The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, Letters – Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright, Edited by Anne Wright

Exquisite, a beautiful, too brief collection of letters between two poets, written over a period of 18 months, bringing something special to each others lives at a time when they both needed it, she knowingly, he, not realising he was living his last months of life throughout this correspondence which comes to such an abrupt end.

“I am overwhelmed sometimes and feel a great deal of wonder at words, just simple words and how deeply we can touch each other with them, though I know that most of the time language is the most abused of all human abilities or traits.”

As you may know, if you follow my reviews, I recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir which I loved, followed by her well known novel Ceremony which was exceptional and set me off looking for more of her work.

As I mentioned in my review of the memoir, my original purpose in reading Silko, was not by reputation. I had never heard of her. I was looking for a work of creative non-fiction with a nature writing slant, something that could evoke the landscape and the culture of Tuscon, Arizona. If this book I had imagined existed, it would be the ideal birthday present for a special friend. And it certainly did exist, I discovered The Turquoise Ledge; as Silko and those who understand the way of the shamans will appreciate, it was as if I dreamed it into being!

My friend is also a writer and her most prolific and preferred writing practice is the letter; yes, that disappearing art of epistolary literature arising from the hand-written form. When I saw there was a slim collection of letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and a poet named James Wright (1927 – 1980), (frequently referred to as one of America’s finest contemporary poets), I knew it must accompany the memoir.

James Wright, poet

The correspondence is written when Silko is 31 years old and Wright is around 51. They had planned to meet in the Spring of 1980, mentioned in letters of Oct/Nov of the previous year, not knowing he would be gone before then.

They discuss her novel, his poetry, language, his travels, her adventures with animals, their speaking engagements, their mutual challenges and experiences as university professors, and soon begin to share more personal feelings, as she acknowledges the tough time she is having and he shares his own experience, expressing empathy.

“I realize many wonderful things about language – “realize” in the sense of feeling or understanding intuitively: I realize such things most often when I am greatly concerned with another person’s feelings. I think such realization is one gift which human beings may give each other. I’m not much good at analysis or scholarly efforts with language, probably because I don’t value them as much as I value understanding, which is informed by that which is deeply felt before it is examined.”

Having already read about the snakes, lizards, parrots and numerous other animal life that live in close proximity to her, it was natural for me to see that in her letters, she sometimes shared an anecdote about one of these non-human characters who feature often in her memoir. In one she writes an entertaining piece about her mean rooster.

There are all kinds of other rooster stories that one is apt to hear. I am glad I have this rooster because I never quite believed roosters so consistently were as the stories tell us they are. On these hot Tucson days, he scratches a little nest in the damp dirt under the Mexican lime tree by the front door. It is imperative for him that the kittens and the black cat show him respect, even deference, by detouring or half-circling the rooster as they approach the water dish which is also under the lime tree. If they fail to do this, then he jumps up and stamps his feet, moving sideways until they cringe. This done, he goes back to his mud nest.

Silko opens up to Wright quite early on, letting him know how grateful she is to have this correspondence, a distraction from recent events that occupy her mind, he is more reserved initially, until she shares her grief openly and he responds in kind, taking their letters to another level, a kind of healing balm to the harsh reality of life.

This is one of the most moving, insightful and entertaining collections of letters I’ve ever read, born of a mutual respect & admiration, a sharing of poetry, storytelling & increasingly personal heartache, soothed by the knowledge that the other too carries their pain & grief of current situations that are outside their control.

This correspondence came at a time in Silko’s life when she couldn’t talk or share much with those closest to her, James Wright, her (senior) intellectual contemporary and brief confidant filled that void and they’ve left us this beautiful literary gift.

Leslie Marmon Silko is a poet, essaysit and novelist. James Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his “Collected Poems.”  Above the River: The Complete Poems appeared more than a decade after his death.

They met only twice. First, briefly, in 1975, at a writers conference in Michigan. Their correspondence began three years later, after Wright wrote to Silko praising her book “Ceremony.” The letters begin formally, and then each writer gradually opens to the other, venturing to share his or her life, work and struggles.

The “New York Times” wrote something of Wright that applies to both writers– of qualities that this exchange of letters makes evident.

“Our age desperately needs his vision of brotherly love, his transcendent sense of nature, the clarity of his courageous voice.”

Not having read his poetry, I read some of his works online and this one poem resonated well with their correspondence. Click on the link below to read:

A Blessing by James Wright

Buy a Copy of The Delicacy and Strength of Lace via Book Depository

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Having recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir The Turquoise Ledge (2010), I know well how deeply connected she is to the Arizona desert, its landscape, wildlife and climate. To read in the preface to her most well-known and celebrated novel Ceremony, that in 1979 she moved with her husband and two sons to Alaska, I’m not surprised she had difficulty coping, a deeply rooted woman out of place. The lack of sunlight caused her a terrible lethargy and depression. Once she began writing this novel, the depression lifted.

The novel was my refuge, my magic vehicle back to the Southwest land of sandstone mesas, blue sky and sun. As I described the sandstone spring, the spiders, water bugs, swallows and rattlesnakes, I remade the place in words; I was no longer on a dark rainy island thousands of miles away.

She wasn’t just  homesick for the place, she missed the people and the storytelling, so she awakened them by writing them into the novel, narrating a kind of prose poem using powerful mythological women like Corn Woman, Changing Woman, Serpent Women and Thought Woman (the spider), who with her sisters created all life by thinking it into being.  It is she who is thinking this story, the author narrates it.

Ts’itstsi’nako, Thought-Woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
appears.

This fable-like story frames the novel, interrupting it throughout to remind us of how things were, of the distractions, the suffering and regret, the need to make amends, the value of setting a challenge, going on a quest, the need to make sacrifices and bring back what is necessary for forgiveness and healing to occur.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

It wasn’t until I had read the novel through that I began to understand the connection between the Pueblo myth and the story, first we encounter it, then we begin to make sense of it. At times while reading, I was on the edge of understanding, informed a little by what I I know of shamanic stories, rituals, signs and traditions, there were many  references I’d encountered from reading Alfredo Villoldo’s Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers.

The story focuses on the character Tayo, a young man whose very existence reminds some of his family members of things they detest. When they look at him they remember. He is always trying to make amends, to win approval, yet he seems destined to disappoint.  He is of mixed blood, stuck in a place where he seems not to be able to inhabit either culture he is connected to, and yet there are expectations of him, both imposed from outside and from within.

“They are afraid Tayo. They feel something happening, they can see something happening around them, and it scares them. Indians or Mexicans or whites – most people are afraid of change. They think that if their children have the same colour of skin, the same colour of eyes, that nothing is changing.” She laughed softly. “They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different? That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves.”

He has recently returned from war, traumatized, he is suffering and struggling to find peace, trying to avoid the temptation of oblivion that other young veterans have fallen for. He has nightmares and hallucinates. His grandmother makes a suggestion:

“That boy needs a medicine man. Otherwise, he will have to go away. Look at him.”

The title Ceremony refers to the healing ceremonies based on the ancient stories of the Diné and Pueblo people. The ceremony that Tayo goes through reminds me of the hero’s journey, ultimately he has to leave and go on a quest, which he does, he meets someone from whom he learns things, he fulfills the challenge he set himself and then returns.

At this point the novel I wasn’t thinking in those terms and the ending is quite terrifying, until I reflect that this is indeed all part of the ceremony, and the biggest test of all comes at the end when he must embrace and use all those aspects of himself, the wisdom of all the cultures running through his veins.

He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together – the old stories, the war stories, their stories – to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distance and time.

It felt almost like an initiation to read this novel, waiting for its meaning to awaken as I read, I loved it and can’t wait to read more of her work, her ability to write the modern story that demonstrates the power of the mythological stories that get handed down through generations is brilliant. It reminds me of the retellings of the Greek myths that are currently popular, bringing the learnings of storytelling into contemporary situations, teaching us their wisdom, showing how their message never ages, the necessity for each person to live through it to understand it.

What She Said:
The only cure
I know
is a good ceremony,
that’s what she said.

A brilliant and gifted storyteller, highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Ceremony via BookDepository

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I recently was invited to join a bookclub and this was the first gathering I was able to attend. Around half the members are native French speakers and the rest of us are English speakers from various different countries of origin. The first book they read was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (Total Chaos) in English (which I’d already read and reviewed here), it’s crime fiction set in the nearby town of Marseille. We choose books that are available in both English and French. The second read was going to be a bestseller and Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was chosen.

A book that needs no introduction, a woman unanimously loved from where I sit and yet one who was exposed to the full spectrum of opinions about her, requiring an inordinate amount of resilience. Interestingly, there had not been universal admiration for her by some prior to reading the book, a reflection of how much influence the media has on our perceptions of people, both positive and negative.

Divided into three sections, Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More, I actually found the first two sections of the book the most engaging. Here she shares the influences of her early life and development of her character prior to meeting Barack Obama, followed by the early years of their lives together. These sections are the most insightful and endearing, probably because they are the most real.

“My parents talked to us like we were adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.”

They also corrected their speech, causing an awkward moment when a cousin asked why she talked like a white girl.

“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place.  It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

A consequence of parents and close family being attentive to pronunciation, encouraged to enunciate correctly, having had drilled into them the importance of correct diction.

“The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it.  They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”

She refers to her younger self as a box checker, at all times focused on the agenda, on achievement.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, , analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault,  I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened on to the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”

It is at this time that she observes a boyfriend who swerved. Did something unexpected, didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, something she didn’t understand at the time, being a devout follower of the established path, someone conscious of what other people think. That observation would stay with her and later she would see the merit in it, and the stiflement of the established path – and make her own swerve.

In the second section she meets Barack and the self awareness increases, life gets interesting and challenging in different ways. She observes him going to community meetings, showing up and talking to people who appeared skeptical of him. He was trying to build trust in communities where it was seriously lacking. She observed his differences, how he made them work for him. For me, this is where it becomes unputdownable.

“But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn after all –  shaped by his unusual name,  his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing Dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”

I particularly enjoyed their paths as young adults and how they were able to overcome their differences in upbringing and character, bringing tolerance first to their own lives as a couple, before going on to use it in their respective careers and ultimately as parents and as America’s role model couple in the White House.  He trusted things would work out, she worried, ‘We’ll figure it out’ he’d say. And they would.

Though the words are never mentioned in the text, in spiritual terms it’s clear they are soul mates, not so much because of a great love, but due to what they appear to have come into each others lives to learn. I loved that this comes across so clearly, that she developed the awareness to look at the expectations she had put upon herself as a result of her upbringing and her character and found another way.

But what a sacrifice really, despite the perception of it being glamorous and of course privileged. What a relief to get some semblance of a life back, I hope so anyway. Their celebrity status will likely never change, but as she shares in the opening pages, she is at least able to do some things unobserved, to open a window, listen to birdsong and dogs barking, feel more like a human being again.

She has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how she was formed by her upbringing, of how dependent she was almost without realising it initially – on being near and around her extended family, and while she grew up in a working class part of Chicago, South Side, her privilege was to have had that foundation of a strong, supportive, self-sacrificing family.

And though she attained great heights in her education and career, she too would have to draw on those self-sacrificing roots of her parents and ancestors, ironically, while slipping into the shoes of one of the most self-sacrificing unpaid jobs in America, that of the First Lady of the United States FLOTUS.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced a few days ago, you may have heard about it already, but if you haven’t here are the six books that made it through, the winner will be announced on 5 June:

For a summary of what each book is about, refer back to my original post on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Rather than repeat the summaries, I’m going to feature here a little about the author and their work (from the Women’s Prize website). I have read and reviewed Milkman, and the one that attracts me the most is Circe.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – (Ancient Greek history written from a female point of view – retelling The Iliad – humans, their egos and wars)

Born in Yorkshire, Pat Barker began her literary career in her forties, after taking a short writing course taught by Angela Carter. Encouraged by Carter to continue writing and exploring the lives of working class women, she sent her fiction out to publishers. She has since published fifteen novels, including the Regeneration Trilogy, been made a CBE for services to literature, and won awards including the Guardian Fiction Prize and the UK’s highest literary honour, the Booker Prize.

