Five Questions for... Jessica J. Lee

IMG_6298.JPG

Two years ago we reviewed Turning, her memoir about swimming in the lakes around Berlin. This autumn Jessica J. Lee is back with the autobiographical Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan. She is an environmental historian, writing tutor, nature writer and editor of The Willowherb Review, an online platform for nature writing by writers of colour. Jessica writes with the precision of a botanist but without the pretence that nature writing has no singularity, discarding the old cliché haunting the genre: that we all experience the environment in the same way, that diversity doesn’t matter and doesn’t exist. 

 What does home mean to you?

Multiplicity. It’s taken me a really long time to realise that home didn’t have to be singular, that I didn’t need to pick one place to call home. Both my parents are immigrants, and I’ve been an immigrant myself: instead of seeing that as a kind of “dislocation”, I’ve made a conscious choice to see that as productive, as a way of saying I belong to many places. I was born in London, Ontario, which people seem to find confusing because I lived in London, England for so long. Halifax (in Nova Scotia). Toronto. Berlin. Taipei. 

Which place do you have a special connection to?

I wrote my PhD dissertation about Hampstead Heath, which I lived next to through my early twenties. There was a beautiful lime tree that I used to hang out under, reading, resting, dreaming, crying: it bore witness to a lot of my most transformative moments in young adulthood. The tree came down in a storm in 2012, but the spot where it stood still draws me in. I have its leaf tattooed on my arm. 

 So I’d say there, but also: the bay at my family’s cottage in Canada, the cafe window in Berlin where I usually sit and write, the Taiwanese breakfast shop in Taipei where I get cold soy milk and hot shaobing youtiao. 

What is beyond your front door?

My street has one of the most beautiful views in Berlin, I think: it’s abnormally long and tree-lined and lovely. To the left, you’ll find more children and ice cream shops and wine bars and pet stores than necessary, and to the right you’ll find a busy road with a tram that races back and forth over the old Berlin Wall border all day. There’s a spicy hand-pulled noodle shop not far away, which is probably the best thing within walking distance. 

 What place would you most like to visit?

This is an impossible choice! There are so many countries I’ve yet to visit—Japan, Norway, New Zealand—but if I can be really specific, I’ll say Jiaming Lake in the Central Mountains of Taiwan. It’s a teardrop of a lake at the top of the mountains, famous for being a shallow, glassy mirror of the sky. People used to say it was formed by a meteor strike, but it was actually formed by glacial movement. But it’s a nightmare to hike to because of permits, the logistics of getting to the trailhead, the three-day trek, etc. I’ve twice had journeys to the Jiaming cancelled, so it’s become something of an obsession for me to one day actually make it there. 

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now?

I have the bad habit of reading many books at once. Currently, Brandon Shimoda’s The Grave on the Wall and Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo during the day, and Ben Aaronovitch’s The October Man as bedtime reading. I watch too much television—it’s one of the only ways I can switch off at home—so I’m currently finishing with Jane the Virgin. And for music, I’ve returned to Japanese Breakfast’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet on repeat. 

Jessica on Twitter
Website
The Willowherb Review


PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: An Introduction

Clockwise from top left: Oleg Sentsov, Dina Meza, Behrooz Boochani, Nedim Türfent, Narges Mohammadi and Dawit Isaak.

Clockwise from top left: Oleg Sentsov, Dina Meza, Behrooz Boochani, Nedim Türfent, Narges Mohammadi and Dawit Isaak.

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the world who are supported by English PEN. First up, an introduction to the project by Ellen Wiles: 

Elsewhere. It’s a beautiful word, to my ears – a word that alludes to daydreaming of travel to faraway climes and cultures, to the zing of immersion in a new place that transcends the mundanity of everyday surroundings, to fantasies of slipping the shackles of routine and setting out on an unfamiliar earthen path, strewn with pine needles, perhaps, leading up through a forest sputtering with strange bird calls towards the crest of a hill in anticipation of a lavender horizon patterned with unfamiliar shapes.

It is also a poignant word. It suggests a yearning, a longing, a separation from a beloved, a sense that the place being imagined is not yet accessible and may never be so – and it also suggests a sense of displacement to somewhere that feels other; or enforced confinement in a place that you still call home but that has changed almost beyond recognition, perhaps because it has become oppressive and threatening, governed by forces that would wish you elsewhere. 

These latter, darker senses of elsewhere permeate the lives and work of most of the writers supported by English PEN, and, consequently, the preoccupations of the UK-based writers who pay tribute to their incredible work and bravery in this series of new literary pieces, one of which will be published each day over the coming week.

PENLogo.jpg

For any readers who are unfamiliar with the work of English PEN – or its many international sister associations – it is a vitally important charity that has two main strands. Firstly, it promotes the freedom to write and read, and campaigns for writers at risk around the world, including writers who have been disappeared, imprisoned, persecuted or exiled because of their work. Secondly, it promotes international literature, runs a unique literary translation grants programme that enables more writing to be shared around the world, publishes the international digital literary zine, Pen Transmissions, and awards prizes to outstanding writers. To further all these functions and to engage wider audiences and raise funds, the charity runs regular events, from vigils to film screenings, panel discussions and book launches. 

The literary pieces of that feature in this series were written for the 2019 English PEN Modern Literature Festival, which is co-curated by Cat Lucas, English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme Manager, and Steven J. Fowler, a poet, artist and educator, and which, this year, evolved in a spin-off event at the Greenwich Book Festival, staged by Sam Jordison. The structural concept of the series is that a group of UK-based writers are each allocated one English PEN-supported writer who is at risk elsewhere in the world, and are commissioned to write and perform a new piece of work in solidarity with them. As Fowler describes this project: it ‘asks writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists to come together to continue English PEN's relationship with innovative contemporary literature by celebrating writers at risk around the world. New pieces of poetry, text, reportage are performed to evidence the struggle of fellow writers across the globe, in solidarity. The events are intended as a call to membership.’ 

I was honoured to be invited to be one of the UK-based writers this year – an invitation that meant a lot to me, particularly since I used to work as a human rights barrister and so have a longstanding concern with the right freedom of expression. Since none of the writer pairings are able to meet in person during this process, I like to imagine each of our new pieces being folded into a literary paper aeroplane and flown from each writer in the UK to their counterpart elsewhere, floating unnoticed by the powers that be over borders and through prison walls. 

To take on writing a piece for another writer whose situation is so much harder than one’s own, and whose freedom is so much more limited, feels like a weight of responsibility as well as a privilege. Steve has described his feelings, when he co-curated the inaugural festival, on being presented with a pack of summaries of the lives of thirty English PEN-supported writers at risk: ‘When I received the files on the writers at risk… I was just about to board a long flight and so had the chance to read them in one go, over about nine hours, in the strange environs of a plane. It’s hard to describe the feeling afterwards, certainly the sense of responsibility, that I had sought out this project, enthusiastic from the off, but perhaps not truly prepared for the reality of the writers we would be writing about. It’s mawkish to speak of admiration, but coming face to face with such will, such commitment to principle… left me feeling as ashamed as I was inspired. Perhaps one can never really divorce oneself from the selfish question of whether I would continue to speak up in such circumstances, facing prison, torture, perhaps death. To risk my life and the lives of those I love.’

Each individual contributor featured in this series has experienced strong emotions in the process of stepping into the shoes of their allocated writer and attempting to craft a literary response to their situation. As Sam Jordison puts it:

‘First and foremost, there's the fury and sadness on behalf of the writers who are so unjustly imprisoned and kept from their homes, families and work. The other thing that hit me as a publisher is that when faced with similar regimes and circumstances every single writer from Galley Beggar Press [which he co-directs] would probably be in jail too. That made me feel proud of my writers - but also afraid on their behalf... And also reminded me again that the people English PEN supports are very close to us and a vital part of our world. They are like people I know and love. It is to the detriment of us all that they have been treated so badly.’

That being said, as Steve always emphasizes at the end of each festival event, the weight borne by each of the contributing writers is miniscule compared to that borne by Cat Lucas in her capacity as the Writers at Risk Programme Manager, year after year, as she works tirelessly to support these writers at risk and many more, lugging all their heartrending stories around with her in a giant backpack. 

Despite all that weightiness, what comes through from these literary tributes is neither a sense of despairing gloom, nor a flood of self-involved guilt from the UK-based writers about how easy their writing and reading lives are in comparison to their counterparts elsewhere. That would be to diminish the magnitude of those writers’ spirits, literary talents, and resilience in the face of oppression and brutality. There is powerful, thoughtful, experimental, poetic and uplifting writing on display here, in fitting testament to the writers for whom each piece was created. So I urge you to delve with us into the spirit of the festival this week, and to read each of these pieces as they are published. 

You will find out more about each writer pairing in the six pieces to come, but I’ll introduce them briefly here. 

The first featured writer at risk is Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian journalist and human rights defender, who is currently detained in prison – the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – has frequently been kept in solitary confinement, and suffers from a chronic and painful health condition that is not being properly treated. Her tribute is written by Sam Jordison, who, as I have mentioned, is a publisher, and is also the author of Crap Towns, and the co-author of Literary London, among many other titles. Drawing on Narges’s love of mountains, Sam has written an evocative piece describing a morning walk he loves to take on the mountain above his mother’s house in the Lake District, and reflecting on Narges’s plight as a fellow parent. 

The second writer at risk featured is Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean-Swedish journalist who was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, and arrested along with other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Although alleged to be ‘traitors’, not one of them has been charged or tried. Isaak’s tribute comes from Sara Upstone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Head of the Department of Humanities at Kingston University, who specialises in literatures of identity, the politics of the body and questions of the human. She has crafted a beautiful, moving and poetic piece exploring the process of empathy. 

The third second writer at risk featured is Behrooz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, who has been illegally detained by the Australian government in the Manus Island Detention Centre for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran. His book, No Friend But The Mountains, composed by necessity via WhatsApp, details the extreme hardship on Manus Island, and won the prestigious Victorian premier’s literary prize. His tribute comes from writer Paul Ewen, aka Francis Plug, author of How to Be a Public Author and Writer in Residence, who hails from New Zealand, and has drawn on Boochani’s recurring memory of the chestnut oak tree to write a piece based on this tree and the hope of refuge that it carries – the writing of required a nocturnal break-in.

The fourth writer at risk featured is Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Siberia on trumped-up terrorism charges, after a grossly unfair trial by a Russian military court, marred by allegations of torture, and who has so far spent 145 days on hunger strike. He was awarded the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for his work. Steven J. Fowler pays tribute to him with two arresting and memorable performances involving the nailing and eating of pieces of fruit.  

The fifth writer at risk featured is Dina Meza, a Honduran journalist and human rights defender, founder and President of PEN Honduras, founding editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’ where she publishes information on human rights violations and corruption in Honduras, despite receiving constant death threats to herself and her children. She is the recipient of both the special Amnesty International UK prize for journalists at risk and the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression prize. I paid tribute to her in two pieces: a poem and a prose reflection on the implications of such persistent risk-taking for her experience of motherhood.

The final writer at risk featured is Nedim Türfent, a Turkish news editor, reporter and poet who, after covering Turkish military operations in the southeast of the country, faced trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him, and is now serving an eight-year-and-nine-months prison sentence in harrowing conditions. He started composing poetry while detained. His tribute comes from James Miller, author of the novels Lost Boys, Sunshine State and UnAmerican Activities, and a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Kingston University. James’s numerically poetic piece reflects on the relative experience of time both in and out of prison. 

This is of course only a little literary project – and yet the stakes underlying it are high. In this era of global political tumult and climate crisis, when authoritarian and populist governments are sweeping to power, freedom of expression is increasingly under threat, along with the whole precious notion of human rights that was forged in a rare moment of cooperative international reckoning after World War II. As someone who has worked as a lawyer in countries like Myanmar, where freedom of expression, among other human rights, was severely restricted for decades under military rule, this prospect fills me with dread. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries like the UK and its European counterparts (at least for now) that have long enjoyed the apparent flourishing of liberal democracy and the freedoms that come with it can no longer afford to take them for granted. The political tyranny that most of us have always thought of as existing ‘elsewhere’ could emerge ‘here’ far more easily and quickly than might be imagined. 

Literature – and the freedom to both read and create it – matters. All of us who believe in this would do well to take action to protect this freedom, to raise our voices and to deploy our pens… or, less romantically, our laptops, tablets and phones. One easy way to make a difference is to join English PEN, or one of its sister organisations. Membership makes a huge difference, and, as Steven J. Fowler has emphasized, every message of support to a writer at risk can give them heart. It is also important just to continue to make time in life to revel in reading, and to support good writing wherever possible. As Ursula K. Le Guin put it: ‘We read books to find out who we are’. We also read and write in order to allow our children to find out who they want to be, to make the world we all live in a better place – and even, melodramatic though it might sound, to save our species. Humans have always made art and told stories, and now, more than ever, our future depends on them. 

***

About the author:
Ellen Wiles is a writer, ethnographer and curator. She is the author of The Invisible Crowd (Harper Collins, 2017), a novel, and Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition (Columbia University Press, 2015). She is the founder of Ark, an experimental live literature project, and has recently completed an ethnographic PhD on live literature and cultural value. She was formerly a human rights barrister and a musician.

Imagined Cities: Stories from Berlin and Beyond

tvtower.jpg

Some familiar faces and new friends are getting together in Berlin on Sunday 5 May for a a literary event at the Sir Savigny Hotel, hosted by Influx Press. Our editor in chief Paul Scraton and contributor to Elsewhere No.01 Gary Budden will be reading, along with Berlin-based writers Donna Stonecipher, Linda Mannheim and Charlotte Wührer.

IMAGINED CITIES: Stories from Berlin and Beyond, is a night of literature exploring urban spaces and how we write them – from the German capital to London and New York – and the event will feature flash fiction, prose poetry, short stories and excerpts from city-based novels. It promises to be a lot of fun and we hope to see our Berlin-based friends there!

Sir Savigny Hotel
Kantstraße 144, Berlin (Google Maps)
7pm – Entry Free
Facebook Event Page


On visiting the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

AnnaEvans2.jpg

By Anna Evans:

Approaching along the peninsula, the town seems to lie at the end of the road, like reaching a final destination. A castle stands guard over the quiet estuary, dramatic and imposing, its battlements slowly reclaimed by the landscape. It is a trip I embark on as much to look for traces of the past, a memory of a prior visit fifteen years ago. Arriving at the hour of dusk in early spring, the town quiet and deserted, the Boathouse already closed for the day. We walked along the street to the pub where Dylan and Caitlin Thomas used to drink together in the evenings. Then we continued our journey into Pembrokeshire, driven on by the time.

I am thinking of a photograph on a beach somewhere on that trip to Wales. Dark clouds and grey sea. There is synchronicity in the image; our faces are together, touching in the half light. When photographs were still like slips of chance on the paper. Thinking about being outside as night fell in the mountains, sharing a bottle of wine; jubilant in the almost total darkness, with no lights to guide us home.

Today I am on time to make the pilgrimage and see inside the house, but I had imagined my return differently, that I would have more time to look around and to absorb the atmosphere of the place. I am distracted, harassed; my mind caught in the argument we had this morning, still unresolved. Family life spinning around us, its currents of confusion. I am looking for clues of something. Thinking back to a simpler time and recalling pictures of my past self, shrouded in the rain-soaked hills and twilight of the Welsh skies. Dylan Thomas is important to me. His poetry resonated with me, the colour of language. He gave me a way to think about death and the passing of time, and about change.

Thomas lived in the town with his family, and for the last few years of his life acquired the Boathouse and the writing hut. It is a place in which he wrote some of his most important poems, and a place that witnessed arguments, the disintegration of his marriage, of his body. A life lived outside convention. The house is understated, leaving scope for imagining life here. I look around, my camera stuck on sepia mode, nostalgia in the recreated drawing room space. A notice explains that this is not the actual furniture, much of which Caitlin sold in response to the ever-advancing demands for money, the unpaid bills.

Family photos on the wall. Dylan and Caitlin in a rowing boat, his deep brown eyes stare into the camera. The exhibition tells me that Dylan would retreat to his writing shed, away from the noise of the children, from the travails of family life. The closed door. I look out from the window at the far-reaching view out into the bay, across the estuary, outwards to sea. Thinking about the precarious balance of art and life, between real life and life on the page, and about trying to carve out a space for one from the other. Thomas is seen in a pure sense as an artist, one who created his art and placed it above all things, the artist as genius, demon angel, doomed to destruction.

I continue back along the path to the writing shed. It is beautifully restored and has inspired many aspiring artists, as the photographs and paintings of it attest. It is overlooking the water, the sweep of the bay and the harbour where boats lie, picturesque, as if cast adrift from the sea. A place to think about moorings and being unmoored.

I am always compelled by images of writing spaces and desks, by descriptions of how and when writing takes place. I think of my own chaotic balance of writing and life, the hasty tidying away of books and paper to make a space for living, my writing is always on the move, from one place to another. A dedicated writing space where things could remain untouched is every writer’s dream. Where, as Caitlin explains, from two until seven each day – often she would lock the door - Dylan would disappear, returning hours later with a perfectly crafted line or two of poetry. In his writing space, the many lists of words he compiled. The possibilities of language, and the meticulous hours spent in constructing a single sentence. Looking out to sea, a retreat away from the domestic confines of home, exposed to the waves and sealed off.

Leaving the writing shed, I begin to walk, thinking to head back into the town. There is a path leading to the churchyard where Thomas is buried, and a sign says that ‘the path to Dylan’s grave can be muddy.’ It occurs to me that I am the same age now, as Dylan when he died. I would like to keep following the path but I am uncertain where it goes and how long it will take. Instead I read your messages, you are wondering where I am, how long I am planning to be away.

Looking back as we drive onwards, the remains of the castle unexplored, the map open displaying the route along the coastline, the town falling away behind us.

Now I see that the road continues.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction and has recently launched a blog playing literary detective around Paris and London in seach or Jean Rhys and other wanderings, titled And The Street Walks In. 

Do writers need a nationality?

Photo: Chris Gilbert

Photo: Chris Gilbert

By Vesna Main:

I am a Croatian writer. At least that’s what I was called in recent reviews of my debut collection of short stories. As a writer trying to find an audience, believe me, I am pleased that anyone would write about my work, but I baulked at this apparent identification of me, a writer, with a nation. Yes, I was born in Zagreb and lived there until my early twenties. Does that make me a Croatian writer?

I write in English. I write in English because that is the language I fell in love with when I first read Shakespeare. I write in English because that is the language I know better than any other. Does that make me an English writer?

I have lived in Europe and in Africa. Now, after almost four decades in Britain, I am fortunate to be able to divide my time between England and France. I feel comfortable in both countries because I appreciate their respective cultures, by which I mean their art and literature. But I do not belong to either.  In fact, I have never felt a sense of belonging to any country or nation. WG Sebald’s narrator in Vertigo speaks for me when he says that when it comes to nations, it is best to be associated with ‘none at all’. Similarly, Virginia Woolf writes that ‘as a woman I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.’

I am proud to be a citizen of the world, one of those eternal wanderers, Ahasueruses of this world who, as our Prime Minister asserted, sending chills down our spines as her words echoed Nazis’ view of the Jews, are citizens of nowhere. In fact, I am puzzled by narratives of belonging. For me, the story of Odysseus is a happy one, but not because the hero returns home safely to Ithaka, rather because, as the Alexandrian Greek poet Cavafy teaches us, ‘Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey’. It is the journey and the wandering that matter, not the return home. After all, I don’t think of home as a place, or a geographical region. Therefore, it can be anywhere and nowhere.

When it comes to literature, the love of my life, I feel closest to contemporary European writing, particularly French and German and, if pushed, would admit to their influence on my work. In fact, it is this sense of not belonging to a nation or a country, this sense of strangeness, I would argue, that feeds my writing. My alienation brings about my voice, my perspective on what I write and my relationship with the language.

So, what is it, I wondered, that is supposed to make me a Croatian writer?  What is it that makes most people insist on a label of nationality? Is it simply a shorthand to enable communication? Or is it an expression of a belief that everyone ought to belong to a nation and that those who do not are somehow morally deficient and untrustworthy?

As serendipity would have it, while in my teens, struggling with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, I came across a phrase by Ignatius Sancho, an eighteenth-century freed slave, born to a captured West African woman on the notorious middle passage, and later a resident of Westminster. Writing a letter to the author of the novel, his friend Laurence Sterne, Sancho remarked that he didn’t wish to express an opinion on a particular political issue since he was ‘only a lodger…and hardly that.’ The words accurately described my own feelings about the place where I was born and where I grew up. Despite my comfortable middle-class existence and a loving family, my home felt temporary, a place that I knew I was bound to leave. But Sancho’s words made me understand I didn’t have to belong; it was fine to be a lodger, free of national allegiance, free to choose a culture, a country, a language and, by implication, an identity. Katja Petrowskaya, whose first language is Russian, writes in Maybe Esther, a wonderful text written in German, that we should not be ‘defined by our living and dead relatives and where they resided, but by means of our language’.  And in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, Stephen Dedalus claims that ‘nationality, language, religion’ are constraints. He vows to ‘fly by those nets’. I vowed the same. While nationality was not an issue for me – my passport was only an aid to help with international bureaucracy – I flew ‘by the net’ in choosing to write in English, a language I was not born into. This choice, deliberate and voluntary, resulted from my determination not to be trapped or pigeonholed in a particular historical and cultural context. I wished to construct my chosen identity by rejecting those I had been saddled with. As Thomas Bernhard writes, ’we can leave our place of birth if it threatens to suffocate us’.

