Novel Ideas: Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House

Salman Rushdie —The Golden House. Jonathan Cape. September 2017

Salman Rushdie’s thirteenth novel, The Golden House, begins by introducing the Golden family to readers as a family of emperors. It quickly clarifies that the family’s patriarch, Nero Golden, “[isn’t] really a king”, and subsequently none of his three sons are in line for an actual throne. Nonetheless, on the night of President Obama’s inauguration, as the family moves into a secluded neighbourhood in New York’s Greenwich Village (from Mumbai, which remains a mystery for about the first 20 pages) their decadence, their wickedness, and their ultimate downfall — the latter taking place as Trump becomes victorious — is illuminated. After all, “a man who [takes] the name of the last of the Julio-Claudian monarchs of Rome…[is] publicly acknowledging his…forthcoming doom” while simultaneously “laughing in…[its] face.”

Our narrator is the family’s neighbour, René, a young aspiring filmmaker, attempting to create his cinematic masterpiece on the Golden family. Many comparisons have been drawn between Rushdie’s new novel and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: a narrator reports on the glimmering world of a mysterious man (in this case, a man and his sons), and inadvertently provides insights into his own character. Unlike Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, however, René clues his readers into this. The novel is written as a chronicle of René’s acquaintance with the Golden family, as well as the progresses made on his film. And so, the two merge at points, as René closes scenes with “Cut” or “Black out”, includes directions or set descriptions, sometimes even excerpts of his scripts, thus shifting the form of the novel. Through these points – through inevitably bringing his readers’ attention to his ongoing script and the fact that there are moments in which he embellishes, edits, and adjusts the Goldens’ narratives – René indicates his centrality in the novel and his influence over what is shared and how it is shared.

René’s political contemplations woven into the narrative, from his excitement at Obama’s triumph to his dread and anger at Trump’s, provide the most explicit insights into his character. René stands as one of many figures Trump supporters oppose: an elite liberal intellectual (as they would say) someone who cites Greek mythology and classic cinema, art history and literature, out of touch with most things beyond his fancy New York City bubble. Which is something he openly admits. Discourse following Trump’s election is concerned with (among others) how American went from President Obama to Trump — how it went from electing its first black President to electing a shamelessly bigoted racist. But “all the daily death of black America” and “the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house”,  “[the] discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing [themselves to be] right, their cause [to be] just” were bubbling up during Obama’s terms. They were pulled up to the surface and detonated when Trump entered the presidential race.

While the American political backdrop is written as René’s observations and examinations, the Indian political backdrop is intertwined closer to the plot line. The discrepancy is perhaps a result of the ways in which the respective characters, Nero Golden, his sons, and René, are affected by said political ongoings. René is a figure least affected in Trump’s America: a white, straight man from a wealthy family. So Trump’s reign, rooted in hatred towards immigrants, people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and women hardly weaves into his own narrative. And as such, the politics remains a form of contemplation. Nero Golden, on the other hand, profits off of political and economic fraudulence in India, hence his narrative’s connection to the larger Hindu-Muslim conflicts, as well as to the pervading corruption. It is, after all, Nero’s role in a Muslim terrorist attack in Mumbai that sparks his family’s move to America. Though initially I’d found Rushdie’s incorporation of Indian politics more engaging than that of American politics, revisiting the novel allowed for a new reading.

Two weeks after Trump’s victory last November, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote the following in a New Yorker piece: “Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it… Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about.”

Adichie’s call for action is simple: to name the problem honestly, to leave behind the seemingly optimistic words used to describe the critical, at times fatal, subjects — “alt-right” for “white supremacist”, “climate contrarian” for “climate change denier”, etc. She asks that we be clear about the severity of an issue by making our language as reflective of it as possible — only then can we begin to tackle it. In many ways, René’s contemplation — in addition to creating room for political reflection for readers — does what Adichie asks for: he is clear with the turmoil America faces. From “the frothing hatred of the homophobes” to “the blue collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity” to “the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black”, René’s political observations and examinations face America’s grave, historically-rooted problems with honesty and sharpness. In other words, with a willingness to talk about what he’s actually talking about. And in that, Rushdie does what political fiction often aims to: he illuminates the injustices and the confusion, prompting readers to think critically about the political sphere in which they live.

Continue following our fashion and lifestyle coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Ten Independent Publishing Houses To Check Out

Image by And Other Stories

On the lookout for some interesting reads? Well look no more! Below are ten of my favourite independent publishing houses who curate and publish some of the most daring and experimental works.

Archipelago Books

Seeking to fill a gap in the literary world, founder Jill Schoolman established the press in order to delve into literature outside the Anglosphere. With such a vast literary world beyond the “West”, Archipelago aims to illuminate, as Schoolman says, “other ways of seeing and being”. And it, in its ten years of translation and publication, has done so with the works of Scholastique Mukasonga, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, and Meng Hao-Jan.

And Other Stories

Focusing primarily on contemporary international fiction, And Other Stories is another publisher that values translated fiction. Its titles range from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home – a novel that meditates on class and families – to SJ Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds – a short story collection, translated from Afrikaans, that focuses on death, loss, and the subcultures of gay, expat, and artistic communities.

Sundress Publications

A non-profit, woman-run publication, Sundress is a publication group that includes Wicked Alice, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Rogue Agent. Alongside working with its member publications, Sundress publishes chapbooks and full-length books that often defy and challenge concepts of genre, as well as an anthology of the best online literary works.

Dancing Girl Press

Based in Chicago, Dancing Girl Press focuses on writings by women. Its chapbooks have intricately handmade designs and explore the relationship between the visual and the literary. Its titles include Anne Graue’s Fig Tree In Winter, Rebecca Valley’s The Bird Eaters, and Azia Archer’s Atoms and Evers.

Horse Less Press

Publishing chapbooks, pamphlets, and full-length books, as well as running an online literary journal, Horse Less Press focuses on imaginative and innovative poetry collections. My personal favourites include Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Houses and Sara Woods’ Sara or The Existence of Fire, both of which are moving and challenging with exquisitely written imageries.

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Publishing contemporary fiction and long-form essays, this London-based press focuses on works in translation as well as in the English language. Its titles include Alejandro Zamba’s My Documents to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. With each publication, Fitzcarraldo aims to introduce ambitious and innovative writing to the literary scene.

Pushkin Press

Established in 1997, Pushkin publishes everything from novels to children’s books, from classics to contemporary. The press is home to writers from around the world, including Antal Szerb, Gaito Gazdanov, and Edith Pearlman, and has easily become home to some of the most acclaimed and compelling writers.

Salt Publishing

Based in the UK, Salt works to discover and publish contemporary British literature. Publishing everything from fiction anthologies and novels to children’s poetry, Salt is best known for Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie, and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many.

404 Ink

Established by freelancers Laura Jones and Heather McDaid, 404 Ink entered the literary world just last year. Known mostly for its publication of Nasty Women – a collection of essays, interviews, and writings that discuss the lives of women in this politically chaotic and deeply disparate world – 404 Ink aims to bring to light innovative and trailblazing writings.

Portobello Books

We have Portobello Books to thank for 2016’s Man Booker International Prize winning novel The Vegetarian. First established in 2005, Portobello is known for its fiction in translation, working with writers from all six continents. Portobello also has a non-fiction strand, publishing investigative journalism, travel writing, memoir, and reportage. Having received some of the most impressive literary awards, the press is renowned for the originality and individuality it brings to the publishing scene.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Novella’s Fall Book Preview

Novella’s given you, our faithful readers, a preview of upcoming movies and TV shows coming this fall. Now it’s time to shine our spotlight on books!

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (pub date: Sept. 5th)

Tracing the past and the present of Mississippi, Ward’s upcoming novel follows a family – Jojo, his younger sister Kayla, and their mother Leonie – as they move toward the state penitentiary after hearing about the release of the children’s white father from prison. Exploring the love and limitations of family in the face of racism and poverty, Sing, Unburied, Sing parallels the likes of Toni Morrison.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (pub date: Sept. 12th) 

Set in an idyllic Cleveland suburb, Ng’s latest novel centers on two mothers and their children: Elena Richardson, who parallels the suburb’s composed order, and Mia Warren, who resists the said order. Soon a divisive custody battle — a result of the Richardson’s family friends’ endeavor to adopt a Chinese-American baby — creates animosity between the two women. Described as witty and wise, Little Fires Everywhere traces the nature of secrets, art, and, above all, motherhood.

Sam Sax’s Madness (pub date: September 12th)

Sax’s debut poetry collection challenges notions of masculinity, sanity, heterosexuality, and normality. Writing about sex, hysteria and lobotomy, and his own experiences with mental health, Sax uses peculiarities in of the language to parallel and contemplate the peculiarities of the human mind.

Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (pub date: Sept 5th)

Smith’s second poetry collection, like his previous work, discusses race, sexuality, power, and politics. It begins with imagining an afterlife for black men shot by the police and traces desire and mortality in relation to the body. A poet and an activist, Smith’s work has been celebrated for its innovative and political voice.

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (pub date: October 3rd)

Set in Brooklyn in the 1930’s, Pulitzer-winner Egan’s novel follows an 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, her father, and a nightclub owner named Dexter Styles, whom Anna learns is critical to her family’s existence. Eight years later, America is in the Second World War and Anna’s father is missing. A chance meeting with Dexter, however, helps Anna trace the complexities and, ultimately, the truth of her father’s disappearance. Egan’s first historical fiction, Manhattan Beach explores the oppositions within and dualities of human existence.

Jermey Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (pub date: Oct. 31st)

Divided into what Dauber refers to as the seven strands of Jewish comedy, the book delves into the ways in which Jewish comedy has approached persecution and diaspora. Examining comedic archetypes along with major Jewish comedians (Philip Roth, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart), Dauber’s work has been described as funny and crucial scholarship of Jewish history.

Han Kang’s The White Book (pub date: Nov. 2nd) 

The White Book, described as “the most autobiographical and the most experimental to date” by Portobello Books, is Korean writer Han Kang’s third publication in English. Starting with a list of white things the author saw in Warsaw (where she completed her writer’s residency), the book centers on Kang’s older sister, who’d died two hours after birth. Paralleling and intertwining imagery of the city and a new life cut short, Kang creates a genre-defying piece of literature, reflecting on life and death and survival.

Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (pub date: Nov. 7th) 

Lieberman writes about the history of vibrators, tracing the changes in the ways in which it has been used and perceived. Starting with the lubricant in Ancient Greece all the way up to vibrators in present day, Lieberman discusses sex toys within the context of various attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, and LGBT issues, presenting sex toys in a new, less clandestine light.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Novel Ideas: Roxane Gay’s Hunger

Author Roxane Gay. (Jay Grabiec)

Bodies are politicized figures. Our physical selves have various forms of oppressions and privileges (depending on our respective intersecting identities) planted on them. Race, gender, and disability — visible on our bodies — inform the ways in which we exist and are perceived in the world. Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, discusses body size — often overlooked and disregarded in discussions of power and politics — as a form of oppression. Gay, the author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women, writes honestly about her relationship with her body in Hunger; about, and she’s clear on this from the start, not being “Lane Bryant fat” (being able to buy clothes at Lane Bryant, which goes up to size 28), but rather “living in the world when you are three or four hundred pounds overweight”.

Early on in the book, Gay informs her readers of the following:

My life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and the after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.

It was a boy, whom she loved (in the way you do at 12 years old), who went biking with her in the woods and took her inside a cabin, where his friends were waiting. She writes thoughtfully about the violence that followed: “As a sheltered, good Catholic girl, I barely understood” the situation. But, “I did understand the pain…the sharpness and the immediacy of it.” She describes this pain as “inescapable” — so much so that she eventually turned to food to make her body into a “fortress.” Food and eating, Gay explains, became a way to feel “more solid, stronger.” It was a way to veer away attention, particularly the male, sexually predatory attention, from herself. Gay knew, from witnessing hers and others’ reactions to fat people “that too much weight was undesirable.” And to “keep…[the] hurt away” — the hurt that followed the aforementioned male, sexually predatory attention — Gay created “a new body, one that shamed [her] but one that made [her] feel safe.”

Throughout the book, Gay showcases the larger modes of power and patterns that shape her experiences: the patriarchal ways in which we view women’s bodies as open to consumption by men; the immigrant experience, the move from “the Global South” to “the Global North”, which often results in a sense of responsibility and well-to-do-ness in immigrant families, that, to some degree, kept Gay from sharing her trauma with her parents; and the capitalism-fueling fat-phobia porn in popular culture, in particular reality television like The Biggest Loser. Some of Gay’s most forceful cultural critique is in the chapter discussing this televised “anti-obesity propaganda”. Gay explains that The Biggest Loser “offer[s] wish fulfillment for people with unruly, overweight bodies” – for both those watching the show and those participating in it. What is more, these “unruly bodies” become a “spectacle”,  a form of entertainment onto themselves, constantly fat-shamed by the on-screen medical professionals and trainers until they lose their excess weight. Such television testifies to the systematic nature of fat-phobia that can be found everywhere, as Gay points out, from air travel to the medical community to fashion.

Hunger is a candid discussion and exploration of our society’s disregard towards individuals with “unruly bodies”, paving a path to a much needed conversation. It is also Roxane Gay writing her own narrative, taking control of her story, in a way she was unable to with her body (indicated in the book’s subtitle: A Memoir of (My) Body). Gay’s closing words in Hunger are powerful. She declares, “Here I am”. She declares herself taking up space on the page, on bookshelves and bookstores, in a way her body is shamed for doing. There is strength in her voice, in spite of the pain – strength to do the bold and daring, like writing this book. But also the strength to do the seemingly small, like learning to love and appreciate the sensualities of food, after and even while struggling with it as a self-harming tool. Gay writes:

I started watching Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten’s cooking show on the Food Network, every day from four to five p.m. … I love the show. I love everything about Ina. … [She] makes cooking seem easy, accessible. She loves good ingredients – good vanilla, good olive oil, good everything. She is always offering helpful tips – very cold butter makes pastry dough better, and a cook’s best tools are clean hands. She uses an ice cream scoop for the dough when she’s making muffins and reminds the audience of this trick with a conspiratorial grin. … She is ambitious and knows she is excellent at what she does and never apologizes for it. She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.

There is such joy in her words when she describes watching Ina Garten cooking, such joy when she describes herself doing something seemingly small. And it is this joy — simple and whole and lovely — that sticks with me, that I think of often, days after finishing the book.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Novel Ideas: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Twenty years after her first novel, Arundhati Roy returns to fiction with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In 1997, she published The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and marked her as an internationally acclaimed author. For the following two decades, Roy worked as a political activist, speaking out against Hindu nationalism in India, advocating for the independence of Kashmir, critiquing capitalism, and protesting against environmental degradations. Indeed, any reader of Roy’s new novel can see the heavy, intermingling threads of activism running through it. It is a demanding book that, thanks to its outspoken political nature, challenges the rigid ways in which we often see and define the novel: as an exclusive genre that adheres to its rules of plot, dialogue, form, and style. But Roy’s novel resists this, integrating political thought with narratives, poetics, and languages.

The reader first meets Anjum (described as a hijra, a Hindu term referring to those who are hermaphrodites, transgendered, or third gendered) living “like a tree in the graveyard”. She is born with both male and female sex organs, and is raised as a boy named Aftab. The reader joins Anjum when she, as Aftab, sees “a slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick” and realizes she “want[s] to be her” – and continues with Anjum as she faces the consequences that follow her choice to live as a woman. Anjum’s identity and its complexities are shown within and in relation to the political ongoings of India: for instance, the war surrounding the Line of Control in Kashmir and the murder of Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, both stemming from the centuries-old conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The novel probes how a hijra is seen, treated, and heard in such situations, working with both the personal and the political. It zooms into the individual and then the collective, introducing a range of characters who are all somehow connected to Anjum, to the tree in the graveyard.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness author Arundhati Roy

Many reviewers have suggested that the novel tries to weave too much of Roy’s activism into one book: the number of characters can be overwhelming, the number of political turmoils explored can be difficult to follow, the plot and dialogue — the supposed holy grails of fiction — can fall behind the political settings. Indeed, all that can be said justly about the novel. But, as Roy herself explains, approaching and writing fiction often involves questions of experiment, of whether you can “make the foreground into the background,” of whether you can center and decenter things. As such, Roy’s decision to center the personal at a given time or the political at another time, irrespective of time and chronology, not only challenges the ways in which themes are explored in novels — integrated and often in the background of a plot – but asks what the ultimate role of a novel is. Can there ever be one set role? Or should we expect it to evolve and change? Expect ourselves, in fact, to critique and evaluate it?

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a difficult, long book, requiring a second read from many. But its nuances and complexities, its poetic language and narratives are remarkable. Because of its exploration of the connection between the personal and the political, it showcases the human faces of the collective — the human faces of not just individuals from a given community, often easily accomplished in novels, but of the mass —, of those whose narratives are often shown simply as political upheavals and disruptions, rather than the human force that exists behind them. As a result, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, with all its merits and flaws, insists on centering on humanity.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.