Handiwork by Sara Baume

My first read of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, I decided to read her work of creative nonfiction before trying her fiction (she has written two novels Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made By Walking).

I stumbled across this after reading the excellent A Ghost In The Throat published by the same independent Irish publisher Tramp Press, so I bought it hoping for a similar experience.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds review HandiworkHandiwork is a pure joy to read, it’s a small book, with often only a paragraph on a page, it has a beautifully thought out structure, referencing a number of different texts that the author, who is an artist, a craftswoman clearly holds dear and memories of her father and grandfather, as family members who worked with their hands.

Overall, it is an exploration of her process and influences, charting a daily practice, working with hands, expressing her creativity.

In The Craftsman, Sennett is a little grumpy about the prospect of confronting the question ‘What is art?’ Instead, he sets out his inquiry as: ‘We are trying to figure out what autonomy means – autonomy as a drive from within that impels us to work in an expressive way, by ourselves.’

After travelling Europe, she returns to her parents home and is greeted in her old room by a cacophony of objects she had assembled over many years, re-conceptualised out of available fragments, collected from her material environment.

a practice that Charles Jencks in the early 1970’s designated ‘adhocism’ – a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand.

Now she lives in a house with Mark, structuring her day between the mundane repetitive tasks of living, mornings dedicated to writing, and afternoons of making.

She considers herself a disciple of William Morris, artist, designer, writer, activist, socialist, who:

blue songbird Sara Baume Handiwork creative nonfiction

Photo by Andrew Mckie on Pexels.com

agreed that hands know what they must do without instruction, that the objects shaped by their ancestor’s phalanxes and phalanges and metacarpals for thousands of years remain in the memory compartment of their tiny brains, in the same way as birds know which way to fly without being guided or following a plotted course, without a book that provides detailed drawings and plans with parts and kits to accompany it.

This text is a place of reflection, aided by quotes from the various authors she refers to, relating to her own experience and insights and to the memory of her father and grandfather, one who worked with wood and the other with metal.

From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Her medium is plaster and her subject – she is making, carving, painting and mounting birds. While reading about bird migration. And trying to entice local songbirds she sculpts to a feeder in the garden.

It is like a songbird itself, a small book that sings its tribute to those who craft and create and follow the intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

We must begin, William Morris said in his lecture ‘Useful Work v. Useful Toil’ to the Hampstead Liberal Club in 1884, ‘ to build up the ornamental part of life’

Highly Recommended.

‘This little book is a love-child of my art and writing practices, or a by-product of novels past and coming. It’s about the connection between handicraft and bird migration, as well as simply the account of a year spent making hundreds of small, painted objects in an isolated house’. – Sara Baume

Further Reading

Article: New book is a love-child — of my art and writing says Cork author by Colette Sheridan

Read An Extract or Listen on RTE – Handiwork by Sara Baume 2 May, 2020

You Don’t Look Adopted by Anne Heffron

Adoptee birth trauma adoptionAnne Heffron tells us it took her 93 days to write her book, but really it took a lifetime and she is to be commended for being able to complete it.

Being an adoptee and trying to write about the experience and the double edged sword of searching, is like choosing solitary confinement as a self help therapy. You go in thinking it would be a good idea and it can’t be all that hard just to recount your story, and then that being confronted with yourself, that isn’t your self, or is it, thing happens.

Writing is hard. Writing when you are adopted is even harder. If you think your voice is dangerous in its ability to hurt the ones you love, you learn to keep it quiet.

And then the real trouble starts.

It’s therapy without the therapist, so most will abandon it, that’s something adoptees know a lot about, abandonment, often without even realising it.

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

Heffron’s book is a narrative of threads woven together over those 93 days, but it is also a collection of anecdotes and reflections, she allows herself to digress and share experiences that have given her insights, that might disarm the reader who is looking for a chronological tale, unlikely if you are an adoptee.

Every adoptee’s experience is different, but there are common elements and sharing the experience and making it available like this is an important resource for other adoptees.

Adopted people aren’t much different from people who weren’t adopted, they just live with more questions. They are the human experience intensified.

Much of the book is about the relationship with her adoptive mother, the strong bond they shared and the utter frustration and anger she often felt towards her, the shock of realising that though she was her only daughter, she was a mother to her brothers as well.

MY HERO

prince charming white horse fantasy

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

A few years earlier my half-brother, whom I had never met, got in his car and drove down from his temporary work site in San Francisco to come meet me.

He may as well have come cantering up on a white horse. Having someone claim you is the bomb.

Thoughts on adoption arrive unbidden, so it is understandable that this is a narrative of fragments, and yet put together as they are here, they provide a sense of the whole, not only an incredible achievement, but proof of existence.

