I am writing stories set in the midst of a violent conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people have had (and continue to have) their homes and livelihoods destroyed. The scene is one of devastation, and great, sudden need on so many individual and collective levels. As an ex-aid worker, I am bringing some of my own experience into these stories, and with that, my own questions about humanitarian disaster relief.
As I read and talk to others, I’ve come across some confident opinions that roll right over the complexities and assert that aid work is either intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad. The ‘good’ argument tends to rely on the good intentions are what counts (or ‘good intentions = good outcomes’) presumption, while the ‘bad’ argument relies on a reading of aid work as coming from a neo colonialist agenda on the part of rich countries. Between the two simplistic (and unhelpful, IMO) words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are many, many layers of nuance and overlap, and that is where I am trying to aim my understanding, and my writing.
Today I’m reading this: Admitting Failure.
The Admitting Failure project was set up by a Canadian non-governmental organisation, Engineers Without Borders, in an attempt to improve aid work through communicating examples of failure. It invites developmental and non-government organisations to recognise when their work is doing nothing, or even doing harm: to admit when the good intentions have been naive, misguided, blinkered, arrogant, disorganised, or badly realised, and to admit this in a public forum, before an audience of peers.
There have been interesting critiques of the project (and subsequently growing trend), here and here, for example. My sense is that this could be a useful approach if – IF – it then goes beyond an admission of failure, moves into identifying the cause(s) of the failure, and then, most importantly, takes action to change.
Am currently working to deadline for an October launch of the new book (yes!) so am being incredibly stingy about time spent on anything else. In lieu of words, I give you Short Story Bunting:
Each story is now strung across my office, waiting to be polished, tweaked, reassembled or shaken down like an old rug full of cat hair and ground-up biscuits. I may stage a stationery parade later this week. It's all happening.
With the words of Matt Haig ringing in my ears - specifically, those about writers going to book fairs being like chickens going to Nandos – I arrived at the London Book Fair 2013 a little, uh, nervous. Mall face strapped securely on, I dove into the maze of gleaming white publicity stands and within moments was greeted by the lovely Roman Simić, my Tramlines writing partner. Up to the corridor of windows at the top of the conference centre we went, till we had a backstage view of the boxes and pallets and abandoned bits of metal behind the City of Urgent Bookselling that had sprung up in Earl’s Court for the occasion.
The Gimbal app, available soon in the itunes shop.
We were there to Gimbal. Not a new internet dance meme, not a 25p candy, the Gimbal is named after an old sea-faring navigational device (the one that kept the compass level while the boat pitched around) and this Gimbal is the coolest little storytelling app I’ve seen.
The culmination of the Tramlines writer residency project that took me to the trams of Zagreb last year, the Gimbal app collects the resulting stories of those six residencies, as well as a whole load more stand-alone shorts from Comma Press authors, and plots their journeys on maps that move as you listen to or read the story. Along the way landmarks pop up, sidetracks for you to follow, markers that hold the edges of the story as it moves through its city and – AND - all of this also comes in more than one language, both spoken and text: English, and the language of the city in which the story is set.
I *loved* being involved in this project and so it was a thrill to launch the app to an enthusiastic audience on Tuesday alongside authors Alison MacLeod and the aforementioned Roman, as well as Jim Hinks from Comma and Alexandra Büchler of Literature Across Frontiers. The Gimbal app will be available in the itunes store next week, though sadly us androids will have to wait a little while for our own version. I believe it will also exist online as a website, so I’ll post the relevant links and whatnot up here as soon as it’s all live.
The highlights of the Book Fair for me were all about translation and so, appropriately, I leave you with a link to Transfiction translation collective’s take on what they called ‘a beautifully intuitive app'.
Most of what I do is pretty focused: small group workshops with the same people for months, making things, knocking the edges off of poems and stories and the fear, the fear that keeps that one woman's mouth shut for a whole five sessions, that keeps that one guy watching his trainers. We chip away, build things. Books and blog and performances. We take it slow. Listen. Laugh.
Then I go home and I write: also focused, also chipping, painfully slow some days.
I think I'm getting good at focused.
So, next month I am taking that careful little bubble down south to the London Book Fair. The Book Fair. It sounds cute, right? Full of twinkly eyed people who smell of paper and old leather bindings, maybe a coconut shy of encyclopaedias, typographic lollipops and a librarian love-in.
I imagine it as a bigger version of one of those incredible libraries/bookstores whose aisles I want to live in, whose shelves I want to bite down on, like that amazing bookshop that contains a writing shed full of pencils/paper/fairy lights, a reading room, floor to ceiling books across two floors and a little place upstairs in which to have a bit of a lie down, if you need it, nestled in beside the kids books:
Instead, an image search for London Book Fair reveals this:
Most attendees are publishers or agents or booksellers, there to do business, to hustle. I have no problem with hustling. I want people to read my book. I do. And yes, I know I am writing a book of short fiction, about war, with not a lot of laughs. Shut up, I know.
But I'm a little terrified of the book fair. I'm bracing myself for the sharp slap across the face that will be seeing the whole thing in all its shouty glossy books-as-widgets glory.
Everyone should see it once, he says, and I say OK, sure, I'll go. I will be leaving my ego at home, in the writing shed.
There is a small patch of overlap between the time my brain keeps and that of the rest of my body. It shifts constantly, and sometimes gets lost. There are spoonie* days where the two never meet. My brain leaves messages on the paper beside my bed, scrawled out, ideas that the fingers didn't manage to transcribe. My body performs day, performs movement and function, left, right, wears headphones so the brain won't be required to recognise faces, make nice. Autonomic, back of the head lizard stuff is preferable. Wires in my ears, the sign is up: do not engage.
A meeting can be forced, adrenaline called into service. My cheeks burn. It's a short-term solution with payday loan interest rates. Doorstep lenders with asshole enforcement thugs in cheap suits, they always come back. So it is.
The no-sleep exhaustion of CFS is not creative. It is not inspiring. But. But in the small patch of overlap where they cross, body and brain, I write. Lying down, not-sleeping, not-thinking, the words are there, and I write. There is something magic in the few moments after I've left almost-sleep and tuned in just enough to hold a pen, to focus my eyes. Sometimes. Not always. But sometimes, I can step into that overlap where insomnia and exhaustion can't yet reach, and I can stretch it for long enough to start something. Something worth coming back to**.
*spoonie definition here. Capsule def: person with long term illness/disability
**the prison. I will come back, as will the overlap.
With a few moments of screen time before I head off to run a workshop, I want to make a quick record. In a few hours I'll be running a writing workshop in a men's category B prison. Wikipedia tells me that category B holds those prisoners who are judged to not require maximum security, but for whom escape needs to be made very difficult.
The last time I was inside a prison was not long after returning from Sudan, from the compound in Darfur. It was a women's prison, one that had been in the news - it was famous. I remember the very high walls, the series of locking doors, the fingerprints, the barbed wire, the last minute changes that were part of prison life, part of the control. I remember the high walls, the barbed wire, the guards, there to keep the war out. The increasing heart rate when we passed through the gate - some little trace of compound life in Geneina. The two places blended a little, somewhere in my gut, even as my brain knew better.
In both places - the compound, the prison - I was the free person, the one who had chosen to be there and could choose to leave, and in both cases I was working with people who didn't have that choice to make. The inmates kept in, the IDPs forced out (and out and out). There is a thickness to the air in these places, stale like the back of a cupboard. I remember that. A tight throat, the flutter of claustrophobia, the urge to burst out, to run, even if it breaks curfew. I remember that too.
I prepare to go now, and these little memories creep up the hairs on my skin in anticipation of my first time behind a high wall since the last, since the desert and what came after. I wonder if the smell will be the same, and my gut will know the difference.
I present to you my Next Big Thing tagees.
Get a peek into two books in the making, and one that is already out there, ready for reading.
This gorgeous cover to the left is Rosie Garland's upcoming novel The Palace of Curiosities. Rosie has been well-known and well-loved for a long time now as both a singer and itinerant vampire poet, and as well as publishing her poetry under both her vamp and mortal identities (I particularly recommend recent poetry collection Everything Must Go) , she is now going all long-form and read-in-the-bath on us as a novelist - yes! Check out her answers to The Next Big Thing on her blog.
Next we have Martin De Mello who does an excellent line in perceptive and sharply written weirdness. He's one of those folk who spends more time promoting the work of other writers than he does his own, which is great for Manchester writers, but means that his published work so far is criminally underexposed. (Get your mitts on his poetry chapbook if our love stays above the waist from flipped eye.) Let the expose begin: next up is a collection of short stories that circle around the importance of being unimportant; read more here in his first and very much coerced blog entry.
Maya Chowdhry is an artist who won't stay inside the lines. She began with scriptwriting, then poetry and short fiction, and now also works digitally with writing, moving and still images, and website design. For the launch of her poetry collection The Seamstress and the Global Garment, she held a swap shop as part of the reading. Her audience became a moving mass of 'do you really want to trade this?' and 'that is definitely your colour.' It was poetry and practical politics. I came away with a book of poems that took me to distant continents, and a pair of boots that still keep out the rain. Read about the book in her Next Big Thing post...and hey, check out the poetry section of Waterstones next time you're in and grab a copy!
There are two more tagged writers still hiding in the digital shadows. We shall hear from them soon.
El Geneina 'The Garden', capital of West Darfur - [photo by UNEP]
So, after a long hiatus from blogging I've been coerced back into it by whipsmart funny lass Maria Roberts. She tagged me into The Next Big Thing, which entails me answering questions about the book I'm writing right now.
I will then tag five more writers who'll tell you about their 'next big thing' next Wednesday.
So here it is: blog post number one, on my forthcoming book of short stories, Jebel Marra.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
It came from 6 months of working for a humanitarian aid agency in West Darfur. I took the contract after having worked for said agency in the UK for years, and went to simply do my job, with no intention of connecting it to my writing. Needless to say, it was a long 6 months, and after about a year back in the UK I found myself with no interest in writing anything else. I wanted to write into some of the gaps and contradictions and complications and details of that particular conflict, of humanitarian relief more generally, and of life in a warzone.
What genre does your book fall under?
Short fiction is the form, and the genre is...I don't know. Lyrical short fiction, I think. I don't write with genre in mind but the short story form is really informing the shape of the collection as one that presents many different unresolved viewpoints. Over to the literary scholars and marketing folk for a more specific answer to that one!
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Two I can think of: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (played the terrifying Adebisi in tv show Oz) for one of the more chaotic characters, and Nicola Walker (Ruth from Spooks) as one particular aid worker because she's great at the supressed tension and understatement thing...and I have a crush.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Stories about local traders, aid workers, soldiers, politicians, parents and children all living in the middle of Darfur's civil war - what was called by the UN, way back in 2004, ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I am incredibly happy to have this book coming out in 2013 with Comma Press - short story specialists and champions of the form.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The clock's still ticking. I've been writing it for a few years now and though I can see a little light way, way in the distance there's still a lot more to be done. I'm happy to say the story drafts are now in the double digits, and it will (it will!) be out next year. I'd love to be able to write quickly like some others I know, but I just can't, especially on this topic. I've been able to spend the time on this due to support from Arts Council England.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was commissioned: one of the Darfurian women I worked with in Geneina told me at the end of my contract to go home and tell people what was (is still) happening there. Before heading to Sudan I'd mostly done spoken word performance, so when I returned I started talking about it onstage - small autobiographical monologues I suppose. It wasn't enough, and wasn't permanent enough, so after a nudge (a few nudges) from Ra Page at Comma I began building short stories.
I've also been inspired by knowing that although I've forgotten the battle dates I was taught in school, the thing that has stayed with me has been the art that has followed conflicts: I watched M*A*S*H as a kid, later saw All Quiet On The Western Front, read The Pit and The Pendulum and Slaughterhouse 5 and all of these stuck with me, they impacted. These have all convinced me that fiction can be a powerful way into exploring and exposing the mean, stupid realities of war...the truths, the lies, all of it.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
There is betrayal, there is drug use, there is sex and love and colliodal silver. There are normal, messy people with secrets and agendas. There is no forensic detailing of body parts, and no flag waving.
I'm also particularly interested in women and war, and so a lot of the narrators in the book are women. Despite being regularly written into the margins in a lot of writing, art and reportage on war (see my list of art inspirations above -- all male) women, like men, like kids, are very much touched by war, are part of it, and - yes - even complicit in it.
My five writers for next Wednesday are:
Rosie Garland, Martin De Mello, Maya Chowdhry, Dawn LaBarre and...one more who is still deciding.