Seychelles: home from home

November 15, 2012

There wasn’t much out there for the Seychelles. The caretaker of the block of flats I live in had very kindly got on the case and found an interview with school counsellor and poet Stephanie Joubert, in which she describes Seychellois poetry as ‘still taking baby steps’, but in terms of prose stories I was at a loss for a long time.

Tom Slone at Masalai Press had mentioned a writer called Glynn Burridge in one of his emails. However, as he said that Burridge was English, I had discounted his work. It wasn’t until, in the absence of any other leads, I decided to contact Burridge that I realised his work might fit the bill.

As well as being a UK national, Burridge, who grew up in pre-revolutionary Iran, has Seychellois citizenship and has lived in the archipelago for more than 30 years, having spent two decades overseeing the creation of an estate for the exiled Iranian royal family on the barely inhabited D’Arros Island. His collection of short stories, Voices, draws on tales he heard and experienced during this time in the country that has become his home. If I was reading Guillermo Yuscarán for Honduras, then surely Burridge should count for the Seychelles.

Few short story collections can be more eclectic than this one. Comprising historical essays on the region, eerie tales of apparitions and ghostly legends, personal descriptions of the challenges of setting up home on an untouched island, stirring accounts of battles between man and nature on the high seas, and a novella based on an act of piracy in the time of Queen Victoria, Voices presents a nation of many characters to the reader.

At the heart of the book, is a strong sense of the Seychelles being a country of immigrants. Burridge sets this up from the first page, with his ‘Historical Sketch of the Amirantes Islands’ (the group of islands within which D’Arros sits) outlining the many visitors that have come to the islands from Asia, Europe and elsewhere over the centuries. In this country that has always been ‘welcoming to exiles’, the act of arriving and putting down roots seems, according to the author at least, to be almost part of the national culture.

Burridge combines this sense of the diversity of the influences on Seychellois society with a passionate and in-depth knowledge of island life. From the specifics of handling different sailing crafts to the crash course he had to take to enable him to become D’Arros’s only doctor and dentist, a sense of the writer working his way into the fabric of the nation through painstaking, practical experience comes through strongly. In addition, we get a powerful impression of Burridge’s love for the place, both in his intimate knowledge of it and in the descriptions of the natural world that break into the text like the sun through clouds, flooding the narrative with beauty.

Burridge’s writing is at its best when it comes to describing tense and difficult situations, usually involving the ocean. The story ‘Leviathan’, in which a group of amateur fishermen face being towed down to their deaths by a monstrously large shark, for example, is gripping, as are ‘Desnoeufs’ and ‘The Expedition’, which deal with similar scenarios. Underlying these stories and many others in the book is a sense of the fragility and perilousness of life in this isolated place, surrounded by the great, mysterious ocean. As Anna asks in ‘Leviathan': ‘Do we possess an inventory of what’s out here in these empty places?’

There is also some lovely humour in the book. I particularly enjoyed Burridge’s account of his attempt to call his father by radio-telephone only to receive an earful of abuse – ‘all he heard, as he told me later, through a blizzard of electronic noise, was a sound he described as the universe farting, accompanied by a demonic, ear-shattering whistle, at once painful to the ear and strangely mocking in its tone’. ‘Gris-Gris’, in which a naive English hotel manager finds himself baffled by the superstitions of his staff, is great too.

Inevitably for so diverse a collection, the writing style is somewhat inconsistent. While mostly enjoyable, it occasionally verges on the florid, while the historical pieces can be a little dry and dutiful in tone. There are also some alarming jumps in perspective between the characters that leave the reader scrabbling to catch up. In addition, the mix of genres and subject matter, though often refreshing, can be baffling at times. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of the novella Sea Dogs, which sprawled oddly amid these otherwise short, pithy pieces.

As a whole, though, the collection makes for a good read. The insight into nation-building on a microcosmic scale on D’Arros Island is fascinating and there are moments where readers will find themselves laughing out loud, as well as gripping the book for fear of what might happen beyond the next page turn. If this is a preliminary sounding of the depth and breadth of stories the Seychelles has to offer, it’s high time we had some more.

Voices: Seychelles short stories by Glynn Burridge (Nighthue Publications, 2000)

Tanzania: family politics

October 11, 2012

When one publisher recommends the work of another, you know you’re likely to be on to a good thing. And so, when Lynette Lisk, commissioning editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, told me that she admired the work of Bloomsbury-published Abdulrazak Gurnah, I lost no time in looking him up.

Spanning 100 years, Gurnah’s 2005 novel Desertion weaves together the threads that lead a young Tanzanian man, Rashid, to leave his homeland in the early sixties and make his life in England. It starts in the dying months of the 19th century, with the scandalous love affair of Rashid’s grandparents – an unconventional English traveller and a shy local woman – before darting forward to Rashid’s childhood in the mid-20th century and on past the declaration of Tanzania’s independence to his lonely and wistful middle age. Steered by Rashid himself, who writes much of the story, with an interjection from his brother Amin and a poem from his sister Farida, the narrative brims with questions and observations about identity, nationality, belonging and love.

Gurnah is a writer with an eye for the thousand little human foibles that can combine to clog up and alter the course of a life. Whether he is describing Rashid’s great-grandfather Hassanali’s hesitance and self-effacement, born out of the ridicule he recognises in the eyes of those who visit his shop, the double-think that allows the British colonisers to despise corruption in others and yet practise it themselves, or the rituals and cruelty that stand in for intimacy between siblings, Gurnah is forever revealing the processes that mould and set personalities.

This perceptiveness extends to larger social structures too. Through the patterns Gurnah traces, we learn the limitations of the social codes surrounding courtship marriage that stymie Rashid’s grandmother’s life and the effect of the gross under-provision of schools for girls. Crucially, however, these observations are not delivered through authorial tirades but lived and enacted by the characters so that it is only when we sit back and think about the story that we realise the wider implications of what we are reading.

Alongside this runs a lively discussion about storytelling, which erupts into the narrative as Rashid begins to question the version of events he presents. Speculating, contradicting himself and imagining where he does not know, Rashid rehearses his family’s history, increasingly aware of the possibilities in fiction, both in the choices he makes as a writer and in the scope the form offers to process, assimilate and remake the past.

Fiction also presents Gurnah with the opportunity to unpack the legacy of colonialism in a far more inventive and impactful way than essays might afford. While his portrait of the British Victorians sitting on the veranda swapping racist ideology well into the night ‘to make themselves feel significant and present in the world’ is compelling, his description of Rashid’s lonely arrival in a Britain leaves a lasting impression. It also buys him the leverage to reach forward in time and challenge assumptions that still underpin much of social interaction today:

‘In time I drifted into a tolerable alienness. Living day to day, this alienness became a kind of emblem, indeterminate about its origins. Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialised world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.’

For all its sociological and historical observations, though, this is first and foremost an engrossing and deeply moving novel. It is a book to get lost in, led by an expert storyteller, who wins our trust and piques our interest from the very first page. I’ll be looking up more of Gurnah’s works when this year’s literary adventures are over. Wonderful.

Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury, 2005)

I’ve written before about how globally renowned literary figures from small countries can often overshadow their compatriots on the world stage, becoming the go-to writer for literature from or about their homeland while their peers struggle to achieve any kind of audience beyond the nation’s borders. But what about when you grow up with an international literary giant in your own family?

This was a challenge Vahni Capildeo, a Trinidadian poet with whom I got in touch through the London-based writers group Exiled Writers Ink, had to face. A mine of global literature information, Capildeo kindly gave me loads of book suggestions and contacts for people who might be able to help me track down work from some of the harder to reach places on the list. Then, a few emails into our exchange, she let slip that she had a manuscript of her unpublished memoirs that she could email to me if I was interested.

Normally when a writer suggests I read a book they’ve written, particularly an unpublished book, the alarm bells go off in my head. After all, such recommendations can hardly be considered impartial and, in my experience, there can often be an unfortunate inversely proportional relationship between the enthusiasm with which an author pushes their book at you and the quality of the work.

However, there were a few things that made me hesitate: firstly, Capildeo wasn’t exactly giving me the hard sell. In fact, after the first shy mention it took several months of wheedling and cajoling from me before she could be persuaded to send me the document, out of which she’d excised several sections that she did not think were ready to read. Secondly, Capildeo had published a number of poetry collections and, although the entire memoir had not made it into print, extracts of it had come out in Ian Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances. And thirdly, there was the fact that she introduced the book by saying that, among other things, it was about ‘the difficulty of being a cousin of VS Naipaul but wanting to write poetry’.

Now that was something I was intrigued to know about. And so, with an apologetic glance at the Naipaul novel waiting above my desk – not to mention the burgeoning list of young Trinidadian writers gaining international recognition thanks to initiatives such as the Bocas Lit Fest – I passed over the great man in favour of his young relative, downloaded Capildeo’s pdf on to my Kindle and began to read.

