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Three Seasons in China: Reflections before the year of the Fire Monkey
In celebration of the Chinese New Year on Monday , WCN commissioned a guest blog from former Escalator winner and poet Eileen Pun, who recently spent time at The Sun Yat-Sen Center for English-language Creative Writing in Guangzhou, China.WCN is proud to work with The Sun Yat-sen Center for English-language Creative Writing, to advise and support them in developing their International Writers’ Residency programme.
WCN Programme Director Jon Morley attended the 2014 Consultation where potential sites and schedules were tested, helping to shape a generous month-long package of support for 18 international writers each year. Following SYSU Center Director Dai Fan’s exchange visit to Norwich as a delegate to the International Literature Showcase in 2015, WCN decided to assist a small cohort of UK writers to benefit from this unique opportunity. Philip Langeskov of UEA and poet Eileen Pun have been the UK participants to date.
Picture: Wudang Mountains, view from Hui Long Guan, Temple
Eight years ago, before I knew I wanted to write poetry, I travelled to China with the idea that I was still young and sound in body enough to really learn martial arts. I enrolled at The Capital University of Physical Education (CUPE) and lived in the Haidian District, a corner of Beijing with several universities and a pleasant student vibe. The backdrop of the forthcoming Olympics was energising, and I felt welcomed as people seemed to embrace the idea of China opening itself to the globe.
My daily schedule, which began at dawn was vigorous, exhausting and satisfying. I ate at the canteen at fixed times, socialised very little, wrote voraciously in my diary and always slept incredibly well. Outside of my studies and training, I joined a small, grass-roots poetry group and gravitated to places like The Bookworm Library and attended their International Literature Festival
Picture: Chengdu Bookworm Library
Eventually, these small connections landed me a job in revising translations for the New World Press. In fact, I did this work remotely with the expectation that I would join their Beijing offices the following year. The plan was: return to the UK, amass some savings and within a year, begin living, training, and working in China's capital city.
These plans never materialised. After I returned to England, my life took an unexpected direction. Like many unfledged writers, I had been a casual diarist and simply wrote for leisure. Somehow, in another geography, my musings whilst in China felt loaded. I was overcome by a keenness to push my own writing in the way I had pushed myself physically. Fast-forward slightly and I was thanking my lucky stars to be a 2010 Writers' Centre Norwich Escalator Prize Winner. Fast-forward a little further, and I am fully relocated to England's heart of Romanticism, Grasmere in the Lake District.
Picture: Eileen Pun training Wudang Sanfeng Taiji Jian (Sword)
Sometimes, I wonder after the me that went back to Beijing. Naturally, she became superbly trained, fluent in Mandarin and careered in the fast-growing Chinese publishing industry. Deep down, I know that things went the way they should have. I'm a softie, I'm still trying to master the English language, I have a strong affinity to the outdoors, and the pace that suits me best is slow, real slow.
Nevertheless, I haven't let go of the memory of a well articulated sequence, pivot or kick. There isn't really a match to these satisfactions, expect perhaps in poetry. Say, the way I feel when I manage to write something that strikes me. The frustrations too are a bit similar, most of the time there is just self-correction, calibration and ache. I've struggled to find a way to connect these art-forms, mostly it feels too idiosyncratic, too eccentric.
As a mature practitioner I must admit that I feel a certain physiological pressure to prioritise the development of my own movement practice. As a poet, I have been working on a sequence based on a dancer in Chinese history, Lady Gongsun. These are based on translations from the Classical Chinese poet Du Fu. A segment has already been published in the important anthology of new British poetry, 'Ten, The New Wave' by Bloodaxe Books. Not only do I feel this project will determine my path as a poet, it will also inform how effectively I can advocate art across disciplines as transformative and enriching - experiential values I deeply believe in.
Picture: Painting & Calligraphy of 'Song of Dagger Dancing to the Pupil of Lady Gongsun' by Du Fu. Located in Tao Ker Inn Youth Hostel, Wudang Shan.
In the spring of 2015 I received news that my LUTSF scholarship application was successful. A short time later, I also found out that I had won a Northern Writers' Award
. Holy green lights! This was exactly the permission I needed to bridge the poetry that I had found, with the kungfu (skills) that I had lost. I composed a project that would span over six months, ambitiously covering: training in Wudang Shan (mountains in Hubei Province); a visit to the DuFu Research Centre and Thatched Cottage in Chengdu (Sichuan Province); taking part in a writers' residency (Guangxi/Guangdong Provinces); and connecting with many scholars and artists, wanting my work to be as researched, informed, rigorous and creative as possible.
I arrived into China in July last year, at the peak of Beijing's hot summer and spent to two weeks visiting old haunts, friends and making new contacts. Unbelievably, my bank account was still valid, money from my editorial work - all those years ago - still available. China had welcomed me back.
Picture: Wudang Mountains, trail to The Five Dragon Temple
Wudang Shan is a place that has captured the Chinese imagination for hundreds of years. It is steeped in legends, Daoist temples and stunning landscape of lush, tree covered mountains. Certain regions of Wudang and its monasteries received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994 and can trace a long lineage of philosophy, martial arts and spirituality. This particular fusion is the reason it is considered one of the birthplaces of Taiji, a history that contains its share of heroes, hermits and outlaws.
Considering my Romantic leanings, I'm not at all surprised by how at home I feel in these surroundings. At the martial arts school, I have a love-hate relationship with the rusty bell that dangles from the courtyard tree, constantly chiming us into training (discipline) and meals (carrots) in alternation. During these hot, two and half months I learn the extent of my physical regression - my rigid Western body. Eventually, I succumb to all this. Slow learning, slow recovery and even slower writing are all OK. I take some comfort from the reliable sunshine and the few books I have with me: The Rough Guide to China, Spleen by Nicholas Moore, Yellow Iris by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo and an e-reader with all of the works of Mavis Gallant.
Picture: Chengdu DuFu Thatched Cottage Museum
Sunset makes even my travel clothing
A little brighter; I have covered
Many roads and now arrive in a new
World for me; meeting new people,
Unable to say if ever I shall see
My old home again; now the great river
Flows east, never halting, as indeed
My days of wandering have been; […]
Always there have been travellers,
Why should I lament?
Translated by: Rewi Alley
Foreign Languages Press
With my heart set to visit The DuFu Research Center and Thatched Cottage, I didn't need any extra reasons to visit Chengdu. However, its reputation as an exquisite centre for art, poetry, tea houses, pandas and 'delicious food', make it a welcome foray into a city. Nevertheless, the visit is a research trip and I wilfully keep myself focused on the reasons I am there. I need help to better understand Du Fu's work, and I want to connect with contemporary Chinese Art in some way.
Picture: Liu Yutong (Musician, Translator), Zhao Mi (Artist), Eileen Pun
After getting in touch with a number of arts related organisations, Catherine Platt, manager of the Chengdu Festival (BLF) and Liu Yutong, musician and event manager of the Chengdu Bookworm took it upon themselves to make me feel welcome and organise local introductions. One of which included a wonderfully dynamic afternoon with Zhao Mi, a well known calligrapher, painter and visual artist. We shared ideas about martiality, experimentation, the practice of art itself and the hope that we would extend our meeting into future collaborative work.
I’m able to emerge myself in the happiness of thinking. When I’m painting, there’s a complex feeling of love and hatred. There are even moments where I have thoughts of escaping, and that is the ultimate of my emotions. Zhao Mi, Artist
There is much too much to write here about how my visit allowed me to get a bit closer to Du Fu in my own work, or to convey the richness of conversations over tea and meals. I left Chengdu with renewed sense of purpose about my translation work, poetry, and very welcome new reading material; Du Fu Selected Poems from Foreign Languages Press and a copy of MaLa, The Chengdu Bookworm Literary Journal, Issue 3.
Picture: Yangshuo karst mountains, strolling distance from residency quarters
Taking part in the inaugural Sun Yat-Sen International Writers' Residency (18 Oct – 16 Nov) was pivotal, dividing my time in China neatly in half. Professor Dai Fan, the programme director - also a writer - met me and my partner at the Guilin train station in Guangxi Province after travelling over a 1000 km with all our belongings. I thought we must have looked a rabble, but if she thought so, it appeared she didn't mind. She was sleek and articulate, efficiently sweeping us into an organised car towards Yangshuo and explained the residency (a first for me) in great detail.
Fifteen writers, as well as two documentary makers from eleven countries took part in a month long residency over three main locations in South China. These figures don't, however, give the correct sense of the territory that we covered, nor the number of people with whom we interacted. Translators, student volunteers, invited artists, academics, members of the community and the bureau of tourism joined at various points throughout.
Picture: Roberto Frias (Novelist, Translator), Professor Dai Fan (Programme Director,Writer), Lieve Joris (Writer), Catherine Cole (Writer, Poet), local calligrapher & poem by Wang Wei, Eileen Pun, Hu XiuZhu (Chairman of the Yangshuo Art Association)
The first phase was set in Yangshuo, a popular eco-tourism destination, surrounded by beautiful karst mountains. Choosing between, privacy for head space or, cultural activities (meeting mountain singers, musicians, calligraphers, painters to name a few) for stimulation was difficult, but possible. I had the annoyance of my laptop charger breaking, and needing plenty of solitude to write in long-hand and compensate for the inefficiency. Nevertheless, the setting was conducive for falling into interesting conversations, and the sharing of experience and craft. This shared link
was particularly helpful to me, giving me courage and material for my poetry seminar, See Poetry Move
that would take place the following week in Guangzhou.
Picture: English Poetry Studies Institute (EPSI) Listed in no particular order Professor Tong Qingsheng, Professor Gao Wenping, Professor Li Zhimin, Associate professor Zhu Yu, Associate professor Lei Yanni and students at SYSU
The second phase took place in the garden-like campuses of Sun Yat-Sen's main campus, Zhuhai Campus, Xinhua College and Wuyi University where the residency had morphed into a conference. Here, more international writers joined the group. The number of ambassadorial students (all bright and heartwarming) grew and our timetable was packed with panel discussions, talks, seminars, workshops, readings, community presentations, tours, ceremony and banquets.
The discussions grappled with difficult issues, raising questions about censorship, the politics of publishing, identity, diaspora literature, feminism, language and the subversive. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. It was great to find ourselves stimulated, slowly drifting out of the lecture halls still talking about what had been discussed and exchanging reading material such as this article in the New Yorker.
By the time of the final phase, the rejuvenation promised by the hot springs of Jiangmen was needed. The region is known for its Chinese overseas ties and internationally recognised museum-villages with UNESCO world cultural heritage status. These have become architectural reminders of the social and global history of Chinese migration, of which, my own heritage is a part. More conversations happen and more sharing of personal stories, show how our talks have become deeper, warmer. One such exchange led to this touching documentary
. Maybe this is because we all know each other better, or maybe it is to do with the fact that a lot of our conversations are now taking place in our bathing suits in hot springs – it is hard to tell.
Picture: My private hot spring! Gudou Hot Springs Resort, Jiangmen
Before emotional goodbyes, I am unable to resist some pretty amazing reading material and ignore my back-breaking luggage: A Cultural and Natural Jiangmen; The Art of the Knock, Short Stories by Philip Graham; Honeypants, poetry by Lynda Chanwai-Earle; Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone and The Hands of Strangers by Janice Harrington.
There is a great deal more that can be said about the residency, and anyone with an interest about China, international literature and where these intersect might enjoy keeping abreast of the following: The School of Foreign Languages at Sun Yat-Sen University have written an in-depth article
about the residency; The Ninth Letter
, literary journal of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will publish work by participating writers in a forthcoming online issue; Radio New Zealand will also feature a programme about the residency
; a documentary is currently under production by film-makers Wei Donghua and John Hughes
When I returned to Wudang it seemed to receive me cooly, but is not to be blamed. I left in one season and returned in another. My favourite street corner, usually busy with mahjong and card players had dwindled. The air was now cold, the light wintery.
I also hadn't foreseen that in a month's time, the school would close for its winter break and everyone would disperse to their families and hometowns for the new year. The question, 'where will you spend your Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)?' entered every conversation, and each time, I didn't know how to answer.
Picture: Ice-skating in the park, Sujiatun District, Shenyang
Eventually, the answer did come. An unexpected move to Shenyang, a large historical city in northeast China not far from Russian and North Korean borders. A teacher of Daoist philosophy and published translator, Hu Xuezhi was in search of an editor to help with a new and annotated translation of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi); I was in search of help with translating my research material and getting better access to ancient Chinese language and Classic literature – a worthy exchange.
These days, in the run up to the Spring Festival, the daytime temperatures are about -15, dropping to as low as -25 at night. Reflecting now - having made good on this long-awaited return to China - mostly, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to be here. I'm also chuffed that if I can handle temperatures like this, it probably means I'll not be such a softie when I get back.
With thanks to the Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund.
Ed Parnell, author of 'The Listeners', on the long-standing friendships gained from Escalator
Award-winning author Ed Parnell took part in the Escalator writing competition in 2007. One of its greatest benefits, he says, is the friendships he made with fellow writers, which still continue to this day.
It seems a long time ago now. September 2007, in fact, when an email from WCN’s (then the New Writing Partnership) Chris Gribble dropped into my inbox, saying that he was delighted to inform me that I’d been selected for inclusion on the Escalator Literature programme. I was delighted too.
At the time I’d just handed in the dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at UEA, and was three-quarters of the way through a draft of my first novel, The Listeners. Things seemed good. I was writing daily, gradually creeping towards the book’s finish line (so I thought), and, having been buoyed up by talks from eager-sounding agents, the world of publishing was awash with possibility.
Things moved fast. I went on a long-planned holiday to Cornwall, getting back the day before the inaugural Escalator event at The Maid’s Head in early October. Here, I met the other Escalatees, and the biographer Midge Gillies, who was to be my mentor for the programme. Looking back, I can’t remember too much of the day itself, but my fellow winners –who’d descended on Norwich from north London, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk and Norfolk – all seemed very pleasant, as did Midge. I had a good feeling about things.
First impressions were entirely correct. Over the next few months we had several more get-togethers, all equally convivial. I also met Midge for a number of mentoring sessions in Ely. Her most recent book was the excellent, non-fiction Waiting For Hitler: Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion, and as The Listeners was set in rural Norfolk in May 1940 – the end of the phony war up to which point nothing much had seemingly taken place, at least that affected the lives of people back home –we had much to discuss. It was also great just to get to talk to a published professional writer about the day-to-day practicalities of trying to make a living from writing, something I was discovering as a now-freelance copywriter(alongside ploughing on with The Listeners).
As well as the invaluable advice from Midge, and a very welcome grant from the Arts Council to buy writing-time for the novel, the main thing that I gained from Escalator was a long-standing friendship with my nine other fellow Escalatees. From the beginning we all got on famously and over thecourse of the next year met several times at WCN events, culminating in a reading we gave at Foyle’s bookshop in London (having been drilled by the poet Aoifie Mannix in the art of how to conduct a good public performance).
Beyond the year, we continued (and indeed still do) to keep in touch, forming an ad hoc literature collective called Absolute Fiction for awhile, where we performed other joint readings at Cambridge Wordfest among others. It was good to have a group of like-minded new writers for moral – and editorial – support, something I was finding particularly useful now I’d finished The Listeners and was in the drawn-out process of editing and rewriting, trying to get an agent and,ultimately, a book deal.
That story takes a little longer to conclude. Having finally found representation in 2010 – after a series of flirtations with three other agents who concluded, eventually, that my novel wasn’t commercial enough for them – The Listeners did the rounds of various publishers, gaining some encouraging positive feedback, but no publishing deal.
In early 2014, having effectively given up on it ever making the journey into print, I entered the Rethink New Novels Competition; The Listeners won and was published at the end of the year. To steal from Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as the book came out just a couple of weeks after my brother Chris lost his too-short battle with cancer. The Listeners had its launch in December at an event hosted by WCN, where I read alongside Patrick Barkham and Sarah Perry. Given Escalator’s and WCN’s input into the book’s long road to publication,it seemed a fitting, albeit for me bitter sweet, occasion.
The Listeners is a novel about grief, and how we try to come to terms with the things we’ve lost –it’s dedicated to my brother, who was an untiring supporter of the book during its drafting process. I’m sure he’d be proud to see it on the shelf, though I have no doubt that he would take enormous delight in poking constant fun at the smirking face that gurns out from the back cover.
Edward Parnell is the author of The Listeners. Winner of the Rethink New Novels Competition 2014. Available in paperback, hardback, and on Kindle.
Former Escalator winner Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown publishes her debut novel
With a month left to apply for Escalator, our former Escalatee Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown explains why the talent development programme was so important for her. Guinevere recently published her first novel The Words in My Hand, described as a 'startling debut' by The Sunday Times.
In the week that my debut novel The Words in My Hand was published in the UK, Writers' Centre Norwich launched the Escalator writing competition for 2016. I want to encourage all who are serious about their writing to apply.
I was one of ten new writers mentored on the 2011/12 intake. The year-long programme and Arts Council England funding secured as part of it gave me time and space to develop my novel from an initial sketchy outline to a full first draft. The Arts Council grant funded two research trips to the Netherlands – research trips I could not have afforded by myself – and provided paid time to write. One-to-one mentoring sessions challenged me to produce work to a series of deadlines and showed me what life as a writer was like.
Something shifted in me as I went through the year. I no longer saw my writing as a hobby, but work. Bit-by-bit, Escalator enabled me to move writing from the periphery to the centre of my life.
The extraordinary thing is, I very nearly didn't apply. I didn't think my writing was good enough or that I had a novel in me, not then. I couldn't claim that I'd wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I'd had a couple of short stories published, but had no track record as a novelist. In the end I realised I definitely wouldn't get it if I didn't apply. So, doing my best to banish my inner critic, I gathered my thoughts, put together the best application I could, sent it off and then put it out of my mind.
The WCN Escalator programme is such a rare opportunity. Take it. Apply.
The Words in My Hand tells the story of the affair between Dutch maid, Helena Jans and French philosopher René Descartes. It is a story that was hidden at the time and almost entirely lost from history since. Published by Two Roads Books (an imprint of John Murray Press), it is The Times' Book of the Month. Foreign language rights have sold in five countries outside the UK, and an edition has been published in Australia and New Zealand.
The Kindness of Strangers – a reading in support of Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh
On Thursday 14 January, writers and literature enthusiasts from across the region gathered at Norwich Arts Centre for an evening of readings in support of justice, freedom and Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh
. The event, which simultaneously took place at 122 locations in 44 countries worldwide, answered an international call for solidarity from the International Literature Festival Berlin. Fayadh, a poet and curator who is the son of Palestinian refugees and legally a stateless person, has been found guilty by a court in Saudi Arabia of spreading atheism and threatening the morals of society. His sentence is death.
Novelist and short story writer Sarah Bower gave a reading that evening which reflected on her time spent in Palestine - Fayadh’s birthplace - whilst researching for her new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can't It? During this time, she travelled to the West Bank to act as a protective presence to local people during the olive harvest, and to record any disruptive incidents by illegal settlers for the UN.
The Kindness of Strangers
Image © Jenny Kassman
‘How can I charge you, after everything you have done for us?’ The doctor smiles at me across his desk. His smile is grave, and seems to lack practice.
