February Book Club: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Americanah, 4th Estate Edition cover

We look forward to seeing you on Monday for our book club, where we’ll be discussing Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah. Whether you’re a veteran of our launch, book club, and modernisms workshop, or if February’s book club will be the first time you’ve come to one of the events in the Transatlantic Literary Women Series, you’re very welcome! Look forward to seeing you there.

We’ll be meeting at 5.15 on Monday in the same venue as January’s book club – in room 203, on the first floor of 4 University Gardens. I know some of you will be coming straight from work (me too, after seminars on Zelda Fitzgerald and Alice James – incidentally, two other unheralded transatlantic literary women!), so we’ll provide refreshments and rustle up a few snacks. As always, we want the tone to be relaxed, informal, friendly – and fun.

The janitors do their rounds and lock the outside doors shortly after 5.15, so if you’re a bit late, don’t worry: ring the bell and we’ll come and let you in. We’ll also come down to the front door regularly in the first half hour to make sure no-one’s been left stranded.

You may have seen that votes have been cast for our third book club meeting on Monday 20 March and that the winner was Nella Larsen’s novel Passing. We’ve ordered copies from the campus bookstore. If they arrive by Monday, we’ll bring them with us to the book club to circulate (and bonus: the edition has BOTH of Larsen’s fabulous Harlem Renaissance novels – Passing and Quicksand.) If not, we’ll let everyone know when and how they can collect the free copies from the book shop. Either way, we’ll leave a few copies with the book shop for anyone unable to attend Monday’s club.

If you are unable to join us, or would like to share your impressions on Americanah, feel free to do so on the page of the event, on Twitter, or just contact us at transatlantic.women@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you!

Look forward to seeing you soon. Happy reading!

All best- Laura

Ps: Today is the last day to send your submissions for our transatlantic student writing showcase! Please send submissions of no more than 1,500 words of prose or 3 poems (maximum reading time 5-7 minutes) to: info@scottishwriterscentre.org.uk, with Transatlantic Literary Women Series as the subject title. Please also include a brief bio.

Image: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20939933-americanah

Competition News

Thank you very much to everyone who entered our writing competition, linked to our first book club choice, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913), narrating the exploits of a certain Undine Spragg. We really enjoyed reading your entries, which – in true transatlantic literary women style—were received from both sides of the Atlantic.

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James Tissot, The Political Lady (1883 – 1885)

We asked you to write a dating profile for Undine Spragg or create one of Mrs Heeny’s newspaper clippings, writing a journalistic report on one of Undine’s parties.

There was no shortage of ideas, but we do have a winner. Congratulations to Deborah Molloy from Kent, who gives us a contemporary twist on a dating profile as Undine opts for the direct, targeted approach. Forget about being the Ambassador’s Wife!

Here’s Deborah’s winning entry. Enjoy!

I Mean To Have The Best

Dear Mr President

I am taking the unusual step of placing this personal ad as I realise that a terrifically busy man like you might not have time for niceties. I am currently between husbands, and really feel we were made for each other.  I really, truly admire the way you always get what you want, power is the biggliest thrill, don’t you think?  My daddy was a Wall Street man and I feel we speak the same language – alternative facts are the way forward.  I have always felt I belonged on Fifth Avenue; why we’re practically neighbours!  So, if you decide you want a First Lady who’s the home-made article my mamma will be happy to receive you at the Stentorian Hotel, 1 W 72nd St. Perhaps we can talk about lifting restrictions on pigeon-blood rubies.

With warmest regards,

Ms Undine Spragg-Marvell-de Chelles-Moffatt.

Many thanks to Deborah! We will be in touch with you about your customized prize. For all those interested in attending our next book club, we will be discussing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. You can pick up a copy at our Transatlantic Modernisms Workshop on Wednesday 8th February, or just email us at transatlantic.women@gmail.com to ask how to get your free book! More information can be found on the page of the event here.

See you all on Wednesday!

Laura.

PS: Feeling inspired? You can still submit your entries for our Student Creative Writing showcase until February 14th! Send your submissions of no more than 1,500 words of prose or 3 poems (maximum reading time 5-7 minutes) to: info@scottishwriterscentre.org.uk, with Transatlantic Literary Women Series as the subject title.

Transatlantic Modernisms Workshop Programme

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Poster Design by Katrina Falco

Arrangements are now in place for our Transatlantic Modernisms Workshop and we wanted to share details of an exciting afternoon of talks and discussions with you. We’d love to see you, whether you’re new to modernism or have a passion for one (or more!) of the women writers we’ll be discussing. We’re bringing together four exceptional modernist scholars to give talks on four writers who lived on both sides of the Atlantic. The event will be on Wednesday 8th of February from 2 to 5pm, in Yudowitz Seminar Room, Wolfson Medical Building, University of Glasgow.

We’ll be combining exciting talks with a friendly, sociable atmosphere in which everyone is welcome. There will be time for informal conversations and Q+A and free refreshments. And if you can’t make the whole event, you are more than welcome to attend just one, or more, of the talks as time permits. Join us, bring friends!

To whet your appetite, you can download our programme with some information about our speakers and their topics, including a talk by University of Glasgow’s own Bryony Randall!

We hope to see you there!

Laura.

February Book Club: Decision Time

We’re looking forward to seeing you for our first book club meeting on Monday 30 January at 5.15 in room 203, 4 University Gardens to discuss Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913). Please come and share your thoughts in a friendly, sociable group—and share a glass of wine or soft drink and nibbles. As always, everyone is welcome!

With such large numbers at our launch, we have booked an extra room in 4 University Gardens, so that we can have two groups if necessary and we will of course all join together at the beginning and the end for chat and refreshments. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

The TLW team chose the first text to kick things off, but future selections are all yours! So, now we need YOU to tell us which book we will all be reading for our second book club meeting, scheduled for Monday 20 February. Make sure your voice is heard! Thank you for the great feedback on the launch and the terrific book club suggestions for future meetings. We have taken three suggestions from the feedback forms for the shortlist for the Feb. book club. We will carry all suggestions forward, so if yours isn’t on the shortlist this time, it may well be on subsequent lists – and do please keep your suggestions coming via Twitter, Facebook or email.

Below are some information on February’s shortlist. How will this work? Louisa will be setting up Twitter and Facebook polls. If you’re not on Twitter you can email us instead: transatlantic.women@gmail.com. If you’re on none of those, then I am deeply envious and please just let us know in person.

So that we can make arrangements and order free copies of the book selected, we need you to cast your vote by Friday 27 January. We look forward to reading and discussing the book with the most votes!

Choice One: Nella Larsen, Quicksand

A writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen published just two novels, and a handful of short stories. Quicksand, written in 1928, is her first novel, introducing us to Helga Crane, a mixed race woman caught between fulfilling her desires and gaining respectability. Critically acclaimed, Larsen’s work speaks powerfully of the contradictions and restrictions experienced by black women. She has been described as a trailblazer in writing about the conflicts of sexuality, race and the secret suffering of women in the early twentieth century. Alice Walker calls Larsen’s work “Absolutely absorbing, fascinating and indispensable”:

“Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable. She went through moments of overwhelming anguish. She felt shut in, trapped.” Quicksand

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Nella Larsen (1891 – 1963)

Choice Two: Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz

Zelda Fitzgerald? Just the mad wife of the famous author of The Great Gatsby right? Wrong. A writer and painter in her own right, Zelda Fitzgerald published a single novel, Save Me the Waltz. When Scott Fitzgerald read a draft, he was incandescent, accusing his wife of plagiarising material from the novel on which he was working, Tender is the Night. Save Me the Waltz was extensively rewritten and published in 1932 to lukewarm reviews. Subsequently described as “one of the great literary curios of the twentieth century” and almost always read biographically as a portrait of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage, Save Me the Waltz is set in the United States and Europe and tells the story of Southern girl Alabama Beggs, her marriage to painter David Knight and her struggle to achieve her own artistic success:

“Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”

“But I warn you, I am only really myself when I’m somebody else whom I have endowed with these wonderful qualities from my imagination.”

Choice Three: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Americanah (2013) is the award winning best seller by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who lived on both sides of the Atlantic: in Nigeria and the USA. The novel traces the story of Ifemelu, a young woman who moves from military occupied Lagos to the USA to study at University. The novel deals with contemporary politics, including 9/11, but it is also a ‘timeless’ (Wiki) love story. According to the Guardian, ‘Some novels tell a great story and others make you change the way you look at the world. Americanah does both.’

Here’s a quote from the book to give you a flavour of this particular offering: ‘her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out’. Americanah also offers a useful tip for reading groups!

‘If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.’

If you’ve already picked your favorite, you can cast your vote via Twitter, on our Facebook page, or just send us an email!

Saskia

It’s Happening: Post-launch Impressions and Book Club Updates

Hello!

How are you?

