Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
1991 may be known as the year punk broke but 2013 may soon become the year of its canonization. The phrase “the year punk broke” was coined by filmmaker David Markey after watching Motley Crüe cover the Sex Pistols on television in a jetlag malaise with members of Sonic Youth, whose concert video he was then shooting. It quickly became an inside joke—he says, “They kind of snickered, and from there we all started saying it to each other,”—and was later immortalized as the tour video’s title. If the notion of punk breaking was laughable then, its current cultural cachet would have been unthinkable. But fast-forward twenty years and punk is in vogue. However, it’s also no surprise that the current fêteing has lost touch with punk’s confrontational roots, its urgency and exigency—the capstone being the punk show at the Met, currently exhibiting facsimiles of CBGB’s bathroom walls.
The antidote? One comes in the form of the latest chapbook, Punk, from Sarah McCarry’s Guillotine press. Punk skewers this kind of nostalgic teleology, among other things, in the dialogue between lifelong lady punks, Mimi Thi Nguyen and Golnar Nikpour. Nguyen has been making zines like Slander and Race Riot since 1991 and has written a great deal about punk along the way; Nikpour grew up in New York by way of Tehran and was a co-coordinator of seminal punk fanzine Maximum Rocknroll, which she still contributes to intermittently. Their final note is a good starting point for the conversation, as Nguyen defines punk as “a plural, rather than a coherent, series of forms or formations, that can and should resist institutionalization,” and that “attempts to describe punk are always partial because punk is—”
And so the chapbook ends, leaping into whitespace that refuses to propose a stable definition of punk. This end hews firmly to their belief that punk consists of a multiplicity of local scenes; the text’s conversational form embraces Nguyen’s and Nikpour’s differences in experience and perspective. Both write of how they became invested in punk’s strains of feminism, gender deviancy, and radical politics. They concur that punk by its own definition exists as a constellation of scenes united by a rather elastic set of punk ethics, and that history cannot be reduced. Which isn’t to say that this doesn’t happen, but that what matters within punk history extends far beyond the traditional celebrated history of punk spawned in the UK and New York City, of the Sex Pistols and Sid and Nancy, of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.
To this end, Nguyen also ties in Roderick Ferguson’s writing on the cultural appropriation of minority movements, what he calls “the will of institutionality.” She states, “I am suspicious of the incorporation of a punk canon, managed then by punk experts. What will be determined worth remembering? Only the most useful forms of punk, and useful to what purpose? And what else falls away?”
If anything, Punk, and the entire Guillotine chapbook series, adheres to this essential punk ethic that Nguyen and Nikpour identify with and promote. For one, it’s a DIY endeavor and McCarry designs, letterpresses, and sews the chapbooks herself—a practice more common within poetry circles. The series is dedicated to publishing “revolutionary nonfiction,” front-loaded with incendiary political material that’s also quite timely and often couched within a personal narrative. McCarry spoke of her grounding in “revolutionary nonfiction” in a conversation with Chris Higgs: “To me it means work that feels necessary or challenging, that is demanding the world be remade in a better way…. I’m very invested in supporting work that’s explicitly queer, feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial. Punks and weirdos, setting shit on fire and rioting in the streets, all that good stuff.”
Personal encounters with these chapbooks are like an assault with daggers: brief, cutting, and confrontational. I mean this in the best of ways. The first chapbook, Violence, features a conversation with Vanessa Veselka and Lydia Yuknavitch that’s partially available online via the Believer. Veselka and Yuknavitch’s conversation is heated. They discuss the ways they’ve resisted cautionary advice to make their narratives more palatable and feminine, advice to integrate redemption and make their women less violent. This resistance is essentially punk, too.
Kate Zambreno’s Toilet Bowl, chapbook #3, riffs on violence too, and toxicity, and feminine rage as a form of resistance. She asks: “Is toxicity the accumulation of rage, or the inability to exhume it?” And Bojan Louis’s Troubleshooting Silence in Arizona speaks of the repression of minority voices through Arizona’s bill HB2281, that bans a maddeningly long list of books by authors like Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros, whose books purportedly “promoted resentment toward any race or class” and “advocated ethnic solidarity.”
“I write as a way to scream, ” Zambreno writes. Screaming is in opposition to swallowing the rage, to resist social toxicity so that it doesn’t consume her. These chapbooks give a voice to the rage, to cacophonous voices that the mainstream would rather quell, the incisive, impertinent, the desire for change. Veselka and Yuknavitch pit hope against desire, and it’s no contest. The active urgency of desire wins. This resonates with an activist punk ethics, and also with the end of Slavoj Zizek’s speech in Zuccotti Park, printed in Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. Zizek urges, “We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to want what you desire.” Don’t be afraid to want what you desire” seems to be a good slogan for this revolutionary nonfiction. Imagine these chapbooks as samizdat. Imagine a lending library filled with urgent, incisive voices. Imagine these chapbooks as punk entities, DIY and beautifully crafted, offering up original and angry voices, voices of cultural resistance, a plurality.
“Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted,” Robert Louis Stevenson once noted, “certain coasts are set apart for ship-wreck.” And so we find ourselves on working class Loyalty Island, the setting for Nick Dybek’s potent coming of age novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man. Cal Bollings was born and raised on this minor peninsula in Washington state, a town small in size, in mentality and imagination, where the local civic monument is a statue of a nameless drowning man, someone to stand in for the living as well as the dead.
The novel looks back at the year Cal turned 14, when John Gaunt, the man who owns the fishing company on which most of the men — and thus by extension the town’s existence — depend, suddenly died. With his father gravely ill, Gaunt’s wayward son Richard has returned, and upon the old man’s demise almost immediately threatens to sell the fleet out from under them, partly as revenge on a town which never let him fit in.
Cal’s father is one of the many local fishermen who sail off to the Bering Sea every fall, working that vanishing class of jobs which trade on rough masculinity. “I don’t want to romanticize their work because I’ve never done it,” Cal narrates. “But they romanticized it because they suffered for it… It had to be part of some larger destiny, the fight to stay awake and alive had to be turned, somehow, from drudgery to heroism.” These men are ugly as a bunch of pirates, scarred, limping, with fingers bitten off by bait feeders and crooked features, and Dybek draws them with vivid characterizations. Richard in particular is snotty, witty, lost, a poignant and pathetic figure, self-centered, self-aware but incapable of steering his own life. As much as Cal is used to idolizing his father, it is with Richard that he shares too much in common, both black sheep who may or may not possess the courage to make lives for themselves elsewhere. Cal isn’t exactly plucky. More authentically boyish, he’s morose and bored, sensitive, confused, and mean-spirited; conflicted about his father and as lonely for his mother as he is angry at her disloyalties.
Cal’s mother, a schoolteacher from Santa Cruz with a taste for foreign films and jazz, made an uneasy transition to Washington state from the start, never even making a friend there save John Gaunt. Like any good adventure hero, Cal is effectively orphaned early on in the book, when his father ships out for the season and the boy refuses to accompany his mother as she splits back to California. Marooned in a social and physical landscape imbued with violence, Cal is soon stalked by a moral danger when his father and a group of local men decide they’re willing to do anything to save the fleet. “The problem” with life, he comes to suspect, “was that choice was a cruel illusion.”
The book’s title refers to an invention of Cal’s normally taciturn father. Pressed upon years ago by his Treasure Island-besotted son, the elder Bollings concocted bedtime adventures about the murderously greedy Captain Flint. These tales focused on Flint’s early days, a time before Stevenson’s famous villain lost his ethical footing, foreshadowing the storyteller’s own slide.
Dybek’s not the only author to recently call upon Stevenson as a point of departure. Where Sara Levine went resplendently over the top in Treasure Island!!!, among other things making a farce of contemporary narcissism, Dybek has gone darker, clothing his story in a classically romantic aesthetic.
This romantic aura gives Dybek — who isn’t just alluding to Stevenson, but also riffing on Richard II, and something of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer while dropping in Japanese auteurs and Greek mythology — room to wield his references portentously, to weave in heavily freighted dreams and the vaguely supernatural. Dybek conjures his island with rich physical details, with crashing and shrieking, rain thrumming, waves tumbling, prose steeped in an atmosphere that occasionally borders on Gothic: “fog sank through the trees and onto the cemetery paths,” and every once in a while goes baroque: “The sea a gray mouth, waves poking like tongues.” Dybek avoids getting mired in style, however, marshaling the narrative along with an almost flawless sense of timing and pace.
Written from the point of view of 14 years hence, it is also peppered with melancholy questions: “Who decides what we keep and what we lose?”; “Why do we want to be closest to people in their most private moments?”; “How can I be more like you if you don’t help me?” Though positioned as recent history — the year is 1986 — its hint of the 19th century seems a fitting register for a mournful novel concerned with the weight of tradition. Cal is keenly aware of the ways communities define themselves through fictions, and Dybek’s impressive debut acknowledges how hard it can be to grow up when to cling to Loyalty is to go down with the ship.