On Compromise and Character

cafe-768771_960_720In The Bay of Angels, author Anita Brookner examines female relationships with unflinching scrutiny. Sometimes I felt like a bug trapped under a hand lens on the pavement, squirming with discomfort, somewhat scorched by the proximity of her fictional approximations and truth.

Fathered by an absent man she knows little about, Zoë and her mother Anne live a quiet life together in London. Zoë assesses the periodic visits from two other heterosexual, married women, Millie and Nancy, as motivated from a sense of duty: “they were concerned for any woman living on her own, with only a child for company.” Sometimes Zoë’s voice is all of her sixteen years, her age when the novel begins: “it seemed to intrigue, even to excite them [Nancy and Millie], that a woman of my mother’s age could live without a man.” But often, a presumably older Zoë muses that Millie’s and Nancy’s attentions were actually “a form of solidarity before that condition had been politicized.”

The harmonious mother/daughter duo is somewhat distanced when Simon, an older man, is introduced to Anne at a party. Romance and marriage follow. Simon is wealthy and self-assured, with an estate in France, and Zoë sees her stepfather as “a kind of Santa Claus.” She has spending money for the first time, and when she’s old enough, her own flat in London. That home for Zoë is a “flat” reflects the trajectory of her young life: her single romance ends poorly when she’s jilted by a lover she knows is seeing other people on the side.Continue Reading

Review: THE CHILDREN by Ann Leary

leary_childrenThe Children
Ann Leary
St. Martin’s Press, May 2016
256 pp; $26.99

Buy: hardcover | eBook

When I recently entered Ann Leary’s, The Good House, I found myself enjoying some of the quirkiest, most human, and authentically rendered company in Leary’s characters, each of which inspired me to get to know more of her work. I was delighted to discover that her upcoming novel, The Children, was scheduled for release the following week. Ah, serendipity!

The Children, or more accurately, the interactions between the grown-up versions of Sally, Charlotte, Perry, and Spin, offers readers a clear view of the sibling dysfunction that takes root in childhood before coming to full bloom in adulthood.

Whit Whitman, patriarch, and Joan – matriarch to Sally and Charlotte, stepmother to Perry and Spin, are responsible for some of the crazy planted in this family, evidenced by their grown-up children who are quick to identify, and in some cases, magnify their parents’ neuroses to the scope of total lunacy. Continue Reading

How One Publisher Sparked a Rebirth of Turkey’s Greek History

Greek women of Trabzon pose for a studio photograph, c. early 1900s

Greek women and girls of Trabzon pose for a studio photograph, c. early 1900s

On the flight back to Istanbul, I hold one of the first books put out by Istos Publishing in my hands. Out of the press’s slim, silver-colored bilingual Greek-Turkish edition of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Ascetic (Ασκητική-Çileci), the publishing house’s logo pops out in gold, almost holographic. I turn the pages and the zen-like messages appear in Greek on one page and Turkish on the next, like halves of a whole, the meaning almost exactly alike. The languages on both sides of the page remind me that I’m about to reenter the space in which both of those languages, Greek and Turkish, are integral to my life.

As the first publishing house in Turkey to print books in Greek in 50 years, Istos (web or fabric in Greek) has put out book after book in Greek and Turkish, but occasionally also in English, including a reprint of Greek Poet Laureate George Seferis’s Three Days in the Monasteries of Cappadocia. The press, now going four years strong, has generated and reinvigorated a body of work on topics that interest anyone who wants to know about Istanbul, Istanbul’s Greeks, wider Greek culture, and minorities in Turkey, which has been great for a number of friends and I who want to know about the other sides of the country’s history. Instead of scanning texts like Midnight at the Pera Palace or Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey for a glimpse of the Greeks of Istanbul who have in contemporary imagination become a footnote to Turkish history or even a falsely nostalgic symbol of a multicultural past that never was, we can engage with the works of contemporary authors writing about the Greeks of Istanbul, such as in the Zografyon Students’ Association’s The Greeks of Istanbul: Today and Tomorrow (İstanbul Rumları: Bugün ve Yarın) or Yani Vlastos’s Father Can I Talk? (Baba Konuşabilir Miyim?), as well as a bevy of other texts designed to introduce Turkish readers to Greek literature, such as a translation of one of George Seferis’s long poem, Mythistorema, and most recently, a graphic novel of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata in Turkish.Continue Reading

