the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Posh frocks, presentations and prizes

Traditionally held at Stationers’ Hall, the eleventh annual awards ceremony for The People’s Book Prize was instead organised via Zoom thanks to Covid19. Finalists from the three categories were there, authors of fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature, plus all the publishers. The evening was hosted by founder Tatiana Wilson and director Tony Humphreys. At one point I found myself virtually rubbing shoulders with prize patron, Frederick Forsyth.

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We wore our finest clothes to make the occasion special. While I drank a cup of tea, others sipped wine. Like all finalists in the fiction category, I was able to say a few words about my novel and then the winner was announced. Author of The Weighing of the Heart gained the the sparkling trophy and I was very pleased to celebrate Paul Tudor Owen‘s success. I’ve been following Paul on Twitter for some time and feel I know him from the podcasts and interviews he’s offered since his novel was launched in March 2019. The Weighing of the Heart is a contemporary novel set in New York where the English protagonist Nick Braeburn becomes fascinated by his landlady’s Egyptian art and a young artist who lives nearby. Paul was very gracious in his acceptance speech and highlighted the importance of small presses in bringing to market stories that are overlooked by the big five publishers.

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Who can you spot in this photo of fiction finalists and others?

Becoming a finalist in The People’s Book Prize has been a wonderful experience. It’s raised the profile of my coming-of-age novel The String Gamesprovided a platform for my publisher Victorina Press and has given me the chance to connect with lots of wonderful authors. And there are many of you reading this post who I have to thank for helping me reach the finals. Without your votes, I would never have come this far. So, let me take this opportunity to thank you very much for your support.

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Milking an idea

I posted information last week about Covid19 writing opportunities and since then I’ve had two Coronavirus stories accepted for publication. Out of the Box is about cutlery trapped in a canteen during lockdown and it was shortlisted in the Staying Home competition run by Hammond House Publishing. You can read the story here.

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Once I get an idea for a story, I figure it’s worth milking, so I wrote another Covid19 lockdown story this time related to the experience of a wedding ring confined to a jewellery box. This was published by Pandemic Magazine and you can read the story here. There’s a great illustration to accompany my story, so it’s worth popping over for a look.

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What is it with me?

Just when I gain the skills and confidence to be good at something, I decide to move on and try something new. I can see this pattern in my writing. First I was all enthusiastic about flash fiction, then writing a novel. Poetry got shoe-horned between the two and now I’m into children’s literature. Others like to consolidate their learning and deepen their understanding but I’m more interested in starting the next new project. What is it with me?

 

I came to reflect on the meandering journey of my writing career when I shared with a friend my new passion for cycling. It started with a bad knee. When I came back from Uganda into lockdown UK, I decided to use the full one hour per day of time we were allowed to exercise. Hence my runs lengthen from 6km to 8km and I was out every single day. I knew from half marathon training that running each day is not recommended but I became so focused on running further and faster that I ignored my better judgement until my knee buggered. Then even walking was painful and after a week of elevating my leg and applying frozen peas, my knee was better. So, as lockdown continued and my need to get out every day grew, I took up cycling. I was amazed that my lady shopper bike that had never been used since arriving in Dorset in 2007 still had tyres fit to cycle on.

When I started to become fit in 2017, I so enjoyed swimming. Loved going back to the sport I enjoyed as a child and even re-taught myself how to swim front crawl and regularly completed forty lengths of the pool. The only trouble with swimming is the drag of getting to the pool only to end up wet and cold. So, running was an improvement on that. I could start my exercise on leaving the front door and running in any weather certainly warms you up. Now my passion is cycling. This is good to do in the time of Coronavirus because you have to grip the handlebar and there’s no chance of touching anything untoward while out and about.

So with this background in changing exercise routines, should I think about doing a triathlon? Certainly not. It’s one obsession at a time for me. And so for my writing. It’s all about children’s literature at the moment. This week finds me busy making contact with book bloggers who specialise in children’s picture books and I’ve also attended several sessions at an online children’s literature festival. So with the publication of Pan de mo nium scheduled for December, what is my next project going to be? I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s got something to do with podcasts.

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sneak preview: pan de mo nium

I’ve been working on a children’s picture book for a very long time indeed. The idea for pan de mo nium came when I was teaching a module of writing for children to undergraduates at the University of South Wales in 2015. We were looking at some features of anthropomorphism, where animals have human characteristics, and I shared examples where this technique was used to explore danger vicariously and therefore safely. Students joined the discussion before going slightly off task and started chatting about cute red pandas.

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Red pandas are found in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar and central China. These animals spend most of their lives in trees.

I spent a long time wondering what the relationship would be like between a giant panda and a red panda living in central China. I started thinking about what it would be like to be part of the same family but look totally different. (Although in fact red pandas are not related to giant pandas). Could these thoughts be explored through anthropomorphism? Would it be possible for a cute and cuddly character to experience tensions around not fitting in?  I began to wonder if the issue of identity could be explored through children’s fiction by creating a purple panda.

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In Pan de mo nium Peta lives in a department store where her purple colour offers camouflage. She gets up to all sorts of mischief but when she’s spotted, the shop assistant puts an end to her tricks.  What can Peta do to become a cheeky panda once again?

Here’s a sneak preview of a scene from inside the book.  I love the colour palate that Fiona Zechmeister has cleverly used here.

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Happy Birthday to you

My debut novel The String Games is one year old today. It’s been quite a journey from launch to anniversary and here are some of the things I have learnt along the way.

Book launches

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  • invite everyone you know and turn the launch into a party to thank all those who have shown interest in your writing . Make sure there’s plenty of wine and nibbles, and loads of books to sell!

Make the most of opportunities 

  • when I attended a Christmas lunch 2018 with the Society of Authors in Salisbury, I had no idea it would lead to an invitation to deliver a session at the Bridport Literary Festival 2019. Chance meetings are often the best!

Put yourself out there

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  • Press releases have enabled The String Games to feature locally, regionally and nationally in print publications and online features. I’ve also talked on local radio programmes several times. There’s nothing wrong with getting about!

Literary festivals

  • I’ve attended so many festivals as a participant but now I’m a published novelist it’s a delight to feature on programmes as an invited guest. Besides the Bridport Literary Festival, I’ve also delivered input at Sturminster Newton Literary Festival, Blandford Literary Festival and Stockholm Writers Festival. Get me, delivering at international events!

Finge Festivals

  • I write collaboratively as part of 3-She to develop comedy sketches. Last summer we took a show to  Shaftesbury Fringe. There’s such a lot to be learnt from the process of writing with others. Love a good gig!

Curry favour with your publisher

  • I’m delighted that Victorina Press have show confidence and commitment in me as an author and thanks to my publisher, I attended the London Book Fair 2019. My novel is also a finalist in The People’s Book Prize. Covid 19 permitting, there’s a black tie do to celebrate this achievement later this year!
  • The team at Wordsmith_HQ continue to promote my poetry pamphlet adversaries/comrades and share my writing successes across their writing community. Good eggs all round!

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Woman on the Golden Hind

I’m reading a fascinating novel just now. It’s On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery. What an absolutely fabulous cover!

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The narrator is Maria, an enslaved woman who shares her experiences of living on the Golden Hind for nine months.  Meticulously researched, Nikki Marmery allows Maria to live and breathe where nothing is noted about her in the records besides the dates she boarded and left the ship. The action takes place in 1579 during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage.  Maria is a lone woman amongst eighty sailors. Determined to become free, Maria uses tenacity and quick thinking to her advantage.

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Many of you will know there is a reconstruction of the English galleon that has been  berthed at St Mary Overie Dock in Southwark since 1996. Whenever I walk past this full-size reconstruction of Golden Hind I am reminded of how compact the ship appears. Goodness knows how Maria coped! Since the launch of the  reconstruction in 1973, the galleon has sailed  more than 140,000 miles to San Francisco, Japan, the Caribbean and other destinations.  Impressive!

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I will be interested to meet Nikki Marmery online when we appear alongside Karen Havelin on the Debutants panel at the Stockholm Writers’ Festival on Friday 22 May 2020. We are all previous attendees of the festival and have had our debut novels published in the last year. Join us at what is now known as the #StuckHomeWritersFestival here.

 

 

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A wish for South Sudan: enduring peace

Before I left the UK to begin my placement at Bidibidi in Uganda (a settlement where refugees from South Sudan are offered a chance to rebuild their lives) a friend recommended I read Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. It tells the story of a young, glamorous aid worker, Emma McClune, who went to Sudan in 1987 with an ambition to do good. She embraced her role at Street Kids International and passionately worked towards improving access to education for children. Emma was also impulsive and headstrong: she married Riek Machar, a warlord, and became embroiled in politics. By the time of her death in 1993 in a car accident in Nairobi, Scroggins suggests that for all her courage and commitment, Emma did little to change anything.

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The backdrop to Emma’s story is the complex historic, social, cultural and political situation in Sudan. Following years of civil war, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Peace was short lived and civil war erupted in 2013 when President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of supporting a failed coup. An agreement to halt the conflict collapsed in 2015 and fighting continued, primarily in Yei River state. This is the area from which many of the refugees in Bidibidi fled in 2016. In Yei, the National Salvation Front (NAS), continued to fight government forces. By 2018, a power sharing agreement was signed between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar which led to the signing of a Unity Government agreement on 20 February 2020. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called upon members of the Transitional Government of National Unity to “fully adhere to the letter and spirit of the Agreement”, so that the people of South Sudan can finally realise the benefits of durable peace and stability they deserve.

Following the announcement of a peace agreement, the South Sudanese refugees I knew in Bidibidi remained cautious. None were ready to rush back to their homeland but instead adopted a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach. One of the caregivers (a teacher of young children) I worked with, Beatrice, talked about her life before becoming a refugee. She married young, had two children then was widowed when her husband was killed in a motorbike accident. Her father owned some land where she was able to develop skills of cultivation. She grew cassava, maize and beans. Then she married a second time (had two further children) and she continued to cultivate the land of her husband’s family. ‘My life at that time was very nice. I made money and paid for my children to go to school, paid for them when they were sick. I bought clothing for myself and my children. I had a very happy life in South Sudan. Then the time of war started and I had to save my life and my children. I lost everything: my land, my house, my garden. We were afraid as any person could attack you, rebels were everywhere. They would grab anything you have. They took things from my garden saying it belonged to them. If you don’t have luck they kill you, if you have luck they just let you go.’

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News about my creative writing

In all the time I’ve been busy volunteering in Uganda, there has been activity on the creative writing front at home. I was shortlisted in a poetry competition run by my publisher Victorina Press. My entry has now been translated into Spanish and included in this beautiful bilingual poetry anthology. David sent me a photo and I’m looking forward to reading the book when I get home.

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Other news relates to the The String Games. My debut novel is one of fourteen finalist in The People’s Book Prize and voting is now open to select a winner in the fiction category. Thank you to everyone who has supported me to reach this stage. You are now able to vote again and if you haven’t voted before, this is your chance. Find out all about The String Games here. You don’t need to have read the whole novel as the opening pages are available for you to make a judgement. When you’re ready to vote, scroll down, add your details, tick the box and submit. The String Games is up against some stiff competition but wouldn’t it be great to see a Dorset writer on the stage come presentation day? Congratulations to the other finalists.

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Gulu: a thriving town with a troubled past

I’m staying in Gulu for the Christmas holidays and it’s a good place to be. There are lots of volunteers to socialise with and a good range of cafés and restaurants to idle away the hours. The town has a bustling centre with shops, banks and a good market. I’m staying on the outskirts where there are long avenues lined with government and NGO offices, newly built compounds with smart housing and a clutch of reasonably priced hotels. The town is now the main hub of north Uganda having expanded considerably since the 1990s. It will be recognised as a city in the not too distant future.

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The current prosperity masks a troubled past. The north of Uganda has traditionally supported the south but has not enjoyed the same rewards. In the 1980s tensions in the area deteriorated into tribal conflict and bloodshed. Upon gaining power, President Museveni sent forces north to establish his authority. Opposition to this became fertile ground for the development of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Following the defeat of Alice Lakwena’s rebellion (who led a troops under a banner of Christian and Acholi rituals), Joseph Kony seized control of the rebels and introduced a doctrine where it was legitimate to abduct children and induct them into the Lord’s Resistance Army where the massacre of villagers was a regular occurrence. After years of dominating the area and following a lengthy peace process, Joseph Kony fled into the Central African Republic (CAR). It is believed he is still at large in CAR although he is rumoured to be in South Sudan or elsewhere. Members of the LRA where reabsorbed into society through traditional ceremonies of cleansing and forgiveness and eventually given amnesty by the government. There has not been any conflict in the north since 2005. But as I walk the town centre amongst the shops with wide verandas, it’s shocking to realise this was where 15,000 children slept each evening as an escape from the LRA. And, it’s sobering to think that the child soldiers who once served the LRA now have families of their own and somehow have to live with the autocracies they committed.

During the long drive from Kampala to Gulu, our driver (I’ll call him Paul) shared his experiences of growing up during the reign of terror inflicted by the LRA. He was approached by the LRA on three occasions and managed to escape by answering their questions with a clear head and by keeping calm throughout these terrifying experiences. He knew the chances of escape were slim: three of this brothers and his father had been murdered by the LRA. Each time he was released, he managed to hide amongst trees until the danger had passed. One time, he was walking home from school for the holidays. He had heard rebels were in the area so headed for his aunt’s house. Once there, he borrowed his cousin’s bicycle to make a speedy visit to his mother. On the way there, he was stopped by rebels. The latest arbitrary ruling by Kony included a new law banning the riding of bicycles. He watched the rebels chop the bike to pieces and then burn it. Later he was allowed to leave and he hid until the rebels had moved on and he was able to make it home on foot. Later, when he told his aunt what had happened, the family decided that the bicycle was new and had to be replaced. Paul didn’t want this debt hanging over him, so instead of using money to pay his school fees, he offered this as compensation. Without classes to attend, Paul developed his skills in tending a vegetable garden. Fortunately, the school allowed him to resume his studies when money permitted.

Paul’s experiences chime with an excerpt from a non fiction book I’m reading called Aboke Girls by Els de Temmerman which describes the abduction of 139 girls from St Mary’s School in Aboke in 1996. One of the sisters followed the rebels into the bush and asked for the girls to be returned. Surprisingly, 109 girls were released. The book records what happened to some of the 30 who remained in captivity. Here is a horrifying event observed by Sarah:

…the rebels spotted a man riding down the path. He tried to get away but the rebels had already grabbed him. ‘Why do you ride a bicycle?’ Lagira questioned him. Didn’t he know Kony’s law banning the riding of bicycles? The man pointed at his leg, which was swollen and smeared with some local medicine. He couldn’t walk and was on his way to the hospital for treatment, he stammered, and he pleaded for mercy. But Lagira coldly told him that his leg would be cut off, according to the rules. At that moment, a woman accidently bumped into them. She too was grabbed by the rebels. Lagira ordered her to kneel down and bite off the leg. If she refused to do so, she would be killed. With horror, Sarah witnessed how the woman did as she was told. But of course, she could not get through the bone, so Lagira gave her an axe. Even then, it took all her strength to cut the leg in two. Both were left behind on the road, crying.

When I asked Paul, how it was possible to be reconciled with people who had committed such horrors, he just referred to the amnesty. And then he said it was important to celebrate the memory of those who had been put to death by the rebels. To commemorate their lives rather than dwelling on murder. And so Paul is able to find a way forward.

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Three things …

The clocks have gone back, it’s a misty moisty morning in Dorset, but there’s lots for me to look forward to. Here are my latest bits of news:

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Thanks to your support, The String Games is a finalist in fiction category of The People’s Book Prize 2019. There will be a further vote March–April 2020 to decide the winner and a black tie do in London for all the finalists on 15 April 2020. Great stuff!

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In December 2019, I’m going to Uganda with VSO for four months as a volunteer at the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. The placement draws upon my experience of working with refugee families in London and the skills I developed to support parental involvement in children’s learning. I’ll be assigned to an early childhood care and education centre in order to aid recruitment to early education for girls and children with disabilities. You can read more about Bidibidi in this article from National Geographic. I’m looking forward to living, learning and contributing in Uganda.

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In May 2020, I’ll be in Sweden at the Stockholm Writers Festival. Last year I enjoyed this wonderfully inspiring event as a participant – next year I return as a faculty member. If you’re interested in attending an innovative writing festival in a fascinating city, you can’t do better than this. Booking opens (with a 15% early bird discount) today, 1 November 2019.

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