The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

As an unnamed woman gives birth to a son, floodwaters rise in London. Unable to return to their flat, the woman, her husband, R, and their baby, Z, go to R’s parents’ house. R begins to build a shed for them to live in.

Words float up the stairs like so many childhood letter magnets. Endgame, civilization, catastrophe, humanitarian.

Everyone but the narrator and Z leave to get supplies. G, her mother-in-law, doesn’t return, the explanation given is ‘pandemonium’. On the second trip to get supplies, N, her father-in-law fails to return. From that point, the narrator, R and Z are refugees, sleeping in their car before finally deciding on a camp to live in.

I try to feel the solidity of the date beneath me try to make the day and the month and the year mean something.

It is never quiet here. Z learns to cry loudly again. He is not the only one.

Hunter follows this woman cut adrift, literally and metaphorical, through a year of her life. While the narrative can be read as a dystopic version of the UK in which the effects of climate change have wrought havoc, it also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. It mirrors the feelings of isolation and fear, of the loss of sense of self and sense of time.

The prose is sparse, considered. Paragraphs are short and there is plenty of white space on the page. The reader is cut adrift along, the first person narrative allowing us to only see and feel as this mother of a new-born does.

Interspersed with the narrator’s story are pieces inspired by and adapted from a range of mythical texts. These link to Hunter’s themes: ideas of creation, flooding and the quest for a better place to live. They add to the sense that the narrative is a carefully crafted jigsaw puzzle that’s been laid out in the correct order but left for someone else to slot together.

The End We Start From is powerful, taut, compelling, unsettling. A bold, beautiful work of art.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

 

 

‘I think all fiction is speculative.’ Sarah Hall at Manchester Literature Festival

Sarah Hall is my favourite writer but I’ve never seen her talk about her work until I arrive at her event at this year’s Manchester Literature Festival. It’s partly the old never meet your heroes adage and partly that I know I’ll make an idiot of myself if I do get to meet her. Now, on the verge of turning 40, my mantra is ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’. Provided I don’t do anything that would necessitate a restraining order, the worst I can come up with is embarrassing myself and, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

The brilliant Katie Popperwell is on interviewing duties. Her first question to Hall is about how she approached the writing of her BBC National Short Story Award Winning ‘Mrs Fox’, considering the literary tradition of metamorphous/fox stories? Hall says that the story’s based on David Garnett’s novella Lady into Fox but that she hadn’t read the book before she began writing the story. She was fascinated with the idea that a husband would continue to live with a wife who’d turned into a fox. It was liberating to have the bare bones of the story but try not to think too mythically and do something different with it. ‘How can I absolutely convince the reader that this woman’s turned into a fox?’ was Hall’s driving question. She read Garnett’s story after she finished writing but didn’t change any aspect of her own story.

Popperwell asks if there’s a link between the story and Hall’s last novel The Wolf Border? Hall says it was a literal challenge to describe the wolves as you very rarely see them. She says the short story allows you to get a flashpoint of someone’s psychology and ‘Mrs Fox’ was a response to the question, how do you cope with radical change? That’s what underpins the metaphorical change into the fox.

The discussion moves more broadly onto Hall’s latest short story collection Madame Zero, of which ‘Mrs Fox’ is the opening story. Popperwell comments on the theme of desire which runs throughout the collection. ‘Desire that’s possibly not even known to the wives themselves’, says Hall. She describes Sofia in ‘Mrs Fox’ as ‘other’; she’s only seen from her husband’s point of view so is essentially unknowable. Evie, the character who the final story in the collection is named after, includes an explanation for her altered behaviour. What’s happened to her plays into the main sexual fantasy of her husband. Hall describes relationships as a complicated give and take with power struggles.

Popperwell asks about the influence of Cumbria on Hall’s work. Hall says she writes about living with the landscape and losing it. Sofia in ‘Mrs Fox’ sells property on new developments. She wants to get closer to the land she’s helping to destroy. ‘Is there a complicity you have with your downfalls?’ Hall asks. She says we distance ourselves from the things we really need.

How has literature served mothers? asks Popperwell. In her shortest response of the evening, Hall says, ‘It’s an open field for anyone who wants to write about it in more interesting and complex ways than it has been’.

Hall talks about how she often partners a story with a novel. She wrote The Carhullan Army alongside the story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’. She says the stories draw something off/away from the novel. In this case, it led her to think about the capabilities of women: how can they be radicalised? Can they fight on the front line? She describes the short story in this instance as ‘a starter’.

‘On a technical level, they make me better as a writer’, she says of the short story form. Everything – character, plot, description – needs to balance, ‘A slick, small machine.’ Content wise, she says she likes the episodic nature and the disquiet. The reader has to bring their own experience of life to them. ‘Your expectations are often confounded.’ She describes the qualities of short stories as ‘dizzily exciting’; they allow you to look at the psychology and the pathology of a person.

Popperwell mentions the idea that women’s writing is always autobiographical. Hall says, ‘You do look to yourself when you’re writing, that dark calibration of yourself that seems normal.’ She also says, however, that fiction allows you to get outside of yourself. Stories are transportive, you’re experiencing someone else’s experience.

