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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories


Smut Bennett

"... How much better ... how much healthier ... had all these persons, these family members, been more candid with one another right from the start. – Alan Bennett, Smut



Sex is a part of life, in fact without sex there’d be no life. I’m less curious about it than I used to be but I still find I can be distracted from what I’m doing when some salacious news item passes my way. Little actually shocks me. It just underlines how narrow my own life experiences have been and how poorly I understand people. I’m as puzzled by people who practice auto-erotic asphyxia as I am by people who listen to opera for pleasure. I don’t get any of them. I’ve tried listening to opera to see if I could develop a taste for it and’ve pretty much given that up as a bad job, but having been an asthmatic all my life I can conceive of no earthy pleasure at all in not being able to breathe so, no, I’ve not tried to strangle myself nor anyone else.

There is a single truth that holds true for all people: their parents had sex. If only the once. My wife just said, “What about in cases of artificial insemination?” to which I answered, “Well, at least the fella had sex.” “Children always assume the sexual lives of their parents come to a grinding halt at their conception,” so wrote Alan Bennett. We don’t like to think about our parents having sex which is odd because we, usually, are quite happy to have sex ourselves. Every generation thinks they invented sex or if not exactly invented it—given the fact their parents somehow managed it—they’ve been the ones to master it. I actually think the thing with our parents is more to do with old people having sex as opposed to just our parents but I might be wrong.

 

“People shouldn’t think I’m cosy”

alan-bennett-1Appearances can be deceiving. I suppose that’s where the notion of seemliness comes from. People aren’t interested in how things are, only how they seem. Alan Bennett never wrote Keeping up Appearances—despite the fact it features one of his favourite actresses—but he could have. Or, maybe not. It was actually written by fellow-Yorkshireman Roy Clarke. Bennett’s characters are generally more rooted in reality; Clarke’s tend to be more caricatured. There’s definitely common ground there, though. Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate, downtrodden and not a little sad. Life has dragged them to an impasse or else passed them by. In many cases they’ve met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and an inability to connect with others. Michael Frayn has noted that a lot of his work is about that moment when people wake up to the fact that they have passionate feelings and Bennett writes about these people with such compassion it’s hard not to feel something for even the traitors Anthony Blunt (A Question of Attribution) and Guy Burgess (An Englishman Abroad).

Having remained unwed well into middle age it was generally assumed Bennett was gay although he never said yea or nay for many years. When pressed once at an Aids benefit back in the eighties to confirm whether he was gay or what, Bennett told the actor Ian McKellan: "That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water." The fact is he is… ish—he’s lived with magazine editor Rupert Thomas for years—but it’s never as simple as that because he also had a long time relationship with Anne Davies, his former housekeeper; he’s on record as saying fell in love with her within a fortnight of the meeting and their relationship continued until her death in 2009. In an article in The Independent, Billy Kenber writes:

The playwright, who packs his works with autobiographical references, told Radio 4's Front Row programme last week: "If there was any sex going, you'd go for it, but it didn't really matter which side it was on. There'd been something of both in my life, but not enough of either."

Davies once said: "He was always gay, but he thought men didn't like him. It's like not being picked for the team at school. I was the only woman he'd ever been close to. I was like an earthquake, turning his life upside-down, with my kids and lovers and mess."

Needless to say the national press got its knickers in a right twist over that revelation but, as Bennett himself noted in his diary, “All you need to do if you want the nation's press camped on your doorstep is to say you once had a wank in 1947.” (Anyone who doubts the veracity of that claim that read this.) I mention this because for some reason people tend not to associate that nice man Alan Bennett with sex. He’s a national treasure after all—along with the likes of the Attenborough brothers, Stephen Fry and Judi Dench—and these people can do no wrong. I’m not suggesting that Bennett has done anything wrong—people with a stricter set of moral values than mine please feel free to disagree—his lifestyle choices are his own but I mention the above to remind everyone that long before he became a national treasure he was just a bloke from Leeds looking for love, like most of us, in all the wrong places.

Sex crops up in Alan Bennett’s writing with surprising (appalling?) regularity. Even his famous Talking Heads are far from free of it: Susan, in A Bed Among the Lentils, has an affair with an Asian grocer; Lesley, in Her Big Chance finds herself cast in a soft-core porn film; Miss Fozzard, in Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, Alan and Thoraventures into benign prostitution; Rosemary’s friend, on whom she develops a crush, in Nights in the Garden of Spain, kills her husband after years of ritual sexual abuse and, I expect the hardest one for most people to watch, Wilfred, in Playing Sandwiches, is a paedophile struggling—and, ultimately, failing—to keep on the straight and narrow. We prefer to remember Thora Hird’s two captivating performances in A Cream Cracker under the Settee and Waiting for the Telegram or Patricia Routledge in A Lady of Letters or even Bennett himself in A Chip in the Sugar.

Certainly sex is a subject that he finds himself talking about more and more:

He says there is nothing he would hesitate to write about, if he chose. “Not now. I think once upon a time I would have. I just wouldn’t have wanted people to know too much about me. But I am so old it makes no difference now, does it? I have been around so long. And I also think people don’t care now in quite the same way.” Does this account for the increased amount of sex in his writing? “Maybe so. People think it is to do with me. I think it is to do with the times as much as anything else. Or maybe one is just running out of things to say.” – Sarah Crompton, ‘Alan Bennett, interview: “people shouldn't think I'm cosy”’, The Telegraph, 30 November 2012

In describing Bennett’s book Smut one of the reviewers on Amazon said this: “A ‘nice’ book about sex—only Alan Bennett could've done it!” It really hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it? He’s a bit like Morgan Freeman that way only in Bennett’s case he doesn’t even have to do the talking. As long as it’s his words then everything’s somehow more palatable, nicer. If you were going to your doctor to find out if you had cancer he’s the person you’d want sitting opposite you. I find it impossible to read anything by him or watch anything written by him without certain expectations and he always, always delivers because, with Bennett, it’s the journey that matters, not clever plotting or witty punch lines (although he’s perfectly capable of both).

Smut is comprised of a novella, The Greening of Mrs Donaldson and a novelette, The Shielding of Mrs Forbes although Bennett describes them as “long short stories”. They’re set in the present but there’s something slightly old-fashioned about both of them. Few are so awkward these days as to insist people use their honorific but there are places where it would feel more appropriate than others, a court of law for instance or a doctor’s office. I’m not exactly an old man but it does still rankle me when people I don’t know call me ‘James’ (especially telesales callers); they should say, “Do you mind if I call you ‘James’?” and let me grant them permission—“It’s ‘Jim’, actually”.

Smut is an old-fashioned word. It’s the kind of word my mother would’ve used: “We’ll ‘ave none o’ that smutty talk in ’ere.” (Remember my mother was a Lancashire lass.) It’s an objection I see raised now and then against Bennett and, to be fair, he is and always was (Larkin was the same, nostalgic before his time) but that’s his universe and I’m happy to buy into it—even if the word Bennettesque doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue—in just the same way as I accept the unrealities of P G Wodehouse’s or E F Benson’s worlds; it’s a part of their charm.

