May-Lan Tan and Mai Al-Nakib at the Manchester Literature Festival

As part of the Manchester Literature Festival, I head to the Anthony Burgess Foundation for an evening being read to and talking about all things literary with two up-and-coming short story writers. May-Lan Tan, born in Hong Kong and living currently in London, released her debut collection of short stories ‘Things to Make and Break’ in 2014, which went on to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Kuwait-born Mai Al-Nakib currently teaches at Kuwait University and has gained recognition from her first book of short stories, ‘The Hidden Light of Objects’. The two authors present very different concerns and distinctive takes on the short story form but both adeptly evoke characters and place, often utilised to explore how being a woman shapes one’s experience of the world.

May-Lan Tan reads an excerpt from what is hard to believe was her first ever short story, ‘Legendary’. The tale examines modern relationships and is live with acute observations and dry wit. Her protagonist finds an envelope in her boyfriend’s office labelled ‘Tax Papers’, full of nude photos of his ex-girlfriends. The relationship is stale and unfulfilling; the couple are complacent in their indifference to one another. She depicts two opposing images of the modern man by comparing her ex, who only owned two appliances, ‘a bong and a coffee machine’, with her current boyfriend who goes antiquing and ‘steers [her] around from room to room by the base of [her] neck’. In spite of all this, she becomes troubled by thoughts of one nude girl in particular and tracks her down. When at last a nude photo of herself is added to the collection she is sickly gratified to now be ‘a blade in the guts of some future girl’.

Mai Al-Nakib reads a vignette and a short story excerpt, both taken from her first collection of short stories ‘The Hidden Light of Objects’. Her vignette explores coming of age as a woman in 1980s Kuwait. Childhood play gives way to the serious business of adolescence; girls ‘morph into minxes’, no longer the recipients of teasing but of ‘a new, awkward fawning’. A gawky boy is ‘made cocky by his American-ness’. Set against the backdrop of her the Kuwait she knew in her youth, Al-Nakib introduces what will become a key trope in her work: two opposing images of pre- and post-liberation Kuwait.

The later image of post-1999 Kuwait is introduced in her excerpt, telling of a Kuwaiti woman abducted in the days after liberation and held captive in Iraq for a decade. As her children try to make sense of both their mother’s capture and the drastic changes they are seeing in Kuwait, their mother draws on memories of her possessions to help herself survive. The Kuwait of her childhood becomes more rigid and oppressive, ‘women swathed in ominous black hoods’, a place of filth, dirt and corruption, ‘everyone swallowing fistfuls of dollars as fast as they could’. Faced with the fear of death, a ‘bargaining chip’ in a political game, the mothers fills herself with a different light as she envisages her dusty books, jewellery, which ‘each in their way embalmed the kernels of [her] life’.

Following the readings, the presenter strikes up an informal conversation which opens up to questions from the audience.

Both writers are driven to write by necessity. It is perhaps unsurprising that Al-Nakib’s stories are autobiographical in part, reflecting her personal effort to regain the Kuwait she has lost as she battles the sense of amnesia others seemed to display about what Kuwait had been. “I had to recreate [..] a place I was convinced had existed”. An obviously emotional experience, she hopes it will in turn go on to help her imagined audience: those also grieving for their lost home. Tan writes through compulsion, writing all day and scheduling in time to eat and sleep. She describes her lifestyle as simple but luxurious, never happier than when she is reading or writing at home, often finding herself picking up a half-read book from the floor and indulgently losing herself in it.

Both writers, although being realist in content, achieve in lending a fantastical quality to their works. Nakib says this is a conscious decision, as she strives to evoke a fairytale, magical-realist quality in her work, a feeling that the stories are ‘hovering above reality’. Even stylistic features such as these are heavily rooted in her context, a coping mechanism to deal with things happening in the Middle East which seem like they can’t be real. Tan’s stories, similarly, are subtly fantastical and highly imaginative, despite always remaining anchored in reality. For Tan, this has little contextual relevance; rather, it is an exercise in aesthetic stylisation for the sake of it. ‘I try to do everything very mechanically’ says Tan, ‘[any departure from reality] must be justified’. Exploiting the freedom of fiction but never ‘being lazy’, she frames readers underwater, or without contact lenses, to allow a degree of fantasy rupture the story.

