Pakistan Diary: Looking for Bindiya

February 5, 2016

Thursday February 5th, 2016

Trying to meet with Bindiya, the head of the khawaja sara (transgender) community in Karachi is the beginning of the adventure.  As arranged, I call B who speaks with Usman (our translator/ lawyer-philosopher / all-round perfect guy with a car) and arranges to meet us at Jinnah Hospital, the free hospital which provides medical care to the poor.   B also has a party house but she wants to meet somewhere more characteristic. Two minutes away from the hospital we come up against a diversion which takes us who-knows-where, and it’s not a surprise because this whole trip is like that – full of interesting diversions and unexpected encounters.   I’m very interested in the bustling community outside the hospital – on the pavement outside, there is a small screened marquee where meals are provided for anyone who’s hungry. Usman tells us about the time he went with his father to give food to people living in poverty, and how his father told him he should also sit down and eat with them.

Speaking of eating, in the past 2 days I’ve surpassed my grease quotient for the next 2 months, eating a green chilli omelette with paratha and tea at a roadside café on the way to the villages on Wednesday.   You dip the paratha in the sweet tea and it’s the most delicious thing! But first we use tissues to mop up some of the grease from the paratha, so much so, that the waiter brings us a new box of tissues.

Back at Jinnah Hospital, B calls to say someone will meet us at the water filter/pump. There is one by the entrance and Aisha and I wait there while Usman checks our car wouldn’t be towed.   Soon we see a tall and glamorous khwaja-sara coming towards us and Aisha greets her like an old friend, which pleases her enormously.

Aisha: (hands held out, delighted) Ahh….

X: Salam Aleikum, (something something in Urdu, her hand held out)

Me: Salam Aleikum (to her)

X: (something something in Urdu)

Me: (not sure this is our contact) (in pigeon Urdu) I’m Shazea and this is Aisha

X: (in Urdu) I’m Shazia

Me: No, my name is Shazea

X: Yes, I’m Shazia

(all 3 of us are confused)

Me: (in pigeon Urdu) I don’t understand… (then) we are waiting for our friend. (to Aisha) I don’t think this is our contact.   (we feel slightly awkward as we don’t want to offend her).

(Usman appears)

Usman: (to her, in Urdu, respectfully) Hello, We’re actually here to meet with Bindya.

Shazia / not me: (in Urdu) Oh, why didn’t you say! well, go there, turn left etc etc… Bye!

Aisha and I collapse in giggles – her name is Shazia, what are the chances! – and we get in the car, call B, and follow directions to another water filter pump. We find one on a patch of waste ground behind the hospital, which seems a surprising place to meet, but anything is possible. Could our contact be behind it, staying out of the sun?   The phone rings again and it is established we are at the wrong water pump.  We follow more directions which lead us back to the pump we started from, which can’t be right. This time Abbas (B’s secretary) answers the phone and says B’s directions are terrible so he will meet us by the hospital gates and take us to B.   We drive and Usman somehow knows that the man standing smiling and so neatly dressed, is A – he gets in our car and directs us down some twisting streets to the correct water pump which we would never have found without him.


This is the colony by the hospital where B has her base, in a house down some alleys. The area is poor but clean and well-kept.

B alley woman.JPG

passer-by outside Bindiya’s house

And finally we have arrived. We go through a doorway where B waits for us.

chappals B's house.JPG



Pakistan Diary: Indus Earth Trust

February 4, 2016

Since I last posted, I caught up with family on my father’s side, bought our plane tickets to Lahore (after accidentally buying Aisha a ticket to Islamabad) and visited the Karachi museum where I was looking out for depictions of women around 200-300 BC when my play is set.   I’ve come to see that I’ve needed to be here to get closer to the reality of my female characters in a particular time and place.  I’m not able to go back 2,000 years to the courtesans quarter in Karniputra (the Punjab area of India and Pakistan today), but understanding the realities of cisgender and transgender women in Pakistan brings me as close as I can get.   The question at the heart of my play is ‘what does it mean to be a woman’?  and that enquiry is also at the heart of this trip.

