Interview: Hisham Matar

New Statesman interviews Hisham Matar
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 The novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist on travelling in time, living without TV and admiring Angela Merkel.

What’s your earliest memory?

Straight lines going up to the sky. I must have been in a pram in Manhattan. My mother was probably on her way to buy the latest Boney M record.

Who is your hero?

It is no longer that possible to have heroes. But before this tragic affliction took hold, and in chronological order, there were my paternal grandfather, Hamed Matar, who fought in the Libyan resistance under Omar al-Mukhtar and bravely took part in several battles against the Italian invaders; the mysterious Native American we called el-Hindi, who used to dive from great heights into the sea near our house in Tripoli; the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy; Malcolm X; the Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter; and Greta Garbo.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Great writing fills me with hopeful enthusiasm and never envy. The last book to do this was The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

I have admired many. Dag Hammarskjöld, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Merkel and the various men and women currently leading the peace process in Colombia are some.

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The Painter and the Novelist

Paul Levy for The New York Review of Books
Virginia and Leslie Stephen, 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford

Paul Levy writes on the Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell and her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, for The New York Review of Books.

The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, lived most of her life (1879–1961) in the chilly, concealing shade of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf—the last twenty years following Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Though the attention paid to the Bloomsbury Group seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a surge of interest in Bell. Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister artfully sheds new light on Bell, who is also part of an imaginative group exhibition, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” at Two Temple Place in London (William Waldorf Astor’s townhouse, now an exhibition venue). Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s earliest public art gallery constructed for that purpose) has mounted the first major exhibition of Bell’s work. Her sex life was the chief subject of the BBC series Life in Squares (2015); she was played at different ages by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best.

In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell, the art critic and father of her two sons; she briefly became the lover of Roger Fry, the highly admired art critic; and she was the lifelong companion of the gay painter Duncan Grant, whose work will be featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Queer British Art, 1861–1967,” opening in April, and who was the father of Bell’s daughter, Angelica. Posterity has judged Virginia the greater artist, but in Parmar’s fictionalized account, Vanessa is the nobler, more sympathetic of the Bloomsbury Group’s founding sisters.

Was Bell a good painter? The striking catalog for the Dulwich show (of seventy-six paintings, works on paper, and fabrics, as well as photographs by both her and Patti Smith) equivocates by stressing her place in art history, saying that she was “one of the most advanced British artists of her time, with her own distinctive vision, boldly interpreting new ideas about art which were brewing in France and beyond.” Nancy Durrant, an art critic for the London Times, agrees: “This show is a joy…. What a magnificent creature she must have been.”

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How to Write About Authoritarians Without Getting Arrested

Saba Imtiaz for LitHub
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Saba Imtiaz writing for LitHub on truth, fiction, and fake news in Pakistan.

Every time I travel through Karachi airport, I stop by its bookshop. It’s not the best organized store in the world. The titles are jumbled together. Fiction merging with non-fiction, biographies next to self-help; books that travelers have opened, flipped through, and put back in the wrong section. Sometimes, I surreptitiously hide a biography or two in the fiction section.

Occasionally, the staff will recommend a book about a topic with a selection of fiction and non-fiction. It’s all the same, piled together on one rack, and treated the same way: If it’s written and it is published, it must be true.

In Pakistan, people are constantly looking for some version of the truth, browsing through their smartphones and the fiction racks of bookstores. There is a stream of rumors repeated on talk shows and forwarded on WhatsApp by people citing “sources” claiming to know the “real story” behind a militant attack or a political controversy. There are missives about impending doom: imminent security threats, crime statistics, and public health crises; tailored to suit one’s preset narrative. If you believe in x, y message—or novel—makes perfect sense.

In his latest novel The Party Worker, the Pakistani cop-turned-writer Omar Shahid Hamid depicts a political strongman called “Don” and a linchpin member in his network determined to bring him down. It has all the makings of a crime novel: cops on the hunt for blood and glory, Mafioso, bloody crime scenes, loyalties and betrayals.

