‘The appropriation of black language cannot be stopped, except only if we were to leave for Mars and never come back. At issue isn’t the transmission, but the vacuous want behind it – as if black culture lives to rescue mass culture from boredom. Surely there exists some ethical method for taking on the words of others – white America has yet to find it. For the curse to be undone, the desire must be undone, and undoing the desire means taking a knife to its insides and learning what it’s full of.’
Sotiropoulos has tried to make the poet fit to the well-rehearsed script for a developing artist, forcing him into a kind of made-to-measure character. This Cavafy wholly unfits both the polemical character we meet in the poems or the introspective creative method by which they were formed. But if there is hope between the lines of this attempt to cleanse and appropriate the poet, it is that the book shows that it can only be done at a stretch.
Invented Lives (2019), Andrea Goldsmith’s eighth novel, explores how and why people construct the lives they live. The novel’s four protagonists come to understand how they have formed the identities they project and how these differ from how they perceive themselves. To invent is derived from the Latin invenire: to find out or discover. By discovering how they have created their identities, Goldsmith’s characters can decide how best to understand themselves.
’In the New Zealand imagination there are no credible spies because there are no credible threats. We never dreamed that foreign images of mass shootings were being beamed back from a future that would one day be ours.’
The Colonial Fantasy could have been a book that shaped how future settler publics saw their predecessors – it’s what I hoped for when I opened it – but that ambition falls flat. And as she asks her peers to pull out of governing us, is Maddison not doing her own supplanting? She rehashes Kevin Gilbert’s Because a White Man’ll Never Do It – a book with almost the very same thesis, and a book that’s older than my parents.
It is like an inverted and far more complicated version of Sedgwick’s erotic triangle (in which two men bond over their rivalry for a female’s affection). What I keep seeing is variations on this: two young women, both of them queer or queer-adjacent, intensely connected and wavering between the platonic and the erotic; and then the added complication of an older straight man, with whom one of the women sleeps.
The Topeka School will be treated as a book of the moment, articulating the distinctive contemporary panic around authenticity, what it means to believe politicians and one another. Most of the responses to this novel will likely speak about its portrayal of toxic masculinity and account of the origins of current political language – the particular way it has become unmoored from truth. Yet what the novel does, through its concern for the present, is show that America has long been anxious about authenticity, and that these problems that seem particularly modern and distinctive are in fact spread wide across cultural and temporal planes, their symptoms and consequences ubiquitous.
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Josephine Rowe’s stories are about time. Time as it is lived and as it is recounted; the way it doesn’t just progress, but speeds and slows, persists and lingers. Her characters are sometimes aware of time passing, almost as if they stand outside it, sometimes aware that the moment they are in is one that they will return to, again and again, across their later lives.’
‘Reading One Good Turn is like getting injected with adrenaline and misandry and good old-fashioned class warfare in one massive hit. It makes my blood boil and seethe and seep. It makes me want to ignite the world with my words, burn it all down. It is infectious, but unlike patriarchy, it doesn’t make me sick. It makes me furious.’
‘At times, as Arabs, lost in the world of displacement, marginalised by our dispersal, and racialised as inferior to our Western counterparts, we can become weary of our lived experiences as diasporic subjects. But with writing as empowering, affecting and beautiful as Sakr’s poetry, or testimonials as stimulating as those assembled by Abdel-Fattah and Saleh, can we dare become ‘tired’ of diaspora writing in any of its modes?’
‘When I am at my desk, the visceral voices of my little children call me back into the spaces they inhabit, an impatient reminder that my real life is elsewhere, with them. Or is it? Perhaps, this is what it is to be both a mother and an artist, and the only available consolation: to be perpetually torn, to suffer, but to exalt in the small mercy of being able to articulate well the precise nature of that suffering.’
‘Wood can be unflinching in her depiction of her characters’ flaws, so that her reader must sometimes do some excavation to find their best qualities. Here she’s struck just the right balance: none of these women is always easily likeable, but each is drawn with insight and sensitivity.’
To describe this work as autobiography is too limiting. It is a testimony woven through the stories of the lives of two women, Aunty Kerry and Mummy. In a similar vein to the life writings of Glenyse Ward, Margaret Tucker, Ida West, Monica Clare, Doris Pilkington, Mabel Edmund and Ruby Langford-Ginibi, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter brings the past up close and personal and tells first-hand how decisions made by politicians, bureaucrats, educators, health professionals and social workers from a distance impact on the day to day lives of Aboriginal people. But it differs too from these earlier works through its centring of the child’s voice; and for the way in which Aunty Kerry invites the reader into her home.
‘In a collection of stories where children turn into butterflies, spurned women are exiled to highways, and relationships with mermen are presented as an enticing lifestyle choice, homes and the volatile relationships that unspool inside them remain the wellspring of Samanta Schweblin’s fiction. Rather than functioning as a haven from an unpredictable, barbaric exterior, they are the scene of violent and eerie interactions where cycles are only broken when the world ends.’
There are many ways to read Foe (1986), which has a shifting choose-your-own-strange-and-surprising-adventure flavour to it; I’ve tried a few. My favourite is to reverse-engineer Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of the castaway Susan Barton’s account of her very different experience of Cruso in Coetzee’s novel. Putting the chronological cart before the horse (a method that owes something to Jorge Luis Borges’s deadpan comic masterpiece Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote), we realise that Robinson Crusoe would have been a much duller book (not that it is free of unabridged longueurs) if Defoe had not first read Coetzee’s Foe and fictionalised and glamourised Barton’s account of her largely adventure-free time marooned on the island, in order to create a more ripping yarn.
‘Humour and Silliness are nostalgias rather than books about humour in 2019. If a book about humour has to be written at all, it probably shouldn’t be by someone in their seventies, unless they’re very online. They’d have to know that the politics of identity are neither to be tip-toed around nor dismissed off-hand, and that if political correctness achieves anything, it’s to purge a lot of cheap, bullying, boring, dead weight from collective humour.’
‘The different cultures thing,’ as Josie called it in Looking For Alibrandi, has become far more complex and nuanced in The Place on Dalhousie. This novel is still full of driving Nonna to bingo parties and sugo cooking in the kitchen but there is far less overt discussion of the problems of navigating hybridity. There is no pressure to conform to any cultural expectations, in part because Rosie has lost much of that connection to her migrant community through the death of her parents. She is ‘the last Gennaro of her family and the second last on her mother’s side. When Rosie and Nonna Eugenia die, there’ll be none of them left. So much for big Italian families.’
‘However, while van Loon gifts us with an invigorated capacity to see the ways in which the ascription of femininity is used as a slight in cultural valuation, an alternative approach – a kind of resistance to binaries by seeking out their connections – also emerges in her work.’
In The Middle Parts of Fortune, Manning extended the technique of dialectic he used in Scenes and Portraits beyond intellectual speculation. The novel counterbalances its contrasting worldviews tightly and with maximum tension, but delicately and plausibly so, without making any of its characters mere mouthpieces for points of view. It also gives us a fleeting view, as if through breaking clouds, of a spiritual promise and a love that the forlorn, desolating inferno of war cannot ever remove or conquer.
While Archival-Poetics is predominantly text-based, I would not call it a book/s. Like most First Nations knowledge, it does not fit easily into Western categories. To me it felt more like a dream or a deep yarn or a walk through an exhibition – possibly all at the same time. The work is a collection, an archive in its own right, albeit a personal one.
The viewing platform of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, provides an exceptional view. On a clear day, you can see Dubai’s towers clustered along its highways and the scattering of urban megaprojects giving way to suburban sprawl. But clear days are increasingly rare on the Arabian Peninsula, due to rising levels of pollution—a significant product of this area’s fossil-fueled urbanization and contribution to climate change over the past 60 years.
The two authors acknowledge tales of real displaced people, including refugees, as inspiration for their fictional stories. They express gratitude to be able to survive, live and write these books. In their narratives, the quieter moments of survival are most striking: how tasks considered mundane become crucial and inescapable. Robinson and Bishop invite their reader to imagine their own displacement, their own losses and even their own end.
So what to do with this ever-increasing urgency and anguish circulating in the atmosphere, and what might we learn from the republication of Watson’s book? What work does the wind do? What does it index? And what can a natural history of the wind possibly teach the Anthropocene?
‘Beginning with his mother’s creased identity card from the era when Cyprus was colonised by the British Kouvaros links the great themes of twentieth-century migration to the affective structures provided by both photography and cinema that give a purchase for those lost and uprooted individuals swept up in these global eddies. His relatively short and multi-faceted meditation provides an analytical scaffold as well as a moving response to his own question—what do we owe our ancestors and the dead?’
When we are faced with a world whose problems all seem ‘wicked’ and intractable, what is it that fiction can do? Isn’t it always more useful to confront real instances of the problems we face through journalism, political essays and opinion pieces, or non-fictional representations of lived experiences of all kinds? Won’t those kinds of non-fictional intervention be more useful? At the very least if one is to attempt to engage with these things via fiction shouldn’t the mode the writer uses be sombre realism? Isn’t the mode of satire, which derives its impact in large part through humour (however dark), simply disrespectful of the enormity of suffering that is being experienced? Isn’t it inconsequential in relation to how actual problems might actually be solved?