Design a site like this with
Get started

What is hyper-contemporary literature?

This blog is entirely concerned with what I am terming hyper-contemporary literature. But what is hyper-contemporary literature, and how does it differ from any other kind of literature?

When we read literature, the word ‘contemporary’ can mean two things. First, it means the historical moment of the text’s production. For Shakespeare’s plays, this is the early modern period when either Elizabeth I or James VI/I was on the throne. For Dickens, it was Victorian England, and for Woolf it was the Britain of Edward VII, Edward VIII, Georges V and VI; Britain during the First World War and the Great Depression. These are historical periods rich in interest, and forceful factors in how any text has come to be imagined and produced.

The second meaning concerns today. ‘Contemporary’ refers always to the period in which you, the reader, come across any text. Today, that means Covid-19, Trump and Biden, accelerating climate change.

There are therefore always two ‘contemporaries’ involved in reading. The contemporary of the text’s production and the contemporary of the reader. When these two coincide—when the author’s ‘now’ is the same as the reader’s ‘now’—then we have my ‘hyper-contemporary’.

There are several reasons why I’m interested in this phenomenon, and several consequences. For the former, I am interested because there few theories that suggest that ‘now’ or the ‘contemporary’ is a coherent, whole or unbroken moment. Instead, theorists and philosophers from Augustine, to Walter Benjamin, to Giorgio Agamben all contend that the ‘now’ is fractured. Agamben argues that only those who are ‘dys-synchronous’—those who feel out of sorts in the time in which in they live, or those who find that (in Hamlet’s terms) the ‘time is out of joint’—are truly contemporary:

The poet. insofar as he is con­temporary, is this fracture, is at once that which impedes time from composing itself and the blood that must suture this break or this wound.

Giorgio Agamben, ‘What is the contemporary?’, in What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford, CA: Stamford University Press! 2009), pp. 39–54], p. 42

For Agamben, here, the poet or the author is the cause of the contemporary fault line, as well as the source of its possible solution. Hyper-contemporary literature is therefore doubly (if not triply, or more multiply) inscribed with this fracture and its attempted fixing.

Another consequence of my interest in hyper-contemporary literature is its inherent temporariness. That is, as with the ‘temporary’ part of ‘con-temporary’, hyper-contemporary literature cannot stay so for long. In my estimation, hyper-contemporary literature is worthy of that name as long as it is little read and has not yet gathered a critical consensus determining whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Hyper-contemporary literature is brand new and unknown.

This is the kind of literature that I review on this blog. Whilst there are pre-existing professional reviews for most of what I review, I avoid them in a bid to read hyper-contemporary literature in the freshest light.

This brand-new writing gives us readers the best chance to judge a text without the burden of others’ opinions weighing us down. When we read Shakespeare, Dickens, or Woolf, we already know that the writing is good; in fact, not just good, but exceptionally good and, therefore, canonical. We are so used to reading ‘good’ literature that there’s a danger we can’t spot why it’s good, or, conversely, why bad writing is bad.

Therefore, another consequence of my interest in hyper-contemporary literature is the increased likelihood of reading ‘bad’ literature—though it won’t have earned that title yet. The same is true for ‘good’ literature. To read hyper-contemporary literature is to risk. It is also to learn again and to hone our critical skills of judgement.

And that is the aspiration and aim of this blog, as it is for my recently-published book.


‘Judge for Yourself: Reading Hyper-contemporary literature and book prize shortlists’

My book, Judge for Yourself, will be published on 5 October 2020 with Routledge:

Judge for Yourself guides interested and advanced-level readers through the challenge of judging the quality of hyper-contemporary literature. Whether reading the latest bestseller or the book that everyone is recommending, Judge for Yourself guides you through the challenge of the text. Reading the longlist of the 2019 International Dylan Thomas Prize through five chapters, Judge for Yourself introduces readers to current critical debates that inform engagement and the reading experience of hyper-contemporary writing. Topics covered include feminism, postcolonialism, critical race theory, queer theory, class, and book reviews. Each chapter includes introductory questions for the reader, and Judge for Yourself is accompanied by an exploration of book prize culture and the challenge posed by hyper-contemporary literature. Judge for Yourself puts judging firmly in the hands of the reader, and not the academic or professional reviewers.

Following a module I taught at Swansea University in 2019, Routledge commissioned me to write Judge for Yourself. The module reading list was populated by the International Dylan Thomas Prize’s 2019 longlist, and was therefore unpredictable, varied, and representative of top-quality writing from 2019.

The module went on to win Swansea University’s ‘Best New Module’ in autumn 2019, and was featured in an article in the Guardian and in the Book Riot podcast.

Judge for Yourself provided the original impetus for this blog, and the book is where I have fully described my term ‘hyper-contemporary literature’. In a future blog, I will explain the idea in more detail, but in brief: hyper-contemporary literature is recently published writing that has not yet gathered a critical consensus. The ordinary reader, therefore, is in an equal position with the academic or professional reviewer to help determine whether the writing is good or bad. It is up to the reader, and not the academy or ‘elite’ readers, to decide whether this literature is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and which criteria are best suited to help readers make their judgement.

In short, hyper-contemporary literature invites the reader to judge for herself.

Judge for Yourself is available for pre-order.

  • With this flyer you can get a 30% discount until 28 February from Routledge
  • Judge for Yourself is also available from Amazon where it is currently discounted
  • Judge for Yourself is also available from Waterstones and Book Depository, and from other online and high street bookshops

What’s in a review?: Ruth Ozeki’s ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’

Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness (Canongate, 2021) won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It tells the story of Benny Oh, a teenager who is negotiating the untimely death of his father, Kenji, and Annabelle, Benny’s mother, who is additionally struggling with her own health and hoarding habits.

Benji also hears voices, either in a psycho-clinical way, or in a magical realist way (the book leaves it up to the reader to decide). In either case, the novel is a comic coming-of-age tale that also addresses hyphenated ethnic identities (Kenji is Korean–Japenese, making Benny Korean–Japenese–American), and consumer capitalism. Regarding the latter, there are a lot of things stuffing this book.

Clearly, this book is a critical success, with a £30,000 award from the Women’s Prize lining Ozeki’s pockets when she travelled back to the US. And yet, a cursory glance at some reviews suggests that it has not been universally well received by readers. I take a look at three of them here to see what we can learn about reviews and about reading to help others.

First, a positive review in the Guardian from author M John Harrison, which finishes with the following:

At base, this is a simple story about the links between poverty, mental health and loss. It’s often heartbreaking, but we would be wrong to interpret Annabelle and Benny’s struggles as a descent. Ozeki is carefully celebrating difference, not patronising dysfunction. Out of their fractured relations, she makes something so satisfying that it gave me the sense of being addressed not by an author but by a world, one that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in tenuous parallel to ours: a world built out of ideas that spill into the text like a continuous real-time event. The voice of a commentary on the present – or of the commentary of the present upon itself.

