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Writing on Water

Maggie Harris
ISBN-13: 
9781781723708
Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 16, 2017
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‘Heart-breaking and tender, Maggie Harris uses her powerful voice to explore hidden experiences’ – Disclaimer Magazine

 

Maggie Harris’ stories are informed by the Caribbean, where she was born, and Britain where she has lived as an adult, and through them, the wider world. Issues of belonging and migration feature, but alongside these are growing interests in voice, narrative, gardening and botany, music and family. There are both UK and Caribbean voices in these tales, told by children, migrants, mothers, grandparents.

This is a varied collection containing stories such as 'Sending for Chantal', telling a tale of Caribbean migration, set around the story of a child who hasn't seen her mother since she was 4 and is now in her 30s, which was Regional Winner of The Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014. Others include 'Sleeping Beauty', a rewrite with a Caribbean twist; 'Writing on Water', illustrating a tussle between poetry and prose and 'The Other Side of the River' drawing on memories of Guyana and its mystical stories. 'Telling Barbie' is told in the voice of a child who is unable to speak to anyone apart from her Barbie doll and her immediate family due to her tangled traumatic and yet loving family life; 'Like Lizards Ride Water' was written in response to what then appeared to be a crisis of the 'boat people' in the Mediterranean, and 'Sugarcane for my sweetheart' delves into childlessness and childhood.

REVIEWS

Review by Suzy Ceulan Hughes, Planet

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Maggie Harris's third collection of short fiction roams the world from Guyana to rural Wales, with 'Sending for Chantal' (Caribbean winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014) as a powerful opener. Written in the voice of a child, it tells the story of a mother who has emigrated to America, leaving her four-year-old daughter in the care of her grandmother and Uncle Marcus. She has gone off not in search of her fortune, but in the hope of escaping the mire of poverty, building a better life and sending for Chantal to join her 'soon soon'. Every week, Chantal waits six long days for the Sunday telephone call from her mother. But soon soon never comes. 'My mother voice growing old over the telephone.' It is heart-stoppingly sad, and sets a theme that runs through the collection: of people, driven by hope and desperation, trying to make a better life for themselves, and then falling into despair, or worse, when things don't turn out as they hoped. Like the refugee Isxaaq in 'Like Lizards Ride Water', who stands 'wavering between a past and a future that seemed to offer equal despair'. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, in 'Moving On', the wife who finds that the longed-for move from Pinner to rural Wales is far from the idyll she had imagined: 'Don't you see, this is not my life! I am being sucked in, I'm drowning!'

Dreams, and lives, are shattered here. Women, particularly, sacrifice their dreams and themselves for their children, and then find it has all been for nothing. In 'Beast', a young woman gives up her dream of becoming an artist to marry and have children. She has three, and her husband, 'tired of her tiredness', leaves her. While Sandra in 'Mouth' belatedly realises that her daughter Effie has bipolar disorder, so that all her attempts to understand, protect and help her have actually been a failure to understand, protect or help. The difficulties and anxieties of parenting, and the effects of dysfunction, raise their heads again and again. There is little to lighten the load. 

Review by Sandra Kirley, Mslexia

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

There is something mesmerising about Maggie Harris’s style of writing, which draws you right into the heart of each of these poignant stories and keeps you there far beyond the final page. Perhaps it is her poet’s lyricism, or her strong bicultural voice, both of which convincingly transport you to new places and perspectives so that you experience them as the characters themselves. I was particularly interested in the bicultural strand, which she threads beautifully into each story, reflecting her upbringing in the Caribbean and her life as an adult in Britain. Stories like ‘Sending for Chantal’ are written in the Caribbean dialect whereas ‘Sugarcane for my Sweetheart’ switches between the latter and English, with the effect of not only carrying you straight into the Caribbean culture, but also perfectly conveying that dual existence of living astride two countries, or as Harris refers to in ‘Writing on Water’, ‘this in-between-ness’.

The underlying theme of the collection is water, sometimes raging and powerful as in the heart-breaking ‘Like Lizards Ride Water’, a story of refugees on a boat in the Mediterranean, or more subtle, represented in the flow of words, such as in ‘Mouth’ and ‘Telling Barbie’. The latter is told in the voice of a child who is unable to speak to anyone other than her Barbie doll and her immediate family. It seems that each story has a hidden truth, subtly expressed but never told, such as the unhappy marriage in ‘Moving On’, or the unfulfilled desire for children in ‘Sugarcane for my Sweetheart’. Issues of belonging and migration feature heavily too, but also motherhood and family life, and always against a striking sense of place, from the heat and sugarcane fields of the Caribbean to the stark landscapes of Ireland and Wales.