The doctor is a chest specialist, to whom I have been taken, bumping crazily over potholes, by my concerned host, Ahmed, the headmaster of the local boys’ school. I have a fever and a hacking cough which has been keeping everyone in our dormitory, including me, awake for nights on end. Call to prayer, barking dog, cough, occasional bray of an insomniac donkey. Litany of the night hours. Ahmed says he can feel the fever in my hands. Ahmed knows about illness; his wife, at 49, suffers from a heart condition for which she could be treated in Israel or Jordan, but not here, in the Occupied West Bank.
I cough out my gratitude and self-deprecation and hope the doctor will attribute the tears in my eyes to the coughing. For here he sits, among the diplomas on his bare concrete walls, dispensing what assistance he can to chronically catarrhal children, young men consumed by TB and hopelessness, and their fathers whose lungs are already filling up with tar by the time they reach their mid-forties. He has limited facilities and not much in the way of medicines, and the best hospitals are in Amman, which is about as much use to his patients as if they were on the Moon.
Nor can most of his patients pay him for his services. Not for the first time on this trip, I’m caught in the bind of what the Palestinian Dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem calls ‘aggressive Arab hospitality’. I want to pay the doctor. I want to pay him twice what he would charge me, because it’s hardly anything to me and might enable him to treat someone else for free, but, if I offer, he will be insulted. Especially as I’m a woman. There’s that too.
The doctor has his practice in a small town near Nablus. I won’t name it, partly for the protection of the people who can’t leave, even to get medical treatment, or an education, or a job, because they are deemed stateless and cannot, therefore, obtain passports. Partly, also, because I want to let this town, and the villages surrounding it, stand for all the small towns and villages in the occupied areas, carrying on their lives in defiance of the State of Israel which is trying to strangle them.
It’s dusk when we leave the chest specialist’s house, on our way to the pharmacy run by Ahmed’s son. The stars are no doubt spread across the sky, those iconic stars that shone on the shepherds watching their flocks and the wise men coming from the east, and Herod fretting in his palace, but we can’t see them because the hilltops are flooded with halogen blue.
This spills from the security lights surrounding the illegal Jewish settlements that stand, like latterday crusader fortresses, on almost every hilltop. The settlements themselves are oddly elusive; at night all you see are the blinding lights, threaded through with troubling impressions of razor wire and guard towers. During the day, you might catch a glimpse of sugar-white concrete apartment blocks; and there are always the access roads, freshly cut and smoothly tarmaced, signposted only in Hebrew, great surgical scars that have transformed these hillsides into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, head and heart and limbs severed one from the other. Palestinians are not permitted to drive on these roads, even where they cut right through their own farms. Palestinians get stoned, or even shot, for using these roads.
The Dean of St. George’s, who might have stepped out of The Barchester Chronicles or The Vicar of Dibley, was giving a talk to a group of us who were travelling to the West Bank to act as a protective presence during the olive harvest. Olive harvesting in the West Bank can be a dangerous business because the illegal settlers begrudge the local people even what little is left to them of their traditional agriculture. The hills used to be covered with wild flowers in the spring, and terraces of vines and wheat during summer and autumn. The higher slopes were grazed by herds of lean sheep with floppy ears and sly, resourceful faces. But the settlers have diverted the springs that fed this agronomy, in some cases, if they don’t need the water themselves, merely smashing or poisoning the springs so the Palestinians can’t have it. They rustle the sheep, which means only those families who own enough land within their villages to pen the sheep can still keep a herd.
They also burn olive trees, the one remaining crop which is tough enough to survive in the impoverished soil and with scarce water. There are trees in the olive groves which are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, in whose gnarled trunks and arthritic branches our entire history is locked. Destroy these trees and you destroy – just as much as American soldiers looting the Baghdad Museum or Daesh blowing up Palmyra – the history of all of us.
Our protective presence is intended to discourage the settlers from trying to disrupt the olive harvest, and to record any incidents which do take place for the UN. This is not merely a matter of spite or ethnic tension, it is strategic. Under Israeli land law, if a farmer
fails to complete his harvest for three years in a row, the land will revert to the government because it is ‘abandoned’. Under this law, Israel has ‘legitimately’ seized thousands of acres of Palestinian land, squeezing the Palestinians into what will soon be little more than reservations.
So, every October, groups of brave and principled people travel to the occupied territories to help get the olive harvest in and to protect their Palestinian hosts from attack, because even the settlers will think twice about the adverse publicity they’d gain from stoning a rabbi or a genteel Quaker lady from the home counties. I was an interloper, of course; I was researching a book, and ended up being too ill to harvest many olives. I saw little, personally, of settler violence.
What I remember are eloquent silences: the state of the art Italian olive press, for example, which Ahmed proudly detoured to show me on our way back from the chest doctor’s; the men sitting idle beside its empty conveyors because there are no olives to process. Ahmed’s son’s pharmacy, on whose shelves the medicines are gathering dust because no-one has the money to buy them. Hana’, the daughter of our village head man, who aspires to become a literary translator, but cannot get a passport to travel to London to study.
Ashraf Fayadh is unjustly imprisoned and should be released. But he was imprisoned on account of his own conscience and creativity, unlike his fellow countrymen in the occupied territories who are imprisoned merely by an accident of birth and history. They, too, should be released and we citizens of western democracies should ask ourselves hard questions about the company we keep, the wretched irony of allying ourselves with states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia for the protection of our freedoms.
About Sarah Bower
Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. She is also a regular contributor to Words With Jam
and the Historical Novels Review
(which she edited for two years). She works as a mentor to other writers, and has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is currently based in her role as manager of the mentorship scheme for emerging literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. In 2014, she spent a semester as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Sarah is the author of three novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. Her third, Erosion has an East Anglian setting, was published in 2014. Her work has been translated into nine languages.
‘My new novel-in-progress, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? tells two stories, that of a Palestinian fisherman called Amal and of Rose, an Englishwoman from an outwardly conventional but inwardly dysfunctional family, whose father’s experience of Palestine in 1947/48 formulates her interest in the region. Though their lives are linked much more closely than either knows, it is through their shared experience of key historical events from the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the civil war in Syria that I try to show how our history is informed by that of Palestine and vice versa.’
I’m indebted to Arts Council England for the grant which enabled me to travel to Palestine to research the book.’
More hand-picked writing opportunities for the New Year
January’s a bit of a bummer isn’t it? What better way to raise your spirits and boost your productivity than by knuckling down with some serious writing! We’ve hand-picked our current favourites – from stunning residencies to screenwriting or a dip into the Romantic – so why not put on the kettle and get started?
An annual competition for essays and poems on Romantic themes, the Prize encourages writers to respond creatively to the work of the Romantics, and offers £4000 in prize money across various categories.
Closing date: w/c 1 February 2016
Birbeck University of London is offering a fully funded scholarship on their two year creative writing MA. Applicants to not need a first degree, and will benefit from in-depth support and mentoring, plus £1000 to purchase a laptop.
Closing date: 15 February 2016
A sort story competition, on the theme of “Ageing”. The winner receives £500, a place on an Arvon residential writing course of their choice, and publication of their story on the Writers & Artists website.
Closing date: 15 February 2016
Escalator is WCN's popular talent development scheme open to all prose fiction writers in the Eastern Region of England. 10 successful applicants will win a professional development package which includes mentoring, workshops and meeting agents.
Closing date: 26 February 2016
Celebrating the best writing for stage, screen and radio, the Nick Darke Writers' Award offers writers £6000 to provide the financial stability and free time necessary to focus on writing. This year’s category is Stage Play.
Closing date: 30 May 2016
Spend a month staying at Gladstone’s Library, reading and of course, writing. Lead a workshop and take the opportunity to focus on your writing.
Closing date: 1 June 2016
A library is many things to many people. It's a place of potential, of discovery. It's a land of dreams: of adventure and magic, of friendly dragons and other planets. It's a land of hope: of finding a new job or a new home, of learning a new skill or making a new friend. A library is many things to many people, so this Christmas WCN decided to celebrate libraries all around the world.
Every day of advent we shared a photo of a library alongside a quote from a brilliant writer, celebrating the gift that just keeps giving. You can take a look at all the quotes here, catch up with all the goings-on with Storify, or just scroll down.
#LibraryAdvent 2016 complete round-up
25th of December
Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library
'What a gift: democracy of reading, democracy of space. A library is for life, not just for Christmas.'
- Ali Smith
24th of December
Krakow Regional Public Library
'My first job was in a public library and I recognised, even at 16, how much of a haven it was for local people, somewhere for them to get away from the noise of the outside world as well as a place to educate themselves and their children.'
- Emma Healey
23rd of December
Norwich City of Literature
'Libraryness - it's a unique quality, only possessed by our libraries: the alchemy of a free place where people of all ages and all classes come together, seeking the adventures, discoveries, solace and sheer joy found in books. We must keep them open and cherish them, for they nourish us.'
- Patrick Barkham
22nd of December
Dunedin Public Libraries
'It was in libraries that I really explored reading. They are open to all and they cater for all. They never judge. You can pick something up on a whim, and find yourself with a new favourite book. Libraries contain wonders, they should be preserved.'
- Sally Craythorne
21st of December
'Under these leaf-libraries where
Melodious lost literature
- 'Abernethy', Douglas Dunn
20th of December
Edinburgh Central Library
'Edinburgh is a city of books and learning, open to all knowledge.'
– Dame Muriel Spark
19th of December
Norwich Cathedral Library
(Image Courtesy of Paul Hurst ARPS)
'Latterly it has been used as a lumber room. I hope no one will be so unkind as to say it will be so used still.'
– Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich, 1913
18th of December
Norfolk Heritage Library
'We need libraries and their wonderful staff. They are part of the lifeblood of British culture. Libraries are indispensable to me and to us all.'
- Mark Cocker
17th of December
Municipal Library of Prague
'A house without books is like a body without a soul.'
- Julius Zeyer
'Our library is a box of wonders that opens and lets me experience different worlds, meet different people, and explore my imagination.'
