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Sunday 28 April 2013

A Tale for the Time Being


Inspiration is a happy convergence of random factors, which if you are lucky, you notice and then can use. And it helps if you have a husband who sends you interesting links! – Ruth Ozeki

This is a book about time and being, about cats—both real and figurative—and crows—both literal and mythological— about Japan and Canada and America too a little; it’s about life and death; about war and peace; about Buddhism, philosophy and quantum mechanics; about superheroes and living ghosts; about coming of age and dying with dignity; it’s about the interchangeable roles of readers and writers; about disasters both natural and manmade; it’s about family and duty, grief, honour and shame. It’s about 400 pages long but since it’s really two novels masquerading as one it’s no longer than it needs to be considering how much is packed into it; it has six appendixes and 165 footnotes and it kept me occupied and interested for a good week and despite the fact things got pretty complicated towards the end and she didn’t tie things up the way I would’ve liked (or would’ve done) I came away from the book with a sense of completeness even if every question wasn’t answered and wasn’t likely ever to be answered except in some parallel universe where all questions get answered. I mean, seriously, how did the French diary get from the pilot’s lunchbox to his remains box?

Naoko Yasutani is almost fifteen when she begins writing her story. She’s Japanese, born to Japanese parents, but has lived most of her life up in Sunnyvale, California:

[E]verything was great and we were just cruising along, except for the fact that we were living in a total dreamland called the Dot-Com Bubble, and when it burst, Dad’s company went bankrupt, and he got sacked, and we lost our visas and had to come back to Japan, which totally sucked because not only did Dad not have a job, but he’d also taken a big percentage of his big fat salary in stock options so suddenly we didn’t have any savings either, and Tokyo’s not cheap. It was a complete bust. Dad was sulking around like a jilted lover, and Mom was grim and tight and righteous, but at least they identified as Japanese and still spoke the language fluently. I, on the other hand, was totally fucked, because I identified as American, and even though we always spoke Japanese at home, my conversational skills were limited to basic, daily-life stuff like where’s my allowance, and pass the jam, and Oh please please please don’t make me leave Sunnyvale.

Hello Kitty lunchboxNao (pronounced ‘now’) tells her story in the present tense but the present tense is a bit of a bugger. You feel as if I’m talking to you in real time just now, don’t you? The fact is that I’m writing this in a flat in Scotland on March 31st. We’re in completely separate time zones and probably in different countries. So when Ruth finds Nao’s book in a Hello Kitty lunchbox on a Canadian beach several years later it’s hard for her not read Nao’s story as if the girl is talking to her in real time especially as Nao has a habit of addressing her reader directly:

Here’s a thought: If I were a Christian, you would be my God.

Don’t you see? Because the way I talk to you is the way I think some Christian people talk to God. I don’t mean praying exactly, because when you pray you usually want something, or at least that’s what Kayla said. She used to pray for stuff and then tell her parents exactly what she’d prayed for, and usually she got what she wanted. They were probably trying to make her believe in God, but I happen to know it wasn’t working.

Anyway, I don’t really think you’re God or expect you to grant me wishes or anything. I just appreciate it that I can talk to you and you’re willing to listen. But I better hurry up or I’ll never catch up to where I’m supposed to be.

She’s nothing if not chatty as you might expect any fifteen-year-old Japanese girl to be and, yes, she witters on about a lot of the things you’d expect a fifteen-year-old to go on about (although, oddly enough, not so much about boys) but she’s got more pressing concerns: the first is her suicidal dad and the second is the fact she’s being bullied at school. The Japanese attitudes towards and approaches to suicide (a major social problem in Japan – see Japan: ending the culture of the 'honourable' suicide) and what I’ve called bullying (the Japanese word for what happens to Nao is ijime—see Ijime: A Social Illness of Japan) are fascinating. Quite, quite different to what happens in the west. By the time she sits down to write her story—in a French maid fetish café in Akiba Electricity Town of all places (see Maid Cafés – The Expanding Industry in Japan)—the second issue has pretty much resolved itself but only because she stops going to school; her father is still a concern since he can’t find a job (not that he’s tried very hard) and spends all his time at home moping around, reading manga comics or making origami insects from pages of his old philosophy books.

Salvation comes in odd packages sometimes. In Nao’s case hers comes in the diminutive shape of her great-grandmother, Jiko, a one-hundred-and-four-year-old (so she says) Zen Buddhist nun. After spending her summer holiday with Jiko in her temple in Miyagi, a prefecture located in the Tohoku region in the northeastern part of Japan, Nao begins to see life in a completely different way. The prefectural home to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is located just south of Miyagi, by the way, so you see where this might be going. And that’s what Ruth wonders. Was Nao there at the time of the tsunami? Is that how her lunchbox with its precious cargo started its travels? The problem is, the dates don’t quite add up.

Ruth takes her time reading Nao’s diary. She resists the urge to rush through it and tries to read it in real time as best she can.

Of course, the entries were undated, so there was no way of really knowing how slow or fast that might have been, but there were clues: the changing hues of ink, as well as shifts in the density or angle of the handwriting, which seemed to indicate breaks in time or mood. If she studied these, she might be able to break up the diary into hypothetical intervals, and even assign numbers to them, and then pace her reading accordingly. If she sensed the girl was on a roll, she could allow herself to read further and more quickly, but if it felt like the pace of the writing was slowing down, then she would slow her reading down, too, or stop altogether. This way she wouldn’t end up with an overly compressed or accelerated sense of the girl’s life and its unfolding, nor would she run the risk of wasting too much time. She would be able to balance her reading of the diary with all the work she still needed to do on her own memoir.

a67The diary isn’t the only thing the lunchbox contains. There’s also a watch, some letters in Japanese and a diary-of-sorts in French. In the breaks from reading she ropes in some of her neighbours to help with the translations; she lives on a remote island in the middle of Desolation Sound, British Columbia where everyone knows everyone’s business. Benoit, who worked at the local dump, takes on the challenge of the French diary; Kimi, the wife of a restaurateur in the nearest town of any size to where Ruth and her husband live, says she’ll translate the letters. Everyone’s keen to know what’s going on and try as she might she simply can’t keep her discovery a secret. Her own writing is not going well, though. She’s been trying to work on a memoir but can’t make any progress especially now she has this distraction.

She trawls through the Internet for information but there is precious little. Nothing on Nao at all—surprising although a possible explanation is provided near the end of the book—and then an unexpected discovery:

The website belonged to a professor of psychology at Stanford University, a Dr. Rongstad Leistiko. Dr. Leistiko was doing research on first-person narratives of suicide and self-killing. He had posted an excerpt from a letter, written to him by one of his informants, a man by the name of “Harry.”

Nao’s father was named Haruki Yasutani. He’d been a Japanese computer engineer who once lived in Sunnyvale, California, and worked in Silicon Valley during the dot-com days. Could this be the same man? Suddenly she realises that there might be a way of getting in touch with Nao and she writes an urgent e-mail to the professor. Why urgent? Because Nao has been talking about killing herself and Ruth is so caught up in the present tense of Nao’s narrative that the slippage of time in the real Large_billed_Crow_I_IMG_0965world has quite bypassed her and it’s not until her husband points this out that she’s brought crashing down to reality with a thud. Perhaps both Nao and her father are long dead, if not by their own hands then as a result of the tsunami. Or maybe not. A bit like Schrödinger’s cat. If she reads on she’ll find out one way or the other. And you’d think a woman with a cat called Schrödinger would know that; that said the cat’s been referred to as ‘the Pest’ for so long (or ‘Pesto’ if they’re feeling affectionate) that she’s probably forgotten that. Then again how come there’s a Japanese Jungle Crow sitting outside her house? What’s he after?

