Travelling Together: Our Secret Sisterhood book tour of the USA

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will perhaps recall that we’ve sometimes likened our friendship to that of Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, and Winifred Holtby, who penned South Riding.

We find ourselves particularly drawn to this pair because, like us, they met when they were at the very start of their writing journeys and each soon committed to becoming the ‘travelling companion’ of the other.

When Holtby spoke of this, she meant it in a metaphorical sense. But, as young friends in the 1920s, the two also enjoyed more literal travels when they spent a summer holidaying together in Cornwall and another in France and Italy.

The Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, which we visited together during our early twenties (Image by Martin Falbisoner – Wikipedia Creative Commons licence)

When we were first getting to know each other, while working as English language teachers in Japan, we did a lot of travelling. We look back on our joint-trips with great fondness – not just because they gave us the opportunity to explore new places together, but also because the conversations we had, walking the streets of ancient cities or the rough paths of mountainous regions, really cemented our fledgling friendship.

Although the years we spent working intensively on A Secret Sisterhood have been – all in all – a wonderful experience, we have sometimes lamented the fact that, during this period, it sometimes felt that work had taken over all other aspects of our relationship, and that important events in each of our lives had passed by without much opportunity for sharing them with our friend.

The two-and-a-half weeks we’ve just spent touring the USA together, to mark the American publication of our book, turned out to be just the chance to put all this right.

We began our tour in New York City, with an interview with Kory French for Book Talk on Breakthru Radio, which has recently gone live. This gave us the chance to reflect – as we would many times over – on the highs and lows of writing a book together, including the joys of joint discoveries, and the frustrations of late-night quarrels about turns of phrase and the points we each felt our book ought to be making. All of these, we’re relieved to be able to say, ultimately brought us closer.

Image by Ravi Sunnak

Our first event was at the NYU bookstore, with Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Next up was a talk at Shakespeare & Co. with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (writer of novels including Bittersweet and June). This event was organised by the Brontë Society’s American chapter and the Jane Austen Society of North America – NY Metropolitan Region.

Our sell-out event with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (image by Shakespeare & Co)

We had known Kate and Miranda only through their books before, and so it was a real pleasure to meet them in person. But at our event at Book Passage in San Francisco, it was lovely to collaborate again with Mary Volmer (Reliance, Illinois), who had also chaired the conversation at our northern book launch in the UK, back in June.

At Vroman’s in Pasadena, another dear friend of ours Elizabeth L. Silver (The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Tincture of Time) ran a discussion between us and another pair of author-friends Julia Fierro (Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer) and Caeli Wolfson Widger (Real Happy Family).

And finally, it was wonderful to be interviewed at UCLA by Professor Michelle Liu Carriger, an old friend from our Japan days.

With our book on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt shelves behind us

In between our events, we went to meetings together, saw an interview we’d given to Alexis Coe for Lenny Letter go live, and visited the headquarters of our American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Boston and New York City.

We caught up with mutual friends living in the USA, and worked on book-related feature articles, including this one, recently published in The Millions, and this one just out in TIME – Motto. In the gaps between all these things, we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing, and, perhaps most of all, caught up on all that personal news we’d managed to miss, and just enjoyed each other’s company as friends.

 

 

Sophie Mayer and Preti Taneja: She knew we could be who we are now

Thank you to everyone who has contacted us to send congratulations on the US publication of A Secret Sisterhood. We are enormously grateful for the support of our readers, who did so much to convince us that historical female literary friendship was a subject worth exploring in a book.

Today, we are delighted to bring you a guest post from two more modern-day writer friends, debut novelist Preti Taneja and poet and film critic Sophie Mayer.

Preti

Preti Taneja © Rory O’Bryen

We met twenty years ago. I was applying to be editor of the student newspaper, Sophie was, and still is a poet, activist, the best arts critic in the game. We shared a love of Quark Xpress.

When I got the top job, she became my theatre editor, but was already on her way to publishing her first collection of poems, winning an Eric Gregory award – showing me that becoming ‘a writer’ was possible – something I had never believed for myself until I met her.

She went to Toronto to do her PhD and I moved to London to train in journalism. I sent her my first fiction pages – she sent me Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Steering the craft’. We began to write letters to each other, and send each other things. There were kama sutra pillowcases. And many blank notebooks – especially important was the one I received after my mother died. Sophie thought I would need it.

