Surfacing I by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie writes creative nonfiction. Some people call it nature writing, some travel writing, others describe it as lyrical prose.

In her first book of essays Findings, she talks about her attempts to observe better, to stop naming things, to really see. She wants to move away from labelling and identifying, towards painting a picture with words.

Surfacing is her third collection and it’s brilliant, practiced in the art of observation she takes us with her on a voyage, helps us see with the eye of a naturalist, sharing her experience with respect for the environment, acknowledging the privilege.

A poet and bird watcher from Scotland, her essays are compelling and engaging, they draw you in as if you were there.

I’m writing about Surfacing in two parts, because the third essay, the longest, is 86 pages and deserves it’s own post, the majority are short vignettes of 3-6 pages. There are three essays of significant length and I’ll write about the reminder in Surfacing II.

The Reindeer Cave

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In the first essay, written in the second person ‘You‘, the author has hiked up a glen to the cave, thinking about the Ice Age and the preciousness of life, as she observes six red deer on the hillside opposite, equally startled no doubt.

Not half an hour ago you were walking beside the burn in a narrow ravine further up the glen. You heard something, glanced up to see a large rock bounce then plummet into the burn twenty five yards in front of you. The echo faded but your heart was still hammering as you backed away.

Deep within the hillside, in the passage of an underground stream, the bones of a bear were found by cave-divers. Carbon dated, they were found to be forty-five thousand years old.

A long sleep, even for a bear: sixteen million days and nights had passed in the upper world. Long enough for the ice to return, then yield again, then return in one last snap, then leave for good – or at least for now.

At the cave mouth she wonders whether the ice will ever return, a natural cycle, or if we’re too far gone with our Anthropocene.

Next to the last page is a black and white photograph of a valley, mist in the distance; as I look closely I see something  appear out of the mist. This is a book you must read the printed version, or you will miss the apparition.

A Reflection

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The second essay begins as Jamie is taking a train north (in Scotland), sitting on the landward side she watches wintry fields pass by, passengers on the opposite side have a sea view. Drifting in and out of daydreaming she notices the sea superimposed over fields of brown earth. Then disappear.

A moment later it flashed back again, a stretch of sea, silvery over the land, but only for a few seconds. By now I was sitting up, interested in this phenomenon. The fields on the left gave way to pinewoods, the train tilted a little and, yes, the sea’s reflection flashed on again, this time above the trees. If I narrowed my eyes I could see both sea and trees at once. And now there was a ship! A ghostly tanker was sailing over the pine trees.

She continues to Aberdeen and visits a museum. Interested in Arctic artefacts, it is at the Aberdeen University museum she first hears about archaeologist Rick Knecht and his work in Alaska, the subject of the next essay.

In Quinhagak

Jamie takes a six-seater plane from a small airport in Alaska, where pilots enter the waiting area, call out the name of their village then lead passengers across the tarmac. Nervous because the name is so unfamiliar, she hears the call for Quinhagak and follows two other passengers behind the pilot to the plane.

The pilot had long red hair tied in a loose bun with a biro stuck through it. In the plane she readied herself, then half turned in her seat.

‘You guys definitely going to Quinhagak? Just checking! Okay. There’s emergency supplies in the back.’

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The village is the home of the Yup’ik, indigenous people of the circumpolar north; an archaeological site Nunallaq (meaning old village) sits at the edge of the tundra, a couple of miles away near the beach. As the sea erodes the land, it is slowly revealing the 500 year old village and its cultural heritage, its resilience.

The dig is in it’s fifth season, at the end of every season all the finds are air freighted to Aberdeen to be cleaned, preserved and catalogued.

At the end of the excavation, however, there would be a great return. All the thousands of artefacts would go home to the Yup’ik land where they belonged, legally and morally.

The dig is revitalising traditional skills that had been lost, local people interested in the items found are beginning to make replicas, relearning old techniques.

They are people who have learned to adapt. Their houses stand on stilts due to thawing of permafrost. Nothing can be buried. Any warm structure on the ground would cause the ground to melt and heave, collapsing the structure.

Between walks with her binoculars and helping out at the dig, sometimes facing seaward, other times landward, she observes life. At the end of each day people gather at the shed to view the days finds; on the last day of the season there will be a grand ‘show and tell’.

I noticed that people notice. George had noticed me looking.  They notice the bog cotton and its passing, an influx of owls, that there are bears around. The whole place must be in constant conversation with itself, holding knowledge collectively.

Near the end of her stay, she is invited to a birthday party with a couple of others. They arrive, there are introductions, they gave their names.

