testimonial character that won the Pulitzer award in 1992; The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. These three works present what might be the defining characteristic of graphic novels: their ¨intension of totality¨ (Castagnet, 2012: 8). What we mean to say is that, although they were published in a serialized way, they had a limited extension, a definite beginning, development and conclusion and a unique writer or team of writers. All of them broke away from the multiple universes, the iterative time and the compulsory intertextuality within a series. In the case of Maus and Watchmen, there was also a fundamental link with the history of the 20th century, in particular with the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War.

In 1989, Neil Gaiman, a practically unknown English scriptwriter, begins to publish a series with DC Comics. His editor, Karen Berger, let him choose any hero out of the editorial universe (provided it was not an important one) and reinvent it. This is quite common in the world of U.S. comics: the characters do not belong to a unique author, but are ¨handled¨ by decisions of the editors who make decisions overseeing the common universe. In this case, Gaiman chose Sandman, a character created by Gardner Fox in 1939 (a detective without supernatural powers) and reinvented by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby between 1974-76 (in this case, Sandman was a psychiatrist who reaches a dimension from which he can control people’s dreams). This way, the author begins his story within the genre of the superheroes, but modifying the format so that it breaks with the horizons of expectations of the readers: the new Sandman is presented as the Lord of Dreams and the Prince of Stories, a dream manifestation, his embodiment in a being that changes his name and body and reigns over the dreams of all creatures. Gaiman builds, in this way, a highly complex character who has little to do with the traditional superheroes, and that may (and will) be the shadow that walks beside the readers through several narrations which recreate the motives and characters of the universal mythology, history and literature.

Throughout the first seven volumes of the series (compiled in a unique volume, Preludes & Nocturnes), the scriptwriter does not break with the genre of superheroes abruptly, but he subtly slips the plot from the universe of DC into his own. Along these initial publications, Gaiman’s Sandman comes across the former Sandmans (in the typical intertextuality of the DC comics) and links the three plots into one. This way, Gaiman does not make ¨a clean break¨ but he takes the parallel dimensions generated by his predecessors and unifies them coherently, in which the former Sandmans are explained through their relationship with Morpheus. Thus, the eternal present of the comic of superheroes acquires a past and advances towards a future, the multiple dimensions are interconnected, the present of The Sandman is the historical present of a reality such as ours, and his world and a realistic world cross each other.

The Sandman, therefore, was presented as a comic of superheroes and launched into the market by DC as such, but throughout its development it built a highly complex fantastic tale with a convergence of different literary genres, narrative styles and intertextual echoes of several works from the Western canon. This story, which, in the view of the hypothesis of this work, presents two types of implicit readers, thus revolutionizing the market of the U.S. comic to such an extent that DC created a new editorial seal dedicated exclusively to graphic novels. 

 

Sub-creation, mythopoeia and possible worlds

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1939), the British writer and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien develops his own definition of fantasy and fantasy literature through the analysis of traditional tales. Considering the ideas of this author, there was a time in which the great journeys made the world become too small a place for men and elves to share, so the existence of a fairy land, Fantasy, became necessary.

This other world (or secondary reality) is a sub-creation which arose from a poet’s imagination with the “the inner consistency of reality” (1983: 139):

The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. (...) The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality”, is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. (...)

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will problably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode. (Tolkien, 1983: 139-140)

It is possible to draw a parallel between these early ideas conceived by Tolkien and the semantics of the possible worlds applied to the analysis of literature through the exposed theory of the fictional worlds by Lubomir Doležel. This author exposes the several limitations of the literary theories of mimetic order, which draw a referential connection between literature and a unique real world. Now, Doležel affirms that an alternative to the mimesis could be a fiction theory based on the semantics of possible worlds where Literature’s fictional realities could be analyzed as fictional worlds independently from the real. They are possible worlds, populated by possible creatures and objects but without a real existence. These worlds, constituted from different categories (entities) and modalities (limitations), are sustained by their internal coherence or consistency. Mario Vargas Llosa mentions the writer’s power of persuasion by which the writer makes the reader accept the illusion of autonomy of the story and the characters from the real. But the novel’s power of persuasion: 

...es mayor cuanto más independiente y soberana nos parece ésta, cuando todo lo que en ella acontece nos da la sensación de ocurrir en función de mecanismos internos de esa ficción y no por imposición arbitraria de una voluntad exterior. Cuando una novela nos da esa impresión de autosuficiencia, de haberse emancipado de la realidad real, de contener en sí misma todo lo que requiere para existir, ha alcanzado la máxima capacidad persuasiva (Vargas Llosa, 1997: 35).

... the greater the novel’s power of persuasion is, the more independent and sovereign the novel seems to be, when everything that takes place in it impresses us as if it were to be occurring in view of fictional internal mechanisms and not due to thearbitrary imposition of an external will. When a novel gives us the impression of self-sufficiency, of having emancipated from the real reality, of containing everything it requires to exist in itself, it has reached the maximum persuasive capacity. (our translation)

All these seem to be talking of different forms of the same idea, of the difficult task of creating a secondary or fictional world where the green sun will be credible, creation that requires of a great narrative skill that few dare to undertake. 

Neil Gaiman was one of the few who dared undertake such risky tasks, in The Sandman he created a possible fictional heterogeneous world formed by multiple realities: apart from a dimension that corresponds to ours, there is the “Dream”, the kingdom of the images of imagination and all other stories. In fact, throughout the series, we can see the appearance of multiple dimensions (to the Dream, are added Faerie, the fairyland, and a Miltonian Hell, among many others) that, though independent, they cross each other; such is the case of the Yggdrasil from the Northern mythology where there is a way that joins them and the characters can take it. In this way, the series that had started as a comic of superheroes is recreated in a completely different way, creating a world where the world of all stories converge, and a reality such as ours (with its history and present time) is crossed by the multiple realities of the fiction stories that, after all, are also part of it, as we are make by our dreams and the tales we read.

Un mundo mitológico, sin embargo, es una estructura semánticamente no-homogénea, constituida por la coexistencia de dominios naturales y sobrenaturales. Los dominios están separados por rígidas fronteras pero, al mismo tiempo, están unidos por la posibilidad de contactos inter-froterizos. (Doležel, 1997: 87)

A mythological world, nonetheless, is a semantically non-homogeneous structure, constituted by the coexistence of natural and supernatural domains.  The domains are separated by rigid borders, but, at the same time, they are linked by the possibility of inter-border contacts. (our translation)

Then, unlike fantastic literature, where our primary reality is invaded by another, altering the natural order of things, the universe of The Sandman presents multiple interconnected realities. This interconnection is constitutive of the natural order of things since many of the historical facts and characters of the primary reality are explained through the this reality. It is what Doležel himself points out as the pass from the classical myth to the modern myth: the borders between the natural and supernatural realms blur, become permeable, and “the dyadic mythological world becomes a unified hybrid world” (1999: 264).

These characteristics made The Sandman to be considered as a “modern mythology” (Railly, 2011: 26). Nevertheless, the myths are usually presented as timeless narrations, outside the known history and world, which does not happen in The Sandman. Sara Reilly, in her work “The Old Made New: Neil Gaiman´s storytelling in The Sandman”, proposes the term “mythopoeia”, also taken from Tolkien’s work: 

Rather than a mythological writer, it is more useful and accurate to describe Gaiman as a mythopoeic writer, a description that aligns him with modernist authors such as Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats; popular culture icons such as comics author/illustrator Jack Kirby; and filmmakers such as George Lucas. The term mythopoeia (or mythopoesis, as also used in this context) was first coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. As explained by Henry Slochower, the term is taken “from the Greek poien, meaning to make, to create” and refers to the “re-creat[ion] of the ancient stories” (15). Slochower distinguishes mythopoesis from mythology, arguing that while “mythology presents its stories as if they actually took place, mythopoesis transposes them to a symbolic meaning” (15). Mythopoesis, then, is purely literary; it does not present itself as truth, but as symbolism. The old stories are made new. (Reilly, 2011: 27-28)

“Mythopoeia”, the name of a poem by Tolkien edited together with the essay mentioned above, makes reference to the sub-creation: through art, the worlds of imagination can have the “the inner consistency of reality” (1983: 139); through art, the old worlds of imagination can be recreated, by reading them in the way it is done in nowadays.

El pensamiento contemporáneo acerca de los orígenes de los mundos posibles no se limita a las presuposiciones metafísicas de la filosofía de Leibniz. Los mundos posibles no se descubren en depósitos lejanos, invisibles o trascendentes, sino que son construidos por mentes y manos humanas. Esta explicación nos la da explícitamente Kripke: “Los mundos posibles se estipulan, no se descubren con potentes microscopios” (Kripke 1972:267; cf. Bradley y Swatz 1979: 63 y ss.). La construcción de mundos posibles ficcionales ocurre, primariamente, en diversas actividades culturales -composición poética y musical, mitología y cuenta-cuentos, pintura y escultura, actuaciones de teatro y danza, cine, etc.- sirven de mediadores en la construcción de mundos ficcionales. Las ficciones literarias se construyen en el acto creativo de la imaginación poética, la actividad de la poiesis. El texto literario es el mediador de esa actividad. Con los potenciales semióticos del texto literario, el poeta lleva a la existencia un mundo posible que no existía antes de su acto poiético.  (Doležel, 1997: 88)

The contemporary thought about the origins of the possible worlds is not limited to the metaphysical presuppositions of Leibniz´s philosophy. The possible worlds are not discovered in faraway, invisible or transcendental deposits, but are constructed by human minds and hands. Kripke explain this this explicitly: ¨the possible worlds are stipulated, are not discovered with powerful microscopes¨ (Kripke 1972:267; cf. Bradley and Swatz 1979: 63 and ss.). The construction of possible fictional worlds takes place/ occurs, primarily, in different/ diverse cultural activities – poetic and musical composition, mythology and storytelling, painting and sculpture, theatre and dance performances, film-making, etc.- mediate the construction of fictional worlds. Literary fictions are constructed in the creative act of poetic imagination, the activity of the poiesis. The literary text mediates that activity. With the semiotic potentials of the literary text, the poet brings to existence a possible world which did not exist before his poetic act. (our translation)

 

Calliope

“Calliope” is chapter #17 of The Sandman and belongs to a series of four self-inclusive stories published in 1991 that formed the third compilation volume, Dream Country.

