Tag Archives: writing

Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters 2020

At the end of last month and the beginning of this, I had the very good fortune of being able to attend the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. It was made possible by funding from the festival and from the Author International Travel Fund via Scottish Books International.

Kanakakkunnu Palace, where the festival is based

I couldn’t possibly sum up my whole experience in a blog post – I met and listened to so many amazing authors, from fellow panelists Hannah Vincent and Amanthi Harris, as well as Elaine Chiew, Chandrahas Choudhury, Gowhar Geelani and loads more. The number of books I picked up pushed my luggage right up to the limit (alongside a lovely silk rug, picked up in the beach town of Kovalam). My mind is still buzzing with new ideas and voices. I lost track of the number of people I took selfies with, including with random festival goers and people in the street while I was out sightseeing.

Kovalam Beach

The festival treats its authors very well – providing all meals, and having off-site evening dinners with live music and dancers to pick-up and transportation through the city. At one point, a group of us were invited round to the palace where the royal family of the Travancores, once rulers of the area, still live – for an audience with the princess. Not what I expected when I found out I was going to India.

Melting beside the Hollywood sign for the festival – credit: Hannah Vincent

Thank you so much to everyone involved in running the festival, from the organisers like Sabin Iqbal and Renjini Menon who set everyone on the correct trajectory, right down to the very helpful runners providing all the much needed water, tea, and snacks on campus. Hospitality was first rate, and made my first ever visit to Kerala one to remember.

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Interview in The List

I was interviewed by fellow writer Lynsey May for The List

Read the full interview here.

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Il Uomo Morto on Jellyfish Review

I’ve a new story up on Jellyfish Review today:

The direct view of the valley from where we stay used to be of the knuckles of the foothills and the higher, snow-draggled peaks behind them. Once there were villages in those foothills, terracotta-roofed, strung out like spiderwebs and glittering in the sun. And closer: rows of vines and pale cocoa-coloured fields freshly turned, and ivy-wrapped trees, the delicate, reaching blue limbs of pines, olive trees showing their silver leaves, the ample woodpile stacked on the other side of the road.

Read more here


The story was written while on a residency in a beautiful house in the hills of Tuscany, and this September between the 14th-21st, I’ll be teaching a low-stress writing retreat called Write Toscana in the same place – hopefully with stunning view still very much attached. It’s mostly going to be about the enjoyment of place and the freedom to experiment in your writing (and to eat delicious local food) If you are interested in coming along – more details in the link above, and here. I’d love to see you.

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Interview + Podcast roundup

Hello all –


It’s been a while (The Unsung Letter is on hiatus for a little bit) but I thought I’d share some places where I’ve been lately.


I spoke to the Times, The Herald, and the Sunday Post and you can read the interviews through the links.

Most recently Alistair Braidwood of Scots Whay Hae and I had a chat all about Mayhem & Death, On the Edges of Vision, Flesh of the Peach, travel, rejection, loneliness, grief and making art – and Jeff Goldblum, of course. Have a listen here. It’s a good long one, so maybe make yourself a cup of tea first.  Mayhem & Death was reviewed on Scots Whay Hae here.

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Filed under 404 Ink, Helen McClory, Mayhem & Death, New Mexico, New York, On The Edges of Vision, reading, Scotland

Brazil Residency – conclusions



I’ve been back from Brazil almost a week and have been reflecting on my experiences there. Time for a wrap-up post!


I (rather reluctantly) left Boiçucanga about ten days before I went home – this was because the residency actually officially started a week before I came (with short notice I had to come later!). So I took the bus to Sao Paulo and hung out with the artists I’d met in the beautiful spot by the sea in their city – there I saw the bustling streets, high-rises, graffiti, buses and underground, restaurants, bars, art galleries (MASP was a highlight), and their homes.  The video of translations and original versions of my work was broadcast at a gallery opening, which was, quite frankly, mindblowing. People were so incredibly generous to me, and I felt that I didn’t have enough time to give everyone their due. Huge thanks in particular to Lourdina, the residency founder, for her kindness, and to Bea, for putting me up for so long.


