Sunday, 30 April 2017

Four months in Spike Island

Four months ago, I arrived at Spike Island’s residency studio - the days and weeks gloriously stretched out in front of me full of opportunity for writing and events-organising. It felt like four months would last forever and yet today I have to pack up my little room and wave goodbye to the most wonderful time of my life. 

I’ve done a lot in four months. Here’s a few of my highlights. 


The aim of the residency was, of course, to do some writing! And my god, write I did. There was something transformative about having the physical space to work in - physical space that opened up mental and emotional space within me. I edited another draft of my Paris book (The Red Deeps) so that it was ready to send out to agents and publishers. And with that done, I turned my attention to a new project, a new idea - rattling out the first draft of a new novel exploring issues around refugees and migration. It’s rough, it’s messy, but it’s a first draft and I have high hopes for its development. So, how about that? Two books under my belt, one (pretty much) complete and one about to go on a re-drafting, re-editing journey. 

Plus I wrote a few articles too, for the New Statesman,, and Open Democracy. I even squeezed in some freelance copywriting too, and have a short story coming out on 3am magazine in the next few weeks. 


One of my main aims for the residency was to find ways to bring together established and emerging talent into Spike Island. With my salons, I was able to invite some of my favourite writers and invite open mic attendees to share their work too. 

The first one in February featured Shagufta Iqbal, Vera Chok and Miles Chambers.

Then in March I invited Tania Hershman, Bidisha and Holly Corfield-Carr.

And yesterday I was joined by Eley Williams, Amy Key and Ben Gwalchmai. Yesterday was also the first time I shared work from The Red Deeps. It was a real joy for me to read from the Paris book in my wonderful studio. 


Looking up to see 25 children aged 5-12 expecting me to teach them creative writing was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. It went well though - with the amazing children of Bristol learning to tell stories with the help of multi coloured cardboard squares and felt tip pens. 

This was followed by 25 adults engaging with Lubaina Himid’s exhibition to write poetry and short fiction. 

And finally on the sunniest day of the year so far, 12 intrepid writers chose to sit in a windowless room to discuss redrafting techniques and share our ideas and thoughts on how we approach editing. 

I also worked with three schools - delivering workshops on how to write dialogue (with the help of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants) and on feminism, gender and the media. 


Collaborating with Rife magazine, I had the brilliant opportunity to work with Kaja Brown. Kaja’s a fantastically talented young writer working on a novel trilogy. Together we looked at her manuscript and explored ways of editing it. Kaja also came to the second salon event to perform her short story during the open mic. It was the first time Kaja had read her work in public and I was super proud of her. She has a bright future ahead. 

1920s Paris

During the residency I ran an online reading group featuring work from my favourite writers living and working on the Left Bank in the 1920s. I also published an e-book of essays about the remarkable women who made their own literary and artistic community during this fascinating period. 

Press coverage

I got lots of press and publicity for the residency, including in:

And I think that’s it!

It really has been the most wonderful, exciting and inspiring experience of my life. I have to pay a massive tribute to the team at Spike Island - Helen, Georgia, Lizzie and Jane - who have been so supportive and kind throughout the four months and in the run-up too. I know we will be working together again in the future. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

For a vote for Theresa May is not a vote for women

I had a look for at Theresa May's record on women's issues - including her and her government's work on male violence against women, reproductive rights, poverty and refugee rights.

I was not impressed although there is some good stuff in there.

Have a read.

Friday, 21 April 2017

For OD 50 50: The Things I Would Tell You review

I reviewed The Things I Would Tell You, ed by Sabrina Mahfouz, for OD 50:50

Have a read.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

For The good side of a bad policy: Harsh migration law blocks forced marriages

I wrote for about how the minimum income requirement on the spousal visa law could be having an impact on reducing forced or early marriage.

Have a read.

Monday, 17 April 2017

For the New Statesman: How Romania's feminists are fighting back

Check me out - lead story on the New Statesman website!

