Tuesday, 27 August 2013

I am sorry Cécile

Dear Cécile,

I am sorry that you were insulted once again at work today. I am sorry that you were called a prostitute by a deputy mayor of this country, and that a local wine producer made insulting comments I'd rather not repeat.

I'm sorry that bananas were thrown at you while you were speaking at an assembly - I'm glad you told them it was a pity to be wasting good food. And I'm still unable to believe that the Northern League politician who also said unrepeatable things about you - slimy Roberto Calderoli - is still in office.

In Italy it's hard to be taken seriously as a female. And you are a black woman. The first black politician in this country. Okay, the USA has Obama, but there is no comparison there. Cécile Kyenge in Rome is almost like putting a black lady politician in Ku Klux Klan territory way down south. No KKK here, but take a look at the awfulness of the comments directed at Kyenge, and I promise you will feel queasy.

So Cécile, like me you have been hanging around Italy for over twenty years. I've just read that you're a doctor, trained in Italy, founder of an intercultural association, so that makes you much more of a useful citizen than this lowly writer. Somehow, I imagine you must be a pretty normal lady, raising mixed-race children, getting things done, seeing to everybody else. A strong, dedicated woman. Work, school homework and meetings, sports in the afternoon, exams passed and failed, bills.

From the outside it seems that you are weathering this storm well. Your comments are minimal, and measured, and you have a lot of support. In this way what you are doing is breathtaking - not only are these oafs being shown up for what they really have inside, but their opponents, the people with good hearts, the people who made a human chain along the Sicilian beaches where so many immigrants have paid hard-earned cash to traffickers and died - the existence of these people is now thrown into relief.

Before you, Cécile, we didn't know there were so many of them. We didn't know that it was possible to throw off hatred, to make these people recant and feel shame, (as a couple of them have done so despicably, citing stress or taxes for their horrible comments). Possibly this shame is superficial - as I find it hard to believe that beliefs change - but what is becoming clear is that the new, mixed generation that will comprise the Italy of decades to come, will hear different voices, will hopefully choose what is good and just.

I wonder, did you realise these horrible words would come? Did you think it would be this bad?

Do you sit at the kitchen table at night, thinking back over the hating faces, the nauseous insults, and wonder whether - looking at your kids' faces or the hands of the clock - it is worth it?

Madame Cécile, Italy needs you. My children need your strength and your representation. Migrants do, open-minded people do, African factory workers do, sex workers (who goes to them, huh?).

Believe me Cécile, we are with you, and it is worth it. 

*  *  *
'Pelt and Other Stories' is out!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Lessons for Hippies

I say goodbye. To the iridescent water. To the red squat succulents spread all over the hill. To the fortresses high above and the rocky architraves over the water. To glowing sunsets every night, cool sand between my toes. To chestnut red beers and tangy goat cheese; rosé and my crappy straw hat. To the sounds of tent zippers and our raucous teens on the beach, waves riffing the sand and almost washing thought away.

A long drive across the top of Corsica to the ferry and the Italians are driving me nuts at the port. All lined up preening, checking out each other's tatts and tans. It's a hundred degrees.

And then - as a vision - three divine-looking shirtless German guys ride up on motorbikes and my stomach does a turn. Older guys, sharp faces. Probably gays. Gorgeous.

They have this red-headed hippie momma narrowing her eyes under her hat.

Then I am revving the car on board the mammoth ferry, into her bowels on rattering iron ramps studded with bolts and thick yellow paint. It's a furnace. You can't help thinking of the Costa Concordia lurching over, water spilling at you horizontally.

But I love ferries. Vessels. Hulls. Sails

My son finds a seat next to an older tanned Italian couple with a bulldog playing with a lime green plastic ball. Everywhere I look there is patterned carpet. Screaming kids. A low ceiling with silver ridges. This hippie momma shakes her head.

I go upstairs to find the Germans. They will be somewhere and I can study them from afar. Or perhaps I can ask them for a fruit knife. A woman can always ask for a fruit knife. And a European man will always have one.

And there they are. They are not like Italians talking incessantly, or badgering their children, or stretching out their bodies for the edges of the sun. They are plonked on deckchairs reading hefty books, one of them is sleeping.

I sit down on the rusty deck painted bright blue, the same blue as my nailpolish. I bunch up my bag and pull my hat over my head. I fall asleep remembering all the times I have slept on the ground in faraway places, usually with a belly ache clutching a sleeping child and a bag of travel documents.

This is the quote from John Burnside's introduction to his wife Iris Murdoch's mesmerising book, The Sea, The Sea. I have read these words endlessly, running my tongue over them, smelling them. 

The temptation to withdraw, to achieve a seeming detachment, to be above or beyond the cacophony of 'the world' may be an attractive one, but it usually has nothing to do with a spiritual path, or - the search for wisdom, or  heaven help us - saintliness. To practise detachment one must be in the world, in the chaos of emotions and needs and conflicts that make up ordinary life. If that world is sometimes disappointing, so be it: a just life is one that must be lived in the midst of disappointment. Withdrawal can provide the illusion of perfection - self-governance, order, a quietist's idea of peace - but it is not, for most us, worthwhile. The example of the saints, of the Bodhisattvas, of the Sufi masters, is that mere withdrawal from confusion and misery is not enough; how can I enjoy my peace, if others are confused, hurt and in need. What distinguishes the Bodhisattva is the decision not to leave the circle until all sentient beings attain enlightenment; the saint who has shed the illusions of the world returns to that same world in order to assist others. This return is not that of a cool, detached, superior being; it is a return to the thick of things, to the chaos and pit of the human condition. To accept imperfection - this is the key. To engage, with compassion, in the serious game of being, is the only acceptable choice.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

I don't need a Kindle I have a Leopard Print Bikini

There comes a time in some women's lives when we reach the leopard print age. I will never forget one of the secretaries in my ex's old office (she used him as a screen saver, sweet bird of youth) who wore swanky leopard print jumpsuits to work, jangly earrings, lots of eyeliner and big hair. She walked as if working were beneath her, and it was a chore for her to answer the phone (difficult with those talons too). Her face used to light up with an eyelid-batting smile when my then husband's face popped around the door. It firmed up again when I was ushered in with a sweaty kid on my hip.

Leopard print. How late-forties. How I-wanna-be-jungle-while-I-still-think-I-can.

And now readers this unfortunate writer has to confess she bought a bitty leopard print bikini last week. It was grabbed and thrown in the basket. Cheap and the only one in her size, while shopaholic daughter pored through shreds of this and palm trees on that.

Whoosh. Catherine joins the leopard print club. Oh dear.

So now I've been packing my bag for the annual camping trip, holding it up in the air, wondering what was I thinking? Have I joined the ranks of Kris Jenner and Sharon Osborne? Move over Joan Collins?

How daft. I can already see myself laughing - at myself - while backstroking over the waves.

But reader wait. For this is not a post about leopard print bikinis. It is a serious post about not-having-a-Kindle-but-a-big-suitcase. And driving such a long long way that when I get there I want to pull out my stash of paperbacks on the lazy susan and decide which one I want to read first. Can you believe I was contemplating bringing a computer? A manuscript? Naaaah. Here's my pile:

Iris Murdoch The Sea, The Sea - my prezzie from a best mate
Simon Van Booy (short stories) Love Begins in Winter - read it was a prizewinner, ordered it
Margaret Laurence (short stories) This Side Jordan - Ghana in the 50s. Will this be an expat romp or some insightful writing?
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues - Haven't read the hype because I wanted to go there myself
Roelof Bakker, editor (short stories) Still - with 'still' photographs too
Nikki Gemmell With My Body - lashing of sex I expect
Hazel Rowley Tete à Tete - The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre. Because I can't let go of this couple and HR was a wondrous biographer

So when you see this skinny chick in a leopard print bikini, fretting for her towel and hat, don't feel sorry for her and think she's lost the plot - because she has a feast of plots back in the tent.

