On Returning to the City of Red Earth

With NaPoWriMo done and dusted for this year, I’m getting the chance to catch up on other stuff. The fifth (and penultimate) assignment for the Creative Non-Fiction Course I started in February was to describe a city and the feelings it engendered in us during our last visit. Here goes: 

***

In my more nostalgic moments, I call her the City of Red Earth, but that is as far away as possible from what I feel as I drag my bags towards the check-in desk ahead of heading back out there. The last time, H had just passed, and the three weeks which followed were consumed by the busyness of dealing with the dead. Everyone I tell about this upcoming trip shares cautionary tales; of the power industry grinding to a halt, the spiralling crime rates, and the rapidly disintegrating roads. Not to seem too dismissive, I smile and nod at their concerns whilst inwardly telling myself I’ll do a good job of passing; after all my pidgin English – lightly accented as it is – is passable.

The first few days after I arrive pass in a blur: taxi rides on congested roads, visits to the local malls to indulge in local delicacies and the odd phone call with the groom-to-be filling my days. With the weekend comes the wedding, and the chance to finally catch my breath. Afterwards, we head East.

What first hits me when we arrive is how little the city of red earth has changed. A layer of red dust covers everything, the remains of the clouds that trail the steady stream of old creaking vehicles sagging beneath the weight of humanity as they head to the local market. The old woman who hawks her wares at the side of the road – still ensconced in the makeshift stall she has for the past four years – waves excitedly when she recognises my brother. That she can spot him at the distance is not the only miracle of sorts; her stall, with a sheet of tarpaulin wrapped around four bamboo stems to form three sides and roof, is still standing.

Everyone who spots us, waves and stops us for a few minutes of commiseration, a small human gauntlet of sorts. Mild irritation apart, I suppose it is refreshing to see the small community in which everyone knows everyone – and in which you were as likely to get a reprimand from the neighbour two houses down as your mother for a public indiscretion – has stayed the same, whatever pressures of globalisation there are all around.

The house on the corner of 39th street also looks the same, only dustier, which perhaps is the clearest indication of H’s absence. Some of my clearest memories of her are with a duster in hand driving clouds of dust off the furniture. That is something we’ll never see again.

Otherwise, it is clear there is a new normal slowly settling in. Thankfully none of the feared things materialises – we survive without any incidents – and leave just in time to be on the right side of the line between being August visitors and ones who have overstayed their welcome. Three days are all it is this time. There will be a time for lengthy swims in these waters, but for now, a dip seems sensible.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #4: On Woolf on Cavendish

This week’s assignment offered a choice of character depictions. I opted to go with reviewing Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay, The Duchess of Newcastle, from The Common Reader First SeriesIts subject is Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle. I very much enjoyed getting to learn about her. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

***

It is difficult to come away from Virginia Woolf’s essay on the life of Margaret Cavendish with anything but a sense of admiration for the person the Duchess of Newcastle was: a libertarian who lived life on her own terms, a prodigious thinker, prolific writer and designer, all-round force of nature and perhaps proto-feminist. What is even more remarkable about her life is the context within which it was lived, times which seen from the lofty, enlightened heights of our 21st-century sofas seem like the dark ages. Given the latitude to explore and later express a non traditional interpretation of the roles of daughter and wife by both her mother and husband, we get the sense that virtually every thought she had was encouraged and articulated in some shape or form with no attempt to self-censure. It helped perhaps that there were no children to encumber her free spirit. Given Virginia Woolf’s own life and character – and reputation for being a free spirit of sorts too  – the largely positive portrayal here does beg the question of objectivity given the tendency in all of us to eulogise those who inspire us and worship them as heroes.

