‘Second-hand Memories Of War’: A Review of “breach”

‘This is what comes of getting too close, I told myself. You lose all perspective. I kept myself busy with laundry and then I picked fruit in the orchard, but my mind was on the world, the underworld, that I’d glimpsed from its edge, the figures pacing the high white fence along the railway line, shoulders up against the cold, hands deep in coat pockets, dark heads bent. Like figures from history or documentaries, I realised, like second-hand memories of war.’

– ‘The Terrier’, breach

Peirene Press’ latest release, the highly anticipated Peirene Now! No.1 breach, is a collection of brilliantly heartfelt stories following the tales of the refugee camps in the border town of Calais in France, the last town before the UK. Commissioned by Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press Publisher, breach contains eight short stories brilliantly assembled by the writers, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes. Commissioned by Peirene Press to visit the Calais refugee camps to learn the stories of those living there, Popoola and Holmes have brilliantly distilled their experiences into the short works of fiction in this collection.

The stories in this collection each capture a moment, a brief insight filled to the brim with powerful feeling and emotion. While reading breach, I found that more than once I felt hollowed out and filled with these stories, with their intensity. Each story is cleverly self-contained, yet the entire collection has a continuous flow, weaving together a series of emotions that consume the reader. These stories have equal parts empathy, insight, humour and tragedy, and are uniquely written to share all sides of the refugee crisis, giving voices to everyone who has a story to tell.

Perhaps my favourite in the collection is ‘Paradise’, detailing the relationships between volunteers in the camps and those they are trying to help, specifically the young people in the Calais refugee camps. ‘Paradise’ ends with potentially the most heart-wrenching line I read in the entire collection:

“All the volunteers go. And you leave us here in the Jungle, thinking about you, missing you. It’s painful,” he says, “so please don’t love us so much.”

This plea for distance between those volunteering at the camps and those living there makes hits you hard as a reader. Often the line we are fed is that we are too ignorant of those suffering as a result of civil war, terrorism or other life threatening factors, so to read this line is perhaps the most striking moment in the book – to find out that our loving them can be just as detrimental to their morale as our ignoring their plight.

A close second is ‘Oranges In The River’, a short tale following Dlo and Jan, two young refugees trying to smuggle themselves to the UK in refrigerated trucks. There is a strangely beautiful moment when they remove boxes and boxes of oranges from one of these trucks, sending them floating down the river in droves, to make space to hide in. Dlo takes one of these oranges and tucks it carefully into his pocket, to save for a desperate time, a habit from his hardworn travels to Calais, despite the fact he will soon be climbing into a truck packed full to the brim with oranges. There is something incredibly telling in this small act, and reading it feels incredibly intimate.

It is important to recognise that these stories are works of fiction. These stories were not written to begin a pity party for the refugees camping in Calais, nor were they written to make us consider them as simple charity cases. These stories bring all the complexities of the refugees and their lives, as well as the challenges of the refugee crisis in Europe, to readers who may not have had such incredible emotional insight into the lives of those currently affected by the current refugee crisis. There is a seed of truth in these stories, and it is a credit to the authors, who committed themselves to thorough research and the desire to learn from those they met in Calais.

Of course, breach follows in Peirene Press’ tradition of cleverly written European novellas, short in length but easily one of the strongest works of fiction I have read this year. I cannot recommend it enough, particularly given the current political climate and debates around the international refugee crisis. Reading this collection is one of the most important things I have done this year, and I wholeheartedly believe it should be shared with as many people as possible.

 

breach is available in all good bookstores, or directly from Peirene Press. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores and support independent press.

Thank you once again to Peirene Press for sending me a copy of breach. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

© Hayley New 2016

Unashamedly, Unabashedly Feminist: A Review of “I Call Myself A Feminist”

 

I Call Myself A Feminist is a collection of essays on feminism, written by a group of twenty five women under thirty. Interspersed with quotes from famous feminists, these essays get at the heart of modern feminism, discussing issues as widespread as catcalling, female genital mutilation, trans activism, sexual assault, education, intersectional discrimination, workplace sexism, and many more, this collection is easily one of the best, brightest and funniest assemblages of feminist work I have seen.

By limiting the collection to essays written by women under thirty, this collection allows the voices of young feminists the space to share their own stories about their feminist history and vocalise their concerns about how the patriarchy and misogyny operates in their world. I have rarely come across a collection such as this which focuses so significantly on the concerns of young feminists, those who have inherited a rich feminist history and tradition, and have, by extension, inherited all the stereotypes and problematics of this feminist tradition. More than one of the women in this collection have a personal family connection to a famous feminist or feminist movement, and the discussion that this collection allows them to have about their connection to historical feminism and the expectations around furthering the feminist cause is a vital one, especially when considering how young people are often the ones who seek the most revolutionary changes in society.