For Tan, establishing a strong voice is essential and always subordinate to plot. I don’t understand fully the extent of this until I buy a copy of Tan’s collection, Things to Make and Break, and see how she effortlessly adopts her narrators’ identities. Her stories read like monologues, with clues which immediately shape how we perceive the narrator expertly stitched into the texture of a story. Tan comments that she is fascinated by playing with characters’ interiority: how in spite of supposedly having access to all the information people are dishonest with themselves, meaning the reader has to deduce from what goes unsaid. She says this is linked to growing up in Hong Kong, where the importance of the unsaid is a central part of the culture. Nakib also employs a variety of different voices, using the first and third person, though, comparatively, I feel she lacks the subtle ventriloquist-like skill that Tan so adeptly employs. She seems to prefer stating her meaning explicitly rather than leaving too much to the reader, as her character denounces the occupation as ‘the so-called liberation’, a view clearly shared by the author.

After an indulgent evening with two enthralling authors in an intimate space like the Anthony Burgess Foundation, I feel like we could all learn a thing or two from May-Lan Tan’s dedication to engaging with literature luxuriously and pick myself up a copy of ‘Things to Make and Break’.

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Paul Mason at Manchester Literature Festival

As part of the Manchester Literature Festival, Economics editor of Channel 4 news and Guardian writer Paul Mason came to Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music to discuss his new book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. The fairly large venue is packed, and everyone falls silent as Mason walks out on stage to join his interviewer, Katy Shaw, on stage. He’s a likeable guy, and the audience laugh as he opens cracking jokes. Very topical jokes of course, and everyone who reads the news enough to get it is chuckling away knowingly. But mostly there’s a feeling of anticipation: hope that Paul can tell us once and for all how to escape the seemingly inevitable fate of everlasting capitalism.

As the night draws on, however, excitement turns to concentration, eyes are narrowed and beards are stroked as the audience strains to get its head around Mason’s big concepts and claims. He attempts to bring some structure to his ponderings but often gets lost in tangents, naturally resulting in us all ending up pretty lost too. As Paul and his interviewer glug from their glasses of wine, I fail to suppress the thought that while it would probably be fantastically exciting to chat to Paul about this in a pub, in this context, with hundreds of people waiting on his every word, I couldn’t help but wish he’d got his ideas mapped out a little clearer. Or (I can’t believe I’m writing this) made a PowerPoint or something.

But I’ll do my best to sum up what he was getting at. Mason’s basic premise is that capitalism is at a dead end, and that developments in IT may already be paving the way to a fundamental reconfiguration of our understanding of economics.

He asserts first of all that the capitalist system is broken in a number of ways. Three of them, he says (but gets a bit lost so I’m using a copy of the book to cross-reference). Firstly there’s fiat money. The crisis of 2008 was a signal from the future that the remedy is illusory: ‘cheap money being used to fix a crisis caused by cheap money’ is a method which runs the risk of long-term stagnation of the world economy.

Secondly he quotes financialisation, an inherent feature of neoliberalism, as a trigger of the crisis and of outrageous levels of inequality. Workers receive a falling share of profits, while a growing share is generated out of their mortgages and credit cards as they are forced into the financial system to live. He says we’ve become ‘slaves to interest payments’, generating profits not only for our bosses but also for the intermediary financial sector as we borrow more and more. In other words, the neoliberal system boosts profits for a country by impoverishing its own citizens.

The last cause of crisis he lists is that of global imbalances in trade, saving and investment. It led to the 2008 crisis as America, Britain and Europe’s financial systems took on unsustainable debt, leaving most neoliberalised countries with unpayable amounts of government debt. And not to forget, of course, that we’re plummeting full speed ahead towards devastating climate crisis.

