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

Monday, April 29, 2019

Sybil’s Dress - A Short Story by Shauna Gilligan - April 1, 2019

A Sybil Connolly Gown

“Sybil’s Dress” - A Short Story by Shauna Gilligan - April 1, 2019, published in The Cabinet of Heed- A Literary Journal

I have been closely following the work of Shauna Gilligan, author of Happiness Comes from Nowhere, for seven years.  I have posted upon nine of her Short Stories and her powerful debut novel, Happiness Comes from Nowhere. She has very kindly contributed four guests posts on Irish writers to The Reading Life and participated in two illuminating Q and A sessions.  My attention and time is direct result of the great admiration I have for her  talent and her deep literary culture.  Her stories are universal, arising from depths of Irish culture.

I was very happy to find a new Gilligan story online a few days ago, “Sybil’s Dress”.  After reading it twice, I felt I was missing something.  In a minute or so on Google I learned who Sybil was.  Sybil Connolly (1921 to 1998) was a highly regarded Irish fashion designer famous for using Irish textiles and Irish Seamstresses to create world class haute couture.  In the fashion world she was sometimes called “The Irish” Christian Dior. Life Magazine did a Cover Story on her work, The Irish Invade The Fashion World, in 1971.  It was a great source of pride to the Irish when Jackie Kennedy wore one of her designs in her official White House portrait.

Vogue, the world’s leading fashion magazine, had a short article on her in 2015.

I think you really need to know why Sybil Connolly was so important to the Irish so I will share with you their article.

“Sybil Connolly, a favorite of Jacqueline Kennedy, who Vogue once described as “the vitamin C of the Erin-go-Couture movement,” was the first to put Irish design on the map when she showed her designs on a summer’s eve in 1953 at Dunsany Castle.

In 1956, Connelly developed her signature look: horizontal, hand-pleated, taffeta-backed handkerchief linen. So fine were these pleats that it took nine yards of fabric to create just one of the pleated material. Connolly was a romantic designer with a mission to incorporate native materials, like Carrickmacross lace and Donegal tweeds, into a feminine silhouette. Kennedy also deemed them suitable for the White House, selecting one of Connolly’s linen outfits for her 1970 official portrait by Aaron Shikler. More lasting than Connelly’s designs, though, lovely as they are, is her legacy, one that has enabled the careers of such breakout Irish runway stars as Simone Rocha and J.W.Anderson.” From Vogue Magazine 

(There are 216 images of her work on Pinterest —

I read The story, Reading time under five minutes, three more times after my research.  I saw just how much Gilligan is able to show us about relationship of the rich and famous fashion designer to the Irish seamstresses who made her gowns.  Connolly could easily afford to have her designs produced by elite fashion houses in Paris or London but she struck with the Irish.  We see in the story how much this meant to the women making her gowns.  Connolly did not send an aid to the workers with her designs, she went there, she talked to the women who admired her so much.  All the seamstresses wished Jackie Kennedy would wear a gown they made.

The story is narrated by one of the workers:

“Real freedom is discipline,” she said as she slipped another pin into the linen.
I stared at my hands as they pleated another line in the evening dress. She was always saying things like that to us. I don’t mean to imply that she talked much, or that she was the chatty sort – she was, after all, a serious woman – but there was a gaiety about her when she paid us a visit. Somehow she felt that these visits must always involve imparting nuggets of knowledge that she had gleaned on her travels.

It was said in the newspapers and whispered amongst us that she was the best travelled and most international Irishwoman in the world. There was a strong hope that the First Lady Jackie Kennedy would wear one of the dresses our hands had pleated – and perhaps even pose for a portrait!”

“Sybil’s Dress” is a marvelous story.  It takes us into the relationship of a famous designer to her workers.  I could not help but contrast this with the despicable way Coco Chanel treated her employees.  

Below is a very good article from the Irish Women’s Museum web page  giving details on the life and career of Ireland’s greatest fashion designer.  I learned she designed uniforms for three divisions of nuns and ran a very successful shop in Dublin for forty years.

A wonderful full color video from 1957 spotlighting her designs 

From the author’s web page

Shauna Gilligan is a novelist and short story writer from Dublin, Ireland.  She has lived and worked in Mexico, Spain, and the UK, and now lives in County Kildare with her family and a black and white cat called Lucky.
She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of South Wales, is a registered teacher with the Teaching Council of Ireland, an active member of the Arts Council of Ireland Writers-in-Prisons Panel and a Professional Mentor with Irish Writers’ Centre. Shauna facilitates creative writing workshops with people of all ages. She teaches students in universities, in the community, and in prison settings.

Shauna enjoys collaborating with visual artists and is particularly interested in exploring the crossover of art and literature in storytelling, the depiction of historical events in fiction, and creative processes.
Her debut novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere was a critical success and the Sunday Independent review declared it to be a “thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly challenging debut novel.” 

I look forward to following her work for many years.

