Reflections on the ‘Being Alive’ anthology

As part of our ‘Research into Creative Writing Practices’ class, we read ‘Being Alive’, an anthology edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe. Part of a trilogy, I love these anthologies and I have a long history of reading them: they were some of the books I read most when I was starting to take my poetry practice seriously. It was great to look more closely at them.

The anthology is split into chapters based on aspects of life. We were each assigned a section to focus on, and asked to come up with a creative response. I was assigned ‘Men and Women’ (p211 – 256).

Although there was a lot I recognised in this section – from being a woman who interacts with men day-to-day – it felt very heteronormative. It deals almost exclusively with romantic and sexual relationships between men and women; I would have like to have seen poems on fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, best friends…

The knowledge it produces is around what it feels like to have a gender, and to enact that in a world which is unequal. Because it is poetry, it does this in an evocative way, and many of the poems are visceral. Many poems made me sad and/or angry, and some made me sigh with recognition.

It also gives interesting insights into attitudes and values around gender; for instance Frederick Seidel’s ‘Men and Woman’ gives away a particular kind of sexism through its focus on women’s (but not men’s) bodies, even whilst claiming that “women have won”.

The knowledge of what it feels like to have a gender in this context is meaningful and important. However, it immediately sets itself up as a binary through the title, which feels exclusive to people who don’t fit normative or binary ideas of gender. If the title referenced gender more generally, or feminism (as the chapter is really about the trouble with gender roles and patriarchy), it would have felt more like an interesting exploration – as many of the poems are when taken on their own terms. However, the way they are framed changes the knowledge they produce. The title makes the section more likely to reproduce essentialist ideas about binary gender; it reifies ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman rather than opening them up. And while there are poems that are not gendered, eg Alice Oswald’s ‘Wedding’, the title forces them into a heteronormative framework.

I found that as a queer woman, I didn’t really see myself in most of this section. This felt like erasure, because it’s claiming a universal theme with its title and introduction.

As well as imagining re-naming the section, I imagined adding some poems which would diversify it:

  • ‘Andrew’, Andrea Gibson
  • ‘A genderful pep-talk for my younger self’, Andrea Gibson
  • ‘The female husband’, Carol Ann Duffy
  • ‘Mail’, Danez Smith

I also decided to create my own space out of what was presented in the section; I wrote a pantoum using lines from some of the poems. This feels familiar to me because reclaiming language is something LGBTQ+ people have to do all the time: whether it’s because the language is offensive, exclusive, or irrelevant, we have to keep remaking it, and we often have to repurpose the materials we’re given. The repetitiveness of the pantoum fit my purpose because these are conversations we have to have over and over; in addition, the words we reclaim often take on multiple meanings out of necessity, which is something that is mirrored in the pantoum form.

 

 

Staying Alive

 

In the garden a moonflower is stretching its jaws in the cold

We talked across gin and grapefruit,

who are both vivacious and angry as a bee.

Summer thunder rumbled over Brooklyn, a far-off sadness

 

We talked across gin and grapefruit

because she was one of my kind, my tribe.

Summer thunder rumbled over Brooklyn, a far-off sadness:

I’ll wear it like bones, like skin.

 

Because she was one of my kind, my tribe;

and her to hell-with-everybody stare:

I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,

even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver.

 

Her to hell-with-everybody stare:

both vivacious and angry as a bee,

even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver.

In the garden a moonflower is stretching its jaws in the cold.

 

Lines taken from:

