Contents Structo 19—spring/summer 2019
1 Editorial 2 S.H. Binney, Mask Maker 11 Jennifer Coralie, Animal, Mineral 15 Claire Dyer, Call and Response 16 Ed Cottrell, Frailings 20 Phil Clement, The Unicorn’s Library—An Essay 29 Cameron Alexander Lawrence, Some Fruit 30 Elissa Soave, Diane and Me 34 Chris Di Placito, Comfort Blankets 38 Mark Russell, Three Poems 41 David Frankel, Shooting Season 47 Alanna McArdle, Butter 52 Christina Seymour, Winter, a Family Home That Isn’t Mine 53 Christine De Luca, Three Poems 58 Structo talks to Ken Liu 75 Alexa Winik, Dragging Leviathan 76 Structo talks to Tivon Rice 88 Siobhan Harvey, Two Poems 91 Contributors
Colophon Structo is an independent literary magazine lost somewhere between the UK and the Netherlands. It is published twice a year (or so), operates on a not-for-profit basis and receives no grant funding. Details about submissions, subscriptions and stockists can be found online. issn: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (digital) editorial team: Will Burns, Adam Ley-Lange, Ahmad Makia, Elaine Monaghan (also copy editor), Euan Monaghan (also editor/designer) Mary Pipikakis, Sarah Revivis Smith, Valentina Terrinoni & Lydia Unsworth contributing editor: Matthew Landrum online editor: Nat Newman Structo is set in Perpetua MT and is printed in Hertfordshire by Mixam using biodegradable inks on a 100% recycled, FSC-certified, uncoated stock. Unless otherwise stated, all content is protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence. Nothing in this licence impairs or restricts the individual author’s moral rights. Our cover artwork is an anaglyph of an Atlantic wall bunker on the Dutch coastline featured in Tivon Rice’s The Voices of Nandimul X, 2018, and is featured courtesy of the artist. ‘Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.’ — Ken Liu, from the preface to The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories web: structomagazine.co.uk email: email@example.com social media: structomagazine
ver the last decade, this editorial space has served many different purposes. Since this issue is being released a year later than planned, I thought it might be nice, this time, to use this page to talk about why. It was odd. We only had half an issue’s worth of short stories and poetry by the time our normal release date had rolled around in the Spring of 2018. The reason I say it was odd is that we get a huge volume of submissions, but nothing had reached the standard that had been set very high, very early. Not wanting to publish a 40page magazine, we pushed back release. For fiction, the solution lay in a collaboration begun some months earlier with our friends at the Desperate Literature bookshop in Madrid. I was to help judge their short story competition and in return get the chance to publish some of the shortlisted work. After a spirited debate with the other judges I was able to nab three stunning pieces for the issue: ‘Animal, Mineral’ by Jennifer Coralie, ‘Butter’ by Alanna McArdle and ‘Frailings’ by Ed Cottrell, the overall winner. On the poetry side, I took advantage of our very own Matthew Landrum’s network of poets to put out a targeted call for the issue. Most of what came back was from previous contributors to the magazine, and
it’s a real delight to publish these familiar names alongside the wonderful work of poets completely new to me. Fiction done. Poetry done. Summer 2018. Independent, volunteer-run magazines run on the energy of their staff and by this point I’d completely run out. Maybe it was the lack of that Spring issue to keep the enthusiasm going, maybe I was just exhausted from the first year of a newly freelance life. Who knows. All that matters is that I was seriously struggling and Structo had become a massive source of stress. Things inched along. Then, one day over the Christmas break, I came across a pile of printed paper. It was the stories and poems we had selected for the issue. I’d forgotten how good it all was. By that evening the entire pile was typeset and sent out for proofing, the second interview had been scheduled. Everything was on the way. Indie magazine lesson learned: if it all gets a bit much, remind yourself why you started publishing in the first place. — Euan
S.H. Binney Mask Maker I do not work in the dark. The white basement walls must be illuminated, so I can see even the smallest stitch, the subtlest pore. I know, now, how much this brightness surprises and discomfits my clients, when they want nothing more than to remain invisible. It was Melissa who told me this, years ago, who showed me how to mask the specifics of my art, how to retain an alluring mystery. She was the one who persuaded the landlord to rent us the upstairs floor as well as the basement; she who fitted out the two small rooms in thick carpets and soft lights, who set out the glossy brochures and photographs in the outer room and the mahogany desk at the centre of the inner. I cannot recall whether it was her idea or mine to hang my best pieces in these rooms once their owners’ use for them had ended. I have in my mind a conversation in which I protested that I had no use for successes, for exemplars. It is the failures I keep below which spur me on, I said. She laughed in return and said, but this isn’t your studio, it’s your shopfront: the customers will adore them. I eventually agreed – at least, that is how it goes in my mind. I am never very sure of the truth, with Melissa. It may be that my ego got the better of me, and when the first bequests came in, I put them proudly on display, or perhaps it was the idea of a later assistant. Either way, there they hang, showing as much by the shadows they cast on the walls as by their own recognisable contours that my reputation is not for nothing. My first clients are arriving. I can hear them shuffling around upstairs. I must go up to them, put on my best customer-facing manner, and begin the dullest part of my day. It is exhausting, talking to clients. Much more so than this work: the tweak to a drying cover, the additional half-coat of cocoa, the slow dyeing of an eyeball. But I can hear my new assistant laughing above – he must be charming some old gent with his smooth cheeks and long eyelashes. He was very particular about those. I have always offered a free mask to my assistants; it is one of the perks. This is the first man I have employed, this – oh, I cannot remember his name. They come and go so quickly. This new one is more of a boy than a man, but he is doing adequately so far. He does not seem to mind being in the minority. Perhaps, this time, I will keep him. The stairs seem more arduous than they used to. I am more and more attached
to my art. Melissa coaxed me into the shadows of publicity for a time, but now I find myself longing to retreat back downstairs, to the light and precision of my studio. But I must see the clients myself. Assessments are not something to delegate. At my mahogany desk I sit, getting my breath back, before buzzing to let him know I am ready. The first client comes through – a Minister, I think, very eminent. I had not expected him again so soon. But his jowls are drooping, and his mask no longer fits as it first did. Does he need a new one, already, he asks, or can this one be adjusted? I finger the thing, loath to alter it, and run the calculations in my head. I could chip away at the moulding, do it by feel, and it would work for a few more years, perhaps; but if I created a new one, a flexible one, it could – it would – last his lifetime. That will not be long, by the looks of him. He has not taken care of himself after being re-elected. These people think they can put on a mask and that is it, no more self-care, but no: the underskin must be soft and smooth, or the mask will not lie true. I know I should feel sympathy for people with such responsibility, especially given my own looks, but I have chosen to stay enclosed, away from the world; this man chose the stage. He should fit himself for it, whatever the back-to-nature protesters might say. I realise I have been shaking my head, and the Minister’s face – his real, unacceptable face – is static with horror. He thinks I will send him away, bereft. I let him wallow in what I hope is remorse for another second before I smile blandly and set out his options. ‘I could reshape this temporarily, but you will need a new moulding soon.’ The man nods, relieved, and agrees with everything I suggest. Still, I am not duping him: I explain the whole process as I did the first time he came to me, quietly, carefully, making sure he understands. He is impatient, but still, I must make sure. This way he cannot later claim that I misled him. I have made that mistake only once. I send him to the boy to schedule a full refit, and take a brief scan. The machine in the dim room is excellent, but I cannot read the scans by this poor light, so I file them for later, along with his mask. He will sit bare-faced in my waiting room until it is done; like most, he cannot bear to go outside in such a state. First, though, I have other clients. A father wants to fit his first son, who is too young. I run a hand across the boy’s soft, smooth cheek, and shake my head.
I will not fit minors. A CEO, beautifully masked in the Northern style, sweeps in, and stops abruptly. I introduce myself and wait; I am accustomed to this reaction. I am ugly, you see. Ugly in a way no-one paid to create beauty should be, ugly in a way which, every time, momentarily undermines my clients’ faith in me. But my reputation is so great that they grit their perfect teeth and overcome that hesitation. After one second, two, sometimes three, they smile, and extend a hand. They glance around, away from my uneven face, my wild, brittle, red hair. Sometimes, like the young child earlier, they stare, but mostly they try not to meet my eyes, for these, too, are irregular: the left is milky white, the other sparkling green. This woman has finally deigned to shake my hand, and I know she finds my soft palm incongruous. I apologize for keeping her, allowing the apology to hang in the air, to encompass my face as well as my timekeeping. I can already see the thoughts flashing across her face, masked though it is: how can she not have corrected herself? Why does she not wear a mask like the rest of us? ‘What can I do for you?’ I ask. She wants a second mask, it seems – something glamorous, for special occasions. It is a growing trend, among the very wealthy, and they are often interesting commissions. I produce a glossy leaflet, and see the woman begin to relax. We discuss styles for a few minutes: she wants glitter, shine, perhaps even colour. She hands me a photograph, an old-fashioned colourful mask. I hold the picture and am perhaps silent too long, for she says, ‘I know you cannot recreate it now, but, well – this was what inspired me to come here.’ I nod slowly, and murmur, ‘Yes, I think I can make something appropriate.’ She beams at me. ‘Now,’ I say, ‘if you would remove your mask, so I can measure you.’ She hesitates. They all do – it is so personal, to unmask in front of a stranger. But her eyes drift over my ugliness again and I see her begin to relax. The thoughts are all but written on her forehead: at least this maker is not too beautiful, she thinks; at least I need not be afraid to show my real face in here. She is hesitant, but finally she removes her mask. I glance over her face, keeping my expression neutral as I take in the damage. ‘I must ask how this happened, I’m afraid,’ I say. She looks away, but I insist. ‘It will affect the materials I use.’ It was an acid attack, she tells me, in the first wave of natural face protests. She was just seventeen, and wearing her first mask. It was burned into her skin, some of it irreparably. ‘My family couldn’t afford much, then,’ she said, ‘and now I’m so used to masks I don’t feel the need for surgery. No-one ever sees this.’
I smile in acknowledgement. In many ways, I am no-one: my face permits me that privilege. It allows my clients to feel at ease. As she leaves, reassured, I glance out into the waiting room, then buzz the boy angrily. ‘Why did you not tell me there was a shrouded one?’ ‘What? Oh, sorry Ma’am, I –’ ‘Has he brought a box?’ ‘Uh, no, but –’ ‘Show him in at once!’ ‘Uh – right! Sorry.’ I smile at the man and apologize for his wait, allowing the apology, as ever, to include my own looks. He barely notices, just nodding and sitting down, covered. ‘Show me.’ He begins the slow process of unwinding the scarf, and I hold my breath. There are many reasons for shrouding – a mask has deteriorated beyond repair, or it has become unbearably uncomfortable. But in these cases the client always brings it in a box, to be examined, measured against, occasionally salvaged for eyes or attachors. There are only two reasons for shrouding without a box. Most often the mask is missing, stolen by blackmailers, or simple profiteers. That is not the case here. I can see an eye, now, opaque and black, in skin which, while pinker than my tastes admire, is competently made. I know what must be coming before I see it: the bloodless gash, the dangling edge. The man is only half-masked. He has been grabbed. The pink skin and black eye are most of what is left: red-ringed lips hang from the flat, shapeless cheek. Underneath, his skin is blistered. I shake my head automatically, momentarily distracted. Sloppy undercoating, or none at all. ‘Who did this?’ I ask. He seems surprised. ‘Grabbers.’ ‘No – I mean the mask. Who made it?’ The man’s eye – his natural one, blue, but with a creamy surround – shifts uncomfortably. He tells me the name, and I am unsurprised. She is an amateur, doing cheap work for low prices. I have seen poor results before, but nothing so bad as this. ‘It’s not like it just fell apart,’ he says. ‘I was grabbed – did you not hear me?’ ‘I heard you. What about the rash?’ ‘Yeah, I know, but I’ve been putting the cream on –’
‘And letting it dry? Letting it breathe?’ ‘Yeah, sure!’ His red, puckered face is shifty. The dangling lips sway a little as he speaks, and I remember he is really a victim. I reach over to him and peel away what remains, careful but firm, and lay it out gently. ‘I’ll have to start from scratch, you realise.’ And no mask until his underskin has healed and can take it. The poor man will have to cover himself only loosely, and as infrequently as possible, until his new mask is done. He blushes, and I look briefly away. It is more for his benefit than my own – I have seen faces act in much more embarrassing ways over the years. Still, I give him a moment, fingering the lumps on my own skin as I wait. ‘Fine,’ he says. ‘How quickly can you do it?’ We arrange a time, and I take a scan. ‘Of course, your underskin must be healed before I can give you your new mask,’ I tell him, as the machine whirs. ‘Completely healed.’ He comes out, sheepish, and nods. ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ As he leaves, naked under his thin scarf, I wonder if he will scandalise the boy; he is perhaps a little green, a little tactless, for this job. He should have known better than to make a shrouded client wait. ‘Any more?’ I ask through the buzzer. ‘Not at the moment,’ he says. I exhale slowly. ‘Then I’ll be in my studio,’ I say, already visualising the tantalising possibilities of the CEO’s colourful – colourful! – mask. ‘Wait –’ The colours vanish from my mind. The boy seems troubled. ‘Yes?’ Silence. ‘What is it?’ ‘Ma’am, there’s…there are some people at the door…a woman who says –’ ‘People? What people?’ I can hear him swallow before he speaks. ‘Protesters, Ma’am.’ Protesters. Natural living protesters, presumably. I think, absurdly, of Melissa, of the way she encouraged me, spurring my making on, and a sudden rage grips me. ‘Well, keep them out. Unless they’re here for masks, they have no business inside.’ ‘But –’ ‘I will be in my studio,’ I say crisply. I can hear it now, rhythmic chanting and crowd noise, and I turn off the buzzer. Protesters, on my doorstep. Well.
As I get up, the picture the CEO brought falls to the floor. I pick it up, meaning to throw it away, but – well, perhaps that is not true. I know, as I descend, as I lock the studio door behind me, as I go over to the dusty case and unlock it, that I will not throw away this picture. It is of one of my first pieces. Here it is, at the back of the room, almost hidden. I take it out. Its material is thick and stiff – I had half-forgotten how the techniques have changed since those early days. These masks were garish, variegated. I made so many like this, back when we were students, when we still… They were patchworks of blue and red and green and gold, patterned, even, and textured. I run a finger over the cheekbones of what once was Melissa. They are pointed, almost sharp. I remember how she wanted a caricature of perfection, not perfection itself. She would wear this to parties, to bars – it was not for everyday. It was such fun, making these bright creations. But they were never, really, mainstream. My bread and butter was the smoothness people once got from creams and pastes, the flawlessness which, with masks, went far beyond anything human. The techniques moved quickly and soon even your average client could buy something porcelainesque. I mastered this style with ease – and smoothness is so dull, really, once you can do it. There is no challenge, no thrill, to sanding down cheekbones and staining them the standard coffee. That is why I always made other masks, outrageous ones, like this. Perhaps that is why they came to me, those first celebrities: they knew I could do something different. I had seen the change, but barely noted it; it was Melissa who pointed it out, the deeper contouring, the subtler shading. ‘There’s a change coming,’ she said, ‘and we’ve got to get on it.’ She brought me a man who wanted visible pores – what a challenge! There is such complexity in a pore, and in the spray of them across the mounds and dimples of a face. That first one took a long time. I was creating techniques from scratch. But, and I say this without boasting, it was a masterpiece. I thought it would be the only one; I never really believed in Melissa’s change. But then, all of a sudden, there was a flood. Pores, then fine hairs, finally even freckles, as people asked me for authentic, or, for something real. Melissa and I grew rich in that time. I can still recall us, shocked at our success, buying the whole building, setting out to make love in each corner, giggling in the dark. That was a long time ago. I cannot make anything so bright, now. Even to me, as I lock it firmly away, Melissa’s thick mask looks old-fashioned. Today’s masks are slimmer, more flexible, more sophisticated. I return to work in the order I have perfected over the
years: the balance of interest, deadlines, and time pressure taking me from mask to mask, adding a coat of cocoa here, correcting a few stray hairs there. This is my real work, when my mind is focused and fully present, and the world outside – the dim client rooms, my tactless assistant, the grabbers and protesters, the amateurs who still, somehow, manage to operate – all that fades away. I think only of the details, the minutiae. The faces on the walls, in the cases, in the drying covers all watch me as I move around the bright room. I make sketches for the CEO and write lists of pigments in combinations subtle and overt. She can pay for good design. But this retro glamour does not preoccupy me as much as the attachors. The shrouded man haunts me. Grabbers will not get my masks. Perhaps I can develop the prototype, find a way for it to be worn for longer periods with no ill effects to the underskin. I find myself scratching my neck as I wonder and curate the possibilities. Would it be more effective to change the placement of the attachors? I already recommend the full head to my clients, so the mask can be fitted over the ears and all six attachors inserted in the neck. But hair is expensive, especially the finest, most malleable kind, and most still prefer the face only, with attachors under the hairline and above the ears. These are, of course, the easiest to grab. It seems to be the next moment when I hear a knock at the door – my studio door! – but when I check the time, it has been a few hours. I shout through the door, wondering who could possibly disturb me down here. The boy answers. Really, this is too much. ‘What is it?’ I ask, opening the door. ‘It’s the protesters,’ he says breathlessly. ‘I – I need to go home.’ I blink at him. ‘They’re still there.’ He is impatient. ‘I won’t be able to get past them.’ ‘I see.’ But I do not see. When I leave I will simply push past them – although, by the time I leave, I doubt they will still be there. I work late, these days. That is not because of the protesters, of course. It is simply that I get caught up in my work. ‘What should I do?’ I look at his face, all perfection and youth. How anyone could think the mask I’ve made him abhorrent is beyond me. ‘I don’t know,’ I hear myself say. ‘How many are there?’ ‘Dozens – and there was a woman at the front, kept shouting about you betraying them.’
‘Mm.’ ‘Ma’am, I – I’m scared to go home alone.’ I sigh. Even through his mask I can see his fear. I will have to accompany the boy through the throng. ‘Give me a moment to tidy up.’ I secure my studio as always: each mask in its own climate-controlled case, locked and labelled; every brush and knife in its place, every pigment shut away. Finally I lock the studio door and lead the boy upstairs. He is surely exaggerating about there being dozens of them, and it is late, now, for protests. Late and dark. But as we reach the top of the stairs I hear her, their leader, and pause. It is only a moment before I recover myself, for the boy’s sake, and lead him on. Beyond the glass door a bare-faced woman stands on a bollard, shouting at the group. They shout back in rhythm. It would be like music but for the hatred on their pale, naked faces. They do not see us approach the door. We are out and the door almost locked behind us before we are spotted. The crowd falls silent as I finish locking up, and I feel the boy stiffen beside me. He is as conspicuous by his beauty, in this crowd, as I am by my ugliness. The woman, the leader, glares down at me from her bollard. Her hair billows and her eyes, surrounded by crows-feet and wrinkles, seem to sparkle. But I tear myself away from her. ‘Hypocrite,’ she hisses. The crowd joins in as, gripping the boy by the arm, I march through the crowd. They jostle us, but the boy is not grabbed. That is something. ‘How did you do that?’ he asks once we are through. ‘Do what?’ ‘You just – stared her down.’ ‘I didn’t –’ But I cannot explain to him, about Melissa and me. I simply shrug. ‘Being old and ugly has its advantages,’ I say lightly. I leave him safely at his door and go home myself. My hand shakes slightly as I lock the front door and I have to clear my throat twice before the system recognises my voice and, finally, switches on the lights. I lean against the door for a moment, wishing I did not have to get undressed to sleep, wishing, as always, that I could simply recharge at work and keep going, keep working, keep making. But sleep, still, is required, and even my skin needs its care. The pins slide out easily from my neck, and the mask comes off with only gently pushing from the chin and the nape. Underneath, my smooth skin glistens
until I dry it and moisturise, and the soft hair on my scalp feels as though it has been brushed the wrong way. Melissa used to brush it for me. Now – hypocrite, she called me. But she did not tell them why. She kept my secret, about how I wear this mask. I smile at my own face, secure but empty on its stand, and stroke its red mop. I don’t need to sleep for long.
Jennifer Coralie Animal, Mineral When I came to this place, I thought I would never learn to love its spiky mass, its hard grey stone. My feet left trails in the frost. My ears were drums for the wind, bird cries, some underlying monstrous sound: howling, rumbling, animal, and mineral. Animal, mineral, under the sky. On the horizon, a dark mound, the point to which my eyes were drawn. I work in obscurity, I make maps. In the next town lives a poet, and the poet’s wife. The poet walks across fields of mud. He looks up from the ground, across the field, to a dark mound, the only point on the horizon visible from the low farm. All around him in the morning light there is a steady drip of rain. His wife ponders the pile of washing, extracts a pale red jumper. She hangs the jumper over the line on the verandah. Water rushes across the lines on the map; roads, fences, creek beds. I lie in my dark bedroom with the water welling beneath the floor. My body swells with moisture. The child stands on the path, surrounded by water, looks across to the mountain, dark green against a grey sky. My map is not fixed. It shows points of possibility. The poet’s house is shown, the town is not. All around me the clear air fills with sound, animal, mineral. The child helps her father cut the grass. As they cut, the grass springs up behind. All around, grass shoots up out of soaked soil. As a wife, I am meant to sort things, to put everything in its place. So I start with places, the sky, memories, bellowing beasts at night. I sort families, where quite often confusion reigns. The mothers are not always the mothers, nor are the fathers the fathers. The child is a changeling. I sort the glances, the stares, the rumors, the undercurrents. The between spaces, the ones where words fall away, or the attention is lost. I am there to record the meaningful glance. The poet and I are in exile, he under the sentence of death, I of poverty. He suffers the dimming sound of his own blood, of marrow and sinew slipping and softening. I fled the struggle for a fuller life. What I wanted was emptiness, a paring down. The poet, alert, listens to the slowing of his blood. He watches the clothes flapping on the line, he ponders immortality. He paces the fields with measured steps.
I have discovered a deep well into which the roots of trees have grown, woven together to surround the interior wall. From the rim of the wall rows of wild jonquils radiate in lines. Two gnarled almond trees grow together, their trunks wrapped around each other. Here a woman brought up her children. I find pieces of white china, and the torso of a small doll. The doll is elegant, made of chalky white clay, like something dug up out of Greek soil. A separate head with finely modeled features, tiny, is kicked up out of the soil on a different day. Wells of feeling open up inside of me like memories. Of loneliness or abandonment. The poet tells me that poems are memories. Everything true and free is a poem, a holy gesture, a dance. The poet’s eyes are hollow, his voice is deep and soft. Sometimes he cannot move for pain, the poet’s wife says. And yet when I imagine him, he is always striding out over the valley, past the rows of brooding river gums, along the river flats, where he stands gazing across to the distant mountain. Beneath the exacting sky the poet walks, breathes, listens to the surging and ebbing of his blood. Sometimes the child walks with him. Sometimes this child looks like my child. They collect cow manure in a large brown sack, mushrooms in a white basket. The child leaves trails of white stones to follow home. Perhaps he tells her stories, passes on wise words so that she will remember him. They cross the swollen creek and take the upper path home, past banks of soil hollowed out by rabbit homes. She is wearing blue jeans and a pale red jumper with an unraveling hem. Her long tallow plait hangs to the hem of the jumper, tied at the end with a blue ribbon. Her black gumboots reach to the knee. She carries a satchel full of white stones. He carries the manure or the mushrooms or a white branch with smooth bark and the curve of a snake’s head. He promises her that he will wake her early in the morning if there is a hard frost, if there is a break in the rain. They love to walk on the thin white crust, making black tracks across the paddocks, making a splintering sound as their feet press on the ground. In the morning the poet’s wife makes lunches, hangs out the washing, goes to work. On the weekends she sits in a wicker chair in the sun, shells peas, looks like a woman in a painting with her hair bound in a yellow scarf. She knows that the property will have to be sold. She cannot imagine what her life will be like. On the day that I decided to leave the city, I slipped on the bathroom floor and fell against the bath, hitting my head. I was not unconscious but could not be bothered moving even though a warm liquid was seeping out of me; it was not
from my head wound, which was minor, but was what I thought of as still living blood, a child I had not known I was carrying. I lay in a circle of sun and felt this life seeping away, not connecting it to the fall but to some inner decision that I had made. As if some sacrifice had to be made to set my life on its course. I lay and stared at the blue and green tiles with the tiny chips of marble and dustings of gold that picked up and refracted rays of light streaming through the window. And then someone turned up the volume on a radio and strains of unbearably lovely music poured out and the moment became a dramatic ending, a beginning, a closing and an opening to which I could refer; a significant moment. People want to see the poet before he dies, but they do not have his address. Some of them drive around looking for the places he describes in his poems. They think they see him in the garden or striding out in his oilskins to check the sheep. Or they hang around in the local cafĂŠ hoping that he will have a sudden urge for a cappuccino and cake. I myself have done this. I write him a letter explaining that I too am a writer, and that perhaps we could meet. But then I remember my friend the painter who hates to talk about art, says he has no ideas, that paintings just happen. What if the poet just wants to be a farmer? I do not wish to discuss sheep. I tear up the letter. And so we wait for him to die and, barring miracles, he will die soon. I feel an affinity with the poet, based on how I imagine him as well as the familiarity of the places he describes in his writing. I understand that the words come out of a place that has very little to do with the personality and daily life of the poet. But the intimacy I imagine between us is based on a shared seeing, on the act of seeing itself. The same light falls onto our faces and illuminates the scene before our eyes. Who can inhabit this vastness of landscape without drawing back to describe the leaf and pebble? Without that kind of reference point I am lost. I lose my boundaries and disappear into anonymity and formlessness. That is why I collect pieces of old china and look for forgotten gardens. The word garden makes me think of a safe place, a place made by a human being, a stranger whose trajectory through time intersects mine, a being from the past whose hands have molded an earth womb. The poet will never be frozen in space or time. Each little poem or book of poems is like a breath from the living mouth of a god. If that sounds fanciful remember that the poet is dying and therefore spends more time than you or I grappling with such concepts. Perhaps he has encountered something on ď€ąď€ł
his solitary walks that has made him freeze or burn, or perhaps he has seen the commonplace invested with meaning, the face of his wife illuminated by the late afternoon sun, the kind of light that gives the skin a translucence that makes one think of mortality. I imagine how the sense of time must change when one is told that the body is turning upon itself like a snake devouring its tail. Does the poet’s wife lie awake in the morning contemplating his face as if for the last time? Does she take photographs daily as if fixing his image by magic? Does the child understand any of this, or is she so wise that death has no meaning anyway? In this moment, which is not a fixed point at all, I can look up at the sky or at the garden around me and see real things, like scarlet-breasted birds or purple violets, or bees sucking and the air dense with midges, and feel that the earth is solid and enduring. But the poet’s wife is turning manuscript pages, searching for something, scattering pages and finding nothing but words. The pages drift, white, to the floor, and she finds no confirmation of the time they have spent together, apart from his dedication to her on the flyleaf. The poet’s flower, herself. His hands are folded on his chest. The gold ring is wide and worn. His breath is rasping. She is weeping, for there are no words left, and the white paper settles in drifts on the floor, containing nothing but the memory of his beautiful hand.
Claire Dyer Call and Response Then there was the time when the grief was tremendous and she stopped in a Devon lane, left the car and stood instead at a gate looking out onto the glittering fields – the late summer fields – at the inexplicable ruins of farms – ancient walls beginning and ending without reason – some distant sheep, and listened to nothing more than the pulse in her ears, the rolling wind, a kestrel’s call, its mate’s answering cry.
Ed Cottrell Frailings By the water I freed them. They flew up into the willows, the wilder ones watching, buoyed on the gently moving surface. I walked along the bank, they clustered at the close hems of mud, picked over scatterings of rice. They pinched the grains in their mandibles, threshed their antennae, glowed. All as one they lifted wings to reveal their backs, their bodies. Each like a veiled coin. I had the speechlessness that comes post-release, with nothing to offer them. I watched them swim and ripple the water, measured their confidence by the increasing distances they allowed between us. My instinct was to follow them, wade into the cold water. Weren’t these creatures mine? It was me that had summoned them – each burrow was dug within my body, each spectre adapted to my brow. They were my inhabitants, the bugs of my rotted trunk. When I started to disintegrate, they were the buds of life sprouting from me. Now they belong to nobody. Out on the water, they are freed. I watch them toying with a plastic bottle, swimming in the reflected sky. They shine out of the rippled clouds, wrestling with the bottle – they darkle as that flotation device rolls under them, spins them back. I could provide a taxonomy of their forms – heartworm, the ribbons tying up my circulation; the deathwatch burrowed in my vertebrae. But I will not name or question them this way. To ask questions is to acknowledge their specific vacancy. To answer questions is dangerous. To store them unasked more dangerous still. I only say to myself, ‘You missed your chance, years ago. You have too many words at your disposal, now’. I have become used to the feeling of being a walking carapace. What is left behind is the knot from which they went flying. What is left behind is only the burrows from which they flew into the water,
swimming. I am that cunningly supported structure that is left, the rest hollowed out to form abandoned passages, the spaces where antennae brushed against me. Once they hatched, it was only a matter of time until the advent of their wings. Curious tiles that opened on their backs, raised up through a matter of instinct. Only to discover – whatever an arthropod is able to record. From that point, our contact was less immediate. We diverged. Still, their voices could charm me, the singing of water, the tinkling of unlikely electronics. They transfixed me, their spectator, watching their blooms of growth, how each chitinous exoskeleton was scaled to encase them. I watch videos online to recreate that moment. I study the way the abdomen of each creature is poised before take-off and then – . How unlikely they are. It’s like watching a car convince itself to fly. But I cannot watch too long: the narrator’s voice, describing these creatures as ‘parasite’, is clouding the truth. To label them X or Y is to occlude a most basic instinct. How shy they were in departing, those naked twigs installed in me, heads poking from their homes. They emerged with that same trepidation, inching out; only once they were gone I realised they would never return. I thought that: ‘They’ve left me’, standing at the water’s edge. So I am forever at the water’s edge. Small birds go flaming in the sky. The fissures of their beaks shine. Each predator trills with the stolen voice of prey. Post-release there came the predictable decimation. Hardly had they tested their wings before they lost their game. They were picked out and eaten, replaced by the empty spaces. I follow their gaps. The space they leave is empty and bright, reflecting the light of departure. I hear their silence, the cleared spaces of their voices. The birds swoop, the flock fills itself. Calling to each other, spotting survivors. What does it mean to see this hunt, to watch them feast beyond the point of fullness? And yet many are left, great numbers that the birds are incapable of catching. Protected, perhaps, by an acrid sweat, a smell, the bright colours with which they are studded.
From time to time, I wish to contact these old inhabitants of mine, and? With what hope? Some communication, a touch, before again they will alight. I think at night of them. Perceive them from a distance as they incandesce. I think I could capture them, return them to their roots. Could speak their names to send them mad. But, no, I make this pact with myself: it is enough to consider their phosphorescence, the impossible light that marks their breath. But so much for acceptance. Lately I’ve been turning against these lines. I’ve shifted against my agreements, scratched them out with a pencil stub. I’ve met my inner co-conspirator in the unwatched cottage of my skull. We are aligned. And why not? Have I even called home these errant twigs of mine? Have I said, plain enough, ‘My little chippings, it is time to return, come home?’ Have I tried to tempt them back from where they live amongst floating rubbish, sleeping on the underside of leaves? My skeleton is briefly brightened, like this. Each bone flexes like bamboo. I feel at home inside my twisting body, the currents that turn through my hollow stems. But I am spun so easily back to the sensation of being a heap of rotting wood. I return to the other conclusion I have so often reached: they will not come home, for love, begging, money. No. I could hang cracked splints around my body, make tents of dark cloth to entice them – they will not come home. They are freed, printing air with their wings. The best I could hope for is they might appear, land on my skin, and in the exoskeleton I could perceive some answer. If they will not come back I would ask – What to start sowing, what season? What nourishment must I gather for the site? What preparations should I make if I want this project sped along? I go back to the water for this. Every now and then, on the surface of the simmering lake, a pimple blows up and ripples slowly out. I break an eclair into pieces, throw the crumbs as far as I can. Their hungry mouths cast patterns of rings. I lie beneath the willow, shaded except for a triangle of sky, crinkled by leaves. It’s hot. I fold a cardboard box into a pillow, to slump against, to fall into almost sleep.
On such a hot day the surface of the world seems like a layer of skin. Not even that: a molten surface of fake leather. My dreaming, on such a hot day, is condensation on that leather surface. I am lying on my keys. They keep me half-awake; it is this that allows the half-insight into a dreamstate. Everything flees this heat. A beetle clambers into the mouth of an old glass bottle, meets the glass hoop with testing limbs, slips and dangles off it, then falls to the dry earth under the tree. Thud. Next thing, it crawls up the cord of my shoelace. It pauses in the shade, pinching the shoelace, and waits there; I think, to remember what it was doing, what it thought. The beetle turns again, falls, lands with a thud, surprisingly weighty. The only sound in the stillness. It falls on its back, wriggling limbs in the air, takes a moment to turn over by splitting its back, using its wings. Now righted, it half tucks them away. It goes the other direction, crawls off like a piece of unsilvered mirror. The stripe on its back grows – the wings split –
hand lettering by dana polakoviÄ?ovĂĄ
Phil Clement the unbelievable story of gladstone’s libr ary—an essay
’d like to take a moment of your time to introduce you to that rarest of things: an extraordinary politician. A politician whose dynamism and dedication to the plight of liberalism and to the lives of his people demanded such respect from friends and rivals that he was awarded a cameo in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.1 A four-time prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer who found time to read more books than you can imagine and who spent his leisure time climbing hills and felling trees. A man known to all as the G.O.M. To his friends he was the Grand Old Man and to his enemies he was God’s Only Mistake. The myth and legend I’d like to introduce you to is William Ewart Gladstone: the owner and founder of one of the most spectacular libraries that you could ever hope to spend a night in. Born in 1809 and living all the way to 1889, Gladstone could fairly be described as the quintessential Victorian. He led a political life that began at the tail end of the reign of William IV and ended with his resignation seven years before the death of Queen Victoria. On the day that he resigned as prime minister for the last time he read Shakespeare and completed a Latin translation of Ovid. A man of great contradiction, he was a scion of a family once prominent in the slave business who would begin his career in politics as one of the shining hopes of the ‘unbending Tories’. But who, to their dismay, ended it so completely wedded to the plight of the common labourer and national freedom that he was championed as the ‘People’s William’. But, it’s not his politics that I’d like to talk to you about. It’s his books. Gladstone’s relationship with books began as I’m sure many of ours did: with a gift. In 1815, at the tender age of five, he received a copy of Sacred Dramas from its author, Hannah More. From that day on, the book was paramount for Wee
He was the Unicorn forever fighting the Lion over the crown. Their struggle across the chessboard can be read as a metaphor of the real struggle between Gladstone and his glamorous arch-rival Disraeli.
Willie Gladstone. Sacred Dramas, a collection of Biblical poems, remained in his possession for longer than any other in his collection. He would remain an ardent collector of books until his death and their mark upon him can be seen, through extensive marginalia, in many of his political decisions – not least his movements around the Irish Home Rule question. When he eventually came to store and catalogue his books he would broach no improper placement of his ‘friends’, stipulating that there be ‘no squeezing or even coaxing’, that ‘they must fit together with nicety, not wasting space, but in no way uncomfortably housed’.2 This first book also underlines his growing notion of the book as a ‘sacred’ object. His daughter and eventual biographer, Mary Drew, wrote that ‘So human and personal did a book seem to Mr. Gladstone that it gave him real pain to see it carelessly used, or illtreated – laid open on its face, untidily marked, dog’s eared, thumbed’.2 Throughout his life Gladstone was involved with books and libraries. His earliest experience of the plight of the librarian came in childhood, when his siblings granted him the post of nursery librarian at their childhood home. Later, when studying classics and mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, he was given ‘some responsibility’ over the college library. Then, in adult life, when not busying himself with the task of resolving the simple issues of the first and second Opium Wars, or that of Irish Home Rule, he read prodigiously, documenting his reading habits with meticulous detail in his diaries. From these diaries, we’re able to conclude that of 32,000 books that he owned (and presumably some additional ones that he borrowed), the G.O.M. read around 20,000 books in his 88 years.3 If we suppose that his active reading life began at five and ended around 87, that’s somewhere in the region of 240 books a year. With such a lofty collection, coupled with such a voracious appetite, it would quickly become necessary for him to find a place in which to house his towering stacks. At one point, it appears he considered storing his collection in a ‘crypt’ underneath his Temple of Peace4 at the family home of Hawarden Castle. Unsurprisingly,
2 3 4
Drew, Mary. ‘Mr Gladstone’s Library at “St. Deiniol’s Hawarden”’. Reprinted from The Nineteenth Century and After, June, 1906. London: Spottiswoode, pp. 4. I defy any booklover to read as many as they actually own. Not a literal temple. This was a room in the castle that, for a time, stored his private collection.
he being no miserly bibliotaph, this idea does not seem to have stayed with him for very long at all. He writes in ‘On Books and the Housing of Them’,5 his essay on the care and keeping of books, that to have ‘our friends stowed away in catacombs […] can hardly be contemplated without a shudder’. We can see from his diaries that this question would cause him some considerable strain. It appears that he discounted the great cities of Britain relatively quickly on account of each tending to have an established library in place already. His chief aim being a desire to bring together books that had no readers and readers who had no books, he eventually settled upon the only true option: Wales. Specifically, his home village of Hawarden which, located some seven miles from Chester, had admirable links to the rest of the country. A deeply spiritual and religious man as well as being an increasingly Liberal (the capital ‘L’ is very important) one, it was his wish that the Library would represent the ‘monad’. In philosophy, the concept of monad refers to the totality of all things in creation, but for Gladstone this was reinterpreted as a totality of knowledge – an eminently more achievable goal. Put simply, he believed that if one were to dedicate one’s time on Earth to gaining a complete knowledge of a broad range of discourses one would in time come to a single truth. A devout Christian, and one who once wrote of himself ‘the Almighty has employed me for His purposes in a manner larger and more special than before’, we can say with some level of surety that he believed this truth to be God. This learning he somewhat nebulously termed ‘divine learning’ and it came define the shape of his Library as an institution that would support the Church (though exist apart from and, most crucially, not be beholden to it) and provide its practitioners and laypeople with resources of restitution and education as they sought this noble pursuit. However, as reflects the life and work of its founder, the library was created for all students and readers ‘absolutely regardless of denomination’. The decision to establish a library, or at the very least a repository, in which to house his books after his eventual death appears to have been born from the founding of the Pusey House Library in 1882. Exactly how long it had been fermenting in his mind before this point, though, is difficult to ascertain. The extent to which he intended his library to be built in the image of Pusey’s is also a matter
Gladstone, William Ewart. On Books and the Housing of Them. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. First published 1890.
of speculation, as Gladstone voiced serious reservations upon visiting the latter, having been disappointed by both Pusey House and its library. It’s possible, of course, that he was simply jealous of a library smaller than his own being granted such importance. Nevertheless, being a man of easy means and, as we will come to see, great dedication, he bought up land surrounding a defunct grammar school in the village of Hawarden and constructed a corrugated iron building in which to house a portion of his collection as he prepared for the great undertaking. This building, the precursor to the grand Grade I-listed building that stands today, would become known as the ‘Tin Tabernacle’. Then came the difficult task of distilling his idea into reality. One popular myth of the ‘grand transfer’ was put forward by the biographer Roy Jenkins. This suggests that Gladstone, by now well into his eighties, transported the 32,000 books that would constitute the early stock from Hawarden Castle to St Deiniol’s (which would later be renamed Gladstone’s Library) in wheelbarrows, unaided save by his valet and an occasional daughter. The distance is a little under a mile through a field as uneven as it is idyllic and as filled with sheep as it is with grass. Though he was certainly an able man – Gladstone was a keen woodcutter and engaged in the pursuit well into his winter years – it’s unlikely that even he could have achieved this feat. The truth, as ever, is likely to be more prosaic, though no less indicative of Gladstone’s intense care for his papery charges; it would appear that it was also no less arduous for the lack of wheelbarrow. As we can tell from his diary, much of this work was either done or supervised by the G.O.M. himself. Indeed, Drew recalls that ‘each book [Gladstone] took down from the shelves, and each packet he strapped up with his own hands, and no vehicle was ever allowed to leave the Castle without its consignment of book bundles’. When the books had arrived at their eventual destination, they were ‘laid upon the floor in the order in which they came, and Mr. Gladstone […] unstrapped and lifted and sifted and placed the volumes one by one in the bookcases prepared to receive them’.2 If you have ever moved a single stack of books from one place to another, you will appreciate that this is a truly mammoth undertaking. (If you’re interested in learning more about mammoths of any kind to better prepare you for this metaphor, there are three such books currently in residence at the Library: two of which have been held – no doubt in a stack – by the man himself.) The undertaking is further multiplied when you realise that, as well as transporting and shelving them, he also invented not one but two types of shelving units that
would revolutionise the keeping of books and which are used to this day in no less a library than the Bodleian. Not just this, he also invented his own cataloguing system with which to better navigate the collection. This, may I remind you, he did alongside a sixty-year-long political career in which he served as prime minister no fewer than four times, on one occasion also serving as the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the same time. His industry was truly exceptional. This industry has resulted in a residential library (and Britain’s only Prime Ministerial library) that, being one of North Wales’s few Grade I-listed buildings, is no stranger to Buzzfeed’s numerous lists of curious or fantastic libraries and other various top tens of ‘interesting hotels’ found in clickbait articles – no doubt exactly as he planned and hoped it would do when the idea first came to fruition in 1889. The modern iteration of the library is likely to be a different place to the one that he anticipated when he first began musing on a home for his
‘I applied for a marketing internship that offered residency in a library and all the books one could sleep with’ books. Though it is still a working (silent) library with an extensive and eclectic catalogue of texts and archives, it has developed into a place that, I think, appropriately reflects the essence of his intentions. Today, Gladstone’s Library is a place for reflection and introspection, a homely berth for introverts and bookworms, but it’s also a place (a necessarily safe one) for discussion and engagement with social, moral and ethical questions. Along with its annual cadre of ‘regular’ guests, the Library runs a writer-in-residence programme that has brought an impressive number of award-winning writers in recent years: the likes of Jessie Burton, Sarah Perry and Pascal Petit. These writers add heft to an eclectic calendar of courses, workshops and lectures throughout the year, the jewel in the crown of which is the Gladfest literary festival – possibly the only such festival with no green room. I arrived at the Library, a couple of years ago now, in less auspicious style than wheelbarrow-heaving octogenarian. Having recently finished a master’s degree in creative writing at Aberystwyth, I found myself within striking distance of adult responsibilities that I could no longer postpone. Or so I thought. There is little to do in Aberystwyth in the summer months between semesters (other than bask cat-like on the beach or at the castle engrossed in a book) unless you have a dissertation, thesis or job to work at. After a bit of research, I applied for a marketing internship that offered residency in a library and all the books one could sleep with. The position was perfect: not only was there a chef in the kitchen who could always be relied on for good snacks, dinner, dessert and conversation; it also came
with two friends (later a third joined) who would live in the library alongside me. To a much lesser extent, we would also work there together. As an intern at Gladstone’s, life is a curious mix of unglamorous office work and quasi Harry-Potter-by-way-of-His-Dark-Materials escapades (indeed, the warden of the library is alleged to have been the inspiration of the boy wizard himself – if you ask him, he will not show you the scar). My time at the Library was split, more or less equally, between working in the marketing office on the various jobs and tasks that fell under the purview of ‘marketing’ at a library; engaging with guests in the dining room or the Gladstone room (a kind of retiring room filled to bursting with comfy red armchairs and sofas, an open fireplace [roaring in winter], towering bookcases and a well-stocked bar); and getting up to all sorts of mischief with the other interns. In their way, these tasks made up the role of the intern at Gladstone’s. Aside from the administrative tasks reserved specifically for either the library interns (two at any time) or the marketing intern we would give tours of the library,6 engage with the guests and lock the place up at night when the readers had either retired to their beds, the Gladstone room or the pub. Not surprisingly, the interns who arrived after us found more rules waiting for them than we had found. While our residency and antics at the Library as interns would most likely have deeply confused the G.O.M., I don’t think he’d be at all surprised to see how the communal rooms are used to promote discussion and learning. For me, the existence of such a place is a shining beacon in an otherwise tragic landscape of cuts to library services. When one thinks about the very great effort undertaken by Gladstone to create this place and his insistence that it be located not in the larger cities of Britain (considered by others worthy on account merely of their lofty colleges and deep treasuries) but in a small Welsh border town, as being an act of belief in the power of literacy and in education, it is easy to understand how he acquired his most lasting soubriquet: the People’s William. A deeply principled politician with a keen sense of the importance of the written word and the vital knowledge it can impart, his kind is almost unknown in the government of our times for whom, it appears, literacy may be sacrificed for simple profit. A remark by The Guardian columnist Angela Clarke, illustrated by celebrated
There is no greater forum for mischief than a guided tour. Move fast enough and speak with enough conviction and you can convince anyone of anything.
friend of the book and Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell—and reproduced below7—frequently does the rounds on social media. In it she reminds us of the rounded nature of a library’s use and function within the community.
I hope that we shall remember this, and Gladstone, before the last library is uprooted.
With the kind permission of the artist.
Cameron Alexander Lawrence Some Fruit Enough about the pear blossoms, he said. The pears won’t be good for eating. Some fruit is merely ornamental, some simply crumbles between your teeth. Like architecture, the old cities left in ruins. Like time, creeds—the collapsed reliquaries. Not belief, he said, but the diminishment. Babylon lost and revisited. How every epoch destroys, remakes the tongue.
Elissa Soave Diane and Me I love Diane Weston. I mean I love her, not just the writing. Though I do love her writing too. Man, that woman can squeeze the juice out a metaphor, take you back to being eight years old with a sound, or a smell. Make you cringe. Or cry. It’s genius, and I know because I’m a writer too. Just ’cause I drive a bus, doesn’t mean I can’t write. I’m in a Writers’ Group. Bunch of wankers – they don’t know just how good my stories are. But I don’t go out much otherwise to be honest so … Anyway, I tried to tell the police I’m a writer like her, that’s what we’ve got in common, but they wouldn’t listen. They just kept asking why I was outside her house that night. I tried to say, I would never harm her, we’re both writers. They arrested me. But I love Diane, I’d never hurt her. I read Out of Sight, Out of Mind first. It was recommended to me. Well, to be precise I overheard one of the students at the Group say she was reading it and I decided to give it a go. Thought maybe then I could join in the conversation, ’specially with that wee redhead that writes the weird sci-fi stuff. I never really got the chance to say I’d read it in the end but it didn’t matter. That book made me see just how crap their writing was, in comparison to mine and Diane’s I mean. But it was more than just the brilliant writing, that book really spoke to me. It wasn’t long after I’d got out, you see. I don’t know if you want to call it a mental hospital, or a care facility, whatever. I was just there for a rest after my mum dying and everything. Help me to cope a bit better. But the thing is, there are things in that book that no one could possibly know unless they’d been there. So, I realized that was something else we had in common. That book changed my life. I first met her at Waterstones on Argyle Street. We just had this connection from the start. When I gave her my book to sign, she wrote, ‘For Alison, Best, Diane Weston’. For Alison, not to. You maybe don’t grasp the difference if you’re not a writer, but I knew. We had a great talk about the short story versus the novel and, get this, turns out we both love this guy I’ve discovered called Raymond Carver, I mean what are the chances? She would have talked more but the publishing lady caught her eye and she had to move to the next person even though we were getting along great. As I turned to leave, the wee, fat woman behind me dropped her book and I turned round and picked it up for her. Diane
said, ‘Thanks, Alison’. She remembered my name, out of everyone in that crowd – she’s dead popular in Glasgow – she called me by my first name. It was with us both being writers I think. I read Elizabeth in two days. Even took a sickie, which is something I never do because why would I want to sit around the house on my own all day? Wasn’t so bad before Mum died but now it’s just me, the four walls and the smell of disinfectant from her room still raging through the house. I can’t get rid of that smell – and it reminds me of her, a skeleton in that downstairs room, the tumours eating her up like rust. She couldn’t speak at the end. It was in her brain you see. Losing your hair, that’s one thing, but losing the power to speak? They both make babies of you but if you can’t speak, you might as well be dead. Just like Elizabeth most of the time. It was her dad that forced her to take acting lessons, though he did try to save her from that travesty of a marriage to Burton. Old drunk, no idea how to treat a woman. Trust Diane to let Elizabeth shine when everyone else is interested in the husband. That sort of confirmed for me what I already knew – Diane is pure genius. How I know where she lives is quite funny. I was driving my bus – it’s the 240 from Glasgow City Centre to Motherwell – and just before I got to Bellshill, who do I see crossing over the Main Street but Diane! I nearly drove it into the community centre I was that surprised to see her. She didn’t wave or anything – she didn’t see me, wouldn’t have been expecting me to drive a bus either I suppose, she only knows me as a writer – but I slowed down and watched her put her key in the front door of one of those big sandstones next to the station. That’s how I knew it was her house. It’s a really nice house; I mean, the paint’s peeling a bit and there’s mould round the windows, but that’s because her mind’s on other things. She’s certainly not bothered about what the neighbours think of how she keeps her house, is she? The garden’s big but not too regimented or set out like a public park, not like some of them down that road. No, hers has got a few rose bushes down each side of the path, pinks and yellows, bright and summery like she deserves to be, and a kind of stooped old tree – maybe an oak tree? – right in front of her window. I think I saw her shadow at the front window after she went in but I had to drive on then, some of my passengers were getting narky. I wasn’t really bothered – I knew I could go back any time after that. Have you read This Girl’s Life? I don’t want to drop Diane in it if she says it’s not about her, but I can tell you something – it is definitely about me. The alcoholic father squirming under the mother’s tyranny, the blistering tempers then
the silence, the parents’ break-up and just the generally crap childhood guaranteed to make lonely children like us writers. It was like reading my own story, honest to God. That’s when it all slotted into place. I knew then – we were more than just fellow writers; we were soulmates. The house was a grave when I got there. The branches of that old oak tree were swirling around in the night wind like giant spider legs, shimmying against the grimy windows at the front of the house. I had this idea that I’d peep in the window first, sneak a look at her going about her lonely evening before I let her know I’d come and everything was going to be OK. I stepped over the rose bush nearest the door and propped myself up on the window sill. I couldn’t see anything at first – the rain was coming down in sheets – but then I got a glimpse of her at the back of the house. She was spotlit by the ultra-bright striplight on the ceiling so that her image was reflected in the back window and there were two of her moving gracefully around the kitchen. She was taking a carton of milk out of the fridge and pouring it into a glass waiting on the table. I knew she was thinking about themes for her next novel, or maybe a twist in the current story she was writing. I saw her turn and shout into the air and then he appeared. A wee boy about eight or nine, wearing light blue pyjamas, his hair wet like he’d just come out of the bath, and his hands outstretched for the milk. Diane reached over and ruffled his hair, whispering something close to his ear that made him smile. My chest was a spool of thick, jute twine, that was being pulled tighter and tighter, I couldn’t get a breath, the shock of what I was seeing whipping against my face along with the rain. I calmed myself as the boy sat at the table, showing Diane something in a book. OK, I thought, OK, so she’s taken pity on a wee boy because he’s on his own like us. Maybe a budding writer too, wouldn’t be surprised. But then, a man about forty-five, fifty comes into the room and he kisses Diane! They sit down together at the table like they’re … a family or something. They’re laughing and warm in there; I’m crouched by the bushes, my hair plastered to my head. No, this wasn’t right. I can’t really talk about what happened after that. Not that I couldn’t explain it so you’d understand my side of it, just my solicitor says I can’t talk about it before the trial, not the detail anyway. One thing I will say, when she answered the door that night, there was this beautiful look of recognition passed across her face and I knew, I knew then that if I could’ve got to her sooner, I would’ve been the one sitting there with her at that kitchen table. We would’ve drunk wine and talked about books and writing and just … just ideas … all night every night. She wouldn’t have wanted anyone else. It would’ve been just Diane and me.
I mean, when does reaching out to your soulmate become a bad thing to do? Of course I can see why telling her about that dream I had – where she was sprawled on her front step with treacly blood seeping through her hair and her eyelids flickering like bats, and I was the only one that could save her – I can see why that would have frightened her. And I do understand now that I shouldn’t have kept going there to try and make things right. But, like I said to the police, I’d never harm Diane. I love her. Loved her, I should say. I didn’t read Pondlife till after I got arrested. Now I’m going to be honest here – and I know Diane appreciates honesty more than people just saying how great she is all the time – I wasn’t absolutely won over by the stories in Pondlife. For one thing, there’s a reason books are mostly about sex and not much about having children – I would have liked more about Gordon and Fiona, and less about wee Fraser and his first day at school – though I admit likening the toad’s eye to a splintered river rock is classic Diane. For another thing, for no apparent reason, the story titles were all in small letters. I found that really annoying, maybe that’s just me. But you know, every cloud and all that, they’ve got a great library in here. I picked up a book by Ali Smith the other day. Maybe you’ve heard of her, she’s Scottish too apparently. Anyway, I can see similarities in her writing and mine, especially the way she goes off at a tangent and makes you think you’re reading about one thing but actually it’s something else altogether. I love that! I was thinking of writing to her, there’s a few things I could share with her about dialogue and ways of setting out your work so that the reader engages with it right away. We’d have a lot in common I think, with us both being writers.
Chris Di Placito Comfort Blankets She has the rabbit out again, pulling the velvet ears through her fingers and stroking the little brass buttons, one by one, on the corduroy dungarees. She’s carried out this ritual countless times before and so doesn’t need to look at her hands. Instead she stares out at the shimmering colours on the puddled gutter; first red, then amber, then green. The little plush rabbit rests on her lap. We were told not to bring reminders but she carries this talisman of grief everywhere she goes. ‘There are elephants in Nairobi,’ she says, ‘who use blankets as a surrogate for their mother’s warmth.’ I sigh, even though I know I shouldn’t. ‘Where are their mothers?’ I ask. Five songs and one traffic report and already she is crying. ‘They are orphans,’ she says. ‘What happened to their mothers?’ ‘Slaughtered,’ she says, ‘one every fifteen minutes.’ I sigh again. This was her idea. Really, it was Dr Marshall’s, but she adopts all of his ideas as her own. Accepting his plans, swallowing his suggestions. They never work. The latest – a lake house retreat – will allow us to re-couple, pair-bond and self-heal. I snorted at the irony when they pitched this to me, then stormed out of his office. Storming away is how you cope, he’d said. Deflective gestures are also how you cope. Also sarcasm. You use sarcasm and derision to build the walls of your fortress. Your fortress is where you try to forget. Perhaps I don’t see things the way he does – the way she does – but I will never forget. ‘Do you want to know how they use the blankets?’ My knuckles turn white, tightening around the wheel. I look at her; her eyes are oysters that once held pearls. Back in college she had an entourage of admirers, chest puffing and cock fighting in a bid for her attention. One look from those cool blue eyes could extinguish their bravado in an instant. Now she sobs. ‘Baby elephants are highly susceptible to pneumonia.’
Jesus, is she really going there? ‘Yes, very vulnerable. And there are volunteers at the National Park in Nairobi who are there to protect them. They cover them with blankets to replicate the warmth and safety that the mother would provide.’ A news bulletin intersperses the changeover of disc jockeys and I pat my breast for a packet of Pall Malls. The pocket is empty and I bite my bottom lip until the metallic taste rusts my tongue. ‘That’s not all,’ she says. ‘In order to feed, the tiny baby must feel his mother’s stomach with the end of his trunk. Elephants are very tactile creatures, you know.’ I didn’t know. ‘Anyway, the volunteers will hang a giant blanket from a stockade and the baby will rub his trunk against it before feeding. He is comforted by this.’ She nods, as if to conclude her story. Telling it has composed her somewhat. The tears have dried for now. Do you know, the average person can shed enough tears in a lifetime to fill a household aquarium? This year I have seen enough to flood a river. Or a lake. I look in the rear view mirror and rub at my stubble. The skin on my cheeks hangs pale and grey, there are folds and creases that weren’t there before, and I am reminded of the damp dishcloth that hangs over our sink at home. Outside, a bitter wind has blustered away the rain. Frosty caterpillars of ice line the tops of fence posts and slick inky patches varnish the crumbling tarmac. Inside, my skin prickles. My forehead beads with large droplets of perspiration and my nose acts as a drainpipe for the salty moisture that coats my upper lip. The 2:00 am nightcap – hell, nightcaps – seep through my pores and saturate my light cotton shirt. I turn the air conditioning up full and she draws her shawl tight around her neck, squeezing the rabbit to her breast. We are in the country now. We don’t speak. The roads writhe and twist like fornicating eels. There are no paths anymore and the trees lurch forward from the side of the road. They block out the sky and their branches almost touch above us, their dead hands reaching. I throw the car into a blind corner. ‘Slow down,’ she says. ‘You’ll have us killed.’ In between the silences there is always blame. My eyes sting. Sleepless sand grates at the inner lids and I pinch at the bridge of my nose with my thumb and forefinger. The radio is counting down the top 40 and a dull ache ebbs and flows from the back of my skull to my frontal lobe.
I reach to the knob and turn the volume all the way down, but the silence only amplifies the pulsing throb of exhaustion. The quiet is suffocating. My lungs are filled with its weight and all I can think is Break the ice. I hate this phrase. ‘Guess who stopped by the office,’ I say. Her body stiffens. I don’t know why I choose these words. They taunt her, but there was no intention to be cruel. I should not have mentioned work, she is reminded of my late nights. Creased suits and whisky on my breath. She is reminded of her. ‘Never mind,’ I say, and turn the dial up again. Deep in the countryside, the radio crackles incoherent fragments of chorus before losing all signal and the car is filled with muffled static. Dead air. We turn a corner to the foot of a steep hill. The road cuts back on itself; hairpins tight as switchblades. I drop a gear and the engine revs. ‘Hey, remember Cornwall?’ I say, with a desperate last throw of the dice. ‘Remember the RV?’ ‘And Ray,’ she offers. This is something. Ray was our Irish Setter. We got him as a wedding gift from my brother. We took him on our honeymoon in an old RV I borrowed from a friend at work, driving all the way to Cornwall and parking up at a campsite that overlooked the coast. We had already unpacked and set up camp before we noticed the lawn bowls and bingo hall. A sign at the empty kiosk said Lights Out By 9:00 pm. We waited until 10:30, drinking cheap wine from a box and playing Scrabble by moonlight, then waded into the sea, naked as new-born infants. We were wakened from a deep, drunken sleep at four in the morning by the blast of a horn. I burst from the camper in nothing but a bathrobe, cursing an entire generation. But the campsite was empty, still as a cemetery except for the monotone honk. I darted around in circles, damp grass squelching between my toes, my teeth chattering like castanets and the pimpled flesh of my naked shins rousing me awake, enough to notice Ray up in the driver’s seat, his big red chest lying flat out on the RV’s horn. She looks at me and her mouth curls slightly. ‘They chased us all the way to Plymouth,’ she says. ‘Some had pitchforks,’ I say. She laughs. It is small but it is not hollow. It has warmth, and I hang on to the sound for dear life. I pull over at the top of the hill and I can just about see the lake; a speck of
blue amongst a quilt of greens and browns. The narrow descent is straight. If I want, I could throw the car into the drop, gaining the reckless speed of a tidal wave before slamming the brakes at the last possible moment. I could feel alive. I check the mirrors and gently pull away. There is a junction at the bottom of the hill and I slow the car to a stop. ‘Which way?’ I ask. ‘I’m not sure,’ she says. Her voice quivers and then breaks. ‘What is it now?’ ‘The elephants,’ she says. She clutches the rabbit and I reach over and brush her fingers. They are cold. I let my hand rest on hers.
Mark Russell Men Naked and Alone About war, they say, there is nothing new to photograph. It is as common to die in old age having lived unremarkably, as it is to die young but live forever in fireside tales of gallantry and foolishness. It is the figure produced by the painstaking research of the historian, and by equal turns, the politician’s denial of that figure, that may lead us to think it wasn’t so bad after all. A man found in the rubble may have the scent of decaying flesh in his nostrils forevermore, or campaign for nuclear disarmament for the rest of his life. Two men found in the rubble may not recognise the city they helped to build, or know only too well the sign of man’s work.
Men at Funerals About war, they say, there is nothing new to oppose. It is as common to gather one’s forces on the peninsula, as it is to send one’s wife and children to a secure house. It is the bridge blown to smithereens, and by equal turns, the pilot ejecting from a burning MiG, that may make the front pages on a slow Tuesday morning. A man who says let me walk you through this, gently may be elderly and kind (and mortified to be told that he was being patronising), or status-hungry and completely aware of his arrogance. Two men who say let us walk you through this, gently may be barristers advising a client they suspect is guilty and going to be a liability on the stand, or bomb disposal experts helping you to safety.
Men Sunbathing About war, they say, there is nothing new to study. It is as common for apples to be the source of all our troubles whether in ancient Greece, Norse, or Celtic (or even a garden called Eden), as it is for apples to be misinterpreted as tomatoes and cucumbers, berries and potatoes, melons and goats, oranges and nuts, jimsonweed and tree tumours, sinful and redemptive, mushrooms and misogyny. It is the fruit of perpetual sensuality, and by equal turns, the fruit that leads us to war on all fronts, that may tie us to trees to face the crossbow. A man wassailing through the orchards of Somerset may want no more than to bless the trees and wish for a bumper crop of cider apples, or he may want to bang pots and pans as hard as he can, and fire his gun into the night to drive away evil tree spirits, along with his own demons. Two men wassailing through the orchards of Somerset may be farmers from Devon intent upon sabotage, or Jed and Bazzer who come every year because they fancy Alwyn the Wassail Queen, and have spent many an hour discussing how they would show their affection for her if only she would let them.
David Frankel Shooting Season The buildings of the big house are hardly out of sight and I am already hot and thirsty. It’s two miles to the bridge, maybe more, and the tractor is old and slow. The fiercest heat of summer has passed but the estate still swelters in a lingering Indian summer and a haze hangs above the dirt road. I pull off the track to allow one of the estate’s four-by-fours to overtake me. I nod a greeting to the driver, Niall, but there is no response from the shadow behind the windscreen. Exhaust fumes and the smell of tyre-scuffed turf hang in the air as the Range Rover wallows over the gentle humps in the track. For a moment, before it disappears into the shallow valley, it seems to hover in the shimmering air. Niall would usually stop and shoot the breeze for a while, but not today. His old university friends are here for the weekend: the first shooting party of the year. I follow on, the tractor rocking slowly beneath me as its wheels turn through dry potholes. Ahead of me the dust is still settling long after Niall’s car has vanished from sight. Even here, a mile inland, the air is tinged with the smell of seaweed rotting along the distant tideline. Midges swarm in funnel-shaped clouds above depressions in the salt marsh where moisture has held on beneath the pallid crust. The river, where I’m working, is little more than a glorified drainage ditch: a narrow watercourse cutting through the dunes to the sea beyond. I park the tractor beside the pile of new timber I dragged out here yesterday. I’m hot and sweating, and I’m tempted to slide into the water that runs dark and cold between high, steep banks. On a day like this it is simultaneously tempting and forbidding. Beyond the narrow bridge, the track follows the channel to the beach, dissolving into low, grass-tufted dunes. Three nearly identical four-by-fours are parked haphazardly there: Niall and his group playing guns and Land Rovers. The river is spanned by thick wooden planking supported by two old, iron beams. Half of the timbers have been chewed away by tyres and the elements; the others are hard-cornered, regular, and smell of fresh wood preserver. Below, insects swarm in the cool air, skating across the still surface of the water. I drag new planks onto the bridge, pausing occasionally to stretch so that I can study
the group in the distance. I half shut my eyes to see better against the light. She isn’t there. The party arrived in a steady trickle two days ago. She was the last to arrive and the only one to arrive alone, rolling down the drive to the big house in an elderly BMW. The first thing I noticed about her, even before she got out of the car, was her hair: a collapsed Mohawk dyed to resemble a flame. I should have ignored her but I couldn’t quite bring myself to look away. When she got out, kissing Niall on each cheek, I could see that a tattoo ran across her shoulder and down her arm to the elbow: the petals of deep-red roses intertwining with dark leaves. Niall was stand-offish, maybe annoyed that she was late, so I couldn’t tell if they were together. She wasn’t one of his usual girls. She looked like an arty type or a bit of rough he’d picked up at some club or other. She said her name was Lara. Or maybe it had been Niall that had introduced her. She offered her hand, but before I could take it Niall said, ‘That’s just Wayne. He’s one of our groundsmen. He’ll be around to help out over the weekend.’ Her hand fell back to her side and she moved instead to take her bag from the back of the car. ‘Wayne can bring that in for you. Come on, we’re all going down to the summer house for drinks.’ Without looking back, he added, ‘Thank you, Wayne.’ She hovered at the edge of my vision for the rest of the long, still afternoon. From the perimeter of the gardens I watched them. The other girls, all blandly good looking, well dressed, bored, were sticking to the terrace and each other. Lara walked around the gardens with the boys. She strolled at the back of the group but they seemed to be pushed along by an unseen wave, constantly looking back, competing for attention. I tried again to work out if she was with Niall but there were no obvious signs either way. Perhaps she was a spare. That would explain her distance from the other girls: a threat. As I work, crouched on the bridge, sweat drips from me, soaking into the parched fibres of the wood. The bolts securing the planks have rusted into chestnut-brown clots but the grinder cuts easily through the old metal and burns into the timber. The smell of scorched metal will cling to me for the rest of the day. She arrives unexpectedly, walking down the track towards me. She is not alone. With her is Lucas, Niall’s twelve-year-old brother, wearing a rugby shirt that he has long outgrown, broad blue and white stripes stretched tight around his tubby body.
I carry on wrenching out the old timbers, my head down, until I can hear the sound of her feet close by on the path. I release the length of rotten timber I’m prizing loose and look up, smiling. Lucas, watchful, hangs back and climbs up into the seat of the tractor as she walks onto the bridge. I point at the loosened planks, ‘Watch your step.’ ‘My car broke down. Do you think you could have a look at it for me, or give it a tow? I tried phoning Niall, but there’s no signal.’ She talks like the others, but I can see the moment’s hesitancy before each action, uncertain of the correct etiquette. It’s easy to spot the ones who weren’t born to it. I nod, trying not to let it feel too significant that it is me she has turned to for help. We make polite conversation for a while and I watch the sweat beading on her skin and track the distortion of the flowers on her shoulder as she reaches up to shield her eyes from the sun. ‘Are you coming shooting?’ she asks, not quite looking at me. It’s a strange question; she knows I’m not one of the guests. ‘No. I stay out of the way.’ She looks a bit alternative, an eco-warrior type, so I try my luck: ‘I don’t hold with hunting. Cruel.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘You don’t look very keen yourself.’ ‘I don’t care. They’re only fucking birds. Anyway, I don’t think Niall would know a duck if it flew out of his arse.’ ‘The seagulls must be terrified.’ She smiles before turning to look down the track towards the rest of the party. ‘How do you know Niall?’ I don’t mean it to sound as loaded as it does, too urgent in the asking. ‘I mean, how long have you been—’ I hesitate, ‘—friends?’ ‘Not long.’ To my relief, she smiles. ‘I’ve got to go and join the others. I’m sure I’ll see you around. I’ll be here for a couple of days. My car’s over there.’ She points down the track in the direction of the big house as she walks away. ‘I left the keys in it.’ ‘I’ll finish this and I’ll bring the tractor down.’ ‘Thanks. It’s sweet of you.’ Down the track, she hesitates, looking back for a moment before walking on. Leaning on the edge of the bridge I start to grind out another bolt, watching her reflection in the glassy water as she walks away, but her image is shattered by
the impact of a rock. I had forgotten Lucas. Behind me he is balancing on one of the bridge beams, holding stones that he’s prized from the bank, each as smooth and dark as the water. He drops them one at a time. Each disappears with a baritone splosh. When the last one has gone he comes closer and stands with his hands on his hips in front of me. ‘Hello, Lucas. I thought I could smell something.’ ‘She’s my brother’s girlfriend.’ ‘Is she?’ ‘Yes. I’m just telling you so you know.’ ‘Sounds like you’ve been keeping an eye on her.’ ‘She wouldn’t be interested in you.’ ‘Is that right?’ ‘What were you talking to her about?’ ‘None of your business, you little maggot.’ ‘I really don’t think she’d like you very much. You’re not her type. We’re good friends you see, so I think she would have told me.’ ‘Go away, Lucas. I’m busy.’ ‘You shouldn’t talk to me like that. If Father found out he might let you go.’ ‘Why don’t you go and tell Niall all about it?’ Lucas climbs back into the seat of the tractor. ‘Get off there, Lucas!’ ‘It belongs to Father, not you,’ he says, climbing down and scuttling towards the bridge. I throw the tools into my bag and hang it behind the tractor seat. When I heave myself up and go to start the engine the key has gone. I punch the steel rim of the steering wheel and Lucas’s name escapes from me like a hissed release of pressure. I swing round in the seat to see him standing on the edge of the bridge, grinning, his arm stretched over the water, the tractor key clutched in his chubby fingers. ‘Give me that key, Lucas, or I’ll give you such a fucking leathering!’ I climb down, and when I turn back towards the bridge Lucas has gone. I shout his name and scan the long grass on the riverbank. There is only one place he can be. By the time I am peering down into the water beneath the bridge only a slowly dispersing ring of foam marks the spot where the surface was disrupted. There had been no sound, as though the heat of the day had made the water too lazy to leap back from the impact or waste energy sending waves to slap against
the banks. I wait, expecting Lucas to burst back spluttering into the sunshine, but there is no movement. The world is quiet. I rip at the laces of my heavy work-boots, kicking them off, and shout down the track to the others. They see me waving and grabbing at my boots. They wave back, laughing. I shout again but the words seem out of place in the sapping stillness of the morning. My voice is hushed by the air, as though the sound won’t carry through its thick warmth. I drop from the bridge into the river, unprepared for the sudden cold. It sucks the air from my lungs and I gulp in a throatful, rising quickly back to the surface. I am momentarily blinded by the sun and by the brackish water pouring across my eyes. Lunging into the centre of the waterway, I feel the water’s mass pressing against me as I swing my arms around, searching. The river is barely moving; the boy can’t have been pulled far. I duck under the water, fingers stretching into the darkness beneath the bridge. A single beam of light shines through a gap in the planks above me, illuminating a column of water clouded by a storm of silt and debris stirred up by my flailing search. In this faint glow the boy emerges, hanging in the water as though he has congealed out of river sludge. My hands collide with his torso, soft and heavy, and I grab for a slippery arm that slides from my grasp as the buoyancy of the air in my lungs forces me to the surface. Diving beneath the water again, I breathe out as I sink and manage to grab the boy’s hair, dragging him up towards the bank. It is high and sheer. I drag Lucas further along the gully to a place where the bank is shallow enough to lift him out. I heave the kid onto my shoulder but even here, where the bank is lowest, his dead weight defeats me. When my breath returns I begin to shout again. My voice echoes against the banks and seems impossibly loud. When the others arrive at the bridge their laughter stops so abruptly that it makes me want to laugh back at them. They reach down, dragging the boy from my shoulders, struggling to get a grip on his wet skin as his shirt peels away. On the riverbank, Lara is nowhere in sight, neither is Niall. Someone goes to look for them while another takes one of the Land Rovers back to the house to phone for help. The others crouch nearby, staring at their useless phones, or wait further along the track, as if to deny their involvement by distance. The boy’s lips are blue. In the warming sun, his chest rises and falls as I blow air into him. It is strange how easy it is to fill the lungs of another human being,
to watch their cheeks bulge and chest expand with the effort of your own breathing. As I look down at him I wonder what his older brother is doing with Lara, down there in the dunes. I pause, needing air myself, silty water still dripping from my hair, stinging my eyes and blurring the brightness of the day that is spinning around me. I sit astride the inert child, pumping his chest. If the boy dies the shooting party will be over. She will go and she will not return. Later, they will say how desperately I fought to save him. My skin tightens as the sun dries me. The tiny grains of stone in the gravel beneath the boy’s head catch the light and I see a black beetle tumbling through the flattened grass beside us. I picture Lara walking back along the track, pausing to look at the sun-baked landscape, maybe hearing the distant shouts from the riverbank and mistaking them for the cries of gulls. I think about how, in the glare of the sun, the deep-red ink of the roses curling softly down the skin of her shoulder had looked almost black. I watch Lucas’s chest for any sign of independent movement. As I bend to blow air into his lungs again, I look out along the river channel, beyond the dunes, to the distance where the sea is a distant shimmering strip of blue.
Alanna McArdle Butter The daughter sits on the cherry countertop. It is raining and it is August. It is raining and the dog is depressed. The dog is depressed, the daughter says. The mother does not look up from her reading. It’s the weather, the daughter says. No, the mother says, the dog is not depressed. It’s the weather, the daughter says. The dog is eating grass in the garden. She is self-medicating with the grass, ripping grass blades out from the root. Her mouth foams with grass and mulch, mulch and grass caught up in the spit frothing white at the edge of her mouth. While the dog eats the grass and the daughter watches the dog eat the grass, the mother stops her reading. She was reading a story in the newspaper about a child who got lost on Beachy Head and drowned like the rest of the Beachy Head people, except this time it was hard to tell if that is what she wanted, like the rest of the Beachy Head people. The mother moves around the kitchen island to inspect the daughter’s legs. The daughter feels the mother’s eyes and wonders where else in this world, in which other kitchen, which other mother is estimating the circumference of some other daughter’s ankles. On the other cherry countertop opposite the first cherry countertop the toaster sits dormant with the skeleton of a piece of toast in its mouth. In front of the toaster the china butter dish is closed and so suggests that there could still be butter inside. There is always a possibility for butter if you cannot see whether the butter is really there. The mother spots a patch of unshaven hair on the daughter’s left leg. The mother wonders about body-contouring kits from QVC. The daughter wonders about all the other measuring tapes and all the drawers in all the kitchens accommodating the metric system in the same way this kitchen does. The mother follows the daughter’s gaze, which is tracking the curved lid of the butter dish. That should go too, in the bag, the mother says. What if there is still butter in it? The daughter says. The mother does not reply. The daughter thinks about all the butter in all the
world and all the buttery stomachs across the universe, happy and puffed with butter. The mother suspects that the daughter would like there to be butter in the dish, that perhaps the daughter might even want to eat the butter, perhaps even on some toast. The mother picks up the butter dish and says No there is Not any butter inside, there hasn’t been for a very long time. After the mother picks up the butter dish she walks out of the kitchen to put it in the bag. The bag is for things to go to the charity shop. The bag is stuffed right to the brim so the house will end up lighter. Things need lightening. After the mother puts the butter dish in the bag she goes upstairs to get the bathroom measuring tape and then measures the circumference of her ankles. The daughter sits on her own on the cherry countertop and takes the piece of paper from her front pocket. She takes the pencil from her back pocket. She adds to the list: My daughter and I will buy butter together. We will eat butter straight from the butter dish with our bare hands. The dog paws at the door to come inside after eating the grass. The daughter puts the list away and opens the door. She goes to the cupboard and gets the big tin out. The dog gets two scoops of feed each meal. She eats two meals a day. The daughter marks them on the list: 1, 2. The dog must be at a healthy weight. The food is nutritious and stable and comes at the same time each day. The dog is depressed, thinks the daughter. The dog hates the weather. When the mother comes back downstairs the daughter says she is going to her room. In her room she pulls down her shorts and checks to see. It is still coming. She adds to the list: not gone yet She adds to the list: when my sons begin to menstruate they will receive flowers, and every month they will receive flowers. when there are flowers they won’t necessarily be red. I will water the flowers for my menstruating sons. *
The daughter scans things languidly at the checkout. She has been given her second warning of the week already. The daughter takes the customer’s club card and passes it under the red light and it does not beep but she does not try again. The customer will not get any club card points today. The daughter does not give one single shit, dog or otherwise. The next customer is stockpiling dog food. The dog food has a photo of a small grey dog on its lid and somehow the dog is smiling but this is because of Photoshop. At the end of her shift the daughter walks through the pet food aisle and slips three tins of the dog food into her bag. At home the mother sits with her neck bent parallel to the countertop. Today she is reading a story about a woman who was kidnapped and held in a Soho flat for three days while men came and went. The mother thinks the woman should not have gone to Soho in the first place. The daughter comes in and the mother says What’s there to do in Soho anyway? She is not talking to the daughter, not necessarily. * That night the daughter dreams of black bags filled to the crinkly lip with crockery. The bags are everywhere, piling themselves onto her feet. The measuring tape appears in her hands but she cannot move the bags to get at her ankles. The crockery shines in a blue light, how light in dreams always looks. Black bags stretch to the brow of the horizon, shimmering like crows’ wings over frost. * When the weather picks up it always picks up too late. The daughter can see that the dog is still depressed. The dog lies down but has its eyes open, and so there is no doubt about it. The daughter takes the dog for a walk and when she comes back she says the dog just sat there staring at the duck pond, mistaking all the ducklings in their new-born fuzz for muddy, feathered tennis balls. The daughter says again The dog is depressed, and the mother tuts before opening the newspaper to the page which tells her the details of all the severed heads found in some Essex valley. It is sunny now. In the hallway, the bag should be glinting, if not blue then at least white. The daughter glances up while tying her shoelaces to try and catch the glint, to consolidate her dream life and her real life, to make sure there is still
the possibility of butter, but there is nothing there except the old umbrella stand on which the bag once leant. The daughter stands up in silent protest. Mum, where did the bag go? Charity shop, the mother replies. On the high street the rubbish is in bloom. Some soiled newspaper floats from out of the top of a bin and brushes the wonked-out paving stones before settling on the kerb. It smells of exhaust fumes and old pigeon gunk and leftover mattresses leaning up on walls. The daughter is twenty-five minutes late for work. In the first charity shop itâ€™s just teapots salt and pepper shakers shaped like cats camo jackets for children lilac cardigans for old ladies lots of semi-erotic novels and five of the same Roxy Music LP. In the second charity shop there is no crockery whatsoever. The daughter is forty-five minutes late for work and has two missed calls from her manager. In the third charity shop she finds the china butter dish in between a frosted glass chess set and a box of lacquer buttons. Back on the high street the daughter wafts through the gaps in the rubbish like more rubbish in the end-of-summer breeze. The sun bounces off the white lid of the butter dish and refracts a little hologram of itself into a rhombus halo onto her neck; she passes by the supermarket without stopping. * That night the daughter dreams of dogs with buttery golden coats and Photoshop smiles complete with ice-white rectangular teeth. * In the morning, the daughter opens the big tin and closes it again. She goes to where she hid the smiling dog food behind the washing machine and peels the lid so that the smiling dog is all bent up and skewed like the bonnet of a totalled car. When she looks inside she frowns at the sight of the food, which is packed square and solid in gelatine, all Rabbit-Shits-In-Formaldehyde looking. After the dog eats the new food it does not stop being depressed. The daughter estimates that this is the way the dog will always be. She opens the fridge and closes it again. She looks at the toaster and presses her finger on some ancient crumbs nearby and lets them dissolve on her tongue. She adds to the list: butter ď€ľď€°
The sky announces the afternoon. The daughter places the butter dish, swaddled in a scarf, at the very top of her backpack. She walks fast so that she will only be ten, maybe fifteen minutes late for work. As she walks through the customer entrance, she smiles very wide at the security guard and says Hello. He raises an eyebrow in reply. In the back office, her manager swivels in the swivel chair and waves a pencil between his fingers fast as a full-time metronome. The daughter smiles very wide at him and says Hello. On the desk, her P45. The daughter picks up the paper as though it is a very expensive silk scarf she might want to purchase. Light, coveted. The daughter pivots to the door, barely noticing the manager’s words as she swishes the fire door open to the tune of eleven self-checkout machines bleating orders in a round. She spreads her arms out to absorb the incandescent supermarket lighting and feels the butter dish press hard between her shoulder blades; she feels that she could do with some wings to spread right about now. In the distance, a few aisles down, the silver packaging winks at her like fish scales in the clearest current and she cannot help but break into a sprint until she almost collides into two trolleys and the odd pensioner and knocks a special offer pack of crisps onto the floor and feels her hands begin to squeeze into the silver gold or yellow blocks and pile until she’s laden as a milk maid—ten or maybe twelve or maybe two hundred packs of butter locked beneath her crossed arms as she skids straight through the double doors and out to where the road looks like it ends and far beyond the reach of the security guard who pants behind her, slipping up on butter left like hopscotch patches on the concrete, and as the daughter runs she thinks she may well reach that buttery sun before it wanes completely and so she fills her mouth with butter so jam-packed it extrudes from all the slits between her teeth and when the tearsalt melds into the buttersalt she thinks Finally and as she feels the butter puffing up and making softness butter filled and filling butter good enough she hopes to even turn the mother Oh it’s good enough and loving warm and gold the way that daughters mothers dogs and butter ought to feel.
Christina Seymour Winter, a Family Home That Isn’t Mine The reliable, generic painting of two cardinals on a blue branch reminds: we drip water to keep pipes from freezing; feeling like home is not being home. Some mount pictures of people to the walls; some, heads of animals, conquered. I pull Goodnight Moon and the Tao Te Ching from the bookshelf, take notes: what is to be shrunken begins by being first stretched out and Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush. I trace them like portholes, a ritual for the sake of ritual— the easiest way to lose the self is to set out to find it, similar to home, this quiet that comes when given more than I can return.
Christine De Luca Guises She tried on the clothes of shyness but they never convinced; there was always someone shrinking in the corner, more awkward in their skin, ill at ease; desperate for a stand-in. She tried the studied outfit of reserve but always split the stitches when prim and proper tried to take her over. She couldn’t wait to slip into something more relaxed. The one she coveted most was the modest dress of melancholia: the one at the back of the wardrobe, bought in wistful mood: its floaty fullness, its Gatsby charisma. It took half a lifetime to admit that not one of these costumes flattered her, would ever suit her. She should accept her nature; settle for comfort, cheery earrings, a bright sweater.
Christine De Luca A poem in Shetlandic
Infinity i your löf
in your pa l m
Knowes mulder tae trowie gravesteyns, da tinnest limey flags. In atween, maave tae-girse in mintie gairdeens.
hillocks erode to troll-sized gravestones
Dis a blink o heeven: craggy taings point tae da peerie isles: der seen hit aa, ebb an flow, piers bizzin wi fysh an fock.
This is; narrow (rocky) peninsulas
At da Punds, der a brukkit winch, a anchor an a capstan; a upendit pot for cooch roostin inta da grund. But der a new pier
an black pearls laid alang da slim neck o Stromness Voe: mussel rafts dat glink i da sun. Der no dön yet, nor da birds:
thinnest, flag-stones mauve thyme. tiny
little; they’ve seen it all people
long sea inlet; glint, gleam They’re not finished
a tjaldur fishes affa da craigs, pylks oot a whelk. Tirricks stick ta high divin: still honin survival, adjustin tactics.
oyster catcher, flat rocks, picks out
Da banks hadd der ain while sillerweed – here daday, gien damoarn – sings seeven-petalled inta da wind. At nicht
cliffs hold their own; silverweed
anidder wirld stops you i your tracks:
a hare slips inta da hill an a low mön poos da tides, nyigs at da knottit line you cöst,
da blöd, da love; da mövin on trowe uncan laands, tömin memory. Richt noo dis hinny-spot wips wis ta eternity.
blood, moving on through
unfamiliar, teeming connecting point binds us (as gunwales are joined)
Christine De Luca A poem in Shetlandic
Sang o da makker No one will ever know where the seams are where you begin where I end. I tize oot dy reffels, redd an caird dee, caa mi wheel an spin dee, set dy rowers mirlin till dat unbrokken treed, dy voice, is slicht an strang. I colour dee wi swatches o simmer banks, match aa da shaeds ithin a lönabrak. Du hadds me, mi hanks, dy airms wide. I wind mi cloo, reel dee in; plain and purl dee, slip mi loops up owre dee; mak dee inta mi Cockle Shall, mi Crest o da Wave, inta mi Rippled Diamonds, mi Dooble Scallops; inta aa mi aedgins, basques an boarders, inta da boady o mi makkin. Naeboady ’ll ivver ken whaar da sems is; whaar du begins, whaar I end. Hap me an tak me caa mi wheel turn mi heel lay me up pick me up
mak mi sweerie-geng graft me aff an scoor me dress me wear me.
mak: knit; tize: tease out; dy: your (familiar); reffels: tangles; redd: comb; caa: spin; rowers: wool-rolls; slicht: smooth; banks: cliffs; lönabrak: wave breaking on shore; cloo: ball of wool; loops: stitches; hap: wrap in a shawl; lay up: cast on stiches; sweerie-geng: first (tight) row of knitting; scoor: wash; dress: finish, shape
Structo talks to
LIU photo © lisa tang liu
his is going to sound like I’m about to announce a lifetime achievement award but, when it comes to people like the author and translator Ken Liu, it really can’t be helped. So: Among the stories featured in Liu’s 2016 story collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories are ‘Good Hunting’, adapted in 2019 as part of Netflix’s Love Death & Robots series and ‘The Paper Menagerie’ (the first work of fiction to win each of the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards). His ‘silkpunk’ fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty, is now two volumes and 1,500 pages deep. Notable among his translations from the Chinese are The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and the anthologies—also edited by Liu—Invisible Planets (2016) and Broken Stars (2019). This interview has been edited for clarity, although not as much as you might think. Liu is one of the only people I’ve ever interviewed who speaks in paragraphs. — Euan structo: You have written an enormous number of stories. Can you talk a little bit about your process in narrowing them down into the collection? liu: Well, it actually wasn’t terribly difficult. I have written a lot of stories but many of them are extremely short—they’re flash fiction pieces—and I think the thinking at the time was that we wanted to build a collection of longer stories rather than from the flash fiction so that narrowed it already considerably. I wanted to put in stories that I really like in one way or another, and the editor’s thought was that we probably should include the stories that received the most recognition in terms of awards and award nominations. I have conflicted feelings about awards in general, so I did understand the thought, but my experience has been that some of my favourite stories really didn’t get much recognition and I wanted to highlight them if I could… and so we ended up going back and forth a few times and then we ended up with a combination of stories that did receive a lot of recognition in terms of awards and nominations, as well as stories that I thought were particularly interesting even though they didn’t really receive much notice when they came out in magazines. The much more interesting part is really in the order in which the stories were presented in the collection. My thought was I wanted to have the order of the collection follow an arc so the first story and the last story and the story in the middle would be the tent pole pieces: so that’s why ‘The Bookmaking
Habits of Select Species’ is in the beginning, ‘The Man Who Ended History’ is at the end and in the middle I wrote a new story for the collection, ‘An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book’. The thought was I wanted these tent pole stories to serve specific functions. The first story, ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’ is really a very strange story, it’s not a story at all, it has no plot, it’s essentially a list of short pseudo-academic descriptions of how different alien species might make artefacts that we could conceivably think of as books. I put it at the beginning because I know that, on Amazon and other ebook stores, the first story often would be presented as a preview. My thought was… because the story is so strange and unusual and doesn’t follow the typical expectations of the story but it is a story that I like a lot and it is in fact very much me, I will put it at the beginning to save readers and myself a lot of time and headache. The idea is if you’re a reader thinking about… who has no idea what kind of work I do and you read the story and you end up not liking it because it’s very unique and not a typical story at all, then you don’t need to buy the rest of the collection, you can just go on in your life and you don’t need to complain to me about it and I’m saving you some money. It’s great. On the other hand, if you read the story and you’re like, oh this is actually really interesting then, you know, then we have found each other. The last story was a story that was very important to me, and took me a huge amount of personal effort to write, and I wanted to put that at the end as a combination of things presented in the rest of the collection. The story in the middle is a story that I just wrote for the collection that hadn’t been published anywhere else and so was to be the bonus content for the collection. So that was the thought and all the other stories were arranged around the three stories thematically in order to take you on a journey of sorts. structo: It’s interesting that you say the first story is ‘very much me’. Could you explain what you mean by that? liu: I’ve had a very weird career. I was a technologist, a programmer for many years and then I became a corporate lawyer, also for many years, and then I became a litigation consultant. So because of the way my life weaves between technology and law I’ve always had a lot of interest both in technology as an artefact and technology as a process, as well as the rhetoric of law and the way
‘Somebody once tried to complain about my work by saying that my science fiction reads like fantasy and my fantasy reads like science fiction, but I took it as a compliment’ rhetoric has developed into an omnipresent art form in the modern world without necessarily us thinking about it as such. That story is written in the style of nonfiction, which as a lawyer I’ve had to write a lot of; and it is at the same time deeply interested in technology as a process, and as a way of making artefacts, but not technology in the way science fiction usually considers it. It doesn’t really do a lot with gizmos and rockets and all that stuff, it’s very much focused on one kind of technology, which is the technology of augmented cognition. The most familiar example of which, for humans, would be writing. We don’t typically think of writing as technology but that’s what it is, the symbol system and the actual production of books and the very idea of reducing thoughts into written form: these are technological behaviours and technological artefacts and we have become a different species in the way we think as a result of writing. My interest in this sort of thing is reflected in the story, a story about alien ways of producing writing and how writing and books and how these technological behaviours and artefacts change the way they think. That’s exactly the sort of thing that I think about a lot. So you know, in that sense, the story is very much me and the other thing that is very me about that story is that it’s hard to pin down the genre. There are passages of it that are clearly very, quote unquote,
science fiction—it goes into great technical detail about how certain things might be accomplished—but other parts are written in a very loose, almost fantastical style so you know that the descriptions of what’s happening are really metaphors. But you can’t be sure, maybe it really is literally true, so it straddles and jumps over the dividing line between fantasy and science fiction and magic realism and perhaps even fiction, so it’s hard to pin it down. Somebody once tried to complain about my work by saying that my science fiction reads like fantasy and my fantasy reads like science fiction, but I took it as a compliment. My sense is that that story tends to be polarizing. Readers who really resonate with my particular style love that story but readers who were expecting something more in the mode of science fiction—or what they think of as science fiction—hate it, they often say it’s not a story at all. Which is fine. That’s why I put it at the beginning as a filter. I certainly don’t want readers who don’t like what I do to waste their money on buying something like that. structo: It seems that your publishers have got that as well, purely from the jacket design.
liu: I’m very lucky. The cover for The Paper Menagerie, that was largely driven by Simon Schuster, my publisher in the USA. Saga Press in particular. Joe Monty, who is my editor there, really gets what I do. He has been with me for many years and I’m very grateful for the support he’s given to my work. He said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do, I get what you’re doing, we have to design a cover that invokes that sense, there’s no point in putting on a cover that doesn’t
give people a hint of what they’re going to find.’ He’s largely responsible for commissioning art and conveying to the design staff an idea of what he wants the book to look like and so I’m very grateful for the result, I think it looks really fantastic. structo: You use the phrase ‘silkpunk’ to describe your epic fantasy novels. You’re a very careful user of language—what was the reason for that? liu: There are two ways to answer this question. One is somewhat serious, the other is not-so-serious. I’ll give you the not-so-serious answer first. The not-soserious answer is basically I needed some way to describe these books in a succinct way to people and I’m a very lazy person. These are epic fantasy books and that meant if I were to describe them accurately, I would have to position them within the existing canon, inside the genre, in a very precise way so that readers coming to the series would know, OK, this is like that and not like that and then so they can be informed, understanding what’s going on; but there really wasn’t anything in the field that I felt was particularly close. It’s very popular to describe new books by saying it’s X meets Y. I hate that way of doing things, I really hate it and I didn’t think [any term] that existed could really be used to describe what I do in that way. I said, look, I could do several things, one is to go read more epic fantasy series until I found something that fit and become a scholar of epic fantasy but I’m not a scholar and I don’t want to be a scholar of epic fantasy. I’m just a reader, I’m a fan, I want to read. So here’s what I’m going to do: rather than trying very carefully to investigate, learn and know and just… absorb every single subgenre of epic fantasy there is and try to find a label that fits, I’m going to be lazy and just draw a chalk line around my feet and define my own stuff into its own subgenre. That way I don’t have to deal with all the issues that come with trying to position yourself into the existing field, you can just tell them, describe them the way I want to. I created this subgenre in which the only example was me so there you go, people can judge it based on that. The more serious answer is that silkpunk does actually mean something to me. It’s very popular in these days to stick a -punk suffix on anything, and it becomes kind of ridiculous, but I was actually trying to think this through. silkpunk in some ways can be seen as a kind of alternate investigation or experimentation with the fundamental ideas of steampunk. Steampunk is a very fascinating
literary subgenre to me because, if you think about it, steampunk actually is kind of our attempt to write in the style of Jules Verne. For Verne it was pure sci-fi but for us, it’s taken on this interesting mix between sci fi and fantasy. It’s an articulation of a particular technological and aesthetic vocabulary into a whole subgenre of works that are really all very different subgenres: dramas, romances, what have you. What unifies the idea of steampunk is the extension of Victorian era technological vocabulary, you’ve got the goggles, you’ve got the Tesla style coils, you’ve got steam, you’ve all that stuff. And we extend them out into fantastical variations try to take the Victorian era aesthetics and try to make it global and engage with all the issues of post-colonialism and power distribution in the process. At least, that’s how modern steampunk has evolved. That to me is very fascinating, so I said, can we take that basic idea of creating a technological and aesthetic vocabulary inspired by a particular historical period and try to see what we can do with it? I ended up picking the technological vocabulary and aesthetics of classical East Asia, particularly China and Japan and Korea, to develop my own version of this alternate technological vocabulary and aesthetics. I wanted to tell a fantasy story using that vocabulary. So that explains the ‘silk’ part. The thing about this East Asian fantastical and East Asian-inspired fantastical technology vocabulary is that it focuses on different materials. The technology uses materials that are of historical importance in east Asia, like bamboo and silk, and it also tries to extend the engineering principles you see in classical East Asia. One part of Chinese engineering from antiquity is this idea that the highest aesthetic realm you can reach in artefacts is the feeling in the viewer that it’s actually natural, the highest aesthetic ideal is to make what is otherwise artificial feel natural. It has to be crafted in a way as to evoke nature. That explains things like very carefully cultivated bonsai arrangements, it explains scholar’s rocks which are natural, crafted by natural forces. But for a lot of classical Chinese aesthetics, it’s also very highly artificial because the meaning of the rock doesn’t come from its natural form but from the layers of poetic imagery heaped upon it. It’s in fact an augmented reality creation, if you will, where the augmentation happens through culture and through the poetic ways in which you view it. A lot of famous Chinese natural sites, or tourist attractions, are like that. Take West Lake. It’s a natural formation but it is highly crafted. It’s highly crafted and artificial and layered with many, many centuries—and multiple
dynasties—worth of history and culture, and yet at the same time the ultimate reason they are attractive is because they feel natural. That’s the kind of aesthetic I was going for. [The characters in The Dandelion Dynasty series] use materials like bamboo and silk and kites and so on and so forth, but for battle kites and underwater boats and airships which use the principles of biomimetics to move, they imitate the movements of motion of natural things. For example, the airship moves around using giant feathered oars and they’re lit up from inside so that when they are flying around at night, they look like glowing jellyfish going through a dark sea. The underwater boats actually propel themselves using the motions derived from the way whales propel themselves through the water, and the battle kites are very much inspired by the flight of birds—as are the airships. If you read the book you see there’s a lot of reference to how the principles of lighter-than-air flight were discovered. It’s very much inspired by natural phenomena. I tried to carry through this idea of a particular set of materials used for the technology as well as the design principles in it. So that’s the ‘silk’ part but the ‘punk’ part is also pretty important to me. A punk aesthetic to me implies the idea of reappropriation, of taking what already exists and using [it] for new, often subversive purposes. Punk as an aesthetic movement is always associated with some kind of political protest, of revolution, of dissatisfaction with the status quo and so that’s what these epic fantasy books are actually about. A lot of epic fantasy that we’re familiar with traditionally tried to tell the story of restoration, of restoring what is otherwise out of bounds, into a nostalgic status quo ante that is better than the chaos that we experience. You know: we have to restore the rightful king to his throne, we have to put the artefact that has been stolen back into its rightful place, we have to drive out the usurpers, and put those who should rule back in charge. There are better people and worse people, and we have to preserve the natural border of society. My books are very much not about that. They are very much about how there is no such thing as a perfect nostalgic past, and the only thing we can do is engage in continuous revolution to create something that is better. The world will never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that the impulse to perfect it should be held back. That doesn’t always necessarily always mean progress. It doesn’t always mean something better in fact will emerge, and so the books are about that. They’re about a punkish impulse to always rebel. So: ‘punk’. That’s the more serious reason for why the books were described that way.
structo: And the universe in which this huge story is set is one that you created in partnership with your wife. liu: Yes. My wife is a photographer and a visual artist, and when I was trying to look for a big story to tell I was asking for her thoughts about the kind of stories that I could tell, and she said, “Well, you know, we both grew up immersed in these very traditional Chinese stories and wuxia [martial arts] fantasies. They are very important stories for the Chinese diaspora across the world, and these stories often evoke a specific sense of continuous change, of reappropriating the past to do something new.” I said, “Okay, that’s really fascinating.” Then I wanted to think through a way of making that work in a fantasy setting, and then my wife said, “Okay, well, what if you try to tell a story that is very Chinese, but using techniques and worldbuilding ideas that are actually not traditionally Orientalist, or Chinese at all? Can you do something that goes against that kind of expectation?” We talked about it a little more, and my thought was I wanted to do something epic in the traditional sense, not just epic fantasy, but actually epic. What that means is, it would be inspired by epic style narratives from both East Asia and the West. It would take its cues from things like the Iliad and the Aeneid and Paradise Lost, as well as from traditional Eastern-style oral storytelling, jianghu [martial artists in wuxia] stories, historical biographies, all these sources. My wife helped me with some of the thinking through of some of the issues with world-building. We discussed the gods, and what role they would play, and how they would reflect ideas about religion prevalent in East Asia, and so on and so forth. And so, in the end, we came up with a world that I enjoyed, and then I set about trying to tell the story. structo: Were there any stand-out stories for you, growing up? liu: Like a lot of folks my age, I was very taken with the work of Michael Ende. Momo, that’s a book that I loved, just absolutely loved, reading as a child. I felt the way he used this fable-like way of telling the story was fantastic. Even now, reading it so many decades later, it feels timeless and true. Similarly, I think Jin Yong, who is not very well known in the West, is possibly the most influential Chinese author [to] folks my generation. His wuxia fantasies literally took the genre of martial arts fantasy, which you know is a very old genre, and elevated it
to a new level. A large part of what he did is—he fused a lot of classical Chinese elements with Western storytelling techniques, as well as traditional Chinese novel techniques, and blended them into something very new. The fact that he could re-appropriate what is otherwise part of the past and craft it into something new, felt like an inspiration for the kind of silkpunk storytelling I wanted to do. structo: Was there a specific moment when you started writing? liu: I think like a lot of people who want to be authors, I did start writing early, although I can’t say I pursued it with a single-minded dedication that a lot of my colleagues had done. I did write throughout elementary school, and high school, and college, but I don’t think I was really serious about pursuing publication until after college. I think that my first story came out in 2001. This is when I was in law school, so it really wasn’t until after college that I thought I would try to be a little more serious about trying to pursue publication. I think it largely happened step by step. I sort of stumbled into it, even though it’s something I always wanted to do. structo: Was translation something you were just interested in or were you offered a commission? liu: It’s much more random and fortuitous. I have a lot of friends in China who are writers and many of them are sci-fi/fantasy writers. I enjoy and admire their work a great deal. One of them, Stanley Chen, is a good friend of mine. I really loved his works, I thought they were fantastic, and I always sort of hoped that he would get published in the West and get more readers that way. He had a professional translation commissioned and he sent it to me, and said, “Do you mind taking a look at this, and see what you think?” And I read it, and I said, “It’s an accurate translation, but it’s somehow none of your voice, none of your sardonic wit, none of the things that makes a Stanley Chen story a Stanley Chen story has made it though. It feels very dead. This feels a lot like, you know, the patent translations that I read all the time.” I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I have no idea how to do a translation. I’ve never even thought about doing translations, but I do know how to write, so
maybe, if you want, I can try to revise the translation to see if I can make it better.” And he said, “You know, sure.” So, I tried, and then of course, as anyone has done programming, or any kind of work like this before knows, there’s nothing worse than trying to fix someone else’s code. After a while, I was like, “Okay, I can’t do this.” So I had to start from scratch. So I tossed the whole translation away and started over from scratch. It was really a matter of trial and error. I would try different things, and say, “Okay, does this sound good? Does this sound better? Does this somehow convey Stan’s original idea or voice in a way that feels true? You know, this is not a literal translation, but does this little flare actually do the job of recreating for the reader in English the kind of thrill I got as a reader in Chinese?” I stumbled around, tried all sorts of things, and finally, I had something that I thought was okay, and Stan and I submitted it to Clarkesworld, and they accepted it, and I believe that’s the very first translation they ever published. It’s one of the first translated Chinese sci-fi stories published in the contemporary era. There had been translations from the 80s and so on, but nothing really contemporary, outside of academic journals. This was the first time a commercial genre magazine published one of these contemporary Chinese sci-fi stories. We were all super excited. The story got quite a bit of recognition, and it wound up winning a translation award, which made both Stan and me very happy. After that, I said, “Well, you know, this is actually kind of cool.” One thing that we do in the science fiction and fantasy community—which is a small community, there aren’t many of us doing this work—is a sense of service to the community. Many of us try to do something to help the community. Some of us teach workshops for almost no money to pass on the craft to new writers. Some of us try to run conventions, or try to join conventions to allow fans and writers and pros and illustrators and critics to get together to celebrate the genre. I thought one thing I could do is to do more translations to introduce new works to readers here [in the West] that they would enjoy, and to bring in readers for my friends in China. That was really how it started. I did more translations after that, largely out of this sense of service, of trying to make the community more interesting and to connect good writing with hungry readers. structo: And it seems that there are hungry readers. Was it Clarkesworld who did a special entirely on Chinese sci-fi in translation?
liu: Clarkesworld runs a partnership with a Chinese media company called Storycom, whereby Clarkesworld publishes a Chinese science fiction story in translation with every issue. Clarkesworld has been doing this for several years now, and it’s a very successful programme. structo: One thing that I noted in your translation of The Three-Body Problem was your use of footnotes. This is not something that is super common in translations, especially of mainstream fiction, or whatever you want to call it. I assume this was an entirely conscious decision on your part. liu: You’re right. The practice of footnoting is fairly common in academic translations, but it’s not that common in mainstream fiction. Although this is a culturally specific thing. If you were to read, say, a Chinese translation of Ready Player One, the text is heavily footnoted with every pop culture reference explained. As a reader, I appreciate that. I remember, as a very small child, reading Chinese translations of American novels and I thought the footnotes were super helpful. Part of why you read translations is to learn. If there are no footnotes to explain things, then you’re not learning anything. My philosophy is not universally agreed upon. There are tons of readers who also despise having the footnotes, and come up with all sorts of ideas about how the text needs to stand on its own, blah-blah-blah. I simply disagree. They can ignore my footnotes, but I’m going to keep on doing them the way I want to. structo: Is there anything in the actual process of translation that you find to be particularly challenging? liu: I would say the biggest challenge in translation is that you have to balance all the competing ethical duties. We talk about translation as technical art, but the best analogy I have is it’s a performance art. So, as a performer, you have lots of creativity, but you also have certain duties you owe to the composer, and to the audience and to the art of music as a whole, and to your own aesthetic goals and commitments. These things are sometimes in competition. As a translator, I’m in the same position. I have a great deal of creative freedom, but my creative freedom is very much bounded by the original. I owe certain duties to the author. I owe certain duties to the text. I owe certain duties to my new readers—the Anglophone readers—who will read this
translation, but I also owe certain duties to Chinese readers, who read the original. I owe duties to the editor. I owe duties to the idea of translation. I owe duties to power imbalances. We all know the story of Ezra Pound, who created so-called translations of classical Chinese poetry, in an act of colonial appropriation. Somebody who takes a Chinese text and simply recreates it to fit his own idea of what Chinese-ness means, and to further his own aesthetic goals, I don’t think is an ethical way of doing translations. I would have to be careful about combating that kind of historical power imbalance when Chinese works are translated into English. I would have to know how to deal with the legacy of colonialism. How to preserve and protect and defend the voice of the Chinese author, while at the same time not letting that instrumentalist and political concern overwhelm other considerations. So, it’s complicated. [Laughter] I find balancing all these different aesthetic judgements and ethical commitments very difficult. structo: Does that explain why the Invisible Planets anthology came about? liu: A little bit, yeah. I’d been doing short fiction translation for a long while before I was approached by The Three-Body Problem and I made friends and got to know a lot of people really well in the process. My problem is I do these translations, they come out in magazines, but similar to my own short fiction, oftentimes they come out in the magazines, and then they just disappear. No one pays attention to them. So I said, “Okay, well this happens to translated short fiction as well, so if there were a way to put them into a collection so that it’s easier for people to acquire and to see and get an overall feel for the diversity of voices and approaches possible within this genre, written by contemporary Chinese authors, then it seems like that would be a good thing. It would benefit readers so they don’t have to actively hunt down these stories in old issues or in dead links. And it would benefit the authors to find new readers.” So, I put together the Invisible Planets anthology as a way to showcase some of my favourite authors and their stories and to try and improve the discussion of world sci-fi—you know, when people talk about sci-fi outside of the AngloAmerican sphere. We don’t really, as anglophone readers, have a lot of material to work with, because so few translations are done. I wanted to put together this volume to allow people to have something to talk about and to use as actual support for various arguments.
‘We talk about translation as technical art, but the best analogy I have is it’s a performance art’ structo: Let me try and articulate something I’ve been thinking about for a while. As someone who writes and translates from a viewpoint which isn’t the “old white man” perspective, do you sometimes get tired of just having to constantly represent or defend or otherwise advocate for a body of writing, whether that’s from a certain perspective in America [in terms of sci-fi] or through translation? Do you just sometimes feel like you just wanna go home and write? liu: [Laughs] I know what you mean, but I think that’s gotta be true of everybody. I actually think this is universal of all authors, including male white authors, if you want. I think everybody who comes to writing, at least in the modern age, tries to do it in a very personal way. Trying to label them or trying to reduce them to some kind of representation is problematic. Here are my concerns about the way we talk about this. We talk about diversity quite a bit. We talk about the need for diversity and for diverse voices. But oftentimes we seem to reduce this diversity idea into an idea of representation. That is, we need to have one representative from some marginalized group, and that is enough for us to fulfil our duty. And I’m not sure that’s the right approach at all. I think diversity is a collective quality. Which means that you actually have to really be committed to true diversity, which is to get beyond the idea of having one person represent a whole group. And to have many, many, many, many more voices from many, many, many, many different backgrounds, and have them all. It’s not like if you have one translated book you’ve somehow satisfied your diversity quota. You should have many more translations so that the collective difference between everyone can be seen. The uniqueness of every vision can be discerned and appreciated. I’m a big believer in trying to push for
diversity in the sense of it’s not just one, but many. When you are a member of a marginalized group, there’s always going to be a tendency to market your work by suggesting that it is somehow representative of a whole group, that it is somehow speaking for a whole group. But I don’t think I care about that. I don’t care about other people speaking for me, and I certainly don’t care about speaking for other people. I simply wish to share the full diversity of our global culture. To the extent that a lot of the works that I love that have been very influential on me, are not well known. Then I feel joy in promoting these works and trying to promote everyone’s understanding, because it’s beautiful and it’s a treasure. Why would I want to hoard it to myself? I wish to share it with everyone. That’s how I feel about it. But I don’t feel, particularly, a strong impulse to speak for anyone. I feel that’s very deeply problematic, and it goes into areas of identity policing. Which people have been trying to do for good and bad reasons for centuries, especially in recent decades. I’m very much opposed to any kind of identity policing. I want to do my own thing and have other people to do their own thing. And in that lack of a unified narrative, that’s where true diversity is found. structo: Is there any particularly interesting writing happening that you’re amazed that people don’t know about? liu: I guess one thing that I found to be particularly fascinating is the idea of new narrative forms. New ways of telling stories that are made possible by the advance of technology. The whole idea of hypertext fiction has been going around for decades without really breaking through, but we are starting to finally see some examples of hypertext fiction that are actually working. One area in where I’m seeing a lot of interesting traction is the idea of text fiction. That is, stories told in the form of text messages back and forth between fictional characters. I mean I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of these on BuzzFeed among other places. I think they’re just amazing as an art form. If I were an academic this is the kind of thing I would be focusing my research on, because I can imagine myself just getting absorbed into this. I think this is a fascinating development. I can’t wait to see how this is going to turn out. You can hear all kinds of complaints about this sort of thing, people saying, “Oh this is just so symptomatic of our age where we have no attention span to read a novel or even a story, we have to read text messages and get our desire
for narrative fulfilled that way.” I don’t agree with that at all. My feeling is, this is great. There’s a lot of complaint about young people and their obsession with technology but the truth is, the generation that grew up texting and tweeting and Instagramming, and Snapchatting and so on and so forth, have written more and read more written language than any human generation in the history of this planet. They are more erudite and literate than any other generation in the past. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. I think they are simply showing where language is going to evolve, and it’s great to see new narrative experiments catering to their tastes. It’s great. structo: As a coder you’re not tempted to give it a shot? liu: I am. [Pause] My feeling is, the future of creativity is collaboration between AI and humans. I mean, we’ve seen that in the visual arts and music already, where generative algorithms and so on have made a huge difference. We haven’t seen that as much in text so far, but I don’t think that’s gonna be the case forever. I can’t wait to see the day where humans collaborate with AI to tell stories that haven’t been told and can’t be told, and utilize techniques in a more efficient and powerful way than anything in the past. That often is spoof in a kind of fearful concerned way, but most of us now take photographs by relying on the AI in our phone. We don’t adjust the settings individually, we just trust that the auto mode will do the right thing, and if you actually look into what these phone cameras do, you would be amazed the amount of machine learning and artificial intelligence and neural networks that are going on under there to produce what is considered a good photograph. It’s incredible, and that’s just in the West. But in other countries you have machines that will automatically quote-unquote beautify images, and some of these effects are extremely aesthetically interesting when you’re looking to think about theories of aesthetics and creativity and what it is these machines are really trying to do. So, if we’re used to that, I don’t see why we would find an algorithmically enhanced story, or even algorithmically generated with minimal human intervention to the story, [to] be fearful. I think it’s going to be fascinating, and interesting and quite cool, frankly. structo: You could not possibly have generated a better segue for something else we’re going to have in this issue. I was at a workshop a while ago with an artist called Tivon Rice, who uses photogrammetry to create 3D models in a VR
environment. He then uses machine learning algorithms with bias towards the vocabularies of certain authors to tell stories about that environment. liu: Incredible! Not even planned.
Find out more at kenliu.name
Alexa Winik Dragging Leviathan Every night was expanded, pelican-throated. Every morning the same. Mind leaking into mythos my father became a brazen traitor’s head on a spear of syllables the ‘process’ slow & his bed a shoal where memories stirred: the walleye-trawl of his childhood sudden eyeshine blur of holes in the frozen lake augured out where he taught me to hook my own minnow – down the gaping mouth then up through the stomach back just like that – How I stared into the yellow bucket & said nothing, unlike his friends who’d now begun to yodel daily about how God could heal. & language could be biblical battle royale while again I said nothing. But I watched as he listened & prayed knowing he was trying to be more perfect than his father just as I was trying to be more perfect than him. Still every night he said he walked into his dreams like some alpine Argonaut. Trepanned the snouts of giant muskellunge. & every morning was the snag again of the reel tighter harsher as we began to understand that the belly of the fish was nothing more than a jaundiced pond the yellow smell of swallowed whole. That a daughter who loved him could be no more an impervious ship. & the jolt at the end of the line was meant to be felt in both our hands.
Structo talks to
ast September I found myself in a former anatomical theatre nestled at the top of a 15th-century tower in Amsterdam. It was a suitably strange place to host a workshop on worldbuilding. Forming part of the Coded Matter(s) Terra Fiction series, over two days a motley group of artists, writers, coders, designers, scientists and others were tasked with constructing narratives of an imagined eco-future. One of the tutors was Tivon Rice, an artist based between the Netherlands and the USA. He talked about his work on algorithmic storytelling and we had the chance to experience one of his recent pieces in virtual reality. My notes from that day had the word ‘interview’ scrawled in the margin in all-caps. Two exclamation marks. We talked a few months later at his studio in Den Haag. — Euan structo: The workshop was all about developing a coherent environment of place and of people behind a story. And it seems that, from a different point of view, that’s what you’re doing in your work. Is that fair?
rice: Yeah, I’d say so. I mean, I come from a visual arts background, and my work tries to figure out how things either emerge or disappear from our visual field. And that’s a very broad way of looking at images, contemporary images and those sorts of things; but, at some point, an artist can either document the things they see emerging or receding around them, or can start to imbue those things with some sense of narrative as well, narrative that colours the things that you see happening out there in the world. It seems to me that all artists are worldbuilders in some sense. And recently I’ve thought about this a bit more consciously in my work—about how to bring fiction, or how to bring speculative realities, into my work. structo: Can you describe the piece that you brought with you to the workshop? rice: Sure. It began before I arrived here in the Netherlands about a year and a half ago. I was spending a lot of time on Google Earth, like I imagine many people do, to virtually explore a place before they actually go there. And you get this top-down view of the city you’re about to live in, the space you’re about to inhabit, the places you might explore. And that gives you one particular, virtual sense of a place, but you never really have a true sense of the place until you touch down, walk around and get your eyeballs on an environment. So, when I
got here, I biked out to the dunes and saw this row of Atlantic wall bunkers that are still there, these sort of persistent, accidental monuments. And of course, you think of Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology and these sort of typologies of those concrete structures. But I was struck with this idea… or this sense, this feeling, that I wasn’t really seeing them directly or I wasn’t seeing all the political and historical implications around them. I was seeing them more through the lenses of cinema, fiction, and all the different stories that had been built around those structures, fantastic or truthful or what have you. Again, I was struck with the sensation that I’m seeing these for the first time, but I’m really not seeing them for the first time. That feeling stuck with me and I was trying to figure out—in what other ways does that type of sensation manifest itself in our contemporary, media-filled environment? So, it made sense for me to reimagine those landscapes through the lens of another media. Literature was what came to mind, and specifically J.G. Ballard’s landscapes. These are quite often defined by physical materials: concrete structures dominating a character’s existence; or the post-war landscapes which appeared in much of his writing; or natural disasters, which certainly factored into his work. That’s where I made this connection between those Atlantic wall structures, my perception of them, and the writing of J.G. Ballard, which has certainly influenced the way I think about them, or the way my natural vision of those structures is processed in my mind. So that was the starting point. Of course, there’s a lot more to what the artwork actually is, but that’s how I came to it. structo: I’m going to attempt to explain how it felt to be in that. It’s a [virtual reality] in the sense that you have a VR headset and some headphones, and you have freedom of head movement, and you’re very slowly taken on a walk around one of these bunkers, at least in the section that I experienced. It’s at a pace which, I think you mentioned at the time, is slow enough that the people who do get a little bit nauseous; it’s a pace which they can deal with. The bunkers are quite big and monolithic. And while you’re going around you can hear ambient sounds and then it’s kind of punctuated by what you would assume is a reading from J.G. Ballard. It’s very atmospheric. But it’s not actually the writing of J.G. Ballard in the sense that you might think. Perhaps you can give a brief summary of what is actually happening there.
rice: Sure. It is indeed Ballardian because it is the output of a recurrent neural network and a machine learning system that was trained on the complete works of J.G. Ballard. I plugged in the raw text of everything he ever wrote into this machine learning system and it creates a model that tries to emulate his particular vocabulary, his punctuation, his writing style, and where he goes with certain descriptive images and these sorts of things. That’s a starting point for the system. The system was actually a master’s thesis project at the University of Toronto created by one of my collaborators named Yukun Zhu. He and I were introduced through the Google Artists and Machine Intelligence project, that was originally set up in Seattle and aimed to connect working artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, with those who have a more technical understanding of how these AI things work. So that’s sort of how I got started with it. But the process of actually using the system is quite interesting as well, and I’ve been able to draw a lot of connections with what I described earlier about our own natural perception, and relating the things that we see to the things that we know. That’s kind of how the system works, in a way. So, once it’s been trained on—whatever—the complete writings of Ballard, for example, the next step is to show the system an image. And I of course showed it images of the bunkers. I flew a drone over each of these five bunkers, and photographed about 150 images of each one, from all these different angles. And back at my studio, I reconstructed 3D models, or photogrammetric scans, of each of the structures. The textured models look quite photorealistic, but they are scenes that I can then dive into and turn around and zoom into on the computer, almost like I can make cinematographic decisions about it after I’ve left the beach. And those were the images that I showed to the text-generating software. Once that system, called Neural Storyteller, sees those images, it creates some very simple captions. The things that we would maybe call our first impressions of a place. What are the materials I’m seeing? What is the shape of this scene? “A concrete structure surrounded by grass”, or “the ocean ends next to an old building”, or something like that. It first generates these very essential captions or ideas about the image. And then the neural network starts to work on those very short segments, turning them into longer, more hallucinatory imaginations of what might’ve happened or who might be residing, what sort of narrative might be unfolding in these places. That’s the part of the system which becomes biased by the J.G. Ballard machine learning model. That’s where it starts to skew the language towards phrases that he might have used.
structo: Something I had briefly talked about in the chat with Ken Lu was the idea of writers working with algorithms, whatever that encompasses. And you didn’t just run the machine and press print and then put it up in a gallery. You worked actively with the outcomes from the system in terms of editing and rearranging. What was that process like? rice: I think this is an essential decision. And you mentioned this idea of just pushing “print” and printing whatever comes out, the good or the bad or the glitchy. That’s certainly one strategy, especially since artists and programmers are just understanding the shape of these algorithms, of these systems. I think this kind of proof-of-concept or demonstration of the system is quite valid—to let these things run in real-time and see what comes out. And you might look at the work of Ross Goodwin who’s another Artist and Machine Intelligence collaborator working with these types of real-time systems. He lets his cameras look out at the world and then, on a little ticker tape, a machine intelligence stream of consciousness tells us what it sees. That’s one strategy with these systems. But, in my work, I’m interested in understanding the impression that these texts leave me with, or the impression that a visual scene leaves me with, or the impression that the output from an artificial intelligence system leaves me with. I felt that this was a very important moment for me to reinsert myself into the loop, creatively or artistically. This tends to be my current strategy. So, when I read the output from the system, I can see how Ballard is influencing it. I know Ballard very well, to the point that when I went to the bunkers for the first time, I kind of self-narrated my experience in an internal Ballardian voice. Now, when I see that tone of writing come through the output from Neural Storyteller, I reach for the highlighter. And then when I see it not working, I put that in another bin—a possibly interesting bin of texts that emerge when the system starts to repeat itself or it starts to lose its train of thought. I categorize these types of outputs and, depending on what I want my final project to be, I then choose the things that are extremely Ballardian or these things that are interestingly glitchy or these moments where it repeats itself. I think that the errors are also interesting and create their own vocabulary parallel to that of Ballard’s. Along these lines, I also start to see where the system really starts to show itself, where Neural Storyteller shows itself. I’ve done a number of other projects with this system where it wasn’t trained on Ballard, where it was public
‘At times a strictly Neural Storyteller voice peeks through, and it’s a very strange one’ documents or a different author. And, of course, you can compare the outputs and see where it’s much more like Ballard or much more like Philip K. Dick or much more like city planning documents, but at times a strictly Neural Storyteller voice peeks through, and it’s a very strange one. structo: What is that voice? rice: That voice was trained on something like 10,000 novels from 16 different genres. At the University of Toronto, where it was developed, they created this large book archive that became the very initial training set for Neural Storyteller just so the algorithm knows how English operates, how sentences are structured, how punctuation should work, and this large underlying data set is apparently necessary to have some cohesive output. Then you have this much smaller set, the Ballard set, the training bias, that can throw it off in another direction or skew it towards that particular author’s style. But the underlying style peeks through every once in a while. If describing a building, it will use these same turns of phrase about approaching a structure or going underneath a structure. I only started to see these patterns by using this system a lot, by giving it a lot of images and watching it grow with different training sets. In that sense, it starts to feel like watching a child learn how to speak on its own. You give it things to describe, you see how it responds, you hear it repeat itself, you watch it fail. Coming back to my artistic relationship with these systems: it’s a combination of understanding the input that I’ve given it—an image, a large set of text, or some other data—and then trying to make sense of the output on many different levels. Understanding the output as a response to the inputs, or as a function of the underlying structure of the algorithm and then, ultimately, trying to bend it towards what I want the tone of my artwork to be. Do I want the tone to be cryptic and sort of abstract or do I want it to very specifically talk about
some invisible subject, some character that seems to be emerging from all this text? structo: And for the artwork we talked about, the Ballard, can you break down where your time was spent in making it? Or were you working on more than one thing at a time? rice: Yeah, it was all quite parallel. I’d say that it’s very easy to go out and fly a drone; it does all the work for you, in many ways. So that was really done in one day and the photogrammetric reconstruction of the bunkers was done in a couple of days. After that, the visual content was established. Then, the Neural Storyteller process is much more arduous. It’s a much longer process, for a number of different reasons. I mean, the machine that’s running [the models] takes hours to start up, to technically embed these language models into the system. But I think more time consuming than that technical aspect is parsing the text afterwards and understanding what sort of patterns and what sort of atmosphere is being generated in the language. What will the viewer’s experience of these texts be? I didn’t know this was going to be a VR thing from the beginning. I thought it might be an installation: one video projection, and a room filled with the “voice of Ballard” creating a kind of immersion through the relationship between images, space, and sound. But again, I came back to the experience that I had when encountering those bunkers for the first time. My body was there, I looked at them, but my head was back in all of the different media, all the different movies that I had seen those things represented in. And I thought that layer of virtuality that was going on in my very real encountering of the bunkers was something to shine a light on, or something to reinforce through the display of the work. It was my first VR-based artwork. I’m still very critical of the medium for both personal and, I don’t know, institutional reasons. But I think it’s interesting to try to sort of poke and prod at media like that and figure out where it allows for some critical reflection on the images we’re seeing and the experience we’re having with it. structo: Your most recent piece was a physical sculpture combined with observations from the storyteller. The idea that you can get a piece of code to
speak in the voice of a dead author is an interesting, complex one. Do you ever think that that the author should be left alone? rice: Yeah, like how algorithms trained on Rembrandt paintings can now create new, passable Rembrandts. In my work, I’ve specifically chosen authors who either directly wrote about human-machine hybrids, or who I think would have been conceptually interested in this kind of digital afterlife: Ballard, Burroughs… structo: You mentioned Philip K. Dick before. rice: Yeah. Totally. So, these impassioned or critical arguments about an author’s work or a painter’s work being assumed by one of these systems are good conversation points when discussing AI. They help us wrap our heads around why we care very deeply about human creativity and originality. But there are also other systems—political, economic, social—that machine learning and artificial intelligence have their fingers in that are maybe a lot more problematic or more troubling. structo: Just a little bit. rice: I’m not trying to diminish your question or anything like that, but I think artists can work with the problematics of these systems in a way that’s thought provoking, but also hopefully creative at the same time. [At the Waag workshop] Klaas Kuitenbrouwer was talking about his speculations around terramorphing and workshops he’s conducted on that topic. And he said there was always this danger of participants falling into Black Mirror territory time and time again, because we think of these systems as being so insidious and so pervasive and so potentially world changing, in a bad way. But he described how he tried to skew his participants towards a white mirror model. How can we have these same speculations about the future through a more creative or positive lens? Not to distract ourselves from the importance of criticality, but as a counterpoint to that. structo: Criticality needs exploration otherwise you have no data, right? rice: If you ask the question: what can we do with these things? The potential to go in a number of directions is worthy of exploration. In one case, I try to
show these systems images that I believe those authors would have had something to say about. And that’s probably cherry-picking or a very easy thing to do. I show Ballard images of World War II bunkers because I know he wrote about those. And I’m trying to tease out those things that I know are there. The second project you talked about: that became a video installation, focused on a high-rise building just north of Den Haag. [Ballard] wrote a lot about those types of architectures. So again, I’m trying to tease those ghosts out of the larger corpus of his texts and see what comes about. When I’ve done workshops and we brainstorm about what other language models would be interesting to train, I started with a kind of anonymous set of corpora, which focused on Seattle city planners and public comments on urban development. They had a different type of character because the data was aggregated and it didn’t point to one particular person. And then we think about specific styles: what if we just choose science fiction or off-the-shelf romance schlock or something like that, regardless of author, what would that evoke? Again, sort of these aggregated bits of language. Then as you start getting towards specific authors, it becomes, I think, far more about our relationship with their body of work—knowing what to expect from it, and knowing how to identify the unexpected outputs that might come out of it. Then, an entirely different category would be living authors and at that point I think you are probably in territory where you should contact that person and propose working with them and the software in an agreed-upon collaborative mode. I feel like I’m collaborating with these dead authors in some way and I think this is exactly what any artist working with large sets of specific data should be asking themselves. What am I really collaborating with, or who am I really building a relationship with? The same researchers and curators at Google who invited me into this collaboration (and supported and funded it) put on at least two or three of these very high-gravity workshops and presentations. The first was in San Francisco about three years ago called “Music, Art & Machine Intelligence”—a twoday symposium about the technical and epistemological implications of these technologies. And the speakers were outstanding. Timothy Morton led a panel discussion focused on the critical potential of these technologies, Ian Cheng was there talking about his real-time simulations, that was wonderful. structo: It’s an interesting time to be working with these tools.
rice: Yeah. Not being a writer myself and not having a formal background in using language to put a world together, I normally use physical materials and visual components to build the worlds in my installations or video works. It is very empowering to get a little boost from an artificial agent, in a way, to get pushed towards a different medium. It was almost like I could start to see the logic of the media that I have been using for a while—the logic of the visual media, the time-based media that I’ve used in my work in an inter-textual relationship with literature. Maybe I create images based on things that I’ve read or films that I’ve seen; and now, with this system, I’m generating texts by feeding it images or by cultivating images that I think might evoke something important or interesting. It doesn’t make me a good writer. The system doesn’t inherently make me a writer, but it brings me to these inter-textual connections between images, sounds, the voice, writing, literature, and cinema. And that’s something I’m just figuring out through this work. It was very nice to have the little thought experiment that [author and Waag workshop speaker] Pippa Goldschmidt brought to the workshop. Her tool was to give us a fragment of a sentence and then we would write for a minute just off the top of our head, to build upon that fragment. And that felt to me a lot like Neural Storyteller, which begins with a very simple phrase and then it hallucinates these much longer sentences. But then it reminded me of what I was doing when editing the Neural Storyteller text as well. I’m given a full page of potential gold and potential garbage from the system. Then it’s my own internal process that decides what of that is useful, what of the gold is useful and also what of the really glitchy, problematic language might be potentially useful. So again, thinking of this as a tool for an artist who may not have worked in that particular medium: it launched my interest in working directly with language. structo: It almost gives you a structure to work within or to start from. rice: Yeah. And it also felt like it was demonstrating how other pairings of media might work as well. In some sort of higher-level observation of it, you’re really deciding about what an input should be, how that input should be processed, and how you relate to the output. And that could be anything... that doesn’t have to be turning images into text, that could be any number of different inputs, processes, and outputs.
I remember studying, in my visual arts background, the cut-up technique of Brion Gysin and how Burroughs used this writing strategy. I studied this not as a writer and focused less on the actual writing that came of it, but rather the strategy of it: studying this approach to input, process, and output that could potentially be applied, to images, or the way a film is put together in time. So, using this as a way of studying strategic relationships with content is maybe a far more essential thing that I’m doing rather than specifically trying to emulate a writer or something like that. structo: Are you working on your next thing or are you taking a breath? rice: I’m still assessing the second Ballard project, which I think, in a narrative sense, is more successful than the bunkers project. It’s trying to put an invisible character in a space as opposed to reciting all these very ambient, very atmospheric observations about a space. So, over the course of a year, the former Dutch statistics building was being demolished right along the railroad. Anybody travelling from here to Leiden, or Schiphol or Amsterdam got to observe this very slow cinema, the observable erosion of this building that took over a year to accomplish. It was actually really nice to talk with people at the project’s opening. Because it was a very recognizable building, dozens of people come up to me like “That’s the building that I’ve been watching from the train!” It was a very bizarre visual situation that stood out for me, like watching someone trying to tear down a building with a plastic spoon. And the cinematic nature of a windowed frame in the train car, moving past this scene made me think—that is a very Ballardian scene, this is like the aftermath of his novel Highrise. So yeah, I’m still processing how it turned out. This may be the last Ballard piece, this may be the last Neural Storyteller piece because I think there are newer language-based neural networks that might start to give me different, more diverse output. But certainly, I don’t think it’s my last piece that tries to take data as an input and see what a machine learning system can give me as an output. structo: It seems like a great deal of fun as well. rice: Yeah, it is. And it’s always good for me to see how people experience it as well. I can tell myself I’ve got a pretty cohesive strategy for making these works,
A still from Environment Built for Absence, 2018 (image courtesy of the artist)
but ultimately it comes back to how people perceive them. If I show a new artwork that used this technology but let’s say I don’t foreground the tech—the “machine learning” or the “artificial intelligence”—if it was well-received and successful, does it matter or is it really important to say in the by-line or on my materials lists: neon, video, computer-generated text? What switch does my use of AI turn in the viewer’s head to perceive the piece differently? Do they perceive and engage with it differently because it turns their imaginations on to what’s possible through these emerging systems? Or does the tech detract from the work, if it was a strong narrative in its own right?
Find videos and more at tivonrice.com
Siobhan Harvey Orphan Gifts We always return to our ancestors. See our grandmother’s veins rise on the backs of our hands. See our mother’s face in every mirror, every reflection of the dead. But it’s the mystery ones, our lost and unloved ones erased from birth certificates – fathers, grandfathers – whose lives, shadow worlds, we inhabit. Their names are ‘Unknown’. They christen space obscure as fog. They saturate us with words silenced by our questions, so we remain unanswered by the tongues they gave us. Starched bodies imprisoned in photographs they might be, but we’ll never see them, never touch their past selves slight as a fingertip’s caress. Exposure to dementia, arthritis and chronic heart failure: these are the ill-written bequests doctors will announce on their behalf. Instead we turn to our orphan gifts – our soul-nourishing need to write about the unfulfilled lives of characters; the vessels which we, born landlocked, helm with an ease worthy of ancient discoverers; the way we venture upon horses – saddles our second skins – wildly, as if somewhere within we learned to ride. Here, unbidden, are such confessions as go unheard by us. Yes here, unbidden, are the war cries of absent ones who found peace in us.
Ghosts All the buildings that never were. All the novels unwritten. All the dead bodies of portraits never realised. The soul mates never kissed. Like smoke, this loss – an invocation of what if, what if … – lingers in the air as our ghosts seep into the walls where they live. Sometimes fleeting glimpses snatched at midnight when we’re sleepless, they haunt dark corridors where photographs hang or rooms where, old wallpaper, they decorate the heart of the home. But mostly, they are lost to us, like old lovers who promised us eternity rings which never materialised. Or they are like friends we never communicate with, never forgive. Still our ghosts exist for what is and what remains, their disembodied faces watching over us from pictures of prize-giving, childhoods gone and funerals as we drift through our thin lives, as if they’re illusory, as if they’re real.
Contributors S H Binney is Scottish, British, and American. She moved to Norwich in 2012 to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and hasn’t left yet. Her short fiction has been published by Elbow Room and Egg Box, among others, and she edits for Seam Editions, who publish creative-critical writing. She reads and writes with people for a living, working in libraries, schools, community groups, a prison, and a university.
2014, and in 2015 spent two months at Toji Cultural Foundation, South Korea. He is the winner of the 2018 Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction, was shortlisted for the 2017 London Short Story Prize, and selected to take part in ‘Platform’, an artist development programme run by Spread the Word, London’s Writer Development Agency. www.erghargh.com
Jennifer Coralie lives in Melbourne, Australia. She writes, makes art, and mourns her lost country home where she used to collect pieces of old china and look for forgotten gardens. Jennifer is over-educated, over-age, and underemployed. She remains undeterred.
Christine De Luca lives in Edinburgh. She writes in English and Shetlandic, her mother tongue. She was appointed Edinburgh’s Makar (laureate) for 2014– 2017. Besides several children’s stories and one novel, she has had seven poetry collections and four bilingual volumes published (French, Italian, Icelandic and Norwegian). She’s participated in many festivals in the UK and abroad. Her poems have been selected four times for the Best Scottish Poems of the Year (2006, 2010, 2013 and 2015) for the Scottish Poetry Library online anthologies. She particularly enjoys collaborating with composers and musicians.
Ed Cottrell’s work has previously appeared in Neon Magazine, Brittle Star and Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. He was a winner of Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Escalator programme in
Chris Di Placito lives in Fife, Scotland, with his partner and their new baby. He has a BA in Visual Communication and Digital Publishing. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in
Phil Clement lives in Bristol and works as a project editor on education books. He has contributed writing and reviews to the New Welsh Review, Open Pen and Neon magazines among others and can be found on Twitter @aclementphil.
magazines such as Litro, BULL, Ink In Thirds, and STORGY. Claire Dyer is a poet and novelist from Reading, Berkshire. Her latest novel, The Last Day, is published by The Dome Press. Her previous novels are published by Quercus and her poetry collections are published by Two Rivers Press. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. Claire also teaches creative writing at literary and writers’ festivals and for Bracknell & Wokingham College, and runs Fresh Eyes, an editorial and critiquing service. Her website is www.clairedyer.com. David Frankel is a writer and artist. His short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines and shortlisted in a number of competitions. He also writes nonfiction exploring memory and landscape, which has been published in various journals and publications both online and in print. Siobhan Harvey is the author of five books, including Landfall (Kathleen Grattan Award winner), Cloudboy (OUP, 2014) and Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). Recently her work appeared in Arc (Ca), Asian Literary Review (HK), Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, Burnt Pine (US) and Griffith Review (Aus), and is forthcoming in Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and
Invisibility (Cyren, US) and More of Us: An Anthology of Migrant Poetry (Landing). She’s a Lecturer at AUT’s Centre for Creative Writing, won the 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction, US) and was highly commended in the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. Cameron Alexander Lawrence’s poems appeared recently in West Branch, The Florida Review, The Shallow Ends, Image, TYPO, Forklift Ohio, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Ruminate, and elsewhere. He keeps busy writing and painting in his home studio in Decatur, Georgia, where he lives with his wife and four young children. Alanna McArdle is from London. Her poetry has been published in Shabby Doll House, Prelude Magazine, Poems in Which, and For Every Year, among others, and featured on the poetry podcast Poets In Bed. Her journalism and non-fiction has been published in Pitchfork, Crack Magazine, Noisey, and Broadly, among others. In 2018 she was shortlisted for the Desperate Literature short fiction prize. Mark Russell’s publications include Spearmint & Rescue (Pindrop), Shopping for Punks (Hesterglock), ℵ (the book of moose) (Kattywompus), and ( اthe book of seals) (Red Ceilings). Other poems have appeared in Shearsman, Butcher’s Dog, Blackbox Manifold, The Scores, Poetry Salzburg, and elsewhere.
Christina Seymour is the author of When is a Burning Tree (Glass Lyre Press 2018) and the chapbook Flowers Around Your Soft Throat (Structo 2016). Her poems also appear in The Moth; North American Review; Cimarron Review; The Briar Cliff Review; Wick Poetry Center’s exhibit, Speak Peace—American Voices Respond to Vietnamese Children’s Paintings; and elsewhere. Her work received the Russell MacDonald Creative Writing Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and the AWP Intro Award. Elissa Soave is a Scottish writer whose work has appeared in Open Pen, Gutter, Glasgow Review of Books, New Writing Scotland, and others. She is currently writing a novel which explores the themes of manipulation and revenge. She has also written two short plays. @elissa_soave Alexa Winik grew up in the Canadian border city of Windsor, Ontario, and currently lives and writes in Edinburgh. She holds an MLitt in Women, Writing, & Gender and an MFA in Poetry from the University of St Andrews where she also served as Poetry Editor for The Scores. Her work has been published in The Scores and The Poetry Review. Find her on Twitter @aj_winik.
stories poetry interviews essays & such this issue for spring & summer 2019 ÂŁ7
Issue 19 features 96 pages of remarkable fiction, poetry and essays, including the winning and two shortlisted stories from the inaugural De...
Published on Apr 9, 2019
Issue 19 features 96 pages of remarkable fiction, poetry and essays, including the winning and two shortlisted stories from the inaugural De...