On Saturday 12 November, The Contemporary Small Press will be at Manchester Central Library for our next Reading & Being Read event. Writer Michelle Green will be joining us to discuss her latest collection of short stories Jebel Marra, and her experience of being published by small publisher Comma Press. Here Michelle offers fragments of insight into the various aspects of her unusual life as a writer.
CSP: Your newest collection of short stories, Jebel Marra published by Comma Press draws upon your own experiences of working in a humanitarian aid centre in Darfur in 2004-2005. You suggest that short stories ‘hold space for the fractured pieces, for the broken bits of something that once made sense’ – in what ways can you liken this to the lives of those you encountered in Darfur, and would you agree that the short story form is the perfect medium for telling those stories?
MG: War fractures what we think of as ‘normal’ life, as does violence, as does forced migration. The pieces don’t match up the same way again. They just don’t. What I witnessed in Darfur is not resolved – not for any of those involved – and its outcomes are far from known. The war still rolls on today, morphing, changing form: now chemical weapons are being used, splintered rebel groups, a rebranded proxy militia. People are still homeless. Perpetrators are still unaccountable. Lives are broken. It’s hard to talk about a warzone in a cohesive way, because a warzone isn’t cohesive. Short stories were the only way I knew to write about something that disjointed and vast, and in saying that, I certainly don’t claim to have ‘covered it’. I know I haven’t. I stumbled around inside each story until I could find my way out. One thing that short stories do is hold a piece, a moment, and in that way they are the perfect medium.
You also suggest that short stories became something you could add to the ‘incomplete images’ of war presented in the UK news media – beyond your own direct experience in Darfur, how difficult or easy was it to research for these stories on your return to the UK?
There wasn’t a lot in the mainstream media outlets. Most of it repeated the same few scraps of information from major press releases (and certain reductionist details, like the view that it was/is an Arab vs Non-Arab conflict – something I tried to draw out in the stories). I had help from former colleagues, and as it took me a very long time to write the book, I was also able to read and learn from the testimonies of others as they emerged – books like Daoud Hari’s memoir of his time as a translator, writing by prominent rebel leaders, work by bloggers and civil activists, as well as the reports and access maps on specific humanitarian aid sites.
On your website, you’ve made comparisons between the short story structure and living with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME) – suggesting that it might be possible, or desirable, to ‘write life differently’. Can you elaborate on this connection and the ways in which alternative structures to the long form novel might provide alternative structures for shaping a living?
This is something I’m trying out day by day. Life with a disability like CFS is constantly changing, stuttering, and it does not fit well into a 9-5, Monday to Friday world in which we are encouraged to make long-term plans based on assumptions of meritocracy and ‘leaning in’. CFS-life is forced stops, abrupt endings, the loss of status, of opportunity, of the ability to hustle. It demands slow in a world that keeps speeding up. It is anachronous to so much of our culture, and to so many of the dominant stories of our culture that deify struggle as something to be – finally! – overcome.
The connection for me is this: short fiction as a form is a great place for experiment and shift, and it does not assume resolution. It does not tend towards the triumph over struggle, the big budget achievements. It takes life in pieces, and in the world of the story, that one piece is all. This, to me, feels familiar. I recognise it.
As far as stories providing structures for living: in the same way that representation matters, that seeing oneself reflected in the themes, plots and characters of our cultural stories is important in helping to form possibility and validation of self, I think that not just content but form itself can offer a reflection of experience, a ‘you are here’. I, like many others, do not live in long form, in linear, or in a commercially viable pattern – and when I experience short form fiction, poetry, and alternate story forms that fragment, shatter and twist, I see my experience reflected, reminding me that, ‘Yes, this shape is real. This shape and this story-world is whole just as it is.’
You have recently begun a new Manchester-based writing project that aims to support attachment and wellbeing: could you explain a little bit about what is meant by ‘attachment and wellbeing’ in this instance, and what the project involves?
WordPlay involves working with literature and related artforms in community settings in ways that help foster good health for those taking part. As a small group of writers and artists, we have been working together for years on what we called life-writing projects, particularly working with people who are vulnerable in different ways, whether that be due to immigration status, gender, or having experienced mental distress, for example.
We realised that what we were actually doing was creating the space for people to make positive and healthy connections (or attachments) to each other, their varied communities, their families, and ultimately to themselves and their own histories. Writing was the tool. We’ve come up against the sad assumption that community arts means low artistic quality, and that is something we actively challenge by supporting and developing excellent writing in our projects. We’re currently developing some work with particular groups of women in Manchester, which we will hopefully be able to announce soon!
You have a history of making zines – can you tell us about one of your favourites: what it was made for, how it was created, what were the ideas that shaped its production?
My favorite is my first. 1999, Edmonton, Canada: The Back Of The Bus. A big chunky thing made with two dear friends – Shaz, and Shely our fearless leader who already had a few zines under her belt. It didn’t occur to us that we should try to convince someone to publish any of it for us. We just made it. It was DIY with photocopiers, glue sticks and scissors, and it contains mountain road trips, a pizza review photoshoot, stuff on local bands, essays on mental breakdowns and bereavement and moving, having to move, on coming out in a hostile land, a ton of comic strips and altered ads, art from friends, and a creatively written CV. It reads like a collective diary – big on the self righteousness and big on the love. We made it to distribute around town, but now it feels intensely personal.
Here’s my home haircutting manifesto (as well as a writer, I’m now also a barber, so I guess that’s been coming for a while).
Michelle Green will be discussing Jebel Marra and her experience with small presses at Reading & Being Read, Manchester Central Library on Saturday 12 November, 11am-4pm. Tickets are £5. Manchester-based MA and PhD students can register for FREE. Click here for more details.