Monday, 30 November 2015

African Young Adult Fiction – No Air Brushing Please

By Ellen Banda-Aaku

Recently a publisher in East Africa asked me to make some changes to the manuscript of my Young Adult (YA) fiction manuscript. The suggested change was for the teenage male protagonist to turn down a beer with the statement, ‘I do not drink alcohol because it is bad for children.’ Note the lack of contractions in the dialogue of a teenager.

Granted, it is conceivable that an adolescent male can resist peer pressure and turn down alcohol on moral grounds. It is also possible that some teenagers speak without contractions, but the character I had crafted in the story was not that kind of teenager. My character was a typical 17 year old and he did what most teenagers his age would do.

In the past, I probably would have changed the plot for the sake of getting published. But having had my fiction for children published by various publishers on the continent of Africa, I felt the time had come to stand my ground for creative fiction that portrayed society without any air brushing.

However, I confess to feeling trepidation for refusing to change the story line – the character un-inebriated would have had implications for the whole plot - because I know that the biggest customer for children’s and young adult fiction in most of the countries in which I have been published, is biased towards stories with morally sound versus morally devoid characters and storylines with a clear cut lesson. I am also very aware that to a large extent the main client of these publishers determines what gets published and what doesn’t.

The reality of most publishers on the continent (and I am talking mainly Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa), is that to survive as publishers of fiction, they have to depend on the ministry of education or whichever department funds reading material for school children. That is where the sales are significant enough to make publishing books for children a profitable venture.

The general lack of a reading culture and high levels of poverty contribute to the fact that books don’t sell in high volumes on a retail basis in bookshops. So, publishers rely on the government to buy books for children to read in schools as supplementary reading material. Whilst it is good for the government to buy books for schools that can’t afford them, there is a price to pay. For a book to be bought by the ministry, it has to be approved as ‘suitable’ by a board of mainly educationalists. This raises the issues of what then constitutes a good or suitable book.

A few years ago a publisher of one of my earlier titles asked me to, ‘make the girl suffer at the end of the story so that the reader gets the message.’ It was before I started to say no. I didn’t completely edit the ending but I did make the moral of the story less subtle. It seems the thinking was that a less ambiguous ending made the story more suitable.

The irony of the matter is that most of the editors of these publishing houses are fully aware that in order to encourage young readers to read, realistic, relevant, engaging stories with subtle messages are a necessity. However, to remain in business the editors are forced to adhere to the needs of their primary market.

The problem is that in most instances, the main client is adhering to a template of what young people should be reading that doesn’t take into consideration that subtle messages sink deeper and stimulate the mind, or that creative fiction does not always confine itself to the rules of grammar and language. Nor does it take into account that lessons can be learnt from three-dimensional characters that sometimes show poor judgement. More crucially, the template doesn’t look at what young people are reading in order to establish what they want to read.

I decided a few years to focus on writing YA fiction because I felt there was a need for more relatable reading material set in urban Africa for that age group. I write about what I believe are universal themes but are peculiar perhaps to the continent. However, I know that by not writing the ‘suitable’ stories, I risk not being published. Or having my titles fade and gather dust on the shelf of a retail book store somewhere. With my latest title that is the risk I have taken because I strongly believe that creative stories that address themes unaltered are more likely to stimulate the mind. And few would argue that there is an urgent need to encourage reading at a time when increased economic constraints mean governments in most of sub-Saharan Africa, are struggling to fund books for schools. And in the more affluent communities where books are affordable, reading as a leisure activity is losing out to console games and the internet. I agree that the way forward is to encourage reading from a young age but to also ensure that children continue reading as young adults. The best way to do so is by ensuring that the books made available encourage readers to go back for more.
Alexander McCall Smith on Project Kala

This fact has been realised and a number of international organisations are working in Africa in various ways to promote reading amongst young people. Initiatives such as provision of books and other reading materials in schools and communities are in existence to encourage reading.

However, it is also important to promote reading not just in English but in local languages which is why #ProjectKALA (Keeping African Languages Alive) is such an innovative approach. As the Patron of The Pelican Post, an organisation that aims to promote reading by increasing access to books in Africa, I am proud to be supporting #ProjectKALA’s mission to raise funds for publication of books in local languages. Using Crowdfunder to gather supporters, the aim of the project is to create a bilingual edition of Handa’s Surprise (Walker Books) in Fante and English, to be distributed throughout schools in the Elmina District of Ghana. Early readers are imperative for teaching children how to imply and infer from texts. Not only that, but through teacher-led prediction activities they can also broaden creative thinking, especially in dual language books. Having access to an array of early readers with recognisable stories and characters advances cultural awareness from an early age.

Although the challenges are many, headway is being made. But if all the efforts to stimulate and promote reading and transform young readers to adult readers are to succeed, they need more stories they can identify with. Stories that portray a picture of society, as is, ambiguity and flaws included. No air brushing please.

To find out more about how you can contribute to The Pelican Post’s #ProjectKALA visit: 

(Article first published in The Guardian)

Reading the World - an Interview with Ann Morgan

by Catriona Troth

2012 was the year that the world came to London. Two hundred and four countries took part in the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Royal Shakespeare Company put on performances of 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages. And Ann Morgan began her marathon Year of Reading the World, undertaking to read 196 books representing all the countries of the United Nations (plus one territory, for luck).

Meeting the World Through Books

It was a chance remark from another blogger, recommending a book from Australia, that started her on this journey.

“I had always thought of myself as quite a cosmopolitan person. But I realised that when I looked at my shelves, they told a rather different story. Pretty much all the books on there were by British and North American authors, and there was almost nothing in translation. That came as quite a shock to me. It seemed like such a narrow thing to do, to limit myself to such a small selection stories the world had to offer. So as 2012 was going to be London’s Olympic year, I thought, why not use this as my opportunity to go out and meet the world through books and try and correct that bias in my reading.”

The blog began on 1st January 2012, with a story from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, which was celebrating its first New Year. As you can imagine, there hadn’t been time for the country to build up a body of literature. Instead, Julia Duany, former refugee who had returned to Sudan in 2005 to help prepare for independence, wrote a short story especially for the project. ‘To Forgive is Divine Not Human’, looks back at a ‘pantomime of hell’ in her homeland and looks forward with hope to a brighter future. You can listen to Duany reading her story here:

It was, says Morgan, “one of many examples of people going to extraordinary lengths to help me.”

