This week, my blog is being taken over by the brilliant, Yasmin Arshad, a UCL scholar and soon-to-be doctor of English Literature. Yasmin researches and writes about Renaissance literature and portraiture, global Shakespeare, and early women's writing. She's been published numerous times and recognized by some of the world's most renowned Shakespeare and Renaissance scholars. Now, Yasmin shares her experience reading Blood, Ink & Fire.
Blood, Ink & Fire
A review by Yasmin Arshad
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera, writes that:
Kundera was writing about the erasure of Czech cultural identity under communist repression. In Blood, Ink & Fire, Ashley Mansour imagines a future world where the totalitarian regime, Fell, intends to erase humanness and recreate humanity, by a process called Immersion.
In the land of the United Vales of Fell (UVF), books are not only not written, they are forcefully banned. This is because literacy invites free will and the ability to think more deeply. The written word and reading are, therefore, subversive and dangerous: possession of a book, punishable by death; the erasure of memory, state-sanctioned.
In the UVF, the regime streams in an ever-present image called Verity, who wakes the populace with packaged scenes and soft-string music played throughout the day, coupled with the government’s news and talking points as necessary.
Verity is not just ever-present; she is a sinister presence. All-seeing and all-listening, she demands compliance. Anyone who disobeys or resists Fell is seen as a traitor and is eliminated in the interest of national security, of course. Everyone in the UVF wears an ID Philm on top of an embedded wrist plate, which monitors movement of citizens within and beyond its boundaries.
Blood, Ink & Fire is the story of Noelle, who is one of the last remaining natural readers in the UVF, and of her journey outside Fell to the Winnow and to the lands of the various Sovereigns who can help her. It is a story of resistance, of love and loss, and of the courageous people who help her, risking everything. Ultimately, it is a story of the battle for the soul of civilization.
The age Mansour evokes is not difficult to foresee. In the Middle East we have a death-cult that is destroying civilization and cultural memory by blowing up historical heritage. In the West, in a post-literacy age, we are already becoming much less of a thinking people. We live in an environment where we seek instant gratification through flashily packaged images—from advertising to news—which shape and distort our reality.
Press freedom is still under threat. Recently, the government of Chile finally acknowledged that Pablo Neruda was possibly killed by Pinochet's regime. In India during November 2015, forty writers returned their medals to the national literary academy to express sympathy for dissenters. They were labelled the ‘fraudulent literati’, deserving to be hit with boots. Writers and poets are always seen as a threat because tyrants know the power of the written word.
Mansour’s work shows her deep literary knowledge and understanding of the human psyche. In the 400 hundred-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is only fitting that the First Folio, plays a pivotal role in the novel. Written and published before the start of the 2016 US primary season, Mansour’s novel, with its many shifting topical resonances holds not just a single mirror, but many mirrors to our society and of what we may become.
Beautifully written, and beautifully crafted, with an originality that immediately invites us in, Ashley Mansour’s debut novel is an important book for our times. It is a book that stays with us and keeps us thinking about the assault on intellectualism.