What do you think has most shaped your identity? Is it the genetic code inherited from your parents? Is it the culture into which you were born? Is it the way you were nurtured or not in infancy? Okay, a single blog post can’t begin to answer those questions but, with an overdue book review, a memoir and flash fiction prompt deadlines looming, I’m set to dip into the terrain.
When I was growing up, it was said that every fourth child was Chinese. As the fourth child of a white working-class Catholic family, I saw no contradiction in applying that logic to myself. I don’t remember how and when I was disabused of this notion, but I imagine being disappointed. Although probably too young to have a concept of Chinese identity (I think it was prior to my family frequenting Chinese restaurants), the idea of being different made perfect sense. Perhaps that’s what attracts me to reading and writing about diversity, but the Chinese are still relatively unrepresented in my fictional world (Everything I Never Told You an exceptional exception). So, having enjoyed his debut, The Welsh Girl, I looked forward to having my horizons widened by Peter Ho Davies’ new novel about Chinese-American identity, courtesy of Sceptre Books.
Two Novels about Bullying and a Craze from Times Past: Bone by Bone by Sanjida Kay & Hush by Sara Marshall-Ball
Humans are social creatures, and the social systems we create can serve as both help and hindrance. Bullying is one of the more disturbing things that can happen when we gather together, but the dark side of human nature can catalyse engaging fiction. In Bone by Bone, childhood bullying is at the core of the novel, while in Hush it’s a consequence of a family trauma, but both make for gripping reads. On a lighter note, I’ve followed these too short reviews with a memory of a more positive aspect of human association, the childhood crazes from which no-one is excluded.
Writers of fiction and creative non-fiction know the value of metaphor. So you might be interested in recent research by Adam Fetterman and colleagues suggesting that life is different for people who think in metaphors. Having developed a means of measuring metaphoric thinking style among students, they found that people rate neutral words as more pleasant when they’re printed in a white font than in a black one (evidently, none of their subjects had ageing eyes which renders light print virtually impossible to read); that among those prone to metaphorical thinking, the more sweet food they’d eaten, the more sweet their interactions with others (presumably within limits, I’m not terribly sociable if I’m feeling sick); and that those with a stronger metaphoric thinking style showed greater insight into the emotions of others. As you can see, aside from the fact that many metaphors are actually clichės, I’m a little sceptical about this research but, not having read the full report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I’m not in a position to argue.
This is the story of an epic conversation between two African men: shopkeeper and Somalian refugee, Asad Abdullahi, and white South African academic and journalist, Jonny Steinberg. Their conversation begins in Cape Town in 2010, a time of violent attacks on foreign nationals in the run-up to the World Cup, travelling back in time to plot Asad’s history of migration from the moment when, at eight years old, his mother was shot in front of him, to end in 2013 when he is resettled with his family in Kansas City, USA. It’s the tale of a child subject to multiple betrayals, “kicked through life like a stone” (p278), drifting between countries and cultures, from a refugee camp as barren as the first concentration camps to the cosmopolitan streets of inner-city Nairobi to a desert settlement deep in the Ethiopian hinterland, who nevertheless has “lived a fully human life … [altering] radically the course of his family’s history, so that his children and their children … live lives nobody in Somalia at the time of his own birth could have imagined” (p313). It’s also, to a lesser extent, the account of the practical and ethical hurdles faced by both men in bringing Asad’s story to the attention of the wider world.
I do hallucinations, but I don’t do the supernatural. I don’t do memoir, apart from when I do. But I’m very fond of Lisa Reiter of Bite-Size Memoir and Charli Mills of the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, and it’s been one of my slightly bonkers blogging goals to concoct a dual response to their imaginative prompts, not just in a single post, but in a single flash. I’m also somewhat partial to spoof horror movies like Young Frankenstein and Shaun of the Dead, but I’m not confident I could pull off something along those lines myself.
As my blog is due a break from serious reviews of serious novels, I took these ingredients with me on my walk yesterday in Jane Eyre territory ...
The last time the husband and I went on holiday we came home a day early, and enjoyed ourselves an awful lot more pottering around the garden than we would have done looking for more touristy things to fill the time. The thatched-roofed cottage I’d booked in a chocolate-box Dorset village had a wall-full of Penguins, but the latticed windows alongside the narrow cobbled street made for a sombre interior, far from ideal for curling up with a book. Since then, we’ve managed a couple of weekends away but I don’t think either of us will be dreadfully disappointed if we never go on holiday again. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about other people’s holidays, especially when they don’t go completely to plan.
Jenn has been having a marvellous holiday on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca with her husband, Greg. But her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, Emma, will be joining them shortly, with unsuitable boyfriend, Nathan, in tow. Their arrival changes everything, although not quite in the way she expected. Jenn finds herself seduced by Nathan’s youth and sensuality and, amid thunderstorms and searing heat, risks, not only her marriage, but her sense of herself.
There’d been a fair amount of media hype about The Lemon Grove, so I was surprised when I didn’t warm to it as readily as I had to another Mallorca-set villa-holiday novel, The Vacationers. The writing was competent:
Thank you, Norah Colvin, for another blogging award. Versatile isn’t a word I’d readily use to describe myself but, if Norah thinks this blog qualifies, I’ll happily accept.
The Versatile Blogger Award asks recipients to thank their sponsor (done that), nominate another fifteen blogs (that might take some time, but I’ve started the ball rolling below) and tell everyone seven things about yourself. I’m sure I read somewhere it’s supposed to be seven interesting things; fortunately, Norah hasn’t set the barrier as high as that. I thought I’d take it as an invitation to illustrate the extent and limitations of my versatility, and have a bit of fun along the way. Some of these even come in multiples of seven.
Well, the challenges are mounting: the prompts for 99-word flash fiction are announced on Wednesdays and bite-sized memoir every Friday afternoon. This week it’s travel horrors for flash and childhood jinks and japes for memoir – or is it the other way around? My secret¹ ambition is to write a piece that satisfies both simultaneously but, until I get there, I’m making do with incorporating my separate responses into the one post; it gives me another excuse for navel-gazing on the writing process from memory to memoir or not.
Time was when I loved to travel, although now I much prefer to stay at home. But I have lots of cherished memories; I even have a stack of travel diaries I could use to check my facts. Charli’s prompt sparked off a stream of reminiscence, of thrills and spills and moments of, if not quite terror, some pretty dodgy stuff. Were I better raconteur, my travels would make for some great dinner-table storytelling, but my adventures have made only a rare appearance in my fiction and, when they did, I got confused as to what was memory and what imagination. When it came to my 99-words I was overwhelmed with possibilities, yet none seemed strong enough to demand their moment on the screen.
Charli²: But it’s fiction, you’re allowed to make things up!
Annecdotist: Yeah, but somehow I don’t want to this time; I want a story that stays faithful to the things I’ve seen and done.
Lisa²: Ha ha, you’re being converted to memoir.
Annecdotist: Only for this particular topic.
In the end, an idea bubbled to the surface and I grabbed it before it could sink back down again and another take its place. I don’t know why it chose me, but here it is:
I was scared as you were, believe me, but I smothered my anxieties with thoughts of tulips, van Gogh and canals as we bedded down with the down-and-outs in a dusky recess of the shopping mall.
A perfect plan in daylight: a lift halfway to Amsterdam. We’d pass the early hours in the waiting room and catch the first train out. No-one mentioned that the station closed its doors at night.
The police beamed torchlight across our faces. I thought they might relax the rules for two sisters, strangers to the city, but they ushered us into the night.
For someone who considers herself averse to memoir, I’ve been edging perilously close to it of late. Memoir was what drew me into taking part in Charli’s flash fiction challenge although, like several other participants, I chose to produce a memoir for a fictional character rather than myself. Then I hosted a post from an actual published memoirist: a beautifully moving piece from Janet Watson on the process of rediscovering her teenage self in order to let it go. When Lisa Reiter launched her bite-sized memoir challenge, I didn’t think I’d be joining in. Yet School at Seven got me thinking about my first best friend, and he wouldn’t go away:
My First Best Friend
We sat side-by-side at the front of Mrs B’s classroom. Together we learnt cross-stitch and joined-up writing, drank stove-warmed milk from a squat glass bottle through a paper straw. Together we held out trembling hands as our teacher progressed from child to child, brandishing a wooden ruler. Together we progressed from Blue Book 1 all the way to Blue Book 6.
On Saturday afternoons I’d ride over to his house to watch Batman and Robin dispatch the villains of Gotham city on his black-and-white TV. On Sunday mornings we’d seek each other out at church.
I thought we’d be best friends forever, until the day he biked round to my house with another bunch of friends. Boys, every one of them. I stayed in my garden, watching till they rode away.
In the end, I enjoyed this exercise and was happy with what I produced. Yet where it’s been most helpful is not so much in converting me to memoir, but in nudging me a little further towards formulating my reservations about the form.
Good writing relies on specifics: a crimson tulip rather than a red flower; a curly-haired Bedlington Terrier rather than a medium-sized dog. In writing fiction, we can choose our details to fit with a picture in our head, to suit the rhythm of the prose or to mirror an underlying theme. In writing memoir, we’re supposed to stick with the facts. Janet Watson had her teenage diaries to guide her but, more than twenty years on, they wouldn’t tell her everything she needed to know to complete her book. Even in my short piece of under 150 words, I’m conscious of gaps in my memory, points where I may have strayed from the truth. I feel uneasy that I might be wrong about the year we learnt joined-up writing, and it’s only an assumption that back in 1965 my friend didn’t have a colour TV. I’m not even sure he was my first best friend. It could be I’m unsuited to memoir because I’m too uptight about these minor details, or too lazy to undertake the meticulous research needed to check them out.
Charli Mills wrote that a memory can send a writer down one of two paths: fiction or memoir. I’d love to know what makes some of us prefer one path to the other. On her blog, Writing My Novel, Teagan Kearney wrote recently on the virtues of fiction and mentioned her surprise at discovering that a friend couldn’t read novels because she was unable to suspend disbelief. I also have a good friend who doesn’t get fiction but the idea is so alien to me we’d been friends for around twenty years before I was aware of it. However this friend does enjoy memoir, which strengthens my belief that some people are more suited to one than the other.
I’m hoping to discover more about this preference for fact versus fiction as the memoir challenge continues, although I can’t guarantee I’ll join in next time.
HAVE you ever wondered what it would be like to go back to your teenage years? To your first love? Close friends? Not just as an idle thought, but to really immerse yourself in those years, actually talk to those people and see whether their memories match yours?
Dusty Springfield sang about Going Back – the song was played at her funeral – to “the things I learned so well, in my youth”. I carried my story with me for many years but what was it I learned back then? When I started writing notes for a memoir, I knew I too had to go back.
Moving away from home was something we all did after school. In the sixth form we were a close group of nine friends, sharing the boredom of school days, waiting for the excitement of the sort of nights everyone recalls from those vivid, growing-up years; high on the future, bonds strengthened by alcohol, and a new awareness of selves and sexual power.
Then it was university, new lives, friends, marriages, children. But I never forgot the feeling of belonging I had with those friends. Had they felt it too, those three girls and five boys? And when a tragic death ripped the heart out of the group, could we ever be together again and feel the same?
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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Read My Mother Sent Me a Parcel
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