Laurane Marchive reviews all the London literary highlights for the month of March.
This month, I kicked-off my literary round-up with the White Review number 24 launch party at Tank, near Oxford circus. I’d never been to a White Review party before, but I know the magazine as famous for its edgy new writing, for its short story competition, and for championing art and fiction that often seems to drip with eerie strangeness. A relatively new magazine, the White Review released its first issue in 2011, and was originally intended by its founders as ‘a space for a new generation to express itself unconstrained by form, subject or genre’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the attendants are mostly young and look like fine art students. Most of them wear black and the event feels a bit like being stuck in the Berghain queue except the punters are networking instead of getting high. The walls of Tank are white and bare. There’s an echo and there are no seats, which looks very crisp and artsy but also means the event isn’t particularly welcoming to anyone with bad knees or hearing issues; the whole experience feels somewhat like sitting on a majestic rock that is slightly too sharp. Chloe Aridjis reads an excerpt from her book Sea Monsters, a coming of age story set in Mexico. NJ Stallard performs a selection of poems and they are beautiful and contain some haunting lines. But in her poem “Boat Party” she laments that it’s all boat parties these days (is it??) and that she doesn’t like boat parties (the struggle is real). Then in a dramatic change of tone and explosive touch of humour, Khairani Barokka reads a selection of electrifying poems, including an excellent text about pineapples and female secretions.
The day after the White Review Party, I head to Twickenham for a Boiler House Press poetry reading, featuring writers from their anthology Wretched Strangers. The anthology was assembled by JT Welsch and Ágnes Lehóczky to ‘mark the vital contribution of non-UK-born writers to this country’s poetry’; it includes a grand total of 125 poets and all the profits are donated to charities fighting for the rights of refugees. That night, over ten poets take the stage. James Byrne reads a poem about Syria. Agnieszka Studzinska an essay on a dragon, invisible creatures and her son. Ana Seferovic tells of two women comparing their wars and says that in Serbia, there is no word for ‘motherland’, only ‘Fatherland’. Luke McMullan performs a selection of sonnets about growing up in northern Ireland. And in a poem called ‘Contactless’ Monika Genova reads about twenty year old women in London who have to ‘swipe harder’.
Jeff Hilson’s ‘A final poem with full stops’ is incredibly powerful, both harrowing and sobering. His text is a litany of the deaths and suicides of refugees, people trying to enter Europe and people trying to cross borders. The list goes on for so long I feel myself drift off but when I focus my attention again the list is still going on and it seems like it will never stop. The poem is impossibly relentless and without a pause, like a wave of death breaking over the continent, and a particularly striking text to end this reading on. The anthology itself focuses on Borders, Movement and Homes.
A few weeks later, I attend a talk at the Gower Street branch of Waterstones. The theme of the event is “Dismantling the expectations of women” and the conversation is chaired by Lucy Scholes. The event is sold out and yet there are only three men in the room because…I guess men aren’t that interested in dismantling their expectations of women.
Gina Rippon brilliantly presents her new book The Gendered Brain, The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain. ‘The subtitle wasn’t my choice’ she says. ‘I wanted “50 shades of grey matter” but they didn’t let me’. Rippon fascinates as she talks of “gender bombardment” in our current society, and of how the human brain, because it is extremely malleable and plastic, is changed by the things we do. For example she talks of boys getting more experience in playing with 3D objects and shapes as children, then growing into men who become good at reading maps, not because they were born with that specific skill but because it was imprinted onto their brain. ‘We can no longer rely on the contrast between nature and nurture’ she concludes.
Next to her, Lorna Gibb presents her new book Childless Voices in which she gathers the various stories of men and women across societies, who don’t have children. The author says that when she developed endometriosis, she realised she wouldn’t be able to have children. So she decided to travel, went to Qatar, spoke to people about their expectations of having children or not. The result is a book that is part memoire and part other people’s stories. When asked about the reception of the book, Gibb says that it was overwhelmingly positive, as if people had been waiting for the issue to be talked about. But she also mentions, of course, the few mansplainers who took it upon themselves to lecture her about endometriosis, her own life, and the many questions her book rises.