The Method by Tom Vowler

Tom Vowler’s debut short story collection, The Method and Other Stories, won the international Scott Prize in 2010.

Vowler’s collection is not only a strong piece of work, but also a promise, an overture to a great writing career. Vowler writes with confidence, easily inhabiting any type of character, and point of view. The eponymous story, “The Method,” which opens the book, takes me by surprise. I usually quite dislike stories about writing, about the importance of story-telling and all that. “The Method” is quite brilliant, serious in its dramatization of a writer who slowly turns into a character from his own story in order to establish perfect verisimilitude. The metamorphosis is sad and funny, and most importantly, it does not feel stilted and artificial, even though it is basically a lesson in creative writing.

Each of Vowler’s stories makes an impact, and it is hard to read more than two-three pieces in one sitting. This is a good thing. I love when I need to stop and think, to digest what I have just read and enjoy the multiple layers of the texts.

What strikes me as important in Vowler’s collection is the very order of stories. There are a number of ways to put together a collection, but to produce some kind of flow and rhythm in a series of unconnected narratives is as difficult as making top 5 or top 10 mixed tapes (remember High Fidelity?). I am particularly fond of the last story, “Little Man.” It is not just an excellent piece, but the effect it has on me is to send me back to the beginning, with a desire to reread, which is the best compliment I can give any fictional work.

Vowler’s collection can be bought from Amazon or directly from Salt Publishing.

Interview with Tom Vowler

AM: Tom, tell us a little about your collection. How did it come about?

TV:  Hi Adnan. I needed 25,000 words of fiction for my creative writing dissertation. There was a clumsy first novel, gathering dust at home, that would likely have got me a pass, but my tutor suggested I challenge myself with something different. In the year following the MA, the collection doubled in length and was fortunate enough to win the Scott Prize last year.

AM: At what point in your writing did you work on “The Method”? I have read on you blog that you have recently finished a novel and that your agent asked you to make changes, something about a character that did not work. Are the two connected?

TV: Ha, no, that story came long before the novel. I’d just listened to an interview with the boxer Barry McGuigan, where he talked about training Daniel Day Lewis for a film role. McGuigan said that, with the exception of the top five middleweights in the country, the actor had become as good as anyone else. This staggered me: the lengths Day Lewis went to gain insight into a character. I just took this concept to a comic and macabre level. But, no, the story is (almost) entirely non-autobiographical.

AM: That is very interesting, Tom. That’s one of the films about boxing. When I read the story I thought of DeNiro and of course the old master Brando. To switch to another issue, at one point you use the phrase “sacred mundaneity.” The way I understand it seems to pertain to most of your stories. What does it mean to you?

TV: I think that’s a story where the characters suffer a terrible and very public loss. The event and their subsequent grief became a public narrative, pored over and dissected by the media. And so when life for one character begins to assume a degree of normality, when things others regard as mundane return to his life, he regards this as sacred.

AM: I very much liked this sentence: “a calmness that suggests insanity.” Again, several stories give me this impression. I mean several of the characters can be, at times, described like this. Can you tell me something about this? How important was the question of sanity/insanity in your stories?

TV: It’s often said, It’s the quiet ones you need to watch. When everyone’s losing their head, ranting, exploding with rage, there’s something more sinister about the person who looks calmly but intensely on. There’s real power in that. I knew someone like this once: not necessarily insane, but you knew when events were about to turn nasty, when he was capable of terrible things, his serenity utterly incongruous.

AM: Your stories are really quite intelligently crafted, but at the same time the emotional impact is very strong, either because of the fact that I can sense the craftsman-at-work, or maybe despite that, maybe because there is tension between the emotional and intellectual impacts. Is this something you worked on consciously, deliberately? Can you tell us a little about the process?