But this isn’t an ordinary crime novel. The Don is a thinly-veiled caricature of a real-life Pakistani politician who lives in exile, and whose political party ruled Karachi for decades because of its broad urban appeal—and alleged violent tactics. Allegations against the party range from targeted assassinations to extortion, and writing about the politician, until recently, was largely off-limits. Reportage that critiqued the party’s exiled leader or mentioned the allegations led to sharp rebuttals and full-fledged tirades. Journalists covering the party were limited to reproducing sanitized press releases and transcripts of speeches. It was the party’s facts, period.

The Party Worker crosses that line drawn in newsprint, depicting the Don as an obese, power-hungry figure with a proclivity for sex workers and ice-cream soda mixed with vodka, whose party uses brutal tactics to control Karachi, while he is protected in exile and has a soft corner at the CIA. Hamid combines the tactics and behaviors of political strongmen to turn the characters in the novel into surreal figures. The book takes on from where reportage ends, imagining how to bring the Don to justice, creating a number of revengeful characters to take on the task. One of them, in truly irreverent Karachi fashion, is called “sisterf***er uncle.”

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Fitzcarraldo Editions: May/June 2017 Events

Wednesday 10 May: Clemens Meyer participates in the European Literature Night 2017 alongside A. L. Kennedy and Francesca Melandri at the British Library, London. 7 – 8:30pm. Tickets here.

Thursday 11 May: Clemens Meyer and Katy Derbyshire participate in the Encounters Series hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages at the University of London. 6:30pm. Further details here.

Saturday 13 May: Beyond Words Festival French Literature Festival hosts readings of the Man Booker International longlisted titles including Compass by Mathias Énard, at the Institute Français, London. 6:30 – 7:30pm. Tickets here.

Thursday 25 May: Claire-Louise Bennet participates in a night of words and music at the International Literature Festival Dublin. 6pm. Tickets here.

Monday 29 May: Olga Tokarczuk in conversation with Claire Armitstead at Hay-on-Wye Festival. 11:30am. Tickets here.

Tuesday 30 May: Charlie Fox discusses This Young Monster at Spike Island, Bristol. 6:30pm. Tickets here.

Tuesday 30 May: Olga Tokarczuk in conversation with Kaye Mitchell at Deansgate Waterstones, Manchester. 7pm. Tickets here.

Wednesday 31 May: Claire-Louise Bennett in conversation with Karl Ove Knausgård at Lillehammer Bibliotek, Norway. 6pm. Tickets here.

Wednesday 31 May: launch event for Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (tr. Jennifer Croft) at Calvert 22. There will be a Q&A with James Woodall, and drinks. Details here.

Wednesday 21 June: London launch party for Brian Dillon’s Essayism at Camden Arts Centre. Details tbc.

Thursday 22 June: Essayism: Brian Dillon and Max Porter at the London Review Bookshop. 7pm. Tickets here.

A Story About a Parasitic Relationship

“Together” by Jess Arndt, recommended by Justin Torres for Electric Lit
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Jess Arndt’s short story “Together”, with an introduction by Justin Torres for Electric Lit.

An Introduction by Justin Torres

Jess Arndt is a great prose stylist — but what does that mean? Well for one thing, it means Arndt writes with such poetry and such precision, that the force of the communication damn near knocks you over. The sentences turn, open, and crash down on you unexpectedly, rhythmically, like waves. Great style has something to do with surfaces, but that’s not all I mean when I say Arndt is a great stylist. I mean, too, that the pace and pull of this story — and really, every story in Large Animals — works something like an undertow. At the beach as child, I remember being warned about undertow and thinking, how could it be, amidst all the foam and roar and sparkle of the ocean’s surface, that an even stronger churning went on below? But that’s exactly the experience of reading Arndt: first mesmerized by the beautiful noise of the language, then knocked down, and dragged out to another, underwater world.“Together” is a story precisely about the churning going on beneath the surface — about the awful lot going on inside each of us. Arndt reminds us that physically, psychically, we are processes; we are happening all the time. The life of both mind and body is defined by an awesome and constant churning. And outside, in our backyards, our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our lovers and bosses — the churning continues. Places and people seduce, destroy, remake us in their undertow. What we would like to understand as form — the backyard, the body — is phenomena. What we would like to understand as impermeable is always susceptible to parasitic invasion. Instability is the shared condition of life. This is a thing we know, but the knowledge quickly stales, or we are distracted from the knowledge, or narcotized, or placated with straighter, more genteel notions I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful.

Reading Arndt, I was reminded of Genet, and reminded specifically of Sontag’s description of Genet, in “On Style.” “He is recording, devouring, transfiguring his experience. In Genet’s books, as it happens, this very process itself is his explicit subject; his books are not only works of art but works about art.” Sontag goes on to connect style, above all, to will: “The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way.” I can think of no better description for the transformative power of Arndt’s stories — willful. I suppose it’s a particular kind of lineage, a particular kind of will I’m getting at, when talking about Sontag talking about Genet, and also talking about Arndt — I suppose it’s something like the will of the lover, the will of the parasite, the will of the undertow; I suppose I am talking about the will to queer the world.

Justin Torres Author of We the Animals

Together by Jess Arndt

We had it together but we also had it when we were apart. We got it in that comedor in Oaxaca, we both agreed. Or maybe it was that little town, just a few palapas actually and a beach with a deceptive number of black dogs, called San Angelino. But it’s also quite possible that we had gotten it on the subway. Don’t forget about a head of lettuce! our naturopath said. They caravan those heads in from anywhere imaginable. And water these days — it’s no good washing with it.We made a list of what was now okay and what wasn’t. Sugar, yeast, all the essentials — out. Enter: lines and lines of herbaceous esophagus-jamming pills we swallowed noon dinner and night.

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Interview: Melville House Books

Kaitlyn Tiffany for The Verge
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How the scrappiest social media team in publishing is holding the industry’s feet to the fire: Melville House has thoughts on Amazon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and ‘publishing during wartime.’

Dennis Johnson, co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House Books and one of the first book bloggers, is possibly best known for the fight he picked in the spring of 2014.

He was at the front of a group of independent publishers who decided to spar with Amazon over the predatory, escalating fees it was charging small publishers, as well as its covert war on the major publisher Hachette, which it carried out by deliberately delaying shipments and hiking prices. Johnson asked The New York Times how Amazon’s business practices weren’t considered “extortion,” and compared the monolith to the Mafia.

That was a decade after Johnson’s first spat with Amazon, when Melville House’s books were pulled from the site completely until Johnson paid what he referred to as “a bribe.” More recently, he and the team at Melville House have spent plenty of time tweeting and blogging criticisms of Amazon’s new physical bookstores, which they take issue with because they’re run algorithmically and don’t employ booksellers. At the London Book Fair in March, Johnson live tweeted the pitiful traffic to Amazon Publishing’s booth, which some weirdo decided to set up directly across from Melville House’s.

Amazon isn’t the only big kid that the small team spends their days needling online — their tweets work in tandem with the revived MobyLives blog, where everyone on staff takes turns dissecting issues around publishing, politics, and culture. They had words for Marvel after it blamed declining comic book sales on its more diverse roster of superheroes. And for Hachette Australia when it wanted to tattoo a dragon on a real woman’s back to promote the latest Girl with the Dragon Tattoo installment. And for Simon & Schuster when it offered Milo Yiannopoulos a reported $250,000 for a book on free speech.

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The Art and Activism of Grace Paley

Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker
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Alexandra Schwartz explores the relationship between Grace Paley’s politics and her fiction.

She spent her life as a protester. How did she find time to reinvent the American short story?

There’s a case to be made that Grace Paley was first and foremost an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist who managed, in her spare time, to become one of the truly original voices of American fiction in the later twentieth century. Just glance at the “chronology” section of “A Grace Paley Reader” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a welcome new collection of her short stories, nonfiction, and poems, edited by Kevin Bowen and Paley’s daughter, Nora. 1961: Leads her Greenwich Village PTA in protests against atomic testing, founds the Women Strike for Peace, pickets the draft board, receives a Guggenheim Fellowship. 1966: Jailed for civil disobedience on Armed Forces Day, starts teaching at Sarah Lawrence. 1969: Travels to North Vietnam to bring home U.S. prisoners of war, wins an O. Henry Award.