In “Calliope” Gaiman makes what we have defined before as mythopoesis, that is, the recreation of the myth. In this case, part of the structure of the story is formed by the motif of the kidnapping, typical of the Greek mythology, and the conception of inspiration as of divine origin. Besides, it probes somehow the Aristotelean principle of unity, as it is a self-inclusive chapter in which the complete story is developed in very few pages. In this chapter, besides, the muse Calliope is not only presented as a character inside the narration, but her story and nature as the epic muse also become a constitutive part of The Sandman’s world. Gaiman does not only bring to the scene a character, a name, as it occurs in the typical intertextuality of the comics of superheroes so that the informed readers can identify them, but he also includes the story of Caliope, her condition, her nature, the elements around her, and sets her in her own world.

The story begins with the writer of a unique successful novel called Richard Madoc who can no longer write: he has a mental block, he lost his inspiration. It is then that he resorts to another writer’s help, the already elderly Erasmus Fry, who gives him (in exchange for a bezoar) a muse: Calliope, “Beautiful Voice”, “The Muse of Epic”, “Homer’s Muse”, as she is called in the same text.

This old writer had kidnapped her nearly sixty years before, while she was bathing in water fountain in Mount Helicon. the motif of the kidnapping, as it has already been mentioned, is quite common in Greek mythology, where we can find many stories that refer to the kidnappings of young lad or maiden by men and gods.

The old writer had had the muse as a prisoner for many years, but he finally parts with her exchanging her for a bezoar. This treatment of the goddess as merchandise could be somehow interpreted as an expression of the modern vision of the world, where even inspiration can be purchased. This could be seen as a far-fetched interpretation, however, although we have pointed out the typical elements of the classical myth in the story, the fact that the main argument is presented in a reality such as ours should not be left aside.

The young writer, who had written only one successful novel and was under pressure due to a contract with the editorial, obtains his muse and forces her to inspire him by raping her. At this point, we can see the recreation of the myth inside the modern world. The kidnapping had taken place by means of the irruption of the modern man into the myth: the writer travels to Mount Helicon to search for a muse, ready to take her by force using “certain rituals”, taken from the ancient myth. In this second part, instead, the classical conception of the inspiration as a divine act (the poet receives the words from the goddesses and tells them to men) is introduced in the modern world. Madoc’s inspiration comes from the muse, he takes her words by force, but they are Calliope’s, and he finds himself writing great novels and epic poems in the England of the late 1980’s. 

The works thus obtained become best sellers and an editorial phenomenon on which films and plays are based. The young writer gains fame and recognition, but this is only the ephemeral glory of post-modernity. This is suggested by his predecessor’s slow fall into darkness. Erasmus Fry (also inspired by the enslaved muse), whose death is barely noticed, had unsuccessfully asked for the reediting of his novels for a long time.

This way we can see how motives, characters and conceptions of the Greek mythology are recreated in The Sandman’s present world. Nonetheless, there is a substantial change in these mythological elements: the humanization of the goddess. At first, Madoc does not recognize her and he even doubts her divine nature, something absolutely unthinkable in the world of Greek mythology (since Calliope does not present herself in someone else’s shape).

She’s not even human, he told himself. She’s thousands of years old. But her flesh was warm, and her breath was sweet, and she choked back tears like a child whenever he hurt her./ It occurred to him momemtarily that the old man might have cheated him: given him a real girl. That he, Rick Madoc, might possibly have done something wrong, even criminal…/ But afterwards, relaxing in his study, something shifted inside his head. (Gaiman, 2002, 19)1

Finally, Calliope is set free with Sandman’s help, and Madoc receives a terrible punishment: he becomes the victim of an uncontrollable inspiration, the ideas get to his mind one after the other, faster than he can write or think, and drive him to the verge of madness. Such cruel punishment, though absolutely opposed to what is typical of the comics of superheroes, gives the readers a sort of relief. This impression, the certainty of justice imposed by superior powers to man’s law (not imposed by the gods but which arises out of the necessity to reach a balance intrinsic to the world order), is proper to the Greek culture, and that the protagonists, after falling into excess and receiving their punishment, should recognize such justice constitutes an essential part of the tragedy. 

Esquilo concibe el destino como una fuerza humana y sobredivina, pero en la cual la voluntad del hombre participa. El dolor, la desdicha y la catástrofe son, en el sentido recto de la palabra, penas que se infligen al hombre por traspasar la mesura, es decir, por transgredir ese límite máximo de expansión de cada ser e intentar ir más allá de sí mismo: ser dios o demonio. (…) Ver en el teatro de Esquilo la triste y sombría victoria del destino es olvidar lo que llama Jaeger “la tensión problemática” del soldado de Salamina. Esa tensión se alivia cuando el dolor se transforma en conciencia del destino. Entonces el hombre accede a la visión de la legalidad cósmica y su desdicha aparece como una parte de la armonía universal. Pagada su penalidad, el hombre se reconcilia con el todo. (Paz, 1986: 202-203)

Aeschylus conceives destiny as a superhuman and superdivine force, but a force in which man’s will participates. Pain, misfortune, and catastrophe are, in the literal sense of the word, punishments inflicted on man because he has exceeded moderation, that is, he has transgressed that maximum limit of expansion of each being and has tried to go beyond himself: to be a god or a demon. Beyond moderation, the space on which each one can unfold himself, sprout discord, disorder, and chaos. Aeschylus steadfastly accepts the avenging violence of destiny; but his piety is virile, and he rebels against man’s fate. To see in Aeschylus’ theater the sad and somber victory of destiny is to forget what Jaeger calls “the problematical tension of the soldier of Salamis.” That tension is relieved when pain is transformed into consciousness of destiny. Then man accedes to the vision of cosmic legality, and his misfortune appears as a part of the universal harmony. Having paid his penalty, man is reconciled with the whole. (Paz, 1976: 416-7/644)

This can be seen in the last vignettes of this chapter, when Madoc says:

It’s her revenge, you see. Or his revenge. I said I needed the ideas...But they’re coming so fast, swamping me, overwhelming me…/ You have to meke them stop./…/ Go upstairs. At the top of the house there’s a room. There is a woman in there./ Let her out. She’s locked up in there, you see./ Tell her… Tell her she can go. That I free her. Make her leave. Make her go away./…/ Make it stop. Tell her I’m sorry…/ (Gaiman, 2002, 32)2 

Based on the analysis of this chapter, we can reach then the development of our hypothesis. As it has been mentioned before, “Calliope” is built through the intertextual links with the Greek mythology, links that form the narrative structure and the sense of the story (since, as Iser points out, the sense of the narration rests on its structure. Thus, it is logical to think that the implicit reader of this work should be the one able to reconstruct these links based on his knowledge about mythology, however, The Sandman was published by DC Comics and (despite holding the seal of the mature readers lebel (2)/ label) it was read massively by a public which also included the regular readers of comics of superheroes. We can conclude then that the mythopoetic nature of the story, which recreates mythological motives and characters in the contemporary reality and humanizes divine characters who may generate the reader’s sympathy and identification, makes it possible even for readers who are unable to reconstruct all the intertextual links of the story to grasp the horizon of sense. Karen Berger analyses the curious phenomenon of the reception of The Sandman in the following way:

Like the landmark series before it (The Dark Night return, Watchmen, and V de Vendetta) The Sandman’s appeal has transcended the traditional comics market. And there’s good reason for that. Ultemately, Neil Gaiman loves to tell stories, and the stories he tells are timeless, resonant, and universal. His work on The Sandman appeals to people from different walks of life, attracting a constellation of readers who normally don’t inhabit the same literary orbit. The Sandman also has a desproportionate number of women who read the series, probably the most of any mainstream comic. In a medium that is still widely occupied by males, that in itfelf is a major achievement. (Berger, 2010: 6)

It could be thought, following this analysis, that “Calliope” in particular and The Sandman in general were composed with a narrative structure which allows the horizon of sense, the totalizing perspective of the comprehension, to be achieved by two kinds of implicit readers: one, the reader of the comics of superheroes who incorporates the structures of a different way of reading through the smooth passing of The Sandman from this genre to its own (related to the literature of fantasy), the links that the series keeps with the universe of DC and its mythopoetic way of narration, recreating the old stories in the new world. The other is the reader of “high literature” who enjoys the reading of a comic and acquires its particular structure of reading so foreign to this kind of readers through the intertextual links of The Sandman with mythology, traditional tales, poetry and works belonging to the western canon that form an essential part of this work.

To conclude, and although this might be beyond the scope of this work, we could wonder about the following: Why would Gaiman choose this way of telling stories? What is he trying to tell us? Why is Calliope the muse prisoner of a best-selling writer in the 20th century England? Why do excess, punishment, recognition (the essential elements of tragedy according Aristotle) take place in the story?

The world of myth is far from our world and our time, but, from the very beginning, it helped explain them. The world of tragedy placed men in the position of gods, spectators of men’s drama, of their excesses and punishments, so as to learn from them. Perhaps Gaiman chose to tell the story of the young writer persecuted by editorial deadlines and contracts which little have to do with inspiration and art so as to place his own story out of himself, in order to observe it. Perhaps he chose Homer’s muse, kidnapped and humiliated in the present, to remind us of the time before scripture and history, when art was not constrained by market rules and there was time to compose an epic poem by heart and memory.

