‘He tears off one pearl and fucks me juicy’ (Drag, 39)
‘She stops. Gulps the smell of patties and hot pepper. The empty eye of a black doll looks back at her’ (What He Is, 144)
‘Love comes first from smell and sound and flesh connection. The child comes out of the belly and there is shit and blood and tears’ (Fix, 152)
(I couldn’t pick one quote!)
Come Let Us Sing Anyway
By Leone Ross
Peepal Tree Press. 2017.
I’m in love with Leone Ross’ lines. These lines are tender and beautiful, often vibrant and colourful, they twist, snap and kiss all at once. They move through the stories like golden threads, an accurate description given Ross’ meticulous attention to language and construction. Anyone who follows her Twitter or Facebook pages will see her ‘The Art of a Sentence’ series, where she takes a paragraph from a story in this collection and picks it apart for us, a magician more than happy to show us her tricks because she knows we can’t steal her magic, glamour and talent for spinning a damn-fine story.
The reason I read is to find life. It isn't to be best buddies with the main characters or to fantasize about getting into bed with someone so perfect they can only exist in fiction. No. If you are reading to for those things you are in big trouble, honey ones. Life is dark, cruel, full is of little beauties and desperately real. So real it's choking, we find ourselves on our knees and wondering how it all got so real. But while down there we can see the little wildflowers in the pavement, we see how beautifully big and colourful the world is from an ant's eye-view, we see the brightly coloured shoes of women as they dance along the pavement. Ross' stories are LIFE. Big bold four-letter LIFE. From political injustice in stories like Echo to the pain of getting old in And You Know This, Ross holds nothing back about the harshness of life: you can get shot for your skincolour, you can lose your identity to misplaced love, a kidnapped child can destroy a family and homesickness can unravel you. Yet she plants her wildflowers too. In her stories such as Art, For Fucks Sake and President Daisy, people are brought together by beauty and justice, despite their hardships and falling to their knees more than once.
This is Leone Ross' first full short story collection, though many of these stories have delighted and fascinated people in previously published work. The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant was published as a single chapbook by Nightjar Press in 2015, and The Mullerian Eminence appeared in Closure, a Peepal Tree collection of contemporary short stories by black British writers. She is the author of two novels, Blood is Red and Orange Laughter, and has edited anthologies of work such as The Trouble With Parallel Universes and Screams & Silences by Fincham Press.
Crafted over fifteen years, these stories introduce us to a variety of authentic, luminous and creative characters, carrying with them themes of erotic passion, homesickness, displacement, love (in all its various forms) and horror. One of my favourites was President Daisy (from the story of the same name), a gay man who, during a train journey, entertains a little girl on her way to her new home. He has daisies painted on his fingernails, a red hat and a brown pinstripe-suit, making him the most interesting man on the train but it also makes him a target for abuse. Instead of fighting with an aggressive homophobic man, President Daisy tickles him, subduing his opponent with laughter and touch. The very fact President Daisy touched him makes the man give in.
Other beautiful characters - that I was particularly thrilled by - include the wild sensual Josephine (Drag), who has a different sexual encounter with Michael at three different times in her life. Explicit and erotic, Drag explores what sexuality is to a woman, a common theme in several of these stories, and how it can shift like a living thing. What I take from this story the most isn't the erotica, which appears to be what most people take away from Drag, but the de-labelling of sexuality. What I get from Josephine is that she is desperate to find an 'established' place in her sexuality. While she never directly labels herself, I feel she is trying constantly to adopt new personas just like she is trying on different outfits. Josephine fights against femininity and what the means to her identity. In part one she is dressed as a boy, in the second an executive, in the third a bride. Each change to me represents how she is trying on different identities. It is only when the dress is ripped from her, when she is exposed, that she accepts who she is, finally coming to the conclusion at the end that she is enough:
'And I'm a drag queen, eighteen years old, trying a little something-something with the new beat of my clit; I'm a twenty-five-year-old executive - even though I never made a million; I'm years of expectations; I'm a cop-out, thinking I needed to be a Cinderella cause God knows my mother needs grandchildren. I'm a fuck, I'm a friend, yeah I remember who they are. I'm enough, I'm enough, I'm just right' - p.39-40 Drag
My favourite story however would be Fix. In this story we are in 2035 and the narrator is part of 'Generation App' (my own generation), a generation that 'tried to bring down Wall Street and died and failed, the ones who watched the Middle East implode' (p.145). Generation App are suspicious of apples that are too pretty and will then to rot, how we're too far gone to fix, full of desensitized nothingness behind our eyes and how it 'took less than three generations of children on-line to wipe out the part of the brain that's hard-wired for awe' (p.147). This story is scarily real. I only have to walk down a regular high street and see five girls all looking the same, all with dyed hair, fake-tans, the same cheap-street clothes and a phone attached to their ear. I've seen kids demand books that move and art that speaks, I've seen toddlers with plastic mobiles talking about their future spouses to imaginary friends. I've seen YouTubers build fake lives so make those viewer numbers go up and I've seen genuine YouTubers torn down because they were too pretty, too real, and people wanted them to rot for it. Everyone will have their own favourite story, but for me personally Fix is the most important story in this entire collection, the biggest warning my generation need to hear.
I struggled to write this review because I wanted to say so much about this beautiful, bizarre and captivating book, how it made me fall in love with lines and how it reminded me what good writing looked like. So I'm asking you, lovely readers, to go and discover this book for yourself and then maybe you will write what is important to you. Because this book needs to be written about and Ross' voice is an incredibly pure, honest and sassy one, she isn't afraid to tell the truth and god knows we need it in this world of fake news and half-truths.