Apr/May 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

GRANTA 126: Do You Remember

Review by Ann Skea

GRANTA 126: Do You Remember.
Sigrid Rausing, Editor.
Granta. 2014. 256 pp.
ISBN 978 1 905881 79 6.

We are what we remember, and even when we invent, we write what we remember.

There is a huge difference between our every-day, conversational, "I remember" exchanges with family and friends, and the rememberings in this issue of Granta. The rememberings in Granta become skillfully crafted stories created by writers, photographers, and artists who tell unusual tales in a great variety of ways. And not all of the stories are true.

Anne Beattie's account of a young writer's visit to an aging and sick poet who had once been her tutor, is bizarre and funny. True or not, Beattie knows how to make an outrageous man's behavior live on the page.

Similarly, Jonny Steinberg's true account of his experiences in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, offers a vivid and disturbing picture of the way in which past history and racial tensions still haunt the lives of those who live there. Following up the story of the death of a young white farmer in 1999, Steinberg tries hard to objectively untangle the complex racial and land-ownership issues involved. He comes to no solid conclusions, but his wide-ranging interviews demonstrate the importance of memories, and the knowledge, experience, and "smarts" that they underpin—all things that newcomers to the province do not have.

Other true stories are more personally revealing. Bernard Cooper writes a fascinating account of his introduction, at art school, to conceptual art. His first lesson with Vito Acconci was clearly very strange, as was his first homework assignment—to bring in nothing—but it opened his eyes to a new way of creating art that blurred the line between public and private. Perhaps as a result of this, his essay here becomes a graphic creation from memories of warring neighbors, art school, conceptualism, and his loss of virginity. Norman Rush's piece, on the other hand, is more straight-forwardly confessional, as he reveals his early obsession with nudity.

Olivia Laing's remembering of the life and death of David Wojnarowicz, is particularly moving. From a tiny Times Square apartment in the strangely tenanted block of an old permanent supportive housing residence, she begins by exploring a photographic art work in which Wojnarowicz, using a mask, recreated scenes of Arthur Rimbaud in New York. She tells something of Wojnarowicz's difficult early years, his diagnosis with AIDS and his fight against the homophobia and ignorance that, in the early days of its spread, made AIDS sufferers invisible victims of prejudice and prevented access to the drugs which could have helped them survive. In Wojnarowicz's archive at Fales Library at New York University, Laing becomes immersed in his journals, films, dreams, model cars, toys, and various other memorabilia. Finally, she opens the Magic Box—a work of art? an amulet?—no-one knows its purpose or significance, but Wojnarowicz kept it under his bed. Laing, "sick with rage" against a system that denied Wojnarowicz life-saving drugs, movingly offers us the contents of David Wojnarowicz's Magic Box as "a spell against silence, a prophylactic to repel prejudice."

Another art-centered piece in this issue of Granta begins with a group of letters that passed between Janet Malcolm and Marta Werner. Malcolm wanted to cut up the only copy she could find of Werner's Emily Dickinson's Open Folios. The book belonged to Werner, who allowed the "cutting" and "scissoring" of her book so that Malcolm could create abstract collages of images, charts, and astrological texts. Some of the resulting art works are reproduced in the issue. Unfortunately, although the reproductions are fine, their small size is totally inadequate for an appreciation of the original. Other photographs in this issue, like those by Brigitte Grignet of Aysen in Chile, are similarly disadvantaged by the necessarily small size of the reproductions, although these beautifully photographed real-life images do manage to capture memories of a dying community.

Of the poetry included in this issue, I particularly enjoyed the smooth movement and radiant brightness of Fiona Benson's "Toboggan Run," which brought back memories of my own.

Other peoples' reminiscing can be fascinating or boring, but I found the great variety of offerings in this particular issue of Granta thoroughly entertaining.


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