This is a FaceBook review for which I was pleased to receive the “notification”. I was nervous as it is the first review by a Malaysian reader, about a Malaysian novel and naturally if anybody can spot errors, it would be a Malaysian!
What is the connection between a pretty tattooed Iban girl adopted by a Scot planter in Segamat who forced a local doctor to marry her because she became pregnant from an accidental one-night outing to an Iban guy who had to serve 10 years in prison in Kuching for murder?
Ms Ngeow certainly has a story to tell and it is quite a story. But more than just her story this book is also rich in information on the culture, custom and beliefs of the Iban community.
My only reservation about the book are on the chapters featuring the Iban characters – these chapters are written in Iban pidgin/creole English which made it quite difficult ( at least it was for me ) to decipher – for example GWAN for going, CHILES for Child etc etc.
Thank you to Dr Ngeow Man Fah, my classmate in medical school, who presented this copy to me as a gift. Ivy Ngeow is her niece. She grew up in JB and graduated from Middlesex University with an MA in Writing. This book won the Proverse Prize ( Hong Kong ) 2016.
A warm welcome to my guest, the legendary Bill Colegrave,
who has collected and been inspired by travel books for more than four decades. He was the owner and publisher of the Cadogan Guides travel series.
And now over to Bill…
The unforeseen complications of a one-night stand
are the foundations of this tale and the adventure that ensues. Benjie, a Chinese Malaysian Doctor is quickly diverted by his new assistant, a tattooed Iban, an indigenous Bornean; once hooked, he remains on the line. The more he discovers of her history, the deeper he becomes embroiled.
Children tattoo children to ensure the art never dies.
Debut novelist, Ivy Ngeow is Malaysian and international and she uses all her multicultural skills to explore the interaction of her character cast of Chinese, Malay, Scottish and Iban. The latter are the catalysts for the drama.
“A man or a woman without tattoos is invisible to the gods.” – Iban proverb
Elderly Sea Dayak woman of Borneo with thigh, feet and hands tattoo
Everyone has heard of Borneo, but most can’t place it on the map.
That is because Borneo is the name of an island, which is not a country; 75% of it is the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, the rest is the Malaysian outposts of Sabah and Sarawak plus the tiny but powerfully oil-rich Kingdom of Brunei. The Borneo of Cry is Sarawak, the home of the Iban.
The story engaged my attention but I was also learning about the Iban,
and learning to admire the Iban. Marriage, we learn, should be considered in practical terms:
“Every boy should look to marry a girl that is top class at weaving…..Boys want girls that are good at weaving, because it is a tough, tough life in the jungle. The girls, they weave to make clothes for war and for every day. They weave pua and the blankets make you dream well. In Iban, dreams are the most important gift from the Gods.”
Traditional Sarawak weaving of Pua Kumbu
A traditional Borneo longhouse
Central to the tale are the two Iban boys, Minos and Watan, who are taken under the wing of a English pastor, who has not understood that the 19th century ended a few years ago and that he is not helping anyone by trying to convert Iban to Christianity. But what he can offer is attractive to the eager Iban. Minos complains that there is no TV.
“Ingland says no. If plentymoney says No, it means No. But Pastor says Yes. Someone from the church give a TV. It is only the size of a chicken.”
I hope I remember to use that splendid simile when I am next buying a TV. Let me also remember Minos’ advice about mushroom gathering:
“….if all rotten and covered in worms, means OK to eat. If fresh and untouched, means poisonous.”
Cry of the Flying Rhino is charming as well as compelling
as a story, partly because the author creates her own moral code, as a result of which almost all crimes committed by her characters can be forgiven, so long as they can be held to be avenging a greater wrong.
The charm of the book and its insights into the ways of the jungle people of Borneo have drawn me to the island.
When I get there I will be thanking Ivy and two other writers:
My friend Robin Hanbury Tenison, whose Finding Eden – A Journey into the Heart of Borneo, has just been published. It tells the story of his time leading the Royal Geographical Society expedition to the same area in 1977 and starts with his chance meeting with Nayapun, a Penan tribesman:
“The Penan have a quality of stillness….They melt into the shadows and that is their life”.
2. and the American, CS Godshalk, whose novel Kalimantaan, brought back to vivid but fictional life the time of Rajah Brooke, the Briton who became an effective Rajah of Sarawak in the mid 19th Century.
“When we affect to condemn savages, we should remember that by doing so we asperse our own progenitors; for they were savages also. Who can swear that among the naked British barbarians sent to Rome to be stared at more than 1500 years ago, the ancestor of Bacon might not have been found?–Why, among the very Thugs of India, or the bloody Dyaks of Borneo, exists the germ of all that is intellectually elevated and grand. We are all of us–Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians–sprung from one head and made in one image.” – Herman Melville
Have you been to Borneo and have you met an Iban before? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. We would love to hear from you.
Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhinois a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novelHeart of Glassis published by Unbound in 2018. Find me at www.writengeow.com, tweet me @ivyngeow, or write to me here: ivy_ngeow at yahoo dot com
Bill Colegrave is a travel writer and explorer. He was publisher of Cadogan Guides, which he bought in 1989, and also a Director of Everyman’s Library. His book Halfway House to Heaven (Benefactum, 2011) tells the story of his expedition to find the source of the River Oxus in the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. He is also co-creator of Not The Times, a parody of The Times during its year-long strike. He has an extensive travel book library and has travelled to 110 countries and counting. He has three grown children and one grandchild, and lives in London. Scraps of Wool was published by Unbound on 16 November 2017. Write to him here: scrapsofwool at gmail dot com
“A prosthetic leg with a Willie Nelson bumper sticker washed ashore on the beach, which meant it was Florida.” – Tim Dorsey, Pineapple Grenade.
“The Key West airport greeting from the tarmac. They look like mannequins, but are actually overcooked humans who have crisped into a permanent display.”
Never been to Florida? There are some eye-opening and thirst-quenching treats for you in our special photo journey today. I have been to Florida in the days BC (before children). We travelled down from Miami to Key West and Key Largo. I remember having make a few stops during the car journey. One of them was a shop (sorry, store) we found that was also a cafe and all-round convenience store. It was so convenient that it sold both tampons and guns. There were also souvenir key chains made from chopped off baby alligator paws and some incredibly cute ceramic critters of Florida wild animals, no bigger than your thumb, which I still have and admire in my bathroom to remind me nothing is what it seems.
Ready for your dose of Floridian sun? She’s tall, blonde and blue-eyed and she epitomises the all-American girl. Meet Carrie Jo Howe, an American author based in Key West, Florida. Her new book, Island Life Sentence is a fictional account of an American Mid-western woman who feels like an alien in the “one human family” of Key West. Carrie Jo’s first book,Motherhood is NOT for Babies, published in Chicago by Windy City, works wonderfully as a form of contraception.
Carrie will show us her Florida in a journey of 10 Never Seen Before photographs.
1. Key West: lots of water with scattered bits of land.
“I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida.” – Carrie Jo Howe, Island Life Sentence
A horseriding landlubber, Carrie grew up in New Jersey. Her childhood was ordinary (she says) but her claim to fame was that her Junior Prom date was James Comey (ex director of FBI). She lived in Glen Ellyn, Il (suburb of Chicago) for 20 years. Carrie says they ended up in Key West because her husband Tom works for Google and he got a Florida posting.
2. Watch out for killer wildlife. Also elderly drivers.
Peg is unaccustomed to the sight of wildlife in Key West
“Most of the wildlife can kill you, not to mention the elderly drivers, and the sun–MY GOD it’s HOT.”
In Florida it was actually too hot to go to the beach. I remember now why I had to leave Malaysia. It was not the racist, apartheid policies, corrupt third world government siphoning the people’s money, though that has something to do with it. Every time I go somewhere hot which seemed a good idea at the time, I remember why I had to leave. This included Vegas which involved crossing an 8 lane motorway in a 2 minute cab ride (he basically did a U-turn and required the customary $5 gratuity) in 42 deg C heat because no one, except slaves and donkeys, walked anywhere.
Lying down in the 40 deg C (90 deg F) sun in 99% humidity is out of the question. Forget reading. Forget makeup. Forget nice clothes. For me, there is something oppressive, desperate and torturous, about extreme heat and humidity and insects biting and singing in high pitch voices, that make you unable to think clearly or even function in a civil manner. Most terrible things I did were in extreme heat and humidity with insects biting and singing in high pitch voices. To this day I regret them.
3. On Recent Gun Crime
For Peg, it’s downward dog followed by corpse pose.
Speaking of the madness in the sun, Carrie questions why in the world would semi-automatic weapons be legal? Carrie mentors a high school girl at Key West High School and she’s scared.
“Kids should be able to attend school without being afraid. The teenagers are becoming more proactive by lobbying and protesting. The adults need to do the same.”
4. On Island Life Sentence:
Carrie’s new book is about the adventures and misadventures of main character Peg Savage whose husband Clark has signed a contract to move to Key West. She has to fend for herself and her dog Nipper as Clark has taken up a long term post in Cuba. Island Life Sentence was born out of Carrie’s own culture shock:
I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida. I have rashy, pasty skin and frizzy hair- not the best when combined with tropical sun, 90 degrees and 99% humidity. I miss my friends and family and struggle with feeling isolated. All of Peg’s stories are true – other than the persistent hauntings. Our house “haints” do not visit me as regularly. On our Irma evacuation experience, I got to see mother nature at her worst. It was terrifying and humbling. We were lucky that Key West was mostly spared. The Keys north of us were not as fortunate.
Peg drinks like a fish out of water. But can she survive Key West on her own?
5. Surprise! There is very little crime in Key West.
“Fantasy Fest. It’s an entire week every October. My God.”
Unlike the rest of the state of Florida, there is very little crime Because Key West is isolated by the aforementioned 42 bridges, the crime is related to drinking and general dumbness.
6. On Hemingway
“I want to get to Key West and away from it all.” – Ernest Hemingway
“Hemingway is everywhere in Key West. He’s crabby and bossy and Peg wishes he would leave her alone.”- Island Life Sentence
When I was working in Cuba on resort design, the legendary Papa Hemingway was everywhere too. He is the key tourist attraction for the intellectual, the god of modern American literature. In Havana I managed to frequent his haunts, the El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio and I habló y bebió like a writer with all these other tourist writers who were re-living the romantic past. He symbolises the ultimate vintage fantasy of the writer, a beach shack, a typewriter, two three bottles of whisky, a fishing boat. His house is in the Spanish Colonial style, built in 1851 and is at 907 Whitehead St, Key West. He restored it and moved into the house in 1931 with his wife no. 2. The house is also a location for the James Bond movie License to Kill. Of this property, I would mention an interesting point being that half of the cats here are polydactyl, having 6 toes, and most of the cats are believed to be descended from Hemingway’s six-toed cat Snowball. All cats are given the names of famous people, such as Clark Gable and Martha Gellhorn. It was in this house that Hemingway wrote some of his best work, including the short story classics “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, his novel To Have And Have Not, and the non-fiction work Green Hills of Africa.
7. Ghosts of Key West
“The supernatural protection of the blue porch ceiling has long faded away. The haints have taken over this old conch house.”
Haints are spirits or ghosts dating back to African descendants from the West Indies. The blue paint of porch ceilings are a common sight in Key West. The shade is called Jack Frost Blue. It was believed that haints could not cross water and that painting the porches blue acted as a deterrent. Ghost hunting is a popular tourist activity in Key West. Hauntings are rife. Even the Hard Rock Cafe is haunted. The most haunted place seems to be East Martello Fort built in the 1860s to protect Key West against a confederate assault by sea. It is home of Robert the Doll—an eerie handmade doll that many have dubbed “the original chucky”. He was the beloved toy of artist Gene Otto and it is said that whenever Gene, an ill-tempered boy, got into trouble, he would blame Robert the Doll. The Trolley of Doomed will take you round the ghost tours of Key West. Well maybe the blue ceilings kept the haints away but not Hurricane Irma.
8. On Storms
Shel Silverstein’s house
Most likely more terrifying than Robert the Doll are the storms and hurricanes of Key West. On a worldwide scale, May is the least active month, while September is the most active. Hurricane Irma destroyed Key West in September 2017 including Shel Silverstein’s house and “you know he hain’t happy about that.”
9. Key West – Where the Weird Go Pro
This strange sticker motto is the equivalent of the British Keep Calm and Carry On. I have my own which is Shut Up and Deal with It, because, well, I’m not British so why Keep Calm?
Anyway, you don’t keep calm when you are in Key West. The Key West mantra, according to this online tourist boutique which I checked out: is that “Life. Is. Weird.” This is in their own words. Yeah, I know!
This going pro concept comes from none other than the esteemed Dr Hunter S Thompson, whom as we know is the master of weird:
“When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”
10. OK I’m in Key West. What shall I do, Carrie? I want it all. Weird. The whole thing.
The final photo in our journey with Carrie. If it’s good enough for Papa Hemingway to fall in love with …
“When you come to Key West, I’ll make you a Key Lime margarita from our backyard Key Lime tree. We can sip our cold beverages in the cocktail pool which was the original cistern of the property. We’ll walk to the restaurant Salute on the Beach and dine on the most delicious yellowtail snapper–caught fresh that day. We can watch the sky turn colors over the Atlantic as the sun sets a mile away over the Gulf. Book your ticks now!
Have you been to Key West? Have you read any books set in Key West which piqued your interest? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, or email me here: ivy_ ngeow at yahoo dot com with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.
Carrie’s backyard lime tree. It is thriving post Irma. This is where my Key Lime Margarita will come from.
Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018. She is fond of margaritas, seafood tacos, Americana and all things vintage.
Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. – Benjamin Disraeli
Memory decides our journeys long before we do. It is the narrative drive of our travels and forms the organisation of our experience.
Bill Colegrave has collected and been inspired by travel books for more than four decades. He was the owner and publisher of the Cadogan Guides travel series. I was fortunate to meet Bill at the bar in Charlotte Street Hotel in London a year ago with other fellow authors.
All reading and writing helps us travel to somewhere else. The escape alone is part of what drives my memory, experience and curiosity. Scraps of Woolis about choices, about discovery, about life on the road, about dreams. Bill was 8 when he first crossed the Channel. A few years later, his father took him and his twin sister on a boat called Braemar Castlefrom London’s Tilbury Docks to Gibraltar, Genoa. He wrote:
I had fallen in love with abroad. I still am.
The 5 top places which inspired Scraps of Wool are:
1. The Oxus River, Afghanistan
fascinated Bill when he was a teenager inspired by the epic poem Sohrab and Rustum by Mathew Arnold written in 1853:
AND the first grey of morning fill’d the east,
And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream.
But all the Tartar camp along the stream
Was hush’d, and still the men were plunged in sleep;
Sohrab alone, he slept not; all night long
He had lain wakeful, tossing on his bed;
But when the grey dawn stole into his tent,
He rose, and clad himself, and girt his sword,
And took his horseman’s cloak, and left his tent,
And went abroad into the cold wet fog,
Through the dim camp to Peran-Wisa’s tent.
Oxus River and Pamir Mountains
Bill’s interest in Central Asia began when he read a copy of Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs, mentioned in his previous book Halfway House to Heaven (2011) which tells of his journey up the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to find the source of the Oxus River in the High Pamirs. Bill first went to Afghanistan in 1990. He explored the Oxus and Pamirs in 2007 when he was 59. But aged 17, he was lying one evening in a bunk in a yacht club in Cowes, Isle of Wight, with “wind-blown rain on the porthole windows” when he read Chapter 16 of The Marsh Arabs.
I had left in the last week of July 1952 and it was not an early afternoon in February. Seven months later; it seemed longer. In that time I had crossed high passes through the snows of the Hindu Kush to the cold blue lake of Korombar where the Chitral river rises; I had looked out over Wakand from the Borogil Pass and seen in the distance a glint that was the Oxus; I had slept on the glaciers at the foot of Tirich Mir, and in dark, verminous houses among mulberry orchards, where the last of the Black Kafirs lived on the borders of Nuristan.
Marsh Arabs of the Euphrates
The Marsh Arabs AKA the Maʻdān or shroog (derogatory terms) – are inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands in the south and east of Iraq and along the Iranian border. During the years he spent among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, Wilfred Thesiger came to understand, admire and share a way of life that had endured for many centuries. Bill at the time did not know of these places but he at once was bitten by the travel bug. His dream was to find these places.
2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Jon Swain’s River of Time (1996) took Bill to Cambodia. Here it is all about love, love, love. The unforgettable experience, memory, the eternal quest, the eternal question of falling in love with Indo-China.
Colonial architecture of Phnom Penh
I felt I had entered a beautiful garden… I forgot about Paris and began a love affair with Indo-China, to which I have been faithful ever since… I stepped into an enchanting world of tropical scents, the evening silence broken only by a bevy of girls in the cyclos who crowded round offering to pass the night with us. ‘Indo-China is like a beautiful woman; she overwhelms you and you never quite understand why,’ his companion said with unashamed tenderness. ‘Sometimes a man can lose his heart to a place, one that lured him back again and again.’
It was also a place of memories… of opium:
In those hard-bitten days, a number of us smoked opium. It seemed natural to do so after a day at the front. Opium had been legal in Indo-China just a few years before, and while it was now officialy prohibited, was still widely smoked among the French colonels. The most famous fumerie in Phnom Penh was Madame Chum’s. Madame Chum, a one-time mistress of a former president oft he national assembly, was Cambodia’s Opium Queen. She ran the fumerie for more than thirty years until her death in September 1970, aged 67, and earned a small fortune from the pipe-dreams of others.
3. The Karakorums
Karakorum Mountain Range
The Heart of a Continent (1896) by Francis Younghusband crossing the Mustagh took Bill to the Karakorums. The Karakoram, or Karakorum is a large mountain range spanning the borders of Pakistan, India, and China, with the northwest extremity of the range extending to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is located in the regions of Gilgit–Baltistan(Pakistan), Ladakh (India), and southern Xinjiang (China), and reaches the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan).
This chapter is a gripping adventure story:
We reached the bottom of the cliff without accident, and then found ourselves at the head of a long ice-slope extending down to the glacier below. Protruding through the ice were three pieces of rock, which would serve us as successive halting-places, and we determined upon taking a line which led by them. We had brought with us every scrap of rope that could be spared from the ponies’ gear, and we tied these and all the men’s turbans and waist-clothes together into one long rope, by which we let a man down the ice-slope on to the first projecting rock. As he went down the steps, and when he had reached the rock we tied the upper end of the rope firmly onto rock above, and then one by one we can down the slope, hanging on to the rope and making use of the steps which had been cut.
4. The Maghreb
The citadel in Essaouira, Morocco, the Maghreb
I have fond memories of this word “Maghreb”. Before I knew anything of the world, as a child of 5, I had already heard of “Maghreb” because I had grown up in a Muslim country, Malaysia. In Arabic it means ‘the West’. Usually at tea time or my dinner time as a child in Segamat, Johor, I remember my favourite Merry Melodies or Hekyll and Jekyll cartoons on TVbeing interrupted by the Waktu Maghreb or Time of the West muezzin’s call to prayer. Incidentally, Segamat is also the setting for Cry of the Flying Rhino. TheMaghrib prayer(Arabic: صلاة المغرب ṣalāt al-maġrib, “Westprayer“) is the prayer time which is prayed just after sunset. It is the fourth of five obligatory dailyprayers(salat) performed by practicing Muslims. I was very interested in this cross-dressing aristocratic heiress Isabelle Eberhardt in Chapter 17 which took Bill to the Maghreb. The Maghreb is a region of northern Africa that consists primarily of the countries Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. It is considered the Western region of the Arabic world.
Isabelle Eberhardt cross dressed as a sailor boy while working in the docks of Marseille to earn enough money to escape
Isabelle Eberhardt, penniless author of The Oblivion Seekers (1906), was only 27 when she drowned in a flash flood at Ain Sefra Algeria in 1904. She was 22 years old when she left an unhappy “sedentary” life in Switzerland, became a Sufi Muslim, and dressed as the male Arab she saw herself as. She explored the kif smoking dens of Kenadsa, then part of Morocco, subsequently absorbed into Algeria. She was supposedly a writer, a spy, an agitator and a sexual libertine.
Born in Geneva to an aristocratic mother and the family tutor—an ex-priest turned anarchist named Alexandre Trofimovsky—Isabelle Eberhardt was fluent in six languages, including Arabic, as a 16-year old. By the age of 20 she had converted to Islam. In the late 1890s both her parents died suddenly. Despite her family’s wealth, Eberhardt was an illegitimate baby and therefore not eligible for an inheritance. She had to earn passage to Algeria using her wits. Disguising herself as a boy—something she’d been doing from an early age with the encouragement of her father—she worked as a Marseille dockhand until she could afford the ferry crossing.
The kif dens are places of shelters “for Moroccan vagabonds, for nomads, and for every sort of person of dubious intent and questionable appearance.” As I understand, kif is cannabis, smoked til it produced a drowsy effect:
The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hand lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy.
5. The Hunza
Some facts: People are often surprised when they learn that the citizens of Hunza (also known as Burusho people) usually live up to the age 120. They can easily conceive even after 60 years and it is very rare for them to get tumors. They are also descendants of Alexander the Great. They bathe in glacier water. Cancer does not exist in the Hunza. Curious?
Batura Glacier in the Hunza
In George Curzon’s The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus (1996), he claims that the “ice cave found there was the source of the river. It was there, almost exactly as he had described it, a river emerging in full flow from the confluence of three glaciers. No one who has had the good fortune to visit the astonishing Hunza Valley would quarrel with Curzon’s florid opening description.”
Bill’s last trip was to South America – the conjunction of Peru, Colombia and Brazil where the Amazon is already 5 km across. He is now working on Scraps 2.
Scraps of Wool is an enjoyable read and an even more enjoyable blog post for me to write. It is a remarkable and moving compilation.Bill’s narrative is charming, tender and humorous and it never stops to examine the humanity in places, time and the characters Bill has encountered. It is also illuminating in that all our moments are to be treasured, each a jewel, a story. Each place is stunning in its own right. In fact, they are such fairytale fantasy settings, these places which beggar belief, still continue not only to exist but to shine like gems as they had always done, through the terrible world that we live in, with its despair, sad state of global destruction and political problems. Scraps of Wool gives hope that the world we live in is so ugly and yet so beautiful.
Do you think travel has shaped your experiences or do you think your experiences have been shaped by travel? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, join my mailing list or email me with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.
Bill Colegrave is a travel writer and explorer. He was publisher of Cadogan Guides, which he bought in 1989, and also a Director of Everyman’s Library. His book Halfway House to Heaven (Benefactum, 2011) tells the story of his expedition to find the source of the River Oxus in the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan. He is also co-creator of Not The Times, a parody of The Times during its year-long strike. He has an extensive travel book library and has travelled to 110 countries and counting. He has three grown children and one grandchild, and lives in London. Scraps of Wool was published recently by Unbound and shares the same publication date asmy debut – 16 November 2017.
Ivy Ngeow is third generation Chinese and was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She is of mixed parentage of the nomadic Hakka tribe and Hokkien from the Fujian province. She lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018.
OXUS RIVER AND PAMIR MOUNTAINS
photo credit: Ricardo’s Photography (Thanks to all the fans!!!) Afghanistan via photopin(license)
Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.
Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?
You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:
“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”
Can you teach creative writing?
The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.
“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “
He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.
The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.
“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”
Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.
Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”
This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.
My MA in Writing at Middlesex University
From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.
Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.
What about George Orwell?
What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.
is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.
Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?
Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.
William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.
What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.
Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.
A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.
Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?
Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.
The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…
By this these Angles from an evil sprite,
Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.
The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.
There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,
Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.
What were the inciting incidents which inspired Cry of the Rhino to become an award-winning novel? Asian Books Blog ran a 500 word article with answers and much more. I was also covered by the American author Robert Raymer in his insightful and entertaining blog, the Borneo Expat Writer. Robert and I interviewed each recently.
You can also read the article here below:
Cry of the Flying Rhino was written thirteen years ago after I made my one and only trip to Borneo with my mother. I was inspired by the dark, macabre and gothic nature of communal longhouse living and the tribal civilisation and culture which have been around for thousands of years. Two things triggered some ideas.
Firstly, during the trip, I saw a tattoo parlour called Headhunters. It piqued my interest in the traditional art and symbolism of Iban tattooing, performed manually with a hammer, steel pin and ink made from tree ash.
Secondly, long after our trip, I dreamt of a girl in a longhouse with eyes as huge as the “hollows of the benuah tree”. Those words came to me in the dream. I wrote them down. She looked sad and haunted and there was also terror in her eyes. I did not know who she was or what the dream was about but something unpleasant and unusual had happened to her and I set about finding out about the Iban culture, which I later discovered, is based on dreams. That dreams were everything, our hopes, work, happiness and luck.
In exploring the two triggers above, I found out that indigenous cultures are threatened and dying, because of loss of habitat due to logging and deforestation, and due to the conversion of the Ibans to other religions. As a result, orang asli (original people) like the Ibans are forced to leave their habitat for the city because their livelihood, dependent on being able to survive in the jungles on the fat of the land, is diminishing due to the jungles being cleared. Their way of life which is so rich in folklore, superstition and traditions will soon be lost. Ultimately the rapid destruction of the jungles will impact upon the rest of the world via climate change and so on. I also found out that children tattooed children which ensured that the art would never die. If adults were one day wiped out by an epidemic or a massacre, the surviving children would all have learned and mastered all survival and artistic skills including tattooing.
Cry of the Flying Rhino is a modern novel set in the railway town of Segamat, which has already been deforested and turned into miles of plantation, and Borneo, whose jungles are under threat. The Chinese GP, Benjie, has been forced to marry Talisa, a mysterious and tattooed teenager, and the adopted daughter of wealthy crass Scottish landowner Ian. Benjie has to discover for himself his wife’s true identity, when Minos and Watan, two Ibans who leave the jungle and appear in Segamat one day, looking for Talisa.
Cry of the Flying Rhino raises uneasy themes of identity, poverty, religion, race, greed, colonialism and post-colonial struggles, and deculturalisation because I want to convey to readers the issues and conflicts which affect Asia today using the medium of fiction. I hope the story will take them to another world.
Did anybody catch this on the BBC over the weekend? A terrible TV film about three Chinese girls in London called CHINESE BURN. The script is so shocking and racist I can’t believe it was made.
One has a permanent cleaver looking at little dogs to chop up and eat.
One is an out-of-work actress who auditions for endless prostitute or cleaner roles with kungfu thrown in.
One is a failed sommelier walking around as a human signboard for bubble tea, who gets molested by her Chinese boss but ends up giving him a hand job.
Very poor. None were empowered or normalised or fit into society as they were terrible cliches and stereotypes of people who don’t even exist, like pulling their eyes into slits. It’s like the writers went: “Hey I know! Why challenge stereotypes when we can reinforce them? This is a great idea. Let’s call it diversity, heh heh! Just throwing that word in for luck. Let’s create hideous characters, the dregs of humanity. Not an ounce of delight or warmth. Let’s call them Chinese girls.”
OK that is my TV review. Apparently it’s a comedy too but it’s not funny at all. Will black people or white people find this funny? I am a very humorous person too – people tell me I am a funny girl. But this show is stupid and not funny.
How are we supposed to move forward when we are moving back all the time? We as in everybody, not just Chinese girls. We as in scriptwriters, writers, thinkers, workers, doers, the Beeb. I am waiting for something clever and funny. Not asking a lot, you see, just some eye candy while ironing.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas
Lulu Allison is a Brighton-based artist and writer. Before she started writing she had already been an established artist.
Twice the Speed of Dark
is told from the viewpoint of Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?
Lulu Allison’s self-discovery
unexpectedly made her transition from visual artist to a writer as an indirect result of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. It was triggered by her curiosity for why the news offered reasons to care about victims of the Boston bombing when the names of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were not released. Why were some victims unseen and others offered up for public grieving? Lulu began what she thought of as an art project, writing portraits of the nameless victims in the news. It became clear that writing offered a means of expression that didn’t exist in art. She expanded the portrait writing; the result was her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.
Art by Lulu Allison
in a gallery in Cardiff, from her pre-writing days. They are site-specific installations, newspaper and bamboo structures, part of a series called Vagabond Palaces because they are made of waste newsprint.
“I liked the idea that waste becomes something valuable because something is removed from it (the cut holes) and I thought too that it is a vagabond material, transient, overlooked.”
Vagabond Palace 1
Vagabond Palace 4
There are three types of art in literature:
1/ art for art’s sake
Is the purest form of art. There is no one best to represent this than Shakespeare whose literature was to entertain, and not just the esoteric few, but the masses. Shakespeare’s plays were exercises in realism. There was no intention to reform or to revolt against the evils of society or the ruling party. Yet being a true artist, his insights and portrayal of the human condition and the conflicts in his tragedies, histories or comedies are true to character and filled with empathy.
2/ art for social purposes
is for spreading or instilling social ideas. In poor countries, with corrupt, inept governments, art is used as a device through which social ideas are spread, through billboards, public art, printed material such as leaflets. Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are of the view that society is influenced by propaganda, which is when artistic licence is taken to spread social ideas.
3/ art for morality
is the positive end of art for social purposes. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Victor Hugo; Goethe; Cervantes; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky speak the truth through their fiction: the truth being their despair and opposition of oppression, fatalism, passivity, and submission to the societal flaws. Twice the Speed of Dark by Lulu Allison is a novel which comes into this third category as there are themes of grief, domestic violence and disorder which ultimately examine the moral and emotional conscience.
This is another example of Lou’s site-specific non-gallery based art from a series called Entropy: Value-Added.
“Again, it was thinking about value, and I loved the bombastic idea that I was adding value to decay. There is something beautiful in that for me. This is essentially street art, but I called it feral, because I felt it had escaped from the studio back into the wild. I guess it suits Anna’s interest in the accidental too.”
Entropy: Value Added
Anna, the grieving mother in Twice the Speed of Dark seeks solace in the viewing of public art at the Tate, but makes the weary re-discovery that her “passion for art has gone” and that “Twentieth-century art… looks tired, more tired than her even.” Yet she stands back, passive, she feels she has outgrown that passion and is unmoved by the passion invoked by one of the trustees, energetic Eva, of the arts organisation.
Also in the same chapter, we see from the viewpoint of the late Caitlin bonding with her mother Anna in a flashback.
“It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she… Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.”
Caitlin describes her pride for her mother being an art history lecturer, who
“spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye to fill it.
“…But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view… it might be something I couldn’t spot at all.”
These scenes in Chapter 4 are firstly symbolic of art which bring people, in this case, family together. It is something that grows up and grows old with us. Secondly, these scenes depict also that in literature, art becomes a habit, a theme, an inspiration both for memory and storytelling.
Lulu Allison has spent most of her life as a visual artist. She attended Central St Martin’s School of Art then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad. Amongst the bar-tending and cleaning jobs, highlights of these years include: in New Zealand, playing drums for King Loser and bass for Dimmer. In Germany, making spectacle hinges in a small factory. In Amsterdam painting a landmark mural on a four storey squat and nearly designing the new Smurfs. In Fiji and California, teaching scuba diving. After a decade of wandering, she returned to the UK, where she had two children and focused on art. She completed a fine art MA and exhibited her lens-based work and site-specific installations in group and solo shows. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along.Twice the Speed of Dark is her first book, published by Unbound. She is currently writing a second novel, called Wetlands.
I first picked up this book for its cover, a vintage fashion shoot time black and white photo cover. Also it has all the themes which inspire and interest me: vintage, obsession, fame, class.
There has been a Formula One Grand Prix accident in Monaco, May 1968 witnessed by the world press in the grandstand as the celebs mingle with drivers and their racing cars. grandstand is witness to a terrible incident. Jack Preston, a simple mechanic for Team Sutton, will bear the scars of injuries from which he shielded Deedee, a budding film star. Back in a remote sleepy village in England, it seems like it is still the 1950s. Church-going villagers wish him well. A slow-witted boy stands around and assists Jack back in his garage while he tinkers with cars. Jack recovers from his injuries and is nursed back to health, after which he owes it to his wife and has to put up with her insatiable sexual appetite. Jack becomes totally obsessed with Dee the glamorous Hollywood actress. waiting every day for a sign that she would be back to show her gratitude, to find him, to see him, to say ‘thank you for saving my life’.
Peter Terrin’s writing is rich, beautiful and evocative. Already he is being compared to Camus and I can see why. This is a thin book, only 160 pages, yet it is full of restraint, lacking in verbosity and descriptive excess. Instead it is a clear, simple and imaginative account of a car mechanic’s obsession with a film star. “Monte Carlo” has been translated from the Dutch language by David Doherty. Peter Terrin himself was born in 1968 the year of the Grand Prix.
This is the Proverse Spring Reception on 27 April 2017. The film is 53:09 minutes long. The section where they announce the prize winners is from 4:32 to 9:10.
However, you may wish to watch to the end. It is actually very entertaining, especially as new books are being launched, and there are readings by writers and poets from all over the world. It is an evening celebrating writing, writers and books and a special treat for book lovers everywhere.