Having my short story published in midlife in the anthology, Where We Find Ourselves has been an extraordinary experience which inspired me greatly. It re-ignited my passion for writing by exposing me to authors and poets of different ages, races, and life experiences with amazing stories to tell.
Whilst I was a shy child and spent a lot of time ‘in my head’ I had a vivid imagination and enjoyed making up stories to entertain myself and my siblings. However, the idea of being a writer was never discussed as realistic career option for someone like me. My dad wanted me to leave school after my ‘O’ levels and get a job to start contributing to the household, but my English teacher thought I should stay on to do A levels. As a compromise I went to a local college to do a one-year secretarial course – something solid and useful. My dad’s attitude was not uncommon to immigrant parents who want a better life for their offspring. He thought that one’s life purpose was to get a good safe job and do that until you retire in 40 years’ time, and only then can you do what youreallywant to do. Fortunately, my secretarial training led me to roles in HR in the voluntary and public sector which I do enjoy. However, my love of writing has never left me. When my daughter was at school, I often found myself living vicariously through her schoolwork: reading the literature she was set and taking any opportunity to help with her essays and course work!
It was only when she went to Birmingham University that I thought about writing seriously. Whenever I visited her, I would come away inspired by the university buildings and lecture theatres and thought how marvellous it would be to have my own further education – even if it felt slightly delayed.
So, I signed up to take a creative writing beginners’ class at the same college I went to more than 30 years ago! As I waited nervously at enrolment for the first class, I couldn’t help but feel my age, seeing the last straggle of childlike adults leaving for the day in boisterous groups. Many seemed younger than my daughter, and it made me wonder what I had let myself in for! However, once I was in the class this feeling dissipated as I found myself surrounded by mostly women of a similar age to me or older, some who had, like myself, come straight from work, while others arrived after looking after grandchildren or spending the day in less strenuous retirement pursuits such as gardening or catching up with friends.
Many had files of manuscripts honed over the years, or folders full of poetry or prose. The course taught me to express myself and to give myself permission to carve out time for completing writing prompts, which seemed to give my writing some legitimacy and feel less self-indulgent. I learned a huge amount from the tutor but also my classmates. One woman in particular encouraged me to not to downplay my ambitions. I remember she encouraged me to have my photo taken in the class when I was placed third in a competition. As my natural reticence took over, I remember her saying to me “Oh go on up there, will you? When you’re a published writer you’ll look back on this….” Her words seemed unbelievable to me at the time.
The range of writing styles showcased in class was also eye-opening. I think that there are preconceptions of what women of a certain age want to write and read. Rather than just cosy romances we heard YA fiction, folklore and fairy tales, crime drama as well as inspiring lived experience stories.
After the beginners’ class, I felt emboldened to take the Intermediate class and then joined Watford Writers to continue my writing journey. I now have my own folder of work, and the start of a manuscript!
It has been inspiring to witness so many women expressing themselves creatively at a time of life when it has traditionally been that we come less visible and active as the years go by. I am looking forward to contributing to the voices and adding my own stories to the discourse.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Second World War, and all victims of persecution and genocide around the world.
Author Anna Fodorova grew up in a family where everyone except her parents had been killed in the Holocaust. Both in her career as a therapist, and as an author, Anna explores the notion and experience of being a Second Generation Holocaust Survivor. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, and to remember all the lost families, Anna has shared this blog post with us.
In 1968 I was a student at the Prague College of Applied Arts. Being a Jew in post-war Czechoslovakia seemed then like a dangerous secret, but it was an exciting time – there was hope that the reform of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe was possible, and it was the first year that we were allowed to travel and work in the West. When a fellow student showed me the Butlin’s holiday camp brochure picturing a palm tree against the sea, I imagined myself as a barmaid somewhere in the Bognor Riviera and, though I didn’t speak a word of English, I felt I had what it took: I was young, had long hair, wore a miniskirt and intended to purchase some stick-on eyelashes as soon as I got paid.
On arrival in Bognor Regis, the first thing I noticed was that Butlin’s was surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence and powerful searchlights. I was issued with a uniform and a card with a mugshot of me holding a number that I had to show every time I left or entered the perimeters of the camp. I slept on a bunk bed, and at night I watched the security guards walk around with their scary dogs.
Bizarre though my experience in Butlin’s was, I remained blind to its obvious echoes. I left Butlin’s hoping to hitch-hike around England but then the Russians invaded my country, and I became an emigrant.
Years later, when I started to train as a psychotherapist I gathered the courage to talk about what it felt like to be born into a family where everyone except my parents had been killed in the Shoa. Around the same time I came across the term ‘Second Generation Holocaust Survivors’. When I mentioned it to my mother she looked at me surprised: What second generation? You were born after it was all over, nothing happened to you.
