They Call Me The Jew

Last year, my good friend – my brother – invited me to Passover dinner at his parents’ home. I wrote about it, with the intention of publishing it, but for some reason, I didn’t follow through. Here it is then, one year on – sadly, every bit of it is still true (except I have now been to one Passover dinner and know what to expect, which is nice.)

Yesterday, I found a piece of crumpled up blue cloth nestled in my comfortable office chair. Unfolding it, I realised it was a kippah – traditional Jewish headwear – with the words ‘Jewish Museum of Prague’ printed on it. Instantly, I was transported back to the Old New Synagogue in Prague.

I remember being handed the kippah on entering the temple nearly a year and a half ago, remember the breeze that blew it off my head not once, twice, but three times. I thought, ‘if only my family could see me now.’ Why? Because oddly enough, though I was raised in a low-income Muslim household, my family long ago branded me with a nickname that stands apart from the others. They call me the Jew.

To them, it’s an insult. It’s a way of saying, ‘You’re not like us’, a way of saying, ‘You don’t believe’ and ‘You’re one of them’. Granted, it’s become a running joke, a thing not taken very seriously but the sentiment from which it was born is very real.

It makes absolutely no sense to me, so I poke fun at it, and when my cousin says, ‘Shalom’, I nod and say ‘Shalom’ back, and when they ask sarcastically, ‘Did you just come back from the Temple?’ I nod enthusiastically and say, ‘I had a good long chat with the rabbi.’ For a moment then, there’s an awkward pause, an ugly beat with the unspoken question, ‘Are you serious?’

So, why am I writing about this? I read a piece by Mehdi Hasan over at The New Statesman about the “virus of Anti-Semitism in the British Muslim community”. Now, the only issue I have with that piece is the use of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ being applied to Arabs, one of the many groups who fall under the umbrella of Semites. You cannot be anti-yourself. Otherwise, he’s pretty much spot on, and it’s true here in Australia as well. Mehdi isn’t able to provide a clear and present reason as to why this is the case and though he mentions the Arab-Israeli Conflict, he dismisses it as being irrelevant.

I think he’s underestimating the impact of that conflict, underestimating the shared sense of persecution Muslims feel when they talk about it, and the fundamental lack of understanding they have about the subject. To them, there are no nuances to the issue, no greys, only black and white. ‘They took our land,’ and ‘They’re killing our people’ is about all that registers.  Ask them about the McMahon-Hussein letters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the King Crane Commission, or the Six Day War, or the Yom Kippur War, or any of the countless momentous events in the history of the conflict, and they will stare at you blankly.

It’s important to remind you now that I’m speaking about my family, about my personal experience, not on behalf of the Muslim community here or abroad. I do, however, think it’s symbolic of a broader problem and that the Arab-Israeli conflict lies if not at the heart of the issue, then very close to it. I grew up in the same household as my cousins and brother, aunties and mother – I still vividly recall images of Palestinian boys and girls throwing rocks at tanks on the evening news. Still recall the feeling of injustice and helplessness, laced with a heavy dose of resentment.

‘They took our land.’

‘They’re killing our people.’

No word on how those sentiments are echoed by the Jewish people. No word on how they must feel to be constantly attacked or afraid of being attacked, on the aftermath of bombs. Sentiments shared by both peoples. There is a fundamental disconnect here, a schism between reality and perceived histories. So why aren’t I the same, why don’t I share the same casual racism? I’m not entirely sure. I put it down to education – most of my family members are high school dropouts – and empathy.

Too often when speaking about this issue, proponents from both aisles cry long and foul about the very same events I referenced earlier. Abstracts, one and all. History is meaningless here. Only one truth is worth mentioning: it needs to end. All of it. From the prejudice on both sides to the bloodshed; from the sustained, institutionalised oppression of the Palestinian people, to the attacks on Jewish people and the ugly rhetoric from despots like Assad.

This is a particularly pertinent issue given the recent visit by President Obama to the Middle East. He said, “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognised. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes.

“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.”

Fine words, Mr. President, clearly addressing the need for each side to employ empathy. That is, to put yourself in another’s shoes. As a writer, I find it particularly easy to do and perhaps this is another reason I stand apart from my family on this issue. But I know better, we all know better, than to think that this matter will be resolved by politics. While I hesitate to suggest a solution to a hundred-year conflict unable to be resolved by thousands of much smarter people than I, it would be remiss of me not to, given the broad strokes I’ve offered so far.

