MAINSTREAM: An Anthology of Stories from the Edges (Paperback)Justin David (editor), Nathan Evans (editor), Kit de Waal (author), Paul McVeigh (author), Neil Bartlett (author), Philip Ridley (author), Elizabeth Baines (author), Juliet Jacques (author), Julia Bell (author), Neil McKenna (author)
This collection brings thirty authors in from the margins to occupy centre-page. Queer storytellers. Working class wordsmiths. Chroniclers of colour. Writers whose life experiences
give unique perspectives on universal challenges, whose voices must be heard. And read. Emerging writers chosen from open-submission are placed alongside established authors—
Aisha Phoenix, Alex Hopkins, Bidisha, Chris Simpson, DJ Connell, Elizabeth Baines, Gaylene Gould, Giselle Leeb, Golnoosh Nour, Hedy Hume, Iqbal Hussain, Jonathan Kemp, Julia Bell, Juliet Jacques, Justin David, Kathy Hoyle, Keith Jarrett, Kerry Hudson, Kit de Waal, Lisa Goldman, Lui Sit, Nathan Evans, Neil Bartlett, Neil Lawrence, Neil McKenna, Ollie Charles, Padrika Tarrant, Paul McVeigh, Philip Ridley, Polis Loizou.
Number of pages: 274
"In these locked down and unfocused times the short story is a much needed respite from the current Covid-19 bleakness. With Mainstream, Inkandescent has gathered together a wonderful collection of fascinating and eclectic stories. Sad, funny, horrifying and demystifying, the unique voices within take us on an open-minded journey around the world. Loved it." – Kathy Burke; "A riveting collection of stories, deftly articulated. Every voice entirely captivating: page to page, tale to tale. These are stories told with real heart from writers emerging from the margins in style." – Ashley Hickson-Lovence, author of The 392 and Your Show; "A triumphant celebration of exiled voices" – Cash Carraway, author of Skint Estate; “MAINSTREAM. An Anthology of Stories from the Edges was published by the indie publisher Inkandescent, crowdfunded through Unbound and edited by Justin David and Nathan Evans, who also run the press. So many aspects about this book and the stories caught my interest – from the publisher to the crowdfunding campaign, to the way they 'found' the authors and, of course, the stories themselves. I’m always a bit nervous to write about anthologies, concerned not to do justice to their authors and the breadth of their topics, takes and techniques, but I will give it my best because I really enjoyed it and encountered so many authors I would like to read more from. The publishers actually had me at their name… (I’m a sucker for an evocative pun). But it’s not just the name, it’s also their "by outsiders for outsiders" statement and their invitation in the anthology’s dedication that reads: "for everyone who’s ever been kept out because of who you are or where you are from, come in…" I’ve heard a few of those promises and they often wake the cynic in me. After having read the stories in the anthology and after having browsed their front- and backlist, this seems to be one of the genuine ones. Interestingly, in our research about the 'diversity' in British publishing, my colleague Anamik Saha and I encountered an unease or ignorance of publishing staff about how to approach and sell to people beyond the white middle-class and their fictitious impersonation "Susan". Inkandescent just do it. Another revealing but maybe not surprising observation is that MAINSTREAM (Inkandescent, 2021) – just like Common People (Unbound, 2019 ), The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Writers (Unbound, 2022), The Good Immigrant (Unbound, 2016; UK edition), and Nasty Women (404ink, 2017), to name just a few – is yet another crowdfunded anthology that aims to rectify an imbalance in publishing and give a stage to voices that are often marginalised and/or ignored. I’ll leave it at that. Golnoosh Noor read from her story "Happy Ending" at the anthology’s launch in July 2021. There are 30 contributions in this anthology – 15 written by established writers, 15 by emerging ones – and it’s rather impossible to sum them all up. They vary in style, theme, mode, perspective and every other possible element of a good story. Some follow realistic conventions, others not at all; one contribution even uses the structure of a nursery rhyme. While some stories are rather straight-forward, others take more time to figure out. The narrators reveal different levels of reliability, but they all suck you into their respective story. I was tempted to just quote some of the endorsements, but I’ll try to be more specific. Let me start with this first observation: what the stories have in common is that they don’t fall into the trap of the single story. There would have been many opportunities to tell the story of a queer Muslim woman in Iran and Saudi Arabia or an encounter between a gay teenager and an older man in the lavatories of a train station that would have perpetuated the stereotypes with which we are so often confronted. Golnoosh Nour ("Happy Ending") and Neil Bartlett ("Twickenham") created complex characters and scenarios with round characters (and, in my opinion, very credible teenage minds) that give you a completely different view. Throughout the book, I found, the round characters provided a welcome change from often stereotypical depictions of, e.g. gay teenagers, working-class children, trans women, people who are HIV positive, street sweepers (not that I have come across that many before), and Muslim families. In the MAINSTREAM anthology, you will find stories written from the point of view of children and elderly people with dementia and everything in between. In fact, the stories are arranged according to the age of the characters and that makes for a very interesting read (says the person who likes to jump around in anthologies). Some of the recurring topics are the barriers that marginalised people encounter in the UK and beyond – and it’s not just London or England and not just contemporary settings – experiences of a pressure to conform as well as the search for and finding ones 'tribe'. Hedy Hume’s "The Beach" is such a story about the life-changing effect that the encounter of a loving community and becoming part of it can have. Some stories are told in retrospect from a more mature perspective, so we’re observing the characters trying to make sense of their lives and how they got where they are now. In "The Beach", the retrospective is interrupted by some memories on another time level, while the act of remembering and sense-making is solved differently in other contributions. In Neil Bartlett’s "Twickenham", the narrator thinks about the many "kinds of silence there are in this story" and how these could be seen as "places we might need to get back to, if we are ever to understand how we got from there to here". Families play a rather important role throughout the anthology. As they do in life, I guess. Here, I felt they were often included as the first space in which the characters explored their identities – or the first collective that demanded conformity ("people like us aren’t like that" – Nathan Evans, "Going Up, Going Down"). Many contributions directly or indirectly allude to the past and the families of their protagonists. How families can be a loving and nurturing environment, or how they can have a detrimental effect on the very fabric of your body (an allusion to "Scaffolding" by Giselle Leeb). And in some cases, the reflection of the protagonists can change their perception of the past: “sometimes the way we choose to love perpetuates the damage we seek to diminish.” (Alex Hopkins, "Last Visit") However, the stories are never just about one thing, one aspect of a character’s identity, one issue with the family or one ‘problem’ they need to overcome. They are also not 'just' about the struggles the off-mainstream characters face, even though it does play a role how the characters are marginalised and hindered in their choices by ‘mainstream’ society. Or how they are discriminated within what one could see as ‘their own’ community at first glance, e.g. for being gay and HIV-positive. The 30 stories leave lots of space to come to one’s own conclusion. And they also provide opportunities to check your own perception and maybe even your own tendency to pigeon-hole as you read.” – Sandra van Lente, Literary Field; "Mainstream, the new anthology of short stories from Inkandescent, is a kaleidoscope of experiences. For a reviewer, this is a challenge — it seemed almost impossible to compress each narrative together into one single review. The resounding message from the collection, ‘stories from the edges’, is as promised in the title and also more – these are universal challenges told from the margins, but also with the ugliness and discomfort which is symptom of demystifying hard truths. Mainstream should come with a trigger warning: it’s furious and it doesn’t take prisoners. You can expect to feel uncomfortable as you intrude on the lives of each of the narrators in these works. You can also rest assured that nothing will be glamorised for your benefit. David and Evans write in their introduction that their publishing company was: founded "by outsiders for outsiders", to celebrate original and diverse talent and to publish voices and stories the mainstream neglects – specifically those of the working class and financially disadvantaged, ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community and, crossing the Venn diagram, those with physical disabilities and mental health issues. From this, you can gain that Mainstream will not be a smooth or homogenous read, but I also had my concerns upon reading this. Would it be one of those book collections that only accepted each ‘minority’ writer under a certain condition? That they might be compelled to only talk about their particular disadvantage? But Inkandescent are more aware than that. While each story does chime with the next, following a coming-of-age trajectory that navigates desire, identity and self-worth, there is very little else that joins each of the writers together. Whether you are reading about the fantastical island of Massor in Bidisha’s 'The Initiation' or the heart-wrenching autofiction-esque talk on a park bench in DJ Cornell’s 'Coup de Grace', there is a lack of pandering to a reader’s desire for a similar tone or genre. There are no heroic, plain and likeable underdogs. Cruelty and neglect are systemic to the five very different childhoods that are presented in the opening five stories by Kathy Hoyle, Lui Sit, Padrika Tarrant, Lisa Goldman and Gaylene Gould respectively. The distorted grip on reality that each of these young narrators show reveal real worlds that have turned against them, although some understandings of this are better than others. In Lisa Goldman’s 'Easy Peelers', the