What Has Been Given To You To Say?

As some of you know I was lucky enough to teach three creative workshops for the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, as well as a workshop for the British Council in Colombo.

One of the workshops, ‘How To Face The Blank Page’,  was part of the Festival’s outreach North-South programme, hosting students from 8 different national university English Language departments. About 45 students participated. Given the island’s only too-recent civil war, it was inspiring to be working with a classroom of students from different ethnicities of the country. They did indeed face the blank page and some wrote powerful pieces about the war and its aftermath, and they also wrote about the tsunami which took the lives of 35,000 Sri Lankans in 2004.

The two other workshops for the Festival were on Flash Fiction and ‘Diving into Story’, for younger people. For the British Council, my workshop was also on Flash Fiction and was also for younger people. Originally the numbers for this workshop were limited to 20, but at the last minute the number of participants bloomed to 65 when a teacher from one of the schools found out about the workshop and asked if her whole class could join. I have not taught those numbers before, so was a little anxious but the children were not only amazing, so was their writing, as you’ll read below. I took heart in our future, to know there were so many young people with a deeply adult understanding of themselves and the world we live in.

One of the prompts I gave for a short piece was called “Your Gift.”

I asked participants to put aside for a moment any fear of pride, lack of confidence or disbelief in themselves and to imagine the planet is in dire danger (not hard to imagine). I told them the gods had given them two gifts, the first being great skill in expressing themselves, the second something important to be said. I asked them to sit silently for a moment and then to write down the answer the question, ”What has been given to you to say?”

The answers were deeply moving. I read many of these out to the participants and in one case they all stood up and applauded. I read them out myself not just because the children were shy, but to encourage them to hear the beauty and strength of their words. Sometimes it’s easier to hear that in another person’s voice.

I have been collecting some of the pieces, and wanted to share them here:

Look around you. Look at everything and everyone around you. Who are they? What do they mean to you? If you left now and never saw them again, how would it affect you? Would you feel guilty for doing something, or for not doing something? Would you feel guilty for saying something, or for not saying something? If so, then do it. If so, then tell them.

~ Nora Deemer, age 14, Elizabeth Moir School

***

I Live in my mind a brave fearless charming and charismatic young girl with power to change the world. I Live in my life a snivelling scared stupid bitch without even the power to speak up for herself . I Die in my mind noble and valiant thousands of others weeping for me. I Die in my life wishing the girl I fantasised was actually me.

~ Rusandi Rosini Ranasinghe, age 14, Visakha Vidyalaya

***

When someone tells you that they want to make a change in the world, don’t let your narrow mind tell you that it’s not possible. Think about it, in the big picture, it may seem like all the issues in the world have already been addressed and solved, but break the picture to look at the gaps, the missed brushstrokes and the half shaded colours, has every single issue in the world reached a solution?

Ranuli Palipane, age 17, Musaeus College

***

Polluting is something we as humans do and it’s harming our planet. What should we do? We all should be recycling, it’s a good habit and it will save our world and animals. We should also teach our kids, if we have any, to up-cycle. Did you know that every one minute a garbage truck full of plastic is dumped in our ocean? It has to be stopped. Plastic survives for a long time. Did you know that 25 years ago a cargo ship carried 50 containers over the pacific ocean and one of the containers full of toy rubber ducks fell into the water? Still today 200 of those ducks are floating around in our big blue sea.

~ Neve Grace Coleman, age 9, homeschooled

***

And, there’s this one which made me smile: In response to the prompt: “The worst teacher you’ve ever had” (hopefully I won’t be on that list!):

For a challenging subject, he was the last teacher we wanted. We actually needed someone to show us how to strategically find x and solve y, not one who failed while trying to disprove age old theorems and claimed to have seen ghosts in the school hallways in broad daylight and tried to pull off a Matilda to move a marker with his mind. clearly, he was deprived of attention as a child, at least that’s what we thought.

~ Ranuli Palipane, age 17, Musaeus College

***


Note: if you attended one of the workshops and would like to send me some pieces you wrote there for publication on my blog, do let me know! You can email them via the Contact form.

Links:

British Council in Colombo
British Council Literature website in the UK
British Council Literature on Twitter

The Galle Literary Festival on Facebook
The Galle Literary Festival on Twitter

Flash fiction workshop at the British Council, Colombo

I’ll be teaching a workshop on flash fiction for teens at the British Council in Colombo at the end of this month, following the Galle Literary Festival
Flash (also known as micro fiction, postcard fiction, short stories, sudden fiction, and prose poems) is the art of brevity take to an extreme, where not only every word counts but every comma and every line break: a complete story under 1000 words and preferably less.

This workshop will inspire participants to write at least 2 flash stories to submit to numerous publications and contests that are looking for flash fiction.

Date:   Monday 29 January 2018
TIme:  03.00 p.m. – 05.00 p.m. (followed by refreshments)
Venue: British Council library Colombo 03

For more information and to register go here – hope to see you!

The British Council has been in Sri Lanka since 1949, offering a wide range of services and activities across the island.  For more information visit the British Council’s Sri Lankan website, and the British Council Literature website – they are involved in some extraordinary projects across the world.

Creative Writing at the Galle Literary Festival, 2018


I’m delighted to share that I have once again been invited to teach creative writing workshops at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January (24th-28th), including a workshop for teenagers and another for the North-South Programme.

This year speakers at the Festival include Amit Chaudhuri, Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, Kimaya de Silva, Pankaj Mishra, Maylis de Kerangal, Louis de Bernières, Richard Flanagan, Ashok Ferrey, Alexander McCall Smith, and Dame Maggie Smith. My author page on the Festival website is here.

I will also be teaching a writing workshop at the British Council in Colombo on the 29th of January.

Come and join me!

The Festival on Facebook
The Festival on Twitter

A new career in Greek Reality TV?

In my last blog, A Cretan Story, I mentioned the Greek TV show “Pame Paketo” (Πάμε Πακέτο), who I’d contacted as they help connect one with ‘lost’ people from the past. I’d emailed them in early September about wanting to find Manolis Anitsakis or someone in his family. Manolis was the man who took care of me and my brother while my mother was in hospital after the car accident, the man who’d found us an apartment to live in, the man who’d bought me a puppy and a hedgehog and who fed me kadaifi and baklava in his family’s café. Within a few days Annita, one of the Pame Paketo team, replied to me via Facebook and said they would like to do a story, which meant they found someone. I did not know who. Over the next days I chatted at length to Annita. She wanted to know everything I remembered, asked me if I’d be willing to go to Athens in a couple of weeks to record the show. The thought overwhelmed me, as this would be just a few days before my planned-for trip to Chania. David was away, I couldn’t find a cat sitter, my health was particularly low. And a reality TV show? It just didn’t seem the kind of experience I was destined for. But I said yes, of course, thinking what HAD I got myself into.

Well, this for starters…


My hotel was by the sea, with a spa and a pool and a great breakfast buffet. I slept and swam and let the sauna get me into some kind of presentable shape for filming the following evening.

At the Pame Paketo studios, my first hours were spent sequestered away in a small room with my translator George Fassoulakis. The other ‘story’ on the show was being filmed. I wasn’t to leave the room, as whoever they’d found was also in the building, and we were not to cross paths until the show.  I was brought a substantial salad and coffee and endless sweet cakes. George and I chatted. I learned he spoke 5 languages and translated for the UN in Brussels. At some point I was ushered into hair and make up looking like one person, and then ushered back to the small room looking like another. Finally we were ‘on’…

Everything is in Greek (other than when I speak) but if you listen closely you can hear George doing simultaneous translation – I now have a profound appreciation of this skill.

As is revealed to me on the show, Manolis died from cancer in the 70’s, only ten years after my father died (more about this here). Manolis did not marry, but he had two sisters, who’d also died. But the sisters each had one child, Stella and Mihalis. This is surprise ‘meet’ on the show, Manolis’ niece and nephew. In the “Paketo” (packet – the enormous white box) that Stella opens is the obituary of my father written by Manolis, and a gift I’d chosen for Manolis or whoever Pame Paketo would find: a pair of silver cufflinks my mother made some years ago. Neither Stella nor Mihalis knew who they would meet, only that it was someone asking about their uncle Manolis.

As they read the obituary, they began to remember. Stella remembered a dinner with my parents; she remembered that Manolis was distressed he had to leave Chania for a few days, and so she took his place at my mother’s bedside in the hospital. I did not get to meet Manolis, but to meet Stella and Mihalis, who’d been there then, who were a part of my ‘lost’ history – well, it felt like a another strand woven in the net beneath me that has been forming ever since my visits to Chania, a net that will catch me if I ever fell. I have realised that most of my life I have been floating in space without a way to get back to the mother-ship, without anything to catch me if I fell to earth, but now there is a way back  –  tentative and delicate, but definitely there.

And then it was a wrap and everyone was pressed into the night. Stella and Mihalis and I promised to meet again in Chania, which did, a week later.

Manolis Anitsakis

The show had a section of me being shown photographs of Manolis that I’d never seen, it was very moving for me.

Manolis Anitsakis (the woman second from left was Manolis’s first cousin, Marika Vlassopoulou, who was a writer and general director of broadcasting)

I was flown back home the next day, but not before I managed to have lunch with my ex step-aunt for the first time in over forty years, and then coffee with my ex step-father, also for the first time in over forty years. He came to Athens airport to meet me, and we sat perched on uncomfortable chairs, while around us travellers dragged their hand luggage to departure gates or stared glassy-eyed at flight information displays. My step-father and I caught up as best we could given the circumstances. I almost missed my flight.

The whole experience felt like I’d slipped briefly into another dimension, one which still exists out there,  just waiting for me to return. And I can feel those strands, connecting me to the mother-ship. Thank you Pame Paketo for your part in this.

I’m still looking for three of the people who were in the car accident: an American couple, and a Greek man, whose first name I believe was Costas. I’d also like to meet Mihalis, who played with my brother. A son of a fisherman. Mihalis was about eighteen then (1968/9), so in his mid sixties now. Perhaps another show…

A Cretan Story

Did you have a good holiday? a friend asked after I returned from a 16-day trip to Chania in Crete. I paused, unsure how to answer. Yes, I spent a couple of hours on a beach, soaking up the sun. Yes I drank wine watching the sun turn the sea into colours I couldn’t name. Yes, I ate lingering meals in bustling tavernas, but ‘holiday’ didn’t feel like the right word.

The trip was, in fact, part funded by an Arts Council travel grant to work on a new project, but I can’t say I did much of that either. I did talk all things writing with my travelling partner, author Robin McLean. I kept a diary. But actually sit down and work on a project? No. My days were so intense and full at times I felt if I had one more emotionally affecting experience or interaction I might simply explode onto the Venetian cobblestones of Chania’s old town.

You were on a pilgrimage, my friend said after listening to my attempts to answer her question. A good word. I had in fact returned to the scene of events that changed the course of my family’s life.

I was born in South Africa in the early 60s. My mother, Berrell Jensen, was a famous artist and sculptor, and my father, Tony Jensen, was studying for his PhD and embarking on his own career as an artist. Apartheid was at its height. When I was seven, my parents decided to immigrate to Europe.

In the autumn of 1968, while my father was finishing up selling our house in Johannesburg, my mother and I took my brother to boarding school in Scotland and then travelled through Europe to Chania, in western Crete. My mother was interested in Classical sculpture, and Chania was known for its community of artists and bohemians.

Photo from 1968/9

Thanks to Manolis Anitsakis, a Cretan man who befriended us, we settled in quickly. Our small apartment was on the harbour, an apartment Alan Bates apparently lived in during the filming of Zorba the Greek. I remember burly men on the port, cleaning spiny black sea urchins and holding them out to me to wrinkle my nose at. I remember seeing an elderly woman dressed in black, scars ripped across her face (Cretans were brutally treated during the Nazi occupation).

By mid December my father had completed what he needed to do in South Africa. He picked up my brother at the end of the school term and they arrived in Chania to join me and my mother. On the 5th of January 1969, to celebrate my brother’s 10th birthday, we drove to a taverna just outside of Chania. With us in our car was a local Greek man and an American couple my parents had met. Manolis drove separately to meet us at the taverna. I remember bouzouki music and dancing and plate smashing and laughter. I danced with Manolis: he was not tall, I felt like a grown up. The night seemed endless and wild and wonderful.

Chania in 1968/9

During the drive home, in the early hours of January 6th, my father lost control of the car, swerved off the road and crashed into a tree. My brother and the American man pulled me out of the car, telling me not to look back. I saw blood on the American man’s arm as he held me. The full moon shone down. I heard the sound of crickets, the hiss of the car’s engine.

In my ears I could still hear the song everyone had been singing before we crashed: Σιγά σιγά. Slowly, slowly.

What I remember next was Manolis with me at the hospital, asking me if I was hurting as he walked me down some stairs.

My father died in the accident from head trauma, although I only found this out later. My brother and I were uninjured apart from bruises. The American man’s girlfriend had a broken leg and collarbone. My mother had chipped vertebrae. I don’t know what happened to the Greek man who was in the car with us.

Photo from 1969

My brother and I lived with Manolis and his family. When my mother was released from the hospital, she told me my father had died. Everyone in the house was wailing. I was not even sure I was sad. I did not know what I was feeling. I felt nothing. I rubbed my eyes and made noises as if I too were weeping, but I was not. I wanted everyone else’s weeping to stop.

I am sure as I stood there that terrible night trying to look back at the car smashed into the tree, something in me closed down, and I became disconnected from a deep part of myself.

Well, the story is a long one. But we ended up living in Chania for nearly a year, with trips back and forth to South Africa. My memories from that time are confused. We went on to live in Athens for a few years, before moving to England when I was twelve.

Although I went on to study Ancient Greek and Classical history and culture at university, and although I made two ‘holiday’ trips to mainland Greece, I did not return to Crete, I did not contact anyone from my past (including my Athenian ex-step father). I did not have their phone numbers or addresses.  I never knew what happened to the American couple. My mother never wanted to talk about what happened in Chania or her second marriage. She blamed herself for the car accident, saying she should have been the one driving as my father had bad “hand-eye coordination” (my mother was in fact a skilled driver, having learned from a man who raced cars).

Last year I returned to Chania for the first time since 1969. I’d booked just two and a half days, primarily to spread my mother’s ashes in the sea. I knew she loved the Mediterranean. I did not think I would need to spend longer. I might try to find out where my father was buried, perhaps. What else was there to do? I’d spend a week ‘holidaying’ in the Peleponnese instead.

The moment I stepped onto the streets of Chania it became clear I needed to find out everything, explore everything. In the short time I had I did what I could to re-trace steps I’d taken as a child. I wanted to find out what happened to Manolis, I wanted to find people who might remember us. I wanted to stand in the exact spot the car crashed. I wanted to know the names of the American couple and the Greek man who’d been in the car.

I did manage to find my father’s grave: he is in Agios Loukas cemetery, his bones in a pillowcase in another man’s grave.

Sandra JensenFinding the grave changed me. As I stood there, white marble shimmering everywhere, the smell of beeswax candles and the red Bougainvillea growing near, my father came into focus. For the first time in my life I felt he actually existed. Before this moment he’d been a person in story, not even my own story.

Also, for the first time I felt how tragic it was for him to have lost his life so young. He was only 33.

I have virtually no memories of him.

I tried to find Manolis, or at least his family, to thank him for taking such good care of us. Two and a half days was not enough time. Several people said I should contact the Greek TV show “Pame Paketo” (Πάμε Πακέτο), as they help connect one with ‘lost’ people from the past. I did contact them on return home, and in mid-September this year was flown to Athens to record a section for their show to discover who they’d found. The show will be aired on November 1st at 22:00 EEST (also archived on YouTube, I’ll post a link in a new blog when its up! – Edit, 5th November: here it is – the YouTube is edited, full version of the show is here).

In Chania, when I showed people – anyone, random shop owners, policemen, waiters – photographs taken by mother, their eyes would well up, seeing how their town used to look. And when I told them story of my childhood, their eyes would well up again. I was so moved by this response, their concern, their questions. It was as if what I told them had happened to someone in their own family.

So, of course, I had to return to Chania. I’d been considering writing a linked story cycle called ‘Labyrinth’, involving myth, prose poetry, fictionalised memoir – a literary attempt to “story,” or make sense of the often dreadful and meaningless events of existence, reconfiguring them as something more real and transformative. I applied for a travel grant, received one, and so I arrived in late October.

Obituary of my father from 1969, translation below

Again, I walked the streets with the old photographs in my bag (and cat food for the strays), and I’d talk to anyone willing to talk back. No one refused, in fact quite the opposite. My experience of last year was only a dip in the water compared to what happened this time. People pored over the obituary Manolis had written in a local newspaper which I’d recently found. They looked at the photographs, they wanted the photographs. We met for coffee, for wine, for more talking.

I continued my ‘research’. I did not find the names of the others in the car accident – hospital records are lost. A lawyer is looking into court records, but I have not heard back. I managed to walk up the stairs of the apartment where we used to live, but got no further. It’s been turned into small hotel and there was no one there to show me the rooms. I did not find the spot where the accident happened. I did not find Mihalis, the son of a fisherman who used to play with my brother.

Sandra JensenBut as a Greek man I met said to me: You may not find everything from your past story, but you will find new things. You will make new beginnings. You will start a new story.

So. Holiday. Pilgrimage. A step into the labyrinth of my past, reconnecting with the self that I lost on that Cretan road in January of 1969. The beginning of a new story.

And although I will continue to develop the writing project mentioned above, I think I’ll begin a novel. The Greek novel, is how I’m referring to it.

Robin McLean and I are considering running a writing workshop in Chania next October, so I am returning there again. How can I not? Chania can be your home town, someone said to me when I’d told her I never felt I had a home. I do now.

~~~

English translation of the obituary of my father, written by Manolis Anitsakis (translation and notes by Nicolas Sampson):

 It’s been one month since the tragic moment a ‘foreigner’ passed away in this land.

We know a few things about this foreigner. He was a psychology professor and an amazing artist from Johannesburg, South Africa.

And this ‘foreigner,’ he made us love him so much in the short time we knew him. It doesn’t take long to evaluate the worth of a person, and Tony Jensen was an outstanding one. [Here the author uses the term ‘anthropos,’ playing with the double meaning of ‘person’ and an ‘outstanding human individual’.]

Earnest, dignified, modest, leventis [a ‘fine man’ — this is one of the best compliments a Cretan can offer] and in control. He never bragged, even though he had every reason to boast on account of his superb education and his brilliant career.

He loved life and he loved perhaps even more to learn things. He loved the world and its people. He loved Crete, too, turning it into his chosen spot for his vacation, but Crete seems to have loved him in turn, perhaps more so, keeping the 37-year-old forever with her.

We will be denied from now on his noble figure and his leventi-style poise as he made his way down the Chania streets alongside his wife and his two children, whom he adored.

Yet we still see him in our minds and will never forget the beauty of his soul, and wish him with all our heart that the soil that covers him, the Cretan soil that now keeps him, to be light and gentle on him.

We offer his venerable mother and his beloved wife and children our warmest [deepest] condolences.
Anton Jensen with Sandra Jensen

On Loneliness

You know you are in trouble when you find yourself welling up after a friendly encounter with the phlebotomist.

She inserted the needle, asked me how my weekend had gone. I was lost for words – I couldn’t even remember when the weekend was let alone how it had gone. She made a commiserating sound, a little ‘Ah’. And then, don’t ask me how, we found ourselves talking about how we hated cleaning. I told her of a long-ago job as a house-cleaner, how I was very good at making a house look tidy, books patted into place, vases placed just so, a chair shifted slightly… but dust and grime remained in great swathes if you looked close enough. ‘So,’ she said, ‘You were one of those cleaners,’ and we laughed.

I left the office, and that’s when my eyes welled up. It had been days since I had a conversation with someone that wasn’t via text or Skype or cell phone.

I’ve lived a remarkably solitary life for the past nine years. Almost an extended silent retreat, but one I didn’t consciously plan.

For some of those years my partner and I lived in the countryside and, when he was away for work (which he is for 4-6 months of the year) two weeks or more could go by where the only direct contact I had with another person was the postman. We are now living in a town, on a busy street lined with little shops, but nevertheless when my partner is away, other than Skype and phone calls with friends in other countries, I have very little meaningful interaction with others.

A number of things contributed to this situation – travelling the world and living in several different countries in the past 15 years – wonderful, but not conducive to setting down roots or building a local community. Not having children. My 25+ year long chronic illness (M.E./ CFIDS/ late-stage Lyme type). In fact my health has deteriorated to the point where it’s a rare day I can go out and be engaged in activities with other people.

And, there is the fact I’m a writer, a necessarily solitary occupation for the most part.

In the first years I tried to use the time alone to my advantage. Dozens of short stories fled my fingertips, I began my novel. I developed my online community. I even started a Facebook Bosnian stray dog and cat rescue group. I wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t a problem. Perhaps I had a natural inclination towards solitude: my mother used to tell me that as a child she’d often find me in my room happily ‘contemplating my navel’. I’ve often described myself as an “anti-social social” person.

But I have become increasingly aware that I am not just frequently alone, I am lonely. Perhaps I have always been lonely, but due to the ‘well-developed coping mechanisms’ a therapist once told me I had, I have avoided this realisation.

When my mother died two years ago, sadness was so all-encompassing it was almost a friend. Over time the sadness receded, always there yes, but in the background, no longer filling my every moment.

I focused on finishing my novel. I finished my novel. What was I left with? Myself, shorn thin of coping mechanisms.

Writing can be a lonely business. Having a chronic illness is a lonely business, especially an ‘invisible’ one. Life is a lonely business. Dying is certainly a lonely business. And yet, and yet. We are together in our alone-ness and we are surely together in our desire to connect deeply with others, to feel ‘met’ and seen and understood.

So, what to do? Perhaps it begins by acknowledging what is. I started writing this blog some weeks ago, and since then there has been a delicate, tentative shift, something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it feels like a beginning. Sometimes simply letting others know how I am feeling, rather than just soldiering on, changes things. Letting people see the dust hiding behind the furniture, letting them know that while things may look OK on the surface, they are not so OK underneath. And in doing so, in taking this risk, I feel not quite so alone.

There are many articles on the “epidemic” of loneliness, so in fact I am not alone in my experience.

Here, for example, is an interview with John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience: Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic

And another in the New York Times, which is mostly about the loneliness that affects the elderly: Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness which quotes Emily Dickinson on loneliness: “the Horror not to be surveyed.”

Glistening Particles… finding deep connection on the internet

A few days ago I was interviewed by Jane for her wonderful Glistening Particles Podcast series “Conversations with inspiring random acquaintances”. The podcast went live today and you can listen to it here. We talk about writing, spirituality, dog rescue, and a gazillion other things. Jane has a unique ability as a podcaster. We hadn’t talked or met until the moment of the interview – which occurred virtually, via Skype – but right from the start I felt I’d known her all my life and she created a very safe, wide open space to have the conversation. She asked challenging and inspiring questions, and I’m honoured to be amongst her ‘random acquaintances.’

Actually, it doesn’t feel random at all, her brother Mike suggested she talk to me, I met Mike when I was once part of an extraordinary social network called Zaadz (Dutch for “seed”). Zaadz was a not-for-profit, conscious online community created with a commitment to helping people create a better world. It was my first experience of social networking and online communities – I had avoided Facebook and MySpace, but this was different. And it *was* different. Ask anyone who was a part of it.

Zaadz was a place for authentic conversation, a place where I not only met like-minded people but those who were able to help me see my blind spots. We didn’t share pictures of food or family, we asked each other who we were, who we really were, and in the clear space that Zaadz created, it was possible to show up as our best selves and to ask each other, what can we do to nurture the world and all that is in it?

(Here is an interview from 2006 with Brian Johnson who was CEO of Zaadz: A Cyber Community Making a Difference.)

But in due course Zaadz was bought up and things changed. Some of the members attempted to re-invent the community elsewhere on the internet. I tried to re-create the writing group I’d led on Zaadz, but it just wasn’t the same. I moved into the noisy world of Facebook, scrolling pictures and updates and clicking ‘like’.

And then, out of the blue, many years later, I get an email from Jane inviting me to be part of her podcast. The dialogue we had this weekend felt like a re-connection with the days of Zaadz, and reminded me it is still possible to have these kinds of meaningful conversations and connections on the internet, with people I have never met before; that it is possible to have deep listening, deep sharing, here and now.