This isn’t true, or is it? I don’t know. I have not been here for some time. That can be said of many areas of my writing, public reading and personal life for quite a wee while. A lot has been going on. Moving four times this year. A big bereavement. Renovating properties to try and ground my life in a way that allows me to work on novels with less pressure. Being a Mama, a friend and human with a heart that beats — in a world that has far too many reasons to create existential dread in even the most positive of people. I didn’t write my novels for about ten months. I just wasn’t sure there was a place for the novels I was working on. The things I was doing to get security — so I can keep writing and provide for my family, were so hard. Each of them was taking me further and further away from getting back to words. I could say I’ve never felt less like a writer than I have done this last year. I wonder if Jessie Kesson felt like this in her crofting years? Most recently I’ve been living in renovations for seven years straight — in the hope of finding a core stability so I can keep working on my books, which can take years to write. Literature is a privileged industry. For those of us with a -+ in such things, there are many reasons at times to lose hope. However, I loved words a long time before anyone read them. I could have picked another career to make a good living from and done well. I am particularly skilled at making houses beautiful. I take old wrecks and restore them from scratch. At the end you’d never guess how derelict or smelly or weird they were when I got them. It is hard work. In the last ten years I’ve moved over ten times and done up every house by myself, some were in extraordinarily bad condition. It was so exhausting. There is a certain art and endurance in taking a house back to the bones and rebuilding it. I am an artist, so my eye to detail is acute. I recently read Tanizaki — In Praise of Shadows. I felt a huge solace in the essay. It’s exploration of aesthetics is so pure. I have gone a long road unseen this last year or so. Now I have come back to this place — where I type and think and begin to create worlds that mean something to me firstly. I know some writers would be appalled by that, those who write for readers, or editors, or reviews, or glory. I write to become. I write to try and make great art. It’s very impractical of me. I write to challenge, to rage, to love, to mourn, to lust, to hope, to pursue mortality in the ways it does me. I write to unfairness, and cruelty — I write to be. I have not been doing the longer pieces. The novels. Life has been taking me out. Despite that I brought out my last poetry collection — There’s a Witch in the Word Machine. It’s a book I really care about and I’ll blog about that separately. I wrote a play. I wrote other things. But, if I am not writing novels then a part of me feels I am just not working at all. So, anyway — I’m back in this space of fiction. I drive up and down the A1 listening to music way too loud and over these ten months of non-faith, non-practise (novels anyway) I have come to some big decisions. I worked out the structure of my 100 year-novel, I reclaimed its ending from the following novel. I am ready to stand by some things which I think are fundamentally vital as an artist. The right to create work that does not always comfort or soothe. The ability to believe in myself even when my content pushes boundaries too hard, or in too real a way? Perhaps keeping the multiplicity of real life in literature is rare. The world has never seemed so culturally conservative. Is it incidental that we are watching the censoring of media, of challenging thought, the use of propaganda, fascist far-right dogma. Is it an incident that clinging to ideals which claim to be middle-class or elitist as the only way to save us, is beginning to seem old fashioned, out of touch and outright dangerous. We live in a world that should know by now — there are no ‘classes’ of people, there are only those who have more money, and those who do not. I am responding to a hundred years of history in one of those novels — to patriarchy and social exclusion in particular. There is much to make a person feel a true and righteous rage when considering these things. I read a blogger whose articles I find hugely challenging at times. When I find them at their most difficult, it is because they are teaching me about my own biases or ignorance in an area I don’t yet understand. I am identified as threatening at times (in my work) because of the edge I bring to the literature I write. I am an edge walker. I am a risk taker. You don’t come from my walk of life and do what I am doing, without that ability to throw down your soul as the most truthful thing you own. My life has been beyond challenging this last forty-one years, and this last twelve months have been off-the-scale. Stick that in your discordant syntax detector. I’m standing by all the gaps. The unusual. The uncomfortable. I am thinking about my novels daily again. This time I may not stop for a decade. I may be glad of my years knocking walls down. May they have prepared me for continuing to do so, and more.
Picture this — a 15 year-old girl is in a tiny bedroom. There are twelve other identical bedrooms outside her door. She angles a standard issue social work bed diagonally across her room to disrupt the aesthetic uniformity of this children’s care home. There is a stack of books in the corner. A lot of those books are on the occult or science. She is smoking. The window is open. The staff can be heard chatting downstairs. The kids in this unit do not use official titles for the ‘care workers’, they are just ‘the staff’ a collective presence that comes and goes. The kids do not go home at the end of each day. Especially not this one. The girl is wearing Doc Marten boots. She is reading A Clockwork Orange.
On the last few pages the girl finds her body colluding with the text. There is a low feeling of electricity coming off the page. Momentum gathers toward the part of A Clockwork Orange that is somehow the most shocking — the protagnist Alex — who has committed heinous violence and been dealt with in the most brutal and futuristic manner — is the exact same age as her.
The girl puts down the book.
She has been altered.
A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts.
I am that girl, who later grew up and became a published novelist and poet. It takes a lot to shock me in real life and also in literature. I have lived through so many extreme circumstances that I am extraordinarily hard to impress in that way. A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts not dissimilar to those experienced by Alex, when he goes through his rehabilitation process.
The first part of the book sees Alex as leader of a gang of droogs — teenage criminals. His cronies comprised of Dim, Pete and Georgie. They drink drug-laced milk in the Korova Milk bar and another establishment called the Duke of New York.
The droogs speak to each other in a slang language called nadsat. A Clockwork Orange‘s slang dialect steals elements of Russian and Cockney English. I loved the unfamiliarity of nadsat. As I began to read A Clockwork Orange I had the amazing realisation that I could understand everything these boys said in nadsat. It was my first experience of discovering dialogue that was not in straight English but could still be understood by anyone. As a young Scottish girl who was not taught how to write in Scottish dialect, or use the spellings of my own dyadic working-class tongue — this particular experience would prove pivotal when I sat down to write my first fiction novel some years later.
Alex defies convention at every turn. He listens to Classical music, loudly, a lot. He likes to read the Bible. He is an unlikeable protagonist who relishes the disgust he generates. His penchant for violence is underlined by an absolute lack of remorse. He is undaunted by State and society — he merely tolerates what he considers to be the idiocy of adults.
His rehabilitation process in prison is Ludovico’s technique and it is so successful that Alex is released from prison after two years. He can’t see violence anymore without becoming physically sick. He is immobilised by rehabilitive conditioning. He can’t listen to classical music anymore as he associates it with his prior violent history. He has been declawed and sent out into a world as a harmless and defenceless citizen.
Revenge is visited upon Alex by Dim and Billy boy who have become police officers. They beat him brutally. Alex tries to get help and comes across the husband of the woman who had died from injuries the droogs inflicted years earlier. The man is a political dissident. Alex goes through final stages of torment being used as a tool against the State and by them. Finally he wants to have a normal life with a wife and family.
I loathed Alex.
I was utterly compelled to read his story.
I found the black and white nature of Burgess’s approach to the moral nature of violent teenagers claustrophobic and repellent. The unrepentent portrayal of a young psychopath was also extraordinarily powerful.
I was a teenager who had experience of the world Burgess wrote about and I was still living in it when I read this book. I did not feel intimidated by Burgess’s vision. It irritated me. It frustrated me. It got under my skin. I was impressed.
A Clockwork Orange generated a multiplicity of responses in me as a reader. I left this novel expecting a higher standard both in my own writing, which I did every day even then and also in any dystopian books I would read in the future.
A Clockwork Orange marries its futuristic dystopian narrative with identifiable issues from modern society to devastating affect.
It was the first novel of its kind to affect my vision as a reader and more importantly for me, as a writer. When I wrote The Panopticon years later, it was a book that was still vaguely on my mind.
PIECE PUBLISHED in UNBOUND WORLDS – http://www.unboundworlds.com
Jenni Fagan knows what it’s like to be an outsider. It’s a trait she shares with many of her characters, including the heroine of her 2013 debut, The Panopticon. That novel follows the prickly Anais Hendricks as she maneuvers the foster care system in the UK, a childhood reality Fagan also weathered. When the book opens, Anais has just arrived at a juvenile delinquent center for putting a cop in a coma—a crime she cannot remember committing. Voice-driven, acerbic, and sharp, the novel earned Fagan a coveted spot on Granta’s prestigious Best Young British Novelists list, along with powerhouses like Sarah Hall and Helen Oyeyemi.
While Fagan’s latest couldn’t be further from the all-seeing eye of The Panopticon, she says she was still very much thinking of fringe culture while writing The Sunlight Pilgrims. A gritty survival tale set in the not-too-distant-future, The Sunlight Pilgrims takes place in a caravan park in Northern Scotland. Thanks to melting sea ice, temperatures fall to inhospitable levels, and the residents of the caravan park are especially vulnerable.
As the days grow colder, newcomer Dylan, grieving the loss of his mother and grandmother, befriends Stella, a transgender teen, and her survivalist mother, Constance. All three characters must learn how to navigate challenging emotional landscapes, even as the physical world—portrayed as both beautiful and deadly—shifts under their feet. For a tale about the end of the world and the brutality of nature, The Sunlight Pilgrims is human, intimate, and weirdly hopeful.
Fighting the time difference between the U.S. and the UK, I spoke with Jenni via phone while still on my first cup of coffee (she was well into her afternoon). We discussed climate change, Brexit, the origins of Stella, and outsider modes of art.
Did you set out to tackle climate change in the novel, to make it part of the setting and the thrust of the story, or did it sneak up on you?
No. I didn’t want to write a climate change novel at all. I was thinking about light, the quality of light, and how we interact with light. I had had two quite close bereavements and a baby all in a short space of time. So I was thinking about light, and I was thinking about mortality, how we incorporate grief in our life. We look for light in darkness. We look for light in all things. So really that’s what I started out with.
I came back to Scotland from London, where I had been living for quite awhile. And I kept remembering these really extreme winters when I was a child—I lived in a caravan for quite awhile when I was a kid at one point—and I remembered having very extreme Scottish winters in rural areas. I moved back expecting to have one of these winters, and it never happened. I missed the last big winter here by one year. The year before I moved back, they had to get the Army out to clear the streets so people could get milk and bread and that sort of thing. And since I moved back there hasn’t been another extreme winter.
I was looking for an opportunity to inhabit these landscapes personally and artistically. Quite often the two things merged. If I wanted to write something about climate change, I’m far more likely to write an article or a thesis or a campaign. Certainly it’s not a subject that can be ignored or should be ignored, but it wasn’t the founding purpose of the book.
As the book began to progress, and I realized it was going to tap into these Ice Age conditions, I began to meet with meteorologists and research what was going on in the global community regarding climate change. I’m always intrigued by the way that modern life is designed to detract from the fact that we’re living on a planet, and our lives our very short. I really felt that when people are living to extremes, they can no longer afford to ignore that. So really, artistically, that was the thing that intrigued me most.
At least in the beginning of the novel, the bureaucracies of the village are still functioning, so we haven’t been thrown into complete chaos yet. There’s a sense of normalcy that helps ground the book in a recognizable reality. How did you strike a balance between the day-to-day and extraordinary in the book?
I was fully aware that I could have immersed myself in the Arctic chaos that is going to ensue right across Europe. The characters in this novel, they see parts of it, but they’re very removed from the cities, they’re very removed even from the village. They’re very much on the edge, and because they’ve always been on the edge, they’re probably better suited to just getting on with it. Certainly Constance, the mother, is a natural survivalist, and she doesn’t want to freak her child out. She doesn’t see that there’s anything to be gained in running around being dramatic about it, so she knuckles down and gets on with it.
People live through extreme circumstances all the time. And they don’t always go out and loot their neighbor’s house or shoot somebody or any of those things. But quite often people are just still doing life. They still have to eat, they still have to wash their clothes, they still have to look outside the window and think, “I wonder if I’ll make it to the end of this year.” At the end of the day, nobody really knows that. We all live with great uncertainties in our own lives and in the world. And that’s just become more extreme, I think, and more publicly discussed, over the last five years. That is one of the main questions of the book: how do you live your life well in uncertainty? How do you live well and stay true to your identity?
We do live on a planet, and the weather conditions that we’ve had over the last 10,000 years have been pretty unusual. Humans have enjoyed relative stability in some ways, and obviously each year we see more and more disasters happening. We live on a planet, and planets are massively changeable. Our impact on them is huge, and we’re collectively getting to the point where we can’t ignore that anymore. We shouldn’t have been ignoring that in the first place.
There’s something really hopeful about the way characters discuss the possibility of survival, right up until the end of the book.
They choose to accept what’s happening. If they were different kinds of people, if they had different philosophies, they might fight it more. They’re not so shocked that [death] would happen. And being in a position of acceptance doesn’t mean you’re without hope. People have survived Ice Age conditions. They are all still hoping they will get through it. I often think of winter as the other main character in this book. Dylan’s completely besotted with the landscape. And it’s beautiful, stunning. But deadly, utterly deadly.
When your book published in America, Brexit had just happened. Did the politics in the book and the politics in real life resonate for you at all?
Of course Brexit happened here long after the book came out in the UK, so it didn’t feel as connected. We’re seeing a huge flux in populations, now more than ever, because of war or famine or climate change. The book has an awareness of people being in transition—and you can’t not engage with [that reality] as an artist or a writer. The question of what happens when people are denied safety or denied basic human rights is hugely important. These things always feed into my writing. I think writers, musicians, and artists are always filtering politics through basic, staple emotions. Art and literature, in particular, are a place to have these conversations. There’s something about fiction, about the imagination having free reign that isn’t afforded in real life, that makes this possible.
I was interested to learn that you’re both a poet and a novelist. Do these modes of writing inform one another, or are they quite separate?
They definitely inform one another. I recently published a book of poems, The Dead Queen of Bohemia. It’s 120 poems collected over time. I find when I’m writing a novel, I have to curb the poetry, I have to strip the words back. I write, as many people do, in a sort of stream of consciousness. I touch type, so it’s really just pure brain to the page. The image [in Sunlight Pilgrims] of “a woman polishes the moon” I lifted from a poem. Sometimes it’s a line, a theme, or imagery from my poetry that becomes a whole novel.
I don’t believe in literary monogamy. Every time I try out a new form, I gain a skillset to take back to other forms. I was a playwright for quite a long time, and it helped me learn dialogue. Now when I read a novel written by a playwright, I can always tell. There’s a stripped back quality, allowing yourself to be avant garde, to not be connected to traditional narrative forms. Every page in a play, every scene, has to be as clear as the others. When you’re writing a novel that’s 80,000 words you can’t just waffle for 40,000 of them.
So much of how you handle writing Stella’s transition is subtle and affirmative. Her narrative POV always uses gender terms like she/her. I even think about the first time Dylan sees Stella—she reads as female to him. I found that incredibly moving. How did you develop Stella’s character? What was it about the story of transitioning—or the contrast between a global change and a very personal one—that captivated you?
No, I don’t think like that. Stella just turned up on her bike, stripy tights, glittery nails, and she never stopped moving. She’s a character who’s had to fight for her own identity. She lives in fear in a small community. I grew up in care, and I identified as a child from care before I identified as myself because that’s how other people saw me. So that was my point of contact with her.
When I was younger I played in punk and grunge bands, which had a large LGBT community, so it wasn’t unfamiliar. Still, I did a lot of research because I wanted to make sure I got it right. I sent my manuscript to the writer Kate Bornstein, who edited Gender Outlaws, and I met with trans writers. And they were all like, “No, no, you’ve found her!” Ideas about gender are important to everyone; we’re all being forced into gender normative roles. But the thing I love about Stella is that it doesn’t define her. It’s not all of who she is.
In fact I was a bit hesitant to write her because of the last book. I thought, “Oh! Isn’t this a bit too close?” but I loved Stella’s relationship with Dylan. Both characters have been brought up by unconventional mothers. Stella, in her way, wants to rebel against her survivalist mother. She wants to get married and live in a house of bricks and be liked by other people. Constance doesn’t give much of a shit whether other people like her or not. When Dylan and Stella meet each other, Stella asks, “What about your dad?” and Dylan says, “My mum didn’t catch his name.” They both have to lay out their identities after being raised by such strong, unconventional women.
I was thinking quite a lot about the overlap between Stella and Anais, from your first novel, The Panopticon. They’re both spiky, young female narrators. What is it about the lives of young women who have been pushed to the fringes that captivates you? Is this territory you’ll return to?
I’ve really been writing the books I’ve wanted to read. I kept seeing fifteenyear-old girls in books who wore sparkly clothes and drank shandy and thought they didn’t resemble any of the girls I knew, or the women I’m friends with now. And I suppose in that sense I think like Patti Smith. She said the females were her muse.
All writers writing from the periphery are pointing toward the center. Because I grew up in the periphery, I think it makes you more observant of what’s going on in the culture. In my twenties and thirties, all the most vital and vibrant stories came from the periphery. Art house cinema, punk, New Wave, it all came from the fringes. I did a lot of research about the “Self” and “the Other” while writing this novel. In a sense, the periphery is a mirror, showing the center what it is. That’s why we’re artists, we’re responding to the center.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two novels at the moment. Novel Three and Novel Four take place over 110 years, and in some ways Novel Four is really the last chapter of Novel Three. But you can read them separately or out of order. I’m trying to write the Great Edinburgh Novel. It’s a huge span of time to work in, and I hate historical fiction that doesn’t make each historical part feel vital to itself. We’re not the ones who invented sex or drugs; this stuff has been around for time immemorial. In fact, the third book is some of my darkest and most graphic, most sexual work. The character who opens that novel is also related to Gunn MacRae [from The Sunlight Pilgrims], so there are these slight nods to the other books.
I can’t hassle poems, I don’t mess with them. They might take a week or ten minutes to write, but great poems come out almost whole. With a novel, I’m riffing on something for 80 pages. I have a big space to look at a problem from all these different angles. I think a lot about when I used to make music. You would go into these dirty little rehearsal rooms and play for ten hours, twelve hours, and you keep doing it and keep doing it and that hopefully produces something. I try not to hold [a novel] too close. If you trust that artistic part of your brain, it’ll bring you the good shit.
Interview by Kirsten Evans at Brooklyn Magazine
BOOK REVIEW | FICTION-FRONT COVER of THE NEW YORK TIMES
A New Novel Envisions a Very Cold Environmental Future, Starting Now
By MARISA SILVER JULY 15, 2016
THE SUNLIGHT PILGRIMS
By Jenni Fagan
272 pp. Hogarth. $26.
As carbon dioxide levels rise, as humans create more and newer justifications for institutionalized murder and as lethal diseases ravage unsuspecting populations, writers respond. They bring us novels of the post-apocalypse — philosophical explorations of what the world might look like when the fraying center finally shears. Whether the approaches are starkly realistic or fancifully speculative, these visions generally posit an end-time far enough into an unrecognizable future that we can maintain our illusions of safety from the comfort of our reading chairs.
Jenni Fagan, the fierce and cleareyed Scottish writer, will have none of that. In her new novel, “The Sunlight Pilgrims,” she is committed to disrupting our ease by setting her story of impending cataclysm at a moment unnervingly near at hand. Fagan’s novel is set in 2020, and the world is familiar in every way but for one menacing difference: It is very, very cold.
The polar ice caps are melting, and the seas are rising. The mercury, as the story opens, is set at minus 6 degrees — colder than most of us regularly experience, but not unimaginable. And it is not so for the three characters who are the novel’s focus: Dylan, an unusually tall man who, at age 38, is grieving the back-to-back deaths of his mother and grandmother; Constance, a self-reliant survivalist; and her daughter, 12-year-old Stella, a transgender girl who is on the cusp of a puberty that, unless she is able to begin a course of hormone treatments, will deny her the external appearance that matches the girl she knows herself to be. Mother and daughter are part of an off-the-grid community of caravan dwellers who live just outside the fictional town of Clachan Fells in northern Scotland. Constance relishes her independence as well as her distance from the townspeople, who judge her harshly for carrying on open affairs with two men simultaneously, one of whom is Stella’s married father. Dylan, a Londoner, is an “incomer,” newly arrived having inherited a caravan from his mother. Cut off from any future he ever imagined and lacking in basic survival skills — he greets the deep freeze in a pair of thin-soled Chelsea boots — Dylan strikes up a friendship with Stella and Constance just as what is predicted to be the worst winter in 200 years descends over much of the planet.
Fagan’s novel balances the oncoming climate disaster with the human-scale stories of these characters, focusing especially on Stella, whose feelings about her sexual identity are refreshingly resolute. Her confidence about her girlhood, and the pleasure she takes in it, as well as the way she stands her ground when dealing with the hurtful rejection of schoolyard bullies, reveal that she possesses a kind of resilience that may serve her well in uncertain times. She is supported by her mother, although not by her birth father, a fact that causes her to hope for the romance between Constance and Dylan she senses brewing.
Stella’s intrepid and sometimes dangerous attempts at self-care, and her coming-of-age under the pressure of societal disapproval and global threat, are the emotional anchors of the narrative. The interior lives of the adults in the novel are not quite as precisely drawn. We don’t learn much more about Constance than that she is an adept survivor who keeps her emotional entanglements at a safe distance. Dylan is a somewhat unformed man whose lack of direction and self-knowledge might be ascribed to the fact that his lineage has been kept from him, information that he will uncover during the course of the novel and that he fears will threaten his relationship with Constance and Stella. This conventional narrative ruse — the unearthed secret — is not wholly persuasive in a book that admirably avoids melodrama, especially since the revelation does not have the weight of meaningful consequence. What does matter, and something Fagan handles with deceptively effortless prose, is the way in which ordinary, even banal, life dramas unfold while the existential noose is tightening. The girl’s sense of the dislocation is tender. “Her voice is sending her odd notes. Her body is becoming a strange instrument,” Fagan writes evocatively, and then, easing from the distanced poetry of the writer’s omniscience into the mind of this witty child, “Any day now a tiny man is going to set up a loudspeaker in her throat and his voice will make declarations in a baritone and everyone will think it is her speaking, but it won’t be.”
The mercury plummets, ultimately reaching an unfathomable and unsurvivable minus 56 degrees. As the days grow short and most of life must be spent inside the confines of a trailer, the claustrophobia Stella feels inside a body that might soon betray her is mirrored by what is happening in the world. When she takes an ill-advised bike ride into the freezing weather, we feel not only her physical desire to break out of her trailer home but also her desperation to escape the gender she was born into. Fagan joyfully summons the sheer jubilance of the girl’s physical power as well as her fear when she realizes she’s out of her depth in the freeze. The evocation of that maturational tipping point where wisdom trumps desire is one of the novel’s wrenching explorations. There is so much for this young girl to lose. That she receives news of frozen bodies and devouring sinkholes, of food shortages and economic collapse from the internet makes her isolation that much more devastating. A young Italian transgendered man who is Stella’s online consigliere suddenly disappears from the web, and we, like Stella, can only wonder if he has fallen victim to the freeze.
“The Sunlight Pilgrims” is a stylistically quieter novel than Fagan’s bravura debut, “The Panopticon” — a fiery and voice-driven effort that landed her on Granta’s 2013 list of the best British novelists under 40 years old — but it is no less critical in its portrayal of marginalized people under the pressure of society’s norms. When Stella and her mother visit a doctor in hopes of getting Stella started on hormone therapy, the unhelpful man suggests antidepressants. At a community meeting, the nuns who run Stella’s school, and who do nothing to support or accommodate the girl’s gender transition, greet the oncoming freeze with educational leaflets and announcements about community preparedness plans including “ideas on how to insulate and heat your homes,” information that will be useless when the temperature drops and resources become scarce. At the meeting’s closing prayer, “Stella gazes around at the bended heads and Mother Superior is looking at her . . . and there is a faint distaste in her eyes.” It is easy to imagine that this young, marginalized girl and her anti-authoritarian mother will get no special help from their local church, insulation or otherwise. The difference in the argument from Fagan’s first novel to her second is that with the world tipping into disaster, intolerance will seem like a petty thing. No one, not even those who hew to ideas of perceived “normalcy,” will be spared. In this way, the satire in this novel is even sharper. A church that largely recoils from embracing difference can do nothing when it comes to protecting the earth from human abuses and vanities.
Fagan is a poet as well as a novelist, and many of her images of this unbidden winter are shot through with lyric beauty. Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.” Later, when the threesome venture out of the caravan to witness an iceberg’s arrival, they observe “all those peaked figures of ice, like all of their ancestors have been caught by the elements on the long walk home, their souls captured by ice and snow, and below them the North Sea cracks and groans as ice floes creak and collide.” Strange beauty can be found in destruction, and Fagan is fearless and wise to allow her characters to be as entranced by nature’s awesome power as they are terrified of it. The mythic reach of such imagery mirrors the way Fagan overlays elements of the tribal onto the quotidian. The novel’s three central characters are as much recognizable humans as they are visitations from a folk narrative. Dylan is an orphaned giant whose mother, to obscure his troubling lineage, told him he was the product of a fallen angel and a mortal woman. To ward off the worst of the chill, Constance frequently dons the pelt and preserved head of a wolf, so at times she seems a strange hybrid. Stella is a double, both a boy and a girl. The local lore about the sunlight pilgrims of the novel’s title tells of a race who drink light to live through the darkest times. But Fagan does not use metaphor as poetic immunity for her characters or her readers. The novel leaves them — and us — in a deeply troubling and unresolved moment. The world looks like a place of our darkest imagination, but it is all too real.
Hope is not the opposite of despair. It is a talent. Suffering is not a talent but a test of it. And indifference is one aspect of hope. Jasmine is a message of longing, from nobody to nobody.
This is by Mahmoud Darwish in his book A River Dies of Thirst, a Diary — introduction by Ruth Padel. I read alongside Ruth Padel, and Lydia Cacho as part of the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers Series. The Scottish PEN event took place at EIBF.
As a young man, Darwish faced house arrest and imprisonment for his political activism and for publicly reading his poetry. He published thirty poetry and prose collection in his lifetime and was an editor for a Palestine Liberation Organization monthly journal. He won the Lenin Peace Prize, the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from France and the Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands.
They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.
When Darwish was awarded the Prince Claus Fund of principal prize in Amsterdam in 2004 his acceptance speech explained how he felt about exile, and identity.
A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace … with life.
Ruth Padel wrote the introduction to A River Dies of Thirst, a Diary, by Mahmoud Darwish. She read his poetry at the PEN event and beautifully articulated the spirit of what Darwish has created in his legacy as a poet.
It was a great honour to read with Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist who has just arrived in the UK after being faced with a death threat in her own country. She was introduced on the evening as the ‘bravest woman in the world’. I read a quote recently that said ‘to speak truth in a time of censorship is a political act’ — it is also a hugely courageous, and humane act. As a retaliation for her work — Cacho has been kidnapped, tortured, threatened with murder, raped and left for dead — all without backing down from her position as a journalist exposing criminality in Mexico.
Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist – since 2006 at least 67 journalists have been killed and a further 14 have just disappeared. In 2005, Cacho published Los demonios del Eden: El poder que protege a la pornografía infantil (‘The demons of Eden: the power that protects child pornography’). In 2010, Cacho published Esclavas del poder, in which she revealed names of people in Mexico involved in the trafficking of women and girls. The English translation,Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, will be published at the beginning of September by Portobello Books.
Lydia Cacho will be in conversation with Helen Bamber OBE, who works with victims of trafficking, in London on 29 August
You can also send messages of support c/o: Fundación Lydia Cacho. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
To sign a petition for Cacho and all the other writers under threat in Mexico — click here: http://chn.ge/usUDUa
“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.” -Virginia Woolf.
In 1917, Virginia and Leonard Woolf started The Hogarth Press from their home, armed only with a handpress and a determination to publish the newest, most exciting writing. Hogarth brought the world authors who shaped the culture of the past 100 years: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Vita Sackville-West, to name a few.
This year, what began in London in 1917 finds a new life in New York and Hogarth’s goals are no less lofty: bring readers the authors who will shape the culture of the next 100 years: Anouk Markovits, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Stephanie Reents, Jay Caspian-Kang, Vincent Lam, Shani Boianjiu, Lawrence Osborne, Ben Masters, and Jenni Fagan.
A rose, is a rose, is a rose. I adore Gertrude Stein, and vintage print presses that pushed the boundaries of what was possible for their authors. I am pathologically drawn to all beautiful books, old and new. Over the last week or so I have had some great conversations with Alexis Washam, Senior Editor at H&C, in New York, and I am hugely impressed by what this new imprint are bringing to the publishing world. I am exceptionally happy to announce that The Panopticon is being published by Hogarth and Crown in the US, Canada, Greenland and all of North America. I am one of those writers with a true travelling hobo soul — so to find this kind of home for The Panopticon — to see it continue its journey out into the world, is totally amazing! I will be looking forward to updating on this one, as and when news comes in. In the meantime I am about to read a bunch of books already being published by Hogarth, can’t wait, I hope they send the canvas bag too. I love to geek out on these things, I played in bands for a long time and it reminds me of great labels like 4AD, or Sub Pop, early Geffen, or Apple. It makes me dance anyway!
