The Anti-Canon

The Anti-Canon: Douglas Hall's In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86, by Yvvette Edwards

I seem to have always had an interest in the slave trade. I find the subject mind-bogglingly vast, involving so many people from so many countries for so many centuries, that to have an expert understanding is probably beyond a lifetime’s work. Perhaps because of the author in me, my interest over the last few years has evolved into a passion for first-hand accounts of slavery, a desire to understand something of the experience of being a slave on an emotional and psychological level, to read authentic and realistic accounts of what a slave’s life was truly like. 

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The Anti-Canon: Rant and Reflection by Jarred McGinnis

The Anti-Canon: Rant and Reflection by Jarred McGinnis

Lots of Johnsons and Willies, both Big and Blind.

Canon. What a silly idea and in so many ways. Such a backward-looking reactionary way to approach art. Swathes of kids each generation lost to the faith of words because they are taught to think a book has to look like something dead white guys made in mahogany lined libraries between attacks of gout. Two centuries of posh folk with emotional constipation is plenty. Silly also because ‘Canon’ smacks of someone telling you a book is important rather than giving a person the tools and time to figure it out for themselves.

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The Anti-Canon: María Angélica Bosco by Ben Bollig

The Anti-Canon: María Angélica Bosco by Ben Bollig

 

The Argentine novelist and critic Carlos Gamerro once wrote that the ‘whodunit’ is doomed to struggle in his country. There is a simple reason for this. In Argentina, if there is an unsolved murder, everyone assumes, or maybe knows, that the police or the military did it. In his novel An Open Secret he explores the role of the police during the Proceso, the dictatorship of the late 1970s. Police forces carried out disappearances, torture and repression far from the big cities, where there was no significant military presence and, it’s worth mentioning, there were very few of the alleged ‘subversives’ whom the junta claimed they were targeting.

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The Anti-Canon: Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo – by Irenosen Okojie

The Anti-Canon: Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo – by Irenosen Okojie

 

I first picked up Ishmael Reed’s inventive satirical thriller Mumbo Jumbo in college, on a sticky summer day. I found it beneath a turnstile on my way to the computer lab, as though it had emerged through a rabbit hole and landed at my feet. Published in 1972, Reed’s seminal novel set in New Orleans, New York and Haiti introduces us to a central character called PaPa LaBas, a private dick operating from Mumbo Jumbo headquarters with a sign on the door that reads ‘PAPA LABAS MUMBO JUMBO KATHEDRAL FITS FOR YOUR HEAD.’ At the beginning of the novel, we encounter an American south in peril, the psychic epidemic Jes Grew is tearing through the land with cases reported of people in a state of uncontrollable frenzy, doing stupid sensual things, wriggling like fish, dancing the ‘Eagle Rock’, the ‘Sassy Bump’, ‘lusting after relevance’ with the only successful anesthetizer being sleep. Jes Grew’s symptoms include seeing Nkulu Kulu of the Zulu, a locomotive with a red green and black python entwined in its face. And feeling like ‘the gut heart and lungs of Africa’s interior.’ It is an anti-plague even, characterised by ebullience and ecstasy that defies race, class and consciousness.

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The Anti-Canon: The Meeting of Failures - by Fernando Sdrigotti

 

Situationism meets Facebook – the 1960s Left Bank meets Dalston. These are the first things that come to my mind when I start thinking about The Meeting of Failures, attributed to Francis, member of a collective by the name of Everyone Agrees. I bumped into it by chance, after reading Michèle Bernstein’s The Night. (Bernstein, in case you don’t know her, is one of the founding members of the Situationist International; she was also Guy Debord’s first wife. This relationship would feed directly into her work as a writer, particularly into her novels All The King’s Horses and The Night.) Everyone Agrees contributed to the first English version of The Night (2013), and after this collaboration it is hardly surprising that their book is deeply influenced by Situationism, rehashing many of its clichés, from derivé to aborted revolution. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, for in the age of solipsistic psychogeographic literature a la Sinclair any quirky re-appropriation of Situationist tropes is nothing short of a blessing.

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The Anti-Canon: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and 'The principle of non-acquiescence' by Kyra Hanson

 

The first time I heard about the Baroness was through an online course in Modern American poetry. She was introduced as having once advised American Imagist poet William Carlos Williams that if he were to contract syphilis from her he could then free his mind for serious art. She loved Marcel Duchamp, terrified William Carlos Williams and was praised by Ezra Pound for her ‘principle of non-acquiescence’. Duchamp even proclaimed that she ‘is not a Futurist, she is the future’. Her antibourgeois, anti-establishment and anti-hierarchical stance make her an undervalued precursor to the feminist punk movement of the 1990s and even conceptualist pop artist Lada Gaga. So what happened to this German poet, sculptor and model who was once the epitome of American Dada? Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven died in poverty in Paris in 1927. Like numerous other female artists, she was shunned as eccentric and mad in her own time and rejected from the overwhelmingly male literary canon of Modernism. Yet it is precisely her confrontational style and ‘linguistic fearlessness’ which deem her extremely worthy of attention.

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The Anti-Canon: Dick Lucas by Paul Case

Political finesse has never been punk's strong point. Its DIY ethos has always been inherently political – you don't need anyone to help you form a band, you don't need a distributor to start putting out your music, you can do it yourself. But the lyrics, even of the most 'political' punk bands, have often seemed like exercises in sloganeering.

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The Anti-Canon: The Domesday Dictionary - Eley Williams

I wrote a dictionary when I was fourteen. It was exam term and, in an effort to read anything other than the allotted textbooks, I had stumbled across a magazine article about Chambers Dictionary’s editors, specifically the surreptitious insertion of jokes into the text of their lexicons (See: ‘éclair n. - a cake, long in shape but short in duration’). The idea of lexicographers smuggling such entries into an otherwise sincere work of reference struck me as the most amazing act of literary subversion imaginable; I’ve been a fan of éclairs, and eccentricities in dictionaries ever since.

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The Anti-Canon: Samuel R Delany's The Mad Man - by Jonathan Kemp

“Lying there, I thought: people feel guilty about wanting to do stuff like this. But this is the reward for actually doing it, for finding someone who wants to do it with you: The fantasies of it may be drenched in shame, but the act culminates in the knowledge no one has been harmed, no one has been wounded, no one has been wronged.” -- The Mad Man, p. 458

What I love most about this book is the way it blends the intellectual with the downright dirty. There are long, descriptive passages detailing sexual acts involving piss-drinking, shit-eating, smegma, toe jam – any body fluid you can think of. Some of this could only be erotic to someone sharing the same predilections. Mostly, though, the aim doesn’t seem to be sexual arousal, but more an exercise in tolerance, or empathy. Like De Sade, Delany seems to be endlessly cataloguing these sexual acts in order to move beyond mere pornography, to enter a terrain of ethics, even boredom. These extreme acts are presented in such a gleefully shameless way that one cannot help but appreciate the pleasure being taken by the participants. In his opening “Disclaimer”, Delany calls it a “pornutopic fantasy”, yet as Reed Woodman points out, the style employed is “mainstream realism” rather than fantasy.

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The Anti-Canon: Peter Gelderloos' To Get To The Other Side - by Gyorgy Furiosa

American anarchist, poet and author Peter Gelderloos’ most significant contributions to the anti-canon of radical critique and journalism have come in the form of two books exploring and exploding the false dichotomy of ‘violence versus non-violence’ in terms of enacting political and social transformation. His 2005 essays How Nonviolence Protects The State and The Failure Of Non-Violence: From The Arab Spring to Occupy (2013) both set out to '[debunk] the notion that non-violent activism is the only acceptable and effective method of struggle' and to 'defenestrate the stranglehold that [pacifism has on movements]', yet it is his 2010 work To Get To The Other Side that more fully explores and examines the human aspects of a life anarchic. Engaged in the life of action, as well as literature, Gelderloos has also been incarcerated for his political actions, once in 2001 for attending a protest at the School For The Americas, and again in 2007 for public disorder offences during a squatter’s protest in Barcelona.

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The Anti-Canon: The Price of Nostalgia – The novels of Jim Crace by Gary Budden

Sprayhoppers. Kelp-ash. An indoor retail-Eden of glass and steel. One-armed stone-age storytellers. An unnamed town, in an unknown time, struggling in an indistinct rural region isolated from the world. Some of these things are real and some are not, some may have been real once and some may be real in a time yet to come. Characters full-blooded and contradictory, petty and noble, as human as the page allows, unlikeable and sympathetic in equal measure. They enact small dramas we recognise in fictional topographies. These places that seem so familiar, the battered coastlines, heaving cities and muddy fields, they have no name and they don’t exist. They’re populated by creatures that never were, but sound like they did. They are archetypal and specific.

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The Anti-Canon Series: Abraham Rodriguez by Linda Mannheim

I found my way to Spidertown, Abraham Rodriguez’s first novel, when I was trying to understand what had happened to The Bronx, trying to track its trajectory from a bustling working class neighbourhood to a derelict hell hole where the burnt out hulks of six story buildings stretched for blocks – the post-apocalyptic neighbourhood across the river from Manhattan. The stretch of streets where 16 year old Miguel lives is known as Spidertown, named for the drug dealer that he works for. Miguel shares a rundown apartment with Firebug, a teenage arsonist for hire. And, when Firebug torches a building, Miguel and Amelia, Firebug’s girlfriend, are his popcorn-eating audience, “cheering when the water gun on a pumper nailed the building with a loud crash that sent bits of metal and wood flying, flames scurrying away.”

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The Anti-Canon: A Minor Place by Fernando Sdrigotti

In the prologue to his novel Los lanzallamas Roberto Arlt writes: ‘to have a style it is necessary to have comfort, to live off a rent, to have an easy life’. This was an answer to many contemporary critics who had pointed out that Arlt's prose was arcane and obscure, that he couldn't write. Regardless of the place he now occupies in Argentinean literature, Arlt, born to Prussian/Austro-Hungarian parents in Buenos Aires, arrived to the canon as an outsider. An outsider to the aristocratic club of the Argentine literary establishment. A linguistic outsider.

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The Anti-Canon: Shannon Burke's Black Flies, by Kit Caless

My own experiences in hospital are as follows: hare lip and cleft palate operation, broken leg in traction for seven weeks, bone graft from my hip to my upper jaw, abscess in my knee, concussions, fractured fingers, a broken ankle and false alarm ball cancer. I’m pretty au fait with both Canterbury hospital of the 1990s and Homerton hospital of the 2000s. I’ve been in the back of an ambulance enough times to remember what it smells like. I know how much morphine is enough to knock me out. I’ve got some scars.

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The Anti-Canon Series: This Green and Unpleasant Land by Rowena Macdonald

‘On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.’ Raymond Williams wrote this in his 1973 book The Country and The City which explores urban and rural settings in literature. This pastoral ideal, the concept of a lost rural idyll, is still the predominant view of country life in Britain, which is remarkable since it originated in the Greek Empire during the 3rd century BC in the Idylls, the poems written for the Alexandrian court by Theocritus. These poems were based on the song competitions held by shepherds in Theocritus’ native Sicily and present an idealised and nostalgic vision of a simple life in contact with nature. They have retained a place in Western culture through the Roman poet Virgil’s reworking of these themes in his Eclogues and Georgics.

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The Anti-Canon Series: Orhan Veli Kanik by Chimène Suleyman

“When I walk on the street, alone,” Orhan Veli Kanik writes, “If I notice that I am smiling, I think that people will suppose I am crazy. And I smile.”

1940s Turkey was evolving, and with it a recent democracy that saw way to a new equality and understanding of secular life. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed, with it the Republic of Turkey emerged to replace it. The arabic script which had previously been used, was now exchanged for a latin alphabet. Naturally, Turkey’s liberated youth captured this socio-political independence, and with it transformed the recent anarchy into their words.

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