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The Goldfish by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul Illustrated by Emma Wright (The Emma Press)

The Goldfish by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul Illustrated by Emma Wright (The Emma Press)

The poems of the Indonesian poet Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul featured in The Goldfish trace a journey of self-awareness and rebirth from the limited world of a fishbowl to a freedom that was difficult to achieve. The narratives are surreal and thought-provoking and challenge stereotypes concerning femininity in an often-fragmented discourse. Ayuning Maharsi Degoul’s explorations play with the ‘inhuman’ qualities of the fish but also evoke the realistic condition of a woman being constricted because of her limited environment. Her anger and disillusionment are expressed in continuous provocations that envisage sheer rebellion and suggest alternatives:

Stars are starving

Cats are getting mad

My mouth

                   wide open

O what I – 

I need to be a newborn


                                                    delivered by a long river

O what I – 



                       to give birth to the newest me            every day

Ovulating my apperception.                   (‘The Goldfish’)

         ‘O revolt!’ is announced in the poem ‘Rebellion Red’; she refuses ‘to be a clown anymore’ and wishes to change her perspective. It seems to be a problem that concerns surviving a reality that entails trapping her, and it needs to be transformed. Stereotypes about women, such as the idea that they should ‘be joyful […] be accepting’ are questioned in a new view of displacement where the self finds her home ‘everywhere’, a vagabond by choice in a voyage between earth and sea (voyage entre terre et mer) that echoes Jules Verne’s novels such as Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaVoyage to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The reference to Horace’s ode ‘Carpe Diem’ (‘Carpe Diem pour de vrai’) emphasises the wish to change and live life to the full despite possible future risks:

carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

seize the day, to the least extent possible trusting in the next one

(Horace, ‘Carpe Diem’, Ode 1:11)

The poems are superbly illustrated by Emma Dai’an Wright, the founder of Emma Press. They are black and white watercolour pictures, except on the front cover, where the goldfish is red. The pictures enhance the poems through the simple yet skilful rendering of them that adds movement to the dynamic and flow of the lines. The colour red recalls the goldfish and is also linked to red lipstick and to the passion of love:

Red for statement, not solely for existence

Red for braveness, to conquer the day

Like all mothers of my mothers      Lipstick stains are a symbol 

of beauty and sadness

passion and craziness                   (‘Lipstick Stains’)

Transformation finally happens in a celebration of women’s love. The poet feels ‘vibrations everywhere. […] My soul is vibrant.’ It is like ‘a breeze on a dry day’ and a ‘statement of femininity’. She invents a new self and a new language that breaks her free, mixing some words in Indonesian and Japanese with English. Although the final poems celebrate happy days of ‘laughing and singing together […] holding, hands in trust and true honour’, they also reveal some worries in the final lines of ‘Highball’: Abunai yo!, which means ‘watch out’ in Japanese. 

The ‘super ugly goldfish’ is eventually flushed down the toilet, but its shadow might come back in unexpected shapes.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 15th February 2022

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

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