The care packages and mix tapes (later, playlists) have continued through years of job applications, journalism, human rights reports, PhD proposal, publishing successes (her) rejections (me) and the drafts of the book that became We That Are Young.

Sophie’s poetic and critical language, the formal risks she instinctively undertakes, teach me about the kind of writer I want to be. Inventive. Fearless. The changing conversation we have been having over many, many years about what constitutes experimental writing, about race, gender, and representation, about who gets published, when and how, has kept my hopes in balance and my determination high. At my book launch, Sophie made sure I had a fresh glass of water next to me before I read.

I think when we first met, she knew we could be who we are now – I just believed her and pushed myself in line with it. The daily practice of our friendship – the texts and talking, tea, book sharing – that are not seen as part of being ‘literary’ – are indelible to our writing lives.

Sophie

From that nervous first interview, Preti struck me as someone who knew how to take the measure of the world and shape it – through hard work, aided by late-night Kit Kats and pun-based hilarity. It was the first time I had seen someone (not on TV) committed to making change through words: it was Press Gang come true, and I still thrill that I got to be part of it.

Sophie Mayer © SF Said

I remember being in the office late on 13 October 1998, when I got an email via an American LGBT listserv, reporting the murder of Matthew Shepard. I pitched a piece to Preti and (overlooking my total inexperience as an op-ed writer), she said, Do it, then took my rage and grief and showed me how to turn it into something others could read.

As a writer, you’re advised to develop an inner editor, the voice that calls bullshit on you; that pulls you back to what matters. If I have one, it has been shaped by Preti, who can give me a look (though she generally waits until dessert), and my whole specious defence of a sloppy argument collapses, and suddenly I’m agreeing that yes, I have to write about God and other traumas if I want to explain what the cinema of Sally Potter risks, and why it matters to me. Because I have learned so much from how much Preti’s writing risks, always.

Her fierce refusal to leave any stone unturned, to confront every injustice and taboo, to witness what others turn away from, enlarges the (and my) world. And she does it in prose that moves with the same amazing grace with which she dances to the beats we’ve shared over the years; I can’t help but (clumsily) join in.

Preti Taneja is a writer, human rights activist and editor of Visual Verse. Her debut novel We That Are Young is out now from Galley Beggar Press.

Sophie Mayer is a poet and feminist film activist; her most recent books are Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, published by I.B. Tauris and (O), by Arc Publications. 

Released today in the USA: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf

In London tonight we plan to celebrate together with a glass of bubbly and a home-cooked meal. We’ll be raising our glasses to the US edition of A Secret Sisterhood, which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are publishing stateside today. And we’ll also be toasting all the readers of Something Rhymed who encouraged us to write a book on female literary friendship.

It won’t be long before we get to help this edition make its way into the world during our US book tour.

We’d love to meet some of you in person at the following engagements in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles:

Thursday 26 October, 6-7.30pmEmily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney in conversation with Kate Bolick at NYU Bookstore, New York City

Saturday 28 October, 2-4pm – The Jane Austen Society of North America – NY Metropolitan Region and the Brontë Society American Chapter: Conversation with Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney (chaired by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore) at Shakespeare & Co, New York City

Wednesday 1 November, 6pm – A Celebration of Literary Sisterhood: Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney in conversation with Mary Volmer and Cheryl Crocker McKeon at Book Passage, San Francisco (event sponsored by the WNBA-SF, Saint Mary’s College MFA in Creative Writing)

Tuesday 7 November, 7pmEmily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney present and sign A Secret Sisterhood, in conversation with Elizabeth L. Silver, and joined by Julia Fierro and Caeli Wolfson at Vroman’s Book Store, Pasadena

Wednesday 8 November, 6pm – Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney in conversation with Prof. Michelle Carriger at UCLA (event sponsored by UCLA’s English Department and Friends of English)

In the meantime, we have upcoming UK events at Chawton House Library, Bloomsbury Literature Festival and Wantage Literary Festival.

We long ago promised each other that we would try our best to enjoy the process of getting published, because we knew all too well that chances to celebrate can be few and far between. Today seems a good time to reflect on A Secret Sisterhood’s publicity highlights to date:

Reviews

Medley of vivid narratives – The Atlantic 

Midorikawa and Sweeney have committed an exceptional act of literary espionage. English literature owes them a great debt – The Financial Times 

Glorious insights into female rivalry and female solidarity and the delicate balancing act required to ensure one doesn’t override the other – The Herald

These forgotten friendships, from illicit and scandalous to radical and inspiring, are revelations – Kirkus 

Evocative and well-researched ode to female solidarity – Publishers Weekly

Best Holiday Reads 2017 – Observer 

The Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2017 – Publishers Weekly

Articles, essays, excerpts and interviews

Daily Telegraph

BBC History Extra

I newspaper

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Red Magazine

Times Literary Supplement  

And there’ll be more soon in Kirkus, Lenny, LitHub, The Millions, The Paris Review, Smithsonian, and TIME.

Next week…

We’ll be back with another guest blog from another pair of modern-day female writer friends.

 

 

 

 

Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor

Barbara Pym and her contemporary Elizabeth Taylor knew how it felt to be ignored. Each completed a long literary ‘apprenticeship’, labouring for years without worldly success before a publisher finally said yes to one of their novels.

Even once they were established as authors, their finely nuanced, understated prose often failed to achieve the recognition it deserved.

Barbara Pym – We sought permission to use this image.

In 1963, the publisher of Pym’s six previous novels rejected her next manuscript, citing gloomy sales predictions. Such news could scarcely have arrived at a worse time for the forty-nine-year old, coming soon after she had been burgled twice, which had included the theft of her typewriter. Although Pym picked herself up and began the process of sending An Unsuitable Attachment  to alternative firms, over the next fourteen years her efforts to sell this, and other novels, met with no success.

The 1960s also saw a downturn in Taylor’s literary fortunes. Unlike Pym’s, her writing would continue to make it into print, but her work, which had often received positive reviews in the 1940s and 50s, began to attract the criticism that it was out of step with the times.

Though neither Taylor nor Pym were ever stalwarts of any literary scene, during these difficult years, they could both draw comfort from a handful of writer friends – including each other.

Elizabeth Taylor – image from Wikipedia (terms: fair use)

By the time their work fell out of favour, the pair had known each other for well over a decade, having first met for tea at Fortnum & Mason in 1950. Then each in their late thirties, they soon began a correspondence that lasted close to two decades. They also continued to meet in person, and attended gatherings for the writers’ organisation PEN together – occasions gently satirised by Pym in her 1953 book Jane and Prudence.

Their different literary styles and often polarised beliefs had little bearing on their feelings of kinship. Pym’s social world, and that of her books, is firmly rooted in the Anglican church, whereas Taylor was a committed Atheist. For many years, Taylor was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, joining in the mid-1930s – whereas, in a similar period, Pym had recorded in her diary her disapproval ‘of much that Communism stands for’.

Despite such divergences, the two seem to have felt that a great deal still united them. In their letters, they talked of their admiration for each other’s work, and delighted in the interests they did share – a mutual pleasure in clothes, for instance, especially hats.

Each confided in the other regarding personal matters, too. Taylor told Pym how much she hated her name – shared, of course, with one of the world’s most famous women. On occasion, this led to men writing to Taylor in error, requesting photographs of her in a bikini.  Pym, in turn, let her friend in on the story of one of her doomed love affairs. And when, in her forties, Taylor suffered a miscarriage, she divulged details of this to Pym – including the fact that, out of what seems to have been a sense of shame, she had hidden this trauma from her children.

Throughout their careers, both women fitted writing around domestic commitments, plus, in Pym’s case, the need to earn a living. Taylor, who revelled publicly in her role as a housewife, once told an interviewer that she thought up her novel’s plots over the ironing. Pym, who never married, shared a home for many years with her sister, and worked at the International African Institute in London – another organisation that provided excellent humorous material for her novels.

After Taylor’s death from cancer in 1975, at the age of sixty-three, Pym lamented that –  despite Taylor’s shortlisting for the Booker Prize four years earlier – little public notice had been taken of her passing. But in 1976, not long after the posthumous publication of her novel, Blaming, Taylor was awarded a Whitbread Prize for lifetime achievement. In the 1980s, Virago began to reprint her books, and, more recently, several film adaptations have continued to raise her profile.

As for Pym, her literary life had a famously happy ending when she was ‘rediscovered’ in 1977, after being nominated twice in the same TLS article as ‘the most underrated writer of the twentieth century’.

Her reputation swiftly restored, she published two more books – including the Booker-shortlisted Quartet in Autumn – before also dying of cancer in 1980. Other works were published posthumously. In the years since, a new generation of readers have come to know and love her novels. Perhaps some of them will appreciate her friend’s 1953 assessment that Pym’s writing is ‘Something to remember as one works about the house, something to keep one company’.

 

Over the coming weeks…

We have a few events coming up. We’ll be in conversation with author and Something Rhymed guest blogger Antonia Honeywell at Uxbridge Library this Friday (22 September).

We’ll also be at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 14 October and the Bloomsbury Festival on Saturday 21 October.

We’ll keep posting future events on the Events Calendar page.

Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty

Some time ago, Tessa Hadley suggested that we explore one of Eudora Welty’s female alliances. When blog reader Elizabeth Ahlstrom also wrote to us to mention Katherine Anne Porter’s mentorship of Welty – a fellow writer from the Deep South – we were further intrigued.

This literary bond particularly piqued our interest since we have long felt indebted to the authors who took us under their wings when we were starting out. And, more recently, we thanked our lucky stars when Margaret Atwood generously agreed to write the foreword to A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf.

Katherine Anne Porter’s lifestyle, roaming from place to place and lover to lover, bore little resemblance to that of Eudora Welty, who returned to her family home in her early twenties and remained there unmarried until her dying day.

But, a few years later in the late 1930s, when the middle-aged Porter came across Welty’s short stories in the Southern Review, she knew she had found a kindred spirit in the twenty-eight-year-old.

The two women shared a deep admiration for the work of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, and, as Southern writers, they considered themselves ‘bathers in the same sea’. Here, felt Porter, was a talent to nurture.

Welty never forgot the helping hand she received from the more established writer, looking back with wonder at her first letter from Porter, which seemed to come ‘out of the clear blue sky’. Porter invited the younger woman to visit her in the two-room apartment she shared with her third husband in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 150 miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, where Welty lived with her mother in their large mock Tudor home.

It took Welty six months to gather the courage to take Porter up on the invitation. She twice got halfway there before turning back. But, one midsummer day in 1938, mutual friends drove her down to Porter’s home, where she enjoyed a convivial evening, the open windows letting in a welcome breeze as she listened intently to the conversation.

True to her word, Porter went out of her way for the modest, young writer, nominating her for a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt award, introducing her work to Ford Madox Ford, and inviting Welty to accompany her to Yaddo – a prestigious artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, Upstate New York.

Katherine Anne Porter (left) and Eudora Welty (right) at Yaddo in 1941                                                                                    © Eudora Welty LLC; courtesy Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.  All Rights Reserved. The Eudora Welty Foundation.

At Yaddo it became clear that the outwardly shy Welty shared with her glamorous mentor a love of socialising and a knack for friendship. Neither woman got much work done during their two months together because they could not resist the temptations of companionship: Welty tried to teach Porter to drive and they made excursions to view the renovations at the nearby colonial home that the recently-divorced Porter had just purchased.

That summer, Porter did begin work on a foreword to Welty’s first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green – an act that Porter herself predicted would add $10,000 to the book’s sales. But the gesture was not without its complications. Porter, who had always struggled with deadlines, failed to turn it around on time. Welty chose to postpone the publication date rather than chivvy on her mentor, and the book did eventually come out complete with Porter’s promised foreword.

Their bond would always combine the literary and the social. One of Welty’s abiding memories of Porter was an evening they spent together in the late 1970s. By this stage, both women had been awarded Pulitzer Prizes and Porter would soon honour her protegée by presenting her with a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters – an occasion for which Porter had prepared months in advance with the purchase of an Italian silk pant suit.

Despite recovering from cataract operations and suffering with a broken hip, the eighty-four-year-old spent all morning cooking for her friend. The pair began with spears of asparagus, butter melting onto their fingers, followed by ‘dainty catfish fingerlings’, which they ate using golden cutlery. They finished up with strawberries and champagne, celebrating and chatting all afternoon.

When Porter died at the age of ninety, Welty took a group of friends out for a crab supper after the memorial service so that they could reminisce in a style that would capture Porter’s spirit. And Welty looked back on her bond with Porter more publicly too. She wrote a tender essay about it for the Georgia Review, and her introduction to the Norton Book of Friendship conjures up the way friends give tribute to one of their group who has passed away: ‘As if by words expressed they might turn friendship into magic, the magic that now, so clearly, it had been.’

An Invitation to our Female Literary Friendship Event at the British Library, July 11 2017, 7.15-8.30pm:

We are honoured to be sharing a stage with novelist Kate Mosse, the founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and her friend, the biographer Rachel Holmes. We will be talking about the friendships that we have explored in A Secret Sisterhood and they will be sharing details of their own literary friendship.

If you are free, we would love to share the occasion with you too.

Tickets can be reserved by calling +44 (0)1937 546546 or emailing boxoffice@bl.uk

A Secret Sisterhood: in the media

With our book A Secret Sisterhood just out in the UK, it gives us such pleasure to look back on the past three years running Something Rhymed together.

By the time we launched our blog at the beginning of 2014, with this post on Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, we had been researching the subject of female literary friendship for some time already. But, over the months that followed, it was the enthusiasm of Something Rhymed readers that encouraged us to explore the subject of female literary friendship in far greater detail in a book.

A Secret Sisterhood features the stories of the literary friendships of Jane Austen and amateur-playwright-cum-family-governess Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontё and early feminist author Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame; fellow Modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

Literary journalists and friends Arifa Akbar and Katy Guest interviewing Emma and Emily during a friendship-themed literary event at New York University London to mark the launch of A Secret Sisterhood© Rachel Gilbertson

We thought you might be interested in the following articles and reviews, which give something of a taster of the book. We’re also hard at work on pieces for the I newspaper, and the TLS, among others, so do look out for those.

Daily Telegraph: Emily and Emma on How Jane Austen’s mystery woman was edited out of history

The Pool: ‘You don’t think you can find out anything new about Jane Austen…’ says Emma. Kate Leaver interviews us.

Yorkshire Post: Emily asks Why are so many female authors portrayed as eccentric, lonely spinsters?

Litro: Emily and Emma discuss The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Foyles: Jonathan Ruppin interviews us about Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and how to write together and stay friends.

Writers & Artists: Emma and Emily talk about Literary Sisterhood

Women Writers, Women[’s] Books: Emma and Emily on The Art of Co-Authorship

Byte the Book: Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone reviews A Secret Sisterhood

Islington Gazette: Emily on A Secret Sisterhood: Uncovering the hidden friendships of great literary women

Sarah Emsley: Emily and Emma consider First Impressions: Jane Austen’s radical female friendship

The Writing Garnet: Emma and Emily talk about being Travellers on the Same Road

Annecdotal: Anne Goodwin reviews A Secret Sisterhood

Greenacre Writers: Emily and Emma In Conversation

 

Next week

We have an event coming up at Waterstones Crouch End in London. If you can make it, we’d love to see you. Tickets are £4 and can be purchased in advance here.

Details of our other forthcoming events are listed on our Events Calendar.

This month

We’ll be profiling another pair of female writer friends, suggested to us by one of our readers. If you have an idea for a pair of literary pals you’d like to see featured on Something Rhymed, do please let us know. You can do this by leaving a comment or visiting the Contact Us page.

 

A Secret Sisterhood – available for pre-order

Even though writers are supported by a team of people at their publishing house, bringing a book into the world can sometimes feel a lonely business. There’s usually one person hunched over her desk, one name on the cover and one person travelling to interviews and events.

We feel so fortunate to be able to share the experience. During the most intense periods of editing A Secret Sisterhood, we stayed in each other’s homes for days on end, took walks together during our breaks, and cooked each other late-night bowls of pasta.

Now that our UK publication date is almost upon us, we’re working in the same room once more. This time our advance copies are stacked on the desk beside us, our names side by side on the cover – alongside Margaret Atwood’s, who generously wrote our foreword.

Now available for early purchase. Every pre-order raises the book’s profile with retailers.

In keeping with the theme of A Secret Sisterhood, during our years of research and writing, a great many individuals and organisations have extended the hand of friendship to us – not least the readers of this blog. Your confidence from early on that this subject deserved to be explored in greater depth inspired us to write this book.

