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Smash Lits with Tigele Nlebesi

We published a really good piece of non-fiction at The Forge Literary Magazine this week: Black Girls in Upscale Boutiques by Tigele Nlebesi. I think you’ll agree that last line is a killer.

Thanks Tigele for agreeing to do a Smash Lits interview with me.

1)  You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

A friend of mine got Somali henna done all over her torso, and the first thing I thought when I saw it was “I’d love to have that all over my walls.”

2) What was your favourite book as a child?

Unfair! There are too many to list. Roald Dahl’s The BFG is the first book that made me want to keep reading. Jacqueline Wilson was my favourite author as a child so everything she wrote was an instant hit, but Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is the first book that made me imagine myself as a writer one day. It was harrowing and enchanting.

3) What was the last text you sent?

Sent my boyfriend a link to a hilarious webcomic called “The Worst Best Firefighter” on www.buttersafe.com

4) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Bacon. It tastes better, and I can’t wrap my jalapeno poppers in tofu, duh.

5) Have you ever had a nickname?

I’ve probably racked up more nicknames than I have years on this planet. People have a hard time pronouncing my name so they give me new ones all the time.

6) What do you write with?

My right hand and an unhealthy amount of trepidation; unless you mean what I actually write with, in which case it’s a pentel energel pen (in purple or green) and a notebook. I’ve recently discovered writing is easier for me when I do it by hand.

7) What is your motto for life?

“You are more than what you’ve done.”

8) Who is your favourite superhero?

Garnet from Steven Universe. What a babe.

9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

I watched a show on a European Channel called Zone Reality years ago that said they could and since then I’ve believed they can. I don’t care to check whether it’s true or not.

10) What’s your favourite thing from childhood that you’ve still got?

A Lion King book my aunt got for me from Disneyland in which a character was created in my name. It’s pretty neat.

11) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

The Australian soap opera or the American film? I don’t watch the former, but if you’re referring to the latter I can finally tell the world that I have a huge crush on Seth Rogen. So Seth Rogen’s character is my favourite.

12) Your piece is nonfiction—will Alexa read it do you think? Are you still in touch?

A year after I moved, I went back to Cape Town (and the boutique). She still worked there, and we exchanged emails, but she hasn’t responded to any I’ve sent, so that’s a no and another no.

13) What’s your favourite swear?

I’m obsessed with common British swear words. Right now it’s bellend.

14) What colour is contentment?

Rose gold, like the saucepans and cutlery set I really want but cannot afford.

15) Have you ever seen a ghost?

After he died I saw my grandfather’s head surrounded by a funeral wreath hovering above the curtains in my room. I may have just been jarred from seeing his body at the funeral.

16) What did you do last Saturday night?

Went out for a couple of drinks with my friends.

17) You hold a dinner party and can only invite writers. Who do you invite?

Leslie Jamison, Zadie Smith, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and Toni Morrison. Girls Only, but I’d make an exception for David Foster Wallace were he still alive.

18) Do you have any recurring dreams?

I’m always falling off a cliff or getting bitten by one or multiple snakes.

19) What question should I have asked you?

Whether I find Ryan Gosling irresistible because I don’t, and I feel like I deserve special recognition for it.

20) What would you do if you were invisible for the day?

That isn’t enough time to make my way to wherever Seth Rogen is, so I’d probably waste it spooking the hell out of people.

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Fell by Jenn Ashworth

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

I blooming loved Fell. Loved it. What a treat to read such an engaging and immersive story. Jenn Ashworth has always been an interesting writer, but it feels to me that she’s hit new heights of awesome with this novel.

The book begins with the awakening of Netty and Jack who have spent death in a place of nothingness and are startled into a watchful, skittering existence by the arrival of their adult daughter at the old family home. Annette has inherited the house from Candy, Jack’s second wife, and, uninhabited for years, it’s a decrepit building; rotting, damp, mouldy, invaded by nature and filthy. The huge Sycamore trees outside have encroached and pushed inside. It’s dangerous and will cost a fortune to fix up. Annette calls a tree surgeon, Eve, who refuses to agree to set to it before a structural engineer takes a look, leading Annette to take matters into her own hands.

