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One Year Wiser?

This Week’s Bit of String: The refusal to shovel

In the UK people don’t really understand about snow. How heavy it can be, layer on layer of it, and how long it can take in, say, 15 F/ -9.4 C when you’re shovelling several inches off your driveway. And then several more.

Growing up, we were fortunate to have a relatively short driveway (by American rural standards, if not by British ones) but shovelling was still a full-family effort.

In theory.

My youngest sister once refused to even do fifteen minutes of shovelling. My parents got her out into the garage, but she stood there for quite some time with no coat, shivering and scowling and resisting the shovel leaning on the garage wall right next to her.

‘You’d be better off getting your fifteen minutes done and then you can just go back inside,’ I suggested.

Average December day in New England: several inches of snow at the abandoned mill.
That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

‘I don’t care,’ she huffed. She must have been thirteen or fourteen, which most of us may remember is a very principled age.

I believe we finished the shovelling without her, in that instance. Looking back, I admire for her for sticking it out, however close she might have come to hypothermia.

As a species, we’re supposed to have a good instinct for self-preservation. But there are a few instances where our principles override our knack for survival. Suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots. As a collective group, the overriding is even harder to counteract, since our instincts don’t work as a herd, or on longterm effects. There doesn’t seem to be an instinct that tells us not to dump hazardous chemicals into the water or air, or even stops us from voting for those that allow it.

Or perhaps there are principles—such as the You’re Not the Boss of Me! principle—which, shall we say, trump those instincts.

A year ago we voted in precisely those types of people. I’m sure a lot of us are reflecting back to Election Day 2016, and probably many feel wistful, wishing it had turned out otherwise. Some from both sides, I imagine, feel smug, that the Trump presidency has turned out as well/ badly as they might have foreseen.

I look back and feel disappointed, not because of who’s president, but because so little has changed. I feel like JK Simmons’ character at the end of the Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading: ‘I guess we learned not to do it again…I’m f***ed if I know what we did!’

What Did We Learn Here?

Last year’s election has been analysed by many, but the conclusions seem to be exactly what you’d expect from the party doing the analysing. There are no surprises. Those of us who followed the election closely can’t be genuinely shocked by revelations of cosiness and possible collusion. Supporters of the rival Democratic candidates continue to see Bernie/ Hillary as totally out of touch and divisive. Certain Republicans, likewise, blame the Bushes and other primary candidates for diluting support of more capable runners.

Two tufty, black-eyed guinea pigs.
Our guinea pigs. We’ll call them Alternative Squirrels for our purposes here.

And any revelations produced by one group to support their cause have been refuted and ignored—not necessarily in that order—by everyone else. Cheeseburger emojis are to Fox News what squirrels were to the dogs in UP.

The Facebook Factor

I didn’t unfriend anyone on Facebook in the wake of the election. Big of me, wasn’t it? But I did unfollow someone for whom I felt fondness, just not enough to tolerate their ‘God is now rewarding us for suffering through the horrors of Obama’ posts. (There are plenty of conservative-leaning people I still follow; it was the frequency and ferocity of this one person’s posts informing my decision at that time.)

I meant to re-follow this ‘friend’ so I could keep up with his welfare and his family, maybe even to hear him out once the furor had died down. Then I forgot. I fear that in doing so, I was part of the wider problem of divisiveness, because I became the sort of person who casts someone aside and forgets them over a mere issue of principle.

Both Sides

Rather hypocritical of me, considering that my inaugural post, also about a year ago, focused on empathy and looking past political views to recognise each other’s humanity. A lot of us were appalled when the President said, after the terrorist attack by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, that there were ‘good people’ among the protesting nationalists, and that violence was committed by ‘both sides.’

Wikipedia entry on Voting Rights: 'Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation of tacos.'
Then sometimes when you probe an issue, you just find tacos.

And yet shouldn’t we keep probing both sides? Surely even those who subscribe to terrible beliefs have a few good points to them? Does the boundary between good people who do the occasional bad thing and bad people who do the occasional good thing fall strictly on political lines? We’re writers, readers, feelers and thinkers. We mustn’t allow our principles to restrict our views.

I have not found the strength to probe these questions as deeply as I intended. I suppose if the election had gone the other way it might have been less daunting. Easier to conduct an autopsy, perhaps, than examine a very belligerent patient.

Next Steps

But probing of a sort continues. My reading material falling on the anniversary of the election and on Remembrance Day is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, which imagines a future world of corpocracies and blind materialism that gets me wondering how truly sustainable my lifestyle is. I’m also reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, because as I wrote when I bought the book from Ms. Eddo-Lodge at Cheltenham Literature Festival, when someone feels they’re not being heard, I want to listen.

Clearly, there are still all manner of people I need to at least try listening to. And I’ve got some good examples to follow. Ms. Eddo-Lodge interviewed British nationalist/ supremacist Nick Griffin as part of her work for this book. See also Gary Younge interviewing Richard Spencer. These journalists have shown great courage in trying to understand an opposing side that threatens them a lot more than it does me.

Have you found it in yourself to talk with people from ‘the other side?’ Has anything from this last year surprised you about your own ‘side?’ These days it seems we’re all out in the freezing cold—but those of us wielding the shovels to clear things up will stay a lot warmer than those who refuse. Maybe we should find out what drives that stubbornness.

An Eventful Week

Bit of String: The Relevance of Little Earthquakes

As a late sixteenth birthday present, I took my son to Tori Amos’ concert in the Royal Albert Hall Wednesday night. He appeared to be the youngest in the huge audience, but he loves Tori’s music, often fully recreating it on the piano by ear, and he recognised every song she played by its opening chord, turning to me to whisper excitedly.

On our way to the concert, he said, ‘I don’t think I’ve asked you this before. I mean, I know you have her music and that’s how I got to know it, but is she one of your favourites, too?’

The answer, of course, is yes. I told him about the Columbia and BMG cassette tape deals of the mid-90s, how you could join their ‘clubs’ and get tapes at cut prices. I used these, as an adolescent, to buy all kinds of music to experiment with what I best related to. I bought Under the Pink as part of my explorations, with Little Earthquakes quick to follow.

She came out with lyrics we didn’t usually hear from singers. Before Alanis Morissette asked ‘Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?’ and Fiona Apple owned being a ‘Criminal’ and a ‘Sullen Girl,’ before Paula Cole got sarcastic about cowboys, there was Tori admitting she wanted to ‘smash the faces of those beautiful boys’ who took advantage of her as a child in ‘Precious Things.’ She reminded us, ‘You’re just an empty cage, Girl, if you kill the bird,’ and she knew we’d been ‘Silent All These Years.’ So I was thrilled to see her live, to enter the Royal Albert Hall, although it was an even bigger thrill to attend with my son and see his joy as he said, ‘I feel so light, I feel like I weigh nothing.’

The Royal Albert Hall stage set for Tori Amos.
The stage is set.

‘It’s the crowd’s reaction when she started playing “Silent All These Years,”’ he said as we wandered through London the next day, making a required stop at the American Embassy and then moving on to the sculpture exhibition in Regents Park and the London Zoo. ‘That’s what makes me so happy, that she’s still really relevant today, and she could see it for herself there.’

I’m intrigued that he takes that away from the event; as a musician he’s pondering relevance and as a teenager he’s already giving some consideration to generativity versus stagnation, Erikson’s late stage of psychological development.

But it also made me think about what makes music—or literature—relevant. In Tori’s case, I think there’s that revelatory quality, of communicating something true (at least for a lot of us) that hasn’t yet been voiced enough.

And as I’ve written before, it’s about creating beauty from pain.

Relevance at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Fast forward to Saturday. Cheltenham Literature Festival day! I love this festival, there’s so much on and the vibe is excellent. My husband came out for the evening with me and we saw comedian Robert Webb (of Mitchell and Webb, as in Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar) speak about his new book, How Not to Be a Boy. He spoke, wryly but warmly, about the difficulties of conforming to gender stereotypes.

Given that my son has such varied interests, you may see why the topic is relevant to me. Here, Mr. Webb has created a piece of work from his own sometimes painful childhood of feeling misfitted. He also put a particularly public voice to what may well be a private dilemma for a lot of people.

A Festival mural depicts travels against a backdrop of giant books.
Mural along one of the marquees at the Festival

Before that, I had been in the Sky Garden Tent with a few hundred others to see Sarah Waters receive the Times Award for Literary Excellence. Having read Fingersmith last year and considering it the most surprising twist I have ever read—and the most well-executed, she was the top of my must-see list for this year’s festival.

Sarah Waters managed to bring lesbian historical fiction into mainstream literature. I suspect that’s hugely relevant to a lot of people. For those of us not that way inclined, it’s still important to read that perspective. I also loved her answer when asked about planning one of her later novels. She said she’d just been through the hard break-up of a longterm relationship.

‘I thought, this has been really awful. So I might as well make some fucking money out of it!’

Fellow writers, I think we’ve all been there. Not making money out of it necessarily, but at least putting our tough times into artistic form, creating characters to carry those burdens for us.

Before the prize-giving, I’d watched a panel discussion on Being Other in Britain Today. Nikesh Shukla talked to June Sarpong and Reni Eddo-Lodge about their books. Check out Mr. Shukla’s campaign to start a quarterly journal of great writing from authors of colour, and the website for June Sarpong’s new book Diversify, which lists practical steps to tackle all our private prejudices.

It was a challenging decision which book to buy after this event. (I can’t buy every single one; I’d go broke.) I chose Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. It seemed the one I might need the most education on. When someone from another sphere of experience feels they’re not being heard, the logical step is undoubtedly for us to listen.

Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s book is based on a blog post she wrote a few years ago. She says she never imagined the piece would go viral; it was something she had to get out of her system. Once she had written her feelings of frustration at how her white friends seemed to ignore her concerns about race, she felt that was that, and didn’t assume dialogue would actually ensue.

Which goes to show, perhaps, that our writing can be relevant and impactful to us even when we don’t do it for a large audience. We can’t really predict how many others might need to read it, can we?

The Writerly Autumn Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Falling in love with fall

In sixth grade we had to write a book each month. All right, they were supposed to be booklets rather than books, but mine were more like the latter. Research articles, questionnaires, collages, and there was always a story required.

I would do a few bits early on, but always ‘saved the best for last,’ which was of course the story, which always threatened to turn into a novella once I finally began it a couple days before the due date.

Nothing to do with procrastination, mind. I was saving the best for last. The ‘easy’ part. The ‘fun’ part.

On the eve of the September or October due dates, I set myself up on the unenclosed deck behind our house. I would write for hours as it got dark. Night swallowed the hydrangea bush and its still-clinging, skeletal flower petals; the apple tree which only gave runty, gnarled, pale green fruits now rotting between its kicked-up roots; the marshy back yard carpeted with crisply curling willow leaves. The smell of decay was sweet, freshened by cold setting in, forcing into retirement the moths that would have rushed the light.

Sun lights up autumn leaves and a hill view.
Dursley Orchard view of Cam Peak, Gloucestershire

I was afraid of the dark. Wildlife lurked in the strand of woods beyond the back yard—I’d had a terrifying encounter with a fisher cat the summer before. But I felt brave to be out there in it. I felt clever and grown up keeping such hours. And I felt my pencil was adequate defence and protection.

That’s possibly when I started to love autumn, and to see it as a great opportunity to create. And if a small Twitter poll I conducted this week is anything to go by, it’s the favoured season for a majority of other writers, too. Why is that?

Starting Over

Despite the Facebook memes, there’s a lot more to fall than horror films and pumpkin spice lattes. I think the reasons we love it and get motivated by it are sociological as much as meteorological.

Fall is back-to-school time. It’s basically New Year’s but without the misery of January. We are embedded with memories of restarting education, mixing with different groups of people, setting higher goals, opening up to fresh ideas. This timetable stays with us well past graduation.

In the thirty-one years since I started kindergarten, I’ve only had three when I wasn’t either heading back to school myself (as a student or teaching assistant), or supporting my son through the start of his school year, or both. And in one of those three outlying Septembers, I had a baby, and in another I emigrated.

Talk about new beginnings.

For writers it’s also the time of quite a few literary festivals. I’m reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival in two weeks (event L322), and Stroud Book Festival in November. Plus I’ll be in the audience for several other events. Perhaps the cooling temperatures make us crave coming together to hear stories. Other writers may be preparing to participate in NaNoWriMo, to have a frantic write before the holiday season.

To be sure, there’s a lot going on. I’ve written before about how winter can be a great time for writing, and that showed to be a relative favourite among writers on my Twitter poll, as well. Autumn is my greatest love. But I often feel as if Thanksgiving comes and goes, I look up from all the work I’ve been doing, and I feel as if I’ve missed the fall.

I’m guessing that happens to other busy writerly types too, so I’ve written this helpful checklist for us.

Autumn Bucket List for Writers

Walking through the spiderwebs: Take advantage of wet weather to wander and observe rain glistening on the spiderwebs. Make sure to look from every angle. Isn’t it rather inspiring that these gems come from hideous creatures we avoid, produced against a backdrop of weather we might prefer to sleep through?

Rainy cobweb over a canal lock mechanism
Stroudwater Canal, Gloucestershire

Make like a tree and leave: Get out and gather as many glorious specimens of autumn leaves as you can find. I strew them along my mantel and shelves and ride them through my memories like tiny magic carpets. Study the intricate network of veins that binds them. And the ones you can’t take home, crush them. Go on, you know you want to.

Can it, dammit: Find some foodstuff and preserve it somehow in a jar. Or in the freezer, but if you use jars you can pretend you’re a pioneer. Then you can feel resourceful, and write about it.

Squirrel! Kick some leaves around in a park and watch the squirrels gathering nuts. What does the world look like through the eyes of a squirrel? I think the animal world has loads of fascinating detail to write down and provoke the imagination (More on this in a future post).

Take yourself back to school: Pursue nonfiction reading, to jumpstart the autumn-as-new-year mentality. I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, with Natalie Haynes’ book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life up next.

Get thee to a book festival, go: The vibe is terrific to get you reading and writing afterwards. I’ll be extending my learning opportunities at a few different talks and literary events. Expect updates soon!

Wear the heck out of your sweaters and scarves: Cultivate that Bohemian artist freezing in a garret look so you can pretend to be a whole different type of pioneer. I may need to refresh my stock of these accessories, but that would mean clothes shopping and would completely counter my goal of enjoying autumn to the max.

Fire at will: Never miss an opportunity for pyrotechnics. Spicy scented candles, an electric blaze in the hearth, Bonfire night—whatever the autumnal occasion, let your imagination be transported by the smell of woodsmoke, the bright dancing flames, the warm crackle and the collective awe.

Celebrate anniversaries: If you’re anything like me, each school year epitomised a new musical revelation. Eighth grade was Les Miserables, eleventh was Tori Amos. Take the chance to revisit how these phenomena might have changed you. And look out for new revelations as the seasons change again.

What will you be trying to fit in this fall?

A New Literary Era

This Week’s Bit of String: ‘I think something might be happening…’

On a sunny New England morning, my mother drove me to my 39-week hospital visit. We were running late for the 9:00 appointment, because I’d been in labour for more than thirty hours, and that rather interfered with my sleep. So she dropped me off at the entrance and I ran (okay, stumbled) upstairs while she went to park.

The male gynaecologist smiled patiently but didn’t bother examining me, I guess because I wasn’t screaming in agony. I was in and out quite quickly, silently miserable despite my lack of screams.

As she accompanied me back to the car park under perfect blue skies, my mother said cautiously, ‘I think something might be happening.’

Damn straight, I thought. Surely my insides squeezing like a toothpaste tube every five to seven minutes for this long is producing some result.

But there was in fact something much bigger happening. As she came up to meet me, she passed workmen listening to the radio. At home we put the TV on instantly, and I watched Dan Rather’s shock as the World Trade Center started collapsing. I remember his words while I vainly attempted to smother the pain with heating pads: ‘May God have mercy on their souls.’

My son at the piano.
16 years old this week.

Exactly fourteen hours after the first plane hit the first Tower, my son was born. I didn’t know anyone who was killed that day. Although I lived in the same corner of the country, I’d barely visited New York City. But bringing a new life into the world that day, under my own very uncertain circumstances, threaded a deep connection within me to the events.

Just as motherhood changed how I write, the terrorist attacks changed how the country wrote. Have you noticed that?

Characteristics

Questioning became literature’s emergent theme, a certain shaken quality to the characters of post-9/11 stories. Main characters have power and talent, but there’s uncertainty that this will be enough, in a world where sunny mornings can end in flame and toxic smoke, where going to work at one of the world’s most famous addresses can result in death.

This prompts a re-exploration of life’s meaning, and an increased tendency for characters to admit their lack of fulfillment. Almost like a survivors’ guilt, not reconciling with victims of the attacks, but trying to reconcile with the circumstances outside our fortunate nation that were causes of, and exacerbated by, the tragedy.

Writers tend to be fairly liberal people, so many were aware of the situations further abroad that may have motivated young radicals to sign on to Al Qaeda’s cause. They would also have noticed the effects of our sometimes heavy-handed response. While this hasn’t resulted in many cases of outright literary rebuke, it often shows in the characters’ actions and thought processes.

And yet the storylines rarely take power from the powerful. Characters find ways to redeem themselves at least in their own eyes without sacrificing too much comfort. This is realistic, perhaps, but also revealing. How much do those of us who are somewhat privileged really want equality?

Examples

First, there are still books dealing with the immediate aftermath which I haven’t read. A fuller list of work dealing with the tragedy is here in The Guardian. My comments are inevitably coloured by other recent reads: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, even Kathryn Spencer’s The Help. Things get shaken up, but the balance of power remains.

Also, spoilers.

One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the world.
Power still stands.

Jennifer Egan’s worthy Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Goon Squad deals with grown-ups, several of them rich music industry figures, growing up again and again. I read this after rereading The Great Gatsby, and was struck by the similar portrayal of roiling anxiety beneath decadence. The characters mention the skyline gap left by the Twin Towers, but principally I see this work as thematically relevant; the feeling the world is ending and maybe we deserve it, maybe we even want to see how it unfolds, but the ones at the top will find a way to survive.

Saturday by Ian McEwan is set across the Atlantic, in the other half of the ‘Special Relationship,’ amidst massive protests against the start of the Iraq War. Both the UK and the story’s protagonist, a well-off surgeon, are forced to question whether they are truly righteous. The main character’s careless traffic violation wreaks havoc in his life, but without major consequences that last beyond the single day in the book. He will be more careful in future, no doubt, and we are glad he’s all right, because he loves his family and tries to do good. But I wish there could have been a happy ending for the poor, chronically ill man he collided with, too.

In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid adds vital perspective by imagining the adventures of a Pakistani Muslim man in America during 9/11. The questioning and the power take on different angles here, because although the main character has talent and some privilege at least in his native country, the real power here is the US, and it seems to have sided against him. The nation may have suffered, but it’s not going to do it quietly. This man has been forced to question whether all he wanted—success in New York City—ever wanted him back.

Finally, of course I must mention Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It links young Oskar’s grief after his father’s death in the World Trade Center to his grandparents’ continuing trauma after the fire-bombing of Dresden. Then it widens the net as Oskar searches New York City for answers, and meets all sorts of people who seem to be searching in their own way. I find this to be a gloriously human book, and as it’s set in the more immediate aftermath of the events, it’s more about survival and redemption than power.

What themes stand out to you post 9/11? What other books offer important perspectives on the event?

 

 

Putting Flesh on the Bones

This Week’s Bit of String: ‘The World’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle’

Sweden, 1628. The country is at war with Poland, so King Gustavus Adolphus orders a mighty ship built, with holes for thirty-two cannons on each side. When each cannon hatch is opened, a carved lion’s head, mid-roar, glares out from the inside of the lifted door. The Vasa is fierce and ornate, and I can just imagine the king promising ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen before.’

But as the Vasa sets off for the very first time, the top-heavy ship starts to list, then sinks after a kilometre, dragging at least thirty to their deaths.

Over three hundred years later, the ship is located and, incredibly, salvaged. Piecing together all the bits that fell off takes twenty-five years, including twelve during which some experts focus on restoring original colours to the statues. The whole Vasa is now a museum in Stockholm.

The Vasa's ornately carved stern castle.
The top portion of the Vasa’s 18-metre stern castle

As breathtaking as the ship is, I am also fascinated by the process of its discovery and restoration. The Vasamuseet exhibits skeletons found on the ship, and details what scientists and historians have learned from them. They’ve created digital, 3D portraits of the Vasa’s victims, based on their skulls. Turns out skulls don’t all look the same (although I got the impression they did when I visited the Catacombs in Paris). Small differences in eye socket and mouth shape and position indicate not just where those features were, but also how facial muscles connected to them, and from there offer clues to flesh out the faces.

This all made me think about story development. (Come on, any writer would.) How do we flesh ideas out into full stories?

The Idea (Skeleton)

We get ideas (when we’re lucky). Those are just the bones, washed up from the relentless tide of busy everyday life.

An idea can be a name, a phrase, an image, a what if, a combination of these. At work we’re planning a trip to a Halloween ‘frightmare,’ and it made me wonder what it’s like for those people who are paid to jump out and scare you all night long. Does that have some kind of effect on the psyche? I don’t know what the story would look like, but the what if is not migrating from my brain.

The Questions (Muscles)

We then ask questions about our idea. It’s not an interrogation, but an investigation. It’s exciting, not demanding. This forms the foundation of plotting.

Rows of bones in the Catacombs, Paris
Catacombs. Imagine if they hired scarers to work here! Or, nearly as terrifying, imagine having THIS many ideas to flesh out…

The questions tell us how it all works, so they are the muscles driving this thing. Does someone choose to take a job scaring people? Why would they make this choice? What is their everyday life like? How will this job affect it?

I had a little Twitter discussion about story development. Children’s writer Michael Mahin pointed me to his great post on planning a story around a central question. This is your ultimate What If, a little like your hook.

It’s worth noting that a muscle-bound face (if that’s a thing) would not be particularly pleasant. Don’t overthink the plotting of your story. Plot needs to be an unfolding, not a firing off of facts. Asking why is at least as important as asking what happened.

Also, questions are a great facilitator of ideas, of digging up the bones in the first place. If you’re stuck at the first stage, here are tips from Helen Taylor to generate your own writing prompts.

The Connections (Tissue)

Once we know more about our idea, we have to fit together the beginning, middle, and end of what we’re actually going to tell. Now the planning really takes off.

Among the responses I had on Twitter, quite a few people mention Post-Its or outlining to keep track of these different points. I take down various scribbles myself.

We might use music to inspire us. Julie Rea, a Scottish Book Trust winner, described almost the exact process I tend to use in her tweet: ‘Jot idea down in a pad. Listen to music with the ‘feel’ of the story, jot down more ideas. Weeks could pass. Sketch a rough outline-write!’ (I insert a few hikes, and more than enough sleepy, jolty, subconscious-jabbing bus commutes.)

Flashers’ Club and Writers HQ Cheltenham guru Alex Clark tweets about longer works like novels, ‘Plotting happens in a very ploddy, non-magical way.’ I love this phrase and have found it to be pretty accurate.

Of course, the process totally varies. As a couple of people pointed out, the original idea will often be two-fold: image plus phrase, for example. And with short stories, it often just cascades into place. Whatever you’ve read recently, whatever you’ve seen and heard, the idea acts as a magnet and pulls the most salient bits into its field.

The Actual Writing (Skin)

Then we write, my friends. A fair number of us will write anyway, and structure afterwards, at least with short stories. This bit can feel like magic, actually. I’ve been working on a story this week from an idea that came to me at 4:30 Tuesday morning. I just started writing it, and the next bits continually feed themselves to the page.

These are the moments when I feel I must be doing something right. What comes out at the end will probably need a lot of contouring, cosmetics, maybe even plastic surgery. The resulting face may not be glamorous but hopefully there will be an authenticity and more than a spark of interest to it.

A Statue is to History as a Facebook Profile Picture is to Life

This week’s bit of string: A doctor and a gentleman

In Central Park, a statue pays homage to Dr. J. Marion Sims, a pioneer of gynaecology who founded the New York Women’s Hospital, the first hospital expressly for women. He is described on the statue’s plaque as a philanthropist who advanced the reputation of American medical practice throughout the world. This influential doctor is also memorialised elsewhere, including on State House grounds in South Carolina.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sims is also known for his sadism. He made his scientific advances by experimenting without anaesthetic on slave women in the nineteenth century. As protester Seshat Mack notes in this New York Daily Post article, ‘he was a man who recognized the humanity of black slaves to use them for medical research about the human body — but not enough to recognize and treat their pain during surgery.’

A statue is a melodramatically posed likeness of a single person, often designed and made decades after their death. That is not history. People advocating the relocation of confederate statues aren’t trying to erase history; they’re giving voice to a more authentic one. It’s not a question of whether Dr. Sims and the confederacy existed, but of whether they deserve honour.

I’m not suggesting history is relative and that people can take from it what they want to. I’m saying it’s big, and that people will try to take from it what they want. We have to constantly watch out for that.

Worthy Monuments

With their ability to portray multiple facets of an event, maybe books are some of our more effective memorials. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was ten, already intrigued by the period. The idea of the Underground Railroad drew me; the excitement of escaping slavery. Even after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which doesn’t exactly gloss things over, I could not have grasped the magnitude of people for whom there was no escape. It’s still hard to imagine the despair of living in that situation for generations.

Purposefully rusted metal monuments in Gheluvelt Park
Gheluvelt WWI Memorial. Each column represents two months of the war, while just one centimetre of height represents 500 casualties.

What statue, memorial, or even work of literature can convey the suffering of possibly millions of slaves?

Comparatively speaking, I have not much considered the stories of confederate soldiers: ordinary, often poor men persuaded or conscripted into a horrific war. Some of the statues being removed are also memorials to those men, engraved with names of the town’s dead. Does bravery for a bad cause still deserve honour? It’s easy to imagine that a lot of those names refer to decent people, so I sympathise that those memorials mean something to their descendants.

But they aren’t the only piece of history. Some confederate statues are put up on former slave auction site. Hang on, who sacrificed what here? Surely the ones in chains, sold to bolster a white economy, should be remembered. It makes sense to relocate confederate statues to museums or private collections. Government and municipal buildings may sometimes showcase only one side of history, but let’s attempt not to use such a jagged-edged fragment of it.

Meaningful Memorials

In Bristol, UK, near where I now live, a venerable music hall is soon to be renamed. It was called Colston Hall, after a city benefactor (or at least, after the street that’s named after him). However, that philanthropist was also heavily involved in the slave trade, instrumental in the kidnapping of 85,000 Africans.

Cascading pools in the footprint of the World Trade Center
Ground Zero

I have enjoyed shows at Colston Hall. Those bands and memories will still exist under a new venue name. And I’m happy for the change. Who really wants to say, ‘Well, you may have been oppressed and brutalised by something for generations, but I wasn’t, so who cares?’

I doubt many people attending concerts at Colston Hall will notice the name change. Before the renaming campaign, most of us didn’t have a clue who Colston was. Similarly, how many times do we encounter a statue in a park or town centre and actually read the informational plaque, however sparse and biased? There’s not so much honour in being a statue, loved more by pigeons than anyone else.

These days monuments tend not to be statues. We’ve moved on in our attempts to portray the gravity of a tragic event. The World War I memorial in Gheluvelt Park, Worcester, represents the number of casualties in every month of the war. It introduces a staggering sense of scale. Other recent monuments encourage reflection. The pools at Ground Zero and Oklahoma City—my uncle called the latter the most memorable thing he saw in an entire cross-country trip.

Could there possibly be such a memorial to slaves? Could we replace the likenesses of individual confederate figures with a confederacy monument that recognises its bravery yet also the brutal ugliness of its cause? I suspect a truly effective version of either one of those things would be more than just a statue.

Stories Worth Translating

This Week’s Bit of String: Language barrier in a cafe

My favourite cafe gets crowded during lunch hour. I managed to grab one of the little tables upstairs, but diagonal to me a woman and her late-teen son and daughter sat on one end of a longer wooden table while an older couple sat with their little granddaughter on the other end.

The grandparents only spoke French. They were visiting their bilingual granddaughter. The woman opposite could speak very little but English.

This did not stop her talking to her unknown tablemates. First she noted that she and the elderly Frenchwoman had the same colour iPhone case. ‘Rose gold. Rosé?’ Ah, the transcendent powers of technology.

Table at window with street view of Stroud.
Occasionally treating myself to a lunch hour of writing and yumminess at Woodruffs Organic Cafe.

Then she did her best to tell the couple about the local village where she and her children lived. ‘It’s very old, very pretty—yes, jolie? It’s jolie, I think? And hills, lots of hills. Mond, montes? Hills?’

It occurred to her that if only her sister were around, the difficulty would be solved. ‘My sister—ma soeur—she speaks—how do you say speaks in French? How do you say fluently?’

And on like this for some time. She felt the need to convey to them, battering against the language barrier, that her mother had first become a grandmother at a younger age than the woman herself now was.

I started to wonder whether the woman was just desperate not to talk to her own children, who sat politely, murmuring hopeful foreign phrases to bolster her floundering. Why was it necessary to tell the French couple these things? Surely France has hilly villages. Surely it has young grandmothers. We already see it has rose gold iPhone cases.

Women in Translation

August is Women in Translation Month, raising awareness of women who write in other languages, and women who bridge the gap between us. Just this year I’ve read three books written and translated by women: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent (translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon), The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette), and Human Acts by Han King (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith).

All three of these books were excellent, telling memorable tales in haunting voices. The stories they told were distinctive to their countries. They were slices of history or current events. I felt better educated by each, and not a little fortunate to live in a nation with small problems in comparison.

In other words, I was reading about our differences. Some of the issues described in each book: relationships, job insecurity, health problems—are human problems we all deal with, but they were sharply twisted by the different type of political chaos in each case.

So I wondered, what about our similarities? Are those worth talking about sometimes?

Translation Pre-Requisites

Translated works are subject to the whims of the market, as much as other books are. Jade Boyd, who earned her Masters in translation at the University of Bristol, reminded me when I asked about the process that usually a book would first be successful in its native language before its publishers invest in translation.

This means that a translated book must first meet the standards all our books are (theoretically) held to. I summed them up a few weeks ago, but to echo that again: a striking setting, unique voice, and original hook are important.

Glass monument with names of murdered Jews in a park in Paris.
Holocaust memorial in Paris at the Place René Viviani. My own attempt at translation: “Read their name; your memory is their monument.”

With the translated books I’ve read recently, the author’s nationality and culture were pivotal in achieving those three essentials. So it’s not surprising, really, that different stories are the ones being told.

And as I said before, that’s a good thing. We want to hear new stories, to learn other histories, and we certainly want them told in their Own Voices. But while we seek out differences, we must not be blind to similarities, or to perceptions. Jade enlightened me about the concept of habitus: ideas and dispositions conditioned by our surroundings and upbringing, which influence how we interpret things.

Translators are trained to be aware of their own habitus as they work. I doubt the mass markets are, though. Was a South Korean tale of rebellion and the breakdown of societal structure big news because it contradicts our stereotypes of the region? Was The Queue a successful import because it portrays secular Middle Eastern protagonists more than Muslim ones?

We should watch for the influence of habitus as we venture into foreign literature. When we read about struggles in distant lands, let’s consider whether we prefer characters to be quite different from us, perhaps so we can tell ourselves it would never happen here. Is that healthy, or realistic? Is it interfering with our ability to empathise?

For more reading during Women in Translation month and beyond, there are great recommendations in this Women Writers Network chat, and on Rita Gould’s blog. You can follow the WITmonth hashtag on Twitter, and there’s also this fascinating insight into translation from Lucy North on Bookwitty.

Many of those offerings look intriguing and wonderful. My next stop, however, might be Asleep or The Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. Their blurbs don’t play up foreign settings, but rather present stories of relationships and inner turmoil that might end up being surprisingly recognisable. Something a little similar for a change.

Happy explorations, everyone!

Books Aren’t Babies

This Week’s Bit of String: A Boy’s Hilltop Breakdown

On an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, we climbed the Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern hills, turning the last upward twist to find the summit already crowded. Dogs checked each other out, dads promised junior travellers ice cream once they reached the bottom again. A multigenerational family group posed for a photo at the Jubilee monument. And two women tried to corral the five overtired children between them to a bench for a rest.

Four of the kids obliged, but a wiry little boy with a flushed face refused, trying to pull his hand away, protesting in a voice so strangled with distress I couldn’t make out the words.

‘All right,’ his mother said. She had a clear, somewhat upper class accent. ‘If you want to sit here, we’ll sit here.’

Malvern Hills
The Malvern Hills. So many paths.

They all perched on the rim of the hilltop. She pointed out the view’s attractions to the other children and speculated on what wildlife might be around.

She had folded the boy into her lap, and while his feet still scrabbled at the ground as if desperate to dig himself in, his fingers clung, curled over her shoulder so tightly they whitened.

