Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis by Joseph Turner
Dec 31st and not only do I realise I haven’t blogged since July, but I find myself unable to post the traditional list of the year’s top ten books, films, or significant events. Far from this being the year of living listlessly, I am afraid the only tallies I can provide right now are a sad roll call of friends who have died in the last four months, and a long unscrolling moan of all the marking, household chores and writing projects that the year will now leave undone. Since September I’ve been teaching full time (though unfortunately not for full time wages), and the Christmas season, lovely and indulgent as it’s been, has seen me careening madly from tissue paper hats to stacks of undergraduate poems, essays and novel chapters. Work, especially satisfying work, does help stave off grief, and as well as staying up late to write poems in memory of novelist Irving Weinman, postcolonial scholar Bart Moore-Gilbert and translator Yuri Drobyshev (the late partner of my PhD supervisor Carol Rumens), I’ve paced myself with the marking, allowing ample time to relish my student’s talents. Teaching (and moaning about it) aside, it’s an unwritten part of the writer’s job to nurture new generations of wordsmiths, as Bart, Irving, and another late friend Lee Harwood, did so warmly for me.
I am especially pleased to be now starting the pile of submissions for Making It Strange: Writing the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Modern Gothic Novel, the first module I have solely designed and delivered in my teaching career, introducing students to (sneaky all-time book list alert) classic texts including Octavia Butler’s tentacular dystopia Dawn, Russell Hoban’s linguistic tour-de-force Riddley Walker and Monique Wittig’s avant-garde lesbian feminist call-to-arms Les Guérillères, as well as to my own ultra-zealous worldbuilding methodologies (hey kids, don’t stop at a map, why not write your world’s own wikipage!). The students’ enthusiasm has been incredibly rewarding, and reading the first two submissions, I feel tingles of pride in what they have accomplished.
Professionally, 2015 was a milestone in many respects. At Chichester, balancing out my still precarious part-time status, I was one of 14 university-wide recipients of a Research Development Award that will fund several research projects over the next two years (more on that below). I also became my department’s Equality and Diversity Champion, and have done my best in the role to support students with issues relating to access and inclusion, including learning more about autism. I can report that one stereotype has been smashed already: reading a book on Asperger’s Syndrome I learned that two of my favourite writers, Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats, are thought to have had the condition – as my own students have taught me, being on the spectrum doesn’t necessarily mean an inability to think metaphorically. On the subject of diversity, my appearances this year at four conferences, History Matters (discussing the dearth of Black British history teachers and scholars), the SOAS Spring Literature Festival (exploring Cultural Confluences), Blind Creations (celebrating the relationship between blindness and creativity) and the Muslim Institute’s Winter Gathering (which I left fully signed up as a new MI Fellow), all greatly deepened my knowledge of cultural resistance on many fronts.
Well, despite myself, the seasonal listmania seems to be taking hold . . . and as it does seem important to reflect on the year’s political events, I will just mention that I was glad to give a talk this autumn on the cultural and academic boycott of Israel at Brighton’s regular eclectic salon, The Catalyst Club, and also delighted in being a very naughty voter, paying my £3 to help get Jeremy Corbyn elected, hurrah! Rather less joyfully, I also wrote to my MP, cold-blooded Tory Simon Kirby, several times, protesting cuts to the Independent Living Allowance and the government’s plans to bomb ISIS while ignoring Syrian calls to combat the genocidal Assad regime by instituting a no fly zone over the country. I wrote to Brighton Pavilion’s Green MP Caroline Lucas about the latter issue too, and was pleased to see her later step down from Stop the War, which has so shamefully blocked Syrian voices in this urgent debate. The vote was lost, as we all know, and the war continues, toward its sixth year. It is very hard to know how to help, but I tried to do so this year by donating to Migrant Offshore Aid Station, who rescue refugees at sea, Middle East Children’s Alliance, whose Christmas appeal supported Palestinian and Syrian refugees, and the White Helmets, an unarmed volunteer force who, at huge risk to their own lives, pull people from the buildings Assad bombs.
