Chapter 1: I didn't mean to overhear this conversation but I think I was supposed to...
Plus a literary prize worth paying attention to, some #ReadCaribbean titles and the book that earned my undivided attention this week
Before I get into this week’s letter properly, I did just want to say thank you for subscribing and for your enthusiasm for this space I’m carving out here!
I thought I knew exactly what I was going to chat to you all about this week, in fact I had a completely different letter written and ready to go but then, earlier this week, as I took a seat in the coffee shop I’d decided to spend the morning in, I unexpectedly (and unavoidably), found myself privy to a conversation that made it a little too hard to concentrate on the book I’d been planning to read.
Beside me was a woman, recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, making arrangements with a friend about the end of life care she’d like to receive and all the other things you have to think about when you’re attempting to draw your life to a close.
As I listened to their conversation, I thought about how much, as a society (and I recognise that here’ll be cultural differences here), we whisper about death, and that’s when we even dare to speak about it. We so often confine these conversations to clinical or official spaces- maybe our own homes but rarely out of doors. Perhaps it’s because we’d all like to imagine that not speaking about death might ward it off, as if to say its name too loudly might invite it to disrupt our carefully cultivated sense of permanence, but here these women were with what appeared to be only a little less pragmatism, and about as much concern for confidentiality, as one might employ to discuss their weekly meal plan.
I’ve spent almost my entire speech therapy career working in hospital environments and I’ve supported so many similar conversations but there was something about hearing it take place in a social space, a public space, that felt so different.
Firmly, but in no way devoid of tenderness, they made their way through the list of items to be discussed: medications, palliative treatments options, contact details, power of attorney, funeral arrangements, and so on. They spoke like people who had walked this path a thousand times and understood the importance of facing this conversation head on and then, just as they were bringing the conversation to a close, I heard the words, ‘I feel really loved’, and of all the other details they’d discussed- the grim reality of encroaching disease, symptoms to be managed and the planning of last moments- it was this that caught me off guard.
“We forget how valuable the art of listening is, how irretrievable those moments are. You listening to me today makes me feel the same. How often we long to be listened to, to be understood, and yet we can’t seem to find the right words. How many times have you regretted saying something, saying it the wrong way, not saying it enough, saying it too soon, saying it too late, or not saying it at all?” (Shahd Alshammari)
I suppose that if I were to follow this train of thought to some kind of conclusion, what I’m considering is how easily we forget how valuable the art of listening is until we’re listened to in a way that allows us to feel loved?
As worrying as it can be that we’ll choose the wrong words or find our words misinterpreted, to what extent do we over-concern ourselves with whether we’re saying too much or too little, saying the wrong thing or the right thing, at the wrong or right time, rather than just ensuring our intentions are sound and hoping our words land as they need to?
It requires a specific kind of bravery, I think, to voice that you’re in need of help and a particular kind of care and attentiveness to recognise when you’re in a position to offer it but I think that in this way we bear witness to one another and what is more life-affirming than that?
Onto the Books
A Recommendation: Head Above Water: Reflections on Illness by Shahd Alshammari
This is the only book I want to rave about this week because it earned my undivided attention so now I feel it deserves yours, too.
Whenever I come across memoirs like this one I can only applaud and admire the author’s ability to document their experience with such transparency. It’s also written so beautifully that it was impossible not to be moved by Shahd Alshammari’s reflections on disability and illness (Multiple Sclerosis, specifically) and the interconnectedness of the body, language, culture, intimacy, motherhood, love and loss. It is now one of my favourite memoirs and I think you should all read it.
In other literary news…
AKO Caine Prize
last week the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing announced its 2022 shortlist and this is always something to get excited about. If you’re unfamiliar with the prize, it is awarded annually to an African writer of a short story published in English and, chances are, many an African author whose work you love has likely won, or been shortlisted, for the prize: Leila Aboulela, Lesley Nneka Arimah, No Violet Bulawayo, Namwali Serpell, Irenosen Okijie, Yvonne Owuor, Helon Habila to name but a few!
So, if you’re a lover of short fiction, as I am, this is a prize to pay attention to and the shortlisted entries can be read online for free here ahead of the announcement of the winner on July 18th 2022.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, June marks Caribbean Heritage Month (in the US), which also means that in June we #ReadCaribbean! As someone of Caribbean heritage, I can’t not mention this but for more in depth info and Caribbean book recommendations all day every day, do check out Cindy AKA @BookofCinz on Instagram, the Read Caribbean instigator . Also, while you’re there, consider following the Read Caribbean hashtag for an abundance of Caribbean book content.
Of course, I wouldn’t just leave you without some suggestions of my own so here are some quick fire recommendations*:
Memoir: From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island by Lorna Goodison
Essay Collection: Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller
Short Story Collections: The Pain Tree by Olive Senior and Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross
Poetry Collection: A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson
Novels: Book of The Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma and When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
So, there we are for this week.
Please seek a listening ear if you’re in need of one and keep well.
*These are Blackwell’s affiliate links. If you choose to purchase any books through them, I do receive a small commission but they’re mainly just there to give you quick access to book info!