Foreword by Richard Hamblyn
Some years ago I had a memorable conversation with a junior designer at NASA, whose job was to colour in the hundreds of indistinct images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. He had, he told me, a range of colour categories to choose from: ‘true colour’, which comes close to what might actually be seen from space; ‘false-true colour’, which offers an intensified version of true colour; and ‘true-false colour’, in which different colour ranges, both true and false, are combined to form another spectrum entirely. It struck me as extraordinary that NASA – the world’s most trusted purveyor of cosmic data – had come up with this curious taxonomy of falsiication, but it also seemed to me to offer an apt analogy for the writing of creative non-fiction. For in much the same way that NASA’s designers spend their days enhancing the grainy reality of the Hubble space images, non-fiction writers must also labour to add colour and texture to the grainy reality of their own true-false – or should that be false-true? – stories, transforming unmediated raw material into artful approximations of reality.
The process is a kind of alchemy, the magical results of which are evident on every page of this impressive (and elegantly designed) collection from students in their final year of Birkbeck’s Creative Writing BA. Each of the eight pieces, from Cas de-Wale’s dark odyssey into family myth and memory, to Sian Shaw’s windswept rhapsody of place, is a masterclass in the transformation of life into art, as hinted by the collection’s title, Living Tales, with its rich connotations of vitality and truth-telling, and its promise that these stories have lived other lives beyond the page.
Take Emily Sinclair’s invocation of her Burmese grandmother’s shoes: ‘Clack clack clack. She kicked the shoes off in frustration and they clattered noisily across the floor’, a sensory detail that serves to conjure a distant place and time, returning it to brilliant life, as does Rebecca Rouillard’s child’s-eye view of suburban South Africa, with its ‘sound of the Kreepy Krauly rhythmically juddering around the pool’. That ‘juddering’ is pitch-perfect.
The use of such sensory observation is one of the keys to effective scene-setting, and there are plenty of examples to be found across these eight true stories, whether it’s Jane Pendjiky’s deadpan description of the smell of a dissecting room, ‘a combination of phenol and formaldehyde … you can taste it as much as you can smell it’; or Tarquin Landseer’s jet-lagged encounter with the night sounds of the Brazilian jungle, ‘a lively scherzo of trills and croaks, peeps and burbles, while I listened in an exhausted fug, vaguely aware that I had brought myself along with me.’
This is writing that attends to the world, and to the writer’s place within it. ‘I do not know where I am’, notes Ian Dawes at the outset of his bracing journey into post-traumatic amnesia, and he is not alone in interrogating a private cache of unearthed and contested memories,
the buried stories we seem fated to tell and retell endlessly in our heads, ‘reviewing them like a picture book’, as Cas de-Wale observes.
It is often said that any memory more than ten years old is fiction, but I’m not sure that is true, or rather, I’m not sure that it’s fiction. At least not entirely fiction. An image such as the girl on the window ledge with which Lindsey Jenkinson opens her childhood memoir, ‘When I Was Six’ (a title that neatly plays on the saccharine associations of A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six), takes the reader straight into a scene of novelistic jeopardy, while also offering the added enticement of knowing that it really happened. This is creative non-fiction’s hallmark, its contract with the reader: here is a literary artefact, it says, but one that it is taken from the life. It’s the unmistakeable punch of actuality that gives such writing its edge.
Here, then, are eight true stories, living tales of home and place, of birth and death, of family and friendship, of memory, myth and belonging, whose authors have successfully found their true voices on the page. Eight examples of the alchemy of authorship, of the mysterious transformation of lived experience into narratives strange and true.
Richard Hamblyn is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. An award-winning environ- mental writer and historian, his non-fiction works include: Tsunami (2014), Extraordinary Weather (2012), The Art of Science (2011), Terra: Tales of the Earth (2009) and The Invention of Clouds (2001).