It was a pleasure to see you all last Monday! We definitely didn’t expect so many of you to join us, and even if there weren’t quite enough chairs, we had food and wine aplenty to make up for it! For those of you who missed it, highlights of the evening included a free book giveaway, and some speeches from the committee.

Laura introduced the guests to the TLW project and team, and went on to speak about Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country. I spoke about Wharton and expatriation, and Louisa and Saskia presented our future events, including the book club sessions, workshop in February, and our future event in the trenches… Saskia read H.D.’s poem ‘Oread‘ to set the note of our student writing showcase. We also had the chance to speak to some of you about other future events, at the University, and elsewhere, including an upcoming discussion of Angela Carter! More about our March and April events in another post…

The launch was first and foremost a great opportunity to know your impressions and start taking the series to the next step with you. In the comments you left, you mentioned your desire for diversity, for cross-disciplinary events and debates, and for inspiring expat women writers. Many of you contributed their suggestions for the book club. We will present you with a selection of books to vote for on Twitter in a few days. If you don’t already, follow us on @atlantlitwomen to have your say. Suggestions included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nella Larsen and Zelda Fitzgerald. If you have any other idea, drop us a line! If you don’t already, follow us on @atlantlitwomen to have your say, as we will soon be voting to choose our next selection!

Finally, we hope that you’re enjoying reading The Custom of the Country. We have now updated our Facebook page, and created an event for our session on January 30th: you can find it here. To make this a collective experience, why not post about your first impressions, or, even better, think about entering our Wharton writing competition? There will be a prize and winning submissions will be posted here. We look forward to knowing what you make of Undine’s antics…

Marine.

 

 

Transatlantic Catch-Up

Hello all!

I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas break, and have now made it back to university, or work, or whatever it is that keeps you busy these days. If you have been following the Transatlantic team on social media lately, you will have noticed that we have been quite busy ourselves, so here’s a short summary of what we have been up to, and of what you can expect from us.

The latest – and best-looking – addition to our project has come from lovely Katie Falco, who has been working with us to design our new logo and posters. We are really proud of the result, and Katie’s evocative work will set the visual trend for the rest of the series. If you have been walking around Glasgow, or at the University, you may have seen some of our posters popping up here and there…

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The second great news is that, well, we are getting started at last! We are now counting the days to our launch, and we are looking forward to welcoming you, and to imagining the future of this series with you. Remember we will be giving some free copies of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country! We have been thinking about different ways we could talk about women writers, the transatlantic relationship, and mobility, starting with a free afternoon of talks on Modernism on February 8th, and an all-day symposium at the Glasgow Women’s Library in June. This gives us plenty of time to explore possibilities for the series, so we would really love it if you could think about ideas you would like us to tackle, or even ways you would like to get involved. It could be by coming up with a theme or writer you’d really like us to put on our book club selection!

Finally, we are now expecting you to get writing too! We currently have two writing opportunities open: an Edith Wharton competition, and a collaborative creative writing showcase with the Scottish Writers Centre. We are already receiving some really great texts, and the winning submissions will be published here. Our showcase, which will be on February 28th, will also be a great opportunity to perform / read your work to an audience.

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I hope that I’ve said enough to make you curious! If you have time, or ideas, or both, please drop us a line at @atlantlitwomen or at transatlantic.women@gmail.com. We’d be particularly keen on knowing your thoughts for books and authors you’d like us to celebrate together.

At this point all I have left to say is that I look forward to seeing how the series will unfold in the next few months, and that I hope to meet you next Monday at 5.15 in Room 203, 10 University Gardens, University of Glasgow.

See you soon!

Marine.

 

A Portrait of the Artist as an Expat: Europe in The Custom of the Country

In Saskia’s last post before the holidays, we left off with Woolf’s parting shot to Edith Wharton in her essay “American Fiction” – her accusation that Wharton was ‘obsessed with surfaces’, and that her representation of Englishness reflected a focus on the most superficial aspects of foreignness. This week, my task will be to grant Wharton her right to reply, by looking at our inaugural book for the series: The Custom of the Country, published in 1913. British identity was not the only one Wharton took an interest in, and The Custom’s heroine, Undine Spragg of Apex, ‘American-branded’ as she may be, leads a cosmopolitan life on both sides of the Atlantic, moving between New York and Paris. Edith Wharton’s love of France and Europe is well documented. A famous expat, she travelled multiple times to Italy, and lived in France from 1909 until her death. But how did she look at expatriation?

