Monday, 26 June 2017

Back to the Classics // Kenya Edition (with a bit of LesMisBook thrown in)

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It's a fab challenge in which you read twelve (or six, or nine) classics from different categories and review them, and then you can enter a draw to win $30 for The Book Depository!

I really missed picking Sherlock gifs for blog posts. It's the little things, guys.
Fear not: this isn't a post reviewing all the classics I read in Kenya! (There were quite a few.) Just picking a few faves for now.

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Minha tatuagem!
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A romance classic // Romeo and Juliet 

“Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That rumour's eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen."

(3.2.5-7)

What else would I pick for a classic romance? I took this to Kenya as “research" for LesMisBook (/I just wanted it to be my friend in a strange new place. I read it on our first day and it definitely helped with my uncertainty and worry!), because in her drama school auditions, Nina gives Juliet's speech from Act 3, Scene 2. I was delighted to spot some thematic similarities between my lil novel and this play -- they are, after all, both about first love and prejudice. A LesMisBook snippet:
“[Juliet's] not actually twittery, is she?” he said. 
“Nah, she’s cool! She’s very pragmatic, like, the opposite of Romeo. I think the play’s about her.” 
“Is that the feminist reading?” 
“Pipe down.” 
“It’s interesting, the bit … here, let me see.” 
I threw him the book and he caught it in one hand. “This bit.” He found the place. “Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night, / That rumour’s eyes may wink, and Romeo / Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen.” 
“I love those lines.” 
“It shows she really loves him, doesn’t it? I’ve never wanted anyone to” – his mouth twitched in a smile – “leap to my arms untalked of unseen. Like, what’s the point?” He smiled at my face. “Is that an awful thing to say?” 
“Yes!” 
“Why?” 
“Because relationships shouldn’t be manufactured for the onlookers!” 
Jonathan stretched. “I guess that’s true. I’ve just, you know, never had that kind. The non-manufactured.” He tilted his head. “Or any kind, in fact. Forever alone and all that …” 
I rolled my eyes. “Poor you.” 
“What about you? 
“We are absolutely not having this conversation.” 
He grinned – it struck me he rarely stops smiling – and raised his hands. “Have I reached a Do Not Enter sign?” 
“A big one.”
~***~

I have zero time for people who think Romeo and Juliet don't really love each other. That it's just a stupid teenage thing that blows out of proportion and leads to horribly misguided suicide. Their love is absolutely beautiful. Sure, it's doomed, but that's fate. Their deaths are fated. It's in the prologue, fam.

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun."

(3.2.21-5)

You see, death is always there, with them. Even here, Juliet knows that Romeo “shall die". In the same way, he describes her as having “beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear". She is already almost a heavenly being to him -- “bright angel", he calls her in 2.2. 

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This play perfectly captures the heady, star-spattered rush of first love. The setting of Italy is perfect, too, for that feeling of hot-blooded passion. No wonder the blood feud forms the other key pillar of the play, the antithesis to Romeo and Juliet's love. On this second reading, the great sadness of the feud struck me; the way in which love is in some ways a dream, because though Romeo and Juliet dream of rising above their families' prejudices, they cannot. 

I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being angered, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping south."

(1.4.97-104)

I completely fell in love with this play when I studied it aged fifteen, and I loved it no less this time. It will always be the play that introduced me to Shakespeare; my first love of this man. Fitting, isn't it? Writing about it in LesMisBook was such a joy.

“Here's much to do with hate, but more with love." (1.1.169)

Could anything be more wonderfully Nina? I think not.

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A classic in translation // Letters to a Young Poet

I've been wanting to read this for years, and was so glad finally to pick it up. Rainer Maria Rilke was a Czech-born poet (1875-1926). Young poet Franz Kappus wrote to him to ask for advice about his writing, and the correspondence that ensued spanned several years and delved into life, love and art. It was encouraging to me:

“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future." (p17)

Rilke's basic philosophy was that art is unstoppable, and will endure, so that in spite of loneliness and heartbreak, we can take comfort in its immortality. I loved these lines:

“To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come." (p13)

Don't stress. “It will come." Trees grow, and so do novels. 

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His advice, therefore, is to “live the questions":

“We must accept our existence in as wide a sense as can be; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible within it. ... the courage for the oddest, most unexpected, the most inexplicable things we may encounter." (p43)

I love this. That's what writing is, right? Accepting everything as possible. Taking twenty-six letters and a pen, and making anything at all.

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A Russian classic // The Idiot

You'd have to be pretty dim new around here not to know how much I love The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and Boris from that book loves The Idiot by Dostoevsky, so how could I stay away?!

Prince Leo Myshkin has spent several years being treated for “idiocy" in a Swiss clinic. When his money runs out, he returns to Russia to start a new life. The society into which he is plunged -- one of social conventions, intrigue and beautiful women -- is bewildering, but Leo soon gains the love of those around him. He gained my love, too, very easily; his naivety and good nature make him an endearing hero. The Idiot was often funny, always compelling: a look at how society works, the people it creates, and what it does with them.

“It is not easy to achieve heaven on earth, and you do seem to count on it a little: heaven is a difficult matter, Prince, much more difficult than it seems to your excellent heart." (p376-7)

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All in all, this was a wonderful book. It had all the grandeur of the Russian epic, with its diverse cast of characters, and it captured my heart from the beginning. Thoroughly recommend.

~***~

What were you reading, while I was reading these in Kenya? What's the best thing you've read this year?

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

What I Got Up To In Kenya

The Great Rift Valley
It was dark when I arrived in Kenya. “When you get off the plane,” my father had said to me, “you’ll smell the heat and the dust and you’ll know you’re in Africa.” He was right. The night was hot and the moon was upside-down.


The first two weeks were a time of flux. Lots of people do fortnight-long mission trips, two weeks of work before heading home. I can’t imagine. By the end of those two weeks we were only just finding our feet. We were burgled during that time, and had to move out of our flat just when we’d settled in, but in the end this was a blessing: in our new home, we became a lot closer to our Kenyan hosts and to each other. But the first two weeks were bewildering. We were a team of eight girls, and it was strange for me to find myself living so close with seven others. I rather felt like an animal that had been captured and put in a zoo. But from the start we loved each other, and that love would only grow.

If you don't know which one I am, the hint is that my fave colour is orange.

Work started, and with it came routine. We worked in a place called Rafiki (which means “friend” in Swahili; see also the monkey in The Lion King), a boarding and day school that helps HIV/AIDs orphans as well as educating children from the community. Sometimes we taught, but mostly it was washing up, laundry, bread-making and kitchen work. These tasks sound menial, but they drew us together: what else can happen, when you’re alone with one person, two huge outdoor sinks, some dubious hessian rags, and 190 plastic plates? 


The conversations sorting lentils in the sun were conversations to be treasured. And the school welcomed us with open arms. We became great friends with the baker, who on the first day he met me asked me, “If a Kenyan man asked you to marry him, what would you say?” (I don’t think it was real love, though. He kept forgetting my name and calling me Evelyn.)


The children were marvellous: exuberant and exhausting. They taught us games and plaited our hair. Teaching them was often a joy, though difficult. Normally we wangled for CRE lessons: Christian Religious Education. In Britain, religious education is pluralistic, covering every belief and lauding none. In Kenyan schools, the Bible is proclaimed as truth. This was wonderful, except that often the curriculum wound away from the Bible, pulled into wrong theology by the tug of culture and tradition. We tried to pull it back: find a way into the gospel and run with it. Who knows how much the children took in? They’ve spent their lives learning by rote: maybe some of them never managed to think for themselves. We prayed for them.


A couple of times I wasn’t so lucky, and ended up doing Maths and Biology. A fellow English Lit student and I found our grasp of primary school arithmetic to be lacking, and there was the memorable occasion when my friend Sally told the fifteen-year-olds that ducks have talons. I think they enjoyed having us, though: everyone loves a student teacher. But I felt bad. They deserved better than some unqualified, clueless eighteen-year-olds. Thankfully, we were able to stick to CRE nine times out of ten.


My memories of Rafiki (which we affectionately called Raffers) are suffused with sunshine and laughter. It was always hot. Each morning a ramshackle mini-bus – the children always greeted it with cries of, “the Nissan, the Nissan!”, and we did the same – took us to school. 

I've never had so much affection for a vehicle. Ever.
They were simple days, mostly spent outside, splitting into pairs to do our mundane but somehow lovely tasks. There is something liberating about simple work: standing scrubbing those 190 plates, knowing you’re doing something necessary. At 10:30 each morning we’d break for tea and bread rolls, and the reunion was always joyous, as if we’d been a long time apart. Lunch was the same, debriefing over a plate of rice and beans. They were the best meals ever. Would I love my girls quite so much if it weren’t for Raffers? Definitely not. The two months I worked there were some of the happiest of my life. Best job I’ve ever had, for sure.

#throwbackthursday to when I had normal hair ...


I loved the uncomplicated pleasures of Rafiki: the warm bread rolls, the laughter, the drive to and from school through the green hills. Our route took us over a trainline, and the Nissan, the Nissan! always groaned and faltered crossing the rails. Is this the day, we wondered every day, when the Nissan, the Nissan! breaks down? But it was a valiant bus and it never failed us. Every day, morning and afternoon, I’d look eagerly up and down the railway line in case of a train. I love trains, and missed them desperately. Once, we left school a little late, and we stopped when we came to the railway line. What was that magical sound? What was that glorious shape, growing in the distance? “A train, a train!” the children shouted, and I may have been shouting with them.

Once I was working in the dark, smoky bakery when music floated to me. I stepped outside. Along the red road beside Rafiki a man drove his goats through the russet puddles of just-fallen rain. Each one wore a bell, and the sound was like some melodious sea. A sound for a life spent working with animals and the land. It moved me, the sight and the music.

When I got home each day I’d take my tea in a plastic mug and go upstairs to write. Those were happy times, Nina and JBH and me, and I love that I’ll always remember that first draft of LesMisBook, crafted on a lumpy bunk bed, in a small, darkish room. I loved that bed and that room. A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote, but I wrote that novel in a room shared by four. It was tiny, and you can imagine the mess, and often the desire for solitude was so great I wanted to bang my head against a wall, but I loved it. The way we would talk as we fell asleep, voices floating in the dark. The way my best friends were always right there next to me.



I loved Zambezi, too, our town. The high street was lined with makeshift shops, boards nailed together, where dresses hung or mangoes spilled onto the road. It was always noisy, haggling looping back and forth. The clothes they sell are often charity donations from the UK or US, so it was like secondhand shopping at home: I came back with a long green coat and some excellent shirts, feeling pleased with myself. Our favourite things to buy were packs of six round sponge cakes, called Marylands, 30 Kenyan shillings*, far and away the best snacks in the world.

*23p or 29 cents


Along the streets of Zambezi, donkeys pulled carts and chickens wove in and out of the cars and motorbikes. That was a fascinating thing, to see how western and traditional culture fused. It is best epitomised, I think, by the men I saw in the north: a traditional shuka round their waist, a staff in their hand, and an English Premier League football shirt. Amazing, how football permeates everywhere. I once saw a man in a Crieff Juniors shirt. Crieff is a little town in central Scotland: how did the strip of their junior team make it to Kenya? It made me smile. 

We got good at handwashing. It's another thing that brings you together; when you meet someone's eye across the soaping bucket and say “I'm currently scrubbing the crotch of your pyjama trousers", how can lifelong bonding be avoided?
In a lot of ways, life was stripped back. I had no Facebook, no blog, no make-up, no city, none of it. Life took on a slower pace, a warm rhythm. And this was wonderful, because it let me study the Bible more than ever before. We read through John, and Jesus’ humility struck me. I was trying to learn to love sacrificially, to have a servant heart, and there He was: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet." (John 13:3-5) Jesus, God of the universe, washed His followers’ feet. In a country where I’d come home each day and remove my socks to find a line of dust around my ankles, I understood why this was a big deal. He was the ultimate servant; He went to the Cross to prove it. I am so thankful for this trip, because it showed me more of the world He’s made, and it allowed me to grow closer to Him.


~***~

If you missed it (seriously, how could you miss it), I was in Kenya from January until May on a mission trip. I have a lot more stories to tell! The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that this narrative only went up to the end of March. In April, we went north to share Jesus in the rural county of Samburu. That really was going back to basics: no electricity, no running water, et cetera and et cetera. And then May happened, with the dreads and the ostriches. So, if you're interested, there will be more of What I Got Up To In Kenya.

Also, I'd like to know: when I was working at Raffers in February and March, what were you doing? What were the highlights?