I have only read one of her books, The Ghost Road, the third in that trilogy and the one that won the Booker, and sadly it was a hard slog for me which I admit has made me reluctant to try anything else. A quick look at Goodreads tells me that the first book in that trilogy has almost double the number of readers, so probably that would have been a better place to start, than the prizewinning novel.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – (an obsession with black widow spiders leads the author to write a crime thriller about two sisters, one who kills, the other who cleans up after her)

A graduate of Creative Writing and Law from Kingston University, following her degree, Oyinkan Braithwaite worked as an assistant editor and has since been freelancing as a writer and graphic designer. She’s had short stories published in anthologies, in 2014 she was shortlisted as a top ten spoken word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam and in 2016 was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

This book was popular among readers as soon as it was published, it’s just not my genre although I’ve really enjoyed a number of Nigerian authors and I’m always interested in seeing what new works are coming out from there.

Milkman by Anna Burns – (a young woman tries to be herself in a community that prefers to categorise its inhabitants and gossip about those who don’t conform)

Born in Belfast though now living in East Sussex, Anna Burns drew on her own experiences growing up in what she called “a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia”. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Milkman won the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

When Milkman won the Man Booker Prize, I wrote this post about reader’s reactions to it and referenced an interesting essay called Gender in Conflict by Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado. I bought it immediately and loved it, my review here.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans – (a couple in South London become parents and grow disenchanted with their lives)

A British author of Nigerian and English descent, Diana Evans bestselling novel 26a, won the inaugural Orange Award for New Writers and the British Book Awards deciBel Writer of the Year prize. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel, the Guardian First Book, the Commonwealth Best First Book and the Times/Southbank Show Breakthrough awards, and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Wonder is currently under option for TV dramatisation. She is a former dancer, journalist and critic. Ordinary People is her third novel.

An author who I am familiar with and been closely tempted to read, one who is well-known and highly regarded for her evocation of place. It reminds me of Zadie Smith’s NW and her evocation of London through it inhabitants.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – (a young successful couple have their lives disrupted by a false conviction)

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. Jones holds degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She lives in Brooklyn.

Fortunate to have featured on Barack Obama’s reading list in 2018 and Oprah’s book club making it an instant bestseller, it’s been compared to James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk read and reviewed earlier this year.

Circe by Madeline Miller – (rewrite/interpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey, from the rise of the feminine perspective)

Madeline Miller is the author of The Song of Achilles which won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012 and was translated into twenty-five languages. Miller holds an MA in Classics from Brown University, taught Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students; also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and at Yale School of Drama focusing on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. Her essays have appeared in publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Lapham’s Quarterly and NPR. She lives outside Philadelphia.

I read and enjoyed her debut novel and this one sounds just as good. The female goddesses and characters from many history books have been lying dormant for centuries, allowing others to portray them as less than powerful, now the unveiling of their message has begun to rise as modern women awaken, remember and begin to share ‘herstory’.

**************

Here’s what the Chair of judges had to say about the shortlist:

It’s a fantastic shortlist; exciting, vibrant, adventurous. We fell totally in love with these books and the amazing worlds they created. These books are fiction at its best – brilliant, courageous and utterly captivating.”

Have you read any of these titles, or are you planning to?

Buy A Copy of Any One of These via Book Depository

 

Secret by Philippe Grimbert (France) tr. Polly McLean

Twenty years after his parents jumped from the window of their Parisian apartment to their deaths, Philippe Grimbert decided to write about the secret that had overwhelmed their lives. “I had been in mourning for those 20 years,” says the French psychoanalyst, “which is a lot more than Freud suggests is normal. The Guardian, April 2007

Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, translated from French by Polly McLean, is a haunting story of a boy who senses something held back from him from those around him, it is post-war Paris, he is an only child who imagines he has a make-believe brother, seeing things from his perspective as well as his own, even going so far as to fight with him.

He is aware of his mother’s silences, his father’s sadness, without knowing the reason why, yet knowing not to ask. They are athletic, good-looking parents, but they birthed him, a delicate child they must keep from the jaws of death.

I survived, thanks to the care of doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think my father loved me too – overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes.

Full of fear at school, one day after watching a particularly disturbing documentary about the Holocaust, he is overcome by emotion at the insulting comment of a boy in the class and starts a fight, an act completely out of character for him and yet he had felt an inner rage that compelled him to react violently.

The incident left me with a patch above one eye that I wore around school with great pride. But the injury brought me much more than ephemeral glory – it was the sign for which Louise had been waiting.

The neighbour Louise is the only person he tells the truth about why he got in the fight.

Louise was always my favourite, even though she wasn’t actually part of the family. Perhaps I felt a deeper complicity with her than with my blood relatives. Affectionate as they were, my uncles, aunts and grandparents seemed surrounded by an intangible barrier forbidding questions and warding off confidences. A secret club, bound together by an impossible grief.

He is surprised at how upset she becomes, not at his behaviour, but something else, something greater, the burden of which overwhelms her, something she too has known all these years, and believes now she must reveal to him.

The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learnt what I had always known.

He fills in the gaps of the story, imagining the narrative himself, he knows nearly all the characters, except those that have haunted him, but he seems to have known them too. However, he too guards the secret, knowing makes it easier on him, but it can’t change his relationship with his family.

To overcome the final hurdle, he needs to fill in the gaps, to find out the facts.

There remained a gap in my story, a chapter whose contents were not known even to my parents. I knew a way to un-stick its pages: I had heard about a place in Paris where I could find the information I was missing.

The narrator shares the same name as the author, and though he never knew the exact details of what happened before he was born, except by anecdote, he used fiction to explore and build a narrative that hopefully might have let some of the ghosts he had lived with for many years to rest.

Why, I ask him, did he write a novel that would involve fictionalising real events? “Because I had no choice. For me, in reconstituting this story that was so brief in terms of what I had been told, reconstituting it in all its duration, was all I could do. My sole tool was the novel. Perhaps someone else could have made a film, done a painting. Somebody else could have written a history, but I couldn’t. The only way I could pay homage was to write this book.”

The Guardian, April 2007

It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read and all the more so upon finishing when I realised there is indeed a strong link to the author’s own life. In addition to the secrets explored in the book, which I don’t want to give away as they are better left to explore in reading, they also let him grow up thinking he was Catholic, something that I think may have been quite common among survivors of WWII.

“I now think that what they did was an act of love rather than cowardice. They sought to protect themselves and me by doing these things. But discovering that I was really a Jew and not a Catholic made me into a neurotic and then into a shrink.”

The book has also been made into a dramatic French film.

Buy a Copy of Secret via Book Depository

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives is a story of a child who spends her childhood in Vietnam, her early adulthood in America then makes a return visit to her homeland to confront aspects of her past she wishes to resolve.

In Part One she is escorted by her solider to a secretive military camp where her mother has spent the last four years, she is seven years old and has been separated from her mother for four years.

The mother is distant, busy, under suspicion, she is an energy consultant, the girl tries to please her, get her attention. She struggles to connect with her in the way her heart yearns, becoming overly attentive to trying to please her in a way that children who aren’t able to  take having parents there for them for granted might react.

Whenever she has to travel anywhere she is accompanied by this same solider. She clings to him even though he discourages it. She befriends a motherless little girl she finds playing a game stacking bricks, their time together establishes some of the few memories of childhood they will retain, both haunted by the last time they see each other.

There is a strange, unsafe vibe around the little girl’s father. She develops a desire to hurt something, after killing a fish with her bare hands, her angst morphs into thoughtless cruelty towards the little girl. Suddenly her time there is over, she is again escorted, this time across the China border onto a plane to America.

Years later, I understood that Mother had made sure nobody saw me enter the camp and nobody saw me leave; that the erasure of my records in Vietnam would be complete when I boarded the plane…I told myself that once I got to the US, I would turn around, take a different plane back to Vietnam, go get the little girl so we could leave the camp together for good.  We’d talked about escaping together so many times that being forced to go without her was unthinkable.

In Part Two the girl has been sent to America, her mother having promised (unfulfilled) to follow her there, drifting from the homes of relatives to friends, she outwears her welcome with them all and becomes isolated, alone. Haunted by the memories of her youth, she follows a stranger home because he reminds her of her solider. She befriends a young woman who reminds her of the little girl. Her life is laced with illusion, faces that morph into those who have haunted her past. She is not the only one with a past, living with the effects of trauma and her attempts to reconnect expose her to the nightmares of others, also trying to remember or forget.

“Try telling them some other tales that don’t fit their presumptions. Vietnam” – he dropped his cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “Is a war, not a country. Anything besides is irrelevant.”

Meeting both these strangers changes the course of her life dramatically and will push her to confront her past, revisit her home country and look for what she has lost. And to make amends.

More and more I resembled my own mother as I with-held facts and became an accomplice in helping my daughters obscure their origins.

It’s a hard book to describe and one that is disturbing in parts to read, laced with a sadness for a girl that it seems was unwanted, although she was given opportunities, just not love or affection, in turn her own life seems without purpose and missing something that can be felt not described. Her return will provide her a different perspective and bring her closer to understanding her mother and her intention for her daughter, realising she has something of that in her as well.

“When you leave the old country at an age not young enough to get adopted into the new and not old enough to know how to reject it, you become this mutant thing: between borders, between languages, between memories.” He pressed his temples. “If you ask me, I think it’s easier to reinvent than to retrace. You’re not the only one, you know. Look at this city and its faces. You’re not the only one with an ungraspable history.”

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, but it was thought-provoking and made me wonder about the inspiration and experience behind writing it and of the number of sad lives being lived by others, neither from one place nor another, without families, trying to make sense of the world. And of effects of unhealed trauma and displacement.

“If I had two lives to live, I would have done it differently,” she said. “Anything worth having requires your sacrifice, even your personal happiness.”

More than storytelling, despite being fiction, this novel is about what happens to those who leave their homeland, a victim in ways to what they have left, how some are able to manage their past experience, using it to try to improve the situation for others, while others remain a victim to forces and feelings they find difficult to live with, causing them to inflict pain on others or when it gets too much, on themselves, without seeming to, or unable to care who gets hurt in the process.

I am reminded of Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner whose family were evicted from their homeland, she uses fiction in her novel In The Shadow of the Banyan to express memories born of her childhood experience, and although it was traumatic, she was determined to take what was a sad chapter in her country’s history and show us something of its beauty and culture.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve.

This novel was born out of the aching pleasure of rearranging memories, reinventing the past – a personal need to solve my childhood’s mysteries, figure out how I arrived here, and to give myself the emotional conclusions that real life doesn’t afford.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy to read.

Buy a Copy of this book via BookDepository.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) tr. Ellen Jones

As I mentioned in this recent post, this year I’m reading a selection of contemporary Latin American fiction, thanks to a subscription with Charco Press. The first novella for the year is a collection of interconnected short stories, (reminding me of the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s excellent collection Revenge) Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes from Guatemala.

A man named Don Henrik is the connection between the stories, and though he is not the centre of any story until the end, through each tale narrated we come to know the hardships he has encountered as he struggled to run his various business ventures, we learn about the equally difficult life path his brother followed, and how that contributed to his father’s financial difficulties. Though it is not focused on in particular, we also know he is a foreigner, we imagine how his may have contributed to the challenges he and his family have encountered.

Don Henrik seems like a man who wants to live an ordinary life, he has the fortitude to create something out of nothing, he is kind, but he lives in a society where men give in to temptation, and are lead astray by a desire, by greed, by revenge, addiction and so always there are situations to be dealt with. He is an entrepreneur, but still learning the ways of men and nature in his adopted country.

Trout are delicate creatures and can’t handle temperatures over thirteen degrees. That’s why Don Henrik  bought his land right at the top of the mountain, because he wanted icy, cold spring water. But despite being delicate,  they’re completely savage.  They eat meat, even their own.Little cannibals, my Ermina called them.

Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery on Pexels.com

Set in the Guatemalan countryside and forest, it is a place that appears to offer rest and tranquility and yet is beset with an undercurrent of hostility and violence, infiltrated by merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, father’s desperate to go straight, endangering their daughters and their dog, and the plain stupid, caught in a gullible web of thinking they can make easy money, only to meet premature death.

What begins as one of the most endearing stories, becomes the one that almost prevents me finishing the book, involving the relationship between a young calf and a dog, it’s when men come between them that things turn despicable, I couldn’t help but see the young cow as a metaphor for women, who are the usual targets for such brutality.

Some will relate to its Hemingway-esque style, for me it was a straight forward, easy read, though I began to feel like I was reading a book likely to be enjoyed more by men readers, as it launched quickly into a tale of infidelity, of a man with a loyal wife and daughters distracted by a young shop girl, willing to sacrifice everything for a few moments of pleasure; men arriving with guns intent on teaching a lesson to other men, taking out their violent intent on an innocent animal, the bond between two men, their lives and friendship endangered by their descent into drugs and recklessly pursuing an activity (involving a boat and diving) while under the influence.

Personally, I find I have less and less tolerance for stories that depict women in this way, even if it represents a reality, it becomes tiresome. As a reader, I find I’m looking for a paradigm shift in the way female characters are depicted, something I am sure is coming, as I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Don Henrik isn’t the cause of any of this, is it bad karma, neglect or naivety, he is often absent, trusting his partners and workers to get on with the job, it is here that cracks form, that others seize their malevolent opportunity. He is a good man, he donated a kidney to his wife, he is tired, he’s found another good woman and just wants peace, but he’s a land owner, there are those who covet what he has, his desire for tranquility in this world he inhabits, observed by so much dysfunction, is an impossible ask.

Ist edition cover, Francisco Tún artwork

In an interview Fuentes is asked about his writing of this book while living outside of Guatemala and revealed his observation and interest, having moved abroad in how people spoke and expressed themselves. He viewed an accent as something like a regions ideology, that we assumed ours to be neutral, but that it revealed much about how the speaker saw the world.

I look at Guatemala, and it’s a tiny country, but one with very talented narrators. And each region of the country tells stories in different ways. The way people tell stories in the mountains is very different from how people in the eastern part of the country tell them, or those living by the coast, or in the city, undoubtedly; I paid attention to that. I was always interested in the conversations taking place between the city and rural areas. Living abroad allowed me to pay attention to these conversations from a different vantage point, and a character like Henrik enabled me to move back and forth between those two worlds.

In his excellent, expansive review, Tom Blake provides a political perspective of Guatemalan and Latin American literature, suggesting that much of it has centred around themes of ‘displacement, disappearance, deracination’ suggesting that Fuentes offered a different view, the view of those who remain. He acknowledged that Fuentes held up a mirror to a masculine world, though went a little far in my opinion in suggesting that ‘the women hold immense, almost supernatural power’.

In doing so, he provides insights into why displacement might occur, why humans feel the need to move in their thousands to countries whose promises were exposed long ago as over-optimistic or fraudulent. But that is not his primary concern. These are stories about various types of hardship and conflict, where hardship is unending and conflict is self-perpetuating. His protagonists stick around to meet their difficulties head-on; they create tiny worlds around themselves where bizarre details become normal, where flirtatious cows walk on their hind legs and, frenzied fish turn to cannibalism. Thomas Blake

Rodrigo FuentesConsidered to be one of the most prominent names among the new generation of Guatemalan writers, Rodrigo Fuentes (1984) won the Carátula Central American Short Story Prize (2014) as well as the Juegos Florales of Quetzaltenango Short Story Prize (2008).

Trout, Belly Up was shortlisted for the 2018 Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel García Márquez, the most prestigious prize awarded to short-story writers in Latin America. It has been published in Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, as well as in France. Rodrigo currently lectures at the College of the Holy Cross in the United States, and lives between Providence and Guatemala. This is his first book to appear in English.

Ellen Jones is a researcher and translator based in London. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and writes about multilingualism and translation in contemporary Latin American literature. Her reviews have appeared in publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and her translations in publications including the Guardian and Latin American Literature Today. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.

Further Reading

Jumping Between the Urban and the Rural: An Interview with Rodrigo Fuentes by José García Escobar

Review of Trout Belly Up by Thomas Blake