2015 also saw the publication of Rook Song, and the launch of Astra in North America and though my lists of things to do to support both books are largely still unticked off, I will be getting back to the peculiar task of self-promotion in the New Year. For all that teaching will pay off in 2016 as I don’t go back in the classroom until September. Next semester is earmarked for research, which brings me to the happy announcement that, weaving my political, cultural and literary interests together, one of the top hats I’ll wear over the next two years will be the editorship of an anthology of Palestinian poetry in translation, forthcoming from Smokestack Books in 2017. Work will start in earnest in February when I visit Palestine to research permaculture and biodiversity in the West Bank for an article for the Nature issue of Critical Muslim. The anthology will be a mixture of established and new voices, and I am determined, if at all possible, to include Palestinian poets from Syria.
But first I have to proofread the next book in The Gaia Chronicles, and start the final novel of the quartet. . . Between teaching, writing doorstopper SFF, and trying to keep my poetry oar in, I do feel like a storm-tossed craft at times, but so far I have managed to land at most of the islands in my small archipelago. Except the one called Goodreads . . . I was heartily buoyed, though, to see Rook Song end up on an Effing Best of 2015 list, and I do still want to write about my talk for the Muslim Institute Winter Gathering, though, so the promise of a full post (plus my own blinder of a list!) on my current reading focus, Islamic SF, seems like a good note to end on – along with my best wishes to you all for smooth sailing and admiral adventures in 2016.
Figurehead of The Cutty Sark
Posted in Astra, Blindness, Disability, Environmentalism, Equality and Diversity, Green Party, Israel-Palestine, Novels, Poetry, Politics, Rook Song, Travels
Tagged Bart Moore Gilbert, Irving Weinman, Middle East Children's Alliance, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, Monique Wittig, Octavia Butler, Russell Hoban, The White Helmets, Yuri Drobyshev
This image shows writers Frédéric Grellier, Romain Villet, Naomi Foyle, Rod Michalko and Ryan Knighton sitting on chairs arranged in a row in front of a long computer podium. Hannah Thompson is standing behind the podium, addressing the auditorium audience.
As the Greeks vote a resounding NO to austerity, here in the UK disabled activists prepare again to storm Westminster on Wednesday to protest the abolishment of the Independent Living Fund – everywhere the war on the poor is cutting deep, and people are fighting back. We living in desperate times, and yet also there’s an exciting spirit of defiance in the air. My dream is of a global grow/volution – a gradual and profound revolution, the transformation of our cruel and corrupt global economic system into one rooted in the principles of human rights and respect for difference. Gradual, because while sudden change is a great catalyst, too many radical upheavals breed insecurity and violence, while the creation of a just society requires reflection, compassion and co-operation. Just back from Blind Creations, a 3 day micro-arts festival and conference on the relationship between blindness and the arts, held last week at Royal Holloway University of London, I am more convinved than ever that such a world is possible.
As I told organisers Hannah Thompson and Vanessa Warne, and will now officially state, Blind Creations was the best conference I’ve ever attended. The weather, food and setting certainly helped. The campus’s Founders Building, a vast feast of red brickwork and Corinthian columns, chimney crenallations, stone corbels and quoins, is set in lush woodlands, while the catering included asparagus soup and a BBQ picnic in the grassy quadrangle, with grilled haloumi and aubergine kebabs for vegetarians. All this during Mediterranean sunshine levels! Yes, ivory or red brick, the towers of academia have their perks. But privilege is there to be redistributed – check out sustainable agriculture company grovolution, who use technology first developed at NASA* – and sometimes universities, as institutions of learning and communication, do in fact provide space for real cultural exchange and change. At Blind Creations, the programming and, above all, the people involved, made this gathering a powerful opportunity for sighted people – and institutions run largely by them – to learn from the experience of blind and visually impaired people.
To start with, there was a marvellous breadth of knowledge on offer. As an SF ‘world builder’, I thoroughly enjoyed the multidisciplinary approach – art, history, philosophy, literature, sociology, museum studies, media studies, film, technology, theatre, post-colonialism and linguistics were all represented. It was also exciting to be part of such an international occasion, with delegates from countries as far as India, South Korea, Japan and Brazil, while I enjoyed giving my schoolbook French an outing and – for a particular reason I will disclose in my next blog – the presence of so many Canadians gave me a happy sense of connection with the land I grew up in. But though the intellectual and geopolitical range of the conference were hugely stimulating, for me, the social atmosphere was most revelatory aspect of the experience. While student volunteers were on hand to support the visually impaired participants, on the first day Vanessa asked us all to co-create a culture of ‘support and respect’ – if a blind person needed help navigating the space, they were asked to put up a hand, and sighted people were asked to respond. I had already begun approaching blind delegates to say hi – this was no time or place to be shy – and was already discovering that the conference etiquette was an ice-breaker into warm waters.
Normally at conferences I feel a degree of social awkwardness, but here the combination of shared interests, a shared journey and physical touch, infused these navigational encounters with mutual good humour, curiosity and a delicate intimacy. I felt comfortable asking for help in my guiding technique – am I giving too much info, too little? I had discussions about touch in different cultures and families; I stopped to explore my tactile environment. Conversations felt warm and personal, as did the atmosphere of the conference as a whole. Though the place was filled with experts in their fields, even celebrities, there was no sense of big egos bumping up against each other here. Rather people chatted as though we were all old friends, the conference generating a social force field perhaps akin to what blind theorist Piet Devos called ‘relational identity’ – it was interconnectivity in action, or as Canadian writer Ryan Knighton put it ‘an economy of trust’. During our plenary session, Ryan was also responsible for a quip about urinals that sent the whole auditorium into gales of laughter, a long moment of wonderful uproar I can’t recall experiencing at any other conference I’ve attended. Overall, the palpable sense of community at Blind Creations made me think about the nature of inclusion – what is gained from the active inclusion of disabled people in society is a rich and genuine sense of being stronger together, creating a world where caring for each other is not a devalued and monetised job, but a shared human experience. As plenary speaker Georgina Kleege concluded her talk: ‘when we open up the culture, we change the culture’. This, to me, is a truth at the heart of the grow/volution.
Blind Creations also provoked more personal reflections. Though I was invited to discuss how I created my visually impaired characters in The Gaia Chronicles, I write about a range of disabilities, and am also the Equality and Diversity Champion in my Department at the University of Chichester. I know that there are links between my creative and political involvement in disability studies, and my personal life, though I still find it difficult to fully articulate these. As readers of this blog know, I have a history of anxiety and depression that dates back to early childhood. I am well aware that mental health conditions are sometimes considered ‘hidden disabilities’, but for various reasons I have shied away from claiming, officially or otherwise, this identity. Disclosure and self-identification, here, at work, in my writing – is something I still need time to reflect on. But this blog is already so long, I will postpone all that yet again! For now, I just want to celebrate the remarkable and joyful time I have just had – an experience that in some ways was a great antidote to anxiety – and to share some of the things I learned. The Blind Creations programme and audio archive are here, but these (with photos for the benefit of what plenary speaker Georgina Kleege helpfully terms the SVP or ‘Severely Visually Dependent’ community) are five of my personal highlights:
1. Encountering ‘Too Big To Feel’ by blind artist David Johnson
This image shows David Johnson’s art installation ‘Too Big To Feel’ – 16 large white concrete mounds, and one red mound, set in the grassy embankment by a path on the Royal Holloway campus, to read, in Grade 2 contracted Braille, ‘Seeing Red’. The artwork is seen here with two female conference delegates, one of whom has short, bright red hair
Hannah blogged about the installation of this piece, but did not say what the braille phrase meant. I tried to discover online, but could not find a key to Grade 2 Contracted braille (in which some braille characters stand for syllables, not letters). I sensed that part of the point of the piece was to demonstrate inaccessibility, but nevertheless I wanted to know what was being said. Finding myself sitting next to the artist I plucked up my courage and asked him to reveal the secret. At first David said he wanted to preserve the mystery of the artwork, but when I persevered, saying how much I liked the title’s pun on ‘too big to fail’, he kindly relented and told me the phrase was ‘seeing red.’ As I replied, knowing this did not at all reduce the piece’s power to me – quite the opposite. Rather, I felt the anger expressed directly linked disability campaigners to the current crisis in Greece, making a braille-iant comment on austerity. The phrase also described the conference itself, with its goal of ‘reading’ vision, and the artist’s own vision, which he told me can sometimes be a field of red. Visual impairment, as the conference discussed, is a varied and individual experience.
2. Learning about ‘the grammar of touch’ from Russ Palmer and Riitta Lahtinen
This image shows Riitta Lahtinen and Russ Palmer laughing and smiling, with their joined hands outstretched to the viewer.
Readers of Rook Song will know that one of the book’s central characters is Asar, a deafblind young man with learning disabilities, who communicates by touch with his partner, carer and manager Sepsu, and is viewed as a prophet in his society. I was at the conference to talk about how I came to create Asar and the other visually impaired character in The Gaia Chronicles, Hokma Blesser. In the course of my research for Asar, I had taught a creative writing workshop at Stay Up Late, a charity that works to ensure people with learning disabilities can attend gigs, but my other research had been online, and not as detailed as I wanted. So I was thrilled to hear a presentation by the married couple Russ Palmer and Riitta Lahtinen on using social haptic communication (touch-based language) to interpret art for visually impaired people. Russ, who is deafblind with two cochneal implants, and Riitta, the Head of the Communication Unit at the Finnish Deafblind Association, later generously allowed me to ply them with questions about their work. I would have to write another whole blog post to share what I had learned, but suffice to say I am now excited about returning to Asar in Book 4, armed with a far greater knowledge of his language.
3. Meeting the Indian delegates
This image shows a smiling Hemachandran Karah sitting outside on a chair on a lawn.
Being the descendent of a nineteenth century Scottish missionary in Calcutta, and having spent time in India looking into my mother’s family history there, I was glad to meet the blind Indian delegates Aravinda Bhat, whose talk on Borges led to a shared appreciation of jokes in Finnegan’s Wake; and Hemachandran Karah, whose talk on blind Indian writer Ved Mehta I missed, but whose conversation on the last day brought me up to speed on Heidegger in India, and Kindle screenreading technology for the visually impaired. I was also very pleased to make the acquaintance of blind Indian-American scholar Sejal Sutaria, whose work on Dalit and Indigenous activist writing in India is leading her to desire an active connection with the Palestinian struggle. Overall, there was a strong post-colonial thrust to the conference that I hope can be built upon in future such events – it would be very good to hear from blind and visually impaired African and Middle Eastern speakers, or (considering their absence here) to understand what obstacles they might face in attending international events.
4. Experiencing the Singing Bowl Table
This image shows a table display of bronze bowls, wooden sticks, a cloth covered gong stick, and a flat bronze gong in a shape that resembles a bell, a Tibetan Lama’s hat, or a Buddha.
Rook Song readers will also know that Asar gives his prophetic counsel accompanied by music, most significantly Himalayan singing bowls. According to legend, these are made of seven metals, including meteorite iron which the lamas believe helps meditators enter into astral travel. So it was the most marvellous serendipity to meet artist Aaron McPeake at the conference, and see and play his bronze singing bowls. Holding the bowls on my flat palm, up near my ear, Aaron teaching me how to play properly – keeping the wooden stick moving with a steady pressure and constant speed – I felt the overtones carve out their strange, calming space within me. A former stage lighting designer who has met Samuel Beckett (in a London caf; Sam was almost chirpy), Aaron lost much of his sight by 2002, provoking a move from stage lighting design into art. He also makes slate works, films, responses to Icelandic landscapes, gongs and bells all of which you can see and hear here.
5. Clarifying My Perception of Blindness
Due in part to significant relationships I have had with highly creative and successful blind people over the years, I do not perceive blindness as a personal catastrophe. As a fiction writer I have aimed to convey my visually characters as people with complex identities and active roles in their societies. Nevertheless, I enjoy my sight and – not even liking to lose my hat – would not welcome losing it. And one of those relationships, a difficult one with an employer, did leave me with the impression that the person’s blindness was a factor in their inability to trust other people, and concomitant need to control them. That’s an impression I am reassessing, and in any case certainly wouldn’t generalise from. As a sighted person, I know that I have far more to learn and unlearn about blindness. But the sheer happiness radiating from so many blind people I met at the conference was a powerful reminder of the truth of the refrain of Hannah Thompson’s blog Blind Spot – that blindness, far from being a tragedy, is simply another way of being in the world, and one that can offer many pleasures. At the Gala BBQ I watched David Johnson encounter, with delighted surprise, half a baked potato on his plate. Suddenly, a slightly altered phrase from Peter Pan popped into my head: ‘To be blind must be an awfully big adventure’. Tinker Bell, of course, says ‘To die’, but except in the sense that they are both experiences that many people fear, I don’t at all associate blindness with death. For a sighted person going blind is by its nature a loss, but that is not the end of the story. Any loss is also fundamentally a change. Life continues, allowing new growth, both radical and subtle, to occur. Returning from Blind Creations I am more certain than ever that should I become blind, I would adjust, and find value, pride and beauty in my new mode of being. Life, after all – as my CBT counsellor tells me – is to a large extent how you look at it. So thank you again, Hannah and Vanessa, for the tremendous and re/visionary experience of Blind Creations.
*For the record, I hit on the term ‘grovolution’ as I was writing, then Googled it. I rethought my spelling, as I don’t want to infringe on copyright, or cause confusion, and in any case I like using the whole word grow rather than something snappier. Growing is usually a slow process, with breaks and reversals, hence the back slash.
Posted in Astra, Blindness, Disability, Mental Health, Novels, Politics, Rook Song, Uncategorized
Tagged Aaron McPeake, Aravinda Bhat, David Johnson, Georgina Kleege, Hannah Thompson, Hemachandran Karah, Piet Devos, Riitta Lahtinen, Russ Palmer, Ryan Knighton, Sejal Sutaria, Vanessa Warne
Home from ten days in Greece, a defiant indulgence in the face of my own turbulent finances, and my fourth trip to the country, the first I ever visited in continental Europe. A three month stay during the first Gulf War resulted in a sequence of prose poems; two trips in the noughties with my then-partner produced a stormy DIY arthouse video and a three generation family holiday. For me the blue waters of Greece are emotional reservoir and creative wellspring. With their secluded beaches and balmy climate, blazing bourgenvilla and silvery olive groves, kids zooming about like fireflies as their parents welcome artists, writers, history and sun seekers, if you’ve got a little spare cash the islands offer intense beauty, and the timeless illusion of freedom. But what I’ve also always loved about the country is its sense of political urgency, born perhaps of its place in the crosscurrents of continents. I first came to Athens to stay with anarchists, and when those relations proved combustive, was befriended by a South African anti-apartheid activist who, with her Palestinian husband, nurtured the seeds of my own anti-Zionism. Now, of course, as Greeks pull Syrian refugees from the waves, Alex Tsipras and Syriza are, with Spain’s Podemos, leading the fight against European neo-liberalism, a struggle we all need to win.
Not that I was going to throw stones at American Express. This visit was a reading and walking holiday, time to relax and recuperate from a spring filled with work deadlines. And apart from a few political posters in Corfu Town no crisis was in evidence in Corfu or Paxos – no queues at banks (not that we saw many banks), no demonstrations, the hotel we stayed in the first night fully booked. Paxos especially is insulated by its summer Med Set clientele – though our small village had resisted the cruise ships, the beach taverna had served Kate and Wills on their honeymoon, sending the food out to the royal yacht on a dinghy – but of course the economic meltdown was on people’s minds. A taxi driver liked Tsipras for being on the Left and standing up to the EU; our young cocktail bartender said she was planning to work in London; but the best conversation I had about the situation was with a older gent with the most fabulous fleecy white moustaches, who arrived on a small boat with his two grandchildren as I was swimming on an isolated beach. He said the country’s economic problems stemmed in part from irresponsible lending – retired now, when he was working he had been coldcalled every five days with offers of collateral-free loans of up to 50,000 euros. It was the same in Ireland, I replied – an Irish friend’s builder was constantly getting phone calls from the banks; he could take the train from Dublin and by the time he got to Kildare be 100,000 euros richer. But while the banks are ‘too big to fail’, and bailed out to the tune of over a trillion pounds, Greece is insulted, raged at, and made to beg for, in comparision, a meagre £7 billion. What price not only an entire country, but the dream of a real European Union?
My bewhiskered Poseidon asked me to tell people to keep coming – the last things Greeks need now is a wash-out summer season, and as long as you bring enough euros with you, even a run on the banks won’t affect your holiday. The biggest disturbance in Loggos was the bull carcass that washed up on the beach one day, front legs bound and smelling to high heaven. I recalled the myth of Europa, kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a bull, who swam with her away from Crete. Europe now seems to be dumping Zeus, and the situation stinks. Rich nations shouldn’t be punishing Greece, or any poorer countries. Europe has got a chance here to live up to its ideals, and though I don’t hold out much hope of the IMF waving the flag of economic equality, perhaps the threat of Putin profiting from Syriza’s rebellion will be enough to force a deal. Yesterday’s concessionary funds suggest a game of brinkmanship that may yet keep a Grexit at bay.
What’s really needed, though, is a new sense of being in this crisis together – a green social democracy that empowers the disenfranchised and forces the wealthy to, as Pope Francis has just decreed, take responsibility for healing the earth. It’s still hard to see how our how current political system will deliver this, but it was good to come back to the news that Jeremy Corbyn has entered the Labour leadership contest. Personally, I can only live in a way that honours my radical politics, spirituality and creativity. I read Zorba the Greek on that beach, and while my friend Glen on FB – one of the true male feminists I am fortunate to know – bemoaned the hero’s atrocious behavior toward women during the war, to me it seemed Zorba learned a profound lesson from his violent past:
‘My country, you say? . . . You believe all the rubbish your books tell you? Well, I’m the one you should believe. As long as there are countries man will stay an animal, a ferocious animal . . . But I am delivered from that, God be praised! It’s finished for me! [. . .] That miracle over there, boss, that moving blue, what do they call it? Sea? Sea? And what’s that wearing a flowered green apron? Earth? Who was the artist who did it? It’s the first time I’ve seen that, boss, I swear!’
His eyes were brimming over.
‘Zorba!’ I cried. ‘Have you gone off your head?’
‘What are you laughing at? Don’t you see? There’s magic behind all that, boss.’
He rushed outside, began dancing and rolling in the grass like a foal in spring.
The sun appeared and I held out my palms to the warmth. Rising sap . . . the swelling breast . . .
and the soul also blossoming like a tree; you could feel that body and soul were kneaded from the same material.
– Zorba the Greek, Nicos Kazantzakis (Faber, p245-6)
The book is very much about patriarchy, and though the depictions of women are often problematic – a figure of fun, a nameless victim of lust and murder – Zorba himself evolves from rapacious soldier to anarchist pagan, and his appreciation of older women’s sexuality is rare to see in literature. I could forgive much though, for in their striving for fulfillment and transcendence, Zorba and the narrator, the ‘boss’ on his Buddhist writerly quest, embody the Greece that keeps pulling me back to its wild warm shores – to drink wine from tin carafes, flirt, read, swim, sketch the cliffs and the sea, recharge for the challenges ahead . . . its going to be an interesting summer, but for now, I’m still basking in my Grecian urnings, so more on future plans anon!