Author Archives: shelley souza
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
I was writing about an upcoming workshop I’m offering in May–GIVE RISE TO WONDER–when I tuned into a webinar in which the author used Twain’s almost right v. right word as a jumping-off point for his presentation. It inspired me to think about how I might approach this topic with writers (and with myself)
To read more, visit A Writers Voice
A man on the Facebook post said to another person:
“I do not want a debate, simply because it’s obvious we have different views. I agree somewhat stronger gun laws. If you’ve been on anti depressants in the last year I don’t think you should be able to go out and buy and fire arm as easy however we both know if you wanna commit a act of violence you don’t have to use a firearm. If he had a knife in a unarmed school at least one if now two people would have lost their life’s. My view is simply this stop taking ever damn thing away that one could possibly defend them self’s with away.”
You should want the debate, precisely because someone else holds a different point of view. You should want the debate because children are dying in droves in American schools because there is no proper gun reform.
Yet another mass shooting at a school. Yet another slew of hate-filled comments on social media and in the news by Republican politicians and their supporters. Yet another “Our prayers are with all of you,” from a Godless president. My outrage is volcanic.
(What follows is a long post.)
As soon as I wrote my title for this post I immediately thought of After Eight dinner mints that were all the rage at dinner parties in London when I still lived in my home city.
Instant association is for the most part how a writer’s mind works. It’s how a lot of people’s minds work, I know. But for the writer instant word association is part of storytelling, whether they write fiction or non-fiction, because all writing tells a sequential story of images. Association is imagery.
The deepest desire of a reader is to be transported to a place they have not yet experienced. This happens in a number of ways. But I believe (and amazingly Stephen King also believes) that what draws readers to an author is their voice.
Which leads me back to the title of my post.
At 8.00pm EST next Wednesday, 8 February, I begin teaching a five-part live webinar series on the writer’s voice. I’ve called it Voice on the Page. I’ll be teaching through SavvyAuthors, an online venue for writers looking for classes to make their writing publishable.
If you’re a writer and reading this post, and would like to strengthen your voice in your writing, please join me at 8.00pm next Wednesday and for four more Wednesdays until the 8 March. I won’t be able to offer you After Eight mints through your screen but I will be offering insights into why your voice can never be wrong.
And it turns out that there’s a story behind the design of the After Eight image. You can read it here.
Last night my friend and long-time colleague Brigita Krassaukaite arrived at my home armed with beer and a packet of Quadratini dark chocolate wafer biscuits. I don’t drink beer but I do eat wafer biscuits. I had put a bottle of Beaume de Venise Muscat in the refrigerator for Brigita who drinks sweet wine and eats wafer biscuits. She had come over late, she felt, though it was only eight-thirty, to work on her bio for her debut rug design at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair this weekend. I had asked when we met last week if I might read it.
After she was seated comfortably in the armchair I said, “Your bio is perfect if what you’re looking for is a job in corporate and your aim is to be as interesting as last week’s news.” She unleashed her infectious laugh. Almost nothing can quash Brigita’s love of life, its absurdities, its mysteries. Her love is expressed in her personal beauty, her tenderness toward all living things (except cockroaches), her love of individuality, her advocacy of aesthetic beauty and strength in Woman, her deep love of art…and her most disarming quality, an unquenchable openness to truth.
I have known Brigita for fourteen years, through perhaps some of the most difficult years of my life, in my capacity as an administrator of my father’s estate. Through thick and thin she was there for me. And, more importantly, for my father’s art. Perhaps out of everything she did for my father’s art and his estate, all of which I have not one second’s doubt my father would have admired, approved and been proud of, it is her trustworthiness and optimism that remain most dear to me. I mention these two particular qualities of her as employee, colleague and friend because she shares them in her rug Stand, in spite of its sobering inspiration. Stand will be on display in the Dandelion Rugs booth, as part of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Conference Center, May 14-17, 2016.
What always disarms me when I speak with Brigita about art, in spite of knowing her well enough that I should no longer be taken by surprise, is her originality of thought, her depth of felt perception, and her unerring ability—like an arrow released from Artemis’ bow—to strike at the heart of a work’s voice, its illumination of the culture that gave birth to it through the artist’s vision and sensibility. I think I am always caught off guard because Brigita always speaks so little about herself. She rarely displays the depth of her knowledge of art and life, either philosophical or practical, unless asked point blank. It is like tapping on the side of a mountain, not expecting much to happen because in general a mountain is still, silent, tranquil, and suddenly finding oneself inside Aladdin’s cave, surrounded by infinite treasures and gems hitherto unimaginable.
It took very little effort on my part to revise her bio with her and bring her vision and voice to the page. (As I write this about voice and vision I am reminded of Peter Brook’s famous statement on producing a play: If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound. If what you want is for the play to be heard, then you must conjure its sound from it.) If you wait for Brigita to speak about herself she may never utter a sound—that much was clear from her original bio. It would have served well as a wrapper for fish and chips from a chip-shop in the old days when this quintessentially English and best of all take away foods was liberally sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar and wrapped in old newsprint. But her bio did not serve well to describe her as an artist, and designer of textiles and rugs.
If you spend time in communion with Stand, you may find yourself drawn into the world of an extraordinary mind and soul. Brigita’s mind absorbs everything life has to offer, as much as any one mind can. Her soul breathes in and releases the eternal beauty of Woman and her stand in the culture into which she finds herself born.
I had only seen an early sketch, a tiny photograph on an iPhone screen. I was unprepared for the finished work: a collision of universes assailing my visual and emotional experience, transfiguring an object of everydayness into the ineffable.
She wrote later that night, “I would never found Myself in words without you.” I did not reply. If I had, I might have said: “I would never have found you in words without you.”
In her debut design for Dandelion, Brigita Krasauskaite meditated for two years before and during production on the intersection between where women stand in the culture, and the universality of geometry that has inspired every culture to express the ineffable; finding that expression in the rhythms of Nature that shape the unique landscape of every country, inspiring their artists to pay homage to Nature’s boundarylessness in their art.
The rug Stand: Its inspiration and the artist’s manifesto.
Upon stepping into a mosque in Turkey overflowing with its glorious craftsmanship, I was rudely awakened by the reality of not being able to admire the sumptuous mosaics of the central main dome from within the central prayer space [because it was roped off and…only men can go into that space…] of the architectural masterpiece.
Although my eyes were able to freely travel throughout every angle of the beautifully tiled interior, it was not until they rested upon the enormous rug, with its repetitive pattern, which physically unites the entire space, that I finally was able to stop thinking about the religious restrictions.
Stand was designed using a combination of two contrasting patterns: the opulence of Baroque style ornamentation juxtaposed with the intertwining structure of the mosque’s rug pattern; both superimposed over and seeming to restrain the depiction of three standing female figures uncovered from the waist down.
It is my continued interest in and love of textiles which fueled to my decision to use the medium of floor covering to convey the fact that a rug is one-dimensional; and when standing upon it we are all on one even level. Essentially, we are all equal.
Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
On the Nature of Things – Lucretius
* The theory of Democritus held that everything is composed of “atoms”, which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between atoms, there lies empty space; that atoms are indestructible, and have always been and always will be in motion – Wikipedia
I don’t know what the ratio of children celebrating Christmas was to other seasonal winter holidays, but I imagine there was such anticipation in the air of all the joy this particular holiday brings–that of peace and goodwill to all. It is the time of the great Light Festivals beginning with Diwali and ending with Christmas or Hanukkah (depending on when Hanukha falls in the Jewish calendar).
All the expectation and joy of Christmas, presents from Father Christmas; chocolate gold and other gifts to celebrate Hanukkah; the season’s Festival of Light was about to begin.
Hanukkah that year began on the 16th December and would end on December 24th, passing the baton of light to Christmastide, which would reign for the next twelve days. But the twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School who died at the hands of a mass shooter would never see these things again. Their lives were snuffed out in the blink of an eye.
Mass shootings are now an occurrence of such regularity in the United States it has been calculated that since Sandy Hook, on average, one child has died every other day as the result of a mass shooting. These shootings have taken place in schools, cinemas, malls and other public spaces: all places that should have been a safe haven for any of us to occupy, let alone for children to attend without fear.
On the 14th of December 2012, I was in the middle of putting up Christmas ornaments over my fireplace mantel when I heard the news. Among my Christmas decorations I had placed a large angel on a side table in honour of my childhood memories of Christmas as the holy birth of Christ.
I was raised a Catholic and until the age of eighteen attended Church every Sunday, and on every Holy Day of Obligation. This ritual had begun with my First Holy Communion made at the age of six.
I left the Church at the age of eighteen. My mother told me after I had missed going to Sunday Mass once, when I was sixteen, as long as I lived her house I had to attend Church until I was old enough to vote. Shortly before this incident, Great Britain had lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.
Even though I no longer attend Church, Christmas has always remained for me a Holy Holiday, a Festival of Light, a moment of remembering Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.
In my house it was first and foremost a sacred holiday. There were presents, and as a child I loved receiving and giving them. But from a young age I was aware of what I can only call The Mystery of God. So that even though I no longer believe in the God I was raised to worship I still believe in the Great Mystery of our interconnectedness, that mystery the Mystics call the Sacred, or the Divine.
The shooting at Sandy Hook destroyed one of our most sacred holy holidays celebrated around the world.
On that Friday, I made a small memorial for Sandy Hook, surrounding my Christmas angel with tea lights. On the floor I placed a number of Jewish memorial candles. I have continued this ritual every year. As soon we turn the corner into the month of December I am aware of the 14th looming on the horizon.
Every December my heart breaks for these children who had barely begun to create their destinies in the vast tapestry of Life, and for the adults who died with them. Every time I hear of another mass shooting in America my heart breaks all over again.
Today I watched a news programme briefly of a mother who spoke of how difficult it is to walk down school hallways, especially around this time, where the walls in corridors have Christmas artwork made by children from different years. These wounds will never be closed for these parents or for any parent who has lost a child to violence. I have no words of comfort. All I have to offer is the love and light in my heart for them today and every day.
Like most controversial stories, this one began with a Once Upon a Time that lasted for approximately five seconds, before all Hell broke loose. As my response to this particular Once upon a time is quite long I will post it without further preamble.
Inside the Underbelly of a Facebook Whale
I posted the original Facebook link that sparked the whole controversy to my wall a few days ago.
Yesterday a post in the Guardian–Meg Rosoff sparks diversity row over books for marginalised children–appeared.
A post the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog regarding author Meg Rosoff’s comments on the Facebook link above was (as I learned) a response of Call-out Culture. *
* Briarpatch Magazine defines Call-out Culture as follows. “Call–out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on.”
I confess, as I read the list on Briarpatch, I felt as though I was reading a list from the House Un-American Activities Committee…the particular line of that feeling being brought on by, “and the list goes on.” None of which is to say that bigotry or prejudice in any of its nefarious forms should not be called out. But, in all progress towards a greater humanity, should we not remember our humanity above all else, and not allow it to be overshadowed by political rectitude?
Here is my response to the post on the American Indians in Children’s Literature post linked above, which the moderator and owner of the blog permitted to publish.
Let me begin by saying I am not white. My parents were from Goa, India, my father emigrated to London in 1949, my mother followed in 1950. I was born a year later, lived there until I was thirty. I have since lived in the United States. I was an extreme minority during my growing years in England. Central London had so few Indians, that from the age of three until eleven, I was the only brown-skinned child in first my day nursery and later the two primary schools I attended.
I happened to read the thread that has generated this blog response because Laura Atkins (whom I do not know) appeared on my Facebook home page. She had mentioned Meg Rosoff and because Meg is a Facebook friend (and a personal friend), I suppose Facebook decided I should also get to know “a Laura Atkins” (as Jane Austen might have written it).
Although Laura’s posting of Edith Edi Campbell’s post and the ensuing thread appeared on my home page, and I was able to read all of it, I was not able to comment. Therefore, I hope, since the comments are moderated, you will permit my observations; which will be at variance with many of those who have already commented here, and possibly be in disagreement with that of the blogpost writer.
First, I would like to quote what was actually said because that seems to have been like touchpaper to dynamite. And, second, I would like to share my own very definite experience of growing up a minority in London where racism is always simmering under the polite veneer of British pleases and thank yous. (As an American friend once said, “The British are born saying, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’”)
Here is what Edith Edi Campbell said:
I would say there are so few books for queer black boys, but there are just too few books for all our marginalized young people.
Here is what Meg Rosoff wrote in reply:
There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented. You don’t read Crime and Punishment to find out about Russian criminals. Or Alice in Wonderland to know about rabbits. Good literature expands your mind. It doesn’t have the “job” of being a mirror.
Anyone who knows Meg Rosoff, who has met her, has spent time with her, who has read her books, will understand that she speaks first and foremost for the freedom of a writer to write what speaks most personally to them, and strongly advocates against writers being forced to meet marketplace demands and agendas. With her “The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented” she was not saying anything against anyone; she was merely stating the obvious that every writer battles against—the marketplace demands that stifle real creativity.
If her first comment is read without imputing to it any malice towards Edith Edi Campbell, or anything against the author whose book Ms. Campbell seemed happy to be promoting; if one had given Meg Rosoff as much the benefit of the doubt of good intentions as many on the thread seem to have given themselves, and accorded to Ms. Campbell, perhaps a great deal of the emotionality—and, frankly, unnecessary ad hominem attacks and vitriol against Meg Rosoff—might have been avoided. And, instead, a truly thoughtful discussion on diversity in children’s books could have ensued.
Meg Rosoff is in a position, as an esteemed children’s writer—her debut novel, “How I Live Now” having won the Guardian Children’s Fiction and the Michael L. Printz Awards—to speak knowledgeably about children’s publishers, the marketplace, diversity in children’s books, and more. Her own several books are diverse in subject matter and characters and have won numerous awards. But such a fruitful discussion would be predicated on giving her first comment to Ms. Campbell’s post the benefit of the doubt.
As for myself, growing up in London I was both subjected to racism and privileged because of my parents’ ethnicity. Countless times, as I walked down the streets of central London where I lived, people would spit on the pavement just where I was about to step and tell me to go back to where I came from. Racism came my way often in the form of an interrogation at a party, where the polite “interrogation” would proceed thus. “Where are you from?” London. “No, where were you born?” London. “No, I mean, where are your parents from?” India. “Ah, so you’re not from here.”
On the side of privilege, my father, F.N. Souza, pioneered post-independence modern art in India. He is considered one of India’s leading modern painters and he was considered an important British artist during his tenure in England. His work is on display and in permanent collections of major museums around the world. My mother was an haute couturiere who dressed among other women of privilege the editor-in-chief of British Vogue. In this respect I grew up privileged in spite of the colour of my skin and the prevalent racism in England.
I read everything when I was child, every book I could get my hands on, including many books written for boys. I loved every single one. I really cannot think of a single book that didn’t leave me awestruck. And, yet, I never read a single book about an Indian girl growing up in London who faced racism. Granted, it probably didn’t exist, but I didn’t need to read such a book in order to discover who I was, and I don’t think it would have taught me about who *I* was. Because unless the little brown-skinned girl in that book also had my very unusual parents, I am not certain how I could have identified with her.
This is not an argument against writing such a book, but it does exemplify that while a black male child who believes he is queer might be lit up by coming across a book that has a protagonist who “mirrors” his inner life, it is equally possible that such a child will find himself without ever reading such a book. Or will not identify with that protagonist at all. But if that same child reads as many great books as he can—“The Silver Sword,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Compleet Molesworth,” “Treasure Island,” any number of contemporary books for boys (or for girls if he prefers, or both)—he will find himself.
Isn’t that the purpose of all the “mirroring” that was so passionately defended on Ms. Campbell’s thread—for a child to “find” him- or herself?
Reading transported me to worlds I would never otherwise have known. They were filled with characters who were silly, or snooty, or bad-tempered, or kind, but ultimately they were brave. And they prevailed against evil. I didn’t care what colour their skin was. What I understood was this: Regardless of my skin colour I too could prevail against evil, just as my favourite characters did, if I discovered how to be brave.
And, finally, it is not as if we still live in an age where little black boys who believe they may be queer have no role models of male black queers in society at large these days.
No writer has a single narrative within them, as their life. We are all deeply influenced by our ethnicity, our culture, our socio-economic status, our religion, or dismissal of it, and so on. As writers we have entire universes at our disposal; and so many more dimensions that make up who we are. This depth and complexity of being an individual, and of being simultaneously part of a familial as well as a social culture is what allows great writers to mine material for their greatest works—the whole of that living diversity within themselves.
If they are then Black and Queer and decide to write a children’s book for queer black boys, they’ll do it because they want to (which was the author’s point of the book in question and not because “diversity is a trend”). This, by the way, was also Meg’s point, but she was shouted down. She listed the subject matters and types of young people she’s interested and passionate in writing about, all of whom are vastly different from her own sexual preference and ethnicity. But that comment was entirely glossed over.
What she tried to say, and eventually gave up, was that the marketplace cannot create an agenda for writers and then expect a great book to be the result.
Isn’t that the subject we should be discussing, and doing something about, instead of wasting our limited and precious time in vilifying a fellow writer?