The acclaimed Nigerian author’s ‘novel-in-stories’ about six African refugees in Europe is rich and complex
From his 2002 debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, about a reporter jailed in the 90s under the regime of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, to 2010’s Oil on Water, a hostage narrative set amid the petroleum industry’s ruin of the Niger delta, Helon Habila has tackled weighty issues without solemnity. It’s a virtue on show once again in Travellers, a nuanced, often surprising novel-in-stories about the experiences of six African refugees in Europe, and his first book set outside his native Nigeria.
Its unnamed narrator (like Habila, a Nigerian based in the US) joins his American wife, Gina, in Berlin, where she has a year’s fellowship to produce a series of portraits of “real migrants”. When he starts drinking with Mark, an anarchist squatter from Malawi who has been rejected by Gina as a prospective subject – not real enough – it’s a sign of marital tension as well as the novel’s suspicion of Gina’s authenticity fetish.
As the narrator learns why Mark – born Mary, it transpires – ran away from his pastor father, we infer that ideas of “realness” might boil down to prejudice by another name.
Mark’s is only the first story the narrator gets mixed up in; later, he meets a hunger-striking asylum seeker who flees Boko Haram only to fall foul of Theresa May’s hostile environment, and a Libyan surgeon employed as a bouncer after losing his wife and son en route from Tripoli, stubbornly bringing his 11-year-old daughter to the family’s prearranged rendezvous at Checkpoint Charlie every Sunday, in a heartbreaking denial of reality.
Habila’s acknowledgments thank “the voices whose stories animate this book… for trusting me”, which adds to a sense that he’s drawing on as-told-to testimony.
In the standout chapter, a Zambian woman travels to Switzerland to meet her brother’s wife, jailed for his manslaughter. She learns that in Europe, her brother, David, went by the name Moussa and claimed to be from Mali for reasons to do with his feelings about his father, a once-exiled poet who, drunk on fame, pandered to western liberals keen to view Africa as “one huge Gulag archipelago”.
The novel’s unassuming title is suggestive of Habila’s cool, open-minded approach to a hot-button subject. While he leaves us in little doubt of the horrors his characters have escaped, he seldom invites us to gawp. Adroitly teasing out the rich quiddity of his characters’ diverse journeys, he instead makes the simple yet valuable point that refugees’ lives are as irreducibly complex as anyone else’s.
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Welcome to May. It’s an especially big month for nonfiction titles, with George Packer’s new book, “Our Man” and Casey Cep’s highly anticipated book about Harper Lee. Fiction lovers, fear not: there’s a crop of intriguing debut novels, a new wartime story from Mohammed Hanif, and the long-awaited return of the writer Binnie Kirshenbaum.
Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, looks at the roots of American independence in his new project. In this deeply researched book, the first volume in a projected trilogy about the Revolutionary War, he gives both the American and British perspectives.
When two sisters go missing on the Kamchatka Peninsula, on the eastern fringes of Russia, the disappearance rattles the region — and particularly, the women. This debut spans a year after the girls vanish, with a focus on characters who are connected by the mystery.
The farm of the title is really a “gestational retreat,” where poor women carry the unborn children of the superrich. For months, the “hosts” are kept on healthy diets, coddled — and watched closely by the Farm and its administrators — all with the promise of a generous bonus at the end. There are strains of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in this debut, which raises questions about class, surrogacy and exploitation.
In the years after “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, Lee was enraptured by a shocking case in the 1970s: a preacher in Alabama accused of killing five people for the insurance money, the family member who eventually shot him dead and the lawyer who successfully defended them both. Lee had helped her friend Truman Capote with his seminal crime book “In Cold Blood,” and thought this case might give her a similar opportunity. But the book never came about. Cep unravels the story, offering new insight into Lee along the way.
This history examines nativist ideology in the United States starting in the 19th century until legislation that curtailed the immigration of “inferiors” was passed in the 1920s. Along the way, Okrent introduces readers to the swaths of Americans who believed in this point of view. By and large, they were wealthy and elite — and many of them were progressive.
With the question of impeachment more timely than ever, Wineapple turns to the first presidential impeachment, of Johnson in 1868. A noted biographer, Wineapple brings the era and its personalities — Frederick Douglass, Ulysses S. Grant, Thaddeus Stevens — to life.
We can’t afford not to be talking about domestic violence. Snyder argues that it has reached epidemic proportions in the country — it accounts for 15 percent of all violent crimes — with devastating effect. She combines her analysis with interviews with survivors, advocates, and occasionally, the perpetrators themselves.
The occasion of Greene’s memoir is heartbreaking: His 2-year-old daughter, Greta, was hit by a falling brick in New York, leaving her brain-dead. (A portion of the book was excerpted in New York last month.) While the book opens with the accident and the Greenes’ torment, there are flashes of hope as the family rebuilds after unimaginable loss.
In his new book, Packer, a writer for The Atlantic and the author of “The Unwinding,” delves into the history of Holbrooke, the swaggering, exasperating, larger-than-life diplomat who died in 2010. Going back to Holbrooke’s Vietnam days, Packer follows his career — including its peak, when he negotiated a peace agreement between Bosnians and Serbs during the Clinton administration — and isn’t squeamish about reporting on his affairs and relationships. But the book goes beyond a deep dive into its subject: Readers can learn a lot not only about Holbrooke himself but also about how American foreign policy has so often gone wrong.
