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."

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Diversity, Authenticity and some thoughts on Gift of the Raven

The question of diversity and authenticity in literature is something that I am passionately interested in. But it is also a tricky question for me. I have written two books, both of which have major characters with a non-white heritage. I have regularly questioned whether I can write authentically about such characters and, indeed, whether I have a right to even try.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached two people campaigning for greater diversity in literature and publishing – Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ and Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK– in order to interview them for the August 2015 edition of Words with Jam.

You can read those interviews on the WWJ blog page. What I want to do here is reflect on the issues the interviews with Debbie Reese raised for me and for my authorship of the novella, Gift of the Raven.

Clearly I can’t do the sort of dispassionate, professional assessment of my own work that someone like Debbie Reese would do. But I hope what follows is a reasonably honest review – and not a piece of self-justification masquerading as self-flagellation.

Gift of the Raven – self-critique

(NOTE: if you haven’t read Gift of the Raven, this contains mild spoilers.)

As Reese says in her interview, "Native children see stereotypes of themselves in books. They rarely see themselves accurately portrayed. The damage that that does to your existence is significant."

At the start of Gift of the Raven, my protagonist Terry is completely isolated from his father's culture. He's pieced together an identity for himself from the negative, distorted and stereotypical images available to him. And it's been deeply damaging.

So far so good. But if I try and assess the book against some of the criteria set out by Reese, it doesn't fare so well.

Do I have a relationship of trust with the Haida people?

No. I’ve never even visited the Haida Gwaii. I’ve had no direct contact with any Haida people and as far as I am aware, no one from the Haida Gwaii has ever read the book.

I always knew I could never write a story about a Haida child. Terry is not that. He is an abuses child who has lost all sense of his own identity.

Be that as it may, the heritage I gave him is not just any heritage. I have chosen to make it Haida. There are significant Haida characters in the book (his father and grandfather), I talk about Haida culture, I use a Haida-derived image on the cover and I have called the book Gift of the Raven, after the Haida story of the Raven and the sun. I can’t escape from the responsibility that places on me.

Have I respected a tribe’s right to ‘own’ their stories.

I don’t try to retell the Haida story of the Raven and the sun, but I do reference it. I even use it in my title and on my cover. Reese makes it clear that those stories belong to individual tribes. Do I have the right to use it in that way, even peripherally?

In my blurb, I talk about the ‘real meaning’ of the gift of the Raven. What I meant is that, for Terry, the gift is the artistic talent handed down to him from his grandfather, who was of the Raven moiety. But the words could be seen to imply that I am claiming some special understanding of the story’s meaning.

Later I have Joseph say (about his father, the master carver)

‘He used to say the artist must be a Trickster, like the Raven. He has to trick the wood into giving up its secrets and play tricks in people’s minds to make them see the things he sees. If he’s lucky—once in a lifetime—he will bring the gift of light to the world.

This is largely my interpretation – a way of linking Terry’s artistic talent with the story of the Raven, but might that be perceived as presumptuous at best, and at worst as cultural hijacking?

Do I treat indigenous people as if they existed only ‘long ago and far away’:

Growing up in Canada in the 1970s, I was familiar, on the one hand, with modern indigenous artists like Bill Reid, Benjamin Chee Chee and Rhonda Franks, and aware, on the other, of bitter disputes that were brewing, especially in Quebec, over Native land rights. More recently, there have been the Healing Walks, led by indigenous people, protesting the environmental damage caused by the Alberta Tar Sands. And this year saw the culmination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, examining the shaming and painful history of Canada’s Residential School system that tore children away from their families and their cultures in an attempt to ‘kill the Indian’ – a chilling phrase that was not always a metaphor.

So, no, I never thought of Native Canadians as existing only in the past. My story is set in 1971 and talks about Native land rights cases that were getting underway at that time.

Were my sources for the story authentic? Have I failed to differentiate the rich diversity of indigenous culture?

I wrote Gift of the Raven fifteen years ago. I was living eight thousand km from the Haida Gwaii and the Internet was comparatively in its infancy. I researched the background of Terry’s father and grandfather as far as I was able, but I can’t be sure, now, how reliable or authentic my sources were.

I did read The Raven's Cry, by Christie Harris. Harris is a non-native author, but the book was written with the cooperation of artist, Bill Reid, and other Haida people.

When I published my book less than three years ago, though,  I didn’t go back and check my sources. And Reese is right – that was, in part, because I didn’t have a Native audience in mind. I was assuming that is would be read primarily by a white, British audience, and it was ‘good enough’ for them.

I’ve tried now to go back and looked at some websites that, as far as I can tell, are authoritative and specific to the Haida (e.g. )

So what do I think I may have got wrong?

At least some of Joseph tells Terry about Haida art seems to stand up (e.g. that the intent of those that carved the totem poles was that they should gently decay over time. Likewise, some of what Kate tells Terry seems to stand up (e.g. the cutting of hair as a sign of mourning.) But not everything.

For example:

Kate said the Indians believed that the dead didn’t go away. The ancestor spirits lived all around us in trees and birds and animals and stuff. I kind of liked the idea that Dad might be watching me.

I suspect this is exactly the sort of lazy, inaccurate generalisation that Reese deplores. A more accurate representation of Haida beliefs regarding ancestors can be found here:

And of the relationship with the natural world here: 

Another thing I may well have misunderstood is the role of the eagle and raven divisions within the Haida. When Terry meets Joseph, Joseph tells him:

“The Haida are all members of two clans—the Ravens and the Eagles. You always married outside your own clan. And the children belonged to the clan of the mother ... Your grandfather was of the Raven clan. I am an Eagle, like my mother. And you—if you were part of the tribe, you would be a Raven too.”

Going back and looking at this question again, it would be more accurate to say there are many clans, each of which as an Eagle and a Raven ‘moiety.’ And yes, a man from the Eagle moiety would marry a Raven woman, and their children would be of the Raven moiety.

The important point that I missed was that this is a matrilineal descent. So Terry, having a non-Haida mother, would not necessarily be Haida, or a Raven, at all.

[Note that, according to the Constitution of the Haida Nation, ‘all people of Haida Ancestry are Haida citizens,’ but it also notes that they are a matrilineal society and that ‘heredity is an internal matter formalised through the ancient clan customs of the Haida Nation.’]

If this is the case, it could also impact on Joseph’s decision to marry, and have a child with, a non-Native woman. It seems likely that this would be something his own family, as well as his wife’s, would be concerned about, but I never touch on that.

Another critical point I ignore is that Terry’s father and grandfather are of the generations affected by the residential school system. How would that have affected the ability of someone of those generations to become a master carver? Or for that matter, a lawyer?

Even in 1971, would Mohawk boys from the reserve have attended the same elementary school as Terry?

Do I use loaded or inappropriate terms?

At the start of the book I use some fairly appalling language to refer to native Canadians – e.g. Terry seeing himself (and thinking of his father) as a warrior; references to scalping; referring to the Mohawk steelworkers as spidermen. That’s deliberate. I am trying to show what effect that language has on Terry’s own self image. But would it pass Reese’s “would you read this out loud to my daughter” test? I don’t know.

I also have the Mohawk boys in the playground refer to Terry as ‘little brave.’ That’s intended to be ironic. Once he has failed to answer the most basic questions about his heritage, they see him as just another white wannabe. But would they do use that sort of language?

Do I have a white person as the hero or ‘rescuer’ of Native people?

Kate is a white woman, and if she is not his saviour, then she is certainly the bridge to his salvation – the one who connects him with his father.

More problematically, she is the one who begins to tell him Native stories.

It would be good in many ways to make Kate an indigenous woman. The main thing that militates against this is that I think it is important Terry’s meeting with his father is his first encounter with an indigenous person he can respect –indeed, the first time it occurs to him that an indigenous person can be worthy of respect.

So what am I going to do about all this?

I am an indie author. I have no publisher to persuade or to answer to. If I recognise flaws in my own work, I have little excuse for not trying to fix them.

What's more this whole exercise started because I was planning to relaunch Gift of the Raven to give it a new lease of life, three years after publication. All the more reason to ensure that it is the best it can be before I put it out there again.

It would be easy enough to correct factual errors, or to alter the blurb. But what about use of the Haida Raven in the title, on my cover and more generally as a metaphor? Hard to imagine my story without those things, but if I have used them improperly, then perhaps it’s time to think again.

And what about my right to tell Terry’s story at all? That, at least, I hope I can defend.

Look out for the launch of a revised version of Gift of the Raven in the coming months!

You can read my review of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here on Book Muse. This YA novel opens in the fall of 1975, just as I was leaving Canada. It is set on and around the Tuscarora reservation, on the American side of the Niagara River, less than a hundred miles from where I grew up. And his hero, Lewis, is around the same age as Terry. So the book, which is highly recommended by Reese, had profound resonances for me.

And you can read my overview of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's excellent book Writing the Other, about writing from perspectives different from your own,  in the Triskele Toolbox

Monday 6 April 2015

Grand Indie Author Fair Giveaway

FANTASTIC PRIZES! Paperbacks, Ebooks, Swag. 

Enter Rafflecopter to Win!

Forty books up for grabs!

On Friday 17 April, Triskele Books and Foyles Bookshop welcome a myriad of authors to the 2015 Indie Author Fair. Here’s your chance to sample what’s on offer! Whatever your taste, we’ve got something special for you. 

Entry is easy and free for a chance to win one of FORTY different ebooks, paperbacks or swag bag prizes.

The Fair is part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival, run by The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi)/Indie ReCon, in association with The London Book Fair’s Book and Screen Week.


Please Note: Paperbacks will only be posted to UK winners unless otherwise stated - but there are plenty of great ebooks available for everyone.

Click on the little circles to view all the different prizes on offer.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

List of Prizes - some paperbacks, some ebooks. 
A Time and Place Boxset - Triskele Books
Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat
Wolfsangel - 
 by Liza Perrat
Behind Closed Doors - by JJ Marsh
Cold Pressed - by JJ Marsh
Gift of the Raven - by Catriona Troth

Ghost Town - by Catriona Troth
Tristan & Iseult - by JD Smith

Rise of Zenobia - by JD Smith
Bookmuse Journal - Triskele Books
Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion - Barbara Scott Emmett
Rats - by JW Hicks
Crimson Shore - by Gillian Hamer
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper - by John Lynch
Sharon Wright: Butterfly 
- by John Lynch
A Just and Upright Man - 
by John Lynch
A Shadow in Yucatan - by Philippa Rees
Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God
Social Engineer - by Ian Richardson
Invasion of Privacy 
- by Ian Richardson
Kurinji Flowers - by Clare Flynn
A Greater World by Clare Flynn
Through the Whirlpool - by Kevin Booth
A Sense of Occasion - the Chelmsford Stories
London Calling - by Clare Lydon
The Long Weekend - by Clare Lydon

Quick Change - by Debbie Young
Sell Your Books! - by Debbie Young
King's Crusade (A Seventeen Series Novel: Book 2) - by AD Starrling
Becoming Human (Book 1, Exilon 5 Trilogy) - by Eliza Green
Callum Fox & the Mousehole Ghost - by Amanda Hatter
The Changing Room; A British Comedy of Love, Loss and Laughter (UK only) - by Jane Turley
A Modern Life; sweet and salty short stories (UK reader) - by Jane Turley
Quantum Confessions - by Stephen Oram
Victoria's War - by Fenella Miller
Barbara's War - by Fenella Miller
God's Triangle - by Ian Richardson
Outside the Box: Women Writing Women

Saturday 28 March 2015

A Time and A Place

A few questions for you:

Question 1
I say “black and white”. You think:

A: Ebony and Ivory

B: 101 Dalmatians

C: The Specials
Image courtesy Creative Commons: The Specials by Chris Worden
Image courtesy Creative Commons: The Specials by Chris Worden

Question 2

Time: 10 November, 1891. Place: Marseilles, France. What happened?

Question 3
If society breaks down and Wales goes feral, what do you want in your pocket?

A: A gun

B: A rat

C: A ferret
Image courtesy Creative Commons: Roman inside a hat by schadenfreude
Image courtesy Creative Commons: Roman inside a hat by schadenfreude

Question 4

Place: Anglesey, North Wales. Time: 25/26 October 1859. What happened?

Question 5

All’s fair in love and war. But when both collide, where does loyalty lie?

A: With your country, family and pride

B: With your lover and your heart

C: With yourself
Image courtesy Creative Commons: Suite Française by Eric Huybrechts
Image courtesy Creative Commons: Suite Française by Eric Huybrechts

Question 6

Time: AD267. Place: Palmyra, Syria. What happened?

Question 7

You uncover white-collar malpractice. Do you:

A: Turn a blind eye

B: Blow the whistle

C: Pull the trigger
Image courtesy Creative Commons: caution: itchy trigger finger by Flood G.
Image courtesy Creative Commons: caution: itchy trigger finger by Flood G.

Intrigued? Answered mostly Cs? Think you know what happened?

Then we have just the thing for you:

A selection box filled with delicious tastes. Seven wickedly indulgent novels, all wrapped up in one box.
On sale exclusively from Amazon for a limited time from 3rd April 2015, but available to PRE-ORDER now. 

A Time & A Place – The Box Set.

A Time and A Place Box Set Cover LARGE EBOOK

Treat yourself to some Easter indulgence.
Who knows when and where you’ll discover…

Friday 16 January 2015

My Debt to Klee Wick

The Dulwich Gallery in south east London is currently hosting to an exhibition called From the Forest to the Sea, the art of Emily Carr.

Carr is a Canadian artist who, from the late 19th to her death in 1945, constantly invented and reinvented new ways of depicting the spectacular landscapes and forests of the Northwest Pacific and of capturing the art of the indigenous people that the arrival of the colonists had all but wiped out.

To see so many of her painting all together in one place is extraordinary. You see the careful realism of her early work transform into experiments with impressionism after time spent in Paris. And then, after a hiatus when her work was rejected by critics and the public, comes her first encounter with Group of Seven, artists from eastern Canada, and Lauren Harris in particular. From that point on, she is experiments freely with style. Some have a solidity that borders on cubism, others a wild movement that have led to her being called ‘Canada’s van Gogh.’

Alongside her paintings, the Gallery is displaying other objects that put her work into context. Contemporary photographs of the totem poles that were among her favourite subjects. Her own drawings and sketches that reveal what an incredible draftswoman she was. A diary made during her first trip to Alaska with her sister, full of comic sketches and self-parodying stories. Examples of the indigenous art she loved – the bentwood boxes and woven hats and baskets, decorated with the Raven, Eagle, Heron, Whale...

Early on in her career, she acquired the nickname Klee Wick, or Laughing One from the Noo-cha-Noolth people of Vancouver island, with whom she communicated largely by way of smiles and gestures.

“Indian art broadened my seeing” she wrote. “I had been taught to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce ... The Indian caught first the inner intensity of his subject and worked outward to the surface.”

This is an exhibition I can recommend anyone to see. But for me it had a special poignancy. I grew up visiting the McMichael gallery in southern Ontario, seeing examples of indigenous art and the work of Emily Carr and the group of seven. I knew that there was a direct line from those experiences to my writing Gift of the Raven. But perhaps my debt to Emily Carr went even deeper than I realised.

In later life, when she could no longer travel up the coat to paint, Carr turned to writing, capturing her experiences in words almost as vividly as she did in paint. Take this description of Cumshawa on the Haida Gwaii:

“Cumshawa always seems to drip, aways to be blurred with mist, its foliage always to hang wet heavy. Cumshawa rain soaked my paper. Cumshawa rain trickled among my paints.”

Thirty years after I first read those words in her collections of sketches, Klee Wick, and with no direct memory of them, I wrote about Terry’s first trip to Haida Gwaii.

My grandfather’s totem loomed ahead, its Raven flying clear of the trees at the edge of the old village. It wasn’t alone. Five or six other poles stood in a loose semicircle, a little to one side. Their paint had worn away. I touched one of them and my finger left a dent in the soft cedar wood. One of them leaned crazily, its base rotted to pulp. One more lay at an angle on the ground, half covered in moss—held in shape by force of habit, I guess.

I felt in my rucksack for the sketch pad and the box of Conte crayons that Kate had given me. The thick watercolour paper was growing damp in the fog. When I started to draw, it changed the look of the pastilles. The crayon went on smooth, leaving a deeper colour. I wet my finger and rubbed at it, and the line softened. One colour bled into the next.

I worked on, letting the fog change the surface of the paper, trying things out, experimenting. Once or twice I dragged the crayon too hard and damaged the surface of the paper. But Kate’s big block of paper gave me freedom. I could make mistakes, start over. I wasn’t going to run out for a long time.

The debt I owe to Klee Wick runs very deep indeed. It was a joy to be reminded of it and a pleasure to acknowledge it.

From the Forest to the Sea runs from 1st Nov to 8th March at the Dulwich Gallery. Gallery Road, London, SE21 7AD

You can explore more about the art of Emily Carr here.

And you can learn about Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven here.