On Wednesday we visited 3 villages in Sindh province with Indus Earth Trust an NGO working to alleviate poverty through integrated development.   The whole village – men, women, children, goats – attended the meetings to discuss what they would do when IET brings them electricity by means of solar power; how they might best use it to improve life in a sustainable way.   I’m told the women are the most important in this, and 70% of the money given to start businesses is in women’s names, because when women control the money, the benefit is soon felt by the whole community.  There is much discussion in these meetings, with men and women, and much laughter.


The children giggled at my pigeon Urdu and sang happy birthday with me and looked with interest at pictures we took of them, and at an Observer magazine I had in my bag.   It’s difficult to explain how I felt, being with them – perhaps it doesn’t make sense to say that i felt love for them, but I did, I do.


Aisha photographing children in Jaffer Jhokio

In Humzo Shamoo, the poorest of the 3 villages, my uncle (CEO of Indus Earth) told me that one of the things they really want is furniture for their school.  He asked if I could help with that, and I said yes!  We went to look at the school, where part of the wall had fallen in, and saw the building had become so unsafe that the villagers had begun to build another, smaller building with their own money – half the size of my son’s classroom.  When the children were asked ‘who wants to go to school?’, all of them raised their hands.  I’m told more girls than boys attend school in these areas – they are much more interested and motivated.


Eagerly waiting for school in Humzo Samoo

Some encounters change you.  I promised them them that I would raise the money to buy school furniture (they sit 2 to a desk), a desk for the teacher, 2 table fans and repairs to the school building.  All that will cost about £1,200.  I can do that.  I will.



It’s late as I’m writing this, almost midnight.  The wifi is intermittent because we are near a VIP house which employs signal jammers as a security measure, and now that I’ve got a decent signal, I want to make the most of it.  Tomorrow we have a meeting with Bindya, the head of the transgender community in Karachi.  Aisha has been practising with different camera lenses to prepare for possible light conditions and I’ve found someone to be our interpreter and driver – he’s a student friend of the daughter of the wife of my mother’s cousin.  I don’t know what to expect tomorrow, or who or where we will meet, but after 2 very brief conversations with B (my urdu and her english don’t allow for more) I already like her.

[for more pics of our trip, visit Aisha’s tumblr page]



AIDF Pakistan Diary

January 31, 2016

karachi bus.JPG

I’m in Pakistan!  It’s thanks to the Arts Council / British Council’s Artists International Development Fund, that I’m here to research the transgender character in my play, The Jasmine Terrace, and to explore the possibility of future collaborations with local artists and theatre-makers.  I’m joined by the artist Aisha Khan who will be documenting this trip through various media including perhaps some photographic portraits of the transgender community.  Although this is our plan, it’s become clear that we can’t predict how it will develop.  I have a lot of names, several phone numbers and no meetings set up, because that’s not how it’s done.   I’m keeping a diary to share our experience.

Day 1

We emerge into the arrival hall of Karachi airport to blinding light, a mass of people, midday heat and an intense scent of roses.  We are greeted with garlands of jasmine and roses, and it’s the most beautiful homecoming.  It’s 18 years since I was last in Pakistan, though I lived here for the first 10 years of my life, and it’s exotic and familiar at once: the heat, the smells, the sounds.

roof terrace flowers

5 hours later we are sitting on the roof terrace lightheaded with Murree beer, jet lag and excitement.  The terrace is full of birds: over a dozen sparrows, crows which are smaller than the crows in London and elegant with grey necks, and mynahs which move like flocks of starlings in the sky.

We decide to go to the beach before sunset to ride a camel decorated in bright Rajasthani dress.  As soon as we dismount, a man appears with a white horse.  And a little boy clutching 2 red roses to sell.

white horse.jpg

Day 3

Outside the anti-terrorist courthouse there are paparazzi and a TV crew waiting for the ex petroleum minister up on corruption charges.

We go shopping for suitable clothes in Dolman Mall, bypassing Debenham’s, Next and Cinnabon.  We learn that you can buy most drugs over-the-counter in the pharmacy including valium.    Tempting but no.   My 3-day headache continues, none of the phone numbers i have seem to work, I struggle to stay awake past 8 and Aisha can’t get to sleep before 2.  Tomorrow we start in earnest.


Reading, a diary

March 21, 2015

I’ve been re-reading Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary in preparation for my workshop at the Guardian’s Reading for Pleasure conference.

reading diary

Here, Manguel responds to the news that his neighbour Barbara, died the night before:

I am furious at the taking away of things, at these brutal changes. And the older I get, the faster changes happen: friends disappear, landscapes clutter. I want my friends to be there always, I want the places I like to stay the same. I want there to be certain fixed points on the universe on which I can count. I don’t want to keep missing voices, faces, names…

He looks for consolation the book he is rereading, The Wind in the Willows, and finds it in an account of Mole finding his old house again.
But if there is no home we recognise, no friends around us, where do we find consolation?

The past 2 months I have been training as a Living Words artist. There are four of us training and we are all writers. But rather than documenting our experience and choosing how to tell it, we are scribes for the people we work with, who are experiencing dementia. We are learning how to receive and hold their words, their experience of life at present and return it to them in a book. Often they recognise themselves in the pages, even if they don’t remember saying these things. I have been working with A and we are coming to the end of this project. I read her book with her and ask her how it feels to read her words in the book. Beautiful, she says.
You can read our blogs about the process here.

In The Myth of Alzheimer’s, Peter J Whitehouse M.D., Ph.D., disputes the current notion that Alzheimer’s is a slow death, and suggests, what if we approach it as a process of brain ageing, albeit accelerated?

By changing the way we think about Alzheimer’s, we change the story we tell about our ageing brains. That matters because stories surround us, shape us, serve as the building blocks of our lives, and weave us into our human communities.

He changes the lens through which we look at Alzheimer’s and other dementias:

Aging is a project, a work of existential art, a story that one continues to write until one can write it not more – it does not end when one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by a doctor. The stigma of AD is powerful. But it should not restrict persons whose brains are ageing from finding meaningful roles for themselves.

I think about A and G’s Living Words books, the stories they have told of themselves and their experience of life at present. In these stories there is sadness and pleasure, loneliness and consolation. They are telling their stories, their truth, in their own words.

The same week I was putting together A’s book, trying to stand back from the words and their arrangement, I was also looking over the final proofs of my collection. As I write this, The Art of Scratching is on its way to the printer. You can get an inkling of it on the Bloodaxe website here.

My publisher N is very understanding. He hasn’t complained about all the small changes: commas removed here, a word changed there, the sequencing adjusted. It’s a slightly longer book than originally planned so I was able to replace a poem with 2 new ones and look again at the sequencing. I notice the way poems speak to each other from opposite pages, and how earlier poems suggest possible meanings in those that follow them. I’m happy with it – the small world of my book.

Ego and the Artist

January 29, 2015

I’ve been thinking about ego and art lately – how it’s necessary for an artist to have self-belief, to keep going in the face of challenges to time, money…but how it can also get in the way of the work. Attending to Ego – that petulant, unruly child – can distract from the work. In my experience anyway.

A few weeks ago, I saw BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – a thrilling, thought-provoking, funny, sad meta-commentary about theatre and the pitfalls of fame, ambition and ego. It was co-written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu whose father used to tell him,

‘When you have success, just taste it and spit it out, because it’s really poisonous’.

Sage advice but can you imagine someone spitting out success? Perhaps Alex Garland, who found the attention after the success of his first novel, The Beach so uncomfortable that he gave up writing novels. He turned to screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and most recently, Ex Machina – which he conceived, wrote and directed. Success makes it easier for an artist to keep practising your art… even if it does mess with ego in unhelpful ways.

