When Australian writer Aiki Flinthart was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wanted to work on a final book as a literary legacy. Her shout out to writers who were willing to participate in a project was answered from around the globe. So, we have Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, Lee Murray, Ken Liu, Ian Irvine, and several other authors from the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror, experimental fiction, and speculative fiction coming together to support a fellow writer. And what a stunning display of literature has been brought forth for the reader!
Aiki’s theme was relics, wrecks, and ruins – very narrow in itself, heightening the reader’s curiosity into what the contributors could possibly have come up with. And they surprise you with one story after another! A magical carpet woven with stories that come alive, an underwater village of corpses, a submarine under attack by the real world and saved by a mythical one, a life composed of 16-minute loops, a dog stealing enchanted artifacts, musicians conducting exorcisms through rock music. A world of witches and fairies, alien interactions and underwater adventures, past and future, the highest points in space and the depths of the oceans – Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins lives up to its task of creating a legacy.
Aiki Flinthart passed away earlier this month. Her final creation is an astonishing work of art, considering the extraordinary circumstances of how it came into being. A must-read for all readers, irrespective of the genres mentioned above. It’s just so well written! When it comes to anthologies, sourcing multiple writers with equal credibility is a task in itself. Add to that their numerous genres, the narrow scope of the theme, and the fact that they’re scattered around the world and still working as a team. Flinthart could not have been prouder of the legacy she left behind.
With Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, award-winning author Keith Rosson delves into notions of family, grief, identity, indebtedness, loss, and hope, with the surefooted merging of literary fiction and magical realism he’s explored in previous novels. In “Dunsmuir,” a newly sober husband buys a hearse to help his wife spread her sister’s ashes, while “The Lesser Horsemen” illustrates what happens when God instructs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to go on a team-building cruise as a way of boosting their frayed morale. In “Brad Benske and the Hand of Light,” an estranged husband seeks his wife’s whereabouts through a fortuneteller after she absconds with a cult, and in “High Tide,” a grieving man ruminates on his brother’s life as a monster terrorizes their coastal town. With grace, imagination, and a brazen gallows humor, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons merges the fantastic and the everyday, and includes a number of Rosson’s unpublished stories, as well as award-winning favorites.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As a guest writer for Meerkat Press’ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature this remarkable literary endeavor of a fantastic writer on its worldwide blog tour.
AN EXCERPT FROM ‘THE LESSER HORSEMEN’
“We stepped outside as knives of sunlight winked off every glassed thing on the street. The stink of exhaust enveloped us. Sewage warming in the gutters brought out the scents of the human soufflé: piss, heated blacktop, burnt plastic.
Famine hiked his jeans up—we had our trappings, each of us, our strange cosmic shortcomings that kept us tethered here, not nearly human but certainly more than ideas, and Famine’s was, obviously, his constant hunger. Not so obvious was that he could never find a fucking belt that fit him. He took off down the avenue muttering something about an all-you-can-eat bouillabaisse shop on Mississippi, the cuffs of his pants scraping the ground, arms wrinkled and red at the elbows, striding along with one hand bunching the acid-washed fabric at his waist.
War folded his cruise handout and sighed, squinting at the empty street. “We leave in three hours? Man, He’s not dicking around.”
“He’s not known for that, is He?”
“True. Guess I better go grab my gear,” he said, and then paused. He seemed poised for some comradely dig, but we were long past it. Centuries, at least. “See you on the boat,” he managed.
The Good Lord certainly had a point. I could admit that. We’d long since become fractious, four different arrows arcing toward four different targets at four different times. No harmony, no shared intention. There had been a time when that was not the case, but now? Only Death was constant.
The Good Lord was staring at me through the window, his hands cinched over his little stovepot of a belly. He raised a hand and shooed me along, the look in his eyes absolutely flat, dead as deep space.
I went home to pack.”
INTERVIEW WITH KEITH ROSSON
I interviewed author Keith Rosson as part of the release and promotional tour of his latest book. Here’s a peek into our conversation:
1) After reading The Mercy of the Tide last year, I was looking forward to your latest book. How do you strike a balance between literary fiction and experimental fiction?
I wish I knew the answer to that. As it stands now, my work is considered “genre-blurring,” i.e. “we don’t know where to file this guy’s stuff, so while we recognize he’s a decent writer, this stuff is a bit harder to sell.” I think that balance just comes from writing for so long. I greatly admire genre writers, as well as those who write literary fiction, and balancing that tightrope between the two really just comes from diligence and writing a lot.
2) Your writing spans across magical realism, fantasy, contemporary horror, and mystery. Is there a specific reader audience you target?
Oh man, if there was, I’d probably sell more books. But I’m that weird amalgam of a writer – one who’d like to be considered a “serious literary author” but also simply cannot stop writing about reincarnated medieval executioners or monsters or guys getting beaten up by, like, sentient, malevolent forests. I have no idea who my audience is, but I know some people like my books, and I’m profoundly grateful for them.
3) When your genres and themes are so vast, what are the challenges in writing a short story collection in comparison to a novel?
I’m not a prolific short story writer. For every story that I finish, there’s probably a half dozen of them where I’ve lost the thread or the idea peters out and they languish half-finished. So honestly, the challenges here were just picking the best stories and arranging them in a way that made the most sense. I have no idea if other writers experience this problem, but with a novel I can get a general idea of the thing as a whole. It starts here, ends here, and in the middle, all of this shit happens. I get that process. With a story collection, it’s like holding a bunch of different puzzle pieces and trying to fit them into something manageable and just hoping it works. It feels way more fractured, way less linear, and you’re not sure if the pieces fit or not until the thing comes out in a book.
4) Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons – What’s the story behind the title, and the book cover as well?
I grew up on punk rock and I love it. I consider punk songs to essentially be folk songs. Protest songs or homage songs, electrified. Three chords, simple structure, a clear intent. So a folk song is like this simple homage to something, right? And a trauma surgeon is someone who fixes our injuries, staunches our blood, sets our bones straight, closes our wounds so that we don’t die. A folk song for a trauma surgeon is a simple, shouted thank you to those that fix our ailments, that stitch our wounds for us. As far as the cover goes, there’s a wolf and there’s a rabbit. Their relationship seems pretty clear. There’s a lot of that kind of relationship in the book, whether its internalized or not.
5) Your narratives merge the everyday with fantastical elements. What drives you as a writer? How much of your observations and experiences make it into your stories, and where does imagination take over?
That’s an awesome question, and I wish I knew how to answer it. It’s all organic. Knowing when to insert some feeling or observation or humanity into a scene that’s otherwise fantastical or fabulist is just one of those things that I’ve gotten more comfortable with due to endless practice. But the goal – one of the goals – is to make people care about these folks. You want readers to care about these people, become invested in them. And as far as what drives me, I actually love the publishing, submitting, and editing process. The whole thing is a blast. Even the endless (and I do mean endless) rejection has had much of its sting taken out after all these years. I love books, I love libraries, I love reading. None of it has lost its allure over the years.
6) Stories like “The Lesser Horsemen” and “Homecoming” are thought-provoking and seeped in reality through fantasy. Any thoughts on writing satire, considering the very relevant topics you cover?
Honestly, I don’t really know what satire is as a genre, or how to write it. Gotta plead ignorance on this question, as I don’t know enough about the genre to offer much of a take on it.
7) Which story in the collection would you say you had the best time writing?
You know, I wrote “The Lesser Horsemen” in a notebook over a period of maybe three days, and when I sat down to type it out, it was almost a word-for-word transcription of what you’re reading in the book, with very few changes. It was maybe the purest version of “automatic writing” I’ve ever experienced as an author. Compare that with “Their Souls Climb the Room” – I worked on multiple versions of that story for six or seven years, and writing the version that you see in the collection was like pulling teeth. Speaking of pulling teeth, I also think “Baby Jill,” the story about the tooth fairy who’s beginning to question her own existence, as well as humanity’s frailty of spirit, is one of the coolest, creepiest things I’ve written. One of my favorite stories.
8) Any upcoming books for readers to look forward to?
We haven’t even officially announced it yet, but my novel All the Wound-Down World will be released by Meerkat Press in 2023. It’s set in present day and features the same setting/world and some of the same characters as The Mercy of the Tide, forty years after the events in that book took place. It’s, uh, pretty wild.
9) Any literary influences, favorite books or authors you would recommend?
Here are a bunch of books that I’veread over the past few years that have stuck with me. They’re all great:
Mad Boy by Nick Arvin
Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud (stories)
Dodgers by Bill Beverly
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs (stories)
Broken River by J. Robert Lennon
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai (stories)
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons (stories)
And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks (stories)
Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick (stories)
“When I ran my first race I was 67 years old. I didn’t care whether I won or not. I didn’t care whether I survived or not. The only reason I was in it was to satisfy my daughter.”
