Fine Writing

On Monday 11th December 2017, short fiction writer Diane Williams visited the University of Westminster to give a reading and to talk about her writing processes in conversation with novelist Toby Litt.  The evening was introduced by Leigh Wilson from the University of Westminster’s Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture.  Diane Williams then read from selected collections of her fiction, including Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, published in the UK in 2016 by CB editions.

Diane Williams reading from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
Diane Williams reading from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, with Toby Litt. University of Westminster, 11 December 2017

In the ensuing conversation, Williams spoke candidly about her writing and her writing processes, in response to Litt’s insightful comments and questions.  Williams’ short stories are minuscule fragments of strangely unsettling and wittily observed realism, always with an uncanny and unnerving twist that leaves them open and on the verge of beginning anew just at the point at which they ought to offer the closure of an ending.  Her short form fictions range from a few sentences to two or three pages, and their brevity is part of their crystalline form, giving them the precision and density of poetry.   On this ultra-short-form, Williams remarks that, ‘I work to my skills … Six pages feels like a saga to me,’ insisting that her writing is about ‘writing what you can, writing “my way” rather than anybody else’s way… not trying to fit a particular literary genre’.  This ensures, she says, that your writing is your own, its distinctive rather than imitative.

‘Writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’

Part of what makes Williams’ short fictions so fragmentary and unsettling, however, might be her sense that she is ‘writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’  For Williams ‘[my] stories issue from a sense of pain or fright or bewilderment, of not feeling like I belonged in my own house’.  It is that sense of the uncanny that carries over into the bewildering realism of her works.  Toby Litt commented on how that is implemented formally in Williams’ writing, saying: ‘Diane Williams’ sentences are bendy: they don’t go where you expect them to’.  At the level of the sentence, Williams admits that, ‘So much of my writing is reorganising the connections between sentences. … To keep a lively pace, I don’t want to get bored’.  The emphasis here is on re-writing, the vital importance of redrafting, restructuring and reshaping the words down to the finest detail of the connections between sentences to maintain pace, interest and innovation.  To continually shift expectations and ‘fracture what [we] knew’.

As a final thought, Williams added: ‘My theory is that one ought to be able to say anything about anything’ in literature. ‘I have to pretend to be bold’.  Diane Williams demonstrates this theory again and again in her fiction, embodying a pulsing, fleshy eroticism of both form and content in her intense rhythms and choice of subjects.  In addition to Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Williams read from her 1992 collection Some Sexual Success Stories, which she has been editing for her forthcoming collected works.  If you’re not already familiar with Williams’ writing, now is a great time to get to know her through her books.

Thanks to Diane Williams, Toby Litt, Charles Boyle, and everyone who came to this illuminating event at the University of Westminster.

Diane Williams has been publishing her wholly distinctive short fiction in the US for the past quarter of a century. She is the author of eight books, including a collection of her selected stories, and is the founder and editor of the literary annual NOON. Her most recent book, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was published by CB editions in 2016 and is the first UK publication of her new book of stories.

Toby Litt is the author of five books of short stories and ten novels. His new novel, Notes for a Young Gentleman, will be published by Seagull Press in December. Toby’s most recent book is Mutants: Selected Essays, also published by Seagull. Toby teaches creative writing at Birkbeck College. He blogs about writing at www.tobylitt.com.

Diane Williams Reading and In Conversation with Toby Litt

Diane Williams, author of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine from CB editions will be reading and in conversation with Toby Litt at the University of Westminster on Monday 11th December, 6.30-8.30pm.

Tickets are FREE but registration is essential.  Click here for more details: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/diane-williams-reading-and-in-conversation-with-toby-litt-tickets-39826440957

Diane Williams Flier 2

 

Women, Writing and Freedom

“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood

This poignant and all too necessary event was hosted by Linen Press and the Contemporary Small Press on Thursday 19th October at the University of Westminster’s Regent Street Campus. Celebrating women’s writing and the achievements of the press and its writers, the event also delved into the complex struggles and injustices facing women and their writing in the current publishing climate.

Lynn Michell, the founder and director of Linen Press, welcomed us all and began the evening by sharing some of the home truths and hard facts about women writers in the publishing industry. She asked: “How do we get books into the big stores without paying them to sell the books?” Shedding light on the difficulties of gaining recognition in mainstream bookstores, when the fees for production are inordinately high, meaning that authors rarely see a profit from their labour of love. Male writers often take home book prizes and gain greater recognition for their work than both women and minority writers; therefore, publishers often do not want to take the ‘risks’ attached to publishing female writers and will not consider their work. Michell mapped out the lay of the publishing land for women, and the reality of how disparate the landscape is between female and male authors truly hit home – there is still so much work to be done in order to enable women to thrive in the publishing industry.

The keynote speaker, Maureen Freely, a writer, translator and senior lecturer at the University of Warwick, spoke of the often-neglected area of publishing translated works in the UK, particularly those written by women, as the works of male writers are more frequently translated. Freely is currently the president of English PEN, an organisation that campaigns for at-risk writers around the world whose rights to freedom of expression have been censored. English PEN’s inspirational work fights to remove inequalities in the literary world, facilitates the translation of foreign works into English and promotes such work in the UK, introducing UK readers to impeccable foreign works. Commercial censorship was highlighted as a huge and ongoing issue that shapes what writers say and, in turn, what readers are able to read. Freely gave the example of when a writer known for writing chick-lit was unable to publish work with themes around depression or anything “too dark”. Freedom of expression and writing are indivisible, which led Freely to help at-risk writers around the world, with a focus on women in Turkey who are currently either being imprisoned for their writing or are unable to work due to the risks of hiring them as writers. Their freedom to express themselves has been greatly impinged, costing them their writing, passion and voices as feminist activists, journalists and writers, and equally their own personal freedom to remain a part of their society. Freely has regularly contributed to the Observer, the Guardian and the Independent, and is hugely invested in writing on feminism and Turkish culture, where her written work complements her activist work by helping to assist these women writers in the process of gaining asylum in the UK and joining a community of writers, so that they can continue to speak out against the inequality and injustices they are facing.

Freely also shared with us the exciting news of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, which will be awarded on 15th November 2017, and aims to provide an opportunity for greater recognition of the invaluable work produced by women. The prize was set up for works of fiction, poetry or non-fiction by women, which have been translated into English by a female or male translator, published by a UK or Irish publisher, and translated and published between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017.

Women Writing Freedom
Hema Macherla, Avril Joy, Lynn Michell, Maureen Freely.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press

Avril Joy, an awarding-winning short story writer and novelist, took us back to her years of teaching and management at a women’s prison, where she learnt the power of imagination, both for these women and for herself, when the writer-in-residence inspired her and prompted her own journey as a writer. Joy initially outlined the context of working at the prison – men would rarely visit the women and, therefore, letter writing and forms of writing in general quickly became a necessary and sought-after skill. More importantly, Joy found that these women were desperate to learn and hungry to thrive in ways that they had not had the opportunity nor freedom to before. It was strange to think that prison would in many ways provide a previously unknown freedom for these women, but within Joy’s cupboard-sized classroom, she was met with a desire to gain more from life, and writing became a way to explore this. Joy remarked that she often heard the women say that “they can lock me up, but they can’t lock up my mind” – a pertinent statement that may resonate with many women who may feel oppressed, their voices unheard and their freedom censored by a society that still retains double standards. Joy gave these women the permission to write their own stories, to voice their own lives and find power in imagination, a power they had so often been unable to access. Whilst many may have been victims in their lives, through the ability to voice themselves creatively, they started to recognise themselves as survivors, changing their relationships to themselves. Ultimately, Joy urged us, like those women in prison, to use whatever voice we have to tell our stories, and to survive.

Hema Macherla, an Indian writer whose works have been translated into English, poignantly articulated her own journey with writing, as well as the injustices faced by women in India when they do not conform to the male-instigated and deep-rooted traditions of Indian culture. It is shocking to realise how much is still needed in order to gain equality and justice for women in India, when men are still ‘justified’ in beating their wives, and the coercion into and practice of Sati (a funeral custom in which a wife immolates herself after the death of her husband) was only banned in its entirety in 1988 by the Sati Prevention Act. Women are struggling to have their voices heard and their freedom granted, since these brutal experiences often go undocumented or unspoken, as they are simply part of the way things are in India, and so Macherla bravely writes of these women within her novels. In her writing, she creatively expresses the cruel and shocking reality of a culture that still subordinates women and justifies the brutal actions against them through a hierarchical system of valuing men, their position and their rules, above the rights of women.

Michell closed this insightful and thought-provoking event by congratulating and thanking her writers and interns who make the work at Linen Press such a pleasure and inspiration. The audience then had the wonderful opportunity to view the trailer for her newly published novel, The Red Beach Hut, which is available online to purchase. It is a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of two lost souls who find themselves pacing along a beach together in a moment of their lives in which they both need a friend, someone who will be out-of-sync with them. To finish the event, we celebrated ten years of Linen Press over glasses of wine and had the opportunity to continue the thoughtful, powerful and much needed discussions with the event’s speakers.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

Women Writing Freedom Books
Women, Writing and Freedom.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press

Bellowing at the Moon

Blue Self-Portrait, Noémi Lefebvre (Translated by Sophie Lewis): Les Fugitives

This short novel in translation from Les Fugitives Press is as unputdownable as it is unforgettable. Mid-flight between Berlin and Paris, our female narrator constructs a narrative of herself that weaves between memory, assumption, speculation, and (in rare and brief moments) the details of the flight she’s actually sitting on. Equally between locations as between languages, she must spend the flight time switching back to French from German, as her thoughts veer between the two modes and the two countries. In a space never fully occupied by itself, this novel explores the flights of imagination that keep a restless mind ever-elsewhere.

Blue Self-Portrait

‘If I’d allowed my inner goings-on to show you’d have taken me for a cow bellowing at the moon’

This metaphor is returned to throughout, suggesting the narrator’s inner stream of consciousness – in which we, the reader, are immersed unrestrainedly – is the equivalent to a howl of inarticulable, bestial noise. This is deftly juxtaposed, however, with the exquisite and virtuosic sweeping prose of the novel. Rhythmic, cyclical, polyphonic. Sentences can carry for the length of a paragraph (or more) which, in turn might run to several pages. Within a single sentence conflicting ideas, contradictory thoughts, randomly associated memories will be brought into a kind of rhythm with one another that is utterly compelling. Dwelling particularly on the subjects of painting and music (Schoenberg and his blue Self-Portrait), the novel effectively accomplishes its own inner musicality, while presenting the spectre of a self-portrait lived between memory, association and speculation.

The novel retains its high intensity throughout a narrative that could be read in a single, uninterrupted and fervent sitting. Within these pages are both the remembering and the forgetting of the horrors of the world, the personal and intensely lived experience of being, and an ardent resistance to all notions of collective happiness in its variety of forms.

Beautifully pitched and compellingly virtuosic, Blue Self-Portrait is translated from Lefebvre’s original French novella by Sophie Lewis and published by Les Fugitives Press which specialises in publishing only short novels by award-winning francophone women writers. Despite its brevity, Blue Self-Portrait has an epic feel to it, and the precision of Lefebvre’s language demands an exacting translation by Lewis. Les Fugitives is dedicated to bringing such novels as this to an English-reading public, and we are the richer for it.

Click here to buy Blue Self-Portrait directly from Les Fugitives.

About the Publisher: 

Les Fugitives is an award-winning independent press dedicated to short, new writing by francophone female authors previously unavailable in English.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.

Work-in-Progress

The Practical Senior Teacher, Finella and Philip Davenport (Curated by Tony Trehy)  Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2016

‘bbbbut…’

Finella and Philip Davenport’s The Practical Senior Teacher is a book in the loosest possible sense of the word, and yet also in multiple senses of the word, too. First the loose associations: This is a collaged work spanning over thirty years begun by sister and brother Finella and Philip Davenport (collaborating as The Gingerbread Tree) in 1984 and continuing to evolve as a work in progress to this day. The pages collected, printed and bound as the 2016 KFS edition bearing the title represent a fraction of the 300-plus page work that exists and has been exhibited in loose-leaf form at the Text Festival in Bury and the Storey Gallery in Lancaster.

Beyond the codex are the physically collaged pages incorporating layer upon layer of magazine cut-ups, adverts, government health warnings, comics, paint, lipstick, scribbled notes and empty painkiller packets. The book is just one possible iteration of the project of The Practical Senior Teacher, and readers can accompany their reading with the YouTube playlist The Margaret Thatcher Museum for an additional, aural, layer to the collage. Further videos by The Gingerbread Tree feature collaged pages from the book thrown into alternative contexts.   This is a restless and relentless project, a perpetual work-in-progress that has been continually worked and re-worked since its inception. The ‘book’ is just a part of it.

Yet this project also fulfils the definition of book from multiple perspectives. The title, The Practical Senior Teacher references the original textbook that forms the substrate for the composition of the collaged pages. This book started life as a textbook for school teachers in the Thatcher era, and the subsequent collage-work provides its own document (Old English boc, book) of those times through its incorporated layers. This is both a personal and a cultural document of those years, creating a history from the detritus of a throw-away culture interwoven with the debris of personal crisis and development. Pages documenting Finella’s experience of the life-threatening post-natal condition HELLP are left unchanged by Philip, yet the condition is represented, like everything in the book, by its waste products.

the practical senior teacher

Throughout the book, various excerpts and iterations of Finella’s poem Bee Scandal are woven with the collaged pages, giving a kind of loose metaphorical narrative of a society disintegrating and self-destructive – the same society attested to by the decades-long collage project.

The days

we hid in a      basement

beneath the incessant buzz

didn’t know which side was winning

took turns to take

guard

(ear to the radio:

the well-bred

            the dead

 

will take

the Queen

The poem carries echoes of a bunkered and broken society as well as a colony of bees in a hive. As the poem becomes more fractured and fragmented the bees themselves begin to pile up ‘like abandoned rubbish … trash stings scattered needles’ – again interweaving the twin narratives of the bees and the society they echo. The bees piling up like abandoned rubbish, their stings scattered like the needles of a drug user. Society itself broken and addicted. Each reduced to its own destruction. Through collage, however, the abandoned rubbish becomes the material of recreation, the constant reconstruction as work-in-progress with whatever materials happen to be at hand.

Other fragments of text from the layers of collage appear and disappear through the worked pages – whose most recent form of reworking includes digitisation. This has allowed pages to be duplicated, mirrored and adapted digitally; distinguishing the collected pages from their material counterparts and enabling effects such as reversal and repetition that further distort the reading and disorient the reader.

When the work was displayed in Lancaster it was as part of Understanding the Ritual, an exhibition of art-shamanism, and it’s this that interests me the most about The Practical Senior Teacher: the ritual process at play in the project. The restlessness of the ritualistic acts that have compelled Finella and Philip Davenport to keep creating, destroying and recreating this work for over three decades, and the alchemical transformation of that act physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually. One of the most intriguing text-fragments for me is set onto a page painted almost entirely red and includes the following mythically-resonant phrases:

‘Heart of Dionysus

 

heart of hare

not eaten lest it make the eater timid

heart of lion or le[op]ard eat           heart of wolf

& of bear

eat to acquire courage

 

SCREWS YOU UP’

The final phrase is taken from the 80’s Government health warning ‘Heroin Screws You Up’, and there’s so much going on here. Is the eater of the wolf’s heart the mythical equivalent to a junkie? Does the juxtaposition suggest equivalence or contradiction, or something less exact? The association with heroin brings to mind a play on wasted / waste / wasteful that resonates with the theme of detritus throughout the book and finds another expression in the empty pill packet representing a moment of serious threat to Finella’s life.

Like the making of this ‘book’, the reading is a work-in-progress, an unsettled and unsettling process of excavating and creating connections within, between and beyond the pages. No two readings are ever the same and there’s no fixed ‘meaning’ to discover. Reading this book is a physical process that can, if the reader chooses, engage multiple senses and experiences. For me, its magic is in its perpetual openness to recreation, coming alive at its multiple points of connection, writing and creating not only the lives it contains but also the lives it touches.

Click here to buy The Practical Senior Teacher direct from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.

About the Publisher:

Knives Forks and Spoons Press is a prolific publisher of avant-garde poetry by internationally acclaimed poets and emerging young writers. ‘KFS is a forum for an extraordinary range of diversity and risk-taking artistic experiment.’

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.

 

Women, Writing and Freedom

Linen Press in collaboration with The Contemporary Small Press 
Keynote talk by Maureen Freely, President of English PEN.

‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ Margaret Atwood

In a masculine centred literary tradition that values male over female voices, women refuse to be silenced and continue to tell the truth about their personal and political lives. Join us in exploring the politics of silence and in honouring the voices of women writers everywhere who, despite repression and invisibility, risk all to give voice to the need for liberation and freedom.

Thursday 19th October
17.30 – 19.30
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London
W1B 2HW
Freedom

Speakers:

Keynote speaker Maureen Freely on the crucial work done by English PEN and like-minded partners, with particular reference to women writers.

Hema Macherla on the plight of Indian women – fallen women, broken women and women shunned by society.

Avril Joy on working for over twenty-five years with women writers in HMP Low Newton.

Lynn Michell on publishing women writers. She is here to celebrate ten years of Linen Press and to launch The Red Beach Hut.

This event is hosted by Linen Press – a small, independent press run by women for women – and the Contemporary Small Press, which aims to promote, explore and facilitate the work of small press publishers of fiction and poetry.

Skimming over Black Glass and Counting Lies

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell: Inspired Quill, Release date – October 2017

‘Ready?’ Always the same word. The same starting gun. He liked that.

Are we ever truly ready for what life throws at us and can we outrun fate? As Abbott, a gay man who works with troubled boys, runs to the refuge of a red beach hut during a time of fear, persecution and the threat of his life being torn down, he meets an unlikely friend, Neville, a young boy aged eight. Lynn Michell writes a beautifully innocent and endearing tale twisted by the tainted gaze of society’s perverse darkness, as two lost souls find hope in their unlikely companionship amidst their separate turmoil. As the odd yet surprisingly complementary pairing draw the attention of others’ gazes, which eventually places them under suspicion, Michell subtly tackles prejudice by treading the thin line between what is and is not appropriate. Abbott continuously questions how his actions may be read and misconstrued by those watching, yet both Abbott and Neville provide each other with the quiet trust, understanding and constancy they are each searching for in a time of need.

TRBH crop

The novel’s structure eloquently intertwines memories and inner dialogue throughout, weaving Abbott’s childhood memories of days on the beach with his aunt and the terrible mistake that led to him running from his current life. The Hut becomes a refuge and a safe place to revisit these memories – a place of innocence and happiness. Meeting Neville helps Abbott, in many ways, to recapture this time and see the world through a child’s eyes once more; allowing him to share the heartfelt, excited, compassionate, and honest perception of Neville. Michell develops the characters with an undercurrent of stillness running through their fibres; capturing the mind of Neville with such authenticity and attention to detail, which is no small feat. She interlaces his inquisitive nature with a quirky need to count everything in an attempt to appease an anxiety for order, rules and consistency. The literal, black and white mind of a child tests the grayscale of an adult’s mind, as Michell captures deep and poignant moments when tackling the truths and lessons people learn as they grow up.

Neville has a fascination and desire to understand words, to understand language and his place within it. Abbott meets this desire through the knowledge he’s gained whilst working with troubled boys, providing Neville with an adult figure who will actually be honest with him and treat him as an equal – recognising that he needs consistency and someone to take the time to know him. 

‘But we can say now it’s day and now it’s night…’

‘Only afterwards. There’s light and dark but there’s grey in between. Twilight. It doesn’t matter if we aren’t sure. It’s OK sometimes not to know. To be uncertain.’

‘I like certain.’

‘I know you do.’

‘What about me and you? Are we certain?’ He liked the word.

Whilst Neville teaches Abbott to be true to himself and find the honesty in what is spoken, Abbott provides Neville with the safety and security to be ok with the uncertainty of life; to be ok with not knowing. Michell presents the reader with the delicate and fragile moments in which one reveals oneself to another and hopes that that vulnerability will be met with compassion. Abbott gives Neville the confidence to speak and the trust in someone being there to listen. He is given the chance to share his voice and his thoughts, a truly powerful gift to give another, which Abbott, knowing the danger of being made to feel voiceless against discrimination, knows all too well.

In The Red Beach Hut language is not always vocal: Lynn Michell’s writing evokes the subtle languages of touch, of music, of being on the sea, and of being still. There are other ways, and sometimes more powerful ways, to communicate than with words.

 

Before they set off, the boy bounded up the steps and slipped his small hand into the man’s big one. Abbott let it rest there. The gesture spoke of trust and Abbott offered his acceptance. How could he betray it?

They give each other companionship, yet through this pairing Michell similarly tests the boundaries of intimacy, as Neville desperately wishes Abbott was a father-figure and Abbott must navigate the conflict of the intensity of emotions within a child’s mind. There is a tenderness to Neville – the deep and absorbing love of a child who’s found a friend with whom to learn how not to be so alone. The internal world of a child is a lonely place, a confusing place of learning the rules of life, and Abbott offers a helping hand of guidance.

One goes on and on, running on the same treadmill, never considering an alternative until forced to stop, he thought.

In each other’s company, Abbott and Neville find a moment to pause, reflect and just be, there is an easiness in which they can both stop running – Neville stops counting all the time, and Abbott stops running from himself. Out of rhythm with society, they find solace in the sea’s rhythm, the subtle shifts in the water’s moods and the constant gravitational pull they feel to be there on the seashore looking out and imagining what could be. As Neville says, “I can wish”, and perhaps wishing is all we ever can do.

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell

About the publisher:

Inspired Quill is a not-for-profit publishing house which is dedicated to quality publications and providing a people-oriented platform for writers to develop their skills in writing, marketing and self-editing. They value a collaborative approach with their authors throughout the process from submission to launch, endeavouring to produce unique and powerful pieces of work.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.