Monday, 2 March 2015

For Bristol 24/7: Libraries are not a luxury, they're a right

I wrote this for Bristol 24/7 about how I grew up going to libraries and the huge influence libraries and the books I discovered there had on my life.

Libraries aren't a luxury, they're a right.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

I'm in a book!

The fabulous organisation, Everyday Victim Blaming, has published an e-book featuring a range of essays on, well, victim blaming and the fight against male violence against women and girls. 

And it features a piece by me! Hooray! 

You can buy the book from the link here.

Here's what EVB has to say about it:

Everyday Victim Blaming is our first book which is available on Amazon!
Everyday Victim Blaming is a collection of essays, speeches, and critique of the representation of domestic and sexual violence and abuse in the media. The book covers rape culture, celebrity culture, male violence, racism, classism and victim blaming. It includes essays written by Karen Ingala Smith, Joy Goh-Mah, Sian Norris and members of the Everyday Victim Blaming team!
Please buy the book and support this fantastic organisation who, as well as raising awareness of victim blaming in the news and media, deliver training to try and end blame culture and win better justice for women survivors of male violence. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Tickets now on sale for Bristol Women's Literature Festival

As you may know, between blogging, working and trying to redraft my new book, I run the Bristol Women's Literature Festival.

I had so much fun doing it in 2013, and the event was received with such enthusiasm, that I have spent the past year organising a new programme of events for 2015.

All the details are below, along with ticket booking links.

You can buy tickets for all the Bristol Women’s Literature events from Watershed box office.
I would recommend booking in advance to avoid disappointment on the day.
Bristol Women’s Literature Festival brings together the country’s best women writers, academics and feminist commentators to the Watershed for thought-provoking discussion, debate and activity.
Saturday 14 March 2015, 11am – 1pm
The Left Bank of 1920s Paris was a hub for women writers, artists and publishers. From Gertrude Stein with her writing experiments and literary salon, to Sylvia Beach running Shakespeare & Company, and Natalie Barney’s decadent parties, women flocked to the city because Paris was ‘the only city in the world where one can live exactly as one pleases.’
Greta Schiller’s 1996 film explores the lives of some of the key Left Bank women, including Stein, Djuna Barnes, Colette, and Sylvia Beach.
The film will be followed by a brief audience discussion, chaired by Sian Norris. Sian is the founder of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival and is currently writing a book about Gertrude Stein and her circle.
Feminist activists, writers and journalists, Beatrix Campbell, Nimko Ali and Helen Lewis, the deputy editor of the New Statesman, will discuss feminism, writing, the development of the movement and their own careers. We’ll be exploring the challenges and triumphs of feminism.
Poetry, Prose and Palestine with Annemarie Jacir and Selma Dabbagh 6pm – 7.30pm, Waterside 3
Selma Dabbagh is a London based British Palestinian writer of novels, short stories and plays. Her first novel, ‘Out of It,’ (Bloomsbury, 2011) is set between Gaza, London and the Gulf and has been voted Guardian Book of the Year. Selma also works as a lawyer. Annemarie Jacir is an award-winning director, poet and activist currently living between Palestine and Jordan. The work of Palestinian writers and poets has been a major influence on their lives. This evening, alongside their own works, Dabbagh and Jacir will read and discuss the poems of other well-known Palestinian writers. Their presentations and discussion will explore how prose and poems challenge the dominant narratives on Palestine and the occupation, reaffirm Palestinian identity and maintain a constant struggle for equality and fairness, land, home and nationhood. They will explore why it is that people on a global level relate with the Palestinian cause in the way that they do and the role that the arts have in influencing activism and change. The event will be chaired by Alice Guthrie.
This event is organized in collaboration with the Bristol Palestinian Film Festival, as part of Conversations about Cinema: Impact of Conflict.
Sunday 15 March 2015
The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, 11am  12pm, Waterside 3
In her new book, academic Emma Rees considers why British and US culture has such a problem when talking about the female body. She maps the long history of advertising that profits from the taboo of the vagina, and she reflects on how writers, artists and filmmakers have been influenced by, or even perpetuate, this ‘shame’.  And it’s not all in the past – the vagina still causes outrage, derision and discomfort today.
Helen Hackett is Professor of English at UCL and the author of five books on Renaissance literature. She has special interests in Renaissance women writers and in literary images of Elizabeth I. Her latest book is A Short History of English Renaissance Drama ​(I.B. Tauris, 2013), which includes a section on women’s contribution to drama in Shakespeare’s time.
Women Writing Today, 3pm – 4.30pm
Sarah Lefanu will be talking to novelist and short story writer Michele Roberts, playwright and memoirist Samantha Ellis, five times winner of the Foyles Young Poet award Helen Mort, novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, and first-time novelist Amy Mason about their work. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Women of the Left Bank series part 5: Sylvia Beach and Company

Welcome back to my series on Women of the Left Bank – perhaps my least read blogposts ever but also ones I very much enjoy writing. 

Today my attention turns to Sylvia Beach – a woman who was vitally important to the development of modernism and who first published the movement’s seminal text, Ulysses. 



Many bookish tourists visiting Paris head to Notre Dame to visit the wonderful Shakespeare & Company shop, with its towering shelves crammed with literary delights new and old. But what many people don’t realise when they think they’re walking in Hemingway’s footsteps is that this is the second incarnation of the iconic shop. The original Shakespeare & Company was on rue de l’Odeon and it was founded by the utterly fabulous Sylvia Beach. On the same road, literary people could find La Maison des Amis des Livres, run by Sylvia’s partner Adrienne Monnier. 

The first time I went to Paris when I was 20 I wandered up and down rue de l'Odeon for ages looking for the damn shop! I didn't know it had been moved...

Sylvia Beach was born in New Jersey, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She came to Paris as a young girl with her family in the years 1902 and 1905, an experience which had a profound impact on her. During World War One she returned to France to volunteer for the allies, and ended up doing agricultural work in Touraine. When the war ended she remained in Paris and opened her bookshop, which in 1921 moved to rue de l’Odeon. 

When Sylvia opened her shop, Valery Larbaud gave her a little model of Shakespeare’s cottage and some little green soldiers to guard it. They would, he said ‘protect the house of Shakespeare’. 

The shop was a hit with the American expats who flocked to Paris after the war. As they walked through its welcoming door to the room with its chessboard floor and scattered chairs, they could find the latest journals and reviews – Little Review, the Dial, the Transatlantic. They could browse the latest poetry, short story collections and novels from the writers who were creating modernism and surrealism in the Montparnasse cafes. And, more often than not, they could meet the writers themselves, looking through the shelves, flicking through the latest edition of Transition, or discussing their work with Sylvia. 

As well as a bookshop, Shakespeare & Company worked as a lending library. Along with Monnier, Sylvia really invented the concept of a lending library in France. For perennially skint writers like Hemingway, being able to borrow and return books was a real blessing. 

When the young photographer Gisele Freund came to Paris, she suggested to Adrienne and Sylvia that she took photos of all the writers who regularly visited the shops. She did, and her realistic and penetrating portraits were hung on the shop walls. 

This clip, from the film Paris was a Woman, features interviews with Sylvia, Gisele Freund and Janet Flanner, talking about the importance of Shakespeare & Company. 



Sylvia said that her three great loves were Adrienne Monnier, James Joyce and Shakespeare & Company. It was the second love that led to her embarking on a journey that transformed Sylvia’s life and made her one of the most important women of the modernist project. 

Joyce and Sylvia struck up a friendship during his visits to her shop. Customers would often find Joyce, with his thin moustache and white tennis shoes, sat at the table in the shop with Sylvia, discussing his work and the work of their mutual friends. A star-struck Scott Fitzgerald was famously too nervous to start a conversation with Joyce, so Sylvia invited him and Zelda to dinner to meet his hero. According to legend, Scott got down on one knee and proclaimed his gratitude to the modernist master. 

As their friendship grew, and Sylvia became more convinced than ever of Joyce’s genius, she became utterly determined that his experimental modernist novel, Ulysses, should be published. 

Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson (subjects for a later post!) had already attempted to publish excerpts of Ulysses in Little Review, printing Episode IX in the journal. The reaction was incredible. Both Heap and Anderson were hauled up in front of the law courts, accused of obscenity charges by Mr Sumners, the head of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. They were found guilty. In response, Heap said: 

It was the poet, the artist, who discovered love and created the lover, made sex everything that it is beyond a function. It is the Mr Sumners who have made it an obscenity.’

I love that quote. It exposes the nonsense of banning Ulysses perfectly. 

Sylvia was not deterred by the news from the States. She poured all her energy into finding a publisher for her friend’s book. In fact, her championing of Joyce led to a rift with that other great modernist, Gertrude Stein. Stein felt that Sylvia should be using all that energy to champion her writing, rather than Joyce’s. 

Despite her best effort, Sylvia couldn’t find a publisher. So she decided to publish the book herself. It was a venture that would lead to unimaginable success for Joyce, and near ruin for Sylvia. 

The costs of publishing Ulysses were far higher than Sylvia could have imagined – especially because Joyce was forever amending and correcting the text. Proofs would arrive back from the printer and he would annotate them until the type was buried in notes. Each new proof required more money. The costs mounted up.  

Finally, on 2nd February 1922, 1,000 copies of Ulysses were published. The run was printed by Darantiere in Dijon, and copies went on sale at Shakespeare & Company. I don’t need to tell you about its reception here. We all know Ulysses, even if we don’t all know Sylvia. 

Despite rapturous reviews from Eliot and the like, Ulysses remained banned in the UK until the 1930s. It was only made available in the USA in 1934, after a court case named ‘The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses’ ruled the book was not, in fact, pornographic. 

Sylvia’s publishing of Ulysses was an incredible feat, and an act of real faith in Joyce. She believed in him as a writer so much, she was determined that the world would recognise his genius and the genius of his book. But when the UK and US stopped banning Ulysses, and Joyce was offered a massive Random House contract a decade later, he tore up his contract with Sylvia Beach. She watched as the book that she had fought to publish became one of the most successful books of the twentieth century. Financially, Joyce was set for life. But after everything Sylvia had done for him, he never gave her a penny. 

It was quite the betrayal. Sylvia had nearly gone bankrupt publishing Ulysses. She had nearly lost her shop, and the stress had a terrible impact on her health. Eventually, Adrienne had to write to Joyce and tell him not to come back. 

The financial burden of publishing Ulysses left the shop struggling. Writers like Gide rallied around, doing free readings at Shakespeare & Company that brought in buyers. It’s one of the things I love about Shakespeare & Company. You have this sense of it being a place where writers and readers came together to celebrate one another’s work. 

The shop remained open until 1940, when Germany occupied Paris. Sylvia angered a German officer by refusing to sell him her copy of Finnegan’s Wake. He threatened to confiscate her stock, close the shop and intern her. That night, Sylvia and her friends hid the entire contents of bookshop in the empty apartments above. There the stock remained until she welcomed Hemingway back to rue de l’Odeon when Paris was liberated in 1944. 

Sylvia Beach died in 1962. She was an extraordinary woman who should be remembered for her vital role in promoting and celebrating the work of some of the most exciting and innovative artists and writers of her day. One can’t help but wonder what our understanding of modernism would be without Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and publishing energy. 

Other posts in the series: 



To find out more about Sylvia Beach, you can read Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noel Riley Fitch, and Women of the Left Bank by Shari Benstock. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Writing I've done lately

It looks like my blog has been a bit sparse of late, and there are a few reasons for that. Christmas, mainly. And being very busy organising the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and writing my new book.

But one of the reasons has been "writing elsewhere". I've been doing words for other people. So I thought I would collect some links and if you missed them before, you can check them out...

FGM must be seen as violence against women, for Bristol 24/7

Domestic abuse victims face refuge crisis, for Bristol 24/7

Bristol leads way to change attitudes towards rape, for Bristol 24/7

Thoughts on Testament of Youth, for Watershed and Conversations about Cinema

As you can probably tell, I'm writing regularly for Bristol 24/7 now and will also be writing regularly for Bristol Woman magazine. So watch this space!


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The support of Ched Evans reveals how little some of us value women's voices

In some countries in the world, a woman’s life is legally worth half that of a man’s. Her voice in a court of law is given half the weighting of a man’s. It’s a legal status that means women are not believed. That means women’s voices are worth less. That means when a woman speaks out about the crimes committed against her, the automatic response is not to trust or believe her but instead to give more weight to the voice of the man she is accusing. 

In UK law, a woman’s life and a woman’s voice are worth the same as a man’s. According to the law, when a woman accuses a man of committing a violent crime against her, her voice carries as much weight and is as trusted as a man’s. According to the rule of law there is no discrepancy. According to the rule of law, men and women are equal. 

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the re-emergence once again of the Ched Evans case in the news. In case you missed it, Oldham Athletic is having discussions about whether they want to sign the convicted and unrepentant rapist whilst he serves the rest of his 5-year sentence for rape under licence. Yes, Ken Clarke, rapists do get five years. 

Last night on Channel 4 News, Andy Davies interviewed people from Rhyl, asking them whether they thought he should be hired by Oldham Athletic. Thankfully, 3 in 4 people interviewed thought no. But one man – the first interviewee – said yes. He said, ‘after all, he might not even be guilty’. 

He might not even be guilty. 

The man said this, and I thought about the value we place on women’s words versus men’s words. I thought how we pretend men’s and women’s words have equal weight but how this case has shown that too many people don’t really believe that. Not really. They don’t really believe a woman’s voice is worth the same as a man’s. 

A woman accused Evans of rape. She went to the police. They believed the evidence was there to charge him. The CPS agreed. He was brought to trial where the jury believed there was enough evidence to convict him. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed and his appeal was rejected. 

And yet, people are still willing to argue that this was all a lie. That because Evans, a man, says it wasn’t rape, then he should be believed. It doesn’t matter about the evidence. It doesn’t matter what the court heard, what the judge weighed up. It doesn’t matter what the victim, a woman, says. What matters most to the people who defend Ched, is what a man says. Even when all the evidence and all the process has found the man guilty as all hell. And they believe this even though it is so hard to secure a conviction for rape in the UK - where the reporting rate is 15% and only 6.5% of those lead to a guilty verdict. 

As Frances O'Ryan tweeted me, 'we might as well just get rid of courts and ask if the man did it'.

I’m convinced that these men can make this leap because they value a man’s voice more than a woman’s. Because they believe a woman’s voice and truth is worth less than a man’s. How else do you explain it, really? 

It’s not just women’s voices. It’s also women’s lives – a fact that has once again been highlighted by this horrible case. 

A lot of Evans’ defenders have talked about how his life 'has been ruined'. Always in the passive voice, as if he has no responsibility for the crime he committed. As if it wasn’t an action he deliberately took. They argue that he must be allowed to return to football, that to say otherwise is to ruin his life. 

But what about her life? What about the woman they are naming on the internet – the woman who has been forced to flee from her home five times since Evans’ conviction? The woman who couldn’t spend Christmas with her family because it was too dangerous for her? Why don’t they care about her life? Why is Evans’ future worth so much more than her future? 

As one man interviewed on Channel 4 News last night said, ‘the girl still lives with the repercussions of what he’s done.’

Of course, as this interviewee proves, it’s not everyone. Many, many people see the injustice. Many people do hear this woman’s testimony and believe her. Many people do not agree that Oldham Athletic should sign a convicted and unrepentant rapist – hence the huge success of Jean Hatchet’s petition

But the strength of feeling against rape victims shows our society still has a problem with believing women, however equal we claim women to be under the law. When a woman discloses the violence committed against her, people find any way they can to undermine her claim. They call her a liar. They call her a slag; they say she was drunk. They argue if it’s a historic case that she should have come forward before (even if she did, and was called a liar then). They talk about 'witch hunts'. They crow over false accusations and ensure that this rare crime gets more coverage than rape. They do everything possible to avoid confronting the fact that every year in the UK there are around 97,000 of the 'most serious sexual assaults', including men choosing to rape 69,000 women in one year. After all, it’s easier to decide women lie. It’s easier to blame women than to confront the epidemic levels of male violence in the UK. 

The men who have gleefully named and attacked Evans’ victim have called her a liar who just wanted money (because accusing men of rape is such a great money-spinner!). They’ve called her sexual slurs and blamed her for getting drunk. They broke the law and named her online, sharing a video of her. They say that all men would do what Evans did given half the chance (proving once again that it’s misogynists, not feminists, who believe all men are potential rapists). They dress up in Ched Evans' masks, brandishing a blow up doll, and say they'd 'Ched Evans that bird'. 

Then they turn to the man who raped her, the man who she accused and who was found guilty, and call him a hero.  

Because in their minds, if a man says he’s not guilty then that’s the final truth. After all, why would you believe a woman? Who would believe a woman?