Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Reading the short story: the best collections I read in 2013

Wonderful short stories deserve a roaring fire

I’ve read more short stories over the last two years than in all the years of my life up until now. This has been driven by desire to learn, sheer pleasure, and the necessity of broadening my knowledge for my Creative Writing PhD, which focuses on the short form. Some astonishingly beautiful work has been recommended to me, often by Tania Hershman, who told me about Tina May Hall and Anthony Doerr amongst many others. Her new website ShortStops is full of information about UK and Irish short story journals, live literary events and more, and is a fantastic and much-needed resource. I’d encourage all writers and short story enthusiasts to take a look.

These are my short fiction collection crushes of 2013, books I just happened to read this year, with a special mention for a very short novel.

Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Such a combination of imagination and excellent writing is rare, and is consistent throughout this collection. At no point could you possibly predict what Kij Johnson might write about next. The river of bees is exactly that – a torrent of insects followed by the protagonist – and we encounter vanishing monkeys, a cat on an odyssey, dogs that tell trickster tales. All these animals may sound rather silly, but there is a seriousness and often melancholy to these stories.
The story ‘Fox Magic’ is one of my favourites of the year, and was expanded into a novel, but even in short form absorbs the reader entirely in an invented world within an invented world. Kij Johnson writes ‘long’ for a short story writer, and compared with the brevity of, say, Tina May Hall, these stories feel like a different genre, one that allows you to wallow long enough to take away powerful, lasting impressions of places you could not have imagined before you began.

Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall
Recommended to me by Tania last year, this sat on my shelf as I put off reading the long title story (85 pages). I happened to finally read it just before travelling to Cape Town, where the story is set, but nobody else should delay reading this book! As a reader (and writer) you always hope for those moments when you discover writing so good it almost hurts to read it. There is nothing fancy about Doerr’s writing. His sentences are often short. There is an element of the fantastic in many of his stories, but in ‘Memory Wall’ it is really just part of a backdrop for a kind of mini mystery thriller and is never overplayed. The story will probably make you cry, but not because of any obvious tragedy in the plot. There is a build up of sympathy in the reader aligning with both hope and grief, and it is a pleasure to let this finally overwhelm you if it happens. I will be re-reading this story every few months to try to see how Doerr does it.

Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference
Sarah Hall’s prose can be poetic but never overbearingly so. How she manages to use such gorgeous expression and yet never distract the reader from the story, I wish I understood. I wrote about this collection here, focusing on her use of dialect and original voice in the story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, but this collection is full of all kinds of beauty. A great pleasure for a reader and an endless source of learning for writers of lyrical prose.

Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects
Another Tania tip, this collection includes straight stories, stories written in fragments, and a novella made up of titled paragraphs. All of these forms work. Tina May Hall’s writing is tight yet can be soft, she uses the fantastic carefully and with deep effect, and I find myself moved without being able to identify what has done it. Her novella is beautiful, making familiar images newly bright and expressing powerful emotions without ever naming them. This is a small book that should be read very slowly.

Novel special mention: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
This is a short novel that could be read in an afternoon. Lolly Willowes defies her family’s expectations of her as resident maiden aunt and in middle age moves to the countryside alone, and becomes a witch. The writing is light, wry, and so clever without reminding you that it is. Take this description of Mr Gurdon, the village clerk: ‘Fiery down covered his cheeks, his eyes were small and truculent, and he lived in a small surprised cottage near the church’. I’ve never seen a house described as surprised before, and yet I can picture it. This creative, concise kind of expression is usually reserved for short stories, but this book is full of it. Anyone who harbours a fantasy of escaping to live in a way that feeds their imagination will derive huge amounts of vicarious pleasure from Lolly Willowes.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Cape Town: Beauty, inequality, and a goodbye to Mandela

Table Mountain, Cape Town

Last week I went to Cape Town. This is a place I had never expected to visit, and knew very little about apart from the obvious things. I chose not to learn very much more before I went, not because I wasn’t intrigued, but because I wanted as much as possible to see Cape Town through the eyes of the people I was going to stay with, to understand from them what it is like to live there. I wanted to avoid any preconceptions. It is, after all, a complicated place.

Of course, it turned out to be a strange and special time to be in South Africa. When I was woken with news of Mandela’s death, it was in a room that looked out across Cape Town to Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for so long. Being in South Africa was an unexpectedly emotional experience, and I often felt overwhelmed by what I learned and saw, the strange combinations of beauty, pleasure, poverty and inequality. I found it strange to be in a place where I could not walk around even a ‘nice’ neighbourhood alone after dark, and in the day was under instruction to carry no valuables. On the other hand, this kind of restriction on how one lives is nothing compared to the restrictions experienced by people living in places like Khayelitsha and the other townships.

I was surprised by how far away the townships were from central Cape Town, but then heard how the government had tried to eradicate the one nearest the airport when South Africa hosted the World Cup, hoping to tuck the ‘problem’ out of sight. A local bus service was only introduced to Cape Town in November 2013; lack of public transport had been one way of keeping the poorest people out of the town, out of sight, and for many out of mind.

The week before I left on this trip I had been shocked by various statistics about the borough where I work and live in London. At least 30% of children in Islington live in poverty, as defined by the government, cheek by jowl with people whose homes are worth £5m, £8m, who can make tens of thousands of pounds a year just by not moving house. I was incensed; having lived in Walthamstow previously, Islington has always felt wealthy to me, but the conspicuous consumption hides profound inequality. However, this is nothing compared to the extremity and scale of the inequality in Cape Town.

Millions of people live in Khayelitsha and the other townships. There is 80% unemployment (that is not a typo), and 30% of people are HIV positive (again, not a typo). Living conditions and HIV levels contribute to an extremely high rate of tuberculosis. Some people who live in the city centre will never go to the townships, and live as if they are not even there. Thankfully, there are exceptions.

I went to South Africa because my partner was travelling there to take part in the ICASA conference on HIV in Africa. He lived in Cape Town for many years whilst working for Medecins Sans Frontieres, and we stayed with a man whom he describes as his hero. Eric Goemaere started the first HIV treatment programme in Khayelitsha, and he and his wife Katherine Hildebrand have lived in Cape Town for 15 years, bringing up children there whilst both working to prevent and treat HIV in Africa. Eric received many death threats during the setting up of treatment centres, from politicians who wanted to pretend that HIV did not exist. Mandela supported his work, and on the day that Cape Town absorbed and responded to news of Mandela’s death, Eric was bombarded with phone calls from radio stations and newspapers asking for comments.

Staying with people who live in the city but work in the townships gave me insights into Cape Town life and how people come to terms with it. Katherine admitted she had found the inequality and the perceived danger too much at first, that it took her years to accept the place and a couple more to love it. As a white Swiss woman, despite the work she was doing, she also admitted it took her four years before she felt comfortable inviting black friends from Khayelitsha back to her home in the city. She had felt guilty about what she had, she said, while her husband had suggested it was better to share what you have. Now it is not an issue, but it is telling that even for someone as generous and passionate about her work as Katherine, it took some time for her to break down the social barriers that were presented to her. 

There is a constant tension in the air in Cape Town, but what I realised was that the tension is different for each individual. For me, there was the intense strangeness of driving through Khayelitsha, where people live in corrugated-iron rooms at the roadside, straight into the lush, oak-shaded vineyards of Franschhoek with its white table cloths and European menus. There was the less intense but unavoidable fact that almost everybody serving the wine and bringing the food was a black person, doing the bidding of a white person. We are only twenty years away from the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and as a result these facts sting. 

I was glad to have been in South Africa on the day Mandela died, if only for the selfish reason that his passing served to crystallize some of the confusing emotions I felt while I was there. I have been disappointed by the cynicism that has crept into the British coverage of his death, because I doubt that anybody in the UK understands just how important it is for many (not all) South Africans to feel they can embrace and carry his legacy. His life was as complicated as the history of that country has been over the last 95 years, but he needs to stand for something. Forgiveness and strength are part of this, but there are so many other aspects that I doubt most British people, including me, are aware of. 

I read a book while I was there that gathered together the thoughts of South African children in response to questions about Mandela. One child, Tebang, wrote, “We can help Mr Mandela a lot by sending the children to school and give them a education so we can have our own Mandela in the future”. He is right, but it is not only the education of South African children that matters. I for one should not have grown up in the UK during Apartheid and its end with so little understanding of it. South Africa has lost Mandela, but we can all do something to improve the education of this and future generations so that there is no need for anybody to suffer and fight in the same way again.