Monday, 18 June 2012

Art Inspires Survivors of Torture

Tate Britain’s Migrations exhibition aims to tell the story of how immigration has shaped the course of British Art over the last 500 years.  But for a group of suvivors from Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life group, the gallery’s art is inspiring the poetry that helps them to heal, says Catriona Troth.

Write to Life is possibly the only writing group in the world dedicated specifically to helping survivors of torture, and performance has become a vital element of their work. This year, during Refugee Week, they will be leading tours of the Tate Britain galleries and performing their work live to the public, in front of the art that inspired it.

Writing, for some survivors, can be uniquely therapeutic – something they can do anywhere, at any time.  As the group’s coordinator, film maker and novelist Sheila Hayman says, “All it takes is a pen and paper and enough peace to be able to let the words come out.” 

The group’s connection with Tate Britain began more than a year ago, when their coordinator, Sheila Hayman, brought them to look at some artists’ books.  Then, in January of this year, they began holding regular workshops in the gallery, using art to influence the way their poetry developed.

Many of these writers are in what Hayman describes as ‘a state of petrifaction’, unable to work, endlessly waiting to hear if their asylum application has been accepted. Many suffer physical disabilities as a result of their torture. They can struggle practically and financially to get to the meetings each week. 

Nora Razian, one of the curators who worked closely with the group, has been impressed by their commitment. “Our sessions were ninety minutes long, but everyone would stay afterwards for a few hours.  They were really motivated and interested.  And all their work is very powerful.”

Their lives can be extremely precarious.  At the final workshop at the Tate before the public performance, one member of the group is absent, taken abruptly into detention.  His friend, Yamikani, has written a new poem inspired by her visit to him in the detention centre at Dover.  The centre is so close to the sea that in order to walk in, she must overcome a paralysing fear of water.  She imagines herself, like Millais’ Ophelia, letting go and giving up her body to the water.

What do the staff at the Tate feel they have gained from the collaboration?  Razian explains, “It is really important to have a wide range of people engaging with our art work and opening up discussions about them, about how people see them differently, how the art ralates to them, what value the gallery has to them.  Can they access it as a public space?  What barriers exist for people coming here?  Some of the group had been here before, but a lot of them hadn’t.  And now they come here on their own, which is great.” 

Journeys with Art:  a writer-led tour:

Performing their work in public is hugely important to these writers.  English may be their third, fourth, even fifth language, but having their voices heard is empowering. Among other things, it can help with the survivor guilt, giving a voice to those who can no longer speak.  

“Public performance was not a pre-determined outcome of the sessions, but all the writers were keen to read their work,” says Razian.

I was lucky enough to attend the final workshop at the gallery before the performance in Refugee Week.  The tour of the gallery begins with Chris Ofili’s portrait of an African woman, No Woman, No Cry.  The painting has inspired Write to Life veteran Jade to write two short poems.  “Because of what I have been through, I know how she feels,” Jade explains. “I lost my family and my children.”

Yamikani fled Zimbabwe for Mozambique in a tiny canoe, a terrifying experience that has left her with a phobia of the sea.  Millais’ The Lady of Shallott, which shows a woman alone in a small boat, has inspired her essay,  ‘I’d never seen the sea.’ 

“…I had never seen the sea before. I had never seen such a mass of water. 
I had never been in a boat, something which sits on the water and moves…”

Augustus Egg’s painting of a destitute woman sheltering with her baby under an arch inspired Aso to imagine a woman who no longer has a home to go back to.  “This evening, the butterflies are not coming back,” he writes.

Several of the writers were drawn to the collection of photographs, prints and drawings of the English landscape put together by Patrick Keiller.  Three photographs of an unusual sculptured milestone led Steven to write ‘The Migration Milestone.’  As he knows only too well, “A migrant never counts the miles covered…”

Turner’s print, Hedging and Ditching, inspired Hasani to write, ‘The Land,’ a poem that reflects on the politics to land ownership. 

“Land the food provider
Land the cause of wars
Land the maker of landlords, landowners, land barons.

We spit on you, we shit on you, we piss on you.”

Uvindu was inspired by a series of photographs of various vehicles to write ‘Planes, Trains and Buses’, a visual poem that recalls a time when the police questioned him ‘for his own safety,’ and demanded to know:  “How did you get here?  By train?  By bus?  Did you swim?”

The last stop in the progress through the galleries is by Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture of a Family Group, where Glory reads, ‘Do Not Disturb’.  “Let me dream about my family,” she concludes. “Let me dream, do not disturb.”

Journeys with Art, writer-led tours of the Tate Britain galleries, will be held on Wednesday 20th June, beginning at 12:30 and again at 16:00. Admission is free.  No need to book. 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Bookoccino: Independent Bookshop near Sydney

Review by Liza Perrat

Bookoccino is a small independent bookshop in the beautiful beachside village of Avalon, 32km north of the city of Sydney. Established by Margaret and Roger Hutchins, locals of the area, it has just celebrated its twentieth birthday. Unfortunately, many shops in the area have closed, due to the economic recession, but Bookoccino is thriving. Being locals themselves, the Hutchins are aware of the needs of people in this area, and the residents support their business, which is part of the fabric of this close community. People wander in from the beach at all times of the day in sarongs and sandals.

The name, Bookoccino, also reflects its friendly, home-style café, which serves light snacks, the potent aroma of coffee immediately luring you inside. It was one of the first bookshops in Sydney to combine books and café, and was an immediate success. Thanks to their hard work, the Hutchins have not looked back, and Bookoccino now hosts regular author events either in the shop or at a local restaurant. They also have a well-attended book club, and Margaret has a monthly column of book reviews in the local paper.

When you step into this narrow shop, you notice at once that every space is occupied by various styles of book displays. But far from being uncomfortable, this gives it a cosy, friendly atmosphere, heightened by the interesting background music, which they also sell in limited choices.

Family photos, and the new grandchildren, are pinned to a board behind the counter, giving a casual, homely feel to the shop. And the Hutchins’ two adult daughters, Minna and Ella, have now joined the business to continue the family atmosphere.

Their knowledge of the book-world, in particular of Margaret, is outstanding, and Bookoccino boasts an amazing range of books. Staff recommendations are displayed on the large racks of books, as well as newspaper reviews on a board.

Confronted by all these tantalizing temptations, customers rarely leave this wonderful bookshop empty-handed.


37A Old Barrenjoey Road,
Avalon Beach NSW 2107
T: +61 (0)2 9973 1244
F: +61 (0)2 9973 1165

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Is the quality of self-publishing putting off readers of the future?

Note the question mark at the end. We aren't saying it is, but in the spirit of our controversy themed issue released this evening, we thought it would make an excellent topic for debate.

It has been around for a long time. Now, self-publishing for authors is both easier and cheaper than ever before, and with ebook availability through the likes of Amazon, it's more accessible to the wider reading public too.

Inevitably many self-published works don't go through the rigorous editing, proofreading and packaging stages with are so important and form a large portion of publisher's budgets.

So with that in mind, is the mass of self-published work encouraging readers to read widely, or is it pushing them to buy from supermarket shelves filled with the major publishers who they trust to put a novel through its paces before it's released to the world? Is the quality of self-published work putting off readers of the future?

The Challenges of Setting a Novel in a Different Country

A former writer for seven years with “Mystery Review” magazine, Marni Graff has interviewed Ian Rankin, Deborah Crombie, Val McDermid, and her mentor, P. D. James, amongst many others. A member of Sisters in Crime, she runs the Writers Read program in NC, and is a founding member of Coastal Carolina Mystery Writers.

She is also the co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer for modern writers to find their writing group. Her poetry was most recently published in A Tribute to Amelia Earhart and her creative nonfiction most recently seen in Southern Women’s Review.

Graff’s English series features American children’s book writer Nora Tierney. The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford; The Green Remains is set in the Lake District.

The Challenges of Setting a Novel in a Different Country

Many writing books tell writers that setting often functions as a character in itself. For me, it’s the world that my character’s inhabit and will affect their actions, so it’s a very important decision I make when choosing where my stories will unfold. I’m a big fan of writers who manage to bring me into their setting, and I feel most writers truly wish to have the place a book’s characters move in feel real to their readers. Kaui Hart Hemmings, the novelist who wrote The Descendants, set in Hawaii and made into a recent movie with George Clooney, states: “The setting should do more than sit there—it should infiltrate the plot.” And my personal hero, P. D. James, always starts her novels by deciding on the setting for its influence on the story she’ll develop.

Choosing to set my mystery series in England was a deliberate choice, yet one I knew would present challenges. My American protagonist, Nora Tierney, is a writer who has been living and working there for years, so while it’s fine to have her appropriate common Brit words like “loo,” her voice has to remain distinctly American versus the other characters in her circle. It’s one reason I read UK authors continuously, to keep the cadence and slang of that country in my ear for my other characters. But the challenges go far beyond language.

Having a lifelong affinity for England and its environs, I originally choose Cumbria, the county containing England’s glorious Lake District, as the setting for the opening of the Nora Tierney series. My visits to the land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter hold a fascination for me. It is one of the most beautiful natural areas I’ve ever seen, and the book series seemed to belong there. On my last visit, I took photographs and came home armed with maps and brochures to use.

Then life intervened with an opportunity to study at Oxford, and I found myself in the hallowed halls of Exeter College, studying Wilkie Collins and Daphne Du Maurier, two of my favorite writers. Sworn in as a reader at the Bodleian Library, I was able to read the original broadsheet reviews of The Woman in White.

Oxford is a jewel of a town encircled by the lush green countryside of the Thames Valley. Its mellow limestone “dreaming spires,” as described by 19th C. poet Matthew Arnold, change color with the light and weather. Magnificently preserved architecture reflects every age from Saxon to present, all exhibited somewhere amongst the federation of forty-odd independent colleges which make up the University of Oxford.

This mix of “town and gown” is noticed at once when visiting: The university has its dons lecturing in sub fusc, scouts bringing students morning tea, an historic tutorial system, and those forbidden grassy quads (with their tradition of only being walked on by dons), while the town has its own muddle of traffic-choked streets, packed with bicycles and pedestrians, pubs and shops. Both exist alongside green meadows with grazing cattle, and rivers teaming with punters and canal boats.

Small wonder then that I fell in love with the place. I could picture Nora here, too, and suddenly the idea for a new mystery, one that had Oxford at its heart, took over. I set aside my original idea for a Lake District manuscript and started writing The Blue Virgin, a combination of cozy and police procedural. Trying to clear her best friend, Val Rogan, of the suspicion she has murdered her partner, Bryn Wallace, Nora quickly becomes embroiled in the murder investigation, to the dismay of DI Declan Barnes, the senior investigating officer. And did I mention Nora is four months pregnant with her dead fiance’s baby?

I took great care to be accurate in describing Oxford’s history and the colleges, as well as the various locations and sites my characters visit. After all, this is the town that gave the world Lewis Carroll, penicillin, two William Morrises, and graduates spread across the centuries whose influences are still felt. A very short list includes: Shelley, Tolkien, Browning, C. S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, and Christopher Wren. More modern grads you will recognize include Dorothy Sayers, Stephen Hawkings, Richard Burton, Indira Gandhi, Hugh Grant and Val McDermid.

And Oxford exudes mystery, as any Inspector Morse fan can tell you. I knew that readers would be quick to point out any factual errors I made. I carefully described favorite student pubs, shops, and the wonderful Covered Market, and tried to give the reader the sense of that ancient town, and how living in it affects Nora’s actions.

When I came home to write The Blue Virgin, I kept an enlargement of the town map taped to my desk--no sense describing a cobbled lane if I had the name wrong. I’d brought home research material with me, which I referred to often, as well as my photo album from the trip. My characters move within the real town, have tea at The Parsonage, and brunch at The Randolph Hotel. Only a few settings, such as Nora’s flat, are fictional.

One sticking point was details of the police station. The series is a mix of police procedural and cozy; the main points of view are from the detective who is the senior investigation officer on the case, Declan Barnes, and my gal, Nora. I’d walked past St. Aldate’s station and noted its position on my map. But now I needed to get inside it—and I was home in North Carolina at this point.

Google to the rescue. I found the email for the Thames Valley Police Constabulary, andemailed someone with a request that went something like this: Would someone in the Oxford St. Aldate’s station be willing to answer a few questions via email for my mystery novel, in return for an acknowledgment in the completed novel?

Two days later I had my answer: The Chief Superintendent himself would be happy to answer my questions. With my contact established, I was able to accurately describe the interior of the station, and learned that the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) suffered through the summer heat on a non-air-conditioned upper floor. When one of my characters is detained in a holding cell overnight, she is kept awake by the clang of the noisy gates that lead to the station’s parking lot. Now I felt secure, but my Afterword in the book indicates which areas are fictional, so that readers won’t be sending me emails that the Artist’s Cooperative I’ve described doesn’t exist.

When I left Oxford, I stayed in the Lake District for an additional week to gather information for the future sequel and took updated pictures to refresh my memories from my previous trips there. I’d chosen the village of Bowness-on-Windermere on the shore of England’s largest lake for the next book and stayed in a B&B there. I talked to shop owners, visited pubs, and wrote down some of the Cumbrian slang I heard.

By the time The Blue Virgin was in print and I started writing The Green Remains, I’d moved Nora back to this Cumbrian setting. One of the first things I accomplished this time was to find my local contact. Newly retired Steve Sharpe of the Kendal Station, Cumbria Constabulary, did the honors, and here I struck gold.

Steven had grown up in the area, and is something of a local naturalist and fisherman. Besides being able to answer my questions about policing and proper titles for everyone from my detective to the pathologist, he gave me wonderful information about things like: what is in bloom in autumn? What birds would be around? What is the weather like at that time of year? Steve has become a long-distance email friend, is now retired, and is still answering my questions, as I start writing the third book in the series, The Scarlet Wench.

The last bit of assistance I’ve had in both of these books is a terrific copyeditor. She will be working on my manuscript and I’ll get an email along the lines of: “Google maps says that walk Davey takes is really over a mile and he couldn’t get to the bakery in three minutes”—and I am smart enough to adjust my text accordingly.

There is a wealth of information available on the Internet about anywhere in the world, and a writer with a good imagination can probably do any setting justice. I do feel experiencing the real place at least once gives a writer the smells, sense of color and light, and discreet feel for a place that research would deny. Setting isn’t just good description—it is the world your specific people inhabit, and it has to support them and define them. But backed up with good research, a detailed map, and a cooperative local contact, any writer can make a setting come to life.