Monday, 27 January 2020

An Impossible Poison

I am delighted to celebrate my first short film, An Impossible Poison, which received its premiere at Lettrétage in Berlin on Thursday 16th November 2017 as part of an event called Breaking Ground Berlin: A New British Con_Text. The event also featured live performances from writer and film-maker Xiaolu Guo and performance poet Francesca Beard. An Impossible Poison received its London premier at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 7th March 2018 as part of the That's What She Said night (details here). It has been very well reviewed, screened widely and been selected for seven international film festivals so far. Further details, with stills, laurels and script notes, are below - and of course you can click below to watch the film for free. Go to full screen and turn up the sound.

"all the careful crafting of an art film, from its velvety decor to its heightened gothic colour is this attention to styling that brings the element of luxury...every frame is a portrait."
Girls on Film, review and interview 

"awe-inspiring...intriguing, chilling, compelling"
"[a] brilliant horror short"
Emerald Street, article on women in film

An Impossible Poison is available to view for free on Vimeo below (or on YouTube here). Turn the sound up and go to full screen:

So far, An Impossible Poison has made the Official Selection of the Five Continents International Film Festival; the International Women’s Film Festival; the New York Lift-Off Festival; the Film and Screenplay Contest 2018; the Fake Flesh Film Festival; the Night of the Short Film Festival in Antwerp; and Shorts on Tap in association with Time Out, November 2019. All the laurels for these are below. It is also a semi-finalist in the 2017 STIFF San Maurino Torinese film festival. The London X4 Seasonal Short Film Festival reviewed it as:
"eerie, atmospheric [and] well directed"

and Club des Femmes, the feminist film collective, have reviewed it as:

 "intriguing and very atmospheric, beautifully shot and edited."

In a perceptive and very flattering review and interview, which can be read in full here, Girls on Film describe An Impossible Poison as having "all the careful crafting of an art film, from its velvety decor to its heightened gothic colour palette...this attention to styling brings the element of luxury...crossing over into installation-worthy territory...every frame is a portrait."

In the selection notes, feedbacked it as:
"a very intense and intimate film …all very intriguing. The first flash of emotion when [the weird stuff happens] was superb. ...The strange, creepy [other thing] which followed gave me chills. Thought provoking stuff and enjoyable to watch. Great job."
An Impossible Poison is an intense 7 minute narrative short feature which dramatises a few lines from some poems of mine, as commissioned by Speaking Volumes, who wanted me to reinterpret the idea of a writer performing her own work. The text deals with the aftermath of deceit, with ritualistic and ceremonial traditions and the continued attraction of a witchcraft tradition in the contemporary world. The atmosphere of the film is heightened and carefully designed, the look stylised, with the camera lingering on the details of cloth, jewellery, décor and on the profile and hands of the main character and her props. In the film, a woman enacts an occult ritual over a score of eerie music. It gets steadily more extreme as the woman is absorbed and exhilarated by the ritual, which offers both release from pain and the thrill of encountering the uncanny. 

I consider myself to be an arthouse auteur and don't think in terms of genres or performance style - so it's funny to me that An Impossible Poison is being interpreted as a horror film. I did the cinematography, art direction and sound design myself (as is quite common on a short auteur project) - the soundtrack is actually made up of about seven sound clips plaited together with varying speeds and levels. The wonderful thing about film is that everything you've done in your career up to that point (in my case, art direction in style magazines, then a long career in TV and radio) can go into it. 

It was also shown on 25th April 2018 at Words with....Bidisha at the Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex, followed by an in-depth conversation (details here); on 16th June 2018 at APT Gallery in London as part of the Gaze symposium; at the Victoria Gallery, University of Liverpool, on Sunday 21st October 2018; and at Samsung KX in Coal Drops Yard in London on Thursday 28th November 2019 in association with Time Out (details here).

The credits are as follows:
  • Written and directed by Bidisha
  • Camera operator - Amy Cameron
  • Editing – Amy Cameron and Bidisha

Just for fun, a list of some of the films I like can be found here. Links to my film essays and reviews can be found all over the Net, although I recently wrote about Angelina Jolie's work as a director, the portrayal of Syria in documentaries and features, the new generation of millennial film-makers, the documentary Even When I Fall, Wonder Woman and women in action films, The Assassin and the 'wuxia' Chinese swordfighting genre, women in dystopic science fiction films and documentaries on rape camps in the Bosnian wars and child refugees in Lebanon and Syria.

The full text of the main poem (which I don’t use all of in the film), as well as the extra script lines, are below. The first line of the script is “deceit is my friend” and the final line is “not to suffer”.

An Impossible Poison

Deceit is my friend and it hangs over me,
An angelic nurse hovering at my bedside,
Its wings flexing open, rich and exuberant,
Its long feathers dipped in cold holy water,
Casting drops around me like a bare blanket.

Deceit is my life-partner, the only one I need,
My counterpart, my foil, my voice of reason,
My stalwart retainer who never surprises me,
Accompanying me invisibly down the aisle,
A ghost groom in a wedding video on repeat.

Deceit is the ally who remains at my shoulder
As the others drift coolly away in plain disbelief,
Politely receding while I bid them a sad farewell
Like a queen standing in her castle, nobly robed
In betrayal, the heavy cloak I can never cast off.

Deceit is my meat and drink, its claggy taste
Sits in my throat like an impossible poison
I can never fully purge as I toast the company
Who have no clue that all I can taste is lies
Swilling in my mouth like a long deep kiss.

[Extra script lines as follows:]

The offer of blood is the oldest gift
I offer it up, I offer it up

In the failure of law, rightness is restored,
That is only fair.

The slow inexorable ceremony of natural justice always goes the same way.
First, the procession. Then, the sacrifice. Then the shadow walk.

The offer made, the gods collect
And in return they grand the chance to survive.

Not to succeed,
Just to continue struggling,
Brute survival in the cold hard world.

I pay the blood tax to survive,
Not to be destroyed.

Just survive,
Not to suffer.

All images and text (c) Bidisha, 2017-2020

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Brown in Brexit Britain: an interview

This summer I gave an interview to journalist Lorraine Mallinder about being British Asian in the Brexit era. This is an extended version of the interview.

What does the term 'British' mean to you? Is it still a valid concept? Is it capable of embracing our society in all its complexity and diversity?

For me, the term ‘British’ was always a handy, geographically inclusive (England, Scotland, Wales) but not ethnically limiting identity. Even though it was a generalisation, it said something about where I lived, not my racial heritage. I feel British – I am British – and I’m clearly not white English. That said, both this country (England) and its union (Great Britain) are tainted by their definitive history of colonial exploitation of vast swathes of the rest of the planet, fuelled by racism and all that racism brings with it: cultural superiority, avaricious greed, exploitation, inhumanity and breathtaking arrogance.

However, the Britain I grew up in – particularly the British London I grew up in – I associated with other things, often very positive things: tolerance; variety; diversity of language, colour, culture, heritage; a singularly subtle and dry humour; a particular joyful eccentricity, even a celebration of the quirky and the bizarre; a slightly rough and ramshackle streety edge.  

On the flip side, however, England has always had terrible shadow sides: the entitled Imperial or aristocratic white male arrogance and cronyism that rises through elite schools and universities and is then strengthened through the boys’ clubs at the top of every single trade and profession including seemingly progressive leftist politics and the seemingly liberal arts and culture sectors; and, at the other end of the traditional English class scale, a defiantly insular, monoglot, defensively aggressive, ignorant-and-happy-about-it, yobbish, philistine, laddish, violent-in-sentiment-or-word-or-deed, backward, racist undertow.

