Slow Tongue by Olivia Douglass

 

Slow Tongue is a powerful collection, using language and design in an innovative way to create a new space for emerging voices. The title evokes the image of languid sexuality, a theme which pervades the collection, described by ripe fruit, “licking”, “sucking” and breathing heat. Douglass uses abstract imagery coupled with tangible language to beautifully depict love and sex. While this theme is an aspect which makes Slow Tongue such a valuable read, the collection ultimately showcases the struggle Douglass has faced as a woman of colour trying to explore and assert her identity and voice.

I have been lucky enough to see Douglass perform a few of these poems live. In one performance of ‘The Man Goes Bang continuously’, Douglass chose members of the audience to read parts in the poem, their freshness to the material adding to the pervading feeling of miscommunication and disorder. Poems that lend themselves so well to performance are sometimes in danger of falling flat when read. This is not the case with this collection however, as dynamic design allows this collection to become a work of art on the page.

Douglass visually represents struggle through misspellings, incongruous spacings and black boxes which obscure words, reminiscent of political censorship. Through this device the reader is constantly reminded of the effort that it has taken to put these words on the page. This is further emphasised by the editorial notes which litter the copy. As Douglass explains in her commentary, she left them in because: “finished collections should not be polished bodies of work, but instead service as evidence of the processes of writing and the analysis of the self”. The ‘run-on’ style of the publication helps the collection to be thought of as a whole, allowing new conversations to occur as the reader’s attention is drawn to the links between the poems.

As referenced in the title, Slow Tongue has been written in part as a response to M. Nourbese Philip’s collecton: She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Both NourbeSe and Douglass explore the challenges of using post-colonial language to question racial and gendered repression, and in doing so, create a new, separate lexicon. The explicit reference to other writers – NourbeSe is an active voice in one of Douglass’s poems – allows Slow Tongue to become part of a wider conversation. The author’s journey to find a voice becomes contextualised and layered when mixed with the voices of others.

She also weaves in historical narratives, like that of Sara Baartman, a South African woman who became a point of colonial fascination due to her ‘exotic’ body-type. Douglass tells her story in footnotes to give visualisation to the exploitation of black narratives. One of the most poignant phrases in the collection is Douglass’s editorial note: *write this again but instead Sara Baartman lives in a cottage in the country-side and has white skin*.

Douglass uses her position as the narrator to incredible effect. This ‘meta-narrative’ style guides our experience as a reader, as she voices the part of ‘audience’ while also challenging the reader through direct questions. In contrast, her narrative voice is deeply personal. She draws on real experiences: “I am twelve years old and my body has just learnt that the only safe way for me to command a room is when I am on stage”.

Slow Tongue brings together an impressive collection of poems, which can be read individually or holistically. Covering stunning narratives which expose important themes through new language and voice, Douglass has created an enriching read, both visually and otherwise. I highly recommend the collection, and look forward to seeing what this young poet does next.

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Children of Blood and Bone

Described by June Sarpong as “Harry Potter meets Wakanda” Children of Blood and Bone is a fast-paced adventure story and a very necessary breath of fresh air for the YA market.

Zélie, our fierce protagonist, is haunted by King Saran’s raid which caused the death of her mother, the end of magic and the violent subjugation of the divîner people. When Princess Amari hurtles into her in a crowded market and reveals that she has a tool to bring back magic they begin an epic adventure accompanied by Zelie’s brother Tzain and hotly pursued by Amari’s brother Inan, who wants nothing more than to eradicate magic forever. A story rife with strong imagery, hot love interests and an explosive finale makes it easy to see why this book has been so well received, unsurprisingly having been picked up by Fox prior to publication. Adeyemi, at only 23, has woven a beautiful yet possibly over-complex universe whose simple narrative is bolstered by strong post-colonial themes, which set against the background of the Black Lives Matter movement elevates this book beyond the fantasy genre.

Women, Power and Revolution – The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Erin Cobby attended a recent discussion with an exceptional panel of women to celebrate The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

The Tuesday before last, tucked away in the basement of Waterstone’s on Gower Street, was a private powerhouse. An exceptional panel of women offered their nominations for titles which they believed best encapsulated the theme of the evening: ‘Women, Power & Revolution’. The timing was perfect; the talk coincided with the birth of the first prince who would not take lineal precedence over his sister and the erection of the first female statue, artist and muse, in Parliament Square. Therefore, with progress in the air, these authors embarked on a discussion which underlined the important role of literature in celebrating female advancement, especially in a time where so many diverse voices feel quieted.

Kit de Wall is the author of the outrageously popular ‘My Name is Leon’, a book which focuses on familial love overcoming racial boundaries. She is currently working on ‘The Anthology of Common People’, which aims to showcase working-class literature that escapes the ‘rag-to-riches’ paradigm and steers away from the ‘gritty’ north, using tropes such as needles or an abandoned pram on a council estate. The emergence of this ‘novel’ book reaffirms that female voices aren’t the only ones that are under-represented in the publishing world. Furthermore, the fact that this book was completely crowd funded displays that publishers are not only ignoring potential authors, but potential audiences also.

One of Kits nominations was ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love’. The book is a collection of short stories written in the 60’s, but only published by her daughter five years ago. This book is exceptional for a few reasons, chief among them being the author’s progressive ideas concerning the intersectionality between feminism, race and sex, especially as interracial sex was only legalised in 1968. De Wall continues, stating that the true prevalence of this book is that it acts as a reminder that progression is not linear. That despite the somewhat hokey relationships depicted within, the 60’s held a more positive view towards interracial couples than the present day. Her second nomination was ‘The First Bad Man’ by Miranda July. The book follows two time structures both encapsulated by streams of consciousness. The book takes an unapologetic look at the disparity between the restraints of being a perfect homemaker and the fun you can have when you let go of society’s expectations surrounding the perfect female. Hilarious and off the wall sexual escapades ensue.

Catherine Meyer, co-founder and president of the Women’s Equality Party, presented her own book, ‘Attack of the 50ft Woman’, which she wrote after coming up empty handed when searching for a book to help aid in her own personal revolution. This non-fiction book clearly outlines not only the ethical reasons for gender equality but the economic reasons also. The perfect handbook for the next time you need to take a misogynist down a few pegs. Her second nomination focused on  a book of speculative fiction, a genre which has boomed since the success of the TV adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. ‘The Binti Trilogy’ by Nnedi Okorafor takes speculative fiction into the realm of afro-futurism, as by placing characters in a fantasy world they can act unbound by social strictures which pervade other works of fiction and reflexively create commentary on them.The relocation of earthly struggles into a new theatre awards the discourse freshness and encourages those to think outside their own binary and look at the problem with a new level of emotional distance. The trilogy is short, almost a book in parts, and centres around powerful heroines and the role of the constant outsider.

June Sarpong, (MBE) the British journalist and panellist, also nominated a work of speculative fiction. She describes her choice, ‘The Children of Blood and Bone’, by Tomi Adeyemi, as ‘Harry Potter meets Wakanda’. She states that despite not being a big fan of fantasy literature, this book drew her in due to the inspiring search for power by women amongst the struggles not only between the coloniser and the ‘native’ but also between ‘native’ forces. June’s second book was her own: ‘Diversify’. She recalls her inspiration to write the book; shocked by her own intimidated reaction to someone who appeared different to her, she felt propelled to write an inclusive conversation, which covered gender disenfranchisement, and encouraged all people on the privilege ladder to fight for the person on the rung below you.

The next nomination came from Kate Williams, feminist historian, author and journalist who recommended fellow female historian Mary Beard’s work: ‘Women in Power’. Beard, she states, re-examines classical literature and uncovers that many works of classical fiction which are deemed canonical are structured around the idea of silencing women. She also highlights the presence of 16thc female poets such as Eliza Hayden and exalts the new-found wave of feminist history which allows women who aren’t monarchs, such as Amanda Forman the duchess of Devonshire, to be written about. Kate ended with reaffirming the importance of female fiction, especially at the intersection between history and literature, as uncovered by Beard’s book, it is the writers of today that determine the classics of tomorrow. The last nomination was ‘Power’, by Naomi Aldermann, another work of speculative fiction, which discusses what happens to the barriers between race and class as well as gender when the power balance shifts.

The talk ended with an audience member stating her worry that if we keep championing diversity we will lose sight of what makes us all the same, humanity. Each author spoke eloquently and knowledgeable on this, stating varied examples including, Trump and the recent Windrush debacle, as evidence for how important it is to still champion diversity as many still believe humanity to be an exclusive term. One of the most beautiful sentiments expressed  explained that the utopian society isn’t color blind, and for difference to be celebrated fully we all need to be treated the same.

I believe however, that the most poignant answer to this question however lays in the genres of the books nominated. The fact that the books either focused on the re-evaluation history or economic policy to display the worth of women, or took place in another world to display the strength of women, reasserts the struggle for these issues to be properly discussed in our present. While discourse has come along greatly, the theatres for this discussion are often found retrospectively or futuristically. This reaffirms the glaring need of our present to keep the Women’s Prize for Fiction alive, so that the forgotten women of history or the strong women of our dystopian fiction can be used to aid the women of our present to continue searching for power and revolution.

Oxford Literary Festival – Three Rooms with Three Views Erin Cobby reports back from the Oxford Literary Festival

oxford

We arrived in Oxford to drizzle coating the buildings around the train station. The historic city has given way to lines of chain restaurants with imposing colleges jutting out between them. The disparity between the buildings structures a metaphor for the social constructs active within Oxford: the separation of ‘town and gown’. While the literary festival was a celebratory force for many different authors and subjects, the respective audiences and the spaces in which talks were held spoke volumes to the exclusivity that still plagues this university town.

The first event was tailored for the festival’s younger audience, set in the inspiring Story Museum, a space which seemed too small for the explosion of books and colour within. We were led up a corridor, adorned with a 9ft high statue of Alice and Wonderland which previously lived at the British Museum, and entered a brightly coloured room. We were seeing three female authors; Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Geraldine McCaughrean and Julia Green, all of which had recently published books set on an island. The premise of the talk concerned what makes islands such prolific setting. The colourful chaos provided a perfect space in which to discuss imagination and engage children with the idea of writing and instil in them the importance of literature and its ability to transcend boundaries both in fiction and reality. We left feeling charged, and after taking in the monastic-like structures as we entered the collegiate part of the city settled down into the imposing Sheldonian Hall to see celebrated poet Wendy Cope.

Wendy Cope was there to promote her new anthology, Anecdotal Evidence,a delightful selection of poetry centred around turning 70. She jokes that she had previously wanted to take the Adele-approach and name it ‘70’, but her agents talked her out of it. Wendy’s talk was packed, as the woman who squashed herself next to me claimed it was ‘positively claustrophobic’. It was in a Grade One listed building, with tertiary dark wood pews and a celling that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Sistine Chapel. ‘The mistress of the one liner’ then delighted us with snippets from the anthology which ranged from hilarious, a snide condemnation of the Archbishop in running shorts, to a touching villanelle about the compatibility and love between her and her husband. Due to Cope’s often scathing opinions and comedic timing the grandeur and exclusivity of the location was diminished, this was until, questions were opened to the floor. The first woman started off by asking the ridiculous question ‘to rhyme or not to rhyme?’, going on to discuss the problems of shoehorning rhyme and comedy together. Cope answered this intelligently, discussing the problems she had encountered in literary circles due to the belief that ‘if your work is comic then it must be second rate’. This intelligent debate concerning the restrictive nature of literary circles was interrupted by a man who asked her ‘but what did you really think of the archbishop?” The interviewer then ignored Cope’s dismissive answer by demanding to know the ‘secret thoughts’ Cope harboured towards the Archbishop and his running shorts. The room fell apart at this, none louder than the crowing woman next to me who genuinely kept slapping her knee. After this eruption all questions seemed to revolve around people assuring Cope of their relativity within her circle. Many posed themselves as friends, while others mentioned previous talks she had given, making the room feel, despite what my new friend had mentioned at the beginning of the lecture, finally claustrophobic. Despite Cope’s largely very accessible poetry it was evident that the talk was more of a reunion than a sharing of ideas, made even more apparent as we crawled out of the hall and overheard simultaneous conversations stating, ‘how nice it was to be back’.

The last speaker on our agenda was Shaista Aziz, who was promoting a new book, The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write, of which her story was one amongst many. The location was hard to find and badly signposted, in a seminar room with barely 30 people. Aziz’s piece surrounds the topic of honour killings in Pakistan centring around the figure of Qandeel Baloch, a young wife-turned social media star due to her confident and provocative postings on social media platforms. She was tragically murdered by her brother in her home, proving says Aziz, ‘that once again in Pakistan, as in other parts of the world, a woman is not even safe in her own home’. Aziz and interviewer Matt Standen then spent a while discussing various topics around the event with Aziz powerfully posturing that ‘women’s bodies are not vessels for honour’. She went on to state that calling these murders ‘honour killings’ in the British media, otherises the victims, making it seem a cultural issue and therefore one that does not deserve the full attention of authorities. She then spoke intelligently on the use of patriarchy to subjugate both sexes, recalling an incident she heard of when investigating the Serbian-Bosnian conflict of men being forced to rape their brother’s. She said this proved that controlling bodies and sex has more to do with control and power rather than ideas concerning gender and religion. Aziz then started describing some of her experiences, ranging from being attacked in the street amongst numerous, yet silent, witnesses to being questioned extensively at a border whether she was 100% Muslim, to which she replied, ‘actually I’m 65% polyester’. Inevitably the issue of the hijab was brought up, to which she urged everyone to see beyond a piece of clothing and judge it for what it was, a symbol of consumerism, rather than something that eclipses female identity. Aziz also had to deal with seemingly pointless questions from the audience, exacerbated by Standen, who during a conversation concerning disparity between the suffering of Jewish and Muslim women, butted in to give his opinion concerning Corbyn’s latest statements. Aziz tried to keep the conversation on track and overall did an amazing job delivering an intelligent, sensitive and often hilarious talk.

It struck me as a waste that one of the most inclusive discussions during the fair was delivered to a handful of people in a room out of the main causeway, although judging by the number of book signings which occurred afterwards, Aziz still made a massive impact. Nevertheless, when compared to the scope of Cope’s address, which reached hundreds and yet (I imagine) opened few to new ideas, seems quite unfair. The three rooms served as symbols for the subject matters they exhibited, however, while the first two seemed to celebrate the artistry and message of the authors Aziz’s space seemed to reaffirm the problems she was highlighting. The festival was an amazing place, featuring a great range of differently purposed subject matter, unfortunately it remains apparent by the audience and spaces for discussion that it still has a long way to go to distance itself from the exclusive college which was it’s setting.

7 Genuine Pieces of Advice to Land your First Job in Publishing by Erin Cobby

Hi! My name is Erin, I’m 22, and I graduated from University of Leeds last June. At the beginning of this week I was lucky enough to land my first real publishing job at Legend Press! While I am in no way an authority on the matter, as everyone’s journey into publishing is vastly different, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve been given over the past 6 months, hopefully to help make other people’s journeys slightly easier…

1. Do your research

The first piece of advice is pretty general, but one that I didn’t really heed myself for quite a while. I had a vague idea of the role I wanted, but without really researching what that entailed, my applications fell flat. It wasn’t until I researched the different roles within a publishing company, and how different departments interact, that I was even able to make an informed decision about what to apply for. This also meant that my applicable skills were more targeted when writing cover letters and CV’s.

Additional key research includes the wider industry itself. While it’s important to be aware of what’s topping the bestseller list, it’s more impressive to throw in a more obscure title, just be sure you’ve actually read it! A good way to stay ahead of the curve is by joining the Society of Young Publishers, their events and magazines are really informative and mentioning your membership status during an interview shows passion for the industry.

2) Apply for (almost) everything

Don’t be restrictive in what you apply for. When starting out, grasp at any opportunity. One of my earlier internships was for a legal publication, while far away from the literary experience that I was hoping for, I learnt applicable skills like proofreading symbols and met amazing and encouraging people. Making inroads through non-traditional means is always common in a competitive industry and as long as you have real enthusiasm it could lead you places you wouldn’t get to otherwise.

3) Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Everyone remembers how competitive it can be to land a publishing job, so most people are willing to give you advice as long as you ask for it. While I was temping at Bloomsbury I met with someone who said that I should be taking 2 meetings a week to ensure that everyone in the department knew my face and name should I apply for a position. Apart from meeting some really inspirational people, I received tailored advice and even made contacts who were happy to look over my CV and cover letters.

4) Get creative

Show your passion for the industry in more ways than just reading. I created a book review blog, which branched out into theatre reviews, and read submissions for Legend 100. This gave me experience as a reader but also taught me about promoting content via social media. Other good ideas include: researching local literary events such as book signings, volunteering at organisations that deal with illiteracy and even offering to proofread friend’s essays.

5) Learn the lifecycle of a book, among other things..

Things I got caught out on during interviews are easily avoided. First is learning what goes into producing a book. Learn the terms for each stage of production and who is involved. Despite this being vastly helpful when you actually start a job, it’s a great way to show you have a deeper understanding of the industry.

The other thing that is vital to know during an interview is your favourite genres. While in a casual conversation with friends this is easy enough to recall, I’ve frozen during an interview. It’s really useful to jot down a few ideas before entering the interview room, make sure that most of these books have been published recently, and even better, by the company you’re interviewing for.

6) Get experience

Depending on what is your targeted department, hone the skills needed for that job in other, more easily accessible industries. For example, to gain editorial experience I worked as a professional proofreader for a primary school. These kinds of applicable skills are easily attained through temporary jobs, with most large recruitment companies offering segues into these.

7) Don’t get too intimidated

While careers in publishing are competitive, don’t be put off if this is something you’ve just decided you want to do, or you know this is the direction for you but your not ready to put everything into it just yet. Publishing is an industry that has a high turnover, people are often moving around within the industry, causing a constant generation of jobs. Therefore, don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss out on a opportunity, chances are another will open up soon.