A while back I attended Caroline Bergvall’s launch of her project Drift and her residency at the Whitechapel Gallery. I think of it still. Despite the accolades and huge respect for her work over 2 decades of dedication to the craft, and her constant innovation, she seems to fly under the radar. Drift was thought-provoking experience, which gave me a new perspective on words – their limitations and possibilities; on collaboration and open-ness and generosity; on attending to the work rather than the ego; and on social consciousness and responsibility. At one point, CB reflects on safety, and the awareness that ‘I am safe, but others are not safe’.

An insistence on putting the work first is one of the reasons I so admire Mimi Khalvati – for her dedication to the craft and for the intelligence, skill and tenderness she brings to her intricate, carefully-wrought poems.

Perhaps collaboration is the way to keep the Ego from rampant, unsustainable growth. I’m reminded of a BBC4 documentary I saw called ‘What do artists do all day’. The programme followed Akram Khan on a 3-day collaborative project in Seville with Israel Galvan, flamenco dancer and choreographer – which became ToroBaka.
In the documentary, Galvan reflects on collaboration:

You approach things first of all with the idea of sharing … a coming together, let’s call it learning, OK? You might find things out about yourself that you didn’t know existed.

For Khan,

…the comfort zone is a dangerous place to be… Sometimes you have to put yourself in situations where you don’t know where you are… it allows you to look at yourself in a new way… You can become stagnant as an artist. It’s very dangerous to become comfortable in your own success.

This idea of openness and collaboration, of not getting too comfortable, is my resolution for this new working year – so I’m putting ‘Openness, collaboration, don’t get comfortable’ on a yellow post-it in my shed. Next to it is a pink note which says ‘Be more Fun’, and a yellow one that says ‘Finish what you start!’ So I have finally finished this post I started in September. That’s 1. Being fun is tough, day-to-day… I could let the children off tidying their rooms today, even though they said they’d do it yesterday and didn’t, even though the big one’s clothes cover most surfaces in her room, and the smaller one’s floor is strewn with lego and cars and books. I’ll watch the Voice with them instead. That’s 2.

Happy, shiny new Year, dear Reader. May it be surprising and satisfying, fun and not too comfortable… like a carved chair I saw once, that seemed to be made of antlers. A beautiful, beautiful thing.

Between Sandy Bay and the Dumps

September 14, 2014

In Kerry one day in August I sat in the sand dunes between Sandy Bay and the Dumps, a breathtaking stretch of beach frequented by surfers, reading Ulysses in the sun and wind. I read this, about a boy called Sargent:

“Ugly and futile: lean neck and tangled hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him under foot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only thing in life? His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled under foot and had gone, scarcely having been.”

Long-intimidated by this book, I found it to be an unexpected pleasure – lush, poetic, technically thrilling, moving. Like poetry, it doesn’t always reveal its full meaning at first reading, and perhaps not ever, entirely, It’s enough to let the words and image wash over the thinking brain.

Parent-love is something I think of often, and surely most of us do, as parents or children or both? It struck me when I saw King Lear at the Globe last month, how un-dated it seemed, relating to life today as it did to audiences 400 years ago. Having given everything to his two daughters who professed to love him most, Lear, played by Joseph Marcell, discovers their duplicity and  pleads with Regan:

“Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary; on my knees I beg
That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food…”

She doesn’t of course – she dismisses him cruelly, judging him past usefulness. It made me think of all the people in homes for the elderly, judged to be past usefulness or too much work.

Back to Ulysses: what put me off for so long, more than its difficulty – though I confess I am lazy when tired or overwhelmed, and resort to easy-to-read crime or feel-good novels which often leave me unsatisfied by their predictability or cliched writing… another dead girl in an attic? … where was I? Oh yes – the length of Ulysses!  933 pages in Bill’s Penguin edition.  It’s a big commitment when there is so little time to read.
It will be far more rewarding than a desperate encounter, I know… but it languishes under my bedside table, along with Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book (which is wonderful but I keep putting down and then can’t remember who is who so have to go back), Taboo by Fouzia Saeed about the red-light area of Lahore (humane and illuminating), Toast by Nigel Slater and Love Over Holland by Alexander McCall Smith – the latter two bought from Oxfam in a desire for comfort. The Iliad is also there gathering dust (shame on me) and the Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt which I’ve been meaning to investigate since I picked it up on Spencer Road where someone had piled up dozens of books on the pavement. It was the first decent book I had got from this pop-up ‘help-yourself’ experience my daughter calls ‘Crazy for Joy’, though I did once get an elegant wrought-iron chair and a heavy wood sun-lounger on wheels (the sort you get poolside in fancy hotels) which I lugged home and wrestled through the front door and out the back door only to find that it took up the whole back yard and you had climb over it to get past.  I eventually put the lounger back outside my front door, back to Crazy for Joy where it found a new home.

My thoughts and this blog are all over the place, I know. That’s the state of my mind after the school holidays whose lack of structure, though glorious in some ways, does my head in. I can’t think straight over the holidays and when thinking is 95% domestic, it’s extremely frustrating as well. Oh, the relief when the kids get back to school and we get some structure back into the days, so I can build scaffolding for time to write and time to think, as well as for the work that pays, and for drumming up more paid work…
Bear with me, please. I am going to resist the urge to go back and edit this post into coherence, because this is how it is.

What is this all about? Structure. I’m consumed by the need for it – in my life but more importantly, in my play. I haven’t got the hang of structure – of a skeleton for the play that will allow it to stand up and move without falling over. More than that, to run, to dance, and sometimes just stay still. I find I am looking for structure in everything I read and see – yesterday I saw Two Days, One Night with Marion Cotillard, and found it profound and so elegantly put-together, with such beautiful bones that I will need to see it again and take notes.

p.s. if you have the key to structure, or can tell me where to find it, please write.

I am no longer young. What of it?

May 15, 2014

I feel far from poetry lately, so I visited Louise Gluck:

Morning quivers in the thorns; above the budded snowdrops
caked with dew like little virgins, the azalea bush
ejects its first leaves, and it is spring again.
The willow waits its turn, the coast
is coated with a faint green fuzz, anticipating
mold. Only I
do not collaborate, having
flowered earlier. I am no longer young. What
of it? Summer approaches, and the long
decaying days of autumn when I shall begin
the great poems of my middle period.
[from To Autumn, Poems 1962-2012]

Summer is approaching – the weather today is warm, sweater-less. But according to the numbers, I am in the autumn of my life.
Why is it so hard to say this? We grow, we grow older.
I have always loved autumn, which somehow holds more promise than Spring. It’s cozier, more thrilling. Perhaps I’m still programmed for the academic calendars where September is the beginning of something. Or perhaps I forget I’m no longer in Canada, where autumn is crisp and bright, red and gold.

Where are the great poems of my middle period? Or even the good ones. Or any ones? They won’t come while I’m worrying about money or my digital profile – i.e. can I keep not being on twitter? Why do we want or need to be so visible? Is it because there’s so much out there – so much chatter and ideas and images – that a person needs to keep jumping up to be seen and acknowledged?

I returned to Louise Gluck and found Swans:

You were both quiet, looking out over the water.
It was not now; it was years ago,
before you were married.
The sky above the sea had turned
the odd pale peach color of early evening
from which the sea withdrew, bearing
its carved boats: your bodies were like that.
But her face was raised to you,
against the dull waves, simplified
by passion. Then you raised your hand…
[from Swans]

I want that quiet, and the water, and the pale peach sky.
Swans speaks from the ’80s, when there were no phones capturing the view, no messages pinging into them.
There was only him and her at that moment, and the water and the sky. Until the swans came.

I don’t want to turn back the clock – I like it here. I just want to slow down and find some quiet. And then the poems might come. And the play might find its equilibrium and sense of purpose.

Life feels too busy to think or read enough. What’s the solution? More time? Fewer distractions?
How do other writers manage finances and other commitments (like family) and still make time to write?
How do you do it?

%d bloggers like this: