The Power of Fresh Eyes

The Power of Fresh Eyes

A friend who writes, also reads.  She, like I, has been an expatriate for many years, moving from country to country, crisscrossing the continents of Africa and Asia as a way of life.  We both have a rich store of memories that we use to glean stories, refusing to settle into the norm or restrict ourselves to writing about our countries of origin.  We prefer to relive our experiences, both the good and the bad, blending them into the stories of others, both real and imagined.

Story telling is a wonderful way to archive our lives, writing the stories of ourselves and of

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Book Signing, Trieste

others as we imagine them to be, but at times it feels like hard toil, especially towards completion, when the draft is rewritten a multitude of times, checking language, continuity, characterization and plot tension; all the threads that run through a good novel, knotting the detail in upon those threads like a carpet maker.  The end result; a strong, beautiful book.

This friend, the writer, wrote today with comments on a chapter of my new novel, ‘The Girl with the White Suitcase’.  Set in Rwanda, Kenya and Italy, it is a coming of age story about an intelligent, young refugee with a multi-ethnic background who cannot choose sides in a war.  It is an ambitious novel that seeks to ask questions about the nature of identity in conflict, inter-racial love, forgiveness, tolerance and female friendship.

With fresh eyes, she can see the things I can no longer see, the little mistakes.  She gives me new ideas and demands that I check and recheck the language, continuity and suspense.  It is that very suspense that keeps the reader beheld, the tension holding the pages tight in the reader’s hand. Without it, the book will fail.

The importance of fresh eyes cannot be overstated, and this is a shout out to thank all the beta-readers out there, helping writers to be the best they can be.   THANKS!

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My Debut, winner of the Cinnamon Press Book Prize 2014

 

A Writer: Workhorse and Butterfly

A Writer: Workhorse and Butterfly

In this article, writer Ann Pratchett talks about writing fiction and non-fiction. Like her, I find writing non-fiction easy, and fiction very difficult. One taught her to be a workhorse, the other, a butterfly. Like her, I write non-fiction for money in the bank, re-writing thumbnail_disobedient_cover%20draft%206technical documents and editing the English. I do it to deadline and I do it for a living. Like her, I write fiction for pleasure. I do it because I love it, but I do it like a butterfly, flitting back and forth from the manuscript, settling for brief moments to tweak and write, change and rewrite. I have no deadlines apart from the desire to see my fiction in print, pushing me forward to complete stories and novels.

There is a great need to forgive yourself as a writer or as an artist, knowing that what you have produced is the best you are capable of, even if it might not be perfection in your eyes. Self-forgiveness is key to making art, as well as embracing mistakes, perhaps allowing those ‘wrongs’ to lead you in a different, better direction.  Just as with painting, creative writing requires superb technique as well as creative lightness and self-forgiveness.

Here is the article:

The Workhorse and the Butterfly: Ann Patchett on Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art

 

 

 

Beautiful Book Clubs Host Authors….

Beautiful Book Clubs Host Authors….

Yesterday the book club for the United Nations Women’s Guild hosted me here in Rome. Fifteen women gathered to listen and discuss ‘The Disobedient Wife‘ (Cinnamon Press 2015).thumbnail_disobedient_cover%20draft%206

Insights:

The title does not do justice to the central theme of the book, that close friendship and mutual support between women can be crucial to overcoming physical or psychological abuse.  I explained that the reason for the slightly flippant title was one of commercial appeal – I wanted a snappy, short sort of title that people would remember, and I didn’t want to put readers off!

I was asked if I thought the expatriate experience for women is more or less the same no matter which country you live in, to which I answered no.  I found people with different world views and priorities in Tajikistan than in Egypt, for example, where the former were mainly Embassy families, missionaries, NGO workers, and the latter, Oil Industry Executives.  In Egypt I had to work harder to find like-minded friends, but eventually of course, I did (and many were, in fact connected to oil).

suitcaseOne reader made the point that there are phases of experience that we probably all go through as expatriates, including the sense that as the years pass we become more and more dependent, especially if we move frequently and are unable to hold down or build our own careers.  It also may be potentially more of a blow when our children leave the nest, as then we really are absolutely alone, without access to the ready networks that international schools provide (whether or not one makes use of them).  One could say the same though, for many women anywhere, and it is a real reason why I believe that all expat ‘trailing spouses’ need space to develop that they can call their own.  For expats of course, this is complicated and must be mobile.  Thankfully, with the internet, all sorts of possibilities have opened up for us.

Another point that was made, was that domestic violence is endemic here in Italy and is on donnathe rise.  The reasons for this are not clear, but one member explained that as the economic situation in Italy worsens, tempers fray and women bare the brunt of frustration and anger men feel as a result. There is an organisation working in Rome to provide shelters for women as featured in The Disobedient Wife, called Differenza Donna.  http://www.differenzadonna.org/ which I want to highlight here, in case I have any Rome-based readers read this post. There will be a march on 26th November.  My friend Mary shared this report on this here: https://wideplus.org/un-special-rapporteur-on-feminicide-and-violence-against-women-in-italy/

Have a good week.

Poetry – A Misunderstood Medium.

Poetry – A Misunderstood Medium.

Last night I drove into Rome to go to the Keats Shelley Museum in Piazza de Spagna (Spanish Steps) to listen to a fellow Cinnamon Press author, Will Kemp, read from his new book, out in October 2016: ‘The Painters Who Studied Clouds’.

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I was not sure what to expect.  My love of Keats aside, I tend to view poetry as the pretentious intellectual’s realm, imagining reams of stuffy, patronizing academics with nicotine-stained teeth pontificating into straggly beards while adoring students gaze on in adoration.  Either that or I picture an elderly, bow-tied, cordoroy-clad gent with wandering hands and a love of plus fours and spotted dick (a throwback from his school days at Harrow or Rugby).

Will Kemp dispelled these stereotypes, appealing to his audience to embrace poetry (once again,) as part of popular culture.  ‘If it is not accessible, I don’t want to write it.’ he said.  ‘Poetry should not be hard work, either to write, nor to listen to.’  By this, of course, he is not demeaning the craft, nor the effort he makes to write his poems – by his own admission – with a full time job, he jots down notes but only manages to submerge himself on holiday, thus taking ten years to write a collection.  elvis-presleyNo, what he meant is that poetry should entertain, educate and inspire without alienating the audience, and for inspiration, he drew on popular culture itself – sport, Greek mythology, Elvis Presley.   His muses are Bill Collins and Carol Ann Duffy.

Before his arrival, I exchanged emails with him, offering to help garner support for his event with online reminders, posters, and gather the Rome Anglo-Expat community together as a fellow author at Cinnamon Press.  He kindly read my book, The Disobedient Wife, and to our mutual relief, enjoyed it, writing ;

“I find it difficult to lie or be nice when it comes to writing: so much of it is so plain dull or boring, and yet as writers we owe each other the truth. As with Aufidius watching Coriolanus (“O mother, mother? What have you done?” Viii) “I was mov’d withal” by your book which sustained my interest throughout. 

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“I loved the way you handled perspective: we start off with a type of limited omniscience, ie Nargis’s view plus Harriet’s journal, but then get selective views from others (most noticeably Poulod’s view of “That black-eyed bitch and her little bastards”)…  this seemed to me a bold move and masterfully handled, since such secondary perspectives cannot be introduced too early (lest they might/would throw the reader) or too late (lest the plot is weakened by the extra dimension they bring to bear on the final outcome)…”

And:
“It is impossible not to like the central character with her world weary view and plain realism, and to feel for her… (sic).  I loved the way you juxtaposed her (polite) words with her (contrary/ real) thoughts eg. to Poulod’s mother re: the latter’s business idea: “Alright, I will think about it”.  I would rather have a fat, red cockroach as a business partner than this idiot.”
So… back to the reading.  I certainly I did not expect this dapper, cheery man with a flowery shirt and a faint Yorkshire accent to begin with a “Man’s Poem” about James Bond.  I did not expect the wry humour in the prose, the phases spun together with deceptive simplicity, as though finished in a day.  His poems reminded me of abstract paintings, another misunderstood art form that is extremely hard to do well and nearly impossible to teach.  It takes years of dedicated practice, or as he said, an electric energy of spontaneous creation that rarely works so well as dedicated graft.
 romanticsAs his final reading came to a close, we all left the comfortable, chestnut and rosewood library used by the Western World’s most famous Romantics, to go to a bar for drinks and talk to midnight.
From now on, poetry will be my second best friend, the first being, of course, the wonderful novel.
Will’s anthology will be available in October to buy.  To pre-order ‘The Painters Who Studied Clouds’, click here

 

 

 

 

White Saviour Complex and Writings on Africa

White Saviour Complex and Writings on Africa

An Existential Crisis… at 4am Italian time.

I have nearly finished my second fictional novel, set in Rwanda and Kenya, with chapters in the UK, France and Italy. And now, I am not sure what the feck to do with it.

Everything I read lately suggests that no matter what I write, IF I AM NOT AFRICAN, I AM NOT PERMITTED (by the global liberal public at large) TO WRITE ABOUT AFRICANS.  I put this in Caps Lock to emphasize my frustration and, frankly, my white-knuckled fear of the backlash potentially heading in my direction.

First, I find myself faced with a myriad of potential obstacles over ‘marketability’, and now this; a literary mess of White Saviour-dom to muddy the waters for everyone.  Tsk!  The hashtag #LintonLies is a scathing twitter response from outraged Zambians to a feature in The Telegraph on July 1st, 2016; a new ‘GAP year’ memoir.  Ms Linton is accused of lying (she worked at a fishing lodge on Lake Tanganika in 1999, aged 18, a ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair‘).  Rather than memoir, some claim it is ‘warped fiction‘.  She describes hiding in ‘jungle‘ (the environment there is savannah), and fearsome, near-death encounters with Congolese soldiers (Zambia has never faced aggressive military incursions from Congo according to people who live and work there).  What really incenses Zambians though, is her ‘White Saviour Complex‘: her friendship with a little orphan girl ‘who found no greater joy than to sit on her knee and drink coca-cola‘ (sic).

While I understand the infuriation, my heart sank, knowing this can hurt all non-African writers interested in Africa.  Linked (perhaps unfairly, by a Huff Post blog post on the memoir), reading Granta Magazine’s tongue-in-cheek essay by Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina; ‘How to Write about Africa’, the resentment of some African writers at the White portrayal of Africans and Africa in literature seems stronger than ever.  Running through his list of ‘taboo’ subjects and cliches, I can almost see sarcasm dripping off my laptop, with good reason.  Happily, I appear to have adhered to all his ‘taboos’ 😉

Now, I would like to state that my book is NOT about a White person ‘saving‘ an African.  It is about a strong, educated 17-year old of strong faith, from a middle-class background.  She comes of age, against the odds, as a lone refugee in Kenya.  She does receive help from (and she helps and supports) friends who happen to be Mixed-Race and Black AND White, and she maintains a strong sense of her own agency throughout.  I contrast her life with that of another girl growing up on a rough Marseilles housing estate, demonstrating that daily life in Europe is certainly not (for some) all it is cracked up to be.  Later, my heroine marries an Italian, facing the challenge as an Italian citizen of colour with panache.  Unlike the aforementioned Memoir author, I tried hard to move beyond Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘single story’, but the reality of life for refugees in Kenya does emerge… I cannot pretend that in 1994-1997, the refugee camps in Kenyan deserts didn’t exist, or that they were lovely places to live, run by uncorrupted altruists.  I cannot pretend that refugees were housed in clean accommodation in Nairobi with running water, electricity and toilets.  Adichie too, writes of war, corruption, poverty and servants.

So… yes.  I reference a little of the book (set from 1994-2004), on a distant experience as a white expat in Kenya to imagine the fictional world of a young Rwandan woman, 20 years ago, though mostly, I use research and imaginary voice.  I do not know if that will work for my readers, African or not.  Obviously I need fiction reviewers who remember life 20 years ago in Kenya and Rwanda to rip my book to shreds when they find something in a voice that does not ring true, before it gets into print.  A painful, but essential part of the process.

 

Incidentally, do ‘African writers’ (a silly term for people from 50 countries with 2000 languages, as Taiye Selasi pointed out,) face the same problems/ criticisms when writing memoir or fiction about ‘Other’ continents?  Do they feel boxed in by their origins, as I do tonight?  I don’t want to make assumptions either way.

A writer, Damyanti Biswas, blogged on ‘voice‘, answering many of the queries raised recently by “The Linton Affair”.  In a response to a Black American author, she wrote: ‘Should the truth of your condition be limited to the fact that you’re Black, or also and equally, that you’re human, that you’re a living, sentient being?’  As a writer, I ask this question of myself all the time, rejecting the real-life categories I am assigned in life.

Lastly, I wonder sometimes whether Western publishers will still want to take a chance on a fictional novel half set in Africa that isn’t written by an African.  I guess I can only wait and see, or throw away 2 years of work and start afresh on politically safe turf this side of the Mediterranean.  The thing is, my wonderful, fictional heroine won’t let me do it.  I have given her a voice, and she won’t be quietened.

Thanks for reading.

My debut novel, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ won the Cinnamon Press Book Award in 2014, and was published in 2015.  A compelling tale of love and loss, it is set in Tajikistan.  For online reviews and info, click here

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Book Review: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a fantastic, tragic, hopeful memoir by still-birth survivor Alice Jolly, who writes honestly and movingly about her grief for her ‘five dead babies’.

Jolly does not hold back in describing her experiences, first with her still-born baby daughter, and later, the other ‘dead babies’ that she miscarries. She describes how she becomes touched by death, feeling as the ‘Spectre at the Feast’. The silence of friends, ignoring and even avoiding the tragic couple. She is harshly critical of IVF, I was pleased to see, as a money making industry giving false hope to childless, desperate couples in their early forties.

Her self-deprecating sense of humour saves the book from slipping into the maudlin, with sentences that had me laughing through the tears. My favourite: ‘On death certificates it says – cancer, stroke, heart attack. It never says – she opened the fridge and, yet again when confronted with the task of turning four sausages and a lump of cheddar into a tasty family meal, she simply lay down and died’.

It helps that she is also a terrific writer, with near perfect prose and beautiful descriptive passages of coastal Britain.  I enjoyed her paragraphs on writing as craft (whether discussing the form of a novel or a memoir – her fears of writing memoir as Me, Me, Me, Moi, Moi, Moi). And her clever use of repetition – the book as an echo chamber – to describe the way life passes by ‘I put the washing machine on, load the dishwasher, hang clothes on the line, write a short story, wipe my son’s nose’).

As well as describing the world of surrogacy, she provides little insights on motherhood, female friendship, writing and faith that rang true. I loved this book, and literally could not put it down.

Proceeds from this book go to SANDS – Still Birth and Neo-natal Death Charity

5 stars
https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/21327053-gardenia-plant