Perhaps the most poignant theme carried across the collection is a concern for the term ‘feminism’ itself, and the problematic associations people have attributed to the word in the last few decades. As a young feminist, I completely empathise with this concern. In many spaces, feminism is still considered a dirty word, used in connection with the archaic idea of the angry bra burning feminist, the feminist who hates all men and wants to eliminate them in order for female domination to ensue. I don’t think I have ever met a feminist like this in my life, and the likelihood of my meeting one any time soon is extremely slim. And yet, to call yourself a feminist can often mean that people immediately envision this version of you – a bitter angry woman who wants to complain about everything.

I Call Myself A Feminist seeks to reclaim the feminist label for those who seek both small and immediate changes alongside fundamental shifts in human thinking. The essayists in this collection proclaim their appreciation for the feminists before them, whilst also seeking to write their own feminism, seeking equality and justice in all aspects of life. As the editors state in their introduction to the collection:

“This book is for everyone everywhere – a statement of intent. ‘I call myself a feminist’ is an active, personal and powerful phrase. It is a statement of a way of thinking that we have chosen to become a part of us – a part of the many quirks and intrigue that make us ourselves.”

It is for this reason that I cannot help but sing my praises for this book. I Call Myself A Feminist is an important read for young feminists, to encourage them to unashamedly, unabashedly call themselves feminists, without fear or worry for the connotations that the label has held before. It is call for us all to find our own definition of what it means to be feminist, and to actively hold ourselves to account when enacting our own feminism.

 

I Call Myself A Feminist is now available in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its reader to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

Thank you once again to Hachette Australia for sending me a copy of I Call Myself A Feminist. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

© Hayley New 2016

Gracefully Grayson: A Review

I don’t think I have ever come across a story about a young trans person written for young people before, so when the opportunity arose for me to review Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson I couldn’t help but be drawn to it. I was curious about how this book may portray a young trans person in the process of navigating their trans identity, and how they might come out to themselves, a narrative that I think has been absent from children’s literature.

I am instantly suspicious of any trans narrative written by a non-trans person. Most of my own education about trans people has come from people in the trans community themselves, the things they have written, the art they have made, and the stories they have shared. If there is anything I have learnt from this, it is that the best people to discuss trans experiences are those who have had those experiences, simply because they have the best tools to talk about what it is like being trans. But it should never fall to trans people to be the educators of the non-trans population – and that is where books like this come in.

Gracefully Grayson is a lovingly written book, focusing on the story of young Grayson, who is starting to explore her* own identity. Uncomfortable in the body she has been given and the constructs that have been built around that body, she frequently toys with the idea of her too long shirts becoming dresses and her baggy pants becoming skirts, but continues to hide her feelings through self-imposed isolation at school and at home. However, when the opportunity arises to audition for the school play, Grayson decides to audition for the lead female role. When she gets the part, she must brace herself for the onslaught of opinions from her family and the potential bullying at school, whilst also trying to come to terms with her emerging trans identity.

gracefullygrayson (1)

Gracefully Grayson is aimed at younger readers, probably from about twelve years old and up, but even as an older reader, I could see that this book held an important story to share with its readers. This is not necessarily a book about realising that you are trans or even about coming out to other people. First and foremost, this book is about learning about yourself, and learning to come out to yourself, despite what others around you try to impose – whether this is through social constructs or bullying. For that, I cannot help but commend Ami Polonsky, and thank her for making this a book both for and about Grayson, rather than about the people around Grayson as she tries to navigate her own trans identity.

Don’t get me wrong, I still found that I had a few problems with this book. The early stages of the book started to set up a confusing and problematic framework for Grayson’s trans identity, almost leading the reader to see a connecting line drawn between the trauma of Grayson losing her parents and her being trans, as though her trans identity was a symptom of this trauma. The later stages of the plot quickly undo this, recognising Grayson’s identification as female prior to the loss of her parents, but I cannot help but feel uncomfortable about this earlier framework regardless. I fail to see why Grayson should have to lose her parents, and connect this loss with her trans identity for this story to be told. But ultimately, this is a fiction book, and so, there is always an exaggeration added for fiction’s sake, even if it is not necessarily the most just thing for the narrative.

Despite these problems, I definitely think that this book is vital in helping start a conversation with young people about trans people and trans identity. No book written about trans experience by a non-trans writer is going to be without its problems, but I think this book is very aware of itself and its problematic features. It is careful not to assume, and doesn’t pretend to speak for all trans coming out experiences (for example, at no point in the novel does it assume a particular racial identity or sexuality for Grayson). Grayson could be anyone, and anyone could see themselves in Grayson. Honestly, it is a book I think that all young children should read, and I look forward to seeing more literature about trans identity become available to young people.

If you have read this book, or have any thoughts about literature about trans experiences written for young people, please let me know in the comments below. I look forward to reading your discussions.

Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson is now available in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its reader to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

Thank you once again to Hachette Australia for sending me a copy of Gracefully Grayson. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

*I have chosen to use she/her pronouns for Grayson in my review, in respect for both Grayson and her trans identity, as well as others in the trans community who may feel uncomfortable with the use of he/his pronouns used in this book in reference to Grayson.

 

© Hayley New 2016

On Creative Crushes and Unproductive Jealousy

There are very few things more crippling for a creative person than artistic jealousy.

As most creative people will know, it is incredibly difficult to do anything productive when you are filled with a jealous rage about the artistic talents of those around you and in the wider arts community. Despite the fact that we all know this, it rarely stops us from participating in this act of jealousy.

I am no stranger to the creative crush. I have always been extremely vocal about the people whose creative work I admire and the work that goes into such magnificent art. I have spent many hours pouring out my heart over the works of Helen Oyeyemi, John Green, Andrew Kaufman, Julie Koh, Caitlin Moran, Woody Allen, Cassandra Clare, Adele, The 1975, Vincent Van Gogh, Shakespeare, David Bowie and so many more (the list goes on pretty much forever). Anyone who knows me knows that at the moment, my great artistic crush is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the hit musical Hamilton. I am endlessly amazed by his creative talent and nothing makes me happier than listening to the Hamilton soundtrack over and over, taking in every tiny little detail of the music and the lyrics and the little moments of sly humour that make Hamilton amazing. My friends and family must be sick of me going on about how much I love Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton.

But my going on about Hamilton all the time is more than just me endlessly enjoying learning all the lyrics to the soundtrack – it is my way of celebrating all the hard work, effort and creative talent that has gone into making Hamilton amazing. My admiration of Lin-Manuel Miranda is not just attached to his role in the show, it is part of my wider celebration of his contribution to his creative field, and his artistic bravery and willingness to share his work. And more than that, it is a way for me to combat my intense jealousy of his talent.

When I first listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, I was in awe of this immensely brilliant work, and I immediately felt jealous of Lin-Manuel Miranda because he had made it. How could someone be so talented? But being jealous of his work did nothing but make me feel small about my own work. Sure, I don’t have a hit Broadway musical that I wrote making headlines worldwide, but I have my own achievements that I need to be proud of. I just got my first ever paid article published. I have been writing some of the best poetry of my life this year. I’m writing a novel. INWORDSANDINK is constantly growing. And I am incredibly proud of those achievements.

Admiring the work of others is all very good, but you should never let this admiration turn into all-consuming jealousy. Jealousy only kills your own creativity and is terrifyingly unproductive. Being jealous of someone else’s work because it is good and/or better than yours is not going to help either, it’ll only ever make you feel small.

That’s why I aim instead for the creative crush, and I would encourage other creatives to do the same. Creative crushes, unlike artistic jealousy, work to celebrate the work of others in a positive way, and make you aspire to create your own unique work that has the same sort of powerful and intense impact as the art of those you admire. Plus, as someone who loves art and creativity, why should you ever hate someone for making amazing art that is doing incredibly well? It makes no sense at all.

So instead of feeling jealous about other people’s work, go out and join creative communities and celebrate the immense talents of those around you. Surround yourself with their great art and work to feel inspired by the work they create. And never, ever, let yourself feel like a failure, because other peoples’ artistic successes should always serve as a reminder to be confident and courageous in making and sharing your creative work.

 

© Hayley New 2016

Teffi’s “Rasputin and Other Ironies”: A Review

For those who have yet to experience her brilliance, Teffi was a brilliant female Russian writer who waded her way through literary fame, revolution and exile, writing as she went. Capturing some of the most compelling moments of her time in her work, Teffi succeeded in treating life with little regard for falsities, writing sharp and witty commentaries about her life in a time of political turmoil. Rasputin and Other Ironies, a recent collection of some of her work, published by Pushkin Press, is the best introduction to her writing I could have ever asked for.

There is something utterly entrancing about Teffi’s prose. She chooses her words deftly, yet carries with her a bluntness that makes her stories shine. She writes fearlessly, unafraid of what we have to say as readers of her work. She is honest, giving equal respect to comedy and tragedy in her life. In this collection of translations of some of Teffi’s best work, she writes about life in all its many glorious complexities, from the vast collapsing mountain of her writing desk to Lenin and Rasputin. She speaks about all topics with the same exquisite wit and seriousness, undercut with trademark Teffi humour.

teffi

Just look at how beautiful that cover design is! So befitting of the work inside.

Almost everything I have read about Russia in the time of the last Tsar and the revolution has romanticised something – whether it be the Tsar and his family, the famous story of the lost princess Anastasia, the mysticism of Rasputin, or just the life of the Russian people. We tend to think of this period of time in isolation, like it is trapped in a glittering snow globe where we can peak in and see change happening far away from us.

Teffi doesn’t do this, and it is refreshing to read something that speaks so carefully and yet so bluntly about what life was like as a writer and as a woman in this time in Russian history. She is not sugar coating anything, as she smashes our snow globes and tells us of her life. She has no time for the men who seek to control her writing and her interactions with famous historical figures, and she has no time for us either, writing more for herself than anyone else. One of my favourite moments is when she describes how women would fall all over themselves to spend time with Rasputin himself, but when she meets him, she has no desire to speak to him beyond her duty. She remembers him, but not for his supposed charm, but rather for his strange place amongst the Russian people, the way he tried to woo her, and his attempts to predict the future of Russia: “if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia”, and the way this felt true for a time, but even then, she writes this with a sense of irony, as she watches the image of Rasputin burn.

It is amazing to learn about Teffi through her own writing: her visit to Leo Tolstoy at thirteen, working as a journalist under the watchful eyes of Lenin, meeting Rasputin, trying to find her feet as a writer, and the whirlwind of St Petersburg before she left her homeland to find refuge in Paris. There is something unspeakably dazzling about her writing, and I could not put this collection down when I got started.

Teffi’s writing makes me want to write better than I do, and it makes me want to look at life and all its light and shadow with a pen. Her writing is beyond words, and her ability to share her life so fearlessly in a time were writers, especially women writers, were in a precarious political and social position is simply awe-inspiring. Teffi is a writer so rare that I cannot help but sing her praises, even if I know she would probably roll her eyes at me for doing so.

 

Rasputin and Other Ironies is now available from Pushkin Press’ online shop or in all good bookstores. As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to buy from and support their local independent bookstores.

Thank you once again to Pushkin Press for sending me a copy of Teffi’s Rasputin and Other Ironies. Whilst I was sent the book for reviewing purposes, I was not in any way paid or financially obligated to write this review.

 

© Hayley New 2016

Vote 1 Sausage Sizzle

Today, I was denied my democratic right to a sausage sizzle at my local polling booth.

There are few things more Australian than the sausage sizzle, it is one of those age old traditions that brings everyone together. And as everyone knows, there is no more important time to unite people than an election.

As long as I can remember, at every election, my local polling booth has rolled out the barbeques and made sure that everyone hasn’t just voted, but has also been fed. Even as a child, I would accompany my Mum and Dad to the local public school, waiting in line for a freshly barbequed sausage on white bread whilst they waited in line to vote. Governments and politicians have come and gone, and yet the sausage sizzle has remained constant.

That is, until today.

With the #democracysausage hashtag making the rounds on Twitter, and an all-out celebration of local sausage sizzles taking over social media in general today, you can imagine my disappointment when I went to vote and there was no sausage sizzle – no barbeques, no volunteers in aprons turning lightly charred sausages, no tins full of gold coin donations. Nothing.

I wasn’t asking for anything fancy. I know a lot of barbeques taking place at polling booths around Sydney were offering Vegetarian options, or even in some cases, Vegan options – allowing even more people into the tradition of the voting booth barbeque. Our local area has never gone that far, always sticking to the no frills white bread and snags. This year, they have left us disappointed.

My Dad and I lamented the loss of the local tradition with me after we voted, and we could not help that we had lost a little piece of our community right there. Well, our community and our lunch. Who in their right minds can make sense of the ballot papers on an empty stomach anyway?

On a more serious note, all Australians over 18 should go out and vote today. We are lucky enough to vote freely in this country, a privilege not afforded to everyone around the world, so we should really make sure to take advantage of our opportunity to choose our government and ensure our futures.

As for me, I’ll be going and exercising my democratic right to eat as many sausage sizzle sandwiches as I want at my local Bunnings.

© Hayley New 2016