Given the recent disastrous Brexit vote it was these two tendencies which rose to the surface: a bigoted, numbskull, philistine hatred of foreigners, experts and elites of any kind; and an upper-class delusion that England (not Scotland, who voted to remain) will somehow regain its abusive and dominating hold and status over the rest of the world.

What's your experience of living in Britain as an Asian woman? How has that evolved over the years?

What do you mean, ‘living in Britain’? I am not just on a speculative stay, I was born and brought up here. In fact your question, with the underlying, subtle assumption that I am not as tied to the country as someone who is white English, represents a new movement in the way non-white Britons are seen. It is as if non-white Britons are not really ‘from’ England and ought to feel some sort of pull to ‘return’ ‘back home’ (that is, the country of their parents’ or even grandparents’ birth). This is a new thing in my lifetime, and it has steadily been exacerbated over the last ten year as lots of different bigotries and prejudices have combined in white Englanders’ minds. Islamophobia in the wake of various terrorist attacks like those on the World Trade Centre in New York and the London transport network; an increase in racism based on colour, against people of South Asian descent whether Muslim or not; a racist prejudice against migrants from other parts of the EU like Poland and Romania; a vilification of refugees fleeing war, fragile states, extreme poverty and political persecution, despite the fact that the UK has accepted tiny numbers of refugees.

Life is much colder and harder than it was – much more racist, much more suspicious, more ignorant (and defiantly so). The general tenor of debate, both private and public, casual and professional, has become much coarser. It has become permissible to say just anything, no matter how narrow-minded, inflammatory, ignorant and insulting, and waste the time of people like me, who have to ‘debate’ each point as if it’s acceptable and legitimate in some way. As a political analyst speaking in mainstream broadcasting (for BBC, Sky News and Channel 4) I have found myself having to argue, as if legitimately, with people stating that learning other languages is a waste of time, that migrants should be vetted “so they don’t blow us up”, that “they” “don’t want to integrate”. I am having to push back against openly racist, aggressively insular, utterly scathing and unapologetic racists who feel their prejudices have now been endorsed and legitimised by a significant proportion of the population – and by the shift rightwards which is being seen all over the world, from full-on dictatorships in Turkey and Russia to far right governments in Hungary and Romania and gains for far right parties in Greece, France, Holland and Austria.

At a very personal level, I’m in my 30s, very established in my career and public life – and worried and despairing. I have seen the great dream of multiculturalism and the trend of ‘cool britannia’ come and go. The white men’s clubs who ran everything still run everything. Despite there being several very eminent women of colour in my fields (journalism and broadcasting; arts and cultural diplomacy; political analysis; human rights advocacy) we are still very much a minority, and we are never in each other’s company. Each of us is often the only woman and only person of colour on the panel, discussion, event, trip, project or enterprise. Whenever this happens – whenever white male domination refuses to break or change – the victims are blamed. This is true in the case of all male abuse. I am hitting the famous glass ceiling and, as a result, am probably going to become part of the ‘brain drain’ of non-white Britons of talent who are leaving the country as a result of the racist and sexist marginalisation and subtle discrimination we face. Let me be clear: this isn’t overt name-calling, insult and attack. It’s more like the steady realisation that no matter how nicey-nice people are to your face, you will never be accepted into the club and normalised as a member. So the political and personal are inextricably linked and (in my opinion), everything is possible: I am aggrieved because of issues of sex and race, which have either stalled or actively gone backwards in most areas of life in the UK.

What do you see happening in British society today? How has Brexit impacted British identity, if at all? 

Brexit has impacted everything for the worse. Brexit is a catastrophe, a mistake and a disaster. I am horrified at how a virtually half-and-half vote has been aggressively transformed into ‘the people have spoken’ and thus regarded as some kind of mandate to enable a tragic act of self-harm; one which has no upside culturally, morally, financially or politically. I believe the vote was fuelled by racism, insularity, arrogance and aggressively blunt-headed nationalism; by grief and misery after decades of under-funding of essential services, social care, family support, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and civic life; by an arrogant contempt for the responsibilities and pleasures of being part of a world community which decides things together; by a philistine rejection of Europe’s culture, history, peoples and languages

We are all going to pay the price for this mistake. Brexit will affect everything from students’ ability to travel and study globally; medical research; collaboration on arts and cultural projects; joint scholarship and research; financial services and business; agriculture and farming; travel, life, retirement, freedom; knowledge-sharing when it comes to security and terrorism. Whichever way you look at it, from whichever standpoint you have politically, it’s a disaster. Politicians know this. They know it both by instinct and by the research and the appeals which are being put to them by every sector from farming to art galleries. The one thing that they may have learnt from all of this is that they must never throw out a referendum so callously and so casually again. There was no demand from the public for a vote on EU membership; David Cameron took a gamble that he thought he was going to win. He lost, and it destroyed his career. It’s going to do the same to Theresa May, because Brexit is not just poisonous but impossible: we have decades’ worth of successfully working ties with the EU. There was no need for this politically violent and culturally backward act of sabotage and self-sabotage.

What makes me all the more angry is that the British left – which is ruled by entitled white men, just the same as the right – is equally provincial, insular and small-minded. They have mounted no opposition to Brexit whatsoever and indeed Jeremy Corbyn has punished those of his colleagues who have shown opposition to Brexit.

How do you perceive Britain's relationship with the rest of the world?

England (not Scotland which voted Remain) is a laughing stock. It is seen as arrogant, insular, xenophobic, racist, nationalistic, petty and provincial, chasing an impossible and immoral dream signified by meaningless words and slogans: ‘take back control’; regain ‘sovereignty’. Britain always had control and sovereignty. Membership of the EU is membership of a linguistically and historically diverse community, with meetings in Brussels, which is convenient for all the member states and is a few hours’ away on the Eurostar. We lost nothing, and gained so much, by EU membership. As a result of England’s poor image international doctors and nurses, and international students and researchers, are choosing to go elsewhere. England will become a backwater within twenty years, with a young generation with no sense of themselves as being part of a world community, uninterested in the rest of the world; England will be abandoned as a bad bet by the rest of the world – as deluded and arrogant, and pathetically out of step.

A best case scenario will be that London – and only London – will become a hub for the global super-rich to park their cars and buy apartments; and developments of luxury homes, boutiques and restaurants will follow this. So it’ll become like Hong Kong or Dubai or Singapore. But the rest of the country will exist in stark contrast to that wealth. But the fundamental delusion – that greater days are to come and there is some new era of wealth and success on the horizon – is pathetically empty. In any case, England will never and should never regain any kind of Imperial power; the future of the world, politically, resides in China, India, Latin America and numerous African countries. England could have joined in with the flow of the future. Instead, it put up the barricades and pulled up the drawbridge. The rest of the EU nations are understandably bemused by what is so obviously a self-damaging and damaging act which will damn at least a generation to come.

Some films I quite like a lot

This was going to be a definitive list of favourites but there are far too many to mention, and they change all the time, plus there are loads of odd moments and aspects and bits-of-films, plus countless films I love in one way but not another, so here's a list of formative rather than favourite films....things I saw pretty early on that became film memories. 