– Year 6 Pupil, Angel Road Junior
15th of December
'What a sad adolescence I would have had without a library to escape to! And what a very different life since then: the library opened the door to my future.'
- Andrew Cowan
14th of December
Dublin City of Literature
(Image Courtesy Patricio Cassinoni)
'The expected and the unexpected are always to be found in Dublin's libraries; the jewels in the city's crown.'
13th of December
Plumstead Road Library
'As a child, the library was my gateway - the only gateway available - to the world opened up by books. I read my way around every single shelf in the children's room of my local library, and was hooked. I am still today enthralled by the possibility for new discoveries which a library holds; the thought that you can discover something quite unexpected, and walk away with it tucked under your arm. I think in these days of tailored recommendation algorithms and curated digital experiences, the sense of rampant intellectual opportunity a library represents is needed more than ever.'
– Jon McGregor
12th of December
'Free public libraries are one of the traditional guarantors of freedom, places where anyone may start to explore all that humanity has thought and recorded in words. The burning of books and libraries is one of the great barbaric acts: the closing down of libraries is a step towards the same barbarism.'
- George Szirtes
11th of December
'You made me feel at home, so far from home.'
- guestbook entry by Marcelo Figueras, author from Argentina, October 2010
10th of December
'it shone like a boxful of butterflies
it shone like a web at the wood's edge
it shone like blazing hilltop victory
it shone like the valley of last resort
it shone like the story of you and me
it shone all night'
- on the library, Alasdair Paterson
9th of December
'Heaven, I am certain, looks like Gladstone's Library: Britain's only residential library, where you can live and study surrounded by a world-class collection of books and glorious Gothic architecture. You can choose to be alone, or converse with other visitors - a bishop at breakfast, and a poet at teatime. If inspiration fails (which it won't), you can venture outdoors to a cemetery, a valley, a ruined castle, a forest and a river.’
- Sarah Perry
8th of December
Library at the Dock
Melbourne City of Literature
(Image Courtesy Timothy Herbert)
'There was a tree outside the window where I worked, with a face in it, and I came to know it as my “permission” tree.
I did nothing in the library except write in front of that tree, and so every time I saw it, I was inspired to write.
Besides which, it is a beautiful, light library with minimal screaming. It was also during study week, so there were many other people working there, but all separately and silently. I felt part of a community, but not interrupted or under pressure to perform.'
- Anna Spargo-Ryan
7th of December
University of East Anglia
'Libraries are oases of quiet and learning in a distracted and noisy world, a human refuge, which should not be denied to us.'
- Rose Tremain
6th of December
Norfolk Mobile Library
'On moving to a new town or city, the first place I seek out is the library because the library is the heart of a community. I grew up in the Norfolk countryside, but, because I had regular access to a library (in fact, many libraries: the library in my school, the library in a nearby village, a mobile library and the main public library in Norwich), I was able to learn about the world. Children who grow up with access to a library grow up with the understanding that access to knowledge is a right, and this gives them power. Books allow people to dream. I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to a library throughout my life. Had this not been the case, I would be an entirely different person.'
- Megan Bradbury
5th of December
'Growing up, my local library was a place of wonder, imagination, excitement and safety. Ours had two floors: downstairs for adults, upstairs for kids. I both longed for the day I could stay downstairs and dreaded it. As a kid, I snuck books out of the adults’ section; as an adult I sneak them out of the kids’ section. Such are the contradictions of a reading life and the pure joy of a library.'
- John Boyne
4th of December
Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library
‘I wrote the vast majority of The Last Pilot in Norwich's Millennium Library and I saw first hand, day after day, how libraries are refuges for the most vulnerable members of society, from the lonely to the elderly; the unemployed to the unwell. The public library is so much more than the sum of its books: it’s a community hub, a place to go, to see people, to be seen; to feel you exist beyond the four walls of your house. The library is a destination, a haven, a harbour, an asylum, a sanctuary, a port in the storm.’
- Benjamin Johncock
3rd of December
Iowa City Public Library
Iowa City of Literature
'A library is where they live - words that burn
or freeze, cajole and tease, that sound of
barks, bawls, hollers, whispers, mutters
May this, our library prosper, for
life without it would be smaller.'
- This Library, Marvin Bell
2nd of December
Norwich University of the Arts
‘In their unique atmosphere there are portals to all kinds of worlds, knowledge, ideas, inspiration, it’s all there; brilliant reminders of the best and worst we can be as humans. The Whole Earth Catalogue 1972, where else could you see it? NUA library, small but perfectly formed.’
- Peter Martin, Course Leader BA Animation
1st of December
National and University Library of Iceland,
Reyjkavik City of Literature
(Image courtesy Indro Candi)
‘And there stood the library, waiting for him like an illuminated spaceship ready to whisk him away to distant planets.’
- Óskar Árni Óskarsson
Recommended by the Readers’ Circle: A Selection of Brilliant Books
Our fantastic Readers’ Circle
(a collection of dedicated volunteers from around the East of England) have been devouring books from our Brave New Reads medium list
. They’re reading, reviewing, and chatting about brilliant titles, from short story collections to non-fiction to poetry, to help us choose the six astounding books for Brave New Reads
Sadly, not every book can be included in the final six, so we’re featuring reviews of some of those which didn’t quite make it. Take a look below, and tempt yourself with some highly-acclaimed books (or find a perfect Christmas present!).
Interested in how we choose the featured Brave New Reads titles? Check out this earlier blog, explaining the very complicated process
Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
Find out more about Brave New Reads
This book is set in the woods and fields of Norfolk, starting in the summer of 1940, just as Britain was sliding into war. William Abrehart, an odd nature-loving boy, has remained silent since the death of his father but has promised to look after his two beautiful sisters and very withdrawn mother. The narrator shifts from person to person and William, Kate, Rachel and Louise all take a turn in speaking to us with their own interpretation of events and emotions present and past.
This book is incredibly beautiful and desperately sad. Beautifully written, with tender and lyrical descriptions of crumbling, haunted buildings and Norfolk flora and fauna. It is just as eerie and haunting as the poem by Walter de la Mare.
Family secrets, self deception and lies sit at the heart of this novel, which depicts the heartbreaking and tragic destruction of a family over the course of a few days in a summer long ago. The depiction of the flourishing world of nature is a backdrop to the pain endured by the main characters in the book. There are no lighthearted or amusing moments whatsoever, yet somehow it avoids being a depressing read. Wonderful sense of place and time. Takes you back to the 1940s!
- Reviewed by Cambridgeshire librarian
is a compelling collection in which heartbreak shimmers along every line of its hauntingly exquisite and often masterful prose. Its tragedy-ridden tellings express a grim reality; how ripples from the core of grief radiate further darknesses into the girls' lives. Whilst it would prove a difficult read for some due to disturbing subject content, this really is quite a staggeringly stunning, albeit gut wrenching, collection that one should take the time out to consume.
- Reviewed by Readers' Circle member Zeena Thompson
I really enjoyed this haunting book; dark and heavy yet delicately threaded together. I was drawn in by a feeling of closeness which was almost claustrophobic, with the protagonists’ intimate first meeting and descriptions of their movements as witnessed by the other. There was a sense of uneasiness conveyed by the rapidity of Elsa and Jack’s first meeting to their moving to America, the fact they can’t see the Golden Gate Bridge (the reason for their moving) from the air, and the constant chasing away of memories. The more we come to know them as individuals the less they seem a couple.
This book is about the histories that people carry with them and the way these histories work their way to the surface. Jack and Elsa jumped into their relationship as it was a happy release from their past problems, but then the ripples of that choice begin to be felt. Understated but beautiful.
- Reviewed by Kathryn Elliot of the Readers' Circle
This was easily the best of the novels I have read so far. Christine Dwyer Hickey, like all of the great Irish writers, has the ability to say such a lot in a few words.
The story is excellent. It is divided into two halves with part in the past told by Elaine Nichol's sixteen year old self, and part in the present where she is a fifty year old woman returning to Ireland ostensibly to look after her aging father. The reader is aware almost from the outset that a traumatic event occurred which resulted in Elaine, our main character, being sent off, exiled, to New York.
The writing has such clarity: I remember when the women, who seem to live very meaningless and powerless lives, get together and one of them who has obviously been drinking is described "words sticky from her mouth" when she speaks. Brilliant!
- Reviewed by Tricia Andrews of the Readers' Circle
Reader for Hire – Raymond Jean, translated by Adriana Hunter
I enjoyed this novella greatly. The idea that the female protagonist provides the commercial services of a reader to all and sundry sparked my interest. It may contain elements of a male fantasy but is also the exploration of the power of reading and listening, what we read and why we read it.
Marie-Constance trips through the looking glass into readerland; seemingly unaware of the effect she has on a range of listeners or at least believing that she can manage or control the expectations that they have. In the course of the novella political activism, crime, adultery, the corruption of minors (and possibly majors) whoosh by leaving her practically unscathed. Clearly, she has a determination to carry on reading on her own terms. I was very comfortable with the language of the translation. I found it enjoyable and mildly subversive!
- Reviewed by Jim Murray of the Readers' Circle
Check to see if the books are available from Norfolk
Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
Find out more about Brave New Reads
Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards - East Anglia has 'never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom'
Sarah Perry introduced the East Anglian Book Awards on 4 November 2015 having won the Book of the Year Award in 2014 for After Me Comes the Flood, also long listed for the Guardian First Novel Award in the same year.
At the ceremony she shared her love of a region that has ‘never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom’. She praised the radical character of the East Anglia woman referencing Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Fry, Harriet Martineau, Edith Cavell and of course Boudicca. With much to say on the East Anglian landcape she gives the final word to WG Sebald who with his translator Michael Hulse ‘captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease.'
