Claire King

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The Fallacy of a Ukrainian Language Divide and more…

Posted on: March 13th, 2014 by Claire - 25 Comments

As someone with a strong attachment to Ukraine and its people, I have been aching for weeks to speak out. I am not Ukrainian, but I know a lot of Ukrainians, and – in the mass of media opinion and some very half-hearted reporting – I wanted their voices to be heard. A writing blog didn’t seem like the ideal place, but the papers already have a lot of column inches filled by others, so I’ve decided to talk about it here. I trust you’ll understand this diversion from the usual topics.

About me and Ukraine

Twenty years ago I worked for a big consumer goods company. I went out to the newly independent Ukraine to recruit and train a national salesforce. People thought it was a little crazy at the time, but I received the warmest welcome you can imagine. Here we are in 1997, that’s me in the middle.

Ukraine_1997

I’m not even sure, before I got the assignment, that I could have placed Ukraine on the map. Geography had never been my strong point. In the 1980s what we needed to know was that the sharp edge of the Cold War ran through Germany. In 1990 I visited Poland which by then had become a kind of buffer zone between Europe and the Soviet Union. Now of course it’s all different. Ukraine is now what stands between Europe and Russia. The word Ukraine  – Україна in Ukrainian – means the Borderlands, as appropriate now as it ever was.  

So, back in 1996 I recruited a team from around Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Lviv to the West, Odessa and Crimea to the South, Kharviv and Donetsk to the East and for the next two or three years my days were largely spent travelling to their cities and regions, to understand the market there and to train them on the job. These were young professionals who had been born into the Soviet Union, and as young adults found themselves citizens of a free Ukraine. Only five years after independence there was no doubt that they considered themselves Ukrainian. In the light of the ongoing crisis, I asked them what they really want now.

 Let’s talk about language first.

I’m a writer. Language is important to me and I’m particularly sensitive to how it is used. I’m also an expat, currently in France, and I’m aware on a daily basis how foreign languages can include or place barriers between people. There has been a lot of talk in the media about a “language divide” in Ukraine. Ukrainian speakers versus the Russian speakers. Can we stop that right now?

When I moved to Ukraine I learned Russian, not Ukrainian. Why? Because the majority of people (the notable exception being the far western region) in Ukraine in 1996 spoke Russian. Russian was the language on all the road signs, shop fronts and packaging. It was the language that everybody understood, whether they wanted it or not. Why? Since the 17th century the use of the Ukrainian language has been regularly proscribed or limited by the policies of those in power. Ukraine has a long and complicated history, click on the link if you want a flavour of that.

It had already begun to change while I was there, and over the last two decades use of Ukrainian has spread. Not extensively, as you will have read, to the ‘eastern’ and southern parts of Ukraine, but then imagine how long changing the language of a nation takes? Fortunately the two languages are relatively close, and use similar alphabets. But still, unsurprisingly, some people will never want to make the switch. (In fact, one big mistake that the interim government made earlier this year was to push through a law making Ukrainian the only official language. It was perhaps meant to be symbolic, but it was ill-considered and focusing absolutely on the wrong thing at the wrong time. There was an outcry from Russian speakers, which subsequently formed the basis of much propaganda about their ‘persecution’.) But being able to correlate the uptake of Ukrainian to either side of a physical map does not make it a political map. Language does not divide Ukraine.

What about an ethnic divide?

Have you wondered what the difference is between “Russian speakers” and “Ethnic Russians” and “Pro-Russians”? I’ve seen the terms used often in newspaper reports, and slipped in by Putin as a proxy for the “Russian citizens” he allegedly wishes to protect.

It’s quite simple. For “Russian speakers” read “Ukrainians”. For “Ethnic Russians” read “Ukrainians”: All those with Russian roots that I spoke to do not “fear for their safety” under the new interim government. They are shocked to hear how the reporting in Russia is shaping the perceptions of their relatives in Russia on the situation in Crimea. If they fear at all, it is fear of the advances of Putin on the territory of their country, and uncertainty as to when and how the international community will step up to help.

And for “Pro-Russians”? Take care. Are they ‘pro’ the language, or ‘pro’ the country? If the language, see above. If the country then ask first, are they Ukrainian citizens? Many “Pro-Russians” demonstrating in the East and South of the country are actually “Russian citizens”. Of course others are not, but the waters have been muddied so much it’s hard to judge where the balance lies.

Now there’s a way to divide people with language.

So, do Ukrainians really want to join the EU?

Some do and some don’t. But that’s not what the revolution was about. It’s true that the first protesters we saw on our screens were students protesting about Yanukovych backing out of closer ties with the EU, but that was just the spark in the powder keg. 

So where did the revolution come from?

It’s been coming for a long time. A great deal of hope arose with Ukrainian independence in 1991, even when the harsh reality of economic disparity between Ukraine and her neighbours to the west had become clear. But in the years that followed it has not been growth and a better quality of life that has emerged in Ukraine, but corruption, lawlessness and stagnation. Just like the occupying countries who came before them, those who have won political power in an independent Ukraine have creamed as much money from the people as possible and pocketed it themselves. In the last three years billions of dollars have disappeared from the state budget under Yanukovych. Ukrainians were still getting beaten down, just with a different stick.

For a long time, people didn’t speak out and that’s not surprising. For generations Ukrainians have been afraid to open their mouths. Even if the knock on the door in the middle of the night has fallen out of fashion, there are plenty of ways of dealing with people who refuse to fall in line. Crippling pressure can come from any corner: in the form of new ‘tax’ demands, from employers, from the police…anywhere.

But this time last year, small cracks started to appear. The often bitter Ukrainian winter was gripping the country but people were not receiving help from the authorities. A public solidarity rose up where people helped others in the community. They used social media to ask for and offer help. Warm food and clothes, shelter, transport assistance etc. By the way, this is the kind of people that Ukrainians are. When I lived there I never saw one person pass a beggar on the street without giving something. Not one.

Then at the end of 2013, the promised trade agreement with the EU was not signed. Yanukovych seemed to be turning away from Europe and deepening financial links with Russia. It was the students who raised their voices first – peacefully – on the Maidan. Students who saw their only hope of a prosperous future coming from the West, as part of Europe. 

It would probably have burned itself out if left to itself. But the response from Yanukovych was brutal. Students were beaten by the police. And that is when things turned.

Many more people came out to the Maidan, not to protest about the EU but to say that a regime that beats their children, their brothers, their friends, is one they could no longer accept. There was no left or right split in those protests. On the contrary they united diverse and sometimes radically opposed forces in a common aim: to end a regime – now an effective dictatorship – drenched in corruption, where people lived in fear. They came to protest peacefully, but I’m sure you have seen the outcome.

The cost of what happened next has been too high in lives and serious injuries, but there is a newfound pride in their ability to come together and take control of their own country where normal democratic means have failed them. The Maidan has brought the people closer together because they now feel stronger together. They are rising up with dignity in the face of years of corruption and abuse of power.

What do Ukrainians really want?

Now:

  • For us to hear their voices, to know that Ukrainians have solidarity and hope.
  • For people, both in Russia and the west, to understand that the propaganda they are hearing is far, far from reality.
  • An end to fear. People are afraid a war is coming. A war they want no part of. Some I spoke to are already prepared to leave their homes with their families at a moments notice.
  • Support from the International Community: A clear message that the interim government of Ukraine is legitimate, and that the occupation of Ukrainian territory and the upcoming referendum on Crimea joining Russia is not. Insistence that Russia to conforms to International laws and removes its troops from their territory. Support for Eastern and Southern Ukraine – the most vulnerable areas to further encroachment. Yesterday’s statement of the G7 leaders is a fine start, but will it be enough?
  • Whatever support can be given at all levels. Whether it’s diplomacy, sanctions, UN peacekeepers, boycotts, even just spreading information and giving moral support. Show that there is power behind the Ukrainian people.

And in the future:

  • Change in their country by legal means. Full and fair re-elections in May.
  • To stay in Ukraine and to speak whichever language they choose. Russian, Ukrainian, or both, free from bribery, injustice and corruption.
  • Help in establishing an effective, democratic government and a stronger economy. Ukraine is weak, but the people are strong and determined to build the country they want.

