Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is a writer with a deep and active interest in environmental education and conservation, Refuge is both a memoir of a period in her life when she accompanied her mother through the illness that would claim her life, and shortly after her grandmother, leaving her the matriarch of the family at the age of thirty-four.

Although this is the book she is most well-known for, I first read and reviewed her writing and encountered her mother in a more recent, and equally extraordinary book, When Women Were Birds, Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, which was written twenty years later (when the author was 54) in 2012. It was also the age her mother was, when she succumbed to the illness written about in Refuge.  I recommend it equally, they are a unique pair, in their insights, their confusion, their ultimate compassion and understanding.

Throughout the memoir, she spends time with her mother, and equally has concerns for the Great Salt Lake, which sits on their doorstep, it is the place she grew up in, a landscape and wildlife she is obsessed with, one I knew nothing about, but became increasingly intrigued by, this enormous, terminal lake with no outlet to the sea.

Great Salt Lake: wilderness adjacent to a city; a shifting shoreline that plays havoc with highways; islands too stark, too remote to inhabit; water in the desert that no one can drink. It is the liquid lie of the West.

Natives of the area speak of the lake in the shorthand of lake levels, it’s not deep, but it is vast, so it doesn’t take much precipitation for significant rises to occur. In the mid 80’s when she was writing this book (it was first published in 1991) talk on the streets of Salt Lake City was of the lake’s rapid rising, everyone had concerns, the airport, the farms, the railroad, survival.

My interest lay at 4206′, the level which, according to my topographical map, meant the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

She writes about her family history, her genealogy with its deep roots in the American West her Mormon culture has preserved and their connection to the natural world, infused with spiritual values.

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

As the author shares the drama unfolding within her family of which she is the eldest child and only daughter, there is always the metaphor of the lake, the simultaneous restlessness of its birds, as if they too sense change coming; she wonders if they are better adapted to it than humans.

The thirty-six short chapters each carry the name of one of the bird species that inhabits the lake environment, they may only be mentioned in one sentence, but they are all listed, noted, observed over time, throughout the pages, they represent the life cycle of species, moving on, migrating, adapting to change, dying, making way for the young.

William’s both observes beauty and dissects suffering as she observes her mother’s and her own and tries to make sense of it, through nature and her current philosophical understanding.

Tonight I watched the sun sink behind the lake; The clouds looked like rainbow trout swimming in a lapis sky. I can honour its beauty or resent the smog in this valley which makes it possible. Either way, I am deceiving myself.

Birds are entwined with local folklore, the Californian gull rescuing the Mormons in 1848 from losing their crops to crickets. They still gather to tell this story.

How the white angels ate as many crickets as their bellies would hold, flew to the shore of Great Salt Lake and regurgitated them, then returned to the field for more. We honour them as Utah’s state bird.

It’s a book where you could highlight a passage on each page, one you can open on a random page and find some meaningful, reflective passage on life, an interesting bird fact or a brief history lesson.

The writing is at times poetic, sometimes scientific, passionate and honest. There’s a perfect balance between the personal and the environment that makes it a compelling read, but also one that you’ll want to savour.

The mother and daughter get their astrology charts done and read each other’s.

“I liked the part about Terry being neat and meticulous,” teased Mother. “I remember standing in the middle of your bedroom when you were about thirteen years old. Everything in your closet was on the floor, art and school papers were piled high on your desk. I remember thinking, I have two choices here – I can harp on her every day of her life, making certain her room is straight – or I can close the door and preserve our relationship.”

As the Great Salt Lake continues to rise, a deep sadness washes over her that all has been lost.

I am not adjusting. I keep dreaming the Refuge back to what I have known: rich, green bulrushes that border the wetlands, herons hiding behind cattails, concentric circles of ducks on ponds. I blow on these images like the last burning embers on a winter’s night.

There is no one to blame, nothing to fight…Only a simple natural phenomenon: the rise of the great Salt Lake.

There is also refuge in poetry, in other writers and the book is interspersed with memorable quotes from those whose words soothe her during this period of grief, as her mother goes into decline. And so I leave this sharing of thoughts on the book here with her reading her Mother a poem one afternoon by Wendell Berry:

T H E   P E A C E  O F   W  I L D   T H I N G S

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron

feeds.

I come into the peace of the wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Highly Recommended.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, Reflections on Creative Nonfiction

I have had this memoir on my bookshelf for a long time and recall first becoming aware of it when I wrote an article for our a newsletter about a genre in literature I wasn’t familiar with called Creative Nonfiction, sometimes referred to as Literary Nonfiction and here in France as essais or belles-lettres.

It had emerged as an evolving and respected genre, encouraged in the US by Lee Gutkind who founded the creative nonfiction MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, slower to develop in the UK, the first Masters programme in Creative Non-Fiction offered in 2005 at Imperial College London.

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these. Lee Gutkind

It is distinguished from ‘nonfiction’ by its use of language to impart more than just information or facts, it presents observations, history, stories in ways that are compelling, sustaining the attention of the reader. It’s not by accident that a work becomes one of creative nonfiction, it is an art, achieved with practice.

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. Lee Gutkind

Lorna Sage’s memoir, published in 2001, is an excellent example of literary nonfiction, by the time she wrote it, she had been practicing her ‘creative literary art’ for some time as a literary critic, reviewer, and essay writer, publishing widely on women writers and their work. She wrote books on Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, twelve 20th century women writers, Edwardian writers Violet Trefusis & Alice Keppel and a collection of her journalistic pieces Good As Her Word was compiled posthumously.

Though she went into academe, was a lecturer, professor of English literature and Dean of the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, she resisted its embrace as a writer,

“I always wanted to write like a writer, not an academic,” she said, “to show there’s someone behind the words, someone from a specific place.”

Bad Blood centers around her childhood years in Wales. Her first memories are of living in the vicarage with her grandparents, Part 1 is the story of their marriage, creating the environment that she grew up in, one where her grandmother rarely left the house.

So it is meandering along the church yard path, tugging at her grandfather’s skirt flapping in the wind that forms the opening line and a clue to her influences; followed by further proof of the loveless union he was escaping.

“The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it – except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him. Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime’s mutual loathing.”

She barely recalls the presence of her mother during those years, she was there, but the daughter’s recollection of her own mother was of,

“a shy, slender wraith kneeling on the stairs with a brush and dustpan, or washing things in the scullery. They’d made her into a domestic drudge after her marriage – my father was away in the army and she had no separate life.”

She sums up her grandmother’s sufferance in marriage with the observation:

“What made their marriage more than a run-of the-mill case of domestic estrangement was her refusal to accept her lot. She stayed furious all the days of her life – so sure of her ground, so successfully spoiled, that she was impervious to the social pressures and propaganda that made most women settle down to play the part of good wife.”

She gains even greater insight into their marriage and family life thanks to the confiscated diaries of her grandfather that have fallen into her father’s possession and help her reconstruct events of the time and life in the family household. She comes to the conclusion that the family was falling apart because nobody wanted to play the part of parent.

“There is no doubt that Grandma preserved Grandpa’s diaries for 1933 and 1934 as evidence against him. Indeed, the 1933 diary has a couple of scathing marginal comments in her hand – Here the fun begins (Friday, 25 August) and Love begins (fool) exactly a week later.”

Life becomes quieter after the death of her grandfather and they move to a new council house, taking recently evicted Grandma with them. Lorna develops an interest in the neighbouring farm and spends much of her free time helping out, watching nature in her various forms.

“I’d turned into a tomboy travesty of my mother’s little shepherdess, orphaned and anonymous, and utterly absorbed in the world outside. The repetition of farm days made them seem a backwater of time where the future was safely accounted for.”

Though her grandfather had died when she was nine, his presence was not forgotten, his bad influence often mentioned, though in Lorna ‘s memory he hadn’t let her down like he had the other women in his life, he continued on in her mind as a kind of flawed mentor who had ‘vanished into the dark with his mystique intact.’

