Beloved

Beloved

Title: Beloved
Author: Toni Morrison
Publication date: 1987
Country/culture: African American

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

BelovedWhat’s it about?

Sethe is a slave who has escaped slavery and come to lead a new life in Ohio, a free state. However, her home is haunted by spirits, one of which is believed to be the ghost of her dead baby, known only by the name Beloved. As the novel unfolds, we discover more about the horrors that Sethe experienced back on the plantation – and those which continue to pursue her even now she is free.

What did I find out?

I discovered that, sometimes, you don’t realise how much a book is affecting you until you reach the very end and look back on what has just evolved in front of you. This was certainly the case with Beloved. I read the novel, taking it all in, stopping over certain passages to absorb their full impact and making sure I didn’t miss anything – and yet it was only right at the end, as I came to the closing chapters, that I was able to comprehend the sheer scale of Morrison’s achievement.

It’s very difficult to express how I feel about this story: it’s almost too complex to articulate with mere words. As I was reading, I found out that Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature: I’m not sure whether it was for this book, but I can only imagine that it must have played a significant part in the decision. It is a work of tremendous strength and compassion, forcing us to confront difficult questions, and yet also offering us hope for the future, both for ourselves as individuals and for the human race in general.

What do I now see differently?

As someone from, clearly, a very different background to the novel’s protagonist, I am very aware that there are certain subjects I am not equipped to write about. This has been a topic of some controversy recently, as it has been questioned whether any writer can authentically write (about) characters of wildly different backgrounds and experiences to their own.

On the one hand, we’re writers: getting under the skin of different people is what we do; and to some extent we have to do this, otherwise we’d only ever write our own biographies. For example, I’m not a man, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t include male characters in my novel. However, it has been questioned whether writers of, for example, a particular race can ever hope to fully understand a different race well enough to truly represent the lives of its people.

As far as I know, the themes I’m writing about (such as fear of difference, yearning for a life lost, etc) have resonance for the human race as a whole. However, perhaps because this is my first novel, I’m more naturally inclined to stick to what is familiar, and for me that means characters that are essentially Western. That said, it is a fantasy novel, so I’m also including characters that are dead, undead or supernatural: does this give me some leeway to experiment with the unfamiliar? My fae characters have a mishmash of names that I’ve drawn mainly from Norse or Celtic mythology, but my ghosts have an existence very similar to the one I’ve found described for ghosts in Mesopotamian religions. Is such a mashup acceptable? Does it add to the power of the story or detract from it? Will anyone other than myself find meaning in it?

Beloved has made me question whether my novel will have a reach (and engage interest) beyond the confines of the life I myself live; and, if not, whether that matters. Perhaps we can all only hope to articulate our own thoughts on our own world (inner or outer) – and then turn to other voices in order to find out about their worlds.

How will this inspire my writing?

I remember having particular trouble writing one passage in my book, as it was very different in style and tone to all the other scenes I’d written up to that point. It deals with the ethereal experience of one character’s soul flitting around the cosmos, looking for something to fix on to, and being open to connections with other spirits and creatures present in the void. I don’t think I’ve even described that very well – which shows how difficult it was writing the actual scene!

In order to express the fluid, incomprehensible nature of the experience, I’ve used very odd, erratic, disjointed language: not a linear narrative at all. I have no idea whether this will be accepted by readers as a natural way of articulating that episode in the story, or whether it will confuse the hell out of them. I was heartened, therefore, to discover a similar passage in Beloved, where the experience of the baby’s soul is described in a similar fashion: as it flits through what we assume is the spirit world, we’re not quite clear on what is happening, or where, or how, but we can tell who (or what) is involved, and we get a vague sense of what she is going through.

This has reassured me that odd passages like this won’t necessarily put off the reader. Obviously it remains to be seen whether I can find the skill to deliver my scene with the same impact as Morrison delivers hers in Beloved – but at least now I know it’s possible.

A musical interlude

At first I couldn’t imagine a song that would do this book justice. However, I was inspired to browse through the back catalogue of Nina Simone and came across this track – and it’s perfect in so many ways.

