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.


The Writing Process Blog Tour

June 29, 2014

Here we are on the deluxe tour bus with roofgarden, mini-bar and infinity pool.

Sophie Herxheimer, mutli-talented artist/poet, invited me to join this blog tour that asks four questions. Sophie’s thoughts on her process can be found here. Mine are below. I’m then handing the baton over to Laurie Gough, Anna Selby and Philip Cowell – I hope you’ll follow them.
Laurie Gough is an award-winning travel-writer in Canada, and long-time friend. You will shortly be able to see her response on her blog.
Anna Selby is a poet, dance collaborator, wild swimmer and Literature & Spoken Word Programmer at the Southbank Centre, London. I will be hosting her response here on my blog in the next little while.
Philip Cowell is a writer and part-time clown training in mindfulness. I will also host his response here.
I look forward to following this blog tour to get an insight into the processes of other writers. I hope you will follow it too – you can go backwards as well as forwards… maybe even sideways.

Comments are welcome, as always. You readers are such a quiet lot.

What am I working on?
I finally completed my first full collection at the end of last year. It’s been well over a decade in the making, with a lot of tweaking/adding/subtracting over the past 2 years. Stephen Knight, my mentor, gave me this very valuable piece of advice: “find the weakest poem and ask ‘would I be happy to stand by this, if this is what I was known for?’ Of course the manuscript is far from perfect but I am happy with those poems representing me. And I’ve started to think about possible themes for my next collection.

I’m also working on my first play, The Jasmine Terrace, which is an adaptation of my chapbook ‘The Courtesans Reply’. Playwriting was the last thing I expected to do, finding it hardest to write dialogue, but when I was writing the courtesan poems I kept seeing the characters on stage. The play as a form is exciting and demanding, with surprising paralells to poetry. A play is defined in Doctor Johnson’s dictionary as ‘a poem in which the action is not related, but represented..’ But once inside, it’s a completely different machine, and one I had little idea how to work. Thanks to some funding from the Arts Council, I had the support and guidance of a mentor, the wonderful Ella Hickson, who helped me to progress in a focused and supported way. The funding crucially allowed me to keep working on the play (instead of abandoning it for a badly-paid job as a half-rate secretary). I set myself the deadline of June 30th to finish another re-write – responding to feedback from the reading reading I had at Soho Theatre – before I look for a theatre who might help to develop it further. Hmmm… that’s tomorrow. So I’ll have to extend my own deadline.
When I’m working on the play, I have to get right in, like going into water over my head. Then I feel far from poetry. And when I’m working on poetry, the play feels far and unreal. So I constantly feel like a bit of a fraud – either playwright or poet, but not both at the same time, not actively.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’ve always been interested in the shadowy terrain between forms.
With poetry, I think my poems that seem autobiographical very often aren’t – the I is not always me. Whereas the most autobiographical poem is one that is written as a fairytale. I like to play.
With playwriting, I’ve been told that my writing is very ‘very beautiful, very poetic’ – which immediately feels like a problem. It needs to be dramatic rather than poetic… which is what I’m working on fixing. I feel like Alice in Wonderland in the world of the play. It’s very exciting and new, but also disconcerting not to know for sure which way is up.

Why do I write what I do?
Subjects usually choose me, rather than the other way around. Something I’ve read or heard sticks its barb into me and niggles at me until I give it the attention it deserves. I came across the idea for my next play 3 years ago, and it’s been there on the back burner on a very low heat. It’s now coming to a simmer. The courtesans play is also on the heat, and nearly cooked. When I’m cooking, I find it hard to do several things at once – I do it but things are sometimes undercooked or burned. Can that happen to a play?
I once made my son sausages that were so burnt I tried to pretend it was intentional: ‘look, witches’ fingers!’. He obligingly ate 1 smothered in blood (ketchup) then said ‘I’m sorry Mummy, I can’t eat any more. It tastes like wood’. He was right – it did.

How does my writing process work?
See above. And I rewrite and rewrite. It’s hard to stop. Who was it that said ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’? It was da Vinci (I just googled it) and not Andy Warhol as I read on someone’s t-shirt the other day.
When I’m working on something chunky like a play or a poem sequence, I tend to carry it in my head always, marinading, so that things I see – paintings, curator’s notes, flowers – can connect with it.
And now I must get out of bed (where I go to write and hide from the children) and hang up that wet laundry before it starts to smell. It’s a sunny day!

New Year

January 13, 2014

Aldeburgh sunrise

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
it’s a new life….
And I’m feeling good

Welcome, bright new year.
It’s the year of the Horse in less than 3 weeks, so I consult my chinese horoscope, which says, ‘It should be a good year – health and wealth abound.’
It also says that ‘working with blood (i.e. surgery, butchery, soldiers) as well as spirituality (priests, philosophers)’ is in my favour.

I should donate more blood, network with the local butchers.

New year is as good a time as any for resolutions. Do you (gentle reader) have one?
Mine is to stretch out of my comfort zone – with work, writing, reading, and all the rest. I’m going to learn to swim properly – like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. But without the womanizing or cheezy lines. And without the constant refrain of ‘I drank too much last night’.
Though I did.

I’m also going to read my backlog of books in translation (mostly) from and other stories. Last year they sent me Deborah Levy’s collection of short stories, Black Vodka, which I loved. I then read her novel, Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. Swimming again. Burt Lancaster said he was swimming home, from pool to pool, all the way to his house. It wasn’t a happy story, though, as far as i remember.
Back to Levy, I discover that she trained as a playwright. I found a recording of a radio documentary she wrote, called The Glass Piano about the true story of a Bavarian princess who believed she had swallowed a glass grand piano – and worried about it shattering inside her. She moved carefully, with difficulty, sideways, though the palace corridors.
As well as imagining how it would feel, to believe as the princess did, Levy talks to psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, ER consultant Dr Fiona Lecky and historian Erin Sullivan, who researched people’s understanding of sadness. She talks to Levy about the connection between melancholy and the delusion about being made of glass.

The more I discover about Levy, the more she interests me.
She says:
In my earliest twenties, I think I believed that theatre could change the world. Later, I discovered that my true interest in the theatre was that it was a place to connect with discomfort rather than prescriptions for how we might live. It took me a while to understand that when theatre uses all the languages that make it a unique form to write for (text, sound, design, lights, the spaces between actors, film and video), it is a place to make visual poetry, a place to show the human nervous system in a state of disquiet…
[Levy, Plays 1]

When asked about why she wrote in different forms (play, novel, short story, poetry, radio documentary) Levy replied that the forms chose her. Stories demand different forms.
In Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, she says:

“Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking, be exuberant even when you don’t feel like it because language can make your world a better place to live.”

Beauty and the Beast

December 12, 2013

Last night I saw Beauty and the Beast at The Young Vic Theatre in London with Mat Fraser, the wonderful British disabled actor/writer as the Beast and his wife Julie Atlas Muz, American burlesque star and Miss Coney Island, as Beauty. They told their love story alongside the fairy tale with help from 2 puppeteer/slaves called Jess and John and some vegetables.
Honestly? It’s the most moving, surprising, playful production I’ve seen – I was on the edge of my seat, laughing, barking and seeing vegetables in a whole new way. Mat and Julie are naked much of the time, so it’s x-rated, but also utterly joyful. Go see it. Don’t take your mother.

From one beautiful beast to the beastliness of war.
In The Odyssey: a soldier’s road home in a recent Guardian Saturday Review, Charlotte Higgins considers what happens to soldiers when conflicts end.
They “come out of one war into another”, says David Finkel in his new book, Thank You for Your Service, on the experiences of returning soldiers.

Higgens tells us this:

According to a report published by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 22 US veterans killed themselves every day in 2010.

And in the UK more soldiers and veterans killed themselves in 2012 than died in combat in Afghanistan.

She refers to Euripides’ play, Heracles Being Mad (Heracles Mainomenos), where where the goddess Lyssa causes Heracles, recently returned from his labours and reunited with his family, to turn on his wife and children and kill them.
Lyssa represents a particular madness – combat-craziness.

According to Finkel, the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have have
created about half a million mentally wounded American veterans. That’s only the American soldiers. The tip of the iceberg.

What can we do from our safe little bubble?

All this past week, the Special AKA’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ – that joyfully righteous anthem – has been playing in my head.
My son told me they played it in his school assembly, to commemorate his death.
I’ve been thinking of this bit:

Are you so blind that you cannot see.
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear.
Are you so dumb that you cannot speak.

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