Great news! My novel Dirt Clean will be published by Victorina Press on 2nd November 2019.
fb Judith Amanthis
Suburban Midlands in the 1920s lacks glamour, so Millie the beautiful Sunday School teacher’s blue shoes, glimpsed through the cellar window, stay on Annie Lang’s mind throughout her unhappy childhood. When she returns home after studying abroad, she finds Millie has disappeared. Franey’s intriguing novel turns, by subtle shifts, the motif of the tyrannical step mother on its head to put abusive evangelical Christianity and a charming patriarch under the 21st century spot light. In Annie her narrator, she creates a rebel and a detective, whose troubled brother Fred and conformist sister Beatrice are irritating but much loved counterpoints. Relationships with siblings, friends, neighbours and parents both present and absent are all scored with tiny stifling class differences and huge religious ones. The story twists between Annie’s childhood and her forensic eighteen year old self, a thrilling escape from a lunatic asylum the book’s perfectly timed climax. The dialogue-rich prose not only convinces but gives the characters’ voices the glint of great story telling, launching them well beyond the soot and drear of Midlands grime. Fairy story cruelty – Nana the dog locked out of the house, a young girl locked in –, clever Annie quoting Shakespeare, and plenty of pathetic fallacy all remind us that the uglier the world, the more art and clever, big-hearted heroines are needed.
Combining unsentimentally the wisdom of a seventeen year old up-country Togolese girl with a white Detroit granddad’s is no mean feat. Both characters in The Ardent Witness shape dissatisfied US hipster Lily’s journey from innocence to experience during her two years as a health development worker in Togo. Maisano digs into the Aid industry’s ugly African antics and sets her protagonist the painful task of realising that Aid doesn’t change poor people’s lives in Africa for the better. Lily, however, is clear-eyed, a poet and a truth seeker. In the Detroit arts scene she’s left behind, she’s a fan of the Romantics’ belief in truth and beauty, so she’s already an outsider. For a start, she dispenses with the word ‘poverty’, because it tends to exclude the individuals who endure it.
In the northern Togo village where she’s posted, villagers wash, cook in and drink noxious water for want of anything remotely like a tap. Here Lily’s humility and honesty set her at odds, albeit without rancour and accompanied by some sex and a lot of booze, with those of her colleagues, both north American and Togolese, who are less than helpful, or throw their power around, or have ambitions (whites only) to climb the Aid industry ladder – just about everyone.
But Lily develops a close relationship with Gladys, Fati, and Adiza, a villager and her teenage daughters, and they are her moral compass. She can’t let them down. After all, sex is safe for Lily but not for Fati. While pressure builds for Lily to flee back to the US before her two years is up, Fati teaches her about the enormous odds against a bright village girl doing well. Lily’s granddad taught her to be kind to people and never to take herself too seriously. With teachers like these, her idea of home becomes as cloudy as the water the anasara (white) Aid workers only pretend to drink because they can always pop down the shop for clean water in a plastic packet. And go online and take a shower in a city hotel and eat a pizza.
Lily backs off from none of the moral complexities Maisano deftly constructs her story around, where her memories of her pre-Togo life are as much a fiction as her dreams are a signpost to reality. She has to recognise that the Aid industry is lying when it assumes that merely giving people information – about contraception or nutrition or clean water – will improve their lives. Besides, Fati already knows, amongst other things, how to use a condom.
Some of Maisano’s most graceful writing is in her protagonist’s interior conversations, where Lily navigates what she experiences in Togo as chaos and loss of meaning on a Dostoevskian scale. But not qualitatively different, Maisano suggests, from the chaos and meaninglessness of a US shopping mall. And Lily has a talent for reading people. Her focus is on faces, especially people’s eyes, and what she can learn from them. So there’s not a trace of western arrogance or salivation in her observations of, for example, the African religious ceremonies she witnesses and participates in, whose contradictory place in people’s lives she learns to accept.
Cynicism and/or lazy rhetoric easily follow loss of innocence. Facing reality is much harder, and Lily isn’t one for easy ways out.
