The 15th annual RSL Ondaatje Prize announced its 2018 shortlist. The award is given to “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry” for “best evoking the spirit of a place.” (Sidenote: is best evocation of a place’s spirit the coolest award criteria known to man or what?)
Here is this year’s shortlist (with bonus links when applicable):
The Epic City by Kushanava Choudhury
Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo
Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Featured in our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Border by Kapka Kassabova
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (The Millions‘ review)
Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit
The winner will be announced on May 14, 2018.
Fiona Mozley, the author of Man Booker shortlisted and Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted Elmet, wrote her debut novel while travelling between Peckham, in South London, and her nine to six job in Central London. She missed the landscape of northern England, which is where she grew up and where Elmet is set. Jotting down notes on her smartphone and laptop, she attempted to evoke this landscape during her daily commute, allowing a temporary respite from the daily grind.
Though we seldom see people writing on trains, many commuters read or browse aimlessly on their smartphones. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer of The Millions, spoke of her subway writing habit in “Writing on Trains.” “With a combined total of six hours spent on a subway a week, it felt like extra time,” she says. Mandel sought out other writers who wrote on trains, including memoirist Julie Klam and novelist Joe Wallace. Klam appreciated the need to beat the clock and get down thoughts before her station, as opposed to the long hours she’d spend writing at home on her Mac.
Many authors cite smartphones and the Internet as hindrances to creative writing. When Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, he did nothing but write from nine am to 10.30 pm for four weeks, during which time he wouldn’t go near his phone or email. In his popular book On Writing, Stephen King suggested writers eliminate distraction; “There should be no telephone in your writing room,” he wrote, “certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.”
Analogue writing setups of the past would offer fewer opportunities for distraction; the view from the open window and the kettle perhaps being the most enticing. Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan still write their first drafts longhand, while Cormac McCarthy still types his manuscripts on an Olivetti Lettera 32.
When used productively, modern day technology can be transformed from a creativity-killing distraction to a convenient tool to note down those epiphanies or observations that would otherwise be forgotten.
If Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World holds any truth, modern technologies will soon become more integrated into our daily life. “You could essentially in the not too distant future, tweet thoughts,” Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University tells Herzog. “So not type your little tweet, but think it, press a button, and all of your followers could potentially read it.” One day we might be able to transcribe words directly from our minds onto the page. The importance of writing, in the traditional sense, is evolving. Perhaps the romantic notion of putting a pen to paper might start to wane, as we see the value of being able to pluck ideas straight from the unconscious mind.
Unlike many in her field, Fiona Mozley embraced the convenience of technology. “When I started writing Elmet I used a Chromebook–one of those cheap laptops made by Google, which require the use of online apps,” she tells me. “That meant that the only word-processor available to me was Google Docs. That made it very easy to write on either my laptop or my phone as it was all the same document.”
“I find variety to be a real aid to writing,” she continues. “If I’m in a rut, I find the best remedy is moving to another location or altering my media. So if I’ve been writing for a while on my computer and I get stuck, I’ll go and pick up a pen and paper, or vice versa. The phone writing is really just tied to that overall process.”
The author wrote the first few paragraphs of her debut novel in spring 2013. She had just visited her parents for the weekend in West Yorkshire, a region previously known as Elmet, a Celtic Kingdom, between the fifth and seventh centuries. It was early on a Monday morning and she was returning to London by train. The importance of trains and train tracks in Elmet is emphasized even in the opening paragraphs:
I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count railroad ties and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid. I am unsure of the direction but in that initial choice I am pinned. I have passed through the turnstile and the gate is locked.
I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear the voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through wood. And the lick of flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste. I keep to the railways track. I hear an engine far off in the distance and duck behind a hawthorn.
“The novel is all about isolation and marginalization, and being invisible in plain sight,” explains Mozley, “so it’s important that there are the trains running from London to Edinburgh just meters away from the little house in the copse, but none of the people on those trains knows anything about the lives being led there.”
While writing the early sections of her first draft, Mozley was working for a travel company in Central London and would jot down ideas on her smartphone during her journeys to and from work. Mozley says:
the sentences and paragraphs I wrote on my phone during my commute were very useful for keeping up the momentum. Sometimes when you’re writing–particularly if you’re working full time–you can have periods of writing nothing at all. Even if I found myself unable to write full sections, jotting ideas down on my phone meant that I felt a constant sense of progression.