Such political passion may seem in keeping with those times, but Paley didn’t slow down once the flush of the sixties faded. In the mid-seventies, she attended the World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she infuriated Soviet dissidents by demanding that they stand up for the Asian and Latin-American oppressed, too. In the eighties, she travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with mothers of the disappeared, got arrested at a sit-in at a New Hampshire nuclear power plant, and co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And that’s not the half of it. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” The F.B.I. declared her a Communist, dangerous and emotionally unstable. Her file was kept open for thirty years.

Paley was an archetypal Village figure, the five-foot-tall lady with the wild white hair, cracking gum like a teen-ager while handing out leaflets against apartheid from her perch on lower Sixth Avenue. She also lived in Vermont, where her second husband, Bob Nichols, had a farmhouse. In May, 2007, they drove to Burlington to protest their congressman’s support for the Iraq surge. Paley was eighty-four, undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Three months later, she was dead. “My dissent is cheer / a thankless disposition,” she wrote in her poetry collection “Fidelity,” published the following year. That incorrigible cheerfulness carried her to the very end. No one was more grimly adamant that the world was in mortal peril, or had more fun trying to save it from itself.

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Triptych: Texas Pool Party

Namwali Serpell for Triple Canopy
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A three-part fiction on the 2015 McKinney, Texas, pool party incident, in which a white police officer was filmed tackling and restraining a 15-year-old black girl.

Summertime

Easy does it, do it easy. It’s summertime. The bell rings, school’s out. The weather’s fine. The summer’s a natural afrodisiac. The guys are out hunting, the ladies are wearing less, checking out the fellas, deciding who’s next. The kids are flirting, too: the boys messing round with the girls playing double dutch, girls giggling like their bodies are full of bubbles. Even old folks are dancing, reminiscing on bliss, talking about the growing-up days, the first one they kissed. The smell of the barbecue, the tilt of the sun can spark a flash from the past—just like that. Yeah, you already know.

Meat grilling. DJ spinning. It’s a birthday cookout at the park across from Tatyana’s spot in McKinney. Everybody rolls up looking real fine, fresh from the barbershop, fly from the beauty shop. Bright T-shirts, jeans dark and crisp, sneaks so white they squeak on your eyes. Dudes standing around, still as ice. Girls shaking all over, moving to the music, tossing their braids, talking all coy over their shoulders. I’m gonna make you tremble. I’m gonna get you shook. The heat rises up, sings against the skin. Clothes fall off, swimsuits blossoming from beneath, in colors as neon and elaborate as the sunset to come. We dance and we dance. All of this beauty, all of this rolling, dipping brown flesh, like desert dunes in the shadow or desert dunes in the sun.

When we say dime or honey, we mean silver and gold, because summer is conspiring to make everything glint like coin. Sunshine adorns our lip-glossed lips, our bare shoulders and brows. We shine. You can see tracks glisten in the thick of that weave, you can see sweat mingle with the vaseline on those edges. Flashy phones in our hands like accessories or weapons. Chains bright enough to dazzle. Belt buckles and rings. Bottles sitting in crushed ice like broken glass. Bottles and bottles. Ice on ice. You want a splash? Wanna spark up? Snip, ftz, flame, lit. Damn, I’d hit that. (I want to kiss you on your collarbone.) Yeah, he kinda cute. (I want you inside of me.)

(…)

Interview: Gary Shteyngart & Emily Greenhouse

Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Emily Greenhouse for Granta
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Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 interview with Emily Greenhouse, appearing in the online edition of Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2. 

Gary Shteyngart was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. His new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is published in the UK by Granta books on 16 September. Emily Greenhouse caught up with Gary to ask about the email epistolary, how he’d do in a literary Celebrity Death Match, and the ‘äppärät’ – his dystopian rendering of a smartphone on anabolic steroids.

