Using literature as a window into Manchester

Last year, Ayo launched the Salt Book Club to discuss fiction set in Greater Manchester or written by Mancunian authors. The idea was that people who weren’t from the city or wanted to learn more about it could use literature as an entry-point.

We wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on discussions we had during our meetings and share them with our readers, so I sat down with Ayo for a chat.

Which books did you discuss?

We read five books in total between March and July 2020:

  • The Stranger Times by C.K McDonnell.
  • The Curry Mile by Zahid Hussain.
  • So Happy It Hurts by Anneliese Mackintosh.
  • Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

What was the thinking behind this selection?

I did quite a lot of research into specific Northern publishers because I wanted the book club to be varied in terms of how recently the novels had been published. I tried to make sure there were a range of themes and genres covered.

I also had to think about whether the author needed to have lived in Manchester for a period of time. For example, Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Cheetham but her family emigrated to the United States when she was still a child. She later travelled around England and returned to Manchester. So it was interesting to discuss how much Manchester would have influenced her writing.

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Do you think literature is a good way to find out about a city you don’t live in?

I’m from the South East, so it was very interesting to look at Manchester from that perspective and to run the book club from that perspective. Within the group, only one of the regular attendees was originally from Manchester, so hearing their opinions was really interesting.

What’s important about book clubs is that you are able to hear lots of different perspectives about the same piece of writing. Not everybody reads the same – sometimes our views would overlap but we all had fresh takes on the book.

What were your favourites?

The unanimous favourites were the first and last books we read: The Stranger Times and Manchester Happened.

The Stranger Times revolves around a newspaper that reports on the weird and wonderful and what happens when its editors come face to face with a real-life paranormal murder case. It’s quite dark at times but always funny and the characters are likeable. It’s C.K. McDonnell’s first novel and I found it through a lot of searching on Twitter.

Photo: Ayo Okojie

There was lots to talk about – McDonnell touched on a lot of issues including homelessness in Manchester. He also represented to diversity of ethnicities in the city well, we thought. It was one of those things where we went into the book club not knowing who the author was, but by the end we were like ‘I want to read more from this person’.

The other book that was really popular was Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. It’s a collection of short stories that explore the experiences of Ugandans who moved to England, flitting between Manchester and Kampala. It was very well written and we liked how we asked to think about the connection between two cities which we had never thought about before.

Were there common themes in the books you read?

For The Stranger Times, The Curry Mile and So Happy It Hurts, the main protagonists were strangers coming to the city for the first time or returning after being away. This meant the reader experienced the city at the same time as the characters and the authors didn’t rely on previous knowledge that I wouldn’t have had.

There were stereotypes that cropped up in nearly all the books. The most common was that it always rained which some the authors addressed tongue in cheek. When I’ve visited Manchester myself, I’ve overheard people on the Met saying things like “classic Manchester, always raining,” so maybe it’s true.

It’s interesting that some of the writers weren’t from Manchester but they would still write that into their work.

We also felt like some of the authors would name drop generic places in the city centre that tourists would recognise like the Northern Quarter, Oxford Road and Castlefield, as if to prove their local knowledge. Sometimes it felt a bit forced – it didn’t quite add anything to our imagination of Manchester.

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Did any of the books approach Manchester critically?

The Stranger Times was critical towards the treatment of homeless people in the city and addressed how they are often ignored or not given agency. There is one part of the novel where the story is told from a homeless person’s perspective which isn’t something you always come across in fiction.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden can be read as a critique of rapid, ugly industrialisation which was happening across England at that time. I love her style of writing because she takes so long describing trees, plants and the dawn chorus – I’m a big sucker for nature writing.

Do you have any book recommendations for readers this autumn?

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman just won The Jhalak Prize, so I’d recommend that. Jeanette Winterson, best known as the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has just released 12 Bytes which is a collection of essays about the relationships between AI, art, religion and the way we live.

I would also recommend following some Manchester-based publishers like Comma Press, Saraband Books and Fly on the Wall Press.