Tuesday 18 July 2017

Stay with me

'Stay With Me' by Ayòbámi Adébáyò was a lovely book. I picked it from the shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, a place that has supplied me with many of my favourite reads. Yejide and Akin tell their story in alternating chapters, of their struggle to make their marriage work in a world that expects so much of them. Their idyllic life is marred by the intrusion of their extended families, who have become more and more concerned over the lack of children. Yejide had a lonely, motherless childhood, surrounded by siblings and four step-mothers in her father's huge household. She has determined from early on that she will be an only wife, and so is shocked and horrified to discover that her husband has bowed to pressure and secretly married a second wife. Things go from bad to worse as in her desperation to conceive Yejide undertakes a strange pilgrimage and subsequently believes herself pregnant to the extent that she has the physical symptoms, and refuses to believe the scans that show no baby. 
When Yejide finally has a daughter it is as if all is suddenly right with the world, but their happiness is short-lived. A second child is born swiftly after but his life is tainted by sickle-cell disease. Their struggles to raise a family are however overshadowed by a secret that Akin has shared with no one but his brother Dotun, a secret that undermines the foundations of their relationship. As Yejide faces losing yet another child she begins to withdraw from her family and her marriage. From a distance of many miles and 15 years she receives an invitation to the funeral of Akin's father and finds herself contemplating a return. The story focusses on the pressures on both men and women within Nigerian society to live up to certain expectations, to prove their masculinity and femininity with offspring. It is a love story, both of the couple, but also of parental love, the utter desolation of a child's death and how hard it is to recover from. I found the social mores difficult; the close familial and social bonds should feel like a good thing, supportive and loving, but they were instead so often restrictive and prescriptive, telling the couple how they should feel and what they should do rather than helping them cope with their losses. 

Here at Olamide's funeral:

"It was as if nobody would miss her. No one was sorry that Olamide had died. They were sorry that I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone - she did not really matter. One would think we had lost a dog that was dear to our hearts. It squeezed me deep inside so see people so calm, as if nothing much had been lost. And when voices from the too-calm stream of consolers told me to imagine how terrible it would have been for this to happen at a later date, on the eve of her graduation or the eve of her wedding, I wished I could will, scream, roll on the ground and give her the mourning she deserved. But I could not. The part of me that could do that had gone into the morgue's freezer with Olamide to keep her company and to beg her forgiveness for all the signs I had missed.
the funeral took place within five days. Akin and I were not allowed to attend and we would never know the burial spot. My mother-in-law kept reminding me that I should not pester anyone about the spot that had been chosen. She whispered into my ears that I must never see her grave because then my eyes would have seen evil, and then I would have experienced the worst thing that could happen to a parent, which was to know a child's burial place. I did not respond to my mother-in-law's words. I lay on the sitting-room couch through the morning, holding myself perfectly still, waiting for the moment they would place her little coffin in the ground. I was sure that if I lay still enough, I would know." (p.146-7)

What I enjoyed was the portrayal of the relationships between the women, the ones she works with, her customers at the salon and her various maternal figures. Yejide does not seem to have friends or sisters, which feels sad, no one to confide her secrets to, and so has to live with her sadnesses and insecurities. And much as Akin's secret tears them apart I felt for him too, and the solution he chose from their situation was born out of his love for Yejide. The story certainly runs the gamut of extreme emotions and wrings you out at the end. 

Sunday 9 July 2017

Growing and Making things post

I planted the tomatoes about eight weeks ago now; they have reached the ceiling of the porch (well the big one has):
There are lots of flowers ... and lots of fruits:
They have been joined by a courgette plant and a squash plant; lots of flowers, no fruits yet:
The basil on the kitchen window sill has been joined by a chilli plant, that has sprouted these lovely delicate white flowers:
The avocado pit is coming along well. I have managed to sprout these before but they have usually withered and died once the plant was six inches or so. I have been following these helpful instructions. It did take about six or seven weeks for the root to grow and may take a few more before we get a sprout, the advice is to be patient:
In the garden the apples
and pears are all relishing the sunshine:
I finished my Shalom cardigan in time for Jo and Jan's wedding in May, though it still lacks a button. It is made in Noro Ginga that I bought in the sale from Black Sheep Wools. It is a lovely simple pattern, I have made one previously as a present for mum:
Still working on the grannie squares, more than 100 so far, out of 144:
Still working on the hexipuffs. Monkey has also been making one a day for a while now and I am guessing we are approaching the 400 mark. The pink one with PW on is stuffed with gleaned sheep wool collected on our walk on the Pennine Way. I have a couple of others labelled L and P stuffed with wool collected in the Lake District and Peak District respectively:

Monday 3 July 2017

Portrait of a Writer as a Young Wife

I read about 'When I Hit You' by Meena Kandasmy, and rather wished I hadn't. It was very hard to read. I was angry the entire time I was reading it. It is the story of an abusive marriage, about how one person breaks down and annihilates another. It is different from other description of abusive relationships because it is based on politics. Or rather the abuse is hidden behind politics. The young woman is enamoured by the radical political ferocity of an older man, and after their marriage he uses politics as a means to criticise and undermine her, to justify what he demands of her. The book is her internal monologue, telling us what he does and what he says, and what she thinks, why she reacts as she does. Her isolation is begun by moving them to a place where she does not speak the local language, and then exacerbated by incrementally removing her links to the outside world. She endures, the societal pressures on her to maintain appearances adding to the burden of her husband's behaviour. You watch him try to crush her, but can see her resistance and the thinking that allows her to imagine the future. In some ways the story also serves to highlight the prison that such a marriage would be for women who have no education or resources to draw on. 

