Monday, 24 September 2012

Under the wide and starry sky....

On Friday night I drove 105 miles to the North and West, from autumnal, dreich Edinburgh to the wide black and starry skies of Argyllshire and specifically the townlet of Strontian in Ardnamurchan for the small but perfectly- formed Book & Arts festival of the Three Lochs(patron Sandy McCall Smith). This was my first visit – only it’s second year. One of the highlights of the weekend is the local produce available for hungry 3-lochers – smoked salmon, cheese, bread and more – for which I was very grateful after the long drive through Glencoe, and an hour spent driving up and down a single track road looking for my lodgings. I’d forgotten that the evening falls early in the highlands and the night is very very dark. Helpful to remember when you are trying to reverse down a steep unsurfaced track, hoping not to hit a sheep or drop into a ravine.

We were a small but eager group at the 11.30 am How to get Published workshop on Saturday.  I got about 10 minutes into my talk when the questions overcame me. Interestingly, most of the talk was about writers becoming publishers rather than finding publishers – reflecting a change in perceptions in general, I thought. We spoke for some time about this change of focus, and just touched on the other related change – i.e. not only has the new technology (and the recession) changed the way writers find readers, but it may also be changing the kind of books that readers want from writers.

We talked about the pros and cons of publishing yourself – being in control, a larger share of the takings on the one side and the scary business of self-promotion on the other. And we talked about the perceived advantages of the conventional route to publication – the publisher bearing the cost, managing the marketing and selling, in exchange for a bigger share of the takings (most unjustifiable in relation to the eBook).

I think at the end of our discussion we had reached a consensus – a consensus for a compromise. Somewhere between conventional paternalistic publishing  and going it alone. Do writers have the time and skills needed to both write the books and bring them to market? Some do, undoubtedly, many/most do not. Independent publishing, with a minimal selection procedure, where the writer can buy the support he or she needs while staying in control of the process, and of their destiny. That would be the ideal. 

I think we might need another post to do this subject justice. I'm only sorry I missed the barbeque on Saturday night. Food, film, books. A perfect little festival.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

What happens when you send us your manuscript?

"A rare, lucky chance to get my work read by professional, experienced editors who would give the manuscript a proper appraisal."

We're really grateful that Saudha Kasim, who won our Bursary Competition earlier this year, has written a little bit about the Writing Room editorial process, and the feedback we gave her.

Saudha's prize was a full Writing Room editorial report on her novel In the Medinah, worth around £1000.

Read her full piece on the editorial process below, thanks Saudha! 

Midway through the movie Clueless, the heroine Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) engages in the following dialogue with her friend (and makeover project) Tai:

    Tai Fraiser: Do you think she's pretty?
    Cher Horowitz: No, she's a full-on Monet.
    Tai Fraiser: What's a Monet?
    Cher Horowitz: It's like a painting, see? From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess.

Creative writing courses should instill the above as a kind of mantra for aspiring writers: yes, it reads well on the surface, but you really have to dig deeper and find the stuff that isn’t working well. The things that compromise the quality of your work.

I’m not part of a writing group nor do I have access to any kind of professional writer-mentor. So my struggle with my first novel, In The Medinah, has made that hoary cliché about writing – it’s the loneliest profession, ever – a real experience.  The Writing Room bursary was me getting a rare, lucky chance to get my work read by professional, experienced editors who would give the manuscript a proper appraisal.

The feedback I received from The Writing Room was clear eyed, going deep into the structural faults, picking out the plot holes, the weaknesses in character development and the need to cut down on so many competing storylines. The report suggested I had enough stories for more than one novel and it would need some paring down.

The strengths of the novel were picked out too – and suggestions on ideas to keep and those to discard. Plus, the report also seeded new ideas which could improve the novel, giving it a greater chance of being published.

I am glad that Maggie and Rosie read my work and gave their professional opinion of it. I’d always been afraid of submitting shoddy work to agents and publishers, but since the appraisal’s been done, I have a clear idea of what needs to be improved and the revision is going to be easier to handle.

The Writing Room appraisal has acted as a sort of validation for this project of mine – I now know that two years of effort have not been a complete waste. But there’s still work to be done before it goes from being a Monet to a Titian. 

~ Saudha Kasim,  May 2012

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Author Sara Levine answers your questions about writing

In addition to giving you some great tips (see previous post) Sara Levine has very kindly answered some questions posted by Writing Roomers on facebook and twitter.

Sara is the author of Treasure Island!!!, one of our favourite reads of recent months (The New York Times, amongst others, thought that the novel was pretty good too).

We're so grateful to Sara, and hope you find her answers useful.

You can follow Sara on twitter, @levinehere 

• "As soon as the book starts your protagonist comes across as opinionated and gutsy, did you have to think long and hard about getting her voice right or did it come naturally?"

Thanks. I got her voice early on; the tone, the syntactical habits, the lusty if half-crazed attention to metaphor—that came on pretty much the same moment I got the idea for the novel.

But it was work to sustain the voice over the course of a novel so I don't know if I can claim the voice came "naturally."

• "Is there a particular genre you want to leave your stamp on?"

No, I don't think of leaving a stamp on anything.

If I come into your house, I worry about leaving footprints on your carpet.

But there are two genres I was consciously playing with: boy adventure fiction and chick lit. Each one provided me with conventions to write against and gave me questions to chew on: What is adventure? What constitutes a modern heroine? etc.

• "Did being a writing teacher encourage or discourage you to write books yourself?"

I love teaching.

I usually teach seven students one-on-one in a tutorial situation, and I also teach workshops and seminars.

I've learned a lot—I've basically used teaching as a way to pursue my own apprenticeship—but the course load at my particular school is heavy.

It can be a challenge to find the time to get writing done, especially since, unlike with the teaching, there won't be fifteen students saying, "Hey, why didn't you pass that back yet?" Here's how I console myself: it would be a challenge to get my writing done even if you put me on a desert island.

I have to have some kind of job so this particular problem—how to balance writing with teaching—is one I'm happy to struggle with.

• "What are the worst and the best parts of being a writer?"

Best: how writing sharpens my consciousness and makes something solid out of the inchoate mental vapor in which I live.

Worst: I need to be alone, which often means saying no or no, not now to the people I love.

• "Once you had the idea and started writing how did you push through to the end? Was it a strict routine or a lot of noodling? Or somewhere in between?"

A lot of noodling with some long stretches of ass-kicking discipline.

'Treasure Island !!!' author Sara Levine's advice for writers

Our Spare Room writers' group takes a bit of a different form this month...

When it comes to sharing writing advice, Sara Levine is someone you want to listen to.

Currently the chair of the Writing Programme at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sara previously taught in the MFA in NonFiction Writing Programme at the University of Iowa -  and holds a PhD in English from Brown.

This teacher knows how it feels on the other side of the desk too: Sara is a critically acclaimed short story writer ("This book is a wonder"- Matthea Harvey) and her first novel, Treasure Island!!!, was published earlier this year to rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic ("a remarkable debut" - Toronto Globe).

So read on... and in the next blog check out Sara's answers to some of the questions you posted (we got a lot of questions for Sara, sorry she couldn't answer them all!).

You can follow Sara on twitter, @levinehere

Three small pieces of advice about writing

1. Understand and accept your failure rate

The poet Eavan Boland describes this idea by likening the writing process to "working at a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it's just a rock face. The other five days, there's a bit of silver, a bit of base metal in it."

I'm not sure when exactly I learned this (maybe yesterday), but it was important for me to understand that not every writing session was going to find me sitting there like Flaubert, weeping over Madame Bovary.

If you're realistic about how many bad paragraphs you need to write before you manage a good one, you can finish a work day in a pretty good mental state, which makes it easier to go back to work tomorrow.

Tell yourself that you're doing your job just by showing up at the rock face.

2. Learn how to goad yourself into writing

I think a lot of so-called committed writers don't always feel like doing it.

Rather than spiral into agonies of self-doubt ("Wow, do I really want to do this? Maybe I'm not committed enough; I bet Hemingway never felt this way…") figure out what helps you get started and do it.

I have a friend who always reads a page of a great writer before she begins - "but only a page," she warns, "or you lose the morning."

