As you have probably heard by now, Sri Lanka is in crisis. That link, and pretty much any news source at this point, has more coverage if you need it; if you’re looking for deeper analysis, I recommend these articles by Mario Arulthas and Ahilan Kadirgamar as good starting points.
The short version: price hikes, inflation, and severe shortages are hitting all Sri Lankans hard, and obviously working-class Sri Lankans, who constitute the vast majority of this country, are the hardest hit.
Official poverty rates aside (they tend to be defined in such a way to minimize the number of people who are formally “poor”, so as to make good poverty reduction stats), even before the crisis hit, nine out of ten Sri Lankans were living on less than $3 a day. Seven of those nine lived on about half that. The conversion of those numbers from rupees to dollars is based on current (and collapsing) exchange rates to give you an idea of how far your donations would go right now, and how much even small donations matter.
A meal, as costed by most of the relief efforts below, is less than $1. For $10, you can make sure ten people get a square meal.
I want to add that those income stats themselves are actually from an official government survey in 2016: long before the pandemic, even, never mind the current collapse. So they are certainly far too positive for what’s going on right now, but it’s the best official number I could find. Conditions were already precarious at best: we are now over the edge and in free-fall, which is why so many people are protesting across classes and political tendencies.
Small-scale mutual aid initiatives are obviously not going to solve the crisis. But they do keep at least some people fed in the meantime, and as anybody who has ever been hungry knows, that’s hell of a lot better than nothing.
Below are multiple fundraising efforts, any and all of which are good to support, and deserve whatever you can give! The first is the single most urgent fundraising effort, to fund medical supplies for national hospitals, and the others are focused on food and dry rations for low-income communities across the island.
Amalini De Sayrah’s Google doc tracks multiple relief efforts. If you’re on the island, you can donate directly via bank transfer, and if you’re donating from overseas, you can use do an international bank transfer or use a service like Wise.com: bank details and instructions on how to use Wise are in the document.
These are all on-the-ground efforts to provide food and dry rations to low-income communities in different parts of the island, all of whom have been hit very hard by the shortages and price hikes.
(3) Venmo, Paypal, Gofundme, Wise, Bank Transfer
Saritha Irugalbandara and the others below have organized a relief effort that enables you to donate via multiple methods.
You can donate via Jonathan Wijayaratne’s Gofundme.
You can donate via Sri Lankan bank account with a local or international bank transfer (you can also use Wise for the latter, see instructions on how): JPIS Wijayasri, 008035372040086, Seylan Bank, Colpetty branch. SWIFT code: SEYBLKLX
Funds raised via all three methods will be transferred to Saritha in Sri Lanka, and distributed to a growing list of organizations and collectives that do ration drives and meal distribution, including Community Meal Share, Feed the Fasting, Care Station, Voice of Hope Trust, and others, several of whom you can also donate to directly with the details in the Google doc in (1).
Please donate and signal boost as much as you can! Any help you can give is deeply appreciated.
There is a particular tendency in genre fiction very well demonstrated by this thing that Jayaprakash Satyamurthy found under a rock and dragged into the light last year.
Or rather, there are quite a few things happening here at the same time, and they are adjacent, perhaps, but distinct. Let us disentangle them somewhat.
Sometime in the mid-twentyteens, Bryan Thomas Schmidt put out a subs call for an anthology of fiction from writers around the world—the phrase he used, in fact, was “foreign natives”—except Africa, because he’d already got Mike Resnick to represent Africa. Why did he think Mike Resnick, a white American, could represent Africa in such an anthology? Because of Resnick’s Kenya-themed “Kirinyaga” books and stories, of course. Because in the tiny, insular world of white SFF of his generation, Resnick had carved out that niche. He had become, canonically so in this pocket whites-only universe, the African SFF writer.
A somewhat less ugly example. Has there ever been an article in the Sri Lankan media about Sri Lankan speculative fiction that did not mention Arthur C. Clarke? I don’t know the answer to this question for a fact, but I suspect not.
Clarke was, in point of fact, not Sri Lankan, but he lived here in a state of such absolute colonial privilege that they made a new category of resident just for him. Seeing as he was capable of distorting the very concept of citizenship around himself, as a wealthy, famous, white English settler in a newly postcolonial nation, it is unsurprising that he continues to occupy the high ground in the unconsidered literary history of Sri Lankan speculative fiction. It is a negligible feat, by comparison. Unlike in Resnick’s case, the identification of Clarke with Sri Lanka (or rather, the other way around) is widespread in writing about SFF, both local and occidental. The island becomes a funny line in his author bio, a quaintness, much like the number of cats an author might have.
There is something wrong happening in each of these instances, obviously. For my purposes here, the question at hand is not whether the stories are good or not, or whether the authors/editors are good people or interesting artists or not. Clarke certainly wrote some wonderful stories; he may also have been a pedophile, a persistent charge that I’d long dismissed as a common slander against a gay man until the relatively recent accusation from Peter Troyer, as documented by Jason Sanford. Neither Schmidt nor Robert M. Price, the editor of Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart, seem likely to be interesting curators from my perspective, given their contemptible sensibilities, but it’s certainly possible that their anthologies have included stories that I might have liked. Any fool can pick obvious winners. Many fools do.
These things are not irrelevant, certainly, but they also confuse the issue because they are more compelling and more immediate than what I’m trying to point at, which is how canons are manufactured.
This essay is not, of course, actually addressed to the likes of Robert M. Price, an established bigot, or the fashy little press that gleefully publishes these white power anthologies. This is not a callout. Such a thing would be ridiculous. Price’s introduction to this anthology (readable via the Amazon preview) calls Edward Said a leftist propagandist and declares that orientalism is a good and desirable thing. There is no thought to engage with here: it is the desert of the clowns. Rather, I’m talking to the kind of people who write about books: critics, journalists, engaged readers. This is not about this or that particular book. This is about a tendency. A mechanism. A movement or transfer.
Are Resnick’s “Kirinyaga” stories particularly racist? I know I’ve read one or two, but it’s been decades and I don’t remember them at all, so don’t take my word for it either way. Clarke was not racist or even condescending toward Sri Lankans in his fiction, as far as I can remember. On the other hand, I would not bet a single rupee that Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart is racism-free, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. But the presence or absence of racism in the texts is not at issue here.
Nor is this about #ownvoices. It would be absurd to say that only Kenyans can write stories set in Kenya, or Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. Sofia Samatar isn’t Kenyan either, but “Ogres of East Africa” is wonderful. Putting it in the same context as Resnick’s Kirinyaga is in fact vaguely embarrassing, a condition exacerbated by the fact that Resnick won multiple Hugos in the 90s for those stories while “Ogres” took third place in that year’s Locus poll. This tells you something about how genre literary awards fail, yes, but it also tells you something about genre canon formation. If you asked for Kenya-related speculative fiction from, say, a Hugo-voting audience (as a shorthand for a historically canon-forming, white-dominated, American-dominated body in English SFF), you’re still much likelier to hear about Resnick than Samatar, and long before you hear about Ray Mwihaki or Clifton Gachagua or any other writers actually from Kenya.
Recognition as a writer needs time. You must be published widely, read widely, remembered and reviewed and talked about. Resnick had work published decades before everybody else named here. These are deep structural advantages—whiteness, citizenship in the metropole, proximity to the western-based major publishing industry, early-mover advantage in name recognition. This matters because it turns canons into a kind of colonialism of the speculative imagination.
Canon is a tricky word. I am using the term lightly; I mean those works and writers who are widely recognized and repeatedly cited, which of course produces multiple and varied groupings depending on who you ask and for what purpose. Every such canon is formed by citation and repetition. Every act of curation contributes to it. Every anthology of African or Asian fiction, every article. Even a listicle adds a pebble to the pile. And in speculative fiction publishing, white Western writers, which is to say, specifically, white writers from the metropoles and settler colonies of the long British-American empire, especially those of previous generations, have had decades of a head start. Their canonization for work that draws heavily on the third world—as setting, as prop, as raw material—was built on the same lines as all other colonial enterprises, like the settler-colonial squatting that Resnick or Clarke perform.
Many, many traditions abound in writing fiction about place. They are often and easily confused. At minimum, you could make a crude distinction between work by the people who are, in the important sense, from there (i.e., including diasporas) and work by the people who aren’t (i.e., including resident white expats.) This does not automatically mean that the former is good and the latter is bad, or even that one is necessarily more authentic than the other. In the first place, authenticity is a trap and best avoided by everyone. And it is quite possible that sometimes an outsider will see more clearly than an insider. But this is not an evenly balanced sometimes, and it is especially not so when that place is a third-world colony of the empire. The contemporary publishing industry remains nearly as concentrated in the heart of the metropole as it was then. The imbalances of access and proximity have changed but little, and those imbalances are governed by long histories of orientalism, exoticization, and exploitation even if any given work is not. The question is not (or at least, not only) “is this book racist?” but how much easier it was for that book to be published (and reviewed, and cited, and canonized) than a contemporary work by an author from the place the book is writing about.
