How do you write to an author? To an artist? A fan letter? How do you say, “Your writing or music or dance or theatre has such a profound effect on me, I must put it in words to you”? And here they are, those words. And if you wait too long, the moment passes — or they die (Lemmy, Iain Banks, I’m looking at you). And if the moment hasn’t passed, what do you say? Do they need to read another more-of-the-same? Does a letter create an obligation? They’ve already written a book and now, what? They have to write a reply?
Fan letters. Frances overthinks them.
Here’s a fan letter:
Dear Sofia Samatar,
A Stranger in Olondria. I can’t find words to describe it. I liked it — I loved it so much I drunk words and pages until nothing was left. I saw its cover on my shelf last night and was so excited to continue reading, then remembered I’d already finished. I can see the story like a memory. I’ve already read The Winged Histories. I read it before this. Please don’t stop writing. No one writes like you. No one I’ve read, anyway. Maybe you’ve read writers who bring worlds to you like this, and maybe your writing carries traces of them. Maybe you write for them also. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation.
And then I run out of things to say, feel I haven’t said anything except on my own illiteracy, wish I could just write something like, “Yeah, Sofia, mate! Awesome book!” in a way that was neither inane nor self-consciously bogan.
I probably wouldn’t say:
Yeah, I was a little iffy on the cover—
Why were you iffy about the cover, Frances? Well, cos it’s a guy and as well it looked kinda a bit Young Adult, neither of which are grounds for me not reading, just wasn’t quite convinced I’d be into it. Plus I quite like the cover now.
So, yeah, a little unfairly iffy on the cover, and the effusive praise all over the place, cos usually that doesn’t pan out. I know, right? How wrong was I! The cover of The Winged Histories though, same artist, same style, but a woman, riding on a fucking gigantic bird! 100% would buy, totes dug that, hence read it first, only a couple of months ago. Loved Tav, and something in it caught and kept pulling at me, my day dreams wandered to the dry ground of Kestenya. I can’t describe it. It’s like a story I believe.
It’s like a story I know. I don’t know this story. I feel like now I know this story, I’ve always known part of it.
Not sure I’m anywhere near fan letter mode anymore.
I wasn’t so keen on the main character being a guy at first. Just not so into reading bro’s right now. Turns out it’s the story of a young woman, he’s just there to tell her story. Plus he’s not bad, I kinda like him, especially how cashed up and DTF he is with the Bain locals. He’s there so we can travel from his homeland to Olondria and see the land, we see through him, and if there’s a memory of anything, it’s of the land, of warm island villages, then ocean, then a city like a colossus like paradise, of the roughness of travelling, of climates shifting northwards, cooler, losing their heat and bright intensity, of forests, hills becoming mountains, closing in, and coming to a standstill at the edge of desert, land flat and empty, dressed in winter, drained of colour and light. And then to return, one full circle.
Let’s try fan letter mode again, to finish up:
I loved A Stranger in Orlondria so much I’m embarrassing myself here.
The Last Days of New Paris begins with this epigraph, and continues, “In other words, ‘What does papa say I may think and feel about this?’” a quote from surrealist artist Grace Pailthorpe in On the Importance of Fantasy Life. Pailthorpe doesn’t get a page on Wikipedia, or for that matter much mention anywhere, not unusual for a woman. I don’t think this is the specific or entire point China Miéville is trying to make, his tendency over the decade I’ve been reading him has been towards minor figures — minor in the Deleuze and Guattari sense of the word. I’m not sure either he uses this epigraph as confrontation, though my response, “You tell me. You tell me what my reaction to surrealist art should be if not this most pathetic of all.” is obviously that.
I’m not a fan of surrealism. Without categorising all the European art movements of the last millennium, I would say it’s around my least favourite. When I think of surrealism, I think of a bunch of male wankers engaged in a circle-jerk about how ‘radical’ and ‘edgy’ they are while all onlookers see is bros taking up space, completely and uncritically committed to the most narrow and unimaginative of political, artistic, social, and philosophical positions. So when a surrealist says “What am I supposed to see and feel from this?” is pathetic and follows that up with some ad hominem Freudianism, I feel we’re not getting off to a good start for Miéville’s latest novel.
I’ve read part-way in, and getting all presumptuous here, it’s something of a sequel or same-universe-y to his story, The Tain (in 2005’s Looking for Jake), and digging into the same aesthetic bits as 2009’s The City & the City, and 2011’s Embassytown. The latter two I thought were proper good. Not easy reads either. The Tain though, I was ambivalent about, more on the ‘no’ than ‘yes’. So far with The Last Days of New Paris I’m feeling the same.