 

The Greening of Mrs Donaldson

Mrs Donaldson is fifty-five and recently widowed. She lives alone in a house that’s now too big—but more relevantly whose upkeep is now too much—for her and so, after staying “at home for weeks on end, a process Gwen, her married daughter, was pleased to dignify as ‘grieving’,” she’s found it necessary to supplement her income with a part-time job at the local medical school. To aid students in honing their diagnostic skills the management have hired a group of “Simulated Patients, as they were officially designated” to pretend they’re suffering from various ailments:

No special skills were said to be required, only the ability to memorise information and present it clearly. Nothing was said in the advert about acting ability or Mrs Donaldson would not have applied; self-confidence wasn’t mentioned either, which would have been another deterrent as Mrs Donaldson had always thought of herself as shy.

[…]

‘I don’t even see it as acting,’ she told her friend Delia in the canteen, ‘just a case of keeping a straight face. It’s a way of not being yourself.’

Delia was another member of the medical troupe.

‘It’s just nice to be looked at,’ said Delia, ‘even as a specimen. How often do young people ever look at you? At our age we’re invisible.’

As it happens Mrs Donaldson excels and becomes something of a favourite of Dr Ballantyne, the head of the unit; she has a talent for improvisation.

‘Ballantyne obviously fancies you,’ said Delia when they were talking in the canteen afterwards. And when Mrs Donaldson pulled a face, ‘You could do a lot worse.’

[…]

‘You’ve lost your husband, he’s lost his wife. A son in Botswana apparently and the daughter’s married an optician. He’s probably lonely.’

As Time Goes ByOkay, I know what you’re thinking. This is shaping up to be another As Time Goes By—I’m quite sure Geoffrey Palmer would made an excellent Dr Ballantyne to Judy Dench’s Mrs Donaldson—but that’s not the main thrust of this story. No. The job’s fine but the income is not and so Miss Donaldson decides to take in lodgers. Needless to say Gwen does not approve:

‘The first condom in the loo,’ she said to her husband, ‘and she’ll soon change her tune.’

As things go Mrs Donaldson is lucky:

[T]he two students sent to her by the university lodgings syndicate were in every respect but one not to be faulted. They were neat, quiet and they cleaned the bath and flashed the toilet and were so altogether discreet Mrs Donaldson scarcely knew they were in the house. Laura was a medical student and Andy, her boyfriend, was doing architecture.

Their one fault? They’re both regularly behind with the rent.

To be fair, the children, as Mrs Donaldson thought of them, were not unconcerned about their own fecklessness.

They assure her that they’ll be able to “work something out.” What precisely this might mean Mrs Donaldson gives no thought to. “They owed her money. It ought to be paid.” Once four weeks’ rent is overdue the lodgers broach the subject again.

‘We talked it over in bed last night,’ said Laura, ‘and it occurred to me that having seen you down at the hospital demonstrating we wondered if you would like it if. . .’

“We put on a demonstration for you,’ said Andy. ‘In lieu.’

Being about ages with Mrs Donaldson I have to confess that if there’s one expression I find myself struggling to grasp it’s, “It’s just sex.” It’s never been just sex with me. I’ve always regarded sex as something significant, something involving an emotional connection. That the goodnight kiss has turned into the goodnight bonk, well, that’s something I simply can’t get my head around.

"Have you ever seen anyone making love?" said Laura.

"To tell you the truth," said Mrs Donaldson pretending to cast her mind back, "I don’t think I have."

"Oh good," said Laura. "We were bothered it might not be much of a novelty."

"Oh no," said Mrs Donaldson, "it would. It would."

Though given the choice she still wasn’t sure she might have preferred marigolds.

Not wanting to appear ungrateful Mrs Donaldson acquiesces. Then follows probably the least-titillating—although far funnier—sex scene since “Adam knew Eve his wife” (Gen 4:1). Of course there are consequences but that’s as far as I’m going here.

 

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes

Having read a lot of online reviews of this book—especially the one-and two-star reviews—I can see one objection to this particular story was its lack of realism. Here’s what Bennett said in interview:

I wrote a play called Habeas Corpus and it’s a bit in that style. It’s a farce and not a realistic story

The protagonist in this story isn’t actually a Mrs Forbes; it’s the rather handsome (and rather gay) Graham Forbes who, as the story unfurls, we learn is contemplating marriage to a slightly older and less good looking woman going by the name of Betty—a name for some unknown reason his mother looks down on—who will, in due course, become the titular ‘Mrs Forbes’ and it takes no stretch of the imagination to conceive what she might need shielding from but one shouldn’t rush to any conclusions, not just yet. Why, in this so-called enlightened age, would Graham feel the need to do such a thing? I’ll come back to that.

The real stars of this piece, however, are his parents and were this ever turned into a play—which, indeed, it might have been as Bennett has admitted that often his short stories started off as ideas for plays that didn’t quite cut the mustard—I could see numerous venerable actors and actresses queuing up to play Mr and Mrs Forbes Sr. A typical exchange:

‘I suppose . . .’ mused Mr Forbes.

‘You suppose what?’

‘I suppose they’ve . . . had it off.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Done it. Got his leg over.’

There was a pained silence. It was an ancient battleground . . . what she called it, what he called it and whether he was allowed to call it anything at all.

‘I suppose you mean “made love”. Because I prefer not to think of it.’

‘She’s probably,’ said Mr Forbes, warming to the fray, ‘a bit of a goer.’

‘A goer? Edward. When are you going to learn that there are certain phrases you cannot use?’

‘I heard Graham use it.’

‘Graham is different. Graham is young, attractive and drives a sports car. He has a life with the top down and language to match. He can say “gay” and “bird” and “cool”, all the things young people say. You can’t. I heard you say “tits” the other night at the Maynards’. You’re too old to say “tits”’.

‘What age is that? When is the cut-off point? How old does one have to be still to say tit?’

‘It’s not a question of age. Some people can say it all their lives. Whereas you, you’ve never had enough dash.’

Don’t worry, Edward gets his own back when, during a dance with his wife at the wedding, he whispers obscenities into her ear and there’s nothing she can do about it, not that he doesn’t pay for it later.

So, yes, the wedding goes ahead. They both have their reasons. His is money. Betty is not short of a bob or two although the fact is Graham has no idea how wealthy and his wife has every intention of keeping it that way. She’s not daft—far, far from it:

She wasn’t wholly infatuated, though she liked the way he looked; but, so did he and that unfatuated her a bit. Still, she could be forgiven for thinking that her money entitled her to someone out of her own league.

Surprisingly the marriage is more of a success than either of them might’ve had a right to expect. Sex with his bride proves less of a chore than he imagined not that she succeeds in converting him and, as an occasional treat, he does go back to his old ways which is where he meets Gary or Trevor (actually Kevin) who might’ve been a lorry driver when he wasn’t being an interior decorator when he wasn’t being a rent boy when he wasn’t being a cop when he wasn’t being a blackmailer. No one is every quite what they seem but then neither was Betty who, although not entirely dissatisfied by Graham’s efforts in the bedroom, was not so satisfied that she had no time for a little bit on the side with, of all people, Graham’s dad which makes one wonder whether the ‘Mrs Forbes’ of the title might not actually be Graham’s mum rather than his wife. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t be both.