Strange Weather in Tokyo

Strange Weather in Tokyo

Title: Strange Weather in Tokyo
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (English translation: Allison Markin Powell)
Publication date: 2001 (English translation: 2012)
Country/culture: Japan

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

Strange Weather in TokyoWhat’s it about?

Tsukiko is drinking in a bar one night when she encounters a former teacher; they strike up a conversation, and continue to meet, talk, eat and drink over the coming months. Gradually friendship starts to deepen into something more, and Tsukiko must come to terms with her feelings, both of love and loneliness, in order to find happiness.

What did I find out?

One of the reasons I decided to do the Book Diaries slightly differently this year, i.e. take inspiration for my writing rather than for my life generally, was because of the theme I’d chosen: world literature. I realised that if I didn’t give myself a tighter focus, the ‘new things I found out’ would, for every single book, be the same: learning about a different country or culture.

This is not to decry the value in such discoveries – far from it – but it would have led to some very repetitive blog posts: ‘I found out about life in Nigeria‘, ‘I found out about life in Alaska‘, etc. So, as the purpose of this blog is to use books as a starting point for making personal changes, I chose instead to look for elements that I could relate to my overarching objective for this year: my writing.

However, there have been times when my overwhelming response to a book has had very little to do with writing – and this is one of those occasions. I’m therefore taking a pause, just for a short while, to acknowledge the ‘otherness’ of the cultures I’m reading about, and to reassure my own readers that I’m not oblivious to the impact these books are having on me: it is substantial, and goes way beyond the mere process of writing a novel. The issues I raise in these blog posts are only the ones I’m consciously teasing out: there will be many more cogs turning at a subconscious level, affecting me in ways I can’t yet see – but which will, nevertheless, change me (and, by consequence, my life) from this point forwards.

What do I now see differently?

I’m generally drawn to genre fiction rather than literary fiction; I can read it more quickly, it grips me more and I get caught up in its world more easily. Strange Weather in Tokyo is not what I would call genre fiction; it has more of the qualities that I would associate with literary fiction – a focus on the inner thoughts of the main character, a plot that drifts like smoke rather than running on a set route, and an utter joy in the beauty of language and evocation of setting.

And I found it a dream to read. I didn’t get weighed down with ruminations on the meaning of life and love, as I might have expected to with this kind of work; I merely went with the flow and enjoyed myself.

This was quite a novel experience for me, and it has reassured me that I don’t need to worry overmuch about distinctions of ‘genre’. Even if I am writing something more commercial than literary, I can still aim to imbue it with beautiful language: I needn’t sacrifice style and art for plot. True, this may prove to be more difficult in practice, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and having a high standard to aspire to is merely another challenge I intend to set myself.

How will this inspire my writing?

I’ve been aware for a while that ‘sensual’ details help to bring writing to life – descriptions of smells, tastes, and so on – but it’s often felt like a rather forced procedure: ‘oh, I need to add in a bit about how the ice cream melted on her tongue, how the scent of roses awoke memories of his childhood, etc’. This is not always something that comes naturally, and it’s been one of those things I’ve known I must practise in order to get right.

On reading this book I was reminded of how effective such details can be and why they are worth including. Tsukiko and Sensei frequently meet in a local bar; they eat there as well as drink, and the descriptions of the food are relayed each time in very specific detail. The texture of the sushi, the aroma of a stew cooking, even the consistency of the leftover bones… nothing is omitted. This appeal to our senses helps to embed us in the scene, and everything feels more real and personal as a result.

A number of my characters don’t eat and drink as such, as they are ghosts and don’t have normal human appetites. However, I’m intrigued to think that I could use this as another way of pointing out their ‘otherness’. Humans need and love food, even to the extent that our mouths water when reading about it, but ghosts don’t (or can’t) enjoy it in the same way. How better to distinguish between the dead and the living than by homing in on one of the key things that makes humans ‘human’?

A musical interlude

Sometimes I agonise for days over which song complements a book, but this track popped straight into my head. The life and culture of the performers is a world away from that described in the novel, but there is a strange mixture of beauty and quirkiness in both the song and the book that make them feel like a perfect fit.

It’s Madness, and It Must Be Love.

The Corsair

The Corsair

Title: The Corsair
Author: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (English translation: Amira Nowaira)
Publication date: 2011
Country/culture: Qatar

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

The CorsairWhat’s it about?

In early 19th-century Arabia, British military forces are fighting the piracy that threatens international trade, and alliances are being sought – and broken – throughout the region. The legendary corsair, Erhama bin Jaber, plays a central role in the conflict, while his rebellious son forges an unlikely friendship with an English major. Personal betrayals mirror political intrigues, and the reader is left pondering the relative success of armed force versus mutual respect in the building of relationships.

What did I find out?

I discovered a great deal about the intricacies of politics and diplomacy. In the story, which is based on real-life events, there are many opposing forces who nevertheless agree to make alliances with each other for short- or long-term mutual benefit. Each agreement involves making certain sacrifices, and ground must be given to achieve the greater objective; losses must be weighed against gains in order to determine whether a good deal is being brokered.

Alliances are sometimes instigated by threat of force, and sometimes by genuine mutual concern. Some are broken as soon as one party has achieved what it wants; others are never intended to be kept at all; and there is a recurring theme of mistrust throughout the novel, as each side accuses the others of breaking promises and betraying commitments. A rare few alliances stay the distance.

The need for diplomacy within and between societies and nations has not left us; diplomats are the unsung heroes of peace, teasing out the non-negotiable from the ‘nice to have’ and aiming for a harmonious outcome. That we still suffer conflict on a global scale indicates just how difficult this process is, and The Corsair illustrates this perfectly.

What do I now see differently?

The characters of Erhama bin Jaber and Captain Loch are presented as a striking contrast between two approaches to decision making. Bin Jaber says, ‘I envy people who can forget the past or change their decisions according to circumstances. Unfortunately I can’t.’ Conversely, Loch is portrayed as someone who has no problem changing his mind about a decision whenever circumstances alter or a plan goes awry; it almost seems as if he thrives on change: ‘Loch was happiest when devising a strategy.’

This ability to think on the hoof and constantly re-evaluate strategy reminded me of my own inclinations in this area. I am naturally a ‘big picture’ person; I can see very clearly what I want my end result to be in any project – but this does not mean I am ignorant of the detail required to get me there. On the contrary, as a bit of a control freak, I have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail and struggle to make noticeable progress toward my end goal, even when I can see it dangling there, enticingly, ahead of me.

I struggle because, unlike Loch, I am not very good at delegating, or asking for help. I frequently feel the need to do everything myself, and when my plans and dreams are as big as they are, this turns an exciting challenge into an insuperably difficult task. Reading this novel has reminded me that I need to get my act together and start asking for help more often.

How will this inspire my writing?

The action of The Corsair takes place in a world of political intrigue and diplomatic virtuosity, as described above; men are shown to make decisions and pursue allegiances based on cold, hard concepts such as trade and power. My own novel currently does not give much thought to the political infrastructure of the world I am writing about, and I’m now thinking I need to pay more attention to this aspect.

Even though most of the action in my novel takes place in the ‘Otherworld’ – the supernatural home of ghosts, fae, vampires etc – my characters still occupy positions and fulfil roles that determine their place in the ‘pecking order’ of this society. Vampires are the aristocrats, zombies are the labourers, other characters and species fit into a variety of roles. All of this screams ‘class issues’, at the very least, and I’m not unaware of the risk of potential stereotyping.

So, while I do make reference to the differences between the characters and their perceived status – and the story will certainly feature some clashes and their resolutions – I need to consider whether I should be addressing this more overtly. This will involve deciding how much to include and how much is merely unnecessary back story; I don’t want to bore people with irrelevant facts, but want to ensure readers fully grasp the way this society works. I’m hoping that I will have fun figuring this out.

A musical interlude

Although this song features ships as a metaphor rather than as real physical entities, the lyrics fit neatly with some of the themes raised in The Corsair, i.e. the pursuit of money and power over peace, love and understanding.

Fifty Shades of Green Eggs and Ham

I’ve retrieved this video ‘from the vaults’, as I performed it over two and a half years ago! But it may give you a taster of the kind of thing that appeals to me: mashups of different genres and parodies of what is familiar.

Warning: this piece may forever sully a beloved childhood memory…

Skraelings

Skraelings

Title: Skraelings
Author: Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley
Publication date: 2014
Country/culture: Arctic/Inuit

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

SkraelingsWhat’s it about?

A nomadic Inuit hunter, Kannujaq, happens upon a camp of the Tuniit people, who are under attack from fierce, bearded warriors from over the sea. Kannujaq must discover the camp’s history in order to help the people defend themselves; but in doing so, he learns that the invaders’ motives might not be quite as they first appear.

What did I find out?

One of the book’s central characters is a young shaman boy, Siku, and I discovered a great deal about the different ways in which shamans lived and worked in that society. Because Siku is young, he is believed to have greater strength and be more connected to the Land (Nuna) than adult shamans; this makes him particularly special. We see him living alone, in relative privacy compared to the other camp members who inhabit large family dwellings; this is partly due to their fear and partly so that he has space to work his magic. As the story progesses, we discover that his mother is a shaman too.

I will be featuring shamans (of a sort) in my own novel, so this has been a fascinating study for me. The book has highlighted aspects of shamanism in this particular society, which I will compare with its practice in other cultures, and which I will take into consideration when planning my own characters. I am at the point in my writing where shamans are about to come to the fore, so this is very timely.

What do I now see differently?

The story of Skraelings is told by narrators who occasionally speak to us directly, commenting on the events taking place. Right at the start of the book, they highlight the differences between our world and that of Kannujaq: this is a story set in the old Arctic, over a thousand years ago, and they take pains to point out that things that seem perfectly normal to us would have felt very strange, if not incomprehensible, to Kannujaq.

Kannujaq, then, is presented to us as a strange, alien character – and yet we are clearly meant to see the world from his perspective as he encounters a people who are equally strange and alien to him. That we are able to identify with Kannujaq is down to the writers’ skill in describing his perspectives, thoughts and feelings; and by the end of the story, we even feel that we know the Tuniit and the invaders from over the sea. The strangers are no longer strange.

As my novel features characters who are also ‘strange’ (vampires, werewolves, ghosts etc), this is a particularly useful lesson to learn: I will need to ensure I focus on their humanity as much as (if not more than) what makes them different.

How will this inspire my writing?

In some way, everything I’ve written about above is either inspiration or learning for my writing: facts about shamanism; how to depict sympathetic strangers. But I had one more, completely separate, lightbulb moment. The book reminded me of an idea I had a few years ago for a (different) story, set in the frozen wastes and featuring a camp of people with their own peculiar customs. As with my novel, this story teeters on the boundary between medical science and fantasy, but whereas the novel falls definitively under the heading ‘fantasy’, I think this other story will remain deliberately vague. Or perhaps it’s sci-fi rather than fantasy?

I know that I’m also being deliberately vague in this description of it: that’s because it’s not fully formed. I started to develop it a bit more last year when I was attending a local playwriting group; so to some extent it has evolved in my head as a dramatic production. However, as I do want to write more short stories (see earlier posts!), this is a helpful reminder of one idea that it’s perhaps time to take out and dust down: in whatever format it chooses to emerge…

A musical interlude

I was initially tempted to assign People Are Strange by The Doors to this book, but then I remembered that I’d allocated it, retrospectively, to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from year 1 (you’ll see this if you’ve bought the book: the music tracks are in an appendix). So I had to find something else.

Given the short space of time I’d allowed myself for this blog post, my subconscious hasn’t had its usual freedom to noodle around and make connections, so I’m not entirely happy with this choice – but it will do. The ‘Big Country’ in this song does at least give me a sense of the Arctic wastes and Kannujaq’s wanderings, even if the country in question is probably Scotland rather than Canada.

Voicebox: May 2017

Wrexham’s spoken word open mic night: bringing poetry, song and more to life for your enjoyment.

VoiceboxI will be attending this month’s Voicebox, and hope to perform my new short story (or at least part of it!) at the open mic session. Entitled Arnold and the Demons, the story was awarded third place in the Wrexham Carnival of Words 2017 writing competition (16+ category), and it stars a big ginger tom cat with a mysterious history…

Special guest at Voicebox this month (after the open mic) is performance poet Bob Horton.

Come along and join in the fun!

Date: Monday 8 May
Time: Doors open 7pm; open mic starts 7.30pm
Venue: UnDegUn, Regent Street, Wrexham
Cost: £3 entry (includes snacks)

Find Voicebox on Facebook

Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Title: Midnight’s Children
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publication date: 1981
Country/culture: India/Pakistan

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

Midnight's ChildrenWhat’s it about?

Saleem Sinai is born at the very moment India gains its independence, and later finds himself gifted with extraordinary telepathic powers. He perceives his own life as inextricably intertwined with that of his country, and we see their stories develop in parallel as the young country and the young boy begin to find their purpose and their way in the world.

What did I find out?

I started to read this book on a warm afternoon, sitting outside in my garden with a glass of cold lemon by my side and the sun toasting my back. As I read on through pages describing life in India – a hot country – it felt somehow appropriate to be absorbing this story in such weather. Obviously there is a vast difference between British heat (especially in April) and Indian heat, but it was a gentle reminder that appreciation of a book can be enhanced by one’s reading environment.

The books on my list for this year have been selected from around the globe, and I have tried to alternate longer books and shorter ones; I’ve not actively attempted to fit them in at a time of year when the weather suits the country of origin of the work. This would probably put too many limitations on what is already a big scheduling issue for me (and not least because the British weather is so unpredictable). However, it’s something I will bear in mind for the future.

What do I now see differently?

Midnight’s Children is undeniably a work of literary fiction, a genre I don’t usually gravitate towards – but it also has a strong element of magical realism, in the depiction of the special powers and abilities of the ‘midnight children’, from telepathy to time travel to sorcery, and more. This perhaps shifted the novel into territory I am more familiar with, thus making it a slightly easier prospect than it otherwise might have been (not least because, at over 600 pages, this is the longest book on my list this year).

I realised (or was reminded) that ‘genre’, while sometimes a helpful concept (particularly in libraries and bookshops, where items have to be shelved in a single physical location), is also an artificial construct. Books can happily overlap genres without necessarily confusing the reader; indeed, it is perhaps by insisting on a label in the first place that we throw up barriers where none need be. Magical realism, to my mind, is a form of fantasy; and while fantasy is sometimes looked down on by readers of literary fiction, the fantastical elements of this novel intrigued me and made me pick it up – thus introducing me to a work I would probably never have considered otherwise.

This is a reassuring realisation, and I’ve decided not to worry (yet) about what genre my novel fits into (supernatural? paranormal? fantasy? horror? medical? thriller?) and just write the thing. The time for finding readers will come later.

How will this inspire my writing?

Midnight’s Children is an incredible tale, interweaving personal stories with national ones and layering themes, leitmotifs and imagery with supreme skill. This can only be something to aspire to! The length of the book, the period of time it covers and the subject matter make the intertwining of recurring elements particularly compelling, but I think that even shorter, less ambitious books can learn from it. I am only 26,000 words into my own novel, but I’ve already made a start at using imagery in my presentation of certain characters, as a kind of shorthand to illustrate their lives and relationships.

My novel won’t reach the dizzying heights of Midnight’s Children, but I’ll certainly be taking a deeper look at how I use themes and imagery to underscore key parts of the story.

A musical interlude

Although this song doesn’t exactly reflect Saleem’s specific narrative, I feel that there are enough similarities between its content and his experiences to at least make it worthy of a ‘Discuss!’ essay question. You may discuss if you like – or just listen.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho (English translation: Alan R. Clarke)
Publication date: 1988
Country/culture: Brazil

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?The Alchemist

An Andalusian shepherd boy has a recurring dream about treasure awaiting him at the Egyptian pyramids, and sets out on a journey across sea and desert to pursue his quest. Along the way he meets both friends and foes, loses his way and finds it again – and learns how to listen to his heart and stay true to his dreams.

What did I find out?

It may seem slightly prosaic to say that I was surprised to discover this book was only published in 1988. It’s held iconic status on the fringes of my consciousness for a long time now, and I’d convinced myself it had been written decades ago. OK, I realise that 1988 is nearly 30 years ago – so it’s not exactly yesterday – but it’s the year I went to university (and also the year my mother was the same age as I am now, which is not a little unnerving), and recently I’ve been struggling quite significantly with the recognition that so much time has already passed in my life.

So this realisation has given me an enhanced sense of the book’s message: that we need to follow our dreams if we are truly to fulfil our destiny. Just because I am older than I would like to be, and haven’t yet achieved everything I know I’d like to achieve in my life, doesn’t mean it’s too late. On the contrary: having that awareness that time is passing gives me an increased sense of urgency to get the hell on with it.

I’m still not entirely sure what my dream or destiny is, but I do know that the clock is ticking…

What do I now see differently?

Oddly, The Alchemist didn’t make me see things differently so much as reinforce something I’ve believed for some time but which I’ve recently been questioning. This is the emphasis on spotting omens to guide your path through life as you seek your ‘treasure’ (destiny): the boy regularly pauses on his journey to look for signs to help him decide what to do next, and it is by following the signs/omens that he is able to stay on track and pursue his quest to its successful conclusion.

While I don’t believe in waiting for an external power to tell me what to do, I do believe – very strongly – that what we call omens, signs or ‘messages from the universe’ are in fact indications of what is going on in our subconscious, or our gut. When something is truly important to us, when we know deep down what we are seeking, we see reminders of it everywhere: the trick is to look out for these reminders, and to recognise them for what they are when they appear.

This quote from page 96 of my edition (HarperCollins, 2012) sums it up for me:

He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person’s hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of the birds… whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn’t that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World.

 

The reference to opening ‘a book to any page’ in fact describes exactly what I am trying to do with the Quick Lit Fix: helping people tune in to their subconscious desires by connecting with random words that will have a unique meaning for them because of their own unique life experiences. Recently I’ve been doubting whether this is just a load of ‘cod psychology’ – but reading this novel has made me realise that it is not, and that I am not alone.

It seems that The Alchemist has acted as my own omen for staying true to my purpose. How about that for synchronicity?

How will this inspire my writing?

I’ve been trying for a while now to write up a more detailed exploration of how I use books to help me tune in to my subconscious and stay on track with what I want out of life. This had fallen by the wayside, but I recently decided I’d have another crack at it. Reading The Alchemist, as you’ll see from the preceding paragraph, has reminded me that this is important to me, that it is not a waste of time, and that I need to keep at it. So I will recognise my ‘omen’ for what it is, and make a renewed effort to continue this work.

Secondly, as the novel is described (on the cover of my edition, at least) as ‘a fable about following your dream’, it has re-ignited another latent idea of mine. In my last post I stated that I would start going to my local open mic night again, with the ultimate aim of performing my own work. I now recall that I once had the idea of writing alternative fairytales or fables – and it might now be fun to give these a try, with a view to performing them at Voicebox.

A musical interlude

This track came to mind before I’d even finished reading the book. It’s from one of my favourite bands of all time, and expresses the sentiments of the novel perfectly, thus presenting another beautiful example of synchronicity.

That Deadman Dance

That Deadman Dance

Title: That Deadman Dance
Author: Kim Scott
Publication date: 2010
Country/culture: Western Australia/Aborigine

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

What’s it about?That Deadman Dance

Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Aboriginal boy living in Western Australia in the early 19th century. As European settlers and American whalers come to colonise and trade in the area, Bobby makes friends with everyone and tries to build bridges between the groups. However, the force of history is not on his side: problems begin to occur between the different cultures, and Bobby must make a choice between his ancestry and his future.

What did I find out?

All of the books I’ve read so far this year have been told in a straight chronological line: the earliest events are narrated first, and the rest of the story then develops as it happens. In The House of the Spirits and Shark Dialogues, the period of narration is decades rather than weeks, and references are made at earlier time points to events that will unfold later on, but the books’ narratives are still essentially linear.

That Deadman Dance is the first story I’ve read this year that hops back and forth in time. It begins with the period 1833-35, then skips back to 1826-30, then forward to 1836-38 and 1841-44; it also features occasional glimpses of Bobby as an old man in the future, entertaining tourists with the stories relayed in the novel.

This rang bells with me, as in the novel I’m writing, I seem to be skipping back in time a lot myself, mainly to tell characters’ back stories. I’m not sure whether these count as flashbacks, or whether they fit comfortably into the ‘current day’ narrative, but I have been worrying that it might not be a good technique to use. However, this is the way the story seems to want to be told at the moment, so I’m running with it!

I guess I’ll find out whether it works when I’ve finished the first draft and read it back – but at least That Deadman Dance has reassured me that hopping to and fro in time is not, of itself, a bad thing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

What do I now see differently?

Again I’m harking back to the previous books I’ve read for the Book Diaries this year. This is the sixth – and it occurred to me as I read it that four out of these six feature the sea as a key element in the story.

In Lagoon, aliens land off the coast of Nigeria; Cold Storage, Alaska is set in a fishing community (with some scenes also on a cruise liner); and Shark Dialogues takes place primarily on the islands of Hawaii, its very title evoking the sea creatures that play a crucial role in the main characters’ lives. That Deadman Dance is set on the coast of Western Australia, where the indigenous people look out from their harbour to the great beyond – from where the colonisers come to disrupt their lives.

It may be because last year’s books – 20th century classics – turned out to be predominantly American that I’m noticing this shift. The United States is such a huge country that the vast majority of it is nowhere near a coastline – and so we perhaps can’t expect its writing, as a whole, to necessarily have a close connection with the ocean.

I live in an island country, however, and we are used to the sea featuring in our lives almost daily, whether we live near the coast or not. Bad weather warnings, bank holidays, offshore wind farms… all these help to make up the fabric of life in the UK, and I don’t think I realised how much I’d missed the sea until I noticed it cropping up regularly again in my reading. I now need to consider whether it has a part to play in my own novel…

How will this inspire my writing?

The Noongar people in the book have – like many other indigenous cultures – an oral storytelling tradition. While Bobby does make some progress in reading and writing, his primary method of communicating stories is through performance: talking, singing, dancing. This reminded me that writing is not the only means I have at my disposal for getting my ideas across.

I used to belong to an amateur dramatics group, but quit so that I could spend more time writing. I don’t regret this for an instant, but I did always feel at home on the stage – so I’m now wondering whether there are ways in which I can combine my own writing with performance, to make full use of all my talents (such as they are!).

One possibility that springs to mind is our local poetry open mic night, Voicebox. I used to attend this regularly, albeit to listen rather than contribute, but I haven’t been for ages. It may be time to start going again – and not just to listen to the other performers. I need to have a serious think about what I could write – and perform – here myself.

I’ve also been considering recording audios of performance for this very website. This is only a vague plan, so it’s not likely to come to fruition any time soon – but it is now afresh on my radar.

A musical interlude

I know this song has nothing to do with dance in Indigenous Australian culture, but the vibe of the song and its lyrics still resonates: the insistence on dancing to your own beat, in the face of intrusion and criticism by others, seems highly relevant to Bobby Wabalanginy’s situation. 

Bookylicious to Relaunch as an E-Zine

BookyliciousWe are happy to announce that our zine Bookylicious will be relaunching in online form at the end of April!

For those of you who haven’t come across Bookylicious yet, here’s the blurb…

Bookylicious is a North Wales-based e-zine celebrating the wonders of books and reading. It grew out of the radio show, Calon Talks Books, which broadcasts every other Wednesday on our local community station Calon FM. The show is presented by Paul Jeorrett accompanied by the ‘Posse’, Gwyneth Marshman and Rob Taylor.

 

In 2016 we started to produce a paper zine as a spin-off project from the show. We initially saw it as a place where we could recap all the books we’d discussed on air, with the odd additional article written (by ourselves) when the mood took us. It quickly morphed into something much bigger, and we were soon featuring contributions from guest authors and any other literary types who crossed our path and expressed an interest.

 

Towards the end of 2016 we realised that producing a paper zine was quite a lot of work, not to mention geographically restricted in terms of who could read it. We therefore decided to embrace modern technology and go digital – and global. After taking a break in the first quarter of 2017, we resolved to relaunch Bookylicious as a website in April 2017, to coincide with our local literary festival, the Wrexham Carnival of Words.

 

We hope you enjoy our literary offerings!

 

We have several articles lined up for our inaugural online issue, but we are still taking contributions up to Easter: if you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact me for more information.

The website is still under development, but I’m very excited. Stay tuned for more updates nearer the time!