Neem Tree Blog

Head Above Water: Shahd Alshammari Exploring the Disabled Body 

This week is Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week which runs from 25th April to 1st May. It provides an opportunity to highlight what is often an invisible and misunderstood condition, currently affecting around 130,000 people in the UK, according to The MS Trust Charity.

Assistant Professor of Literature and author of the upcoming memoir, Head Above Water, Shahd Alshammari narrates what it’s like living with Multiple Sclerosis, what it’s like to have a disabled body in a very able-bodied world and the barriers that stop her everyday tasks. When asked about this account, Dr. Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, author of Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies, says  “Shahd Al Shammari closes her eyes, gets closer to herself, and produces a breakthrough narrative on dealing with a chronic illness. Conversational in tone, yet candid and probing in nature, Head above Water fills a gap in disability narratives by Arab Women.” So it was only a pleasure to interview Alshammari and dive deeper into this non fiction narrative which is going to be published on World MS Day, May 30th 2022!   

 

 As a scholar of English Literature and Disability Studies, you have a specific interest in the representation of female protagonists in literary texts. Your upcoming memoir Head Above Water is also about your experiences with Multiple Sclerosis as an Arab-Kuwaiti woman. Why did you decide to write a memoir based on your own experiences? 

Precisely because it was so difficult to find any texts that dealt with disability in a non-tragic light. My work is narrative nonfiction, rather than a full memoir. I wanted to expand the conversation on women’s bodies and de-stigmatize the idea of disability. I wanted people to read the text and want to understand more not just about their bodies but also how disability can happen to anyone. It is something we need to think about and we need more allies for disabled people from the abled-bodied community. 

 

What is the relationship between gender and disability throughout Head Above Water 

Gender is always the first privilege – before we even begin talking about disability. Disabled women are doubly marginalized and othered. This is portrayed in Head Above Water and I won’t say more – no spoilers! 

 

What are some major misconceptions and beliefs regarding disability that you find yourself debunking most often?   

People tend to ignore invisible disabilities the most. Invisible disabilities go unnoticed and as such people can attack you for using the disabled parking, or seeing you use a wheelchair or a cane one day, and the next day get up and walk. You can be accused of lying, performing disability, asking for attention, etc. They also tend to fear neurodivergence. There are so many misconceptions that include “talking down” to neurodiverse people, thinking they are incompetent, when the problem is ableist assumptions of competence.  

 

As well as writing about MS and disability you feature your own upbringing. You write about notions of identity and hybridity:

Mama taught me to read. The first sentence we constructed together was, “I can read.” Mama had placed flash cards with words and was teaching me how to construct a sentence in a language that wasn’t her own. She didn’t want me to fall behind in school, and I was struggling to balance two languages and two dialects. Hybridity was proving to be more about balancing the mixture than fusing it wholly together. There was no whole. Everything could easily fall apart. That’s also when I began to fall in love with language, cling to it, try to find a place in it. Language was a place I could create a new identity for myself, someone I could fashion the way that I wanted.’

What challenges did you find with the notions of identity and hybridity throughout the novel? How do you hope readers will relate to this? 

Language is always complex and our identities are never “pure” or original. In that sense, we need to be more open to hybridity in language, identity, culture, ability/disability, sexuality, and existence. We cannot place emphasis on “purity” and “wholeness” (although both Eastern and Western cultures do this) because it is a false narrative that privileges specific experiences and identities. I hope readers will think more about hybridity, hybrid identities, and even narratives. Head Above Water is a hybrid narrative – it blends elements of fiction with nonfiction, and utilizes diary entries, poetic reflections, and other experimentations of genre.  

 

Throughout Head Above Water, you emphasise the power of storytelling and the profound impact it can have. Would you mind expanding on this idea for readers? 

Every story we read has an impact on us. Every story we tell and re-tell changes our perceptions, expands our thinking. Think about Disney and the stories we grew up reading and watching. Each story left us with so many misconceptions about disability. For example, most of the evil characters tend to be scarred, ugly, fat, old, and that is associated with lack. Storytelling is so powerful because it shapes our conceptions and misconceptions about everything. We tell stories all the time, too. We even tell ourselves stories “I am a failure, I have nothing to keep me going” or “I will never get over this” – tons of short narratives that have an impact even subconsciously. Lots of unpack there, but I will leave you what Head Above Water says about stories.  

 

You previously mentioned how able-bodied people are very often not the great allies they think they are to disabled folk. What sort of allyship do you think is actually helpful? How can they do better?  

Allyship starts with recognized your own internalized ableism and bias. We start with choosing the right language when speaking about disability or to disabled people. Ask for our pronouns. Ask what people want to be called. Don’t undermine the narrative of disability and pity it or find it inspiring. Be open to challenging your views and discussion. Listen, rather than jump to conclusions about disabled people’s lives. Allyship is also the type of publishing that is accessible to all readers. Audiobooks, ebooks, larger font. Publish more disabled writers’ work, offer more prizes for disabled writers, challenge ableism everywhere.  

 

After reading this book, what do you hope your audience will reflect on?  

On life, survival, and hope. The three key ideas in Head Above Water 

 

Head Above Water will be published by Neem Tree Press on 30th May 2022 (World MS Day)!

 

Pre-Order your copy of Head Above Water here

In Conversation with Shahd Alshammari, author of Head Above Water. 

From her research on illness narratives and disability studies comes a thoughtful reflection on a personal journey with Multiple Sclerosis. Kuwaiti-Palestinian author and academic, Dr Shahd Alshammari’s latest memoir, coming this May, is a moving, inspiring and multi-faceted look at her life as a woman in a patriarchal society, in academia, and with a chronic illness. It is therefore our extreme pleasure to share our interview with Alshammari regarding the novel’s origins and themes, starting with some background on the author herself.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do and your journey as an author? 

I teach literature with a focus on women and disability studies. I also teach a short story writing class which I especially love. I started writing ever since I can remember. My first was a small, self-published poetry collection called On love and loss. I later published Notes on the Flesh, a collection of stories about disability and love.  

What inspired you to write Head Above Water? 

I read lots of memoirs, narrative nonfiction and essays. My favourite was by Nancy Mairs’s called Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled” (1996). I realized there was nothing that dealt with hybridity and disability, or Arabness and disability. There was no representation whatsoever. I felt I had to correct that gap in the literature. 

What do you love about writing non-fiction?

Non-fiction allows you to reflect critically on life’s experiences. I especially like life-writing and illness narratives because I have studied the genre and feel it is usually well-researched but can also be quite personal. I believe non-fiction offers quite a lot of personal histories that we can refer to as human beings. Fiction does this too, of course, and I read and teach fiction. But I am drawn to non-fiction because of the platform it provides us for telling life narratives. 

Why did you choose to write a memoir about your experiences living with Multiple Sclerosis? 

Precisely because it’s an experience that is often misunderstood and there’s a lot of fear and myths around MS (and other disabilities). However the work deals with so much more than just my experience of MS. It is about the experience of pain – in whichever form that comes. 

Why did you name the book Head Above Water? What is the significance of the title?  

I feel that captures how we survive. I can’t say more – read to find out! 

You often refer to MS throughout Head Above Water as an invisible disability; you say ‘MS, then, almost seems non-existent. A ghost that attacks your body.’ Please can you explain what you mean by this, especially for those who have not heard of this illness before.   

With MS, sometimes you can’t see it. You can’t always see me (or others living with MS) with a wheelchair, walker, cane. You can’t see the numbness, the tingling body parts (and it’s not pleasurable!) and you certainly can’t see the pain. MS is like a heavy burden that the body carries. You can’t always see it which makes it harder to believe. Just like lots of illnesses go unnoticed (Chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, etc) and this adds to the stigma towards people with invisible disabilities.  

You’ve previously published a poetry collection called On Love and Loss (2015), an academic monograph titled, Literary Madness in British, Postcolonial and Bedouin Women’s Writing (2016) and more recently, a collection of short stories called Notes on the Flesh (2017). At the heart of all of these narratives you place women: disabled heroines, classic authors/characters and even yourself. Coming from Kuwait, how important is it for you to see representation of females in literature and more so females who also have disabilities or long-term chronic illnesses, a subject which is still quite often taboo in many parts of the world.  

I feel it is my life’s goal – my only mission, really, to write about these experiences that have gone unheard of for so long, and are so hard to find in literature. Literature has to house all experiences because there isn’t one “universal” experience of being alive, of pain, and of survival. It was my life’s goal to write this book.  

After reading this book, what do you hope your audience will reflect on?

I hope my readers will reflect on what it means to be alive, living with others, living with disabled individuals and abled-bodied individuals, living with an awareness that we all navigate the world very differently and it’s important to be aware (and kind) to others, ourselves included.  

Did you experience any challenges writing Head Above Water, what were they?

Many, but mainly, writing about pain can be excruciating. It can be quite triggering, as in, the realization that I can still re-visit the pain, and it can feel very much like it’s happening all over again. It is hard to write with a certain distance from the narrator.  

If you had to give MS survivors a key message, what would it be?

MS makes life very challenging, but here we are. That, in itself, is a reminder that we are still trying. I hope many will share their experiences with friends, family, blogging, social media, etc.  

In Head Above Water, you look back on your younger years, when you had first been diagnosed with MS at eighteen-years-old, what is the one piece of advice you wish you could tell her?

Self-love. Have more of it, and find a tool-box to keep you going. Place all your favorite things in life there to keep using them later.  

 

An Excerpt from Head Above Water: 

 “We will all become ill one day. It’s part of the cycle of life, just like death, but we choose to avoid it, until it becomes a part of us. That is the hardest part. My younger self found it to be a betrayal of the body. I was young and invincible. Today, I accept illness and disability as part of who I am. The way I measure my life in moments of fatigue, energy spikes, and continuous losses, while I gain clarity in other areas.”

 

Praise for Head Above Water:

Shahd Alshammari’s sensuous prose explores the manipulation of memory, the question of time, and gender politics. We are invited to reconsider the intricacies of love, the body, motherhood, the pervasive power of language, the power of women’s education, and the synergy between the Professor and the student.” – Jokha Alharthi Omani author of Celestial bodies, winner of the International Man Booker Prize (2019) 

 

“Reading Alshammari’s work, I thought continually of Yeats’s famous line, “a terrible beauty is born.” In this book, illness is that terrible beauty, always affecting but never determining the author’s life.” – Arthur W. Frank, Ph.D. Author of At the Will of the Body and The Wounded Storyteller  

 

“A necessary and beautiful account of life with a sometimes-invisible and unpredictable disability, complicated by both patriarchy and racism, as well as a professor’s love letter to the act of teaching and being taught.” – Marcia Lynx Qualey (@Arablit) 

Head Above Water will be published by Neem Tree Press on 30th May 2022 (World MS Day)!

 

Pre-Order your copy of Head Above Water here!

 

What is Multiple Sclerosis, an insight into Shahd Alshammari’s Head Above Water. 

Shahd Alshammari’s upcoming memoir, Head Above Water takes us into intimate conversations on illness and society’s stigmatization of disabled bodies. We are invited to ask the big questions about life, loss, and the place of the other. Alshammari’s narrative builds a bridge that reminds us of our common humanity and weaves the threads that tie us all together. Through conversations about women’s identities, bodies, and our journeys through life, we arrive at a politics of love, survival, and hope. 

Throughout this important and beautiful account Shahd reflects on her life as a young student and later as an Assistant Professor of English Literature in Kuwait. She shares many sensitive conversations with her students and about her own life. Having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a sometimes-invisible and unpredictable disability, at the age of eighteen, she provides readers with an insight that is both provocative and insightful. Shahd is a pioneer in narrating chronic illness and her work often centres disability, women’s studies, and Arab women’s narratives. Her “new memoir is a sensitive and moving invitation to reconsider the stories that we are made of.” (Dr. Roxanne Douglas, University of Warwick.) 

 But what exactly is Multiple Sclerosis (or MS for short)?

‘MS, then, almost seems non-existent. A ghost that attacks your body. Because it is my body which has somehow decided to plot against my corporeal self, my ethereal self, and my self-image is shaken. This “self” of mine is called into question. How am I to come to terms with the fact that I must succumb to the will of the body, when culture has always suggested that the power of the mind is endless?’ – Shahd Alshammari, author of Head Above Water (2022).

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a condition which affects the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). In MS, the coating which protects the nerves, also known as the myelin sheath, is damaged. It is an auto-immune disease, where the immune system shuts down and attacks the nerves protecting this sheath. This process is called demyelination and this disrupts the ‘messages’ being transmitted around the body and to the brain, causing them to slow down, or stop entirely.  

The term ‘Sclerosis’ originates from Greece and means scarring. The demyelination process causes many scars or lesions in different places within the brain and spinal cord which results in a range of symptoms. Some of the most common are fatigue, unusual feelings in one’s skin (such as pins and needles, numbness or burning), problems with eyesight, memory and thinking problems, and walking difficulties. 

According to the MS Trust, it is estimated that more than 130,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with MS. It is also nearly three times more common in women than in men. MS is a life-long condition but it is not a terminal illness and it isn’t infectious or contagious so it can’t be caught or passed on to other people. Those living with MS experience it differently, and symptoms vary from person to person and from day to day. This can make MS rather unpredictable. 

Find support for MS 

MS can be extremely hard to deal with. But whether you’ve had it for a while, are newly diagnosed, waiting for a diagnosis or care about someone living with MS, use the links below to find support. 

MS Society

Website: https://www.mssociety.org.uk/   

Freephone: 0808 800 8000 

MS Trust

Website: https://mstrust.org.uk/  

Freephone: 0800 032 3839 

Email us: ask@mstrust.org.uk 

MS UK

Website: http://ms-uk.org/  

Freephone: 0800 783 0518 

Praise for Head Above Water 

“The core of this book lies in its intimate questioning of loneliness and disability. The soul is held captive by the body, but the body is also the finding place, the freeing place. Shahd Alshammari’s sensuous prose explores the manipulation of memory, the question of time, and gender politics. We are invited to reconsider the intricacies of love, the body, motherhood, the pervasive power of language, the power of women’s education, and the synergy between the Professor and the student. It is a brave book.”  – Jokha Alharthi Omani author of Celestial Bodies, winner of the International Man Booker Prize (2019)  

 “Shahd Alshammari’s memoir of life with MS is one of the first distinctly 21st century illness narratives. She situates chronic illness at the intersection of issues that include gender, exile, medical experimentation, and the politics of the Middle East. Her memoir becomes truly a dialogue, as her story fills with the voices of other women and men she has known, and how illness disrupted their lives. Reading her, I thought continually of Yeats’s famous line, “a terrible beauty is born.” In this book, illness is that terrible beauty, always affecting but never determining the author’s life.”  - Arthur W. Frank, Ph.D. Author of At the Will of the Body and The Wounded Storyteller 

Click here to pre-order Head Above Water which will be published on May 30th 2022 (World MS Day). 

 

About the Author 

Shahd Alshammari is an author and academic, and lives with Multiple Sclerosis. She holds a PhD from the University of Kent, Canterbury and spent her graduate years in the United Kingdom. She returned to Kuwait to teach literature and pioneer disability narratives and voices. Her works center on disability, women’s studies, and Arab women’s narratives. 

You can find more about the author here:  www.shahdalshammari.com
Or on her blog here: www.drshahdalshammari.com 

Learn more about Head Above Water – Neem Tree Press 

 

This article is based on the information references below:

Female Authors and Characters that inspire us on International Women’s Day 2022.

This International Women’s Day we are spotlighting some of our favourite female characters and authors that inspire us. From Sara in The Three Hares: The Jade Dragonball to Pâtca in The Book of Perilous Dishes to Hafsa Lodi, author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox and Shahd, author of Head Above Water. Take a look below to find out which Neem Tree Press member picked who!

Misha’s Choice – The Three Hares: The Jade Dragonball by Scott Lauder and David Ross

‘Sara from The Three Hares: The Jade Dragonball is a poignant character that comes to life on the page through her dazzling determination and original thinking. As she is plunged into a magical world rooted in China’s history, it was interesting to read how Sara navigated unexpected situations in the face of adversity. Scott Lauder and David Ross have created a relatable teen protagonist who embodies empathy, bravery, and curiosity. It was also a pleasure to see how Sara came to value her relationship with her grandmother which flourished throughout the story. Many characters in this book are important contributors to inclusivity in the literary world where young readers can see themselves in the books they read. They had me hooked!’

 

Jade’s Choice – The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Rusti

The Book of Perilous Dishes Book Cover

‘There are several reasons why Pâtca from Doina Rusti’s The Book of Perilous Dishes is my favourite female character. Firstly, Pâtca is in many ways very similar to Doina Rusti, the author of this fantastic story who grew up under a communist and oppressive regime until the Romanian Revolution in 1989. Rusti writes with an epic force and originality which consumes you in this fast-paced magical narrative. From the beginning Pâtca is fiery, fierce, and strong-willed, fleeing to Bucharest at fourteen-years-old to embark on a dangerous mission, to retrieve the Book of Perilous Dishes. Despite the hardships she encounters Pâtca is resilient and often takes risks to stand up for her family in spite of the consequences.  Throughout her (mis)adventures, she learns a lot about herself, her powers, and her family. If you are a fan of historical fiction, fantasy or are simply passionate about translated literature from Romania than look no further, this book has it all!’

 

Sofia’s Choice – Modesty: A Fashion Paradox by Hafsa Lodi

‘There are many inspiring women around me at Neem Tree Press, selecting one seems unfair, but from amongst our authors and characters we have published, I would have to say Hafsa Lodi, author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox. Not only is her book a well-researched and much needed exploration of the space for modesty in fashion, but it is also a great insight into faith-based modesty that remains inquisitive and objective. Beyond the book she is a bold and intellectually provocative journalist, wielding her pen to promote women’s rights, interrogate stereotypes and force each of us to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Hafsa pushes at the boundaries of her readers’ limits and asks them to look again but from a different perspective and urges them to be ever open to learning because that is how, I believe, she lives life herself.’

Archna’s Choice – Head Above Water by Shahd Alshammari

‘I devoured Head Above Water by Dr Shahd Alshammari (PhD) in one night. What initially struck me was the fragility of our existence. Shahd went to sleep one night seemingly completely well, and the next day, her world had changed in ways she could not have imagined the night before. The book touched me not only for its beautiful prose but also for the prominence of so many strong women who have sustained Shahd throughout her life. These included her formidable grandmother and mother, her engaged students, her friends, her neighbours. They all formed intertwining circles of support. As Shahd says, ‘What I have always found profoundly interesting is the way people create their own circles and this circle becomes the element of healing, giving, and receiving. It is a circle of love and extends to others.’ And in Shahd’s mother’s words, “You give others, and they will give others. Pass it on. Pass the candle and let it light someone’s path.” May Shahd, her circle, and all our circles of strong, supportive women continue to nurture each other on this and every International Women’s Day.’

Interview with Literary Translator James Christian Brown 

To celebrate International Mother-Language Day we interviewed literary translator James Christian Brown. He tells us all about his journey into becoming a book translator, his recent work translating The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Rusti and the importance of reading books in translation. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself?  

I am originally from Scotland but have lived in Romania since 1993. I teach in the English Department of the University of Bucharest and translate Romanian books into English. My first book-length translation from Romanian to English was The Păltiniş Diarby Gabriel Liiceanu (2000). More recently I have translated Răzvan Petrescu’s collection of short stories Small Changes in Attitude (2011), the play Mihaela, The Tiger of Our Town by Gianina Cărbunariu (2016), the volume of philosophical talks About the World We Live In by Alexandru Dragomir (2017), and Doina Ruști’s novel The Book of Perilous Dishes (Neem Tree Press, 2022)

What was your journey into becoming a book translator?  

I kind of fell into translation. I had no plans. I have been teaching since the 1990s and there was a great shortage of native speakers who were very much in demand to translate Romanian into English, so people came to me with requests and I learnt how to do it. You don’t have to be a native speaker to be a good translator.  

What other work have you done? 

The first full size book I translated over 20 years ago was a philosophical memoir and since then I have translated a number of books and articles about Romanian history. This includes various short stories and plays. Recently, I have worked on a very different novel called In the Shadow of the Apocalypse along with The Book of Perilous Dishes.  

How did  you come to translate The Book of Perilous Dishes? 

I met Doina Rusti for the first time ten years ago at an event by the Romanian Cultural Institute. It was sometime later that we made contact and she asked if I would be interested in translating one of her novels. I jumped at this opportunity because at the time I was enjoying a book by Doina. We decided together that the one to work on was Fridays Cat which we agreed in English should be called The Book of Perilous Dishes which will become obvious to anyone who starts reading the books.  

What attracted you to the book? 

I was attracted to it because of the way Doina evokes the world of 18th century Bucharest and at the same time I was working on a non-fiction book dealing with the same place and time period. These were a number of journal articles about Romanian life, so by a happy coincidence everything fitted very well together. I was going from the scholarly research to the fictional recreation. 

What did you enjoy about translating the book? 

It is a very engaging story and it kept my attention from beginning to the end with a whole lot of surprises along the way. It combines the detailed recreation of the past that you would expect to find in a historical novel with a story about a young character. I was capitated by the fantastic elements and it combines a brisque narrative with the poetic imageries that you make you stop for a moment and think what it is about. That for me is the most satisfying part of the job and translating literature. It is solving puzzles, finding a solution that works when translating between two languages and of bringing to the reader what the author is trying to convey. However, there is never going to be a perfect solution. As translators we try out best to represent the author faithfully and give the readers a wonderful reading experience.  

Why is it important to read books in translation? 

It’s a question that is difficult to ask in Romania because most of the books in Romania are translations. In the English-speaking world, things are different because there are so many people speaking and writing in English than in Romanian. Think about what you would be missing because there are so many voices in the world, especially in the continent of Europe, expressing themselves in a variety of languages. We can’t learn to read all these languages of course, but at least we can read translations and find out what some of those voices have to say.  I hope that the enjoyment I had in translating Doina’s book will come across when you read the book and that I succeed in sharing some of my enthusiasm with those of you reading the book in English.  

 

The Book of Perilous Dishes is available to pre-order from your local book shop and online.

 

Watch James’ Interview Below

 

Q&A with Doina Rusti, author of The Book of Perilous Dishes.

With less than one month until the publication day for The Book of Perilous Dishes, we wanted to celebrate by interviewing Doina Rusti all about her journey as an author, the inspiration behind this dark magical tale and the process of translating her novel from Romanian into English.

The Book of Perilous Dishes Book Cover

An atmospheric magical tale based on real historical events and Romanian culinary recipes; The Book of Perilous Dishes is a page-turning historical fantasy that will follow readers long after they close the book.  

Bucharest, 1798. A slave-cook lives in Bucharest, sought after by everyone. His sublime cooking satisfies even the sophisticated tastes of the Prince, who lays claim to him, whisking him away to the Palace. However, no one knows that the cook has in his possession a witch’s recipe book, the Book of Perilous Dishes. His food can bring about damaging sincerity, forgetfulness, the gift of prediction, or hysterical laughter. And the rightful owner of this book is fourteen-year-old Pâtca, an adolescent initiated in the occult arts. Pâtca comes to Bucharest, to her uncle, Cuviosu Zaval, to recover this book, but she finds him dead, murdered, and the Book of Perilous Dishes has disappeared without a trace. All that Zaval has left her is a strange map… 

The Book of Perilous Dishes follows the story of Pâtca, who uses her powers to avenge the death of her uncle and retrieve a magical recipe book left in his keeping which has been stolen by Silica the cook. Travelling from Romania to France and on to Germany to do so, Pâtca’s family’s true past and powers are revealed, as is her connection to Silica the cook… 

Please tell us a little bit about you and your journey as an author? 

