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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 by New Welsh Review

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Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
See the full article here: http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=662

09/12/2013 - 13:53
Anonymous's picture

Review from Cordite

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Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
Weariness
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The windows clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

See the full review here: http://cordite.org.au/reviews/jackson-alvarez-galbraith/

09/09/2014 - 11:44
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