I became puzzled by that nothing. The nothing that we carry inside us, and that formed us in our childhood. I attended conferences about the transgenerational transmission of trauma where, to my amazement I met people who, though coming from different countries and circumstances, had similar experiences of silence, denial and guilt. I published a paper about it in Psychodynamic Practice journal called Mourning by proxy: Notes on a conference, empty graves and silence. The same journal also printed another paper of mine called Lost and Found: The fear and thrill of loss. As a part of my research I visited the London Transport Lost property office and, seeing piles of toys, shoes, suitcases, push chairs (what happened to the child?) and other personal belongings who lost their owners, my internal associations were no longer a mystery to me.
I realized that the loss of someone or something and the search for them was going to be a theme that stayed with me. Another theme I wanted to explore was heritage, both psychological, and the one we carry in our genes.
My new novel, In the Blood, explores the impact of history on the personal lives of three generations – a mother, a daughter and a grandmother. My main protagonist, Agata, is the only child of Czech/Jewish parents. She grew up in Prague, believing that all her relatives perished in the Holocaust. Now living in London with her English husband and their daughter, Agata discovers astonishing news: not everyone died.
Like Agata, I too believed that my mother was the only member of her family to survive the war. When, to my incredulity, I found out that it wasn’t quite so, I tried to understand why this was kept a secret. What was there to hide?
Eventually I realised what that secret was: it was trauma, but in my novel Agata sets out to discover ‘the truth’.
Through her subsequent search for her surviving relatives, she meets a young man, the grandson of a Nazi who is writing a thesis about the transmission of trauma to the descendants of the perpetrators as well as the victims. They form an odd relationship. Soon Agata’s pursuit turns into an all-consuming obsession that alienates everyone around her. Yet for Agata, despite her quest risking the tearing apart of not only the family she already has, but her very own identity, finding out what happened in the past seems vital, the past that we all need to understand, whether that is to come to terms with the transmission of trauma, or as in Agata’s case, to put names and dates and faces to all the lost families, and to discover the not so lost.
To find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day you can visit www.hmd.org.uk. At 4pm today people across the UK will take part in a national moment for HMD by lighting candles and putting them in their windows to remember those who were murdered, and to stand against prejudice and hatred. You can take part as an individual and share a photo of your candle on social media using #LighttheDarkness.
It’s National Poetry Day and the theme this year is The Environment. To celebrate, we asked poet Claire Booker about her relationship with the natural world, and the way she represents it in her new collection, A Pocketful of Chalk:
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in awe of the natural world: its endlessly creative
hutzpah; the refreshing disinterest it has in our little human concerns.
A Pocketful of Chalk came together from what I could see was a build-up of poems
connected to natural phenomena. By nature I also include the dream world, which arises
from our inner natures. Dreams are forces inside us which we ignore at our peril, just
like the forces outside us.
Five years ago I moved to the village of Rottingdean just outside Brighton in East
Sussex. I’d spent three decades living and working in south London, which is
particularly blessed with woodland and open spaces. Urban nature is a force for change,
because it offers millions of people a relationship with the wild which they wouldn’t
otherwise have. By virtue of its fragile hold within the city, urban nature is also a potent
symbol of what we’re losing.
Moving to a rural, farming area, placed me right in the middle of wildness (it can get
pretty wooly up there on the Downs if a storm’s coming!). But even this wildness is
under threat. During this year’s drought, the wheat fields were scorched, newly planted
woodland saplings dropped their leaves, there were tiny, misshapen black berries. Then
the rains came in biblical proportions, and top soil was lost.
As humans, we’re in a unique position. We’re part of nature, but also the enemy outside
So what, as a poet, can I do about this? Very little, in reality, but even that little is worth
going for. Poetry can take you to the heart-beat of emotion. It can remind people of
what they’ve lost, or fear losing, or want to fight for. Above all, poetry offers quiet
contemplation, an enrichment of understanding – questions that could do with answers,
answers that need questioning.