Linda Taylor may be best known as the “welfare queen” Reagan criticized in the 1970s, accused of ripping off the government. But fraud may have been the least of her crimes: Levin uncovers a far darker past including possible kidnappings and murders.
Fans of Kirshenbaum will be delighted to see her first new book in a decade. On New Year’s Eve, a writer has a nervous breakdown that sends her to a New York psych ward. Instead of the treatment her caregivers suggest, the writer watches her fellow patients instead, and begins work on a novel that examines how things got so bad. The book is a bitingly funny, and occasionally heartbreaking, look at mental illness, love and relationships, with Kirshenbaum’s familiar black humor.
‘Red Birds,’ by Mohammed Hanif (Grove Press/Black Cat, May 14)
Hanif, the author of “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” has written a war satire taking aim at the United States’ interventions abroad. After an American pilot crashes in the desert, he winds up taking refuge in the camp he was supposed to bomb. There, he meets Momo, a teenager ambitious and hungry for money-making schemes. That’s not all: His older brother has gone missing, his parents are squabbling and he’s fending off an aid worker who wants to study him for a project called the Teenage Muslim Mind.
‘The Unpassing,’ by Chia-Chia Lin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May 7)
This debut novel follows a Taiwanese immigrant family eking out a life near Anchorage, Alaska. They are no stranger to tragedy: After two of their children fall ill with meningitis, only one survives, and the family struggles to stay close in their grief. Another heartbreak offers clues into the death of their daughter.
Why are some nations better able to recover from upheavals? Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” looks at how six countries responded to recent upsets, and assesses whether the world is prepared to grapple with the crises it faces now.
In an age of glowing brain scans and plentiful pharmaceuticals, it can be hard to remember that psychiatrists — not exactly known for their aversion to dispensing medication — were once derided for not taking medicine seriously enough.
But as Anne Harrington reminds us, it wasn’t all that long ago when psychiatrists were pilloried as a bunch of woolly Freudians in thrall to specious ideas about absent fathers and smothering mothers. (Or absent mothers — there were apparently any number of ways for mothers to impair the mental health of their children.) In her new book, “Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness,” Harrington, a historian of science at Harvard, says that psychiatry’s biological turn took place sometime around 1980, and it was so revolutionary that before the decade was up, the profession’s “transformation into a biological discipline seemed complete.”
There’s a good deal of drama contained in that little word “seemed.” What “seemed complete” actually wasn’t, Harrington argues, as such biological triumphalism began to unravel in the 1990s and the 2000s. Anticipated discoveries in the biology of mental illness, vigorously hyped before they even arrived, never panned out; all of psychiatry’s diagnostic categories are still based on observations of clinical symptoms rather than biological markers of disease. Criticism from outside the profession precipitated “a sense of internal crisis” within it. A number of psychiatry’s practitioners are beginning to concede that “it overreached, overpromised, overdiagnosed, overmedicated and compromised its principles.”
This realization won’t necessarily put an end to what Harrington calls “the century-long — if also repeatedly frustrated — effort on the part of especially American psychiatry to define a biological mission for itself.” The potential rewards are too great. Biology is supposed to offer rigor, precision, measurements — enticing possibilities when it comes to something as nebulous and complex as the mind.
The story Harrington tells is one of push-and-pull, back-and-forth. She starts by presenting the myth she wants to dismantle — the heroic tale of biology’s triumph in the 1980s over a half-century of vulgar Freudianism. The clean lines of that cartoonish tale are easy to delineate. The case Harrington makes to rebut it is more intricate and winding, though her prose remains clear and crisp. Several times she alerts the reader to narrative road bumps by slipping in an “ironically.” I was grateful for these signposts. It turns out that psychiatry’s understanding of mental illness is full of hairpin turns and unintended consequences.
To hear the vanguard of psychiatry’s biological revolution tell it, the late 19th century was a period of incredible scientific progress for the profession, interrupted only when Freud and his acolytes took over in a palace coup. But the nostalgia obscures why psychiatry became vulnerable to a Freudian incursion in the first place. The 19th-century way of “thinking biologically,” Harrington writes, was fixated not on biochemistry but on brain anatomy. When it came to the prospect of individual recovery from mental disorders, clinicians were fatalistic rather than hopeful. They were preoccupied with “degeneration” and drawn to eugenics.
In the United States, “feeblemindedness” became a catchall diagnosis deployed by advocates of forced sterilization. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing the Supreme Court’s majority opinion for Buck v. Bell in 1927, called the eugenicist program “better for all the world” because, as he put it, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Six years later, the Nazis cited the Buck v. Bell decision as an inspiration for their own sterilization program — which in turn laid the foundations for the Third Reich’s systematic murder of those deemed genetically tainted and mentally ill.
Harrington is unsparing in her depiction of what often resembled a biological fetishism. Schizophrenic patients were subjected to insulin-induced comas or had their brains scraped by lobotomies. Some therapeutically-minded psychiatrists, so impressed by the germ theory of disease, believed that psychosis could be cured by the surgical excision of “infected” organs like teeth, ovaries and colons.
Psychoanalysis and talk therapy were supposed to be antidotes to such cruelty and coarse reductionism, and by broadening psychiatry’s concerns from mental illness to the larger category of “mental hygiene,” the profession could serve a social function, too. In the postwar United States, robust mental health was seen as necessary armor for the Cold War. “The greatest prerequisite for peace,” President Truman said in statement to the American Psychiatric Association, “must be sanity.” Neo-Freudian psychiatrists warned about bad moms who coddled their sons and thereby weakened national efforts to fight the Communist menace.
