May 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My interview with Lisa Ross on Uyghur shrines in the desert is at the Los Angeles Review of Books- thanks again to her for answering my questions in such a thoughtful manner.
April 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
March 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a post on the London Review of Books Blog about turning the news into computer games, including Endgame: Syria and one on cotton picking in Uzbekistan.
March 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a review of Sven Lindqvist’s The Myth of Wu Tao Tzu up at the Los Angeles Review of Books
February 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a short post on the Uzbek government’s ban on Valentine’s Day up on the LRB blog. There is also a ban in Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where Valentine’s cards and celebrations are banned on the grounds that the day is a Western import that goes against their society’s values and traditions.
The Uzbek government’s alternative has been to suggest that February 14th be used to celebrate the Moghul Emperor Babur’s birthday; Tamerlane, his great-grand father, is already frequently invoked by President Karimov. Ever since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been attempting to construct a nationalistic narrative of Uzbek culture and history. One of its main vehicles for doing this has been the variety performances that celebrate Independence and Navro’z (a festival with Zoroastrian roots which marks the spring equinox). However, just as few people seem to pay much attention to these gala occasions, so it seems unlikely that this year’s added invective against Valentine’s Day will have dissuaded many young people from finding ways to mark the holiday.
January 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a short piece on the LRB Blog about the Tibetan self-immolations, of which there have been almost 100 since 2011. Click here to read.
September 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
September 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
September 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My essay on Chinese factories and corruption is in the latest issue of The Dublin Review, along with an interesting piece about being a fake priest in Japan. I originally wrote this as the middle section of my LARB piece, but it ended up breaking free from that and hopefully works fine on its own.
The DR is one of the few magazines still interested in publishing longform pieces about foreign countries that aren’t based around conflict or suffering. As such, it deserves our support. A 4 issue subscription costs £36.
I’d also like to thank the gone, but not forgotten, and very much missed Scottish Arts Council for helping to fund the trip to China that led to the LARB piece, the DR piece, and the afterword of The Tree That Bleeds.
August 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My piece on two of my former students is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and features kidnapping, a cow’s vagina,’Peter Burger’ and the house of wasps. I may, perhaps, have burnt some bridges by writing this piece- in which case, dear bridges, I’m sorry. There was so much kindling I could not resist.
You can see accompanying photos here.
August 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My review of Ford’s lastest novel Canada (spoiler: I liked it) is in the new issue of Edinburgh Review (no.135) along with poems by Benjamin Morris and an essay by Ryan Van Winkle, two gentlemen that are well-known to me.
Canada by Richard Ford. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9780747598602 £18.99
Richard Ford’s seventh novelis a curious hybrid. His early novels (A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck) were sparsely written exemplars of the dirty realism promoted by Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, and focussed on characters who, through poor luck and judgement, found themselves in desperate situations that built to an act of violence. The Sportswriter was a conspicuous departure in style and content, shifting the action to suburban America, and the dreamy, middle-aged ruminations of Frank Bascombe. Despite its acknowledged debts to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Bascome’s method of narration had a charm and thoughtfulness that Ford sustained throughout two subsequent novels featuring the character (Independence Day and The Lay of the Land).
Canada’s opening sentences seem to align it with Ford’s earlier work: ‘First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’ This matter of fact statement sets up the structure of the book. In the first part Dell Parsons, a retired teacher in Canada, tells of how his family broke apart after his father robbed a bank; the second part relates what happened to him after his parents went to jail and he was sent to live in rural Saskatchewan. Though those opening sentences are attention grabbing, and promise some genre elements, they also have the effect of removing a degree of tension from the narrative. Both the robbery and the murders, when they eventually occur, are related in minimal fashion. One reason for this is because Dell believes the context is as important as the crime- their family life had both ‘the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous’, and they were inextricable. Ford’s depiction of the family dynamics — the tensions and affinity between Dell and his sister Berner; the mismatch of his parents — persuasively fuses the insight of the elderly narrator with the bewilderment of his younger self, deepening our feeling for how the two children are affected by their parents’ crime.
Despite the subject matter of the novel, the tone of the book is more in keeping with the Bascombe novels. Though this is a tale told by a man in his sixties, the five decades of Dell’s life after the murders are dealt with in only a few paragraphs near the end of the book. Canada is an attempt by a man to understand the most important events in his life, to follow his father’s injunction that he ‘find ways to make everything make sense.’ What makes Canada more than a coming of age story with thriller elements is that Dell admits that ‘making sense’ is not necessarily the same as trying to tell the truth. He excuses his younger self’s lie to his father by claiming ‘it was better than saying what was true’; he justifies another deception (this time of himself) with the rationale that ‘in all ways it seemed better to think that’, the implication being that when we try and remember our past, the truth is not always what is best for us.
Though the novel is stylistically grounded in the realism of Ford’s earlier work, Canada is more interested in how (and why) narratives are constructed. Dell slightly misquotes John Ruskin as saying ‘composition is the arrangement of unequal things’, which perhaps refers to the need for distortion in order for Dell’s tale to make the right kind of sense to himself (he might also have quoted Ruskin’s dictum regarding the process of making ‘things separately imperfect into a perfect whole’). Dell’s memories, and his mother’s prison diary, can only take him so far in his attempt to ‘make sense’ of what happened. As he says, there are ‘reasons that in the light of a later day don’t make any sense at all and have to be invented’.
Dell is constantly interrogating himself, posing questions and providing answers then undermining those answers. One example of this is his use of the idea of ‘destiny’ or fate. In the novel’s second paragraph there is a suggestion that his parents were ‘destined to end up the way that they did’, an idea developed a few pages later when Dell speaks of his father being ‘in the grip of some great, unspecified gravity’. Later in the novel he tries to argue that ‘because very few people do rob banks, it only makes sense that the few are destined for it’, but immediately admits that he finds it ‘impossible not to think this way, because the sense of tragedy would otherwise be overwhelming to me.’ However, he goes on to exempt himself and his sister from fate, claiming they were ‘accountable only to ourselves now, not to some greater design’. By invoking fate in this selective manner, Dell is granting his parents a kind of absolution, perhaps because ‘blaming your parents for your life’s difficulties finally leads nowhere’. At the same time, he is also granting himself and his sister a level of freedom (but also responsibility).
It is this level of psychological complexity — achieved in a prose that is restrained without being sparse — that makes Canada a consistently interesting novel. My main reservation is that Ford is occasionally heavy handed in his symbolism. After the robbery, when Dell’s father’s behaviour seems strange and inexplicable, Ford has him swallow a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. A more persistent irritation is the frequency with which Dell’s interest in chess is recruited as a metaphor. There are also times when Ford’s attempts to mine significance from the ordinary verge on the portentous:
Weather means more than time on the prairie, and it measures the changes in oneself that are invisibly occurring.
Things happen when people are not where they belong, and the world moves forward and back by that principle.
These minor quibbles aside, Canada is a novel that deserves respect for its calm and thoughtful exploration of how we fashion stories about ourselves.
August 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
When I was in Bosnia in May I visited an old hotel converted into a refugee centre during the war.The photos and text of the place can now be seen at the CITSEE.eu website
August 3, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My post on Chinese environmental protests is now up at the LRB Blog.
July 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I have a new piece on the LRB Blog on Chinese propaganda comics from 1950 that some have used to critique modern China. The only thing I’d add to what I say there is that to argue that China has gone back in time is overlook the many achievements made by the PRC, albeit sometimes at catastrophic cost to its people. Despite the apparent similarities, the problems of contemporary China are those of a very different kind of society and system.
July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments
‘The Shamutanti Hills’ is a quest through a fantasy world in which magic and might are required to defeat various monsters and obstacles. This requires good judgement and a lot of luck, the latter generated (or not) by rolling two six-sided dice. Unsurprisingly, the reader fails (and dies) many times and has to start again.
Neither ‘The Shamutanti Hills’ nor its successor, ‘Khare- Cityport of Traps’ were on the school syllabus, despite their excellent spell casting system and well-pitched level of difficulty. During the prize-giving ceremony it became apparent that I was the only winner to have bought such books. The other pupils had purchased encyclopaedias, advanced math textbooks, bilingual dictionaries that required a two-handed grip. When the headmaster- a kind man with a degree in Classics from Oxford –handed me the brightly coloured fantasy books, he was obviously disappointed. Until that moment it had never occurred to my nine-year old self that with rewards might also come expectations.
This episode taught me that sometimes you have to conceal the things you enjoy, and not because they are illegal or immoral, but because they don’t fit with people’s conceptions of you. But I think it also had a hand in teaching me that things we expect to wholly enjoy are often a more mixed affair. Awards require speeches; fondue parties can drag; many cherished fantasies end in discomfort and hospitalisation. I wouldn’t go so far as to label this a depressive or melancholic worldview; but it’s one that definitely looks for the grey in every silver cloud.
