Maggie Harris was born in Guyana and emigrated to the UK in 1971. She has a BA in African/Caribbean Studies and an MA in Post-Colonial Studies from the University of Kent. Her poetry career has spanned the UK, Ireland, Europe and the Caribbean, and awards include the Guyana Prize for Literature and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Books include Sixty Years of Loving, (Poetry, Cane Arrow Press), Kiskadee Girl, (Memoir, Kingston University Press) and three short story collections. In Margate by Lunchtime, (Cultured llama) was long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize 2016. Her next collection, Writing on Water, will be published by Seren in February 2017. She was one of the BBC local poets for National Poetry Day 2016 and is now represented by UK spoken word agency, Renaissance One. Maggie Harris is on Facebook and Twitter @kaiteurfalls
Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Maggie, thank you for speaking to us here at TSS, it’s a real pleasure.
Thank you so much for inviting me, and for your interest in my writing!
You were born in Guyana before migrating to the UK in 1971. How has this shaped both you as a person and your writing?
Guyana is indelible in who I am and what I do. That sense of inhabiting two worlds never leaves me. A childhood surrounded by diversity, whilst growing up in a strict and yet loving home, provided me with a very grounded foundation. We were taught to respect ourselves and others, and there was also a lot of joy, music and sunshine! Later, at university as a mature student, I was introduced to Caribbean writing and more of our history which sharpened my awareness. That awareness ushered in a range of questions, surprises, longings, anger, loss and realisations which form the basis of my writing. Being a migrant is like living in a limboland where you never fully belong anywhere, the positive perspective being it also gives you a wider and deeper empathy and universality. I’m very proud of my ancestry, and am also proud to have matured in the UK!
In an interview with ARC magazine, you mention that you nearly became a visual artist, but that you gradually found writing taking precedence. Could you talk about this a little more?
As a child I was always drawing, and reading, then writing poems and stories. But I never thought of myself as a writer, I was just ‘good at English’! I thought of myself as an artist; (at High School my teacher was the now famed Guyanese artist Stanley Greaves) and for many years in this country that’s what I did, to the point of exhibiting my work in Kent and at the Mall Gallery. Most of my artwork was in black and white, very Aubrey Beardsley, (and possibly a legacy of all the fairytales I read as a child, with their Rackham type illustrations of worlds very different to mine). After I started going to Creative Writing classes, I began to find the two-dimensional space limiting. I need to mention that I was also the mother of three daughters, with no studio, and found I couldn’t just leave my artwork around, little hands and feet soon added their finger and toe prints! It was easier to settle on a corner of a sofa with a notebook and pen. Creative writing classes raised questions I couldn’t pursue through drawing, about my history and purpose. Poetry also led me away, I began to take part in open mic sessions across the Southeast. Going to Kent University age 39, took me to another level of engagement and writing took precedence. I did use one of my early drawings, though, for the cover of Sixty Years of Loving. I see myself more as an illustrator and I did the drawings for the cover of In Margate by Lunchtime which was then incorporated into the design by Mark Holihan.
Did your work as an artist, during your 20s and 30s, give you a poet’s eye? Does training in visual creation influence your writing?
Yes and Yes and Yes Again! Although poetry learned at school had already resonated in me powerfully, and I was always writing poetry, mostly the love-sick type ! (until I encountered the work of Leonard Cohen.) But when I started writing seriously, I took the advice of my creative writing teacher, Maggie Solley, who advised me to use my ‘artist’s eye’. I guess that when I’m composing a poem I am trying to paint a picture with words. But that artist’s eye also relates to being observant, focusing on detail, and looking at things a little bit differently, the result of an enquiring mind.
We’ve mentioned your poetry, but you’re also an internationally award-winning short story writer… What can you tell us about your involvement with the short prose form?
When my children were young and I was experimenting with writing, I wrote short stories with magazines in mind. None got published of course, because it was obvious I didn’t believe in what I was writing. I didn’t really want to write light fiction, but I didn’t know how to write anything weightier, until I went to university. One of my short stories was published by Virago/Littlebrown in an anthology called Short Circuits, and I began to believe in myself a little more. My ‘return’ to prose after poetry, came in full when I wrote my memoir, Kiskadee Girl. Prose rekindled my enjoyment of stories. I relished the freedom of the longer sentence, the room to explore free of constriction. After Kiskadee Girl, I began to write stories for my first collection, Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning. I wanted to concentrate on modern ‘pilgrims’ to Canterbury; I saw myself as one, because Canterbury had granted me my years at university where I had found myself as a writer; and I wanted to write about the lives of ordinary people who had come to settle in Canterbury. I was influenced by my intimacy with the city and how it had changed over the time I had lived in Kent. These stories led on to In Margate by Lunchtime, stories about the part of Kent where I had settled, and raised my children, and had evolved as an artist. Because I don’t see contemporary life in isolation from history, the stories also include a nod to very early settlers, Vikings, Minster Abbey, and a 17th century shepherdess, as well as girls on a night out in Ramsgate in the 70s, and a disgruntled council house resident on being ‘interviewed’ by someone she sees as an arty-farty DFL. (Down from London). The short story form suited my writing, as there were too many possibilities that entered my mind, scores of stories, like photo-montages. They were too diverse to become a novel, and didn’t have any particular cohesion apart from place. I found the short story form was a natural development from poetry, and working in the genre also stemmed from a desire to reach out to wider audiences, poetry audiences being much smaller. Ironically, once I had found my voice, I find I can now turn my hand to writing what I once called ‘light fiction’!
How do short stories and poetry inform and influence one another?
Poetry and short stories have brevity in common but adversely, also offers space for unlimited subject matter and style. Poets learn that every word must earn its place, so too each phrase, each sentence in a short story. It’s so easy to stray from the subject, and we poets learn grudgingly, to ‘kill our darlings’. Good poems are rarely about what they say they are, eg a poem about a lighthouse can be a poem about sorrow. The short story too, can be multi-layered, and the challenge is to work this into a constricted form. Poetry’s linguistic devices can be equally at home in the short story, but the main difference between the two forms is the story. The narrative thrust. What happens when, why? Poetry can allude more to emotions and quite happily leave you there. But with narrative, something does have to happen. Make a point, offer a shift, know when to leave. I find with poems you can leave the window open for interpretation, with short stories you need to be a little more focused, even if you don’t quite know if anything’s been resolved, you can usually go back and find clues. Take Alice Munros’s story ‘Runaway’ in which we’re not actually told Clark has killed the pet goat Flora, in fact a page earlier he muses she has run away, but we know he’s lying; and Clara refuses to connect ‘…the dirty little bones in the grass.’ Instead, ‘She might be free.’ But we know. We know. The straightforward way this story is written depends on both the narrator and the dialogue. A poem may have relied more on a play with language and device. This is all debatable of course! But that’s the joy of writing, and thinking, exploring and expressing. I don’t think anything’s set in stone, writers should have the freedom to find a form to fit whatever it is they need to say.
What is the appeal of short stories?
I like to think they are the natural child of oral storytelling. Short enough at one sitting, only this time the narrator is our storyteller. My mother was a natural storyteller, although they were only family stories, for me they used every card in the book – suspense and drama, a beginning and an end. All at one sitting.
Sometimes only a short story will do. When you need more than a poem, and haven’t got time for a novel. When you’re in need of something to stir you, offer a moral compass, distract you temporarily. The short story will draw you in, like the proverbial campfire, may waltz you round a topic, or suck you straight in; its perfect for when you’re on a train or have time for a cuppa on the sofa. It will take you somewhere else. Sometimes, not always, it can be more accessible than a poem. Sometimes, not always, it will haunt you forever. Jean Rhys’ story, ‘I used to live here once’ does that for me.
When you get an idea, does a sense of the form come with it, and have you ever changed forms – has a poem become a short story or vice versa?
A sense of the form does usually come with an idea. Poetry is always hovering. Even when I’m writing prose, a phrase or image may come into my mind wanting to be written as a poem. Sometimes a prose poem suggests itself. An idea for a NOVEL became a short story! That was Sending for Chantal, which was the Regional Winner of the Commonwealth Prize.
Do you have a short story you’re particularly proud of, and if so, why?
Sending for Chantal. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to write and attempted to, many times, under different titles. But when the Commonwealth Competition suggested itself, I thought I would attempt it as a short story. I’m proud of it, not only because it was a prize-winner, but because I also wanted people to read it. It may broadly be on a familiar tale, that of a migrating parent leaving child/ren to work abroad, but I’m proud that I managed to write the whole story in Creole, that it spans 30 years or more in a single story, and that the central question, about the quality of migrating lives and its effect on the family and individuals, has an ongoing resonance.
In the same interview as the one mentioned earlier, you write that “I believe that being creative is as necessary to the soul as food is to the body.” I wonder if you would be happy to expand upon that?
I dread the thought that there are children whose creativity hasn’t been allowed to flourish because I do believe that freedom to explore our relationship with the world is a basic human right. It begins with play. Whether it’s drawing in the sand or plaiting palm leaves, I think it’s natural for both our physical and emotional well-being and helps us to understand our place in this world.
When I write, or draw, or take part in any activity one could call creative, whether its calligraphy or dancing, or drumming, I always revert to the state of being a child. The sense of being in awe of creating or being involved in an activity where I am about to make something I still find fascinating. It connects me to the world in a very natural way. We only have to look at cave paintings to see how old one’s involvement with interpreting ourselves and the external world is vital to our development. Unlike children today whose parents spend all their time driving them to countless activities, and organising very busy social lives, my upbringing was nothing like that. I cannot remember my parents spending so much time entertaining us, my mum told us her mesmeric family stories and my dad played guitar. But as children we were told, go and play. So it was out in the yard, playing with stones and leaves, rope and jacks. Apart from acknowledging my drawings, no-one really encouraged me or pushed me in any direction. In a nutshell, the freedom to explore within a secure environment, allowed me to follow a creative path, although it’s not the same for my sisters, who all had sensible jobs! So I guess it’s an individual thing. In my years of working as a poet in schools, I never had any problems with getting children to write, even those of whom some teachers would say, you won’t get anything out of him. My way in? I’d rather hand a child a feather and suggest he tries to explain how the bird feels, or for that matter, the feather, than to say – today we are going to write a sonnet.
What have you most enjoyed reading this year?
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson; The Whale House, by Sharon Millar; Leaving by plane, swimming back underwater, by Lawrence Scott, and Womanspeak, A Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women, Edited by Lynn Sweeting. I’m now reading Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation, which won the Forward Prize. (Vahni and I recorded poems on a freezing cold Aberysthwyth beach this year as part of an Out of Bounds Poetry project, leading from the Bloodaxe Anthology of the same name.)
If you were to roll back time, what would you do differently?
Go travelling before marriage and babies! Go to university earlier. Or Art College.
In a similar vein, do you have any words of wisdom for those hoping to make it on the literary scene?
Depends how you define ‘make it’! I began writing because I needed to, and didn’t think any further than that initially. I don’t really feel I’m in the made–it brigade! I’ve been writing for more than twenty years and have been published since 1999 and don’t feel that many people have even heard of me! I still hope to walk into a bookshop and see my books on the shelf. But I’m really grateful and honoured to win the prizes I have. One thing I’ve always done is organise literary events; I feel it’s important to support each other as writers, plus you can build up a database of people to invite to your readings! I’ve experienced my share of rejections and felt as low as many other writers do. But here’s my little list, whether one would call it wise or not?!
Believe in yourself and have confidence in what you write.
Learn your craft and if you can, your audience.
Set goals for yourself and stick to it. (That doesn’t mean not being adaptable!)
Have a social media presence.
If you’re a poet get involved in open mics.
Find a good publisher. This is very important. It’s worth waiting for, if not you may be published but nobody will buy your book because you can’t afford the publicity to tell them about it!
Don’t be jealous of other writers’ success. You don’t know the whole story plus jealousy is a negative emotion.
Support other writers, be nice to them.
Writing is not the world. Yes read that again, Writing is not the world. We can get so obsessed with our writing we forget to take a walk, go watch a rubbish movie, dig the garden. This year I took a break from writing, it has done me no harm.
Read. Read. Read!
Maggie, thank you for speaking to us. We hope you’ve enjoyed it!
Thank you so much! I have.
Rupert Dastur is a writer and editor. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story. He established TSS with the aim of furthering discussion, interest, and development of the form. He has supported several short story projects and anthologies, and his own work is in / forthcoming in The New Flash Fiction Review, A3 Review, Field of Words, PostcardShorts, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2016, and Bath Short Story Anthology 2016.