Brain splurge & a burning question…

Standard

It’s been quiet on the blogging front because it’s been hectic – so apologies to all.

Schull, West Cork

View from near my home

It ended up easier than I expected to adjust to the cold weather in Ireland after my Cambodia trip; partly because my husband is a great hunter gatherer and has us stockpiled with fuel for this winter and next, but also because – despite the constant hail stone – there have been plenty of blue skies. And everything feels easier when there’s a blue sky.

So, what have I been up to? Actually, quite a bit. In the last two weeks, I’ve completed and delivered the final edits of The Book of Learning (Nine Lives Trilogy Book 1), so next time I see it, it’ll be a proof copy (which means it’s almost a real book).

There’s been plenty of excitement while my cover was being designed – and bang! Now I have a cover! I absolutely love everything about it, and I’ll let you see it as soon as I can, I promise.

I’ve also been accepted on a three-week writers retreat in France later in the year, invited to participate in an exciting new Cork publication (more details to follow) and invited to speak on a panel in Cork on April 25th (again, more info later).

And, breathe…

When it comes to writing books, there’s no rest for the wicked. When you get signed up for a trilogy, there’s lots of work involved in kicking the first book into shape and then…you have to write Book 2! Aargh! Well, I’m happy to report, the day after Book 1 was delivered, I had a rest, then I glued my butt to the chair and started on Book 2.

Three days in and 8000 words have magically appeared on the page – and I’m delighted, because I was starting to get a little scared.

I always write my first drafts completely free form (I think Niamh Boyce uses this approach too, amongst others). Any planning kills the excitement for me and anyway, it’s the only time you get to play before the editing begins. I enjoy editing, but I like the freedom of the first draft. It’s exhilarating and I look forward to the exploration, watching the ideas form a story.

As everyone knows, writing doesn’t pay the bills, so the work front – I don’t include writing as work – has been hectic too. As well as my usual freelancing gigs, I’ve taken on more Reader Reports for the Inkwell Group, as well as Blogging and Beyond courses. I love both of these roles.

Editing or commenting on someone else’s work is useful for your own; it helps you to focus as you write, naturally avoiding mistakes you would make earlier in your career. And as we all need the support of other writers as we stumble our way along, it’s great to know you’re also helping by providing some support in return.

It’s also rewarding to watch people pick up on social media learn to love it, and then make it work for them. Blogging has opened many doors for me, and I hope it does the same for my students.

green fingered writer

The obligatory dog photo

But you’ll be pleased to know, it hasn’t all been work. We’ve managed to get our potatoes in the ground now – the ridges were waiting for ages but it was too wet – and I’ve been clearing other vegetable beds. In the hailstone. Which was pretty refreshing, actually.

There have been endless dog walks and library visits, and I’ve been watching a plethora of westerns (I love westerns) as well as enjoying some fantastic reads/rereads…

I was completely surprised by The Miniaturist and I’ve loved reconnecting with The General in the Piers Torday trilogy. And if, like me (and Barbara Scully, it seems) you’re obsessed with Antarctica, I’d highly recommend Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis.

The online world has been lots of fun lately too, with an incredible buzz and energy around the #YAie & MiddleGradeStrikeBack chats on twitter. There’s a thriving community of writers for children and Young Adults here, and it feels like there’s change – and plenty of excitement – in the air. I feel so pleased to be a part of it, and can’t wait to see how things develop. The World Book Day TeenFest tonight looks interesting – see you there?

And so, now I’ve finally managed to get the blog updated with a brain splurge of drivel that won’t matter to anyone but me, I’d better get back to it.

But I’ll leave you with my burning question…

Hands up, who loves westerns? :)

How do you do enough?

Standard

Since I’ve returned from Singing Kites, it feels like something is missing. It is lovely to be reunited with my wonderful husband, and to be back in beautiful West Cork, but when I was in Cambodia, I felt like I was useful, like I was doing something truly worthwhile.

A young Cambodian boy rocking his baby brother to sleep - no money for education

A young Cambodian boy rocking his baby brother to sleep – no money for education

Now I’m home, I’m loving my work, my writing, my home, and my life – and I’m feeling extremely grateful for what I have – but I also feel, in some way, useless. Not unworthy, but like there’s a void. That’s the best way that I can describe it.

The more you delve into conservation or charity work, the more you realise how endless the need is for help. So where do you start?

Do you help defenseless animals like at the Elephant Nature Park, or do you teach voluntarily in developing countries? Do you look closer to home and volunteer with wonderful organisatons like Inner City Helping Homeless, or do you look even closer still and adopt a rescue dog or make sure you remember to do the little things that help your loved ones and neighbours? All of the above, probably, but how can you ever do enough?

There is no doubt that I will return to Singing Kites next year (I can’t wait!), and I have an exciting charity project brewing that I hope will come to fruition soon enough. But we have to pay the bills and can genuinely only do so much, so in the meantime, I’m left wondering, how exactly can I help?

The simple answer is, that as a writer, I hope that by creating I can provide something useful – whether it’s a blog post that raises awareness, a story that allows for hope or escape, a fun children’s adventure trilogy, or a poem or piece of short fiction that reaches out to someone or simply entertains.

It’s not much to offer but I hope my writing will be read and enjoyed and will somehow affect the reader. I guess that’s what we want as writers, and, while I try and get my charity project off the ground, I’ll have to stop questioning whether that’s enough.

Some nature… #WritingCambodia

Standard

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I love the outdoors, so usually I bombard everyone with lots of photos of nature. In Cambodia, however, I’ve been so intrigued by the people, that I’ve neglected the beasties & the beautiful surroundings – so here are a few shots for you to enjoy. By the time you read this, I’ll be touching down on Irish soil….

scorpion cambodia

A wee scorpion.

 

skull, cambodia

A random find.

 

red ants Cambodia

A small colony of ants eating breakfast

 

Cambodian butterflies

I find these particularly lovely to watch when they fly

 

stick insect, cambodia

Love these critters – can’t get them to stay on my hand though

 

stick insect cambodia

This stick insect is carrying its youngster on its back

 

giant jackfruit

The most delicious fruit in Cambodia

 

jackfruit cambodia

This is what it looks like on the inside

 

Cambodian flora

Vibrant and beautiful.

 

mekong island cambodia

Village lanes on an island on the Mekong river, Phnom Penh

 

water lily pond cambodia

A water lily pond – these are pink when in bloom

 

silk worms cambodia

Silk worms at a family home silk farm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting S-21 (Tuol Sleng) Prison Survivors

Standard
cambodia travel S-21 prison

Books for sale at Tuol Sleng

Yesterday, I visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. There were graphic photos of torture and murdered prisoners and blood stains on the walls and floors. Three of the buildings have been updated so they can be used as exhibition areas, but the building that has been kept intact, full of tiny cells – some wooden, some brick – and a mass holding area is haunting beyond words.

The prison was formerly a school, but under the Khmer Rouge, education was forbidden and academics were murdered. Schools such as this one were taken over and used as places of imprisonment and torture. The regime wanted to create a society based on ignorance and so once they were overthrown, the country had to start over again in every way.

Some of the exhibits were defaced – the face of Pol Pot was scratched out and destroyed with abusive comments. The graffiti was in a variety of international languages, clearly showing a global anger towards these events. And yet all the Cambodian people I have met approach this differently – they show no anger, just a desire for it never to happen again. They do not forgive or forget, but neither do they react with bitterness or aggression.

CHum Mey, S-21 survivor

Chum Mey, a survivor of S-21 prison, Phnom Penh

Visitors were taking photos of the photographs in the exhibition, which I do not understand. There were no signs saying photos weren’t allowed, but it felt so wrong, especially seeing as families are still impacted and are still seeking the truth about their lost relatives. And yet people continued to take photos of the suffering of others. The only prominent sign was a pictorial request for ‘no smiling.’ I think this is important though there was nothing in the museum that would want to make you smile…

…Until you have seen all of the exhibits and are about to leave. Here, you get to meet two survivors – Chum Mey and Bou Meng. They each have a book for sale that documents their time within the prison, and their hopes for the future. The subtitle of Bou Meng’s book is:

Justice for the future, not just for the victims.

I got to meet each survivor, to ask a couple of questions and to tell them how much I admire them and how much I love the gentleness and kindness of the Cambodian people. Bou Meng was so delighted to hear this, he gave me a huge hug and an unexpected kiss on the cheek.

Yet another wonderful encounter that only strengthens my love for this country and its people.

Bou Meng, S-21 survivor

Bou Meng, survivor of S-21 prison, Phnom Penh.

A poem about worries by students of Singing Kites, Cambodia

Standard

Another great piece of work by students at Singing Kites – and once again, their first ever poem in English.

I’m so very proud of them – well done girls! (The boys in the photo are their friends; they liked to visit and chat and they were all such great company)

happy students

The girls that wrote the poem, Our Worries

 

Our Worries

I worry…

about my exams and if I will fail,

if I’m absent from school then my study isn’t good enough,

about my eyes because I always use the computer on the weekend,

that my brain gets tired when I study so much,

when I go home at night, my bicycle will get broken,

about riding my motorbike on the road in case there is an accident

I will hear ghosts in the dark,

that when I go home there is no rice and I’ll be hungry,

for my brother in Korea because he is working with machines – it is very dangerous,

about not having money because I cannot study or buy things like leashal*,

that I make mistakes every day,

about not having enough water and the world getting hotter,

my face and skin is not white enough.

 

by Raksmey, Theary, Kaknika, Kanha, Lengheang

*Leashal are tiny clams, covered in salt and chilli and cooked in the sun. The shells do not open; you have to use your teeth. Very delicious. See below!

food cambodia

These are the delicious clams

Being Included at Singing Kites #WritingCambodia

Standard
Coffee shop, Tanop

Our local coffee shop – I drink the iced coffee with condensed milk. Sounds bad, tastes good!

I really wanted to try and be part of the community while I was here, and to understand a bit about how the people live. Although I have enjoyed visiting the city, you do feel very much like a tourist because that’s everyone else’s perception of you. Staying in a commune in the countryside shows a whole other aspect, and has begun to show me the real Cambodia – and so that’s why I decided to abandon the city completely and stay at the school over the weekend while the teachers are away studying and the school is closed.

During the last week, I’ve been treated to breakfast in the little coffee shop – roasted pork & rice and sweet iced coffee – followed by a dawn motorbike ride through the local countryside. To catch breakfast you have to be at the coffee shop before seven – I asked about trying some noodles at around 8am and the reply was a chuckle and ‘no, you have to go in the morning’. OK, so 8am is no longer morning here – got it!

One of the dentists and her three dental nurses (local village girls and some of the first graduates from the school) also included me in their meals when they came to stay – smoked fish mixed with papaya, Cambodia spicy rice porridge, duck eggs (OK, I admit, I wasn’t expecting the foetus but this is common in South East Asia) and fried fish. They accompanied me on a beautiful morning bicycle ride through the fields to the village – rightly amused by my wobbly riding on the retro bikes – for a breakfast of banana fritters and giant prawn crackers filled with real prawns. And they also brought some strands of young green rice for me to look at, seeing as I’ve only ever seen it already dry and bagged. You can actually eat the young rice and it tastes like coconut milk.

making friends rural cambodia

My friend preparing the coconut from her garden – coconut water is the most refreshing drink in the heat.

This weekend, I was working on my book edits and freelance work, but I also had a few groups of girls visit me to take me for bike rides, join me for iced coffee, show me the stories they write, and share food; the villages in the commune are currently celebrating this year’s rice harvest by sharing Khmer noodles. I was also lucky enough to visit a girl’s home and meet her parents and sisters. They were such beautiful, welcoming people and I had a wonderful few hours in their company.

Then there was the roasted duck shared with the grounds men and teachers, the Khmer lesson over beers… The hospitality has been endless and generous, and I can’t thank everyone enough for their kindness. To feel safe, loved, and included, is such a gift – especially when you’re surrounded by people you’ve just met. People you can call friends in a very short space of time.

The darker side of the country’s past is also starting to reveal itself to me. I don’t pry because it’s far too sensitive, and far too recent, but one of the girls showed me their old traditional wooden house that had survived the Khmer Rouge times, how it was reduced in size due to damage from bombing. She also shared some stories that she had heard from her parents about their lives during that time. They were, as you would expect, horrific. Having met her parents, I have no idea how they have remained such kind and generous people. There is no sign of anger or bitterness; they emanate gentleness and warmth, which I find both remarkable and honourable.

There are also certain things that you can’t help becoming aware of. For instance, driving back to the school, Tith and myself listened to some beautiful and haunting Khmer music in the car. After a few songs had played, Tith explained that all of the singers we’d just listened to were now dead, brutally murdered during the Pol Pot regime for having beautiful voices. I’ve been reading the novel dogs at the perimeter by Madeleine Thien, and this has given me not only an insight into the terrible atrocities that Cambodia endured, but also the lasting impact of the Khmer Rouge regime. It shows me how far the country and its people have come in a short space of time.

Although I cannot understand the commentary, it is apparent from the snatches of the news that I have seen on TV that there is still faction fighting. The political situation remains tenuous and dangerous, and it seems that families need to ally themselves with either the police or the army – through family or marriage – to create some form of security for themselves, and particularly their daughters.

I have seen many Cambodian people wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Sometimes we smile to hide the sad.’ I think explains plenty. I have only just begun to scratch the surface and my return to Ireland is imminent, but what I have seen so far only serves to enhance my feeling that this is an incredible country filled with strong and beautiful people that are making the most of what they have. They are striving to succeed, whatever odds are against them. To me, they are a shining example of what it means to be human.

A poem by the students of Singing Kites, Cambodia

Standard

I’m so excited. I’ve been working with a group of six girls for three days in a row to write a ‘portrait poem’ of their village.

They found it challenging and scary at first but really got into it and there was lots of discussion and laughter and as there’s no right or wrong answer, I think they appreciated the chance to ‘make mistakes’.

This is their first poem in English – and they were so excited with the result. I’m really proud of them. I hope you like it…
writing poetry in english, cambodia

The wonderful students that took up the poetry challenge!


My Great and Beautiful Village

My village sounds like…

Motorbikes beeping fast and loud,

People talking happily,

Bird cries all day,

Singers singing Khmer songs,

Children crying because they’re hungry,

Traditional music for weddings and festivals,

At night, the dogs bark and scare us.

 

My village feels…

Like a golden rice harvest,

Beautiful like a sunflower,

Friendly like the ants like sugar

Comfortable and warm like our wooden houses,

My village smells…

Of fresh water when it rains,

Like the white malis flowers in the gardens,

Tasty like fried fish, garlic and cauliflower,

Strong like durian and sweet like jackfruit.

When I think of my village,

I feel very happy and proud

I want to develop the roads, schools and hospitals,

And I want to live there

Forever.

 

By Lida, Sreynoch, Chanleap, Sothea, Seavmey and Danth,

Year 10-12