In Conversation: Juliana Barbassa

Juliana Barbassa is an award-winning journalist currently living in Switzerland. Her book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, based on her years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Brazil, was published by Touchstone/Simon&Schuster in July 2015.

Juliana Barbassa profile

Dancing with the Devil in the city of God is a very enticing title! Tell us a bit about how you came up with it.

Thank you! It’s good to hear. The idea of “Dancing with the Devil” was born of this sense that Rio, and Brazil, were engaging in a huge gamble by taking on this series of mega-events (the Pan-American Games of 2007, the World Cup of 2014, and the 2016 Olympics.) The country was going through unprecedented good times, and Brazilians were eager to show this off to the world, but I had the sense that much could go wrong, both with the staging of the games themselves, and with the country as a whole—with the economy, particularly.

Indeed, this great unraveling of Brazil’s promise started to happen even as I was finishing the manuscript, and it has only worsened since.

The City of God part came not from the favela by the same name that exists in Rio—I thought most who don’t live there wouldn’t have heard of it anyway—but from the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that hovers over the city. You can see it from just about anywhere, and as I struggled to come to terms with Rio and its hard edges I found myself looking up at that impassive face: What did he make of this mess? Did he care? Was that blank face even watching?

A resident holding a baby hides behind a door as an armored police vehicle patrols during an operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010. Rio's most dangerous slum that was the backbone of the city's biggest drug gang was taken by 2,600 police and soldiers Sunday, an unprecedented accomplishment by authorities in their fight to secure this seaside metropolis that will host the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

A resident holding a baby hides behind a door as an armored police vehicle patrols during an operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010. Rio’s most dangerous slum that was the backbone of the city’s biggest drug gang was taken by 2,600 police and soldiers Sunday, an unprecedented accomplishment by authorities in their fight to secure this seaside metropolis that will host the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

As a journalist, you’ve doubtless written hundreds of thousands of words over the years. Did this latest book emerge from those writings?

It certainly started out that way. My first few chapters in particular were drawn directly from my reporting. When you’re out gathering information, you pick up so much more than you can fit into a straight who-what-when-why-where news article—broader questions about what it all means, anecdotes that reveal nuances of a situation or place but are too long for a news piece, connections to a wider context.

In my case, I was also returning to country where I was born. For the first time those I interviewed spoke the language of home, the language that for years I only used with my family. All this added a very personal layer that of course had no room in my reporting. Writing was essentially a way of working out what this moment meant for Rio, for Brazil—and also of processing the clash of reality with my expectations, what I saw as a journalist with what I felt as a Brazilian returned home.

An interesting thing happened along the way: the book went from hewing closer to straight reporting to a more personal perspective. Somewhere along the line—in the book this happens when I talk about the World Cup—I went from referring to Brazilians as ‘them’ to speaking about ‘us.’ It was unintentional. A reader pointed it out to me after it was published. The book takes the reader through a physical journey through the city, but through my personal journey as well.

Students walk to school past military police officers patrollong in the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday March 27, 2012. Military police officers are replacing army soldiers patrolling the area at the slum complex. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Students walk to school past military police officers patrollong in the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday March 27, 2012. Military police officers are replacing army soldiers patrolling the area at the slum complex. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In some ways it sounds like every travel writer’s dream to encounter gang wars and subsistence life in the run-down apartments of a city undergoing immense change, and yet moving to Rio was clearly a huge challenge, both personally and professionally. Was it the possibility of this kind of experience that drew you to journalism as a career in the first place? 

To a great degree, yes. I believe journalism has an essential role to play in a functioning democracy—holding government accountable, bringing wrongs to light, all that—but it’s also true that for me as for many of us, the job is addictive.

The adrenaline rush that comes with running toward whatever disaster everyone else is running away from, the insane focus of reporting breaking news in real time, being right there to see human beings at their best and at their worst … you feel alive and in the moment and relevant. There’s nothing like it, even when it costs you, as it often cost me to report on Rio. What you learn along the way—about the issue, the place, about people in general and about yourself—is priceless.

The challenge is always to render what we see as factually but also as vividly as possible to readers, so they can share the experience or just have the information to reach their own conclusions.