While I’d had warnings that Sao Paulo was dirty and stressful with little to attract tourists, my experience was so personalised that I couldn’t help but see the sunny side of things. I managed to do less work than I’d have liked, since my laptop succumbed to the blue screen of death for reasons unknown early into the Sao Paulo stint. But I took a lot of photographs, some of which I hope to share on Twitter and other places.


I’m home now, and as I thought, have a lot to think about regarding my time. I started work on a poetry collection while there – I’ve had a few poems published over the years, but have never really felt like I had a whole collection in me, until now. It’s exciting and challenging to approach it. They are poems about Brazil, about Boiçucanga and my time there. There are possibilities of working with a translator and getting in touch with Brazilian publishers about the finished work, and ideally I would like to return to the country for further research. I’m working too on a project to build a connection between Scotland and Brazil for visiting and local artists and writers, though it’s at a very tender stage, with much research still to be done on the practical points. I hope it will bring good things for many people.


So, at the end of all this, I think back to the point where it started – where I realised I could actually make it. Massive thanks to Kaaysa for hosting me, and biggest of all to The Saltire Society and the Society of Authors for providing the funding – at great speed, as was needed – to make it happen. Thank you for everything. The effects are ongoing, and I will feel them in my work, possibly forever.

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Brazilian Residency Notes 6



(the artists’ studio, taken from the basketball court)

A full week has passed since I came to Kaaysa in Sao Paulo state. Here’s some of what I’ve learned, in an experience overflowing with expansive moments:

1. I am the only native English speaker here, though there is a French-Canadian woman here who, like me, doesn’t speak Portuguese. This state comes with its benefits and challenges.


2. The benefit of being surrounded by people who speak a language you cannot understand is a sense of freedom in social situations. There is no expectation that you will talk. You can flit here and there. You can busy yourself with your work, if you are working in a shared space, the sound of the language flowing over you. When people do talk to you, you know that they are making the effort. Their speaking in English is a kind of gift to you. You can cherish their words a little more.


3. The challenge is similar to the benefit of freedom. You are, in some ways, the ghost at the feast. With so much liveliness and companionship (people are very friendly here), you are the figure that can drift unseen or unacknowledged. Some times plans are made – for an excursion, for a talk – and you will have no idea until it begins to happen, at which point you must awkwardly ask what is going on. That question comes up all too often for my liking to my lips. What’s happening? You must always sound a little clueless.


4. I am the only writer here. The rest are visual artists. That is a double kind of invisibility – perhaps triple, with the language issue and my own introversion. All their art is in the studio, on the walls, on the table. It’s beautiful and complex. It sings out. My writing is in the books of mine I brought to share and on my computer. I have lent one of the artists my book; the rest have not seen my work at all, though we have had lots of conversation about their process, and a little about mine, only in the most oblique, partial way. It’s this that is possibly the hardest part for me. For my work to be unseen in the milieu of vibrant creation here is far harder than for my self to be so. This is some new thing for me to learn.


5. Things happen on their own schedule here – or appear to (see above). When someone is going to give a talk, there is no hour that is deliberately set aside for it. Lunch can happen at 1 or at 4. Dinner can start at midnight, long after you’ve broken down and cooked something and eaten it by yourself.


6. Sleep is a good idea. Brazil is so beautiful, and even with the days of rain we had, there was still so much to see and do, and a desire for the charming company of the others here, and even just listening, learning, writing, writing – people stay up late here, working at times that I have tried to emulate, for the experience. But all this comes at a price. Yesterday I was exhausted all day, and finally I made myself go to bed at the (ludicrously early) time of midnight. I slept til ten thirty, finally, rather than springing out of bed at seven after five hours of sleep as I had been doing. I feel better. A little tender round the edges.


7. I miss the rain. Now it’s gone. I have started listening to Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, and I wonder if she says anything on the role of rain and loneliness. It is a specific type of rain, though, with its own steady, kindly rhythm, that is not found in NYC, which her book deals with. I am fascinated to see what she has to say about visual art and loneliness, to listen to it, here, while I am surrounded with the stuff of it.


The learning continues.



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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.


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