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Rachel GENN


Excerpted from Hotel #6—see here.

Three, four Winters ago I squished mistletoe berries
on an apple tree in the garden
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Three or four years ago this tweeter squished mistletoe berries into the apple tree in her garden. Metaphors can stimulate us long before they are understood.

I chose the image for a presentation to show how writers can nourish other writers who seem nothing like them. The mistletoe looked such a cheeky, healthy, plump imposter. You have no right to be there I thought, at the same time as, That’s me.

I used it to illustrate my relationship with Nobel-prize-winning oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, though I did not google whether mistletoe is a parasite on the apple tree or is simply an epiphyte (living upon) the apple tree, noting ‘There are those who will bet on fact to knock out fiction every time, but history is not shapely. It is not always fit. Fact and fiction are sometimes forced to rely on each other’s mercy.’

Is the mistletoe thriving on its opposite?

How did my berries get squished into Svetlana and what might they dare to become?

The mistletoe sits on the bough as something undreamed of. At the end of Boys in Zinc—Alexievich’s response to Russia’s chaotic and disastrous involvement in Afghanistan—there is an account of the civil lawsuit against her for making public the stories of those affected. Her counter statement reads: ‘... Send a mother a zinc coffin, and then persuade her to sue the writer who wrote how she couldn’t even kiss her son one last time and how she washed the zinc coffin with herbs and stroked it....’ Like the voices from Second-Hand Time, does the mistletoe seem wondrous precisely because it springs from that which seems not survivable?

I begin casting about for love whenever there’s a crisis and often, crises start when I don’t know how I will say what I’ve got to say next. It's possible that muses are no more than catalysts to a new relationship with your work: I have wondered whether muses are beckoned into being solely by the work yet to do. It gets me thinking: anyone who worships you is using you. You’re not the end point for anyone’s current. If the current is the real thing, you cannot be. I don’t think that the mistletoe is the end of all of this.

After having kids, I pined for what the artist Jenny Eden calls ‘sustained togetherness’ with my writing. With one daughter in a pram and one in a sling, I traipsed between public space and baby group while truffling for the difficulty formerly afforded me by writing (not this kind of difficulty; not this ‘sustained togetherness’). In the City Library I picked up a leaflet for the Chernobyl Children’s lifeline. Host a child it said. Could I provide an immune system boost for children from contaminated lands.

Sasha would be with us by the August of 2013.

Mick was the charity coordinator and a Derby City Fan who called the interpreter from Belarus, Yorna. Before the kids arrived, he organised a fundraiser at a church in a miserable dip at Heeley Green in Sheffield. The guest of honour was to be a firefighter who had been forced to tunnel under the melting fourth reactor at Chernobyl to line it with concrete. When our guest arrived the church smelled of tupperware and was so dark it felt charred. The electric lights brought the ruin too much to life so we turned them off. ‘Welcome’ We said. He showed us his bottles of medicines and we discovered in detail through his translator how he had helped build the sarcophagus around the reactor. Up close, we saw eyes repurposed not to see but to go through life this side of the blast. The formality of his moustache and his uniform seemed staged. His belief in our understanding was not evident, equally insufficient, the sympathy we were capable of. There wasn't a whiff of holiness to the church.

Mick streamed a black and white video of the first hours of the disaster from YouTube, where a helicopter, hovering above the reactor clipped an antennae and dropped like a stone into the radioactive pyre. Mick nodded; this was my cue to read from Voices from Chernobyl.

This was my introduction to Svetlana. I chose to read MONOLOGUE ABOUT A WHOLE LIFE WRITTEN DOWN ON DOORS. After the blast, inhabitants of Pripyat weren’t allowed to take any belongings, but one man insisted on taking his apartment door. His whole family’s measurements were on that door. The man's father had lain dead on the door, though no-one knew whose tradition this was. It became the door his daughter lay on it while she waited for her ‘small coffin—like a box for a large doll.’

The man took the door through the woods at night. On a motorcycle. He said of the death of his daughter and those like her, ‘When I talk about it, I have this feeling, my heart tells me—you’re betraying them. Because I need to describe it like I’m a stranger.’ Svetlana gives her subjects the room to work out their role in the plot of their lives, often giving voice to that which cannot be borne alone. Hearing other people’s stories is holding a space open for what happened to re-enter. The Belgian filmmaker, Chantal Ackerman says anything that is framed becomes fiction.

The church stands in the blast zone of my childhood. In remembering the church and where it is, somehow the ground remembers me and pulls me up the hill back to events that I haven't recalled because they warned me not to.

We used to play on wasteland called the Piggeries. At its edge, under a dome of withies was a den. Boys called Kerry, Shawbags and Alan Ray whose hair was cut by their fathers took me there. All of us were expert flobbers. One of them had a sloping fringe, as smooth and fine as paper but he spoke like a Toddler. You get in there.

It was summer, and the floor of the den was brittle with pages of porn mags. I pulled the withies apart then stepped inside while they looked in through the struts. Once I was at the centre they knelt and set the edges alight guessing what I would do. Watching the fannies and spread arses gobbled up by flame, I froze. Somebody’s tits survived in a ring of black ash. Svetlana claims ‘from the point of view of art, the butcher and the victim are equal as people.’

My horror was not at their indifference to my life but in the speed with which I snuffed out the flame of my outrage. Something I still have to do so that I don’t burn to death.

Svetlana also says forgetting is a form of lying.

Care is creative attention. When remembering threatens to annihilate the subject, the listener helps bear the tension of the question without an answer. Her surfeit of care is in her craft, her orchestration of voices that alone might stand shocked at themselves for existing. In Second-Hand Time there are those cursed for trading their noble dream of a common future ‘for rags’—we discover women on fire with sorrow, rage, women with meteoric force like this rare capitalist.

‘Moscow!’ the woman cries, ‘I’ve always seen her as a competitor, from the moment I got there, she inspired a sporting rage in me.’ The female voices that Alexievich collects affect me in a visceral way, making me know I can make this happen. Their struggles, alongside cherished predictions of possibilities, unleash a supernatural energy into the work—a surplus that powers readers and opens up the conduits via which writers find and communicate with each other. Sasha came to Sheffield from outside Minsk which was still in the zone of contamination in August 2013. On our doorstep, we were told that Sasha had removed his own eye with a knife while trying to open a can. During his stay he would be fitted for a prosthetic one. We were instructed to give potatoes at breakfast to our boy. The hole was not new but it was puckered and gave him a defeated look in his shoulders. He treated my daughters aged 3 and 6 as invisible. Two-year olds won’t shut up about holes where eyes should be. We bought him a helicopter drone, which delighted him, I think.

The charity made sure the whole of August was filled, every day an activity. South Yorks fire service decided these kids who couldn’t listen were never going to understand how difficult a hose was to handle. We caused a pile-up on the Monsal trail forcing a local child off the disused rail track, tyres yabbering to a stop in the rough. Dentists visits were planned, even a trip to the seaside. Imagine never having seen the sea. Then imagine that your first glimpse of it was to be Cleethorpes at low tide. Through one eye. Then imagine you don’t get that glimpse because you have to have your new eye fitted on that day. Alexievich admits to asking herself a countless number of times—how is it possible to make it through the midst of evil without increasing the evil in the world?

‘What am I obliged to defend?’ she pleads in court, insisting, ‘I do not use conjecture... I collect details and feelings, not only from an individual human life, but out of the air of the time, its spaces and its voices.... I gather the book out of reality itself.’

Of the woman in Second-Hand Time who leaves her husband and children for the prison lifer from her dreams, the villagers say, ‘Something is percolating inside her... she wants everything at once.’

Alexievich’s mix of journalism and reportage does not demean or diminish opposing desires of everyday women, even when they are framed within the dominant ideology as dreamy idiotic visions of the future. Despite the villagers, the woman’s husband understood her, ‘We all loved our Mama. She was always cheerful. She played the piano—she’d gone to music school and she sang. Made up fairy tales. For a little while, we had a TV, someone had given it to us as a present.’ The kids got sucked into the screen, it was impossible to tear them away, and it made them kind of aggressive, they started acting like strangers. So she went and poured water in it like it was an aquarium. The TV burnt out. ‘Children go look at the flowers and trees instead. And talk to your mother and father. Our kids didn’t even get upset because Mama had said so....’

Sometimes, her subject’s loquacity makes them seem free to ignore what has happened to them but she also waits for eloquence created out of pain. Abjection can speak, and expertly orchestrated, it does so in harmonies of devotion and lament. The past is still ahead of us, Alexievich warns as we readers wonder what will be the food for those who were starving for a capitalism they had never tasted?

Care is not emotional volume. When it comes to curating content, one cannot care enough about any of her subjects—Chernobyl, kidnap, beastings, protracted hardship, words trying to escape burned mouths sealed shut in Afghanistan. Hard Labour.

Her super-fit eye is still human jelly, her ear fleshy yet. Her devotion to what happened purifies the reading experience as if her surfeit of care has burned off any excess empathy that may get in the way of the unique contribution of each message to the whole work. When Second-Hand Time draws to a close, you realise the weight that has built in tissues of tales, and suddenly it is a book to press flowers in, ending with an old woman wondering what her life has been for: ‘Have you seen my lilacs? I go out at night to look at them—they glow. I’ll just stand there admiring them. Here, let me cut you a bouquet....’

I named my current project Bouquet in deference to Alexievich with the idea of capturing the wild variousness of myself and my own bound-while-dying siblings. I don't yet know how to tackle something I care so much about but don’t want to be told what to be bothered by. I am waiting now for what am I bothered by to find me. In readiness, I think about the rebound of flora and the wolves returning to the landscape in the years since Chernobyl and, having heard that in the woodlands surrounding Pripyat, the feathery limbs of immense trees grow out through the empty tower blocks, I search out drone footage. The sublime territory that Alexievich has mapped for us will help us navigate our own.

Rachel GENN formerly a Neuroscientist, has written two novels: The Cure (2011), and What You Could Have Won (2020). She was Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence (2006), University of Sheffield, creating a quasi-institution called THE NATIONAL FACILITY FOR THE REGULATION OF REGRET, spanning installation art, VR and film (ASFF 2016), presented together at SXSW, 2017. She has written for Granta, 3AM and The Real Story and is currently working on a long essay on immersion in the creative act as well as a collection of non-fictions about fighting and addiction to regret (2019–2020). See @RachelGenn.

Genn’s new novel What You Could Have Won is forthcoming in the autumn from And Other Stories; If you sign up for the And Other Stories subscription scheme by Monday 8th June 2020, you will receive a copy of What You Could Have Won—in which all subscribers are thanked by name—in September, ahead of its official publication, as well as up to five other specially selected And Other Stories titles over the year thereafter. See here for details on the publication; and here for word on the subscription scheme.


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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