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Jeanne Blackburn’s readings of works by Iranian women are full of “lightness, fragility, delicacy, sensation, whimsy, serenity, the danger of everything,” writes Hannah Waldram in the Observer Review. She was recently reading Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s Before I Forget, before Hassan Rasoulof and Ibrahim Abbasabadi went to prison for their work on the Standing Chants series. “Her own prose was a rich, translucent shimmer, full of the melancholy of not knowing, dissolving, leaving a question mark” Waldram writes, again quoting Blackburn. It’s a kind of lyrical emptiness that seeks “some inner integrity which gives comfort where there is none”. Like Blackburn, Waldram asks: what lessons can we learn from women writers who faced persecution?
Sixty per cent of the speakers at the London Book Fair are female, according to Sue Rugman, whose memoir My Name Is Sue will be published next year. Three of the eleven books she judged for inclusion on the wide-ranging Fiasco! We Have a Short Memory awards (co-sponsored by IDG, the Guardian, and Cheeky magazine) were by female authors. “It was a mistake that there was no option for female writers, since there are definitely more female writers and more women who should write,” she says. She was conscious that the word “fiasco” meant to look slightly ridiculous, but was happy to order one: “That’s the point: it’s great when you have an inexplicable excuse not to read about a story”.
This feeling of unease came across in the voices of some of the paper’s reviewers, too. Barking Owl’s Review praised Augusten Burroughs for his short stories – “a portfolio of bravura dextrous prose that shows off so many traps and chinks” – but when she talked about his science fiction novel, Lola, Burroughs suddenly sounded more “bored”, and his writing, clearly, was a mess. “It was the nettles I wanted to get out,” she comments after the reading.
The difficulties of genre fiction had more than one result: Fiasco! as a showcase became an opportunity for other, possibly po-faced, genres to become important. “It brings the questions back to literature and not just to the big topics,” says Rugman. Sometimes those big topics get dominated – as the opening of Fiasco! illustrates, with calls for the implementation of a GST tax, and 20 different stories about Brexit. But given these controversies, there is more to be gained by literature about issues that aren’t being tackled conventionally. The difference is that last year’s Fiasco! overall deserved to be called “modest” rather than “flop”, and Rugman believes that more people will go and read content like it, since it makes them feel as if they are doing their bit to combat the status quo. It is not a question of taking the easy option: there are plenty of women writers who show that “it’s OK to want to be supported, to want to succeed”.
You can watch a video of Blackburn’s performance at Fiasco! here.