Known for melding magic realism with erotic fiction, Leone Ross’ novels and short stories are original in approach, style and voice, defying literary niches and expectations of genre. Her work incorporates elements of speculative fiction, erotica and Caribbean fiction.
Leone’s first novel, All The Blood Is Red, was short-listed for the Orange Prize, in 1997. Her second, Orange Laughter, received critical acclaim in 2000, published in the UK, US and France. Her latest, highly-anticipated release is a dazzling collection of short stories: Come Let Us Sing Anyway.
Leone currently works as a senior lecturer in Creative Writing, at London’s Roehampton University.
Of the impulse to write, she tells us, “I was one of those kids that read voraciously and wrote voraciously, and I guess I’ve always expected to have an audience of some type. I think I expected to publish, not that it’s been easy – at all – but it seemed a strange kind of inevitability. Apparently, when I was a child I spoke to my father about storytelling in terms of wanting to make people feel. I wrote stories and poems and plays and wanted to make people laugh and cry and think. The process through which an artist creates work and then readers take it in and feel an emotion still feels magical to me.”
Besides using the voices of older women and children in her narratives, Leone also writes stories in which we see from a male character’s point of view. She explains, “I’m interested in the way that men understand us, or don’t. Because women’s experiences are so often compromised or synthesised by men, I like creating male characters that speak for us.”
As a teenager, in the 1980s, Leone read erotic tales by the mysteriously named Anonymous (who Leone is convinced was a woman) and discovered Shere Hite: ‘always the profane and the intellectual for me, when it comes to sex’. It was her reading of Anais Nin that had most impact however. As Leone explains, “She showed me how to combine characterization and narrative with figurative language and sex –how to make sex intellectually viable and emotionally relevant on the page.”
Inspired by 80s pop, Jamaican dance hall, Prince and Santana, Leone often uses music during her writing and editing process. She explains, “I write in a café and I’m often dancing in my seat with earphones on. I go to music to feel an emotion, to distil an emotion, so I can find the words for it. Also, I experience plotting and structuring of narrative as musical. I have no musical training, and yet I feel as if writing a novel or writing a short story is like conducting an orchestra. So is editing. You can feel the missing beats. That’s true of overarching narrative and within sentences and individual words.”
Large swathes of her most recent third novel, This One Sky Day (as yet unpublished but set on a fictional archipelago somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean) were written with Jamaican spiritual and religious music – kumina, nyabingi drums, and pocomania – in the background. “The horrible rape scene in my first novel was written to the tune of Depeche Mode. There’s something about their intensity and self-indulgent darkness that makes me feel emotional and violent.”
Leone likens high quality TV drama to the short story form, saying, “Watching Homicide: Life On The Street or the prison series OZ gave me permission and narrative structure, in the 1990s and early 2000s. Good television teaches you that there is a kernel of clearly realised and expressed characterization at the heart of every dramatic movement. People often tell me they think that my work is cinematic and certainly visualisation is an excellent tool for writers. While I rarely see a character’s face, I can see their body and movement. I can smell them, touch them.”
As a teenager, Leone became involved in amateur theatre, with some touring in Jamaica. Among her favourite plays are Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John, and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. Having spent time on stage, Leone associates movement and the body with art and expression, noting that it has influenced her writing, ‘as a visual, conscious, visceral thing’. She underlines, “Words are not ephemeral or formless: they are real things, thoughts become scribbles, scribbles become paragraphs, paragraphs become a book. The script becomes interpreted through the body.” She emphasizes that the act of creation is transformative, that, in writing (and reading) stories, we alter our thinking, and this also brings physical, bodily change.
Leone admires Stephen King, for his ‘ability with narrative and good old-fashioned storytelling, as well as his expression of addiction and consumerism and working-class American lives’. “His work should be more respected, even though he can’t write black characters to save his life (something he acknowledges),” she asserts.
“I feel like I found myself, when I found the Americans,” Leone adds. “Especially Latin Americans – who really are Caribbean, essentially – but 20th century American literature in general, and the literature of the Harlem renaissance in particular.” It was her reading of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Faulkner that gave her ‘permission to see the world as I see it’. “They were a revelation, as was my introduction to magic realism. I’ve never quite gotten over it. It was as if the ridiculousness of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was now written for adults via Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and Morrison’s Song of Solomon.”