Further Reading/Listening

Seven Reasons I Love Anne Heffron by Claire at How To Be Adopted

Adoptees On Podcast – adoptees discuss the adoption experience

My Reviews

A Girl Returned by Donnatella di Pietrantonio (fiction)

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cuming (memoir) – a daughter (art historian) researches her mother’s disappearance

Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson (memoir) – raised in Sweden, a Brazilian adoptee returns home

An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer (memoir) – born in Ireland, an adoptee searches for her birth mother and looks into the Irish treatment of young unwed mothers

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley (memoir) – an Indian boy lost on a train, adopted to Australia, retraces his journey to find his family

Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton (nonfiction) –  adoptee, counselor and adoption-reform advocate

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (memoir) – an adoptive mother reflects

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson (creative nonfiction/memoir)

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (memoir) – poet, adoptee of English/Nigerian parentage, raised by Scottish communists

Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy tr. Aylmer Maude

The Kindness of Enemies Shamil ImamI read Hadji Murad because it was referenced in the last pages of Leila Aboulela’s excellent The Kindness of Enemies and is set in the same location as the historical part of her book, 1850’s Caucasus. Aboulela’s book centres on the kidnap of A Russian Princess and her time in captivity under the protection of the Highlander Shamil Imam. He wishes to trade her for his son, help captive by the Russians for more than ten years.

Tolstoy was in the Russian army for a time and clearly witnessed many missions. One of the events he had knowledge of and wrote about, though this novella was published post-humously by his wife, was the defection to Russia and subsequent killing of one of Shamil Khan’s chieftans, another Highlander, Hadji Murad.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the classics, there are some exceptions and I did enjoy Anna Karenina, however having read Aboulela’s version which really brings the characters alive and highlights their dilemmas so openly, I found it hard to connect with Tolstoy’s tale, which rarely touches on lives other than the soldiers and noble decision makers.

Hadji Murad Thistle Leo Tolstoy

Photo by nastia on Pexels.com

The opening scene though is brilliant, the ploughed field, bereft of life, everything turned over, leaves only one sturdy thistle, half destroyed but for that one stalk still standing tall, the flower head emitting its bold crimson colour.

The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen; it was all black. “Ah, what a destructive creature is man… How many different plant lives he destroys to support his own experience!” thought I, involuntarily looking round for some living thing in this lifeless black field.

It is the scene that brings back the memory of this man Hadji Murad and compels him to write out those pages, perhaps purging himself of a ghastly memory.

“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.” And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.

It does make me think that he had intended not to publish it, that perhaps it was written for another purpose altogether. Particularly as, at the time he wrote it (1896-1903)

he was spending most of his time writing his virulent tracts against the art of fiction and denouncing some of the best writers in the world, including Shakespeare.

In conclusion, it highlights to me the importance of reading various perspectives of history, not just one side or the other, but also across gender. It is refreshing to read a female historian’s fictional version of an age old conflict, inhabiting characters who observe from positions of lesser power, of oppression, for their powers of observation are that much stronger than the privileged, it being one of their necessary survival instincts.

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela (2015)

Earlier this year I read my first book by Leila Aboulela Bird Summons (2019), a wonderful novel about three immigrant women, born in different countries but living in Scotland, setting off on a holiday in the Highlands, to pay homage to Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman convert to Islam to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

I really enjoyed it for many reasons, confirming I wished to read more of her work, thus I chose The Kindness of Enemies as her next book to read, one I have had my eye on for some years, having refused to buy earlier because of the dreadful cover. That may sound whimsical, but I think that earlier cover does this book a great disservice, the way it turns readers away.

Being Muslim and an Academic in 21st century Scotland

Hadji Murad Tolstoy Leila AboulelaI was completely drawn into the dual narrative story and loved both parts of it, modern day Scotland and mid 1800’s Russia and the Caucasus.

The contemporary story centres around Natasha Wilson (born Natasha Hussein to a Russian mother and Sudanese father, themselves the product of a Russian university education, her name is changed when her mother marries a Scot). A university lecturer in Scotland, her research concerns the life of the Caucasian Highlander, Shamil Imam.

Natasha is friends with Malak, of Russian/Persian parentage; her son Oz, is in her class and they possess a historical artefact belonging to Shamil Imam, due to an ancestral connection. Natasha is in their home when Oz is arrested for downloading  materials related to jihad and she too comes under suspicion, her telephone and laptop seized.

“I was seeing in these awkward composites my own liminal self. The two sides of me that were slammed together against their will, that refused to mix. I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves. My Russian mother who regretted marrying my Sudanese father. My African father who came to hate his white wife. My atheist mother who blotted out my Muslim heritage. My Arab father who gave me up to Europe without a fight. I was the freak. I had been told so and I had been taught so and I had chewed on this verdict to the extent that, no matter what, I could never purge myself of it entirely.”

Meanwhile, in Sudan, her father whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years is dying and there is pressure for her to go and see him, along with feelings of resentment and ill-will, demanding her to stand up for herself and her existence, a daughter of mixed heritage, living a life she has created for herself.

“It was an effort formulating this summary, explaining myself. I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties.”

Being Muslim and a Caucasian Highlander in the 19th century

Interwoven between chapters of Natasha’s story, we are transported to the Caucasus territory in the 1850’s, to a period during the conflict between the Highlander mountain men lead by Shamil Imam who were resisting Tsarist Russia from expanding into their territory.

Shamil Imam, the Chieftan of Dagestan, led an armed resistance for thirty years, he appears in Leo Tolstoy’s classic posthumous novella Hadji Murad.  Through imagination and historical fact, Leila Aboulela enters his territory and home, bringing us a view from the spaces women and children inhabit, not just that of men, as Tolstoy does.

Caucasus Pricess Anna of Georgia kidnap

In earlier years, to settle a conflict, Shamil was only able to negotiate peace by surrendering his son Jamaleldin, who for the next ten years or so was raised as part of the Tsar’s family (as his godson). Now Shamil’s men have captured the  Russian Princess Anna (previously of Georgia – her grandfather Gregory XI, the last King of Georgia, ceded the territory to Russia), her French governess and two children Alexander and Lydia.

“Nothing has caused me so much pain as treachery. If the Russians would fight me honourably, I would not mind living the rest of my life in a state of war. But they tricked me; in Akhulgo they treated me like a criminal, not a warrior, and they sent my son far away to St Petersburg.”

The Kindness of Enemies follows these stories and although one carries the heavyweight magnitude of a well-known story of significant characters in history, the foreshadowing of it by a modern story, brings to light the many aspects of the past, whose threads might be seen as being current today.

Kindness and Empathy, Another Perspective

Much of the literature of the Caucasus in the literary imagination is told from the Russian perspective, by grand novelists like Tolstoy and Pushkin, whereas Leila Aboulela, by setting this historical period during the time of the Princess’s capture, takes us on that journey, re-imagining events that took place, understanding better the complicated and mixed sympathies of Princess Anna, a young mother, exploring her loss and how those eight months in captivity might have changed her.

The Kindness of Enemies Leila Aboulela The Queen's Gambit

Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Pexels.com

She also presents the perspective of young Jamaleldin in another light, how his childhood memories lie dormant yet present, his mixed feelings of the return, his strange and estranged reality of feeling part of himself belonging to both worlds, the Highlands and to St Petersburg.

There was a time when it had all been much simpler. He rescued from the wild, Nicholas the benevolent godfather. He the pet, Nicholas the mighty. He the puppet, Nicholas the conductor, the thrower of crumbs, the arranger of roles, the changer of destinies. Jamaleldin the chess piece, and now Shamil had changed the rules of the game.

In the contemporary world, Natasha experiences something of the same, born of culturally different parents, spending her childhood in one country, her adulthood in another. She must create her own sense of belonging, to find peace of mind somehow. Being neither one thing or the other, having no one place called home, hers, by necessity is a spiritual journey, determined by the need for the soul to find home, rather than body or mind.

“I said that I was not a good Muslim but that I was not a bad person. I said I had a brother that I wanted to keep in touch with. I said that I wanted to give up my share of the inheritance to him. Apart from my father’s Russian books and Russian keepsakes, I wanted nothing. I said that I did not come here today to fight over money or for the share of a house. I came so that I would not be an outcast, so that I would, even in a small way, faintly, marginally, tentatively, belong.”

Highly Recommended.

My Reviews of Interest

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina tr. Lisa Hayden

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself, Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Further Reading/Watching

Interview: Leila Aboulela Discusses The Kindness of Enemies The Arab Weekly

Review: For the Joy of Reading: The Kindness of Enemies by David Kenvyn

Documentary: Mountain Men and Holy Wars – film-maker Taran Davies traces the life and legacy of Shamil Imam

Article: Why do we Continue to Use the Word Caucasian? by Yolanda Moses, Professor of Anthropology

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

How I Heard About The Book

My curiosity was peaked by a mini review over at JacquiWine’s Journal in which she said this memoir may end up being one of the highlights of her reading year. Though first published in 2019 in the US with the title Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child, it was published in the UK by Vintage in April 2020 as On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming.

I was drawn to it for research reasons, it being a memoir in the genre of mother/daughter relationships with an investigative element, focused on the author’s mother, ancestors and villagers from the Lincolnshire coast, her attempts to uncover past secrets and understand the people who kept them.

Laura Cumming’s Love Letter to Her Mother

I was a little skeptical due to the subtitle, which reads like a tabloid soundbite aimed at selling multiple copies of sensationalist content.

