Siren, by the sea

A pair of speakers whirs on a stand in a forest of such stands, at different heights, humming at different electronic pitches under the high cupola. Otherworldly.

We wander into St Mary-in-the-Castle in silence, as instructed. Guide ropes mark out where we can and can’t walk in the space. Giant tripods hold their thin rod-arms outstretched, doing yoga, ready for ballet. We gaze around at the circular galleries and up at the eye of daylight in the cupola’s peak. Then two men get busy, straight-backed and unsmiling. One twists a screwdriver (perhaps) in the workings on one tripod. Tiny speakers at each end hum their note, each under a pinprick of red light. The men cock their ears, make adjustments, nod to each other when satisfied, patrol off on soft rubber soles to the next station. For some, they have to crouch down, for others they climb step ladders. The arms circle slowly, later more quickly, humming a hypnotic blend of harmony and anxiety, the sound rising and falling when I walk between them but also when I keep still.

The two men stride silently, ever active. They remind me, in their felted grey suits, of electronic musicians performing in the 1990s. I may remember them most clearly of all, their performance of doing art, paying attention, modulating the notes.

 

 

The house lights fade, leaving us in a dark heaven of slow-circling red stars that speed up over time, as one with the sound.

 

I loved all of Siren, for its wondrous self and also because the experience seems to me like the essence of living in Hastings – a faint tang of sea air in the room, exhilarating performance within a few yards of an amusement arcade, all of that, yes, but more personally the unexpected depth and pleasure of what may seem simple, staying in one place, paying attention. Sound and light. Focus.

Composed and performed by Ray LeeSiren featured on the 2017 Coastal Currents programme.

When We Speak of Nothing

The book on my table …

Published 3 July 2017 and refusing to take its place in any to-be-read sequence, Olumide Popoola’s new novel bursts out from line one, just as its gorgeous cover promises.

This isn’t a review or even a preview – more a shout-out of enthusiasm and congratulations.

For a powerful taste of the novel, listen to an excerpt on video, voiced by a young man.

You can find out more about the novel from:

  • the publisher, Cassava Republic
  • Olumide Popoola’s website
  • reviews like this one (some spoilers), or this one, or just google it – there’ll be plenty of new ones
  • interviews with Olu, such as this one
  • events including the launch party in Shoreditch, London, 16 July 2017, 6 – 9 pm

Best of all, open a copy and enter Karl and Abu’s world. Kings Cross. 2011 …

Remembering the Calais Jungle

When I visited the refugee camp in Calais with Olumide Popoola – conducting research for our book, breach – I imagined a day when the place named the “Jungle” would no longer exist. We’d all prefer, wouldn’t we? that those forced to flee their own countries receive protection, safe passage and opportunities to build new lives. With none of these assured, however, the camp has been demolished. At least for now, the Jungle in Calais is no more.

Along with hardship, violence and uncertainty, the Jungle also offered some kind of community. Keeping in contact with under-age refugees scattered across France, Professor Sue Clayton noted that many of them wished they could return to Calais. Sue was presenting clips from her new films at Calais Stories, hosted by Goldsmiths University’s Centre for Feminist Research and the Migration Research Network. At the same event, where I read excerpts from breach and discussed representation, two colleagues from the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, Drs Aura Lounasmaa and Cigdem Esin, described how they have engaged with and supported refugees to tell their own stories.

Using real names, appearing in photographs: these are freighted ethical concerns for refugees and for those of us seeking to convey their experiences. They remain issues even once someone has been granted asylum: does she or he want to be identified with this period, internet-archived, for the rest of their lives?

I’m a dedicated camera-phone snapper. Some might say over-enthusiastic. But I restrained myself in Calais – it was difficult to take a photograph that didn’t show someone’s face. But I did want a few images to jog my memory later. After the Goldsmiths event, I revisited my file of Jungle photographs and realised that several of the moments I’d captured (not particularly well) are associated with specific stories in breach. If you’ve read the stories, you might recognise them. And if you spent time in the Jungle, you probably have similar images and memories of your own.

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  1. “the fierce white fences that line the railway tracks and the road to the ferries”

* see below for the story title and page number

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2. “one of those absurdly riotous sunsets … crimson streaking into fuchsia”

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3. “a playing card on the newly laid white gravel of the pathway. The Joker.”

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4. ” ‘Always fires, so easy here.’ ”

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5. “The camp feels a lot less like a music festival this morning.”

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6. This image does not feature directly in any of the breach stories but I won’t forget it. Sunlight streaks into a smokey canvas shelter where I am sitting with Olu and a group of refugees round a fire. We’re drinking tea, laughing and talking. Someone drops his bicycle on the sand outside and ducks under the tent flap to join us.

Thank you, kind strangers and new friends, for your hospitality.


* Story titles and page numbers:

  1. “Oranges in the River”, page 127
  2. “The Terrier”, page 44
  3. “Paradise”, page 81
  4. “Lineage”, page 123
  5. “Paradise”, page 77

Talking Italian

As editor and co-author of breach, Meike Ziervogel and I presented at the Babel Festival of Literature in Translation, held in the galleried Teatro Sociale of Bellinzona, Switzerland in September 2016.

Like its print offspring, Specimen Press, Babel is the creation of director and poet Vanni Bianconi. In London as a Second Language, Vanni walks the reader through the vocabulary and philosophy of  a life in translation, text juxtaposed with photos by Xiaolu Guo. This year’s festival theme – Greater London, appropriately – gathered poets, fiction writers, photographers and publishers: Ma JianXiaolu GuoLinton Kwesi JohnsonNadifa MohamedSulaiman and Saleh AdonisSpecimen and Adania ShibliDon PatersonChloe AridjisAlessandro Leogrande and Alganesh Fessaha.

 

The Babel team translated a section of the breach story “Ghosts” into Italian – my first (delightful) experience of hearing my own scenes and characters read aloud in that language. The audience had questions about Calais, migrants, commissioned fiction and the process of sparking imagination from experience. Olumide Popoola couldn’t be there and we missed her.

 

breach is not (yet!) available in Italian, but people bought respectable numbers of the English version and brought them for signing and discussion.

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A good festival feeds one’s spirits – engaging with people who care about books and the world. Babel gave us the Alps as well as bonhomie, literary passion and lots of wine. (Read Meike’s blog for more from this angle.)


The next day, after plenty of good coffee, a group of us walked the hillsides and castles circling the town.


I still can’t say anything new in Italian – but grazie mille from the bottom of my heart – and arrivederci.

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“breach” launch in Piccadilly

So, this happened on 5 October 2016 in Waterstones‘ Piccadilly store. Lucy Popescu chaired a discussion with publisher-editor Meike Ziervogel, co-author Olumide Popoola and me. Thanks to friends, supporters and interested readers for filling the 3rd floor events section, and special thanks to Wien de Smet for photographs, mic expertise and general splendidness.

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Beautiful bookshop

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Olu, Annie

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Audience

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Fabulous co-author and friend, Olu

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Excellent cover – thanks to brilliant designer, Sacha Davison Lunt!

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Thanks for great questions!

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Thanks, Brian Chikwava!

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Thanks, Lucy!

And if you’re disappointed to have missed the launch, don’t despair. On 3 December 2016, Peirene Press’s winter salon features Olu, me and breach. 

You can buy breach from your favourite online or physical bookshop, or from Peirene direct.

All photos: (c) Wien de Smet, 2016

London launch of breach – 5 October

Please join Olumide Popoola and me, in conversation with our publisher-editor Meike Ziervogel, chaired by Lucy Popescu, at 7 pm on Wednesday 5 October 2016 at Waterstones, Piccadilly, to launch our collection of short fiction inspired by interviews and experiences of the refugee camp in Calais.

If you can make it – and we hope you can! – RSVP to piccadilly@waterstones.com as they’d appreciate a sense of the numbers.

breach was reviewed in The GuardianThe Herald Scotland and by several literary bloggers.

Our “narrative panache”

breach and art

Woke up on 29 July to find ours was Book of the Day on The Guardian website.

I cannot recommend this too highly as a happy-making start to a Friday.

Co-author Olumide Popoola and I were on blog tour last week with our publisher, Meike Ziervogel, and now Peirene Press is posting links to lit blogs and reviews as they come in.

Monday 1 August 2016 is publication day. Pre-ordered copies of breach are already in the hands of readers including Lesley Ruda in San Francisco – that’s her photo above. This stage in the journey – what do readers make of our stories? – is scary, fascinating and, so far, most pleasing.

Easily one of the strongest works of fiction I have read this year. INWORDSANDINK

Fine, suspenseful fiction springing from human lives in extremis … rich with ambiguity. Kapka Kassabova

photo by Lesley Ruda