I’m not blogging much. I’m writing a new book at the moment as part of #NaNoWriMo. And I’m simultaneously taking part in the University of Iowa International Writer’s Program online (free!) Storied Women: How Writers Write Fiction course, which is brilliantly eye-opening in its approach. As this week’s assignment, we were asked to write a story with multiple distinct female characters. Because I’m generally book writing in first person present tense (this seems the most natural way, but sometimes it’s so frustrating not being able to step back into a more objective perspective), I thought I’d try something different for this story. It’s a story which could tentatively be filed away under ‘character study and/or history’ in my drafts folder, and it is in past tense, which is a change for me, and nice. I’m learning so much about point of view, about desire, conflict, interiority and motivation that it feels like new seeds are being planted all the time. Not just from this course, but from the very excellent introductory Writing YA course by Keris Stainton, which I’ve just completed, and which I’d highly recommend.
After this story, you can scroll down and read a very different one and you’ll understand how much I’m loving experimenting with all this. Of course, I’ll end up with a zanily schizophrenic first draft but we are making no judgements on the quality of our first drafts around here. Just on the doneness of ’em. Write them. Then make them make sense. Onwards…(p.s. if you want me to keep you up to date on book news, do read this post and add your name to my books mailing list at the bottom. xJ )
Bulgaria, September 1985.
It had been a late September afternoon and Mama would soon put her black tunic away, although she’d keep wearing the kerchief. Later Baba’s hand, deathly dark from walnut, would shake as she tried to fish the thin beeswax candles from the regulation twist of brown paper. We would light them and the honey notes would mingle with the neighbour’s roasting aubergine and pepper. Our own peppers were withering husks down the end of the yard; Baba seemed to have deflated and hardened those last twelve months and the watering of the garden, or not-watering, stuck out, a black mark on all of us. But me, mostly. I wondered whether she would turn into a walnut herself.
‘God have mercy on that poor child—‘ and I remember the vast swelling grey of the clouds up past the lolling grapes where God was forbidden to be. Mama looked at her mother-in-law, she must have, although I don’t remember seeing it. I could feel the look, feel its rat-a-tat. Was I that poor child?
‘Eleno—not in front of the little one,’ came Mama’s voice and I remember the braveness in it, the edge. Mama’s knife, busy gouging black eyes from the potatoes, instead punctured her palm but she didn’t cry out, just stuck a scrap of cold raw peel on it.
Grandmother’s black claw seized my chin then and the sharp tang of walnut drove itself up into my sinuses until my eyes hurt. ‘Not in front of the little one?’ she repeated, and I knew that her contraband God wasn’t having mercy on me. She dropped my face, muttering incantations, went back to scalping those miniature walnut heads, and I searched with my tongue until I found what I wanted: a tiny piece of creamy fresh nut flesh wedged behind my soon-to-be-gone baby tooth which had been leaning like a madman. I sucked on it but wasn’t comforted. Slowly I melted back and into our mother’s apron, whose utilitarian hem smelt woody, of the dense buttery mushrooms she and I had been hunting on the way back from kindergarten; me heady with an enforced afternoon nap, her in a guilty joy at the hunt. It seemed that all joy was guilty that year, and our grandmother, sensing my thought, turned again, so I shrunk back and sunk my hand into my pocket where the two perfect halves of shell were still clasping each other, stuck with a blob of sap from the cherry tree.
‘Carrying a girl and you had the gall to gather mushrooms!’ came the words, rat-a-tat. Mama put down one potato and picked up another, smoothly, without pausing.
‘Eleno—‘ but Baba was on a roll.
‘And when pregnant with a girl, gathering mushrooms will a venomous daughter make.’ I could see the full stop, the declaration then, and I knew that our grandmother would never forgive me. In her mind, there you were: the lost twin, almost a year in the ground, whose white ribbons were buried with her and whose neck had been snapped carelessly by the actions of a venomous child. Me. I could see that it was your absence that was wilting the garden, unbalancing the tiny bench we’d used to sit on for tea parties under the mulberry tree. You were there, an illegal ghost, a better copy of me in every way apart from the obvious deadness of you. Your absence had sent the storks back to the south early this year, the sow lacklustre enough to flatten two of her litter, the peach leaves to curl and shrivel. It had blighted the tomatoes, scared the hens into pecking each other almost to the white down, brought blackfly to the beans and worms to the once-voluptuous pears.
I wasn’t old enough to really understand what venomous might be, apart from the one mental picture of a horn-headed viper—a pepelyanka—curled around the sleeping figure of you. Did I suffocate you like that even in our mother’s belly? Why had the mushroom gathering only sent me venomous, only turned me into a snake, and not you? You used to be the other half of my sentences, the understander of secret languages, spitter-outer of salty sunflower shells (I could spit them further than you in our backyard olympics), the sharer of the one squeezy special, Moscow 1980 bear, who now slept under my pillow in the bed that used to be ours. I ran out then, before I could hear anything else Baba had to say, in search of some animal warmth; a kitten, or even a goat, but the goats were still out grazing and the sun patch usually occupied by the cats was empty. I poked my stumpy finger into an ant burrow and imagined how if it had been your finger instead of mine, there would be no risk of poisonous gases flowing out from the nail bed and gassing those ants. I rocked back and forth on my heels as I squeezed my eyes shut to try to bring back that day the previous year, but it was so blurry: we had only been little. You’d been in the road waiting for the goats and sheep to come past, waiting for our grandfather to come back with his stick and I’d been…what? I only remember kicking through the chamomile on the edge of the road, disturbing the orbs of walnut: some green, some already brown. I remember looking for a stick long enough to reach the top branches, although those were higher than the house, so I might as well have been trying to reach the sky. Moscow Bear was there, wasn’t he? Was it your idea or mine to play olympics? We could use the nuts for shotput, too-light though they were, and when you—or was it me?—found that perfect stick, long and supple enough for pole vault, light enough for javelin, we were set. Whose idea was it to climb the tree? We knew not to climb walnuts, knew they were the death of fine young men, knew the branches were brittle. I can’t remember how you fell. I just remember how you looked like a doll on the ground, little yellow and white ferny flowers your crown, and the shrieking mixed with the bells of goats as we all ran to you.
And here’s the second exercise: writing in first person, from the point of view of a teenage immigrant to Britain:
They Cross Their Fingers Here.
Here are my notes for others who come here, before I forget what it was like. Although, I don’t think I will:
1) You won’t believe the sinks. You will stand there wasting water, feeling as if your ear will be pulled for it, but unable to stop staring at the cold pissing out of the one tap and the hot out of the other. You will feel like the world has done a handstand because it will take you months to get used to flicking your hands from cold to hot to cold to hot and you will remember the apartment, you will remember the low stone sink all tiled salmon pink for washing fish and potatoes and butts and you will remember that it had a mixer at least and you will go WTF.
2) The first time someone asks you how are you, you won’t understand that it isn’t really a question. When they say how are you they just mean *blink. I see you.* So when you say “very bad” or “so-so,” you will make them upset, so don’t do that. The only answer to how are you is fine thanks even if you are dying.
3) After the first three weeks of your mind exploding from teachers being nice to you and cars stopping on zebras, you will get the fucking chills. You will want to shout at the lady in the corner shop, clap her around the face, get a red on her, drag the shibano sun from behind the clouds, because you have never known a grey so heavy, not even the shittiest dags hanging under uncle Zhoro’s sheep’s tail come close. You will spin in circles in your room (your room, I know! No baba, no parents crashing your space; they have their own rooms here). You will have nightmares where you suffocate in cloud, and when you wake up and fly down the stairs (fitted carpets!) there will be junk mail to suffocate you more before breakfast.
4) Pasta for dinner WTF.
5) You will want to die every time you have to speak in class. Those English lessons at Europa School were teaching some other English; this one lives in the backs of their throats and half in their jokes and you have never felt so lonely in your life. You will hate your parents for bringing you here, for the way they spew the words all wrong, or if they’re right the stress is all wrong and you cannot stand bringing them to parents’ evening or anywhere because they don’t even notice they’re doing it. But you will. When the natives speak, you’ll be trapped behind thick glass, watching their lips and squeezing your thumbs* to absorb it somehow. They will seem like wizards until they don’t, and you’ve become one without realising, but your parents will always and forever be freaks, sorry.
6) You will remember the long drop toilet at baba’s house and the way people drove like suicide missions and how everyone joked about turning the gypsies into soap, and you will be ashamed, despite the mountains. You will miss banitza but not miss it, you’ll want to go home but never go home, you’ll always feel like that pink line 2.5cm from the left of the ruled double-punched paper you use for chemistry reports.
7) You will love your tits and your thick, dark pubic hair, but you will feel like a circus against the whiteness of them. You will learn to be modest for the first time ever. You will begin plucking those hairs from around the purple ring of your nipple even though the tweezers are toothless and it takes all night.
8) You will be OK.
*They cross their fingers here.