Novel of the World is a collection of short writings about food and nourishment, curated and edited by Mariarosa Bricchi of the Fondazione Mondadori as part of their collaboration with Expo 2015 and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Tree-Line, my Zambian story, is included alongside pieces by Elizabeth Strout, Joanne Harris, Ahdaf Soueif, Nahal Tajadod, Clare Azzopardi, Paulina Chiziane, Elif Shafak and Banana Yoshimoto.
The story begins in Kent, at my Grandmother’s birthday lunch.
‘While we eat, I ask my mother about the house we lived in at Muluwe Street, in the part of Chingola called Kabundi.
She tells the story I already know, of the eldest brother playing in the garden. All through the afternoon he goes out and comes back into the house. When he goes the last time he finds where the red pepper grows, then he comes in with his eyes crying and saliva from his mouth like soda from a fountain.
This is one of the handful of tales she will turn to readily. Today, though, there are more and they are new to me.
Of four mangos standing in line at the kaya and fruiting so fast that boxfuls are sold at the gate.
Of guavas and paw-paw and, taller than those other trees, an avocado pear.
When she names it I taste the colour: pale green to dark at the edge.
She says it was our breakfast every day and I find another memory then: the sound of flesh scraped from skin. The flesh is like butter and the skin is as hard as a shell, or the husk of a nut, so that when all the flesh is gone the spoon makes the noise of someone drawing their fingernails across a wooden board and back again.’
Henry and Booboo
XO Orpheus, Fifty New Myths
(Penguin USA, 2013, ed Kate Bernheimer)
In the anthology, XO Orpheus, writers Aimee Bender, Sheila Heti, Maile Meloy, Edith Pearlman, Kevin Williams and others retell their favourite myths from around the world, moving from Daedalus and Icarus, Narcissus and Echo, Orpheus and Eurydice, to Aztec jaguar gods and a squid who falls in love with the sun.
My story Henry and Booboo retells the origins-of-dynasty myth of Candaules and Gyges, as told by Herodotus in his Histories, which I read for the first time in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
I give the tale to children, who go into the woods one day to play.
‘He listened as well for their voices on the path but he heard only the woods and he ran on and suddenly he’d arrived, and he was squeezing between the bracken and wedging himself in and he knelt down and before he could think any more he could hear their voices and he leaned his head to one side and it made a noise against the bracken. He could see Edward moving the flashlights around a bit and angling their beams and he could see Annie.’
Stand Magazine Vol. 6(4), 7(1) October 2006
Proof was the first of my stories to be published.
Stand has been a fixture on the British and world literary scene since 1952, when the first issue appeared in London. It has since moved to Leeds, then to Newcastle, and now back to University of Leeds. Authors who over the years have published in the magazine include Bernard O’Donoghue, Toby Litt, Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Adam Foulds, Simon Armitage, Isaac Babel, Peter Carey, Fred D’Aguiar, Terry Eagleton, Anne Fitzgerald, Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill and Martha Zweig. Stand was founded by the poet Jon Silkin, and writer-editors such as Elaine and Jon Glover, Rodney Pybus, Lorna Tracy, Ken Smith, and Jon Whale have all contributed regularly.
My story is about a British family who live in Sierra Leone. It’s narrated by a young man who works for them.
‘And she still cannot really bear the light nor the brightness neither which shines right through her. Every day when James leaves us to go to his work she stands in the yard at the back of the bungalow house and watches the road leading away from the compound which he travels along until he has entirely gone away from our eyes. In the morning sun as I watch her from the kitchen she becomes all whiteness her hair becoming white as her skin even. I told her to wear a hat firstly but she stood each day with a bare head holding her hands up over her eyes watching him go until one day her nose got so red a piece of it peeled off. We cleaned the raw pink place underneath with white lotion and now she wears a hat which is white as well and she almost disappears when she stands in the yard like a ghost or part of the sun.’
Stand Magazine Vol. 8(4) March 2009
Broken is set in a garden. It’s about flight, and loss, and things not always being as they seem. It was written partly in response to a case I covered for the Law Reports in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal, about a man who killed a woman and kept her body in a self-storage unit.
‘He had seen what she meant immediately, looking across the garden at the last of the over-winter cabbages still to be eaten, now grown large and monstrous. There was towards the back of the plant something gnarled and browning which at once was and wasn’t obviously a leaf. That is, it had the texture and colouring of what could be a rotting leaf, but what was strange was its almost 3D quality, as if it might move at any moment and come to life. And then it did exactly that. They had both jumped in their seats as part of the non-leaf became a yellow beak and chirped, at the same time as another part of it became an eye, looking straight at them.’
The Warwick Review Vol III No 2 June 2009
The Warwick Review was, for eight years, published out of the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick. As Sean O’Brien has written, it was “international in scope, including poetry, prose fiction, essays and reviews, symposia and thematic sections. It is interested in history and politics, and hospitable to emergent as well as established writers . . . Curiosity, imagination and readiness to encounter the unfamiliar are qualities the Review asks of the reader, and in turn does much to embody.”
My story is about a grandmother and her granddaughter. It talks about memory, and about how, for some people, the past and the present are fused.
‘We sit back to wait and I notice that the men are still looking at my granddaughter. They do not see me, sitting next to her, trying to think of something to say. They are imagining, I suppose, that she is excited about her pudding, about being taken out for tea by her grandmother. And they would probably conclude, were they to wonder about me, that I am thinking only of how lovely it is to be taking her out. I look away from them, still keen to avoid the possibility of conversation, half-fearing that they might point out the empty tables behind us, set back from the window. As I turn my head, I see that she is returning their gaze. And then I realise that what she is actually doing is attempting to outstare them. She looks like a small stone when she stares like this. Or a rock with a face chiselled out of the front of it. Not at all like a little girl.
She will stare at just about anyone. She is not in any way self-conscious. Except for when she has her swimming lessons. Her mother has told me she will not go in with the other girls but sits on the side, alone and fully clothed, because of the scar that sprawls across her torso.’
One Summer Night
Algebra, Vol III, September 2011
Algebra is Tramway’s digital literary journal, edited by Beatrice Colin. The Missing issue, inspired by Andrew O’Hagan’s staged production of his novel, featured writers such as James Robertson, Ruth Thomas and Eleanor Thom.
My story is about an old woman, living alone, who receives a visitor. It looks again at how memory works, and the fusion of the past and the present.
‘The hall is dark and unfamiliar. She feels her way by running her hands along the wall and when the bell rings again she jumps at the sound’s suddenness, half-falling against the door and struggling with the keys. Spit forms at the corners of her mouth and runs onto her chin as she flips through them, too slow, too slow, opening locks and tugging bolts grown stiff.
She is blinded then, by the light.
Closing her eyes she lurches forward into the stomach of the man who towers above her, wrapping her arms around him and kneading her fingernails, hooked and twisted, into the small of his back. He drops his suitcase to the ground. ‘Mon chéri,’ she says, ‘mon chéri.’