The thing about protecting our loved ones is they usually need far less shielding than we imagine; women never have been the delicate flowers we like to paint them as and it turns to Betty to extricate her husband from the pickle he’s got himself into without playing all her cards if she can avoid it.

 

The bottom line

These two tales are big on dialogue, light on action and contain virtually no descriptions; people are described by their actions rather than their physical appearances. Neither is an especially serious or profound piece, although, now I think about it, that’s Bennett doing what Bennett does best, making the indigestible somehow not only palatable but actually pleasant. With the sole exception of the blackmailer there are no bad people here and as far as bad people go the blackmailer is in a league with those criminals from days of yore, dressed a bit like Frenchmen with bags with the word ‘swag’ written on them slung over their shoulders. There’s always the possibility that things are going to get serious but what’s the worst that could happen if Mrs Donaldson and Graham are outed? Actually both are but because this is the 21st century those who do learn of their shenanigans treat them the way they ought to be treated and see no reason to embarrass either of them; all they’ve done is cope the best way they could.

Both stories are told in the third person. For most writers that means an anonymous omniscient narrator but such is the weight of Bennett’s personality that never for a moment did I imagine that anyone else was telling these stories other than Bennett himself. Jackanory excepted, can you ever imagine sitting watching someone reading you a story on the telly? The radio, yes, but the telly? And yet there are hours and hours of Bennett doing just that. Or if not him then one of his proxies. So when he slips in expressions like ''the little woman'' or ''your good lady'' that’s Bennett talking and I don’t see that we should criticise him for that. Yes, his use of tense wanders—something I’m terribly guilty of so I’m not going to be picky—but, again, I prefer to treat the slips—if, indeed, they are slips (Charles Moore in The Telegraph thinks they are; Benedict Nightingale in The New York Times is more charitable)—as Bennett slipping through which is why there are three instances at least where he, to use a theatrical term, breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly; the opening quote is one of those instances. Let me be explicit: we are not reading these stories; Alan Bennett is telling us these stories.

If the stories are a little cold—and they are—this is wholly due to Bennett’s characteristic delivery which can be a bit deadpan at times, a legacy of his Yorkshire upbringing. He is a reserved storyteller and so anyone looking for graphic depictions of acts of sexual congress will be sadly disappointed. Just as incontinence is called ''a little accident'' so direct, honest descriptions of who is doing what to whom are non-existent. Smut is a good title for this pairing—you can’t really call two stories a collection, can you?—because it’s a euphemistic expression and I can think of so many of these that my parents would’ve used like “women’s troubles” or “waterworks”. We don’t need everything spelled out. All I need to think of is my dad trying to tell someone the plot of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the voice in this book makes complete sense to me.

Picador coverIs this Bennett at his best? Probably not but he’s another one like Woody Allen: even a ‘bad’ Woody Allen film is better than most people’s others and the same goes for Alan Bennett. Unlike some stories I’ve read of late the stories don’t hinge on the surprises and much pleasure can be gleaned from subsequent rereading. The satire’s not biting but it’s still there, nibbling away at our preconceptions and showing us just how farcical life can still be.

One last word: kudos to Picador for incorporating some of Christopher Silas Neal’s great "cupping" sketch ideas into their cover. Very clever and so appropriate. The Faber and Faber edition—the one I read—with its keyhole cover felt a bit flat after seeing it, although I did like it’s size, a bit smaller than your standard paperback.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Rue End Street


Rue End Street
I’ve had enough of grown-ups lying or not telling me the truth. I’m twelve years old. I can milk cows, for heaven’s sake. – Sue Reid Sexton, Rue End Street


CONTAINS SPOILERS

Sequels are a tricky business. It’s easy to see their appeal, both from an author’s perspective and a reader’s, but they’re fraught with dangers. With a standalone novel there’s little basis for expectations, whatever the blurb says and we all know how misleading blurbs can be. You might wonder if the book might go this way and that—especially if, as the case here, it’s a work of historical fiction—but that’s about it. Sue’s first novel was Mavis’s Shoe—you can read my review here—which dealt with the Clydebank Blitz as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old girl called Lenny Gillespie. Of course there’re people still alive who lived through these events—in some respects they’re the book’s target audience (well, primary audience)—and so the first job Sue was faced with was getting her facts straight because there’s nothing a reader of historical novels loves more than being able to say, “Oh, no, the door was actually olive green, not pine green.” I’m sure they do it unconsciously but they do do it.

I went to the Clydebank book release event on Wednesday 25th of June and it was interesting hearing Sue talk about how much research went into this book—she talked to survivors and visited places—and it’s impossible not to admire the dedication that these authors put into trying at least to get their facts straight. Not that she’s obsessive about it. In one of the endnotes to Rue End Street Sue mentions the paper mill at Overton:
The paper mill … actually closed in 1929 and the buildings were partially destroyed in 1939. I was working from an older map and did not discover this fact until that part of the book was written. It was so spectacular a spot for such an important moment, as visitors to Loch Thom will know, that it just had to stay in.
And I agree with her although to my mind the particular encounter that takes place there was so intimate that it could’ve happened anywhere; everything disappears around them; it’s just the two people involved. But this is me jumping way ahead of myself.

Mavis Shoe[4]Sue says she’d no plans to write a sequel to Mavis’s Shoe but people wanted more and so she started to wonder what might satisfy them. Because she would now be writing for an audience with genuine expectations and in many cases a real fondness for the characters involved. I was quite touched at the reading when Sue apologised for having to kill off Mr Tait at the start of the book because it was clear that some in the audience had developed a soft spot for the character, but as she said, “He had to go.” Of course he didn’t have to go—the guy could’ve lapsed into a coma and woken up at the end of the book—but I’d probably have killed him off too. Cleaner.

The big question—and one she clearly wrestled with for some time—was what to do with Lenny. Sue’s solution was an intriguing one, partly obvious, partly inspired. Whereas in the first book Lenny’s searching for her sister, in the sequel we have her searching for her dad. Because that’s what people really want from a sequel: the same but different. Only as the book progresses what she ends up searching for is not so much her dad but the truth about her dad. It turns out her dad was not the man she thought he was but then who’s dad is? There comes a point in every kid’s life—and about twelve is as good an age as any (that’s exactly when it happened to me)—when the scales fall off your eyes and you become aware that your dad’s merely a man with faults and flaws:
I pictured Mr Tait in his brown suit standing there with me admiring the view and what he’d say. ‘Your dad’s your dad,’ he’d say, ‘whatever kind of man he is.’
Mr Tait may be “D-E-A-D dead” but he’s not gone. Not by a long chalk. He’s a constant source of encouragement and strength to Lenny as she heads off in her search for the truth. Of course he’s only a voice in her head but his importance as a character can’t be overstated. Everyone uses him as a touchstone. Even in death he’s still a key figure.

