The Orphans by Annemarie Neary

Annemarie Neary’s novels are The Orphans (2017) and Siren (2016), both from Hutchinson/Windmill Books, and A Parachute in the Lime Tree (2012) from The History Press Ireland. Her short stories have been published in many places in Ireland, the UK and the US, most recently in the award-winning anthology The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland. Her own awards for short fiction include the Michael McLaverty, Bryan MacMahon, Columbia Journal and Posara prizes. Irish-born, Annemarie is a former lawyer and lives in south London with her family.

The latest novel, The Orphans, is about family, loss, grief and obsession. Consisting of many layers, the novel explores the effects of abandonment, of loss and childhood trauma.

Neary is a fine prose writer and The Orphans is a very well-written book – markedly so for this genre… The ending is artful and beautifully ambiguous, and as mentioned, the writing is excellent.’ – Sunday Independent

Eight-year-old Jess and her little brother were playing at the water’s edge when their parents vanished. For hours the children held hands and waited for them to return. But nobody ever came back. Years later, Jess has become a locker of doors. Now a lawyer and a mother, she is determined to protect the life she has built around her. But her brother Ro has grown unpredictable, elusive and obsessive. When new evidence suggests that their mother might be alive, Ro reappears, convinced that his sister knows more than she claims. And then disturbing things start to happen.

I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome author Annemarie Neary to the blog to answer some questions about the depiction of the two orphans in her latest novel also called The Orphans.

  • Tell us of your journey as a writer.

Like many other Dublin students with literary pretensions, I started off by writing terrible poetry in Bewley’s café. I think that put me off, actually! It was years later that I started to write fiction. I joined a weekly writing group (in North London, as it happens) and formed the habit of fiction — reading aloud every week, critiquing other people’s work and learning so much from their feedback.

When I stopped working as a lawyer, I decided it was now or never on the writing front. I became much more focused, wrote constantly, and began to realise that I had no material at all until I’d developed something with a shape.

I had a big stroke of beginners’ luck when my first published story won the Bryan MacMahon short story award at Writers’ Week, a long-established Irish literary festival. That gave me the confidence to keep going. In 2012, A Parachute in the Lime Tree (set in Ireland in 1941 and related to that first story) was published by The History Press Ireland. I continued to write short fiction, had lots of other stories published and broadcast here and there, won some more awards.

I signed with my agent, Zoe Waldie, a couple of years ago and my first two suspense novels, Siren and The Orphans, were published by Hutchinson (Penguin Random House) in 2016 and 2017. I’m currently working on my fourth novel, and on some new short stories.

  • What made you choose to write about orphans?

For me, fictional choices are rarely conscious – instinct and intuition seem to matter more. That said, this is a rare case where I can pinpoint the root of a piece of fiction. Years ago, a friend told me about someone she’d met who, along with a sibling, had apparently been abandoned on a tropical beach in childhood. The fate of their missing parents was never resolved, and the children took very different paths in adulthood. My friend didn’t have much more detail and I was never able to find anything on Google, but those two children wouldn’t let me go. I became deeply interested in what might have lain ahead for them.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

My first reaction was no, but actually I do have some indirect experience. When we were children, my parents used to invite two young sisters from a religious-run orphanage to stay with us at Christmas and Easter and for a week or so over the summer. We had no family connection with the girls, and I’m not entirely sure how it came about. I think my mother must just have contacted the orphanage – it was probably a much less formal matter back then. Their mother was still alive but unable to care for them, and I do remember feeling very embarrassed about how privileged we must have seemed.

My mother is still in touch with the younger of the two girls, with whom she formed a close bond. The relationship with the older sister was less successful – I think she felt uncomfortable and out-of-place. She was older than us, and very silent. I do remember picking the girls up, about 30 miles away in the nearest big city, and feeling a complicated mix of guilt, dread and sadness. I wonder now how much say the girls had in the matter. Probably very little.

  • Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

My orphans are raised by their mother’s sister, so they haven’t had precisely the same experience as children brought up outside their own family. Moreover, the mystery surrounding the fate of their mother means that they are not conclusively orphaned. While I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon you mention, something of this has seeped into the novel. Ro tells his story to any woman who will listen, but Jess is much more circumspect about her past, largely for this reason. They are both very much aware of the various orphan stereotypes, and Ro in particular ‘tries on’ various role models for size.

  • What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I am working on something set overseas, at the shadowy margins of the oil industry, with two strong female characters – a geologist who stumbles into a mire of intrigue and corruption and the interpreter with whom she is forced into an uncertain alliance. I’m still finishing the first draft, so I should probably leave it at that for now.

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

As soon as I declare them missing, you can be sure that they’re there somewhere! I saw a very interesting piece of art recently —  ‘Food for Thought’ by a young Saudi woman artist, Maha Mullah. I’d be interested to read a novel from that perspective.

  • If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

  • Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I loved all those orphan girls – from Heidi to Anne of Green Gables to Pippi Longstocking – for their free spirits.

 

Thanks to Annemarie for the interview.

Follow Annemarie on Twitter: @Annemarieneary1

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Your Life Your Story

22554959_10154841869488414_8217166459113465412_nHome! Hiraeth! A fantastic few days running Your Life Your Story as part of National Care Leavers Week 2017. A trauma informed writing workshop with Lisa Cherry and organised by Amanda Knowles, Trustee and Director of The Consortium for Therapeutic Communities and Richard Rollinson, The Barns Centre Executive Director, in Toddington. We had 14 care-experienced adults with an age range from 18-59. They were described as: “…extraordinary, and courageous people”. They were this and much more. Inspiring and inspirational. Warm and funny. Resilient. Beautiful human beings giving to the world and living truly exceptional lives.

It was a strange feeling running a workshop for care experienced individuals in a building that was once a children’s home. This was our Hiraeth, we had come home and the air was filled with expectation.

Writing our personal stories is the most vulnerable kind of writing we can do. We fear being laughed at, rejected, or that our words will be met with silence. And in turn, we ourselves remain silent. And yet there are a lot of care-experienced people who want to share their stories, for all sorts of reasons. Personal, therapeutic, for family, for history and publication. When I started the PhD, looking at the representation of care leavers in fiction, there was very little published about care leavers, but over the last few years there has been an explosion of new stories, new voices, often finally being heard after years of being invisible.

Some of the books I used or referenced in no particular order, included:

Novels:

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

Island by Jane Rogers

The Panoptican by Jenni Fagan

All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

The Seven Sister by Alex Wheatle

Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

Memoir:

Plot 29 by Allan Jenkins

Autobiography:

The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt

Fifty-One Moves by Ben Ashcroft

Non-fiction or Informational Text:

The Brightness of Stars by Lisa Cherry

Books about writing:

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

A Novel in a Year by Doughty, Louise

We tell bits of our story in order to have relationships. It would be difficult to have relationships and friendships without having some version of a life story floating around. The act of telling our story acts as a framing method or even a re-framing of previous life experience.

I’m interested in re-framing, whether that is fictional, autobiographical, memoir, or nonfictional. It gives a semblance of making sense of the chaos left behind. Stories are life, life is stories. A life story is written in pencil, not ink and can be rubbed out and changed. You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story.

It’s also important to realize that you’re not just living out your story, you’re actually in charge of it. Even if it is a terrible story, which is hard to share; the act of sharing, writing and rewriting gives a new realisation and possible resolution. That awful sense of being unable to change what went before can suddenly be lifted. For example, a simple act of changing point of view, can suddenly release a narrator and give them a distance and freedom to write their story.

We can take control of our narratives – our stories, by how they are told, what’s included, what’s left out. We can change the ‘single story’, the single narrative. And the truly exciting thing about this is that you can put out a new version of yourself and live your way into it.

Moments:

A young man who didn’t want to hold a pen, let alone write his story, transformed into a confident person who stood up and read out his writing.

Watching people change their ‘I’ into ‘he’ or ‘she’, third person narratives and finding their voices and freedom from their pasts.

Hearing a woman and mother, give herself the words that meant she finally found the words to write about her inability to honour her mother’s tragic death.

Seeing a man who could only doodle his thoughts and feelings suddenly break through and not only put together sentences, but paragraphs, chapters and is now half way through a novel.

#NCLW2017 Your Life Your Story. The story starts now and is written in chalk not ink. Changing the narrative.

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EVERY Child Leaving Care Matters

Some of you may remember the Every Child Leaving Care Matters (ECLCM) campaign started by Ben Ashcroft, myself, Ian Dickson, Ed Nixon and Lisa Cherry back in December 2013*. This was when the government announced its two-tier system for children in care. Those in foster care would be allowed to remain with their foster carers until they were 21. But those in children’s homes were not included and would still have to leave between 16-18, even though arguably the residential sector cares for possibly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people who may be unable, or indeed choose not to be fostered.

Since then we have seen the issues around children in care explode throughout the UK which is fantastic and needed to happen.

Ben Ashcroft, has steadfastly kept in his mind the children from a residential home who were with him when the government first made the announcement. ‘What about us,’ they said. ‘What about us?’ From that day Ben determined their voices would be heard.

Ben is author of 51 Moves a story that chronicles the harrowing experiences of the social care and welfare system and his journey between 9 and 18 years of age and its impact. By the time he ‘went straight’ at 17 years old, he had been moved 51 times and had 33 convictions. Though as he says: ‘None since’.

He has campaigned for many improvements to a child’s experience in care including getting rid of the awful dustbin bags used to transport their belonging. And he is only too aware of the criminalisation of the children of the state: “Having children convicted for crimes too young is a bad move. Unless it is absolutely necessary then no child should be locked up. Offences that are minor should be dealt with within the house be it foster care or residential care. We need to remember children only get one childhood and one life. Convictions wreck futures for mistakes made as a child.”

Four years later and the ECLCM campaign is still going. They have had meetings with Sir Martin Narey as part of the National review of residential children’s homes. They have a formal affiliation with the Care Leavers Association. They submitted a report to and appeared before the Education Select Committee, ‘Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options’, in 2013. And despite the committee recommending that the ‘Staying Put Option’ should be available to all children leaving care, the government ignored their Select Committee.