“El sueño de una nueva forma de leer cómics: notas sobre los mundos posibles y los lectores implícitos en “Calíope” de Neil Gaiman” was first published in “DOSSIER Mundos ficcionales y teorías de la ficción”, proceedings of the 1st Conference of Fictional Worlds and Fiction Theories organized for the Luthor Magazine.

Translated from the Spanish by Natalia Accossano Pérez and Mariela Accossano, with additional translation assistance by Mia Funk.

Natalia A. Accossano Pérez is from Patagonia, Argentina. She has B.A. in Literature and is beginning her PhD on Nineteenth Century European Literature and its influence on contemporary Essay Film, with a scholarship from the National Research Council of Argentina (CONICET). She enjoys teaching literature and is an assistant in the Cathedra of European Literature at the National University of Río Negro. First and foremost she is a voracious reader and comic fan. She loves Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Jean Rhys, ancient mythology and the Romantics. In Spanish, she is always reading and re-reading Jorge Luis Borges and Alejandra Pizarnik. She writes essays about sublime landscape and feminist prose for work, and diaries and short fiction for fun. Once in a while, she writes essays about non-academic literature and comics, which feel like fresh air, just like the one you can read here.

Notes

    •    Text included in three capsules of narration, throughout two vignettes.

  •  Dialogue between Madoc and Felix, a secondary character who develops along six vignettes. In the quotation only fragments of Madoc´s dialogue balloons are included.

 

Bibliography

Berger, K. 2010. “Introduction”, Gaiman, N. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, New York: DC Comics: 4-6.

Castagnet, M. F. 2012. All Along the Watchmen: Elementos paratextuales en la novela gráfica de Moore_Gibbon. Tesis de Licenciatura, UNLP. Recuperada el 12/08/2013 en: /http://sedici.unlp.edu.ar/handle/10915/27481/ 

Doležel, L. [1988] 1997. “Mímesis y Mundos Ficcionales”, Teorías de la ficción     literaria, (Antonio Garrido Domínguez, comp.), Madrid: Arco/libros S.L.

[1998] 1999.  Heterocósmica. Ficción y mundos posibles, Madrid: Arco/Libros S.L

Gaiman, N. 2010. The Sandman: Dream Country, New York: DC Comics.

Iser, W. 1987. El acto de leer. Teoría del efecto estético (J. A. Gimbernat y M. Barbeito, trad.), Madrid: Taurus.

Paz, O. 1986. “El mundo heroico”, El arco y la lira, México: Fondo de Cultura Económica: 198-218. 

1973. “The Heroic World”, The Bow and the Lyre (translated by Ruth L. C. Simms). Austin: University of Texas Press: e-book.

Reilly, S. 2011. “Old Made New: Neil Gaiman's Storytelling in The Sandman”, Honors Projects Overview. Paper 52 12/08/2013 In:  http://digitalcommons.ric.edu/honors_projects/52

Tolkien, J. R. R. 1983. “On Fairy-Stories”, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983: 109-161.

Vargas Llosa, M. 1997. Cartas a un joven novelista, Barcelona: Planeta.

El sueño de una nueva forma de leer cómics: Notas sobre los mundos posibles y los lectores implícitos en “Calíope” de Neil Gaiman

En Estados Unidos durante la década del ochenta, se desarrolló un movimiento rupturista en el campo del cómic, cuyas obras se denominaron graphic novels. Este género, difícil de delimitar, se caracteriza principalmente por vincularse con la “alta literatura”, separándose de las estructuras narrativas, las exigencias editoriales y los lectores habituales de los cómics de superhéroes.

En el presente trabajo nos proponemos analizar las rupturas que este género presentó con la forma tradicional de escribir y leer cómics a partir de los conceptos claves de la estética de la recepción literaria: el horizonte de expectativas y el lector implícito. Particularmente, centraremos nuestro análisis en el modo en el que se construye la estructura narrativa de “Calíope”, el capítulo #17 de la serie The Sandman de Neil Gaiman. Nuestra hipótesis es que “Calíope” fue elaborado de forma mitopoética, lo que implicó dos tipos distintos de lectores capaces de constituir el horizonte de sentido de la obra: el lector de historietas y el lector de literatura. Gaiman construye de tal modo el mundo posible ficcional de The Sandman que reúne en él los marcos de referencia y las estructuras narrativas propias de tres géneros diversos, el cómic, el relato breve fantástico y la mitología. Se crea, así, un mundo en el que una realidad como la nuestra se fusiona con los motivos y los personajes de un mito griego. 

 

1. El nuevo lector de cómics

El comic book o la historieta es un formato que combina en partes iguales texto literario e imagen, dentro del mismo el cómic de superhéroes es sólo un género. El problema resultó cuando este género adquirió tal predominancia que pasó a ser concebido por el público en general como “El Cómic”, lo que dio lugar a múltiples prejuicios. Aún hoy, las ideas predominantes dentro del sentido común son que las historietas son un formato sumamente limitado, propio de un tipo muy limitado de lectores, bastante desprestigiados. Los trajes característicos, los universos múltiples, los entrecruzamientos de personajes en las distintas series y el tiempo iterativo conformaban el horizonte de expectativas de lo lectores de cómics en Estados Unidos, lectores que constituían un mercado bien definido y era a éste al que se dirigían las grandes editoriales. En contra de esto, surgen, a mediados de los '80, múltiples obras que se abanderan bajo el título graphic novel, término que desde el principio marca un vínculo directo con lo que llamaremos la “alta literatura”. 

Durante 1986 se publicaron tres de las grandes obras que se instituyeron como precursoras del movimiento: Maus de Art Spiegelman, una obra de carácter biográfico y testimonial que ganó un premio pulitzer en 1992; The Dark Knight Returns de Frank Miller y Watchmen de Alan Moore y Dave Gibbons. Las tres obras presentan la que quizás sea la característica definitoria de las novelas gráficas: su “pretensión de totalidad” (Castagnet, 2012, 8) . Con esto nos referimos a que, si bien fueron publicadas en forma serializada, tenían una extensión limitada, un principio, un nudo y un desenlace definidos y un único autor o equipo de autores. Todas ellas rompieron con los universos múltiples, el tiempo iterativo y la obligada intertextualidad entre las series. En el caso de Maus y Watchmen, además, existía un vínculo fundamental con la historia del siglo XX, en particular con la Segunda Guerra Mundial y la subsiguiente Guerra Fría.

En 1989, Neil Gaiman, un guionista inglés prácticamente desconocido, comienza a publicar una serie dentro de DC Comics. Su editora, Karen Berger, le había permitido elegir cualquier héroe del universo de la editorial (siempre que no fuera importante) y reinventarlo. Esto es común dentro de las grandes editoriales de cómics estadounidenses: los personajes no pertenecen a un único autor, sino que son “manejados” por decisiones de la editorial dentro un universo común. En este caso, Gaiman eligió a Sandman, un personaje creado por Gardner Fox en 1939 (una suerte de detective, sin poderes sobrenaturales) y retomado por Joe Simon y Jack Kirby entre 1974-76 (en este caso, Sandman fue un psiquiatra que llega a una dimensión desde la cual puede controlar los sueños de las personas). De este modo, el autor comienza su historia dentro del género de los superhéroes, pero modificándolo de forma tal de romper con los horizontes de expectativas de lo lectores: el nuevo Sandman se presenta como el Señor de los Sueños y el Príncipe de las Historias, una manifestación del sueño, su encarnación en un ser que cambia de nombre y de cuerpo y reina sobre los sueños de todas las criaturas. Gaiman construye así a un personaje sumamente complejo que poco tiene que ver con los superhéroes, y que puede ser (y será) la sombra que acompañe a los lectores a través de múltiples relatos que recrean motivos y personajes de la mitología, la historia y la literatura universales. 

A lo largo de los primeros siete números de la serie (reunidos en un único tomo recopilatorio, Preludes & Nocturnes), el guionista no rompe abruptamente con el género de superhéroes, sino que desliza la trama sutilmente del universo de DC al suyo propio. Durante estos números iniciales, el Sandman de Gaiman se cruza con los Sandman anteriores (en la intertextualidad propia de los cómics de DC), y enlaza las tres tramas en una sola. De esta forma, Gaiman no hace un “borrón y cuenta nueva” sino que toma las dimensiones paralelas generadas por sus predecesores y las unifica coherentemente, en la que los Sandman anteriores se explican a partir de su relación con Morpheus. Así, el presente eterno del cómic de superhéroes adquiere un pasado y avanza hacia un futuro, las dimensiones múltiples se interconectan, el presente de The Sandman es el presente histórico de una realidad como la nuestra y su mundo y un mundo realista se cruzan.

The Sandman, entonces, fue presentado como un cómic de superhéroes y lanzado al mercado por DC como tal, pero a lo largo de su desarrollo construyó un relato fantástico sumamente complejo a partir de la confluencia de diferentes géneros literarios, estilos narrativos y la intertextualidad con múltiples obras del canon occidental. Relato que, siguiendo la hipótesis de este trabajo, presenta dos tipos de lectores implícitos, revolucionando el mercado del cómic estadounidense al punto que DC creó un nuevo sello editorial dedicado únicamente a las novelas gráficas. 