EG: How did featuring on the Best of Young American Novelists list in 2007 affect your career?

GS: It made life nicer. A gentleman with a photocamera took a picture of me for some site on the intertube.

Your latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is written in diary entries, ‘long form standard English texts’ and Global Teen text conversations. Is this a cynical comment on the shortened attention span of our generation, or is ‘email epistolary’ the genuine future of the novel?

OMFG, totes! I’ve been losing the power of good riting over the years. I’m dictating this to an intern. I hope she gets it write.

In the prologue to Absurdistan, you write, ‘I’m a deeply secular Jew who finds no comfort in either nationalism or religion.’ You’ve made clear your discomfort with Soviet nationalism, yet I felt a deep appreciation for America throughout Super Sad. Your love for New York, especially, shines through. Has a bit of Emma Lazarus’ American Dream seeped in?

America’s in deep shit. That makes me love it more and fear for its future. But overall nationalism is a terrible thing. Unless you’re Canadian. Then it makes perfect sense.

Any thoughts on London?

I can’t even afford to have thoughts on London, much less live or visit there.

Towards the tail end of Super Sad, Lenny remembers reading the ‘New York Times (the real Times, not theLifestyle Times) … in the subway, folding it awkwardly while leaning against the door, caught up in the words, worried about crashing to the floor or tripping over some lightly clad beauty (there was always at least one), but even more afraid to lose the thread of the article in front of me, my spine banging against the train door, the clatter and drone of the massive machine around me, and me, with my words, brilliantly alone.’ Is it still possible, in this just pre-äppärät age, to be truly, brilliantly alone?

(…)

At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny for the London Review of Books
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Nicholas Penny on Ford Maddox Brown and some of the little-known masterpieces at the Tate Britain. 

Roger Fry, when comparing the Pre-Raphaelites with the Impressionists, described the artistic innovations of the former as an insurrection in a convent, whereas the latter were real revolutionaries. The simile may have been unconsciously prompted by an elaborate and highly finished drawing of hysterical nuns entangled with fanatical Huguenots who are disentombing the body of Queen Matilda. This drawing by the young Millais is currently on display in an exhibition at Tate Britain of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper (until 7 May). The calculated confusion of rigid and angular figures, although it owes something to the medieval art cherished by the nuns (some examples of which feature in the background), can’t simply be dismissed as revivalism. Such a thorough determination to avoid being in any way easy on the eye or the mind may once have seemed a peculiar by-product of the reactionary antiquarian ecclesiology of the late 1840s but it now seems to anticipate (although it clearly didn’t influence) the daring aesthetic discomforts devised by ‘Modern British’ artists, even the wiry, tortured sculptures of a hundred years later by Lynn Chadwick or Reg Butler.

This drawing, and the finished study by Millais for Christ in the House of His Parents (also of 1849) which hangs beside it, are familiar enough to students of British art, but the exhibition, which has been very little publicised and is rather hidden away at the east end of the Clore Galleries, includes several little-known masterpieces. The most startling of these is Ford Madox Brown’s watercolour of 1863, entitled Mauvais Sujet, of a young teenage girl who is not so much engagingly naughty as alarmingly bad. The tight format derives from Rossetti’s early oil paintings of female heads and shoulders, such as Bocca Baciata of 1859, paintings of a frank sensuality free of the narcotic eroticism and religiosity that make so much of his later painting seem repellent. But Brown’s schoolgirl subject hasn’t yet led any artist into temptation. She is seated at a high desk with names and doodles scratched on its hinged top. We see the lines she has been made to copy with her quill, black lines which rhyme with the disorder of her hair. Her teeth – brighter than the white of her collar, the plume, the paper or the enamel inkwell – are biting into a brilliantly green apple. Fruit would certainly not have been allowed in the classroom and this young Eve, whose dress is also green, eats it with resentful defiance. The picture has the compositional ingenuity and thrilling compression of Brown’s great circular painting The Last of England – a compression, here greatly enhanced by the original double frame, that we miss in his later work, although he was always attracted both by defiance and by teeth.

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Fitz Carraldo Editions