The City (London)

Small observations: London.

City

The woman cannot contain her shoe. She shakes it off and frowns. Her shoe is flat-heeled, patent leather and black, its trim gold like the early morning sun. She passes the smoking young men, who stand hunched as if afraid of the city; these men who wear old leather jackets and chequered scarves. None of them are tall; they talk together as the woman in the shiny shoes passes by, as the sun climbs in the sky and the shadows move across the square.

 

City 2

There are people on the streets early morning young men with the last hope in their eyes and a cigarette between their fingers. They gather in groups on the low wall outside the gallery listening to the traffic and watching the moving shadows.

 

City 3

The city gathers the people of the lost under its bridges, behind the darkness of buildings and in the places I cannot see. It gathers them at night in its cold, dark cloak and spits them out onto its squares, its pavements and stations for us to hurry by.

 

City 4

The city is a single magpie, an old church with a clock. Red cranes high in the sky, twenty brick chimney pots, nine satellite dishes, the struts of a railway bridge, the new built on the remains of the old.

 

Seven Sisters Road – to Clara’s

I know my way – under the railway bridge, past the building where they used to hold the music gigs, past the mobile phone shop where old chargers lie like black snakes, past the school and the National Grid building and the shop that sells cheap clothes. Past the two old men arguing in Arabic, the girls on bikes, the girls with curls and braids, past the beggar and the man talking to himself, past the noise of the traffic, past the café with its croissants and coffee, past the smell of marijuana and into the oasis of calm where leaves drop silently and a door closes against the falling light.

 

Borders

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.

 What are borders? Are they rivers, mountains, lines on a map or our own fears?

People said it was OK, sealing off the borders, forgetting that their own ancestors had once smashed through those same borders and annihilated a whole people.

POSTS

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Underneath are my blog posts.
Short fiction in the middle; short pieces to the left.
My photos and drawings are also here or you can find my photos on Flickr.

Not Here, Not Us

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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.

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Contemporary women in fiction writing about war and conflict

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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:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soniah-kamal/women-write-war_b_5662555.html

You can’t fly with your hands tied behind your back

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.

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A story for the winter solstice

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.

Frosty flowerlets

The home of writer Bronwen Griffiths