Introduction

It’s a bit mindblowing. And also sensitive to time. If I was asked to do this 2 years ago or 3 years in the future some of these picks might change. But I suppose my requirement as a reader wouldn’t. I want to see the spine of a story. Orwell’s view: transparent prose, like a window pane. I like to move in and out of a text. I don’t like to fight to find something. More and more I’m drawn to a piece that might have a social significance – something about sexuality or gender, something about heritage, something that moves me, that hurts me, or thrills me. For this Personal Anthology, I chose all female contributors – including trans female. I chose queer texts, a metatext and a children’s story. I chose 1 song and 1 play. I chose 2 longer texts – that maybe fall into the category of novella. It’s just a way to process the world of words – long, short, shorter. I’m interested in form and because I’ve written for many mediums so I didn’t want to limit myself. I’ve been teaching in universities for over 10 years and I taught Creative Writing in prisons for 5 years. Often it feels as if story lists and set texts are predominately bio male, white, heterosexual. This is a little re-dress.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx

I include this for its confidence and scale. I re-visit this story often – to see the way that Proulx crafts the final detail of the men’s shirts interlaced one against the other, the passage of time, the masculinity. I saw the film before I read the story and find I cry throughout both. The intensity of the desire and the repression. I always loved Heath Ledger and admired his courage in taking this role that he said terrified him. Proulx squeezes the maximum out of this story of impossible love over 20 years. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are indelible figures set against a raw rural working world – from the first encounter in the tent, to Del Mar’s vomiting, to the sex scene in the hotel: “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” A story of men and class and desire and love. Devastating at its core with Del Mar’s inability to create a different life for them. Unrelentingly heartbreaking and unrelentingly real. “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

First published in The New Yorker, October, 1997. Collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Harper Perennial, 1999

‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood

A metatext; at 1,300 words it’s flash fiction. First published two years after The Handmaid’s Tale. John and Mary and their various configurations, then Madge and James. A multiple choice of possibilities. Atwood moves in and out of third and second person. The commentary on the characters: “You can see what kind of woman she is by the fact that it is not even whiskey.” This is a text we show Imperial students a lot – they love it. The games we play in the love game. The deceptions. There is something so banal and knowing in the writing; Atwood playing God. The final page is the most revealing. “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun.” We always ask the students to write their own endings. And they do write – with varying degrees of wit and drama. Invariably John and Mary turn out to be gay. Or mass murderers. It’s a great one for debating construction of a narrative – even though the tone has a clinical distancing. I think ‘Happy Endings’ would make a great short film.

First Published in Murder in The Dark, January, 1983, Coach House Press

‘Back of the Class’ by Julia Bell

I wanted to include an essay. This piece by the writer and personal friend Julia Bell covers so much ground so affectingly. I’ve brought it into my students at Imperial College to study. Most of them have interviewed for Oxford and Cambridge and have not got in. If I had a £1 for every student that I teach who’d interviewed for these colleges I’d be a lot richer! Bell’s writing is evocative and represents the time well but also, unfortunately, it feels as if it could have been written today. The themes of class, position, power, old boy network, bullying tactics, the small town Bronglais, the Welsh language, the red-faced boy. And of course, Keats’ Truth and Beauty. I love the input of the research on the freeze response and the acknowledgement of thought control and cognitive, neural pathways. ‘Back of the Class’ is masterly in concept and was re-tweeted over 200 times. The character is instantly recognisable – the blushing seventeen year old in the Dorothy Perkins dress who’s “a bit queer” – waiting for her rite of passage. I’ve re-visited this essay many times (I’m working on a short film adaptation at the moment with the director, Lois Norman) so it has a particular resonance for me. Let’s hope initiatives like Stormzy’s can place black students, POC students and working-class students in the heart of these institutions. There’s a simple refrain in Bell’s writing that leaps off the page and casts a shadow across the landscape: “I want to be taught. I am ready.” Education for all. Everywhere.

First published in the Times Literary Supplement, November, 2018

‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Margery Williams

Children’s stories often get overlooked. Staying with a theme, I’m going to look at TheVelveteen Rabbit. As much as I love sparsity on the page, children’s writing has depth and complexity that gets bypassed. They can include social commentary, and usually have a perfect 3-part / 5-part structure. William’s rabbit “was fat and bunchy as a rabbit should be”. The other toys ignore him because he’s made of velveteen; the mechanical toys are the most superior and “Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by disabled soldiers and should have broader views”. When I taught creative writing in prisons so many people I taught didn’t get access to books. But often we could touch base by looking at fairy tales. At the first male prison I worked in – HMP Littlehey – we looked at these texts together. The men were working on a project called Story Book Dads where they wrote their own stories for their children and then we recorded them in the prison and then sent them back home. Children’s books were essential. They proved a great touchstone. The Velveteen Rabbit is one of those books – descriptive, emotional, powerful, symbolic beyond its 40 pages. The concept touched all of us – a velvet rabbit who becomes real through love.