I have never read a prison memoir before. Over Nasrin’s 1980s imprisonment circle torture, rape, execution and sickness unto death. At one point her family, her only visitors and outside support for eight years, try to persuade her to ‘recant and confess’, a peculiarly awful situation because she – and the reader – understand why they’re undermining her. In these circumstances, an absolute refusal to budge from her principles saves Nasrin, as does her writing, and her imagination. In other circumstances she would be called an extremist or a fanatic. Nelson Mandela was, after all, called a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher.
She has no contact with the left comrades she worked with before her imprisonment. In fact, she’s tortured to extract information about them, as well as to break her spirit. She remarks that unlike the left, the Mujahedin, also imprisoned, are united. But still, when asked by her sister prisoners, she explains with the simplicity of truth that she was imprisoned for fighting so that the poor can eat, not just the rich.
With admirable restraint, Nasrin fills us in on how Winston Churchill and the US engineered the 1953 coup which overthrew democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in order to install the Shah and stop the nationalisation of Anglo-Iranian Oil, later BP. The crimes of the British colonial class need shouting out: in that decade alone they destroyed the democratic governments of Guyana and Ghana, brutalised Mau Mau freedom fighters in Kenya, laid the foundations for perpetual civil war in Sudan and Nigeria, and kicked off the 1960s with the joint UK/US/Belgian assassination of Patrice Lumumba. These are the crimes I happen to know about.
In Khomeini’s prisons, friendship between the women, and attempts at friendship, also save them. They don’t stop trying to communicate through prison walls, teaching each other Morse code and hiding tiny written messages. The women’s beauty opposes the ugly drabness, baking in summer, freezing in winter, of the cells – grossly overcrowded or blood stained or where solitary confinement, one woman chained hand and foot to a wall, is staged – that they’re shunted round, blind folded. The chained woman is forced to eat like dog. At no point is Nasrin cynical, bitter or sarcastic and there’s very little to laugh about apart from once wetting herself. Lockdown means access to a toilet three times every 24 hours, in both sickness and semi-starvation, in fact a form of torture, itself, writes Nasrin, a form of theatre.
The book’s style is compressed and its 49 chapters, each dated, are short, befitting the prisoners’ faces kept expressionless in order to give nothing away to guards and torturers. Nasrin’s drawings and paintings illustrate the book, and the chapter titles provide a further landscape: Arrest, Paralysed, A Little Boy, Poems in the Graves, Solitary Confinement, Cockroach Cell, The UN Human Rights Inspection. The reader knows that Nasrin will be released, but when, we ask ourselves, why, and under what circumstances.
She doesn’t dwell on her feelings. She thinks as a political fighter, assessing which struggles aren’t worth expending energy on, like resisting the black chador; and the demand to be separated from non-political prisoners, when all prisoners are human beings. She is as strong in arguing her positions with sister prisoners, usually her allies, as she is resisting her jailers and torturers. Perhaps the former requires greater strength. After reading Nasrin’s novel, The Secret Letters from X to A, and now her non-fiction, I’m even less inclined to take Margaret Atwood seriously.
Incredibly, when she was dying of a ruptured duodenal ulcer, Nasrin saved her own life, with the help of sister prisoners. Denied medical care, she stopped herself vomiting, by force of will alone, the drops of honey and water her friends managed to get into her mouth: to this day, living with illness caused by torture, she exercises her extraordinary strength.
One Woman’s Struggle in Iran: a Prison Memoir by Nasrin Parvaz, 2018, Victorina Press
Parvaz’ novel is almost unbearably about the atrocities inflicted on women political prisoners, and their children, in 1980s Iran. Faraz, the young man who 20 years later brings the secret letters of the title to light, wonders what the effects are on ‘the prisoners who had passed through this place and stayed alive.’ All the events and places in the novel are based on Parvaz’ six months in Tehran’s interrogation centre, now the Ebrat (which means warning in Farsi) Museum. Afterwards she was in prison for another eight years.
Her characters repeatedly ask fundamental questions, not least what words can possibly be used to communicate the horrors of rape and torture under interrogation and solitary confinement, often while blindfolded. ‘I see things here that are not explicable within the concepts or the language we develop outside prison,’ writes Xavar from her cell in the interrogation centre to the lover who will never read her letters. She hides them in walls, floors, ventilation shafts. If the letters are discovered she will immediately be executed. Xavar’s rich, sensuous metaphors – flowers, sun, fish, human hands, music – express the internal life with which she, a factory girl with partying on her mind before her arrest, resists the regime’s attempts to crush her. They do not succeed. They take away neither her language nor her writing, her means of survival. She’s surprised at herself. ‘I was never aware of the mind’s capacity to cope with hardship,’ she writes.
