Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Old Lovers, Young Things and Winter Mischief

I drove through the hills with an old lover the other afternoon. I know we were both thinking of summer nights under the grapevines, the smell of summer air, summer skin. That day it was foggy and cold and we drove swiftly, but there was mischief and memory in the air.

I love stories. What happens to people, how their lives unfold and what steers them through their both their bold and minor choices. I love plot lines, unexpected turns, stunning outcomes. I love the reduction of a big tale to a few simply driven lines.

The other week I read a film brief about a new film starring Naomi Watts,set in Australia, and taken from a Doris Lessing novella. Interesting. I saw the stills and cringed a little. It's called 'Two Mothers' and tells the story of two utterly best mates who have love affairs with each other's sons. There are glittery sea shots, clasped bodies in beds with gentle tans and rude biceps.

Of course the hook is: Could You? Would You? Would you ever dream of bedding your best mate's kid? A boy you've seen at every stage of growth. Baby, toddler, skinny kid, pimply teen, cheeky thing, young spruced-up sexually awakening man?

And then of course you're meant to run through the offspring of your best mates. That one - well, he is cute. That one - never! While alternately thinking of your own sons in bed - whaat! - stroking one of your 40+ girlfriends.

The few film reviews I read state that these affairs were lengthy - spanning years - until they were terminated by the mothers in 'respectable' old age. 'Respectable'? It's not that I'm a prude or shy from age-gap relationships, and everyone knows that love is chemical and grabs you by the throat...

But ladies. Naomi. Please.

I haven't read Doris Lessing's book of four novellas - 'The Grandmothers' - from which the novella is taken. But I will be ordering it when I finish this post. Like many of us I read 'The Grass is Singing' and 'The Golden Notebook' as a young woman but haven't read much Lessing since. Now I want to bypass what Hollywood has squeezed from this story (which will doubtlessly be elegantly produced, and probably quite a turn-on) and go back to the source. Doris Lessing's words. The compulsions of these people. The context. 

Already an old review of the story from The Guardian calls the set-up a 'cankerous self-indulgence rather than a daring liberation' and I wonder if Hollywood will pick up upon these degrees of self-delusion. Or what Lessing herself - an eighty-year-old master - writes,

'These lives were easy. Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting; no one in these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food.'

Far more intriguing this, no? Than the illicit being given such grace.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Origins of Prejudice

A fairly small thing happened this week. Plus another one the week before. Now as the snow has knitted a thick coat over the fields out the window and I read that 76-year-old Silvio Berlusconi has a new 27-year-old squeeze (founder of the Silvio, We Miss You group, as in Silvio, Buy Me A Rack and Put Me in the Newspapers!), I have been thinking it over.

I remember reading in a junk magazine that Heidi Klum, mother of mixed-race kids, hated her family being called something like a rainbow tribe. I can feel that. What is so intimate - your family life, your squabbles at the table, queues for the bathroom - being labelled in such external and political terms. It's something that feels so invasive, it smacks of tokenism, and I don't like it. Kids don't need that type of baggage and the thinking that goes with it.

That's not exactly what this post is meant to be about. But it is about baggage. My mixed-race fourth child has always been as cute as they come but now is becoming gangly and pimply and adolescent. As a kid, he hated people touching his crimped hair (why do people think they can reach across and touch a child's head? Is that not a type of violation?) and this has been shaped by a couple of incidents (comments by kids who perhaps hear this type of talk at the kitchen table??) into a form of acute awareness, a sixth sense that sometimes verges on anger. He gets pissed off. A kid who joked 'Shut up, you're black' was almost punched. My view has always been to sit him down and tell him to be above it. Not to lash out - and yet I understand lashing out too as I have a temper. But this level of discrimination. Needing to lash out once a week, once a day. What does that make one become?

While the PC way of thinking has toned down or removed many innately racist expressions and helped to make people think about the words that come out of their mouths, in Italy you can still call a black person 'negro' and not be shaken down. It's amazing. While 'negro' is close to the word for black 'nero' it is still a jolt to hear.

In Italy migration from Africa is quite recent and has been happening in a haphazard way, Italy providing a softer border than many other European countries. I had to sit my driving exam in our village with a bunch of Senegalese and Chinese who took the piss out of each other's accents. Mind Your Language, Veneto-style. While we are not immigrants as such (though I have met guys who have survived that atrocious boat trip across the Mediterranean), people's views are conditioned by seeing the poor black guys huddled in plastic sheets on those vessels, by the guys begging outside supermarkets, by the petty theft that goes on. And of course by the xenophobic parties that whip up the fervour.

Immigrants take our jobs, our women, our houses.
Immigrants are all drug dealers.
Immigrants are dirty.

This brings me back to my original point, about the baggage we all carry. My kid. You. Me. We hardly even know it's there, soft and pressing against our views. This is where my kid's baggage starts:

It's easy being black on the bus, he said the other day. Nobody wants to sit next to you.

Or, Today an old lady sat next to me. Then as soon as there was another seat, she moved away.

Both throwaway comments spoken with a half-laugh in the car on the way home. So maddening, such a burden for this young man to carry ahead.



Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Next Big Thing

Last week Alison Lock invited me to take part in The Next Big Thing. Alison is a poet and short story writer whose collection 'Above the Parapet' is coming out with Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2013. Do take a look at Alison's site.

The Next Big Thing is a great way to network with fellow writers and to find out a bit more about what they're working on. The idea is fairly simple. You, the writer, answer a standard(ish) set of 10 questions on your blog one week then ask up to five other authors (whose work you like and you think might be The Next Big Thing) to answer the same questions the next week.

What is the title of your next book?
'Pelt and Other Stories'

Where did the idea for the book come from?
I have always wanted to publish a book of short stories. I love the form and have been writing and publishing stories for years. Some of the stories in 'Pelt' are interlinked and this happened because I felt my characters had more to say and experience. The idea behind the book is to explore shifting cultural boundaries, the effects of colonialism and the clash of the developed and underdeveloped worlds. There are also some quirky pieces set in Europe involving the lingering power of our abused environment, and relationships in upheaval or decline.

I have also lived nearly all of my adult life as an exile so this state of being is often examined in my work. And, as for location, I studied African and Asian modern history and lived in Ghana for nearly ten years, and Somalia before that, so my interest in migration, history and a truthful representation of this continent runs very deep.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Everybody loves this question. And as I've had film interest in the stories I've allowed myself to think along these lines. Isabelle Huppert and Bruno Ganz for 'At the Malga' and 'Veronique in the Dark'. Colin Farrell and Marion Cotillard for 'Young British Man Drowns in Alpine Lake'. That would be so much fun!

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Lust and dirt from a world of places

Will your book be self-published or published by an agency?
'Pelt and Other Stories' will be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, who also published my erotic comedy set in Italy, 'The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy'. Many people assume that working with an independent press means you are self-publishing but this is not the case with Indigo Dreams Publishing, who are keen to publish alternatives to the market-driven Big Six. I'm very glad I submitted to them!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Most of the stories have been published in English or Australian literary reviews, so some were completed several years ago. This collection has been changing shape over the last five years, and was interrupted by the editing and publication of my first novel. I could probably have continued with the same themes and have written more stories, but it was time to stop and consolidate.

What other books would you compare 'Pelt and Other Stories' within the genres?
That's an uneasy question because I don't want to put myself up there with someone who's had massive success and a huge print run. Instead, I'd rather mention the books that have influenced the collection. Recently: Nam Le's 'The Boat', Sarah Hall's 'The Beautiful Indifference'. Both great story collections. Chika Unigwe's 'On Black Sisters' Street' for her subject matter. Also Joseph Conrad's short stories set in south-east Asia are never far from my mind.

Who or what inspired you to write the book?
I love to tell stories. I love words, characters and twisted tales. I love hooking the reader and then bringing in the big catch - a crisp and elusive ending.

What else about the book might pique a reader's interest?
The first story 'Pelt' is an arresting piece about a pregnant Ghanaian girl whose German lover is being reeled back in by his ex-wife. The story is funny, but not so much, as you watch the original couple crumbling and the young woman fighting for her man. Many of the stories involve the consequences of lust; they also speak of sex in terms of incest, AIDS and gay love. There are also siblings who have had to stop and make a reckoning, unions that have soured and, finally, a deep consideration of cultural migration - all the misplaced people. I have had enthusiastic comments from editors and test readers and think the stories will surprise and interest.

Now it is time to pass the baton and introduce a few writer friends (and great bloggers) who will take part in The Next Big Thing on Wednesday 12th December.

Let me introduce:
Lane Ashfeldt
Rachel Fenton
Claude Nougat
Kimberly Sullivan
Laura Maylene Walter