Friday, October 21, 2011

Female perspectives

Sisterwives: Rachel Connor & Womanswrite, Wednesday 19th October, 6.30pm, Event Room, Waterstone's Deansgate

Words by Sarah Holland.

“It feels like the Oscars!” laughs Rachel Connor, holding up her water bottle. A beaming smile stretches across her face as she gives her grateful thanks to all those involved in the publication of her debut novel, Sisterwives, launching tonight. On this nippy Manchester evening the event room in Waterstone's, Deansgate, is aglow with positivity.

Tonight is a celebration of women’s writing. It commences with readings from three women who are part of Womanswrite, a writing group that has been run by the literature development agency Commonword for over 20 years. Its aim is to seek out new talents and develop the potential of new voices. Rachel Connor was one of their finalists.

The first little taste of new talent is a short story read by Melanie Amri. It is a candidly told account of child neglect and domestic abuse, written from the perspective of a young boy abandoned and left to care for his baby sister. Amri uses simplistic dialogue between the boy and his playmate, Dawn, to show the disparity between the poor and the privileged. Subtle observations describe the gulf between the two and the insignificance the boy feels by comparison; "our cat's got something in its fur, but hers hasn’t." Amri speaks slowly, alternating between enraged shouts and sorrowful whispers, and with a fitting childlike tone of naivety. She provides, and then must swiftly slide away to read at the Manchester Blog Awards at the Deaf Institute.

Nabila Jameel is next to the stand with her story Black Thread. It is told from the perspective of a young Asian girl who is on an intimate drive with her Muslim lover, through the winding country lanes of the Cheshire countryside. She absorbs the differences between the East and the West, struck by the civility of the Cheshire shops and the absence of shopkeeper harassment and scattered mango fruits abandoned in shop doorways.

Last to emerge is Hua Zi and her compelling piece, written in the form of a letter, from a woman to her 18-year-old child. The writer had been a student filled with promise and potential when she was drugged, taken into captivity in a remote Chinese village, and forced to marry a man she despised. It is a harsh reality still happening today which Zi wanted to explore through fiction. She reads unhurriedly, with calm and collected poise that makes it all the more gripping. The girl writes how she "longed to embrace the cold hard face of death". When she gave birth to her child, she felt "physical relief that his seed was out of me, you looked so much like your father you repulsed me". She considers suicide, but remembers the strength of parental love, and how her father told her it was "better to light a candle than face the darkness".

After enthusiastic applause for Womanswrite, Rachel Connor is introduced and is charmingly modest. “I can’t quite believe it. I’ve never launched a book before!", she gushes, and mentions that she used the “fantastic medium” of Twitter for tips on how to do a book launch. Someone advised her not to get drunk and another told her not to read from her book. The latter she carefully chose to ignore. The novel, about religious polygamy, has been brewing away for a while. Inspiration first struck when she listened to a radio programme about a wife who escaped a fundamentalist religious compound in Utah. Listening to the experiences fascinated her, particularly how the sister wives would share a bedroom and take turns with their husband.

Sisterwives centres on Tobias and his two wives, who share a home in a religious community in the country, separated from the “seedy” city of Lot. Rebecca is the dutiful first wife, and Amarantha is the young beauty who he truly desires. There is no specific location or time frame, the author prefers to think of it as "fable like" and "otherwordly".

There is an engaging and animated Q&A after her reading. Many are interested in how she managed to persevere and continue to strive until completion. She recalls times when she did consider giving up, but is so glad she did not. “It is fantastic to see it come into fruition,” she says. An audience member asks if she wants a sister wife, her blunt response is a no. Another proposes brother husband, to which she laughs and comments: “I don’t think I could handle it.”

She offers some inspiring words to the predominately female room: “When writing, you must separate entirely from feelings of negativity." For her, a novel in the process is a “big, shapeless lump of clay" that can always be refined. The diverse talent and dynamic discussion this evening means the hour has flown by. There is a strong sense of achievement in the air as the newly declared novelist exclaims how surreal the experience is. She is just getting to grips with the notion of having readers. It almost seems a novelty to her, and she ponders what these unfamiliar readers make of her writing. But her role is done now, and “they can make of it what they will”. As another novel is already in the midst of creation, she will soon start getting used to it.

Sarah Holland recently graduated in English Literature from Sheffield University and now lives in Manchester. She writes about the arts and has a screen blog, Girl On Film.

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