Queenie – short story by Alice Munro

Queenie by Alice Munro

Written in 1999, nearly 50 years after the Canadian born writer published her first short story, Queenie looks into the why and wherefore of the protagonist’s puzzling and surprising behaviour. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Munro’s character complexity is artfully created in this seemingly simple but tragic story. The Queenie of the title is half-sister to the narrator, Chrissy, and whilst this tale gives us a little of their background, it is mostly concerned with their relationships.

Opening with her father’s exhortation to Chrissy to be kind to the new sister she’s about to meet, we quickly learn that he is out of touch on many levels. Although this is not Queenie’s own father, perhaps this early establishment of lack of awareness and care explains her subsequent choices. There is a sense in the story that this sort of disconnection is associated with a male assumption of hierarchy over women and children. The patriarchs and husbands have no apparent need to try and understand them or be sympathetic.

The naivety of both girls lays them wide open to potential damage, but in fact Chrissy is able to accurately describe her music teacher’s dominating behaviour in class (children are often the best judges of abusive behaviour if allowed to express it). Again, much later, on meeting Stan’s friend she has immediate insight. Queenie, on the other hand, has more personal knowledge of the neighbour through helping out in his home as a child so we, like her family are taken aback, and can only assume that this was enough to persuade her to trust the much older man.

Munro creates palpable dread and fear – not least with Queenie’s phrase, ‘Stan wouldn’t like it’. Immediately we know we are in the vicinity of male to female mental abuse. It isn’t horrific because there are touching moments between the two girls, both as children and later. A feature of Munro’s work is the moving back and forth from past to present, and the account of Stan’s former wife’s respiratory illness gives us an unconscious warning of a chilling scene in the second half.

The domestic and interpersonal detail is easily read and enlightening: Queenie distractedly forgetting to pour the water into the teapot and lifting her clothes to hide the letter; Chrissy seeing the cinema foyer and instantaneously realising why Queenie has died her hair black.

A tale of growing up, there is sadness and human regret – that familiar sense you often get in short stories of characters knowing something isn’t right, or even not wanting it to happen, but seeming to be unable unable to either muster the energy or the courage to alter the outcome.

Published by Chatto and Windus. Photo c Robert Howard

Kathryn Mannix, book festival

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Death on the Fringe, Aug 2018

“The ‘d’ word” – a topic that was once part of everyday conversation in the Western world – makes us uncomfortable. In fact, many avoid using it at all costs and instead refer to ‘passing away’ or to ‘loosing someone’. It is the ultimate leveller (we will all get there sooner or later), and yet we are embarrassed and awkward if we have to refer to it, especially with the dying person themselves or grieving relatives.

Dr Kathryn Mannix however, is not discomfited by death, no not at all. In Being Mortal (a Death on the Fringeand an Edinburgh International Book Festival event at the same time) she launches in with direct questions about who has planned their funeral or spoken to loved ones about end-of-life care. At two Edinburgh events she receives an almost 100% response rate to the first question and notes how unusual we are, so perhaps things are changing. She is on a mission to reclaim the word because, “if we stop using this language we can’t do precision or actual reality when someone is in the process of dying.” And that means we cannot reassure them (which is something she is really good at) after receiving a terminal diagnosis, or find ways to give them the chance to “be the person who they are” without fear or pain getting in the way.

Sarfraz Manoor is Chair for this Book Festival event, and introduces her as a ”palliative medicine pioneer”, stating that the session will form part of a “conversation about life, death and the space between them” which her book, With the End in Mind (2017) is concerned with. A top-level physician and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy therapist, Mannix has obviously been a mover and a shaker in the National Health Service and tells us poignant and amusing stories about her early days in training and on the ward. She is keen to recognise her teachers and acknowledge fellow contributors such as Canadian neuroscientist Adrian Owen who was billed but unable to attend today.

Mannix is well practiced in explaining the likely trajectory of death, has clearly thought through her beliefs and ideas, and listened to many. She appears to be unflappable with a hint of the patronising, but that may be a manner she has had to develop as a woman of this status in the NHS. The knowledge she shares is prodigious and at times she speaks with real compassion. She is fluent in this dialect of death, and her presentation seems to be touching a chord, receiving nods and murmurs of agreement from listeners all round. There is many a wet eye in the audience and she knows and names it.

Akwugo Emejulu with Djamila Ribeiro, Heidi Safia Mirza and Sara Wajid, book festival

This event, the first of the Revolting Women strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival curated by Adele Patrick, is chaired by Akwugo Emejulu with Djamila RibeiroHeidi Safia Mirza  and Sara Wajid.

This fast-paced, urgent meeting addresses de-colonialism, diversity, the de-toxing of our cultural institutions, and a whole lot else besides. All four women are informed individuals, working in academia and the arts, and all bring a different cultural heritage and range of attainments which qualify them to speak about an honest way to bring about change right now.

They are outspoken and share their realities so that we have insight into the situation in Brazil (Ribeiro, writer and activist in the Afro-Brazillian women’s movement); into where the real power lies at Goldsmiths University, London (Mirza, recent Professor of Race, Faith and Culture); and what makes a difference in establishments like the Museum of London (Wajid, Head of Engagement).

Everyone seems to know everyone else in this tight-knit community and it is clear that solidarity is necessary for support and to share valuable resources (there is now a 200-strong Museum Detox network for black, Asian and minority ethnic museum workers who are BAME). The group demonstrate an intense sense of responsibility and it is therefore vital to them that change happens and that the balance is addressed. There is no mincing words: “building community is a good place to start – and [if you are angry] I really recommend rage tweeting,” says Emejulu.

In one hour this panel acknowledge that de-colonisation is a way of, as Ribeiro puts it, “working through another geography of reason”; that Indian women were marching alongside white ones in 1911 (a photo of Indian women holding up a banner is displayed) – “until I found this I didn’t think I was in the history,” says Mirza; and that although museums and other institutions talk about addressing diversity they actually still only employ fewer than 3% ethnic minorities. Because they “are cuddly” says Wajid, we forget that “they are a colonial technology inherently … [and] people can smell the DNA in its actions, can smell it for the bogus bollocks that it is” – in other words paying lip service. That gets nods all round.

Susie Orbach, book festival

At the Death on the Fringe and Edinburgh International Book Festival Aug 2018

Susie Orbach 2

Dr Susie Orbach is a bit of a goddess to some people! Her first book and bestseller, Fat is a Feminist Issue(1978) has profoundly influenced several generations of women and girls, as well as therapists and others who work with clients who lap up what she publishes and are influenced by her insights and understanding. Bodies (2009) won the Women in Psychology award for best book, and now In Therapy (from the Radio 4 series of the same name) has caught people’s attention all over again.

Chaired by the fearless and cut-through-the-crap Ruth Wishart at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Orbach is honest and equally straightforward in her presentation and replies. Fielding a range of rather pedestrian questions (Aren’t celebrities just being chronically self-indulgent? If a client falls in love with you, can you carry on?), she admits there are situations when she feels uncomfortable or will occassionally refer someone to a colleague, but also that she talks with trusted associates about issues which trigger her (good practice), and always remains aware of her own reactions and feelings.

In Therapy Orbach book

The In Therapy radio programmes, described by Wishart as “uncannily compelling”, are a device for showing what happens in the therapy room. Data Protection and client respect mean that true-life stories are not an option, so Orbach came up with imaginery scenarios, gave them to actors who ran with them and who then showed up as clients, whereupon Orbach consulted with them.

She seems to have planned to focus on what she thought a Book Festival audience might be interested in and is eloquent on the subject of language. “I find the words reverberate in a certain kind of way,” she says. I have “an intently listening ear, (am) interested in the words which are being said. We notice, together, the cadences, breaks, repetition, whether natural, stacatto, (and we are) listening in a musical way to the shape of the internal world coming into expression.”

There is something for everyone, whether specialist or (potential) client, as Orbach seeks to explain that even if she notices the client is unlikeable (she is pushed by Wishart to focus on this topic), she tasks herself to get behind that and hopes that the person might get to like themselves as a result. Orbach’s dialogue is full of interesting descriptions like, “Therapists are anthropologists of the mind”, and psychotherapy as, “The listening cure”. She sure has a big heart, repeatedly describing her clients sympathetically, with affection and compassion. She comes across as the opposite of jaded after her 40 years in practice.

book festival

Kadamati, dance

At The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Weds 22 Aug 2018.

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Kadamati is a site-specific Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) dance performance set outside the gold and glow of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in which 200 plus school children clad in black, perform Akram Khan’s choreography for us in the mellow Edinburgh evening.

We all arrive early, queue, and then parade around three sides of a huge square to wait patiently behind looped rope as if we are the precious cabinets and chamber pots awaiting the tourists’ gaze. City Council dignitaries from all over the world, Nicola Sturgeon amongst them, troop in afterwards, winning their civic brownie points by showing off like this. (There is a Cultural Summit in Edinburgh taking place at the Scottish Parliament across the road).

The teddy-bear-coloured stone round-tower is all that remains of the abbey-palace-prison-barracks first built in 1128 and it somehow stands in stark contrast to the “themes of identity, migration, connection and hope which mark the end of World War I”. The EIF lot loiter in their yellow T-shirts, the security in neon orange, walkie talkies a-chatter, as the tension builds for the six minute spectacle.

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Rows of performers, some on foot, some in wheelchairs, stand guard for the get-go. At last they swarm in groups of 30 or so, settling in five banks, backs to the churtling fountains and they collectively raise their hands, outstretched, in a blessing. Bowing, humble, a great respiratory sound breathes through the loudspeakers and myriad bodies subtly tilt backwards as if in recognition of something bigger than them, a great exhaling being.

When the orchestra starts, heads are thrown up; and when the drums beat, backs undulate. Arms sweep forwards, out and up, the rhythm builds. Faster they wave adding lunges and steps to move gradually out towards us, drawing us into their sphere. It uses Indian dance imagery of course, with wrists crossed, turning now with inviting gestures. Some Step Dancing  reminds of Scottish tradition, and then they cover their faces with their hands, all the time making figures of eight with their torsos, as if, for all the world, they are trying not to look at the outcome, or avoiding the inevitable.

It is moving, meaningfully danced, wonderfully rehearsed, lovingly drilled. One of the most tricky things to choreograph is a massive team of varying ages and abilities, but Khan obviously knows what to do. To show each person as an able individual and also to manage to inspire a common cause so that they watch and listen acutely to each other (which is what must happen to achieve such a staging), this is an art.

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Herland, womens salon

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 21st Aug 2018.

See also the Take-Over Tent and other Revolting Women events today until 26th Aug 2018.

Katie Ailes
Katie Ailes, spoken word artist

Herland is in the tradition of the famous Women’s Salons of the Age of Enlightenmentin which women played a central role. Salons provided a place for women and men to congregate for intellectual discourse.” (see Gertrude Stein et al who “used culture to affect change”) This, the first outside Glasgow, was hosted by the Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival which has a special Revolting Women theme this 2018 curated by Adele Patrick.

Set in the sparkling Speigeltent, a roundhouse of mirrors, plush burgundy velvet and, on this evening, red lights, Herland is an eclectic mix of poetry and music, wound around a celebration of women of the suffrage movement in this anniversay year of The Representation of the People’s Act 1918 when the first group of women were given the vote in the UK. In attendance are women and some welcome men, between the ages of 16 and 76 (a guesstimate), and the sparky Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh who compere. They are both novelists dressed in red which they note are the colours of revolution, socialism, menstrual periods, and passion.

quiz and programme

On the tables are home-made crowns each bearing the name of a Scottish suffragette who Adele Patrick in her Wee Review interview, said she hopes will become household names. In the air is some of the The Revolting Women Playlist – Compared To What Roberta Flack, Na Gode by Yemi Alade) which was compiled by Patrick from 100 female Book Fest authors and will be released via Twitter and Spotify. There is a quiz, designed to get us to talk to our fellow table sharers (success!), linking the writer’s names and the tracks they had chosen – with prizes!

The acts are quality: Heir of the Cursed is haunting, complex, making an absolutely beautiful sound with her voice and electric guitar, radical and reassuring through anthem and lullaby;  Diljeet Bhachu and Hannah Lee‘s own compositions, on lilting flutes, are melodic, skilled and cognisant of their Chinese and Indian heritage; Nadine Aisha Jassat delivers her poems in a refreshingly un-poetic way, is eloquent and The Old Codgers recognises her Zimbabwean / Yorkshire inheritance in equally amusing and telling ways; Katie Ailes is a spoken word artist and her first poem is full of fairy godmother wishes for her daughter.

There is good spread of racial backgrounds and local women on the stage; rejoicing in the personal as well as the collective, naming children and parents alongside the much bigger political and sociological picture. It is a relaxing, entertaining, and thought-provoking affair.

Did you know there was a Scottish-Asian Creative Group?

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Autóctonos II, dance

At Zoo, Southside. Edinburgh Fringe, 22 and 24-27 Aug 218 1800 hrs

A grouping of shifting, swivelling dancers. Sharp quarter turns, heels slightly lifted, neck torso arms and face rigid and unchanging. Automaton meets shop dummies in Autóctonos II, and save the odd cryptic word from one of them every now and then (it is assumed the dancers can influence the order and formation by randomly giving a verbal sign) and the faintly varied, prepared piano, so it continues. For 10 minutes, 20 and counting, Ayelin Parolin’s choreography and Lea Petra’s composition and playing goes on.

For sure, this repetitive, unchanging movement is extensive within the contemporary dance community at all levels of experience just now, if the Edinburgh Fringe and International Festival are anything to go by, and if it represents their reality then it doesn’t say much for the lives they are leading or seeing around them.

Bleak, uninteresting, monotonous. If it is meant to be this way – it succeeds. It may be representative of reality, but is it the stuff of effective performance? It is as if they would have done this without the audience. There are, as the programme puts it, “hairline fractures” of change: eventually a range of arm movements (physical ticks, a cut, a thrust, a punch) which are then used for the whole of the second half; slight changes of direction; occasional separation of one from the crowd; a hint of variety of plane; a sort of searching or looking. There is a complete absence of beauty.

autoctonos ii

If this is the truth, no wonder no-one marches or opposes any abusive government or partner! An enquiry into this topic is laudable, but it is truly mind-numbing and pedestrian to view. For some reason even the score, played so attentively, is the same; probably because it is monotone and uses an intensely small range of notes.

The lives of workers and those with no resources, of the down-trodden or of political prisoners when shown on the TV or written about, suggest that human beings find a smile or a notion of love even amongst the terror or fear. There is nothing of that here.

The performances are focused, the actions precise, but there is zero for an audience to hook onto, and although this may be representative of their view, it only serves to alienate and estrange the watcher, avoiding any sort of outcome. Is it enough to show a state of mind but evade explanation or comment?