Happening by Annie Ernaux translated by Tanya Leslie
First published in France in 2000, and in Tanya Leslie’s translation the following year, publishers Fitzcarraldo Editions promise clearly, cleanly, … [Annie Ernaux] gleans the meanings of her experience. Mm, does she? As someone who believes we must continue retelling the stories of women’s denial of custody over our own minds and bodies, I wasn’t sure what this adds to what we already know. A little European context would not have gone amiss when Brexit is currently held hostage to a mean-spirited Northern Irish non-Assembly where the party that insists the province be treated identically to the rest of the UK denies women there the reproductive rights that even the former Catholic enclave across the border can now access.
Those already enamoured of, or even familiar with, this author’s oeuvre might be more forgiving, but I found this section towards the end rather grandiose (p74-75):
I have rid myself of the only feeling of guilt in connection with this event: the fact that it had happened to me and I had done nothing about it. A sort of discarded gift. Among all the social and psychological reasons that may account for my past, of one thing I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them.
That a common response to the universe serving us rotten lemons is to assume there’s a deeper purpose to our trauma doesn’t make it rational, or right. Thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for my review copy.
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
Growing up poor in a single-parent household in Camden in the 1980s, Akala was five when he realised he and his mother were on opposite sides of the racial divide. It didn’t matter that his heritage was a mix of white Scots-English and black Jamaican, society marked him as black. Fortunately, his mother was wise to the political context and, along with a series of ‘uncles’ and attendance at a Saturday pan-African school, was able to build his confidence in his own identity and arm him with some of the tools to confront discrimination head on.
Even so, he could have ended up a casualty of the system, as many of his friends and associates did. Indeed, for the latter part of his childhood he conformed to the stereotype of the knife-carrying ‘gangster’ whom the media portray as disproportionately responsible for our cities’ violent crime. Fortunately, he changed his ways in his mid-twenties and, while he reports no reason for this volte face, I suspect it can be attributed to the late-adolescent maturation of the human brain.
Personal anecdote is used sparingly, and to good effect. There’s nothing ‘poor me’ about his encounters with injustice nor, as can sometimes be the case with those who’ve succeeded despite unpromising beginnings, any false promises that ‘if I can do this, so can you’. Quite the reverse, as he repeatedly acknowledges how lucky he’s been. Rather it points the finger at something the white liberal reader would rather not know about, or forget if she already knows.
Let me share a few of the points that struck me particularly. We revere Nelson Mandela because the majority rule he spearheaded doesn’t change the elite’s oppression of the poor. In the UK, we’re more familiar with the causes and consequences of US racism than the suppressed scandals on home soil. It’s a nonsense to bemoan ‘black on black’ violence as we never referred to The Troubles or the battles of World War Two as ‘white on white’. The UK is doomed to underestimate the rise of India, China and Japan on the global stage as we are stuck on a script of ‘white is best’. (I found that one particularly uplifting: we’ve hit an iceberg, folks, and we’re going down!)
My fear, as I read, both as someone slightly averse to nonfiction and with a virus-induced fuzzy head, was that I’d fail to absorb the many lessons the book contains. But published last summer, and possibly delivered to the publishers (thanks for my copy, Two Roads) a year before, there a couple of disturbing recent events that further substantiate his claims. The book does address Brexit – where a nation has agreed to economic decline in order to hang on to a fantasy of a glorious past – but I wonder if the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush Scandal will be referenced in the paperback edition of the book.