Yara Rodrigues Fowler on material conditions as a part of reading, the making of zines, and writing there are more things.
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I do not want you to read there are more things to escape. We have this idea of the reader, alone, their nose in a book. When this reader is reading, their material conditions – the real world – dissolve, and they enter the imaginary world of the text. Like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they go through the wardrobe into Narnia. In this version of things, the reader’s material conditions and the physical book in their hands have no bearing upon the world they enter. The world of the book is a magical, untethered, unchanging place; the book itself is just the wardrobe.
I think this is rubbish. Accessing the world of the text – that is to say, reading – is contingent upon the kind of material existence the text has, and the material conditions of the reader – the real world. The material existence of a text – whether it has been reproduced as a physical or e-book, whether it’s a Word document backed up to the cloud, or a handwritten diary with no other copies – dictates if and how it is communicated to readers. Our material conditions inflect, dictate, and mediate how we read – whether we are doing so in our leisure time or commuting time, whether we are hungry or angry or sleepy as we do so, what each word and sentence means to us. I don’t want to pretend that what we are doing, as writers and readers, is untethered from the real world. It was the wardrobe that let Edmund and Lucy, and not Susan and Peter, in. When we read, we do not escape our material conditions, or the real world, even if we really wish we could.
there are more things starts with a request, from me, the author, to you, the reader.
When a song plays on the page, listen to it out loud.
When the characters speak in chorus, when they read from the iphone at meetings, speak out loud with them.
I wrote this hoping that reading the book would be a loud experience. When we listen to music, we become aware of our bodies, where we are, and how easy it might be to dance in that place. When we speak out loud – or even just think about speaking aloud – we become aware of the sound our voices might make in the space we’re in. The first time that we chant at a protest, we might feel embarrassed, initially, after which we might feel something else – maybe roused, or in communion with others. Reading, in this version of things, becomes something not only actively done but also something consciously embodied and connected to the time and place in which it is done. An act of tethering between the real world and the imagined. Something a bit like eating Turkish delight while reading about Edmund eating Turkish delight, and getting the pages a little sticky.
To me, this is the opposite of a cathartic reading experience, where the reader enters, voyeuristically, into the world of the text, borrows a feeling – of faraway war, or poverty, or abuse – and then exits. After exiting, the reader may then pat themselves on the back for acknowledging the humanity of the other, and carry on with their life as before. This is only possible when we think of the world of the text as unconnected from the real world – when we forget that the act of reading is contingent on and mediated by the materiality of the text and our own material conditions. I do not want you to escape the real world; I do not want the real world to escape from you.
When you read a zine, you are immediately confronted with its materiality and the process of its making. It doesn’t try to hide that the stuff from which it was made used to be part of something else; you can see their cut-out edges, feel the flatness where those edges were scanned. If there’s a handwritten part, you begin to imagine a person holding a pen, thinking the words you are reading and then making them into something to be shared. A zine doesn’t conceal its materiality, or the fact it belongs to the real world, or was made by a person or group of people.
But a zine can make us escape. A zine can make us feel that something else – something other from the world as we experience it, our current material conditions – is possible. A zine can be a bit of knowledge production – a way of imagining and making – that is communal, uncommodified and anarchist. It’s made of the real world, is held and read in the real world, but tells of something else.
Writing there are more things involved a lot of cutting and copying and pasting and sticking, and doing this with other people. I attempted to recreate the world as I have experienced it: living in a flatshare in Mile End, alienation and exploitation at work, school in South London in the 2010s. I also attempted to recreate things I have not experienced: poverty, precarity, being racialised as not white, living in London on a non-British passport, growing up in Olinda in Brazil, being alive in 1969. I did a callout for people who grew up in South London at the same time as me and wanted to talk about race, sexuality and class for the book. I visited Olinda and Recife and went clubbing and talked about early sexual experiences and class and race and contraception with friends.
When the pandemic started, although couldn’t travel to the archives and libraries in Brazil that I had hoped to visit, I started to put together a narrative – something along the lines of what Saidiya Hartman calls fabulation – about two guerrilleras on a road trip during the darkest years of Brazil’s dictatorship. I interviewed my mum, read oral histories and the Brazilian Government’s Truth Commission report, which details crimes committed by the state during the dictatorship period, and the diary of a Maurício Grabrois, the commander of an armed group of communists who tried to set up a liberated zone in Araguaia between 1968 and 72. (This diary was kept secret by the military police until 2011, when it was leaked by journalist Lucas Figeueiredo.)
there are more things is a novel made in the spirit of a zine – a kind of pastiche made collectively from lived experience, bits of archives, and what can only be imagined (and misimagined). I took extracts from Maurício Grabrois’s diary, my mother’s memories, details of state violence in 1970s Brazil, and descriptions of news about Grenfell. But I didn’t do this to provide catharsis – a touristic experience for literary Anglophone readers to collect for their mantelpieces – or even education. I did it as an act of tethering between what has happened and what is happening, between what can be imagined and what is possible. I do want you to read there are more things to escape. But I want that desire for escape – for better and more – to be embodied and located in the real world; to be so loud that it echoes.
Yara Rodrigues Fowler grew up in South London. Her first novel, Stubborn Archivist, was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2020 and the Desmond Elliot Prize 2019. Yara was named one of The Observer’s ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2019. Yara’s second novel, there are more things, will be published in the UK April 2020. Yara received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors for research to write there are more things. there are more things was shortlisted, as a work in progress, for the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award 2019. Yara is also a part time climate justice organiser.