I have another friend who, when she feels stuck, buys herself a new pen and begins writing by hand. (She has three books now and great collection of felt-tips.)

The point is everybody feels resistance to writing sometimes, and the most helpful course is to expect that resistance - maybe even greet it like an old friend - and cheerfully strategize against it. 

Here is Virginia Woolf talking to herself in her diary in 1922:
"The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First, gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature."

I love reading Virginia Woolf's diary for many reasons, not least of which is she is always coming up with "game plans."

3. Understand that patience doesn't make you a pansy

For me, the writing always takes a longer time than I think it will. And that's okay. You don't take a cake out of the oven early just because you want to eat it.

The world isn't knocking on the door saying, "Hey? Where's that novel?" Only your ego is saying that. Writing goes much better when you forget about your ego. Just relax and take your time.

Don't look at the clock; look at the technical problems on your page, which are so much more interesting.

Monday, 23 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012 | Part Four

Grey books give a girl a red face

And, of course, there was much digital chat. 

Two highlights being the announcement that Amazon Publishing's imprint Thomas & Mercer has snapped up a 10-year license for North American rights to the entire series of Ian Fleming's James Bond books (in both print and e-book form).  All titles to be reissued for this summer.

And...over in soft porn....the fan-fiction self-publishing selling sensation that is Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy continues to grab headlines. The title has topped the New York Times Best-seller list without ever appearing in print.  UK rights have now been bought by Random House Cornerstone in the UK and Random House Vintage in the US, foreign publishers are in a buying frenzy and according to the Hollywood reporter, Universal has bought film rights...

Publishing is surely shifting, without the anonymity of e-readers Fifty Shades of Grey would never have achieved these sales figures (250,000+) or such word-of-mouth can you make use of the evolving landscape?

Keep us posted Writing Roomers...I'm going to lie down.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012 | Part Three

The un-dead stay cool, as Spain takes the tiger by the tail

Many of the exciting sales this year were in the foreign and translation markets.

Here's a taster:
  • In an unprecedented move the Barcelona literary agency who represent Gabriel Garcia Marquez auctioned a two-year license to publish A Hundred Years of Solitude in China.
  • The title has previously been widely pirated in the country. The agent Carmen Balcells, widely thought to be the most powerful figure in Spanish publishing, opened the auction at $1,000,000, within hours of the fair opening on Monday bidding had already passed the $1.5million mark...
  • Faber pre-empted World English Language rights in Stallo, a Swedish tale of the supernatural featuring trolls. The acquiring editor has compared it to Let The Right One In and Stephen King's Salem's Lot - apparently it's "very creepy".
  • Keeping with the undead-types, Constable & Robinson imprint Corsair bought UK and Commonwealth rights in the first two books in the Deadlands  series by Lily Herne (the series is published in South Africa by Penguin).
  • Swedish super-agency Salomonsson, who represent internationally-known Scandinavian writers such as Jo Nesbo, had a big trilogy by Anders de la Motte at the fair.  Ten foreign deals were closed in the lead up to the fair, and the agency conducted a heated auction between UK publishers for the work in the UK
  • US agency Foundry did a bit of creative deal making...they received a submission with a split narrative - an adult and teenage voice. Realising the potential, they asked the writer to split the book in two and develop both voices further...and at the fair they sold two books out of the original manuscript:  Cain's Blood.  One Young Adult title to Simon & Schuster and the adult title to Touchstone. *Ker-ching*!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012 | Part Two: China & delayed gratification

The sun rises in the East

Each year the London Book Fair has a focus and this year it was China. Thought-provoking talks were dedicated to exploring the developing tastes and buying patterns of this huge market, alongside the movement of Chinese literature into other languages and cultures, and vice versa.

Rising literary star Sheng Keyi, who's Northern Girls is soon to be published by Penguin Asia, spoke of the clash between old and new China and reflected on how "in most of [my work] I am trying to reflect the life and fate of the small villages".

We also particularly enjoyed Tuesday's author of the day Bi Feiyu - a prolific author and screenwriter with over 50 short stories, 10 medium-length novels and 4 full-length novels to his name.  Bi was in conversation with Rosie Goldsmith on the Pen stand. We learned that he achieved much of that extraordinary output by writing through the night, when he was working as a teacher!

Behind Bars & learning from failure

Another great lecture on the Pen stand, though not about China, was given by Anthony Horowitz who talked about his work with Prison Literacy and Reading schemes.

This is a cause I've got a bee in my bonnet about anyway... statistics vary, but it is estimated that 2/3 of UK prisoners are functionally illiterate.

BUT the good news is that Horowitz also spoke about his journey to publication - it took 30 years and a variety of media before the first Alex Rider book got a big reception. He said that he had benefited from this "failure" - he learned new skills, got to try out different ideas, and hone his craft. Worth bearing in mind when freaking out you haven't written a best-seller over the weekend ;)

Friday, 20 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012 | Part One: Dogs and Lawyers

The first of four posts from your correspondent at #LBF2012

Disunited we stand

The 2012 London Book Fair opened with a feeling of uncertainty - and some anger.

As the 25,000 industry visitors from 104 countries pounded the aisles of the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, they absorbed the news that last week the US Department of Justice launched an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of the "Big Six" publishers (Penguin, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group).

The inquiry hinges on the question of whether publishers, at the urging of Steve Jobs, agreed to adopt a new policy in 2010, that in essence coordinated the price of newly released e-books at the price offered in Apple’s iBookstore — typically between $12.99 and $14.99.

So far three of the publishers have settled; whilst Penguin, Macmillan and Apple maintain they have done nothing wrong and have told the DoJ "we'll see you in court".

As Trevor would say....and finally.  Every dog has its day.

English language business:

  • HarperCollins signed three new novels by best-selling writer Cecilia Ahern.
  • Simon & Schuster won out a six-way auction for debut spy novel Treason by former CIA clandestine operations officer Jason Matthews. The agent billed the title as "Tinker Tailor for the Homeland generation". Where can I  buy my copy!
  • As you will no doubt have heard, the title of JK Rowling's first title for adults was revealed - The Casual Vacancy. It will be published by Little, Brown this September.
  • Harvill Secker acquired Black Chalk by Christopher J Yates, a psychological thriller set in New York and Oxford University.
  • Penguin imprint Viking has bought world rights in The Numbers Game, billed as the first big book on football's data revolution, it's "Moneyball meets Freakonomics for football"
  • HarperCollins imprint Fourth Estate bought star journalist Hadley Freeman's Be Awesome: Modern Essays from Modern Ladies 
  • Macmillan bought two more two further series from the School of Life - the Great Thinkers series will be collectable pocket guides offering essential life lessons...handy for some of us.
  • Finally - believe it - Uggie, the canine star of silent movie The Artist has sold his rags-to-riches memoir to three publishers the UK, US and France. Harper UK said of their acquisition: "Uggie is enchanting. He has already graced Graham Norton's sofa and appeared on the BBC. We look forward to his author tour and making this the Christmas gift book of 2012. Move over Meerkats"....... 

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Writing Room Bursary: Part One

In February 2012 we announced Saudha Kasim as the winner of our first ever Writing Room Bursary. 

Scroll down to read Saudha's winning extract, taken from her novel In the Medinah.

Saudha's prize is a full editorial report, worth £1000 and prepared by one of our professional editors.

To shed a bit of light on the editing process we will be reporting on our winner's progress and her experience in The Writing Room.

The Competition
We asked writers to send us the first ten pages and synopsis of a complete work of fiction, on which they had not received any professional advice.  After reading all the entries (and then reading them again, after some panel disagreements - eat your heart out The Man Booker) we decided on Saudha, and the extract from her novel In the Medinah, as our winner.

We were really impressed by her piece, the confident yet subtle writing immediately establishes an engaging narrative voice with an intriguing backstory. The strong sense of place and activities of the wider world complement a finely-drawn family portrait, filled with intimate detail.

We wanted to read more.

Saudha has now submitted the full manuscript of her novel, and our editorial report is underway.

We've been getting a lot of requests from readers (and writers) desperate to read Saudha's work...we have great pleasure introducing her competition entry here.

The Winning Extract
Please note: Copyright remains with Saudha Kasim, you must not reproduce it without her permission.

In The Medinah
A novel
by Saudha Kasim

The Blow! What is the Blow?
Who shall teach thee what the Blow is?

-Sura 101, The Blow, The Koran

Part One – A Storm in the Desert

In the years and decades to follow, Shameem will, whenever she thinks of The Medinah and the years she spent there, remember this: night time drives on the swooping highways vending through the hills and the series of orange streetlights browning the mountains, yellowing the roads, shining on her father’s face.

She will remember the descent down the overpass, her mother’s soft sigh as her shoulders relaxed and her brother’s eyes closing from sleep as they went around the flying fish roundabout, briefly skirting the Corniche with the black sea beyond an unfathomable vastness. Her father would park the car in the lot in front of the long white row of buildings with walls that tasted of salt (she knew this to be true – she’d run her tongue on the wall of the local all-girls’ school one evening when her mother was not watching). They would tumble out of the car and the stink of the low tide would hit them – fishy, briny smells and Shameem would wrinkle her nose.

It will feel as though the smells are with her now, two decades ahead and a sea away.

Chapter One

On the Monday afternoon a week before the Americans launched their storm in the desert, Shameem knelt on the beige carpet in the living room with her nose pressed against the screen of the NEC television set. Nine of the ten channels showed nothing except black and white grains and one showed State TV that broadcast for nine hours every day. The three o’clock Koran recitation programme was in full flow. An old mullah with a thick, snowy beard that reached his navel sat at the head of a long green room in which prepubescent boys in spotless white dishdashas sat against the two long walls, facing each other across the width of an emerald green rug. Shameem, with her face flat against the screen, saw nothing but a bright green ground and white blobs reciting the Yāseen. Her nine year old brother, Rahim, sprawled behind on the two-seater sofa, spoke in a low voice: “She will kill you if she sees you like this.”

Shameem broke off her communion with the television screen and rocked back on her heels. The static still played across her face and her shoulder length black hair.

“There’s nothing on TV.” Shameem pressed each of the buttons again. She pressed the narrow panel on the side of the screen and it opened, to reveal the gear-like dials which she’d turned so many times that the tip of her right forefinger often had a fine groove down the middle. She had committed to memory the labels of each of the dials – UHF, VHF. Ultra High Frequency. Very High Frequency. Her father had taught her the mysteries of television tuning.

“Voltron comes on at four thirty.” Rahim thought the half hour episodes of Voltron, even when dubbed in Arabic – a language he didn’t understand – was the only bright spot in his day.

Shameem, who’d discovered the delights of English language-only television in Dubai (Channel 33, broadcasting for much longer than State TV in The Medinah), said, “I want to see Addams Family. Or Archie.”

But all that she got from the TV was the sing-song of  boys reciting the Koran.


When their parents, Abdul and Tahira had taken them to Dubai over the Christmas holidays, Shameem had been smitten. Rahim, however, had found the city, with its one tall skyscraper sticking out in the middle of all that flat land, its endless number of parking lots and claustrophobic shopping malls, intensely boring. The first view of Channel 33 in their hotel room had captivated Shameem (Sesame Street in English!) and she had asked Abdul on the second day of their stay, while they were having breakfast in a small restaurant in Karama, if they couldn’t get it on the television back home.

Abdul, halfway through a crispy masala dosa, frowned and said, “You could try tuning it. I don’t know if their transmissions are that powerful though.”

But Tahira, who knew how obsessions took root in her eleven year old daughter’s mind, cut in: “No. Don’t fiddle around with that TV set. School will start next week. You’ll have too much homework.”

“But they show Archie in English!”

“Archie? Your school has asked us to not let you read or even watch them. They even sent that notice around.”

A notice that Tahira and Abdul did not get from Shameem since their daughter had torn it up and thrown it away in the bus bay outside the school compound.

Instead, Tahira came to know about it from Amala, their neighbour on the ground floor. She had read the notice (Dear Parents, Please ensure that your children do not read Archie comics...Bad English...Slang...Grammatically incorrect) with pursed lips and thought of the little shelf in Shameem and Rahim’s room filled with the Archie digests and magazines and strips clipped by Shameem from newspapers.

“So are you going to throw them out? Maybe we can both collect them all and burn them on the roof together,” Amala, plump and matronly, had grinned.

“How many do Asha and Anita have?” Tahira thought of Amala’s two demure daughters, slim and prim with their long hair tied in plaits, ribbons knotted into extravagant bows.

“Maybe a dozen or so. They had bought a boxful from India last summer. They are too expensive to buy here. Most of the pages are blacked out. They don’t like two piece swimsuits and short shorts here.” Amala guffawed.

Those swimsuits and shorts that covered voluptuous breasts and backsides. Tahira had been furious when she’d first caught Shameem with a comic in one hand and half eaten chocolate bar in the other, the previous April.  Shameem told her that she had borrowed it from a school friend and Tahira had seen it for days afterward on her bed, next to the pillow. After avoiding it for some time, she finally gave in and opened the book. Tall, American girls loafed on beaches with their flat stomachs exposed, their perky breasts at attention when smiling at boys.

Tahira remembered the comics of her youth – the two scamps Boban and Molly making erudite comments on Kerala politics and gently poking fun of the adults around them. Boban and Molly were a world away from the lustful Archie and his gang. A bikini clad Betty wandering through Boban and Molly’s world would have been forcibly shoved into a sari and asked to keep her belly button to herself.

A part of Tahira had wanted to take the book away, to protect her daughter. What, she’d thought later, would that achieve? Shameem would find new ways to read what she wanted.

And she had, persuading Abdul to buy her some on their visit to Kerala last summer. Shameem had come back from Thrissur railway station with twelve Archie digests that Abdul had bought from the Higginbothams stall on the platform. Anything Shameem wanted to get or do, she invariably managed to get done.

It proved so in Dubai. Abdul, who Tahira thought spoiled their daughter far too much, quelled Shameem’s fears of returning to The Medinah bereft of the animated Archie. He said he would buy her a VHS tape of the cartoons. They would look for it the next evening when they went on their final shopping expedition.

In the somnolent hotel lobby stuffed with potted palms and plush sofas where they waited for Abdul’s cousin to take them on an expedition to Jumeirah Beach, Tahira told her husband not to buy the tape.

Abdul, reading the day’s Khaleej Times, was puzzled. “They are just cartoons.”

“They are not good for her.”

“I don’t see the harm in reading comic books. We read them – I still see you reading Boban and Molly.”

“Molly doesn’t roam around a beach half-naked.”

“Is that what Archie does?”

“Archie’s girlfriends do that, yes.”

“Girlfriends eh? So you read them too.”

“I had to – I had to know what she was reading.”

“Of course you had to.” She could hear the laughter he was trying to suppress.

“So will you please not buy her the tape? And remember – you promised you would search for an Ustad for them.”

“From Archie to religious lessons. You really make the most obvious moves. If they’re reading vulgar comic books, it must be because they have no religious grounding.”

“It’s not just me who’s been asking you to get them religious education. It’s your father, too.”

“My father, the Madarassa teacher. Of course he’d suggest something like that.”

“So you think they don’t need it?”

“Not at this point of time, no.”

“Then when?”

“Tahira – did going to the Madarassa help us? No. They didn’t even teach us Arabic properly. I had to learn it when I reached The Medinah.”

“When things go bad...”

“They won’t.”

“They will and you will blame me.”

That was how it always worked.


Abdul bought Shameem the tape when Tahira’s cousin took them around Karama the following evening to buy clothes and shoes, which were far cheaper in Dubai than The Medinah. Rahim, seeing his sister getting the tape, asked for cartoons as well.

“Which do you want?” Abdul asked his son.



The next morning, at dawn, they piled into the car and started their four hour journey back to The Medinah.

Tahira looked at Dubai disappearing in the side view mirror. The World Trade Centre, the lone black tower, receded to a thin dark line in the pale blue winter atmosphere.

At the border check-post they were stopped and the car searched. The video cassettes were found and confiscated by the Kingdom Police. Videos not checked and approved will not be allowed in, they explained.

Abdul said he had the receipt – they were just cartoons for the children. The men, impassive and lean, bored almost, said in Arabic that the law was the law. These VHS tapes were contraband, they couldn’t let them in to the Kingdom.

Shameem cried and sobbed all the way back. Not even a stop at a small provision store in a dusty town fifty kilometres from The Medinah to buy and drink cold packs of laban comforted her.

Rahim played with the watch he’d been gifted by Tahira’s cousin. He wasn’t mourning the loss of his Popeye tape. The watch, with a hinged dial the shape of a rhino and a built-in game was much better than the digital ones worn by his friends.

When they reached home – a two bedroom flat in a four story apartment building near the old souq and the Corniche – Shameem had cried herself to sleep.

Tahira let herself into the house first and as the children straggled in and went to their bedroom, she went to the cupboard in the master bedroom from which she pulled out the bag of comic books she’d hidden before leaving for Dubai.  When she passed the children’s room, bag in hand, she heard her daughter complaining. It was all Tahira’s fault – she wanted the tapes to go away. She must have prayed for it. Whatever Tahira prayed for, Shameem told her little brother, usually came true.

No, Tahira wanted to go in and tell her. Not everything.

Maybe she should give the books back to her daughter?

Then she remembered Shameem’s grades in the December exams – all Bs and a disgraceful C – and she carried on, out to the front of the apartment and to the empty lot where the municipal garbage bin stood. She threw the books in. A cat sprang out, hissing at her indignantly. Tahira watched it streak away. She was regretting it already.


Bereft of the tapes and the comics, Shameem had taken to the futile task of trying to tune the television to Channel 33 every day for a month. She had convinced Abdul to try as well but nothing happened. Occasionally she found flickering, ghostly figures.

“Channel 33?” she’d ask her father.


“What is it?”

She’d press her ears to the TV speakers and convince herself that the song was there, underneath the noisy static:

They’re creepy and they’re kooky

Mysterious and spooky

She hummed the rest.

“It’s not really there,” Rahim said.

The afternoon ritual of trying unsuccessfully complete, the groove on her finger a little more pronounced, she joined her brother on the sofa and watched Voltron and Ifthahya SimSim, Sesame Street in Arabic. They watched the letter ba turn into houses and oranges.

When both shows were over, Tahira pushed them to their bedroom where they sat at their small desks and cracked open their books. Tahira watched them write out their homework assignments as she drank a cup of black tea.

Shameem fidgeted in her chair. Rahim, quiet, placid Rahim, kept his limbs in place and in order. Tahira, her tea finished and cup cold, looked out the bedroom window. The almond tree cast a shadow on the wall of the girls’ school as the sun set. Somewhere in the neighbourhood goats were bleating. The breeze blew in from the sea, the branches of the almond tree shook and a chain clanged.

The quiet never lasted long here.


State TV showed the half hour English news bulletin at eight o’clock. In the days before the war drums were banged with increasing fury, they were sedate, soporific events. The King received diplomatic cables from other kings, presidents and prime ministers. The cables he answered to or sent were also read out – just the names of countries or leaders, never the details. He held his council in the middle of the desert somewhere. He appointed ministers and retired ministers. In between there was the odd bit of international news: Arafat featured prominently, as did Hanan Ashrawi. Palestinian children in a permanent state of flinging stones at Israeli soldiers – untiring and constant or so it seemed to Tahira, Shameem and Rahim, who would watch the scenes of the Intifada each day and feel momentary dread and despair. Dread and despair which melted away when anodyne pictures of Queen Beatrice or Prince Rainier meeting the King followed the daily Palestinian/Israel news. Abdul, alone in the family, did not react.

On some days the English news bulletin was read by the platinum blonde British expatriate Caroline Saunders, who, according to Abdul, was not really a journalist. She must have, he contended, known the right sheikh. Then again, most things to do with State TV and Radio meant knowing the right sheikh.

On days when Caroline Saunders didn’t read the news, Tabassum Ali read it. She was Indian, from Delhi, and had a proper journalism degree. This was an advertised fact in The Medinah. Most of the advertising was done by Tabassum’s mother, Jahannara Ali, a director of the Indian Cultural Association in The Medinah and a popular State Radio host. Tabassum’s father was Ajmal Ali, one of Abdul’s oldest friends, who’d divorced Jahannara and lost custody of both Tabassum and his younger daughter, Ruqsana, to his restless wife. In The Medinah, Jahannara lived under the patronage of Sheikh Hafeez, a close friend of the King, the Minister of the Interior and one of the most powerful businessmen in the Kingdom. Ajmal, separate from his wife and children, lived a more prosaic life, working as a chartered accountant for The Medinah’s biggest fruit and vegetable importer.

Jahannara declared often that she lived for Culture. Culture drove her life. It was what drove her to Abdul’s office every year, trying to drum up sponsorship for events put on by the association. Abdul, as office manager, had to put up with listening to Jahannara hold forth on the need to expose the Indian expatriates to Culture. He listened until it grew unbearable and let Jahannara talk to his boss, Sheikh Qahrawi. Qahrawi didn’t really care for Pankaj Udas concerts or kathak performances. He would sit through Jahannara’s passionate declamations about the need to reclaim and submit to the beauty of the Arts with a barely suppressed smile. Abdul, watching his boss reach for the chequebook and sign one off with a flourish, would ask after Jahannara left, “Why?”

“It’s a good thing.”

“You never attend these programmes.”

“No,” Qahrawi would gently nod, “No, I don’t. But a number of your people get pleasure from them. Even you.”

“So you’re doing it for us.”

“You people work too hard.” Qahrawi laughed.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Elephants at the gate - the Jaipur Literary Festival

I came back two weeks ago from India and the Jaipur Literary Festival, and have survived until now on the protracted glow of those eleven days.

I loved the country, the festival, the crowds. Loved seeing new people, meeting old friends.The festival itself is the most incredible experience: noisy, overcrowded, like a medieval city, people seemed to come to eat, drink, buy books, check one another out, listen to music, and often, without the inhibition of tickets or gates, surged from one canopied venue to another, one author to another – cramming in to hear Richard Dawkins here, or Ben Okri there, standing where they could, obscuring the exits, spilling out onto the lawns and cool passages of the shabbily elegant Diggi Palace. 

With an event of this size there were hiccups, of course, but not as many as you would imagine: writers cancelling, times changing. And controversy: Salman Rushdie was rumoured to be appearing and then did not, a squib that fizzled damply but dangerously, armed guards at the gate. Some younger writers, including my friend Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis, just out - find a copy), angered at Rushdie’s exclusion read from the banned Satanic Verses and were expelled from the event – and from the city. Oprah Winfrey appeared, stopped traffic and started a bit of a debate about the popularization of the festival.

The word I heard most often used to describe this event was democratic. But like India itself, the Jaipur festival might be democratic (India is the largest democracy in the world) but there is hierarchy everywhere. It’s a genuine paradox. The festival is free, and open to all. But there are layers upon layer of visitors. Some visitors register as delegates. Some register and pay a modest daily fee, these paid delegates having entry to a gated garden within the garden, where food is served and you can mingle with friends and authors (sometimes the same thing), and might be invited to an after-hours party, or two.

Four days of events, four days crammed with stimulation, noise, colour. There were clear, cool blue skies by day (a bit like Dumfries in high summer), and in the evening I found myself shivering by the battlements of some beautiful castle or palace. On the closing night, the party surpassed all others, and I found myself wondering - how do they pay for all this? The Amber Fort at dusk, with its sunken gardens with little rivulets running through, elephants at the gate as we arrived, camels, monkeys. Music. And some distinguished literary figures silhouetted in overcoats and caps against a starry desert sky, gently swaying to the beat of some strange Eastern fusion. I almost fell into an ornamental pond. The glamour of it all…

Ah, coming back to Edinburgh was not easy – so I detoured to Bombay for a few days, finding a different kind of stimulus there. There are poets in Bombay too – plenty of them. I travelled to India, spending a few days in Delhi before Jaipur and onto Bombay after the festival, with my friend the novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker Farrukh Dhondy. He is a Bombay native. How wonderful to spend a little time in someone else's world. How wonderful Bombay is. What a beautiful, resilient city. What a beautiful, resilient country...