The World As We See It

Granta is my go-to literary journal. Some issues focus on a country like Australia, others on the “Best of Young” writers in a particular language. Issue 131 does not fall into either of these categories. “The Map Is Not the Territory” covers war and its aftermath, the faded borders of memory and our own fallible bodies. It focuses on “the difference between the world as we see it and the world as it actually is.”

Here are some of my favorites works from this Granta issue.

Life and Breasts

Ludmila Ulitskaya is a biologist, dissident, repertory theater director and author. When she is not writing in Russia, she is traveling the world to read from her work. In the Granta essay, “Life and Breasts”, Ulitskaya goes to Israel for breast cancer treatment.

I am descended, on my mother’s side, from generations of sumptuously endowed women. Although most people have been nourished at a woman’s breast, this was especially true in our family. While my grandfather was gainfully occupied in Stalin’s prison camps, my grandmother taught herself to sew bras. Her day job was bookkeeping, but her night-time profession was bra-sewing. She was the big-bosomed mainstay of our family, the epitome of human nobility and dignity. Her bovine proportions (not those of some scrawny cow on a Soviet collective farm) and the truly regal bosoms that preceded her were a focus of my flat-chested, prepubescent, intense admiration.

Ludmila Ulitskaya, “Life and Breasts” in Granta (Issue 131: Spring 2015)

Over the course of this essay, Ulitskaya embraces Stalin, the parlous state of Russian health care and life in an Arab village “turned Jewish overnight.” A part of Ulitskaya has always belonged to Israel. Now, her left breast lives there, too.

Traces II

Ian Teh is a British-Malaysian photographer based in Kuala Lumpur. For this Granta issue, Teh contributes color photography of the Yellow River in China.

Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow River. Historically a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered, it has provided water for life downstream for thousands of years. Its environmental decline underlines the dark side of the country’s economic miracle, and is a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the 150 million people it directly sustains.

Ian Teh, “Traces II“, Granta (Issue 131: Spring 2015)

Teh’s photos have a dreamlike quality. Sheer pastels, graphic lines and an epic scale make me want to travel the Yellow River. Then I read his notes to these beautiful photographs. You can’t drink the water. You can’t breathe the air. Desertification is “swallowing up a million acres of grassland each year.”

Today, everyone talks about the climate crisis. Not so in China in the 2010s.

Nothing Ever Happens Here

At the time Granta published this short story by Ottessa Moshfegh, she was a relative newbie on the literary scene. Her prize-winning debut novel, Eileen, had not yet been published. Is it homesickness that draws me to a story set in Los Angeles? Or is it the voice of this narrator, looking back at a time in his life when anything was possible?

I was living in an area of Los Angeles called Hancock Park: manicured lawns, big clean houses, expensive cars, a country club. Walking around those quiet streets, I felt like I was on the set of a soap opera about the private lives of business executives and their sexy wives. One day I’d star in something like that, I hoped. I had limited experience as an actor in high school, first as George in Our Town and then as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. People had told me I looked like a sandy-haired Pierce Brosnan. I was broke, and I was a nobody, but I was happy.

Ottessa Moshfegh, “Nothing Ever Happens Here“, Granta (Issue 131: Spring 2015)

The Gentlest Village

Jesse Ball is an American poet and novelist. “The Gentlest Village” is an extract from his 5th novel, A Cure for Suicide.

Ball gives us two characters known only as the Examiner and the Claimant. The Claimant has suffered some catastrophic form of memory loss. He has come to the Examiner in order to recover.

She wrote things in her notes, things like: Claimant is perhaps twenty-nine years of age, in good health. Straight black hair, grayish-brown eyes, average height, scars on left side from (childhood?) accident, scar under left eye, appears to be a quick learner, inquisitive. Memory is returning relatively quickly. Claimant is matching given data with remembered data – a troubling development.

Jesse Ball, “The Gentlest Village” in Granta (Issue 131: Spring 2015)

Memory, borders, bodies. Nothing matches. Nothing should.

25 July 2021 | Karen Kao