Tuesday 15th January saw an unusual congregation warm the pews of Birmingham’s St Phillips Cathedral for the second date of High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries, an international ‘literary roadshow’. The audience braved the frost to spend the evening with six best-selling Dutch and Belgian writers, who either write in or have had their work translated into English. Introduced in pairs by compere Rosie Goldsmith – journalist and champion of international literature – the group represented a diversity of genres, from poetry to dark humour to the graphic novel.
The loose theme of the evening was identity and, in particular, the effect of nationality upon one’s sense of self. Rosie suggested that Dutch and Belgian culture has a lot in common with English, which was partly confirmed by novelist Peter Terrin when he confessed that the Dutch can’t dance.
The night kicked off with Ramsey Nasr, Holland’s Poet Laureate, who explained that his reading, the poem Psalm for an Origin, went down like a lead balloon with half of an audience of senior clergy at a formal celebration in Holland. Not so in Birmingham, where the guests showed their appreciation for that and four further readings from the engaging troupe of writers.
The multi-award-winning Chika Unigwe spoke of the experiences of Nigerian prostitutes in Belgium, recounted in her novel On Black Sister’s Street, while Lieve Joris similarly travelled to Africa for inspiration for her works Back to the Congo and Mali Blues. Novelists Terrin and Herman Koch, whose novel The Dinner was published in English by Atlantic Books last year to critical acclaim, entertained us with examples of their tragi-comic, existential angst-filled work.
Finally, Judith Vanistendael spoke of her transition from art student to ground-breaking graphic novelist. Her second work, the beautifully illustrated When David Lost His Voice, generated a lot of interest at the end of the night when the writers’ books were available to buy.
High Impact introduced an interested audience of readers to the culture and literature of different nationalities. It also demonstrated that it is not where a writer comes from that determines their identity, but that an engagement with multiple places and nationalities enriches their writing. This was the second collaboration between Writing West Midlands and Rosie Goldsmith in recent months – Rosie hosted a European Literature Night during the Birmingham Book Festival in October – and a relationship which I hope will continue to bring international literature to Birmingham’s doorstep.
For more information about the High Impact Tour, please visit the website www.highimpacttour.com.
Libby Hewitt and Sophie Todd attended our Seven Minute Stories event (a Writing West Midlands / West Midlands Readers’ Network Partnership Event in celebration of the Network’s short story commissioning project 2012.) and here they both share with us their experiences of the evening.
Six authors were faced with this task when they joined together at the Copthorne Hotel, Birmingham. A gorgeous setting, it promised to be an evening of teasing story segments as we learned about the commission project the West Midlands Reader’s Network (a regular partner of Writing West Midlands, who helped stage the event) had run this year.
Six lucky West Midlands Reading Groups were chosen to collaborate with six of our region’s authors to create a short story. The reading groups and writers met up for dynamic discussions about what they wanted their story to say and identify the special ingredients which would result in their own unique literary treat. The writers shared their impressions upon meeting up with their group for the first time and let us gain an insight as to how this unique process worked for them.
Writer Helen Cross explained that with this kind of story development you come away with two different impressions at the initial stage; firstly you have the facts people give you and secondly the impressions a writer takes from the situation, the surroundings and the people. For Helen these impressions were of Hereford and the struggles of women. She was particularly struck by the beautiful building they met in which was originally a meeting place for Suffragettes. These elements weaved their way through Helen’s mind to create ‘Back to Work’ and when the seven minute extract was up we were all left captivated and wanting to complete the story.
The night progressed in a similarly enthralling manner as the writers continued with their seven minute extracts. Lindsey Stanberry-Flynn’s battle through torrential rain to reach her group’s first meeting left a lasting impression as her short story transported us onto a narrow boat in the midst of a storm and left us hanging, wondering whether our female protagonist would have the nerve to fight through the stormy waters of her relationships in “A Dream Job”.
As the stories carried on we could see how the first meetings with the group really did seep into the narrative; the cakes which greeted Jeff Phelps found their way in to the heart of his story and Richard Lakin’s “Lye Noon” tale of an outsider struck a chord with members of his group, and us all.
As each author walked us through their creative process and first meeting our appetite was primed for their extract; getting to hear what was created in collaboration with these reading groups was a wonderful experience. The opportunity for the groups and the writers to work together truly created some fantastic stories and as the evening drew to a close I found myself eager to get my hands on a copy of all the anthology – keen to go home and finish reading what was so beautifully started!
Tuesday 20 November brought the West Midlands Readers’ Network event Seven Minute Stories to The Copthorne Hotel, Birmingham. Six regional authors- Helen Cross, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, Fiona Joseph, Richard Lakin, Jeff Phelps, and Polly Wright- were commissioned to write a short story over the space of a few months, and were paired up with six reading groups from across the West Midlands, ranging from the heart of Birmingham to the Shropshire/Wales border.
As Roz Goddard, Co-ordinator of the Readers’ Network (and brilliant host of the evening) explained, the themes of each story were the result of brain-storming/haggling sessions between the groups and their respective writers. One of my favourite things about the evening was each author’s explanation of how their first impressions of the locality of their reading groups, and the members themselves, had a direct influence upon the people, themes, and events in their story. Fiona Joseph, for instance, worked with the Nubian Readers’ Group, based at the Drum in Newtown, Birmingham, and on her first visit found herself in the midst of a loud and vibrant wake for a local man. Joseph’s A Pair of Ruby Cufflinks, a subtle yet very powerful story about a man’s recent affair, centres around the morning of his lover’s funeral, and is set in Birmingham’s Jamaican community. It is this local connection which gave each story its depth, and also made each completely unique.
While the basic premise of the evening was clear from its title- each author read a tantalising seven minutes of their short story- what I had not anticipated was the heartfelt reaction to the stories from the members of the local reading groups.
This seemed particularly true of Polly Wright’s Reading for Well-Being group, which is based at Sparkhill’s Zinnia Centre- a provider of specialist mental health services. Polly explained that her group, which she has led for two years, were keen that the story should revolve around mental health issues, and feature culturally diverse characters that reflected the local area. The outcome was Philomena, a brilliantly funny yet haunting tale about Jasmin- a young Pakistani woman- and her journey toward over-coming the mental health problems which have led to her child being taken away from her. It is Jasmin’s meeting with Amy Winehouse-lookalike Philomena- a mysterious young Irish woman whom no one else at the centre seems to be able to see- which propels her towards recovery, and which reveals a stark piece of local history along the way.
The best thing about the evening was that it provided a rare opportunity to hear fiction being read aloud. Reading is generally something done alone; a way into a silent world. And so hearing each story first through its author, out loud, added a whole new dimension to the experience of reading it from the page later on. Helen Cross in particular brought her story Back to Work (which features a woman we are led to believe is a time-travelling Suffragette) to life through her added emphasis and dramatic pauses, and her brilliant voices which stayed with me as I finished it off at home.
The West Midlands Readers’ Network supports reading across the region. They do this by working with reading groups and writers to commission new writing from regional writers, working with libraries to develop and deliver skill-sharing sessions for their staff, and brokering events featuring regional writers. They work with regional literary festivals including the Birmingham Book Festival to bring exciting reading events to the public. www.wmreadersnetwork.co.uk