The conversation returns to Cumbria and landscape and literature. ‘There have been some writers, I believe, from the Lake District, who’ve considered these things,’ says Hall. She says the sensuality she tries to create is somehow linked to the Lake District. She also has an awareness of particular words that are different in Cumbria because her parents were from the south. Don Patterson is very good on the relationship between words and content and meaning, she tells us.

What about the tenses that Hall writes stories in? It’s about finding the right voice for the thing you want to write. It’s intuitive, something in you knows already what you are doing. Popperwell asks about ‘Theatre 6’ which is written in second person. There’s a presentational distance required in using second person which allows you to do interesting things, says Hall. It draws the reader in and is discomforting. ‘I love writing in the second person.’

Do you have to know your characters well? ‘God, no.’ You have to create them well on the page, she says. If you profile the characters you’ll do it in the plot of the book. It’s fine for the writer not to know the characters well. She refers to Jackie from The Carhullan Army, calling her ‘magnetic and convincing, heroic but dreadful. Why would I want to know her when she’s going to be an unguided missile?’ We don’t know people, we get to know people’s habits. ‘You might know someone for forty years and never know them. They might fuck off.’

Does she categorise her writing as speculative fiction? ‘I think all fiction is speculative. All fiction is science fiction. You have to convince the reader of a different version of something. It’s marvellous reality.’ Returning to The Carhullan Army, she says it was written with a forty-year plan. Carlisle was down for three days in floods. There was no power, people were airlifted. You couldn’t drive out, the roads were blocked. We live mostly comfortable lives, this was an extraordinary thing. ‘It’s all coming,’ says Hall. ‘Those stories feel other but I don’t go in thinking they’re going to be science fiction, I just think I have to pull it off.’

Popperwell’s final question is about writing sex scenes. You seem to be very good at them, she says to Hall. ‘Are you asking if I’m a pervert?’ When ‘Evie’ was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Short Story Award, it was read by an actor, ‘It’s like someone’s gone in my underwear drawer’. She says, ‘The physical description is a challenge’. It’s territory that brings in society, upbringing and the state of a relationship. It’s not poetry, it’s not pornography, it’s something in between. Because she’s ‘erred towards a more stylised form of writing’ she enjoys searching for the right language. ‘It’s very hard but very rewarding.’ She ends by saying that writing about sex ‘is not a thing to shy away from as a writer’.

It’s a fantastic event. At the end, I join the signing queue, clutching my copy of The Electric Michelangelo, my favourite book. I tell Hall that I’ve brought it with me because it inspired my PhD topic but when she asks which other books I’m using I can’t remember any besides Rosie Garland’s The Palace of Curiosities. As embarrassing encounters go, I’ve had worse.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I’ve reviewed the Man Booker shortlisted Elmet/written about why it’s an important working class novel for Ozy.

I’m delighted to have contributed to the new, extended books section on the site. It’s edited by the brilliant Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who wrote the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. I highly recommend having a look around, there’s some great pieces on there.

Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke

It’s 2016 and in Lark, Texas two bodies have been found within a week. The first, a black male, a visitor to the town. The second, a local white woman. It’s the talk of Geneva Sweet’s cafe:

“And ain’t nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week,” Huxley said.

“They ain’t thinking about that man,” Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. “Not when a white girl come up dead.”

“Mark my words,” Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. “Somebody is going down for this.”

Locke introduces Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews into the equation. Mathews is suspended from duty and his marriage is on the rocks over an ultimatum issued by his wife who wants him to quit his job. His suspension is due to him being called out late at night by a friend, Rutherford McMillan, over an incident with Ronnie Malvo. Two days later, Malvo was found dead. The bullet wounds matched McMillan’s gun, a gun which he’d reported missing the previous day.

Ronnie “Redrum” Malvo was a tatted-up cracker with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a criminal organization that made money off meth production and the sale of illegal guns – a gang whose only initiation rite was to kill a nigger. Ronnie had been harassing Mack’s granddaughter, Breanna, a part-time student at Sam Houston State, for weeks – following her in his car as she walked to and from town, calling out words she didn’t want to repeat, driving back and forth in front of her house when he knew she was home, cussing her color, her body, the way she wore her “nappy” hair.

When Mathews gets a call from his friend Greg Heglund, an agent within the Houston field office of the FBI, telling him about the case in Lark and suggesting he go and find out why the local sheriff’s refusing outside help, Mathews can’t help himself.

In Lark, Locke creates a town dominated by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the power and money of Wally Jefferson. A man who lives in a house which is a near perfect replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and sits bang opposite Geneva’s cafe. Bluebird, Bluebird is a tale of racial hatred but Locke’s created something much more complex than the initial premise appears. As Mathews uncovers the town’s secrets, Locke shows how the heritage of blacks and whites in America is deeply entwined and suggests that white hatred comes from a more complicated place than they might wish to acknowledge.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a gripping, timely novel. The first in a new series featuring Darren Mathews, I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

I’m delighted to welcome Attica Locke to the blog to answer some questions about the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird has a contemporary setting; did it feel important to be writing about race in America now?

It’s simply my world view. I’m a person of color and so I frequently write characters who are of color and in portraying the contemporary world they live in, I end up writing about race in America. I will say that I wrote this book before Trump was elected and we’ve seen this ugly cancer of racism metastasize all over the country. So it’s been odd seeing how prescient the book is. Although…. Just the fact that Trump was running for President of the United States so successfully was hint enough as to where we were headed.