M. John Harrison, para. 8, Guardian, 6 October 2021

Next, a more critical review from Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times:

I do have nits to pick, though. Like Annabelle’s house, the novel is overstuffed. I could complain about the excess of plot twists and the extraneous characters, like the female Zen priest who’s written the best-selling anticlutter guide that follows Annabelle around the house despite her attempts to misplace it. Both guide and priest feel like dei ex machina come to clean up the messes our characters get into. The more interesting aggravation, however, is the novel’s framing device — that is to say, the Book as both narrator and character. The conceit is grating. The Book has a bad habit of Book-splaining.

Judith Shulevitz, para. 8, New York Times, 19 September 2021

And, finally, the opening to Allan Massie’s review in the Scotsman:

There are a great many such sentences in this fat, over-stuffed novel, and it leads this reviewer at least to sigh for the days when strong-minded editors were more important in publishing houses than the marketing department. The blue pencil would have come out, underlining a sentence or indeed paragraph and scribbling ‘self-indulgent’ in the margin. There aren’t many of Ozeki’s pages that would have escaped the blue pencil.

Allan Massie, para. 1, Scotsman, 20 September 2021

Each of the reviews stresses the stuffed characteristic of the prose and the story: this is a book full of things, as I have already said. Whether they are ‘spill[ing]’ in Harrison’s phrase, or ‘overstuffed’ in both Massie’s and Shulevitz, each of the reviewers can agree on this.

How, then, do we account for the different reactions to the fullness on offer in The Book of Form and Emptiness? Is it purely a subject response to the style of writing? Massie’s interest in editing fiction (whether as professional experience, or as a reader) is clearly at the forefront in his reading, but we can’t necessarily apply that evenly to all the reviewers here.

I’ve not read any fiction by Harrison or Shulevitz, so I can’t comment on the similarities or dissonances between their own writing and Ozeki’s. Nevertheless, that might be an avenue worth pursuing.

In these reviews there is also a shared emphasis on the idea of the sentience of the Book, who carries the narratorial burden in Ozeki’s novel. For Shulevitz this is ‘grating’ and ‘aggravating’. In another passage, Massie describes this aspect of the novel as ‘flapdoodle, the sort of thing that means nothing at first reading and nothing at any subsequent one’ (para. 4).

Given that this is a central conceit of the novel—the sentience of the Thing and postmodernist play that involves us as reader of and Benny as interlocutor with the Book—the rejection of this aspect of Ozeki’s framing must also be a dismissal as a whole of The Book of Form and Emptiness.

In a few lines, a review can undermine an entire work of art.

To an extent, none of this matters: Ozeki still went on to win the prestigious Women’s Prize, despite these reviews.

And yet, as I have written in Judge for Yourself, reviews often furnish readers with their first opinions on a text, which may then shape their reading experience. As such, ‘whilst there is no critical consensus for hyper-contemporary writing, the reviews often provide the reader’s first engagement with others’ opinions on a text—either the reason for buying the book or to check the reader’s opinion in comparison with someone else’s’.[1]

Do these reviews then establish a scepticism—healthy or not—regarding prize winners? Do readers of these novels, such as Ozeki’s, consider them imperfect and unworthy of prizes they go on to win?

I am about to take a seminar on Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness with my final-year students, and I am certain that the issues raised in these reviews will form part of the discussion. Whether rightly or wrongly, the reviewers’ initial responses to the novel will shape our first engagements with the book, and (to a certain extent) limit the scope of our conversations.

Thus ends the transient nature of the hyper-contemporary text, the fleeting moment of its unshaped reception.

[1] Nicholas Taylor-Collins, Judge for Yourself (London: Routledge, 2020), p. 20.

Mirror mirror: the ‘reverso’ poem in Kim Moore’s ‘All the Men I Never Married’

All night a bird beats its wings
behind the wall. In the space between rooms
it has the quietest scream. (I realise I cannot live
without desire.) At first I think it’s trapped
behind the wall. Is it another bird
that moves, that seems to fall and rise again?
I am hiding something
in the mirror. In the morning
I am searching for myself
but see a bird rising up behind my eyes.
I think about a girl with hair covering her face
and the bruise of her body and one person listening.
I think about what he said, about the need
to throw a stone behind to catch the one ahead.
The bird calls to me from between the walls.

The bird calls to me from between the walls
to throw a stone behind to catch the one ahead.
I think about what he said, about the need
and the bruise of her body and one person listening.
I think about a girl with hair covering her face
but see a bird rising up behind my eyes.
I am searching for myself
in the mirror, in the morning.
I am hiding something
that moves, that seems to fall and rise again
behind the wall. Is it another bird
without desire? At first I think it’s trapped,
it has the quietest scream. I realise I cannot live
behind the wall, in the space between rooms.
All night a bird beats its wings.

Poem 47 from Kim Moore’s All the Men I Never Married (Seren, 2021)

Poem 47 from Kim Moore’s All the Men I Never Married (Seren, 2021), is an award-winning poem. It won the 2020 Ledbury Poetry Competition when it was called ‘All night a bird’, before Moore won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2022. An award-winning poem in an award-winning collection: quite a recommendation!

Beginning, ‘All night a bird’, the poem is a mirror poem, or (as has been popularised by poet Marilyn Singer), a ‘reverso poem’.

Marilyn Singer reads from her first book of reverso poems, Mirror mirror

The ‘reverso’ is a poem that can be read in both directions—down and then up—with the line order totally reversed on the second reading. They are not always printed twice (with the reading order for both readings present), but in the case of Moore’s poem, they are.

Singer recommends that the meaning is utterly changed through the reverso poem, but I wonder if that’s true for Moore. In both versions a mysterious bird—or perhaps two, three birds—are caught trapped in or behind walls.

In the first version, there is also a man who, alternately, talks ‘about the need / to throw a stone behind to catch the one ahead‘, or ‘about the need / and bruise of her body and one person listening’. The first is a sententious idiom about moving forward by giving something up, while the second is about assault—physical? emotional? mental?—on a woman, and the witness to that assault.

It is a disquieting poem, as much about desire (‘I cannot live / without desire’) as it is about being heard when it is difficult to articulate pain (‘it has the quietest scream’). Is the persona trapped? Or is it just a bird? Is the bird a literal bird, or a symbolic bird?

The questions aren’t answered explicitly, so it’s natural to wonder about the significance of the form of the poem. A quick search reveals that these ‘reverso’ poems are considered a rather puerile form of poetry writing—Singer’s books are for children, and there are many school-based exercises for children to practise writing this mirrored poem—and so it’s worth asking whether Poem 47 is faddish rather than effective.

