Recurring: March-September 2020

In the summer of 2020 I was asked by Creative Futures/Collage Arts to participate in a project. The brief was to write a lockdown diary which, as well as being a good way of documenting a strange time, was a real test of very recent memory. I’ve become an infrequent diary writer, so I had to search through emails and my Twitter feed to work out what had happened, and when. Here’s an extract:

Mum’s care home is now closed to visitors. We have been visiting her without missing a day since 2015. I was only there the night before, but I go anyway as I’d been planning to, in case they’ll let me in. As I approach, I see closed signs on the gate, on the door. I stand at the entrance in the drizzle. The sky is pink. A woman approaches. She wears a nose ring, hood up, shoulders hunched with disappointment. She has come to see her Grandad. I tell her the home is closed, and her eyes become glassy with tears which don’t spill. I haven’t been for a while, she says. We stand and talk for a while.

Twelve women of colour took part, and our diaries were compiled into an e-book, released in December 2020.

You can read them here.

Thanks to Kate Pemberton of Collage Arts for inviting me to take part in the project.

Belly

Belly is the result of writing around 3,000 words trying to imagine various scenarios in fast-food restaurants, chance sightings, getting completely sidetracked by researching the origins of Landseer’s lions, and the Great Disappointment that is teenage romance. Only a few hundred of the words survive in the final version. The story is like a memory of something that I haven’t actually experienced. Belly appeared in Ellipsis Zine on 1 July. You can read it here.

writing, not-writing

 

When my Dad died in 2013, and my PhD was drifting up the creek, thanks to a severe lack of time management on my part and a supervisor who had given up on me, my survival instinct compelled me to write.

I started – or restarted, as I’ve always written except for when I was studying – by writing poetry. I have a horror of bad poetry, so I became self-conscious, and struggled until I stopped trying. After that, I began writing what I called ‘scraps’ – tiny fragments of prose intended to capture an event, a character, a thought. They offered complete freedom and were great fun to write. I hadn’t heard of flash fiction yet.

In 2014 I went to my first ever workshop. It was organised by Spread the Word. After years of avoiding writing workshops, I went and I survived. Later that year I went to a flash fiction workshop at Southbank Centre and survived that, too. I even managed two stories that are now on my blog.

The following year I embarked on an Open University Creative Writing course. Just one module. It was eye-wateringly expensive and the teaching was quite prescriptive, but it proved to be instrumental. The tutor gave sensitive, critical and fair feedback, instilling me with confidence and spurring me on. I am so grateful to him for boosting my confidence.

Over the past three to four years I have taken a few more short courses. Some have been great (London Lit Lab), others much less so. I was very lucky to be a beta tester for the Lit Mag Love course run by Rachel Thompson, which gave me the mindset and the knowledge to take my writing seriously enough to submit stories to magazines. She also introduced me and many other would-be and actual writers to Room magazine, a Canadian, feminist world of literary brilliance. Shortly after completing the course, I had a story accepted in one of my favourite magazines.

In August 2017, due to a single tweet sent by an incredibly generous poet, I spent a week at Totleigh Barton on an Arvon writing course. I’m writing this nearly a year to the day that I left London for Devon. It was like going on an expedition. Quite terrifying and also exciting. It was also life-changing – the sort of thing I never thought I would be able to do: go away on my own to be with a group of strangers, and just write. I can’t thank her enough.

A few months later I had a story accepted by an online mag I’d admired. It was my third, but this one was special. The story had taken me a year to write. It was written for, and partly about, my mother. It was the first piece of writing I’d ever been paid for, but when the issue appeared the layout of my story had been completely scrambled to the point where it had lost some of its meaning. I was really dismayed, but it taught me to submit more wisely, and do not assume all will be well!

2018 has been the year of writing and not-writing for me. Full-time work and overwhelming fatigue from having a chronic illness and ongoing worry about two of my closest relatives has meant that all I have to show for the year so far are half-finished drafts and weeks of not writing at all. The sheer frustration of it is debilitating and confidence-sapping.

But lately, I’ve realised that I haven’t actually stopped writing. It’s been happening without my really noticing. Scraps in notebooks, ideas mulled over and over, scribbled, written and rewritten. Out of about seven stories, three are complete drafts, and two are nearly there. One, at 6,000 words, is a long-term project that my heart is set on.

I can’t not write, because my survival as a human being depends on it. If my Dad was still here, he would understand.

Continue reading writing, not-writing

This One’s Ours

Image from: Circle of London http://circleoflondon.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/

This One’s Ours appeared in Issue 7 of the online journal The Nottingham Review. It’s a rare instance of ideas, thoughts & words coming together, being taken apart, coalescing over two years, and eventually working as a snapshot narrative.

Thanks to the editors of The Nottingham Review for giving it time and space in their publication.

Update, January 2021As The Nottingham Review no longer exists (much missed), here is the complete story:

Manny’s heart beat fast and close as if it had found its way out of his body, concealed only by the thin white cotton of his shirt. He sat upstairs at the back of the bus with Paul, only occasionally looking down, amazed that they were holding hands, fingers interlaced.

Manny and Paul had grown up in the maze of a north London estate, a slip road away from the A406, that tarmac-kissed artery skirting the city and leading to its greater and outer edges. They were travelling down that same dual carriageway, and Manny found himself measuring time through the stop-start motion of the bus as it pulled up beside steel and glass shelters. To him, the bus was full of possibilities: the seats were covered in black and green fabric and splashed with scarlet, like blood spilt on grass. The stanchions waiting to steady its passengers grew from them in curves like the branches of trees aiming for the sky.

Manny’s mum was always saying that they were twins under the skin, partners in crime: cheeky, but not bad boys. Both were doing well at university.

So what are we now? Manny asked himself.

As Paul looked out of the window down to the street below, Manny gazed at his profile. There was no doubt about it. He knew, and his sister said it often enough: Paul was hot. His hair was shaved neat and low, his face framed by the sharpness of his sideburns. Manny smiled to himself as he took in Paul’s nose which – he teased his friend often – was broad and equine, with prominent nostrils. Why the long face? Paul’s skin was dark brown, darker than Manny’s. The quizzical wavy lines of his lips made Manny wonder what Paul was thinking, but Paul remained silent.

He freed his hand to press the bell for the next stop.

‘This one’s ours,’ he said.

Reading Little Women

I don’t know where the impetus came from. My sister and I just read a lot. There were books at home, but we knew without thinking about it that libraries were where we could find more. I remember the mobile library that turned up for a while near where we lived in The Fairway, Bedford – its narrowness and murky interior, and the books encased in plastic covers.

The first book to have a major impact on me was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I read an abridged version first (we seemed to have some abridged versions of novels at home, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), then I badgered my Dad to buy me a handsome illustrated hardback edition of Little Women, Little Men and Good Wives. I loved Jo. I liked them all and felt so sad for Beth (but gripped by the tragedy of her death), but Jo was important. By the age of seven, I was a self-identified tom boy.  Jo March was a tom boy too. But more importantly, she wanted to be a writer, and so did I. She was clever and brave, she read and read, she was friends with Laurie the boy next door, and I was heartbroken that she rejected his marriage proposal. But this portrait of a resourceful young woman was a powerful indication for me of how to be a girl. I also read Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Canadian Schoolgirl,  The Hunting of Wilberforce Pike, the Just William stories. But Little Women made the most impression. I wrote short stories, sometimes longer ones, as un-selfconsciously and naturally as if I was eating or sleeping.

I read Wuthering Heights when I was ten. It was 1978, and Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights was in the pop charts at the same time. My imagination soared. This was new territory – I didn’t understand all the language but I was gripped. Then I read other Bronte novels, possibly at the suggestion of our friend and neighbour Susan, who was five years older than me. My Dad bought me a red and gold-embossed hardback copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I loved it. I began to write a Victorian saga featuring three sisters, very much influenced by Wuthering Heights and the Brontë sisters, and I illustrated it with felt tip drawings. Years later, I looked at these stories and realised – all the characters were white. I had read so much, but there was no-one like me in the books that I read.

During my teenage years I read terrible romances and some teen fiction, as well as adult contemporary fiction. None of it left much of an impression on me. Music took over and affected everything that I did. I wrote (dodgy) poetry influenced by Cocteau Twins song titles and the names of works by artists like Jean Tinguely. Then I discovered Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. Woolf’s words have never left me. My habit of using too many ampersands came from emulating her. I felt that she captured life in space and time as it really is.

In my twenties and thirties I began to wonder how to be a black woman. I studied for an English degree part-time, while I worked in record shops and book shops and, eventually, libraries. Toni Morrison’s Jazz was on my reading list and it was like a bolt of brilliance. I was awestruck by its boldness. But Andrea Levy’s Never Far From Nowhere was one of the first books I read that contained characters like me: young black women growing up in Britain. I read all of Levy’s novels. Fruit of the Lemon reminds me of my unearthing of cultural identity. Levy’s books were, now I look back, teaching me how to be a black woman. When I studied black women’s writing for my PhD, my knowledge gathered momentum. I learning to articulate my female-gendered blackness through my reading and writing.

Zadie Smith’s  novels were exciting, relevant. Bernardine Evaristo was, and is, an innovator, more brilliant than she is ever given credit for. Black identity and fiction were, it turned out, not incompatible. Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher and Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch are touchstones.

My favourite books of the last few years are: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, for its intensity and experiments with language; Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, for its humour, rich evocation of character and focus on older black masculinity and homosexuality; Citizen by Claudia Rankine, for its achievement in expanding what poetry can be in terms of form and content and the social impact it can make; and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which is about authorship, Buddhism, the environment and memory that wears its scholarship lightly.

All these books and more have made me.