Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Writers are Hunter-Gatherers

A lot of writers talk about the gathering stage of writing. This stage can involve reading around the literature which relates to your novel, reading books by writers you admire and books on a similar genre and theme.
The gathering stage is also the time for research.
 I've recently been researching the little ships which left Hayling Island for Dunkirk, for my novel, HIDDEN, coming out next year. This photo shows me on the bridge of Count Dracula, moored at a boatyard on Hayling, which went to Dunkirk, May 31st 1940. She rescued over 700 men.

The gathering stage of writing for me also involves a lot of thinking, perhaps not even taking notes, just thinking and thinking myself into my characters and situation until I come to the point where I am ready to write.

But recently it has occurred to me that there is a stage before the Gathering. That is the Hunter stage. History is a great passion of mine and I think that I would have been most at home at the end of the Ice-Age in the great days of the nomadic Hunter-Gatherers, who followed the herds of edible animals along the the edge of the Ice Sheet. Once they had tamed horses and could ride above the landscape their sense of freedom and engagement with their environment was probably the greatest in human history. It was also a time when I believe women would have had more freedom than later on when people settled in one place and were more easily controlled.

This is a close-up of the old flint beds in the chalk seams on Hayling. There were thriving Iron Age communities on the Island and a very important salt industry which eventually attracted the attention of the Romans.

If I had lived at that time I would have been a healer, studying the plants for medical properties. My mother was a nurse in the Navy in the Second World War and she taught me a lot about managing illness.
I think I would also have been an artist, painting my stories on animal skins and carving beads for jewellery.

And yes, all this is very fanciful, but then isn't that exactly the characteristic a writer needs? Here I am, living in 2010, in an equally rich and challenging environment and my calling is to be a writer of fiction and poetry.As I have been writing since childhood, my antennae are always up. I am always hunting through my world, for stories and words, landscapes and images and once I have settled on a new project - poem, short story, novel - only then does the gathering stage begin.

This is the stage of greatest focus. If I simply continue to hunt I will have a notebook full of What ifs? and no finished product. There is always another great story out there waiting to be written and my antennae are so sensitive, I see possible stories and poems everyday. But I have to take control, decide on my focus and start the long task of gathering before I begin the momentous work of actually writing and crafting my idea.

How do you hunt and gather? Share your ideas with us.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Writers making the world legible

Imagine trying to write a book in Arabic or Cantonese and your mother tongue is firmly English. This is what it is like for writers who are forced into exile. Not only must they learn a new language but if they cannot suppress their desire to write then they must also try to create fiction in their adopted language.
Once the book is written, what chance of translation into English? Only 3% of the 150,000 or so books published in Britain each year are literary translations.
 English PEN's remit since its foundation in 1921 has been to "give a voice to the voiceless." This year The Writers' in Translation programme is celebrating its fifth year of supporting authors, especially raising the profile of authors at risk.

Amanda Hopkinson, Professor of Translation at the University of East Anglia and founder chair of Writers in Translation, stressed the importance of this work at an event for two supported PEN writers, Eli Amir and Atiq Rahimi, in the Islington Waterstones in June. Amanda told the audience that the writers of the first two books which were translated have been killed since publication. In many parts of the world it is a dangerous occupation being a writer.
Atiq Rahimi, pictured here with his translator flew in specially from Paris for events this week. Originally from Afghanistan he was exiled to France and wrote his novel,The Patience Stone, in French. Atiq told us that writing in French was very liberating. "Language is like a skin. Living in exile away from your own country, language becomes an obsession." Atiq's novel challenges the taboos around women in Afghani society He is not readily accepted into the Afghani exiled community in Paris, let alone in his home country. "I know I cause pain when I write of these matters but a writer must challenge the edges of received views."

Eli Amir was born in Baghdad into the Iraqi Jewish community. As a teenager he went into exile with over 90% of his community who all left within a year, "unprecedented in the history of refugees," Eli told us. "Only one place would take us, Israel." He went on to become a ministerial adviser on Arab affairs and immigrant absorption.
 Eli's first language is Judeo-Arabic and he only "technically" wrote his novels in Hebrew. He heard the book in Arabic in his head, in the voices of his mother and father arguing in Arabic and so in his novels, "I wrote down what they said."

In The Dove Flyer Eli Amir recreates Baghdad in the 1940s. He describes a society in chaos, as if in the middle of an earthquake and everyone has a dream. But ultimately like the wings of a dove the dreams of the main characters are broken as they go into exile. "I write to show the pain, the sorrow, the insult of losing a homeland,"  says Amir.The Dove Flyer is the first in a trilogy about the interface between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Eli feels that The Dove Flyer will help people to understand what erupted in Iraqi society in the 1940s. "I could smell it in the air. Within 10 years all the leadership was gone." The Jewish community was forced into exile. "The difference between Atiq and me," Eli told the audience," is that he has the privilege now to visit Afghanistan. I cannot return to Baghdad because I am the enemy. They will kill me."
I have published a more extensive interview with Eli Amir which you can read here.

So what is it like to experience your work in different languages?
Atiq told us, "Language remains a mystery." His choice of language has a huge impact on the rhythm of his work. For this new novel he chose French over Persian for just that reason.
Eli was asked in Germany, "How did you feel hearing you book read in German?"
He smiled and said, "In my left ear was German, in my right ear was Arabic, my father's voice and I followed in my Hebrew version of the book from right to left."
Ultimately Eli wrote his book so that his children will know where he came from and also so that they would understand their grandparents background. "I wanted to recreate the city of my childhood which I loved so much and to keep it with me so I can hang it at night like I hang the book," he said.

Leila Kogba, Director of Strategy and Partnerships in Islington, introduced the evening which was a part of Refugee Week.Herself a refugee from the Biafran War she said that she had never thought of herself as a refugee until she read about the war in  Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie. "Writing is the most powerful way to tell a story," she said.

English PEN has produced a marvellous book, Making the World Legible, to mark five years of Writers in Translation with extracts from all the writers. You can download the book here.

Writers in Translation is a powerful force for good in the world.
                     Andrew Motion

A vibrant border-crossing revelation of contemporary international literature...what writing is all about.
                    Ali Smith

What a wonderful and indispensable project this is.
                 Amit Chaudhuri

How can there be peace without us knowing each other? 
                  Eli Amir speaking in Cairo.

Listen to a radio interview with Eli Amir.