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The Unsung Letter No. 56

This week, a lesser-known book by an author well-known author, one that charts the way a closeted character can try to grieve the loss of her partner:


Just as secret as her relationship with Cara had been, Pen is then forced into a hidden widowhood, unable and reluctant to grieve in public. ‘Funny word, that,’ she asks, ‘why did “hood” added to nouns make them into states of being?


Read the full letter here. And as ever, sign up to receive The Unsung Letter weekly in your inbox – an essay by a different writer or book lover singing the praises of an undersung work by a living author.


PS – no Brazilian residency updates today, other than to say here that it rained all day, and all day it rained, and at night the frogs sang, and I rested, read, worked, and spoke late into the night with other artists on the nature of criticism and the art and wider culture(s) of Brazil.


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Brazilian Residency Notes Part 4



A watery kind of a day.


After I worked a little in the morning, a group of us visited the local waterfall, a few minutes walk and hike into a protected rainforest. Families were bathing in the river, and then, so were we. You could swim right under the falls, and I did – looking up at the arc of water from the underside and all the droplets scattering down.


Walking back, I could feel the pressure dropping – the rains were coming, and stronger than they had so far. It began raining in the afternoon and did not let up. The rain pounded the residency buildings, and the water rose to cover the patio, and in order to walk to the artists’ building you had to wade across. It’s hard sometimes to be in a place where no one at all is a native speaker, where every time they speak to you, it’s a gift they give of themselves. One of the artists, Pedro, played us some of his video documentaries. They were fantastic – challenging and visually inventive, but still very humane. They were connected to his work with a theatre company of actors with mental illnesses. He had kindly provided subtitles in English for myself and the French-Canadian artist Ann.

In the dark the thunder roved around the hills and the frogs sang like the world was ending. It was such a burst of sustained energy that I couldn’t sleep, so I left the group and dragged a chair to the covered walkway outside my room and edited until one or two in the morning, listening to that rain, the frogs, the innumerable insects. There are one or two lights high in the forested mountains that were visible from my vantage point, and they added a sense of mystery, just as the sounds of other artists talking downstairs drew me at remove, giving a special kind of delicacy to the work I was doing. How that itself will translate in the future, I do not know.

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Filed under Boiçucanga, Brazil Residency, Uncategorized, writing residency

Brazilian Residency Notes Part 3


Yesterday was the first proper work day at Kaaysa, and I’m learning a few things. One is that I have to work intensely in the morning before the heat gets too much – it was 32C by the afternoon, and that’s the kind of temperature that my brain is almost completely non-functional for complex processes. Still, I had got up, and edited through 24 pages of my current work in progress before the strike happened.


The other thing is to expect the unexpected – and the unexpected usually involves swimming costumes. Just after I had finished I was invited for a dog walk to the river. Lourdina, who manages the residency, has two great big red dogs, Tutti and Frutti (I think I’m spelling it right – it has a slightly different sound in Portuguese so I might be getting it wrong). A group of us went down to the river that flows near the back of the centre. The dogs leapt happily in, as did the people, who’d all brought their swimming gear. I was actually glad not to have come with mine, as I had some cuts on my leg, and the idea of being in a Brazilian river in the early stages of my Hep A vaccination was a little scary.


Later on, I needed to go to the market, and another group offered a lift and some accompaniment. They were also going to the beach – so it turned out I was too. The picture above is from the beach at sunset. We stayed there a good long while, which was great, except – again – no swimming costume. So I wrote some notes instead in my journal which will go towards the site-specific flash collection I want to write after all this is done.


More on the unexpected theme – as we were driving down to the beach, traffic was backed up. It’s Carnival, and the streets were full of people in tutus and sparkly outfits (including the men). While we were jostling down the road in the car, a fight broke out between a couple – the woman being so angry she glassed the man, and blood ran down his arm. He then kicked her to the ground, and bystanders rushed in to separate them and stop the bleeding.

“Carnival”, said the other artists, by way of explanation. And I got to explain that in Scotland we have a word for hitting someone with a glass. Cultural exchange!

Otherwise Boiçucanga seems a safe place. It’s mostly families and groups of friends who visit. There are young coconuts sold from beach vendors,  upbeat music played not obnoxiously loud on stereos, and folk standing on surfboards paddling about on the shimmering sea.


Every day in the afternoon there’s a torrential downpour (video here) and we were caught on it on the way to the supermarket. Time for an açaí break in a local cafe, listening to the rain falling and the lightning crashing about from a kinder vantage point than the day before. I tried the açaí ice cream with chopped bananas, and a sip of an açaí smoothie. The ice cream was stupendously sweet (and still pretty good) but the smoothie was delicious.


The supermarket brought new challenges – it was packed with holiday makers and unfamiliar goods that were, it turns out, at mostly UK-level prices. I grabbed a few things that looked reasonable (with the help of my guides) and entered The Queue (all caps). It was the slowest one ever – the cashiers had decided, at peak customer hour, to cash up the tills, which meant laboriously counting out the money and moving it out. Then when that was done, the man in front of us was using the supermarket to pay his bills, which is something you can do here. It meant a lot of scanning and receipt admin and more waiting. Finally it was done and we piled in another artist’s car to head for home in the rainy dark. On the street the mood was still bright – people hanging out in small bars, singing as the biked about or mingled, music everywhere.


I settle down today to get another chunk of work done, now with my swimming costume ready to go, for what ever comes.


Filed under Boiçucanga, Brazil Residency, Uncategorized, writing residency

Brazilian Residency Notes Part 2



Yesterday I had no expectations for what the day might bring – and it turned out to bring quite a lot.


What you can see in the photo above is Ilha dos Gatos, the island of cats, just off the coast of Boiçucanga. The other artists on the residency were taking a trip there yesterday, something I didn’t know about since I passed out in my room at seven, and slept through various door knocks to see if I’d like to come. Eventually I was roused and asked “would you like to take a boat trip?” to which the answer is always yes, by the way (I am not often asked it, sadly).

I took a car down to the small boat with Ed and his wife Maria. The trip over was in beautiful sunshine – I missed the turtle apparently swimming alongside the boat, but no matter. On the island, folk went swimming in a natural pool full of tiny striped fish and gobies who wriggled themselves up on land. The beach had a few other revellers playing music, and a big friendly dog roaming about. A big fresh fish and some aubergine and courgette were grilled up, and so the time passed by quite peacefully. Until it came time to head home.


Our boat, rented for the day, was nowhere to be seen. On the hills of the coast, a great dark blue stain was spreading, with little white forks of lightening here and there – a bit of summer afternoon rain, it seemed. Still no boat. Then the storm hit us – just as I had wanted. The wind whipped about. The rain so heavy it felt like warm hail. It pounded into the sand and into the bare shoulders of the artists and the singular other group left. There was much concerned yelling on both sides while their dog ran around and up to us, shaking and looking for reassurance. The coconut trees swayed menacingly. Finally the boat arrived but it was too choppy to come close to shore, so we were ferried by waterski in ones and twos. Rescue waterski – and the first time I’d ever ridden one. I clung on with Maria. Once by the boat we had to jump in the water and swim to the ladder. My rucksack was soaked through, but luckily someone had brought a wet bag to keep all of our stuff safe.


The ride back was slow as everyone, soaked to the skin, eyed the shore, where the folds of the mountains retreated in gently grading triangles of blue. Until the river where we boarded. And then back to Kaaysa.


I couldn’t have asked for anything better, really, for a welcome into Brazilian life.

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Brazilian Residency Notes Part 1



Hello and good morning from Boiçucanga in Sao Paulo state! I am out here on a Kaaysa Residency for a month, thanks to the kind financial support of The Saltire Society and The Society of Authors. As you can see, Boiçucanga is on the coast – the northern coast of the state, I believe (my geography of Brazil is hazy – I’ve never been before. I’ve never been to South America before). In Tupi-Guarani languages, the name means something like ‘big-headed snake’ and refers to the shape of the mountains here. The Tupi and Guarani are, as I understand it, various tribes of indigenous peoples, and nearby there’s a reservation which I may be able to visit.


What am I doing out here? Well, I made an application months ago, and then about ten days ago heard from the organiser of the centre that there was a last-minute place. I jumped up and began hunting for funding – at such short notice I was not hopeful, so I am hugely grateful to the Saltire Society and the Society of Authors for stepping in under such time pressure. And now here I am. The flight out from Edinburgh to Sao Paulo took twenty-one hours, and then I was picked up and driven the hundred and sixty kilometres to the coast, which took over three hours. I think the reality of actually being in Brazil only sunk in when on the highway I saw a sign for Rio de Janeiro. Rio! I don’t know if I’ll get that far, as my purpose is primarily to explore and learn about this region. There are some activities planned for that purpose – though as yet I’m not sure when they’ll take place. Here’s the Kaaysa Residency‘s main page if you’d like to learn more.


Since I’m reaching capacity for photos on this blog without an upgrade I’m going to be posting photos and videos on social media such as my twitter and instagram accounts so if you are interested, please follow me on there.


I intend to keep this space as a record of some of my feelings about the experience. Right now, I’m still fuzzy from travel. I once heard it said that when you travel so far so quickly, your soul has to catch up and I definitely feel like my body is a bit unmoored. I imagine that across the Atlantic, a little slip of self in the shape of a paper aeroplane flits towards me.


I feel too that to be more ‘here’ I need to see the landscape, to understand where it is I have come in all this hurry. All I’ve had a chance at is snatches from the car as we came in – the hills we passed through, green, with tumbling pink flowers on the trees. The road through downtown Boiçucanga (a small beach resort) and the contiguous mini village (whose name I did not catch) where we stopped to buy fruit and eggs and where the centre has its small leafy compound – it’s not the middle of the wilderness here. I saw families walking around enjoying the Carnivale break. It’s around 29C right now and storms seem to be forecast for the days ahead. I’m looking forward to that – some of my favourite weather is stormy, when the sky turns the colour of an old bruise and the tense heat is broken up with rolling and crackling and snake-tongues of light. Until that happens, I swelter, and I eat bananas cold from the refrigerator in my room.





Filed under Boiçucanga, Brazil Residency, Uncategorized, writing residency

The Unsung Letter No. 54

Sophie Hopesmith, author of Another Justified Sinner, writes in this week’s letter:


It begins with Jonas waking up in his home city, Vienna, to discover that every living thing has vanished. Even the birds are gone. Is he really the only creature left?

Without this pulse, the world falls flat and artificial. Lights still swing to red, revolving doors still hum. Everywhere: white noise, server errors, static and plastic, the flash of speed cameras. There’s nobody to observe but Jonas. No one to experience the world with him. The Danube is “muted“; the restaurants reek of “stale fat“. The mechanical bones of society grind together still, with zero direction. Glavinic writes: “The sun was hovering in its accustomed place and seemed to be on course.” Pointless.


Intrigued? Read the full thing here.


As ever, you can subscribe to The Unsung Letter here, for a weekly missive on a book by a living author (with some minor exceptions!) that has missed the hype train. Each week, a different writer or book lover lays out the case for its salvation from the void – and what it might bring to your reading life.


Small note, in case you haven’t seen it elsewhere, I have a bookish announcement – look what’s available now to pre-order!

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Filed under 404 Ink, Book recommendation, book recommendations, book review, Helen McClory, Mayhem & Death, On The Edges of Vision, Uncategorized

Bundle Up


I don’t know about you, but 2018 has started off, as years often do, as dark and quite gloomy. My heating has broken down again. The snow is incoming here in Edinburgh, but there’s something quite exciting that’s countering my chill –

The first review of Mayhem & Death has been published, and, delighted with its positivity, 404 Ink have decided to launch pre-sales for the bundle of both the new Mayhem & Death and new release of On the Edges of VisionOn the Edges of Vision won the Saltire First Book of the Year back in 2015, and with the press that put it out shuttering, it had gone out of print until 404 zoomed in and saved it. You can get the sparkly new edition along with its sibling for just £15. 

On the Edges of Vision

In On the Edges of Vision, unease sounds itself in the language of legend. Images call on memory, on the monstrous self. Throughout Helen McClory’s daring debut collection, the skin prickles against sweeps of light or darkness, the fantastic or the frightful; deep water, dark woods, or scattered flesh in desert sand. Whether telling of a boy cyclops or a pretty dead girl, drowned sailors or the devil himself, each story draws the reader towards not bleakness but a tale half-told, a truth half-true: that the monster is human, and only wants to reach out and take you by the hand.

Mayhem & Death

Helen McClory returns delving deeper into descriptively mythical yet recognisable stories woven from dark and light, human fear and fortune. Swimming and suffering. Spikes loom ever-threatening. A weight against the throat. Sea where the dead lie pressed into a layer of silt. A silent documentary through a terrible place. Mary Somerville, future Queen of Science. A coven of two. Mayhem & Death is the matured, darker companion to On the Edges of Vision and shows McClory’s ever expanding ability to envelop and entrance her readers with lyrical language of lore, stunning settings and curious characters. Mayhem & Death also introduces the brand new novella Powdered Milk, a tale for the lost.


Why should you pre-order? I mean, other than because you might want to make sure two books of uncanny, watery, flash fiction, short stories, prose poems and the like are in your hands as soon as they can be? Well, pre-ordering helps indie publishers immensely if you buy direct from them, avoiding the large online retailer who shall not be named, who frequently undercuts pricing to the point where no one (not even them) make a profit off sales of a book. Supporting via pre-sales allows indie publishers, who work on a hair-thin margin and reserves of passion, to keep the lights on. I’ve mentioned before, but Heather McDaid and Laura Jones, the founders of Award-winning 404, are two amazing young women. They take risks, work incredibly hard, and put out books that other publishers might not even think to pick. Buying from them, whether my book or others, puts your money in their capable hands. You can imagine in doing so you become a kind of minor Medici of the publishing world. All that, and you get books to keep you company on your (armchair) travels.


Pre-order here for delivery anywhere. Or use the link to browse the site. It’s Friday, it’s dark – why not buy a little gift for future you?


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