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