The Fertile Territory of Displacement

The culture clash; the outsider’s view: this disconnect is the grit in the writer’s oyster. It’s also the fertile territory explored in May We Borrow Your Country, the second publication from The Whole Kahani, a collective of female British novelists, poets and screenwriters of South Asian origin.

The group’s name means The Complete Story, and reflects the idea that any account of displacement ‘must contain multitudes’. As Mona Dash’s poem Implications beautifully shows, someone caught between two cultures can be made to feel they belong to neither:

‘Born and raised an Indian; not living in India
implied: not Indian
now British, not born in Britain
implied: not British.’

How to remain true to yourself – or find space to be yourself – is explored with humour in The Metallic Mini Skirt by Radhika Kapur. Divya, travelling to London with her new husband, is told by her mother to ‘Be like sugar. Dissolve into your new home and make it a sweeter place.’ Her mother-in-law hovers, trying to transform Divya into a younger version of herself. But Divya hangs on to her dreams, epitomized by the miniskirt, bought to wear to a nightclub, that she dares to wear only in the shower – where she is the star of her own story.

Mothers, and mothers-in-law, loom large. The pain of loss and separation; the distance between the one who stayed and the one who left, are delicately balanced in Deblina Chakrabarty’s The Inventory. Two sisters, ‘trying to find our mother, [and] a way forward, amidst the debris of our childhood’ are going through the dead woman’s belongings. The younger sister, living in London, is wealthy but unhappy, while the older sister is struggling financially. There is all ‘the detritus of a lived life’ to divide. But in the end it is the most personal, yet least valuable, item that offers the chance to heal.

One of the most moving, and unsettling, stories is CG Menon’s Fox Cub. Grieving father Kumar, newly arrived in Britain and shocked by the sight of beggars, invites a homeless girl to spend the night with him and his wife. She accepts, and ‘unfurls like a crane, all legs and feathers she hasn’t quite grown into yet’. He feels ‘an aching kind of pride’ when, on the bus home, he’s mistaken for her father. When, the next morning, in the ‘greyish air that smells of everything shut-in and breathed-out’, he goes to check on her, he finds she’s gone – and left her own message for him.

Another male protagonist features in Reshma Ruia’s layered and clever story A Simple Man. Pikku, whose family was thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin, is now a museum security guard, ‘the guardian angel’ of paintings of ‘dead, pink and white kings and queens’. When his visiting sister, who thinks he has a ‘proper job’ in an office, wants to see his workplace Pikku becomes entangled in a web of lies, and even tries to carry out the perfect crime. Despite its light touch and humour, the story tackles head-on the racism that Pikku both inflicts and endures.

And unfamiliar territory can be close at hand. In Where He Lives by Kavita Jindal, Sabina, a young philosophy graduate, has married and moved into her husband’s home in the old city, despite her teacher’s warning that, ‘you’ll have to wear a burqa and niqab every time you step out’. The story conjures the atmosphere of a historic city, with its narrow streets and bazaars, and snap-happy tourists. Her mother-in-law says, ‘Philosophy is for people with nothing to do,’ and Sabina cannot see a way out of her mistake; until she observes how other women live a dual life, and resolves to try. This story felt like part of a longer piece, and left me wanting to hear more from these characters.

With sharp-eyed observation this collection delivers on its promise, and reveals the pain, longing, and humour to be found in the experience of displacement. As someone of Anglo-Indian heritage, hearing the voices felt particularly poignant.

I look forward to the next instalment of the Complete Story.

The Whole Kahani, May We Borrow Your Country, Linen Press, 2019. ISBN 9781999604660, paperback, £9
[This review first appeared in Writing in Education issue 79, Winter 2019]

Ode to joy (and gasps, and thinking)

Here are some of this year’s books that have made me gasp, think, or just brought me joy. Because we can all do with more of that.

Sven Lindquist’s Exterminate All the Brutes (Granta) takes the infamous phrase uttered by the mad Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and uses it as the starting point for a journey across the heart of Africa. In calm, clear prose Lindquist sets out the brutal history on which Europe built its wealth. Gripping and essential.

Toni Morrison died in August, but left us an awe-inspiring body of work; Mouthful of Blood (Chatto & Windus) the collection of her essays and speeches from over 40 years, ranges across American history, as well as discussing the details of her writing process. I particularly loved her insights on writing Beloved, the 1988 novel that won her the Pulitzer prize.

I’m always looking for useful writing advice, and two books stood out for me this year: The Writer’s Eye (Macmillan) by Amy Weldon; and The Multimodal Writer (Macmillan International) by Josie Barnard. Weldon argues that the skill of close observation is key to good writing. A generous writer, she is unafraid to share her own successes and failures; her book is a great resource for writers at all stages. Barnard’s concern is how writers can survive and thrive in the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. With clear and practical advice and exercises, she explains the concept of the ‘multimodal writer’, writing across platforms and genres, and how to become one. It’s not as daunting as it sounds – many of us are already doing it, and this book is a helpful introduction.

Even under the cosh of a deadline there’s always time to read a short story; one of the collections I’ve enjoyed most this year is May We Borrow Your Country (Linen Press) by the Whole Kahani, a collective of female British writers of South Asian origin. In a rich mix of poetry and prose they illuminate the experience of displacement, whether between countries, or inside a new and strange city. In a strong collection, stories by Reshma Ruia and CG Menon, and poetry by Mona Dash, stood out for me.

Apparently poetry is enjoying a revival – on my bookshelf it’s never gone away. In the wonderful anthology She is Fierce (Macmillan) editor Ana Sampson has collated a truly eclectic selection, from well-known names such as Elizabeth Jennings to newer voices like Hollie McNish. Every time I open it, I find new inspiration.

I’ve had little time to read for pleasure, but three novels made it to the top of the TBR pile. Late to the party I know, but I was blown away by Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under (Vintage) – her twisty tale of a mother/ daughter relationship, but so much more than that. Her depiction of canal boat dwellers’ lives and the natural world – the river becoming a character itself – is extraordinary. I’m looking forward to her next book, Sisters, out next year.

At 89, Edna O’Brien is still tackling difficult subjects with rigour and elegance; she recently received the David Cohen prize, widely regarded as the precursor to the Nobel. Her latest novel, Girl (Faber & Faber) tells the story of a young woman abducted and married into Boko Haram. It’s a tour de force by one of our greatest writers, still demonstrating the courage and empathy which have made her books fierce advocates for women everywhere.

Ben Lerner has been receiving rave reviews for his latest novel The Topeka School (Granta) and it doesn’t disappoint. In multiple viewpoints and shifting timelines this skilled writer examines a white family’s attempt to come to terms with the cult of toxic masculinity. Not an easy read, but a rewarding – and topical – one.

The other list I’m writing is my Christmas wish list, and top of that is The Jewel (Head of Zeus) by Neil Hegarty. I’m looking forward to curling up with this multi-layered story of a mysterious artwork and its legacy, and enjoying Hegarty’s precise and graceful prose.

Happy holidays – and good reading!

Irish Writers on Secrets and Borders

All over the world, borders are in the news. For politicians, the argument centres on the physical movement of people and objects. But there are other, intangible, aspects to such barriers.

The idea of border country can be attractive to writers. It’s a mysterious, in-between place; a romantic, shifting landscape where normal rules don’t apply.

Such romanticism is fine in fiction, but more problematic in reality, as a recent event at the London Irish Centre explored. With the Irish border again making headlines, ‘Writing Ireland: Borderlands and Brexit’, saw novelists Neil Hegarty (no relation) Andrea Carter and Anthony Quinn discuss how to make sense of something that defined their early lives, and is threatening to return.

Hegarty, author of Inch Levels and the forthcoming The Jewel, was ‘uncomplicatedly pleased’ to have been born north of the border, in Derry. ‘It’s a precise place, has a precise sense of itself,’ he said. Events he witnessed in the Troubles, and stories that he later heard, have influenced his work. He read a passage from Inch Levels in which terrified pedestrians are sheltering from a sniper. The horror and fear were palpable.

Andrea Carter grew up in the Irish Midlands and moved north to the Inishowen peninsula, the setting for her Inishowen Mysteries crime novels, to be adapted for TV next summer. Among Irish female crime writers who grew up in the 1980s, she thought, there is anger, and mixed feelings. She also felt that still, especially in rural communities, the border’s legacy had not been dealt with. ‘Old secrets are not being told,’ she said. One of the reasons was ‘a sense of loyalty’.

The writer’s responsibility for respecting a shared history that’s still alive, even if unspoken, was a key aspect of the discussion. Crime writer Anthony Quinn, whose work has been described as ‘the noirest of noir’, now lives back where he grew up, near the border. He felt ‘blessed and cursed to have lived during those times’. The barrier now exists only in terms of folklore, he said. But this is ‘rich fictional territory for a writer’. In his work, he tries to be fair to both sides, and to honour the past. He has found that people bring him stories – they want their voices to be heard; to be able to move on. ‘It’s only by letting light and air in that you can begin to heal.’

What is it about Irish people, asked a questioner, that they’re so good at keeping secrets? The audience responded with an affirmative laugh. Colonisation means you have to keep your cards close to your chest, said Hegarty. ‘Everyone is playing their part.’ One of the problems with Northern Ireland, he added, is that ‘the stories aren’t allowed to be aired, dealt with, set aside gently’.

Working on his latest book, Hegarty had to add information about the border for non-Irish readers. Twenty years ago, it was a physical, manned presence; today you can’t tell where the north ends and the south begins. ‘It’s terrifying that that would change,’ said Carter. ‘It frightens me.’

The evening was a good-humoured and witty discussion. As writers, the participants recognized that their experience, despite its traumas, had benefited their art; and was safely in the past. But there was no disguising the tension of the subject, and the fear that the chaos of current politics – despite the glib assurances of politicians – could bring a very different future.

Permission to Stop

A few weeks ago I finished a big project: the ‘final’ draft of my novel-in-progress. I sent it to trusted readers, and waited… Their comments came winging back: lots of great suggestions for strengthening the plot, improving the pace and deepening character motivation. Plenty for me to work on.

I sat down at the p.c, ready to hit the keys.

I got up again. Made some tea. Did the washing. Got out the vacuum cleaner. I went back to my desk and stared at the screen.

I created a new document and typed in headings. I deleted those headings and typed in new ones. Hour after hour I fiddled about, going nowhere. Outside, the temperature rose. Inside, the temperature rose. It felt like the whole world was on holiday.

After a week or so I was still moving headings around and writing Plans, and fighting a rising sense of panic. Sitting at my desk was a chore. I had nothing left to give.

Eventually I realised – I’d lost touch with why I was writing in the first place. Why not do what I encourage my writing students to do, and have fun? Take some time out to be playful, to read, and learn from other authors. Then turn up at the page and see what happens.

I covered pages in freewriting. I tried memoir; produced some (terrible) poetry. Picture prompts were great. There were seeds of stories in strange combinations of words, and half-sentences that promised a whole world.

Moaning to a writing friend was therapeutic. She’d felt the same. Just sharing the thought with her was liberating – it gave me permission to take my foot off the pedal. I remembered a story I wrote years ago that I’d always loved. I went back to it and found a detail that made me want to know more. I wrote more; moved paragraphs around. I began to feel the pull of the story – and the fun of writing again.

Sure, taking writing seriously means treating it like a job. But the pressure to stick to a daily routine isn’t always conducive to creativity. Anyway, writing’s a weird job: a mixture of lonely toil, flinging work out into the void, and scanning ‘Results’ lists in nerve-shredding hope. Learning to expect rejection – but believing in yourself enough to keep going. Recognising, in saner moments, that each of us is different; that we all write in our own unique way, and that we all take different routes. Clinging to the hope that hard work and persistence will get us there in the end.

It will. But in the meantime, it’s a great idea to take a holiday. See you in September!

An Evening with Lionel Shriver

What to expect from an evening with Lionel Shriver? Spikiness? Controversy? It’s not going to be dull. ‘I don’t set out to offend people,’ she told interviewer Cathy Galvin, with a smile.

Shriver fans and fellow-writers had gathered at Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly for the Word Factory event. ‘So the short story doesn’t sell?’ was the Shriver-ish title for the evening, during which we discovered that her latest collection, ‘Property’, went for ‘a six-figure sum’ – the kind of number only dreamed about by short-story writers in the audience.

Shriver read from her story ‘Vermin’, part of the collection, about a couple in a rented house in Brooklyn. On discovering that someone wanted to buy the house because the street was ‘good for a family’, they decided to buy it themselves. They became home-owners, and that’s when the trouble started…

Although she prefers reading novels to short stories – or was that just a provocation? – Shriver writes stories in between her books because ‘it’s satisfying to have something complete’. She admitted that her novels suffer from being pushed aside to make way for work that has an imminent deadline, such as journalism. She’s ‘more loyal to something with a due date’.

Her early novels were critical, but not commercial, successes. She was ‘fortunate to be rescued by [We Need to Talk About] Kevin before I quit’. She admitted that ‘bad reviews still irk me’. She used to think that ‘writers who didn’t read their reviews were cowardly or lying’ – but wished now she could do the same. But ‘I don’t have the discipline’. She was scathing on the ‘capricious and faddish and arbitrary’ literary world. What does your success mean to you, she was asked. It ‘should make me take the whole farce less seriously’, she replied. One suspects it matters too much.

Writers hoping to learn about Shriver’s own process would have been disappointed, although there were some nuggets: she has no second readers – ‘never, ever’. She knows what’s wrong with her work. ‘Why would I ask someone else?’

It was a shame there was so little insight into the process of selling and marketing short stories – and why Shriver believes they sell. Writers who had come to hear insider tips, or how to get their collections out there, must have left disappointed. People would always rather read novels, she thought.

For fans of the short story, not much insight. She was surprisingly ambivalent.

For fans of Lionel Shriver, it was right on the money.


Writing Props

I’d never call myself superstitious. I walk under ladders. I sit in row 13 on the plane. I’m secretly pleased when a black cat crosses my path, but I don’t salute magpies. I can work (or stare out of the window) anywhere; I don’t have a special pen, or special paper.

Watching a documentary on Philip Pullman recently, I was fascinated to hear him say that for each novel he writes, he colours the top right-hand corner of his notebook pages with a coloured pencil. A new colour for each novel; the same colour for each notebook page. He can only write on paper with two holes per sheet, but buys paper with four holes (so he covers the other two up). Not exactly superstitious, but a sort of writing ritual.

I don’t do things like that. Or do I?

For some time now, I’ve been working in a hamster nest. I’m surrounded by a creeping tide of Stuff, gradually covering any clear space with a kind of impossible-to-categorise driftwood. Things came to a head recently when my pc died, spectacularly, of chronic Update failure. Installing a new one meant moving the layer of protective skin that had grown around me on my desk.

Taking out the old machine was bad enough. But making space for the new one meant moving a handmade plaster pot, crumbling at the edges, made by someone years ago at junior school, full of what I think are called ‘Treasury tags’ – bits of string with metal either end, to keep papers together – all unused; five cards from friends, with inspirational quotes; four photographs – one of Jean Rhys; a seaside painting; a pot of clips and pins; two tubes of hand cream; a clock; a small wooden box that once held wooden bricks and now has drawing pins; cuttings that will be useful one day; four piles of books; a crystal paperweight; a pot of pens and pencils; a desk diary and three years’ worth of notebooks. Then the actual books and draft I’m working on, plus my current notebook.

My new laptop is fast and efficient: I’m thrilled with it.

I’m even more pleased that all my treasures are back where they should be: in my eyeline, cheering me up when I’m stuck. Familiar things that I like my gaze to fall on. Voices from family and friends, encouraging me; urging me on.

Maybe not superstitions, but definitely writing props. What are yours?


Meeting my writing hero

Some say you should never meet your heroes, in case they turn out to have feet of clay. But nothing was going to stop me going to hear Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. On a cold spring evening, the city’s Sheldonian Theatre was a suitably elegant and historic venue for a conversation between Barry – the author of seven novels, 13 plays and two volumes of poetry – and Chris Patten, an obvious fan.

Although there was a nod to his body of work, much of the discussion centred on Days Without End, Barry’s latest novel, and winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. In breathtakingly poetic prose the book tells the love story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two seventeen year-olds who sign up for the US army, to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War.

The tale is narrated by Thomas, whose voice is a stunning achievement. But it took a while to find, said Barry. ‘It was frustrating.’ He would go to his workroom ‘dutifully’ every morning, feeling ‘stupidus’ – a Latin word meaning ‘thick’, just as it does in Ireland, he joked. He was nine months into the project before ‘the first sentence arrived, like a herald’ and the book was underway.

In the meantime, he read 300 books on American history. He discovered wonderful nuggets, such as the Native American tradition of braves changing into women’s dress when in camp, and back into braves’ dress when they went to war; one of the many facts seamlessly woven into the novel’s portrayal of the young men’s love. Barry was aware of the risks he was taking. ‘I thought, “No you can’t do that,” he said. ‘So I did that.’

He was engaging and honest on the story’s inspiration: a period of anguish in his family, resolved when his sixteen year-old son Toby revealed that he was gay. Because of the book, his son’s story is now well known. Asked how the young man had reacted to the publicity, Barry said that his children never read his work, but his son had read this book. He liked it. That affirmation, said Barry, was ‘the Nobel Prize, right there’.

Family is at the heart of his work, and relationships between generations – particularly fathers and sons. Even the difficult relationships. ‘You’re letting them in. You’re still in love with them.’ The searing historical detail he includes is part of the novelist’s duty to try to understand ‘the history through which they waded’.

He spoke movingly of his maternal grandfather, who told him wonderful stories of family members, although sometimes he only knew ‘half a sentence’. But ‘that’s enough for a novelist,’ said Barry. ‘You can make the rest up’.

The world of his novels, Barry suggested, was the country he had created for himself, where he felt at home. ‘You want to be a citizen of somewhere – sometimes you call your heart your country.’

Is it easier to be comfortable with an Irish identity nowadays, Chris Patten asked. Barry, who lives in a mixed Catholic and Protestant area of Wicklow, replied, ‘How I long to say yes.’ He was generous in his praise for politicians, such as Patten, who try to achieve peaceful change: ‘an act of magic similar to writing a book. Trying to effect something with love and sincerity.’WP_20180322_19_22_12_Pro

Love and sincerity: the hallmarks of a wonderful evening with my writing hero.

In the book signing queue, other fans agreed: we could have listened to him all night.

He was even gracious enough to let me take a selfie…