We’re hoping to meet lots of you in person during the coming months at some of our events. We’ll be interviewed by Michèle Roberts and Sarah LeFanu at Waterstones Gower Street; talking with Kate Mosse at the British Library; and delivering the keynote speech at the 46th Annual George Eliot Lecture. Details of these and other events can be found here, and we’ll be adding to it regularly over the coming days and weeks.

Just to add:

The UK edition will be out on 1 June. The US edition, with a slightly different title (A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) will be out on 17 October. We’ll say more about this nearer to the time, but both editions are available for pre-order now. The US edition is currently heavily discounted if you pre-order it here.

Arifa Akbar and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: Bringing Unwritten Ideas into the Light

With the UK edition of our book A Secret Sisterhood now sent off to the printers, we’re glad to be able to give more attention to this blog once more.

Today we have an interview with two modern-day female writers. Some of you will remember Arifa Akbar’s fascinating talk at last year’s Something Rhymed literary salons. You can read it here if you weren’t able to come along that evening. She joins us now with her friend Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi to tell us about their literary friendship.

How did the two of you meet, and can you tell us about your first impressions of each other? 

Arifa: I was invited into a circle of British South Asian writers in 2013 and Ayesha was there. We’d meet once a month to talk about our work. For about a year, I only saw Ayesha at these gatherings so I got to know her through her critical opinions first. The friendship grew through it.

At the time, she was planning on doing a PhD on trauma in literature and I was a journalist at The Independent so we came from different worlds but I loved the way she approached books, how she had the ability to really listen. She was someone who seemed passionate and unafraid in her opinions. I thought that she was a gentle person but filled with a spirit of quiet rebellion.

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi  (left) and Arifa Akbar (right)

Ayesha: At one monthly group meeting, nobody turned up but she, I, and another writer friend, Kavita Bhanot. In that intimate setting, the conversation turned to personal matters and I brought up an issue I had been grappling with. With the same analytical insight and strong feminist sensibility that she applies to her literary criticism, Arifa listened, really listened, to my dilemma. A spark was lit. Soon, we became close, and began to bring unwritten ideas into the light, glimmers of novels, plays, and essays that we then encouraged each other to embark upon.

You have both worked as reviewers. What kind of problems with gender parity have you come across in the literary and media worlds?  And what are your predictions / hopes for writing by women in 2017 and beyond?

Arifa: What grates for me most is that fiction by women is sometimes treated as if it were a special category within literature. And so often, I notice how many books by men which might otherwise have been labelled as domestic literature or romance are being reviewed as ‘literary fiction’ or even as ‘state of the nation’ novels. Who ascribes these labels?

More generally, I see a disparity in how many books by men and women get review space, the amount of male bylines on reviewing pages compared to female. Its source is rooted in the rest of society so I don’t think you can solve it without addressing gender inequality as a whole, but to be conscious of it is some sort of start and I have begun to see the pattern shift.

Ayesha: I moved to the UK from Pakistan at eighteen. Writing here, in an industry dominated by whiteness, has unique complications: there is the danger of being co-opted or misused, as well as an internal often unconscious impulse to surrender to the dominant narrative, to give in to the demand for ‘easy’, clichéd, or exoticised stories. To find an avenue to the truth in this minefield is not simple, and would perhaps be impossible without my torch-bearers.

In literature, my torch-bearers include Fanon, Baldwin, Dickinson. And in life, they are my two writer friends. As a woman also, it is easy to feel one must not reach too high, for fear of falling or neglecting loved ones. Arifa helps me in this struggle through words and example. Sometimes, she channels her own torch-bearers in doing so: like quoting Virginia Woolf when I was telling her of a difficult moment, exhorting me to ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face’.

Which particular qualities do you admire in each other’s writing?

Arifa: I am often surprised by Ayesha’s plays and short stories. They speak in a voice that is hers but that also reveals a part of her I don’t know, and that had remained hidden for me. The short stories that I’ve read have an air of mysteriousness and unanswered questions. They remind me that so much of life, and relationships, happens beneath whatever is being said or done on the surface. And I like her humour too. I noticed it first when I saw a read-through of a play she’d written for Kali Theatre. I was taken aback by how funny it was and, again, this is something that seemed hidden until then.

 Ayesha: Arifa has a sharp wryness that she manages to transfer on to the page, even in her book reviews. Her fiction, which must be shared one day, is of measured pace and remarkable passion: a difficult combination. I think Arifa has learned through her journalistic career how to transfer her essence into words without pretence or showmanship. It is beautiful to read.

Can you tell us how you ‘workshop’ each other’s writing?

Arifa: Ayesha’s a talented editor. She seems to read on an intuitive level, approaching drafts with an extraordinary degree of sensitivity, curiosity and meticulousness. There have been so many times when I’ve got knotted up and sent her a draft just before a deadline and she has been able to unknot it in no time – suggest where I might be going wrong, see faults in the arrangement of a piece, put me back on track with ideas that I could develop, interrogate the claims I’m making or the story I’m imagining, and more.

It has been the case for both the writing for newspapers and the unpublished fiction. I feel confident knowing that if I send her a piece of writing in progress, it will end up better, always. I don’t think I had ever understood how transformative editing could be to a piece of work before I met Ayesha and it reflects her generosity of spirit that she gives so much to someone else’s work.

Ayesha: Arifa and I edit each other’s work with a brutal honesty that is always embedded in kindness. The editing comes from a place of deep empathy, the kind that not only improves the proofread piece, but also enables real growth.

Does writing form the central aspect of your relationship? Are there other shared interests that bring you together as friends?

 Arifa: Writing and critical thinking was the glue to our friendship at the beginning and maybe it has remained so. Gradually, after the writing circle, we formed a three-way friendship and then it became two, and I feel I have got to know different parts of Ayesha through these stages. We’ve only known each other for four years but the friendship feels deeper and longer than that.

Ayesha: Our relationship started off on the basis of writing, but, as it grew into friendship, other matters of the soul rose to the surface. There have in fact been moments of deep crisis and grief that have brought the friendship itself into question. But we’ve faced them with slow perseverance and brutal honesty.

The presence of a firm literary friendship is a gift, one that is sometimes joyously celebrated and at other times patiently nurtured. But always, it is a gift. And to be able to examine the fabric that makes up life in the presence of a loving, understanding other is all that I wish for; Arifa, with her formidable intelligence, empathy, and insight, allows me this.

Arifa Akbar is a journalist, reviewer and is currently working on her first novel.

In addition to her work as a reviewer, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi is a writer of short stories, essays and plays.

‘We’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships’: Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert

This month, we’ve been hard at work on final edits for A Secret Sisterhood. As soon as we emerge, we’re looking forward to bringing you a new post about another of the historical literary pairs we’ve come across.

In the mean time, we’re pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by two modern-day writer friends and collaborators. Short story writer Zoe Gilbert and novelist Lily Dunn run London Lit Lab , an organisation that offers creative writing courses and mentoring. They tell us how they got to know each other, and how working as a team of two has changed their friendship, in the most positive of ways…

 

Zoe

Lily and I met when I joined the North London Writers Group as the rogue short story writer amongst novelists. We made an immediate connection through our writing, which was perhaps lucky – at the time, Lily was looking at ways of using sea folklore in her draft novel, and I was working on folk-tale-influenced short stories.

It was also Lily’s humane but incisive approach to critiquing other people’s work that made my ears prick up. Her comments were always the ones I went to first, and found most profound. How lucky I am to work beside her now whilst teaching writers!

I don’t often feel an instinctive, or quick, affinity with other human beings, but becoming friends with Lily came naturally.

Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert
Lily Dunn (left) and Zoe Gilbert

As we’ve got to know each other’s writing, and ways of thinking, it’s become clear how very different we are in how we approach fiction, how we use ideas on the page to work out what we think and who we are.

This is a glorious thing: it means I can learn endlessly from Lily as she always has a contrasting perspective on creative work. I marvel at her courage in writing directly from experience, in ways that move me, and I will always admire her writing because I will never fully understand how she does it.

Now we’ve brashly, rashly, started London Lit Lab together, and learned how to run a business in partnership. That’s a big thing, and we’ve done it in a year when both our lives have been distracting enough that business meetings sometimes turn into much needed rants or wine-fuelled counselling sessions.

In Lily, I have a genuine partner through a phase of taking on life with fists raised in gusto, and four fists somehow add up to more than twice two.

 

Lily

I reckon we’re given only a handful of these kinds of friendships – the kind that happens easily, without much effort on either part. It is a gift to be treated with care.

Zoe was a welcome addition to North London Writers. We gushed over her extraordinary stories, so spare yet textured in style, dream-like yet earthy. She was humble to our praise, elegant and understated. But, according to my memory, it wasn’t writing that first bonded us… but cats.

It was my turn to host the writers’ group, and my two Siamese came purring for attention among various group members, disinterested and allergic. I reassured them that they had a place in the midst of literary discussion, no doubt talking ‘cat’. Lost in my private moment, I was delighted to find Zoe laughing beside me. She likes cats! She’s one of ‘my people’!

Writing, I have discovered, is so nuanced and personal. When you love another’s work, you’re embracing that person, too. Zoe and I have that. The trust between us is unspoken. Together we feel at home in our writing self, as we do in our enquiring self, our silly self, too.

London Lit Lab felt like an effortless extension of this. Hard work, yes, but it came together easily.

With no real plan to teach together, we suggested we’d support each other during the first course then alternate, but very quickly we’d formed a dynamic. We sat amongst our students, and discussed ideas and texts, more a fin de siècle salon than the usual teacher/student divide. It turned into a creative act, well planned but open to the magic.

Soon we realised that the magic was in us  – not individually, but together – as well as the students and our combined inspiration. We came out of those classes buzzing. Two female writers, who like each other, and admire each other’s writing, who want to teach together … and … here’s the best bit…. make it work!

 

Shadowing the Sun by Lily Dunn is published by Portobello Books.

‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ by Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014.

Eliot Bliss and Jean Rhys

Towards the end of 2014, when we had been running Something Rhymed for just one year, we had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Athill about the literary bond she shared with the late Jean Rhys.

Plaque outside Jean Rhys's former home in London's Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)
Plaque outside Jean Rhys’s former home in London’s Chelsea (Creative Commons licence)

As many others before her had also observed, Athill recalled that Rhys was not someone who made friends easily. On the other hand, the famously temperamental author could be ‘fun to be with’, Athill told us – at least ‘when she was being happy’.

Rhys also knew how to turn on the charm when she needed help. ‘When she was young and a very, very pretty woman’, Athill remembered with a wry smile, ‘she was rescued over and over again by helpful men. When she became older, she was rescued by nice women like me’.

Having so enjoyed our afternoon’s talk back in 2014, Emma and I were delighted to learn of another of Rhys’s female literary alliances.

Although Rhys had written four earlier, highly accomplished novels, she remains best known today as the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, inspired by the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But almost three decades before the publication of Rhys’s 1966 book, which would bring her the kind of public admiration that she’d always felt she deserved, she became acquainted with Eliot Bliss – like her, a white writer from the Caribbean, Rhys hailing from Dominica whereas Bliss came from Jamaica.

Image used with the kind permission of Michela A. Calderaro, who has published a newly-discovered collection of poems by Bliss.

Eliot Bliss (born Eileen Norah Lees Bliss in 1903), whose pen-name was partially inspired by George Eliot, was the author of the novels Saraband and Luminous Isle. And, like Rhys, her work was highly autobiographical, often focusing on the lush island homes of their youths.

The pair got to know each other while they were both living in London, and Rhys, then in her forties, was enjoying an unusually settled – and therefore happy – period in an often chaotic life. During the summer of 1937, the two met every fortnight to enjoy home-cooked Caribbean dinners washed down with vast quantities of wine.

Such was Rhys’s ability to drink that her poor younger friend always felt ill after these meals. Rhys, too, sometimes ended up so drunk that her husband would have to put both women to bed.

On occasion, Bliss would catch a glimpse of her friend’s stormy temper – for instance, when Rhys drunkenly accused Bliss (the daughter of a colonial army officer) of looking down on her. But when Rhys was sober, according to Bliss, she was always kind-natured and – as Athill, too, would later note – full of fun.

Sadly, in the winter of 1937, Bliss left for America. But the two writers continued to correspond in the decades to come, their letters challenging the common perception of Rhys as constantly difficult-natured and someone who was unable to make friends with other women.

This year…

We are looking forward to profiling many more female writing friendships. If you sent us a recommendation over the past twelve months, when we have been working hard on our forthcoming book, please know that we have not forgotten about it. We welcome all ideas for literary pairs you’d like to see on this site, so if a friendship we haven’t covered yet comes to mind, please do let us know.