A small section of the novel is written from the point of view of a white supremacist; how did it feel to get into the mindset of that character?

Oddly freeing. It wasn’t hard to write at all. I just typed up all my worst nightmares about what white supremacist think of me and let it all out. Somewhere in there too I was trying to understand where all that rage comes from. I have a theory that so much of hate and crime has to do with people’s perceived concept of scarcity—their belief, often false belief, that there isn’t enough for them. I think Keith—that character—believes that black men have taken something from him. It’s really a wounded point of view. It actually, I hope, shows you how small these white supremacists are.

The relationships you portray, particularly the marriages, are complex and often difficult. What interests you about people’s romantic relationships?

I suppose the usual stuff—what draws people together. It’s always interesting to write two people who don’t seem like they should be drawn to each other but they are anyway. And of course romantic conflict can be so irrational and passionate. That’s always fun to write too.

Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

It goes to what I was saying before. It’s a mix of exploring what scares me and also philosophically looking at the way people respond to perceived scarcity—whether scarcity of money of love and affection. I’m so curious about why some people lash out and some people don’t.

You’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist; do you treat them as separate entities or does your work in one form inform your work in the other?

I think they can’t help but inform each other—maybe in ways I can’t even see. But I understand the two mediums very well and I treat them differently when I’m writing.

Are we going to see more of Ranger Darren Matthews?

Yes! This is the beginning of a series of novels along Highway 59 in east Texas, all featuring Darren Mathews.

And, I have to ask, will Jay Porter be back at any point?

I’m sure. But it’s nothing I’d try to force. I’d have to wait for the right story to demand that he return.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers and have you read anything recently by a woman writer that you’d recommend?

Jane Smiley. Toni Morrison. Francine Prose. Jesmyn Ward. Paula Daly. Liane Moriarty. Curtis Sittenfeld. Tayari Jones. Jami Attenberg.

My favourite books of the last 18 months or so are All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Swing Time by Zadie Smith; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Made for LoveMade for Love by Alisa Nutting; Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Thanks to Attica Locke for the Q&A and to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Dark Chapter – Winnie M. Li

Trigger warning: This book focuses on the sexual assault of a young woman and its aftermath.

I am not the same person. I am different. I am now a rape victim.

Dark Chapter tells the story of two people: Vivian, a young woman who is raped in a park just outside Belfast, and Johnny, a fifteen-year-old traveller boy and Vivian’s rapist.

Vivian is an educated woman. Her family, who own a dry-cleaners, have pushed her to go to Harvard. She wants to see the world and owns a map pinpointing the trails she wants to walk. Johnny’s memories of his childhood are of his mum and dad splitting up, his older brother Michael being caught stealing by the police and the prejudice his family faced.

The overall structure of the book is in four sections: the first covers the characters’ childhoods/youth up to and including the rape; the second looks at the aftermath of the rape; the third the trial, and the final section sees how their lives change following the verdict. Within the sections themselves, the point-of-view moves between Vivian and Johnny, juxtaposing their lives.

Both structural decisions are interesting; in choosing to cover such an extended period of time, Li’s focus is wider than the rape itself. She considers events in Johnny’s life that might have led to the sense of entitlement he has, particularly in the way misogyny and rape culture pervade our society. The police process and victim support is looked at in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before, demonstrating how arduous it is for the survivor as well as the lack of resources and funding that are available. And she shows how it is possible to build a new life, both for the survivor and the perpetrator.

It’s a brave and shocking decision to tell the story from both sides. While Johnny’s actions are horrific, by delving into his backstory, Li humanises him. While it’s impossible to like him, it is possible to understand the way culture and some of the people he associates with might have influenced his reading of the world and his place in it. Li avoids demonising traveller communities by including Johnny’s family, who have a range of reactions to his behaviour. His dad, in particular, has a very interesting response.

The other focus of the book is the way women are allowed to move through the world. When Vivian’s roommate thinks she’s ‘nuts’ for wanting to hike trails alone, Vivian sees the solitariness as key:

After all, isn’t that the whole point? Thoreau living in solitude, off in his cabin by Walden Pond. Walt Whitman waxing lyrical about leaves of grass, writing under a tree while his beard grew longer and shaggier with the passing seasons. Edward Abbey drifting down a vast canyon in the American Southwest, the rock walls rising on either side of him, just him and the canyon.

It’s notable that all the examples Vivian thinks of are men. Why can’t women move through the world in the same way? Well, the answer is in the various examples Li provides of some of Vivian’s travels, both before and after the rape. Sometimes everything’s absolutely fine, at other times it isn’t.

Dark Chapter is a compelling novel. Li tells a rounded tale of the lives of two people utterly altered by one horrific event. It’s an important and timely book.

I spoke to Winnie M. Li about her decision to write the book, being a woman in the world and winning The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

Thanks to Winnie M. Li and Imogen Harris for the interview and to Legend Press for the review copy.

 

 

The Handsworth Times – Sharon Duggal + interview

In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.

The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.

The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.

The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:

‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’

Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.

It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.

I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.

The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?

It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.

I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?

The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?

I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.

I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.

The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?

It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.

There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?

I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.

You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?

I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.

