Alphabet by Kathy Page is now available in German. Translator Beatrice Fassbender, publisher Verlag Klaus Wagenbach. https://www.wagenbach.de/buecher.html
Leland Cheuk reviews both Alphabet and Paradise & Elsehwere in The Rumpus.
Studies have shown that reading literary fiction increases a reader’s ability to empathize. In her first books to be published in the U.S., Giller Prize-nominated British author Kathy Page puts that theory to a rigorous test. Would you like to spend 300 pages in the mind of a murderer? How about fourteen stories replete with the vengeful whispers from those vanquished by the injustices of globalization? In both the novel Alphabet and the story collection Paradise and Elsewhere, Page demonstrates that she is a master provocateur, unafraid to ask unpleasant questions about contemporary society, even if she risks being didactic.
Originally published in the UK and Canada in 2004, Alphabet is set in a high-security men’s penitentiary during the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Simon Austen is serving a life sentence for strangling his girlfriend. Twenty-one and barely literate, he develops a hunger for learning in order to combat prison boredom. He learns to read and write. He completes courses that give him the equivalent of a high school education. He begins to answer newspaper ads under a false name from women seeking pen pals. To circumvent the prison censors, he purchases help from a fellow inmate using cigarettes and batteries. Page, who spent a year as a Writer-in-Residence in a men’s penitentiary, does not spare the reader from the cruel horror show that prison is intended to be. Eventually, Austen drops his false identities and sends out letters of increasing honesty. His foray into confessional correspondence can be read in a number of ways: as desperation, as self-education, and as a melancholy search for connection—just as it is for those who purchase newspaper ads and walk around free in the outside world.
When his letters are discovered by the prison regime, they are so surprisingly articulate and intelligent that Simon is chosen to participate in a psychiatric program meant to help address his past, ameliorate his dysfunctional relationships with women, and prepare him, possibly, to one day be free. When Simon develops feelings for his psychiatrist Bernadette, the reader glimpses how far Simon’s emotional intelligence has come in one of his letters:
You are turning me inside out.
When I am with you I feel as if I could become the best of me that has been hidden for so long, and I burn with wanting to. I feel I could pass through an eye of a needle.
So how is the reader supposed to feel about Simon Austen, the murderer-cum-tortured-poet? Page thoroughly captures the voice of a man who has dissociated himself from his crime. She challenges the reader to forget and forgive the crime’s brutal nature and empathize with this bottled-up young man struggling to find the language to confront his disturbed psyche. Despite being repeatedly humiliated and victimized within the prison system, Simon doesn’t want to leave. After growing up in failed foster homes, prison is the best home Simon has ever had.
I could not help but feel deeply sympathetic to the narrator—a testament to Page’s skill. But the reading experience was harrowing. I’m interested to see what the reception to Alphabet will be in the US, where over half of the states have legalized some form of capital punishment. As a society, Americans have by and large accepted that the worst offenders in our legal system do not deserve rehabilitation—certainly not murderers of young women like Simon Austen. And yet the central question of Alphabet, both for society and for Simon himself, is whether he deserves to be rehabilitated.
In Paradise and Elsewhere, Page again asks the big questions, dramatizing interactions between modern societies and less developed ones to address issues of globalization, climate change, and feminism. The stories are very short. Many are under ten pages. They exist between genres, as Page leaps from realism to fable and back, often from page to page. The writing is totally distinct from Alphabet—a testament to Page’s range. In the 3-page gem “Lak-ha,” a family is dropped in the midst of a desert where an ancient tree stands. The wife dies of dehydration, her last tears wetting the wood, making it fibrous enough to braid into rope. A stranger arrives by sea and asks the starving widower for the rope’s price. In this amazing passage, Page hops from the mythic to the real, evoking the rise of civilizations:
Every year more strangers came by sea bringing food and goods in exchange for Hetlas rope.
This explains the name of our village, Lak-ha, which some say means in the old language, “The place where the bargain was struck.” Others say other things. They ask, did the woman know the purpose of her weeping? Who invented the Hetlas rope—the woman, the man, the stranger, Fate? But I say forget it. Come inside. We have everything now: television, internet, iPod, cellphone, denim jeans, Barbie doll, same as you.
