Clarion Journal: Reading Geoff Ryman

Its been a little over a week since I found out about getting a place at Clarion. The excitement has been pretty intense, its been very difficult to stop thinking about it. A number of other semi-major life events have occured – I have barely even noticed. I’m getting towards being calm about it now though.

I’ve thrown myself into pre-Clarion reading this weekend. I’m starting with Geoff Ryman, partly because his books were the first I could lay my hands on and also because I’m doing a write-up of the Ryman inspired Mundane SF issue of Interzone in the next couple of weeks and this is good research.

I read Pol Pots Beautiful Daughter yesterday. Its a beautiful story. Set in post-liberation Cambodia it follows the odd life of, as the title suggests, Pol Pots (probably fictional) daughter. Asian culture is a frequent feature of Geoff’s writing I think. Stylistically his writing reminds me of the handful of Japanese authors I’ve read, a similar mythologising of mundane urban life as Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. There is something about characters who find happiness by accepting mundanity as well that he shares with these authors. The political aspect of the story is interesting, a massive subject to take on (genocide) but dealt with in a very modern way. The characters in the story use the trappings of modern life as a buffer between themselves and the stark realities of the past – Pol Pots daughter lives in a multi-storey house stuffed with TV’s and mobile phones. In turn we use the characters as a buffer for the subject matter. Pol Pots daughter has youth and beauty on her side, and finds a kind of redemption and release from the pasts horific events, and through her so do we.

I’m about a third of the way onto Air. This is much more challenging than the short stories by Ryman that I’ve read. It is an odd combination of difficult to take in and massively engaging. It is set in a foreign culture, who are in turn on the brink of radical transformation so there is very little familiar detail to cling onto. But the human stories are very grounded and very intimate. There is something very magical in Geoff’s writing but I can’t quite pin down where it comes from. I think it might be that his characters are dealing with  longing and unhappiness. Both Pol Pot and Air remind me of the space of time after you have been very upset by something, and everything feels at a distance. I need to read more to see whats going on here though.

As always the reality of something like Clarion kicks off unexpected changes. I wrote in my application, and now just again on my student profile, that one thing I want to get from my time on the workshops is an idea of what I really want to write. At the time it felt a bit like the kind of thing people say in this kind of situation, its only thinking it out that I realise that real is what I’m looking. Looking at the six tutors for Clarion makes you realise how distinct each ones work is from the others, and from other writers at their level. Its both an exciting and an intimidating prospect to know that I (and likely the other 17 students) still have the process of finding our own distinctive voice in front of us.

More Ryman this week, then on to Jim Kelly I think.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

4 thoughts on “Clarion Journal: Reading Geoff Ryman

  1. Did you see the BBC documentary about Ryman a few years ago. It was after 253 and before Lust (about the writing of Lust) (Is that the right chap?)

    253 was a big hit and his publishers wanted more of the same thing. He was in a meeting and they rejected idea after idea, finally settling on what was to be Lust.

    Then they made him write it again and again and again….

    It was interesting to see how much power they had.

    And he had a boyfriend who was a farmer I think. Completely different to him.

    It was a great series. It also had AS Byatt, and Newman (not sure of his first name.)


  2. the unconquered country is ace for the eastern connection … and the child garden for hard sf.

    He’s a restless, always changing writer, you need to read the lot.



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