Syria: Who to Trust?

I haven’t posted about Syria this week because I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say.

In recent weeks I’ve met people who’ve told me that:

1) Assad has to stay because otherwise Syria will end up being controlled by a US-Wahhabi-Zionist alliance, and Christianity will be wiped out in the Middle East – once there is peace, though, then he can removed from power by the UN;
2) that the White Helmets belong to ISIS;
3) that after the first gas attack in Ghouta Israeli gas canisters were found – that is to say, the attack was an IDF false flag, which is why the West never responded to it
4) that we don’t know who is responsible for the attacks, or if gas has even been used.

I don’t mention these claims because I want to debate them. I’ve already debated them in person. But as everyone is urgently discussing Syria right now, I will state my opinion of them:

1) Yes, it is complicated on the ground. But overwhelmingly, as Idrees Ahmad documents here, in his article Aleppo is Our Guernica, the killing is being done by the regime, on an industrial scale. To allow Assad to stay condones genocide. And to claim that the opposition is all American-Wahhabi-Zionists set on wiping out Christianity from the Middle East is fearmongering that absolves Christians of their duty to speak truth to power, and completely ignores the secular Syrian opposition – some of whom have joined Islamist militias simply because those outfits have weapons, and many of whom have successfully created neighbourhood councils and participatory democracies in rebel-held areas. Note also Annas, doctor in Ghouta, speaking about one of the earliest demonstrations: ‘the “Great Friday” demonstration was held in solidarity with Easter. We wanted to encourage Christian Syrians to come out and participate.’ (As quoted by Wendy Pearlman, in an email from The Syria Campaign). And if the UN can’t get it together to remove Assad while he’s murdering hundreds of thousands of people, I can’t see how they are going to remove him after he’s won the war.
2) has been thoroughly debunked by the Guardian.
3) is completely wild – I can’t even find a reference to it online.
4) is what is always said after these attacks, and although the April 7th attack in Douma needs to be investigated, the general question has been sufficiently answered in the past.  Here is an OPCW report on two chemical attacks last year, one in Umm Hawsh and one in Khan Shaykhun. The report assessed evidence from a variety of sources, and concluded that ISIL and Assad were respectively responsible for the attacks (the regime for Khan Shaykhun). As far as I can make out from their site, the OPCW is currently investigating the use, in general, of chemical weapons in Syria and they cannot comment on any more instances while investigations are on-going. At the same time, however, the report was part of a 2 year investigation that has now expired, and the UN is basically ineffective anyway because Russia blocks all its draft resolutions on Syria. However, from this shameful state of international inertia, it is at least clear that OPCW has concluded that Assad is not at all afraid of dropping chemical weapons on Syrians.

If your opinion differs radically to mine on these issues, please take some time to investigate the links I have posted.  I am not an investigative journalist, but I respect the profession, and I have tried hard over the last seven years to sift through the news to find sources I trust on this volatile, heart-wrenching and, to most non-Syrians, very confusing issue.

I trust Pulse Media because the Scottish-Syrian editor, Robin Yassin-Kassab is embedded in a network of activists and has dedicated himself to publishing accounts of the conflict no-one else is covering – those of the revolutionaries, in their own words. He and activist Leila al-Shami are also the authors of Burning Country, a critically acclaimed book about the war, telling stories that the mainstream media simply ignore. Fellow editor of Pulse Media Idrees Ahmad, is a lecturer in journalism who has also written extensively on Syria, including the article linked to above, which contains a long list of verified information about regime atrocities in Syria.

I absolutely do not trust Assad or Vladimir Putin. While all news media is inevitably biased, there’s a difference between slanting and omitting truths (as the BBC does on Palestine), and telling out-and-out lies. My 2014 visit to Ukraine demonstrated to me that the Russia media consistently blatantly lied about their military involvement in the country – Putin’s ‘toxic assault’ on the truth is well documented. Like all Putin’s political opponents, Russian independent journalists are routinely jailed on trumped up charges, beaten or killed. The Guardian article linked to above also reveals the extent of Kremlin trolling and fake news dissemination. That’s why I don’t watch RT, and don’t for a second believe that the White Helmets gassed their own people.

It’s terrible choice the world is facing – to establish as a precedent that a dictator may gas his own people with impunity, or to potentially spray oil on a bonfire. I’ve also spoken to people who are quite simply terrified and infuriated by the prospect of escalating the conflict, causing even more suffering for the Syrians, and possibly even a world war.  Much as I believe the Leftist position of appeasement has utterly failed Syria, this position is one I do now have sympathy with.

I don’t trust Trump and the Tories to intervene appropriately – that is to say, conducting targeted strikes against arms factories and military bases, and supplying the secular opposition with self defense equipment and weapons. Even targeted strikes risk raising the ante. In the end, not that my opinion matters one whit to anyone trapped in the inferno of East Ghouta, I agree most with Paul Mason, who essentially argues for ‘Banks not Tanks’ – hitting the Russians with economic and political sanctions, and bolstering our international multilateral institutions of justice and democracy. What if oligarchs suddenly couldn’t buy London flats anymore, and no-one showed up at the World Cup this year? Unless things have changed dramatically by then, I won’t be watching it, at least, much as I love it.

At the heart of this argument is a stress on the importance of due process. But due process has already been followed in the case of Khan Shaykhun. It is long past time for the world to take action. All the dire warnings about military intervention from our Left leaders need to be followed up with alternative plans for a robust political response, including demands to reform the UN. The UN was created (by the victors of WW2) after the failure of the League of Nations. Now that the UN is so manifestly failing, it should be, if not replaced, vitally restructured. Why should there be five permanent members of the Security Council, three of them Western powers, none from the global South? Why should they be able to veto anything at all, let alone resolutions about wars they are directly involved in?

But this is just a creative writer’s blog post. The only thing I really can do right now that makes a drop of difference is to give money to Syrian relief charities. People are burning in hell, and other people are risking their lives to help them. The least I can do is help send them some medical supplies. It’s not an adequate response to this unending tragedy, but currently I don’t know what is. I work on Palestine, not because I don’t care about Syria, but because the situation there is clear to me – the Palestinians are calling for BDS, which I can help create. In Syria, while previously I thought that intervention was needed, I fear that it’s too late for that now, and the wrong hands and minds are at the controls. The Syria Campaign is calling for Europe and the US to enforce a ceasefire in Ghouta, but I just don’t know any longer if I can join calls for the use of force in Syria. I do believe in cultural resistance, and using my position as an editor and lecturer to help give Syrian voices a platform, and a megaphone. Currently, apart from my own writing, I am still focused on promoting my Palestinian anthology and on looking after my health. I hope that the time will come soon for an opportunity to make good on that wish.

More than that, though, I hope against hope that somehow the world finds non-violent but effective ways to challenge and punish Assad and Putin, strengthen the moderate opposition, and support Syria’s eventual transition to a democracy of its own people’s making.

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April in London: Poetry & SF Events

Shivering through the cruellest month? Didn’t book your Eurostar ticket to Paris? Never mind, London is blossoming too, at least for this Brighton lilac – it would be lovely to see you at one or t’other (or both!) of these upcoming literary flowerings . . . a Red Hen Press poetry reading at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon Rd, and Spicing Up Sci Fi: The Dunes Strike Back, a panel discussion on Islam and the hybrid imagination at the British Library. 

 

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Curated by Sindbad Sci-Fi, the event is being staged in partnership with MFest, the UK’s inaugural annual arts festival of Muslim cultures and ideas.

Buy Tickets https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/spicing-up-sci-fi-the-dunes-strike-back-tickets-43553180736

£5 | Concessions £3

Exclusive 20% Early Bird discount code: MFestSINDBAD (valid until Friday 13th April)

 

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A Blade of Grass: Launched!

It’s here! And it’s a beaut: bursting with sharp, fresh and tender poems, and well and truly launched at a sell-out event on Thursday Nov 16th at P21 Gallery in London, a contemporary arts centre dedicated to the promotion of Arab culture. Thank you to the gallery for hosting us, to the University of Chichester for promoting the event with a press release to national media and a banner article on their website, to Andy Croft of Smokestack Books for training it down from Yorkshire for the gig, and most especially to poets Mustafa Abu Sneineh and Farid Bitar – who journeyed from New York City especially for the event – and translators Katharine Halls and Waleed Al-Bazoon for their depth-charged readings from A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry.  Thank you also to everyone who came and made the launch such an uplifting occasion. While I was thrilled to realise that, in fact, I personally knew only about a fifth of the audience, it was tremendous to welcome friends in the crowd, some of whom had supported the book through the crowdfunding campaign, which raised £240 each for the legal campaigns of poets Ashraf Fayadh (jailed in Saudi Arabia) and Dareen Tatour (jailed in Israel). I thank also Rob, Keith and Lily in Brighton, who gifted me a stunning bouquet of roses, sunflowers and wild grasses to get the celebrations off in style, and it was a great pleasure to meet a young lad, William, from Farid’s hostel, who came along out of curiosity and shook my hand firmly after the readings, thanking me for the enlightening evening. My belief is that poetry provides a way in to the Palestinian narrative for people who know little about it, or get ‘turned off’ by the news – and William’s response was a heartening confirmation of the power of the lyrical word. Altogether it was an magical night, brimming with faith in humanity and art: I’m still relishing memories of dandling Mustafa and Rebecca’s little Eskander on my knee, and admiring Farid’s pop-up exhibition of spacious, wind-blown paintings, drawings and calligraphy, which he brought over the ocean in his suitcase. Also unforgettable was hearing Andy Croft read British poetry the riot act, and listening to the panellists field ‘heretical questions’ about classical meter in a pan-Arab context!

On a more sombre note, I’m glad too that I could honour an absent translator, the late Sarah Maguire, an award-winning poet and the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, who very sadly died on November 2nd, the day before the book was published. I read Sarah’s translation of ‘The Lost Button’ by Fatena Al Ghorra, plus the last lines of her own poem ‘The Grass Church at Dilston Grove’, which seem to herald the anthology, as well as foreshadow our loss:

Everything the grass has asked of me
on this earth, I have done

except give myself
up

except lie
under its sky of moving roots.

(From The Pomegranates of Kandahar)

Sarah has fulfilled that ultimate task now, but in giving herself so passionately, in life, to the cause of poetry in translation she has left a vital legacy, cracking open the bastion of British poetry to plant the seeds of human empathy and understanding across geopolitical and linguistic borders. Always a great friend of Palestine, she died on a date of enormous significance to Palestinians, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the UK government so wrongfully promised to support the creation of Israel in lands inhabited by other people. As I go forward, as the editor of A Blade of Grass, to help challenge the ever-escalating results of that disastrous document, and make this a century of justice for Palestine, I humbly feel I am picking up her grass-stained baton.

