Thursday 1 March 2018

Flower Face - the story of Blodeuwedd

by Catriona Troth

Way back in the long ago, Prince Lleu had a curse- or some say an obligation - placed on him by his mother, Arianrhod, never to take a human woman as his wife. Well, Lleu did not like this; so he summoned the two sorcerors, Math and Gwydion and bade them conjure him a wife.

So Math and Gwydion took the flowers of the oak and the flowers of the broom and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and of them made the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone had ever seen. And they named her Blodeuwedd.


Wait, what? Blodeuwedd? As if it wasn’t bad enough that you conjure me up from a bunch of flowers for the express purpose of marrying this bloke Lleu, to cap it off, you’re going to call me Flower Face? Thanks a bunch.

Can we think about this for a minute? The guy’s mother doesn’t want him to take a wife. Which, as I see it, can only mean one of two things. Either mum is some seriously needy cow – in which case: Red Flag Warning. Or she knows something about her son. In which case, also, guy to avoid.

Did I get any say in this? Not Pygmalion likely. Magicians don’t have rules against sex trafficking. Why am I not surprised?

And the gilt was on this particular slice of gingerbread? Turns out Lleu is immortal. Or at any rate, he cannot be killed “during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made.”

Looked like I was stuck with the guy.

In the circumstances, could anyone blame me for taking up with the first presentable man who treats me like a woman and not his personal possession? King Gronw, it has to be said, was exceedingly handsome. And if Lleu was going to spend his time riding around Cymru, well, he shouldn’t be surprised if I made my own entertainment.

Okay, it was a teeny bit naughty of me to wheedle out of Lleu what the chink was in his immortal armour. (There always is one – magic’s like that.) And even naughtier to let it slip to Gronw, who had his own reasons to want Lleu out of the way. But I didn’t actually tell him to kill my husband at dusk, wrapped in a net, yada yada yada...

Anyway Gronw fluffed it. He only managed to wound Lleu, who turned into an eagle and flew away. And after you two magicians returned him to human form and nursed him back to health, you came after me (of course).

And how did you decide to punish me? You turned me into an owl. A bird hated and harassed by all other birds, you said. A bird who can only fly at night.

Well, suits me fine. Know something else about owls? We have extraordinary night vision and nearly silent wings. All the better to hunt you bastards down.

Monday 23 May 2016

35 years ago today: the disrupted Peace March in Coventry at the heart of my novel, Ghost Town

It is 35 years since the Peace March in Coventry, organised to protest the murder of a young Sikh student, was met by skinheads yelling Nazi slogans.

The end of the march turned into a pitch battle between skinheads and young British Asians and their anti-racist supporters.

Today, the Coventry Telegraph has published a gallery of photographs taken on that day.  I have never seen most of these photos before - many of them were not published in the paper at the time. But many echo strongly the scene as I described it.

Here is the gallery of photos:

And here is my description of the scene as the march disintegrated into violence:

The protestors came to a halt at the edge of the road, fists raised. Over their heads Baz could see the skinheads ranged across the entrance to the bus station. In between, two double lines of police, linked arm to arm, were trying to hold them apart by sheer weight of numbers. Dissonant shouts reverberated off the concrete walls of the surrounding buildings.

A little to the left, a lamppost stood on an island in the middle of the road. Baz elbowed his way out of the crowd and scrambled up, his feet balanced on the widest part, one arm wrapped round the upright, the other holding his camera. Bricks and bottles flew in both directions. A skinhead sat on the kerb, holding his arm. A young Asian stumbled away, blood running down his face. All the while, the thin blue line holding the two groups apart was washed this way and that, like seaweed on the tide.

This was no longer his city. The buildings were the same, but nothing else was familiar. It was as if the ground had opened up and spewed out a special kind of hell. Even the desi kids he’d marched with were barely recognisable.

As he thought this, the roar from the crowd reached a new pitch. Part of the Asian line stormed forward, arms linked, heads down. Baz spotted Vik at the apex of the charge, Saeed next to him. Across the road, the skinheads saw what was happening and stampeded towards them. They ripped through the police line and suddenly the opposing groups were head to head.

Baz zoomed in on the vortex of the action, and a face flashed across his lens. A broad face, reddened with acne. A face Maia had picked out in a photograph.

Startled, he pulled back, then struggled to locate him again. Anger, thickened with helplessness, seethed through him. No way to reach the bastard through that press of people, even if he tried. Nothing to do but keep the camera running.

And suddenly he saw him, in a space carved out of the mob, like a fighting ring without ropes. He had Vik in a headlock, but he must have been thrown off balance because Vik was driving forward, using his shoulder in the bastard’s gut. Then the two of them went down and all Baz could see was a shifting space in the roiling movement of the crowd.

He’d been praying that Vik didn’t have the knife on him but now, for a sick moment, he willed him to pull it out and plunge the blade into that bull neck. Then a police van came down Priory Street and more officers spilled out. They waded into the crowd, wielding truncheons, and heaved out Bull Neck. He had blood on his face. A few moments later, four more officers staggered out, carrying Vik by the arms and legs. They’d dragged his jeans and jacket half off him and several skinheads spat at his bare flesh as they passed.

Baz’s knees buckled and he almost lost his perch on the lamppost. But before he had time to think what might happen to Vik, he heard a pounding in the road. A line of mounted police officers galloped towards him, spread across the width of the road, their long batons raised high. Others had seen them too. People were screaming. Shoving frantically for the edge of the roadway. A young woman in a shalwar kameez tripped and those nearest to her yanked her to her feet.

If he stayed where he was, he was a sitting target. He managed one shot of the charge then let go of the lamppost and ran, heading for the protection of the arches. The road vibrated from the impact of the hooves. As they swept by, a baton caught him a glancing blow to his shoulder and pain shot up his arm. He lost control of his feet and stumbled over the kerb. His arms instinctively wrapped round his camera and his face hit the pavement. More pain, in his jaw this time. He curled into a ball as others scrambled over him, fleeing the charge. He got to his feet, spitting road grit.

His left shoulder ached from where the baton had struck him, as did most of his right side from where he had hit the road. But he seemed to be more or less in one piece, and the camera was undamaged. He took out a handkerchief and blotted blood from the graze down the side of his chin.

The horses wheeled for a second charge. At the same time, a phalanx of police moved down Priory Street, escorting a group of community leaders from the rally. Three or four of them were helped onto the roof of a police van. At the front of the group, Gurinder-ji stooped and took a loud hailer that one of the officers held out to him. He had egg splattered across the front of his jacket and his hand shook at little. A beer bottle sailed past the van and crashed in the road beyond. Gurinder-ji flinched, but stood firm. The loudspeaker squawked, then his voice came through, clear and steady.

“… remain calm and disperse quietly. I repeat, we ask you to remain calm and disperse quietly …”

You’re too late, Baz thought. They’ve got Vikram.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Why Undercover feels like one of the most important TV dramas for a long time

We are only three episodes into Peter Moffat’s drama, Undercover, on BBC1, and already it feels like one of the most important television events for years.

Why do I say that?

Well, for starters, the two lead actors – Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester - are both Black. They are playing a professional couple with a family. They have Black friends. They have a history of Black activism – especially Okonedo’s character, Maya, who is a lawyer working in both England and the US. Many of the supporting characters are Black.

We get to see a Black family doing ordinary things – eating pasta, driving to Cornwall, coping with the everyday problems of a special needs teenager. We see Okonedo and Lester in bed together, talking and having the sort of married-for-a-long-time sex that is as likely to end in hysterical laughter as grand passion.

Secondly, in the first few minutes of the programme, we are hit with the full horror of the system of capital punishment in the US – something that affects the Black population out of all proportion. We are told things I was aware of via Reprieve or the New Jim Crow – e.g. that you can’t serve on a jury for a capital case if you don’t support the death sentence, or that there are jails where the entire population is Black. But we see details that could never have imagined - such as the radio station that follows executions blow by blow, plays Arthur Brown’s ‘Fire’ with triumphalist glee and then does a countdown to the moment of the lethal injection is given.

But it is very easy for us in Britain to point at America and tell ourselves that all these problems are ‘over there.’ That we, here, have nothing to worry about. Undercover does not let us off the hook so easily. In the core of the story, back in London, we are forced to confront
  • The consequences of police brutality and institutionalised racism in the UK
  • The lengths the establishment are prepared to go to cover it up
  • The cynical use of undercover policemen to build relationships with those under surveillance
Moffat has the compassion, too, to look at the question of the undercover policeman from both sides, to imagine the price paid by someone who gives up their own life to live that of their ‘legend.’

It is a shame that Undercover does not also showcase the work of a Black writer and director. But that doesn’t, I hope, detract from what Peter Moffat and James Hawes have achieved. There are little moments that demonstrate that Moffat has been listening with sensitivity. Moments like the conversation between Maya and the man she is defending on Death Row, dismissed by the Radio DJ as ‘a talk about hair products’ but which is really about Maya’s daughter and how she connects with her Black identity. Then there is throwaway line on the daughter’s arrival, as a new student, at her Oxford college. She is approached by an older Black student who has been assigned to be her ‘college mum.’ “It’s usually a mum and a dad,” she says, “but I hope you don’t mind having a single parent.” No need to spell out why they couldn’t find her a ‘college dad.’

Undercover is blowing me away, and I can’t wait to find where it takes us next. I just hope that, for once, this will prove to be a door opening to a new kind of normal, and not just a tick in a box marked ‘diversity’ that can then be safely forgotten about for another ten years.

Edit after watching final episode:
Wow! Yes I know there were some plot holes, but not nearly as many as you would think from reading Twitter. (Weren't people paying attention?) But there was a moment towards the end of the episode when I screamed so loudly that my son came running to see if I was all right. That was the level of my emotional investment in the story. Or more particularly, in the family at the heart of the story, so brilliantly created by Adrian Lester and Sophie Okonedo. Do I want to see a second series? Hell, yes!

Friday 8 April 2016

Yvvette Edwards: finding inspiration from Monserrat to Hackney

In an event organised by Media Diversified, the launch of Yvvette Edwards’ second novel, The Mother, was held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31st March.

Edwards, interviewed by Media Diversified founder, Joy Francis, proves to be softly spoken, self deprecating, engaging and – despite the often dark nature of her subject matter – very funny. Like many of her characters, she was brought up in Hackney and is of Montserratian-British heritage.

Francis begins by asking Edwards about the early inspirations for her writing.

Edwards says she was first inspired to write by her family’s reaction to the death of Elvis. “If you listened to my mother and aunts, you’d have thought a close family member had died ... I discovered writing could be very cathartic.”

As a young girl, she read ‘anything and everything,’ but she describes reading The Friends by Rosa Guy – with its black protagonist created by a black author – as a seminal moment.

She cites Stephen King as another author she admired. “But I’m getting old. My nerves can’t handle reading his stories any more.”

Her greatest love, though, is reserved for the Nobel prize winner, Toni Morrison. “It’s not too strong to say I worship Toni Morrison. Her language is so beautiful and the subjects she handles are so raw.”

Edwards then reads a passage from her debut novel, A cupboard full of coats, longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011. It is a passage where an old family friend, Lemon, cooks soup for Jinx, evoking memories of the past she has tried so hard to bury. Judging the laughter she evokes with certain lines, Edwards taps into many things shared across the Caribbean diaspora.

Francis asks her about the fact that both her books deal, in very different ways, with violence and in particular with knife crime.

Both books arose, in part, from ‘inciting incidents’ in her own life, she tells us. A cupboard full of coats was inspired by a friend who managed to rid herself of a violent partner, only to hear that the same man had murdered his next girlfriend; The Mother by a random and violent knife attack on her own stepson.

“I used to write about far more cheerful subjects, but when I was coming up to by 40th birthday, I think I discovered my mortality,” Edwards says. “I want to write about what isn’t written about – the stories and voices we don’t hear. I write about things I am troubled by.”

Edwards admits that she wrote several pieces before A cupboard full of coats – things that she would send off ‘without any editing’ and would be offended by any criticism she received in return, throw that piece away and start on something else.

“But then I got to the point in my life when I was thinking about what dreams I had to let go of, and what I needed to start taking seriously. I dragged myself up by my lapels and gave myself a talking to.”

And the result was A cupboard full of coats.

“The big difference was that I edited. I discovered that I loved it. That glee of finding the perfect word!”

How difficult had she found ‘that difficult second novel?’

Edwards revealed that she had written about 80 thousand words of another book that wasn’t working. “I asked myself all sorts of questions I’d never asked myself before, like ‘what are your themes?’ I could feel I was struggling. But it allowed me to work through the angst. And as soon I started working on The Mother, the writing flowed again.”

She chose to write from the perspective of a mother, rather than that of the kids experiencing knife crime, because “I wanted a narrator closer to me in age, someone who would ask the questions I wanted to ask, who would want to try and understand the perpetrator.”

Finally, Francis asked the very penetrating question, “How did writing The Mother change you?”

Writing dark books does take you to some dark places, Edwards admits. “But my views on young people and knife crime did undergo a massive shift. I thought I had a strong social conscience anyway, but this enhanced it. I think I am less judgemental, more empathetic.”

You can read my review of A Cupboard Full of Coats on Book Muse UK.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Young Muslim Writers' Awards

Yesterday I had the very great pleasure of attending the Young Muslim Writers' Awards, organised by Muslim Hands and sponsored by the Yusuf Islam Foundation.

Held in the Beveridge Hall in London University’s grand, Art Deco Senate House, this was a celebration of writing from children aged between 5 and 16 – writing that had been judged by authors including Louis de Bernières, Simon Brett, Brian Keaney, Roopa Farooki, Sufiya Ahmed and Rukhsana Khan.

The afternoon opened with a young girl reciting a passage from the Quran which exhorts man to read. Then the mood was flipped on its head with a skit from Islah Abdur-Rahman and Michael Truong of the YouTube hit The Corner Shop Show, squabbling over which of them should be allowed to submit a story to the Young Muslim Writers’ Awards.

The first award, for a story written by someone in Key Stage 1 (5-7 year olds) was presented by children’s writer Caryl Hart, who spoke of stories having the power to create empathy: “the key to combating inequality.”

Next up was 13 year old Zara Ayoub, whose story ‘It was a vampire bite’ has had almost 3 thousand reads on WattPad. She spoke wryly and maturely of finding sources of inspiration in reading and analysing book, but also in films and TV (“you parents will tell you shouldn’t watch too much TV”), in art, in free writing and in watching people. “There is nothing more inspiring than humanity. When I am on a long journey, I pass the time by making up stories about the people around me.” She then presented the award for KS1 poetry to Zakariya Robinson, who won the hearts of the audience by skipping shyly onto the stage and disappearing behind a podium that was almost twice his size.

Azfa Awad, herself a former refugee from Somalia and now Oxford Youth Ambassador and part of the Map of Me project with Half Moon Theatre, performed two exquisite poems, “Origins,” and “Celebration of Life.”

Author Roopa Farouki, presenting the KS2 short story prize, said, “There was passion, emotion, wisdom, humour, drama, meaning and real heart in all the stories

Tim Robertson of the Royal Society of Literature explained how the 500 Fellows of the Society are elected, and how each one signs a ledger, either with Byron’s quill or TS Elliot’s fountain pen. He went on to say how he hoped and believed that in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time, some of the young writers here would sign that ledger

Safeerah Mughal, who is clearly a talent to look out for, won both the Key Stage 4 short story prize for “A Peaceful Sleep” and the poetry prize for “A Quilt of Stars.” Her poem, which evokes a child with nothing but the sky to cover him, has also been selected to promote the Muslim Hands Street Child project. And the adorable Zakariya Robinson was called back up to the stage to receive, “Young Muslim Writer of the Year,” for writing, “well beyond his years.”

There was an acute awareness in the room of the particular burden carried by Muslims at this time – something encapsulated in judge Rukhsana Khan’s poem, ‘Not Guilty’, published in the competition booklet. It was addressed, directly or indirectly, by speaker after speaker.

Radio presenter Yasmin Kahn made everyone laugh with a story of teenage comeuppance and a mustard coloured jumper, before telling the audience, “It has never been more important that Muslim voices are heard.”

Maqsood Ahmed from Muslim Hands quoted Allama Iqbal, “the Pakistani Shakespeare”, saying “Let the young people be the teachers of their elders.”

The Chairman of Muslim Hands, Syed Lakhte Hassanain (having dryly admitted to having left his preprepared speech behind on his kitchen table) asked, “What do we place in our children’s hands? If we given them pens, they become writers. If we give them guns, they become killers.”

Zafar Ashraf of the Yusuf Islam Foundation, told us, “Just as it takes two hands to clap, words need both a writer and a reader. The pages of a book are brought to life only when they are opened.”

But perhaps the most powerful speech of all came from Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala, the youngest ever Nobel Laureate, who was accepting a special award on behalf of his daughter. He declared, “We have to stop following blindly. We must keep the windows of our mind open. We must question everything. Everything. There lies the difference between education and indoctrination.” Then, to thunderous applause, he concluded, “These children are not just the future of our Muslim community. They are the future of the UK. They are the future of humanity.”

If there was any disappointment in the day, it was that we did not hear any of the award-winning stories and poems. Several of us who had been sitting together shared this thought with Maqsood Ahmed, who promised to consider both publishing this year’s winners in a newsletter or blog, and having readers on stage for next year’s winners.

Altogether, an inspiring and moving afternoon, and one to which I was privileged to have been invited.

Full List of Winners:

Key Stage 1 story: Abdul Maatin Riaz – The Pen with 70,000 Heads
Key Stage 1 poem: Zakariya Robinson – Kenning
Key Stage 2 story: Myra Durrani – The Haunted House Strikes Again
Key stage 2 poem: Aminah Rahman – Spring, Autumn and Winter
Key Stage 3 story: Imaan Maryam Irfan – Ivory Demons
Key Stage 3 poem: Naima Mohamend – Free Dubai
Key Stage 4 story: Safeerah Mughal – Peaceful Sleep
Key Stage 4 poem: Safeerah Mughal - Quilt of Stars

Young Muslim Writer of the Year: Zakariya Robinson “for writing beyond his years”

Saturday 7 November 2015

On the "I'd Rather Be a Rebel" Controversy

Many viewers of the film Suffragette may be unaware of the hurt and upset among people of colour caused by the sight of the four female stars wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the quotation from Emmeline Pankhurst.

Why has that photo caused such outrage?

The original quotation spoke to the condition of women in the late nineteenth early 20th Century. Middle and upper class women might live in gilded cages, but they were bought and sold in matrimony for profit and prestige and were then expected to ‘do their duty’ and produce children. They were not allowed to work, had only recently been allowed to own any property (and in some places still could not), had no escape from their marriages and no say over the laws that bound them.

Working class women, meanwhile, might be forced to marry men with whom they had had what today would probably be considered non-consensual sex, must put up with whatever treatment their husbands meted out to them while working their fingers to the bone till they died of exhaustion or in childbirth – and likewise had no say over the laws that bound them.

Rebelling against those conditions was not something that could be undertaken lightly. Many of those who did rebel under Mrs Pankhurst’s banner paid a terrible price. Cat-and-mouse jail sentences in appalling conditions. Crude force feeding in a way that would now be classified as torture. (Read here about the treatment of Alice Paul and her colleagues in Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse jail, news of which turned the tide of American opinion on women’s suffrage.)

Their lives were no better than...

And there’s the rub. What comparison do we make here?

I would suggest that what Mrs Pankhurst was doing - what many people still do when they use the word ‘slave’ - is conflating indentured servitude with chattel slavery. If you haven’t grown up with a visceral understanding of the depths of evil represented by chattel slavery, I suggest you start by reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Daniel Jose Older said recently, in a different context, that slavery is an open wound. That we have been lying to ourselves about it for years. That people of colour don’t have the luxury of sugar coating it.

And that is why those t-shirts have been so hurtful to so many people.

The lives of these women were hard and constrained, but they cannot be compared to the lives of chattel slaves.

The risks they took should not be underestimated, but they are not commensurate of the risks of slave rebellions (like the Jamaican rebellion of 1831).

So is there a way of making the point that the film makers were trying to make without hurting those whose not-so-distant ancestors were chattel slaves? Without trivialising the issue of modern slavery?

And without losing the call to arms it represents for women like the Trinidadian mother and her daughter in Michelle Innis's She Called Me Mother, each snared by abusive marriages?

I’m going to suggest a change of wording. I can imagine the outcry from those who believe we shouldn't mess with the historical fact of Mrs Pankhurst’s words. But where should our first loyalty lie? To the past, or to the present? To quote scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell on the Quaker concept of continual revelation – as you get more experience, you are supposed to revise your picture in the light of that new data.

If we come to understand that the words we choose can hurt others, we should change them.

So here goes. “I’d rather be a rebel than an indentured servant” doesn't make a very snappy slogan. So how about:

I’d rather be a rebel than a serf

Maybe that is no better. Maybe that just reveals another layer of my own tone-deafness that I am not aware of. And yes, I know, I am failing to address the other problem with Suffragette – that, like Stonewall, it whitewashes women of colour out of those rebel movements.

But perhaps it’s a start.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

On the Man Booker and Marginalised Voices

It was very exciting, last night, to follow the Man Booker 2015 announcement on Twitter.

Unlike the Goldsmith's Prize, which has been much criticised this year for the lack of diversity its current shortlist, the Man Booker 2015 shortlist included a Nigerian author (Chigozie Obioma), a British Asian author (Sunjeev Sahota), an American author of Hawaiian ancestry (Hanya Yanagihara)  - and the eventual winner, Marlon James, who is from Jamaica.

I listened to James being interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning. He talked about his first manuscript being rejected 78 times - about giving up on writing so thoroughly that he not only destroyed the manuscript but went round all his friends' computers and deleted all the copies he could find there too.

I don't know how you come back from that, but luckily for us he did.

Unfortunately for me, the winning title, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is not brief. Nor is it a book you can take at a run. It's complex narrative with a cast of over 70 characters and multiple, disjointed points of view, some written in heavy dialect and all more or less as streams of consciousness, needs to be digested slowly. Right now, I am roughly halfway through, but I am inevitably going to be behind the curve reviewing it.

Update: my review of A Brief History of Seven Killings now published on BookMuse.

In the meantime, in honour of James's struggle to get his extraordinary voice heard, here are a sample of a diverse and sometimes marginalised voices I have recently reviewed for Book Muse UK. Follow the links to read the full reviews.

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
"Edwardson captures, at times with exquisite poetry, the experience of a handful of Alaskan Iñupiaq and Athabaskan children shipped off to one of the now infamous residential boarding schools."

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth
"A book about negotiating friendship and trust from across a chasm of cultural differences, from the subtleties of telephone etiquette to the logistics of using a two-hole privy in sub-zero temperatures. It also brims over with a love of music – especially the Beatles, Wings and Queen."

"As a portrayal of angsty teenage boyhood, this book belongs in the tradition of Josef Svorecki’sThe Cowards and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye."

Finding Arun by Marisha Pink
"The novel blends a sweet tale of self-discovery and sibling love with the unfolding of a dark family secret, all set against the background of one of India’s most holy cities."

Rodriguez’s account of La Vida Loca is raw – his depictions of sex, violence and drug taking sometimes eye-wateringly graphic. It needs to be. The life he depicts is real, and the young people the book is aimed at are living it.

Pyschoraag by Suhayl Saadi
"An exhausting, fascinating, thought-provoking book. Not for the faint-hearted but for those willing to take on the challenge, definitely worth it."

"Sadikali does what the media has so singularly failed to do - show us shades and variations within the British Muslim community. Not between extremists and others – but within one ordinary family."

"At its heart, a complex and tender love triangle, one that mixes friendship, loyalty, duty and the desire for independence."