Carmella reviews All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

Content warning: this review references sexual assault

In the first chapter of her auto-fictional novel All Men Want to Know, Nina Bouraoui (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) writes: “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for; I trace the thread of my past back as far as it will take me, making my way through the mysteries that haunt me, hoping to unravel them.”

This is just what the book sets out to do, exploring the narrator’s adult sense of identity–lesbian, writer, French, Algerian–through her past. Born to a French mother and an Algerian father, Bouraoui lived in Algiers until the age of fourteen, when her family relocated to France. Through this fictionalised narrative, Bouraoui ‘unravels’ her personal history, from a sun-baked childhood idyll in an Algeria threatened by the looming civil war of the 90s, to her search for connection as an 18-year-old in the lesbian nightlife of Paris, to her mother’s own life and experiences of sexual assault.

The story is told through beautiful vignette-like chapters that flicker between time periods and locations, mixing past and present, Paris and Algiers. It’s an experimental form that risks becoming frustrating, but I found the short chapters page-turningly compelling. The lack of fixed time and location represents Bouraoui’s own feelings of belonging between places: “I can’t choose one country, one nationality, over the other, I’d feel I was betraying either my mother or my father.”

In the Algerian chapters, headed as ‘Remembering’, Bouraoui writes vividly of desert holidays with her mother and sister alongside the horror of political unrest and violence. Roadblocks, harassment, and murders intertwine with family anecdotes and capers with her childhood best friend Ali.

As an 18-year-old in Paris, Bouraoui begins frequenting a women-only nightclub, looking for love but too terrified to act upon her desires. In this intimately anonymous setting, she feels part of the gay community (“I like these two words, they don’t so much belong to me as own me”) but experiences disconnection from her new lesbian social circle (“The women I spend time with are my rivals, women I go out with, not my friends”). Away from the club scene, she also begins to write. These chapters–headed ‘Becoming’–are reminiscent of the Parisian chapters of The Well of Loneliness as well as the works of Qiu Miaojin in their haunting sense of alienation.

The final narrative strand offers an account of Bouraoui’s mother’s youth in a war-torn France and the barriers surrounding her cross-cultural marriage. These ‘Knowing’ chapters mix family oral history with omniscience – how much would the narrator have been told and how much has been imagined?

All Men Want to Know is an evocative, heartfelt novel that explores psychological questions of self, belonging and knowing. While it covers distressing topics, it’s ultimately a beautiful and hopeful account of coming of age while straddling opposing identities.

Content warnings: rape, sexual assault, suicide, racism, murder, war, addiction, homophobia, sexism

Carmella reviews Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a Crocodile

Trigger warning: this review discusses suicide.

What do crocodiles and lesbians have in common? Plenty of things, as I learned from Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

The novel, first published in Chinese in 1994, is a fragmented, broody, and often puzzling coming-of-age tale. The main story is told through journal entries by our narrator, a college student nicknamed Lazi.

In her first year of study, Lazi begins a turbulent relationship with a fellow student, Shui Ling. Although she knows her love for other women is innate, Lazi is filled with self-loathing: she sees her identity as a crime. As a result, she sabotages the relationship to avoid confronting intimacy.

Over the remainder of her college years, Lazi returns obsessively to her experience with Shui Ling, which she sees as her one great love – but only great because it ended before it could become really real. In the meantime, she forms other relationships – some romantic, some sexual, some platonic – with a variety of queer people.

Notes of a Crocodile isn’t a plot-heavy book. Rather, it’s about the introspective development of a character. Lazi is romantic but melancholic, self-absorbed but self-hating. She’s likeable, but she can also be a bit much!

Lazi’s main quest, as I see it, is to learn how to love. More specifically: how to love as a lesbian. With no societal script to guide her, it’s a messy process of trial and error. Her experiences are mirrored by her friends’ relationships, which can be seen as various models for how queer love can be. They’re a vibrant cast of characters, from a loud-and-proud bisexual gangster and his depressed journalist ex-boyfriend, to a try-hard overachiever and her slacker guitarist sweetheart. Getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of the book.

But don’t get me wrong: none of them any good at love either! Lazi has to learn from their bad examples. As she says towards the end, “On how to love well: instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.”

And what about the crocodile? Well, it crops up in a series of satirical vignettes that break up Lazi’s narrative – which is much-needed, given how bleak her story can be.

The crocodile has lived its whole life wearing a human suit, trying to fit into a human-normative society. Despite its desperate longing to connect with its own kind, because all other crocodiles also wear human suits, the crocodile can’t be sure that it’s ever met another one for real. Does this sound like a familiar experience? It certainly resonated with my teenage memories!

While society hates and fears crocodiles, it’s also fascinated with them. During the course of the novel, Taiwan’s media is whipped up into a crocodile-frenzy, obsessed with finding out every detail of these outsiders who live among the normal populace. Headlines scream: “BREAKING NEWS: CREAM PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVOURITE!” Should the crocodile feel flattered, or fetishised?

Oddly, although these crocodile sections are humorous, they were also the ones that touched me the most.

Around the time of the book’s first publication, lesbians were under a similar scrutiny in the Taiwanese media. That same year, a TV journalist secretly filmed patrons at a lesbian bar, resulting in many being outed without their consent. In a separate incident, two female students (who attended the same high school where Miaojin had once studied) committed a double-suicide, leading to media speculation that they had been in a lesbian relationship. Medical experts and psychologists were called to comment and analyse the girls’ motives. As Miaojin satirises, “various crocodile experts had begun to crop up” – all of them spouting contradictory pseudo-scientific nonsense.

From the outset, I was expecting this to be a sad book. I’ve read Miaojin’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, which is an extended suicide note. Miaojin herself committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 26. So I was unsurprised by how self-destructive the characters in Notes of a Crocodile are.

However, I was surprised by how defiant the book felt as well. Yes, Lazi is miserable, but she keeps on trying to build human connections, to find a love that will last. I didn’t come away feeling miserable. Or, at least, not too miserable. And I enjoyed its puzzles and parallels, the way you have to pick apart metaphors and pop culture references to understand what’s being said. I still don’t understand it completely – but that’s part of what makes me like it.

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction

Mars reviews Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

It’s hard to boil this one down. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a complex portrait of a complex family. Let no one tell you that graphic novels cannot be intense reckonings of literature, especially not when they have become staples of the modern lesbian literary canon and have been reproduced as a very successful Tony-award winning Broadway production.

In a very basic sense, Fun Home is an autobiography of the author’s life, from a young tomboy to an out-and-proud lesbian, in the context of her father’s life right up until his maybe suicide, maybe accidental death only a few short months after she came out to her parents and in turn came to learn of her father’s own troubled sexuality. Bechdel paints a portrait of her father as a stern, intellectual figure who was clearly devoted to his family but struggled to reconcile his role within it with his apparent homosexuality. The backdrop of this story is the 1970s (the author recalls passing New York City’s Stonewall Inn as a girl shortly after the infamous riots), a time during which sexual or gender queerness was criminal. We must wonder that if Bechdel’s collegiate sexual awakening was radical, how can we understand her father’s own lifetime of repressed sexuality? This is among the key tensions that Bechdel is trying to work out here.

In Fun Home, her father Bruce is remembered as a high school English teacher and sometimes small-town mortician obsessed with classic literature and 19th century historical preservation. He is defined by his obsessions because, as the author notes, they are the clearest lenses through which she could understand him. Indeed, Bechdel uses an apt metaphor comparing her father to the Greek figure Daedalus and herself to his son Icarus, and wonders: “Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”

As children become adults, there is a well-known phenomenon of disillusionment which occurs, whereby magical parental authority is stripped away and parents can be understood as the flawed, struggling humans who they actually are. That Bechdel didn’t have the opportunity to reach this stage with her father, who died while she was in college at the age of 44, is an explanation for his almost mythological status here. It’s also evident in the conflicting feelings of resentment and affection that Bechdel’s self-stylized character struggles with throughout the book.

As affectionately as Bechdel illustrates nights playing piano with her father, strutting around in his old suits, and borrowing books from his personal library upon recommendation, readers begin this story by seeing a violent, abusive, and overall terrifying father figure. Family secrets, comic and shameful, feature as important narrative points in this book. Although it is tucked away in the acknowledgements, I think the best summary of this story is this note from Bechdel to her remaining family: “Thanks to Helen, Christian, and John Bechdel for not trying to stop me from writing this book.”

This is not lighthearted reading. The author’s ambivalent narration of events as they are recalled from her often vague childhood journals are riddled with obsessive-compulsive inaccuracies can be jarring. On the scale of tragic versus comic, this life story does seem to lean more one way than another. As stated from the outset though, this is a complex portrait of a complex family. It is full of rich literary references, scenes of a childhood innocence preserved through childish ignorance, and the longing for a familial connection that never achieved its full potential.

For more info on Alison Bechdel and Fun Home, check out this interview she did with The Guardian.