Appreciation and Enjoyment: Why It Doesn’t Matter If You Like Rupi Kaur or Not

If you have Instagram. If you enjoy poetry. If you have social media or enjoy reading of any sort, you’ve heard of Rupi Kaur by now. The first commercially successful ‘Instapoet’, Kaur has used the platform to distribute her work and her words since 2015, and to massive effect.

source: rupikaur.com

With the pictorial nature of Instagram, the visuals of her work have become just as recognisable as her verse, the clean lines of the illustrations reflecting the words she writes. The words themselves are characterised by Kaur’s first-person voice – it is intimate, simplistic and accessible. And that’s the key word here, I think. Accessible. Both in form and content, Kaur has struck a balance not many poets can claim: huge commercial reach with a fair amount of critical approval, plus outrageous success of a debut collection. Kaur’s Milk and Honey sold 2.4 million copies by the end of last year, and has prompted the speedy commission of her second collection, The Sun and All Her Flowers. So, all around pretty impressive, pioneering and pleasurable. I do, however, have one critique. I don’t like her work. Like, at all.

the universe works in funny ways 🧡 page 79 from #thesunandherflowers

A post shared by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

Then what’s this all about? Why am I taking the time to write about something I don’t like? Aside from the obvious issues with that statement, I’m writing this post as a sort of case-study for a wider debate in the literary community. I love poetry. Partly because I can never write it myself, so have a grudging respect for those who can, but partly because all my studies thus far have led me to truly appreciate the skill behind it. You know in A-Level when your teachers told you that in a timed exam ‘Every word’s a gem’? Same goes for poetry. The condensed nature of (most) poetry insists upon a careful curation of language and, being a language buff myself, I am endlessly impressed with those who can master it. It’s a source of constant argument amongst my peers, one that will never and should never be resolved, but I think poetry is the best form of writing, hands down. I also think it’s the hardest.

Now, I don’t think Kaur is a master of language by any means. Her poetry is the kind I come across often – it reminds me of the style I tend(ed) to write in, and the style I heard over and over in creative writing workshops. It isn’t bad, per se, it just isn’t a whole lot of special. It’s surface level. Even when dealing with intimate subjects or political concepts, the language and execution is still just floating on the water. For a splash of psycholinguistics, Kaur’s choice of words are nearly always base-level terms. Base-level terms are what they sound like, the general phrase for something that gives just enough detail, not too much or too little. An example would be if you saw a lovely lil fluff in the street, most people would say ‘Wow! What a cute dog!’, not ‘Wowza! Look at that wondrous short-haired Dachshund’ or ‘Cripes, that’s an adorable mammal!’. In real life, we use base terms most of the time because it would be ridiculous if we didn’t. Nothing would ever get done. But in poetry, however, there is a certain expectation to use not necessarily elevated language, but language which does something different than the everyday. Whether this is syntactically, semantically, or formally, poetry should demand some kind of deeper attention. It should be a little vain. Kaur’s work doesn’t do this for me. It is pleasant, yes, but I couldn’t tell you an example of when it grabbed me, moved me, or echoed in my head for days after.

😙🕊 page 24 #thesunandherflowers

A post shared by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

However, I’m not the first person to say this. There are spoof tweets and even an entire book using Vines to parody Kaur’s style. From Buzzfeed to Hercampus to the controversial PN Review article by poet Rebecca Watts, a lot of people, more qualified than me, have weighed in on this.

But, and this is hard for me to say, it really doesn’t matter what I think at this point. I mean, yes, of course it does, but me poo-pooing the work of a successful poet, a woman and a woman of colour, for that matter, shouldn’t be the top priority. Or anyone’s. Rupi Kaur has taken her art, shared it, and connected to millions of people, most of which I’d hazard a guess as to say aren’t otherwise engaged with poetry. Or any form of literary art, even. And this is what I mean by ‘It Doesn’t Matter What You Think’. I don’t mean your opinions aren’t valid, or that no one will listen, or that you’ll be shot down, although of course this is possible, I just mean that Kaur’s work is doing more for poetry than any sleight you feel like it has on ‘Littererchewer’ as Tony Harrison puts it. Kaur is engaging new demographics, perhaps even generations at a time, with poetic discourse, exposing them to a new form they may not have otherwise explored. So what if she uses social media to do it? The baby boomers would have the world believe you can’t get through to millennials at all if it’s not through their phones. So you know what? Lean in. Spread poetry through Instagram. Write a book one Tweet at a time. Engage people. Once we’ve done that, they’ll find it themselves.

Rupi Kaur is, for all intents and purposes, a gateway drug. Her poetry is accessible, obtainable and easy to swallow. It’s not high art, no. But like chic lit, chart music, romcoms or Topshop fashion, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad. Just because it’s female-oriented, does not means it’s bad. Plus, the money publishers made off Kaur’s first book is probably enough to fund the publication of your more ‘literary’ poetry for years to come. So, there it is. Leave your prejudices a at the door and lean the fuck in.

source: thetimes.com

Featured image credit: bramptonist.com

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Updates, Apologies and Rhoda With No Face

You’re tired of hearing apologies and I’m tired of giving them. That being said – sorry for the absence. Assuming most of you are my friends, or twitter followers, or tutors, even, you’ll know that it’s been that time of year. Assessment season. Plus Christmas and New Year and all of that but really it’s been all about the assessments. An unfortunate side effect of said period is the absolute disinclination towards doing a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g other than work, and an unfortunate result of such is that this blog has fallen into a bit of disrepair. Or neglect. Or a combination of both. To be honest my brain has been well and truly fried, poached and boiled.

But here we are: new year, new me. It’s the final semester for me here at Nottingham, and whilst that is terrifying, it’s also exciting. In classic me fashion, however, I’m trying to jump the change by making other changes to lessen what will in fact be the real change of leaving the university bubble and stepping into the real world. By that I mean I’ve dyed my hair ginger and bought a suede coat and gloves and now drink coffee on the go. Although, turns out if you say to everyone ‘Hey, look at my new lady coat!’ it kind of ruins the facade of being a capable lady. You win some you lose some.

Source: Wikimedia

Anyway, enough of that. What I want to start this new year with is a quick ode to the best discovery of last year, my new favourite writer, and favourite woman in general, Virginia Woolf. Roll your eyes, I know. What female English student doesn’t like a bit of Virginia? Well, me from two years ago for one. We studied her briefly in the aptly named ‘Studying Literature’ module of first year and safe to say, me and V did NOT get along. I experienced To The Lighthouse via live audiobook, one of my friends reading it aloud as I cleaned the flat after a house party. Probably not the best environment to read Woolf in but it was first year when work and socialising were a joint endeavour. Neither me or the audiobook friend liked it all that much, and me being less literary than a lot of my peers, I dismissed Woolf as something not right for me. Fast forward to September 2017. Whilst picking out modules for third year, a good portion of my friends opted to do a single author study module. None of the modules we’d taken thus far had focused on one author, and that was a really attractive prospect. They all chose to do James Joyce though and I was not about to throw myself into that snake pit. The other option was Virginia Woolf, and my thought process was something like ‘Heck it, why not’.

Four months later, here I am, shoehorning Woolf into every literary conversation and essay I can. I love the woman. But I’m not here to sell you on Woolf. It’s been a while since I did some good ole psychoanalysis on here, and boy are Woolf’s works rich for it.

Source: Wikimedia

Now one of my top (possibly number 1??) books ever, The Waves was pitched to us in class as one of Woolf’s harder novels. However, I didn’t really find this to be the case. Perhaps due to the fact I took a trip to the hometown without any chargers which resulted in no phone or laptop for the long train home, I blasted through it in a few sittings. I’d argue it’s best read in this way, though, as the reported speech style Woolf uses to narrate the characters’ internal thoughts requires a bit of a switch in your reading process. Generally described as soliloquys, the passages of the novel are written completely through the internal workings of the six characters’ minds – there’s no external description whatsoever. The result of this is an incredibly intimate experience, as the only judgements you can make as reader are literally through the eyes of another. No objectivity here, thank you. Woolf was an extensive essayist, diarist and letter-ist, meaning a lot of her working processes are documented. The Waves is one of the lesser explained of her works, however, Woolf’s most allusive comments being that of ‘writing to a rhythm not a plot’. An initial subheading to the book, Woolf aimed to write ‘The Life of Anybody’ in this book, to write an experience both intimately subjective yet untied to external reality. And she really succeeds, in my opinion.

I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.’

Six characters narrate The Waves: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Jinny, Susan and Rhoda. Woolf once wrote in a letter that she perhaps intended the six to be facets of one person, and the possibility of such permeates the book – ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many’, says Bernard. Paired with Woolf’s aim to represent all parts of humanity, this means that the characters in The Waves often come to represent the different people within us all. Bernard needs people, Rhoda despises company. Susan is steeped in nature, Jinny lavishes in the superficial. Neville is a poet, Louis desires order. There is something to connect with in all these characters, good and bad. However, what I found genuinely heart-wrenching was the way Woolf describes the dark parts of life through Rhoda.

Rhoda exists psychologically in what is a severely psychological book. Where most of the characters find some grounding in their external world – Bernard in his phrase-making, Susan in her farm, Jinny in her sexuality – Rhoda has no such connection. She struggles with her place in the world, saying she has ‘no face’, ‘no identity’ like those around her. Nonetheless, she longs for anonymity – ‘I like the passing of face and face and face, deformed, indifferent. I am sick of prettiness; I am sick of privacy. I ride rough waters and shall sink with no one to save me’. This is the tragedy of Rhoda – she cannot exist in the world of her friends as she has no sense of self, yet she will not let go of the anonymity that has comforted her all her life. She despises human beings for trying to chain her down in one spot, snatching from her the ‘white spaces that lie between hour and hour’ but without them she will drown in the nothingness. Despite being not dissimilar to Bernard’s fear of solitude, Rhoda’s struggle often goes unnoticed by the others. Bernard sees her and Louis as ‘spies, conspirators’, as more because of their introverted experience. He says ‘Rhoda was wild – Rhoda one never could catch. She was both frightened and clumsy.’ From the outside, perhaps, that is how Rhoda appears, introverted but content with it. After all, she attends the social events, she has a sexual relationship with Louis, so Bernard sees her isolation as a choice and an admirable one at that.

‘Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness.’

‘I will fling myself fearlessly into trams, into omnibuses […] I am flung upon this woman, upon this man, I am not injured, I am not outraged by the collision’. Rhoda speaks these words in the wake of Percival’s murder. It is in a passage of settlement, Rhoda creating a ‘dwelling-place’ amongst the anonymous faces of Regent Street, making peace: ‘Wander no more, I say; this is the end’. However, in the final passage, Bernard tells us ‘Rhoda, always so furtive, always with fear in her eyes, always seeking some pillar in the desert, to find which she had gone; she had killed herself’. Too late, he reaches out to her in a vision, a memory, and tells her to please wait for the omnibuses to pass. Rhoda does not think it will harm her, she sees her collision with the omnibuses as the only way to collide with other human beings, and assumes this will protect her. Rhoda was detached from her physical existence, and so she flings herself against the physical world in a desperate attempt to connect to it. The others, multitudinous as they are, never quite made the connection to Rhoda that could have saved her life.

Virginia Woolf Quotes. QuotesGram
Source: Lifehack Quotes

Woolf writes internal existence so well to the point of fear. Reading this book scared me in more ways than one – it made me confront all aspects of myself, including the dark parts that Rhoda represents. Yet Rhoda’s suicide was not the part that hit me hardest about this novel. It was Bernard’s, and the rest of the characters’, failure to see Rhoda’s experience for what it was – fatal. Bernard admired her solitude – he admired her suffering. He thought she was more whole because of it. It is this aspect that I wanted to write about in this post. Like Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf touches on the grandeur that suffering is attributed in art and the power that exists within pain. Bernard only wishes he could harness this artistic potential, he envies Rhoda to the point where he can no longer see what is really happening. For both Septimus and Rhoda, whatever beauty exists in their suffering, whatever artistry, it means nothing in the end. They choose to fling themselves hopelessly outwards rather than be trapped inward a moment longer. Bernard sees Rhoda’s suffering as admirable, as poetic, as an artistic goldmine right up until the moment she kills herself. No one would call suicide an artistic expression, so why should we revere pain as we do when we are alive?

‘To let oneself be carried on passively is unthinkable.’

Of course I am being hypocritical. Woolf herself followed in the footsteps of Rhoda and Septimus, throwing herself into the River Ouse with her pockets full of stones. Without her sadness, we may not have got these outstanding works of art. Yet Woolf’s message in these characters is not that we should admire their pain, but rather we should see it for what it really is, and more importantly, do something about it before it is too late. Pain is not beautiful, suffering is not to be envied. The Waves is an incredible piece of art, devastating and deeply affecting. It is masterful, wonderful and full of light. It has some of the most uplifting phrases I have ever read. Yet it is also a warning. The long suffering artist – is there any image so dangerous?

The Waves by Virginia Woolf was published by The Hogarth Press in 1931. My copy is the 2015 edition published by Oxford World Classics and edited by David Bradshaw, available in bookstores and online. All of Woolf’s works are available for free on Amazon Kindle and in various places online. If you are looking to start reading some Woolf, I recommend beginning with Mrs Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own and her essay, The Narrow Bridge of Art.

Featured image courtesy of theintelligentlifemagazine.com

We’re All Sick and Jomny Sun is the Cure

Not often do I love something as much as I love the Twitter of one @jonnysun. Not often does a series of words stick with me for long periods of time, let alone inform my decisions and give me hope to the point where I put it above my desk. A few years back, I followed Jomny on Twitter because of this one, beautiful message:

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And now, I have that quote, that saying that’s been sat above my desk for two years, in a book. Jomny’s recently released book everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too is hands-down my favourite of the year. It is thoughtful and hopeful and gut-wrenching and optimistic. It is sweet and joyous and warm and so, so sad. It’s also a picture book. Before I talk about Jomny Sun as a brand and a concept, I’ll try and sell you on the book as just a book.

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everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too follows the story of jomny, a aliebn sent to earbth to learn about humabns. Along the way he meets a tree, a bear, a hedgehog, an egg, a frog and an auteur amongst a whole host of other adorably drawn characters. Thinking they are humabns, jomny tries to learn from them. Their advices and stories are sometimes profound, sometimes ridiculous and a lot of times both. jomny is sad, lonely and lost. His own people think of each other as ‘strictly colleagues’ and think little jomny is weird. The storyline is essentially just jomny coming to terms with himself and his place in the universe via the interactions he has with all of these earbth creatures and a few aliebns too).

The tone of this piece is sad. But that’s important. One of my favourite pages of the book is this:

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It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to think about those scary things and those lonely things and those things that make you want to cry and curl up and hide from the world. Those thoughts are going to be there, in everyone, so pretending they aren’t is pointless. In the end, though, jomny finds that being sad doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. Quite the contrary, we need the sad things in life. If we didn’t have sadness, we wouldn’t have happiness either (see: the dog).

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For someone like me who is prone to dwell and overthink, this book felt like it was reaching into my head and pulling everything out, spilling it onto paper then showing me that it was all okay. Never before in my life have I put a book down feeling more like everything was going to be okay. The conciseness of the text on lots of the pages is reminiscent of their roots on Twitter, 140 characters or less. Because of this, each little sentence reads like poetry. Jomny’s ability to take these sometimes unbearably painful feelings – lostness, loneliness, invisibility – and make them into something beautiful completely astounds me, in all honesty. He doesn’t gloss over them. He doesn’t sugar coat them. He shows them for what they are and how they exist inside our heads and makes them into something worth experiencing. He makes them funny, even. This is vital: if you can laugh at something, doesn’t it seem a lot less scary? Look, all I’m saying is that this book will change your outlook on, well… everything. In an hour or less.

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Okay, writing and tone and content aside, I just wanted to talk about the beauty of the thing itself. Completely black and white, the illustrations are simple. Childlike simple in most places with the occasional detailed artistic interlude. It’s on thick paper, with good quality, crisp matte printing. You’ll recognise the style from @jonnysun and it’s just as endearing. The use of a few clean fonts is all this book needs in addition to the illustrations, all carefully chosen to reflect the characters that they represent. It’s gorgeous to hold, to read, to handle. My cover is hardback, which I believe is the only form available currently. I don’t often think getting hardback copies of books is worth it but oh my days it’s worth it for this. Not only does it add a real concreteness to the experience but it makes you relish it in a way I think is really important for what this book is trying to say. You need to give your preconceptions up when you read this and let the words speak for themselves. It’s a treasure.

Now that you’re completely sold on it and are going to go and get it right now, I’ll explain to you why I titled this post the way I did. Jomny, in all his forms, is us. Everyone is a aliebn. Everyone is a humabn. This one little alien cartoon, this one guy with a Twitter account and bad spelling is more relatable than anything BuzzFeed could dream of writing. Within that comes the respect and admiration I have for this book and the author behind it. He is just… a person. Twitter as a platform is used like this all the time, to make otherwise inaccessible people seem accessible. But Jomny is accessible. The story he is telling in everyone’s a aliebn doesn’t seem to exist for any other reason than because it simply is the story. It’s the story. Not for fame, or to make some grand statement, the way this story is told just seems like the sort of conversation you’d have with yourself in your head. I’ve definitely had some of those conversations with myself. But so has Jomny. And so, presumably, have millions of other people who love this stuff like I do. Who feel this stuff and deeply as I do. It’s a triumph in connecting people to each other. When it comes down to it, all this story is is one guy, struggling with life, writing down his thoughts to the point where a coherent story about a little aliebn coming to earbth emerged. It’s kind of novel writing in reverse. I guess that’s poetry, really.

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People slam Twitter. I don’t want to point fingers (baby boomers) but the internet get a lot of slack over connecting people at the expense of disconnecting other areas of their lives. But for this, well… I think it’s worth it. Jomny’s tweets, and subsequently this book, have connected people in such a beautiful way. I’ve always had this naïve little thought that lots of the problems we face, as humans, could be solved if we just had a little more empathy. And by God, this book makes you feel that. Whether it’s how it’s written, what it’s saying or how it’s presented, something about what this guy says gets right into your gut, your heart, your head. You get it, instantly. And I think, sometimes, if we could understand each other as intensely as people understand this book, things could really be better. I know for me, certainly, I feel I can be kinder having read this. I feel softer and sharper and smarter and gentler. I feel calm. But most of all, I feel like I can accept the hard stuff. And I feel like the hard stuff won’t make my life any less worth living or any less wonderful. There’s no other way to go, really. I’m sick. But so are you. r u gona take ur shoes off or wat?

everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too is out now. Published by Harper Perennial, it is available online and in US stores. Follow Jomny on Twitter at @jonnysun and change ur lyf.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – A Review

I’m back! My sunburn has turned to tan so I’m ready to get back to working here in drizzly England. One thing I am already missing dearly, however, is the possibility of doing nothing but read a book on the beach all day. In an attempt to relive it, here is a small review of a book I demolished on holiday.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the debut novel from Gail Honeyman. The New York Times named it a ‘Book to Breeze Through This Summer’ and they aren’t wrong. I read this in a grand total of two sittings. It’s a charming read. Not too complex, not too wordy, but with the most endearing characters and heartbreaking moments.

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Now, this book could definitely be categorised as an airport read. The tone of it is not dissimilar to books like The Rosie Project or Sofia Khan is Not Obliged but the underlying issues it deals with are much darker. After hearing Eleanor’s conversations with her mother and subtle hints towards a traumatic past, we get the sense that something awful has happened to this woman. The main source of tension from the book comes from finding out just what happened to her. There are many clues throughout – I’m the sort of person who likes to guess the ending – and they’re only just under the surface. It’s accessible and sort of expected but Honeyman’s charactersation of Eleanor makes your heart break for her all the same.

One of my favourite things about this book is that its incredibly satisfying. There are a lot of recognisable tropes in this novel – girl struggles with bitchy coworkers, girl drinks at home alone, girl pines after dreamboat instead of noticing what’s been under her nose the whole time!!! – but this only added to my enjoyment. I don’t want to be thinking too hard on holiday, I just want to be sucked in and be pulled along for the ride. My absolute favourite trope was that of the makeover. As a less-than-attractive teen who had (has) no natural fashion sense, I felt… a strong affinity for Eleanor. You know how in teen movies there’s the makeover montage (Princess Diaries anyone?), well, somehow Honeyman does this in word form. You see Eleanor discover hair, makeup, nails and fashion in a clumsy way. It’s adorable and so, so real. What?? It’s satisfying. I’ve been socialised by all those movies to love a good makeover.

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Lastly, the characters are just right. In another novel, in another circumstance, I would say the supporting characters have been written lazily. But for this world, and for what this book achieves, they are just right. Aside from ‘the musician’, I know someone like every one of the characters in this book. I even found myself inserting them into the story as I was reading it. They are real people. Coworkers and store clerks and nice old women. It’s their relationship with Eleanor that really tells us something. Eleanor has, as you find out throughout the book, had an awful past that she’s somewhat blocked from her memory. It comes out in dribs and drabs but never enough to make her a sympathetic figure to those around her. They just see her as weird. But just like all the other characters, I could see myself meeting an Eleanor. Knowing an Eleanor, working with an Eleanor. What this book does is warn you that people have shit going on. No matter how under the surface, it always pays to be kind, first and foremost. It tells us that empathy is invaluable. The visceral reality that Honeyman presents us with doesn’t let you leave without thinking before you judge someone for being odd.

Best of all, this book is sweet. Eleanor is troubled, she has more baggage than a transatlantic flight but she never pities herself. Her tone, her voice, whilst grounded a lot in delusion and denial, is light in the most part. The contrast this provides with the dark sections and content of the book work to create a really full-feeling piece of literature, without ever feeling too heavy or depressing. It ends on a beautifully positive note, and embraces you warmly as you head out.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is published by HarperCollins and is available in all good bookstores. I got mine for half price in Waterstones! Thanks for reading and leave me some comments if you’ve read this book too, I want to talk about it more!

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green – A Review

Here we are – the first of the heavy dissertation texts. First, I need to do a teeny bit of disclaiming. I haven’t actually finished this book. I took it out of my university library to read before I headed home for the summer but, unfortunately, did not reach the end. I will go into why I think this was later on, but I apologise in advance to those who may have read it and think this analysis is just an uninformed mess because it could very well be.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a novel written by Joanne Greenberg (pen name Hannah Green) in 1964 based around a young girl, Deborah Blau, and her three years as an institutionalised schizophrenic. Not to be confused with the Lynne Anderson song of the same name, the titular phrase provides a basis for almost all of my analysis for the book. Titles are important, guys! So, as a jumping off point for, well.. all my points, I am going to use the scene from where the title is taken. In short, Deborah is visiting her therapist, Dr. Fried (yep, really), after a patient-on-nurse attack. Here is a small passage:

“But you see, I have no part in what is to be done on the wards; I am not an administrative doctor.”
Deborah saw the match lighting dry fuel. “What good is your reality, when justice fails and dishonesty is glossed over and the ones who keep faith suffer. Helene kept her bargain about Ellis and so did I. What good is your reality then?”
“Look here,” Furii said. “I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice…” (Chapter 13).

These few sentences sum up so many of the themes, ideas and conflicts in the book. Deborah’s statement about reality and Dr. Fried’s response (called by her Yri name, Furii) almost paraphrases what the whole book is about – it is a template, almost, a microcosm or synecdoche on the conceptual level rather than the word. It is unclear whether Deborah’s opinion is a symptom of her illness or whether her illness is a result of this unhappiness with reality. Dr. Fried, in comparison, is clinical and harsh in response, yet we assume truthful and realistic. It examples the struggle between Deborah and Fried, illness and health, internal and external realities. This brings me on to my first point of discussion.

