Because language matters

I am currently editing a thing or two and getting in a total stew about language. In this case, what other people have written and whether I dare challenge.

And I think I do dare.

Language matters – what it connotes and the attitudes it betrays; words other and marginalise and encourage others to do the same. I found, when writing The Revelations of Celia Masters (this is my fourth book, currently on submission after a revise and resubmit) that I took apart some of Trump’s words and phrases.  They are not new. My book is about settlers in the Middle Plantation of Virginia during the English Civil War and I came to look at such words as ‘tame’, ‘infest’; ‘crazed’ and ‘animal’. One of the things many have observed and protested about is that language – presidential and administration language – matters and Trump is roundly casual about the way in which it is used, blaring and glaring; full of brutality.

Trump’s proud ‘We tamed a continent’ says a lot, doesn’t it? The verb ‘tamed’. It says something like, they were savages, but I am not: I am civilised. And the pronoun itself, we. The colonisers who did tremendous things and set the natives straight. The we. We are still that we and it’s still encumbent on us to tame them, he would have you believe. It’s so erroneous I don’t even know where to get started. Trump also refers fairly constantly to ‘Western Values’ which has absolutely no meaning at all. It’s a shadow phrase which I doubt he could even articulate.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the important of language choice when I was preparing Celia Masters (as I am now as I edit others’ work); mulling over sources and academic works like David Hackett Fischer’s exemplary Albion’s Seed. I was thinking about how the Cavaliers, coming into asylum under Berkeley (which is the starting point of my book) held freedom in the highest esteem, but that within it was the freedom to oppress others – and I realise I have expressed that in very broad terms, so you’ll have to read the book! (His and mine!) I explored how, through noting contemporary sources, you could see that colonists clearly believed that their settling of America was God’s work and that He had intervened to make it possible. I promise to write more about this later – and you can see that Celia Masters becomes repelled by it because of what she sees, comes to understand about herself and her true past and what she creates…

 

Back to the editing.

I am, for example, struggling with some of the phrases white writers use to describe skin which is NOT white; this has to be handled so very carefully or not handled at all, some might say. What do you think of  ‘honey-coloured’ or ‘cocoa-coloured’? I’d say you delete it if you’re a white writer. Do you baulk at that? I am also…bothered by the phrase ‘traditional cultures’ in that I see it used by anthropologists and sociologists, but I see academics in the same and in other fields taking it apart. Am I on shaky ground? Quite possibly, but I want to have a discussion about it and with different sources. And I personally don’t think anyone should be using the phrase ‘third world’ because that IS diminishing, patronising and othering.  My older boys were mortified to learn that I had challenged its use in their secondary school. I am a person who is sometimes chided for being ‘too PC’ which makes me tremble with a sort of punchy anger. Overreaction?

When I was writing The Revelations of Celia Masters, I had to think very carefully about the language and concepts I handled because my protagonist is a mid 17th-century white girl tangling with cultures and worlds that ate deeply unfamiliar to her. She has seen only Somerset, the Dorset coast and the court of Charles I. I was really worried about how I was going to write about the use of slavery in the colony and also to write about the Algonquin Indians who are in my story and, like the slaves, integral to it. I sought advice from an excellent source and was led, amongst other things, to the article below; I also discussed how I might approach my exploration and found that what I needed to explore was Celia’s whiteness. I turned it on its head. ‘…write you‘ in the words of the article in this link. As you write, reflect on your own privilege and power. There are plenty of jarring narratives about black culture from white voices. Also, I was damned if I were going to reduce folklore to some hokey thing about fairies, when it’s fire and blood and richly syncretic. The article was useful for that, too. Read carefully, discus with various sources, don’t shoot from the hip, be prepared to be totally and utterly wrong (you might enjoy what the late Hans Rosling has to say about this in Factfulness) and remember that words have power.   

What do you think? About any of this?

(Article from Buzzfeed: succint, intelligent and pithy – and I’d love to discuss it further!)

. https://t.co/gvJ06LmBwe

Advertisements

The Life of Almost. My new book’s out

Welcome to the world, The Life of Almost. Out 31st August with Patrician Press; launch this week at the wonderful Mr B’s Bookshop in Bath. If you would like to come, dm me on twitter @bookwormvaught or annavaughttuition@gmail.com! Or here: https://mrbsemporium.com/events/2018/05/anna-vaught/

The Life of Almost

So welcome to the world, my bard boy, my heart’s song. Novella, The Life of Almost, was published on Friday. News on forthcoming books follows soon; I’ve a lot happening!

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaughtkha 

(How about you take a look at my first book, too; it’s an autobiographical. A very black comedy about mental illness.)

But back to Almost….

Published August 31st, 2018

Prices: £9.00 (print). The ISBN is 9781999703028 (print) for book ordering and library use and the kindle edition is now up on Amazon, too. If you do buy from Amazon, note that owing to demand outstripping supply – BOO AND YAY – you can still buy there from Amazon affiliated sites such as The Great British Bookshop. AND there’s any number of wonderful independent bookshops. If they don’t stock it, they can order. Here’s a lovely spot – where I’ll be having my launch this week.

https://mrbsemporium.com/shop/books/the-life-of-almost/

https://mrbsemporium.com/

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers.

The poems are the author’s own.

“An exhilarating, exuberantly poetic book with such a wonderful cast of characters, I couldn’t bear for it to end! Like a song, a myth, a fairy tale – by a spellbinding writer.” Heidi James

“In The Life of Almost Anna Vaught has conjured a dark wonder. She writes a distinctive, thrillingly precarious prose, making and breaking its own rules as it glides between voices and stories and worlds with giddy pleasure and incalculable cunning. This short, concentrated novel certainly delights in the fantastic, but it is always rooted in the glorious thicknesses of language and landscape, the ripenesses of a blackberry hedge, the trembling density of a jellyfish.” Anthony Trevelyan

See Storgy review here: https://storgy.com/2018/07/19/book-review-the-life-of-almost-by-anna-vaught/

The first chapter of the book was published by the New Welsh Reader in May 2018. Here is the online edition: https://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=2241

The Life of Almost, although not published until 31st August 2108, was nominated and voted for in The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in July 2108. It received a great review from baldoukie:

“Poetic, comedic, a reworking of Great Expectations set in Pembrokeshire, this is a reading delight. A smorgasbord, satisfying at all levels. The child Almost, raised by sister Perfection, lives in an underworld of the dead, with their stories from the past, and with the living. Segueing between both, an interweaving of prose and poetry is the story of his life. The Llewhellin family (my favourite is Muffled Myfanwy Llewhellin), alive and dead, with Miss Davies and her adopted daughter Seren, with mermaids Nerys and Dilys, with the convict Derian Llewhellin, and many more.”

Here is the latest review from the inimitable Jackie Law:

https://neverimitate.wordpress.com/2018/09/03/book-review-the-life-of-almost/

The Life of Almost is a short novel and the second title published by Patrician Press. The first was Killing Hapless Ally, a novel about mental health.

AND IN A WEEK’S TIME, I will also hold a stock of copies, signed and dispatched in 24 hours. Get ’em quickly. £11.50 including postage.

https://patricianpress.com/book/the-life-of-almost/

Raising Sparks: an interview with Ariel Kahn about his debut novel

 Here is an interview with Dr Ariel Kahn. His book, Raising Sparks, published with Bluemoose yesterday. I read a proof copy some time and loved it. I’ve asked quite a range of questions here – not too many spoilers – and you’ll see that I’ve also asked him a little about the publisher and about indie presses. Both are close to my heart because over the past few years I’ve taken so much delight in making much of my own reading from small presses and writing for them. Also, my third novel, Saving Lucia, will be published by Bluemoose in 2020.  And my goodness they are doing well: amongst other things, author Ben Myers just won the Sir Walter Scott prize for The Gallows Pole. (Read now; the press bookshop is on the website listed at bottom!)

But back to you, Ariel. Congratulations and on with the questions.

Malka Sabbatto is a young woman who flees the confines of her traditional family in Jerusalem, followed by Moshe, a Russian immigrant and her father’s top student. After falling in with a sinister cult in Safed she escapes to Jaffa, where she starts to build a new life under the wing of an Arab chef. When she feels she has finally found contentment, a family tragedy forces her to return to Jerusalem.

RAISING SPARKS reveals the hidden worlds, shared histories and unknown stories of the modern Middle East. (From the publisher.)

raising sparks

For those who are about to read your book, tell me about its title and the beautiful illustration on the cover. It’s a tree which looks to be reflected and also part blooming, part aflame.

Hi Anna! Thanks for these very leading questions. So Raising Sparks is a concept in the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which really resonated with me. It comes from an alternative creation myth expounded by Isaac Luria, the 13th century “Lion of Safed” from who I’m descended. The sections of my novel correspond to the stages that Luria describes, and articulate the journey of my protagonist. He argued that when the world was created, God held back to allow it to form – contraction, withdrawal – “Tzimtzum” in Hebrew. Divine light then poured into creation, but the vessels that were meant to hold that light shattered, scattering fragments of light throughout creation. This stage is known as “Shevirat Hakelim”, or the breaking of the vessels. Rather than a pessimistic portrayal of a flawed creation, Luria’s myth suggests that humanity are co-creators with the Divine – we are responsible for the Raising of the Sparks, and for healing of the shattered world, known as “Tikkun”. How? As one of my characters puts it:

“There is a spark hidden inside everything and everyone in the world – every encounter, every experience, and every sensation. If you can be really present in the moment, you can set a spark free and return it to its source.”

The Tree on the gorgeous cover (designed by Stuart Brill) is the Tree of Life, a key symbol in Kabbalistic texts of the connection between the human and Divine. This always made sense to me, as trees are extraordinary beings, making food out of light, with their roots in the earth and their branches reaching up to heaven. The tree is sometimes portrayed upside down, with its roots in heaven, reaching down to earth – suggesting that the trees we see are mirror or reflections of the Divine reaching down to us, or through us. So on the back cover of Raising Sparks, the tree is inverted.

Malka, my protagonist, is a young female kabbalist in contemporary Israel. She experiences this tree at several points in the novel, and it is bound up with her identity. As she changes, so does her perspective on the tree. Her own abilities initially terrify her, and the flame suggests the power of the repressed rage and sense of entrapment she has felt. Working through that, she reaches a more whole place, effecting “Tikkun” in herself and others. She flowers.

Malka; Moshe. Is there any significance to those names? And what about the black cat that leads one to the other and to the room and to the tree?

Indeed there is! Malka means queen in Hebrew – her full name is Malka Sabbatto, or the Sabbath Queen. An aspect of Kabbalistic writing that really resonated with me was the notion that the reason the world is in such a state is because the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Divine is in hiding, in exile – when we raise the sparks, we help return her to her Beloved.  Another One of Luria’s followers, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a deeply erotic poem to the Sabbath Queen which is still sung on Friday nights in synagogues around the world to welcome the Sabbath. Malka channels this feminist Divine energy, and challenges and disrupts the patriarchal structures she encounters.

Moshe, Malka’s would-be lover, is the Hebrew name for the biblical Moses – though it is fact an Egyptian name, given to him by the princess who pulls him out of the Nile. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house, and then must flee when he kills a slave driver after identifying with the Hebrew slaves on whom their wealth was based.  So the name is bound up with saving, being saved, and the challenges of displacement and loss. My character is a Russian immigrant to Israel, who has come with his mother after the breakdown of their family, the effect of a tragic loss which Moshe believes he is implicated in. Like his namesake, water plays an important part in his story.

I can tell you’ve read the proof version of my novel, as the cat changes colour and becomes a smoky grey in the final version. Thereby hangs a tale. When my wife was pregnant with our second child, we went to a cottage in Suffolk for a few days to write. A black cat walked along the wall, and suddenly I had the image of a young girl pursuing this cat through the crowded food market in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. My wonderful editor at Bluemoose, Lin Webb, is a cat lover, and realised that there wouldn’t be a black cat in Jerusalem. So something was gained in transplantation.

What can you tell me about how this book came to publication? I have to say a few things first. One (and I haven’t told Ariel this yet) I was already aware of the book through a piece drawn from its manuscript which appeared in ‘The Arab Israeli Book Review blog’ and two that my own third book will be published by Bluemoose in 2020 and so we will be in the same stable.

The journey of Raising Sparks to publication had some surprising twists. I wrote it as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Roehampton, where I teach, supervised by the wonderful writer Leone Ross. Then I had lots of rejections by agents. I was just ready to give up and put it away in a drawer, when Leone posted on Facebook that there was a competition for debut novelists based on Pop Idol. Called Pulp Idol, it was run by Wowfest, based in Liverpool, and had heats in cities all over the country. The heats were all on Saturdays, which as an Observant Jew, meant I couldn’t attend one. Then I saw on their website that if you were not able to make the heats, you could record a short YouTube video instead, reading a few minutes of the opening chapter and answering a series of questions. My kids were not yet up, so I sat down, recorded the video, sent it, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, Wowfest got in touch to say that I’d been put through the heats and was one of the national finalists for the final in Liverpool. A was more than delighted. All ten finalists would have our first chapters edited and collected in a hard copy which would be sent around agents and publisher, so I already felt like a winner. The local Jewish community hosted me for meals, and the the Wowfest team led by Mike Morris made me feel at home. The final was in the Black-E, a converted church now a theatre space on the edge of Chinatown. We were each meant to read from our first chapters, before a panel of judges and a live audience. I read first, and Kevin Duffy, now my publisher, was one of the judges. I came runner-up out of the ten (writers, publishers, agents do check out the other finalists in Pulp Idol 2018, available as an ebook and in hard copy – they were all amazing). He liked what he heard, and asked me to send a hard copy to Lin, his editor. She liked it too, and on my birthday last year, Kevin wrote to say they were publishing me. I danced.

I love the rich evocative detail of the book. The pizza, water, tea, the cooking of fish, the doughnuts for the street boys and the layered sensual elements of the way in which you describe the bakery. Not just the smells, but the textures, processes, the pantry…Tell me about food in the book. Why there is so much emphasis on it? I was very taken with the glass of water which Moshe offers Malka so early on because it seemed so much more than the sum of its parts. With the bowl of peas remembered by Mahmoud that carries such resonance and recalls, for him, both beauty and intense pain. I’d quite like a recipe, too. How about something mentioned in the book?

Delighted that this sensory element speaks to you. One of the few written teachings of Isaac Luria is to do with raising sparks through cooking and eating, that this too can be a spiritual experience, which led to mystic pizza in my novel! I think cooking is an everyday kind of creativity, which we can do either mindfully or mindlessly. It feels very akin to writing in the way we combine ingredients which can become something more than the sum of their parts. Food encodes personal and cultural histories, and their mingling and development. Helen Goldrein, a friend of mine is a food blogger, and interviewed me about this element of the novel. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I said:

“Food creates community. It’s a brilliant bridge builder. You can connect to other people through food because it resonates with everyone. In the book, the characters use food to communicate and open up to one another and forge relationships. A lot of that comes from my own experiences, here in the UK and also living in Israel.”

For more on food in the novel, see the full interview at: https://family-friends-food.com/raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

I’m so glad you connected to the glass of water, and the “Middle Eastern Peas” in Mahmoud’s coming-out story. I think our relationship to food is symbolic of how we see ourselves, and is full of personal symbolism. Both of these very simple foods have layers of meaning, both for the characters, and hopefully, in the novel. Much of the first draft was written in notebooks while sitting in a garden hammock, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, right next to the herb garden belonging to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents.  I love his food and approach to cultural connection in his restaurants, set up with his Palestinian Business partner, Sami Tamimi. I’m hoping the reader of Raising Sparks will experience the way words and foods combine in my novel to similarly transformative effect.

You asked for a recipe, something mentioned in the book. How about this? A brief extract from Raising Sparks about Jerusalem Kugel, then my translation of a recipe for it from Sherry Ansky’s brilliant cookbook, Food, which we often use at home (my wife Noga is Israeli and a brilliant cook – how people feel about food is an indicator for me about how they are about people too, and she’s the biggest-hearted person I know).

‘What was your favourite food as a kid?’

‘Jerusalem Kugel,’ Malka said without hesitation. ‘I loved the contrast between sweet caramelised noodles and fiery black pepper. Everyone else bought theirs, but my mother made ours, every week. What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Well, kugel is the taste of home for you, isn’t it? I bet no-one here has ever eaten it.’

From Raising Sparks p.247 Copyright Bluemoose Books

Jerusalem Kugel from Sherry Ansky’s Food, Keter, Jerusalem 2003, p. 144

Translated by Ariel Kahn

Ansky always tells a personal story about each of her recipes. Here she writes:

One of my sweet childhood memories is the kugel which I would eat on Shabbat morning at synagogue. Close to the end of prayers, an Ultra-orthodox woman would appear at the corner of the road, pushing an old baby buggy at great speed, almost running. It contained aluminium pots full of giant kugel, covered in wool blankets, which she would distribute in the synagogues of the city. I would push through the congregants and watch in amazement how her giant pots were upended over trays, and with the help of string, cut into slices. The caramelised kugel was sweet and oily, but crucially, spicy.   In one hand I would hold Kugel, in the other a pickled cucumber, chewing, sweating from the pain of the spiciness, and from the pleasure of the taste. From the silence that prevailed in those sweet moments in the synagogue there arose only the cries of pleasure from the kugel devourers.

Recipe:

Serves 8-12

Ingredients:

½ Kg of straight egg noodles, 2mm thick

One cup of corn or sunflower oil

One cup sugar

6 eggs

Three teaspoons of ground black pepper

Salt

Baking parchment

Method:

  1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil and sugar in a deep pot. Cook over a low heat, tipping the pot gently from side to side without stirring it, until the sugar melts and caramelises (around 10 minutes). Immediately, but with great care, add the cooked noodles and stir. Don’t worry if some of the caramelised sugar hardens into granules.
  3. Crack the eggs and add them, together with the black pepper, and stir until you see that the pepper has been fully mixed in. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary.
  4. Heat the oven to 90-100 C. Heat a little oil in a medium lidded pot which can go in the oven, pour the noodle mixture into it, flatten with the aid of a spoon, and cover with baking parchment cut into a circle at the mouth of the pot (without the parchment the kugel will dry out and burn). Pour a little oil onto the parchment, then cover the pot with its lid. It I advisable to wrap the pot in a large sheet of foil. Put in the preheated oven. Cook for 7-10 hours. If you think the kugel is too dry and getting burnt, add a little water to the pot. If you cover the pot properly, it won’t happen.  Eat with pickled cucumbers.

Tell me about the significance of the sea and of water more broadly in the book? Even the title of the restaurant where Malka comes to work is of the sea – ‘The Leviathan’ (which you can also comment on if you like!)

When I was studying to be a Rabbi I was in an all-male bubble six days a week, studying from early morning to late evening. So on Fridays, which is the day off in Israel, I would head for the Tel Aviv beach whenever I could. Only an hour away by bus from Jerusalem, but a different world. The contrast was eye-watering. Then I started to notice little rituals in this supposedly secular space, and thought that maybe Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv were not so far apart. I loved the sea, and found its rhythm, colour and scent magical. Malka longs for water – she’s grown up in arid Jerusalem – while Moshe, with his traumatic history involving the sea, fears it. Water is also a bridge between them – he offers her a glass of water when they first meet, and she uses an ice cube in a key scene in the novel too. The Leviathan is my adaptation of a real restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith (after the mythic story of Adam’s first wife – there are two creation stories in the Bible – in the first man and woman are created equal, in the second Eve is subservient. The first woman becomes Lilith in Jewish folklore, challenges Adam, and becomes a kind of femme fatale for the rabbinic tradition – the dangerous, empowered woman  –  this fed into Malka’s identity too)  which trains street kids of all faiths and ethnicities to work in the restaurant trade, a lot like Jamie Oliver’s place in Devon. I decided to combine this with my love of Ottolenghi – only flip it so I had a Palestinian chef and an Israeli backer. The Leviathan is of course the great sea beast mentioned in the Bible, and Malka has some striking experiences in and around the sea. It is also the medium through which Moshe confronts his fears. Water is an agent of “Tikkun” or healing in the novel.

Now, do you have anything you could share on specific stimuli for events in the text or inspiration for any of the characters? If you would like, do explain for readers the significance of the book’s inscription?

Well, I’ve spoken about the black cat that inspired the opening sequence in the novel. After I had this image, I wanted to find out more about who this girl was. I was wrestling with the nature of Malka’s character and gifts. Growing up in a patriarchal family with four sisters, I was fascinated by the thought-experiment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she wonders what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister as talented as he was. While staying in my sister in law’s home in Nataf near Jerusalem, I had a dream in which I was Malka, in which she goes down to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, now a bit of a political football. In the dream, all of the prayers which people write and press into the cracks between the stones started to pulse like hearts, or sea anemones, and cry aloud the words written on them.  Malka could hear them. She could hear the music behind speech, the longing that underpins it. She would understand the language of silence. I realised Malka would be a mystic, a kabbalist, someone who could release these charged presences to powerful effect.

As well as a space to question and explore a feminist spirituality, Raising Sparks is also an act of remembrance. When I trained to be a rabbi in Israel, I discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. I up a writing group in yeshiva (theological seminary) with Matt Eisenfeld, my chavruta (study partner – texts are learned together, through discussion, to tease out their multiplicity of voices). Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. This tragedy had a traumatic effect on me, and made me realise I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I came back to the UK and looked for answers in literature instead, gradually growing towards a different kind of engagement with my faith, one which stressed the more universal, mystical elements, while seeing ritual as a kind of embodied poetry, waiting to be filled with personal meaning, a way of expanding my experience of the other. If each person or situation I encountered contained a spark of light, how might I liberate that? The ultimate other is the Divine, which means so many different things to each of us through our lives. I wanted to write a novel that explored the nature and meaning of faith in the modern world, from a range of perspectives, something I had often discussed with Matt. I was determined that the love and vision Matt and Sara shared would not perish with them. Their relationship is the seed of the love story in my novel. It was also behind the formation of the Arab Israeli Book Club, which I set up in London, on the basis thatthat fiction is an empathy machine, enabling us to experience all kinds of “Other” without fear or prejudice, and wanting readers to have the opportunity to go deeper than the headlines. The Guardian called it “a roaring success”. Brief plug: This book club is relaunching as The Middle Eastern Book Review at Daunt Books Hampstead on September 28th, when I will be interviewed about Raising Sparks by Ian Black, the Guardian Middle East Editor. All are welcome!

The epigraph, taken from Job, is all about the way these sparks sometimes seem like trouble and distress, but are often the inciting incident to a different, deeper life. Job is also a great questioner of God, like Abraham and Moses –which is why God calls him his true servant. Faith is never about certainty. It is about asking the right questions, challenging authority.

While the book does not shy away from pain, unpleasant events, intolerance, brutality and violence, please will you talk a little about the ways in which it is a resolutely hopeful book? I do believe it is. I’ve told you that at a difficult time in my life, I have personally found it consoling and inspiring.

That’s moving to hear. Books have always been a consolation and a tool for engaging more deeply with myself and others, for feeling the things which connect rather than divide us. Faith is all about doubt for me, not in a debilitating way, but in a way that constantly enlarges our frame of reference and understanding, something which good fiction and art in general do too. Malka is a deeply optimistic person, despite everything she goes through. She believes in a shared humanity, in the ways in which all of us are connected. She tries to use her gifts as a tool for positive change, standing up to the forces of oppression and domination which seek to limit and define her. She questions received truths, and suggests that it is precisely by listening to the silenced other within and around us that we become most fully ourselves. She is a wise person but at the same time extremely naïve due to her sheltered upbringing – the modern world crashes in on her full force, so she uses religious myth to critique and engage with it, and create a new, personal kind of fusion/integration between them in the process.

Hard one. Define magical realism. You’ve used it about your book so go on then…

I’ve always loved the kinds of book crammed in under this label, from Rushdie and Marquez to Borges and Bashevis Singer. For me, it means books that enclose multiple ways of seeing, from the mythic to the modern, side by side, and often show how congruent they are. We live by myths – the challenge is to make them the best ones we can, open, fluid and welcoming.

Do you – and I appreciate this might be hard because you made it – have a favourite part of the book?

That is a tough one. I like the hard-earned moment of rest Malka has on the beach in Jaffa-Tel Aviv. That quiet moment was one in which she reached a new self-understanding and accommodation. It feels like a turning point in the story, and the challenge for me, as for Malka, is to make these quieter moments speak as powerfully as the more dramatic ones. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Beyond the book: where next for Dr Ariel Kahn?

Well, I love teaching, cooking, and writing, so hoping to do more of all of those. I’ve got the seed of a new novel with a historical strand calling to me – looking forward to having the headspace to heed that call.

Independent presses have had a stunning few days, haven’t they? Three prizes for three brilliant authors. Might you comment on this in any way? 

With significant recognition like the Walter Scott Prize for Ben Myers outstanding The Gallows Pole, Bluemoose and the Indie scene are having a renaissance. They publish edgy and interesting things mainstream presses are wary of. They work together, in constructive groups like the Northern Alliance of publishers. Bluemoose have a close, nurturing relationship with their authors – Kevin talks about the Bluemoose family, (note from Anna: as you know, Ariel, my own third book, Saving Lucia, is going to be with Bluemoose and Kevin sent me a note when I signed my contract: it said, ‘Welcome to the Bluemoose family’: loved that) and it is more than a phrase, it is something I’ve experienced, with the way other authors within the imprint support one another. As a debut author, the care and attention to detail Bluemoose have lavished on my book, and my inclusion in every aspect of the process including choosing the cover have made this an empowering and pleasurable experience.

And finally…tell me about your reading. Any recently published books you’d particularly like to recommend, say? Or could you name a few favourite authors or books?

I love David Grossman. He’s been a huge inspiration, as a novelist and a deeply ethical person engaging with his own trauma, the loss of his son, while remaining present and powerful in his use of writing as an empathy machine. Given my love of trees and their significance, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Overstory by Richard Powers (Heinemann), which looks at humanity from the perspective of nature on a compelling and moving way. I love comics and graphic novels – the way they blend the visual and the verbal fees deeply true to my experience of the world, and stimulates my own prose, which often starts with a visual image. Recently, I’ve enjoyed two amazing graphic novels. Tumult by John Dunning and Michael Kennedy (Selfmade Hero) is a deeply unsettling noir about a woman with multiple personalities, beautifully rendered, subtle and teasing. My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) is a tour de force – ostensibly a journal by a young girl who sees herself as a monster and investigate the strange death of an upstairs neighbour, it expands into a mediation on the saving power of art, human resilience in the face of tragedy, and the long shadow of World War Two. Finally, as I mentioned my wife writes YA. She introduced me to the amazing writer Philip Reeve, who writes Steampunk SF and is an incredible world-builder.  He writes strong feisty heroines which you root for, and a fascinating engagement with the meaning of technology and culture for our individual and collective identity. I’ve just finished his Railhead trilogy, a future where people travel between galaxies on sentient trains. It is also a moving love story and a meditation on difference and choice. The first novel in his Mortal Engines series is being released a film shortly and that should bring him tons of well-deserved new fans.

MOOSEKETEERS! Thank you Ariel, and I hope you take a good deal of pleasure in interacting with readers of your book over the coming weeks and months and good luck with Raising Sparks events.

Here are some first reviews. .

https://www.thejc.com/culture/books/book-review-raising-sparks-1.466439

http://www.skylightrain.com/book-review-raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

And an event you might like to go to in August (launch was in Waterstones Islington)

https://www.waterstones.com/events/raising-sparks-book-launch-with-ariel-kahn/liverpool

This is the Daunt Books event Ariel mentioned above: https://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/product/ariel-kahn/

And you might like to read this, too. Ariel’s book is part of this survey.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/sneak-preview-independent-publishers-top-reads-for-2018-1.3357461

https://bluemoosebooks.com/

Follow Ariel Kahn on twitter http.//www.twitter.com/ArielKahn2 and the press http://www.twitter.com/ofmooseandmen

 

Updating, writing, news and a scholarship

Follow me on twitter https://twitter.com/BookwormVaught 

Hello all.

