Exploring faith in fiction

Sea Mosque in Jaffa by Ariel KahnAriel Kahn, the author of Raising Sparks, explains how fiction became his medium for pursuing Kabbalistic cats, prayer trees, and speaking silences, and how ideas about faith can weave depth into your stories.

Raising Sparks by Ariel KahnMy novel Raising Sparks is a magical realist love story, suffused with spiritual longing and Kabbalistic imagery. It began in a Suffolk garden. Our second child was due in a month, and my wife and I were on a writing retreat in a little cottage. Sitting in the garden under an apple tree, I watched a cat walk along the wall. It stared over its shoulder, as if daring me to follow. I had the sudden image of a teenage girl following a cat through the busy food market in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem. Who was she, and why was she following the cat? I had no idea.

Jerusalem means a lot to me. I come from an Orthodox Jewish family, and was supposed to be a rabbi. I studied in rabbinical school for three years between high school and university, ultimately deciding that it wasn’t for me, though it left me with a deep love of mystical texts. As the brother of four sisters, these spoke to me because they seemed deeply feminist, with a key motif being that the world was broken because the female element of the Divine, the Shekhinah, had been exiled – it was our responsibility to return her to her Beloved, through being present to the possibility of meaning in each moment. Such a sense of being present would enable us to “Raise the Sparks”, making us co-creators, responsible for healing the world within and around us. Whilst studying in Israel, I set up a writing group at the rabbinical school with my fellow student, Matt Eisenfeld. Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. l was determined that their love and vision would not perish with them. The love story at the heart of Raising Sparks is partly inspired by this couple, and represents my attempt to raise the sparks of loss and love I still feel for these amazing people, a way of sharing them.

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem by Roxanne Desgagnes on Unsplash

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem by Roxanne Desgagnes on Unsplash

Understand language as the tool for creation

Another intriguing strand for me as an aspiring writer was the focus on language as a tool for creation. Kabbalistic texts like the Zohar suggested that the world itself was God’s Language made visible, and that if only we opened ourselves to it, we could hear and experience this language, and even participate in it. My wife is Israeli, and I was brought up speaking Hebrew. The way a Biblical language had been adapted for modern use fascinated me – Amos Oz once said that writing in Hebrew was like playing the piano in the Grand Canyon. For instance, the word Kabbalah, the name for mystical texts, literally means something you receive or are gifted with. In Modern Hebrew, it is the word for a till receipt. This gap between the original resonance of a word and its modern usage fascinated me. Another example is the Hebrew word for electricity, Chashmal. Taken from Ezekiel’s vision of the energy that sustains the universe, it resonates with supressed energy – it literally means the speaking silence. What if someone could tap into that energy, liberate it?

Which brings me back to the young girl following the cat. I decided to go back to Israel for a research trip. My sister in law lives right next to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents, and her garden, overlooking the Jerusalem hills, is a deeply creative space for me. We stayed over there, and I had a dream in which I was the young girl I’d glimpsed in Suffolk. She was standing before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and all of the paper prayers people had pressed into the cracks between the stones were pulsing like hearts, or sea anemones, crying aloud the prayers written on them. I woke with a strong sense of who she was. Her name was Malka, which meant queen – a nod to the missing Shekhinah, as she would embody the power and potential so often lost in patriarchal societies, and identify articulate those voices that are so often silenced in our society – of the marginalised. She was a secret mystic, able to hear and even manipulate that original Divine creative language. The cat she was following belonged to a legendary mystic. As I wandered the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem, which press in so you feel you are still inside, I realised that she would have to escape this narrow and confining world. Where would an aspiring mystic run?

Jerusalem Old City. Photo by Arial Kahn

Jerusalem Old City. Photo by Arial Kahn

Weave your stories together

The answer seemed obvious. The mystical city of Safed, near the Sea of Galilee, has been drawing kabbalists for hundreds of years. One of the greatest of these was Isaac Luria, the Mozart of the kabbalah, who blazed a deeply individual, hugely influential trail and died young. Luria, also known as the Ari, or Lion, left his family home in Jerusalem in the seventeenth century to study Kabbalah in Safed; he commanded that all doors, which could be portals between one world and another, be painted sky blue.

Blue door, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Blue door, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

This is still the case today. He proposed the notion of raising sparks I mentioned earlier, and also spoke of the relationship between the two aspects of the Divine within and around us in shockingly erotic terms. One of his students, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a love song to the Sabbath Queen, another name for the Shekhina, in which God “rejoiced with her as a bridegroom does with his bride n his wedding night.” His community would dance down out of the city to the surrounding fields, singing this song, to welcome the Shekhina and the Sabbath. Even today, throughout the world, Jewish communities sing this same song, the Lecha Dodi (come my beloved) to welcome the Sabbath. I decided that Malka’s family name would be Sabbatto, a variant on the Sabbath, linking her to the Sabbath Queen more deeply.

In Safed, I visited the ancient synagogue in which Luria prayed. On the ceiling were trees. Many Trees. As I looked up at them, they seemed to spin in place. The Tree of Life is a key symbol in Jewish mysticism, suggesting the relationship between the human and the Divine; a tree has its roots on earth but reaches up to heaven, drawing sustenance from both. The Kabballah sometimes describes an inverted tree, the heavenly twin of this one, with its roots in heaven, its branches reaching down towards earth. Malka would see this tree, and variations of it throughout the novel, charting her development and growing self-confidence. I thought about Malka coming to Safed. Where would she go? I saw the way tourism had appropriated the creative energy of the original kabbalists, and domesticated it. What if she were to fall in with a cult, in which these erotic texts were manipulated to take advantage of the cult members? That word for electricity, Chashmal, is seen as hugely dangerous in the Talmud and mystical texts – if you speak it the wrong way, you might get burned up. Could Malka use this word, and what would happen if she did?

Western Wall, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Western Wall, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Use your fiction to examine questions

My literary quest was becoming a series of questions I wanted my writing to answer. If she were to go on the run again after Safed, I thought she would follow the blue all the way to the sea. This time, she would be running from the sense of her own power she had uncovered in the cult. She should go to Jaffa, the port where Jonah fled God’s word, and where Andromeda was chained to the rock in need of rescue.

Jaffa is fascinating, a deeply Arab city that is often attached to its larger neighbour, Tel Aviv, granting it a secondary status, though it is ancient and complex. It is full of symbols of the mingling of voices and cultures, like the Arab-owned Abulafia bakery which was closed on all Jewish festivals, and popular with people of every background and ethnicity. Abulafia was also the name of a famous Spanish Kabbalist of the thirteenth century. Was it a coincidence? Kabbalists themselves often argued that there was no such thing as coincidence, only singns we needed to learn how to read. My wife and I ate at a fish restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith, which trained Jewish and Arab street children to work in restaurants, much like Jamie Oliver’s Thirteen. I thought of the wonderful herb garden owned by Yotam Ottolelghi’s family, and of his eponymous restaurant, set up with Sami Tami, his Palestinian business partner. I imagined Malka sleeping rough on Jaffa beach, and getting picked up to work in a similar restaurant.

As I walked through the streets of old Jaffa, I suddenly saw an orange tree floating in the air just ahead of me. I checked that my wife could see it too. It turned out to be an artist’s installation by environmental artist Ran Morin. It felt like another sign. What would this symbol mean to Malka and her fellow trainees? Perhaps, suspended between past and present, they would find new ways of being and seeing, connecting across class and culture.

Ariel KahnAbout the author

Debut novelist Ariel Kahn is a prize-winning writer and academic. He initially trained to be a rabbi in Israel, where he discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. He has won the Bloomsbury New Voices competition, the London Writing Competition, and came runner-up in the national Pulp Idol Fiction competition in 2017. Ariel has an MA in African and Indian literature and a PhD in Creative Writing and currently lives in North London. Raising Sparks, published by Bluemoose, is his first novel. Buy it from your favourite bookshop, online from Amazon, or from Book Depository.

Read my review of Raising Sparks by Ariel Kahn.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Ariel Kahn.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to judydarley@iCloud.com.

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Art as a sensory experience

Gloaming by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Gloaming by Ange Mullen-Bryan

For artist Ange Mullen-Bryan, creating paintings is a sensory experience. For starters, there are the materials she uses: oil as a medium and canvas or linen as a base. “I often use coloured linens, using that colour as part of the painting and often leaving areas of the linen unpainted as part of the image,” Ange says. “Sometimes while on location in Sweden I paint with acrylic on unprimed plywood panels using the wood grain and texture as part of the work, again leaving areas unpainted.”

Evig - eternal by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Evig – eternal by Ange Mullen-Bryan

The texture of these materials is important to Ange. “I paint very intuitively and instinctively,” she explains. “Light conditions, choice of music and even smells contribute to the work. The mood of a painting is established as much in the studio as it is in my mind.”

Nearly all of Ange’s paintings are inspired by the landscape of Sweden or other remote Scandinavian locations. “I have been visiting a part of central Sweden for the last 21 years,” she says. “We stay in a cabin a few feet from the lake shore with no running water and no electrics. It is a very important place to me and its remote and beautiful landscape provides endless inspiration and scope for new work.”

Regn by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Regn by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Rural scenery, Ange says, serves as a vehicle “to describe emotions and experience through the medium of painting. Each painting is a journey to somewhere I don’t really know.”

Intriguingly, each work of art is a voyage of discovery. “The painting reveals itself along the way and is often very different from the place in which I began,” Ange says. “The initial idea that made me start the painting is often left far behind as the painting takes its own path and I follow it. I try not to think too much and give myself up to the journey, that’s where the painting really begins, when you are no longer consciously aware of it.”

Borta - Gone by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Borta – Gone by Ange Mullen-Bryan

For Ange the greatest pleasure is, as she put it, “That opportunity to enter into that altered state, that flow state you hear many artists and musicians talk about it. It’s rare and fleeting and the thing you are always trying to achieve. And if you find it you cannot be conscious of it, otherwise it’s lost again by the very fact that you have become aware of it.”

Completing a painting offers up is own set of emotions. “There are a few moments after you finish a painting when you feel certain and complete and relieved, when it is finished and the whirlwind of compulsion to make something is over,” Ange says. “Sometimes that moment comes after a few hours or many months but that certainty about what you do is also really rewarding. And then the process begins all over again.”

Floodlight by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Floodlight by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Despite seeking creative paths throughout her life, Ange didn’t begin to think of herself as an artist until she was in her 20s. “I was very interested in photography and spent endless hours at secondary school in a small cupboard that had been made into a darkroom,” she recalls. “I also liked pottery and lace making, textiles and so on, but also creative writing was really important to me.”

While in the midst of her Art foundation year, Ange had the opportunity to make large oil paintings. “Suddenly it all made perfect sense and I had a language that I totally understood in a different way to anything else,” she says. “But it was probably about 10 years after that that I really found my own way of painting, and I was painting consistently throughout that time. I was steadily learning to find my own voice, I guess.”

Photography, collage, textiles and creative writing are all still a huge part of Ange’s creative practise.

Milk Herb by Ange Mullen-Bryan

Milk Herb by Ange Mullen-Bryan

“Some of my work is exhibited at the St Michaels Bistro in Painswick, Gloucestershire (The Painswick Centre, Bisley Street, Painswick. Gloucestershire. GL6 6QQ), at the moment. Also my studio is an open one so you can call in and meet me and view the work, she says, adding: “Generally by appointment works best.”

Find Ange on Instagram as @ange_jolene, on Twitter as @Angelajolene, and at her website www.angemullenbryan.com.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Get in touch at judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

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Writing prompt – bottled

Bottled by Judy DarleyI spotted this old milk bottle in a local woodland. Instead of containing a slip of paper, or a folded ship, it’s half full of living moss and other greenery. I love the idea of it being a kind of ecological message in a bottle.

What might that message say?

Alternatively, might it be the equivalent of a ‘break in case of emergency’ tool? In a moment of planetary crisis could we shatter the bottle glass and release a forest?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

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Poetry review – Visiting The Minotaur by Claire Williamson

Visiting The Minotaur by Claire WilliamsonDrawing on myths to make sense of our mortality, Claire Williamson’s first collection with Seren is at once heartbreaking and comfortingly human, with the skill to make your spirits soar.

Seen through Williamson’s eyes, a half bull, half man hybrid is nothing compared to the complexities of surviving your average childhood. From the aching tenderness with which she knits memories about her own daughters to the grief and confusion of losing a sibling and mother, Williamson immerses you with such conviction that you can’t help but empathise.

There’s a distinct irreality to much of the carefully conjured imagery, which only serves to heighten the stark honesty of the sensations being shared. Family members long gone return as horses: “She thrusts her black muzzle/ into the cleft of my torso and arm/ and I feel her warmth for the first time/ since she drank that poison.”

Bereavement is a theme throughout, but even in the bleakest contemplations, Williamson manages to find humour in the moments she captures.

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Fancy a Flash?

FlashWalk2016_Actors JoButler TomParker

National Flash Fiction Day UK 2018 erupts tomorrow – Saturday 16th June – with events across the UK and a special trio of celebrations in Bristol.

The day unfolds with the #FlashWalk organised by yours truly.

We invited competition entries on the theme of Urban Landscapes, between 40 and 400 words in length. Wonderful submissions arrived from all over the world, and we managed to narrow it down to 12 winning entries, which will be performed by our talented actors, Ashley Green, Christopher Ryan and Poppy Hocken, during the #FlashWalk.

Ashley Green, Christopher Ryan and Poppy Hocken.

Actors Ashley Green, Christopher Ryan and Poppy Hocken

The fully guided #FlashWalk begins at 10.30am on 16th June, outside the harbourside entrance to Bristol’s M Shed. It will finish at the GreenHouse, Hereford Street, BS3 4NA (just under a mile’s stroll away), between an hour and an hour and a half later.

The GreenHouse will be the venue for the afternoon’s free writing workshops. There will also be an evening of flash fiction performances at Bedminster Library, and the launch of the 2018 National Flash Fiction Day anthology.

You can find more details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/178868469594679/,
here https://www.facebook.com/events/177406499633651/
and here: 
https://www.facebook.com/events/2106124046323877/

Hope to see you there!

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Writing prompt – missing

Hair grip, Arnos Vale Cemetery by Judy DarleyOne of the early inspirations for my story Knotted Rope (published on the Seren website) was a small pink hair clip I saw lying beside a grave in Arnos Vale Cemetery. It made me wonder about the child who had lost it, and then wonder what would happen if the child want missing instead of the clip.

Could this inconsequential item serve as a clue? In the end my story about a missing child took a different route, and that initial thought was reduced to the following:

       I overhear one police officer mutter to another: “Shame it’s not a girl.”

       “Excuse me?” My voice rattles through the air. “What difference would that make?”

       “Oh, none, nothing. Just, little girls tend to carry things, hair slides…” He flounders, pointing to a broken clip on the side of the path. The pink paint is peeling away; it’s spotted with rust. “They’re more likely to leave a trail.”

       I glare at him. “If you’re any good at your job you won’t need a trail, will you?”

What ephemera you spotted by the side of a path or road? What directions could it carry you in your writing?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

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Poetry review – In Her Shambles by Elizabeth Parker

In Her Shambles by Elizabeth ParkerI recently had a conversation with poet Elizabeth Parker in which I mentioned that post-it notes are a reviewer’s greatest ally. They’re a tool that can work brilliantly, but also have their fallibilities. With In Her Shambles, I ended up needing almost as many post-it notes as pages, as every poem contained lines to call me back, and make me want to re-absorb their power.

Parker is a master of shimmering last lines, drawing you quietly to a crescendo – a moment of thrill or unease. In each case, the final few words lie in wait, ready to tilt you off kilter, steadied only by the surety of Parker’s pen.

In Lasagne, the making of a meal represents a deeply rooted love affair, in which the ending stanza speaks volumes: “I peg pasta/ between fingers and thumbs/ lay it down for him.”

In Lavinia Writes, a eulogy of sorts to Shakespeare’s ill-fated character from ‘Titus Andronicus’, that ultimate declaration is a shout of rebellion, as the silenced victim, her tongue cut out, finds a way to share her anger by unpicking the stitches of her wound: “I tear more, free more/ until I am fluent.”

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Ledbury Poetry Festival 2018

Ledbury cr John EagerSome British towns seem better suited to literary festivals than others, and Ledbury in Herefordshire is ideal – with reams of streets and architecture that the word ‘picturesque’ could have been invented for. From 29th June till 8th July 2018, Ledbury welcomes back its annual Poetry Festival, which promises ten days of written and spoken riches.

This year’s highlights include poetry and mediation day retreats with Maitreyabandhu, Fiona Sampson and Matthew Sweeney, plus workshops led by Sara-Jane Arbury, and salons featuring poet Yvonne Green, with short reading slots available.

Don’t forget to enter the LPF Poetry Competition. The closing date is 5PM British Summertime on Thursday 12th July, 2018. Top prize is £1,000 plus the chance to attend a writing course at Ty Newydd (pictured below), the National Writers’ Centre for Wales.

All winners get to read at the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2019 – if abroad there is the possibility of Skyping at the winners’ event.

Ty Newydd

The image at the very top of this post was supplied by John Eager of www.visitledbury.info. The other image was supplied by the Ledbury Poetry Festival team. Many thanks!

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Theatre review – A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls11There are some stories that seem seeded in the emotional centres of our imaginations, where grief is almost made bearable by the multitude of disguises we hide it behind. In Patrick Ness’ exquisitely painful A Monster Calls, the stories themselves take on characters, revealing truths about our lead, 13-year-old Conor, while offering him a way to grapple with the tragedy unfolding around him.

A Monster Calls4

Director Sally Cookson has taken this tale, itself inspired by an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, and worked with the ensemble and writer in the room Adam Peck to create a play that gives voice to our darkest fears.

A Monster Calls13

Conor’s mum (Marianne Oldham, shown left) is seriously ill, and everybody knows it. What they don’t know, because he’s working so hard to hide the fact, is how much the situation is taking its toll on him.

In the role of Conor, actor Matthew Tennyson is extraordinarily expressive, embodying the fear, rage and determined self-delusion with heartbreaking vulnerability. Unusually, the ensemble remains on stage throughout, offering the impression of a world populated by unseen beings who guide or trip us – when Conor needs a bowl for his breakfast cereal, one is held out to him, and his school tie is placed unceremoniously over his head. It highlights the skill of the cast, as well as the director and set designer Michael Vale, that this seems at once normal and oddly moving.

A Monster Calls5

Vale has devised a set that leaves our imaginations free to unfurl, where chairs and ropes perform a multitude of functions.

While the monster itself is performed with visceral otherworldliness by Stuart Goodwin, the immense, ancient yew tree he represents takes shape thanks to an assortment of artfully strung ropes, which the actors clamber through with unnerving agility.

A Monster Calls1

From the start we find ourselves in the midst of Conor’s nightmares, where screened visuals, the physicality of the ensemble, and powerful use of sound, plunges us into a storm-torn horror that leaves the actor, and us, fighting for breath.

A Monster Calls24

Cookson has created a skin-shiveringly immersive show, aided by a soundscape from Benji Bower and Will Bower, that adds infinite atmospheric layers. We, the audience, may remain in our seats, but as Conor battles demons, both real and metaphorical, including a trio of school yard bullies (John Leader, Hammed Animashaun and Georgia Frost) we’re pulled along with him every step of the way.

A Monster Calls23

Selina Cadell is compelling as the grandmother torn between her own distress over her daughter’s illness and the challenges of a largely non-communicative, anguished grandson. Her home is signified by a swinging pendulum and relentless ticking that probably feels familiar to anyone who’s ever visited a grandparent’s house. The ticking heightens tension, which the possibility of an actor being accidentally flattened by the vast pendulum only adds to.

A Monster Calls10

Time is a prevalent theme in the story, with the monster only ever arriving at 12.07, and the terrible sense of time running out for Conor’s mother.

Throughout the play, this is the awful truth that no one quite dares speak. And yet, as the monster reminds Conor, right and wrong, true and false, and, above all, belief, are all complicated, ambiguous things. Not unlike an ageless yew tree that walks when called, represented by an armful of rope.

A Monster Calls is on at Bristol Old Vic until Sat 16th June 2018. Suitable for ages 10+.  Find out more.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Writing prompt – busker

Street performer by Judy DarleyAt this time of year, magical performances begin unfolding on every city centre street. It’s a touch of the bizarre that I love to see, but it does make me curious.

What could lure or drive a person to such a precarious, public way of making a living? Or are they investment bankers in the week and unicyclists on weekends?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

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