Text World Theory

I first came across this theory in my year 2 Literary Linguistics module (or it may have been in a language one in first year I can’t remember I’m sorry lecturers if you’re reading this) and just thought it was the coolest thing. I’ll try and explain it as clearly as possible but forgive me if this gets a bit rambly. Essentially, Text World Theory says that humans understand the world around them by constructing versions of it in their heads in which to run simulations on. Much like the theory that nightmares are just your unconscious brain training you for dangerous situations, Text World Theory provides a basis for a similar function. You create a world in your mind that has all the struggles of reality but without the consequences in order to inform your behaviour in the real world. In prose fiction, creating a good text-world is imperative to the reader accepting what happens as the true reality of the characters and settings of the book. Without a believable text-world, we just wouldn’t engage. There are so many applications of this theory, so if you want to learn more head over to the Text World Theory website or to the awesome Prof. Joanna Gavins’ twitter page if you want to know more.

Now, the reason I mention this is that Text World Theory can inform so much upon mental illness narratives. So many disorders, especially anxiety and paranoid ones, take hold through constructing uncomfortable or distressing versions of reality and convincing the individual that that is the reality of their world. That the terrible scenarios that the mind concocts are just projections of the truth. After repeated use, this pathway in the brain becomes stronger and stronger, until an individual’s behaviours becomes based purely around the avoidance or maintenance of certain patterns in order to avoid pain or conflict. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog, right? Bell rings, dog gets fed. After a while, the sound of bell ringing triggers dog’s salivation glands. It’s called classical conditioning and forms the basis of the school of psychology known as behaviourism. An important set of experiments in this school came from B. F. Skinner in the 1930s, in which he distinguishes between different types of conditioning. One such strain is that of negative and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when you repeat a behaviour so that it leads to rewards, eg. pressing a button to receive food. The opposite is negative reinforcement, where you repeat a behaviour in order to avoid a negative situation, eg. pressing a button so you don’t get electric shocked. Skinner did this with rats, but I’m hoping you can see what I’m getting at here. Many anxiety disorders, such as OCD, take root and grow through this kind of process. If I don’t shut the front door 3 times every time I go out, I will get burgled. If I don’t do exactly 72 scrubs of my toothbrush every morning and night, I will get gingivitis. It’s about performing something to avoid negative consequences. This can, however, expand wider. If I don’t leave my house, I won’t have to face possible humiliation. If I don’t eat, I’ll be skinny and people will love me. You see? Despite everyone probably experiencing these kinds of things once in a while, it is the unhealthy mind that latches to this and that is where lots of our diagnoses come from.

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A still from the 1977 film version
Okay, but how does that relate to Text World Theory and to I Never Promised You A Rose Garden? A main feature of Deborah’s characterisation in the book comes from her internal reality construction. She creates a whole world in her mind in which she retreats, or occasionally is dragged into, when she experiences an episode. Named Yr, this world has gods and eternal pits and fire. It’s pretty intense. Here’s a quick snippet of Deborah’s view of Yr in comparison to the Here (reality):

To escape engulfment there was only the Here, with its ice-cold doctor and his notebook, or Yr with its golden meadows and gods. But Yr also held its regions of horror and lostness and she no longer knew to which kingdom in Yr there was passage. (Chapter 2).

We can see here that Yr can be beautiful. It has golden meadows and long grasses in which Deborah feels free. But it also has regions of eternal darkness and unimaginable suffering. Sound familiar? This constructed world in Deborah’s mind is meant to reflect the real world in some fantastical way. It’s called Yr, for one. I have to admit, it took me until she said it alongside ‘the Here’ for me to get the comparison, but there it is. It has its own language, Yri, and names for people in the real world – Deborah has an assortment of epithets including ‘bird-one’ and Dr. Fried is renamed ‘Furii’ as seen earlier. Everything in Yr can, to some degree, be linked to something in the real world. When Deborah has a mental break and is taken to be strapped to the wet cloth, she retreats to Yr where she falls into darkness for four days straight. It all links in some way. Her childhood teasing has filtered into Yr in the form of the whisperings of the ‘Collect’. Nothing is new, necessarily, but reshaped versions of Deborah’s reality, past or present. Yr, however real feeling to Deborah, is a simulated reality in Deborah’s mind, with direct links to her actual surroundings. To what success this simulated reality informs on the real one is an important theme in the book.