How then could one look to build a balanced, more nuanced view of her life and work? As a starting point, one could perhaps look to see what the opinions of her contemporaries were. The consensus appears to be that she was considered a maverick of sorts, an assessment which lives on in her ‘Mad Madge’ nickname. What we know of the societal context and the social mores of the time suggest that this assessment errs on the more negative side of Virginia Woolf’s. No surprise there as even in our day those who benefit from societal power structures tend to take a dim view of non-conformists as mavericks and upstarts. That this is the view which survives is thus a backhanded compliment of sorts and casts a positive light on her legacy.

A second task would be to ascertain how much of her work survives in the various archives. A search in the national archives website identifies over 700 items which suggest that there was enough interest in her work to preserve it. Tracking down a few of these works and where they are stored would constitute a valuable activity, both for the works themselves but also the prestige of the collections which house them. That her life and legacy are the subject of a number of ‘serious’ academic investigations is also another indicator of the heft of the ideas which she espoused.

A third prong to the investigation would be to attempt to assess what debt current thinkers and philosophers owe to her by how much she is referenced and how ideas she raised have been incorporated into their works.

My belief is that each of these prongs taken together would help build a composite picture of the life of the Duchess of Newcastle. From the little I have seen already, I am beginning to side with Virginia Woolf.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #3: An Interview of Sorts

This week’s assignment was to interview someone, summarizing what we learned about them in 300 to 500 words. Here goes.. Image by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

***
R was hunched over his phone typing furiously when I pushed the door open and walked into the restaurant, one of the many that dot the roadside on this corner of the seaside boulevard. I was three minutes late but he, ever the most punctual of people, had arrived early and was in the middle of typing an acerbic note to me.

In the 11 years since I first met him, six of which were spent cooped up in the same office space, memories of questionable banter and several meals and evenings out; a veritable tour of brews – and the uninhibited honesty that comes with having those – and cuisines are a large part of what remains. That we opted to do this over food was entirely in keeping with that shared history, particularly given the reasons: he opted to retire a year ago, I am on the cusp of moving on from the organisation that was part of our lives for all those years. It thus felt right to catch up properly before I headed out.

Selecting a main took more time than usual as it was our first time in a Turkish restaurant, the choice between the varieties of kebabs, casseroles and koftes somewhat overwhelming. For drinks, though it was more clear cut, ‘an EFES* for the young man’ he declared as he waved his hand in the manner of one holding court. Over food, our conversation turned to the subject of our time out here in this grey corner of Scotland, more than 30 in his case.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been in one place’ he said and then proceeded to reminisce on his life before the ‘Deen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland were a few of the places he mentioned, all of which he’d spent five or less years in, thanks to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a father who was in the diplomatic corps. I was curious as to why he hadn’t taken the opportunity of being retired to move somewhere else, warmer perhaps. ‘Aberdeen feels like home now’, was his response. All that is left elsewhere are tenuous links to vaguely familiar extended family members – “Our fathers have all died”, he said. “Us kids didn’t bother to stay in touch, we’ve all made other connections.”

In the tone of his voice, I sensed a faint nostalgia, once I know only too well. It is the burden of the prodigal to go out into the world – to a far country – to seek his fortune. At the best of times, that home can become a distant memory, at its worst home can become nowhere.

* a Turkish beer, settled on because in a few weeks time I’ll be working out of a ‘dry’ country…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #2: On Detail and Deduction

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG186

Last week’s assignment was to take a look at an image and attempt to deduce and interpret what it is about from the details one can see. I went for the image above, Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Arnolfini. Here goes.

***
What strikes me the first time I look at the picture is how young and frail she looks. With eyes looking downwards and away from his face, as though in deference, one gets the impression that she feels entirely in his power, her demeanour almost apologising for intruding into his space. He, on the other hand, has that stance that screams importance, eyes forward, looking towards the one who has crafted the scene, seeming to declare that he owns everything in sight. I am here and in charge. All this is mine, notice me!

From the rich green of her thick dress, and the fur that lines its neck, hem and sleeves, I imagine they are well off. The pet resting in the foreground of the image suggests daily sustenance is not a problem, as do the finely decorated bed, the ornate chandelier,an exquisite rug and what seems to be solid oak floors; all trappings of luxury. The folds of her dress bunch together, held by her hand which seems to protect what looks like the beginnings of a baby bump. In the mirror behind them a woman lurks, her gaze matronly, a hint perhaps of motherly pride in her eyes at the scene which unfolds before her. She is not the only one looking on, various religious inscriptions adorn the rim of the mirror, suggesting this is a devout house, perhaps one that has unfettered access to the parish priest and is a patron of the local assembly.

I imagine all of this is the crafting of the man who hides in the shadows in the mirror behind everyone else, the signature on the wall the only thing that identifies him. If The Man is his patron, perhaps this is the artist’s gift, his art offered up to the service of the one who gives him sustenance.

Week Two

Between a super busy week at work and beginning to pack up my life for an upcoming move, I made slow going of studying this week, hence the lateness of this week’s wrap-up. A highlight was receiving largely positive feedback on my first assignment, an exercise in people-watching which took me to a city centre Burger King.

This week’s learning focus was research; tips and tricks for getting beneath the skin of a place to understand the wider context behind the story we’re trying to tell and to ground it in facts and truths. Memory being as fickle as it can be, there was rightly a focus on building systems for capturing details about the people, places and things we write about. Upon reflection, some of the great essayists who have inspired me on this journey have documented their own systems for doing just this including David Sedaris and Ryan Holiday (both of whom have inspired Austin Kleon) to name a few. Also introduced this week were a number of tools: brainstorming (a la mind maps of ideas around a central topic) and foot stepping, physically visiting the area one wishes to write about to absorb its very essence into one’s mind. That I suspect will be very useful over the next few years as I travel more.

More imminently though is the small matter of the next assignment, to apply the tools discussed over the course of the week to observe an object in great detail to see what deductions one could make about it from that… Hopefully, I find enough time in these last few weeks to deliver on that…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #1: People Watching

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week was about thinking about the underlying reasons for writing, this week was starting off on the journey towards sharpening our powers of observation, the idea being to hone our ability to find stories in the quotidian.  A city-centre eatery late one night was my muse.

***
It is a little after 8.30pm when the smell of French fries wafting in through the door draws me in. The first thing that strikes me as I stride through the door is how empty it looks, the bulk of the two-storied structure being cordoned off, with only the small section to the right of the counter open for use. I find the emptiness surprising given it is next to a major bus station and right in the centre of town. As I wait for the chance to order, I find myself behind three people, all decked out in the garb of people dressed to brace the cold, with the brightly coloured logo of a food delivery service gracing the insulated bags they hold.

A few feet away from the space I find for myself and my tray are three men with youthful faces, chattering away in a language which is not English, possible South East Asian if I were to hazard a guess. Their half-eaten burgers suggest they’ve been here a while, given how much of their time is spent in conversation interspersed with raucous laughter. When they are finally done, one of the three gathers up their trays and proceeds to empty them into the bin and then they leave, taking their mirth with them. Clearly close friends, or people connected by a shared lived experience I suspect.

Apart from them, the only other people in the room are a group of much older people – 2 men and 2 women occupying the central tables and someone sitting alone, sipping from a cup looking out onto the streets. Of the four, the woman who looks the oldest is slouched in her seat, hands folded together in her lap, two shopping bags beside her, listening it seems. Across from her a younger man with hair the same ginger colour as hers sits, leaning in, several discarded sachets of milk at his elbows, gesturing wildly. Between the accent and my hunger, I can barely make out what the subject of their conversation is but the name of the suburb to the south of the river comes up several times. Maybe a family squabble then, or given the reputation the small town has for being a difficult place, maybe an appeal to the matriarch of the clan for an intervention. All I can see of the fourth person are feet clad in streaked sneakers, the upper body obscured by a heater.

When I steal a glance at the group on my way out, I find the fourth person is fast asleep. Maybe, I have misread the situation after all.

Lift Off

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

One of my objectives for 2020 is to complete a Creative Non-Fiction course, which is how I signed up for the National Centre for Writing’s Start Writing Creative Non-Fiction course. Once a week, or so, I’ll drop a few thoughts on exercises completed, thoughts and progress on here. Here goes the first one.

***
The focus of this first week has been pondering the question ‘why?’, exploring the motivations for taking on the course, and perhaps the underlying book project which it is assumed one is working on. For me, the course is an attempt to go beneath the surface and understand the techniques behind good writing, in keeping with the theme for this year of Delving Deeper. Progress on that elusive memoir, The Small Light in Things. will be a very welcome bonus.

In my head, The Small Light in Things will focus on the last ten years of my life, ones in which I upped sticks on the cusp of turning thirty and began life anew on a new continent along with all the change that instigated. It will be a story of surviving – of navigating a culture shock, the first tentative steps on a journey of evolving faith and changing, by degrees as it were. It might be cathartic, or not, but my hope is that I get to properly process all of this with hopefully the benefit of some distance and detachment.

Three books come to mind as exemplars of what I am trying to achieve here: Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief, Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, all of which reflect on times of change and evolution with the benefit of some distance. What resonates with me in these books, particularly Every Day is For The Thief and Hunger of Memory, is the lived immigrant experience -both in the other country and in the country of birth. Time, life and the experience change us in ways which are not immediately obvious, that is what I’m hoping to tease out from the past ten years of my life.

The Year in Reading 2017

After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!

Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more  – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book.  If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.

Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.

The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate  being the more notable.  The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David SedarisLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).

I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads:  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).

All told reading more widely  – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.

The Small Light in Things

the-small-light-in-thingsI decided that for Lent this year I would give up caffeine, if starting almost a week after the properly faithful and switching to tea, topped up by the odd cup of decaf coffee count as giving up. No longer being part of any of the Orthodox traditions meant I failed to get the prompt I took for granted growing up, the ash crosses on foreheads that signalled Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. The point of Lent is spiritual – which giving up caffeine is not, at least on the surface – but I think there is a spiritual point in trying to best what has become a costly, insidious habit; proving to myself that coffee is not my master. Given how much my morning routine at work is related to taking time out to reflect at the start of the day with a cup of coffee in hand, it should be an interesting thirty-seven forty days. Hopefully it translates to better sleep – the data from my Fitbit will be the judge of that.

In tandem with the idea of ‘giving up’ caffeine, my interest has been piqued by the 1,000 Day MFA Project; the idea being that one reads a short story, an essay and a poem everyday and writes at least once a week. I suspect that this will be the greater struggle, to fit time to read amongst every other thing going on in my life at the moment. To ease myself in, I subscribed again to the Poem A Day from Poets.org, bookmarked the Fifty-Two Stories site and now go to work with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things in my bag. It has been an interesting few days of reading already; Simon Van Booy’s The Missing Statues, Teju Cole’s Ghueorgui Pinkhassov (a redo of his essay Dappled Things) and Kim Dower’s poem, How Was Your Weekend being highlights so far.

It is from Cole’s essay, Ghueorgui Pinkhassov, that the line The Small Light in Things comes. Cole’s assertion is that the underlying theme of Pinkhassov’s photography, even as he makes a conscious effort to vary subjects, methods and media, is making finding the small light in things the centre that holds true in spite of change. The close association of rescuing and small perhaps implies that there is a light in everything, and that it is somehow in danger of being lost amidst the noise of everything else. Pinkhassov’s genius, if I read Cole’s essay right, is in this ceaseless pursuit of light in everything.

Maybe we all are trying to rescue the small light in things in our lives too. In the happy, sad or indifferent, the momentous and the quotidian there are lights of sorts; in the form of lessons to learn for the future, the nostalgia of memories of the past or most importantly the inspiration to dig deep, find grit and get through the present. Speaking of grit, I have had to dig deep to find that this February; the clearest indicator of that being that for the first time in a long while I woke up one Tuesday morning wondering if I could call in sick and avoid going into work. In the end, the force of habit (I’d love to think it was my professional integrity) won through and I went in, but pacing myself and avoiding burnout has never been more imperative.

The small light in things, I may have found the title for that memoir, if (when?) I get to write it.

The Burden of Grief

One of the lingering effects of H’s passing is that four times a year, I go through a phase where I especially struggle for words to share with my father. Although triggered by four specific days – her birthday (the 8th of July), their wedding anniversary (the 11th of November), the day she passed (the 19th of July) and the day she was buried (the 8th of August) – these tend to be long drawn out affairs affecting the days leading up to and the days after these days. The struggle takes various forms primarily centred on whether to call my father or not, and on the days when I manage to call him, what to talk about – to keep things as normal as possible or broach the difficult subject of H. He and I have never been the best of conversationalists – we’re much too similar for that – but these days make that tenuous relationship an even more difficult one, so much so that on most of these days, I have opted for not calling him in the end.

H’s passing does still feel especially raw, even though her’s was not the first of which clear memories still remain. For that I have to go all the way back to 1988 and G, the ones the genes took. I distinctly remember the events which led to it; the battle with a crisis and the ensuing hospital admission, and then the knowing once I was called out of my class to Mrs A’s office where the neighbour’s orange Volkswagen beetle was waiting to whilst myself and T home. The others in between though covering a range of family members – paternal grandparents, my maternal grandmother and a couple of uncles – are comparative blurs in the landscape of my memory. Distinct memories of G’s passing notwithstanding, I do not remember the same sense of grieving with her that still lingers with H. It is difficult to define completely the interactions of time, space and connection which make both experiences of grief so markedly different, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would offer up the fact that I was much younger then and that there had been a sense of inevitability to it, given the situation with the genes. I imagine others across a broad spectrum of locations and contexts still feel the weight of the grief with H as keenly as I do, given she interacted with a lot of people across the various interests and causes she supported.

This, the intersection of ‘griefs’, complicates grieving in the context of ongoing relationships. With my father, these key dates trigger a remembrance – and a reinforcement even – of loss, driving the conundrum that I wrestle with around these dates. Outside these dates, I feel like we have reached a new normal of sorts, one that accepts the reality of loss but focuses on getting on with life as much as possible. These dates disrupt that new normal for me, and drives the sense of there being a disjunction between living normally and remembering. In my head, by refusing to speak to my father on the day – and hence removing the need to speak about H – I am removing an additional trigger of remembrance from him. That at first glance sounds like a good thing but somewhere in my head, I wonder if it is truly as altruistic as it sounds. Not having the difficult conversation is a good thing for me, whether it is for him, and if this stance adequately honours the memory is a different matter altogether. It is this, the balance between living in the new normal and respectfully remembering and honouring the one who has been lost, that is the primary burden of grief, at least in my opinion.

There are also other non-time based triggers which set off the same sort of feelings. The most recent example was in the middle of a conversation with S’s parents a few weeks ago. Being the incredibly perceptive people they are, they picked up on how I had studiously managed to bring up the subject of H in the over three hours we had spent catching up at the time, which prompted the question. The uneasy silence which followed my explanation suggested it was a topic they would not have brought up if they had known the context. Perhaps – in typical J fashion – I am overthinking the exchange, but this unease exhibited by others when the subject of H comes up is another one of the burdens of grief. Not only does one have to deal with loss, one also has to deal with the reaction of others to loss.

There are no right or wrong ways to carry these burdens. I suspect that time will continue to chip away at the intensity of the grieving of loss which in turn might lessen the burden it places on relationships. If the last few years are an indication of how the next few might pan out in this regards, it is fair to assume that it will not be as simple as that.

Currently listening to: Mandisa – Lifeline