I started writing because I didn’t like the endings of the stories my family read to me as a child. In time, I realized that what I like is to build, and among constructions, the epic ones delight me the most. All occurrences of the world depict a fantastic element, that part that we sometimes call incredible, other times just bizarre, and I have always felt an attraction to the realm of shadows and unseen gods. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer? 

At one point, as a child, I wanted to become a confectioner, but I soon realized that I didn’t stand a chance. My grandmother wouldn’t let me into the kitchen. I had a chair by the door, and I wasn’t allowed to move away from that spot. If I broke this rule, disaster would follow: I would drop the dishes, shelves would crumble, and our plates would break. “See”, my Grandma would say, “you can’t be a confectioner! I know you’re trying, you poor thing, but you’re so clumsy! You’d better sit in your chair and just watch, and later, if you want, you can recount everything you found interesting.” And that’s how I became a writer. 

What inspired you to write The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii)? 

It all started with a grievance, written in 1798 and kept at the National Archives. In this document, a woman complained that her cook had been stolen. Obviously, I was immediately drawn in and got curious about the dishes prepared by this cook, dishes so special that made someone want to steal him and someone else miss him so much that they filed a court case… The rest is literature. 

Can you tell us about some of the Romanian customs/culture that seeps its way into the story? 

There are 21 culinary and magical recipes in my novel. They originate in old recipe books, folklore books, written and unwritten traditions of the Romanians. Among the common spells used in my house was one linked to our bread, kneaded in the evening, peppered with chicory and mash foam cakes (instead of yeast), left to rise, and the next day spread on a round tray. From here on out, the ritual started. We would take the velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) bolls, which adorned the dough with unforgettable shapes – lucky stars. We would add horseradish leaves on the edge and mix everything together with an egg yolk. Then we placed it in the oven and waited until it formed a delicious crust. Without this large bread, about the size of a cartwheel, life had no meaning. This is Crumilla cum animis (bread with many souls), a bread I mentioned in my novel, which infects you with generosity, and makes some people poor. 

But of course, there are many myths that have been absorbed by the novel, without preserving the folkloric form – they turned into structural elements of the world to which they belong. 

 The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii) has been very popular in Romania, why do you think that is? 

I got lucky. Every book has its own luck. It was published at the right time, and readers connected to a fantasy story set in a historical era very close to my heart. Two years earlier I had published The Phanariot Manuscript, a novel which received much love and appreciation, and The Book of Perilous Dishes somehow followed in its footsteps. 

 How do you feel about publishing The Book of Perilous Dishes in the UK? How have you found the process? 

That was also a matter of great luck: unexpectedly, I found a literary agent interested in the theme of the novel, himself a writer, who convinced the publishing house to publish my book. But there are many people who contributed to this launch. It has been a long and difficult journey. 

How did you meet James, had you known of him previously / is this the first time you have worked together? What has this experience been like? 

James is a colleague of mine at the University of Bucharest, where the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures holds annual translation workshops. Many of my writings have undergone this innovative treatment, especially my stories. James translated The Truancy and excerpts from several of my novels. Meeting him meant a lot to me. He is not only fond of Romanian literature, but also a refined connoisseur of its myths. Among other things, he is working on a volume of Romanian fairy tales, translating them into English. 

 Who is your favourite character in The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii) and why? 

Pâtca, of course, the main character and narrator, who largely resembles me, because I, too, at the same age of 14 years old, went out into the world, opening the gate of adults, sooner than I should have. She inherits something about which she has little information and is left mysteriously alone, without any relatives. Moreover, she is driven by a curiosity that gets her into trouble, while a strange spiritist lurks in the shadows. But she is also blessed with unknown weapons: The Book of Perilous Dishes and crooked teeth that have the power to leave you speechless. For most of my life, I also had crooked teeth, thinking that I was trendy, honestly believing that they are a gift of nature, just as Pâtca considered hers. 

How long did it take you to write The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii)? Did you have to overcome any challenges whilst writing? 

Not the period of writing is important to me, but the time before, when I share a home with my future characters, inside an unborn story. The actual writing took me 3 months. 

 What is your favourite recipe from The Book of Perilous Dishes (Mâța Vinerii) and why? 

Formicosus! The ant liqueur. It’s a potion that was used until recently throughout the entire Europe, against fevers (in fact, ants are still used in modern pharmaceuticals). In my novel, ant liqueur is for lunatics and it helps with fortune-telling. It also cures the damages caused by the rose cake. The recipe is simple: a handful of ants are macerated in alcohol, preferably plum brandy (the national Romanian drink), seasoned with other healing plants, including yarrow. I find this elixir interesting because it is engrained in the heart of history, between cruel reality and magic. 

 What is the one piece of advice you wish you could tell your younger self? 

If I met myself from the past, I wouldn’t give her any piece of advice because I know for a fact that I wouldn’t take said advice. Nothing in the world compares to the joy of discovering things on your own. Making a mistake and starting over is a more complex and beneficial undertaking than being at the top all the time. That is the very essence of adventure. 

 What is the ‘day in the life’ of a writer like? 

It’s full. I write whenever I can, during breaks, while I’m running errands through the city. I’ve always had a lot of jobs, carried out lots of activities. But constantly, from dawn to dusk, my future novel lives on in my mind. 

 Do you have any goals/milestones for the future you would like to achieve? 

I just published a short stories book with the title “Love Oddities in Phanariot Bucharest” and I am working on promoting it; I would like for it to reach as many people as possible and offer everyone at least a drop of my optimism.

About Doina Rusti

Doina Rusti is one of Romania’s most successful writers of historical and speculative fiction. Known for the originality of her novels, Rusti is the recipient of many major Romanian awards, and her books have been translated into multiple languages, including Chinese and German to date. Rusti is known for exploring aspects of fantasy and the supernatural, as well as tackling darker themes such as political corruption. She says, “I live in Bucharest, the happiest city in the world, even its name says it (The City of Joy). In all my novels I write about Bucharest. If this city didn’t exist, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer.”

Social Media

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rustido

Twitter: https://twitter.com/doinarusti

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/doinarusti/

 

The Book of Perilous Dishes is available to pre-order from your local book shop or online.

 

Coping With The Loss Of A Loved One This Christmas 

There’s nothing quite like spending time with loved ones in the Christmas holidays. The festive season is for gathering together with family and friends.  

But for others, the holidays can be an incredibly challenging time of year especially if you’ve lost someone close to you. From greeting cards and watching festive films together to the traditions you once shared and the empty seat at the dinner table, there will be reminders everywhere. 

This sense of grief in heightened during this time of year because families come together, some traveling long distances, to spend time with each other. For a child who has lost a sibling, parent or even grandparent, these holidays are particularly hard and they will need extra support.  

According to a recent study by the Childhood Bereavement Network, 90% of parents whose partner had died in the last 10 years said the COVID-19 pandemic had deepened their feelings of loneliness and isolation and 80% said their children had also struggled with loneliness and isolation. 

Winston’s Wish, a charity dedicated to helping bereaved children, have produced a list of helpful suggestions for coping with grief in the holidays. We have edited  this list to share with you. Read on to also hear Kenneth Steven’s advice on coping with grief this Christmas. 

Here are some ways to help you and your children cope with your grief during these Christmas holidays: 

1. Talk together as a family about how you feel and what you want to do 

It’s easier for children if the adults in their lives talk to them about Christmas and the holiday period and acknowledge that this might be a difficult time of year for them. 

The festivities around Christmas can stimulate some powerful feelings for everyone and children may want to talk about this. By listening to your child, you are telling them that their feelings are expected and normal and that they are not alone. 

2. Make plans for the holidays that take into account everyone’s wishes where practical 

Grief is experienced in a myriad of different ways by everyone. You should try and talk together and see if you can make a plan that will be sensitive to everyone’s wishes. 

At the same time, it is okay to change your mind if you find it harder than expected. Take time for yourself and change your plans if this occurs.  

3. Take time to remember your loved one  

It can really help to remember the person who has died at Christmas. Here are a few suggestions: 

  • You could mark the memory of the person by doing something special. e.g.  lighting a candle, writing a card for them, or making a donation to a charity in their memory. 
  • You could create a quiet corner for people to go if they want five minutes to think about the person who has died.  
  • You could make decorations to hang on the tree in the memory of your loved one. 

Other suggestions: 

  • Let your children know that it’s still okay to laugh and have fun this in the holidays 
  • Look after yourselves and take time out if you need it 

Silverwing by Kenneth Steven

Silverwing Cover Design

Silverwing is a moving story of ten-year-old Douglas, who has recently lost his mother to cancer. The boy and his father haven’t been able to communicate since her death, and the house is a place of sadness.  

It is a heart-warming story of loss, resilience, and connection with other people and with nature. Illustrated with gorgeous drawings throughout, this is a story that will stay with you even after you close the book. 

A note from Kenneth Steven on coping with grief this Christmas 

“With this story, Douglas and his Dad are at opposite ends of the house, hardly talking, both still missing terribly the Mum and wife they’ve lost. I suppose if I were to go through a smiliar situation I just hope more than anything I’d be there for my child. I hope I could find ways of talking with them and getting alongside them. I hope I’d be able to listen; not just to talk, but to listen. I feel very strongly that more and more we live in a society where everyone is talking and no-one is listening. I believe too we live at a time when we’ve never been so divorced from nature. Many of us have lost that connnection altogether, but it can be repaired. I find it incredibly inspiring reading the stories of children who’ve connected with the natural world and who’ve been set alight by the power and wonder of what they find. That’s all I can say because I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I took myself for a long and special walk with this story because I wanted to explore our connections with family and with the beauty all around us in nature. ”  

Click here to buy a copy of Silverwing

16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence 

Over the last sixteen days Hira Ali has been sharing key tips on her Instagram (@advancingyourpotential) from her latest book Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead Through Advocacy. She’s using her platform to take a stand against gender-based violence that has been incredibly prolific across the UK in recent months.  

According to a recent report from Karen Ingala Smith via Counting Dead Women, “there have been at least 129 UK women who have been killed by men (or where a man is the principle suspect) so far in 2021.” In addition, on 25th November 2020, a comprehensive 10-year report was published by Femicide Census which shows that “on average, a woman is killed by a man every 3 days.” 

To help highlight the gender-based violence that occurs in this country we have taken all sixteen of Hira’s posts and created this blog article to spread awareness. These beneficial tips aim to educate men, women, and young people on this issue by teaching you how to spot gender-based violence, take responsibility for your actions and how to call it out when it does occur.  

Day 1 – Educate Yourself  

You cannot change or address what you are not aware of. Make an effort to be cognisant of issues impacting women and how these challenges may have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Day 2 – Recognize Privilege & Acknowledge Responsibility  

Recognizing privilege is crucial to understanding how unequal access to power and resources impacts communities. We often don’t realise something is ‘missing’ because we are not used to seeing it and we’ve never known anything different. Pay special attention to intersectionality challenges. Everyone occasionally commits a faux pas, but what matters most is admitting your mistake and learning from it.  The best allies are not afraid to make mistakes because their intentions are genuine. 

Day 3 – Be Transparent & Authentic  

Reach out to colleagues, be as transparent as you can, and share what you know while being honest about what you don’t know. And if there’s any miscommunication, be quick to rectify and apologise. 

Day 4 – Avoid Victim Blaming & Do Not Engage In  

The “she asked for it” argument. The “why did it take so long to report it” argument. The “#MeToo has made it difficult for men” argument. The “not all men” argument. The “but men are victims too” argument. 

Day 5 – Ask If You Don’t Know  

The only way to become an ally ‘in the know’ is to ask the right questions. The more you know, the easier it will become to help women in your circle feel more comfortable. That said, how you ask is as important as what you ask. You do not want to sound intrusive, just naturally curious. 

Day 6 – Listen & Prepare to be Uncomfortable  

Active listening involves making a conscious effort to hear and understand the message while being conscious of your biases. When you ask questions with the intention to improve, chances are there will be unexpected feedback involved, which could be awkward, even unpleasant. Do your own work in advance, especially before engaging in difficult conversations. Self-awareness, but more importantly, self-control, are important to develop gender empathy. 

Day 7 – Believe Her  

When women share a grievance, believe what they say without attaching your own assumptions, and assuming positive intent. Even if you are cautious of validating before investigating, it is important to be empathetic. 

Day 8 Be Vigilant 

As an ally, it is essential to keep an ear to the ground. Actively scan your environment to spot visibly distressed & disengaged women. Women who seem distracted, scared, or frantic may be struggling to get away from a perpetrator or bully. 

Day 9 – Respect Personal Space and Avoid Using Diminutive Language  

Acknowledge a woman’s need for physical autonomy and understand that it may be inappropriate to hug or touch her without permission. Some women may prefer a large personal space when men approach them. Actively avoid, and discourages peers, from using pejorative terms such as, ‘love,’ ‘dear,’ or ‘hon’ to address colleagues. 

Day 10 – Question Sexist Humour & Comments 

 Sometimes small and seemingly harmless jokes and banter can snowball into truly ugly things that support the broader company culture that normalises disparaging, sexualising and objectifying women. If you view this content with callousness or apathy, it’s time to shake things up and avoid being an unintentional perpetrator, or worse still, a silent complicit. 

Day 11 – Talk About Consent With Children 

Understand the meaning of consent and actively initiate and engage in discussions that explore what consent means to those around you, including children. The concept of consent is still quite muddy and people often take advantage of the blurred lines to support their own agenda. NO means no. 

Day 12 Call It Out  

When a man suggests in a public forum that sexism has occurred, and thereby challenges the perpetrators, targets of sexism report greater self-confidence, as opposed to women who are often negatively evaluated when they personally report an issue. 

Day 13 – Invest in Women-Focused Initiatives  

Support gender enhancement projects and invest in in women-owned businesses. Promote gender lens investing which is investing in products and services that benefit and empower women socially and economically. Facilitate the work of gender advocates and NGOs. 

Day 14 – Support Inclusive Education  

As an ally activist, you can help direct personal and organisational funds towards global education. You can also push for formalising financial wellbeing education for young girls to help improve financial capability and futures considerations. Another way to positively impact education is to ensure a diverse curriculum, particularly in terms of history. Traditionally, contributions and achievements of women and other under-represented groups have been side-lined and it’s important to shine a spotlight on these untold stories. 

Day 15 – Champion Inclusive Government Policies, Laws, and Regulations  

Pro-women laws ensure future economies will be dynamic and inclusive, offering equal opportunity to everyone. Even if you do not hold a government position, you can still lobby for such laws, write letters and sign petitions as other activists do. Even small actions have value and can potentially make a huge difference. 

Day 16 – Call Out Media Bias  

Media is perhaps the most pervasive and powerful influence amongst the myriad influences that shape our gender views. Challenge and counteract media that intentionally or unintentionally undermines women’s rights; make your voice heard by raising your concerns and registering your complaints where appropriate. 

Inviting men to join the gender equality movement. 

The Male Allyship movement acknowledges that men need to step up to effect lasting change to women’s experiences in society. Her Allies is a practical toolkit that offers men the strategies they need to become powerful advocates for gender equality. The book is an invitation to all men who are willing to take that bold first step and transform good intention into meaningful action.   

Her Allies takes readers on a progressive journey and equips them with strategies to become inclusive allies. It asks readers to (i) challenge themselves, (ii) challenge others, (iii) challenge their organisation and culture, and (iv) challenge institutions. Overall, readers acquire a methodology to become powerful advocates for equality and inclusion for all.  

About the Author 

Hira Ali is an inspiring leadership trainer and career coach, she has been committed to helping others achieve their potential throughout her award-winning career. She is an Associate Certified Coach accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and a licensed Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) Practitioner. Hira is also a successful entrepreneur who has launched several businesses to support her mission, including Advancing Your Potential, Career Excel, International Women Empowerment Events and most recently, The Grey Area, which focuses on decoding inclusion. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Huff Post, and Entrepreneur, among hundreds of other TV, radio and print outlets, and earned Hira several prestigious honours including the Top 100 Women-Lift Effects award, the Women in Media award, The Baton Awards Entrepreneur of the Year and recognition as an Outstanding British Pakistani by British Pakistan Foundation.  In 2019, Hira released her first book entitled Her Way to the Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceilingwhich earned outstanding reviews globally.  

For more tips and advice on being a male ally learn more here

 

 

 

2 Amazing Reads to Start a Conversation on the Environment Ahead of COP26 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought devastation to millions around the world, disrupting many parts of the global economy. During this time, governments have stepped up to protect our lives and livelihoods. However, climate change continues to be an increasing threat to our planet. Around the world unpredictable weather such as storms, floods and wildfires are intensifying and increasing air pollution affects tens of thousands of people. Although the impacts of climate change are catastrophic there have been many advances in tackling this issue. With less than 60 days to go until COP26 it’s time to start a conversation and raise awareness of the environmental issues facing our planet.  

 The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow on 31 October – 12 November 2021. This event will allow global world leaders to work together and take action against climate change to protect and restore our forests and critical ecosystems towards a more sustainable future.  

Below we share some of our favourite books for both adults and children, covering a range of meaningful topics about nature, including green technology, environmental activism, and the sustainability of renewable resources.  

Toletis by Rafa Ruiz 
Translated by Ben Dawlatly
Cover designed by Elena Hormiga 

Did you know spending time outdoors can actually improve your physical and mental health, combat illness, and make you happier?  

Recent studies have shown the tremendous benefits of spending time in nature, for both children and adults. This research indicates that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors. Some other benefits suggest nature builds confidence, promotes creativity and imagination, it teaches responsibility and it also helps get kids moving around. Toletis by Rafa Ruiz encourages its readers to become acute observers and engage with the natural world around them; it’s the perfect antidote to smart phones and computers!  

Synopsis: 

The trees and grass are disappearing to make way for a new section of road. Toletis, his dog Amenophis, friends Claudia and Tutan are on a mission to find ingenious ways of replacing them and turning their little valley town, set deep in the mountains, lusciously green again. The odds are stacked against them. Can they succeed… with some very unusual help? A deep appreciation for nature, art, language, music, friendship, family, the passing of time, old age, loneliness, and the importance of sitting still and reflecting on life, pervade this exquisite story.  

This story is accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and has been used in schools for teaching descriptive and figurative language, art and crafts (with students exploring different media inspired by scenes from the book), and environmental awareness classes. 

 

“The values contained in the pages of love for the outdoors, animals and plants, friendship, family, being in touch with your emotions -make the world a better place. If you believe that the best hope we have for a safe, peaceful planet is to teach children to love the environment and one another, then I recommend that you read Toletis with the children in your life.” – Green World  

 

About Rafa Ruiz

A journalist and author who has a staunch commitment to culture, art and the environment, and the majority of his career has been focused on these three topics. He spent 10 years at Spanish newspaper El Pais and 15 years at their weekly supplement. He has written numerous children’s books and he co-directs the Mad is Mad art gallery in Madrid which gives a space to up-and-coming artists. He is also one of the partner-founders of the Press Association for Environmental Information (APIA).

Buy Toletis here

The Umbrella Men by Keith Carter 

You’ve probably never heard of rare-earth metals yet they have insinuated themselves deep into everyday life – in ways of which most of us are completely oblivious. For example, if you are reading this article on your smart phone, did you know you’re contributing to the consumption of rare earth metals?  

What are rare earth metals?  

Rare earth metals such as Neodymium, terbium and dysprosium give your phone the power to vibrate. Terbium and dysprosium are also used in tiny quantities in touchscreens to produce the colours of a phone display. 

The term “rare” doesn’t necessarily mean in short supply, but they aren’t plentiful either – they’re spread out in many different places on the planet, and extracting them can be hazardous and time-consuming. The mining and manufacturing processes also have very real environmental consequences such as despoiled nature, widespread pollution and serious health and wellbeing damage to workers and neighbours.  

Rare earth metals, the contradictions of the clean energy economy and their unintended consequences on everyday people are just some of the themes Keith Carter highlights throughout The Umbrella Men; a witty and acerbic novel for our times about corporate greed and the hubris of bankers.  

Synopsis:  

Finance, environmentalism, rare-earth mining and human frailties collide in a complex of flawed motives. We follow Peter Mount, the self-made Chief Executive of a London-based rare-earth mining company as he and his business are buffeted by crisis-torn Royal Bank of Scotland and by his own actions, real and imagined. Meanwhile in Oregon, Amy Tate and her group of local environmental activists do their contradictory part to undermine a component of the green economy, unwittingly super-charged by the Chinese state. The repercussions of events in pristine Oregon are felt in the corporate and financial corridors of New York and London with drastic consequences. This is a deeply involving novel about the current workings of capitalism, miscommunication, causes and unexpected effects, love and survival. 

 

“A highly entertaining romp that very accurately portrays the conflicting objectives and modus operandi of groups of investment bankers, hedgies, environmentalists and a small rare earth mining company as they each try to maximise their own positions, and with abundant human frailties on show.” – Waterstones Reviewer

 

About Keith Carter

Born in Scotland, he read Economics at Cambridge, taking a First in 1981 when he was elected a Scholar. He worked as an investment banker before going straight and running a small pharmaceutical company. Now a writer and business consultant he enjoys travel, politics and economics, reading and writing, languages, music and meals with family and friends. Keith suffered a spinal cord injury in March 2018 and since rides a wheelchair.

For more information on Rare Earth Metals read the articles below. 

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust – BBC Future 

Our smartphone addiction is costing the Earth | TechRadar 

 

Buy The Umbrella Men Here

 

 

 

 

In Conversation with Tatti de Jersey

Tatti de Jersey has worked in children’s book PR for over 18 years. During that time she has worked for both traditional and independent publishers as well as a wide-range of authors such as Michael Morpurgo and Judith Kerr. She now works as a specialist PR consultant helping to build authors profiles via media interviews, literary festivals and book tours. Tatti talks to us about how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted PR over the last year, her advice for publishing hopefuls and the positive changes she would like to see within the publishing world.

 

To start us off, could you tell us a bit about your journey into children’s book PR?  

I began my career in children’s book PR 18 years ago when I started to work with Philippa Perry Associates. The main clients were Michael Morpurgo and Judith Kerr. In addition we worked across many literary awards including Wicked Young Writer Awards and Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award. 

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your role as a specialist PR consultant for children’s books? 

The work is varied in that this role. As a publicist you organise media interviews across all outlets including broadcast, TV, national and regional newspapers and digital platforms. In addition to build the authors’ profile you propose them for literary festivals and book tours, often you accompany them. Essentially you are always building their profile which leads to increase in book sales. 

 

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted PR over the last year? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?  

All literary festivals were either cancelled or postponed. All book tours were cancelled. Where possible the festivals were put online but one of the most important elements of children’s book festivals is for the children to see and hear their favourite authors live. 

 

What words of wisdom/advice for publishing hopefuls out there? How can they best prepare for a position in book PR? 

  • As soon as you can in sixth form try to get an intern role or work experience in a publishing house so that you understand the daily routine.  
  • You could start your own reading/reviewing blog on your favourite authors. You can also offer to be a reviewer at various publishing houses.  

 

What are some positive changes you would like to see within the publishing world in the next few years?  

For publishing houses to give new authors opportunity to see their work published. Often big publishing houses stay safe for sales and keep the same authors on the front line.  

 

What trends do you see in children’s books for the next few years? 

  • Picture books will always remain popular as young children will always respond to colours and touch. 
  • I see more books about nature, climate change and self-awareness diaries becoming popular. 

 

Favourite publicity campaigns for book(s) you’ve worked on?  

  • Guess How Much I Love You 25th anniversary by Sam McBratney.
  • We are Going on a Bear Hunt 25th anniversary by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.
  • The Gideon Trilogy by Linda Buckley-Archer.

 

 What are you reading at the moment – children or adult? 

I am reading Travellers Through Time by Ian Mortimer and Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Book 3 

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with Neem Tree Press, Tatti!