Saradha Koirala

Tag: literature

Stories that shaped the world

BBC Culture has just published a list of The 100 Stories that Shaped the World from international writers’ contributions. I was stoked to be one of the contributors! Check out the whole list at BBC Culture and read about my top 5 here: 

  1. Leaves of Grass.jpgSong of Myself (Walt Whitman) and, indeed, Leaves of Grass as a collection, reads like a Humanist manifesto that celebrates a love of land, freedom, self and the connections between these. Whitman embodies a universal and omnipotent “I” into which readers can place themselves and have done over generations. It’s very much an epic poem, but plays with structure and language, the long lines moving with the breath, and surprising, explicit imagery. The shift away from traditional spiritual reflection – rumination on the connections between nature, God and the human mind – marks an important change in how we view the body and physical world. The many references to Song of Myself in pop and high culture over the years are testament to its potency, endurance and relevance. (number 87!)

 

  1. HowlHowl (Allen Ginsberg) marked a cultural shift, not just in literature (although this is hugely significant), but also in the way people view literature and art as something powerful and dangerous. The poem spoke to a group of marginalised writers and musicians and challenged the expectations of language and ‘high art’. Post-WWII when people were feeling either a strong desire to settle into familiar comforts and gender stereotypes, or anger at the establishment, Howl opened a gate for freedom of expression and allowed discussion, anger, excitement and all kinds of love out into mainstream society, subverting and questioning the norms. The Howl Obscenity Trial (1957) sent a message to the world about just how powerful language can be and the idea that a poem could incite legal action is thrilling. (number 53!)

 

  1. To kill a mockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) has been read and studied year after year in high schools and today, nearly 60 years after its publication, it’s still a deeply loved book by people of all ages. The links to American history and race relations are both specific to the Deep South in the 1930s and hugely relevant to today’s society. The themes of prejudice and empathy are quoted and referred to time and again to highlight aspects of our own society that need examining. To Kill a Mockingbird documents important historical ideologies that must never be forgotten as well as asking us to examine the way we treat all members of our communities. (number 27!)

 

  1. Romeo and Juliet.pngRomeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare) is considered a deeply romantic play, but there is less to learn about love here than there is to learn about the petty differences that keep factions of communities separated. The tragedy is in the secrecy of the love between Romeo and Juliet and it’s a constant reminder to always questions our prejudices, whether they be newly formed or ancient grudges. This play has also been studied and read in classrooms for generations, influencing the way people view human behaviour and highlighting those aspects which are centuries old; deeply engrained notions of love at first sight and the lengths some will go to. Of course, Shakespeare has also influenced literature and pop culture in more ways than we can count. (number 13!)

 

  1. The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), a powerful cautionary tale, has never felt more relevant. Ideas around the treatment of women and the dystopian society created are perhaps extreme, but feel like a plausible future for societies where women are continually being marginalised and their bodies legislated. The novel is a harsh indictment of gender stereotyping and patriarchal societies, reminding us how important it is to empower women to be agents of their own destinies and not allow their voices to be silenced. People have turned to Atwood’s horrifying view of the future time and again when reflecting on the current status of women in society. (number 16!)

Stuff I’ve Been Reading on the Train #2

I’ve recently moved house, but thankfully this hasn’t compromised my reading on the train time. As term 2 gets underway, I thought it timely to update you on my commuter reading habits this year. (You can read about the stuff I was reading last semester here).

Goodbye, Perfect – Sara Barnard

Goodbye, PerfectI felt very invested in the action of this YA novel. Narrated by Eden, whose usually “perfect” best friend has run off with the hipster music teacher, the old “trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped” tension was developed in a way that rang disturbingly true. Eden was a lovely nuanced character too, in foster care with a family who carved out a symbolic piece of garden for her to work and dealing with her own own feelings of imperfection.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Who doesn’t love Austen? I’m looking forward to teaching this next term.

I am Thunder – Muhammad Khan

I am ThunderThis is not my favourite recent YA novel, but I was drawn along by the tension and themes that feel important in understanding Islamic points of view. The main character struggles with controlling parents and, as a result, gets swept up into a world of extremism. The characters don’t quite feel real at times, with some clunky teenage dialogue, but the action progresses at a good pace and the choices and conflicts for the main character are important to consider.

Persepolis (books 1&2) – Marjane Satrapi

PersepolisPersepolis 2I enjoyed teaching this last term. Satrapi’s Graphic Memoir is another often neglected worldview – the effects of the Iranian Revolution on the population and, in particular, how these event shaped a childhood. Satrapi doesn’t portray herself as a perfect character, but she’s hugely likeable and struggles with all the normal teenage issues on top of bigger issues, such as faith, war, political beliefs and loss of family members. So many excellent scenes and the visuals are charmingly simple and affecting.

Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo DeusI’m now currently reading Harari’s Sapiens, which is the back story in some ways to this. Homo Deus looks at where homo sapiens have come from and where we are potentially going, in a world where things like Google know more about us than we know ourselves; where we strive for immortality; where we’re creating artificial intelligence beyond our own abilities. Harari makes connections between topics that you never see coming, but are so convincing when they’re drawn together. This was an intense reading experience, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it and almost every conversation I had at this time seemed to be able to link to an idea from the book.

Take Three Girls – Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell & Fiona Wood

Take Three Girls.jpgThree YA authors each create a character who’s figuring themselves out and developing a relationship with the others. It’s not uncommon these days for YA novels to flick point of view every chapter and sometimes this feels pointless, especially if the voices are not particularly distinct or add interest to the story. But this works really well as the authors have their own voice and style for their characters and they interact beautifully. The book looks at some important ideas and the girls are drawn together initially by a “Wellness” class – a clever device for allowing them to be cynical and then accepting of self-care and relationship lessons.

The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton

The Shepherd's HutI read this straight after hearing Tim Winton introduce his character and talk about toxic masculinity. I’ve loved Winton’s work for ages, and hearing him talk is so moving, as he’s a powerful blend of humble, intelligent, heart-felt and funny. The Shepherd’s Hut follows Jaxie Clackton as he attempts to cross the saltlands of Western Australia, escaping the home that has nothing left for him. He’s a deeply troubled boy, but I felt incredibly warm towards him and hoped only for his safety. The voice is authentic and consuming and the landscape – so often a character of its own in Winton’s work – stark and uncompromising.

Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me.jpgSolnit has become my go-to on US political commentary recently, but it was also useful reading her essays on the back of Winton’s talk, as she reiterates the problem of the patriarchy, reminding me that these ideas and facts need to be voiced by everyone, before change can happen. She’s scathing and funny, but hits you with the reality of a society where it’s all too common to silence women.

The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things.jpgThis had been on my “to read” list for a while and I’ve been wanting to read more Australian writers since moving here. This might not have been a good place to start! I was engrossed entirely and compelled to finish to ensure everyone ended up okay, but it was a rather harrowing read with very little sense of hope. The detached almost dreamlike narrative was appropriate for the characters who, given their circumstances, were trying to escape mentally and physically, but felt a bit too removed at times. As with Winton’s work, the Australian landscape is characterised as a harsh and unforgiving factor to be endured or overcome. Don’t let me stray too far into the outback, okay?

Windfall – Jennifer E. Smith

Windfall.jpgI read this as much needed fluffy light relief and it did the trick. It’s very much a teen love story, which I’m not usually a fan of, but there are some beautiful moments and incredibly well-written dialogue. I admire an ability to capture authentic teen voices and show the rapport and easy connection between characters with clever banter. Teenager wins the lottery, but realises love is the real  prize in life. Aww.

“To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” (Katherine Mansfield)

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Saradha as Virginia Woolf

It’s been a difficult couple of months. Individually, universally. Hell, it’s been a tough few years if you really want to start scraping back through it all and trying to remember the last time you sat still, looked around at your personal, professional and creative life and thought, Yeah, things are okay. I wish I’d made better note of those moments of contentment, but perhaps that would have shifted them out of the present and it’s being present in those moments that makes one content.

I’ve been counting words – proud of a year spent launching a novel and working on two more. Gathering poems into a third collection and reading everything I can find. But in there somewhere I lost count. Lost track of how to hold onto what was mine, lost count of the number of job applications, inquiries and rejection letters, the social interactions cancelled or rain-checked beyond redemption. I can’t bear to try and count the heartbreaks and moments of self-doubt of the last few years.

I have, however, counted the flights. 21 international flights in the last two years, 10 since moving to Melbourne. There have been adventures and family celebrations and always something good waiting at each end – but counting and losing count has made me exhausted.

My last flight back to Wellington landed 24 hours before the 7.8 quake last month and as lovely as it was to see my family and friends and know they wanted me there so they could check in, hug me and try to settle me after what felt like a complete life-fail, I got the strong sense Wellington was trying to shake me free. Again.

But slowly the after-shocks stopped and things seemed to shuffle into a shape I could make sense of. The feeling that home wasn’t quite home anymore, the outrage or compassion my friends expressed on my behalf at the situation I’d found myself in, the daily routine and purpose my brother provided and the obstacle-ridden journey my mum endured to come and see me, care for me and give me a copy of Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me all helped me feel like me again.

There’s something pretty special about Sarah’s book. Reading about her journey juxtaposed with that of our shared literary hero, Katherine Mansfield, reminded me of what I need: To stop counting, stop flying, sit still again and write. To be somewhere that could become home, somewhere bright, open, flat and stable beneath the feet. Somewhere I can keep putting my words down, one after the other and build something, anything, that looks like a life. And sure I need love and connections; to be honest with the people around me, to ask for help and show others I can help them too, but right now I just need to stay alive and to write.

Back in Melbourne and every day I feel slightly different. Last week, when the moment felt right, I cycled round to look at a spare room in a cottage on Mansfield Street. Stained-glass bay window, picket fence. In Thornbury, but it would not be out of place in Thorndon. I thought of Sarah moving to New York and Katherine moving to London and me, now, with all this hope and determination despite what feels like months of disappointment.

So I’ve moved to Mansfield Street, into a room of my own. The wifi’s dodgy and we don’t have a kettle, but my optimism is boundless. It surprises me sometimes.

How does it feel??

Paige and Lily from Lonesome When You Go react to The Dylan News:

 

“Lily! You heard the Bob Dylan news?” I’ve run up behind her and grabbed her by the arm. I must be looking a little panicked. She whitens.

“Oh my god, Paige don’t tell me. Not Dylan. I’m still grieving for Bowie. I can’t…” her bottom lip quivers.

“No! God no! He’s still alive and he just won the damn Nobel Prize for Literature.”

“Oh thank god!” she breathes, “My Dylan life just flashed before my eyes – the first time we listened to Blood on the Tracks all the way through, every time I’ve been feeling low and then heard a Dylan song in a shop or café or from a busker… that road trip… he’s really been there for me.”

“I know.” I give her a hug, before remembering my excitement. “He won the Nobel! Holy shit! A song-writer – a musician!”

“You’re right, this is huge! Wow. I’m going to briefly ignore the fact that it’s yet another white American male being held aloft and also the fact that most of his songs in the last thirty years have been terrible and focus on the musician as celebrated poet part.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“It’s really cool.” she grins.

It’s Friday morning and we’ve just entered the school grounds. I have Like a Rolling Stone running through my head – “how does it feel?” – and whistle the next line of organ melody aloud. Lily stops walking and thrusts an arm out at me.

“Shut up! I was just up to that part in my head too!” Her eyes widen and we stare at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.

“I guess it’s pretty appropriate,” I say and we start singing it together, loudly and horribly, straining our voices on the lengthened vowels and ignoring the bemused looks from passing juniors. They probably only know Dylan songs from Miley Cyrus covers and references in young adult novels.

Musician as celebrated poet. I walk into class feeling like anything is possible today.

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Saradha’s Dylanesque nod to the poets and poetic nod to the man himself.

The Best of Adam Sharp – by Graeme Simsion

I spent my Saturday finishing reading The Best of Adam Sharp. On Sunday I caught the train to Yarraville to attend the book’s local launch in the chilly-but-welcoming Masonic Hall. Yarraville is adorable, I had no idea. The hall was full of intimidatingly accomplished writers whose first novels have been optioned by Sony or Universal. The launch began with a reading from Jane Rawson, a novelist whose debut is purportedly “Australia’s most underrated book” As I drank my cup of sav, held in still-gloved hands, I wondered if that is in fact the greatest literary accomplishment I’ve ever heard of.

It was wonderful listening to Graeme talk about his writing – the rush to fame The Rosie Project brought him and the philosophical way he’s had to deal with Hollywood and oddly out of touch US publishers.  The descriptions of the writing process for The Best of Adam Sharp made the novel all the more real and I even squirreled away some tips for developing an original plot.

There was an intriguing connection for me here too – Graeme sent me a signed copy of The Best of Adam Sharp after finding my book and recognising the Dylan reference of the title. I liked that link a lot. It’s the kind of thing that musical references should do and is hugely fitting when thinking about The Best of Adam Sharp – a book so imbued with the sentimentality, nostalgia, subtext and at times obsession that songs and their lyrics can be responsible for in our lives.

At one point Adam recalls his dad’s advice after he’s been caught out, “Think about what you sing in the shower” and I’m reminded of my Grandad (who passed away a year ago today) whose mood and thoughts could apparently be traced easily to the tune he was whistling. The songs in our heads are not set to random and they are liable to tell tales on us.

But of course we will cherry-pick the lyrics that have the most significance for us, Adam reminds us. We can connect with a song on even the most tenuous level if we are truly and desperately looking for a connection.

I really enjoyed The Best of Adam Sharp. The soundtrack made me feel like Lonesome When You Go had found its nostalgic and somewhat rueful parent; the scenes in France felt cinematic, making me want to be there, perhaps not for the drama but definitely for the wine; and the themes of second chances, what if, longing for something that never quite was could bring tears to your eyes.

Dylanesque symbolism for this theme crossed my mind briefly as I waited on the Yarraville platform for the train home.

The Persistence of Fiction

I’ve been insisting on the non-autobiographical nature of my novel for ages, but now I think I might actually be turning into my character. It’s okay though, she’s pretty cool. Yesterday I bought a second-hand Epiphone Les Paul Standard in sparkly blue and cream and although Paige in Lonesome When You Go is actually a bass player, there are substantial rumours circulating that there’s a sequel in the works in which she makes the switch to lead.

I’ve even found myself being ever-so-slightly more assertive, refusing to put up with histrionics in the staff room and flicking the hair from my eyes pointedly to signal the end of a conversation.

And of course I’ve been a long time plagiariser of Blood on the Tracks lyrics.

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Photo by Richard Wise

Perhaps this is proof that my fiction writing is just one step ahead of my real life desires, or perhaps life really is imitating art. It does happen. People look to literature – as readers and writers – for a better understanding of the world and themselves. I’ve always learnt something about myself through my own writing and, in lieu of safe, trustworthy and compassionate adults to talk to, people – especially young people – often look for emotional support by reading fiction.

I don’t think this means authors bear the burden of providing therapy or a safe and perfect world in their novels to which people can escape. Nor need they ensure their characters are ideal and consistently positive role models, but we do have a responsibility to keep in mind if we truly believe in what we do as writers. Otherwise what’s the point?

When I’m not writing or buying sweet axes, I’m a teacher. I have been for years. It’s given me a broad view of the world and an understanding that not everyone has the benefit of feeling safe all the time.

Sometimes I get to teach analysis of great literature, introduce students to writers and concepts that will hopefully stay with them as they take on the adult world. Often I get the pleasure of encouraging a young person to write something they never knew they were able to write. Other times I just read them books that help put feelings into words, their own emotional vocabularies so limited.

Always I stress the importance of language to our sense of self and well-being, and one day, maybe, I’ll even tell them about my secret life as a teenage rock star; how life is just an imitation of art imitating life.