When Ida Keeling’s daughter Cheryl asked her to accompany her for a run, she immediately thought her daughter was being stalked and decided to keep her safe on the road. Having found both her sons murdered, she “couldn’t afford to lose any more children” and promptly went ahead, with maternal instincts taking over any race preparation. She won a podium in the 5K in her age category.
‘Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down’ is the story of this formidable woman who is presently 105 years old – the track and field athlete Ida Keeling, a Masters record holder. The American of Caribbean descent walks us down memory lane of having been through two world wars, the Great Depression, the American Civil War, from hearing Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ standing in front of him, to wondering if she would ever get to see a black man in the White House, battling homelessness and joblessness, being a single mother to four children, tackling racism and sexism across two centuries, addressing the African diaspora from Jamaican to Haitian history, completing college in her forties, running in her sixties, competing internationally in her eighties, here is a woman who has literally seen, heard, and done it all.
When it comes to memoirs, there is often a tendency of writers trying too hard to come across as inspirational, by listing problems which only showcase their privileges instead. Ida offers a fresh take with her matter-of-fact narrative, dismissing her hardships as “people have been worse off”. The conversational tone feels like talking to a wise old grandmother, proffering life lessons and advice on the way without praising herself. Encouraging women to have professional careers rather than being dependent on a spouse, highlighting the importance of education, the pride in supporting her niece to become an armed forces officer, the loss of two children who were found murdered with both cases never solved because no witnesses wanted to get involved with the law, the importance of reading, the uselessness of regrets, the ease with which black people get blamed and white people go free, breaking shackles of mental slavery, training for races under the guidance of her daughter, taking care of family, aiming for the sky, writing poetry, going to the gym, the fear of being trampled in her first race, the serenity that accompanies running, the elation of having another day to do what you want to do. Over a hundred years can never be compressed into a book, and a review does even lesser justice of a life story that covers everything and still leaves you wanting more.
“The gun sounded, and I was off, putting to shame younger couch potatoes, excuse givers, or plain old slackers. I surged forward in my yellow shoes, salmon-colored shirt, and matching earrings.”
Surge forward, like Ida does! And when a 100 plus woman trained by her 60 plus daughter speaks, you listen to her wisdom. Read this wonderful book to learn about this amazing personality.
“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”
This classic line from Clive Barker’s masterpiece, that also made it to the movie, sums up the horror ride being embarked upon. Frank Cotton is in search of Lemarchand’s Configuration – a cube that promises infinite joy by theologians of the Order of the Gash once the puzzle is solved. A pleasure dome where those who have exhausted the trivial delights of the human condition might discover a fresh definition of joy, created by the craftsman Lemarchand in the form of a musical box that can be toyed with for a lifetime and never let you in. Stories, fantasies, legends – the puzzle has an aura of mystery. Lemarchand’s device comes with pragmatic and metaphysical rules to break the seal – To solve the puzzle is to travel. The box is not just the map of the road, but the road itself. Setting the right configuration summons beings that provide a surplus of the good things in life. Only, everyone’s definition of happiness is different. Frank takes up the challenge and successfully solves the puzzle and the Cenobites deliver, but not what he expected.
Rory Cotton moves into his old family home with his wife Julia. His estranged brother, Frank, has been missing for over a year, and with no one to lay claim to the family property, they decide to settle in. Rory sustains an injury while shifting boxes, and the blood from the wound brings the house alive. Frank Cotton – or whatever is left of him – has been in the house all along, trapped in his world and tortured in the dimensions of the box. He wanted to call the Cenobites here, they took him to their realm instead. The simplicity and complexity of Lemarchand’s Configuration unleashed at once – two parties meeting, which place is the right one? Who decides right and wrong? And as Julia helps him cross over into the land of the living, the reader is taken on a journey of the cube and the echo it symbolizes, as Frank navigates his duality in the lands of the living and the dead. You can’t dream agonies away. They have to be endured.
While the Hellraiser movie, and its string of sequels (nine of them!), were a gore fest of the eighties like no other (the screenplay having been written by Clive Barker himself in his vision for the big screen, his directorial debut aimed at primarily American audiences though the book is classic British horror), the book dives deeper into the origins and workings of the box, each of the Cenobites, and what exactly happens to Frank Cotton before, during, and after solving the cube. A crossword maybe, whose solution would lift the latch of the paradise garden, or a jigsaw in the completion of which lay access to Wonderland. Those who enjoy solving jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and Rubik cubes will marvel at Barker’s twisted take on schadenfreude through a simple musical box. The Hellbound Heart is a wonderful metaphor through horror, the Cenobites symbolic of people who find joy in other’s misfortunes, lift themselves up by bringing others down, and base their happiness on the unhappiness of others. Everyone’s definition of happiness is different, and the same situation can be interpreted in markedly different ways by two people. Someone’s hell is another person’s heaven. The mending of broken hearts is a puzzle neither wit nor time has the skill to solve.
The Hellbound Heart is a beautifully written book with amazing quotes. Those who have watched the movies and could not stomach the gore can give this one a go if you enjoy good literature. Just like Stephen King, however visually overwhelming the movies might be, the writing from a master storyteller is not to be missed. The Cenobites are neither named in the original story nor movie, but Barker’s descriptions are so vivid that Pinhead, Chatterer, and Butterball have achieved distinct horror icon status through the years. The imagery and storytelling is so good! An absolute horror classic whose movie adaptation lived up to the book, even though Barker changed the narratives.
Horror is my favorite genre in fiction and I read across all of its sub-genres including true crime, psychological horror, comedy horror, from novels to short story collections, dark poetry and anthologies. A random search for horror books throws up the usual fare from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Josh Malerman, Kealan Patrick Burke. While I have loved books by all these writers, women authors in the genre don’t show up as easily, with the exception of Shirley Jackson and Mary Shelley for their classic works. I thought back to all the books I’ve read and the ones in my to-read list and came up with this listicle of horror stories from women writers. These include translated books as well as original language ones, novellas, novels, collections, prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction by writers, translators, editors, and publishers who create terror through words. From historical fiction, science fiction, young adult, satire, to mythology, folklore, speculative fiction, re-telling of true events, and dark verses – take your pick. Since February is coming up, I compiled a list of twenty-eight women in horror – one book recommendation for each day of the month.
1) Agustina Maria Bazterrica – Tender is the Flesh
A virus has eradicated animals, and humanity turns to cannibalism for its source of meat as humans are domesticated, mass produced, and slaughtered. Translated from the Spanish, a nauseating and provocative satire that blends science fiction with horror.
2) Ally Blue – Down
An underwater, paranormal suspense fest surrounding the discovery of a rock-like sphere that causes humans to mutate and turn into horror versions of themselves.
3) Alma Katsu – The Deep
Historical fiction horror set around the events of the Titanic and its sister ship the Britannic. The maritime disaster and World War I are caught in sinister happenings in this supernatural thriller.
4) Cassandra Khaw – Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef
A novella about the dual life of a sorcerer and soldier, combining horror and comedy with Malaysian and Chinese mythology.
5) Christina Henry – The Ghost Tree
YA horror about missing people and terrifying visions of monsters dragging remains. Ghostly trees, creepy children, witches, and curses – almost like watching a horror movie.
6) Christina Sng – Dreamscapes
Horror, fantasy, and science fiction come together in this poetry collection that addresses the darkness within. Verses that serve to unsettle and terrify, proving how poetry can be more impactful than prose.
7) Elizabeth Kostova – The Historian
A historical fiction Dracula story moving across time and place with shifting narrator perspectives. A debut vampire novel that interweaves history with folklore and makes for a riveting read.
8) Fernanda Melchor – Hurricane Season
Mythology and terror from Spanish literature, with the English translation maintaining the grim, intense and graphic prose of its original source in this portrait of a Mexican village and its witch.
9) Francine Toon – Pine
A haunting tale in the Scottish highlands, filled with intrigue and eeriness, alternating between terrifying and heart wrenching, spooky and suspenseful in equal measures.
10) Gemma Amor – Dear Laura
A novella of lifelong obsession, this dark, twisted tale about penpals stands out for its brilliantly atmospheric writing.
11) Jennifer Hillier – Wonderland
Psychological thriller, amusement park, serial killer – gruesome and wicked as you set out to solve crimes.
12) Jennifer McMahon – Winter People
Historical fiction meets fantasy in this chilling story of missing people and secrets galore.
13) Joyce Carol Oates – The Doll Master
A collection of short stories that borrows its title from an obsession over dolls, and leads into an unsettling world of abominations and mystery.
14) Kaaron Warren – Into Bones Like Oil
A haunted house novella with an unconventional narrative and storyline, and an interesting take on the ghost story.
15) Kathe Koja – The Cipher
Winner of the Bram Stoker award for Best Debut Novel, the Funhole does not live up to its name. A black hole that calls out and launches a journey of obsession, darkness, and blinding terror of classic horror in spectacular prose.
16) Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions
There’s nothing like historical fiction for a dose of gothic horror. An asylum, a haunted mansion, intriguing journals, hidden secrets – a creepy ghost story that grabs the attention from beginning to end.
17) Laurel Hightower – Crossroads
An exceptional novella dealing with the horrors of heartbreak and grief, and things coming back from the dead. An emotional and devastating read that shows you just how diverse the horror genre can be.
18) Lee Murray – Grotesque
A collection of monster stories that range from mythology to legend and science fiction, offering a dip into Maori folklore and French history, zombie attacks and adventures. Packed with action and gore, the stories are a delight for monster fans.
19) Lisa Kröger – Monster, She Wrote
Why read one horror story when you can read about them all? A non-fiction horror book about women who pioneered the genres of horror and speculative fiction; writers who defied convention and crafted some stellar spooky tales. From ghost stories to psychological horror, intriguing trivia and reading recommendations, a book about books not to be missed.
20) Lucy A. Snyder – Sparks and Shadows
A dark fantasy collection of short stories, poems, and essays. Twisted tales in myriad settings, witty and diverse, horrifying, amusing and thought provoking.
21) Mariana Enriquez – Things We Lost in the Fire
A short story collection of the macabre, mixing magical realism with gothic fiction in this astonishing treat from Spanish literature, brought to us in English by translator Megan McDowell.
22) Mariko Koike – The Graveyard Apartment
Detective fiction and horror writing come together in this translation from Japanese literature of psychological horror set around a graveyard. Deborah Boehm brings this to us in English.
23) Michelle Paver – Thin Air
A historical fiction ghost story set in the Himalayas. Nature can be brutal enough, but what if it isn’t the only thing you’re battling? Subtle supernatural elements, more psychological rather than physical, can be more horrific at times.
24) Nalo Hopkinson – Skin Folk
A short story collection of magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction interweaved with horror. Storytelling at its best.
25) Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream
Some more magical realism from Spanish literature in this surreal nightmare of an otherworldly story. Menacing, unsettling, and thoroughly absorbing in its usage of horror to explore current world issues.
26) Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting
An exceptional collection of Japanese short stories that explore the dark side of human nature and antisocial behavior. Lucy North translates to English to bring us a startling and disquieting world.
27) Yoko Ogawa – Revenge
Another dark treat from Japanese literature in an experimental format of seemingly unrelated short stories coming together to form a larger novel. Bland settings and ordinary people up the ante of terrors lurking in everyday life.
28) Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – I Remember You
Scandinavian Nordic noir of isolation and remoteness; horror based on true events. Translated from the Icelandic, a ghost story that proffers the chills.
Three bonus books for the women who lead the way as editors and publishers:
29) Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn – Black Cranes
A collection of short stories by Asian writers, highlighting the dual themes of women in horror and Asian women writers. A smorgasbord of mythology, legend, folklore, science fiction, comedy horror, satire, dark fantasy.
30) Aiki Flinthart – Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins
A collection of science fiction and fantasy with horror to showcase the remnants of humanity and celebrate a legacy.
31) Tricia Reeks – Meerkat Press
The publishing house comes out with some very different but very good books, in equal parts weird, unique, and dark.
PS: This article also features in Horror Addicts – a publication devoted to the horror genre in all its forms, including literature and cinema. “Women Writing Horror” was published in keeping with their February theme of Women in Horror Month.
I came across this book while looking up a book gift for a friend, and was so piqued by the title and synopsis that I bought a copy for myself, too. Written by an ex-Army officer, The Shadow Runner offers a unique reading experience – a novel set around life in the academy which turns cadets into officers.
While the tagline itself reveals a story about two boys, the book opens in the thick of battle at Kashmir where a special forces officer remembers his “brother”, immediately heightening the reader’s curiosity about why the story begins with just one of them and what could have happened to the other. The crux of the novel surrounds two boys – Virender and Govind – complete opposites of each other, with their own reasons for wanting to don the maroon beret. We are gradually led into the Indian Military Academy (IMA), with its myriad tales of military life, training, anecdotes, friends and enemies made, banter and shared experiences, camaraderie – everything young cadets go through to complete their training and earn their status as commissioned officers of the Indian Army.
Through his own experiences serving in the army in areas of high insurgent activity like Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern states, the author enlightens us about the preparations our officers go through in order to keep our borders safe. The academy sees all kinds of candidates – those who want to serve the country, those who have been sent there by parents who themselves didn’t get the chance to serve the country, those whose parents served and were sent to the academy by default of being army kids, those who want to start a new life, get over relationships and break ups, leave their old life behind, those discouraged by family and friends over taking up “risky” jobs, those who work hard but fail to get through, those who don’t put in the effort but happen to clear the tests – a plethora of personalities who enter the academy for various reasons, but are ultimately transformed into people who would do anything for their country.
