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Book Review: ‘Dark Chapter’ by Winnie M Li

5 Jun

Dark Chapter book cover

by Rhea H. Boyden

A little over a year and a half ago I was in London to attend my good friend Erin Reilly’s birthday party and go to a few art exhibits. Erin has a wide and diverse circle of friends and she had invited a lot of fascinating Londoners to this party. I was a little overwhelmed, however, and not feeling the most sociable that night and so after awhile I told Erin that I needed to go home and rest. ‘But wait’, Erin said, ‘Before you leave I really want you to meet Winnie. She is an incredible writer and as a writer yourself, you really need to connect with her’, she told me. ‘Okay’, I said, and I was ushered over to where Winnie was standing, a brief introduction was made and we exchanged social media contacts.

Now, a year and a half later, I wish I had been in a more sociable mood that night and had stayed longer to speak to the incredible and inspiring Winnie M Li because I am now extremely interested in her story. Thanks to social media, however, I have been able to connect with and follow Winnie and her story is an intriguing one. She has just published a brilliant debut novel ‘Dark Chapter’ which is a work of autobiographical fiction that was inspired by a horribly traumatic event that she lived through: being assaulted and raped in a Belfast park when she was there on a business trip in April 2008.

Winnie Li, a Harvard graduate based in London, was enjoying a very successful film producing career when she was invited to Belfast to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Good Friday agreement. ‘We were invited to take part in a symposium with various politicians. It was quite prestigious,’ she said. One of Winnie’s passions is hill-walking and hiking and she has travelled to many interesting and remote places to pursue this passion including hiking in Germany and helping to author guidebooks such as the ‘Let’s Go’ guidebook series. After the Belfast symposium she had intended to go for an 11 mile hike through Colin Glen Forest Park in West Belfast when she was followed and subsequently violently attacked and raped in the woods by 15-year-old Edward Connors. After the attack she walked out of the woods and called the police and then came the police statement, the forensic exam and the horrible realisation that she is now a rape victim. There is a section in her novel where her protagonist Vivian realises this in the full sense of time and tense: ‘I am now a rape victim. Was raped. Have been raped. Am raped. A nighmarish conjugation through all the many tenses, without knowing where this verb will take her. What happens in future tense? I will be raped…. I shall be raped.’

Winnie

Winnie M Li

And why try and turn your traumatic real world, life-shattering experience of rape into a piece of fiction? And how difficult is this a task to undertake? Vivian, the novel’s protagonist is very much a representation of Winnie herself and her own lived experience and yet, this is a piece of fiction, and a very convincing and brilliantly researched piece of fiction too. Winnie has said that she read a lot of very helpful and interesting rape memoirs following her own assault but that she wanted to attempt something more ambitious; to also tell the story from the point of view of the perpetrator to try and gain a deeper understanding of what led him to commit such a violent act at such a young age.

‘Dark Chapter’ expertly describes the experience of both the perpetrator and the victim in alternating sections told in both of their voices. It recounts their role models, education (or complete lack thereof) and sexual experiences to date leading to the point where the two meet in the park in this violent encounter. It then goes on in their separate voices, to explain how they both deal with the aftermath of the ordeal. Johnny, the perpetrator, still high on drugs and alcohol from the night before goes back to the caravan he lives in with his Irish traveller family, or at least some of them. His parents are split up, with half his siblings living with his mother and he with his alcoholic and abusive father and older brother who are rarely, if ever, around to look after him. His shot at having a good life is pretty slim from the outset and for this you pity him. Vivian, on the other hand, flies back to London the next day to attend the red carpet premiere at Leicester Square of a film she has just finished producing. This part of the story is pure autobiography- Winnie herself, did in real life fly back to London the day after the attack, adorn her beautiful gown, cover her bruises with concealer to attend the premiere of ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’ starring Daniel Craig, which she helped produce. Another film she had previously produced ‘Cashback’ had been nominated for an Oscar.

woods one

When Winnie returned to London, she told her closest friends about the attack and she got a lot of support and was believed. This was such a horrific ‘stranger rape’ attack that no one could discredit her story. It was covered widely in the media and she waited months for the trial in Belfast, at which point her attacker, Connors pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 8 years in prison. Winnie got justice without having to testify, which helped in her healing process. Nonetheless, she still had deep depression, agoraphobia and post traumatic stress disorder, staying in her room and avoiding social contact. I think back to the night I met Winnie in London. I was not in an especially good mood and was not feeling particularly sociable that night. But I stayed and met Winnie and I am glad that I did. I cannot even begin to imagine the agoraphobia and social anxiety that Winnie has dealt with in the past years and it is hugely inspiring to see her turn her trauma into art, social action and literature in an attempt to raise more awareness around the topics of rape and sexual assault.