“When, in my teens, I quarrelled with my mother, she would say in despair and disgust, “You’re just like your grandfather,” meaning that I was promiscuous, sex-obsessed, that the bad blood was coming out. My bookishness was part of that inheritance too, and though she and my father approved in theory of my love of reading, and my coming top in exams, we all knew that books had a sinister, Grandpa side to them. You could always tell which were his books because he had had the bright idea of inking out their titles and authors’ names in case visitors to his study asked to borrow a Dickens or a Marie Corelli.” Lorna Sage

Though childhood takes up much of the book, her teenage years are intriguing, for here the family rises above convention and supports Lorna at a time of great need, in an era when many young women in her position would have been shamed and treated in an inhuman manner, giving rise to more problems and heartache. That she gets through this challenging period in her life, supported by her family and goes on to complete a university education virtually without hindrance, is astounding.

Indeed, marriage, and its changing nature over the years, became one of the book’s themes, and so did secrets and lies. He represents for me now the glamour of the past, and its sinister pull, like the force of gravity inside your life. He refuses to die. When Grandma was packing up to move out of the vicarage I called by on my way from school and she told me that she had met him on the stairs.

Lorna Sage

Further evidence of what can come about when families support each other through a crisis can be observed in the reflections of her daughter, shared on the tenth anniversary of Lorna Sage’s death, at a time when she could better acknowledge and celebrate her mother’s literary success and the choices she made, which sadly wasn’t the case when this memoir won a literary award.

Lorna Sage Source : Wikipedia

I expected it to be more of a ‘misery memoir’ than it was, and hadn’t realised it would be quite as comical as it was, for although the family inflict wounds upon each other, she observes them with a wry wit, that doesn’t make the reader suffer as can be the case with some childhood memoirs.

While she makes family life transparent and shares certain parts in detail, there remains a sense of something preserved  and held back, she tends to put others centre stage rather than focus too much of the narrative on herself, and never allows any of the family characters to be portrayed as the victim.

As another reader commented, it’s a pity that she wasn’t able to write a sequel, as her life after the events of this book, as a working woman and mother,

would have been equally interesting, though even in her professional life, she seemed to prefer to analyse the lives and writings of other women than turn the literary gaze onto her own experience.

Bad Blood won the Whitbread Book Award (now Costa Book Awards) for Biography just seven days before she died from emphysema, two days before her 58th birthday.

Have you read Bad Blood? Do you have a favourite book in the Creative Nonfiction genre?

Buy a Copy of Bad Blood via Book Depository

Further Reading

Lorna Sage – Brilliant teacher and critic who expanded the horizons of English literature and women’s writing

Past Imperfect – Lorna Sage writing about her grandfather, Guardian

Sharon Sage – talks about her brilliant ‘lioness’ of a mother, 10 years on – Guardian

On Creative NonFiction

Lee Gutkind – What is Creative Nonfiction?

Tim Bascom – Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide

Book Riot – Kim Ukura – 50 Great Narrative Nonfiction Books  that highlight strong research/reporting along with narrative voice

Maria Popova – Brainpickings – Essays – ideas of a timeless nature – one woman’s search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose (ghostwriter)

I saw the film when it was on at the cinema about a year ago and like everyone who has seen it, I thought it was extremely moving. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a 5-year-old boy who is out with his teenage brother, who has told him to wait for him at a quiet train station near their home, and feeling tired, he climbs into an empty carriage, falls asleep and when he awakes, it is moving, the carriage locked and he will be transported, far, far from his home, which he won’t see for another 25 years.

The book only confirms how incredible and moving his story is, on top of the emotion it provokes, was the amazement at how many situations 5-year-old Saroo got into that he was miraculously saved from, often by his own well-honed instinct, other times sheer luck, and occasionally, surely, divine intervention.

Like befriending the teenage boy he trusted and went home with, who would be the first person to make an intervention on his behalf that would lead him to 25 years of safety, before he could find his way back home and be reunited with his family again. In the meantime he would spend those 25 years in a middle class Australian family in Hobart, Tasmania – far from his culture and birth family, learning another language, getting an education and developing a way of life that would benefit them all by the time his story comes full circle.

