Roy McFarlane Inaugurates Books We love
Roy McFarlane, poet, former community worker and judge for Jhalak Prize 2020, Inaugurates Our New Blog With Some of His Favourite Reads:
2020 was a momentous year for the Jhalak Prize: over 160 books were read and despite the issues of Covid-19 and being in lockdown, the organisers were able to celebrate and praise Johnny Pitts for his seminal volume Afropean, selected from a longlist of a dozen books.
But after all the celebrations, I’ve been musing over the quality, beauty and depths of writing of people of colour in the UK; imagining an alternative universe where I would have chosen another longlist. I’m still wishing that the longlist could have been longer, so I could have squeezed in another dozen. Well today, the Jhalak Prize heard my pain and afforded me this space to share with you: Books We Love that you need to read.
I came across After the Formalities (Penned in the Margins 2019) by Anthony Anaxagorou, a wonderful poetry collection which I happened to read in one sitting (actually, a couple of train journeys and a café). I was enamoured by its pure brilliance in use of language, poetic form and the lyrical dexterity used to explore subjects of loss, grief, family and racism, the layered context that unravelled before me time and time again.
Some of these poems are up close and personal, making you witness the harsh realities of verbal abuse in the back of an Uber during the time of Brexit or the phenomenal macro vision of After the Formalities. A poetic discourse built on the found text of racist philosophers, thinkers and politicians of the past and present. Anthony articulates a response to the ideology and pseudo-science of race across five centuries interlaced with his own personal experience and his Cypriot family of three generations migrating to Britain.
And as for his journey of fatherhood, the tenderness and weight of lines such as “I love you daddy, at this I cried/ becoming another rescued animal in his hands”found in Sublimation,shows the vulnerability and joy woven through his writing. An extraordinary poet with a surgical precision and yet tempered with grace and care to leave the reader thinking after the formalities have ended.
Sitting in Limbo and The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files are documentaries that have captured the tragedy and travesty of a hostile environment policy that decimated a generation of people of the Caribbean – pioneers and citizens of the British Empire. Home Coming: Voices of the Windrush Generation (Jonathan Cape, 2019) by Colin Grant, captures these voices from 1940 – 1960 succinctly and with great sensitivity, taking us back to the hopes and aspirations, the joy and pride to answer the call to help Britain back to its former self.
These are the stories of nurses, bus drivers, seamstress, teachers, dockers, writers and musicians. People who were qualified back in the Caribbean but felt the harsh discrimination of a motherland that stripped them of all qualifications and forced them into any job that was available. As a first-generation child of these pioneers - parents who have now passed away -chapters titled Last One Out Turn Off All The Lights, Tin Baths and Paraffin Heaters and Soon Come make me smile and cry with sweet memories and nostalgia.
Colin has a deft way of letting the people speak, this is a collection that goes beyond the famous but this is a story of everyday people. A fly-on-the-wall documentary of Windrush, warmly interspersed with his own parents’ narrative and a measured historical background to each capter. A must have volume and well needed garnering of voices whitewashed from British History.
Experimental and inventive, a bravado (to challenge, to provoke) of writing comes Exquisite Cadavers
(Atlantic Books) by Meena Kandasamy. If you haven’t read her second novel When I Hit You (ed: shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018) you need too. Whisper quietly but this woman is writing her place into the cannon of world literature.
Every book needs a conceit and Exquisite Cadavers, a term derived from a game played in 1925 by Surrealists where “the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”Exquisite Cadavers dares to ask the question: can our fictional writing be written in a bubble void of our own personal experience, local and global events around usand what new possibilities can be found when we place these writing side by side?
This is a brave piece of work which pits fiction against the truth. Kandasamy captures in note form and prose the world around her through news events, films, romance, activism, etc., side by side with a novel about Karim, a young film maker and Maya, in an unstable job. I only wished she had more space on the page to shine more light on her vision.
Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh was an incredible adventure that I wasn’t expecting. Her love and passion for trains can be felt in the hum and reverberation of her narrative. We begin our journey in St Pancras, accompanying her and fiancé Jem, a newbie to global train travelling, experiencing the high and lows of their travels.
What I loved about this narration is the immersive feeling; you feel the fear and dread of a border inspection near Russia:“sniffer dog’s saliva in my face”; an invitation to look around a tea house by Lady BaBa,a geisha in Kyoto;avoiding slipping into a coma on the Qinghai railway from Xining to Lhasa, the highest railway in the world.
You can smell the food at the track side, be soothed by the colours that sweep all over the landscape, feel the sweat pouring over you in claustrophobic conditions, and find yourself waist deep in a cold white tundra. This is an adventure with a capital A for the new millennials as well as those harking back to a bygone age.
Monisha takes us across continents and exposes us to a vista of history, culture, colonialism, communism, class and so much more. Each railway system, train station and train bring with them a profound sense of identity. The engine that drives this book is the people, the individual stories that we miss as we fall asleep or as we rush to get off at the next stop. She takes notes of these stories like a train spotter and captures as much details in the moment of exposure and then they’re gone into the distant horizon.
This book speaks about globalisation without preaching, a gentle reminder that we are not too dissimilar or that far apart, that our actions impact upon each other, whether we are workers travellers, adventurers or migrants.This book is a joy for the rail travel enthusiast, (trains and rail tracks named and explained in such euphoric detail,) but this is also a book made enjoyably and accessible to the first timers like me and Jem.