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 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist


A month ago, when the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, I commented on what an exceptional year it had been for writing by women. This is supported by both the reading we’ve done and the discussions we’ve had as a shadow panel. There have been some heated debates about some of the books and some that every one of us felt should be included on our shortlist but, for the first time since I began shadowing this prize with a panel, there wasn’t a single book that we didn’t think worthy of its inclusion on the longlist. This is the fifth year I’ve shadowed this prize and this has been, without question, the strongest longlist I’ve seen.

I preface our chosen shortlist with these remarks because I want to make a case for every single one of the 16 books that make up the longlist. Whether they’ve made our shortlist or not and whether or not they make the official shortlist tonight, there are 16 books by women worthy of your time.

One of the things that infuriates me about so-called ‘women’s fiction’ (as if somehow fiction written by women is gendered while fiction written by men is not) is the idea that it is concerned with the domestic sphere. The 16 books which make up the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2017 cover politics, science, ecology, farming, horse breeding/racing, crime, prisons, acting, music, writing, race, medicine, sex, drugs, performance, religion, violence, love, family, gender, marriage, parenting, death, grief, abuse and friendship. I defy anyone to look at the list and say there isn’t a single book on it that doesn’t interest them. Indeed, if you’re a man who doesn’t read books by women, there’s one here to get you started. Or, if you know a man who doesn’t read books by women, buy the one you know that’ll get him hooked – tear the cover and front pages off if you have to – and present him with it.

Here, then, are the six books we’ve chosen to shortlist. They’re not the six I thought we’d select when the list was announced, but now we’ve read them all, they’re the six that – as a panel – we felt most strongly about. If you click on the cover, it will take you to my review. You can read Eleanor’s reviews here and Eric’s here. Thanks also to Antonia and Meera. We’ll announce our winner on Tuesday 6th June, the day before the official winner is crowned.




Two Novellas by Aliya Whiteley

The Beauty


Twenty-three-year-old Nathan is a storyteller. He tells stories around the fire at night, stories of the women who’ve been missing from the community for the past six years.

Miriam died early, one of the first, with the yellow fungus thick on her nose and tongue. It crawled out from her womb and down her legs. […] Today the world moves on, and I must find new ways to turn the truth into stories. The graveyard bears more mushrooms, clustering in soft wet shapes, yellow folds and rivulets, in the outlines of the women beneath the soil. It must mean something good.

Two of the men touch the mushrooms and disappear. The community sends out a search party including Nathan. In the woods at night, he falls asleep. The following morning the sound of humming awakens him.

The ground shudders and from the hole climbs a thing. A woman. A thing. It is yellow and spongy and limbed, with a smooth round ball for a head. It is without eyes, without ears. I press myself against the rough wall as it emerges and stands like a human, like a woman. It has breasts, globes of yellow, and rounded hips that speak to me of woman, of want, and that disgusts me beyond words.

The thing follows Nathan and eventually captivates him. He names her and begins a sexual relationship with her. When Nathan returns to the group, he takes the Beauty with him and they possess the men.

The Beauty bring about a reversal of gender norms and soon it becomes clear that they’re out for revenge, for the ‘Hysteria, the sickness of the womb’ that killed them.

I thoroughly enjoyed Whiteley’s speculative fiction tale. Elements of it reminded me of Margaret Atwood and who can resist Doctor Freud’s misguided, endlessly perpetuating nonsense about women taking a good kicking?


The Arrival of the Missives

arrival-of-missives-1In a story which initially seems quite different from The Beauty, our narrator, Shirley Fearn, landowner’s daughter and seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, confesses her love for her teacher, Mr Tiller. Not long returned from the first world war, the villagers gossip that “He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury”. Shirley cares not, preferring to imagine what’s under his shirt and waistcoat and declaring her plan to marry Mr Tiller and ‘become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England’. First though, she needs to go to teacher training college in Taunton, if she can get the letter past the busybody at the local post office without her father finding out.

When she sees Tiller tremble as she loiters in the school room after class has finished, she identifies herself as the cause:

The village is unaware how much has changed in the last few moments, and how much I am changing within it. I feel strong, powerful, ripe with possibility.

Shirley walks until she finds herself outside Tiller’s house where she gets what she wants as she sees him remove his waistcoat and shirt. What’s underneath is far from anything she could’ve imagined though:

…the scar is not a scar. It is a pattern revealed, which decorates the entire of his chest and stomach, and lower; I cannot comprehend so many lines and angles, made in the flesh. Except in the centre of the pattern, where there is no flesh at all. There is rock.

How can it be rock? It is solid, and juts forth from the bottom of his ribcage, making a mountain range in miniature, sunk into the body in places and erupting forth in others. There are seams of bright material within it that catch the lamplight, and glitter, delicate and silvery as spider thread.

[Anyone else suspect Whiteley’s a Joy Division fan?]

Once Shirley has seen Tiller’s secret, he recruits her to help him fulfil the needs of those who’ve controlled him since his injuries were sustained. It’s not by accident that he’s come to the village of Westerbridge where generation after generation of the same families have lived, worked and married.

The Arrival of the Missives cleverly shows how a girl on the precipice of womanhood can be manipulated, as were the young men who marched to their deaths – physical and mentally – following the orders of those who should’ve known better. It questions whether our future is predetermined or whether we can change our own destinies. In one sense, it requires more of a suspension of disbelief that The Beauty due to the insertion of something fantastical into an ordinary seeming village in Devon, but it is no less powerful if you’re prepared to give yourself to Whiteley’s vision.


Thanks to Unsung Stories for the review copies.

Jersey Festival of Words: Day One

I arrived in Jersey on the same flight as poet Jo Bell, which was fantastic as I had someone to talk to/try not to get lost with. When we got to the hotel, we met writer Tania Hershman, who had already sussed out cake opportunities. We went for afternoon tea and chatted about writing and the sessions we’re doing during the festival. Jo and Tania are part of tonight’s cabaret evening at the Arts Centre and are doing a session together at 5pm tomorrow in the Arts Centre. Jo is also doing a full day’s workshop in La Hougue Bie on Sunday. Their plans for the sessions sounded fantastic.


I went to two events yesterday: Anna Sebba and Victoria Hislop, both of whom have a love of recent history in common. Both sessions took place at Jersey Arts Centre, which is a new venue for this year and is a lovely addition.


Anne Sebba talked for an hour of the stories she discovered about women in Paris during the Second World War. These stories, and many more, form her new book Les Parisiennes.

I warmed to Sebba immediately when she said that the book isn’t a women’s history book, it’s a mainstream history book that happens to be about women. She described the book as ‘unashamedly’ a story about the women of Paris, a city which became feminised during the occupation. The book includes stories about resistors, collaborators, milliners, singers, dancers and more. The spectrum of women in Paris at that time is shown here.

Sebba questioned throughout the talk why it had taken so long for these women’s stories to be told. Her answers included that these women were self-effacing and they wanted to return to normalcy. They were also told by DeGaulle to return to their families, have babies and return their chequebooks. Women in France did not get the vote until 1946. Even after their part in the war, society thought they should return to their places. There were also the women whose romantic lives meant they didn’t want their stories known – Catherine Dior, for example, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his children – and those whose romantic lives wouldn’t be accepted by society – Claire Simone, who despite her portrayal by Cate Blanchett in The Momuments Men where she flirts with Frank Stokes played by George Clooney, was a lesbian.


The book came from an interest in Reneé, formerly Rachel, Van Cleef who killed herself in 1942 following the Aryanisation of businesses under occupation. Sebba’s interested stemmed from the disparity between the darkness of the period and the growth in couture and culture in Paris.

Sebba mentioned a lot of women, whose stories I’m not going to repeat here because they’re told in the book, but they include Elsie de Wolfe, Odette Fabius, Beatrice de Camondo and Irène Némirovsky. Many of these women showed enormous courage, carrying out work that went unrecognised until recently. Sebba praised the grandchildren of these women who she said were determined that their grandmothers’ stories would be told.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 13.53.14

Victoria Hislop is also interested in telling unknown stories. In her case, these are stories from and about Greece. Last week, she published her fifth novel Cartes Postales from Greece which her and her publisher are describing as ‘the first book of fiction in full colour’.

She told the audience that the book was conceived as a novel with photographs and that she travelled around Greece with a photographer with no preconceptions as to what she wanted him to photograph. As he took photographs and then drove them around, Hislop wrote the stories that make up the book.

