Diary of a Separation (and why we write)

Friday 25th May 2018

I’m on my way to the ICA to watch Zama when I notice that I am in a long row of cars. They are all different (makes, sizes) except for one common feature: they all sport various shades of grey. From silver-hued to sky-lead-grey, most vehicles either behind me or in front carry the same pale-, or in some cases, dark-looking tint. Whatever happened to the predominant red I remember seeing on the streets of London when I relocated to this country more than twenty years ago? I recall asking S at the time if red was British people’s favourite colour when choosing a car. We, too, had a scarlet-hued five-door in those days. A little old banger it was, but it did the job just fine. It is a wild guess and I have no evidence for it but I thought at the time that the choice of colour had a lot to do with New Labour’s optimism-driven, political agenda. A subliminal message mutually and unconsciously agreed upon by both motorists and Blair’s cunning spin doctors. Amongst other things red symbolises passion and adventure. The latter took us to Iraq. The less said about that subject, the better, though.

Grey, on the other hand comes across as conservative. Which, according to my totally unscientific theory, is the reason why silver has been motorists’ colour of choice for the last eight years. Its dullness is the perfect complement for Tory-led, austerity-imposed Britain.

Guilt, isolation and shame feature prominently in Lucrecia Mantel’s Zama. Man finds himself as an 18th-century administrator in a colonial Spain-run outpost. Man misses his wife and children whom he has not seen for years. Man feels uneasy about the abuses and violations to which the locals are subjected but does very little to stop them (in fact, he fathers a child with one of the indigenous women). Man fetishises the local women whom he is always trying to catch in the nude when they bathe in the river. Man slowly, ever so slowly, begins to break down.

After the film I find myself back in my grey car, one hand on gear stick and one holding the ignition key. Ready to go, and yet, feeling lost, like Diego de Zama. Despite the tourists milling about in Trafalgar Square and the late-night drunkards intent on having off-the-cuff conversations with passers-by as they zig-zag their way around Nelson’s column, I feel deserted by this city. Cast aside like Diego. Wife (separated from) and children (not separated from, but not together with) living in what could well be another village/town/city.

The engine purrs softly. I press the gas pedal down slowly as I let the clutch come back up unhurriedly at the same time. The drive home is trouble-free and smooth.

Later on tonight I will dream of standing on a beach, looking out to the sea. On the other side there is an island and on it I see S, A and Y. I rush into the water, and begin to swim towards the island as fast as I can, but no matter how hard I swim, I do not move one inch. The island is still in the same place. I am still where I started and so are they. But I cannot reach them.

Tuesday 5th June 2018

I am a writer. That was one of my conclusions when I left The Guardian’s offices tonight. I had attended a masterclass by my favourite journalist/columnist, Gary Younge. Gary turned out to be a very engaging facilitator, even if I felt star-struck at the beginning and therefore found it difficult to concentrate. Very few times I am reduced to the role of weepy groupie who has just met her music idol, but that was me the first quarter of an hour. Minus the weeping.

I came away from the masterclass with a few conclusions. The first one was that it is OK to be egocentric as a writer. In fact, in a very subtle way, Younge encouraged his audience to go for a certain type of healthy solipsism. In talking about his family, especially his mother, Gary rendered our own personal stories universal. We all share a relative who is slightly awkward, overweight, eccentric, and at the same time lovable, trustworthy and enterprising.

The second conclusion I took from the workshop was that we writers are privileged. We get not only to experience the occasional, unique moment in history but also to capture it and transform it into a piece of art. An aesthetic truth can be expressed in non-fiction as well as or sometimes better than in fiction.

The third conclusion was the raison d’être of writing. Why write? Because I exist as a human being first and as many other mutations after. And each of these layers feels the need to leave traces of their existence behind. That, in a sense, is the essence of writing. To give a platform to each of these identity markers in order to share a truth with the world. Sometimes in a fictionalised way. Sometimes veracity-driven. Each of these layers makes up and contributes to my writer’s output and constitution. I exist, therefore I write. Or vice versa.

I mentioned the writer’s solipsistic nature before. A caveat, though. It may be our voice doing all the singing but we still play with a full backing band. The combination of these two elements, the writer’s (inner) motivation and the influence of her/his surroundings on their work, gives us a vivid and rich tableau vivant of the writer’s inner world and the way it interacts with the outer one. That’s the fourth conclusion.

The fifth conclusion involves the blank page or the act of killing it. Bump the blank off the page as soon as you can. Your draft should materialise within minutes, because we always have something to say (write).

Sixth and last conclusion: writing is never lineal. Your story has a thesis. It also has an antithesis. The job is to combine both to come up with a synthesis. Writing that takes place in an echo chamber is not writing. It’s self-congratulatory, back-slapping, flat-lining drivel. Write in order to challenge yourself. Only by pushing the boundaries of what we know, as far as possible, do we start to scratch, barely scratch the surface of our human condition.

Thank you, Gary.

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store