‘The Books That Made Me’ literary event @ The British Library

Yesterday, I attended ‘The Books that Made Me’ literary conference at the British Library, central London. Various novelists discussed and read excerpts from two books that have had a pivotal influence in their writing. In attendance were Helen Cross, Diana Evans, Aamer Hussein, Caryl Phillips and Marina Warner and the event was chaired by Boyd Tonkin. These events are a real treat for an aspiring writer, giving you a glimpse into what makes certain authors tick. I’m always one for picking the brain of people I admire…

I was drawn to the event by the presence of Diana Evans, the author of the delicious ‘26a’, whose long awaited follow up is due out this summer, according to the lady herself. Ms Evans read first of all, from ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, the story of three generations of a Greek family who relocate to the States seen through the eyes of narrator Cal Stephanides, who also happens to be a hermaphrodite (the ‘middlesex’ of the title). Evans intimated how she was impressed with the epic nature of this novel. She is interested in telling bizarre stories particularly those that are connected to migration and diaspora and Middlesex has all these components. Evans referred to one of the protagonists, Desdemona, like a friend of relative of which she is very fond. Overall ‘Middlesex’ taught her a great deal about how to write courageous characters.

Diana Evans
Diana Evans

Her other book of choice was ‘Heaven’s coast’ by Mike Doherty which deals with the before and after effect of the death of a loved one. Evans fell for what she described as Doherty’s beauty for prose. She explained that she has a weakness for poets who write prose as their approach to language is very different; it becomes the substance itself and not just the sum of a larger part. ‘Heaven’s coast’ helped Evans to see the possibility that one could write about death and bereavement in a comprehensive way , pulling in other aspects of the human experience.

Phillips
Phillips

Caryl Phillips chose works from controversial playwright Heinrich Ibsen (Ghosts) and celebrated African American author, Richard Wright. I was especially excited about the latter since Wright’s autobiography ‘Black Boy’ is one of my top three favourite personal memoirs. Phillips incidentally opted for ‘Native Son’ which he discovered in a Californian bookshop as a 20 year old in 1978, whilst backpacking across America. It was a revelation to the young author at the time because it was the first book he’d read by a ‘black’ writer. Up until then, Phillips revealed, he didn’t novel-writing was an option for him. ‘Native Son’ gave him the impetus and inspiration he needed to pursue his own writing aspirations. Phillips has now revised his original reaction to the ‘Native Son’. On reading it recently he confessed that he no longer holds the book in such high regard and that the narrative is ‘melodramatic and overwritten’ in places.

Other books chosen by the panel for their personal impact, were amongst others Charlotte’s Web (EB White), ‘The Secret Garden’ (Frances Hodgson Burnett) and South American colonial drama ‘Men of Maize’ (Miguel Angel Asturias). Instigated by questions from the chair and members of the audience, Evans, Phillips and the other authors went on to discuss books and authors that belong to their personal hall of shame or remain guilty pleasures. Enid Blyton was mentioned more than once.

I had the chance to meet Diana Evans briefly after the event when I asked her to sign my copy of ‘26A’. It was also at this stage I found out from Ms Evans, that after a literary hiatus of more than four years, her next book ‘The Wonder’ is due out later this year. Without a doubt, a review in Soulculture will follow shortly. For all those who have not read ‘26a’, it comes highly recommended. Chronicling the story of twins, Georgia and Bessie, their two sisters, eccentric Nigerian mum and troubled English father, Evans uses a sense of wonder and the mystical to tackle a range of subjects; identity, coming of age, family ties, domestic violence, alcoholism and mental illness to name a few.

Despite exploring the fluidity between the natural world and the spiritual, the book is rooted firmly in reality. And even though she deals with some meaty issues, Evans manages to address them without making the audience feel complete despair. In short, it’s a beautiful piece of fiction and a seriously accomplished debut novel, winning the inaugural Orange Prize New Writers award in 2005. I am in no doubt that her next novel will be worth the wait; indeed maybe even better for it.

‘The wonder’ is available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk( http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wonder-Diana-Evans/dp/0701177977/ref=cm_cr_pr_sims_i).

Review by Tola Ositelu.