Warmest greetings to Jo Cannon who is at snowlikethought to talk about medicine, Malawi and Mercy (but not Madonna), in her short story collection Insignificant Gestures
: twenty five stories which take the reader from such diverse continents as Africa, Europe and Asia, to Self.
Thanks, Rachel! It’s a pleasure to be here in New Zealand.
Jo, I came to your work completely blind, ignorant (embarrassingly) of your writing and all I knew was that you are a GP, so I was astounded that I should leave your fiction with my eyes clamped as wide open as they are. I'm very pleased to have been introduced to your writing.
Thank you, that’s kind.
More than a few of the stories in your collection are written from the point of view of a doctor or from someone associated with or visiting a doctor. I thought we could look at the title story here. Set in Malawi, “Insignificant Gestures” is the story of a doctor who is haunted by the outcome of his failure to diagnose an illness in a woman who was not his patient. And it's extraordinarily powerful, not simply because of how the plot unfolds or the events it depicts, not in the telling, but, I thought, in the way that you frame the intimacy between the characters, how you show them, and how it is intimacy which gets in the way of objectivity. Intimacy is, if not the cause of the woman's death, the reason her illness goes undiagnosed. Would you agree? Could you talk a little about this and the title?
Yes, in a way. Ian’s judgement is clouded by shock at the violence he believes Celia has suffered, and his affection for her. The intimacy between the two is subtle, based on shared moments of intense creativity. Ian may be in love with Celia, but he’s an upright guy who knows that it would be inappropriate and harmful to act on this. But mostly, Celia’s illness is undiagnosed because Ian is an inexperienced doctor, forced, due to the lack of medical man-power, to make decisions that are beyond his capability. Her death and his disabling distress are consequences of the deprivation and poverty in Malawi.
The title alludes to those unexpected moments of intimacy, or significance, which temporarily break down the barriers between people and reinforce our shared humanity.
As soon as I'd read the title story my mind was filled with anticipation, expectations and questions – so many questions – one of which was the thought of humanity as a hindrance to science. And it should be contradictory but the line “patient heal thyself” crops up which leads me to my next observation. There's very much the sense, reading your stories, that the characters within them are faced with the limitations of medicine, of knowledge, even, and they are forced to look within themselves, to the unexplainable, for what cannot be answered by science. I thought of science and doctors being seen as faith substitutes. Were you aware your book raises such profound questions, did you want it to, or are stories purely for entertainment for you?
I didn’t intend this theme and I’m interested that you picked it up! I see medicine’s limitations every day in my work and take it for granted. I’m privileged as a G.P. that people trust me with their most profound thoughts and emotions. So, if I have a symbolic role, it is to be a witness.
No, I wasn’t aware of these questions. I mostly write for fun, to clarify my thoughts, and to understand how it feels to be someone else. If a reader spends money and time on my book, I want them at least to be entertained. If they find it thought provoking too, I’m delighted.
Following on from the notion that when knowledge fails people look within to find answers – to the commonality among all beings – many of your stories seemed to be about people who didn't find help or, often, they are connected to others who see them as an answer to an unanswerable problem whilst their own problem also goes unanswered. You don't try to wrap anything up in your stories or answer any of your characters' questions, there are lacunas. Could you talk a little about this?
I suppose we all reach out to each other for things that no human being can provide. It starts with the child’s disappointment that her parents are flawed.
Real lives are mostly messy and rambling, and some are desperately difficult. Everyone struggles to find meaning. It is satisfying to make up stories with more shape and clarity than real ones, but if everything was wrapped up they would be unbelievable. I want my fictional people to have happy endings, or at least hope, but in real life nothing is ever finished. After every story, there is another one, which may be better or worse. Until we die, of course.
I think it was René Descartes who said “question anything that involves the senses”, and many of your characters are relying heavily on their senses. What are your thoughts on perception and representations of truth in fiction?
I’m interested that you see them relying on their senses. Most of my characters are preoccupied with their inner worlds, and have a skewed idea of what is going on around them. The apocalyptic backdrop to some of the stories isn’t real, but a projection of an individual’s emotional turmoil, caused by bereavement, childlessness or abandonment for example. I think we make up our reality. An important role of fiction is to help us understand that other people do too.
The blurb talks about “exile and belonging” and “what it means to be an outsider” and there are characters who are refugees or who travel abroad for work or marriage, but it was my interpretation that these terms were more applicable to the characters' psychologies, indicative of a state of mind. I thought it was a clever way of showing that the differences of any consequence your characters have are the internal ones, in their minds, and what I think your writing is particularly skilful at is depicting oppression as a construct. Oppression and repression actually, both internal and external. Characters suffer less from illness or medicine's limitations but from the expectations and shackles placed upon them by society. Is this something you would agree with or are conscious of flagging in your writing?
Yes, I intended those words – exile, outsider – to refer to my characters’ sense of separation from others. As you point out, some characters are displaced by migration, but for others, exclusion is a feeling that results from an unconventional sexuality, body shape or emotional state. I suppose you could say it is a construct. Or an illusion.
Following from your thoughts on society as construct, do you have any thoughts on “self” as construct?
I do think we ‘make up’ our selves, like one might the character in a story. Certainly we all rework the narrative of our lives to give it meaning. We are born with personality traits, and other habits of thought and behaviour are engrained in childhood. But every minute, we chose how to interpret the world, our thoughts and feelings, and other people.
I saw Insignificant Gestures
less as a book about standard notions of marginalisation but more as a book about the self-imposed limitations people adopt, perhaps through social conditioning so that they become/have become active in their own displacement. In effect they are dislocated rather than displaced. Is dislocation or exile for your characters externally applied or self-imposed? What are your thoughts on this?
It’s both. Nasma’s treatment at the hands of an oppressive regime derailed both her external and inner world. Theresa in ‘Theresa’s Spear’ had no choice when she was banished. But mostly, in my stories, exile is a state of mind: depression, shyness, loss, for example. At some level it is chosen, but an individual may not have the awareness or inner resources to change. Someone else may need to break in and alter a fixed pattern of thought, by an ‘insignificant gesture’, maybe. And everyone feels disorientated on occasions by time and change. Eve, although rooted in family, is an observer, who never quite believes she fits in. I’m sure this is a universal feeling.
We've talked already, a little, about your being a doctor and some of your characters being doctors but you also write from the perspective of people whose position you obviously cannot have experienced first hand. In “One Hundred Days”, for example, the reader inhabits the first person perspective of someone directly involved in genocide; reading “Daddy's Girl” is like viewing CCTV footage of the events leading up to a suicide bombing. How comfortable were you giving a human voice to people who commit atrocities?
They can have no other voice but human. Amos, in "One Hundred Days", finds himself ‘administering’ an atrocity as a result of his ordinary failings: vanity, inattention and passivity. People who do these things have families and friends. In "Daddy’s Girl", I wanted to show that many bomb victims are far removed from the explosion. In particular, I hoped to describe the terrible effect on the bomber’s daughter.
In several stories you start off in either an “exotic” (compared to the home location of the protagonist) or mundane or familiar location and end in the opposite location. I found this very interesting, for me it brought home the crux of the story and highlighted the social constructs on both sides but did you have a specific reason for choosing the locations other than for contrast?
They are all places I can picture, either because I’ve lived there, or because patients have described them. I work in an inner city where people wash up from all over the world. So I’m aware that you can start off in one society, and through a series of circumstances, end up somewhere completely different. And if you wish, you can reinvent yourself.
Following on from POV and location, I want to talk about writing “other”.
Terry Eagleton posits the social and historical changes in the latter part of the twentieth century as giving rise, from the 1980s onwards, to:
"a new generation of literary students and theorists […] fascinated by sexuality but bored by social class, enthused by popular culture but ignorant of labour history, enthralled by exotic otherness but only dimly acquainted with the workings of imperialism..." (Literary Theory, 2nd Ed)
The supposed male centric 'medical gaze' has long been criticised for not being able to encompass the lived experience of women, particularly ethnic minority women and yet you manage to convincingly write of not only African and Pakistani women but of African and Pakistani males; in One Hundred Days you write directly from, presumably, a Rwandan man's perspective. Some critics might be tempted to levy the accusation at your fiction that it is “cultural tourism” or that, as a white woman writing from the imperial centre, you shouldn't attempt to mimic the post-colonial experience. How far do you agree with this potential critique? Would you say your fiction utilises post-colonial tropes to personify philosophical explorations, for example?
I think that the function of fiction is to make us see from another person’s viewpoint, and if a writer does this successfully – and I don’t claim to – then surely the world is a better place. I write about human beings, with whom I share far more than I have differences. Many of the stories are about post-traumatic stress, sometimes caused by physical assault, as with Nasma, but mostly by emotional events, as in "Fairy Story" or "Needle-Stick Baby". In "One Hundred Days", the trauma was to Amos’s sense of self. All these characters experience similar altered brain biochemistry. The human repertoire of emotions and mental states is the same, whatever one’s race, gender or orientation.
When I interviewed Adnan Mahmutovic I asked whether or not he thought racism and sexism work on the same principles, clearly I think they do, but there's another thing in there, bound up with racism and sexism for me, which I didn't mention then but which I want to ask you about and that is, do you think class distinctions also work on the same fundamental principles?
Yes, I’m sure they do.
In “Evo-Stick And The Bigamist” you tease out class markers with wonderful and endearing humour. But do you think it's currently more socially acceptable to write from the perspective of another culture/sex than it is to write about another class? Do you believe class distinctions still exist?
Evo-stik is a piece of nostalgia about my sixties childhood. I didn’t intend to write about class. I strung together memories of a certain time and place, in the hope that people might smile at ones they recognised.
The greatest class division in UK that I see is between those who work, and people who never have. The most harmful results of this are emotional deprivation and paralysingly low self-esteem. And there is another, unseen, class – illegal immigrants – who are excluded from accessing the most basic necessities, like health care, whilst maintaining everyone else’s lifestyle.
Going back to Eagleton, again in the afterword to Literary Theory, he states “like feminism and postmodernism, post-colonial theory is directly rooted in historical events” and I thought about “Daddy's Girl” and “One Hundred Days” in particular here, again, and I wanted to ask how important to you is it that your stories are grounded in a social and or historical actuality. And what are your thoughts on writing and social function?
I don’t think my stories are historically accurate. "One Hundred Days" is a parable - magical realism. It isn’t really about Rwanda; the village life I describe is Malawian – a very different country, but one I’ve experienced and so can describe. Atrocities like that have happened all over the world, so it could be set anywhere. As in "Daddy’s Gir"l, a historical event is the springboard that allows me to imagine the inner world of people caught up in it. More important to me is that the emotions and behaviour are authentic.
I hope that the social conditions I describe, based on observations mainly, are accurate though.
It was my opinion that you handled the tough themes we've discussed with extreme sensitivity and dexterity. Your empathy and eye for detail resulted in stories which reduced me either to tears or induced me to laugh out loud, and some, such as “Rictus”, do both in equal measure. Aside from the powerful gravity of some of your stories, there is great humour in this collection (and lots of running), I want to quote some examples if I may.
"...he's seen her – he can't believe it – shuffling along in wellingtons on the far side of the field beside that strange jogger. They look so absurd he wants to laugh. There reaches him airborne, like a sound muffled by wind, a sense of something he nearly forgot. As she approaches on the next lap she spots him standing astonished by the gate. Suddenly she's bent double, a gesture he hasn't seen for years, crinkled up with laughter and clutching her belly, helpless. The wind takes away the sound but he hears it in his head like a song remembered." (Cannon. 2010. “Rictus”: p21)
"The conversation moves so fast I'm disorientated. Used to my lugubrious father and Gavin's masturbatory ramblings, I can't believe how much ground we cover." (Cannon. 2010. “The Alphabet Diet”: p57)
"She flicks through Men's Health […] Then spotting a facet of the male psyche usually concealed from women, reads avidly; “Don't worry if in bed with a new girlfriend, you find she has grey underwear, an untended bikini line or hairy legs […] If her panties are baggy, congratulate yourself. She's gone to bed with you before she intended.”' (Cannon. 2010. “Pump It Up”: p97)
As well as a strong talent for humour, and at times very dark humour, you have something of a poet's eye for imagery and detail:
“She wears glasses and she's got ferrets” (Cannon. 2010. “Daddy's Girl”: p66)
“[M]en and women journey on different sexual railway trains.” (Cannon. 2010. “Pump It Up”: p97)
"But I'd take anything not to wake at three in the morning with my thoughts crawling round and around like caterpillars along the rim of a glass, endlessly circling the same regrets." (Cannon. 2010. “Insignificant Gestures”: p3)
“The desert is beautiful. You must eat and get strong and when you're better I'll take you there.” (“Shutters”: p121)
Some of these lines may slip by on a first read but to me they were rich and I luxuriated in them. Do you write poetry, Jo? And can you talk a little about your writing process; for example, which is more important to you, story or language?
I read a lot of poetry. I’ve written some awful poems, none of which must ever see the light of day. I’m closely involved in the work of a poet friend, Carolyn Fisher (The Unsuspecting Sky). When she is polishing a poem, we deconstruct her every line, word and punctuation mark. She taught me two things: that poetry is primarily metaphor, and the importance of every word. I think the quality of language is vital – an art-form, or thing of beauty - and metaphor can be the most powerful way of conveying truth. Plot is less important to me, which is maybe why I write short stories rather than a novel. This year I’ve written more flash fiction, which is a genre even closer to poetry.
Each story deserves a slow and care-filled reading because it strikes me that's the spirit these stories were written in. I felt challenged by Insignificant Gestures
which was sometimes unsettling, often surprising and constantly stimulating. How long do you spend on any given story?
I can write a story in a few hours, or maybe a day. But I spend weeks and months rewriting and editing every sentence, an embarrassing, maybe pathological, number of times. I return years later and change things, down to the position of a comma. My sons say I’m a nerd.
What, if anything, would you most like the readers of your book to take away from it or this interview?
I hope they enjoy my book and identify with the characters. If they find my descriptions of emotions or mental states authentic, maybe clarifying something they have experienced, I’d be delighted.
I hope this interview encourages people, who might not otherwise have come across it, to read my book. And if they understand the stories and their context better as a result of our discussion, I would be thrilled.
Well, Jo, I enjoyed Insignificant Gestures immensely, I found your writing very moving and will, no doubt, be thinking up questions I'll wish I'd asked you for many months to come, or even writing an essay – I can see this collection being on the reading list of English courses and it deserves to be. Thank you so much for giving me free rein in these questions and for your generous and candid answers.
Thanks, Rachel. I found this interview really challenging, actually! You are the first person to give detailed feedback, and it's interesting to see how a reader brings their own experiences and understanding to a book. I suppose stories form from the sub-conscious like dreams, and an outsider might sometimes interpret them more easily than the dreamer.
I’m grateful that you paid my book such close attention. And after such a thoughtful and sensitive reading, I’m honoured that you liked it.
It was a real pleasure, Jo. Insignificant Gestures is published by Pewter Rose Press and can be bought directly from the press.