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Play Review: Hamlet, at The Lowry, Manchester, UK, Jan 2018, by Pete Kalu

This youthful, bleak, exuberant Hamlet is played with panache and at full tilt. The set design is two parts West African court, one part Basquiat. Live African master drummers bring a stormy atmosphere to proceedings at court. The cast is predominantly black. It’s a black Hamlet. I used to think it’s a bizarre play, Hamlet, because nothing much happens yet it somehow grips. Essentially a young man thinks of killing his step-father for three hours. Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet does not so much illuminate the play as set fire to the stage, and makes transparent  that the play’s grip is all in its psychological narrative – the torment, rage and grief –  the hell Hamlet is trapped in. Imagine having to face your father’s killer every day, and he’s sleeping with your mum too – wrong on so many levels! Paapa Essiedu is a real star turn – I can’t believe he will not go on to be a king of stage and film and I felt privileged to see him perform on Wednesday at The Lowry. I’ll be able to look back and say, “I was there!”  I watched in awe. He seemed so supple in movement and in voice, so contemporary, alive, pacing, sauntering, sharing space with and yet on another plane to the other actors, the characters around him, as he is meant to be – it’s his play.  He’s a young Hamlet.  Essiedu’s vocal control and range, his informal, sinuous bodily flow, his sneering disdain, his juvenile jests – the timing he lands every time, his whiplash wit, his almost wilful beckoning of hot insanity to come take him – anything is better than the cold hell he is in – all feed into this whirl who works the stage like a man possessed, like some Orisha has descended upon him and is inhabiting him. Inspired and tortured. Blazing. Watching his youthful burn and torment, it struck me Hamlet is a play that speaks so well to the hot topic of mental health and young people. Enough about Hamlet.  The stage was blessed with many superb performances. Mimi Ndiweni’s Ophelia is a multi-faceted gem – solicitous with her father, endearing, tender even in her manoeuvrings around Hamlet. Her harrowing disintegration after the death of her father is painful to the max. Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, combines haughtiness and conniving with a surprising warmth. Clarence Smith’s Claudius, the murdering step-father is magnificent – his pragmatist, realpolitik reasoning simultaneously repellent and utterly convincing. The grave scene, done with a West African inflection, is rip-roaringly funny, testament to the impression I got that even the bit part actors such as the grave-diggers had serious acting...

Very short review of The Granta Book of the American Short Story 1992 (republished 1998). Pete Kalu

This is a 710-page collection of 43 stories chosen by editor, Richard Ford. It has a thought-provoking introduction by Ford, that meditates on the evolution of  the short story genre. The intro ends with the rousing declaration that the stories ‘do the best for us that fiction can do. Now, read.’  So read I did. It’s an enthralling kaleidoscope.  How ‘American’ is it? What slowly became apparent to me was this sense of a literary nation back in 1992 confident in its whiteness. The white writers hardly see any other races. The latter are not so much side characters as peripheral or invisible. That was 1992.  It’s taken 25 years for ‘diverse’ people to move from peripheral to side, then to close side. And the progression over the next 25 years I expect will be from close side to central.  By central I mean to be depicted not as exotified beings, nor used to “provid[e] local colour”, as Morrison puts it in her essay, Playing In The Dark,  nor as moral backdrop for white characters, another of Morrison’s barbed apercus.  The point at which we become central will also be the the point at which white readers read black authors as a matter of good civics for sure, but also because they understand the world, including the world of the imagination, is shared by all and not owned by a...

Ekua Bayunu Re:Birth exhibition 500 word review by Pete Kalu

         Ekua Banuyu’s ReBirth is showing at Chuck Gallery, Manchester, UK  from 14th January 2018. There are a number of works in the exhibition, including 2D paintings, plinthed 3D figures, a video installation and a glass cage of curios. I looked primarily at the three women sculpture named Okoh Women Series – see photo.  The three women are dressed in African wax print fabrics. I’ve seen such fabric worn in Nigeria to weddings, thanksgivings and public celebrations. – they are not rare garments, but neither are they workaday clothes. The women look mobile – as if dancing, though perhaps I am influenced by the video installation showing the artist herself dancing. The faces on the three figures are individually distinctive but not individuated: they appear archetypal or ancestral; to my eyes they have in form something in common with the Yoruba Gelede masks I studied when researching for a Carnival band one year. Again, the context may be influential. Around them are other, free-standing figures, soaring from steel-looking plinths that have more classical African mask images embedded in the plinths, almost as guardians.  In contrast, the three women have an aura of modernity. They are celebrating what? I wonder. There are three women. Why three? Two is an intimacy.  Three is a group. So this is an expression of a group, some joy between them or symbolised through them. Then the thing of surprise. They are standing on slate. Welsh slate, to my eyes.  The northern rooftop material. Not only slate, but reclaimed slate – it still has the old holes where the original clout nails were knocked in and subsequently yanked out.  And this does something.  It locates these women in Northern England, slate being part of the vernacular of the Northern English landscape. And I find myself imagining a roof somewhere in the North under which perhaps these women might have danced. And looking at them, I’m thrown to memory – of how often on a grey day in Manchester I’ve been cheered by visiting a West African home, most times not luxurious, often that of someone or some family struggling to make ends meet. But the irrepressible African spirit would be there, under that grey rooftop. It is the reclaimed slate the figures stand on that brings this installation into the Here and Now, that speaks of Diaspora. The slate pulls in all the standard UK iterations and folk memory  of art that evoke a narrow, white Englishness – from Lowry to Constable to Turner – and layers onto this base of grey the three African women’s vibrancy, their colour and vigour.  It is a juxtaposition that brings the piece from technical excellence to wonder, making the art grounded and of its time, yet also radical, and timeless in its beauty. Chuck Gallery is at 166 Plymouth Grove, Manchester M13 OAF and www.chuckgallery.com More about Ekua Bayunu can be found at  http://www.ekuabayunu.com/...

Book Review: Tell No-One About This, by Jacob Ross (Peepal Tree)

These stories are page turners: tautly written tales, concerning subaltern characters, in real crisis, their backs to the wall against some external threat, some foe, their choices harsh. The stories grip. You want to know whether the characters emerge intact from their crisis. And emerge they usually do, though rarely completely intact. The stories are quietly moral – something hovers above them, holding out the promise that there is such a thing as justice, as a social contract, and that when it is broken by the powerful, then the ‘small’ people can and do have a right to fight back, and they have the intelligence and resources to do that, sometimes in surprising ways. De Laughing Tree is my favourite for this strand of storytelling, closely followed by A Different Ocean, both featuring resourceful, female protagonists: JR has a particularly deep commitment to creating space for women’s voices and his work often fuses technical craft with a quiet, caustic shaming of misogyny. There is rarely a lazy line in Ross’s stories. He generally uses the third person, ‘He/She’. It better allows that barely perceptible oscillation between author and character – the sense that within one paragraph you are at once hearing the voice of the character and the almost imperceptible pulling away towards some quiet, allegorical, authorial statement. So Walking For My Mother begins: “Old Hope turned out their children to watch Nella go. It was wonderful and frightening because the quiet in the air was all for her. All for her, the gifts, the utterances of pleasure, the sideways glances and sweat-rimmed smiles. Like they were seeing her properly for the first time.” JR has the attention to language of a poet. One example will have to suffice. In Giving Up On Trevor,  a woman walks past an alley and sees three young people. She notes they are ‘cowled.’ It’s a beautiful choice of word. I would have gone with hooded; but cowled, with its echo of a monk’s habit, quietly invites you to re-see, adds an undertow of religious piety to the troubled events that take place from this point. Of course, those events confuse and complicate such initial purity, but the starting point is important. Most of the stories in the collection are set in what I take to be the Caribbean island of Grenada, JR’s country of birth, though Grenada is never named. Why that preponderance? The Canebreakers seems to provide a clue. When the young narrator discusses his leaving the island on a scholarship – a passport to the wider world – his sister sharply tells him: ”dem offerin you a ticket so you could up and leave – like your modder – alone – and never come back. Leave everybody else behind.” And later adds: “Learnin to escape cane not enough. How to break it – break out ov it, is what you have to learn. You unnerstan?” I understand this as somewhere between a plea and an admonition for those who leave to remember those people left behind, and to “break cane” for them: to speak of their lives, both internal and external. The Canebreakers is one of my favourite stories in the collection. Tell No-One, is a collection of short stories. It is therefore, arguably, less commercial than a novel (for a novel try JR’s recent, prize-winning, The Bone Readers), but the stories here are flecks of gold. And through them JR shows himself a short story writer of the first order.   Hesitations: The dateline of the subtitle (“Collected short stories 1975-2017”) suggested for me that the order of stories would be chronological, by date of creation. But there are few clues to what was written when. I found myself guessing which were the early works and creating my own meta-narrative of the movement from young Jacob Ross to mature Jacob Ross: was it a movement from optimism to cynicism, from dense syntax to short clear sentences, from ascetic realism to the numinous?  Or maybe JR gets rich and the move is from a Marxist alignment with the voices of the oppressed to a concern with the lack of parking spaces in Chelsea?  None of the above. I gave up guessing. The style and themes are remarkably consistent. Whether this is because everything has been given a contemporary edit or simply that the author’s concerns have remained constant, I can’t tell. Even in JR’s description of villages, there is this sense of atomisation – of characters facing great danger and crises fundamentally alone. I ached for a story that showed a collaborative endeavour – a modern day Fuenteovejuna that might suggest the power of waging battles collectively, as well as individually. But I understand a writer is not a juke box: writers write what they write! Why do short story collections not get reviewed much?  I came across the blog of a retired professor of literature who did a six-paragraph critique of each of thirty stories in an anthology. It took him four blog posts to get through them all. I doff my cap to that professor.   Full disclosure: I met Jacob Ross this year while on a writers’ visit to Portugal & Spain.  As far as I can recall, he did not buy me any...

Book Review: Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross (short stories)

Reading the Come let Us stories is like stepping into an hallucinogenic dream. A woman gives birth to geometric shapes in Love Silk Food. In Pals, there are two schoolfriends, one of whom coincidentally has no head. Echo begins with the line: ‘The young man dies like flower’ and is a story, told staccato, of pain, of a restrained, loving anger, as much a psalm as a story. In Breathing, a dead wife comes back to life, re-entering her husband’s life by the simple expedient of ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night. In Art, For Fuck’s Sake an artistic collaboration takes on multiple dimensions. Phone Call To A London Rape Crisis Centre voices a desperately sad call from someone who is being abused; that call ends with the plangent, ‘We do have fun. / We do.’ Velvet Man features a ghost ‘with clean, well-shaped fingernails’, who shows hope of a better life to a lonely, divorced woman. The brilliant, The Woman Who Lives In a Restaurant maps how people are weird but can reach vital, love-affirming arrangements around each other’s idiosyncrasies – a paean to acceptance and to love, however strange. There’s more. Mrs Neecy Brown, centre-stages a woman, drained by a faithless husband and needy, grown daughters. It’s a narrative that produces at its end three simultaneous, contradictory feelings:  a vicarious, bemused cynicism –  at the pious woman suddenly cast in a wanton shadow; a surge of pathos – aching for poor Mrs Brown to get some of the love she deserves; and a more distant, reflective vibe – on the strange twists life can take and how there is a piece of Mrs Brown in us all, the optimism of that thought. There’s more. Drag stars a young woman who at the story’s beginning feels more male than female and is writing a thesis on advertising. She picks up Michael in a Soho porn shop. They have sex and Jo insists Michael fucks her as if Jo were male not female.  There are three sections to this story, each divided by a centred asterix – a favourite marking device of LR’s to denote shifts in time and space. The story becomes Pinter-esque in its working through the personas. We see the duo again. In the second section, Jo / Josephine is masturbated to orgasm by Michael as she closes a business deal in a restaurant. Jump cut to seven years later and there’s a wedding.  Jo/Josephine dons a Cinderella-like wedding dress and, prior to the ceremony the couple make love. ‘We have never made love before,’ Jo tells him.  This comes across not as judgemental or sonorous, but as a distinction observed. So another sexual identity is introduced, another aspect of Jo’s identity opens up.  At the end of the story she runs off, abandoning, it feels like, all three identities – a defiance of conventional romance but also a refusal to be set down as one type, one way of being. I can imagine this story being filmed.  It would work well. Though I doubt  any Renee Zellweger – Hugh Grant type shctick would do it justice. My favourite story is Roll It. Set in Kingston, it begins with the line, ’The woman has fifteen minutes before she dies on the catwalk.’  I loved the deft weaving of Caribbean folkloric references (to the White Witch of Rose Hall, to the Rolling Calf myth etc). By turns, mysterious sweltering, shocking, macabre and phantasmagorical, the story trembles with ambiguous meaning. ‘Before she dies’ has many reverberations: the catwalk show theme is vampiric and there is lots of blood around, so it sounds metaphorical, not literal. And yet. As an attention grabber, it’s a brilliant first line and the rest of the story charges on in a blaze of righteous indignation, weary journalism, with the promise of redemption signalled by the transcendence metaphor allows. The main character is fashion designer, Parker Jones’s favourite model. Tellingly, she is never given a name. She’s beautiful and clever. She’s also dyslexic. She is vibrantly alive and wholly exploited by fashion industry celebrity, Parker (the story fore-shadows the 2017 furore that began around Weinstein and Hollywood). The triply horrific ending involves the macabre staging of Parker’s ghoul-themed catwalk parade, the heart-wringing horror of the young woman’s self-immolation and the moral horror of Parker’s indifference to the model’s fate, instead ‘swearing for his precious dress.’ Roll It shows beauty without warmth. It’s a mercilessly beautiful story. I could go on. The stories flik-flak between Kingston and London.  Other stories include a woman recovering from bariatric surgery…and… and… I now realise that reviewing short story collections is tricky. Nobody wants a reviewer to plough through every story in the collection offering a morsel from each one. So, stepping back for the larger picture… LR’s collection blends realism with a fabulous and at times astringent surrealism. She uses sharp, pithy, often simile-based images (“face like a streamed pudding.” “Hands a wedge of flesh”) that tend to cue up the transition from the real to the surreal. While the tones can be surreal, the stories are highly individuated, and often nightmary/dreamy. Taken together, the stories feel like an assertion of the richness of ordinary people’s internal lives, a richness that is often in stark contrast with their material struggles and with the way others’ see them. JR is a fabulously inventive, egalitarian writer.  ...

Some Reflections on a Brief Visit to Seville, November 2017

      I was invited to Seville (with the writers, Yvette Edwards, Colin Grant, Irenosen Okoije, Jacob Ross and Leone Ross) as part of a Speaking Volumes Breaking Ground: British Writers of Colour visit to the 9th ASWAD (Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora) conference.   The different nature of European nations’ black populations was not something I had considered in any detail so visiting Seville threw up quite a lot of ignorance on my part, both about the English early black population  and about the early African presence in Spain. I began chasing answers in Seville. This is a snapshot of what I’ve learnt so far, all quite tentative. Seville’s history from the 15th century onwards for some four hundred years  includes the presence on Spanish soil and therefore the deeds of enslaved Africans. That presence is everywhere – if you know where to look. Most of the Seville ‘front’ – the statuary of its buildings etc proudly boasts of its Golden Age of Empire, conquistadores and gifted writers. “The sun will never set on this Empire” was originally a Spanish boast, subsequently adopted by the English. Many of the old buildings of Seville are gloriously imperious, glistening with Empire gold.   Where, among this oro, is the black presence? Almost everything I found out on this was thanks to the excellently inventive book by local historian and writer, Jesus Cosano called, ‘Los Invisibles’ (Aconcagua Libros Sevilla 2017 ISBN 978 84 94643958) which reinscribes the black presence in Seville and is a cornucopia of information and inspired, evidence-based  imagining. Seville, like London, is a river city. The river Guadalquivir is deep and broad enough for a hulking, five storey cruise liner to be moored there (the Aegean Odyssey, registered, Panama) when I walked some of Guadalquivir’s length. The same river once bore the hulks of flotillas of slave ships that would come stenching up the river and offload their ‘piezas’ – cargo.   It was fashionable in the 15C for the wealthy white elite and the upwardly mobile of Seville including clerics, artists and merchants to keep enslaved Africans. Drawing on his research, Cosano imagines one such person, Oliva, working as an assistant to a doctor and becoming  highly regarded for her knowledge of medicine among the African community of Seville. Documents suggest Spanish slave-traders (negreros) and owners often bought and sold enslaved Africans and moved them from place to place, even from colony to colony, and Cosano speculates the enslaved community may therefore have picked up botanical knowledge from the West Indies as well as  from their African homelands; on an ancient map of Seville there is a plot of arable land named ‘huerta de la mulata’ – literally orchard of the black woman, where Cosano speculates medicinal herbs, as well as crops, may have been grown.  He also imagines an enslaved African named Domenguillo, an assistant to a printer, who becomes skilled not only as a typesetter but as a linguist: it might not have been uncommon for enslaved Africans to know several languages – the language of their homeland, Spanish and then any of the many other languages around at the time, which included Portuguese, French and German.   Of black people living now in Seville, I saw few. A woman squatting near the hotel selling paper handkerchiefs. A man on a makeshift mat sleeping under a coat. A man playing a drum in a square. A couple of street stall holders. A delivery bike guy.   From the 15th century,then  onwards for  some four hundred years, there was an imbalance of military power that violently tilted the African population towards the colonies and Europe. In the 21st century there is a similar imbalance of (economic) power, causing a similar tilt and bringing the new black migrant presences to Europe. My general impression of Seville was that the people there had become used to Seville/Spain no longer being the centre of the universe.  They appeared to suffer less than the English from what the academic Paul Gilroy described as ‘post colonial melancholia’. Yet the invisibility of the black presence in Seville makes me cautious in this view. Until Seville publicly acknowledges the less glorious stretches of its past, I suspect it must still suffer from some similar, self-deluding amnesia.   PS/short advert: My short story, ‘The Keeper of Books’ distilling some reflections on the British involvement in the 18C slave trade is in the forthcoming bluemoose anthology Seaside Special (ed Jenn Ashworth; provisional publication date: 2018.)  PPS. One interesting difference in English and Spain legislative approaches to slavery is exemplified through the English ‘Somerset’ case. In Somerset v Stewart (1772)  the judge, Lord Mansfield invoked the concept of haebus corpus in his judgement freeing the African, Somerset. Mansfield declared the institution of  slavery so ‘odious’ it could never be a part of English common law. The Somerset case eased the conditions of the the min. 10,000 people in England at that time whose status was akin to slavery. This is not to say England treated enslaved Africans any better, merely that, after the Somerset case at least, English slave traders and merchants  never risked bringing Africans, as slaves, onto British shores: Slavery in British (and Spanish) colonies continued until well into the 19C…...