In The Custom of the Country, pre-war Europe, and France in particular, both feature primarily as a holiday destination for fashionable New-Yorkers. When she first sets off to Italy, Undine is appalled by this ‘dreadfully dreary’ country, and quickly leaves to console herself in Paris. No wonder she looks back rather bitterly on the first months of her stay on the old continent:

She knew now with what packed hours of Paris and London they had paid for their empty weeks in Italy.

Wharton’s portrayal of Undine’s ascent from ambitious debutante to femme du monde hints at unspoken cosmopolitan hierarchies. Upon arriving in Switzerland, Undine quickly befriends her fellow compatriots, only to ditch them when she eventually sets her views on the more desirable circles of the Parisian ‘Faubourg’ and their attractive whiff of ancient nobility. ‘The Faubourg’, which is short for the Faubourg Saint-Germain, now part of the 7th arrondissement of Paris, has a rich literary history, connecting Undine to the novelist Honoré de Balzac’s ambitious young heroes. This prestigious lineage is completely lost on Undine, for whom the Faubourg is only shorthand for the glamorous…

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Mary Cassatt, In the Loge, 1878 – One of many American artists living in Paris at the turn of the century, Mary Cassatt was also a member of the Impressionist group.

Indeed, through Undine, Wharton paints a rather damning picture of the ‘expat’: cynical, shortsighted, devoid of poetic sensibility and mingling with bland cosmopolitan crowds peopled with the likes of Mrs Shallum, a caricatural example of the species:

Mrs Shallum, though in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular, managed to express a polyglot personality as vivid as her husband’s was effaced. Her only idea of intercourse with her kind was to organize it into bands and subject it to frequent displacements…

Undine’s own ignorance is later exposed when she naïvely surmises that:

Paris existed for the stranger, that its native structure was merely an obscure foundation for the dazzling superstructure of hotels and restaurants in which her compatriots disported themselves.

In contrast with her heroine, Wharton took a deep interest in France and its culture. She even became involved in the French war effort between 1914 and 1918, an experience she drew on in her novella The Marne (1918), and which seems to redeem her from Woolf’s accusations of shallowness.

To Wharton, it is only by blending with the culture of one’s host country that one can hope to become a part of it. And yet those who, like Undine, adopt a utilitarian view of cosmopolitanism and only take in as much as they can use to reach their ends, seem to have the upper hand, while those who cling to their identity are fated to fade in the past. Wharton’s vision of France with its ancestral hierarchies and its Théâtre français is portrayed through the eyes of such characters as Ralph Marvell, the heir to the honourable but destitute Dagonet clan.

At the turn of the twentieth century, anxiety about national identity and culture is in the air. It was even a predominant theme among modernist writers. Critic Juliette Taylor-Beatty talks of the sudden peak in ‘awareness (…) of the condition of Babel’ to describe the pull of the theme of foreignness on the authors and thinkers of that time, where travelling is as frequently associated with linguistic and cultural creativity as it is with fear and hostility to otherness.

Wharton’s portrayal of Undine as the corrupt child of the century makes it very difficult to sympathize with her, and we are more inclined, as readers, to choose Ralph Marvell’s view of Europe over hers. And yet, if Undine’s behaviour betrays her ignorance and selfishness, Wharton’s elegiac view of France seems to preclude all possibility of mingling, of métissage – a surprising position considering her own cosmopolitanism. National identity and ancestral prejudices – the titular ‘Custom of the Country’ – weigh upon the protagonists with crushing ineluctability. In its loving homage to France, the novel does not entirely resist the temptation to reify the culture it reveres.

The Custom of the Country was, after all, published in 1913, and we cannot reproach Wharton for embracing the prejudices of her time. Still, not all writers agreed with her. In 1915, a young Katherine Mansfied published the short story, ‘An Indiscreet Journey’, where she took abundant liberties with France and French language by portraying a British woman travelling to the war front to see her lover. The story reveals a more intimate and questioning relationship to French identity and symbols: ‘But really, ma France adorée, this uniform is ridiculous’, the narrator muses when thinking about the French military uniform. A life-long expat, Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand, and does not quite qualify as a transatlantic woman. Still, her approach of foreignness reveals the playfulness with which writers, and especially women writers, in the early twentieth century, could assume new identities.

Undine’s transatlantic progress raises many questions on women, writing, and expatriation. We will broach this topic, and many other, over the next few months of our series, starting with our launch on January 16th: we hope to see you there!

Marine Furet

Bibliography

Mansfield, Katherine, The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, Penguin Twentieth-century Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1981)

Taylor-Batty, Juliette, Multilingualism in Modernist Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Wharton, Edith, The Custom of the Country (Penguin Books, 1987)