In her younger years, with a lot of science fiction in the house (her mother was a fan), Leone devoured the Dune series, before exploring Caribbean literature, adoring the work of Anthony C Winkler and the poetry of Louise Bennett: ‘both writers with a pointed sense of mischief and a love of the Jamaican vernacular’ but finding herself less interested in other Caribbean classics. Leone comments, “I have had to return to Caribbean literature via Kei Miller and Marlon James and Jacob Ross and Kwame Dawes in my middle age – I don’t really like reading about things that I know and recognize and in my twenties I found some of what we [Caribbean writers] do, stuffy and dare I say…worthy. I probably abandoned Caribbean literature too long. Morrison and Marquez were sufficiently recognizable but also sufficiently alien for me to feel that I was experiencing something new.”
As is evident from her writing, Leone finds the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice versa. She loves Geek Love, Katherine Dunn’s ‘opus to oddness and the body’; an editor sent it to her, knowing she would love it and Dickens, for ‘his sense of empathy and his grotesque characters’. “I enjoy a sense of the ridiculous,” she admits.
“I also have to mention two other Americans who aren’t properly lauded: Sherwood Anderson, for the astonishing empathy of his characterization – who was a major influence on Faulkner – and Jean Toomer, for his insane, poetic beauty – who is not as well known as Baldwin or Zora Neal Hurston. (Toomer’s unfortunate conversion to a particularly virulent kind of Christianity meant that the promise of Cane, his prose poem/ poetic short story collection was never repeated).” She smiles: “They’re precious secrets to be unwrapped, not bestsellers. I have a soft spot for writers’ writers who were less recognized than their peers during their time.”
Come Let Us Sing Anyway, short story collection ed. Jeremy Poynting (Peepal Tree Press, UK: Leeds: June 5th 2017)
The woman was sitting naked, with her shoulder blades propped up against the wall between the cubicles. Her legs were spread so far apart that the muscles inside her thighs were jumping. She had the prettiest pussy he’s ever seen, so perpendicular and soft that he had to shade his eyes and take a breath, and then, without knowing he was capable of such a thing, he stopped and stared.
‘Put simply,’ he says to his closest friend, that night, while drinking good beer and wine, ‘she was too far gone to stop.’
They sigh, together.
The woman took her second and third fingers and rubbed between her legs so fast and hard that the waiter, who thought he’d seen a woman orgasm before this, suddenly doubted himself and kept watching to make sure. In the dawn, the woman’s locks could have been on fire and even the shining tiles on the bathroom floor seemed to ululate to help her.
Purchase Come Let Us Sing Anyway from Peepal Tree Press
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You may like to read my review, here.
About Leone Ross
Leone worked as a journalist and editor for fourteen years, holding the post of Arts Editor at The Voice newspaper, Women’s Editor at the New Nation newspaper, and transitional Editor for Pride magazine in the UK. She also held the position of Deputy Editor at Sibyl, a feminist magazine. Leone freelanced for The Independent on Sunday and The Guardian as well as London Weekend Television and the BBC. In 2015, she judged the Manchester Fiction Prize, alongside Stuart Kelly and judges the annual Wimbledon Bookfest short story competition.
Her short fiction and essays have been widely anthologised, including the Brown Sugar erotica series, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (14th Edition). In 2000, she co-edited the award-winning Whispers in The Walls: New Black and Asian Writing from Birmingham. Other publications include Best British Short Stories 2011 (Salt Publishing, ed. Nicholas Royle) and Kingston Noir (Akashic Books, ed. Colin Channer and ‘The Mullerian Eminence’ in Closure (ed Jacob Ross, Peepal Tree Press).
Currently with Roehampton University, Leone has also worked at Cardiff University, Trinity College Dublin, the City Literary Institute and the Arvon Foundation. She has edited four anthologies for Roehampton’s publishing imprint, Fincham Press (including latest, The Unseen, due out in October 2017). She received a London Arts Board Writers Award in 2000, and has represented the British Council in the United States, South Korea, Slovakia, Romania, Sweden and across the UK.
She still mourns Prince.
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- Orange Laughter(Picador USA 2001; Actes Sud, France 2001; Farrar Straus & Giroux, USA, 2000; Anchor Press, UK, 2000; Angela Royal Publishing, UK, 1999.)
- All The Blood Is Red (Actes Sud, France, 2002; Angela Royal Publishing, UK, 1996.)