Woke to glorious sunshine on Saturday - you could be in Greece! Had lunch out the back:
Then off to pick some blackberries - sméara dubha.
Made some home-made granola based on my good friend Suzanne Bloom's recipe and some blackberry compote as developed in this very kitchen by Marijn Woudstra - ready for the morning!
tBut the weather is always changing in Kerry, especially here in Glenmore - close to sea and mountains... we often get this eerie mix of brigh sunshine and ominous clouds. It was enough to make me turn for home...
though not before I'd got my perfect photo of a Fuscia - a native of South American but growing wild here since it was introduced (due to the Gulf Stream). Think I'll use it as my Twitter avatar for a bit...
)After a long two days travelling, it was nice to get out for a walk (in fact I HAVE to get out for a walk if I want to call anyone as there's no phone or mobile connection at our house). It was a 'grand soft day' with the lightest of mist. The fuscia are still in bloom after a sunny summer...
and the furze are holding out.
You can easily forget about the abundance of autum in the city - but here, even in the drizzle, the berries are ripening... honeysuckle is scenting the air, rose hips are almost ready (I can't remember what my mother used to make from them - I'll have to research) the berries on the Mountain Ash are like corn-on-the-cob and even the briars are wonderful.
I remember why Gerard Manley Hopkins was a favourite poet...
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
So on moving day we were shocked to discover that the developers across the street had decided to do even more digging. We had permission to park outside our house - but now that the developers had created a one way, that wouldn't be possible...
But the amazing young men who arrived to do the move parked in the space outside the house, leaving the road clear and even a smige of foothpath - a sneeze would have brought the whole adventure to a premature end!
Our kind neighbours cooked us lunch and we said a sad goodbye. Then we packed the car - with kitty-crate and computer (that's all that would fit) and headed for Wales.
Poor Kitty is generally an outdoor cat, roaming the nearby gardens and only staying in when the temperature drops below freezing. Eighteen hours in the car was just too much! By the time we stopped to pick up a few groceries, she was gone into a daze... finally, in a traditionally misty afternoon, we arrived.
,I usually only blog here about books and related matters, but I was so uplifted by the AfroCelt concert I went to in Reading on Saturday night, I wanted to write. And, as I thought about what I wanted to say, I realised that actually it has a bearing on my 'book life' as it were...
I don't like to use the word 'diversity' very much - so often it's used by white people when they talk about 'others' - but you can't get away from the word when you're watching AfroCelt - they epitomise it in being a group of musicians from around the world creating the most amazing sound.
It's not 'fused' - you can hear clearly all the different original traditions at once - but together they do produce something new and amazing and exciting.
I think the reason I was so uplifted (not just from the amazing music itself but from the experience) is the fact that all of these people working together and creating this amazing new thing are a fabulous example of how much richer we are when we embrace and respect each others' traditions and when we celebrate what we achieve together...
This was in contrast to the direction the UK seems to be moving at the moment, and specifically the horrible comments I'd been reading the few days before on Emma Dabiri's Twitter feed claiming (in a nutshell) that Irishness cannot include anyone who is not white and being particularly nasty about people of mixed heritage.
There was a lot of talk about 'purity' in this thread - and I guess it wasn't a surprise that the comments came back into my head while I was watching a Punjabi-Sikh (from Slough - big up Slough) accompanying an Irish fiddler playing a reel...
Because while people claim that 'music is a universal language', there is much talk of purity in musical circles too - most especially in the area of folk or traditional music. On my last visit to Kerry I joined a great local trad session, but I was curious at the amazement at a local young flute player. Adopted as a baby, people were amazed at his facility to play Irish music - even though he'd been adopted into an extremely musical family - as if there was an Irish traditional music -gene.
I have no doubt that there are genes for musical aptitude, and I'm sure if this young boy was living in Russia, he'd be playing Tchaikovsky. But there isn't a gene for national music and it shouldn't come as a surprise that someone born elsewhere but growing up in a rich musical environment should be a skilled practitioner of a local tradition. When we talk of people being 'naturals' we somehow set up a situation where a tradition cannot be learned but has to somehow be inherited.
The thing about Afro Celt is that each musician is superb exponent of his or her traditional/native instrument and musical tradition. They are all amazingly skilled. And whatever about this talk of universal languages, actually even brilliant musicians from very different traditions cannot just roll up and start playing together...
So when Johnny Kalsi (the Slough Punjabi-Sikh dohl-player) said "you need three legs for this one, it's in sevenths" he was really acknowledging the level of difficulty of the collaboration in the next piece. For someone like me, steeped in an Irish tradition, I was loving it, but struggled to keep the beat! And I was in awe of the Irish flute and fiddle player who somehow managed to play some kind of slip-jig to it!
These musicians, all experts in their own fields must have had to be prepared to really listen to each other, to be open to being amateurs and needing to learn about a different tradition.
And the result was so amazing. For me, what is SO exciting about Afro-Celt is that it's not just a blend - you can hear all the different instruments and traditions clearly, but the experience of hearing them together is mind-blowing.
So, if you are saddened by the daily updates on Brexit with their attendant xenophobia and the emboldening of those voices which would argue for pure homelands, check out Afro-Celt and lift your soul.
For the current series of concerts they are being 'supported' by the Dhol Foundation.
So I'm humming 'All the single Ladies' in my head all week and I can't think why...
Everything is ready for Edinburgh Book Festival...
• magic wand - tick VITAL for under 5s events
• bookmarks with little cats for them to colour in - tick
• my box of goodies with glitter and tape and ribbons to decorate the bookmarks - tick
And then I realised - one of my craft activities is to make a Mary Mary doll. (Lulu loves the poem Mary Mary Quite Contrary - it inspires her to plant flowers and decorate her garden with shells and beads... Lulu thinks that the 'maids all in a row' are little ladies and she makes one herself. I then made some last summer and put instructions for how to make them on the website...
My events at EIBF will be focused on Lulu Loves Flowers and Lulu Gets a Cat - with storytelling and then craft. I ordered some wooden 'bodies' to act as the bases for the dolls but when they arrived they were far too light in colour - Lulu's dolls look just like her and that's important.
SO I spent the last few weeks painting the bodies - now these little ladies are ready to go!
I've been thinking about this since reading a Guardian article headed 'We need to talk about sense and sensitivity' with the none too nuanced sub-title, 'Some publishers now employ ‘sensitivity readers’ to check books for potential offence – a step that can only have a chilling effect on creativity'.
It was written by Lionel Shriver who also recently stepped into the fray with an article about 'cultural appropriation', so we could likely guess what her take would be... (though more than anything I bristled at her comment , "Though this practice is now largely confined to children’s and young adult fiction, lately mainstream media have consistently drifted toward pandering to the thin-skinned. Grownup fiction* may not stay safe from the sensitivity police for long." (*my italics - I think adult fiction would have been more accurate and not had the implication that children's and YA fiction was somehow childish - but there you go).
Anyway, I have three comments...
I've primarily spoken below about being sensitive around culture and race, but the comments apply more broadly, I hope.
1) Publishers now employ...
So, this was a shock to me. I heard people talk about it at a wonderful SCWBI meeting recently, but I'd already ranted twice so didn't want to talk again, but it is shocking to me that this is some kind of a new thing! Surely publishers have been doing this for years? I certainly would not have published anything featuring a particular racial group without checking that it was correct any more than I would publish anything set in a historical period, for example, without making sure the story didn't contain errors.
This is not about a writer's lack of imagination - we are quite capable of imagining experiences we've never had or writing set in eras we've never lived in or, writing characters of other genders or races. For me it's about checking for nuance, inaccuracies... something that sounds 'off'
This is a book I worked on in 1995 with the wonderful Margaret Bateson-Hill. She had already contacted the Lambeth Chinese Community about her story, and once I'd acquired it, I continued to work with them. They vetted the artwork (and if fact found a major historical error - the artists had worked from really good quality reference. However, she'd drawn the emperor's courtiers with beards and our consultant told us they were always eunuchs, so we had to remove the beards. We also contacted the community for recommendations and connections: they found us a paper-cut artist and a translator, and put me in touch with people who typeset a Chinese newspaper who I used for the Chinese text. They made a really positive contribution to the project. I'm not singing my own praises here, just making the point that this has been good practice for sensitive publishers for over 30 years.
This was the first in a series of four 'new' folktale-style stories, and we worked very closely with a group from the Native American Community (in the USA), a group of Russian friends in London and a number of Indian librarians living in the UK for the other books in the series. It was routine.
2) Sensitivity readers to check books for offence
Two points here actually. Firstly I hate the term sensitivity readers - like we are all some kind of snowflakes! If I set my book in a historical context and I as a writer/editor/publisher ask someone with knowledge and expertise/experience of this context, I don't call them 'sensitivity readers' I call them consultants. Though those who coined the expression in the first place didn't mean it in a pejorative way, it is important what we call things and certainly, I think calling them 'sensitivity readers' feeds into the kind of attitude expressed by Lionel Shriver - that it's all about sensitivity rather than accuracy or authenticity. Lee and Low (who I'm sure have also been using readers for a very long time call them 'cultural consultants' and I think this is a far more sensible term. It also speaks to the attempt by authors, editors and publishers to 'get it right' rather than having the 'unrelenting anguish about hurting other people's feelings' Shriver talks about.
Which brings me on to the second point - the offence bit.
See, as a writer myself and as someone who writes, edits and publishes stories set outside of my own experience, I am concerned about giving offence, sure - I think that goes without saying. However, the main motivation behind asking someone who is more knowledgeable or has more experience about a situation I'm writing about, it to get it right, to find an authenticity... a weird note, a slightly off phrase can break the magic of a story, draw attention to the writing, break the spell - that's what I'm trying to avoid - that slightly off note...
Sadly, I think one of the reasons publishing is recently talking about 'sensitivity readers' is that it has long been writing/publishing for an assumed white audience and white readers' notions of 'blackness' (or any other 'other'). In this context, a reasonably informed stab at representing any non-white character/voice/situation is good enough as long as it seems OK to the white writer/editor/publisher. This is the white gaze Toni Morrison talks about and which was recently referred to by L.J. Alonge in his recent brilliant article, Writing Past The White Gaze As A Black Author.
In recent years, especially in YA, readers have routinely voiced criticisms of texts which are inauthentic, and this perhaps is why publishers are waking up to the diversity of readers their stories are being read by - and that is feeding the (good) move to consult.
* Little side note, it was interesting to me that in the Toni Morrison video she speaks of asking her Mali friend various questions including finding an authentic name for one of her characters. Publishers may be waking up to checking white writers, but we all need to be sensitive when writing about any other culture.
3) Sensitivity Readers
Though the word readers is used in the plural when talking about this, it seems to me from a lot of the comments that in reality people use one reader. And while I understand how hard it is to get multiple readers, that surely has to be part of the exercise - if the intention is to genuinely iron out any glitches versus getting a tick of approval.
Chimamanda Adichie says pretty much everything worth saying on the topic in her amazing Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story. And I think everything she says also applies to cultural consultants as I shall now call them. It is unfair to ask one 'cultural reader' to represent a whole group of individuals and we should remember that what might sound off to someone from a particular class/city/religion in a country, might be just fine for someone else from a different class/countryside/religion. Finding more than one reader might seem a daunting task, but actually it's not.
I was quite nervous when working on my book, My Friend Jamal. I had worked with the Somali family featured in the story for so long we'd become good friends, so I was confident the settings were OK. However, the mother of 'Jamal' was not a confident English speaker and at very least I wanted to be sure she really knew and understood what I was saying in the story. I knew two other Somali families really well and asked them to put me in touch with others - in fact one woman was part of a Somali women's group and she kindly invited me along to one of their meetings, introduced me and allowed me to read the story and have the women comment. Since I touched on religious practice in the story, it was very important to me that some very committed Muslims commented on it alongside some with more secular views. In my experience, people are incredibly willing to help you make sure you represent people like them accurately.
So, that's where I'll leave it. I think consultants are vital to anyone writing outside of their own experience - but it's important they don't feel the burden of being one voice from that community - whatever it is. For me at least, this is not about “marginalised groups whose feelings must be specially protected" it's about the authenticity of the story. I'll close with one anecdote. When I came to the UK first I was quite a fan of The Bill, but over time, I had to stop watching it. I found that every time an Irish character appeared on screen, he was likely to be the criminal. That was offensive. However, the other thing that made me stop watching was the inaccuracy - I watched one programme where two Irish guys were supposed to be brothers. Now, their accents were from different parts of the country - so I assumed it was part of the plot that they were not in fact brothers. However, it turned out they were (supposed to be brothers that is) - it was just some casual casting and lack of attention to detail. But it spoiled the whole plot and resolution for me and I was confused for much of the programme. That is what a consultant might have fixed - the authenticity bit.
Finally, I think we need to guard against over reliance on readers - the story is ultimately the writer's responsibility and then that of her editor/publisher... a sensitivity reader can comment, but it should never be seen as some kind of tick of approval or badge against criticism.
Thoughtful comments please.
I'm not actually going to blog about this - yet...
But there are some excellent commentaries that I wanted to collect in one place.
Who Gets to Write What?
by Kaitlyn Greenidge in the New York Times is here
'I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad'
Lionel Shriver's full speech in The Guardian is here
No, Lionel Shriver, the problem is not cultural appropriation
by Ken Kalfus in the Washington Post is here
And the excellent Scott Woods in
Lionel Shriver and The Magical Vial of White Writers’ Tears
And from Ali Standish - here
measured and thoughtful comments only, please.
Bologna 2016 was a very significant one for me. Having sold the US, Danish and Dutch rights for the first Lola/Lulu book at the fair in 2004/5, I decided to set up Alanna Books to publish it in the UK. In 2006, all of us met to celebrate. Little did we realise how this little book-loving hero would take off!
So in 2016, I felt it was important to mark the 10 years - not just of Lulu's development, but also of the joy I've had working with such a tremendous group of people. I've begun to think of Lulu as a magnet for nice people, each time she finds a new champion, I make a new colleague and friend.
So first up, I'm so grateful that my stories are illustrated by not just one of the most talented illustrators in the business, but one of the nicest - Ros Beardshaw.
It was a fabulous evening with a very sweet moment towards the end - the lovely proprietors of Enoteca Storica Faccioli, Elisa and Stefano brought their little son to meet us. He was very excited to get a copy of Lulu as you can see and he reminded us what this really is all about!
I can't end this post without thanking two of my biggest supporters - the talented writer and storyteller, Margaret Bateson-Hill, and my wonderful husband, Brian, without whose support none of this would be possible.
In the photos: Marianna Warth, Pallas Editora Rio de Janero, Brazil; Andrew Macmillan & Tricia, MMS Publishing Services, UK; Martyn Chapman, ORCA Book Services UK; Rusty Scott, Yolanda Scott & Meg Quinn, Charlesbridge Publishing, Boston, USA; Kendra Marcus & Ilse Crane, BookStop Literary Agency San Fransisco, USA; Margaret Bateson-Hill, UK; Brian Pembroke UK at Enoteca Storica Faccioli, Bologna - with thanks to Simona Sideri.
This is a little bit of a cheat - I first wrote it on the US publishers Charlesbridge's blog, Unabridged, when Lulu Loves Flowers was published in hardcover. Now that it's out in paperback - in time to celebrate 10 years of Lulu books, I thought I could re-blog it here...
Writing is a funny thing. You think you're writing about one thing, but it turns out you're writing about something else altogether, you just don't realise it!
When I started writing Lulu Loves Flowers, I thought I was just writing a simple story about Lulu and gardening. I thought, 'if she wanted to garden, Lulu's a bit like me, so first thing she would do is read up on the subject.' She loves books anyways, so that was appropriate and that's what I made her do.
I actually have a small town garden and I don't really regard myself as a gardener. But I do have a wonderful collection of gardening books with fantastic photographs of beautiful gardens and inspiring schemes…
Our garden is at it's best in spring, (when I do a little weeding and planting)
But once the big cherry tree comes into leaf it's too shady for many flowers, so I spend most of the time sitting in the shade reading gardening books (and occasionally cook books, craft books…) I've always been a little bit more into reading about doing things and looking at nice pictures of things than actually making or doing!
I actually did more gardening when I was very little. My dad is a very keen gardener, growing vegetables and fruit in our back garden, as well as flowers and a large lawn out front. His carrots, turnips, potatoes, onions, lettuces, strawberries, and rhubarb kept us happy and well fed (except for the year when, aged three, I picked the strawberry flowers and presented them in a bunch to my mother!).
I helped with weeding and planting, and he also gave me a little patch to grow my own stuff – some onions, lettuce, a few flowers… My most adventurous year was the one when I decided to grow various items mentioned in the Enid Blyton stories I was reading. The Famous Five and the Adventurous four seemed to exist on a diet of radishes, watercress sandwiches and ginger beer (none of which I'd tasted - in fact I thought ginger beer was alcoholic and I was a bit shocked the children were allowed to drink it). Like Lola wanting to re-create Mary Mary's contrary garden, I was determined to find out what watercress and especially radishes tasted like.
I have to tell you, both were disappointing. I couldn't really understand the attraction of watercress (though combined with hardboiled egg and mayonnaise - a recipe from one of the cooking books I also happened to have borrowed from the library - it was just about OK). But the radishes were a total bust! I think that in combination with the descriptions of Dick and George wolfing them down, the very word 'radish' sounded delicious to me. So the bland, pale, hard white radishes I grew were a horrible disappointment. Worst of all was I'd been very successful and had an enormous crop which I couldn't give away fast enough!
Whenever I took a break from all that planting and weeding (not!) I was off to do the other thing I liked to do in the garden – pretending to be a spy! I would get down on my tummy and crawl between the vegetable ridges, pretending I was sneaking up on some bad guys or escaping from some bad guys…
And you know, I think this is really what Lulu Loves Flowers is about. It's about the fact that little kids are like little sponges – soaking up experiences and trying stuff out and working out how the world works and who they are and how they fit. And it's about the fact that we must not limit their options or their imaginations. Too often we see a little girl who loves reading and we put her in the 'cerebral' box. We buy her more books (good thing) and read to her (good thing) but perhaps forget that on other days she may enjoy running in the garden just as much… We see a little girl who loves to run about and we put her in the 'sporty box'. We sign her up for after school sports clubs (good thing) and cheer her from the sidelines (good thing) but perhaps forget that once in a while she might like to sit and listen to a story… We see a little girl who loves dressing up and we put her in the 'artistic' box and we sign her up for art class (good thing) and dance class (good thing) but forget that once in a while she might like to run about in the mud or plant some flowers…
I was that mix of things – a crazy reader, soaking up information and stories but then acting them out, running about, pretending… getting muddy. I was fortunate that my parents accepted that mixed up bundle of stuff and it wasn't really until my teens when I started to run middle-distance competitively that these two sides of my personality seem a problem to other people. My running club peers were curious about my 'bookishness', seeing it as at odds with my my passion for running and some of my 'cerebral' friends thought my love of physical exertion was just weird. (And did I mention that I was also into art and played two musical instruments). Happily, none of my friends were anything other than puzzled by my 'other' interests and I continued with them all.
But more and more I see a modern trend to channel children into a particular stream earlier and earlier (I think so they can be sold things more efficiently). The tailored advertising of the 'if you liked that author/musician/dress – you'll like this author/musician/dress' is ubiquitous. It may seem innocuous, but is a symptom of a world where we are encouraged to identify with a particular (and often narrow) set of values/ambitions and stick with them. When applied to young children, this tendency to label and contain seems to me to be kicking in earlier and earlier. I have parents of 2-year olds tell me 'he's not really into books' as if this is a fixed character trait like having brown eyes (and as if ANY trait is fixed in a 2-year old) and I see parents dress their little girls as princesses and wonder why they don't want to run and play outside.
So Lulu Loves Flowers is about ALL of that… It's about a little girl who is like a little sponge, soaking up information about the world around her; acting out things from books; trying out different roles and figuring out what makes her happy and where she fits in the world…
Carol Ann Duffy's Christmas poem this year, The Wren-Boys has sparked much interest in the old custom of 'going on the Wren'. Most Google searches state that it is an obsolete custom, but in Kerry where I grew up (and some other parts of rural Ireland) it is very much alive.
Like many other Irish celebrations, it is one based on layers upon layers of custom...
Nowadays, The Wren is celebrated on St Stephen's Day (the feast day of first Christian martyr) but the tradition has no links with St Stephen and most likely was originally celebrated on the Solstice (only a few days earlier after all). In fact, the Wren was venerated in Irish mythology as a wise and clever bird who outsmarted the Eagle to be named King of the birds. The story goes that the birds decided to have a competition to elect a king. The winner was to be the bird who flew highest and the Eagle was confident of winning. However, the clever little Wren perched on the Eagle's back and when the Eagle reached the highest point, the Wren came out of hiding and flew higher.
In Celtic mythology, the wren was also the symbol of the old year. The tradition of chasing and killing a wren then parading it round the locality while singing and dancing, collecting money for its burial, makes sense in this context.
This association with older mythology (in fact, the Irish word for wren dreolín suggests an association with Druidic practice, the name meaning 'druid's bird') was a troubling one in Christian times. So, it is thought that, in order to clamp down on the custom, new stories were invented including one that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. This and other stories attempted to make the wren an object of scorn versus veneration. The result is a hodge-podge that makes little sense:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.
In later years bunches of feathers and pretend birds were attached to poles with ribbons instead of an actual bird, which were then carried round the locality accompanied by singers asking for 'a penny for the Wren' (though rumors persisted that the Wren boys would return in the night and bury a dead wren in the garden of anyone who was less than generous - something which would bring them bad luck for the coming year). The money collected would be pooled to fund a party traditionally called a join.
When we 'went on the Wren' we collected money not for a party but for a local youth club. What interests me is how much of a carnival it was, and the strong emphasis on disguise (something not really mentioned in Google searches). There was a strong tradition of men dressing as women and many wearing night clothes.
It was also traditional to 'go on the wren' in the next town or village along rather than your own and even then we all had to agree to pretend to be from somewhere else (we pretended to be from Toornafolla).
(left) Brian Pembroke & (right) Anna McQuinn On the Wren 1985
Setting out from O'Mahony's house, Castleisland, Co Kerry
(left) Brian Pembroke & (right) Anna McQuinn (in the background, in his pyjamas) Cormac O Mahony On the Wren 1985, Flanagan's, Brosna, Co Kerry
(left) Lyn, (centre) Dan Lynch & (right) 'our treasurer' Colm McQuinn
On the Wren, Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, 1985
More interesting links;