Meanwhile, Netty and Jack seem helpless to do anything other than watch scenes from their lives play out, which they narrate with one voice. We see Netty’s struggles to look after lodgers as her terminal illness progresses. We watch as, on a rare family day out to the lido, Jack meets Tim, an enigmatic young man who moves in with them after displaying mysterious powers, bringing hope and and intrigue to the story. As Jack tends Netty, Annette is left alone to entertain herself and Tim works on his dreams of becoming a tailor.

Switching between past and present, Morecambe Bay isn’t so much a backdrop to the novel as a surrounding atmosphere and Ashworth’s descriptions of it are superb, rendering it vivid in all its beauty and ugliness.

“The woods seem to last forever. He finds his pace and continues upwards, tripping over roots and slipping, sometimes, on exposed slabs of limestone, greasy with moss. All the while he is relishing the cold muddy smell of the first fresh air he’s had in days. Netty is rotting; she stinks, and there was no way to cover it up any more. In the spring these woods will reek of bluebells, wild garlic and fox bitches in heat, but there’s nothing in the air today except the scent of musty leaves and stagnant pools of rainwater. It’s still early; a hard bluish light shines between the stripped boughs. The fell slopes steeply upwards, covered in close cropped grass and heather. The sky is low and almost white. No one would put this on a postcard…”

She’s equally magical at conjuring the bits and bobs that make up our day to day – the sweets, crockery, pencils, leaves, the ordinary things that forge our connections with the world.

Forced to bear witness to their daughter’s isolation can Netty and Jack somehow help?

All in Fell is flawed; the characters, the landscape, even the magic. What shines through is the hope, that necessary ingredient that keeps us pushing on through life come what may, and kindness, which may be the best that humans have to offer each other.

Smash Lits with Megan Rowe

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I recently published a wonderful flash by Megan Rowe at The Forge Literary Magazine; Communion. Do give it a read.

Megan kindly agreed to take part in one of my Smash Lits interviews.

1) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern? 

Definitely a Damask pattern. When my son was first born, I lived with my mother in a suburb of Chicago, but when I finally moved out and got an apartment, I painted the walls a dark turquoise and stenciled on a mustard-colored damask pattern. It took forever, and a quarter of the way through I really wanted to give up, but I was too stubborn. It was really ugly, but it was the living room of my son’s first real home.

2) What was the last text you sent?

“I mean, that’s weird.”

3) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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I really like tofu, but bacon wins here. It’s just delicious, that’s why. Plus, my dear friend Eddie would kill me if I chose tofu.

4) What colour is Tuesday?

Stoplight yellow. Not nearly through with the week, but it feels like it’s possible to run through it if I get enough energy.

5) What makes the wind blow?

Your skirt.

6) Do you have a favourite pen?

I do not, it’s just whatever pen I can find at the bottom of my backpack. Often, I can’t find a pen at the bottom and have to ask friends for one—I don’t know where all those pens go, probably where the sisters to all my socks live.

7) Do flowers scream when you pick them?

Does a cat lick its butt?

8) Have you ever written an angry letter/email to a magazine or newspaper?

No, however, a lifetime ago I was a journalist and an organization took out a full-page ad in the newspaper I worked for that was a rant against an article I wrote. I took it as a compliment: Someone read my article??

9) Have you ever woken up laughing?

Yes, frequently. Most recently I had a dream that I was betrothed to a poetry professor at my school (he’s very much married), but I wanted to get out of it, so I told him we probably shouldn’t get married. He cried because he’s an extremely sensitive man, but I could tell he was relieved.

10) Are Cheerios your favourite cereal? If not, what is?

My favorite and least favorite cereal is Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s always in the house because it’s my oldest son’s favorite, and I’ve eaten it so much I’m really sick of it, but when I’m binge watching something late at night I almost always turn to it. Oh yes, I give my children bowls of sugar, crucify me.

11) What is your motto for life?

Goddamnit, just apologize.

12) If your life story was made into a book, what would be the title?

Well, that didn’t work.

13) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

No, but I talked to myself a lot (read: I answered) while staring into mirrors.

14) Have you chosen your funeral song?

“Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison. When my father taught me to drive, all we ever played was Elton John and Van Morrison.

15) Who is your writer crush?

Dorothy Parker—she has so many good lines. A good one: someone asked her to use “horticulture” in a sentence and she said “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Plus, she donated her entire estate to MLK Jr.

16) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Lorrie Moore?

We’d grill hotdogs together, does that count as a sandwich?

17) What’s your favourite swear?

Cunt. I like how it sounds on the tongue.

18) Can you knit?

I can, but I have absolutely zero follow through. I’ve only completed one scarf, but I’ve started a dozen at least.

19) What is the most beautiful word?

Naptime

20) What question should I have asked you?

Well, my fiction professor said that the best stories are based in shame, so I suppose you should have asked me what I’m most ashamed of. Good thing you didn’t.

A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

This isn’t the kind of book I would usually read. I am not someone who thrills to tales of real life violence; the True Crime section in the bookshop is of no interest to me and although I do read in-depth newspaper and magazine articles, I try to steer clear of sensationalist nonsense that seems to glamorise crime. There’s a ton of that crap about though, so clearly there’s an audience.

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two teens who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris injured another 24 people, attempted to kill many more with home made bombs which failed to detonate, and committed suicide. I haven’t read anything beyond news reports at that time, did not want to read assumptions and theories about what happened, but was interested to hear that Sue Klebold had written a book and curious to know what she had to say. I imagined it would be a painful read, and I approached it with empathy – I am a mother of teens, I know our teens make choices that aren’t comfortable for us, but this horror is unimaginable and unbearable. There are those who squarely blame the parents  – how could they not have seen who their sons were? That’s not how I think, but how do you live with that anger against you, that level of blame? How do you endure when your son is revealed to be a hate filled murderer?

This book is Sue Klebold’s attempt to do something positive. She wants to alert people to the signs she missed in her own son (that he had “brain illness”, that he was depressed, bullied, at break point. She aligns herself with other mothers of kids who committed suicide, albeit murder-suicide, and speaks about how her son wanted to die. Unlike Eric Harris, who wanted to kill. There is a clear distinction.)

Sometimes people speak passionately and the words are vivid and maybe a little messy, but heartfelt, and other times, usually when professionals speak, each word has been carefully chosen and the delivery is dry and careful. This book is the latter. It reads as if lawyers have combed through it 1,000 times for anything potentially damaging. There is nothing here but a few descriptions of her son, meaningless to anyone except her family, a few anecdotes that present him as “normal”, a lot of scientific evidence of brain illness, and an avoidance of anything potentially controversial. The first few chapters describe her disbelief as the police turn up at her home immediately after the shootings. She has no access to news but bits filter through as she waits outside while the house is searched, enough that she understands her son was involved. She assumes he was an unwilling participant, or didn’t understand what was happening, or was in thrall to Eric Harris. But she won’t describe the actual events, or what it felt like to comprehend the truth.

There is a necessary need not to offer a template for others, but what is left is not a compelling read. It’s a terrible story, but we do not learn anything here and Klebold seems reluctant to go beaneath the surface. Perhaps she can’t, our minds protect us from unbearable things, but it makes me wonder why she wrote this.

The most valuable thing in the book is not written by her. In the introduction, Andrew Solomon says, “…we want to believe that parents create criminals because in supposing that, we reassure ourselves that in our own house, where we are not doing such wrong things, we do not risk this calamity. I am aware of this delusion, because it was mine…

I came away thinking that the psychopathy behind the Columbine massacre could emerge in anyone’s household. It would be impossible to predict or recognise; like a tsunami, it would make a mockery of all our preparations.”

Which is chilling, but feels true to me. There is a tipping point when our children, necessarily so, grow away from us and all we can do is hope the foundations we have laid hold them steady. We can’t be responsible for their actions. Klebold’s efforts to get more recognition and support for people suffering mental illness is admirable and I applaud her determination to use this awful notoriety she has to do something positive. I don’t think this is a good book though. There are a variety of assertions made – “We’ve all felt angry enough to fantasise about killing someone else.” Well, no, actually I haven’t. “Most of us can’t name a single celebrity who has struggled–successfully anyway–with depression or another mood disorder…” Erm, well actually I can… There’s an attempt to present Dylan Klebold as a “normal” teen but offers scant evidence of it and all the while we know that behind his mother’s back he was writing diaries planning his suicide, filming vitriolic segments with Eric Harris, playing with guns, getting into trouble with the police.

Why would we want to judge Sue Klebold? Why would we need to? I hope she finds a peace in her activism and support. But this is a book review and this book is not great.

Smash Lits with Brian Broome

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I had the absolute pleasure of choosing a brilliant non-fiction flash to publish this week at The Forge Literary Magazine. Balk by Brian Broome manages to be poignant, achy, sad and funny. It’s a snapshot of him as a young, gay, black American boy and it fucking rocks. As does his Smash Lits interview. Thanks, Brian!

1) What is your favourite cheese?

Whiz.

2) What was your favourite book as a child?

“The Pigman” by Paul Zindel.

3) Who is/was your unlikely crush?

Alan Alda.

4) Who would play you in the film of your flash?

Caleb McGlaughlin from “Stranger Things”.
(Aww – I can see that!)

5) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Bacon, Bacon, Bacon, Bacon. Why? Because bacon and I read that tofu gives men boobs. I don’t care if that’s true or not and I guess enough bacon could give me boobs. But, if I’m gonna have boobs, they’re gonna be bacon boobs.

6) Creative nonfiction or fiction? Why? 

Creative nonfiction to write. Fiction to read.

7) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Any of the unfinished symphonies or K-POP.

8) Have you ever had a nickname? What?

Never ever tell. Ok, my Dad called me Big Boo.

9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust

Yes. I’ve seen it.

10) How much money did you spend yesterday?

I spent 52 dollars at the Dollar Store.

11) What’s your most vivid childhood memory?

I think you may have just read it.

12) Do you bite your nails?

Yes. But, only for grooming purposes, not out of nervousness.

13) What’s your favourite sweet (candy)?

OREOS!! ALL THE 500 FLAVORS.

14) What is your motto for life?

Construct. Delude. Believe.

15) What did you do last Saturday night?

I worked. I wait tables and Saturday is a big night.

16) You hold a dinner party and can only invite writers. Who do you
invite?

Jackie Collins and Frantz Fanon. THAT would be interesting.

17) Do you have any writing rituals?

Procrastinate until the last minute.

18) What’s your favourite ball?

Any of the balls featured in “Paris is Burning”.

19) What’s your favourite swear?

GATDAMN!!

20) What question should I have asked you?

“Do you enjoy your life?”
Answer: “I guess so.”

 

Ghost trees

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I visited the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens on Friday. This wonderful tree, a Davidia involucrata – informally known as a handkerchief tree, a dove tree, or a ghost tree, because of its beautiful white “bracts” which flutter in the breeze – is in full bloom, and truly a glorious sight.

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Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I kept thinking about it. What a tree! How brilliant that I didn’t know it existed and then there it was; perfect, astonishing, surprising.

It’s nine years today since Matt Kinnison died. I bet he’d have liked this tree. He’d probably have known all about it because he knew a LOT of things. He’d have liked the informal names and the floaty shapes and the fact it’s named after Father Amand David, a French missionary who lived in China and discovered the Giant Panda.

Nine years passing means the sting, the grief, the pain, has gone. Not having Matt in my life is the norm now. Such a bloody shame though.

If I told you my flash was based on a dream I had about Ted Hughes it’d sound really shit…

But hopefully, it isn’t. Thank you to Lauren Becker for publishing Corium Magazine and including my short, short fiction – The Poet, Ted in the latest edition.