Senior Programmer for Literature and Spoken Word
One of the highlights from my reading recently has been The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil. Part cultural history, part memoir, this is a novel teeming with stories about the Bombay poets of the 1970s and 1980s, who in Thayil’s own words, ‘sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two, and vanished without a trace.’ As that sentence suggests, this is a novel written with explosive lyricism, which is both an ode to a forgotten flowering of Indian poetry and a savage satire of its excesses, written by a poet who was himself one of its disciples.
Turning from one poet to another, Sophie Collins’ debut, Who Is Mary Sue? makes short work of the archetypes imposed on female characters and the denigration of women writers. The collection is a collage of voices shaped by a singular, witty and ferociously intelligent sensibility. Collins is a poet to watch. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday begins like a classic Philip Roth novel of infidelity in the publishing world of New York, before taking an unexpected turn which deftly skewers the limits of that same Rothian tradition.
Closer to home, Joe Dunthorne’s third novel, The Adulterants, is a rip-snortingly funny and brilliantly observed portrait of thirty-somethings in Hackney. And, ahead of our live reading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook on 22 April, I recently read Lara Feigel’s revelatory and courageous book Free Woman. By combining elements of biography with frank explorations of her own life, Feigel extends and deepens the innovations of Lessing’s writing, and throws light on the constraints that still persist when it comes to female freedom. I’ve also been judging the Royal Society of Literature Encore Prize for the best second novel, and our shortlist should be announced soon. Second novels, a bit like second albums, are notoriously tricky, and often greeted with less fanfare than a debut, so it’s a prize I’m proud to be a part of.
I’ve been deeply immersed in the WOW - Women of the World programme, of which a highlight was a night about international activism with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Her book, When They call You A Terrorist, is one of those publications that takes everything you think you know about the world and explodes it.
Brought up in the Van Nuys Barrio of LA, Khan-Cullors conveys the horrific, all-too regular occurrences of having her home raided by police as a response to her activism. The simplicity of her tactic of gesturing with her head rather than her hands to armed officers in case this is seen as an act of aggression is chilling. It is also one of the moments, in a long line of moments, both personal and involving people of colour across America that led her to form the Black Lives Matter movement with two other women. With a foreword by legendary activist Angela Davis, Khan-Cullors is a true 21st century revolutionary and her book is a shocking and essential read.
From one activist to another, I’m excited about welcoming writer Preti Taneja to Southbank Centre for Alchemy. Her 2017 novel We That Are Young, is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, but instead of mythical middle England as its backdrop, the narrative takes us to Dehli, with Devraj, the head of an Indian multinational company as its Lear. His daughters are hard to pin down, with their roles shifting throughout, from violent power grabs to smashing the patriarchy to covering up their father’s decreasing mental faculties. Sita, the youngest daughter, is an enigma and is seen in fragments and memories as an environmental crusader, at odds with the family business. No spoilers but the chaos that breaks apart the family and the business remains until the last word and makes this book unmissable.
Amongst my recent reading, a particular standout has been Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead. Smith’s collection of poetry, as its title denotes, is a fierce pronouncement of survival. From the opening poem, summer, somewhere which imagines a utopia where ‘boys brown as rye play’ to dear white america in which Smith pronounces ‘I’ve left Earth in search of darker planets’, Smith’s indelible collection rallies against a world in which, for many, survival itself is protest and hope is the only weapon against despair.
In another interrogation of trauma, Happiness by Aminatta Forna traces the lives of its two protagonists, psychiatrist Attila Asare and wildlife biologist Jean Turane. As Forna deftly folds past into present, we see the larger ambitions of her story - the exploration of trauma not just as harm but as a necessary human experience, an ambition realised by her careful and well observed characterisation.
White Girls by Hilton Als is also a book that has recently stuck with me. In this book of essays, Als explores culture, race, gender and sexuality through the lens of ‘white girls’ - not in the literal sense of personhood but rather in a observed state of mind and being. With a cast of ‘white girls’ ranging from Vivien Leigh to Truman Capote and Michael Jackson, Als’ essays are at once comedic, cutting and revelatory, with a voice that carries the reader through a cacophony of insights and observations.
Artistic Programming Assistant
In the run up to the Man Booker 50 celebrations here at Southbank Centre this July, I set myself the task of reading a number of past winners. I started off with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries because I liked the sound of the story, and I was not disappointed; this book is the best. If you're like me and like your books set in a New Zealand goldrush town in the 19th century where thirteen random men all find themselves on the periphery of a series of mysterious events, you will love this book. The story is so well plotted, the characters so slyly described and the twists and turns so unexpected but compelling that by page 100 I'd settled into Catton’s amazing precision. Key message: it takes the ripple effect extremely seriously. Yes it's a doorstop of a book, but it's so much fun I actually wish it was longer.
Incidentally, the book’s format is linked to the stars. The first part is exactly 360 pages long - a full circle in degrees - and the following sections get progressively smaller, mirroring the waning moon. It isn’t essential to the novel, but once you become aware of the structure, it’s hard not to be amazed by how Catton weaves it all together.