The East Anglian Book Awards not only hold a significant place in the literary calendar, but are very dear to me. Having been fortunate enough to have been awarded a prize last year, I know how the generosity and praise of peers can see a writer though a cold Tuesday afternoon when putting one word in front of another seems a hopeless endeavour.
I also know that those of you whose books have secured a place on the short list will be feeling more than a little on edge, and so I promise I will not speak long. But I’d like to spend a short while touching on the cultural history of East Anglia, and its strange, marvellous landscape, and try to understand how this region has produced such an embarrassment of literary riches.
Writing about Norfolk, and writing about writing about Norfolk, Malcolm Bradbury once said, “Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.” Those who live and write here I think will recognise this twofold effect: sometimes the shingle and the fens, the curlews and skies are consciously our subject - at other times they lie several inches behind the printed page - but always they are there.
When I moved here after a wearisome decade in London, I remember quite clearly noting that the Norwich train bore an iron plate reading RAEDWALD. When at last I thought to look into it, it pleased me to see it referred to East Anglia’s king in the year 616, when this was the most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I like to think that East Anglia never quite stopped thinking of itself as a kingdom, and that this proud separateness is part of its allure. One does not arrive here by mistake, only by intent. Those of us who frequently make the journey home to Suffolk and Norfolk by train will know there is moment when, crossing (I think) the river Ouse - where white egrets stand impassively watching the trains - it is impossible to reach anyone by phone or email.
On arrival, the stranger will find the dialects of Suffolk and Norfolk not only thrive, but are contagious: I have barely been here three years, but find myself adopting the Norwich habit of using ‘that’ for ‘it’: “Good morning! That’s a nice day, that is!” Here, a jackdaw is a cadder, a bittern is a buttle, and a heron is a harnser (which, incidentally, is perhaps what Hamlet meant when he pointed out that he knew a hawk from a handsaw). The use of language here is nimble and witty: if you drive for any distance through the countryside you’ll encounter groan-inducing puns on signs for cafes, farm shops and roadside hot dog stands (the only one that currently comes to mind is ‘Bear’s Grill’). Hilary Mantel, who lived for a time in Norfolk, recalls seeing an elderly neighbour stand on the doorstep, peer disconsolately upward, and remark that there’d not been enough rain to wet a stamp. Even the place-names seem playful, and almost certainly designed to outwit the outsider: there is no mortification quite so bad as mispronouncing Happisburgh or Wymondham. In fact, playfulness and invention seems integral to the East Anglian literary character, from Thomas Browne’s coinages – antediluvian, jocularity, electricity – to George Borrow, who entitled his memoir ‘Lavengro’, after a Romany phrase meaning ‘word-master’.
East Anglia has a long history of radicalism: political, social and religious. There was the rebel Kett, who led 16,000 men against the king and was hanged for his pains from Norwich Castle wall; the 16th century butchers, labourers, constables and painters burned at the stake for the sake of freedom of conscience in Walsingham and Thetford and on Ely Cathedral green; there was Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech, abolitionist and noted redhead. I don’t think it fanciful to say that this radical tradition thrives in the contemporary literature of East Anglia, which is willing to challenge, wary of convention, tends towards idiosyncrasy and is often disruptive.
It is impossible to account for the hold East Anglia has over writers and artists without considering its extraordinary landscape, much of which seems made of some element which is not quite water, and not quite land. It has a peculiarly eerie, melancholy quality: it does not dazzle, in the manner of the Scottish Highlands or the Cornish cliffs; rather, it clings to you, I think – like a scent, or like a sea-mist – often I find myself unable to distinguish between memories of walking on Holkham sand or the Aldeburgh shingle and all the strange dreams I have had. Robert MacFarlane’s description of a Suffolk sunset epitomises a kind of East Anglian nature writing which is beautiful, but which faintly disturbs: “At evening, as the sun was low and red in the sky, we crossed back over the River Ore, and into the woods and fields of Suffolk. A single mushroom-cloud of cumulonimbus dominated the eastern sky, and it was soaked in the red fission light of the sun.”
In H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald describes her beloved Brecklands, and again this is no chocolate-box landscape: “It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghost here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.”
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen more strange things in heaven and earth in the three years I have lived in East Anglia than in the thirty-two preceding. I have stood in the pine forest at Wells, where it is silent as a cathedral, and suddenly heard a volley loud as gunshot as all the pine cones overhead burst open in the heat of the sun. Later that same day, scanning the horizon over the sea, I saw a Fata Morgana, a disconcerting optical illusion in which fronts of cool air create refracting lenses that build strange, Brutalist black towers in the sky, which grew and diminished over the course of an afternoon.
Naturally enough, this uncanny land is ripe with myth – the most persistent kind of story: there’s Black Shuck, who scorched the door of Bungay church in 1577 and last made the headlines in 1971; there’s the Green Children of Woolpit, who would only eat beans, and the poor Orford Merman, who was tortured for refusing to speak and finally released back into the Ness.
It seems curious to me that those responsible for the new British passport could rustle up a mere two women of significance between them. They ought to have looked East: here lived Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love was the first book by a woman to be published in English; here also lived Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography to be published in English. Here lived the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, here was born the great sociologist Harriet Martineau, here also lived the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie. Edith Cavell lived here, is buried here, and is remembered whenever beer is drunk in the pub named for her, and which is a stone’s throw from her memorial. Maggie Hambling was born here, Boudicca of the Iceni lived and died here. Britain’s first female surgeon Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was of Suffolk blood, Anne Boleyn was born in Blickling, and legend has it her heart is buried here. The character of the East Anglian woman is radical, literate, rebellious, courageous, mystic and astute.
I will finish by turning to the outsiders, since no-one should think that East Anglia – for all its remoteness and pride – does not welcome the stranger. In fact, one can barely cross the road without encountering a poet or novelist who has run here – often without quite intending to, yet never really meaning to leave. Eric Arthur Blair, born in India, named himself for the River Orwell; the great Irish writer Eimear McBride lives here, as does the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, but lived here long enough: it is impossible to read – for example - The Cement Garden without seeing something familiar in its eerie, remote setting.
Last night, while musing on Twitter about the lure of this land, the writer David Hayden replied that since being here the landscape has ‘insinuated’ itself into his writing: “Always the dark woods, the lone trees, the green river, the night heron.”
I will give the last words to Sebald – one of the greatest of East Anglian outsiders, who with his translator Michael Hulse captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease. Giving an account of walking in Suffolk on a day sullen with heat, he said: “Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain . . . In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me – all this became oppressive and unnerving….months after this experience, which I still cannot explain, I was on Dunwich Heath once more in a dream, walking the endlessly winding paths again, and again I could not find my way out of the maze which I was convinced had been created solely for me.”
East Anglian Book Awards
Now in their eighth year, the East Anglian Book Awards are an important part of the literary and publishing landscape in the region. Since the awards began in 2008 they have showcased the work of well over 100 authors, 129 titles, and more than 80 publishers. Find out more about the 2015 awards here.
A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation
An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.
In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.
Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.
This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone
can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.
The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.
And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?
Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right
to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?
Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.
The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone
all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can
be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often un
comfortable; often unexpected. Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.
I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.
On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.
But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?
I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.
The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.
That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.
But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.
That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying
their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid
for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.
Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.
Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.
So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.
2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.
3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.
4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.
5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.
6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.
7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.
8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.
9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.
10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.
11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.
12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.
Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.
This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.
Listen to the provocation and debate here
Do let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Mike Carey: How do we reflect the world in fiction?
In advance of our National Conversation event with Joanne Harris on Monday 19th October, we asked Mike Carey for his response to the question - what is the role of the writer in contemporary society?
I don’t believe that a novel is a mirror carried along a road. That’s one of the many things it can aspire to be, but it’s generally not a realistic goal. There’s too much of you in a novel for the rest of the world to fit comfortably. All you can do is say “well this bit of the world looks like this from the angle at which I’m currently standing.”
Having said that, I thin
k all novels are haunted by the real world in the way old repurposed buildings are haunted by their original form and function. And I think you have to watch those angles pretty closely – the points where your stories lean up against reality. They’re always going to be there because everything has to be supported by something.
Ursula LeGuin said that people who don’t read sci-fi think of its narratives as excursions, whereas in fact they’re incursions – raids on the real. Wallace Stevens said that the beauty of Earth is the beauty of every paradise, and that I certainly believe. It’s true of dystopias too, or should be: genre fictions, like all fictions, are curiously shaped and intricate tools for exploring what matters to us (and to the people around us) in the lives we lead in the world we all happen to share. It’s not the only thing they do, but it’s an important thing.
It follows that you’re responsible, at least a little bit, for the inferences and assertions about the real world that either flit across the surface of your fictions or else get deeply embedded in them.
That may seem a bit controversial, even wilfully naïve. The death of the author happened a long while back (I was sorry because I knew the guy). We’re all agreed now that meaning
, signification, is something that happens when the reader’s mind encounters the text, not when the author opens his magic bottle o’ meaning and pours in a big dollop of the stuff.
But still. Your words exist in the world, in the same way a table or a chair exists in the world. If you were building a chair you wouldn’t build it with one leg shorter than the other three. Likewise you wouldn’t make a table with a nail sticking out so anyone passing by might injure themselves on it. And it’s the same with stories.
Please don’t mistake this for a parable about Not Giving Offence
. It’s absolutely fine for stories to give offence. It’s both inevitable and perfectly acceptable. You may think that Salman Rushide is an infidel and Michel Houllebecq is a racist jerk, in which case you can avoid their stories or – better – you can read them and think about them and try to formulate what it is about them you disagree with.
What I’m saying is more about function. You have to be aware, as a writer, of what your story is about and what it’s for. You have to own your meanings, insofar as they are yours. You have to make sure the fiction is fit for purpose.
