For the Love of Older Characters in Good Books
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes older is just better.
By Sarah Ládípọ̀ Manyika
Whenever I’m asked what inspires me to write, the answer is always that I write what I’d like to read but cannot find. And so it was with my last novel, about an older Nigerian woman living in San Francisco. At that time, I had read many novels about older men, but far fewer about women and almost none featuring older Black women. Toni Morrison once said that if you can’t find the stories you’re looking for, then you must write them yourself. This is what I have tried to do, and along the way, I have been inspired by the older characters in the following books.
Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym
A touching story of four co-workers nearing retirement. Each character is single and grappling with loneliness. One, we are told, “… had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, aging woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.” It was that line at the beginning of the novel, and the spotlight that Pym subsequently shines on such characters, that nudged me closer to writing about older women.
Mr. Loverman, by Bernardine Evaristo
This story of a septuagenarian Antiguan expatriate who leads a double life in London made me laugh more than any novel has in a while. Barrington Jedidiah Walker, married with kids and a grandson, is a closeted gay man whose secret lover is his childhood friend, Morris de la Roux. Despite much that is tragic about this story, it’s also filled with humor derived in part from dialogue that dances effortlessly among patois, Cockney and the Queen’s English.
Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
It is rare that I first come to a book via its film adaptation, but I was so touched by the heartwarming performance of Omar Sharif, I had to read the novella that the film was based upon. This tale of a young Jewish boy who becomes an orphan and is then adopted by Monsieur Ibrahim, a Muslim grocery store owner, is also a story about what connects us as humans across nationality, religion and age. At times, this slight book veers on the sentimental, but who doesn’t need a soupçon of sentimentality occasionally?
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
It seemed fitting that I would be reading Ishiguro while I wrote my second novel; it was his Remains of the Day that served as model and inspiration for my first book. The Buried Giant, an allegorical tale with an elderly couple at its center, deals with aging and the nature of memory and forgetfulness. It is one of the most tender love stories about a long-term relationship that I’ve read.
The Prodigal, by Derek Walcott
Of all the literary forms, poetry is what speaks most profoundly to me on the topic of aging. This book-length poem sketching a poet’s life from youth to old age is filled with questions that speak to the meaning of a life. Various iterations of “Old man coming through the glass, who are you?” echo throughout the poem, evoking a call-and-response between poet and reader. In Walcott’s question I hear W.S. Merwin (“Old Man at Home Alone in the Morning”), Charles Mungoshi (“Mirrors”), Sylvia Plath (“Mirror”), Gwendolyn Brooks (“We Real Cool”) and Kay Ryan (“Age”).
The Prodigal ends with a reference to the coast of St. Lucia, “on the bright rim of the world,” where Walcott was raised. As if the book and its author knew that they would one day be described in conjunction with the newest Nobel Laureate for literature, Walcott’s last line — “that line of light that shines from the other shore” — speaks wistfully to the last lines of Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant: “Wait for me on the shore, friend, I say quietly, but he does not hear and he wades on.”
Mothers by Daughters, edited by Joanna Goldsworthy: A fascinating book of essays about the sometimes wonderful, sometimes trying relationships that exist between mothers and daughters. Contributors, including publisher Margaret Busby and writer Yasmin Kureishi, approach the topic from a variety of historical and cultural backgrounds.