So, how to start the ball rolling? In the opening chapter Mr Tait’s ill. In fact he’s dying. Lenny is in attendance and he calls her over:
        ‘Lenny,’ whispered Mr Tait.
         ‘Yes, Mr Tait.’
        He raised a hand from his lap to indicate I should come closer.
        Ordinarily I love the batter of the rain on the roof and the wind whipping the corners of our home, because it’s home and it’s cosy inside and we’re all in there together, but that day it was so stormy, and with the wind roaring through the trees around us, I couldn’t hear a word Mr Tait was saying. His voice was always soft and gentle but somehow you could always hear it no matter what. That afternoon he was so weak I couldn’t make anything out at all, so I put my finger in one ear and the other ear right up close to his mouth and waited. I felt his breath on my neck and the dryness of his lips brushed against my ears like autumn leaves. These were things I hadn’t felt before because Mr Tait was never one to show affection by touching. He’d only to call me ‘my dear’ and then I’d know he was the best friend I could ever have.
         ‘My dear,’ he whispered, and then he coughed again and I had to get out of the way. He sounded like little farthings rattling in a collection box [farthings were still legal tender until 1960], and when he’d finished he was like the wheeze of the fire. He waited a moment, then gave a little nod to indicate I should put my ear back up close. I was scared, I don’t mind saying so, but I always did what Mr Tait told me, usually. I heard him say ‘don’t touch’ and ‘cup’ and ‘keep girls away’ and ‘mum back’ and ‘Barney’. Then he sighed and I could hear his breathing like the fire again. After a minute he went on. ‘Your dad,’ he said, and ‘not far’ and ‘find’ and ‘under bed’. This surprised me because no-one hardly ever talked about my dad. My dad was a complete no-no as far as conversation was concerned. Although we didn’t know where he was and everyone thought he was ‘missing presumed dead.’ I was absolutely certain he wasn’t under the bed.
She does, however, look later, just to be sure, although not seriously and that’s the last Mr Tait ever says to her. We learn he’s been suffering from TB and pneumonia and dies shortly afterwards which leaves the family with a few problems, the whereabouts of Lenny’s dad being the least of them. As the mother's income is starting to dry up this means the family has to move back to Clydebank but Lenny, being Lenny, decides school can wait and tries to find work so she can help out but the inevitable happens and one day she comes home to find everyone’s moved and she’s expected to pack up her own stuff and follow; a note with their new address has been left. Lenny, being Lenny (which is an expression that could preface practically any sentence about the girl) has her own plans and top of her list is: Find Dad.

As far as she’d aware her dad—also called Lenny Gillespie (at least that’s what she’d always believed)—was a soldier and off fighting the Nazis in some foreign country. But she learns quickly that’s not the case. He had been to war but on June 10th 1940 everything changed. That was the date the Italians entered the war and allied themselves with Germany. So what’s that got to do with Lenny’s dad? Well, quite a lot: she suddenly gets it into her head that her dad might be an Italian or at least have been mistaken for an Italian. But how was that possible? He came from Hull? Overnight all Italians resident in the UK—including those fighting in the armed forces—are declared enemy aliens and potential fifth columnists. Thousands were arrested and shipped off to internment camps. In England most went to the Isle of Man but in Scotland—fortuitously for Sue’s book—three of the camps were reasonably close to Clydebank: Blairvadoch Camp, Rhu, Helensburgh, Stuckenduff Camp, Shanden, Helensburgh and there was a third at Whistlefield. (You can read an interesting article about them here.) This is where Lenny believes her dad is and so sets off to find him, not quite sure why she needs to find him but hoping against hope that in doing so she’s find the answer to her family’s problems. If she’d thought things through she’d have realised the folly of her course of action but she’s twelve (and she’s Lenny) and so off she goes half-cocked.

One of the reasons Sue was drawn to write her first book was that so little was known about the bombing of Clydebank. London and Coventry were still alive in the public consciousness but poor old Clydebank was in danger of being forgotten. Another historical fact—and one that people are more than happy to forget—is how the foreign nationals were treated during the war so this was a most worthwhile subject for a novel.

At its heart Rue End Street is plotted as a mystery novel with all the necessary coincidences, contrivances and conveniences in place to get the hero where she needs to be albeit usually by an unnecessarily convoluted route. This is the book’s Loose_lips_might_sink_shipsweakness although to be fair this is the weakness of all mystery novels. A typical example is the going by the matchbook trope. Lenny needs information and assistance and she invariably gets what she needs when she needs it. To Sue’s credit not everyone the girl encounters is helpful—this is wartime and sharing information, even with twelve-year-old girls, is frowned upon (Loose lips sink ships)—but, for my tastes, things still come a little too easily to her. Most readers won’t notice or care because it’s necessary for her to get where she’s going and as long as what or who assists her could have happened—it’s not as if Mr Tait appears to her in a dream and provides map coordinates or anything—then they’re willing to buy into it. Also it was a different time and even now Scots are—at least in the Greater Glasgow area—friendly, helpful and non-judgemental. So when Lenny’s trying to cross the Clyde without the requisite pass—not enough to have a ticket back then—for an adult who she’s never met before to step up and pretend to be a relative isn’t such a stretch.

Like most mystery novels this is also a quest and if Sue had decided to pitch this book to kids or young adults then a title like The Quest for Lenny’s Dad would’ve been a perfect title. Having a twelve-year-old narrate does create its own problems because obviously Lenny has limited insight and life experience. She doesn’t, for example, realise that she’s starting to be attracted to boys “in that way” and although she has some ideas about sex she’s far more innocent than any twelve-year-old would be today. So there are times when this feels like a book aimed for older children and young adults—although Sue, during the Q+A that followed her reading said that wasn’t the case—and, as such, I found the book a lighter read than I prefer; I read the 421 pages over three days and didn’t feel I was stretching myself. It reminded me of books like Reinhardt Jung’s Dreaming in Black and White and Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed, books specifically aimed at a younger audience but that doesn’t mean that older readers—and I’m thinking especially of readers who remember World War II and probably aren’t big readers—won’t enjoy it. It was obvious from the audience reaction at the reading—which was clearly a larger turnout that they’d been expecting and extra seats were needed—that a number had fallen in love with Lenny on reading Mavis’s Shoe

Which leads me to the question: Do I have to read Mavis’s Shoe first? I would say, yes. Sue does do her best to bring us up to speed but really she’s just reminding those who’ve read the first book of the important details and not providing a detailed backstory for newbies. You could read it on its own and it would work but—and, of course, there’s no way I can tell because I have read Mavis’s Shoe—I don’t think it stands as well on its own as the first book did. This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation. I’m sure many people who came to Mavis’s Shoe were interested in the Clydebank Blitz. Those who continue will do so less because of the book’s historical setting and more because Lenny’s impressed herself on them. She’s a compelling protagonist and it’s not hard to root for her.

Of course you hope she’s going to find her dad. But it’s the truth—or, to be honest, the truths—about her dad that are uncovered along the way that raise the standard of this book; the more Lenny finds out as she follows the clues the more she starts to wonder about the man she’s looking for and if she even wants to find him.

