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Sunday, 5 July 2015

How Far Will You Go to Write? asks Kathleen Jones

This is my journey to the Edge of the World, where Captain Cook accidentally stumbled into Haida Gwaii while he was looking for the Pacific exit of the fabled North West Passage.  Beyond this expanse of sand is the Pacific Ocean - the biggest mass of water on the planet;  to the north is Alaska and the North Pole.

“Where your world ends, ours begins”
Haida saying

For months I’d been feeling depressed, anxious and powerless. There seemed to be no solution to the perfect storm of economic and environmental chaos that was (and still is) approaching. My own personal life felt just as stormy and unsolvable. But at the moment when I felt most depressed, I read a book by an American poet called Robert Bringhurst. It was called A Story as Sharp as a Knife. At first what drew me to the book was the discussion about narrative. I’m a writer, and I’m fascinated by narrative. Story telling is fundamental to the human psyche, even our brains are structured to construct narratives. Every time we access a memory, our brain re-assembles its components as a story, making it slightly different every time. So this new and poetic approach to story-telling had a deep fascination.

Bringhurst was writing about a First Nation people called the Haida, who lived on remote islands off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean. Over a hundred years ago their oral literary tradition, which had been developing for nearly ten thousand years, was transcribed by an anthropologist. Most of the stories, told as poems, had never been translated until Bringhurst began to study them. The way the Haida structured their poems and stories was quite different to the literary traditions we have here in the west, and that fascinated me.  Here was a tradition as old as the Greeks, but offering a different model to follow.
A Haida village before it was abandoned.
They also had a mythology which was not simply about a group of humans who were gods in disguise, but which was animist in origin - regarding animals as supernatural beings and placing humans firmly within the world’s ecology as a cog in the works, rather than a superior being who was in charge of it all. ‘Everything is connected to everything’, was one of the Haida sayings and it summed up their philosophy. There had to be balance in all things in order for the world to function. This was reflected in their literature too, their literary forms involved a balancing of themes and events.

I read all the translations I could source, and everything I could find out about the Haida.

Haida sculptor Bill Reid's carving of the myth 'Raven and the First Men', where the Raven finds human beings in a giant clam shell.

Here, it seemed, was a people who knew how to live in the world without killing it. Perhaps they had an answer to the ills of the twenty first century. Perhaps they could teach us how to live without destroying the planet that supports us. I knew that somehow I had to get there.

Riding the Dog - it's more than 9 hours to Port Hardy
It took a long time to find the money, but I finally made it (thanks to the Royal Literary Fund) in May 2015, flying to Vancouver, crossing over to Victoria, making my way up Vancouver Island by Greyhound bus, and finally a flight to the islands of Haida Gwaii - over a thousand miles from Vancouver. I was incredibly nervous - would I be disappointed?  Would there be anything to write about? I needn't have worried. The big surprise was that I didn't write about any of the things I'd planned;  the story I found when I got there was far bigger than anything I'd imagined.
Alison, a Haida woman in her Haida robes which she is now free to wear.
I found myself in the middle of the nation-wide debate about a process called Truth and Reconciliation - arriving on the eve of publication of an important Commission's report into the treatment of First Nation people and particularly their children.  The chair of the Commission used words such as 'cultural genocide'.  When the colonists arrived in British Columbia there were three indigenous people to every European immigrant, yet they were never consulted about what should happen to their land and laws were quickly passed (a succession of 'Indian' acts) to ensure their dispossession and marginalisation. Their traditional ceremonies were made illegal (you were imprisoned for taking part), their language forbidden and their children removed for 're-education'. One British Columbia politician actually stated that the policy was 'to kill the Indian in the child'. But what happened was that they often killed the child too.  There are those who believe the genocide was not just cultural and there's a lot of evidence on their side.

From the age of 5 to 15, children were placed in residential schools (known as the Schools of Sorrow), run by various religious and state organisations.  Many thousands of children died from neglect and cruelty.  They weren't fed or clothed properly and their emotional needs were ignored - including contact with their families.  Many thousands of others were physically and sexually abused in a manner that became routine. The last school in British Columbia closed in 1986; the last in Canada not until 1996.

In the Haida communities a population of more than 20,000 was reduced to about 500 over two decades in what became known as 'The Great Dying' as epidemics of TB and Smallpox swept through.  The Haida had become displaced, their lives disrupted, their traditional medicines and healthy lifestyles outlawed and they had become vulnerable to European infections in the same way as natural disasters all over the world often lead to outbreaks of disease. There are even stories of the deliberate infection of communities in order to solve 'the Indian problem' by removing them.
The rotting house poles at one abandoned village - Skedans
This was not the story I had come to write, but it was one I couldn't escape.  It was all around me. The abandoned villages, the tenacious survivors putting their languages and traditions back into place, using the very legal system that had dispossessed them to regain possession of their lands and their rights. What also excites me is that the First Nation people are now leading the way in the environmental battle against pollution and exploitation.  They aren't going to allow the west to trash their communities again.  No Enbridge signs were everywhere, as they fight an oil pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands that would put their World Heritage status islands, and their livelihoods, at risk. We need to give them as much support as we can.

And I had a wonderful time in the vast wildernesses of Haida Gwaii.  I slept in Margaret Atwood's bed (she loved it apparently, despite having to traipse through the kitchen to find the bathroom).

I met a multi-millionaire still driving his own taxi at the age of 89, a poet married to a bank robber (seems a good way to fund poetry!) and one of the script-writers for Frasier and House.  I had an encounter with a bear on a remote beach (well.... its footprint at least - it was too scared to introduce itself!)

Grant A Mincy wrote in The Ecologist that ‘The joy of the wild is rooted deep in the human spirit and without it our lives are starved of a vital nutrient.’ That was how I felt when I arrived, but I found the peace and calm I needed between forests and oceans. Did I find 'The Wild'? Kathleen Jamie writes that ‘Wild is a word like ‘soul’. Such a thing may not exist, but we want it, and we know what we mean when we talk about it.’  I went a long way to find it.

Now I'm writing a book about the journey, which seems to be writing itself at the moment.  Will it be any good?  Or will it be a kind of  'What I did on  my holidays' essay?  Until I finish it I've no idea, but I'm loving every moment as I re-live the experience!

Kathleen Jones is a biographer, novelist and poet who publishes on both sides of the fence.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life', is often to be found wasting time on Facebook, and Tweets incognito as @kathyferber 

Her latest novel, which was included in 'Outside the Box',  is The Centauress, available on Amazon.

"Bereaved biographer Alex Forbes goes to war-ravaged Croatia to research the life of celebrity artist Zenobia de Braganza and finds herself at the centre of a family conflict over a disputed inheritance. At the Kaštela Visoko Alex uncovers a mutilated photograph, stolen letters and a story of indeterminate gender, passion and betrayal. But can she believe what she is being told? In order to discover the truth about Zenobia, Alex travels to Istria, Venice, New York and London and, in working through the narrative of Zenobia’s life, Alex begins to make sense of her own and finds joy and love in a new relationship."

Saturday, 4 July 2015

We Need To Stop Asking Permission To Tell Our Stories - Alice Jolly

I am in a strange no man's land at the moment. My book came out yesterday but the book launch isn't until next week. And more importantly, a couple of articles in the national press about the book will also not appear until next week. So the book is out but it isn't. And I have no idea what to expect.

A couple of friends who have no knowledge of the book world have said, 'You must be feeling pretty confident about all of this.' My response is, 'Unless you are an absolute fool, then you never feel confident about a book.'

Having said all that, the omens are quite good. The book has had a lot of good publicity, the cover is great, I think. Although the book was crowd funded, it is being distributed by Penguin Random House. Certainly, it should do better than my novels did.

But the truth is that 95% of books sink without trace. And this is true of good books as well as dodgy books. Even publishers are often completely unable to understand why, despite plenty of good omens, a good book goes nowhere. Publishing is like the weather. There is no point in asking why.

From a personal perspective, I have had a wobbly day. Partly it is just that flat feeling that comes at the end of any project. But I'm also suffering from all those strange feelings which do come with having a book published. It feels like walking down the street with no clothes on. It feels raw and invasive. It makes me want to hide. It makes me feel silly. It puts me in the spot light in a way I don't want.

I know my novels produced all these feelings - but a memoir is even more worrying. People can like a novel or not like it. Memoirs have the capacity to cause offence, even to provoke law suits. I do live in fear of the person (and there is certain to be one and maybe many more) who don't like what I've said.

But just a few days ago I found a wonderful quote which made me feel much calmer. It comes from the memoirist Alexandra Fuller. If there is anyone out there who hasn't read her wonderful memoir, 'Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight' then you really should give it a try. I admired it so much.

Since writing that book Alexandra Fuller has written a number of other memoirs which are deeply personal and challenging, as well as being funny and shockingly honest. Her latest book is about her divorce and this is what she said in an interview when the journalist asked that inevitable question about whether family and friends might be upset.

'There's almost this expectation you need to get approval. I doubt Hemingway was asked what his ex-wives thought of his writing. I think women have to stop asking for permission .....'

To me that quote is important and so right. I don't have to ask permission. We none of us have to ask permission. And, in fact, if we do, then we're unlikely to write a good book.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Through Her Looking Glass Darkly - By Umberto Tosi

Orson Welles' "Lady from Shanghai" Mirror Maze Scene
My cursor blinks accusingly from the end of a pathetic little string of words, lost in the white-out of a freshly opened page – a tiny Inuit and his dog team sledding over the ice pack of my frozen inspiration. Time to take a walk, maybe down to the lake. Let the creative unconscious (that capricious weasel) to its job. Maybe I should get that pound of coffee we need, or change that burned-out track light in the hallway. But how can I take a break when I haven't even started? … Mmmm. What's in the refrigerator, and why am I staring into it? How did I get here? Indeed, that is the question.

Back at my desk amid its comfortable clutter, I swivel in my high-backed chair to see Oliver, my inamorata's fat orange cat, sprawled on a window sill facing our pair of leafy verdant mulberry trees. A deliriously bright summer afternoon – breezy and pungent from yesterday's thunderstorms – beckons me. Oliver stares through the screen – mouth watering, tail twitching at myriad, fussing birds feasting on the trees' early purple fruit. We all have dreams that have nothing to do with writing. 

Oliver Ferris likes to watch
Maybe I'll never write another book, which is what I said last year about this time, just before I wrote Ophelia Rising.

I apply fingers to the keys again, but they slide off and lie still as dead mice. My mind is a toothpick ferris wheel of awkward phrases and bad ideas. I sort computer folders, feigning productivity. Scrolling through a pack of old notes and story scraps, I see a file named “Valerie's Mirror,” which rings no bells – last accessed “Sat, June 2 2009 03:20:50.” I open it. There's my byline, but the rest remains unfamiliar. I read a little:

Valerie caught a good look at herself in Aunt Dinah's bathroom mirror. It was a fine mirror – large and true. Its beveled, oval glass was encircled in earthy walnut, with carved grapevines topped by a fat cupid laughing from a flowered cartouche. She bent against Dinah's serpentine marble sink and scanned her reflected visage like a general going over a battle map.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who's not the fairest of them all?” She made her case for the prosecution. “Splotchy cheeks, stringy hair, too much forehead, zits on parade! Loser! Sexy as a poached egg!” She dragged fingernails down her cheeks, trailing white furrows, like pulling off a Halloween mask. “Why would anyone want you?” She hissed close enough to fog the glass. No amount of makeup, cleverly applied as Dinah had taught her, would cover her self-loathing this morning.

The mirror sighed in that silent way that mirrors do. She looks as fair as they come to me, he thought, fine features and a high carriage, more than the mere blossom of youth, and with a certain je ne sais quoi. He thought a lot, this mirror, which comes of having too much time to one's self. He had always told the truth, but had never figured how to get it across well. This is why he had given up talking to these people long ago. They saw what they wanted to see – or at best what they were ready for. Mirrors, majestic or humble, had to be content with that. Mirror-Mirror thus found bouncing light from bath towels, shower curtains or even the occasional spider a lot more satisfying than reflecting people with all their conceits and neuroses.

Urrrrrrrg!” Valerie slapped her hands on the counter so hard it stung, and somehow felt good.

Are you okay in there, honey?” Dinah's throaty voice floated through the locked door.

I'll be out in a minute, Auntie. ... Thanks,” Valerie chirped through gritted teeth trying to sound cheery. She always called Dinah auntie, though their connection was oblique.

Don't take too long. You don't want to miss your flight.”

Not bad, I thought. It always surprises me to discover some archival piece of my own writing and actually like it. But who is Valerie, and what is her story? What will become of her? Who is Dinah? And what does the mirror have to say? I wasn't able to glean any answers that satisfied me in the few thousand words that followed. I remembered now – in fragmented images – not quite being able to make the story work, and then filing it away, like many other such drafts. Should I bring this up from the wine cellar now and open the bottle? Has it aged enough to be worth another try? And why pursue this fragment? I have so many other things I want to do. Always the same dilemmas.

My dear, narrative surrealist artist and cat-owner Eleanor Spiess-Ferris says she often sketches something on paper or canvas then asks where it wants to go. “I inquire of it,” she says. Her prolific output of fantastic work over the past forty years indicates that she knows whereof she speaks.
Eleanor Spiess-Ferris listens to her canvas, "River"

The technique works for fictional characters as well. I will have a talk with Valerie, Dinah and maybe the mirror. Face it. I can't write and be in my right mind at the same time. I need to become at least a little delusional with these imaginary people if I'm going to have any chance of making them real. Anyway, who ever said writing was a rational process?

Having three grown daughters, I can empathize with Valerie's coming-of-age angst, although she seems as distinct from them as they are from each other. I don't know, at this point, if Valerie escapes her self-loathing, or maybe I should say, her self-obsession, changes her circumstances, becomes the somebody she wants to be, get the boy she wants, or even gets out of that San Francisco Victorian bathroom before the story is over.

And what happens with the mirror is anyone's guess. I think Dinah found it while antique hunting at a flea market and had it restored. Something tells me it once belonged to Snow White's stepmother or Dorian Gray. Count Dracula may have once owned it, but told Igor to throw it away, because he couldn't stand not seeing himself in it any longer. Time for me to step through this looking glass, like Alice, see what Valerie sees and more, I hope.

And sure enough, it turns out that here on the other side of the glass, Valerie has a Facebook page! (Excuse me for going all Paul Auster on you. Let's just call it a writing experiment.)

I click onto Valerie's FB page and find out things I hadn't known about her. For example, checking the “about” info page, I read that she was born in Manhattan, Kansas, was adopted and has an identical twin somewhere. Also, she had a breakdown recently.

 Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas
Check it out. Maybe you will discover something as well, and offer more tidbits - as fanciful as you like - about Valerie, her twin, Dinah, Mr. Mirror or somebody in the shadows. Hazard a guess. Maybe you've heard some rumors. Maybe you have an opinion or a remembrance or something completely different to share. Don't be shy.

Sure. Go ahead and post, if you please. I will too. It's not real – in the conventional sense, anyway. It's an improv exercise in digital-what-the-hell. Valerie may not listen to us about everything. She is a teenager after all. But it might be entertaining.

In any event, it takes one's mind off of writer's block!

So, the story starts to be about self-imagery and mirroring. That much, I've learned. Looking over her FB Timeline, I see that Valerie has posted an intriguing collage about the magical use of mirrors by great artists, starting with Diego Velázquez's spellbinding trick perspectives in LasMeninas and the earlier, Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. I learn that Pablo Picasso painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in 1957, and that Salvadore Dali never finished his what's considered his greatest work: Dali From The Back Painting Gala From The Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors (1972).

And I'm thinking now of the climactic scene in Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai" when Rita Hayworth and Welles' characters shoot it out with Everett Sloane's villain in the Magic Maze of Mirrors at the long-defunc
t Whitney's Playland at the Beach on Great Highway in the San Francisco I remember as a teenager.

Like these and other artists, Valerie seems obsessed with mirrors, being a budding artist herself, something else I discovered on her page. She doesn't seem to have a lot of friends for someone her age, but I see the list is growing. Maybe more will show up soon. Maybe I'll even wind up her story one day as well. In any case, this will have been worth the ride.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Italian Literature's Identity Crisis, by Mari Biella

Italy is one of those countries you just have to love. It has some of the best countryside and most interesting towns and cities in the world; it’s the country of the Renaissance, of glorious art and architecture. Its wine, fashion and food are widely considered to be second to none. Besides, how can you not love a country shaped like a boot? Yes, there’s no doubt about it: Italy gets rave reviews all round.

What of Italian literature, though? Ah, this is where things begin to go quiet – at least outside Italy.

Italian literature has something of an identity crisis in the English-speaking world. Italy, at a fleeting glance, just doesn’t appear to have a literary tradition to rival those of France, Germany, Russia, Britain, or the United States. Mention ‘Russian Literature’, and vast numbers of writers will spring to mind: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Pushkin, Turgenev, Bulgakov. If someone mentions ‘Italian literature’, what or who do you think of?

Well, there’s Dante, obviously. La Divina Commedia and La Vita Nuova are classics not just of Italian, but of world, literature, and most modern English-speakers will have heard of Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice – who, after all, can resist a good love story? Yet it’s questionable how many of those English-speakers have ever sat down and read Dante’s works, which is understandable in a way; in these secular times, a long poetic journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven may hold little obvious appeal to the average reader. Ah, well – it matters not. Themes and subject matter, like writers, go in and out of fashion, but Dante is assured a place at the head of the Italian literary table.

Apart from Dante? Well, there’s Petrarch and his sonnets. There’s Boccaccio and his Decameron, hauntingly reminiscent in style and structure of our own Canterbury Tales. Machiavelli’s treatises on the brutal realities of Realpolitik are as relevant today as they ever were, as a cursory glance at Italian politics will confirm.

And then? Surprisingly little, actually, until you arrive at the nineteenth century; in fact, Italian literature only really begins to come into its own in the latter half of the twentieth century, with the emergence of writers such as Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and Italo Calvino. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a masterpiece of Italian literature, was published posthumously in 1958 (it was rejected by publishers during Tomasi’s lifetime; one considered it ‘unpublishable’, which should give hope to struggling writers everywhere). In the present day, Italian gialli (crime and detective novels) are popular with English readers; indeed, Inspector Montalbano is probably every bit as popular in Surrey as in his native Sicily.

Still, there’s something of a shortfall in the English-speaking world’s appreciation of Italian literature. Why?

It’s unsurprising, in a way. The Italian language, like modern Italy, has existed for just over 150 years. Until the advent of national TV and radio broadcasts, it was not widely spoken; even today, many Italians are in effect bilingual, preferring to speak local dialect in day-to-day life, and switching to standard Italian only when confronted with outsiders. Linguistic confusions, along with so many other contradictions and inconsistencies, help to make Italy such a glorious, interesting muddle of a country. Dante, Boccaccio and Machiavelli all wrote in literary Tuscan, which lies at the root of modern Italian. ‘Lingua Tusca magis apta est ad literam sive literature,’ (‘The Tuscan language is better suited to the letter or literature’) declared Antonio da Tempo of Padua. But, of course, most Italians did not speak Tuscan, and so, perforce, could not read or write in it either.

Lake Como, the setting for Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi.

In fact, it was not until 1827 that a novel that was both in Italian and in the realist, European vein was published: Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). I Promessi Sposi is marvellous, but in terms of its potential readership it had one major drawback – at the time, it was written in a language that hardly anyone, some educated Tuscans aside, actually spoke or understood. Only today is Manzoni’s work both widely read and recognised as the major contribution to Italian literature that it truly is.

All of which leads to some rather more general thoughts. Those of us who both live in the modern era and speak and write in English are perhaps phenomenally lucky. We just happen to speak the language that is, at the current time, the lingua franca (for how much longer is another question altogether). Linguistic divides are, perhaps, less broad for us than for those who write in other languages. Yet I sometimes wonder whether foreign-language writing gets the attention it deserves in the English-speaking world. In Britain, at least, one might blame a lingering nervousness about foreignness, together with the common suspicion that, in cultural terms at least, the Channel is wider than the Atlantic. And then, of course, there is the simple language barrier. Much tends to get lost in translation, however competent the translator.

Which is a shame, because one of the great things about fiction is that it allows you to glimpse other places, other times, other points of view. Reading English-language works might be like coming back home again; but we shouldn’t be afraid to venture out of our comfort zones every so often, and try something new. Viva la differenza!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015


'What's yours is mine, bwahahaha!'
I’ve been embroiled in a plagiarism scandal for weeks now and it’s still going on. Someone I’ve known for years, been to their launches, bought their books, has plagiarised friends and colleagues as well as famous writers, and it’s been going on for years under our very noses. At first mainly poetry, now as more and more of it emerges, it includes prose as well and cheating on a PhD thesis, and getting huge amounts of funding from various public bodies on the basis of track record as a writer. I got embroiled when two friends, co-publishees (and as they discovered after a book launch, plag’d poets) and our mutual publisher failed to get any satisfaction over several weeks of private back and forth. I started looking at other poems in the new book and discovered to my dismay that many of them were others’ poems with tweaks and synonyms inserted. We then brought in the ‘poetry sleuth’ Dr Ira Lightman, who’s also a friend, and who has brought to light several of these strange creatures before. The detective work goes on, unraveling many personae with various blogs, projects, fundings, names, qualifications, and more and more examples come to light all the time. Trust has been destroyed, people have fallen out irreparably, some who shared work on secret sites won’t share any more, writers are posting they feel scared they might be unconsciously using something they’ve read and are frantically googling their own work. If you'd like to read more about the ongoing case, here are some links. So far, so bad.

It's always hunting season for messengers!

You may think that an exposed plagiarist, who’s been getting credit and wedges of dosh for stolen work, on exposure, would be howled down. Their publisher, crimson with shame though innocent of wrong, would pulp the book, apologise to all concerned, repudiate the offender, and perhaps falling short of demanding refunds of funding, the plagiarist would be named, shamed and pretty much ruined as a writer. You may think that but you’d be wrong. People do like to shoot messengers. People may cling to denial, especially when it’s someone they know. But nothing prepared any of us, a core group of five, for the shitstorm that has broken over our heads. Much of the contumely has been aimed at us for exposing it. Partly this is a facebook thing, and partly it’s current attitude to copyright. All the sympathy was reserved for the plagiarist, and most of the abuse, to say nothing of the work of finding all the examples, was reserved for us, though the tide has slowly turned as the sheer scale of it has been uncovered. Our motives are automatically suspect. Dr Lightman must be some kind of sinister figure. This should not have been made public. (Not sure how else to put right the public theft of credit for others’ work…)
Notice the quote has been attributed properly, twice!
The word ‘witchhunt’ was used many times, though as someone pointed out, THEY weren’t REAL witches, whereas… The publisher issued a tirade aimed at Dr Lightman, complained about having to pulp the book which he only did after weeks during which he offered to just list the names of plag’d poets in the Acknowledgements on re-publication, for he planned to publish it again. And still does, at least publicly. As for the plagiarisms, he defended these as a valid way of working, of which more anon.  One wonders how he’d have responded to his own books or work being nicked. The plagiarist, when cornered, issued an apology which contradicted the publisher by saying the whole thing had been a mistake, getting muddled, accidentally using other people’s lines or whole poems – a stance still kept up now, when we are well into double figures. Plag’d poets around the world were informed and some were furious. Others were put off by the totally groundless assumptions about the perp's mental state made by amateur psychiatrists on social media and kept quiet rather than be blamed for upsetting their plagiarist. Continual questions are asked about whether the University who awarded the Creative Writing PhD are going to take action, since cheating was involved. Because they too seem to have been very quiet. Major organizations in the writing game (funders, other publishers, bodies employing the culprit as a marker of others’ work etc) have not been keen to respond, except when a wronged writer has forced them to, as technical publishers or funders of some piece of work. Those of us who’ve kept trying to put facts straight online have now alienated quite a few relatively powerful people, publishers, funders and writers, for standing up for the rights of writers. Maybe it's the mathematician in me, but I can't bear to let false information stand somehow. I've been plagiarised myself and it's very unpleasant indeed.
My Quantum Sheep idea was 'rustled' by someone who claimed they thought of it first though it'd been in the media for over ten years.
The worst fuss was about the widespread assumption, nay stated ‘fact’ that anyone who does wrong is automatically ‘mentally ill’ or has suffered ‘brain trauma’ and therefore needs sympathy. They don’t know what they are doing, poor muddled souls. A few of us objected to this on the grounds that 1) the person involved was still running several highly funded and complex projects very efficiently and 2) such assumptions are stigmatizing of those with mental illness and of disabled people in general. I’ve never had such a kicking on social media as after I made these seemingly sensible points. In the light of what copyright means to writers in all genres it raises a few questions.

These are some of the other excuses made for plagiarism, in a world where it is endemic in the student population, where all students’ work is put through detection software, where essays can be bought online or the internet used for copy and paste orgies.

He can't really complain that someone stole his 'r'.

‘Copyright is capitalism.’ Words belong to us all, to use as we like, regardless, and that includes how words are put together. Property is theft and so is intellectual property.
Neither did 'sue your ass off'...
‘Finders keepers; plagiarism is ok because people have always done it.’ Defenders of this stance often cite Shakespeare who was a plagiarist, you know. This ‘fact’ gets quoted all the time without any evidence. Or logical thought: after all, they burned witches then (witchhunts, remember?) and times have changed, ditto the copyright laws. Similarly the ‘writers of the gospels’ (another defence) may have collected oral traditions but that does not mean you can use others’ work now.

'Yes, but who from?'
‘It’s just remixing like they do with music.’ This is used to excuse the practice, alarmingly widespread, of ‘ghosting’ or remixing poems by other people and then publishing them as your own original work without even crediting the writer. Well it’s not ok. Remixing is done often in the electronic music world, only with permission and full credit. The remixer will often just get a flat fee and any sales of the remixed track will bring royalties only to the original creators. If you mash up a couple of tracks in your bedroom, nobody will bother much but if you try selling them, god help you. People get sued for stealing lyrics or tunes or bits of them, and sued to the tune of millions. The music world is far from casual about copyright. You can’t quote any lyric apart from the song title without permission, credit and often a very hefty fee. (So don’t quote music lyrics in your novels!)
I've posted this clever feminist spoof of 'Blurred Lines' (Full credits are on youtube!) rather than the icky version by Thicke and Williams who got sued for stealing from Marvin Gaye.  Enjoy!

‘It’s ‘found poetry’.’ This used to mean poetry you create from phrases found in the world outside, posters, newspapers, instruction manuals, which you incorporate into poems. It’s now being used to mean ‘I found a poem by X, I’m remixing it or tweaking it and calling it mine.’ I have now heard of workshops being run where impressionable newby writers are being taught these techniques. I found a website encouraging this and challenging people to produce one a day, easy enough as using someone else’s poem you can churn them out in minutes. All the above can apply to novels and short stories. Another plagiarist was lecturing at university while selling stories by the likes of Dylan Thomas as her own.

Who cares? Do you? Is it only writers and creators of original work who care about copyright? Is it worth fighting for, or should we just accept that it’s dying out?

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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Where are the Asian novelists and poets? By Leela Soma

Salman Rushdie is the winner of the Best of Booker Prize for his Midnight’s Children. But how many Asian writers are recognised, encouraged in the UK? How many parents or young people see it as a career choice? Drama, dance, music, and the other arts have made great strides in being inclusive and Asians contribute and participate in these categories as they rightfully should. When it comes to writing, there seems to be a dearth of books by Asians especially in novels and poetry. Not even Asian magazines feature any articles on writing as a career for Asians. Why is this?

We can’t blame the publishing industry alone. Though one of the reasons given by many is that Asian books are not ‘commercial enough’ to invest in! There is a need to get many writers to participate in every town and city that they live in. Whenever I go to book launches, book festivals I see very few Asians participating in it. Literature is an important aspect of society that we cannot ignore. It is our stories and poems that make our culture rich, and a heritage to be proud of. My own reasons for becoming a writer were because of this void.