When you send it out to walk along the road, it’s reflecting you as well as the world. Be in there as yourself, not as someone else. And be honest. It may only ever matter to you, but it should matter to you a lot.
Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer. He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production. He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz. His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.
Joanne Harris will be discussing the role of the contemporary writer with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Lemn Sissay and Geoff Ryman on Monday 19th October at Manchester Literature Festival. Do join us, or read Joanne's provocation online after the event.
As Slowly as Possible: Han Kang Reports from the BCLT Summer School
In the summer of 2015, the acclaimed South Korean novelist Han Kang stayed in this Fine City as our latest UNESCO Writer in Residence, sponsored by the Arts Council of Korea. She attended Worlds, gave readings in Norwich, London and Edinburgh, translated poetry, explored the Norfolk landscape, met her publishers at Granta and prepared the proofs of her next novel, Human Acts (due to be published in the UK in January in Deborah Smith’s translation).
Following the BCLT Summer School, a practical symposium was organised to explore some of the issues around translation. Taking place on the 3rd of October at the Free Word Centre, Translation in the Margins will investigate the radical edges of literary translation. (Find out more about the event.)
Here, Han Kang reflects on the experience of being a guest author at the BCLT Translation Summer School in July. With additional support from the Korean Literary Translation Institute, a number of novice literary translators participated in a week-long workshop with Deborah and Daniel Hahn, testing different approaches to translating Kang's fiction in the presence of the author herself. Kang's fascinating diary entries form the basis of her account of the process. The below piece was translated by Deborah Smith.
Slowly, as slowly as possible
This summer just past, I spent two months in the small, peaceful British city of Norwich, supported by the British Council and the Korean Arts Council, ARKO. As it happened to coincide with my residency, I also participated as a writer in the translation workshop held for a week every July at the University of East Anglia
. That workshop was on a larger scale, and more intensive, than any other translation programme I had previously heard of or experienced. Translation sessions were organised by language, for Dutch, German, Norwegian, Italian, and even Korean, included this year for the first time. Workshops were also held under the name of ‘multi-language sessions’, translating literary works from a variety of languages into English, shared between poetry and prose classes.
On Sunday 26th July, the evening before the workshop commenced, the participants gathered in the campus bar for the opening event. It was scheduled to be led by Deborah Smith, who has translated my novels The Vegetarian
and Human Acts
, with help from the translator and author Daniel Hahn, who frequently dropped in on our sessions. After the writer and translators had shared brief introductory remarks, Daniel said with a smile, “My role in these sessions will be to obstruct the work of translation as much as I can, in order for it to progress slowly, as slowly as possible.” I nodded, because I liked the sound of those words ‘as slowly as possible’. I thought it was lucky that this was not to be a workshop where everything was done ‘as quickly as possible’. Of course, at that point I was unable to guess just how slowly our sessions were going to go.
Because the participants who were coming from Korea arrived late on the Sunday night, I was only able to meet everybody in our session first thing on the Monday. Sophie, Hyo-kyung, Victoria, and Celin, students from LTI Korea’s Translation Academy, and their professor Kim Chung-hee. Roxanne, who studies Korean literature at SOAS in London.
The text we were to translate that week was my short story “Europa”. At Deborah’s suggestion, I first briefly explained my motivation for writing the story, and what I had thought particularly important about it, and straight after that the translation began. After each member had translated the first sentenced, they took in it turns to present their translations. After Deborah had typed them up on the computer, she examined each individual word in minute detail - even down to the punctuation marks. She led the discussion tirelessly, neither agreeing completely with one person’s translation nor unilaterally dismissing another’s. In that first session, which took place from 11am to 1pm, I was shocked to see that we didn't even manage to fully translate one sentence. “The important thing is the process,” Deborah said.
The afternoon session was held from 3.30pm to 5.30pm; Daniel came in, and was entirely satisfied with the slow speed of our progress. He had the students read the sentence that was being translated out loud, and after also having me read the Korean, stressed the desirability of the sense of rhythm given by the length of the sentences in the two languages being as similar as possible. Eventually, once three sentences had been completed, when we parted having arranged to meet again the next day, Deborah said that as we continued with the translation, the sentences we thought were 'done' could in fact be revised almost endlessly, to make sure they matched with the following passage.
Instantly I realised that this extremely delicate, elaborate process was giving me a very particular sense of deja vu. All of this was what I myself did every day. Changing the position of a word, rearranging the order of sentences, cutting out unnecessary words, reading out loud, reading out loud again from the first sentence after writing the final sentence, cutting more words, taking out punctuation, putting it in, cutting again. Accepting dispassionately the fact that after writing the next day’s sentences, today’s might all have to be cut, forcing me to re-write everything from the beginning.
Tuesday and Wednesday
Various observers (people from the Writers’ Centre Norwich, the British Council
, teachers and students from the creative writing MA course) came in and watched our sessions, cautiously giving their opinions if we happened to be struggling with certain words, certain expressions. Their input almost always made our debates all the richer, and there were times when it enabled us to suddenly get to the nub of the matter and make progress.
The interesting thing, was the fact that, in direct contrast to the translated sentences given by the participants on the Monday being generally rather similar, the more time went by the more varied the expressions which appeared became. Rather than automatically transposing the original Korean sentence structure, they began to concentrate on the ‘feeling’ of that sentence and inventively seek an English expression which could vividly convey that feeling. Deborah continually encouraged them in this by saying things like “Isn’t this sentence a bit plain?” “What might be an expression that isn’t flat?” “Ah, that’s too bland”, “This expression is awkward in English”.
The result was that on Tuesday we succeeded in translating five sentences and connecting them with the previous three. Before we turned in for the day, everyone read it out loud and exclaimed how happy they were with it. Because we were all well aware of how difficult it had been to find a point of contact and come up with sentences which satisfied us all. Following on from this, on the Wednesday we translated a section of dialogue. We put our heads together to reach an agreement as to how colloquial it should be, what were the idiomatic expressions that are written in English in similar situations. Wanting to test that it was sufficiently natural-sounding, the participants even acted the conversation out, and burst out laughing in doing so.
In the early hours of the morning, I had a dream. Someone was lying in a white bed, and I was quietly watching them. Their face was covered with a white sheet, so I couldn’t tell whether they were male or female. Somehow, I was able to hear what he/she was saying. ‘I have to get up now…no, that’s too flat.’ ‘I really will have to get up now…no, that’s too bland.’ ‘I have to leave this bed…no, that’s awkward.’
Having woken from the dream, I thought of the participants in our session, and thought of Deborah, who had translated two of my novels, and finally thought of myself. I thought about the lives of the struggling people beneath the white sheet that covered their faces, tenaciously asking questions of and answering themselves, ceaselessly rewriting sentences.
In the session that morning, everyone enjoyed hearing about my dream. (I have come to realise that it is possible for someone’s nightmare to make many people happy). In the second session that day, we translated eight lines with surprising concentration, making it the day when our yield was greatest.
On Friday, which was the final day, after putting the finishing touches to our translation in the morning session, in the afternoon we shifted to the Writers’ Centre in Norwich city centre and had a session set aside for presentations. The translation sessions for European languages had translated quite a lot of pages in a week, as might be expected for languages from the same family, whereas we had managed to produce only a little over a single page, from the very beginning of the story. During the fifteen minutes allotted in the presentation session, the participants for our session stood up on stage and read their translation as slowly as possible, and took it in turns to speak methodically about the minute difficulties of the translation process. Sitting in the audience, I was quite moved.
People who delight in the intricacies of language. People who take even the most minute difference to be something large, important, significant. People who, through that keen sensibility, give a single text a new birth in another language. People who move forwards following that strange, beautiful rule which says that it is good to go as slowly as possible. People who ask questions of and answer themselves, alone beneath the white sheet, ceaselessly re-writing sentences. I felt touchingly grateful to everyone in our session, including Deborah - no, somehow to every translator in the world.
Each of the other sessions' presentations was also enjoyable. There was one group who, at the beginning and end of the passage, had the writer and translator read at the same time, producing an effect akin to music, and there was one who, after two people had translated the same text, read a passage from the various versions, so that we could appreciate the differences. There was one group who amused the audience by humorously disclosing that, as their session leader had been unable to attend due to personal reasons, and the only participant in the week who was able to speak that language had arrived late, the other participants had spent the entire week engaged in a bitter struggle, relying only on a dictionary, at the end of which they had managed to produce a grand total of three sentences. I laughed along with the rest, of course, but I also thought it was a bit of a shame. That there was a group who'd succeeded in going even slower than our session had...
National Conversation: The Science of Reading by Charles Fernyhough
A provocation by writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, first presented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 31st, 2015
Open a book and a chorus of voices starts back at you. I remember being asked as a bookwormish child whether I could hear a novel’s characters speaking in my head. ‘I hear them,’ I enthused (my own eleven-year-old son recently said the same). With a sheaf of printed pages in front of her, a reader settles in for an extraordinary internal performance. It’s an everyday happening that illustrates a deep mystery of consciousness: how someone sitting alone in a room, ostensibly doing nothing but silently turning the pages, can be hearing the voice of an unreliable narrator, listening into conversations that never happened, conversing with the dead.
I want to do more than propose that fiction transports you into a different reality: it can certainly do that. Rather, I’m interested in how reading for pleasure can have specific effects of something like an auditory quality. It leaves its sounds resonating in our minds and brains. I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of reading fiction is an engagement with simulated voices with a certain phenomenology (the ‘What is it like?’ qualities of experience). If reading is a pleasure, tuning into these voices must be part of its appeal.
Psychologists have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon of ‘inner speech’: the internal conversation that occupies many of our waking moments. Reading colonises that inner dialogue in varied ways. If you are asked silently to read words with long vowels (as in cape) you will do so more slowly than if the vowels are short (as in hat). If you are told about a certain fictional character who speaks fast, you will read their speeches more quickly than those of a character with a more leisurely speaking pace. Such findings show that you as a silent reader are nevertheless sounding out the words: you are not processing the text purely at some abstract level of meaning, but rather are articulating those voices for yourself in your head.
In this context, voice can mean a whole lot of different things. We speak of writers ‘finding’ their voice, or of succeeding (or otherwise) in channeling the right voice for a particular piece. One of the most influential figures in recent literary studies, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that novels work when distinct voices, manifested in language, come into creative dialogue with each other. When our team of researchers asked Guardian readers last year what the experience of reading was like for them, we wanted to be very specific about its phenomenology. When listening in to fictional characters, do readers actually hear something like a voice? It seems that many of them do. One in seven of our readers said that the voices they heard were as vivid as an actual person speaking. For some respondents, not hearing the voices of the protagonists was a sign that they were never really going to get into the book.
If hearing these fictional voices is a big part of the reading experience, you would expect that writers would have cottoned on. Any creative writing student will tell you that, if you want to make your characters’ voices resonate, you should use direct rather than reported speech (compare Jane said ‘I love you’ to Jane said that she loved him). Glasgow neuroscientists recently demonstrated a neural basis for the observation that direct speech is experienced more vividly than its reported form. But writers give us their characters’ silent, unheard voices as well as their externally uttered ones. They play with the fact that a character can think (in inner speech) something different to what she is saying out loud, and they build inner worlds through deft portrayals of the stream of verbal consciousness. They fill our heads with voices.
It stands to reason, then, that writers must hear those voices too. As the author of two novels, I am familiar with the experience of hearing my characters speak. They don’t talk directly to me, but I overhear them. I know their accents and tones of expression, their choice of words and how their voices betray certain emotions. I don’t confuse them with real people, but I do need to be able to hear them. It’s a common view about the creative process that writers need to hear their characters speak before they can really bring them alive.
Eager to put that idea to the test, our researchers teamed up last year with the Edinburgh International Book Festival to ask professional writers about the voices they heard. Seventy percent of the writers who completed our questionnaire said that they heard their characters’ voices; a quarter said it was as clear as if the protagonist were in the room with them. Two-fifths said they could enter into a dialogue with their characters. In detailed follow-up interviews, our researcher Jennifer Hodgson heard writers describing the experience as something like eavesdropping or taking dictation. One writer described it as a process of ‘tuning in’: ‘It is intimate, like being let in on their thoughts.’
We conducted these studies as part of Hearing the Voice, an ongoing interdisciplinary study of the experience of hearing voices, based at Durham University and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Some of the writers we have been studying literally heard voices that no one else could hear. Dickens was pestered by his characters in all sorts of vivid ways. Virginia Woolf was troubled by auditory hallucinations related to sexual abuse, bullying and bereavement (she put some of her experiences into the character of her war veteran voice-hearer, Septimus Smith, in Mrs Dalloway). Thinking about the range and variety of heard voices points to measures for helping people who are distressed by their experiences, and some of these insights are being integrated into our cognitive behaviour therapy work with voice-hearers. Certain fictional characters can act as though they are beyond the author’s conscious control; understanding the psychological processes involved holds out the possibility of relief for those troubled by uncontrollable voices.
Writers hijack the voices of our ordinary inner speech in all of these ways. Part of the contract we make as readers is to simulate, in our own minds, the vocal hubbub of other consciousnesses. Writers stimulate our regular inner dialogue too; they make us talk back. I am actually a highly distractable reader. If I’m reading fiction that delights, I am constantly fighting the impulse to put the book down and do my own writing. Even beloved novels and stories have the paradoxical effect of making me disconnect from the text for moments or minutes. I don't think that makes me less of a reader. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of fiction is its capacity to make us wander off somewhere else.
To understand why that can be a blessing rather than a curse, we need to be easier on ourselves about this distractibility. A mind that is temporarily gazing away from a book is anything but disengaged. In our Hubbub project at Wellcome Collection in London, a diverse group of academics, artists and clinicians are taking an ambitiously interdisciplinary approach to rest and its opposites, and finding that a mind that is ostensibly doing nothing is a lively and varied place to be. Our psychologists and neuroscientists are tying richly detailed descriptions of consciousness to the complex patterns of activation shown by a brain that is busy with nothing in particular. This focus on the so-called ‘resting state’ is one of the growth areas in cognitive neuroscience, and I suspect that reading—or momentarily failing to read—offers many of us a direct line into it. I mean that gorgeous moment of putting a book down, not from boredom or external distraction, but because one’s mind is full of new, unexpected wonders. Woolf herself, like plenty of other writers, enthused about the process of what she termed ‘woolgathering’, or what I would like to call creative mind-wandering. Watch me in my armchair: I may end up reading the same paragraph several times over, but in the process I am having delicious thoughts of my own.
Putting science to work on an experience as intimate, personal and deeply human as reading is a risky business. In a world of library closures and device addiction, it is natural to try to harness scientific evidence to prove a greater good. But we should tread carefully. I’ve suggested that some of the pleasures of reading fiction are its stimulation of the varied voices of our inner speech and its capacity to trigger creative mind-wandering. I’m not here to tell you that reading changes your brain (whatever that laughable statement might mean), or that books make you a better person, in the narrow definition of some inevitably limited research methodology. I am fascinated by how we sometimes seem to think that neuroscientific truth is somehow 'more' true than other kinds of knowledge, such that even literary people are disproportionately swayed by it. We don’t need brain scans to tell us that reading is good for you. Rather, let’s delight in the varieties of that exquisite internal performance: ‘the beautiful stillness,’ as Paul Auster described it, ‘that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.’
This provocation is part of the National Conversation series of events featuring thought-provoking original ideas from writers. Read more, and follow the discussion here.
On the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School
I have always felt grateful to literary translators: without their work I wouldn’t have been able to discover many great authors and read some of my favourite books, masterpieces which have somehow changed my way of looking at the world or texts which have just (just!?) made me smile during the reading – and sometimes, quite a long time after it. Now that I am a foreigner in the UK, using a non-native language on a daily basis, I am even more aware of the importance of their work, not only in a literary context, also in a cultural one: translated literature is a way of discovering new cultures, new ideas, different ways of seeing, thinking, living.
For that reason, I felt really lucky when I had the opportunity of collaborating in the organisation of the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School together with our colleagues from the British Centre for Literary Translation. From the 26th July to 1st August 2015 at the UEA and at the new home of the Writers’ Centre Norwich – the beautiful Dragon Hall-almost 50 participants from many different countries took part in a series of creative writing and translation workshops.
All of them translated into English, but from different languages depending on the workshop: from Dutch (led by David Colmer and Jeroen Thijssen), German (with Katy Derbyshire and Kristof Magnusson), Italian (Howard Curtis and Andrea Tarabbia), Korean (Deborah Smith and Han Kang) and Norwegian (Kari Dickson and Brit Bildøen), but also two multilingual, one for prose led by Sarah Bower and Daniel Hahn; the other one for poetry with George Szirtes. In every single workshop participants and tutors organised their work in a different way, but sharing the same goal: not to translate in just a literal way, word by word, but to go beyond that and translate the cultural context, the feeling, the sensibility of the writer. A very enriching point in this summer school was the fact that in most of the workshops the authors of the texts being translated were involved in the working process and answering the queries that the translators had.
This year for the first time the summer school also included creative writing workshops with Sarah Bower, Sharlene Teo, Cecilia Rossi, Henrietta Rose-Innes and Eliza Robertson. Sessions where the translators were invited to develop their own writing, adapting texts to different voices and contexts, reinterpreting them and also, being aware of the constraints that a translator can face when working.
Whilst the 2015 summer school has finished, the translations and texts created by the participants – and successfully presented during the last afternoon at Dragon Hall - will remain, and are a good souvenir of a very intensive and fulfilling week.
See you next year!
Kate Griffin, WCN Associate Programme Director, reports back from Link the Worlds in Myanmar, and discusses the issues faced by Burmese writers, translators and publishers.
Myanmar has only recently emerged from a long period of isolation. Throughout the week, we explored ways to revive the flow of contemporary writing and ideas between Myanmar and other countries, particularly in South East Asia.
Literary exchange in Burma – now Myanmar – flourished in the years after the declaration of independence in 1948. The Burma Translation Society was established in Rangoon in 1947, and high quality translations of the best literature from other countries became available to readers and writers in Burma. Despite the opening up of the country three or so years ago, in today’s Myanmar many of the translations available in bookshops still date from this period. Censorship has meant that since the 1960s, little world literature – other than Soviet literature – has been translated into Burmese. Since the 1990s, translators have been making an effort to change the situation, but in Myanmar, translation tends to be a labour of love, with little or no financial remuneration. Although there is a need to nurture a new generation of literary translators, there is no systematic support in the form of workshops, or skills development in schools and colleges.
This means that Burmese readers have difficulty gaining access to more contemporary writing and ideas from around the world, and Burmese writers find themselves isolated from their international counterparts. At the same time, little contemporary Burmese writing is translated into other languages as there is a shortage of experienced literary translators who can translate out of the languages of Myanmar. We hoped that Link the Worlds would be a first step towards changing this.
Since its establishment in late 2013, PEN Myanmar has aimed to encourage dialogue between writers
and readers, reaching out to different parts of Burmese society by holding literary discussions in public places across the country, including on trains and at bus stops. The level of education in Myanmar is low, so people read very little. PEN Myanmar president Ma Thida
said that children need to be encouraged to read and write short stories and poems.
