The kindness of strangers

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In the first draft of the novel I’m writing, one of the main characters is a therapist called Lucie.  Trying to create this character, I was stuck. I live in Oman, interviewing UK therapists was not an option. I wanted Lucie to seem real. I wanted to know how a therapist would think.

I finally came across a  website called ‘What a Shrink Thinks’. A blog where a therapist in America shares her daily work:

 ‘I’d leave therapy drenched in sweat. As if I’d fought a dragon barehanded. Or wrestled with an angel all night long. I never understood why I’d leave so damp from exertion  until I sat in the therapists chair and watched my clients, one after another, search for their sticking place and screw their courage there committing staggering acts of bravery. Of will, of strength.

From ‘The Sticking Place’: https://whatashrinkthinks.com/page/3/

Spurred on by therapist-blogger Martha Crawford’s vision, I had something to shape into a character. So humane was her writing, that reading it was therapeutic in itself. I had, thanks to a complete stranger, found the holy grail of my research.

One afternoon last week I was driving to the bank in Muscat. The city consists of freeways which join communities, a bit like LA but the speed limit over here is a fantastical myth. The distances feel so vast that sometimes I  wonder if I’ve actually covered London-Aberdeen to pick up the dry cleaning. Roadworks are frequent so that occasionally the painted arrows on a re-directed motorway are still pointing back at you. It’s unnerving. A little thrilling.

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I had settled into a program on World Service Radio.

A man called Burhan Sönmez was talking about his time, decades ago, in a Turkish prison. Enclosed in a dungeon-like cell the size of a Persian rug, he shared the space with a number of other people. Routinely removed from their jail and tortured in terrifying ways, Sönmez was describing how he and his companions endured the situation.

It turns out they went for walks.

In a cramped prison?

What they would do is line up around the perimeter of the space, and they would start by arguing.

‘I want to go to the Bosphorus,’

‘But what about the park?’

‘We went there last time,’

After a while they would decide on their route and as they walked along each wall, they would comment on what they saw.

‘The sky is so blue today,’

‘It’s true. Do you know what kind of bird that was?’

‘Which one?’

‘The one that flew right past your nose,’

For a certain time each day the prisoners’ imaginations outstripped the ink of here and now; their hourly hell became a paradise of Turkish countryside. They had turned the lead of hardship into gold, just by walking, talking, telling tales .

I entered the bank with tears streaming down my face and later tweeted the man, who is now an author, to tell him how deeply his story had touched my heart. He ‘liked’ my comment’ and ‘followed’ me back and I couldn’t help but think of Tennessee Williams’ line about the ‘kindness of strangers’.

Our tools today connect us to distant corners of the globe. At the click of a mouse another different life can fill the frame. Despite the tide of hate on media, news and print, our ocean of humanity still makes its presence known.  The Turkish author, the therapist-scribe, our world so filled with human care if only we would let the light fall there.

 

If you enjoyed this post feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  

 

Speaking in bombs: Book Review – Song of Gulzarina by Tariq Mehmood

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After three years of studying (yeah right) at Manchester Uni I decided to stay on another year. I couldn’t get enough of the Northern drizzle: gobs of fumey water threatening to turn everything grey. Sometimes the sun would appear and a bright blue would cover the city, lighting up the red brick of the warehouses.

I arrived in 1996 when a bomb planted by the IRA had gutted the central Arndale Centre. Terrorism in England in the twentieth century was all about bins in railway stations, bombs in Wimpy Bars, the targeting of political buildings. Scary yes but somehow in parallel with normal life. Not at its centre.

Manchester is the setting of Tariq Mehmood’s recently published novel, Song Of Gulzarina, an absorbing read which travels between the North west of England and Pakistan along with the main character, Saleem Khan.

The story picks up pace at a mill, in an incident involving unsuitable toilets at Saleem Khan’s workplace. The Pakistani workers request sanitary facilities. The white British manager, Mr Andersen abuses the men:

‘You filthy Paki bastards always sticking together.’ Mr Anderson picked up another pipe and hit Salamat Ali Teka across the face.

This racist violence paves the way for Saleem Khan’s journey through pain, into war, loss and eventual expatriation.

Love features too as Saleem falls for Carol Anderson, the daughter of his boss. One of the most enjoyable parts of this novel is the way the writer has his characters speak. As Carol and Saleem chat, she responds to Saleem by speaking to an invisible onlooker:

‘How did you find out?’

‘How did I find out, he says,’ she said leaning back into the setee.

Her turn of phrase is real and affecting betraying something deeper than its outward flippancy. In fact I was originally drawn to review this book after Tariq Mehmood’s humour showed up on a mutual facebook friend’s page. Mehmood has a gift for pithy – often witty – dialogue switching between registers with pitch perfect precision.

A few years ago I attended a workshop on writing dialogue at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. The take-away was that speech in literature is artificial but you have to make it sound plausible; each character should appear authentic and different (try it – it’s not an easy task!) Tariq Mehmood gives his characters language which is earthy, often coarse and angry and it makes his characters visceral, believable.

The sense of place in Song Of Gulzarina looms large. Not just in Manchester where:

The white pigeon with a black circle around its left eye is now perched on top of one of the toll gates, oblivious to the cold Mancunian wind.

but also in Pakistan where the depth and sensuality of the detail reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s descriptions of Bangalore in The White Tiger:

‘Other than the smoke from the exhaust of a rickshaw, nothing hit us.’

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——-SPOILER ALERT——-

The final section of the book – please look away if you don’t want a SPOILER – takes the character of Saleem Khan to a darker place.

If the book begins with racist humiliation, it ends in exile. The distancing of our hero from his own humanity, hell-bent on revenge, his heart closed and life little more than an alcoholic blur.

Ravaged by the losses of his wife, girlfriend, cousin, the disdain of his daughter, Khan’s heartbreak has turned its face upon the world. He plans to avenge his disillusionment on the British ex Prime Minister, Tony Blair who has come to Manchester to speak. Strapped to Khan’s body are enough explosives to take out far more than the former PM.

In this last section, the reader is kept on tenterhooks as Khan wanders around Longsight and Wilmslow Road in this state ready to activate the mobile phone at any moment.

That our protagonist chooses Tony Blair as his target is unsurprising. There is a terrible irony that much of the IRA terrorism mentioned above was curtailed by an agreement in 1998 of which Blair played a significant part. Five years later, the invasion of Iraq and all of its rhetoric served not only an illegal war but a media machine which placed people like Saleem Khan in a cold and terrifying place.

Cast out by a British government acting with unspeakable hypocrisy, it is easy to understand why Fight or Flight became, for some, a way of life.  Add in the United States response in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism becomes a very real language. ‘We are here,’ cry the suicide bombers. ‘You thought you could ignore us. But: ‘Look at me. I’m the captain now.’

That Khan’s decision to blow himself up is not associated with his religious beliefs but a quest for social justice is significant. In fact he declares himself an Atheist, his faith has long since died. “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.” wrote Baltasar Gracian in the 17th century. Saleem Khan’s self-rejection is so complete, hope so long-gone that he will go to any lengths. His radicalisation has come not from religious rhetoric but from the sense that he has nothing left so nothing will be lost when he kills and dies.

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For this is a novel about alienation, about looking for home and finding only estrangement. From the woman who treats Khan at Manchester Royal Infirmary and comments with horror at the amount of hair on his body to his close white friend who runs away as they watch the events of 9/11 unfold on the telly, Saleem Khan is left without sanctuary.

Mehmood skilfully navigates the nuances of Islam in the West. When Khan’s daughter Aisha is aggressed by men in a passing car, the Muslim youths outside the mosque stand impassively. Khan chastises them:

‘How can you just carry on selling books?’ I ask the bearded youth, pointing a shaking finger. ‘You saw what they did to your sisters.’

The youth replies that all will be taken care of in the Hereafter – a view which ignores traditional Islamic belief (which highlights the importance of balancing both Earthly matters and a spiritual focus on the next life) – and instead of helping his Muslim sister, uses fundamentalist religious rhetoric to do nothing.

Towards the end of the book, Khan remembers seeing a snake as a child and playing with it until he was urgently warned to move away. As he walks, in the present tense, through Rusholme with explosives strapped to his chest, he recalls his mother telling him of how casually he toyed with the serpent. The adults were afraid of the creature because they had experience but the child was safe in his innocence. Nothing had caused him to prejudge it, to antagonise it and the snake did not attack.

Tariq Mehmood has written a powerful tale and his voice in the current political climate is important. Through a strong sense of the spoken word, an under-heard narrative gains momentum. This book is pure entertainment but it is also a cautionary tale. A question embedded in a Song. What happens when people are ignored and suppressed for too long? Where does that energy go? It is the reader’s gain that this particular writer has put his own spark into Song for Gulzarina.

For more information about the book click here

 

Header photograph from the book Manchester, England (by Dave Haslam), by Aidan O’Rourke (www.aidan.co.uk)

 

 

 

Late summer round-up: some links from the last year

 

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I’m going to be taking a break from this blog while I get cracking on Draft 2 of my Mystery novel. Below are some links to previous posts in case any of these topics interest you. In the meantime, have a great autumn!

Josephine (J Rose)

 

About life in Muscat, Oman:

https://muscattales.com/2016/08/16/3-things-i-never-expected-about-oman

https://muscattales.com/2016/06/28/the-rhythms-of-ramadan

https://muscattales.com/2016/05/23/three-tips-to-survive-the-gulf-heat

 

On my writing process:

https://muscattales.com/2016/08/08/the-cat-sat-on-the-mat-storytellings-magic-ingredient

https://muscattales.com/2016/07/25/the-stories-only-you-can-tell

https://muscattales.com/2016/04/16/the-ink-of-ideas-is-showing-up-enough-3

https://muscattales.com/2016/03/28/i-will-write-about-this-one-day

 

About teaching:

https://muscattales.com/2016/06/20/love-lessons

https://muscattales.com/a-relationship-built-on-junk/

 

Creative writing:

https://muscattales.com/if-we-were-having-coffee/

https://muscattales.com/2015/10/13/waltzing-still/

 

 

 

 

 

3 things I never expected (about Oman)

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1. The PIN thing

A few days ago I was standing near the cashpoint in a shopping mall. There was a bit of a queue. A group of people were crowding around the machine.

‘What’s my PIN?’ Some guy calls out.

No! I’m thinking. I’m ready to block my ears and hum a tune but it’s too late.

‘2167.’ His friend replies at a volume vastly above the hum of the mall.

Later, I’m at the supermarket check out. I hand the cashier my card.

‘PIN number,’ she asks. Oh no not again. I think. I hold out my hand to take the mini card machine thing. Except she’s not handing it to me.  There’s nowhere for me to type. I look at her.

‘Can you tell me your PIN?’ In England she’d have practically been arrested. She’s looking at me like I’ve refused to pay.

Trained from early on in the UK to not even whisper my PIN, I stand my ground.  ‘No I cannot.’

British banks would have you believe it’s akin to handing thieves the keys to your car; 8 percent of data breaches in the world occur in the United Kingdom (we rank second after the U.S.A).

But here in Oman, sharing your PIN with a stranger is not abnormal. Maybe it’s the low rate of theft in this country, and the fact that everyone seems to know everyone. (Although, I have to admit that when it comes to PIN sharing, I have no plans to go native!)

2. ‘Wasta’ (Friends helping friends)

My week continues in a similar way. On my way out of a local clinic,  I get into my car, ready to go home. The car won’t start. I return to reception and ask them for a taxi. The woman at the desk calls out a name:

‘Sami!’ across the waiting room, ‘Sami!’

Sami is standing outside by the glass doors. They keep sliding open, then closing.He finally hears.

‘Yes.’

‘Can you call this patient a taxi?’

‘What?’

‘A taxi, please call a taxi.’

‘What?

By now, the woman has it down to a single word, on repeat, ‘taxi’ an international word, or so I thought. She’s saying it again and again. I’m getting dizzy. Sami is leaning over the receptionist’s desk with his head to one side as if the word is very complicated.

The woman is trying mime.

‘Taxi,’ she says again. ‘Ta-xi. Car. Drive. Patient.’ She points at me.

Patient, I am trying to be.

‘Ah,’ Sami finally understands. ‘You mean Texi. Why you didn’t say?’ and he goes off to find one.

Five minutes later, Sami gestures from the sliding doors. I walk into the sun and he points to another man. The Texi man and I head towards his car. But I can’t see the white bodywork of any taxi cabs. He turns to face me, ‘I am new in town. I don’t know the roads so you have to guide me.’

I have to guide the Texi.

I look at the way he is dressed like an office clerk, at the car park with no white cars. ‘Are you a taxi driver?’ I ask.

‘No. Not really,’ he admits, ‘But I have a car and I can drive you. No pay.’ He says it warmly, like it is the most normal thing for a lone woman to get into a stranger’s car outside a clinic by a freeway. Suddenly I am questioning my own understanding of this city. Perhaps this is Muscat’s answer to Uber where anyone can drive you. But for free. In their Texis.

Or perhaps he is a psychopath and I am his first opportunity.

I look at his face. He is smiling warmly, ready to drive me in his car. I  don’t think he is a psychopath, he just wants to do his friend a favour. Oman is like that. Full of people doing each other favours. Because the country feels safe, formality is bypassed.

I go to the highway and flag down a real taxi.

3. Benglish

Muscat is home to Omanis, Filipinos, Indians, Brits, North Americans; the language in common seems to be English – or on documents, websites and shop signs, ‘Bad English’ – or Benglish’- as my friend has renamed it. When I first arrived, the English teacher in me used to shake my head at the shop signs, but now I enjoy them. Here is one of my favourites. This is a butcher’s shop:

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The cat sat on the mat: plot’s magic ingredient

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Last week I read a brilliant book about making-up stories.  In it, Roz Morris explained how writers weave plot. There’s one thing, she says, that novelists often fail to factor in. It’s not death or drama, or even dialogue. The vital ingredient, she says, is conflict.

Reading  her guide to plot was like being handed an  X- ray vision potion. Unable to read a book or watch a drama the same way again, I found myself the other evening in front of Holby City. Conflict was all I saw:

A man walks into the hospital pharmacy. He leans over the counter and demands the pharmacist hand him a drug. He looks unwell, waving a needle, says he needs it. Now.

The pharmacist looks for the drug. She wavers, says she can’t give it to him, the computer won’t let her in. The man moves closer to the pharmacist, holding the needle like a weapon.

The pharmacist is now having an asthma attack. A doctor walks in, tries to talk the man round, the pharmacist falls as the needle-wielding man stands over her, she hits her head, blacks out

The scene had me gripped. Some say we are wired for it, the human brain poised to solve problems, buzzing with  ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Conflict dramatized can be delicious in its intensity, reflecting back the brain’s need to resolve, cathartic in its climax.

In my own first draft I had tried hard to make the scenes ‘realistic’. But a novel is pure artifice. Tricks hidden beneath the story keep us engaged. One of them is surely conflict, pushing the characters to the limit, creating an electrical charge to power the whole piece.

Science fiction author Brandon Sanderson  advises new novelists in his filmed lectures, to begin with character,  setting or plot and to let the conflict come from any, or all, of those places. That’s where story begins, he says. His advice makes the blank page far more inviting; the doorways into plot are many.

As I research my second draft, watching reels of film from the 30s: the heart of Spain’s cities and valleys hardened to hand grenades, neighbour turned against neighbour, I am reminded that Conflict is a big word – war and fights most often come to mind.

But pick up any novel and conflicts abound. Everyday, normal decisions which might somehow spiral into plot or subplot. I think it was John le Carré  who said:

“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. 

but…

“The cat sat on the dog’s mat”  is a story.

 

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear of your experiences plotting (conflict-driven or otherwise!)

 

The stories only you can tell

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Writing a novel is hard. I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky. It’s hard because it asks for everything you’ve got. Like trying to catch the world with a net: a lovely idea but daunting to know where to begin.

18 months ago I began writing a mystery set in Madrid. In January, I thought I’d done it. I closed the program, wrote a synopsis and sent it all to a publisher who had shown interest in my work at a Writer’s Festival .

I waited a month. No answer. I scanned through blogs which said ‘don’t nag editors and agents’ so I didn’t. Unwilling to take the rejection personally,  I thought, ‘Oh well, editors are  busy’, or ‘perhaps my novel isn’t up to much’. I worked elsewhere, convinced myself that once done, my book shouldn’t be revisited, after all I’d given it my best shot.

And then something strange started happening. Driving, teaching, chatting with friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about my story.  Not the plot (that’s a different problem!) but the thing I wanted to say, what’s mine.

I remembered the author Neil Gaiman said:

‘Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.’

And then I twigged. As much as I didn’t relish revisiting the novel I had put months of work into, I had no choice but to return to it if I wanted to air its story.

‘I’ve always felt you unearth story, like you’re on an archaeological dig’ wrote Stephen King in his seminal work, ‘On Writing’.

My story kept glinting from the earth, would not leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it.

So one morning last week, into my kindle,  like a kind of miracle arrived ‘Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel’ by Roz Morris, a guide so comprehensive that by the end of it I knew technically what I needed to do. I had a plan, a decision to go back to ground level, unearth the fossil of my tale and make it matter to a reader.

Writing a novel is hard, I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky, but the alternative is keeping something inside that only I am in a position to share. My story.

What would you do?

 

Fly like Eddie

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You know it well, yearn for it, are driven by it. You even smile when you hear its name. You’ve chased it, occasionally found yourself in its flow.

Perhaps you’re a writer stuck at a strange juncture, or an artist on the border of showing your work. Whatever your passion, this thing you’re working on illuminates your world, matters more than almost any other thing.

When you got stuck and it seemed to leave your grasp, what did you do? Wait for its return, give up, walk away?

Eddie ‘The Eagle’, English ski jumper, was driven by a persistent voice when he decided to put himself forward for the Winter Olympics in Calgary.

‘Go,’ said the voice, ‘It’s what you must do’.

Eddie was a novice, a non-sporty child who had only recently gained full use of his legs. But the voice did not let up and neither did Eddie. He trained alone, travelled far, supported himself with other work, ignored the advice of detractors. Eddie kept his eye on the ball.

The film about his life makes much of Eddie’s outsider status. Socially, he drinks milk. Eddie has none of the fancy gear, nor the cultural confidence of his nordic counterparts. His ski-jumping coach has a questionable attitude.

But what Eddie possesses is tons of grit. He persists because he is absolutely in love with the sport. We see it in his eyes as he watches his rivals’ skill on the television. We sense it in the resolve behind his decision to leave England to train.

To have passion for something is wonderful, but to pursue that passion undaunted by setbacks can bring great beauty into the world.

The film ends with these words:

‘May the real work begin.’

The Real work. Passion’s tireless companion. May all people working creatively find a way to marry the two. The passion and the grit.  May we learn to fly like Eddie.

 

This post was in part inspired by the work of my blogger-friend David J. Rogers who writes for artists and writers about the psychological skills required for success.