I am just in the process of updating this site so that the rolling twitter feed is engaged and I will also be producing a newsletter. I’m gathering steam – so it’s about time.

I have just finished edits on my second book, novella, The Life of Almost. This will be out on August 31st with some events local to me. If you’d like to invite me further afield to do or share in an event, go ahead. That would be lovely. Also, if you would like to review the book, great.

You can order the book here, from the press website or buy through a lovely indie bookshop. If they don’t stock, they can order. It is available online at both Amazon and Waterstones, but the latter is still not stocking texts by this lovely little boutique press for – I asked a manager – ‘purely commercial reasons’. Well.

http://patricianpress.com/book/the-life-of-almost/ That’s boy Almost on the cover; he’s reading on the sand with a brace of mermaids…

The Life of Almost, by Anna VaughtPublished August 31st, 2018

 

 

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers. 

A substantial extract from the first chapter of the book is published on the 25th of May in New Welsh Reader. You can navigate to information on that from here:

https://www.newwelshreview.com/ Cover of NWR issue 116

Next month, two of my (short) short stories are published in volume two of The Shadow Booth, a great place to read weird and eeried fiction. Boom.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-shadow-booth-vol-2-books-horror#/

I have applied for a Gladstone’s Writer if Residence slot for next year because, reader, day job, three kids, assorted other folk to look after, books three and four to edit and A RESIDENTIAL LIBRARY OOOOOH. Fingers crossed for me?

I mean look at this place? https://gladstoneslibrary.org/events/writers-in-residence I am determined to book a stay there if I don’t manage a writer in residence slot – it is, I know, very competitive.

Also, my husband and I are sponsored a weekend ticket for The Literary Consultancy’s Get a Job in Publishing weekend course

https://literaryconsultancy.co.uk/2018/03/get-job-publishing-sponsors-showcase/

and I just did the same for the Bare Lit Festival and it has gone to a wonderful home: you know who you are! Have a wonderful time xxx

http://barelitfestival.com/

Sponsoring the ticket for TLC led me to write this blog post for them; it’s about writing a book when you have no time and managing self doubt as you do it. Here:

https://literaryconsultancy.co.uk/2018/04/managing-self-doubt-write-book-dont-time/

It begins…

am in my early days of my writing, so you are not looking at someone who is a seasoned professional.

I’ll tell you what I am.

I am a quick learner; I chat and make contact very quickly. I am acquisitive of information, always reading, thinking and noticing. In a way, I am always working. What I thought was not possible has turned out to be something rather different. Not easy exactly, but more accessible than I had managed. And I seem to have written a good deal.

In late summer 2014 I sat at the kitchen table and started typing a question. That question became the first line of an autobiographical novel. That first book was published in March 2016. I realise now that twenty months from first line to publication is a bit of a clip, but didn’t know it then because I was so naive. I do think, for what it’s worth, that naivety is underrated. My second book comes out this summer (2018), the third is placed for 2020, and the fourth is going straight to an agent and I want you to cross everything here. I am also pitching something non-fiction collaboratively with a much finer writer than I (if she reads this; don’t argue) and working on pre-publicity for the second book. At last count I have also published two poems, a very short memoir, reviews, features, guest blogs, short stories, and creative non-fiction. Flash fiction is on its way. I think in all I’ve published twenty or so pieces across journals and magazines, web and print. I’m quietly increasing my stock; my ‘profile’. No-one told me to do this. Again, it’s that naivety. I just thought, ‘Give it a go,’ rocked up and started pitching. And it worked. I also found time in that period for some rejections, lost manuscripts, and serious faffing about when second and third books were written to time for someone who then rejected them with a form letter and didn’t invite me to send further work. That set me back – time-wise, mood-wise – but I’m tougher now. And I realise the passion I felt for one of my rejected projects obscured the paucity of its quality. Or marketability. The fact I had no adequate platform. Cave scriptor.

None of this is my day job.

Now, you may have seen elsewhere on this blog that I have a bursary called The Fabian Bursary. Do you think you might to like to apply for it for this September. Read this, but just something to note: I have removed all age restrictions. My background is largely secondary teaching, but I do see that as I move along with my writing, I could be supporting a broader demographic. Also, it needles me that there are age limits on things, such as literary prizes and funds. Because so many people come to writing – or study – later. Because of lack of confidence, physical and mental health problems, caring responsibilities, prejudice or poverty. So this is a gift. It’s hopefully the gift that no-one gave to me when I was younger. You could use it for a GCSE, an A level or any creative writing project, say! xxx

https://annavaughtwrites.com/the-fabian-bursary-announcing/

Right: what else have I done. Creepy memoir – NOTE MEMOIR: ARE YOU GLAD THIS AIN’T YOU RA HA??? ‘The Shadow Babies’

http://www.theshadowbooth.com/2018/01/memoir-shadow-babies.html

Also, the few reviews I’ve done in the past few months:

http://review31.co.uk/essay/view/50/diversity-risk-taking-and-community-a-celebration-of-2017%E2%80%99s-small-press-anthologies This is about small press anthologies.

http://review31.co.uk/article/view/542/laughter-in-the-dark This is about Takeaway, by Tommy Hazard at Morbid Books.

https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2018/02/16/he-built-a-house-and-next-to-it-a-church/ This is my review of As a God Might Be, by Neil Griffiths. This was my book of 2017.

And here my review of the late Naseem Khan’s memoir, Everywhere is Somewhere. https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2017/12/01/everywhere-is-somewhere/

And did some co-editing on this https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/?s=my+europe Currently waiting for commissions for the next anthology from this press, Tempest, which I’ll help to edit and for which I will write a foreword. You’ll be able to follow it here: https://patricianpress.com/books/ And aren’t they pretty books? Such strong artwork.

And finally, I have a July deadline for my fourth book, The Revelations of Celia Masters (news on which will follow, when I can) and my third book, Saving Lucia – which is about the last days of the Honourable Violet Gibson who shot Mussolini in 1928 – oh and her co-patient in Northampton Infirmary, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. Bluemoose is a wonderful press and it’s so lovely to see it in the sun for works by Ben Myers and Harriet Paige, and the work the press is doing as part of the Northern Fiction alliance. Here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ and go and buy the book below now?