So, each of the characters have their own back story into why they are where they are. And the past leads us to another past, culminating into the reasons for the book’s present. A story within a story within a story, such that the conclusion draws you back to the beginning. I love embedded narratives as a genre, and Major Vishal has done a splendid job with this nested story. Of particular interest as a reader, is where the title fits into the storyline, and the revelation of The Shadow Runner is truly magnificent in its tribute to the men in uniform.
A book about friendship, love, sacrifice, discipline, brotherhood, heartbreak, The Shadow Runner is definitely a book for armed force aspirants, but can be enjoyed by every kind of reader. Besides memoirs and non-fiction books about historical events featuring the armed forces, fiction books authored by officers themselves are rare. It’s so beautifully written by a debut writer, I’m glad my year began with some wonderful books and I hope to see more of Major Vishal’s literary prowess. Highly recommended for its storyline, characters, niche genre, theme, and overall writing.
From what began as a dialog between two adventurous writers curious about the shape-shifter called a prose poem comes a stunning collection that is a disruption of language—a provocation. Speculate is a hybrid of speculative poetry and flash fiction, thrumming in a pulse of jouissance and intensity that chases the impossible.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
As a guest writer for Meerkat Press’ latest offering, Tomes and Tales has collaborated with the publishing house to feature this remarkable literary endeavor of two writers on its worldwide blog tour. My review of the book can be found here.
Friends are not important—like plagues, they come and go, even blood is not thicker. But fate is another matter. Some fool in autumn had a drink in the dark, sought a taste of heaven in a street named Bagh Nakh. Found it in the hands of a runaway who raised a hand and plunged a dagger that clung to the idiot’s heart.
You were born in autumn and so, naturally, hate spring. The scent of blackwood showering pollen. The air licked with gold where the buzzing of the bees deepens. The sudden opacity of it all. You run. Run away. Away from the visible and from the invisible. With the pollen clinging to your skin, the sun striking and the darkness beneath your feet settling, you are a living phobia. A fear of no consequence. Yet as eons pass in one beat of the heart, you hear the rustle under the trees. Taste the bite of death.
2)Neither a kitchen nor a sky
Her heart is a room full of photographs and pillows wafting around rehearsing melancholy and reinstating torment. But there is still no word, just somber silence in the floating photographs and neglected pillows cartwheeling like burnt toast past the IKEA blender and microwave in a fairy tale of space that does not involve breathing.
His heart smells of burnt toast. If you look closely, you will see a paisley design—the sort found as all-over design for an IKEA bedspread. The main motif and the background of ferns are done with pure (that is unmixed) colors: just red (turkey) and black (jet) to conjure up the marriage of blood and vegemite, the staples of his diet, as well as his sign in the Chinese horoscope. Yes: he is a tiger. Enter the chambers of his heart at your peril. Don’t say you were not warned. He grinds his teeth.
INTERVIEW WITH DOMINIQUE HECQ
I interviewed author Dominique Hecq as part of the release and promotional tour of her latest book, co-authored with Eugen Bacon. Here’s a peek into our conversation:
1) While co-authored books are not uncommon, how did the idea for a conversational narrative come about?
Eugen and I are part of a prose poetry group and at one point we noticed that we were constantly responding to each other’s posts through fiction and feedback. So, it seemed natural to pursue the conversation outside that forum.
Eugen has also co-authored short fiction with other writers, recently with Andrew Hook (slipstream fiction) and Seb Doubinsky (an afro-francophone collaboration), which may be testament to her ability to work with others, and understand synergy.
On the other hand, I have collaborated with performers, sound-artists, musicians and dancers. I’ve also written a bilingual work with Chantal Danjou, a French novelist, and worked closely with authors whose work I’ve translated (most recently Claudia La Rocca, from San Francisco).
2) Dominique, you and Eugen are so similar, in the sense of being completely different in your respective writing styles. What goes into selecting a co-writer? How did you get together for this project?
It started in master/apprentice relationship—I supervised Eugen’s PhD in creative writing. I was working as an associate professor at the time. The relation evolved to one of mutual respect. We’ve known each other for over ten years and have learned from each other’s stylistic differences. You could say it is precisely these differences that cement our relationship. It also energises our writing. In this project, we bounce off each other’s words and take the narratives to extremes.
3) Speculate is presented as a dialogue through essays. How did the two of you decide on your parts? Did a verbal conversation flow into writing, or as writers did you read each other and then take the conversation ahead?