I wasn’t interested in reading a ghostwritten drama tragedy, but the understated cover I first saw here and the simplicity of the new title, suggested a narrative that might make a motif out of a sandy beach. And JacquiWine had recommended it. Others who write about books and follow her will know what I mean by that.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

I loved it. The opening chapter sets the scene, recounting the story of a little girl of three years playing on the beach near her mother and her shocking disappearance.  It is a familiar scene, the beach being down a path not far from their home, the tide going out, the sea half a mile in the distance, her mother Vera inattentive for a moment sees nothing.

One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus my mother was kidnapped.

The little girl, Betty, was found five days later and returned to her family. Laura Cumming learns about this event in her mother’s life many years later, something her mother has no recollection of, a mystery unsolved, yet it is a turning point in her life explaining why she never went to the beach or left the front yard of their house or played with other children from school.

Her life began with a false start and continued with a long chain of deceptions, abetted by acts of communal silence so determined they have continued into my life too. The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago.

On Chapel Sands Laura Cumming Memoir

Veda Elston, Betty’s Mother

Rather than seek to resolve the mystery, the book introduces us to the main characters like a novel, including black and white photos, not collected in the middle of the book but placed amidst the text where we read about them.

They are described in a way that makes me flick back to look at them again and again, and I realise this isn’t just a daughter telling a story about her mother, this is an art historian studying a family portrait looking for clues – and finding answers.

To my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album.

She poses many unanswered questions about the events that occurred and seeks answers in the photos she possesses, assembling evidence with the assurity of a forensic expert. Her mother was an artist and taught her how to notice and remember images seen in a museum long before telephones could record them. It has become the way she thinks.

A sense of place is created through references to Dutch painters, there being a resemblance in this landscape to Holland.

The flattest of all English counties, Lincolnshire is also the least altered by time, or mankind, and still appears nearly medieval in its ancient maze of dykes and paths. It faces the Netherlands across the water and on a tranquil day it sometimes feels as if you could walk straight across to the rival flatness of Holland.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, (1858-1869) musée d’Orsay

Characters are pondered deeply through photos and family paintings, the author finding inspiration and clues even in more famous works that help us understand the narrative power of an image. By the time I got to reading about Degas’s The Bellelli Family, I had to put the book down and seek the painting out to see more clearly the father’s revealing hand placement mentioned and the escaping dog. What an incredible painting!

I was completely hooked, even looking up to see which museum this painting hangs, and what luck, it’s in the musée d’Orsay in Paris, at least I live in the right country to visit it.

Serendipitously, that same day, Laura Cumming wrote an article in the Observer about the collective yearning for visiting art exhibitions; for Velázquez in Edinburgh, Monet in Glasgow, Goya in Cambridge, Rembrandt at Kenwood House, Poussin in Dulwich, Gwen John in Sheffield.

Cumming is aided by her mother’s writing, the photographs and a little by the visits they would make back to the place of her birth, but she holds out on the big reveal on what really happened until midway into the book, by which time the reader is increasingly desperate have confirmed what she is beginning to suspect.

For my twenty-first birthday, my mother gave me the gift I most wanted: the tale of her early life. This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

She was fifty-six when she sat down to write and still knew nothing about the kidnap, or her existence before it, except that she had been born in a mill house in 1926; or rather as it seemed to her, that some other baby had arrived there.

Once Cumming learns the truth, there are a roller coaster of emotions spilling onto the page, from anger, disbelief and outrage to sadness, regret and finally some semblance of compassion for those involved. On the continued collective silence though, a protective gesture to cover-up shame, that distorted her mother’s life, she says “in a way, I can’t forgive them.”

I suppose my book, quite apart from being a memoir about my mother and what happened to her and this mystery – it’s also a campaign against collective silence because these people who knew – they knew.

There’s so much more I could say and share, but I urge you rather to read it yourself, particularly if you have an interest in memoir, in mother-daughter dynamics and understanding how art reveals life. It’s a fantastic read, one I’d actually like to read again. And the NPR radio interview is excellent.

On Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been the Observer’s art critic for 20 years. Previously, she was arts editor of the New Statesman and a presenter of Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3.

Author of two highly acclaimed books: A Face to the World (2009) draws on art, literature, history, philosophy and biography to investigate the drama of self-portraiture; and The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), tells the haunting tale of a bookseller’s discovery in 1845 of a lost portrait by Diego Velázquez and how his quest to uncover its strange history ruined his life.

Further Reading

Laura Cumming, Observer Article: Close Your Eyes and Imagine Seeing the Art Worlds Treasures as if for the First Time

NPR Radio, Listen: Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother’s Brief Disappearance In ‘Five Days Gone’

To Read:  An Extract from On Chapel Sands

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.”

Buy a Copy of On Chapel Sands