the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Visiting Arua

During the last month in West Nile region of Uganda the weather has been hot (it’s called the sweltering session for a reason). This weekend I decided to head south for some R&R. Yumbe is the town where I live, (it’s also the name of the district where Bidibidi refugee settlement is located) and Arua is the nearest town which has facilities such as a bank with an ATM, supermarkets, cafes and even a hotel with a swimming pool. These luxuries make Arua a desirable destination.

My colleague Zachary accompanied me on the bus to Arua. We had a full day of work on Friday with training for members of the Male Action Group  on gender-based violence, child protection, social accountability and inclusion. It was difficult to get away promptly so we caught a later bus than planned and every seat was taken. The journey to Koboko is on an unsealed road and the bumps made me gasp so loudly my fellow passengers laughed. After that it was a smoother journey and we reach Arua in about two hours.

On Saturday I woke to a sunny day and considerably cooler weather. I have a room at the White Castle Hotel which is a charming place. Accommodation is in bungalows around the gardens and tucked away is a tempting swimming pool. After the sunburnt, dustbowl of Yumbe, this really is a delightful change. Even the scenery around Arua is distinctly different. The town is close to the border with Democratic Republic of Congo and apparently the undulating landscape is more like DCR than the flat planes of West Nile.

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Taking a weekend of R&R also means some indulgences. I went to the supermarket and bought treats including crystallised ginger (it’s amazing the idiosyncratic nature of stock in remote places). I also bought a few basics including nuts and seeds. Now I’m sitting by the pool enjoying a glass of wine. The first dry white I’ve had in months.

I was ferried around Arua not by a boda-boda (motorbike) but by a tuk tuk.  (I actually hate riding a boda without a helmet and this would have been much too cumbersome to carry on the bus.) Only smaller towns in Uganda licence tuk tuks as in a city like Kampala these additional vehicles could become a hazard. But in Arua they are a fine way to get about.

Sending greetings from a relaxed VSO volunteer to all my followers.

Update:

I wrote this post yesterday and just needed to insert the photos. Before I managed this, I came down with a vomiting bug and I’ve been laid up ever since. It’s now Sunday evening and fortunately I’m feeling better. But the training planned for Monday will have to be postponed as I need to move around slowly and will take the bus back to Yumbe tomorrow afternoon. Not such a great R&R after all.

 

 

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Through Arts Keep Smiling (TAKS)

Best known as an art gallery and installation (according to my Bradt travel guide to Uganda), TAKS is just a short walk from Sjarlot’s house in Gulu. It also has an internet café and garden restaurant so it sounded an ideal place to visit. The Twitter profile announces it to be ‘a centre located in the heart of Uganda. We have fun things for you to enjoy from Classic Gulu dance to a nice relaxing therapeutic environment.’ Dropping by seemed like a no brainer.

Founded by David Odwar, TAKS is housed in the former club house of the Gulu golf course. Although the fairways have since been turned in housing, there remains evidence of a tennis court, one of the posts still stands that formerly held up the net and court markings appear on crumbling asphalt.

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Inside the clubhouse, the internet café is particularly busy and I notice students applying for overseas scholarships while others are intent on their screens composing letters. I take my laptop into the meeting room where it is cooler. Around from where I sit is a garden installation which has support from the Arts & Humanities Research Council amongst other bodies. This showcases photography that tries to make sense of the difficult realities of displacement. Images are drawn from Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and DRC which show worn out shoes, water containers, cooking utensils and other necessities that make the flight to safety possible.

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It did make me reflect on the things I brought to Uganda and which bring me comfort as I find my way as a volunteer. Not least among these items is my favourite mug which shows the book cover of the Virago Modern Classic Valley of the Dolls by Jaqueline Suzann.

Although TAKS is an amazing community resource, it receives no funding. When David returned from living, studying and working in the UK he purchased the plot outright. Three units are let to provide accommodation which generates some income and David lives on site. He is very keen to raise funds to pay for a security fence to replace the current bamboo struts so that TAKS can be used as an evening performance venue for dance and music. For further information about TAKS, please visit the website.

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TAKS is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours writing. I hope I have made the most of my free time as come tomorrow, I start as a volunteer at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe. I have a couple of stories on the go and I find it productive to be around other people who are also beavering away at their own projects. Good luck everyone!

 

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Twenty-four hours at the Bomah Hotel

Rather than spend New Year’s Eve on my own in Sjarlot’s house in Gulu (she and her daughter had gone to Kampala to celebrate with friends), I decided to book a room at the Bomah Hotel. There were signs all around town advertising a party to take place that evening. Although only a block away from Sjarlot’s house, I figured it would be worth staying the night rather than risk getting home alone after the party. And so I checked in at noon to take full advantage of the facilities, which include a pool, sauna, gym and steam room. It was rather like having a spa retreat for one.

Come the evening, I donned my usual long sleeves and long trousers (plus socks!) to avoid getting mosquito bites and headed down to the bar. I was an early diner but enjoyed fish and chips while staff around me arranged chairs for the entertainment. In the garden a band prepared to play and out back by the pool there was music pumped through huge speakers. I opted to stay with the band ­and enjoyed the music but didn’t recognise any of the songs. As midnight approached everyone but me clutched their mobile phones ready to record the explosion of coloured lights. The firework display was pretty and offered a few big bangs and screeches but all were drowned out by the noise from the crowd. I’m used to hearing oohs and aahs during a firework display at home, but there were no gasps in Gulu. It was all cheering and ululating. Such a wonderful sound. I was completely embraced by it and really felt part of the crowd celebration. Then the singer started up again, impromptu words sung in tribute to 2020.

Just one more bottle on Stoney (ginger beer) and a few greetings of happy new year later, I headed off to bed where I sent messages to family and friends. This morning I write after a breakfast of fruit and pastries. Now there are only five more sleeps until I leave for the Bidibidi refugee settlement. I wonder what these next three months will bring during my volunteer placement. But one thing is for sure, the start to 2020 was delightful and I’m glad I invested in a night at the Bomah Hotel.

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Summer Break

I’ve been quiet on this blog over the summer because I spend a fortnight in Edinburgh each August. This is a wonderful city and delightful to visit when the Edinburgh Fringe is in full swing and during the two weeks of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Each morning at the book festival there is a free session called 10 at 10, where on the stroke of ten o’clock a visiting author provides a short reading of their work. It was during one of these sessions that I was introduced to the fabulous short stories written by Wendy Erskine.

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by the castle with friends

Wendy’s stories are set in East Belfast where she lives and works as a teacher. They are drawn from the people and place but reflect a wider narrative around challenges associated with love, isolation and the everyday obstacles that can floor us. I was intrigued by the snippet from a short story Wendy shared so I bought the collection Sweet Home and attended a Q&A session later in the day at Golden Hare Books, located near where I stay each summer in Stockbridge.

In her introductions, Wendy explains that she hasn’t been writing for long and credits a course run by The Stinging Fly magazine as instrumental to her development as a short story writer. She also claims her only previous publishing success was having a recipe for baked banana printed in a newspaper. (The instructions involved nothing more than putting a banana in a hot oven until the skin turns brown and then eating it.)

Sweet Home is a remarkable collection of ten short stories that fizz with tension, sadness and humour. The dialogue is outstanding which makes attending a reading such a pleasure. If you’re looking to dip into a collection that shares dark themes which are illuminated through everyday interactions, then this is the one for you.

 

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Round up​ of the summer so far …

As I am a ridiculously target driven writer, I thought I’d share with you some of the writing milestones from June and July 2019.

Sturminster Newton Literary Festival, 15 June

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In this the inaugural year of the festival, I was delighted to have a place on the author trail which involved running a stall in Joshua’s Coffee Shop so that I could chat to customers about my publications. I felt honoured to be part of the trail as Gillian Cross one of my favourite children’s authors had a stall elsewhere in the town. (The only problem was I didn’t get a chance to say hello to her!)

Later in the afternoon, I offered a workshop titled ‘a sense of place in writing’ at the library. I was delighted to work with many talented writers and receive feedback from the workshop in the form of this tweet:

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London Launch of The String Games, 22 June 

This took place at Housmans Radical Bookshop and I was so pleased to welcome friends, family, fellow Victorina Press authors and readers to this unique venue. I was delighted that every copy of The String Games sold.

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The People’s Book Prize, June 2019

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BIG NEWS for the summer. The String Games has been longlisted in this unique literary competition where the public decides the nation’s next bestsellers and writers of tomorrow. Find out here about The String Games and cast your vote to enable me to reach the next stage. All you have to do is scroll down to add your details, tick a box about receiving the newsletter and submit. Thank you to all those who have already voted.

Scratch & Spit, Lyric Theatre, Bridport, 24 June

Here I am strutting my stuff during a ten-minute performance slot. What am I going on about? The analogy between writing and running!

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Loughborough Poetry Event, 28 June

Alongside Rachel Lewis (who also had a poetry pamphlet published by Wordsmith_HQ), I was billed as a headline act at the launch of the Purple Breakfast Review Issue 8. It was great to spend an evening with so many accomplished poets and to read from adversaries/comrades.

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Shaftesbury Fringe, Saturday 6 July

As part of 3-She, I co-write comedy sketches with Maria Pruden and Sarah Scally. This summer we took a group of gifted West Dorset actors to the Shaftesbury Fringe to perform our comedy sketch show Big Heads & Others. What a lot of fun we had! The next show will be staged at Dorchester Arts Centre at 8pm on 18 September 2019.

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Meet the Author talk, Dorchester Library, Saturday 20 July

I had a fabulous audience for this 90-minute talk about the inspiration behind my poetry, short fiction and The String Games. They asked probing questions and we enjoyed a lively discussion. I’ve now been asked to offer further talks at Dorset libraries, so watch this space!

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Friday Freebie with Patsy Collins, Friday 26 July

This is an online event where I share information about my debut novel and there’s a chance to win a free signed copy of The String Games by leaving a comment on Patsy’s blog – you’ve got until midnight BST on 31 July to do this. Why not pop over for a read? Just click here.

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What’s next?

This week I received an email from my publisher Victorina Press who want me to start working with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on the children’s picture book I’ve drafted which has the working title Peta the Panda. This is an exciting new project and I can’t wait to get started!

 

 

 

 

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How one event can change a life forever

Joanne Nicholson and I met online in May 2018 and found we had much in common as writers, although I live in the UK and Joanne lives in Australia. We wrote a joint post to share our writing experiences which you can read here. Now we are both busy promoting our new novels, we thought it was time to touch base again. In Joanne’s novel Only the Lonely the catalyst for the story is a fatal car accident, in my novel The String Games the catalyst comes when a young boy goes missing. This got us thinking about how one event can change a life forever which we decided to discuss here. Over to Joanne:

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In life, one day often blends into the next until somewhere out of the blue, something extraordinary can happen that alters our lives irrevocably.  In my novel, Only the Lonely one such event turns Tiffany’s life upside down. On the night of Tiffany’s eighteenth birthday, her parents are tragically killed in a car accident, caused by someone driving under the influence of alcohol. This leaves Tiffany going through the normal machinations of coming of age while struggling to deal with grief and overwhelming loneliness.

When Tiffany discovers, as the sole heir to her parents’ estate, that her parents have a frozen embryo in storage from when they received IVF to have her, she decides to give birth to her biological sibling in order to create a sense of family and belonging again. Due to ethical concerns, her request is met with objections from the clinic. It raises the question whether a frozen embryo should be treated as property or a person and whether it is morally right for Tiffany to have IVF to implant this embryo, as she has no known fertility issues. Tiffany is forced to sue the clinic to have the procedure, as she can’t bring herself to destroy or donate the embryo, as it is the last link to her parents.

That one isolated car accident at the start of the story is responsible for the chain reaction causing Tiffany’s carefree lifestyle into one where she takes on the full responsibility of her life and the life of her unborn twin. As an author, I enjoy the process of taking inspiration from real life events and then developing characters to weave a story of challenges and ethical dilemmas to take readers on a journey. The inspiration for this novel came from a real life story, where a twenty-five-year-old woman in the USA gave birth to a baby from a donor frozen embryo that was twenty-four years old. This sparked the kernel of an idea – where a woman could be implanted with, and give birth to, her own twin. I then established why someone would want to do that, and the car accident that killed Tiffany’s parents was pivotal to the storyline.

Thank you to Joanne for sharing details of the inspiration behind your novel Only the Lonely. I have to admit, this is a fascinating subject and one that will engage many readers.

Now to Gail:

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One of the worst experiences of my life was losing my three-year-old son for forty minutes on the beach at St Jean de Luz in France. I was rubbing sunscreen onto my daughter and when I looked up, he was gone. Although this episode ended happily it made me think about different possible outcomes, the vulnerability of little children in countries where they can’t speak the language, and the parental fear of losing a child. I decided this would be a good hook for novel readers but instead of telling the story from a parental perspective, I decided to explore the legacy of loss from the viewpoint of an older sibling.

It is this catalyst of a lost child that drives the narrative in The String Games. This coming-of-age novel explores the dynamics of a fractured family coping with the aftermath of four-year-old Josh’s abduction and murder during a holiday in France. It explores how guilt is unfairly shouldered by his older sister, Nim, who is the protagonist of the novel. In second part, readers get to understand  the repercussions for Nim as she moves into the teenage years and the murky world of peer manipulation. In the final part of The String Games, Nim (who is now an adult) reverts to her given name of Imogen and tries to move forward with her life but echoes from this early tragedy force her to return to France and find answers. The novel raises issues relating to what makes a good mother and whether it is possible to forgive. The metaphor of string runs throughout the story where the characters’ lives are tangled and knotted but ultimately this is a story of fresh starts and new beginnings. 

I recently learnt that The String Games has been longlisted in The People’s Book Prize for fiction 2019. This is a national award that finds and promotes new and undiscovered work. The organisation supports the complete eradication of illiteracy and this is something very important to me as, following years of working with parents and children to build their literacy skills, there is still a need in communities for further work. In this longlisting, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect match: an opportunity to gain a wider readership for The String Games and support a cause close to my heart. Winners of the competition are decided by a public vote and I hope you feel able to give The String Games your vote to enable the novel to reach the next stage. Voting is easy. All you have to do is click on the link below:

https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2019/the-string-games/

 – Scroll to the bottom of the page and enter your name and email address

– tick yes or no to receive the newsletter

– Click submit

Could your vote for my novel help to change my life forever?

Joanne and I hope this post has pricked your curiosity about our novels. If you’d like to purchase a copy of Joanne Nicholson’s Only the Lonely, you can do so through AmazonUK and AmazonAustralia. Copies of The String Games by Gail Aldwin can be purchased and sent worldwide through her publisher’s website at Victorina Press.

You can find Joanne at:

Website: joannenicholsonauthor.com
Facebook: joannenicholsonauthor
Instagram: @joannenicholsonauthor
Twitter: @jolnicholson
You can find Gail at:
Twitter: @gailaldwin

 

 

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The String Games needs your vote

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I was delighted to hear that The String Games has been longlisted in The People’s Book Prize fiction category. This is a national award that finds and promotes new and undiscovered work. One of the organisation’s aims is to support the complete eradication of illiteracy. This is something very important to me as, following years of working with parents and children to build their literacy skills, there is still a need in communities for further work. In this longlisting, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect match: an opportunity to gain a wider readership for The String Games and connect with a cause close to my heart.

To reach the next stage of the competition depends on public support. I hope you feel able to support me by voting for The String Games to become a finalist in the fiction category. It’s easy to vote, just click here to leave your details, tick yes or no to receive the newsletter then submit.  If you’d like to leave a comment that would be a bonus. The opening chapter of The String Games is available to read here 
Thank you for your help. The String Games has important messages to share about how it’s possible to come to terms with challenges in life. It’s a story about fresh starts and new beginnings which readers find empowering.
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Landscape as character

I was chuffed that I managed to make the cover of my book appear in 3D but when I showed this to my husband, he didn’t immediately recognise the profile of a face at the bottom of the page but thought it was a landscape. This got me thinking…

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I remembered reading Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle where I was delighted by the descriptions of the mountains above the home of George and Sabine Harwood. The couple arrive in Trinidad with a couple of suitcases and Sabine’s bicycle. George is immediately captivated by the island but Sabine is isolated. She comes to see the mountains as George’s seductress and draws analogies with her own situation of being stuck:

Sabine drifted out onto the grass, staring up at the hill above the house, the hip of the green woman, a woman lying on her side, never any doubt about that. A woman trapped in the mud, half sculpted from the sticky oil-clogged bedrock, half made. She wa also stuck Half out, half in. Hip, breast, a long travelling arm. Half her face, half her bushy tangled hair. Usually, she slept heavily and the earth hummed with the timbre of her snores. 

I love the sense of place in writing and will be delivering a workshop as part of the Sturminster Newton Literary Festival on 15 June at 2pm in the library. Further details here.

I was also chuffed to notice on the back cover of adversaries/comrades there is a face in the landscape. The illustrator Emily Young at Wordsmith_HQ must have read my mind when she designed the cover! You can find more information and reviews of the poetry pamphlet here.

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The String Games will be released on 28 May but you can buy a copy now through Victorina Press.

 

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Women writers! How do you relate to your female protagonist?

As part of the research for my PhD which accompanied the writing of my novel The String GamesI came across the work of Judith Kegan Gardiner who discusses female identity and writing by women. She suggests that where women write about female protagonists there is a special link and proposes the analogy ‘the hero is her author’s daughter’. When I first read this, the idea that I could regard Nim (my protagonist) as my daughter caused concern. While I recognised that other women writers may regard their female protagonists in this way, I resisted the idea of applying the analogy to my own situation. I was afraid that if I thought of Nim as my daughter, a natural progression would be to conclude that Jenny (Nim’s mother) represented me. This I did not want to think about. The character of Jenny is by no means an idealised mother: she is short-tempered, snappy, stressed, clumsy, resentful and all manner of other negatives. Her redeeming quality, however, is that she genuinely wants to try to be a good mother.

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The more I thought about the possible link between my protagonist and me, the more I came to realise that I was not her fictional mother – Jenny takes that role in the story – but I was her author-mother. This realisation enabled me to approach later drafts of the novel with deeper understanding of my characters and my role as an author in “mothering” my young female protagonist. It also brought into play the idea of separation–individuation, the process that girls and mothers go through in order that children can go onto to become unique, independent adults. I came to understand that by the end of my work on the novel, I needed to separate from the character of Nim I had created, so that she, as my protagonist-daughter could continue her life in a fictional context through the minds of my readers and I, as the author-mother, am free to go on and create other characters in new fictional writing.

As this is a special post to mark Mother’s Day in the UK, 31 March 2019, I wonder, how do other women writers feel about their female protagonists? Do the theories of Judith Kegan Gardiner chime with you? I’d love to know what you think – please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you.

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How to learn Spanish in Guatemala

I’m now at the end of my third week in Antigua, Guatemala, I have one more week here so I want to make the most of this fabulous opportunity to learn Spanish. It was after a fortnight that I noticed I was able to contribute more to the Spanish conversation around the dinner table and I certainly feel much less self conscious when trying to make myself understood. I’ve made a determined effort to learn the conjugations of a few important verbs and can now pose and answer simple questions using the past, imperfect, present and future tenses. The next step is to apply the rules to a greater range of verbs.

Much as my vocabulary in Spanish is growing, I seem to be losing the ability to recall words in English. I frequently have afternoon tea at a garden centre close to the school and when I walk around the grounds, I simply can’t remember the names of plants I recognise. Fortunately for me, the plants have tags which read the same in English as in Spanish (Begonia and Fuschia). Indeed, it strikes me that there are very many words in English that are similar in Spanish which must help to make Spanish one of the easier languages for English speakers to acquire. However, it is also easy to get caught out. For example, the Spanish word embarazada bears a striking resemblance to the English word ’embarrassed’ but actually means pregnant. You can image the humour and confusion in making such a mistake!

There are very many advantages to learning Spanish in Guatemala. For a start, the weather in Guatemala in January is lovely. I enjoy the way Antigua has all four seasons in one day: fresh and spring-like in the morning, a lovely summer’s day by noon, an autumnal chill in the afternoon and cold as winter at night. The city has lots of language schools where one-to-one classes are offered at very reasonable rates. Many Americans come here to brush up their language skills and I’ve enjoyed meeting other students from all over north America as well as others from Europe, Australia and New Zealand. My lessons take place on the roof terrace of the school with fabulous views.

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With my teacher, Jasmin. (See the smoke coming from the volcano in the distance.)

Jasmin is a very patient teacher who is tuned into my utterances and laughs at my frequent malapropisms. Most Guatemaltecos speak at a measured pace and this makes engaging in conversation a whole lot easier.

Some of the other benefits of learning Spanish in Guatemala include:

  • fabulous sights and sounds of the city such as the rhythmic clapping when tortillas are patted into shape on streets stalls and in markets
  • humming birds in the gardens
  • fantastic ruins around every corner
  • Mayan crafts, cultural traditions and archaeology
  • chicken buses for transport around the towns (former US school buses spruced up for service)

I’m sure if I had more time, I would be able to think up many other advantages but as I have homework to do, I’ll leave you with some photos.

 

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