But the good news, Mason says, is that developments in information technology have come together to offer us an escape route, out of capitalism and into a more sustainable and egalitarian. This can also be summarised loosely in three points. He firstly points out that the price mechanism is being dissolved for information goods, an increasingly integral part of our lives. This basically means something that can be downloaded an infinite number of times and produced at no cost cannot have the competition that surrounds physical goods. Through the enforcement of law a certain degree of artificial security is produced, but Paul argues it means fighting a losing battle: information is meant to be free.

Secondly, developments in automation mean that currently 40% of all jobs could be automated. This would mean not only physical things collapsing in price, but also less work and more play. Thirdly, Mason asserts that the notion of ownership hierarchy is declining, while networks and collaboration prosper as the internet removes barriers to communal production. Wikipedia and Linux are just two examples of widely used open-source alternatives to commercially produced information products.

So Paul invites us to put on our ‘post-capitalism goggles’ and allow ourselves to see that what was once considered utopian fantasy might be a lot closer than we might have thought. He sees the potential of the creation of a horizontal, non-managed and non-regulated economy. His prediction is that younger, inspired generations, newly empowered by unlimited access to knowledge and mobilitsation towards activism will play an important role in this process. However, he goes on, for it to be plausible, centralised action on the part of the state would be necessary to nurture these schemes. While de-centralised action is heavily fetished, Mason holds that the state has to accept that we are in a period of transition and recognise capitalism as a dead end.

If that sounds unlikely to you, then you’re not the only one thinking so. Paul himself recognises that governments in their current state are evidently hell-bent on working within given structures, blindly crashing forth as programmed, as if nothing could go wrong. And while his ideas as they stand are interesting in themselves, stringing them all together to form any kind of coherent picture that could be effectively implemented by a government is difficult. Whether this was due to Paul’s delivery or the fact that he himself hasn’t quite figured it out I’m not sure.

But at the end of the day, he isn’t claiming to know exactly what form this next era will take. As the factory would have seemed inconceivable to people prior to the Industrial Revolution, he says, we too are unable to fathom exactly what will catalyse this coming shift. Mason’s role, rather than piecing it all together for us, is to bring light to observations which he feels hint at an exciting potential for a different future – which he leaves to someone else to examine and foster and make into something workable, with the trust that the unprecedented power of the conscious individual will lead to a non-violent, more equal economic system.

So is this feasible, or just utopian fantasy? Don’t get me wrong, I really want to believe he’s onto something. And its reassuring to know that someone with a background in economics and large following is pushing these ideas. I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows what it feels like to be mid-debate, when someone goes and throws in a load of economic jargon which shuts down the conversation immediately.

It can seem like left-leaning ideas and economics are incompatible; you’re speaking two different languages. To those on the left, economics is meaningless discourse and to right-wing economists, policies which prioritise anything other than progress and profit are far-fetched idealism. The two positions often seem so fundamentally opposed that there is zero common ground from which to start any kind of logical discussion when you’re not just talking at one another. So yeah, it’s good to know someone knows his stuff about both and thinks it can work somehow.

When I stand up to leave I hear someone mumble, “I mean it was good… Just not nearly as inspiring as I thought it would be”. It’s clear that there is an appetite for a feasible alternative, but also a fair amount of scepticism. It’s time, perhaps, to start being a bit more optimistic. Best be getting our post-capitalism goggles on.

Also published at: http://www.thestateofthearts.co.uk/features/paul-mason-at-manchester-literature-festival/

Adam Marek and Diao Dou at Manchester Literature Festival

Ra Page, founder and editorial manager of Comma Press, brings Adam Marek and Diao Dou to Manchester to talk about the dark and eerie worlds of their short stories.

 

Adam Marek and Diao Dou share a predilection for bringing together the uncanny and the banal to create surrealist tales which are at once chilling, comical, and highly sophisticated. Manchester-based publishing house Comma Press dedicates itself to bringing us authors like these, who otherwise could be lost to commercial pressures seen in mainstream publishing houses. Marek is the author of two short story collections, ‘Instruction Manual for Swallowing’ and ‘The Stone Thrower’, while Dou has written novels, poems and essays as well as his short story collection ‘Points of Origin’.

Page introduces Marek recalling the first story of his he stumbled across. In ‘Testicular Cancer vs the Behemoth’ a man finds out he is terminally ill on the same day that a Godzilla-like monster attacks his city. As Marek reads us the openings from three stories, it becomes clear Marek’s art often begins this way: by positing an odd situation at the very beginning of a story and running with the idea as if it is nothing out of the ordinary. His characters contemplate the fate of HIV-positive ‘Tamagotchi’s, value pets according to their volume (“his cat, a Prussian blue, was huge – five litres, when most cats are three”) and cross-breed with orangutans. When Marek later quotes Roald Dahl as an influence the similarities are clear: his stories are expertly spun and delightfully mad, tapping into the reader’s playful nature.

Dou, as a non-English speaker, reads in animated Chinese. The event organisers went to a great effort to try to bridge the problems posed by the necessity of operating the event in two languages. As Dou reads aloud, non-Chinese speakers can follow the English projected onto a screen on the stage or from printed handouts. Unfortunately as the reading gave way to the interview, the flow of the conversation, perhaps inevitably, becomes disjointed despite the interpreter’s best efforts. As a language student I know how challenging this role can be, but it it was definitely an issue in this event, resulting in many times when Dou’s meaning was unclear and the unfortunate pronunciation of Anthony Burgess as “Anthony Buggers”. This was no doubt compounded by Dou’s charming but tangential and sometimes dead-end anecdotes – although here too it is possible that a lot was lost in translation.

Page opens up the interview with a Kafka quote, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” Neither of the authors seems to feel much affiliation with this sentiment and Page seems somewhat deflated by the upbeat nature of the two men, cheery and humble and refusing to play into any kind of tortured artist persona. And the real irony given the continuation of the quote (“So that it will make us happy, as you write?”) is that both authors do attribute huge importance to the joy of writing and reading. Dou regards humour within writing as a way of connecting to and coping with the world, with the potential of bringing joy to the writer and reader: something truly human. Marek too looks to create an experience when writing and reading, describing how he was “truly titillated” by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and has “been trying to titillate ever since”.

Both authors claim that their use of surrealism is not part of any specific agenda; rather, it is an exploration of the human psyche, art for art’s sake. Marek is fascinated by what goes on in our subconscious minds, what is just bubbling beneath the surface. For him, literature is what allows us to perceive and explore this elusive level of our consciousness. Because of this, each story’s significance is naturally dependent on the interpretation of each reader. Dou’s stories similarly are ambiguous in interpretation, and Page asks for clarification, “Dou, it’s clear your stories are critical – its just not clear what they’re critical of?” Despite being regarding as China’s leading contemporary satirist, Dou holds that it is not his intention to make political commentary. He recognises that politics is everywhere and as such will unavoidably leave some traces of one’s work, but he believes his work harks beyond the political, exploring the dichotomy of civilisation and the wild, human and animal.

The process behind creating off the wall works like these is hard to get your head around. Marek jokes that he has two wheels in his office with images or tropes that fascinate him, he spins them and if they fit together to make a story “money starts pouring out of my mouth”. With regards to how technically surrealism is made palatable, three features stand out: keeping a balance; use of the grotesque; and humour. Limiting the level of surrealism is key, offsetting the uncanny with the banal so the reader keeps one foot in reality. The grotesque and the funny go hand in hand as the authors consciously create an experience which is comforting and unsettling at once. Marek jokes that humour sugarcoats the gruesome and the forbidden, allowing you to talk about anything and knowing that readers will “swallow it, and they will like it!”.

Despite some disruption to the flow of the event, it was nonetheless a pleasure to be read to and hear these authors discuss their artistic processes. Comma Press’s determination to take risks in little-known authors has obviously paid off. My interest is piqued. I for one will keep my ears pricked for all things Comma Press from now on.