GAZA. Sadly, not fiction.

REVIEW OF THE DRONE EATS WITH ME
Diaries from a city under fire
Atef-Abu Saif

israel-uav-butterfly
Israel-uav-butterfly

Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.

Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.

During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.

A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in flight during a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise at Fallon Naval Air Station (NAS), Nevada (NV), during exercise DESERT RESCUE XI. The Hunter is an Israeli multi-role short-range UAV system in service with the US Army (USA). The exercise is a joint service Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise hosted by the Naval Strike and Warfare Center, designed to simulate downed aircrews, enabling CSAR related missions to experiment with new techniques in realistic scenarios.
A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.

“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)

How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.

If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.

The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.

Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.

Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”.  Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.

Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity.  gazangameIt takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.

If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise.  Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.

Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Difficult_Lesson_(1884)
The Difficult Lesson William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.

To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.

Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.

(c) 2015 All of these blog posts are the copyright of Rosalind Minett. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission, or without crediting me as the original author and providing a link to the original article on this website.

Pleasing a publisher?

Halloween 2014. The Harper Collins review arrived. I copy it below.

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‘A Relative Invasion – Book I, Intrusion’ by Rosalind Minuet (sic)

Tensions are brewing in England as World War II is set in motion. As the adults’ anxiety spills over into five-year-old Billy’s world, his own battle is just beginning. An only child, he longs for a playmate, and when his aunt, uncle and cousin move nearby, he thinks his dream has come true. But cousin Kenneth turns out to be darkly manipulative and a bully who haunts Billy’s days, though the adults see only his porcelain looks and flawless manners. With emotionally distant parents who can’t understand his plight, Billy latches on to the idea of owning the precious Cossack sabre of his father’s friend. This icon sustains him through the invasion of Kenneth, evacuation and the shock of war, but will it destroy as well as save him?

Minett weaves a powerful and compelling narrative with strong and relatable characters, and offers an evocative portrayal of England’s war-time home front. Billy is immediately sympathetic and Minett perfectly captures a child’s viewpoint, adding a gentle and honest humour to the story. The mounting tensions between Billy and Kenneth parallel the rising agitation in Europe, and make the underlying manipulations of war more understandable to children. In terms of dialogue, it rings true both between the children and strained conversation of the adults. The author is deft in capturing that sense of tightly controlled emotions in the parents’ characters and in the act of showing, not telling. The scene where Billy’s mother ‘wields the wooden spoon viciously round the edges of the bowl’ is a great example.

There is good pacing between chapters, and the build-up of tension is managed well. Beginning the chapters with news updates helps to orient the reader and reinforce simultaneous narrative of what’s happening in Billy’s world and on the home front. The portrayal of family relationships is very well done and throws light on what attitudes and values were like in 1930s England – Billy’s mother greeting his father at the door and taking his briefcase; tense, sideways comments about jobs and money; and the sense of social and familial obligation. This and the war’s tension is offset by the humour that comes through when seeing it all through Billy’s five-year-old eyes. His misheard expressions – ‘jelly face’ for ‘angelic face’; ‘Nasties’ for ‘Nazis’ – add a warm comedic element. The pivotal scene where Billy and Angela find the Cossack sabre is very effective – it foreshadows the violence about to erupt in Europe, and shows through Billy the human impulse of both the reverence for the weapon but also the temptation to use it impulsively.

A Relative Invasion has received many good reviews on Authonomy and seems to resonate with plenty of readers. The manuscript itself has excellent grammar and sentence structure; it would not take a great deal of editorial tinkering to make this book a strong commercial proposition for a young adult list.

Flash Fiction

kaleidoscopeNo flashy words:
Review of Eating My Words: 2014

THE NATIONAL FLASH FICTION DAY ANTHOLOGY

Edited by Callum Kerr
Angela Readman
Amy McKelden

One of the beauties of an anthology of flash fiction is that it gives exposure to such a large number of different authors. It was good to see this, rather than many entries by a few authors. Furthermore, the anthology included a section of micro-fiction entries, a form requiring even more skill if a reader’s involvement is to be engaged.

I reviewed last year’s anthology, Scraps, ScrapsBkand approached the present one with happy anticipation. I didn’t have the advantage of seeing the foreword – I only had the e-book.

This year’s title is appealing and apt. It refers to the theme set the writers – The Senses. There was a wide variety in how this was interpreted, and a degree of variety in the quality of writing.

The opening story was totally enchanting in its reversal of perceptions of the rat. With a good arc and subtle references, Becky Tipper’s story set a promising tone for the book.

At the end of the book the winners of the micro-fiction competition displayed the economy of words against the ingenuity of concept.

In the remainder, the following stories pleased me particularly. Different readers will have different preferences, but those stories that feel complete in the read surely master the genre. It doesn’t have to be a surprise ending, but it does need to make sense of the beginning and/or display a clear concept. This blog emphasises the importance of character in writing.  In flash fiction, a character must make an immediate impact.

The imagery in Tasty – a story about pornography – works well, and the conclusion is both believable and restorative. The concept of ‘unfinished stories’ in Dress Sense ensured that the issue of loss and stasis would resonate after the read. This was a sensitive piece as was the much longer story by Sarah Hilary. She paired two unlikely characters and set them forth for an imagined future.

There were several sad reads, and a wry one, Show Don’t Tell, which made me smile. Nik Perring’s story was even more wry. A girl with an addiction to giving up and her boyfriend’s understandable responses suggested two interesting characters who would hold their own in a longer story, but nevertheless the piece had a satisfying conclusion. A wider smile still for What We Do In Our Sleep. It really pays to consider the ridiculous sometimes, for it can illustrate a point – in this case, hypochondria – more clearly than a set of descriptions. Tino Prinzi uses dialogue well and wittily here.

I did balk at some hefty wordiness (“feculent metastatic lesions”) in Seven Breaths, but the psychology of the piece was well understood. Another insightful piece, more about coming to fruition than coming of age, was Launch Pad. It launches the reader into a vivid classroom scene and slyly comments on adult expectations. Handle with Care was itself beautifully handled, displaying sensitivity and poignancy in a piece that explores a child’s revulsion against cruelty.

Michael Marshall Smith totally encapsulated the theme of The Senses in his story, Half-Life, with a very clever plotline. I admired this, as I did the well-written Chekhov’s Gun, for imaginative use of the theme.

Eating      EATING MY WORDS 

It is hard to pick out some stories for mention when there are many that make the purchase of this anthology worthwhile. Death, love, lust, thwarted ambition – all are aspects of the human condition that these writers consider. All the more surprising, then, to read about swallowed kittens, chemically induced sensation removal and the beauty of being an oyster.

Long live the flash fiction genre.

Literary competitions

jumps

Short Story competitions

COULD YOU BE A WINNER?

I think winning stories have to capture the heart as well as the attention of the judges. I’ve rarely read a winning story without feeling I know why it was chosen. Usually the setting is striking, the structure is very satisfying, the ending unexpected and the main character convincing. I’m saying nothing out of the ordinary, I know, but it’s as well to have these features of winning stories in the back of your mind as you start to write yours. Some writers give up competitions at the first or second failure to get on the shortlist.

However, some rehash their stories or even leave them as they are and keep submitting them to different competitions, on the basis that ‘liking’ a story and finding it surpasses other good entries is very subjective.  

I reviewed one winner, Anne Corlett, on a previous post (See Review: H.E.Bates winner)  Her story is well worth reading for that structure, setting, believable character (s), and unexpected ending, a thoroughly satisfying read. 

It is not always previous competition winners or successful journalists turning to fiction who win. There have been some notable first timers who have run the contestants out of the ground. The main thing is to have a go. The writing towards winning is good practice, and you can regard it as just that. Robert the Bruce would have been entering every competition until chosen, egged on by his spider. So, try, try, try again if you haven’t been successful so far.

These competitions have April deadlines.

APRIL

11 April — Litro magazine Theme: Augmented Reality Max. length: 3,000 words
26 April — Felixstowe Book Festival Short Story Competition Theme of Conflict 
30 April — 13th International Short Story Conference Story Contest fee: €10 (theme: The Braids of Identity) 
30 April — The Bristol prize   any subject. Max. length 4,000 words
30 April — E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Contest 
30 April – Fiction Uncovered 2014 
30 April — Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 
The more entrants, the more money to finance the next competition. Let me know if you are one of the short-listed or even better.

Novel Writers’ ten think points

x-guilt

1. Write your target quota before entering any social media site

2.  Write from your instinct before reading writing advice

3.  Only seek feedback from other writers

4.  Only seek feedback when you have planned and written a substantial section

5.  Stop and decide where the plot is going one third of the way through

6.  Lie in bed and hear your characters’ voices clearly

7.   Highlight the sections you’re unhappy with in blue

8.   Beyond halfway read the first and last lines of every chapter

9.    Read a highly rated novel while you take a break

10.   Care about your characters and write their future…NOW

GuiltyGear_PaperBag_Man_by_JJH

Jakarta Three Ways.

 Underground temple in Jakarta. Three routes downwards?       Image

Today’s post is A REVIEW OF RAMADAN SKY by Australian author, NICHOLA HUNTER.

It’s a while since I read the beginning of Ramadan Sky on the Authonomy site and became immediately captivated by the young boy suffering patiently with an abscess and asking little. Anyone who has experienced that unique agony will be hooked. The environment of Jakarta and its limited resources for comfort is immediately set. So is the culture of patient fortitude in the face of painful circumstances.

The book has undergone revisions before publication and now begins with a prologue that tells the end of the story. Normally I find prologues a mistake but not this in this case. It sums up exactly how the narrator feels, how any of her readers would feel for her at the end of this three-way story. I call it that because there are three main characters but one story. Or you could say there are three stories which are running the same path.

Vic, the no-pushover female narrator from Australia, her young lover and his fiancée, native to the city play out their roles and in so doing, reveal for us in painful and telling detail, the corruption, poverty and interdependence which is that part of Indonesia.

It didn’t alter my enjoyment that none of the characters are truly likeable, even the peripheral ones. I found the main characters well-rounded, with positive and negative aspects to their personalities making them all the more real.

Vic has come to Jakarta to teach English, as do many educated native English speakers.  She is not young, not particularly feminine, so the name suits. A good choice and indicator from the start. She does not look for love, but in seeking a guide and chauffeur more or less from necessity, finds a young man who gradually enters her life. They have a passionate affair, despite their age difference, his impending marriage and his fiancee’s dependence upon that fact. This girl is under pressure from her family,  who will benefit from the marriage. The family benefit far more, in the development of the plot, from the very means of the threat ahead – such a strong and ironic twist.

The skill of the author lies in her ability to allow our empathy with each of these characters despite the fact that their personal motivations and needs are in competition with each other.

By the end of the novel we can predict exactly what will happen to each of the three in the future. We are not told. We can draw it clearly from the narrative.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable story, enriched by its insight into Indonesian culture. Super stuff, read avidly at one sitting without even rising for a glass of wine.

The novel is published by Authonomy and is available via Amazon.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • Publisher: Authonomy (26 Sep 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • ASIN: B00DAK6US8

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