It doesn’t help that I’ve just come off reading one of the finest works in history (which I haven’t yet blogged because it’s so profoundly good I don’t know where to begin except with hyperbole), plus The Sea Is Ours, plus Jo Walton’s Necessity, so I’ve been existing in this rarified state of sublime reading. And Miéville is capable of doing that to me: Un Lun Dun, the two above, Kraken, Railsea, he’s been solidly reliable in filling my Book of the Year coffers.
And yet. He also somewhat regularly throws out works I don’t care for. I’m confronted with this surrealist tale and an epigraph that demands a response yet gaslights the very question most valid. What am I supposed to see and feel? Because whatever surrealism was doing it was not without context. If I was my Turkish Muslim grandmother in post-war colonial South Africa, a valid question would be this one I’m ‘not allowed’ to ask. And of the many art movements of the early 20th century, I don’t recall surrealism providing much in the way of answers to these. Filing surrealism along with Psychoanalysis, Marxism, dialectics of the Hegelian (or Marxist) kind, and a swathe of European thinking that has been banging its face into a cul-de-sac since Kant, binning the lot, moving on. Probably not the imagined response to that epigraphic statement, or the novel.
It’s a limit for me with Miéville, a limit for himself as well. He’s a Marxist, or rather Socialist of the radical, International type. I’m a fuck-knows-what who wishes just for once the Left could speak without first filtering the universe through Marx’ beard. More than the fact I think Marx was wrong, I resist the hegemonising desire of others to frame my world through (nominally his) Marxist reductionism, just as I resist feminism and queer’s own colonialism of my self. It’s strange to be talking about a work of fiction like this — admittedly I read (and watch) fiction precisely for this kind of entertainment — though I think Miéville positions himself with the expectation of this. I don’t find it possible to read, say, his most recent novella, This Census-Taker without considering fairly hefty issues of political representation, human rights, violence; it’s intrinsic to his writing, just as Iain M. Banks’ Culture is a manifesto for a liveable world. When Miéville asks that question, even if it’s deferred through the words of another, he’s bringing all this to the conversation.
It could be I’m just not in the mood for him right now, coming off this run of fiction that I’ve devoured like a meal at the breaking of famine. It could also be this run is where I find myself, see myself. Representation. Context. What I need in art. What I find in Miéville sometimes when he ventures far from his defaults, defaults to my mind which sit fairly predictably in hetero male writer land (whether or not he is), defaults I’ve found he’s returned to more or less since Embassytown, so I read him out of fondness for the past, out of loyalty to a writer who can be transcendentally fucking brilliant, but not currently out of much love for the book in hand.
I was rewriting my biography last week, amazing how many hours can be spent on 240 words. I realised that it’s been a while since Central Asia, specifically Afghanistan, has been one of the foci of my studies. China’s still there, mediæval northern European / germanic history has sprung from nowhere to rout swathes of interests, as has Islamic history.
A big one right there, “Islamic History”. What does that even mean? Well, my interests in China did and do have a component that’s concerned with the borders, not China proper, occupied China, whatever we might agree in the future is the term for Tibet, Xinjiang, even the provinces like Guangdong and others, which could be regarded as discrete countries, and in that Islam plays a role, either in Xinjiang as the eastern-most region of Central Asia, or in Guangdong as the port on trade routes that saw significant Muslim presence. Then there’s my Central Asian / Afghanistan interest, obviously Islamic (as well as Buddhist and others), which in the past few years has slid more consciously over into an interest in Iran, thanks in no small amount to Najmabadi. And then there’s whatever is in Berlin, which reaches out to Germany, and across Europe. A history of any of these is inextricable from a history of people who also happened to be Muslim, whether immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or locals (not sure how long you have to be a descendant for before you’re a local; that’s the conversation we’re having right now).
So I’m vaguely defining my current interests and studies as Northern European & Germanic mediæval, Islamic, and Chinese history, with an emphasis on women’s roles and representation. Which sounds like a whole tanker of “What the Fuck?” but if there’s one thing I do even if I don’t consciously trust my doing, it’s have seemingly wildly divergent interests that are in actual fact deeply intertwined. (And yes, my love of hoonage is not incommensurable with this.) And it’s people like Najmabadi and books like Islamicate Sexualities that help me understand this.
And what a book. If the quality of a book can be measured by the number of works mentioned which go onto my Must Buy! Ned Cash 4 Bookz list, this one will bankrupt me.
I was watching the première of Pitch on the weekend. It’s a Fox TV series about a young black woman who becomes the first woman to play for a Major League baseball team; a serious drama marketing campaign equivalent of the “You Never Lamb Alone” ad (“What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!”). I have zero interest in baseball, but there I was watching it when for a split second the camera cuts to close-up pan the grandstands and it’s totally “What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!” cos there’s a woman standing wearing a long white hijab in a crowd that’s multicultural as fuck. I don’t know if this is representative of an average baseball crowd, my feeling (informed only by unintentional slopping around the edges of US sports culture) is that American baseball has one of the whiter sports audiences, not NASCAR, but over that end of the spectrum. What that image is about is desire — even if it’s primarily driven by marketing and money. In combination with casting a black woman as a rookie Major League player, it says, “We see you and we want you here.” And again, even if this is cravenly driven by money, we see ourselves in this and once we are visible, we can decide how to interpret our image. And if we don’t see ourselves, we’re nothing.
And how, Frances, does this relate to Islamicate Sexualities? Same weekend, watching the second episode of High Maintenance where the first story is about a young South Asian student living in Brooklyn with her religious aunt and uncle, negotiating that while wanting to get blazed on the roof. The first essay, also the introduction goes between Orientalism, homo-nationalism, queer colonialism, mediæval history, post-colonial theory, to sketch out a broad proposal for how we might talk about sexualities, and by extension identities, for people living in and coming from Islamicate regions, cultures, and/or backgrounds. And talking about ourselves, not being talked about.
Somewhere recently I said I was only interested in reading works coming from this perspective, that the issues and questions around desire, identity, self and community would only find partial, incomplete answers in feminism/queer/whatever we’re currently calling it that was located within an Anglo-Euro-American (throw in Australasian) historical frame of reference, a reference that’s inherently white. Or to put it another way, we’re not going to find an answer to colonialism from colonialists. This is something I think has become unambiguous from living in Europe and Germany, where not only is there an unwillingness to regard immigrants of how ever many generations distant as ‘German’, we’re not even at the point of admitting this a fundamental problem. My reading of works like Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, and Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany played a big part in beginning to understand this and formulate my thinking, as did more recently Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. I’m reading writers like these substantially because they’re the only ones prepared to address these issues.
Islamicate Sexualities was published in 2008, emerging from a seminar held in 2003. That’s a generation, a lifetime ago, the seminar a few months older than 4Chan; the book barely younger than tumblr. Yeah, I’m talking about 4Chan and tumblr. If you want to understand how transgender/transsexual/trans people (I mean trans women here) and identities came over the last few years (call it a decade) to where they are now, places like these (along with LiveJournal, and probably MySpace, but that’s all been lost) are critical. And how fast this is moving means a book like this is going to miss a huge part of the conversation as much as it retroactively informs and predicts. (And as for why our part of the conversation is only recently tipped the queer/cool meter, that’s the history of Anglo-Euro-American feminism/queer right there.) I’ve barely read the first part, so I’m not pre-emptively criticising it here, just pointing out its age, how things have changed in eight years, and what that might mean for a prospective reader.
Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures is one of my most recent bunch of northern European mediæval art / history that are somewhat of a continuation from my reading of the works of Caroline Walker Bynum — who also has a work in this bunch. Rubin was one of several historians on a list given to me by an actual mediæval historian. I was looking for fresh reading of the calibre of Bynum (which for any of you who’ve been reading supernaut for a while know I’m mad fond of her brilliance) and popped the question to him. He passed it on, and the contact replied, “CWB is quite wonderful, so it’s not easy to find another like her in any discipline. […] The best women writing in medieval art right now are probably Jacqueline Jung, Aden Kumler, and Beate Fricke. Miri Rubin and Barbara Newman are also great; not art historians but both women are widely read by art historians and end up discussing art in useful ways.”
So I’m reading Miri Rubin. I’m also reading Beate Fricke. Jacqueline Jung translated Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts which I eventually had to say “No!” to, there’s only so much 19th century Euro-nationalist bollocks I can stomach. The primary difficulty I have with all these writers is many if not most of their published works cost in the mid- to high- double figures, and some even hurtle into triple-figure territory. I know I have a reputation to uphold of profligate book aquiring but there are limits.
Rubin then, I’ve just started reading. It’s a small work, a collection of her lectures presented “in the framework of the Natalie Zemon Davis Annual Lecture Series at the Central European University, Budapest.” So far it’s very nice, particularly when she talks about the global nature of the development of Mary and Christianity, its interconnection with the Near- and Middle East, North Africa, Judaism, and while the part I’m reading is pre-Islam, nonetheless also pre-Islamic religions of the region. As with Bynum, I suspect Rubin’s name is going to appear here in the near future.
Friday morning, perhaps the last hot day of summer after a week of proper heat and sun, David & I plus bikes meet at Alexander Platz, half an hour S-Bahn to the Dandenong of Berlin, Spandau, and bike south.
We get out of town quick, along side streets, past some farmers, and arrive at the Havel. From the opposite site I’m used to seeing it. There’s Grunwaldturm and the low hills of the forest across a glare of water. Along the shore for half the length, then inland past well posh houses, entirely around Groß Glienicker See, then into the water, swimming off the dust and heat.
Lunch, then on further along perfect fast trails through Königswald, around most of Sacrower See, and more swimming. We have time for the ferry (about 250 metres of cross-Havel distance works out to quite a few euros per kilometre), so stop in the Romanesque Revival basilika of Heilandskirche am Port von Sacrow.
More riding through Schösser and Gärten and Jägerhöfe, Wirtshäuser, through Park Babelsberg, and suddenly at Potsdam Hauptbahnhof and home in time for dinner.
The Goethe Institut is responsible for bringing Isabelle to Abidjan, and it was Henrike Grohs who originally proposed this. Incidentally, Henrike also brought Das Helmi there earlier this year for Ivoire Marionette. Henrike was one of 22 murdered by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on March 13th this year.
Isabelle performs Fugen at the Goethe-Institut, Abidjan this Saturday, 17th September at 19h. There are also performances there and at Institut Français by companies from Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Mali. (& sad but true, I’m not there.)
I got a phonecall from Dasniya last night, back from Bern (and e-bikes!) and not in Berlin for even a day before off to Amsterdam on the train this morning. She said, “I’m performing in the Amsterdam Fringe Festival!” All quite spontaneous and unexpected. So, this is me blogging her performing there, and yes, she will be teaching, public and private workshops and classes and yes, rope sessions also.
A couple of years ago, I discovered this amazing website called io9, full of sci-fi and weirdness, great writers, actually pretty good commenter community, and one day I clicked on the link at the top called Jalopnik and my love of hooning was reborn. This isn’t about hoonage though, it’s about sci-fi, and Charlie Jane Anders, one of the founders and former co-editor of io9, and her novel (which I thought was her debut, but it’s not) All the Birds in the Sky.
I’d been avoiding reading this for a while. Maybe because I like her a lot as an io9 writer, so heavy expectations here for a skiffy/fantasy novel. Maybe because I read the first pages and it didn’t really click with me. But I needed some fiction to read, so it landed in my backpack as part of a quartet on Friday. And now I’ve finished it. Bunked off ballet training this morning for that.
I’m sticking with my “like her a lot”/“didn’t really click” vacillating. If someone asked me if they’d like it, I’d say, “If Jo Walton’s Among Others, Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files series and/or Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory did it for you, and you’re fine with deeply San Francisco-centric story-telling — and I mean deeply, I can taste the locally sourced artisanal — you’ll probably get a kick out of it.” Or, “It’s a whiter, hipsterer, startup-er, unthreatening middle-class version of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy.” You can “To tha Googz” if what you’re looking for is a two-sentence synopsis, I’m kinda crap at those; my reading for pleasure concerns are more like chewing on bones.
Chewing on bones, then. I liked much of this. Charlie Jane is a smart writer and knows how to weave a story like tapestry over hundreds of pages. For me it’s a little too influenced by American-centric pop culture and the rather (also pop culture) Hegelian dialectic binarism that it views the world through. I’d like to read a novel from her where she forgoes these devices. I’d also like to read one without a whiny, verging on skeevy hetero manchild as one of the main protagonists. I know he spent a lot of his teens getting a kicking, but fuck me, he needed another and in the words of the great poet Chopper Read, harden the fuck up.
I was thinking about ballet choreographers, and the tendency for the gay male ones to make quintessentially heterosexual pieces, in fact to perpetuate that as the only possibility for ballet, and I was wondering why Charlie Jane, who’s hella queer, would go for such a white bread hetero pairing of the two main characters. It might be she was mocking/satirising/ironically depicting these binaries as a story structure, somewhat in parallel to the material activities of the two. If so, I’m not sure it worked or was necessary, and me being the bolshie one think ditching this conceit would have made a far less pedestrian narrative.
I often worry when I write like this that it reads as “Hostile to Everything”, when in fact I enjoyed quite a bit — enough to bunk off training this morning to finish it. Maybe to say this isn’t a review, it’s me trying to elucidate what didn’t work for me, to describe that in more considered terms than a string of obscenities. So, will I read her next novel? If it’s sci-fi, yes, yes I will.
Necessity, the final part of Jo Walton’s superb The Just City, trilogy about which I’ve already dealt to part one, The Just City and part two, The Philosopher Kings, and I stand by whatever bollocks I wrote then: finest fucking trilogy out, right here.
Part three: The Just City in spaaaace! On a planet called Plato. Why yes, Jo Walton is still trolling magnificently. I have only read the first pages, Apollo is dead, returned to immortality, and so does the Olympian deity equivalent of an evening binge-watching for a few million years by hanging out in stellar nurseries as they go thermonuclear.
There’s very, very little Jo Walton could do to have me come out the other end of 331 pages and not be calling this Book of the Year, and one of the best series I’ve ever read, fighting Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch for trilogy I can’t enthuse over enough. Excitement beyond excellence! I want to gorge on its entirety now.