Like all first generation Asians, I was busy pursuing my career and raising a family since I arrived in 1969. As an avid reader I was a regular visitor to major bookshops. There were few books written by British Asians in the 1970’s. Hanif Kureshi was one of the few who had a body of work that was accessible to all. I had to order books or get books sent from India if I needed to read anything written by Asians. I always liked reading and writing so I took it upon myself to fill that void, but found time only after I retired from full time teaching as a Principal Teacher of Modern Studies. I attended some courses in creative writing at Glasgow University and joined my local Strathkelvin Writers group, where I won the Margaret Thompson Trophy for new writing. It was that support from the fellow writers at Strathkelvin Writers group that helped me finish my first novel Twice Born and get it published in 2008.

While writing novel one, the idea for Bombay Baby had already formed in my mind. It was a photo in the Times newspaper of an Indian baby born to a Yorkshire couple by embryo transfer in India. The story flowed easily and the novel was published by Dahlia Publishers in 2011.

My short story collection Boxed In followed soon, published by The Pot Hole Press in e reader format.

Writing and getting published is not easy, but if you have the passion and determination, it can be done. There is a lot of awareness now for the need for diversity in publication. Small independent publishers are taking up the challenge and are reaching out and seeking writers. I hope this inspires new Asian writers to pick up their pens and get writing. Our voices need to be heard, we need to contribute to the mainstream literature of this country. We must leave a legacy for the next generations, something that tells them the stories of Asians in UK. I also hope that a new award for Asian writers is introduced. If there is a MOBO for music, book prizes for women writers like the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it is high time there is a National Award for the best Asian novelist or poet in Britain. Participation by Asian midlist writers’ not just big prize winners in all aspects of writing is the key to diversity in literature published in UK.

Get writing now.

btw: I am also thrilled to hear that I have made it to the most prestigious British Indian Awards 2015 in the category of Arts and Culture awareness.

I was born in Madras, India and now live in Glasgow. My poems and short stories have been published in a number of anthologies and publications, including The Scotsman, and Gutter magazine. My two novels and a short story collection are all available on Amazon UK, US and on Kobo, Nook, Smashwords and other platforms worldwide.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Magic on a Monday N M Browne

I want to talk about magic. I’m not personally particularly magical: my wishes rarely come true, I have yet to discover the secret of eternal youth and I can’t fly though I have always really, really wanted to and I lack even the most elementary skills of turning raw ingredients into delicious and nutritious feast for the senses.  Even with all these inadequacies, however  I am proud to stand up and boast my credentials as a somewhat inept  practitioner  of fundamental magics, the simple fireside spell casting of the story teller. 
 There is something arcane, mystical and almost supernatural about the telepathic power of text.  The way in which through story we can live a million lives in a million different places: the ideas we have in our heads, the worlds we dream of and the invisible people we talk to as we go about our daily business are conveyed through the magical medium of words from our brains to those of our readers. Its not telepathy -it’s better than telepathy because we get rid of all the rubbish. We give our readers our best selves.
 Someone like JK Rowling is a rather superior magical worker simply because of the number of young minds with which she has spoken. There is hardly a child between nineteen and twenty six whose imaginative life has not been shaped by her words on the page or her words transmuted further into images on the screen.  Don’t you find that remarkable? I wouldn’t claim she is the greatest either or that you have to be great to be important. My own imagination is still fed by the long dead, CS Lewis, Thomas Hardy, the lovely Jane whose stories inform my every day view of the world.
  I am editing my own work at the moment - never my favourite thing and am struck still by the power of this magic. I don’t mean I’m entranced or transported by my own wit and wisdom, I am not yet quite senile, but that pictures and ideas I had forgotten about are held within the text, like thoughts fixed in aspic.

 I don’t really care about the medium used to record the words. They have the same effect whether hand scrawled in an exercise book or digitally reproduced on a kindle. We are quick to marvel at the magic of the technology and perhaps slower to recognise that when it all comes down to it the essential magic is ours: the bizarre power to make pictures in other people’s heads, to give the imaginary, form. So  as you read this somewhat delayed posting ( as even minor magicians can sometimes be unreliable) and perhaps drink a coffee, toast yourself and our much underrated craft,  celebrate the magicians of story.