Friday, 19 July 2019

Pigeon by Jan Edwards

Like many people we feed the birds in our garden and we have a resident pair of wood pigeons.  Bold creatures who barely bother to flap a few feet up into the tress when you pass by.  Today for example, having out some fresh supplies in the feeders I pass within feet of this cheeky bird four or five times, almost close enough to touch it.

When I was growing up on the farm in Sussex pigeons my father generally saw pigeon as, at best, a tasty meal or worse as a darned nuisance. They didn't just eat the farm crops but also his precious garden veg; especially the brassicas, which, ironically, were a splendid accompaniment to pigeon pie.

Not that we ate pigeon often. they are bony and fiddly to prepare and not nearly as easy to procure as rabbits or even pheasants. I can say this now, as Father is long gone, but throughout his years as shepherd and farm hand Pop was also a prodigious poacher; augmenting the low wages of a farm labourer in those times with free meals to go with all those veg from the garden.  (Fictionalised in my nostalgic novel Sussex Tales : Amazon US / UK.)

I spoke recently about how smell is often a key to memory and a useful tool in a writer's toolkit.  But sound is as emotive if not more. The distant cooing of pigeons in the coppice across the field from where we lived was a constant backdrop, mostly it reminds me of long summer days laying in the grass with a good book. But also of cold winter walks when the ground is hard with frost and the trees bare. Its a melancholy sound, that can make you feel so very sad, raising goosebumps with its soft, drawn out calls. Yet, at the same time, for me at least, it was also a comforting note, in some odd fashion.

Father may have cursed them, and Mother hated cooking them, but for me they are a handsome reminder in sound and vision that the world is not all bad. It was pigeons which sprang to mind in the opening chapters of Winter Downs, my first Bunch Courtney, along with the a flurry of rooks calling from the tree tops. Pigeons were a staple food stuff during the war years in which these books take place and the Courtney sisters muse on the delights of pigeon cooked with pears and ginger.
For me, however it is the sound of pigeons and rooks and the distant call of the sheep that conjure my childhood.


Winter Downs AMAZON (PAPER AND KINDLE)  US  / UK/  /  AU 
Digital sources:
Apple /  Barnes and Noble Nook  . Biblioteca  /Kobo / Kindle, Overdrive, 

In Her Defence  Amazon US / UK/ AU / Indie Bound / Book Depository/ Wordery /  Waterstones  /  Foyles
Barnes & Noble  / Baker and Taylor – Apple Kindle US / UK / AU/ Barnes &Noble Nook /Kobo  /  Scribd / Tolino / 24 Symbol

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Writing Dystopias, by Elizabeth Kay

Dystopias have become a major part of fiction over the last few decades, and with our current awareness of the state of the planet are unlikely to go out of fashion. It is, of course, much easier to write a dystopia than it is to write a utopia, because we all have such different ideas about what, exactly, constitutes a perfect world. Imperfect worlds are all around us, and scientific predictions about what the next century will bring are terrifying. An abbreviated definition from Wikipedia reads:

dystopia is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as “not-good place” and is an antonym of  utopia, a term that was coined by Sir Thomas More and figures as the title of his best known work, Utopia, published 1516, a blueprint for an ideal society with minimal crime, violence and poverty. Dystopias are often characterised by dehumanisation, tyrannical governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.

I think John Wyndham was one of the best dystopian writers, as he had so many original ideas about the way society could collapse. The Day of the Triffids uses genetic engineering combined with an atmospheric accident to bring about disaster. The Chrysalids is a post nuclear war scenario, with a repressive religion attempting to suppress mutations. Web considers what would happen if spiders developed a collective intelligence, as they are one of the most abundant forms of animal life around. The Midwich Cuckoos postulates what might happen if aliens impregnated the entire female population of a small village. These scenarios only work historically, as our communication systems are far more sophisticated these days. But the same situation arises again and again – what happens when these systems break down? We are so much more reliant on them now than we were in the nineteen sixties, when Wyndham was writing. 
            There are a lot of good books available that were written more recently, and surely the most depressing of all is The Road, by Cormack McCarthy.

