Suzanna Slack writes personal texts about central issues in our society. In the process, Slack creates a very unique, instructive genre between prose, poetry, and art.
Two recent books by London and Wales-based mother, activist and “amateur writer” Suzanna Slack, “Is This It?” (2020) and “The Poor Children” (2021) both bill themselves as “a memory project”. Both illustrated with the author’s own photographs, they are fragmentary recollections about life in the countryside and the city, cutting between childhood, motherhood, love and politics.
These are interspersed with reflections on quotes and ideas from writers ranging from Balzac to Jacques Derrida, Jacqueline Rose to Carolyn Steedman, Toni Morrison to emerging poet Warsan Shire: the epigraphs for “The Poor Children”, on which I will focus here, invite us to question the neutrality of storytelling that puts “the bourgeois household where doors shut along the corridor” at its centre. They invite us to think about how social “verdicts” have meant certain subjects – in this case, LGBT+ people, the poor, and women, especially mothers – have largely been excluded from literature, and to about how (as Derrida put it) “each book is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader”.
This explicit situating of memoir-like material within a wider political, cultural and intellectual framework will be familiar to those who have been following writers such as Chris Kraus, Paul Preciado or Kate Zambreno over the last decade. Slack, however, refuses any linearity, trying to create a style that sits between a stream-of-consciousness novel and a set of aphorisms.
[E]ach book is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader
In The Poor Children, Slack ruminates on the popular English expression “losing the plot”, widely used when someone is unable to function properly, but which literally means ‘to have lost all sense of narrative, for the story of our lives to fall away”. For the narrator, “losing the plot” is a consequence of “multiple shocks”, such as the revelation of long-held family secrets, seeing their brother being beaten by their parents when they were children, and being “raped too often”, and the difficulty of writing about its causes or consequences.
“Deep shock may require us to be entirely rewired”, Slack writes, but the “systematic regime of various tools, therapeutic methods and techniques” necessary for this may not be accessible to all, and many people suffer so much from shock or PTSD that they cannot even identify the need. In this, Slack is aiming – as per Derrida’s pedagogical imperative – to shape the reader, trying to convey the ways in which shock manifests itself as repetitive recollections of trauma (within the family or in relationships, for example) by building that into the form, using a series of short vignettes with diverse and singular titles that nonetheless keep returning to the same themes, anecdotes and cultural references.
Deep shock may require us to be entirely rewired
This puts “The Poor Children” somewhere between memoir and political commentary: Slack is suspicious of every genre but especially “autofiction”, quoting African-American author Toni Cade Bambara in a footnote on the implications of publishing semi-autobiographical novels for a writer’s relationships with lovers, friends and family. Defying easy classification, both “Is This It?” and “The Poor Children” consist of short vignettes; this approach is most successful in a section of the latter entitled “Routes”, which shifts between reflections on the pressures of being a single mother (one of the most demonised groups in the UK) and the idea of the nuclear family, bringing Morrison, Rose, Rachel Cusk and various religious practices into the text.
For the reader, there’s an engrossing sense of Slack thinking with, and against these authors, and the conversational tone provides genuine intimacy – it becomes easy to imagine listening to these recollections across a kitchen table or in a living room, with several vignettes (such as “Routes”) reflecting on what “motherhood” means but never pinning it down beyond a sense of love and respect for their children. But one of the style’s biggest strengths is how it allows Slack to shift from observations about the minutiae of everyday life to sweeping philosophical or political insights in a moment, almost without the reader noticing.
“The Poor Children” is especially effective in capturing the texture of London in the early 2010s, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition became one of many across Europe to make made sweeping cuts to benefits and public services in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. (These were especially brutal in Britain: in 2019, the Institute for Public Policy Research blamed this policy for 130,000 excess deaths since 2012.) Slack captures the rage of the demonstrations against university tuition fees in 2010, and hints at the government’s exploitation of “progressive patriotism” around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the 2012 Olympic Games, but mostly, the impact of austerity is explored through the personal.
The narrator constantly worries about how provide food for two children as a single mother, and the complications of motherhood for someone who identifies, however awkwardly, as “queer”, and endures slow, frustrating interactions with health services that are under increasing strain – the emphasis here is always on survival, and on how to tell its tale. Bringing the “plot” up to the Covid-19 pandemic, Slack’s narrator hopes for an end to this compulsive remembering, which would signal a recovery from the shock that underpins “The Poor Children”. This “memory work” is cast as “self-stalking”, something facilitated by the shift between “internet-time”, when it felt like the internet was an adjunct to lives still led predominantly offline, and the “internet-saturation time”, when it became possible to publicise and archive our every move, and online life began to feel inseparable from offline.
This honesty about the psychological effect of such “relentless” self-excavation, and Slack’s openness throughout this ‘memory project’ makes “The Poor Children” a work of catharsis not just for the writer but also the reader – we are invited to do our own “memory work”, and given a literary style that can provide a framework. If we don’t want to do that, however, we can just let Slack’s reflections sit with us, accepting the invitation to consider how concepts such as “mothehood” and “queerness” complicate each other, taking her work not as a dictation but as an invitation to dialogue, or at least our own rumination.