TV: The question of composition and its contrivance is a fascinating one, and, as you no doubt know, not something the writer can always easily identify. Stories, for me, tend to start with, not necessarily a theme, but an event or specific emotional encounter. And from this a series of ‘What if’ questions draw the piece along. As for creating emotional resonance, I think all you can do is draw on your own experience, which although may be disparate, can usually act as a metaphor for what your characters are going through. So their pain or hatred, love or fear, whilst contextually different, can be evoked by summoning my own. Again, though, a lot of this happens at an unconscious level, seeping unseen from the writer’s mind into the prose. For example, I was aware that the past, its inexorable grip on the present, themed heavily in the collection, but people have also been quick to point out the recurrence of revenge, something I’d barely considered.

AM: Tom, thank you for talking with me about your book.

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My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint by Omar Sabbagh

Reading Omar Sabbagh’s first poetry collection My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint is to identify with the persona of his poem “The Ancient Discoverer,” “All the senses take on luggage.” Sabbagh’s rich and innovative language, and experiments with form, bring about “A million vital things – about our / pettiness, our littleness, and the moneyed threats / we build out of nothing to satisfy the avarice / of our perversity” (23).There is also something both secular and spiritual in Sabbagh’s poems, such as in “Prayer with Dopamine Inhibited,” where life is “warm and curious / In the mealy marrow of us” (34).

Sabbagh moves comfortably through language and yet not always very comforting themes, issues, images. His poesis shows confidence, skill, mastery, but also playfulness. There is particular quality in the ways Sabbagh juxtaposes words in order to bring about new connotations, new meanings, new sensibility. He highlights his use of standard poetic devices. Alliteration and assonance, for instance,are sometimes used in unexpected places, and together with other poetic gestures produce a form of gracious awkwardness: “they cauterise my universe / like the surgeon’s mystical specimens / specified by tools” (42). This gives us the sense of love and what it is like, the feelings between parents and children, which are already so skilfully evoked in the title of the collection.This double sense of harmony and conflict between words that produces the sense of human relationships. There is a sense of penetration until“what is left is only a skeleton, a skinnier version / of our former belief in ourselves, but settled, rested” (23).

Most poems are dedicated to parents, friends, etc. The poems dedicated to Sabbagh’s father deal with love as poignant as the verses are sharp and controlled. Yet, a part of this love, and the complexity of Sabbagh’s work, resides exactly in those verses that seem out of control, and when the mastery of language, form, poeticity take a turn, and partly fail. The reader gets a sense that something raw and disturbing enters the picture.

My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint is published by Cinnamon Press (November 2010)

This review was originally published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly

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Storm Warning by Vanessa Gebbie

I must say I tried to stay cool before reading Gebbie’s new collection of short stories and flash fiction. Her first collection Words From a Glass Bubble was exquisite: the stories were unique and authentic, the characters felt like I’d known them for years, and the narrative voices were both peculiar and particular, and all the more endearing for that. I was both excited and a little skeptical, thinking, No way Gebbie can pull it off again.

She did.

And she made every aspect of story-telling appear so natural and unconstrained. It’s almost like slipping on ice, Oops, she did it again, made us fall in love with her.

There are many stories that stayed with me. Since I have been through war, I can relate and quite appreciate the way Gebbie treats war. I have particular love for sappers (ever since I read The English Patient), and like Gebbie’s treatment of that bizarre profession (I think her father was a sapper).

There is one story that stands out for me, “Letters from Kilburn”, which has an epistolary form, and consists of the letters exchanged between an Iraqi boy Karim Hussein and Her Majesty’s Deputy Secretary. Karim writes to the Queen to ask for help and after a few standard answers, suddenly we discover a human being, a person behind the “function.” I will not reveal much more, but want to stress that for someone who has written fiction myself, this story is a masterclass in this kind of voice. Stories that use this form to make a certain point are most often than not preachy, un-engaging, stiff, formulaic, you get the point. “Letters from Kilburn” gets under my skin.

I cannot recommend Gebbie enough. And I am looking forward to her upcoming novel The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury).

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Insignificant Gestures by Jo Cannon

Jo Cannon’s Insignificant Gestures speaks through the half-sealed wounds of outsiders, different kinds of refugees, immigrants in and from Africa, and women and children. Cannon’s stories make readers live through the transitions and transformations of her characters. She crafts with care, and here I do not mean only that the prose is exquisitely wrought, but that the stories ooze with a certain comforting care for the characters. In “Theresa’s Spear,” the protagonist explains how Chichewa have “seven words for washing, but none for the emotions that sluiced through me.” In another story, we find a sick woman who thinks she has contaminated her dog and caused its seizures.

Cannon makes these snippets of life appear long. The short moments she narrates open up her characters’ pasts and histories. Also, we get the sense that wounds take a long time to heal. This healing is like a race towards zeroing out, where everything will return to normal or neutral. Characters as different as an obese man Mick and a traumatised woman such as Nasma grow from this same sensibility. Struggling to lose weight, Mick jokes about wanting to reach a body mass index of zero, a goal that acts as metaphor for what many of the characters are working toward — achieving a trauma-index of zero, where zero would not be the perfect state (of mind), but would entail forgetting and, therefore, represents a different kind of loss.

What struck me most in Cannon’s stories was the lack of desire. Desire applies to many yearnings: the desire for something or someone, the wish for a return of one’s affection, or the desire for resolutions, for a new life, for peace. So why not a desire to forget? Cannon’s characters indeed seem to move in certain directions, but without possessing much desire to push them on. Often their movement is forward, however insignificant it may seem at times. For this reason, the tiny gestures explored in these stories seem all the more miraculous. A touch, a look, a word, things that are barely perceptible, things that may not last more than a second become the long lasting ground for a new life. They are not desired, not even fantasised about. They come as surprises, as openings onto something new, “a pleasant sucking like a child’s lovebite.”

Interview with Jo Cannon

AM: Welcome, Jo.

JC: Thanks for inviting me to Sweden, Adnan. Great to be here. It’s warmer.

AM: Insignificant Gestures is your first collection, but you’ve been writing stories for some years now. Tell us a little about things that pulled you into writing fiction.

JC: I started my writing life in a support group for doctors. We used reflective writing to help with the emotional side of our work. One exercise was to write in the voice of a patient we found troubling or perplexing. I discovered that I became that person in my imagination and could relate to their problems with greater insight and empathy. Real life stories tend to be tangled and the outcomes can be very sad. I found I enjoyed the creative act of writing, and because I’ve always read fiction, felt inclined to make up ‘better’ ones! Of course, I could never use real stories as material. I wanted to share my work beyond our confidential group, so I turned to fiction, where I could control my characters’ behaviour and destinies and inject the narratives with a little hope.

AM: I must say that I began reading your book in the waiting room of a hospital with lots of pregnant women and children around me. I do not know if that affected me so that I was more attentive to all the child characters in your stories. Children seem incredibly important, even when they are not the part of an event, as in “Running on the Right Side of the Brain” where you describe an experience as, “a pleasant sucking like a child’s lovebite.” Can you say something about your focus on children?

JC: I was surprised you thought my book focused on children, but a quick count confirmed they feature in twenty out of twenty-five stories. Kids aren’t very visible in western societies but, of course, are a normal part of life and in other places are far more apparent and underfoot. For me, the epiphany of parenthood was the protectiveness I felt towards my children. This rapidly extended to friends’ children and then to everyone’s. My sons are teenagers now, so I’m conscious of the difficulties of being a young adult. Children suffer most in any adverse situation and are damaged by adult dramas in which they are powerless. I suppose in my stories they are a metaphor for the vulnerability of human beings and the need to protect one another.

AM: I’ll go straight to an image in the collection which not only stayed with me but which somehow became a metaphor for many other stories, or rather, the things your characters struggle with. In the story “The Alphabet Diet” the character Mick is extremely obese and in the process of losing weight, he uses this body mass index. Now, the ideal index is zero. To me this became a metaphor of the existential issues that most of your characters deal with. They seem to reach for some state of being which is zero, that is, without the things that burden them. Yet, paradoxically, I assume in the state zero they’d also boil down to nothing, they’d disappear. I may be pushing it a little but that was the sense I got, that they both want to rid themselves of their burdens and also fear that zero-point in life.