At the heart of both versions is the game of hide-and-seek. In the first version:

I am hiding something
in the mirror. In the morning
I am searching for myself
but see a bird rising up behind my eyes.

And in the second:

I am searching for myself
in the mirror, in the morning.
I am hiding something
that moves, that seems to fall and rise again
behind the wall.

The invocation of the mirror in this poem—a poem that formally manifests the mirror—invites the reader to consider the power of the image.

The mirror becomes central to understanding the poem and the persona’s self-discovery. This self-discovery is offset or deferred on to a bird. We are also invited to question whether the persona is complicit in the denial of self-knowledge, when they write that ‘I am writing something / in the mirror’ first, before ‘I am hiding something / that moves’.

Has something taken place between the two versions? Or are they simultaneous reflections on the same preceding event, prior to the poem’s narrative? Is self-discovery harder in the second version or just the same?

I worry and wonder whether this poem’s form precedes—and superseding—content; or perhaps it’s just me, finding it tough to pierce the poem’s formal shell.

Archiving grief: Patricia Lockwood’s ‘No One Is Talking About This’

Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury, 2021) won last year’s Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize, and was cited especially for its depiction of the Internet. In the book, the ‘portal’ is a virtual world that can provide access to ‘everywhere’, but is a largely desensitised space; it is where the protagonist spends most of her time.

Nevertheless, that desensitisation is part of its appeal, as it becomes a space where humour and irony reign, and it becomes a less serious space than the ‘clear blue place’ where a Trumpian ‘dictator’ reigns.

The balance between the portal and the clear blue shifts, however, in Part Two, when the protagonist learns about her unborn niece’s genetic disorder that will eventually kill her. Most of Part Two describes the protagonist’s time spent with her niece as we witness her living and, finally, dying.

Amidst all this, a vein of preemptive and post hoc archiving takes place, all part of the protagonist’s grieving process. But the archive doesn’t start with grief: the archive becomes part of the process of mourning only later in the text.

The first example of the archive begins at the beginning, with genetic sequencing itself. ‘A few years ago her husband had bought her a DNA test,’ we read:

She saw her DNA streaming backward from her body like a timeline, richly peopled with the faces of distant cousins behind bars, and she was somehow the one who had put them there, by moving the clock another age past then, by being born at all.

Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), p. 111

This passage does double work. Not only does it recognise that DNA is an archival system itself—containing elements of all predecessors within a closed biological system—but that the protagonist is also the archivist who is lining up the predecessors as predecessors. The archivist–protagonist is in charge of time.

The following paragraph introduces an apparently tangential character to the story, ‘a man who stood and laughed in the voice of his great-grandfather for five full minutes[. … H]e had explained earlier that his ancestors were always with him when he performed’ (Lockwood, p. 111). As the paragraph continues, the protagonist realises that this is true for her, also, but that she also ‘saw that ancestors weren’t just behind, they were the ones who were to come’ (p. 112). This proleptic irony, pointing us towards the niece who is born and dies in the pages after this moment, also teaches us more about the archivist’s control of time: it is possible to archive the future as much as the past.

Jacques Derrida wrote about the archons, the people who looked after the archives. In a 1995 essay, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian impression’, he wrote that

The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians. They do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited[. …] They have the power to interpret the archives. Entrusted to such archons, these documents in effect state the law: they recall the law and call on or impose the law. To be guarded thus, in the jurisdiction of this stating the law, they needed at once a guardian and a localization.

Jacques Derrida, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian impression’, Diacritics, 1995 (25.2), 9–63 (10)

Derrida’s turn to the legal or juridical realm is necessary in his argument, as he traces the history of the word ‘archive’ to a legal instruction in ancient Greece. For my purposes here, it’s enough to note that what is archived takes on the form of law that is necessarily protected from degradation.

DNA, that instruction manual to cells as they reproduce, is such a law. It created the protagonist, and instructed/will instruct the creation of ancestors, both those in the past and the future.

When grieving, the protagonist herself becomes an archive of another sort, and on one occasion it takes place on the stage during a public lecture, not unlike how the man who laughed like his grandfather staged his archived recollection. This time, however, it is a sad archiving, and one that protects the item archived from degradation, but does not make it public. The protagonist is giving a lecture at the British Museum, and she thinks ‘about the 24-hour NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] badge in her coat pocket, that she kept there to remind herself she had once been a citizen of necessity’ (Lockwood, p. 205). The protagonist has archived the badge—kept it, protected it—and accesses it during the lecture in order to receive its instruction for her behaviour and role in society: a caring aunt to her ill niece.

But that role no longer pertains. The archive’s instructions are anachronistic. And yet this is mourning, all part of the process of grieving her niece’s death.

So also is the ‘meticulous documentation of the baby’s final days in her photoroll’ on her phone (Lockwood, p. 203), and the photoroll’s accessibility: ‘The pictures were always with her’ (p. 204). To access the archive whenever desired—this time a digital archive—is the privilege of the archon, the protagonist, who has carefully curated and stored these ‘documents’ on her phone.

Might we therefore extend the ‘work of mourning’ in the age of the digital and virtual—in the age of Lockwood’s ‘portal’—to include the following: To construct one’s ancestry in the future?

Is this just a description of the archive itself? Does it find an origin in the human condition (i.e. in DNA)? Or is there something more central to this digital archive that I have missed from No One Is Talking About This?

One potential answer: I have written elsewhere about the way in which Irish poet Seamus Heaney acts as an archaeologist in unearthing pasts buried deep in the land of Ireland, but then acts as a capital-H Historian[1] by archiving that past in his poetry. For instance, ‘The Grauballe Man’ (1975) has a ‘cured wound’ that ‘opens inward to a dark / elderberry place’.[2] By reinserting—or burying—the Grauballe Man in his poem, Heaney transposes him from underneath the surface of the bog to the contents of the poem. This is Heaney as Historian.

Is Lockwood also a Historian? Is No One Ever Talks About This itself a novel of grief that archives the story of the protagonist’s niece whose own DNA archive is programmed to last only a few short months? Perhaps it is a novel–archive that can be accessed publicly by its readership in order to sustain the archival instructions from the niece, as recorded in the Acknowledgements: ‘You were not here to teach us, but we did learn.’ (Lockwood, p. 210)

[1] ‘To give a unifying name to this figure who achieves both the archaeological and archiving processes, let me call him a Historian. Not an amorphous figure who “writes histories” or narrativises history into chronological order (as I accuse the early modern English of doing), but instead a Historian according to Carolyn Steedman’s analysis. In Dust (2001), Steedman updates Freud, Foucault, and Derrida, and relates her own experiences as a social historian of entering the archive and writing about what she finds there. Ultimately, she concludes, “history gives a habitation and a name to all the fragments” (2001: 149).’ (Nicholas Taylor-Collins, Shakespeare, memory, and modern Irish literature (Manchester: Manchester UP: 2022), p. 258.