 

Let’s stop talking about what divides Ukrainians and talk about what unites them.

The people I spoke to speak Russian, Ukrainian and English. They are of all ethnic backgrounds. They are entrepreneurs, historians, directors, architects, translators, CEOs, engineers and parents. They want a free and modern Ukraine. They are asking for your help.

We need to stand by Ukraine, not just stand by. 

 

Further Reading:

Please do read Timothy Snyder’s truly excellent articles in the NY Review of Books. Amongst others:

Putin vs. Reality

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda

Fascism, Russia and Ukraine

And look here for a timeline and photographs of what is happening.

What is really happening in Ukraine

On the Maidan now – is this what fascists look like? (This is a blog written in Russian, I have linked to a Google-translated version but to be honest the pictures speak for themselves.)

Food

Posted on: August 12th, 2013 by admin - 6 Comments

Summer Food

Food has been on my mind lately. (This is not unusual).

I love food. I love the colour and smell and taste of it. I love how tactile its preparation is and I like eating with my hands too. Food is one of the simplest human necessities that is also one of the finest pleasures, and you can do it three times a day. Sitting around a table to a meal can bring us together and it can nourish us. Of course food can also divide us, make us miserable and destroy us.

There’s little wonder, then, that food slips into fiction a lot. It certainly features heavily in my own writing

In The Night Rainbow, food is central to Pea because she’s having to source a lot of it for herself. She picks ripe peaches straight off the trees, waits for the morning baguettes to be delivered by the breadlady, and is very happy to take the biscuits that Claude offers. Her mouth waters at the pans of paella at the market and she tries to improve her mother’s mood by preparing food for her.

Food is also prominent in my next novel, although in a very different way, and I often use food as a metaphor in my flash fiction. Here are a couple of examples up at Fictionaut:

Anything Again

Flesh & Blood

Here is tonight’s supper, cooked and photographed by Mr King:

Since we moved here to France, our relationship with food has changed, and I was recently asked to write a magazine feature about our experience – the way we shop, prepare and eat French food. This week a photographer was sent over to shoot pictures of me with the family, as we took our weekly trip to the market, made meals and ate together. It’s was quite a surreal experience, and a very tiring day, but at the end of it, seeing how we eat through the eyes of someone else made me appreciate more than ever just how fortunate we are.

Here is a picture my husband snapped of me in the kitchen between shoots, wondering what to make for lunch:

Claire in the kitchen

And here is the photographer, Tom Parker, in our very shabby kitchen, taking photos of our pickles and preserves! You can bet when his photos turn up in the magazine feature it will all look very French and glamorous. (UPDATE: And here they are!)

Food_Photographer

But food isn’t really glamorous at all, is it? Certainly around here, the people who produce it work extremely hard for very little pay. If anything, the attitude we tend to have in our family towards food is one of gratitude and respect. Gratitude because we have such good and plentiful food, and respect in terms of our understanding of how it is produced and limiting waste.

This summer we crossed the Pyrenees over into Spanish Catalunya. We stayed at a lovely gîte there, owned by a family who have a few arable fields nearby, plus a farm with fruit, vegetables, chickens and pigs. They also have a Michelin starred restaurant. The farm is called Tancant cercles, which means closing circles, and their philosophy is that they produce the food they serve in their restaurant from start to finish, including growing the grain for their livestock. The owners were happy for us to take our children to have a look around the farm. There they showed us the harvested grain in the hoppers, which they feed to their pigs, they showed us the vegetables they grow and the free range chickens, and let the children go in and collect eggs. They showed us the pigs out and about, and the pregnant sows and those suckling the new litters. Then the owner took us and showed us the fridges, where they hang the pigs which have come back from the abattoir, the sausage and ham making processes and the cuts of meat, ready to be sold, or to be used in their restaurant. Later, we ate in the restaurant, and our children could point out pretty much everything on their plates and how they had seen it at the farm.

I know that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do feel strongly that when many children and adults don’t have a clear understanding of how the food gets to their plates, seeing the end to end process is an important part of having respect for the food you eat. My children are still young, but they can now make the link between the piglets they petted and the ham they ate. As they grow up, I hope that they can keep that in mind, and never justify eating food produced in a way that they would not be happy to witness for themselves.

If you are ever in the area, the hotel/restaurant is Els Casals and the gîte (which sleeps 14) is La Rovira. They are all within a few minutes of each other, not far from Berga in Northern Spain (Catalunya, about an hour North of Barcelona).

Also, I’m thinking that maybe next year I might run a little writers retreat there, so let me know if you’re interested.

Old farmhouse in Spain



The best thing about publishing a book…

Posted on: April 17th, 2013 by Claire - 10 Comments

Reading a book

…is readers.

Forget the other things you may dream of. Forget the beautiful covers and the thrill of being on the shelves of book shops. Forget the congratulations and the celebrations. Forget royalties and rankings and reviews. Yes, all of these things are good things. But the best thing, the very best thing about publishing a book is readers.

Because you are the storyteller. Your story has been aching to be told. And now by some kind of miracle it is being told far and wide. Being heard. Being appropriated…by readers.

It’s only two months since The Night Rainbow was published, but I’ve heard back already from so many readers, and honestly, every time it makes my heart sing. When readers take the time to write a letter or a tweet or a review to say what they thought about my story, it’s a gift. And this week I had the chance to actually chat with a reading group for the first time. We did it by Skype and although we had a couple of technical issues overall it worked really well. I would love to do it again. I could get hooked.

What surprised me most was the kind of questions that the readers had to ask. In particular:

  • Questions about events that happened before the story starts. What led the characters to the point where the novel opens?
  • Questions about what happens after the book ends. Do I foresee happiness for my characters?
  • Questions about characters’ motivations for certain actions or comments they made. What were they thinking?

Aren’t they amazing questions? Not questions about structure or voice or writing techniques. But questions about the characters. As though they were real. Because just as for the writer, for the reader those characters were real too for a while. Their story was told, and the readers listened.

 

Readers: The absolute best thing about publishing a book.

 

Photo via flickr creative commons (c) Thokrates. Have a look at some of his other beautiful photos too.

Great Expectations

Posted on: February 21st, 2013 by Claire - 7 Comments

A week on from the publication of The Night Rainbow and lot of people have been asking me the same question – how do you feel?

I suspect the expected response is something along the lines of “Amazing!” But in practice for me the answer is much more complicated than that. I’ve heard some authors say that upon publication they’ve felt numb, or scared, or nothing at all. That’s certainly not the case for me. I have felt elated, thrilled and joyous. I’ve also felt anxious, a bit stressed and possibly a little obsessive. And I’ve felt grateful, a lot of grateful, for those who’ve supported me, knowing that what is to many just one more book out there in the world is to me the realisation of years of ambition and work and hope.

Rainbow in a meadow

Hope?

A lot has been said about hope:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

“Hope is a good breakfast but it is a bad supper.” (Francis Bacon)

and my favourite,

“I am prepared for the worst but hope for the best.” (Benjamin Disraeli)

Yes, that’s the one. That’s how I feel now – hopeful, but in a realistic sort of way. I hope that things will go well with The Night Rainbow. That it will sell well and people will love it. That it might even get nominated for some kind of a prize. I probably should be being bashful and saying “Oh no, not my little debut, I’m just grateful it’s been published at all.” But let’s be honest, that’s not true. I do hope for still more good things. And I’ve felt this way at every step along my writer’s journey:

  • The sharing of a piece of writing with someone and waiting for their reaction, hoping for a positive one.
  • The submitting of a poem or a story into a competition and hoping for a placing or even a win!
  • Submitting work to a journal and hoping for acceptance.
  • Submitting to agents and hoping every the ping of every email is a request for a full.
  • Hoping that the publishers will want to offer a contract.
  • Hoping for foreign rights deals.
  • Hoping for a nice cover quote or two and then later for good reviews…

It’s not greedy to hope, it doesn’t mean you’re not very happy with what you already have. It’s simply picturing the road ahead in a positive light. Despite the inevitable rejections and disappointments along the way, we dare to hope in all aspects of our lives because if we didn’t, what would the future look like? We have hopes for our loved ones and for others around us, for ourselves and for our societies and beyond. And the fact we perpetually experience things not working out as we’d hoped doesn’t – or shouldn’t – teach us we were wrong to hope.

We can’t give up hope because it keeps us moving forwards, keeps us living.

I titled this post Great Expectations because some people have said things like ‘You must have great expectations for your book!’ But I don’t. Expectations are another matter. If your hopes are not met then there’s a twang of disappointment and you move on. But if have expectations, and they are unfulfilled the disappointment is much more profound. You probably don’t have a fall-back. Expectations don’t allow for being prepared for the worst.

So here I am, hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst, since there’s not much else I can do for this book. However, there’s a lot I can do for the next one, and hope won’t fix my edits… I’m putting my attention to those now so I can hand the new novel into my agent and start all over again…

A canicular, French, late summer morning.

Posted on: August 22nd, 2012 by Claire - 10 Comments

There is a canicule in France at the moment – a heatwave. Municipal Lidos are full of people trying to cool off. Only the bravest, or the most determined holidaymakers take to the shadeless beaches between 11am and 4pm. Meanwhile the countryside is parched and forest fires are regularly taking hold, even in the higher mountain areas.

There are two weeks left of the summer holidays, and just as with the end of season peaches and nectarines – although we have already had our fill – we are gorging on the remainder, while it is still good, before the time has passed.

Even as dawn broke this morning the air was hot and by mid-morning it was pushing 35°.

I made pancakes (crêpes) for breakfast, to cheers of delight. We ate them with fresh lemons, syrups and jams and cold watermelon from the fridge. It’s amazing how pancakes for breakfast can make an ordinary day seem like a holiday.

Then the neighbour came round, as he does most years at this time and brought us tomatoes. They have stewed and frozen as many as they can, and still his plants keep on giving. He tours the neighbours with baskets and boxes and bags of the ripe-to bursting fruit.

My 6 year old and I took our dogs out for a walk, to let them cool off in the irrigation canal that keeps the fruit trees and fields watered on our side of the valley. We also took a bag in the hope of hunting down some blackberries. My daughter, who is enthralled by insects, spiders, lizards and in fact any kind of local flora and fauna, found this little creature on one of the bramble bushes. We think it might be a crab spider.

 

As we walked home the farmer was turning hay in the fields. The air was heavy with its sweetness and the warm scent of figs from the trees nearby. We dillied and dallied until we were parched with thirst, then ran home fast for cold water.

This is late summer, in the canicule, in southern France. This place is inspirational.

 

 

Website make-over

Posted on: July 22nd, 2012 by Claire - 11 Comments

I’m having a make over.

The plan is to have an author website where news, book info etc can be found, as well as a link to my blog for those that are interested in my ramblings. The address will stay the same.

Here is the homepage work in progress. It’s based on a new wordpress theme that my clever husband has made. If you’re on your phone the blocks should appear in a column, on a tablet perhaps in a double column and on a computer in 3×3 format. But otherwise none of the links etc work yet and the text is placeholders. What do you think?

Is there anything that bugs you about author pages or websites that we should take into account? All thoughts at this stage gratefully received!

Thanks!

 

Very Inspiring Blogging

Posted on: June 25th, 2012 by Claire - 2 Comments

Thank you to two lovely and talented writers Anna JG Smith and Jessica Patient who this week have both presented me with the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Hurrah!

The idea of these awards is to recognise blogs we appreciate, and a side effect is to have to tell you stuff about ourselves. Well…in the last two years I’ve already posted twice. Please do check out the blogs I suggested and read the ‘fun facts’ if you must!

  • When Martha Williams gave me the Beautiful Blogger Award in May 2010 I posted here.
  • When Oscar Windsor Smith gave me the Versatile Blogger Award in May 2011 I posted more dirty secrets here.

So for 2012 I don’t propose to add another seven interesting things about me.

However I have added one more or less interesting comment to each of their blogs, so if you’re really all that curious you’ll have to go and have a look!

I will definitely take the opportunity to point you at a few more interesting blogs though.

Do have a look at:

Peggy Riley for original and fascinating posts on writing and researching novels

Suzy Joinson for wonderful inspiration and fascinating illustrations

If you want wry and witty from a writer, do go and read Stephen May‘s blog.

Rachel Carter‘s blog always comes from the heart and hits a nerve.

If you’re hungry, go have a look at Kerry’s French revolution food blog

And if you’ve not seen it yet, go and support this VERY inspirational 9 year old girl’s blog about the quality of school dinners

 

Bloggers beware – “Top Blog Award Nominations”

Posted on: January 7th, 2012 by Claire - 14 Comments

 

This week I received an email congratulating me on my nomination for a ‘Top Writing Blog Award’.

Woo-hoo, eh? Great. I’d never heard of the organisation that nominated me though, so I Googled them. They seem to be a broker for online education. So far they have a dozen different categories of these “awards”

Top 115 parenting blogs!

Top 70 foodie blogs!

Top 75 music and arts enthusiasts!

Top 50 Wellness Guru!

In total 735 blogs have won their awards…and that’s 735 blogs who have put this website’s award badge and *link* to their site on their blog. Can you imagine how that boosts their search engine rankings?

This feels like an opportunity to take up space on my own blog with a badge that means nothing to most people and provides a link to a site I don’t endorse.

Right then…

 

Death and Life

Posted on: January 2nd, 2012 by Claire - 15 Comments

A dear friend of mine died suddenly on New Years Eve and since then I’ve been grieving, in its various guises.

Whilst most have my thoughts have been about the loss of Annie in our lives, and the pain of those left behind, other strange thoughts have crept in.

Here is one that I’m not proud of. Annie was always very encouraging about my writing and so delighted when I told her my first book was going to be published. We talked about the novel and she was really looking forward to reading it. Of course now she never will.

It’s an odd thought, and not relevant at all to what has happened. Why would I even think about that?

I suppose that we all project how things will turn out in the future – times we are looking forward to, who will be there and what will happen. This story evolves, of course, but when we are forced to re-write that story abruptly it knocks us off balance.

In amongst all of the sadness, there is something healthy about this rupture, because it reminds us that the future is not certain. That there are no guarantees which of our loved ones we will get to keep, or for how long.

It should tell us how we ought to be living.

 

 

40

Posted on: November 25th, 2011 by Claire - 17 Comments

I’m one of those human beings who needs the symbols and ceremonies that mark our little lives.

The beginnings, endings and milestones along the way. I believe that they are important, psychologically.

I like birthdays, weddings and although I don’t enjoy them, I very much appreciate funerals. I always loved the first day back to school, and last day of school before the summer holidays. I love launch parties and recognitions of success. So what am I trying to tell you? OK, I’ll spit it out. I have a birthday with a zero at the end coming soon.

In forty days and forty nights, I’m going to be… (can you guess?)

Forty gets used a lot in religious texts. They seem to use it to mean ‘a big number’.

I remember my mum turning forty. I was sixteen. And forty did seem like a big number to me then. It was the age of mums and dads. An age to joke about, to celebrate, but in a mocking sort of way. In an ‘Over the hill and off the pill, get your slippers out’ sort of way.

For my mum, forty came in the heart of a storm. She was too busy surviving to worry about celebrating, reflecting or looking forward. It was all she could do to keep the boat afloat with her kids in it. My mum, by the way, is amazing. And her life since forty has just got better and better.

For me, forty comes in fine weather. I loved my twenties, although I was rather volatile for much of the time. I loved my thirties too, although I was in rather a hurry and sometimes a bit overwhelmed. I’m thinking that my forties are going to be brilliant, and for now I’m just thankful.

I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for our good health. And I’m thankful that we are bouncing along the regular ups and downs of the day-to-day, living the little trials and joys of our lives, with clean drinking water, untouched by earthquake, famine or flood. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had so far, and the opportunities I have now.

And there’s no big wish list from this blogger. Everything I want from my forties has to come from me. I want to be a good mother to my girls, a good wife to my husband, a good daughter to my mum. I want spend as much time with my family and friends as I can, while I can. I want to seize the opportunity I have to write novels and have them published well. I want to be true to myself, and try and make myself a better person at fifty than I am today.

Hello, 40, you’ll be welcome.

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