I’m sure there will be those who want to know what happens to Lenny next and I’ve no doubt that if she were to find herself in another novel by Sue Reid Sexton it would be fun to see what happens to her. Personally I’d rather see this as the end to her story. The two books form a nice arc. Quit while you’re ahead. That would be my advice.

One interesting point: Rue End Street was simultaneously published in Braille. You can read more about that on the Royal Blind website.

***
Sue Reid Sexton
Sue Reid Sexton is a writer of fiction, including novels, short stories and poetry. She was also a psychotherapist and counsellor for ten years, specialising in trauma, and before that she was a social worker in homelessness and mental health for another ten years. Now she dedicates herself to writing fiction and is an active member of Scottish PEN.

She’s interested in the use of writing for health, as a way of understanding the self, for exploring experience, for sustaining identity and enabling the coming to terms with change. This is in addition to creative writing as art. She’s also interested in working with all groups but in particular those who might use groups or writing workshops for those reasons (and many more).
 
Further reading

Italians in Britain
The internment of an Italian from Glasgow
POW Camp Summary WWII (Scottish camps only)
Anti-Italian Riots (an extract from the book The Internment of Aliens in Twentieth Century Britain)
 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Depth


basement-cat-dark-eyes-Scary

Very deep. You should send that in to the Reader's Digest. They've got a page for people like you. ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy







One of the last things my first wife said to me before she walked out the door was, “You know, you’re not deep. You think you are but you’re not.” That hurt me more than her leaving me. To this day, some thirty years later, it still stings. The fact is she was right—I wasn’t nearly as deep as I thought I was (what twenty-odd-year-old is?)—but I was (and continue to be) terribly interested in deep things. What exactly ‘depth’ is, though, is not an easy thing to define. It isn’t the same as complex or difficult. It can be couched in the simplest of language even—merely look at the parables of Jesus or the haiku of Bashō—but it usually takes you to places where language struggles and as much as I love words and endeavour to translate everything into words, I am, nevertheless, painfully aware of their limitations. That was in September 1982. A few weeks before the breakup—prophetically, one might say— I wrote this poem:

A MARRIAGE

One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.
wedding-rings
No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.


27 June 1982

Is it deep? Who knows? I’m pretty sure by that time I’d stopped sharing my writing anyway. Twelve years later I had another woman in my life for whom I wrote this

THE POWER OF LOVE

(for Jeanette)

Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.

Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.

heartLove to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.


12 June 1994

There are many kinds of love. Reducing any one of them to four letters only does it a disservice. Is it deep? It aspires to be because it aims to take the reader beyond the words on the page. That said if you’re fourteen and never been in love can you possibly hope to get it? I’m fifty-four and still not sure I understand love but I can measure its effects on me and others. I didn’t love my first wife. I thought I did but the truth was I lusted after her and once sex stopped being enough we both could see what little there was holding us together. Clearly not enough.

Jumping forward twenty-three years:

BORROWED KNOWLEDGE

As a child
          I knew I knew everything.
No one believed me
          and over time I
          forgot most of it.

When a man
I thought I knew many things.
          I knew of many things
          and I believed
          the things I knew were mine.

Now, of course,
          I've grown old and it is clear
          to me I knew nothing.
It is the one
          thing that I know for sure.

Two plus two
10207328-blackboard-with-2-2-4-written-on-it          is not mine, nor the capital
          of Venezuela,
          nor the reasons
          I'm all alone tonight.


02 October 2007

I wasn’t alone when I wrote it—poetic licence—but it makes its point well enough. It was important for me to be considered deep when I was twenty. Not so much now although I still enjoy wallowing in the depths of another’s imagination.

There is a test for intellectual depth. I found it here. My result was:

Your Functional Intelligence Score... 66

Needless to say I take the result with a pinch of salt.

There’s an interesting conversation over on TED. The topic under discussion is: Is everyone capable of deep intellectual thought? A few selected comments:

Ann Chovie: Everyone is capable of abstract thinking, but I don't believe that everyone is an adept abstract thinker capable of carrying out the "deep intellectual thought" that you are referring to. In the same way that some people are highly proficient at retaining information while others are less so, some people are better at understanding and synthesising abstract ideas. Everyone has the ability to memorise information, but some people are more proficient at it than others. One student may spend a week memorising the material for an exam, while another may only spend one day retaining that same amount of information.

[…]

Synthesising a new idea is one thing, but to articulate that idea in a coherent and succinct manner is a challenge within itself, and is essential to demonstrating that you have the ability to think abstractly in the first place.

Gisela McKay: Deep thinking requires not only the mental faculty, but also the curiosity and drive to understand.

Dan Goddard: This opinion does not preclude intelligent people—as many of the people I know who are like this are quite intelligent, but they do not have the patience for introspection nor to spend time to think deeper than how to solve the next challenge with shallow shot-gun blast of suggestions that will possibly hit the mark. We are each born with our own disposition, thought processes, and communication patterns. People born with this disposition are not deep thinkers with respect to the aforementioned assumption of what "deep thought" means here.

[…]

I believe that not all people are capable of "deep thought" as understood by (as an assumption) most people reading this thread. Why I believe this is because, "deep thought" in this context requires observation, consideration, introspection and time in thought. I have known many people incapable of prolonged introspection – most of the information that flows through their lives, flows in an outward direction, diluted in accuracy and potency by whatever multiple the original input was multiplied by.

My brother’s never been a deep thinker. He doesn’t like grey areas—he said this to me once in so many words—which is why he returned to the religion we were brought up in following a not atypical bout of losing his way as a young man. He likes the black-and-whiteness of that particular faith: this is right; that is wrong; end of story. He doesn’t question things whereas I question everything. Articulating the answers I come up with is the real challenge. Framing questions is always so much easier: Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is love? My mother’s answers would’ve been: Yes; It depends and Read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. She was also not a deep thinker. My dad tried but he wasn’t a clever man and so struggled to express his conclusions at times but, especially in later life, he would sit alone and in silence for hours on end just pondering.

A caveman could think about the sun all day long and get nowhere. Nowadays school kids know all about the sun, even the not very bright ones, but that doesn’t make them deep thinkers, not by a long chalk. Besides what they don’t know they can easily google.

Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for drowning_in_information_thumb_200x9999wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

And this much about wisdom: In the long haul, civilized nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole. In thus globalizing the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind's noblest and most enduring goals. The most important questions in this endeavour for the liberal arts are the meaning and purpose of all our idiosyncratic frenetic activity: What are we, Where do we come from, How shall we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltation, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. […] Western philosophy offers no promising substitute. – E.O. Wilson, Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge, p.294 (bold mine)

Before I became a writer I was a thinker and I’d like to think I was a deep thinker even if I wasn’t always a deep person. The writing is a means to an end. It’s a record of my thought processes, the poetry especially. When I pick up my big red folder and flick though the hundreds of poems within it I can trace those thought processes over decades. I don’t pretend to be a wise man but I am an intelligent one and one who’s interested in things. Not everything—no one has the time to take an interest in everything—and so I specialise, but not to an extreme; the creative mind needs to draw on all kinds of random stuff; truly deep thought requires a certain amount of breadth. Words, in particular, especially fascinate me.

