Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Languages We Speak and the Languages We Don't

I have just had quite an amazing month in the USA and am going to attempt to sum it up, as if that was ever possible, or at least sort out some of the thoughts in my head into some coherence! So, the first two weeks I spent at the amazing Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences in the mountains of North Georgia. If you don't know where that is either, it's the southern US:

This is the furthest south I'd ever been and to say I was unprepared for the landscape is an understatement. I was the "city girl" dropped into an artists retreat in which I was provided with my own cabin in the woods where they told me I might encounter bears, snakes, ticks, and the occasional wild boar. It was the most amazing setting, but the retreat was fairly spread out and I was the only one without a car, but equipped with a torch and a bear bell. Yes, a bear bell. To frighten the bears. Me, being a complete wuss, couldn't quite relax into this at all! I also discovered that this part of the US is not at all well-served by public transport, so i couldn't actually get anywhere without the kindness of my fellow Fellows. But... this is the thing. They were incredibly kind, incredibly creative, and incredibly inspiring.

This was my first time on a retreat with artists as well as writers, and it really opened my eyes. Hence the title of this post - spending time with visual artists John Folsom, Jessica Wohl, John Paul Floyd and John Allen, and art critic and curator Rebecca Dimling Cochran, and four dancers from GLO Atlanta was like stepping into another country. At dinner I listened to discussions of pastels, of pencil thicknesses, of panels used for mounting work, of the politics of art galleries and shows, of names I had never heard of but who were familiar to all the visual artists. And from the dancers I learned another language, as I discovered they don't do the traditional audience-sits-while-we-perform, but rather they perform in shopping centres, on the street - and for us, once, during dinner!

I wanted to bring you a small taste of some of their work which i found so incredibly exciting - and I am sure they would be delighted if any of you writers wanted to take inspiration from their work:

John Folsom, Dungeness Trail 2006
oil on gelatin silver print.

The White Family by Jessica Wohl, embroidery on found photograph

John Paul Floyd, The Eagle Slab. Photograph

Barry Kitterman's short story collection
There was another writer there, Barry Kitterman, a wonderful short story writer and novelist, and for a few days also poet Leigh Anne Couch (read three of her fantastic poems here) and every few days we writers seemed to gravitate together as if out of some need to speak our own language again, the language of point of view, of word count, of literary magazines, agents, publishers, books, past tense and present tense.

To be honest, I didn't get much writing done in my 2 weeks at Hambidge, but that was okay. Sometimes a retreat is about gathering inspiration for writing, seeing things in a new way, letting other people feed your creativity. I was, frankly, jealous of the visual artists and all the stuff, the tangible material they work with. I want to do something like that, and it has really made me contemplate how I might. I bought something in an antique shop in the nearest town ("antique" in the US means "from the 1950s!) that I may somehow use in my writing to create a one-off, unique object. This concept is in its infancy in my mind, so perhaps more later. I left Hambidge delighted to have been there - delighted to not have encountered a bear, snake, tick or wild boar - and full of ideas.

Doughnut Plant's Peanut Butter and Banana Creme Doughnut, image: ettible photography
Then I spent 10 days with friends in Boston and New York - all of whom I had known when we lived in Israel, so there is another shared language, the language of the ex-pat, and the ex-ex-pat.  I boosted the coffers of the sublime Doughnut Plant, (see pic) and also, without forward planning, ended up doing my first reading in New York, at the open mic part of the Fictionaut summer party at the KGB bar, where I was delighted to finally meet wonderful online friends Christoper Allen and Dora Dagostino among others, with a fantastic lineup of readers. [Just discovered there is a video of the event I can't watch myself, but you might like to!]

Then, I headed down south even further, to Little Rock, Arkansas, famous for President Bill Clinton. And incredibly, painfully hot. Over 100 degrees most days and not much cooler at night.

I was here for the 12th International Conference on the Short Story in English, held every two years by the Society for the Study of the Short Story, somewhere in the world. This was my first time at this amazing event, which spanned 5 days and included both papers by academics and readings by short story writers, as well as much Southern food!

I was doing a reading, of 8 of the fictions from my book, with two native Arkansan writers, Jay Jennings, who read part of a wonderful sports-themed story, and Sara Shumaker, who read a beautiful, magical story. And I was also appearing on a panel about flash fiction organised by Sylvia Petter, who herself gave us a fantastic reading of her short and shorter stories! The flash fiction panel was headed by the Pullitzer-prize winning writer Robert Olen Butler, who was absolutely charming, very supportive of all the rest of us, and who gave excellent advice, and we were joined by the fabulous Nuala Ni Chonchuir (whose fourth collection, Mother America, has just been published, watch this space for more) and award-winning flash fic writer Sandra Jensen.

Sylvia had the brilliant idea of each of us reading one of our flash fictions as an introduction, rather than her introducing us, and this set the tone for the event, which was very participative, with the audience playing a great part. There were those who expressed puzzlement about these short short fictions, and those who find them as joyous as I do, it was a great discussion. And the next day during the panel on Experimentalism in Postmodern Fiction, Salome Osorio from the University of Minho in Portugal, talked about Lydia Davis' short short stories as part of her research into microfiction. So the shortest of stories had a definite presence at the conference and it will be interesting to see how it features at the next conference, in 2014.

I met so many excellent writers in addition to those above, I want to name check as many as possible  - in no particular order - and urge you to check out all their work!:

Paddy O'Reilly (Aus): Paddy and I have been in touch for the past few years, since I loved and reviewed her collection, The End of the World. She so kindly blurbed my new book - and I was really looking forward to meeting her. I was not disappointed! A fabulous writer and a fabulous short story conference companion! Her website is:

Adnan Mahmutovic (Sweden): Adnan and I have been in touch online for ages, it was such a joy to finally meet him, I had heard so much about him and he surpassed all expectations! His website is

Ryan O'Neill (Aus) - whose 3rd collection, the Weight of a Human Heart, is out in Australia and being published imminently in the US, UK, and Israel. Read the Short Review's review of his 2nd collection.

Alexander MacLeod (Can) - one of his roles at the conference was to introduce his father, legendary Canadian short story writer Alistair MacLeod, which he did beautifully and movingly, but he is also a much-acclaimed short story writer, his first collection is Light Lifting.

Mary Costello (Ireland) - we had met briefly in Cork at last year's Frank O'Connor festival, and it was a real treat to hear her read again from her debut collection, The China Factory.

Moira Crone (US) - who I knew through The Short Review, where we reviewed her excellent collection, What Gets Into Us. She enlightened me through many fascinating conversations about American society, it was so great to meet her and hear her read from her new science fiction novel. Her website is

Kelly Cherry (US) - Kelly's name was unfamiliar to me, but after I heard her read - she's the author of 20 books, where have I been?? - I vowed that I would seek out her work, the story she read was just stunning. I am a demanding listener, especially when told it would be 28 minutes, but she had me spellbound. Her website is

Jamie O'Connell (Ireland) - who had the dubious distinction, perhaps, of being the youngest writer! He's just published his debut collection, Some Sort of Beauty, which I can't wait to read!

Garry Craig Powell (US) - misleading me with his English accent, Garry now lives in Little Rock, and his first book, a novel in stories, Stoning the Devil, is due out shortly, can't wait! His website is

Suffice it to say, here is where I felt most at home, amongst those whose language I definitely speak. No need to defend what I choose to write, no need to apologise for failing to get an agent, for not wanting to write a novel. And that is such a lovely feeling and when everyone left on Sunday, scattered to many corners of the world, I felt sad, bereft. I'd like to stay in this world, in this country, speaking this language. But, that said, looking back at the beginning of this post, and knowing this so well from my own migrations, I do believe it is where we feel slightly uncomfortable, slightly alien, where we grasp to understand, that the friction occurs from which inspiration and creativity arise. It is vital to come "home" every now and then, but I am excited to see what my migrations to these foreign countries do for my writing... and other pursuits.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

I am sooo jealous! What a fantastic time you had. I love those works of art - isnt the Dungeness one beautiful, and isn't the White Family--- creepy.
I do wish the conference might be closer to the European short storyists next time - the trouble with it being so far away is that a v limited number of European writers can get there, unless they are financed by an institution of some sort. I tried to get funding from the Arts Council two years back, and the answer was 'nope - its a jolly'... which we know is not entirely the whole story!
I am saving up already fro 2014 and sending vibes to the organisers to have it in Europe!

Talk to Adnan (you met him, yes?) - they might be able to swing it at Stockholm - SUCH a gorgeous place, and not 100%!!

Tania Hershman said...

Yes, the art is wonderful, and yes, Jessica's art is definitely creepy, she uses the word "Gothic"!

The conference is really really serious about coming to Europe, several of us are working together to try and do that, I was lucky to get a little funding this year. But otherwise, it's just impossible.

And thanks so much for reminding me I'd left Adnan off my list - oy! Have added him in, he is so wonderful, lovely lovely to meet him!

Christopher Allen said...

What an enviably wonderful trip. I had no idea you had been in North Georgia. I'm from Nashville, just a couple of hours away.

It was GRAND meeting you in NYC.

Can't wait to hear more,
Chris :)

Tania Hershman said...

Chris, it's a shame we didn't have more time (and a slightly less dark and crowded bar!) in which to talk. I saw a LOT of the South on my trip, fascinating. When are you coming to visit me?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sounds wonderful! I too tried to get funding for last time, but didn't succeed. Tania, so looking forward to the creative fruits of your time away!


Ah, Tania, you are bringing it all back. A lovely post.

That was my 4th time at the Conference and I start squirreling away money as soon as I come back for next time, every time. Funding or no funding, I have to go. It's addictive. It 'may' be in Berlin next time but the rumours hardly ever coincide with the truth. I live in hope - it costs a fortune to go.

It was fab to spend so much time with you there, T. And I am quite grumpy about real life since I got back. Nuala x

Lauri said...

What a fab post, Tania. I'm dead jealous, not about the bear bell situation though. I love animals, even wild ones, but not ones that are intent on having me for lunch.

I thought it was so interesting how when you were thrown in with the other artists you realised they live in a sort of parallel universe. I love listening in on those kinds of niches. I'm sure it will come out in one of your stories in the future.

So glad you had such lovely experiences!

Tania Hershman said...

Elizabeth, let's hope next time the conference will be closer so all we need is train fare!

N - I understand, I'm pretty grumpy too, although crazy busy. At least the jet lag seems to have gone, that was no fun at all!

Lauri - true, it was a parallel universe! They look like us but they don't use our words ;)

Dora Dee said...

I think Google finally knows who i am and is allowing me to speak *wink, wink*. I'm so glad you had a great time Tania. I loved meeting you and your friends at the KGB bar and to hear you read your story right front of me. it was truly a magical night for me.