Winnie’s film career was effectively shattered by the trauma and depression that she experienced after her ordeal, rendering her unable to work for 2 years. She eventually got some work at the Doha Film Institute in Qatar where she served as program manager for the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. She also slowly began to take hikes again and get out on her own in nature, though still traumatised and wary of strange men. She eventually asked herself the following question about her rape and assault: ‘How can I deal with this in a professional way that can have some kind of public impact?’ She has answered and is continuing to answer this question every day. ‘Dark Chapter’ is excellent and is a must read in order to keep an open dialogue about rape culture and also to honour all the victims who have not seen justice in court or who have felt shamed into silence. By taking on representing the role of the perpetrator and giving him a voice we see how an understanding of sexual consent is not at all to be taken for granted, but it is something that has to be learned. The novel describes Johnny’s influences who are his older brother and friends in the Irish Traveller community who effectively teach him that violently forcing women to have sex with you is okay, watching pornography is okay. Her command of the vernacular and the Irish colloquialisms is spot on and perfectly captured in her novel. In the acknowledgements at the end of her novel Winnie also states: ‘Resources and staff at An Munia Tober, Pavee Point and the Traveller Movement helped illuminate the challenges and uniqueness of Irish Traveller culture. To this day, Traveller society remains misunderstood and misrepresented and I do not intend for my novel (inspired as it is by my own lived experience) to portray an entire community nor to malign it.’ Her fiction novel shows the case going to trial and it is gripping and anger-inducing to read it. The lies of the perpetrator, his denial that he has done anything wrong, him saying how she wanted sex and was asking for it. Her character Vivian just standing in the courtroom crying and trying to control her rage as her rapist gives his awful and untrue statement. One section of the trial expresses just how violating the whole ordeal is to her: ‘How many more times does she need to be flayed alive in this process? Every single step of seeking justice involves exposing herself more and more. Until there is nothing left of her. And yet everyone watches on, wanting to see how she will react.’

Winnie was very relieved that she herself did not have to go through the ordeal of the trial and that her perpetrator pleaded guilty. But she also pointed out in an interview with the BBC that only 6% of reported rapes in England and Wales lead to a conviction and it is very damaging for a victim to be disbelieved, discredited, shamed and to not be given any social justice. And so Winnie continues her work of making rape an acceptable topic to discuss openly and she has gone very public with her own story completing television, radio, newspaper and magazine articles and interviews internationally to try and increase the dialogue between men and women about sexual violence and rape. She is also a co-founder of Clear Lines Festival in London, which explores issues around sexual assault and consent through the arts, discussion and debate.

Winnie and dog

Winnie has accomplished so much and her experience of how she has dealt with her rape should be an inspiration to women and men everywhere. I have been speaking to my friend Erin more about her and we are both in awe of Winnie’s work. Erin said ‘She is a powerhouse of both intellect and courage.’ That she most certainly is. It is impossible for me to list all the incredible things that Winnie has accomplished in her life to date but since 2015 she is also a Ph.D researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She is researching the impact of social media on the public discourse about rape and sexual assault on an Economic and Social Research Council grant.

She also blogs for the Huffington Post and wrote a significant article about Brock Turner, the Stanford University perpetrator who was only sentenced to 6 months in jail last year after asssaulting and raping a 23-year-old female student. Judge Aaron Perskey defended him by saying that a harsher sentence would have a ‘severe’ impact on him. His own father also defended him by saying that his son’s life should not be ruined by ’20 minutes of action’. This sparked outrage on social media and the victim’s harrowing 12-page statement to Turner went viral and was widely read and shared. Winnie has taken a huge interest in this case because social media is allowing the victim to have a voice against this insanity. In the aftermath of her own rape many friends and aquaintances admitted to her that they, or an aunt, cousin, sister or someone they knew had also been sexually assaulted. Rape is shockingly pravalent in our society, but sadly, many, many victims remain silent. Winnie is certainly on a mission to change this with her own novel, activism, articles and festival work, opening a dialogue and keeping it open on a tough topic that our society still has trouble dealing with and speaking about. ‘Dark Chapter’ is a must read and Winnie’s story as a whole, one to be followed.

Photos courtesy of Winnie M Li

Author photo of Winnie M Li by Grace Gelder

‘Dark Chapter’ is published by Legend Press, London and can be ordered online. You can also support Winnie in her cause by asking your local bookstore to stock this brilliant and important novel.

Review: Debut Panel at Cuirt International Literature Festival, Galway

6 May

Cuirt

by Rhea H. Boyden

Last Thursday morning I took the train from Heuston Station, Dublin to Galway. As we rumbled across the flat midlands past yellow flowering gorse and dark peat bogs, I felt sorry for the many new-born lambs who must wonder, indeed, what they have been born into as they gaze at the towering grey clouds and bear the unseasonally cold weather. I was wearing my finest winter coat as I sat on the train. ‘It’s nearly the first day of May, do I really need to bring my winter coat on this trip?’ I asked myself as I packed. Yes, I do.

The cold weather did not dampen my mood, however, as I was very excited to be heading to the Cuirt International Literature Festival which is only one of many festivals Galway hosts. This beautiful town in the west of Ireland is truly a hub of arts and culture. Cuirt (which is the Irish word for Court) runs for a week every April and has been held every year since 1985. It was founded as a poetry festival but has since expanded to include events showcasing many forms of literature.

Rhea at Debut Panel Galway.jpg

Several months ago I was invited to moderate a Debut panel at the festival and I immediately said yes to such a wonderful opportunity even though I had never taken on such a job before. I love a new challenge, however, and so I threw myself wholeheartedly into preparing for it. The panel was to include four writers who have just published their first novels and one writer of short stories who has recently had her first collection published. I received all the books by post from the festival organisers and I read them all with great interest in the weeks leading up to the festival.

Roisin O’Donnell was one of these writers and she has recently published a powerful collection of short stories entitled ‘Wild Quiet’ which deals primarily with multiculturalism in modern Ireland. As I sat on the train heading towards Galway I thought of her story ‘How to Learn Irish in 17 Steps’ which deals hilariously and tragically with the difficulties encountered by a Brazilian primary school teacher living in Ireland as she attempts to learn Irish. The character in the story also takes the train from Dublin to Galway and to the Gaeltacht to learn Irish. Before taking this drastic measure, however, she has attempted to learn it at an Irish school in Dublin: Step four in her story commands: ‘Enrol in Irish for beginners at the Scoil Ghaeilge on Dame Street. Classes should begin on an October evening sweet with the fragrance of rotting leaves. Most of your classmates will be Irish retirees in search of a new hobby. If they gawk at you and ask you why the feck a Brazilian girl like you is learning Gaelic, explain that you are a primary teacher with a master’s in education from Sao Paulo University, you moved here to Ireland because you fell in love with an Irish man, and that you must learn Irish in order to teach at primary level. Notice your classmates eyes glazing over (at this point you should probably stop speaking). Learn your first phrase in Irish, and enjoy the Gaelic words undulating on your tongue. Ta tuirse orm: the tiredness is on me.’ It was this section from this story that Roisin chose to read during our panel discusssion and it was very fitting and well received.

Roisin

Roisin O’Donnell was born in Sheffield with family roots in Derry. Her stories have been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back, Young Irelanders and The Glass Shore. She has been shortlisted for several international prizes such as the Cuirt New Writers Prize, The Pushcart Prize, The Forward Prize and the Brighton Prize. ‘Wild Quiet’ has been shortlisted for the Katie O’Brien award and longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.

Our panel discussion took place in the lovely Galway Town Hall Theatre at 3pm on Friday April 28th and after I had introduced Roisin and she had read I moved onto introducing the four lovely debut novelists on our panel. The first to read from her freshly published novel ‘Harvesting’ was Lisa Harding who has written a shocking but stunningly brilliant novel that was inspired by her involvement with a campaign against sex trafficking run by the Children’s Rights Alliance. I had no idea before I spoke to Lisa and read her novel that Ireland is a destination for sex traffickers and sex tourism. The novel’s main characters are Nico, a sensitive, innocent, animal-loving 13-year-old from Moldova who gets sold by her family and trafficked to Ireland where she ends up in a brothel, and Sammy, a 15-year-old girl from a wealthy, but damaged home in South Dublin. Sammy escapes her abusive and alcoholic mother (and her father who is rarely home) by running away from home. She is smart and sassy and somehow views the brothel as a joke and a sick challenge until she gets pulled into all its horror. She and Nico meet in the Dublin brothel and form a bond to help them deal with the trauma their young bodies, minds and hearts are dealing with as they are essentially held captive as sex slaves. Lisa Harding has very bravely taken on a tough topic, and one we must face and contend with. It was estimated in 2012 that 1.2 million children are trafficked each year and with the migrant crisis this number is only increasing. According to Europol, 10,000 child migrants disappeared in 2015. It is, of course, impossible to really know how many young girls are forced into sex work and exploited in this way due to the extremely secretive nature of this crime.

Harding’s novel has beautiful prose and language and I found it especially compelling to read how she has turned a tough and very disturbing topic into art and has given a voice to the many young victims of sex trafficking. The oppression of these girls is expressed as Nico says: ‘The thing I want to say gets pushed back down and lodged in my stomach like a stone.’ Harding describes throughout the novel how the girls deal with the terrible trauma they are going through. Nico says: ‘My body is stiff and I have vacated it, watching the men hauling it. My body feels like it doesn’t belong to me, neither do my limbs, my hair, my fingers, my nails. Every part of me feels like it might float away. Sammy says: ‘I’ve kind of gone all floppy, like a rag doll, or this guy’s muppet. It’s like there is nothing inside of me.’ The novel achingly describes how the girls get lost in fantasy to escape their pain.

Lisa

Lisa Harding is an actress, playwright, and writer who completed an M. Phil at Trinity College, Dublin. She has had plays professionally produced and various short stories published in The Dublin Review, The Bath Short Story Anthology and Headstuff. Her works have been placed in various competitions including the inaugural Doolin Short Story Prize.

The next novelist I introduced to read on the panel was Alan McMonagle who has just had his first novel ‘Ithaca’ published by Picador. It is an absolutely side-splitting and hilarious novel that takes place in a town in the middle Ireland following the crash of 2008. It is set in the summer of 2009: ‘the summer all the money disappeared’. The novel tells the story from the point of view of Jason, a 12 year old who (like Sammy in Harvesting) has to deal with an alcoholic mother and a missing father. This story goes one step further however, in that the main task for Jason is to try and elicit from his mother, who indeed, his father is. He asks her if it might be Flukey Nolan (one of the many colourful characters in the novel with equally colourful names) and she says: ‘Tell me Jason, how old are you now?’ to which he responds: ‘Nearly twelve’. She just laughs at him and says: ‘Twelve years old and he wants to know who his da is.’ I absolutely loved McMonagle’s book because I have always loved dark humour, so once I picked it up to read it I couldn’t put it down again. His descriptions of the dreariness and depression of recession Ireland are fantastic, especially those of the town the story is set in: ‘Our town was slap bang in the middle of the country, miles from anywhere and built inside a hole made out of bog, weeds, and the soggiest soil you might ever see. If that wasn’t bad enough, we were surrounded by a dirty black drain that spent its time fooling everyone into thinking it was a river. There were two sides to our town. The rich side on the hill beyond the railway tracks and the side we lived on. The ghetto, Ma called it. I was walking down the back lane. Of all the places in the ghetto the back lane was the place to hang out. Anybody who was anybody on our road wanted to be seen out here, taking a stroll through the muck, hanging out by the ditch trees, making conversation about the Swamp in the wasteland beyond.’

Alan

Alan McMonagle has written for radio, published two collections of short stories (both of which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor award). He has contributed to many journals in Ireland and North America. ‘Ithaca’ is his first novel and has just been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Award for debut novels.

The next novelist to read on our panel was Amanda Reynolds who is a teacher of creative writing living in Cheltenham. She read from the very beginning of her freshly published novel ‘Close to Me’ which is a gripping psychological thriller about a woman named Jo who falls down the stairs and loses her memory of the past year. Jo is afraid of her husband but she does not remember why. Amanda told us during the panel discussion that she thought it would make for an interesting story that when someone loses their memory instead of helping them to heal, you use it against them in deceitful ways. She certainly has a fantastic grasp of an interesting and intriguing use of narrative as Jo, her main protagonist tells her story in alternating chapters, both before and after her accident, building to a stunning conclusion. She really leaves you guessing until the end why Jo has such distrust of her husband: ‘My husband’s slow steady breaths and the familiar nighttime noises within the house find my ear. I pull the duvet around me and allow my subconcious to take over, unlatching from the present, an almost physical letting go. As I succumb to sleep the memories come, but I know they are unreliable; broken and unpredictable. The harder I search the further they retreat, but then something breaks through, at once unbidden and yet desperately wanted. As much as I crave the past, I fear it too.’

Amanda

Amanda Reynold’s gripping novel (which I read in a couple of days) has been optioned for T.V. starring a major Hollywood actress who will be disclosed to us soon. She has a two-book deal and is currently working on her second novel. It was so inspiring talking to her about her processes and her writing habits and it does not surprise me that such a thrilling story would be optioned for T.V. I will be following Amanda closely to see how these exciting deals work out for her.

The final novelist on our panel to read was Paula Cocozza who is a feature writer at The Guardian where she has covered everything from football to feminism. Her debut novel is the intruiging and unusual ‘How To Be Human’. Mary, the novel’s main character, develops a relationship with a fox living in her back garden in London. We are never quite sure what is real and what is fantasy in this story and while I have read different reviews of this novel, I like to think of Mary’s relationship with the fox as the perfect metaphor for an unconventional relationship which she craves being surrounded by couples after her relationhip with her boyfriend Mark has ended and he has moved out. I also see her relationship with the fox as perfectly embodying what we urban dwellers need desperately to really remain human; to regain a deeper connection to nature. Being single myself, I perfectly relate to Mary’s reaction to being at her neighbour’s Eric and Michelle’s garden barbecue party: ‘Her fellow guests were transforming before her eyes into the building blocks of family life, clicking into place as the day drew on. Had these couples been together when they arrived and she had failed to see them as such?’ The novel’s first sentence seriously grabs your attention: ‘The was a baby on the back step.’ The baby is Flora, her neighbour’s baby and how it got there is a mystery. Mary has a special connection to Flora throughout the novel; she babysits her and holds her at the barbecue. I would imagine that many single, childless women in their mid thirties can relate to Mary’s musings as she holds Flora, especially the line: ‘A baby: a passport to a socially accepted solitude.’ Mary is lonely and this novel deals with that loneliness, which is, very much a modern affliction: ‘Mary herself was barely a pinprick on the world’. Paula read spectacularly from her novel to us, her fellow panel members, and the audience seated before us in the Galway Town Hall Theatre.

Paula

Paula has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she was recipient of the David Higham Award. Apart from being a features writer for The Guardian, she has also been published in The Telegraph, The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement. When she finished reading we had a lively discussion on each writer’s driving inspiration behind their works, as well as discussing the differences in form and structure between the short story and the novel. I then opened up the discussion to the audience and before we knew it the 2 hours was over. We then went to the bookshop out front so that the authors could sign their books for the audience. It was truly magical for me to meet all these talented writers in person and get to know them a little after having spent 3 weeks reading their works. And it was a real honour for me, not being a novelist, to be given the fine task of representing them at this splendid festival in the magical town of Galway. I loved it, and I as I boarded the train back to Dublin on Saturday evening I felt very satisfied and inspired and I can’t wait to read more of all of their writings.

Photo of me on stage at the Debut Panel at Galway Town Hall Theatre courtesy of Cuirt Festival organisers.

Melancholic Moments with Murakami

22 May

bridge for murakmai article

by Rhea H. Boyden

In his memoir on running and writing ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ Haruki Murakami writes the following in the first chapter: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ This is a mantra he uses to make the marathons he runs more tolerable, and indeed, enjoyable events.

I read his memoir about a year ago and about two weeks ago, looking for consolation and inspiration, I pulled it off my bookshelf and read it again. That one sentence lifted my spirits immensely: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ This thought has helped me rally my dejected spirits the past few weeks. I have also been rereading Murakami’s novels ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki.’

running

So why are my spirits low? Well, about a month ago, I was rejected by a man I was seeing who I liked a lot. His rejection of me makes no sense because although I hadn’t known him long, I had truly believed that what we were establishing was very good and that the feelings were mutual. I am hurt, but I am slowly accepting that I have no choice but to let him go. My chosen method for dealing with it and processing it all in order to move forward is to go on a Murakami reading binge and to run, swim and bike as often as possible in between. I have also been writing a lot. I feel too at the moment that I am being forced to bide my time and wait in several other areas of my life. I am waiting for others to make decisions about longer term projects, waiting for certain things to become clear. I am not the most patient person in the world, but right now I have no choice but to let things unfold at the pace life intends for them. I am not in a position to influence how smoothly certain things go at the moment. I can live in a fantasy world about how a love interest or a project that is dear to me may evolve and work out, but my ideal of how these things will work rarely aligns with reality. This is a simple fact of life, one that I sometimes have a hard time accepting. In his memoir Murakami writes the following  to which I very much relate:

‘But in real life things don’t go smoothly. At certain points in our lives, when we really need a clear-cut solution, the person who knocks at our door is, more likely than not, a messenger bearing bad news. It isn’t always the case, but from my experience I’d say the gloomy reports far outnumber the others. The messenger touches his hand to his cap and looks apologetic, but that does nothing to improve the content of the message. It isn’t the messenger’s fault. No good to blame him, no good to grab him by the collar and shake him. The messenger is just conscientiously doing the job his boss assigned him. And this boss? That would be none other than our old friend Reality.’

Clematis

So yes, I have been rudely forced to accept Reality in the past few weeks and spend time waiting in a Reality I am not entirely pleased with at the moment. I have never been a gardener by nature, but last week after eating a delicious ripe avocado, I went out into my beautiful garden in Dublin and dug a hole. With my bare hands I dug a deep hole in the ground next to the garden wall, under the blooming white and pink clematis. Into the hole I placed the avocado pit and I covered it up again. I will now have to wait patiently and see if it grows. I think of the avocado pit as a literal seed of hope that I can wait for amidst the other aspects of my life that are currently unclear. While I wait, I read. I am reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’ again. Is this the best choice of book when I am feeling rejected, lonely and like my life is in limbo? Probably not. It is full of melancholic and sad descriptions and it would probably cheer me up more to read something light-hearted and comical, but then I would nearly rather feel the emotions more deeply; rather acknowledge them and really make them my own. In this way, perhaps, answers will come to me faster and more will be revealed and resolved. I read sentences such as this aloud to myself from ‘Kafka on the Shore’: ‘That blank silent interval leaves you sad, so terribly sad, like fog from the sea, that blankness wends its way into your heart and remains there a long, long time. Finally it’s a part of you.’ Tears of frustration and loneliness roll down my face and I put the book down and walk over to the window and gaze out at the garden. ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,’ I say aloud to myself. I then lace up my running shoes and head out for a run.

kafka

Murakami writes lengthy novels and runs marathons and triathlons. I only bike, run and swim short distances and write essays and articles but still I relate to many aspects of his lifestyle. He says in his memoir that when he is upset by something he runs a little further than he normally would. He says: ‘By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent.’ I have been doing the same these past weeks: running and swimming further than I normally would in order to channel my confusion, exhaust my malaise and find clarity. When I am running, a lot becomes clear to me. Ideas I have been chasing in a maze finally find the exit as I run along the beautiful river, past weeping willows, copper birch trees and sycamores. I spot the Grey Heron in the river as I run and a smile breaks across my face. I am very lucky to have this lovely river walk on my doorstep in Dublin.

Weeping willow - milltown

After my run, I head back to my books. I have filled these books with fluorescent page markers. I hold the page markers in my hand like a security blanket. There is something very comforting about being able to fill books with colourful page markers. It has become such a habit now that I simply can’t read a book without having them close by. I am sure the pages I mark will be relevant at some point in some review. It brings order and harmony to my world. I am a fluorescent page marker addict.

I pick up Murakami’s ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki’ which I read last summer and return to the pages I have marked. I am reminded of the main theme of this story and I realise how me being sad over being rejected by a man I was seeing for a few weeks is nothing compared to the pain of rejection the main character goes through in this story. He was one of a group of five best friends (who he had known for years) and they one day, out of the blue, tell him they want nothing more to do with him and give him zero explanation for this. The opening sentence of the novel is: ‘From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.’ I compare my own feelings to his. I may be a little sad and confused and am being forced to wait for answers but I certainly don’t feel like dying. I love my life and depression is not even the word I would use to describe my current state, but rather a feeling of wistful and melancholic regret that I am sure I will move beyond fairly soon.

tsukuru

When I am feeling a little blue I write. By writing I make sense of the world again. I also read a lot. I get lost in rereading ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki’ and I flick open a page where I not only have a pink page marker, I have also underlined the following sentence: ‘Unspoken feelings were as heavy and lonely as the ancient glacier that had carved out the deep lake.’ I don’t remember why I underlined that sentence because I generally avoid writing in books, but I know that I do not, as a rule, leave my feelings unspoken. I have to express how I feel in order to create order in my emotional life. I may not always get the timely response I would like and the response I do get more often than not ends the Fantasy I had harboured and lands me back in a sometimes unforgiving Reality, but then what other choice do I have? This is who I am and this is my current Reality whether I like it or not. I am looking forward to what the next few months will reveal in my life and I am hopeful for new and exciting revelations. I am also keeping an eye on the corner of the garden to see if the avocado I planted sprouts. If it does, (and I am no gardener) I will take it as a positive omen going forward.

