Try to picture it: over a ten year period, all of Greater Manchester is abandoned. Every adult and child is driven from their home, and the doors hang open in Stockport, Salford, Oldham. Broken windows and burnt out flats in Denton, Prestwich, and Hulme. Every single street empty, while the residents run for their lives.
This is roughly 2.7 million people I’m talking about, displaced. This is Darfur, right now.
The population of Darfur is just under nine million, which means almost one in three have been made homeless and are now living in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. All of Greater Manchester forced to run away from home, and that 2.7 million doesn’t include the war dead.
This was the backdrop of the recent conference ‘Darfur at the Crossroads’, an event hosted by the Sudanese Programme at St Antony’s College, Oxford. I was lucky enough to be invited to read from my book and speak about writing fiction from fact, and as the only writer on stage that day I provided a somewhat gentle introduction to a day of political conversation.
As the conference was run under Chatham House Rules, meaning no direct attribution of comments to any one person, I will only talk generally about what was discussed, but I will start by saying it was a fascinating event.
Anyone who’s followed the situation in Darfur will be aware of the danger that many Sudanese and Darfurian people face in speaking out against the government. Here in the UK, many activists and opposition politicians live in exile, having fled threats of jail time and worse. During one of the breaks, one man tells me how he was smuggled to the airport disguised in his most ragged clothes, stolen away at night as the police went door to door, looking for him and other dissidents.
Some of the conference attendees are affiliated with rebel groups, and some are not. Civil society groups are represented, as well as researchers who’ve gathered data on the elements that feed the conflict, like water scarcity. Climate change is named as one of the biggest threats, and among talks about political structuring and negotiation, we hear about fossil water and the annual rainfall that shrinks each year.
Here in the UK, we are told that the war in Darfur is tribal – Arab versus non-Arab – and that story dovetails nicely with the ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric that our leaders have used to describe and justify their own wars, but the thing is, it’s not true. Not really.
As well as environmental pressures, one speaker talks about the social construction of identity in Sudan. He explains the long tribal pedigrees that certain Sudanese groups use to trace their ancestry back to Saudi Arabia, looking to a history and lineage across the Red Sea. These pedigrees – that no serious historian would accept, the speaker adds – are politicised papers that are used to claim ownership of Sudanese identity, laying a mono-culture onto what is actually a deeply multicultural society.
There is talk of secularism and sharia law, of the fact that there is no consensus definition of sharia, and our speaker points out that sharia, in practice, in Sudan, has been used as a tool to suppress poor people.
Through all of this, one phrase keeps emerging: the Centre. No one names the capital, Khartoum, as the power base, or North Sudan – they say ‘the Centre’, again and again, and it is clear that at this event, people are speaking from the margins. During the afternoon, another question on marginalisation is raised: where are the Darfurian women? (I am the only woman on stage, and I’m white, British-Canadian.) From the audience, we hear from a Darfurian woman who runs a civil society organisation in the UK – we hear her ideas for representation, for future discussions. There are margins within margins.
‘What we need at our next event,’ one of the organisers says, ‘is a stage of Darfurian women speakers addressing women’s issues and women’s part in this struggle, and the men in the audience, listening.’
For more information on the Sudanese Programme at St Antony’s College, as well as upcoming events, please visit http://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/research-centres/sudanese-programme
With the words of Matt Haig ringing in my ears - specifically, those about writers going to book fairs being like chickens going to Nandos – I arrived at the London Book Fair 2013 a little, uh, nervous. Mall face strapped securely on, I dove into the maze of gleaming white publicity stands and within moments was greeted by the lovely Roman Simić, my Tramlines writing partner. Up to the corridor of windows at the top of the conference centre we went, till we had a backstage view of the boxes and pallets and abandoned bits of metal behind the City of Urgent Bookselling that had sprung up in Earl’s Court for the occasion.
The Gimbal app, available soon in the itunes shop.
We were there to Gimbal. Not a new internet dance meme, not a 25p candy, the Gimbal is named after an old sea-faring navigational device (the one that kept the compass level while the boat pitched around) and this Gimbal is the coolest little storytelling app I’ve seen.
The culmination of the Tramlines writer residency project that took me to the trams of Zagreb last year, the Gimbal app collects the resulting stories of those six residencies, as well as a whole load more stand-alone shorts from Comma Press authors, and plots their journeys on maps that move as you listen to or read the story. Along the way landmarks pop up, sidetracks for you to follow, markers that hold the edges of the story as it moves through its city and – AND - all of this also comes in more than one language, both spoken and text: English, and the language of the city in which the story is set.
I *loved* being involved in this project and so it was a thrill to launch the app to an enthusiastic audience on Tuesday alongside authors Alison MacLeod and the aforementioned Roman, as well as Jim Hinks from Comma and Alexandra Büchler of Literature Across Frontiers. The Gimbal app will be available in the itunes store next week, though sadly us androids will have to wait a little while for our own version. I believe it will also exist online as a website, so I’ll post the relevant links and whatnot up here as soon as it’s all live.
The highlights of the Book Fair for me were all about translation and so, appropriately, I leave you with a link to Transfiction translation collective’s take on what they called ‘a beautifully intuitive app'.
Most of what I do is pretty focused: small group workshops with the same people for months, making things, knocking the edges off of poems and stories and the fear, the fear that keeps that one woman's mouth shut for a whole five sessions, that keeps that one guy watching his trainers. We chip away, build things. Books and blog and performances. We take it slow. Listen. Laugh.
Then I go home and I write: also focused, also chipping, painfully slow some days.
I think I'm getting good at focused.
So, next month I am taking that careful little bubble down south to the London Book Fair. The Book Fair. It sounds cute, right? Full of twinkly eyed people who smell of paper and old leather bindings, maybe a coconut shy of encyclopaedias, typographic lollipops and a librarian love-in.
I imagine it as a bigger version of one of those incredible libraries/bookstores whose aisles I want to live in, whose shelves I want to bite down on, like that amazing bookshop that contains a writing shed full of pencils/paper/fairy lights, a reading room, floor to ceiling books across two floors and a little place upstairs in which to have a bit of a lie down, if you need it, nestled in beside the kids books:
Instead, an image search for London Book Fair reveals this:
Most attendees are publishers or agents or booksellers, there to do business, to hustle. I have no problem with hustling. I want people to read my book. I do. And yes, I know I am writing a book of short fiction, about war, with not a lot of laughs. Shut up, I know.
But I'm a little terrified of the book fair. I'm bracing myself for the sharp slap across the face that will be seeing the whole thing in all its shouty glossy books-as-widgets glory.
Everyone should see it once, he says, and I say OK, sure, I'll go. I will be leaving my ego at home, in the writing shed.