The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?

Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.

Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.

Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

 

Jersey Festival of Words, Days Three and Four: Changing the Conversation

Day three of the festival begins with me chairing two events. The first is Cathy Rentzenbrink who I interview at Jersey Hospice. It’s an amazing setting, a £5 million facility on a hill overlooking the sea. The event goes well; if you haven’t seen Cathy speak about her books and her experiences, I highly recommend it. She speaks so eloquently, full of heart and compassion and makes time for everyone who comes to share their experiences with her too. She’s also very funny and that feels important considering the subject matter.

The second event is a panel on fake news and social media curation with Felicia Yap, author of the dystopian thriller Yesterday; Miranda Doyle, author of the memoir A Book of Untruths, and Peter Mourant, Picture Editor of the Jersey Evening Post. We discuss their work’s relation to the truth, Twitter and Donald Trump. I recommend both books, very different but both very interesting.

The last four events I watch, over the remainder of Saturday and into Sunday, all have something in common: they’re about books that are beginning to change the conversation. Whether that conversation is about women and sexuality, trans women, Muslim women or the stigma around mental health, each contributes to the shift that’s beginning to take place around these topics (colour me an optimist).

First up is Rhyannon Styles, author of the The New Girl, a memoir about her transition. The interview gets off to a poor start when the interviewer uses Rhyannon’s dead name twice in the introduction. She corrects him from off-stage.

Rhyannon has lots of interesting things to say about her experiences and there’s plenty for us to hear about the way trans gender people are treated. She talks about recognising something of herself in Madonna in the Beautiful Stranger video. Art college was ‘the breath of fresh air I needed’ and where she first met people with similar interests – music, film, artists. At the time she identified as a gay male, ‘I let the role of a gay male dictate my sexuality’. She describes the nightclub Heaven as ‘monumental’ for her. It was a safe place to express herself and she began dressing and performing as female. In 2011, she saw the TV programme My Transsexual Summer which she describes as ‘the key to the door’.

‘You don’t transition on a whim,’ says Rhyannon, describing it as a long, hard, arduous process. The psychologist she saw was sexist, asking her whether she wore dresses and heels when she attended her appointment in jeans and a sweater. There was an 18-month waiting list at the gender clinic so Rhyannon bought hormones online and began taking them.

She discusses the other elements of her transition: the changes to her body; the laser hair removal treatment she describes as ‘eighteen session of torture’; the speech therapy, and the clothing experiments. ‘Some of my outfits are still mental…I was like the kid in the sweetshop.’

Early in the interview, Rhyannon’s asked what’s acceptable in terms of language. She explains that trans is an umbrella term. The best way to approach the issue would be to say, ‘Hi, Rhyannon, how would you like me to describe you? What’s your preferred pronoun?’

This desire to learn seems at odds with other parts of the interview, however. The story about the parents who removed their son from a school because of a transgender child in his class is raised. The interviewer mentions The Daily Mail to which Rhyannon replies, ‘The Daily Mail is hysterical’. On the subject of uniform rules and clothes for school she says, ‘Clothes are all made from the same fabric, they’re just cut in different ways’. The interviewer pushes her asking if she can understand the parents’ perspective. I don’t see why Rhyannon, or any other trans person, should be expected to understand the point of view of someone who’s transphobic.

Towards the end of the interview, the conversation turns back to Rhyannon’s body. At the end of the book, she discusses gender reassignment surgery. She says she thinks it’s an acceptable topic of discussion for the interview as she’s included in her book, however, some trans people think it’s unacceptable and it reduces them to their genitalia. Unfortunately, the interviewer states that it was the one thing he wanted to know and bemoans the fact he had to wait until the end of the book to discover the answer. Rhyannon turns the discussion back to her experience and thoughts. She says the NHS offered her surgery but it made her wonder whether the decision was about her or whether it was about what society expects her to look like. ‘My womanhood was for me to define; I don’t think having a vaginoplasty makes me a woman.’ She says she fell for an idea of completeness and that it’s not about the physical, it’s about the mental. Something for many of us to think about.

Daisy Buchanan talks to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest book, How to Be a Grown Up. It’s aimed at 20-somethings, although I’m pretty certain I could still do with some help at 39.

Daisy describes her 20s as ‘difficult’ consisting of crap boyfriends, dreadful jobs and hangovers. At 27, she went freelance and met someone lovely and now at 29, she feels that some things have fallen into place. She’s still poor at managing money though, she reveals. She’s fantasised about there being an adult auditor and says she wanted to write a book you could pull off the shelf at 3am and feel that you could find some help and support.

She talks about the jobs she had before she went freelance. At 22, she was a Mortgage PR, ‘It wasn’t for me’. She says there are parallels between jobs and relationships in the sense that you decided you’d quite like to be a particular type of person so you force yourself into things. She says ‘Be yourself’ is crap advice; ‘You don’t know, when you’re 22, who you are.’

The discussion turns to social media, of which Daisy says she’s a big fan. It’s where she met her husband and is an easy way of continuing friendships. However, she says it used to be a mix between a house party, a bar and a coffee morning and you could wander away. You can’t do that as much anymore. She comments that it’s difficult to have boundaries on social media, it creates a false sense of intimacy.