Since then ECLCM have submitted to other committees, attended APPG’s on Looked After Children where there was of course overwhelming support for the extension of the right to ‘stay put’ to all looked after children.

Though the petition continues to grow, it is no longer the primary focus of the campaign. It is a political matter and to succeed, ECLCM must engage with politicians. There are at least 60 MPs who openly support the campaign notably Bill Esterson, Emma Lewell-Buck, Sarah Champion, Alan Johnson, Craig Whittaker and George Howarth.

ECLCM took part in a dialogue/discussion with the DfE about what ‘Staying Close’ might look like. Subsequently, ‘Caring Teams’ has evolved and have enabled ECLCM to have some ongoing influence in the future Staying Close/Put Pilots and their evaluation.

It is very clear that this government will not consider Staying Put for all residential care leavers. Through discussions and negotiations the ECLCM involvement has led to tangible improvements in the proposed framework for the eight ‘Staying Close’ pilots.

Young people leaving care will be able to ‘stay close’ to the children’s home they are living in at the time they are due to leave care. Where young people are placed away from their ‘home’ area, these ‘out of borough’ ‘Staying Close’ placements must be close to the children’s home they are living in not in their home Local Authority area.

The ECLCM team have transitioned from an exclusive demand for ‘residential care to 21’ to a current focus on Staying Close – as described in the blueprint Caring Teams. Staying Close is not a final solution – but a major step forward. As part of these discussions ECLCM are working on a paper for Caring Teams.

Ben’s personal journey has been extremely hard at times as he battles with his mental health. He says of his recent experience: “Luckily I went through intensive treatment with a psychotherapist, psychiatrist and counsellors. Those professionals helped me get my life back together with a lot of hard work and conversations.”

The cost of caring by those with huge hearts cannot be underestimated. And in my personal experience, care experienced people have some of the hugest hearts I’ve ever seen. After taking time to recover, Ben decided that walking would be really good for his mental health. Not one to do things by halves, he is walking over 250 miles from Halifax to Parliament!

Ben decided to walk from Halifax to Parliament to spread the word of the ECLCM campaign. Ben left Halifax on Sunday 24 September to walk to London stopping off at Littleborough, Manchester, Haydock, Sefton, Liverpool, Chester, Nantwich, Eccleshall, Cannock, Dordon, Lutterworth, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Dunstable, St Albans before arriving in Parliament this Wednesday 11 October. If you want to join Ben for the last couple of legs of the walk, contact him via Twitter.

When Ben arrives in Parliament he will be addressing MP’s and supporters of ECLCM at Portcullis House.

 

Follow Ben on Twitter: @AshcroftBen

Follow ECLCM on Twitter: @ResCareTo21

 

*Myself, Lisa Cherry and Ian Dickson have since left ECLCM but continue to support the campaign and original principals of all children in care being treated equally.

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Quieter Than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin (2014), won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2015, and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer’s Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. The Marnie Rome series continued with No Other Darkness (2015), and her third novel in 2016 with Tastes Like Fear (2016), which was longlisted for Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Sarah lives in Bath, and is available for interviews, events and to write features.

Sarah Hilary returns with the fourth Marnie Rome novel, Quieter than Killing

It’s dark, brilliant, and tightens like a noose. Hilary is downright dangerous.’ – Mick Herron

Marnie and Noah are investigating a series of assaults. The attacks appear to be random, the targets young and old, men and women, but all were convicted of violent crimes and recently released. They are on the perpetrator’s trail when outside events come to the fore. Marnie’s parents’ house has been targeted by a gang of youths, her tenants attacked in an apparent robbery and Marnie can’t help but feel there’s a connection to Stephen, her foster brother. Noah’s brother Sol is about to fall foul of the gang he pretends not to be involved in. As they investigate they begin to question whether all three cases linked… after all some crimes are quieter and more insidious than killing…

Photo by Linda Nylind.

I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome author Sarah Hilary to the blog to answer some questions about the depiction of Stephen, care leaver, and one of the characters in her Marnie Rome novels.

  • When you first started writing the DI Marnie Rome series, Someone Else’s Skin, what made you choose to include a care leaver?

I wanted to write a book which would upend my reader’s expectations. I’m fascinated by the friction that exists between what we think we know and what we actually know, and this particular story is about how easy it is to misinterpret what we see and how fast we leap to judgement. Finally, it’s about how lightly or heavily we carry our past — the legacy of what was done to us as well as what we have done. I wanted to write about uprooted and rootless people. All of which led me to the character of Stephen Keele.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, adoption or children’s homes?

None at all, or not directly. But I have always felt a kinship for lost children, or those in captivity of one kind or another. My mother was a child internee of the Japanese. When I’m writing, I’m always conscious of the long shadow cast by my family history.

  • Care leavers often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your character?

Extremely aware. It’s why I aim to write characters who surprise or invert my reader’s expectations. Isn’t there a sense, also, in which we’re all stereotyped by our past? One of the themes of my series is society’s myopia, its tendency to define us by the narrowest of margins and on the thinnest of evidence. There’s a sense in which we all collude in the pretence that this isn’t happening. Arthur Miller said it’s the job of the artist to remind us of what we’ve chosen to forget. I try to do this when I’m creating my characters and stories.

  • The blurb at the back of Someone Else’s Skin, mentions the emphasis on domestic abuse in the book. Could you tell us a bit more about this.

It’s a difficult one to answer without giving away the plot, but I can say that the setting for an important part of the action is a women’s refuge. I tried to do justice to the fear and grief, and the anger, inside that setting. To be reduced to a life like that, in hiding and invisible, must be terrifying.

  • There are now four DI Marnie Rome series. What can we expect next?

A fifth Marnie Rome book, Come and Find Me, is out in April 2018. It takes Marnie’s story in a new direction, and will be followed by a sixth in the series which I’m about to begin writing. Quieter Than Killing (2017) is my latest (out in paperback now) and it explores more about the impact of care on those who leave it. Marnie’s relationship with her foster brother, Stephen, is approaching its climax, that’s how I felt when I was writing it.

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

There’s still a tendency to over-populate fiction with the same heroes and villains from a century ago — young, white, heterosexual, gender-typical. I would love to see more diversity of every description, but perhaps especially LGBT heroes and heroines. Our young people need to be able to find themselves in books. This is so important to our collective mental health. I’d love to see stories and characters which are as wide and diverse as possible.

  • If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

A short story collection by Edith Pearlman, Honeydew, which is full of intimacy and generosity. She’s a wonderful, magical writer.

 

Thanks to Sarah for the interview.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarah_hilary

 

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The Brightness of Stars by Lisa Cherry

Lisa Cherry starts the journey of her life with a quote from Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003):

All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of the handler. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces beyond repair.

A sort of Philip Larkin for the neglected child. But a fitting quote that begins Lisa’s own fucked-up-ness childhood into care leaver story.

Lisa had a ‘burning desire’ to write a book and began her writing journey through blogging, something she loved to do. Something that became part of a cathartic healing process.

For a long time I have felt that I had many stories to tell: stories that would heal the wounds left over from years of therapeutic intervention, 12 step programmes and self help books galore.

Once started on her life story, Lisa writes for herself all too aware that her private, innermost thoughts once published become the property of others. She believes by telling her story it is not just herself that will benefit.

And when we stand up and stand out and share our story, we open up the possibility of helping another person heal too.

The book is split into two parts, the first, is Lisa’s own experiences. Each chapter begins with the time it is set and ends with a page dedicated to the soundtrack of her life, popular songs, the headlines in the newspapers, what she watched on television and a page of remembered moments.

As I ran up to the house from the car that dropped me off I used the palm of my hand to push the door open as I thought it was just pulled too, but it was locked shut and my hand went straight through the glass.

A child has been cut badly by glass there is blood everywhere, yet Lisa’s memory is of being pulled and pushed, of ‘huffing and puffing’ while Lisa apologises over and over. As the narrative of childhood unfolds, so too does the neglect, misunderstanding, the secrets and lies:

So it’s 1969, and as I understand it, my mother had been ‘dating’ someone for a few months, maybe three. His name has always been a mystery but Dave and Fred have been mentioned on the various occasions that I have tried to have a conversation about who this mystery person – my father – may be.

For children who end up in care there is always the before and after story. Even if they were a baby before being handed over for fostering, adoption or residential care, there is the mother’s life before the pregnancy and birth and possibly time with each other. There is what happened to the child before they went into care and what happened whilst in care and what happened when they left the system.

We are the carriers of the quiet stories, the silent ones, the versions of life that are often untold. I wanted my voice to be heard – and I wanted to provide a space for the voices of others too.

Interspersed between the narrative are references to policy makers and the statistics and data that measure care leaver outcomes.

What is missing is how it ‘feels’ to be a child in care – and how those feelings continue to affect children long into adulthood.

The second half of the book is a collection of brief anecdotes written by care experienced adults who in many cases are failed or even physically, morally, and sexually abused by the corporate parents supposed to protect them. In spite of this most go on to have a successful, fulfilled though obviously care-affected life.

Lisa wrote her dissertation on care leavers: how the system actively prevents the creation of support networks for young people entering into adult life and how this impacts upon them and their feelings of isolation.

Through all these stories Lisa hopes to enlighten those that want to know and in particular policy makers, practitioners and teachers. This is a clever book, put together with the knowledge of policy, the sociology of a care-experienced life and designed to complement the social science course. And she tells the reader:

This is not a sensationalist piece of work designed to satisfy the hunger for trauma and drama that may reside in some.

It’s a book that will inform social work and education. Precisely because it is so much more than a ‘care leaver’ story – that is not to undervalue those other narratives. It’s written with an intelligence and awareness that illustrates the struggle of what it means to heal the past, to survive, despite a too often familiar story of neglect in a system that is supposed to protect and care for neglected, abused or traumatised children.

The Brightness of Stars candidly explores Lisa’s own experiences and enables others to reflect on theirs in a book which focuses on the adult voices of those who have experienced the care system. Through the personal insights and reflections of those who were once a looked after child, these often unheard stories are brought vividly to life.

These are stories about love and pain; hurt and isolation; the depth of lived experience that makes up a life; the big things and the little things; how we live our lives through our relationships with others; and where we feel we fit in. Through these stories we can provide some thought-provoking information and recommendations for all those who work directly with young people.

Follow Lisa on Twitter: @_LisaCherry

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All the Good Things – Clare Fisher: Q&A

Clare Fisher was born in Tooting, south London in 1987. After accidentally getting obsessed with writing fiction when she should have been studying for a BA in History at the University of Oxford, Clare completed an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. An avid observer of the diverse area of south London in which she grew up, Clare’s writing is inspired by her long-standing interest in social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls. All The Good Things is her first novel.

All the Good Things is a story about redemption and hope for fans of Nathan Filer, Stephen Kelman and Emma Healey. What if you did a very bad thing… but that wasn’t the end of the story.

Heartfelt, heartbreaking, and genuinely joyous‘. – Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill

Twenty-one year old Beth is in prison. The thing she did is so bad she doesn’t deserve ever to feel good again. But her counsellor, Erika, won’t give up on her. She asks Beth to make a list of all the good things in her life. So Beth starts to write down her story, from sharing silences with Foster Dad No. 1, to flirting in the Odeon on Orange Wednesdays, to the very first time she sniffed her baby’s head.

But at the end of her story, Beth must confront the bad thing.

What is the truth hiding behind her crime? And does anyone – even a 100% bad person – deserve a chance to be good?

[This] novel will challenge preconceptions about the kind of people who end up in care; the kind of people who end up in prison; the kind of people who do terrible things. – 4* Goodreads review

I’m thrilled and delighted to welcome author Clare Fisher to the blog to answer some questions about her depiction of care leaver, Beth, the protagonist, in her debut novel All the Good Things. 

When you first started writing All the Good Things, what made you choose to write about a care leaver?

I didn’t set out to write about a care leaver as such; Beth’s voice and character came to me, I knew she was in prison and felt like a bad thing, I then tried my best to work out why that was, and her experiences in care were part of the jigsaw. At every juncture, I wanted to give a sense that things could have gone differently for Beth – as they very nearly did at various points.

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Growing up, I saw how some of my friends and school mates who had just as much intelligence and potential as me ended up getting less opportunities and successes, largely because they had far less stable home lives (care being one factor but also others). I then also worked in schools and as a legal clerk in a family law setting, both of which gave me insight into some of the situations, behaviours and issues that can go with it.

Care leavers often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating Beth’s narrative?

I didn’t intend Beth to be representative of all care leavers, however, I did try to make her as individual and as real as possible. I wanted her story to ring true on an emotional and a practical level; for her to seem like a believeable and complex individual first and foremost. By developing this character in this way, I hoped that readers would see beyond the preconceptions and stereotypes that surround some aspects of the situation she ends up in, and of course her crime.

The biog at the end of the book mentions your ‘long-standing interest in social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls. Could you tell us a bit more about this.

Growing up in south London and then working in schools, I was interested in the ways in which young woman are so often demonised for failing to act in the prescribed ways – how it was so often seen as ok to lay into women and girls who were too loud, who got pregnant unexpectedly, who didn’t toe the line, especially when they did not have a comfortable middle class background to cushion them.

You’ve spent many years hosting creative writing workshops for women in prison. On the Penguin website, in ‘5 things teaching creative writing in prisons taught me‘, it says, being exposed to the social exclusion they face, inspired you to write All the Good Things. Have any of the prisoners you worked with read the book? And if so, have they given you any feedback?

Not yet, no – they are going to do it in their book group and I will go in and discuss it with them, so looking forward to that.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

So many! I think literature is still crammed with overwhelmingly white, middle class, able-bodied characters.

If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.

 

Thanks to Clare for the interview and to Viking for the review copy of All the Good Things

Follow Clare on Twitter: @claresitafisher

 

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Brixton Rock Short Film

Last night I went to see Brixton Rock, the short film, based on Alex Wheatle’s novel of the same name. It was held in Brixton Library and apart from the title, and the location of the book, it was also there in the library that the first words of Brixton Rock were penned. One day they’ll have a plaque, if of course the library is still there, but that of course is another story.

Brixton Rock was originally published in 1999 and tells the story of Brenton, a 16 year old boy who was abandoned by his parents and brought up in care.

The story is set in Brixton, London during the 1980’s and highlights the emotional struggle of children who are raised within the social care system. In particular children who are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Brenton is of mixed racial heritage – white English and black Jamaican. The book eloquently portrays his emotional battle with abandonment, and his struggle to fit into society.

Brixton Rock throws us back into a world filled with London slang and south London humour. It also incorporates a nostalgic 1980’s setting.

Ethosheia Hylton, Writer/Director first came across the book a few years ago. Once she read it she was hooked and kept seeing the scenes in the novel as a feature film. She set about producing a script. The short has been produced as a taster of the full-length version.

Alongside Ethosheia Hylton; Producer Zoe Sailsman-Asghar, and Production Manager Laurelle Blake, three incredibly talented women, got together to raise funds to start work on this much needed story.

Last night we heard how they had been having problems casting Brenton Brown, the protagonist. That was until Calvin Demba turned up for audition. Calvin has been acting for a number of years including Hollyoaks, Youngers, (2013) and his latest Kingsman: The Golden Circle, out in September this year. Almost immediately, he became Brenton and made the role his own.

At the beginning of the short, Brenton was given the address of his mother by his social worker, excellently performed by Andrew Shire. Brenton decides to go to her house and knocks unnanounced on the door. Her shock at seeing the son, who she perhaps feared and hoped would contact her, turned to tears as he became angry and violent. Her expressions spoke many words. Played by acting veteran, Angela Wynter, her moving performance made me think of the hardly mentioned black women who also had to give up their children in the 1950s/60s/70s. That is a story still to be told.

The transition from adult Brenton to child Brenton was seamless, so much so that it’s only as I’m writing this and researching the actors, that I realise Baxter Willougby, played the young Brenton brilliantly.

Juliette is played by Lasharne Anderson, an upcoming actress who appeared in the last scene, angry and shocked to be told Brenton is her brother.

The script will be adapted to fit the film and one of these adaptations is around Brenton’s father, played by another acting veteran, Will Johnson. In the short, he appears in the scene just after Brenton is reunited with his mother, and meets his sister for the first time.

I wondered what he was doing there. He wasn’t in that scene in the book! Unfortunately that was the end of the short, so I’ll have to wait for the full-length feature film to find out.

Disaffected youth and lack of support for care leavers is frequently in the news, sometimes with devastating results. The lack of diversity in publishing and the film industry has too long been an issue. The story of being black and in care needs a narrative, the time for a film like Brixton Rock could not be better.

 

Alex Wheatle (MBE) is the author of nine novels. His YA novel Liccle Bit was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2016. “Wise as well as witty, understanding rather than blinkered, [Liccle Bit] is a joy to read” (Independent). In 2016 the second in the YA series, Crongton Knights won the 50th Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. His first book, Brixton Rock (1999), tells the story of a 16-year old care leaver of mixed race, in 1980s Brixton. Its sequel, Brenton Brown, was published in 2011. In 2010, he wrote the one-man autobiographical performance, Uprising. Alex was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008.

Brixton Rock is published by Black Amber Books

You can follow Alex on Twitter: @BrixtonBard

And keep up-to-date with the future plans of Brixton Rock, the film both via Facebook and Twitter: @BrixtonRockSF

 

 

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The Patron Saint of Care Leavers

Yesterday I attended the Royal Court to listen to The Report read by Julie Hesmondhalgh to Lemn Sissay. Lemn opened the evening by reading what he’d written on his blog:

“A few weeks ago I sat down in a beige interview room in the legal district of Leeds City Centre. I thought it was going to be easy. The man sat behind the table opposite me had been appointed by my lawyer. He was neither friendly ‘we’re going to be five hours at least’ or unfriendly ‘There’s a lot to get through.’ He clicked his ballpoint pen and the psychological interrogation of my life began. Mid way through the interview I broke down…This week I received The Psychologist’s Report  via my lawyer. It is 25 pages long. He  said it brought him to tears…I want someone to read the report to me.  I want to do it on stage so that I will hear it for the first time in front of a live audience.  One reader. One table. And me.  It will be called The Report.”

The fact that Lemn had no idea what would be in the report but decided to listen to it anyway, in public, must have taken a huge amount of courage and a risk to his own wellbeing.

All day I had felt nervous. What must he have felt? I ummed and aahed as whether to go. I had that choice. I knew it would bring stuff up for me but I also wanted to be there for Lemn in the audience so he didn’t feel so alone. There were no worries of that, tickets sold out within 24 hours, the place was packed. But more than anybody in that audience, I understood what Lemn had been through and what he was still going through nearly 50 years later. I hoped that being in the audience, and I’m sure there were other care leavers there too, would help. I hope he heard the ‘Well Dones’ when it was explained he hadn’t drunk alcohol or taken drugs to anaesthetise his feelings for three years. I hope he heard the gasps of shock every time the lies he experienced were read out. I hope he felt the love and care emanating throughout that small space that held over 300 people.

He has a counsellor and he is talking through his life, his narrative, he is claiming himself back.

The Royal Court was the perfect place for Lemn’s event. On 8 May 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger opened there. The Royal Court was Britain’s first national theatre company, and has held firm to its vision of being a writers theatre. Its plays have challenged the artistic, social and political orthodoxy of the day, pushing back the boundaries of what was possible or acceptable.

The Report, would also break boundaries, those of silence and fear. Much of what I write is from memory as I didn’t make notes and I didn’t take photos of the performance. This was as a mark of respect, privacy, even though we were in a very public space.

I heard Lemn’s life story told through a psychologist’s report, much of which I’ve heard before in various places. I heard how he was stolen from his mother, how his name too was stolen and replaced with the very plain, Norman. Perhaps the original social worker, Norman Goldthorpe, had such an uneventful life that he decided to put his rather ordinary name on to an extraordinary child. Despite this, Lemn shone throughout his childhood, so much so that the children of his adopted family resented him. And eventually so too did the adoptive parents who rejected him and sent him back to care, telling him he had chosen to leave them and he would never see them again.

One day Lemn was part of a huge family, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and parents and the next he was a child in care completely traumatised and unable to understand what had happened. To say my heart broke is an understatement. I pretty much cried throughout the whole reading.

