Thursday, February 04, 2016

journey to the bottom of the tbr pile: Freeman's/Arrival

In the introduction of the inaugural edition of esteemed writer, critic and editor John Freeman's new biannual anthology, called unselfconsciously Freeman’s, the former Granta editor opens with a story about a flight he took as a child. He uses the flight as a metaphor to explain how books, and the stories within them, can transport us. 

‘Stories and essays, even the right kind of poem, will take us somewhere else, put us down somewhere new,’ he explains. 

And I agree with him. It’s a big part of why I read; that feeling of being transported to another world, another experience, another understanding. You could posit that it’s this feeling of arrival into another world, experience or understanding that we readers chase, and so, fittingly, the theme of this issue of Freeman’s is just that: arrival. 

It is, of course, a loosely held theme; more a feeling, a desire for the aforementioned transportation than a literal interpretation. Nonetheless, Freeman has managed to bring together an impressive and diverse group of writers and there is much to appreciate here. 

I am a big believer in anthologies. Not only do they allow you to dip in and out with multiple exit and entry points, but they can also act as an introduction to new writers; allowing you to glimpse into who and what they are - which is a roundabout way of saying you’ll walk away with some new names to add to your must read list. 

There are at least a handful of names to take away from Freeman’s. A couple of my picks include Aleksandar Hemon, the child of Bosnian immigrants, who writes in the lovely In Search of Space Lost with real affection for his parents and their desire to create a home for themselves and their family, both emotionally and physically, in a place that is foreign to them. 

Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, recounts an amusing story about his first paid reading, featuring a neurotic driver, a joint and a whole cheesecake, in Mellow

In Garments, from British-Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam, three young Bangladeshi women make unenviable choices to survive. It’s both heartbreaking, touching on the realities of the lives of women garment workers, and heartwarming as one of the women makes small, but important, strides towards a better life. 

What all three of the stories above share, is an arrival at a particular space of sorts, theirs is a physical arrival. They move between places, between countries, houses, towns. Of course we can also arrive in a non-physical sense, and it’s here where Lydia Davis’ excellent On Learning Norwegian fits. Davis recounts in great detail her efforts to read Dag Solstad’s ‘Telemark novel’, despite knowing very little Norwegian. Her reading becomes an exploration not only of language (some of the similarities between English and Norwegian are, though not particularly surprising, fascinating) but also of the concept of the novel. Solstad’s work is a 426 page account of his ancestors in Telemark from 1591 to 1896. If that sounds dull, if Davis recounting her reading of such a novel sounds dull, prepare to be surprised. Her essay is entrancing and her obvious enthusiasm draws you in, until you find yourself wishing Solstad’s epic was available in English - it’s not, I checked. 

However, when counting the names you will be scrawling in your must read list, chief among them will likely be Garnette Cadogan, whose reflections on walking in his childhood home Jamaica versus his adult homes in New Orleans and New York City in the incredibly rendered Black and Blue are confronting and palpable - his words jumping off the page.

‘When we first learn to walk, the world around us threatens to crash into us. Every step is risky. We train ourselves to walk without crashing by being attentive to our movements, and extra-attentive to the world around us. As adults we walk without thinking, really. But as a black adult I am often returned to that moment in childhood when I’m just learning to walk. I am once again on high alert, vigilant,’ Cadogan writes, as he details his experience walking as a black man.

As I read the last lines of Black and Blue, I had to put the book down. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. It’s a powerful piece of writing, and is reason enough alone to find yourself a copy. 

There are others whose work appears in this anthology that are also worth mentioning, writers Fatin Abbas and Laura van den Berg and poets Ghassan Zaqtan and Honor Moore among them. 

In his introduction, Freeman says that, ‘Any true reader wants more - more life, more experiences, more risk than one’s own life can contain,’ - he’s right. We do. Always. It’s an insatiable desire. And if the work in this edition of Freeman’s is an indication of the calibre of work we’ll be seeing, I've no doubt I’ll be wanting more.

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