This month I went to a reading at my local bookshop. Three ladies came along to read from their recently published anthology of short stories on the theme of closure. To add to the topicality of the event the three ladies were all members of the black and Asian community and their stories featured black and Asian characters.
The first story we heard was about a couple who had some problems keeping it together because one of them had drug and alcohol dependencies, had fidelity problems and had anger management issues that came to a head causing the other partner to leave. While I was listening to this story I remembered the words of the French literary theorist, philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) who identified a concept called the punctum. He was actually talking about photography, but the idea has since been drawn into literary studies to mean the one telling detail in a scene that makes it all hang together, the specific thing about the scene that pierces the invisible wall between the reader and the story and draws the reader into the world the story inhabits. Instead of fully describing a character you just say which particular shade of red lipstick she is wearing or the exact shape of her hat and this somehow magically brings everything else into focus.
The author of this first story, Louisa Adjoa, who called herself a poet having a tentative first go at fiction, identified what was for me the punctum in a number of the scenes in her story so that with only a few very well-chosen words she was able to draw the scene in a way that really brought the events to life. I was actually sitting in a brightly lit bookshop on a rather drab winter afternoon with a howling gale blowing outside but in my mind I was in that room with the green door where Akeem and Zoe were having their confrontation. Based on this experience I would like to think the poet in her will give this fiction lark a go because she has a definite affinity with it.
The second story was a slightly spooky story about two women in a darkened room having a conversation in which a third person intercedes, a third person who may or may not really be there. Listening to this story is a slightly strange and unnerving experience that wasn’t diminished for me by having heard it before. The story does, however, rely for its visual imagery on a pair of metaphors repeated three times, and whilst each on its own is perfectly fine the combination just doesn’t work for me. In my mind they each create an image that renders the other impossible, and that might even be the point, but it prevented me from picturing the carriage clock at the centre of the story so that instead of picking out the one telling detail the author left me standing behind an opaque veil gazing at events as though through mist or fog.
The third story was about a meeting between three women confronting a situation they would rather not be in. The women had different back-stories and different reasons for being there and quite different approaches to their situation but they all had the same fundamental problem to confront and it was these differences, brought out with some subtle dialogue and acute observation, that made the story resonate for me. It was also very interesting for me, a man, to be given a view of a uniquely female experience. No man ever has or ever will be in that situation and try as I might I cannot imagine what it is really like, and the story did much more than just invite me to, it made me, see things I might not otherwise be privileged to see. It was, if you like, a lifting of the veil, like taking a vegetarian into a butcher’s shop and forcing him to watch chops being cut. No man can come away from reading that story without new levels of respect for what it means to be a woman.
This post is not, however, just an advert for the book. It is an advert for the book, it was called Closure (2015) and it is published by Peepal Tree Press and you should get hold of a copy if you can. But it is not just an advert for the book because in the post-story discussion some very interesting points came out.
One gentleman asked a question about character strengths. This was given to Louisa Adjoa to answer and her main character had lots of easily identifiable weaknesses but no obvious strengths. She had drugs issues and alcohol issues, she was forgetful and irresponsible, she was not faithful and she got angry when these issues were brought up. But at one crucial point in the story her partner suggested she might lose her child and that got a response from her. That was the point when a glass flew across the room, that was the motivating moment that brought about the closure her partner required.
So she might be on the edge, she might be staring into the abyss but she is not completely lost because despite all her faults she is still a mother and has that instinct to, above all else, protect her child. This suggests to me that there might be a redemption narrative in her future and if that is the case then it might be worth remembering that couples do break up, they argue cuss and fight but they also reconcile sometimes too. Which means that the glass flying across the room signaled closure for Akeem but it also helps us, the audience, realise that maybe closure here isn’t a final and irrevocable kind of closure. It might be just one step along a path to a different kind of future they can still have together. I found this bifurcation of the potentialities of the story a really pleasing aspect of it and I found myself still thinking about Zoe and Akeem a few days later. Testament, I think, to the powerful way the story was told.
Also in the post-story discussion Akila Richards used the expression, “Black experience,” a phrase I had heard a few days earlier in an interview with Marlon James, author of the Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015). He was asked to comment on the expectation that writers of colour should write about the “Black experience,” and in his reply he said that writers are often enjoined to write about what they know, and it seemed to him that what all writers know about is their own cultural milieu, the interface and interaction of their own culture with others and it seemed to him perfectly normal for anyone to want to write about this but that they can write about other stuff too. Which, for him, means that the expectation, if it exists, is unlikely to be realised any time soon.
If we then think about these three stories within the context of Marlon James remarks we can see that the stories are not about a uniquely black experience. Couples of all cultures have problems, they argue, fight and break up. The middle story might have voodoo elements I didn’t pick up on but didn’t strike me as being a uniquely black experience and the third story was a uniquely female experience but not a uniquely black experience. That made me think of a quote from David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest (1996) and The Pale King (2011). In an interview he said, “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and that is precisely what these three stories were about. They resonated with and spoke to the audience precisely because they were intensely human experiences.
They were written from a black and Asian perspective and they featured black and Asian characters but they were fundamentally stories about what it means to be human, and that, I think, says that Lynne Blackwood, Louisa Adjoa, and Akila Richards might have very different colour skin to mine but their heart still beats to the same passions as mine, they have the same wants, needs and desires as I do and it says that we are more alike than some people might care to admit and that those similarities are much greater than any differences we might perceive. We are all human beings together.
It is one of the fundamental paradoxes of being human that we all want to be known for those traits that make us special as individuals, we want our achievements, skills and talents to be recognised and acknowledged but we also want to be one of a community of people who are considered alike in some respects. We want to be different as individuals, and yet we also want to be the same in community. Stories like these go a long way to resolving that paradox not just for writers of colour, not just for people in the black and Asian community and not just for women, but for anyone who has the least bit of humanity within them.