Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Young Muslim Writers' Awards 2017

by Catriona Troth

This December saw the 7th presentation ceremony for the Young Muslim Writers' Awards, and the second time I have been privileged to attend the event.

The Young Muslim Writers' Awards was founded by the Muslim Hands charity, and for the last five years has been supported of the Yusuf Islam Foundation. As organiser, Zainub Chohan, told us at the opening of the ceremony, the award seeks not only to raise child literacy in the British Muslim community, but to help every child realise that any career path is open to them – including that of being a best-selling author.

How important this is was underlined this week by an article in the Guardian (“Diversity in publishing – still hideously middle-class and white?”)

As one of the judges, poet Mohamed Mohamed said, of discovering the Young Muslim Writers’ Awards: “Oh my gosh, this actually exists!” 
Shortlisted authors, judges and sponsors at YMWA 2017

Awards are given in nine categories – for short stories and poetry in each of Key Stages 1-4, and additionally in Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds) an award for journalism. This year all the short listed poems, short stories and essays were included in a beautiful anthology, which enabled everyone to share and appreciate the depth and breadth of writing the young people are producing.


Poetry ranged from six year old Umar Ibrahim’s hilarious and imaginative, Roald Dahl inspired Oggletrog, to Hanniya Kamran’s thoughtful and thought-provoking Am I? – which Tim Robinson of the Royal Society of Literature described has ‘having a complexity that challenges and undoes stereotypes.’

Themes for the stories were no less wide-ranging – with one taking place inside a refugee camp while another was about a super-strawberry who feared being turned into jam!

The KS3 Journalism prize, presented by journalist and lecturer Nabida Ramdani, covered topics from Women’s Rights, Child Soldiers, Acid Attacks and Grenfell Tower. The maturity of the work produced by these writers (aged 11-14 years) was humbling. The winner was Zaina Kahn for an essay on child soldiers, but the piece that sucker-punched me was Ameerah Abika Kola-Olukotun’s ‘We Must Take Action’ which sensitively recalled a visit to Nigeria. The shrewd observations of contrast between rich and poor and the ever-present fear of abduction by Boko Haram reminded me of Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing.

The afternoon included entertainment too, provided by master storyteller Alia Alzougbi and beatbox poet DreadlockAlien (aka Richard Grant).

Patrice Lawrence, author of the wonderful Orangeboy and judge in the KS4 short story award, spoke with inspirational passion of growing up in Brighton with a Trinidadian mother and an Italian step-dad, “always knowing I had other stories to tell.”

Last year’s Writer of the Year, Lamees Mohamed offered advice to her fellow young writers (‘I’m only 14 years old – it’s just what I’ve picked up so far): to read widely, to look at the world around you, to listen, look and care.

This year, the overall award for Writer of the Year for 2017 went to 6 year old Umar Ibrahim, who won not only the KS1 poetry award, but the short story award too, for The Tree Kings, “the custodians of the secrets and scripts of the ancient library of Baghdad,” which opens: “It was night-time. The six moons washed the land in a gentle light."

Judging by Umar’s two entries, if his imagination continues to flourish and grown, we can look forward to a very special talent indeed bursting upon the literary scene in a few years.

Finally, the ceremony closed with the presentation of the Special Recognition Award. Two years ago, when I last attended, the award was given to Malala Yousafzai. This year, it was given to another survivor of an attack upon education. Muhammed Ibrahim Khan is a survivor of the 2014 Peshawar school attack. Muhammad Ibrahim was shot four times whilst trying to help his friends, after helping four other school children to safety. Initially expected to be paralysed for life, he has regained the ability to walk and is now studying for his GCSEs in Britain.

Here is just a flavour of some of the depth and breadth of writing on display:

“Raindrops hit the window and slide down like tears, tiny glass-like droplets through which I watch the sky churn up all the world’s pain and anger.”
Nada El-Hamoud, The Game, winner KS4 short story

“Their hearts shattered by the grief of losing their eldest daughters, they trudged through the village, ghost of what they once were.”
 Ameerah Abika Kola-Olukotun, We Need to Take Action, KS3 journalism

Every day, a large rumbling machine would come, with its four wheels running down the straight tracks either side of super strawberry. He could see two thick legs and heavy boots resting on the machine and between them would be a large, sharp knife that would cut the stems of the fruit.

The Adventures of the Super Strawberry, Haadi Siddiqui, winner, KS2 short story.

My fantastical name is Oggletrog
I live in a cave next to a bog
Each morning I munch-nibble a frog,
Each evening I munch-nobble a hog

Umar Ibrahim, winner, KS1 Poetry


Entries are now open for the 2018 awards, which so if you are eligible, or you know someone who is – tell them to get writing! Can’t wait to see what the next year brings.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Research for Fiction: Pleasures and Pitfalls


By Annemarie Neary


Samuel Johnson said that a (wo)man ‘’will turn over half a library to make one book.”

Before you spend half a lifetime haunting Google, consider what kind of research will contribute most. One thing is self-evident, whatever the genre — you need to be able to convince the reader that you know what you’re talking about. That’s as much about imaginative absorption in your fictional world as it is about the accumulation of facts.

Research, in the broadest sense of ‘reading yourself in’, will give you the requisite depth of awareness. No one wants to fall into the trap of ascribing 21st century views to a 2nd century Greek astronomer or to create a framework that is simply not credible.

Patricia Highsmith put it this way “A reader likes to feel that the writer is quite in command of his material and has strength to spare.” So, first of all — and probably before you write a word — you need to be able to write by heart.

In some genres — fantasy and sci-fi for instance — you can make the rules up as you go along; what you are aiming for is internal consistency. But in most fiction, especially genres like historical fiction that purport to offer an insight into a particular world, you will need to supplement imagination with the kind of authority that can only come from general research. This is the type of wide reading that gives you a ‘feel’ rather than a set of undigested facts. This is what will feed your imagination and allow instinct to take over during the writing process.

But when to stop reading?
If you’re working to a deadline, there are the little problems of distraction, time soak, stalled impetus. What are the most useful sources? A rule of thumb — if in doubt, look for the firsthand account. If you’re working on an historical project, are there diaries or letters you can read? If you are writing about a specific contemporary world, are there blogs? Photographs are also useful because they import a degree of objectivity. Often, the most interesting details are the photographer took for granted or didn’t realize she was capturing.

So, find your expert.
In my first novel, one of my characters was a Luftwaffe ‘lamplighter’ – a member of one of the crews who set fires in order to ‘light’ the targets for the bombers following behind. I needed to know about what it felt like to be up there – was he freezing, terrified, bored? I searched online for a primary source, and eventually found someone in Melbourne, Australia whose elderly neighbor, a former Luftwaffe conscript, was willing to interviewed. I emailed my questions and got an audiotape back. The interviewee turned out to be quite a different character from my fictional Oskar, but he taught me about particular aspects of his experience that I’d have struggled to find in a history book — recreational fishing trips, the reality of being a hated occupier in a small Breton town, techniques for removing hornets nests, the iron grip of male comradeship.

At the moment I’m talking to several people about the fabric of everyday life in Algiers — What do you serve someone if they come to your house? What do you do on your day off? How do you celebrate a wedding? Do your friends have sex outside marriage/drink/break other taboos? What is the gossip about politicians? Where are the new cafes opening? What is the attitude to Chinese, Syrian, sub-Saharan migrants? For contemporary settings, online newspapers are also useful — particularly the Lifestyle pages.

Once you’ve felt your way in, it’s best to confine detailed research to the things you really need to know. Even If you are writing a contemporary book, history is very important. You need to understand what has shaped a society or a set of characters, but be careful not to get bogged down in endless detail that just gets shoehorned in. That way madness, eternal procrastination, and clumsy writing lie. And try not to write about places you haven’t visited. Yes, I know you can find out the colour of the tablecloths in Venice’s Taverna La Fenice by simply looking online. But it’s very easy to miss things, too. For the ineffable essence of a place, there’s no substitute for stepping off a plane.

In terms of psychological or medical research, scientific verisimilitude is necessary if you’re claiming your character suffers from this or that syndrome. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry too much. People are infinitely variable and if you avoid labels and imagine yourself into a particular mind and body you can generally get away without too much by way of research.

Once you have a ‘feel’ for time, place, character, nothing succeeds quite like a well-placed detail for bringing a scene to life — think Hilary Mantel’s moth hole in that famous sleeve. If your character is a singer, for example, then I do think you need to understand the unique type of neuroses that tend to afflict such people — their terror of colds, of damage to the vocal chords — and the technical difficulties involved in a singing a particular type of music. Yet again, you can pick up a lot from firsthand accounts.

One telling detail will do much more work for you than acres of downloaded research. For example, if you are writing about a nineteenth century seamstress, have her use the right kind of materials, wear typical clothing, sit in the right kind of chair, and then simply employ a bit of Method writing to bring the scene to life. Spend an evening, or even an hour or two, sitting in a cold room bent over your work in dim lighting, and you should be able to extrapolate enough from that experience combined with your research in order to create a convincing seamstress.

So there we have it — imaginative engagement complemented by targeted research. Wear your character’s shoes, and you won’t go too far wrong.



Annemarie Neary was born in Northern Ireland. She studied literature at Trinity College Dublin, and qualified as a barrister at King's Inns.

Her novel The Orphans is out now in Kindle and hardcover from Hutchinson (Penguin Random House UK). A Windmill Books paperback is forthcoming in April 2018. Siren was published by Hutchinson in 2016, with a Windmill paperback out earlier this year, and A Parachute in the Lime Tree was published by The History Press Ireland in 2012. She is currently working on a fourth novel.

She holds a Masters in Venetian Renaissance art from the Courtauld Insitute, and Venice — its locations, historical events, and artworks — has inspired a number of short stories.
http://www.annemarieneary.co.uk/