Yes, I wrote about the feminist movement in Romania with particular focus on the fight back against a rise in anti-abortion rhetoric.

Have a read

Now to find someone to commission me to write something big on feminism in Romania with a fully expenses paid trip to Bucharest...

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Interview with Epigram magazine

I talked to Epigram magazine about writing, the residency, politics and feminism.

Includes bonus sneak preview of my favourite sentence of the Paris Book.

Have a read!

Friday, 7 April 2017

For The government's rape clause is a callous attack on victims

The headline says it all!

I wrote a (and I quote) 'sustained, forensic morally clear-sighted outraged' piece about the Conservative government's cut to child tax credits and its resultant rape clause.

Please read this. The treatment of vulnerable women by this government is truly truly shocking. To the point where I had to go back and re-check the source because I simply struggled to believe that this law could be real.

It is.

Have a read.

For OD 50:50 - a review of Cordelia Fine's Testosterone Rex

I was very lucky to interview the brilliant Cordelia Fine during her whistle-stop UK book tour.

This was the result.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

On being a woman, on her own, at night

I’ve had a really bad run on street harassment lately. 

Really bad.

There was the drunk man in Bedminster Asda. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a guy started following me at Gaol Ferry Bridge. Not only was this startlingly reminiscent of when I was chased through King’s Cross Station, it was the moment of panic that if I got caught at the pedestrian crossing he would catch up with me. Luckily there was no traffic, I got across, took a longer, better-lit route home, and then moaned about it on Twitter.

Yesterday on the train home from London I sat next to a drunk man. He was really pissed but he was friendly enough. When I asked him to move to let me off at my stop, he clamped his hand on my thigh to haul himself to standing. It was drunken rather than malicious but let’s be honest, he wouldn’t have used me as a prop if I were a bloke. 

Then on the way home from the station a group of very drunk teenagers confronted me as I walked down East St, the lad yelling ‘woah look at her’ etc and then hit me in the face. (note: he didn’t slap or punch me, this was no black eye or bloody nose incident - he hit his hand against my glasses in a drunken weird swing. He hit me in the face but not hard.)

I flipped out, of course I did. Swore at them and asked them what the fuck they were doing. As always happens, they just laughed at me and mimicked my stupid high voice and then yelled at me to fuck off. The rest of the walk home I just tried not to cry because I didn’t want to look vulnerable. When I got home I poured a large glass of wine and moaned about it on Twitter

I’ve been trying to work out why it’s been so bad recently. I can’t blame Brexit and Trump for everything. And then last night it hit me. It’s since I started living on my own. 

When I lived with my ex boyfriend, about 2/3 - 3/4 of the times I was out at night, I was walking with him. Men don’t harass you when other men are around. Once a group of lads started harassing me, realised I was with my then boyfriend, and apologised to *him*. They didn’t want to encroach on his property after all! The fact that men don’t harass women in front of other men is one of the issues we have in being believed…

Now when I am out on the streets at night I am on my own. There’s no man to shield me. So of course I am noticing that I am getting harassed a lot more. 

I’m so fed up.

Because what can I do? I can’t afford to get taxis everywhere. I simply can’t. Buses in Bristol are stupidly expensive too, and not very reliable. Walking is my best mode of getting around. I don’t want to have to spend money that I don’t have because as a woman on my own in the city I am a target for harassment and violence. 

Also, I *like* walking. It’s my main form of exercise. I love walking through the city in the day and night - I want to be able to walk home after sitting on a train for two hours or in the office for eight. I want to walk home from the pub instead of having to negotiate taxi drivers or bus timetables, searching for pound coins, getting annoyed by drunk passengers. I shouldn’t be denied the freedom to walk around. And I certainly shouldn't have to spend money because of men’s violent behaviour towards women. Men don’t have to spend this money. Men don’t have to take themselves off the streets. 

I just feel so beaten down by it. I’m so exhausted by it. I was fourteen years old the first time men harassed me on the street. I’m 32 now. That’s 18 years. 18 years of being yelled at and groped and now hit. 

It shakes you up, too. 

Take this morning. I’m writing this having come home from the supermarket. On the way back, a man bowled out a pub doorway straight into me, gave me a filthy look, so I apologised to him. And then I started crying. Not because I’m weak or a wuss. But because I am knackered. I am exhausted of having to negotiate space all the time - of having to move out the way, of having to make myself small, of having to apologise for taking up public space, of having to endlessly consider the best way home, the safest route, of having to endlessly think about what I’m wearing and what I’m doing and who is looking. 

I can’t afford to taxi and bus everywhere. I don’t want to. I shouldn’t have to give up walking. 

A couple of years ago I went to an event where Iain Sinclair and Matthew Beaumont talked about walking in the city at night. 

Sinclair in particular talked about the freedom of night-walking, the anonymity it gives you, the fact that when you walk at night you move unseen, an observer. The ultimate flaneur. 

Thinking about that talk makes me want to cry again.

Imagine having that freedom. Imagine how it must feel to walk around feeling anonymous and confident and watching everyone else. 

Imagine having that privilege. 

Imagine having that unquestioned right. 

I can’t. 

I’m so tired of it. 

Update: On advice from a few friends, I decided to report this to the police. Not that I expect them to do anything, but because at least then it is noted that this sort of thing happens to women, and is recognised as not acceptable. I never report anything but actually in this case he did hit my face, and the things that happen to women should be noted down somewhere, surely? So yes, feels a bit odd to have done so but it can't harm. 

Another update: the police emailed me to say the report 'will be filed pending any positive line of enquiry coming to light.' 

Sorry Washington Post, but we do need the vagina as a symbol of protest

On the 21st January 2017, women in every continent gathered on the streets to protest the election of Donald Trump - a man who boasted of grabbing pussies, was accused by over a dozen women of sexual assault, was accused of child rape, and was accused of rape by his ex-wife (she later retracted the claim saying he didn’t do it in a criminal way). I was there - raising my voice against the men who try to silence us through violence. 

Many of the women on the global marches wore ‘pussy hats’. These handmade pink hats were designed as a rebuke to the dehumanising, sexually violent language of Trump. They were a symbol against the very specific assault of this presidency against women’s bodies - from the pussies he grabbed to the wombs he immediately legislated against

The wearing of the pussy hats was important to so many women, as quoted in Paul Mason’s report from the march: 

“I can’t stand the colour pink, and that hat looks really shitty on me. But right now it’s my most precious material possession. I’m betting there are lots of people out there who will look at their hats and remember that they need to do something – not just today, but tomorrow and the next.”

A week later, I was on another march - this time protesting the anti-Muslim ban. One protest in another city requested that attendees left their pussy hats and uterus-emblazoned placards at home, over concerns that they were ‘exclusionary’. 

I was going to write about this at the time, but I’ve been writing a novel so haven’t done much political blogging. However, this issue raised its head again this week, with an op-ed in the Washington Post by Phoebe Maltz Bovy. In her article, Maltz Bovy asks us to drop the vagina as a protest symbol. She again cites the idea that it’s exclusionary (‘The obvious problem with vagina-motif protest is that it leaves out some women’); and that the use of vagina erases women’s experiences:

“The vast majority of women do indeed have vaginas, but they aren’t preoccupied by that fact day to day. Vagina possession doesn’t explain why Mary voices an idea in a meeting but the boss listens only when Jim repeats it. When Kate does the dishes again, it isn’t because Bob’s genitalia prevented him from loading the dishwasher. Yes, reproduction and child-care-related issues, not to mention sexual assault and domestic abuse, disproportionately affect women, and often involve women’s genitals. But even the women’s issues with some relationship to female anatomy aren’t really about vaginas.”

In her extraordinary book, When I Hit You, Meena Kandasamy describes repeated brutal rape by her husband:

When I’m through, what you have will be torn and tattered […] This is the aim of his rapes, all this rough sex. Not just a disciplining, but a disabling”

I include this quote to make the point that talking about our vaginas and what men do to them is important, that there’s a reason so much male violence is centred on our vaginas and wombs (pregnancy is a real risk factor in DVA). Biology is not destiny - that is a key demand of feminism. What this means is that so far, men’s oppression of women has been tied up absolutely in biology. The feminist fight is the fight to liberate ourselves from this oppression. We can’t do that, however, unless we are allowed to talk about it. 

After all, there’s a reason the American Senate tried to ban the word ‘vagina’ in their debates. 

The fact is, I would love it if we could drop the vagina as a protest symbol. I would love it if we could retire our placards shouting ‘get your rosaries off my ovaries.’ Do you think I’m not sick of this shit? Do you think I want to carry on shouting about my vagina and what men think they are entitled to do to it? Do you think I want to carry on waving a metal coat hanger in the air and demanding my reproductive rights? No! I want to finish my novel! 

It wasn’t us who made it about our wombs and vaginas. It wasn’t us who created the reason for our pussy hats. 

It was Trump.

Trump, and all the men around him. 

Trump made it about our pussies when he boasted about grabbing them.

He made it about our wombs when he signed away abortion support for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women. When his Freedom Caucus got together and signed away funding for maternal healthcare. When attacks on Planned Parenthood mean attacks on abortion rights, as well as care for ovarian and cervical cancer. 

Men make it about our pussies when they rape 1500 women in the UK every week. 

Men make it about our uteruses when they force women and girls to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. 

Men make it about our genitals when in slums across the developing world, women are raped and assaulted as they go to the toilet. 

Men make it about our genitals when they say a good woman is a cut woman. 

Men make it about our genitals and wombs when they tax tampons and use the money to fund anti-choice organisations

I am a fervent and true supporter of inclusivity and I know that the proposed bans on pussy hats came from a well-meaning place of ensuring trans and non binary people did not feel excluded. 

This matters. We need to practice intersectionality as feminists and we need to make sure we are inclusive and kind. But when we try and ban mention of pussies and vaginas and wombs in the name of inclusivity, we are in fact ignoring how the attacks on women’s bodies and bodily autonomy is in itself an act of exclusion.

All the issues I cite above are centred in intersectional feminism - from the fact that wealth and class privilege makes it easier to access abortion in countries where it is criminalised, to the dangers of going to the toilet for women in the global south. This latter issue is so, so ignored, by the way.

Take the abortion ban in Ireland. For women carrying to term a foetus with a fatal abnormality, they are literally locked into their homes. They can’t go out because of the trauma involved in having to either repeatedly explain to people that their baby will die, or lie about it. The laws on abortion exclude women from society. 

Or take the abortion ban everywhere. Women die every day because they cannot access safe, legal abortion. Male lawmakers’ obsession with women’s wombs excludes women in that it kills us. 

The rapes and attacks on women that happen every day in every corner of the world seek to exclude women from public space - and again, these attacks exclude us absolutely when male violence kills us. 

Language matters. 

We have to be able to name what happens to us. We have to be able to name the body parts that are under attack by male power and male violence. We have to be able to say that men attack our pussies and vaginas; that men legislate against our uteruses; that men do this because we are women and our oppression is a biological oppression. 

There was a case of mass rape in Bolivia where women couldn’t accuse their perpetrators because they had never been taught the names of their genitals. They couldn’t describe what had happened to them because they didn’t have the word ‘vagina’. This lack of language excluded them from justice. 

Women’s bodies have been unspeakable for so long. We have been denied a voice to name our oppression for so long. 

That’s why as long as men try and attack my vagina and the vaginas of my sisters, then I will shout the word as loud as I can. As long as men try and attack my womb and the womb of my sisters, then I will shout the word as loud as I can. 

To name the attacks on our vaginas and wombs is not exclusionary. 

To try and deny women the language to speak about what patriarchy does to us - that really is.