Later in the writing process, Mozley got a MacBook and started using the popular writing app Scrivener. “It’s designed specifically for long writing projects, whether they’re novels or PhDs,” she says, “I find it to be a useful way of organizing chapters, drafts and research. There is an accompanying app for phones called Scrivo, which I also have. However, I don’t write much on my phone anymore because I don’t have a daily commute.”
Despite its contemporary context, reading Elmet, one cannot fail but notice that otherworldly quality. Writing the novel was a means of escapism for Mozley, who was not particularly content living in London. She elaborates:
London is a wonderful city, but it is a very difficult place to live unless you have an incredibly high salary or you come from a rich background. I have friends from university who still live there, who will never be able to afford a flat or house that they don’t share with several others. When I lived in London, there were five of us sharing a house and we didn’t have a communal living area because we’d had to turn it into an extra bedroom. For a while I shared a bedroom with a friend to keep the costs down. This kind of thing is typical, and while you could say that it’s normal or acceptable when you’re straight out of university, this is the kind of situation that my friends will be in for the foreseeable future, into their forties or even beyond. These are people with degrees from the University of Cambridge, and people who have good jobs – they’re just not lawyers or bankers. I left London a few years ago and returned to Yorkshire, where I have a much better quality of life. It would be a shame for London, however, if all the writers and artists are forced out. With Elmet, I wanted to experiment with the idea of a rent strike. I wanted to toy with the idea of all renters getting together and refusing to pay their landlords. They all just decide to live in their houses for free.
As a university graduate with no formal qualification in creative writing, and without external incentives or a deadline, the writing of Elmet came from within. It was something to distract from Mozley’s daily commute and financial hardships. She initially wrote with no long-term goals of publication:
I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life, so I wrote Elmet in order to have something outside of myself to think about. I guess you could call it “writing as therapy,” but it ended up being much more public. The otherworldly quality was always deliberate. Although it’s a contemporary novel, some of its major concerns are the thrall of history, the weight of the past, and the ways in which those things inform contemporary ways of life.
That deliberate otherworldly quality is effective in that we can imagine what lies beyond the train tracks and the fields that once belonged to the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet; and we can for a moment feel what the narrator Daniel sees and feels. Flexibility regarding the process enabled the author to record her astute observations and ideas with whatever she had to hand, as she felt them. As a consequence, the fictional Elmet feels like a world fresh from the unconscious mind.
While Elmet was still a work in progress, Mozley took on a role at a literary agency, where she realized that books are written by people not too different from herself. “In a way, I think I had always felt so removed from the sorts of people who become professional writers that it almost seemed like a fantasy profession,” she explains, “like ‘sorcerer’ or ‘superhero,’ not something that people actually did.” After working at the agency, however, writing professionally seemed a more attainable, realistic goal. Now writing with readers in mind, Mozley thought about what she wanted to convey to readers with Elmet:
I like fiction that provokes a sensory response. I wanted to address a number of issues in Elmet, and I would like to make people think, but primarily I want to make people feel. I’m fascinated by the idea that you can write words on a page that someone else goes on to read, and then that person might laugh out loud, or sweat with anticipation, or their breathing might quicken. I love the idea that fiction can have a physical response.
Mozley’s taste in literature is eclectic, to say the least. Her favourite opening to a novel is found in A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, while one of her favorite endings is in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. “I also read a lot of medieval literature, which unfortunately a lot of people find to be quite inaccessible,” she says. “I suppose Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight might be a good place to start because there are lots of modern editions. It’s not my favorite, though. That would probably be a short Middle English narrative called Cheuelere Assigne, which contains bestiality, swan transformations, and family drama.”
Upon leaving the literary agency, Mozley returned to her hometown of York, where she combined working part-time in a book shop with a doctorate in Medieval Studies.
With this new found confidence, a willingness to write using everything she had at hand at every opportune moment, and the tone imparted to her by the historical documents she worked with during her PhD, Mozley brought us Elmet—a lyrical novel that speaks simultaneously of a country for which I have nostalgia as an expatriate, and a place that seems to belong to the realm of dreams. John, described as a giant, has built a house with his own hands in an isolated wood set in the rugged landscape of rural Yorkshire. He earns money through underground fights, which he seldom loses. He protects his children, the narrator Daniel and his elder sister Cathy, from the real world, which at times seems cruel and unjust. Together they roll cigarettes, hunt for their food—tend to the house as their father goes out for days on end. As readers, we come to realize that their ancient way of life is threatened by the land ownership laws of modernity. And all of this takes place beyond the rail tracks, across the fields, in a place to which you or I will unlikely ever venture.
Fiona Mozley is currently halfway through her second novel. “I’m not saying much,” she says, “but I will say that it is very different from Elmet!”
Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s sparse stunner, contracts where other debut novels might tell too much. Departing from current narrative conventions of dialogue-heavy realism, Elmet strips a mythic, unnerving fable down to its bones. Ex-hitman Daddy has built himself and his teenage children, Danny and Cathy, a home in the Yorkshire woods with his own two hands, where the three live a ruggedly idyllic life before crime and corruption in the shape of landowner Mr. Price threaten their survival.
At least, this is the allegory on first glance. Mozley’s medieval history background isn’t lost on her fiction: Elmet references a Ted Hughes poetry cycle on Britain’s last Celtic kingdom, believed to have existed near modern-day York. Daddy’s larger-than-life strength—his career as a renowned boxer in underground fight rings, his knowledge of bow-and-arrow hunting, logging, and woodcarving—cements him as a primitive British hero. Daddy has even killed men while carrying out Mr. Price’s dirty work in the past, yet lives by a kind of warrior’s honor: “For all his brutality, Daddy liked other people. He liked people with as much affection as a huntsman had for his prey, deeply and earnestly but with cold regard.” By contrast, aptly-named Mr. Price’s overworked and underpaid tenants reveal a form of modern-day feudalism with which Danny’s family must contend.
On one level, Mozley firmly grounds us in mythic territory with Elmet’s initial conflict of land ownership and its distinctly lyrical craft. Mozley’s narrator, Danny, observes his sister, Cathy, with a bow,
loosing her arrows so that she was struck hard, again and again. Her forearm became red raw and so bruised that the grey and yellow blood that settled there almost made a complete bracelet that seeped all the way around, like her skin was stained with gold.
Mozley’s rhythmic and elemental language reminds us that this is not how stories are told anymore. Perhaps this is solace at first: maybe this allows us to read Elmet in the safety of its unreality. Maybe characters like Cathy, who rolls her own cigarettes, disappears into the woods for hours on end, and bloodies the boys who knock her down as a child, don’t really exist. Maybe characters like Cathy—who strangles her rapist to death and douses her kidnappers in an explosion of burning oil—belong in the fictitiously violent worlds of Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Hardy, or Emily Brontë, where extreme evil warrants extreme reckoning. But if Elmet’s strength lies in its mythic construction, its brilliance appears in its subversion of masculine myth narratives with a fable of women’s sexual terror.
Soon Mozley makes clear that Elmet is not only allegorizing the ownership of land, but the ownership of bodies. For Daddy and Mr. Price, bodily ownership is either a matter of philosophical individualism or a means of revenue. To Mr. Price, Daddy is commercial capital, no different than land: “I used to own that man’s muscles, and I owned his mind. I owned his fists and his feet; his eyes and his ears and his teeth.” Daddy voices his archetypal idealism when he says, “my body is my own. It is all I own.” But Mozley distinguishes between the language of ownership used by men and women: Cathy’s body is nothing abstract, but a threat to her survival. When meeting her tutor, Vivian, Cathy tells Danny,
God, it’s disgusting. Can you imagine running with hips like that? Can you imagine trying to run away from someone when you’re being pulled back by your own bones? […] Jesus fucking Christ, I’d rather die.
Where Elmet’s men might see the body as a material representation of something ideological—like masculine individualism or classed power structures—its women know it to be something very realistically at stake. A woman’s hips will slow her down if an attacker is running after her—a woman’s body compromises her safety. That Cathy looks at a woman’s hips and immediately imagines an attacker at all is important: she is thinking in a way we as readers are not. So far we believe in the kind of mythically masculine world we’re in—we believe that Daddy and Danny’s life in the woods is a story about good guys versus bad guys. We root for their cabin, their days spent chopping trees or drinking cider by the fire. But Cathy sees in this world of hitmen, fighters, hunting, and crime a tolerance of violent masculinity which comes at horrific costs for women.
Elmet is crafted in such a way that sexual violence takes place outside of what is narrated: we don’t see it happening and we may not even suspect it happening. It is only around the last 30 or so pages that Cathy confesses she killed Mr. Price’s son, her rapist. It’s almost easier to believe teenage Cathy has strangled a man than it is to think she has been suffering sexual abuse in Elmet’s margins. Cathy is tough and independent: in an early iteration of sexual abuse, a boy from school puts his hands up her shirt as a child, and Cathy beats him and his accomplice until they run back to town. Cathy does not even recognize this moment as sexual:
She was just a girl and there was nothing there but bone and muscle but perhaps he thought this would bother her […] She had no idea that Gregory was acting out a kind of play, taking his cues from things he had either seen or heard […] But she did not know. She had not been told yet.
Instead, she sees only an abuse of power, one she can easily overturn. As Danny remembers, “She chased them down and I knew she would catch them all. Her legs were longer and stronger than theirs in those days.” As a child, Cathy “fought them all and won.”
For a moment we think this will always be how things go: bad guys overpower a girl, tough girl teaches them a lesson. We think even Cathy can benefit from the suspended rules of real life in fiction: in this myth, Cathy the abused girl can fight back. But the fantasy of a triumphant woman in a world where the odds are stacked against her must end there. Even our final vision of Cathy—naked, covered in blood and oil, holding a torch in one hand and a shotgun in the other—appears for a moment like womankind finally getting her reckoning. But this vision, like Cathy herself, vanishes in flames, and we’re left asking—like adult Danny searching for his missing sister—who really comes out on top.
When asked by Danny why she killed her rapist, Cathy poignantly answers, “with the way things were set up between us, he had many chances; I had one.” In this Mozley gives us the key to reading Cathy’s and women’s victories as anomalies in a world where sexual violence, horrifically, usually wins. Cathy’s victory was her one chance; her rape was one of her violent world’s many chances. As she tells Danny,
All I kept thinking about was Jessica Harman, thrown into that canal, and all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked, covered in mud, covered in blood, blue, twisted, found in the woods, found in ditches, never found. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about how I’m turning into one of them […] We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.
Narratively, Mozley has turned Cathy into one of them: covered in blood, covered in mud, never found. By the novel’s end she is less like a vengeful Lilith and more reminiscent of a haunting earlier image of girlhood’s sexual blackening:
a small plastic dolly with blonde curls lying face down in the mud of the front garden […] her pink cotton frock hitched up around her ears […] lying there, untouched, for years while the rain and soil stained her body.
Mozley makes clear that someone like Cathy is the exception, not the rule. Yes, she gets her revenge, but against the ghosts of less fortunate women—“all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked”—her victory is a drop in an ocean. By Elmet’s end, we’ve come to distrust the seemingly idyllic masculine world we’ve been in, as well as our own ease in believing that a story like this is archaic, mythic, unreal. If this is the world of myth, which parts can we distance ourselves from as hyperbole? How realistic is Mozley’s novel trying to be? Elmet offers an unsettling answer in that the fable—sexual violence—is very much real, as real as our believing the narrative to be so outlandish it must only belong in fiction. As horrifying as our discovery of sexual violence is, even more so is our disbelief of it, our willingness to push it into the same mythical distance as the rest of Mozley’s allegory. So, Elmet isn’t trying to be realistic, except when it is.
The International Dylan Thomas Prize has announced their 2018 longlist. Named after Dylan Thomas, who died at 39, the prize is awarded for the best literary work published in English by an author aged 39 or under. The 12-book longlist included eight novels, two short story collections, and two volumes of poetry.
Here are the 2018 longlist nominees:
Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi
When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Our interview with Machado)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (Shortlisted for the Booker Prize)
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (The Millions’ review)
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams
On Trust: A Book of Lies by James Womack
The shortlist will be revealed at the end of March, and the winner will be announced on May 10, 2018.