A: ‘Done’, Minnie Bruce Pratt

B: ‘A Simple Story’, Gwenn Harwood

C: ‘I’ll be a wicked old woman’, Radmila Lazic

D: ‘Men and Woman’, Frederick Seidel

E & G: ‘The Change’, Tony Hoagland

H: ‘Men in Space’, Billy Collins

7 Things I Loved About Min Jin Lee’s great novel ‘Pachinko’

  1. The page-turning story which is rooted in historical facts. Pachinko is nearly 500 pages long but you can’t stop turning the pages once you start reading it. From the start, you’re immersed in the family saga of Sunja, the loved daughter of Hoonie, who was born with a “cleft palate and a twisted foot”, and Yangjin. Extremely poor but happy, they lived in the fishing village of Yeongdo, near the post of Busan, now situated in South Korea but at the time when the novel opens, in the 1920s, Korea had been annexed by Imperial Japan in 1910. Much of the tension in the story is generated by the extreme prejudice the Korean characters encounter at the hands of the Japanese; Min Jin explores the horrifying discrimination that Koreans suffered with real subtlety but never shies away from showing things as they were. Japan+Times+Article
  2. The compelling characters. When Sunja was thirteen, her father, Hoonie died of tuberculosis and then in 1932 the Japanese invaded Manchuria, causing widespread suffering in Korea because the Japanese were given extremely preferential treatment in Korea above the native Koreans: the Depression meant that Sunja and her mother, Yangjin, had to run a boardinghouse to survive, taking in six lodgers into their tiny house. All the major characters in the novel are complex and sympathetic. Yangjin appears on the surface to be a doting, diligent mother and cook, but, without giving too much away, we see a dark side to her when she passes judgement on her daughter’s lover on her deathbed. Sunja is even more finely drawn: she is a “peasant” girl — and then mother — who is a fully-rounded character with conflicting desires.190fd57aff3465ffa79c3fd667f5cec5453512-120630-inq-japanese-troops
  3. The exploration of desire. Above all, this novel, for all its brilliant evocation of Korean and Japanese culture, is an investigation into the conflict between human desires and social conventions. Sunja suffers because she wishes to enjoy the moment with Hansu, a rich Korean who appears to offer her the chance to rescue her from a life of poverty. Min Jin Lee’s writing excels when it is sensual. It is worth quoting an important moment in the novel when Hansu seduces Sunja while they are mushroom picking in the forest (p. 46): “Hansu moved towards her. She could smell his soap and the winter-green of his hair wax. He was cleanly shaven and handsome. She loved how white his clothes were. Why did such a thing matter? The men at the boardinghouse could not help being filthy. Their work dirtied all their things, and no amount of scrubbing would get the fish smell of their shirts and pants. Her father had taught her not to judge people on such shallow points: What a man wore or owned had nothing to do with his heart and character. She inhaled deeply, his scent mingled with the cleansing air of the forest.” I loved the way MJL entered the “thought-stream” of Sunja here; we can see her conflicting wishes to do the “right thing” and yet also discover what it means to touch, to smell, to taste a person you’re intoxicated with.

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    A Korean forest (Gwangneung)
  4. Immersing yourself in another culture and era. The novel has a really immersive quality. I read it over the space of a few weeks; I would come home after work and would want to read it rather than watching TV because the novel has the quality of a really brilliant HBO serial: you want to see what happens in the next episode. There is an epic sweep to the narrative which spans the whole of the 20th century. After Sunja rejects Hansu’s offer of an “arrangement”, she marries a poor cleric, Isak, and moves with him to live with his brother, Yoseb, in Osaka, Japan. There, the climate is much harsher and the prejudice against Koreans even worse, with Koreans not even being allowed to become citizens even after living in the country for decades. Sunja befriends Yoseb’s beautiful wife, Kyunghee, and together, despite great hardship, they triumph.

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    Kyobashi Station Osaka in 1946
  5. A brilliant evocation of what it means to be a parent. Sunja has two sons, Noa and Mozasu. Her husband Isak is imprisoned by the Japanese in the late 1930s for refusing to honour the Emperor above his Christian faith and then dies. Sunja has to more or less bring up her sons by herself. Her eldest son, Noa, seems to be set for great things, attaining a place to read English Literature at Waseda University in Tokyo but there is an unexpected twist in the narrative and things do not go according to plan. Once again, MJL’s facility to create complex characters means that you never quite know what is going to happen next.

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    Waseda university in 1910.
  6. A fascinating insight into pachinko culture. Sunja’s youngest son, Mozasu, is not academic and does what many Koreans do in Japan who wish to make money: he works in the pachinko industry. I knew nothing about this arcade game — which is a bit like a cross between a fruit machine and a pinball game — until I read the novel, but I certainly do now! MJL shows us the good and evil side to the industry, right down to the tiniest details of how deals are made.
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    A pre-war pachinko machine
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    Billard japonais, Southern Germany/Alsace ca. 1750–70.
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    Mechanical pachinko machine from the 1970s.

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    A modern, electronic pachinko machine in a Tokyo parlor.
  7. A mouth-watering narrative about food. Cooking plays a central role in the novel, with kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of fermented vegetables, becoming extremely important in rescuing our protagonists at a pivotal moment, and food generally being very important. I loved all the descriptions of cooking, eating and the selling of food.

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    Kimchi