Tag Archives: writing

Arabic literature goes west

For many in the West, the term ‘Middle East’ connotes military action and political reaction. But behind the sobering news reports is a rich literary world waiting to be discovered.

Born millennia apart, King Ashurbanipal of Assyria and the contemporary literary journal, Banipal, have more in common than their names. Just like the 7th century monarch, who collected texts from across the neo-Assyrian empire to create the first library in the ancient Middle East, the UK-based publication compiles contemporary writing from all over the Arab world – albeit in English translation.

I came across Banipal at the International Literary Festival Berlin (ilb), where its founders, Samuel Shimon and Margaret Obank, were talking about their efforts to make Arab literature accessible to the wider world. Their new magazine, Kikah,translates the other direction, aiming to introduce readers in the Middle East to uncensored, high-quality Arabic translations of international literature.

In its blurb about the Banipal and Kikah event, the ilb program referred to the West’s “rudimentary knowledge of the Arab world,” claiming that only three percent of books published in the US are translations from other languages. Three percent? That seemed too meager to be true. But further research supports the claim, and what’s more, the scenario is repeated in the UK. Read on

The man with the death wish

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Picture this: It is early morning in a major European capital. It is snowing and the roads, the pavements are slippery. Treacherously so. You are standing at a major intersection trying to warm your hands by blowing into them – because again you forgot your gloves – when the lights change. Eager to be wrapped in the arms of the indoors, you cross as quickly as the ice underfoot will allow. As you walk, thinking of that warmth, yet feeling none of it, a man coming towards you catches your attention.

He does this by crossing himself and saying something you cannot discern beneath the roar of the passing traffic. You think it is an unusual thing to do in this part of this city, where religion is considered more slippery than the ground on which you currently stand. In the split second you are granted to learn as much as your own experience of life can tell you about this man, you acknowledge that his black tracksuit, purple hat, and briefcase are not a common combination.

When you have crossed half of the six lanes of cars and buses, you turn back to look at the man who crossed himself. What you see makes your heart beat fast enough to thaw your freezing blood. He is walking, this man, diagonally through the traffic to which he appears frighteningly oblivious. He is walking on very thin ice, and you want to tell him so. You want to save him from himself, because you now understand that his religious gesture of a moment ago was in prelude to this, his final act.

You want to close your eyes, because you cannot bear to witness what will be an ugly, messy death. But you don’t. You keep them open, as if that alone will prevent the inevitable. You watch him intently, and in that you are alone. Nobody else saw him cross himself and then walk headlong into the motorised fray. Nobody else is aware of what he is doing. You do not want to be party to his plot, but you suspect you are.

So you continue to watch. You might prey yourself if that were the kind of thing you do in such situations. Instead you cross your fingers. And it works. Haltingly, miraculously, the traffic grants him the extended stay of welcome you suspect he does not really want. He reaches the other side unscathed, and you allow yourself to consider the possibility that you were wrong in your surmise. Perhaps he does not have a death wish, this man. Perhaps he is just a fool. Now he really has your attention. He carries it into a cobbled side street, and you feel some relief because this path appears to be one of normality.

But he gives it a twist, this man. He does not make use of the broad pavement, which come the summer will play host to tables and chairs and people who may or may not care about this man’s follies as you now do. He sticks to the road. To its very centre, where his presence has no purpose but to be a hazard to drivers and to itself. You wince as a car screeches to a halt near him. You are too far away to hear the driver’s rebuke, but you are certain that her car is filling with the angry relief she feels at having saved herself from claiming an unwanted life.

You are beginning to feel that this man is too much of a responsibility for you alone. But you cannot leave him now. Can you? He marches on, and although he does not look round, he veers slightly to the left, giving you the sense that he is about to relinquish his place in the middle of the road. You are right. He is walking towards the pavement. He is on the pavement. He is safe. You relax the muscles you did not realise you were tensing. But you do not leave your spot. Not yet. After the journey you have had with this man, you want to accompany him safely into a shop or a café, to deliver him into someone else’s hands.

You do not have to wait for long. He opens the door to a small establishment that sells antiques and offers a photocopying service. You know the place, and have always considered it a clumsy combination. A mismatch of china and copiers, ink and must. But that is not on your mind today. Today you are glad of that shop, because he is in it, and you can go on your way.

You start to walk, the cold reclaiming you as you go. You move quickly, dimly aware that you want to put the shop out of sight before that man, who is no longer this man, emerges. In your mind you try to picture him buying the blue rimmed china you know they sell. But the image is more fragile than the antiques in involves. The one that fills your thoughts is of him, briefcase open by his side, making copies of all his important documents. Not least his will. Because you know what you saw. At least you think you did.

Knocking on the workshop door

I read an interview with writer Jenn Ashworth the other day, in which she spoke (among other things) about how belonging to a writer’s group can be a useful way of pinpointing which parts of a draft do and don’t work.

I totally get where she’s coming from. I love writing workshops. I remember the first one I attended, and how the nervousness I felt in anticipation of the event was unexpectedly dwarfed by the thrill of hearing people – then strangers – voice their considered opinions about my words, plot, characters etc.

I have since been a part of several different workshop groups, and have been along to a number of one-off meetings, and I can say with the exception of one session I have found them all to be hugely, wonderfully helpful. Not only as a way of divining what works (both from other’s comments and writing), but as a means of growing confidence; of knowing when to listen to the instincts of a reader, and when to trust my own.

I mentioned in an earlier post about unruly children that I was attending a series of (play and screenplay) workshop run by CJ Hopkins. Those have now finished, and it won’t be long before the final draft of the play I presented at them will be too.

I may have reached the same point of near completion in the same time frame without a string of Tuesday night trips to a writer’s room in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, but even if I had, I think there would still be question marks hanging over the piece. And the only one I want to see hanging anywhere is at the end.

Click here to read the Jenn Ashworth interview, conducted by writer Rachel Connor

Category: Berlin, plays, Writing | Tags: , ,

Unruly children

I was asked to write a post for the blog about Molly Eyre. When I asked if there was anything specific I ought to be writing, I was told “something about your new play…”  Here is what I decided on. A little piece about badly behaved characters.

I have come to realise there are some similarities between raising children and giving a voice to characters in a work of fiction. Prime among them is that they refuse to do as they are told. I’m working on a play at the moment, and following some insights I gleaned at a series of workshops given by CJ Hopkins, I decided to try and replace my rather ambling approach to plotting with something more systematic.

It was a departure, and within a relatively short space of time, I knew exactly what was going to happen in my second act, as opposed to just having a rough idea. When I sat down to put flesh on the bones of my plot, I could almost hear my one-time tutor Richard Beard, novelist and director of the National Academy of Writing (NAW), cheering me on. (“Write towards something, Tamsin…”) So I did.

I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote some more. But my characters were not saying what I wanted them to, and they were certainly not sticking to my carefully mapped out plot. On the contrary, they were tearing it up as if they were two year-olds and it were a crisp newspaper.  And when they finally ran out of energy, and were sitting in a sea of paper sheds, tired out from the sheer exhilaration of being alive and thoroughly disobedient, they looked at me and started to cry for help.

My response was to take them out for a run. When I run, I sort out my writing questions. Unblock my blocks. Time and again. So we ran; my characters and I. And as we went, I laid down some ground rules. I told them that from now on in, we would be writing the play my way, not theirs. There would be no more plot shredding. They would go where I said, when I said, and what’s more, they would say what I said. They conceded, and by the end of the run, I had them back under control.

On that basis, we started over. We trotted along nicely for the first seven pages of Act II, and I allowed myself to think “this not so hard after all”. But then just as we were moving onto page eight, they suddenly reared, broke free of their reins and galloped off around a corner. I had two choices: I could let them go and follow them with interest, or try and catch them up and bring them back into line. I opted for the former.

They are still going, and I am still interested. So for now I have decided to stick to my more ambling plotting methods; the ones that allow my characters to become who they are going to become without too much meddling from me. I’m sure I will still offer them advice from time to time, and I hope that even if they don’t actively listen, they at least hear, and that the essence of what I try to teach them will reveal itself in surprising and beautiful ways.

Being a protagonist

Despite her lover’s protestations that everyone wants to be at the centre of public attention in one way or another, the main character of Impersonation, Ruth, is not easy being protagonist. I get where she is coming from. A few years ago, I was unsettled to find aspects of myself, my home and my children in a book. It was a bitter parting gift that took the idea of writing what one knows to the extreme. Have you ever had a similar experience? Do you embrace the idea of being a muse no matter what, or do you value your privacy too much to want to see yourself in words. I would love to hear your thoughts on being written about…