The book is a work of metafiction. Saying that is enough to put people off reading your book—I know that from personal experience—but writers will love this book. In an interview in The Guardian Ruth Ozeki was asked:

Nao's diary is described as a "message in a bottle". Is the fictional author Ruth's discovery of the diary a metaphor for how a story is born?

That's exactly right. As a writer you wait around for inspiration; this book is about what happens when a character taps a writer on the shoulder and calls her into being; it's about the character creating a novelist. – Anita Sethi, ‘Ruth Ozeki: “This book is about the character creating a novelist”’, The Guardian, 7 March 2013

There are a lot of biographical elements in the book: like Ruth, Ruth Ozeki lives on an island in British Columbia; like Nao, she’s a Japanese-American writer who did experience a cultural shock when she went to Japan herself; like Jiko, she’s a Zen Buddhist priest and from the way she describes him in interview her husband (the artist Oliver Kellhammer) sounds not unlike Ruth’s Oliver. And they also have a cat. All of this kind of stuff is familiar ground if you’re a writer yourself. What probably you’ll find harder to relate to is the fact she’d already submitted her book to her editor after having rewritten it “four of five times,” she says, “with different readers in mind” since 2006 (although its origins date back to 1999)—this being her third novel—and then, after the Tōhoku tsunami hit in 2011, she withdrew it and rewrote it again:

“I just threw away half the book. … It felt like such a relief.” – Felicia R. Lee, ‘What the Tide Brought In’, The New York Times, 12 March 2013

I’ve only heard of John Irving doing that kind of thing but I suppose there must be others. Takes a certain kind of writer to be able to do that, I can tell you. I’ve no idea what the book was like before but her final solution was inspired, a literary novel that’s not only readable and relevant but is also a page-turner. (Small point: in this interview she says she says she was was about to submit it to her editor.)

It’s not without its issues though. In the book, for example, she talks about gyres. The word was new to me:

“There are eleven great planetary gyres,” he said. “Two of them flow directly toward us from Japan and diverge just off the BC coastline. The smaller one, the Aleut Gyre, goes north toward the Aleutian Islands. The larger one goes south. It’s sometimes called the Turtle Gyre, because the sea turtles ride it when they migrate from Japan to Baja.”


“Each gyre orbits at its own speed,” he continued. “And the length of an orbit is called a tone. Isn’t that beautiful? Like the music of the spheres. The longest orbital period is thirteen years, which establishes the fundamental tone. The Turtle Gyre has a half tone of six and a half years. The Aleut Gyre, a quarter tone of three. The flotsam that rides the gyres is called drift. Drift that stays in the orbit of the gyre is considered to be part of the gyre memory. The rate of escape from the gyre determines the half-life of drift . . .”

He picked up the Hello Kitty lunchbox and turned it over in his hands. “All that stuff from people’s homes in Japan that the tsunami swept out to sea? They’ve been tracking it and predicting it will wash up on our coastline. I think it’s just happening sooner than anyone expected.”

Well this book, at times, feels a bit like that. There is just so much stuff thrown into the mix. Just look at my opening paragraph and that doesn’t cover it. I forgot to mention the hentai and the Proust and World War II and the kamikaze pilots and the suicide clubs and the fact that there’s a sudden lurch into magic realism territory near the end of the novel that might confuse a few readers. It’s a lot to take in at once but it’s not so bad when you’re on the shore and every day the tide washes in new and interesting stuff for you to pick through. And that’s how the book works. The tides come in (Nao’s sections) and they go out (in Ruth’s). Bit by bit you know what to hang onto and what to let you. All the stuff about the gyres and the Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches is interesting but once you’ve had your question answered—How might the Hello Kitty lunchbox (and possibly the crow) have found their way from Japan to Canada?—you can move on. Nao is prone to digress too. She says, for example, that she’s going to tell us the story of her great-grandmother:

This diary will tell the real life story of my great-grandmother Yasutani Jiko. She was a nun and a novelist and New Woman of the Taisho era. She was also an anarchist and a feminist who had plenty of lovers, both males and females, but she was never kinky or nasty. And even though I may end up mentioning some of her love affairs, everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap. So if kinky nasty things are your pleasure, please close this book and give it to your wife or co-worker and save yourself a lot of time and trouble.

Well, we do get to learn about Jiko but Nao takes her own sweet time getting round to it so one can feel a bit frustrated, as if you’ve been led on, but she’s like any other fifteen-year-old girl, full of good intentions. Besides, although she dilly-dallies along the way, it’s not as if she’s not talking about interesting stuff. As it happens we actually don’t learn that much about Jiko’s past—the paragraph above covers it nicely—besides, her present is quite enough to get on with; the book really did not need another hundred pages.

All the footnotes are a bit of a bind too but there weren’t many I felt able to skip over. I read this in ebook format and it definitely slowed me down waiting on the damn tablet deciding whether or not it was going to jump to the right page or interpret my stab at the screen as an instruction to turn the page back. These, and the detours Nao feels she needs to take to explain things to us (and Ruth and Oliver, too, to a lesser degree) do slow down the action but all the exposition is necessary. And helpful. About the only part I got lost in was the section on Schrödinger's cat which I’ve read about several times before and I just really don’t have the head for stuff like that.

Bottom line then: the reviews in the tabloids have all been on the positive side— “Bewitching, intelligent and heartbreaking” (Junot Díaz), “deeply moving and thought-provoking” (Madeline Miller), “[i]ngenious and touching” (Philip Pullman), “remarkable and ambitious” ( Jane Hamilton), “[f]unny, heartbreaking, moving and profound” (Doug Johnstone)… and they just go on and on and I’m not going to disagree with any of them. It was all these things. It wasn’t perfect but Zen Buddhists are not big on perfection: It's about connection, not perfection, and I was touched.


imagesRuth Ozeki is an award-winning novelist and filmmaker. She is the author of My Year of Meats (1998) which won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award, the Imus/Barnes and Noble American Book Award, and a Special Jury Prize of the World Cookbook Awards in Versaille and All Over Creation (2002) for which she was awarded a 2004 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, as well as the Willa Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction.

She was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, by an American father and a Japanese mother. She studied English and Asian Studies at Smith College and travelled extensively in Asia. She received a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara University.

Ozeki, a frequent speaker on college and university campuses, currently divides her time between New York City and British Columbia, where she lives with her husband, artist, Oliver Kellhammer. She serves on the advisory editorial board of the Asian American Literary Review and on the Creative Advisory Council of Hedgebrook. She practices Zen Buddhism with Zoketsu Norman Fischer, and is the editor of the Everyday Zen website. She was ordained as a Sōtō Zen priest in June, 2010.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Me and You

Me and You

A sibling may be the keeper of one's identity, the only person with the keys to one's unfettered, more fundamental self. - Marian Sandmaier

I have mixed feelings about this book. When people say stuff like that I usually assume that what they mean is, “I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it as much as I might have.” That’s not really the case here. What I mean is that the book made me feel a lot of different things at the same time. It’s like one of those blended fruit drinks—5 Alive jumps to mind—that have too many flavours and confuse people like me with unrefined palettes who expect orange-coloured things to taste orangey. This is as much as I knew about this book before I sat down to read it:

Lorenzo Cuni is a fourteen-year-old loner. His wealthy parents think he is away on a school skiing trip, but, in fact, he has stowed away in a forgotten cellar. He plans to live in perfect isolation for a week, keeping the adult world at bay.

The blurb actually contains ten more words, albeit in their own paragraph, but I stopped reading after the above so when what that second paragraph promised did happen I was genuinely surprised. I didn’t pay too much attention to the cover either which might’ve also given me a clue. All I saw was a silhouette of a boy with something vaguely similar to an hourglass hollowed out which I took to be symbolic of the ‘true’ Lorenzo.

There’s a fourteen-year-old boy inside me right now. Okay, maybe not exactly fourteen-year-old but someone teetering between puberty and adolescence. I wouldn’t say he represents the ‘real’ me but he’s certainly an important part of me. Not sure who was on the inside when I was actually fourteen but by then, like Lorenzo, I’d realised that appearances invariably are deceptive so the following made total sense to me:

One morning I was at home with a fake headache and I saw a documentary on television about insects that mimic other insects.
        Somewhere, in the tropics, lives a fly that imitates wasps. He has four wings, just like the other flies, but he keeps them one on top of the other, so that they look like two. He has a black and yellow striped belly, antennae and bulbous eyes and even a fake stinger. He can’t hurt you, he’s a nice insect, but dressed up as a wasp, the birds, the lizards, even human beings fear him. He can mosey into a wasp nest, one of the most dangerous and well-protected places in the world, and go unrecognised.
        I had been going about it the wrong way.
        Here’s what I had to do.
        Imitate the dangerous ones.
        I wore the same things the others wore. Adidas trainers, jeans with holes in them, a black hoodie. I messed up the parting in my hair and let it grow long. I even wanted to get my ear pierced but my mother forbade me. To make up for it, for Christmas, my parents gave me a scooter. The most popular one.


        The fly had managed to trick them all, integrating perfectly with the waspian society. They thought I was one of them. That I was all right.

It doesn’t make him the most popular kid in school but it does take the pressure off both at school and at home because his parents worry about him not fitting in and greet any news that things might be improving for their son with whatever support they think he needs, be it a hug, a smile or a top-of-the line scooter; they’re rich, they can afford it.

Lorenzo’s not a stupid boy though. He realises that it’s all an act and the only time he can relax and be himself is when he’s on his own. The prospect of what he sees as a life of constant pretence looming in front of him fills him with dread. Acting like imagesa ‘wasp’ doesn’t make you a wasp. He still hasn’t been assimilated into any of the cliques he pines to be a part of like the one comprising Alessia Roncato, Oscar Tommasi, Riccardo Dobosz and the Sumerian:

They were the Fantastic Four and I was the Silver Surfer.

Spider-Man would’ve been a better example (he tried to join the FF in The Amazing Spider-Man #1) but he’s young, what does he know? The thing about this particular circle at school is that Lorenzo’s realised that they’re just like him—flies pretending to be wasps—but he has no idea how to communicate to them that he’s a… what shall we call him?... kindred spirit. He discovers that they’re going on a skiing trip and on a whim when he gets home he announces to his mother that Alessia Roncato has invited him to go skiing with her and her friends in Cortina. This news reduced his mother to tears of joy and suddenly he finds himself unable to tell her the truth so he devises a cunning plan; he will spend the week in the basement. It’s not a perfect plan—hey, he’s only fourteen and doesn’t think everything through (how, for example, will he cope with his mother’s insistence on talking to Alessia’s mother?)—but it’s a plan. One thing at a time, okay?

Of course for there to be any story here something has to go wrong. And that’s what those ten words I forgot to read would’ve let me in on if only I hadn’t already made my mind up about the book:

Then a visit from his estranged half-sister, Olivia, changes everything.

Enter the antagonist only she’s not really an antagonist; she’s more of a foil, a thorn in his side. Olivia, we learn at the start of the book, is nine years older than him and he’s barely seen her throughout his life. Their father goes to visit his daughter but she’s kept (or chooses to keep herself) at a distance from his new family. So, when she phones Lorenzo once he’s settled in the basement, he’s naturally suspicious:

         ‘Well. Sorry if I’m interrupting you. I got your number from Aunt Roberta. Listen, I wanted to ask you something. Do you know if your mother and Dad are at home?’
        It’s a trap!
        I had to be careful. Maybe Mum had suspected something and was using Olivia to work out where I really was. But Olivia and Mum, as far as I knew, didn’t talk to each other. ‘I don’t know . . . I’m away for ski week.’
         ‘Oh . . .’ Her voice was disappointed. ‘Well, you must be having fun.’

He really need not be concerned. She only wants to know when his parents will be out so she can come over and rummage for a box of her stuff but she doesn’t share this with Lorenzo this over the phone. The first he learns about it is when she turns up at the basement door; it’s accessed from outside. That she does is convenient because she can pose as Alessia’s mum but skipping over that bit of lazy plotting the real meat of the story begins when, after doing Lorenzo this huge favour, she informs him that she’ll also be staying the week.

This could have gone a number of different ways. Especially since they’re nothing alike. Lorenzo’s awkward, a little immature, introverted, private and actually a bit of a mummy’s boy. Apart from a few times when he was too young to remember the two have only been in each other’s company once since, two years earlier and this was what he took away from that encounter:

I had expected Olivia to be ugly and with an unpleasant face like Cinderella’s stepsisters. Instead she was incredibly beautiful, one of those girls that as soon as you look at them your face burns red and everybody knows you think she is beautiful, and if she talks to you, you don’t know what to do with your hands, you don’t even know how to sit down. She had lots of curly blonde hair that fell all the way down her back and grey eyes, and she was sprinkled with freckles, just like me. She was tall and had big, wide breasts. She could have been the queen of a medieval kingdom.


From what I could understand Olivia was crazy. She pretended to be a photographer but she just got into trouble. She’d failed her high-school exams and run away from home a couple of times, and then in Paris she’d had an affair with Faustini, my father’s accountant.

Naïve and inexperienced Lorenzo might be but he’s not stupid and very quickly he realises something else about his half-sister: she has a drug problem. And no drugs. And this was going to be a problem. Mitch Albom wrote, “Strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.” Well these two are both family and strangers and Lorenzo’s got a lot of growing up to do. The Olivia he saw two years earlier is not the same woman he has to deal with now:

        Olivia was sitting on the edge of the settee, all sweaty, jiggling her legs anxiously and staring at the floor. She had taken her cardigan off. She was wearing a saggy, dark blue vest and you could see her boobs hanging down. She was so thin, all bones, with long narrow feet, a thin neck like a greyhound and wide shoulders, and her arms . . .
        What did she have in the middle of her arms?
        Purple spots studded with little red dots.

They don’t talk much. That doesn’t mean stuff isn’t said. Questions are asked, answered offered and that’s usually it. Neither is much of a conversationalist. If one doesn’t feel like explaining no one’s going to press them for information. She starts to go through withdrawal symptoms and her half-brother simply has to cope. Which he does and they do eventually have a moment and then it’s over. Flash forward ten years and Lorenzo’s in a café in Cividale del Friuli—the rest of the action takes place in Rome—and he’s about to see his sister for the first time since that eventful week.

Families are strange. I remember as a young boy of about ten a man knocking on our backdoor and asking to see my mum. Turns out he was my Uncle Harry—one of many uncles and aunts, I should say, but the first I’d ever met up until that point—but as far as I was concerned he was a complete and utter stranger. What was I supposed to feel for him? So I really got this book.

