Sian Norris is a writer and journalist, currently working on her first novel, The Red Deeps. As writer-in-residence at Bristol’s Spike Island, she runs a series of literary salons that bring together reflections on the Left Bank of 1920s Paris with cutting-edge literature from across the UK. We caught up with Sian to ask her about modernism, women, and the program she’s putting together.
You’re a writer-in-residence at Spike Island in Bristol. What will you be doing there?
Lots! I designed a really busy residency program and so now I’m very busy trying to fulfil all its criteria.
The main focus of the residency is to edit the latest draft of my novel, which focuses on women’s lives on the 1920s Left Bank. I’ve been working on it for a while now and it’s really at the very exciting stage of talking to agents. It’s the task of honing the text to make it the best it can be, and I’m really looking forward to getting an agent who I can work with to improve the book and send it to publishers.
At the same time, I’ve organised a program of salon events and creative writing workshops with adults and children. The first adult workshop is very much designed to be interactive with the current exhibition at Spike Island by Lubaina Himid. It’s so inspiring to be in this brilliant arts space and work with the exhibition. I’ve also designed a schools’ workshop program, working with Bristol sixth form students.
Then there’s a collaboration with Rife magazine, mentoring a young writer, Kaja Brown, who is absolutely fantastic – a really exciting talent. I’m also running an online reading group recommending specific texts by modernist women, and I published an e-book of essays about women in the Left Bank community.
Finally, I’m also developing some new work which is really thrilling. It’s in the very early stages but I’ve got a good feeling about it. So really, really busy.
What drew you to the women of the Left Bank? What was your first – or most memorable! – encounter with this thread of modernism?
My first encounter with this world was buying a Colette paperback from Barter Books when I was 14. It was The Vagabond, a proper orange and cream old school Penguin. That got me totally hooked on Colette. I was really fascinated by this cool bisexual woman living in Paris, performing on stage, writing novels, writing journalism – she just seemed incredible.
Then, when I was 16, I was at the local library and found Andrea Weiss’ Paris Was a Woman. And suddenly it wasn’t just Colette. It was this whole community of women living and working in Paris in the 1920s – supporting one another, mentoring or publishing one another, and creating boundary-pushing, experimental and avant-garde work. I became an addict, buying US copies of Djuna Barnes’ Ladies Almanack, searching for Janet Flanner articles online.
After Colette I think the next writer that really caught my interest was Barnes. I read Nightwood when I was 18 and wrote my A-level coursework on it. I’m actually re-reading it right now, and every time I am stunned at the dense complexity of her prose, how poetic and evocative she is. I found her a really fascinating writer.
Then when I was at university I started reading Gertrude Stein and Jean Rhys. What I loved about Rhys was her ability to write despair, about the experience of being poor and female and desperate. And what I loved about Stein was how funny she was! There are so many funny moments in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
I think Stein was the most important encounter. What I find fascinating about her is how she took all the things we expect or accept about literature and turned it on its head. She asked us what writing would be like if we stripped out allusions, if we wrote what we see, what is truly there.
I’m also really interested in Shari Benstock’s theory about the coded lesbian sexuality in her writings; this idea that she’s creating a new register of language that communicates something very centred in woman-ness and lesbianism. I often try and describe my reaction to Stein as a “heart reading” rather than a cerebral one, if that makes sense? In that sometimes I don’t understand what she means but I feel something about what she means, it feels quite bodily and physical. I think it’s something about the repetition and rhythms.
I also really love H.D and, I adore Flanner. If I could go back in time and have a drink with someone it would be her.
What are you reading at the moment?
As I said, I’m re-reading Nightwood, after reading Lauren Elkin’s essay in The Paris Review about women living in 1920s Paris and walking around the Left Bank. It’s a book I revisit a lot and the way I read it, or feel about it, has changed a lot since I was 18. In fact, I need to buy a new copy really because it’s so hard to read it with my 18-year-old self’s notes scribbled in the margins! I love it when books mean different things to you at different stages of your life.
I’m also reading a lot of Martha Gellhorn’s essays and selected journalism. She’s incredible. Her writing on the Spanish Civil War is so evocative and frightening, and her novel The Stricken Field is too. I mention those two aspects of her career in particular because, sadly, a lot of what she writes feels far too familiar with what’s happening today in Syria and in the refugee crisis.
Tell us about your literary salons. It seems to me that, just as Stein promoted so many writers who we know so well, this is a chance to promote some interesting voices – maybe even the sort of voices that are still overlooked in the twentieth-century canon.
One of the things about Stein’s salons is that she created this space where so many of the Big Men of Modernism TM came together and she mentored them and supported them and then BAM! Everyone knows who Hemingway is and Stein is seen as a niche, weird interest. What’s going on there I wonder? Smells of sexism to me. . .
Stein really recognised that she was seen as the Personality rather than the Writer, particularly in the States. So while other writers respected her work – Flanner wrote in the New Yorker that ‘no other writer is so respected by the American modernists than Miss Stein’ – the public was more interested in her as the character.
Anyway! My salons are designed to create a space for established and emerging talent to share their work. With that in mind, I’ve booked a range of speakers who are at different stages in their careers but all have a public profile, be it a book or two, or a performance record. Then there’ll be space for an open mic where local writers can share their work.
And yes, re: promoting interesting or marginalised voices. It was so, so important to me to ensure that the salons reflect the exciting diversity of the UK literary scene – a diversity that is too often not represented! So, for example, I have booked almost 50/50 BAME/white writers to challenge the often all, or mostly, white line-ups at literary events.
I’ve also programmed more women than men, again to challenge those imbalances, and the salon of March 16 was women-only (in terms of speakers; men could attend as audience members). And again, there’s a mix of speakers regarding career stage – some have a very established publishing track record, are on their fifth, sixth books. . . others have a book coming out this year. Then there’s me, who will hopefully have a book out soon!
Learn more about Sian’s work at Spike Island here, and follow her on Twitter @sianushka.