Two beautiful books read nearly back to back is a treat. The first one was John Keene’s “Counternarratives.” The novellas and short stories, set in the early, foundational days of the Americas, are re-told from various, black perspectives with precision and grainy, gritty magic. The precision of the language, without its being overwrought, it’s insoluble quality, this is what gets me about Keene's writing. Two stories especially shook me. The first, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” is about an artist born as a slave-girl. A footnote in history (literally, her story is one long footnote), she sneaks moments to draw and to paint, on walls if there is no paper, and the act of art-making is as an exorcism to her, and she is good at what she does, and the world will never know it. The second, “The Aeronauts,” still confuses me - its hope and its energy, with an intelligent protagonist who’s also young and makes mistakes and finishes up by rising up into the air. I’ll have to go back to it at some point.
The second book was also a collection of novellas and short stories entitled “Love in a Fallen City,” by Eileen Chang. One of the foremost writers of Japan-occupied China, I had never heard of her until, tired of white, male writers, I picked the book up at BMV on Bloor Street West. I started reading it with very low expectations (as happens when you've just finished such a good book) but then what a treat, to want to sit and read more, to want to know the end, and all the way through to recognize yourself within it. That language and culture and religion is no barrier to the depth of emotion we feel and the reasoning behind the decisions we make - we need more of this thinking right now more than ever. We need reading books that pull us out of our comfort zones, and our languages, and genders, and time periods.
Chang’s prose is like holding onto small, fluttering candies inside of your mouth, and sucking until the color red has turned to white, then sucking some more, until it turns to some moon-white translucent shadow of its earlier shade. When you’re finished with one, and you swallow the last small, cracked bits of it, you’re both satisfied and sad.
Most poignant to me were her stories about men. In “Jasmine Tea,” we see how hope turns to despair when our expectations aren’t met, and how, in those times, hatred is cast out onto those who have shown us the most kindness.
And in “Red Rose, White Rose,” a man holds back, gives up on love, not once but twice, to become the idea of the man he thinks that he should be, which of course, brings him no happiness, only resentment, frustration, and irritation as he starts to grow old. I identify with the last story, especially now, in my late 20’s. I’m doing the unintentionally hard work of looking back on my past decisions and I see every looming fork in the road, can see where each possibility might have been different. If I had gone here, instead of there. If I’d said yes to this, instead of that, or no, or been more this and less of that. Did I make those decisions soundly? Or were they born out of fear? Were they based on an image of who I wanted to become, an illusion, in a way? Or (as I hope) did I have some inkling of an idea as to what was best for me, even as I stumbled in the dark, strobe-lit room of my early 20s?
These are just musings, of course.