A tale from Colombia: the power of owning your story

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The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.

Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.

As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.

Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.

Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.

I read it in two sittings.

There are few works of literature that have made me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold, ‘the mirror up to nature’.*

Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.

She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life.

Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.

As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’ At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.

Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.

Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary: ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.

This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.

Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.

Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín.

When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:

You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.

Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours. When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.

To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.

I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.

Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here

Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here

I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.

*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Tokyo Taro at Al Falaj Hotel: restaurant review

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Forty years ago when Muscat was transitioning from rocky territory to modern city, a hotel was built in the East of the city – in Ruwi – the height of modernity in the early eighties.

Before the great chains dotted themselves around the city there was The Falaj Hotel. Named after the ancient canals which snake across the country, and the nearby Falaj Fortress, it had a grandeur seen only in far away lands and was thus the place of choice for business people and travellers at leisure.

Wander in to its lobby today and the ancient air of Oman comes wafting through. Dhow ships of wood sit below seventies style lighting, the lobby is large, its odour perfumed stones, the local luban (frankincense) burning like a signature.

The restaurant we are looking for is located on the 8th floor, in an unassuming room which has been there since the hotel began.

Its interior is simple: seventies-style structured lampshades overlook canteen style booths. Tables are divided by a noughts and crosses wooden lattice. Each setting is furnished with a tiny jug of soya sauce and condiments.

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Until very recently Tokyo Taro was frequented weekly by large groups from Muscat’s Japanese business community and it’s easy to see why.

Even eating gluten-free, there is plenty to choose from. The avocado maki rolls are soft, rice fluffy; biting into one is a dream. The teppan-yaki chef cooks exactly to order and I am left wondering how stir frying vegetables on a hot plate can produce a dish so tasty. The accompanying sesame and cashew sauce (instead of wheat- containing soy sauce) works well with it too.

Our waiter, Felrom, accommodates our many questions, serving my companions fresh, fluffy tempura along with a Spinach and vinegared cucumber salad. Sashimi, mixed sushi, grilled dishes are all prepared with the same high level of care. Portions are generous and for a mid-range restaurant (60 OMR for 4 people) we are left with a lovely choice of leftovers.

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While the city of Muscat has challenged olde world Hotels like The Falaj with a proliferation of world class places to stay (Muscat barely does mid range, let alone budget accommodation) Tokyo Taro remains, four decades on.

Yet the whole place feels like it’s already seen its golden age. Visiting the ladies, I leave the dining area and climb some back stairs. The walls and floor are painted institution blue, there are steel caps on each stair, a strange sparseness to the decor as though I have wandered via time-machine into a Victorian school. People with disabilities, wanting to access the facilities would not be well served by the lack of lift to the 9th floor.

The business folk who used to visit each week have long since stopped coming to Tokyo Taro, the waiters say. Though the food remains, apparently, as good as it always has, there is the sense that something needs to happen to reinstate the restaurant’s popularity. I, for one, would be pleased to return as regularly as required to help in this tasty diner’s comeback.

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Tokyo Taro at the Falaj Hotel, Ruwi, Muscat : Phone : (968)24702311  Email : reservation@alfalajhotel.com Website: http://www.alfalajhotel.com/muscat-restaurants/tokyo-taro-restaurant.html

All books, restaurants, events featured in this blog are chosen out of personal interest. No financial or other reimbursement is offered to me by the proprietors, authors or organisers.

Writing and resilience: how can we keep creating (and enjoy it)?

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A pulse of migrating birds is sewing the sky. The day is fresh and clear, trees moving conversationally. I know I should be writing but there are other things to do. Besides, I’m stuck. The last chapter I wrote left no way of moving forward. Can’t I just clean the oven?

For a seated activity, writing carries a lot of challenges. First off there is not writing.

It’s all well and good to say, ‘I’m not inspired, I’ll take a break for an hour or five,’ before you realise you have an imagination with nothing to tether itself to, crowds of words backed up in the brain like traffic on the Sultan Qaboos Road. And, as we know, the thing will not write itself.

But doing the writing is risky too.

You could offend a friend. Or reach for the truth and hit a cliché. Or the time you think up something so spot on, you even make yourself cry. Writing is a risk because it asks you to go inside and take a look around.

The perils of writing were far from my mind at a dance/exercise class I attended a few days ago. The music was loud and Latin, my companions Omani, Zanzibari women in their twenties, all plugged in to the often complicated moves.

But something was different this week. New faces? A different soundtrack? Actually a seven year old girl in the front row, following the routines along with the rest of us. She wore wraparound specs, sneakers she was clearly growing into and her face was a butterfly of unbridled joy. Undaunted by turning up to a class of adult women and joining in, the girl did more than follow the routines. She danced.