Evidence that the project was capturing imaginations around the world came just four days after Morgan launched an appeal for book recommendations, in late 2011. A woman called Rafidah wrote to Morgan from Malaysia, promising to go to her local English language bookshop in Kuala Lumpur and choose a book for the project.

“I thought this was just something I was doing for my own interest. But then here was a stranger more than six thousand miles away doing this generous thing. And from that point on I was committed to the project, because someone had made that investment in me.”

In due course, a parcel arrived in the post, containing Ripples And Other Stories by English-language writer Shih-Li Kow, a short story collection which had been shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Morgan describes it as “more like a novel in which moments in characters’ lives are explored as they weave in and out of each others’ existences, tracing a web of associations that stretches across Malaysian society and out around the world.”

The first media interest in the project came around World Book Day 2012, when Morgan wrote a piece about the project for the Guardian, where she was freelancing. One thing led to another, and soon other papers noticed her. CNN international became interested. And the whole thing took off from there. “It was extraordinary. You start a project in your living room, and then there comes a point when you realise it’s bigger than you are.”

Impossible Choices

Making the selection of a book from each country must have been extraordinarily daunting. As Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie pointed in her 2009 TED talk, there are grave dangers in allowing a single story to define country or a people. How had Morgan overcome that challenge?

“I made it clear from the start that this was a personal project. I wasn’t trying to find a book that represented a country. I’d be pretty cheesed off if someone tried to find the definitive British novel. So what would give me the right to try and find, say, the definitive Mongolian novel? For me it was about exploring and seeing what voices were out there. And hopefully opening that door for other people. That was one of the reasons that I put all the valid recommendations people gave me in one big list on my blog. And I continue to update that list.”

So how were the selections made?

“It wasn’t an exact science. Sometimes several people recommended the same book. Sometimes the description someone had given of the book was so intriguing I was really drawn to it. The Girls of Riyadh, for example, was described to me as ‘the Saudi Arabian Sex and the City.’

“Or it might just seem particularly fitting. My book from Lesotho, for example, was Basali! – a collection of short stories by women. Lesotho is one of the few countries in the world where the female literacy rate is higher than the male, because boys are taken out of school and taken away to learn hunting and farming, while the girls stay in school and learn to read.

“Or sometimes someone would make a compelling argument for one book. One of the hardest countries to make a selection from was India. Such a vast country, such a varied country, so many stories written in English. As the year when on, people kept adding to the list. It was just a ridiculous thing to try and do, to choose one book. And then a journalist, Suneetha Balakrishnan, wrote to me and pointed out that all the books that had been recommended were written originally in English, and that I was missing out on all the literature written in India’s 22 other official languages, to say nothing of the couple of hundred other languages spoken across the country. The book she recommended was one of her own favourites - M T Vasudevan’s Kaalam, translated from Malayalam It was a light bulb moment.”

Some of her choices were deliberately controversial – such as picking British born Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to represent the United States.

“Because most of my reading up till then had been British or American writers, I decided to use my UK and US choices to push the boundaries a bit.

“Often I would find that, if there wasn’t much literature from a country, people would recommend books by British or American ex-pats, who had lived in the country of maybe ten years or so. I was not convinced if that counted or not. What does it mean to say a book is ‘from’ a country? Does the author have to be born in that country? Do you have to have lived there all your life? Or how long do you need to have lived there?

“So Gaiman was in interesting example. British born and British raised – but he has lived in America for more than twenty years. If we are not comfortable with Gaiman’s book being considered American literature, then should we be comfortable with an American author who has lived in, say, Kenya for twenty years being considered as a Kenyan author?”

Letting Go the Fear of Translation

Apparently only 4.5% of literature (and 2.5% of all books) published in the UK each year are books in translation [Publishing Perspectives, Feb 2013]. So what would she say or do to open up Anglophone readers (and publishers) to books in translation?

“One of the big stumbling blocks for readers is feeling intimidated by books from cultures they are not familiar with, or by languages they don’t read in the original. They worry they are somehow not going to be cultured enough or knowledgeable enough to understand the stories. Actually the thing is not to be afraid, and just have a go. We don’t understand all the nuances of everything we read, even in British and American books. But even if you don’t get all the references, or have first-hand knowledge of all the places– there is still a lot you can take away. Letting go of that fear of not knowing is really important.”

What book NOT commercially available in this country would she fight tooth and nail to get a publisher to produce in translation?

Without hesitation, Morgan picks out a book from Mozambique: Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa. The book had won the 1990 Grand Prize of Mozambican Fiction and was also included on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century, drawn up in 2002. The only trouble was that no English translation had been published. Amazingly, Morgan was able to contact translator Richard Bartlett, who happened to have an unpublished translation of the book and was willing to let her read it. The good news is that several people are now interested in bringing out the book in English.

“It has a lead character who is a tragic hero of the stature of King Lear. And yet in the Anglophone world we are unaware of this book.”

What about the idea of going round the world in languages, rather than in countries?

“It would be an almost impossible task. There are something like 6 thousand languages in the world, and we are losing on average 1 language every two weeks. Only a few hundred are spoken by a relatively large number of people. Many have no written literature.

“On the other hand official languages, in South America and Africa especially, are often imported European languages, and literature from quite widely spoken indigenous languages gets even less attention. So there is a great deal of mileage in the idea if anyone wants to take it on.”

A Web of Readers

Morgan now finds herself at the centre of a web of readers and writers. People around the world continue to send her recommendations, and she now features a book of the month on her blog

“The project was so much about involving people, and valuing people’s input. So I wanted it to feel accessible, and something anyone could engage with. I wanted to encourage people to engage with books they might otherwise have found unapproachable.”

What’s more, her blog has inspired others to set out on reading adventures of their own. Suneetha Balakrishnan, the journalist who recommended Morgan to read a book translated from Malayalam, is now writing her own blog, ‘Reading Around India’, discussing books written in each of India’s indigenous languages, with a special focus on books written by women. Others are exploring books from different countries written for children, or books translated from indigenous languages.

“I frequently get contacted from people all over the planet, saying they have been inspired to read more widely, or telling me ‘I’ve set myself this challenge or that challenge...”

On March 12, 2015, at a conference in Switzerland with the theme ‘Mindshift’, Morgan gave one of the prestigious TEDx talks, entitled ‘How Ignorance Can Change the World’.

Speaking in advance of the talk, she told me, “Realising that you have a blind spot, that you don’t know something, can sometimes be an opportunity and a source of strength, not a weakness. We are brought up in a culture where it is embarrassing to admit that you don’t know all the answers. Obviously knowledge is important, but actually there is no shame in not knowing. So long as you are open to learning, it can be the start of an extraordinary experience.”

It certainly was for Morgan. Summing up the year, she tells me, “It was life changing. Stories can take you out of yourself and show you the world through someone else’s eyes – not only the richness of life in other places, but the narrowness of your own assumptions. So I think it’s made me more sensitive to my own blind spots and more alive to the complexity of life elsewhere.”

If you want to follow in Ann Morgan’s incredible footsteps, you can read the full list of all the books recommendations she received here, with links to her blog posts on each of the selected books.

Her book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, is now on sale in the UK, published by Harvill Secker/Random House. In the US, it will be published in May 2015 by Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co, under the title, The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe.

UPDATE: You can now view Ann Morgan's TED talk here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Tales Told by Idiots


In an earlier article on viewpoint for this magazine, I wrote about how characters compete for the right to tell their story. The writer’s role is to arbitrate between these competing claims, which is an exhilarating privilege. In her sober moments, however, the writer must also remember that what she does, when she selects the viewpoints she will use, is censor the voices she rejects. Well, you may retort, it’s a story, makebelieve, what does it matter?

Censorship always matters. We who are fortunate enough to live in liberal(-ish) democracies shout long and loud about the importance of a free press. Then there’s the Web, which often seems to me like the Wild West – lawless, unpredictable, raw-edged yet faintly glamorous. On the Web, you can say anything, and people do. On the Web, people bully, tease, declare their love for one another, send each other poems, threats, ridiculous photos of their cats, their lunch, their private bits, a ritual beheading. Some of this is wonderful, some of it appalling, some daft, some insignificant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is, the Web is uncensored. It is the quintessential site of contemporary freedom of expression and long may it remain so.

Our fellow writers, under less liberal regimes, are imprisoned and sometimes die because of what they write. Let us, with the recent atrocities in Paris in our minds, pause to remember the journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Let us give thanks for Niloy Neel, Ananta Bijoy Das, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman, all barbarously murdered in Bangladesh for their blogs advocating a secular lifestyle and government. From Socrates to Neruda to Ken Saro Wiwa, let’s hear it for writers who have lost life or liberty for speaking truth to power.

And yet. As writers, do we not self-censor all the time and call it editing? As fiction writers, one of the key decisions we make when planning a new work is whose story it is. In whose voice will we bring it to the reader? Whom will the reader be made to believe? We have no obligation, as non-fiction writers do, to stick to the facts or to strive for a fair and balanced analysis. Nobody expects objectivity from a storyteller. A yarnspinner. This frees us from some responsibilities, but it imposes others because the novelist, liberated from the constraints of objective truth-telling (if such a thing is even possible), owes a debt to another kind of truth, deeper and much less easily defined. The novelist must strive for emotional truth, for what goes to the heart, sometimes by way of the brain but not always.

We do not, however, do we, sit at our desks in a state of permanently heightened sensitivity, feeling as if someone just removed our epidermis with a pan scourer? (Well, not every day…) We aim to achieve this emotional truth through the judicious use of certain tricks. We build the road to the heart with quite ordinary paving slabs, just as a great painting begins with the stretching of a canvas or violin with the felling of a tree. Fiction is sleight of hand, it’s smoke and mirrors; we lie our way to the truth.

Conventional wisdom has it that the bedrock of a good story is strong characterisation. This is undoubtedly true, but major determinants of character are voice and viewpoint. At the most basic level, a character who has no point of view cannot be as thoroughly developed as one who has. The decision as to who will be privileged with a viewpoint and who won’t is the first stage in our self-censorship, so what a responsibility it carries. To whom will you give a voice? Who will be heard?

Let’s take a look at Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Forgive me; this is a well-travelled comparison (although I recently had the experience of asking a group of students how Jane Eyre ended. A long silence was followed by the remark, ‘Is that the one with Mr. Darcy in it?’). But bear with me. We know how Rhys took a minor, literally voiceless, character from Jane Eyre, voiceless because she is locked away, kept out of society, denied any possibility of a voice, denied even her identity, and transformed her into the wayward, wonderful heroine of her own novel, brimming with erotic and magical power. This metamorphosis of wretched Bertha Rochester into Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress who is not so much mad as manipulated by those who have power over her, cut off from her roots and her sexuality, is one of the best known and most analysed of literary sleights of hand, adopted by feminists and postcolonialists alike as a cultural signifier of the world they see and the world they would make.

The pivotal figure here, however, the connecting point between the two novels is not really Antoinette/Bertha, but Rochester. What drives both narratives is the relationship between this man and his two wives. Rhys gives Rochester a voice. In her novel he is a cold, repressed man, a cynic without a romantic bone in his body who marries solely to dig himself out of a financial hole. For him, his marriage to Antoinette is all to do with the exercise of power, a metaphor for colonial domination, which was often cast by the Victorians (and still is, when the Queen talks about the Commonwealth ‘family’) as an extension of the domestic ideal.

So how did this grim scion of the Victorian establishment become Bronte’s romantic hero? (And yes, I do know Bronte’s Rochester preceded Rhys’ but let us imagine, for the purposes of this argument, that the chronology of Rochester’s life is mirrored by that of the novels.) The answer to this question is surely that Rochester, in Jane Eyre, has no voice. We know him only through the eyes of Jane, who loves him and, while she is far from unaware of his faults, she loves him as he is and has no desire to change him. Loving him is a challenge she willingly undertakes. He is presented to us through the prism of her love, so we are bound, in the end, to see his best side. I wonder what sort of book Jane Eyre would have turned out to be if it had included a narrative in Rochester’s voice?

This may seem like idle speculation, but it articulates a question which concerns the novelist every time she embarks on a new book. Whose story is it, and how is it to be told? As fiction writers, we have a particular privilege. We can give voice to heroes and heroines, to Superman or Florence Nightingale or Sidney Carton, but why? What is interesting about good deeds and noble sentiments? How can we readers and writers, mere mortals all of us, relate to heroes and heroines? If we go back to the foundations of the western literary tradition, what’s interesting about Achilles is his heel. It’s his weakness that compels him to decide between unremarkable immortality and the life of a comet, brief and brilliant, that fascinates. If we race forward a few thousand years, we find Milton is ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ (William Blake) In a narrative poem about the losing and regaining of Paradise, Satan is the principal viewpoint character. We see Eden through his eyes because he has lost it. Who better, therefore, to demonstrate to the reader the cost of falling out with God?

Following Milton’s example, could it be the case that the fiction writer’s greatest responsibility is to give voice to the villains? Where else does the power reside to allow dictators, mass murderers, psychopaths and child abusers to explain themselves? Speaking personally, this is what interests me most. I have taken the Norman side in a novel about the Conquest, made a romantic hero of Cesare Borgia, followed the sad career of a child murderer through extortion and rape and the descent of a nice middle class girl into contract killing. One of the two main viewpoint characters in my new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? is a terrorist. In a recent interview, the novelist Guy Saville told me that in order to avoid his characters slipping into caricature he tries to imagine his villains as the heroes of another story and vice versa. Everybody is the heroine of her own story, everyone has a rationale, even some kind of moral purpose, for what they do.

Surely the novelist’s biggest adventure is to find his way inside the mind of evil and show that it, too, is just part of being human. The heart is not something pink and glittery on a greetings card, it isn’t an emoji or a scarlet blob on a teeshirt, it’s a muscle, pumping blindly away under instructions from elsewhere. It doesn’t even look like a heart. The ancient Greeks thought the liver was the seat of the emotions; Hannibal Lecter may have thought likewise. But perhaps the emotions reside in viewpoint, in memory and imagination. One man’s soldier is another man’s murderer. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for terrorism. Hitler has recently become the narrative voice of a comic novel (Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes). Superman is boring; Sidney Carton was a romantic fool, Florence Nightingale a neurotic martinet. The novelist notches her arrow to her bowstring and fires it right into Achilles’ heel, and his dying cry is his true voice.

Sarah Bower tried archery once. She shot herself in the foot.

60 Seconds with Chrissie Loveday

Chrissie Loveday is a prolific writer who has moved genre from many years of writing romance to exploring the depths of crime fiction. Living on the Cornish coast, her novels are full of excellent locations, using the stunning coastline to full effect. Her latest crime novel, The Phoenix Project, was released on November 19th and her latest wartime romance is currently resting with her agent.

Tell us a little about you and your writing.

After spending most of my life working in education, I started writing about twenty years ago. I wrote romantic fiction and was soon writing for D C Thomson. They took most of what I was writing and then I sold on to Ulverscroft. I broke with them earlier this year for various reasons. Now, I seem to be writing for e-books.

You write in more than one genre, why is that?

I wanted to expand my writing and as I read a lot of crime fiction, I thought I’d give that a try. It seemed to be reasonably successful. I shall still go back to romance from time to time.

What’s the best thing about being a writer? 

The best thing about being a writer is the freedom it gives. I can choose to write or not as the mood takes me. Best of all, I can create whole worlds inhabited by people from my imagination. Sometimes they take over and I find them acting in ways I had never intended. Interesting!

And the worst?

It’s the editing I find most difficult … well not difficult but tedious. But it has to be done and I hope the books are as near perfect editorially as I can make them. Deadlines are also a problem but as I usually make my own, that isn’t too demanding.

Where do you write? 

I have my ‘office’ at one side of my bedroom. I have a gorgeous view over the sea and have to admit to watching when the waves are crashing against the cliffs opposite. 

What does your love of Cornwall and your Cornish locale bring to your writing?

I love creating new places to write about. I think of somewhere I know and make additions to it and of course, give it a new name. It’s such a beautiful county with moors and seaside … all so very inspirational.

Which three books would you take to a desert island?

Three books to take to a desert island ...a tricky one. I’d probably like a Dylan Thomas poetry and plays combined: Agatha Christie compilation: Nora Roberts when she wrote mysteries rather than pure romance.

Which author do you most admire, and why?

It’s very difficult to single out one author … it depends on what I’m reading at the time. Perhaps Peter James is one of my favourites. He writes complex mysteries and keeps one guessing to the end. And there are lots of books to choose from.

What are your future writing plans?

I have an idea for another mystery next and I’m planning to begin that fairly soon. I also have another idea for a follow up on a romance I wrote a while back. I do like to do these sort of things as people know the characters and like to know what happened to them. 

Facebook: Chrissie Loveday

Twitter: @chrissieloveday

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

She Called Me Mother - a new play by Michelle Inniss

By Catriona Troth
Cathy Tyson and Chereen Buckley in She Called Me Mother. Photo: ©Richard Davenport

A few weeks ago, I caught a livestream of an extraordinary new play – She Called Me Mother. In it, actor Cathy Tyson plays Evangeline, a 70 year old Trinidadian immigrant selling the Big Issue on the streets of London. It was a remarkable performance by Tyson, who held the stage for well over an hour.

Evangeline has been homeless for a long time, searching for her daughter, who ran away when she was just sixteen. From time to time, the daughter slips on stage, speaking into the rift that has grown between them, giving her version of events. But for most of the play, Evangeline is alone with her memories.

“I try not to tink about she too much, ‘cause de pain dem thoughts bring it like a herd of buffalo runnin wild in a field, an I beneath dem foot.”

The play was put on by Pitch Lake Productions – a collaboration between the play’s author Michelle Inniss, actress Cathy Tyson and director Cara Nolan – under the auspices of Black Theatre Live. This trailer on YouTube will give you a taste of the rich Trinidadian vernacular in which the play is written. You can also explore both the language and themes through this Education Pack from Pitch Lake Productions.
Here I talk to Michelle Inniss, and learn more about how the play came to be written.

Hi, Michelle. I believe She Called Me Mother was inspired by a chance encounter at London Bridge station. Can you start by telling us more about that?

Several years ago, I was travelling regularly through London Bridge Station to visit my mother, who was very ill. I kept passing an elderly Afro-Caribbean woman selling the Big Issue. One day, I suppose because my head was full of my mum, when I stopped to speak to her, instead of calling her ‘auntie’ (which is a term of respect for an older woman in the Caribbean) I called her ‘mother.’ Her face lit up. After that, whenever I passed by, she wanted to give me something – some sweets, or a little bit of her food.

The last time I saw her was just after my mum passed away. She noticed I was upset and asked what the trouble was. When I told her, she reached into her trolley, grabbed some change – about £3 – pressed it into my hand and told me I must by flowers for my mother. I tried to say no, it’s okay. But she insisted. So I went to the flower stall and bought a single white rose that still had a drop of water on the petal. I tucked it inside my coat, because it was a cold day, and when I got to the chapel, the drop of water was still there.

After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, and why she was there. I’d never asked her about her story. We’d just talked about the weather, that sort of thing.

After mum died, I couldn’t write. My mentor, Jacob Ross, told me not to worry, just to read or listen to music. Do other things. After about a month, this character woke up and started speaking to me. And it was Evangeline.

What did you draw on to create that rich poetry in Evangeline’s voice?

I think the Trinidadian vernacular has its own musicality. Cathy Tyson has done such a brilliant job of capturing that voice.

Both my parents are from Trinidad. My father loves telling stories. My mother was much quieter, but she had certain sayings – like “I wouldn’t fart on cotton for him to smell,” which she would only say when she wasn’t happy with someone, but which we all thought was terribly funny.

So I was drawing on their voices, and memories of visiting Trinidad when I was younger. And also on the voices of Trinidadian writers - for example, Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance [set in a poor neighbourhood of Port of Spain during Carnival]. I can read the prologue to that over and over again; the music of his prose just conjures up so much.

One of the things that attracted me to She Called Me Mother was that it gave voice of a homeless woman. Many years ago, I worked in a night shelter for the homeless, and I learnt then how many of them having fascinating and moving stories to tell. Why was it important for you to tell that story?

I thought a lot about how homeless people are invisible, how so many people passed her by and never really saw her, or think about their lives or how they came to be homeless. This woman was so much older than most homeless women too.

Out of this, my family started supporting St Mungo’s Broadway. I find the whole idea of not having a home to go back to such a scary thought. And we are not so far away from it, any of us. Things can happen in our lives, and we can find ourselves homeless.

She Called Me Mother is also about domestic abuse – something that straddles all strata of society. Why do you think that came out as part of Evangeline’s story?

It’s so commonplace; it’s a universal problem. But we don’t talk about nearly enough. Like homelessness, it is invisible.

I remember years ago, when we were visiting my husband's family in Spain, there was a couple who had separated and were living in different part of the same house. The husband set fire to the house and killed her. But even then, we didn’t take on board that this was something that women faced every day.

And now, because of the cuts, refuges and other services for women trying to escape violent relationships are being closed down, especially those for women from minorities.

In some ways, Evangeline’s daughter has fallen into the same trap as her mother. But she has also been stronger than her mother. How optimistic are you that her two little daughters will have a better future than either their mother or their grandmother?

From all the research I have done, there is a generational cycle, where women find themselves in abusive relationships very similar to the ones their parents have. But some women have broken that cycle. I wanted Shirley to be the one that broke that cycle. So yes, I’m optimistic.

Tell us about the development of the script. And how did Pitch Lake Production come about?

Cathy Tyson and I went to school together, and we’ve always kept in touch. When I first sent her the script, she was studying for a degree in Drama and English at Brunel University, and she put it aside until she had finished her studies.

When she came back to it, it happened to be when Black Theatre Live were putting out calls for expressions of interest. Everything came together really quickly. Cathy had just been working with a director called Cara Nolan at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool and had been really impressed with her. Cara loved the play too. So we applied, got shortlisted, and travelled up to Derby to make our pitch. And we were chosen!

After that, we had to set up our company, Pitch Lake Productions – and we haven’t really looked back since.

At that stage the play was a monologue, with just Evangeline’s voice. Several people, including Adrian Jackson from Cardboard Citizens [a group practising 'theatre of the oppressed,' working with and for homeless people] suggested that it might be possible to draw out the story of the daughter, Shirley – why she left and what had happened to her.

We were lucky that the grant from Black Theatre Live included the opportunity to spend a week workshopping the play at Clean Break studios. That was really exciting. Another actress [Jen Daley] joined us and we had Trish Cooke working with us as a dramaturge. We focused on the parts of the script where Evangeline talks about her daughter, and played around with the script. Afterwards, I went away and wrote Shirley’s part.

What’s really made it for me has been the audience response – regardless of their background. It’s been amazing how many men have come up to me after performances and said, “I didn’t think you would make me cry.”

People have taken different things from the play – not just about homelessness or domestic abuse, but about the immigrant experience too. Universal stories everyone can relate to.

Do you think She Called Me Mother is attracting a different sort of audience to the theatre?

One of the amazing things about Black Theatre Live is that they are taking plays out into the regions, and doing outreach work to engage with different sorts of audiences.

Hardish Virk did huge amounts of work around audience development in Black Theatre Live's consortium of 8 theatres, speaking to local businesses and community groups about the play. A women's group facilitated by Mashi Theatre and Derby Theatre did some work looking at some of the themes in the play. And Theatre Royal Margate produced a video of some of the local people reading from the script.

Cathy also did a workshop with a group of women from St Mungo’s Broadway – some of whom then came to see the play, as did some of the people who work there.

In a recent interview about the Act for Change project, Meera Syal said "Autonomy is the first stage of revolution." Is that something you identify with? What else could and should be done to give BAME writers and actors better opportunities?

When it comes to the question of diversity in the theatre and the arts, part of me is thinking, why are we still having this conversation? In 2011 I went to a BFI event - British African and Caribbean Women Stars of the Screen. Corinne Skinner-Carter spoke about her career and in the afternoon Cathy, Ellen Thomas and Nikki Amuka-Bird spoke about their careers, roles, stereotypes and the need for more parts for black actors. It was interesting to hear echoes of this in Corinne's talk and the following generation of female actors of colour, so the conversation continues!

In that Act for Change interview, Meera Syal comments about first needing someone to write the parts. Cathy would definitely say there is the aspect of diversity, but there is also the aspect of being a woman and there is the aspect of age. The parts get less and less the older you get. And if that is true for women in general, it is even more true for women of colour. So if there are women playwrights writing parts for older women, that has to be a good thing.

Another aspect of the diversity question is that we found it really difficult to find stage managers and production managers of colour. There are not nearly enough BAME folk in that side of theatre.

So yes, autonomy. But we need each other too. We’ve had an awful lot of support from other people. We’ve had so much goodwill extended to us from all sort of people – Jatinder Verma and Jonathan Kennedy at Tara Arts, Milan Govedarika at Black Theatre Live – it’s just amazing.

Finally, tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline.

I am working on another play this time on the theme of forgiveness and redemption. And, yes, that would be for Pitch Lake Productions. We are such a good team. We calm each other down. We have this way of saying, “bloody hell,” in a very ‘northern’ way. And then, “let’s have a cuppa.”

Cara and Cathy are such hard workers, real grafters and really passionate and creative. I hope that we work together for a really long time.

I’m also working a novel. And trying to keep away from social media – it’s become my little distraction. Even my children are saying, “What are you doing on that tablet, mum?”

The way I work is to write whatever comes, and then I backtrack and delve into research (which is another area where I can get carried away, reading and reading and NOT writing).

I also think it’s really important to keep that constructive critical facility alive. It feeds into your reflection on your own writing too. I am thinking of rejoining my old writers’ group.

This year has been so exciting. So unexpected. So next year I am looking forward to more of the same – I hope!

Thank you, Michelle. We hope so too!

By the time you read this, the final shows of She Called Me Mother in 2015 will already have passed. But look out for its return at the new Tara Arts Theatre in Spring 2016, when they will be raising money for St Mungo’s Broadway.

Michelle Inniss is a writer and Spanish teacher, and has just completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Brunel University. This autumn, her story ‘Whatever Lola wants,’ was published in Closure: a new anthology of Black British writers published by Peepal Tree. She was longlisted for the new playwrights’ scheme, Angle at The Bush Theatre, in 2011, shortlisted for The Fish Short Story Prize in 2010, and in 2006 was runner up for the Penguin Decibel Short Story Prize.

Black Theatre Live is a partnership of Tara Arts, Derby Theatre, Queen’s Hall Arts (Northumberland), Lighthouse (Poole), Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds, Theatre Royal Margate, Stratford Circus (London) and Key Theatre (Peterborough). Black Theatre Live expects to work with emerging and established BAME companies across England to commission and tour high quality productions to the consortia theatres over the coming 3 years.

Writerly Gift Ideas for Christmas 2015 by JD Smith

It's that time of year again where if you haven't already done your Christmas shopping (all of your Christmas shopping, food and gifts, everything wrapped and prepared, tree up and cards posted) you're still hanging onto the phrase "it's too early" and "it's not even December ... umm ...yet." Oh, but it is. And if you're on the same budget I am for your friends and family, a two week stay at a luxury writers' retreat in Venice isn't on the to buy list. So here are a few ideas for gifts to suit the small budget this Christmas.

1) One of my favourites, Banned Books Socks from The Literary Gift Company

A pair of mis-matched socks. One sock features titles of books that have been banned in various countries around the world, the other features a redacted version of the same titles. £7.99/pair.

2) A massage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Hunched over your keyboard for hours on end isn't the best for your shoulders, neck, back ... Available from your local spa for around £20-£30, they can always exchange it for a manicure if they're a bit weird about massages.

3) Depressed Pencil Set from The Literary Gift Company

These HB pencils need a lot of hugs, can you make their world a more fulfilling place? Each one is calling out to you: "I'm easily broken," "In time I'll be pointless," "You're going to write me off" and more. £5/box 6.

4) An e-reader book cover

These gorgeous handmade book covers come in a variety of sizes to fit a range of e-reading devices, they are the perfect coming together of old books and new. Available from Klevercase via Not On The High Street. £24.95.

5) An Audible Membership.

I've loved mine. I can listen in the car, when I'm lying on a beach and the sun's too blinding to read. It's great. And from as little as £23.99, affordable too.

6) Pride and Prejudice Cupcake Topper

For the writer/reader/cake baker in your life. A great stocking filler. Available from Literary Emporium. £3.50/pack 6.

7) 50 Shades of Grey Poster

I'll have to be forgiven this one. The designer side of me loved the Pantone book-style poster. Another great stocking filler for fans of 50 Shades available from Bookish England. £6.

8) Ampersand Necklace

The bookish ampersand necklace is gold plated and is attached to an 18" (42cm) high quality 14K gold filled chain, and the ampersand itself measures 20mm. Great for the female writer in your life. £28.

9) And my winner this year for the best writerly gift this Christmas: My Personal Library Kit by Deservedly-So, via Not On The High Street.

Complete with date stamp, record cards, sleeves for the front of the books and a little pencil, this set will allow you to keep tabs an all your books. No more wondering who you've lent which title too and no more errant books! £17.

Don't forget, if you're a writer reading this, leave this page open on every electronic device in your house, share it on Facebook, tweet is on Twitter and generally share it as much as possible to ensure your friends and family take the hint!

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass November 2015

with Ayisha Malik, Managing Editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

Each issue, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy explores and critiques a reader's opening page. If you would like to participate in their Opening Page Mini Masterclass, send your opening page (400 approx words) as a Word Document attachment to with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.

The Fox and the Crow, Inc.
a Novella by Ariadne Apostolou

Riding in a car could tranquilize an infant, so it should work for her, Mina Wright told herself   starting up her Lexus, desperate for serenity after the last half hour of hysterical sobbing. She did not need a psychiatric referral! How dare he! It was just stress--to be expected with a husband at death’s door—though she really should stop using that expression. He was going to recover. Of course, she was fine—except for embarrassing herself by screaming like a madwoman at Dr. Ramos, the only doctor in the universe she actually trusted. Now her head throbbed.

Mina drove out of the town center, thick with afternoon traffic. She was fine. Life got a little out of control sometimes, was all. She should try deep breathing as she drove. Multi-task a little more. Pile it on, why not?  She inhaled, counted to ten and released.

Dr. Ramos threatened to call her tomorrow to check up on her. She didn’t need that. Call and apologize first, to head him off. That is what she would do. Right now, she was very late picking up Skye at Bette Palmer’s. They’d be late getting home to Richard. And she’d left her cell-phone somewhere. Where? Her office? She could call Richard from Bette’s.

The sun was shining, but rumbles overhead signaled a storm coming, really bad for the internal chaos. Electrified air, sudden drops in barometric pressure--everything affected her, being the overly sensitive type as the whole universe—Dr. Ramos, Richard--reminded her. She needed tranquility before seeing Bette, la loca who exerted some weird orbital force with the power to destabilize whatever equilibrium Mina could muster. It had happened before, so often, in fact, that Richard had ordered her to avoid Bette. She is poison for you, he’d shout. That was back when he could blow his stack and breathe at the same time. His frustration more recently emerged as teary despair. She missed those schooling lectures that she’d take with a grain of salt.

As she inhaled and exhaled with determination, the candy-colored clapboards and new-leafing sugar maples in Bette’s neighborhood dissolved into two children at the side of a dark highway, looming like a horror film. Mina! Stay here, she ordered herself. Forget them. Forget Dr. Ramos. Next is Bette’s street. Pick up Skye. Get home to Richard. Keep this straight: today is June 15, 2001! Not June 15, 1969.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

This is a potentially engaging piece. The author, generally, manages to use the third person limited perspective to draw the reader into Mina’s mental state successfully. At the moment there is a tendency to Tell rather than Show, which can have a distancing effect, despite us viewing events from Mina’s POV. We manage to find out a fair bit about the protagonist and her circumstance, which is good, but there were times when the Pace felt rather too fast so this could be slowed down in parts. In some ways, this is related to the Tone of the opening page, which has quite a frantic quality – although this mirrors Mina’s emotional state – but can verge on feeling overly neurotic, diminishing some of the Tension I think we should be feeling, especially by the end of the last sentence.

Firstly, I felt the opening sentence needed clarity: I’m not quite sure about the purpose of the infant analogy. It suggests that Mina has an infant to calm down rather than it being calming for herself, and in any case, she gets in the car because she needs to collect her daughter, not because it’ll relax her. The mention of ‘psychiatric referral’ manages to grab our attention, however, and instantly tells us something about Mina’s situation, along with her character as she reacts so badly to the idea of it. This is a good place to consider Showing rather than Telling in order to slow down the Pace. For example, rather than tell us about Mina’s ‘hysterical sobbing’ could the author show us how she might look or feel? Is she trying to catch her breath? Does she feel drained? Within the same paragraph we’re told about her dying husband. This is also good because it brings in a sense of drama and Tension, but the speed with which we’re taken through this information and Mina’s emotions leaves us little time to really absorb the impact of what we’ve discovered about her.

I think the conflict of Mina’s unravelling mental health and her determination to keep herself together is engaging. She is trying to rein in her hysteria, but this is a woman on the verge, and we know it. However, I think the neurotic tone here is diminishing some of the potential Tension. This is about balancing the narrative so that the Pace is slowed right down at points when we need to be absorbed in how Mina’s feeling – ‘She was fine. Life got a little out of control sometimes, was all. She should try deep breathing as she drove. Multi-task a little more. Pile it on, why not?’ – and when to move it along so that we’re aware of how haphazard she is – ‘And she’d left her cell-phone somewhere. Where? Her office? She could call Richard from Bette’s.’ The former quote is an example of where the Pace could be slowed and we can be shown more than her just taking a moment to take some deep breaths.

Because of the Pace of the opening and its frantic tone it might be worth the author considering including some action scenes so we get a chance to see Mina’s interplay with other characters. For example, we’re told about the negative effect Bette Palmer has on Mina – can we be shown this in a scene between the two when she picks up Skye? So much of Mina’s unfolding character is being told to us via her thoughts that some action and dialogue would help to break up the introspective nature of the opening page. The author could keep the way Mina recalls her husband’s reaction to her seeing Bette, the seeding in of which gives us insight into their changed relationship – this, quite cleverly, helps us to have a sympathetic view of Richard before we’ve even met him. If we meet Bette and see for ourselves how awful she is, our respect for Richard and empathy will probably be greater.

In terms of Tension and Pace, I think the last paragraph is the most important to focus on. This is where a sense of foreboding creeps in and the anxiety we’ve seen Mina experience is connected to, seemingly, a past event of significance. It’s worth mentioning that the writing here is lovely:

‘…the candy-colored clapboards and new-leafing sugar maples in Bette’s neighborhood dissolved into two children at the side of a dark highway, looming like a horror film.’

The contrast of images – candy colours and sugar maples to two children on a dark highway – is really well done. Here, especially, I feel the Pace needs to be slowed; we need a stronger sense of Tension by more Show Don’t Tell – by not only anchoring us in Mina’s perspective, but showing us something more than her present reaction. Right now this feels a little flippant, though I don’t think that’s the effect the author wishes to produce. Again, it’s about balancing Mina’s propensity to want to forget and ignore things and giving the event the weight of tension that it deserves in order to show the reader its importance. What does Mina do? Does she shake her head in order to get rid of the image? Slow the car down? Does her heart beat faster (though this is a bit of a cliché)? Do her palms get sweaty? I also think a little more detail about the appearance of the two children might help to heighten the tension. We don’t need a thorough description but one or two striking images, which help the reader to fear the images as much as Mina.

In conclusion, I think the author has some strong material to work with here. They should focus on using Show Don’t Tell to help slow the Pace and increase the Tension, as well as consider developing the tone a little – maintain its frantic edge, but reining in the neurosis so that the conflict feels more foreboding. They shouldn’t be afraid of staying in the moment to really make us feel Mina’s hysteria and also heighten the mystery of why she is unravelling like this.

I wish the author all the best with this promising and intriguing piece.  

My Name on an Acorn

Jeong Goam’s unique viewpoint on calligraphy, engraving and modern art

Naju is a city located in the lower corner of South Korea in the South Jeolla Province on the Yeongsan River. It’s a small and unassuming city, with its own provincial university, and the Yeongsan is a small and unassuming river only 80 miles long that has its source in the region’s hills, flowing gently from there to the Yellow Sea.

Jeong Goam took his initial inspiration from the small-scale geography of the region to execute his minimalist carvings and miniature engravings. Born Jeong Byung-rye, he grew up in poverty. Taken from his mother by his father’s family, he was forced into factory work from an early age to support his stepmother after his father died. Eventually he came to realise that his mother had been his father’s concubine; he met her again at the age of ten for a single afternoon, but has not seen her since.

Now, at 66, he looks back on his life as a journey, a voyage of self-discovery. With no formal training and no money for proper tools or equipment, he took to carving Chinese characters as well as pictorial engravings onto small blocks of stone or wood in the manner of seal-carvers of Korea’s more ancient times. His first creation was an acorn on which he engraved his own name. It got him into trouble. His teachers refused to believe he had produced the carving himself, it was simply too good. They accused him of passing off adults’ work as his own and he was beaten.

Jeong Byung-rye’s subject matter reflected the world around him—the world he saw, rather than the world he was taught to see. His bond lay with the countryside—in particular with Wolchulsan, a rocky outcrop of mountain that

overlooks his native city. The southern regions of Korea take their weather from the sea, and the mountain reflects the four seasons in its own way, inspiring a bucolic simplicity in Jeong’s work. But in the shadow of the mountain and its rural environs was the city and its people, so his art reflects a mixture of nature and the built environment, yet still carries the primitive linearity into which he retreated as a child when the world became too overbearing. Jeong’s views on the world and his outlook on life remained untempered by formal education. Those who beat him physically would not beat him into conformity. He was emboldened by this; liberated rather than restricted. In the Confucian artistic tradition, he took the honorific Goam in homage to the method of his work. Goam style was a way of producing works of art that possessed a unique texture—a texture centered on the encounter of a knife with a surface. Goam Jeong Byung-rye became widely known as Goam Jeong. He worked with natural substances such as wood or stone, describing this as a harsh but enjoyable process, one in which he approached each new task as if he were “writing a love letter”. Of his work, he says this: “If you want something very natural, you should hide most completely; you should show only what you are supposed to show. You should always be careful about the difference between freedom and license, and you should control dynamics and tempo.”

That difference between freedom and license informed his early work, which reflected a mixture of local landscapes and the freedom people had to walk across them, leaving trails with their footprints, trails with vehicles, trails in water that became a later part of his engravings. His experiments with Chinese calligraphy were soon overtaken by the idea of working in Korea’s own script—Hangul. This script was more representative of his own life and background than Chinese writing, and he was able to begin producing examples of his work in local scripts. He was seen as an artist who upheld the values of his own time, an egalitarian who represented his own work rather than aspiring to a lifestyle and culture he knew little about. Soon his contemporaries began to see him as a pioneer, popularising the tradition of goam engraving and bringing it into the world of contemporary art.

In Korea, the art world took to him. From 1992, he was offered lectureships, working up to a position as professor at the Department of Environmental Design at South Korea’s Far East University. By 1993 he had been elected to the board of the selection committee for the Seoul National Gallery. While his academic career went from strength to strength, he illustrated textbooks for all levels of education in Korea and was commissioned to produce pieces for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and for Hillary Clinton, as well as making personal gifts for two Korean presidents and Nobel Prize laureate Kofi Annan. He has written books of his own over the years, too, including Goam Injon (1989), Life, Beautiful Faces (2000), the Sound of a Wind Chime (2001) and Can't Stop Myself (2006). Later he produced engravings for exhibition at the Beijing Olympics and was commissioned to construct an animation for the Olympic coverage of Seoul’s MBC television company.

Over the course of his career, Jeong Goam has produced over 10,000 pieces of art, always by hand, never using digital reproductive techniques. He has enjoyed 25 solo exhibitions and has taken part in more than 150 group shows. The authorities at Jeju International University in Korea have recently concluded an agreement with him. They plan to open a gallery and an institute to study the Goam style under his personal auspices, and will be opening their admission books to postgraduate students from January 2016. For an artist who grew up in a small province in Southern Korea, an artist who never allowed his viewpoint to waver, ploughing his own furrow through the trained world of art, his achievements are beyond measure. In 2016 he plans to share that vision for the first time with the western world, holding exhibitions in Paris and London.

Yet he remains firmly in touch with his origins. He describes his memories of playing in the hills of his childhood, in the fields and by the rivers. His works pursue a natural world filled with peace and reflection, properties that are beginning to vanish from the world at large. Speaking of his work, he admits: “I don’t know the limits, because I’m not well-educated. I had little schooling. I would never have started this kind of work if I had an advanced degree from a prestigious university.” Now, as the head of the new institute, he asks his students not to compare him with academics or famous people. He believes that a person who succeeds in finding his own world—as he himself has done—will have nothing to envy. “Everybody is busy using up their energy while envying and being jealous of others. But I don’t know how to do that.”

He enjoys watching documentaries on nature for inspiration. His works pursue rural life and encourage deep reflection and meditation. “The blank space has a tranquility which makes us feel the limitless energy of the whole universe. The blank space holds something spiritual.” To a western view, this statement appears insightful; to an artist from eastern Asia, it is little more than a cliché. If there’s one thing Jeong’s work avoids, it’s pretention. His style—a juxtaposition of the primitivism of cave painting and something almost tribal—leaves no room for such readings.

So what can the western world take from Jeong Goam? Simplicity, primarily, a rendering of complexity in a simple engraving; the idea of time passing, perhaps, or of history. Certainly we can admire the thought, consideration and effort that has gone into the production of what appears at first sight a multiplicity of roughly carved images, blank seals that could if necessary be used and reused. The nature of Wolchul Mountain made flesh, the motherland symbolising the lost mother, rock symbolising human obduracy, human strength. Or perhaps, in his elegant simplicity, Jeong Goam has spent his artistic career carving his name onto an acorn.