The book is about a broken-hearted man called Anthony – because ‘I’ve never met an Anthony I don’t like’. (She reveals later that he’s named after and looks like her friend and neighbour in Crete, Anthony Horowitz.) The book begins with Anthony waiting for the love of his life at a small airport in Greece, with an engagement ring in his pocket. She doesn’t show up and provides no explanation as to her absence. He can’t face returning to London so travels around Greece sending her a postcard from each place which ends with the sentence, ‘Without you this place is nothing’. But the postcards land on the mat of someone else…

Each of the sections are told to Anthony by other people. They are stories about the people who tell them and about Greece. Hislop said she wanted to express the duality of Greece, the beautiful, picture postcard side and the shadows behind it.


She said it would be disingenuous of her to set a novel in contemporary Greece and not acknowledge the difficulties the country’s faced. She spends 30% of her time in Greece and says that there are lots of angry young people who leave because they can’t get work and then don’t return.

Some of the stories told to Anthony are real and others are fictional. Hislop said she’s leaving it to the reader to decide which category they fall into but she does reveal that the story about Lord Byron is fictional. She wanted to look at Byron from a Greek point of view, where he’s more famous for his sexual exploits than his writing, so created a maid in the household who theorises as to what ailment causes Byron’s death. ‘Writing is so much fun!’ Hislop said of the creative licence which allowed her to do this. She said some of the stories move into genres she hadn’t written in before: Gothic and horror, in particular, although she’s keen to point out that there’s humour in the book too. ‘I don’t read Gothic or horror stories. Ever. I don’t like them. I was quite disgusted with myself.’

Hislop said she reads her reviews and that ‘criticisms are usually right’.

The evening ended with a discussion about her debut novel The Island. ‘To me it’s like it’s been written by a child. There’s nothing pretentious about it.’ She told us she didn’t want to be a writer, in fact she actively avoided it having friends who are published novelists. She said it’s only with this book, which is her fifth, that she’s felt able to refer to herself as a writer but not a novelist. ‘That sounds so cringe-making. Ian McEwan is a novelist’. But visiting Spinalonga inspired something that she knew would need more than the articles she was writing as a travel journalist at the time.

Her daughter, Emily, is her ‘ruthless’ early reader but she said it was her husband, Ian (Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular on Have I Got News for You), who told her to remove a joke about leprosy from The Island.

Someone in the audience asks about the television series of The Island, which was made by and for Greek television. At 26 episodes, she said she doubts it will ever be shown in the UK. She was involved in it ‘like a maniac’, she said, due to her concerns that the characters would be treated ‘like monsters’.

Hislop will continue writing about Greece. Although she confessed to an interest in Norway in the 1940s, she said she won’t write anything very different. ‘This is what I do.’

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

Was this the stuff married life would be made of, two people making way for the confounding spectacle of the other, bewildered and slightly afraid?

The Portable Veblen begins with an engagement between Paul Vreeland, 34, and 30-year-old, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda:

…independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self, who was having a delayed love affair with the world due to an isolated childhood and various interferences since.

In simple terms, the novel charts the period between Veblen and Paul’s whirlwind engagement and their wedding. But what McKenzie does in that period is examine family relationships: how they affect who we become and whether our view of our parents and siblings needs to be reassessed when we’re adults; questions whether marriage takes away something of ourselves; exposes some Big Pharma practices, and wonders whether squirrels have the power to change people’s lives.

Both Veblen and Paul have issues with their families. Veblen’s mother, Melanie C. Duffy, ‘intervenes’ constantly in Veblen’s life, particularly with regards to her physical and mental health.

From bracing them in defense since girlhood, her guts were robust, her tolerance for adversity high. By clearly emphasizing all that was lacking in others, by mapping and raising to an art form the catalog of their flaws, Veblen’s mother had inversely punched out a template for an ideal human being, and it was the unspoken assumption that Veblen would aspire to this template with all her might.

However, Melanie’s health – according to her – is poor. She’s worked through a number of doctors who’ve failed to give her an adequate diagnosis. Now Veblen’s marrying a doctor, she assumes he’ll abhor her. Prior to meeting Paul, Veblen’s avoided romantic relationships assuming no one would understand her, now she realises that in her early relationships, ‘she hadn’t been looking for a love affair, but rather a human safe house from her mother’.

Paul’s always felt sidelined by his family after growing up with a disabled brother. There’s no doubt this has contributed to his desire to become a doctor and his rapid move to a programme run by Hutmacher, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. At the Hutmacher funded veterans’ hospital he runs clinical trials on a device he’s designed which he believes will prevent permanent brain injury immediately after the damage has occurred.