The latter: As writers we read each other and took the conversation ahead. This is why Speculate has two parts—one in which I respond to triggers in Eugen’s text, and one in which Eugen reacts to mine.
4) Prose poetry as a genre has a very specific following from readers who enjoy both forms. Any literary influences, books or writers you would recommend for further reading?
The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: from Baudelaire to Anne Carson (2018), edited by Jeremy Noel Tod, is a good place to start as it looks at the form’s rich heritage in the literary mainstream. Without wanting to be parochial, I would also recommend The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (2020), edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington. More focused towards critical commentary are Jane Monson’s British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines and Peter Johnson’s A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry (2019).
I couldn’t close this question without mentioning Russell Edson, the “grandfather of the American prose poem,” who has published thirteen collections of prose poems, and Mexican writer Gaspar Orozco’s whose book-length prose poem Book of the Peony (2017) is just stunning in Mark Weiss’s translation.
As for the question of influence, it’s hard to tell, but I’m likely to have absorbed the lessons of Charles Baudelaire during my youth and, later, those of Anne Carson. Truth be told, both Eugen and I greatly admire Margaret Atwood’s work and Oz Hardwick’s skills at defamiliarizing the reader—his prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet(2020) certainly deserves a look. And I know Eugen is madly in love with Toni Morrison, celebrated for her beauty in language in personal text that shouts its meaning.
5) Speculative fiction, flash fiction, essays, stories – Was the hybrid genre a conscious decision, or did you follow the conversation to wherever the writing took you?
That was a conscious decision. Currently short forms are flourishing and, perhaps as a consequence, the boundaries of the prose poem are increasingly porous.And yet, a century and a half after the publication of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, the question remains: What is a prose poem?
While many different kinds of prose poems have been identified over recent decades, a range of innovations and hybridisations challenge and subvert the boundaries of the prose poem form. In fact, what excites us about prose poetry is that it uses poetic techniques to set up and subvert readers’ expectations. And since we delight in crossing boundaries, it’s a perfect form.
6) Dividing the book into two sections was again a very innovative and interesting part of the narrative. The idea of one leading and the other following. How did that come about?
Apart from our concern to be fair to each other, we wanted to give the book a kind of speculative mirror image in terms of style of writing. It was also a natural evolution of our responding to each other’s lead.
7) Did you expect differences in interpretation of the book, considering two writers with a strong hold on readers with their respective styles?
Yes, and it will be interesting to see how reviewers address this conundrum. Literary theorist Gérard Genette in his book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997) explores the liminal devices and conventions, within and without a book, that form part of the complex mediation between the book, its author, its publisher and reader. Eugen and I were pleasantly astonished by our publisher’s reception of Speculate. Let’s see what readers think.
8) What’s the story behind that gorgeous cover?
The cover is the genius of our publisher Tricia Reek of Meerkat Press. It’s her creative response to the work (paratext of interpretation?). I think sheperceived the nexus between the speculative and lyrical modes of the manuscript and worked with that. She then presented us with stunning variants of her design, and we chose the one that appealed most to us. We love the vibrant colours and blurring of tangoing shadows.
It’s always a memorable experience meeting authors and hearing the story behind the story of much-loved books. This was my second interaction with Ghanaian writer Peace Adjo Medie, after I had read and loved her book ‘His Only Wife’ which had released last year (I had reviewed it here, and the write-up about my previous meeting with Peace can be found here). Peace is a university professor of politics and human rights, and wrote the novel alongside her academic work, even publishing a non-fiction book simultaneously. She is a pleasure to speak with, and enlightened us about her research and journey in writing the book while juggling a full-time job. Her wry sense of humor is not to be missed, especially for those who have read the book with its similar tone and know the narrative is not trying to be funny; it just is!
Organized by Book Ya Ya and the Hastings Public Library, community events that bring readers and writers to share a platform are highly enriching. Adeptly moderated by fellow author Maya Lang, the conversation on Peace’s His Only Wife intertwined with Lang’s own memoir What We Carry, engaging readers in the fluidity of literature. We asked questions, which Peace graciously answered, and apprised us about the background work involved in completing the novel, with often amusing anecdotes.
A wonderful author session to begin the year. And read the book, too, if you haven’t already. It’s about the Ghanaian tradition of arranged marriages, with a seamstress protagonist, and oodles of local culture, cuisine and textiles. Books that are both informative and entertaining are well worth ones time.
Time well spent with Peace Adjo Medie and her book His Only Wife
An autobiographical account of comedian David Sedaris’ own experiences dressing up as an elf during Christmastime, Santaland Diaries is a series of stories and anecdotes ranging from amusing to humorous and laugh-out-loud funny, while also being poignant and unsettling, heartwarming and cringe-worthy in equal measures. Centered around the theme of “Santaland”, we are taken into a world of santas and elves and all the people responsible for the cheery, joyous, festive season.
What’s a Christmas party without a Santa? How can shopping malls and community gatherings ensure a jolly vibe without Santa hearing wishes, elves giving out gifts, and pictures for posterity clicked around all the seasonal tropes (Christmas trees, snowmen, giant stars, nativity scenes). Sedaris gives us an insight into the other side of Christmas – Is making Christmas memorable for some achieved at the expense of others?
Rowdy shoppers, parents holding up the line instead of kids, squalling babies and screaming children forcefully thrust onto Santa for pictures, uninterested kids coerced into smiling for parents to post on social media, grooming (including make up and hairspray) while Santa struggles to turn away and protect his poor eyes, racism in insisting on santas of a specific skin tone, the mandatory merriment while on the job, meeting disabled and terminally ill children, the different temperaments of santas, santas who don’t like kids at all, elves arguing over who gets which Santa, and all the travails and tribulations of those who dress up to play Santa and elves for the gaiety of others.
A peculiar book that focuses on the festive season, but from a different angle that might not necessarily be festive, offering an interesting perspective into the lives of people in Santa and Elf costumes. Sedaris’ observations offer a plethora of emotions which make this book a refreshing read compared to the usual Christmas fare.
~The children are rarely allowed to discuss their desires with Santa. They are too busy being art-directed by the parents.
~I saw a parent spray their child’s hair, Santa treated as though he were a false prop made of cement.
~Santa is an anagram of Satan.
~You are the most beautiful girl I have seen in 617 years.
~All I do is lie, and that has made me immune to compliments.
~Today a child told Santa that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
~Santa was shaking each child’s hand, until he met a child with no hands. So he began patting them on the knee, until he met a child with no legs.
~A woman decided she wanted a picture of her cat on Santa’s lap. After being smuggled in and seated for exactly 5 seconds, 45 minutes were spent tracing the absconding feline.
While I read the print version of Santaland Diaries, I’ve heard the audiobook is very good, with David Sedaris having narrated it himself. If audiobooks work for you, do check out the narration as well – a substitute that promises to be more emotive in the author’s own voice.
It is the night before Christmas. A witch blots out the stars from the sky. The Devil flies up to the moon, grabs it like a hot pancake, and stuffs it into his pocket. The world is plunged in darkness. Carolers, revelers, family and friends – people cannot see where they are going, who they’re bumping into, all houses look the same, the road cannot be seen at all. A series of misadventures and misfortunes plague a quaint little Ukrainian village on Christmas Eve.
Written in 1831 by one of the juggernauts of literature, often referred to as the Father of Russian literature, Gogol’s dark take on the night before Christmas is based on Ukrainian folklore, and his story is still read to Russian and Ukrainian children on Christmas Eve. A night of adventure with a moon stealer and his hidden agenda against a local blacksmith, who is trying to win the love of the village beauty, whose father is besotted by a witch, who doesn’t get along with her son, who is trying to outwit the Devil…throw in a tsarina and a deacon, and on and on we go in the dark, snowy night.
Accompanied by some marvellous illustrations that fill you with laughter and admiration at the same time. And the beautiful prose! Makes you marvel at the ingenuity of the translator who faced a commendable task, considering a lot of Gogol’s writing involves a witty concoction of wordplay and idioms of the local dialect.
~If a man carries the devil on his shoulders, he doesn’t have far to go.
~He stared at him with his mouth open, as though ready to swallow the very first word of explanation like a noodle.
~She cares for me as little as for a rusted horseshoe.
~A moonlit night, brighter than daylight.
~What devil has done this to the moon, I want to know?
~The witch collected a sleeve full of stars.
~The day of Christmas Eve ended, and the night began.
~The district scribe crawled out of the tavern and saw the moon dancing in the sky, but who would believe him?
A peculiar Christmas story that combines tradition with fantasy and legend, with classic tropes of good versus evil in a rollicking ride of hilarity. There’s a reason why classics stand the test of time, and why Russian literature is replete with such masterpieces – you can never be disappointed, whatever you pick up. A wonderful read to learn about world cultures, and different traditions surrounding the same occasion. Or read this just for Gogol.