Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, April 26, 2013

Judith Mok A Question and Answer Session with Judith Mok - Author of Gods of Babel -Internationally Acclaimed Lyric Soprano

March 1 to April 28
Judith Mok

Today I am very honored to be able to present a Question and Answer Session with Judith Mok


Judith Mok was born in Bergen in the Netherlands. She has published three novels and three books of poetry as well as short stories. She has written for Radio and Newspapers. 

Her short stories have been short- listed twice for the Francis McManus award and her first novel The innocents at the Circus for the Prix de l’Academie Francaise. Her work has appeared nationally and internationally in literary magazines and Anthologies.

She travels the world working as an internationally acclaimed lyric soprano.

  1. As this is irish Short Story Month year III, please tell us who some short story writers you find yourself often returning to are? Do you have anything like a favorite short story? Who are some contemporary short story writers you admire? What is your favorite Colette short story?
Heinrich von Kleist, Tchekov , Karen Blixen and Katherine Mansfield would be the ones I always return to.’Gigi’ is my favourite Colette story , because of it’s seemingly easy, flowing prose , which lights up the content of the story to a high degree of intensity.I admire Desmond Hogan , a great Irish short story writer and Tobias Wolff  .

2. I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?. It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking. Does drink play a different social role in Galway or Dublin than it does in Paris?

Ah what a question ...hard for me to say as I am the most modest of alcohol abusers and definitly not up for an important conversation when the ‘heads’ are fuelled with drink.
But, yes, drink is a vital and fatal ingredient of Irish literary and non literary social life.The myth is true.
I have never come across this in any other place in the world that i might have visited or lived /worked in.

3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right? Is this more predominant in Irish literature than it is in French or Russian? I think it is less found in the Indian and Filipino literature.

Considering the fact that Ireland is a Matriarchy , this could be the case.

4. Who are some contemporary poets you admire? If you could hear three dead poets read their work who would you pick?
Tua Forstrom , Yves Bonnefoy,Juan Margarit, Antonio Praena, Geoffrey Hill.Derek Mahon.Baudelaire.Anna Achmatova.Holderlin

5. Why are there no great English language operas?

I am afraid there are some great English operas.The Fairy Queen  by Henry Purcell for example.Birthwhistle, Britten, Maxwell Davies,Judith Weir , all have written remarkable operatic works.

6. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many know of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? Colette and Katherine Mansfield also seem to fit this pattern (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)

Seems to me that any life lived to the full will be a chaotic one.It all depends how much an author is able to  control and integrate this chaos into his work ,without losing track of a basic life line to hold onto.These people you just mentioned, with the exception of Colette who did a great job at life and died a venered and well to do writer, could have been victims of unfortunate circumstances.

7. Tell us about your educational background please.

I left school a dutch ‘Gymnasium’ at 15 and studied singing and music at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague Holland.I then worked with some world famous singers in Paris and Vienna to contunue my vocal studies. At home , with my parents , who owned a library of over 10.000 books in 8 different languages,I was encouraged to read literature and philosophy .I also learned  to speak a number of languages and was introduced to modern and classical art, museums, theater and concert halls.

8. What are some of your favorite movies? What was the last movie you saw, the last novel you read? Do you watch much TV or have favorite programs?

A Late Quartet was the last movie I saw and thought fascinating for its subject ,a stringquartet , and the fantastic acting. Les enfants du Paradis, Miracle by Tarkovsky, Amarchord, Fellini , The virgin spring Bergman, The Fisher King terry Williams.Un prophete etc..I am a filmfan.Tv ? I actually like Mad men , it has style and quality.

9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers? Or is this a myth?

I dont think it a myth. The Irish..let’s not generalize...are good at talking, formulating, wit.For a long time they had nothing but their island  to live on .So they huddled together, i imagine, and told each other stories that got better and better ? And finally they started to write them down..

10. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:

" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."

Of course I believe in Fairies. I am a realist.

11. If Hamlet is the apex role for an actor, what is the most coveted role for a soprano?

There are different soprano type voices :so I would say.Isolde for a dramatic soprano or Norma. Somnabula for a coloratura or the Queen of the Night and the Countess or Marschallin for a lyric soprano.

12. If one could attend only one opera festival in the next few years, which ones would you suggest? What are the best Opera houses from the point of view of performers? of audiences?

The best Festival is no doubt:Salzburg. Opera houses ? acoustically ? La Scala, The Teatro Colon, Covent Garden, Staatsoper. But there are so many beautiful small theatres with great acoustics , that are charming to visit for audiences as well. Like Drottningholm in Sweden for example.

13. In an interview I read, you expressed admiration for Colette. I have read some of her short stories (in translation). Talk a bit about what Colette means to you? does she have anything like an Irish correlate?

Colette ?an Irish equivalent?That is unthinkable.Colette was a freethinker , with no morals , but for her own moral standards of course. She seduced and used, to be able to do her work. Everything had to serve her master : writing.
She was progressive, athletic in her youth, sexually liberated, loving young and old men or women equally. Her prose style is unique and very carefully composed. She exposed a world of so called ‘lower-life’ and showed her contemporaries the deeply humane sides of this society. She described and loved animals and nature and knew how to make them come alive on a page.Her celebrity was a bit like a pop or film star today, and she knew how to play with it. A great woman or, Person I would like to say.She was an example to me of how to look at life,  and develop my own.Without the constraints of male/female interpretations. She was a great artist. So many women , even now, have to struggle with the fact that they are , or let themselves be categorised . After Colette there was no such thing for me; I started moving into my work as a human being.In short.
14. What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”. Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?