And in the midst of all this, popping up repeatedly are the squirrels. Veblen’s house has a squirrel infestation in the attic, at least this is how Paul sees it. Since childhood she’s believed that squirrels are telling her something. The morning after the engagement while Paul’s out buying pastries, one appears at the bedroom window. It seems to respond to Veblen’s conversation through gestures and then places one of its hands on the glass as though it wants to touch Veblen’s face. She removes her engagement ring:

…she felt free to place the tips of her fingers on the glass where the squirrel’s hand was pressed. The squirrel studied her with warm brown eyes, as if to ask: How well do you know yourself, and all the choices you could make? As if to tell her, I was cut loose from a hellish marriage, and I want to meet muckrackers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted, and you don’t know it yet, but you are all of these.

But the squirrels come to play a bigger part in their lives than Paul, at least, might have predicted.

The Portable Veblen is a satirical take on dynamics and power in families, in relationships, in the medical profession and between humans and squirrels. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny but behind the humour and the borderline surreal incidents lie some serious questions about society. It’s Franzen at his best and most humorous – with squirrels – or A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven with a much better ending – and squirrels. If I’d read it before Christmas it would most certainly have been on my Ones to Read preview. A gem.

If you want to sample the opening chapters for yourself, The Portable Veblen was The Pool’s Bedtime Book last week.


Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.

The Greatest of These – Part Four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon

An absolute treat today: part four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon, author of the hotly anticipated The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I loved the novel, which I included in my Ones to Read in 2016, and will review it in full next week. The story – ‘The Greatest of These’ gives a real flavour of the novel in terms of introducing some of the main characters, the tone and the themes. If you haven’t seen parts one to three, a list of all the places the story is appearing is below.


Mr Forbes swung his arms about and stamped his feet. ‘I think we should spend a little less time worrying about butterflies, and a little more time clearing this snow. We’ll run out of food.’

‘And television,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘We need more man power.’ Eric Lamb stared at Mr Forbes’ shovel, where it rested in a bank of snow, and then he stared at Thin Brian, and Thin Brian stared at the sky, as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.

‘Don’t look at me,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘My knee’s given me a lot of gyp since I did that sponsored walk for orphaned children.’

‘That was in 1967, Harold,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘Exactly.’ Mr Forbes sniffed the air, and his knees did an awkward bounce, to prove their point. ‘I need to restrict myself to giving directions.’

Mr Forbes gave a lot of directions. Eric Lamb needed to dig a little more to the left, and then a little more to the right. He needed to stack the snow a little higher, then a little lower, and he was too diagonal and then not diagonal enough. Mrs Forbes appeared half way through the directions, with a mug of tea and a selection of Fondant Fancies on a doily, because Mr Forbes said he found giving directions quite taxing. We all stared as the last cake disappeared into Mr Forbes’ mouth, and Eric Lamb grew very red in the face.

We were all so busy, we didn’t see the man straight away.

Eric Lamb’s digging had become very loud and interesting, so Mr Forbes was having to shout, May Roper was explaining religious symbols to no one in particular, and Mrs Forbes was having a conversation with the butterfly, which had landed on the doily and stared up at her from a handful of crumbs.

It was Tilly who noticed him first.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘Someone’s waving to us.’

We all stared at the bottom of The Avenue, where the man stood in snow up to his knees. He wore a brightly coloured scarf and a brightly coloured jacket, and a hat which seemed to wind itself around his head. As we watched, the man lifted his legs out of the drift and started to walk towards us.

Tilly put up her hand to wave back.

‘He’s not from around here.’ Mrs Roper grabbed an edge of the duffel coat and pulled Tilly’s arm back down again. ‘What could he possibly want from us?’

‘We’ll never know if we don’t wave back,’ said Tilly, but the man kept walking anyway, and I watched everyone tighten their lips and their eyes, and Mr Forbes fold his arms around his waist.

And the butterfly left Mrs Forbes’ plate, and it danced around in the air, and we all waited for the man to tell us.

His name was Mr Dhillon and the hat he wore was called a turban. You couldn’t tell where it started from, and Tilly and I walked around him several times to get a proper look, although we were very subtle about it, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

He said he was stuck.

‘It’s my car.’ He pointed across the estate, beyond the snow-packaged roof tops. Except you couldn’t tell where the roof tops ended and the sky began. It was as if they’d been welded together by the weather. ‘It’s on Rowan Tree Croft. In a drift,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d help me push it free?’

Mr Forbes did a knee bounce and Thin Brian stared at the sky, and Mrs Forbes made a big fuss of rearranging her doily.

‘Can’t you ask the people on your own street?’ said Mrs Roper, from behind her blanket.

Mr Dhillon said the people on his own street were all elderly. He said there was no one from his own street who could help.

‘We’re all in the same boat,’ he said, and he smiled.

Mr Forbes’ hands found their way around his back, where they linked together and made him look even more stout than before, and even less interested in what anyone else had to say. ‘The thing is,’ he bounced, ‘we have enough on our plate here, without digging other people out of their problems as well.’

‘Then perhaps I could help you in return?’ said Mr Dhillon, and he picked up Mr Forbes’ spade (which was still asleep in the snow), and he started to dig.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ Han Kang at Foyles, Charing Cross Road

On Wednesday I travelled to London for one of Han Kang’s few UK appearances. In the event space at the top of the Foyles’ flagship store, Kang spoke for over an hour with Philippe Sands, supported by her translator Yunjung Sun Kim. It was a fascinating discussion.


Sands began by asking Kang to explain a bit about her latest novel just published in English (brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith) Human Acts.

It’s about Gwangju in 1980 when an event took place which some refer to as an uprising and others a massacre. There was a military coup, power was seized and demonstrations took place. The response to these demonstrations was mass shootings. The troops then retreated for ten days, during which there was civilian autonomy. At the end of those ten days, the army returned with tanks.

He then asked Kang about the personal nature of the book for her.

She said she was born in Gwangju in 1970 and lived there until she was nine years and two months old when her family moved to Seoul. It was a coincidence they left before the uprising took place. ‘We were not hurt because we were not there.’ She said they were left with survivors’ guilt.

Photobooks were circulated secretly to let survivors know the truth about the dead. The books contained photographs of corpses. ‘My parents wanted to protect me from that book.’ But Kang looked at one in her parents’ house. ‘I was scared.’ If she’d been older, she might have been filled with rage and hatred but at ten, it left her scared of human cruelty. She said it raised two riddles for her: the first was ‘How can human beings be so violent?’ and the second, ‘How could people do something against extreme violence?’ She said these riddles were ‘…imprinted on my mind. A defining experience for me.’

Sands pushed her on the building that Dong-Ho, the main character lives in, being the building Kang and her family lived in and Dong-Ho himself being a boy she knew but Kang sidestepped the question telling us that the book’s 80% fact, 20% fiction. It was clear throughout the interview that the massacre and it’s affect on her is a painful subject to discuss.


At this point there was a reading, taken from the editor’s chapter [chapter three] when the editor goes to see a theatre production of a script that was very heavily censored by the authorities. Deborah Smith came onstage to read the English translation which was followed by Han Kang reading the same section in Korean. It was really interesting to hear a section read by the writer in the original language.

Sands then asked what caused Kang to choose this subject and why she chose to treat it in this form.

She referred again to the two riddles. They were her internal motivation. ‘I wanted to figure out why I’m struggling to embrace human beings.’ She said she had to figure out the answers to her questions or she couldn’t go anywhere with her writing.

Her external motivation was the social cleansing which took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009. Five residents and one police officer died when a fire started in a building where people were protesting against the eviction of the residents to make way for developers. She said she was watching the news in a ‘warm and comfortable’ room. ‘I bet it’s Gwangju,’ she said. ‘I realised Gwangju is all around us.’

Who are you writing the book for? Sands asked.

Kang said she mostly started to write the book because of her internal questions. She began to collect materials and realised there was no room for her self-consciousness in the novel. ‘I was not important anymore. I wanted to lend my life to them. To the people who were killed there.’

She did more research, reading about Bosnia and Auschwitz. She said she felt a threat that she’d lose all her trust in mankind.

The change in her thinking came when she read a diary entry by a civilian killed on the last night of the massacre. A high school teacher in the civilian militia’s provincial office. She said it read like a prayer and led to her wanting to reach human dignity even though she started the novel from human violence.

She said of the boy at the centre of the novel: ‘Sometimes he was dragging me towards the second riddle’ and of the book: ‘That process has transformed me’. She talked of a moment in the mother’s chapter of the book [the one that I found most difficult to read] where the boy’s holding his mother’s hand and he leads her to the flowers on the brighter side of the road. ‘This book is just for the boy. The boy has written this novel, not me.’

Sands commented that the book is an incredibly brutal journey. How was it written and what was Kang’s decision-making process in writing the opening?