Most of the book’s readers won’t have been anywhere near the extremity of Xavar’s experience. To say I was awed by her and her cellmates’ bravery and kindness and their love for the people outside prison whom they do not betray is an understatement. But Parvaz the generous humanist, by giving Xavar an everyday and astonished optimism about herself, offers universal hope. And she reminds us that one root of novel writing is letter writing – but, like Xavar’s, writing that carries radical uncertainty about its readers.
The book doesn’t, as against easy best sellers like Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, offer prurience disguised as compassion. It doesn’t dwell on the women’s physical suffering. On the contrary, Parvaz’ skill (Farsi, not English, is her first language) and restraint prevent the reader putting down the book in horror at scenes of terrible emotional suffering, especially mothers’ and children’s. Xavar’s pregnancy, her love and life story in detailed recollection, her language, compel page turning.
And so do the characters’ emotional changes. Faraz’ obsession with the letters he pulls out of the fabric of the prison (re-furbed as a ‘museum of lies’) changes into acceptance of his generation’s, and their digital tools’, political responsibilities. Rohulah, regime official and betrayer of his own son, for whom greed has sugared over his disillusion with his leaders’ hypocrisy and broken promises, is given some moral reprieve.
Can a torturer fall in love? asks Xavar. Isn’t hatred caused by frustration? asks Faraz. What, given inhuman torture and cruelty, is it to be human? Parvaz’ moral questions are as embedded in the book’s narrative fabric as Xavar’s letters are embedded in the prison’s plasterwork, and Xavar’s story embedded in Faraz’ lower key third person narrative. Does she propose answers? Some I think. Kindness, willingness to be changed and to change, and love. And weakness, the capacity to betray. And then the capacity to be strong, and to make awful choices, like refuse to pay for your 11 month old son’s medical treatment on the inside in the coin of betraying your sister on the outside. And working out what’s behind the prison guard’s lies so you can reply with speed and spirit before he rapes you. Some call it keeping your cool. Knowing enough of your family’s history to understand their present. If a torturer can betray his or her own humanity, so can anyone. So yes, a lot about being human in a book which has been compared to Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man.
Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman approaches Parvaz’ book in its treatment of political incarceration and betrayal. It was made into a great film. I hope The Secret Letters From X To A follows suit. It would be another way for today’s internal struggle against Iran’s Islamic regime, especially by women, to face down the current global political poseurs, killers all.
The Secret Letters from X to A by Nasrin Parvaz, Victorina Press, 2018
Lorrie Moore writes like an angel. A Gate on the Stairs includes a lot of poetry. They’re menus. One of the characters, Sarah, is a restaurant owner in a university town called Troy. Poetic menus are sui generis funny.
Moore’s first major jest, on p2, is to describe Troy, Illinois, as the Athens of the Mid West. Already Tassie, the book’s first person narrator, student at the University of Troy and seeker of child care work, has told us that, if around children too long, ‘I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind became peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.’ Moore is a gourmet writer. Words are her ingredients. They’re usually surprising but always their combination is delicious and purposeful.
By p2, we know, furthermore, that Tassie is a farm child, climate change is afoot, and she’s thrilled that her Eng Lit professor wears jeans and a tie. By p3 we know we’re in late 2001 because the events of 9/11 – ‘we did not yet call them 9/11’ – seemed both near and far away.’
Tassie lands a job looking after the adopted two year old daughter of Sarah and Edward. There’s something a bit dodgy and sad about them. Tassie lands a handsome Brazilian boyfriend about whom there’s also something odd. Tassie’s brother is someone else who isn’t who he seems to be. Is Bonnie, Mary-Emma’s birth mother, caught up in a gang heist. And when will Mary Emma’s name stick to her? A lot then about identity. The book is partly about the fear of never knowing who a person is.
And it has a lot of tragedies, which ‘I was coming to realise through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society full of sorrow and truth but without a moral function. … where the tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed. … For understanding and perspective, suffering required a butchers weighing. And to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny. Though they weren’t always. And this is how, sometimes, stories failed us. Not that funny. Or worse, not funny in the least.’
