Cora, Cora, Cora

In February last year, I shook myself out of a difficult winter and wrote a long short story for the a competition. I thought, I really like the idea but I’ve not done it justice. On 1st April I got a lovely email (April’s Fool no? Surely….) to say I was one of six writers chosen for the gold dust opportunity to be mentored and have my story published. A year on, many redrafts and lots of guidance from the lovely folk at Creative Future, Myriad Editions, New Writing South as well as Laura Wilkinson and I attended the inaugural Spotlight series launch with 5 brilliant prose writers and poets. My contribution is called Cora Vincent (if you fancy it), or if not be sure to check out the others in the series, the themes and styles are so varied and interesting that you’d be pushed to not find something to get your chops into.

The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould
Stroking Cerberus by Jacqueline Haskell
Summon by Elizabeth Ridout
Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Bozic
Memories of a Swedish Grandmother
by Sarah Windebank

Audience members listening to Witness Stand at the Brighton Marina Car Park

How do we understand identity through listening?

‘From across the city, drifting over land, sea and forgotten sites, comes an invitation to gather, sit and listen together.’

Soooooo, this is exciting… Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey have commissioned writers and sound artists around Brighton to work on Witness Stand, a project which asks Brighton festival goers to the listen to forgotten sites of my home town.

There are five locations around Brighton and in collaboration with the talents of Akila Richards, Johanna Bramli, Ingrid Plum, and Gene Pool , we explore Brighton Marina car park, which sits a top the tough English Channel and is rumoured to be passage point for migrants, asylum seekers, and trafficked persons.

With Brexit giving legitimacy to xenophobia, yet so many needing and seeking refuge, this is timely. There is no single story of leaving one’s home country, each has its own variations of absolute horror and relief, but my contribution seeks to reflect some universal elements of the journey.

 

The view from the Witness Stand

(View From The Witness Stand)

This is pretty special; a first, and a dream come true. I have always wanted to be involved in my hometown festival and 2022 is the year. To hear my voice against the vastness of urban and natural is thrilling. The Marina car park is such a transient non-space, set against the natural world power of the ocean. With mesmerising soundscapes and words from the other artists, this is an off kilter and strange experience.

Other Witness Stands are located at:

The West Pier with writer Zaid S Sethi
the Chattri with Dulani Kulasinghe
the Adur Estuary at Shoreham-by- Sea with Shelia Auguste
and East Brighton with Jenny Arach.

Listen to the Witness Stands recordings:

All the Witness Stand sites with live recordings can be found on the echoes app.

National Media:

Witness Stand was featured on the BBC World Service The Arts Hour Programme with a great interview with Akila. Catch it about 7 minutes in.

all the feels

(This is abridged, there is more to say, there is ALWAYS more to say )

Before my flatmate moved in, I wrote stories in the living room, sitting at a table which housed a small cactus called Fred and a red rotary dial telephone which only my Uncle Pat would ring me on. When he died and took with him one of the guiding ropes that kept me tethered to the earth, the phone was silent for months. It began to ring again about a year later, with ambulance-chasing claims companies, and  before they had the chance to ask whether I’d been in a car accident that wasn’t my fault, there was always a couple of seconds of silence, of lines connecting, in the same way there was when Uncle Pat used to phone. I held my breath in those seconds and would wait for his ‘Ello Dolly’ to skip across time and space. Those few seconds were transportation to when I was 5 or 10 or 35, and I sat in his sun splattered kitchen in Ealing and he sung to me whist cooking spuds and red lead over a 1960s Belling. And after the claim companies broke the spell and I told them yes I was involved in a car accident but it was my fault because, you know,  I love a fast car, I returned to the writing, with Uncle Pat and old versions of myself spilling out onto the page.

Now I have a leaning desk in my bedroom, smaller and more contained with fairy lights.  The red phone remains in the living room and the internet can’t climb around the corners, so there is far less distraction. The words in this less expansive space still come as slowly as they did before, sometimes they rattle around and spit onto the page and other days they just rattle about, never quite finding their exit.

And on the whole that is ok, because this writing thing is a bit of a compulsion, (i.e. it’s never sated and the end result is rarely satisfying) so whilst the tables that I lean on are transitional, the thinking and writing of fragments are a constant, with notes being made on receipts in a supermarket in rush hour, or on buses where a line of dialogue is so perfect, it captures a person’s entire world.  And at night, when I can’t sleep I make notes on my phone whilst the couple upstairs argue and I wonder about the early magic of people falling in love, and the slow drip from thinking they will never feel anything different, to the exact point when one or both knows it’s over.