Terminator and Terminator 2 - directed by James Cameron
Point Break - Kathryn Bigelow
Near Dark - Kathryn Bigelow
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - Ana Lily Amirpour
Lawn Dogs - John Duigan
The Brave One - Neil Jordan
The Last Man on Planet Earth - Les Landau
The first two thirds of Twilight - Catherine Hardwicke
Bits of Dark Knight, especially the interrogation scene - Christopher Nolan
The first two thirds of Captives - Angela Pope
The Beguiled - Sofia Coppola (plus the original by Don Siegel)
Desperately Seeking Susan - Susan Seidelman
Falling Down - Joel Schumacher
The Lost Boys - Joel Schumacher
Silence of the Lambs - Jonathan Demme
Black Narcissus - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Close My Eyes - Stephen Poliakoff
The Love Witch - Anna Biller
Maurice - James Ivory
A Room With a View - James Ivory
W.E. - Madonna
Gladiator - Ridley Scott
The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgos Lanthimos
RoboCop the original - Paul Verhoeven
Carrie - Brian de Palma
Boys Don't Cry - Kimberly Pierce
The Maleficent bits of Maleficent - Robert Stromberg
Death in Venice - Luchino Visconti
La Belle et la Bête - Jean Cocteau
I Am Love - Luca Guadagnino
Call Me By Your Name, except for all the roles for women - Luca Guadagnino
Carol - Todd Haynes
The Medusa scene in Clash of the Titans - Desmond Davis
The skeleton army attack in Jason and the Argonauts - Don Chaffey (one of my absolute earliest film memories, it must have been on TV at Christmas when I was a kid)
The Neverending Story - Wolfgang Peterson
Labyrinth - Jim Henson
John Wick - Chad Stahelski
Rambo: First Blood - Ted Kotcheff
Adore - Anne Fontaine
American Psycho - Mary Harron
American Werewolf in London - John Landis

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

This is an extended version of an essay commissioned by the British Library this year.

Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls premiered in 1982 at The Royal Court and instantly became a classic with its sly reflection of the nascent Reagan-Thatcher era of yuppie individualism, its coruscating take on class, sex and inequality and its interrogation of the hollowness of the capitalist dream and the hidden costs of women’s historical renown, personal ambition and financial success.  

The play starts on a spectacular note, with a fantasy dinner party hosted by Marlene, one character who is a constant throughout the play. Marlene is an executive at the Top Girls recruitment agency, and to celebrate her success she has assembled a group of historical women whom she clearly considers to be her symbolic peers. The setting is a restaurant – a public place, formerly the preserve of male executives, in which Marlene can order stereotypically masculine far like rare steak, wine and brandy, commanding the waitress (who does not speak) to bring extra rounds of food and drink as the party progresses. Here, early on, we see the incisiveness of Churchill’s take on sex and class: Marlene’s success and apparent liberation has ‘enabled’ her to behave towards the anonymous and silent female serving staff exactly as a pompous and dominating man.  The host of the party, Marlene, remains largely private, unknowable, self-controlled and in control – a driven, ambitious 20th century self-creation – until the raw final scene of the play.

At the opening dinner part, as the women get to know each other, tell their life-stories, preen and bond. Marlene’s guests have all achieved a certain iconic status in history or myth and are all, on the surface of it, from radically different times and cultures: the 19th century Scottish world traveller, Isabella Bird; Lady Nijo, a13th century Japanese courtesan who was forced to become a nun after losing her master’s favour and who then travelled all over Japan; and the 9th century Roman Pope, Joan, who disguised herself as a man and attained the highest ecclesiastical rank in the Empire.

There are also two very different fictional characters, both brought to life by male writers and artists: Griselda, the archetypal medieval good wife, written about approvingly by Chaucer, Boccaccio and Petrarch, whose husband Walter subjects her to all kinds of tests including forced marriage, banishment and separation from her children; and Dull Gret, a heroic folk figure painted by the Flemish artist Breughel as a woman who leads other peasant women to the mouth of hell to fight demons (symbolically resisting the constant wars and invasions in 16th century Holland) armed with pots and pans from the home.

It becomes immediately clear that the obstacles, oppressions and challenges all the women have encountered are remarkably similar despite their differences of language, culture, country and century. So too is their range of response: some of the women, like Pope Joan and Isabella Bird, are determined from the outset to break beyond the limitations and expectations of sex and gender; others, like Lady Nijo and Griselda work unquestioningly within the rules of their societies; others, like Dull Gret, fight for survival in the absence of all other options. Both Lady Nijo, from Imperial Japan, and Griselda, from feudal Europe, have internalised their submissiveness to male power. They make excuses for the men who abuse them and believe what they are told: that women need protection and definition by men and are nothing without them. All of the women, except Isabella (whose story is not coincidentally the happiest, most uncomplicated and laudatory), are mothers whose children have been given up or taken away from them or whose babies have died. All the women suffer because of the same things: structural inequality caused by the lack of education and rewarding employment for women; male violence; the expectation of conformity to femininity (even Marlene says that she doesn’t wear trousers in the office); female disempowerment and the absence of women’s right to shape their own destiny and that of their children.

Yet despite these similarities, each woman has a different personality and interprets her life’s events and her own cultural context differently. For Isabella Bird, travel is a chosen escape, a source of inspiration and adventure; for Lady Nijo, it is the result of exile, banishment from the court and emotional desolation. Restless Isabella never felt at home in Scotland, even as a privileged and independent lady doing good works in society, while Lady Nijo felt settled at the Imperial court, enjoying her status and perks even though she was nothing more than men’s sexual plaything. Lady Nijo (and Griselda) put their faith in male father-husband-protectors and patriarchal systems, which ultimately used, humiliated and betrayed them, while Isabella answered to no-one but herself and consequently did better, assisted by her class privileges. Isabella regards ladies’ dressing-up as daft and time-wasting while Lady Nijo adores beauty and aesthetics and Griselda allows herself to be dressed in finery as her husband’s trophy.

This first scene also introduces the constant theme of women’s dress as carrying messages about class or propriety or purpose; the judgement of women by appearances; women’s own preoccupation with the way they come across and women’s attempts to influence others’ perception of them through their choice of clothing. In the 1980s scenes later in the play, clothing is a way for women to advance, to remake themselves, to subtly control their image or to allay others’ suspicions.

At the same time there are interesting echoes across the class divide: the highly educated and erudite Pope Joan is self-possessed, ambitious and tough, and so is Gret, an unlettered and mainly monosyllabic peasant woman. Neither of the two resorts to feminine wiles and fake delicacy or identifies with the performative fragility and modesty of Lady Nijo and Griselda. As Joan says, impatient with Lady Nijo’s tears, “I didn’t live a woman’s life. I don’t understand it.” The working-class character, Gret, does not have the luxury of dressing, beauty or courtly ennui, nor does she glory in service to others, marital or sexual masochism, fashion and social duty the way the privileged characters of Griselda and Lady Nijo do.

Despite not living a woman’s life, Joan is still punished – indeed, brutally murdered – by men for having stepped beyond and defied what is expected of her as a woman. When she gives birth during a Papal procession and it is discovered by her colleagues that she has attained her role by dressing as a man, she is dragged into a sidestreet and stoned to death by them. She is murdered by her peers not just for her deception but for defiling the male role of Pope with her very femaleness. Her determination to go beyond sex barriers, to dedicate her life to study, to be active instead of reactive, ambitious instead of dutiful, intellectual instead of defined by her biology, to be patriarchally powerful instead of patriarchally subjugated, to achieve in the outer world, are undercut by nothing more than her biology – and male judgement.  Women want more than mere survival and endurance; but Joan, the one who attempts to climb the highest, is brought down in the most brutal way. Her story horrifies the other guests at the dinner party and unites them in sympathy.

