Majority consensus* marks one day as a 24 hour cycle. Sleep, eat, work, eat, work, eat, rest, play, rest, sleep. Something like that.
My days are different. I live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as M.E.), which means that I live much of my life in small parcels. The rhythm of the majority consensus day is not my terrain. I don’t keep to the clock. Days and nights are fragmented, composed of many more beats than that of the dominant norm. They break down into more numerous parts, a fact my specialist nurse encouraged me to record on sheets of grid paper. First it was hourly slots of activity, then thirty minutes, followed by fifteen, then ten...
The story of my day became a story of stops, of stuttered activity, long stretches of silence and stillness between. The short story, often framed as little sister to the novel and other longer literary forms, became my uneasy ally over recent years as I wrote a collection of short fiction.
With my physical life defined in small packages and sometimes ruthless decisions to cut out anything that wouldn’t easily fit, I heard echoes in the writing of short fiction - in particular the editing, the paring down, and the (perhaps unique) tendency of short stories to not lean towards resolution in the way that novels and scripts sometimes do. While there may be symbiosis between the structural form of short stories and the embodied form of life with CFS, on a practical level it does makes it hard to complete a large project like a collection.
In a capitalist system that allots value to the ability to complete commercially tenable work, I have very little value. I am close to worthless, from this economic perspective. Likewise, short fiction does not value highly in a world where money attaches more readily to screenplays, TV scripts and novels. The short story is a quaint artefact.
From that position, I wonder if there is great potential – perhaps outside of the world of commerce there are fewer expectations, fewer rules to be followed. Perhaps life can be written differently.
A short story can be held in one hand. It can be read in one sitting and it is whole in its own incompleteness – that is to say incomplete only when held against the long form. The ‘incompleteness’ is an illusion because really the short story is moment to moment, it is present, and not one word can be extraneous.
There is no room for long, indulgent description, for diversion, no room for anything that is not absolutely necessary. Every word, every letter counts, as with my life with CFS; I have shed so many luxuries and digressions, have had to whittle my days down to the core of what is first necessary and second important.
First: I must eat, I must drink, I must breathe. I must secure shelter and tend to my body’s demands – pain, exhaustion. Lie down, block out lights and sound.
Second: on good days come the important things, the bedrock of my soul, the pieces that hold me together when my body fragments in pain and numbness – books, music, friends, paint, my family and the crunch of snow that’s melted and then frozen again. These mark the survival of my core self, the me that is more than cells and chemical messages and burning tendons. These are the crucial words that make up myself as story, the pieces that write me.
Before disability, before CFS, there was a sense of continuity, of expectation. My life was lived in long form, much anticipation of future, of plans, and an unbroken thread that stretched through from then to now to what would be.
CFS was the dismantling of that. It was the disruption of that long form through inconsistent hours, days, months, all dancing to a stop/start jerk, and the thread became tangled.
I no longer see in lines. I cannot. It’s too painful. I trick myself into forgetting, again and again, by seeing myself through the eyes of others, those who don’t or can’t see the illness. The ones who still flinch with surprise when I call myself disabled, who ask if I’ve tried exercising more, eating better, taking supplements. The ones who tell me they really know how I feel because they didn’t sleep great last night and are sooooo tired today.
The invisibility is a sneaky trick that plays me again and again. As much as I sometimes rage against the ignorance of others, of what they don’t see, I do it myself. I look away. I trim the corners of my life, bit by bit, until it fits within confines that fool me into believing it is choice, because fuck no, I don’t want to live wanting. I want to live now, to live in my present. The pull of the distant future and past is what hurts, and so when I am at my best and most able, I do live presently. No string. No thread. No straight line.
Here is where my story sits. It is between rests, on the uproad of my energy, or maybe on the down. It is a light switched on in the dim of an evening room and then, suddenly, it is off. The breaker flips, a power outage. Small parcels.
CFS time can be held in one hand. It is an overheard conversation on a bus. It is the wait from the end of the queue to the counter. It is that short space of time that is easily overlooked, the time it takes for a cup of tea to cool to room temperature, the space between lying down and sleeping.
A short story, on the days I can read and write, demands presence. It demands now. Just now. I finish reading, finish writing, and it travels with me into rest and sleep and pain. It stays there, in the gaps in my active life, and it settles.
*Thanks to Manda Scott for this apt phrase
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
Short Fiction, as published annually by the University of Plymouth Press, is billed as a visual literary journal. For each piece of new writing published in the journal, a bespoke illustration is commissioned alongside. My copy of issue 7 arrived late last year, and oh my, it is a thing of beauty!
As well as including new writing from the likes of Jenn Ashworth, she of the finely calibrated and compelling dark humour, it features the winning story from the 2013 Short Fiction competition - by Rachel Fenton - and lots of excellent artwork, including a series from agitprop artist of the upfront double-barrel, Bob and Roberta Smith. (That's his cover there, on the left.)
Rachel's winning story, While Women Rage In Winter, is a brilliant piece of writing that hinges around that which is not spoken. It holds its tension, the past and the present, right through to the last image. Please read. It's well worth it.
This year's competition is now accepting entries until March 31st, and is open internationally. Check out the details here.
I entered the competition last year, and was thrilled to be included on the short list. First time ever! My story Panic Room is in there, illustrated by Tommy Parker with the kind of graphic novel panache that I love. This is a beautiful book (It feels like a book to me. It smells good, it has heft, the pages are silky and gorgeously produced, and so, journal, book, whichever.) and I'm still buzzed to have been included next to so many skilled writers and artists. Thank you Short Fiction; I look forward to the next!
Am currently working to deadline for an October launch of the new book (yes!) so am being incredibly stingy about time spent on anything else. In lieu of words, I give you Short Story Bunting:
Each story is now strung across my office, waiting to be polished, tweaked, reassembled or shaken down like an old rug full of cat hair and ground-up biscuits. I may stage a stationery parade later this week. It's all happening.
With the words of Matt Haig ringing in my ears - specifically, those about writers going to book fairs being like chickens going to Nandos – I arrived at the London Book Fair 2013 a little, uh, nervous. Mall face strapped securely on, I dove into the maze of gleaming white publicity stands and within moments was greeted by the lovely Roman Simić, my Tramlines writing partner. Up to the corridor of windows at the top of the conference centre we went, till we had a backstage view of the boxes and pallets and abandoned bits of metal behind the City of Urgent Bookselling that had sprung up in Earl’s Court for the occasion.
The Gimbal app, available soon in the itunes shop.
We were there to Gimbal. Not a new internet dance meme, not a 25p candy, the Gimbal is named after an old sea-faring navigational device (the one that kept the compass level while the boat pitched around) and this Gimbal is the coolest little storytelling app I’ve seen.
The culmination of the Tramlines writer residency project that took me to the trams of Zagreb last year, the Gimbal app collects the resulting stories of those six residencies, as well as a whole load more stand-alone shorts from Comma Press authors, and plots their journeys on maps that move as you listen to or read the story. Along the way landmarks pop up, sidetracks for you to follow, markers that hold the edges of the story as it moves through its city and – AND - all of this also comes in more than one language, both spoken and text: English, and the language of the city in which the story is set.
I *loved* being involved in this project and so it was a thrill to launch the app to an enthusiastic audience on Tuesday alongside authors Alison MacLeod and the aforementioned Roman, as well as Jim Hinks from Comma and Alexandra Büchler of Literature Across Frontiers. The Gimbal app will be available in the itunes store next week, though sadly us androids will have to wait a little while for our own version. I believe it will also exist online as a website, so I’ll post the relevant links and whatnot up here as soon as it’s all live.
The highlights of the Book Fair for me were all about translation and so, appropriately, I leave you with a link to Transfiction translation collective’s take on what they called ‘a beautifully intuitive app'.