Wednesday, 20 September 2017

National Gibberish Day - Joan Lennon

Yes, you heard me correctly.  20 September is National Gibberish* Day.  Why?  Who decides these things?  He gnews?  Jet Pum!**  And to celebrate I give you ...


Not just the words, but two performances that make me chortle in joy:


So, readers and writers and ABBAers of every description, here's to gibberish - and, if you possibly can, shove some into a conversation today.  Fo jensonsicaxar!  Vaxako Rowis Caxallerr pleud!!*** 

* aka Jibber-Jabber

** Who knows?  Not I!  (translations courtesy of My Big Monkey Gibberish Translator - hours of entertainment!)

*** Be nonsensical!  Make Lewis Carroll proud!

P.S.  I love the way the Muppets drew on John Tenniel's original 1871 illustrations for Jabberwocky - so bizarre - so clever!

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Two sides to every story - by Lu Hersey

There are a lot of classic children's books I never read as a child, many of them American. My mother had an irrational dislike of Americans (always referring to them as 'Yanks'), and all things American. American literature was banned from the house, along with peanut butter and bubblegum. (Fortunately her dislike didn't extend to films - though I never asked why, just in case.)

The ban lasted throughout my childhood, and included reading matter ranging from Charlotte's Web through to the Marvel comics I craved to read as a teenager. I even remember hiding The Great Gatsby under the bedcovers to avoid any possible argument. Over the years I came to understand that her illogical dislike was entirely based on the American assertion that they'd won the war (which of course they had, but my mother seemed to think Churchill did it single handedly). 

Anyway, the book ban is my excuse for never having read The Little House on the Prairie
 until last month. 

Reading classic children's books as an adult is an interesting experience. Immediately I recognise the beauty of the writing, and why the romance of the pioneer lifestyle was - and is - so appealing to readers. The book (and series) is fascinating historically on many levels, as Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing from her own experience. She actually travelled in a covered wagon, just like in the old Westerns, and helped her father build a log cabin (she gives so much detail, you could probably build one yourself once you've read the book). 
covered wagon
Laura Ingalls Wilder
But there's an underlying dark side to the story. The attitude to the First Nation peoples, reflective of the time, makes you want to weep. From the outset, when the family build their cabin just three miles into Indian territory (so why build it that side of the boundary in the first place?) to the attitude of their settler neighbours ('the only good Injun is a dead Injun'), your heart aches for the native population, especially when you know what the future holds for them. Even Laura's more positive childish view of them centres mainly on how much she wants to own a real squaw baby in a papoose. 

Yet at the same time, the glimpses we catch of the native population through Laura's eyes are compelling - always describing them as 'naked' when they're obviously wearing something (particularly liked the visit to the house by two silent Indians wearing freshly culled skunk skins - Laura's family think these 'Injuns' don't notice the awful smell, when I strongly suspect they actually had a great sense of humour and did it deliberately). 

Also the Indian camps they visit (only after the tribe has moved on) show how well native people chose sites out of the wind, nestled in havens of wild flowers and surrounded by plenty of animals. In contrast the settlers all built their cabins too close to the creek and ended up with malaria. The story of these pioneer children, in their ridiculous buttoned up clothing and stifling lifestyle (especially the women and girls), makes you yearn to know how the native population saw them.

Laura's buttoned up family

And this is exactly what we find out in The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (thanks to SF Said for directing me to this fantastic series of books). Erdrich provides a compelling, beautifully written account of life as a girl in the Ojibwe tribe, living in the Minnesota region in the mid nineteenth century. It's historical fiction, but based on accounts from Erdrich's own Ojibwe family heritage and her experience of living in the lands her family once inhabited. Filled with just as much detail as the Little House on the Prairie, here we see the other side of life in America - that of the original inhabitants. 

From the moment the book starts, with the protagonist, Omakayas, (which translates as Little Frog) being rescued as a baby from a village where everyone has died from smallpox, this is a totally absorbing read. Despite the outside pressures of the white man (chimookoman) coming ever closer into the lives of Omakayas's Ojibwe community, eventually pushing them away from their homelands, the Birchbark House series gives an uplifting and magical account of tribal life, well researched and written from the heart. In Erdrich's own words, her books are 'in the truest sense, labours of love for my characters, my children, my ancestors, and my people.'

If you have to make a choice whether to read Little House on the Prairie or The Birchbark House, I'd strongly recommend the latter - but maybe that's just based on personal preference and a lifelong interest in First Nation culture. 

Your best bet is to read both, and get two sides to a story that was repeated across America. You won't regret it.

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
blog: Lu Writes 
Book: Deep Water 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Be Brave: Writing the Taboo by Moira McPartlin - introduced by Chitra Soundar

I met Moira McPartlin two years ago at the launch of her first book in the Sun Song Trilogy - Ways of the Doomed and this September, I hosted an interview at Blackwells on the launch of the second book in the series Wants of the Silent. In many ways these two books are brave and prophetic and I worry what realities her third book would augment. No pressure there!

Having read those two books and hearing a lot about The Incomers which was her first book, today's post is an important one in the context of our political climate - especially with the recent parliamentary happenings.

Chitra Soundar


In July this year Liu Xiaobo, Chinese writer, Nobel Laureate and political dissident, died in prison. One of his ‘crimes’ was to use words to show the reality of his world. Last year The Accusation by Bandi (pseudonym of prominent North Korean writer and resident) was published after being smuggled out of that secret State.

In the West we pride ourselves in having freedom of speech, but what of the other constraints that prevent us being brave in our writing?

Early on in my writing career I took an online course. It was tutor led and had ten other participants. We each submitted, then critiqued each other’s work.  One of my stories featured a nasty character and in some dialogue he used the word ‘paki’. The group and the tutor pounced on me, declaring this language unacceptable, even in dialogue.

This censure bothered me because where I was brought up in the 1960s and 1970s this word could be heard regularly especially when the village shop was taken over by Abdul and Kaneez. So where can the line be drawn between unacceptable language and subject matter and writing reality? How brave can we be in our writing?


I believe the best example of a book that pushes the boundary in language is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993). At the time of release it was hailed as ground breaking. It’s a difficult book to tune into both in subject matter (drug abuse) and language (Scots vernacular) and yet it was a best seller even before the 1996 movie elevated it to cult.

When my novel The Incomers was published in 2012 it was described by one literary critic as ‘brave’. The novel describes the trials of a Black woman moving into a small mining village in 1966.

In it I explore racial prejudice and use derogatory words heard at the time, not just towards black characters but also Italians, Chinese and Polish. Before publication the book was read by two black men and they both agreed the language I use is necessary to make the book authentic. One also added that although the novel is set fifty years ago, his family still experience the same treatment today.
Here is a re-enactment of one of the scenes from The Incomers. To hear the words spoken out loud shock even me and I wrote them.


Religion is a touchy subject and many writers steer clear.   Some writers risk death to be brave in their writing.  After the release of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwā against him and he was placed under police protection.  And who can forget the fate of Charlie Hebdo’s writers in Paris 2015.

Bigotry and sectarianism exists in Scotland but it rarely appears in fiction. Des Dillon wrote an excellent play, Singin I'm No a Billy He's a Tim (2005) depicting two teenage football supporters one Celtic (Catholic) the other Glasgow Rangers (Protestant) locked in a cell together and having to come to terms with their differences. It is a great piece of literature and I believe should be taught in school.

I tackle this subject in The Incomers, using derogatory terms to describe both Catholic and Protestant. In one scene the main character criticises the Catholic Church’s use of ‘Black Babies’, a charity programme where children are encouraged to spend their pocket money to buy the right to name a black baby in Africa.  Many readers felt shame at reading this, having being complicit with the scheme at the time, but I received major criticism from devout Christians (including my mum), for including this. Bigotry is alive and kicking still in Scotland and in my view any opportunity to call it out is acceptable.  Although this novel was written for adults many school teachers have read it and champion it for the School Curriculum.

Orange Walk July 2017 – Bigotry is alive and kicking in Scotland

Violence towards children

Unfortunately violence towards children is a fact of life. It’s not nice to read but it needs to be highlighted. Anyone who has read The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini, will remember the violent rape scene of a young boy.

In Say You’re One of Them (2008), Akpan Uwen uses five young African voices to tell stories of poverty, rape, prostitution and slavery. Their innocent voices make their horrors all the more real but hopefully provides the reader with feelings of guilt and a wish to take some action.
In my futuristic Sun Song Trilogy I have hinted at violence towards children but not taken it as far as these two examples.  I have however tackled some other taboo subjects.


History books are filled with stories of genocide, but lessons learned doesn’t prevent it happening today. This is one subject that many writers have used in their novels, particularly Young Adult novels.

In the excellent Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, conquering humans wipe out the native population of the planet they want to colonise. This chilling analogy cannot help but raise parallels in the readers mind about the fate of North American Natives and Aborigines of Australia and many other examples from history.  The very violent and prophetic The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins also uses genocide to show how cruel humans can be towards their fellows. Collins has been criticised more for the use of violent children but the inhumanity towards citizens is, for me, the most chilling and brave aspect of these novels.

In Ways of The Doomed, the first novel in my Sun Song Trilogy, I have used DNA selection to divide populations into two classes, Privileged and native. If citizens don’t fit these categories they are either deported back to their land of origin or are ‘destroyed’. At the time of release I was heavily criticised for suggesting such a thing but the book was written in 2012 (published 2015) and the political and technological landscape of our world has changed dramatically since then. It does not seem so far-fetched now.

I continue this theme in book two of the trilogy, Wants of the Silent but take it one step further by suggesting ‘specials’ and old people are destroyed. I have been ambiguous in my definition of the ‘specials’ for fear of offending so maybe I’m not so brave after all.

Watch a trailer of Wants of the Silent here.

All the above examples are a fear of censure from certain groups in society. At the moment we are relatively free to write what we want, but what if that changes?  What is next?

Artificial Intelligence

In (1950) Isaac Asimov published short story collection, I Robot, which includes the now famous The Three Laws of Robotics

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

At the time these stories were considered science fiction but in August 2017 Tesla’s Elon Musk called for laws to prevent the development of killer robots. Today we live in a world where Artificial Intelligence is moving faster than governments can regulate the industry. Google and Facebook know more about us than we do ourselves.  Google can predict a flu epidemic ten days faster than the NHS. I believe that as time goes on this will be the greatest danger to our freedom of speech as we know it today. Big Brother is here and growing.

In future we might not have the opportunity to be brave...
Amazon’s algorithms already control how and when books are promoted and the predictive text for ‘apple’ on my android phone has a capital A. How long will it be before blog posts like this are written by algorithms and any criticism of governments or the tech industry will be deleted before it reaches its readers? In future would we have the opportunity to be brave?

Moira McPartlin (@moiramcpartlin) was born in the Scottish Borders but grew up in a small Fife mining village. She has led an interesting life as a mother and successful business woman and now lives in Stirlingshire. She is a hill walker/runner and mountaineer and also enjoys gardening, playing guitar and whistle. The Incomers was shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and was a critical success. Moira is also a prolific writer of short stories and poetry, which have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines.