Thursday, 13 September 2012

Book Festival Transwonderland

The fiftieth anniversary of the famous Writers' Conference during the 1962 Edinburgh International Festival was celebrated with various events at this year's Book Festival. I chose, however, to go only to a number of events which particularly interested me. Online podcasts of the 50th anniversary events are in any case readily available.
Noo Saro-Wiwa  was interviewed by Drew Campbell, and highlighted as 'The Scottish PEN "Free the Word" Event'. She lived in Britain for a long time, and is the daughter of Nigerian political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was judicially murdered by the Abacha military dictatorship. Her reading was about her return visit to a now democratic Nigeria, which is recorded in Looking for Transwonderland. It is no conventional travelogue, but a clear-eyed, very well-informed, and often very funny, look at Nigeria from her enlightening perspective of dual citizenship. The title refers to an amusement park in Lagos which is nearly falling apart, yet also testifies to a yearning from Nigerians to make their country a better place, and their irrepressible optimism about not only the possibility, but the necessity to do so.
Janine di Giovanni and Ed Vulliamy, chaired by Bidisha with tact and sensitivity as both are not only veteran war-zone journalists, but also strong personalities, gave their personal accounts of the war following the break-up of Yugoslavia which devastated Bosnia twenty years ago now. It was, as the Book Festival programme all too accurately described it, 'the worst carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich'. It demonstrated once again how bestial human beings can be to each other, even when, or perhaps especially when, close neighbours. Di Giovanni and Vulliamy also rightly blamed the failure of nerve of the western powers in being so slow to intervene, as well as the forces of extreme Serb and Croat nationalism. A more temperate account of this event is to be found in Morelle Smith's excellent blog.
David Bellos, who translated the novels of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare, among others, gave a gripping talk on the art of translation. He argued that attempting 'faithful' translations of any text is a futile exercise. It is in the nature of language that we always 'translate' to each other, even when we speak the 'same' language. All communication involves using language in various contexts, and it is these contexts which create meaning, not isolated words.
Two literary heavyweights, Joyce Carol Oates and Carol Ann Duffy, read and discussed their work to sell-out audiences in the capacious tent of the RBS Theatre. Duffy read from The Bees, and also impersonated the likes of Mrs. Noah, with accompaniment from the 'merry flautist' John Sampson. A surprise bonus was her inviting Roger McGough from the audience to read a couple of poems. Oates was introduced by Jackie McGlone with a light, unobtrusive touch, highlighting informality. She read from her new novel Mudwoman and gave something of a brilliant masterclass in how she structured her novel, which explores the psychology of dreams and the pain of bereavement.
John Lanchester, chaired by Alan Taylor, read from his novel Capital, and discussed the consequences of financial meltdown in terms of the gentrification of a London street originally populated by a thriving, or at least reasonably cohesive, working-class community. His satirical bite was complemented by banter from Taylor about class in Edinburgh.
A more benign view of Edinburgh was given by Ron Butlin. Chaired by Gavin Wallace, he read from the poems he wrote as Edinburgh Makar in The Magicians of Edinburgh. 'David Hume Takes a Last Walk on Arthur's Seat' was especially moving. Paul Durcan gave a bravura performance in a morning session at the Spiegeltent. His poems were full of dark humour, but he read them with perky defiance and a strong sense of irony for a solid three quarters of an hour. It's a pity though that the audience was not invited to ask questions, thus making it a rather short session. Bashabi Fraser read from Ragas and Reels, poems about Scots-Asians, with photographs by Herman Rodrigues, who gave a brief talk, peppered with anecdotal jokes, about his enthusiasm for photography. She also talked about Under the Banyan Tree, a sumptuously illustrated book about Scots who made a great contribution to the Raj and are still fondly remembered in India.
The 'transwonderland' of economic chicanery all over the globe, with attendant crass exploitation, drug and sex trafficking, plus violence with 'extreme prejudice' was discussed, with many a vivid story, by the writer and journalist Lydia Cacho. A woman of steely courage, she mentioned how a drug-lord in Mexico, her homeland, offered to be her 'protector'. Bumping into her in a restaurant, he asked her to drop a napkin, thereby not compromising herself, if she wanted a kingpin who threatened her to be 'taken care of '. She went back to friends at her table and hissed 'Don't you dare drop a napkin!'.

Mario Relich

Friday, 24 August 2012

Two War Correspondents Remember Bosnia

Discussion at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 17th August 2012 - Janine di Giovanni and Ed Vulliamy, - twenty years on from the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Chaired by Bidisha

Ed Vuilliamy said that the war in Bosnia broke preconceptions. His optimism and his faith were shattered. He used to believe that justice would prevail, that the good guys would win and the bad ones would be punished, but such ideas were blown apart with this war. He spoke passionately about the ‘impotence and hubris’ of the international community and its politicians.

Janine said that journalists felt they ‘can and must do something’. We used to feel she said, that our reporting could actually affect policy. That their work was about ‘bearing witness’ an overused phrase she agreed yet one that seemed to fit. To give a voice to people who don’t have one. But she admitted that since Bosnia, a lot of reporting seems to be more geared towards getting scoops and newspaper sales.

In the days of the war in Bosnia she reminds us, back in the 90s, they used to be there before others got there, before médecins sans frontières got there, before the NGOs got there. Nowadays, we have embedded reporting which she thinks is destructive of journalism – you are censored in what you write. For her, it was always important to go and talk to the people involved, go into the villages and speak to them, which cannot be done if you’re embedded.

In his book, as Bidisha points out, Ed names things as they are, he talks about mass rape for example, he detests the euphemisms so often used. Collateral damage he says, means a village consisting mainly of women, children and the elderly, is attacked, and the inhabitants killed.

When asked about the ‘neutrality’ of journalists, Janine said ‘I’m a journalist and I’m not supposed to have a side’ but that doesn’t mean that they should not have compassion for the people who were suffering. She says she usually has seen war from the side of those who were having the worst of it, and being attacked.

She related how guilty she felt when after a few weeks or so in Sarajevo she went to Zagreb for a short time, to have a break - and a shower. She felt that she should be back there, in Sarajevo where the others were suffering all the dangers and privations of the siege. All the foreign journalists were very aware, she said, that they were in a different situation from the Bosnian people – if things got very difficult for them, they could leave, they could get out. Not so, for the people of Sarajevo.

Journalists need to be objective about facts yes, but neutrality is something else.
Ed Vulliamy was accused of ‘breaching neutrality’ by testifying at the Hague. Some reporters felt he should not have, because journalists are supposed to be neutral, report facts and not take sides. But Ed said he was horrified by the ‘neutrality’ of the international community. The war could have been stopped with very little loss of life he says, if the international community had intervened. Each case has to be weighed individually, he does not always think that intervention is the right action, but in this case, he says, yes it was.

Janine reminds us that in Bosnia, this was in the days before emails and the internet, before blogging and twitter. We had to phone in our reports, she said, reading them out from the page we’d written it on. Journalism nowadays is too much about journalists, rather than about the people they have gone there to report on. They are encouraged to write in the first person.

Ed says he tries to make himself invisible in his story. ‘We [the journalists] don’t matter.’ Yes, he says, it is hard after seeing all that they have seen, their ‘post traumatic lives’ are not easy.

Janine says she is bitter about the siege in Sarajevo, as it could have been stopped. ‘politicians allowed it to happen’. She says there should have been intervention in Sarajevo before the siege. We can never forget what happened, she says, - and it seems we [humanity] are doomed to repeat our mistakes [as in Syria today].
In Bosnia, Ed said, it was complicated by both victims and perpetrators being neighbours, knowing each other so well. He was told by one person who had been tortured that his torturer said to him – your grandfather tortured my grandfather. The pleasure that was taken in torturing was also horrific to them. There was a strange kind of atmosphere, he said, a kind of chumminess between perpetrators and victims, and then the atrocities would happen.

They were asked about their present situation – if they were still able to write their own stories – both because of embedded journalism and because of the traumatic nature of their work.
Janine said – I still do it. Then she talked about young, desperate, would be journalists who blog and even go to war zones and undertake dangerous border crossings when they know very little about the situation. Whereas they are experienced journalists who can far better assess situations in general and the level of risk involved. These young people she said, think it’s glamorous to be a war correspondent but it’s not at all. But I can still earn a living. Photo journalists I know, often have to fund themselves. But those who are truly committed will do that.

Ed said that his last assignment was in Mexico and he found it so frightening, the amount of death and torture, that he has ‘hung up his boots’. It’s not that he does not care or feel any more, but he has ‘commitment fatigue’. He thinks it’s time to come back to the UK and do some ‘foreign reporting’ here.

These are reports from people who were there and saw what went on. Who can relate the stories of what people have gone through, who can give a voice to people who do not have one, people who have disappeared, or have been murdered, shelled, tortured, raped, imprisoned. Without them, we would know very little, and that little would probably be a mass of rumour and counter rumour and we would not know who to believe. We can certainly believe these people for their observations are skilled and articulate, their compassion and commitment is very clear.

Among Janine di Giovanni’s other books are Madness Visible, about the war in Kosovo
and The Quick and the Dead about the war in Bosnia.


Morelle Smith

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Marché de la Poésie Saint Sulpice, Paris, June 2012

It’s the 30th Marché de la Poésie and it takes place in the tree shaded square by the newly renovated church of Saint Sulpice, Paris. There are hundreds of publishing houses represented here, some well known, some small, all selling volumes of poetry - though there are also a few works of prose to be found. The canvas covered stalls often have more than one publisher sharing a marquee. They flank the elegant stone fountain in the middle of the square, and are bordered by trees on three sides. This gives a sheltered and intimate feeling to the space, drawing booksellers and the wandering public into a complicity with the rustling leaves and warm summer sunshine. 

After the official opening, where speeches were made on the small stage, a crowd of people were milling around, drinking wine, talking to stall holders and each other. People who have made purchases dangle clearly marked Marché de la Poésie bags from their wrists. I sat on a bench for a while, watching the superbly elegant women, colourful and striking, and well dressed or bohemian chic gentlemen, several of the older ones sporting grey or white pony tails. I then headed off to the stall of LaTraductière,the literary magazine that publishes and translates poetry and essays into English and French. 

Jacques Rancourt is the editor of the magazine and has set up Festrad,Festival de la Poésiefranco-anglaise, part of the Marché de la Poésie. He has been dedicated to this for over two decades, and has also brought in artists and musicians, working around the varied themes which are presented each year. This year’s theme was ‘The Poetic Attention.' Fifty poems and 20 essays are included in the latest issue of La Traductiere, by writers from several different countries.  Several poets from Singapore were among the invitedguests and read from their work in the evenings, on the central stage close to the carved lions of the stone fountain. 
These readings were in an exciting and exotic mixture of languages. Singapore has four official languages, English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay and poets writing in all of these languages were represented. When I listened to Zou Lu, for example, whose native language is Chinese, I didn’t understand one word, but her presentation was arresting and dramatic. Her translator then read her work in French.

One of the poems she read, unfortunately not printed in the magazine, began as a poem about getting lost out in the country where there were several roads to take but not knowing which one was the right one. But, she says, addressing the reader, do not be concerned for us, for se perdre c’est notre terre natale (to be lost, that is home territory for us) 

Zou Lu and her translators

Included in this year’s edition of la Traductière, the 30th, as well as the poems and essays, there are illustrations of some of the poems, by different artists. The original art works are exhibited in the gallery and theatre Nesle, in the tiny rue de Nesle. It is tucked away between an arched alleyway leading away from the busy Boulevard flanking the river, and that part of the left bank around rue de Seine that’s stuffed with art galleries. 

Galerie Nesle seen through the door onto the courtyard
InStefaan van den Bremt’s essay – The Poetic Attention – he begins:
Poetry is everywhere but it comes from elsewhere. Its kingdom is not this world with its so familiar horizons....Poetry disturbs. It demands from us a particular attention, one which consists of seeing in our daily life something other than the familiar, in capturing a unique experience from the everyday. Poetry is another way of reading reality.

He quotes Paul Claudel and Martinus Nijhoff who both, at different times, and in different languages, link poetry with the act of breathing air into the lungs.

Martinus Nijhoff - Poetry wants you to breathe in places that are alive and
...[one] feels, when reading or listening to prose, in the human world...but poetry does not give you that sensation of closeness to the human world. It hurtles you out into the universe.

In the small tree lined square by Saint Sulpice, the air is certainly alive – with the evening scents of trees and plants, as well as with the animated sounds of human exchange. After being ‘hurtled out into the universe’ from listening to poetry from different parts of the world, it is a pleasure to circulate among lovers of words, languages and books, to talk to people, to return to a sensation of closeness to the human world.

Morelle Smith

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Joys of Translation

Carl von Linné – or Linnaeus as the world outside Sweden remembers him – was what we would now call a “control-freak”. And like all control-freaks, he was often frustrated by the unwillingness of people, animals and the natural world in general to do as they were told. Even as a boy, he would order his younger siblings around:

Follow me! Do as I do! … Copy me! Say after me! …”

But his brothers and sisters would go about their business unheeding.

The future taxonomist’s curiosity about the natural world had started at a young age:

Earlier, there was another, smaller garden and a boy’s passionate interest in plants.
What’s that called?” “What’s that called?”
Carl walked in that garden with his father.
What’s that?” “What’s that?”

His father, pleased by the boy’s thirst for knowledge but tired of his forgetfulness, spoke harshly to him and issued a threat: that he would never again tell the boy the names of the plants if he forgot them after they had once been named.”

Now, the little boy is a professor at Uppsala where, God-like, he names the flora and fauna and everything in Creation and tells his students, the “disciples”, that nothing has changed and nothing new has developed since God created the world. But his students bring him strange hybrids they have found on their nature walks, and his uneducated gardener has insights into Nature that leave Linnæus at a loss for words:

The gardener points to a tree.
A pine,” says Linnæus.
The gardener points to another tree.
A spruce,” says Linnæus.
The gardener points to another tree, which resembles a pine and resembles a spruce.
Linnæus tries to see if the tree is a pine or a spruce.
It’s an intermediate form. Linnæus is silent, unwilling to discuss this with a gardener. Such things are uncertain.
The gardener asks if the pine and the spruce haven’t interbred.
Like a horse and a donkey make a mule.”

The gardener likes to sit in the garden on hot days and make music on his rather unusual stringed instrument. His friends simply enjoy the music, but Linnæus the taxonomist is tortured by the need to classify, to name:

When the sounds reach Linnæus’s window, he usually comes down and asks the gardener to tell him how the instrument came into his possession and how the sounding-board comes to have seventeen strings.
Linnæus also usually asks the gardener after a little while to explain how the relationship between the melody strings and the drones is to be understood and why the latter cannot be shortened.
After a while, Linnæus also usually asks whether the instrument is called a zither or a dulcimer …”

Linnæus plants a Siberian garden, which attracts the unwelcome attentions of a neighbour’s goats. He has a stone wall built round it, but the goats vault it at night. He runs down in his night-things with a whip and chases them away, but when he is back in bed he hears them in the garden again:

Late August. The goats seem to relish the Siberian peony and the Siberian aster. At night the Siberian garden is full of goats.”

He dispatches his “disciples” around the world with instructions to send him samples of all the exotic flora and fauna they encounter. Only Rolander comes back, ill and spitting blood, with news of his fellow-students and their various fates:

Sparschuh? Fell downstairs, dead. Wetterman? Burnt to death. Grufberg? Cut his throat with a razor, dead. Baeckner? Died of fever in Paris … Gisler? Mad, murdered three people. Edvall? Buried in Canton … Björnståhl? Died of plague at Litocoro, Greece. Lundborg? Drowned. Salomon? Drowned. Luut? Drowned. Wennerberg? Drowned. Söderberg? Drowned.”

Finally, Linnæus is felled by a mystery illness resembling a stroke and, with dreadful irony, the supremely articulate and knowledgeable scientist who tried to name and define the created world is reduced to an incoherent wreck:

Yet Lövberg understands. Linnæus has his own words in place of the usual ones. He has forgotten all the usual ones, one after the other. … First, the nouns. Monandria and Tetradynamia, gone. Buttons, buttonholes, waistcoats, gone. Weasel, fish, knife, cheese – gone. … Now Linnæus is saying nothing but “To ti! To ti!”

*   *

Linné/Linnæus is the central character in Magnus Florin’s quirky little novel Trädgården (The Garden), which was published in Sweden in 1995. Shortly afterwards I was commissioned to translate extracts for Swedish Book Review and the now defunct cultural magazine Artes International. I always assumed that someone would finish the job and that the book would be published in this country or in the USA, but it hasn’t happened, so I’ve finished the job myself and shown the translation to a couple of publishers. One lives in hope!

The book has had another incarnation, as an opera performed in the beautiful Drottningholm Palace Theatre – the best-preserved 18th-century theatre in the world. The palace of Drottningholm, on the island of that name in Lake Mälar, near Stockholm, is the permanent residence of the Swedish royal family.

The author Magnus Florin is a well-known novelist and playwright in Sweden and also works as chefdramaturg – roughly, literary director – at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, a post once held by Ingmar Bergman.

Magnus Florin

When I first translated extracts from this book, back in the 1990s, I felt a bit handicapped by my ignorance of horticulture, botany and zoology. However, we now live in the age of Google, God bless it, and I soon found that Googling an unfamiliar, often dialectal word used by Florin for some Swedish plant would yield a Latin name which I could then Google in its turn to get an equivalent English name. I’m still not exactly a candidate for Gardener’s Question Time but my ignorance of horticulture is perhaps not quite so complete as it was.

While I wait to hear whether The Garden will make it into Britain’s bookshops or not, I’m bracing myself for the next assignment. IB Tauris have just commissioned me to translate a brand-new biography of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat abducted in Hungary at the end of WWII and allegedly imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag, although the Soviets denied this throughout the Cold War, poisoning relations with Sweden. The author, Bengt Jangfeldt, is a specialist in Russian language and culture, and has had access to hitherto secret KGB files, so his book should be an interesting read. It hasn’t even appeared in Sweden yet, so IB Tauris are obviously keen to cash in on any publicity it gets there when it appears later this year.

I have already translated several of Bengt’s books, including a prize-winning biography of Axel Munthe – author of The Story of San Michele and supposedly “the most famous Swede of all time” – and more recently a literary biography of the Russian Futurist poet V. V. Mayakovsky (still awaiting a British or American publisher). 


Being a translator means being on a permanent learning curve. The Munthe book taught me more about the island of Capri than I ever expected to know, and one of the perks of doing the translation was a week’s free holiday at Easter-time in the Villa San Michele itself, with spectacular views over the Bay of Naples.

Thanks to reading and translating the Mayakovsky blockbuster, I became an overnight authority on the literary culture of the Bolshevik revolution (most of which I have managed to forget since), and I now look forward to becoming an instant expert, at least for the duration of this translation, on the Cold War in the Baltic region.

Harry D. Watson

Friday, 4 May 2012

Book Recommendation

Scottish PEN members might like to check out the recent New Island Books release,

Banished Babies The Secret Story of Ireland’s Baby Export Business –Updated and Expanded Edition

This is the updated version of RTE (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) investigative journalist Mike Milotte's book, first published in the 1990s, about overseas adoptions of Irish babies born in Irish mother-baby homes and effectively sold through schemes run by the Irish state and Catholic church. The first edition followed Milotte's RTE-tv exposé which broke the story to a nation and world that didn't want to believe it. Today the breadth and effects of these schemes, and of efforts to understand them and compensate those born into or had their lives variously changed by them, is clearer. Banished Babies is an essential resource for anyone trying to understand how something like this could/did happen and continues to affect victims round the world.

You can read a review of the book in  The Irish Times here

Elizabeth Marriott

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Shakespeare in Stirling

'As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'OPEN STAGES' project, John Coutts has written ' SHAKESPEARE IN STIRLING'; in which the great poet and dramatist makes an undercover visit to Scotland as an English government agent. He visits the royal court in Castle, where King James VI is scheming to inherit the English throne.
Subtitled 'an unhistorical fantasy', John's one-act play presents an entertaining view of life at the turn of the sixteenth century, asks questions about the role of the artist in society, and offers suggestions as to the motivation of the the ever-enigmatic "Master W.S."
The play will be performed as part of 'Midsummer Madness' to be presented by the Riverside Drama Club at The Cowane Centre, Stirling, from May 16-19.'

Monday, 30 April 2012

House of exile

 In February or March this year, International PEN asked members for a few lines on a piece of writing by a woman writer we particularly admired, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th. You can find the contributions sent in  on their website here 

Some of the books I’ve already read, but others I have not heard of, and I will definitely be tracking some of them down.

This made me think of other books I’ve felt inspired by, which others may also enjoy.

This is an excerpt from a review I wrote of

Evelyn JuersHouse of Exile, published in 2011.  (The complete text can be 
found here)

This is what biography should be! This book pushes you deep into the consciousness of the time by its descriptions of the lives of individuals.

The main characters are the writer Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly Kröger-Mann. Other members of the Mann family put in frequent appearances particularly his brother, the Nobel prize-winning Thomas and his son Klaus, and a host of other writers, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Jakob Wassermann and many others. It takes us through the thirties and the rise of fascism in Europe, and the war years.

Evelyn Juers has managed very cleverly, I think, and after a huge amount of research, to get inside the lives of her main characters. She does this partly by quoting their letters and journals, partly through magnificent writing where she does not signal her presence by waving opinions or interpretations, though does sometimes say things like - I imagine her walking down the Kurfurstendamn etc. So that we feel as if we are experiencing events through the eyes of the people described. And there is no hint of judgement, but rather, great compassion, which is not overtly stated, but in which the whole book is steeped, like a colour, a subtle scent or flavour, the kind of light which is only found in a certain place, whether geographical or psychological.

One of the many passages that sticks in my mind is the way Heinrich Mann [then nearly seventy] and the others with him had to climb over the Pyrenees to escape to Spain. And how the Nazis in pursuit reached Cerbère near the French-Spanish border a day later – they were just in time. The relentless pressure, anxiety, fear for oneself and one's loved ones. No wonder people turned to alcohol, and came to rely on morphine, barbiturates and other drugs, as they tried to sleep at nights.

Thomas Mann's journals and letters are often quoted. It's clear from them that he never liked Nelly, Heinrich's wife, considering her 'common'. After her death –she had problems with alcohol, other health problems, and eventually took her own life – Thomas Mann says 'she caused him [Heinrich] a lot of trouble.' She also cooked for him, looked after him, typed up his manuscripts, went out to work and took on menial jobs in the USA to support both of them, and clearly loved him. She was described by others as 'a ray of sunshine', and 'the kindest person I ever met'. Heinrich was devastated by her death, and particularly remembered her courage and how she helped him when they were escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain.

So relevant to our own times too, as many refugees from various wars and oppressive regimes continue to seek asylum, escaping from horrors quite unimaginable to us, who live in freedom and relative security.

Morelle Smith

Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Tale of Two Harriets

Once upon a time there were two authors called Harriet. Superficially they had much in common. Both American, they were born and died within a couple of years of each other. Both were dedicated to ending slavery. However, there the similarities end.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up in a family prominent in education and theology. Her contacts made her an international force in the abolitionist movement. In 1853 she was invited to Scotland by the Glasgow Ladies’ New Anti-Slavery Society. She appeared to a packed audience in the City Hall, after which she embarked on a tour of the UK. She corresponded with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry Longfellow and the Duke of Argyll. She visited the Duchess of Sutherland (and wrote in support of the policy of the Clearances). She befriended Byron’s widow and attracted hate mail by a “vindication” of her friend exposing Byron’s relationship with his sister.

Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicting the lives of American slaves was the second best-selling book of the 19th century, surpassed only by the Bible. President Lincoln is said to have acknowledged the novel’s pivotal role in abolishing slavery.

In later years the novel’s stereotypical characterisation appeared racist. Amongst 20th century Civil Rights activists Uncle Tom became a byword for the unquestioning acceptance of one’s station.

The novel is a page-turner, full of melodrama (could a woman leap across the ice-floes in a fast-flowing river while carrying a 4-year old child?) with the eponymous hero repeatedly brought within hours of freedom only to be dragged down and sold to a worse master. Beecher Stowe also highlighted specifically female aspects: sexual enslavement and the separation of mothers and babies. In recent years a revisionist view has emerged of Uncle Tom as a Christ-like figure, so perhaps the novel is due a revival.

Harriet Ann Jacobs
The life of Harriet Ann Jacobs ran a different course. Orphaned and sold at six, at age eight she became aware of her status as a slave.

Jacobs was luckier than many. She was never flogged or put to physical torture. She suffered relentless sexual harassment but (if we accept her account) her master’s aim was to break her spirit and he never raped her.

Her first mistress, in defiance of the law, taught her to read and write. Literacy enabled her to provide a rare first-hand account of slavery and eventually to become a spokesperson for black people.

After getting a letter published in a newspaper Jacobs determined to write and publish her own tale. At the time her situation was uncertain; she had escaped to the North but maintained a low profile for fear of being arrested and returned to her owners.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Told by Herself  lacks the high drama of   Uncle Tom’s Cabin but has the advantage of authenticity. It is also a page-turner, vividly yet subtly written, demonstrating the psychological debasement of everyone connected with slavery. There is even understanding of the resentment shown by plantation owners’ wives towards the slaves whom their husbands molested.

The most horrific episode is chronic rather than acute. For seven years Jacobs hid in an attic, in a space too cramped to stand up. During this time her children (fathered but not owned by a prominent white politician) grew from infancy to adolescence. She never dared make contact and observed them only through a peephole in the loft.

As a woman Jacobs hoped to liberate not only herself but her children. She never internalised her enslavement and worked towards attaining freedom on her own terms, without endorsing slavery. She was furious when a well-meaning white friend bought her freedom for her.

On the advice of friends Jacobs showed her book to Beecher Stowe, who wanted to incorporate it into her own work. However Jacobs refused, hoping to publish the book on her own account.

She struggled. The few publishers who showed interest demanded she censor all sexual references. Yet Jacobs knew that by focusing on the effect of slavery on female chastity she would gain the support of influential organisations of Christian women.

One company offered to publish if Beecher Stowe contributed a foreword. However Beecher Stowe – possibly still hoping to gain ownership of the story – refused her endorsement and the publisher then rejected the book.

Jacobs’ work was at first serialised in journals. In 1861 it appeared as a book under the pseudonym Linda Brent, first as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Told by Herself and then (in a version omitting all sexual reference) entitled A True Tale of Slavery.

The Civil War started the same year. Jacobs’ brother John (who since escaping from slavery in 1838 had become a major figure in the abolitionist movement) spent the year promoting her books in London, where they understandably found more favour than in the States. Harriet herself devoted her energies during and after the war to improving the conditions of black people, setting up schools and campaigning to end segregation.

A tale of two Harriets.  One well-connected in her time and a household name to this day.  The other overcoming unimaginable obstacles to publicise and improve the circumstances of her people, yet today sunk in obscurity. An uplifting story in many ways but also evidence of the fact that fame has always depended more on who you are than on what you do.

Mary McCabe

Monday, 5 March 2012

Recollections of early days at Scottish Pen and of a Writing Life

I felt very honoured to be invited to become the next Honorary President of Scottish Pen and was delighted to accept.

I published my first adult novel, Liam's Daughter, set in Ireland and France,in 1963. When my second one, The Prevailing Wind, firmly placed in the Marchmont district of Edinburgh, came out the following year the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, decided to give me a party in a venue in Queen Street. This event helped to change my life.

I was young, I had two children under the age of three, with another due later that year, I lived in the small village of Temple, twelve miles from the city, which I seldom left, and I knew nothing of 'the writing life'. I had met briefly only a single author,one of Scotland's finest novelists, Robin Jenkins, who was a friend of a man in the village. I lacked people to talk to.

Two other Hodder authors were invited to my event. Nigel Tranter, who was then president of Scottish Pen, and James Allan Ford, a member of the committee. They descended on me immediately crying 'You must join Scottish Pen!' I had never heard of it. I joined and my life opened up.

Pen predominantly meant friendship for me. Friendship with other writers to whom I could talk and exchange ideas. We met in Gladstone's Land, a magical atmospheric place in which to gather. Many of those writers I met in the sixties are no longer with us, sadly some whose names would not even be recognised by members today. Oswald Wynd, Tranter, Jim Ford, Marie Muir, Lavinia Derwent, Cherry Drummond in whose castle, Megginch, we had many summer parties, Ronald Johnston, Cliff Hanley, Douglas Young, John Calder, and others whose names escape me. We had evenings with special guests. MacDiarmid. Helen Cruikshank. Chinua Achebe. Heinrich Boll. Saul Bellow. I remember vividly the evening with Bellow. Half a dozen of us sat in a small circle with him in the back room at Gladstone's Land. He talked and we listened, entranced. One person who was a stalwart member then and still remains so is Mary Baxter, who has given so much to Pen over the years.

In the late 60s a group of us from Scottish Pen and the Society of Authors got together and initiated a festival for writers which we ran during the Edinburgh International Festival. We felt writers had been ignored. We began in a modest way, with one event per morning for one week. None of the authors got paid in the early years. We were mostly Scottish. With the help of some finance from SAC we rented a room in the Carlton Hotel to begin with, moved on to the Balmoral, then the George, and finally, for a few years, to the Roxburgh. We drew in some well known names. Martin Amis,  Antonia Fraser, Salman Rushdie (before he became famous) Rose Tremaine, Jane Gardam, amongst others. The festivals were small, intimate and friendly.

At the beginning of the 80s I was chairing the book festival committee as well as serving as a council member of SAC and its literature committee, now defunct. The idea of holding a festival - a more official, well-funded one - in Charlotte Square gardens gradually grew out of our events in the Roxburgh, and so in 1983 the Edinburgh Book Festival, as we know it today, was born.

When I look back on those years I don't know how I got time to bring up three children, serve on various committees and write books, but somehow or other I did. In 1970 I published The Twelfth Day of July, set at the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and was launched as a children's writer. I continued to write adult novels as well as plays for television. In those days producers actually approached you and invited you to write for them. I learned the ropes by writing first for the soap High Living and went on to write for one-off play slots like Play for Today that no longer exist. I was then invited to dramatise my four novels about a Glasgow girl called Maggie in 18 episodes, which went out on BBC Two over two years.

When I got my first contract from Hodder I was asked if I would be prepared to give talks in bookshops or libraries and give press and radio interviews. Totally naive, I answered no to all of them! How times have changed! You wouldn't be taken on by a publisher now unless you were prepared to 'support' your book. Writers are expected to go out and sell themselves, which is something I deplore. I am glad I started a career as a writer when I did. Times were saner then to my mind. Writers were valued for the quality of their work as well as how many books they could sell. I continue to write. How can I stop? I began when I was eleven years old. Writers never retire.

Scottish Pen has changed in many ways since I first became a member. More emphasis is placed on supporting Writers in Prison, which is admirable. I am fully in support of that and have been happy to read at EIBF events in support of it when I have been able to.

A writer's life is full of ups and downs, highs and lows, but I feel fortunate to have been free to write what I want to write  and not to have the restrictions placed upon me that so many less fortunate writers in other parts of the world have.

Joan Lingard

Read more about Joan Lingard at her website