Mel u

Probably the Irish and those more into fashion history than I would

Friday, April 26, 2019

Between Zero and One - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant - first published Devember 8, 1975 in The New Yorker

"Between Zero and One" by Mavis Gallant

As I watched Norte Dame on fire, I thought of a so very happy Mavis Gallant on her first visit to the cathedral, letting hundreds of years of French history impact her, knowing she was where she was meant to be.

April 11, 1922 - Montreal

1950 - moves to Paris

September 1, 1951- publishes, in The New Yorker, her first short story.  She would go onto publish 116 stories in The New Yorker. ( I greatly enjoy looking at the covers of the issue in which a story was published.)

February 18, 2014 - passes away in her beloved Paris

In the collection Home Truths there are six linked stories centering on Linnet Muir.  The stories are structured as Linnet when older looking back on her life.
She is a very independent person, very into a reading life, with no real family ties. From Montreal, she is now maybe twenty-one, World War Two is well underway.  She works in office where most of the men are World War One Veterans.  There are other women in the office but they are typists.  She is the first woman hired to do the work the men do.  The office is very much a civil service place where no one works to hard while waiting for their pension.  There  is resentment against her for taking a job from a man. All the men come across as bland grey unemotional time servers.  The war is somehow made to seem not of great concern to Canads

These six stories made look for clues as to why Gallant moved from Canada to France.  Montreal seems a boring city with no real identity and little culture.  

The only future there for Linnet is to marry.  All the married men in her office advise her against marriage.  When she announces she intends to marry a young soldier scheduled to be to Europe, everyone advises her not to marry.

"“Don’t do it, Linnet. Don’t do it.” Bertie Knox said, “Once you’re in it, you’re in it, kiddo.” I can’t remember any man ever criticizing his own wife–it is something men don’t often do, anywhere–but the warning I had was this: marriage was a watershed that  transformed sweet, cheerful, affectionate girls into, well, their own mothers. Once a girl had caught (their word) a husband she became a whiner, a snooper, a killjoy, a wet blanket, a grouch, and a bully."

When not working, she writes.
We go along when she submits one of her plays to a producer. There is an interesting segment on Linnet's day at the theater.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas - 2018

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David  Lukas

2018 Winner for The National Jewish Book Award for Fiction

Joseph's mother is a Jewish American woman, his father, a Muslim,  was born in Cairo.  Our narrator was raised in California by his mother and stepfather, he wants to learn more about his paternal ancestry.  He is a scholar specializing in the Jewish history of Cairo.  He is on a mission to learn more about a large collection of Jewish documents brought to Cambridge from Cairo by two Scottish sisters, twins, endowed with family money, highly knowledgeable about Medieval Egyptian texts from the Jewish community of Cairo.

Joseph is on a flight to Cairo when we meet him.  He was recently sent a news paper clipping about the ancient Cairo synagogue Ben Ezra.  He also wants to learn more about his paternal family heritage.  

Lukas gives us a sense of time past by focusing on the two sisters.  They are just perfect characters, totally developed.  It is the late 19th century.  In a huge book and document market they have found for sale sacred texts housed in the temple.  They fear unless they can bring all the documents back to Cambridge, they will be lost, sold to who knows who.  Seeing how the sisters accomplish this was so interesting, this alone makes The Last Watchman of Old Cairo a pure delight.  We sit in on the negotiations of the sisters, helped by a scholar and his mysterious lady friend.  The elders of the synagogue want to send also to England a young man caught in a homoerotic act, at the time a horrible crime.  This is all interwinded with the narrator's future and his sexual orientation.

Our narrator's full name is Joseph al-Raqb, al-Raqb means "watchman". He discovers his family members have held the position of watchman of the synagogue for 1000 years.  Through this we get to see more of the synagogue's history.

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, a student at the American University of Cairo, and a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Translated into more than a dozen languages, his first novel The Oracle of Stamboulwas a finalist for the California Book Award, the NCIBA Book of the Year Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize. His second novel, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, was recently published by Spiegel & Grau. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, he is a recipient of scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Montalvo Arts Center, New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Elizabeth George Foundation. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesWall Street JournalSlateNational Geographic Traveler, and Georgia Review. He lives in Oakland and teaches at San Francisco State University

I give my total endorsement to The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, especially to those into Jewish history.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal - 2017

Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Be warned, this novel might shock you, might leave you feeling the need for your own erotic encounters.  For sure I did not at first quite believe what I was reading.

The plot centers around Nikki, born in London to Punjabi immigrants.  Her parents are Sikhs. The lives of women are very much still defined by traditions imported from India.  Nikki, about twenty, is trying to find a way to live in harmony with the very judgemental Sikh community (there is even group of young men who monitor unmarried women for improper dress and such).  Nikki's father recently died, she is a law school drop out, currently working as a bartender. After talking to her more traditional sister and her mother about the direction of her life, she decides to try to earn extra money, some of which will go to her mother, by starting a class in creative writing for women at the London Punjabi center.  The family conversations revolve around Nikki's lack of direction.