JC: That is certainly the point made by Mick in “The Alphabet Diet.” He’s joking because the ideal BMI is 18 to 25. Most of my characters, as you point out, are in existential crisis. With the exception perhaps of Eve, they all have troubled minds as a result of difficult life events. Each one has developed a different strategy for dealing with this because the human psyche reaches naturally towards light and hope. Sometimes the strategy is harmful to others, as is Andre’s obsessive love in “Shutters.” Others chose work, or running, or exhibitionism. Most of my characters are imprisoned by habits of thought and behaviour and need the input of another to change their lives.

AM: How did you decide to write about different kinds of refugees, or immigrants? What drew you to this?

JC: I’m a G.P. in an inner city practice and most of my patients are from ethnic minorities. Many have settled for several generations; others are recent immigrants. Sheffield prides itself as “The City of Sanctuary” and some of the people I work with are refugees. The fantastical journeys, the stringencies and courage that take people from one side of the world to another, astound me. Post traumatic stress syndrome, common in this group, affects the brain biochemically. As with most altered mental states—panic disorder, depression—a protective brain reaction outlives its usefulness and takes on an existential meaning. In “Nasma’s Malady,” I describe the psychological sequel rather than the harrowing details of her attack. Other characters—in “One Hundred Days” and “A Good Match”—experience PTSD due to an assault on their sense of self. In “Needle-stick baby” and “Fairy Story,” the protagonists suffer similar altered brain chemistry following emotional trauma. The capacity of the mind to respond to shocking events in the same way connects us as human beings.

AM: Some of your characters are Muslim. The issue of what it means to be a Muslim has been dealt with in terms of a lot of stereotypes. How did you approach it? Can you give me a few examples of how you dealt with the identity of someone for instance from Pakistan as in “A Good Match?” Arranged marriage is one of those overexploited themes.

JC: Although some of my characters are Muslim, this isn’t their defining feature. Nor is their faith central to their lives. “A Good Match” describes an imaginary family in a group with a specific history and alludes to the pressures put on some young people to maintain marriages that seem predestined to fail. But really, this story isn’t about arranged marriage, which is practiced diversely by different families and groups, any more than it is about religion. Mainly, I wanted to explore why a young man who is not violent by nature might become so and the devastating effect this has on him. Rather than concentrate on the victim of domestic violence, I hoped to show that Siddique, the perpetrator, is a casualty too.

AM: Religion seems to play an important role in several stories. It is both important and tangential. I mentioned the Muslims, but there is also the “missionary” theme. Tell us about your relationship to religion. How do you look upon work with refugees? What part does religion have in it?

JC: Many religious experiences are compelling because they are caused by altered brain biochemistry. In “Hand of God,” for example, Ryan’s religiosity is a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder and the aura of migraine. At some level he recognises this, so his relationship with the cult is ambivalent from the start. He sees John, the group’s spiritual leader, manipulate the piety of others to deceive and control: a commonplace abuse of religious power. The protagonist in “Eye of the Storm” believes that faith should not be flaunted, or even discussed, but practiced as discretely as any other deeply personal activity. The nun in “Theresa’s Spear” chooses a life of emotional deprivation until she realises that her craving to give and receive love is completely normal. She finds she can no longer conceive of a deity who allows extreme suffering. Like her, I believe we should hold hands as we creep through the dark forest because no one else is going to help us.

Professionally, I notice that the significance of religion to an individual varies and cannot be assumed. For some it is the profound centre of their lives; for others it is mild sentimentality, superstition, or a set of cultural customs. Inner resources and sustaining relationships seem to have more bearing on the ability of a human being to negotiate the difficulties of life and death. Many patients deliberately choose a doctor who does not share their faith, or any faith, assuming they will be less judgmental. Of course I respect people’s observances—they impact on medical management—but beliefs are less important than the humanity we share.

AM: I couldn’t help thinking about certain recurring names, such as Eve, which appears a few times. The book ends with “Jam” where Eve returns as the protagonist.