Fantasy

These are mental representations, just like the one we create for the text-world of the book. The biggest obstacle I found in connecting to the story was that I found Yr to be a smidge too fantastical. I found it unlikely that, no matter her illness, Deborah seemed too intelligent to believe this world in her head was a real one. Once I decided to read the story from the assumption that Deborah didn’t believe it was real, but escaping to Yr over the cold world of the Here, I found it a lot more enjoyable. Why? Because I started viewing Yr as a text-world narrative Deborah was living. The mental representation she had of Yr was so progressed and in depth that it is easy for her to accept it as a kind of truth. This is what a good piece of prose fiction does. The text-world we create when reading the novel itself is reflected in the internal reality Deborah creates in her mind. Accepting this gave the representation of Yr a newfound credibility to me. When you read Harry Potter you don’t sneer every second that ‘that’s unlikely’. Fully investing in the text-world provides all kinds of leeway for fantasy elements and that is what I believe Deborah is experiencing in Yr. Much like reading for the likes of you and me, Deborah can allow Yr the unbelievable elements because her mind creates the world out of a desire to escape. She holds it as truth with both hands because it seems better than the alternative.

Schizophrenia and Ageing

Finally, I want to note the age of the book. Of course, this is not necessarily a point of criticism, but I think, due to the content of the book, it is a point of discussion. Research into schizophrenia is still relatively limited. In recent years it has been accepted that ‘schizophrenia’ is merely an umbrella term for a whole spectrum of symptoms and is mildly reductionist. The DSM-V clinical outline for schizophrenia would allow two patients with completely different symptoms to receive the same diagnosis, for example. One main linking factor is that or paranoia and delusions, both of which Deborah shows in some degree in the book. However, a theme in this kind of behaviour is that this manifests in real-life intrusions. For example, people with schizophrenia might believe that the government is out to get them and thus finds evidence for this in their real lives. On the other hand, a patient may be going about their regular routine and hear voices commenting or criticising what they are doing. These are known as positive symptoms, things that occur in addition to real life. Negative symptoms, such as avolition and alogia, represent the detriment of regular functions. The difference in Deborah’s symptoms here is that her hallucinatory world is completely separate from the real one. Despite the comparisons, no characters, except herself, exist in both planes. I think perhaps this can be attributed to the understanding of the disorder at the time of writing. As a modern reader, this is what I found hardest to reconcile. My understanding of schizophrenic disorders did not match up with the representations in the book, therefore detaching me a little in my experience of it.

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from broadwayworld.com, Miners Alley Playhouse production
I did enjoy the half or so I read of this novel. Green’s writing style is engaging and fluid, her construction of Yr fascinating and rich. If I compared that bit to anything, it would be similar to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. However, I didn’t find myself reaching for it. Maybe that has to do with my subconscious awareness that it was kind of work, but I feel like it was more to do with my trouble finding the main character believable. My gut instinct is that this book is becoming time-bound. However, going back to that first titular quote, the moralistic message rings true even now. ‘”I never promised you a rose garden…”‘ might not float in psychiatrists’ offices nowadays but I appreciate the sentiment. The more we understand about mental illness leads to higher rates of medicalisation, which in turn leads to higher rates of medication. While I’m not slamming medication, there is an increasing risk of people assuming they can take a pill for mental disorders instead of therapy and expect instant results. This is what Dr. Fried means when she says this to Deborah. She can’t cure her straight away, it doesn’t work like that. Deborah has to put in the work, too. It’s a hard, long road but it’s important to face it head on. In this way, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a little timeless.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green was published in 1964 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It was developed into a film in 1977 and a play in 2004. I’d be super interested to see what those look like, so if anyone has any comments on them let me know. Also, as a general disclaimer for these posts, I am not a psychologist so I apologise for any inaccuracy – I have done as much research as I can in order to present things as fairly as possible. Thanks for reading!