[2] Seamus Heaney, North (London: Faber and Faber, 2001 [1975]), ll. 22–4.

‘speech language voice’: ‘Diego Garcia’ by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams

In this form-breaking novel, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams wowed judges of the Goldsmiths Prize by co-authoring a story of companionship and collectivity, even during pandemic lockdowns.

But they also related the recent colonial history of the Chagossian people and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia: the forced evacuation of native peoples by the British ex colonists, and the installation of an airbase by the new, American inhabitants.

An overarching question throughout the book is whether it’s possible to ‘tell a story that needs to be shared, if it is not your story’, in a bid to write a ‘fiction of solidarity’.[1] In some ways, at the heart of this problem is the question of translation: How might I translate your story into my language? I don’t propose to answer that specific question, but instead I want to look at the issue of language more explicitly in the novel. We might then see whether we can take those ideas back into the idea of a ‘fiction of solidarity’.

Damaris and Oliver Pablo, the protagonists, are both writers. For a story that she submits to a magazine, Damaris writes an introductory letter that details how the Chagossian language of Kreol ‘was stolen by a political act whose violence traumatised into muteness robbed his mother of her speech language voice‘ (DG, pp. 157–8; emphasis original). Clearly, in line with the idea of an unused, underused, or made redundant language, these ideas point us towards postcolonial discourses.

However, we also come across the issue with language Daniel, Oliver Pablo’s late brother, who died by suicide. Daniel had been committed to a psychiatric hospital, but was let out because he requested it, ‘because he was white, middle class. Because he could speak [the medics’] language’ (DG, p. 173). By this exchange, we learn that the question of language is primarily a question of communication, of permissibility, and of accessibility.

Daniel as white and middle class can access all areas—even when he was locked in a protected environment. By contrast, Diego Garcia, who told his story in Kreol to Damaris, is excluded from his home space, with language his marker of exclusion, his unshakeable characteristic that disbars him.

In what has become a foundational text in translation studies, ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923), Walter Benjamin wrote the following:

Translation is a mode. To comprehend it as mode one must go back to the original, for that contains the law governing the translation: its translatability. […] Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999 [1955]), pp, 70–82 (p. 71)

Not only do I wonder whether Benjamin’s strictly literal meaning is applicable to a culturo-political situation—i.e. Damaris telling Diego’s story—but also whether Damaris’s story maintains any of the ‘specific significance inherent in [Diego’s] original’. Moreover, by translating (literally: dragging across) Diego’s story into English, into Britain (in fact, into an Edinburgh, where the first half of the story is set, whose own Scots language has been infiltrated and diminished by a colonising English), can Damaris communicate it to a wider audience and provide ‘access’ to those suffering Chagossians?

Similar questions were posed by and to Ciaran Carson, the late poet, when he translated Dante’s epic Inferno into English (2002). Carson, from a country (Ireland/Northern Ireland) and city (Belfast) riven apart by politics like Dante’s Florence, thought he found a comprehensible new home for Dante’s poetry in his own Hiberno-English, in his own land:

As I write, I can hear [a helicopter’s] ratchety interference in the distance; and, not for the first time, I imagine being airborne in the helicopter, like Dante riding on the flying monster Geryon, looking down into the darkness of that place in Hell called Malebolge. […] I see a map of North Belfast, its no-go zones and tattered flags, the blackened side-streets, cul-de-sacs and bits of wasteland stitched together by dividing walls and fences. For all the blank abandoned spaces it feels claustrophobic, cramped and medieval.


When I began looking into the Inferno, it occurred to me that the measures and assonances of the Hiberno-English ballad might provide a model for translation.

Ciaran Carson, Inferno, pp. xxi–xxii, xx

For Carson, whose first language was Irish rather than English, there was a mutualistic dialogue made possible between post-Troubles Belfast and politically split, mediaeval Florence—made possible, that is, in and through translation. The Inferno gave voice to Carson’s Belfast; Carson’s Belfast gave voice to Dante’s Inferno. This is what we might cite as Benjamin’s ‘specific significance’ in the original that ‘manifests itself in the translation’.

This bilingualism is present in Diego Garcia. Writing from Brussells, Damaris tells Oliver Pablo that she ‘appreciate[s] its mutlivalency’ (DG, p. 189), whilst also noting that bilingualism is partial: Damaris’s flatmate who works ‘in the back of a bakery […] was cachée. In a limited vocabulary the words one knows beyond the everyday basics are telling’ (DG, p. 191). Here, again, we see the inaccessibility to those who are not fluent in the lingua franca.

Despite these repeated insistences that language can disbar and exclude, Damaris still hopes. In response to her own question, ‘What does a fiction of solidarity look like?’ she responds: ‘Maybe translation is one of the purest forms of writing as solidarity?’ And maybe, therefore, we arrive back at the beginning of our journey. If solidarity can take place through translation, then perhaps writing another’s story is possible. After all, the metafictional motif driving through the heart of Diego Garcia reminds us that this book is itself the fiction of solidarity that Damaris and Oliver Pablo are trying to write themselves.

But this answers the question about making something (a story; an idea) accessible to others, but not necessarily giving someone the same access. Indeed, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, famed Kenyan writer, offers a fatalistic alternative, with which I’ll finish. Following his declaration never again to write in English—and only to write in his native Gikuyu—he says:

So I would like to contribute towards the restoration of the harmony between all the aspects and divisions of language so as to restore the Kenyan child to his environment, understand it fully so as to be in a position to change it for his collective good. I would like to see Kenya peoples’ mother-tongues (our national languages!) carry a literature reflecting not only the rhythms of a child’s spoken expression, but also his struggle with nature and his social nature. With that harmony between himself, his language and his environment as his starting point, he can learn other languages and even enjoy the positive humanistic, democratic and revolutionary elements in other people’s literatures and cultures without any complexes about his own language, his own self.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Oxford: James Currey, 1986), pp. 28–9)

In other words: only when translation is denied, forbidden, and forestalled, might translation become possible. Would this create a ‘fiction of solidarity’?

[1] Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams, Diego Garcia (Fitzcarraldo, 2022), pp. 252, 236. Hereafter, DG.

Dancing the night away: Joelle Taylor’s ‘C+nto & Othered Poems’

Joelle Taylor’s C+nto & Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press, 2021) won the 2022 T.S. Eliot Prize. It offers a searing history of butch culture in the 1980s and after, with both tragedy, epiphany, and liberation tracking across its 121 pages.

It is a collection that stores tragedy at its core, especially in the magisterial scene poem ‘O, Maryville’, an absurdist drama set in a lesbian bar that is, itself, a woman’s body. We witness the violent murder of Angel, one of the four main characters in the poem, a tragic death that is amplified by the celebrations that offset the violence.

Thus, whilst ‘The piercing in her eyebrow has been torn out & blood migrates, looking for a better life’, we are also presented with the ‘Inside’ of ‘the wound’ where there ‘is a young girl rocking’.[1] I want to think briefly about the ‘rocking’ lesbians in C+nto.

In particular, the celebratory scenes of dancing interest me. Dancing is rarely just an impassioned moving of body parts in time with music. For Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for instance, ‘the ghost dance is an attempt to establish the ethical relation with history as such, ancestors real or imagine’,[2] and I believe that this could provide a useful way of comprehending what Taylor’s lesbian personae achieve in Maryville.

It’s perhaps worth starting by looking at one of the verses in ‘Round Two’ of the title poem, ‘C+nto’:

our bodies are political placards we dance as
demonstration of independence we revolution in
the living room we uprising in the public toilets
insurgency in the suburbs.

‘Round Two’ of ‘C+nto’, Taylor, p. 38

Here dancing is playfully equated with political demonstration, revolution, uprising, and insurgency. Each of these terms—perhaps performing a crescendo of political disruption themselves—are explicitly linked to the fact of woman’s body and its insurrectionary potential. ‘Round Two’, the poem from which this passage is taken, is subtitled ‘the body as protest‘, and dance represents one of those methods of protest.

Later in C+nto, when we enter ‘O, Maryville’ with its corporeal stage and set, dance takes on another, celebratory hue. In ‘Heaven, 1995‘ it is plain to see:

vinegar this moment of belief.
club in a fish tank, riot genesis
a boi touches her fingertip
to a light beam & god winks
a wet eye. maybe the light
is an escalator to the afterlife,
or after party, or the part of her body
she checked in the cloakroom,
but tonight, all of the dead
will dance with her.
all of the dead are well
dressed this evening.
they solemn the escalator
descend to the dance.
how she reaches
toward the infinite.
this moment between.
how she sees
the ghosts of those
still alive.
how she conjures
life from life.

Heaven, 1995‘, Taylor, pp. 77–8

The energy contained in this night out at the dance club, Heaven, overspills the dance floors, allowing the dancer to reach ‘toward the infinite’, ‘conjur[ing] life from life, all because ‘all of the dead / […] dance with her’. Here is an obvious connection with Spivak’s ghost dance, when the philosopher theorised establishing an ‘ethical relation’ with ancestors.

In the case of C+nto, the ancestors are lesbians: both the ancestral lesbians of the 1980s for the 2020s readership, but also the ancestral lesbians who preceded Angel, Dudizile, Jack Catch, and Valentina—Taylor’s personae in ‘O, Maryville’. They are the ghosts, and are haunted by other ghosts.

Spivak describes the ghost dance as the moment when ‘You crave to let history haunt you as a ghost or ghosts, with the ungraspable incorporation of a ghostly body’ (70), and the effort of C+nto can be described as that paean to and memory of lesbian subculture from the 1980s onwards. But we’re invited to ask: Is it successful in C+nto? Does the text successfully create that ‘ethical relation’ with lesbian ancestors?

Spivak also writes that the end of the ghost dance ‘is to make the past a future, as it were—the future anterior, not a future present’ (70). This haunting from the past turns veneration of it into a ritual through which a future can be imagined and figured. The future in C+nto is confirmed in the final poem, ‘Trauma: the Opera‘ that ends with a Puck-like thanks to the readerly audience:

thank you for listening. lay a wreath where the two roads pleat. photocopy my photograph. return to me once a year. tell them a story

make me live.

‘Trauma: the Opera’, Taylor, p. 121

See how the ghost dance is reaffirmed insofar as the speaker is the ghost who can be made to live through returning to her and telling others a story. In fact, it’s a mutual haunting given that the speaker invites us to ‘return to me’, as if we are haunting her.

Whichever way you see the power balancing, there is nonetheless a hauntological relation at play. It results in an ethical relation with the past that leads to the future—a future that ends with story, but begins with dance.

[1] Joelle Taylor, C+nto and Othered Poems (London: The Westbourne Press, 2021), p. 91

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Ghostwriting’, Diacritics, 25.2 (1995), 64–84, 70.

Bastardising epic: Shehean Karunatilaka’s ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’

Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books, 2022) won last year’s Booker Prize for its ‘energy, imagery and ideas [set] against a broad, surreal vision of the Sri Lankan civil wars’. We find that ‘surreal vision’ in its depiction of the afterlife—both the In Between (a version of purgatory), and the Light (a version of paradise/heaven).

In this brief schema, we can begin to recognise and appreciate how Karunatilaka’s text talks to other texts including, for instance, Dante’s epic trilogy The Divine Comedy and other ghostly texts, like Thomas Kyd’s 1589 play, The Spanish Tragedy. I want briefly to look at that a little more closely.

We could examine the general structure of visiting or being in the land of the dead. This is a long-lasting literary trope that we see in Philip Pullman’s turn-of-the-century His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000), Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind (2001), but these recent books are overshadowed by other works.

Notably, visiting the land of the dead—often categorised as the Underworld—forms a key part of any epic poem, including Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey (both 8th-century BCE), and Virgil’s Aeneid (19 BCE). Even in Derek Walcott’s 1990 epic poem Omeros, Walcott’s character visits the underworld in a dream. These visits are called nekuya in Ancient Greek, and are partly used to permit the visitor to the Underworld to realise the true value of being alive.

However, given the horror of its monstrous creations like the Mahakali, The Seven Moons draws me towards another epic. Looking at the demoniacal Mahakali, we see its

back is tattooed with letters and faces. [… T]he faces begin speaking to you. All at the same time, but this time, not in unison. Most of these souls are petrified and have been trapped here for longer than they know. Not all of them are human.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka (London: Sort of Books), p. 334

Something in this reminded me of the mythical creatures populating Dante’s Inferno (c. 1321), the mediaeval poet’s vision of hell. I think Inferno provides a more useful forebear than the other epic poems, in part because in that poem Dante, like Maali, is stuck in the land of the dead: there is no coming back for either protagonist.

There is one other major correlation worth pointing out. In the Inferno, Dante is guided by a character, Virgil:

‘The course I think would be the best for you,

Is to follow me, and I will act as your guide,

And show a way out of here, by a place in eternity,

Where you will hear the shrieks of men without hope[.]’

Inferno by Dante Aleghieri, I.112–15, trans. C.H. Sisson (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008 [1980])

Virgil, barred from accessing Paradise because ‘”I was one of the rebels against his law”‘ (I.125), has to take Dante through hell in order to reach Purgatory, where he continues the journey without Virgil’s assistance.

