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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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.

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.

Process: Fire and Life and Story

Wrote 1647 words to the wip yesterday.

Worked on that story that I let lie for a long long time.

I am sitting at my writing desk–butt in chair, eyes to the screen. I plan to write and I plan to keep on writing.

I think of conversations had with friends about the writer’s life and the act of writing. I think of stories and I think of fire and I think of how what is twisted and cold and hateful will always try to kill what is warm and passionate and alive.

Fire and life.

I think of how we come to story from many different backgrounds. Half-scared out of our skins because to write story is to bare yourself to the world. It is to make yourself vulnerable and open to possible derision, to possible shaming, to possible rejection, to possible pain. And yet, we keep doing it. Again and again and again.

While sorting through the business of paperwork and thinking through how I should go on, I told the accountant who was helping me to deal with the finance side of stuff that I was working on my first novel. She smiled and told me that it’s a rare writer who is able to make a living off of their writing. I know this. I know this very well.

Still, I write.

I write because stories are life. They remind me of hope and joy and of the passion that is so vital to life. I know what it’s like to walk in this world carrying worlds inside my body–to have that feeling of knowing a place that is beyond the space my physical self occupies.

 

Story is a fire. It is my job to open the door, to make the fire so inviting that the reader can’t help but come in. It is my job to make the world I carry inside me become just as real to the reader as it is to me.

There is enough killing hatred in the world. There are enough people who populate the world with killing words and killing deeds.

Words have power. (Fantasy reminds us of this.)

I write to remember that the world is filled with infinite possibilities, that there is still hope, that we have the power to change, that we can change ourselves and the world around us.

Blow fire into your story.  Keep hold of your hope. Be contagious.

Work in Progress

Someone asked me how my experience of loss would affect the work in progress. I remember saying that I didn’t know. Would I have more death in my work? Would sorrow be more present? Would my characters change? In what way would the world and the characters occupying that world be changed?

A very dear friend of mine told me during one of our conversations that when she went through deep loss, she looked for the gift her loved ones had left for her to find. Looking is a painful process. So is letting go. So is moving forward.

Let go. Step forward. Change.

Our lives have changed drastically. Beyond the empty spaces, room has opened up for us and we are exploring and coming to terms with this new territory that is our life after loss.

Yesterday, I returned to working on Flight of the Body Cartographer. I understand better now how loss can touch me, can touch those I love, can change me, can change the shape and the contour of the world.

Looking back, I think there was still a lot in the wip that was rather vague or undefined. It felt to me like the draft of a draft even though it also felt in parts as if it was already complete.

Going back to the work yesterday, I understood the dissatisfaction I had felt with what I’d written down in the past.

During a visit, one of my husband’s friends said to me: after loss, the world narrows down. Colours are sharper. Your focus shifts and changes for a while. Then the world widens up, it’s still the same world, but different.

I think he was very right.

Like story, life is also a work in progress.

Things I learned: On Artistry and Art Life

Writer and storyteller, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, shared a link on her blog to a speech given by Ursula K. Le Guin upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In this speech, Le Guin speaks not only of the need for visionary writers, but she also speaks of the need to discern between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

At the end of her speech, Le Guin says that the name of our reward is not profit, it is freedom.

I think of freedom as I reflect and go through the notes and the memories that I have from New York and Janis Ian’s masterclass in artistry. Le Guin’s words resonate with the lessons learned from my time with Janis.

In New York, Laura and I talked about Janis’s commitment not only to her art, but also to taking hold of the business aspect of her art practice.  It was an aspect that she brought up a number of times and listening to Le Guin talk of freedom, serves as a reminder that whatever proceeds come from the exercise of one’s art–they all go back towards the artist being able to keep on practicing that art.

The practical truth of it is that we cannot exercise or develop our art when our energy is gone, when we are too tired or worn out, or when we our head is filled with worry.  I think of how I would never have finished or published the stories I have if not for being given space and time to practice my art free from the stresses and the tensions of daily life. I am grateful to my fellow practitioners–to the artists and writers who have opened their homes to me and who have so generously given me flights of freedom.

Freedom.

To be able to practice our art in a space and time when we are free from thinking of anything else but that practice is a vital and precious good. The writer cannot live without writing, and practicing art means we must be able to center ourselves on the work most of all.

Which then leads me to a question Janis Ian asked repeatedly in various sessions:

“Who among you wants to be famous?”

In thinking on that question, we are forced to recognize that fame does not equate into freedom, fame is not the same as success.  Indeed the boundary between fame and notoriety is so thin that it’s easy to cross over without realizing it. Rather than fame,  I value more the freedom to practice my art, and the knowledge that I have remained true to my vision.

Because, as Janis Ian reminded us, no one else has the vision that we have; and while there are many things in this life that can be faked, talent and art can never be faked.

Even as she said these things, she reminded us too that talent is not enough. The artist must do the work–must master their craft. If talent is a spirited horse, craft is what will ensure that your talent will not run away with you. In the course of the week, Janis continued to emphasize the need for artists to grow and add to their skillset (what we also call our toolkit). As artists,  we need to be constantly developing ourselves.  Being equipped with a wide range of skills makes us capable of answering to the call of opportunity.

I think of these things and I think to myself–the sky is unlimited.

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One of the interesting features of our week was what Janis called the Museum Wall. At the end of the week, we were asked to answer the question: What does all great art have in common? I’m sharing the image of the wall here. You answer the question.

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Things I learned: New York and Janis Ian’s Masterclass in Artistry

 

This time’s visit to America was started off by me singing lines from “Seventeen” to the customs officer at the entry point to New York.

“So, what do you intend to do in New York?” he asked me.

And because I had been bottling up my excitement for so long, I did a fistpump, smiled wide and said: “I’m here to meet Janis Ian.

When the border officer shook his head and failed to recognize her name, I decided to give him a song sample. ( I also said: You’re an American, how come you don’t know that this woman is one of the best American Folk Singers ever?)

Imagine me: standing in JFK, a row of tired and grumpy people standing behind me, and there I was, bursting into song.

The guy behind the counter shook his head (he didn’t recognize the song!). Still, he laughed (he’d been quite solemn), wished me a wonderful visit, and stamped my entry ticket.

As I walked away, I heard the lady who had been standing behind me give the officer a loud and cheerful greeting. I hope the officer was smiling still.

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One of the things Janis Ian taught us during the week in New York, was that fear is a construct. Except for atavistic fear, every other kind of fear is something that we’ve learned and what can be learned can be unlearned.

When I was standing in that line, I thought of my first visit to the US when I could hardly say a word to the officer behind the counter and ended up getting detained and interrogated for about an hour. I felt the familiar tickle of stress and the teary urge to break down.

Then, I realized that I’d traveled a long way. Friends had offered me this chance, and I couldn’t possibly spoil it by giving way to stress and anxiety. So, instead of mumbling through the interview, I squared my shoulders, spoke up and followed through with the song routine because…well, the worst thing that could happen was that they would send me back home again. (Also, who cares what people in line thought of me. The likelihood of them seeing me again was so small.)

The week with Janis Ian was marked with so many instances where I had to face up to the constructed fears that stood in the way of me doing things.

Coming out of JFK, I felt a huge burst of confidence. I was in New York, standing on the edge of change.

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To the artist, change is a constant. If we’re lucky, change means growth and development–a deepening of the work, a deepening in insight, growth in perception and understanding. Maturity not just in the work but in ourselves as human beings.

The following statement is in The Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s preamble:

Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. 

I would dare to exchange actor with artist and say: Growth as an artist and growth as a human being are synonymous. If we remain stagnant, if there is no growth, what does this say about our art? What does this say about us? What does this say about our practice?

Regardless of what field of discipline we occupy,  our exercise of our art, our commitment to our work is what differentiates us and binds us together in a global community.

On twitter, I posted a question Janis Ian asked that I felt is very key to all of us who are engaged in the practice of art: “Whose bones are you standing on?”  

There’s so much to unpack about that question. So much that can be said about ancestors, about the litany of names that have brought us here and continue to carry us through. We are one in a chain and I am grateful for the bones I’m standing on.

Check out the board below and think on these things.

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Sunday Morning Rambly Thoughts

Finding the words to talk about new adventures is often challenging. Here I am in New York City,  I have met one of my musical idols, have met with women I love and admire, and have found myself engaged in conversations that challenge me, inspire me, and compel me to look at various interactions in my life with new eyes.

Janis Ian said to me that it seemed to her that I was at the start of something new. I can’t help but agree–whenever I come to America ( once for the CW workshop and now for Janis’s masterclass), I find myself at a point where I must make decisions that may seem tiny to some, but are the equivalent of life-changing to me.

I find myself thinking of the Robert Frost poem that my sister loves so much–that one about two roads diverging into a wood and I can’t help but think of how life brings each of us to these forks in the road. Do we take the left? Do we take the right? Do we take the road that’s safe and known, or do we take the one that’s less travelled? And as Frost has said: the road we choose will make all the difference.

Making a choice isn’t easy. I find myself wishing that it were, but I don’t think life is meant to be easy anyway. I came out of a loving home, a nest where I was sheltered as well as my parents could, but even when there, I had to make a choice on whether to stay cocooned and separated from the hardship of the world around me, or to engage and see and know and understand that the society we live in isn’t egalitarian.

There is a larger mass who grow up in the absence of that access to shelter, to good nutrition, to healthcare, to education and the numerous minutae that we take for granted. Things we consider as simply being, are often luxury. Take for instance how here in the West, we take running water for granted–back home, running water is a luxury that only the very wealthy have access to–and then it is only the super-rich who can be assured of that kind of luxury where they don’t have to worry about whether there will be water tomorrow or not. Having grown up with this absence, each time I turn on the tap, I remember how my mother would caution us and tell us to conserve and recycle water.

Luxury.  To not have to worry that the tank will run out.

It’s easy to grow comfortable, to become complacent and inured to the hardship of the world. As long as it doesn’t touch us, we can rage, we can shout our anger, but we are still cocooned because that hardship is at a distance.

A white man can never fully comprehend the hardships a black man goes through. It’s easy for non-blacks to bagatelize the uncertainty of life as a black person. ( This is what happens when we say #alllivesmatter when black folks say #blacklivesmatter.)

Much as we want to believe that we live in a society where we are all equal, we do not and we need to make choices. Those choices won’t always be easy, they won’t be the road well-traveled, but choosing to walk that road, choosing to leave the comfort of the cocoon behind, choosing to open our eyes, step out of the box, engage fully, embrace the uncertain and the uncomfortable–these things, they do make a difference.