 

2. Sub-creación, mitopoeia y mundos posibles

En su ensayo “Sobre los Cuentos de Hadas” (1963), el escritor y filólogo británico J.R.R Tolkien desarrolla su propia definición de la fantasía y la literatura de fantasía a partir del análisis de los cuentos tradicionales. Siguiendo las ideas de este autor, hubo un momento en el que los grandes viajes hicieron del mundo un lugar demasiado pequeño para que los hombres y los elfos estuvieran juntos, entonces, fue necesaria la existencia de una tierra de las hadas, Fantasía, en otro lugar. Este otro mundo (o realidad secundaria) es una sub-creación, surgida de la imaginación de un poeta con la “consistencia interna de la realidad” (2007, 60): 

Una cosa, o un aspecto, es el poder mental para formar imágenes; y su denominación adecuada debe ser Imaginación. (...) El logro de la expresión que proporciona (o al menos así lo parece) “la consistencia interna de la realidad” es ciertamente otra cosa, otro aspecto, que necesita un nombre distinto: el de Arte, el eslabón operacional entre la Imaginación y el resultado final, la Sub-creación. (...)

Crear un Mundo Secundario en el que un sol verde resulte admisible, imponiendo una Creencia Secundaria, ha de requerir con toda certeza esfuerzo e intelecto, y ha de exigir una habilidad especial, algo así como la destreza élfica. Pocos se atreven con tareas tan arriesgadas. Pero cuando se intentan y se alcanzan, nos encontramos ante un raro logro del Arte: auténtico arte narrativo, fabulación en su estado primario y más puro. (Tolkien, 2007: 60-63) 

Es posible trazar un paralelo entre estas tempranas ideas de Tolkien y la semántica de los mundos posibles, aplicada al análisis de la literatura en la teoría de los mundos ficcionales expuesta, entre otros, por Lubomir Doležel. Este autor expone las múltiples limitaciones de las teorías literarias de orden mimético, que trazan un vínculo referencial entre la literatura y un único mundo real. Ahora bien, Doležel sostiene que una alternativa a la mímesis podría ser una teoría de la ficción fundada a partir de la semántica de los mundos posibles, donde las realidades ficcionales de la literatura podrían analizarse como mundos ficcionales independientes del orden de lo real. Son mundos posibles, poblados por objetos y criaturas posibles pero sin existencia real. Estos mundos, constituidos a partir de diferentes categorías (las entidades) y modalidades (las limitaciones), se sostienen a partir de su coherencia o consistencia interna. Vargas Llosa habla del poder de persuasión del escritor, del que depende que el lector acepte la ilusión de autonomía de la historia y los personajes respecto de lo real. Pero ese poder de persuasión de la novela: 

...es mayor cuanto más independiente y soberana nos parece ésta, cuando todo lo que en ella acontece nos da la sensación de ocurrir en función de mecanismos internos de esa ficción y no por imposición arbitraria de una voluntad exterior. Cuando una novela nos da esa impresión de autosuficiencia, de haberse emancipado de la realidad real, de contener en sí misma todo lo que requiere para existir, ha alcanzado la máxima capacidad persuasiva (Vargas Llosa, 1997, 35)

Todas estas parecen distintas formas de hablar de la misma idea, de la tarea arriesgada que representa la creación de un mundo secundario o un mundo ficcional donde un sol verde resulte admisible, creación que requiere de una gran capacidad narrativa y a la que pocos se atreven.

Neil Gaiman fue uno de esos pocos que se atrevieron con tareas tan arriesgadas, en The Sandman creó un mundo posible ficcional heterogéneo, compuesto de realidades múltiples: aparte de una dimensión que se corresponde con la nuestra, existe el «Sueño», que es el reino de las imágenes de la imaginación y de todas las historias. De hecho, a lo largo de la serie, vemos surgir múltiples dimensiones que, aún independientes, se entrecruzan; como el Yggdrasil de la mitología nórdica, hay un camino que las une y los personajes pueden tomarlo. De esta forma, la serie que había comenzado como un cómic de superhéroes se encausa de manera totalmente diferente, creando un mundo en el que confluyen los mundos de todos los relatos, y una realidad como la nuestra (con su historia y su actualidad) se ve atravesada por las múltiples realidades de los relatos de ficción que, después de todo, también la conforman. 

Un mundo mitológico, sin embargo, es una estructura semánticamente no-homogénea, constituída por la coexistencia de dominios naturales y sobrenaturales. Los dominios están separados por rígidas fronteras pero, al mismo tiempo, están unidos por la posibilidad de contactos inter-froterizos. (Doležel, 1997: 87)

Entonces, a diferencia de lo que ocurre en la literatura fantástica, donde nuestra realidad primaria es invadida por otra, quebrando el orden natural de las cosas, el universo de The Sandman presenta realidades múltiples interconectadas entre sí. Esta interconexión es constitutiva del orden natural de las cosas, ya que muchos de los hechos y personajes históricos de la realidad primaria se explican a partir de ella. Es lo que el mismo Doležel señala en relación con el traspaso del mito clásico al mito moderno: las fronteras entre los dominios natural y sobrenatural se diluyen, son permeables, y “el mundo mitológico diádico se transforma en un mundo híbrido unificado” (1999, 264)

Estas características llevaron a que se considerara a The Sandman como una “modern mithology” (Railly, 2011: 26). Sin embargo, los mitos tienen la cualidad de presentarse como relatos atemporales, fuera de la historia y del mundo como se lo conoce, y no es el caso de The Sandman. Sara Reilly, en su trabajo “The Old Made New: Neil Gaiman”s storytelling in The Sandman”, propone entonces el término “mitopoeia”, tomado también de la obra de Tolkien: 

Rather than a mythological writer, it is more useful and accurate to describe Gaiman as a mythopoeic writer, a description that aligns him with modernist authors such as Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats; popular culture icons such as comics author/illustrator Jack Kirby; and filmmakers such as George Lucas. The term mythopoeia (or mythopoesis, as also used in this context) was first coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. As explained by Henry Slochower, the term is taken “from the Greek poien, meaning to make, to create” and refers to the “re-creat[ion] of the ancient stories” (15). Slochower distinguishes mythopoesis from mythology, arguing that while “mythology presents its stories as if they actually took place, mythopoesis transposes them to a symbolic meaning” (15). Mythopoesis, then, is purely literary; it does not present itself as truth, but as symbolism. The old stories are made new. That is, the old myths are re-appropriated by a modern author and recreated for a modern audience. Gaiman’s efforts, in fact, have been twice recognized by the Mythopoeic Society, founded in 1967 in order to support such literature (“Awards”). (Reilly, 2011, 27-28) 

“Mitopoeia”, el nombre de un poema de Tolkien editado en conjunto con el ensayo antes citado, hace referencia a la sub-creación: a través del arte, los mundos de la imaginación pueden tener la “consistencia interna de la realidad”; a través del arte, los viejos mundos de la imaginación pueden ser re-creados, puestos en relación con la forma de leer de la actualidad. 

El pensamiento contemporáneo acerca de los orígenes de los mundos posibles no se limita a las presuposiciones metafísicas de la filosofía de Leibniz. Los mundos posibles no se descubren en depósitos lejanos, invisibles o trascendentes, sino que son construidos por mentes y manos humanas. Esta explicación nos la da explícitamente Kripke: “Los mundos posibles se estipulan, no se descubren con potentes microscopios” (Kripke 1972:267; cf.Bradley y Swatz 1979: 63 y ss.). La construcción de mundos posibles ficcionales ocurre, primariamente, en diversas actividades culturales -composición poética y musical, mitología y cuenta-cuentos, pintura y escultura, actuaciones de teatro y danza, cine, etc.- sirven de mediadores en la construcción de mundos ficcionales. Las ficciones literarias se construyen en el acto creativo de la imaginación poética, la actividad de la poiesis. El texto literario es el mediador de esa actividad. Con los potenciales semióticos del texto literario, el poeta lleva a la existencia un mundo posible que no existía antes de su acto poiético.  (Doležel, 1997, 88)

3. Calíope

“Calíope” es el capítulo #17 de The Sandman y pertenece a la serie de cuatro historias autoconclusivas publicadas en 1991 que conformaron el tercer tomo recopilatorio, Dream Country. En “Calíope” Gaiman realiza lo que hemos definido anteriormente como mitopoesis, es decir, la recreación del mito. En este caso, forman parte de la estructura de la historia el motivo del rapto, propio de la mitología grecolatina, y la concepción de la inspiración como obra divina. Además, comprueba en cierta forma el principio de unidad aristorélico, ya que se trata de un capítulo autoconclusivo, en el que la historia completa se desarrolla en muy pocas páginas. En este capítulo, además, no sólo se presenta a la musa Calíope como un personaje dentro de la narración, sino que su historia y su naturaleza como musa de la épica pasan a formar parte constitutiva del mundo de The Sandman. Gaiman no trae a escena sólo a un personaje, a un nombre, como ocurre en la intertextualidad propia de los cómics de superhéroes, de forma que los lectores informados puedan identificarlos; sino que incluye en el relato la historia de Calíope, su condición, su naturaleza, los elementos que la rodean, y le da un lugar en su mundo. 

La historia comienza con el escritor de una única novela exitosa, llamado Richard Madoc, que ya no puede escribir: está bloqueado, no encuentra la inspiración. Entonces, recurre a la ayuda de otro escritor, el ya anciano Erasmus Fry, que le da (a cambio de un bezoar) una musa: Calíope, “la de hermosa voz”, “la musa de la épica”, “la musa de Homero”, como se la nombra en el mismo texto (Gaiman, 2002, 17, 18 y 20). 

Este escritor anciano la había raptado hacía casi sesenta años, mientras ella se bañaba en una fuente de agua en el Monte Helicón. El motivo del rapto, como ya se dijo, es común en la mitología grecolatina, donde se encuentran muchísimas historias que refieren los secuestros de jóvenes mancebos y doncellas por parte de hombres y dioses. 

El viejo escritor tiene prisionera a la musa durante años, pero finalmente se deshace de ella, cambiándola por un bezoar. Este tratamiento de la diosa como un bien de mercado podría leerse de alguna forma como una expresión de la visión moderna del mundo, donde hasta la inspiración puede comprarse. Esta podría parecer una lectura un tanto rebuscada, sin embargo, a pesar de estar señalando los elementos propios del mito clásico en la narración, no hay que dejar de lado que la historia principal se presenta en una realidad como la nuestra.  

El joven escritor, que tenía una única novela exitosa y se hallaba presionado por el contrato con la editorial, obtiene entonces su musa y la obliga a inspirarlo, violándola. En este punto, tenemos la recreación del mito dentro del mundo moderno. El rapto se había dado mediante la irrupción del hombre moderno en el mundo del mito: el escritor viaja al monte Helicón a buscar una musa, preparado para sacarla de allí a la fuerza. En esta segunda parte, en cambio, la concepción clásica de la inspiración como obra divina (el poeta recibe las palabras de las diosas y las dice a los hombres) se introduce en el mundo moderno. La inspiración de Madoc proviene de la musa, él las toma por la fuerza, pero son las palabras de Calíope y se encuentra escribiendo enormes novelas y poemas épicos en la Inglaterra de finales de los '80. 

Las obras así obtenidas se convierten en best sellers y fenómenos editoriales de los que se hacen películas y obras de teatro. El joven escritor adquiere fama y renombre, pero ganando sólo la gloria efímera de la post-modernidad. Esto lo sugiere la paulatina caída en la oscuridad de su predecesor, Erasmus Fry (también inspirado por la musa-esclava), cuya muerte pasa casi desapercibida, luego de pedir durante mucho tiempo que vuelvan a reeditar una de sus novelas, sin conseguirlo. 

De esta forma, vemos como motivos, personajes y concepciones de la mitología griega se recrean en el mundo actual de The Sandman. Sin embargo, hay un cambio sustancial en estos y es la humanización de la diosa. En un principio, Madoc no la reconoce e incluso duda de su naturaleza divina, cosa absolutamente impensable en el mundo de la mitología griega (puesto que Calíope no se presenta en la forma de nadie más). 

Ni siquiera es humana, se dijo. Tiene miles de años. Pero su carne era cálida, su aliento dulce y se tragaba las lágrimas como una niña cuando le hacía daño./ Se le ocurrió por un momento que el viejo podía haberle engañado: que fuera una chica de verdad. Que él, Richard Madoc, hubiese hecho algo malo, incluso criminal.../ Pero luego, mientras se relajaba en su estudio, algo se movió en su cabeza. (Gaiman, 2002, 19)1                                                                             

Finalmente, Calíope es liberada mediante la ayuda de Sandman y Madoc recibe un terrible castigo: es víctima de una inspiración incontrolable, las ideas le llegan a la mente una tras otra, más rápido de lo que puede escribir o pensar y lo abruman hasta el borde de la locura. Este castigo tan cruel, absolutamente opuesto a lo propio de los cómics de superhéroes, deja, sin embargo, en los lectores una suerte de alivio. Esta impresión, certeza de justicia por parte de poderes superiores a la ley de los hombres (que no es impartida por los dioses sino por una necesidad de equilibrio intrínseco al orden del mundo)2, es propia de la cultura griega, siendo una parte fundamental de la tragedia que los protagonistas, después de caer en el exceso y recibir su castigo, reconozcan esta justicia. Esto se encuentra presente en las últimas viñetas de este capítulo, en las Madoc dice: 

Es su venganza, sabes. O la de él. Dije que necesitaba ideas... Pero vienen tan rápido, me inundan, me abruman.../Debes detenerlas./.../ Ve arriba. En el piso superior hay una habitación. Allí hay una mujer./ Déjala salir. Verás, está allí encerrada./Dile... dile que puede irse. Que la libero. Haz que se vaya. Haz que se marche. /.../ Haz que pare. Dile que lo siento.../ (Gaiman, 2002, 32)3 

A partir del análisis de este capítulo, podemos llegar entonces al desarrollo de nuestra hipótesis. Tal como se vio anteriormente, “Calíope” se construye a partir de los vínculos intertextuales con la mitología griega, vínculos que conforman la estructura narrativa y el sentido del relato (ya que, como sostiene Iser, el sentido de la obra se encuentra en su estructura). Es entonces lógico pensar en el lector implícito de esta obra como uno que pudiera reconstruir estos vínculos a partir de sus conocimientos sobre mitología; sin embargo, The Sandman fue publicado por DC Comics y (a pesar de llevar el sello de mature readers lebel) fue leído masivamente por un público que incluía también a los asiduos lectores de historietas de superhéroes. Creemos entonces que la naturaleza mitopoética del relato, que recrea motivos y personajes de la mitología en la realidad contemporánea y humaniza a los personajes divinos, volviéndolos capaces de generar comprensión e identificación por parte de los lectores, permite que el horizonte de sentido pueda ser actualizado incluso por lectores que no pueden reconstruir todos los vínculos intertextuales presentes en la historieta. Karen Berger analiza el curioso fenómeno de la recepción de The Sandman en estos términos:

Al igual que el resto de las series que marcaron una historia antes que ella (léase The Dark Night return, Watchmen y V de Vendetta), el atractivo de The Sandman a transcendido el mercado tradicional de los cómics. Y eso se debe a varias razones. Al fin y al cabo, a Neil Gaiman le gusta contar historias, y las historias que cuenta son atemporales, universales y resonantes. Su trabajo en The Sandman interesará a gente de diferentes formas de vida, atrayendo a una constelación de lectores que normalmente no cohabitan en la misma esfera literaria. The Sandman también cuenta con un número desproporcionadamente alto de mujeres lectoras, probablemente el mayor de toda la historia de los cómics. (Berger, 1999, 6)

Se puede pensar, siguiendo este análisis, que “Calíope” en particular y The Sandman en general, fueron compuestos con una estructura narrativa que permite que el horizonte de sentido, la perspectiva totalizadora de la comprensión, pueda lograrse por dos tipos de lectores implícitos: uno, el lector de historietas de superhéroes, que a partir del suave pasaje de The Sandman de ese género al suyo propio (relacionado con la literatura de fantasía), los vínculos que la serie continúa manteniendo con el universo de DC y su forma mitopoética de relatar, recreando las viejas historias en el mundo nuevo, incorpora las estructuras de una forma de leer diferente. El otro es el lector de literatura, que a partir de los vínculos intertextuales de The Sandman con la mitología, los cuentos tradicionales, la poesía y las obras del canon occidental que forman parte fundamental de la obra, disfruta de la lectura de la historieta y adquiere su estructura particular de lectura, alejada de la experiencia de este tipo de lectores.

Para terminar, y aunque escape de los límites de nuestro trabajo actual, nos cabe plantearnos estas preguntas: ¿Por qué elegiría Gaiman esta forma de contar historias? ¿Qué es lo que trata de decirnos? ¿Por qué está la musa Calíope prisionera de un escritor de best sellers en la Inglaterra del siglo XX? ¿Por qué tienen lugar el exceso, el castigo, el reconocimiento?

El mundo del mito está fuera de nuestro mundo y de nuestro tiempo, pero desde el principio sirvió para explicarlos. El mundo de la tragedia ponía a los hombres en el lugar de los dioses, espectadores de los dramas de los hombres, de sus excesos y sus castigos, para aprender de ellos. Quizás Gaiman, eligiendo contar la historia del joven escritor perseguido por plazos editoriales y contratos que nada tienen que ver con la inspiración y el arte, estaba poniendo su propia historia fuera de él mismo, para observarla. Quizás eligió a la musa de Homero, raptada y humillada en el presente, para recordar ese tiempo antes de la escritura y la Historia, en el que el arte no estaba sujeto a las reglas de un mercado y había tiempo para componer de memoria un poema épico.

Natalia A. Accossano Pérez es Licenciada en Letras y está iniciando su doctorado en Literaturas Europeas del siglo XIX becada por el Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones de Argentina (CONICET). Desde hace muchos años vive en la Patagonia Argentina. Le gusta mucho dar clases de literatura y actualmente participa como ayudante adscripta en la cátedra Literaturas Europeas I de la Universidad Nacional de Río Negro. Primero que nada, es una lectora voraz y asidua a los cómics. Entre sus autores favoritos están J. R. R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Jean Rhys, la mitología y los Románticos. En español, siempre está releyendo a Jorge Luis Borges y Alejandra Pizarnik. En su trabajo, escribe ensayos sobre el paisaje sublime y la prosa feminista, y diarios y relatos breves sólo por placer. Una vez cada tanto, también escribe ensayos sobre cómics y toda esa parte de la literatura que queda afuera de la academia, como el que pueden leer aquí.

Notas

1. Texto incluído en tres cartuchos de narración, a lo largo de dos viñetas.

2. Al respecto, ver: Paz, O. 1986. “El mundo heroico” En: El arco y la lira. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica: 198-218.

3. Diálogo entre Madoc y Félix, un personaje secundario, que se desarrolla a lo largo de seis viñetas. En la cita figuran sólo fragmentos de los globos de diálogo de Madoc.

 

Bibliografía citada

Berger, K. 1999. “Introducción” En Gaiman, N. Preludios Nocturnos (Ernest Riera, trad.), Barcelona: Norma Editorial S.A: 4-6. 

Castagnet, M. F. 2012. All Along the Watchmen: Elementos paratextuales en la novela gráfica de Moore_Gibbons . Tesis de Licenciatura, UNLP. Recuperada el 12/08/2013 en: /http://sedici.unlp.edu.ar/handle/10915/27481/ 

Doležel, L. [1988] 1997. “Mímesis y Mundos Ficcionales” en: Teorías de la ficción literaria, (Antonio Garrido Domínguez, comp.), Madrid: Arco/libros S.L.

[1998] 1999.  Heterocósmica. Ficción y mundos posibles, Madrid: Arco/Libros S.L

Gaiman, N. 2002. País de Sueños (Ernest Riera, trad.), barcelona: Norma Editorial S.A 

Iser, W. 1987. El acto de leer. Teoría del efecto estético (J. A. Gimbernat y M. Barbeito, trad.), Madrid: Taurus.

Paz, O. 1986. “El mundo heroico” En: El arco y la lira. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica: 198-218.

Reilly, S. 2011. “Old Made New: Neil Gaiman's Storytelling in The Sandman”, Honors Projects Overview. Paper 52. Recuperado el 12/08/2013 en:     http://digitalcommons.ric.edu/honors_projects/52

Tolkien, J.R.R. 2007. “Sobre los Cuentos de Hadas” En Árbol y Hoja, Buenos Aires: Minotauro. Vargas Llosa, M. 1997. Cartas a un joven novelista, Barcelona: Ariel / Planeta.

The Choreographer

The Choreographer

At last, he understood that all his life had been choreography for his funeral. He came to this not through therapy, but during a walk in the woods on his friend Bernstein’s sheep farm in southern Oregon.

It was January, he’d been invited to spend the week, and early Monday before the others were up he went walking in the cold, the maples still holding brilliant leaves on their lowest branches, his boots crunching ice along the path. He stopped at the pond, broke off a pane of ice from its surface, held it up, saw his own crazed reflection there, an abstraction he was proud to appreciate, and he wanted to tell Bernstein about it, Bernstein a painter, tell him about the fascinating distortion, the outline of the nose limning a raised ridge in the ice, the chin line carved along the edge—he wanted his friend to know that he understood abstraction. And when he came back into the house, went into his paneled room overlooking the sheep pen, took off his jacket and gloves and rehearsed his quick speech about the glassy ice, he knew then, in the quiet of the house, that the entire speech was meant to plant in Bernstein’s head the possibility, the suggestion, of his painter friend rising at his funeral and saying, “I just want to say that he understood abstraction.”

He sat on the bed, and in a moment less of honesty than of a long life’s filtration, saw that almost everything he had said or done in his life after, say, age thirty, had been funeral choreography.

For decades now, he admitted, he’d pictured the exact room of his memorial: warm yellow light, metal chairs, a bank of windows revealing a mature garden, wine and hors d’oeuvres on a table at the rear, a crowd larger than the capacity of the place. A winter afternoon—perhaps not unlike what today’s afternoon will be, he thought.

How familiar he was with that place. It had been his, detail after detail added, for thirty years now—was always there when he spoke, didn’t speak, acted, didn’t act.

When he was a lover, he was a lover in order that the beautiful woman he was caressing might, at that memorial, stand—only at the end, mind you—and in a soft voice say I just wanted to mention that he was a wonderful lover, and then ten women, emboldened, would stand and in a quickly accelerating crescendo say He certainly was, and it would be a moment of great humor, memorable.

When he took time to speak with the postman who brought his mail and he asked after the postman’s kids, it was in hope, really, that the postman would rise that same day and say, He always asked about my family, always remembered my kids’ names.

When he was a teacher, he taught not so much to share knowledge but to assemble a legion of potential memorial-goers, each of them standing to say He taught me so much, and He was so important to me formatively, and The world will never be the same . . .

And so it went: when he visited the sick, helped a neighbor change a transmission, bought season tickets to the symphony, studied the Ramayana, traveled to difficult places—all was toward memorial accolade: He brought tenderness to everything he did. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He was an underground scholar. He knew more about John Cage than most musicians I know. He could name the streets of Nairobi in his sleep, and of course, his friend Bernstein’s abstraction comment, and his good wife positioned at the side of the room surrounded north, south, east, west by his four kids, all of them laughing and weeping.

He couldn’t know, though, on this clear winter day in southern Oregon, that his memorial would be nothing like that.

His wife would have arranged a simple service in the Presbyterian Church, word of his death would not have gone out widely—one of his sons having missed the deadline for the obituary—and there was a storm: brutal rain, dangerous driving. Family and extended family would come, but Bernstein would be in Hawaii, the postman long dead, students spread around the globe, most of them hearing of his death only months later, and no lovers: not one. Why would they have heard? A neighbor would rise to say He helped me change my transmission, and I still have the scars to prove it, but the little joke would have gone over badly, sounding strangely bitter.

But for this Monday morning, he was at peace with himself, the confidence of a choreographer just before opening night, certain that his dancers know their moves, that the stage is clean, the music cued, the lights just right, the understudies stretching in the wings.

From The Choreographer, Sixteen Rivers Press (San Francisco), 2013

Gerald Fleming is the author of The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.

Hilary Mantel and the historical novel

Hilary Mantel and the historical novel

From an essay by Sara Knox first published  in Twenty-First-Century British Fiction, Bianca Leggett and Tony Venezia (Eds.). Canterbury, U.K.: Gylphi, 2015.

What the literary historical novel is, and what it should or shouldn’t do, are questions that have long exercised critics, readers and authors from the period of the genre’s triumph to that of its decline.…In a frequently quoted letter dated 5 October 1901, Henry James warns Sarah Orne Jewett of the almost impossible requirements for a true representation of an era, and its habits of mind. ‘You may multiply the little facts to be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like’, writes James, but ‘the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its absence the whole effect is nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness.’ His last word to Jewett was about the cheek of it all: ‘you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force — and even then it’s all humbug’  (quoted in Horne, 1999, 360). James’ letter is itself too frequently ‘simplified back’ to those final three words: ‘it’s all humbug’, forgetting what a perfectionist James was; how high set was his bar. Literary naturalism’s critique of the historical novel is that some feats of imagination are hubris: efforts beyond the artist and therefore beneath the art. But this is to miss James’ qualifier: ‘The real thing is almost impossible to do’, which means: it can be—might be—done. Which is surely reason enough to make the attempt. 

The question of what the literary historical novel is, and what it should and shouldn’t do, seemed to have found its moment in 2012, the year in which Hilary Mantel won her second Man Booker prize for Bring Up the Bodies—17 years after the publication of her first historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety. Bring up the Bodies is the second instalment of three novels on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. The first, Wolf Hall, had won Mantel the Man Booker in 2009. Peter Carey, J. G. Farrell, Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee are the only other authors to share the honour of having won two Booker prizes, but Mantel is the only person in the history of the prize to win twice in quick succession, and to win for historical novels in series. Mantel’s Man Bookers (should we call these Man-tel Bookers?) are also distinctive in that her novels represent an era more remote than any other winning ‘historical’: 250 years earlier than those treated, say, by Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. What is notable, then, about Mantel’s double-win is not only how pre-eminently ‘historical’ the novels are, but also the complexity and breadth of the history they offer, intra- and extra-textually. They play out along the same line of historical events—what Wolf Hall begins, Bring Up the Bodies continues—but differ in technique and strategy, as the author learns her subject (Tudor history and the political and intellectual progress of the Protestant reformation) and her Subject (Thomas Cromwell, from whose point of view the events are narrated)

…. 

In Bring Up the Bodies we are closely schooled about narrative partiality—the second novel builds on the first book by strengthening Cromwell as a pivot of its action. He is agent and doer, an author of change. This is not only a matter of our orientation to Cromwell as the central character (who is speaking? ‘He, Thomas Cromwell’ is speaking) it is an argument in the making about Thomas Cromwell (Mantel: ‘look to my book for accuracy where I can contrive it, but don’t look to it for impartiality’ [Mares, 2009]).  Taken together, the series proposes a history. That they do so troubles some people—particularly (and predictably) Tudor historians. Susan Bordo takes issue with the author’s partiality in Bring Up the Bodies, arguing that what gets storied (or omitted from the story) tells on Cromwell, with whom both author and reader are closely tied. Mantel ‘excludes some key historical material’ that ‘might cause readers to question (her) Cromwell’s view of Anne [Boleyn] as an unfeeling strategist’, and show Cromwell to be ‘more like a thug’ than the author would have us take him (Bordo, 2012). Or rather a different kind of thug—Mantel’s Cromwell is not at all averse to cowing people, though he does so less with violence than by play upon other people’s expectations about what kind of man he was, a man from a ‘dishonourable estate’ (WH, 70), with a past career as a soldier in Italy. Bordo’s concluding judgment vindicates Mantel the novelist but condemns her as a writer of history: ‘the imaginative fiction of “Cromwell’s point of view” is both the novel’s greatest achievement and a handy rationale for playing very loose with the facts’ (2012). But the judgement sits beneath an equivocation (the subtitle of the piece): ‘whether we approve of the liberties taken with history depends on who is taking them—Hilary Mantel or Showtime’ (Bordo, 2012). Mantel’s current pre-eminence as a novelist, and the referred glamour of that eminence on literary historical fiction more generally, secures the ground for the return of a long embattled genre to respectability. 

I would here like to assess the contribution of Hilary Mantel to the historical novel—and the question of its existence, its reason for being—by taking up a thread left dangling by A. S. Byatt in her essay ‘Forefathers’ where she talks about the relationship of the historical novel to secrecy, revelation, and the power of interrogation. Byatt first observes the tenacity of writers working in the genre to imagine an ‘extraordinary variety of distant pasts’ (Byatt, 2000, 36) despite the dictum that ‘we cannot know the past … and therefore should not write about it’ (38). Whether a technique of ‘historical ventriloquism’ like that practiced by Peter Ackroyd in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), or ‘novels which play serious games with the idea of narrative itself’ like Graham Swift’s Waterland (Byatt, 48), or the ‘apparently straightforward, realist narrative’ of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Byatt, 2000, 54), she finds the contemporary English historical novel effectively engaged in telling us what we cannot know (2000, 56). Discussing Mantel’s ‘experimental third person narrators’ in A Place of Greater Safety as inheritors of the ‘knowledgeable narrators’ of George Eliot (2000, 54), Byatt suggests that narrators do not have the ‘omniscience of a god’ mistakenly taken to characterise the nineteenth century narrator, but are fictive narrators of small compass and considerable acuity, who ‘can creep closer to the feelings and the inner life of characters…than any first-person mimicry’ (2000, 55). Her sense of Mantel’s ability to ‘tell us what we can’t know’ hinges partly on the novelist making history accessible (viz. the past we cannot know) and partly in her success at bringing the made world near to the reader where the historical record—Henry James’ ‘little facts’—might leave the reader hanging. But the question of what we cannot know shades into that of what we should not know when Byatt observes in passing that there is an ‘interesting path to be explored along the connections between modern historical novels and the popular genres that tell stories about secrecy’ (2001, 57). She quotes historian Richard Cobb on the compulsions of the historian to get the ‘foot in the door, to get behind the façade, to get inside’.  For that ‘is what being, or becoming, an historian is all about—the desire to read other people’s letters, to breach privacy, to penetrate into the inner room’ (quoted in Byatt, 2001, 56). The idea of trespass presumes a realm of privacy, but is imagination the realm of privacy against which all trespasses must be defended? Or is imagination the culprit, the trespasser on fact and the real of a vanished past? 

In Hilary Mantel’s historical novels the question of knowledge—its standpoint, its limitations, its rights—looms large. So too does that question loom large in the criticism of her work, and of the genre more broadly: in regard to the construction of the historical novel (narrative technique and plotting); in terms of the weltanschuang—what James’ terms the ‘old consciousness’—that the novel must evoke; and in the way historical novels are weighed as historiographical representations, as propositions for imagining a specific past and historical persons. 

….

The use and abuse of the record, and the question of knowledge—facts promulgated or withheld, ideas traded upon or proscribed, associations owned or denied—is at the heart of Mantel’s … historical novels. In her evocation of the Royal Court, of Cromwell’s Putney, and of county and country in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies the covert is dangerous, although a danger Cromwell recognizes as ‘the way of the world’—and like the world—a danger that even-handedly presages a bad end: ‘a knife in the dark, a movement on the edge of vision, a series of warnings that have worked themselves into flesh’ (WH, 76). These threats are general, even democratic, but they loom large for Cromwell since he’s made himself so much the centre of things, agent—even—of actions accounted to others. ‘He used to say, “the king will do such and such.” Then he began to say, “We will do such and such.” Now he says, “This is what I will do.’” (WH, 28). And the spectre of knowledge haunts Mantel’s earlier historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, where questions posed by Enlightenment social thought are answered by ever more bloody inquiries into the workings of order as Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins work to imagine and bring into being a revolution that is something more than the one events have served them. 

The question of what-is-knowable but also of who-knows-what leads us to narrative authority and to techniques of narration, but also brings into view the historiographical nature of literary historical fiction in its constructed-ness and subjectivity … as well as its intrusiveness: its tendency toward trespass. That impulse would not be foreign to Mantel, the author, or to her characters. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Cromwell or Camille Desmoulins scrupling much at reading another’s letters, or even from writing them: as Cromwell does for the King (BUTB, 210). And Mantel could not have served the history, or drawn her character, without having read letters—Cromwell’s letters—as they are ‘virtually our only source’ (Mares, 2009) in the documentary record where Cromwell speaks directly, for himself and as himself. To read an historical resource is not to trespass, where the past—and the dead—have by rights given up their ground, but nevertheless the spectre of trespass, and questions about the propriety of knowledge, haunts Mantel’s historical novels.

Mantel’s protagonists are animated by tensions between the impulse to know and the countervailing pressure to repress some knowledge—to obscure a fact, keep a story from the gossips, or suppress a thought. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies treat a period in which the concept of privacy as we recognize it did not exist, while the concept of rights upon which privacy discursively rests is only coming into view in the period of revolutionary upheaval in Europe, the larger world enclosed by the ‘inner rooms’—the domestic interiors—within which the action of A Place of Greater Safety is staged. It narrates the revolution from a near, even an intimate, proximity to Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre (and to a lesser extent, the wives of Desmoulins and Danton) in a ‘blurring of the boundaries between the political and the domestic’ (Hidalgo, 2002, 205). Seldom do we glimpse the public revolutionary about his work, unless it is in the moment just prior to a significant political act or utterance, at its formation but not its completion. Someone says something to someone else; a joke is made at another’s expense while the real cost—a career, a corpse—is still to be counted; the seed of a plan is sown, a rumour set about, an accusation made; something is committed to writing, for private record or publication. In A Place of Greater Safety it is not the concept of privacy per se that is canvassed but the disappearance of the ‘private’ (private life sacrificed to public vertu; private rooms become meeting houses). That the ‘private’ is so swiftly disappearing is fateful for everyone caught up in the revolutionary events in Paris, but particularly so for Danton and Desmoulins. A newly minted man of the people for his part in the street riots leading to the storming of the Bastille, Camille finds his likeness turned out on crockery: ‘[t]his is what happens when you become a public figure, people eat their dinners off you’ (APOGS,  249), while Gabrielle Danton discovers that she and her husband are to have little space to themselves in their new apartment: ‘[a] curtained alcove sheltered twin beds, marked off their private territory from the patriotic circus it had become’ (APOGS, 346). The private is a preserve of privilege and privilege is quickly becoming a liability, as Mirabeau lugubriously observes: ‘I can remember the days…when we didn’t have public opinion. No one had ever heard of such a thing’ (APOGS, 325). This is a response to Danton’s fondly barbed characterisation of Camille, who ‘has to be running ahead of public opinion all the time’ (APOGS, p. 324). Camille leads opinion, but there is also something fugitive and vulnerable in all this ‘running ahead’.

….

It is over this distinction between the public and the private that the crisis ensues. Danton falls after being implicated in a conspiracy of profiteering (the revolutionary nation is at war), a ‘stock market scandal’ characterised—tellingly—by ‘insider trading’ (Mantel, 2009b). And what condemns Desmoulins, finally, is his commitment to private life—not his own so much as that of an increasingly wide-array of citizens condemned by the Committee for Public Safety, with its private proceedings and its process bearing down on evidence that is, as likely as not, public rumour. Camille remonstrates with Robespierre as the Terror deepens, first doing so in public, and then face-to-face. His article about the tyranny of the reign of Emperor Tiberius makes its accusation by analogy, his revolution having become the thing it derides: ‘the corruption of all human feeling, the degradation of pity to a crime’ (APOGS, 770). Desmoulins means the reader to see Robespierre’s agent, Antoine de Saint-Just, as the instrument of tyranny, but when Robespierre reads the article he recognizes himself. When they meet to discuss this last instance of Camille’s fervor for liberty, it is on a bridge over the Seine, for ‘inside’—as Robespierre puts it—‘you can’t keep secrets’ (APOGS, 771). To which Camille replies,  ‘you see—you admit it. You’re eaten away with the thought of conspiracy. Will you guillotine brick walls and doorposts?’ (APOGS, 771). Those ‘brick walls and door posts’ are what sets home off from the world—border to the last preserve of the private. But for Robespierre there is only one inside that counts, one sanctified preserve. After he has agreed to Saint-Just arraigning Camille before the Tribunal, Robespierre tells him: ‘[w]hen this business is over, and Camille is dead, I shall not want to hear your epitaph for him. No one is ever to speak of him again, I absolutely forbid it. When he is dead, I shall want to think of him myself, alone’ (APOGS, 862). This inside is the place of greater safety. Not that arch public face of memory, posterity (‘your epitaph’), nor even the grave itself: it is thought, and that fragile vessel, memory.

For the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the place of greater safety is even more remote, beyond his power to conjure or keep. It is not memory, for the dead do not dwell only there: after his wife, then his daughters, die they can be glimpsed on the stair, they put their small hands beside his on the page as he stands reading by the window. Despite his faith, Cromwell finds little practical comfort in his own inviolate soul: it is not a ground to stand upon; it does not even belong to him. When he imagines the dead in their afterlife, it is in Augustinian terms, resurrection in the shadow of mourning (Augustine: ‘the flesh resurrects in order not to possess but to be possessed, not to have but to be had’ [quoted in Segal, 2004, 279]). When his eldest daughter dies of the sweating sickness Cromwell thinks of her, suddenly complete, not the girl still learning Greek, but the girl ‘who knows it now’. He wonders if that is how it is ‘in a moment, in a simple twist of unbecoming,’—the dead suddenly knowing ‘everything they need to know’ (WH, 152). For the Cromwell we meet at the height of his power, there is only one place of respite from its burdens, only one way to shake off the constant nagging fact of what needs to be done (what he must do). After he has terrified Mark Smeaton, breaking him for the confession that will condemn Anne Boleyn, Cromwell retires to bed. He cannot sleep, and ‘it is only in his dreams that he is private’. Cromwell nurses his wakefulness, remembering the ascetic Thomas More, who ‘used to say you should build yourself a retreat, a hermitage, within your own house. But that was More: able to slam the door in everyone’s face. In truth you cannot separate them, your public being and your private self....’(BUTB, 281) Cromwell would not follow More’s thinking, being Wolsey’s man. When Cromwell first marked down Mark Smeaton it was with the thought ‘the cardinal always says, there are no safe places, there are no sealed rooms’ (WH, 199): meaning, nowhere we won’t have an eye and an ear on you, Mark Smeaton. But in the context of his later interrogation of Smeaton, ‘no safe places’ and ‘no sealed rooms’ has a meaning more pointed. It’s Cromwell who is without a place of greater safety. 

Early in the novel of that name, we find Robespierre crafting his public position on the matter of private interests: ‘…private interests and all personal relationships must give way to the general good’. The young lawyer from Arras then puts down his pen and remonstrates with himself: ‘this is all very well, it is easy for me to say that, I have no dearest friend. Then he thought, of course I have, I have Camille’ (APOGS, p. 109). Put in mind of his friend, he searches for his last letter from him, which is ‘rather muddled, written in Greek’. It seems to Robespierre that by ‘applying himself to the dead language, Camille was concealing from himself his misery, confusion and pain; by forcing the recipient to translate, he was saying, believe that my life to me is an elitist entertainment, something that only exists when it is written down and sent by the posts’ (APOGS, 109-110). The passage draws for the reader the whimsical Camille and shows us the central tension—and tragedy—for Robespierre, the seed of his betrayal of his friend to the guillotine.  But so too is there something of the reflexive here, a take on historical narrative, the novel, and the historiographical all at once: ‘elitist entertainment’,  ‘something that only exists when it is written down’ and transmitted; something that obliges a work of interpretation, and something that obfuscates as much as it reveals.

While it would be too much to suggest that Mantel’s historical novels are ‘historiographic metafictions’ in Linda Hutcheon’s terms they nevertheless do ‘problematize the question of historical knowledge’ (1996, 474) without either the play of the mendacious or the self-referential knowingness of the postmodern historical novel. Respect for fact and the historical record grounds the fiction for the author must keep the ‘conjecture…plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get’ (Mantel, 2009). This commitment to the history in the fiction does not forestall the scholar/story-teller’s healthy respect for the labour of interpretation, whatever the degree of its imaginative working of the facts. ‘The past is not dead ground,’ writes Mantel, ‘and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it.’ Then, implicating herself in the comment, she adds: ‘the most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator’ (2009). In Bring Up The Bodies, Thomas Cromwell meditates on the slippery Thomas Wyatt, ‘the cleverest man in England’ (BUTB, 347).….and the slipperiness of … his craft: 

…you trap him and say, Wyatt, did you really do what you describe in this verse? He smiles and tells you, it is the story of some imaginary gentleman, no one we know; or he will say, this is not my story I write, it is yours, though you do not know it. He will say, this woman I describe here, the brunette, she is really a woman with fair hair, in disguise. He will declare, you must believe everything and nothing of what you read. 

(BUTB, 348)

The substance of the art is indivisible: it can’t be ‘taxed’. Cromwell is admiring the infuriating Wyatt, how self-contained he is; that collected hauteur under interrogation. But from whence comes that strength? ‘You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true? He says, it is poet’s truth. Besides, he claims, I am not free to write as I like. It is not the king, but metre that constrains me. And I would be plainer, he says, if I could: but I must keep to the rhyme’ (BUTB, 348).

The whole passage can be read as at once a justification for, and a critique of, the imaginative work of the historical novel and the ‘trespasses’ of the novelist. Consider the context for the passage: Cromwell is characterising Wyatt—the Wyatt who is lucky, protected. There is evidence that could have damned him along with the other ‘conspirators’ in Anne’s sexual betrayal of the King but when Mark Smeaton is naming names, and blurts Wyatt’s, Cromwell is definite: ‘No, not Wyatt’ (BUTB, 283). Partiality and evidence contest here, and partiality wins. It is necessary for Cromwell to preserve Wyatt, for Wyatt is a principal embodied—albeit a troubled principal. The passage tellingly turns from its mediation on art (‘A Statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it’ [BUTB, 348]) to the messages of Angels, and the elusiveness of their nature. Cromwell has no doubt that Angels exist, but knows not whether they have the ‘plumage of falcons, crows, peacocks’ (BUTB, 348). And the only evidence he has from someone (‘a turnspit in the papal kitchens’) who has seen one provides little comfort, for ‘the Angel’s substance was heavy and smooth as marble, its expression distant and pitiless; its wings were carved from glass’ (BUTB, 349). These are terrifying emissaries of the only truth that counts, the truth toward which a ‘poet’s truth’ is aimed, but can never reach. 

In this passage—from Cromwell explaining Wyatt to Risley, to the meditation on art and the nature of angels—it is difficult not to hear the author remonstrating with critics like Bordo: ‘You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true?’ Mantel’s defence is ‘poet’s truth’: ‘I would be plainer, but I must keep to the rhyme’. For the literary historical novelist, history is ‘the king’ that does not constrain, and form ‘the metre’ that must. But if this is a defence, it is a qualified one: recognising the privilege of the interpretation, and its trespass (Wyatt is favoured, Wyatt is protected; Wyatt’s ‘lines fledge feathers’—so just leave him to his work). For there are Angels, they hover at a farther horizon. They are History—which is the blind passing of human time on this earth, not the ‘history’ that remembers us.

Sara Knox is an Associate Professor in the the Writing and Society Research Group and the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of Murder: a Tale of Modern American Life (Duke University Press, 1998) and other notable works on violence and representation. Her most recent publications include work on Hilary Mantel, including a study of the moral geography of violence in Mantel's novels,  and the regeneration of the historical novel as literary genre. Her novel The Orphan Gunner (Giramondo, 2007) won the 2009 Asher Literary Prize and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Age Book of the Year.
Her blog can be found at: saralouiseknox.wordpress.com

 

WORKS CITED

Bordo, Susan (2012, May 6) ‘When Fictionalized Facts Matter: From ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ to Hilary Mantel’s New Bring Up the Bodies’, Chronicle of Higher Education, URL (consulted December 2012):

Byatt, Antonia S. (2000) ‘Forefathers’, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto and Windus.

Hidalgo, Pilar (2002) ‘Of Tides and Men: History and Agency in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense 10: 201-216.

Horne, Philip (1999) Henry James: a Life in Letters. New York: Viking.

Hutcheon, Linda (1996) ‘The Pastime of Past Time: Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction’, in Hoffman & Murphy (eds.), Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. London: Leicester University Press.

Mantel, Hilary (2008a, 24 May) ‘Author, Author’, The Guardian. URL (consulted December 2012)

Mantel, Hilary (2009a, 17 Oct) ‘Booker Winner Hilary Mantel on Dealing with History in Fiction’, The Guardian. URL (consulted December 2012)

Mantel, Hilary (2012) Bring Up the Bodies New York: Henry Holt and Company. 

Mantel, Hilary (1992) A Place of Greater Safety. London: Viking.

Mantel, Hilary (2009) Wolf Hall. London: Harper Collins.

Mares, Peter (2009, 18 June) ‘Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall’ [Radio Interview], The Book Show. ABC Radio. URL (consulted December 2012)

Segal, Alan (2004) Life After Death: a History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. New York: Doubleday.

The Others

The Others

 "It is the absence of facts that frightens people:
the gap you open, into which they pour
their fears, fantasies, desires.” 
― HILARY MANTEL, 
Wolf Hall

We’re having a good time—bottle of red wine, spaghetti, we’re here in our garden, warm breeze scented with lilac, light on its way out.

Others, though, are having a better time. In Newport it’s three hours later—already more advanced than we—and those others sit not only with their spouses but with four friends on a verandah overlooking the Atlantic, torch-lights behind them, the ocean a swath of black, only its sound in the cove—easy waves, rolling pebbles—announcing it. Theirs is an understated ocean. Their wine is better, their dinner later, and there’s laughter. One of the women has on your favorite perfume, and were we there, its scent would come our way. Someone in the kitchen with deft hands has cooked their meal, another serves it attentively, and there is no guilt.

But each guest knows in his longing that elsewhere others are having an even better time. Just outside D.C., for example, on a marble terrace overlooking the Potomac there’s a similar dinner—the same number of couples plus one—and it’s the addition of that couple that has made all the difference. The wine a little older, and the food, though served in smaller portions, richer—ah, but that one couple, the man black, the woman white—has energized the group, put everyone at their best. Listen: people are joking in German, saying sexy things in Italian, cursing in Russian, laughing in French. They’re almost raucous, but just shy of raucous—they know exactly where the line lies—it is there, in the mist above them; it will not descend. And look how well they’re dressed: the men in linen shirts, earth-tone slacks, the women’s breasts exposed slightly from each trimmed dress, each guest almost completely in the moment, this warmest night of the year.

They, too, though, know of those others, those betters, off the coast of Carolina in the stateroom of the hundred-foot Harmonium as it drifts in its easy private sea. The same number are there, but there’s a confidence, an intimacy lacking in the others. Same wine as Washington but more of it, plates garnished more imaginatively, dinner not even on until midnight, a little dancing just before, a switch of partners for one spin around the circular floor, and now they’re at table: how hearty they are, each of them an artist, not a banker among them, each smart & funny, intuitive & wise, their humor more subtle, implied. When they speak—which is often—there’s a largesse about them, a sense of kindness toward their host. They know each other well, the ship rocks languorously, honeysuckle scent from the coast. They could communicate simply by looking into each other’s eyes.

And we all know that after dinner that is what they do. A little tipsy but none drunk, they move to love each other on the deep carpet of the stateroom floor—all of them there, each knowing the others’ secrets, fit bodies melting into fit bodies, one moving being, many skin tones, many special sighs, the ship swaying imperceptibly, each to each to each, and as the first rays of sun fall across the bow someone says, Let’s sleep…

And we here, in this pitiful garden...

From Night of Pure Breathing, Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn), 2011

Gerald Fleming is the author of The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.