And despite her calm tone, I suspected she was clinging back. She seemed well-practised at handling this type of meltdown. Perhaps her son’s difficulties were recurring and lay somewhere on the autism spectrum.

The feeling I got from the scene, her secret wish that pervaded me, was to grasp him up here forever, long after everyone else had climbed down and found their ice creams. To keep him high above the noises of the world, where the rabbit-nibbled grass was soft and the few rocky outcroppings formed seats and benches. To let him be free of the world’s eyes that judge difference so harshly.

Isn’t it the most gut-wrenching thing, releasing our children, with their peculiarities so cherished by us, their vulnerabilities so beloved, into view of everyone else?

Create, Revise, Release, Repeat

The works we create as writers are often portrayed as our offspring. We love them and view them as extensions of ourselves, so we want to protect them. It can hurt—a lot—when the world gives them a less resounding reception than we’d like.

But I think sending work out is not so very fraught. When stories bounce back to us from an unsuccessful competition bid or magazine query, we can patch their scrapes and even perform major reconstructive surgery on them without causing anyone pain (apart from maybe ourselves).

Sure, we write about characters to give them a voice, and we want the world to listen. But the characters themselves don’t know the difference. Rejections apply solely to us, our work and maybe our voice, no one else’s. We learn to carry this burden: personally, I let loose some of my least impressive language under my breath, go off and do something else, then before long I get back to the work and make changes.

We learn a bit of ventriloquism, don’t we? To throw our voices a little and see if that does our characters more favours.

Giant spiders on a house with the words 'Face Your Fear' beside them
I mean, what are we waiting for? There are far scarier things than submitting stories.

That’s nothing compared to seeing our kids in pain. I remember my son’s agonised scream, his whole three-year-old body going rigid, when a helium party balloon slipped his clutch and drifted skyward. His grief over that balloon pierced me at least as sharply as any rejection letter ever has. Then there’s the odd bullying incident. A romantic break-up. Merely recounting these is too terrible.

We don’t want our kids to have to modify their voices excessively. We don’t want the world to perform its nips and tucks. We may change our stories to be worthier of the world, but we will toil endlessly to make the world worthier of our children.

So when we wax poetic (hyberbolic?) about the strain of sending stories out into the world, let’s remember there’s little to fear. Nothing is at stake but our own pride, and nothing is beyond reach of repair. Send your book out there! It can stand the risk.

And maybe we can use our writing, if we keep tweaking it to deeper efficacy, to influence the world and make it a gentler place for people like the boy on the hilltop and his mum.

 

How Do They Get Away With It?

This Week’s Bit of String:

‘When he offers me a ring—any day now—it had better have a four-figure price tag. If it’s tacky or gold, I’m not touching it.’ The senior boasted to a couple of us freshmen, curling her lip as she watched her alleged almost-fiance bantering with the younger students.

He was a student himself, so how he managed to scrape enough funds for a ring, I’m not sure. I didn’t know either of them well. Maybe, friendly as he seemed, he’d let her down before, so she needed a deposit on her love. Or he could have had a hidden source of wealth–possibly something she’d helped him scheme to get, a Macbeth-type plot they both colluded in.

At the time, I was chronically single, and the girl’s demands rankled. Why did she have a partner when I did not? How did she get away with such an unyielding attitude?

I’ve been considering the balance of demands and the possible merits of being artistically unyielding as I query agents on behalf of my novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds. I’ve had kind, personal, so-close-but-not-quite rejections from very big agents. It’s nearly time to try a few more.

Before I do, I want to adjust the first couple of pages. We all know how important those are, and I’m not naive enough to think I can do whatever I like with them.

First Page Requirements

If you are also a writer, you’ve probably done a tonne of research on this already. Here are just a couple of sample blogs on how to, or how not to, write a great first page. Your story must feature in its opening:

*An sympathetic and intriguing protagonist

*No more than two characters; avoid overload.

*Unique voice

*Accessible, appealing style

*An indication of setting that is, again, simultaneously exciting yet familiar, clearly conveyed yet concisely described.

*At least a sense of the conflict or need driving the action. That’s the hook.

Statue of Lady Macbeth, trying to clean her soiled hands.
Lady Macbeth statue in Stratford-Upon-Avon. A ruthlessly unyielding but endlessly captivating character.

How do we perform that balancing act between introducing excitement yet setting the scene and not overwhelming the reader? How do we introduce something original while keeping it conventional enough so the agent spots its appeal to a wide market? What if, as in my novel, the inciting action takes place in a somewhat crowded place so you have to introduce a few characters while enabling it all to kick off in a timely fashion?

Honestly, I don’t know. We each have our own first pages we need to write; our own beloved characters and settings to sell, our own ever-evolving hooks and our own special styles and voices to develop. To get there, we practise constantly, and weigh every phrase.

At the point when this challenge feels more impossible than rewarding, I sometimes fall prey to some mental whining. I think about the many books I’ve read, classic or contemporary, which haven’t followed those rules and made excessive demands of the reader. Does that happen to anyone else?

Rule Breakers

When I pick up a book, I don’t expect to be gripped instantly. I know the story’s engine takes a few pages to go from naught to sixty. Apart from reading on my bus commute, my big reading time is on the treadmill, and I always ensure I’m a chapter or two in before I take a book running. Otherwise it will never take my mind off the Herculean effort I’m sweating out.

So why do other people expect instant gratification? And what about all those cases where it takes more than a page or two before anything really happens?

Pink toilet, basin, and bidet set offered free on a lawn
‘Good shit: FREE!’ Maybe I should use that in my query letter?

