Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Write...Edit...Publish...August 2015 : Spectacular Settings

Happy to report that one of my favourite bloghops Write…Edit…Publish... is back again, hosted by Denise Covey and Yolanda Renee. Thank you, ladies, can't stop smiling! I am rather partial  – the prompts are thought-provoking, meaty, delightful, and stretch one's writing muscles in undreamt of ways. Oh, there are a million more reasons to love it :) This month’s comeback prompt is on Spectacular Settings, click the link to read the rules and join in. 

I'm starting with an excerpt from a novel where setting is king!

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.  These hills are grass covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.  About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld.  Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Grinqualand.
The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil.  It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men and cares for men.  Destroy it and man is destroyed…
 ~ Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton. First published 1948, about race relations in apartheid era South Africa, and the first novel I read about apartheid, growing up in 70's West Africa.
Why I have it here today -
  •    It paints a detailed picture, the reader can feel and experience the setting through the skillful use of the second person and personification - of the river on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and so too the grass, it is active, alive, nurturing, it holds the mist and rains.
  •     The author’s use of poetic devices - Lovely beyond any singing of it, but then that’s what he proceeds to do exactly – gets as close to singing as anyone can in prose – extolling the primal nature of the land, something sacred, the experience of standing on it almost spiritual: stand unshod upon it. Note the repetition and the lyrical language. Scrumptious! 
  •    Personally, I related on multiple levels - as an expat resident in Africa, where apartheid was a hot topic; as someone who came from a culture where mountains and rivers are revered as gods; and as a citizen of a country with a history of colonisation, segregation and inequality.      
I hope you enjoyed the excerpt, I thoroughly recommend the book.  It is like mystic topaz, reflects different colours at different angles. Biblical, epic, moving in a way 'too deep for tears': the layered tale of a simple country parson whose son's life has gone terribly wrong.  

Now for another mountain range that blows my mind every time – the Himalayas.  I am just back from a trip there,  a place called Mussoorie in North India, a 'hill-station' built by the British to escape the harsh summers of the Indian plains.  While I am no fan of what these sprawling towns have become now - with their galloping urbanisation and overcrowding and consumerism and tacky touristy shops and hotels, still no trip to India is complete for me without a view of the mountains, or some other rural heartland of India. Venture a few miles outside the main towns and it is quiet and secluded on the hill roads and utterly, utterly beautiful; birdsong and lush greenery and rushing, seasonal waterfalls and a stillness to die for. Couple photos from my travels there, this time and earlier. 

View from my room, Gangtok, Sikkim. Monsoons 2013.

Near Kempty Falls, Mussoorie. Monsoons 2015.

Finally, my entry, set somewhere in the Himalayas :

The car ground to a complete halt behind a snaking line of vehicles.  Laval looked up from fiddling with the phone, these hilly places one never got any signal worth speaking of.   The driver tapped nonchalantly with his fingers on the steering, in time to some tune that he hummed soundlessly.  It was stuffy with the ignition switched off, Laval wound the window down.

A fresh landslide had opened up a huge gash of reddish mud on the mountainside.  Small, ominous dribbles of soil and gravel trickled down on the verge even as Laval peered out.  Thick greenery dipped drunkenly into the wound from its edges.   A line of labourers, mostly women, he noted in an irrelevant aside, ferried loads of fallen soil on woven cane baskets, the bands balanced on their foreheads like bandanas.  Their line moved across the road, along the queue of cars for some time, and then down till the last figures became tiny dots of bright colours.  An ordinary lorry stood by to receive the debris, it too made toy-size by the distance.  It must be all these slopes, the gradient does things to one’s perspective, distorts stuff into looking smaller than it should, he thought.

“Why don’t they use proper equipment, speed things up?” Laval muttered to himself, then raised his voice and asked. “How long do you think?”

The cab-driver kept on with the percussion, he did not miss a beat as he said, “Can’t say for sure, Sir.  Rained real heavy this time.  The equipment makes it worse, too heavy for these roads.  The women do a steadier job, it takes longer but it’s safer.”

More delays.  Laval put down his phone - the signal remained stubbornly elusive - and opened a file on his tablet.  A stream of vendors of mineral water, diced coconut, chips, tea, cola, and various street foods filed slowly past his window.  A pineapple seller came and perched a bamboo tray on a stand, took out a sharp knife and peeled two of the fruits, then diced them into a pyramid shaped, serrated display. 

"Do you want me badly then? to skin you and chop up some? this golden-sweet pineapple?" he called to the waiting line of cars.

The driver halloed to a boy selling tea and asked for some served in small terracotta khullars, urging one onto Laval.  Laval frowned and refused.  He turned back to his files, sorting out his presentation, flicking over facts and figures, looking up impatiently at intervals.  A young labourer was approaching his window, holding a basket heavy with moisture-laden soil atop her head. Her blouse hitched up with every movement, her bare midriff showed a flash of deep navel, her skin where it curved into her waist was as rich in colour as the mud she carried.  She caught him eyeing her appreciatively and smiled a knowing smile, frank and delighted at an urban man’s attention.

“How much more time?” Laval asked, reluctant to be thought just gawking.

“Who can tell, mister?” she shrugged with her eyebrows and walked on fluidly, her shoulder blades and hips swinging under her bright orange, mud-spattered clothes.

Laval switched off his device and called to the pineapple-seller across the space of the opposite lane, “Dice me some fresh pieces.”

The man cleaved the top of a fruit with an air of an animal sacrifice being made; then swiftly peeled and chopped it up bite-sized into a Styrofoam dish.  Laval pierced a chunk with a toothpick and put it in his mouth.  As he chewed, he could still see the girl’s jaunty skirts swaying down the road, getting tinier and tinier.

Khullar - a terracotta drinking cup without a handle

WC: ~600 (flash only) ~1200 (excerpt+flash)
All feedback welcome!

This is a scheduled post, as I am travelling back from India this week, so I might be a bit late in coming round to read...but I'll get there. Thanks all WEP-ers! 


  1. What can I say? The excerpt from 'Cry, the Beloved Country' is divine. 'Roadblock' is an exquisitely wrapped gift for the senses. Thank you.

  2. The beginning of CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY is a classic of great lyrical writing, isn't it? Your flash fiction was evocative as well, I was there. :-)

  3. I loved the film, Cry, the Beloved Country. So powerful. Another heart-rending story is The Power of One by Bryce Courtney. The book is far better than the movie on this one.

    Loved your excerpt. The poetic description, '...they are lovely beyond any singing of it' wowed me. Second time today I've read such beautiful words describing such ugliness and cruelty.

    Your story was fantastic Nila. Put me right in the car with that grumpy urbanite. You get his dismissive attitude. Can't get away from all his technological trappings of his comfortable existence. But the cracker for me was the description of the pineapple cutter. I've seen these sculptures created in Fiji and I could just imagine it. Classic!

    So in your story you showed us so much of the setting, the characters and the excerpt from a larger story that's in the making I hope.

    Thank you for being such a loyal supporter of WEP. See, I listened to your and other's whining and how could I not start again. But I'm so thankful to have Yolanda for a hard-working, talented partner.

    Travel safe my friend.

    Denise :-)

  4. Cry, The Beloved Country made a huge impact on me when first I read it many years ago. You have reminded me I should reread it. And why I should. Thank you.
    I loved your story. I was there in the car, and I was also back in the foothills of the HImalayas again. A beautiful, demanding, rewarding place. Somewhere I have only visited once, and which carved a niche in my heart.

  5. Hi Nila - Cry the Beloved Country is a classic (A Story of Comfort in Desolation: says even more) ... and so evocative ... inadvertently I've been reading quite a lot about SA and apartheid and the countryside ... all drawing me in.

    Your excerpt - the Himalayas, the desire to get going, the desire - the girl doing her hard labours ... I'd love to read more .. and one day I will get to India ...

    I'll be emailing soon ... cheers Hilary

  6. Love the excerpt. Yes, I do agree with you about that classic. I enjoyed reading your story. I would love to visit there one day. But in a way I have. After reading your piece. Very well written.

  7. Your excerpt certainly transports a reader to that exotic location and then the line: 'Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men and cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed…' - what are we doing to our planet? We must take more care of it.

    I love your flash of the impatient business man, technology and the slower pace and patient of the actual inhabitants. I wonder if the business man will ever find a way to adapt to conditions he finds himself in. Great writing.

  8. I enjoyed both these excerpts, but your sample was more engaging, for me. I've never been to India, but always enjoying reading about it. Even the parts that aren't so pretty have a beauty to them and you capture that so well. I like the way "traffic" is depicted here. It's not the same as being on the highway here in the states; there's no culture clash sitting in your car listening to the radion and waiting to reach your exit. I like this. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Nila
    Cry, the Beloved Country, is a marvelous choice for setting. The contrasts are inspired, lyrical, but sad for the harshness.

    Your story Roadblock is inspired. You reminded me of how words transport and why reading was, and still is a haven.
    A favorite for me, the description of the driver:

    "The driver tapped nonchalantly with his fingers on the steering, in time to some tune that he hummed soundlessly.
    "The cab-driver kept on with the percussion, he did not miss beat as he said,". . .

    Brilliant. Establishing the setting on the road somewhere in the Himalayas, gives a sense of expanse, but crafty description of the driver and passenger in the car brings us to a more intimate setting with reminders of the expanse whenever he looks out the window at the gradient slopes, distorting his perspective and ours.

    You're a talented poet an amazing writer. I'm thrilled with this opportunity to meet and read such beautiful prose from so many talented authors. Thank you so much for your support it means the world to both of us. I can't wait to read more of your journey through the Himalayas.

  10. Great sense of place in your piece, not only 'where' but also 'who' and 'what'.

  11. The setting in Cry the Beloved Country is absolutely amazing. Your story took me immediately to the traffic jams caused by monsoon landslides with all the attendant vendors.

  12. What a wonderful Himalayan journey!
    I was there... soaking it all in...
    Roadblock is a wonderful piece!
    The first impression was a sense of vastness. Then I could see the snaking line of vehicles ahead, hear the percussive beat of the cab-driver's fingers, observed the young labourer's bright orange swaying figure.
    A multi-sensory appeal!

    I also posted paragraphs from Cry, The Beloved Country...

  13. Wonderfully done. Having taken this most fascinating journey it was hard to return to reality.

  14. Hi, Nila,
    Agreed, amazing excerpt from CRY...

    Your pics of the mountains are stunning. I can see how they inspired to write Roadblock. Enjoyed the setting and characters. Their chemistry was intriguing and real....

  15. I really enjoyed this. There's a sense of urgency. There's something in the way, something the main character can do nothing about. It's obvious that something is about to happen. You've built excellent tension and really made the setting vital. This scene obviously couldn't just take place somewhere else. Excellent job.

    1. * A side note:
      Most American's will not know what a lorry is. If that's part of your target audience, you may opt to consider that information.

  16. The Roadblock selection was very nice. It excites all the senses and paints an interesting backdrop for your characters.

  17. Ooh, I loved the humanizing of the man noticing the slim waistline of the woman passing by and then trying to distract himself with the juice pineapple. Very nice. The descriptions paint a vivid landscape for me, Nila, and I love the real images you included. Beautiful.

  18. This was a full sensory experience-I felt like I was really there. Love the contrast between the woman and the pineapple, also I loved the fact that he had a tablet-the juxtaposition of the modern and the rural.

  19. Another excerpt from Cry, The Beloved Country...seems I might have to check that one out.

    Loved your little excerpt! it put me right in that car, impatiently waiting for things to get moving again. It is a sad fact of the pace of life that people have in big cities that they can't just stop to appreciate the beauty of nature around them.

    Though it seems Laval does, if unconsciously, take note of another kind of beauty. The subtle sensuality of that bit was just amazing.