3rd – 8th November.

Crossing Border is an international festival for literature and music. It was founded in The Hague in 1992.

This year, because of the CoronaVirus restriction the whole festival takes place on line and is free of charge

The Festival brings two forms of art together that used to be considered poles apart: modern literature and popular music. But, that was not the only thing Crossing Border pioneered – it provided a platform where borders between readers, writers and musicians disappeared. A free state for speech and music.  Here are reviews of events we watched . . . .

Wildernesses of the north provide inspiration for two North American writers at last night’s Crossing Borders festival. 

Julia Phillips Disappearing Earth

4th November.

Kamchatka is a 1250-kilometre-long peninsula in Russia’s Far East – flanked by the Pacific Ocean on the east and the Sea of Okhotsk on the west, it was home to a large military base throughout the Cold War years and only opened to visitors in 1990. It is also the setting for young American author, Julia Phillips’s debut novel, Disappearing Earth.  She spoke at the Crossing Borders Festival last night about her fascination with the Russian language and culture and the strange bond that Russia and America share.

As a student of Russian, Julia Phillips explains that much of the America she knows, is in fact shaped by its relationship to Russia. The young writer compares it to the relationship between two siblings. ‘A sort of siblingness’ by which each defines itself in opposition to the other but are in fact both from the same family. ‘I think the US and contemporary Russia are very similar to one another in the way that they engage with the world’ she admits. To this end, critics have suggested that Kamchatka is used as a mirror of American society in Disappearing Earth.

The young author visited the peninsular for the first time in 2011 and describes the setting of her debut novel as ‘beautiful and complicated and rich’. She would return twice more over the coming years, determined to spend as much time with the locals as possible in order to learn as much as possible about this vast forgotten territory. Julia tells us that she was lucky enough to be welcomed into a nomadic Reindeer Herding tribe in what she describes as ‘a life-shaping experience’. She was able to communicate with some of them in Russian.

However the young author admits that her perspective is still deeply American. The novel takes the form of a thriller, of sorts, as the narrative hinges on the disappearance of two sisters. Phillips admits a love of the thriller genre and agrees that it is  ‘the hook of the missing girls’ that compels readers to enter her narrative world. However, her greater goal is to use the exoticism of her setting to interrogate traditional societal structures that work to sustain the sorts of scenarios upon which so many thrillers are predicated. ‘The characters are complicit in one way or another in their acceptance of the violence that is perpetrated on the missing girls’. The novel thus explores how crimes like these both reflect and maintain the power structures in which we live.   Souwie Buis   5th November 2020

Michael Christie Greenwood

4th November.

Novelist and skateboard champion, Michael Christie, grew up in a logging town in Canada’s far north. His love and respect for the great evergreens of his homeland inspired his most recent novel, Greenwood. Described as ‘a realistic ecological Armageddon’, the narrative follows four generations of the Greenwood family and their varying relationships with trees. Christie describes it as ‘an environmental story, a family story and one of Canadian identity too.’

The narrative spans a 130 year period that finishes in 2038 – a time when the Great Withering has begun. Inspired by the death of large numbers of Western Red Cedar trees in the area where he lives, Christie describes it as a time when all trees begin to whither and die as a result of climate change. Although some have called the novel dystopian, the author argues that there is not much of a leap from our current reality to the future that he describes in the novel. ‘The withering has already started’ he says.

Greenwood is structured in concentric rings of narrative, inspired by a tree. Christie came upon the idea when chopping down a large fir on his property, in preparation for the building of a log cabin where he and his family now live. He realised as he saw the many rings making up the trunk, that the tree was older than he or his father or even his grandfather. The motif of a family tree is also central to the novel. The author admits to using this central metaphor to question patriarchal notions of the family tree and presents instead the idea that families are more like forests of interconnected trees. His own research into the complex and sophisticated relationships that trees in forest have underpins the broader idea that man and nature are connected in a complex web of existence.

Although the book deals with the largely depressing topic of climate change, Christie admits that he wanted it ‘to contain some hope’.  To this end he sees the notion of community and collective experience as central to finding a solution to the climate crisis. He tells us that he has been ‘heartened’ by the response to his book, which is due to be translated into a variety of languages, including Russian and Chinese. ‘It’s been encouraging for me to see how much people all over the world care about trees and forests’ he admits. Let’s hope we are able to translate this interest into concrete action.      Souwie Buis   5th November 2020

Paul Mendez Rainbow Milk  

3rd November .

How does a queer black man of Jamaican origin survive upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness in Britain’s industrial West Midlands? If this sounds like the kind of stuff of which novels are made, you’d be right. ‘Rainbow Milk’ is a sexually explicit coming of age novel, based largely on the experiences of the author, Paul Mendez. He spoke at the Crossing Borders Festival yesterday evening, live stream from the UK.

Paul Mendez’s gentle, well-modulated voice stands in contrast to his debut novel, described as brutally poetic and harshly erotic. The author admits that as a man of 38, settled in a stable relationship and studying part-time at Goldsmiths University in London, his links with the 19-year-old boy who escapes his conservative upbringing to become a sex worker in London, had to be revisited. He tells us about the research required for the novel; both for London in the early 2000’s but also further back for the lives of his Jamaican grandparents. Part of the so-called Windrush generation, they journeyed to the UK in the early fifties in search of a better life. Mendez admits that it was only in his early thirties after reading books like, Andrea Levy’s Small Island that he began digging into his own family history. 

As part of this growing awareness of his origins, Mendez explains how important he found the use of dialect in this book. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Jamaican author, Marlon James, ‘gave me permission to write in Jamaican creole’ he admits. Drawing on memories of his grandparents’ speech and those of their friends, he found it ‘incredibly easy’ to switch over to the rhythms of their language. However, the novel also deals with the desperate inner struggle of protagonist, Jesse, to come to terms with his blackness as he grows up in a highly conservative part of middle England. When Jesse gets to London and becomes immersed in the sex-fuelled world of gay bars, nightclubs and public toilets, he finds himself in a downward spiral that he comes to realise can only end badly.

Toward the end of the book, Jesse begins to find solace in the arts as an alternative way to explore his identity and search for belonging. Mendez tells us that he kept a personal journal from the age of 18. Many autobiographical fragments from this journal are used in the novel. However, the journey to getting published, was not an easy one. Mendez acknowledges that his work was raw and many publishers were not willing to invest the necessary time and money to nurture a young writer such as himself. His break came when he met Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher of Dialogue Books. Her determination to foster talent from those who provided ‘alternative narratives’ gave Mendez the opportunity he needed. 

British publishing, Mendez agrees, is ‘getting there’ in terms of its inclusion of alternative voices and stories but ‘still has a long way to go’. He tells us that he would like to see Rainbow Milk in schools and colleges across the UK. Written in the third person, he sees his protagonist, Jesse, as someone with whom young people of all backgrounds can empathise. A sort of Catcher in the Rye for the 21st century. Certainly, Mendez himself comes across as a warm, sensitive man for whom empathy comes naturally.    Souwie Buis   3rd November 2020

More reviews to follow . . . .

Click here for more information and full programme