Paradise and Elsewhere, likeAlphabet, is about society’s fraying ability to connect with people. In Alphabet, strangers try to connect via the written letter. But in Paradise and Elsewhere, people try to connect through money, through material goods, and through perceived power dynamics. In “Saving Grace,” a news crew travels to a rural town to film a famous soothsayer only to find that what she has to say is not what they want to hear.
“I do apologize. Your fame has travelled, so to speak. Can we please watch you work?” asked Libby, smiling as hard as she could. “We’ll pay,” she added.
“I know that. Stay as long as you like. That won’t be long. None of your plans will come to fruit, you’ll fail completely.” The woman’s baleful stare seemed to enfold them all like a thick, stifling blanket. “You think you’re lucky to live in the cities. You think it’s kinder there and people are more generous, but that’s only because they’ve got more. You’re stupid, and you’re deeply mean. You don’t like your friends drinking too much of your wine. You count up favours and drop people if they don’t pay you back. You’re jealous of your sister Phil.”
“Saving Grace,” like most of the stories in Page’s collection, wears its themes like loud clothes. Each story is a cage fight between the rural and the urban, the tourist and the touristed, the modern and the ancient. In today’s increasingly polarized society, Page’s ironic paradises, so dense with vital questions, will echo and leave you wondering how you measure up to Page’s expansive empathies. Are you like her characters: only able to empathize selectively with so much day-to-day injustice on the planet?
Alphabet, first published in the Uk in 2004 and in Canada in 2005, when it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, is now available in the US for the first time, and receiving great reviews, including stars from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal. It was a pick for the Indie Next List in December 2014: http://www.bookweb.org/news/december-2014-indie-next-list-preview
Back in Canada, Biblioasis are including it as part of their new and ambitious reprint series, and so the book comes in two jackets: for the USA an edgy one based on typewriter fonts (the main character, Simon, acquires typewriter early in the book), and in Canada, one that suits the overall design for the reprint series.
Biblioasis are re-issuing Alphabet as part of their new reprint series. It will be available in print and e-book and is all set to reach to a new readership south of the border this fall. We wrestled briefly with how to present a book that is steeped in British slang, idiom, culture and history in the USA: should we”translate” phrases and words that might be unfamiliar, or trust the reader to enjoy the difference and bridge the gaps? We chose trust, and so far the response has been very positive. Information has gone up in Publishing Perspectives, interviews and reviews are in the pipeline and the book can be pre-ordered online.
In 2004, years before Orange Is the New Black, Canada’s Kathy Page published, to great acclaim, her novel Alphabet, a ground-breaking look at prison and transgender issues. This fall, Biblioasis will be publishing the first American edition, a book that Kirkus Reviews recently called, “A moving novel about knowledge, self-awareness and the power of words, set in the purgatory of prison. This young man’s life demands our attention and refuses to let go … powerful … simply an epiphany.”
The author recently sat down for an interview with her publisher where she discussed the creation of the lead character, Simon Austen, writing transgender characters, and the possibility of change.
You once commented that it felt like you “spent the three years it took to complete Alphabet co-habiting with a dangerous man,” and over the course of the novel it becomes clear that you have both extraordinary sympathy and affection for him, as well as a (perhaps personal?) understanding of why the other characters in his life keep him at arm’s length. Were you ever tempted to walk away?
Simon’s ability to set alarm bells ringing and evoke profound sympathy at the same time – that combination of vulnerability, charm and dangerousness – is where the book began. It was the thread I followed all through the story, and the experience of ambivalence, of attraction and wariness or even revulsion, is what I hope to create for the reader. The book arose from a year I spent as Writer in Residence in a men’s penitentiary in the UK. The men I worked with were serious, violent offenders, and many of them were themselves the victims of child abuse, neglect and so on. One young man serving a life sentence told me that the that the penitentiary was actually the best place he had ever lived in. Since I was in a supportive role, providing an activity that helped the time to pass, those I worked with were often appreciative of my efforts with them. I could feel very sympathetic. But I had access to the records, too, and I chose to look at them (many of my colleagues in the education department preferred not to), so I could also be utterly horrified by the actions of that very same person I felt so sorry for. So it was not a matter of either or, but of both. I knew that already, in an intellectual way, but in the penitentiary, and in writing Alphabet, it was a matter of experiencing it, and in his case, of wanting him to come through, but knowing he might not. Now to answer your question simply, yes. I began the book not too long after my experience in the penitentiary, and I wrote the early material in the first person. This made me inhabit in a very intense way the more dangerous side of the character; it or he was too much for me, and that was one of the reasons I put the book aside. When I returned to it later I used a close third person which gives me and the reader a little more distance.
