It was a pleasure to be back in Sofia last week for the Sofia International Literary Festival, which must be one of the friendliest festivals I have ever been to. I was interviewed by the wonderful journalist Beloslava Dimitrova. I always like events that are not scripted in advance — it is good to think on your feet. So the resulting conversation was wide-ranging. We talked about my book The Descent of the Lyre (in Bulgarian Произходът на лирата), creative writing teaching, the connection between writing, travelling and staying put, and the strangeness of literary festivals.
As Goat Music — my novel about rude goats and brutish gods in mythological Greece — is now on general release, I thought I’d post this picture of a cheeky goat I met down in Lincolnshire the other weekend.
Goat Music is available from all the usual places. Get your copy from Hive.co.uk and support your local bookstore.
The I Ching, it seems, gets everywhere. This morning, as I was walking into town here in Leicester, I spotted some strange symbols painted onto a building-site hoarding outside Tesco, just by the park. The first thing that caught my eye was an image of the trigram dui (兌) ☱, or ‘lake’.
In case of any ambiguity, next door was written the word ‘lake’, as follows…
I’ve just about finished the proofs for Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, my I Ching-based novel-of-sorts, ready to send off to Earnshaw Books. All being well, I’ll be launching the book in a few weeks at the Beijing Bookworm book festival. But just to whet the appetite, here’s an extract from the book’s index. All novels, I feel, should be equipped with an index…
I’ll post again when the book is finally published.
This evening I heard the news that Birmingham’s wonderful new library is going to be savagely cutting its opening hours, and laying off just under one hundred members of staff. This is a huge blow for the city that for many years I was proud to call my home, and it is part of a much wider horrible hollowing out of the public sphere that is happening across the country.
I don’t have much to say about this, except to register my enormous sadness at this development, and my utter contempt for the system that makes it seem ideologically uncontentious to claim that one of the richest countries on earth can no longer afford to provide public services such as libraries. In my recently published Complete Write a Novel Course, I wrote the following:
Libraries are wonderful and miraculous things. If libraries didn’t exist, and somebody said to you, “I’ve just come up with a brilliant idea for a massive book-house where you can go free of charge, and sit all day and read stuff, and take books home for short periods without paying a penny, and talk to knowledgeable, well-informed experts who will help you find just what you are looking for,” people would say that such an idea would never catch on, and that if it did, it would bring the entire capitalist world crashing down apocalyptically.
This book has only been published for a few weeks, but I wonder if this passage already makes it look quaint and old-fashioned. Because the apocalypse is taking place here and now. But it is not the capitalist world that is coming crashing down. It is the libraries. And the reason perhaps is this: when the logic of capitalism becomes the only game in town, it becomes unthinkable that such utopian spaces should be permitted to exist at all.
Yesterday I had the immense pleasure and privilege to teach a creative writing workshop with a group of students here in Kolkata at the British Council’s Teaching Centre. It was an absolute delight to spend a couple of hours working with students who had finished the British Council’s first two creative writing courses in the city, and I was hugely impressed by the students’ seriousness, their intellectual acuity, and their exuberance.
I find it is always good to teach outside of my home country, because it challenges certain assumptions that I have about what writing is or should be. And this was certainly the case yesterday. If there is one thing that stood out for me about the workshop, it was this: these were students many of whom had a very strong sense of what writing can—and perhaps should—do politically. At the beginning of the workshop, we did a short exercise on why writing matters. In response to this exercise, a large number of the students said that they were interested in using writing as a way of tackling questions of social justice, women’s rights, transgender issues, and so on. And what was particularly striking is that in many cases these were the first reasons that the writers in the group gave for writing.
It is seventeen years since I was last here in India. Back then, I was travelling around the Buddhist pilgrimage sites as a young and rather earnest aspiring Buddhist, making notes towards an excessively pious travelogue that I’m now rather glad was never published.
Now I find myself back in India to launch the paperback of my novel The Descent of the Lyre at the Kolkata Book Fair. As it’s a long trip for a book lauch alone, I’m taking advantage of being here to spend a short while doing some research towards various projects that I have in the works. And this has involved (for reasons that are still rather hazy in my mind) finding my way back to Bodhgaya, the foremost of India’s Buddhist sites, the place of the Buddha’s awakening.
I thought that this was worth sharing. It comes from A.C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao, and is about the creative potential of divination techniques such as the Yijing, even if we accept (as I do) that the divinatory process is simply an exercise in playing with randomness.
An openness to chance influences loosing thought from preconceptions is indispensable to creative thinking. In responding to new and complex situations it is a practical necessity to shake up habitual schemes and wake to new correlations of similarities and connexions […] There is no reason to doubt that divination systems do help many people to reach appropriate decision in situations with too many unknown factors, and that the Yi is among the more successful of them. Unless we are to follow Jung in postulating an a-causal principle of synchronicity, we must suppose that the Yi serves to break down preconceptions by forcing the diviner to correlate his situation with a chance sequence of six prognostications. If their meaning were unambiguous, the overwhelming probability would be that the prognostications would be either obviously inapplicable or grossly misleading. Since on the contrary the hexagrams open up an indefinite range of patterns for correlation, in the calm of withdrawal into sacred space and time, the effect is to free the mind to take account of all information whether or not it conflicts with preconceptions, awaken it to unnoticed similarities and connexions, and guide it to a settled decision adequate to the complexity of factors. This is conceived not as discursive thinking but as a synthesising act in which the diviner sees into and responds to everything at once, with a lucidity mysterious to himself. The Yi is not a book which pretends to offer clear predictions but hides away in tantalising obscurities; it assumes in the diviner that kind of intelligence we have discussed in connexion with Chuang-tzu, opening out and responding to stimulation in perfect tranquility, lucidity and flexibility. (p. 368-370)
Image: Grinding Cinnabar and Annotating the Yijing.
National poetry day this year takes “memory” as its theme, so I thought that I should share these three rough translations from Chinese. All three of them are drinking poems — oblivion and forgetting being the other side of memory. The first poem is by Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元), and is about drinking wine at night in a Buddhist temple. The second is by Du Mu (杜牧), and is about drunken hermits. And the third is a lovely poem by Yu Xuanji (魚玄機), written in recollection of her lover.
I hope that you enjoy them.
I’ve just finished reading Julia Lovell’s translation of Lao She’s wonderful novel, Mr. Ma and Son, and I thought I’d share the following short quote.
In the book, the hapless ex-missionary, Reverend Ely, is trying to persuade Mr. Ma to write a book comparing Western and Chinese cultures. The good clergyman is not entirely disinterested in his urging, because he himself is working on a book called A History of Taoism, and needs some help with his poor Chinese. Anyway, here’s the quote, which is still pertinent today:
The Reverend Ely pulled out his pipe, and slowly filled it with tobacco. ‘I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking on your behalf for some time now, and I feel that while you’re abroad, you ought to take the opportunity of writing something. The best thing would be a comparison of Eastern and Western cultures. That’s a fashionable topic nowadays, and it doesn’t matter particularly whether what you write’s correct or not. As long a you say something with conviction, anything at all, you’ll be able to sell it…’
— Lao She, Mr Ma and Son, trans. Julia Lovell