In Bookstores Near You

In 2004, the state of Texas most likely executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, for the murder of his three young children, who died in a fire in their family home. Arson experts later determined the fire was not intentionally set, and the story quickly became enmeshed in a political scandal involving Rick Perry. Interestingly, Willingham, who escaped with only minor burns, had such a poor reputation in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, that when PBS produced a documentary about his execution and probable innocence, many of the residents refused to accept he wasn’t guilty. One woman said he was a bad man, plain and simple, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t do it. He deserved to die regardless. Having worked with defense teams on over twenty capital murder cases since 2009, I’ve learned the most intriguing part of these investigations isn’t the whodunit part of the story, but how witnesses affect the outcome, how willing they are to lie to convict someone, to shape the story into a tale they want to believe.

In his latest novel, Late One Night, Lee Martin explores how a town unravels into gossip and accusations after a man’s wife and three of his seven children die in a fire that destroys their mobile home. Martin writes this tale as if he’s followed death penalty cases and investigations for years. For example, Ronnie Black, the accused, has a background similar to many of the men and women charged with capital murder: he was orphaned young and farmed out to one foster home after another. And he’s reputed to be “just mean and tricky enough to do some damage if the punching and gouging got going.” In fact, weeks before the fire, Ronnie throws lit matches at his wife until he accidentally catches her hair on fire. Ultimately, it’s just easier for everyone to believe in Ronnie Black’s guilt over his innocence.Continue Reading

Good Bad Women: Goldilocks

The Book of Knowledge 1912

We were discussing the character of teenage girl in a fantasy novel. “I like that the girl is not what you expect,” said one writer, “You expect girls to be sweet and innocent, but she’s strong and takes action,” he said.

Huh, I thought. Do we expect girls to be sweet and innocent? If you’re like me and you used to be a teenage girl, or, maybe you’re not like me, but you know someone that used to be a teenage girl, then perhaps you don’t expect them to be sweet and innocent. Based on your keen powers of observation and the belief that teenage girls are people, you expect girls to be diverse and complex, like the rest of us. Why then, if real girls have all the characteristics of real people, do we expect fictional girls to have few or none?

Marina Warner, in her critical analysis of fairy tales From the Beast to the Blonde, argues that the way we tell stories about women and girls serves a social project. That project is usually to reinforce the dominant power structure and to warn against challenging that structure. A closer look at the story of Goldilocks serves to illustrate this process.Continue Reading

We miss out when US publishers lag behind in adopting global titles: an Interview with Jim Pascual Agustin

jim-on-ship-bw

Why and when did you move from the Philippines to South Africa and how does one choose South Africa in particular?

The quick answer would be because of a girl I met on holiday in the mountainous regions Philippines of the north. When I flew to South Africa on 22 October 1994, I only meant to visit, to see her again. I always feel like a time traveler each time I try to explain how I ended up practically halfway around the planet from where my feet first touched ground. I go backwards and forwards, sometimes I get a clearer view, while at other times the weight of regret muddles the present, darkens the future. I knew close to nothing about the country before arriving, just Hollywood-manufactured images and whatever I gathered from books by JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Christopher Hope, and Dennis Brutus. The heart has its own logic, its own manner of making you do unexpected things.

In the end I didn’t really choose South Africa. Only after a few years of living here would I begin to see the land for its own captivating wonders and promise, even as I try to understand the dark past that haunts its people. You could say I left one troubled land for another. But now I have two homes, and it comes as both a gift and a burden not many may understand.

I ended up marrying this amazing girl who would change my life forever.

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When Parents Die: William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

Mother headstone

Photo by Anathea Utley

Last week my friend’s mother died, with brutal speed, of cancer. Ten years ago, my father died of a neurological disease so drawn out and cruel that we all wished for its end. Parents die, usually before their children, andso long so both of these deaths were inevitable in one way or another. But as the narrator of William Maxwell’s novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow, says of his mother’s death, “the idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.”

The narrator is ten when his mother dies of influenza during the epidemic of 1918. It’s an event from Maxwell’s own life. The story of her death is told in chapter two, and the narrator is defined by it. His father and older brother are distant and never speak to him about their shared loss. The book is ostensibly about a lurid murder that occurred in the narrator’s town, committed by the father of a boy he once knew. But his mother’s death permeates the novella. He spends half the book imagining the story of the crime, but in the final chapter we find him lying on an analyst’s couch.

I relived that night pacing, with my arm around my father’s waist. From the living room into the front hall, then, turning, past the grandfather’s clock and on into the library, and from the library into the living room. From the library into the dining room, where my mother lay in her coffin. Together we stood looking down at her. I meant to say to the fatherly man who was not my father, the elderly Viennese, another exile, with thick glasses and a Germanic accent, I meant to say I couldn’t bear it, but what came out of my mouth was “I can’t bear it.” This statement was followed by a flood of tears such as I hadn’t ever known before, not even in my childhood.

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“I know that reality and truth are not always the same thing”: An Interview with Christos Ikonomou

Christos Ikonomou
Christos Ikonomou is the author of three short story collections, including Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, trans. Karen Emmerich, 2016), for which he won the National Short Story Prize. Something Will Happen, You’ll See, a devastating and sparingly written collection of stories about the Greek crisis in working class neighborhoods in Athens, is his first book to appear in English. Ikonomou was born in and is based in Athens, and has just returned from a two week tour in the US with Archipelago Books.

Maria Eliades: Your writing is very sparse. Does the writing start out that way or do you pare it down? I read in one interview, for instance, that you rewrote “Mao” 30 times.

Christos Ikonomou: Yes, I’m doing writing all the time. I don’t write. I rewrite. But yes, most of the times, the first drafts are a little bit larger, bigger, wider, and then I’m starting to trim them down. I’m writing painfully, slowly, so I need a lot of time to get where I think I want the writing. It’s a very slow process for me. I’m writing very slowly.

Most of the stories’ first drafts were somewhat more expanded, and then as I’ve said, I don’t like using many words. I’m trying to be as brief as I can be in order to convey the spirit of the story so to say.Continue Reading

Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading

Preserving Intent: What’s Lost in the Cinematic Translation of Mrs. Dalloway

roses-963371_1920

I like to follow up my reading of a text with its cinematic counterpart. After finishing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I rented the DVD of the same name with great anticipation. But after the credits rolled, I was unsatisfied: while the cinematic version of Woolf’s novel provides a touching and well-acted rendering of her vision, it fails to recognize and execute some critical themes from the hard copy novel.

In the film, the omission of a consistent concept of time was immediately recognizable. Yet, the novel is divided by eleven panels of time. The film occasionally shows Big Ben chiming the hour, but fails to highlight how Woolf saw the theme of time as absolutely critical to shaping the individual’s everyday experience. Entirely absent from the film is the concept of deep time, a reading of time that pre-dated conventional 24-hour time. One of her journal entries confirms her desire to produce such a concept in a work like Mrs. Dalloway: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect…” This primordial illustration shows Woolf’s need to portray a sense of movement that simultaneously spans the modern convention of time, yet remains timeless. Although the film does shift between scenes from Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway’s childhood and the present, this sense of “time before time” is absent.

The “beautiful caves behind her characters” in Woolf’s novel lack complexity in the film version. Poignant scenes are cut, weakening the cinematic version. As in the novel, there’s a film scene where Mr.Dalloway is shown trying to decide what to get his wife for her birthday. But the angst Woolf writes into his action—buying his wife red roses—is completely passed over.Continue Reading