An example. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, a book precisely as old as I am. Fountains is set in a version of Sri Lanka, and written by someone who had at that point been resident in Sri Lanka for decades. Here, too, I read the book so long ago that I don’t remember it at all. I have no quarrel with it and I’m not trying to cancel it—I feel like I have to keep making this disclaimer to forestall people summarizing this whole essay as me trying to cancel various books or people. Fountains probably won a Hugo and a Nebula and so on.
This is a good example of a book that falls, for me, squarely on one side of that line about writing about place. It is (probably) a fine book in the tradition of books that use Sri Lanka as setting or inspiration, but Clarke, as an almost ludicrously privileged Englishman sahibing it up in the colonies, had several orders of magnitude more access to the Western publishing industry than anybody who lived on the island in 1979. My father’s first novel (Tilak Chandrasekera, පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක්) came out that same year, as a matter of fact. It was “self-published”, as many local books were at the time, and by local standards it was quite successful, going on to multiple printings in the 80s and 90s.
පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක් is not speculative fiction, but it is absolutely a book about place, what would probably now be called autofiction—for my father in his first book, that place was the village in Kurunegala where he grew up. A village that, in the 1930s-40s that the book is set in, was in fact arguably in the jungle, or at least jungle-adjacent. (You could find some jungle there even in the 80s: I once managed to get lost in it as a boy. What can I say, jungle happens. Even the Mahabharata describes us as जाङ्गलवासिन, jangal-vasina, jungle-dwellers.) Clarke had arrived in Sri Lanka when my father was still a teenager, though out of the jungle by then and living in the same city. By the year these two books were published, Clarke had been living on the island for more than half of my father’s life, already a fixture. My father had no quarrel with Clarke either: he spoke of him admiringly, and bought me a copy of the Sinhala translation of 2001. They didn’t really live in the same country, as writers, for all that their houses were perhaps three kilometres apart for the decades of their later careers. They were by no means writing about the same place, and success as an author meant such wildly different things to them that they were not even on the same planet.
This is why it’s so much more complicated than writers who are from there and not from there. A work that is in a significant way about place could, then, be many different kinds of text.
For example, you have the imperialist’s text, which sees a place the way colonial administrators saw it. Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle is a classic of this type, with Woolf having been himself the very same kind of colonial administrator who appears in the text as the only oasis of sanity and rationality in a gothic horror of native madness and violence.
Clarke’s renditions of future Sri Lankas are a less heavy-fisted version of the same: the island is urbane and genteel and tropical and, most of all, small. The expat’s text, the postcolony that is merely the metropole writ very small, mimicking the upper-crust Colombo 7 life that Clarke understood.
Then we have whatever this is. A burdensome thing. Perhaps we could call it the kipling text.
Whether the orientalism renders the objectified as infantile, monstrous, exotic or what have you, what matters for all these texts is that there is a distinct flavour of that place, something like a spice, that can be taken out of it, mixed into a dish, a taste that the discerning reader can pick up, perhaps even become expert at picking up. Can you tell River of Gods from Song of Kali in a blindfolded taste test?
Consider an even more casual encounter with place: the tourist’s text. This is the author’s note from Trouble in Nuala, which is the first novel, published 2016, of a self-published cozy mystery series now at least ten books deep. The Inspector de Silva Mysteries is “set in the 1930s amidst the rolling green hills of colonial Ceylon” and is written by a white British woman, Harriet Steel.
This is the extractivism of setting at its smoothest and most efficient, its pathway having been cleared by a century or two of the texts that preceded it, that hacked their way through the jungle and laid down rail into the village.
Now in my sixth year as fiction editor at Strange Horizons, I have read a very large number of short story submissions and there have indeed been some, not many, stories that use Sri Lanka as a setting. A few are even authored by Sri Lankan writers, on the island or from the diaspora. Most, however, are not. Certainly, the worst have been strong examples of the tourist’s text. They have a certain distinctive quality of overextraction and give a great bitterness in the mouth. What’s hardest, as an editor, is that I try not to be more demanding of the Sri Lankan setting than I am of any setting. Or rather, I try to be no less demanding of any setting. What is true of the island is true of the world.
But there is also more than one kind of text in the other(ed) and orthogonal tradition, the writing of those who are from there. The tourist text can be written in both, and often is. And there are many others, both on the island and off it, often overlapping: the witness’s text, the refugee’s text, the exile’s text. Too, there are the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text, the paired science fictions of muttering uncles, seen more often in the newspaper opinion columns than on the bookshelves. And then there is the ideal that I think that any writer with some shards of conscience and consciousness might aspire to, the traitor’s text.
The traitor’s text must refuse authenticity—which is a fetish of the patriot, the tourist, and the imperialist. The traitor’s text is an ideal, being the work that must critique both the big empires and the little ones, so the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text are also traps that await all of us who are, undeniably, from there. Pits shallowly disguised with dry leaves. The traitor’s text is the measure, for me, of what writing about place must reach for. It’s available to anyone, whether you’re from there or not, but some things about it are just harder to reach if you’re not.
It’s important to say, I think, that I use setting in this essay deliberately. I do not say culture. I talked this over with Nandini, who pointed out that my use of the extractivism metaphor puts this essay in dangerous proximity to unintentionally reifying culture in the process of trying to do the opposite. This is one of the traps in talking about this, that it can so easily be confused with a superficial argument about appropriation. This is not about appropriation: this is about the problems of setting in fiction that trouble us all because we live in the same empire-haunted world, ruined by colony and postcolony alike, this tainted, unstable ground. There is no true and authentic fixed thing, and no one can, or should wish to, lay claim to it. Imagine the horror, if there were such a thing that you could hold in your hands, that you could never put down or toss away, how it would burn and cut. Jungle is not an object: it is a process. It jangles, it jungles. Sometimes jungle is inauthentic, being merely colonial-era plantations gone back to the wild. Sometimes the jungle in question is urban. I live in the city, crocodiles in the canal down the street, I’m in a WhatsApp group (alongside three hundred of my overly meme-happy neighbours) run by the local grama niladhari, who issues updates on vaccination schedules and so on. The title of his job, essentially the lowest rung of local government, has changed several times over the decades (gammuladaniya, grama sevaka, grama niladhari) but the prefix remains intact. It means village.
By its very nature, the traitor’s text must be layered. It is complex, because the world it describes is complex. It cannot essentialize. It cannot be condescending or onanist. It can never be cozy. This necessarily makes it a more difficult text to engage with than all the others, which makes sense because the traitor’s text can only exist in response to all the others: it comes after them, logically if not necessarily chronologically. When I write a horror story about a village in the jungle, it comes after Woolf, and must struggle with Woolf, and this would be true in many senses even if I had not read Woolf (I have, but as often happens, I only read the book after having already responded to it several times over.) This canon exists because Woolf has over a hundred years of citation. Woolf even has authenticity, having been in and around the very situations he writes about. This is why authenticity doesn’t matter in fiction. I do enjoy Village in the Jungle as a gothic horror—and that ending is magnificently written—but to enjoy it, you must understand that the bulk of its power and horror is in how and why Leonard Woolf came to be the person to write it.
These are both books where the story is fractured among narrators who lead wildly different lives in different worlds. The narrators have very different voices and different understandings of the world; their readings of it are contradictory, even adversarial. Both stories are indirectly warped by the considerable gravity of a singular, intense, and unusual connection between two people that runs through most of the book and determines events.
In The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez, that relationship is between Nia, the self-assured captain, and Ahro, the magical orphan boy with Gully Foyle teleportation powers. Nia and Ahro learn to trust each other even though trust does not come naturally or easily to either of them. The book is most fundamentally about this connection, and to explore it, the book cheerfully explodes most of the tropes it sets up. The original Firefly-ish crew, the first found family, quickly abandons ship when asked to take unreasonable risks; the second found-family crew disintegrates in betrayal and violence. The special boy’s special powers—as in The Stars My Destination—represent a freedom beyond all constraint, which prove wonderfully useless for heroic purposes: he is captured, dehumanized, dissected while still alive, converted into an industrial asset, and put to work powering corporate innovations in cheap space travel. There is no heroic rescue, either, only a lifetime of exploitation. The book mildly relents in allowing a final escape at the very end so that Ahro might, perhaps, die in Nia’s arms. I resented this final reunion at first, because it seemed like a sop to that very sentimentality that the book spends so much energy in demolishing, being altogether too close to the stock twee space opera ending of flying off into the sunset, the core of the found family still intact.
But then I thought, perhaps it would have been too grim, to let them die apart. The story does, after all, describe a galaxy very recognizable in its ugliness, where the third world is now many worlds kept poor and indebted by capital, harvested of their resources. Nia is a minor agent of capital just as Ahro is an asset, neither of them ever having much say or even thought in the matter: their lives are simply overtaken by powers and events. This is a story against heroism and complacency, but it does not deny the power or value of human connection, even if that connection is most often tenuous or fleeting. The value of relationships is determined by the persistence of those who relate: neither Nia nor Ahro gives up on the other despite having every reason to despair, and so perhaps it is only right that they get to meet once more in the ruins of their lives.
Such a final meeting is explicitly denied in Trust by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, a denial toward which the whole book builds and seems inevitable only in retrospect (I was expecting a confrontation of some sort.) The core relationship here that between Pietro and Teresa. Where Nia and Ahro had a straightforwardly mother-son relationship that developed in strength over the years and whose consistency holds them together while they are apart, the relationship between Pietro and Teresa is more treacherous, more fluid. They begin as teacher and student, then lovers in their twenties, and finally, keepers of each other’s most terrible secrets. As ex-lovers with marriages and lovers and lives of their own, they remain uneasy correspondents, entering into what they call—Pietro and Teresa each accuse the other of coming up with the idea—an ethical marriage, a connection made purely of mutually assured destruction.
Pietro, deeply insecure despite his talents (like Ahro, he is singularly blessed, though his power is the uncanny charisma with which he seduces everyone he encounters) and successes in life, struggles to think of himself as a good person in his own right: does he do the right thing only because he fears that Teresa will punish him by revealing his secret to the world if he strays? Is he good only because he fears to be revealed as contemptible? In this way he does not cheat on his wife or abandon his children, nor does he become politically corrupt or make enemies in society, and so this book, too, explodes the tropes of its genre. Pietro still lives in unacknowledged terror of Teresa his whole life, even though, she tells us airily, she has long since forgotten those old secrets. Even at the end, as a lionized old man, he cannot bring himself to face her a final time at a ceremony in which she is to give a speech in his honour. Even in their seventies, he fears what she might say, how even nearing the ends of their long full lives, she might (and here, offhandedly, she seems to suggest to us that she still could, that she still really might) retroactively undo him with a word.
The first and most important thing to understand about the Sri Lankan flag is that every version of the lion flag is, definitionally, racist and fascist in symbolism, including the official one. It was intentionally designed that way, by committee. The proportions of the “majority box” to the “minority stripes” (5:1:1) were determined by population ratios which were determined by:
racialized census categories introduced by the British Empire in the preceding few decades and enthusiastically taken up by the burgeoning Sinhala-supremacist postcolony, which divided the Tamil-speaking population into sub-races by religion but not the Sinhala-speaking population and
the chaos introduced by the then-contemporary Citizenship Act, which made a massive proportion of the Tamil-speaking population stateless and disenfranchised.
The clear intention of the national flag’s design was to centre this Sinhala supremacism and marginalize minorities, represent them as barely-tolerated outsiders at best. Contemporary dissent (e.g. Senator Nadesan) makes it clear that this was not an analysis that was somehow beyond them. It was pointed out, very explicitly, and ignored.
The reason the flag is fascist in addition to being racist is (in addition to its reliance on racialization, the glorification of the dominant “race”, and the warlike symbolism, all fascist standbys) is because this lion also came accompanied by an entirely fictional mytho-history concocted by E.W. Perera and D.R. Wijewardena. The story is that the lion flag represents a return to a mythic precolonial history, which it does not. Purported centuries-old or millennia-old connections to Kandyan flags and Dutugemunu &c. are nonsense: fantastical worldbuilding as background for nation-building. Flags of the precolonial world did not serve the same purposes as nation-state era flags, any more than “Sinhalese” represented a racial designation rather than a political designation in the era before colonial racialization. They did not carry the same meanings, and the lion had no special place: you’ll find plenty of other animals wandering about in flags and other precolonial iconography, a whole zoo of them. The idea that there could be any sort of rebooted franchise, a meaningful remake, a direct connection between a symbol and its meaning before and after over two hundred years of colonial reprogramming and brainwashing is laughable.
Perera, an epic fantasy writer before his time, simply invented a brief and outsourced the design to a London designer (Southwood & Co. in Regent Street), presumably some white guy, who knocked off a generic European heraldic lion passant with finials and called it a day. At best, they were more likely influenced by British and Dutch colonial flags of the preceding generation than anything else, but seeing as how Perera, Wijewardena et al. were already thoroughly brainwashed by colonial programming, this would have been perfectly acceptable to the Sinhala supremacist mindset. It was Britishness that the Sinhala elite wanted and envied, to finally become the white man, the colonizer, the master sir.