 

Review by Megan Kenny, Disclaimer Magazine

Friday, June 2, 2017

Heart-breaking and tender, Maggie Harris uses her powerful voice to explore hidden experiences

Given the unbearable heat and insufferable wave of BBQs and rowdy pub gardens endured this week, I was more than ready to escape from the outside world for a while. Managing to find a couple of stolen hours to curl up in delightfully antisocial solitude, my reverie was temporarily broken by a thunderstorm of epic proportions, full of lashing rain and rolling thunder. Very atmospheric and very appropriate given the nature of the slender volume I was cradling in my slightly sweaty grasp. 

The book I was reading as the sky started falling was Writing on Water, a collection of eleven short stories by Maggie Harris, published by Seren Books, Wales’ leading independent publisher. As the title suggests water is the main theme which draws together each story in this collection. Harris has drawn not only from physical landscapes bound by water, including her native Guyana and the UK where she currently lives, but has also used water as a metaphor, from the ‘flow of speech’ denied to characters, either through trauma or the weight of secrets, to the ‘urban lives of the dispossessed’ which are ‘turbulent and subject to change’. 

As well as Writing on Water, Maggie Harris has also published two other collections of short stories; Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning and In Margate by Lunchtime. Harris is also a poet and has published four collections so far: Limbolands, From Berbice to Broadstairs, After a Visit to the Botanical Gardens and Sixty Years of Loving. She has also written a memoir entitled Kiskadee Girl. Harris won the Guyana Prize for Literature 2000 and was the 2014 Regional Winner of The Commonwealth Short Story Prize for ‘Sending for Chantal’, one of the stories included in this collection.

Although I could wax lyrical about every story here, I am also always cautious in my reviews not to spoil the beauty of reading a book by giving too much away. This is difficult to do because each story sings its own song and draws you into the narrative so deeply that it is hard to single out examples. 

Harris has managed to deal sensitively and eloquently with the very real face of the human tragedy so often played out across our TV screens:

“Before mix up with morning and sunshine… After was me hollering and not eating and vomiting and kicking Granny.”

Writing on Water opens with ‘Sending for Chantal’, a moving story about a girl raised by her grandmother desperately seeking a connection with the mother who left her behind. It is a story filled with yearning and desire, longing and heartache. In this story, it is clear to see the poet in Harris and the story flows with the lyricism of an epic poem.

“Sacrificial bundles. Bundles born of blood and tears, dust and hope.”

In ‘Like Lizards Ride Water’, Harris has vividly brought to life the experience of migrants forced to cross treacherous seas under the almost unbearable weight of an expectation of the tangible promise of a new and better life. Whilst this story was one of the most heart-wrenching in this collection, Harris has managed to deal sensitively and eloquently with the very real face of the human tragedy so often played out across our TV screens, and breathe life into those one-dimensional images of horror whilst encouraging the reader to consider the gut-wrenching choices made by those who have to leave behind their home for uncertainty and danger on the open sea.

In this collection, it appears that Harris, who frequently returns to the theme of migration and transition between cultures, is trying to give voice to the often hidden experiences of those who have to leave behind their home and culture and find themselves anew in foreign lands. Many of the stories in Writing on Water also focus on the experiences of women at varying stages of their life, from childhood in ‘Telling Barbie’, to the difficult choices faced by mothers becoming grandmothers in ‘Mouth’. In the telling of these tales, Harris highlights the strength and vulnerability of women. She also makes a powerful commentary on the nature of female sexuality and the consumption of female bodies in ‘Breast’, vividly highlighting how, from childbirth to Page 3, we are incessantly bombarded with sex and female objectification.

A journey across landscapes and cultures, from heartbreak to tenderness

This is a moving collection of stories which touches on some serious themes, including migration, neglect and loss. This collection would appeal to anyone with a love of lyrical language; it is clear to see Harris’ strength as a writer of prose as well as fiction. At just over one hundred pages this is an accessible introduction to Harris as a fiction writer and would be an easy book to devour in one sitting. It is not for the faint of heart, as many stories do focus on themes which may be unsettling to some, however, Harris deals with tragedy and heartbreak in a delicate, beautiful way which allows the reader to empathise with the characters.

Writing on Water takes the reader on a journey across landscapes and cultures, from heartbreak to tenderness, all linked by water – be that the sea, merciless in ‘Like Lizards Ride Water’, or the tears of the characters in ‘Sleeping Beauty’. The commonality between all Harris’s stories is the process of transition, the death of expectation and the way life forces us to reconcile our dreams with our reality. 

Writing on Water by Maggie Harris is published by Seren Press and is available now.

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Review from The Sunday Times

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“Like the city he grew up in, Liam Carson’s memoir of life in Belfast winds like a tangled web of streets, dreams, cultures and philosophies, where every page, pavement and street corner offer another dab of colour to a fascinating picture… Carson’s natural push against his parents in the 1970s coincided with the devastating change in Belfast’s complexion. Its nascent punk scene offered a soundtrack to life in a war zone. While Carson read new-wave science fiction and moved to London, his mother, Mary, drifted away from a language partly hijacked by republican violence. His father, though, retreated to his books. It seems he was living, writes Carson, ‘just off reality.’

“In time, the detached universe William created offered his son profound truths that defined the rest of his life. His father often spoke of tearmann—the idea of the Irish language as sanctuary where the language’s power to shape culture could be celebrated and explored. It is a daunting idea, but Carson handles his journey to accepting the ideas with great skill, successfully conveying the concept of the Irish language as a living, breathing organism without alienating the simplest, most compelling episodes of family life that make this book so moving in parts.

“His description of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death are blessed with clarity, gentleness and a heart-wrenching sadness. His memories of shared moments with his father are beautifully rendered… Carson’s greatest achievement is recycling a complex mix of emotions and ideas on language into a deeply moving read.”

Michael Foley, The Sunday Times

04/07/2012 - 15:28
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Review from The Sunday Telegraph

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"A tender, contemplative memoir examining Carson's upbringing in a happy but complex Irish-speaking household during the Troubles; it eulogises not only his parents but the Irish language itself"

The Sunday Telegraph 2012

17/12/2012 - 10:43
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Call Mother a Lonely Field New Welsh Review

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"Amy Mc Cauley discovers language is sanctuary in this memoir nominated for the Ondaaje Prize"

Liam Carson’s Call Mother a Lonely Field is a memoir of a very strange kind. Although it features some of the standard characteristics of memoir: family narrative, the odd humorous anecdote, photographs, etc, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, chiefly because Carson turns the usual chronological format inside out. Time here is fluid; like memory, it doesn’t simply represent the accumulation of events in a sequential manner. Carson instead puts forward an alternative view – one popularised by JW Dunne - which argues that ‘all time is eternally present. In other words, the past, present and future coexist.’ Carson goes on to suggest that ‘we exist on two levels, both inside and outside time.’ This idea is absolutely central: it relates not simply to the philosophical atmosphere but to the structure of the text, which embodies the very concept it proposes.
The book is also about our experience of identity. Carson comes across as a protean character – a man who reads, dreams and wanders. At various stages of his life he adopts different selves, each of which he rejects. But his relationship to these selves is alive with the spirit of enquiry. Carson is careful to resist the monomania of autobiography, however. This is firstly (and most importantly) a paean to his parents, and secondly a love letter to the Irish language.
Carson, who was born in 1962 in Mooreland, part of the Falls area of Belfast, writes lyrically about his parents, ‘the Ma’ and ‘the Da’. He says:

My parents were Falls people, with all that they entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values […] In the ritual of the mass they were bound to their neighbours, to the world, to God. In the incense, the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary, the stained glass, the Latin, they reaches a from of communion and community that held up their daily lives.

He goes on to say that ‘One afternoon [my Da] told me if he’d been in Iran, he would have been a devout Muslim. Perhaps it was not so important to be Catholic as it was to believe.’
‘The Da’, for me, is the most fascinating character. His singular strength is underlined by a story Carson hears only after his father’s death. When the Da joins the IRA in the 1940s, he soon realises he will have to kill. Unable to square this with his strong Christian faith, the Da leaves, only to find himself arrested and jailed. When he is released from prison he returns to work (as a postman) he finds his pay has been docked for his time spent inside. Carson writes, ‘He took a court case, logically arguing that since his employer and his gaoler were one and the same – the Royal Mail and His Majesty’s Prison Service, in other words, the King - then it followed what his employer was the cause of his absence.’ The Da wins the case and sets a legal precedent.
Call Mother a Lonely Field is full of these unrecorded, ‘unofficial’ histories. Personal family mythologies – songs, stories, poems and dreams – stand shoulder to shoulder with violent reality of Belfast’s ‘Troubles’ from the 1970s onwards. Structurally. I is like a home, each chapter is a different room witits own distinctive atmosphere and pressure, while the presence of dreams is a brave and valuable addition. They represent the hidden strand – the inner supports – of a person’s experience, and it is Carson’s unification of physical, human, linguistic and psychic geographies which make this a real stand-out read. If I had to pick a weakness I would say the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ section of the book (detailing Carson’s love of comic books) felt slightly out of place, but otherwise I found it quite gripping. Most powerful for me was Carson’s suggestion that language is an environment we inhabit - a sanctuary which can be used to represent the various visible and invisible environments we occupy both physically and in our imaginary lives. The hidden places of memory, childhood, identity and dreams therefore become achievement is the meshing of the public and private worlds so often kept separate by the official records of history.

Amy McCauley for New Welsh Review

04/09/2013 - 11:45
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