What made the class, for her, so simple? And how might it help with my writing challenges?

I could see the activity mattered more to her than the mirror of her peers. She was enjoying the sequences more than she feared any kind of ‘failure’ or embarrassment. Passion as artistic fuel becomes a pot of gold inside, where doing the thing itself is the ultimate reward.

The writer and entrepreneur Joanna Penn describes the early days of her writing as a time when she would frequently ‘self-censor.’ It’s easy to get caught up in worries about words which might offend, but what is lost when we remove the liveliness of our tone? Pairing down our writing to please an invisible critic is like trying to wear someone else’s clothes. I thought of the girl in the exercise class who moved so freely,  was so un-self-conscious. What if as adults we applied this attitude to our creative work?

In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art he calls the unwillingness to engage with our own writing, Resistance. That feeling of ‘Do I have to?’ can be hard to overcome. Questions I ask myself when I’d suddenly rather be cleaning the oven:

  • What am I avoiding? Is it a difficult scene? Is there a skill I need to learn/information to research before I go back to it? Could I begin somewhere else?
  • How can I support my attention span when I find myself drifting onto Facebook or that holiday website? Rather than telling myself off (which will likely send my creativity into a corner), could I work with the Internet?

A trick that may sound strange but worked for me a few weeks back was: 10 minutes writing, 10 minutes online. Repeat ad infinitum. You’d be surprised how many words you’ll produce when time is limited. And how quickly 10 minutes writing becomes an hour once the idea has taken hold.

  • When I was working on Draft 1 of my novel I used to start the day by reading everything I had written so far before I continued. When your words have reached the thousands it can become quite time consuming so I stopped!

But these days I still look back at the work from the day before. This gets me into the world of the story.I become interested in the place. Care about what’s happening, the characters, their plans and before I know it, I want to add to it. It’s a kind of conscious seduction. The more we see a person, thing or place, the more invested we become. If I can get myself involved in the story’s world, I know the fire will ignite to light the fuel of my commitment.

‘How can I fall in love with what I’m doing?’ is probably the most important question I ask myself each day. It’s the easiest way to ensure I walk to my desk every morning, open the document and stay there till the work is done.

Writers how do you keep yourself writing regularly? Your comments, as always, are welcome below. 

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‘Take your broken heart…’ What happens when tears fuel art

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The most common question people ask when I tell them I’m writing a book is:

‘What’s it about?’

So I say:

A journalist goes to Madrid and discovers that the death of a celebrity is not what it seems.

‘But what’s it really about?’ The bookish or the curious inquire.

Trying to describe a deeper ‘Story’ is much harder. Like hinting at the essence of a song.

‘It’s a Mystery. With some thriller turns.’ doesn’t really do it, for a novel’s ‘big idea’ is something like its soul. Hard to put into words.

Last week a relative asked me the same question. I managed, in the end, to share the idea.

‘My book, I hope, will be about mourning.’

Dear reader, before you close this page, run out the room or start yawning, there will -fear not – be a plot.

But what I had in mind, beneath the action, is this:

It’s about what happens when we don’t grieve our losses – not just of loved ones – but the smaller deaths of everyday: disappointments, old resentments, pains, misunderstandings. How something softens when we allow ourselves to cry, the walls inside come down. And generation by generation there may be no progress until we fully mourn the difficulties of our own – and collective – past. 

Sadness is not fashionable. Public crying in Western culture is still taboo. Last year I spent some time in the UK and I remember speaking on the phone while sitting in a cafe, with tears streaming down my face. My sadness was soundless but the couple on the sofa in front of me stood up like they’d sat on a scorpion. They balanced their newspapers and their lattes, awkwardness seeping from their brows, and legged it.

The idea of facing and feeling sorrow can frighten folk, but I like to think of our histories – however wonderful or painful (often both)- as a hidden alchemy.

Much of the time it stays buried, beneath our habits and opinions. It lodges with the child we left behind. But when acknowledged and used right, it can change lives. The Midas touch of tears has the power to transform past pain into the greatest art on earth.

During his long and creative life, the German composer JS Bach suffered loss on almost a permanent basis. Both parents died when he was young, then an older brother. And in 1721, his other brother, the one who had brought him up, fell ill and passed away.

His beloved wife Maria followed, leaving him with many young children.

What did Bach do?

He wrote the Goldberg variations. A language through which he felt and shared life’s joy and pain. A vehicle for his grief.

