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Bringing together these pieces about fathers and fatherhood for my first issue as Granta’s editor has been both exhilarating and very instructive. Apart from the deep satisfaction of seeing writers develop and refine their ideas and settle on the most fruitful way of expressing them, sometimes ending up in a quite different place from where they started, there has been another imperative in play. When the issue at hand involves asking people to address a subject as personal and as necessarily complex as their earliest and often most intimate relationships, to recreate and dissect the experiences that helped to form them, there is a delicate balance to be struck between maintaining the impartiality of the outside reader and intervening in private and inner lives. As the truism has it, we can all say what we like about our own families, but woe betide anyone who presumes to characterize our parents, our siblings or our children for us.
The immense rise in the popularity of memoir in recent years has made observing such delicacies far more problematic. Those who voluntarily strip bare the details of family life must, surely, be extending to the reader the right to form their own opinion; to take against, if they choose, the individuals concerned, to make judgements about their behaviour, to come to the conclusion that, after all, someone else’s family romance is simply not as interesting to us as our own.
Our criteria for selecting the pieces in ‘Fathers’ were based on the hope not that each piece of writing would extend to the universal – that seemed far too grandiose, unlikely and even undesirable an aim – but that they would be suggestive and beckoning in their specificity. I have never, for instance, played basketball, but the feelings that Benjamin Markovits describes in his meditation on the sporting coaches who steered him through high school flooded me with memories of the ambivalence that an adolescent harbours towards an authority figure; the strange mixture of embarrassment, affection, curiosity, aggression and what he perceptively calls ‘all the varieties of wrong-feeling’. One of childhood’s most furtively treasured games is to imagine how life would be if other circumstances had prevailed, and it is perhaps misguided to think that that stops when one grows up. Here, meeting fathers who were doctors, vicars, hairdressers, comedians, men who married in secret or more than once, fathers who have been faced with serious illness or bereavement, who laughed or smacked or left or made everything better or, in the end, died, feels as though it affords a fleeting understanding of why I am different from you.
Several of the fathers in this book have, indeed, died; but their children’s relationships with them have not ended. Writing about our family provides fairly incontrovertible evidence that our business with the dead, and the conversations that we have with them, not only continues after that initial separation but changes and mutates almost ceaselessly. ‘That’s what happens if you don’t do your paperwork,’ David Goldblatt writes in his frequently painful account of his father’s violent death. ‘Time comes round and takes your stories.’ He’s right: in our effort to preserve our parents and, in the process, to preserve both the particularities of our personal history and our more inchoate and communal sense of the past, we are also engaged in a battle with time. Time works on us, and it works on our memories of those closest to us: how best to confront the temptation, often unconscious, to supply definition to imperfect recollection, to exonerate or to lay blame, to commemorate or to settle scores, to downplay or to dramatize? But behind that world of difficulty is the thought of what might happen if the attempt is not made at all.
It is Granta’s job, and my ambition for it as its editor, to provide a place where all kinds of attempts can be made, whether they are provisional and preparatory or highly polished and as near definitive as might be possible. It is a particular pleasure to be able to introduce in this issue a number of new writers whose work is not yet widely known – Daniyal Mueenuddin, Francesca Segal and Justin Torres among them – alongside far more familiar names and, indeed, to witness those more well-known writers strike unfamiliar poses. At a time when the latitude granted to emerging voices to locate and connect with their readership seems increasingly under threat, and when new writing must make itself, more than ever before, easier to define, to package and to market, we hope to say as simply as possible – here is the space. Now tell us the story.