As we did so, Sarah looked at us from head to toe appraisingly, and then bestowed on each of us a Yup’ik name several syllables long. It seemed to delight her, matching us to these names by I don’t know what qualities.

I understood that these names, which we now bore as well as our own, were the names of family members who had died. So it was as revenants, rather than strangers that we were welcomed into Sarah’s home.

Later when they are introduced to one particular elder with their new Yup’ik names, the mention of those lost people affects the old lady deeply, she hugs them each warmly.

I so enjoy and value how Jamie’s essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Further Reading

My Review Of: her 1st collection Findings, her 2nd collection Sightlines

Article: Why Thawing Permafrost Matters

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, tr. Fiona Mackintosh, Iona Macintyre

Wow. This is quietly revolutionary. And funny. Educational. Expansive. Luminous. Brilliant.

I want it to win.

Drawing inspiration from other texts that have in turn been inspired by a life, or experience lived in Argentina, whether the epic poem ‘the gaucho’ Martin Fierro by José Hernández (a lament for a disappearing way of life) or the autobiography Far Away & Long Ago of the naturalist  William Henry Hudson, The Adventures of China Iron is a beautiful elegy (for there will be consolation), a brilliant feat of the imagination that takes readers on an alternative journey.

China Iron, wife of Martin Fierro, who in the original version was given just a few lines, is now the lead and is about to awaken to all that is and can be.

Her adventure is a heroine’s journey from dystopia to utopia, from naive to knowledgeable, from woman to young brother to lover, from unconscious to awakened, from surviving to aware to thriving.

While I was writing I felt I was describing the mind-blowing experience of being a newborn since in China’s eyes everything is new and has the shape and shininess of a new discovery. She is trying out her freedom, travelling for the first time, leaving the tiny settlement in which she had spent her whole life. She is discovering the world, the different paths through it, love. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Part One – The Pampas
China was passed over to Martin Fierro in holy matrimony in a card game. She bore him two children before he was conscripted, what a relief. Scottish Liz had her husband Oscar taken in error, so she packs a wagon to go and find the land they’ve procured, taking China and the dog Estreya with her. This is the beginning of China’s awakening, she will learn from Liz and being in nature, on the move.

Who knows what storms Liz had weathered. Maybe loneliness. She had two missions in life: to resuce her gringo husband and to take charge of the estancia they they were to oversee.

Liz informs China about the ways of the British Empire, clothing, manners, geography, Indian spices, African masks. Some things she understands, others take longer to reconcile. She discovers ‘a birds eye view’ from up there on the wagon.

And I began to see other perspectives: the Queen of England – a rich, powerful woman who owned millions of people’s lives, but who was sick and tired of jewels and of meals in palaces built where she was monarch of all she surveyed – didn’t see the world in the same way as, for example a gaucho in his hovel with his leather hides who burns dung to keep warm.

For the Queen the world was a sphere filled with riches belonging to her, and that she could order to be extracted from anywhere; for the gaucho, the world was a flat surface where you galloped around rounding up cows, cutting the throats of your enemies before they cut your own throat, or fleeing conscription or battles.

China leaves behind neglect and enters the realm of non-violent company, nourishment and knowledge. She comes to think of the wagon as home and falls for Liz’s charm. They track Indians by examining the dung of their animals. When they see it’s fresh, they stop and change.

I took off my dress and the petticoats and I put on the Englishman’s breeches and shirt. I put on his neckerchief and asked Liz to cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad.

Photo by Juanjo Menta on Pexels.com

They encounter a lone gaucho (cowboy) Rosario and his herd of cows, he becomes the fourth member of their party. We learn his tragic backstory as well. He laughs at China’s clothing, but says it’s a good idea and that all women should carry a knife the way men do.

We knew he was talking about his mother and how he’d have preferred her to have grown a beard if it meant she’d have stayed a widow with him by her side instead of that monster.

They make slow progress, in part due to China’s desire that this in-between peaceful co-existence, the happiest she’s ever experienced, never ends.

In Part Two, The Fort – they arrive at the estancia run by Hernandez, they dress in their chosen uniforms Liz had allocated from the stores inside the wagon;

uniforms for every kind of position on the estancia according to the imagination of the aristocrat and his stewards, Liz and Oscar.

Here they come across the opposite of what they’d found in the plains, here is a world run by the self-righteous Hernandez, who runs his estancia like a dictatorial regime, with strict rules and regulation, reward and punishment, inspiring hatred and allowing revenge. Seeing himself as the seed of civilisation, others as savages with no sense of history and the gauchos as his protegé, he sets out to retrain them in his ways, with a whip and a rod.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Part Three – Indian Territory
In the final part they come into contact with the indigenous population and even the air feels easier to breathe. Here the language changes, perception changes, there is acceptance, equilibrium, reunion.

This whole section reminded me of the shape-shifting shamans, of a higher perception or consciousness, living with the indigenous people allows them to let go of all expectations and see with different eyes.

“Although we have been made
to believe that if we let go
we will end up with nothing,
life reveals just the opposite:
that letting go is
the real path to freedom.”

– Soygyal Rinpoche

I absolutely loved this, I hope it wins the International Booker 2020 thoroughly deserving in my opinion.

Ever since I had the idea of giving China a voice, I had one thing clear in my mind: I wanted her tale to be an experience of the beauty of nature, freedom in body and mind; a story of all the potential and possibilities in store when you encounter other people, of the beauty of light. I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Further Reading

Interview: International Booker Prize 2020 Interview with author and translators

Sunday Morning Haiku

 

Spring Morning I

Sun rays pass through boughs

Petals wave back with longing

The lantern waiting.

Spring Morning II

Small branches in leaf

Bow to and fro in union

A family of trees.

Haiku of Life

A haiku is a form of poetry that generally consists of three lines, where the first and last contain five syllables and the middle line is made up of seven.

The subject is usually the natural world, a topic that tends to awaken people to their sense of oneness with nature and the divine.

Every morning at the moment I am reading a chapter of Courageous Dreaming by Alberto Villoldo and this morning I read Chapter Six, Courage As Action, which ends with this exercise to create your own haiku.

He suggests to:

Observe the trees, the grass, the birds and the insects, then write a few poems.  Let go of any judgments such as I can’t do this or I have no talent for writing. Just do it.

At the beginning of each chapter, he shares a thought-provoking quote, I shall end with that. I hope you feel inspired to write a Haiku for yourself too.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes

courage is the quiet voice at the end of

the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

– MARY ANNE RADMACHER

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I loved listened to Ocean Vuong talking about writing, he’s an incredibly articulate speaker and an accomplished poet, his writing sophorific and it is easy to be lulled into it’s cadence and rhythm. I am the kind of reader who often prefers a poet’s prose to their poetry, easily swayed by the poet’s promise of enrapture in the long form.

I loved the premise of this novel, a letter to an illiterate mother, a lofty intellectual promise, a notion that allows for a lack of self consciousness, a daring fearlessness of judgment, knowing she can and will never read it.

This was my second attempt to read fiction after a long pause, and with hindsight, it was not the best choice. I was lured into reading it looking for something other than what I found, or did it lose sight of itself and its intention, a letter to a mother, is it fair that we come to it with expectations? I can only ask that question now with some distance from the narrative because at the time of reading, it was too raw.

For me, it too often felt like the letter writer, the narrator was looking at himself, reliving intimate experiences and I wondered why it was he felt a mother needed to be witness to all of that, in such detail. Yes, it is a beautifully written account, and many have and will read it with little recollection of its purpose and find only beauty in its construction.

The parts I enjoyed most were the recounting of aspects of Ma (Rose’s) and Lan’s lives, the comparison of the nail salon to the tobacco fields, the sacrifices one generation makes for another, the divide between the educated and the uneducated, families fragmented by an internal cultural divide, a sense of loss, the necessity of letting go.

Somehow he managed to survive his proximity to drugs and addiction, thanks perhaps to his intelligence or ambition to express himself, perhaps I wanted less poetry and more story around community and the connections that lifted him out of becoming another statistic. I look forward to seeing what comes next, how he chooses to uses his gift. It is beautifully written, in a lyrical flow, a coming of age incantation, an author to watch.

I was sad to read that the author’s mother passed away in November 2019 at the tender age of 51, Ocean Vuong shared this news and a photo of her on his Instagram page, honoring her, and all working class mothers who had put their heads down through decades of back breaking work so their children could hold their heads up.

Born in war but having lived in peace, she now begins her journey through the bardo. What can a son say to the great loss from which he owes his own life? Only that my world has changed forever. it can never be what it was. it is absolutely less—and yet perennially more because of what you have given me, Ma. you taught me that our pain is not our destiny—but our reason. you gave me all the reasons. thank you. i bow to you. i will see you again. every word was always for you. every sentence a life (- giving) sentence. Ocean Vuong

Further Reading

The 10 Books I Needed To Write My Novel – Ocean Vuong on Herman Melville, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, James Baldwin, lê thị diễm thúy, and More

Interview: War Baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet by Claire Armistead, Guardian

International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

Today something different as the shortlist has been announced for the Booker International Prize 2020. If you missed the long list click on the link, containing summaries of the original 13 books, as it’s often from the long list that we find the gems! Long List of International Booker Prize 2020

All these books have been translated into English from another language and culture. The judges have gathered and continued their discussion from their respective homes in Lyon, Bangalore, New York, Los Angeles, London and Scotland.

The shortlist features titles translated from five languages: Spanish, German, Dutch, Farsi and Japanese. The shortlisted authors represent six countries and their books examine humanity’s need to understand the world through narrative, either through sharing our own stories, through understanding our histories and origins, or through processing trauma and grief.

Three of the novels, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran), The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina) and Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Germany) were inspired by their nations’ histories – namely the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, gaucho culture in 1870s Argentina, and the Thirty Years’ War in Germany.

Each of these books borrows existing myths, legends and origin stories but reinterprets these tales with modern sensibilities, celebrating the pursuit of intellectual freedom, the exploration of sexual identity, and survival in the face of political unrest and sweeping illness.

The other three shortlisted titles, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico), The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japan) and The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (The Netherlands) all touch on how trauma, whether through violent acts or emotional loss, shape our experiences and approach to the world.

Here is what each of the judges said today in their collective announcement:

We were looking for novels that had a really clear and potent voice. That haunted us and stayed with us. We were looking for novels that were incredibly well translated. Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature & Spoken Word, Southbank Centre, Chair of Judges

I think it’s a brave shortlist. We’ve picked books that are daring,  experimental, not at all conventional. This moment that we are living, it has forced each of us to slow down and think about the things we usually take for granted. Valeria Luiselli, Award Winning Author

This shortlist is electric and resonant and absolutely meaningful. It’s a list that each one of us is proud of. Jeet Thayil, Author, Poet & Musician

It was so hard to narrow it down from such an incredibly wonderful long list. Each of them is so expertly crafted and so beautiful.  Jennifer Croft, Translator & Winner of International Booker 2018

It will be just as exciting, just as challenging to narrow this down to the one winner. And I feel that collectively we all believe that each book on this shortlist of six could potentially be a winner. Lucie Campos, Translator, Cultural Director of La Villa Gilet

I had already read two of the titles before the long list was announced, The Memory Police and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Both are excellent reads and very thought provoking. I’m really happy to see that they’ve both made it through to this stage, which means more people are likely to read them.

I have The Adventures of China Iron on my shelf to read, a result of my Year of Reading Contemporary Latin American Fiction and subsequent subscription to Charco Press, so I might make that my next read, since its piqued my interest further. It’s about a 19th-century woman who flees a gaucho encampment and takes off with a friend on a journey across the countryside. The book, told in verse, is a parody of one of Argentina’s most important historical texts.

Have you read any of these titles on the shortlist?

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E.Harrow

This is the book I took with me on holiday back in January, I’d forgotten about it to be honest. I hadn’t read any fiction for four months and thought perhaps something completely outside my usual genre might ease me back into reading.

I chose it because it seemed like a fun, escapist read, and I was intrigued by the use of doors as portals into other worlds. It reminded me of my childhood reading adventures into Narnia, an era when I devoured fantasy and loved to enter those other worlds outside my own.

I wondered how fantasy had moved on in the 21st century, whether it had the ability to suspend belief in the same way that it had in the past.

Goodreads describes the novel like this:

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Today I definitely see and read it through older eyes and I am aware of the underlying commentary about our own world, it’s halls of power, it’s attitude towards otherness, difference, it’s dislike of magic or of those who look as though they don’t belong.

Some of the transitions were vaguely executed which removed a little of the escapist journey I was on, but otherwise I enjoyed it and would recommend it for a light, escapist read, if you like to occasionally read fantasy.

The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden

I absolutely loved this book, it was such an immersive experience, I could feel myself slowing it right down not wanting it to end.

I read it over a weekend and what a memorable Sunday I spent reading through the 1930’s, every time a singer, song or musician was mentioned I could easily look them up, so I played Bessie Smith’s blues, watched Cab Calloway sing and dance Minnie the Moocher, listened to Lucille Hegamin and admired Bill Robinson’s stair dance.

What makes this work of historical fiction even more interesting, is that it was inspired by a number of the author’s own family and ancestors. With an interest in geneaolgy that has seen her collecting bits and pieces of their stories for over 20 years and an interest in the little known dark history of black people in Europe who were snatched by the Nazis and thrown into camps, she weaves the thread of a what had been a developing story into that of her own family, with a version of her mysterious grandfather Harold (who becomes Harlan) in the lead.

I love stories. I love backstories. I don’t want to just give you character and not give you the background of the character, for me a story is like a tree, where you have the bark, the limbs and the roots and I need to be able to put all that down on paper. Bernice McFadden

McFadden writes short three page chapters and doesn’t waste words, she’s descriptive, informative, atmospheric and knows how to move a story along through time with sufficient essential and sensory detail to create well formed characters and a sense of place.

Emma is the youngest child and only daughter of the Reverend, who installed her as lead organist in the church from the age of seven. She and Lucille, her choir singing best friend secretly love another type of music, demonized by the Reverend.

On the outside, Emma didn’t seem to want for anything, but let’s be clear – she was starving on the inside. Not the coal-burning-belly type of hunger of the destitute, but the agonizing longing of a free spirit, caged.

Harlan is her son, an only child his story begins in 1917 Macon, Georgia where he will spend his formative years with his grandparents while his parents seek their fortune elsewhere, intending to send for him. By they time that happens he doesn’t want to leave, but the bright lights of New York and an introduction to the musical world of his mother’s friend Lucille, help him adjust.

Lucille’s choir singing pays off, she becomes the second African-American blues singer to record; when Harlan drops out of school at 16 she proposes to his concerned mother that she take him on tour, with his guitar. Being on the road changes him, exposing him to things that seduce and overwhelm him that he indulges anyway, though shocked to find Lucille has her limits to her tolerance, and packs him off home.

When Sam comes home and finds his wife in tears, we learn it is September 1937 and Bessie Smith (43), Empress of the Blues, has sung her last lament.

At this point the story line swerves and introduces us to another family, we meet sisters Gwen and Irene, their mother Ethel and father Aubrey, fresh off the boat from Barbados.

The memories of the crossing, those first hard years, were still fresh in Ethel’s mind; she could recall them with ease, as if she’d just stepped off the ship last week.

Gwen takes classes at the Mary Bruce School of Dance and after a short while her parents receive a letter suggesting that she might better suited to tap dancing than ballet, which delights her, as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was her hero.

Gwen had gone to see the movie The Little Colonel four times, committing to memory Robinson’s famous step dance, which she then reenacted for her parents, Mary Bruce, and anyone else willing to sit and watch.

We come to know the family and observe Gwen resist and then fall for Harlan’s charms.

Harlan meets Leo, a musician everyone calls Lizard and they start a band together, his life gets back on track, even if his habits don’t change much. Lizard’s story is unique, he and Harlan are bound together by some strange twist of fate, a connection that will run deep and silent within Harlan his entire life, until finally he is released from the pain of it.

When Harlan and Lizard respond to an invitation from Eugène Jacques Bullard to come to Paris and play in his club in Montmartre, it’s like a dream come true, except that it was the wrong time in history (1942) to be hanging around a city that was about to come under occupation. Paris became a life changing moment for both of them.

With the arrival of Harlan’s band and others, Montmartre came alive again. For a while, the threat of war between Germany and Great Britain had scattered the musicians like ants.
The Zazous took their name after Cab Calloway’s hit “Zaz Zuh Zaz.” They’d thoroughly immersed themselves in swing culture, going so far as adopting Calloway’s style of dress, gliding back-step dance moves, and hep language.

A Little Historical Diversion

Black American singers, dancers, entertainers and jazz musicians found Europe in general and Paris in particular, a congenial place to live and work, settling there for much of the interwar years, developing a thriving expat cultural community in Montmartre. It is towards this ideal that Harlan is drawn, convincing his more reticent friend to follow.

Eugène Jacques Bullard left America for France at a young age, inspired by the words of his father (from Martinique, enslaved in Haiti, he took refuge with and married a Native American of the Creek tribe) who said to his son « un homme y était jugé par son mérite et non pas par la couleur de sa peau » that a man was judged there by his merit and not by the colour of his skin.

A French foreign legionnaire, he became the world’s first black fighter pilot, fighting with the French Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI. After the war, inspired by his love of music, he founded the nightclub l’Escadrille in Montmartre, a beacon for artists and musicians who discovered an established black community in a part of Paris similar to the population of Harlem, a village within a village.

By the time Harlan returns to New York, he is a shadow of his former self due to what he endured. McFadden adeptly takes us through the following years referencing significant moments of the collective history, bringing Harlan’s story full circle.

Bernice L. McFadden’s ancestors are named at the back of the book as are some of the musicians, dancers and singers who make an appearance. By the end, I just wanted Harlan to be safe and it was with some relief that I read the closing chapters and wondered if that was the true version of events or the life-saving imagination of Ms McFadden.

It left me wanting to know more about some of the characters, as some threads are left hanging, but in all it is a wonderful tribute to a family history and a remarkable capturing of the period of time they lived through. A brilliant, entertaining, informative story and a unique reading experience, accompanied as it was for me by all that music and dance.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

My Review of Praise Song For the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden