Adventures into the Unknown: Jersey Festival of Words, part two

Late Saturday afternoon and evening at Jersey Festival of Words brings two new things into my life: Masterchef and Joanna Trollope.

If you’d asked me a year ago I’d have told you I didn’t do cooking. But in the last twelve months, with new work and only really myself to bother about, I’ve started to try new dishes. Turns out I’m alright at following a recipe. I wouldn’t know where to begin when it comes to creating dishes though so I’m somewhat in awe of Saliha Mahmood Ahmed who’s come to talk about her recipe book, Khazana, and her experience as the 2017 winner of Masterchef.

Two things really stand out: the first is how Saliha talks about her family and the influence they’ve had on the way she thinks about food. Her mother was a consultant working in the NHS with three young children but time was always made for them to have dinner as a family. The food was fresh and the rule was ‘Eat that or go hungry –  and you weren’t allowed to go hungry’. Her grandmother ‘cooked simply’ but was unique in putting sour apples in curry, ‘We had apples in every form.’ While her dad’s wanderlust took Saliha to places that inspired her cooking.

The second thing is her interest in the Mughal Empire and how that’s informed her cookbook. She describes a typical hareem with buildings constructed with marble, horticulture gardens and peacocks wandering around. The tables would be calico covering on leather on which food would be presented in huge portions in gold and silver dishes. Flavours in the room would include sandalwood and rose. Rose petals were used as a scent or a seasoning. They would feed chickens rosewater because they thought it would taste better. It’s this that inspired the Rose-Scented Chicked dish which Saliha cooked on Masterchef.

The book has 110 recipes, she tells us and – hurrah – was put together by an all-female team. Saliha wanted to capture the stories behind the recipes in the photography and used the influence of the Mughal Empire for the colours. There’s no doubt Khazana looks beautiful. Whether or not I’m capable of cooking anything in it remains to be seen.

Photograph by Peter Mourant

I am definitely, however, capable of reading a Joanna Trollope novel. Although, for reasons yet to be discerned, I never have. Not one of the 31 novels or one book of non-fiction she’s written during her 40 year career aka ‘forever’ as Joanna herself refers to it.

She says she writes to start a conversation about whatever society’s current dilemma is. In her latest novel, An Unsuitable Match, it’s a subsequent marriage between two heterosexuals in their 60s which the woman’s grown-up children have opinions about, particularly when it comes to who’s inheriting what.

Joanna talks about love and how she tries to show it in her novels. Valentines’ Day is ‘the seventh circle of hell’. Love is ‘unloading the dishwasher together’. ‘I deal in reality,’ she says, crediting the success of her novels to observing other people. She shares an anecdote about an ‘immaculate French woman’ who came to one of her signings in Paris and said to Joanna, ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing sitting in my kitchen for the last three years’.

Interviewer Cathy Le Feuvre asks whether she’s ever felt pressure from her publishers to include a sex scene in her novels. She says no, she leaves them to the reader’s imagination, adding that her books started to become popular as the 80s bonkbusters were falling out of fashion. Ah, that’s why I’ve never read a Joanna Trollope novel: I was too busy with Jilly Cooper’s.

Photographs by Peter Mourant

Finally, on the Sunday lunchtime, I chair a panel on a subject that is even further removed from me than cooking: gardening. It’s difficult to write about an event you were part of; I find myself so focused on what’s happening in the moment I can’t remember much about it afterwards. However, all three of the books by the women on the panel are brilliant so I am going to heartily recommend them to you.

A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall is the story of Jonah whose wife has died by suicide following a series of miscarriages. After her death, he spends time in Kew Gardens where he meets Chloe, an artist, and they both encounter Harry, one of the gardeners, and Milly, an eight-year-old girl. It’s beautifully written, perfectly capturing the weight of grief. That makes it sound miserable but, honestly, it’s a gorgeous book.

War Gardens by Lalage Snow covers five years and several of the world’s most dangerous war zones. Working as a war correspondent left Lalage with war fatigue so when she discovered that people in conflict zones were maintaining gardens behind closed doors, she began to seek them out. The book tells the stories of a number of gardeners building new life in places of destruction. Lalage is also a photographer and the images in the book are fantastic.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury is a memoir, spanning a year after a relationship break-up when Kate moves to Brighton, buys a flat and tears up the decking outside to create a wildlife garden. She recalls her childhood gardens alongside the work on her new place – including the creation of a bee hotel – and then her mother falls ill and life takes a different turn. I might not know anything about gardening but if one book’s capable of convincing me to give it a go someday, this is it.

In the Media: 15th March 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s been a great week for women writers and prizes. The Wellcome Prize shortlist was announced on Monday, including four books (of six) by women. Congratulations Miriam Towes, Alice Roberts, Sarah Moss and Marion Coutts. On Tuesday, the twenty-strong Bailey’s Prize longlist was announced. Chair of this year’s judges, Shami Chakrabarti discussed the need for the prize in The Guardian and Buzzfeed created a guide to the longlisted booksThe OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature has five women (of nine) on the longlist. Congratulations Tanya Shirley, Monique Roffey, Tiphanie Yanique, Elizabeth Nunez and Olive Senior. The PEN/Faulkner award has three women on a shortlist of five. Congratulations Emily St. John Mandel, Jennifer Clement and Jenny Offill. The Stella Prize, the Australian prize for female writers announced its shortlist this week too. Congratulations to Maxine Beneba Clarke, Emily Bitton, Ellen Van Neervan, Sophie Lagune, Jean London and Christine Keneally. Marina Warner won the Holberg Prize 2015. And women won four of the six categories at the National Book Critics Circle Award. Congratulations Marilynne Robinson, Roz Chast, Ellen Willis and Claudia Rankine.

It’s Mother’s Day in the UK today. Jo Hogan writes ‘Surprised by a Jumper: On Being Motherless on Mother’s Day‘ on her blog; Scottish Book Trust list ten books that celebrate pioneering women; Emma Healey wrote, ‘From Offshore to Oranges: a literary tribute to Mother’s Day‘ in the Guardian; Emylia Hall wrote, ‘The Mother of All Years‘ on her blog; Windmill Books published an extract of Charlotte Gordon’s forthcoming book, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley on their website, and Kate Hamer wrote, ‘Literary matriarchs and their daughters, from Little Women to Carrie‘ in the Independent

Two in-depth Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie interviews have been published this week, one in Vogue and the other on Olisa.tv: part one and part two.

The woman with the most publicity this week is Caitlin Moran. She’s interviewed on Buzzfeed and on the British Comedy Guide with her sister Caroline Moran; Pilot Viruet wrote, ‘Caitlin Moran’s UK Series ‘Raised by Wolves’ Is the Teen Sitcom America Needs‘ on Flavorwire; she’s profiled by Vanessa Thorpe in the Observer and her own Times Magazine column this week was ‘What it really means to be a mum‘ which you can listen to for free here.

And the latest on the Harper Lee story: on Wednesday, The Bookseller reported, ‘State investigators interview Harper Lee‘ and on Friday, Lee’s agent issued a statement, The Bookseller reported, ‘Nurnberg blasts ‘shameful’ Lee claims‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

Claire Fuller Colour

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists: