Thursday, 13 December 2018

'The Bangle Man'

I saw a gorgeous photo on Twitter of a bangle-seller, choori-wallah, and it made me think of my flash fiction 'The Bangle Man', which first appeared in the anthology 50 stories for Pakistan, published eight years ago to raise money for victims of the 2010 floods.

Every day he arranges the fruit outside his shop. He wears an old grey sweater, thin trousers and chappals. He has a limp. Molly wants to tell him he causes her beautiful pain, this old man with dark skin. He makes her think of the bangle man. They'd spent a summer in Pakistan when she was a child - almost thirty years ago. They’d stopped off at Damascus, her white mother holding her hand tightly. The man drinking tea in the airport looked sad, he had bloodshot eyes. She thought about him for a long time. She wondered why he was so sad. Then she thought all men with dark skin looked sad. Except her uncle in Islamabad, he was always laughing. He called the ants in the sugar Tom and Ann. The ants were huge, Molly had never seen them so big. Her uncle drove them to Murree hill station. She cried all the way up, there were hairpin bends and hardly any barriers. Her mother was scared too, but trying to pretend everything was fine. At the top her uncle bought her a pink basket and cracked a walnut between his palms.

When Faiza Auntie said the bangle man was coming Molly was excited as she’d never met a bangle man. The bangle man looked poor and thin. He had bloodshot eyes like the man in Damascus. His cart stood outside the house and Faiza Auntie  squeezed red glass bangles onto her arm. The bangles broke. She got angry and blamed the bangle man. It wasn’t the bangle man’s fault, Molly later told her mother as they lay on the giant white bed, looking up at the fan. Faiza Auntie  is too fat! The fan was like a helicopter.

Molly’s cousins said she looked like a boy with her short hair. They dressed her mother in a sari, wrapping her up, giggling. The sari was blue with silver stars. It reminded Molly of her Heidi book and the illustration of a midnight sky. She told her cousins but they’d never heard of Heidi. She missed her Heidi book and wished she hadn’t left it at home. She wrote an airmail letter to her best friend and told her about Tom and Ann and the bangle man. She told her about Tin Tin, the ice cream man. The ice cream was green. She told her that everyone said Acha and wore chappals. She told her about the morning all the white breakfast dishes slid off the table. She didn’t know until later this was an earthquake.
 *
It's autumn and the old man is arranging the fruit outside his shop. He has changed his chappals for socks and sandals. Molly walks past and smiles.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Autobiographical novel: 'a prosthetic voice' (Alexander Chee). And (films of) Guru Dutt

I recently dipped into Alexander Chee's collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I find reading about writing to be reassuring: you learn things that you already knew but didn't know you knew. It's the kind of book where you want to write down fragments and keep them close to your heart. Chee describes his first (autobiographical) novel as a 'prosthetic voice', which gives voice to those things too difficult to speak about, in his case, sexual abuse. His image of prosthesis is, I think,  quite brilliant.
And so while I wrote this novel, it didn't feel like I could say that I chose to write this novel. The writing felt both like an autonomic process, as compulsory as breathing or the beat of the heart, and at the same time as if an invisible creature had moved into a corner of my mind and begun building itself, making visible parts out of things dismantled from my memory, summoned from my imagination. I was spelling out a message that would allow me to talk to myself and to others. The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would lie, or I would feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when the novel was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice.

The State of Me - hard to believe it was published ten years ago, its message as relevant today - wasn't for me a fictionalisation  about something too difficult to talk about, but rather a representation of the anger and injustice that people with ME have felt for decades due to a wilful reframing/misrepresentation of the illness by a core of the medical/political establishment. The novel had to be written, but the difficulties in writing it were much more the physical/cognitive challenges of ME than an inability to voice the subject. (I also, of course, faced the structural challenges of writing a novel that face all writers, ill or not.)

Chee's concept of  'prosthetic voice' does, though, resonate for me when I go to the project/novella which is partly about my late Pakistani father, the project that often has me thinking of Bernard MacLaverty's description of writing as 'a way of trying out different fathers'. This is exactly what I am doing - when I can - and something in me is a little broken the whole time. The theme of my novella is 'not knowing'.

It's fascinating to learn about writers/artists who would have been contemporaries of my father. I've just discovered Guru Dutt, an Indian director and actor, famous for Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) and Chaudhvin Ka Chand. Dutt died aged only thirty-nine in 1964 from probable suicide, he had mixed sleeping pills and alcohol.  He had attempted suicide before. Knowing Dutt's life story made it even more emotional watching Pyaasa, the story of a shunned poet, who only finds success when he is (wrongly) presumed dead. And Kaagaz Ke Phool, a melodramatic tale of a director's flop (prescient as Kaagaz Ke Phool also flopped) - had me in tears at the end. Real tears rolling down my cheeks.  When we respond to films we are, of course, not responding to just the fictional narrative but to the narratives in our own lives. I especially love the framing of the film - the opening and closing scenes - with Suresh Sinha as an old man looking back on his life.

I thought of Saddat Hasan Manto and wondered if he had ever met Dutt in Bombay (Manto left his beloved Bombay for Lahore shortly after partition). When googling Manto and Dutt, I came across this review, which likens Guru Dutt's Pyaasa to Nandita Das's recent biopic Manto. Manto and Dutt certainly shared sensibilities, a concern for those in the margins, those disenfranchised, in Manto's case specifically those harmed by Partition (on both sides).

Manto was seven years older than my father. Dutt was six years younger than my father. All were in Bombay in 1947. My father was not working in film, or as a writer, he was a medical student, who had interrupted his studies to join the Indian Air Force during the Second World War. What these three  men would come to have in common was an addiction to alcohol, an addiction tragically implicated in all of their deaths. They were not old men when they died, Manto was forty-two, my father was fifty-three (I was eight). I fancifully allow myself to imagine the three of them meeting up in Bombay before Partition, wondering what they would have spoken about.

I've discovered that Nasreen Munni Kabir made a Channel 4 documentary  in 1989 called In Search of Guru Dutt. I have ordered her book on Dutt. The beautiful and luminous Waheeda Rehman appears in all three films mentioned above. I understand that she and Dutt had an  affair, which ended his marriage to Geeta Dutt.  Geeta Dutt was also the hugely talented playback singer for Rehman's songs. Geeta, I have read, had a breakdown and became alcoholic after Dutt's death. She died in 1972, leaving behind their three children, two sons and a daughter, Nina (Nina was just a baby when her father died). It is heartbreaking that Tarun Gutt, their eldest son also took his own life and Arun Dutt - who was involved in preserving his father's legacy - died of alcohol-related illness in 2014.

Having now also seen Chaudhvin Ka Chand I am left with a huge nostalgia for a period in Indian film-making in 1950s I did not even live through. I think the melodrama, the heightened reality, the muted gorgeousness of monochrome all tap into a process in my head and heart (the not knowing). The wonderful singer for Guru Dutt, in these three films, is Mohammed Rafi, who died aged fifty-five (though it is Hemant Kumar who sings 'Jane Woh Kaise Log' in Pyaasa). I also loved the actor 'Johnny Walker', who brought humanity and slapstick (much needed, to balance the sadness) in his role as the masseur in Pyaasa. I have read Johhny Walker and Guru Dutt were great friends in real life.

Reading Chee's essays and watching Dutt's films, something collided gently in me - it reinforced how important art and film and fiction are in understanding our lives, both for those who create the art and those who consume. Making the hard stuff bearable.


Friday, 29 June 2018

'Elsa and the heron'


This flash fiction was longlisted for TSS summer flash fiction 2018 award.  Longlist and shortlist here.

Elsa and the heron

He sighed, one of the lens caps was missing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been here. He banged his fist on the grass as if trying to shake out the memory. His legs were stiff from sitting. He raised the binoculars. Two mallards cruised by, their necks purple in the sun. By the time they’d passed, they were green again. The heron stood, stately – it was always there. He poured tea from the flask. The red plastic cup reminded him of Elsa. He smiled and wondered where his house key was. He checked his trouser pockets. His trousers were stained. He lifted the binoculars again, just in time to see the heron catching a fish. The fish struggled and twisted silver as it was gulped down. Turnstones arrived, as if on cue. They landed, blending into the beach and rocks. He loved this line of coast. A woman had given him watercolours last time and he’d obediently painted white yachts and blue water. He’d made the gulls red. The heron plunged again. He wondered where his house key was and sipped the warm, plastic tea. The woman who’d given him the crayons said you could have a picnic on your own, there didn’t have to be other people, it was still a picnic. She’d asked why the gulls were red and chided him gently about the stains on his sweater. The woman knew Elsa and even looked like her. She’d been at her funeral. He thought of Elsa now and looked at the heron. He wondered if the heron would find his house key, which was not lost, after all, but glinting under the water. The heron was standing stately, still again.


Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Ten years since The State of Me - publishing & illness (&Lionel Shriver)

This August it will  be ten years since the The State of Me was published. I'm still very proud of the novel and it remains my weapon in the fight for truth about my illness. A decade has been enough time for me to get over the roller coaster of the publishing process - and I have happily mostly forgotten the shock of it all. It was like a never-ending game of snakes and ladders. As a result of the liquidation of my indie publisher, the novel did not receive the marketing it should have done - but I remain very grateful my precious work was not lost in the drama and that HarperCollins rescued the book. This review by writer Elizabeth Baines remains one of my favourite reviews.

The path to being published was though unbelievably stressful and possibly contributed to my later developing idiopathic bilateral uveitis, a rare and serious autoimmune eye condition, where your iris attacks itself. It was a truly awful time, pouring steroids into my eyes, with the side effects of increased eye pressure, which also had to be treated (I'm sure ME was implicated and I still get six-monthly checks at eye hospital). I still remember at the time a friend telling me not to read  José Saramago's Blindness, which I, of course, did read.

If I were well, I'd no doubt be on to my third, or even fourth novel, by now, but I live necessarily in the margins of the writing world. It is often said you are only as good as your last book, but I'm happy to say that my novel is still being read quietly in the background, giving people pleasure and educating about ME.

I was delighted recently that Nick Duerden, a journalist and writer who has made a good recovery from his own very disabling postviral illness, messaged me and said he found the book 'very powerful and gripping'. He also said: 'You write fear, confusion and anger very well indeed. It moved me'. Nick is author of the recent memoir Get Well Soon (Green Tree, 2018). In the same week, Scottish film director and screen writer May Miles Thomas sent me a lovely card saying how much she had enjoyed the novel. I'd sent May a copy as a thank you for having the opportunity to watch her brilliant and hypnotic film Voyageuse free online on Vimeo.  Voyageuse made me think a lot about the layers of storytelling and how we (re)construct a life. I highly recommend this film.

I have been asked by Lighthouse Books to speak about writing and disability at a one hour event with other ill/disabled writers (I identify as chronically ill rather than disabled, the social model of disability does not in my view serve people with ME particularly well). I have said yes though I never know how I will be on the day, but am flattered as it's a decade since The State of Me was published. I've been shortlisted for a couple of short fiction awards since then, and had short non/fiction published here and there - details in sidebar - but because I live with ME, every minute of every day, I am the polar opposite of prolific (my novella-in-progress in 2015 is still in progress).