This is a useful intertext to consider because of the way that Maali Almeida is offered competing guides in his underworld. There is Sena, the revolutionary who first shows Maalie the ropes of the In Between (pp. 24–6), and who later tries to recruit Maali to help kill other murderers; and there is also Dr Ranee Sridharan, ‘The university lecturer slain by Tamil extremists for the crime of being a Tamil moderate’ (p. 6). Dr Ranee is a Helper, tasked with guiding the recently dead to the Light, rather than to staying in the In Between.

These competing guides—Sena wants Maali to stay and help in the In Between; Dr Ranee wants Maali to make it to the heavenly Light—show how The Seven Moons is both engaging with its precursor epics, but also departing: an ideal model of intertextual reckoning.

One other way of thinking about the book is as a revenge novel. Far lass well known than the revenge play, prominent in the early modern period when Shakespeare was writing, this revenge novel nonetheless borrows a framework from one play in particular: Thomas Kyd’s 1589 The Spanish Tragedy. In the opening monologue, the wronged Don Andrea tells the audience that after his funeral ‘the ferryman of hell [was] content / To pass me over to the slimy strand, / That leads to fell Avernus’ ugly waves’ [1]—i.e. the underworld—from where he now sees the world of the living pass before his eyes.

Andrea is speaking to the Ghost of Revenge who replies that Andrea ‘shalt see the author of thy death / […] / Deprived of life by Bel-Imperia’ (1.1.87–9), Andrea’s former lover. Whilst not taking part in the revenge himself—unlike the protagonists of, say, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599) or Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606)—Andrea is nonetheless guided through the underworld by an embodied motive of Revenge.

When we read that Sena plans to make suffer the ‘death squad’ who murdered himself and (separately) Maali (p. 42), we recognise the structure of revenge. But we already think of Sena as a version of Dante’s Virgil, and of Andrea’s Revenge. The Seven Moons engages with these templates but amends and enlarges them to turn the mediaeval epic poem and tragic revenge play into a comic novel.

Many questions remain: What value does a Sri Lankan epic/comic/revenge novel place on these Western literary forms and tropes? What do a novel and novelist concerned with depicting real, tragic events in recent history, really care about these forms of writing? I don’t know any answers yet, but I’m interested in thinking about it more carefully.

[1] The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, ed. Michaell Neil (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2014), 1.1.27–9.

Seeing is remembering: the photograph in Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’

Annie Ernaux is the latest name to grace the list of Nobel Prize winners in Literature. She was awarded in 2022

for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.

Nobel Prize awarding committee

The sense of ‘clinical acuity’ combined with the richness of ‘personal memory’ are both amply in evidence in The Years [Les Années] published in 2008. It is a spare, largely uninterested account of a woman’s life (the author’s?) from the 1940s to the early 2000s. Although it is professedly a memoir, there is only one serious use of the word ‘I’ to connect the narrator to the protagonist—and that use is in inverted commas:

There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we’, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before.

Annie Ernaux, The Years, trans. Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo, 2022 [2008]), p. 223

It is not your typical memoir—but it nonetheless remains emotionally affective.

The narrator/memoirist also spends time explaining her will to write. It is to an extent, therefore, a Kunstlerroman: a novel depicting the development of an artist. Unlike Ernaux’s ‘real’ life, the protagonist in The Years only thinks about writing one book—implicitly the book we are reading:

So her book’s form can only emerge from her complete immersion in the images from her memory in order to identify, with relative certainty, the specific signs of the times, the years to which the images belong, gradually linking them with others[.]

Ernaux, p. 222

These are not the only meta-literary comments in the narrative—there is a host of them in the final pages—but these draw our attention to the visual priority given over in the text. The ‘images from her memory’ on one hand and, on the other—to complement the ‘slippery narrative’ that is also an ‘outpouring’—there are, ‘suspended at regular intervals […] photos and scenes from films that capture the successive body shapes and social positions of her being’ (p. 223).

One of these photos is detailed near the beginning of the book:

It is a sepia photo […] A fat baby with a full, pouty lower lip[. …I]t is impossible not to read a ritual petit bourgeois staging for the entrance into the world.

Ernaux, p. 21

Entry into the world for the protagonist, and entry into the main body of the book for the reader. In each pf these photos, there is what Roland Barthes’ would have termed a ‘punctum‘, ‘that [photographic] accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’.[1] This punctum could be said to provide the impetus for the ‘outpouring’ that is The Years, with the text’s concentration around the visual never far from the surface.

However, it might also be useful to consider Susan Sontag’s studied cynicism about photography. In On Photography (1977) Sontag details the way that capitalist societies—and, in particular, contemporary North America—use the practice of photography as part of an anti-interventionist—and therefore, regressive—strategy. This bleeds into the practice of looking at photographs, which also becomes a neutered experience: ‘seeing tends to accommodate to photographs’. [2] Sontag might be unconvinced by Ernaux’s strategy.

One other idea merits thinking through. Sontag writes that photography’s

main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation.

Sontag, p. 110

If we accept Sontag’s argument, then we should revisit Ernaux’s centring on photographs, but this time in light of Ernaux’s own fascination with late capitalism.[3] This fascination is visible throughout The Years. For instance:

The world of commerce was everywhere and imposed its breakneck pace. Goods marked with barcodes slipped more quickly than ever from conveyor belt to shopping cart. […] And we, high and mighty despisers of consumer society, yielded to the yearning for a pair of boots which […] created a brief illusion of renewal.

Ernaux, p. 184

Can we think about Ernaux’s critique of and yet seduction by the commodity in the same way we might think about her use of photographs? What happens when we collapse the distinctions between these objects, between memoir and consumption? We might just find another way of thinking about the ‘outpouring’ into The Years—one that either reinscribes the social value of the commodity, or diminishes the personal value of the photograph.

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000 [1980]), p. 27.

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin 1979 [1977]), p. 99.

[3] Capitalism at a stage characterised (in part) by a commodity fetishism, rather than a pragmatic system of exchange.

Exhaustion and exhaustive: Colum McCann’s ‘Apeirogon’

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon (Bloomsbury, 2020) is a novel. I know this because it tells me both on the cover of the hardback edition, and in the acknowledgements. In the latter, McCann explains that this is a

hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling which, like all storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact and imagination.

Colum McCann, ‘Acknowledgements’ in Apeirogon (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), p. 431

As McCann himself notes, any novel contains a mix of fact and fiction, weaving together different sources to produce the literary text, which begs the question how this novel qualifies as hybrid.

Other details of the novel’s form are significant. The book is divided into 1001 chapters, some lasting several pages, others not even a single line. The novel is 457 pages long, meaning that (on average) the chapters are each a little over half a page long.