What about you? I love snooping on other people's reading lists.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Return to Penzance or How to Write a Novel in a Chicken Shed

I returned. Another book, another festival. Some of you might remember a certain impoverished author doing a ten-hour bus trip from London to Cornwall with a purple hat and a stash of bookmarks. A certain author who didn't knock over the water jug or uncross her legs on the stage while she rattled on about her book. A certain author who ran into a fully embellished Johnny Depp/Keith Richards in the street and garbled, Are you a pirate?

It was glorious. Okay the bus trip was punishing but the weather - constant topic of conversation on this fair isle - was glorious. Oh yes, and the Penzance Literary Festival was even bigger and more stimulating than last year, with almost a hundred events spread over the windswept hilly town.

Though I missed the first two days (and the opening talk with sassy Damian Barr!) I did see Festival Patron Patrick Gale interview the somewhat haunting Sally Vickers and, like last year, heard the luminous Bookshop Band - this time from up in the stalls with a pint of Cornish Bitter. There were events for all: poetry readings, books inspired by local history, workshops for writers, sessions on crime, poetry, romance, publishing. I particularly enjoyed Kari Herbert's talk about her book 'Polar Wives', being quite an explorer-freak (reared on tales of the European explorers who ventured into harsh central Australia). Kari's tales of the wives-left-behind were fascinating and I could have stayed listening for hours.

I also loved the sub-tropical Morrab Gardens gracefully lain out in the middle of town. I wandered through these each day as I headed up to the Acorn Theatre. Picture an empty bandstand, brilliant sky and seagulls wheeling low, sun-dappled grass and luscious tropical bushes draped over paths.

On Sunday our event took place downstairs at the Acorn, where fellow Indigo Dreams author Alison Lock and I spoke about our new short story collections. We both put on our best dresses and lippy and found ourselves in front of a red velvet curtain and a small, warm crowd. Alison was at Penzance last year with her poetry collection 'A Slither of Air'. And we all know that I was interviewed by Sarah Duncan about 'The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy'... and ended up talking about whether a racy book reflects a racy life (well, does it?), and how-to-write-a-novel-in-a-chicken-shed.

Drinking writers!
This time Alison and I spoke about 'Changing Genre and Working with a Small Publisher'. Although my collection 'Pelt and Other Stories' is out this autumn, Alison's book 'Above the Parapet' came out in April. We had a great old time interviewing each other and attempting to sound serious. Alison read an excerpt of one of her prize-winning stories, and I stumbled through my title story 'Pelt', which I may paste below.

A wonderful few days of beer by the sea, literary thoughts and meetings, briny air and rather oversized seagulls. They don't eat writers, do they?

Rolfe triggers is. In the way that is the way of all men. In his case a type of athletic bragging ruined by the self-defeat he hangs his hat on. I feel a plock and, with his surprised, involuntary retreat my waters come splashing out, gay and heralding, whereby he bounds back to inspect the folds of his manhood.

The Bookmark!
My obroni baby will come this day. I roll onto my back and raise my knees in sweet excitement, the baby nestling back even though her head is plugged within my pelvis. Soon after Rolfe is agitating with a towel, peering cautiously at my dark opening. No action there, I laugh. He looks perplexed. Despite his thirty-nine years Rolfe is unfamiliar with the mulch of his own body. A fever sends him into studied ecstasy. The tumble worm in his butt, whose head and long wrinkled body I inch into the light, is repellent and edifying.

At the apex of his growth curve I suspect I must place myself. This is the man who continues to daub his hands on my sheeny back and breasts. He told me that in Ethiopia, his last posting, they call girls like me 'slaves' because of our broad noses and skin a shadow cannot cross.

This is Rolfe's first child. His wife Karina was barren. I have led Rolfe to believe that this is my first although I had two others before. They are at the village and I send them money. The midwife will no doubt perceive all of this.