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A Modern Poet- from Twitter to Television.
Organised in collaboration with The Rialto, our first Norfolk & Norwich Festival event brought Sophie Hannah, Hannah Lowe, and Don Paterson to the Norwich Playhouse for an evening of poetry.
The clichéd image of a poet is often of an ethereal being who plucks rhymes from the air, and cultivates an unworldly muse, writing art for arts sake. This event proved that, if anything, inspiration tended towards the mundane; from writing about a dead dog, to writing a letter to an ex-boyfriend explaining how much better you are now.
Sophie Hannah began by confessing her addiction to Twitter (you can follow her @sophiehannahcb1) and reading a poem on the Dalai Lama not following her back on Twitter; showing that a poem really can be formed out of anything. Throughout her reading Sophie was accompanied by knowing giggles and smirks, as her poems recalled familiar feelings within the audience.
Listen to Sophie read:
Hannah Lowe was next on stage and started by reading 'Fist', which she described as a bleak poem. She explained that she writes a lot about her hometown of Ilford, and her father, for whom her first collection of poetry, Chick, is named. Hannah’s reading was a bitter-tender experience. (You can get a taster of Hannah’s poetry, and watch her read at the Norwich Showcase on Youtube.)
Don Paterson began by announcing:
He followed this statement by recounting a recent occasion when he went to see a famous (and un-named poet) at a reading, and ended up wishing the poems would end so he could hear the introductions to the poems, because the writer was far better at introducing his work then reading it.
And, actually, a lot of the joy at a poetry reading, or any literary reading, is the writer’s introduction to the piece they will be reading. It is the introduction which gives the audience an insight into the process of writing, and a clue about where the magic bean of inspiration originated. It is the introduction, and the Q&A’s at the literary event which reveal the writer.
Don’s introductions supported this, reading a poem based on the television series, House, and explaining that he believes soaps have taken the place of religion. He followed this with a found poem created via a google search- it was composed of insults, with each line beginning ‘What Paterson fails to realise...’
It was this self-awareness which seemed to become the theme of the evening- Sophie, Hannah and Don unpicked their motivations and explained their writing to us.
Michael Mackmin, the editor of The Rialto
opened the Q&A by describing Hannah’s poetry as a way of recovering memories. WCN Programme Director Jonathan Morley followed this by suggesting that Sophie’s writing was public poetry, and Don’s was poetry as philosophy (Don guffawed slightly at this...). Michael then asked, ‘Does poetry come out of form, or form out of poetry?’
This question inspired a discussion about what writing meant to the poets, and why they found themselves writing:
Hannah said that there was so much secrecy around her father that she began recreating him through her poetry- reforming his existence into a narrative which she could control and understand.
The Q&A finished with a question about the role of the internet in the modern writers life:
Sophie countered this with:
If this has inspired you to join Twitter, you can follow us @WritersCentre
, Sophie Hannah @SophiehannahCB1
and Hannah Lowe @Hannahlowepoet
The real joy of literary events, as I hope I’ve shown in this blog, is discovering the stories and the people behind the writing. Events with writers bring a new dimension to the stories that you love, as well as giving you an intriguing glimpse into the authors’ lives.
We hope to see you at one of our events soon- coming up for the Words & Ideas strand of the Festival is the Inaugural Harriet Martineau Lecture with Ali Smith
, a Live Literature double bill
with Luke Wright and Nathan Penlington, the debut performance of I Wish I Was Lonely
from Hannah Walker and Chris Thorpe and the Electronic Voice Phenomena
You can take a look at the other events coming up on our What’s On Page
A Special Evening of Poetry for an Extra Special Price
On the 13th May, Writers’ Centre Norwich will be host to a trio of poets at Norwich Playhouse. Organised in collaboration with The Rialto Magazine, poets Don Paterson, Sophie Hannah and Hannah Lowe will be opening Words & Ideas at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. And, even if we do say so ourselves, this is one event you won’t want to miss. Especially as you can buy tickets half price.
The evening promises to be a delightful exploration of contemporary poetry- I can’t wait to hear all of the poets, but I am particularly looking forward to hearing Sophie Hannah read again.
I was lucky enough to hear her read at the EDP Book Awards last year, and felt connected with the text in a way which I hadn’t experienced when reading her poetry at home. (It also persuaded me to dig out her collection of Selected Poems when I got home, and to re-imagine the slants and emphasis of the writing.)
Sophie Hannah’s poetry is clever, witty, and undeniably wicked. Her writing has a vicious, razor sharp edge. Sophie takes everyday incidents, and spins them into bittersweet poems, writing with grace and intelligence. It’s little wonder that she has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, while her bestselling psychological thrillers continue to receive critical acclaim.
For a taster of Sophie’s poetry, you can watch her read If People Disapprove on YouTube.
While Sophie Hannah is sure to make you laugh, Don Paterson
will make you shift forward in your seat, alert and straight-backed.
Paterson has won most of the poetry prizes around; from the Forward Prize to the TS Eliot Prize (twice). His accolades speak for themselves, but don’t capture the scope and quality of his work. Don Paterson writes lyrically on fable and charm, creating an intimate exploration of the moments that unite us all.
Don Paterson’s reading is sure to be both thought provoking and moving, and a perfect foil for Sophie Hannah and Hannah Lowe’s readings.
Don Paterson reads Rain:
Last, but certainly not least, Hannah Lowe
will also be reading at the event. Hannah published her first full-length collection, Chick
, earlier this year. Described as an “extraordinary debut”, the publication heralds a fresh and outstanding voice into the world of contemporary poetry.
Hannah joined us last year to read at The Norwich Showcase
and you can watch her reading on YouTube:
Lowe’s sensory poetry is deeply personal. Chick
is named after her father, and it tells the story of his extraordinary character, a Chinese-black Jamaican migrant who gambled professionally. Hannah’s poems capture an emotional truth, but always resist sentimentality with peculiar beauty.
This Rialto event promises to introduce you to a world of brilliant poetry, bringing established and emerging poets together for an evening of immersive entertainment. And, I for one, can’t wait.
Get your tickets now.
The Readers' Circle Decides
WCN Programme Assistant Lara Narkiewicz blogs about the Readers’ Circle, a unique programme which encourages readers to get involved with each stage of our Summer Reads book selection process.
Last summer WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock, poet and Summer Reads friend Julia Webb and myself visited a number of libraries across Norfolk. We were there to promote Summer Reads and to meet keen readers. These events were a real success and we got to know a lot of enthusiastic readers along the way.
This made us wonder why we hadn’t involved readers earlier on in the programme. So, for 2013 we formed the Readers’ Circle and invited some of the brilliant readers we’d already met to join us in choosing the books that would make up Summer Reads 2013.
The Readers’ Circle was made up keen readers, librarians, booksellers and several WCN staff. Our readers all had different jobs and backgrounds- some were employed full-time, others were retired, some were writers and poets and others had careers in the literary sector. Each of them brought a unique and valuable viewpoint about the process and the books. We started meeting in September 2012 with a longlist of 116 prospective titles and a need to whittle them down to 6. We really had a task on our hands!
For the next four months, the dedicated members of the Circle popped in to the office to pick up books, and sent us reviews of the books they had read- 20 or so each and every week! To follow up on this and to reduce the longlist to a shortlist, we had a meeting every month where readers debated long and hard about each contender.
When we started, we asked everyone to commit to reading at least 6 books. Everyone did this, and many read and reviewed between twenty and thirty titles; an extraordinary effort.
By January, we had worked our way down to just 20 titles, and came together for an epic meeting to cut the list down to the final six. It was at that meeting where the effort, the opinions about the books, and the enjoyment that the Readers’ Circle had had from the experience became really clear.
When we reached the final six, there was a real feeling of satisfaction, teamwork and excitement about Summer Reads (accompanied by celebratory cake and bubbly)!
The Readers’ Circle was a unique and fantastic experience for me, and one which I have thoroughly enjoyed. It was great to be part of a group that was truly passionate about choosing books that would encourage others to go outside their literary comfort zone and try something new. With a mix of poetry, non-fiction, short stories, fiction and books in translation, we have a first-class selection of titles that Sam and I are delighted to be promoting across Norfolk on behalf of WCN. And for that we have the Readers’ Circle to thank.
If you would like to take part in the Readers’ Circle in 2014, Writers’ Centre Norwich will have more information available at our “Get Involved!” events in 8 libraries across Norfolk in May and August.
Details of dates and times will be available on our website soon. Alternatively, contact Writers’ Centre Norwich at email@example.com
I look forward to meeting you!
This years’ Summer Reads will be launched on the 1st of May.
To keep up to date, follow @WCNBookClub
Or ‘Like’ WCN Book Club
Find out more about last year’s Summer Reads campaign at www.summerreads.org.uk
Guest Blog Post: The Inner Melody of Julian of Norwich's Writing
In advance of Julian Week (6th-10th May), Louise Øhrstrøm, co-ordinator of Julian Week, blogs about the upcoming event with Mikael R Andreasen and Edwin Kelly.
Two international guests will be visiting Norwich for the upcoming Julian Week (6th-10th of May). Danish Mikael R Andreasen will be playing songs he has composed on Julian's lyrics. Irish Edwin Kelly will be reading from his experimental translation of Julian's writings. Louise Øhrstrøm has asked the two artists what they find fascinating about Julian of Norwich as a writer.
In 2010 Mikael R Andreasen's Danish band Kloster released their critical acclaimed fourth album, The Winds and Waves Still Know His Voice, which holds songs based on Julian of Norwich’s Middle English lyrics. Kloster was booked for Roskilde Festival (the biggest music festival in Northern Europe) in 2011 because of that album and has played at a number of venues in Europe.
Mikael R Andreasen heard about Julian from a friend and soon learned that Julian's words somehow seemed really easy to put into melody:
“It was as if the passages contained some sort of inner melody themselves. Later, when I started reading Julian's complete work in English, I noticed, that also just by reading, the text seemed very rhythmic and had an almost melodic ease or flow to it”, Mikael explains.
Edwin Kelly became interested in Julian when he did an MA in Poetry at University of East Anglia. He currently works on an experimental translation of her texts, inspired by an ancient tradition of editing manuscripts:
“I work with Julian's texts in a way I feel it has been worked with throughout the last 600 years or so - simply as an engaged reader who wants to know more. In medieval times this engagement may have been mainly looking for devotional and spiritual guidance. In an academic context, this engagement may look at the production of the text itself. Personally, I'm most interested in the emotional power of the text and how this has been maintained through the centuries. I work with the text as a document of the experience and as a physical object”, Edwin says.
Both artists find that there is something about Julian's voice that makes her writings relevant even for a modern reader.
Edwin explains: “The texts themselves are consistently surprising. Just when I feel I have categorised them, something in their style will lead me to question my assumptions. I think Julian's texts are, to some extent, taken a little for granted. Often, interest is in relation who she is rather than what she wrote. I think people will be pleasantly surprised if they take the time to read and respond to what she wrote. It will deepen their appreciation of a fascinating and surprising figure”.
Mikael R Andreasen particularly likes the way in which Julian talks about suffering and love:
“Today it seems like whenever love hurts a tiny bit, people tend to throw it away in search for any kind of new 'suffer-absent-love.' It is as if we have created a culture where we are trying to avoid suffering at all cost. In such a culture, I find it both interesting and provoking to read how Julian almost asked for an experience of suffering in order to understand what love is all about.”
Meet Mikael R Andreasen and Edwin Kelly at Julian Week at the Comforting Words event.
For more info, please visit the Julian Week website.
Other Julian Week events include:
Julian of Norwich: Poetry Writing and Critical Reading Workshop by poet Edwin Kelly and PhD student Louise Øhrstrøm
Julian of Norwich as a Poet: Language and the Search for Meaning in A Showing of Love
Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust- A New Collaborative Project
“Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust” is the title of a major new research project led by Professor Jean Boase-Beier at the University of East Anglia, working in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich, and including a number of public events.
Historical documents and eye-witness accounts have given us the facts about the mass-murder, degradation and annihilation of whole communities in Europe between the early 1930s and 1945.
“Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust” aims to explore the legacy of poetry created during the Holocaust, as poetry does more than document facts; it invites the reader to engage. Poetry can have a profound emotional effect on its reader, and it is through this emotional connection that we can keep events such as the Holocaust alive in peoples’ memories.
The difficulty in translating this poetry is ensuring that the translation is still interesting and meaningful for readers so far removed in time and place, whilst preserving the original message and meaning of the text. Professor Jean Boase-Beier will be translating the poetry with others, and hopes to further share the work with anyone who has an interest in the Holocaust, or in translated poetry.
Much of the Holocaust poetry we are familiar with is in English translation, written by members of the Jewish communities who were interred in camps, or detained in ghettos, and managed to flee abroad. Boase-Beier is keen to find examples of Holocaust poetry in other languages such as Italian, French or Hungarian, and intends to include poetry written by victims and survivors who were not Jewish.
