When approaching a book which contains stories it would be natural to assume that the purpose of the book is to read it. This is, after all, what most people do when faced with a book.
Edward Dimock, distinguished professor of South Asian languages, when his attempt to get access to an old and valuable Bengali text finally succeeded, discovered that all but one of the 360 pages were completely unreadable due to three centuries’ worth of worship with unguents and powders.
He only wanted to read it, but what a fool he was to think that all books were for reading.
So why ruin a good book? Because the texts themselves tell you to. Books can command their own destruction, and if you ignore their instructions you do so with the understanding that you have not experienced the book to its full potential.
“Before you read me, cover me in powder!” They say, and you do, because you want to do right by them.
When they can no longer be read, you pass it on by word of mouth. You tell your children what the book wants, long after it can tell you itself.
The oral tradition isn’t so far away from the written tradition after all. What could be more of a clear example of ergodic literature than a book that doesn’t want to be read.
Further reading on self-destructive books: Popular Buddhist Texts from Nepal: Narratives and Rituals of Newar Buddhism by Todd Lewis, The Role of Narrative in Nepalese Buddhist Vrata Literature by Laurie Raye.
First you need a head.
And if you want an ancient head then you have to be lucky. You’re aware of perfectly preserved mammoths trapped in ice flows? Same principle here. You need a head that’s been cryogenically frozen thousands of years before the technology was available. Imagine a freshly severed head falling directly into the ice flow at the moment of death. The blood freezes in the veins. The nervous system shuts down. Thoughts, memories, emotions are trapped like insects in aspic.
Good. Now you have your head. Remove it carefully from the ice but do not allow it to defrost. Not yet.
The general idea of the next stage is that you’re going to provide the head with everything it needs from a body, but without having to actually supply and maintain a body. You don’t need a stomach, lungs, legs, arms, guts and genitals. Far too much hassle. All you need is blood of the right type carrying the oxygen and nutrients that the head needs, because that’s all the body supplies. Reasonably straightforward.
Now you need to hook up a whole bunch of the nervous system. Psychologically the head is going to need this. Since the nervous system essentially uses a series of electrical impulses, you should be able to save those signals out as data, store them and play them back. Backward engineering the nervous system is going to require significant biotech that hasn’t been invented yet, so do that first.
Your head is likely to be prone to infection, so keep it in a completely sterile environment. You’ll need to think about power supplies and mobility, things like that, but these are a doddle compared to everything else you’ve already tackled.
Finally, please have on hand a dedicated team of therapists and psychoanalysts. They’re not going to be much use, but at least the head’s subsequent mental breakdown won’t be entirely your responsibility.
And good luck!
Laurie Raye’s flash fiction The Secrets We Wear on Our Skin is published in Breve New Stories Issue Three. Read it here!
I wasn’t prepared the first time I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Had I known that this was going to be one of ‘those’ books I would have put on gloves before I touched it, or run very far away. My first taste of sapphic Victoriana was a whirlwind ride of intimacy and deception. It hurt me, that book, in ways which have left beautiful scars, and I loved every moment. Then came Tipping the Velvet, good gods, and I drowned beneath the fickle waves of London.
The next lesbian narrative I read took me by surprise. An emotional left hook to the face, as Allison Wanda Ruth and the demon Ciocie Cioelle Estrella Von Maximus the Third have very consensual, very normal sex inside the hollowed skull of a sleeping god. Kill Six Billion Demons by Tom Parkinson-Morgan has undoubtedly helped me develop a taste for mixing the supernatural and the sapphic.
Finally, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is a story unique in that it deals with the protagonist’s journey through her low self-esteem, crumbling mental health and how she reluctantly came to terms with her sexuality. It’s a lesbian narrative with a different focus, not on relationships but on the individual and the journeys we take by ourselves – an often overlooked facet of gay culture, that we are individuals first and fragments of a relationship second.
Tom Heaton’s short story The Last Roman is published in Breve New Stories Issue Three. Read it now!
I think I must have read Borges’ Labyrinths just before I wrote ‘The Last Roman’. Certainly I read it around that time. I was taken with the Borges’ demonstration that a story didn’t have to be contemporary, didn’t have to ‘relate’, could be quite abstract and cold, could appeal to the intellect rather than the gut, and yet still be compelling.
Critically, a story could create its own world, governed by its own laws, and that autonomy could extend to the structure of the story itself, to the rules of its own construction, its use or abuse or ignorance of familiar techniques, its implicit rejection of the idea of #writingtips, though Borges of course missed out on that most blockable of hashtags.
(Digression. It’s worth spending a few minutes working out what #writingtips as dispensed by Borges might look like. I think he’d stress the importance of alienating the casual reader, the need for ridiculously portentous titles, the necessity to confuse, baffle and then frustrate.1)
Due to Borges’ dense allusive and playful style, many of the stories in Labyrinths are almost impossible to read, and yet contain ideas that are utterly unforgettable. They reveal a difficult path to knowledge. Labyrinths are designed to confuse, of course, to entrap, to house secrets at their core.
I can’t claim that my little story is Borgesian. Borges is inimitable. But I think I wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t read Borges. I took Borges as permission. My story borrows the trick of starting with a bold and even unsustainable metaphor, then sustaining it, rationalising it, making it concrete. And it also hides2 somewhere in its labyrinth of scenes whatever truth it may contain.
Laurie Raye talks about what inspired their flash fiction ‘The Secrets We Wear On Our Skin’ published in Breve New Stories Issue Three.
I got my first tattoo yesterday.
A leaping reindeer, flying through the sky with the face of an eagle and antlers bedecked with flowers.
It is the oldest tattoo design known to humanity. Well, that’s not entirely true. It is the oldest design which seems to be for no discernible medical purpose. Not an acupressure mark like on Otzi the ice man, this was just one of the many flying and frolicking animals painted on the skin of the Pazyryk ice maiden. Her body is a canvass of motion and colour, still alive so many millennia after her death. Despite everything, she is still visible to us.
Being non-binary, I exist within the margins. Neither this nor that nor here nor there. It is hard to categorize me, to label my experiences with definitive, limiting words. Dating is a minefield of ‘But what is between your legs?’ and ‘But what are you really?’ and ‘Wow, I’ve never kissed a transgendered (sic) before’ and, unfortunately, the inevitable ‘You are either a man or a woman u confused bitch!! Fuck off and die!’ whenever I try to date beyond the queer community bubble.
I have met my fair share of Lucys, and I have been my fair share of Morgans.
But slowly, slowly, I’m beginning to wear my heart on my sleeve and ink my secrets onto my skin for all to see. I’m not interested in being invisible. I’m not walking into the ocean, I’m walking into the tattoo parlour and asking for my reality to be made manifest. I will continue to make my true self visible.
Tom Heaton talks about what inspired his short Story ‘The Last Roman’ published in Breve New Stories Issue Three.
In times of great political, social and cultural upheaval, it’s vital to maintain the supply of serio-comic short stories.
In our own apocalyptic moment, I took it upon myself to shoulder that burden.
Surveying the rubble of a collapsing civilization, I thought it might be helpful to get the viewpoint of someone who had been there before. So I resurrected a Roman. A Roman, I thought, would at least have first-hand insight into declines and falls.
Unfortunately I got the wrong sort of Roman. I’d hoped for a statesman, an intellectual, someone used to the cut and thrust of politics, a meditative and observant actor in the great events of the day. Instead I got Marcellus, an insignificant centurion posted to the very edge of the empire. A self-regarding, small-minded nonentity, blind to the great changes that were happening around him, uninterested in politics: sentimental, petty, fickle. Someone it turned out, who would fit right into our contemporary crisis.
And then Marcellus took over the story. I’d thoughtlessly placed him in a world that he could not begin to comprehend. His mind was stuck on boyhood memories and love affairs from millennia ago. He was static while everything changed around him, a man adrift on time. And there were things he needed to reconcile within himself. Aspects of his character. Regrets. Even after two thousand years, Marcellus still had unfinished business. With himself.
So I failed to write the great short story that would enlighten these dark days for democracy and liberalism. I’m sorry. Instead I give you Marcellus, who will be around long after you are gone, listening to the hum of his glass case, rotating his head, watching and not comprehending.
The fact that I am using a language that is not my own has a huge bearing on my writing. It brings challenges; like finding the right expression to convey a concept or an emotion. A benefit is that I am acutely aware of the workings of a language; the fact is that some words, feelings or expressions just cannot be translated. This has an effect on what you -what I- write. I find myself drawn to language that is pared down to its essential core- simple and sparse, devoid of flowery additions. Strangely enough, writing in Dutch is all but impossible nowadays. Though Dutch friends and family compliment me with the fact that I still speak Dutch without a trace of an accent and use the correct sentence structure I have found out that when I try and write something in my mother tongue, I throw it aside in disgust. Clunky and clumsy, not in tune with what I wanted to say.
Some twenty years ago I lived and worked in Russia for a while. Waiting for my part of the project to start, I filled the time with teaching Dutch conversation at the University of St Petersburg. One of the professors of Dutch of the university was incredibly accomplished in Dutch; not an easy language to learn. He had no trace of an accent whatsoever. The only way you could spot it was that he used archaic expressions; expressions not used for the last thirty years. He had never been abroad, which made it even more of an accomplishment (and indicated he had been trained by the KGB!).
It saddens me, not being able to be playful in my own language anymore. Perhaps you have to be surrounded and immersed by a language in order to be able to write in it.
What interests me? Well, that too is easy – just about everything I study interests me. I find if I care to delve into any subject it becomes interesting, and what interests me makes for a good story. So almost everything interests me … except maybe reality television.
People and history interest me. We can learn a great deal of value by studying people who have gone before us. Some we learn to follow; others we might choose to abandon.
The events and historical backdrop to the emergence of Christianity is a period that fascinates me because the events that played out two thousand years ago reverberate to this very day and ate likely to do so for millennia yet. I have a particular perspective on those events and the characters that shaped human history so profoundly and irrevocably informed by biblical research.
This is my project, my historical novel. It excites and fills me with fear in equal measure. It will be the best or worst writing will have done. Will others understand what is so clear to me? Will I be true to the characters I seem to have come to know so well?
Being Dutch, I grew up with Simon Carmiggelt. Carmiggelt died in 1987, aged 74. He is famous in the Netherlands for his daily writings in the newspaper ‘Het Parool’. His short stories, which he signed off with ‘Kronkel’ (Kink) are observations of daily life, often melancholic, sometimes sombre but always with a great insight in the human psyche. Like few others, he was able to sketch big ideas with a minimum of words. He wrote flash fiction before the genre was invented. Some of his work is translated but I doubt whether he translates well as he is so very, very Dutch.
Another inspirational author is Godfried Bomans. Bomans died in 1971, when he was 58. Hardly any of his works – and he was a very prolific author – have been translated. He wrote short stories, essays, criticism, fairy tales and political satire. As an admirer of Charles Dickens, he founded the Haarlem branch of the Dickens Fellowship and became its president. Bomans was very media savvy and appeared regularly on (black and white) television. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that his literary peers regarded him with a measure of suspicion and disdain: he never received a literary prize, nor is he mentioned in scholarly overviews of Dutch literature, despite the fact he was widely read. Like no other he could describe what a character was about in just a few words.
A more contemporary source of inspiration is the collection of short stories written by Jhumpa Lahiri. Her work possess a quality that makes me want to stop and contemplate what I’ve just read, rather than going on to the next page. Her prose is understated, her language quiet and precise, resonating long after finishing the story.
I have known a number of inspirational individuals. Like many of you I suspect, my day and Sunday school teachers were dedicated people who shaped my love of the written and spoken word. They introduced me to the likes of Nell Harper Lee, James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) and William Golding; all instantly recognisable names.
William Golding taught me the meaning of ‘fable’. “Lord of the Flies” was a revelation. A story with layers of meaning? Suddenly a whole new world opened before me, beckoning me, inviting me to saturate my intellectual senses. Others such as “The Spire”, “The Inheritors”, “Pincer Martin”, “Rites of Passage” and “Darkness Visible” all, in my opinion, great works, left an indelible mark on my psyche. Mann-Booker and Nobel prizes both well deserved.
James Leslie Mitchell’s “A Scots Quair” also made a lasting impression on me. Mitchel’s writing evokes the sometimes-suffocating, sometimes-intriguing but always extraordinary atmosphere of Scottish village life. Writing as Mitchell was about a woman’s experiences of life, I was filled with wonder that a man could have such a profound understanding of a woman’s perspective.
Similarly Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” told a great story about the darkness, frailty and resilience of human nature, while simultaneously capturing the soft undulations of the Southern accent. I defy anyone to read that book without hearing the Deep South drawl and an aching in the heart. What a shame she published so little.