Imagine a story in which two lovers exist outside gendered norms, their identities not defined by sex or gender but rather given shape by the affection and desire they share.
That story is realized in Sphinx, a fascinating book written under Oulipian* constraint, in which French author Anne Garréta walks a linguistic tightrope, building an experimental love story narrative around two central, genderless characters.
As impressed as I was by Garréta’s ability to construct this narrative, I was equally impressed by Emma Ramadan’s translation of the text from French. Ramadan’s translator’s note at the end of Sphinx addresses the task of having to rewrite parts of Garréta’s text to stay true to the constraint in English and the nature of writing with a gendered language. From Ramadan’s note: “Garréta believed that equality could not exist within a language that puts the two genders in opposition to each other, and so created a language and a world in which amorous relationships are not determined by a binary of distinction.”
*”[t]he adjective Oulipian is retrofitted from the name OuLiPo which stands for ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature: a collective established in Paris in 1960 with the purpose of exploring and exploiting the generative literary potential of linguistic, mathematical, and scientific structures — which lots of the time, is a fancy way of saying the use of constraints as a writing aid.” from the Introduction to Sphinx by Daniel Levin Becker
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, called “a lithe, artfully-plotted debut” and the “ultimate antibeach novel” by Jennifer Senior in her review in The New York Times is a good, solid read.
Set in and around a Montego Bay resort in Jamaica, the plot revolves around two sisters: Margot who works long hours at the resort while also turning tricks for tourists and those in the hotel who can further her career, and academically promising high school student Thandi, whose education is being paid by her big sister Margot. Each of these young women hides an inner tumult – for Margot it’s her love for another woman, and for Thandi it’s a desire to be released from her academic path – from each other and from their community.
Rich and evocative, with threads of race and class, sex and sexuality, and family and identity layered throughout, Here Comes the Sun is as much about a complex Jamaica and her people as it is about the relationship between these two complicated sisters. I’m interested to read what Dennis-Benn writes next.
Available November 2017
The End We Start From begins with the birth of a child called Z, born in a storm-flooded near-future London to a woman and R, her partner. Z is both the end of the alphabet and a beginning; a child born to a new generation, one that will come of age in a dystopian UK where transience is necessary and survival is key.
Megan Hunter’s brief and lyrical first novel beautifully explores themes of motherhood, survival, death and renewal, and home, while layering in all-too-real environmental terror and post-apocalyptic realism. It’s minimal and poetic. A strong debut.