Narcotics, love, and Colombia: An interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee (2014 IPPY Gold Medal Award winner) talks to Heather Vasquez from the University of Central Florida about her new novel, Juventud.

Juventud tells the story of young Mercedes Martinez, who seeks the truth about her father, Deigo, a wealthy Colombian sugarcane plantation owner with narcotrafficking ties. When she falls in love with Manuel, a fiery young activist with a passion for his faith and his country, she awakens to the suffering of the desplazados who share her land. Following one tragic night, Mercedes flees Colombia for the United States to a life she never could have imagined. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia seeking the truth, but discovers that only more questions await.

Headshot_Vanessa Blakeslee

In the acknowledgments, you mention that the story of Juventud began at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What inspired you to place the story in that specific time period in those places?

Fiction isn’t born in a vacuum. The initial inspiration for Juventud had struck me in college. One night I sat among a group of young women, all of us sharing stories about our first loves. One of them, an international student from Colombia, told us that her first boyfriend had been killed—shot to death by a masked gunman in a nightclub. We listened, riveted, as she described how he died in her arms at sixteen. But even more disturbing was her admission that she couldn’t be sure, but she suspected her father might have arranged for the young man to be killed—the father hadn’t approved of their relationship, and was determined for his daughter to leave Colombia and finish her education in the United States. Oddly enough, she admitted that in time she’d come to see how her father’s reasoning was correct even if his methods were not. Had she stayed in Colombia, married the young man and not sought a higher degree at a well-reputed school, her life would have turned out much differently—her opportunities and worldview greatly limited.

The student and I didn’t stay in touch. But her story haunted me—the lover’s bloody end on the nightclub floor, the father’s insistence that she find a better life in the US. For her to even suspect her father of carrying out such a ghastly deed—what must this man be like, and how did she maintain a relationship with her father, if at all? For years the questions simmered in my imagination before I put a word to paper. But I finally did, in my first semester at Vermont College, and a voice emerged. My professor urged me to explore where it might lead. That voice belonged to Mercedes.

 

How did the place and time influence the story?

In studying the sociopolitical events of 1990s Colombia, a certain period of tumultuous unrest in early 1999 caught my attention, in the southern city of Santiago de Cali. This, then, was the backdrop that I inevitably had to set the dramatic questions against, for the personal conflicts of the characters to emerge from place and resound thematically. So from early on I had a distinct vision that I was striving to capture.

At first, Google searches and Wikipedia sufficed to lay the broad strokes. I chose Santiago de Cali as a backdrop—a lesser-known, southern city and hotbed of violence in the late 1990s. As I turned up more websites about human rights, guerilla activity, and so forth, I uncovered a series of events in early 1999 that ideally worked as a backdrop to propel the characters’ motivations—the ELN’s hijacking of an Avianca passenger plane, the surge in threats, bombings, and assassinations of public figures and peace advocates including humorist Jaime Garzón and later, Archbishop Duarte. I ended up condensing the timeline of Part One to a specific five months.

From early on in the process, I understood that I had to include the Church if I was going to be true to the time and place. Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; the very philosophy behind the guerilla movements in South America is that of Marxist Liberation theology. This ideology interprets the Christian faith from the perspective of the poor, and in the early days of the guerilla movements, the 1950s and 60s, the members adopted Marxist teachings in their advocacy for social justice. When I came across the ELN revolutionaries kidnapping the congregation of La Maria Church in a wealthy district of Cali, I knew this had to affect my characters somehow. La Maria Juventud and its leaders, Emilio and his impassioned brother Manuel, were born.

 

Juventud_CoverThere are specific details about Colombia, FARC, and the ELN. You mention sources you used to in your acknowledgements. While you were researching, what information and facts were you most surprised to learn about?

The most surprising and disturbing facts I learned concerned the paramilitary atrocities of the 90s and early 2000s. In the US, we have been led to believe that the FARC and ELN guerillas were the most brutal forces to contend with, the “enemy” so to speak – when in fact the “paras” carried out just as many terrorist tactics, if not the majority. Yet the mainstream media remains silent on these privately-funded, unofficial “armies” who carry out the dirty work of politicians, the wealthy and multinational corporations against the poor. I was also keenly aware that many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, maybe the FARC, but little else. In Juventud, even though the characters are fictitious, Manuel’s idealism, Diego’s protectiveness, and Mercedes’ suspicions are all informed by real events.

 

What else did you do to learn more about Colombia? Did this influence you on a personal level? For example, do you now have a favorite Colombian food?

In addition to academic texts, I consulted primary resources: online footage of peace marches in Colombia in 1999, news articles from that year, archived interviews with notorious paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño Gil from before his death in 2004. These placed me even more fully in 1990s Colombia. On a personal level, I was also in the midst of shifting away from the fervent Catholicism I’d been practicing in my mid-twenties because I couldn’t reconcile my personal stance on women’s and gay rights with the Church’s doctrine, but found myself reluctant when it came to Catholicism’s stance on social justice—a cornerstone that I believe Christianity, but especially Catholicism, very much gets right. I’m a huge proponent of “faith in action,” in that respect—the only way spiritual principles make sense to me is if they are lived out in practice. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When the time came to title the book, the editors and I decided on Juventud, which translates to “youth” in Spanish. “Juventud” speaks to our tendency in youth to see the world in black-and-white rather than shades of grey. But it also captures the ongoing humanitarian crises in South and Central America—the tens of thousands of children illegally crossing the US border and the drug-related massacre of 43 students in Mexico in 2014, even as the Colombian government and the FARC move toward a lasting peace. Fiction can show readers how events effect people like Mercedes, Manuel, and Diego, in ways that a news article can’t.

As for food, you can’t beat a homemade arepa.

 

How did your research influence the story? Did you make changes to what you had planned as your learned more about Colombia?

Research largely shaped the story, especially early on, and while I don’t feel that I over-researched, there was a lot of material that ended up getting cut. For instance, I knew Diego Martinez had to be complex and not just a one-dimensional villain, so I needed him to have a legitimate occupation but with room for some shady activities to go on. I guessed he might own a plantation, and I researched the agriculture of the Valle de Cauca region. Growing sugarcane was a perfect fit. In research, some of what you learn informs the narrative directly—for instance, in the scene when Mercedes first accompanies Diego to their cane fields and he partly confesses; there she briefly describes his farming operation. But often, a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. I’ve spent more hours than I like to admit watching YouTube videos of alpaca shearing, only to have scrapped those sections.

At one point, in trying to figuring out what would lure an adult Mercedes back to confront the individuals from her past, and mainly Papi, I tried to write a parallel plotline of her as an FBI agent. I read the official FBI training manual, researched different possible career paths for her—embassy police, DEA—all of which felt out of my purview and ability to pull off convincingly. I wrote about a hundred pages, all of them horribly weak. And in the end my research revealed that for someone with Mercedes’ background, having any ties at all to a family member who’d been involved in narco-trafficking, even if she wasn’t herself, would have eliminated the possibility of her having any kind of U.S. government career with top-secret clearance. So that steered me toward making her more of a scholarly expert and researcher who ends up doing more of what I’ll dub, “the D.C. bounce-around”—working in government for a time and then the private sector, in this case, finding her way into journalism.

But that failure wasn’t for naught—I ended up mentioning that this was why she didn’t end up someplace like the FBI, and the research on top secret agencies and their joint task force operations with other nations’ special forces units certainly helped when it came time to build Asaf’s character swiftly and effectively. So I’m afraid mostly the alpacas lost out!

 

There are influences of the Catholic and Jewish faith in Mercedes’ life. How would the story have changed if she didn’t have those? 

The novel would be enormously different, absent of the religious context—I suppose I might have invented a way for Manuel to lead a secular human rights’ organization. I imagine I’d have mined the thread of the desplazados more, or the narcotrafficking, rather than touch on the sexual coming-of-age and women’s rights subplot. But leaving out the Catholicism, certainly, wouldn’t feel true to the culture nor historical fact. The Church has very much been involved in all facets of Colombia’s civil war—civilian and guerilla.

The Catholicism created a conduit for me to bring in the Jewish thread to the book—I’m always looking how to complicate threads further to create more contrast and meaning. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if her mother is not only American but Jewish, and if her mother is on an identity-quest of her own, and if Mercedes eventually goes to visit her in Israel? And then we have the contrast between another decades-long conflict, that of Israel and Palestine, and the Colombian civil war. So in the latter half the book expands outward to reflect not just the issues of social justice and violence in South America, but the global conflicts still raging today. The common ground between Judaism and Christianity is unearthed, but also the divide between the religious and secular. Not to mention the resonance of what Mercedes has escaped from, after she learns the history of her maternal Jewish family prior to World War II.

I suppose I also could have structured the narrative differently—say, three third-person narratives, one following Mercedes, the others following Manuel and Diego—but I was more interested in Mercedes as an embodiment of the global citizen of today, the highly-educated Millennial who inhabits several different identities and cultures, and how she navigates the paths available to her. Education and access to birth control are enabling women around the world to make strides and command their destinies for the first time in human history; I found myself more invested in giving a female protagonist full rein, seeing how her roots in a conflicted country leave their imprint on her emotionally as she otherwise achieves success.

Mercedes’ story is ultimately about how our perceptions very much shape our desires and decisions, not always to our own best interest. Inevitably we are molded and driven by what happens to us in our youth and how we perceive those events, a perspective which is limited and therefore flawed, yet unbeknownst to us at the time, and often for many years afterward. Through Mercedes, the novel reveals how we grapple to make sense of these formative individual experiences – and how as adults, we have the opportunity and means to gain clarity, responsibility, and forgiveness, and ultimately understand and transcend our past even if it will always remain part of us.

 

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut story collection, Train Shots, won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and has been optioned for a feature film. Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in the Green Mountains ReviewSouthern Review, the Paris Review Daily, the Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others.

Juventud is available for purchase from Curbside Splendor Publishing.

 

 

What inspires you?

A tired enough question at face value, but an important one to ask yourself if you’re an artist of any kind. What is it that gets your fire burning? What do you surround yourself with? What motivates you, educates you, informs your attitude to life? Some inspirations stick, others come and go. So what’s inside you right now?

Arnold_Böcklin_-_Die_Toteninsel_-_Google_Art_Project

Favourite books, authors, artists, works:

Ken Ward: I’ve just finished Perfidia by James Ellroy. In nearly 700 pages not a line, not a word is delivered without juice. Reading his novels are like watching the fight scenes from the Adam West Batman series – Zlonk, Kapow, Bif.

Carmel Purcell: Currently, I am reading What Westerners Have for Breakfast by John McBeath. It captures the experience of being in Goa (in India) perfectly. The last book I read was Tea with the Taliban by Ian Robinson. It was brilliant. I love reading books about the unique experiences people have had in challenging places.

Ashlee Poeppmann: I love reading Fiction, especially Science Fiction and Magic Realism. Currently reading Volume Four of Philip K Dick’s collected Short Stories. But how can you ever choose just one favourite book? I’ve been staring at my bookcase to find an answer. But each book has a different feeling and memory inside it for me. Harry Potter will always have a space in my heart. It was the first novel I read, and I grew up with the characters. I remember saving my small amount of pocket money each year for the next book. I was recommended Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel in High School by my English Teacher. It now has a special place in my heart. On my first day at University, I was recommended The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Carter took another slice of my heart.

Sean Macgilliduddy: Currently reading Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By and before that Anna Funder’s The Girl With the Dogs. Recent exhibition I wish I’d seen but didn’t – Banksy’s Dismaland in the UK.

Elise Janes: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien still fascinates me: lyrical, strange, brutally intelligent, and funny. Not quite sure how he got it all so right. Author/journalist Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats, among other things). I heard him speak recently and he’s a rare thing, an honest, humorous thinker not afraid to show us up for what we are. (Plus his name rhymes with Ron Swanson). The compositional advice of Stephen King, Strunk & White, Van Gogh, and Robert McKee. And always, Martin Scorsese. Storyteller, genius, auteur, an original in every sense of the word

Conan Elphicke: Well, I’m a middle-aged man so my current books tend to be about all things military – anything by Max Hastings or Antony Beevor. Which is shockingly embarrassing. I might as well wear slippers and a cardigan, smoke a pipe and grow dahlias. My all-time favourite books include Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Also the better work of Douglas Adams and Clive James. That doesn’t sound very high-brow so I better throw in Joyce, Goethe, Rimbaud and Dostoevsky, though I’ve never read a single work of theirs and probably never will.

Jane Abbott: It’s safe to say I have no new favourite books. No sooner do I finish one and think, ‘Wow, that’s going to the top of the list,’ than another takes its place. (Although I have to say, it’s hard to beat McCarthy’s The Road.) Like most people, I do have some old favourites, which I read as a child and still re-read every now and then, as a kind of reminder: Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Tolkien (of course), Stephen King’s The Stand, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. These preferences are nostalgic as much as they are admiring.

 

Current inspirations:

Ken: Kyle Chandler’s portrayal of Coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights. His sense of integrity, hard work and personal responsibility make me confront head on, and without aversion, who I am and how I want to be.

Carmel: I am inspired most by people my age who carry themselves professionally and have done very well for themselves so early in life. It inspires me to work hard at the things I love.