Cathy asks about sex and masturbation as it’s a topic Daisy’s written on regularly as well as there being a section in the book on it. Daisy says she has a fear and fascination of it. She was raised as a Catholic which meant that going to hell was a greater fear than getting pregnant but getting pregnant meant there’d be evidence of your sins. ‘We demonise women wanting to have agency over their own bodies.’

Daisy’s mother wrote to her school so she wasn’t allowed to take part in sex ed. Her writing about sex openly is Daisy’s way of covering what she wishes she’d know. She says we’re so quick to demonise porn that we’re not learning from it and how it can lead to expectations and male entitlement. They’ve grown up in a world that says this is okay. She says there needs to be a sexual revolution around pleasure, comfort and desire and there needs to be a language for women to express this.

Sunday begins with Ayisha Malik, author of Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged and The Other Half of Happiness. She talks about conceiving Sofia Khan as a Muslim version of Bridget Jones. She was Muslim dating at the time and had stories which her friends convinced her to write. ‘I never read about Muslim characters who aren’t oppressed,’ she says, ‘I just wanted her to be a normal human being’.

She uses humour because, she says, any situation that arises to do with racism, if you meet it with humour, it reduces it and the person doing it. It’s also an antidote to identity politics. On the reaction to the books, she comments, ‘I’ve not had a fatwa out against me, which is great.’

Khan talks about not wanting to be confined to writing one kind of book. She states her inspirations as Jane Austen, Nora Ephron, Anne Enright and Ruth Ozeki. The novel she’s working on at the moment is about a man trying to fulfil his mum’s dying wish by building a mosque in a West Dorset village. She links the idea to recent bombings saying, ‘When the perpetrator claims to share your faith that has a profound effect on you. Why should I always have to defend my beliefs?’ She says being a Muslim woman has made her ‘grittier’ and describes Muslim women as ‘Unashamed of our multiple identities. We’re multifaceted’.

She says she was honoured to be asked to ghost write Nadia Hussein’s novels (the second has recently been completed), although it ‘might be because I’m the only hijabi Muslim in publishing right now’. She describes the process as ‘a very different kind of writing. It’s quite prescriptive; the ideas are very much hers. I take myself completely out of it. I think that’s part and parcel of the process’. She agreed to do it because the publishers were transparent that it was Malik doing the writing.

The final event of the festival is one designed to help our mental health. Rachel Kelly is a former reporter for The Times and the author of Walking on Sunshine. She begins the event by asking us to stand if we or a member of our family has ever experienced a form of mental illness. If there’s anyone left seated, I can’t see them. She then asks us to remain standing if we’ve felt we could speak openly about it. Around 50% of the audience sits down. Kelly says she hopes she can contribute to changing that stigma.

Kelly tells her story: in 1997, she was working at The Times and had two small children. One night she couldn’t sleep. Her heartrate speeded up, she felt sick. She gripped the bed because she felt as though she was falling. She started to think that if she couldn’t get to sleep, she wouldn’t be able to go to work. If she couldn’t go to work, she wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage which would result in her losing the house and then her children. She was ruminating and catastrophising. She didn’t sleep for a further two nights. On the third night, she assumed she was having a heart attack and went to A&E. At the hospital she saw a psychiatrist who told Kelly her fight or flight response had become chronic.

She tells us that mental illness happens in a context and you can alter that context. (I think that’s too simplistic a response which doesn’t take structural factors into account.) However, Kelly didn’t change anything in her life except for taking the medication she was prescribed for a period of time.

In 2007, she became ill for a second time. This lasted for two years. This time around she became aware there was a pattern emerging and that if a form of mental illness occurs once it’s more likely to occur again. She changed her lifestyle.

The rest of the event consists of Kelly giving us some ideas as to how we can help ourselves. She begins with a breathing exercise during which we close our eyes and she talks to us about focusing on our breathing and our bodies. The reason for this is that we can only breathe in the present; it helps slow the sensation of time down. If you’re physically relaxed, your mentally relaxed, she says.

Kelly goes on to tell us some jokes about cheese – for example, Which kind of cheese do you use to disguise a small horse? Mascarpone – because laughter is good for us. She also recommends exercise and happy foods, which she says are oily fish, dark green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate. She tells us she’s providing us with a toolkit and knows that not all of her suggestions will work for everyone.

The final two things she mentions are the ones that appeal to me the most: first, we have to do an active listening exercise in which we tell someone we’ve never met before three things we’re grateful for and then they do the same. The idea is that we focus on the good things in our lives but, to be honest, I’m more interested in the other person’s story and we have a good chat about our lives. It’s a nice reminder that I like meeting new people and finding out about them. The second is about the idea of Flow as documented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I haven’t thought about this in years (there was a point when it was trendy to discuss it in relation to teaching and learning) even though I know I love it when I’m in a state of flow reading a book or playing music. Kelly says that she learns poems off by heart and proves it by performing Love by George Herbert for us. I think about how much time I spend on social media and vow to book myself some long promised piano lessons when I get home.

Then it’s all over bar the long journey home for me. Jersey Festival of Words 2017 was bigger and more interesting than ever. I’m already looking forward to 2018.

Jersey Festival of Words, Day Two: Aren’t Women Inspiring?

I only attend one event on the second day of the festival because it’s a male heavy day, but what an event I attend. Clare Balding needs no introduction if you’re from or live in the UK. To most of us, she’s the most prominent female sports presenter on television. If you’re a child, she’s the author or two books about Charlie Bass and her family, which includes the horse Noble Warrior and the dog Boris.

Balding’s event is part of the school’s programme and I arrive at Jersey Opera House to find 600 very excited children. As soon as the lights dim and a promotional video for The Racehorse Who Disappeared begins to play, they’re all captivated.

‘Who’s got a brother or sister?’ Balding asks as she takes the stage. Most of the auditorium raises their hand. ‘Keep your hand up if your brother or sister is the most annoying person in the world.’ The majority of hands remain in the air, including those of the adults. [Soz, bro.] They know you better than anyone else which is why they can annoy you better than anyone else, Balding tells us by way of introducing the two brothers in her books, Harry and Larry.

On the screen are illustrations from the book and she asks the kids if they know who the illustrator is. Tony Ross is the answer and then the kids tell Balding where they’ve seen his work before: David Walliams’ books, Horrid Henry, The Little Princess and, apparently, a book called Who’s in the Loo? You can imagine how the mention of that goes down with 600 kids.

Balding says she writes about racehorses and a little girl with a close relationship with her dog because that was her when she was young. She talks about falling off her Shetland pony, aged two, and breaking her collar bone. Her father told Balding and her brother that you had to fall off and break your collar bone one hundred times before you could become a jockey, so they set about doing it. ‘If in life you see something that scares you, do it anyway,’ she tells the kids.

‘Has a female jockey ever ridden a winner of the Derby?’ The answer, it transpires, depends how you look at the question. During the actual race? No. But Balding rode Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby winner, after he recovered from the broken leg which ended his career. During his recovery, Mill Reef was kept at Balding’s father’s yard and she was one of the few people light enough to be able to sit on him without causing further damage to his leg.

The story which inspired the first Charlie Bass book, The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, is based on another horse that was trained at Balding’s father’s yard; Loch Song got better at racing as she got older but more badly behaved in the yard, refusing to do the jumps. But then she fell in love with Balding’s father’s horse, Quirk, so they positioned him at the bottom of the gallops to encourage Quirk to jump them.

Charlie learns from Olympians in the books too. Balding displays a slide featuring Victoria Pendleton, Charlotte Dujardin and the Brownlee brothers on it. She tells their stories using one of the kids to demonstrate Alistair helping Jonny over the line in Mexico. The slide also includes a picture of Beyoncé. ‘Don’t let anyone tell you Beyoncé is not an athlete, she is an athlete.’ Balding tells of her own insecurities around her body when she was younger saying, ‘I now realise that is a ridiculous thing to spend your time worrying about’. She comments on the powerful thighs of Beyoncé, Serena Williams and Angela Merkel.

The latest book, The Racehorse Who Disappeared, is inspired by the story of Shergar. Balding tells the kids the story of Shergar’s disappearance before moving on to the athletes Charlie is inspired by in this book: Steph Houghton and the England women’s football team; the British women’s hockey team and Maddie Hinch, ‘who made goal keeping cool’; Nicola Adams, who became a boxer when she was told girls didn’t box; the Paralympian swimmer, Ellie Simmonds, with three Paralympic appearances at the age of 22, and Ellie Robinson, also a Paralympic swimmer, who approached the pool in the oversized jacket she’d been provided with, hood up, arms spread, turning an oversight into a statement. ‘You can wear confidence like a cloak,’ Balding tells the kids.

While the kids are fascinated by the stories of all these athletes, Balding’s barely got to Maddie Hinch before I realise I’m crying. To see all these women and girls on a huge screen, in a huge venue, having their achievements celebrated by a prominent female television presenter, in front of a group of school children, feels revolutionary. I buy both of the books for my 11-year-old stepson so we can read them together.

The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop – Clare Balding

The Racehorse Who Disappeared – Clare Balding

Jersey Festival of Words, Day One: Sensory Perception

It’s the third year of Jersey Festival of Words and the third time I’ve been invited. This year I’m delighted at the broadening of the program which is more inclusive and representative than in previous years. Just after I finish writing this, I’m going to see national treasure Clare Balding do an event for 500 school children. On Saturday, I’m chairing a panel which includes dystopian thriller writer Felicia Yap, which is followed by an event with trans woman, Rhyannon Styles. On Sunday, the romantic comedy author Ayisha Malik is here.

My time at this year’s festival begins with a panel event focused on books where the protagonist/the writer has difficulty communicating. The panel consists of Penny Joelson, author of YA thriller I Have No Secrets; Vanessa Potter, author of the non-fiction book Patient H69: The Story of My Second Sight, and Jem Lester, author of the novel Shtum. The panel’s chaired by broadcaster Sara Palmer.

I’ll briefly mention Lester because, as you know, I don’t cover books by male writers. Shtum is a novel about ten-year-old Jonah who’s profoundly autistic and doesn’t speak. While Lester says the father isn’t based on him, the son is based on his own child. I love his reading and what he has to say so much that I buy the book.

Joelson’s novel tells the story of Jemma, a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy who is unable to move or communicate. She is told the identity of a murderer but is unable to tell anyone else. In keeping with the theme of the panel, Joelson reads from two sections of the book which highlight what daily life is like for Jemma and the frustrations when a new carer assumes she isn’t intelligent because she can’t communicate.

