This past year was an exercise in equanimity. Forced indoors under lockdown, quarantine or ‘shelter-in-place’ orders as governments scrambled to contain Covid-19, many of us eventually found ourselves on edge, listless and irascible. Much of the year was spent in trying to find a balance – between staying informed and panicking, between craving and limiting social interactions, and between loving your family while trying not to let them get on your nerves. By the end of the year, we were spent.
In such trying times, we turned to indulgences and sought comfort in that most maligned of disciplines – the arts. We watched movies in the morning and TV shows at night, read books in the autumn sun, and listened to music as we tried to stave off cabin fever. And so, to welcome the new year and to say a proper fanculo to 2020, the La.Lit team reflects on the pop culture that helped maintain a semblance of sanity in the year of the great pandemic.
Rabi Thapa, Editor
I don’t watch a lot of telly, but when I do, I naturally gravitate towards the unnatural. Horror movies, science fiction and fantasy flicks at a pinch. But I still haven’t committed myself to multi-season bingeing, despite the proliferation of these genres on Netflix. The latest series to fail to keep my interest beyond a season is Humans, in which the army of androids that serve humanity begin to achieve autonomy. There’s something singular about watching character development in robots: it only becomes interesting when they achieve singularity, which in this case means ‘behaving like humans’. So far, the originals are far more interesting than the New Humans – and this realization led me to finally uncover the cesspool of human endeavour that is Breaking Bad, a gritty, tragicomic revelation deserving of its reputation.
I’ve also been dipping into a fair bit of speculative fiction, and it may come as a surprise to some to learn that the Nobel winner Doris Lessing conjured up a whole series of ‘personal, psychological, historical’ archives on the achievements of star-Empires. I recently slogged through the absorbing Shikasta, a stand-in for Earth, which supposes that we are the results of a failed experiment. It’s sobering stuff. Once more, though, I’m coming full circle. After my romp through epic Pullman (His Dark Materials) and New Weird VanderMeer (Area X) was brought to a juddering halt by the slough of Lessing’s sociological space fiction, I’ve been enjoying more local, realist fare, such as that offered by Hanif Qureshi’s ode to south London, The Buddha of Suburbia – mirrored by the movie adaptations of My Beautiful Laundrette and, in hysterical realist fashion, the miniseries White Teeth.
Much has happened for me in 2020, though for many not a lot did. But I’m not here to chat about books on pregnancy and early fatherhood, which constitute alternately wise and chipper and cheesy sub-genres unto themselves (Rad Dad, anyone?), but which should probably be discussed (if at all) on a separate forum. From what I can tell, our newborn is at least as much into Bach and Beethoven (this signifying the universe of my musical perambulations this year of working from
home) as he is into random YouTube white noise (with or without womb ambience). It will be a while, too, before he dips into a copy of La.Lit. But judging by the interest with which he regards the book of bold black-and-white patterns the UK’s National Health Service hands out to young families, he might yet demonstrate an early appreciation of such beauteous journals as Elementum, which brings together the most striking images and prose I have yet encountered in a literary magazine. The only downside, depending on your perspective, is that this ‘journal of nature & story’ is suffused with solastalgia – that feeling that your sense of place is being violated.
Elementum is best appreciated slowly, as with most of the best things in life.
So at the end of a very slow time, Happy New Year!
Kripa Shrestha, Editorial Intern
My favourite writer of 2020 was Banana Yoshimoto. If not for her bizarre nom de plume, I doubt I would have picked her brightly coloured paperback off the shelves of Pilgrims as the last read of an equally bizarre year. The title of her work, in contrast, was simply Kitchen. I had no idea what to expect going in but so long as it wasn’t a cookbook disguised as a novel, I was more than ready to escape the blurry monotony of the absence of life that defined 2020. Would anyone who would pick such an utterly remarkable name for themselves write something unremarkable? I had an intuition before I had even read a page that I would never forget this book.
I finished it in one sitting. The plot wasn’t especially riveting; very little happened in the book, which mostly meditated on Death. Death we never actually encounter firsthand in its hundred or so pages: we trail the protagonist Mikage’s private thoughts as she mourns first the loss of her grandmother, her last remaining blood relative, then that of Eriko, the transsexual mother-figure who invites her to live with her and her son Yuichi. But what is exceptional about Yoshimoto’s debut novel – minus its cast of delightfully quirky characters and its outlandish sense of humour – ‘Yuichi told me before that you reminded him of Woofie, a dog we used to have. And you know – it’s really true’ – is its quotidian description of the firm, everlasting embrace of grief. Grief is ultimately humbling; it forces us to confront the limitations of our humanity and of others. Like a coming-of-age rite.
The past year has been many things, but most of all it’s been compressed grief, gift-wrapped with a desolate bow of universal loneliness. The ghost of 2020 threatens to malinger into 2021; when the world is collectively grieving and there is no reliable end in sight to our universal plight, it has been strangely reassuring, comforting even, to read about somebody else’s grief. Not with the intention of romanticizing tragedy, but to feel intimately connected with another. To discover, and to nurture, the private kinship that sprouts when someone who signs their work as ‘Banana’ – a name that is at once singular and oddly accessible, even relatable – offers us truths which have germinated from the depths of her aching – and healing – heart.
Kitchen soothed my ailing heart. As I trudge without choice into yet another year of this merciless pandemic, Yoshimoto’s gentle fiction endows my spirit with courage and hope. Healing takes many forms; rejoicing in the modest triumphs of others as they lift themselves from the unrelenting pits of anguish, their spirits undefeated, may well be a first step.
Prawin Adhikari, Assistant Editor
I sometimes pause a movie that I am watching on the laptop so I can get a better look at the wallpaper behind the actors. Sometimes, when a scene in a movie is particularly maudlin or thrillerific, I burst out laughing at an awkward piece of set decor because the object makes me imagine the conversation that must have transpired between the set-dresser and their assistants which led to the object being placed in the mise-en-scène. It makes me think of two half-starved assistants on a scooter knocking on a few doors before finding the correct curmudgeon from whom the objet d’art was temporarily borrowed to commit it to the eternity that is celluloid infamy.
Which is to say – I routinely become removed from immersion, like a samosa taken out of a boiling vat before it has fried through.
But in this past year the opposite has happened a few times, and most memorably it has happened for me with the literary and cultural phenomenon called The English Patient.
I read the book sometime around 1997, five years after it was published and a year after it became the Anthony Minghella movie, my strongest memory of which is of the Bedouin man’s tree of ointments, and of a gown being torn in the frenzy of passion, with the post-coital calm being utilized to repair it.
In his prose, Ondaatje constantly invents. Sometimes familiar verbs become their noun-forms yet to show action, which seems roundabout and – extravagant. But the effect is of a superlation of an agreeable sort. The universe is exceedingly sim
ple if you choose to define it in this manner – things, move. Nouns verb; animation is achieved. Which has primacy in the scheme of being – the noun or its verb? In the dictionary, one often begets the other. But which is the font where the other is the foundling? Reading Ondaatje in this book made me ask this question repeatedly – What is the relationship between memory and telling? Because – isn’t it from their very middle that the act of invention arises? Fiction writers are accused of retelling what they remember. But that isn’t the truth of it. Somewhere between the remembered reference and the narrative exposition the bafflement of invention happens. And, at the sand-grain level of things, the bafflement is in the wavering of nouns into verbs and verbs into their nouns.
But in cinema there are manifold opportunities for similar bafflement to be effected. In the opening sequence of Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, the director’s own screenplay doesn’t even begin until the 00:02:50 mark. Until then, all we see on the screen is the tail of a paintbrush sketching the outlines of what must be a man falling from the skies, the silhouette of the figure recalling cave and tomb paintings from antiquity. But the moment is sustained; it is held together by the a cappella rendition by Márta Sebestyén of the Hungarian folk song Szerelem, szerelem.
A more haunting invitation to love I haven’t heard.
Pranaya Rana, Assistant Editor
2020 was not kind to musicians. Among those who perished were Andy Gill, guitarist for the seminal British post-punk band Gang of Four, who died in February; then, in July, Ennio Morricone, the extraordinary Italian composer; and right before the year turned, another gut punch of a death – MF DOOM, the shadowy rapper who was known as much for his intricate wordplay as his multiple personas. If Andy Gill defined the sound of my youth, Morricone did my college years, and DOOM, the present.
The passing of a musician has always hit me harder than any other kind of celebrity death. Perhaps it’s because music is so much more personal, and thus emotionally resonant, than other forms of art. There is a bitterness to every Leonard Cohen or David Bowie death, a sour taste that comes from knowing that they will no longer be producing any more melodies to still or seethe the heart.
And so, in a year so liberal with death, I sought out new music to dilate the passage of time. There was a delightful new album from the always brilliant Fiona Apple and a soulful-yet-explosively angry one from the mysterious UK outfit Sault. Run the Jewels dropped their fourth album, which succinctly captured all the rage of the BLM protests while providing a soundtrack for all the frustration this year engendered. And I discovered Backxwash, a Zambian-Canadian rapper whose vocals are as eerie as her production, a thoroughly heady mix of rap, goth, punk and metal.
The album, titled God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It, begins with a Black Sabbath sample – Ozzy Osbourne wails ‘Oh no no, please god help me.’ Already, there is a darkness to the album, a chilling sense of dread that underlies every track on this barely 22-minute record. The lights go out, the mood gets darker, and the tone is one of futility. Backxwash is paranoid, constantly peering over her shoulder for an attack that appears imminent. Everything, however, makes much more personal sense when she wraps up the album with ‘Redemption’, a track that addresses the fact that she is trans.
If 2020, with all its fear, anxiety and death, were to have a soundtrack, it would be this album. But there is also something defiant in Backxwash’s vocals, a refusal to take anything lying down. Things might be futile but Backxwash is definitely not helpless. It is this attitude that drew me to Backxwash, and a lot of rap and hip-hop in general. In a year as bleak as this one, Backxwash’s temerity is like a knife, cutting through all the bullshit and leaving just a righteous, burning anger.
Shefali Upreti, Editorial Assistant
I read The Idiot by Elif Batuman obsessively in 2020. The first dozen times, I read it cover to cover. And then for the rest of the year I opened the book at random and read it all the way to the end. I did this for the same pleasure one derives from joining a group of longtime friends with whom the same conversations are shared over and over again, which the pandemic made impossible for most of the year. Moreover, I was charmed by nostalgia for the mid-nineties, during which period the book is set: then, I was a child, the internet was young, and people were still flirting over email. As I followed the protagonist Selin’s bumpy and absurd freshman year at Harvard, The Idiot made me feel as though I were a child peering with great wonder into the funny lives and loves of recently grown-up students.
The Idiot is a slow romance between Turkish-American Selin and Hungarian international student Ivan. It is an awkward romance with messy emotional offshoots that, towards its painful yet humorous end, leaves Selin alone in a Hungarian village, trying to teach English to children while grappling with a strong case of love-sickness.
I find romances between intelligent yet emotionally reticent characters especially appealing – of which, incidentally, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney is another glittering example. Books that force their characters into emotional corners, where their cool logic and world-view have no bearing, conjure intriguing questions about where our romantic ideals come from. Why do we strive to comply with monogamous, heteronormative ideals of love? Why do we trap ourselves into conventional roles of loving and being loved, even when we might not even enjoy them? The Idiot illuminates the patterns we seek while in love, how we torture ourselves by constantly measuring them up to conditioned ideals of romance, and how, in the end, romance becomes a confusing mélange of sensuous impressions, conversations, and closeness that mean nothing when held against the structures of our society, which pushes for fixed patterns and meaning.
There is no tidy conclusion to Selin and Ivan’s romance. They don’t even quite make it past the obstacles of language, culture, and emotional disposition. Ivan seems content that their attraction to each other isn’t realized into any kind of meaningful attachment. While this can be frustrating for some readers, I found great pleasure in this long-winded book where nothing grand transpires. I adored it for its skilful illumination of the humour and absurdity of daily life, the charm of absorbing conversations with friends, and the thrill of a new infatuation – the kinds of things that are commonplace, in normal times.
My world was so coloured by The Idiot during the lockdown this year that I saw Batuman’s characters in each of the few people I met. Once, after a particularly stimulating conversation with a mutual friend, I confided to my friend about how much they had reminded me of a character named Svetlana.
‘Which book is that from?’ my friend asked.
‘The Idiot,’ I said.
She laughed with her eyes shut for a long while.