The novels of Thomas Hardy are not for the fainthearted but read his poetry and you’ll meet a different man. In his ‘Poems 1912-13’ on the death of his wife Emma Gifford, it’s Hardy’s tears which touch the reader.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then… From The Voice, by Thomas Hardy, December 1912

Grief has many guises. It is said that the Prophet of Islam would often walk with his face moist, that he cried easily. Babies and children don’t need to be told to let it out when they feel pain.

But what about men and women? I wonder what would happen if crying became not only socially acceptable but encouraged. After all, laughing is, so why not its watery cousin? How cleansed we might feel from our collective past. How avoidable the repetitions, addictions, tyrannies borne of buried grief.

Trapped unconscious energy makes us bend into weird shapes which aren’t who we are at all. In the world it burns bridges, fuels wars, builds walls so wide we cannot see each other anymore. We cannot see ourselves.

When traumatised holocaust survivors formed the state of Israel, successive governments unconsciously began the re-enactment  of a torture that they, or their parents had endured in 1930/40s Europe. The persecution of their fellow land-dwellers continues to this day because the personal work of the traumatised, the act of mourning has not properly taken place.

At the recent golden globes, Meryl Streep spoke about the tragedy for the Arts in the United States that is the new president. But fully mourning such ill-fortune could transform it to something else. It was her friend, Carrie Fisher who said :

‘Take your broken heart, turn it into art,’

Art could mean anything here: work, energy, scientific endeavour but it’s the process between the broken heart and its product that matters. It’s the very act of crying that opens the floodgates to renewal. The river which may take us – and those with us – to a very different place.

 

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How are you nurturing your creative mind?

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Some months ago, after the holiday of Eid, my brother-in-law went away on a trip and my mother-in-law (who shares the building with him) stayed home. Omani culture likes to swathe ageing parents with visits and chat, and so my husband and I moved into her house for two nights.

I awoke on the first day feeling like it was a holiday. Sunlight poured through an unfamiliar curtain. The smells of morning were fresh paint, cleaning products, Eid desserts on a trolley.

A break from life’s routines.

People talk and write of ‘beginner’s mind,’. Something like this it felt. As though I had stepped out of habit and into a fresh reality to learn.

I don’t know what happens to brain cells when they are shown new places but it can feel, I think, like the opening of a parachute. The plodding walk of everyday takes flight, as though the mind has had to lift to learn what’s new and taken the whole self with it.

Beginner’s mind can be a tool for imagination.  Free from memory, there is the chance to test ideas, break rules, find untapped resource. So I have been asking myself how it might be used in the service of creativity:

  • go for a walk most days . But a walk with beginner’s mind awakened, as the M&S advert goes, is not just any walk. It’s headed somewhere new. With music, without sound, listening to the birds, taking a path up and off the normal track. Trying new things so the body and brain might enter a free space, to flick the switch which says experiment.
  • Travel can have the same effect. Finding new cafes, shops, spaces, meeting new people can also do the trick. Shaking the brain cells out of their collective habits. Sometimes really focusing on another person’s way of seeing the world can cultivate beginner’s mind for me. It too is a brand new place.
  • ‘Habit is the great deadener’ said Samuel Beckett. Certain routines are unavoidable, but I have found removing the ones which clutter the mind can create freedom. Habits which are relatively easy to quit and whose pay off I have found to be big in terms of mental space: Mindless phone/Twitter/Facebook scrolling, googling too much, saying Yes to things I don’t want to do. All of these can clog creative energy.
  • Taking photos brings in the here and now. A camera (or phone camera) can be a physical reminder to be present, to notice.
  • Trying new recipes has been for me one of the simplest ways to access beginner’s mind. The faith required to follow new instructions (or invent one’s own) can create tangible – often edible – results (!) and it’s a great break from writing.

We had barely driven for twenty minutes, stayed away 48 hours when I left my mother-in-law’s house with renewed purpose. Beginner’s mind is powerful, so open that ideas can’t help but wander in.

How do you nurture your mind to stay creative?

Sky high in Dubai: reflections on a Marmite town

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I never thought I’d love Dubai. But the first time I went I was curious. Years ago I had been staying close by but never made it. And now, living in Muscat, Dubai is our London. It sings a show tune across the mountains. How could we resist?

We reached the city late. Sand ghosts crossed the motorways, a reminder of what lay beneath. Towers lumbered, concrete dinosaurs. We saw swimming pools balanced on rooftops. The breeze blew our gaze across the most competitive skyline in the world. Tallest, Highest, One of a kind. A ski slope in the desert.

Dubai is the Middle East’s Marmite; visitors like and loathe in equal measure.

The city is a mimic. Big Ben’s replica stands like a gift from a cracker. New York’s Chrysler juts to the sky nearby. A post-modernist mickey take?  Or maybe all these buildings are just a loving tribute to the old metropolises of the world.

A giant Duty Free curated to entice. Dubai. Where they opened up the box of What Was Possible, used cash, brains, shiny western toys…I wonder, if like a cat, the city herself is secretly laughing into her whiskers.

What would Sheikh Zayed make of it? He who put the first stones in the sand, as progress spoke to him in easy signs. Did he, could he, guess at what would come?

A single road he built, across the swathes of desert dust. Need, no more to swat away the flies, the sand became not home but holiday. While Europeans wore flares and Beatlemania was almost passé, a desert rose was rising from the dunes, nurtured by  the leader, Zayed’s hand.

The city’s soundtrack is technology’s hum. Its people, visual chess pieces robed in black or white: uncommon doves, giant eyelashes fluttering like jazz hands.

We dine at the top of the tallest tower. The elevator rocks as the floors reach into the 100s. The staff guide us around a building shaped like a needle.  There is no pat down here, no airport style security.  I try to ban the zeitgeist from my mind.

The world has changed since Zayed built the UAE. I want to ask him what he thinks. Say that wars are fought on ground no more, but ideologically, illogically by computer grid, rocket, splinter group, so many hidden interests, when most are pleased with peace.

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The building sways a touch. We focus on the menu. I shake a little like the tower, see swathes of lights across a sea of navy blue. Planes pass the building at our level. Horrified. Exhilarated. What were they thinking these architects?

Before leaving the city I hope to buy a lipstick.  Three people rush to help before I’ve even reached the counter. By the rack of plums and pinks I’m offered water, juice, ‘Shall I take your bags?’ Led to the counter as though I’m the only customer in the shop.  ‘This one looks nice,’ she holds out a brownish nude. I agree, head for the tills, ‘Special price, today,’ she smiles for commerce here is art.

Zayed was a reformer, a visionary who advocated dialogue above arms. In the second half of the twentieth century he brought schools, hospitals, basic infrastructure to a diseased people and harsh climate.

What would he say to Dubai’s commercialism, her bare faced architectural cheek? My guess is that were Zayed here today, he’d see the city’s skyline and he’d smile. Dubai innovates with flair, a whim in a world too filled with frowns. A city state of swaggering imitation, while at the same time, tongue-in-cheek unique.

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Have you been to Dubai? What’s your ‘Marmite’ take on it?

Story-writing, science and the grace of flight

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I started writing poems when I was twelve. Messages to myself, which aided, in the end, with adolescence. I would never, I vowed, show a soul and no one asked about them because nobody knew.

At university I saw the scribbled comments of a teacher on a set of poems and felt a rush of hope. He didn’t understand what I wanted to say, he wrote, but they seemed to be ‘about something’.

I didn’t know, then, that the reader sits strapped in and the ‘something you want to say’ is their experience. That writers open up doors inside so the reader may step in and find themselves there too.

I didn’t get this until I met the novelist, Jennifer Clement in Mexico who wrote stories like paintings. Every scene was a frame of colour, of life and I wanted to move inside her book, to live there indefinitely.

I thought it was art. All of it. I thought it spilled out like blood from a wound, that a writer was opening up their soul and that the gold of their literature came directly from the fabric of their cells.

A decade later I don’t think it works like this. I found this out when I started writing a book of my own and saw the blood spilling, canvass spoiled. For writing is a construction, closer to science or engineering than a kind of formless art.

It has, I think, as much in common with flight as artistic expression.

An aircraft is built to do a job, just as the plot of a novel is (usually) planned to allow a story to be told. The runway allows the machine to gain momentum, like plot points propelling a story forward.

When the airplane reaches cruising height, the story has taken flight and the readers or passengers are there for the long haul. If the thing has been built right it will keep itself propelled until the end. The landing is of course, the ending and readers, like passengers want a good one.

There are functional, physical facts which keep a plane flying. After coming to a standstill with my own novel and reading a lot of writing guides, I discovered that there is a system too in the building of a novel. Points in the plot when certain things should happen, like the flaps of an airplane moving to allow or suppress lift.

The parts a novel needs to fly can be numbered and maintained, that following these rules doesn’t guarantee a brilliant piece of work, just as keeping a plane in good condition will not make for a perfect flight, but it helps get it off the ground.

And in the end, beyond the engineering, a great novel has the elegance of flight, that grace which makes the reader wonder: How did that just happen? Part science part serendipity, something has taken place, something has moved.

What do you think makes a great novel? Writers, what helps you structure? Please feel free to comment below.