The Nurturing Power of Inspiring Women

I’m fully aware that I’ve had wonderfully supportive men in my professional and personal life as well, but at this particular point in my life, I am thirsting for that generous nurturing that can come from the women you aspire to become some day.

With thanks to L’Atelier Writers for the image.

I have been fortunate to have great female role models encourage and inspire me at just the right inflection points in my life. The meetings were brief and I doubt that any of them will remember me, but for me they were life-changing. Naomi Shihab Nye encouraged me to start writing poetry (again). Laura Kasischke and Kathleen Jamie engaged with my poetry and made me feel I had something to say after all. Sarah Savitt (then at Faber, now at Virago) loved the beginning of my novel and encouraged me to finish it prestissimo – sorry, Sarah, life intervened, but I WILL finish! Michele Roberts gave me feminist support and solidarity when my marriage was breaking down. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books is just the most caring and passionate individual I’ve ever met in publishing, she envelopes you like a warm hug and is an absolute tonic when you are down. My triad of charmed and charming women writers who organise the most wholesome, funny and productive writing retreat in the world, L’Atelier Writers (namely, Michelle Bailat Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen)… and the participants I met there, who have become my creative sisters.

The three most recent examples are Nicola Barker and Ali Smith, as well as my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss. Here are some of their thoughts that particularly stuck with me.

I admire Nicola Barker’s commitment to remaining ‘ferociously innocent’ (instead of jaded or cynical) and her ability to find joy and playfulness in writing. She is aware that her writing has been described as difficult, and that not a lot of people read her, but she believes that experimental writers are ‘bottom feeders, virtually unseen in the depths of the ocean, but somehow something percolates up towards the top.

Meanwhile, Ali Smith is aware that her ‘Brexit novel series’ will be out of date in just a couple of years, but she feels compelled to witness the times in something other than journalism, and hopes it will give us a snapshot of what it felt like to be at this particular point in history. She described writing these books as ‘being in the middle of a powerful storm, trying to capture the roar’.

Last but not least, it is such a privilege to work with a mentor for poetry. Someone who reads your work very closely, who asks you about your intention and really listens, doesn’t impose her point of view but tries to work with you to make your poem as good as it can possibly be. I came home last night after a busy and difficult day at work, tired from the commute, doubled up in pain from yet another over-abundant period, mentally exhausted with all the back to school prep. Rebecca was generous with her time, praise and thoughts and I left the session with little wings attached Hermes-like to my swollen ankles…

#SixDegrees April 2019: From How to Be Both

I’m still on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but I could not resist joining in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked from one book to the next to form a total of six. The reason why I particularly wanted to take part this month is because Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is the starting point and it’s a book that I’ve been really curious about (I like outrageously experimental ideas) but somehow still haven’t read.

I have read one other book that relies on a dual narrative, however, and is very experimental (although not in the publishing format) and that is Michèle Roberts’ Flesh and Blood, which makes the reader work to piece together the two halves of the story of a broken relationship between mother and child, like doing up a zip.

From here it’s just a small step to Michèle Roberts’ memoirs Paper Houses, which I greatly enjoyed, and not just because I had the good fortune to meet the author and attend one of her workshops. This has everything that I ever dreamt of in my teens: living, working and loving in London in the 1970s, being part of the Spare Rib collective, marching and protesting, being an ardent feminist and also a lover of men, a thoughtful, introverted writer and also a sociable global nomad.

Political protests form the link to my next book. One that I’ve not read but am very interested in, if only I could find it in a library: The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton, set in Cairo in 2011. The government is crumbling; the people are in open revolt; and two members of the political underground, Mariam and Khalil, are determined to change the world as the meaning of revolution evolves in front of them.

Another revolution, another city links to my next choice: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which was the blight of my Year 7 English. It wasn’t so much the story itself that annoyed me but having to analyse it to death in a class that couldn’t care less about the whole matter.

One book that we also had to read at school in Year 8 or 9 was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which definitely appealed more to all of us. A science fiction/horror classic. Now that I look back on the reading choices at our English school (Lord of the Flies was another), I can see that they were quite conservative and very UK-centred, although we were supposedly an international school.

My final choice, however, is a bit more international and was the book we read in our French class: Vipère au poing, that ‘cheery’ family drama by Hervé Bazin. Good choice from our French teacher, because it’s a vivid, shocking, often funny book of teenage rebellion. The evil mother Folcoche made such a strong impression on me that I’ve never quite forgotten her or the book.

