Thursday, 20 March 2014

Words and Bodies

Writers gathered at the British Library recently to discuss their craft and answer questions. I attended one session, drawn there by a favourite writer and a top-notch mediator who moved with warmth and verbal dexterity between expert and crowd.

Inevitably, I was disappointed. My writer was oblique and mysterious; she was filled with wise-sounding quips that chased each other, slippery tigers, around the stage. She made me laugh and left me hungry. The magic, after all, was in her books and not necessarily in her person. And the three-person panel, writers laid bare in front of a hungry audience, is not a natural formation. Those on the panel who actively taught writing fared better. Paid to elucidate, they got into the meat and potatoes of writing and they had student examples up their sleeve.

It's the exchange, the fusion of writer and reader that is so mysterious. When we read great books, we access so many dimensions. We get involved. Why is this not accessed during a conversation about books or even during a question and answer session? I think it is too polite. Our bodies are locked in chairs, our imaginations stifled, our questions limited by a fear of appearing foolish or ignorant. If we were circled around a fire in the dark, reading books aloud and letting our feeling run loose, it might be different. But how can one shake off constraints to the imagination in the British Library?

I left the library, where first editions are marvellously preserved and also held captive under dimly-lit glass, and caught a tube to Waterloo. I walked then ran along the embankment in competition with the Thames. The water moved lithely on this spring-like day. Crowds mingled outside restaurants and clustered more closely around the buskers and hip-hop dancers who sang and flexed their wares. I arrived breathless at my destination: Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Center.

Inside a darkened auditorium, on a stage that was bare except for tattered rows of seats in an imaginary bus angled on one side, five women and one man give testimony to the rape of a young woman in Delhi, India in 2012. The performance morphed between this central violence and the testimony of four other women who had come forward to share stories of sexual abuse and violence. This was testimonial theatre at its most effective - shocking but also galvanising. In one scene, the four women enact a ritual washing and burial of the young woman's body that moved many of us to tears. Words were embodied, and, as witness, my own body felt implicated and involved.

The play is Nirbhaya:

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Why We Write

A relative slips me an envelope, mumbles something about it being self-evident, asks me to read it later. Inside, a card alludes to something he is writing about our family. There is a reference to my "stimulating book" (a memoir he found difficult to read) and one sheet of writing that appears to be a prologue to something longer.  In this prologue, he mentions my father and then offers several general paragraphs in praise of my mother. Kind words, broad words, words that tell little. It gets me thinking about our various motivations for writing. Family history can reveal or obscure; dig the dirt or smooth the surface; stimulate or assuage. Who are we writing for?

When I began my memoir about family, about my father whose suicide created or revealed family tensions as well as evoking strengths, my motive was personal. I wrote to discover, uncover, reveal; my primary audience was my younger self. I wrote to reclaim and to make whole whatever felt shattered.

My secondary audience was perhaps my father - a way to create relationship with a man who was not physically there - and my mother who was implicated in the shattering. After that came the rest of my family and anyone else who stumbled on my book.

If you ever feel lost within a family, or a job, or a relationship, keep a journal. Write the truth - your truth. Remind yourself that you are the creator of your own life as well as the main character.

I wanted to write myself into existence and hear my own voice. Writing can do that.

Return: (Re)membering a Family Life is available at and Amazon