She talked about the opening being in the darkest place and the boy wanting to light candles. He covers the body with white sheets and then there’s the lighting of candles again. ‘It looks brutal…but I believe there are chords of this warming.’ She said in the second chapter [when the boy’s friend’s body is laid in a pile of corpses and he tells us about his life] that the boy’s life was dignified. ‘The face of human dignity’ is there, she said.

Sands asked her what she was hoping to achieve and the techniques she used in creating the novel.

‘I felt this was the only way to talk about the boy’s life and death.’

She said she used the second person perspective because ‘You is someone who is present’ and she wanted the boy to be present. He comes back throughout the book because the survivors want to remember him; they call him to the present. [The book ends in 2013.] She said readers could also assemble the broken moments of the boys last days and hours through the survivors’ stories. ‘The boy is coming to the present. That’s what I wanted.’

She didn’t know how to structure the novel. She said she was ‘lost’ while researching until she found the citizen’s diary and then she arranged it into six chapters. She didn’t restructure again after that. She said sometimes she’s confident in arranging chapters, ‘Sometimes I get lost’.

How was the book received in South Korea? asked Sands.

It was well received. ‘More than I expected. Maybe they wanted to remember this massacre for a long time. They didn’t want to erase these memories.’ Human Acts was on the bestseller list for a year in South Korea.


The discussion was then opened up to questions from the audience.

Where there people who didn’t want the stories to be told?

Kang said that so many years had passed so she didn’t have to interview people. ‘I didn’t have to hurt anyone.’ She said that painful testimonies had already been given. She repeated, ‘I didn’t hurt anyone’ two more times.

Has the novel been published in other countries and what was the response?

She mentioned the Netherlands and France in the future. She said it’s weird to meet readers in the UK, ‘It’s a very personal book of mine’ but that we share human ideas.

She was asked specifically about publication in China. ‘Maybe it’s impossible.’ She said she’s spoken to the Chinese publisher but because the book deals with massacre and censorship it might not be possible to publish it.

How much of the truth about Gwangju has come out?

In the 1980s information was destroyed. The event was isolated. In 1997 it was memorialised. The current regime doesn’t want to remember though.

The discussion leads on to the single textbook the current regime is proposing. Kang said it’s concerning that no one knows who’s going to write it.

Sands commented that it would be fantastic to have Human Acts on the curriculum.

‘Some people have talked about it! I hoped many students could read this novel. I did my best to promote this book as much as I could.’

She said she’s been to schools to talk about the book and the massacre. 15-year-olds in South Korea were quite ignorant about it. She said the events in the book frightened them but they were relieved that they’d realised the truth.

Did Gwangju affect her other novel (The Vegetarian)?

She said they’re both a personal or inner conflict about humans.

Why did it take so long to write about Gwangju?

She said she revised some stories she wrote in her early 20s and there was human violence in them. The Vegetarian is about whether it’s possible to be perfectly innocent in this violent world, which is why the central character wants to become a plant. ‘The two books are intertwined. It’s like a pair.’

‘Writing is questioning for me.’ The question that she’s asking in Human Acts is ‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ She said, ‘I lost my trust to human beings since I looked at the photobook. How can I embrace human beings?’

Sands asked whether she had any more of an answer as to how humans can inflict such violence on each other?

Kang replied that Human Acts is also very anti-human acts. She said she read a piece by a Korean essayist who was on a bus when war broke out, looking at the life around him. He realised that he was crying and came to the conclusion, ‘Maybe I love human beings’.

While writing the novel, ‘I came to thinking about my pain’. She said that readers might do the same as they’re reading. Maybe we feel pain about human atrocity and maybe this is the key to preserving human dignity. Maybe we love human beings.


At this point Sands invited Deborah Smith back to the stage to discuss the process of translating the book. How? he asked.

‘It was a hell of a challenge. The language will allow you to do things in Korean you can’t do in English.’ In Korean you don’t need to state the subject all the time. The book moves ‘swiftly and subtly…between the individuals…and then pans out to a…national, political, social level. The lack of a stated subject allows the we and the I to blend together.’ This is disorientating but effective.

Sands asked about the exchange between Kang and Smith.

Smith said that she translated the whole thing and then Max Porter edited that draft. Kang then read that draft meticulously, picking up mistakes in the subtext and making incredibly detailed notes for Smith. These notes included the historical context and Kang’s inspirations, intentions and stylistic decisions. Smith then returned to the translation and reworked it.

Smith said that for Human Acts Kang had to explain the context and the dialects.

‘I really enjoyed exchanging emails,’ Kang added.

The event had to end there as it had run well over time. It was an incredible evening. The audience was rapt with attention, partly because Kang is so softly spoken but also because of the nature of the discussion. It was a privilege to be there.

If you’re interesting in knowing more about the process of translating Human Acts, Deborah Smith has written an excellent essay published in Asymptote.

‘I want to see Muslim women everywhere.’ Mona Eltahawy at Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield

Screen 3 at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema is almost full – and not just of women, approximately a third of the audience are men – to listen to Mona Eltahawy talk about her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

She begins by reading an extract from the book to give us a flavour and then the interviewer asks her about writing the book. It wasn’t an easy book to write, says Eltahawy. Partly because of the research into domestic violence, child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) but also because of the personal elements she included.

Eltahawy was born in Egypt, moved to the UK at the age of 7 and then to Saudi Arabia when she was 15. Now she divides her time between the USA and Cairo. In 2005, she moved back to Cairo for a few months to take part in protests in Tahrir Square against the Mubarak regime. She said it felt as though they were ‘breaking the barrier of fear’. Men and women protested together against political repression which affects everyone.

However, she says, women are also repressed on the street corner and in the home. She’s speaking out and showing her personal experiences to try and remove the silence and the shame that often prevents women from doing so. Privilege obliges us to fight ten times harder, she says. Not because others don’t have a voice but because they’re too scared to use it. She calls the repression of women through the political, the street and the home a ‘trifecta of misogyny’.

Egypt’s not safe, she tells us, but she feels safer because of her profile. There are thousands of anonymous dissidents in jail in Egypt. One of Eltahawy’s friends disappeared a few months ago.

The interviewer asks what drives her. ‘I’m fucking enraged! I’m angry all the time.’ She talks about the spectrum of misogyny across the world. ‘It’s shit everywhere!’ She tells us not to feel culturally superior. The UK doesn’t have equal pay or equal political representation. ‘I’m not here to make you feel comfortable. Use your anger to fight shit here.’

What does she say to the idea that the fight for women’s rights should be hold while the humanitarian crises happening across the world are on going? ‘Wait for what? Fuck waiting! I want to be free now! Women are half the population. Imagine asking half the community to wait.’

She talks about a letter Martin Luther King wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in which he said that being asked to wait was code for it’s never going to happen. Eltahawy points out that nothing is going to be solved anywhere without the equality of women. Women and children are always most affected by displacement.

Questions are opened to the audience. The first comes from a Muslim woman wearing a hijab who talks about the roots of Islam and how Muslim women had equal pay and the right to divorce 1400 years ago. Eltahaway says her response to this idea is always to ask ‘What have we done to Khadija?’ She tells us that Khadija was the first wife of the prophet Muhammad. She was powerful and rich. At 40 years old, she was 15 years older than her employee, Muhammad, and she asked him to marry her. She was his only wife until she died.

A toxic mix of religion and culture has made it difficult for Muslim women, Eltahawy says. She’s accused of imitating the west and trying to bring a feminism that doesn’t belong in her part of the world. Why have we forgotten our heritage? She says. What have we done to it?

The next question is about her time in Saudi Arabia. She says the Islam in Saudi Arabia wasn’t the Islam she was raised with. She and her sibling(s) were raised as equals. They came to the UK because both of her parents were studying for PhDs in medicine. At the end of their studies, her mother secured a job but her father didn’t. He became a househusband. But UK visa regulations stated that the father had to be employed so they had to leave. In Saudi Arabia, everything was reversed: her father worked and her mother stayed at home, needing her husband’s permission to do many basic things.

Here, Eltahawy, points out that the UK government support this misogynistic regime, trading with them. She tells us to hold our government accountable. Why are they supporting gender apartheid?

How is she treated by regimes when she speaks out? She says the right wing use anything she says against Muslim men. The right wing within Egypt want to silence her. The external left wing are mostly silent because they don’t want to be accused of racism. She says she deals with a mixture of racism, xenophobia and misogynism. She tells the right wing to fuck off because they don’t care about women’s rights, they use them as a political tool but they don’t want to talk to women. ‘I want to see Muslim women everywhere.’ She wants to see them leading the conversation because in their absence, it’s been reduced to ‘what’s on our head and what’s between our legs’.

She points out that people see Muslim women as one type but there are cultural differences within the UK too. It takes a different skin colour for people to notice and talk about difference. She says she has more in common with LGBT and sexual rights activists than some people who have the same skin colour as her.

Another Muslim woman wearing a hijab tells Eltahawy her position on the veil and Muslim women and asks what Eltahawy’s opinions are. ‘I could not disagree with you more,’ she begins. She points out that this is a positive thing: ‘I think disagreement complicates Muslim women and humanises us’.

Every religion discriminates against women. Every religion ‘is obsessed with my vagina and I tell them to stay out unless I want them in there’. Why is it easier to choose to veil than it is to unveil? She says this has to be a conversation for and between Muslim women. ‘I absolutely reject modesty. I absolutely reject modesty culture. It’s an unfair burden on women.’ She wants any man or woman addressing her to address her intellect not her breasts, her bottom or her legs.

She talks about men across the world taking up public space and that her next book’s going to be titled, ‘What the fuck is wrong with men?’ She says surveys done show that women covering up are subjected to the same level of street harassment as women who don’t. She suggests that covering up is allowing men to misbehave. ‘Fucking behave! That’s my message to men.’

The next question is about LGBT Muslims. Eltahawy says this is one of the reasons we need a sexual revolution. ‘I own my body’ not the church, state, mosque or family. She says that Muslims have a poetic heritage of same sex relationships but that homosexuality was made illegal largely by colonisers including the British in India. ‘You guys have a very prudish past.’ She talks about an organisation called Muslims for Progressive Values who have scholarship and support for LGBT Muslims.

The penultimate question is about whether Saudi Arabian women will actually get the vote this year. Eltahawy reminds us that neither men nor women currently have the vote in Saudi Arabia. If it does happen and the candidates that are currently being allowed to stand are voted for by the public, they’ll be elected to a toothless body. She tells us that female candidates have been told they can’t speak to men when they’re campaigning. She says it’s the guardianship system that needs removing, it’s this that’s controlling the trifecta of misogyny in Saudi Arabia. Again she points out that the UK and the USA support the Saudi regime, a regime that carries out more beheadings than ISIS. ‘Money always wins and women are always sold out.’

The final audience question is about the role of the mothers in FGM and why can’t all women have a discussion about our various repressions? As for FGM, ‘Women are not stupid.’ Mothers doing FGM know they’re enabling their daughters to survive. They have a lack of power to undo FGM, the trifecta needs dismantling for them to have the power to do this. She points out that it was only criminalised in the UK in 1988 and the first case only went to trial this year.

In terms of which women should be having conversations about what, she says that we should be listening to the voices of women from other communities and amplifying them. There’s a power differential: white women are fighting misogyny; women of colour are fighting misogyny, racism and xenophobia. ‘It’s fucking exhausting to be a Muslim woman.’ She points out that there are complexities and disagreements between Muslim women and that these need to be heard.

The event finishes with Eltahawy talking about her aims. She says she wants people to see and hear Muslim women behave badly. She wants her appearance to be recognised as that of a Muslim woman – her red hair, her tattoos, her swearing. She says there’s a vile, gutter struggle to see who can shit on Muslim’s the most in the USA but ‘the revolution is about discomfort’ and Eltahawy’s happy to provide it, ‘Fuck you, you’re not gonna speak for me anymore’.

I don’t want to speak for Eltahawy but I do want to shout ‘Fuck, yes’ at every point she makes and judging by the applause after pretty much every point, so do most of the people making up tonight’s audience.

Antonia Honeywell at Urmston Bookshop


Just a quick post to say that I will be interviewing the fantastic Antonia Honeywell at Urmston Bookshop, on the outskirts of Manchester a week today – Thursday 11th June. It should be a great event, The Ship is a brilliant book and Antonia has lots of interesting things to say both about the book and her journey as a writer. If you can make it, we’d both be delighted to see you there. Information and tickets here. (I also hear a filthy rumour that there will be edible goodies courtesy of my good friend Cath and they’re definitely worth coming for. Have a look at the top photo on this post!)

A Haitus

Unexpectedly, I’m going to have to put the blog on haitus for personal reasons. I had some news last night which has devastated me and the blog isn’t something I can focus on right now. There may well be the odd post during this time (however long this time may be) but I can’t guarantee anything at the moment. I apologize to those who’ve sent me books to review recently and hope you’ll understand.