By bitterly perverse contrast, the apparently infantile, dependent, not very bright and grateful-for-anything-that-is-done-to-her Griselda lives out her years as a cherished wife and mother despite everything her husband subjects her to. Yet even female obedience doesn’t guarantee protection: Lady Nijo is cherished in the Imperial court until she falls out of favour with her masters; given that her father is also dead by then, she loses all status and has no home.

As the party progresses and becomes more raucous, alcohol unlocks the women’s rightful pride, valour, hilarity and relish. The ‘ladies’ stop behaving in a ladylike way and begin to speak more frankly. Despite Isabella insisting on her gendered conventionality when sober (“I always travelled as a lady and I repudiated strongly any suggestion…that I was other than feminine”) she suddenly declares “I cannot and will not live the life of a lady” and her most joyful memory is of herself, liberated to wear “full blue trousers and great brass spurs” abroad at seventy. Lady Nijo is obsessed with courtly protocol and fine gradations of class privilege within a suffocating system, yet she schemes with the other courtesans to fight back against male violence within the court and crows, “We beat him with a stick!”  Even timid Griselda admits, “I do think – I do wonder – it would have been nicer if Walter hadn’t had to [test me],” despite having been an apologist for his cruelty throughout.

All the women’s potential is compromised by society, across five different countries and eleven centuries (9th century Italy to 20th century England). Instead of finding any fulfilment or outlet, they have to strategise simply to survive; and even then, they don’t always survive. Gret, Joan and Lady Nijo are all subject to overt male violence; Lady Nijo and Griselda are also caught up in wider systems of emotional control and domination, as well as in Lady Nijo’s case sexual exploitation. Historically, the women who adopt patterns of stereotypically male dynamism, male authority, male mannerism and dress and male occupation of space achieve the most. Those who stay clear of personal entanglement (Marlene) or have emotionally undemanding lovers (Marlene, Joan) achieve the most and enjoy themselves the most, and only the 20th century character, Marlene, is openly critical of macho power systems and of specific men.

At the end of the dinner party, after they commiserate with each other and drown their sorrows, the women celebrate their survival and their adventures. They find each other inspiring, particularly when talking about fighting back. Travelling is a “joy” for the privileged Isabella – as it is for the characters in the 1980s-set scenes which follow, offering novelty, experience and opportunity – the closing line of the first scene is a great cry of relish from her: “how marvellous while it lasted”.

But the question of class is still disturbing and unresolved. Many of the historical characters have centre-stage, sensational stories and have had inspiring adventures. Gret, on the other hand, gains victory and release in fighting the symbolic devils assailing her homeland, but derives no sense of lasting liberation from her actions: “I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards.” Her actions are undertaken out of desperation, not valour; of being down to her last basic resources, not reaching for victory: “You just keep running on and fighting.” Her abrasive manner and rough attitude – like Marlene’s sister Joyce centuries later – come from dogged survival, from fighting because she is at the bottom of the social ladder and has nothing left to lose.

The early scenes of the play are set Marlene’s favoured territory: the restaurant and the employment agency. Both are public-facing, stage-like, calculatedly designed places where she and other women can impress and exercise power over each other.
The characters we see later in their home settings, like Marlene’s sister Joyce’s garden and kitchen, are trapped, bickering, dreaming, ripping each other apart in their frustration and unhappiness.

Immediately following the grand spectacle of the dinner party, Act 1 Scene 2 is set in the garden of Marlene’s sister Joyce’s house in an anonymous, provincial Northern town with no prospects. Joyce’s daughter Angie is with her friend Kit and is alternately dominating her and trying to impress her. Angie is poor, unhappy, frustrated and desperately claustrophobic, nakedly (yet pathetically) trying to be shocking: “I’m going to kill my mother and you’re going to watch.” The characters’ unhappiness expresses itself in suicidal, homicidal and nihilistic imaginings. Angie is obsessed with war, in between anxiously asking her much younger friend, “Do you like me?”

The young girls have absorbed the language of men’s hatred of women and use it on each other, calling each other “slag”, “silly cunt” and “stupid fucking cow”; Joyce calls Angie, her own daughter, a “fucking rotten little cunt… you make me sick”. Here, the female characters’ world is one of  misery, entrapment and fury, not restaurants or inspirational heroes.

Joyce is a tragic character whose frustration and despair lead her to insult and bully her daughter, yet her rage conceals an intelligence, even a kindness, which have nowhere to go. Joyce’s ex-husband bullied her, Joyce bullies her daughter Angie, Angie bullies her much younger friend Kit. Yet Joyce says perceptively of Angie, behind her back, “She’s one of those girls might never leave home…she’s not simple…she’s clever in her own way…she’s always kind to little children.” Both Joyce and Angie have innate good qualities which have been soured by lack of opportunity.

The central section of Top Girls shows the agency’s employees interviewing prospective clients. These perceptive, almost wince-inducingly exact scenes reveal that the women who have gained a position in the ‘new’ office culture of the 1980s have inherited a specific form of sexist power that cleaves narrowly to the macho values and shallow, misogynist judgements that went before. Sexist judgements about women’s marital status, motherhood, appearance and age have been absorbed by and are replicated by the new generation of women who are succeeding in a man’s world by re-enacting men’s prejudices.  In the real, hard world of the 1980s the women characters are not free to enjoy spectacularly imagined lives of rebellion and iconic achievement or travel. Life is still a daily grind for survival, in which grand ambitions are subjected to petty reasoning, rigid hierarchies and unjust expectations.

In one of the interview scenes we encounter Janine, who is caught between ambition, tradition, shyness, romanticism and female duty. She states, “I wanted to go to work” and, “I want a change…I do want prospects. I want more money….I’d like to travel.” At the same time she apologises for herself and talks herself down: “I expect it’s silly.” But she is apologising for wanting what many men want: to be married but “now and then” leave London to travel for work and get away from family life. 

Just as it was for the historical characters, there is a deep ambivalence about babies and motherhood in the 1980s scenes. There is an unspoken assumption in all the interview scenes that motherhood kills a woman’s career and that women must leave work when they have babies. But, throughout the play, there is also a contemptuous assumption that men, even if they are brutes who hold all the power (all the bosses Top Girls recruits for are male), are themselves babies: “you won’t have to nurse him along” says one Top Girls employee to an interviewee about a prospective boss.

Another candidate, Louise, is told that her age – only 46 – is “a handicap” and that she should hope that “experience does count for something”. She is not encouraged to attempt to earn more than she already does; she should be happy with her station and not overreach herself. Both she and Janine are subtly pressured over their looks and clothing; the capitalist ‘modern’ world is not a meritocracy after all but a game in which women must look and act the part, strategise as objects in order to win.

Louise finds that even success as a working woman doesn’t offer a sense of balance, joy and stability in life. Capitalist attainment is hollow and not worthwhile: “I’ve given my life really”, “If you are committed to your work you don’t move in many other circles”. Despite being in the workplace and having previously done well, she is encountering the glass ceiling in corporate culture as young men she trained are promoted above her. She is the first of a generation of women feeling the anger of discrimination and finding that they have few options either to express that anger or to gain credit, let alone justice, leading to empty statements like “they will notice me when I go, they will be sorry.” In a cruel, rigged system where there is always more talent than there are jobs, they will not notice her and they will not be sorry.

Top Girls has much to say about women’s own internalisation of womanhatred – which Louise betrays when she refers casually to the typing pool at her company as “the girls”. The play also tracks fine sociological differences in age and class: in her mid-40s, Louise is not one of the new yuppie generation and is less entitled than them. The yuppies are, as she correctly hints, a pleasingly visual marketable brand as well as a psychological type: “new, kind of attractive, well-dressed”, they are confident enough to “take themselves for granted” without feeling insecure; they expect to be successful.

The sexism and ageism Louise is encountering in office culture has no resolution. She feels “it’s now or never” and the answer seems to be never; there will not be a triumphant resolution of success in the final act of Louise’s story. The Top Girls staff tell her she’ll be competing against younger men in any new job she goes for, and push her towards cosmetics companies and “fields that are easier for a woman”, just as they pushed the previous candidate, Janine, towards soft furnishings and knitwear companies, stereotypically female items in traditional retail companies rather than the financial services or computing companies of the future.

Despite Marlene’s personal glamour, life in the Top Girls agency is not spectacular and iconic, like the women Marlene invited to her fantasy dinner party. Act 2 Scene 3 is a conversation between Nell and Win, two of the employees at Top Girls. Win embodies the same message that runs throughout the play: the characters who are the worst off and the most humiliated are men’s women, women who grovel to men or place themselves under men’s power. Win is a mistress who romanticises her lover despite her humiliation (such as having to lie down in his car so as not to be seen by his neighbours when he instals her in his marital home for a dirty weekend). She says defensively “it was funny”, but this rings hollow. Her lover teaches her the names of flowers, pointing out that flowers are often named after women: pretty objects with a limited shelf life, to be named by men.

Nell is the opposite type, similar to Marlene, ambitious – “I’ve never been a staying put lady” – and contemptuous of Win’s deluded romanticism. For both of them, however, the office culture of the early 1980s hardly offers a lot of “room upward”; there is “nothing going on here”. Despite the fact that they are succeeding as women in this environment, the cruelty of the capitalist grind, class divisions, professional competition and internalised misogyny suffuse their outlook and conversation. The world they operate in may be all-female but it is still harshly judgemental. Nell and Win see themselves as “tough birds” and Marlene as a “smashing bird” and think the other women in the office are “top ladies” while their young clients are mere “little girls” over whom they wield some power. Yet they themselves are locked into a frustrating hierarchy in which “the top executive doesn’t come in as early as the poor working girl” – in the broader scheme of things they are indeed poor working girls, not the tough birds they see themselves as.

The Top Girls staff are not exempt from the injustices their clients experience. The vision of seamless success and a rise to the top is not something they themselves have experienced; it is a false image, a fantasy of success, which they are selling. Win is actually overqualified, we discover late in the play – she has a science degree and went into medical research. She shares Marlene’s contempt for men and, unlike the generations of women at the dinner party who did not criticise men or patriarchy directly, says men are “bullshitters” who “make out jobs are harder than they are.” Yet despite her tough exterior, like all the women in the play she is restless and struggling to find her place in the world.

Marlene’s past and future come together when her niece Angie comes to visit her at Top Girls. Angie is everything Marlene has fled; this flight involves a wilful rejection of her heritage, so much so that Marlene doesn’t recognise Angie at first and speaks contemptuously of her own sister Joyce who is the “same as ever”. The class difference between aunt and niece is already pronounced: Marlene assumes Angie came up on the train (it was actually the bus, which is cheaper) while her casual offer of  a day of lunch, shopping and sightseeing is seen by Angie as the height of indulgence. Angie idolises Marlene, but this appreciation is not reciprocated. Marlene’s assessment of Angie is correct but stingingly cruel: behind the young girl’s back, she says Angie is “a bit thick”, destined to work in a supermarket and is “not going to make it”.  For Marlene, Angie is tainted with failure and with her own shameful and deprived origins. Marlene’s world is one of hardcore Darwinian survival of the fittest, but, as the play makes clear, there is no natural justice to this fight. Disadvantage and prejudice bedevil the les fortunate characters, while the gains of success are both tawdry and impermanent.

Throughout the play it is the women who are intimately subject to men who suffer the most. The suffering has an agonised, degrading, colluding quality as the women seek to justify their abusers’ actions. Consider the harsh, somewhat cruel characterisation of Mrs Kidd – the only woman in the play who name is her man’s surname, and who has no first name – the wife of Top Girls employee Howard. Like the medieval Griselda she is submissive and apologetic, her world is small and defined by the parameters set by her husband: “I know office work isn’t like housework, which is all interruptions.” She is both pitiful and risible, and is there as an apologist and little defender of her husband, whose job Marlene has been offered. Just like Griselda she over-identifies with her man’s success and suffering, has no feelings or ideas of her own and at once babies and lionises him (“he hasn’t slept…I haven’t slept”, “He’s very proud”, “he’s very hurt”, “He’s in a state of shock”). She is in a terrible predicament: her years of submissiveness towards Howard does not result in him prizing and cherishing her. Instead, she is his emotional punchbag: “it’s me that bears the brunt”. Underlying all this is the threat of male violence, as ever. Mrs Kidd warns, slyly, “You’re going to have to be very careful how you handle him.” Marlene refuses to take on the role of housekeeper to a man’s finer feelings  – “he really is a shit” – and gives Mrs Kidd short shrift. Sad as Mrs Kidd’s plight is, she too, like so many of the 1980s women in the play, resorts to crude woman-hating under pressure, calling Marlene a “ballbreaker” who is “miserable and lonely” and “not natural”. She parrots her husband’s hatred and fear of women in the workplace, along with the Classical and medieval prejudice that ambitious women are monstrous in some way.

The play has been moving steadily backwards in time, providing a sort of origins story for Marlene, who gives little of herself away in speech. At the end of the play as we watch it – but in fact about a year or so before the dinner party that opens the play - Marlene goes back to her hometown to visit her sister Joyce and niece Angie, bringing stereotypically feminine gifts of a dress and perfume. While the ambitious female clients at Top Girls are anxious about how to use such things as tools to navigate corporate capitalism, to Angie they are prized in themselves, giving an all-too-rare taste of luxury, beauty and pleasure.  Angie’s behaviour in this scene is loving, childishly desperate for approval; Marlene is like a fairy godmothers whose visit is “better than Christmas”. Joyce is resentful of the gifts, telling Angie she’s “a big lump”, stupid and a liar. When Angie wants to try on the dress Joyce says “we don’t want a strip show … you better take it off, you’ll get dirty”, although we know from earlier in the play that Angie will, heart-wrenchingly, continue to wear the dress long after she’s outgrown it.

Marlene’s sister Joyce’s unhappiness and spikiness are painful to witness. A gulf has opened up between the sisters since Marlene left: “I don’t know what you’re like, do I?” says Marlene. Just as in the first scene of Top Girls, alcohol unlocks the truth of women’s lives as Joyce and Marlene have it out long into the night and the early themes are reprised: patriarchal control and domination; gendered expectation and stereotypes; class; motherhood and babies; entrapment and flight; male violence.

At first, Marlene is self-possessed, proud of her success, telling her sister with spiteful faux-modesty, “I’m not clever, just pushy” – the implication being that Joyce’s life is as it is because of a lack of pushiness. Marlene utters the ultimate capitalist, individualist exhortation: “If you’d wanted to you’d have done it.” Like Isabella Bird, Marlene sees herself as a great adventurer going “up up up” and “on on into the sunset”; unlike her sister, “I need adventures more”.

The devastating last pages of Top Girls reveal the injustice, cruelty and ruthlessness behind Marlene’s mantra. We learn that Joyce’s husband was resentful, controlling of her attempts to better herself through evening classes, a bad father and unfaithful. Joyce’s life is one of constant work, both physical and emotional. The physical work is underpaid and exhausting – she has four cleaning jobs. The emotional work of visiting their father’s grave and visits their mother once a week is unpaid.  

It becomes clear that Marlene’s success has come at Joyce’s expense. First – a nasty surprise but half-expected – is the revelation that Angie is actually Marlene’s daughter, not Joyce’s. Additionally, we learn that Joyce had also been pregnant but lost her baby due to the stress of caring for Angie. The myth Marlene has been creating around her own drive and vision and self-knowledge and bravery and success is not true. It was Marlene, not Joyce, who got pregnant at seventeen; Marlene, not Joyce, who has been cowardly in avoiding facing their mother’s old age or her daughter’s needs.

We learn that Joyce and Marlene’s father was a manual labourer, wifebeater and alcoholic and their mother had a “fucking awful life…fucking waste.” Marlene’s drive goes beyond mere career goals and is fuelled by a vehement trauma (“I still have dreams”, she says – meaning nightmares) and repulsion, an absolute rejection and horror of domestic life, of being turned into “the little woman” as her sister and mother were; she says she will “never let that happen to me.” It is this understandable fear, hatred and anger, not just pushiness, which have propelled her away from her origins and towards an existence in which she chooses life, life doesn’t just happen to her. She is repelled by all weakness, including her own, and calls Joyce’s legitimate grievances “whining”. She loathes where she comes from culturally and also the way it makes her feel emotionally. Marlene hates “beer guts  and football vomit and saucy tits” – the worst clichés of northern working class life – “I hate the working class,” says, characterising them as lazy and stupid, although it is obvious that Joyce works far harder than she does. Instead, she says, “I believe in the individual”- in time, determination, monetarism, thinking for oneself.

In a rather nasty way the play actually supports the opinion of its most misogynistic characters: that women who succeed are somehow monstrous, cold, unnatural, grotesquely selfish, pathological and unmotherly. Marlene is disgusted by Joyce’s overt suffering and misery and in denial about the domestic mess she left behind. She calls Joyce’s speculation about babies mere “gynaecology” and “messy talk about blood” as if she has absorbed some Pope Joan-era medieval misogyny regarding the unique rankness and corruption of the female body.

Nonetheless, Top Girls shows that one woman’s success does not elevate the fate of all women; advancement, money and status in the office do not make the world fairer or change the system, lessen women’s emotional, sexual and practical exploitation or ease the demands made on them and the dilemmas they are in. “Nothing’s changed for most people, has it?” says Joyce – and we are reminded that these two sisters are probably equal in intelligence. Joyce correctly says, “How could I have left?” and although Marlene is reduced to tears in this scene, she recovers quickly – because in a capitalist framework, she still ultimately has more power on her side, she has achieved more, she is in a stronger position, she has ‘won’ and Joyce has ‘lost’.

The play has moved from the lavish, the celebratory and the international to the tawdry, the recriminatory, the doggedly local. As Top Girls ends, the battle lines are drawn – and they are lines of class, not just sex; culture, not just economics. Marlene and Joyce are emotionally not sisters, not friends and not ideological allies. The play doesn’t debunk the notion of political sisterhood but shows how sisterhood is complicated by class, by women’s absorption and replication of men’s misogyny, by female masochism and also – most powerfully than anything else – by ingrained injustice, exploitation and lack of opportunity.  Marlene’s famous line, “I think the eighties are going to be stupendous”, which always gets a dark laugh, is less affecting now than the lines that follow. Joyce asks, “Who for?” and Marlene says blithely, “For me”. Joyce becomes capitalism’s unseen, uncelebrated collateral damage: still poor despite doing four jobs, with no time to study; bringing up her niece in a town without a future. For Joyce and Angie, there will be no Marlene-like rise into a new age of being “free in a free world.” Quite the opposite: when Angie is older, says Joyce presciently, “her children will say what a wasted life she had.”

Poetry reviews: Joy Harjo, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley and George Szirtes

This is a reprint of a review I wrote for Poetry Review earlier this year.

  • Joy Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings
  • Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, When the Wanderers Come Home
  • George Szirtes, Mapping the Delta

Roots and belonging, journeys and homecoming, the fallout from conflict, the raging political self and the devastated personal self all feature in these three topical collections. Joy Harjo sings the long song of Native American history with bluesy devotion, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley returns to her native Liberia from America to scour the remains, collect war stories and find herself while George Szirtes watches with an ironical eye as people come and go, falling in love, travelling, experiencing bereavement and somehow moving on.

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is a fierce summoning, opening not so much with a dedication as an anointing: “Bless the poets, the workers for justice, the dancers of ceremony, the singers of heartache, the visionaries”. Joy Harjo’s elision of poetry, song, activism, physical movement, lament and prophecy imbues her collection with an exhilarating vitality. Harjo is a Creek Nation Native American, yet she does not write resigned elegies to a lost people or an erased culture. Instead, her identity gives her poetic voice a hearty survivalism, an earthy constancy and great humour. In ‘Calling The Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet’ she counsels the reader in a magazine list of half ironic affirmations, rejecting self pity in favour of the larger story of group survival: “Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short./ Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.”

Harjo’s poems jazz-step from one to the next, with evocations of cool urban life interspersed with untitled, dry, best-friend jokes like “Do not feed the monsters./ Some are wandering thought forms, looking for a place to set up house” and stunning natural imagery in which a panther “is a poem of fire green eyes and a heart charged by four winds of four directions”, as in the long title poem at the heart of the collection.

In easily flowing conversational lines, Harjo fuses the mythic with the realist, the sentimental with the elemental. In ‘Talking With The Sun’ she comments casually, “I walked out of a hotel room just off Times Square at dawn to find the sun.” Yet she is no idler; the walk is part of a ritual to present her fourth granddaughter “to the sun, as a relative, as one of us.” The poem closes with her, the sun and the baby joined in “this connection, this promise.”

Connection is the driving impulse behind this collection, which is full of images of singing and dancing and invitations to a collective celebration, where even sorrow is shared. In ‘Mother Field’ the narrator can’t resist “the music humping through the door” of a bar. Later, in a brilliant image, she writes that “Midnight is a horn player warmed up tight for the last set.” Like a consummate band leader the collection carries us through the darkness, just as Harjo instructed in that early poem. It ends, indeed, with a lovely tribute called ‘Sunrise’, in which we all “move with the lightness of being, and we will go/ Where there’s a place for us.”

In Patricia Jabbeh Wesley’s powerful When The Wanderers Come Home, the search for a place of arrival, self-recognition and remembrance continues, but doesn’t find a resting place. Wesley was born in Liberia but settled in America; this pained and poignant collection focuses on her return to Liberia. She traces relatives, interviews women war survivors and figuratively and literally searches through the detritus of violence, poverty and natural decay to uncover the past. In ‘Erecting Stones’ the past is fragmented, “trash”, “debris”, “broken pieces” mixed up with “remnants of bombs…missile splinters, old pieces of shells.”

In ‘Coming Home’ Wesley describes “dust from the past,/ eating away the present” and indeed the whole collection carries a note of wariness, a fear of imminent violence, of impermanence and mistrust in which history is always threatening to repeat itself and “Liberia smells again of corpses” (‘Send Me Some Black Clothes’). In the aftermath of violence, the text crawls with images of decay, of consumption by scorpions, locusts and termites, “the eater of all life”. Wesley sees herself not as a noble witness or a returning countrywoman but “an outsider, at the doorpost” (‘So I Stand Here’) who is “standing among caskets” (‘Send Me Some Black Clothes’), “a lone traveller/ without a country” (‘In My Dream’).

The Liberia of Wesley’s childhood has been transformed into a place of numb, shell-shocked survivors – “death was more alive than us,” she writes, devastatingly, in ‘The Cities We Lost’. In ‘Becoming Ghost’ she conducts interviews with women who have survived unimaginable abuses and considers “how each one of us carries between our/ breasts, stories no one will believe.” Despite the brokenness of what she describes, Wesley’s poetic form is smooth and steady, the neat stanzas and non-rhyming couplets capably containing the most shocking revelations. The horror is belied, however, by the line breaks, which do not occur at the natural end of a thought or image but as a gasp of awful realisation – as when the sun falls “on the backs of children/ who may never grow up” (‘I Go Home’).

Wesley pays particular tribute to women’s resilience, from the South African protest singer Miriam Makeba whose band’s records sounded “as though its players were born playing” to an ode to Hurricane Sandy, in which she jokes that “A woman by herself is category 7 hurricane.” There are further works written on journeys to and from Colombia, Libya, America and Morocco, but at heart When the Wanderers Come Home is a grieving love letter to Liberia, a country that contains her story just as she tries to contain all its stories, woman and country intertwined like “branches and limbs of the same oak” (‘When Monrovia Rises’).

Both When the Wanderers Come Home and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings express the determination to pay testimony and bear witness, sorrow at the repetitiveness of human cruelty and the ferocious optimism of artists determined to resist, rebuild and revive. Joy Harjo collects us in a defiant party against the darkness while Patricia Jabbeh Wesley carefully pieces together the lost stories of the living dead. Meanwhile, George Szirtes offers an airily delicate and tender take on belonging. Mapping the Delta portrays human life as a precious daily struggle of small victories in which human encounters like love affairs, artistic anxiety, hotel stays and hospital visits are bright pinpricks compared to the inscrutable largesse of nature. Mapping the Delta is a subtle, panoramic work which starts with the distant but affectionate focus of the title poem, in which time and tide literally wait for no man:

The river was charted but now the tide rises
and presses on and moves between tongues
of land to emerge in a mouth that blazes
with its own ideas, its own flickering songs.

(Mapping the Delta)

The happy idea of the natural world singing, of the earth generating its own verses in its own language, flows through the collection, as does the appreciation for conversation generally. There are constant references to social groups, singing and lively banter : a crowd in a cinema queuing excitedly to watch an early talkie, a drunk man muttering in a bar. ‘The Voices’ is a daft riot in which the night streets reverberate with voices “shouting nonsense…reiterations, cries, endless repeats”, its easy rhymes – floor/door/more, stairs/bears/affairs – creating a riddling verse that is both a descriptive celebration and an expression of human exuberance.

Compared to messy humanity, nature is sober, eloquent and a good listener. In ‘Listening to the Weather’ the narrator imagines an entire landscape focused on the sound of itself as the rains break and “words poured/ out of drains into gardens”. The landscape is in dignified private conversation with itself: “when the winds spoke…the rain heard.” The earth is sentient, while seemingly still things are full of tension: “The lake strained to hear/ the utterances of light”.

Despite the impeccable, featherweight construction of the poems, their breathy rhythm and modish references to everyone from Elaine Feinstein and Auden to Bruno Schulz, Chet Baker, Bartók and Rembrandt, this is not a whimsical metropolitan amusement.  Mapping the Delta touches upon nearly every meaningful human experience, every ‘moment’ in a lifespan, from falling in love to losing a parent – as in the beautiful, long sequence The Yellow Room, Szirtes’s cautious and ambivalent rumination on his late father, “you mystery, father of diminishing returns”.

Mapping the Delta wears its emotionalism lightly and its beautiful images modestly. Best of all, it carries its sweet hope and garrulous humour with life-affirming pride; an important corrective when so much else in the world seems dark and devastated.

'Poetry is the only place that I feel human.' An interview with Kurdish poet Bejan Matur

This interview can be found in the new issue of Wasafiri Journal of International Literature. 

Bejan Matur’s poetry is put down as if engraved rather than written. Her ideas are expressed with a carved simplicity, a resonant depth, formal control and an imagistic mastery which is at once varied and disciplined. What she writes about, however, is shocking in its jagged violence and unresolved grief. Matur was born in Maraş in Turkey and writes mainly in Turkish. She is of Kurdish-Alevi heritage and her experience has been one of injustice, discrimination, silencing, denial and erasure. She witnessed the massacre of Alevis in her hometown during her childhood and was tortured in prison during her university years. Her law degree remained unused as she lost faith in established forms of language, argument and authority to gain justice and convey the truth. In the aftermath of torture, she turned to literature.

Matur’s poetry is a declamatory reclamation of history, identity and land which, while it may be emotionally rooted in her past, reads as universal. She could have been writing a thousand years ago; she could be predicting the aftermath of wars to come, a thousand years from now. Her poems evoke felled civilisations, buried truths and broken links. Her narrators wander through a ravaged society in which the very stones are soaked with mourning because of man’s inhumanity and violence. Rubble and earth reverberate with grief, pain and longing. Nature absorbs what really happened but cannot speak it back.

Matur is a prolific and award winning poet whose work is gaining a strong English-speaking readership thanks to two volumes produced by Arc Publications. In The Temple of a Patient God (2004) contains an extensive selection of work from her first four collections: Winds Howl Through the Mansions (1996); God Must Not See My Letters (1999); Sons Reared By The Moon (2002); and In His Desert (2002). The poems have been translated by Ruth Christie, who also translated Matur’s most recent complete collection, How Abraham Abandoned Me (Arc Publications, 2012), along with translator Selçuk Berilgen.

Most recently the Poetry Translation Centre in London have produced the pamphlet If This is a Lament (2017), which contains a career-wide selection of Matur’s poetry in new translations by Jen Hadfield and Canan Marasligil. In this project the image of the razed homeland abounds: it is depicted as a place that never was; a charred forest; a cold, dead heart full of black stones. The landscape is alive, a repository for human suffering in which “almond trees and stones…recognised me” but cannot speak what they know. Nonetheless, nature can give comfort as well as reflect human pain. In the poem Glacier, “White light from the depth of the glacier/ floods into my skin.” Other people, however, provide less comfort. Even love is a morbid union, a joined march towards death where “together, our hearts decay.”

Matur’s cynicism comes not from iconoclastic contempt but from the devastation of cultural betrayal. Formal religion is nothing more than a justification for political and cultural abuses; a temple is “just a place”, she writes in the poem In The Temple of a Patient God. Ritual has lost its ability to safeguard against annihilation, so ceremonial robes are mere “roots swaying on the hanger”, symbols of death rather than protection, “wan shrouds sweeping.”

Words, appearances, the official version of events and voices of authority are not to be believed. But in the absence of those, what is there? “What words can we use to speak of pain,/ in what language can we ask to be forgiven?” asks Matur in Growing Up in Two Dreams. We feel the bitter irony of her writing in the language of her oppressor, following Ataturk’s excision of words of Persian, Arabic and Kurdish origin from the official Turkish lexicon.  Truth eludes language but the truth, let alone justice, is so slow in coming that there is no vindication when it does break the surface; truth is a “last gift” grasped “too late” by accident “when I looked back” and it represents only “harm”, Matur writes in I Know the Unspoken.

Despite Matur’s own lack of faith in language to convey the truth, the reader is struck loud and clear by her work’s ringing beauty, effigy-like strength and stillness, its eloquently expressed pain and its haunting quality of permanence, timelessness and universality. I meet her in London in the summer of 2017, during a busy week of readings and talks about If This is a Lament.

What were you like as a little girl?

I grew up in a Mediterranean climate, in the cotton fields, with all these oak trees around us, in a very large tribal family, with five sisters and two brothers. My father’s a farmer, he used to grow cotton, It was a very picturesque, beautiful scene and there was this feeling of beauty, of paradise. This was shattered and collapsed by the tragic events that happened to Kurds and Alevis, all these [military] operations I witnessed, this massacre [at Maraş] which happened when I was ten.

I was very different from my siblings and the villagers felt sorry for me, a little girl who was always carrying big, heavy books, sitting in the shadow if the oak tree, reading Tolstoy and Zola and Hugo. In my mind I was like the characters from the novels, while the others were living in a simple, pure, archaic world where life was real, strong and very earthy. I was writing poetry when I was very young and even then it wasn’t what I call “pink poetry”. It was very rebellious.

When I was a child, we had a big house, a family house. The women were cooking and doing their daily things and I was always on the terrace reading my book. When my mum called me to come and cook, my father always protected me. He said, “Don’t call Bejan, don’t bother her, she’s reading.” He always protected me and I always feel his eyes, his gaze on my shoulder. He was supportive to all my sisters and he sent us all to good schools – but I continued my education after that. It’s important, in that kind of society, when you have support from a father.

How did you come to be tortured? And how did that lead to you becoming a poet?

When people ask me this, I always give a little smile. Because it’s obvious in Turkey, it’s political: if you are a Kurdish Alevi, of course you’re put in prison. During my university time I was always asking questions because of this oppression and inequality. We weren’t treated as equal citizens as Kurds, as Alevis. It was a basic human rights problem: they treated Kurds like second class people. We were in a group with other Alevis, we were talking, so they detained us. And in the end, after a year, they couldn’t produce any proof [of wrongdoing] so they let us out.

I was tortured in detention during that year. I was locked in a very dark cell, darkness all around me for more than twenty days. This darkness was like mercury, very concrete, very strong. I had no light, I couldn’t see anything, I was trying to not lose my connection with my being. Then I found a strong feeling dragging me in a kind of shamanic ritual. I was trying to say something without words; it was a kind of humming. After a while I found words like diamonds in the darkness. They were shining like stars and I found them, but I didn’t have a pen and notebook so I couldn’t make notes. I wish I could have.

Writing poetry wasn’t in my control. It was the only way that I could heal. I couldn’t stop it. When I heard it, I had to write it. My early poems are darker, stronger. My latest ones still have a sense of sorrow, but they are not heavy.

You write your poetry in Turkish. How do you feel about that?

I have only my second language, Turkish, to write in. I was born Kurdish, I spoke Kurdish with my family, with my mother – I still speak in Kurdish with her. My first shock was when I started primary school, because I had to leave my mother’s language at home. I was forced to learn Turkish because the education system was in Turkish.

When people say my Turkish poetry sounds so beautiful and so soft, it makes me feel sorrow because my Turkish contains my Kurdish. I am writing in a different way compared to other Turkish poets and writers, because I have another layer of understanding, I come from a different world, I have a story to tell about the things I witnessed since I was a child and the things I read about in the history of my people. All these tragedies bring a feeling of elegy for me, which is what makes it different.

Turkish is the language I was tortured in – the police were speaking to me in Turkish. Some people say my poetry is revenge, artistic revenge, taking Turkish and using it back against them. ‘They’ try to ruin your being, they try to shatter your existence, paralyse you through torture, through killing, through oppression. And to tell them NO, I do exist, I am here, I won’t have you to ruin my being, because hatred is very destructive. In my writing I always try to keep the bitterness away. Poetry for me was a kind of tool by which I healed my soul and spirit, it was a kind of consolation or therapy.

I have begun writing more poetry in Kurdish, which for me is a language of music. It’s like lullabies. Language is not about grammar or vocabulary; your mother tongue is the music you remember from your early childhood. The sound of wind, the sound of your mum calling you when you’re playing somewhere, the sound of the river stream passing by your house – all this is language. Now I feel in my mind that these sounds are coming to me in Kurdish.

Do you see your work as political?

I don’t use any political terminology or political slogans. Nonetheless, my poetry is very political, because being political is about changing people’s viewpoint, showing them a different way of seeing things. When my poetry first came out, the first Turkish readers were shocked, surprised, because my viewpoint was not familiar to them. I was trying to show them that they have to recognise that we are here, we have a voice, we are people, we are  human, we deserve respect, we deserve understanding. When I go to my village or to Kurdistan or all these Alevi societies, the moment they see me they start telling their stories because they don’t have access to representation, they have no opportunity to speak about themselves. It’s a kind of responsibility I feel towards my people.

What is your process?

I don’t have a strategy to write, it just comes. Usually I hear the sound when I walk, it’s a real shamanic ritual for me. Then there are two different stages. The first is not in my control, it’s just a very strong inspiration that comes to me as a kind of music. If I have a notebook I make notes, but then I leave it, because I want to create a space, a distance between myself and my first emotions. Poetry is not just about the raw emotions, it’s more deep and philosophical. The second part is a very disciplined editing part. Editing, for me, is like making a sculpture. My first notes are like a piece of marble, then I bring it to my atelier, then I carve it. I don’t add, I carve until I reach the concrete essence of the poetry. It’s there, I know the shape, I know the sound, it’s waiting for me. And I throw away all the emotional stuff. I am very perfectionist about the things I published.

Your poetry has a mysticism and spiritual resonancet. Do you see yourself as religious?

I’m not a believer, I don’t believe in religion and I don’t believe in God. But I use all these allusions because it’s a cultural thing for me. The environment I grew up in has these references. I just give them new meanings; it’s a personal ontology, a personal mythology. The way I use God is very equal: I criticise him, I ask questions. That’s very Alevi, it’s in my blood.

You tackle huge cultural, political and historical themes in your work. Do you think poetry can make a difference?

Before, I thought that politics could change the world. I took a break from poetry [after her fourth collection] and did journalism for eight years. I went on TV as a commentator and my newspaper columns were very effective. They were shaking the country. But I came to hate all these ready political slogans and clichés. During my time doing all this activism, I saw that there are minor and major politics, and that activism is about minor politics. Major politics is about [bigger things like] natural resources, the arms trade and macro economics. And when everything is corrupt, on all sides, it all becomes a game. I wanted to go deeper, to return to literature and defend human rights through literature. Poetry is everywhere, in political speeches, in social media. Poetry is the essence of all that. Writing a tweet in 140 characters, having to summarise your feelings in that space, that’s poetry, and people are always looking for it. Poetry is the only place that I feel human.

This interview with Bejan Matur was facilitated by the organisers of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, where Matur performed from If This Is A Lament in summer 2017. Ledbury is the UK’s biggest poetry festival, running annually for ten days in late June or early July. A preview of the 2018 festival can be found at