My collection of short stories and flash fiction about the Syria crisis was published on the 5th December2016 by Earlyworks Press, Hastings. The book is available to order priced £8.50 from your local bookshop or via Amazon.
The title, Not Here, Not Us, reflects the attitudes the world has taken to the Syrian Revolution and to the refugees fleeing the war.
This war scars us all. Even if we turn away from it, it is always there like our own shadow.
Writing may not be able to change the world but stories open our minds. To others. To different possibilities.
The border is a river, a mountain range, a line on the map, a sentry post, a wall, barbed wire. The border is a way of thinking, a national debate, it’s something your mother embroidered, it’s a frame surrounding a picture, a passport, a margin, the edge of something, a riot of flowers.
If you want to read about how and why the Revolution started, I suggest you try Burning Country by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami – or The Crossing by Samar Yazbek.
Many people helped me in the writing of this book and I thank them all, but special thanks to the Syrians who rose up against tyranny and have paid, and are still paying, the ultimate price.
Although women have always written about conflict the majority of war writing, from ancient times until today, is by men. This is perhaps not surprising as few women have experienced combat but now, in an era when female combatants exist in greater numbers than ever before and when the number of female journalists across the world is rising, there’s still not a substantial canon of literature written by women about war.
As the number of female war reporters rises, the number of those writing books about their experiences has increased – women like Lindsey Hilsum on Libya, Janine di Giovanni on Syria and Kate Adie’s memoir about her life as a war reporterto name a few – but these are all non-fiction accounts. Non-fiction books about war by women who are not war reporters also exist –examples include Samar Yazbek’s two books on the war in Syria and Svetlana Alexievitch’s book about World War 11 – but most of the fiction lists contain men’s names –Tim O’Brien, Sebastian Faulks, Kurt Vonnegut, Khaled Husseini, etcetera.
Is the problem our definition of ‘war writing?’ When we extend how we define writing about war, the field does become larger. Most of women’s fiction writing on war is less direct – it is rarely about combat and more often on the consequences of war – dislocation, refugees, and families. And it’s necessary to use a wider definition because war isn’t only about combat. Civilians directly experience war through bombing, dislocation and loss of family members, while women are more likely to experience rape.
Yet of the women who’ve directly experienced combat, very few have fictionalised their experiences. One example is Michelle Wilmot who served in Iraq from 1998-2006. Her novel, ‘Quixote in Ramadi: An Indigenous Account of Imperialism,’ is a dark but humorous book which deals with issues of neo-colonialism, homicide, genocide, and ethnic persecution. It tells the story of an indigenous female soldier in the US Army who is deployed to Iraq at the height of the tension of the Fallujah massacre and the Abu Ghraib scandal. However this book is an exception. Why then are so few women writing of their combat experiences and turning this into fiction? Is it because women feel more comfortable writing about war from a different perspective? Are women afraid to speak out? These are not questions I can readily answer.
Writers – irrespective of gender – do not have to experience war to write about the subject. Katey Shultz’s short stories, ‘Flashes of War’ are about the effects of the War on Terror on both soldiers and civilians. Cara Hoffman’s novel, ‘Be Safe I Love You’ explores what happens to a woman after returning from combat duty in Iraq. Helen Benedict’s ‘Sand Queen’, was described by The Boston Globe as “’The Things They Carried’ for women in Iraq”. The material for ‘Sand Queen’ came from Benedict’s research for her 2009 nonfiction book, ‘The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq.’ Roxana Robinson’s ‘Sparta’ tells the story of soldier Conrad’s first year home, interspersed with flashbacks to his time in Iraq.
American women writing about recent ‘foreign wars’ is, as evidenced above and in the link below this article, greater than one might suppose at first glance. However war writing still continues to be constructed as the domain of men – Michele Robert’s book ‘Ignorance’ about two sisters under occupation in France was described, when reviewed, as a book about women rather than war though Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ series, set in the First World War, does feature in lists of war writers. When it comes to British authors today, few currently tackle the subject of war. There are a couple of novels about the Troubles in Ireland, (Edna O’Brien’s ‘The House of Splendid Isolation’ is one, another is Kate O’Riordan’s ‘Involved’) and there’s Alison Layland’s novel ‘Someone Else’s Conflict, which deals with the brutality of the Balkans War and my own novel, ‘A Bird in the House’ set partly in Libya during the fall of Gaddafi, but generally we have to travel further afield to find women writing about war – to Pakistan, Iraq, Africa and Asia.
In ‘Burnt Shadows’ Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie writes about the shared histories of two families from the final days of the second world war in Japan, and India on the brink of partition in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, New York in the aftermath of 11 September and Afghanistan in the wake of the ensuing US bombing campaign. Maaza Mengiste’s book ‘Beneath the Lions’ Gaze’ is set during the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 and Nayomi Munaweera writes about the Sri Lankan civil war in her book ‘Island of a Thousand Mirrors.’
On the Balkans war we have ‘S: A Novel about the Balkans’ by journalist Slavena Drakulic – the story of a Bosnian woman in exile who has just given birth to an unwanted child after being repeatedly raped by Serbian soldiers in the “women’s room” of a prison camp and there is Sara Novic’s ‘Girl at War’ – the story of a ten-year old girl in the conflict – but there are not many novels written by women about the Balkans conflict (although some books do remain untranslated, such as ‘Hotel Zagorje’ by Ivana Bodrožić).
It’s perhaps too early for many novels to have been published about the current refugee crisis although there are novels about refugees from Afghanistan – like Caroline Brothers’ novel ‘Hinterland’ about two boys escaping the war in Afghanistan and ‘Under the Persimmon Tree’ by Suzanne Fisher-Staples while Hawra al-Nadani’s ‘Under the Copenhagen Sky’ explores issues of dislocation and foreignness. Certainly on the topic of refugees, men and women writers appear to be more evenly represented.
Where you can find the most women writing about war and its effects is in the Middle East. This is perhaps not surprising given the recent history of this part of the world. Lebanon’s 15 year civil war (1975-1990) has produced Hoda Barakat’s ‘Stones of Laughter,’ Syria, Rasha Abbas’ The Gist of It (short stories), Palestine, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ by Susan Abulhawa, Iraq, Duna Ghalil (Orbits of Loneliness) – among others. However, with perhaps the exception of a short story by US-based Iraqi author Faheeha Hassan whose story ‘Mass Grave,’ is told from the point of view of a male soldier, these novels explore the effects of war rather than combat.
If I were to include poetry, short stories, flash fiction and blogs the list would widen but there’s not scope for that here.
To conclude – the more you dig, the more you find that there ARE women writing fiction about war across the world, especially if the definition of what ‘war’ means is extended. Nonetheless I would say that there appears to be more of a silence from British, European and American women writers.
For a list of other women who have written about war and conflict go to:
Don’t write with your hands tied behind your back. Don’t hamper yourself. You are the one doing the tying. No one else does it for you. Untie those cords. Fly off. Don’t think, don’t worry, just write. Editing comes later. It’s your shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, that’s stopping you. It stops me too. No good, no good, no good, it says. That voice in the head. But then I’m off again, flying. Until I come down to earth, bump, bump, bump. And then I’m off again and again. You can do it too.
Dark and snowy night
When my brother comes back from the dingle, Carl is not with him. I am in the patch behind the apple trees. My brother says hello. His hair is full of burrs and he has a scab on his knee. When he goes inside, I follow.
We steal a biscuit each off the rack. Mum has been baking again.
He asks me to reach for the oat packet on the top shelf. ‘What do you want oats for?’ I ask.
‘Carl and I need to feed our caterpillar.’
‘Don’t caterpillars eat leaves?’
‘This one eats everything.’
Mother’s story always starts with, ‘On a dark and snowy night.’ There is a house on the edge of the woods and two children are being pulled on a sledge across the icy wastes. It is growing dark. In the distance the lights of the house look welcoming. But the wolves are fierce and hungry. They have sharp teeth, bad breath and evil eyes. The sledge runs faster and faster, its runners swishing. Faster, faster. The lights of the house grow closer. The children do not look behind them to where the dark firs grow. They strain their eyes to the lights of the house.
The wolves are closing in. The children feel the animals’ hot breath on their backs. Faster, faster. The sledge runs into the dip by the house. A cry goes up. ‘Hurry, hurry!’
Their father is at the gate. Whoosh! They are though. The wolves howl and vanish into the night.
‘Carl and I are keeping a caterpillar,’ my brother says sleepily.
‘Really,’ says mother. She steps to the window.
‘Is there a wolf out there?’ My brother sounds afraid.
‘No,’ mother says. ‘Someone stole a chicken from the farm. It’s eating oats.’
‘Bad,’ my brother says.
The median earnings of writers in the United Kingdom is £4,000 a year. Read that again – £4,000. Let’s face it – unless you’re EL James or JK Rowling, you’re not going to make enough to live on. Most of us who write have to rely on other work to keep us going. Yet deep down we all secretly want success: we want to hit that jack-pot. We want to be recognised, read and appreciated.
The problem is – there are so many books out there – let alone short stories, poetry and flash fiction. I’m sure neither you nor I, however much we love books, have the time to read all we’d like. I’m also sure a substantial number of excellent books pass me by.
The publishing world is fickle one. It relies on a small number of ‘big’ names and celebrities. Dubravka Ugresic, in her book, ‘Thank you for not Reading’ describes how Joan Collins, opening the London Book Fair some years ago, swept all beside her. ‘What does this have to do with literature?’ Ugresic writes. ‘Almost nothing. Then why mention something as trivial as Joan Collins’s pink suit? Because trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books. A book’s blurb is more important than the book itself, the author’s photograph on the book jacket…more important than its content….’
You get the picture. Marketing is King. Celebrity is King. Or Queen. Does this matter? Yes and no. I mean, you’re not going to get anyone to read your book if readers don’t know it exists and those of us far down the publishing ladder are always going to struggle to get noticed. This isn’t an article about marketing so I won’t give you suggestions on how to market your book. Anyway I’m lousy at marketing but it is necessary, even if it bores you to tears and you feel you’re no good at it. (You do get better at it with practice – I promise). No, this is an article about writing. As for that elusive ‘success’ – if you’ve completed a story, a novel or a poem, that’s success. Making it as perfect as you can – that’s success. Getting it out there via a blog, or in print – however – that’s success.
Annie Lamott writes about publication in her excellent book, ‘Bird by Bird.’ ‘I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.’
Many of us are so caught up in the idea of success in our culture that we fail to appreciate our successes. Like a new dress, or a new car, the lure is always there of more and better. It’s a snare and a delusion.
Natalie Goldberg in her book, ‘Writing down the Bones’ says, ‘Trust in what you love, continue to do it and it will take you where you need to go. And don’t worry too much about security. You will eventually have a deep security when you begin to do what you want. How many of us with big salaries are actually secure anyway?’
We need to pay our bills of course, and many people don’t have the luxury to be creative. They are busy working as cleaners, nurses, care workers….You can be creative in your job, for sure and anyone can write, sketch or pen a song. It doesn’t have to be a project that keeps us away from earning a living.
For those of us who are lucky and/or determined enough to work as writers, aim for success, yes but do understand that there’s always another mountain to be climbed – always. Or even a mountain to fall down. The secret is to pick yourself up and climb the mountain again, even if you need a walking stick or a lift part way. And please enjoy the view while you’re up there.
The first draft of a novel is like life. The ups and downs. The oscillation between elation, depression and sheer boredom. How do any of us keep going, us authors. I think it’s a combination of will-power and of love for the written word, mixed in with a need for recognition in our lives. Let’s be honest. We all want to be read and get good reviews, we’re human, after all. However, there are many times when we feel like giving up and I often ask myself the question: ‘Does the world actually need another book?’ And, ‘does it need this book?’
The answer to the first question is that humans will always tell and listen to stories. It’s in our DNA. Stories are as old as humankind itself. As to the answer to the second question, that has to be left up to others. If my book is good enough and I have something interesting to say, perhaps, yes. That’s certainly what I strive for – to make what a write worthwhile – not only in terms of the quality of the writing, but in the characters I create and the world I create around them.
The trick of writing that first draft is to keep going even through the bad patches when boredom and lack of confidence seep in. It helps to connect with other writers, or to write in a café with others around, or to join a course as I just did, although that many not be affordable to everyone. It’s easy to get stale and so connecting with other authors, or even books you enjoy reading, can help. On the other hand reading a brilliant and well-written book can be a downer. ‘I can never write like that’, the critic on your shoulder squawks. ‘Never in a million years.’ Just remind yourself that YOU are writing your book. No-one else is. You may admire a particular author and his or her style and of course you can learn from this. But this author is not you. You have your own style, your own way of looking at the world. Stay with this.
It is scary showing your writing to others but it’s important to do so, although only to those whose judgement you really trust. Each person will have their own take on your work but if everyone says the same thing, then listen and take note. In my present working novel, almost everyone who read it questioned why I addressed the sister in the second person, rather than using her name. I stuck fast. For a while. But in the end I realised this wasn’t working. I’ve changed it. However, there are times when you must also stick to your guns. The topics I write about are serious ones – conflict, death and exile. I love reading witty books, funny books but I can’t write them. I don’t want to write them either. Don’t let anyone tell you that you must write this or that. You know why you want to write and what you want to write about.
The first draft is just the first draft. After that comes the editing process but that’s something else. Try not to get stuck at the beginning of your book. It’s easy to do. You want to perfect it so you go over and over and you never get further than the first 10,000 words. I’ve done it. I still do it. Perfect it at the editing stage. Now just go for it. Take the plunge and leap.
This island is long and grey and resembles a crocodile held low in the water.
There are many small white churches on this island with bells that hang from the branches of olive trees. Also on this island is a huge domed church. The church is empty, the door locked. If you peer through the keyhole of the locked door you will see the light spilling in from the windows casting red, blue and green spots on the dusty floor.
This island rises up from beaches of black sand. It has a hole in its heart, remembering the land that was once lost to it, land that went up in smoke and ash and buried the islanders.
This island is much larger than its sisters and brothers but it does not boast of this fact. It has no need to.
This island is so small it is scarcely bigger than a hand print upon the blue sea, yet trees grow on it and birds chatter in the branches.
From this island a famous hero set sail many moons ago. The hero voyaged across the sea and slew various monsters but when he returned to the island that was his home, the sheep were still munching the same grass, the goats bleating, the cockerel crowing at dawn.
This island is rocky; its shores treacherous to boats and ships but it does not care, welcoming only the crashing of waves, the flight of birds.
There is an island, so I have heard, with sand so white and dazzling that anyone who lands on its shores must wear dark glasses or be without sight for many days.
This particular island is surrounded by ice-cold water and forests of seaweed, that sway in the tide and the waves. The barnacles on the rocks are so numerous that no one has ever been able to count them. For many days of the year the island is shrouded in mists but when it is not, the water appears like a bowl of turquoise glass.
From a distance this island looks friendly because of its beaming lighthouse, the glittering sea that surrounds it and the large numbers of playful sailing boats. But, as you draw near, you realise that this is an illusion and that the purpose of the light-house is not to welcome but to warn you of the jagged rocks. As for the sailing boats they too are something of an illusion for they never draw close, but tack this way and that, never drawing close to the island’s shores.
From a distance this island resembles a porcupine. On closer inspection the quills are revealed to be trees. The trees are not particularly spiky but only give you that impression from long away.
A causeway links this island to the mainland. At low tide the way is open to all who wish to visit but woe betide anyone who falls asleep for too long in the warm sun and is forced to wait over-night to return to his house across the water.
These five islands are close to each other like children who have dropped from their mother’s womb year after year.
Who lies here at the bottom of the sea,
lost but not forgotten?
The ties of seaweed knotting her hair
as she clasps the child in her arms
for all eternity.
What country did she leave for this
over-crowded, listing, pirate-boat?
What exile has forced her to walk the plank
and place her weary feet upon the leaking wooden boards
with only her child and hope for company?
Slippery, drowned hope
No rope or raft to hold her
No lifeboat, no warm hand
No embrace but her child and the empty sea
forever and ever