All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

Resilience and holding out

Inka walls, Peru, January 2020
Inka walls, near Cusco, Peru, January 2020

I heard the kettle begin to boil and as I battered my way into consciousness tried to recall where I was, somewhere south of Santiago I thought, but the letters of the name of the town were shuffling around in my mind and I couldn’t focus on the word. I heard the Mother, I knew it was the Mother, and I tried to connect the dots… I struggled, the name of the town seemed important somehow and my mum was there.

What was the Mother doing there?

Surprised, I realized that I was in my parents’ house, which is not south of Santiago in Chile, but in Yorkshire in England. I remembered it was winter. How had I forgotten? Maybe the sun was shining in my dreams. It’s not unusual for me to wake up and not immediately know which city I’m in. But now? Here? I am not just passing through; I’ve been here since May. The kettle finished its boil and I fell back asleep, dreaming now of cheese and pickle sandwiches.

This time last year it was hot

I wandered the streets of Santiago hiding in the shade during the midday heat and always carrying my flask filled with cold water. Last year was a year of two summers, the first was wondrous, the second a constant downpour. Bless England, it knows how to do wet. This year, if I’m lucky, will be a year of two winters, or perhaps I will winter it out here and move into the land of eternal spring. It’s now out of my control.

Some years ago, I read Victor Frankl’s book on surviving the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, and it’s been that book which has frequently popped into my mind as lockdowns are announced, reduced, increased, reduced again. There is good news and bad news, and both hope and fear, but attaching ourselves too strongly to any date or announcement doesn’t serve us well. A new quarantine is announced but we mustn’t despair. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, who was a psychologist observed that the people who started out positively with the belief that things would be over, and they’d be freed within a matter of months, before Christmas, invariably were less likely to survive. Once Christmas had come and gone, their resilience crumbled.

We just have to hold out until…

The people who, however, had something or someone external to themselves to live for were much more resilient. I have to go back to Chile because I’ve left my coffee pot there. I have to go back to Chile because I owe a friend a hug. I have to go back to Chile because I’m owed a drink. It seems it’s easier to be resilient for a purpose beyond yourself, and when monotony takes hold, where we might not be sure of what day of the week we’re on, having that external purpose matters even more.

For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl

You have to let it happen, but you can’t just expect it to happen

When I was in Germany in the autumn, my dear friend, the Glass-blower, suggested that each day we ought to do something for our future selves. This could be something as simple as saving a little money for a rainy day* or it could be an act of studying or learning something that would better equip us to take advantage of future opportunities. A lot of my motivation for doing yoga comes from my desire to have a physically capable body at the point in the future when I can make use of it. Maybe I’m going nowhere today, but on some tomorrow I want to go hiking in some hills and smell the nature all around me.

Today, therefore, I roll out my yoga mat and put the time in

A lot of resilience I think comes from switching the mind from thinking about the ‘done’ to thinking about the ‘doing’. What am I doing today to look after myself? What am I doing to protect myself? What am I doing to grow? It’s not a counting game. There can be no comparison with either yourself or another individual. Measurement is irrelevant because it’s all about how you think and how you perceive your situation. Are you doing what you need to be doing?

The sun may be shining in my dreams, and elsewhere it may be summer, but here it’s winter and time to get up and have breakfast. The Mother’s making porridge.


* In a country where almost every day is rainy, isn’t this a stupid idiom?

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If G-d hears what you really want he will not give it to you. Guaranteed. When my father left my mother said, get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for spoons…

This is a book about young girls being stolen from their families by drug cartels and then sold on to the highest bidder. It’s not a true story, in the individual sense, but it’s based on true stories. These girls, like Paula in the book, really do exist. They are systematically kidnapped, but they never come back. They are voiceless.

After reading the book, I read in an interview a line where Jennifer Clement states, “I know if cars were being stolen there would be greater outrage.” She points out how single dramatic events hit the news, but the everyday silent plight of these women fails to gain attention. These girls come from poor, vulnerable communities with limited educational resources and may only speak their indigenous language, not Spanish. Clement has decided to speak on their behalf, through a young Mexican girl with the unlikely name of Ladydi (Lady Di).

Say a prayer for ladders…

I bought the book because I’m making an effort to read more by Latin American women, but then I left it on the bookshelf for a while as its content seemed rather frightening. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a novel, even a 222-page short novel, about systematic sex-abuse. It seemed unlikely to be a comfortable read and I doubted that it would make me laugh. On the laughter part, I was wrong.

Say a prayer for punctuation…

The book is the work of Jennifer Clement whose life has been split over the two sides of that troublesome border of Mexico’s north. Her book is set entirely in Mexico where she lives, but was written in English with an English sense of style. This is noticeable as the paragraphs and sentences are super short. It stands in contrast to the other books I’ve been reading by Latin American authors. Paragraphing is out of fashion in Latin America.

However, like many Latin American authors, Clement doesn’t use quotation marks to frame speech. Previously, if you’d asked me if quotation marks were important, I’d have said yes. However, since reading a few books without them, I’ve come to think of them as a stylistic choice. Your pedants might complain, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow. You seem to know when someone is speaking.

Based on my wider reading and a conversation with a fellow book lover, it seems that these punctuational deviations stem from the pen of James Joyce. Read a little around the topic of Latin American literature and you’ll stumble over Ulysses.

Say a prayer for mockingbirds…

Prayers for the Stolen reminded me of reading To Kill A Mockingbird in school. Ladydi reminded me of Scout and I found myself reflecting on the choice of a child protagonist. How do you persuade the reader that the narrator is a child, without the writing itself being simplistic? Clement does this particularly well. Her sentences are often simply structured, and you can read a few paragraphs without coming to a comma, not because she’s missing out commas, but because her structures don’t require them. She’s generous with the simple words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ and so creates an easy flowing text, but with surprising quirks that keep you alert. Ladydi’s voice is naive and uneducated, but never boring: child-like, but never childish.

The very next morning Julio, the gardener, walked through the front door and I fell in love.

He walked right into my body.

He climbed up my ribs and into me. I thought to myself, Say a prayer for ladders.

I wanted to smell his neck and place my mouth on his mouth and taste him and hold him. I wanted to smell the smell of garden and grass and palm tree, smell of rose and leaf and lemon flower. I fell in love with the gardener and his name was Julio.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for shelves…

You know instinctively that Clement reads and writes poetry. This childlike voice of Ladydi reminded me of The God of Small Things and how Arundhati Roy also creates the innocence of childhood linguistics with playful rewriting of the dictionary and a throwaway tumbling of images, metaphors crammed into adjectives.

Though you couldn’t see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem house still had a river-sense.

A rushing, rolling, fishswimming sense.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

Because I loved Julio, the cars and trucks outside on the street sounded like rivers. … Cement walls became mirrors. My small ugly hands turned into starfish.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

And it’s this innocence, this flavour of pictures, this childlike perspective which makes the book so readable. In an interview, Clement said:

Even in doing the research for Prayers for the Stolen, I was also always looking for the poetic experience and how the divine coexists with the profane or beauty with ugliness. I also wanted the novel to have enchantment.

And she succeeded.

Say a prayer for magazines

Before writing the book, Clement spent a decade researching. She interviewed women in hiding: the wives, daughters and girlfriends of drugs traffickers. And she interviewed women from Mexico City’s Santa Martha Acatitla Prison during art therapy sessions. The inmates used collage as a way of giving voice to their own stories – a scene enacted towards the end of the novel.

So, although I picked it off my shelf, out of curiosity – I’d been thinking about punctuation – I must have forgotten my intention… I sat down on the bed below my shelf and kept reading until I was halfway through. It was the style that kept me there, the rhythm of Ladydi’s tale flowed and despite the context, I didn’t find myself recoiling and turning away (as I had in Laura Restrepo’s Delirium a few weeks earlier).

Pray for the stolen…

I loved how Jennifer Clement reaches out her gentle hands in a gesture of humanity to sections of society typically treated so inhumanely. Her characters weren’t playing at being likeable, some were drug traffickers or murders, some were painfully naive and others criminally deluded, and yet… although they’d all broken the law, you couldn’t help but find your heart aching for them.

It’s a true skill, I think, to maintain such tenderness.


Further reading and listening:

Open Book – Jennifer Clement – BBC Sounds

Pitt Chronicle interview

Deutshe Welle interview

The Guardian also has a review, however it’s inaccurate, thus I’d avoid reading it.

Is dreaming of grammar making me crazy?

By Posted on Location: 4 min read

I wonder if anyone else dreams about object pronouns and possessive determiners? I guess such nightly tussles are one of the hazards of what I do, all the writing and teaching muddles my brain with an excess of prancing words.

Sometimes this quarantine feels like being buried in grammar books

I began my sojourn in England studying for the CELTA. Since my return, I have been teaching students from the total beginner whose English consisted of a few song lyrics to the advanced student whose speaking skills surpass some non-native teachers I’ve worked with. I don’t, therefore, start with a list of grammatical concepts that I will teach week-by-week; I respond to the grammatical problems my students face in that moment. This means that having recognized a student has a problem and that this is a persistent problem I go from class to grammar book and back again.

Sometimes students say things that simply don’t sound right, but I have no idea why. I record their phrasing and then try to break their structures apart, refer to the grammar books, conduct a search of the Internet, compare American and British forms and see what I can do about creating some form of exercise for the student to practise with. In the midst of this, I dream.

Everyone seems to have their own idea of what’s right

A lot of my challenges come from the way many grammarians have historically discussed the English language. Everyone has their own take. Consulting my books I discover there are several perspectives on the gerund: Scott Thornbury suggests, for example, that we don’t use the word gerund, but use the phrase ‘ing form’; John Seely’s account of the gerund is ‘see verbal noun’; those oft-quoted Americans, Strunk and White, are sticklers who (in their rule 10) state that a gerund requires a possessive pronoun whereas a verbal participle requires an objective pronoun; Seeley says that 90 per cent of the time people use an object pronoun before a verbal noun… Don’t fret, it is irrelevant whether, or not, you understand that last sentence. All I wish to convey is that the books disagree.

One of the consequences of having so many perspectives on a core feature of the English language is that each of my students comes to me with a different set of terminology. In English, a gerund is a noun. However, the word gerundio in Spanish refers to a participle which functions as a verb (or sometimes an adverb) but never as a noun. If my students should start trying to solve this terminology problem by themselves, they will run into confusion.

It’s provided me with a headache

Another conflict occurs between my English and the English that my students are trying to learn, and which, ideally, I am trying to teach. Sometimes I hesitate in the middle of a sentence having realized that I’ve switched a was for a were, an I for a me, or a progressive participle for a past participle as in ‘I was sat’… which is dialectically not incorrect, but nor is it helpful for the student. I stop, explain and correct my mistake. What I would love, is if someone could give me a glossary of terms I use in weird ways, so that I knew where I was leading my students astray.

As I have no such guide, I find myself in an investigation into how I personally speak

The process of trying to understand my idiolect can make me sound quite idiotic. I’m not talking to myself like a human, I’m parroting phrases back to myself. I repeat myself with slight changes in emphasis and phoneme, attempting to pronounce what I say naturally, whilst aware of what I’m doing makes me change how I speak and, hence, sabotages the experiment. As a result, I replicate my uncertainties, going over and over the same combinations of words, and not getting very far at all. Modelling the language is nigh impossible if you’re overthinking it. Especially if you’re not the most confident in your pronunciation in the first place. I fear confusing my students. This fear, it seems, leads to weird dreams.

If you felt like this text lacked examples:

  • Building houses is hard work: a gerund and a noun.
  • A house is a building: a non-gerund noun.
  • I am building a house: a verb as a present participle in the present continuous.
  • I was building a house: a past continuous form of the verb which (and this makes total sense) uses a present participle.

And as for the title… if you got that ‘dreaming of grammar’ is a gerund phrase (or should we call that a verbal-noun phrase) but ‘making’ is a verb then you’re doing well.

An investigation into women in the history of Latin American fiction

Llamas near Cusco, Peru. January 2020.

When reading about literature I’m sensitive to the author’s gender, particularly because I’m aware of how my reading is disproportionately written by men… men with degrees from either Britain or the USA. Writing isn’t the easiest vocation because it requires a certain amount of self-imposed solitude, therefore I’m impressed by anyone who gets their bum on the seat long enough to create – it’s hard work even if you’re born with a whole silver dinner service in your mouth – yet the disparity on my bookshelf makes me wonder if I need to make some sort of effort to tackle the systematic bias.

Most of the women mentioned here I had never heard of before reading The Penguin History of Latin America. At which point I began to investigate. My ignorance stems from how the English language canon dominates the reading of my British born friends who, for much of my life, have been my dominant source of book recommendations. In reading Hispanic literature, I’m also limited by my Spanish comprehension, although this is improving.

I’m focusing on the twentieth century, and mostly the latter half

If we look back to the older stuff, it was predominantly written by men, only some lucky men had the education and freedom to sit and write. The first woman mentioned in the history text was not a novelist – well-to-do Victoria Ocampo owned a literary magazine in Argentina in the 1930s. But writing at a similar time was a Brazilian novelist called Raquel or Rachel de Quieros. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything by her translated into English and I don’t have any knowledge of Portuguese.

The next female novelist mentioned – Clarice Lispector – was also Brazilian

However, it isn’t until we reach the section on the decline of the patriarchy in the 1980s that we get into more detail about her. Even here, in the section on literature tackling the Latin American patriarchy, we begin with the men: Mario Vargas Llosa, Augusto Roa Bastos, Mario Benedetti, David Viñas, Eduardo Galeno and seven more until we reach…

Our first Hispanic female novelist, Marta Traba

Marta Traba and Luisa Valenzuela both wrote about the consequences of Peron and those who followed his ‘Peronist’ political movement. This was part of a trend for Argentinian writers to make fiction focused on reality with a documentary character. I admit, when I read that these writers moved away from writing in a complex James Joyce influenced style to ‘novels with an accessible story’ I was relieved.

Another common theme in Latin American literature is magic or marvellous realism. Valenzuela incorporates the magical into the real in her book The Lizard’s Tail. Sorcery and witchcraft appear in the novel set during Isabel Peron’s leadership of Argentina.

Both Traba and Valenzuela stepped onto my to-read list. And maybe reading them will give this British lass a version of Peron and his legacy that differs from his character in the film Evita.

Moving on to Mexico and Elena Poniatowska

She’s a journalist and novelist, who also wrote with a desire to document something real: massacres and earthquakes, inequality and poverty.

From a literary perspective, it seems that her choice to write against the patriarchy wasn’t surprising; many male authors of the 70s and 80s were also embracing an anti-patriarchal stance. What’s surprising is that as a French-born Mexican journalist of royal Polish descent she embraced a socialist outlook and has spent her life fighting inequality. Looks like I’m going to have to read her work, although it may be uncomfortable.

Now for two books which I have read

Isabelle Allende is in the history text, for The House of The Spirits, and Lispector’s The Hour of the Star is mentioned. I’ve read both.

The Hour of the Star is an interesting read not only because of the quirks of Lispector’s style, but because it’s modern. She makes me think that I ought to learn to read Portuguese. The theme of loneliness in the face of a competitive, consumerist society is no less relevant now than when the book was first published in 1977.

Lispector’s style was considered revolutionary

She plays with philosophy and writes a story within a story. There’s a link here to Borges, but this is not the moment to explore that. Lispector breaks rules and yet I find her readable. Her novel is depressing but delightful – a tricky combination to pull off. The history text declares The Hour of the Star ‘explored the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east to the consumer society of São Paulo’. This is true, but misses the point. This isn’t simply a woman writing about a woman’s experience, if you read the book you might be surprised to find that the narrator is a misogynous fellow called Rodrigo.

Here he is talking about the poor country girl whose story he is trying to tell.

…nobody would miss her. Moreover — I realize now — nobody would miss me either. And even what I’m writing somebody else could write. A male writer, that is, because a woman would make it all weepy and maudlin.

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser.

So what we have is Lispector playing with perspectives, male and female, with Rodrigo in his attempt to write a story exploring the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east. The same part of north-east Brazil that Lispector’s family originally emigrated to from what is today part of Ukraine.

Nélida Piñón is another Brazilian author tackling the fickle topic of identity

The only one of her works translated into English is The Republic of Dreams which is from the point of view of two characters, grandfather and granddaughter, and through the generations tells the tale of a Galician immigrant family like her own. Another one for the to-read list.

Which links us back to Chilean lass Isabel Allende

Allende’s book, The House of The Spirits, also a cross-generational novel, started as a letter to her grandfather when she was living in exile. I think Allende sometimes gets unfairly criticised for writing readable work. She’s mainstream and you can find her work in your local bookshop, but she’s also compelling and can hit you hard.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay on The Argentine Writer and Tradition (originally a lecture), wrote that compared to English or French literature, Spanish literature requires a ‘special apprenticeship’. He doesn’t explain why, much to my frustration, but the line did get me wondering if cross-culture reading benefits from an apprenticeship read – something that will ease you in. Allende perhaps fulfils such a role for Latin American literature which often seems to have grown out of James Joyce’s shadow. Allende’s writing, for example, accepts conventions like paragraphs and speech marks.

When I have proposed to my friends the reading of Spanish works, I have evidenced that it was difficult for them to find pleasure in these books without special apprenticeship; for that reason, I believe the fact that certain Argentines write like Spaniards is less the testimony of an inherited capacity than it is proof of Argentine versatility.

 ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ in Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

Anyway, Allende is already on the to-read list. She’s been there ever since I did my initial search into Chilean literature. She was the first Chilean author whom I read. The non-fiction My Invented Country was my first book and my first introduction to Chile. On my bookshelf you can find La Casa de los Espiritus ready for when I’ve finished my current Spanish-language read. I shall read more.

Here my investigation gets a little confused

The history book suggests that, like Allende, the Uruguayan Cristina Peri Rossi wrote ‘illuminating political issues with fantasy’ in the magic realist genre. The thing is, I can’t find any mention of magic in the descriptions of her novels. Certainly, she appears to have been experimental and creative in her tales, but no mention of magic realism. Peri Rossi has quite a few books translated into English and an accessible tiny fiction titled Rumours. What the history book doesn’t mention is that her novels dominant theme is to question masculinity and sexuality, which may be worth knowing.

We then backtrack. The success of 1980s women to publish made people wonder what had come before.

Such as the Argentinian Ocampo sisters

Victoria Ocampo was a literary critic and writer, but not it seems of fiction. You can read her collections of letters, such as those between herself and Virginia Woolf, which I can only assume would be intriguing to read (what language were they written in, French?), and her magazine, Sur, gave other writers a platform to share their work. She does, however, also have a short autobiography in English. Her sister Silvina wrote short stories which are described as ‘disturbing’ and ‘cruel’. I am less drawn to the sound of them.

And, finally, Rosario Castellanos

A Mexican writer, publishing in the late 50s to early 70s. She wrote of the failure for different ethnic groups to communicate with one another, particularly bringing attention to indigenous peoples. This inability for people to communicate with each other, and particularly listen and understand one another, hasn’t gone away. Conflicts between indigenous groups and those in power remain. She’s added to the to-read list.

Here I conclude this foray into women in the history of Latin American fiction

What do you notice from the list? Brazil and Mexico, the most populous countries are represented, as is Argentina. But in total, including Chile and Uruguay, the list only represents five different Latin American countries. Therefore as all good research does, I hereby propose a further investigation to expand upon the original…

However, as I now have quite a few new books to buy, I’m calling this initial research a success.


What I’ve read and mentioned:

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson 2009

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector 1977 (translated by Benjamin Moser 2011)

The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende 1985 (translated by Magda Bogin)

My Invented Country, Isabel Allende 2003 (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges 1962, translated by James E. Irby

Rumours, Cristina Peri Rossi, https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/rumors/

Why I read

What’s beyond? Moon Valley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, 2020. 

This lockdown is proving tedious.

I’m not used to winter and what with having the kitchen light on to see my boiled egg in the morning and then the sun setting halfway through the afternoon, I’m despairing from the lack of sunshine. I’m like a bird in a cage having an angry rant at its reflection in its plastic mirror. If I’m not careful, I’ll fracture my beak.

Luckily though, dear Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and I’m one of the fortunate people in this world with an ample supply of books.

Reading is my coping strategy for most problems

Everyone has coping strategies, otherwise we wouldn’t survive, and reading is quite an acceptable one as far as things go. It doesn’t poison your lungs, damage your liver or play havoc with your cholesterol. If anything being well-read is applauded. As a reader, you learn, you build awareness of the world and tend not to upset people in the process.

Still, being that it is a coping strategy, it’s worth thinking about. People have been known to comment upon my nomadic lifestyle as ‘running away’, but escaping into a book, even if you haven’t moved, is just another form of escape. Escape is sometimes necessary. Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from a situation and hide as a form of self-protection. If I’m angry and upset, I sometimes don’t trust myself to be the kind and loving person I would like myself to be. I crawl into my chrysalis and, a novel later, re-emerge as a much nicer human being. Yet you can’t live in a chrysalis and the emergence after an initial escape is essential if the ‘coping’ isn’t going to leave a trail of additional damage.

Reading might, by itself be a good, wholesome activity, so I believe is eating chocolate. No need to point out that there is a limit of how much chocolate I should consume. Sooner or later, if I eat too much, I’ll be sick. Or over a prolonged period I might notice an increase in my waistline. Hence, I don’t gorge on chocolate, I choose a chocolate or two, take care of my choices, limit my intake and focus on quality over quantity. Reading doesn’t make you fat, you might argue. However, an hour reading is a choice to separate yourself from society. You live the lives of other people, fictional or real, or perhaps get advice from world experts who you otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn from, but still, it’s a solitary activity and going to a book for your answers means you aren’t going to the friends and family around you, the real people in your life who might be able to help you in a very real way. They at least have ears to listen with.

Emotional struggles aren’t the only reason I read

My struggle to consolidate the complex emotions that the gods have given me isn’t my only motivation to turn to a book. When I was twenty years old I learnt that there had been this thing called the British Empire. It happened within a few days during an eventful summer: a Ugandan chap, an Egyptian fellow and a guy from Hong Kong provided me with new information which illuminated the depths of my ignorance.

Sometimes you realize that you aren’t equipped to deal with what life throws at you. Some people move in a straight line, fulfilling their plans and hitting their goals, driven by ‘what next’. You follow the map, textbooks, management books, leadership, knowledge, wisdom. If, however, you lurch around in a nomadic fashion, crashing into different cultures as you go, you might find that the question ‘what next’ is never answered because you never get beyond the initial ‘why’.

Or to put it another way, one minute I think I’ve got my life organized, the next, soldiers line the streets and to understand why I dive into books. My lack of understanding of my environment hangs awkwardly in my line of sight. I dent my forehead anew on its shiny surface each time I step off a plane.

My learning style suits books. Typically, I’m not an auditory learner, I am terrible at remembering song lyrics for example, but I’m a quick reader and can assimilate the words on the page of a book into concepts to bury into my brain with ease. I might not recall dates or names, but conflict, tension and story I do.

There is a lot I would like to learn.

I cannot explain why I write, but I do know reading is necessary for it

Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ fails at the same question. He’s eloquent in describing what he writes, and he describes the motivations that drive writers to their choices: the ego, aesthetics, historical documentation or political statement. Yet he fails to clarify why the medium has to be the written word. Why journalism and novels rather than paint and brushes? He acknowledges that storytelling exists as something innate inside him… the words revolving around the lonely child’s head twisted and turned until they sprawled out on the page. But why?

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell, Why I Write

I can say that writing, regardless of publication or money, matters to me more than almost anything else; I can’t say why. Furthermore, I have that awkward desire that I not only write, but that I write well. I don’t expect perfection from myself, but I do expect something crafted with care and thought through.

And it should be obvious to anyone who has ever contemplated improving their writing that to write well it’s necessary to read well.

Of course, my obsession has a downside

It would be fair to say that there are more socially beneficial ways for me to spend my life, there are definitely more economically productive endeavours. Especially when one considers that the majority of my writing revolves around me. Indeed, if we head back to Orwell’s suggestions of what motivates writers to write what they write, I’m steered by my ego’s emotional frustrations with our world.

You could claim that I could be doing something less solitary and more involved with other people if I wasn’t so insistent on writing, but all I can think is that if I didn’t write I wouldn’t know how to process anything and all that evil which builds up inside would erupt. Some people talk about the heart as the place of feeling; I’m convinced that for me it’s the fingertips. My hand curls around the pen or my fingers slam down on the plastic keys. Here are my emotions.

For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don’t write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can’t recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.

Isabel Allende, Why I Write

But during this challenging winter, I’m grateful to have so many books to hand

Sometimes I need to escape, sometimes my family needs me to escape so that I’m bearable company, and sometimes I need a sense that I’m learning something, that things are progressing, and that I will come out of this experience with something to show for it.

Hopefully, reading will also help me learn to write better, that ethereal dream.

In which Lina Meruane asks why I read

Explain that to me! Cows? I sighed buying time to think. Cows or oxen or donkeys or idiot peasants or whatever you call those damned animals that almost killed us! They didn’t have lights and they were going very, very slowly through an impossible fog. And wait, joder, I can’t believe it, there ahead of us is a truck right across the road, trying to make a U-turn! Are all Chileans crazy?

Lina Merunae, Seeing Red (Where blind Lina and her non-Chilean boyfriend are driving in the dark heading towards Santiago.)

Sometimes I struggle to articulate what I like or dislike about a book or writing style. I love the act of reading itself, the following of the words on the page, one leading gently to the next in a never-ending stream. Sometimes simply reading is the enjoyment – and consideration of the writer, the style or the story comes secondary to the soothing pleasure of seeing a word and holding its meaning, falling into the next and being swept along.

Reading is safe and reassuring. It’s controlled. When reading, I dictate the velocity of the words flowing into my mind and can vary it just as I choose. I can pause mid-sentence and ponder over a single word, or I can skip whole paragraphs if they get too gruesome or tedious. If I stop liking what I am reading, I close the book.

Inevitably, being addicted to both writing and reading, I end up writing about books

Have you ever noticed how many books are about readers and writers? The less literary inclined are probably underrepresented in literature – but is that a surprise?

Yet, as much as I love to write and love to read, I lack a critical tendency when faced with the final page of a book. On closing the cover, I want to give it (whatever the book is) five-golden-stars.

By the time I’ve reached my computer and started to write, I’m more likely to settle at four, not because my heart doesn’t want to give five, but because you can’t give everything five. Six months later, scanning through the list of books I’ve been reading, I may drop the same book down to three stars, figuring that if I have forgotten it so easily, it can’t have been that memorable. The five-star intoxication tends to belong solely to the reading experience. The critical part of my brain demands a certain writerly wonder to give a book five-stars.

If it’s fiction I need to be mesmerized by the poetic skill or the cleverness of the sentences. Should it be non-fiction, I want to be taught something useful (quotable, inaccurate statistics don’t count). But to give the reading experience five-stars, I simply need to be enthralled.

The opposite happened recently with Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Unsurprisingly the protagonist of the book is a writer. The author in fact started the novel by writing out scenes from her real life and the Protagonist shares her name. I enjoyed the beginning but hated the second half, or perhaps just the last quarter.

I felt betrayed by the protagonist, revolted by the ending and like I’d been caught out being naïve. Yet, it had been a compelling read, so despite its blatant unlikability, I couldn’t totally dismiss it. But the reading experience was at points painful. It made me uncomfortable, so much so that I occasionally skimmed past a paragraph about her eyes… the Spanish title translates most directly as ‘blood in the eye’.

However, I had to admit that I did like the writing

I just wished that the same writer had written a different story (or maybe she had and if so, why couldn’t that have been the translated one). Because I had been hooked. I was pleased to have read it and I loved the way the translator threw in Spanish phrases rather than converting everything to English. (It’s the third book I’ve read by the same translator, Megan McDowell, the other two books both being originally written by the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra.) Yet why didn’t I like it?

Time passed, and the book, which stared down at me from the shelf, began to grow on me. My eyes would flick up to its spine and I would feel guilty for hating it. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t been just. Maybe the book was truly an excellent book and the problem was me.

As a child, I had a problem with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Not the Victor Hugo version but a tiny hardback children’s Disney version. The book terrified me. Having since grown up, I now have no idea why this one book scared me so much, but I was so perturbed by it that I hid it beneath the floorboards of my parents’ loft.

Obviously, being an adult and full of good sense, I know that books are just books and that they do not sit on shelves watching you. The disquiet within me was not due to the book, it was triggered by the book. The truth was that the book hadn’t been what I’d expected it to be.

The more I read literature by Latin American women, the more I wonder if there isn’t something remarkable that they’re doing with their writing. It feels fearless. Seeing Red is most totally fearless. There was no please-like-me timidity in the book, much like there isn’t in my current read, cheerfully entitled Delirium, and as there wasn’t in Like Water For Chocolate – all notably different styles of story. And Isabelle Allende’s The House of The Spirits isn’t tame either.

As for the Clarice Lispector book I read recently, that book fought against language itself, bending it to its will. No pretence at imitating some stodgy style, nope, dear Clarice had me jaw-dropped before I’d got to the end of the introduction.

Seeing Red haunted me…

…whispering in my ear in a dangerous voice, taunting me with the possibility that what was wrong with the book wasn’t at all a reflection of the book, it was a reflection of me. I started doubting myself and my judgement. I started looking for information on Meruane. Who was the woman behind the book?

I’d set off with an intention to read more Latin American women, but did I really accept what that entailed? Perhaps, I began to realize, reading Latin American women might not be like reading British women with a bit of exotic food and a few different cultural references. It might actually be quite uncomfortable.

Annoyingly, I like to think myself beyond these stereotypes and presumptions, but Meruane elegantly pointed out that I wasn’t. Chile, as always, finds a way to shake out a little more of my ego.

Did I just want to be a literary tourist?

Which is how I found myself leafing through the book again. It’s not that Seeing Red leaps headlong at the scary topics like the dictatorship and the horrors of history that I so often associate with Chilean authors, or that I’m avoiding such topics – Zambra, Skármeta, Bolaño and Lemebel – the men I’ve read who’ve written about that period and its consequences didn’t upset me in the same way (a question here to ponder in its own right). Then again, the women in their stories were often being observed rather than lived through. Lemebel’s beautifully written ‘Queen’ in My Tender Matador was perhaps the real exception and unique.

Seeing Red starts at a party in New York and begins by feeling quite harmless

Which is why I almost didn’t buy the book. I wasn’t looking for another book that talked about the lucky elite going off to study in the United States, I wanted a book that was written about Chile. But finding books written by Chilean women and which have been translated into English is hard work. When my Spanish reading is smoother going, I’ll read in Spanish, but, for now, if I’m going to devour these books it will have to be done in English.

Meruane took on middle-class, educated women (like me) and then threw in the darkness

Seeing Red did not meet with my expectations, but is that not the point of trying to read something different? Has anything so far in my Chilean experience met with my expectations? Are my poor assumptions not continually being bulldozed down? I’d like to think of myself as being quite open-minded, but it’s the walls which keeps giving me a headache.

I became addicted to reading because it was safe and reassuring, a sanctuary to which I could escape. Now that escape clashes with my curiosity. I want to understand a reality that’s not so safe and reassuring. I go looking for a story about Chile, or about Latin America, to get a glimpse into what might be different about those ‘other’ people over there and in the process, I find myself learning who I am.

Lina Meruane has a new book coming out next year, one that is again translated by Megan McDowell… I feel this battle between me and her is incomplete, and so I’m compelled to read it, even if I hate it. Just as I’m compelled to return to Chile, even if that’s hard.

I did, finally, give Seeing Red all those gold stars, feeling that anyone who can so gently tease my ego apart deserves them.

Retreating mindfully

Yoga retreat, North Yorkshire, August 2018

The mother bounces into the living room and declares that Jon Kabat-Zinn thinks we should consider this whole lockdown experience as a ‘mindfulness retreat’.

She says it very sweetly

Parents may often be right, but they’re not always easy to listen to. Historically, my instinctual response might have been to resist such a suggestion. It is easier to reject advice when said in retort, but alas, the mother smiles serenely, speaks softly and then heads off to meditate, leaving me pondering.

Of course, like many people this year – although others may express it differently – I’m feeling a bit like the gods are having a party, got drunk and have lost the plot. They’ve decided to play a game and humanity is losing. I’m stuck with their throws of the dice, hiding against a virus, fighting against myself over the loss of my independence and freedom.

This attitude isn’t going to get me anywhere

If I’m being honest, living here is not a bad deal, especially in the circumstances.

In fact, mid global pandemic, I can’t think of a better place to be. Yet still I feel trapped. Monday looks like Friday looks like Sunday looks like Tuesday and there’s no clear end in sight. I hadn’t planned on being in this continent, and yet, here I am. I’ve no flights booked; no plans made. My calendar is an abyss of empty dates, falling one after another. I don’t like it.

At the beginning of all this I was angry

Now the anger comes and goes, then comes again. A dulled down anger – hot embers. It hurt to have my plans ripped away from me. The loss of my independence has forced me to realize how much my poor ego depends on freedom. This cage of rules gets smaller, then loosens, then tightens and in the middle of it I tell myself: breathe. The mother is right, there is only today. This is a bruise not an amputation. Be positive.

Each day I awake to the same goals

It rains. I go between my bed and my desk carrying my hot water bottle with me. My hands are cold. I type and scribble and eat through books. I curl up in front of the fire and wonder if my mind is coming to an interesting insight or is just blank. There’s time to reflect, to slow down, to reset. If we so choose. Perhaps something in the depths of my brain is churning away.

Luckily, I have that guide in the Mother

With her gentle nudges about awareness, she reminds me that anything other than a good effort from all of us to be mindful of each other is going to land us flat on our faces. So, I go for a walk, do some sun salutations, sit on the bed, legs crossed and meditate. I read Shakespeare and Herman Hesse and Virginia Woolf. I write and edit and write more, there’s a constant productive rhythm to my work, something I’ve been missing for a long time.

Maybe there is something good to come from all this

When, a long time ago I went on a silent mediation retreat, it was at first bewildering, then excruciating, then peaceful. My brain slowed down and old pains started to dissipate. I took the time not to give the depths of my brain the chance to recover.

As I’m stuck here I’m forced to listen to the impulse driving me away

I sometimes take this loss of freedom personally, even knowing that it’s not just me who’s had their wings clipped. Self-pity is the first spiralling step down a pattern of self-obsessive thought. Staying mentally alert, being mindful about how I’m thinking, not feeding the inevitable anxiety or exaggerating the fear is hard work. Hard work worth doing.

I’m left facing myself and the question of how I measure my value

If I do so through numbers, I’ll inevitably fall short. If I compare myself to the original idea of my future that I had back when I left school, I’ve fallen off the page. I have to let go of such measurements, which may be easier for me now, given the disruption my life went through, as I’ve already been forced to disconnect my self-worth from material wealth and other particular assumptions about how I ought to be living.

But perhaps my self-worth shouldn’t be based on my independence either. Maybe the freedom I seek has to be freedom in the mind, not stamps in a passport.

Life won’t begin again after the pandemic has passed; it’s going on right now. The Earth keeps spinning. We keep getting older, day by day. This is the moment to live.

The (questionable) authority of the ‘Should-Be’

No caption needed. Slovenia. August/September 2014.

Once upon a time, getting ready to go out, a dear friend fretted that they didn’t have the right shoes. They didn’t feel that the shoes they did have fitted the occasion. They were inappropriate shoes. Impractical for the weather. Then before I knew it the friend’s whole wardrobe was denounced as unsuitable. It started with fretting about the rain, but before long became a tearful stomping rant which could be summed up as “I have nothing to wear!”

After all, we were going out in public… people will judge.

And people do judge; this is undeniable

Judgement itself isn’t problematic as such, but when it is based on a lack of knowledge and has a brittle nature it’s not helpful. Sometimes, it can be terribly damaging. We form judgements and then defend our judgements and then embroil ourselves in the defence of our defences before we’ve had time to either analytically or emotionally recognize the truths of our original presumption.

Travelling can help you see these judgements

When you live in a foreign country and have an atypical way of approaching the world as I do, you run into people’s presumptions all the time. Sometimes it’s quite funny. European solo women travellers have a bit of a reputation in Latin America and it’s not for liking to curl up in front of the fire in the evening with a good book. Sometimes the same funny can turn dangerous.

Tripping over stereotypes happens all the time and for everyone

Some people though don’t notice that they’re doing it. I had to learn the hard way that it might not be initially apparent that someone is shy rather than (my assumption here) uninterested. Once my insecurity triggers my defences, I’m all ready to confuse uninterested with disapproving. Oops.

Do you approach the person you believe to be shy in the same was as you approach the person who you believe to disapprove of you?

Unlikely.

Instead, can you be generous with your assumptions?

We’re all just people trying to navigate our complex world as best as we can, and cultural and language gaps often lead to an overuse of presumption. Guesswork is used to fill the gaps in our knowledge. When we can recognise the contradiction between the stereotype and the reality, we have better luck navigating. We also find it easier to accept the person who doesn’t submit to the stereotype when we accept the stereotype is just a stereotype.

For me, this can be harder at home

Recognizing the difference between our presumptions and reality is much harder in a familiar context where our judgements have become more concrete and have a deeper foundation. Seeing becomes more difficult because we believe that we know the people we share our lives with. Even with our dearest loved ones, the truth is we only know what we’ve witnessed from the outside when they’ve been in our presence; we’ve witnessed only a small slither of who they are.

If your loved ones no longer surprise you, you’re possibly not actually seeing them. After all, they’re not stationary. They’re continually moving and developing, learning and living. If the people around you have become predictable, maybe you need to find a way of seeing them from a different angle.

Unfortunately, there often comes moments when we live as though our presumptions are fixed in fact without questioning them. We believe we know. We cast judgement. We blame.

And we do it to ourselves too

We are always comparing what we are with what we should be. The should-be is a projection of what we think we ought to be. Contradiction exists when there is comparison, not only with something or somebody, but with what you were yesterday, and hence there is conflict between what has been and what is.

Freedom from the Known, Jiddu Krishnamurti

[I’m reading this book by Krishnamurti as part of a project I’m working on. But his thoughts on the ‘should-be’ and comparison seemed particularly apt.]

We turn the judging upon ourselves and scratch at our identity

My friend, reluctantly, apparently wearing the wrong shoes and the wrong clothes finally left the house, looking dignified and coordinated on the outside, but inside still raging because of the wrong clothes.

On our return, I sat down on the sofa, drank my tea and tried to recall what people were wearing. Could I remember? Was I judging? Did it actually matter what people wore? There was one girl who had worn a blue dress with stars which caught my attention. It had reminded me of the ceilings of Ancient Egyptian tombs where they filled the whole wall as to not give evil the space to hide.

We can all laugh at the idea of not having the ‘right’ thing to wear

But it’s a hollow laugh. Few people, I think, have avoided that uncertainty and fear about stepping out without the right kind of outfit. We all strop from time to time about our appearance.

I suspect that the people who avoid such moments live without having much choice about what they can wear or can afford to buy, and as buying, owning and choosing the ‘right’ outfit is beyond their freedom, they don’t waste energy on the matter. From experience, I know choosing what to wear is considerably easier when you live out of a suitcase – you wear what’s clean. I also know that given a bad enough mood, fears about how I look come back with vengeance.

It’s exhausting

This comparison between what ‘ought to be’ and what ‘is’ leads to an internal conflict that blinds us. We forget self-compassion. We forget to be kind. We forget to simply enjoy ourselves and the body we have. We forget to be grateful that we can afford to clothe ourselves. We forget to act from a place of love.

Why?

Who is saying what ‘ought to be’ and with what authority?

Don’t the cultural norms that dictate the ‘should-be’ have the same origins as the cultural norms that lead to the destruction of the climate, systematically continue racist and sexist behaviours, engage in wars where innocent civilians end up dead and look away from human rights abuses?

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to pause and question such an authority?

Their Chilean constitution / my Chilean education

By Posted on Location: 4 min read
The majority of the protests were always peaceful. La Serena, Chile, October 2019.

Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

Being British I didn’t grow up with the idea of a constitution in my head. Whilst we have constitutional principles, there is no single rigid document that defines them. We do have some important documents – like the Magna Carta written in 1215 – which state how our countries systems function together, but we don’t have a single quotable text.

As such, the word constitution wasn’t one I’d really considered

It’s possible that prior to going to Chile the word hadn’t passed my lips. I couldn’t spell it. Instead, I was focused on the challenge of voting in the British elections, which, when I left, were only a possibility, but since Britain was bashing its metaphorical head against a wall, seemed likely and did, in December, occur. All I vaguely knew about Chilean politics was that it had previously been a dictatorship but was now a democracy.

It wasn’t the first few days of the protests, when buildings were burning, and we were caged under a military curfew that I became aware of the constitution issue. For the first few days my only real concern was staying safe and working out what was happening on the streets. My phone filled with news and fake news and the media gave a side of the story which grasped the scariest parts but missed the core.

When I went out into the streets though, with a friend who had promised to make sure I got home safe and that we would disappear the moment things became violent, I started to really learn. Of course, leaving the house that afternoon I was scared, in the way a British woman wandering around in a Latin American protest ought to be, but I was also excited.

What’s worth noting here is that I might never have gone if it weren’t for the father

The mother jokes that trying to persuade me to do or not do something will just make me more determined to do it. She fears that if she says ‘don’t go to Colombia’ then I’ll go. In reality, the father did say ‘don’t go to Colombia alone’ and I didn’t, I went to Chile. I rang him and told him what was happening. I didn’t want him to be too alarmed, but I wanted him to have the truth.

The father said, “As your father, I’d prefer you to stay at home, but…”

And so, I left my house and went out to investigate

The people chanted songs I don’t know and words I didn’t understand, but in their hands, I could see placards with words they’d painted on. Pieces of card and board stuck together with words crammed on them. Chilean flags everywhere. Profanities everywhere. Hope.

From amid the crowds I read the words and I tried to understand their meaning

I went home and searched the internet, scavenging for understanding, hunting for clarity, but finding more questions than answers. I learnt that the Chilean democracy was shackled by a constitution written by the dictator Pinochet. My weak Spanish frustrated me; it is always so far behind where I need it to be. Then I downloaded books, fiction and non-fiction, and in those weeks without work I begged my friends for explanations and devoured Chilean literature. Before I started to realize that I would never comprehend entirely and would never solve the sorrow for my borrowed country or my fierce anger at the ridiculousness of it all.

After summer, in the new year, I returned to work determined to use the run up to the plebiscite to ask questions and learn as much as I could from my colleagues and friends. I didn’t want one opinion, I wanted lots of opinions.

Then, instead, the pandemic happened, sending me back to England, to watch from afar

I feared for my friends living under considerably more stressful situations than myself. The loss of incomes, the inadequacy of the health services, the step up in authoritarian control – curfews and restrictions all over the place.

It’s not so strange then that I choose to predominantly teach Chileans when emotionally so much of me remains there. I don’t solely teach Chileans, but the majority of my students are Chilean and almost all of my students live in Chile. With their resilience and fear, their boredom and frustration, they have no idea how much they’re teaching me.

Yesterday, the plebiscite took place

My students described the long queues and the excitement of going to the polls. I worried about violence erupting, as it had done earlier in the week. I hoped though, that each of them would use their democratic right to vote and prayed that they would be heard.

While they were sleeping, I awoke and checked the results. Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.

“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read
Flying. Iceland 2015.

I’ve just got back from Berlin and a friend is curious. What is it like to fly at the moment?

Well the airports are pretty much deserted; the toilets are cleaner than usual and there are many signs and instructions. Wearing a mask is compulsory, as it is in many other locations where you come into close proximity with the public, but security is delightfully much faster to pass through.

Being seated for a couple of hours, my legs ached a bit, and when I finally ‘alighted’ from the train at the end of my journey, I felt relieved to be able to remove my mask. Truthfully though, the familiarity of being on the move and the odd solitary state of flying alone soothed my nomadic need. I was glad to be in the air.

There is a limit to how helpful worrying can be

As analytical thinking creatures, we’re pretty unreliable at recognising the severity and likelihood of the dangers we face. We underestimate and overestimate on a daily basis and all of this effort can be exhausting. To avoid it, we delegate to the media who are financially incentivised to provoke our emotions, and to the government, whose job is to manage the whole of society rather than just us, the individual.

Going with your gut feeling is all very well if your gut feeling has a history of actually being right, and by this I mean actually right, not just all right enough that you could rewrite a storyline to make it feel not so bad. I don’t ignore my gut feeling, going against my stomach’s intuition is generally a bad idea, but nor do I think I should be led by my stomach. If your stomach’s twisting and turning in fretful motion, you probably need to do something (although it might just be something you’ve eaten). You should listen to it. However, that first inclination of how to act may well be wrong.

But from a practical viewpoint, who’s to say that my voyage to Germany is any less safe than spending a day working as a waitress? And who can analyse that with any accuracy, certainly not me.

The siren of warning emanating from your insides is just that, a warning. Your stomach is saying it’s unhappy. Most likely a decision needs to be made and action needs to be taken. It doesn’t excuse the analytical mind; it’s a sign that the analytical mind needs to be used. However, the analytical mind is limited and fallible. No wonder we are confused and overwhelmed.

Some people are much more risk averse than others

Sometimes I feel guilty for my lack of risk aversion. I’m not the sort to seek high adrenaline adventures just for the sake of it. Yet, I’m sceptical of fear. I want to live my life as I want to, not dictated by unfounded and uncertain fears. This isn’t just the post-trauma effect, it’s part of my character, although perhaps the post-trauma reclamation of life has added to my stubbornness. It’s certainly added to my scepticism.

Sometimes I do things that other people are afraid to do, although perhaps slowly as I build up my confidence, but the conclusion is the same. I’m focused on what I want. I’m not driven by the adrenaline, I’m driven by my curiosity, but often fulfilling one’s curiosity comes at a price. It asks that you dare.

Not daring has huge consequences

When I arrived in Berlin and stepped out of the airport into the cold, grey of cityscape autumn I felt lighter. I’d been stabbed in the throat with a cotton bud by a chap in a plastic gown, and I’d rubbed excessive hand sanitizing gel into the crevices of my hands, but I’d arrived. I breathed in the German air and relished in the selfish choice I’d made. It brought me a sense of glee.

It’s really difficult to decide what is best for us, the individual

We face a whole lot of confused messaged and contradictory thoughts, suggested to us by governments and news agencies who focus on their needs to manipulate the population as a whole. Nobody is quite sure what behaviour counts as dangerous. Some people flaunt the rules on masks or mixing households and some don’t leave the house. The psychological cost, being invisible and uncountable, is generally feared, but ignored within the risk assessment.

For me personally, the psychological threat is the one with my attention

It’s a danger I know from up close. When I look at my friends, I’m looking for the light of life in their eyes. I’m listening to the threads of negativity and I worry. I worry about the effect of a general reduction in laughter over the year. The lack of excitement about future plans and the dent in ambitions. It’s all rather saddening.

Psychologically, letting myself unfurl my wings for a brief moment was a precious balm. When I booked the flight, I had no idea whether regulations would let me fly or whether the aeroplane would even take off, but I felt it was worth the risk. Travelling is part of who I am.

“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

Yes, I’d go as far as saying that actually I enjoyed it. But I can assure you washed my hands thoroughly when I disembarked.