First published 1922, George H. Doran. Available to read online here

‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf

Much of Woolf’s writing frustrates me. I’m a great lover of Aristotle’s notion of plot. The notion of a turn. Beginning, middle and end. Even though Orlando transports me for the ambition and gender fuckery – and the fact that it was conceived as a love letter – it also feels so elaborate (cut to the chase). ‘A Room of One’s Own’ has power because it talks about position and gender equality in the way that many of Wolf’s texts don’t being bound up in class. It acknowledges the position and changeability of money, but its intent is also clear: “It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare”. However, the sense of hope still resonates in the essay and the sense of the baton being passed on, for generations to come: “This poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and me and many other women who were not here tonight.” It’s the timeless quality of imparting wisdom and historical context that moves me.

First published September, 1929 in a Canadian quarterly literary based on two lectures Woolf delivered at Newnham and Girton Colleges, then by the Hogarth Press. Now widely available, including as a Penguin Modern Classic and a Vintage Feminism Short Edition

‘How to Become a Writer’ by Lorrie Moore

It’s funny. It’s wry. It makes you think of all the things that you might like to have been told. So, a little bit like To My Trans Sisters it sits here. “You read the whole thing out in class. No one likes it. They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent. After class someone asks you if you are crazy.” It feels specifically American (someone should write a UK version, or every country should write their own version). “Write a story about a confused music student and title it ‘Schubert Was the One with the Glasses Right.’” I think ‘How to Become a Writer’ could get developed (go a little further) and it does leave you a bit hanging at the end. But for its audacity and style I’d put it in the mix, especially when there are so many myths and debates about writing courses, and writing as a career / profession. To quote Moore: ” A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph, a novel is a film.”

First collected in Self-Help, Knopf, 1985. Also in The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, 2009, Faber, and as a standalone publication by Faber Modern Classics, 2015

‘To My Trans Sisters’ by Audrey Mbugua

This is from a fantastic collection of letters. The idea was conceived by Charlie Craggs, who asked trans female writers, artists and activists to write a letter to their younger sisters. By this she meant younger sisters in transition – as opposed to younger sisters in blood. It’s a fabulous, impactful read from start to finish. I first heard Charlie Craggs speak about this in 2018 at Transcreative, an event run by Kate O’Donnell in Manchester. I could have cited many of these letters, but Mbugua’s affected me. It’s the story of the journey from damage and suicidal ideation to health. It looks at family’s concerns as well as civil war in Kenya. The transphobic blocks she received: “You cannot change your name from Andrew to Audrey”. I love the feeling of political commentary and gender positioning. It’s both a difficult read and an insightful one, including the checklist at the end (I always love a list): “Learn To Do Things By Yourself, Believe In Yourself, Avoid Negative Peers and Liberals, It’s OK To Experience Loss.” and also: “Starting afresh after loss gives you an opportunity to build your foundation from rock bottom.” A clear-sighted, inspirational, fresh perspective to all those transitioning. The collection also includes letters by Juno Roche, India Willoughby, Rhyannon Styles, Roz Kaveney, Juliet Jacques, Shon Faye, Juno Dawson, Kate O’Donnell, Kuchenga and Charlie Craggs.

First Published in To My Trans Sisters, Jessica Kingsley Press, 2018

‘Troy’ by Sinead O’Connor

This feels like a story. A direct address to someone: “I’ll remember it. And Dublin in a rainstorm.” I came out to Sinead O’Connor in 1987. I remember seeing the poster for The Lion and The Cobra and being arrested by it – Who’s that? The shaved head, the delicate thin-boned features. Many of O’Connor’s songs feel like protest songs or anthems. The clearness of her voice and the directness of the language are inseparable. Troy feels like the story of a past love, a stolen love. “But you should’ve left the light on.” The story of a crushed person at the end of love who will rise “phoenix”-like. But the acknowledgement of guilt is also present in the song. “And I never meant to hurt you.” It’s the fusion of rage and pain that carries it. And the classical refrains – The Homeric legend of Troy – and the dragons. There are urban myths attached to this song also. Some say it derives from WB Yeats’s ‘No Second Troy’: “Why, what could she have done, being what she is? Was there another Troy for her to burn?” Or that is about O’Connor’s parents’ divorce (her father was a lawyer and often the last line is denoted as you’re still a lawyer – not liar). This all adds to the track’s mystique and power. I may not understand all of the song but I don’t care. I paint my own pictures listening to O’Connor’s sound and raw energy. Toe-curling.

First released November 1987 by Chrysalis Records. Read the lyrics and listen here

‘The Scum Manifesto’ by Valerie Solanas

Society.For.Cutting.Up.Men. I remember first reading this in the early 1990s I was working for a radical lesbian theatre company at the time called Red Rag. I was advised to read it by one of the members. When I got hold of a copy of S.C.U.M I wasn’t sure what it was. Was it serious or a joke? Was it toxic or prophetic? Was it the work of a radical or an unstable? Or both? I now re-read it as a mix of all these things at the same time. Michelle Tea also re-visits Solanas in her memoir Against Memoir so it has this sense of being carried down, of being inherited and referenced. The quotes inside it:To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine; a walking dildo. It’s often said that men use women. Use them for what? Surely not pleasure.It’s interesting to see how the cultural placing of this work has changed after #metoo. (Men having “pussy envy” anyone?) Of course, now with its comments on the president and the predilections of men, it feels that this text could find its way into the world in an entirely different footing. Still, I love its bravery and its brilliance and the fact that it was printed at all. In 1967, Solanas self-published two thousand copies and sold them in Greenwich Village – charging women $1 and men $2.

First published in 1967, by Solanas. Currently available from Verso, 2016

‘Crave’ by Sarah Kane

I read a lot of plays. Most of them are under 10,000 words but plays can be expensive to buy. And expensive to see. And really frustrating in the fact that they appeal to a certain section of society. Why go to the theatre if it is exclusive and expensive and doesn’t speak to you or your life? (In this country anyway). And even though this is meant to be an anthology about short stories Sarah Kane is a writer that broke form. An uncompromising writer who could turn a phrase or a word on her little finger. A writer that I feel is missed in the theatrical landscape. I was doing a writers’ group as part of Paines Plough, in 1997. Sarah Kane was leading the group. Even though she was ill towards the end of it, her work was inspired. Crave was her piece that shows the most leaning to prose. 4.48 Psychosis is more disparate – statemented, bleak. Crave shows more possibility in the power of hope and the energy of love and adoration. It’s the naivety that I relish in some of these passages, made even more heartfelt because of her demise:And wander the city thinking its empty without you and want what you want and think I’m losing myself but know I’m safe with you and tell you the worst of me and try to give you the best of me.Kane committed suicide in 1999. I went to her memorial service in the West End, where Harold Pinter spoke. It was shortly after my brother’s suicide and marked me indelibly. I am often tempted out by new productions – Katie Mitchell’s version of Cleansed at The National (tickets quite expensive). But it’s the energy of Kane’s writing that I can revisit time over on the page.

First performed in August, 1998 by Paines Plough. Published by Methuen

‘Cat Person’ by Kirsten Roupenian

My son first talked to me about this story. Other people were chatting about it but when my son told me, I listened (he’s not really a reader so it must be good?) Margot and Robert. A new kind of love conundrum. A state of the nation. A sex war / agenda. The small start – the cinema sighting, the texts. The Cherry Coke and the Doritos. The first sign of trouble with the reveal of Margot’s age. Then the terrible first kiss (always a bad sign). “I want her so bad, I might die.” Then the humiliating sex. And the slow demise. The attempted break-up texts – until Tamara steps in. Then it’s all downhill until the final word. It’s a harrowing read. A tale of caution in this world of app dating and the fictions and delusions of all dating experiences. The construction is spot on. The stages of infatuation / delusion are well-handled. The power shifts just at the right time. Finally, it is disappointing / upsetting but Robert’s drunk revenge is hard to predict or gauge. Roupenian’s pace and control are undeniable. And the fact that the break-up and the counter-attack are delivered by text. How prescient. A writer to watch – Roupenian received a $1.2m advance for her story collection You Know You Want This .

First published in The New Yorker, December 4, 2017, and available to read online here. Collected in You Know You Want This, Jonathan Cape, 2019

‘Bluets’ by Maggie Nelson

I was first introduced to Nelson in 2016. I loved the style of Bluets but I also found it a little dissatisfactory. It felt that the style wasn’t allowing Nelson to sit in the areas she was opening up – things whizzed by so quickly, I wanted time to pause. But I loved the beat of Bluets and the brevity. I found that she’d embedded her style by the time The Argonauts came out and that left me (and a lot of my friends) breathless. She’s an amazing stylist with the ability to tell an emotional story. It’s the mix of the inter-personal and the intellect that she fuses so well in The Argonauts. But re-visting Bluets I see it has a lot of poise and I’m glad I had an introduction to this writer. I also went to see Nelson speak this summer at The South Bank and even though the interview itself was disappointing, it was still great to see her. She made me love the lyric essay. Nelson’s hybridisation of other mediums and forms and her eroticism is deft and supple. The reference in Bluets to the infamous Chelsea Hotel – who wouldn’t want this experience there. “A warm afternoon in the early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret.”

First published in October, 2009 by Wave Books