I do, though, know about the writing process - The State of Me took probably eight or nine years to write/publish in all - and I do, of course, know intimately about chronic illness. Writing is harder when you are ill. Everything is harder when you are ill. But writing (even as slowly as I do) sustains me. I would love to publish another book in my lifetime, I may be sixty by the time that happens, and I am not joking when I say that. Approaching my mid-fifties, I find I am thinking more about life and death and what we do in  a lifetime. I'm also more acutely aware of just how much my illness has thieved from me. (Interesting to read this interview with Elizabeth Strout who didn't publish her first novel until she was forty-two (I was forty-four). She went on to win a Pulitzer.)

*

Lionel Shriver has been off on one of her wee rants again - this time she is bemoaning the fact that Penguin Random House has a diversity drive. She petulantly writes:
“Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some."
How can she be so goddam myopic and insecure? Diversity can only ever be a force for good (as long as we are talking about actual meaningful representation and not just tokenism). Do we really want to be reading the same novels about the same characters by the same people over and over again? There is an excellent response to Lionel's nonsense here.

I can honestly though say I have never felt discriminated against in terms of ethnicity (in fact, mixed race writers are all the rage) or disability, though one agent unprofessionally left her job without telling me, I imagine she did not realise just how slowly I wrote. It was a huge shock to me, but somehow I picked myself up and kept writing, slowly, slowly. Self-belief and the importance of bearing witness to the catastrophe of my illness was what drove me. But like many debut writers, I just felt constantly thwarted by the gate-keeping mechanisms of publishing in general. To be constantly told how good your writing was but because of marketing/pigeonholing there was no 'fit' for your book was soul-crushing. I think though pigeonholing is less rigid now, fiction and memoir are more readily blurred. The idea of what constitutes a novel is much more fluid.

When my novel was eventually published ten years ago, it had nothing to do with representation of illness/disability -  the notion of diversity was not being trumpeted back then. My novel was published in spite of my illness rather than because of. It was published on its own merit, as novels should be. Also, I'm mixed race but The State of Me has nothing to do with race - I'm sure Lionel would be very confused: a mixed race author with a white main character whose illness/disability informs the whole novel. Also, my character does not use a mobility scooter, but I had my first try of one a few weeks ago at the Botanics in Edinburgh and it was bloody liberating.

*

Illness brings a walling off, there are simply aspects of being a writer that are impossible for me. I cannot embark upon the circuit of readings and  festivals that is required of writers these days. The performance part is, for many, a significant part of the writing life. I was lucky that (pre-liquidation) my indie publisher had no concerns about my being unable to do the running around and promoting. It does break my heart a little that I am walled off like this, but that is the case with many aspects of my life. Many years ago in late nineties, I was shortlisted for the Robert Louis Stevenson Award on the basis of a short story. The award is a month in France in Grez-sur-Loing where RLS spent much time. It looks blissful and restful and surely promotes one's creativity. I seduced myself into applying  as my undergraduate year in France in 1983 was cut short because of the onset of ME and I felt that RLS, himself ill his whole adult life, would have wanted me to go. But had I won I would have been unable to go as I learned later that you have to cycle through the forest to get your groceries.

Still, a decade ago I had my book launch in Waterstone's on George Street (it still had the comma then, though now closed down) - it was probably the happiest moment of my life.


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Millions Missing protest - Edinburgh 12 May, 2018

I got to the #millionmissing protest for the last twenty minutes, just in time to hear Carol Monaghan MP's speech. I was happy to be able to shake her hand and give her a wee brief hug afterwards. I told her she will never know the enormity of what she is doing by challenging PACE and campaigning for biomedical research. The sun was shining and it was glorious to see activism in action by a community of patients who have been wronged by the medical establishment for far too long. Heartbreakingly, the inquest of 21-year-old Merryn Crofts, who died a year ago, was held yesterday and the coroner's verdict was death caused by ME. A mental health expert stated that Merry had no psychological illness. 

I hope the core of psychiatrists with Wessely at the helm are thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Wessely, of course, has said on different occasions that he doesn't care how unpopular it makes him but the more severely ill you are with ME, the more likely there is to be a psychological element.The Wessely gang are so thick-skinned and arrogant, I doubt very much they will be touched by this verdict, they will no doubt blather on about how ME and CFS are not the same thing, and that they have always been studying CFS - though they happily conflated ME with fatigue for decades - always careful to say in the small print that ME and CFS may not be same illness. This was always their get-out clause.

Shame on all of them, for all time.

Photo from @lighthousebks of Saturday 12 May:




Thursday, 10 May 2018

Blue shoes with zips and advocacy for ME

With all the focus on #millionsmissing just now I have been thinking about the shoes I was wearing in September 1982 when I went off to do my (ill-fated) year abroad in France, not yet nineteen. They were blue and pointy with a diagonal zip - I got them in Schuh and later fictionalised them in a scene in The State of Me where Helen is on a ferry returning home from France because she feels so hideously ill. In real life, I came home from France twice - I  actually went back, because my GP couldn't find anything wrong and thought I was homesick (months later, a locum GP discovered I had Coxsackie virus - he'd also had it - he recognised my chest pain, the feeling of having a heart attack - and luckily recovered). I still recall, going up the gangplank, if that is what it is called, on my way back to Normandy, so determined to beat whatever the hell was making me feel so ill - a wee fucking soldier, really - little did I know I was only storing up more hell, not allowing myself to rest. 

I have looked for photos online of blue shoes from Schuh from 1982 but I can't find anything. They were hideous (I also remember watching Boy George singing 'Do you really want to hurt me?' on television in our host family's living room).

I'm not officially involved in #millionsmissing Edinburgh, but I know it will be brilliant. Carol Monaghan MP has taken up the cause of slaying the toxic dragon that is PACE and also Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian will speak. I may bus/taxi to the Mound event on Saturday - a hop and a skip from me - Edinburgh is very walkable, if you are healthy and able -  I will see how I feel on the day. I was so shattered emotionally and physically after the Scottish Parliament event in January, and I have been advocating for ME sufferers for decades, in one way or another - I really need to step back now and focus on other things (novellas-in-progress, for example).

I was delighted to see that the fabulous Lighthouse Books has a display of books with blue covers in aid of ME Awareness Week - and The State of Me is there (photo nabbed from Lighthouse tweet). It is a little ironic that my France shoes were blue as blue is also the cover of ME Awareness.



I am also delighted that there is a feisty new generation of activists, they do us all proud, many of them advocating from bed with hellishly diminished lives. I do think the climate is changing, finally, though I don't honestly expect a cure for ME in my lifetime. I just hope newly diagnosed twenty-year-olds will not go through another thirty years of life-changing illness as I have done. I always say it takes a  decade to adjust to ME, and I hope soon others will not have to make such an adjustment, as the illness will be eminently treatable if not curable.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Zaibunissa Street

I recently learned that Elphinstone Street (named after British official Monstuart Elphinstone) in Karachi was re-named Zaibunissa Street in 1970 after writer and journalist Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah. This interests me as Elphinstone was in Saddar, the area my paternal family migrated to in 1950s after Partition. I've read that Saddar was then full of book shops and (Iranian) tea houses. The streets were washed every day. Elphinstone was a street people strolled down. There was ballroom dancing on Elphinstone Street.

Today, the population of Karachi is approximately 16 million, Zaibunissa is a busy shopping street with over one hundred and thirty jewellery stores and most of the book shops have gone. Yesterday, I came across a purse that held earrings my Karachi family gifted me when they visited a few years ago after many years of little contact. The jeweller is in a building on Zaibunissa Street.

I looked up Monstuart Elphinstone, a Scot born in Dumbarton in 1779. I grew up five miles from Dumbarton - in fact, my GP practice was there - that's where we had our innoculations for visiting Karachi in 1974. And in early-mid eighties Coxsackie virus was locally being called 'Dumbarton Disease' because so many had become ill. I love how narratives link together, little synchronicities often appearing.