I think the only truly dystopian thing I’ve written is a short story called Retrospective, which was a winner of the New London Writing Award, and was published by Fourth Estate in 1998 in a book called Does the Sun Rise over Dagenham? It’s set in a London of the near future, and was a dig at the art world, amongst other things. When it was written it significantly predated Damian Hirst’s Shark and Chris Ofili’s elephant dung . This is an extract:

We humans deal with investments here. Buying and selling really modern works of art, and making a tidy profit in the process. We’ve got quite a few of the big names – Tadeusz Twardowski, who paints with body fluids; Roland Spickett, the one who uses microscopes and bacteria, and Donald Barnes. Donald Barnes was the really big money-spinner with his series on toenail clippings, and the fact that he’d died of a heart attack the previous week had made him worth considerably more. Cranford Smith (my employer) always held back plenty of pieces in the warehouse so that he could make a killing after a death. Sound economic sense, really. All his artists had to agree to it, and also not to store more than a certain number of works themselves – it would never do for the relatives to flood the market straight after the funeral. Cranford would let the pieces appear gradually, so that the price never suffered. The man had made a fortune, which was why he could afford to indulge in his other little interest, computers. We didn’t really need Jennifer, although there were obvious advantages to some of her applications. The hologramatic representations were going to be very useful for showing clients large sculptural pieces, particularly if they hadn’t actually been constructed. You could make a maquette look twenty times its real size and site it straddled across the Thames if you chose to.
I loaded up Toenail Clipping number 43 with London Clay to see what it looked like. It was a remarkably faithful portrayal, with the little twist at the end of the clipping smeared with grey. The Third World ones have sold the best, with the one encrusted with oil-soaked sand fetching a quarter of a million. ‘This tragic reconstruction of human debris is a powerful comment on the sharp practice employed by the shoe industry in under-developed countries’, was what one leading newspaper had said, and although a rival paper had come back with ‘Donald ducks the issue’, the first observation stuck. Donald became known as an extremely serious exponent of the New Organic School of painting, and his prices rocketed.

The story itself revolves around a portfolio of some hitherto unknown sketches, which in the end turn out to be what Donald Barnes painted in private – detailed watercolours of landscapes, which was what really interested him. But the London setting I described was definitely dystopian:

It was a surprisingly still morning for October. There was one of those acidic mists hanging about that made you take your pollution mask just in case. I kept it hidden because clogs (the homeless in the story) can’t afford masks, and I was going to have to pretend to be one. I got myself a set of clothes at a second-hand shop. I believe they were once called charity shops for a while, until people stopped giving them their cast-offs and started selling them again, just like they used to.
I wore a pair of jeans and a duffle coat. I didn’t shave, and I blackened my nails with some earth from a potted plant. There wasn’t much I could do about the slight paunch I’d developed recently, but after all, anyone can become a clog, all you have to do is to make a few wrong decisions and there’s your expensive education down the plug hole.
I started with the shacks in Priory Park, because I didn’t want Cranford glancing out of the window and spotting me. The clogs had got a fire going in the middle of the old fountain — there’s never been any water in it during my lifetime and it worked rather well, blazing up out of a giant stone shell and illuminating the cherub that was trying in vain to quench it with part of its anatomy. There was a group of them sitting round it, sharing a cigarette and coughing every so often in a companionable sort of way. I hovered for a while until one of them noticed me.
‘You’re new, aren’t you.’
I nodded.
‘Made redundant?’
I nodded again.
‘You actually had a job?’ The clog pushed back its hood, and I realised that I was talking to a girl.

And I’ll end with a final Wikipedia quote:
In recent years there has seen a surge of popular dystopian young adult literature and blockbuster films. Theo James, actor in Divergent, notes that “young people in particular have such a fascination with this kind of story”, saying “It's becoming part of the consciousness. You grow up in a world where it’s part of the conversation all the time – the statistics of our planet warming up. The environment is changing. The weather is different. There are things that are very visceral and very obvious, and they make you question the future and how we will survive. It’s so much a part of everyday life that young people inevitably — consciously or not — are questioning their futures and how the Earth will be. Some say that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
Slash and Burn practice in Borneo

Monday, 15 July 2019

Getting Back On The Horse

I’ve been off the grid for a while. It has been a very… trying… six or so months here, and my mind has been everywhere except where I wanted it to be. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself unable to focus on being creative. I will spare you the details, but let’s just say I lost two very influential members of my family, one being my father, whom I had just made a solid connection with after many years of barricades being built between us.

While some might think it silly, the other family member lost was my sidekick, my traveling companion, and, really, my best friend – a Shih Tzu who had been a part of my world for sixteen years. She was by my side since she was two months old. She often sat on my desk next to my computer as I wrote, where she could listen as I talked my way through plot problems, dialogue issues, and would give an affirmative sneeze when I hit upon the solution to whatever problem I was having.

It probably goes without saying that, with these two losses, my creative efforts waned. I found myself staring at a blank screen, watching the cursor blink, taunting me, daring me to put words together. I had writer friends call me or email me, making sure I was getting by, encouraging me, all letting me work through what-all was clouding my mind at my own pace. As has been said by so many, and documented on any of a hundred internet memes, grief does not follow any sort of clock. It lingers quietly, peeking up every now and then, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a full-scale three-story road-block, not just for creativity, but for living in general.

After a while, your brain seems to throw a switch somewhere deep inside, and the desire to create becomes more powerful than the desire to dwell in the dark recesses of your own soul.

But, how do you jump-start yourself? How do you start playing Word Tetris and begin building paragraphs when you’ve been away from it for a long time?

For me, it was a relatively simple exercise. How did I start writing again? I started writing by starting to write. Every writer has the legendary file cabinet full of ideas, opening chapters of books that faded out, chunks of dialogue that felt so perfect you saved them just in case you could ever work them into some other piece. I’m no different. I have file folders full of cocktail napkins, pocket notebooks, envelopes, and any other pieces of paper that could hold ink, all chock-full of ideas. And for a while, I studied every word on every sliver of paper I had kept over the years, looking for that one bit that caused a spark, which, in turn, would set a wildfire to burning.

Nothing was catching fire. Nothing was glowing ember-red, waiting for the right scrap of tinder to fall on it, igniting the inferno. Hell, let’s be honest. Nothing was even warming up my coffee pot.
The cursor just sat there, taunting me. I felt like those kids in “A Christmas Story,” double- and triple-dog-daring one another to do something, yet never responding to my own dares. So I did what any good Southern man does when triple-dog-dared to do something. I started cussing the damn cursor out. Not out loud, although I cannot guarantee I didn’t yell loudly more than a few times.

I just started typing. A direct line of stream-of-consciousness, full of anger and sadness, frustration and loneliness, sorrow and pain. At the risk of being grotesque, I let my brain vomit up everything it had been holding onto. Tears over my father being gone just when we had gotten to be close again fought with tears over the loss of my four-legged soulmate poured out of me and onto the screen as I let those words escape from the lockdown I had built inside.

It seems academic now, letting all those emotions run free. Writers are supposed to be able to observe the human condition and relate it to the world, without letting it effect the process at all, right? I will be the first one to tell you, though, all that “observe without attachment” stuff is complete and utter bullshit. Grief may not respond to any particular clock or calendar, but there is no way to live with it and not have it affect your daily routine. If anyone tells you otherwise, they have never tried living with it.

You have chosen to be a writer, a creator of worlds, cities, kingdoms that would never exist without your documenting them. Characters crying out to be born and to live, dialogue begging to be said, if not out loud then at least to be put on paper so others can share in it. And, ultimately, it all comes from one specific place – you.

Sooner or later, you have to hit that power button on the computer, or grab a Dixon Ticonderoga #2 and a legal pad, or roll a sheet of paper into your trusty Smith-Corona, and start that Word Tetris game again. Let the words fall out of your mind as you catch them and put them in the order that makes the best pattern. And I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that you’re gonna start back by writing To Kill A Mockingbird or Life of Pi or Gone With The Wind. It’s more likely that those first few days will be nothing more than bits and pieces of a hundred different things, nothing connecting to any other, and probably making less sense than IKEA instructions printed in Sanskrit. But, perfect or not, garbage or not, it’s writing. And little by little, shapes will start to form. The jigsaw patterns will start to come into view, and you can put one piece with another and have a nice bit of the picture you are trying to form.

For a brief period of my teenage insanity, I rode in rodeos. Hardly anything to rival the pros, I assure you. I was more of a “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” doing my thing in 4-H rodeos and county fairs. 
Eventually, I did quite a number on my knees and was told that, if I wanted to continue walking without crutches or canes, it was time to find a less-destructive hobby. The main lesson I learned from those days, though, is one I had let myself forget over the years.

“If a horse throws you, you get up. If you’re injured, take time to heal. But, before you walk away for good, you get your ass back on that horse, because, if you don’t, that injury will never be healed properly.”

Be it some life-changing moment or a simple case of writers’ block, you have to decide when it’s time to push through it and regain the power once more.

I’m back, still working with the jigsaw puzzle right now, but suddenly, the pictures are starting to make sense again. And I am not stopping until the whole damned glorious panorama is visible.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

'Do you have writer's block?' - by Alex Marchant

That was what my partner asked me. 
‘Do you have writer’s block?’ A couple of weeks ago. After I told him I’d not written a word on my work-in-progress since early May. And before that, not since February.
My instinct was to say, ‘No, of course not.’ And so I did.
But I wondered. Did I?
No. Not at all. When I sat down to write in February, the words flowed. Plenty of them. A virtual torrent. The same in May. On the train back from a family and football weekend (the best kind, I find). Having safely finished the talk I’d set out to write on the train down to London two days before. And that’s the problem. I only really write when I have no distractions (no chores, no Internet, no family concerns, nothing to plan), which tends to be when I’m away from home – on train journeys (what a blessing the quiet carriage is!), on holidays. But even then, only when I don’t have a talk to write, an event to prepare for, when I’m prepared…
‘Distractions’. I guess that’s really short-hand for ‘life’, particularly ‘family life’. So perhaps what I should have said to my partner was ‘No, not writer’s block – just life getting in the way.’ Perhaps he might have taken the hint, and asked what he could do to help.
These past few months – have they been any busier than usual? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Both daughters have been preparing for and sitting major exams – with the occasional emotional melt-down. And then preparing for and setting off on major trips – in one case, her first ‘adult’ holiday (help!), in the other, a six-week placement in south-east Asia for her university course – the first time she’s travelled so far/so long alone. There have been big birthdays, two family weddings, a new rehomed dog (who desperately needs training and had an early medical emergency), book-related events to plan for (that talk to write…), an anthology to put together, blogs to write, the usual round of social media – the last always a distraction, even if it’s a good form of promo.
The new hound - complete with cone of shame...

Oh, and then there’s the day job – although, by the time the dog’s been walked, the chickens and cat let out/fed/medicated/cleaned up after, the washing done, the kitchen sorted, the cleaning attempted, the finances addressed, emails/tweets/whatever dealt with, it tends to be more the ‘afternoon job’… but it helps pay the bills.  But one way or another, there’s never enough time to cram it all in.
I doubt my life is busier than many another, though I have always found delegation difficult, and that, in fits of optimism, I tend to take too much on, and working from home means you can never shut yourself away from that part of life. Work/life balance? What’s that? And ever since my primary work (copyediting) became 100 per cent on-screen rather than working with a red pen on my favoured stack of paper, the internet is always there for fact-checking – and email/social media checking too.
So – again – do I have ‘writer’s block’? I guess my self-diagnosis stands – no, not at all. But I clearly do have a chronic inability to manage my time properly. For which, of course, there are many remedies, set out in numerous articles and blogs. But, seriously, I don’t have time to read any of them. I have a blog to write/medieval festival to prepare for/talk to write/'interview my character blog hop' to rustle up/publicity to do/dog to walk/cat to feed…

Image may contain: one or more people, sky and outdoor

So please don’t feel you have to comment with any advice or direct me to some helpful tips – unless it’s to tell me how to get my hands on a genuine Harry Potter ™ Time-Turner. Maybe J.K. Rowling was never really suffering from writer’s block either, just an excess of ‘life’ – and maybe she did find the perfect way to resolve the issue … in fiction at least.

Time Turner - Gold Plated Sterling Silver

Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year (which Alex really shouldn't have taken on!)

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:

Friday, 12 July 2019

Finding Inspiration by Bronwen Griffiths

Where do we find inspiration? I’m not sure I can be categorical about this. We’re all different and no doubt we’ll find our inspiration from different sources – a newspaper article, a walk in a garden, a conversation overheard, a holiday, taking a lift in a skyscraper... Sometimes inspiration appears like a gift from the sky but we all know those times when it simply won’t come – perhaps when we are over-worked, anxious, stressed, depressed or bored.

Boredom and depression often descend on me when I’m doing the same thing day in day out, and in the same place. But they are also a state of mind. I’m not talking about serious depression here -- which requires professional help and/or other interventions -- but rather those low-level depressive states. 

I remember reading about a young man who could not afford to take a holiday. He decided to create the same ‘holiday’ sensation by exploring his apartment with a new sense of wonder. I think he filmed his apartment. Unfortunately despite many Google searches using a different combination of search terms I could find no record of this. But that doesn’t really matter. I know it to be true! Trust me. What matters is that when we cannot find inspiration we must force ourselves to look more deeply into what is around us.

Yesterday it rained and I went out into the garden with my camera and the macro lens. I was tired and uninspired. What I found out there was astonishing. I discovered things I could not even see with my naked eye. I don’t know quite what the green creature in the photograph is but it was good to see it there, camouflaged on a green stalk. 

There were other things to see too. Droplets of water on spiders’ webs, butterflies, rose petals fallen onto the path, a fox slinking into the hedge. 

Making the effort to look, smell and listen – to connect either with the natural world or with each other – can help us find inspiration when it seems to be lacking.  As a writer try something new. If you write poetry, try prose. If you are a fiction writer, try writing non-fiction. Try haikus, limericks, random words. It’s easy to stay stuck in our routines. We need to find new ways. Untrodden ways. You don’t have to climb a mountain or travel half way across the world. Inspiration is on your doorstep. You just have to search it out.  

Bronwen is the author of two novels and a book of flash fiction. Her latest book, 'Listen with Mother' - based on her childhood growing up in a village in North Worcestershire in the 1960s - is published by Silverhill Press, Hastings tomorrow (Friday 12th July) 

Her website is at:
You can find her on Twitter @bronwengwriter

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Baking for friends

One of the joys of baking is that cake has to be shared. In this house, if it is not with guests, then it’s with friends next door, or across the road, or who live a little further afield.
A few days ago I met up with two old friends for lunch. We’ve known each other for decades and all three of us we’ve been there for each other through deaths, divorces, house moves and emergencies with children and grandchildren. 

In the early days, we lived close to each other. Our kids went to the same school and if we were not near enough to pop in, then our houses were only a quick drive away. Now it’s very different. Rosaleen is in Shrewsbury, Mary in Market Drayton, and I’m in Stoke. Geographically, Drayton is in the middle so this is where, every so many months, we meet to catch up and have lunch. Because Mary hosts us, Rosaleen and I bring the food. She does the savoury course and I bring pudding.
Over soup and crusty bread, or a quiche and salad, we talk about our kids and their kids, about our hopes and fears for the future, not just for ourselves but for the world and, in this time of flux, for the UK. We eat cake and share memories, some sad, some hilarious and gardening and household tips and when it is time to leave there is always more still to be said.

It seems to me this mixing of the intimate and practical is a very female way of having a conversation. It’s supportive and life-enhancing, as is the relationship between women in so many of my novels.
“Picking up the Pieces” in particular focuses on the support women give each other. When Elsa’s life starts to fall apart, she invites long term friends Liz and Bernie to a champagne tea at The Grand as a final gesture before as she says “your useless friend Elsa is about to slide down into the gutter… In the meantime let’s enjoy. If I’m going under, I’m doing it in style.”
Nothing quite as dramatic happened when we last met up and the yoghurt and pistachio cake was a great success.
The recipe is a really easy one. The only fiddly bits are grating the lemon, which is a job I hate, and freeing the cardamom seeds from their pods, which this time my darling husband did for me.

Yoghurt cake with pistachio, lemon and cardamom for 6-8

Unsalted butter for greasing
4 medium eggs separated
85g castor sugar
500ml plain Greek yoghurt
Zest of 1 lemon plus extra to serve
7 cardamom pods, seeds removed and ground in a mortar
35g plain flour, shifted
35g currants
65g shelled pistachios, lightly bashed.

Method:  Heat oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2. Grease a 20cm spring-form cake tin and put it on a baking sheet.
Using an electric whisk, whisk the egg yolks with 50g of the sugar until thick and pale. Gently fold through the yoghurt, lemon zest and cardamom, followed by the flour, currants and 40g of the pistachios.
Clean and dry the whisk, then whisk the egg whites and remaining sugar to soft peaks. Gently fold this, a third at a time into the yok mix, then tip the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 45-50 min until firm, risen and pale bold in colour.
Leave the cake to cool (it will slightly sink back, or form great canyon split) then release from the tin and slide it from its base on to a board; use a metal palette knife to help.
Top with remaining lemon zest and pistachios. Serve at room temp or cold. Will wait happily for a day in the fridge if required.


Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Chain Reaction | Karen Kao

my debut novel

The Shanghai Quartet is going to be my magnum opus: four interlocking novels spanning a quarter century of Chinese history. Volume one was my my debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. I’ve just finished the manuscript for volume two, Peace Court. While I await feedback from my beta readers, my mind wanders to volume three. I see Laogai as a collection of interlocking short stories. But what exactly is that and, more importantly, how do I write them?



Writing short fiction is notoriously difficult. You have to accelerate from zero to sixty miles an hour in the space of a few sentences. A short story is often more about what’s not said than what is. According to author Baird Hunter, that’s what makes the short story so powerful.
the ambiguities on which short form often insists, in the white spaces of section breaks and in the big dark void at the end.
But not all writers can carry off the short form. Author Sonja Chung is embarrassed by most of the short stories that marked the launch of her publishing career. She calls the novel her true medium.
All that room, the freedom to move among settings, cultures, time periods, points of view. The license to spend three or four years working on something, keeping notebooks full of ideas and sketches and scenes, filtering anything and everything through the lens of The Novel I’m Working On; indulging my mind and imagination in layers of world and character and idea.
The interlocking or linked story collection falls somewhere in between a short story and the novel. GrubStreet calls the linked story collection
a strange animal: each story should be able to stand on its own, but the collection speaks louder when read back-to-front. The structure is more flexible than a novel, and the writer can leave more room for the reader to fill in mysteries and gaps. Linked story collections allow the writer to endlessly circle around her own obsessions in new fresh ways, whether that obsession is a theme, a character, or a place.

Is interlocking for me?

Like Chung, I think of myself primarily as a novelist who dabbles in short fiction. We both like to read interlocking short stories. Where we differ is when it comes to writing a linked collection. To Chung, it’s a craft exercise. To author Michael Knight, the linked collection bursts with possibilities.
[By] featuring recurring characters and settings and themes […] the book achieves a kind of aggregate, novelistic force, a collection, in other words, that adds up to something even more potent than the power of its component parts.
I imagine that this power lies in the seemingly random way in which one story touches another. Earlier this year, I saw an installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot of ceramic bowls set adrift in a pool of water. The bowls were all different sizes, giving off a range of tones whenever they hit the side of the pool or each other. A chain reaction sparked by random acts.

Variations v.2, Princessehof

Yet I’m sure there was nothing random about it, just as a linked short story collection must have some interlocking device. My gut tells me that a novel about a laogai needs to be told in the form of separate and distinct stories. For to be imprisoned in such a place is to be alone.

An object 


The linchpin of The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra is a painting: Empty Pasture in Afternoon. Over the course of five linked stories, this painting is defaced, bombed, sold, stolen, and restored. We recognize the subject matter of the painting as the setting of two other stories. Marra’s intention was
to try to take these completely unconnected stories and find a way of making them feel so intertwined that if you lost one, the whole structure of the book would collapse.
Well, it worked.

object as interlocking device
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: my #bookstagram

To date, I’ve made only one feeble attempt at transporting an item from one story into another. In my short story “Moon Cakes,” a mother sells her daughter into slavery. As the daughter embarks on her new life, the mother gives her an agate pendant.

That girl grows up to become the cook Jin, who appears in my debut novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. You won’t see that pendant in my first novel but you will in the second, Peace Court, when Jin passes it on to her own daughter Li.

I’ve thought about introducing some object into Peace Court that might reappear in Laogai. It would need to be something dangerous like a book. But in a place like a Chinese labor camp, there can be no possessions.

A moment in time

time as interlocking device
Image source: Goodreads

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is about the Vietnam War. A few of the stories are told in the moment. But mostly, the survivors look back. They try to piece together what happened. They do their best to honor the fallen with their stories. And, as in the worst nightmares, they relive their experiences in the hope that the outcome will be different.

“In the Field” plays out in the immediate aftermath of a mortar attack. Alpha Company is pinned down in what turns out to be the village shit field.
Everything was black and wet. The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into the slime and cover up and wait.
We relive that moment three times through the eyes of a different combatant. The soldier who’s certain he’s caused the death of his best friend. The commanding officer determined to recover the body. The soldier whose task it’s become to tell this story.

I’d love to find such a cataclysmic moment in the life of a laogai. As China scholar Frank Dikötter observes:
the most dreaded aspect of incarceration was not the frequent beatings, the hard labour or even the grinding hunger. It was the thought reform, referred to by one victim as a ‘carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind’. […] Those who resisted the process committed suicide. Those who survived it renounced being themselves.
Men fought monumental battles in the shit fields of the laogai. But these were private affairs without witness.

A sense of place

Amos Oz uses place to link his collection Between Friends. His characters live and work in Kibbutz Yikhat. They work in the laundry or the shoe repair shop. Some feed the chickens while others tend the vegetable garden. They play cards in the dining hall to pass the time and judgment on each other.

The kibbutzim rarely leave the grounds and really, why would they? The kibbutz is a world unto itself.

I think that sense of place must be my interlocking device. A laogai, after all, is also a closed environment intended to be utterly self-sufficient. Cut off from all communication with the outside world, the men of the laogai must invent their own myths. How they came to be in the place and the life they’ll lead when they get out.

Here’s how the stories will go. See Guard Tuan keeping watch from on top of the ridge as the prisoners sow millet in the trenches below. Hear the whispers at night about the veterinarian who cured the camp commandant with a trick. Watch the prisoner Kang try to write a letter home.

Note: Chain Reaction was first published by Karen Kao on her website Shanghai Noir.