Looking at this sample roundup of great first lines, many of them are beautiful, or quirky, but not necessarily exciting. Great opening lines don’t have to be super suspenseful. I put Margaret Atwood and Louis de Bernieres in my list of most reliable openers. One of their books I could probably take on the treadmill from the first line (and Lee Child, but shh don’t tell).

These writers have proved their worth and can take as much time as they like to spin their tale. But what about novice ones that have hit it big? A few times I’ve picked up an acclaimed book only to find myself trudging through it. Even if the first sentence is interesting, the plot ends up creaking with excessive padding, as if it’s waddling forth in a sumo suit. Ahem, The Miniaturist…

The book may be so gritty it doesn’t offer a single tolerable character—Casual Vacancy, anyone? Or so edgy it’s almost unintelligible.

That last is my current problem. I’m reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear Mcbride, and I’m struggling. I like a challenge, and unique stylistic choices can be great. But usually there’s a reason for them, as in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, for example, where the switching between present and past tense narration is confidently, briefly alluded to in the narrator’s own self-analysis. But in the case of McBride’s prizewinning novel, the haphazard language and lack of complete sentences for 205 pages straight (I’m really counting them down) has no discernible link to the main character’s voice. If anyone else has spotted it, please do let me know.

This isn’t to say the book’s not effective. Sure, I’m a bit jealous, but I have to admire Ms. McBride for her unyielding loyalty to her ideas. She screwed her courage to the sticking post. And although I don’t think the inscrutable character or somewhat conventional plot will linger with me, the language. Does. Sharp pebbles river rolling through mind. Stale tired breath against.

Still, even if I wanted to attempt it—how would I ever get away with it?

Sign Language Poetry

This Week’s Bit of String: Children’s hands tied to their chairs

Imagine going to a special school, for children who share with you a unique difference from much of the world. But if you use this difference, you’ll be punished. This school tries to make you as un-different as possible, in accordance with the wishes of Those Who Know Best.

It would be a bit like taking Defence Against the Dark Arts without being allowed to do magic, wouldn’t it?

Shockingly, this was the experience for many hearing impaired children from 1880, when hearing people took over the deaf schools and prohibited sign language, through the 1960s and possibly even the 70s. One woman who went to deaf school in the 70s remembers that if she were caught signing there—despite coming from a deaf family with whom she signed all the time at home, not to mention her classmates were deaf—her hands would be tied behind her to her chair.

Curbing minority languages has a long history. African slaves brought to Haiti were banned from drumming, as they’d used drums to communicate over long distances. The drum again became an important art form to Haitians once they’d battled their freedom back. Gaelic and Welsh were previously marginalised by the British education system before making a comeback.

Likewise, sign language is once again a vital means of communication for the hearing impaired. It is becoming more of a fixture in public life, too, including at Ledbury Poetry Festival on the 8th of July, when I attended an event showcasing British Sign Language (BSL) Poetry.

Sign Art
Tudor street in Ledbury
Ledbury street

I’m ashamed to say it never occurred to me that sign language poetry existed (also known as sign art). I was thankful for the opportunity to be enlightened.

Ledbury’s event featured the signed poetry of Paul Scott. How can you have poetry without words? Well, poetry is more than just words, I would argue. It is emotion, rhyme and rhythm. You can have all those things without words.

Mr. Scott makes his poems rhyme by using repeated hand gestures, coming back to the same signed refrain, in a way. There is certainly rhythm in his movement. These elements were further illustrated at this performance with Victoria Punch’s ‘vocal gestures.’ She did not use words to echo Mr. Scott’s poetry, but sang notes and sounds to correspond with his phrases. This way, she did not detract attention from his language but lent emphasis to its patterns.

The performance was further complemented by film-poetry by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron. Most of the images used were abstract, and timed to correspond with Mr. Scott’s phrasing, as Ms. Punch’s vocals were. In all, this became a rich sensory experience while also allowing us a glimpse into the world of those whom some might see as sensorily deprived. Very fitting, as the message of Mr. Scott’s poems is that he feels the world deeply and wants us to know he is not deprived.

Matters of Translation

Because BSL uses a different syntax to English, hostess Kyra Pollitt did not offer a straightforward interpretation, but gave a summary of the poems between performances. This method made me realise the power of sign language. A single hand motion and/ or facial expression can indicate a great deal, without equivalent sentences being necessary. These generously provide the emotion necessary to poetry.

Tudor-sided corner building with gothic-style tower.
Ledbury’s former library building

Signed poetry can easily utilise the second person point of view. Mr. Scott’s poem ‘Who Stole My Heart’ implicated us as an audience, not in an excessively accusing way, but by making us aware of issues that concern him. Some of the audience felt this new language was more open to interpretation, but it seemed very direct to me (particularly when teamed with the preceding summary, the vocals and the film).

Other unique sign language qualities which enhance poetry: it allows for simultaneous symbols, which can add layers of meaning. It’s also a constantly, rapidly evolving means of communication, enabling the creation of new words to suit the work. There’s a cinematic aspect to it: sign language poets can zoom in or out, pan or freeze. As Ms. Pollitt described the art form, it creates ‘a collage of experience, making a medley.’

This uplifting event forced me to realise how intimate, and perhaps healthy it is to have an occasional holiday from words. I don’t know about you, but for me as a writer I’m often describing or narrating things in my mind. Of course it’s good to keep exercising those author muscles, but sometimes the phrases we’re turning turn our attention from the people in front of us.

This, on the other hand, was poetry with its heart on its sleeve, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s scary that this form of communication was repressed for so long and generations missed out on learning from it–but as so often happens, trying to stifle a group of people results in feeding their resourcefulness and creativity. For other examples of sign language poetry, here is DeafFirefly’s website, linking to her YouTube channel and to the pages of other sign language poets.