Alice Guthrie opened the event, standing in for Atef Abu Saif who had been detained in Gaza, unable to cross a checkpoint. Alice, Atef’s translator, was visibly angry and upset at the situation, and her emotion came out when she read out his stories. Bernard MacLaverty, a short story writer originally from Belfast, was the other reader. Both Atef and Bernard shared points of similarity, writing stories against the backdrop of sectarian violence. Yet both were keen to point out that what they captured was the everyday, it just happened that their everyday was a little different to most of the audience.
Alice Guthrie described the video footage that we had of Atef Abu Saif as ‘miraculous’ due to the restrictions on electricity in Gaza. Though only one or two audience members could understand Arabic, there was something beautiful about his rhythm and flow. I was sad that it was such a short segment.
Alice Guthrie read two short stories that she had translated into English. An Exclusive Mourning and The Portrait Years. The atmosphere for both stories was subdued. There was some humour in An Exclusive Mourning. It is the story of a film crew who wanted to film the protagonist weeping at the funeral of ‘the next child to be killed’ in order that they have the exclusive footage. The humour is uncomfortable, laughing at the absurdity of the media who want to fake horror in order that people will believe it. As though what is happening is not quite enough. It is hard not to identify in some way with that voyeurism, that appetite for drama.
The Portrait Years was an elegy to Palestinians incarcerated by Israel. Alice Guthrie offered a gloss for those of us unfamiliar with the system and explained that the prisoners are never allowed any form of physical contact with visitors. The heroine of the story, a mother of one of the incarcerated boys, dies without ever having touched him. Her thoughts are consumed with holding him, cooking for him, talking to him when he is released. She dies before her dreams can be realised. Her husband says that ‘time had a sharp axe’, the fifteen years since his son had been taken had all disappeared. Again, in this story, Atef shows us the everyday horrors of living in Gaza without ever making overtly political references. He tells us about the ‘everyday’ in his world.
To finish the section with Atef Abu Said, there was a pre-recorded interview with between him and Alice Guthrie. He referred several times to miracles. He mentioned the miracle of leaving Gaza, the miracle of having enough electricity to record the interview. He said that ‘nothing is regular, it is hard to reply to emails, to have paper to write, to find a loaf of bread. Things happen in bursts or do not happen at all. He said that in Gaza people ‘feel disconnected, unplugged’. He does not wait for miracles but tries to ‘pursue life, to feed his children, to write articles, to publish in journals, to write fiction and prepare for classes’.
He talked a little about the crossover and connection between himself and Bernard MacLaverty; that they both wrote from conflict areas. He said that national feelings and heroic values can adversely affect people’s lives. Atef said that he did not wish to be a politician in his writing but rather to be ‘as vivid as life on the street is’. Bernard Mac Laverty later echoed this sentiment when he said that he wrote from a position of anger, but that anger must be sculpted into something more than simple sloganeering if it is to have any intrinsic artistic value.
Bernard MacLaverty read out his short story A Belfast Memory. The story was set in Belfast during the narrator’s childhood. At the very end of the story he tells you that he is looking back fifty years or more.
The details are carefully chosen and you can see the ‘serious Hugo’ who is ‘trying to grow a beard’ and Tom Lennon ‘the human ashtray’ who tilts his head to the ceiling so that you can only see the whites of his eyes and dislodges ash on to his waistcoat. The importance of the narrator’s father is established early on and the image of paint from his brush dispersing through a jar of water is beautiful. It is only at the end, when the main action is apparently over, that you hear again about the father. Perhaps in reference to the Kipling story as well as the Bible, the end hinges on the goodness of the boy’s father and really it feels as though it is he, and not the facsimile of his work, which is valued ‘above rubies’.
Though the reading had already run over by five minutes, Bernard opened the floor up for questions and it was wonderful to hear him turn round fairly mundane queries about writing habits in order to conjure the peculiar magic of his storytelling methods. He made it sound like a kind of archaeological dig – reaching within himself for ideas and associations and coming up with something original ‘out of the dereliction ‘of his mind. I would have liked for him to have continued for a little longer but there was no time left. Though there was a lot to be said for the contrast between the two writers and the way in which they complemented each other, it might have been even better to have them individually. There was so much material that they could easily have filled two rooms and two hours.
Laura Joyce runs the Red Shoes Workshop in Manchester and has a blog at www.metafiction.wordpress.com.