Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Pelt ed

It gives me immense pleasure to welcome Catherine McNamara to Snow Like Thought to talk about Pelt and OtherStories, her first collection of short stories. Thanks so much for dropping in on the southern hemisphere to talk to me, Catherine. 

Catherine and I first virtually *met* when she published her novel The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy (Indigo Dreams Publishing), a sassy and humorous romp about Marilyn Wade’s journey of self-rediscovery. But Pelt and Other Stories is very much literary fiction: 

Lust and dirt from a world of places

Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s partner. A sex-worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Hit by a car in Brussels, a young woman returns to her doctor boyfriend. And in Berlin, Celeste visits her suicidal brother Ray and his partner for the very last time.
Pelt and Other Stories lingers on the cusp between Europe and Africa, between ancient sentiments and modern disquiet.

To start off, Catherine, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the importance of “place” in your fiction. I know you live in Italy currently and have spent some time in African countries and elsewhere, experiences obviously important to your fiction in terms of locations, but as a migrant  (writer in self-imposed exile) myself, I am always acutely aware of the risks of appropriation when living in a country not one’s own. 

I remember talking to Jo Cannon about her debut short fiction collection, Insignificant Gestures, and I was really tough on her with a question about the issues raised by a white middle class woman writing as “other” (Jo’s justification, by the way, was not insignificant), so I’m going to ask you why is your fiction not “cultural tourism” or appropriation and how significant is place? 

Lovely question! And I must say that ‘appropriation’ is always high on my list of writerly preoccupations. I’ll answer the second part of the question first. In these stories there is range of settings – Ghana, Italy, Berlin, Australia.  As you know I’ve moved around a lot and ‘place’ provides a context for my main concerns. I studied African and Asian Modern Independence Movements at university and have a passion for the history/effects of imperialism on the continent, so this, plus years of living in Africa, added to the migration/racism situation in Italy, make these the major themes of my stories.  

As for ‘cultural tourism’ or appropriation, there are two levels to my answer. On a personal level, I lived for nearly ten years in Ghana, ran a business with my Ghanaian partner, had a baby there, lived very simply, raised kids, travelled… It was home. I’m trying to shift the settings of my stories to Europe (I never thought I would be able to write a story set in Italy) and it’s happening gradually, but Ghana was my reality for a long time. I invested a lot of energy in surviving, finding my place, even earning it if you like. They were good, rich years.

On a literary level I understand much has been written that makes Africa seem like an exotic postcard, or a war-torn, AIDS-ridden environment. I wanted to show more normal forces at work. Relationships, shifting economics tides, migration, families. Just stories. When the collection was accepted I was concerned I would be accused of appropriation so I wrote to Nigerian/Belgian writer Chika Unigwe, who generously wrote a cover comment for the collection. Chika loved the stories and I immediately felt some sort of approval and relief. In interviews, Chika has a very down-to-earth attitude to race and migration (Wasafiri Issue no. 75, Autumn 2013).

Following on with the theme of migration, I read a great article in the Guardian recently by Chibundu Onuzo, about “the African diaspora returning home to seize new economic opportunities,” and there’s a lot of movement in your stories, cultural shifts and people who have left their home countries (whatever home means) to live and work abroad. Your stories appear to be immersed in this cross cultural dialogue. Can you explain your interest in these themes?

There is a wonderful shift in energy coming from contemporary Africans in the West. Raised in London, New York, Toronto, these are the children of those who left after the painful disappointment of Independence. Author Taiye Selasi (link: voiced their qualms in her groundbreaking article ‘Bye bye Babar – Or What is an Afropolitan?’ and gave them a name, Afripolitan. While some of this movement seems trendy and there are the dangers Chibundu Onuzo mentions, it also signifies a large-scale return to Africa, where in so many countries life is good and there are opportunities to be seized. I’m hoping this will translate to a period of construction as it’s a sad truth that life in the villages is still a very tough one without water, lights, birth facilities, good schools.  

I’m also very interested in another aspect of Africans abroad – the migrant experience in Italy. In my story ‘Janet and the Angry Trees’ a West African sex-worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Janet goes from being objectified black woman to house cleaner – which is the doublethink often applied to African women here. I suspect I will be writing quite a few more stories about racism in Europe.

The body comes to liquid life in your prose. You write richly, and beautifully and convincingly from many characters’ perspectives and points of view. Many of your stories explore culture, race, sexuality and gender. One reason I think your narratives are so convincing is your interesting use of syntax, really adds fabric to the characterisation, particularly in “Pelt”. I’d like to quote a line near the ending – not giving anything away – of the title story, if I may, to demonstrate:

“Before leaving I order a tonic water, which I used to drink with gin before the baby. I ask Osman to put in some gin. Perhaps this is why it happens so afterwards.”

Do you think first person point of view lends itself to narratives of displaced individuals particularly? 

Not necessarily. In ‘Infection’, told in the third person, Eugene is a displaced returnee to Ghana and this story explores the way he is detached from the culture that is folded within his being. First person or third person – it’s like you’re sitting in a different seat in a cinema, either close to the front or far on the side. There’s a delay, a filter in place; or a cropped vision of the action. In ‘Infection’ I didn’t want to reside in his thoughts because I wanted to provide a bit of Ghanaian history and place him within the context that shaped his displacement. With a first person view I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I wanted to show the decayed city on the coast and bring back the thrilling ideals of the Independence years, now so decayed themselves. I also wanted to look at Eugene with a soft focus lens – poor guy was going through so much! 

But there is another story – ‘Taxidermy’ – where the immediacy of the first person voice helps convey the fragility and shock pervading Celeste’s last visit to her suicidal brother and his partner.

And yet, I don’t think a lot about narrative  effectiveness when conceiving a story. The voice, character and twist of the action seem to decide this of their own accord. For me there is still a lot of magic in the act of writing and I’m not sure I want to understand my own tricks!

What made you decide to tell “Pelt” from first person point of view? 

For me writing a short story starts with a first sentence and a sort of thrust. The characters are shadows that I usually see from behind, and I don’t have a clue where I’m headed. That’s the fun part – the risk that it might work but it might also be a flat and toneless piece. The first paragraph is something core that I really work at and it rarely changes. And working that first paragraph – even ‘hearing’ it if you like – it’s clear to me whether this is a first person or third person. It’s a gut thing, as you travel into character, and then the story forms. 

The fact that this story is told by the Ghanaian pregnant girlfriend, rather than the German lover or his discarded wife, exempts her (I hope!) from becoming a possible cliché, which she may have been were the story told by either of the other characters involved. In their eyes she would have been the African lover, the husband-stealer, instead of a woman with desires, a history and objectives.

One consequence of this narrative device, of course, is that characters tend not to name themselves, but, I wondered, had you named the protagonist? 

No, but I can still see her now! In ‘Pelt’ I didn’t want to name her because I think it gives her emotions more power. And heightens her swollen, nebulous force as she heads towards her maddened act at the end. A name would have pinned her down – there are always associations popping into the reader’s head. I’ve just written another story in the first person with everything hurtling from and towards another unstoppable action and it was a big thing to decide whether to give the narrator a name or not. In the end I did – his girlfriend names him in a conversation – and it felt like I’d thrown a brick through a window. 

Finally, because I was such a tease with that tiny quote, earlier, I’d like to include a generous taster, so, with many thanks to Catherine and a hearty recommendation to read her collection, here’s a sample of the title story:


Rolfe triggers it. In the way that is the way of all men. In his case a type of athletic bragging ruined by the self-defeat he hangs his hat on. I feel a plock and, with his surprised, involuntary retreat, my waters come splashing out, gay and heralding, whereby he bounds back to inspect the folds of his manhood.

My obroni baby will come this day. I roll onto my back and raise my knees in sweet excitement, the baby nestling back even though her head is plugged within my pelvis. Soon after Rolfe is agitating with a towel, peering cautiously at my dark opening. No action there, I laugh. He looks perplexed. Despite his thirty-nine years Rolfe is unfamiliar with the mulch of his own body. A fever sends him into studied ecstasy. The tumble worm in his butt, whose head and long wrinkled body I inch into the light, is repellent and edifying.

At the apex of his growth curve I suspect I must place myself. This is the man who continues to daub his hands on my sheeny back and breasts. He told me that in Ethiopia, his last posting, they call girls like me ‘slaves’ because of our broad noses and skin a shadow cannot cross.

This is Rolfe’s first child. His wife Karina was barren. I have led Rolfe to believe that this is my first although I had two others before. They are at the village and I send them money. The midwife will no doubt perceive all of this.

Pelt and Other Stories is available to purchase from CATHERINE'S BLOG, the INDIGO DREAMS online bookshop, AMAZON, and THE BOOK DEPOSITORY.

Catherine’s next stop on her blog tour will be at Ether Books and following this she'll be at Nuala ni Chonchuir's blog on Thursday 12th September - and hop over to her blog now to be in with a chance of winning yourself a copy of Pelt and Other Stories!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Catherine! 


Titus said...

Hugely enjoyable interview, thank you both.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thank you for reading, JoAnne, and glad you enjoyed.

chillcat said...

Thanks so much for having me here, Rachel. Love your blog - have done for ages! And it was a treat to answer your very perceptive questions xxcat

Rachel Fenton said...

With writing as intelligent and sensitively wrought as yours, Cat, questions ask themselves - your answers show genuine concern and engagement with the themes that, I think, we both wrestle with. Thanks so much for writing a collection I love! xx