From that day, Lemn’s life changed. And throughout the rest of the evening I heard how he spent the next five years struggling in a world that was racially, physically and psychologically abusive. He was beaten, he was called racist names like Chalky White, he was spat at, the list of abuse is endless. This sensitive, upset child, was locked up in Wood End Assessment Centre, Atherton. Locked up! Lemn said: “I’ve been trying to come to terms with what happened to me inside those walls, that institution, that place of secrets.” In 2015, Police began investigating historical physical and sexual abuse at the former children’s home in Wigan.

Somewhere inside of Lemn, just as he has recognised the super-human strength of orphans in fiction, Superman was a Foundling, he found the strength to use words as a way to claim his freedom, his search for identity and his sanity.

I’m sorry that I cannot remember all the different names of all the different mental health issues that Lemn is still suffering and recovering from. There were words like Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, agoraphobia, intimacy issues – the list was exhaustive. He still finds it difficult to enter a hotel dining room because of the colour of his skin. He’d rather stay in his room. He feels people don’t really want him, and so he hides away. He becomes destructive in relationships and so doesn’t have them. He is a scared, lonely man. But this is only one aspect of Lemn’s sparkling personality. I’ve worked with Lemn on the Care Leavers Christmas Dinner, and he is such a kind and loving soul. I believe with all my heart he will find the right someone to share his life.

For all his adult life, Lemn has been an ambassador for children in care. At every opportune moment he has spoken about his past often relating it to children still in the care system and how to see them as they really are. One of my favourites, is the recent Lemn Sissay’s Origin Stories where he looks at foster children and children in care in popular culture, contrasting their treatment with those in the real world. He has given a voice to those who cannot speak, the voice of the silent, the oppressed, the abused, the forgotten. For me personally, and I suspect a lot of other care experienced people, Lemn will always be the living, Patron Saint of Care Leavers.

Aida Muluneh © Addis Ababa 2013

Throughout the reading, I think of my own experience, I think of my care family, sisters, brothers and those that I’ve met over the years. And I think of those that didn’t make it. Like Paul who was sexually abused and died in the 80s from AIDS. I think of those that are still suffering everyday with their pasts. The repercussions as ‘The Report‘ reported are colossal.

The care system took so much away from Lemn and others like him. His name, his family, his childhood, his future. His chance of family life where he could learn about his heritage and have that support, that education, that annoyance, so many people take for granted. He has done so much to take the private suffering of those in care and turn it inside out, upside down, and show the world the truth. And now, finally all these tired years later, I hope Lemn’s report, will give him something back. The justification, the recognition, the breakthrough that he deserves. From what I heard last night, I think that once the dust settles and the tears stop – it will.

In some ways we are still in the early stages of the mental health journey and the consequences for care leavers and the understanding of the effects of trauma on abused and neglected children. The care services are playing catch up, often not quickly enough. As the representation of children in care, in fiction, that ‘single story’, begins to change, so too does the narrative. Lemn has ripped the lid off the can of care home worms. There will be positive repercussions throughout the whole of the ‘uncare’ system. The silence is broken.

As dusk falls, the enormity of what The Report signifies is beginning to seep through the darkness. The light is nuclear. There can be no going back. To use The Psychologist, to not only tell Lemn’s story but the story of so many others, is unprecedented. It is official. The damage done to children, the consequences of the destruction of tiny lives, is now in the public arena. As somebody else wrote, we have borne witness to something remarkable. The one and only…

 

 

Lemn Sissay is an Honorary Doctor of Letters, has an MBE for services to literature, is Associate Artist at Southbank Centre and is a Foundling Fellow.

Any profits from the performance will go towards the set up of the Lemn Sissay Foundation.

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PhD Block?

Doing a PhD is very much a self-directed, self-disciplined experience. I write words on a page hoping they will fuse and one day create a novel about a care leaver managing her life from sixteen to eighteen in the late 1970s. I read about writing, about narrative, and about care leavers. I collect books just like I used to collect stories whenever I visited my elusive family.

I’m becoming an expert in my field and with it, I learn more about the representation of society’s orphan class. I have always had an antennae for care leavers. But now it’s even more finely tuned to the news, social media, or books. I hunt through indexes and websites. I order books from the university library. Recently one came from Australia and I marvelled at my own importance and luck. And thanked the stars for the opportunity to study in a university, to use their resources and the resources of many more academic libraries that are for now, still open.

I keep journals, I fill out endless spreadsheets, I make notes and I compile lists under headings, to remind myself of the direction I think I ought to be heading.

But the truth is I’m not sure.

I’m not sure about anything anymore. I think I have PhD block.

Each time I start writing, I have to take myself through a process so that I can open the door to emotional memory, like a spacecraft docking and berthing. It’s a temporary joining that takes as long as the time I have in which to write. A snatched hour here, fifteen minutes there and endless seconds of ideas.

No, I’m not writing autobiography. But I’m writing the autobiographical and emotional truth. I hope to capture and pen down the generic care leaver experience not the statistical one. And at the end of each session, I have to find a way to be okay again.

Having read Lemn Sissay’s blog, We Are Many, about successful care leavers, where he says ‘their success…is in spite of what happened to them and not because of it.’ What happened to them, stays with me.

Later the same day, I have a conversation on Facebook about trauma. I then read a Guardian article about Erin Vincent who found writing about her parents being killed when she was 14, has forced her to relive the trauma for over six years.

I think back to the beginning of this journey or at least near the start, when I mentioned to my supervisor that I was thinking about getting myself an emotional supervisor, possibly an art therapist, so that I could explore the way I feel after writing but without it becoming a big deal. And I realise I’m tired. I have a recurring infection that just won’t go, and reading about Erin Vincent, things start to make sense.

I will find a way to write the words, the emotional truth, the journey of an ordinary care leaver. And I realise that I want to mention the care leaver writers, my muses, that I have got to know over the years. I also want to mention all the wonderful people who having experienced care, have made a success of their amazingly ordinary lives.

Care Leaver Writers 

 

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The English Daughter by Maggie Wadey

As an established screenwriter, Maggie Wadey is known for bringing stories to life on screen – her credits include Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, The Yellow Wallpaper, and Stig of the Dump. But it was only later in life that she discovered an equally compelling story closer to home – that of her own mother.

In The English Daughter: An Irish Story, Maggie Wadey tells the enthralling story of her search to find the truth.

final-front-cover-the-english-daughter

As a child, Maggie was aware that her mother, Agnes, was different from her father and his family, who were very English. But she knew little of her mother’s Irish background, her family’s experience of famine and civil war – nor the secrets her mother never told her.

From the beginning, my beginning that is, I had a strong sense of my mother as different. My English family were small, compact and ginger-haired; my mother was dark, taller than average, long limbed and heavy-boned.

Maggie knew Agnes was from Ireland, but beyond that, information was sketchy: ‘I know my mother had come from Ireland, alone, on a ferry boat with only a hat-box, having left home in a hurry after poisoning her mother’s geese.’

My mother travelled with only a hatbox (though it contained no hats), having left home in a hurry after poisoning her mother’s geese. I felt I’d been born imprinted with this mental image: my mother standing in a twilit field – a very green field, for I knew Ireland was called the Emerald Isle, as green as the stone in my mother’s engagement ring – surrounded by a litter of geese as dead as pillows and scalded with my mother’s tears.  

Then, before she died, her mother finally started talking about her past, and Maggie began to piece together details of her early life in Ireland. The first part of the book is based on these memories, of family gatherings, the family home and flower garden, and of growing up and playing in the fields.

This remembering is juxtaposed with the present and Maggie’s own childhood that began at the top of a tower, Collyer’s Boys’ Grammar School in Horsham, Sussex.

I was born into a world of women. My infancy was spent in the company of my mother, my paternal grandmother and my aunt, my English aunt…My grandmother was plump and petite. With her white hair and powdered face, she was sweet and light as a meringue dipped in icing sugar.

Her father is absent. There is photograph on the sideboard. Maggie is told that he is away fighting in the war. Meanwhile, her mother strides through the streets in her trench coat, firewatching.

But I pictured her swallowing the fire. I saw her throw back her head and open her mouth wide to swallow the flames – which was why fire sometimes came back out of her mouth, fire and spittle, and angry words.

When her father returns from war, Maggie is three-and-a-half-years-old and her bed is removed from her mother’s bedroom.

Maggie reminisces and explores her parents very different natures remembering how just after he returned from the war, she consciously chooses to be like her father.

By the time of my fourth birthday I was already devoted to my father…I trotted at his heels asking questions I had quickly realised only he could answer: What makes snow? Where does the sound on the radio come from?

Her mother is spontaneous. Her father fixed. And they consistently fall out over things like when one should arrive as a guest. Her father punctual if not early, believing that if you were invited at seven o’clock, then that was when you should arrive, whereas her mother believed you shouldn’t arrive at seven, insisting they shouldn’t arrive earlier than quarter past!

As to her temper and her irrationality, they of course were put down to her being Irish as much as to her being a woman. I don’t mean that either of these points were ever made explicitly; they didn’t need to be.

After her mother’s death, with whom she had a close but sometimes difficult relationship, Maggie travels backwards and forwards between Ireland and England both physically and emotionally. What emerges is a seven-year detective story of an ordinary family living through famine, emigration, war, and poverty. Maggie gradually begins to uncover much more about the truth behind the stories her mother did share, and discovers an explosive secret known only to the women of the family.

irish-postcard

An Irish history that finally reveals the story her mother could never tell, about Agnes’s sister Nancy, and her illegitimate child, whom she rescued from a brutal Protestant home for ‘fallen women’, delivering her into the perhaps equally doubtful care of the Catholic church, through whom the child was then adopted.

The English Daughter is a powerful family story told in an original way, through layers of discovery which invite discussion around the power of memory and the nature of truth. I thought of my own mother whilst reading it and my own place outside of her Irish family, I too was the English daughter. Lost worlds, events, and people come to life through the extraordinary vividness of the writing, ultimately bringing a sense of closure that helps the author come to terms with her mother’s death – and with a troubling incident in her own youth.

Thanks to Sandstone for the review copy.

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