This also extends to compliments (especially about my writing). What should be a form of validation just makes me feel awkward. ‘Thank you,’ doesn’t seem an adequate response, but I can never tell what else the person might expect to hear, whether they want me to talk about the story, say something about my work in general, or ask them something about themselves: I have so little idea of which would be right that I might as well roll a dice to choose. Though this is true of any encounter, the person’s kindness makes me want to give an answer they’ll appreciate, and there are just those two or three seconds in which to speak, and if I fail, there’s no chance to start again.
So when I received a phone call informing me I had been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, I was slightly taken aback. Matters weren’t helped by me mistaking the voice of the woman asking if I was Nick Holdstock. I leapt to the conclusion that she was my mother, causing me to say ‘Mum? Is that you Mum?’, which caused equal confusion in her. She mastered hers more quickly and went on to say that all I had to do was decide when to go to Grez sur Loing (the small village 70km southeast of Paris where RLS fellows have been going since 1994). Feeling that more than simple gratitude was required, I replied by saying it was by far the best news I’d had in a really long time. This disclosure elicited a pause, perhaps of pity, for either the sentiment, or that I had been compelled to express it.
Though my answer might have suggested desperation, it was mainly borne of surprise. Like many artists, I’m constantly applying for fellowships, bursaries and grants; given the huge impact these can have on one’s professional life (often determining what you have to do to make ends meet), it is with more than a small amount of expectation that you await the verdict. During this period it’s easy to find oneself performing tricks of mental sleight of hand. You tell yourself that although you deserve it, and are good enough, there are many reasons why you might not get it. You tell yourself that the outcome is at least partly due to chance. Or you do the same as the subject of Lydia Davis’s short story, ‘The Fellowship’, in which two reasons are posited why the subject of the story, year after year, does not get the award: one that the person is qualified, but his/her ‘application is not good enough’; the other that the applicant is qualified ‘but not patient enough.’ If the results arrive, and one is rejected, there is thus an embarrassment of explanations to choose from, certainly no need to doubt that one’s application might have failed for reasons that the subject of Lydia Davis’s story does not even consider.
Receiving a prize or award raises an opposite, almost equally terrifying possibility: that with sufficient time and space you might actually produce something good. Having to work several jobs, or go to fondue parties, is something I have often bemoaned, both for the interruptions to work and my sang-froid (and I cannot write with burned lips). Being given a month in which to do nothing but write and eat cold French cheese was in many ways an answer to my moans. However, after the initial I-want-to-dance-till-I’m-dead euphoria had cleared, there was the worry of whether all the time and lack of interruption would actually make a difference. Perhaps I would be prey to all the clichéd monsters of distraction: the ‘fact-checking’ that leads to ‘research’, the many links that can be clicked, so that one wanders, as if blindfolded, through the great labyrinth that is the Internet. Either that or I’d be fighting my way through Sorcellerie!
It is with some relief, and just as much surprise, that I can report that these expectations (or to be precise, fears) have proved mistaken. During the last 20 days I have mostly been able to work in a steady fashion. Here are some of the sentences:
“Even the word of so many monarchs was not proof enough.”
“They felt like ants, but much faster than ants, these did not march in slow columns, these ants rode on trains.”
“The predictable vibrator was in her bedside drawer.”
“People in the newer districts rolled their eyes and groaned; in the old town, in the midbrain, lights pulsed in applause.”
My productivity has not been due to the lack of possible distractions. I could have followed the river Loing through the woods for hours, pursued the mysteries of the village— who left the decapitated snake outside the bakers?; what is really happening in the ‘vaccination centre’ where lights burn all night? —or indulged in the all too easy business of writing about the foibles of the other artists in residence. But the latter are kind and welcoming people, and it has rained most days. As for the unexplained events in the village, I know better than to pry in rural matters. I have lost too many kin in the dark woods of East Sussex (in their own way as perilous as the Hills of Shamutanti) to think otherwise.
But I think there’s a far simpler reason I’ve found it easy to work here. I hesitate to name it, but it can perhaps be found in watching the angles the swallows turn as they approach their nest. Or in the bullying tactics of the white dove that squats on top of the roof. It’s in the sound of the trees and hearing people joke in languages I do not understand. To say it stems from the removal of pressure is to approach the truth: but I don’t know if ‘expectation’ has an antonym.
May 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My post on Blockupy Frankfurt is now up on the London review of books blog. Thomas Seibert was a fascinating, engaging interviewee, and I’m very grateful to him for talking to me.
April 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My piece on life in Cairo’s cemeteries is up at Egypt Independent.
March 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
These, and other friendly slogans are considered in my piece for The Times of India on China’s new approach to the one-child policy.
January 21, 2012 § 1 Comment
My CV says that I have a Bsc in Experimental Psychology, and an Msc in Neuroscience. I seem to remember going for an interview at Oxford University for a PhD. The latter, I am sure, did not go any further, and probably mercifully. By the end of my masters I was very disenchanted with the practice of scientific research, in particular the way in which research seemed to follow scientific fashion, which is to say, funding. It was also disappointing to find many scientists, both at the start of their careers, and further on, who seemed to have little interest in theoretical questions.
Perhaps this was my own fault for having unrealistic expectations. Scientific research is not cheap, and needs to be focussed on details. But by the time I went to China in 1999, I had stopped taking even a passing interest in science. I didn’t read popular science books. I ignored headlines.
Last week, while logging into my email account, I saw a headline that made me stop, click, then read. Channel 4 had reported that a blood test for variant Creuztfeldt Jakob Disease was now available for use in UK hospitals.
Few people today seem worried about mad cow disease (the popular name for variant Creutztfeldt Jakob Disease). In the late 1990s people spoke of vCJD like it was the new Black Death. All the newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloid, contained harrowing stories of otherwise healthy people developing symptoms that looked like a mixture of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. Memory loss, personality changes, and hallucinations were accompanied by impaired speech, seizures, and problems with movement. Most patients died within 6 months, often of respiratory complications. The fact that vCJD’s symptoms overlapped with so many other neurological conditions meant there was no reliable diagnostic method until a post-mortem examination of the brain could be carried out. Only then it was possible to see the tiny holes in the brain tissue caused by massive cell death (which give it a sponge-like appearance) and to test for the presence of abnormal proteins.
One of the most frightening aspects of the disease was that there was no way to be certain you did not have it. CJD appears in a number of forms: an inherited form; one that occurs spontaneously due to a genetic defect; and one transmitted through the use of contaminated surgical instruments. In the case of vCJD, the cause was thought to be ingestion of beef products infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (hence ‘mad cow disease’). It wasn’t just people who ate meat that had reason to be worried; any food containing meat by products (such as gelatin) was a potential risk. It was a wonderful time to be vegan.
In 1997, when I was still a scientist, I did a research project at the CJD Suveillance Unit in Edinburgh- I wrote about this, and what the availability of blood tests means on the LRB Blog yesterday. It made me briefly feel like someone who actually knows something about science. No doubt, this will pass.
Here is a photo of my supervisor Professor James Ironside, looking incredibly tough.
November 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
There’s a new post on the CITSEE website about human rights abuses sanctioned by Frontex, the European Union border agency. It’s about the terrible conditions for non-EU migrants arrested trying to get into Greece and Bulgaria, and how an EU organisation seems to care more about ‘security’ than basic human rights.
October 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
My piece on the idea of a Yugosphere, and the problems of referring to the region that was Yugoslavia, is now up at Citizenship in South Eastern Europe (CITSEE), which is part of the Faculty of Law at the University of Edinburgh. There’s also lots of other good material on the region, including photo reportage and interviews.
October 17, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I have a post on the LRB Blog about the Occupy Protest in Prague last Saturday. Here’s some video of it as well.
October 4, 2011 § Leave a Comment
My review of Sam Meekings’ The Book of Crows- a novel set in different time periods in China -is in the new issue of Edinburgh Review.
The Book of Crows by Sam Meekings (Polygon)
How did people think and speak a thousand years ago? The simple answer is: we don’t know. Without recorded speech, or transcripts, the best a historian can do is guess. So when we read a historical work of fiction what matters is not so much the accuracy of the characters’ thoughts and language, but whether they seem plausible. Sam Meeking’s second novel, The Book of Crows, attempts to ventriloquise characters from four different periods in Chinese history: a young girl in the 1st Century BCE who is kidnapped and taken to a brothel; a grieving poet in the 9th Century; a Franciscan monk in the 13th Century; and a low ranking civil servant in the early 1990s. What these disparate narrators have in common is that they encounter people determined to find a mythical book that contains the entire past, present and future history of the world.
Meekings is to be commended for his ambition in trying to weave these separate narratives together, not so much at the level of plot, but in terms of parallels between the different narrators. The poet, the kidnapped girl, and the civil servant all share a degree of fatalism, which accords with the ideas of predestination and fate raised when different characters debate whether the knowledge offered by the mythical book is more a curse than a blessing. ‘Rain at Night’, the story of the grieving poet, is by far the most affecting of the different strands. Though Bai Juyi‘s grief for his daughter is dealt with in a mostly oblique fashion, there is a delicacy and sadness to his narration. His discussion of poetry with the crown prince is an impressively nuanced scene that functions as both a literary and spiritual lesson. Though some of his expositions of Buddhist precepts feel a trifle forced (‘…for a while we shared our common experiences of finding solace in the words of the Buddha, in the first realisation of the illusory nature of the world and, therefore, of the self.’), for the most part the voice remains compelling, especially with each section’s epigrammatic closing statement (e.g. ‘I say a sutra that your shoes stay strong, that your palms stay open’).
Unfortunately, this lightness of touch is absent in the novel’s other strands. Though Meekings does well in conjuring the different places and time periods, in the main his characters fail to convince on either a psychological or linguistic level. ‘The Whorehouse of a Thousand Sighs’ is narrated in a faux-British manner that makes it very hard to believe that events are taking place in 1st Century BCE China. People speak of ‘winding us up’, being ‘pretty pissed off’, or say they ‘needed to pee’. When a cook says, ‘And knock me over if it doesn’t look longer than the bloody desert itself’, it verges on Cockney. There is also a general portentousness to these sections, not only in the dialogue (‘She didn’t just buy our bodies: she bought our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our futures’) but also in the sententious tone of the young narrator, who has a frequent (not to say unconvincing) tendency to deliver homilies such as ‘If you don’t speak of things, sometimes they get lost so deep that when you really need them the words are buried beyond your reach’ and, ‘Why can’t we keep our dreams to the present, to what we already have, instead of grasping at the future, the sky, the impossible?’
Another troubling feature about this strand is the almost romanticised treatment of a very young girl being abducted and forced to have sex with strangers. The girl rarely seems frightened, and when it comes to her first time, this is dealt with in a single, cursory paragraph.
The other two narrative strands are similarly plagued. The 13th Century monk’s expressions of prejudice and faith are so predictable that it is hard to retain interest. As for the civil servant in the 1990s (who also employs words like ‘wonky’ and ‘git’), some of his exclamations and statements are utterly implausible. ‘Thank the mighty Politburo!’ is a phrase that belongs only in propaganda. Meekings- who has lived in China –should also know better than to have his narrator say, ‘Some folks these days are nostalgic for the old Cultural Revolution’. This was certainly not the case in the early 1990s- it was far too fraught and recent a memory.
If The Book of Crows doesn’t succeed as either a collection of short pieces, or a novel (even one with a discontinuous narrative), this is partly because the attempt to recreate the thoughts and feelings of people from another time (not to mention another culture and language) must always carry a taint of the contemporary. In order for such characters and their worlds to be convincing, they need to be both linguistically and psychologically unfamiliar, so as to remove the reader from their language, time and culture. Otherwise the historical setting is what Lukacs called ‘mere costumery’. Though The Book of Crows offers us ‘curiosities and oddities’ from ancient China, its characters are too much of the present.
June 20, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I have a new post on the LRB Blog about some footage of the arrests that followed the riots in Urümqi in 2009. The clip shows the fairly brutal treatment of suspects, not just by the police, but by the onlookers as well. It corroborates reports from eyewitnesses who spoke to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
May 31, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I have a new post on the London Review of Books Blog about the Secular movement in Lebanon. Here are some photos from the march on May 15th in Beirut.
May 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I have a new post on the London Review of Books Blog about the sectarian graffiti in Beirut. As per usual, it features an act of stupidity on my part.
February 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Here’s Zizek’s take on the protests in Egypt:
And here’s my summary of In Defense of Lost Causes
January 31, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I have a new piece on the London Review of Books Blog about a vicious South Park-style cartoon that has been banned in China. WARNING: some animated rabbits get hurt.
December 31, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I review some of the main events this year in China at n+1, along with contributions from Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Siddhartha Deb, Eli S. Evans, Keith Gessen, Chris Glazek, Emily Gould, Elizabeth Gumport, Alice Gregory, Charles Petersen, Nikil Saval, Jonathan Watson, and Emily Wit.