As Jaswal wonderfully shows us, marriages were still often  arranged and had to be with another Sikh.  Nikki scorns ads placed on a match making board at the center.  Her venture into internet matchmaking websites was just hilarious, a marvelous satrical  segment.

When her class begins the students are all Widows, it seems married or single women are not supposed to go out to classes.  Nikki plans on teaching creative writing, through a workshop like approach.  She is surprised to learn some of the women cannot write in English or Punjabi.   Most of the students thought they were signing up to learn to write English.  Nikki at first does not know how to begin.  One of the students finds a collection of erotic stories and shares them with the class.  Soon Nikki realizes the women can be drawn out by having those who can write, produce stories of erotic encounters.  They end up producing very sensual most would say X-rated stories about sexual encounters. Most of the women have been with only their late husbands. We see the women begin to rise above their cultural restrictions.  We learn one is not a widow but was abandoned by her husband.

Nikki does have her own romance.  It runs most of the course of the novel and was very integral to the novel.

Jaswal is a very talented writer.  The conversations are perfect, the characters real and she gives us a very good feel for the London Punjabi community.  I liked Nikki and her family.  The erotic stories are a lot of fun.

I really enjoyed Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal.  
This is a very perceptive totally fun to read work.  


is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014 and was adapted into a film at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts in 2017.Her second novel Sugarbread was a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize and the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. 

Her third novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Harper Collins/William Morrow) was released internationally to critical acclaim in March 2017. Translation rights to this novel have been sold in France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Greece, China, Brazil and Estonia. Film rights to Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows have been acquired by Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions and Film Four in the UK. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was also picked by Reese Witherspoon’s book club and The Girly Book Club in 2018.
Jaswal’s short fiction and non-fiction writing have appeared in the UK Sunday Express, Cosmopolitan Magazine, The New York Times, Harpers Bazaar, Conde Nast Traveller and Best Australian Short Stories, among other publications and periodicals. She has travelled widely to appear in international writers festivals to conduct workshops and lectures on creative writing, pursuing an artistic career, the power of storytelling, global citizenship and social justice advocacy through literature. A former writing fellow at the University of East Anglia, Jaswal has taught creative writing at Yale-NUS College and Nanyang Technological University where she is currently pursuing a PhD. 
Jaswal’s new novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, will be released in April 2019. The novel is a dark comedy following the travels of three British-Indian sisters on a pilgrimage in India to fulfil their late mother’s final wishes.

I really want to read her latest novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters.

Mel u

Monday, April 22, 2019

Heitor - A Short Story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar - From White Dancing. Elephants- 2018

In the nearly ten years in which i have maintained The Reading Life i have never seen as much attention given to a debut Short story collection as that given to White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar.  So far i have posted on four of her marvelous very creative stories, all have death as a core factor and deal with the interaction of persons of Indian background with western countries.  

I have just finished Reading The Anatomy of Criticism by Northrup Frye.  He talks extensively and very learnedly about the various ways in which myths are used to structure literary works. In all three of the stories I read prior today we can see Bhuvaneswar very profoundly use ancient Indian myths not only as part of the rhetoric structure of her stories but she shows us how people retreat into deeply rooted ancient archetypal myths to help with the otherwise unfathomable aspects of their lives.  She overlays the ancient myths with modern reality.  

Early European commercial ventures into South and South East Asia societies by England were fronted by The British East India company.  The Portuguese and the Dutch also gave near sovereign power to trading companies.  Human beings were among the items traded.  John Bull was a slaver and a rapist.  Most colonial explorers and traders were single men.  Of course, as the narrator of this story tells us, they wanted women,either as wives or slaves.  Slaves from India were regarded differently from African:

"Small for his age then, easily bound, Heitor was brought by ship and force, by sons of spice traders, by members of large prosperous companies, brothers of men who had settled in Goa, the place in India where the first human remains of the Old World were found. Those traders had married the most beautiful Indian women they could find, converting them to Christianity with jewels stolen from their own ancestors. Heitor was sold for an elite price to work for the nuns of Evora, and their novitiates. Indian, Chinese, Japanese slaves were bought and sold in Portuguese as males, than African slaves, and thus allowed to work in the convents. As a child, he was striking for his quietude, forming a graceful harmony with the aggressive potential of his prematurely hard and strong limbs. Beginning at the quick, observant, diligent age of eight, Heitor was saved from harder labor, given to the convent’s Indian gardener and its cook. They were nowhere to be found on his last night. The men, lovers, were hiding for fear of being chained. They were both drunk and in despair that they had not foreseen his fate."

Heitor was sentenced to death for sexual contact with Portuguese nuns.  There is an interesting plot in the story.  It also turns on sexual relations between enslaved persons and Europeans.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar studied Indian poetic traditions with the support of an NEH Younger Scholars grant and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, concentrating in Sanskrit. She has received a Time-Life Writing Award as well as a Yale Elmore Willetts Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2,and featured on the Other Storiespodcast. An Affiliated Fellow in Writing at the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.She is a practicing physician.

This story is part of our Stories by South Asian Women Project.

Oleander Bousweau 
Mel u