The environment is us, it’s our relationship with each other, made manifest. We live in a
rushed, frenetic, some might say, frantic world. Poetry can help us draw breath, stop,
consider, appreciate. I find that by simply walking along the sea front, or up on the
Downs, the world starts to unravel a little. I get to see the same places over and over
again. But of course, they’ve never the same place more than once. And when I feel a
poem start to pupate, I pick up my pen. Learning about the planet, is learning about
So in A Pocketful of Chalk, there are poems about evening shadows on the Downs, and
how we can be stretched by light. There’s a poem about drought and how the loss of
plants is like losing children. There’s a young child who is impatient with her little
radish patch, but then flings herself onto the soil to listen to the seedlings grow. There
are poems that are fantastical, apocalyptic, about a drowned world, and others that look
at rain as a flow of emotions. Some of the poems are persona poems where I imagine
what it’s like to be a wild creature. I find it fascinating to try and enter a world without human parameters. After all, the best poetry leaves ego behind, and that’s always worth
At times, in the face of the night sky, or mesmerised by a murmuration of starlings,
even the idea of writing can seems absurd. The very first poem in the collection,
ironically, is about just that. When you’ve seen the “the impossible exactness” of a
Marbled White butterfly, words can seem a pointless add-on. As Ted Hughes wrote in
Poetry in the Making: “It is not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or
rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in
the crow’s flight.”
So that’s the challenge. To be part of nature, yet at the same time its observer and
protector. Poems live as much between the lines as in them – surely an ideal medium for
expressing such a paradox?
Not crows, but herons… watch Claire Booker reading Grey Heron at the launch of A Pocketful of Chalk:
It’s Shakespeare’s birthday! To celebrate we spoke to poet Michelle Penn about her upcoming collection, Paper Crusade and how it felt to rewrite the Bard.
Over the years, I’ve had numerous ambitions and goals, but rewriting Shakespeare was never one of them. Ever.
Yet there I was, at Sadler’s Wells in 2014, brimming over with ideas after seeing The Tempest Replica, a contemporary dance piece choreographed by Crystal Pite. I was inspired by the movements, the psychology, the white masks and costumes, the folded paper boats. The production stirred something in me that I had to express in words. Which sent me back to the original source, The Tempest — and the problem of rewriting Shakespeare.
I knew I wanted to make something that was different from both the dance piece and the original play — and it had to feel relevant to the twenty-first century. Of course, there’s plenty in The Tempest that continues to be relevant (themes of power, forgiveness, language, love, etc.), but it seemed to me that a refugee magician coming to an island, colonising it, altering its environment and terrorising those around him suggested more of a tragic approach than a comedic one.
I decided to concentrate only on a handful of characters and to add The Sea: a character contemptuous of humans and both participant and commentator. And I deliberately left most of the characters unnamed in order to really separate them from Shakespeare’s characters. I didn’t want to think about Prospero but about The Father, a man desperate for revenge, a man who has suffered losses and can’t control his anger, a man who wants to feel powerful and respected, even feared. Similarly, I wanted to create more of an interior life for The Daughter, so she couldn’t be the sweet, obedient Miranda. And I wanted C’s struggles and rebellion to be full of not just resentment but pain. The characters in Paper Crusade needed independent ‘lives’, apart from Shakespeare.
Easier said than done. While I found myself quickly and deeply inside the world of my characters, I was sometimes needled by doubt. What was I doing? Who on earth was I to rewrite Shakespeare? The idea seemed hilarious, arrogant, a recipe for failure. Shakespeare didn’t need my help or my reimagining.
But sometimes, there’s comfort in a crowd, and when I had a stab of despair, I reminded myself of others who have reimagined The Tempest: Peter Greenway’s film, Prospero’s Books or Derek Jarman’s The Tempest or Julie Taymore’s, in which Helen Mirren plays Prospera. Numerous ballets and dance pieces have been made on The Tempest, including one choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev. And of course, other writers have used Shakespeare’s play as source material: Aimé Césaire rewrote it to focus on its colonial themes. Auden riffed on it in his long poem, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, which he considered his ars poetica. Browning wrote about Caliban, Shelley about Ariel.
Of course, there were still moments when I could almost imagine Shakespeare laughing at me from the grave. But the Bard himself was a great borrower and reinterpreter of earlier stories, so I assumed he’d understand — and maybe even appreciate the effort. After all, the play is a springboard, not a mirror, not something to imitate.
Overall, rewriting Shakespeare turned out to be great fun. I loved being inside the island world and with the characters, seeing them in my mind, hearing them speak and watching where they took the story. I didn’t know how Paper Crusade would end until I reached the final pages, and that process was exciting. The characters led me to expand my poetry and try things I’d never tried before. And although I’m a fan of several of Shakespeare’s plays, I now have a special bond with The Tempest.
Listen to Michelle Penn reading ‘The Sea, Offended’ from Paper Crusade:
Paper Crusade will be published on 21 June 2022. You can pre-order a copy from our webshop now. Details of online and in-person launch events (in-person at Keats House in London) are coming soon.
– What does having your work included in What Meets the Eye mean to you?
Emma: Firstly, I’m delighted to be alongside an impressive list of names. I’ve known Josephine Dickinson’s poems for a long time and I know Liam O’Dell’s work as a journalist but haven’t encountered his poems before. Raymond Antrobus’s preface is a generous consideration of identity and bias around being D/deaf and hard of hearing. Secondly, I’m really pleased at being included. I was nervous about submitting because I wasn’t sure if I was “deaf enough” to qualify – I can pass as hearing although was deaf as a young child and am hard of hearing now – and I’m unsure of where the boundary lies. In the event, I decided to submit because if I didn’t submit, there was no chance of acceptance. I shifted the responsibility for the decision to the editors and thought it was better to submit and get a rejection than find out afterwards my poem might have been accepted…but I still left it until the deadline.
Colly: I almost didn’t submit my poem! I saw the call-out but I scrolled past, thinking it wasn’t for me. I’ve only been writing for 3 years and I had no thoughts that my work would be even a smidge good enough to be published by Arachne Press, in a proper book!
I accidentally joined a (hearing) writing circle, but that too wasn’t easy to follow, but something ignited in me. I read some of the women’s writings in the group and thought they were fabulous! I was invited to some poetry reading events, but being deaf, they were completely inaccessible, and my confidence was shaken. I had no ‘baseline’ to draw from; no peers to learn from about what works, what doesn’t and how to actually write.
I was (still am!) pretty clueless when it comes to ‘proper writing’. One of the local poets called my writing ‘childish and immature’, which could have really turned me off writing, but I’m not easily broken. Maybe that comes from being deaf – thick skin and all that. Then I took part in a fully accessible writing course for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent writers run by Spread The Word; the first time I’d been able to do something where I felt equal… and I did. I didn’t know any of the people on the course, but it was led by the marvellous Jamie Hale and had people like DL Williams and Raymond Antrobous amongst so many others. I wasn’t intimidated, because I didn’t know them, never having been in the writing arena.
I think this is the reason I pressed the ‘submit’ button. Because other people believed in me, so I thought – why not? Nothing to lose! To have my poem Coffee Shop published in this anthology with such incredible people – and edited by Sophie Stone – is just inspiring! I’m so proud that my words are in print! For a new writer who is deaf and pretty much winging it, this is a huge buzz! I mostly write for performance and I know what ‘looks good’ on a stage; I’m bold and fearless and happy to try things out, so seeing that my piece occupies a valid space in a book amongst other authors, is wonderful.
– Both of your poems address issues around the social definitions of deafness and disability. Why did you want to explore this in your work?
Colly: Because it comes easy to me. It’s my lived experience and I could spend all day – all week – telling you sob stories and horror stories about how life is inaccessible (eg the poetry events I don’t go to, or the theatre performances I miss out on), but I don’t want to feel angry and frustrated all the time. I spent years feeling like that, and hearing people stop caring after a while. Writing poetry from a personal experience with some humour, gets the point across more effectively for me. I use my voice a lot when performing live, and I inject BSL as a visual ‘accent’ and often with voice off, which really makes an audience see my point. I’m told that because I use humour, it can ‘disarm’ an audience into thinking it’s fluffy and funny – but the honest twists of experience can make hearing people think about what it means to be deaf, and with deaf audiences, the shared experience makes us nod and agree because we’ve all been there. I don’t always write about deafness, but there is often an element of ‘silence’ in my poetry, which alludes to the inability to hear. I think with Coffee Shop, the references are very relatable for lots of deaf people. I’ve written several pieces on ‘movement’, but this fit the brief and being an anthology of deaf writers, seemed appropriate.
Emma: My poem is about my journey into deafness, crossing the deaf/hard of hearing boundary and the difficulties created by having a largely invisible disability. At home alone, I don’t have to worry about how loud or quiet my voice is. I am in control of what background noise there is and my being hard of hearing doesn’t stop me doing anything that I want to do. However, in social circumstances, barriers are erected. Hearing people don’t think about background noise, someone knocking a glass on a hard floor is an annoyance rather than something that disrupts a conversation, why you might want to text rather than call, why it mattered that subtitles recently disappeared from TV channels, why it’s important that they are accurate, or why I ask how I sound after a poetry reading (and no one answers that question, except to say “you read well” or “you sounded OK” even though “well” and “OK” are not actual sounds).
I don’t want all venues to be library-quiet, but I would like people to think about how noise travels and echoes in spaces and what might be done to accommodate those who can’t or struggle to hear. During the pandemic, when events moved online, it brought accessibility to event organisers’ attention and more effort was made to accommodate those with accessibility needs. I hope that continues as festivals and events open up again. There’s one venue in Leicester that gets it so wrong. When I have to go there, I go straight to the event without stopping for a coffee first, during the interval I do not leave to get a snack or drink and afterwards, I leave and walk to a nearby cafe bar for a drink because I cannot hear a conversation in the venue’s cafe and bar areas and the frequent interruptions from their tannoy (which I only hear as a muffled noise and have no idea what the attempted communication is about) make it difficult to focus to lip-read.
When it comes to equalities monitoring forms and the question “Do you have/consider yourself to have a disability?” I tend to tick “Prefer Not to Say” or “No” if that’s not an option. Especially if it’s part of an audience survey at an event which made zero accommodations for anyone hard of hearing. I don’t want to be responsible for the organisers thinking their event was accessible because they had a tick in their ‘disabled’ box. It’s not about every event having a BSL interpreter (although, in an ideal world, that would be good), but to encourage people to think about their audience and how organisers can meet the audience half-way, instead of expecting the audience to fit a venue that isn’t as accessible as it could be.
– What do you think of each other’s approaches to these issues?
Emma: I love Colly’s humour and am jealous of people who can write humorously. I think it helps that the surly barrista is someone we’ve all met and we welcome the idea of her getting her comeuppance. A few finely-judged details not only set the scene but build characters so they’re not just cyphers. It’s a good way of holding up a mirror and asking: which character do you identify with? How would you handle the situation? Would you have intervened and forced the barrista to serve people in the queued order? Coffee Shop manages to be both light-hearted in tone and thought-provoking.
Colly: I related 100% to Emma’s piece. Her reference to the teacher saw me immediately sitting in the 1970s Maths classroom, and Mister Taylor who talked to the blackboard and threw chalk at me. I never heard anything he said, and I didn’t know I was deaf then; I thought I was stupid… Emma’s words brought all those feelings back, and I completely empathise with her experience. I, too, struggled for a very long time with the ‘border between hard of hearing and deaf’. ‘…hear in monotone’ – oh goodness yes. I read Emma’s dialogue in this conversation too, about feeling that she’s not deaf enough and again, it hit me on a very personal level. And that feeling of being in almost no-mans-land; neither hearing nor deaf. I absolutely felt that. For me, this is all in my past tense; I decided that I would not use the label ‘hard of hearing’ as I grew deafer, I became more comfortable with the word ‘deaf’. It wasn’t easy; I speak well, I too can pass (bluff?) as a hearing person so the word ‘deaf’ took a long time to associate with, but it is right for me now.
– Is there anything that you would like to say to each other, after reading one another’s work?
Colly: I like your piece, Emma. I’m glad (if that’s the right word?) that you felt deaf enough to submit your piece, because it’s certainly how younger me felt about becoming deafer. I’d forgotten how difficult it was, and how far I’ve come in confidence as a deaf person. Your piece describes it perfectly, and I wish you well on your journey. Your writing is clear and powerful and I’d really love to read more. Thank you.
Emma: Please continue to write and share your writing. I think Colly’s background in theatre and performance is a good foundation and her ability to create characters from a clutch of telling details and capture conversation in print will take her far.
– How do you think your own poem sits within the wider collection of work in What Meets the Eye?
Emma: The strength in What Meets the Eye is its diversity of experiences, it touches on the barriers D/deaf and hard of hearing people face, on politics, emotions, prejudice, navigating a hearing world, being part of a family, and it also that there is no one definitive definition of deafness. The voices are various because they belong to people who still have a desire to communicate and be more than just a label. My poem is, rightly so, just my experience.
Colly: I think Coffee Shop sits well as a ‘diary-style-funny-we’ve-all-been-here-and-felt-that-moment’ poem, amongst the incredibly personal and touching words. I write in a relatable way, and Coffee Shop reads like a good ‘lift’ amongst the beautiful, thoughtful and rich pieces. I don’t know what I expected, and I don’t know how I thought I’d feel seeing Coffee Shop with other works, but I’m very proud and happy with the placing of it in the pages, and how the very different styles gel as an anthology – because of their very diverse approaches. A huge success, I feel – and I’m very humbled to be there with these talented deaf writers.
Published on 28 October, Where We Find Ourselves is an anthology of poems and short stories by nearly 40 writers of the Global Majority, from African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Carribean, South American, Chinese and Malay communities, writing about maps and mapping. In this book you will find stories and poems of finding oneself and getting lost, colonialism and diaspora, childhood exploration and adult homecoming.
Where We Find Ourselves is a book that is intended to start conversations and we can’t wait to hear what our reviewers and guest bloggers have to say.
You can find all the content from the blog tour here:
One thing that really struck us when we first read Accidental Flowers, Lily Peter’s novel-in-short-stories, was the descriptions of the numerous canine characters.
As this week is #LondonDogWeek AND #NationalDogWeek over in the U.S, we asked Lily to rank her favourite dogs from classic and contemporary literature. Disagree? Tweet us @ArachnePress with your favourite fictional hounds.
An Author’s Best Friend – Lily’s Greyhounds
I wrote, illustrated and bound my first book when I was eight years old. Its main character was not a plucky young girl who dreamt of becoming a bestselling author, but rather a very lazy and quite fat Dalmation named Slobdog. Although for an eight-year-old, my spelling and grammar were excellent, there are, perhaps, superior literary dogs that should be celebrated:
To begin, let us put our paws together for Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. A wise terrier, with a sensible aversion to tornadoes. He is the best friend a lost girl could have and has excellent people instincts (which I find to be true of most dogs), revealing the Wizard for the sham that he is.
Next, we have the entire cast of dogs present in Dog Boy, by Eva Hornung. The novel tells the story of abandoned, four-year-old Ramochka and his hero dog, Mamochka, who adopts him as one of her own. He grows and learns with a pack of feral hounds – becoming one himself. It is a beautiful story that celebrates the canine moral code and it has a growl of an ending that will not disappoint.
Then, of course, there is the heart-wrenching folk tale (folk-tail?) of Hound Gelert. In Welsh folklore, the story goes that Llewelyn the Great wrongly accuses his own faithful pooch of killing his infant son. As he administers a fatal blow to Gelert, he hears his son crying and discovers him safely hidden, beside the corpse of a wolf – whom Gelert had obviously slain. Realising his mistake, Llewelyn is doomed to forever hear Gelert’s indignant, dying yelp.
Serves Llewelyn right.
It is my firm belief that we humans don’t always deserve our dogs. And yet, they keep finding us and loving us with huge generosity. Many of my favourite characters share their fictional spaces with beloved creatures and nowhere is this more true than in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman depicts a world in which every human shares their living days with an animal extension of themselves, their Daemon. When we adopted our greyhounds, Jasper and Joni, I knew I had found my very own pair: long-legged busy-bodies, with a ridiculous love of salty snacks and an inability to cope with change.
In my novel-in-short-stories, Accidental Flowers, dogs abound. Abandoned, beloved or left behind, they pad their way through the stories, sniffing out adventure and love. I can’t pick a favourite. Perhaps Juliet, a ghost of a Jack Russell who haunts the pages of her story with her vital loyalty and companionship? Or maybe Boatswain, a greying lurcher and huge fan of the beach, so long as the sea stays where it should? Can either of them compare to Argos, whose friendship and quiet, fuzzy-eyebrowed understanding helps one protagonist discover their true self as the world lurches to a stop?
How can I choose?
Best to let someone else decide for me, while I take the dogs for a walk.
Margaret wrote this for us during the second lockdown. My fault that it hasn’t seen the light until now, but as Margaret cant join us for the Q&A part of hte festival, here are her thoughts on writing for the Solstice.
A young girl is standing on tiptoe, gazing into the little mirror on the wall-mounted bathroom-cabinet. She is glaring, frowning, pushing her chin down into her neck, clenching her lips, flaring her nostrils. Is this how she will look when – if – she is 60?
When she is 20, she is contemplating the pattern of her future life, rather than her face. She expects to complete her degree and post-graduate courses, then to work in her chosen profession. To conform with her peers, she must get engaged, then married, and have her first child by the time she is 25. All these are essential to her status as a woman. She should work for at least two years, then stay at home to care for the children. In due course, she should seek re-employment in her profession, accepting that she has missed the chance of promotion. By the time she is 60, her main use will be as a grandmother (when, by some miracle, she should have learnt to knit).
Her five years at University will have been financed by grants, which she will not have to repay. Gratitude for her superb education will be expressed through work, as it has been throughout her life. For of course, I’m writing about myself.
My life – and face – have not followed the expected pattern, and I’ve had many challenges and opportunities which I could never have anticipated. Achievements and disappointments, losses and gains. Times have gone by turns, and continue so to do. I am not who I thought I would be, and I’m still learning, changing, exploring. (But I have still not learnt to knit).
The Solstice Shorts poem [Tymes goe by Turnes by Robert Southwell] spoke to my condition. My recent writing has focused on ideas about identity and change. Spidergirl [Published in Arachne eighth anniversary anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book] avoids identifying time, place and skin colour. The challenge was to evoke two physical bodies through one first-person narrative voice.
Turner’s World of Twirls [published in Tymes goe by Turnes, the Solstice Shorts 2020 anthology, and read on 21st December at the online festival] was spun out of my self-challenge to explore more aspects of identity-fluidity, including attribution of gender. Playing with the word ‘turner,’ I enjoyed finding a range of possible lives for the narrator who must, at the end of each decade, change both occupation and gender-identity.
Although I have never been anything but solidly heterosexual female, I have ‘failed’ in the role which, when I was young, was identified as essentially ‘female,’ and a necessary attribute of successful womanhood. I have, in other words, not borne children. But I have been employed in situations of equality with men. Most of the changes in my own life have been from choice, for my qualifications and profession provided a variety of opportunities for rewarding employment. (Social worker, lecturer, playwright, cook…) I’m proud of what I regard as my ‘ramshackle’ career.
When I wrote Turner’s World of Twirls, first lockdown was in full force. It was difficult to find energy to fuel imagination, but imagination created its own energy and I loved twirling in Turner’s world. Writing this now, in the middle of second lockdown, I discern a darker shadow in the story. Daily, I hear of people who have lost their employment and, with that, not only their living but also their sense of identity. For example, a young actress who had just been cast in the part of her dreams, and a retired teacher who had run out of conversation with her husband. After many rejected job applications, the actress is happily working as a classroom assistant, while maintaining her hope that she will, before long, return to the stage. The retired teacher leaves the house for a few hours a day to work, (I think) as a cleaner, which gives her something new to talk about, instead of bickering with her husband. But there are many stories of anxiety, and privation.
Turner’s transformations result from the desire for change. Mine derived from response to necessity and ability to take advantage of opportunity. Even when the change was necessary rather than voluntary, like Turner, I’ve always been fortunate in turning the new situation to good effect. Although Turner makes a demonic deal, there is hope. When I wrote the story, I had no idea how much hope would be needed by this year’s Solstice.
Nothing I write could be straightforward. After many polishing and tweakings, I submitted the story. Cherry, meticulous as ever, queried one of my core statements, which depended on Medieval table legs being turned. Until then, I had assumed that turners, carpenters and joiners were all the same. I plunged into the enthralling world of woodworkers and learnt not only the error of my ignorance, but the pleasure of new knowledge. Although there were Medieval turners, they were unlikely to have been turning table legs. To discover how I pirouetted out of trouble, please read the story.
25th November 2020
If you order a copy of the book BEFORE publication date (this thursday 17th December, you get a free ticket ot the festival.)
Sometime in January, Spidergirl was born, after what was, for me, an unusually brief gestation. Arachne’s call for submissions about spiders was a challenge I couldn’t decline. What did I know about arachnids? silk, strength, multiple births, delicate webs, agility. I ignored the fragments of fly-corpses on the laundry windowsill, & the cobweb tangle above. With only a few days before the deadline, and minimal arachnoid background, I avoided natural history, and I had no ideas for a straightforward human narrative. How could I interweave spideriness with humanity?
As I considered the purpose of the anthology, I saw that celebrating Arachne implied facing the horror at the core of the foundation myth: jealousy, rivalry, punishment, death. I challenged myself to explore the Arachne myth in the light of cooperation rather than conflict. Myths are about both everyday experience and mystery.
Mysteriously, I found Spidergirl attending my own school. The gym, in which Spidergirl performs feats of grace and power, was for me a torture chamber. My gymnastic efforts were devoted to avoiding the humiliation of failing to vault over box or horse, climb wall bars or swing on rope; I would generously remain at the back of the queue. My only achievement was walking along the narrow strut of an upturned form, using the balancing exercise to practise what would become essential for a writer – imagination: the floor, ten inches below my hesitating feet, became a fiery pit or turbulent torrent into which I must not fall.
The craft room caused equal anxiety. Most of my relations were – or are – highly talented in many arts and crafts. My own hands missed all those genes. But music has come to me through my father and paternal grandfather.
Love of literature and interest in myth was nourished by the tall glass-fronted bookcase in the dark corridor where from early childhood I was free to sit on prickly coconut matting and read whatever I chose. No surprise that my degree is in English Literature. No surprise either that, after forty years writing ‘professional’ texts about communicating with children in the context of social work, health care, and education, I began to explore other forms. In my 60s, with my husband, I’d also taught (adult education), and researched and written about English Literature. Since I became 70, my publications include short stories, poems, flash fiction and plays; Script in Hand has performed three plays (the fourth prevented, for now, by C-19).
Spidergirl, in a few hundred words, encapsulates the nearly 80 years of reading and writing between that girl with matting-prickled thighs and this woman whose legs are vein-webbed.
This year, Arachne has brought me more than publication in an anthology whose quality delights me. In the spring, I offered a guest blog – not a form which comes easily to me, so another challenge. But being stimulated to write anything at all helped to counteract that extraordinary lethargy which has beset so many people. I spent hours writing as well as I could, following that first blog with another, which Cherry posted, and a third which she didn’t. Although I was disappointed, good outcomes included the stimulus of thinking about and writing the piece, which led to further reading. And I’ve been enjoying the blogs & interviews, meeting and learning about and from other writers.
Then came the call for Tymes goe by Turnes, another challenge I couldn’t refuse. I followed leads which led, not to a story, but into fascinating areas of thought, narrative and discussion on our walks around the nearby field. Once again, Arachne called me out of lethargy, and Turner’s World of Twirls whirled me into the world of word play. Once again, I’ve enjoyed the excitement of acceptance, of posting the signed contract, of looking forward to the next publication.
Throughout these months, I’ve come to respect Cherry. I’m grateful for meticulous, patient, and honest editing which assures me that my work has really been read and, in turn, respected. I admire clear editorial principles and quality. I enjoy being a small thread in Arachne’s web.
The title poem from my Arachne Press collection, The Significance of a Dress, is set in a wedding hire shop in a refugee camp in Iraq. People can be left in limbo, unable to return to the country they’ve left, and not yet able to integrate into the country they’ve applied for asylum in. Processing applications is rarely a priority and people can find themselves in camps for years, decades even. The camps’ residents are mostly young men. One reason is that they don’t have caring responsibilities so it’s easier for them to travel alone and they’re often sent on ahead, with other relatives planning to join them once they’ve settled. Another reason is that they are at risk of being conscripted either into the armed forces or into rebel militia. While girls don’t generally have that concern, girls do have to find ways of coping with sexual harassment and finding protection. In the camps, refugees are still expected to pay for food and utilities. Women can find themselves thrust into finding ways of becoming a family’s main breadwinner. No doubt some marriages are love matches, but others are about buying protection or settling dowries. Whatever the motivation behind the marriage, “a bride still wants to feel special, at least for one day.” When “The future is tomorrow. Next year is a question./ A wedding is a party, a sign of hope.”
In most cultures, a bride-to-be is made to feel that a wedding dress is the most significant choice she has. It may be an heirloom dress, worn by a mother or grandmother. It may be a dress of her choosing that incorporates memories of family members who can no longer attend the wedding, whether a sash in a late relative’s favourite colour, a borrowed pair of shoes, or a favourite flower in the bride’s bouquet. Some women have been planning their dress long before there was a groom. Whether the bride is looking for an extravagant ballgown or a slinky sheath for a beach wedding, or a trouser suit, it’s also likely to be the most expensive dress she’ll buy. Most brides will plan to shop with close friends or relatives, with the expectation of being put centre stage with a wide choice to try on. Where do you find a wedding dress if you’re stuck in a camp, possibly with restrictions on where you can travel and shop, and still under cultural pressure to make your day significant?
In one camp a woman, who’d worked in the fashion industry, set up a wedding hire shop to earn for her family. The title poem is based on an interview with her. The dresses were original brought in via her former fashion industry contacts, but she also uses seamstresses based in the camp to repair and alter gowns. A team of beauticians offer hair and make-up styling that won’t melt in the desert heat and will stay in place in the humid evenings so that the bride can have her big day. There is a risk some of the brides are underage, and the staff in the shop never ask the bride-to-be how old she is. A small group of women can’t police a camp, and they understand the desperation of a family.
The Significance of a Dress
Time and Tide
My poem Casting a Daughter Adrift (from Time and Tide), looks at a wedding from a mother’s viewpoint. This mother has turned to needlework to earn money to feed the family, but it aware she can’t offer much protection against the harassment in the camps, “This man I have agreed to/ in her father’s absence/ I hope will protect her.” The journey from what was hope to the camp has aged her, “The shop’s cracked, foxed mirror/ tells me I’m decades older than my bones.” Neither of them can go back, “The house she was born in is rubble”. Yet she still wants this day to be special for her daughter, “The final payment is the last of my savings/ but I have one less mouth to feed.” Despite her desperation, she is proud of her daughter, “I’m going to let her go,/ my desert flower will bloom.”
Whatever your feelings on marriage, whether you want to get married or not, it’s hard to resist the idea of a wedding as a celebration and a note of hope amongst people whose lives have been devastated by war.
Emma Lee is a regular contributor to our anthologies, and her collection The Significance of a Dress, really fell foul of the Corona virus, with multiple events cancelled, and one of the launches delayed and venue moved. Instead of moping (which must have been tempting) Emma has been very generous with her time, writing this blog and contributing interviews to the website.
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