Anyway, head down now with finishing fourth book and teaching (and my own eldest is doing GCSE at the moment so it’s all go) BUT I am having a little two day holiday in London, when I get to go to the launch of this little beauty: RAISING SPARKSThere’s a launch at Waterstones Islington on June 21st and it’s pubished by Bluemoose. I was lucky enough to read a proof copy ahead of time and thoroughly recommend it to you. Here: this is a synopsis from the website of Foyles:

Malka grows up in the Old City of Jerusalem in the confines of the Ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Meandering through the narrow streets she finds herself at the door of one of the city’s most renowned and reclusive mystics and discovers her father’s top rabbinical student, Russian immigrant Moshe studying forbidden Kabbalistic texts. She has a disturbing vision of a tree of prayers growing up inside the house, and the prayers all seem to be talking to her. The prayers become a giant bird, and chase her from the house. Malka has unwittingly uncovered a great mystical gift. Kabbalists believe that since the world was spoken into existence, if they can hear and understand that original Divine language, they can use it themselves, to shape and manipulate reality. Once in a millennia, a kabbalist is born with this ability. It turns out that Malka is one of them. After a disastrous first date with Moshe, Malka flees Jerusalem for Safed where she is drawn into a cult called Mystical Encounters, run by charismatic cult leader Avner Marcus. Avner is unsettled by Malka’s authenticity, and she is not allowed to attend classes. Her only friends are former night club singer Shira, and traumatised ex-soldier Evven. Malka sets up her own mystical retreat in the woods, at an abandoned construction site. When she reveals this to Avner, he forces her to take him there and tries to rape her. Malka manages to evade him, and then burns down the cult after manipulating the Modern Hebrew word for Electricity, Chashmal

Malka heads for Tel Avi, and sleeps rough on the beaches of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa. Here she is discovered by legendary Arab chef Rukh Baraka, who is seeking to rekindle his career by training Arab and Israeli street children to create extraordinary food for his new restaurant, the Leviathan. Malka bonds with fellow runaway Mahmoud, who is escaping the wrath of his Imam father at his “deviant” sexuality. Mahmoud reveals the city behind the city, the hidden Palestinian history of which Malka has been ignorant. Moshe has been trying to find Malka and is forced to confront some of his own demons, including the disappearance of his younger sister when she was in his care. Moshe swears that he will not lose another girl he loves.]

And that’s it for now!

Anna xx

 

 

The Life of Almost – some Pembrokeshire settings

Earlier in the year, I pledged a couple of things for the Authors for Grenfell fund-raising drive. Tomorrow I’ve got an author chat and what was once an afternoon tea with it has turned into hanging out at my house and then lunch and a signed copy of my first book, Killing Hapless Ally. Most recent comments on that, by the way, have included “brilliant but patchy”, “this book has changed my life”, “..if this is you how are you still sane?”, “you’d have made the shortlist if the everything was up to the standard of the best passages” and, “reminiscent of Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.” Are you laughing with me?

BUT ANYWAY

Next weekend I’m off to Pembrokeshire (where lots of my family are, living and dead: read on) because I am picking someone up in St David’s and then I am going to take them on a tour of the settings in The Life of Almost. This novella is out with Patrician Press (nice boutique press; awesome and brave catalogue – possibly foolhardy because they’re so keen on me?), autumn, 2018. It’s a strange tale, starring a flotilla of my relations, and settings, secret places and houses known to me, in which the narrator (previously drowned, aha..) returns to bring happiness and ignite the imagination of someone who is sad and desperately tired of life. He does this by telling the extraordinary story of his life – of sea-boiling mermaid love; lonely dragons on the shore; the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room; murders, crimes, love found and enduring; love torturing and mending – or not, because you can also pick the ending. In it, you’d recognise threads of Great Expectations, a favourite book of mine (indulge me this), not to mention a love affair with the Mabinogion and old Welsh lyrics. I will tell you more as we get closer to publication, but for now, be here with me as you won’t be there at the weekend.

And importantly, I want to make a plug. You will know the appalling things endured by those who were residents at Grenfell Towers. Well, here’s another literary endeavour and it is brilliant. Already 120% funded. I’m so pleased. Have a look and buy it when it’s out.

https://unbound.com/books/grenfell

So, settings in Almost. m making a selection. This is the walk down to Barafundle Bay, accessed, this way, over the headland from Stackpole Quay on the Stackpole Estate (National Trust now). Almost recalls happy times rolling on the beach and out at sea with his mermaid girls, who are so devoted to him – though, all his life, he has been in love with the sour Seren, out at Clandestine House on the Cleddau Estuary. Hmm. Almost is not binary in his sexuality or his gender identity. Oh no no no. I see him as questing and fluid. All things, in this book, take up boundaries and blur or break them.

barafundle

Here. This is Walton West at Church, just above Broad Haven Beach. In the churchyard, so very close to my heart. sixteen relations are buried (and probably more that I’ve yet to clasp to me as my relatives). My grandmother is here and my nanny. Uncles, great uncles and cousins, aunts. Also, some plaques for those interred elsewhere. At least two of the dead are suicides and one, a mother and daughter in law of those who took their own lives, was a figure who has haunted me my whole life and I have fictionalised her as Muffled Myfanwy, both here and in my first book. That’s because she suffered so much, her voice was stifled. When she did speak (I suppose it was selective mutism as I never heard her speak beyond the home), well now it was like a whisper in the breeze. You had to lean in to let it touch your cheek and then you heard and you knew her a little better, perhaps. In The Life of Almost, this character is…by the very particular gifts held by Almost…released. Her throat is loosed; her voice howls into the bright sunlight and she feels safe enough to test love again.

walton

If you want to go and visit, you’re looking, mostly, for a lot of Llewhellins. Now, don’t correct the spelling; this is how my family had it BUT there’s some variation even so – Llewelyn, too, as middle name and surname. I do have another churchyard – this time with my grandfather (Pop) and great grandparents, and this is out at Bethesda, nearer to Tenby. My grandparents’ marriage – they still had thirteen children, ten surviving (one died as a babe) ended acrimoniously and it was said he went and shacked up with a landlady from Tenby, who was a terrible tart and known for it.

I was raised, depending on your point of view, by maudlin, morbid people. And yet…when I think about my family, I find I don’t always differentiate between who’s alive and who’s not. I think that’s because their legends permeate into corners of my life. I am not afraid of darkness. Or graveyards at night. I speak plainly of death and leaving. I was orphaned, anyway, by the end of my teens and that was sad, but by God I’ve learned a few things. And this death in life way of embracing pied beauty, sour beauty, has stood me in good stead. It feels like a Welsh thing and it is thus integral to the book. You’ll wonder sometimes, as I’d ask you to do, who’s alive and who’s dead in The Life of Almost. Also, as in my first book, who’s there, and who a figment in your imagination.

Ah the Virgin Mary. Perfection, sister to Almost, behaves terribly. But in her quiet moments, she visits this place, at St Non’s, on St David’s Head, to see if Our Lady can set her straight. She also spends her days tongue lashing the whores and the ingrates of where they live, but she then, in a fit of piety which is true and real, rushes out to pray for their souls and for her own. And she prays again, to the Virgin, in her own home. At night, Our Lady is illuminated (by Wilko’s solar garden lights, if you’re asking) and below her is the healing well. Ah – also the song, Myfanwy. May her voice and soul flow free.

Now, when Almost begins to tell his tale, he’s out on an unspecified beach, which I’ve imagined directly below the Walton West churchyard I described above. Really, the nearest beaches to this headland would be Little Haven (where my grandmother was born) or Broad Haven, but in my mind’s eye, I saw a particular sea cave. It has been in my mind for as long as I knew what mind was. Pembrokeshire is rich in beautiful caves – I love those at Barafundle – but this was the first I saw and knew as a tiny child. It is on Newgale Beach and you can go right through it to different sections of this spectacular place. I had this in mind, more figuratively: the notion of channels and conduits between worlds, if you would only open your eyes. Or, I suppose, prove an adequate listener to Almost’s story.

And who have we next to the cave? There are some very fine mermaids in the book and you’ll just have to wait and see what they all get up to.

Now here is a beautiful place. These are the woods through which you can walk to Abermawr. Here, they are full of bluebells, though I love this walk in a winter storm, too. But the bluebells are significant because…as I said, I’ve given you two endings to the book. It’s a fantastical story, which also celebrates the tortured love between Seren and Almost. Why does she hate him yet love him? She breaks his heart again and again, this sour suffering beauty. In Great Expectations, Estella is the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham at Satis House. He loves her and eternally. But there were two endings to the book. The original, in which they are parted, and that which was eventually published, in which (though I still feel it bears a shadow of doubt, delicately done) Estella and Pip end up together. I’m not going to tell you why, in my book, Seren hates Almost, save to say it’s something to do with land and sea and freedom and Derian Llewhellin, the escaped convict (spot the Magwitch connection) that Almost helps in the first part of the story. But near the end of the book, this fine bluebell wood is the scene of…an event I struggled to write. Yep. You’ll judge for yourself, now te, whether it is erotic; if I judged it aright.

Abemawr Woods. Beyond them, always, the sea. Coedwigoedd Abermawr. y tu hwnt iddynt, bob amser, y môr.

bluebells

Which brings me to Clandestine House, on the Cleddau. This is Cresswell Quay and is, in fact, the place where my grandmother lived. Cresswell House became Clandestine House and inhabited by the claw-handed spinster, Miss Davies. Ah yes, Elleri Davies. This is a mysterious, changing, respiring house. And, like Seren, Miss Davies is miserable but imaginative. But just like Myfanwy who is oppressed by sorrow, might there not be a way to satisfy the cravings of the land, to comfort the grieving house and to mend hearts?

I do miss you, grandmother.

I will write more in the coming months but, for now, especially for you, Lorna, whom I will meet in St David’s at the weekend, remember that there is no there, there. Trust in Almost, instead. More on which at the weekend. x

st david's

The walk to St David’s

On Failure. For J.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

That’s Samuel Beckett. From his 1983 prose work, Worstward Ho. It’s funny. Recently, I’m wondering if it’s the new ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, in which case we could have a ‘Fail Better’ gallery – mugs, doormats, handcuffs, you name it. What would Beckett have thought? Probably that it was tomfoolery, but hopefully he would have laughed.

I digress. Why do I begin with this quotation? My late grandmother once said something along the lines of how you had to fail with style and in an interesting way before you could call yourself a grown up. I remembered that. She also said that you have to get quickly off your arse when the devil vomits into your kettle, which was a terrifying jumble of stuff, right there. Could have been Beckett, with a bit of polishing, and less scary Welsh grandma. Anyway, I think that she didn’t take the bit about failure far enough: I think you keep doing it. I’m not saying you actually aim for it, but that you accept it, more, as the natural state of things, just with economies of scale.

Now, I have failed aplenty. I like to recast it so that I failed majestically, heroically, as if I were looking at me from the wings, going, “See what you did there?” (actually, I sort of did that: read my autobiographical novel, Killing Hapless Ally for a load of that) and clapping, like a pissed cheerleader. True, there have been some comical moments of failure: falling off a desk in front of a GCSE class and tearing down an entire wall display of their work, trying to steady myself, in the process; attending meetings with my dress in my knickers; in one accidentally saying ‘sex’ when I meant ‘notes’; talking a bit too excitedly to mums on the school run and seeing them begin to sidle away; very recently saying to a class teacher, ‘Has my son been a bit of a twat?’ when I meant ‘twit’; falling asleep on my first date with my husband and falling over in a perfectly flat field on my second. That sort of thing. I relate these sorts of things to others sometimes, should we be discussing delicious things like, I don’t know, embarrassment, and it might happen that they go, “Noooo…how awful” – and I think, “Do you not do that sort of thing regularly too?” Then I think maybe it’s just me; like a dervish at a particularly stifled funeral. But I’m not so sure. It’s not that others will have done the same things, but, truly, everyday embarrassments and failures: aren’t they normal? Human.

These were not important failures. Just untidy life.

There are bigger things too. Hearts I broke, people I disappointed. The fact that my mother thought I sucked. Some of these things I thought to be my fault, but time and reflection may tell a different story.  Ah what else? Career blips; no career; the PhD I didn’t complete (I won’t tell you the whole story here), the fact that people weren’t very nice to me on my wedding day (again reflection might not point to me here) – oooh loads of stuff. Parenting mistakes; financial ones; soured relationships. Oh get out of here. This isn’t very interesting. It’s more that I want to tell you you’re not alone. But, most of the time, I, you, we did our best, yes? Then there you go.

You can get big bold places, high on failure and not seem to know it. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, a colossal failure as a president. His world view is egregiously limited, his ego needs to be regularly stroked because it must be upheld, like gossamer. Do you think he goes to bed worrying about his failure or reflecting on it? Well, I’ve not been with Donald at bedtime, praise the Lord, but I rather doubt it. And therein lies the crux of the matter. To acknowledge that you misjudge, misprise and misrule; to be compassionate and self-aware enough to know that you failed and to attempt, where you can, to make amends – that is the key thing. When it’s missing, what might that make you? Appetitive; governed by your own wants and a desire to be, err, stroked and told that you are right. Ugh. That makes me want to barf on my shoes. And oh, it makes me cross. I realise I am simplifying about Trump, and that he probably has some latent virtues, but he seemed a decent enough exemplar.

To be human is to err. To err splendiferously. In teaching – and I don’t know why anyone would pretend otherwise – you will misunderstand some of those you are teaching and fail to see their ability, their wants, even, sometimes, the terrible pain they might be in. You will get a lot right, but a lot wrong. In your life, you will accidentally upset friends; say things that reverberate in others’ ears for a very long time. But you did your best and that’s all that can be asked of you. If it’s a failure where you know you have hurt someone and done what you can to fix it and make amends; if you’ve felt guilt and reflected and looked at yourself sternly – painful but necessary – then take that and move forward and not just for yourself. Learn. If it’s a comical failure – like, say, trying (I actually had a conversation about this recently which reduced me to helpless, snorty laughter and tears – and no I am not naming its provenance) a new sexual position, striking the bedside lamp in flagrante and singeing the side of the duvet, please LAUGH. You know what’s not hot? Being joyless and mirthless. You know what’s not sexy? Perfection. Also, it’s bollocks and doesn’t exist.

I had a friend once (note past tense) who said, with passionate confidence, “I don’t know what failure is. I have never failed at anything.” I was in awe of her; I had chronically low self-esteem, was battling depression: I thought she was someone to look up to. How wrong was I? It’s humility and humour; kindness. That’s where it’s at. That’s success. Arrogance is not a success. That is definitely a failure, in my book. Anyway, I don’t see this person anymore. Don’t wish ill, there. This person may be deliriously happy, for all I know. Sharp suited and driven, but maybe not having messy sex in the back of a pick up…or feeding a sad-looking pony an apple…or maybe even comforting another person whose life has unravelled at the seams. What do you think? Am I over-simplifying?

Parenting’s an eye opener for this success/failure malarkey. I have seen other parents chortle at how their child is top of the pecking order or say, without apology, that their child will go a long way and, in the meantime, tends only to be friends with other high achievers. It is bang on to be proud of your child (I have three myself), but a) your child is not an extension through which (she says cattily) you get to swat drippy under-achieving fellow parents (like me) and b) can you HEAR YOURSELF? Pipe down.

Now, I do think that failure is normal. A lot of dreams and career aspirations tank. Of course they do. Marriages or your final sense of acquiring a sense of identity may feel incomplete. In some work – the creative industries – I’d argue that failure is hardwired into your job. Having your work rejected or not even acknowledged. But hey there, frownie, suck it up. It’s normal: fail again, fail better. Carry on.

I do think – and I speak as someone who has had many years of battling mental health problems – that we place too much emphasis on achievement. And not, I might say, always that achievement which is in line with our core values; with what we truly believe and value. If you are driven, then go drive, but maybe know that when you get to the place called THERE, you might well discover that there’s no THERE, THERE (if you follow my meaning). I am not suggesting that we don’t aim for things we would like to do or be, just that it might be healthier and make us happier if we were honest about those things. And – I speak from hard-won experience here – I don’t think it helps to be led by comparison with others. In fact I’d say, “compare and despair”. I know when I do that, the comparison thing, I incline to come off worse and likely to feel awful, physically and mentally. I did kind of tell you at the beginning there that I was an epic failure!

There has been a great deal of study of this of late, but the role of social media and what we absorb and ingest therein can be a problem. I talk to the teenagers I teach about it. Some of them struggle, but find they can’t stay away, frightened to miss out. But that feeling is not unique to those in this demographic and, in fact, I’d argue that younger people are often way more sensible than older people and not just because they are digital natives. Yet I think we all need to be mindful of the fact that what we see is a version of reality; a curated narrative. I love social media for the friends I’ve made and things I’ve been able to learn; the writing project I am currently pursuing came to me through twitter. A picture, a conversation: serendipitous, exciting and joyful. But the braggy, showy stuff can go hang.

Is all this depressing? I’d say no. Stuff up. Let go. Go and rehearse the facts of life in a sober manner and I wonder if you might actually start to giggle. Because the failure provides a much better anecdote and releases you from much stress. Achieve, according to your own lights, but when I go, I just want to be remembered (if you do remember me) as the funny lady who tried every day to be kind. Fell on her arse constantly. Loved Jesus but enjoyed cursing. Embraced paradox and irreverence. And pie. And kittens. And gave a sad-looking pony an apple. You know.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

On you go, then.

Love, Anna x

 

 

 

 

What’s Passerines about? Here. “What do you know, who has not been mad?” and “Those who are confined have the best imaginations.”

Don’t nick it. It be @copyright Anna Vaught

Passerines. A synopsis

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, got to taste full liberty, revisit and reshape their pasts, their futures, make us question what we think madness is – and kill Mussolini? That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it? How would it all be possible? Because, as Violet Gibson, the key protagonist of the book would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

This story is grounded in truth but, as historical fiction, it fills in the many gaps by imagining the interior lives of its four female subjects, and lends it a supernatural air in Violet’s invoking of the birds of the air (and with them, the birds of religious texts and iconography) to help her connect with other three (apparently mad) women, and their tortured lives. In 1926, in Rome, Violet Gibson, an aristocrat, tried to kill Mussolini, having previously failed to kill herself. Violet was not the best shot. Mussolini was struck on the nose and though he bled copiously, he lost only a divot of flesh and was soon off, bandaged, to carry on; plans of Il Duce, Mare Nostrum and the creation, he thought, of his Augustan Empire. Meanwhile, Violet was trampled to the ground, taken to prison, placed in a lunatic asylum and then, by the grace of Mussolini (and with copious thanks from the Foreign office, her father the Fifth Baron Ashbourne, and Winston Churchill) she was deported and placed, for the rest of her life, in St Andrew’s Psychiatric hospital in Northampton. She petitioned for release for the rest of her life, but was always refused; many of her own letters remain, unsent (contravening the 1890 Lunacy Act). She died in 1956, was denied the burial she requested and rests in a shabby corner of a a municipal ground. This much is true.

For the last few years of Violet’s life, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, was incarcerated at St Andrew’s. She also died there, in 1982, and is buried steps away from Violet, away from the family grave in Zurich: isolated, arguably in death, as in life, like Violet, her records and letters burned or sealed by decree of the keeper of the Joyce flame. Lunatics both, these women. Of course. That must be true, musn’t it?

Meanwhile, not so long ago, Blanche Wittmann dances and crawls like a dog while under the hypnosis of the great neurologist Dr Charcot at the Salpêtrière in Paris. Le tout Paris turns out to see her; she is painted, in a state of hysterical glamour, by the fêted Andre Brouillet and Le Tout Paris turns out to see her. Dr Freud observes and learns and is fascinated, though he comes to a different conclusion; that it is psychiatric, not a disease of the nerves. When Blanche goes back to her room, or rather cell, alongside the other eight thousand mad women at the hospital, the evening continues elsewhere in fine apartments with absinthe and a tinkling piano. Just a little after Blanche, comes Anna O; a woman who retches at water, swerves between languages and tells stories like those of Hans Christian Anderson. She suffers hallucinations of snakes, has paralysis and a persistent choking cough. Anna O becomes a patient of Dr Breuer and, later, a subject in Dr Freud and Dr Breuer’s book, Studies in Hysteria. Blanche never leaves the Salpetriere, but later works in one of the laboratories while, paces away, Marie Curie experiments with pitchblende. At some point, Blanche disappears from records and we do not know where she is buried; Anna O, meanwhile, remains a mystery until, in 1953, twenty years after her death, she is discovered to be Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian-Jewish pioneer in women’s rights, sometimes referred to as the first social worker. What she has built is later razed by the Nazis. These women are the four majestic feebles (as Lucia Joyce has it) of the story.

The story imagines what their lives were like as patients and how it might have been were all these women to be free and meet and have an adventure together; from the Ireland of Violet’s youth, to Vienna, Paris – a meeting with James Joyce. It is also an alternative history: had Anna O ever been free, a voyager, a scientist; had Bertha found the love she hoped and her work not destroyed; had Lucia written her novel, been able to carry on dancing, as she had been trained to do by Margaret Morris, William Morris’s grand-daughter, had she been able to have the work she was offered at the Gotham Book Mart in New York or to be a tumbleweed at Shakespeare and Co in Paris: had she got out; had Violet been successful in securing the end of life she wanted, a Catholic burial and to change history: had they all been with her, that day, on Campidoglio, in Rome, 1926, and all held a Lebel revolver – and killed Mussolini.

Why Passerines? Because part of Violet’s therapy in the psychiatric hospital was to go outside to feed the birds, of which we have a deeply moving photograph. She communes with them, and the birds of the air make sure, through a kind of magic, that her letters to Blanche and Anna O arrive, just as they stimulate her to thoughts of freedom, possibility and to whisper to Lucia Joyce through the walls of the asylum. Does any of it really happen? We return to the question posed by all the women: “What do you know, who has not been mad?” – and Lucia Joyce, who never got out, lays a passerine on the grave of her friend.