Palmer asks how Joelson ensured Jemma’s voice in the novel was authentic. Joelson explains that she worked with children with disabilities although not specifically with cerebral palsy. She got feedback on her manuscript from people with cerebral palsy, people who communicate using alternative means, and from families of people with cerebral palsy. She says the feedback suggested that it did reflect the experience of people with similar difficulties to Jemma.

An audience member asks about the cover and she says she really likes it, it’s a striking image. [I agree, it’s great.] The same person asks if there’s anything that was left out of the book she really wanted to include. Joelson says that there was so much editing, she’d had enough by the end so hadn’t really considered it!

When asked what impact she hopes the novel will have, Joelsen says that she hopes it will help the carers who work with people with communication difficulties to understand their patients better. She also talks about an entire industry based around communication technology she didn’t know existed and hopes more people will discover it. There’s research and technology that desperately needs more funding and she hopes someone will come forward to help.

Potter’s book tells her own story of the day she woke up in October 2012 to discover that her sight had begun to blur and there was a numbness in the middle finger of her right hand. The numbness began to spread, her vision deteriorated and in three days she was blind and paralysed with no idea why. As a television producer used to being in control, she began to record a diary to document her experiences. The book is based on the recordings, the blog she began to write as her sight returned, and interactions with Cambridge scientists who tried to help her understand what had happened to her. She says, ‘If it was going to take something away from me – it wiped out my career – it was going to give me something back’. Her vision returned in layers which she describes as a ‘misty fog’ moving to lines which appeared to be moving around to contrasts to colours. She describes it as ‘like having David Hockney inside your head sketching things back in’. She experienced synaesthesia, describing the colour blue as fizzing and spitting.

Palmer asks about the use of humour in dark times and Potter tells of the stories that were told, retold and expanded during the sixteen days she spent in the hospital. They were needed in the middle of a desperate situation. She goes on to say that the situation she was facing when she returned home meant that roles within the family were reversed and her daughter became her carer. Her children pushed her though. Potter was walking with a stick and if she put it down, they would steal it to force her to walk unaided. Her daughter also made Potter feed her, in order to use her muscles in her hand to grip the cutlery. ‘They were little sods!’

Unusually, Potter designed her own book cover which is based on the Snellen eye chart. She came up with it after spending a lot of time squinting at the bottom letters. In terms of what was left out of the book, she says 90% of what happened isn’t in it and a lot of the science was left out.

She had a lot of dealings with the NHS and says that documenting and writing about her experience has been useful for rehab and neurological specialists as the condition she had affects 0.0004% of people. ‘The NHS was amazing but they were scratching their heads.’

An audience member asks if she misses anything about the experience and she says the acquired synaesthesia. She says the exploding blues were ‘the most incredible, frightening, curious experience. So unique and very much mine’.

The panel was so fascinating that I kept forgetting to take notes and I bought all three writers’ books after the event (which I very rarely do).

The second event of the evening, I was much more sceptical about. Prior to it, all I knew about Deliciously Ella came from her association with the clean eating movement which I think is joyless, dangerous bullshit (and I’ve been vegetarian for almost twenty-five years).

Ella describes her success as ‘an amazing accident’. She had no interest in cooking and was ‘a complete sugar monster’. However, at the end of her second year of university she was diagnosed with a condition which meant she was unable to control her heart rate. This led to problems with her digestion, chronic fatigue and her immune system. Bedbound while her university friends were out enjoying themselves, she began to take some responsibility for herself starting with reading the stories of others online who’d successfully gained some control over their health by changing their diet. [Now, this I do have time for: my best friend’s husband has Crohn’s Disease and changing his diet has made huge improvements to his life. However, as someone who can eat what they choose – lucky me – his diet looks utterly joyless to me and not something you would choose out of anything other than necessity.] Ella started cooking as a hobby, thinking she had nothing to lose and it might help her both physically and mentally. In early 2012 a friend suggested she set up a blog. In 2013, she opened an Instagram account. She replied to everyone who commented and built a community which has translated into a business.

‘I wanted to turn a negative into a positive.’ She wanted to build something useful with a social conscience and says the community element is the most important part. She still personally replies to comments and emails.

Paul Bisson, who’s chairing the event, asks whether the blog had a definite voice from the start. Ella says that English was her worst subject and that she achieved a U in her first piece of GCSE coursework, which her brother then rewrote for her and achieved an A. However, she loved art and thinks this translated to the way she communicates through Instagram. She says she brought herself completely to it. Her mum commented on how often she uses the word ‘awesome’ and the number of exclamation marks. She says her style was very colloquial and she overused superlatives. She describes it as a ‘very open and transparent brand’.

Bisson asks about the BBC documentary she took part in and her association with the clean eating movement. Ella says she wants to be honest. ‘I believe in food, I believe in the power of it.’ She goes on to say that nothing in life should be that conflicted and that we need to elevate broccoli, cauliflower, lentils but not at the expense of pizza and so on. ‘We’ve got to make broccoli cool.’ Bisson says that vegetables are her passion and she replies, ‘How sad does that sound?’ She says there’s a stigma related to healthy eating which is linked to diets and calories and bland food. She says she wants to move us ‘totally away from that rabbit food scenario’ to delicious food presented in an interesting and exciting way. ‘If we’re ever going to get people eating fruit and vegetables we need to make it part of our lives.’

Ella discusses the style of her cookbooks saying they describe and celebrate ingredients and flavours. She makes them as accessible and friendly as possible, avoiding a sense of ‘If you don’t do it like this, you are doing it wrong’. She repeatedly mentions that no one has to commit to this way of eating full time. ‘Take, adapt and include in your life. Dip in and out.’

I leave without being won over but agreeing with more than I thought I would. I do think we should eat a balanced diet and that eating one should be accessible to everyone. I do think making vegetables tasty is relatively easy and we should do more to make them delicious and interesting. However, you’re not going to find me rejecting processed foods in their entirety: coconut oil for butter? Only if it’s really going to make a difference to your health.

I Have No Secrets – Penny Joelson

Patient H69 – Victoria Potter

Deliciously Ella with Friends – Ella Mills

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong)

The first half of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child.

Mia is spoilt: she has a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils from one of her fathers; her every need is met. The only potential problem in her life is that one of the fathers isn’t aware that the other exists.

Early in the novel, Mia declares that she’s going to buy a fountain pen when she grows up. She read in a book that you can use it to kill someone.

But, of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t understand the words death or kill. She is a lucky child, and she lacks the passion, let alone the opportunity, to kill someone; she doesn’t yet know that people kill even in the absence of emotions such as hatred. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s skull from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat, a fact she would have learned if she had read more books. But she is interested only in detective novels, and because there are more things that she doesn’t know than she does know, her world is simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, I’m going to buy a fountain pen when I grow up, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.

Like Chekov’s gun, Han has planted the idea of violence in the opening pages of the novel and, at some point, it has to detonate.

The Child is in Mia’s class at school.

She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.

The Child is abused and neglected. She spends most of her time in pain from a range of sources: her fingernails, cut so short the flesh below is exposed; her stomach, from hunger or the anticipation of what’s to come at home. While Mia is in trouble for a story spread about another classmate killing chicks, the Child has stolen the key to the school classroom. She uses it to enter after school and add sentences to the journals which the pupils write. Her own journal masks the reality of her situation:

No trace must be left. She must disappear instantly, as though she has never existed, not even for an instant. She, too, writes in her journal. But she records nothing. Nothing about herself. Every time the journal is returned to her, she learns how to camouflage more and more words with other words. Cheek with leaf, bruise with wind, blister with light breeze, fingernail with butterfly, curse with song, calf muscle with stick, tongue with ice cream, palm with moon, hair with stars, sigh with whistling, grip with tree branch, shoe heel with footprint, glass shard with sky, spine with dog, thigh with cat, stick with streetlight, crying with bird, pain with bright colors. When I opened the window a light breeze blew in. I wanted ice cream, so I went to the store. There was dew on green leaves. I saw the yellow cat’s family. It was strange that their eyes were green.

The Child makes a decision about the journals which leads to trouble for the whole class. While the teacher tries to resolve the situation with threats, the violence the children perpetuate escalates, leading to a fatal incident.

The second half of the book plays with what we’ve encountered in the first. The narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel.

You look like you’re twelve, and you also look like you’re twenty. According to simple arithmetic, you’re probably twenty-seven years old now, but no one would be able to guess that. Twelve years old and twenty years old, somewhere in between those two ages, time was torn and crumpled, repeatedly, until it finally disappeared.

Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives. She considers the overlap of time and whether different versions of ourselves can co-exist – does the person we were at twelve still live? Are they running around in our world, narrowly missing bumping into our older self?

There are no answers to this conundrum, of course, but there’s a hypnotic beauty in the repetition of language and ideas Han uses to interrogate the idea. Credit to Janet Hong for what cannot have been an easy text to translate. Han’s wordplay where she links meaning and concepts in a stream of consciousness exploration can’t always directly translate. It seems that Hong manages to maintain the intention and meaning of the original text, even if specific words have had to be substituted.

Water isn’t beautiful at all. When water freezes, it becomes ice. Ice is more beautiful than water. But neither water nor ice is beautiful. Water flows. Ice is slippery. I’ve run on ice before. No one was on my back. Every time my hooves touched the ice, I heard a strange noise. It was the sound of me slipping, on and onward. So I guess I can’t say that I ran on ice. Can I say that the ice slipped? The ice slipped up. I was afraid that the slipped-up ice would crack, I was afraid that the water colder than ice would drench me, so on and onward I went.

The Impossible Fairytale is an innovative exploration of the bounds of storytelling. The first of Han Yujoo’s work to be translated into English, I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

I spoke to Han Yujoo about fiction, the collapsing of time and working with a translator.

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press, I have five copies of The Impossible Fairytale to give away. To win, leave a comment either here or underneath my interview with Han Yujoo on YouTube by 6pm UK time on Sunday 24th September. Giveaway is UK only. Winners will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

The giveaway winners are Ann Bradley, Christabel, Lara Alonso Corona, Victoria Goodbody and Eva. Please check you email for further details. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Books mentioned:

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo

Madame Zero – Sarah Hall

The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy and the giveaway and to Han Yujoo for the interview.