As it turned out, the Naipaul connection was only a small part of this rich and complex book. Tracing Capildeo’s childhood in Trinidad and migration to the UK in her late teens, the narrative reflects on issues as diverse as the link between creativity and mental illness – Capildeo’s father suffered from schizophrenia – attitudes to homosexuality in the Caribbean and culture shock. There are thought-provoking evocations of both Trinidad, ‘a colonial land of Ozymandias’, and the UK, where the term ‘Western’ has ‘nothing to do with physical geography’ and people marvel at Capildeo’s perfect English, oblivious to the fact that she has spoken the language all her life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her background, Capildeo sees the world through books and it is this that brings out her best writing. Whether she is discussing Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear or Victorian novels, Capildeo can be relied upon to bring fresh and often startling insights to her interpretations, reminding the reader again and again that the secret of great writing and great reading is bound up with recognition. But it is when cultural barriers and laziness stymie this recognition during a discussion of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea in the UK that the full force of Capildeo’s passion for what books can do if only we will take the trouble to let them becomes clear:

‘The other readers thought “flamboyant” was a simple adjective. They did not know, and had not looked up, that it was a tree name. So for them it was just a showy tree that Jean Rhys’s Antoinette wanted to be buried under, this desire perhaps a characteristic manifestation of Creole arrogance and gaudy tropical bad taste? So people could read this passage, even read the whole book, maybe read every book about – us – and not feel, or see – My imagination filled and shook with the flamboyant’s smooth-grained rind and fiery plumage.’

The Naipaul references when they come are disarmingly frank. Capildeo makes no secret of the dislike that exists between the branches of the family and the shadow the writer’s success cast over her father as he reeled from breakdown to breakdown. However, the fact of Naipaul’s international recognition, and his publication of works that ‘looked like real books [...]: austere, with few colours, unlike “West Indian novels” marketed as such’ also proved a secret spur to the young writer: ‘(So it was possible? But I put that thought away; it was too big).’

Inevitably for an unedited manuscript written some years ago at an early stage in Capildeo’s career, the work is somewhat patchy. We get the sense at points of a young author still mapping the geography of her emotions and coming suddenly and breathlessly upon peaks and ravines that she will get the measure of more precisely as her writing develops. In addition, although often vivid, the imagery occasionally staggers under the weight of one too many adjectives.

But this is nothing that a second pass through with the benefit of a few years’ distance can’t fix. And in fact Capildeo tells me she is thinking of doing this, with a view to trying to publish the work. I hope she does: there is too much richness here to be consigned forever to the bottom drawer. The book deserves far more readers than just me.

One Scattered Skeleton by Vahni Capildeo – extracts published in London: City of Disappearances ed. Iain Sinclair (Penguin, 2006)

This was one of several recommendations from Bernard Minol at the University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop. Although I had not found many Papuan books in my initial searches, he was keen to stress that there is a thriving publishing scene on PNG – and the large number of recommendations that he and his colleagues gave me certainly seems to bear this out.

Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes) by Regis Tove Stella follows Perez, a young Papuan man, as he arrives in the Australian capital to take up a postgraduate scholarship. Disorientated and homesick, he sets up home with three other wantoks (literally ‘one talks’ – speakers of the same language in Tok Pisin) and the friends set about making a new life in a culture very different from their own.

But as the days go by, they become increasingly uneasy. Ghostly presences in their flat and rumours of a murder there in years gone by set them on edge. More suspicious still, there seems to be an odd connection between the dimdim (white person) Kate who befriends Perez, her friend Wilmott and life back home…

The clash between Western culture and traditional Papuan life is the central theme of the book. Coming from a place where ‘the belief in ghosts and spirits is part of daily existence’ and ‘women fly at night’ to 21st century Sydney – where CCTV cameras capture every move, homosexuality is accepted and immigrants are treated with suspicion and sometimes downright racism – the students discover much to challenge, unsettle and alarm them. Sometimes this can be very funny, as when Perez dreads meeting an anthropologist because of his memories of the Western academics he encountered back home:

‘Since a child, I had always dreaded anthropologists with their long white beards, round-shaped glasses which conjured up an image of a white monster, watching every move ready to pounce on you. Whenever I saw photos of Father Christmas, I immediately connected them to anthropologists and gradually I also dreaded Father Christmas.’

Such light-hearted observations, however, are indicative of a much deeper sense of disenfranchisement born of a conviction that Papuan culture is treated as little more than a specimen by much of the rest of the world – something to be prodded at, picked over and interpreted in Western terms. ‘It is through their eyes that the world sees us, not our own eyes’, says Perez, explaining to Kate: ‘Many outsiders have written about my country out of their private visions [...]. They just want their friends to believe they are great explorers and discoverers.’

This leads to a great deal of resentment, which is articulated through lengthy passages of conversation between the friends in which they frequently express (sometimes unjustified) criticisms against the Western world. While Stella tries to balance this by having Perez emphasise that the concept of ‘crooked eyes’ – or skewed perspective – is common to all people, and therefore likely to be true of them too, the lack of characters or events to counteract the accusations is problematic. The dialogue is also frequently repetitive and stilted, as though the friends are talking purely for the benefit of the reader peering in on their cosy world.

It’s a shame, because when events drive the narrative forward, the book is compelling. The early section, where Perez moves into the flat on his own and experiences some uncanny occurrences is gripping. Sadly, though, this momentum is not carried through into the latter half of the book. Here, the increasingly labyrinthine plot, which takes in tribal chiefs, lesbian abuse, long-lost relatives and a paedophile ring, becomes ever more difficult to buy into. This is not helped by shaky motivation for some of the characters’ decisions. Some readers will also find the male characters’ casual expressions of misogyny and homophobia difficult, although they may of course be further evidence of the young men’s ‘crooked eyes’.

Perhaps the issue goes back to the central theme of the book. By using the Western novel form to tell a Papuan story, Stella may have highlighted the limitations of the ‘dimdim  way of doing things’ when it comes to cultures where storytelling is predominantly oral. Significantly, as has been the case in several other novels I’ve read from countries that were colonised by Western powers in the past, Stella puts some of the dialogue in the latter stages of the book in the characters’ mother tongue, Tok Pisin, thereby shutting the English-language reader out from these exchanges. It’s as though the novel form itself is an imperialist throwback, which exerts rules and constraints that writers from countries where it is not the traditional form of storytelling may prefer to disobey or subvert.

‘That’s what’s wrong with you dimdims. You don’t believe in other cultures,’ says Perez. Perhaps he’s got a point.

Mata Sara by Regis Tove Stella (University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop, 2010)

France: a fine line

July 19, 2012

I heard about this book through a class I’ve been attending on free speech and translation, run by English PEN. The final session was set to involve a visit from translator Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams), who was going to talk about how she worked with writer Faïza Guène’s heavily inflected, Moroccan-street-slang-laden French to create the English version of the novel Just Like Tomorrow.

The work piqued my interest for another reason too: having read Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris for my Algerian book, I was curious to see how another novel set in the French capital’s North African community but this time written by a French-born author might compare to it. Would reading this book help me to draw that ever more elusive line between where one country’s literature stops and another’s begins?

Just Like Tomorrow follows 15-year-old Doria as she copes with life on the city’s grim Paradise estate. Her father has recently left her mother for a younger wife in Morocco and the two women now live on the bread line, depending on the income from Doria’s mother’s precarious cleaning job and their own abilities to make do and mend. Caught between the disapproval of their conservative neighbours and the shallow complacency of a series of social workers, Doria has nothing but her wit and verve to keep her from becoming just another statistic on the French authorities’ books.

Sadly, Sarah Ardizzone was unable to make the class, which was a shame because it would have been fascinating to hear about the process by which she converted Guène’s prose into a sort of light Jafaican (or Multicultural London English as it’s more formally known). Translating dialects can be tricky at the best of times – and a questionable decision can be very distracting – but here Doria’s narrative voice, peppered with ‘innit’s, ‘you get me’s and ‘back in the day’s, is thoroughly engaging and believable. The only sticking points come occasionally in the form of cultural references, which veer between British romance author Barbara Cartland (unlikely to be known to many urban teenagers), TV programme The Price is Right and French gameshow Fort Boyard, as though final decisions about the framework of Doria’s translated world haven’t quite been made – although these may have been carried over from the original.

The success of the voice is central to the book, because it is Doria’s wry, fearless, fresh vision and killer putdowns that make the novel. So much so, that I’m struggling to choose which of the many great oneliners to share with you. There’s the cashier who is ‘so flat you could fax her’, the absent father now known to his daughter as ‘Mr How-Big-Is-My-Beard’, and, perhaps my favourite of all, Doria’s succinct explanation of the Arabic term ‘insh’Allah’:

‘She played that wild card, AKA ‘insh’Allah’. It doesn’t mean yes or no. The proper translation is “God willing”. Thing is, you never find out if God’s willing or not…’

The humour, however, never clouds our vision of the hardships Doria and her mother face. If anything, it enhances the picture by making us indignant that such vibrant individuals should be forced to endure the sneers of snobs and racists, the harsh treatment of shady employers and the patronisation of officials. Guène brings this home through a series of small, yet telling scenes – such as Doria’s struggle to scrape enough money together to pay for sanitary towels at the local shop’s checkout and her recollection of the day she unwittingly went to school in a second-hand pyjama top, bearing the English phrase ‘Sweet Dreams’.

Does her perspective on Paris differ from the attitude of Marouane’s protagonist to the city? Well, perhaps, in as much as he might be described as being on the fringes of French culture looking longingly in at what he thinks he sees, while Doria is very much in the thick of the less-than-perfect reality.

Such questions seem to pale into insignificance, however, in the face of the fact that this is simply a fabulous, and thoroughly engaging book. Its portrait of a divided society, full of contradictions, tensions and hope will enthrall, challenge and resonate with readers – wherever they are in the world.

Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe kiffe demain) by Faïza Guène, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Definitions, 2006)

I’m not the only one trying to read the world. Since I launched this project to explore a novel, short story collection or memoir from every UN-recognised country in 2012, I’ve heard from people engaged in a whole range of international literary quests.

One of the latest ventures I’ve come across is by Swedish blogger Fredrika, who stopped by this blog ten days ago to tell me about a project she started in November to read a book from every country. Much more organised than me, she got a pretty comprehensive list together before she started and is working her way through it over the course of the next few years. Her criteria are different to mine, in that she is taking on some historical and anthropological books too, however there are also some fascinating fiction and biography choices on her list.

Fredrika has clearly done a massive amount of thinking about world literature, so when she recommended a Swedish title for me, I decided I’d be mad not to give it a try.

The book was Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, an award-winning novel exploring the experience of immigrants in Sweden. Told through a correspondence between one Jonas Khemiri and Kadir, who claims to be an old family friend, the book is a daring, powerful and often hilarious attempt to unfold the story of the struggle of Dads, Jonas’s estranged father, to make a life for himself in Scandinavia after he left Tunisia as a young man.

The novel is rich with comedy as the overbearing Kadir wrestles with the author in an attempt to guide and direct the narrative as he sees fit. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from Kadir’s ‘glissades of truth’ to his patronising asides to the author about writing techniques and instructions for how he should handle particular events – ‘this scene must be filled with great dramatic gunpowder and symphonic basses’, he writes at one point.

Best of all are Kadir’s odd expressions and similes, which had me laughing on nearly every page of the first half of the book. Among the most sparkling examples are his descriptions of Jonas’s paternal grandmother as ‘a powerfully strong woman who grappled with her context like the wrestler and actor Hulk Hogan’, his confession of his suspicion ‘that [Jonas's father] had become infected with homosex’ at one point and his later remark that ‘the tooth of time had munched a festive breakfast on his exterior’.

That translator Rachel Willson-Broyles is able to convey the linguistic quirks of Kadir’s Arabicised Swedish is testament to her great skill. This skill is essential to getting the subtleties of the book across as the narrative delves deeper into Dads’s battle to shrug off the label of ‘immigrant’ and establish himself in a society that becomes ever more hostile to outsiders or ‘blatte’ as Jonas grows up.

This battle, which sees Dads reject his origins in an effort not to ‘infect [his] son with being an outsider’, takes place as much on the linguistic as on the physical level and leaves deep scars. For much of the book, Jonas writes about himself in the second person, as though cut off from his identity, and his consciousness of the losing linguistic battle his father had to fight is acute:

‘One single wrong preposition is all it takes. A single en word that should be an ett. Then their second-long pause, the pause they love, the pause that shows that no matter how much you try, we will always, ALWAYS see through you. They enjoy taking the power and waiting waiting waiting until just when Dads think they are defeated. Then they point out the right way with vowels that are quadrupled as if they were talking with a deaf imbecile. STRAAAAAIGHT AHEEEEAD, then to the LEEEEEEEEEEEFT, okay, then RIIIIIIGHT. You’re welcome. And Dads say thanks politely and bow and you’re standing alongside and feeling how something is bubbling inside.’

Even with Willson-Broyles’s superlative translation, I can only imagine the effect of reading the book’s moving dissection of the politics of the Swedish language in the non-standard Swedish of the original. In English it is riveting, wise and sad. A towering achievement of a book. Thank you, Fredrika.

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Knopf, 2011)

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