As part of its drive to open up the Burmese literary scene, PEN Myanmar holds literary evenings in Yangon (in English), presenting non-Burmese literature, as well as writing from the other ethnic states of Myanmar. Little ethnic literature is available, because of censorship; PEN would like to help develop more writing and translation between Burmese and ethnic languages. This is also the focus of the British Council’s Hidden Words Hidden Worlds
There are four main barriers to publishing in Myanmar, according to San Mon Aung. The distribution system is terrible; the lack of a reliable postal system makes it difficult to get books to readers, either via bookshops or direct. It’s also difficult to collect money from bookshops, and therefore to survive.
Secondly, the reading rate is very low; a book that sells 1,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Thirdly, publishers struggle to find quality writers and translators; even when they do, high quality and literary style don’t necessarily attract a lot of new readers. Finally, although official censorship is in the past, there are still a lot of laws that control publishing – in effect an alternative version of censorship.
Generally there is not a strong culture of editing in the Burmese publishing industry, and many of the small independent publishers cannot afford to hire editors. Most Burmese editors work for periodicals rather than publishers. Myo Myint Nyein, one of the few experienced editors in Myanmar, told us that until two or three years ago there was an official censorship bureau overseeing publications. The editor was captain of the ship, navigating the waters of censorship. And in daily life, whenever people had a conversation they felt had to self-edit before they spoke; this atmosphere of caution has left its mark on writers. Burmese writers are still resistant to editing when they see it being used as a form of censorship.
Nowadays, editors are more able to focus on style rather than policing content, but even this can be complicated, for a number of reasons. Spoken Burmese sounds smooth, but when the informal language is written down it can be full of grammatical mistakes. Readers in Myanmar don’t mind this, but if the translation echoes this informality, international readers may be less understanding.
Another barrier for many publishers in South East Asia more generally is the linguistic diversity of the region; translation is very important for books to travel even to neighbouring countries. There are no literary agents in Myanmar to promote either Burmese or other writers. It is expensive for Burmese publishers to pay for copyright, as books have such a low circulation and make so little money.
Link the Worlds was welcomed by all concerned, as a first step towards improving the situation for
literary translation in Myanmar. At the core of the five-day event were two workshops, each with ten participants from different parts of Myanmar. The Burmese to English group worked with workshop leader Moe Thet Han to translate work by UK author Suzanne Joinson
and Singaporean author Alfian Sa’at
into Burmese. The English to Burmese group translated work by Myanmar writers Nay Myo and Min Khite Soe San into English, under the guidance of Alfred Birnbaum.
‘I enjoyed the opportunity to talk to people from Myanmar,’ said Suzanne Joinson. ‘Using the process of translation as a common task, what really opened up was a range of narratives: stories, explorations of language, communication. I have already edited a short story for one participant, and have been in touch with another about Burmese writers. It’s a unique chance to make friends from a distant part of the world.’
Alfian Sa’at said he ‘really appreciated the experience as someone living in Southeast Asia. There haven’t been many initiatives to understand the region and I have to admit that Myanmar was never really in my radar as a writer. But now I’m really keen on reading works from Myanmar writers and hoping that these little acts of connecting with one another will lead to greater cultural integration among the Southeast Asian nations.’
One of the senior translators praised Link the Worlds as the first major translation event in Myanmar since 1969. We hope that we won’t have to wait as long until the next time.
Never never never never / Shame - Worlds 2015 Part IV by George Szirtes
George Szirtes continues his blog on Worlds Literature Festival, sharing his personal experience of the provocations, salons and readings. Reflecting on the fourth day, he discusses literary translation, and writing as an act of political resistance.
After the Wednesday salon there was a two hour session on translation in which three authors appeared with their translators.
The authors read a sentence or two in the original language then the translars read longer passages in translation. Each author was then invited to ask their translator three questions.
This session was led by Erica Jarnes. The three writers - Geir Gulliksen, Han Kang and Sigitas Parulskis - write in quite different ways about quite different things. The translators were asked the normal but vital translation questions and each answered differently. Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang, argued that the translator should feed the text through her blood stream by accessing the experience described. Deborah Dawkin, who had just one week to translate a longish passage of Geir’s book about gender and sexuality thought it was the original text one should go back to time after time. Translation, she said, was like acting, a fascinating if unexplored idea. Romas insisted that the translator should know the full cultural and historical context, be utterly at home in both languages, and that translators never never never never improved original texts or, if there were mistakes in the text they should be left to the copy editor. (This concurs with Nabokov’s view of translators as mischievous and incompetent servants who think they know better than the genius writers they serve. Max Sebald too kept his eye closely on what his translators were up to.)
In the Salon on Thursday, Mamta Sagar and Sigitas Parulskis gave the provocations.
Mamta talked of India with its many languages of which her own, Kannada is one. One may make a name for oneself in one language alone, but that name may be extended by translation into other Indian languages. Being translated into, or writing in English made one available to an international public and offered the chance of international reputation. However, there were many complications such as religion, caste and gender. Reputation, she argued, was rooted in imagined memory, a memory that was exclusive and omitted anything it didn’t want to admit, particularly the writing of women and the Dalit (or Untouchables). Social and gender roles would be defined by ideals derived from sacred or mythological text, the Ramayana. Male roles were defined by Rama: female by Sita. If individuals departed from these models their reputations were ruined. The current government of India led by Modi emphasised the martial aspect of Rama and looked to very conservative interpretations of the Ramayana. The women’s movement had brought progress but the major roles were still all male (Bhavit argued that this was not the case now and that all the major festivals had equal numbers of men and women as well as Dalit writers.)
Afterwards there were questions about women-only publishers. Mamta didn’t like the idea of special spots for ‘women’ poets feeling that this meant they were expected to produce ‘women’s poetry’and be like the flowers at a reception. Indian writing should not be looking to package particular groups in specific ways but focus on diversity. India was after all a secular democratic nation. (Mamta’s work is much translated but generally in workshops at festivals or universities.) There was talk of the tension between Hindu and Muslim and Mamta mentioned but did not expand on the episode of the Godhra train blaze. Marion Molteno argued that the increasing popularity of the ghazal verse form in Urdu was evidence of an essential anti-fundamentalism. Jon Morley wondered how far writing was a form of resistance. Someone else asked whether there were examples of writers forging a reputation in one language than forging a different one in another.
Sigitas’s provocation was read by his translator, Romas. It was the story behind his current book which is about the murder of Lithuanian Jews, as much by Lithuanians as by German Nazis. It was in the Imperial War Museum in London that he discovered how, in his own small home community of just over two thousand, over a thousand Jews were executed. No one had ever mentioned this or chose to remember it, partly because years of Soviet occupation had implanted the idea that it was the Germans alone who were the murderers and that the victims were not so much Jews as communists. This became a matter of “shameful knowledge” in Lithuania and for him too personally. Not even his mother - who had lived through it - believed that Lithuanians could do this. Sigitas went on to resist the idea that literature should by ideologically committed which was not surprising in view of years of ideologically committed or controlled literature. There was no repentance in Lithuanian society, he said, only denial. How much time did it take for a corpse to become a historical corpse, he asked. We are, he said, parasites living on the corpses of the past. Lithuanians, he added, had certainly suffered but suffering can make you more cruel. There was a constant referring back to Christian belief in both Sigitas’s novel and his provocation. Religion was a form of resistance to the Soviets. It is deeply embedded in Lithuanian people.
James asked whether the book was unusual for Sigitas. It was important to irritate yourself, Sigitas replied. Without irritation, no literature. Erica wondered whether it was odd that he should be promoted by the state when he was writing something that questioned the narrative of the Lithuanian nation. The state did not determine culture, argued Rita Valiukonyte, the Cultural Attaché at the Lithuanian Embassy in London. Was the opposite view - a guiltless version - expressed in Lithuanian literature, asked Dan? There is an anti-Semitic spirit in Lithuania, said Sigitas, but it is not overt in literature. Jack Wang said his own book - about Vienna’s Kristallnacht - began at the opposite end, with a pride in saving Jews. What, asked Deborah Dawkin, was the effect, on both nation and writer, of the awareness that once a book like this was translated everyone outside would be invited to view the nation’s dirty washing. (I would have answered that the role of some Lithuanian people in the extermintations has long not been a secret and it was just that Lithuanian authors hadn’t referred to it). Sigitas replied that he gets panned for it and called a lot names. Kyoko made a very interesting remark at the end: We like to take the side of the victim, she said, but that makes it very hard for us to imagine ourselves as perpetrators, and went on to ask whether the obscenity referred to by Sigitas in his provocation consisted of the act itself or of the describing of it. It was the describing, said Sigitas, but it had to be done for didactic reasons.
What is it we identify with in stories of atrocities elsewhere? In the case of Sigitas and Lithuania we were moved to hear that truth could be spoken in a place where previously there was concealment. But are we glad to hear such things only because they confirm our superiority? Would we have acted better than the Lithuanians? Perhaps the story should inspire us to tell truths about our own circumstances rather than feel too comfortable about our sympathies for distant victims.
Sigitas’s angle on reputation concerned the reputation of his own society, not so much in the outside world but at home. Reputation could be a lie. In Mamta’s case reputation was a social status you could lose, a repressive force. Was Creative Writing about the power of partially closed societies - such as universities, but also publishers perhaps - to make reputations that that flattered their own preferences and extended their own power?
This is the fourth in a series of blogs reporting back from Worlds Literature Festival, and more blogs will be posted over the next few weeks. The first blog, "Introducing the Octopus", the second, "The Whirligig of Time", and the third, "Solitude and the Racket", can be found on our website. Alternatively, you can watch the provocations on YouTube or listen to them on SoundCloud.
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George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England with his family after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He was educated in England, training as a painter, and has always written in English. In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Bloodaxe’s Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His Bloodaxe poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008); The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) and Bad Machine (2013). Bloodaxe has also published John Sears’ critical study Reading George Szirtes (2008). Szirtes lives in Norfolk and recently retired from teaching at the University of East Anglia. He is currently translating the Man Booker Prize winner László Krasznahorkai.Visit George's website
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