In this Sunday, July 14, 2013 photo, youth play alongside a polluted river in the Varginha area of the Manguinhos slum complex where Pope Francis is expected to visit during his trip next week to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In one of the key events of his trip, the church’s first Jesuit leader will venture into this rough slum that sits along a violence-soaked road known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In this Sunday, July 14, 2013 photo, youth play alongside a polluted river in the Varginha area of the Manguinhos slum complex where Pope Francis is expected to visit during his trip next week to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In one of the key events of his trip, the church’’s first Jesuit leader will venture into this rough slum that sits along a violence-soaked road known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

I’ve enjoyed immensely your ability to evoke a sense of place with your words—it’s something many writers of fiction are striving for daily! How much, if at all, do you draw on the craft of fiction-writing, and where do you see the cross-overs?

I have been a keen reader of fiction ever since I was little—I was that kid with thick glasses who’d escape to the library during recess—and I’m sure it’s shaped my writing in more ways that I can relate here. But there are clear cross-overs between fiction and the kind of writing I do: character development, a story arc, the need for tension and resolution. The difference is that with fiction, you start from nothing and you build. With non-fiction, you take the giant amorphous swirl of facts that is ‘reality’ and chisel away all the excess stuff that is getting in the way of your characters, of your story. The work is in identifying the story and the characters that will best tell that story and then bringing them to light.

In this photo taken Dec. 17, 2010, Gustavo Nascimento da Silva, 5, flies his kite at the Santa Marta slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2008 police stormed Santa Marta to evict the dealers as the community became the pilot in a program to root out gangs and bring government services to slums long abandoned by the state. The program has since been replicated in a dozen slums, all in a bid to make one of the world's more dangerous cities safer before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In this photo taken Dec. 17, 2010, Gustavo Nascimento da Silva, 5, flies his kite at the Santa Marta slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2008 police stormed Santa Marta to evict the dealers as the community became the pilot in a program to root out gangs and bring government services to slums long abandoned by the state. The program has since been replicated in a dozen slums, all in a bid to make one of the world’s more dangerous cities safer before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

When it comes to deciding which characters are going to be part of the book, for example—you can’t make them up, but you can chose individuals whose lives reveal depths and aspects of whatever issue you want to illustrate. But you don’t really know until you’ve spent a lot of time with them, in their context. You interview them repeatedly, spend time with them in various situations; you get to know their family, find out what moves them, what they fear. The vast majority of that material you never use, but only by knowing the whole can you say which details are most revealing. Once you’ve got those key markers, all you need to do is sketch the outline of that person for the reader. If you’ve got the right details, the person is believable and takes form in the reader’s imagination, much as a fictional character would.

As a journalist yourself, how have you responded to the changing frontier of traditional news publications and aggregators, when almost anyone can now show up and ‘report’ on anything via social media (e.g. the Arab Spring Twitter storm) or by independently publishing their opinions (such as Russell Brand’s Trews News YouTube Channel, which has well over a million followers)? 

I feel like we’re still parsing, as a society, what this means and how to handle all of the information that is made available when the gates of publication are thrown wide open. Much of it is positive, as was the case during the Arab Spring, when social media users were able to transmit information that would not have been available under a tightly controlled media environment.

But I am a journalist, and when speaking about news, I hold in high regard the vetting systems that exist in traditional news outlets, where information is gathered, fact-checked and framed not only by a professional who is held to clearly stated standards of accuracy and fairness but also by layers of editors who have their careers and their names staked on upholding those standards.

If you get something wrong as a journalist, you’re held responsible. If the mistake is serious or intentional, you lose your job or worse, your credibility. In either case, your news outlet will issue a public correction and in some cases, conduct a serious investigation into internal procedures to see what failed.  If you get something wrong on Twitter or on your blog, even if it has drastic consequences—oh well. It’s social media.

All to say, I find it very exciting that individuals have the ability to connect with an audience without the mediation of government, publishing houses, or the mainstream media because of the freedom it brings from censorship, where that exists, and because it allows writers to publish works that, for whatever reason, would not have been welcome within those traditional platforms. This only makes public discourse richer. But I am afraid of a world in which readers don’t see the difference between 140 characters on their Twitter feed and a newspaper headline, and I feel like we’re teetering dangerously over than line.

In this June 17, 2013, file photo, protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a poll last year, more than three quarters of Brazilians said they'’re certain corruption has infused the World Cup. Their anger fueled widespread and often violent anti-government protests last June that sent more than 1 million Brazilians into the street during FIFA’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament, the warm-up event to the World Cup. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

In this June 17, 2013, file photo, protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a poll last year, more than three quarters of Brazilians said they’’re certain corruption has infused the World Cup. Their anger fueled widespread and often violent anti-government protests last June that sent more than 1 million Brazilians into the street during FIFA’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament, the warm-up event to the World Cup. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

One of the elements of identity is the passport we hold, but there are many others. You once wrote (in the Boston Globe) of moving to the Middle East, Europe and, eventually, the United States, and of “changing cities more often than most families change cars”. What would you say are the things that, for you as a traveller, comprise a sense of home?

I’d have to say it’s connecting with a community of like-minded people. These may be other life-long travellers, people who have chosen lives and identities that are made, not born into, or they may be people who have never have physically left their home town, but have ranged widely in their interests and become flexible along the way. This connection with people is the single thing that made cities as diverse as Rio, San Francisco, or Chambery, where I lived for a year, feel like home, even if a temporary sort of home. Nothing makes me feel as out of place as being in very homogenous society, where only a narrow range of behaviors, opinions or lifestyles is tolerated.

‘Literary’ journalist Joan Didion has said that she writes entirely to find out what she’s thinking, what she’s looking at, what she sees and what it means. In what way does this resonate for you, as a writer who has lived in so many different places?

It rings very true. For most of my life, I’ve used reading and writing as tools for making sense of the world around me. It is as I write that I think, process information, even make sense of certain feelings or reactions. This was very true as I was writing “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God;” it is essentially a book of reportage, but it was also my way of exploring Rio, and negotiating the boundaries between the physical city and the city I’d carried within, the place I’d hoped to find.

This relationship to writing is so entrenched that I’m having a hard time approaching Zürich as a non-journalist! Not having an excuse to poke around, and not having a designated outlet for my writing feels strange, limiting; it’s as if I couldn’t see as well, or think as clearly.

What’s the next big writing project on the horizon?

I’m juggling a couple of ideas. I’m torn between continuing to write about Brazil, which is a perpetual source inspiration and torment with its extremes and so many untold stories, and focusing on Switzerland, which is still a huge, and intimidating, blank. I would love to focus on what is nearby, what I’m seeing around me—for those Joan Didion reasons—but I don’t know where to start. It’s all so new, including the language! 

And, finally, The Woolf special question: what’s one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Do I have to pick one? Right now I’m enthralled with Ann Patchett’s books: I read Bel Canto, State of Wonder, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and The Patron Saint of Liars, her first—and perfect—novel, all in a row. She has such imagination and control of her craft that she can create very improbable and tightly circumscribed worlds, whether it is a lab in the Amazon, a South American embassy in the grips of kidnappers, or a Kentucky home for pregnant girls, that serve as crucibles for the human experience, wringing depths out of characters that not many other writers achieve. And she does this by telling a whopper of a story that keeps you turning the pages.  I’ve just in awe of what she is able to do.

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Read more, or order Dancing with the Devil in the City of God on Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Simon&Schuster.

Take a look at this month’s Gallery for more images of Rio.

You can follow Juliana on Twitter @jbarbassa or read more of her work at julianabarbassa.com.

Eulogy for Orell Füssli The Bookshop

by Susan Platt

My Dear Old Friend,

it was with great sadness that I recently learned about your fate—from Switzerland’s biggest tabloid, of all places. And although it does not come as a complete surprise to those who have been close to you in recent years—who saw the writing on the wall before and after changes in ownership and circumstances that made it increasingly difficult to thrive under the corporate thumb—the news that you are indeed being shut down this coming spring, while in still excellent health, made no sense, and still came as a shock.

OFTB Xmas

You and I, we go back some 23 years, my dear. While this may be but a trifle in your lifespan as a bookshop at house zur Werdmühle, since your inception by Kurt Stäheli & Co. in the early 1930s, it means you’ve been along for the ride for more than half of my life. And that, to me, is quite a feat.

I remember walking through your doors in 1992, with a rather long, Xeroxed (yes, Xeroxed) list of choices for required reading material, handed out by the University of Zürich, where I had just started to study English literature. Several sheets of paper listed essential and optional reading material, including the King James version of the Bible (yep), Beowulf (of course), and a myriad of choices of drama, poetry, prose and fiction spanning five centuries.

Needless to say, I felt a slight pang of overwhelm knowing full well that my picks would have a great impact on my further academic path. But how was I supposed to know which books to choose, when I hadn’t read them yet?

Conundrum alert!

Enter your booksellers: the beating heart and breathing soul that is at the very core of you, many of whom had been with you for decades and some of whom I have had the privilege to get to know over the years.

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Ah, yes, your booksellers. A passionate lot, each and every one of them. A special breed now as they were then, taking pride in guiding those who have entered their domain, glowing with a smug joy at a satisfied customer leaving the store with a copy of their favourite book or a book by a beloved author when they made a successful recommendation. It is they who made you what you are today, my dear bookshop, because—let’s face it—your new parents, the Orell Füssli AG, never really knew what to make of you over the last dozen years or so since they acquired you in 1998.

You were their red-headed stepchild, in their eyes merely the English branch of a German bookstore chain, sticking out like a sore thumb with your talent of catering both to the English expat community in the greater Zürich area as well as the Swiss readership with your cunning mix of extraordinary in-house events providing local as well as renowned international authors and small businesses with a platform to promote their work, your knack for knowing how to truly make your customers happy by including English comfort food section (Marmite! Vegemite! Cheerios!), and bringing the joy of reading to people of all ages and walks of life.

But you do not merely sell books.

IMG_2120

You are a nexus of human connection. And a home away from home for so many. A place to meet, to sit and to chat on your red leather sofas.

You celebrate the English language, its multi-coloured culture and basically life in general.

Every. Single. Day.

And it works.

In an increasingly dire economic climate, in times where online giants were starting to take over the bulk of the book sales and the naysayers predicted the imminent end of the book as nigh, you managed to consistently make a healthy profit over the last ten years*.

Mindbogglingly, at a location on Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich—one of the world’s most expensive shopping miles.

And, even more surprisingly, you managed to pull this all off without the support of a proper web- or social media presence.

Because, sadly, the fact that you always have been—and always will be—neither a department, nor a branch of a chain, but your own persona (or brand if you will) with your own loyal (!) tribe, went largely ignored by your parent company who repeatedly smothered any advances by your management to bring you into the 21st century with a decent online presence.

Yes, you are unique. One of a kind. And successful. So much so, that other bookshops such as German KulturKaufhaus Dussman came to visit you for inspiration of their new books section of their store in Berlin.

But none of this seems to matter to the new powers-that-be since the latest merger with Thalia a little over two years ago.

While your old adoptive parents may have never fully understood you, they at least allowed you to continue based on the fact that you were somehow, miraculously, thriving.

But your new guardians, the Orell Füssli Thalia AG, have decided that neither your successful past nor present mean anything and—without even as much as conferring with the people who have effectively guided you for more than a decade—determined you had no future, and sold your rent contract at a bargain price for the sake of a quick buck.

So it goes.

I accept that the dice have been cast and your fate has been sealed.

However, I take comfort from the fact that I understand that you will not go gentle into that good night.

Knowing you and your quirky bookseller bunch, the next Halloween, the inherent All Hallows Read, the twinkly Xmas lights and Santa’s visit to the children on the monthly Saturday morning story hour and all of your other spunky shindigs before you will have to close your doors in the spring of 2016, will be extra special.

Santa OFTB

Santa reads to the children

I look back fondly and in deep gratitude to all the joy that you have brought into my life, moments of laughter and great pleasure at your happenings that will be forever etched into my memory:

Riding high with David Sedaris on Panta Rhei on the lake of Zürich, journeying along with Michael Cunningham at Sternwarte Zürich, mesmerized by Nicolas Sparks in the Puppentheater Stadelhofen, fascinated by our very own Alain de Botton at the Bookshop and many more … but, to me, most memorably, the epic two-hour roller-coaster ride with Tad Williams in your basement in 2011.

OFTB Tad Williams 2013

Tad Williams, 2011

Oh, how I will miss you and your shenanigans.

Case in point: The Night Circus, the book club meetings, the women’s night, the roaring twenties, the James Bond night, the Harry Potter midnight openings, or the Long Night of the Books … among many, many more.

OFTB 20ies

Roaring Twenties

As both the local media and our city’s culture department barely acknowledged the fact that you will be gone soon, shrugging their indifferent shoulders at the most recent loss of a colourful dot that will turn Bahnhofstrasse into a another grey blur of global brand monotony, I trust that my—and hopefully other people’s—expression of appreciation will help preserve your memory.

‘Tis but a tiny blog note, considering the opposition silence, but it is enough to keep the general show of disinterest from being unanimous.

Qui tacet, consentit.

I hope others will join me by wishing you and yours a safe journey to the next chapters in your lives. #GoodbyeOFTB

Good night, and good luck.

Susan

Susan Platt is a professional spunk, reluctant blogger and occasional hashtag abuser @swissbizchick.

Photos courtesy OFTB Facebook page.

*citing Orell Füssli The Bookshop’s Managing Director Sabine Haarmann

OFTB Night Circus 2011

Night Circus 2011

Notes from the Unexpected: Zürich’s one and only lake speaks up

by D.B. Miller

On certain days, it’s uncanny: the turquoise shallows, cobalt drop and unrelenting shimmer for as far as the neck can crane. The Mediterranean, you could swear it—with a squint and some imagination, maybe even a cove around St. Tropez. Toss in a few gulls and those Boesch motorboats that cost as much as a watch, and you’re living the dream.

Zurisee14

Except the dream is right here, in a landlocked country, fertilizing the shores and giving the lucky people who live on them something to look at. On this, the locals and transient folk agree: Zürisee is the city’s crowning asset. Once an international trade route, today a playground, but still: 88 square kilometers of alpine aqua pura are reason enough to be proud, if not a bit punchy.

Because some have the nerve to call it small—but tell that to the gent who couldn’t quite get to shore on a morning swim. While it was traumatic for that poor girl, wading into his corpse at the Badi, he had to go! When you’re classified as potable, you have a reputation to uphold.

And is “banana-shaped” really the best the guide books can do? Show me the banana that can hike up rents, wow UNESCO and host spaghetti-themed cruises without irony. Show me any fruit that can turn from green to purple to steel in an hour, creeping to the edges like silence or a thousand little blades.

Mix it up, keep them guessing, show them who’s boss. Kick up the surf and blame the boats. Turn up the temp and call out the fleas. For every record-breaking heatwave, there’s ice in living memory. For every preening swan, a coot squeaks like bicycle brakes and never gets the bread. The banks that now teem with people once swarmed with disease. Come in, the water’s fine, but the parent who loses sight of a child for one second ages five years.

Postcards lie, but nature doesn’t. You just keep moving—east to west, glacier to river, liquid to cloud, surface to floor. You’re more than a pretty picture: you’re as deep as the darkness 136 meters down. So the next time your eye skips over the void to gaze at the twinkling hills, remember: lights seem brighter when they’re mirrored in black.

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DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Gallery of Zürisee images from @libby_ol‘s Instagram.

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It’s Much More Important Than That

A short work of fiction by Paul Knott

Sitting on the plane, I read my call-up papers for the umpteenth time: “Private Moses Afwerki to report to base at 7am on 11th October”. This is my last trip with the Eritrean national football team before starting my military service. It is not a happy prospect. In my country soldiers serve in the barren, baking hot region bordering our hostile neighbour. We do not get paid and are sometimes barely fed. Conscripts are treated harshly by the regular officers and we are the first to be put in the firing line whenever the lingering conflict flares up again.

drought by @libby_ol

Our coaches tell us we are already soldiers fighting for our nation on the football field. They are wrong. Even for a serious international player, football is still a game and you cannot play it well without a sense of joy. That famous British coach was right when he said that football “is not a matter of life and death”. But his punchline “it is much more important than that” is not so funny where I come from. I do not want to be anybody’s soldier and dream of pursuing my passion in a place where football’s only significance is as a glorious spectacle.

For this tournament in Switzerland, we are based where the Swiss national team train. The lakeside location is beautiful and the training pitch has grass like the silk carpets in the Presidential Palace. Even the cows on the adjacent lush green hillside look well-fed and satisfied with life. The sense that you can breathe easily here stems from more than the crisp fresh air.

Since Haile the goalkeeper ran away after the match in Italy last summer, our team has travelled with six security guards. We are not England or Germany. The guards are not here to protect us from over-enthusiastic fans and opposition hooligans. They are here to stop us from escaping. They patrol the corridors and exits of our team hostel and make sure we are locked in our rooms at night.

One morning my roommate, Birhan, and I are heading downstairs for breakfast when a commotion breaks out on the floor above. The team hotheads Gabriel and Tesfay are scuffling again. They are usually the best of friends but sometimes the pressure of being cooped up like this gets to them.

Two guards race up the stairs past us to deal with the disturbance. Birhan and I spot simultaneously that they have left the fire escape unprotected. We glance at each other. It is a split second decision. We decide to run.

We sprint straight for the train station up the road that we pass on the way to the training ground. Luckily for us, a train is standing on the platform. After several hours of hiding in the toilets and switching trains to dodge ticket inspectors, we arrive in a town called Winterthur. It seems far enough away from the team hostel and is the first place we have seen that looks big enough to hide in. The wooden-beamed buildings and church towers opposite the station look nothing like home but the pair of palm trees outside a restaurant provide a hint of familiarity.

That the trees might be an omen is borne out when we see a small group of our countrymen hanging around near the station shops. When we approach in the team tracksuits we are still wearing, two of them turn out to be football fans and recognise us instantly. They take us to eat a “döner”, which is not bad once you put the spicy sauce on it, and then to the Migrant Assistance Office nearby.

By evening, we have been taken to the outskirts of a small town about 15 kilometres away. Somehow after all of that drama, I did not expect to end up locked up overnight in a hostel that is scruffier and more crowded with people from home than the one from which we have just absconded.

My compatriots are a comfort in this alien world, especially Isaias who used to play for my club’s local rivals back home. He has been here for over a year and tries to teach me the ropes. In the process, he is quick to disabuse me of my dreams that I might soon be playing for Bayern Munich.

Two years later, my request to stay in Switzerland is still being processed. I am not allowed to work legally, travel outside the country or do anything much that would allow me to live a free, independent existence. I am grateful to the Swiss for providing us with shelter and a small amount of money for essentials. But I cannot understand why they want to give us these things, rather than let us work to provide for ourselves whilst they decide whether we can stay.

Apart from the handful of local delinquents who hang about near the hostel gates drinking and trying to provoke us into fights, the people are not unpleasant to us here. Sure, when we are out the police take every opportunity to check our ID and pockets but most people treat us with indifference. They greet each other in the street but stare straight past us as if we do not exist. In many ways, this is what grinds me down the most. For all of my homeland’s problems, I am part of a big family and community there, where people always take the time to welcome visitors warmly. I probably enjoyed the recognition that came with being a well-known sportsman there more than I realised too. Here we are nobodies, granted the basic material necessities but starved of human dignity.

My only respite from the suffocation comes on weekends. Isaias has a temporary residence permit now. He coaches the kids at the local football club voluntarily and has fixed up for me to play for the first team. As I am not allowed to earn money and play professionally, the club is in the regional amateur league. It is far from the Bundesliga and playing several steps below my level in front of fifty fans and a dog can be frustrating. But my teammates are friendly and for a few hours every Saturday afternoon it ceases to matter who I am off the field.

It is the rest of the week that is the trouble. I spend endless hours sitting here by the river, thinking about my family and knowing I cannot go home without being thrown in prison as a deserter. I play the scene when we ran from the hostel over and over in my mind. Sometimes I wonder if I should have taken my chances on surviving in the army. As I stare into the fast flowing Rhine, I see my life being swept away with the water.

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Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull’s King George Dock. He made an improbable career switch to Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service and spent twenty years globetrotting as a British diplomat.

After two decades of excitement, Paul currently lives quietly on a Swiss hillside with the Kenyan wife he met in Uzbekistan and their kids. He is still wondering how he got there.

Paul’s book, The Accidental Diplomat, can be bought at Pile of Books and Stauffacher in Bern, or directly from the author. It is also available online from The Scratching ShedHessle BookshopPoliticos and Amazon.

 

Glass, Concrete and Stone

by JJ Marsh

When someone dies, we often comfort ourselves with the thought they will live on in our memories. Can we do the same with a building? Or is an assemblage of brick, wood, doorways and windows nothing more than the experience of people who fill it?

Displacement is on my mind.

fire My childhood home was—I must now use the past tense—a small Welsh pub called The Drum and Monkey. The name comes from the quarry above. The gunpowder was packed into a drum and the hapless lad who lit the fuse was the powder monkey, so legend goes. Built on top of a network of caves, clinging onto the side of a valley, this higgledy-piggledy set of rooms with low ceilings, crooked doorways and open fires was the heart of village life and my family home.

This week it was demolished as part of a road-widening scheme. We all knew it would happen. We could only sigh and share memories of that ramshackle hotch-potch of four-hundred year old walls. Recollections rippled outwards from my family to friends, staff and regulars. Yet none of us was prepared for that sucker punch to the gut on seeing an aerial shot of the rubble. The Drunken Monkey, an apt mishearing by my sister, was no more.

glassSadness moved closer to my current home when I learnt the fate of Zürich’s English Bookshop. (See Susan Platt’s wonderful love letter to the place here.) Bookshops are magical buildings, where every shelf contains a hundred doorways. As a new, lonely arrival in 2004, an English bookshop was a sanctuary. Not to mention a hub for literary activities, cultural events and well-read people. I met many of my friends, allies and fellow authors on that famous blue carpet. When the bookshop closes, the building may remain but its soul will depart. I can only hope the team and their passion for books will find a new wolf-cave elsewhere. Their loyal pack will follow.

stonesBooks drew my attention to a further-flung place in the news this month. JD Smith, whose historical novels detail the life of Queen Zenobia in 3rd century Syria, sets her work around the city of Palmyra. After the Islamic State took over this UNESCO World Heritage Centre, concerns rose over the fate of its incredible ancient edifices and artefacts. Today, footage shows the temple of Baal Shamin blown up and reduced to rubble. Yet another atrocity and a grievous loss for the Syrian people and the world’s history.

Grief has different hues. Mourning those you loved can leach all colour and drape your world in black. While nostalgia for a period of time is sepia or monochrome, occasionally rose-tinted. Revulsion at terrorist murders or cultural destruction is tinted by the colour of fear.

The loss of a building is an absence, like an empty picture frame. It quite simply disappears, to be replaced by nothing. No magic, no history, no culture, no communal spirit, no charm, no life.

It is up to us who shared those times and those stories to fill the canvas with rainbows and fireworks. We must cherish and celebrate the places and spaces that house our memories. A building is so much more than glass, concrete and stone.

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Thank you to David Byrne

Images courtesy of Creative Commons

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Writing at the Castle

Images and text by Louise Mangos

Plucking writers out of their comfortable surroundings and placing them somewhere unfamiliar is often the perfect catalyst for creative inspiration. One might think that travelling from the rugged peaks and shimmering lake waters of the Alps to the calm rolling hills of Gascony in Southwest France would have the reverse affect. That it might lull a mountain woman into a sense of sultry summer somnolence. Not so.

To escape the searing cauldron of Switzerland in early July this year, it was bizarre to be heading so far south and yet experience a drop in temperature. Despite being also in the grip of a Europe-wide heat wave, a gentle breeze blew from coast to coast over the rolling hills of le Gers, ensuring cool nights and mornings. Ideal for an early-rising writer like myself.    sunflowers But I wasn’t in Gascony simply to induce the flow of creative juices while gazing upon endless fields of sunflowers. A weeklong series of workshops and presentations at ‘Writing at the Castle’, a creative writers’ retreat at the Château de Sainte-Mère, re-ignited my determination to finish a third novel and publish my first, which has been wavering between agents and editors for the past few months.

An eclectic group of keen writers formed an intimate literary group for the five-day retreat, with backgrounds in teaching, singing, song-writing, dancing, painting, history and world travel. In a shady corner of the delightful castle garden dominated by two impressive medieval towers, a handful of writing experts covered all aspects of the creative journey.

castleAt the first workshop, historical novelist Tracey Warr proved how useful this displacement from a regular writing environment could inspire our stories. She used the artefacts and images of the castle and surroundings to reinforce a sense of location, and to inspire the creative connection between fact and fiction. We each brought objects back to the table that we had found while foraging in the castle grounds, and ideas for a new scene or story were born from the essence of them. Concentrating on their origin, imagining the people who might have handled them, describing their visual and tactile qualities, invoked an all-round mindfulness of objects that might seem mundane to the layman. This exercise proved useful for all genres of writing, and we certainly had a collection amongst us, from historical and magical-realism, to crime and literary.

On day two, best-selling author Amanda Hodgkinson had us sweating in our literary thinking caps with a fabulous workshop on plot and characterisation. Her method of using the classic Cinderella fairy tale arc, adapted for our own writing needs, was a simple but powerfully effective tool. At first horrified that we would be expected to spontaneously write a thousand words in half-an-hour, the exercise had us all clamouring for more time to complete the arc of our stories, and more ideas were hatched for the creation of a short story or a scene from a work-in-progress.

On day three, The Woolf‘swriters very own Jill Marsh took us through the publishing process, de-mystifying the work involved in self-publishing. After showcasing her own beautiful self-published novels as part of the Triskele Collective (I kept picking them up and smoothing my wistful palm over their sensual matt covers), we all acknowledged that getting an agent isn’t the only solution to seeing our novels on bookshelves.

On day four, Anselm Audley, author and editor, gave the group editing tips, along with how to prepare a manuscript and synopsis for submission. He presented us with several pieces of writing, which he had purposely turned into clichéd bad narrative, for us to take apart with our newly honed editors eye and produce a scene that flowed more comfortably for the reader.

On the final day, experienced literary agent Andrew Lownie patiently took us through the steps involved in making a submission to agents, and opened our eyes to the reality of the traditional publishing process. He graciously agreed to read excerpts of our work, and was consequently elevated to idol status, as half a dozen authors clamoured around him like fans backstage at a rock concert.

Before the final revision, it is imperative that a writer reads his or her work out loud, but hearing a third party transform those words with extra dramatic flair was an incredible thrill. The highlight of my week was hearing my words performed by professional actors from the OBRA Theatre Company. A stage was set up in the enchanting interior of the main castle tower. Oliviero and Edwina from the OBRA troupe magically brought words to life of samples of each of the participant’s work.

dinnerAt the end of each intense day, after a frenzy of renewed writing madness, we were able to cool off in the pool in the garden. And as the sun began its descent behind the towers, we enjoyed an evening aperitif—a couple of glasses of chilled local rosé—followed by a magnificent dinner prepared by Jacques, a local gourmet chef.

The evenings were filled with discussions about what we had learned during our tutor sessions in the delightful company of Sylvie and Piers, owners of the Château de Sainte-Mère. One evening we were treated to a breath-taking performance of the prologue of Ted Hughes’s Gaudete by the OBRA troupe at the Au Brana Theatre. Over two further evenings, each writer presented three literary works they would choose to take with them in the event that the castle were under siege.

angelIn the lonely world of the writer, there are many advantages to attending events such as these. They offer the chance to network with professionals in the publishing industry. There is always room to improve writing skills, and it is reassuring to share the trials and tribulations of an author’s daily writing endeavours

Solid author friendships were formed with both participants and tutors, with promises to see each other in the future, and perhaps to return to ‘Writing at the Castle’ next summer. The success of this year’s event has encouraged the organisers to fix a date for the retreat in 2016: June 29th to July 5th (subject to confirmation) and to set up a new offshoot organisation, INKY Productions, with the aim of organising a set of twelve writing events and courses around Europe in 2016.

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For details of what was on offer at this year’s retreat, you can click on the following link: http://writingatthecastle.tumblr.com/homepage

If you are interested in a future event, contact Sylvie or Piers directly on writingatthecastle@gmail.com

Piers also organises an annual chamber music festival at the castle in the month of August. http://saintemerefestival.net/

Louise Mangos is a writer and artist living in central Switzerland. She is hoping to publish her first full-length thriller next year, has completed a second novel for editing and is a few chapters into a third. You can connect with Louise on Twitter @LouiseMangos, and Facebook. Her website is www.louisemangos.com

Gallery: Displacement I

Read the full Q&A with Juliana Barbassa, journalist and travel writer, where she discusses displacement, writing, and Joan Didion.