My alienation from what was reckoned to be my native country, and from my fellow nationals, extended to everywhere and everyone. I have never been anything but a lodger in all the places I have ever lived. There were only occasional moments, fleeting, like a dream, existing more in time than in space, when I glimpsed the possibility of home or the recognition of something familiar, such as where I found myself face to face with another human being who shared my passion for a painting or a text. I felt at home when in Zagreb a sculptor friend, Ivan Lesiak, took me to see Andrei Rublev, soon after my seventeenth birthday, or when another friend, years later in London, introduced me to the work of Chris Marker and we watched La Jetée. I was in ‘my own country’ at those moments with the people who shared my interests. And here I am reminded of the words of the poet Ezra Pound, who was displaced in more than the usual sense, and who writes of being ‘homesick after my own kind’, or feeling ‘wistful for my kin of the spirit’. Similarly, Robert Walser writes that ‘one belongs in the place one longs for.’

At university, in Zagreb, in love with Shakespeare, I had a brief fantasy that his country was my imaginary home. That notion was soon dispelled when as a postgraduate in England, I felt lonely and lost outside my privileged enclave of Elizabethan studies. However, far from my displacement bothering me, I remembered the words of Sancho and I accepted my alienation as part of who I am. But I also learned not to disagree with the old ladies on city buses who started a conversation and said that I must be homesick. In their eyes, only a monster wouldn’t miss their country. There would have been no point in my telling them I aspired to Roderigo’s apparently derogatory description of Othello as ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere’.

If you still feel I should belong somewhere, I have good news: as I have been suggesting, I have at last found a country, an elusive, attractive place which obsesses me, which fills my days with meaning, which I love and where, for the first time, I feel ‘at home’. I write. Writing is my country. It took me a while to find an entry point. I feared becoming lost, if not expelled in shame, labelled a failure. Worst of all, I didn’t have a language in which to write since I had stopped reading in Croatian, my first language, many years ago. At the same time, I didn’t dare write in English. Eventually, twenty years ago, I threw caution to the wind (I could always fail better, as I learned from another displaced writer) and embarked on a life-long journey. Like every journey, it has its challenges, its wrong turnings, pleasures and frustrations, and it often brutally exposes my shortcomings. But I carry on.

My fellow nationals are other writers, some published, some toiling in patient obscurity. I have chosen to belong with them. And if you ask me whether I miss this country of writers on the days when life intervenes, yes, absolutely, I do. I am ‘normal’, after all.

My favourite writers of the twentieth century – who include Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, WG Sebald and Gabriel Josipovici – are lodgers too, displaced in one direction or another. Not belonging exclusively to the literary tradition of their birth countries, whether or not resident there, they operate in the space created by the difference between the native and the foreign, between the established, the dominant, and the predictable on the one hand, and the alternative, the marginal, the unforeseen on the other.

None of the characters I create in my novels or short stories is me, but I share with them their sense of alienation, the feeling of being citizens of everywhere and nowhere. What guides the lives of the protagonists of my short stories, what makes them ‘belong’, is a passion. An ex-prostitute dedicates herself to helping young women escape her former trade; her work is driven by a deferred maternal instinct, a wish to protect the daughter she lost to adoption from the fate of her own youth. An elderly man pursues his obsession for collecting books until they literally squeeze him out of existence. A woman bakes all day, hoping that somebody will turn up to share her cakes and pastries, but ends up carrying them to the park for the ducks. A concert-goer recognises the face of a man sitting next to her as a face from her memory and cannot bear the thought that she will never see him again.

It seems appropriate that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the text that exiles the reader to a position of permanent uncertainty, led me to Sancho who, in turn, made me recognise my status as a lodger. More than a hundred years after Sterne’s death, Nietzsche still considered him ‘the most liberated spirit of our time’. I wonder what the novelist would have made of our Prime Minister’s strictures about citizenship.  

This from a Croatian writer.       

VensaBook.jpg

About the author:

Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia, where she studied comparative literature before obtaining a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, England.  She was a lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK and has worked at the BBC She has written articles, reviews and short stories for daily newspapers and literary journals.

She has had two novels published. A collection of short stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide, was brought out by Salt in 2018 and you find out more and order direct from the publisher here.

She lives in London and writes in English, her second language.