What I am Reading Now…
I’m worried about the shelf above my desk. It’s bearing the load of years of accumulated, uncurated (often unread) reading material. There are precious editions of hard-to-find books and magazines I should have a humidor for in this damp old ditch of a city. The cracked spines either show my love of a book or the fact I’ve gutted it for collages. Many were picked off the cairns of discarded libraries that cropped up on neighbour’s front stoops during COVID-19. I picked up The Right to be You and wondered why it no longer sparked joy for whoever left it there with the penguin classics. There is a waterlogged copy of an exhibition catalogue I was interviewed in, a collectable copy of Doppio Senso (Italian gay porn) from the month and year I was born. The lemon-lime cover art of the Arabic translation of my first book The Girl Who Fell to Earth is peeping out sourly at me right now.
I haven’t written for pleasure in so long, I don’t know where I would begin. I am grateful I can still read for it though. I am noticing my relationship to books (and pleasure) has completely changed of late. Anxiety around the nature of facts (alternative or otherwise) in recent years has led me to feed mainly on history, biography, and self-help literature. And now as I write fiction for a living – my ability to enjoy the fantastic kind of storytelling that brought me to write in the first place has dwindled. It has become rare to find a SF or Fantasy book that doesn’t read like a series pitch.
The first one that leaps out is a text that was required reading for a Death Doula course I took in December 2020. Caring for the Dying: The Doula’s Approach to a Meaningful Death by Henry Fersko-Weiss. I kept it because it has a drawing of dandelions on the cover and for the fact this book swept away a lot of fear and taboo I felt around talking about death and dying. Meeting and learning from those who choose to be present with the dying as a vocation has been hugely inspirational to me.
Next, the juicy red of Master of the Eclipse by Etel Adnan who remains my lodestar when I think of the course I’d like the rest of my life as an artist (and a person) to take. This book in some ways was what I had hoped Susan Sontag’s Regarding The Pain of Others would be. Adnan writes about war in prose and yet it is seared into my memory as poetry. This is from the last chapter ‘A Stream Near Damascus’ in which she drinks with her brother and rests on a riverbank – ‘The night was scintillating with stars: it looked like a mixture of black metal and distant light. I was thinking of its incredible beauty when I saw, sliding on the lowest of the streams, just where the latter was joining the river, a kind of shadowy figure in baggy pants, embracing a tree trunk the way one holds in one’s arms the body of the beloved. And I still hear my brothers voice telling me, as the creature was, with the moving water, entering a zone of darkness: “There goes the giver of life, holding her in his arms and walking on the waters!”’
The cult queer classic The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions by Larry Mitchell became an important book for me to read aloud and to have read aloud to me in the past few years. If there is such a thing as a non-fiction fairy tale. This is it. I was honoured in 2021 to be invited to read from it in an NTS program Up the Beanstalk hosted by Dominic Riddler which you can listen to here. I cannot recommend it enough, or it’s fable about characters like lilac, pine tree, heavenly blue and loose tomato and the women-who-love-women surviving and revolting in Ramrod, a city run by ‘the men’.
Mirror with a Memory – Martine Syms’ brilliant podcast about artificial intelligence and photography. It’s been out for a while but I keep visiting and revisiting it as background radiation to these reflective days.
Divide and Dissolve’s Gas Lit – this album …all I can say is that I never felt heard by the music I was listening to the way this album does. It feels how it feels to be alive now. At least to me.
Witches of Scotland – in which lawyer Claire Mitchell and writer Zoe Venditozzi talk to historians, archaeologists and practitioners of all kinds to bring justice to those accused, convicted and executed as witches under the Witchcraft Act 1563. Incendiary and inspiring example of what a podcast can do.
Also I wanted to include my friend Susanne Oberbeck (stage name NO BRA)’s 1999 vampire movie The Ice People parts one and two. The art opening scene is – chef’s kiss. I had no idea she went to America and made this movie which hits all my sweet spots! Bonus and through line from Saoirse Amira Anis’ contribution to What I am Reading Now…citing The L Word as recommended watching last month, it also stars Kate Moennig.
Sophia Al-Maria is a Qatari-American artist, writer, and filmmaker living and working in London. Though her work spans many disciplines it is united by a preoccupation with the power of storytelling and myth, in particular imagining revisionist histories and alternative futures. Her practice is fuelled by the combination of critical rigour with an affective charge in explorations of language, imperialism, and counter-histories – a deep investigation and dramatisation of the socio-political, economic, and environmental present.
Caring for the Dying: The Doula’s Approach to a Meaningful Death, Henry Fersko-Weiss (Conari Press, 2017)
Master of the Eclipse, Etel Adnan (Interlink Books, 2009)
The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, Larry Mitchell (Calamus Press, 1977)
Mirror with a Memory Podcast, Martine Syms (Carnegie Museum of Art, 2021
Gas Lit, Divide and Dissolve (Invada Records, 2021)
Witches of Scotland, Claire Mitchell and Zoe Venditozzi (Witches of Scotland, 2020–present)
The Ice People, Dir. Susanne Oberbeck (1999)
Part one: https://youtu.be/kfaFSbTWOXg
Part two: https://youtu.be/lcFHJvDoyaA
The L Word, Created by Ilene Chaiken, Michele Abbot, Kathy Greenberg (2004-2009)