This project will result in an academic book, and an anthology of the poetry translated by Jean Boase-Beier and other writers. There will also be a series of public events, and an exhibition. Professor Boase-Beier hopes that anyone who is interested in the Holocaust, poetry, translation, or the movement between culture and languages will attend the events.
The first public event in Norwich will be a Café Conversation held by Jean Boase-Beier, in the UEA Café Conversation series run by BJ Epstein. This takes place on 26th April at 2 pm in the White Lion Café, and is entitled “What’s the Point of Holocaust Poetry?". Please come along if you are interested- there’s no need for you to have been to any of the other Café Conversations. (Find out more about Café Conversations)
Later on in the year there will be an event in a local Norwich bookshop, and on 4th and 5th November there will be a free exhibition on Holocaust poetry and its translation at the Forum. There will also be two workshops, one on each day, and a poetry reading in the Library Training Room on 5th November.
On December 4th there will be a Translation Workshop on Holocaust poetry from 5-7 pm at UEA. This is part of the series of Workshops for the MA students, and, like all Translation Workshops in the series, it is open to members of the public and is a unique opportunity to see what MA students are learning about translation, and to join in. For further details on the workshops contact Dr Cecilia Rossi on firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further details on "Translating the Poetry of the Holocaust", contact Prof Jean Boase-Beier on email@example.com
From Page to Stage: Susan Sellers Blogs about her Novel's Adaptation
Susan Sellers, 2007 Escalator winner, has kindly written us a blog about her Escalator novel Vanessa and Virginia being adapted for stage. Vanessa And Virginia will be playing at Riverside Studios from March 26th to the 14th April.
Writer Sebastian Faulks once remarked that turning a novel into a play is like turning a painting into a sculpture. I don't know if this metaphor is an accurate description of the process, but seeing my novel Vanessa and Virginia
adapted for the stage has been a fascinating experience.
Vanessa and Virginia
I wrote the final draft of Vanessa and Virginia
(a fictionalised account of the intense and sometimes turbulent relationship between Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell), during the first months of being accepted onto WCN's Escalator Literature
programme. The novel was published by a brave independent run by two writers called Two Ravens
, and went on to sell to America, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Russia, Poland, Brazil, Lithuania, Portugal, China, Korea and Japan. So, for anyone reading this trying to get their writing published, my advice is 'don't overlook the independents since they can often take risks mainstream presses cannot'.
was adapted for the stage by Elizabeth Wright, and the first thing that struck me about her script was its shortness. The novel is about 70,000 words long, the play less than 10,000 - and some of these are stage directions! Anything not absolutely essential to the central story of the two women had to be cut for the play. I was very fortunate to have Elizabeth as the book's adaptor. Not only is she a highly talented theatre writer, she is also a Woolf scholar, specialising in Woolf's interest in theatre.
I was invited by director Emma Gersch, from the award-winning Moving Stories Theatre
, to assist the two actors cast as Vanessa and Virginia with their research. Since the story progresses from the sisters' childhood into old age, the first thing we did was prepare a time-line consisting of dates, facts, quotes and images which the actors pinned up round the rehearsal room. It was riveting to watch how the actors built up the characters of the two women and decided with the director how all the different elements of the play should be staged.
The design was given to the hugely gifted Kate Unwin
(credits include the extraordinary Metro-Boulot-Dodo at the National), who drew on the fact Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell was a painter. Since this was initially a touring production, a slide show of images based on Bell's artwork was created, and Kate also grouped the various props the actors use in a semi-circle round the edge of each performance space - as if they were the pools of colour on a palette.
There is original music in the play, created during rehearsal by composer Jeremy Thurlow
. The music is not only hauntingly beautiful, it also serves an important function in helping the actors mark the transitions between time-shifts.
After performances across the UK, and in France, Germany and Poland, the play of Vanessa and Virginia
is currently back in rehearsal for a London run at the Riverside Studios
, Hammersmith, from March 26th until April 14th. The play is being redesigned for the more permanent space of the Riverside - and I for one can't wait to see it!
I'd like to say a huge thank you to Michelle Spring, Sal Cline, Midge Gilles, Chris Gribble, everyone at WCN and especially my fellow 'Escalatees', for making the Escalator year the start of such an extraordinary journey.
Find out more about Vanessa and Virginia at the Riverside.
Read more about the play on Susan's blog.
Find out more about Escalator Literature Writing Competition.
After a nomadic childhood, Susan Sellers ran away to Paris. Renting a chambre de bonne, she worked as a barmaid, tour-guide and nanny, bluffed her way as a software translator and co-wrote a film script with a Hollywood screenwriter. She became closely involved withleading French feminist writers and translated Hélène Cixous. From Paris she travelled to Swaziland, teaching English to tribal grandmothers, and to Peru, where she worked for a women’s aid agency.
She is Professor of English and Related Literature at the University of St Andrews. In 2002 she won the Canongate Prize for Short Story Writing and, following a year with Escalator, completed her first novel Vanessa and Virginia in 2008. She is currently completing her second novel, Given the Choice
, which is set in the contemporary London art world and gives the reader a choice of endings. She has already started on a third. Susan is represented by Jenny Brown at Jenny Brown Associates.
High Impact- A Literary Tour with a Difference
As a book nerd of the highest order I go to a lot of literary events. A lot of signings, talks, discussions, readings- as long as there’s books involved I’m there. However, sometimes there’s an event that looks so brilliant I know that I’m going to tell all of my friends to come. High Impact is one of those events.
High Impact takes place over six days, across six cities, and features six best-selling and prize winning authors. The writers all hail from neighbouring countries Belgium and the Netherlands, and include authors Chika Unigwe and Herman Koch.
I heard Chika read earlier this year at Worlds from her latest novel, Night Dancer. I have rarely enjoyed a reading so much, or felt a room fall into such a deep silence. Chika has the gift of writing brilliantly, and the much-sought after but only occasionally achieved, gift of speaking brilliantly too. Her reading conjured up Africa and created a character so vivid that if you closed your eyes you could imagine her standing in front of you. I cannot wait to hear from her again, and would highly recommend her novels.
Herman Koch’s The Dinner is one of my best books of the year. Described as a cross between The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) and We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver), The Dinner is a wicked narrative of crises and parental collusion. Interestingly Herman Koch also works as a comedy actor- so his reading is sure to be brilliant.
High Impact will arrive at Norwich Arts Centre on the 18th January, and you can buy your ticket from them online.
The other visiting authors include Lieve Joris, Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr, Peter Terrin, a psychological thriller writer, and Judith Vanistendael, a graphic novelist. See below for a little more information about these writers:
Lieve Joris: whose journalism & non-fiction books on Africa, China, the Middle East & Europe have earned her the reputation as the VS Naipaul or Ryszard Kapuscinski of the Low Countries. Author of the acclaimed The Rebel’s Hour (Atlantic, 2008):
‘Powerful and timely, intensely imagined.’ - Paul Theroux
Ramsey Nasr: the Dutch Poet Laureate & all-round Renaissance Man (actor, director, poet, journalist & librettist), famed for his beautiful prose, provocative politics & exciting public appearances. Heavenly Life was published by Banipal in 2010.
‘With this collection Anglophone readers are introduced to a poet of global scope.’ – Marilyn Hacker
Peter Terrin: this year’s winner of the prestigious AKO Literature Prize & author of the magnificent psychological thriller The Guard (Maclehose Press, 2012):
'A rich and gripping mix of all the ingredients that make for a truly haunting atmosphere.' - Writers' Hub
Judith Vanistendael: the Posy Simmonds of Belgium; the bold & brilliant graphic novelist of When David Lost His Voice (Self Made Hero, 2012):
‘Big, bleak, brilliant and stark.’ – The Economist
High Impact is sponsored by Flanders House and the Netherlands Embassy in London and curated by Rosie Goldsmith. To find out more about the tour visit the High Impact website.
Add a Dash of Salt
The Man Booker is probably the most important award in the UK book industry calendar. Perhaps even the world. So when we at Writers’ Centre Norwich heard that The Lighthouse, written by Alison Moore and published locally by Salt, had been longlisted for the Man Booker we cheered. And when we heard it’d been shortlisted we proposed opening a bottle of champagne and toasting to their success. (Sadly, we don’t keep champagne on ice in the office, so instead celebrated with biscuits and fresh cup of tea.)
Hilary Mantel was announced as the winner, yet the effects of the Man Booker shortlist are longlasting, as demonstrated by book sales and prestige. The publicity afforded by the Man Booker is undeniably beneficial- Alison Moore has already been approached regarding a film adaptation. The Lighthouse is a stunning novel which explores relationships through an almost painfully close magnification of the protagonist’s life. Throughout the novel, scent plays a crucial part, triggering memories and driving the narrative forward. It is rare to read a debut novel so accomplished and pitch-perfect.
That being the case we’re delighted to announce that Alison will be visiting Norwich for a special event with Salt on the 23rd November.
Salt Publishing, supported and hosted by Writers’ Centre Norwich and others, will be presenting an evening of literary brilliance at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library. Authors Alison Moore, Derek Neale and Jonathan Taylor will be reading and discussing their work, while Directors Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery will be introducing.
Alison Moore is also an accomplished short-story writer, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize, and the Manchester Fiction Prize, to name a few. Derek Neale is an award-winning writer of short stories and scripts, and has just had his first novel, The Book of Guardians published by Salt. Jonathan Taylor is the author of Entertaining Strangers and the memoir Take Me Home and is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montford University. Together, these writers will read from their own work and discuss the craft of writing.
Based in Cromer, Salt has been publishing high-quality literature since 1999. With an impressive established range of poetry and literary fiction, Salt has always been at the forefront of independent publishing in the UK.
Don’t miss this opportunity to celebrate the best in literary (and local) independent publishing.
Complementary soft drinks will be provided and books will be sold after the event courtesy of Waterstones.
Tickets are £2 and available from Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library and Waterstones Castle Street.
Visit the event page.
To the Moon and Back: Two Very Special Poetry Performances
wonderful, warm, unexpected, funny, moving, emotional and engaging…..in fact, just smashing!
Poetry has escaped from between the constraining pages of books, and leapt out into the world, ready to twist and sparkle in these new performances at the Castle Museum and Forum Norwich.
is bringing a new show to Norwich: I Gaze From My Kitchen Like An Astronaut
, which will be performed in two parts across the 24th November. For a bargain £5 you can enjoy two performances, one at 11am at the Castle Museum with poets John McCullogh and Liane Strauss, and the second at 2pm at the Forum with Karen McCarthy and Tom Warner.
I Gaze From My Kitchen Like An Astronaut
combines brilliant poetry with subtle stagecraft to create a stunning performance. Don’t believe me? Here’s what a past audience member said:
The show allowed me to really engage with the poetry, be close to the poets, hear the nuances of the words and be transported to the place and feelings they were expressing.
At moments during the show I became moved in unexpected ways and the use of subtle props gently enhanced the speaking. There was a reflective energy and immediacy which drew me in and made me want to hear more!
Ideal for poetry-lovers and the perfect convert for poetry-sceptics I Gaze From My Kitchen Like An Astronaut
is a wonderful immersive experience.
Book your ticket.
Visit the Gaze Like An Astronaut website
Take a sneak peak at the poetry which will be performed.
Sam Reviews Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (trans by Rosalind Harvey)
‘I love three-cornered hats, because they’re mad soldiers hats. You put one on and you feel like running off all on your own to invade the nearest kingdom.’
Down the Rabbit Hole
is unlike anything I have ever read. At sixty-eight pages, it is barely a novella, and yet it is hard to believe more could be packed into those few pages. Wit oozes from every sentence. And yet the comedy is blacker than night; for all the charm this is also a disquieting and tragic picture of life and a biting satire.
Tochtli – our narrator, his name means ‘rabbit’ in Nahuatl, Mexico’s main indigenous language - is a young boy growing up with his drug baron father in their palatial Mexican compound. He loves hats, is fascinated with samurais, guillotines and the French Revolution, and what he most dreams of is a Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus to add to his menagerie of wild animals. He’s as precocious as he is unworldly. Each night before he goes to bed he reads the dictionary and learns difficult words. Some of his favourites are sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic, devastating and enigmatic; they form the lexicon with which he understands his life and horizons and the basis of his narration.
The problem for Tochtli is that his horizons are disastrously limited. His father, Yolcaut, is as paranoid and protective towards Tochtli as he is devastating to his enemies. Tochtli is not allowed to leave the palace, has no-one his own age to play with, and knows only thirteen or fourteen people in total. He’s not sure which it is because sometimes he can’t be sure whether people he knows are still alive or not, Add in the dead and he’d know more people,
‘Seventeen or more. Twenty easily. But dead people don’t count, because the dead aren’t people, they’re corpses.’
Yolcaut’s gang is the most macho for at least eight kilometres. They bribe, they traffic drugs, they have rooms packed with guns and they feed their victims to the tigers. Anything might happen and anything goes. Down the Rabbit Hole
is a fantastical world, a nightmarish inversion of Alice in Wonderland
that oscillates between realism and surrealism and by presenting such polar opposites manages to achieve both simultaneously. The genius lies in the way in which it is narrated. Imagine a more completely realised version of the child narrator of Room
– or Alice herself – telling a narcoliteratura tale of guns and gangs and drugs and girls and you have an idea of what it is like. Adam Thirlwell describes it in his introduction as ‘a deliberate, wild attack on the conventions of literature.’ But where some experiments with form and perspective could feel academic or cold, this is as warm and engaging as one could hope for.
Tochtli is delightful. He has a pure visceral enthusiasm for life and knowledge and he recounts what he sees with macabre matter-of-fact vibrancy, without commentating on what he sees. It is his incomplete understanding of the world around him that injects the humour and pathos into what takes place. He sees things in black and white and by responding to them in a logical way, looks beyond nuance to see the bigger picture somehow more clearly. Because he is such a flawed narrator the reader is encouraged to look beyond, to interpret and read between the lines of his sordid tale. What one finds there can make for uncomfortable reading.
With Yolcaut he plays a game where:
‘one person says a number of bullets in a part of the body and the other one answers: alive, corpse, or too early to tell.
‘One bullet in the heart.’
‘Thirty bullets in the little toenail of the left foot.’
‘Three bullets in the pancreas.’
‘Too early to tell.’”
Poor Tochtli wants to be macho like the rest of the gang (the only other option in his understanding is to be a faggot) and he makes a pretty good effort at it. His view of the world can often be shocking and alarming. But he can’t be as macho as he wants to be. He’s vulnerable, pathetic even, and without any power over his life or surroundings. He suffers crippling psycho-somatic stomach aches because he is allowed to cry when he’s ill without being called a faggot. At one point he becomes mute in effort to control his little world. In Transactional Analysis terms, he is a textbook case of an Adapted Child, and Yolcaut an adult incapable of being a parent. It’s a disastrous cycle of violence begetting violence, emotional damage begetting emotional damage. As Tochtli says in the opening pages, ‘I think at the moment my life is a little bit sordid. Or pathetic.’ Later he goes even further, describing himself as ‘the most pathetic person in the whole universe’. The tragedy of the book is that he is, unfortunately, for once correct.
And all the while nagging themes of imperialism and failed democracy play out in the background. Villalobos has said that he wanted to write a book without moralisations about a subject that has been moralised too much. He achieves that and so much more. His exceptional control over Tochtli’s narration – he only ever mentions that which is of interest to him, no extra world-building, no wider context or history; hence the novels short length – creates a claustrophobic, intense novella and he writes from a child’s perspective amazingly well. Added to this Rosalind Harvey’s adroit and inspired translation and you have a novel that refracts major social issues through the eyes of a young boy, creating a strange, momentous, crazy hybrid that delights and rewards on every page. In Tochtli’s words, Down the Rabbit Hole
is an immaculate, enigmatic, and devastating book.
Stefan Tobler, Sam Ruddock and Rosalind Harvey.
Down the Rabbit Hole was published in 2011 by And Other Stories, a wonderful new publisher set-up on exciting and idealistic principles. They operate on an ethical, not-for-profit basis, decide what to publish based on feedback from readers, and believe that great new books will be heard about and read thanks to the combined intelligence of people. They publish four books a year, and subscribers receive numbered first editions and a thanks in the back of each book.
To find out more about And Other Stories, or to subscribe, visit their website.
Taking the Leap: A Guest Blog Post from Author Carol Rifka Brunt
Carol Rifka Brunt was a runner-up for the New Writing Ventures Award in 2006, organised by Writers' Centre Norwich in our previous incarnation of New Writing Partnership. Carol began writing her debut novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home because of the support and mentorship she received through the New Writing Ventures Award . Tell the Wolves I'm Home was published in the UK by Pan Macmillan in June of this year and was chosen as an Oprah Summer Reading book.
Carol's kindly written WCN a blog about her writing career, and the jump from writing short stories to creating novels:
I’m thinking about those times when you have to jump across a chasm. Maybe ‘chasm’ is a bit melodramatic, so let’s just say gap. I’m thinking of the kind of gap that’s just a few inches wider than feels comfortable. Something in your mind is not letting your body take the risk, so you wobble on the edge, almost leaping, but then pulling back again and again. I’m thinking about how there are lots of things in life that have that exact same feel. One of those things for me was the leap from writing short stories to becoming a novelist.
I’d been writing short fiction for about ten years. Short stories are difficult to master. It’s hard to get enough in each one without overloading it with too much. It’s a balancing act. This meant that I could spend a lot of time tweaking and tinkering. And once all that was done I could spend a lot of time submitting to the best journals and being rejected. I contend to this day that it’s harder to get a story accepted at one of the top tier UK or American journals than it is to get a novel published. And the thing is, even when stories were accepted or shortlisted for prizes like New Writing Ventures, I knew a relatively small number of people would read them.
What I didn’t realise until years later, was that there was a comfort in that. I was on the safe side of success. Nothing could change if I stuck to shorts. It was easy to tell myself that a novel was too daunting. That I wasn’t suited to the form. That was the chasm, the gap. That was my brain telling me not to take the risk.
Being shortlisted for the New Writing Ventures award in fiction came with the wonderful prize of a year-long mentorship program. Three times over the year I would be able to submit up to 20,000 words to my mentor. For someone who hadn’t had the opportunity to enroll in an MA program, this was a true gift. At first I calculated the number of short stories I would be able to turn in. And during the first submission period I did turn in three well-polished short stories. I hovered on the edge of the chasm.
Then something clicked. This was it. If I couldn’t take the leap under these circumstances, with all this support in place, when would I do it? What was I waiting for? I looked at what I had. There was one story that wouldn’t leave me alone. There was a dying uncle painting a final portrait of his niece. I could smell the lavender and orange in the air of the Manhattan apartment. I could feel the tension between the two of them. What was the uncle dying of? Why was the girl so defensive? Seven hundred words turned into a few thousand and the pages kept mounting. I wasn’t really writing a novel, I told myself. I was just seeing where this took me. And then, before I knew I was doing it, I had jumped to the other side of the gap. I was standing there looking back, understanding that if things went the way of my wildest dreams, many, many people might read my work.
At the time I wasn’t sure how I had done it. The moment of jumping the gap was a blur. But looking back I think maybe it wasn’t a leap at all. Maybe when the right support is in place, it’s more like building a bridge.
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Sam Reviews 'Of Mutability' by Jo Shapcott
Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four
and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.
In her essay ‘On Being Ill,’ Virginia Wolf describes the effect that being ill has on one’s perceptions. She talks about the "horizontal view of the world" that comes from spending so much time on your back, the different ways of seeing that it inspires, and the way it opens up the sky.
In 2003, Jo Shapcott was diagnosed with breast cancer. Seven years later, the cancer beaten, she published Of Mutability
. Although not specifically about her battle with illness – cancer is never mentioned for instance – that experience of ill health and the different ways of seeing it enabled, provides the topography upon which the collection is built. As the title suggests, these are poems about transformation, mutation, mutability, in the body and the world around it. Shapcott presents this mutation as sometimes liberating, sometimes destructive, full of possibilities and yet ultimately a symbol of just one terrifying inevitability. There are shifting territories and permeable boundaries, where pavements ripple beneath feet and fingerprints dent hillsides.
loosely follows a narrative arc from diagnosis through all sorts of mutations towards a resolution and all-clear. There are also nods to the artwork of Helen Chadwick, which two of the poems respond directly to, and Percy Shelley’s ‘Mutability’ with its clarion call: "Nought may endure but Mutability."
That is certainly the feeling here. Mutability is the single consistency around which uncertainty orbits and transience passes. The first mutation, that of cells that leads to a diagnosis and the title poem is wild and unbounded. The year is 2004 and the world is tearing itself to shreds through war and climate change, leaving the narrator feeling "razor small", everyone in skins they feel uncomfortable within. In ‘Era’ the reader is placed into a dangerous world where magpies squabble, fountains splash ‘chemical bubbles’ and traffic swarms "round Vauxhall Cross, like crazy fish, with teeth". Later in St Bride’s we have an even clearer vision of war, where internal transformation and external conflict mirror each other, leaving "the smell of print and ashes in my nose." In ‘Night Flight to Muncaster’ the reader is transformed into an owl, flying free over the landscape and taking a trip to the seaside. But it ends on a sour note, as the owl’s senses enable it to hear things other can’t: "You can hear clouds creak, droplets hiss".
This is an unhappy world being transformed against its will. Much later, in ‘Viral Landscape’, and ‘I Go Inside A Tree’, the mutated internal and external landscapes come together, permeable, liminal. And yet, around this, there is a calmer, sensual, more mystical view of mutability taking place. In ‘The Oval Pool’ a woman turns to water, and watches the pain of those around her. Yet she remains defiant: ‘there will be no evaporation.’ In ‘Abishag’ a couple seeks to mutate together so that they are sponged down as one, the borders between them vanishing as she licks the sweat from his skull and feels "his mind through my tongue".
There is humour, too, a black humour in some, but genuine humour elsewhere. In ‘Hairless’, Shapcott questions whether physical transformation changes who and what you are, the poem starting with the line "Can the bald lie?" and ending with a roar against the dying of the light. In ‘The Deaths’ she imagines walking with death like "two drunkards" before she implodes "like a ripe mango". One of the most enjoyable poems is ‘Somewhat Unravelled’, an imagined conversation between Shapcott and her auntie whose experience of the world has similarly been transformed by dementia. Their intimate words fill spaces, their promises of straight talk and "a meal so wholesome and blimmin’/pungent with garlic you will dance on it and/eat it through your feet" a guard against further mutation.
There are series of poems that mythologise mutability, others that map the gradients of permeability and a series that reflects upon trees, those bastions of strength that yet "respond to everything, everything else" just as everyone does.
Towards the end, the register again changes, uncertainty, hope, gratitude creeping in until, in ‘Procedure’, all the worries literally go up in the steam of a cup of tea, the narrator putting all the "blood tests, and cellular madness" behind her and saying "thank you thank you thank you for the then, and now".
Yet, ever playful, Shapcott ends on a different note, a postscript to the mutations. In ‘Piss Flower’, one of two direct responses to individual pieces of Helen Chadwick’s art, we finally see a limit to mutability. Now all clear, Shapcott is no longer so mutable, she become a man and produces "a golden parabola", but she can do tricks of her own, in her own body and without any transformation. Perhaps other things may endure beside Shelley’s mutability.
The theme of mutability is so ubiquitous that it can even be applied to the structure of the poems themselves. Almost all start as one thing before transforming before your eyes, their implications shifting with one surprising line or dissonant ending.
In June 2012, Jo Shapcott spoke in Norwich and referred to life as "vertiginous, multi-layered joy". That seems to me a perfect description of Of Mutability
. But these layers are not separate, they leach into each other, they mutate, they contain within them near limitless possibilities. Of Mutability
is a collection that looks mortality bullet-straight in the iris, but does so without fixating upon it. It is self-knowing and vulnerable. These poems are highly intelligent and yet entirely unpretentious, each word carefully weighted yet retaining an accessible clarity. The collection is playful, frequently humorous, and quietly powerful. It rewards multiple readings and careful consideration but has a visceral power that captures you immediately and doesn’t let go until the last word.
Ultimately Of Mutability
is a book about the euphoria of survival. The notion of Per ardua ad astra – ‘through adversity to the stars’ – runs throughout this collection, an open mouthed appreciation of the spectacle of life, even when mired in earthly troubles.
Jo Shapcott reads at Worlds 2012
Cartographer, Sculptor, Thief: Michael Ondaatje in conversation with Kamila Shamsie at Worlds 2012
Petra writes about one of her literary heroes; Michael Ondaatje who visited Norwich for an event with Kamila Shamsie:
Metaphor abounds when talking about Michael Ondaatje. There is a need, or a desire, to describe him as something other than purely a writer. Is he an archeologist revealing objects inch-by-inch from the soil? Is he the clever thief you cannot help but like - like his character Caravaggio? (Are all writers thieves – or “fancy talking pickpockets” – as Tommy Wieringa suggested earlier in the week of Worlds? (Read our earlier blog about Novelists as pickpockets) Is he a sculptor? Or a cartographer, drawing maps of fantastical places? I’d like to identify him with Herodotus, that master storyteller of whom Ondaatje writes in The English Patient: someone who has traveled far, gathered stories, and is reporting back, all the while remodeling reality in some secret way…
Ondaatje's work has always haunted me, inhabited me. Thus, it was an honour to see him read his poetry and prose at the Worlds 2012
literature conference, followed by a great discussion with novelist Kamila Shamsie.
There is a delicious, languid lucidity contained in Ondaatje’s writing. He is also a natural reader. The lines of his work wove together, slowly, erotically, over the listening crowd in the Playhouse. He uses language to encompass weighty themes: history, memory, war, philosophy, love and yet in the next moment he is terrifyingly, revealingly intimate: his language is close to the body and close to the earth. Another Worlds guest, Teju Cole, has written of Ondaatje: “I'm unsure if I'm reading or if I'm the one being read.” (Read the full article)
Ondaatje began by reading two poems, The Great Tree
and Last Ink
from his collection Handwriting
. An excerpt from Last Ink
In certain countries aromas pierce the heart and one dies
half waking in the night as an owl and a murderer’s cart go by
the way someone in your life will talk out love and grief
then leave your company laughing.
He then read from his novel Anil’s Ghost and from his latest novel, The Cat’s Table, which follows the journey of an 11-year-old boy called Michael on his journey from Sri Lanka to England.
I was mesmerised by his description of boyish wonder in The Cat’s Table
, where the young narrator and his friends watch an Australian girl swimming in the pool aboard the ocean liner: “When she left we followed her footprints, which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them.”
Kamila Shamsie - a brilliant, lively interviewer - walked Ondaatje through the intersection of memoir and fiction that appears to lie at the heart of The Cat’s Table and many of his other works. Ondaatje spoke about the age of eleven being a sort of liminal age for him – the age where you change, move, forget or become.
Pressed on the line between fiction and memoir, he compared the Western narrative experience with Eastern notions of narrative, where truth is not something to be defined in an empirical or absolute way. He said works like The Cat’s Table or his novel/memoir Running In The Family, written about his family in Sri Lanka, have meant that he has come to accept certain stories or narratives as true, even if they didn’t start off that way – even if they started off as an exchange of tall tales. He felt strongly that the narrative act was never static. Ondaatje’s work, at its best, seems to circle constantly around truth as a multiplicity of experiences.
Ondaatje spoke about the processes surrounding his writing practice. He writes without a plan and said there was an “enjoyable tension” for him in finding out what will happen. The conversation lingered over his tendency to write in vignettes and he mentioned his process of constructing a novel via notebooks, each containing a new draft, enabling him to cut and paste bits until he achieves the right balance. Ondaatje said he likes to engage in the “drama of writing the story”.
Shamsie mentioned a line from In the Skin of the Lion
: “Let me now re-emphasise the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects”. Ondaatje said that he felt his process was very much “loose in writing, tight in editing”. He spoke of drafting being akin to moving furniture and spoke of his joy in setting up a sort of thematic or narrative echoing within his novels. Shamsie brought up Ondaatje’s love of film, and of editing in particular, noting that the end of The English Patient
- where Hannah knocks a glass off the shelf in one life, and Kip reaches down to scoop up the dropped fork of his daughter in another - is a very filmic moment, a splice.
The discussion turned then to power, Shamsie bringing up another line from The Cat’s Table, where the narrator learns: “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.” Ondaatje said that he learned this as a young man and how he’s remained interested in the bizarre strata of power, something that was very apparent when he came to England as a boy. There was discussion of his love of the ‘outsider’: the charming thief, or the outlaw – like Billy the Kid. (For those of you who haven’t read Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems, I highly recommend it – it’s a favourite of mine.)
Ultimately, Ondaatje said he was drawn to writing what cannot be filmed, and was fascinated by exploring the space of the narrator. An audience member asked if he still wrote poetry, to which he said, sadly, no he didn’t. But I’d argue he does, still – it’s just that we don’t classify it that way. To me, all of his works are a sort of poetry.
Listen to the event on SoundCloud:
An Evening with Michael Ondaatje & Kamila Shamsie by Writers' Centre Norwich
Summer Reads 2012; Events So Far...
It hasn’t been much of a summer so far this year, but our Summer Reads reading programme has been in full swing since May. With a host of author events, book club meetings and library events going on, it hasn’t seemed to matter so much that it’s been rainy and miserable.
Our first event was with SJ Watson, author of best-seller Before I Go To Sleep. I read Before I Go To Sleep last year and loved it, so I was thrilled to discover that it had been chosen as one of WCN’s Summer Reads books for 2012. The event was held at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium library. The room quickly filled up with readers who sat patiently, clearly filled with anticipation. I noticed that the audience was a diverse mix of people- it’s always interesting looking at the audience for individual events, because it gives a much better idea about who the book appealed to- Before I Go To Sleep is a novel which seems to engage almost everybody!
SJ Watson began the event by reading an extract from the beginning of Before I Go To Sleep. Sam Ruddock, the man behind the Summer Reads programme, began a conversation with SJ Watson which ranged from medical accuracy, to gender, to the nature of the debut novel. SJ said that he didn’t find it difficult to write from the perspective of a woman, because, as a writer you should be able to write from other people’s perspective. The audience laughed when SJ mentioned that he found it odd that people seemed to be comfortable with the idea of individuals writing as serial killers but not comfortable with a man writing as a woman! He did say that he asked his female friends to read the novel and fact check it for him too however...
When the floor was open to the audience for questions there was a constant flow of interested queries. SJ Watson spoke at length about the difficulties of balancing medical accuracy (as he worked for the NHS for a number of years, medical accuracy was imperative!) whilst maintaining the plot and pace of the story. SJ Watson said that he'd thought he had made up Christine’s precise medical complaint, but discovered that there is a very similar case when the book was published.
The SJ Watson event was a great success, and a brilliant start to our Summer Reads reading programme!
During our Worlds Literature Festival
we had THREE of our Summer Reads events, making it a jampacked schedule of bookish joy. Our first event was ‘An Evening with Dame Gillian Beer, Jeanette Winterson and Jo Shapcott’ and was completely sold out. Jo Shapcott read from Summer Reads book Of Mutability
, which won the Costa Book Award. Jo’s poetry was emotionally charged, and worked perfectly in companion with Jeanette Winterson’s reading of Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal
. (Read more about the event in Petra’s Blog.)
Anna Funder, whose novel, All That I Am
, was our first Summer Reads book, participated in an event with JM Coetzee and Tim Parks. These three very different authors created a smorgasbord of literary delights. Anna Funder read from All That I Am
and then discussed her motivation for writing the novel and the difficulties when crossing over from writing non-fiction to fiction. Throughout the event the audience were clearly hanging upon her every word. During Worlds festival Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin award for All That I Am
and was even interviewed from the Writers’ Centre offices for Australian television!
Last, but by no means least, came our event with Teju Cole, author of the multi-award winning Open City.
Teju Cole read an extract from Open City
and discussed how his work was influenced by his street-photography. (Take a look at some of his photos on Flickr)
The event was so successful that Waterstones almost sold out of Teju’s books! (You can read a long blogpost about the Teju Cole event here)
Listen to a podcast of the Teju Cole event below:
World Voices featuring Teju Cole, Vesna Goldsworthy and Arturo Dorado by Writers' Centre Norwich
Still coming up is an event with Stefan Tobler, the publisher of Down the Rabbit Hole, and with Rosalind Harvey, the translator. Taking place on the 25th of July, you can buy your ticket for only £2 from our website or the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library. (Find out more about the event) This is sure to be a fantastic event, and as a big fan of Down the Rabbit Hole I can’t wait to find out more about the book!
As ever, we have a regular book club which meets to discuss the Summer Reads books. It’s been great to see so many new faces, as well as the regulars of course, so please do come along if you’d enjoy a relaxed evening of chatting about books. Our next Book Club Sessions are for Of Mutability (in partnership with Norwich Poetry Book Club) on the 10th July
and for Down the Rabbit Hole on the 24th of July.
We’re also running a new series of events in libraries across Norfolk. Sam has been visiting the libraries across the county and enjoying chat, Mexican chocolate and intriguing Mexican fizzy drinks.
‘The Get Involved library events are all about meeting readers across Norfolk, and having a relaxed conversation about books with them. It has been a pleasure to visit libraries that are supporting Summer Reads so well this year, and to see all the great work they do with their communities. I’ve been struck by the warmth with which these events have been received and delighted with the atmosphere and willingness to share that everyone involved has created. I’ve enjoyed every minute of delivering them. Not only have we succeeded in introducing the delights of Summer Reads to lots of readers and book clubs, but I’ve discovered lots of books I’d never heard of too! What could be better?’
Find out more about our Summer Reads reader events.
We love to chat with you about these books, so please do tweet us @WCNbookclub
, follow us on Facebook
, and check out our Summer Reads Pinterest page
If you love our Summer Reads illustrations too, check out this blogpost
from the illustrator Lauren Marina.
Vote online for your favourite Summer Reads book and you could win book tokens!
Find out more about our Summer Reads reading programme.
Reading is just the start...
What is British Literature? The Launch of Granta Britain
In my mind Granta is the literary magazine. At my parents house there are two shelves full of Granta issues, stretching over a period of about five years. First established in 1889, Granta has evolved over the years- note the striking cover design- but has always included brilliant writing from debut and established authors. So, even before the event began I knew I was in for a treat...
Issue 119 of Granta was on the theme of ‘Britain’, making it the perfect closing event for our international Worlds Festival. Throughout the week discussions had focused around identity, with nationality playing an important role in the examination of the self.
The evening began with John Freeman, the editor, introducing the writers and introducing Granta. Edmund Clark was the first contributor to take to the stage. He is a photographer who is best known for his images which explore control and incarceration. Edmund Clark’s photo Home from his collection Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out is included on page 192 of Granta: Britain. (View images from Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out on the Guardian website)
The series of images within Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out can be divided into three separate ideas of home; the naval base at Guantanamo where the guards and their families lived, the complex of camps that the detainees lived in, and the homes of the detainees themselves, whether the homes are new or old. The contrast between the homes that the detainees lived in out of choice and the rooms they were forced to live in, was stark.
The photo which was included in Granta was Home, (Number 3 on the Guardian slideshow) and it depicted an image which epitomised an archetypal British household: two armchairs, a flowering plant, net curtains. Edmund said that these images of British domesticity were thrown into sharp relief when placed next to the images from Guantanamo, and that he realised when he was putting the images together that what he “was actually exploring were the homes that the detainees remembered and dreamed of” whilst in the space that they hoped to escape.
The images within Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out are mixed, with images from the guards’ quarters, the cells of the detainees, and the homes of the detainees. This mix of photographs deliberately creates feelings of disorientation and confusion in the reader and reflects the prisoners’ experience of Guantanamo. Edmund said that throughout the project he realised that he was depicting the memory between the spaces. There are deliberately very few images of people within the collection, as Edmund wanted to subvert the stock image of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, and the empty spaces are given far greater emotional weight.
Edmund’s collection explored identity through living spaces. By including images from Guantanamo and from the detainees past and present home he is depicting the identities that the detainees choose, and the identity that the detainees had forced upon them. Our expectations and assumptions are challenged through the images, making us reassess our default opinions and stereotypes.
Rachel Seiffert was the second reader. She read from an extract from a not yet published novel; Hands Across the Water.
The extract described a blossoming relationship between an Ulster girl and a Glaswegian boy. Rachel’s writing focuses on individual characters within a broader historical perspective.
Rachel talked of the Irish troubles with particular reference to the Orangemen. She said that she researches thoroughly but once writing she focuses in on the characters themselves; and from then on it’s about writing with empathy and finding your way into your characters lives. Writers, by necessity, need to be able to shrug on and off others identities- writing characters well is so much about assuming others’ perspectives.
Andrea Stuart, the third reader, spoke of a different kind of history- the history of her family; of migration, slavery and dreams of a better life. She traced her family tree in her latest book, Sugar in the Blood and “revived her slave ancestors from absence”. Andrea’s book gave her slave ancestors back the identity which was taken from them, as they were stolen from their homelands. (Read a review of Sugar in the Blood from The Independent.)
This writing of her family history allowed Andrea to claim her story and her family’s story, a story which otherwise might have been lost like so many other slave narratives. It creates an examination of intrinsic facets of her own identity- that of an Afro-Caribbean British citizen and as a writer. Andrea spoke of the necessity of writing Sugar in the Blood, not only for her own illumination but because it gave the forgotten a voice and a place in history.
Across the week identity has been a crucial discussion point- look through the earlier blogs to find out more about the Worlds events and themes. For writers individual identity is fluid, at least when they are writing. However, one of the recurring questions throughout all the events and conversations has been how does my identity effect what I write? Whether we’re referencing the African writers who have been told they are not “African” enough, or the middle-class authors who feel hindered by their background, or the writers who have been translated from their own language into a foreign speech which they cannot understand, identity is as an inescapable part of writing as it is of life.