Hogarth is publishing a list of all fiction, all the time: contemporary, voice-driven, character-rich, eclectic, adventurous, provocative, vividly written. “We are honored to create an American life for a great publishing name, and we look forward to building a list of worldly, provocative, and well-written works for a broad and lasting readership,” says Molly Stern, Publisher of Hogarth and Senior Vice President, Publisher, Crown Publishers.
Sometimes people get something, they get it and they give something back. That means something to a writer. We spend endless hours spend putting one word in front of another, it’s a way of life, a way of being, and sometimes — it’s good to be got. For Books Sake made my day with this review, so thank you … Also to everyone else who has been putting their support behind this novel, this last week or two has been amazing. Word on the street is the literati are swapping it, the cool kids are quoting it, and there’s a drag queen in Akron who does a mean Anais. Their is a rumour that there will be a lit tug of war held at Trafalgar Square, the Panopticonites vs the living dead, my bet is they’ll win easy — gin in one hand, vintage shot-gun in the other.
I will be having the book launch at Word Power Book Shop on West Nicholson St. Edinburgh, 16th May 7pm. All are welcome.
Here is the review from For Books Sake — a great online source, picky, discerning and wholly passionate about literature.
THE PANOPTICON BY JENNI FAGAN
The Panopticon is the début novel by Scottish poet and writer Jenni Fagan, and my favourite novel so far this year.
It’s the first-person story of Anais Hendricks, a fierce and irrepressible narrator with a vivid and original voice, like going on a joyride with Irvine Welsh‘s teenage sister while off your face on amphetamines.
Aged fifteen, Anais finds herself in a police car, on her way to the Panopticon, a detention centre for chronic young offenders. Across town, there’s a policewoman in a coma and Anais has been found with blood on her school uniform. And although she’s committed all sorts of other crimes, when it comes to this one, she’s adamant that she’s innocent.
Fucked or fucked over by almost every adult she’s ever met, Anais’ life so far has been a never-ending cycle of care and foster homes. But for the most part, she’s blase and upbeat about the violence and despair she’s witnessed; Anais is a survivor, and she’s smart and funny with it.
Sharp, intuitive and self-assured, she’s upfront about her sporadic escapes into drugs and sex, and honest about her fears of the mysterious and sinister Experiment that track her every move.
Although tentative at first, she soon forms a makeshift family with her fellow inmates at the Panopticon, but the authorities are watching and waiting. And if Anais makes one wrong move, she’s had it.
Her predicament and personality alone are enough to keep you turning the pages, but as you might expect from the subject matter, there’s a dark heart to The Panopticon.
Parts of it are uncomfortable and potentially triggering, with prostitution, rape, self-harm, animal and child abuse all playing their part. But Anais has seen it all before, facing extreme situations with bravado and defiance. And those are at her moments when she’s at her most heartbreaking.
Crude, honest and often hilarious, she is impulsive and unpredictable but always believable, coming out with all sorts of caustic put-downs, wry observations and classic claims:
“[The word] vagina sounds like a venereal disease. Or like the name for some snobby rich German countess’ daughter; her entry into society would be announced in some glossy magazine, and underneath it would read…Vagina Schneider at the débutante ball, wearing an electric blue Vera Wang – a true glory to behold.”
Anais subverts stereotypes and the judgements of those around her. Acknowledging that the authorities expect a uniform of ponytail, gold jewellery, tracksuit and fake tan, Anais is nostalgic for the romance and glamour of bygone eras, inadvertently showing her softer, more sensitive side with her secret fantasies of painting in Paris:
“I adore dragonflies. I adore the sea, the moon, the stars, vintage Dior and old movies in black and white. I adore girls with tits and hips and class and old men in suits who have that dignified look about them.”
Although the system may be broken, Anais is sticking to her story, and The Panopticon is as memorable and exhilarating as its narrator. Published next week by William Heinemann, you can pre-order the hardback for £8.44, or pre-order the Kindle edition for £8.04.
Recommended for: Anyone who loves an underdog, or who has ever had cause to rage against the machine; rebels, delinquents and daredevils of all ages will love Anais’ strength, boldness and bravery.
Other recommended reading: For more rebel girls in over their heads, read Colleen Curran‘s Whores on the Hill, Bella Bathurst‘s Special, or Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth when it comes out later this summer. Or for another stubborn, defiant and memorable narrator, try Nell Leyshon‘s The Colour of Milk.
Now, here’s Kurt to play you out.