That said, it’s hard to be anything other than cynical about the peace process given its history of ineptitude and failure. Instead, I look with hope to the Arab Spring. It took the world by storm little more than a year or two ago but what has changed since then? The figures at the top may be different but the fundamentals remain the same. I do not think we have seen true spring yet, only the first few tufts of grass springing out of hard, broken earth.

We will see true Spring bloom only when Palestinian mothers and daughters, sisters and wives stand side by side with Israeli mothers and daughters, sisters and wives, to say: “Enough. Too many of our children are dead. Too many of our children are dying. Enough.” In the so-called Arab Spring, people spoke, and the world listened. Not hard enough in some cases, as the tragic Syrian civil war shows, but the ripple effects of change were set in motion nonetheless.

We will see true Spring bloom only when ingrained prejudices are acknowledged and confronted, not with heated words and insults, but with understanding and empathy: I understand. You’re hurting, and so am I. It is with the same empathy that I look at my family, who, despite all their faults, I love with all my heart. Their understanding and education is lacking, but I cannot take them to task for the depth of their emotion. Too often in my past, I’ve lashed out, thoughtless with emotion, and it is very much the same here.

We will see true Spring bloom only when education in the form of nuanced, considered approaches to sensitive topics is commonplace and consistent across the board, across all boundaries and state lines. We must stand as one and face these problems together.

Now I speak directly to my family, to my community, Muslim, Jewish, Australian, one and all. I understand that my words are idealistic, hopelessly so, but in this bleak, cynical climate, I have nothing else to cling to except hope.

Tonight, I will go to my friend’s parents’ home for Passover dinner. I’m not entirely sure what to expect, having never been before. Maybe I’ll wear the kippah, maybe not. One thing I am sure of, however: it will be peaceful. And that is a thing to be treasured.

Shalom.

 

 

How I Got Started: Reading, Writing, & Stephen King

This morning, I read a piece by Patton Oswalt over at Vulture, about his lifetime of reading Stephen King novels. It got me thinking about the books I first read growing up, and the King novel that was one of my most formative reading experiences. It shaped me as a writer, though I didn’t recognise it until just a few years ago.

I remember the first book I read on my own was Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I’ve written about this at length but I’ll recap here for those who don’t know: it was my drug-dealer of a step-father who got me to read it in the first place. He bet me $10 I couldn’t finish a book (I was a skinned-knee tarmac kid, at home on the street) and I took him up on it. He picked the perfect book. Magic, knights, kings and queens and witches — I was hooked.

The next book I picked up was Excalibur by Bernard Cornwall, a book I barely understood at that young age (I was 10 or so), but which I loved anyway. It had Arthur, and Merlin, so I was sold. After the success of Harry Potter in my household, my mum got on board the give-the-kids-books-to-shut-them-up train, and began using it as a tactic to keep us occupied. My brother didn’t really take to it much, though he did like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, saying of it, “It was all right. The bit at the end with fire letters in the air? That was sick.”

Though he seemed to think this book or that book was okay, it was clear he only ever really did it under duress or when there was nothing else to do –this was pre-internet, by and large. For me, however, I felt as though a door had been opened inside my chest, one I wasn’t aware existed before and it said, look, there are whole worlds out here. There’s magic. A concept that stunned my tiny, disheveled little self. To this day, I feel as though until that moment, the geographic map in my head included about three streets, three places: home, school, my aunty’s.

Thereafter, it was limitless, and the idea of there being a vast universe out there unfurled  in my mind. I don’t think I was altogether conscious that these were fictional worlds either, they were experiences I lived, that jolted through my body, kept me up at night, and invaded my dreams. It was so much better than the mean world I knew, the pain and loneliness. That said, there were never very many books in the house, and I recall one night, my mum telling us to go and read.

We didn’t have any books, we told her. Well, she did. So she went into her room and came out with three books, two Stephen King books, one John Grisham. She said, with casual thoughtlessness. ‘I’m going to give you each a book. First one to finish gets a prize.’

Thoughtless because, while high, she made many promises. Very few were ever kept. In any case, I was given Rose Madder, my brother had Four Past Midnight and my sister, The Runaway Jury. I might’ve been 11 or 12 at this point, I’m not totally certain. The book, if you don’t know already, is about an abused woman who flees from her violent husband. I still remember the opening vividly, the one drop of blood on her pillow that sparks her flight.

Though entirely straightforward for the majority of the book, and despite my age, I was riveted. Dread lines her every thought, every sentence, the certainty that her husband Norman – a cop – was going to catch her. As a kid living in an often abusive, neglectful household, against a backdrop of violence and drugs, seeing elements of my life reproduced on the page was huge. I was not alone. There were others suffering out there. Here was a different kind of book, not taking me on flights of wonder, or to some new world, but very much in our own.

Then something strange started to happen. Long after she’s escaped, Rose picks up an odd painting in a shop. A painting that seemed to change every now and then, a painting which she could not stop thinking about. Eventually, she steps through it, into the painted landscape. She’s never sure if what’s happening is real, if it is in fact changing, if she can travel inside it or if she’s suffered a nervous breakdown. From there on, reality warps. Becomes like a dreamscape, with the ever-encroaching Norman increasingly nightmarish, increasingly a literal evil.

That book marked me, twisted me every bit as surely as that painting twisted reality for Rose. Especially for a kid that already had trouble distinguishing between dreams and waking, between fiction and life. I don’t think I’ve ever been as afraid or as entranced with a story since. Reading it passed like a fever, a sickness that wracked me with chills, and left in a haze of sordid after-images. And yet, when I began writing my own stories half a decade later, I’d largely forgotten it entirely.

I’d been reading YA and adult fantasy solidly since then. So you’d think the stories I first started to write would be about kings and queens, knights and wizards, but they weren’t. Still aren’t, broadly speaking. They were all resolutely set in the here and now, all concerned with obsession and murder, but always with some weirdness involved. I recall one of my friends saying, ‘Man, have you noticed how all your characters seem to die horribly? Or no, get transformed into something?’

I had, in fact. I just didn’t know why. I seemed to live and breathe horror, though my diet was one of action, adventure, and fantasy. Horror films definitely had their part to play but it was that signature blend of magic realism, of psychological horror at play in King’s novel that really took hold inside. It wasn’t until I had to write an exegesis for my latest short story at the University of East Anglia in 2009 –one that listed my influences–a that I was able to trace it back from Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury to Roald Dahl and finally, that forgotten but most impactful Stephen King.

Turns out, he only needed to scare me once.

I’ve been living with it ever since.

National Poetry Writing Month

If you don’t already know, April is National Poetry Writing Month, a month in which poets and poetry-enthusiasts write a poem every day. Now, I’m not sure I can actually commit to participating fully but I will definitely try for a mico-poem each day – both as an act of celebrating the art form and as a productivity tool.

So, I figured I’d post a few of those here and also mention a couple of interesting news items/opportunities that have come up. The first is that the $5000 Blake Poetry Prize for poetry exploring religious/spiritual themes, is now open.

Second, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord project currently has a call-out for voice-over submissions of poems. You can record a video of yourself reading a poem aloud – either a poem in the public domain, or one on their website – or upload the audio file, or even record other people performing the piece themselves. I love spoken word and performance poetry so I may well submit to this just for the joy of it. Of course, there’s always the bonus of potentially having your bit included in the HitRecord TV show.

Third, last night I came across this piece “Afghanistan’s Secret Feminism, Through Verse”, at The Millions. I found it deeply affecting. Poet Eliza Griswold has collated a book of landays, a form of two-line folk poetry mostly recited by women in Afghanistan. Contrasted with photography and her own commentary, ‘I Am the Beggar of the World’, sounds like an absolute must-have.

In particular, this struck me the hardest. “…consider Zarmina Muska: a teenage girl from Afghanistan, Muska set herself on fire in 2010 after her family discovered that she had been writing poems. As testaments to her emotions and free will, her poems were considered dishonorable.”

And I asked myself, would I set myself ablaze for poetry? Would you?
How much does it mean to you, really? It is a freedom we all too often take for granted. If stifled, I can imagine the unspoken words collecting in my gut. I can almost feel them clacking against each other like dry sticks, an ocean of tinder
just waiting for a spark. It is far harder to imagine, however, dousing myself in oil
and giving voice to flame with my body the blackened throat.

I’d like to think I have that sort of courage, but I cannot say for certain. Here then, with a renewed gratefulness for the ability to speak, to share these little fragments of dream, are my first three:

She said, poetry is surgery.
I said I’m no doctor
But my skin is scarred
with scalpel-edged words
& a poem a day keeps death at bay.

#

We are what we repeatedly do,
Aristotle said. A poet, then, is not
born but revealed – a shade more
with every poem, every word.

#

I love when sleep leaves
a light film over your eyes,
an intangible veil
granting life the quality
of weightless dream.

 

Digital Wanderings

So, at the beginning of this year, I promised I would write to a schedule.

I’d have a minimum of 2500 words a week, with the ultimate goal of finishing the YA novel I’m working on. I might actually meet that minimum goal this week, having some 1700 words of poetry done, but overall, I think I’ve fallen well off that these past few weeks. Mostly, I blame the craziness of the Twitter Fiction Festival totally disrupting my discipline.

I was so excited by it, I let it distract me far too much – what followed was a minor social media storm (compared to what I’m used to). I worked a great deal on my short story “Aftertweet”, and on re-designing my blog, centralising my social media platforms, links, and so on, all of which took far more time and energy than it should have. It’s amazing how distracting and exhausting maintaining these profiles can actually be – feeling connected and engaged with an audience is a delight, to be sure, but it’s important to take a balanced approach to it, I think.

To not always shift to see what that (1) in your tab is, to check out that notification. I realise it can seem conceited to complain about social media connectivity, I just think for me lately there has been a definite lack of productivity tied to it – and if the choice is between constant distraction with online interaction, with arbitrary numbers, or producing the stories I’m always dreaming up, I’d pick the latter every day of the week. But my actions lately haven’t reflected that, so I’m now consciously telling myself to get back on the damn wagon and get off Twitter.

Ironically, just hitting ‘Publish’ on this post will send it zipping out to a half-dozen social media platforms, but I’m interested to know whether anyone has found it to have the opposite effect? Is anyone inspired by, or using Twitter, FB, Instagram, etc to increase their creative output? Of course, I often use Twitter for just that reason, to ensure I’m not just being a zombie or filling the ether because there’s space to be filled and nothing better to do. I try to use it creatively with micropoetry or the occasional short story — the other week I wrote several tweets as fables in the modern day.

Didya hear the one about Rumpelstiltskin? No? That’s because he deleted his Twitter, Tumblr, FB & killed everyone involved. ?

Didya hear the one about Snow White? She bit an Apple & wound up in a glass bar with 7 blue-shirted Genii. They laughed off her screams.

Instead of visiting Gran, Red Riding Hood Skyped her. “Google Maps says there’s 15km of woods b/w us? Lol. Y r u so far away?”

Didya hear the one about Cinderella? Lost a shoe at the club, saw it instagrammed by @royaldud ?

Or this short bit:

I gasped, curled up. Being kneed in the balls does that. Chivalry sniffed. “Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

The other day, I was also reading about a poet using Instagram to great effect. So, while it can be distracting, I know it can and frequently is put to good use. I encourage that. I think I’m just feeling a little put off by the lack of progress I’ve made in fiction these past few weeks. I put a little bit too much pressure on myself with this novel, and this particular short story which keeps dragging at my focus. I need to finish the latter to get back to work on the former, and most importantly, cast off the shackles of seriousness. There is great freedom in writing just for fun — an euphoric joy that is lost when your ego gets in the way and keeps repeating This Is Important.

As my touchstone, Ray Bradbury, once said, “Don’t worry about things. Don’t push… The important thing is to have a ball, to be joyful, to be loving and to be explosive. Out of that comes everything and you grow.”

So maybe that’s what I need to do, step back, return to the basics of having fun with storytelling, and easy my foot off the social media throttle — unless it’s for creative purposes. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?

…Right?

World Poetry Day

Given World Poetry Day was yesterday, the 21st of March, I figured I’d write a little something about poetry. Which, of course, led me to the very first and most obvious question. Below, you’ll find both question and answer (sort of, not really, maybe, ask me again, and it will change.)

What is poetry? 

It’s life.

Poetry has taught me to be concise but if you need more than that, I suppose I can elaborate. Poetry is akin to the ocean. We’ve lived in and around it for thousands of years, we’ve explored it in every way we know how, and as the years go on, the more we realise how little we know. There are unplumbed depths we may never reach. Every time we think we know all the different kinds of poem in the ocean, we see a new poem – a poem that changes gender before our eyes, a poem with a killer neurotoxin beyond our science to counter, a poem with lanterns for eyes, a small poem which breeds thousands more with every breath, a poem that pollinates the very water itself, a poem so perfectly camouflaged we don’t think it’s poetry at all, an infant poem capable of devouring the oldest.

Despite this, people keep asking the question. What is poetry? Has it been catalogued and categorised in its entirety? Have we captured enough poets, tagged them with little yellow numbers, and sent them back into the wilds whence they came and observed how they lived and loved and bred? Ask the wild poets themselves, those hanging from eucalyptus trees, or sailing on the wind, and even they cannot come close to a complete answer. This is because poetry is in constant flux, it is always changing, along with what we know of it. Much like life, you could say.

At least, that’s my spontaneous response. I’m only getting started in the world of poetry, so I’ll keep asking myself the question, and keep answering it, to see what grows and changes and is new in thought or feeling.

Touchstone by Melanie Rawn: A Review

Melanie Rawn’s Touchstone is a peculiar and intriguing fantasy novel. I came across it quite by accident, when my housemate sidled into my room and said, ‘Hey, do you have a copy of the Night Circus, and can I borrow it?’

‘I do!’ I said happily and, ‘If I can find it.’ It wasn’t on either of my bookcases, or the many piles of books on my desk, or by the bed, or downstairs, or in the large box of books I had in the corner. A box which I was delighted to discover had a whole range of novels I’d been meaning to read and entirely forgotten about. Probably because they were in a box. And there, nestled amid the steampunk, epic fantasy, magic realism, horror, and general literature, was Touchstone.

My housemate didn’t get the Night Circus sadly (turns out I loaned it to a friend over a year ago and he still has it), but I did come away with another book to add to the bunch I’m reading now. You’ll note that when listing genres, I conspicuously left out Touchstone’s and that’s because I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I guess the closest subgenre is “High Fantasy”, but even then, that doesn’t feel quite right.

Touchstone is the story of Caden Silversun, a part Elf, part Fae, part human Wizard obsessed with the theatre. Though his artistic leanings dismay his high-born parents, Caden persists in forming a troupe, and taking to the road intending to become the best and earn his right to tour the Royal Circuit, the highest achievement in theatre.

Theatre, in this world, is a live magical performance incorporating projected sights, sounds, and even emotion. A typical troupe is composed of four members: there’s the tregetour (Caden), the playwright who also imbues glass canisters or ‘withies’ with the magic necessary to perform the play. The glisker (Mieka), who manipulates the magic into vision and emotion. The masquer (Jeska), or actor, who performs the roles, and the fettler (Rafe), who controls the output of magic to ensure the audience is never hurt by the forces at play.

It’s an ingenious system, and a joy to read about. Touchstone’s great strength is its complex, original worldbuilding and magic system, paired with interesting and well-developed characters. So, why is Touchstone a little difficult to categorise? Well, there’s no evil lord. No magic prophecy. No invading armies or triumphant hero. No world domination. No real antagonist even. In fact, if I had to summarise this book in a way we could understand, I’d say it’s almost like the fantasy equivalent of a documentary following the Rolling Stones from inception to fame.  Continue reading

Twitter Fiction Short Story

It’s past 1am, and I’m only now slowly coming down from the insane high. My short story ‘Aftertweet’, officially selected to be part of the Twitter Fiction Festival showcase, debuted live just a few hours ago.

I spent most of the day in a state of anxiety. It was a distant concern, however, while I was busy in the morning and afternoon, but as the hours dragged on, it became increasingly difficult to distract myself. In the last hour, just before 10am, I actively felt sick.

It’s always this way, just before I share my work. Dreadful stomach-churning performance anxiety. Less like ‘butterflies’ and more like an active war zone. So with just 20mins left before I began to tweet out this story, I ran a weary eye over it yet again.

Now, while I’d always planned to incorporate ‘random’ Retweets as part of the story, (when the protagonist literally falls into the internet and spins out a mix of bizarre/mundane tweets from other people), I hadn’t decided on exactly which those would be.

As such, I’d actively been saving whatever took my fancy on and off for the past two weeks. Naturally, it was only at the last minute I saw I had way too many. And what’s more, the structure of the piece would have to change to accommodate it – so I started editing and rearranging it on the fly.

Thankfully, I think it worked out okay, though I went straight from an intense finish to tweeting the story. Which, in itself, was a very odd experience. With writing, there’s no such thing as instant gratification. I’m used to waiting weeks and months before my work is published, or even to hear back about its fate, and even then, receiving feedback or responses of any kind from the audience is uncommon (unless you’re famous, anyway).

Twitter, of course, is the exact opposite. Its catch-cry is immediacy; it demands that gratification and I could see immediately which Tweets were being favourited or Retweeted as I went. Could see the reactions. It was daunting, and distracting, but also incredibly exciting. The traditional walls between author and audience were gone, and the opportunities this affords us for storytelling cannot be understated.

Both in terms of digital writing, and interactive or participatory storytelling, as well as in terms of reading experience. Our first stories were spoken. Campfire tales. Words flung into the dark over fitful flames in order to capture and enthral the listener, to make sense of the world. This is, in some respects, a means of returning to that space through digital pathways.

I know for me, this experience will not be forgotten, and I’m so very excited to see where we can go from here. With all that said, if you’re interested, you can check out my story on this custom timeline. I hope you enjoy it!