This is Granta’s fortieth anniversary issue: a selection of fiction and essays published in the magazine between 1979 and 2013. We read our way through the back issues, and suggestions poured in – Elena Lappin’s exploration of the complexities of Binjamin Wilkomirski (author of a falsified Holocaust memoir), Adrian Leftwich’s account of betrayal in apartheid South Africa and Ian Jack’s investigation of the shooting of two IRA suspects in Gibraltar. We discussed David Feuer’s tale of his stint working as a psychiatrist in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and Reinaldo Arenas’s harsh and even description of leaving Cuba. We also considered whether Primo Levi’s ‘Weightless’, a meditation on gravity and falling published shortly before his death, was perhaps more interesting than ‘Tadpoles’, but in the end we decided on the latter. These works, and others from the longlist, are part of the online edition of the issue.
There was much to discuss. How far should we try to capture Granta’s original spirit by publishing a ‘representative’ collection – dirty realism, travel, memoir? Should we prioritise frequent contributors? Should we exclude excerpts – if Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, why not Arthur Miller on the Chelsea Hotel? What about gender? The early issues of Granta were startlingly male – of some fifteen writers one might be female. As late as 1994, one issue, depressingly, had not a single female contributor.
I felt James Fenton had to be in the issue, and Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuściński – they define Granta travel writing, narratives of place that read like short stories. We have three other African pieces in this issue: Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of giving birth in Zambia, Lindsey Hilsum’s reportage from the Rwandan genocide and Binyavanga Wainaina’s now-famous ironic critique, ‘How to Write About Africa’, which began as a letter to the editor criticising Granta’s 1994 Africa issue.
Ved Mehta’s ‘Kiltykins’ caused some editorial discussions. The piece reminded me of Leonard Michaels’s autobiographical novel Sylvia – a description of a dysfunctional relationship from the male point of view – but Mehta is also blind, and reflects on why he writes as though he can see. We too can never quite see or grasp who Kilty is – does she have a personality disorder, is she simply childish and manipulative, or is she the victim of Mehta’s objectifying conception? We don’t know, and perhaps Mehta himself isn’t sure.
Edmund White, Ved Mehta and Edward W. Said all wrote about mid-twentieth century dysfunctional relationships, parental or sexual. White’s and Mehta’s psychoanalysts would now certainly be accused of malpractice, and Said’s description of his parents’ excessive interest in his physical development might be seen as a mild form of medical abuse.
It is hard to read John Gregory Dunne’s description of being diagnosed with heart disease without thinking of Joan Didion’s haunting memoir about the aftermath of his death, The Year of Magical Thinking. Dunne’s voice, so vivid, so alive, reads like a kind of preface to her book – By the way, this is what it was like for me.
How do we think ourselves into the minds of non-human beings? Thomas Nagel might have proven the philosophical impossibility of it (‘What Is It Like To Be a Bat?’), and yet I suspect there must be degrees of perception and communication. John Berger’s beautiful meditation on the chimpanzees in Basel Zoo points to the profound kinship between us, while Mary Gaitskill’s melancholy essay on loss and good intentions asks how far it is possible to understand those we try to help, animal and human.
I hope you will like these works as much as we do; that veteran subscribers will be reminded of other times in their lives, and that new readers will discover voices they may not be familiar with. These stories are both representative of Granta’s past and of our current editorial taste. Some of our choices will no doubt be controversial, but then blandness has never been part of Granta’s mission. We hope you will revel, instead, in the bracing pleasure of the text.