Moore brings her super-intelligence to bear on liberal multi cultural indulgence, on the intricate racism of middle America – Moore is white and uses a lot of dashes -, on grief, on not bothering to argue against God, on Nietzsche and the American military. She throws just the right amount of phrases like ‘a look of pale apprehension’ into the pot. Her 20 year old narrator goes through a sharp learning curve.
Lush nature passages reveal Moore’s serious heart. They aren’t so much at odds with her skinny latte wit as an index of where she turns when human tragedy and comedy just aren’t enough. Childhood innocence tumbles down the stairs round about the age of 4, despite the gate at the top of the stairs, and thereafter people will just keep on doing disastrous things. Here’s one of the more restrained nature passages: ‘and then it warmed just enough for a blizzard, followed by another, as if the prairie were in a hiccup. Wind howled in the chimneys and under eaves, knocking ice blocks from the roof. And then when the air was finally still, a stupor descended, induced by accumulated snowdrifts, which were baked against the sides of house like a comforter throw over to calm an agitated dog. There was in the air a cold resignation good for reading.’
More lessons in the humanities: ‘Edward wasn’t smiling. A shadow passed between them. A sepia tinge came over Sarah’s eyes. A horse-drawn sled jingled its harness bells off in the distance: this town would turn winter into a holiday if it killed them. “The family that sleighs together stays together,” Sarah murmured to me. Or, that is what I thought I heard, though there was no levity in her voice. She took one hand briefly away from Mary to squeeze mine in reassurance. Or in promise. Or in regret. Or in happy hope. Or else in some secret pact that involved a little of everything.’ Is it surprising human beings sheer off each other, taking a slice of flesh with them here and there, when interpreting our behaviour is as difficult as Moore suggests?
So, given the delicious delicacy and intelligence of her writing, why don’t I like the book? It has something to do with Tassie’s turn away from people – which explains her nature descriptions – when the going gets overly tragic. Something to do with a dropping away from the narrative consequences of the book’s many tragedies – which explains why she’s a wisecrack too far from the theory of tragi-comedy she’s expounded, itself an echo of mordent Jewish humour – Tassie’s mother is Jewish. Or something to do with the delight in words pretending not to be a weapon, if not of war, then of a cold heart. But I’ll give Lorrie Moore the benefit of the doubt: I dislike the narrator, not the book. Eight years after 9/11, it jokes its way through some of liberal America’s most pressing anxieties.
Reading Brick Lane 13 years after it was published, brought on a mix of déjà vu and amazement. Déjà vu because young pissed-off Muslim women and men are still being driven to extreme and textually unfounded versions of their religion by the failure of the country in which they were born to provide them with dignity, financial stability and hope. Amazement because although 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan appear near the end of this epic tale of London’s Whitechapel and the Bangladesh left behind by many of its newest migrants, it ends before the UK/US invasion of Iraq. Thus the UK’s Muslim community’s crucial involvement in organising immense popular opposition to the invasion doesn’t feature: 3 million people marched through London in February 2003 but were ignored by the majority of Labour MPs and by Tony Blair.
I imagine, but I don’t know, that the young Muslims who worked so hard to prevent intelligence service lies and media cowardice and Blair’s version of religious fundamentalism doing their deadly damage, were among those who then turned their backs on UK parliamentary democracy. It had been proved a sham. Today we in the North Atlantic world are more and more at war, not that we suffer direct hits. That’s left to other people and other continents, while our governments pretend they aren’t responsible either for the consequent suffering or the people desperate to escape it. Arms companies, financiers and religious zealots of all hues profit. History is ignored.
The virtue of a classical epic novel is that history is a main character. Tolstoy and George Eliot are its greatest exponents. Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen’s journey from Bangladeshi (East Pakistani) village girl to self sufficient Whitechapel citizen, of her beautiful sister Hasina back ‘home’, of her husband Chanu, a frustrated philosopher, her children Raqib, Shahana and Bibi, her friend Razia, anti-conformist on every front, her fly-by-night lover Karim, the cruel debt shark and userer Mrs Islam, and the multitude of other wonderfully conjured characters inhabiting spice-fragrant and piss stinking Whitechapel 60s estates. The book wouldn’t work without Bangladeshi migrants throwing their experiences, which includes the history of the Brits in India, at each other, and at the UK they, deeply disappointed, find themselves in. British parliamentary democracy? That’s the one that created the Bengali rice famine of 1941-42 in which at least 3 million people perished.
So the good Chanu eventually tells his skinny–jeanned eldest daughter, Chanu the possessor of corns like mini-pyramids which require an eighteen year old wife to trim them along with other unwanted body parts. ‘Before they went out today, she had to cut his hair. She was always cutting bits off him. The dead skin around his corns. His toenails. The fingernails of his right hand, because his left hand could not do the job properly. The fingernails of his left hand because she might as well do that while she had the scissors. The wiry hair that grew from the tops of his ears. And the hair on his head, once every six weeks when Chanu said, “Better smarten up a bit.”’ p90
Husbands don’t permit wives to leave their flats. English lessons are forbidden. College? A den of vice. Chanu has been rightly acknowledged as one of the great characters of English literature for his comic trajectory from realistic ambition – promotion always goes to his white colleagues – to illusory ambition – the computer he owes Mrs Islam for gathering the same dust as his books and papers and the flat’s too many armchairs – to ambition, via taxi driving, realized but sorely compromised. It’s a tribute to human beings’ antipathy to murder – war? ’S ok it’s not murder. It’s defence. The House of Commons said so – that in societies where women are financially powerless unless widowed, like the UK was until 1926, that husbands dead before their time do not litter the streets.
And Brick Lane does indeed belong to Nazneen, married, and her sister Hisani, single. They, unlike their 19th century counterparts Anna and Dorothea, are in command of both story and perspective. We’re inside their heads from start to finish. Ali solves the problem of inter-continental communication by giving Hisani the gift of vivid letter writing. To Nazneen she gives everything else. Hisani thus tells her tale of defiant optimism in the face of violent husband, rapist and pimping landlord, rapacious clients, and by the end of the book, skivvying to middle class Dakar, in, we accept, less than perfect Bengali. Ali doesn’t give the sisters phones. Phone conversations tend not to make good literature because no extra-linguistic language, the stuff of character, is going on, whereas Nazneen’s talents for observation and astute reflection are crucial to her character. ‘When Karim came last time he read from a magazine about the orphan children in refugee camps in Gaza. He was moved and Nazneen watched as the cycle of emotion started turning. It was possible – this she knew – to be deeply touched by one’s own grief on another’s behalf. That he was moved, moved him. As he explained the situation his eyes became watery.’ p275
In a world where metaphor abuse is always with us, Ali is a metaphor queen and therein lies much of her comic talent. Apposite verbs and adjectives flourish – ‘Chanu was disabled with anger.’ p275 – as well as those phrases which Flaubert’s fumigations failed to dispel from his work. When Ali needs to counter the shock of the 2001 Oldham riots as seen on TV in Whitechapel, she writes: ‘The picture changed to daylight and the camera swept across tedious deserted streets, enlivened now and then by the presence of the blackened carcass of a car. In Oldham the roads were pocked with holes and the houses packed together, tight as teeth.’ p276. Comedy can throw horror into sharp relief. Or it can dissipate horror’s impact on our hearts, which, in reading Brick Lane, have been well prepared for the riots. Nazneen’s intelligence – her husband’s, her friends’, her lover’s – has given us the insight we need to understand them.
So it’s a little disappointing that, along with black British women writers of her generation Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy, and Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Ali brings some of the colonial chickens home to roost, but not enough of them, or not fiercely enough. Brick Lane’s final chapters abandon classical fiction, which doesn’t shy away from unadorned tragedy. Ali opts for comforting fantasy. I wish she’d been as intelligent as her heroines and hadn’t written these last two lines: ‘Razia was already lacing her boots. ‘This is England,’ she said. ‘You can do whatever you like.’ p492
Nazneen’s existential struggle has been with the female fatalism her mother fed her. I wanted a less banal resolution. At worst it’s a mendacious one put into the mouth of Razia. Razia is the novel’s truth-sayer. As far as I can remember, the UK in 2003 was only marginally more a land of universal freedom and prosperity than it is now.