Ashlee: I wouldn’t consider myself a poet, but I love reading poetry. Some of my favourite poets are unpublished – I usually find them online. One blog that’s inspiring me this week is ‘mythpoetrynet.tumblr.com’, which is dedicated to poetry inspired by mythologies.

Sean: Spring.

Elise: The visual art of Arnold Böcklin. An Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco. Anything written by Tennyson. And the sea, as ever.

Conan: My wife and kids.

Jane: Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, not least for their endurance. Also Charlotte Wood, Elena Ferrante, Robyn Cadwallader. I think it’s interesting that they are all women.

 

Quote or idea to live by:

Ken: When you speak from the heart, you speak to the heart.

Carmel: Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.

Ashlee: What is important in life is life, and not the result of life. – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Elise: Stuff your eyes with wonder. – Ray Bradbury

Conan: Mindfulness and resilience.

Jane: The biggest challenge we face is shifting human consciousness, not saving the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving, we do. – Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez

 

An All Hallow’s Read

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Allhallowtide, Night of the Dead, whatever you call it and however you think it came into being one thing’s for sure, it’s become a majorly lucrative chocolate-selling and movie-renting business. This year why not save your consumerist fervour for Christmas and instead stay home for a quiet evening read, with a flickering candle and a glass of brandy or something. What to read, you ask? We have just the thing.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thus, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act i, Scene 2.

The_King_in_Yellow

Thus begins one of the oldest, strangest and oft-referenced works of speculative fiction to grace our shelves, as mysterious today as it was when first published in 1895. The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, and if you’re nodding your head now it’s because you recognise the title from the first season of True Detective, where the themes and symbolism were referenced as a kind of otherworldly red herring to the mystery pursued by Rust and Marty.

The intertextuality doesn’t end there. Chambers’ collection itself is hung on the influence of a play about the titular King, which is continually referenced throughout the stories but never fully presented. The play is said to bring insanity or a grim fate upon those who read it. Besides Chambers’ stories themselves being a great read, this elusive structural gimmick is pure squirmy genius.

And its heritage is vast. Chambers’ Yellow King was influenced by the classic works of Ambrose Bierce, Théophile Gautier and even Poe, and went on to be a foundational inspiration for most of the significant genre players of the  twentieth century, including H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein and even Stephen King.

All this over a creepy fictional play that never actually existed.

The best news is that it’s now public domain so you can read the entire text online. Enjoy.

Because of Marty McFly

If you were born in or around the 80s chances are Marty McFly featured large in your childhood. Something about the combination of his wide-eyed wonder and teenage recklessness made Marty the kind of guy you’d want to hang around. The many harrowing experiences he endured simply endeared him to us further, as he saved himself from oblivion several times and repeatedly outwit the many iterations of Biff Tannen via the assistance of a handy hoverboard or some mad guitar skills, or the inevitable pile of manure.

In fact many of you would still count the Back to the Future trilogy among the best movies ever made. I know I do, not simply for the sheer entertainment value, which is significant even thirty years on, but because the films spoke intimately and intelligently to the sense of adventure and personal triumph that we all crave, making them truly timeless in their appeal and also their relevance.

Back-to-the-Future-2

The movies had a vast impact on popular culture, with the crazy inventiveness of the narrative spawning references wide and varied from hiphop tunes, to presidential addresses, to the emergence of 80s skateboard culture. And the mild DeLorean was never the same again.

In honour of this very great of days, 21 October 2015, I’d like to acknowledge the linguistic contribution of Back to the Future to our modern vernacular. Here are fifteen things you now say because of Dr. Emmett Brown and his silver DeLorean.

Great Scott!

Manure! I hate manure!

Nobody calls me chicken.

Whoa. This is heavy.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 mph…you’re gonna see some serious shit.

Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?

The time-travelling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women.

You’re the doc, Doc.

What happens to us in the future? Do we become assholes or something?

I foresee two possibilities. One, coming face to face with herself 30 years older would put her into shock and she’d simply pass out. Or two, the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe!

I’m your density.

Well, that is your name, isn’t it? Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.

It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Happy Back to the Future Day, everyone.

Elise Janes

Marlon James Wins the Booker Prize

Snaps for Marlon James, the first Caribbean to win the Booker Prize since V. S. Naipaul won in 1971 with In a Free State, and the third in a row of winners who have not been Irish, English or Indian.

James’ win should put a smile on many a rebellious face, much like the subject matter of his book A History of Seven Killings, which covers the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in the 1970s and traces the cultural fallout through the following decades, employing a surprisingly diverse array of narrative voices.

Jamaica’s history is rich in music and poetry, and James’ novel was inspired by this legacy, however he is notable for being one of the first truly successful Jamaican novelists.

Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian author who taught creative writing in Jamaica, wondered why all good Caribbean poetry came out of Jamaica, but all the good novels were from Trinidad. He observed this interesting difference between the two cultures:

If you put up a statue in Jamaica, the next day everyone pass that statue in silence. With a kinda solemnity about it. Because, you know, it’s a serious thing. That’s how I find you Jamaicans. You take things so goddamn serious. But if you put that same statue up in Trinidad, the next morning people deface it. Or they throw garbage at it. That’s how we are. You can’t put anything up on a pedestal in Trinidad.

from The Guardian

Now doesn’t that sound culturally familiar, fellow Australians? Apparently our natural bent toward toppling pedestals makes us prime novel-writing pasture.

Another encouraging fact that may appeal to those emerging authors out there: James’ first book was rejected by 78 publishers and agents. Hooray for number 79.

man-booker-prize-2015-short-listed-books

2015 Booker Shortlist:

  • Marlon James (Jamaica), A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Tom McCarthy (UK), Satin Island
  • Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), The Fishermen
  • Sunjeev Sahota (UK), The Year of the Runaways
  • Anne Tyler (US), A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Hanya Yanagihara (US), A Little Life

Previous Winners:

  • 2010: Howard Jacobson (UK), The Finkler Question
  • 2011: Julian Barnes (UK), The Sense of an Ending
  • 2012: Hilary Mantel (UK), Bring Up the Bodies
  • 2013: Eleanor Catton (NZ), The Luminaries
  • 2014: Richard Flanagan (AUS), The Narrow Road to the Deep North

 

 

A List of Ones

 

There’s something bizarrely satisfying about assembling a list of titles around a suitably flimsy concept, in this case the number ‘one’ in honour of our anniversary month. Here follows a chronological tenner of novels with the word or number ‘one’ in the title. Surprisingly, the resultant assemblage features a variety of genre and style spanning half a century of literature, featuring many authors and novels frequently listed in reputable ‘best of’ collections. Who’d have thunk it? Enjoy.

 

One Lonely Night (1951)
Mickey Spillane
Genre: Noir
Distinguishing Features: Communists, misty pavements, and a trash-talking private eye.

Some place over there I had left my car and started walking, burying my head in the collar of my raincoat, with the night pulled in around me like a blanket. I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink. If there was life behind the windows of the buildings on either side of me, I didn’t notice it. The street was mine, all mine. They gave it to me gladly and wondered why I wanted it so nice and all alone.

 

Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Ray Bradbury
Genre: Dystopian
Distinguishing Features: Book burning, nostalgic imagery, and thought-inducing prose.

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

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The Once & Future King (1958)
T H White
Genre: Arthurian legend/fantasy
Distinguishing Features: Chivalry, swords, and the triumph of human nature over systemic power.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn.”

 

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (1960)
Dr Seuss
Genre: Children’s Literature
Distinguishing Features: Brilliant rhymes, delightful turns of phrase, the desire to be a kid again.

From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!

 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
Ken Kesey
Psychological drama
Distinguishing Features: Nurse Ratched, consistent banning from highschool reading lists, an Academy Award-winning movie.

If you don’t watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.

 

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Genre: War fiction
Distinguishing Features: Soviet brutality, prison camp oppression, and a lesson in mental survival.

When you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who’s warm.

 

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Genre: Magic realism
Distinguishing Features: Heartbreaking beauty, a fanciful history of Colombia, a certain rebellious twisting of the laws of reality.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

one hundred years of solitude

 

The Power of One (1989)
Bryce Courtney
Genre: Bildungsroman/historical fiction
Distinguishing Features: Boarding school woes, South African racial tensions, overcoming tyranny with your mind and some hard-acquired boxing skills.

In each of us there is a flame that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it burns within us, we cannot be destroyed.

 

Once Were Warriors (1990)
Alan Duff
Genre: Quasi-autobiography
Distinguishing Features: State housing, domestic abuse, and Maori dispossession.

Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything.

 

Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)
David Sedaris
Genre: Essays/autobiography
Distinguishing Features: Ironic humour, melancholy reflection, larger than life characters.

After a few months in my parents’ basement, I took an apartment near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of these things are dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations.

 

Elise Janes

 

Museums far from the madding crowd

Few cities in the world do museums in quite the way London does. Its most famous examples – The British Museum, the Natural History Museum and so on – are among the city’s major tourist attractions. But it is possible to enjoy a different flavour of London by visiting its legion minor museums, which seem to exist solely as a means of expressing how peculiar Britons and their interests can be.

Many of these museums require, shall we say, a very keen interest in the subject matter; while others are, as Samuel Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, ‘worth seeing … but not worth going to see’.

However, the following five are among the few that are worth a visit.

Foundling Museum                                                      

Located in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, the Foundling Museum (foundlingmuseum.org.uk) is built on the site of the Foundling Hospital – the world’s first children’s charity and its first public art gallery.

The Hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. It had taken him 17 years to raise the funds.

The artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel helped Coram by making the Hospital one of London’s most fashionable venues. Handel held annual benefit concerts there while Hogarth encouraged the leading artists of the day to donate work. These paintings are still on display in the Museum’s charming 18th-century interiors reconstructed from the original building.

Poverty, widowhood, desertion by the child’s father and the shame of illegitimacy were common reasons why women faced the Sophie’s choice of keeping their babies and subjecting them to a life of poverty, or leaving them with the Hospital, which offered the child a better life. On opening, the Hospital was overwhelmed by demand and, to cope with the numbers, was forced to use a simple lottery system.

On admission, names were changed to protect mother and child, but it was possible for a mother to reclaim her child using a token that matched the one she’d already provided. Some of these are on heart-breaking display in the Museum’s small but fascinating permanent exhibition. They include personalised fabric, coins, playing cards, jewellery and medals.

By the time the Foundling Hospital closed in 1954, about 25,000 babies and children had passed through its doors.

Dickens Museum

Dickens writing Desk

A short walk from the Foundling Hospital, is the Dickens Museum (dickensmuseum.com), located in a Georgian townhouse at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. Then in his mid-twenties, Dickens moved there with his wife Catherine, Charles Jr (the first of their ten children) and Catherine’s sister Mary Hogarth who died in the house a few weeks later. Her death affected Dickens deeply and had a morbid influence on his subsequent writing.

Dickens rented the house from 1837 to 1839, just as his fame was peaking. It was at 48 Doughty Street that he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The museum is exquisitely curated and very evocative. Many of the objects were owned by Dickens himself (such as his desk and chair, and shaving gear).

Whether you’re interested in Dickens or not you would have to be among the living dead not to find the museum captivating, and it is within striking distance of the British Museum and the rest of what has been dubbed Museum Mile (museum-mile.org.uk).

Guards Museum

Much smaller than the Army Museum in Chelsea and certainly the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, the Guards Museum (theguardsmuseum.com) is ideal for someone whose interest in military matters is low to moderate and who happens to be in the area – that is, Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace. There is no faulting its location.

The museum is devoted solely to the British Army’s five Guards regiments – the Coldstream, Grenadier, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards – who form most of the Queen’s Household Division. When you watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, it is these guys who are doing the changing.

This compact museum is well laid out and consistently interesting, covering as it does all 360 years of the Guards’ existence. As such it provides a pocket history of the British Army. Objects that captured my attention included a packet of now crumbling chocolate distributed by Queen Victoria to all British soldiers during the Boer War, and an assault rifle smashed to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Old Operating Theatre

There are dozens of medicine-related museums in London (see www.medicalmuseums.org) but probably the best example is the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, which more than any other museum I’ve been to, benefits from its unique setting.

The museum is housed at the top of a spiral stone staircase in the garret of a deconsecrated church near London Bridge. The church was built in 1703, its garret specifically intended to store herbs for the apothecary of St Thomas’s Hospital.

In 1822, an operating theatre was installed in one half of the garret. The theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe, and was built in the attic because it adjoined the hospital’s women’s ward, and because it was possible to create a large overhead skylight to aid the surgeons in their work.

For the 40 years it was in use, none of the operations performed there involved anaesthetic beyond alcohol or maybe opium, which is why it was separated from the ward by a soundproof wall. Tragically, antiseptic was not used either – Sir Joseph Lister introduced such procedures to the medical world in 1865, three years after the operating theatre closed. The mortality rate was horrendous.

The operating table, which remains in situ, is made of wood. The majority of cases were amputations, and in the absence of anaesthetics surgeons focused on speed. A skilled surgeon could remove a limb in less than a minute.

The other half of the garret contains a fascinating if macabre display including surgical instruments such as amputation saws, as well as leech jars and scarification equipment. The place smells pleasantly of carbolic, which is on display but was never used at the time. The illustrations of people being held down while their limbs are sawn off adds to the atmosphere and the immense gratitude you feel for having been born 150 years after the theatre was closed.

Staff talks bring the innocuous wood-panelled space of the operating theatre to gruesome life so it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one – check the website (thegarret.org.uk) for details.

Anaesthesia Museum

In a similar vein, so to speak, is the Anaesthesia Museum, which is housed in the basement of the Association of Anaesthetists (www.aagbi.org) in Marylebone. Though the size of a modest kitchen, it has more than 4000 objects, some of them dating from 1774, and many of them available for inspection in drawers with labels such as ‘Endotracheal tubes’, ‘Laryngeal masks’, ‘mouthgags’, and ‘tongue forceps’.

It is a well-curated museum permeated with what might be the faint smell of anaesthetic. That said, it is more the story of anaesthesia than the museum itself that captured my imagination. For instance, the first anaesthetics were ether (1846), chloroform (1847) and nitrous oxide (1868). None of them were ideal. Ether is highly flammable, chloroform’s possible side effects include death, and nitrous oxide wears off too quickly.

Other obscure London museums …

The following museums might also tempt you, though bear in mind their opening hours can be as eccentric as their contents – check their websites for details.

  • The Optical Museum near Trafalgar Square has a collection of 18,000 spectacles and vision aids including 18th- and 19th-century spy glasses and telescopes, eye baths, and models of diseased eyes.
  • The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill offers 12,000 items, mostly comprising food packets from the last century or so.
  • The Twinings Museum, opposite the Old Bailey on the Strand, is more a small shop than a museum, though it was on these premises in 1706 that the tea company was founded.
  • The Dental Museum in Marylebone is about the size of a dental surgery, and provides a disturbing insight into life before dentists were properly trained and equipped.
  • Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich is necessarily large given the sometimes enormous exhibits on display. An interest in artillery is a prerequisite.
  • If you enjoyed the Dickens Museum, you might also want to visit Dr Johnson’s House near Fleet Street, or Benjamin Franklin’s House near Charing Cross, or Keats’s House in Hampstead.
  • The Garden Museum in Lambeth has a small collection of old gardening tools, including eccentricities such as a glass cucumber-straightener and a walking stick with inbuilt pruning saw for gentlemen gardeners.
  • The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell offers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
  • The Musical Museum in Brentford is devoted purely to self-playing instruments. An excellent place to learn the difference between the orchestrion and the orchestrelle.
  • The Chartered Insurance Institute Museum in the City of London is concerned mainly with fire insurance and firefighting.
  • The Wimbledon Windmill Museum details the history of the Wimbledon Windmill (in which it is located) and windmills generally. Ideal for windmill enthusiasts.
  • The London Sewing Machine Museum in Balham covers the history of both domestic and industrial sewing machines.
  • Greenwich’s Fan Museum claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to handheld fans, which comes as absolutely no surprise. If you find yourself there trying to admire its 3500 antique fans, it is possible that you’ve become bored with London, and therefore with life.

 

Conan Elphicke

 

Before Sunset

Few movies have the boldness to be both utterly romantic and painstakingly realistic, holding our emotional response in some sort of excruciating stasis between hope and despair, made all the more raw by the immensely empathetic nature of the lives and thoughts and feelings of the two central characters. This movie came out in 2004, a year before I first visited Paris, and now the two are inextricably linked in my mind. I cannot visit Shakespeare & Co without imagining that heartbreakingly casual reconnection between Jesse and Celine, nine years in the making.

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In an age when it is all to easy to give audiences exactly what they want, Richard Linklater has become a master at the slow burn, engaging us whole-heartedly in bare-faced dialogue that is at the same time both lyrical and recognisable, carrying us along an ebb and flow of intimacy and smokescreen that seems, if possible, to be even more genuine than our own personal experiences.

Before Sunset is the central movie in a trilogy of exceptional films, each made exactly nine years apart and each one a continuation of a conversation between two characters who seem at the same time made for each other while also unreachably different. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine first meet by chance on a train to Vienna and spend a night walking its cobblestone streets talking life, love and art.

There is no hidden agenda in this movie. There will be no betrayals, melodrama, phony violence, or fancy choreography in sex scenes. It’s mostly conversation, as they wander the city of Vienna from mid-afternoon until the following dawn. Nobody hassles them.

– Roger Ebert on ‘Before Sunrise’

After promising to meet again in six months’ time, we as an audience are left hanging for nine years until we rediscover them as they rediscover each other over a day in Paris, gently edging toward revelations about the questions we desperately want to know: are they married, are they happy, are they meant to be together? The third iteration came another nine years later, in 2013’s Before Midnight, where we discover what has become of them since that fateful reconnection on the banks of the Seine.

Will there be a fourth film in 2022? We both hope and fear it to be so. Such is Linklater’s remarkably uncontrived effect on his audience.

Filmed in long uninterrupted takes that trick us into the feeling of real-time, these movies are dialogue journeys that take us on a winding path through all the beautiful and tragic ideas we have always wondered but rarely voiced.

All three movies make grand use of their European city backdrops, incorporating history and geo-social landmarks into the narrative, making the trilogy that much more beautiful and entrancing. After the first movie, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy joined the production team as writers, adding an indispensable layer of realism to their onscreen relationship.

The movies have consistently scored exceptionally high on IMDB, Meteoritic, Rotten Tomatoes and even Roger Ebert. They are timeless, beautiful, deep and entangling, and you will find yourself revisiting them again and again.

If ever there was a fitting narrative tribute to the phases of the sun as paralleled in the waxing and waning seasons of life, it exists in these three films.

 

Elise Janes

The Exuberant Existence of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist

Henry_Savery_memorial_stone,_Isle_of_the_Dead,_TasmaniaHenry Savery’s life reads like an exercise in over-imagination. From the beginning, it seems, Henry was going to be one of those guys who couldn’t content himself with the confines of a modest existence. In other words, the man who penned Australia’s first novel seemed simply to be born for the task.

Many of you have probably never heard of him, and it would have remained that way had it not been for the minds behind if:book Australia, rather out-of-the-box bibliophiles themselves, who have incorporated Henry Savery into one of their current projects, ‘Rumours of My Death’. In the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Henry himself engaged with festivalgoers through the conveyance of an anonymous author on twitter, one of the many exceptional experiences on offer in this year’s program.

Thanks to these two Queensland institutions, the bizarre world of Henry Savery has been illuminated for us once again.

And a strange man he was. Not one to trouble himself with good business decisions, Henry failed first at sugar-refining and then at newspaper-mongering and turned instead to forging credit. Sounds like any good Wall Street origin story, right? When his business partner turned him in (classic), he tried to flee to America but jumped off the boat and was quickly apprehended. His jailhouse antics served to postpone his court hearing, which was lucky in the end because he was sentenced to hang and was only saved at the very last moment by friends in high places. If there was one key to success Henry mastered, it was having the right guys on speed dial.

After arriving as a convict in Tasmania he managed to secure a position in the Treasury, despite having well proven his inability to manage finance of any kind. Once again, he knew exactly which hands to shake. Here his narrative takes a turn for the political drama, when his wife and son join him in Tasmania and rumours of her affair with the Attorney General lead to bickering between the two. Being the drama-queen he was, Henry threatened suicide. After he was imprisoned for money troubles yet again, the wife took off back to England, and that was the end of that.

Quintus ServintonNot one to pass up an opportunity Henry used his prison days to kickstart a writing career, another activity that was expressly against the law for convicts. His unfavourable portraits of local personages sparked a libel suit, of course, which was soon dismissed and the articles were later collected and published by the early Australian man of letters, Henry Melville. Here’s where Savery pioneers the ethos of the Lost Generation, a whole century before Hemingway was born.

Somehow, he managed to get released into the care of Major Hugh Macintosh, one of the founders of Cascade Brewery of all people, and spent his days writing peacefully on the banks of the Derwent River. Even though he was forbidden to carry on any kind of business, he managed the farm for Macintosh and wrote the manuscript that would eventually be Australia’s first novel: the fantastically entitled Quintus Servinton, published anonymously in 1831.

After a several further brushes with the law and various local VIPs, Henry again descended into debt and resorted to forgery to support his increasing alcoholism. In a fitting, albeit sad end to his dramatic existence, he found himself imprisoned in Port Arthur where he died and was buried on the infamous Isle of the Dead, passing into colonial legend

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And there you have it. What better man to assume the mantel of Australia’s first author than one Henry Savery? It could be argued that he embodied the quintessential author archetype: emotional, irresponsible, impulsive and bold, possessing influential friends, an unstable character, and a knack for obtaining a lot of free time in close proximity to a brewery and a beautiful river valley.

His great contribution to our literary oeuvre may not be any Les Miserables or Huckleberry Finn, but it is no less worthy of our respect, even if only for the remarkable life that brought it forth. Someone should really make a movie out of it, but in the meantime the full text of Quintus can be found here, well worth a look. It is, after all, a national treasure, almost two centuries old and an indelible part of our cultural and artistic heritage.

Thank you, Henry Savery, for your financial incompetence, which bestowed upon us this unique slice of literary history.

 

Further Reading:

 

Elise Janes