‘I hate the way the news plasters over the rough edges of truth.’
How do you make the indescribable real to those who have never witnessed it? From dining with ambassadors to negotiating with armed guards, this uniquely revealing memoir provides a vivid insight into civil war in Africa from a very personal perspective. Written by former foreign correspondent Lara Pawson, This Is The Place To Be is a series of interwoven anecdotes and intimate snapshots of life in war-torn Angola and Ivory Coast; some funny, many unsettling, all written in a natural, spontaneous style.
This is a fragmented account reflecting the chaos of war. The crossover between war and peace is explored, as some semblance of routine is maintained in a war zone whilst violence can and does erupt in times of peace. Pawson is like a voyeur witnessing both joyful and horrific moments in other people’s lives while trying to make sense of her own. Fierce yet compassionate, her strong connection with the African nations she reported from emanates from every page. Having built cross-cultural relationships, she analyses the impact of the people who have entered her life and their imprint on her memory. We witness war’s continuing effect upon her in present-day London as past incidents resurface, revealing the parallels that are present in life even under starkly different circumstances.
The reliability of the mainstream media is called into question and Pawson is open in her struggle to capture the whole story. Having previously worked for the BBC, she describes how she became cynical about the nature of journalism as the news is presented as a revelation of facts when in reality there is often no such certainty. Uncomfortable truths about the UK are brought to the surface, exposing how little its citizens really know due to the media’s ability to manipulate events. Her experience has obviously instilled in her the desire to communicate clearly and directly but her frustration is evident as it is simply not always possible to persuade people of the truth as you know it. Everything is open to interpretation.
Such an honest approach could potentially alienate the reader at times and it is inevitably not always easy to empathise. There is both an abhorrence of and exhilaration for the dangers involved in her job and she sometimes seems brave verging on reckless, expressing a certain thrill at coming close to death.
As a white, British woman in a male dominated role, Pawson describes her own internal battle for identity, exploring how gender and race are concepts which can unite and divide us and occasionally succumbing to the pressure society places on women to conform to set ideals of femininity. She tells the story of having lunch with a governor who was ‘generous and gentle’ to her but later turned out to be a key perpetrator in a violent purge.
‘I’d been advised that it was worth showing powerful men a bit of leg’.
This is an explosive book encapsulating the kind of innovation that is characteristic of the contemporary small press scene. Despite her assertion that ‘I don’t feel brave, I feel angry’, Pawson demonstrates a courageous lack of self-censure and an unflinching desire to reveal all, resulting in an intensely powerful and compelling read.
‘Although I have come to understand that the violence of war affects families for generations, I continue to fear the apathy produced by peace’.
CB editions specialises in short fiction, poetry, translations and other work of value with a distinctive message. It is run solely by Charles Boyle and publishes unique new titles by brave and talented voices. The Guardian describes it as having ‘the air of a guerrilla operation…great sincerity, good faith and almost quixotic single-mindedness’.
Review by Becky Danks
Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet and reviewer of books. Amongst other things.
This review was updated on 21 October replacing the inaccurate title ‘former war correspondent’ with ‘former foreign correspondent’.
The Contemporary Small Press interviews writer Lara Pawson, whose book This is the Place to Be will be published by CB editions in September.
Lara, you were at the first Contemporary Small Press Symposium run by the University of Westminster in February 2015, how did that event impact on your decision to choose a small press publisher for your book?
Massively. I went to that because I’d seen something tweeted by Tony White, the writer who also has Piece of Paper Press. I went, very much inspired by Tony, and I went because I though I know that small presses are doing interesting things, I want to learn more about small presses. At that point I had written my piece that has now become the book, This is the Place to Be, which was initially called Non-Correspondence, and I wrote that in 2014. So it wasn’t that I’d gone there looking for a small publisher. I’d gone there because of Tony White and because of the kind of work that I’m working on – I’m working on a novel at the moment – and the way that that is progressing, I feel that it probably won’t fit with a conventional ‘market’. My hunch is it’s more likely to be taken up by a small press. So I went with the hope of meeting like-minded people, seeing what kind of people were in that world, a bit of ‘networking’, and also that I might learn something. And I did feel really inspired by it.
Afterwards at the book fair, I went around all the tables looking at the books, and when I got to the CB editions table Charles was standing there, I saw The Notebook by Agota Kristoff. I had seen that performed by Forced Entertainment at Battersea Arts Centre the year before, and I said ‘Oh my God, you’re publishing Agota Kristoff’ I told him I’d seen it – incredible play. [Then we started talking and exchanged contact details and stayed in touch] and he said to me ‘if you’ve got anything you’d be interested in publishing with me, just send it my way and let me have a look’ And I didn’t really think much more about it until a year ago when I was on my way back from Wales and I was in the car with a former performer, who had performed with Forced Entertainment, and he had asked me about my work and I was telling him about the Non-Correspondence monologue, and he said to me ‘why don’t you get it published as a book, that sounds like it’s a book’ and when I got back I thought ‘oh I should get in touch with that man Charles’.
And I think that, going to the symposium, I just felt very excited that there were a lot of people there doing very interesting, brave things. In a world that you quite often feel is closing in on you all the time and you have to conform and you have to compete with all these people to get your product into the market, there I was amongst people who seemed to be interested in the work for what the work is and I felt very liberated and excited by that. So when Charles said yes he’d publish it, I just felt like I’d hit the jackpot, even though I hadn’t literally hit the jackpot in terms of dollars. I felt very lucky. These people are doing very interesting things, and they’re sort of creating what they want to exist.
Now that I’m working with Charles and CB editions I’ve been slowly making my way through some of the books he’s published, and I’ve just been astounded by how great they are. All these wonderful things that are being produced. In the world of the small presses, it feels like you’re creating something and I think when you live in the over-developed world, which I like to call the northern hemisphere and especially the UK, you kind of feel that everything’s been done, and it’s closed and locked – and I think for me what that conference, the symposium did for me, and did again last week and that’s why I went again because I thought I know it will open my eyes, it’ll open my horizons, and this time I heard about Commune Editions and I thought I really want to explore all of these things.
What’s your experience of being published by CB editions?
I’ve only published one book before this book. The book that’s being published by CB editions is called This is the Place to Be, my first book was called In the Name of the People and it was about Angola, a non-fiction, published with IB Tauris, so I’d already had a lovely experience of working one to one with my editor, and it was a very positive experience. So it’s kind of, again, incredible to be working with Charles and it’s even better than that was. Because Charles is basically a one-man-band, he does the design, he does the layout, he does everything. So I sent him my text, he had a read, he gets back to me, we go for coffees, and it’s been a very personal microexperience. Instead of spending so much of our lives sitting behind screens and not being in touch with people, or being in touch with people miles away. We both live in London so we meet in town for a coffee or something and we talk about various stages of the book planning. It just feels very close up and intimate.
CB editions tend to have uniform covers – they used to be those beautiful brown covers, but Charles has recently changed that, and I entered into that process while he was in the middle of making that change. So in fact my book when it comes out won’t look like lots of the other CB editions books, but Charles sent me some suggestions of how it could be and was very happy for me to choose. Then I went to his house where the books are produced and I sat in his front room with his cats and we looked at different covers on the screen and looked at fonts and it was great. I met his wife who’s a painter and I felt like it was a really special day, and I found myself thinking ‘why can’t all books be produced like this?’ It was really good fun. I just love the fact it’s such a personal experience.
I think the small presses are much more flexible and there’s a kind of speed and elasticity which feels in some ways much more appropriate in a way to the world that we live in where everything changes so quickly and you can produce stuff online and produce a digital book ‘like that’ [*snaps fingers*] but these small presses are producing hard books, quality paper books, in months, so I really love that. I’m quite impatient and I’m quite spontaneous so for me that’s just great.
I remember at the first symposium you were angry at the suggestion by some panellists that writers and small press publishers shouldn’t expect to make a living from it and should accept poverty as a choice in exchange for the privilege of writing non-mainstream books. What’s your opinion on that now and can you clarify your thoughts for us?
The idea that it’s noble to not be paid. What’s noble about not being paid? It’s important, we all have to live, we all have to get by in the world, and I think that the idea that writing and producing works of art, be it fine art or writing or poetry or theatre or whatever, that the people who produce it don’t need to earn a living from it is something I really dislike. I think it’s just a sort of fanciful idea, presumably reproduced by people who either don’t appreciate art and don’t think it has a value or by some people who have a lot of money and don’t need to be paid for the work they’re doing or what they’re creating. So I don’t think we as writers and artists and people who are producing this stuff should encourage a culture of not earning. I think it’s a real problem.
That said, in a way you might accuse me of hypocrisy but I also understand that here I am being published by a very small publisher. I’m not being paid huge sums, I am being paid a sum of money for it, but a very small sum of money. Certainly not enough to live off or pay my mortgage with. I have an agent, who did send my book to another publisher that didn’t want it, I suppose I could’ve gone around looking for more big publishing houses with more money. But I think with this particular book, because it was originally written as a performance, as a looping monologue that was performed at the Battersea Arts Centre as a kind of theatre-performance-sound piece I never expected it – and I was paid for that by the way, I was paid a sum of money for that piece of work and I was paid again when it went to Brussels, so I got paid for the times that that was produced. But when it became a book – I never expected it to become a book and it’s been expanded a bit, it was initially 20,000 words and it’s now 35,000 words, so still very small, but when it became a concrete plan that it was maybe going to be published as a book, I saw that as a bonus, as a kind of surprise and so I wasn’t thinking primarily that I must get lots of money out of this. My priority was that I wanted it to be published with a publisher that was respected for the quality of writing that they produced.
But I feel really strongly about being honest about the money side of it. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t a partner with someone (my husband, I’m married) who has a full time job. If he was not earning money there would be no way that I could do this. I’d be doing other things as well. I do do other things to earn money but I don’t earn enough to live off without my husband’s contribution. So I’m fortunate, I don’t think it’s a model that should be pursued. I don’t think it’s something to be proud of. I don’t think it’s noble not being paid. I think I’m very privileged and fortunate and it’s not fair on people who haven’t got money or haven’t got a partner who can support them, what are they supposed to do: just sort of think it’s noble to produce a book and breathe in air? People need to live. And you need time to write, you can’t work full time and write. Some people do do that, but it’s a really hard thing to do.
So I’m just very uneasy, particularly when I hear academics, who are very often on salaried jobs, talking about the idea that it’s somehow superior not to be paid. It’s not true, we need to live. It’s elitist, it’s exclusive. There’s a minority of people out there with private money, but we don’t just want work to be produced by those people, we want work to be produced by everybody, so that we get a mix of voices and input. So yeah, I really bristle at people who promote poverty, I just think it’s bullshit.
Will you be looking for a small press publisher for your third book?
The publishers that are producing books I like are often small presses, but not only. There’s plenty of good books produced by the ‘normal publishing industry’ that I really like. There’s lots of books that get produced by all sorts of publishers that I really like. But the books that sort of fire me up, apart from the old classics, tend to be with the small press. So I might well [look for a small press for book 3] but I’m also quite mindful that I’m anxious to make a bit more money out of it. People said to me once you’ve got your first book out you’ll make loads of money on your second, but that has not been the case. And that’s not a criticism of CB editions for one minute, but it’s not as simple as that. I’m beginning to think that maybe, given the kind of writer that I seem to be, or seem to be becoming, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be that mainstream, and I’m going to have to accept that. But I also think that small presses are influencing the mainstream presses, so who knows. Eimaer McBride’s book is a classic example of that, but there are plenty of other books and I think people are beginning to realise there’s quite a big desire to read those books. So to be honest I’m not sure.
What would you like to see in the future from the small presses in general, and for your book in particular?
I hope with This is the Place to Be, that it will reach people, that it will reach readers, I’d really love it if it gets reviews by mainstream newspapers in Britain. With my first book it had quite a big readership, especially in Portuguese. What for me is really wonderful is writers getting in touch with you from Mozambique, or someone in Spain or someone in Canada, and they’ve read your book and it’s moved them and affected them and they write to you – you cannot beat that sort of feeling of something you’ve produced touching people.
I feel very nervous about this book, because I feel like I’ve really let it all hang out, I’ve really exposed myself, and in fact after I’d initially written a first draft, I gave it to my next door neighbour who’s a writer, and she really liked This is the Place to Be, and she said to me, ‘You’ve got to read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, your book’s really like that.’ I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson until then, so I then read her book and I then felt really nervous because I thought Maggie Nelson’s book was so good. I though oh shit, my book’s not good enough. But I suppose there were overlaps, and felt that if I could reach people with my own writing, I don’t know. In some ways I just feel like I’m so amazed it’s being published. I’m so happy it’s being published with CB editions. I’m so happy with the few people who’ve read it and their response to it, that if it keeps going like that then frankly I’ll be dead chuffed. The writer Joanna Walsh read it and very generously endorsed it, and I was just ecstatic for about 48 hours because she’d read it and liked it.
In terms of what I hope for the small press, I hope that they keep going, I hope they survive. In the climate we’re in right now, not simply that we’re in this weird, ‘Are we going to Brexit or not’ moment but the fact that in the economy we’re looking at even more austerity that presumably is going to be a bit of a threat to people working on small presses. And if we pull out of Europe is that going to affect the funding because a lot of these small presses, I don’t know who funds them, but a lot of CB editions books are written by European writers, translated by people into English. To what extent is this whole Brexit moment going to affect the publishing houses? And Other Stories produce lots of books written by people all around the world. I imagine this [Brexit] is a bit of a threat to [publishers]. On the other hand, I think people quite often rise to the challenge – so it’s a threat and it’s a crisis but it might make us all fight back a bit more. Because when you put up barriers, people create ways through it. I’m amazed by the number of young people who are behind a lot of this stuff, and I think wow, they’re really pushing back and creating a lot of this stuff and it’s happening.
Look out for our forthcoming review of Lara’s new book This is the Place to Be from CB editions.