I hadn’t come across Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist before it was shortlisted together with three other books for the Sunday Times / Young Writer of the Year Award. For me, it’s a perfect example of how valuable this prize is in championing talented and exciting new voices while also broadening their prospective reader base. I’m thrilled to have discovered this book and its author when I did.
When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world.
This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.
Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist shares some common ground with Raymond Antrobus’ poetry collection, The Perseverance, also shortlisted for the same prize. Both it and some of the poems in The Perseverance give a voice to their author’s generation’s experience of having grown up between the parents’ two distinct cultures which are Brazilian British and Jamaican British, respectively.
Stubborn Archivist bursts onto the page with an urgency which immediately grabbed my attention; the style felt like that of a stranger’s hurried confessional, where they’re confiding in you because they know you’ll go your separate ways afterwards. It almost felt as if I had picked up a notebook or journal someone had left on a train, looked to see whose it was and started reading it anyway, when I couldn’t find any identifiers. And then before I knew it, I was too far down the rabbit hole to put it back down where I had found it.
Yara Rodrigues Fowler doesn’t confine the telling of her story to a straight narrative but instead launches into fragments of dialogue or prose-poetry before bringing in more conventional and longer prose sections that we expect to form a novel. Yet even when using these, she often does away with standard punctuation, and gives her story the white space it needs, switching back and forth between much shorter passages of text as and when the story requires.
It’s a structure which helps to blur the line between seeing Stubborn Archivist as a novel or a work of auto-fiction in which the author fictionalises her own life. The added inclusion of small, everyday details from the characters’ lives, those more mundane events we might not expect to find in a novel, all feed into this, as do the author and her main character sharing a similar background. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of her own lived experience informed the story and scenes within Stubborn Archivist because of how convincingly it worked as an autobiography, whether real or imagined.
Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter how much of the inspiration behind it has a basis in reality or not. Stubborn Archivist convinces me with its storytelling, so much so that I became immersed in the main character’s dual family life. Reading Stubborn Archivist felt akin to travelling somewhere different and new, where the unfamiliar only energises and rapidly has you falling hard for it. I absolutely loved this book.
Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler is published by Fleet, a Little, Brown imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out in February 2020. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. You can find Yara on Instagram and on Twitter.
My thanks to Robert Greer at FMcM Associates for sending me a review copy.