And I wonder what gets a person up in the morning, what propels a person forward despite it all, the microseconds on which entire lives can be built and shaped, how history is made up of us. Script doctors ask what is the motivation of that character, but what is the motivation of any of us? Aren’t we just staggering around in the dark and in the light? For me, writing is just an exploratory mechanism which allows me to sink my feet into borrowed shoes and think about life in lands that I want to walk through; to smell their earth, and watch their cities drift into daybreak. Writing allows me to stretch inside and pretend I can understand what’s going on because, really, we can never reach the bedrock of anyone, there are too many facets and variables and situations we haven’t yet found ourselves in, may never find ourselves in, to truly know who we are or what we could become.

What we are now

In a Word Factory interview, David Constantine said: “More important than a character’s typicalness in time and social circumstances is a sense – which a fiction must achieve or it fails – that what is at stake, the struggle, the success or failure, is recognisable as something recurrently or even universally human.”

In Constantine’s perfectly balanced new short story, What We Are Now, we see this come to bear; struggles that reach right down into humanity’s gut, as it follows a middle-aged couple, Robert and Sylvia, on a trip that cleaves open their marriage and forces them to reflect on who they are at their heart and how they got there.

Robert, a well-regarded Keats academic, is asked to guest lecture at the university his wife attended, a fact he doesn’t even remember until Sylvia politely asks it she can join him. He’s concerned about logistics; it’s late November and likely to be cold, they should get flexible open returns despite being it more expensive, while Sylvia is just “peculiarly excited and at least [her husband] doesn’t seem to mind”.

Constantine skillfully paints a marriage that seems to have slipped beyond the confines of comfort to more staid waters, where roles are defined and power dynamics firmly established. But the status quo is precariously balanced, and is subsequently shaken when they arrive at the university’s train station and Sylvia feels the same rush as when she arrived as a Fresher, wanting to “seize what her life needed for it furtherance, for happiness”. While Robert is finding the bus stop, seemingly out of nowhere appears disheveled Alfie, a former love of Sylvia’s whose effect is profound.

The past coming to haunt well-established marriages crops up in another of Constantine’s short stories, In Another Country, which feels like a companion piece to What We Are Now. There, the marriage comes under pressure after the husband’s old love’s body is found in the ravine she fell down decades before. The wife in that story feels the “rush of ghosts” and, mirroring Robert and Sylvia’s marriage, themes arise about how much you can really know another person and the enduring power of young love.

When Robert and Sylvia talk about Alfie, it’s clear that Robert knew nothing of his existence or the fundamental effect he had on his wife, who says “I was braver with him, I liked myself better.” That their love was never consummated adds to the sense that it’s unfinished business. For Robert, it makes him question who he has become and he wonders whether Sylvia will do the same. For Alfie, who never recovered from the break-up, but maybe was always destined for a destructive life, he is lost to a spiralling world of desolation and an existence devoid of love.

This story is part of a new series of four imprints, commissioned by the Word Factory, published by Guillemot Press with haunting black, white and grey illustrations by Donya Todd, which serve the mood of the piece well. The story, beautifully nuanced and heart-achingly human, reflects that our choices decide who we become, and the choices rejected mean a path not taken, and a different life lived. In that, perhaps, is the greatest universal struggle of all.

(This review first appeared on the Word Factory Blog)

To be a convert…. at least for this New Year’s Eve

To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s Eve. To go out feels like a requirement, and is often as enjoyable as my third driving test. I don’t need to celebrate the passing of a –soon-to-be extinct year and, through blackout amounts of prosecco suffuse hope into the next one because after all, years are simply made up of days, and can’t every new day hold the intangible promise that we give 1st January? Isn’t each single day of our lives a chance at freshness, to leave our older, parched skins in the bed and don hopeful, sparkling new ones.

But this year I’m embracing it, I’m acknowledging the passing of this whole year, and the tick tock jump over the fence, the single second which pushes our calendar onwards and makes us measurable in history.

It must be said that this wasn’t the year I thought it would be. After a ‘difficult’ time, 2017 was always going to be punching above its weight in expectations. This was the year where only good things would happen because the pendulum has to swing back, right? Good things did happen but so did very bad, and I can honestly say I didn’t get want I wanted, or the wishes that had idled this time last year were never fulfilled.

Part of this year was small and shrunken to exist only in the rooms of my flat, to listen to the purr of traffic, to watch the sun track round from the front to the back, blazing gold everywhere it touched. When I came out from the crawl space though, my life expanded in unexpected ways: to look upon hills and fields and birds and animals, to see art in new ways, to reconnect with old friends, to make new friends, to slow so I could meet my neighbours (I’ve only lived here 7 years after all) and in modern fragmented living, the strangest feeling: an alien, blessed sense of community.

So tonight I am charging my glass and saying thank you to 2017. It didn’t lie down and there were no easy routes; life marched on in its complex, sticky, weird, extraordinary, indomitable way. 2017: you never gave me what I thought I wanted, you didn’t allow me to pick all the pretty, shiny objects from the conveyer belt of life, but you gave me what I didn’t know, you gave me what I truly needed, and for that I am always grateful.

Happy New Year to all.

Because I was afraid of worms, Roxanne! Worms!

Before my weekends were built around the screening of Dirty Dancing on a 14 inch telly, my film of choice was Roxanne. Not only did it make me howl with laughter, but main character Charlie Bales and his oversized nose was my first fine example of not abiding mediocrity in language. He conjured words: He was a magician with an entire warren in his hat and he knew that the words that hit the perfect spot were the ones that lingered.

But sometimes when reaching for the best word possible to describe something complex and intangible, the word simply doesn’t exist, or at least not in English. In the past we have adopted some pinpoint perfect words like déjà vu and schadenfreude but the words we lack are almost always connected to very specific, deep emotions. Is it cultural? A stiff upper lip kicking in?

For example Waldeinsamkeit (German), the feeling of being alone in the woods, is so evocative it makes the hairs on the back of my neck tingle or the beautifully suggestive Kummerspeck (German) which is the excess weight gained from emotional overeating, and literally translates to sorrow bacon.

It probably wouldn’t surprise Charlie Bales though that it’s in the specific mechanics of love that non-translatable words really come into their own. They can verbalise and chart the intricacies of a whole messy, gorgeous, heartbreaking, love affair in a way that English can’t quite manage. For example:

Koi No Yokan (Japanese)The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love.

Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan): A look between two people that suggests an unspoken, shared desire

Forelsket (Norwegian): The specific feeling experienced while falling in love, rather than simply being in love.

‘Cafuné’ (Brazilian): To tenderly run your fingers through someone’s hair.

‘Ya’aburnee’ (Arabic): This phrase may literally mean ‘you bury me’, but it’s a powerful declaration of one’s hope they’ll die before someone else, as they cannot bear to live without them.

Cavoli Riscaldati (Italian):
The result of attempting to revive an unworkable relationship and translates to “reheated cabbage.”

Saudade (Portugese) the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.

Non translatable words are so exciting – they feel like a secret, a door to new, under explored understanding. They seem to name the feelings that are held in our blood and marrow, that resonate in our hearts. Can you imagine if Charlie Bales had access to these words? Roxanne couldn’t have resisted him and his nose for so long, and my weekends in the late 80s would have looked very different.

 

The Moth and me

I’m really happy and completely stunned to say I won the Moth International Short Story competition, with my story ‘Nightjar.’

The magazine is based in Ireland and is a beautiful publication featuring gorgeous art and amazing writers and poets. It’s so exciting to be published in this magazine, just brilliant! Nightjar is in the Autumn edition and can be ordered on the Moth Magazine website.

The story is also published in todays Irish Times. 🙂

Possibilities

Nathanial Hawthorne said ‘easy reading is damn hard writing’, and at first glance the Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska’s (2 July 1923 – 1 February 2012) poem ‘Possibilities’ is just a list of predilections.

But in this laundry list lies the galaxy of what makes a person, and Szymborska illuminates everyday choices and core beliefs to contribute to a portrait of a single human. It’s mesmerising, both in its simplicity and complexity, and prompts thoughts about what preferences make up each of us, what our own possibilities are.

Was it hard to write? I don’t know, but there is an incredible ease in reading about something so utterly intricate: what it is to be human.

This is Amanda Palmer’s beautiful reading, commissioned by Brainpickings.

 

Not being a poet

Grow

My clockless days become ringed with a date,

A Thursday in April.

Coated in a light jacket and heavy nerves,

I meet strangers on birdsong-strung hills.

My mother always said small talk is not for the gifted, and none of them talk small.

Why try? When our feet trample the legends of devils,

And we are overlooked by time travelling skies.

Dulled ears are sharpened on breezes,

Touch on bark,

On deep pile moss that should replace roads.

A spring cracks open whilst we are on these hills,

Hatching lambs, calves,

salvaged orchids

Are witnesses to generosity,

To a change in stature,

in fresh soaked land.

We grow a community,

You and I,

In chatter and in silence.

We grew a community.

Planted in earth, in food, in April, in May.

In full bloom, by June.