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Shanghai Noir



Remember story time? When my kids were little, I would take them to the local public library where a grandmotherly type would read out loud while the kids lolled around on the floor. But reading a story is nothing compared to telling one.

There we were, some 70-odd souls seated inside the dark cavern called Mezrab, waiting for the Mythical Saloon to begin. The couches, chairs, and cushions were set in a circle with a Persian rug in the middle. The host welcomed us warmly and told us what to expect: a tapestry of tales drawn from the Iranian Book of Kings and the Old Testament. We, the audience, were responsible for finding the gold thread shot through the whole.

Then a woman began to sing. Sometimes solo. At other times accompanied by a framed drum like the one shown above. A mournful, haunting rhythm. We heard stories of Cain and Abel, the kingdom of Iran, the fall of warriors and the bravery of brothers. l felt transported to a Berber tent deep inside the desert. This was storytelling as it was meant to be: comic and tragic, melodic and dissonant, the past intertwined with the present. Storytelling as a rite of passage.

In Korea, there is a tradition tied to the rite of marriage. The bridal couple gives their parents a new set of clothing. If they are still alive, the clothes are silk. If dead, then the robes are made of cotton.

The woman he was to marry had prepared a white cotton skirt and jacket, which I spread out on the rock. In a meadow of long grasses beneath the temple where our mother's name is chanted after each morning's sutras. As soon as I held my brother's lighter to the sleeve, a thread of blue-tinged smoke spiralled up. After white clothes dissolve in the air this way, a spirit will wear them. Do we really believe that?

-- From "Mourning robes" in The White Book by Han Kang (Portobello Books 2017)

It's such a comforting thought, a connection with the dead that assumes the shape of blue-spiralling smoke. What a choice of words Han Kang makes.

Literary Amsterdam is full of words. They can be spoken by a storyteller or a visiting author. Last week, Sheila Heti came to Amsterdam to talk about her novel Motherhood. She spoke of the choices women can make these days -- to work, to vote, to have children or not. These are new choices when seen through the long lens of human history. Heti believes that these new choices deserve an equally new language.

I wonder whether that's true. For sure, there is a gender difference in the life experiences that influence the topics men and women choose. But do we really need to speak different languages? Read my thoughts on the topic in this week's blog post: Female Language.

P.s. Just got word that my Pushcart-nominated short story "Frogs" has been chosen for Nunum's first print anthology. You can buy your very own copy here.

P.p.s. Don't miss my first attempt at curating an edition of VERSO on Sunday, April 14 at 7:30pm. The PR campaign has launched on Instagram and Facebook. Kind of freakish, I have to say.

The Smell of Memory
Fun in the Dark
Homeward Bound
Uncle Xi Wants You!
On Revision

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