Lockdown and writing with the boys

We were celebrating one of the younger cousin’s birthday, when the announcement went live.

We had been expecting it, of course.

“Well,” said the only other aunt who had showed up. “I suppose this will go down in family history as the Corona birthday party.”

We sat there, sipping our tea and coffee, while Ministers Slob and Bruins made the announcement. The room grew dark as twilight fell.

“A shame,” the other aunt said. “There was sun this morning.”

We made the appropriate sounds of assent and laughed at the sign language for hamsteren (hoarding).

Youngest son showed off a picture he’d made earlier in the day of empty supermarket shelves.

On tv the Minister says all pubs and cafes will be shutdown for at least three weeks; classes are suspended, and any gathering that includes more than your own immediate family is discouraged. And in particular, no visits to the elderly because they are the most vulnerable.

“That’s it then,” sister-in-law said. “So, I guess you should all go home.”

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I found myself thinking of absurdist movies and it may sound strange, but for a moment I couldn’t help but wonder if a director would jump out of somewhere shouting, “Cut”.

Of course, this didn’t happen.

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In the morning, my sons and I walk to the nearest supermarket. We’re out of bread and cheese, and we haven’t got a gigantic freezer or any kind of stockpile.

So, we walk because classes are suspended and I think children (regardless of age) need some sort of physical movement. I also believe that fresh air is good for you.

Already, the youngest son wants to know what’s on the programme for today.

I propose a short piano lesson.

“Not too long,” youngest son says. “Or else I won’t have time for anything else.”

Eldest son scoffs at youngest son’s declaration, but I promise that all we’ll do is learn the second phrase of Fur Elise.

“What about a short writing session in the afternoon?” I ask.

Both boys perk up and look interested.

“Is this going to be like the workshop you’re giving?” eldest son asks.

“Uh,” I look at youngest son. “I’ll have to adjust it a bit, but it might be fun.”

“Why not?” Eldest son says.

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Today we did two small writing exercises. Afterwards, I asked them if they would like to do this again tomorrow.

It looks like we will.

things I have been thinking about

I find myself thinking about spaces and the creation of spaces. I also find myself thinking about what it means to create space and to fill up a space.

I know there are lots of people who have thought about this before, and this is probably a thought that I keep returning to and which I will inevitably return to time and again. But still, I wanted to put my thoughts on the page, because I don’t want to forget them. Someday, I may return to this page and say to myself: look, you said that and so you must not forget about it.

Anyway, today’s train of thought was prompted by a question one of my students raised about the anxiety they feel when they start to write. I took some time before replying because I was very much reminded of the anxiety that paralysed me and kept me from writing or putting out any words for a very long time.

So today, I revisited Gloria Anzualda’s essay “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”, and then I went and re-read Marjorie Evasco’s “The Other Voice: Reply to Anzualda”.  Reading these two letters helped me to think about what to say to my student.

I had to think about my own struggle with different kinds of anxiety. In the beginning, writing and setting my stories in the setting of mountain culture, felt uncomfortable. I worried about whether I would be seen as commodifying culture and history. What if the stories I wrote strengthened a stereotype? What if people got angry at me for writing in this way? What if I failed to live up to expectations? What if I made a mistake?

There also was a time when I was angry at my failure to be content to just be someone who took care of the kids, cooked the food, cleaned house, washed and ironed clothes, and tended to the needs of a husband. There was always this struggle to find time, to find enough energy, to carve out space, to make my voice heard, and at the same time raise my kids, help provide for familial needs, and be the ideal partner/wife/daughter-in-law. Let me tell you already that I often felt like I was failing in spades.

In the period after my husband died, after my sister died, after my father died,  I remember feeling stranded and bound by anxiety and fear. I was hobbled by trauma and grief and loss, and I thought that maybe I should just forget about writing.

But I think that writing, once it has taken hold of you, will not easily let you go.

I didn’t say all of these things to my student. (The above is about me and my student needs to know what will be helpful to them in their journey.)

Instead, I asked what it was that made them anxious about the writing. What is stopping you? and most importantly, what do you want to write about (not just aliens or other worlds, but the issues you want to tackle in your stories)?

Then, I told them about what it is that I do when I feel blocked.

These days, I find myself reading and rereading essays, books, fiction, nonfiction. I walk a lot and talk to myself out loud. I drink lots of tea. Eat chocolate on a regular basis, and I write as much as I can whenever I can in any form that feels right for the words that come to me.

I attached Gloria Anzualda’s essay and sent it off in the hope that Gloria’s words will inspire and encourage another young writer to keep on writing and making space.

(Saw this mushroom on one of the walks we talk sometime last year. Mushrooms are marvellous beings.)

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what it’s like to be working like this again

I thought I would write an entry about what it’s like to be working in this way again. To be engaged in science fiction work and to be leading an intensive 7 day science fiction writing workshop spread out during the course of one month and one week.

This blog feels like a natural place to dream out loud about the future I would like to see happen. ( It helps that I know this blog isn’t widely read. Also sometime ago I switched off comments due to anxiety issues).

I do want to maintain some sort of public record of my thoughts and process and also because there are so many people who have inspired me (and who continue to inspire me) and who have so generously shared their light with me on the journey.

I am grateful to Other Futures organizer, Brigitte van der Sande who triggered this reawakening and made me move out of the safety of hibernation into embracing a dream that I let fall from my hands when keeping things together took up all the strength I had.

I think back to things I’ve heard said and things I’ve learned in the past. How there is nothing to fear but fear itself and how sometimes we get paralysed because we don’t know how to go from where we are to where we want to go next because we get afraid.

I will admit that going through loss and heartache made me feel as if there was no way forward because each time I took a step forward something would happen to pull me backward; and then, I would find myself drowning again and walking through what felt like an endless tunnel.

There have been points of light that helped remind me to keep going.  There was the surprise of the Milford writer’s workshop bursary (someday I would love to go again), the first Other Futures Festival (where I was still somewhat in a daze). Small meetings with dear friends like Dean Alfar and Victor Ocampo. Emails from friends and fellow writers–the memory of a rainbow while going out on a walk with Liz and Kari when I was in Wales. Time spent with Nisi. Nalo’s hug. Surprise packages from friends and loved ones–all the small reminders that made me remember that time would come when I would have space, time and energy to dream of things other than the day to day.

I am still in the process of discovering what I want to do next  but I am glad for the pushing and the prompting that has shaken me out of hibernation. And extremely grateful for Brigitte’s counsel because she made me realise that I can do more than sell clothing in a clothing shop. (I will note here that while I mostly enjoy that, in the back of my mind I am aware that it is me running away from trying something more challenging.)

In conversation with a friend I love, I talked about a dream that I thought I had to let go of. Back then, I had been wanting to do more than just a one day workshop but couldn’t quite figure out how that would work.

As I said to my friend, what I would love to find out is if such a workshop can grow writers who represent the multi-cultural nature of current Dutch society and if such a workshop could raise up writers who are willing to tackle social issues and raise questions that lead to social change.

I am hoping that Envisioning Other Futures will lead to other such workshops because I believe it’s important to create spaces where writers and artists feel safe when talking about the issues they want to write about. I think it is in creating such spaces that we will see work being born that challenges existing systems; work that will lead to the kinds of change that we want to see. And to make this happen, we need to build relationships of trust and we need to work together. Stay in conversation. Listen. Think. Talk things through.

(Came across this while on a long walkabout with friends. And then I had to think of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World”. A fascinating read.)

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an inspiring visit and our exquisite corpses

Yesterday was the fourth meeting of Envisioning Other Futures. A good part of our group caught some form of the flu and so attendance was down. Perhaps it was by chance but those present were the workshop participants who were born/raised in The Netherlands and who therefore speak/write/perform mostly in Dutch.

Roziena Salihu was with us yesterday evening as visiting lecturer and it was a real treat to have this wonderful and multi-talented artist in our midst. Roziena shared a film with us which was made for the VPRO programme Dorst. Fufu met Appelmoes which is also available on the VPRO’s YouTube channel, gives the viewer an intimate peek into what it’s like being mixed-race in The Netherlands.  The film is in Dutch, but it’s one that I would recommend as a must watch film not just because it connects on a lot of personal points with regards to the search for identity and belonging, but also because of the social issues and questions that arise from watching the film.

Roziena’s approach to her work and to the challenges that she encounters and faces provided us with lots of food for thought.  I am certain that a lot of what was spoken about around the table yesterday will find a place in the future work of these young writers.

To close the evening, we had a fun little game called “the exquisite corpse”. The resulting work evoked laughter and that sense of wonder which I believe is essential to writing science fiction.

(photo of collective work produced by Marielle, Storm, Anna, Germaine, Jasper and Yannick)

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Workshop update

Yesterday was the third day of the Envisioning Other Futures Writer’s Workshop. After an intense first two meetings with lots of in-class exercises, we had our first critique circle. For their first writing assignment, we created a shared world setting and I asked the writers to create stories/work in that setting. For me, it was important to see how far these writers are in their writing journey and also I wanted to know what else I could share with them. Given that they had less than a week to complete the first writing assignment, I found myself happily surprised by how many of the class made the effort and succeeded in completing a first draft. I am encouraged and delighted by the work the class is producing. In between, we talked briefly about the Dutch mindset and how this can stand in the way of allowing the self to come out and play and be imaginative and have fun.

In the afternoon, our first guest lecturer, Müge Yilmaz spoke to us about her work and process. It was such a joy to listen and to be inspired by her approach and her vision. Müge’s work is thought-provoking and inspiring and her talk reminded me of how artists and visionaries tap into streams of awareness that resonate with each other.

There’s a lot to think about and mull over.

I’m sharing a link to Müge’s website in the hopes that those who read this post will also be inspired by her work.

I want to write more about the workshop, the process and things I am discovering not just about my students, but about myself as well. The great thing about the workshop process is that as we share knowledge, we also grow in understanding. It isn’t a one-way street, it’s a process. I believe that to be an artist is to be constantly challenging oneself and to be constantly open to learning and to be constantly growing.

Envisioning Other Futures 2020

Tomorrow marks the start of Envisioning Other Futures, the Other Futures science fiction workshop.

Out of the applicants, we’ve selected 12 participants to take part in this first edition. It feels like a beginning, like a promise of things to come. I look forward to the workshop, to working together with, and to seeing what our participants will bring into the world.

The announcement with the names of the participants is here.

In preparation for this workshop, I’ve been digging back through my notes. Rereading Octavia Butler’s works–Furor Scribendi, Earthseed, Speech Sounds, Bloodchild.

Reading Octavia’s Earthseed, I find myself going back to that refrain:

All that you touch

You change.

All that you change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God

Is Change.

 

I’m holding onto these words and I am remembering.

Preparations

In the lead-up to the second edition of the Other Futures Festival which will be held in Amsterdam from the 10th of April to the 12th of April, I will be leading Envisioning Other Futures, a creative writing workshop with the focus on science fiction. The application period has passed and the selection process has been completed. Names of accepted applicants will be released sometime in the coming week.

It’s been a while since I last led a workshop and with Envisioning Other Futures, I hope participating writers will feel free to write in either English or Dutch. I am looking forward to the stories that will come out of the workshop and to witnessing fresh voices emerge from the workshop.

I am happy that we made a choice for guest lecturers from different disciplines, who can offer participants insights that I hope will compel our writers to look deeper than the known tropes.

After what feels like a long period of being out of it, I find myself returning to one of the things I love the most. Writing. Sharing what I know and nurturing others. 2020 is shaping up to be a great year.  🙂

Work in progress

I look back and realise it’s been about a year since I last wrote an entry here. It’s been a tumultuous couple of years and there are places in my memory that feel like black holes. I know I read books in the past couple of years, I just have a very vague recollection of them. I know I wrote some things, but I also don’t remember what. What I do know is that it’s taken time for us to reach stable ground as a family and it’s taken me time to reach a place where I can sit down  and find joy in the act of writing. It’s also taken me this long to be able to focus properly.

I know many people sent me emails and I know many emails went unanswered. It’s not because I didn’t read the emails, but more because I would start to answer and would run out of gas halfway. A lot of things happened like that not just to emails but to stories or essays I started work on.

Sometime last year, I got a message from the Milford writing workshop saying that I was being offered a bursary. After struggling with a number of things, I decided to accept the bursary and go to Milford. I wrote about the value of Milford and what receiving the bursary meant for me in a blogpost that’s now up at the Milford site. You can read the post here.

It’s pretty amazing to be writing everyday again. To be in the flow of a story that started with me pouring out my longing for my sister onto the page. I miss my sister every day. I miss the conversations and the arguments that we had. I even miss getting irritated and complaining about her being so set in her ways. Most of all, I miss knowing that no matter what, there was this one person in the world who knew me in and out and who would unrelentingly be always on my side.

The trigger scene for the opening of the current work in progress is one where my main character is crossing a bridge as part of a test. Her sister has vanished into a waypoint, but my main character refuses to believe her sister is no longer in this life. She believes she can still reach her sister. I’m sharing this snippet here.

Funny to think that I’m standing on this bridge when I was never the brave one. 

But I won’t give up. Not when I’d worked so hard. In my dreams, I speak to my sister. Spirit to spirit, heart to heart, just as we used to do when we were children lying next to each other in our room. I made her a promise and she made me one. 

When you’re ready, Apuyo, the commander says. 

Hold my hand, I whisper. 

Command has said that even though the pod emits a signal there is no proof of life.  Everyone’s given her up for dead; but I have seen no body, and no matter what command says, her spirit leads me on.  Strong and sure as when we were children in the mountains of Bughaw. 

I take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other, my arms stretched out wide. My sister’s voice is in my ear telling me to take one step at a time. I keep my eyes fixed on the end goal and I walk forward believing she will catch me if I fall.

Process: approaching the work

Am I still a writer?

In the time that has passed, I’ve asked this question on and off. I’ve wondered why I can’t just sit down and make myself write.

Sometimes, just the thought of writing is enough to make me anxious. I sit down and look at the page and wonder if what I write will be good enough. Will I be able to say what I want to say? How did I write before the world changed? And why must the world start up and go at full speed while I am still dragging my heels and waiting?

The work summons me. It calls to me. My gut churns. I want to throw up.

I know the work is waiting and even if I try to cover it up, inside my head, the work is already taking shape. It is simply waiting for me to sit down and write.

But when I sit down, my attention is led away by other things.

My eldest son must be reminded of projects he must finish if he is to graduate this year. Youngest son must focus and finish his homework. Paperwork beckons. We must make a decision on our house. We must speak to the insurance people. We must speak with the builders about the damage the last storm inflicted on our roof. We must. . . .

There is no end to the list of tasks.

But the work beckons and cannot be ignored and so, I sit and look at what I have written and think of how I will go on from here.

I think of loneliness, of displacement, of the world becoming empty and bare and of how the landscape changes and how we change.

When does the stranger’s touch become the touch of a friend? When does a lover’s embrace become a shelter? When does the foreigner become part of the landscape? When does the stranger start to call the foreign country, home?

How do we get there?

How?

I think of the world in its sad state and of how easy it would be to give in to despair.

I think of life and of being in a state of change. I think of the gaps between the spaces.

I think of what it means to go out on a journey, of what it means to leave everything behind.

I sit down.

The writing isn’t perfect. As always, it is flawed.

When the world opens up

A remarkable thing happened to me this past weekend.

We spent the weekend with a group of Dutchy friends in an area close to where we had had our last family vacation together with Jan.

There is a process to grief and grieving and I suppose that I had become quite an adept in avoiding certain places or things that would remind me of the past and of loss. It may sound strange, but I think a lot of my coping process lay in avoiding the painful parts and focusing on the present.

So there we were, out on a walk in the countryside, and my eldest son suddenly says: Mom, isn’t this the place where we spent our last holiday?

That last holiday was memorable, not only because it was the last one, but also because we were staying at a really nice place with a lovely view of mountains and with a road going down to the river where the kids spent a number of afternoons wading or trying to make pebbles skip on the surface of the water.

That’s not possible, I said to my eldest son.

But even as I said the words, we rounded the bend and there was a familiar sight. The same road, we had argued over taking, the same road going up to the apartments where we had rented a room.

And just like that, I was in tears.

The great thing about Dutch people is how discrete they can be and how they will let you be alone with whatever it is you need to be alone with unless you ask for company to share that moment with you.

Later that day, in a conversation with another mother, the subject of my writing came up. It is very strange to talk about your work as a writer when you feel like you aren’t one anymore. But we talked about it and about her seven year old daughter who writes small interesting stories. She asked me how long I had been writing and I told her that I had dictated my first story to my mother when I was three or four years old. She told me about her daughter doing the same thing with her. And as we talked, I realised how good it felt to be able to encourage someone–to be able to encourage a possible young writer in the art of storytelling. (It was also very lovely to meet a Mom who was keen on encouraging their child’s creativity in this way.)

In that moment, I felt a shift in myself. I don’t know how to describe it, but on the trip back, I kept thinking of the word Alive.

I also thought of the conversation I had with one of Jan’s closest friends and of how he told me about the world narrowing down when his father died and how at a certain point, the world opened up again. Different, changed, but no longer a tunnel.

I am still quite astounded by it and so I had to write it here. To mark it in some way.

Pain and loss have marked us, but we are alive and the world has opened up. We are no longer in the tunnel. I am finally allowing myself to look forward with something more than just the will to survive and to make a life.

I started writing again over the weekend. It is still raw and unfinished, but it is honest and truthful and it is science fiction.