The specifics of the flag’s design clearly didn’t really matter to Perera or Wijewardena, in any case, given that they found whatever the designer came back with acceptable. One wonders if there were private rounds of feedback and redesign, but I suspect not. The details only matter if you give a shit. All they wanted was to put a lion on it. Their strategy of decolonization was merely to ensure above all that the “Sinhalese” inherited the colonial mantle of whiteness on the island. Whiteness exists to be the race that dominates other races—this is why “race” exists and why it was invented—and in the postcolony, at least in Sri Lanka and probably elsewhere too, the changing of the guard was not reflected by the deconstruction of this construct of race, but by its rigorous enforcement. The goal was not and never unity: such things are judged by what people do, not what people say, and the national flag is the perfect example. Taking the colonizer’s place, becoming the colonizer was the only ambition of decolonization-era Sinhala elites. And it remains true today, which is why the national flag now exists in multiple unofficial variations, each one making the flag’s true nature more explicit than the last.
The version of the flag seen in the tweet, meanwhile, is of particular interest because it actually has no history that I’m aware of: it is an entirely new thing under the sun. Even the alleged historic flag of Kandy had finials, not fig leaves, so this is not that. Besides, all legitimized versions of the flag have the lion holding the sword by the hilt, not by the blade. The only flag that I’ve seen before with that design is Dayasiri Jayasekera’s innovation from 2020.
Of course, this version of the flag has the minority stripes, so it too is not a match. The perahera flag cannot claim a history even two years old; it is freshly hatched, mere days in the making.
But the return of this blade-holding lion makes me think that this is perhaps not an error after all. Perhaps it is merely a catwhistle, a new icon chosen by fascist thought leaders as being more appropriate for contemporary Sinhala modernity, a self-harming lion, a bleeding lion that can’t stop cutting itself.
Two books organized around films: in Don Delillo’s Point Omegathe film in question is Hitchcock’s Psycho, as experienced through an art installation that apparently did exist, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, which plays the film in extreme slow motion, two frames per second, so that the entire film lasts a full day. It being a literary novel, the fascinating frame story of the possibly aspirational murderer watching the film is rudely interrupted by a long dry visit to the desert, where an aspiring filmmaker attempts to persuade an ageing neocon intellectual to unburden himself of any secret guilts he may harbour over having supported America’s post-9/11 invasions both as a writer and as a kind of consultant to the military, a maker of useful fictions. The old man feels no guilt, secure in a cocoon of pretentious bullshit, until his beloved daughter (the daughter is a cipher and manic pixie, whose purpose is to be the sole object of her father’s uncritical adoration and the vaguely erotic yearnings of both the narrator-filmmaker and the Psycho-watching psycho) vanishes suddenly, and he is brought low by personal grief where culpability for atrocity could not reach. This is a short book that still manages to make its meat taste a little belaboured—though not as much as the dead horse that was The Silence—but the Psycho-obsessed exoskeleton is fascinating as a reading of Gordon’s installation. The desert bullshit sessions are interesting in the sense that any asshole old man’s ranting is interesting if you listen to it in slow motion, in the way it constantly betrays and subverts itself; the pointed reversal of de Chardin’s omega point to gesture in a vaguely Ligottian direction is the best of it.
In Experimental Film by Gemma Files, the (fictional) films in question are the works of an early twentieth century filmmaker named Iris Whitcomb, a series of short films iterating through increasingly symbolic dramatizations of a Wendish folktale. It being a horror novel, of course the folktale and the malevolent figure at its heart are real, and the plot devolves at the end into a race against time to stop it from getting out &c., which was rather disappointing because all the rest of the book is deeply fascinating—the narrator’s chronic pains in body and motherhood, her spiky, difficult relationship with Canadian film as an industry and a history, her slightly grimy ambitions, and the dynamic with her own mother, all wonderfully realized. For some reason, in both books I particularly enjoyed reading characters watching and reacting to films, probably much more so than I would enjoy watching those films myself. There is a great fascination in watching a watcher—something DeLillo’s Psycho-watcher does almost as much as he watches the film, observing and commenting on every other viewer who comes by. There’s an art installation that must be negotiated in Experimental Film, too: the narrator has to run the gauntlet of an entirely dark, claustrophobic space where the only cues are auditory, but the sensory deprivation, as one of the tortures that DeLillo’s neocon uncle romanticizes at length, forces a crossover between the art installation itself and the hallucinatory disruptions that might equally come from the narrator’s migraines or her hauntings.
From Blake’s Four Zoas, which I have never managed to read in its entirety but do enjoy occasionally dipping into. Orc here is not an orc but a heartfelt serpent or perhaps a hell-whale, addressing Urizen, the local tyrant god:
Then Orc cried Curse thy Cold hypocrisy. already round thy Tree In scales that shine with gold & rubies thou beginnest to weaken My divided Spirit Like a worm I rise in peace unbound From wrath Now When I rage my fetters bind me more O torment O torment A Worm compelld. Am I a worm Is it in strong deceit that man is born. In strong deceit Thou dost restrain my fury that the worm may fold the tree
Deceit means in its parts to take from. Its latter syllable shares a root with cop and chase and capture. This makes perfect sense, because policing and arrest and detention are of course practices of deceit. The taking of persons from their lives, their families, from the world; the taking of their time, their days and years, under not merely false pretenses but an entire ecosystem of lies and deceptions enabled by police, judiciary, legislation, and media acting in concert to serve petty goals of gaining and keeping power on the back of atrocity. Ahnaf Jazeem’s first interview, on his release from detention after a year and a half (the translation project Free Ahnaf Jazeem has a nearly complete translation of Ahnaf’s allegedly controversial book now, by the by, with much thanks to Shash Trevett and the other translators) is telling on many fronts, not least of which is a first-hand window into the abysmal treatment of prisoners under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which cannot be reformed and must be repealed), the farcical, clownish “investigation,” and the lengths to which the police go to attempt to force Ahnaf Jazeem to frame Hejaaz Hizbullah, who has been imprisoned even longer than Ahnaf and was recently denied bail on a deeply petty technicality: I hope, as many of us do, that he will finally be released by the Court of Appeal on Monday, even if purely as a pragmatic strategy to brush some of the dirt off Sri Lanka’s deeply stained reputation before the spotlight of the upcoming UNHRC sessions. In the absence of a functioning justice system but still trapped within the hollow space that it should have occupied, it seems accidentally positive outcomes as a byproduct of petty politicking are the best that can be hoped for.
(Which is not to say the best possible outcomes: merely the best that can be hoped for, because hope in itself provides very little leverage to make the world other than what it is. What is needed is will, built upon and beyond hope, but if we know anything about these, it is that while hope is cheap, will costs so very, very much.)
These two cases are tied together, of course. Both of them were targeted through the faux-investigation into the 2019 Easter bombings: Hejaaz for having been an activist lawyer and thorn in the side of power, Ahnaf for having the temerity to have produced art in Tamil, unreadable to Sinhala police or judges, in an area designated as suspicious because of its tenuous connection to the then recently-arrested Hejaaz. With both of them detained, the pressure mounted on Ahnaf to give a false confession implicating Hejaaz: a man that he had never met, never seen or communicated with, never even heard of until Hejaaz made the national news with his arrest. This Ahnaf refused to do. Others were similarly coerced. The single coerced witness who actually made it to the stand, himself until very recently a minor, could not even keep his lines straight. The thing is absurd, the whole of the thing. This country, where we its citizen worms are compelled to follow along with so much façile worldmaking that would never pass muster in fiction. This is Urizen’s island now, chained by technocracy and disconnected from the real, first narrowing the world into a well and then diving in headfirst to wallow in bottomless incompetence. As long as he is stuck there, truth cannot get out to shame us.
In a throwaway anonymous blogging project between fifteen and twenty years ago, I spent some months making poems, or hyperlinked poem-like objects, that were collages of a sort, composed entirely out of lines quoted from other people’s published poems. I cited each line by linking it to the site where I’d found the text of its original poem. The game was to choose lines in such a way that they worked together, in some aesthetic that I can’t quite recapture now but at least still feel that there was in fact a there there, something a little like a Dadaist cut-up, I suppose, though I only encountered those later and was not intentionally trying to emulate them.
(Why was this a blogging project instead of a document? I don’t think anybody was reading that blog. Perhaps the occasional random passerby. It was a public project but not one particularly meant to be encountered, if that makes sense: “publishing” these poetic-extract objects, even just on a blog that nobody was reading, was at the time enough for me to take it seriously as a small art project. I was teaching myself some things, and that required both play and a kind of earnestness. But I worried then, as now, that my disposition is such that I simply would not take seriously work not intended for publication: the brain’s wise lizard knows.)
At first, I used full lines: I would try to make a line from one poem match the next line from a different poem not only in rhythm or some kind of harmony or pleasing disharmony, but also to choose lines in such a way that they could be read one after the other as if they had been born that way, creating through their juxtaposition a new meaning, or at least an intriguing nonsense. But after a while, keeping complete lines untouched became tedious because there were so many instances when things almost worked but not quite. So instead of quoting lines in full, I began to quote fragments. I still refused to write my own words as connecting glue, so I took the connecting words and phrases too from other poems.
(Why this refusal? I think at the time it was—and still is, I suppose—because I write little poetry, and I am uncomfortable with the form. That’s not to say I don’t touch it at all. A couple of years ago, at the very beginning of the pandemic and around this very time of year, a few days before Independence Day with the planes growling overhead, I put together a whole chapbook of poems, with my own words this time, and my own layout and design to boot. This is the first poem in it, “langurous”: I was reminded of it today because all these things happened again, dog and monkeys and planes. It is the nature of these circular days, these years turned in upon themselves.
But I have not written a poem since this chapbook. So perhaps my experiments with poetry may be considered seasonal at best.)
The collage project ended the day I took the word “and” from somebody’s poem and used it to link two phrases together. It was important for the game that I did not just write my own “and”; it was an “and” taken from some poem that I loved very much. I linked this solitary word to its source. This provenance made the “and” special, and the game lawful. It also made the game complete: there was nowhere left to go, and so it was done. Sometimes an ending comes upon you long before you understand you were working toward it.
So far this year I’ve read more literary fiction than genre. This will probably shortly cease to be true, so the end of January is about the last chance to say that. I am of course even more poorly read in litfic than I am in genre, so this is me cheerfully blundering into quite well-known semi-recent books having never heard of them before.
The Silence by Don DeLillo: this was my first DeLillo, and I think fairly obviously that was a mistake. It’s beautifully written, in a heavily stylized, theatrical way—people declaim at each other in extended paragraphs, nobody talks like a normal person, there is a great deal of (intentional) uncertainty about what exactly is happening, except that it is obviously some sort of shallow apocalypse discernible only when all the phones and screens &c. suddenly go dead, which is indeed what the apocalypse will look like when it finally reaches the living rooms of upper-class New York. The living room in question here includes a most relatable uncle who just wants to watch the cricket and begins grumpily imagining/hallucinating/fantasizing the game in the absence of broadcast. As a story about apocalypse and human disconnection, this is a hat so old that it’s entirely worn through, like a tiktok joke that has already passed through the long and short intestines of twitter and facebook and has now reached the sphincter of being an anonymous whatsapp forward. Perhaps this is what late style is, and if so, my takeaway is that I should instead go back and find the early style.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel in stories, with a frame story thicker than most—I love this as a structure, and have in fact written one in it (my still-untitled second novel, at present tentatively scheduled for 2024)—and I was startled, on googling this book, to discover that many critics at the time represented this as a groundbreaking, form-busting innovation for some reason. (The reason appears to be that Cusk was previously known for highly interior, confessional novels, and after a cancellation for being too open about motherhood and its travails, opted to write a novel in which the narrator’s interior is entirely implicit, only hinted at in the echoes of the stories she listens to. Which is a wonderful comeback, but that’s not the same thing.) Cusk herself gave interviews declaring that character was dead now, and so on, which at least is straightforward book promo. But I enjoy a good novel in stories, and this is a very good one, fast-moving and yet delving deep into some lusciously developed characters. And I must remember, when my book comes out, that declaring things dead is good press.
I was used to writing short stories in quick bursts of sustained focus. A single afternoon, perhaps a weekend. But I could not write novels like this, so my method, as evolved, is to work every weekday morning, as much or as little as the day allows, the only goal being to reinforce the habit and stay close to the work, keeping it ticking along whether I wrote ten words or several thousand, to create chains of virtue that, the longer they got, the more reluctant I would be to break them. This is a method often attributed to, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld, though he certainly didn’t invent it. Here’s a Lifehacker article about it. Hey, remember when Lifehacker was a thing? When productivity culture was a thing? So glad that ended. Imagine the horror if there were entire podcasts where people talk about nothing else except how to squeeze more productive output out of the limited hours of your life.
I do enjoy productivity porn a lot. I don’t listen to the podcasts, but this is mostly because I have not yet learned to listen to podcasts regularly. I find audio makes me impatient, because the content of most podcasts is exactly the sort of material I am used to skimming and speed-reading. I love all the other bits of productivity culture, the pointless essays, the endless new methods and tricks and tips, the apps. I don’t really try much of it, but I love that it’s there. If my methods fail me some day, I find it comforting that there will be other things to try.
In the months (years if you count them another way) that it takes me to complete a book, of course I end up breaking the chain many times and starting again. The most important part of chainmaking is to understand that the breaks are part of the work. The gaps between the links are not dead air: they are living breath.