February, 2014

  • Self-diagnosis

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    On 11/02/2014 • By

    I am trying to be funny. I am trying to be suitable for all ages.

    Things are not going well.

    Writing to a brief is, I’ve heard, a nightmare / a sign of being a sell-out or creatively bankrupt / impossible. I used to think it wasn’t all that different from writing a sestina or univocalism (one of my favourites is Joe Dunthorne’s This Is Crispin [link: http://fivedials.com/files/fivedials_no8.pdf]), where the constraints are sort of comforting, like the rule that you have to wait a half-hour after eating before swimming. You wait the specified time and you’re guaranteed not to drown.

    But that was before I tried to be funny, or have mass appeal.

    Among the adjectives that must not be applicable to this story: defamatory (please: I’ve studied media law – I know the UK is the last place you try that kind of thing); obscene; dark.

    A friend suggested that some darkness may be permissible, provided it is the kind of dark that could take place in a gastropub. Middle-class and -aged protagonists discuss their impending separation over quail eggs and polenta. That kind of thing. Given my usual subject matter – racism, riots, depression, cancer, sociopaths – it’s safe to say dark and obscene are in my wheelhouse. Quail eggs have yet to make an appearance.

    Writing to a brief is, I’ve realised, an opportunity to recognise what’s comfortable, in my case, being offensive and harrowing. It’s an opportunity to interrogate yourself: do you think art has to be dark to be serious or to matter? (Personally, no, otherwise CSI would be the most important work of art of all time.)

    So, back to the story. While there might be a pub, there will be no polenta or truffle oil. Hopefully, there’ll be a funny line or two. And if I’m lucky, readers won’t be able to tell that the writing of the thing felt like wearing someone else’s clothes, the clothes of a much nicer person than I am no doubt.


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  • Delete: Y/N?

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    On 11/02/2014 • By

    Cleaning up the hard drive takes much longer when you try to fix old stuff, or understand it. For example, what to think about this now?

    What kind of story do you want? I asked.
    One about animals, please. My soles warmed themselves on the tops of your feet. You were always the big spoon.
    Okay, I said. Once there was a cat called Dolores. She was grey with black tips. She fell in love with a boy that lived on her street. She watched while he played computer games and read Discworld books in his room. But she was always two panes of glass away from him.
    Is this boy me?
    Yes, I said. Don’t interrupt.
    Sirens flashed across the ceiling.
    So Dolores decided she wanted to be with the boy forever, but he never saw her. She rubbed against his ankles so much that local squirrels used the static electricity to power their microscopes. But still he didn’t see her
    Why not?
    I’m getting to that. Be patient. The boy never saw Dolores because she was the size of a blueberry.
    That’s impossible, you said.
    No it isn’t. Do you want me to go on or debate the physics of a blueberry cat?
    You laughed.
    Go on.
    Okay. So one day, Dolores snuck into the boy’s house when he was kicking his shoes off by the still-open front door.
    I know you hate when I do that.
    Well, it lets in the cold and a superfruit menagerie.
    You dragged your teeth across my shoulder as punishment then.
    Anyway, she snuck in and waited for him to go to sleep. Then she climbed up onto his bed, scaled his stubbly chin and slipped down his throat into his stomach, where she still lives now. The end.
    That’s not the end, you said. Her plan is stupid. Why his stomach? What did she do there? Is she responsible for all the growling?
    Yes. Now go to sleep. I closed my eyes and snored loudly, the way they do in cartoons. You laughed and shook me in your arms.
    I can’t go to sleep, you said. I want to hear about Dolores.
    That was Part One. I’ll tell you Part Two tomorrow, I promise.
    Good, I said.

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  • On the Dylan Thomas Prize

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    On 10/02/2014 • By

    How do you summarise the Dylan Thomas Prize Authors Week experience? I suppose there’s the admittedly-not-very-funny, untrue joke: I spent six days in Swansea and all I got was a lousy t-shirt that says “Cwtch the Bid”.

    There was also the reality-TV staples of surprise visitors, photo shoots, on-camera interviews and an overuse of the word “amazing”; a few teary phone, and the statements about opportunity, teamwork and people that would seem equally at home in a year-end company report.

    But none of those is good or right or enough. No one way of summarising or describing the time I spent with six other young writers in Swansea can accurately or adequately get across the what those six days were like, what they’ll mean to me for the rest of my life.

    There are so many ways to measure the time we spent in Swansea. In red wine and Diet Coke. In taxi drivers and time zones. In facts learned about Swansea and Port Talbot. In the faces of students who needed to hear that it’s OK to like reading, making up your own world and escaping into it. In fire alarms and run-ins with a young collie called Ted. In the number of times I desperately scanned Call it Dog looking for appropriate sections to read to 12-year-olds. In questions about who I’d support in Saturday’s rugby match (ashamed to report I sold out my country when put on the spot). In conversations about JM Coetzee. In shared experiences of being a young writer trying to cobble together an existence, promises to refer each other to our agents and publishers and friends. In the number of steaks Majok ate. In upcoming pancakes in Princeton, horse rides in Aberystwyth, rock climbs in the Peaks. In new friends, who will hopefully be old friends someday.

    I’m so lucky to have been chased by Ted the collie, to be, still, somehow, this tired. To have met students across Swansea and, most of all, to have met the other writers on the shortlist. And for that, I want to say thank you to The Dylan Thomas Prize and its sponsors, and especially to Peter Stead and Swansea University. Cwtch the Bid!

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  • On home

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    On 10/02/2014 • By

    I’m asked every day where home is. Over the years, the question has become more difficult to answer. If home is where you were born, it’s South Africa, and if it’s where you’ve lived for the past decade, the UK. But if it’s where the heart is, to quote the cliché, it’s sometimes both, most often neither.

    Emigrating at 17 means I have no childhood experience of England – the school dinners, white cider in the park, Button Moon – and I haven’t lived in South Africa as a grown-up. Even after 11 years and a citizenship test, I don’t understand Jaffa Cakes, the Sex Pistols or the ease with which words like scrounger and skiver are reeled off in pubs and speeches alike. I’m asked some days when I’ll go back. When I do, I’m called a limey or pom.

    It’s more comfortable for me to be flippant, to reduce the question of home – how important it is, what it means to feel homeless – to a bad joke about being able to understand the chocolate-orange flavour combination. That’s because I had a choice in leaving, and thanks to a visa quirk, the choice to stay. For so many others around the world, that’s not the case.

    In May 2008, the army was sent out onto South Africa’s streets for the first time since the end of apartheid. Across the country, armed mobs were hunting immigrants, knives, machetes and fire their weapons of choice. I watched videos of the men in khaki camo, with guns so big they needed both hands, on YouTube, the 24-hour news cycle already having cycloned on. ‘What do you do when your guest refuses to leave?’ a man asked, looking directly into the camera. ‘You tell them to go home, and if they don’t go, you push them out of your door.’

    Refugees were often refugees twice over: having fled poverty, violence and brutal repression in their countries of birth, they were evicted from their homes in South Africa, beaten and threatened, what little they had taken from them. Go back, was the message. You can’t stay here. Go home.

    For many displaced people, where they’d been born was no longer home. But neither, the fires and knives told them, was South Africa. Reintegrate, relocate or repatriate: their only options, as politicians leveraged the violence for their own purposes, all in the name of The Rainbow Nation.

    As I worked on Call It Dog throughout 2009 and 2010, I realised the novel is about what it’s like to be between countries, feeling at home in neither. It’s about what happens when we begin to believe the stories we tell ourselves, from the neatly packaged summaries of a country you’re no longer familiar with, to dangerous attempts to change history through violence or, as has often been the case, calculated inaction.

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