Take ‘consilience’. Consilience is an interesting word:

In science and history, consilience (also convergence of evidence or concordance of evidence) refers to the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can "converge" to strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence are very strong on their own. Most established scientific knowledge is supported by a convergence of evidence: if not, the evidence is comparatively weak, and there will not likely be a strong scientific consensus. – Wikipedia

This makes total sense to me as a writer particularly when I look back on the various sources of ideas that find expression in a single work, especially a novel. The principle of consilience is based on the unity of knowledge thesis:

Even though, for example, physics and politics are distinct disciplines, the thesis of the unity of science says that in principle they must be part of a unified intellectual endeavour, science. The unity of science thesis is usually associated with the view of levels of organization in nature, where physics is the most basic, chemistry the level above physics, biology above chemistry, sociology above biology, and so forth. Further, cells, organisms, and cultures are all biological, but they represent three different levels of biological organization. – Wikipedia

Knowledge is a stepping stone: it builds on information and leads through understanding to insight and wisdom. Everything is connected... if only via Kevin Bacon.

GoveApparently back in 2010 Education Secretary Michael Gove spoke of his desire to see "a revival of the art of deep thought". He was talking about the government’s plans for A-Levels—“fewer modules and more exams”—but he never really explained what he meant by the “deep thought” although I suspect he was hoping to see pupils leaving schools—pupils who had understood what they’d learned and not simply excelled at remembering and regurgitating facts; merely getting good grades should not be seen as the end purpose of eleven or twelve years of schooling. In his article commenting on what Gove said—and what he might have meant— Julian Baggini writes:

Intellectual nostalgia is no less perniciously revisionist than the other varieties. Deep thought requires reinvention, not revival. To the noble traditions of slow thought, we need to add the best the fast-paced information age can offer. We need to balance breadth and depth, so that what is valued is the volume of wisdom in the lake, not just its reach at its deepest point. To do this we must look forwards, backwards and sideways.

Of course now we have another term to mull over: slow thought.

On slowthought.net Ladislaus Horatius makes an important point:

We care about (or at least talk a lot about) quality of food, water and air. Thoughts contain just as much life, vitality, bacteria and poisons as water. From the seeds of thought our lives are born. They are the bricks with which we build our world. Thoughts need to be treated with care.

And on slowthoughtmovement.com:

The Slow Thought Movement is a peaceful revolution in the way we think. It is about stepping away from the borrowed, second-hand thinking of our times and moving towards original, first-hand thinking.

Slow Thought is thought that comes directly from you.

It comes straight from the realm of your own experience.

Slow Thought embodies a conscious renunciation of borrowed ideas.

Slow Thinkers spend most of their time, if not all, in the realm of experience. When asked how they feel, Slow Thinkers don’t speculate about it. They jump right into their feelings and let their experiences do the talking for them.

Slow Thinking gives greater importance to the phenomena and far less to the content of one’s thoughts. That is why Slow Thought is open to the wisdom of the unconscious mind. Slow Thinkers recognize that what you think you know is often irrelevant. Your conscious is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg.

Since there’s nothing new under the sun I’m not sure we can get by without borrowed ideas but we can adapt them, use them as a jumping-off point: we wouldn’t have the cog if no one first invented the wheel.

I think all writers should be slow thinkers. I know there are plenty who aren’t; in fact this article sprang from a comment I made on a friend’s site in response to his confession that he wasn’t a deep thinker. I think he’s deeper than he gives himself credit for, but he’s also a very different writer to me. He’s a storyteller and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense but that is what he does and that’s what many writers do. Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived the last four years of his life in Samoa, was apparently honoured with the title Tusitala (Tusitala is the Polynesian word for storyteller) and no one would suggest that he’s not a great writer and that his stories don’t have depth so it’s perfectly feasible to do both. I’m not, however, a storyteller. One of my rules of writing is: A story doesn’t need a plot but it does need a point. In some stories the point comes at the end, e.g. the moral in an Aesop’s fables—but not always. At some point in the process of reading you’ll hit a bit—maybe the scene early on in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby is caught looking out at the green light—and connect with it. In all my novels there’s been such a moment when I’ve suddenly realised what I was writing about. The role of the unconscious in writing should never be sniffed at. All he does is think. He does most of your thinking for you. If anyone is the deep thinker he is. While your conscious mind is distracted steering your car, or fiddling in your tax return, or trying to get to second base with some girl, he’s sifting through all the tons and tons of raw data trying to make connections.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThere is a danger though. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman

…presents our thinking process as consisting of two systems. System 1 (Thinking Fast) is unconscious, intuitive and effort-free. System 2 (Thinking Slow) is conscious, uses deductive reasoning and is an awful lot of work. System 2 likes to think it is in charge but it’s really the irrepressible System 1 that runs the show. There is simply too much going on in our lives for System 2 to analyse everything. System 2 has to pick its moments with care; it is “lazy” out of necessity. – William Easterly, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Financial Times, 5 November 2011

As you can see his definitions differ from the ones above. The danger of what Kahneman describes as Thinking Fast is that the brain has a tendency to jump to obvious conclusions. Anyone who’s sat a word association test will testify to that. But not always and this is why we need the conscious mind to pounce, like any good psychologist would, on the unexpected associations. That can happen very quickly. I can get an idea and have a poem written, printed out and ready to hand to my wife for her stamp of approval in five minutes BUT—and it’s an important ‘but’—that’s just the writing down bit. Writing should not be confused with transcription. Converting all the stuff into your head into words is the easy bit. The slow cooking of ideas can have been going on for years. I get writing ideas constantly, dozens every day. I only bite rarely. They’re writing prompts, plain and simple. I know a lot of people online like the idea of prompts but, personally, I don’t do my best work when I sit down to work on the wrong thing at the wrong time and that’s how I feel about most prompts. But then a friend writes a blog to say he’s got terminal cancer and suddenly I have a poem drafted, and not a bad poem it turned out to be, whereas the one I tried to write when another friend’s mother died is still unfinished and I may never be happy with it.

Here’s another Polynesian word for you: po. I found it in an article on, well, ‘po’ actually which I found from a list in Wikipedia of thought processes:

A "po" is an idea which moves thinking forward to a new place from where new ideas or solutions may be found. The term was created by Edward de Bono as part of a lateral thinking technique to suggest forward movement, that is, making a statement and seeing where it leads to. It is an extraction from words such as hypothesis, suppose, possible and poetry, all of which indicate forward movement and contain the syllable "po." Po can be taken to refer to any of the following: provoking operation, provocative operation or provocation operation. Also, in ancient Polynesian and Maori, the word "po" refers to the original chaotic state of formlessness, from which evolution occurred. Edward de Bono argues that this context as well applies to the term. – Wikipedia

Of course the word ‘po’—in both cases—is a manmade expression. I’m not big on neologisms in my poetry but I can see why some writers might be attracted to them. Every word was new once upon a time. When I think of po I think of ‘possible’. (Actually I hear Muskie Muskrat going, “It's possible....it's possible.”) A poet’s brain never says, “No.” Give it two ideas no matter how far apart and it will—as in the Kevin Bacon game—try to find a connection:

As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. – Comte de Lautréamont AKA Isidore Lucien Ducasse

You see how it works. Who wudda thunk that when I mentioned Kevin Bacon earlier or found that Polynesian word that I’d be able to connect them later in the text? I’m not saying it’s deep but it’s what happens when we write. All the stuff churns up in our head and connections we never imagined start to appear. And sometimes; sometimes we astound ourselves with the sense we make. There are poems I can look at and I marvel at what I’ve written. Where the hell did that insight come from?

It’s now 2014, thirty-two years since my first wife left me and I do have to wonder: Am … I … deep? I’m older. I’m better read. I’m more experienced. I’ve made a helluva lot more mistakes. But am I deep? I look into myself and what do I see? Let me leave you with one final poem:

BIRDS, MEN AND SUPERMEN

He took his time –
like walking the plank –
and once he found that

he had reached the
end of feeling he
stood and peered into

the abyss whilst
something in the dark
stared straight back at him.

Then in the dim
distance he noticed –
what could it be now? –

an island!
                Birds
fly because they think
they can and belief

dark-mouthis a very
powerful force. So
without a second

thought or even
a backwards glance he
leapt into the void.

The something in
the abyss gasped or
yawned or it might have

simply opened
its mouth and waited.


11 February 2013

Deep? Right?

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Book of Unknown Americans


Unknown Americans

I don’t need anyone’s pity. My life has been what it has been. It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s mine. – Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans




How to tell a story: Well, you begin at the beginning and work your way towards the end. Easy. Few stories, however, are as straightforward as they first appear. On the surface The Book of Unknown Americans tells a simple enough story: Arturo Rivera relocates his family from Mexico to the United States so his fifteen-year-old daughter, who sustained a brain injury whilst helping him out on his construction site, can go to a special school.

We had been planning our life here for so long. Filling out papers, hoping, praying, waiting. We had all of our dreams pinned on this place, but the pin was thin and delicate and it was too soon to tell whether it was stronger than it looked or whether, in the end, it wasn’t going to hold much of anything at all.

When they arrive in Delaware (where Cristina Henríquez was born) the girl, Maribel, meets Mayor Toro whose family is from Panama and are well-settled in the States now and it’s love at first sight. Of course the course of true love never runs smoothly and so as life throws obstacle after obstacle in front of them the big question is: Will they beat the odds? It has all the makings of a fairly decent YA novel and, indeed, this is a book that will appeal to a wide age range but it’s better than that. In an interview Cristina talks about the origins of the book:

The novel actually started as a short story told from Mayor’s point of view. Mayor is an outsider in some ways—the kids at school tease him for being a nerd and for being a Pan, which is their slur for Panamanian (and which was the slur used against me when I was in high school); he’s uncoordinated, which makes him a disappointment to his father, who has dreams of him being a soccer star; he only has one real friend; he’s never been with a girl. I thought it would be interesting to pair him with a someone, Maribel, who is an outsider in her own ways, ways very different from his. She’s new to the United States, she doesn’t speak English, and … she has recently suffered a brain injury, which has completely removed her from any normal teenage experience. What might two people like that find in each other? What might they give each other? The fact that it’s a first love for both of them only ups the ante—Mayor feels with absolute conviction that he would do anything for Maribel, but when he does attempt a grand gesture, it’s terribly misguided. The consequences of that gesture alter the fates of all the characters.

What makes the book rise head and shoulders above most love stories is the storytelling because rather than opt for your bog-standard omniscient narrator Cristina has two first-person narrators: Mayor and Alma, Maribel’s mother and so we get to see events from two separate (and very different) perspectives which is unusual and takes a little getting used to at first because you expect the narrative to move chronologically from chapter to chapter and it doesn’t always; sometimes we step back and relive events from the other person’s point of view. But here’s the clever bit: every third chapter the narration is handed over to someone else completely. In chapter 3 it’s Rafael Toro; in chapter 6, Benny Quinto; chapter 9, Gustavo Milhojas; chapter 12, Quisqueya Solís; chapter 18, Nelia Zafón; chapter 24, Micho Alvarez and finally the last word goes to Arturo Rivera himself. This gives the novel the feel of a documentary. The ‘camera’ shifts and they each get a few pages to tell their story before we go back to our love story. It’s a novel and refreshing way of providing us with the bigger picture. And it works. It’s like having half a dozen short stories interspersed throughout the novel. Clever and effective.

I have to wonder what The Book of Unknown Brits would read like. We know—mainly from TV dramas—that in America most of the low-paid jobs go to ethnic minorities. Most New York City taxi drivers, for example, are Indian, Middle Eastern or African these days; if they decided to remake Taxi it would be a very different show. In Scotland 96% of the population is white. In the USA the non-Hispanic White percentage was 63% in 2012 and non-Hispanic Whites are the still the majority in forty-six states; Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, and the District of Columbia are, however, the exceptions. These five jurisdictions have "minority majorities", i.e. minority groups are the majority populations. As a kid I was only ever aware of two ethnic minorities, the Chinese and the Indians (who all worked in restaurants) and that was it. I was a teenager before I met my first black man and even he wasn’t especially black. Now things are changing. The number of foreign-born citizens working in the UK has increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to more than 6 million in 2012.

There was a significant jump in the number of foreign-born workers in the UK during 2006, which coincides with the opening of UK labour markets to workers from the A8 countries … in mid-2004. – Dr Cinzia Rienzo, ‘Migrants in the UK Market: An Overview’, The Migration Observatory, 28 September 2013

flukys-polish-sausageI wonder how different their stories would be to the ones in Cristina’s book. Probably not very. I’ve included these details about the UK because I imagine this book is far more relevant to us here than it ever has been before. Instead of Mexicans we have Poles, instead of Venezuelans we have Romanians, instead of Puerto Ricans we have Estonians, instead of Guatemalans we have Latvians, instead of Nicaraguans we have Bulgarians, instead of Columbians we have Hungarians, instead of Panamanians we have Slovakians, and instead of Paraguayans we have Czechs. What do we know of any of these cultures? Oh, we have new weird-looking sausages in Tesco—must try those.

Of course we’re not bigoted—being bigoted is bad—but we are ignorant. There’s a scene in The Book of Unknown Americans that really hits the nail on the head:

        We rode the bus to midnight Mass with the Riveras, although Enrique sat all the way in the back, plugged in to his iPod, so it was basically like he wasn’t even there. The bus driver tuned the radio to the all-Christmas-music station, and when “Feliz Navidad” came on, I guess since we were the only people on the bus, he raised the volume and shouted back at us, “Here you go! A little piece of home for you!”
        Under his breath, my dad said, “Every year the same thing. If it’s in Spanish, it’s a piece of home. Well, I never heard this song until I came to the United States.”
         “And every year, you complain,” my mom said.
         “You like this song?”
         “No.”
         “It’s like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don’t even eat tacos in Panamá!” my dad said.
         “That’s right. We eat chicken and rice,” my mom said.
         “And seafood. Corvina as fresh as God makes it.”

‘Feliz Navidad’ is a Christmas song written in 1970 by the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano. Oh, wait, I know José Feliciano but how many other Puerto Ricans can you name? It’s like Nelia Zafón says:

Rita MorenoThe world already had its Rita Moreno, I guess, and there was only room for one Boricua at a time. That’s how it works. Americans can handle one person from anywhere. They had Desi Arnaz from Cuba. And Tin-Tan from México. And Rita Moreno from Puerto Rico. But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people.

I guess José Feliciano took over after Rita Moreno retired. I suppose Ricky Martin will be up next.

This is a surprisingly-optimistic novel. I didn’t expect it to be. I thought it would be all about oppression and prejudice and, yes, there’s some of that here but since the story is told entirely from the point of view of immigrants it’s flavoured by their world view. This line jumped out at me:

Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.

Are all immigrants inveterate optimists at heart? It would seem so if this book is to be believed and I found that a little hard to swallow. It smacked a little of propaganda. In every community there’s always someone who’s going to let the side down and yet I didn’t see anyone here who wasn’t fundamentally law-abiding, decent and hardworking which, I agree, most people are. Like Nelia Zafón. This is how her story begins:

I am Boricua loud and proud, born and raised in Puerto Rico until I told my mami in 1964, the year I turned seventeen, that I wanted to live in New York City and dance on Broadway. My mami put up one hell of a fight. You are only seventeen! You don’t have any money! ¡Estás más perdido que un juey bizco! All of that. But I had a dream that I was going to be the next Rita Moreno. I was going to be a star. I told my mami, You can look for me in the movies! And I left.

Needless to say her dreams don’t come true, at least not the ones she had when she was seventeen:

I worked like crazy. I practiced dancing until my feet bled and my knees felt like water balloons. I rubbed Vicks into my cracked heels and took so many hot baths I lost count. I went to a voice coach and sang until my throat was raw. I killed myself, but it never happened for me.

[…]

But I’m a fighter. You get me against the ropes and I will swing so hard—bam! So I thought, well, if I’m not going to find it, then there’s only one other option: I will create it.

She decides to go it alone, to set up her own theatre company. Hence the move from New York: “taxes for new businesses were lowest in Delaware”.

Now, twenty years later, I still run the Parish Theatre. We do just one production a week. I act in them sometimes, but the real pleasure for me now is giving roles to other actors, watching them perform, especially the young ones.

[…]

A few months ago I met a man who came to the theatre. He’s younger than me, a gringo, an attorney, so young and handsome. ¡Cielos! We have almost nothing in common, but somehow we’re a good fit with each other. He makes me laugh. How can I explain it? He has a spirit. I’m fifty-three years old with wrinkles on my hands. I’ve never been married in my life, and now this. You never know what life will bring. Dios sabe lo que hace. But that’s what makes it so exciting, no? That’s what keeps me going. The possibility.

This is typical of the attitude of everyone in the book. They don’t want something for nothing. They’re willing to work even if that work involves being on their feet for ten hours at a time picking mushrooms out of dirt in a dark warehouse (which is what Arturo ends up doing). Benny Quinto flips burgers. Gustavo Milhojas has two jobs, cleaning bathrooms and movie theatres. Rafael Toro is a line cook at a diner until her loses it and ends up delivering papers in the mornings. José Mercado was a navy man but now his eyes are bad and his wife has to read to him.

These are people like you and me. Impossible for a Scot like me not to recall the words of Robert Burns:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

No one in this novel is rich; they all live in honest poverty doing the jobs no one else wants to do. And the same goes for the immigrant workers in the UK. But we’re not comfortable with them. As Micho Alvarez says:

We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?

Micho is a Mexican. The Mexicans look down on Guatemalans; they believe they’re stupid. I wonder who the Guatemalans look down on. (Apparently Spanish-speaking Guatemalans look down on the indigenous Mayan population. Thank you Google.)

The story of Mayor and Maribel is sweet. They’re both likeable characters, especially Maribel as she struggles to find herself again. We never learn exactly what’s wrong with her—doctors rarely know—but she’s was quite a character before the accident and it’s nice to see that character begin to reassert itself. Mayor’s a bit of an innocent which is perhaps why he’s attracted to Maribel in the first place and he’s as awkward as any sixteen-year-old boy I’ve known. They’re both well fleshed-out; in fact there’s hardly anyone in the book—anyone of the immigrants that is—who’s doesn’t spring to life off the page. What the book is not, however, is a soapbox. You don’t feel as if every character is a thinly-veiled Cristina Henríquez thumping on her tub. In this interview she addressed the issue:

It would be naïve of me to say I wrote a book just about immigrants and there’s nothing political about it. As has been pointed out to me in the past, it’s political to have the last name that I have. There’s nothing that’s not political.

But I wasn’t trying to take a stance one way or another, and I hopefully wasn’t betraying my own political opinions about immigration. The characters weren’t like a mouthpiece in any way, though. I really wanted to fictionalize it, imagine their lives and tell the human stories.

Someone asked me recently why I write fiction, and why I wrote this story as fiction. Why not just write a political treatise about what I really do think? Part of it has to do with the reception that it will get from readers. If you put something out there that’s overtly political and didactic, it turns so many people off. But to say that this is a love story, and a story about parents who are protecting their daughter — it’s so many things, but it also happens to be about the lives of immigrants. I think that makes it a lot more palatable. If you put it in fiction, they’re more likely to read it and perhaps think about it. The highest praise I’ve gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live. She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That’s my job. That’s my goal.

Of course it’s the 21st century and so there’s a website to go with the book: The Unknown American Project where others get an opportunity to have their say. Here the author writes:

One of my hopes for The Book of Unknown Americans was that it might tell stories people don't usually hear. And now, another hope: that we will all tell our #UnknownAmerican stories. Where did you or your family come from? What is your life like now? We'll create a chorus and make our voices known.

There weren’t many entries when I first checked but here’s how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story begins:

ChimamandaI left Nigeria to go to university in the United States [when] I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

I enjoyed this book. The writing is clear and unpretentious and suits its subject matter. On the whole, as I’ve said, it’s a little tame but that’s really my only criticism of it. And I say that even when someone gets murdered. But it does what I’m sure the author intended it to do: it opens our eyes. What we make of what we’ve seen is another thing. This book won’t change the world but I would like to see it introduced into schools because it has much to say that people who are going to shape our future need to hear.

***

628x471Cristina Henríquez’s previous books are The World in Half and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.

Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI along with the anthology This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers.

She was featured in Virginia Quarterly Review as one of “Fiction’s New Luminaries,” has been a guest on National Public Radio, and is a recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, a grant started by Sandra Cisneros in honour of her father.

Cristina earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has lived in at least seven states and is now based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and young daughter.

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