Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Stories a-go-go

This is Bowling Harbour with old boats rotting away, an outmoded form of transport which in its day was vital. I'm including it because today I made a long-overdue trip to the Transport Museum, otherwise known as the Riverside Museum on the side of Glasgow’s river. Foregoing any form of transport, I made my way there on foot along the walkway come cyclepath and then a rather inglorious and puddly track. It was a beautiful sunny, windy autumn day so this was in itself a joy. The car park was crammed to overflowing anyway and so was the museum.

Here is Aberdeen Harbour in May this year as seen from the top of the Orkney boat. A little different from Bowling, but fundamentally serving the same purpose. I loved the grandeur of these ships and their many colours, arriving from and going to who-knows-where and carrying-who-knows-what.

I’m old enough to remember the transport museum when it was in the ‘Tramway’ in Pollokshields, now an arts centre. I remember getting the 59 bus there with my dad and little brother. I’m sorry to say I found it dull back then, just a lot of dusty old buses and what was so interesting about cars anyway? As a result I don’t think I ever visited it when it was in the Kelvin Hall.

And let me wander a bit here: I do remember the Kelvin Hall when it housed the Circus and the shows at Christmas, though my English dad would have called it the Fun Fair. I’ll never forget the smell of elephants or being turned upside down in certain brightly painted machines with rows of coloured light bulbs whizzing past me.

Anyway, I’m here to recommend the Riverside Museum to everyone. I have a long list of favourite people I’d like to invite along on my next trip there. For those of you concerned about the loss of ‘the street’, never fear: it’s still there. And for enthusiasts of bike, boat, train, car and hearse, everything is included and all magnificently displayed in one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve ever been in. It was only this morning, when I saw a photograph of it from above, that I realised just how extraordinary it is. And the inside doesn’t disappoint. It is a peculiar and rather refreshing shade of pale green and is made up of a series of strange angles and curves, a surprise round every bend.

The content of this building is complex and interesting too, although I did wonder why there were displays of dresses. Clothing is not transport and few of these dresses looked very practical for a ride on a bike or an open-topped car. Maybe in the midst of all that mechanics, there has to be something for the ladies. I’d like to claim ladyhood here and refute the need for dresses to keep my attention. I’d also like to add in my favourite quote. I’ll give it a separate line of its own because I deem it very important indeed:

‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’ Thank you, Muriel Rukeyser, for this.

I may have mentioned this quote before. This afternoon I was engulfed in stories and it was very exciting indeed. I think Rukeyser really meant that there were stories behind everything and everyone, everywhere we go, if only we choose to look. That’s a little of how I interpret it anyway. Museums are full of stories that could surprise you, I think, and this museum had me wondering about a myriad of objects all signifying different circumstances from my own and reminding me of distant times and places. A black shiny car with runner-boards for gangsters with guns, a padded leather seat in the back for the lovers and a large loose steering wheel for the getaway driver. Trams with wooden seats with little patterns of holes cut in them. How uncomfortable they must have been, but still pretty. Singer sewing machines: I saw two. Now, I know they involve wheels, but they’re not really transport either, are they? Not strictly speaking. But I confess I get lost when I see one, lost in love and one day soon I’m going to have one of my own. (I do actually own one but I found it on the dump and it is missing several of its parts, but then, according to its serial number it was made in 1897 so it deserves to rest on its laurels, or at least on my piano.)

And boats, lots of them, or models of them, all sailing past on a conveyor belt type arrangement. Fabulous. The romance of the sea with its secrets and dangers.

There was only one serious problem. Too many humans, as witnessed by the over-flowing car park. So it has been decided that this is a Tuesday morning event by which I mean I need to return there when no-one else is standing in front of the glass cases or jostling me off the subway, so that I can linger and linger and linger and listen to all the stories whispering in my ear.

But the most exciting part is that several storylines for Lenny Gillespie, of Mavis’s Shoe fame, came hurtling through the ether at me which I will now have to explore and research. Of course, this takes me back to the museum, and others like it, as soon as I possibly can. Yippee!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

'Nobody says my yoghurt is sour!'

A certain publisher has shown an interest in my work with Kusay Hussain. This is exciting news, although it’s only an interest, not a publishing deal, but it reminds me I was going to write here about what we’ve been doing all this time. Kusay is an Iraqi writer and a civil engineer who came here a few years ago because of the security situation in his country. He lives with his wife and children and, boy, does he have a few stories to tell.

Before leaving Iraq, there were attempts to kidnap one of his little sons. Kidnapping was, perhaps still is, a common tactic there for extorting money. Kusay was himself captured for a period. He also lived through several wars, lastly the invasion by US/UK troops, and endured the various privations visited upon his country as a result.

I am learning a lot. For instance, the quickest way to bring a country to its knees, especially a hot one, is to switch off the electricity. Turning it on provokes great gratitude. Our beloved sun can be a weapon. Different armies have different styles and some armies resemble prison camps. Mostly I’m learning about human endurance of one kind or another. (See my earlier post on Ingrid Betancourt for more on this.)

Kusay contacted the Scottish Book Trust who contacted Scottish PEN about help putting his stories into English. Scottish PEN contacted me. Kusay and I met for the first time in the Glasshouse in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, in March 2009 and continued to meet there for several months surrounded by cactus’s and close to a display of poisonous snakes and spiders, and a pond full of outsize goldfish. This place is well worth a visit especially if you have kids, and became a neutral haven for us to begin our work and build our trust in each other. We were invited to read our first story at the Scottish Parliament the following June.

Since then a great deal has evolved: our understanding of each other, our writing process, and the content of the stories he dares to write, because some of these stories re-awaken past events he might like to forget, and because the rest of Kusay’s family are still in Iraq and subject to the pressures and threats he and his wife and kids have been lucky enough to escape.

I know not one word of Arabic, and seem completely unable to retain even the little phrases that Kusay tries to teach me. But it doesn’t matter. He writes in his best English, which is, thank God or more likely Allah, improving, and I smarten it up. This involves correcting the language but also smoothing it out to make it more accessible to the English-speaking ear. There are all sorts of dilemmas in this, the most obvious difficulty being to know when it’s appropriate to retain Arabic phraseology or imagery and when it’s better to ‘translate’ it into something more common in English. Every phrase requires its own decision. It’s fun, trying to understand one another, especially that moment when we break through our confusion.

He writes in English because that is the language of the country in which he now lives and because he wants his stories brought to the West.
The best part is our meetings. Coming together are two cultures which we’re told are at odds with each other, but in fact are more similar than different. Coming together are two people who on the surface are vastly different, but who are in fact more similar that different. I have a new and very wonderful friend.

Of course having a friend brings obligations. Kusay keeps himself up at night preparing work for our meetings, and I worry about keeping up with his mass of ideas. Our meetings are fun, but the work itself can be time-consuming and there is all my own work to do too.

Our ventures have included many short stories but also poetry. This is particularly headachey for me because Kusay likes to use little short lines with rhymes that twine: this way is not mine, but it’s fine, some of the time. Occasionally they make no sense at all until we sit together and unlock them, which often means agreeing, with some difficulty, on compromises. Something has to be lost for something else to be gained. We have also worked on a plan for a book of common sayings from Iraq and also from Scotland. We gave up on the Scottish side of it as having been done, but the Iraqi ones were fabulous and included the origins of these sayings. Fundamentally it’s a book of fantastically quirky short stories and an insight into daily life in Iraq. My favourite saying so far is ‘Nobody says my yoghurt is sour.’ I like ‘Colder than the water porter’s ass’ too.

Kusay is also working on a couple of novellas and the big one: a co-written novel about an Iraqi exiled in Scotland and a Scottish soldier in Iraq. This last has proved very difficult indeed. After several weeks of planning it became clear that as writers our methods diverged radically. Kusay writes everything in his head, then puts it all on paper. I plan character, background, texture, beginning and end and perhaps a stepping stone or two in the middle, then I start writing and modify and modify and modify the plan as I go along. There were many misunderstandings until we saw this difference. He described it as having two people trying to drive the same car. So we stopped the car, got out and had a little picnic of short stories by the side of the road. What we now have is Kusay as driver but Sue as … well there is no driving equivalent; as creative editor or ghost-writer.

I used to call our process transmogrification, because I changed his writing only a little and added just a touch of English language writerly sparkle, not much, more of a sheen really. But this feels like something different. The creative aspect feels more mutual, like a proper collaboration, and not just taking turns with distinct tasks. Fabulous.

Here is a short video made by Al Jazeera English News about our work.