So my literary association journey this month was mainly based around London and Paris, Britain and France, with a stopover in Cairo. Also, a predominance of the colours red and green in terms of covers. Where will your literary chain take you?



The Lure of London’s Literary Links

I tried to find more ‘l’ words to add to the alliteration, but this will have to do for now.

Petina Gappah in The Independent.
Petina Gappah in The Independent.

One of the advantages of moving back to the UK and living just a short train hop from London is that I can now attend some of the bookish events which I could previously only dream about and retweet enviously. Let me tell you about a couple I’ve attended and some which I won’t be able to attend, but which sound intriguing.

The Word Factory Salon: Sex and Death and Anais Nin (Waterstones Piccadilly, 10th Sept.)

Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.
Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.

An unusual evening, as it covered multiple topics: the launch of a short story anthology Sex and Death, edited by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall, with readings from the book; reading from a previously unpublished story by Anais Nin (which caused a little bit of embarrassment); and a lively, informal literary debate about Jane Eyre, squirmishness in writing about sex, and cultural approaches to death. I had the pleasure of seeing two writers formerly associated with the Geneva Writers’ Group at this event: Petina Gappah has lived and worked in Geneva for a number of years, while Michèle Roberts was an unforgettable guest instructor. Petina is one of the funniest panelists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, while Michèle is thoughtful and perfectly candid at all times.

I have made a note of Word Factory, a national organisation dedicated to studying and celebrating the short story form, and hope to attend more of their events.

Lunch with Zygmunt Miłoszewski (19th Sept.)

Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.
Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.

One of the most promising Polish authors of recent years, Miłoszewski is best known for his gritty crime fiction trilogy featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but he has explored other genres (horror, young adult fantasy) and is currently writing a literary novel about an old couple who get the chance to relive their lives in an alternative post-war Poland. I love the way Zygmunt discusses insidious problems in contemporary Polish society via his crime novels, and getting a chance to talk to him about the ways in which our respective countries have changed since ‘opening up to the West’ was enlightening. This was also an opportunity to meet Zygmunt’s translator, the ebullient Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who taught herself Polish (after studying Russian at university), and several reviewers whose knowledge I hugely admire, such as Barry Forshaw (of Brit Noir and Nordic Noir fame), Karen Robinson from the Sunday Times and Boyd Tonkin, great supporter of translated fiction and founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

In case you are wondering what on earth I was doing in such elevated company – I was representing the Crime Fiction Lover website (our editor Garrick Webster lives a bit further away from London and passed on his invitation to me). Thank you, Midas PR, for my first literary lunch!

Launch of Louise Beech’s second book (Waterstones Piccadilly, 22nd Sept.)

I wasn’t actually aware that the launch of Louise Beech’s novel The Mountain in My Shoe was happening that very evening, but I was going to London anyway to attend the event just below. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books told me about it on Twitter, so I couldn’t resist. Where would I be without my Twitter recommendations?

Crime in the Court (Goldsboro Books, 22nd Sept.)

Did you know that the very first trip I made when I came to London to study was to Cecil Court to see the (now-defunct) Dance Bookshop and leaf through the books at all the other glorious bookshops on that hidden corner of central London? It’s a very special place to me, and so I can’t think of a better venue for a crime writing mingle with many of my favourite authors attending: Sarah Hilary, Alex Marwood, Kate Medina, Stav Sherez, Sarah Ward, Belinda Bauer and many more.

Pictures from last year's event, from Goldsboro Books website.
Pictures from last year’s event, from Goldsboro Books website.

Below are events which I sadly won’t be able to attend, as I also have to earn a living rather than just spend money on train tickets:

First Monday for Crime (City University, 3rd Oct.)

SJ Watson, Antonia Hodgson, Stuart Neville and William Ryan will talk about their books and crime in general, in a panel moderated by Karen Robinson.

London Literature Festival (South Bank, 5-16 October)

In a world which is starting to be frighteningly close to the realm of science fiction, how can the imagination give us access to other worlds which cast light back on our own? And what role can writers play in showing us better worlds to come? That’s the theme of this year’s festival in and around the South Bank, where writers, futurologists and transhumanists (whatever that might be) will come together to celebrate the power of the imagination to take us beyond our expectations as a species. I am trying to convince my older son that he would love the Young Adult Weekender event.

Words at King’s Place

I once attended an excellent event on translation here, during one of my multiple business trips to London. It’s a new cultural venue and has a varied and extremely tempting programme of classical music, jazz and spoken word events. I’ve been wistfully eyeing the Poetry London Autumn Launch, the homage to John Berger, and ‘Up at a Villa’ – about that fateful summer of 1816 when Frankenstein and other monsters were unleashed on the world. And all from the shores of placid Lake Geneva! [This is the next best thing to actually staying in the villa itself.]

Villa Diodati, Geneva
Villa Diodati, Geneva

May Reading/ Halfway Through the Year

farfromtreeThis is a post to wrap up not only my reading for May, but also a half year’s worth of reading. I am happy to report that I’m just over halfway through my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books for 2014, so this might be a good point to take stock of which books have really astounded or delighted me thus far.

First, the May summary. It’s been a month of very diverse reading and 6 out of 15 have been foreign books.

3 Non-Fiction:

The brilliant ‘Far from the Tree‘ by Andrew Solomon, the puzzling ‘The Fly Trap‘ by Fredrik Sjoberg and the riotous memoir of the 70s and feminism by Michele Roberts ‘Paper Houses’. I have really found a kindred spirit in Michele Roberts and hugely admire her courage and sacrifices in order to focus so single-mindedly on her writing.

1 Poetry Collection:

Father Dirt‘ by Mihaela Moscaliuc – Hard-hitting and heart-breaking

5 Crime Fiction or Thriller:

ColdStealSpy thriller by Stella Rimington ‘The Geneva Trap‘, the short story anthology ‘In a Word, Murder’, ‘Cold Steal‘ by Quentin Bates, the domestic psychological drama of ‘All the Things You Are’ by Declan Hughes and the unputdownable ‘Cry Baby’ by David Jackson.

6 Other Genres:

Frothy satire of writing courses ‘Writing Is Easy‘ by Gert Loveday

Long-winded and ominous, but not as illuminating as a real Greek tragedy ‘The Secret History‘ by Donna Tartt

Satire that seems even more apt and sinister in the wake of the European elections ‘Er ist wieder da’ (Look Who’s Back) by Timur Vermes

Painful depiction of the breakdown of a toxic marriage ‘Une affaire conjugale‘ by Eliette Abecassis

A family saga of post-war Japan – a reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights for the modern world ‘A True Novel‘ by Minae Mizumura

A graphic novel with a rather similar theme of family secrets and growing up in post-war Japan ‘A Distant Neighbourhood’ by Jiro Taniguchi

CryBabyMy favourites this month? ‘Cry Baby’ in crime fiction, because I found it impossible to stop myself from reading it all the way to the end. A rarer quality than one might suppose, even in thrillers. This links to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted at Mysteries in Paradise.

And, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the stately pace and melancholy of ‘A True Novel’. [I am not including the non-fiction or poetry here, but they deserve a special mention, for they were all outstanding.]

Now for the half-year round-up. I’ve read 79 books this year (yeah, it’s been a slow couple of months at work, so I’ve had more time for reading). If I’ve added up all the numbers correctly, here is the balance of the year so far (some books fit in more than one category, so the totals won’t make sense).

Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.
Japanese edition of Volume 2 of A True Novel.

8 books in French, 3 in German and 19 translations – so 38% of my reading has been foreign. Surprising result, I expected it to be much more! Curious to see if this changes by the end of the year. I’m very pleased I managed to stick to my plan of reading at least one book per month in French, though (since I am living in France and need to improve my French).

43 books have been of the crime fiction and thriller persuasion, so about 54% of my reading. This is less than last year, although I have continued reviewing crime for Crime Fiction Lover website. I have also read 5 poetry books, so about one a month, which is essential (and the absolute minimum) for a working poet. I have also read 9 non-fiction books (11%) – one of the highest proportions in a long while. So it would be fair to say that my reading has broadened this year, quite deliberately.

InvestigationAnd which books have truly captured my imagination thus far? I have liked, even loved quite a few of them. I was struck by the almost visceral power of ‘Mother Mother’ by Koren Zailckas and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’, fell under the spell of William McIlvanney’s prose and Mahmoud Darwish’s or Brenda Shaughnessy’s poetry. But the five books that really stayed with me are:

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation – neither crime nor prison saga, but a tale of the triumph of beauty over despair

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir la-haut – moving portrayal of the harshness of post-war society

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel – perhaps because this book encapsulates my love affair with Japan

Mihaela Moscaliuc’s debut poetry collection: Father Dirt – because it’s part of me and gives me power to explore more in my own poems

Andrew Solomon: Far from the Tree – a book that had me thinking and talking about it for days and weeks afterwards, which forever changed certain of my ideas

 

 

 

 

 

Unsupportive Families

A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).

michele_robertsI attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.

Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.

womanupstairsOne of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone. 

Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.

‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.