The review I read gave the impression that the story is autobiographical, but it is listed on her website as a novel. Her wiki page does not mention a marriage, but another article I read about her work mentioned a legal battle with her ex-spouse, so it is unclear how much of this tale is related to her own experience, but it feels very visceral. The style has the effect of being very intimate and immediate, as if the reader is a fly on the wall. This, from early on in the marriage, when there is still an element of discussion between them:

"He accuses me of carrying my past into our present , and this treason is evidence enough that there is no hope or space for the future to flourish. At this point I am not listening to him. I have no intention of responding. I am thinking of being at a point in the future when I would be writing about this moment, about this fight, about the stinging slaps that mark my cheeks and only stop when I have deleted what I have written, about how I am forced into arguing about freedom of expression with the man I have married, about the man I have married with whom it has finally come to this, to this argument about the freedom of expression. And I am thinking of how I am someday going to be writing all this out and I am conscious that I am thinking about this and not about the moment, and I know that I have already escaped the present and that gives me hope, I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again, and I know that because I am going to be writing about this, I know that this is going to end." (p.87-8)

Over a very short space of time the situation deteriorates, but she withdraws inside her head, which continues to be a safe place to be. I found her resilience the saving grace against his unremitting physical and psychological aggression. The way the narrator talks about language makes me think that Meena's poetry will certainly be worth reading too.

"The coarseness of my husband's insults makes me cringe. I'm ashamed that language allows a man to insult a woman in an infinite number of ways. Every image conjured up is repellent. Every part of my body is a word spat out in disgust. My cunt, sequestered and quarantined, is nothing but a spittoon for his insults.
Once, this language was something else for me. It was a secret place of pleasure. It was my face in the water, the sudden comfort of far-away laughter, the smell of woodsmoke clinging to my hair, the eager arrival of my breasts - it was all mine to explore. Like a lover's body, there were things about my language that I thought only I knew.
I remember mining my language for words from the deepest, most forgotten seams, words that people no longer wrap around their tongues, words that stay mouldering in lexicons and old works of literature that nobody bothers to read anymore. I found the word for a flirtatious girl who chatters too much, the word for the first meeting of the eyes of two people who will eventually fall in love, the word for an intoxicating drink that induces dance. Keep in mind that this is a language where the word for obstinacy is also the word for intercourse." (p.171)

Meena Kandasmy is a writer and activist who uses her talents to battle on many fronts, certainly someone to look out for both politically and literarily. 
p.s. Interesting review of one of her poems here on the Los Angeles Review

The Rabbit Back Literature Society

'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is a most peculiar book. It tells the story of a famous writer called Laura White who lives in the town of Rabbit Back, and a group of children who she invites to join a literature society, with the aspiration that she will turn them all into great writers. Fast forward thirty years and Ella submits a story to the local newsletter and is subsequently invited to join the society, that has remained a closed shop with just nine members for all the preceding years. At the glamorous party at Laura White's house Laura White herself mysteriously vanishes in front of her guests, leaving the town, and the literature society itself in something of a limbo. Ella's new status as member of the society however allows her to participate in The Game, and access the innermost thoughts and secrets of the society's members, and so she begins to try and uncover its history. 

While I enjoyed the book and it was clever and engaging I felt that the strange supernatural elements never really went anywhere. In the opening scenes we are presented with the idea of books that have 're-written' themselves, some kind of virus that the local librarian (also a Society member) is trying to control by burning the affected books. I liked this, it was curious, but the idea never went anywhere and was then only mentioned in passing later on. The mystery of Laura White's disappearance in a puff of snow is never resolved. And the thing with all the dogs was just weird; was he trying to create an atmosphere of menace, I was not sure and that was certainly not the effect I felt. There were many moments where surreal incidents occurred, randomly and without further context, but within a story that was so much based around the relationships between the Society members. So in the end I felt that the book was trying to do a lot more than it managed and as such was vaguely unsatisfying. Still, it is always interesting to read books from unusual countries and it has intrigued me about the world of Finnish literature.

"Ella took Martti Winter's novel Hidden Agendas down from the shelf and opened it. There was the photo on the inside cover - a soft-focussed studio portrait, sensitively lit and no doubt retouched. The picture let you know that the author wasn't an ordinary person, he was some kind of literary god made flesh, an enlightened, more evolved being. Ella remembered how Silja Saaristo had greeted her at the party: Ella! Welcome to the demigod gang!
Ella's finger ran down the list of names. All of them had spoken to her at the party. She must have made a clumsy, childish impression. She wasn't used to that kind of attention.
She thought about how Arne C. Ahlqvist had greeted her. Something about it has bothered her at the time. Because of her schooling, something had caught her attention, something that other people wouldn't have taken any notice of. She had almost started a discussion with her about comma placement, because Ahlqvist had said to her: It's so nice to meet the new tenth member of the Society.
As a language and literature expert, Ella, of course, would have put a comma between new and tenth. Without a pause there, or some kind of emphasis, indicated in writing by a comma, the sentence seemed to mean that it was nice to meet a new tenth member who had replaced the old tenth member." (p.126-7)