End of year thing

I feel like there should be an end of the year post but I have such a lousy memory I can’t recall all the things I liked best. I listened to Nicki Minaj a lot  and I have much love for her. “Did it on ’em” was a song that actually made me go “What the fuck is this? What is she saying?” and then “Oh my god, it’s amazing. She’s amazing. This is perfect.” I’m so glad there is a woman more than equal to the top guys in the field, and that she is recognised as such.

I have sadness that there’s still “top guys in the field” instead of top people. It’s true all over – TV, comedy, writing, whatever. There are the successful men and then the select women who are deemed of rare enough quality that they get to hang there too. Even on twitter amongst the people who tweet about lit stuff it seems there’s a boys club (with separate UK and US branches of these in the blog world too) and only a few honorary women. Anyway, a massive cheer for Caitlin Moran who somehow managed to write a clever, funny, brilliant, best selling (number one on the list for weeks and weeks) book about feminism (even if it is mainly a biography) How To Be a Woman.

Favourite novels of the year are The Canal by Lee Rourke and The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie. Fave short story collections are Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower and Ayiti by Roxane Gay. Speaking of Roxane Gay, it’s been a pleasure to read her intelligent, articulate thoughts online in a wide variety of places (HTML Giant, The Rumpus, and her own blog to name a few.)

Fave TV show was Sons of Anarchy. Compelling viewing that just kept relentlessly building. We’re a season behind the US here and I am so looking forward to watching Season 4 when it airs. I also loved The Mentalist. I want to be Patrick Jane, and date Cho.

Film of the year? No idea. I saw Thor yesterday though and really enjoyed it. Home and Away boy has done good! And learned how to open his eyes. How buff? More fun than I expected too. I appreciated the Shakespearean swagger and am really looking forward to Whedon’s Avengers.

Scent of the year – Amazing Grace by Philosophy. Absolutely gorgeous. Fresh, clean, non-cloying.

Meal of the year was in the Fork and Field where I tasted the best pasta I have ever had. Seriously so good that I couldn’t stop smiling. It was Gratin of Macaroni with spinach, parmesan and fresh truffle and was perfection.

Book-selling hurrahs were realising we’d sold over 100 copies of Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories, and selling out of Kuzhali Manickavel’s Insects Are Just Like You and Me Only Some of Them Have Wings yet again, selling heaps of The Best British Short Stories, and ordering in goodies like Roxane Gay’s Ayiti and Breece D’J Pancake‘s Collected Stories. I get a real thrill introducing people to damn good writing and I’ve never had anyone come back and complain about a recommendation I’ve given so I hope that’s a good sign.

More personally, my family have struggled through hellish times this year but emerged stronger. I pack the sad, angry, bitterness down inside me and carry on. What else to do? One of my boys made up a song – “I’ve got an arch of love for you” – and he sings it, complete with arm gestures, to me. I congratulated my other son on how well he dealt with an awkward situation – “I model myself on you,” he said. There is nothing more precious, more wonderful, than my twins. My resolution for 2012 is the same as the advice I give to my beautiful boys – “Be the best you that you can be.”

Happy new year y’all.

A little bit more & a link

The comment thread on my previous post is bothersome to trawl through but there’s some interesting debate going on in there. Though I was exploring my use of personal experiences for fiction, and the role that autobiography has to play, it is me saying that I won’t write one of those “small African girl in a dusty village” stories and quoting from Kuzhali Manickavel’s blog, that has created most interest.

Kuzhali has written a blog post – A Letter of Apology to the Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things With Legions of White Peacocks. Her comments section is also interesting and contains further links.

I have received lots of emails on the subject from people who would prefer not to make their thoughts public. I am fascinated by the silence of some I thought would have a say, and the sense that people are watching from the sidelines.

By the way – unless you agree one hundred percent with everything I say, you are clearly wrong.

A really long blog post about fiction, autobiography, cultural tourism and such like

I’m still chewing this over so blogging about it may be premature. The other night I mentioned to writing pals that I can’t help but write from my life. That’s usual I think, although people bury themselves in their words to a greater or lesser extent, so sometimes it is obviously a fictionalised account of personal experience (Sylvia Plath) and other times the reality is almost invisible (Ted Hughes.)
I have felt lonely, awkward, happy, and sad. I have had relationships, I have children, I have been ill etc. So when my fiction has a character that feels alone I draw on my own understanding of that emotion in order to convey it. That’s what we all do, right? But what about when I, owner of sixteen pet slugs, write a story about a slug? I draw part of my story from my own experiences, and yet the slug in my story is not my slug, and the slug owner in the story is not me. The things that happen are not real. It is a made-up story. What if my fictional woman picks up a saucepan and bangs her slug to death with it? Does that mean it is something I have done. Nope. But what about her feelings? If she is feeling desperate and angry and fizzing with violence when she flattens that slug I may call upon my own knowledge of how that feels in order to portray it.
I’m not the owner of sixteen slugs. I made that up. You know what I mean though.
My twins have special needs and I have written a story about a boy with special needs. He is not based on my boys. The mum in the story is not me. The situations that arise have not happened to us, the things said and done are all fiction. I draw on my experiences though, my knowledge. I feel okay writing about this made up boy with special needs because although my work is fiction I do have experience of how it may be, and so I feel that it is ok for me to explore.
I don’t have a pet slug. If I wrote a story about a pet slug I could research it, I could read books and articles. I could go in my garden and find a slug and force myself to touch it and write about that. Or I could just make it up. I could imagine that it would feel cool, and jelly, and squishy. That would be ok. Slugs won’t read the story and feel upset that it is inaccurate and that really they feel warm and wet. But. Hmm. I won’t write about a small African girl in a dusty village. I don’t feel that is my story to tell. I am uneasy about the cultural tourism that writers and readers so often engage in. Not my bag, man.
I have had heated debates with other writers about this. We are fiction writers and we make things up. Our imagination is the key we unlock our stories with, and we have the right to imagine anything. Yeah. But.
It was suggested by one writer I discussed this with that perhaps it was because I wasn’t talented enough as a writer that I couldn’t write these types of stories. Rude. I choose not to. I am uncomfortable with taking stories that aren’t mine.
The always awesome Kuzhali Manickavel said in a recent blog post “I am not going to ask why your story is about a Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things where all the girls get raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and everyone speaks some foreign Muslim language which makes them sound like they all have massive brain injuries because hey, that’s just how those crazy foreigners talk, right? I am not going to ask about this because people write this kind of stuff all the time, possibly because they believe that the chances of someone calling them on their bullshit are very slim to nil. This is why so many craptastic stories about “foreigners” get published. However. I do want to know why you would say that legions of white peacocks flooded the skies each dawn and alighted on everyone’s front lawns in the Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things. Legions of white peacocks? LEGIONS? FRONT LAWNS? WTF, are you on drugs? Is this sci-fi? Are you on drugs?”
And I think, she has a point, no?
I suppose what I seek is authenticity, because ultimately I look for truth in fiction. I look to fiction to supply absolute truth in a way that non-fiction sometimes fails to do. And I don’t mind at all if the truth is embedded in magical realism, or laid bare, or if it rhymes, or whatever. I don’t like sentimentality though, that almost wobbling on the brink of tears luxury of voyeuristic misery. I want to recognise, empathise and believe. I revel in the joy of feeling understood and connected in some way.
So we’re back to me writing somewhat biographically but not really.
Tania Hershman just reviewed Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories over at The Short Review. She comments:
“The next point is that where many authors cast their net far and wide and write stories set in many locations – be they cities, countries or other planets – Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.”
I hadn’t noticed that, I hadn’t looked. But yes, it seems that the author who interests me the most is one who writes in the way I aspire to. She rejects the exotic and examines the everyday. Her truth shines and resonates. I wonder if that’s true for all my favourite authors, and suspect there it is: the uniting thread between Plath, Galloway, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, A.L Kennedy, Bukowski, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland.
There is a wonderful quote from Lorrie Moore in response to being asked about a story “which seemed to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.”
“No, it didn’t straddle a line. It was fiction. It is autobiographical, but it’s not straddling a line. Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction. It can still have that connection, that germ. It came from something that happened to you. That doesn’t mean it’s straddling a line between nonfiction and fiction. And the whole narrative strategy is obviously fictional. It’s not a nonfiction narrative strategy.”
Brilliant. (You can read the whole interview here.) I love how she sounds kinda testy and absolutely sure of herself.
Anyway, like I say, I’m still mulling. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write whatever you feel compelled to, but I think we all strive for a unique voice, and mine sounds a lot like me. 

Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel


I have been fortunate enough to read stories by Kuzhali Manickavel, and they are consistently wonderful. She worked for a brief while in the online writing group that I am part of. I think she became frustrated by the lack of useful critiques she received. I told her that I couldn’t think of a single thing that would improve her work, and I meant it. It is rare to read stories like hers, I am not sure how to describe them, but they are strange, affecting, beautiful, funny and glorious.


Her debut collection is published by a new publishing house based in India, Blaft. It is available to those of us outside India from Amazon.

If you are not convinced by my words, let me turn to Miranda July who says of this collection “Not merely lyrical and strange, but also deadpan funny. I can’t shake the feeling that I know this woman, personally–like we hung out at a party or something. But I don’t, and we didn’t. She’s just that good.”

And check out the ace cover!


 

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