death of a loved one and the discrediting of the working class are recounted through the easily impressionable nature of a young girl. With her mastery of the slightly-altered language in this piece, the writer shows how an impressionable mind is shifted from what is real into the dominant version of a tragedy: where being an 'easy peeler' is due to your own laziness, where ‘England’s plugged into the sun’ and it’s ‘making the world better […] because we’re the best and things are bad', and finally where the 'May Day Massacre' can be quickly softened into the 'London riots'. Innocence is synonymous with invisibility, and imaginative inner worlds are often discredited in these stories – 'we’d just read a story about an alien who talked to a flower [..] she had to believe me,' Lui Sit’s narrator writes in 'Giant’' and yet his inner world must be disbelieved if he is to conform to his mother’s idea of the real world. The final story I wanted to single out from this impressive, opening five was Gaylene Gould’s 'The Spinney'. Tracing the movement through puberty of a young woman, Gould presents stigmas around period shame and rape culture in the unfolding of a painful warning tale. The power of myths written in to cover up a taboo, in this case the 'Witch' who is fabricated in the place of a rape at school, holds such influence that it remains with the narrator even when she reaches adulthood with a daughter of her own — 'Elaine breaks into a run and with each breathless step reminds herself that she is no longer ten years old, and that there is no such thing as witches, especially those that come to take your bleeding daughter as retribution.' The power of the myth is tangible and silencing, leaving a terrible taste in the reader’s mouth. Being susceptible to the power of someone (or something) else is also another ongoing presence throughout the collection, and there are no sudden acts of heroism or deus ex machinas popping out through the structures of any of these stories. Neil Bartlett’s 'Twickenham', Golnoosh Nour’s 'Happy Ending', Juliet Jacques’s 'A Review of "A Return"', Justin David’s 'Serosorting' and Keith Jarrett’s 'It May Concern' all resonate in their navigation of love and its disturbing relationship with power. Sometimes brutally sensory and exciting, other times revealing the blandness of casual relationships, self-worth is often a victim here. As Keith Jarrett’s narrator writes — 'I searched for the ugliness I thought I deserved'. Being an object of desire also feeds off these narrators, and relationships are formed out of disassociations where even being named becomes a danger — 'if you name something, you can fix it to you'. There is also a lonely beauty in the language and detail of these stories too, like this passage from Neil Bartlett’s 'Twickenham': 'Most inexplicably of all, there’s a piano — really — a great, big, black grand piano– something I didn’t know anybody had in their house — and it seems to be collecting all the light in the room. The lid is a pool of oil — and there’s a sheet of music on it, floating. It looks like something somebody must have lost.' Another connection to make between these stories is an obsession with physical and psychological dismorphias. Giselle Leeb’s haunting 'Scaffolding' is a frightening study of the psychosomatic, finding parallels with DJ Connell’s comment in 'Coup de Grace' that 'this caring for the bruises of others was what had me trapped'. The AIDS crisis looms in several of the stories too – it is a grim shadow running through the bodies and psyches of multiple characters. Justin David’s character in 'Serosorting' pointedly marks it as the 'grubby stains of mortality… an infection running through us all […] we are all unclean'. Polis Loizou’s 'Pixmalion' is a subtle study of the impact of social media on the modern relationship. Louizou’s multimedia narrative describes the defensive rhythms of messaging a stranger online, and the desire to seem both unattainable and uninterested: 'There’s a "sticker" on the photo, with a flame emoji to slide up so as to express your lust for him. It takes Herculean effort, but I only slide the flame to just over halfway. I’m sure I’m alone in doing so. Let his ego be starved a little; the doubt may even nourish him.' This piece exposes those safe, 'screen' flirtations which usually trail off immediately. It is brilliantly captured. Iqbal Hussein’s 'The Reluctant Bride' is the study of the Partition, in which the harsh politics of love are told through the allure of an almost unbelievable fairy tale. A homage to the magical realist format, a semi-real churail narrates the piece with a playful layering of stories and a spine that 'rat-a-tats like a burst of firecrackers'. Full of imagination yet equally weighted and painful, I was glad that the curators of this anthology included the more fantastical and speculative genres alongside pieces that were more obviously social commentary. Mainstream is blunt, sexy and unapologetic. I was intrigued by the liveliness of each voice that Inkandescent gave ear to, and the great difficulty for a reviewer trying to pull each of the works together. Each story is its own very different act of defiance, making for an unexpected and addictive read.” – Georgie Proctor, The Word Factory
You may also be interested in...
Would you like to proceed to the App store to download the Waterstones App?