A Friendship Important in So Many Ways

'A rainbow in somebody's cloud' - Maya Angelou Image taken at the Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)
‘A rainbow in somebody’s cloud’ – Maya Angelou
(Image taken at Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)

We are saddened by the death of Maya Angelou, a writer whose life and work has been an inspiration to people the world over, and a woman from whose great capacity for friendship we’ve learned so much this year.

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that we profiled Angelou’s relationship with Toni Morrison back in February. Influenced by their championing of each other’s achievements, we set ourselves the task, on a much smaller scale, to follow their example.

We made lists of the things we admired about each other and developed them into pieces of creative work. Although we’d always considered our friendship to be a very open one, we were surprised by how many of the points we noted down we had never spoken of before.

It made us wonder how long we might have gone on silently appreciating, but never expressing, that we valued these qualities if we hadn’t paid attention to Angelou and Morrison.

When we discovered that Morrison would be appearing at Wales’s Hay Festival this year, we quickly bought tickets to hear her talk. We knew that she and Angelou had bonded years ago at Hay, when both women found themselves far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And so it felt particularly poignant that it was during yesterday’s festival session that many audience members (ourselves included) first heard that Angelou had died.

Morrison eloquently gave voice to the gasps that rippled through the vast tent when she spoke of her personal loss. ‘I thought she was eternal,’ she said. ‘I thought she always, always would be there.’

As writer friends ourselves, it is difficult to listen to language like this without wondering how one of us would cope in a similar situation, how we would feel if the person we’d come to rely on to such an extent was suddenly gone from our life.

Morrison, who called Angelou ‘a real original’, was understandably reluctant to say too much about her death. ‘It hurts so much that I have no treasurable, powerful, elegant words to say about that,’ she told the crowd. ‘I need time to talk about Maya. She was important in so many ways.’

But what struck us as we listened was the extent to which each of these women had already made significant efforts to commemorate the life of her friend.

Morrison’s speech in praise of Angelou at the USA’s most recent National Book Awards was a case in point, as was the party Angelou threw for her friend in 1993 – a response to what she saw as a lack of official national acknowledgement when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We are thankful for what we have learned from this literary pair: that it is important to celebrate the lives of our close ones, not just in fine tributes once they are gone, but also when they are still here.

We Beg to Differ

Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa on Read Me Something You Love, discussing the differences that fired the friendship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf
Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa on Read Me Something You Love, discussing the differences that fired the friendship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves, a special kind of double – Toni Morrison

Michèle Roberts recently advised us to acknowledge our differences.

As fans of her work and beneficiaries of her teaching on UEA’s Creative Writing MA, we were particularly keen to learn from her. With male friends, she told us, differences are delightfully obvious, but with fellow women we must mine deeper to discover the disparities between us:

‘Mothers and daughters identify with each other because they are of the same sex, and yet also they have to recognise themselves as separate people; the struggle for them to differentiate from each other can be troubled at times. With women friends, particularly, perhaps, if they are very close, and particularly, perhaps, if they are very idealistic about friendship, this struggle can occasionally be re-enacted. One of the roles of friends is to cherish and respect their differences as well as delight in their identification!’

Since our similarities are so obvious and we’ve never once had a feud, we found Michèle’s advice simultaneously resonant and troubling.

In our profile of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, we mention that they are often grouped together for the crudest of reasons. This is something that we’ve experienced too. We’re both writers; both northern; both brunette and petite; both teach at the same universities; both share a taste for vintage fashion, second-hand bookshops, and long conversations over afternoon tea. We even share variations of the same name: Emma and Emily. When one of our colleagues persistently mistakes us for the same person, we roll our eyes and laugh but are secretly pleased.  

Emily’s poem, ‘Things We Didn’t Do’, depicted a childhood very similar to Emma Claire’s: we both staged plays in our back gardens, practised cartwheels, created dens, shared secret cigarettes.

Yet it is our differences that might have most enhanced our formative years: in Emily Midorikawa’s home, you would have found chopsticks that rubbed along easily with the knives and forks, whereas at Emma Claire Sweeney’s you would have been more likely to stumble across holy water contained in a bottle the shape of Our Lady; Emma Claire could have eavesdropped on conversations between Emily’s academic parents, whereas Emily could have discovered a less obvious kind of intelligence in Emma Claire’s autistic sister.  

More important and problematic, though, are the differences in our characters and in the lives we’ve forged for ourselves. If we fail to accommodate them, they could damage our friendship in the long run.

One of the things Emma Claire admires in Emily, and tries (but frequently fails) to emulate is her ability to broach difficult matters with honesty. It takes a particular kind of tact and courage to acknowledge the things that divide us: if we go about it the wrong way, we risk falling out.

We learnt from Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf that competition can be constructive – something that tends to go without saying about male friendship but is still taboo about women – but we don’t want to repeat their cycle of feud and reconciliation.

In the process of writing this post, we’ve realised that Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison have already taught us a thing or two about positive recognition of difference. In our responses to this month’s activity, for instance, Emily mentions that she’s never ‘known anyone quite like Emma Claire for taking an idea and running with it’, whereas Emma Claire admires the way Emily ‘accurately predicts the length of time a task requires and only undertakes work she can complete to the highest of standards’. These are attributes and yet they are also often our undoing. Looked at from another angle: Emma Claire needs to learn to say ‘no’, whereas Emily could more often say ‘yes’.

Something Rhymed may never have got off the ground without Emma Claire’s drive, but it could not have thrived without Emily’s pragmatism. We have only scratched the surface when it comes to acknowledging our differences, but we’re exploiting some of them each and every time we make a post on this site.

Ten Things Sarah Butler and Tessa Nicholson Love About Each Other

When novelist, Sarah Butler, and screen writer, Tessa Nicholson, posted up pictures of their beautiful letters on Twitter, we were delighted to discover that they were following Something Rhymed and joining us in dedicating 2014 to friendship. Since each chapter of Sarah’s début novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, begins with a list, we asked them to share the lists they wrote in response to February’s challenge in this month’s guest blog.

We met, aged 19, at University: both reading English, both slightly overawed by the academia of Cambridge. We were friends from the off – easy in each other’s company, interested in each other’s lives, encouraging of each other’s dreams.

Fifteen years on, we are still firm friends, and now we are both writers. Something Rhymed’s letter writing activity for January helped us to forge another, written aspect of our friendship – which has been especially delightful now that we live in different cities.

Following the example of Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, we decided to write a list of ten things we admire about each other.

Sarah on Tess

Ten Things I admire about Tessa

Sarah: It felt like a treat to take the time to really think about what makes Tessa such a great person and friend. As I wrote, certain words jumped out at me: wise, fun, generous, honest, so I decided to make a simple list which emphasised these words. I thought about which colours I associate with Tessa, which, it turns out, are muted pinks, greens and greys, so I used these colours for each key word, using images of tree bark, flowers, leaves and stone. The list’s title is ‘cut out’ of a photo of the college at Cambridge where we first met.

Tessa: Reading Sar’s list made me realise how lucky I am to have her as a friend. It is very fitting that this exercise was Sar’s suggestion – from our early days at university I was struck by her discipline and work ethic. Living beside her from the day we were able to choose rooms, I strove to work as hard and as productively as she did – and definitely failed. Today she continues to inspire me – doggedly carving a name for herself among the literati! Am so proud of her. And of our friendship. Her list felt like a big reassuring hug and an encouraging hand on my back pushing me up the hill.

Ten Things I Admire About Sarah

Tess on Sarah

TessaThere are many things to admire in Sar, so I had to be selective when putting it down on paper. First of all, I thought I would write my list by hand – but my writing is messy and difficult to read. So then I had what I thought was a better idea, to cut the letters out of the paper (the Guardian and Grazia Magazine to be precise). I now have a lot of respect for kidnappers because ransom notes really take forever. I berated a lot of journalists during the process but am now up to date on current affairs and Victoria Beckham’s rise from Spice Girl to haute couture.

Sarah: I want a wall-sized version of Tessa’s list in my office! It’s funny – I was half-hoping Tess would handwrite the list because I love her handwriting so much, but I love the ransom note – beautiful, colourful, quirky, just like her. I was touched by all of it, but especially number 3: ‘you make me feel at home’ – which links so beautifully to Maya Angelou’s essay ‘Home’ in Letter to my Daughter.

Sarah Butler’s novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, was first published by Picador in 2013 and is just out in paperback.

Tessa Nicholson writes for PORT Magazine and the culture-vulture digital site Nowness.

Remember:

We’d love to hear about the things you admire in your friend. And if, like Tessa and Sarah, you’d like to send us a picture of your response to February’s challenge, then please email it to somethingrhymed@gmail.com or post it on Twitter along with #SomethingRhymed.

We’re on the look out for famous female writer pals to feature next month, so do let us know who you’d like to see profiled.

Two gifts: a ‘collection of books’ and a poem

If you are on Twitter, you might know that Emma Claire posted a photo last week, saying that she had just started her response to this month’s Something Rhymed activity.

Emma's February activity

Like you, I could see pens, notebooks, coloured paper, a cup of tea. And I had absolutely no idea what she had planned.

So I was delighted to receive a stack of ‘books’ this week, each of them decorated with my name and a make-believe title. Amongst these were One Honest Friend, Speaking Up and my personal favourite The Lost Art of Getting Lost.  Each book had a related back-cover blurb too, summing up something my friend admired about me.

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Although I can’t help feeling that Emma Claire has been over-generous in her praise, I was really touched by what she said and the highly original way she found to say it.

This was the first time I’d received anything like this from her, and that encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try my hand at something I rarely attempt.

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I had already made a list of her many qualities at this stage. These included:

  • Her superior levels of insight as a writer and a reader
  • Her sensitivity towards other people – she’s amazingly good at predicting when someone may be feeling down and thinking of practical ways that she can help.
  • That she is more of a doer than a dreamer – I have never known anyone quite like Emma Claire for taking an idea and running with it.
  • The fact she’s very good at pulling a meal together, never ever getting flustered in the kitchen meals at Emma Claires are always served with warmth.

I wanted to do something text-based in response, and, although in no way do I consider myself a poet, I thought poetry might be a good form for what I wanted to say.

I’d also been thinking about the letters we wrote to each other as part of January’s activity, and how we’d both said there had been times when we’d regretted not meeting earlier in our lives. This element crept into the piece below too, which ended up suggesting something of the spirit of my list rather than being constructed of the original words I scribbled down.

You can read the poem by clicking on the title below:

Things we didn’t do

As always

We are very keen to hear your responses to this month’s challenge. And do keep those recommendations of female literary pairings coming in too. You can get in touch by using the ‘leave a reply’ button below. We really look forward to hearing from you.

Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison

Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the My Sheer Good Fortune event at Virginia Tech. (Photo used with their kind permission.)
Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the Sheer Good Fortune event at Virginia Tech. (Photo used with their kind permission.)

When Maya Angelou was honoured at the USA’s 2013 National Book Awards, it was Toni Morrison who presented her with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

At the ceremony, Morrison spoke with clear emotion of her ‘personal pleasure’ at being able to hand over the prize to a friend who ‘inspires delight as well as awe’.

Now both in their eighties, it wasn’t the first time that one of these grandes dames of American letters had taken the opportunity to lavish praise on the other in public. The previous year, Angelou was a member of an all-female trio who hosted an event called Sheer Good Fortune in honour of Toni Morrison.

The title was inspired by the dedication from the author’s novel Sula, ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’, and this sentiment is clearly something that her friend has taken to heart for some time. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1993, Angelou decided to throw her a party because, as she would later recall, she felt it was something the United States should have done.

As two African Americans, two women, two writers of a similar age, these two have sometimes found themselves grouped together for the crudest of reasons. Morrison in particular has sometimes been keen to distance herself from Angelou in a literary sense – describing the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a very different writer from her.

Nonetheless, they clearly have the greatest respect for each other, both as artists and women. As Angelou says they have been ‘sister friends’ for decades, and have been able to call on each other over the years for personal as well as public support.

They especially enjoyed being able to bond with each other at a past book festival at Wales’s Hay on Wye, when both were far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And, as Morrison recalled in her recent awards tribute speech for her friend, when her son died one Christmas, Angelou was the very first non-family member to call her up on the phone with what she describes as ‘that unmistakable voice of sheer balm’.

Activity

In Toni Morrison’s recent speech to honour her friend, she described Maya Angelou’s many attributes, which range from the artistic to the personal to the culinary. As she says, ‘Maya can cook.’

This month we’re challenging ourselves to make lists of all the things we admire in each other and then we’re going to do something creative with it. Maybe we’ll polish up the wording and mount it on a card or, like Morrison, we might turn it into a crafted prose piece, or perhaps a poem. Or we could come at things from a different angle entirely, working parts of our lists into a painting or collage, even icing them onto a cake.

We’ll be letting you know what we decide to do and showing you something of what we produce.

We are interested in hearing recommendations of other female writing friendships that we could showcase on this site. If you know of a literary pair of women, past or present, who have supported each other’s work, do please get in touch.