This is just the beginning of the festivities for A Blade of Grass. I’ve already had interest in 2018 events from New York, Cairo, and Jerusalem, and will be organising readings also in Brighton and Chichester. My dream is for all of the living contributors to the anthology to be able to read at an event, so hopefully the book’s other translators Josh Calvo, Raphael Cohen, Tariq Al Haydar, Andrew Leber, Wejdan Shamala and Ahmed Taha and poets Fatena Al Ghorra, Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, Fady Joudah, Deema K. Shehabi, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marwan Makhoul, Sara Saleh and, when they are freed, Ashraf Fayadh and Dareen Tatour, will all have their turn on stage. For now, should you wish to buy the book, you can order it online direct from Smokestack Books, or at bookshops in the UK or North America – and, hurrah, the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem!  xxx

Here I am with Mustafa Abu Sneineh and drawings by Farid Bitar.

With Farid Bitar

Waleed Al Bazoon and Farid Bitar

Reading from A Blade of Grass

 

 

Fuzzy happy people – poets and editor celebrating in the pub!

 

Back home with my gifts from Farid Bitar: freesias for freedom, and my name in delicate Arabic

 

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Disappearance without absence: Book Launch on National Poetry Day

 

In my role as Associate Editor at Waterloo Press, I was honoured this year to help publish a book of profoundly moving poems, Disappearance without absence/Desapariencia no engaña, by Néstor Ponce, exquisitely translated by Max Ubelaker Andrade. Written in honour of the ‘disappeared’, the book is a testament to those thousands of individuals targeted for death and erasure by Argentina’s military junta (1976-1983). Now on the shelf of every school and library in Argentina, its publication is part of an ongoing process of national and international remembering, mourning and justice-seeking. Thanks to the Sur Programme of the Argentine government, Waterloo Press is proud to enable English-speaking readers to share in this vital witnessing.

I am also very grateful to Elspeth Broady, a family friend and the Secretary of the Brighton and Hove Freedom From Torture Supporters Group, for offering to co-host the book’s Brighton launch in the Chapel Royal on Sept 28th – which, as we discovered later, just so happens to be National Poetry Day, with the theme of ‘Freedom’. It’s becoming an international local event already: Elspeth and her husband Chris Sevink are generously hosting Néstor Ponce on a visit from France, where he is a leading Latin American Studies scholar, while my friend Helen Dixon, who lived in Nicaragua for twenty-two years, has kindly agreed to contribute her considerable linguistic, cultural and political acumen to the event. Please join us all for wine, nibbles, a bilingual poetry reading, discussion and Q&A. I just *so* wish Max could come – but unfortunately the local crowd-sourcing just couldn’t stretch to a ticket from Massachusetts, where Max, a Borges scholar I had the pleasure of meeting at the Blind Creations conference, teaches Latin American Studies. But this is just the beginning of the book’s journey out into the world, and hopefully I will have the chance to hear Max read his stunning translations at some point in the future.

Thursday Sept 28th, Chapel Royal
164 North St, BN1 1EA Brighton
6:30-9 pm
Free entry, wine and nibbles, with suggested donations*

*Suggested donations: £6 entry to include a glass of wine.
All profit to benefit the work of Freedom From Torture.

Should you not be able to attend, the book is also available from me directly, or on Amazon.

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No Enemy but Time: A New Pamphlet of Old Poems

Being cured of cancer last year gave me a powerful sense of priorities. It seems that keeping up with this blog wasn’t one of them . . . Instead, in between a short course of radiotherapy and an unexpected return to hospital to treat a broken ankle (!), I’ve thrown myself into book production mode. Currently I’m finishing the final volume of The Gaia Chronicles for Jo Fletcher Books and editing an anthology of Palestinian poetry in translation for Smokestack Books, both of which will appear at the end of the year. In the spring I spent six weeks editing two collections for Waterloo Press, Disappearance without absence/Desapariencia no engaña by the Argentine poet Néstor Ponce, translated by Max Ubelaker Andrade, and Gratitude on the Coast of Death, David Swann’s long-awaited second collection, which were published along with No Enemy but Time, my new pamphlet which I launched at the Belfast Book Festival in June. Launches for the two collections are being planned for the autumn, so I’ll save that fanfare, and for now just officially introduce my own new title.

No Enemy but Time is my tribute to my close friend, the Northern Irish poet, journalist and cultural activist Mairtín Crawford (1967-2004), and his quietly remarkable mother Flo (1939-2011). The pamphlet contains a sequence of poems in memory of Mairtín, most written in the wake of his sudden death; and what I have called ‘Some Loose Aislingi’ or ‘vision poems’ – a traditional genre in which a woman symbolises a dream of Ireland. The title of the pamphlet is a phrase from the W.B. Yeats poem ‘In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz’, and my aislingi include a lyrical response from the famous sisters, rebuking his denigration of their political work; as well as an homage to the linnet, a reflection on the Belfast peace process, and an oral history of the Falls Rd and the Troubles, as told to me by Flo.

The pamphlet was clearly many years in the brewing, and time did seem set against it for a while – I’d initially hoped to publish the poems for the tenth anniversary of Mairtín’s death, but the then-Irish publisher got sold, the poems languished, the momentum was lost, and then I got sick. Although I wrote a sequence of cancer poems during my treatment, as I recovered I felt an urgent need to bring these old poems into the light. My faithful collaborator John Luke Chapman – with whom I’d once co-authored a literary manifesto Mairtín published in his legendary magazine The Big Spoon – created a stunning cover photograph, and some more poems flowed. Then lo, just as I was preparing to ask Northern Irish poet Moyra Donaldson for a back cover quote, she emailed to tell me that the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast had just established the Mairtín Crawford Award, a prize designed to do what he did in his teaching, editing and festival directorships – encourage new poets. Although I was on crutches from my broken ankle, with the help of EasyJet special assistance, and time my friend again at last, I was honoured to launch No Enemy but Time at the prize-giving ceremony, where Mairtín’s friends read his own tender, playful and exuberant work, and the worthy winner, Rosamund Taylor, debuted her exquisite poems.

I hadn’t been to Belfast since 2010, and it was my first time back since Flo’s death. It was an emotional visit, that stirred some painful memories, but also deepened my connection to the city that Mairtín had first guided me through in 1994, the summer that my mother died. The poems about our relationship excavate layers of personal and political history, cross the ocean to Canada and New York, and ultimately look to the stars – Mairtín was an idealist and a futurist, an agitator and rebel who pushed every boundary out into the cosmos. It was heartening to hear from his friends that my poems brought them some closure and comfort, and I hope they also convey something of his magic to those who didn’t know him.

 

 

Space

You were known for being obsessed
with space:

scored an arts grant to visit NASA,
sat in the cockpits of rockets;

wrote poems about Jupiter
and UFOs, Moonmen and Mir;

worried about asteroids
falling on our heads.

I read your cover story
― ‘Belfast Astronomers on Red Alert’ ―

foolishly believed myself
a little safer on the Earth.

No Enemy but Time (Waterloo Press) is available at The Crescent Arts Centre, on Amazon, or email me (enfoyle@gmail.com) to arrange postal or hand delivery.

 

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Farewell to 2016 – and Cancer

What a year. When it comes to traumas we’re spoiled for choice, but as Amnesty International and Greenpeace remind us, 2016 also brought many victories for humanity and the planet. Here at home, I’ve been celebrating the official All Clear, which clear as a bell, arrived with impeccable timing on Dec 23rd. I’ve still got follow-treatments to come, but to bid farewell to cancer, I’m looking back on ten books that have enriched my journey thus far through the ‘kingdom of the sick’. What should you read during chemotherapy? I like to laugh, sure, but in my frail state I also wanted to see my suffering and that of the world reflected with compassion and insight. Thus the themes of illness, migration and climate change flow through this list of poetry, essays and fiction.

Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott (Faber and Faber, 2011). Spending five months on the strongest drugs Western medicine has to offer, it was hard to concentrate sometimes, but I took as my motto a line from Julia Darling’s poem ‘Chemotherapy’: ‘I have learned to drift and sip’. And thus in the stark nights of chemic insomnia I read poetry, sipping of its beauty and truth. This Costa Award-winning collection treats subjects ranging through breast cancer, war and modern architecture, Shapcott’s deft allusive touch encompassing the world with airy room for the imagination to fly. The wonderful extended metaphor of ‘Uncertainty is a Not a Good Dog’ – no, it rushes ahead and rolls in the mud! – helped me accept the new psychological terrain I had just entered. I can get a little frustrated (understatement!) with English understatement, but sometimes the problem is with readers, not the poet. The Guardian reviewer didn’t get the answer to Shapcott’s ‘Riddle’, which you didn’t need to have had chemotherapy to solve – it was placed opposite a poem called ‘Bald’.

Excisions by Clare Best (Waterloo Press, 2011).  Aware she was carrying the gene for breast cancer, Clare Best had an elective double mastectomy in her forties and declined reconstruction. Instead, tracing her journey in graceful, lucid poems, while fully acknowledging her grief at losing her ‘sentenced flesh’, she embraced the opportunity to lie closer to the earth, and feel her heart beat closer to her husband’s. I helped edit this book for Waterloo Press, and had seen photographs of Clare’s serene new shape. Having the imprint of her experience in my mind helped me to accept the possibility of mastectomy, and I turned again to the book immediately after my diagnosis. I can’t quote more because I recently gave my copy away to another woman contemplating elective surgery, but writing this blog reminds me to reorder it for myself – an essential title for my library.

Writing My Way Through Cancer by Myra Schneider (Jessica Kingsley, 2003). Combining a journal of the author’s experience with breast cancer with her own poems and writing exercises, this sensitive and rakingly honest book helped calm my own struggles with anxiety, and encouraged me to move between experience and vision in my own poems about the illness. Although I didn’t in the end need a mastectomy, it was encouraging to read of Schneider’s journey to acceptance of her new ‘Amazon’ shape. And I loved her poem ‘Choosing Yellow’, which in ranging the spectrum of this colour of sunshine and jaundice, gloriously evokes the paradox of coping with cancer: ‘a bittersweet colour / which feeds emptiness in the middle of the night, / a state of mind that refuses fear.’

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) This collection of essays by the late African-American poet Audre Lorde, who died of breast cancer in 1992 fourteen years after her diagnosis, was invigorating, bracing and sobering to read. Lorde, like my late mother (who died of colon cancer in 1992) had a mastectomy but refused chemotherapy: while I respect everyone’s right to choose their own treatment, as someone who was helped far more than harmed by chemo I can’t help but wonder if, even though far more arduous in the nineties, it might have helped them both survive. But cancer is a personal journey, and seeking alternative treatment in Germany, Lorde trod her path with famous dignity, eloquence and leadership. Refusing reconstruction because she didn’t want to deny her encounter with mortality, or conform to cultural norms of female beauty she didn’t, as a Black Lesbian identify with, Lorde challenged the medical establishment in important ways. When being prepped for a possible mastectomy, I’d been told that silicon implants can impede the effectiveness of breast cancer drugs, and when I read that Lorde was told by a nurse to wear a softie next time she came to the clinic because the sight of her asymmetry was ‘bad for morale’, I completely felt her rage. I also fully understood how her decision to own her scar empowered her: “Yet once I face death as a life process,’ she wrote, ‘what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again?”

Becoming Earth by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2016). These autobiographical essays by a marine biologist about breast cancer and nature were another difficult read at times: knowing that the book didn’t have a happy ending, and being unsure what direction my own treatment was taking me in, I had to take long breaks between sections. But I was always drawn back to Saulitis’s fiercely delicate reflections, ranging from her youth in her home state of Michigan, where she grew up feasting on pesticide-coated fruit; and her work in Alaska, where she and husband observed a pod of orcas that hasn’t calved since the Exxon Valdez oil spill; to her own body in its state of rapid decay. Thanks perhaps to Saulitis’s involvement with Buddhism, the dominant mood is not anger, though, but elegy and acceptance. Whatever its cause, cancer, an overgrowth of cells, is not itself a pollutant but an entirely natural process – an insight Saulitis evokes in the image of a glut of dead salmon. “We have no dominion over what the world will do to us,” she wrote. “We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us.… Death is nature. Nature is far from over . . . In the end—I must believe it—just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein (Oversteps Books, 2016). As you can imagine, I quite often wanted an escape from cancer stories, and this collection beguiled me with its tender family truths, and restful long lines. In its careful respect for a temperamentally sensitive father, there is a touch of Robert Lowell about Klein’s sequence ‘Seen From Below’. Her highly regarded political poetry is well-represented here, but poems rooted in personal history also have a global reach: ‘Tisch’ unpacks a word that will keep a family ‘. . . stuck together / when the bombs begin to fall.’ As a writer of the long poem myself, I also much admire the way Klein summons mystery from her wealth of well-orchestrated detail – keeping up a rhythmic soft-shoe between her lyric and narrative impulses.

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (Penguin, 2007). I wasn’t grief-stricken by Cohen’s death – he achieved a great age and had lived a charmed life. But in paying my respects and expressing my affection, I turned to his poems as well as his songs. Sometimes this book annoyed me – with his obsessive pen-and-ink self-portraits and endless lamentations over unattainable young women Cohen seemed too content to milk the myth of the solitary male genius, refusing his Muse greater empathy with a wider humanity. But then he rises to the summits of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, a song that always makes me think of my mother, or attains the simplicity of ‘Mission’, a poem that could be his own eulogy. Cohen being the first to ruefully acknowledge his own flaws, this book ultimately makes loneliness, baldness and poetry seem worthwhile endeavours – all very reassuring for a single writer on chemo. Plus ‘Something from the Early Seventies’ was hilarious!

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press, 2015). Emily Jeremiah, a friend from my MA I worked with at Waterloo Press on her Finnish poetry translations, achieved great success with this short novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker International this year. It deserved it. A spare translation of a historical novel about the 1867 famine in Finland, in its harrowing portrayal of starving peasants trudging through winter toward the mirage of St Petersburg, the book evokes the determination of today’s refugees into Europe from the South – and their pain. Just when you think the agony in this book can’t get any worse, it does. Like the futuristic novel it resembles, The Road, there is redemption of sorts in the end, but no glimpse of hope can erase the ghosts of those who did not survive. Reading White Hunger, like watching the news from Syria or Calais, was a humbling experience: what was my suffering in comparison? The book was also inspiring, though: by bringing the anonymous dead to life, literature can indeed connect the reader with all of humanity.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, 2014). For those lucky enough to have homes, long novels and chemo go together like sofas and snow, and this absorbing, informative, lyrical epic gave my side-effects an enormous sense of purpose. I learned a huge amount from Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu’s reflections on race in America, and was riveted by Adichie’s sharp yet compassionate eye for complexity. As plot devices Ifemelu’s pursuit of the perfect rich feminist husband, and celebrity status as a blogger had a slightly fairy-tale quality, but at the same time these dreams come under lucid scrutiny in the book. The narrative, and Ifemelu’s achievements, are also driven by trauma, and being an African woman in an individualist, racist and sexist country both gives her depression and allows her to acknowledge that mental health is not just a white Westerner’s concern. Her own well-being – and her desire to win back her remarkably patient (and married) heart-throb Obinze – demands that she return to Nigeria and create a successful life there on her own terms. Meanwhile Obinze’s sudden launch into the country’s wealthy upper echelons is shadowed by his failed attempt to live in Britain – a chapter in which Adichie makes a powerful case for emotional migration: the freedom to move where we please.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Penguin, orig 1924). God, I loved this book! As I faded into skin and bones, it was such an pleasure to sink into a seven-hundred and fifty page novel in which illness is the norm and self-enwrapment in blankets an art-form, or at least a Winter Olympic sport. Amused at first by young Hans Castorp’s self-regarding priggishness, I was ultimately moved by his long journey to become a sensitive mediator between his passionate friends, history and art, life and death. Like my cancer, the TB sanatorium became, for Hans, a spiritual retreat. The book also charts the build up to the first world war and although in my chemo fog I couldn’t follow all the arguments of the novel’s two voluble scholars (who between them trample the supposed differences between East and West into a bitter frenzy of intellectual envy), Mann’s nuanced portrayals of Hans’s milieu – the ‘East’ represented here by Russian and Jewish characters – throws rope bridges of humanity across politically engineered fault-lines. Finally, as a new inhabitant of the Kingdom of the Sick, I found Mann’s insights into illness still ring true; as one character opines, the awe people hold for sick people is misplaced:

For the sick was precisely that; a sick man: with the nature and modified reactions of his state. Illness so adjusted its man that it and he could come to terms; there were sensory appeasements, short circuits, a merciful narcosis; nature came to the rescue with measures of spiritual and moral adaptation and relief, which the sound person naively failed to take into account.

Cancer and chemo became my new normal in 2016, and I accepted my condition because I had to. I honestly don’t mind people telling me I am ‘inspirational’, but to end this list, and 2016, on a note of traditional resolve, I would be best pleased if that took the form of quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption or eating more vegetables! Happy New Year, everyone – and may more and more people tread the path of health, love and peace in 2017.

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From Indeterminate Cats to Interfaith Cathedrals

From Schrodinger’s Cat to Salisbury Cathedral, Prague castle to the Princess Royal Hospital, my cancer journey has come full circle, back to a strangely euphoric, possibly disease-free state. As I wrote in June, in the days just prior to my diagnosis, I felt both terminally ill and joyously alive; now, having just had an operation to remove four lymph nodes and a sphere of breast tissue at the site of the vanished tumour, but not yet the results, I will spend the weeks until Dec 23rd in a state of far gentler uncertainty. The best case scenario, as my oncologist put it, is that yesterday cancer and I parted company – I left the hospital by the front door, and any cancer cells remaining in my body after the chemo were sent on their way to the lab. The worst case scenario is that all four nodes will be found to be diseased and/or cancer cells are found at the edge of the breast tissue (rather than safely isolated in the centre). If so, another minor operation will be needed, to remove more nodes, and/or a small slice more of the bap.  After all I’ve been through so far, these are not traumatic possibilities.  Recovering from surgery in my peaceful private room at the Princess Royal yesterday, I felt filled with a enormous sense of peace. I am now, or nearly am, cancer-free. And at the same time, all I’ve been through has enabled me to contemplate without panic far more difficult outcomes. To quote, if I may, my own poem ‘Winterpause’ about the German chanteuse Nico: ‘The winter sun has won her foggy struggle with the cold.’

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I’m currently resting again, willing my eyelashes to grow back, and reflecting on the weekend: a post-chemo, pre-op energy window that framed me as traveller in a more familiar sense. Thanks to the kindness of the organisers, who drove me to Salisbury, I was able to attend the Muslim Institute’s annual Winter Gathering at Sarum College, an ecumenical conference centre just opposite the magnificent Salisbury cathedral. Last year I was invited to speak on my approach to Islamic SF, after which I became an MI Fellow. This year I attended as a guest, enjoying the company of activists and intellectuals from all over Britain, and hearing talks on the theme of ‘Blessed Are the Innovators’. Or are they? One hard question that arose was whether humanity has embraced change for the sake of change, heedless of the consequences for all living beings and the planet itself. Having dealt with Windows 10 and Outlook upgrades during my cancer treatment, as a result of which ‘improvements’ none of my devices can communicate with my laptop anymore, and I am no longer able to conduct a Keyword search on my university email, I am more inclined to that view than ever before!

It was hard to feel despairing though, in the presence of a group of people so deeply committed to dialogue and progressive values that a un-ironic Muslim singalong of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was a highlight of the Saturday Culture Night. Another unexpected moment came in a talk by anti-extremist activist Usama Hasan from whom I learned that Wahhabi-Sufism is a thing – it turns out ISIS have hijacked not simply Islam but the sect of Wahhabism, the austerities of which can, as Usama’s life work proves, be lived in the context of love for all. It was in that deeply Islamic spirit that I felt welcomed again by the Winter Gathering. On Saturday night I read a new poem about cancer, healing and gratitude, ‘It Takes A Global Village’ joining a line-up including hard-hitting, big-hearted rapper Mizan the Poet, and multi-talented Hodan Yusuf-Pankhurst, who in her role as Reporter in Residence captured me reading from my tablet – for the second time, and for the second time having the text disappear from the screen as I stood in front of the audience. This time at least it had the courtesy to do so before I began reading! (I do say I’m an SF writer because I hate IT . . .)

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As well as sharing powerful poems about race, refugees and belonging, Hodan tweeted, photographed and Storified the weekend in lavish detail. Please do check out the link – there’s a lot there, but while you may not be able to follow every thread, scrolling through gives a great flavour of the weekend, including the halal Full English breakfast! As my university department’s Equality and Diversity Champion, I was especially excited by the discussion of ‘inclusivity’ in relation to the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, a volunteer group who hold mixed-gender Friday prayers led by female Imams in various venues including interfaith churches. To paraphrase co-founder Naima Khan, being inclusive does not mean preaching a type of inclusivity, but housing it – letting people define themselves, and asking them to refrain from judgement of others. She and Imam Halima Hussain described holding Jummah (prayers) in a way that reminded me of the Quaker meetings I attended as a child – creating a sacred space in which everyone is allowed to speak without fear about whatever is on their mind. There’s so much to look forward to exploring when I’m fully recovered, but on another full circle seems a good place to pause . . .

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‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ . . . and Fascism

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I’m home from a weekend in London where, with the help of wonderful friends and a small wheelie suitcase I celebrated the end of chemo by taking a few baby steps back into the world beyond Brighton hospital clinics – and a big breath of freedom before my operation on Dec 6th. Thanks to the success of my chemotherapy cycles, during which my tumour disappeared, this will be minor day surgery on my lymph nodes, but still, my first time under the knife: I will be spending the next couple of weeks mentally and physically building calm strength.

The weekend was a great start in that direction. Saturday night I saw the musical ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ at the National Theatre. A musical about cancer, featuring dance numbers with people dressed up as tumours in weird glitzy knitted costumes . . . what an outlandish idea, but it so worked! Also featuring interwoven true stories by turns touching, humorous, sinister, heartbreaking; tunes ranging from funkadelic to country to tap dance; a set that developed cancer as the show went on; and a script that took big risks with the ‘fourth wall’, the show’s proof of success was the unembarrassed audience participation at the end, creating the palpable atmosphere of a shared deeply personal experience. Add to this a diverse cast, with three women of colour, two white working class male characters, several female doctors, and a small actor whose height became an integral part of some stunning choreography, and this radical musical firmly occupied places far more theatre ought to be going – challenging cultural narratives as much as exploring individual stories. My one main wish was for more script and shorter songs, as the character conflicts came alive most for me through dialogue. But overall, riveting – my three friends who have seen both all rated it higher than the current King Lear. (With the caveat that Glenda Jackson herself was phenomenal – I so wish I’d been able to see that show too!) Highly recommended, though if you can’t afford to go, but you’re on the South Bank while it’s running, do pop into the Dorfman Theatre lobby and watch the moving and informative video interviews (subtitled) with the cast, creators, researchers and real-life people the characters are based on.

I’m still tired and weak, so didn’t race around galleries. The rest of the weekend was spent being pampered by friends in cosy homes, catching up on poetry, travels and the state of the world. Although I haven’t been participating in online discussions lately, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about the giant steps the world is suddenly, rapidly taking toward fascism. In my last blog, I celebrated the loving kindness I’ve been shown by so many people during my alchemical treatment by posting an image of a Rose Window by another Toronto friend, stained glass artist worker John Wilcox. You might think I’m understandably looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses – but in fact my experience being ill is leading me to believe the opposite: that when we lead from the heart, and  put ourselves in the service of beauty and healing, we create powerful collective resistance to the sickness that is violent intolerance of any kind. Thinking about it further this evening I realised that fighting the world’s current slide into fascism and healing cancer both require determined and organised commitments to:

1) challenging corporations that poison the planet with dangerous chemicals
2) ensuring safe food (organic plants and well-treated animals)
3) making that food affordable (economic justice)
4) priority public spending on health and education, with strong awareness of how some socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to disease. Black British women, for example, are twice as likely to die of breast cancer than white women, mostly for reasons of late diagnosis, so public health education needs to be better at reaching these women.
5) valuing every single person as an individual with sovereign rights over his or her own body
6) gratitude for the gifts we all – scientists, cooks, exercise boffins, artists, thinkers, mystics – bring to the table.

Well, I guess that’s my 2017 cut out for me then! Oh, and maybe some knitting and tap dance lessons too . . .

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A Farewell to Chemo: With Fireworks!

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First, a blockbuster blossom: last Monday I got the results of an MRI scan taken after my fourth chemo session, and it showed NO CANCER in my breast. Why hasn’t she mentioned this before, you may ask? Well, like Bob Dylan after his Nobel Prize announcement, I was speechless. Even though my surgeon had been confident my tumour would shrink rapidly under Herceptin, its disappearance, two thirds of the way through my chemo treatment, was an extraordinary result.

The news was so incredible, in fact, that I couldn’t quite believe it. Maybe, I thought, cancer sort of comes and goes during chemo . . . Certainly, as the oncologist said, it wasn’t an official all clear – to verify what is known as a ‘complete response’, leaving not a trace of disease, the tissue has to be examined in the lab, which can only be done after the surgery to remove the titanium marker in my breast and clear my lymph nodes. My joy was also tempered by a barrage of treatment updates: while I might be well ahead of the pack, the SAS marathon of orthodox cancer treatment is only just beginning. In addition to the five years of hormone blockers I was expecting, I’ll have to have radiotherapy every day for at least three weeks in January, and a Herceptin shot, delivered at home by a nurse, every three weeks for a year. That Herceptin needle is big, and it hurts!

Still, although arduous, all that is infinitely better than having cancer. I celebrated quietly with a few friends, and planned to make an announcement after my final chemo on Oct 27th. Then came a setback. I bounded into the chemo unit last Thursday only to be told that my white blood cell count was too low, and I’d have to come back in a week. This was deflating, to say the least. The delay would set back my surgery date, perhaps interfering with Christmas travel plans. And perhaps, a small part of me worried, the delay would allow the cancer to start growing again. Frustrating also was the fact that I wasn’t given much information on how to help my white blood cells rebuild. I went back into research mode, and over the week, various people sent dietary information – citrus, selenium, zinc, all good – and the NHS dietitian recommended eating a lot of protein and washing fruit and veg extra carefully. And, because introducing new bacteria into the gut isn’t necessarily a good idea when one’s ‘infection fighters’ are low, she advised against probiotic yoghurt, in favour of the pasteurised ‘non-bio’ variety. I hadn’t been aware there was a difference, and having examined labels in the Co-op am still none the wiser. Anyone interested in keeping their red blood cell count high, by the way, may be interested to learn that the tannins in green tea can rob the body of iron, so it shouldn’t be drunk for two hours before or after iron supplements or iron-rich food.

Altogether, it was a lot of strange information to absorb. I felt a little low at times, to be honest, and got inordinately angry with the acclaimed Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation, which started by blaming Patti Smith for Donald Trump’s conquest of NYC, and only got more sexist, shallow and West-centric from there on in. (Syria’s Hafez Assad was quite a decent dictator until Henry Kissinger hurt his feelings, apparently.) I was too tired to post a review, but was glad to find this Theatre of Noise post, which articulates all of my criticisms, and more. Generally, I managed my fluctuating mood by reading, watching and writing more nourishing fare – more on my reading in a future post, I promise – and was especially happy to make a breakthrough in thinking about a character in Astra 4. I also rested, bought flannel pyjamas covered with foxes, birds and rabbits, was grateful for some gorgeous meals cooked by friends, listened to hypnotherapy tapes and Meredith Monk’s ancestral echoes on Composer of the Week. And before heading to the chemo unit again today I heard Jenny Murray interview Bryony Kimmings and Judith Dimant, the writer/director and producer of  A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, a new – wait for it! – musical about cancer I’ve got tickets to see at the National Theatre in a couple of weeks. For, as Women’s Hour discussed, and I’ve reflected on before here, when confronted with the barrage of challenges that is cancer treatment, how do we move away from the martial metaphors that imply those who die of cancer have lost some great battle with themselves?

Today, for example, the chemo nurses told me that while my white blood cells had rallied, they were still considered too low to risk more drugs. Was that my fault? No: I ate well, scrubbed my veg, and the rate of recovery is something I have little to no control over – though that’s a challenge to accept too. Should I have taken the news serenely, instead of wrestling with disappointment, frustration and worry for an hour as the nurses waited for the oncologist’s verdict? Perhaps I can just reassure myself those feelings are perfectly valid and normal, and be glad I had a dear friend with me to talk with about poetry and, not warfare, but his relationship with the blood-thinner Warfarin. In this way and others, I am trying to say ‘farewell to arms’. In that classic novel I have yet to read, Hemingway wrote, ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’ Stronger and more flexible, that is the way I’d like to emerge from this period of my life.

Fortunately, the oncologist said I could proceed today, prescribing a higher dose of steroids over the next ten days to help the white blood cells recover. So in this season of fizzing, bursting, banging surprises, one thing is finally certain, my chemotherapy treatment is over! Oh, and in case you’d forgotten after all this complaining – it very much looks like my tumour has vanished into the night! Huzzah!! And thank you again to everyone for your support, love and prayers. There will be a post celebrating all of you too soon, that’s is also for sure.

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Shelter from the Storm: Dylan Trumps Chemo

After the gusty gales of the past four months it was fabulous to celebrate turning a corner in my cancer treatment this Thursday night, when I read some new poems at the Red Hen/Pighog Pigbaby Rides Again poetry party, sharing a stage in the glamorous Paganini Ballroom of Brighton’s Old Ship Hotel with transatlantic barnstormers Maria Jastrzebska, Ciaran O’Driscoll, Hugh Dunkerley, Tom Sissons, Brendan Cleary, Red Hen Press editor Kate Gale and Pighog host John Davies. It being Day 8 of Chemo 5 I’d been worried I’d flag, but somehow my eyes remained open and my legs vertical til midnight – a taste of my new wild self, or perhaps I’d been turbo-charged by Bob Dylan’s surprise Nobel Prize.

As a balladeer, I take Dylan’s win as a tribute to oral literature which should not be honoured simply as the root-field of all poems and novels, but in its own right, as an living tradition. Last year’s crowning of oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, and the early laureateship of Rabindranath Tagore – best known as a poet, but also the author of over 2000 songs – demonstrate that Stockholm obviously agrees. As one of this year’s committee members said, ancient Greek poets used to sing their work – alone and accompanied by the lyre, hence of course ‘lyric poetry’. The ancient Greeks also used to recite longer works with the aid of a staff, striking the floor to the hexameter beat of their epic histories and myths. As the concept of the writer’s ‘voice’ demonstrates, all written literature is deeply historically entwined with oral expression. If Dylan’s songs, in the committee’s view, create “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, they do so often by engaging with American and European lyric poetry. He named himself after Dylan Thomas, after all, and who can’t take heart from the doleful and confessional Relationships have all been bad. / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.  But there are subtler resonances too. As I said in the intro to one of my poems, quoting the opening of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’:

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wondrin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red

this song certainly qualifies as an aubade, a song or poem for lovers parting at dawn (or in my case, a woman parting from her hair).

By invoking the importance of oral literature I don’t mean that every five years a lyricist or storyteller ought to win the Nobel prize, but if a songwriter has spent a lifetime in a constant quest to mine and transform many of the most significant songwriting genres of their historical period, in so doing challenging and transcending social barriers, and thus the very notion of ‘populism’ – think of how Dylan’s much-derided Christian period has been re-made supreme by the American gospel community – then that person is certainly deserving of the world’s greatest literary accolade. As to the cynical response that Dylan was honoured primarily as a Scandi rebuke to all things Trump, I listened again to Blood on the Tracks today – songs which, in plotting an imploding relationship, give conventional narrative structure a bitter twist of genius – and thought that one small measure of the album’s timeless nature is the prophetic ventriloquism of ‘Idiot Wind’. Consider the vainglorious misogyny of the opening verses and chorus:

Someone’s got it in for me
They’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick
But when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray
And took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks
And when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
People see me all the time
And they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas
Images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday
You had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years
You didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads headin’ south
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

These lines could spring like toads from the mouth of the Donald himself. (Compare ‘I can’t help it if I’m lucky’ to ‘I guess that makes me clever.’) Despite the continuing creepy echos of the current US presidential election, though (I noticed at the ceremony / Your corrupt ways had finally made you blind) the song’s not of course about a feud between two corrupt politicians, and in the last two lines the speaker displays a self-awareness of complicity in the train wreck that the average fascist sociopath could never reach – We’re idiots, babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves. As many Americans can’t, due to the rampant greed of tax-dodging moguls like Trump. Not that there’s anyone quite like Trump, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest Clinton’s hawkish hard-lines and alleged misdemeanors put her in the same category as his vile, abusive, post-truth hater’s burlesque.

But back to the Greeks, for ages I heard ‘Idiot wind’ as ‘Aeolian wind’ . . . Aeolus being the ancient Greek god of the wind, perhaps the dust bowl Homer was deliberately pronouncing it that way. Whichever way that particular breeze blows, my chemo cap’s off to Mr Dylan – maybe the rumours are right and he’s a cantankerous workaholic, a nightmare to work or live with, but I’m glad that, as the song says:

At the final end he won the wars / after losing every battle.

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