Writing like a Hindi God… Congregation of Innocents

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Congregation of Innocents

 

Writing with several hands, is it possible?

I’m not only a writer, but also a pianist. And I know that playing four hands it’s incredibly difficult. There are so many things that can go wrong – the rhythm, the time… even physically, your fingers can just run over the other person’s! It can be a dissaster because it requires perfect communication with your partner – yes, you need to be soulmates to grant success, basically.

In writing should be easier because there is not the stress of the immediate performance – you have more time to discuss, argue and scream at each other hoping that the final product doesn’t come out drenched in blood.

I have experience on that: I wrote with my father, who’s also a writer. How was it? Well, it was writing with my father

We see things so differently. For him there is LITERATURE –  this includes all the books he likes, which are mainly Literary Fiction – and then that commercial crap that is not any better than a hamburguer at McDonalds – and this includes almost all genre fiction and the books he just doesn’t personally like.

Yes. We argued a lot.

Also, he thinks that what is told is always more important than how it’s told. And that anything you write has to be based on experience. I write about doctors who mummify children and perform c-sections without anesthesics in a lost mansion in the Highlands – did myself experienced all that…? Well, you might not want to hear the answer…

Of course for him is easier to talk about experiences – he has travelled all over the world. He’s also an amazing writer, and he’s funny, and satirical, and critical, and socially-engaged – all things that I admire and I wish my writing had – at least in a stronger way.

Our experience writing together was enriching but in the end, when the book came out everyone thought that the serious, literary parts were his and the funny comical bits were mine – because of the age, I assume. They got it wrong.

Today I want to talk about another book wirtten by multiple hands: Congregation of Innocents, edited by Curious Tales. It contains four short stories by Emma Unsworth, Richard Hirst, Jenn Ashworth and Tom Fletcher plus a graphic short story by Ian Williams. It also has the illustrations, photos and cover design by the artist Beth Ward.

I was lucky that this was the book read in our Gothic Reading Group at Lancaster University and Jenn Ashworth came to talk about the process. She mentioned very interesting things. First of all, the four writers are all friends and work all together editing each other’s texts. I can see here the challenge of having friends and giving them feedback and still being friends after that. We all have such big egoes – I do, at least, although I was partially cured since I started writing in English and I became really humble about it because it’s not my first language… Also, I’d also feel a lot of preassure if continuously giving feedback to my friends just in case I don’t like some of the stuff they do – even if I love them as people, obviously. Art is such a subjective thing… For example, Jenn pointed out that it too her quite a long time to understand Tom‘s short story whereas I fell in love with it immediately.

These people are not just professional writers, they also funded a publishing houseCurious Tales – and have done a trilogy of short story collections called Five Curious Tales. It all started when they decided to exchange ghost stories as a Christmas present. I think this is a such a genial idea.

How do they unifiy their collections, though?

They dedicate their volume to a writer and then gather inspiration fom him or her to write their short stories – as a response to the work of this particular author.

For example the second collection was called Poor Souls’ Light and it was inspired by Robert Aickman, whereas the third one, Congregation of Innocents,  – which I have in my hands – is inspired in the short stories by Shirley Jackson.

The illustrations are, in my opinion, what brings the stories all together. Jenn explained how Beth acts as the core of the project. She gives feedback to everyone, she decides how the illustrations will complement everyone’s story, she does the artwork from the cover  – and that picture is like the essence of the collection itself, not an easy thing to do, I imagine! She even decides the order of the short stories.

I think this is very wise. First because words can come together through other media – in this case visual images. And third because someone from another media may be more able to see the whole picture.

This volume – we all agreed in the Gothic Reading Group – it’s about endings. All the stories are drenched in the bittersweet essence of farewells. And the cover irself represents – as it couldn’t be other way – a detail from a pink and purple cherry blossom. It looks so Japanese and delicate… and the green colour from the title letters is ghostly and unsettling –as if it was whispering to us that this is a horror story collection nonetheless, so we should be prepared. The first pages also have details from the cherry blossom branches in black. It looked like a sort of radiography so again, even if cherry flowers are beautiful and delicate, it was as if they were already dead.

Preceeding each of the stories there are black and white rows of three photographs – without titles or any word indeed, just the naked image. In The Festival the images show what it seems a piece of embroidery (complexity? a hard work? women?), some round glasses reflecting two boats on the sea (travelling?) and white petals on the ground (death of someone who is young?)

In Do You Know How To Waltz? the photographs are difficult to see because there is something that reflects on them – like the light through the blinds over a dark room. What we can see are the silouettes of flowers and trees. (Nature? Something that is hidden? Danger? Vulnerability?)

The Women’s Union Relief has the image of an isolated park, then a mug filled with tea or coffe, and then another mug but from a different perspective. (Home? Comfort? Lost childhood?)

Desert Stories has – in my opinion – the most unsettling set of images – and this was the story I found more unsettling too among all of them. We have some small hands  closed as if praying (a child’s?) a seed that has just started to grow and an empty room with an open door and an empty chair. (Abscence? Infancy? Lose? Revival?)

Now that I have read all the stories I can interpret better the photographs and see how much they are linked to the story. I think it has a wonderful idea to have another medium – photography, in this case – to express another part of a story. We live in a culture where images are very important, why shouldn’t literature nurture from them? The images don’t just reflect what is said by words but also open new paths to the interpretation of these. It is as if images where an integral part of the story, another organ in the whole body. The fact that they are in black and white adds to the atmosphere – we tend to relate black and white with the past, from where ghosts come to haunt us. There are organised in three shots, and this makes the piece cinematic. The details in the photos talk to each other and tell a story by themselves. I think the plastic artist’s work was magnificent because she managed to create a decadent universe where all the stories in this collection can co-exist.

Another visual feature I want to praise was the inclusion of a short story but told in the form of a graphic piece. It’s written by Ian Williams and it’s called The Brood of Desire. The first image occupies the first page and it shows a key with an intrincate design in its hanger. When I saw it for the  first time I felt as if the author was invinting me to his world by offering me the key – but it looked like a key made to hide dark things, so I knew that taking it would bring consequences. The graphic short story is also in black and white and what stroke me the most is the way its simple pictures transmit me so much repugnance – in the best way, because when I read horror I want to feel repugnance, and fear, and shock.

To sum up, I believe that Congregations of Innocents is a rare not to be missed piece. It is a collection of short stories set in a dark, dangerous universe. You would not necessarely want to inhabit it – or to meet its people – but when Christmas comes and you’re sick of sweets and Christmas songs and blinking lights and you feel you need something to balance it… this is your thing! Winter is not just about warm fires and hot chocolate but also about naked sharp trees and never ending nights. And there is so much art and talent in this little book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story of a return – Persepolis

Persepolis

I read Persepolis when I was 14. I lived in Spain and I went to my first Comic-Con – after begging my parents during days. Finally my father agreed to take my sister, my best friend and I to the place of the event. To be fair, it was quite far away from home, and he thought we wouldn’t  be safe in a place full of thousands of friquis – that’s how we call in Spain the people who like reading comics and manga, play videogames and watch Japanese animation.

We arrived and all that I wanted was merchandasing from Naruto or Death Note – back then, my favourite mangas. My dad picked Persepolis for me and bought it as a present thinking that if I wanted to read comincs at least should read a true graphic novel – the fancy word for comics for adults who don’t like to say they read comics.

I read it and loved. But I hadn’t understood it properly until last week, when I got the English translation – I bought the paperback version for 3 pounds in a charity shop.

This is the story of a young girl who recieves a liberal education – because educations one can have many, and some of them intend to send the brain to sleep instead of awake it – and lives in Iran after the Islamic Revoluti0n. What is this? Well, basically consists in closing universities, separating boys and girls in schools, making the veil compulsory… to sum up, applying all the –human interpreted – religious principles of Islam to the every day lives of Iran citizens.

Majarne – that is the name of the author and the main character, because Persepolis is a memoir – grows up reading Simone de Beauvoir, so you can imagine it’s very hard for her to accept the principles from the Islamic Revolution. Because she’s bilingual in French she can move out from the country during the war against Iraq to study her secondary education in the Licée Français in Vienna. Afterwards, she moves to Strasbourg at 23 to study graphic design. She never comes back to Iran.

French saved Majarne and allowed her to find a home in a place where her values and beliefs were not questioned. But, how many languages can one find in Persepolis?

Persian: A very ancient and unique language. It’s spoken in Iran and it’s Majarne’s first language. We can just find it when the characters curse each other. It’s as if she was suggesting that the visceral feelings of anger they are experienced cannot be translated – these feelings that are indeed a consequence of war and discrimination.

For instance, in a chapter called Pasta, a nun in the Catholic student accomodation where Majarne is staying suggests that she’s a thief as every other Iranian. She replies something in Persian – and for the way she’s screaming at the nun we can be sure it’s not something nice.

French: Majarne goes to a bilingual school as a child until the government shuts them all down saying that they promote a decadent education. Later she goes to the Licée Français is Vienna where she studies French culture. She currently lives in France and sometimes call herself a French artist.

German: In her years in Vienna – from 14 to 18 – Majarne has to learn German to communicate in her every day life. When she goes on holidays to the Tyrol – her roomate is from there – she encounters a special difficult accent.

English: Majarne’s teenage idols are all from the English speaking world – from Bruce Lee to Kim Wilde. As many of us, she cannot detach herself from the English speaking culture – music, cinema and so on. I feel English is a lingua franca because one can gain much more freedom by speaking it. English brings you access to a wider culture while allows you to communicate with people from all over the world. How could a language like this be out from Persepolis, which is indeed a story about gaining freedom?

Arabic: Iranian people have to study the religious texts in Arabic instead of in Persian. This is very demanding, and I guess not everyone undertands the prayers if they haven’t had time to study the language. It reminded me to those times when  mass was given in Latin in Spain. People had to seat in church for a long time – this was at the beginning to the 20th century, they listened to something that they knew it was important yet they couldn’t understand it. Is this a hidden form of opression? For some people, getting the bread home each day is a full-time task – they don’t necessarily have time to educate themselves. And learning a new language – as you probably now – is not easy. Acquiring another tongue is like planting a very rare kind of flower. Unless you take proper care of it it’s going to die. Almost everything can kill this flower so you’ve to make sure you are there to prevent it – everyday. Also, religion is suppose to create a sense of communion and bring people together. But a language one cannot understand can be the strongest barrier. Then, teaching people religion in another language might be a contradiction in itself…

persepolis-veil

Persepolis is a very good graphic novel. If you have left your home pursuing more freedom in life and choices, then you’re going to be identified with it. It’s also an iteresting story if you actually want to know more about Iran and its culture. And even if nothing of these specially appeals to you still go and read it, because this is a piece that will make you laugh even if talks about really dark stuff. I think it should be a classic…

Have you read it? Or watched the film? What do you think about it? Have you ever felt like a foreigner – even in your own country?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing in… 34 Golgotha Rd

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As a writer, it’s very important for me to change environment when I work. I don’t necessarily need a quiet place like a library, although I often go there because they allow you to drink coffee, they have toilets and you can stay there as long as you want. The only forbidden place to write for me – personally – it’s my room or – even worse! – my bed – although I know that two of my favourite writers like doing so, Patricia Highsmith and Gabriella Campbell. Gabriella said that there’s nothing  like a beautiful notebook and a cup of tea to let her imagination flow on the paper. I also read that Patricia spent the days in bed, leaning on fluffy pillows and eating sweets while she wrote her amazing dark short stories – like the ones in her collection The Snail-Watcher and other stories. But I cannot concentrate in my room, because I consider it a place to relax and sleep  – and perhaps do some funny stuff, but that doesn’t include writing.

So I would like to introduce in the blog a record of places that I have found inspiring for my art. And I will start talking about Yamuna’s kitchen. Yamuna is my writing pal – we met in our MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She recently moved houses and because she knows I am a nomadic writer, she offered me her place whenever I might need it.

She lived on 34 Golgotha road in Lancaster*if you want to pay her a visit it’s too late, by the time I will be publishing this she would have returned to India, sadly. Her house has a cute little kitchen with a big ‘welcome’ written in wooden letters on the wall. There is a circular table besides a window from where you can see the green from the back yard. I love green and open spaces, so for me it is ideal.

Also, one of the advantages of writing inside a kitchen is that it is very easy to reach for coffee and food when your stomach starts growling but you don’t want to stop writing. Plus every time I go and visit Yamuna she makes for me coffee in the Indian style. This means she adds to water two spoons of coffee and two spoons of sugar and then boils it slowly. After a while she filters the dark liquid and… voilà! I always drink my coffee without sugar, but I like Yamuna’s version because it’s not just caffeine, it’s also a treat.

We usually eat chocolate cakes – she buys them for me, she knows I am more of the sweet kind – and the spiciest crackers I can possibly find – I know she needs spices as she needs to breathe oxygen.What you can see in the photo, Hot Chili Chips is my latest discovery in the Spar next to her place. I just could eat a few before my lips and tongue started burning. As always, she maintains it’s not even closer to the spicy level you can find in India… I don’t know if she really means this  or if she’s just mocking me – in any case, I had to stop eating those because of survival.

Writing with Yamuna is fun. We listen to vibrant Indian music when she helps me with grammar and gives me interesting ideas. I usually see her staring at the white page of the computer or burying her head in her arms and sleeping over the table. Yet I cannot call this laziness because she’s an amazing writer… – want to check one of her stories?

Do you have any writing pals?

Do you invade their places to write?

Check this sophisticated Indian Coffee recipe in any case, it might strengthen your inspiration!

*This is the coolest name for a road ever.

Why Dracula learnt English

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Ever tried to communicate in another language? We all known it can be quite a scary experience, like a journey through the Carpathians. Mr Harker is the best person to tell you about both…

Dracula –one of the most famous Gothic novels– is not only written in English but also Romanian, German and Servian among others. The story starts with precisely with Jonathan Harker, a pragmatic man who travels all his way from England to the wildest part of East Europe… with his polyglot dictionary.

‘I found my smattering of German very useful here, indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.’

Jonathan probably read authors like Friedrich Schiller and Christian Heinrich Spiess, masters of schauerroman  –shudder novel– so he knew he needed German to survive his own Gothic plot.
In fact, he is exceptionally interested in the local languages of the places he visits:

‘I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for there were many nationalities in the crowd, so I quietly got my polyglot dictionary from my bag and looked them out. I must say they were not cheering to me, for amongst them were “Ordog” – Satan, “Pokol” – hell, “stregoica” witch, “vrolok” and “vlkoslak” – both mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either werewolf or vampire.’

Jonathan works as a solicitor, but  does he have the secret dream of being a linguist? His interest in foreign words is a bit morbid, although I have to agree that few things are more scary than listening to some spooky peasants praying in an unknown language. And when one looks in the dictionary… there lies the horror, like a monster hiding in the meaning of a word.

‘Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a hysterical way: “Must you go? Oh! Young Herr, must you go?” She was in such an excited state that she seemed to have lost her grip of what German she knew, and mixed it all up with some other language which I did not know at all.’

There are also characters who do not master English completely, like Count Dracula. I am pleased to say I share some connections with one of the best anti-heroes ever written as he –as me– does not seem able to lose his accent.

‘The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation. “Welcome to my house! […]’

Count Dracula is also an Anglophile –whose main interest in England is how to conquer it. He keeps English books and newspapers in his remote castle in Romania, so he might have learned English by reading The Daily Telegraph. As a student of English I was advised to read The Times, but I remember that  headlines – with those mysterious short words that seemed a war code – discourage me quite soon.

Count Dracula is also very aware of the minutia of learning a second tongue. The final proof is always practising in the country, or at least with a native speaker. Speaking a language is like sex – or falling in love, for the more romantics ones. You can read about it, but you need to experience it, to feel it.

‘“[…]As yet I only know your tongue through books. To you, my friend, I look that I know it to speak.”

“But, Count,” I said, “You know and speak English thoroughly!”

[…]

“[…] True, I know the grammar and the words, but yet I know not how to speak them.”

“Indeed,” I said, “You speak excellently.”

“[…] You shall, I trust, rest here with me a while, so that by our talking I may learn the English intonation. And I would that you tell me when I make error, even of the smallest, in my speaking.”’

When we are learning a language we hope our kind native speaker friends to help us fix mistakes and grammar. But are we always that lucky? I have been studying English seriously for six years, and recently moved to the English countryside, where I get the chance to see sheep everyday. I am – now – a bit ashamed to say that I called those grass-eaters clouds ‘sheeps’ when I saw them gathered in harmonious groups. Until a couple of weeks ago I discovered, by myself, that my plural was wrong – I was following the rules of my Spanish by adding ‘s’. Outraged, I went to my dear English friend.

‘Why you never told me that ‘sheeps’ is not the plural of ‘sheep?’

‘Oh, yeah, that,’ she said. ‘I thought it was kind of cute.’

I think Count Dracula had a similar problem all the book through. Jonathan was not precisely eager to correct his awkward grammar, not because he thought the count cute but scary – whit his hairy palms and his rank breath.

There is also Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam, a charismatic metaphysician – incarnated by Hugh Jackman in a questionable film who speaks a sophisticated broken English. All along the novel he travels from London to Amsterdam with amazing ease – considering there were not low cost flights at the time.

‘My dear young miss, I have the so great pleasure because you are so much beloved. That is much, my dear, even were there that which I do not see. They told me you were down in the spirit, and that you were of a ghastly pale. To them I say “Pouf!”’

He is also said to have a German accent, although this is something Dutch people may disagree with. To my Spanish ear, though, Dutch sounds quite similar to German – I noticed that last weekend when watching this video with my friends. A quick check in Wikipedia made me realise that it sounds like German because it belongs to the German family of languages. And apparently, it is the same language as Flemish – spoken in Belgium along with French and German. So I cannot leave without showing you my favourite Flemish composer from all the times.