Friday Fictioneers – Butterflies

mg-rose-stem
Photo Prompt © Marie Gail Stratford

Albert liked collecting. As a child it was stamps, as a young man, girlfriends. Nowadays, slackened by sin and faltering vitality, he became a lepidopterist.  Five hundred glass cases, each packed with exotic chevrons of inert delight.

These delicate angels, dancing on the skewer of a pin, weren’t arranged as you might expect – blues in one case, swallowtails in another, metalmarks, and so on.  Instead, Albert displayed them by markings, arranged side by side so the patterns spelled out words.

“The way we categorise things,” he said, “confronts us with our assumptions. To me, nature is a book.”

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

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99. Blaming the innocent – a narrative critique of the Oxfam scandal

“Oxfam Sex Scandal”, “Government Crackdown”, celebrities resigning their positions as Oxfam Ambassadors. The facts are getting lost in the hysterical headlines. The Oxfam-gate story about sexual exploitation by aid workers has all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt.

Oxfam is a much-loved household name, one of the largest and most effective and professional international aid agencies in the world. Now it has joined Harvey Weinstein in the sin bin.

The wags say there are six phases to an aid project.

Six Phases of an Aid Project

In the space of a week in mid-February, public perception of Oxfam has moved from phase one to phase four. The British government is rapidly moving towards phase five. The story is powerful and gripping. But it’s fundamentally wicked.

 

Is sexual assault in the aid sector news?

No. It has been widely covered in the media since at least 2015, particularly in The Guardian newspaper. The Humanitarian Women’s Network in 2016 surveyed 1,005 women aid workers in 70 organisations. They reported that 24% of the women had suffered sexual assault at the hands of male colleagues. A rolling survey by Report the Abuse of over 1,000 aid workers found in 2017 that 72% were victims/ survivors of sexual assault.  Only around a third to a half reported the assaults. Only 17% of those who did report were satisfied with the outcome.[1]  So this isn’t news. The witch-hunt is.

Times headline Oxfam story

Is Oxfam particularly guilty?

On the contrary, Oxfam is an example of good practice. The organisation was singled out for praise in an academic study of the problem by Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly.  Oxfam established confidential whistle-blowing procedures and a high-level Safeguarding Unit in 2012, working alongside the internal audit and fraud and corruption teams.

Ex-head of the Unit, Helen Evans, has told Channel 4 News that her team was under-resourced and that Oxfam’s Leadership Team did not take her findings seriously enough. Oxfam head, Mark Goldring has acknowledged that they did not act soon enough to scale up the team.

However, it is undeniable that Oxfam is rare in taking the problem seriously and trying to respond to it. The number of cases dealt with by the organisation’s Safeguarding Unit has more than tripled from 26 in 2014, to 87 in 2016-17. These numbers are still probably just the tip of an iceberg, but the increase is a measure of the success of and trust in Oxfam’s procedures. There is neither logic nor justice to placing an organisation which is trying to respond to the problem is in the eye of this storm.

Is the aid sector particularly bad?

It’s hard to know because there is so little reliable data. On the face of it, it seems unlikely. Sexual assault is about power and thrives in “boys clubs”.  It would be surprising it were not more common in male-dominated sectors like business, the military, academia, the arts, and, of course, government.

Presidents Club
The Presidents Club “event”

What are the facts of the scandal?

We still don’t know.  The media story is that Oxfam’s Haiti country director, Roland van Hauwermeiren, held sex parties with prostitutes in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and was allowed to resign rather than being fired. Other workers are alleged to have had sex with children. Van Hauwermeiren denies sex with prostitutes, but admits he had a sexual relationship with a Haitian woman whose family was being helped by Oxfam.

Oxfam reported the case to the Charity Commission at the time. The Commission claim they were not made aware of the precise details, and only opened a statutory investigation when the story broke in February 2018. It might be said this was a tad incurious of them, given that Helen Evans had complained to the Commission in 2015 about women being coerced into sex in exchange for aid.

Oxfam
Photo © AFP

It might also be argued that the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), which provides £32 million of public money to Oxfam, was similarly incurious.

Who carries the can?

