Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell series. By Jarred Everson www.jjeverson.com
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On ghosts, or why I never want to be anybody’s muse

It took 27 years for me to admit that I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them.

Sometimes I occupy beds that ghosts visit.

There was a strong and pathetic need in me up until a few years ago to become someone’s muse. Whether you think of yourself as a feminist woman or not, sometimes it’s hard to get away from the fact that your role has already been predestined, written in curling, delicate hand about Lord Byron, chiselled into stone somewhere, Edie Sedgwick and her ilk lie in ecstasy in the background of some dark, violent party of the mind, the reason the men are there, but the muses are not the centre of conversation, and yes, they are the glamorous, seductive type you are drawn to. You can’t stop thinking of yourself as the romantic figure, floating in and out of heroes’ lives, a Jane Eyre or another long-suffering woman who is foregrounded in your head but just lives to lend all the ideas you have about the world to another, because they seem to have a firmer hand, a choking grasp on life you do not, because you’ve seen it happen before, and it will happen again. There’s no song lyric “men are doing it for themselves”, well, because, nothing so obvious is ever written down and paid attention to. A blackened part of me understands that there are thousands of voices of women in the chasm of history who only ever spoke through the voices of the men they fell in love with. Some of the greatest works of our time would be even finer if they had been written by the hand who first had the idea.

The only antidote to this is to really pay attention to how utterly fragile talent is when contained within the human body. It is certainly not robust enough to be kept in only men. You stay around anyone you admire for their games or art or writing for long enough and you’ll understand that they are awful in some incredibly profound way, and if they aren’t awful they are a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that it will hurt to think about.

I’ve spoken a lot with the game designer and writer Harvey Smith recently about whether having a privileged background or upbringing helps a person produce better art, or whether having a difficult life helps produce better art (Harvey has a wealth of stories about his background that would make you think the latter). I concluded that when you don’t have things like social ostracisation, war, poverty or sickness in your way, it’s much easier to make things faster, which is probably why middle-class white dudes produce such a vast array of our art. There’s a better hit rate, y’know? And it’s not necessarily that broken people make better art, though perhaps sometimes the ability to communicate pain helps. I don’t believe you have to be beaten down by society to make something profound. You just have to be able to produce it, and that’s the hard part. The hard part is telling yourself you are that person. The person who makes.

There’s something Harvey said recently that really sticks with me, and it’s this wonderful little moment in time in my head. Writers have a real talent for articulating exactly what you didn’t know you thought before, and he said, sitting on the arm of the couch, looking up at me in the loft of his and Leah’s beautiful Lyon apartment, “The hardest part is admitting you want to do it. Saying, I want to be a games designer, or a writer, or anything creative.”

It took me about twenty-seven years, most of them during which I was writing fiction, poetry or criticism, to realise that I was a writer, and that I wanted to be a writer, and that I was a writer who was good enough. I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them. Why was I wasting time? You do not get to write my story. I write it. I write it myself. Stealing is only legitimate if it’s mutual. There does not get to be a one way road any more. I am no one’s muse because I have the ideas. They are mine.

Perhaps I am fucked up, awful in some incredibly profound way, and if I’m not awful I might be a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that will hurt for others to think about. Perhaps I am that person that men look at and think, I wish I was her muse, though the canon for some sort of male muse is somewhat absent. None of it really matters to me now, because I understand that talent is fragile and that even trying to articulate it now may be killing any talent I had left.

Right now as I am travelling through France I realise that I have the firmest choke hold on life I have ever had. I do not need the ghosts that I once summoned to my bed: those ghosts that I once thought, perhaps the creativity of life will touch me through them and I will feel good again. Those ghosts that I used to think: they are the only romantic thing about my life. The ones I let go, the ones I could never have, the people who did not respect or love me, the people who slipped through my fingers, or laughed when someone said, “She’s a writer. Sort of.” The ghosts who will watch you sleep and when you wake you are covered in a thousand cuts. The ghosts who whisper hoarse in the dark, they used to say, “You should have asked me to marry you.”

I slit all their throats. And when I occupy a bed with another person who has those ghosts, I can shake the ghosts’ hands and say, I know you, and I have sympathy for you. But you are not welcome. I am waiting for the day this person kills you.

. . . I’ll come back on that day.

This article first appeared on caraellison.co.uk and is crossposted here with permission

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle