With two bank holidays and the notoriously unreliable British weather, May offers the perfect opportunity to settle into a good book, whether it be out in the sunshine, or inside away from the rain.
But what to choose? To help give some guidance we asked members of our literature programming team here at Southbank Centre to share what they’ve been enjoying recently. From compelling character collisions to poetry podcasts; here’s what’s had them turning the pages this past month.
Senior Programmer for Literature and Spoken Word
One of the stand-out novels I’ve read this month is Ponti, a debut by Sharlene Teo which more than lived up to the pre-publication hype surrounding it. Set in the sticky heat of Teo’s native Singapore, it follows a young woman from her school days to the aftermath of divorce as she attempts to carve out meaning in a megacity. Switching perspectives between her sixteen-year-old self and her present, this is a pungent comedy about the slipperiness of memory, where myth bumps up against modernity, and classmates might just become monsters. Surreal, haunting and downright hilarious at times, Teo has a sensibility and a way of seeing all of her own.
Closer to home I’ve been immersed in Aminatta Forna’s latest novel, Happiness, which captures the collision of two characters on Waterloo Bridge. Attila, a towering Ghanaian psychiatrist in London to deliver a keynote, and Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes. With wit, insight and great intimacy, Forna traces the trajectories which brought them together, and in their distinctive worldviews asks searching questions about the limits of what we see amidst the bustling city around us. Like the foxes whose bright brushes flash through the novel, Forna’s fiction alerts us to the colour and beauty of lives lived on the margins.
And ahead of the Man Booker 50 Festival here at Southbank Centre in July, I’ve also been revisiting some past winners, including the magnificent Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. Another unlikely collision, this vividly drawn historical novel sees a young Anglican priest meet an heiress across the green felt of gambling tables on a voyage to Australia. A single bet catapults them into a feat of biblical proportions, and threatens to sever affection which has grown between them. It’s a masterful and moving work about the hands that life deals us, and what humans can achieve against the odds.
I’d missed reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian when it first came out so thought I’d give it a read this month. The book is translated from Korean by translator and publisher Deborah Smith and follows the character of Yeong-hye who decides to give up meat and in doing so, brings about the strange breaking apart of her family. This book sparked international conversations about the nature of translation and what can be lost in the process. But for me, this novel’s stark and at times brutal language interprets the expectations we place on individuals, on familial structures and on women in particular, and the destruction that is wrought when this pressure finally implodes.
Also this month I’ve been listening to poetry podcasts and am really enjoying the American Poetry Foundation’s magazine podcast. In each episode, a poet reads one of their poems and then the editors of Poetry magazine, Don Share, Christina Pugh and Lindsay Garbutt discuss it. It’s such a simple format but there is something incredibly intimate about hearing poets such as Danez Smith, Elizabeth Acevedo and Ilya Kaminsky reading poems through your headphones. The podcast moves away from an academic deconstruction of the poem and favours more human interpretations of poems that touch on race, privilege, war and love.
When thinking about the books I’ve read over the past month, the first to come to mind is Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s The Gurugu Pledge. Set in a series of caves on Morocco’s Mount Gurugu, we are introduced to a settlement of 500 African migrants hoping to reach Europe. Here Ávila Laurel weaves a humorous yet stark narrative, by beginning with a narrator that very quickly introduces himself and declines to tell his story for fear of not being able to stop, making way for his fellow ‘residents’ to tell their own stories. This in itself feels like an acknowledgment of the power of being able to tell one’s own story both for the teller and the listener. The tales woven both detail the circumstances that pushed the individual tellers to exile, and combine to tell a story of survival in search of a place, a world, that will have them. The Gurugu Pledge, is a darkly comic, humanising account of African migration that shows we are more than our circumstances.
With survival seemingly a trend in my current reading, I also read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. As Vuong’s first collection has received universal acclaim, from winning the 2017 T.S.Eliot Prize to 2017 Forward Prize for Best First Collection, I had high expectations coming in, however was unprepared for just how indelible his poetry would prove to be. An early example in the collection is Vuong’s poem Aubade With Burning City, a poetic account of the fall of Saigon with lyrics from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas woven in - Berlin’s song was used as a code to begin the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees during the fall of Saigon. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a compelling and visceral collection whose power, for me, lies in its unflinching embrace of human fragility.
Finally, sticking to the theme and looking ahead to our upcoming [B]old festival (14-20 May), I’m currently reading Walking Through Fire: The Later Years of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words. A follow up to her autobiography A Daughter of Isis, Egyptian author and activist, El Saadawi narrates the story of her extraordinary life and how she became one of the most important writers of her generation. Walking Through Fire is at once revelatory, inspirational and humbling - it’s an incredible honour that she will be appearing here at the Southbank Centre in May.
Artistic Programming Assistant
This month I've been enjoying Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle series. To be precise, the first four books: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu. I realise I'm late to the party; I hadn't read any of Le Guin's books before, however I'd heard her work discussed a lot since she sadly passed away earlier this year, and wanted to discover more.
The series follows Ged on his journey to becoming one of the most powerful wizards in Earthsea. His growth from an impatient boy to a wise and powerful wizard is particularly satisfying, as even in his prime he still struggles to achieve happiness or peace. When I compare him to other wizards I’ve read – namely Gandalf and Dumbledore, I do not claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of wizards – Ged’s very human flaws and concerns make his adventures all the more gripping, as any triumph feels extremely well earned.
We also follow Tenar - a young priestess shut away in the Tombs of Atuan. Though reviews and even the book’s own blurb had led me to believe Ged to be the main focus of the series, Tenar is just as central to the story. Whilst Ged sails around the world slaying dragons, Tenar’s story is much more claustrophobic as she struggles to exist in, and then escape from, the Tombs, and subsequently to find her place as a foreign woman in a patriarchal society. Though Ged’s story certainly explores ideas of power, responsibility and privilege, it’s with Tenar that Le Guin really digs deep into them.
These stories are enjoyable largely because both the characters and their world are built with such skill, and I'm amazed Le Guin managed to communicate so much without sacrificing the plot. Much joy for me came from recognising a land or culture casually mentioned two books before; and that the exploration of each new place added perfectly to the patchwork of politics, geographies, histories and more that made up the world of Earthsea.
Throughout the year Southbank Centre hosts some of the most celebrated writers and poets, as well as highlighting promising new talent through an array of literature events and talks