One of the key conflicts in Alphabet derives from Simon’s longing to connect with someone, and the ways in which that longing is misunderstood, mistrusted, deemed inappropriate, or outright rejected by the people in his life. To what degree is this conflict a universal one? What makes Simon’s case unique?
Well, the drive to connect does seem pretty much universal. But as the reader gradually learns, Simon has committed a horrific crime and it is quite possible that he could do the same again. He may have been unfairly rejected, but he’s also very manipulative. He may want to connect, yet he has much to learn. One section of the novel takes place in a therapeutic prison for sex offenders where the authorities blunderingly attempt to fix him.
It’s only been recently that the needs of trans persons, trans children, and particularly transgendered inmates have received attention—some good, some bad—within policy and health care debates. Some of this is attributable to the popularity of trans actor Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and some from the controversy when, in January of 2014, a Massachusetts federal court of appeal mandated the reassignment surgery of convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek. Could you comment on the character of Charlotte (formerly Vic)? Where did she come from? Why was it important for the person who helps Simon through his intimacy issues to be transgendered?
I didn’t know, when I began the book, how it would end, though I sensed it would not be a walk in the sunset with everything tidily resolved. At one point I thought he would end up working in a laundromat. Charlotte came along when I was more than halfway through writing the third person version of the book. I came upon a newspaper report about someone in transition who was marooned in the hospital in a men’s penitentiary “for his own protection” while fighting a legal battle to be incarcerated with women. It seemed such an extraordinary thing, and a situation that demanded extreme courage and openness. I don’t want to romanticize trans people, but in my imagination at least there can seem to be an almost mythical quality to those who, with tremendous effort, cross gender boundaries and move from one life to another. Change, whether it’s possible at all, and if so, how much we can transform ourselves, has always fascinated me. So I was very curious as to what would happen when Simon woke up in his hospital bed with Victor in the process of becoming Charlotte in the bed opposite. It’s one of those encounters that comes at the right moment. Simon has struggled and suffered considerably by the time the two meet; he feels a connection with Charlotte because of what she is going through. She is open-minded, brutally honest and kind, at the same time, very fierce: that’s key. She would never be afraid of him. I felt and thought about it mostly in terms of character as I wrote, but in retrospect, I can see that perhaps what Charlotte does is allow him to reinvent his relationship with the “opposite” sex. Since it is not longer exactly or simply opposite, and it can be seen as a made thing, there is freedom for them to begin again, and make it their own.
The concept of change and transformation is important to this novel, yet often it seems as if both Simon and Charlotte, rather than changing in an essential way, instead alter the learned behaviors and/or physical traits that previously have inhibited their self-realization. How deep do their changes go? By the end ofAlphabet, do you see Simon and Charlotte as new people, or rather as people more free to be themselves? And if the latter, how does that complicate the way we think about prison, rehabilitation, and therapy?
This is a very interesting set of questions. I see both characters, but especially Simon, as just beginning to become what they might be. Nothing is certain. He might still regress or lapse; he could continue inching forwards and become an ordinary decent person who will always struggle with a terrible past, or even someone who does something extraordinary, a hero of some kind. In the end, I’m somewhat optimistic about him because the one quality that seems fundamental him is his desire to connect. I intend to write about him (and Charlotte) again. I was struck, when I worked in the penitentiary, by the sheer scale of the stated task: to take dangerous offenders in at one end of the system, and have them emerge decades later not worse, but better, and ready for reintegration into society. In practical terms this means dealing with traumatic childhood experiences, gaining an education of sorts, at the same time as unpicking and unlearning whole ways of being and thinking, and learning how to have relationships—all of this in an environment that’s both physically and psychically very challenging, actively hostile, even, to the kind of openness and trust required. So living up to the mission statement is very, very difficult. I wondered whether it was even possible and what it would be like to go through so much change. I wrote the book to imaginatively explore those questions. During my time “inside” I decided to give up smoking, something I had been meaning to do for a long time. I found it very difficult indeed. So I have great respect for those in prison systems, staff and inmates, who do try to bring about positive change.
You’ve spent time in a high-security men’s penitentiary, and spent considerable time thinking about Simon’s experience of incarceration. What does prison reveal about people that other settings and conditions may not? Do you think the way we think about incarceration has changed much since the late eighties, and if so, how?
What do we do with those who hurt us and why? The answers depend on where you live: Turkey or Sweden, for example. Even within the UK or USA institutions and regimes vary a great deal. Even in its milder forms, however, incarceration is something that will test a person’s resources to the utmost. In that sense it makes great drama. An inmate has to fight for survival and will discover how able (or not) she or he is to make something of what little is there. The senses are starved, relationships are limited and involuntary, it’s brutal, dangerous, depressing and tedious. Incarceration, while it keeps the offender off the street, tends also to be very destructive. For some, like Simon, it may sometimes also present an opportunity in terms of new learning. Simon is illiterate when he enters the system, and learning to read does open many doors for him: though again, given who he is, that’s a double-edged sword. On the whole people think very little about incarceration: it’s a matter of out of sight, out of mind. But when populations rise, or when there are clear inequalities in the way people end up behind bars, the issues and choices become harder to ignore. Given the enormous costs, human and economic, of locking people up, it’s clearly important to consider what we are trying to do with it, and how successful it is.
In a piece for Storyville you comment that, when you wrote a story called “The Kissing Disease” (Paradise & Elsewhere, 2014), you were thinking of HIV/AIDS. “That pandemic surfaced during my twenties,” you commented. “Everyone lost someone. There was a before, and an ongoing after. It was terrible time, but there were eventually some positive consequences: increased honesty and more open public discourse about sex, for example.” How does the AIDS crisis of the 80s figure in Alphabet? What is it about that period you find so compelling?
Well this was a time of great struggle, ideological, political and religious too; the way we responded emotionally and in terms of public health to HIV AIDS was caught up in all that. In the UK, Thatcherism was in the ascendant. In many ways it felt like the end of civilization as we had known it. There were riots on the streets and in the prisons, too. At a time when we needed to act together, we were being told there was “no such thing as society,” but fortunately the department of Health and Social Security in the UK did not take up the mantra and the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign with TV ads and posters reached pretty much everyone, including inmates in penitentiaries. AIDS is a huge issue behind bars, though it’s not a major theme of Alphabet; you get a sense of it as part of the eighties though, through the bits of news, posters and so on that make their way “inside.”
2014 will mark the first American publication of a prison novel that appeared in Canada and the UK in 2004, was written between 2001-2004, and draws on direct experience from the time you spent with inmates ten years prior to that. Do you think readers are more willing to approach this story in 2014 than they would have been in twenty years ago? If you were to approach Simon Austen’s story today, how do you think it would be different?
I think that people are more open thinking about the issues and questions at the heart of Alphabet than they used to be. On the other hand, I don’t think Simon’s story would be much different now, though Charlotte’s would be.
If you could choose one thing for your reader to take away fromAlphabet, what would it be?
A rich sense of complexity and possibility. One of the things that drove me wild when I worked with inmates was the way they used phrase “end of story.” It would be used to suggest what was to follow and its inevitability: a man caught his wife in bed with someone else, and so, “end of story,” beat her to a pulp. Or he opened the door to the arresting officer, fought, was overpowered and ended up inside, where nothing more would happen until he was released. I hated the phrase because it seemed to me that a) something else could have happened, and b) the story was never over. Even inside the penitentiary, a new story could begin, which is what Alphabet is about.