Sunday, 30 June 2019

From India to Iceland - guest post by Jonaki Ray

“You have exactly one minute to catch the bus!” the woman at the airport told me.

“Is there enough time?”, I asked, alarmed.

“Oh yes, it’s just outside. Go out and towards the left.”

I crammed my wool cap on my head, put on my jacket, and ran outside with my luggage cart. Outside, a parking lot filled with cars, three people smoking in a group, and a few buses could be seen. But, I couldn’t see my bus and within seconds, the icy wind made my eyes water and my glove-less hands tingle.

As I circled around the parking lot, my anxiety took over, aggravated by the cold. What if I don’t find the bus? What will I do? I didn’t have enough spare cash…what if the bus leaves me behind? I had just landed at Reykjavik and had pre-booked a bus to pick me up at the airport and drop me off at the hotel, which was about 45 minutes away, through an online website.

Fortunately, the bus was waiting, and when I finally figured out that “left” meant the left side of a road outside the parking lot, I ran towards the bus, and after apologizing to the driver, stowed my luggage and clambered aboard. As my hands and the rest of me thawed, I found myself feeling simultaneously warm and blessed. After all, I was one of the five writers from over 700 candidates who had been selected for the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat, and I was on my way to it!

Four of the five winners of the Alumni Award.
I never set out to be a writer. As a child, I read everything I could get into my hands, but I was also good in academics, and my parents and peers advised me that studying “humanities/arts” was not going to lead to a secure and stable life. I opted for an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and then a Master’s in it in the USA. In America, I realized that people take much more diverse paths and try out various options, but I was still trying to be “secure” and changed my specialization to Computer Science and completed a Master’s degree in it. It was after a short stint as a software engineer that I started writing and decided that writing was my “one love”.

I returned to India and started my career from scratch. I worked as a journalist, then as an editor. I kept writing and sending out my work for publication to magazines in India, but the success rate was rather low. I went through a phase where everyone else seemed more creative and productive, not to mention successful, and discouraged, I stopped writing.

Finally, I joined a writing group that was advertised in an online newsgroup. Although the group disbanded in about a year, even that short duration was important because I received feedback and support for my writing, especially the prose poetry that I had started writing in response to events in the world, my country, and my life. I enrolled in a couple of online (MOOCS) courses and received positive feedback on my pieces.

Louis de Berniäres
Encouraged, I joined a couple more online writing forums, and started sending my work to online journals outside India. In 2015, I received my first couple of acceptances—an online platform based in Singapore accepted three of my poems, and a couple of short pieces were published in an American blog (now sadly off the radar). I was still getting rejections, but I was also learning and reading and writing more.

Starting from 2016, although I still received rejections and still do, I also started getting published all over the world, won and got shortlisted in international poetry contests, including winning the 2017 Oxford Brookes Poetry Contest, and was selected for writing residencies in Spain and Italy. In 2018, Oxford Brookes Poetry Center nominated me for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. I went back to short fiction writing, and one of the pieces was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by US-based Zoetic Press! All these honors were through the powers of the Internet, and I had yet to meet any of the editors or judges in real life, including the organizers of the retreat in Iceland, Eliza Reid and Erica Green.

I was excited but a bit nervous the day I arrived in Reykjavik, especially when I realized that there were around 100 participants. The first evening of the retreat removed my doubts when I was greeted warmly by Eliza and Erica. I enjoyed the reception and welcome drink, mingled with fellow writers, and listened to the eleven faculty authors, which included Tessa Hadley, Sarah Moss, Louis de Bernières and Chigozie Obioma; Ivan Coyote, Priya Basil, Ann Hood, Paul Yoon, Elizabeth Renzetti and Ragner Helgi Ólafsson, read out their writing. Each participant could select five workshops, and after a lot of indecision, I chose the ones I felt would help enhance my style of writing the most.

Ann Hood discussed beginnings—what differentiates good ones from bad ones, and then reviewed some of the samples we had given her, including mine in her session. Paul Yoon showed us how even clichéd topics could be written in new and interesting ways through a short story he had told us to read, and we discussed various aspects of it. Louis de Bernières and Ivan Coyote discussed plotting and how to set up and stick to a writing routine. Tessa Hadley’s workshop had us all read a short story, The Gold Watch. The story is written in a deceptively lucid style, but once she led us through almost each line of it, and we discussed the deeper meaning behind each passage, we realized the brilliance of its writer, John McGahern, and how he had managed to convey so much through a relatively brief piece. Besides the writing tips and practices, I was amazed at how friendly and grounded each author remained and chatted with us freely during our free time and events.

Tessa Hadley
We could also explore Iceland through guided tours, and I went on the famous Golden Circle tour, where we visited Skáholt, the Geysir geothermal area, the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, and the Pingvellir National Park. The day ended with a reception at the residence of the President of Iceland!

It has been three months since I returned to India, and I realized that though most of my writing has been published virtually, it has led to real-time learning and friendships, not to mention mentorships. And I have returned with renewed resolve to write more and participate in the community of writers even through the digital media. After all, the virtual is now increasingly the “real world”.

Older writing at:

Saturday, 29 June 2019

The Present is Another Country: N M Browne

Being a bit sixth century...

I have been thinking a lot about age recently. Not because I am old, you understand, or at least not exactly. I’ve been thinking about the impact age has on language and experience and how much that matters when developing a character on the page.
 Everyone comes from somewhere; a place, a time, a set of values and part of being a writer is, I think, developing an awareness of that. We can learn to speak in other voices, but only after we have first recognised the implicit bias of our own. I don’t think that bias is a problem by the way, it is part of an author’s voice, but, if we want to change that voice to convey a different set of experiences and attitudes it takes effort, research and careful observation: it is really tricky – two words which in themselves date me and my voice to a very particular twentieth century middle class milieu.
  These days the gap between me and my would be YA readers is almost a chasm. I live on the analogue side of a great divide: I’m notebooks and fountain pens, film cameras and fixed landline phones. I’m thick paper directories, filing cards, the London A to Z and badly folded paper maps. I am from a time when research was difficult, when you couldn’t google someone before you met them, a world of postcards, letters, difficult handwriting, typewriters and short hand typists. Fortunately I mainly write historical or speculative fiction. I can still hear the attitudes of the nineteenth century, echoed in my memories of my grandmother and great grandmothers ( my grandmother was 102 when she died a couple of years ago.) I wonder how easy it is for children growing up with 'Love Island' to grasp the shame of a child ‘born out of wedlock,’ the fear of the workhouse, and the reverence for the word of a doctor.
  As a writer, it is my job, to convey the thought world of my characters to the page in an accessible way. The older I get, and the further my world diverges from that of those born now, the more I appreciate what a challenge that is. It is a tough job but someone’s got to do it ( as some twentieth century meme would have it) I’m happy to be one of the many someones who choose to take that 'tough job' on.

Friday, 28 June 2019


The other day, looking down from an upstairs window at my North London street, I noticed a lush green tree with huge scarlet blossoms - how could I possibly have not seen it before, and whatever was it? And right now, in my garden, there's a shimmering turquoise veil over part of my fence, almost iridescent. A stage magician pulls a flock of doves out of a top hat, and they fly away - it has to be magic, but we know it isn't. We want it to be magic, though, and once there's an explanation, what we've seen is somehow spoilt, however clever. We feel cheated.

My exotic tree in which I totally believed for a few moments was an ordinary London plane seen against a scarlet car, scarlet and green being complementary colours, the combination of which produced the dazzling 'blossoms'. The shimmering veil on my fence was old, green netting catching the sunlight against deep shadow. A few years ago, someone wrote a book about the proliferation of magical 'healers' in places like Jerusalem at the time of Christ, so might He have been just one of many, but the One who really made it career-wise? Such a cynical suggestion, but we so much want to believe - the sweet wrapper carelessly thrown away in the street which sunlight turns into a precious jewel, the careless scattering of waste paper in the grass which from a distance just might be flowers, the glittering comet which turns out to be just rocks in Space - what exactly is it that we're responding to? When all that glitters turns out not to be gold but something else, something possibly banal, what's the difference? It's not an easy question.

Recently I've been watching the futuristic TV drama series: "Years and Years". It's brilliant, but at the same time deeply disturbing, because the 'future' it's set in is so uncomortably close to our 'present'. Economic and political migrants herded into 'camps' is already happening, and climate change will only make it more likely. Political unrest and war have always been with us, but now we have the means to annihilate both the 'enemy' and ourselves, as the end of the first episode so scarily shows us. The teenager typically unhappy with her own body wants to change, not her gender but her whole self, because a digital self can do so much more - why go on bothering to be human when you can become a digital transplant of yourself, and what confused adolescent wouldn't jump at that? Might I?

Way back before the age of phone zombies, I wrote a novel: THE GAME, published by Walker Books. The plot grew out of my increasing frustration with radios in shops - strangely, this doesn't much happen any more, but did then. One day, I went with my daughter to buy her some shoes, and in the course of our browsing, we learnt about the brutal murder of two old ladies in North Wales (among other things.) So shopping, murder, sex, political dialogue and possibly the weather went into those moments of information soup, and all of them on the same level. 

So I dreamed up a fantasy in which one of the ancient Greek Furies took over the world, for a wager, using the media as her weapon of choice, and flooding it with "The Queen's Music", a mind-dumbing, empty but vaguely pleasing sound which could not be turned off. Fast forward to Twitter and its ilk which I have to admit I use myself, but with extreme caution. Go figure.

The book's currently available as an ebook: if you're curious.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Launching a New Book by Andrew Crofts

Image result for What Lies around us by andrew crofts

Well that was fun. Publication Day for “What Lies Around Us” started with a spot on BBC Breakfast. I usually find television studios a bit daunting but this one, consisting of two people chatting on a sofa, watched by one distracted looking cameraman, was totally chilled. It was my first visit to “Media City” in Salford, which is a little on the bleak side but in fairness I only really crossed a square from the Holiday Inn to the BBC’s front door.

Female First, an on-line magazine then published an article by me on “Ten Things you didn’t know about ghostwriting”, with a big plug for the book, and reviews started to come in on a succession of book blogs.

I have written before about how much I like the idea of book bloggers and the fantastic reviews I received this time have reaffirmed my enthusiasm. They have furnished me with an abundance of boastful quotes which I can splash all over my website, and any other flat surface I can find. 

There was only one negative one and when I wrote to the blogger to thank him for taking the trouble to read the book he responded “Sorry my review wasn’t more positive, but it helps to have a bad review every now and then on the site, otherwise people might think it weird that I like every book I read …” So at least I know I donated my reputation in a good cause. Sigh.

There were also a couple of local radio interviews, an article on The Bookseller’s blog and an appearance on Sky Television’s Sunrise show, and in July I am scheduled to talk to Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4’s Open Book, which will be back in the more familiar surroundings of Broadcasting House, amidst the bustle of the West End.

All this has been orchestrated by a fabulous PR consultant by the name of Emma Finnigan, who I can’t praise highly enough. She made no big promises and delivered way more than I had hoped for. Getting coverage for novels in the media is notoriously hard and I am deeply impressed with her skills.

Now all I have to do is wait for the sales to go through the roof and the money to come pouring in.  

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

This may be my last AE post | Dipika Mukherjee

I will be writing a fortnightly column for The Edge, Malaysia, from July 2019 is onwards. Loosely structured as literary postcards from everywhere, this opportunity will allow me to address my readers in a country I write about most frequently, and I couldn't be more thrilled. 

The Edge published two of my articles earlier this year, including one about a residency at Rimbun Dahan which became a cover story. So I have tested the waters ... and it feels warm and welcoming! This is a Malaysian newspaper that I have a lot of respect for as it stood up to government bullying during a politically fraught time; it is the newspaper that appeared with a black cover page to protest censorship, and features in my short story, Doppelgänger, in 2015.

I have been writing for Authors Electric since October 2016... almost three years! I was invited to join by Umberto Tosi, and my first article was about my brother's accident. This post felt cathartic and vulnerable in a way I hadn't felt with my fiction or poetry. I would go on to write more posts about my brother, his books, as well as our mutual love for everything literary. 

When I had no energy to speak and the world seemed endlessly bleak, writing seemed my only control over a wanton universe.

I would read other writers on Authors Electric write about caring for loved ones, or about bereavement, and learn about healing through words. I would read about successes and failures, the rants and the jubilation...always in crafted sentences which were a joy to read. More than anything else, this group gave me a safe space where I tried out a form of literary ventriloquism, throwing my voice further and further, bouncing off so many others, and watching it echo right back. 

An article on how slogans during the Women's March in Chicago were literary micro stories was widely shared, as was the post about a small literary festival in Malaysia winning accolades around the world. My post on misogyny in Bengali children's rhymes was reprinted in the Indian media. I wrote about Malaysia and India and Myanmar and Brazil and Wales and the Netherlands and the US ... I wrote the world as I read it through books and sometimes stray poetry.

Always -- always-- I wrote with the conviction that my core group of readers at Authors Electric would treat my words with respect, and even compassion. I could be sure of this, and it was SO liberating, to write whatever I wanted. 

Writing for the news media is a different beast, and with the pay, comes the pressure of delivering something that consumers find worthy of purchase.

I am grateful to the Authors Electric group for helping me find and develop a voice in the lyrical essay. My last two essays published in The Edge were republished by World Literature Today, and I am excited about this new global audience. I am not a fast writer, so I am unlikely to be able to sustain a fortnightly column at The Edge as well as a monthly Authors Electric post along with my two books-in-progress and teaching, so as soon as I find a substitute writer to take over this spot, I'll take a bow. 

But I'll always come back, with a Guest Blog or two, if you can still make space for me.

 Dipika Mukherjee’s work, focusing on the politics of modern Asian societies, includes the novels Shambala Junction (which won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction), and Ode to Broken Things (longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize as Thunder Demons). She has been mentoring Southeast Asian writers for over two decades and has edited five anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction. She is Contributing Editor for Jaggery and frequently writes for World Literature Today, Asia Literary Review and Chicago Quarterly Review as well as for the media in Malaysia and India. She is core faculty at StoryStudio Chicago, teaches for the Graham School at University of Chicago, and is affiliated to the Buffet Institute for Global Affairs at Northwestern University.  More at