Everyone on the periphery of the media feeding frenzy is rushing to distance themselves from any blame.  The Charity Commission and Penny Mordaunt, DFID Secretary of State have been swift to condemn Oxfam.  But there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Charity Commission, suffering cuts like all other public services since 2010, has been under pressure to investigate rogue Muslim charities. Arguably, it didn’t have the resources to also tackle sexual abuse.

The truth is probably that those in authority weren’t that bothered until it became a moral panic.

Why is there a witch-hunt?

All societies are gripped from time to time by moral panics. Remember the satanic video scare and how it played out in the media coverage of the murder of Jamie Bulger? During a moral panic, there must be a simple narrative in which we are under threat by an evil doer. In that sense, the Oxfam story is like a moral panic.

In another sense, something else is at work. The story is very convenient for those who want to see an end to the British international aid budget. There can be little doubt that the scandal will have a negative impact on donations to aid charities and may well embolden the aid deniers. The sound of axes being sharpened echoes down Whitehall and Fleet Street.

Penny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt, International Development Secretary has only been in post since her predecessor Priti Patel was sacked in November 2017 for breaching the Ministerial code, so she has no record to judge. Unlike Patel, there’s no sign that Mordaunt is anti-development, and indeed can claim some experience of working for charities. But, noting that the public has “nagging but legitimate doubts about aid”, she has threatened to cut aid to countries that do not invest in their own people. This may be bad news for the poorest countries. Her voting record in the House of Commons as logged by the They Work for You website, shows opposition to laws promoting equality and human rights, though she has supported equal gay rights.

“Charity begins at home” is the oft-repeated mantra of those who want to slash aid. In a time of austerity, it’s not hard to see the appeal of the slogan. But those in power know well that aid is not just a moral imperative but supports national self-interest. When the world is richer, there are opportunities for British trade. Conversely, when the world is poorer, failed states proliferate, and war is a great deal more expensive than aid.

What should we conclude?

Did Oxfam fail? Yes, of course, and it may even turn out to be true that it tried to cover-up the scandal. Is there further to go? Yes, much further. In a world where men exercise power over women, and rich people exercise power over poor people, this will continue to happen. All we can do is strengthen recruitment, training, safeguarding and whistle-blowing procedures. The aid sector needs to get better at sharing information about perpetrators so they can’t just move to jobs in other agencies.

But Oxfam has at least tried to put effective procedures in place, unlike many other agencies.  Of course there are bad people who work for aid agencies. There are bad people in government too, and there are bad doctors in the National Health Service. We don’t contemplate shutting down government or the NHS as a result. We expose and punish those who abuse our trust. The vast majority of Oxfam’s thousands of workers around the world are dedicated, conscientious and even, yes, heroic. Millions of poor people around the world will be in a much worse situation if Oxfam’s budget drops. Let’s not buy into stories that invite us to punish the innocent.

[1] Endnote on data: It’s important to say that these were not random samples, but reports by workers who decided to participate in the surveys. So no conclusions can be drawn about how widespread such assaults are. It’s also important to say that the surveys were of “international” staff, expatriates deployed to developing countries. The situation of “national” staff from these countries is largely un-researched. Finally, it’s worth noting that victims/ survivors are not necessarily female and perpetrators are not exclusively male: 89% of survivors were female and 92% of perpetrators were male in the Report the Abuse survey.

Friday Fictioneers – Enchantment

 

dale-rogerson-snow-photo
Photo Prompt © Dale Rogerson

Everything emits time, not only people. That’s what Elmer told me. He says it’s just that some time is so slow we can’t perceive it, like India rumpling Asia as it smashes in. And some is too fast, like a neutrino.

And then I spot one – a neutrino – spearing into the snow by the streetlamp, a microscopic meteorite which buries itself with a hiss and a breath of ozone.

“I see time. Deep time, wept by a neutron star.” I run forward.

The plates of past and future slide past each other. I look away, and the long instant collapses.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Teatime in Paradise

js-brand
Photo Prompt © JS Brand

It was Henry’s name on the hotel. But, really, Alice ran things. She ploughed every cent back into the business, adding a second floor and then a penthouse. The building looked like a crazy pile of discarded banana boxes.

Alice found Henry lying in the shade of an upturned boat, roughing out a calypso.  “Up, man,” she said. “There’s work to do.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“To earn more money.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“So we can employ more people and take it easy.”

“What do you think I’m doing now?”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

98. Interview with Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller is a Winchester-based author. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the Desmond Elliot Prize for debut fiction. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, was published in 2017, and was selected by Book of the Month in the US in December 2016. Her short stories have won the BBC Opening Lines, the Royal Academy and Pin Drop competitions. In December 2017, she judged the Farnham Short Story Competition and this interview is based on a conversation with her at the award ceremony.

wiinner Steve Wheele with Claire Fuller
Claire Fuller presenting the trophy for the Farnham Short Story Competition to the winner, Steve Wheeler

 

Neil: Your first book, Our endless Numbered Days, is a post-apocalyptic fantasy lived out for real. An obsessive father abducts his eight-year old daughter to live in a hut deep in the German forest. He tells her the world has been destroyed. The story is told in flashback by a 17 year old Peggy who is now back in London with her mother and the brother she didn’t know she had.

Your second book, Swimming Lessons, has just come out in paperback in the US and the UK. It also features family tensions, sudden disappearance, and the passage of time, again told from the perspective of a daughter. Ingrid writes letters to her husband about their marriage which she hides in his book collection rather than giving them to him. When she has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach. Twelve years later the husband believes he has spotted her.

A theme running through both books is the power of stories and the way in which every reader creates their own truth. Am I over-interpreting? Or are these themes of loops in time, dysfunctional families, trust, absences, secrets, and the power of stories recurring themes for you?

Claire: I don’t plan themes before I start writing, but just sit down and begin. But of course some themes start to emerge as I go along and if I’m interested in them I’ll bring them out more. But when I’m writing one book I’m not thinking about the previous one, so the fact that you can see themes in my writing between the two is either accidental or something very subconscious. Having said that, dysfunctional families always make great stories, don’t they? Have you ever read a good book that features a completely happy family? And the same goes for secrets and absences. I find it really hard to analyse my own work, I think I’m just too close to it.

 

Neil: Without asking you to give away any secrets, are these themes also present in your third book, Bitter Orange, due in 2018? And does it also loop in time like the first two?

Claire: There aren’t any absences in Bitter Orange, but there are dysfunctional families (although the main characters aren’t a family), and secrets. But more than anything it’s about the power of stories, and how to tell our own.

I was determined not to play with time in my third novel. It’s very difficult to keep track of everything and make sure that things aren’t revealed before a character knows them, and so on. But inevitably I have done that. It’s from the point of view of an old woman (time period one), remembering the summer of 1969 (time period two), when a recently made friend tells her life story (time period three). Oh dear!

Book four, I’ve promised myself, will be different…

 

Neil: You write Flash Fiction for the weekly group, Friday Fictioneers. How does this help with your longer work?

Claire: Writing flash fiction is hugely beneficial to my longer fiction. Firstly, it helps me to hone my writing; to consider every word and its placement; to decide whether to be clear or obscure; how to layer meaning with very few words. And secondly it helps me write the story. Because I don’t plan ahead there are times when I really have no idea what is going to happen next, and the writing can become a little stuck. But if I write a 100-word flash fiction piece with the characters from the novel I’m writing (that I know very well), but put them in a situation that is unusual for them, I can expand this piece of flash fiction and use it for the next scene in the novel.

 

Neil: You’re a thoughtful and thought-provoking writer, yet your books are very easy to read. How do you strike a balance between making demands of the reader and looking after the reader?

Claire: I’m not sure how to answer that. It’s not something I’m conscious of when I write. But I am trying to write something that I would like to read, and I like to read novels with depth, that are well-crafted, but that have a good story that keeps you wanting to read on. That’s what I’m going for.

 

Neil: How did being published change the way you write?

Claire: I don’t think it has hugely. Except that when I’m writing I am aware that very possibly I might have to at some point in the future read those words aloud to an audience. That really helps focus the mind and make sure that the writing has a kind of rhythm, a musicality, that works when read aloud (and consequently helps even when read silently).

I do read all my reviews, good and bad, and in some cases I have agreed with things that have been said, and I’ve tried to adjust the subsequent book accordingly. But these are very broad changes, like slow down the ending, or deal with time passing in a clearer way. I suppose without having been published I wouldn’t be doing that.

 

Neil: How much research do you do for your books, and how do you go about it?

Claire: It really depends on the book. Our Endless Numbered Days and Bitter Orange both needed much more research than Swimming Lessons. With the latter, most of the research involved going to the beach where the book was set, walking in the landscape, and staying in the house that the family live in (it is a real house). With Our Endless Numbered Days I knew next to nothing about survivalism, so all that had to be researched, right down to how long a tube of toothpaste would last if two people were using it twice a day. I researched a lot online – watching lots of youtube videos about how to survive in the wild (thank you Ray Mears). With Bitter Orange, which is also set in a house that exists, I visited the house, but I also interviewed people who could help with historical and botanical detail, and I read a lot of historical books about the history of the English country house. In all cases I researched as I went along.

 

Neil: In the first two books, what did you edit out that the reader never saw?

Claire: That’s an interesting question. The biggest thing in Our Endless Numbered Days was that I toned down the homosexual relationship between Oliver and James, so that it became something Peggy (James’ daughter) was unaware of, but the reader suspects. With Swimming Lessons, my editor at Penguin kept asking me to make Gil a nicer character. He is still pretty awful, so you can imagine what he was like to start with! ​When I first started writing the novel I wrote about twenty thousand words from Gil’s point of view, and then decided that I didn’t want hear from this man anymore, so I cut nearly all of them and restarted from Flora and Ingrid’s points of view. All that remained of the Gil section was the prologue.

Friday Fictioneers – Monument

stumps
Photo Prompt © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Arcu’tep didn’t need to go. He could have stayed in his kraal, tending his herd. But all the folk from the valley had volunteered.

“Come on, it’ll be fun. Drinking, feasting, and lots of rumpy-pumpy,” Senae’tep cajoled.

Arcu’tep shrugged. “Yeah, there’s nothing as fun as hefting buckets of earth all day and dumping them on a big mound,”

“You’re missing the point,” Senae’tep said. “It’s not about what we build, but that we work together, mountain folk and plains people.”

He went, and all summer the stockade rose. Then they feasted and burned everything to the ground. Arcu’tep brought home a mountain woman.

 

Sorry, I couldn’t quite get this down to 100 words. Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

97. My Writing Year

Personally I don’t make resolutions, but that may not be true of you. It may be important to resolve, for example, to make time to write every day, or to complete what you’ve started, or to edit more, or any number of things.

I do plan, though, what I can realistically achieve this year as a writer. Luckily, most of those decisions are already taken for me in 2018.

January 1 Make plans

I have a first draft of a novel, The Tears of Boabdil, that I’m really excited about AND that I believe has commercial possibilities. The year is book-ended by the opening and closing of a 12-month long mentorship I’ve been awarded by Cinnamon Press. In that time, I plan to get my novel into a publishable state.

January Enter short story competitions I’m more likely to win

For several years, I’ve been unsuccessfully entering some of the biggest competitions the literary world has to offer – the Bridport, the Sunday Times EFG, the Costa, for example. I will probably enter them again this year. But with the chances of placing ranging from just over 1% to less than a quarter of a per cent, the odds are not in my favour.

So this year I am also entering competitions with more favourable odds. I have sent stories to competitions where the odds of placing are around 4% to 5%:

·         Exeter, which closes on 28 February

·         Bath, which closes on 23 April

·         Yeovil, which closes on 31 May

I have entered all of these, as well as the BBC National Short Story Competition, which closes on 12 March and the Winchester Writers Festival short story competition, which closes on 11 April.

February – December Rework the novel

Comments from my mentor should be back by the end of February. If I enter the Bridport Novel Competition, I may want to concentrate in the first half of the year on the initial 15,000 words.

April – May Bridport Competition

This closes 31 May. I ‘m thinking of entering the novel competition rather than the short story.

June – August Sunday Times EFG Competition

Details not yet announced. But will probably open in June and close in September.

Winchester Writers’ Festival

15-17 June.

Costa Short Story Award

Details not yet announced. But will probably open in July and close in August.

September – November Farnham Short Story Competition

Not one to enter, but to run.

Writers’ Retreat

Ty’n y Coed, November, run by Cinnamon Press

Friday Fictioneers – Rooming House

derelict-building-sandra-crook
Photo Prompt © Sandra Crook

Molly’s house had many rooms, and you got the room Molly thought you deserved. Also, it has to be said, the room you could afford.

If you were specially favoured, she invited you into the grand salon with its sweeping staircase and chandeliers. Waiters circulated with flutes of champagne. And the ladies and gentlemen whirled in the dance.

I know because I peeped through the window once, but was never invited in. In the east wing where I had my dank room, snipers hunkered behind crumbling walls, and tanks rumbled through the corridors.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Gravity

amusement-park-jhardy
Photo Prompt © J Hardy Carroll

Henry’s life was dominated by a sudden whim that had crossed his mind age 14. In 1965 he conceived the dream of becoming the centre of his own planetary system with tiny objects orbiting him.

A single hydrogen atom would do! But Henry needed to isolate himself from everything perturbing his gravity. He eschewed friends and moved to a tent in the woods, but still the earth’s mass tugged at the nearby stuff.

Last Friday, he hurled himself in free-fall from the cliff, releasing a nail clipping. As he dropped, he calculated the clipping would take 21 hours to circumnavigate him.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

A Mentee’s Journey 1: Anticipations from an arranged marriage

In December Cinnamon press awarded me a place on their year-long writers’ mentorship programme.  Last week I learned who my mentor for the year will be: Adam Craig. He co-runs Cinnamon Press, and is the author of two novels, a collection of short stories and a prose poetry sequence. His novels are literary, his short stories, he says, more genre “generally in a fantastic/SF/weird fiction vein.” I write this without our relationship having started yet, filled with excitement and anxiety, a little like a bride in an arranged marriage.

 

 

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The prospect is exciting and daunting. The last time I took my work to a published author, I was 18, and the author was the poet in residence at my University.

“Come back in a week,” he said.

A week later, he said. “I have to ask you a question first: are you serious about writing?”

I said I was.

“Then,” he thundered “who the f*** do you think you are? Do you believe you’re the first person who’s ever had those emotions? Get a grip, lad. Get some distance.”

It was brutal, but I learned a lot from him. I’m hoping Adam will be less brutal, but equally insightful.

The mentor-mentee relationship is a sensitive one. Sure, it’s about the transfer of knowledge and experience, but it’s also about building trust and understanding and establishing an agreed way of working. Perhaps, it’s a little like making a friendship, if not a marriage.

I think I can see why Cinnamon paired me with Adam. This is the blurb for his experimental novel Vitus Dreams:

“An explorer dreams of a sea and a land beyond that can be found on no map …

A naval officer becomes lost inside maps of his own making, his wife lost inside her pleas that someone search for her husband …

And, as a singer struggles to make sense of the ordinary things around her, a hitman is trapped in an endless bid to escape …

Meanwhile, two complete strangers plod through their day-to-day lives as they pour their hearts into writing a novel — but which one is the fictional character and which the author?

An ever-shifting kaleidoscope, by turns moving and funny, intense and tender, Vitus Dreams draws you into a place where our basic assumptions about the real and the concrete are shattered to leave us with no choice but to rely on instinct and the people around us, if they exist.”

My novel on which I’ll be working with Adam, The Tears of Boabdil, is also about uncertainty, though there are huge differences. Adam’s book is anti-narrative and poetic, while mine is a story, albeit a fractured one. My protagonist is an undercover policeman attempting to penetrate a jihadi cell. He embarks on a doomed taboo liaison with a beautiful quarry, and must choose to betray his love or his duty. This book, about politics and passion, tracks the magic and the tragedy of a lie. These stories are doubled by a magical tale of a fifteenth century Spanish nobleman who falls in love with a Muslim woman in Moorish Spain. Gradually, the magical rules of this tale permeate the policeman’s world, and reality becomes the story we tell about it.

I have sent Adam the manuscript. All will go quiet now until he gets back to me around the end of February. I will keep this diary updated as a chronicle of a mentee’s journey.