TagSunday Story Society

Sunday Story Society preview: February 2014

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I thought it was time for Sunday Story Society to look at a piece in translation. This month, there’s a new issue of Asymptote, a quarterly online journal which focuses on translations. From that issue, I have chosen ‘Where to in Bratislava‘ by Jana Beňová (translated from the Slovakian by Beatrice Smigasiewicz). It’s a little more abstract than I am used to reading, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll be reviewing the story here on Sunday 2 February; you can of course read along and join me.

Sunday Story Society preview: January 2014

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The Guardian have published a selection of new ghost stories for Christmas, which seems ideal Sunday Story Society fare. I’ve gone for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story, ‘Ofodile’, which is available to read here. I’ll be blogging about the story on Sunday 5 January; as ever, you are welcome to read along and join in.

Sunday Story Society: ‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’ by Doris Lessing

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Sunday Story Society is a monthly feature in which I review a (usually recent) short story.  The stories will be available for free online, so if you like, you can read along and talk about the story in the comments.

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‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’ was Doris Lessing’s first piece of work to be published in the New Yorker, in February 1955. It’s also the first work of hers that I’ve read, so I came to it knowing little more than that it was one of Lessing’s many stories set in Africa. We see events through the eyes of Margaret, a city woman married to Richard, and now three years on the maize farm of Richard’s father Stephen. For all her time there, the ways of the farm remain a mystery to Margaret:

She still did not understand why they did not go bankrupt altogether, when the men never had a good word for the weather, or the soil, or the government. But she was getting to learn the language. Farmers’ language. And she noticed that for all Richard’s and Stephen’s complaints, they did not go bankrupt. Nor did they get very rich; they jogged along, doing comfortably.

Whatever Margaret may have experienced on the farm so far is nothing, though, compared to what is coming now: a swarm of locusts which destroys the entire crop.

Two things strike me in particular about this story. One is Lessing’s descriptive language, the way she evokes the vastness and implacability of the swarm:

When she looked out, all the trees were queer and still, clotted with insects, their boughs weighted to the ground. The earth seemed to be moving, with locusts crawling everywhere; she could not see the lands at all, so thick was the swarm. Toward the mountains, it was like looking into driving rain; even as she watched, the sun was blotted out with a fresh onrush of the insects. It was a half night, a perverted blackness.

I love especially that image of trees ‘clotted with locusts’, making the swarm seem less a collection of living creatures than some sort of viscous substance that happens to move under its own volition. The imagery here emphasises how vast and overwhelming this attack is: the locusts make the land disappear, act like a weather system, turn day into night.

The second aspect that strikes me is what the attack reveals about the characters’ relationships with nature. Even though the locusts have eaten everything, the men of the farm still work to drive them away, because they know the difference it could make: it could stop their locusts from laying their eggs here. Attuned to the rhythms of the farm, the men call this attack mild – not because minimal damage has been done, but because they are resigned to paying a price, and know how much greater the cost might have been. In contrast, Margaret is still only beginning to comprehend the situation: ‘if this devastated and mangled countryside was not ruin,’ she wonders, ‘what then was ruin?’ Lessing shows life on the farm to be a constant battle against nature, fought in the knowledge that any reprieve is only temporary.

Sunday Story Society preview: December 2013

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So far, the revived Sunday Story Society has been all about recent stories, but next month I want to do something different. It occurred to me when Doris Lessing died last week that I’d never actually read anything by her (I know, I know…) – so I went looking for some of her short stories online.

I’ve picked out ‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’, which was published in The New Yorker in 1955 (and is now available to read on their website). I’ll be blogging about it on Sunday 1 December, and you are welcome to join me for a discussion in the comments.

Sunday Story Society: ‘Nathalie’ by Catherine McNamara

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Sunday Story Society is a monthly review/book club feature where I write about a recent story that’s been published online, and  invite you to join in the discussion in the comments.

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Catherine McNamara’s story may be called ‘Nathalie’ (Bookanista, Oct 2013), but it as much (if not more) about Nathalie’s mother, Mona. We meet Mona at home in Ghana, waiting for Nathalie to arrive for one of her periodic visits:

She went out to smoke on the terrace, the city air a giant belch of open sewers and fried food, a gassy decomposition. Mona had seen travellers gag at the channels of waste snaking through the city. Where old women straddled and pissed, where a fallen coin might well have plopped into magma. But for her it was the most acute of honesties, the travails of the city were naked.

I like that description, both as a depiction of place, and for what it says about Mona: she is a person who sees what is in front of her, perhaps even one who takes some pride in being so. That quality will come to haunt her by story’s end.

What Mona sees in her daughter as she arrives is a bright and  welcome interruption to the doldrums of her daily life (Mona’s lover has long since left her, and she has only her difficult young son Miguel for company), but also someone who has what she never had: love that came easily and frequently. When Mona meets Nathalie’s new boyfriend Seth, she feels jealous of him because “she had wanted Nathalie to herself”, but it seems clear enough that she’s also jealous of Nathalie for having Seth in her life.

For me, the crux of McNamara’s piece is the unspoken (and, to pretty much everyone but Mona, unperceived) difference in power between mother and daughter. This changes drastically later in the story, when Nathalie is attacked: her confidence is shaken, perhaps permanently; and then Mona is there to provide a mother’s comfort, just as she’s also finding her first success as an artist. Mona wanted her life to have more of the dynamism of Nathalie’s, but not like this, not at this cost. Nathalie has changed:

The lines Mona had never noticed on her face had become grave and hard. Her eyelids were fallen, discoloured furrows below them, and the cheeks were those of a gaunt woman whose good health had been stolen.

Now Mona can’t help but see what has happened to her daughter, and there is no comfort for her in being able to do that. I like the subtlety of the characterisation in McNamara’s story, but it’s the reversal of status the really makes ‘Nathalie’ such a powerful piece of fiction for me.

Sunday Story Society preview: November 2013

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A new month is around the corner, which means a new instalment of Sunday Story Society. The story I’ve chosen comes from the October issue of Bookanista (an excellent site, always worth visiting): taken from her collection  Pelt and Other Stories, ‘Nathalie‘ by Catherine McNamara tells of a day that changes a mother and daughter forever. Join me from Sunday 3 November for a review and discussion.

(EDIT: As I’ve been short of time lately, it’s now going to be Sunday 10 November)

Sunday Story Society: ‘No Translation’ by Mona Awad

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Sunday Story Society is a monthly review feature where I write about a recent story that’s been published online, and invite you to join in via the comments. This month’s instalment is a week later than planned, but here we go…

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Perhaps a good place to start with Mona Awad’s story ‘No Translation’ (Carve Magazine, Fall 2013), is with the author’s comment which appears at the end:

I didn’t want to talk about identity per se as much as I wanted to talk about translating identity, making it honestly comprehensible to a curious outsider who’s going to be excluded almost accidentally, almost by nature. The idea that translation, the inherent conspiracy of it, is an act of storytelling itself…

(This is an extract from a longer interview with Awad which appears in the print version of Carve, but I am limiting myself here to material that is freely available online.)

The particular individual whose experience is mediated for us in ‘No Translation’ is Ahmed, a Cairo fruit-seller. List the bald events of the story and they seem ostensibly quite straightforward: Ahmed gets into an altercation with a young policeman who wants to see his permit, and finds that the money which usually helps to grease the wheel doesn’t work with this guy. But Awad’s narrator (as the author’s comment above suggests) seeks to make clear that behind even this apparently simple exchange lies a more complex reality, which requires interpretation that will necessarily be partial.

Right from the start, we are reminded that a third party is bringing this text to us:

I am letting you listen to Ahmed’s thoughts. It’s important that you know this, because he only speaks Arabic, he only thinks in Arabic, and that’s not a language you understand…He doesn’t have any special interest in talking to you. I’m the one who thinks you should know.

Though Awad’s narrator expresses a desire to make things as smooth as possible for us, it can’t be done: there are differences of understanding that the unsuspecting reader might never twig, which are here brought out and examined. What might seem just a fanciful way for Ahmed to think of Cairo (‘She cries his name in car horns, and she’s always screaming like she’s giving birth feet first’) turns out to be a pun on the Egyptian name for the city (‘Umm al-Dunya, or the “Mother of the World”’). The narrator’s barbed question ‘Does saying it help with the joke?’ underlines the distance which has been revealed between reader and subject, a distance which exists in any translated work.

As a means of getting us readers to examine and dismantle our starting assumptions, this is sharply effective. So too is the way in which the city is described, in direct opposition to any stereotypical notions of ‘exotic’ glamour. Take the example of the pomegranates on Ahmed’s stall: ‘No sinful jewel-red here. Just the grit of exhaust that’s on them like the grit of exhaust that’s on everything in Cairo, and there are flies because there are always flies.’

When the policeman arrives on the scene, Ahmed thinks he knows the score. The policeman asks for Ahmed’s permit (‘These were the words Ahmed knew this guy was going to say, and they get said, on time’); Ahmed doesn’t have one, ‘but he lies because that’s what’s done.’ The fruit-seller then goes through the performance that he expects will see the official satisfied and on his way… but none of it works. Ahmed wonders, ‘Is [the policeman] a part of the New Egypt?’ This is Ahmed’s own moment to experience a difference of understanding, where the behavioural ‘language’ he’s always used in these situations is not understood, and he can’t see where the other party is coming from.

As the story concludes, Awad returns to where she began, though things have now changed:

…[Ahmed] cradles his brow, not thinking.

It’s the not thinking that’s the important part.

Do you understand?

As with the opening paragraph, this is referring to Ahmed’s thoughts and the reader’s understanding; but I think the emphasis is subtly different. It seems to me that the beginning is more general, more about establishing the distance between Ahmed and the reader on the basis that the implied reader does not speak Ahmed’s language. The ending feels more deeply personal, a way of underlining that you, the reader, cannot truly comprehend what the events of the story mean to Ahmed – that it’s beyond words, beyond the reach of any translation.

Sunday Story Society preview: October 2013

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Next Sunday, I’ll have a new Sunday Story Society post up on the blog, so here’s a quick notification if you want to join in. The story I’ve chosen is ‘No Translation‘ by Mona Awad, from the Fall 2013 issue of Carve Magazine. It’s a story about an Egyptian fruit-seller, which explores issues of identity and the extent to which that can be translated. I think there’s potential for some really interesting discussion of this piece, and I’d love it if you could join me, from Sunday 6 October.

Sunday Story Society: ‘Meet the President!’ by Zadie Smith

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It’s time for the first installment of the new monthly Sunday Story Society, for which I’ve chosen to look at Zadie Smith’s story ‘Meet the President!‘ in the New Yorker (you can read it by clicking on the link). The way it works is, I start off with a review of the story, then you can join in talking about the story in the comments here, and we’ll just see how it goes. So…

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Zadie Smith has reportedly said that she’s working on a science fictional novel, which is an intriguing prospect to me. I’m not sure whether ‘Meet the President!; is an extract (it stands well enough on its own. And seems to make all the point that it needs to make), but it is a taster of how Smith may approach science-fictional material.

We begin on the edge of what is presumably still Suffolk, in a future sketched fairly conventionally, but efficiently: there was flooding a hundred years previously; Felixstowe has moved inland; a woman of forty-nine qualifies as ‘very old’ (on reflection, this may simply be reflecting the viewpoint of the protagonist as a teenage boy, but it still strikes me as fitting with the harsh nature of life in this place). Then comes the key technological innovation around which the story revolves: a personal augmented-reality device which allows users to place pretty much any situation or setting over the world they see.

‘Meet the President!’ is about dramatising contrasts. On the one hand, we have Bill Peek, the rich boy with the Augmentor, whose task (perhaps a futuristic analogue of the Grand Tour) is to travel around and use the augmentation technology to deepen his understanding of the world and its inhabitants. If that ends up looking like play, or ticking the boxes without really learning anything, so be it: Bill has the privilege to get ahead; to be safe; to move away from here (‘If you can’t move, you’re no one from nowhere,’ he says).

On the other hand, we have Melinda Durham and Aggie Hanwell, the local woman and girl who disturb Bill as the story begins. They have none of Bill’s advantages, and quite a few disadvantages if you go by what the Augmentor tells Bill about their likelihood of falling ill. But that kind of itemisation doesn’t give Bill the true measure of people – and the lacks the ability to deal with the real place in which he finds himself, as we see in the contrast between the rural community and the game Bill creates through the Augmentor.

I suppose that contrast could be seen as somewhat heavy-handed – Smith clearly has her thumb on the scales – but I think it ultimately works because there is such a sharp difference between the augmented and physical worlds that Bill experiences. I’d stop short of saying ‘Meet the President!’ is a great story (I don’t think it has quite enough depth for that); but it does make me look forward to that novel.

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And now, over to you…

The return of Sunday Story Society

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Last year, I started an interactive feature on the blog called Sunday Story Society, where I invited people to come and talk about a short story in a comment thread. I put the feature on hold when I moved house, but it went well as a whole and I have always wanted to bring it back.

So that’s what I’m doing now.

Taking inspiration from Strange Horizons’ Short Story Snapshot series, I’m making a few changes. Sunday Story Society will now run monthly, on the first Sunday of each month. The stories will still all be freely available online, but I want to concentrate on new stories (at least for the time being), so I will be looking at stories published during in the previous month. I’m also going to be writing more of a review of each story as a starting point.

I’m not going to plan ahead of time what I will cover: there could be any type of story; the author may or may not be well-known. It will depend entirely on what I see that interests me and that I think will make for a good discussion. I’ll post a notice on the blog a week or so beforehand.

So, if you’d like to join me, we’ll kick Sunday Story Society 2.0 off on Sunday 1 September with a look at “Meet the President!” by Zadie Smith, from the New Yorker. See you then!

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