9781406330281It has the feel of a YA novel but it’s not really. In the UK the book’s being published by Canongate. When they released The Radleys last year they also brought out a version under the Walker imprint aimed at a younger audience but I don’t see them doing that here. In the States the book came out under Grove/Atlantic’s Black Cat imprint which I thought might be aimed at young adults but not so apparently. The imprint’s been around for a while but only recently revived and the novels they’re publishing, according to Judy Hottenson, Grove vice-president of marketing and publicity, are going to be "in the Grove tradition of edgy, unusual fiction. They wouldn't sell as well in hardcover, but they're perfect in paperback for a younger, hipper audience. We think the market is calling out for something like this." Canongate’s already got a reputation for being a bit young and hip so the book’s a good-enough fit there but there’s nothing in the book that a real fourteen-year-old would be perturbed by. And there could’ve been. Probably should’ve been. In that respect Ammaniti pulls his punches as if he were writing for a younger audience. Just compare Renton going cold turkey in Trainspotting:

Relinquishing junk. Stage one, preparation. For this you will need one room which you will not leave. Soothing music. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold. Ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of. Magnesia, milk of, one bottle. Paracetamol, mouthwash, vitamins. Mineral water, Lucozade, pornography. One mattress. One bucket for urine, one for feces and one for vomitus. One television and one bottle of Valium, which I've already procured from my mother, who is, in her own domestic and socially acceptable way also a drug addict. And now I'm ready. All I need is one final hit to soothe the pain while the Valium takes effect.

In this respect Lorenzo gets off easy. And so does Olivia. And us readers.

The book’s been generally well-received and rightly so. It’s a thought-provoking book with an engaging protagonist. The biggest gripe people have is its length. The book’s about 25,000 words long and Olivia doesn’t turn up until halfway through that so their story only takes about 13,000 words and that’s really not enough time to do their relationship justice. Still, this is no reason not to read the book and if, like me, you’re a fan of the novella this is definitely one to add to your collection.


Authors visit to the GP Forest Rescue StationNiccolò Ammaniti was born in Rome in 1966. He made his debut in 1994 with the novel Branchie. He is the author of three novels, as well as a collection of short stories. The three books which have been released in the English language and have been translated by Jonathan Hunt are I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura), Steal You Away (Ti prendo e ti porto via) and The Crossroads (Come Dio comanda). At thirty-four, he was the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Viareggio-Repaci prize for I'm Not Scared which has been translated into twenty languages. All his books, including Me and You (directed by none other than Bernardo Bertolucci), have been adapted for the cinema.

I’ll leave you with the trailer for the film, worth watching if only to hear Bowie perform Space Oddity in Italian.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Another conversation with Stephen Nelson

stephen nelson

Dialect words are those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel – Thomas Hardy

Like me Stephen Nelson is a Scottish poet although when you look at our bodies of work we’re really very unalike in most ways—Stephen specialises in visual and concrete poetry (which we talked about in our first conversation) whereas I, much as I hate putting labels on what I do, veer towards the anti-poetic—but where we do find common ground is in our attitude towards writing in dialect, specifically (although, in my case, not entirely) in Scots.

Generally-speaking writing in dialect is frowned upon. It’s one of those many rules people try and foist upon us writers like the “cardinal rule of writing fiction”: show, don't tell. I can see why agents and readers turn up their noses; the former find it hard to sell and the latter find it hard to read and we wouldn’t want to make anyone’s life hard, would we? And yet there are writers who doggedly persist both in prose and poetry and I thought I’d see where Stephen’s experiences dovetailed with my own.

I’m just about to bring out a collection of short stories including four in dialect and I’ve just posted a review of Stephen’s poetry collection Lunar Poems for New Religions which includes four poems in Scots including the long poem ‘Look Up!’ and that seemed as good a place to start as any. A twelve-line poem is one thing; forty pages is something else.


JIM: So, Stephen, why did you choose to write ‘Look Up!’ in Scots?

STEPHEN: The experiences and reflections in LOOK UP! were so personal and close to me, I wanted a language that expressed my voice, those experiences, how I sound, how my family sounds to one another, which really is a mix of dialect and English. There’s an ability to move in and out of various tongues according to circumstance. We’re not bound by English or by regional dialect.  So the poem moves in and out of English and regional sounds, with a smattering of proper Scots.

Also, the text is littered with spiritual speak and hippie philosophy, so I wanted a regional dialect to balance that, perhaps bring all the mystical stuff closer to home, closer to domestic, suburban Scotland. The experiences are pretty off the wall, so an ordinary Scots voice allowed me to ground them and perhaps add a touch of humour—you know, here’s this ordinary Joe (or Jock) having all these weird, mental, mystical, often drug induced psychic encounters and unitive experiences. It’s funny.

JIM: I got the idea that you were going for an everyman here but it’s always a little worrying when accents, especially working class accents, are used because they sound funny. That’s what the BBC used to do. You’d have the newscasters with their Received Pronunciation but if you have a deliveryman he’d be a Cockney or a northerner and it really wasn’t until the fifties with the rise in popularity of kitchen sink dramas that the workingman was given something meaningful to say.

STEPHEN: Well yes, it's worrying if someone is taking the piss out of the accent or demeaning an individual for having that accent. But here the humour lies in the contrast between everyday speech and the language of mystical experience. You can't deny there's a gap there and the bridging of the gap is amusing enough for me, without being in the least bit mocking.

william mcilvanneyJIM: Understood. For my part I’ve always associated accents with honesty. Everyone around me spoke with an accent—be it my parents’ Lancashire twang (which they held onto despite living the majority of their lives in Scotland) or the various Scots accents around me—these were real people, people I could relate to. I’m fond of quoting William McIlvanney here when he said, “Scots is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that.” That’s the thing about working class accents: these belonged to people like me who never pretended to be anything other than what they were and if they did they’d soon get put in their place.

Talking about the voice of the people obviously makes me think of Robert Burns who was definitely a man of the people. Burns was a big thing at my school—I even won a prize for my project on him during Primary Six—but his Scots felt like a foreign language to me and I think that’s why I’ve struggled with the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid and his synthetic Scots. Thoughts?

STEPHEN: Burns is foreign to me, too—well, not foreign, more distant in time. My great grandparents on my mother’s side spoke something closer to Burns’s language, and elements of that have filtered through the generations and been diluted, till now, with my niece and nephew, it seems almost lost. My mother is still a link to old Scots however.

When I started reading poetry again in my late twenties, I went to MacDiarmid, and enjoyed his first book [Annals of the Five Senses], which is very lyrical, although I definitely needed the glossary. I think his project failed in terms of language and literature, but it kick-started a nationalism which might bear fruit if we get independence. Something about his synthetic Scots makes me cringe a little now, although I admire his political aspirations and how he created the language in an attempt to re-establish a true Scottish identity.

JIM: I have to throw my hands up and say I’ve read very little MacDiarmid apart from his most famous poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’. He was never taught at school. Apart from Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson (at Primary School) I never read a single Scottish poet until I was working and could afford to buy my own stuff, although I’m pleased to see that things are changing now that pupils sitting Higher English from 2014/15 will have to answer compulsory questions on works by a variety of Scottish authors. Now I think about it I can only remember two novelists we covered, Robert Louis Stevenson again (Kidnapped) in Primary Four and John Buchan (The Watcher by the Threshold) in Second Year at the Academy.

So, if not Burns then, who were the Scottish writers that most influenced you? (I’m thinking here of those who chose to write to some degree in Scots.)

STEPHEN: Well, now we’re getting to writers who reflect a genuine contemporary central belt Scottishness, particularly Glaswegian writers like James Kelman and Tom Leonard. It’s not Scots in any traditional sense, but it’s part of the sound I hear around me. I read Leonard before I started LOOK UP! with a view to allowing something of his sound into the poem, but ultimately I had to reject it because it was too closed, too political, too reflective of a social milieu which wasn’t appropriate to the poem’s concerns with cosmic themes and its links to San Francisco and Manchester drug cultures in the 60s and early 90s. It’s the Glasgow writers I love and admire, though. I can’t say Burns or any traditional Scots writers have influenced me at all, although I have to mention Ian Hamilton Finlay, not in this context for his concrete poetry, but for his early short stories, which are really lovely and gentle, and his first verse collections, The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts An A Burd, which was written in dialect [in 1961, so he really was a pioneer] and is really lovely. Beyond dialect writers, my main influences are friends and contemporaries like Peter Manson and nick-e melville.

Allotment Fox

see me
wan time
ah wis a fox
an wis ah sleekit! ah
gaed slinkin
an snappin
the blokes
aa sayed ah wis a GREAT fox
aw nae kiddin
ah wis pretty good
had a whole damn wood
in them days

Ian Hamilton Finlay

JIM: Kelman I only came to in the past ten years. William McIlvanney was probably the first writer who used contemporary Scots whose work made me sit up and go, “Oh aye.” Laidlaw was the first of his books that I read. I reread it back in 2009 and realised it’s a far better book than I realised at the time; it was 1977 and I was only eighteen and couldn’t read books fast enough.

Tom Leonard was a big influence on me though. In his poem ‘100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose’ he writes ‘John Menzies doesn’t stock poetry’ and yet the amusing thing is that that’s exactly where I bought my copy of Intimate Voices which, of course, included his famous Glasgow Poems.

Tom Leonard - The Good Thief - from Six Glasgow Poems

That would’ve been about 1984 and it made a big impression on me. In an interview he wrote:

People make the mistake of saying that art should be in the language of communication, but the language of communication is not the language of Art. The language of art is a language in itself, that’s what I believe. So if someone writes in the language of art, it might be in a language that only two thousand people speak, but it’s still universal. The language of art is universal, but it doesn’t have to be a universal language of information: it is universal because it’s about the universal person.

What do you think about this?

STEPHEN: Yes all language can be the language of art, including invented language and pure sound. Glossolalia is art if you find it so, but no one understands it. It can still move you, uplift you, and means something spiritually and psychologically. If you invent the language and no one else speaks it, but you turn it into a poem, something will happen, if the hearer is receptive. Have you heard Jaap Blonk recite Kurt Schwitters? Or Bob Cobbing? Such depth and resonance in a voice, in a sound! And it’s language! Communication. Scots is full of pure sound. Listen to a drunk man in a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night! You won’t have a clue what he’s saying but the sounds from his voice are full of expression. Glaswegian drunks are sound poets!

Blonk performs Ursonate with real-time typography (see essay)

JIM: Ah, now, sound poetry. That’s another form of poetry I struggle with because I’ve never really taken to poetry as performance although I do still to this day remember one of my classmates—a boy called Neil with a particularly gruff accent—standing in front of the class and giving a most impressive (if somewhat aggressive) recitation of ‘Scots Wha Hae’; I’ve never heard it read better. I know Schwitters mostly for his art but I’ve read some of his sound poetry (I suppose that defeats the purpose); Cobbing is just a name to me; Blonk I’d never heard of. But I do see where you’re coming from here. I don’t suppose it’s any different to listening to someone sing in a foreign language. I’ve always been fond of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire which employs the sprechstimme technique which is an expressionist vocal technique between singing and speaking. I don’t really care what the words mean.

Talking about Schoenberg I was interested in what Peter Manson had to say about his own serial poetry.

My accent of spoken English (I come from Glasgow) has twelve vowel and diphthong phonemes, and the poems are written in groups of twelve words, with each of these twelve phonemes being represented exactly once in the main stressed syllable of a word in each group. – A note on serial poetry

[T]he actual structure of the poem only exists when its spoken by somebody who has an accent similar to mine ... [pause] ... So I think there are interesting political consequences of that. The poem in the mouth of an RP [Received Pronunciation] speaker, let's say, the words are the same, but the structure of the poem disappears completely ... 'cause you have a different phonemic structure. – Peter Manson His Lament

Peter MansonThere’re two poems online, ‘Serial Drunken Boat Fragment’ and ‘Campaign for Really Authentic Poetry’ and what I found interesting about these is that he chose not to use an eye dialect when writing. But he is acutely conscious of the sound of the words nevertheless.

Up until this point we’ve focused on Scots but, of course, the world is full of different accents and dialects. Do you not think it strange though that so few people write in dialect bar the Scots? I mean, when was the last work you read in a Yorkshire dialect?

STEPHEN: That could be a political thing, the need to voice an identity normally submerged in another culture. I don’t read too much dialect poetry, but I used to listen to Linton Kwesi Johnson—again that need to free a voice historically suppressed by colonialism.

JIM: I’ve always shied away from any kind of political stance although there are those who would argue—and not unreasonably so—that’s it’s impossible to be Scottish and not be political. I don’t know about you but my hackles rise when someone on TV talks about the UK and calls it England. I’ve no problems with Larkin being called a British poet but Edwin Morgan is a Scottish poet. A few years ago I decided to do an article on dialect and went searching for fellow poets and writers to quiz and was very disappointed to find very few of them. I ended up using the Trinidadian poet, Miguel Browne to make my point although I’ve since discovered the Black Country poet, Liz Berry:

'Birmingham Roller' by Liz Berry (text here)

I’ve also found this site which has a few English dialect poems: A Celebration of English Dialect in England and if you want to hear my parents’ accent try this site: A Collection of Lancashire Dialect Poems, Photographs, Phrases & Sayings from around the Wigan area by Jeff Unsworth and to this day I’m still prone to definite article reduction when I speak (as in the classic ‘Goin’ t’Mill).

That said there are loads of examples of Scottish writers who’ve dabbled with dialect writing.

It might seem to others that those Scots who do write in dialect have a chip on their shoulder and are just making life difficult for their readers. What if the shoe was on the other foot? Here’s a wee passage from my short story ‘Monsters’ which is written in a New York dialect. How easy do you find it to read?

Whad’s a monsta anyway? Prick up yer ears, heah comes da English lesson: da woid comes from da Latin monstrum—meanin’ pawtent, which’s like a warnin’ prophecy kinduva ting—you tink I don’t read books?—which’s exactly whad Andrew believed his monstas ta be, notes from one parta his brain to anudda. Da human psyche’s a connivin’ sonuvabitch, sly, resilient and adaptable. Don’t toin yer back on it. When one meansa communication’s denied, anudda steps up ta da plate. Andrew’d lost da ability ta ‘heah’ dese warnin’s but da verces wouldn’t go away: dey was gonna have der say in whadeva way dey could. If da highway was closed dey’d scoot awf down some back roads. Now, is dat monstrous or ingenious?

STEPHEN: I don’t find that too difficult. It’s about tuning the ear rather than relying on the eye or normal patterns of language imprinted on the brain. How many people actually talk the way English is normally written? Poetry can make the page sing the song or sound the cry of the poet, not reflect some standardised version of English. Dialect writing is just one way to do that. Some dialects we can really hear, others we can’t. I think a lot of people can hear Scots. It doesn’t take too much effort to tune in. If the meaning of certain words are unknown, look them up. It’s no different than being presented with English words we don’t know. Besides, the sound of words is expression enough sometimes. Meaning doesn’t have to be always “got”. Sometimes it’s more about resonance or frequency. Or the feel of a certain tone.

There are claims too that certain writing in Scots is twee, like the Tartan shops along the Royal Mile, but this is down to the authority of the writer. No one could accuse Kelman of being twee, but I’ve read a lot of contemporary writing which is just too cosy or cloying or even cringe-worthy. So Scots to me isn’t twee per se, it depends on the power of the writing and how the language is employed. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

JIM: Absolutely. I’m not daft—I realise that we’re a very small country, albeit one with a bit of an attitude, but why should a redneck sitting in his rocking chair on his porch staring out over the Mississippi not think of me as a some kilted, ginger-headed bloke living off haggis and whisky? It’s inevitable that we view each other in some stereotypical fashion; I bet most kids in America base their entire knowledge of Scotsmen on Groundskeeper Willie (who actually hails from Orkney so he’s not exactly your typical Scot, is he?)

ClydePersonally I’d be appalled if Scott’s dropped that bloke in the kilt from the front of their boxes (even though I can’t stand porridge). It’s a part of our heritage and something to be proud of but Scott’s has been on the go since 1880. We embrace change on the whole but not entirely; there’re certain—let’s call them emblems—that people of all cultures like to hang onto. That said, I hate the mascot they’re using for the 2014 Commonwealth Games: Clyde the thistle man. Truly awful. But change is inevitable. Even in my short life I’ve seen a marked shift in the way people speak. The accent is still there but the dialect is fading. Glaswegian is being replaced by Scottish English. I’m just wondering how long it will be before a poem like ‘Look Up!’ will become as hard to read as, say, ‘When Malindy Sings’ by the African-American poet Paul Dunbar:

G'way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—
    Put dat music book away;
What's de use to keep on tryin'?
    Ef you practise twell you're gray,
You cain't sta't no notes a-flyin'
    Lak de ones dat rants and rings
F'om de kitchen to de big woods
    When Malindy sings.

What do you think will be lost when we all speak the same homogenised tongue?

STEPHEN: If we do, and I don’t think we ever will because language is too fluid, always moving and evolving, the greatest loss would be the voice of community or family. Community has to be open to outside influence in order to grow, which is why the sound of a community changes, but that sound is distinct from family to family, even within a small radius. To say that Burns is proper Scots, or Leonard is the sound of modern Glasgow isn’t the whole story. It’s a choir, an orchestra of polished tones and clanging symbols. But the sound of a family or community comes from a heart and the poet must be allowed to make the sound which expresses the collective heart or mind of a particular group of people in order to connect to that universal humanity we share.

Listening to the sounds of the voices around us can be a healing thing. In one section of LOOK UP!, the narrator finds healing in the arms of his family and church community, and it's their songs and stories which comfort him and the consolations of community voice which nurse him back to life. Dialect can be an expression of that closeness and affection and it would be a terrible thing if we lost that to a homogenised voice that didn't adequately convey a tenderness for who we are and where we've come from.

JIM: I get that. I’ve only been out of the UK twice—once to the States and once to Ireland—and both times when I stepped off the plane and heard the familiar Scottish accents around me I felt I was home; there was something heartening about those sounds; as you say, not so much the words as the sounds. I don’t have a Scottish accent—don’t ask me why but I adopted the accent of my parents—and I had a miserable childhood being the ‘English bastard’ at school (no one would believe I’d been born in Glasgow and I can’t say I blame them) but I still find being around Scots speakers comforting, reassuring. I write in Glaswegian on occasion because that’s the voice I hear in my head. My story ‘Zeitgeist’ was inspired by a colleague from Kilmarnock—which is in the heart of Burns Country—when on a bus he turned to me and said, “Ma wife says Ah'm too serious.” That was the voice I heard in my head so why not put that on the page? To do anything else would’ve been dishonest.


Hope you enjoyed that wee exchange. Let me leave you with my poem ‘Bloody Foreigners’ (the “translation” is part of the poem) and Stephen’s poem ‘So High So Hung Up’.


Bloody Foreigners

Ah went intae this Paki's
n asked the auld dear servin
fur ginga n dya know whit
she tried t palm off oan me?

Irn BruGinger fur cookin. She wis
frae England. Ah said are yoo
mental? Gie us a canna
Irn Bru ya stupid twat.

I nearly got ma arse felt
by her man but ah wis oot
o thur like a bat oota
hell wioot payin n aw.

Am ah a jammy bugger ur whit?

Friday, 8th February 2008


I went into this corner shop which happened to be owned by a gentleman of Pakistani extraction and asked the elderly lady serving behind the counter for a can of a carbonated soft drink. Unaware that the local euphemism for this is 'ginger' the lady mistakenly offered me a packet of the spice which I declined and asked after the state of her mental health. Realising the woman was from south of the border I was more specific in my request and used a brand name, Irn Bru so there would be no further confusion. Unfortunately I let slip a disparaging remark and one of her male relatives came to her assistance and tried to physically assault me however I managed to make my escape but, in the flurry, I omitted to pay for my can.

So High, So Hung Up

1. smiley

Gouchin oan E in the
shittiest nightclub
imaginable cheap beer n
slapper sex in silver sequined mini-
dress dress up dress doon
blissful slabs ae flesh
quiverin roon God’s grandeur.
Music’s a beist n a
beat wi a burd screamin
the grace ae romance n
the pride ae her sex wi us
a random dance ae molecules.
O’er ma heid I feel
the love ae the place
n I want tae scream fir love
the love ae aw that’s floatin
in the sea above n the sky
below … love fur the
jellied cunt in the corner
the puir cow wi the squinty eyeball
the hard bastard wi the blade in his jaiket.
Noo, twenty years on,
I pity every beetle
I crush and flush doon the pan
wi every other ounce ae shit n piss
wrapped in a shroud ae
soft quilted velvet
— ah the bliss ae the world.

Trippin oan Acid in a high rise
wi a couple ae guys and a lassie
in it fir a laugh but me wi ridiculous
pretensions ae highest yoga tantra
n astral elevation possibly a vision
ae God …
Leavin that aside, the ither day I
bought a book on LSD research and
contacted a transpersonal psychotherapist.
Nae acid flashbacks, nae drug enduced
schizoid behaviour (as yet) but a
history ae Kundalini
awakenin n several warm spots
in ma body tender n sweet as
marshmallow n jist so incredibly
poignant aw ae it.
I see yon acid trip n think
ae the lassie how she gave me
an incredible hard-on wi wild
Babylonian fantasies whirlin in
ma brain n Shiva lingam worship
wrappin itsel roon the high rise
so wired oan the drug
so constrained by perinatal
fuck it mother
fuck it father.
In the book, subjects experienced
hours ae oceanic sex
reported visions ae
Babylonian orgies
acquired a taste for the forbidden
the exotic
the perverse.
And tae think I wis brought up in the
Plymouth Brithren!

Sunday 7 April 2013

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nothing Gold Can Stay

North Carolina State motto: Esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem) (1893)

I don’t think I’d like to live in North Carolina. And certainly not in the 4.3 square miles that comprises Boiling Springs, North Carolina. The official website says the town is known as ‘The Crossroads of Opportunity’. Why does that scare me just a little? Of course everyone’s lives are filled with crossroads: will-I-or-won’t-I?s can become thank-Gods or if-onlys so easily; what things seemed to be can sharply come into focus; welcome to the real world, son. Some say—well, The Guardian said—that “[t]he real spirit of the US is found not in the mega-cities but in the soda fountains and dime stores of its small towns.” Maybe that’s what scares me because more and more the notion of small-town America has a tinge of menace to it. I guess The Last Picture Show, The Stepford Wives and Blue Velvet started me thinking that way and I’ve never been able to shake it. Small towns and the mentality that accompanies them aren’t unique to America. I grew up in Scotland where there are many and the expression, “The best thing about [insert town name here] is the train station,” is a well-known, well-worn phrase.

To illustrate how things are changing in the States then:

Oelwein, Iowa, spawned a meth lab and crime that became the subject of the best-selling book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

"Rural America remains the cradle of our national creation myth," wrote Methland author Nick Reding. "But it has become something else, too—something more sinister and difficult to define."

It's not that small-town America is worse than cities or suburbs. But it's clearly not the singular birthplace of principle and virtue portrayed by mythmakers and politicians. – Stephen Thomas, ‘Small-town America—the myth and the reality’,, 21 August 2011

In his latest collection of short stories Appalachian author Ron Rash—who grew up in Boiling Springs (population still only 5506 in 2011)—shows us that all is not what it seems in rural America and drugs are only one of the issues the inhabitants have to deal with. But before we look at that, let’s address the appellation ‘Appalachian’ first:

Chekhov has talked about this, that any designation besides writer (Russian writer, whatever) was a diminishment. – Noah Charney, ‘Ron Rash: How I Write’, The Daily Beast, 27 February 2013

[T]hough there is no doubt I’m very proud to be Appalachian, I am sometimes worried that when we put adjectives in front of “writer” there’s a sense that he or she is only that. If my work only appeals to people in the region, then I’ve failed as a writer because I think what we want to do is what Eudora Welty said: “One place understood helps us understand all other places better.” So by writing about a particular place, I also hope I’m writing about all other places as well. – Marann Mincey, ‘An interview with Ron Rash’, The Pedestal Magazine, Issue 49

As a Scottish writer I get where he’s coming from; the population of my town is about the same as Boiling Springs even if the name’s not quite as cool. Geography aside, like me, Rash also writes in dialect from time to time and that immediately puts his work one step further off for his readers. It’s a handicap no matter what way Burnsyou look at it. Setting all his stories in the same area—an area as foreign to me as I imagine Scotland is to him—doesn’t help his universal appeal which is why his stories have to work that bit harder to appeal to a wider audience. But not too hard. As my fellow Scot Robert Burns noted just over two hundred years ago, “A Man's a Man for a' that.” The setting of Rash’s stories may be alien to me but he deals with things that I do understand: loneliness, not belonging, feeling trapped, believing that the grass is always greener. This is perfectly exemplified in the opening story to the collection, ‘The Trusty’, concerning Sinkler, a prisoner from a chain gang who gets sent to the local farms looking for water for the men (on his own and unshackled, hence the title). During one such visit he encounters a young woman, the wife of the farmer, and it’s obvious that the two are kindred spirits, equally desperate but similarly incapable of escaping alone; pooling their resources might give them a fighting chance:

        “I don’t think I could stand it,” Lucy said. “Being locked up so long and knowing I still had nigh on four years.”
        He checked her lips for the slightest upward curve of a smile, but it wasn’t there.
         “Yeah,” Sinkler said, taking a step closer. “You don’t seem the sort to stand being locked up. I’d think a young gal pretty as you would want to see more of the world.”
         “How come you ain’t done it?” she asked again, and brushed some loose wisps of hair behind her ear.
         “Maybe the same reason as you,” Sinkler said. “It’s not like you can get whisked away from here. I haven’t seen more than a couple of cars and trucks on this road, and those driving them know there’s prisoners about. They wouldn’t be fool enough to pick up a stranger. Haven’t seen a lot of train tracks either.”
         “Anybody ever try?” Lucy asked.
         “Yeah, two weeks ago. Fellow ran that morning and the bloodhounds had him grabbing sky by dark. All he got for his trouble was a bunch of tick bites and briar scratches. That and another year added to his sentence.”

They do make their big bid for freedom but, just as they’re about the find their way into Asheville, Fate steps in only, in what I was to discover was typical of Rash, we don’t actually get to see what goes wrong. It’s suggested but he leaves the specifics up to us. And this is something that happens quite often—or doesn’t happen to be more precise—the critical or key scene takes place off the page or the story stops (seemingly) a couple of paragraphs short.

In ‘Where the Map Ends’, for example, we have two runaway slaves whose map has only taken them so far. Freedom is tantalisingly close. Only one obstacle remains but it’s not what they expected. Again, as in ‘Trusty’, the climax is left entirely to the readers’ imaginations.

The need to escape isn’t always as obvious as in these two stories but it does crop up in others. Take the couple in ‘Cherokee’ who visit the local casino in need of a lucky break. They’re imprisoned by poverty:

With a green rabbit’s foot clipped on his belt loop, a silver four-leaf clover dangling from his neck, Danny has brought all the good luck he could find. As they drive past a billboard advertising Harrah’s Casino, his free hand caresses the green fur, maybe hoping luck really can rub off on you. Lisa remembers a story about a magic lamp that, once rubbed, grants three wishes. Danny would settle for just one—make the one hundred and fifty-seven dollars in her handbag turn into a thousand.
         “By what time Monday morning?”
         “Ten,” Danny answers.
         “Does the bank come and get it or do we take it to them?”
        Danny shifts his eyes from the road and looks at her.
         “We could win,” he says. “People do all the time. That woman from Franklin won twenty thousand on a quarter slot machine.”

The ‘it’ Lisa is talking about is their truck which they’re struggling to keep up the payments on. Of course the story can really end only two ways, they get the money or they don’t. Of course if they do get the money can they hang onto it and use it for its intended purpose? Considering the fact that the bulk of this story consists of Row of slot machines in a cruise shipthem playing what we call here in Scotland a puggy (i.e. a slot machine) Rash manages to keep the tension going quite effectively but it’s the end of the story that’s the most effective and it’s not until the penultimate sentence we learn the outcome. Well played.

Not all the stories in the book are set in the present. It’s hard to place exactly when ‘Trusty’ is set but it has a Depression feel to it, ‘Where the Map Ends’ clearly takes place before slavery’s been abolished and ‘The Magic Bus’ is definitely in the sixties—the Vietnam War is still on the go—but it’s core is much the same: two hippies break down near a farm, the daughter lends them a pail to get water for their radiator and they present her with the chance to ‘escape’ to the big city, San Francisco:

         “Time to unplug the jukebox,” Thomas said. “Time to get back on the road.”
         “I thought you were staying until morning,” Sabra said.
         “This bus has no set schedule,” Thomas said. “When it comes by, you either get on board or you’re left behind.”
        Wendy put the elastic and beads in the backpack and tightened the straps. She stood up, a bit unsteadily, and walked over to the barn mouth.
        “So,” Thomas said, staring at Sabra, “ready to get on the bus?”

Drugs, of course, make their appearance in this story—young Sabra gets her first whiff of marijuana—and in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ where two young lads break into a World War II vet’s home to steal a jar of gold fillings to buy drugs, but the closest to the story in Methland is ‘Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven’ which opens:

The Shackleford house was haunted. In the skittering of leaves across its rotting porch, locals heard the whispered misery of ghosts. Footsteps creaked on stair boards and sobs filtered through walls. An Atlanta developer had planned to raze the house and turn the thirty acres into a retirement village. Then the economy flatlined. The house continued to fold in on itself and the meandering dirt drive became rough as a logging trail.

In this ‘haunted house’ (now a meth kitchen) Jody gets to meet the ‘ghost’ of his old girlfriend, Lauren:

What’s left of her is at the Shackleford place, Trey, Lauren’s brother, had finally told Jody.

Jody remembers the place well enough:

Each time they’d driven here their senior year, Lauren had leaned into Jody’s shoulder, her hand on his thigh. Those moments had been as good as the actual lovemaking—hours alone yet awaiting them.

Now life’s moved on. Jody has been ostracised by his classmates for being a swot. He’s escaped to college but Lauren is also ‘escaping’ from her dull life in her own way. As she tells Jody:

         “Oh, you know me,” Lauren said. “I’ve never been much for delayed gratification. I find what feels good and dive right in.”
         “This feels good,” Jody said, “living out here with those two?”
         “It allows me what I need to feel good.”
         “What will you do when you can’t get what you need?” Jody asked. “What happens then?”
         “The Lord provides,” Lauren said softly. “Isn’t that what we learned in church? Has being around all those atheist professors caused you to lose your faith, Jody, like Reverend Wilkinson’s wife warned us about in Sunday school?”
        Lauren moved closer, leaned her head lightly against his chest though her arms stayed at her sides. He smelled the meth-soured clothes, the unwashed skin and hair.
         “Does being here bring back good memories?” Lauren asked.

Of course it does but the Raleigh of his past is not the Raleigh that’s on offer now. Lauren’s brother cuts to the quick quite succinctly when he says:

“Stay in Raleigh … This place is like a spider’s web. You stay long enough you’ll get stuck in it for good. You’ll end up like her [meaning his sister]. Or me.”

The thing about freedom is that it only lasts as long as you stay out of that cage. The last thing Jody needed to do was come home. Freedom can mean the freedom to choose ones preferred prison.

On the cover to the book there’s a quote from The Times: “Rash can create a character in a single sentence: this is the great American short story at its best.” I’ve heard others described that way (Alice Munro, for example) but I didn’t see any really great examples in this book. Not of a single sentence anyway. But give the man a hundred words:

        Denton felt better as soon as he left the truck. Being that close to his brothers-in-law made him feel like a fungus was starting to grow on him. They both had a mouldy sort of smell, like mushrooms. Which was no surprise, since Baroque and Marlboro moved about as much as mushrooms. They never left the house, and got up from the couch only to eat or go to the bathroom. Hell, mushrooms probably did more than that. They actually grew. They were finding nutrients, some kind of work was going on down there in the soil.

(from ‘A Sort of Miracle’)

        The beldame’s face possessed the colour and creases of a walnut hull. A black shawl draped over her shoulders, obscuring a body shrunken to a child’s stature. The old woman appeared more engulfed than seated, head and body pressed into the soft padding, shoe tips not touching the floor. And yet, the effect was not so much of a small woman as of a large chair, which, like the velvet lining, gave an appearance of regal authority.
        “Granny,” Molly said. “We have guests.”

(from ‘A Servant of History’)

Rash is not only a writer of short stories although this is his fifth collection. He has also written five novels, a children’s book and four collections of poetry. In an interview with Jack Shuler, for the South Carolina Review, Rash said "when I write one, I can't do the other," explaining that the two forms seem to come to him on different wavelengths. I get that but I can also sense a poet’s sensibilities in these words. My prose is nothing like my poetry but I couldn’t write the prose I do if I hadn’t written the poetry I have and I suspect much the same is true with Rash. As he says, “I’m a narrative poet, which makes the transition to fiction easier.” You can read a decent selection of his poems here but I’d like to highlight this one which could so easily have been presented as a short story:

Brown Lung

Sometimes I'd spend the whole night coughing up
what I'd been breathing in all day at work.
I'd sleep in a chair or take a good stiff drink,
anything to get a few hours rest.

The doctor called it asthma and suggested
I find a different line of work as if
a man who had no land or education
could find himself another way to live.

For that advice I paid a half-day's wage.
Who said advice is cheap? It got so bad
each time I got a break at work I'd find
the closest window, try to catch a breath.

My foreman was a decent man who knew
I would not last much longer on that job.
He got me transferred out of the card room,
let me load the boxcars in the yard.

But even though I slept more I'd still wake
gasping for air at least one time a night,
and when I dreamed I dreamed of bumper crops
of Carolina cotton in my chest.

Most of the stories in this collection could be distilled down to something like this. This is not to say that they feel padded—far from it—but if you were to summarise them you could probably whittle them down to a couple of hundred words like this. His characters aren’t especially laconic nor does he exactly scrimp on descriptions but when you boil them down there isn’t a great deal of substance to these pieces; he says what he has to say and gets off the page, a credo I approve of. There isn’t one that isn’t well-written and well-rewritten by a man who’s honed his craft over many years. He says:

I just love short stories, and I love to write them. I think short stories are the hardest form to write—harder than poetry and harder than novels. There’s concision such as there is in poetry, a sense that every word and every sentence has to be in place for a short story to work. Yet at the same time the reader has to feel the satisfaction of a novel, the sense of an arc, a conclusion, a whole experience being rendered. – ‘Ron Rash biography’, Poetry Foundation

FaulknerThose are lofty aims and as much as I enjoyed this collection I’m not sure any one of the stories was a satisfying as a novel. That he would be compared to the likes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy and include Faulkner among his influences came as no surprise to me though. It’s the kind of company a writer wants to be associated with.

Probably my favourite story was ‘Something Rich and Strange’ in which he bravely includes an almost-three-hundred-word long sentence in which he describes a girl drowning. Very effective. This is probably the most poetic of the fourteen stories and contains no actual dialogue but concentrates on the rescue attempt and the effect this has on the diver who is sent down to try to free the body. A moving and haunting tale and oddly enough there is also an undercurrent of escapism here because the girl’s body is trapped underwater for a long time because of heavy rains.

Even the last story in the book, ‘Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out’, is about the need to escape. In this story an old veterinarian and a long-time friend struggle to help a calf ‘escape’ from its mother’s womb:

         “Lord help us if our kids knew what we were up to tonight,” Darnell said as he rubbed a shoulder. “They’d likely fix you and me up with those electronic ankle bracelets, keep us under house arrest.”
         “Which would show they’ve got more sense than we have,” Carson replied.

This is an enjoyable collection and certainly not a hard read—I finished it in two sittings. The only story people might struggle with a little could be ‘A Servant of History’ in which an Englishman, an employee of the English Folk Dance and Ballad Society winds up in Sylva looking to do for Appalachia what Bartók did for Europe and Fanshawe did for Africa and Oceania. He ends up trapped in the home of Luther Wilson and his grandmother of the McDonald clan. Strangely enough this is probably the story that most people won’t get. You’d have to be Scottish and understand the animosity that existed between the clans and between the Scots and the English to really appreciate it:

The Clan system occasioned so many petty sovereignties, so many petty jealousies and conflicting interests, that the existence of a state of peace and security was hardly to be expected; and when to this was added the fiery disposition, the characteristic pride, proneness to fight, and desire to be distinguished for valour which animated the Highlanders, the reason of so many lamentable struggles becomes plain enough. A slight, an angry word, a sneering answer, was sufficient to plunge whole clans in bloodshed-was enough, indeed, to cause a feud which might continue for generations, until almost a whole people had been decimated. – Highlanders of Scotland,

This is also the funniest story in the book—the book is not heavy on humour and what there is is subtle—but, again, I think the humour might bypass some.

I really can’t say a bad thing about any of the stories in this book but I do find myself struggling for superlatives. I feel guilty even writing this—who am I to criticise?—but none of these stories really excited me. I didn’t feel the need to yammer on about what I’d just read as soon as I’d finished a story. Carrie always knows when a book’s excited me because by the time she comes to proofread my article she feels like she’s heard it all before. This doesn’t mean they didn’t move me because they did, albeit not to tears. Perhaps they were a little on the stolid side for my tastes. If you’re even remotely interested in how to construct a decent short story, though, you should read this guy.

You can read an extract from the book here.


Ron RashRon Rash's family has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700's, and it is this region that is the primary focus of his writing. Rash grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and graduated from Gardner-Webb College and Clemson University.

Rash’s poetry and fiction have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The Longman Anthology of Southern Literature, Sewanee Review, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Shenandoah, and Poetry. He has been honoured with many awards, including an NEA Poetry Fellowship, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, an O. Henry Award, and the James Still Award by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Two of his recent books, Serena and Chemistry, were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His last book of stories, Burning Bright, won the 2010 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, the most lucrative award in the world for short fiction.

Rash currently holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University.

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