All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty. How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the country Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?

Ireland is a beauty.It does not inspire me. I cant speak for others.

15. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular
poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature. It is interesting to me that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war. Does defeat bring wisdom more than victory? Among Russian emigres in Paris one sometimes gets the same sense of wisdom borne from defeat. On a side note, in reading Japanese literature from the 1930s and 40s one often sees White Russians in the story, portrayed as tragic mysterious figures-I see “the Irish” in this. Any thoughts on the role of White Russians in the literature of the 30s and 40s?

Wisdom through defeat could lead to a certain richness in the afore mentioned literary work.I am thinking of Jewish art , music , literature.An example of great art coming out of ultimate defeat .This kind of piercing through the thickness of the ‘impossible’ wall , often leads to deep, and sometimes bitterly witty literature.

16. What, besides friends and family, do you most like about living in Ireland? what could you frankly live without?

I like a feeling of Anarchy and sublime Stubbornness that i get in Irish society.I could do without the climate.
17. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers. I sometimes think poets can be seen as like the canaries in the coal mines of society, they feel the dangers first. Are poets kind of like our early warning signals?

Good poets are always prophetic.

18. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646). It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric.

I can see where the English came from in terms of general civilisation, and acquired cultures and habits, that the Irish certainly did not possess. As far as the inner makings of their imaginative gifts as opposed to the English go: to me the English seem barbaric as an essentially warmongering and murderously oppressive people.

19. Thanks to the internet we can listen to Opera radio stations from all over the world on our smart phones, laptops and tablets-do you have some suggested stations for neophytes.

France-Musique.BBC 3.

20. In his book “The Commitments,” Roddy Doyle has a lead character say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”. There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle. Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and kill an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel? I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures. There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines. Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this. Do you sense as feeling of inferiority in the Irish not found in French or German society?

Yes there is some of that. I think it is due to years of oppression by the English and most importantly and horrendously: the Catholic Church.There was no sense of Self ,just of Sin.This crushing of all mental and physical freedom must have caused a lot of harm to the soul.

21. Best city to inspire a writer? London, Dublin, Paris, NYC?

I can only speak for myself: Paris

22. Galway seems like almost a magic city with an incredible artistic and literary output for a city its size-any thoughts on why this is true? what does Galway have that 1000 other cities its size do not?

Galway ? As a city, it does not appeal to me at all .Apart from the sea . A couple of excellent Festivals to visit :Cuirt and the Arts Festival .

23. What books are you currently reading?

I am reading some Von Kleist and Taupe Selasi: Ghana must go.And always re reading poems by Baudelaire.

25. Please make up a question and then answer it.
How is it, that as a Dutch born writer, you think you can write in English and speak for the Irish and Ireland , when it is not your country of origin ?

I write in English  because the language is closer to me than Dutch in what i am trying to achieve in my books.I speak for the Irish and Ireland because I have lived and observed the place for a good while now..16 years..and I have a bit of chutzpah as well...

26. Irish government aid to writers-how essential is it? is it a way of getting writers to sort of be quiet about social conditions in Ireland? Besides giving you money to write and me to blog about Irish literature what are some ways in the harsh times of today in Ireland that perhaps things could be changed. If the government were to cut aid to zero (in fact it seems to me Irish writers are very blessed even now with generous support) how big an impact would this have in ten years. Would those really committed keep writing?

It is IMPERATIVE that the Irish State continues to support the Arts.

26. Ok here is a no doubt impertinent question-the public perception of Opera singers is that of a difficult person, one demanding that everything revolve around them-is this just a myth? any truth to it? (OK to tell me of if you like!)

Every serious artist has to cultivate an EGO ,at least they (hopefully) produce something....what of all these impossible , difficult people, who are just ..bores??

27. I want to get much more into contemporary Irish poetry, I have read nearly nothing beyond Yeats, where do I start? who are five essential modern poets? Who are five poets who have moved beyond the tradition of academic poetry in Ireland? are wild performance poets simply letting the poem speak through them or are they posers, putting on a show?

Derek Mahon.Michael O’Loughlin. Peter Sirr.Harry Clifton.Seamus Heaney

28. Quick Pick Questions
a. tablets or laptops?laptop
b. dogs or cats  cat
c. best way for you personally to relax when stressed?music
d. favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner?shellfish
f. Yeats or Whitman  Yeats
g. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption?YUK> none
h. night or day night
i Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? Wuthering Heights
j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a quiet  read it
undisturbed place? French mountains
k. Proust or Flaubert  Proust
l. The Magic Flute or Der Ring Des Nibelungen?Magic Flute
m. Auden or Eliot? Eliot
n. Goethe or Heine  Heine
o. Dinner at the best restaurant in Dublin versus the best in Paris-can the comparison at all be made  .No comparison. Paris
p. Chekhov or Gogol? Chekov
q. Alfred Jarry? love him or who cares? YES!


Judith Mok has very kindly allowed me to share one of the wonderful poems from Gods of Babel with my readers. (It is protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.)

The world burst out
Of its own maps
And gods changed their names
People talked till Babylon fell
While my heart grew
Into a bitter rose
That bled for you.
I handed you that flower
We did not feast on its perfume together.
It was given to me
By the winged Master of Muses
To celebrate a most terrible union
That is called separation
And is red torment to the
Hundredth power
That is purest and blackest of all

 Judith Mok

Judith thanks again for your participation-it will honor and enrich The Reading Life. It is the ability to present posts like this that keep me blogging.

Mel u

No comments: