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’.