One pattern you begin to notice in “Mind Fixers” is how psychiatric theories — whether biological or psychoanalytical — had a way of grafting themselves onto prevailing prejudices of the day. Another pattern has to do with how each approach prided itself on being more compassionate and less stigmatizing than whatever had come before. Psychoanalysis might have emerged in reaction to biological psychiatry, but once the postwar psychoanalytic dispensation created “a generation of scapegoated parents” who had been blamed for their children’s mental illnesses, Harrington writes, the biological revolution of the 1980s started to look like a “road to redemption.”
We know what happened after that. Psychiatrists, seeking to distinguish themselves from other mental health professionals, moved away from talk therapy and guarded their prescribing rights. Financial incentives provided by the pharmaceutical industry meant that psychiatrists helped drug companies repurpose old medications for new illnesses, like “social anxiety disorder.” Antipsychotics would no longer be limited to schizophrenic patients; as one drug company researcher said, “It’s not like we’re making any more schizophrenic brains.” It was the medical equivalent of mission creep.
Harrington doesn’t romanticize the world of mental illness before drugs — drugs that many patients credit with offering relief and even a chance at survival. What psychiatry needs to do, she says, is narrow its focus to the most severe forms of mental illness and “make a virtue of modesty” rather than hubris. She knows it’s a somewhat fanciful idea, but it’s a measure of her own cleareyed approach that she appeals to psychiatric practitioners’ self-interest by invoking that most valuable and (these days) elusive currency: trust. “The field would be freed,” she writes, “to find ways to rest its authority and status on more authentic foundations.”
Prejudice and the refugee experience are examined in this taut novel set in Malaysia
After novels set in British Malaya, postcolonial Indonesia and modern-day Shanghai, Tash Aw’s new book stays in the present to tell a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia.
It’s told by Ah Hock, a villager who, after a string of precarious jobs in and around Kuala Lumpur, lands on his feet managing a fish farm. But when a cholera epidemic leaves him without workers, he unwisely accepts help from a childhood friend, Keong, a one-time drug dealer and pimp now sourcing migrant slave labour for the palm oil industry.
As Aw retraces Ah Hock’s steps to this fateful turning point – his sense of morality running up against his need to maintain his toehold on a decent livelihood – we come to understand that his words are being transcribed by Su-Min, a sociology postgraduate returning to Malaysia after her studies in the US.
Ah Hock has agreed to her request for an interview after serving a jail sentence for a crime we don’t fully grasp until the novel’s end; brief interludes show them discussing how she might shape his story into something she thinks of as “narrative non-fiction”.
Aw’s structure allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of an enterprise that risks being seen as poverty porn – he’s opening our eyes to hardship while at the same time scrutinising the motives for doing so. We wonder what Su-Min seeks from Ah Hock’s story, but also why Ah Hock wants to tell it (he admits a punitive desire to give her more than she bargained for when she asks him to hold nothing back).
As a vegetarian who freaks out at the sight of a rat and tells Ah Hock “not to make assumptions about people’s sexuality based on traditional gender lines”, Su-Min is sent up a bit. But the novel isn’t simplistic, not least in its portrait of the complex contours of prejudice in Malaysian society. If Ah Hock suffers on account of his Chinese heritage, he knows he has it easier than many; the story turns on a group of Rohingya refugees being eyed by Keong as a solution to what Ah Hock’s wife calls his “manpower problem”.
A grim picture emerges of the Asian continent’s poor and less-poor, forced into a conflict shaped by western whims. Someone says: “Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly 10 factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking world so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month, the entire port is on its knees.”
But Aw doesn’t rely on tub-thumping; his achievement is to make a global story personal. When he finally circles back to Ah Hock’s crime, the scene is managed briskly, in keeping with a tale that, however grim, is never solemn or overwrought. It even ends on a gentle note; still, the novel’s horrors can’t easily be pushed out of mind.
• We, the Survivors is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Artificial intelligence can now write fiction and journalism. But does it measure up to George Orwell – and can it report on Brexit?
androids write novels about electric sheep? The dream, or nightmare, of
totally machine-generated prose seemed to have come one step closer
with the recent announcement of an artificial intelligence that could
produce, all by itself, plausible news stories or fiction. It was the brainchild of OpenAI – a nonprofit lab backed by Elon Musk and other tech entrepreneurs – which slyly alarmed the literati by announcing that the AI (called GPT2) was too dangerous for them to release
into the wild, because it could be employed to create “deepfakes for
text”. “Due to our concerns about malicious applications of the
technology,” they said, “we are not releasing the trained model.” Are
machine-learning entities going to be the new weapons of information
terrorism, or will they just put humble midlist novelists out of
Let’s first take a step back. AI has been the next big thing for so
long that it’s easy to assume “artificial intelligence” now exists. It
doesn’t, if by “intelligence” we mean what we sometimes encounter in our
fellow humans. GPT2 is just using methods of statistical analysis,
trained on huge amounts of human-written text – 40GB of web pages, in
this case, that received recommendations from Reddit readers – to
predict what ought to come next. This probabilistic approach is how
Google Translate works, and also the method behind Gmail’s automatic
replies (“OK.” “See you then.” “That’s fine!”) It can be eerily good,
but it is not as intelligent as, say, a bee.
Right now, novelists don’t seem to have much to fear. Fed the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
– “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking
thirteen” – the machine continued the narrative as follows: “I was in my
car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key
in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A
hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a
poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of
This is quite baffling for many reasons. Since the narrator cannot
have a job in Seattle and also a job in “some school” in China at the
same time, the story must be set in 1945, with the narrator imagining
their future educational career “a hundred years from now”, thanks to
some unreasonably optimistic expectations about their lifespan. Even in
1945, though, he is driving a car that can be refuelled from the inside
(“I was in my car … I put the gas in”) and apparently doesn’t need to be
consciously driven (“and then I let it run”). Unless, that is, the
story is darker than at first glance and he is running the engine while
stationary in his garage.
Did the AI do any better with Jane Austen? The opening phrase of Pride and Prejudice – “It is a truth universally acknowledged” – provoked the machine to gabble on: “that when a nation is in a condition of civilization, that it is in a great measure the business of its leaders to encourage the habits of virtue, and of industry, and of good order among its people.” This does sound rather like some 19th-century political bloviator, even if a slightly broken version. (The second “that” is redundant, and it should read “in great measure” without the indefinite article.)
Is there greater cause to worry further down the literary food chain?
There have for a while already been “AI bots” that can, we hear,
“write” news stories. All these are, though, are giant automated
plagiarism machines that mash together bits of news stories written by
human beings. As so often, what is promoted as a magical technological
advance depends on appropriating the labour of humans, rendered
invisible by AI rhetoric. When a human writer commits plagiarism, that
is a serious matter. But when humans get together and write a computer
program that commits plagiarism, that is progress.
As a news reporter, GPT2 is, to put it generously, rather Trumpian.
Fed the first line of a Brexit story – “Brexit has already cost the UK
economy at least £80bn since the EU referendum” – it went on a nutty
free-associative spree that warned, among other things: “The UK could
lose up to 30% of its top 10 universities in future.” (“Up to 30% of the
top 10” is a rather roundabout way of saying maybe three.) Brexit, the
machine continued, will push “many of our most talented brains out the
country on to campuses in the developing world” (eh?), and replacing
“lost international talent from overseas” would, according to “research
by Oxford University”, cost “nearly $1 trillion”. To which one can only
properly respond: Project Fear! To their credit, the machine’s masters
at OpenAI admit that it is sometimes prone to what they call
“world-modelling failures”, “eg the model sometimes writes about fires
The makers’ announcement that this program is too dangerous to be
released is excellent PR, then, but hardly persuasive. Such code, OpenAI
warns, could be used to “generate misleading news articles”, but there
is no shortage of made-up news written by actual humans working for
troll factories. The point of the term “deepfakes” is that they are
fakes that go deeper than prose, which anyone can fake. Much more
dangerous than disinformation clumsily written by a computer are the
real “deepfakes” in visual media that respectable researchers are
eagerly working on right now. When video of any kind can be generated
that is indistinguishable from real documentary evidence – so that a
public figure, for example, can be made to say words they never said –
then we’ll be in a world of trouble. OpenAI agrees that this is a larger
problem, even if its proposed remedy is rather vague. To prevent what
it calls “malicious actors” from exploiting such technology, it says, we
“should seek to create better technical and non-technical
countermeasures”. Arguably this is like engineering a bioweapon and its
antidote at the same time, rather than choosing not to invent it in the
Writing is not data, it is a means of expression, and a non-sentient computer program has nothing to express
Perhaps a more realistic hope for a text-only program such as GPT2,
meanwhile, is simply as a kind of automated amanuensis that can come up
with a messy first draft of a tedious business report – or, why not, of
an airport thriller about famous symbologists caught up in perilous
global conspiracy theories alongside lissome young women half their age.
There is, after all, a long history of desperate artists trying
rule-based ruses to generate the elusive raw material that they can then
edit and polish. The “musical dice game” attributed to Mozart enabled
fragments to be combined to generate innumerable different waltzes,
while the total serialism of mid-20th‑century music was an algorithmic
approach that attempted as far as possible to offload aesthetic
judgments by the composer on to a system of mathematical manipulations.
More recently, the Koan software developed in the 1990s and used by Brian Eno for his album Generative Music 1 can, if you wish, create an infinite variety of ambient muzaks.
Such a tepid outcome, though, would be disappointing to the serious dystopian sci-fi thinker. Ever since Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots
premiered in 1921, people have wondered whether we will eventually
create synthetic life that wipes us out. In particular, the prospect of
AI-driven machines taking everyone’s jobs is today a titillating
commonplace, even though that way of phrasing it deliberately obscures
agency. What we are really talking about is not robots “taking” jobs but
employers deliberately firing human beings and replacing them with
cheaper machines. Why, for example, is there a rush in the US to create
bots that can grade high-school and university essays? Presumably so
that fewer teachers need to be hired. No doubt Amazon would lick its
lips at the prospect of being able to sell completely computer-generated
books (you don’t need to pay royalties to an algorithm), and AI-created
conspiracy videos about vaccines would be excellent for YouTube’s
How worried we ought to be about such possibilities depends on what we think culture fundamentally is. The excessive hype surrounding the GPT2 text generator, at least, is a symptom that we have to some degree internalised the philistine functionalism of Silicon Valley, according to which everything is simply data. It is true that when you own a huge data-crunching system, everything looks like data. And the mantra that everything is data makes the big tech companies look pretty good, because what they are good at is data. Text can be mathematically encoded and manipulated by a computer, so that’s data too, right?
But writing is not data. It is a means of expression, which implies
that you have something to express. A non-sentient computer program has
nothing to express, quite apart from the fact that it has no experience
of the world to tell it that fires don’t happen underwater. Training it
on a vast range of formulaic trash can, to be sure, enable it to
reshuffle components and create some more formulaic trash. (Topics
“highly represented in the data” of GPT2’s training database were
Brexit, Miley Cyrus, and Lord of the Rings.) All well and good.
But until robots have rich inner lives and understand the world around
them, they won’t be able to tell their own stories. And if one day they
could, would we even be able to follow them? As Wittgenstein observed:
“If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”. Being a lion in
the world is (presumably) so different from being a human in the world
that there might be no points of mutual comprehension at all. It’s
entirely possible, too, that if a conscious machine could speak, we
wouldn’t understand it either.
In the meantime OpenAI has released a limited, less world-threatening
version of GPT2 that technically minded users can install on their own
computers. I did so, and tremblingly fed the robot the first two
sentences of this very article. It continued, in notably defensive mood:
“A lot of great fiction has dealt directly with an entirely new kind of
robot: those whose lives are not as simple as they might like to think
they are, who do not seem to know how to perform tasks that are not so
simple but require a little effort and dedication. There can be no
substitute for the hard work and perseverance of a robot’s mind, but
there is a great deal of room in the literature for stories that might
be called novel. […] In short, every new generation of robots are
going to be driven by ambition to make the world a better place, and by
those ambitions to make sure they can be made by people as smart as
themselves and by machines as well. You might think that these robot
minds are the end of humanity when you look closely at their story, but
it gets much simpler still. We may still be stuck in a dystopic future
where our lives are far from the kind of ones that they were used to.
Perhaps it is time we stopped being so self-interested and started
taking all our lives in earnest.”
Well, quite. But the enthusiastic frisson with which the press release about GPT2 was greeted tells us something wider about modern times. The prospect of machines taking over may now have become as guiltily desirable as it was always terrifying, in a time when human leaders are doing such a spectacularly bad job. And if citizens increasingly turn to authoritarian leaders – well, what could be more authoritarian than Robocop, or a Terminator? Say what you like about The Terminator’s AI network Skynet, but at least it will make the trains run on time.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, who does not identify as male or female, among 16 books longlisted for the £30,000 award
The Women’s prize for fiction has nominated a non-binary transgender author for the first time in its 27-year history, on a 16-book longlist featuring a previous winner, seven debuts and last year’s Booker prize winner.
Thirty-one-year-old Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi is nominated for their first novel, Freshwater. Described as “remarkable” in the Guardian’s review, Freshwater is a coming-of-age story following a child, Ada, who is born filled with Igbo spirits as a challenge from a deity to Ada’s Catholic father.
mezi, who does not identify as male or female and lives in Brooklyn, is one of seven first-time authors up for the £30,000 prize, on a longlist that spans the city streets of Lagos and remote Northumberland, the US-Mexico border and ancient Greece.
“It is a historic moment,” Professor Kate Williams, chair of judges, told the Guardian. “We’re very careful not to Google the authors while judging, so we did not know. But the book found great favour among us, it is wonderful. They are an incredibly talented author and we’re keen to celebrate them.”
She said the judges were not aware of Emezi’s gender identity when they selected Freshwater, but they did check that Emezi was happy to be longlisted before the announcement.
“Fiction, right from the beginning of the novel in the 18th century, has been there to explore identity,” said Williams. “Novels are deep explorations of personality, identity and what makes a person. That is what Freshwater, and all the books on our longlist, are doing.”
Big-name nominees include Anna Burns, who is longlisted for her novel Milkman, last year’s Man Booker prize-winner about the relationship between a Northern Irish teenager and an abusive paramilitary during the Troubles. Seventy-five-year-old Pat Barker, who was nominated for the inaugural prize for her 1995 novel The Ghost Road, is longlisted for only the second time for The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women. And English writer Sarah Moss is nominated for the first time for her novella Ghost Wall, following a teenager’s terrifying experience while on a trip to Northumberland with her strict father.
American author Madeline Miller, who won the prize in 2013 for her debut The Song of Achilles, is again nominated for her follow-up, Circe, while Diana Evans, who won the now-obsolete new writers category in 2005 for her debut 26a, is chosen for her third novel Ordinary People. And Normal People, Sally Rooney’s bestselling second novel is also named – the latest prize nomination for a book that won the Costa novel of the year and is longlisted for this year’s Dylan Thomas prize.
Writers from the US have won the prize most often – nine times – and they dominate the longlist, with six authors nominated: Tayari Jones for An American Marriage, Bernice L McFadden for Praise Songs for the Butterflies; Melissa Broder for The Pisces and three debuts: Lillian Li for Number One Chinese Restaurant; Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott for Swan Song and Yvonne Battle-Felton for Remembered.
Other debuts include Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite for her darkly funny novel My Sister the Serial Killer and Romanian Sophie van Llewyn for her novella Bottled Goods. And Mexican author Valeria Luiselli is nominated for the first time for Lost Children Archive, which follows one family making a car journey south from New York to Arizona, while the news is reporting on migrant families from Mexico desperately trying to reach the US.
Williams, joined on the judging panel by journalist and critic Arifa Akbar, columnist Dolly Alderton, women’s rights campaigner Leyla Hussein and tech entrepreneur Sarah Wood, said the longlist was shaped with “passionate debate” and features “deep engagements with female and sexual identity, and real engagement with tyranny, both sexual and political. And of course, amazing storytelling and gripping plots.”
The Women’s prize for fiction was first established in 1992, the year after no female authors were shortlisted for the Booker prize. It was first awarded in 1996 to the late Helen Dunmore.
This is the first year prize has enjoyed charitable status. Previously sponsored by Orange until 2012, then Baileys until 2017, the prize now receives financial support from a group of brands, as well as appealing to individuals for donations between £1,000 to £5,000 on a new patron scheme.
The shortlist will be announced 29 April, with the winner revealed on 5 June.
It may not have been intended for publication, but the novel’s exuberant spirit offers an insight into Bolaño’s later work.
Motorcycles are the vehicles of choice in The Spirit of Science Fiction; one in particular, a stolen brown Benelli called Aztec Princess, carves its erratic path through the pages of the novel, stalling and starting, testing its engine as it changes speed and direction. Midway through the book, the narrative itself begins to feel like a motorbike being revved, a loud growl that every now and then accelerates into glee and abandon before slipping back into a more tentative mode.
The Chilean author Roberto Bolaño is best known for his effervescent novel The Savage Detectives, first published in English in 2007, four years after his death, and the epic 2666. The latest genie to emerge from his seemingly inexhaustible archive, The Spirit of Science Fiction, was not intended for publication; written in 1984, it was only published in Spanish in 2016 and, like much of his work, is masterfully translated by Natasha Wimmer. More than anything, it reads as an ur-text of The Savage Detectives, and is populated with precursory character sketches and situations. Bolaño had written mostly poetry beforehand; this book offers a view into the author’s mental workshop as he figures things out, his sights now trained on the romance and possibility of the longer stretch.
Bolaño’s novels are often fuelled by a playful dialectics, structured loosely around rival friends, siblings or schools of poetry, which are set against one another as each pursues its own desires. In TheSpirit of Science Fiction the two young protagonists, Jan Schrella and Remo Morán, are Chileans who have fled the military dictatorship at home and headed to the exhilarating Mexico City of the 1970s, a place humming with bars, cafes and conversation, which over the decades has welcomed émigrés from Europe and South America escaping war, persecution or ennui. Remo is the restless one, who engages with the outside world. He writes book reviews, attends poetry workshops, partakes in the extravagant nightlife. Jan is a hermit who hardly leaves their shared rooftop flat; his main dialogue with the outside world is conducted through the fan letters he sends to American science fiction writers including Ursula K Le Guin and Fritz Leiber (these appear in intervals across the book).
The novel’s symbolic register, if there is one, is that of science fiction. Unlike the distillatory act of poetry, SF implies an act of expansion: how far can the imagination colonise and how far can a country’s technology keep up in service of this imagination? Jan’s letters to SF authors express uncertainty and indeterminacy; they question the reality on which everything is premised. Along the way he also asks the writers to address the United States’s troublesome policy of intervention in Latin America. While Jan frets about scenarios real and imaginary, his best friend Remo, the true protagonist, is out creating some of his own.
The book is a hymn to Mexico City, and it’s fascinating to see which topographical features of the vast metropolis are pulled into focus. There’s a lyrical description of the fictitious poet José Arco, author of “Eros and Thanatos” (and an early incarnation, perhaps, of Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives), riding his own motorcycle through the nocturnal urban landscape.Bolaño’s eye alights on the venerable Bucareli cinema – “A benevolent king, practically a paragon of virtue, host of those with nowhere to sleep, dark Disneyland” – and the basilica of Guadalupe, looming in the distance like a giant beetle. Melancholy and despair are offset by comedy, wonderfully present in scenes from a poetry workshop: one of Bolaño’s microcosms of choice, and the ideal space for intellectual strutting and sparring.
An intriguing cast, mostly vagabond in spirit, enters and exits the novel like spectres, part of the picaresque multitudes that populate his oeuvre. There’s the old caretaker stationed by his ham radio, eternally waiting for a transmission. We meet “the Doll”, an ageing Argentinian magazine editor, followed by the frail, enigmatic figure of publisher Dr Ireneo Carvajal, whom Remo and his poet friend José Arco visit in order to investigate the mysterious abundance of literary journals in the city (this mystery isn’t sufficiently developed, but is an early nod to the detective genre Bolaño often draws on). And then there are the vivacious Torrente sisters, Teresa and Angélica, who awaken desire in most men they encounter.
The novel, divided into two parts and concluding with a fragment called “Mexican Manifesto”, feels structurally unresolved. Yet its unsturdy architecture is at moments redeemed, particularly in part one, by scenes that bear the exuberant spirit of the work to come. Everything feels fleeting and precarious, and it’s this sense of the fugitive, the restless characters and their obsessions, that both buoys the narrative and ultimately lets it down. Too many roads lead nowhere; this brand of absurdity is itself a theme in Bolaño’s work, yet here the various aborted journeys don’t feed into a larger project.Advertisement
The lack of clarity and cohesion finds its symbolic climax in the final fragment, which tours the city’s steamy bathhouses. These weird, covert ecosystems indulge the thrill of obfuscation and inscrutability and allow all manner of transgression. Every now and then, little islands of visibility appear within the fog, clear-eyed glimpses into the books to come.
• Chloe Aridjis’s latest novel is Sea Monsters (Chatto & Windus). The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer, is published by Penguin (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Royal & Derngate, Northampton Katori Hall’s astonishing drama, based on the alleged visions of three schoolgirls, explores the power of faith and miracles as Rwanda’s genocide looms
Katori Hall’s astonishing play, dealing with the apparent visitation of the Virgin Mary to a trio of Rwandan schoolgirls in 1981, has some distinguished forebears. Like Shaw’s Saint Joan, it explores the nature of miracles, and, like Miller’s The Crucible, it raises the spectre of mass hallucination. But it is very much Hall’s own work in that it roots religious ecstasy in a world of political tension between Tutsi and Hutu that was to lead to Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Hall’s previous work ranges from The Mountaintop, which saw Martin Luther King as a flawed martyr, to the book for the Tina Turner musical Tina, which was a celebration of the pop icon. Here she examines the true story of how three village girls in a Catholic college claimed to have received messages from the “Mother of the Word”. In the first half, the school’s tolerant Tutsi head and his domineering Hutu deputy clash over their responses to this seemingly divine eruption. But the play becomes even more gripping in the second half with the arrival of a Vatican emissary whose task is to test the validity of the girls’ visions, which climax in a prophecy of the bloodshed that was to visit their native land.
In an age dominated by secular drama, it is rare to find questions of faith so explicitly raised. What is good about Hall’s play is that it strikes a balance between respect for the girls’ integrity and scepticism about the religious hierarchy. It is possible, especially when the girls suddenly levitate, that they are surrendering to hypnosis. Yet Hall suggests they could be vessels for a divine message that sees Rwanda’s rivers running with blood. Their visions also expose both Rwanda’s ethnic divisions and the expediency of the Catholic establishment. The diocesan bishop, who initially wants the story suppressed, comes to see it as a tourist attraction and even the school’s priest covertly trains the girls in the liturgy so that they can pass the Vatican’s tests.
Hall’s virtue is that she puts a complete world on stage, one that embraces a cloistered college, a faith-hungry village and tribal hatred. James Dacre’s production rises to the challenge with the aid of a community ensemble, a Jonathan Fensom set that shows the sun-kissed landscape beyond the hermetic school and an Orlando Gough score that blends a cappella singing with tingling accompaniments to the girls’ visions.
Characters are also sharply delineated. Gabrielle Brooks brings out the artless wonder of Alphonsine, the initial visionary, while Yasmin Mwanza evokes the scholarly intensity of her fellow student Anathalie and Pepter Lunkuse the manipulative nature of the more mature Marie-Claire. There’s a touch of Graham Greene about the waning faith of the school’s Father Tuyishime, which Ery Nzaramba nicely captures. Leo Wringer pins down the worldliness of the local bishop, and Michael Mears as the Vatican’s man shows how disdain for the idea of divine visions in remote Africa give way to shaken acceptance of the possibility.
Hall leaves it to us to make up our own minds about whether the Virgin Mary spoke to the girls of Kibeho. But this is a play that swims against the tide by asking us to acknowledge the miraculous while also exploring the historical context of the Rwandan violence that the west notoriously did nothing to prevent.
In the mid-1990s, when I was a student of creative writing, there prevailed a quiet but firm admonition to avoid composing political poems. It was too dangerous an undertaking, one likely to result in didacticism and slackened craft. No, in American poetry, politics was the domain of the few and the fearless, poets like Adrienne Rich or Denise Levertov, whose outsize conscience justified such risky behavior. Even so, theirs weren’t the voices being discussed in workshops and craft seminars.
Maybe it was our relative political stability that kept Americans from stepping into the fray. Perhaps America’s individualism predisposed its poets toward the lyric poem, with its insistence on the primacy of a single speaker whose politics were intimate, internal, invisible. Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, and the war in Iraq, and something shifted in the nation’s psyche.
I keep coming back in my mind to some of the first poems published after 9/11, the worst among them written in the heat of righteous rage. Frank Bidart published “Curse” in the spring 2002 issue of The Threepenny Review. As the title suggests, the poem reads as a rant directed, perhaps, at the architects of the terror:
May what you have made descend upon you. May the listening ears of your victims their eyes their
enter you, and eat like acid the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath.
What satisfaction a poem like this offers lies in its rage, the good tongue-lashing it doles out. But the fact that it could be spoken just as plausibly by the relative of an attack victim as by someone setting out to perform an act of terror goes a long way toward highlighting the vicious cycle rage sets into motion. Bidart is a poet of such nuance and particularity that I’m tempted to believe he may have written “Curse” to highlight this very fact. Though it’s also possible he was simply indulging a basic human urge.
In the intervening years, political poetry, even here in America, has done much more than vent. It has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry. Poems willing to enter into this fraught space don’t merely stand on the bank calling out instructions on how or what to believe; they take us by the arm and walk us into the lake, wetting us with the muddied and the muddled, and sometimes even the holy.
Danez Smith’s “Don’t Call Us Dead” offers just such a baptism, and it does so through the imaginative act of dreaming up a realm where black boys remain safe, where they “go out for sweets & come back.” It is harrowing to accept a narrative of black survival as radical fantasy, though as Smith demonstrates, threats to black bodies on this earth are plentiful and real. They exist in society at large, as well as in intimate spaces; for Smith, who is H.I.V. positive, danger to the black body waits in the blood itself. Even so, these poems don’t preach or rail so much as explore vulnerability; they are not occasional curses hurled at a disembodied target, but acknowledgment of the actual ordeals life doles out to real people in fragile bodies.
As radical as empathy and imagination can be, these qualities exist in the mind. But there is also a poetic language of embodied experience, one that uses poetry to seek out the body. In “Feeld,” the trans poet Jos Charles bends language, via willful spelling, to a place where it must be parsed slowly, struggled through, read not so much with the brain as the mouth. Language becomes a felt thing, a terrain to be crossed. The title itself toys with such a transformation, the word feeld being a marriage, perhaps, of feel, felt and field. Reading lines like “i care so / much abot the whord i cant / reed / it marks mye bak / wen i pass / with / a riben in mye hayre,” I can’t help feeling that the body — itself a shifting and malleable possibility — is the target for these poems.
Through the strange labor of deciphering the text, I come to understand that Charles is transmitting an experience that I must allow to travel from her body into mine. When I do, the distance between us alters. It grows smaller and strangely charged. I’m made to realize that the very vernacular of the poems also tampers with history; it announces a continuum where Chaucer and 19th-century enslaved blacks and a 21st-century white trans woman seem quite effortlessly to share a lexicon.
Justin Phillip Reed, whose “Indecency” received the 2018 National Book Award in poetry, writes close to the flesh. His poems take up the body in desire and violence, and they do so by thrusting the reader into a stark visceral encounter with their material. The poem “Portrait With Stiff Upper Lip” is graphically rendered so that it can’t be read line by line; the page must be turned, repositioned so that text, overlapping and running every which direction, can be seen. Beyond typography, the poem asks the reader to take on the physical and emotional sense of a black man hearing himself, or someone like him, discussed via fragments. A reader staggers through a field of statements like “looks like planet of the apes” “probably has / a huge” “probably has a parent” “in / prison” “NO” “[in / the / pen]” “I’ve never had” “with a really hot BLKguy.” The reader, dragged forward yet afraid to keep reading, is made to feel caught in a hostile gaze, shoved around by heedless voices.
An even more radical use of the body as the poem’s site of operation can be found in CAConrad’s somatic poetics, which the poet describes as “a poetry which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit.” This is poetry rooted in actual rituals involving nature, crystals, meditation and interactions with strangers. It is a response to the cruelties of the “rational” world, a world where, as CAConrad recounts it, in 1998 the poet’s boyfriend was bound, gagged, tortured, raped, doused in gasoline and set on fire. And it’s worth considering that ritual might be one means of recovering from a world of such unrelenting cruelty — that ritual, rather than reason, can foster moments of healing like the one in this passage from “Pluto.3,” from CAConrad’s collection “While Standing in Line for Death”:
even when we have forgotten where we are love finds us just sticks us sobbing […] saying no doesn’t matter you can’t say no for long
CAConrad’s poems invite the reader to become an agent in a joint act of recovery, to step outside of passivity and propriety and to become susceptible to the illogical and the mysterious.
In his “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth writes that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” For him, the poem emerges after the heat of immediacy has cooled, when the mind calls forth old feelings anew, allowing them to bubble up and submit to honing through contemplation. But as I see it in this new strain of American poetry willing to engage with politics, it’s not exactly contemplation that is happening. Honing is no longer limited to the mind; in the work of these poets, Wordsworth’s head chakra is allowed to work in concert with energy centers throughout the body.
Take Evie Shockley’s “semiautomatic,” which grapples with the violent imprint America has made upon black bodies through the ages. The poem “supply and demand” shines a light on the absurdity of merely thinking about outrageous injustice:
the more black boys you have, the more you want. you act like we’re swimming in black boys. you can’t keep black boys in your pocket. if you had a million black boys, what would you do with them? do you think we’re made of black boys?
A reader can very clearly see the work Shockley has asked “black boys” to do in her poem. They are to stand in for a commodity, something exhaustible. This ought to ring false, wildly absurd; however, two lines from the latter half of the poem abruptly change my relationship to the work as a whole: “you don’t just find black boys lying in the street,” and “black boys don’t grow on trees.” Here, something akin to muscle memory disrupts my strategy for negotiating the poem. Call it the collective memory of Michael Brown’s body lying in the street, and of the terrible yet familiar photographs of black victims of lynch mobs hanging from trees. I can no longer second-guess the poem. Here I thought it was only teasing, but it has caught up to me and knocked me to the ground.
Wordsworth’s description of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is sometimes cited as shorthand for what poets refer to as the lyric “I,” the poet’s vehicle for private, meditative reflection. So what becomes of the lyric “I” if poems are not so much reflecting as enacting? I suggest that lately it seems concerned with seeking revelation not in privacy, but in community. Not in the meditative mind but in bustling bodies in shared space, in the transactions our physical selves are marked and marred by. The lyric “I” at this very moment is not alone, like the speaker of Bidart’s “Curse,” who hurls invective into the ether. Rather, it is speaking to a large, shifting, contradictory, multivalent body that is not guaranteed to hear or even to agree. Still, the “I” speaks. It is speaking at once from and to something like America.