However, their different lengths contribute to the sense of a jarring narrative, if indeed there is a single narrative arc at all. Apeirogon tells the stories of friends Bassam from Palestine—father of Abir—and Rami from Israel—father of Smadar. Abir and Smadar, two young girls, were murdered in Israel–Palestine: Abir by an Israeli soldier, Smadar by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Bassam and Rami were friends before the murders, but their daughters’ murders intensified their friendship and brought it international recognition. This is inspired by a true situation—hence, perhaps, the idea of a ‘hybrid novel’, and the facts of these events are detailed early in the text’s narrative. There are few surprises in this novel’s plot.

But this is hybrid in another sense, I believe—in a sense that also leads to my designation of literature of exhaustion. The sense is in the 1001 chapters that reference, explicitly, the story of Scheherazade and The 1001 Nights; and the designation I adapt from a 1967 essay by American novelist John Barth (1930–).

In the essay, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, Barth writes in praise of Argentine short-story writer, Jorge Luis Borges. What Barth describes as the literature of exhaustion is a Borgesian literature that takes seriously the apocalyptic sense of humanity—that the world is due to come to an end, that scientific progress has reached its apotheosis, that there is no longer room for originality—and responds to that end-of-world feeling. In Borges’s case, this appears (for example) in ‘his favorite image of all, the labyrinth’ because ‘A labyrinth […] is a place in which, ideally, all the possibilities of choice (of direction, in this case) are embodied, and […] must be exhausted before one reaches the heart’.[1] A literature of exhaustion doesn’t merely signal an end, so much as explore the notion of end before finding a new ‘heart’.

The literature of exhaustion also responds to the idea that ‘it may well be that the novel’s time as a major art form is up, as the “times” of classical tragedy, Italian and German grand opera, or the sonnet-sequence came to be’.[2] Borges’s response is, in part, his interest in writing that is ‘contamination of reality by dream'[3]—what McCann might call a ‘hybrid novel’, perhaps.

A recurring reference point for Barth’s idea of the literature of exhaustion is the story of The 1001 Nights, in which Scheherazade, wife of the monarch (and serial beheader of wives) Shahryar, tells her husband a new story every night in order to delay her inevitable death in the morning. Scheherazade’s stories exhaust her husband’s impatience until he realises his love for her and lets her live and remain his true and faithful wife.

Referring to Borges’s fascination with the 602nd night—when Scheherezade reportedly started telling the story of The 1001 Nights before her husband interrupted and stopped her revealing her strategy of exhaustion—Barth writes that ‘Scheherazade’s accidental gambit […] is an image of the exhaustion, or attempted exhaustion, of possibilities—in this case literary possibilities’.[4] Perhaps this is one of way of reading McCann’s evocation of The 1001 Nights in Apeirogon: the impossibility of resolving Palestinian–Israeli peace, even under the ongoing threat of absolute devastation, both political and personal.

The apeirogon itself—’a shape with a countably infinite number of sides'[5]—is also central to this literary exhaustion. Towards the end of the novel, we read that ‘As a whole, an apeirogon approaches the shape of a circle, but a magnified view of a small piece appears to be a straight line’. It is a single shape, but constituted by smaller, discrete and identifiable shapes, much like The 1001 Nights—a text that is described in Apeirogon as a ‘ruse for life in the face of death’.[6] Borges also features in Apeirogon, describing when he was a visitor to Jerusalem, talking about The 1001 Nights:

The stories existed on their own at first, said Borges, and were then joined together, strengthening one another, an endless cathedral, a widening mosque, a random everywhere.


The book was, he said, so vast and inexhaustible that it was not even necessary to have read it since it was already in intricate part of humankind’s unconscious memory.

McCann, p. 50; my emphasis.

When I was reading Apeirogon I was completely convinced of the text’s merits, and its evocation of the shape of the apeirogon as a structuring metaphor for the impossibility of peace in the Middle East, all the while it must be endlessly pursued. However, as soon as I reached the central chapter, in which Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are transcribed verbatim from their own testimonies, and realised that the chapters totalled 1001 by the text’s end, I found that the structure’s now-obvious shape exhausted any narrative or readerly interest I had.

The certain knowledge of the text’s structural countdown to 1001[7] alerted me to the Arabian structure to the text, and not merely the use of The 1001 Nights as an intertextual reference point. My belief in this so-called hybrid novel as an effective means of replenishing the literary form vanished, and the second half of the text was exhausted of possibility and excitement. Note: this was because of the structure, and not because of any narrative event. Indeed, although the text introduced some new narrative elements in the second half, the still dominant stories of Bassam and Rami felt less affecting than they had done. It appeared to me that McCann’s Apeirogon had managed to exhaust the inexhaustible form of The 1001 Nights

It remains to be seen—presumably by individual readers—whether they also found the story exhausted by the supposedly inexhaustible structure. It strikes me, however, that McCann’s hybrid novel form fails to replenish the literature of exhaustion[8]—fails to create a sufficient ‘ruse of life in the face of death’, even though I willed this and fully support the endeavour.

[1] John Barth, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, in The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), pp. 62–76 (p. 75) <available at:>.

[2] Barth, p. 71.

[3] Borges in Barth, p. 71.

[4] Barth, p. 73.

[5] McCann, p. 82.

[6] McCann, pp. 417, 443.

[7] The chapters in the first half ascend in number up to 500, and then descend back to 1 by the end. Chapter 1001 is listed as the central chapter.

[8] Barth wrote a follow-up to ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ essay, called ‘The Literature of Replenishment’ (1979). Available here.

Top 5 blogs of 2020

The new year will soon be heralded by new blogs from me. But for now, here’s a list of my Top 5 blogs of 2020 according to views.

Apart from anything else, the list provides an interesting snapshot of last year’s popular and thought-provoking books … Enjoy, and thanks for reading this blog in 2020!

5. Christina Thatcher’s How to Carry Fire (Parthian)

Thatcher’s second collection of poetry sets the persona’s birth family in the USA as a comparator with her marriage family in Wales. I explored how both these families can be considered ‘queer’ by virtue of rejecting the nuclear, heteronormative family, and also giving happiness to the persona in spite of some of the more obvious traumas that take place.

4. Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Scholastic)

In my review of the book, I focused on the deployment of ‘social contract’ theory in this Hunger Games prequel. From Thomas Hobbes to Emile Durkheim, I proposed that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes provides a timely intervention into how our current society works, and how supposedly ‘democratic’ countries deal with and respond to civil unrest.

3. Niamh Campbell’s This Happy (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

Campbell’s novel follows Alannah’s parallel journeys in love, from when she was younger, and today. At the heart of both stories, and Alannah’s own emotional state, is the power of space. Using Gaston Bachelard’s ideas from The Poetics of Space to help me read This Happy, I argued that Bachelard’s 1957 ideas about ‘topophilia’—the love of space—continue to be reverberate and echo in this 2020 text.

2. Stephen Sexton’s If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin)

Sexton’s poetry collection uses the 1990 Super Nintendo game Super Mario as its structure, through which the persona details their mother’s diagnosis, treatment, and death from cancer. In my blog, I wondered whether it’s best to describe the text as postmodern because it prioritises the virtual world of simulacra—copies without originals—pace Jean Baudrillard, or whether If All the World and Love Were Young is better to characterise it as post-postmodern because the poems seek an escape from the world of the game, and also infuse the virtual world with both pain and joy from the ‘real’ world.

1. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)

Evaristo’s 2019 Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other has been hugely influential in the twelve months following its award, and this appears true in my blog as well. In my post about the novel, I questioned the strength of the text and the way the stories are sutured together, much like in a tapestry. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t convinced by the way the stories were pulled together, though I did appreciate the text’s representation of queer stories and intergenerational feminism (something Rebecca Solnit asks us to pay attention to).

Trans* today or yesterday? Andrea Lawlor’s ‘Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl’

In a 2017 book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, Heath Fogg Davis asks: ‘Why not use transgender experience to fundamentally question the social custom of administrating sex?'[1] Using a queer logic that has roots in poststructural theory—the intricacies of which don’t need elaborating here—Davis joins two arguments. First, he argues that sex-identity discrimination—which ‘involves judgments about whether a person belongs to the sex categories of male or female’ as compared with ‘traditional sexism [that] is based on judgments about what we can and cannot do because we are male or female.'[2]—needs to end. This means stopping, for example, the identification of sex on official documents such as driving licences and the imposition of either single-sex or gender neutral toilets. Second, Davis sees the transgender experience as one that is persistently assailed by the problems of sex-identity discrimination, and therefore transgender citizens are constantly confronting and solving these problems.

By this logic, the transgender experience of sex-identity discrimation should be used as a basis for eliminating it entirely from our societies, so that even cisgender citizens—those whose sex-identity matches the sex-identity assigned at birth—don’t have to face the same issues.

It would make sense that Davis’s ideas to confront sex-identity discrimination would be borne out in a novel like Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Picador, 2019 [2017])—a novel totally concerned with a sex-shifting character Paul/Polly, who has to negotiate sex-identity discrimination, both through official and non-official channels.

However, that straightforward assumption would be wrong.

Instead, in Lawlor’s novel, Paul is firmly locked into sterotypical binaries:

Paul possesses the sort of masculinity that distracts men and women, that makes some men angry. […] There is a type of man, often the father of a friend or a coach, who upon meeting Paul disapproves of him and will not say why. There is a type of woman who will not be able to stop herself, who will reach out and stroke Paul’s face, who will try to ascertain if Paul is as young as his hairless cheeks make him seem.

Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Picador, 2019 [2017]), p. 63

The nouns ‘sort’ and ‘type’ indicate that, for Paul, there are categories of ‘woman’ and ‘man’, rather than a fluid continuum between the two sexes, as contemporary queer theory would argue for. These deterministic tropes are repeated at various moments in the text, such as when, while morphed into a girl, ‘Paul felt a flutter of shyness, a shy girl flutter, the flutter not knowing if he was making a friend or something else. This was a strange experience for him […]. He was now having girl-feelings’ (pp. 78–9).

Whilst Lawlor’s text argues for an innate difference between ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ feelings, I am not convinced of the distinction along those sex-identity lines. The text does consider the possibility of transsexualism as something more nuanced than an either-or position, but the consideration is quickly put down. On one occasion, when Paul reveals ‘Polly’ to a potential lover, Dallas, Paul asks him whether he wants to ‘”play with both?”‘ The answer is quickly given: ‘”Naw.”‘ (p. 35) Later, when Paul is permanently Polly with a long-term girlfriend, Diane, she suspects that the reason that Polly was ‘”really into it”‘ was because she wanted to ‘”do it the other way”‘ (p. 188), i.e. in a male body with his girlfriend. This conversation, and the truth underlying Diane’s allegation, spells the end of their relationship.

At issue is the idea of ‘passing’, as described here by Sara Ahmed:

We are all in a profound sense temporary residents. We arrive in a world only to depart again. Life is coming and going, and what happens in between. We pass through a world. When we are passing through, some of us are stopped and asked questions. To pass through, you might have to pass in another sense: to pass as something. We might be stopped when we fail to pass. Those who are not stopped might be assumed to be residing somewhere properly; they become permanent residents, even though there is nothing permanent about their residence.

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 116

For Ahmed, passing is an everyday challenge, both as a woman of colour (WOC) and a lesbian because sometimes it is necessary to pass as white and straight. The intersection of Ahmed’s identities—Ahmed is both a WOC and a lesbian at the same time—alters the kind of passing she needs to practise. To pass with intersectional identities is not a matter of passing in two different ways—once from WOC to white, and again from lesbian to straight—but a matter of passing at one and the same time as WOC–lesbian to white–straight. It is complex, nuanced, individual, and has proven susceptible to abuse: not because it invites abuse, but because abusers are already out there looking to pounce on difference and otherness. Intersecting identities provide yet more categories for abusers to exploit.

Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life was published in the same year as Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017). And yet, Lawlor’s text shows little to no interest in the question of passing, even as it applies to trans* citizens more pressingly now than ever before. Davis, author of Beyond Gender (also published in 2017), examines these issues for trans* citizens, both for himself, and also for others’ in their testimonies of intersectionally passing as trans* and black,[3] but debates about cisgender privilege and trans* rights have entered the mainstream, exemplified by J.K. Rowling’s interventions[4] and Welsh politician Helen Mary Jones tiptoeing (in a politician’s way) across others’ hurt feelings.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl was published in 2017, getting a UK publisher in 2019. However, it is set in 1993 and is both a paean to the 1990s and poststructural college culture—the texts that Paul is reading are almost entirely third-wave feminists and the first full-on queer theorists (e.g. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler)—but it is also a throwback to Jack Kerouac’s US cult classic On the Road (1957), a hedonistic celebration of mid-century Beat culture. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is thus backward facing—much more than it’s forward-looking or even concerned with the present.

All of which leaves me thinking: if you want to know and/or explore trans* culture today, you’d be much better placed if you read Davis’s Beyond Trans—the title of which is innately forward-looking—rather than Lawlor’s already-dated and insufficiently contemporary novel.

[1] Heath Fogg Davis, Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? (New York, NY: New York University Press), loc. 344.

[2] Davis, Beyond Trans, loc. 63.

[3] Davis, Beyond Trans, loc. 1050 ff.

[4] It’s worth looking at this considered response to J.K. Rowling’s letter by Mermaids, a charity supporting transgender, nonbinary, and gender-diverse children and their families.

%d bloggers like this: