|Writer Catherine McNamara|
Catherine’s launch for Pelt and Other Stories will take place at 7pm, Friday 13th September, at the Big Green Bookshop, Unit 1 Brampton Park Road, Wood Green, London N22. She says, 'Do come and celebrate with red wine and raw tales!'
Take it away, Catherine:
When I opened the envelope containing the review with my first published short story, I was a young mother with a baby in a basket on the floor of our house in Mogadishu. A long time ago; many lives past. Like most of us, my first published stories were set in my childhood home, Australia. Over the years I’ve published stories set in Somalia, Belgium, Italy, Ghana ... even Mauritius! Are our short stories allowed to follow our lives? And do they risk being lesser because we are visitors wherever we reside?
The short story written about a borrowed land is doubly difficult. Context must be present but it can’t be shouted on the page. The work must be steeped in Otherness, with no showing off of the writer’s intricate knowledge. Action must occur according to the clefts and indentations of the land in question; the light, the pace, the colour of a town. People, it is said, are all the same, but there are differences in the way we walk, we utilise time, we look at the sky, the things that are pressing for us. An authentic work must convey these differences with no tangible effort, and the reader must be swept along towards a shift in knowledge, hardly given a second to consider.. Hang on, isn’t she from Australia? What’s she doing pretending she’s a pregnant Ghanaian woman?
And yet, even pitch-perfect success with this type of ‘ventriloquism’ brings its own risks. Read this harsh criticism of Nam Le’s breathtaking debut collection ‘The Boat’, which gives voice to Colombian gangsters, a New York painter, a Japanese girl, an Anglo-Australian with a sick Mum on the NSW coast: “But while his ventriloquism is impressive, Le’s stories often feel like a set of genre exercises that precisely imitate their sources without transcending them. I once heard an offhand critique of The Boat that more or less sums up its flaws in one line: ‘that book is the work of an A student.’” (link: Emmett Stinson, The Sydney Review of Books)
An over-polished and soulless exercise. Quite crushing to read this about a book that I found mesmerising. If Le has failed in this reviewer’s eyes, could that mean it is better to produce a work that plunges towards an interior truth, but remains a little ragged around the edges?
Or worse, should writers stay at home and write only about what they know?
For those of us who are rootless, living in another language or culture, these options will always be tricky. You will be challenged as to your rights over the subject matter. You may be accused of appropriation, inaccuracy, exoticism. And yet the critic above uses a key word in his analysis. It is what every story must do, it must transcend place, race and form. It must transport and transform that all-important person, the reader.