It’s a bittersweet story with a thrilling beginning as he falls asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life is hurtled, like a rocket capsule, into another hemisphere, with a few obstacles to overcome on the way.

It’s sad because he was a boy who became lost from his family in a large country, he had difficulty pronouncing the name of the town he came from (and even his own name) and in the city he arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), he spent weeks riding trains hoping one of them might take him back. Nighttime brought an element of danger, and even in the day while having fun with other children in the river, danger was never far away, he would be rescued a couple of times that might have been life-threatening, had not well intended strangers come to his aid.

Saroo with his adoptive mother

The childless (through their own choice) couple that adopted him, were open and inclusive regarding his culture, furnishing his bedroom with a large map of India and items reminiscent of his country of birth, they joined an association connecting Indian families to their culture. However, unwanted memories could arrive unbidden, sometimes reconnecting with stories from India awakened his childhood trauma. He describes seeing the Hindi film Salaam Bombay:

Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause. Even sad music could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I had lost.

A few years later, his parents adopted another boy from India, who became his brother, the book doesn’t delve too deep into this relationship, however the film did bring out the contrast in their characters and the difficulty his parents, particularly his mother, who was a relatively quiet and calm woman, had in parenting him.

Mantosh and I were very different, partly because of the natural differences between our people, but also because of our different experiences in India. It’s one of the things that makes people who adopt children, especially from abroad, so brave: often the kids they’re taking in come with troubled backgrounds, having suffered in ways that make adjusting to their new life difficult, and which can be hard to understand and even harder to help. I was reticent and reserved; Mantosh, at least at first, was loud and disobedient. I wanted to please; he rebelled.

According to an interview, Mantosh was unhinged by the film, his protracted adoption wasn’t able to be finalised within the two month grace period the children’s home were given, so he was sent back to the large orphanage where lost or abandoned children would encounter all manner of youth, including bullies, criminals and abusers, the time he was obliged to spend there awaiting the administrative outcome scarred him physically and mentally. He didn’t have the good fortune of his brother, whose story is all the more remarkable for him having avoided abuse, though he was certainly close to encountering it, as his story shows.

“[His grandmother] couldn’t keep Mantosh in her care anymore, while he was waiting to come to Australia, once we’d accepted him. So he had to go back to [the orphanage] where he was burnt, raped, beaten, you name it. And I’m very bitter about that.” – Sue Brierley

There is most certainly a very different and equally important story to be told, if one follows Mantosh’s experience; it was interesting to listen to his mother speak on that in an interview recorded here. At least, she says, it did result in him beginning to open up more about his experiences and they were able to seek help for him, he represents the other side of adoption; the adoptive mother admitted they weren’t prepared for what it would mean to raise a child who’d been through such trauma, she didn’t have the support needed and experienced discrimination in the medical community when she did try to seek help.

When Saroo really becomes intent on tracking down his family, (another element that is much more vividly portrayed in the film) no one except his girlfriend knows how obsessed he has become, he has had periods of searching in the past, spurred on by meeting other students who grew up in India, who’d make guesses as to where he might come from based on his memories, but when, with the help of Google maps and tracing railway lines out of Calcutta, he began to spend hours every night doing his research, he kept it to himself, in ways and for reasons many adoptees will recognise.

I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, not even my parents. I was worried they might misunderstand my intentions: they might think that the intensity of my search revealed an unhappiness with the life they’d given me, or the way they’d raised me. I also didn’t want them to think that I was wasting time. So even as it took up more and more of my life, I kept it to myself.

He was fortunate to have such a supportive girlfriend, he felt she would have been within her rights to feel alone in their still-new relationship, he was treading a fine line and would catch her looking at him sometimes as though she thought he was crazy. He was driven, determined and you knew he wouldn’t give up until he’d found something he recognised, the memories and maps in his head so well preserved over the years, surely he would find them if he kept going.

Perhaps to some extent sharing something so fundamental to me strengthened our connection – and that came through when we talked about what it all meant to me. It wasn’t always easy to articulate, especially as I was trying to keep a lid on my expectations, trying to convince myself it was a fascinating exercise, not a deeply meaningful personal quest.

In the book, Saroo spends a lot of time rationalising and expressing his gratitude, it’s clear he doesn’t wish to hurt anyone in his portrayal of the story, he understands he treads the line between two families in a topic that is almost a cause, that attracts fierce activism especially on the part of those who are pro-adoption, however he also acknowledges what many adoptees need to hear, the aspect that was healed in him in taking this journey, by his perseverance.

Rightly so in his case, as he wasn’t abandoned or given up in the first place. The trauma his mother must have gone through in finally accepting that he had disappeared, and what strength and love, to have believed for so long he may return, so strongly she believed it that she refused to leave the town they lived in, to join her other children and be nearer them and their families.

After being lost, I’d been lucky enough to adopted by a loving family, and not only lived somewhere else, but had become someone else from the person I might have been had I stayed in India. I didn’t just live in Australia, I thought of myself as an Australian. I had a family home with the Brierleys and had made my own home in Hobart with my girlfriend Lisa. I knew I belonged and was loved, in those places.
But finding Khandwa and my Indian family also felt like coming home. Something about being in the place just felt right. I was loved here too, and belonged, in a way I’d not thought much about beforehand and found hard to explain. This was where I’d spent my first years, where my blood was. When it was time for me to return to Hobart – a time that came around far too quickly – I felt the wrench of leaving deeply.

Buy a copy of the book via Book Depository

Excellent Books About Unforgettable Women #WomensHistoryMonth on #WorldBookDay

Today I saw the twitter hashtags #WorldBookDay and #WomensHistoryMonth prompting some interesting references to notable women, so I decided to look back at books I have read and reviewed here at Word by Word and show you a selection that highlight a few important women in our recent history, some you may not have heard of, all of whom have made significant contributions to our world. Click on the headings to read the reviews and share your recommendations.

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, Wangari Maathai

The first woman who came to mind and whose book I want to recommend is Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, One Woman’s Story. Kenyan and one of a group of young African’s selected to be part of the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ , she and others were given the opportunity to gain higher education in the US and to use their education to contribute to progress in their home countries. Maathai was a scientist, an academic and an activist, passionate about sustainable development; she started the The Greenbelt Movement, a tree planting initiative, which not only helped save the land, but empowered local women to take charge of creating nurseries in their villages, thereby taking care of their own and their family’s well-being.

“We worried about  their access to clean water,  and firewood,  how they would feed their children,  pay their school fees,  and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had a choice: we could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could  try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in. This was not a remote problem for us. The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived. We owed it to them to do all we could.”

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, which motivated this story to be written thanks to others who pushed her to share it, thankfully, for she was an extraordinary and inspirational woman, who sadly passed away from ovarian cancer in 2011.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks is perhaps one of the most famous women we’d never heard of, a woman who never knew or benefited from her incredible contribution to science and humanity. A young mother in her 30’s, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and despite being eligible for and receiving medical care at the John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, a medical facility funded and founded to ensure equal access no matter their race, status, income or other discriminatory reason, she died soon after.

Before treatment, samples of her healthy and cancerous cells were taken, part of a research initiative in search of ‘immortal cells’ that could be continuously replicated. It had never been done before, until now – the newly named HeLa cells would become one of medicine’s significant advances.

Rebecca Skloot heard about the HeLa cells in biology class in 1988, became fascinated by them, she focused her research on finding out about the woman behind this important advance in medical science. This book tells her story and rightly attributes her a place in history.

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was a university student at Oxford when World War 1 began to decimate the lives of youth, family and friends around her. It suspended her education and resulted in her volunteering as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. Initially based in a military hospital in London, events would propel her to volunteer for a foreign assignment, taking her to Malta and then close to the front line in France for the remaining years of the war.

Her memoir is created from fragments of her diaries, sharing the angst and idealism of youth, and later looking back from the wisdom of middle age, for she was 40 years old before her tome was published.

War changed her, she could no longer tolerate the classrooms of Oxford and the contempt of a new youth.

‘I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and ‘stand-offish’ to my ruthless and critical juniors.’

She changed her focus from literature to history, in an effort to understand and participate in any action that might prevent humanity from making the same terrible mistakes that had caused the loss of so many lives. She became an international speaker for the League of Nations.

The book was made into a dramatic film of the same name in 2014.

Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is best known for her incredible series of seven autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), narrating her life up to the age of 17. She became a writer after a number of varied occupations in her youth.

This book was her last memoir, not one in the series, but one that could only be written from afar, from the wisdom of 80 years, when she could look back at a torturous youth, at a neglectful mother and see her with love, compassion and forgiveness.

‘Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.’

Stet, An Editors Life, Diana Athill

Diana Athill OBE (born 21 Dec 1917) is someone I think of as the ordinary made extraordinary. She was a fiction editor for most of her working life, forced into earning a living due to circumstance, for while her great-grandparents generation had made or married into money, her father’s generation lost it. She clearly remembers her father telling her ‘You will have to earn your living’ and that it was something almost unnatural at the time.

War removed her chance at marriage and she appeared to reject it after that, revelling in her freedom and independence, though others suggest she was scarred by the intensity and pain of her first relationship. While the first part of the book focuses on her life, the second half recalls some of the relationships she developed with writers over the years, Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane.

The more extraordinary era of her life was still to come, for in her 80’s she began to write memoir, and achieve notable success, her book Somewhere Towards The End won the Costa Prize for Biography in 2008. Now 100 years old, she hasn’t stopped writing yet.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Diana Athill: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people’
The former editor on regrets, the advantages of old age and why she’s still writing at 100

***

Have you read any good books about notable women we might remember for #WomensHistoryMonth?

Buy a copy of one of these books via BookDepository

Granta 141: Canada – Mangilaluk’s Highway by Nadim Roberts

Granta 141 Canada

The first Granta journal of 2018, issue number 141 is focused on Canadian literature, whether it’s fiction, memoir, reportage, poetry or photography, each issue combines something of each of those categories, with new writing/work by known and little-known talent, around a common theme.

As guest editor and author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien shares in the opening introduction, (and fellow guest-editor Catherine Leroux, writing in French), their only parameter for submissions was ‘What is being imagined here, now?’

Canada being a land with sixty unique Indigenous language dialects and more than two hundred languages reported as a mother tongue or home language, it was a wide-ranging brief.

Language becomes its own landscape in this issue of Granta. Language falls apart, twists, reformulates, shatters and revives itself. Animal and self, unfinished history, land and waterways, colonisation and dispossession, settlement and refuge – all these nouns are part of the truth of this place.

Apart from Leroux’s introduction, all the work is either in English or has been translated from English, however all work in translation is available to read on Granta.com in the original French.

It features writers such as Margaret Atwood, Lisa Moore (her novel February reviewed here), Alexander McLeod, Krista Foss, Naomi Fontaine, Kim Fu, Anosh Irani, Paul Seesequasis, Anakana SchofieldJohanna Skibsrud,  and many more…

I’m reviewing here the first story and may share other’s with you as I select randomly from the journal over the coming months.

Mangilaluk’s Highway

The opening story is a mix of reportage and a retelling of the story of Mangilaluk Bernard Andreason, who when he was 11 years old, slipped out of the Inuvik residential boarding school he’d been sent to, along with two friends Jack and Dennis, to avoid being punished for stealing a pack of cigarettes, and spotting newly hung power lines, decided to follow them home to Tuktoyaktuk.

Nadim Roberts writes about Bernard’s journey in the present, interspersed with narrative reports on his own visit to Tuk in June 2017, forty-five years after Dennis, Jack and Bernard began walking that 140 kilometre stretch home. Robert’s by contrast, completes the journey from Inuvik to Tuk in thirty minutes by plane.

He tells of successive attempts by the government to build a road across the Arctic Circle, to facilitate oil and gas exploration and a stretch of highway that would connect Inuvik to Tuk.

 From the plane I could see occasional glimpses of a new, near-finished road. This was the long awaited Inuvik-Tul all-season highway that would open in a few months.

Chief Mangilaluk

We learn that Tuk was a town founded by survivors from Kitigaaryuit, an Inuit settlement, that in 1902, after contact with whalers was cursed with a measles epidemic which drastically decimated their population. One young man, Mangilaluk, departed and went looking for a new place to live. His choice, a site on the edge of a harbour, would become what is now known as Tuk. He became chief and is still talked of today. Some believed he was a shaman who could shape shift into a polar bear.

In July 1961, two decades after he died, Mangilaluk’s granddaughter Alice Felix, was eight months pregnant. While home alone one evening, she heard a knock on the door. She wasn’t sure if she was awake or dreaming when the door swung open. A three-metre-tall polar bear stood in the doorway. It walked up to her, put its snowshoe-sized paw on her pregnant belly, and began to speak: ‘If it’s a boy, you name it after me.’

The story reminded me immediately of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Rabbit Proof Fence, a tale of indigenous Aboriginal children removed from their parents (following an Australian government edict in 1931, black aboriginal children and children of mixed marriages were gathered up by whites and taken to settlements to be assimilated) and put in  a boarding school. The three girls in this true story followed a fence built to keep rabbits out of farming land, knowing that it passed close to their home.

Before 1955, fewer than 15 per cent of school-aged Inuit were enrolled in residential schools. Most children still lived on the land with their families, learning traditional skills and knowledge.

By 1964, more than 75 per cent of Inuit children attended residential schools. Their values, language and customs were supplanted overnight by a culture that saw itself as benevolent and superior, and saw the Inuit as primitive beings in need of sophistication.

Nadim Roberts interweaves Bernard’s story, his grandfather’s story and the current issues facing indigenous and local people in the region, in an evocative portrayal of one boy/man’s courage against the odds to make something better of his chance at survival.

Nadim Roberts Source: Author Provided

It’s an excellent piece of writing and combination of narrative and reportage, bringing attention to this one man’s story and the plight of both his people and the environment in which they live.

You can read Nadim’s story for free at Granta, just click on the link below:

Mangilaluk’s Highway by Nadim Roberts

Nadim Roberts is a journalist from Vancouver whose work has been published in Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Globe and Mail.

Further examples of his work can be viewed on his website NadimRoberts.com

Have you read any recommended works by any of the authors mentioned or others featured in Granta 141?

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

The Spiral Staircase, A Memoir by Karen Armstrong

Before I went to visit and spend two months in Bethlehem, Palestine some years ago, I wanted to read something about the history of the area, not a religious book, but something historical that went beyond the recent familiar history since the British abandoned those residing in these lands to their fate. I wanted to understand the wider context of how people came to be living here and what they’d had to endure to survive.

I chose to read Karen Armstrong’s A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and read it while in situ. It was a history of multitudes of power shifts and massacres and when I finished it, I said to my husband (born in Bethlehem), somewhat in awe, “Congratulations, you survived,” and I wondered who these people really were, who had survived such a long, brutal history and come to be living in these towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today. One thing was for sure, they were survivors and most likely had traces of every people who had ever passed along the pilgrim trail within them.

Recently I was recommended a couple more Karen Armstrong books A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and The Great Transformation as background to the conditioning that underpins much of humanity’s belief system of the past millenia, however I decided to add to this collection by first reading her memoir The Spiral Staircase, about her life after leaving the convent, where she spent seven years leading up to her becoming the well renowned author she is today.

I wasn’t interested in her life as a nun, or the details of her leaving the convent, I was interested in how she had used what she learned in rejecting her faith to inspire her towards immersing herself in the history and identifying that catalyst of humanity’s desire to embrace organised religion.

This memoir thus starts as she is trying to finish her university education and doctoral thesis, then her foray into becoming the partial carer of an autistic child, her teaching, her involvement with Channel 4 and the BBC in producing a series of programs on St Paul and then the crusades, and finally launching herself into a writing career when it appeared all other options were closed to her.

Every venture she went into, except the writing career, followed a similar trajectory, where she did the thing she’d convinced herself was what she should be doing, only to eventually lose hope, which became the turning point, or the spiral in the staircase, where she changed direction, it always seemed dramatic and quite often was, however my perspective on those turning points is that they were a course correction, she went along a path for as long at it had something to teach her and then she’d be literally thrown out of it – this kind of thing usually happens when we know we need to change a circumstance but we do nothing, and seven years in the convent had conditioned her to ignore any kind of inner guidance or intuition, making these changes when they did occur seem more dramatic than they might have been, had she transitioned earlier.

Boarding School

I loved reading about her journey and couldn’t help but remember the nuns from my secondary school education, apart from a couple who taught they were elusive figures on the periphery of our lives, we lived on the same premises, for us a boarding school, for them in a separate wing, it was more like a retirement home, they were very, very old and the only time we saw them was in the chapel on Sundays.

They were shadows of whoever they had been and we had no real interaction with them, except the ancient, tough 90 something Sister Conway who still worked in the scullery plunging her gnarled, arthritic hands into boiling hot water as if it were tepid, while we waited for the cutlery to cool before lifting it to dry.

Karen Armstrong took years to undo the conditioning of seven years in the convent and even then likely will never do so completely. An intellectual unsuited to academia, she eventually finds her place studying the great religious and spiritual practices looking for common threads, she’s less interested in differences than in commonalities.

As she researches and learns how to use empathy and compassion to inhabit the minds of those she seeks to understands, she comes closer to a spiritual experience than anything she experienced as a Christian. She has let go of God as objective fact and of belief as being a necessity, discovering instead ‘practice’ and compassion to be the one significant practice of all the faiths that succeeds in managing the ego sufficiently to create peace and harmony.

I enjoyed her honest, though often self deprecating account of this period in her life and particularly loved what she experienced when she visited Jerusalem, the cross cultural encounters and being told to drop the small talk and niceties:

“Karen! You are not in England now. There is no need to be a polite English lady here in Israel. We are not formal people. There is no point to speak if there is nothing to say.”

It becomes even more humorous when she is invited to do the same:

“Do not be a polite English lady. If you think I am unreasonable, tell me to get lost, to shut up- whatever you like!”

at which she surprises herself in doing after a particularly charged day when tensions were high and Joel had snapped at her rudely. His response is excellent, he is proud of her!

The other amusing experience in reading my second hand copy of this book, was the presence of the previous reader in the margins, who not happy to have merely marked up the pages, shared her thoughts more vociferously, clearly not nearly as impressed as I was with the work, deciding to rant and share snippets of her own experiences, which were mostly entertaining, often annoying, and ultimately unwelcome! Here are some of them, since no one else will have had this reading experience!

page 123 After speaking about how her years as a nun had broken something in her, and affected her eating habits, Karen Armstrong writes:

“And I did not want to nourish myself. What was the point of feeding my body, when my mind and heart had been irreparably broken?”

And my interlocutor writes:

“as I was after the divorce”

Armstrong mentions that she isn’t going to write about her failed love relationships, seeing no reason to dwell on episodes that didn’t develop into anything significant and writes:

“Just as I was prevented from becoming an academic, so too I have never been able to achieve a normal domestic existence, and this, like my epilepsy, had also ensured that I remained an outsider in a society in which coupledom is the norm”

to which my interlocutor responds:

“oh do stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

and even adds later on

“perhaps you are just unloveable”

which is a mild example of the kind of comportment (at different levels of societal power clearly) that nevertheless can lead to disharmony, conflict, war even, for if there is a conclusion to what Karen Armstrong has learned, it is a lesson she gifts to her readers, known as Hillel’s Golden Rule that all great leaders have taught, Confucius proclaimed it 500 years before him, Buddha and Jesus taught it, it is the bedrock of the Koran:

“Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you”

As one of her advisors Hyam Maccoby said

“It takes more discipline to refrain from doing/saying harm to others than to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desires onto other people.”