- Syria: Who to Trust? April 14, 2018
- April in London: Poetry & SF Events April 8, 2018
- A Blade of Grass: Launched! November 18, 2017
- Disappearance without absence: Book Launch on National Poetry Day September 7, 2017
- No Enemy but Time: A New Pamphlet of Old Poems July 16, 2017
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Trapped in a box with a radioactive particle that would inevitably at some point decay, triggering the release of a fatal poison, until the lid was lifted, Shrödinger’s cat was infamously (and ridiculously in Shrödinger’s mind – his thought experiment was designed to critique a branch of quantum physics) both dead and alive. The indeterminate feline was much on my mind earlier this summer, when I spent two weeks wandering the ravishing streets of Prague, in full view and undeniably alive, but psychologically in a state of impossible simultaneity: feeling both gloriously healthy and terminally ill.
In May I had discovered a lump in my left breast. My GP said it was mobile – a good sign – but also large and hard: worrying. An ultrasound revealed the lump was definitely not a cyst, and also discovered swelling in a lymph node. On the verge of a teaching job in Prague, I asked if I should cancel my trip, but was told no, I could get the results when I returned. The doctor at the screening clinic also breezily announced that the worst-case scenario was a lumpectomy, so I left the UK feeling dazed at the prospect of surgery, but relieved that the situation didn’t appear life-threatening. I told colleagues and a handful of friends. In Prague I bought a notebook with an Albert Einstein quote on the cover: Life is like a bicycle: to keep your balance you must keep moving. But I wasn’t expecting the travels that would be demanded of me.
A week into my stay in Prague, the clinic called to strongly advise me to come home early. The armpit biopsy had proved inconclusive and another sample from the lymph node needed to be taken; the nurse also wanted to schedule an appointment with a consultant surgeon. She wasn’t allowed to give results over the phone, but reading between the lines I deduced that the breast lump was malignant. Still, though, the delusional mind is a wondrous thing. Perhaps they were just being extra-careful, I told myself. I arranged for a replacement tutor for my class, and booked a flight to the UK, returning to Prague the following day. If I did have cancer, I reasoned, I wanted to spend as much time as possible in a beautiful city doing what I love before a summer consumed by some horrible treatment. As the week went on I surprised myself with how calmly I was responding to the unfolding situation. My dreams, my friends and the Tarot all said not to worry. But then came Sunday night at the airport, waiting for hours in a long corridor as no news appeared on the departure boards, and ominous text updates from EasyJet culminated in the cancellation of my flight. Prepared to sleep at the airport, I searched desperately online for early morning flights, but none would get me to the clinic on time. With the opening of a hole in the Gatwick Airport main runway, the ground was shifting underneath me, and panic bubbled up.
I made it to the appointment in the end, a day late, to hear the news everyone dreads. I had cancer, it had most probably spread to the lymph nodes, and my liver and lungs would have to be tested as well. And far from simply requiring a routine removal, the tumour in my breast was now too big for a lumpectomy, and unless chemotherapy could shrink it I would need a mastectomy. To top it off, I learned that my lymph nodes would probably be ‘cleared’ – all 30 in the area removed – putting me at risk of lymphodema, a chronic, painful swelling of the limb. My friend Lee who attended the diagnosis with me said I took the news calmly, but in fact I was paralytic in the face of a slow-motion avalanche. My mother died of colon cancer at the age of 52, and ever since I turned 47 two years ago – the age she was diagnosed – I’d been aware that part of me was waiting for this verdict. Although beautifully cushioned by friends, for the 24 hours after receiving the news I was frankly a complete mess. It also didn’t help that I had to get up at four am to catch a bus to Heathrow and a flight to Prague via Frankfurt, an airport itself beset by storms . . .
That was almost two months ago. Emotionally I’ve traveled a great distance since then. As well as the deep support of friends and family, without which I don’t know where I’d be on this journey, writing has been crucial to restoring my equilibrium. Finally, having cleared Frankfurt airport and secure on the plane back to Prague, I picked up my pen and Einstein notebook – and the fear that had gripped my guts since the diagnosis magically lifted. I realised at that moment that terror was not a mandatory response to my illness, and no matter how much time I had left, I didn’t want to spend it seized by the physical pain fear causes. I was of course nervous before the results of my MRI scan two weeks ago, but by then I also knew that whatever the verdict, I would have to keep living in the same way – establishing healthy habits, and maintaining a positive outlook. Very fortunately the scan confirmed that the cancer had not spread to internal organs, and my final diagnosis remains primary breast cancer, Stage 2, which is curable. That sounds good to me.
From the date of the diagnosis I have taken an integrative approach to my treatment, embracing both orthodox medicine and complementary therapies. I have conducted safe juice fasts when appropriate, though now I’ve started chemotherapy I am eating to keep my weight up – a balanced diet of plants, nuts, grains, pulses, and a little animal protein. I am also availing myself of therapies provided by Macmillan and the NHS and local charities: hypnotherapy, counselling, and even a personal trainer, courtesy of Albion in the Community, my local football club. Educating myself about the disease has been important to me, and now after telling as many friends privately as I could, I’ve decided to go public about my condition. For one thing, in this era of sharing, it felt fraudulent to maintain an ‘AOK’ online persona; but also, I’d like my readers to know why I won’t be as active as usual on the arts and politics scene for the next six to nine months.
The chemo is making me very tired, but at the same time I can’t maintain the sedentary lifestyle I had fallen into as a writer – I have to get out walking for a couple of hours a day, and take far more breaks from the screen. Sadly I’ve had to put my Palestinian poetry anthology on hold, and the final book in The Gaia Chronicles will likely be somewhat delayed. While I still read as much as I can about politics I won’t be able to take as vocal a role in debates as I usually do. But I am still as interested in culture, the environment and social justice as ever, with a new focus of my disease: I’ll be incorporating my research about cancer into my world view and my future work. I would also like to avail myself of the big love that’s out there on social media, and as well as occasional blog posts I will be starting a FB page tracking my recovery, checking in and updating people as often as I can.
I have realised already how blessed I am, in particular to have so many people offering me every possible kind of support. I just ask for people’s patience, as everything here is happening a little more slowly than I intend. But although she might be napping in the sun, do not fret – this Brighton cat is well and truly alive, and wearing a pedometer clipped to her tail.
A hole in the Gatwick main runway, transport chaos across Europe due to unseasonal storms, a cross-continental epidemic of terrorist attacks, including the assassination of Jo Cox, the flames of Syria still raging unabated while the UK news is all of Brexit, British political convulsions, and the Clinton-Trump mud-flinging match: it’s been a pretty tempestuous summer so far, and if I’ve been quiet about it all that’s because I’ve been dealing with a crisis closer to home – more of which anon, in a later post. Today I just want to celebrate an event I’ve been dreaming of for many years, and only recently discovered would actually happen: the North American release of my first novel, Seoul Survivors.
How this day came about is a tale entwined with the fortunes of the global publishing industry, which you may or may not be interested in, but if the latter, hopefully the inherent human drama of a dream deferred will carry you through this next paragraph! For there is a huge disappointment behind today: my publisher, Jo Fletcher Books, had originally scheduled the novel to be released in the US and Canada in 2014, but the sale of JFB’s parent company, Quercus put these plans on hold. Quercus had experienced a sharp downturn in sales, including suprisingly in ebooks (it was as if everyone’s Kindle was full), and the founders of this highly successful independent publisher decided it was time to cash in their chips and – I expect – have some fun spending the profits from the Steig Larsson books. The sale to Hodder took a year, after which the new American division pushed my second novel Astra to the front of the queue. I was simultaneously a little sad and relieved to be part of a huge conglomerate: I prefer to shop with indy businesses for most things myself, but at the same time it was reassuring to know JFB, itself a small imprint, was secure. I was also thrilled to set Astra on her transatlantic journey, and loved launching her in Montreal and Toronto at Concordia University, the Ad Astra SFF Con and Bakka Phoenix Books earlier this year. I assumed, though, she would be followed by Rook Song, the second volume in The Gaia Chronicles, and couldn’t help feeling wistful about Seoul Survivors.
Then came the surprise announcement from Quercus USA that Seoul Survivors would be up next! I could have now fretted about Rook Song, but in fact I was delighted. It’s not easy to grow a readership in a country you don’t live in – especially when your books, like The Gaia Chronicles, are set in yet another continent – and I had always thought that Seoul Survivors could be a breakthrough novel for me in North America, helping to establish my name and build curiosity about the rest of my work. A cyberchiller set in Seoul, where I lived for three years in the late nineties, Seoul Survivors is on one level my response to the impact of Western culture on the traditional values and lifestyles of South Korea. The main characters are a Canadian fashion model, a British drifter, a North Korean refugee, a Korean-American bioengineer and a good old-fashioned American sociopath, and high among my literary influences at the time were William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, Kathy Acker, and the Korean-American novelist Mia Yun, who very kindly provided me with a endorsement for the novel. With all these resonances at play, I have always had a secret feeling (okay, grandiose fantasy) that Seoul Survivors could strike a chord with North American readers, not only of SF, but also transgressive fiction and world literature.
There’s one more reason I’m very happy today too: after errors first on my part and then in the editing process, this edition of the book will be the first to include a proper acknowledgement of Mama Gold, the ex-pat band whose songs I shamelessly lifted/paid immortal homage to in the book. Thanks again Josh Schwartzentruber, Toby Benstead, Michael David Yantzi and Geoffrey Viljama for your patience – I hope back catalogue sales sky-rocket! Today I’ve celebrated this milestone, and all those memories of wild nights in Seoul’s underground scene, with a Seoul Survivors fusion brunch: salad, kim chi and a fried egg in my Korean bibimbap bowl, chopsticks from my O’Kim’s beer mug (there’s a map of Ireland on the other side), green tea in my tiny Korean teapot, set out with the first UK edition and my Canadian passport – on which I travelled to Seoul – and listening, in honour of my Yankee psychopath Johnny Sandman, to the spooky thumps and tremours of David Lynch’s Crazy Clown Time. Thanks for being part of the party, and if you’re interested in more weird electronica and tales of South Korea, for the full Seoul Survivors soundtrack, and more about its making, click here . . .
With a big thank you to Andy Croft of Smokestack Books for his faith in my editorship, and the University of Chichester for its financial support of the project, I am very happy to be inviting submissions for a bilingual anthology of Palestinian poetry in translation, forthcoming in June 2017. The book will present up to five poems each by 10/12 Palestinian poets, representing a diverse range of voices, both new and established, from the Occupied Territories, the diaspora and refugee community, and ’48 Palestinians. The furnace doors are open: stoke me with poems!
Please email between three and ten poems and their English translations in a Word document to N.Foyle@chi.ac.uk. The original poems may have been previously published in journals, other anthologies and single-authored collections. Bilingual Palestinian poets are most welcome to submit their own translations of their poems.
The translations may have been previously published in journals and anthologies, but not in translated collections.
All modes of poetry are welcome, including performance poetry, traditional forms and experiments with form and voice. Please note that I am a non-Arabic speaker and the quality of the translations will form the primary basis of assessment.
The Word document should include short biographies, highlights of previous publications, and the email contact details of both the poet and the translator. The total submission (excluding biographies and publication highlights) should not exceed 20 pages.
The deadline for submissions is midnight GMT Sept 30th 2016. The final selection will be made by Oct 31st 2016 and the book will be published in June 2017.
All contributors will receive one copy each of the anthology from Smokestack Books, and a 40% discount on future copies. The project is being co-funded by the University of Chichester, enabling an honorarium of up to £50 (depending on number of poems) payable to each contributor on publication. In the event of a reprint, an additional fee will be paid in lieu of royalties.
The publisher and I also undertake to apply to other funding bodies to increase the payment to translators to professional rates, and to cover for the costs of launches in the UK and Palestine; and also to launch a crowd-sourcing campaign with the aim of ensuring payments to poets match those to translators. None of this additional funding is guaranteed but most of it cannot be applied for until the final selection is made.
As promised, here are my photo diaries from my recent week in the West Bank. I made it in to Israel-Palestine safely from Cyprus, though what possessed me to put a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet in my hand luggage, I do not know! Although it is not illegal to visit the West Bank, you have to do so via Israel, and will be refused entry if you announce your intention to travel on into the occupied territories. I had half-baked notions of posing as a Christian pilgrim, but on finding The Prophet the Israeli security guard in the departure lounge decided I was ‘studying Arabic’ and brought in a higher-up to question me. ‘It is love poetry!’ I cried – ‘My mother had this book!’. When I said I was visiting an Israeli friend, he wanted to see her photo. I didn’t have one, and they let me through in the end, laughing about my battery-less laptop, but honestly – when it comes to censorship and racial profiling, Israel leads the way.
When it comes to extra-judicial executions, Israel also stands in the top of the league table. It was sad and sobering to be arriving in the country just after another three people – two Palestinian youths and one Israeli settler – had been killed in the latest incidents in the wave of violence that began in October as a on-going series of random attacks committed mainly by Palestinian youths on soldiers, police officers and settlers. No-one I spoke to during my visit thought the attacks represented a new intifada (organised uprising); they are committed by individuals, not factions, and my Palestinians and Israeli contacts alike considered them to be tragic acts of despair, and symptoms of the increasingly untenable injustice of the occupation, which has responded with force: 28 Israelis and over 180 Palestinians, including 49 children, have been killed during this period. These deaths, as well as the hundreds of injured people, are a cause for great sorrow; and should also be a powerful motivation to find, at last, a just solution to this decades-long conflict. There was anger, also, from the Palestinians, though, at the contempt for life and due process shown by the IDF when it comes to apprehending the alleged knife-wielders. And Israel’s support for a shoot-to-kill response suggests to me that a political solution is the last thing the current government wants. The cycle of violence works in Israel’s favour, justifying and escalating its dehumanising rhetoric, and its colonial control of what is left of their land.
The volatile situation is not, though, a reason not to visit – people need to see the context in which these violence is occurring. I came to see friends of both nationalities, and make new ones, some of whom are unable to travel to see me, simply because they are Palestinian. Coming to Palestine is a huge privilege I am all too aware of after visiting the camps in Lebanon, and I hoped to make the time count by exploring and celebrating Palestinian leadership in the field of environmental justice: healing the earth by healing human ecosystems and promoting human diversity.
In Bethlehem I visited the Palestine Museum of Natural History, a project of the Palestine Institute of Biodiversity Research, a scholarly and activist centre co-founded by Mazin and Jessie Qumsiyeh. The next day was my birthday, one the best ever, spent wandering in the gardens of the Museum, and putting my volunteer editing skills to work in the office on a grant application and article. Funny how it didn’t seem like work. More photos and reflections here.
My time in Bethlehem was all too short, but as I was staying right opposite it, I squeezed in a quick visit to the Church of the Nativity before taking the mini-bus to Ramallah the day after my birthday. In 2002, during the Second Intifada, the Church was a tense site of conflict, events recently dramatised by The Freedom Theatre of Jenin refugee camp in their production The Siege, which I saw last year on its UK tour. There was more Palestinian culture in Ramallah, where I spent the evening listening to my favorite instrument: the plangent, pear-shaped oud. More photos and reflections here.
Finally, I spent three nights at Marda Permaculture Farm in Marda village, just down the hill from the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel. The fourth largest settlement in the West Bank, Ariel creates significant problems for the villagers, including floods of raw sewage that cascade down through the olive groves into the streets. The settlers’ shit isn’t only a gross insult and human health hazard: by damaging biodiversity, it is also thought to have contributed to the epidemic of wild boar now afflicting the local farmers. What is certain is that Israel has outlawed all possible ways – guns, poison, tranquilizers – of dealing with the ferocious, rampaging beasts. But thanks to fences made of recycled tyres, Murad al Kufash continues to produce giant organic vegetables; press olive oil for his contract with Lush cosmetics; welcome volunteers; and teach permaculture to other Palestinians. More photos and thoughts here.
I spent my last 24 hours in Palestine in East Jerusalem, visiting that famous hub of Palestinian cultural and political activity, the Educational Bookshop, and having dinner with Israeli friends who brought me up to date on all their anti-Occupation activity. Despite the overwhelming feeling that things are just getting worse in Israel-Palestine, I arrived back home feeling uplifted. The Palestinians are still planting olive trees, and more and more Israelis and internationals openly support the BDS Committee’s boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign: skies may be dark, but resistance is blooming.
As FB friends know, I’m just back from an incredible two weeks in the Middle East; first in Lebanon, as a member of charity Interpal’s Bear Witness women’s convoy, visiting refugee camps; then the West Bank, where I was exploring the Palestinian eco-resistance to the Israeli occupation. I chose to write about my trip on Facebook partly because I didn’t have time to travel, share on social media *and* blog, but also for security reasons: Israel and Lebanon are not the best of mates, and I was worried about storing my photos of the camps and Beirut on my camera and laptop, which Israeli airport guards have been known to rifle through. Posting my pix each night to Facebook was the answer, and it was only natural to turn my albums into photo diaries, a habit I continued in the West Bank, again because I wanted to delete any evidence I’d visited Palestine before I went back to the airport. (My devices weren’t searched in the end, but I wasn’t wrong to be paranoid: I was interrogated on the way in about my choice of reading material – turns out The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran is a suspect text to Israeli security!) I also tweeted the links, but although it was great to share my travels as they happened, the problem with FB and Twitter of course, is that your posts soon compost down into the mulch of dead news. Photo albums at least can be accessed via links, so to assuage my guilty blogger’s conscience, I’ve decided to collate them here, in two posts, one for each trip.
BEARING WITNESS in LEBANON with INTERPAL: Feb 14 – 19th 2016
DAY ONE: Syrian Refugee Camps in Bekaa Valley
Barelias and al-Farah are two of the better-organised Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, a fertile plain between Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, across which lies Syria. More photos and reflections here.
DAY TWO: Nahr el Barad Camp, Northern Lebanon
Nahr el Bared camp was shelled by the Lebanese army in 2007 in an effort to rout what I was told was a Syrian branch of Al-Qaida. The camp was destroyed and its 45,000 Palestinian inhabitants evacuated to nearby al Beddawi camp, seriously straining its resources. Nine years later, Nahr el Bared is only half-reconstructed. More photos and reflections here.
DAY THREE: El Buss and Jal el Bahr Camps, Tyre.
No photos were allowed of el Buss camp, where we visited a women’s programme center and two centres for children with disabilities. But waiting to get in, we took a snappy stroll along Tyre’s beautiful old corniche, and later on in the unofficial camp of Jal el Bahr, Haneen and her friends were happy to have their picture taken. More photos and reflections here.
DAY FOUR: Ein el Hilweh Camp, Saida.
Ein el Hilweh is the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon with about 100,000 inhabitants living on top of each other in its chaotic concrete maze. Between buildings collapsing in storms, and clashes between illegal Syrian Islamist militants and the camp’s internal security force, Ein el Hilweh is a dangerous place. But the many murals of Palestine keep the dream of return alive. More photos and reflections here.
DAY FIVE: Shatila, Beirut.
We ended our visit to Lebanon in the camp that, more than any other, is synonymous with the brutal persecution of the Palestinians: Sabra-Shatila, where between 800 – 3500 refugees were massacred over three days in September 1982 by a Lebanese Christian militia, who left the narrow alleys and small rooms of the camp littered with the bodies of raped, tortured and butchered civilians. Today the camp is also home to Syrians and Lebanese, and a few creative NGOs, supporting schools and community projects in the overcrowded buildings -which also host many declarations of the Palestinian commitment to return to the homes they were forced to leave 68 years ago. More photos and reflections here.
Well, that’s my online experiment for the day. I hope it’s not too fragmentary, is easy to navigate, and gives a sense of this remarkable journey. Next, Palestine gets the cross-platform treatment!
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
So. Here I am, a Kemp Town resident, bleating at the gates of the newly declared Green Socialist People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove to be let in. Not that a change of post code would make much difference. I could move to Liverpool or Glasgow and still be a lost goat chewing down on a rusty old banger with three flat wheels someone’s spraypainted blue with a yellow racing stripe – desperately trying to digest the indigestible. It will never be possible to accept that this country is really going to spend the next five years engaged in full scale war on the most vulnerable members of society, starting with cutting Access to Work funds for disabled people, and moving swiftly along to scrapping the Human Rights Act.
But the People’s Republic does have an open borders policy and a powerful aura. After a weekend doing Tarot in the sun on East St, debriefing with good friends, and being kind to two strangers,* I am now over the first sickening shock of the general election result. The horror aside, there’s yellow-caped crusader Anti-Austerity Sturgeon to cheer on, and hope in the form of the growing call for electoral reform. But the first draft of Astra 3 is due May 31st and I have to write 28,000 words (guestimate, might be more) in three weeks, plus read Tarot at weekends and see the semester out at Chichester, so for now I would just like to go on the record with the following thoughts:
Though all my principles have been wrung through the washer of realpolitik over the last few days, they are not fading but getting Greener by the minute. I joined the party earlier this year because – with the exception of its shady links with Stop the War and kneejerk rejection of foreign intervention – it pretty much stands for everything I believe in. (Blog readers will know I had a falling out with the party here in Brighton last year over Stop the War, but the candidate Davy Jones took the time to meet with me and apologise for his part in the debacle, which I appreciated and respected. A sincere apology is a rare thing.) My only conflict with the Greens running up to the election lay in the guilt I felt over not campaigning for them. I was away for a couple of weekends and otherwise working a lot, in part on Astra 3, but also taking what jobs I could to cover an unexpected large rent increase – the housing crisis is real for me and on my current income I can’t really afford to live in the People’s Republic much longer. But that’s another blog post. To do my bit for the Greens I had stuck a poster in my window and determined to vote for Davy on the day. The night before the election though, I had a wobble.
Several Brighton Facebook friends posted heartfelt pleas to vote Labour in my ward, a marginal seat held for five years by Tory Simon Kirby, and being contested by Labour’s Nancy Platts. Of course I understand the urgent call to keep the Torys out, and suddenly I doubted, not my convictions, but my strategy. So I checked The Guardian, and when I discovered they were calling my ward for Labour, I decided to stick to my jade guns. In the morning, I learned Platts lost by 690 votes. I felt ill. Was I wrong?
I spent much of the weekend thinking and talking about this, and I can only answer no. At least not under the prevailing circumstances. For Labour didn’t decide not to target Brighton Pavilion, thinking ‘let’s not challenge Caroline Lucas, a fellow progressive and a natural ally should we need to form a minority government’. No, they threw their weight behind their candidate, Purna Sen. So why should Labour expect Green supporters to sacrifice our own party loyalty for them? Had Labour diverted more volunteers to Brighton Kemptown, maybe they could have won those extra 700 votes from undecideds.
I also strongly believe, as this election has made clear to so many, that First Past The Post is profoundly undemocratic and long past its due by date. Tactical voting as an individual only perpetuates the two horse race, creating a false impression of Labour’s actual support. And vote swapping, as was available online, seems unreliable (how do you know your ‘match’ will keep their promise) and open to abuse (think of those Russian oligarachs buying up votes). So from the moment I woke up on Thursday I have been promoting electoral reform. Having said that I do see the sense, under FPTP, of co-operation between parties on the Left. Caroline Lucas addressed this issue at her celebration party, saying she had been in talks with Polly Toynbee and others about the possibility of finding ways in future to negotiate ‘deals’ between leftist parties to support each other’s chances in particular wards. (Which makes far more sense to me than establishing ‘Left Unity’ as yet another small party on the ticket.)
For myself, much as I think she and Sen hold some sound views, I am glad I didn’t vote for Nancy Platts. She would have lost by 689 votes, and I would betrayed my beliefs, missing out on being part of the record 1.1 million people who said last Thursday that they believe this country can deliver justice and abundance and a healthy planet for all. I have read the Labour Manifesto, and while much of it I agree with, it doesn’t go nearly far enough toward the kind of society I would like to live in, and which I believe we all deserve.
The Green Manifesto, on the other hand, presents a costed utopia, a state that offers a basic income to all its citizens and a non-fossil fuel future. In many places, it brightly outshines Labour. Just two examples, close to home:
I’m a lecturer, teaching students who work three jobs while studying for a BA. My own job, only a quarter-time post, will be in jeopardy if enrolment continues to drop due to tuition fees. Labour proposed to cut these from £9000 p.a. to £6000 (effectively still doubling it from 2010); the Greens would make higher education free. This is not key lime pie in the sky thinking. Scotland has free HE, and Germany is currently making its universities free for foreign students. This is a proposal worth fighting for.
I’m a cyclist. I haven’t owned a car since my early twenties. When I fly, I pay my carbon offset, and unless to Northern Ireland or Northern Scotland I don’t fly within the UK. Labour proposed to establish a National Rail body to co-ordinate private companies, and allow a publically funded service to compete amongst them; their manifesto says nothing about air travel and very little about buses. The Greens transport plans fill pages. In contrast with Labour they would renationalise the railways, oppose the expansion of airports, and take strong steps to ensure a de-carbonised future.
There is much more, funded in part by borrowing. (Labour promised not to borrow, which is laudable, but the Greens promise to overhaul the entire banking and welfare system.) By the way, I am describing the Labour Manifesto in past tense, because I expect they will have to rip it up and start again now. The Greens can just keep refining theirs. Labour supporters will argue that’s because the Greens don’t have to worry about delivering on their promises. But our economy is morally bankrupt and our planet may not be able to sustain us much longer. We need to think and act very differently, and that has to start somewhere. While it might seem impossible to get to a Green UK from where we stand here, the very fact people have produced this detailed and visionary document gives me hope.
As my friend Bart Moore Gilbert cogently argues here (in remarkable detail considering he’s just got married and is about to go into hospital to have a cancerous kidney removed), the Labour project is finished, torn apart by its own inability to please all its factions. Especially with the new situation in Scotland, we won’t get a majority Labour government in the UK again, and to survive the party will be forced to move more and more to Tory-lite policies. Profound change to the electoral system isn’t a dream, it’s the only option for people on the left. UKIP would benefit from such changes, but its clear now that UKIP took votes from Labour, and as Hope Not Hate demonstrated in the door-to-door campaign that demolished the BNP in Barking and Dagenham, it is possible to effectively address the fear that causes such xenophobia and intolerance.
I do feel strongly about all this. Currently, I am an SF novelist on a tight schedule and spending much of the time in another world entirely. Non-Land is a strange place to be when the real world is so pressing. But I’m making my per diem wordcount, and expecting to be demob happy in June and totally up for the already massive The People’s Assembly anti-austerity protest planned for that month. See you there!
*I gave some money to a panhandler and we had a long chat, sparked by his dog, who’s been muzzled for life by the courts because his owner likes nutting coppers (‘better than sex!’). According to him, the headbanging arose from unprovoked police brutality, which I don’t find too hard to believe. I also helped a teetering gent with a walking stick across the road, who gave me a dazzling smile on the other side then promptly fell down the moment I let go of his arm. Nightmare! But his neighbour ran across the street from the bus stop and together we got him back up and on his way with his fish and chips.