Tuesday 19 December 2023

Seven Novels and Stories That Prove Fiction Can Grapple with Illness

A friend came across this, a nice review of The State of Me from 2021 on Electric Literature. The review is included in a piece called: 7 Novels and Stories That Prove Fiction Can Grapple with Illness:


'Based on the author’s own experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), The State of Me is unadorned autofiction that follows the protagonist, Helen Fleet, from her diagnosis at age 20 through the aftermath of her illness. Jafry has described her novel as “the antithesis of sick lit,” and indeed, it would be impossible to describe Helen’s experiences as anything approaching romantic. But as much as the novel is an honest, sometimes ruthless exploration of chronic illness, it’s also a story of everything else that might populate a person’s life: love, sex, relationships, and all the “life bits” in between. Helen’s voice, quirky and sardonic throughout, makes for an immersive and compelling read.'


The whole article is here.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Hospital room reminded me of Benidorm

The NHS so broken round the edges is, of course, still excellent in a crisis. I  found myself suddenly in hospital for a week in the middle of the month, and  after being out for five days was sent back for an overnight. Got home yesterday. I had not been an in-patient since 1984 when I was in a neurology ward having an experimental plasma exchange as treatment for ME. This time I was in  a cardiology ward. The week was a blur.  I was mainly in a shared ward, I recall one morning, hearing a woman who had been admitted late at night tell the doctor  she did not have her small suitcase with her because she had lent it to someone and when it came back it smelled like a bonfire. 

On Monday, I was in a side room of my own for one night, I appreciated the privacy but it was bleak, reminded me of a Benidorm hotel in 1980s, hard surfaces, no comforts and a view of a car park. I had extra blankets but still needed my coat on top.

I had stopped reading about Gaza in hospital, though I periodically imagined what would it be like if we  were being bombed. Unthinkable. I made contact with a Palestinian friend I'd had at university in eighties, he grew up in a refugee camp in Jordan. I had not seen or spoken to him for over thirty years. I wasn't sure if he would get my message but he did. 

It was a joy to hear from him.

I am so very grateful to everyone in our NHS. I thought about what had changed since my last stay, forty years ago. They don't make visitors tea any more. And many of the nurses have tattoos. 

I gave the  paramedic a copy of my 2008 novel. My plasma exchange is fictionalised in there.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Teju Cole event at The Portobello Bookshop

I very much enjoyed the event with Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole at The Portobello Bookshop last night, chaired by Roxani Krystalli -- I accessed the event online. Cole is currently the Gore Vidal Professor of Creative Writing at Harvard.

He was charming and funny - and illuminating on the writing process. He talked of writing as a way of not forgetting, a sense of 'if you don't write it down it will vanish'.

I was kind of relieved when he said that TREMOR, his new novel, is the least morose book he has written. He referred to having been a 'serious melancholic' in his younger years - he is now almost fifty - and made play of the fact he is no longer such a 'misery guts'. I had read his first (highly acclaimed) novel OPEN CITY in 2012 and confess to not having loved it, the writing is immaculate but I got weary of the heaviness of tone (I reviewed the book here on Goodreads over a decade ago). 

I am only two chapters into TREMOR and loving it. 

Near the end of the event, he alluded to the current assault on Gaza and mentioned a Palestinian friend who is just now harvesting olives. I was very glad he mentioned Gaza. I think it must be hard to perform just now as artist/writer and not mention what is going on in that part of the world.

Thanks, too, to Porty Books for making the event accessible online. Hybrid events are maybe the one good thing to have come out of the pandemic.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Bridport Flash Fiction Award 2023

A little good news, very pleased to have been shortlisted for Bridport Flash Fiction Prize 2023. Was shortlisted a decade ago for both their short story and flash prizes. Flash is such a different discipline to writing a novel. A long text is so unwieldy, hard to keep track of, can be overwhelming, is why it takes me so long, as I polish every chapter as I go. With flash, you move words around as it pleases you, you feel very in control and realise also how arbitrary it all is, making things up.

Many congratulations to the winners!

Thursday 15 December 2022

December, 2022

Have not blogged in so long, everything is dislocated. My darling mother passed away eighteen months ago, it can still feel unreal. Am cheered up by a woodpecker and bullfinch in front garden and pigeons puffed up like balloons in the back. Writing sustains me, have recently gone back to my novella-in-progress. Just added ALPHONSO, a flash fiction, to blog sidebar that was published in From Glasgow to Saturn, Glasgow University's literary magazine, in 2021. I wrote it when we were in the grips of pandemic, all a bit stunned.

Sunday 3 January 2021

Chaffinch, 2021

Everything is shit but here is a chaffinch and an impossibly blue sky on New Year's Day.

Friday 24 April 2020

Pandemic: foxes and sunsets and suicide

A couple of months ago, I saw a cat run across the garden with a pigeon in its mouth. I’ve never seen a domestic cat hunt such a big bird. The pigeon was upside down, white underneath. I did not see it being killed, just saw it being carried away.

I see foxes occasionally, once a year. One ran across the garden last week. It tarried for fifteen seconds or so on the wall, as if it were checking something. I was able to get a photo. It was huge - red and grey. Beautiful. I’ve seen it again since. Twice in a week.

I want it to come every day.

In between the pigeon being killed and the fox standing on the wall, uncommon events in this garden, the covid19 pandemic has impacted massively in the west. I recall watching reports from China in January, but of course did not think at all it involved ‘us’.

Now we are all affected.

Nothing feels real. 

Being chronically ill, I am used to spending long spells of time indoors, semi-isolated, but now the whole world is the same. It's getting a crash course in isolation and illness, in an alarming and dramatic way. The stuff of fiction.

Spring is happening, but it's dislocating. Daffodils have bloomed and withered, tulips are opening, the sun is warm if you shield yourself from the Scottish wind, but you cannot ever relax, the dread of this coronavirus is always there.

Six days into the lockdown, the weekend the clocks went forward, I heard my childhood friend had taken an overdose and was in intensive care. He has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. The unfolding of the virus and the isolation it imposed was too much for him, he was simply overwhelmed. I had spoken to him four or five times the week before, which made the news of his overdose even more upsetting. Against all the odds, after six days in intensive care, he regained consciousness and after being treated for bacterial pneumonia was discharged to a surgical ward before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where I hope they will be able to look after him for as long as is needed. 

I remembered that when the clocks went back last October, my friend had called me to say he had  put his clock back at 5pm, in case he forgot. Before  the lockdown he was doing a writing class and I told him I would love to see his writing, and asked him to send me some. He said he wanted  to write a book and I told him writing a book was hard. I might just write half a book then, he replied. His mother has since told me it is poetry he has been writing.

What struck me when my friend was in intensive care and we did not know the outcome was that his mother, a close friend of my own mother’s, had been a huge support in the early seventies when my consultant anaesthetist father had taken his own life, living in the same town my friend and his mother still live in.

My current writing project is a (slow) fictionalisation of aspects of my father’s life. There is an early scene in particular, with withered flowers - hydrangea -  in this friend's garden in the 1970s. The scene has been in my head for many years, real, but now re-imagined in the novella-in-progress (I was delighted to discover a couple of  years ago, this poem by Rilke, 'Blue Hydrangea'). More than ever I've been thinking of the importance of storytelling. I have also been thinking of anaesthetists  as they are suddenly very much in the media – the experts on ventilators, so much needed in this crisis. In a 1960s' Polaroid, my father looks like a poet with his Paisley pattern cravate, drinking beer in Amsterdam.

The backs of my hands are cracked, my knuckles slightly bleeding, I've been overdoing disinfecting, using too much bleach, just so very afraid of getting infected from groceries/deliveries coming in. With ME your immune system is already in disarray, and we simply do not know how people with ME would be affected by covid19. It's too frightening to contemplate, given how unpredictably and aggressively this novel virus is affecting youngish, healthy people with no pre-existing conditions. There is talk in the medical community of how some covid19 patients are bound to develop ME afterwards. (Suddenly ME is respectable, the devastating illness you can get after a virus.)

In normal times, I spend much time sitting at my bedroom window watching birds and squirrels and sunsets. It's restorative, a gorgeous way to meditate and contemplate when you cannot do aerobic exercise. This process of contemplation has become even more important. Everyone is commenting on how much louder the birds are, they can be heard everywhere, surely a tiny silver lining of the pandemic.