‘Stories From The City-A Berlin Anthology’ Book Launch

4 Jul

STB anthology

kop oldkop new

On Sunday July 19th 2015, Slow Travel Berlin will launch a new book- ‘Stories From The City-A Berlin Anthology’. My article about the history of my street in Prenzlauer Berg- Kopenhagenerstrasse- will be included in the book. I talk about how my street changed over the decade I lived there from 2004-2014 as well as some of the fascinating history of some of the buildings on the street. Above are two photos of the building I lived in for that tumultuous decade. The old- photographed in 2009 and the newly-renovated- in 2014.

Review of Iain Banks ‘The Quarry’

26 Oct

Banks photo

by Rhea H. Boyden

The most enjoyable part of reading a novel for me is when I identify and get to the heart and core of the book’s message. And while I have never attempted to write a full novel, I still know the narcotic and giddy feeling you get as a writer when you reach that point in whatever you are writing, be it a poem, an article or an essay. The point where you feel ‘This is what I really have to say here. This is the grain of truth that sums it all up.’

In his final novel ‘The Quarry’ Iain Banks writes about six old friends who have a reunion in a crumbling house at the edge of a quarry. The owner of the house, Guy, is dying of cancer and his only son, Kit, aged 17, is the narrator of the story. Part of the story talks of how Guy deals with his fear of the disease, which is partially autobiographical as Iain Banks himself died of cancer only weeks before ‘The Quarry’ (which was his 27th novel), was published.

The heart of the story to me is the moment when Guy, his son Kit and the visiting friends are standing around the bonfire that they have just lit. It is a huge pile of junk that they have cleared out of the house (Guy was a hoarder). They all stand mesmerised by the fire watching it devour moth-eaten carpets, old wooden cupboards, boxes of paper, and bags filled with old clothes that Guy thought were too tattered to give to a charity shop. Kit describes the fire and the flames and how it becomes more furious and angry, turbo charged and excited. He then compares the fire to a river: ‘It starts small and hesitant, becomes bigger, quicker, more assured as it grows, bursts with power and fury in its prime, then returns to slow, meandering quietness towards the end, eventually giving itself to nothing, recycled into its constituent parts.’ When I read this I stopped, looked up and thought: ‘This fire and river comparison is a wonderful metaphor for life in general.’ I then read on and my thought was confirmed by Kit’s narration: ‘It is hardly uncommon: something going from near helpless small beginnings, through childhood and youth to vigourous adulthood then decrepitude, and an end.’

This made me think of my own life: how I grew up in Ireland and how I have spent 20 years of my energy filled youth abroad, and how now, as I approach my 40th birthday I have returned to Ireland. It makes me think of how life is cyclical and how even in moments of doubt about my life in Dublin, that in fact, this really is the perfect place for me to be right now. Having just finished reading ‘The Quarry’ I feel inspired by it and happy. Iain Banks was a fascinating man and was hugely prolific: He published 27 novels before he died of cancer at age 59 in June 2013. I look forward to reading his book of poems that will be published in 2015. Banks said before he died: ‘The poems are part of the desperate urge to get things that were supposed to be long term projects out of the way. I am going to see if I can get a book of poetry published before I kick the bucket. I have got about 50 I am proud of.’ It makes perfect sense to me that someone who is dying would try and condense the rest of their work into poetry, for it is the language of the heart and soul and when faced with death you have to find ways to get to that grain of truth faster than in a novel. I have another Iain Banks novel sitting on my bookshelf. I think I will start reading it now on this blustery Sunday October afternoon.

Review of ‘Travels in Zanskar’

12 Apr

by Rhea H. Boyden

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‘Can I recommend a great book?’ I said excitedly to one of my colleagues at the language school last week. ‘My dad wrote it and it really is good!’ I exclaimed. My colleague looked at me with a teasing smile and said ‘This can hardly be an unbiased recommendation coming from you!’ I countered this by saying that I was arguably in a good position to give a fair judgement of the book PRECISELY because the author is my father. Given the very fact that I could cringe at something he had written, or read a joke in the book that he had already told a dozen times at the dinner table.

‘Nima gyalyung tokpo chunmo duk’ is a saying in Tibeten that I heard my dad repeat many a time when I was a kid, but I will confess that I actually never asked him what it meant. I guess it is normal when you are growing up to not show an interest in your parents’ creative pursuits. Now that I am writer myself I read my dad’s book with great awe and interest last weekend and I have now learned that ‘Nima gyalyung tokpo chunmo duk’ means ‘When the sun shines the streams come flowing’ and that this is a common greeting in the Kingdom of Zanskar in Tibet. And as I read I realise that my dad’s book really is pure poetry and there is not a word in it that makes me cringe at all. I praise it to the heavens.

My dad Mark Boyden and his friend Paddy O’ Hara hiked through Zanskar and Ladakh between April and August 1981 accompanied by a white horse which they named ‘Himself’. My dad stiched saddle bags for the horse to carry their supplies and they went off on an incredible adventure being welcomed at Buddhist Lamasaries, learning about local agriculture, customs, and acquiring an increasingly impressive command of the language which they had already swotted up on in West Cork, Ireland before embarking on the trip.

The horse becomes their companion and friend for the journey but not before it learns that it belongs to them and not to escape and wander off. My dad writes in chapter 5: ‘After four days, the morning came when, opening the tent flap, I was greeted by an abondoned tether. Paddy headed back down, and I up the valley, but when we met at noon neither of us had had any luck. Then something caught Paddy’s eye and he gestured to a tiny white speck high on the mountainside. Careful study revealed that it was in fact moving about, though by the time we gained his station and convinced Himself to rejoin us the day was done, and any progress would have to wait until another day.’

On another day my dad describes spotting a herd of yaks in the distance and he realises that this is a golden opportunity to restock their diminished supply of yak butter. My dad leaves Paddy to hike ahead and set up camp and he sets off in pursuit of the owners of the yaks. Upon reaching them, a deal cannot be struck before drinking endless cups of butter tea with them. The Zanskaris drink a tea with yak butter and salt in it which is a kind of bouillon that they drink by the bucket load to counteract the harsh and potentially dangerously dehydrating climate. My dad scores a deal and secures some yak curd to boot and after finding Paddy at the camp, proceeds to make some delicious hors d’oeuvres of apricot kernels and carrigeen moss fried in yak butter accompanied by Paddy’s delicious flat breads. I know what a fabulous gourmet cook my dad is and how he always seems to be able to whip up a delicious meal at home in Ireland seemingly out of nothing, even after I have been complaining to him that the cupboard is bare and we need to go shopping.It is clear that some of his early experimental cooking and eating was done on this trip in 1981 when he was 29 years old.

I have been writing very seriously for nearly 3 years now but because I live in Berlin I have had little opportunity to focus on descriptions of nature in my writing. Last year when I was in Santa Cruz, California I decided very consciously to become aware of my natural surroundings and try and bring these descriptions into my writing. I wrote about the crescent moon rising over the redwood grove and the chorusing Pacific tree frogs, the flowering dogwoods and azaleas, and the creature that fascinated me the most- the banana slug-which is the biggest landslug in North America. I wrote to my dad about this slug at the time and I asked him if he had ever heard of or seen this disgusting creature. Of course he had, he told me, reminding me that he had grown up in the Santa Cruz mountains.

So with my interest heightened in descriptions of nature, plants, trees, flowers, the heavens and the planets in order to improve my own writing I slowly savoured my dad’s descriptions in his book. Chapter 6 opens thus: ‘We slept through the clear, cold night and awoke to the sound of a distant avalanche. As the myriad mountains worked through a palette of dawn blushes we broke camp and headed off into the ice.’ On their travels they were constantly in search of a place to camp that held some grasses for the horse to munch and that had clean, clear water. They happen upon a willow coppice and set up camp there. Before crossing a river my dad writes that ‘there was an inviting coppice on a sun-drenched sandy shore. Forty dwarf willows had rooted and, with the season, had laid a lush carpet of down. The summer wind had strewn petals of rare briar about the down.’ This place was so beautiful that they sought it out on their return hike too and my dad writes of pulling out his watercolours to capture its beauty whilst Paddy practices his calligraphy.

And it must be added that both of my parents have always had a huge interest in astronomy. I remember my mother and my father pointing out Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn to my brother and me as children, so it comes as no surprise that my dad mentions the location of the planets and the moon throughout the book. In chapter 13 he writes: ‘Saddling up, we left Lamayuru as we found it, with a dusky Venus hanging there to the southwest to remind us we were on Earth.’ Elsewhere in the book he writes that ‘the quarter moon had cleared a lofty saddle to the south and now illuminated the barley.’

As I read the final word of the final chapter, a feeling of pride washed over me at what a beautiful book my dad has created. Its poetic vignettes are marvelous and I am in awe. And it gives me hope and inspires me for my own future as a writer. 33 years after going on this wonderful (and sometimes quite dangerous and challenging) adventure, his story has been published in a beautiful book. Sometimes good things take a long time to come into being and with writing you need time and patience with yourself. Patience my dad has proven he has in producing this gem of a book.

The book can be ordered directly from the publisher, The Liffey Press: http://www.theliffeypress.com/travels-in-zanskar-a-journey-to-a-closed-kingdom.html