The Book of Birmingham is the latest title to be published by Comma Press in their cities in short fiction series which serves as an excellent introduction to some superb contemporary writers. The ultimate in armchair city tours, the series is ideal for discovering other places, other lives.
The Book of Birmingham – focusing on the second largest city in the UK after London which “sits atthe central crossroads of England, the industrial heartland of the country” – brings together short stories by some writers known to me, (Kit de Waal, Bobby Nayyar, C.D. Rose, Sharon Duggal, Kavita Bhanot), and some not, (Sibyl Ruth, Malachi McIntosh, Joel Lane, Jendella Benson, Alan Beard, Balvinder Banga). The city’s “working-class foundation is inseparable from the city’s literature, reflected in the voices of its best-known contemporary authors: Jonathan Coe, Catherine O’Flynn, Benjamin Zephaniah, Kit de Waal, Joel Lane . . .”
Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself. My Mum is a big reader of Crime Fiction. It helped her solve a real life crime while she was working in a Kenyan orphanage a few years ago. They were both “people of The Book,” hosting Parish Bible studies. This made them more learned than the average parents. The Church was my first exposure to people with higher education. I read a lot from a very young age, I had a box of those cassettes with ding turn the page books. I would put the headphones in myself and read for hours. I remember making a zoo out of envelopes. Each one contained a different animal.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start? If not, why now? No, but something I wanted to do as a Writer was understand every dimension of books. I studied Sculpture because I thought this would teach me about composition in a more general sense than doing English or Creative Writing. I went on to become a master bookbinder and printer too. I became a publisher partly because I wanted to understand, and maybe undermine, distribution and bookselling. It’s another extension to my writing. I guess that’s what it means to be a Modernist in an industrial, networked world. Why now? We were invited in by big publishers a few times to consult, using our publishing methods. We also worked on several print commissions in our studio for Independents. One title we illustrated is almost at the Million Copies mark. We realised we had an extraordinary range of expertise and there were so many good manuscripts I knew of being turned down for bad reasons. The Poets made me do it!Continue reading Interview | David Henningham, co-founder, Henningham Family Press | Indie Publisher of the Week
The fifth talk of the BookBlast® 10×10 tour, a nationwide celebration of independent publishing, features Peirene Press which focuses on European & World Literature, much of it in translation. It was founded in 2008 by Meike Ziervogel who is both a novelist and a publisher. She grew up in northern Germany and lives in North London. In 2012 Meike was voted as one of Britain’s 100 most innovative and influential people in the creative and media industries by the “Time Out and Hospital Club 100 list”. Meike is the author of four novels, all published by Salt. Her alter ego, “The Nymph” regularly writes about The Pain & Passion of a Small Publisher for Peirene online and is a must-read blog.
Meet Dan Micklethwaite in person at the BookBlast® 10×10 Tour discussion at Waterstones, Newcastle, 6.30 p.m. Wednesday 12 SEPT. Theme: The Northern Influence on Culture. With Kevin Duffy BLUEMOOSE BOOKS chair, authors Dan Micklethwaite (The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote) and Colette Snowden (The Secret to not Drowning). Book Tickets
The second talk of the BookBlast® 10×10 tour, a nationwide celebration of independent publishing, features Kevin Duffy, founder of Bluemoose Books, based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Prizewinning writers include Benjamin Myers, Michael Stewart and Adrian Barnes. He will be in conversation with Dan Micklethwaite and Colette Snowden, and the talk has as its theme The Northern Influence on Culture @waterstonesNewc
Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Goncourt among many others, and short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature, talks to Georgia de Chamberet about writing in French, immigration, exile, language, and fighting injustice.
An extract from the interview is reproduced below; the full interview was published in Banipal magazine No. 35 in 2009 and is available at banipal.co.uk
Banipal magazine is an independent literary magazine. It was begun in 1998 by two individuals who loved Arab literature and believed in promoting dialogue between different cultures by bringing this literature with the world through translation into English.
The Banipal Trust / Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation prize administered by the Translators Association 2018 judging panel is Pete Ayrton, Georgia de Chamberet, Fadia Faqir, Sophia Vasalou.
How many hours a day do you write? I write in the morning, on average for three hours, although I sometimes stay at my desk all that time and just write one phrase, it depends. The principle is that it’s a discipline and whatever happens I must stay in front of the page, or computer, and not give up. It’s a practice I have followed for 30 years.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up? I was born and raised in Belfast during The Troubles. My parents grew up in working class families and were determined to ‘better themselves’. When my older brother was eight they bought a newly built, three bed semi-detached house and moved from the central area of the city to what was then its outskirts. They still live there today. My sister and I were born after this move. My brother left home when I was six so I never really got to know him – he now lives in Australia. My sister and I both passed the 11+ exam and attended an all girl state run grammar school before going up to the local university. We continued to live with my parents, although I did move into student digs for around six months after yet another row about my behaviour – aged twenty I was staying out beyond my curfew and drinking alcohol. I suspect we all wish I could have afforded to stay away, but my part time job wouldn’t cover the rent longer term. Belfast felt parochial, cut off from what we referred to as the mainland due to the violence. We were expected to attend church and conform to a code of conduct that demanded we put on a front to the world of chastity and sobriety. It always felt that what I was seen to be mattered more to my parents than what I was or aspired to. Despite this I look back on a largely happy childhood. Certainly at the time I felt loved. My determination to leave Belfast and to be myself stems from the frustration of being guilt tripped into conforming to a wide range of strictures I didn’t agree with. Continue reading Blogosphere Interview | Jackie Law, Never Imitate, @followthehens
“I decided to write a book about William, and to pay tribute to him by calling it Wrestliana. By doing this, I would explicitly take William on, on his home ground. Because all of this ‘being a man’ stuff was something I needed to wrestle with. To be a better son and to be a better father. To be a better man.” — Toby Litt
The author of over fifteen books, Toby Litt continues to be effortlessly experimental as he moves skilfully between genres, from a thriller set in high-octane Media London (Corpsing), a coming-of-age tale which turns disturbingly murderous (deadkidsongs), and a parody of chick lit in Finding Myself; to a Henry Jamesian portrayal of bereavement casting a blight over life (Ghost Story), facing the male midlife crisis as a Canadian rock band goes on tour in I play the drums in a band called okay, and a superb collection of twenty-six essays on a diverse range of subjects (Mutants). At times he combines a variety of forms in one book.Continue reading Review | Wrestliana, Toby Litt | Book of the Week
“Chilli bean paste was big business, had been for Gran’s family for four or five generations. Sichuan peppers, on the other hand, were the sort of thing any small trader could sell. All they needed was a place to set up their stall. But, humble though the trade was, the Sichuan pepper was as essential as chilli bean paste at all Pingle Town dinner tables [. . .] Dad had kicked around the chilli bean paste factory for over twenty years, learning the ins and outs of his trade under the tutelage of his shifu, Chen, and if it had taught him one thing, it was that people were born to sweat. You ate chilli bean paste, and Sichuan peppers, and ma-la spicy hotpot, to work up a good sweat, and screwing a girl made you sweat even more. The more you sweated, the happier you felt, Dad reckoned. He remembered the fiery heat that the sweat-soaked bed-sheets in Baby Girl’s house gave off.”
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a rags-to-riches tale about a small-town Chinese family’s survival following on from China’s rapid industrial revolution during Mao Zedong’s rule, and the later economic turmoil of the 1990s. Economic growth entailed a rise in social corruption in all areas of life along with social alienation and a breakdown in moral values.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is in the tradition of the neighbourhood novel – a kind of literary soap. The big three authors of the genre are Naguib Mahfouz, William Faulkner and Vasco Pratolini (who did for Florence in the 1940s what Elena Ferrante has done for Naples today; Pratolini became a screenwriter, collaborating in films such as Paisà by Roberto Rossellini, Rocco e i suoi fratelli by Luchino Visconti and Le quattro giornate di Napoli by Nanni Loy.)
A Loving Family
Widowed matriarch, May Xue, is the archetypal grandmother of olden times who loves her family with steely resolve, an overriding concern with social status, and much meddling. She is the owner of the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory which is run by her youngest son, Shengqiang. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, is away at university being a brilliant Professor while his sister Coral Xue – the family peace-maker – lives in the big city with her family and is a successful TV news presenter. Narrated by Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and Anqin, the tone is warm, sharp-eyed and irreverent.
Shengqiang endured a harsh apprenticeship in the factory stirring the vat of chilli bean paste while his brother went off to university, but now in his forties he is very successful. Money is everything to him – as are regular sex, food and getting drunk with his friends since they make him feel good about himself. His wife is “the only woman in Pingle Town who is fortunate enough to have found a husband as rich and as generous as Dad.” Anqin plays mah-jong, reads novels, goes shopping using her husband’s credit cards and turns a blind eye to his succession of mistresses, until one falls pregnant . . .
Shengqiang was close to his older brother Zhiming when growing up, since “he got good marks, he could play snooker and he could pull the girls, [. . .] and was the coolest dude in Pingle Town.” But after Zhiming screwed Baby Girl in the notorious red light district, an intense rivalry had developed and intensified over time.
As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, the family comes together to plan a great celebration for her. Zhiming takes over organising of the event, reminding his brother Shengqiang that, “We’re the Duan-Xue family. It’s got to be grand, and really classy, but it mustn’t be tacky. The Prince’s Mansion Hotel or whatever, that’s fine, but getting signers along is just a way of throwing money around! The Duan-Xue family’s not like other families. Pingle townsfolk are really uneducated, right? . . . They just do things so-so . . . We’re going to make this a very grand occasion indeed.”
Secrets and Lies
Since Grandad’s death, Shengqiang has been the head of the family, a role which he fills with alcohol-and-nicotine-fuelled capability and underlying irritation. He sets up his mistress Jasmine in an apartment in the same block as his mother, and helps out his brother in law, Liu, when he gets a mistress on the quiet. “That day, like a proper head of the family, he got out the keys and gave them to Uncle Liu. ‘I’ve paid six months’ rent in advance,’ he told him. ‘Now it’s down to you’.” Shengqiang does this despite his action being a betrayal of his sister; he realises that “this was the worst thing he had done to a woman in his whole life.”
Debilitating secrets gradually emerge as preparations are made to hold Gran’s birthday celebration in the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory yard; programming all manner of festivities entails the involvement of various locals. As tensions build, Shengqiang feels increasingly put upon. His internal monologue comprising lurid thoughts and rude comments – indicative of his emotional immaturity – is both hilarious and bordering on the tragic since on the surface he continues to be the usual compliant son and brother. His frustration boils up to a fever pitch.
It turns out that Gran’s ruthlessness in furthering the family fortunes meant that she forced arranged marriages on her children. As skeletons rattle out of the closet, even she is not immune to the embarrassment of past misdemeanours coming to light.
Gentrification – Chinese-style
The dynamic tension of the Duan-Zue clan mirrors China as it enters the modern era. The fictional protagonists navigate the distinct social and economic peregrinations of where they live; with the neighbourhood playing a central role. The narrative is littered with references to limousines, hostesses, brothels, the County Party Committee, new apartment blocks, the single-child policy, Chinese Mandarin vs. Sichuan dialect, and other tidbits affording insights into Chinese life – as well as food glorious food! I felt increasingly hungry as I read: Sichuan cuisine is delicious, hot and spicy.
“There were no dirt roads left in Pingle Town, and you didn’t see many telegraph poles either. In 2000, or 2001, the powers-that-be got some mad idea into their heads that the town needed a facelift. Up went the stepladders, and the buckets of paint, and all the buildings on, and off; the four main roads were covered in white paint. They looked like they’d been plastered with stage make-up. After that, the stalls and pushcarts were driven out: the purveyors of cold dressed rabbit, chilli turnips and spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes, riceflour shortbread and griddled buns filled with brown sugar, even the scissor-menders and knife-grinders, were all swept ruthlessly from the face of the town. All those old faces so familiar from his childhood just vanished. The few souls that remained retreated into their shells like tortoises and made do with shopfronts as narrow as the gap between your front teeth.”
A curse of capitalism the world over is the homogenising effect of gentrification: towns and neighbourhoods that are cleaned up means that the eccentrics, creatives and impoverished misfits are swept away out of sight and out of mind. This is a global phenomenon: from Ladbroke Grove W10 to The Marais in Paris and the Lower East Side in Manhattan – as in a small town near Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, Money makes the world go around . . .
Nicky Harman’s dignified, pacey, idiomatic translation featuring colloquialisms and colourful insults radiates erudite energy, drawing the reader into a world of muddle and intrigue, blending farce and nostalgia.
Yan Ge was a Chinese literary sensation age seventeen, and has twelve young adult books to her name. She is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of a trilogy of adult fiction: what will happen next in Pingle Town, Sichuan Province?
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman | Balestser Press 13.99GBP 18.99 USD trade paperback 270pp | ISBN 978 1 911221227 | Winner English PEN award
Where were you born, and where did you grow up? I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and lived in Gurabo until I was five. After that, my mother moved to Maryland so I spent a lot of my time both there and in my father’s house in Puerto Rico. (And in airplanes. Lots and lots of airplanes).
What sorts of books were in your family home? I’m not sure actually. I know my mother has several boxes of children’s books somewhere in the basement, but I don’t really remember those. Most of my books growing up were from the library. I’d go once a week, stick my nose in the corner of the fantasy section, and come out with an armful. I know it took several years of rereading before my mother finally gave me the Harry Potter box set for Christmas.
Who were early formative influences as a writer? Sandra Cisneros — she was the first (and only) Latina writer I ever came across in a classroom growing up. After that I think came the epiphany of “Oh, I can use Spanish in my writing?” Also I still credit my fiction teacher at Brown University, Michael Stewart, for teaching me not only how fiction worked, but how to think about writing for myself.