JC: Eve is a recurring character who appears, at different stages of her life, throughout the collection. We meet her first as a child in “Evo-stik” and the book ends with her death in “Jam.”

Eve is a contrast to the more lost and isolated characters. In some ways, she is an outsider too—an observer who doesn’t quite fit in. But she is grounded in family, so signifies ‘belonging.’ Her long-running love story with Tim threads through the book. “Jam” is a metaphor for her life, or any life.

AM: I wonder about your style. At times, in your stories about immigrants, I felt I wanted to see a different way of narrating, maybe some different sensibility, or tone, or voice. Then it struck me that the fact that my expectations were not met, actually added to the sense of the gap between the character and his or her environment, a sense of discomfort. The feeling that the voice and the character did not quite fit produced the effect of characters standing outside themselves. I had a similar experience reading Leila Aboulela’s novels The Translator and Minaret.

JC: I don’t know Abouela’s novels so have just ordered The Translator! Many of my characters—the protagonists in “One Hundred Days,” “Nasma’s Malady,” “A Good Match,” and Abida in “Daddy’s Girl” are intelligent people rendered powerless by their poor command of English. I’ve seen this often with patients, and it is deeply frustrating for people articulate in their own languages. My stories don’t attempt to convey the sound of their limited speech but rather the content of their inner worlds. Although their experiences are unique, their mental reactions are universal—hence the commonality. I want to give a voice to people who would otherwise be speechless.

AM: Do you want to say anything else, something I have not picked upon but you feel you want to convey to your readers.

JC: No, thank you, Adnan. You have really stretched my brain!

AM: Thank you for this conversation.

JC: Thanks so much for this opportunity to talk about my book and for the close interest and respect you have shown my work.

Insignificant Gestures is available from Pewter Rose Press or Amazon. Visit Jo Cannon at jocannon.co.uk

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“Not so Perfect” by Nik Perring

Nik Perring’s little pocketbook is a gift. A pocketful of 22 flash stories, perfect little glimpses into 22 not so perfect lives. At times it feels as if we are thieves surprised by the return of the tenants we wanted to rob, and instead of stealing we just happen to witness intimate moments. Still, we sneak out richer.

Perring’s stories are accompanied by minimalist drawings that remind me of Paul Klee’s drawings of angels. A perfect match.

There is magic in Perrings realism. It’s a mundane magic. Perring sometimes opens a story with something like a girl spitting fire in “Not Nitro”, but quickly and in a few lines the peculiar talent bursts with emotional complexity, metaphoric quality, and yes, something quite ordinary, typical maybe, but presented in a new light, in fact, extraordinary. Another favorite of mine is “The Mechanical Woman,” incredibly suggestive, and funny. I recommend it to men to read aloud to their wives/girlfriends/… .

You can get a taste of the book in this video based on the story “When you’re Frightened, Honey, Think of Strawberries” on Perring’s fan page on Facebook. Buy the book on amazon.

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Words from a Glass Bubble

To read Words from a Glass Bubble by the Welsh author Vanessa Gebbie is like having a talk with your most intimate and yet secret friend, a companion that will take you deep into its soul while at the same time touching yours.

The stories in Gebbie’s collection are like bubbles within bubbles, magical and multilayered. Simple, mundane lives of her characters ooze emotive richness, often against the background of Biblical contexts, which Gebbie truly brings down to earth and explores in their everyday implications for human lives.

I read it at one sitting, so it was quite a page turner, but then the second, slower reading was a far more enriching experience. There is a lot of mass below the tip of this iceberg of a book.

Buy here. Visit her quirky site.

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Grandma and Death

In June 2008, I had to ask my grandma to fake death.

Although she shouldered some eighty years, her back was stick straight, as if always at attention. I have never seen her slouch in front of a TV like every single one of us from my father’s generation on. She had the liveliest eyes and rosy cheeks as if she’d pinched them a little too many times back in the day when grandpa was trying to get her to marry him. I suppose they had to be quite red to knock him off his feet when she peeked out through her window, with only moonlight to play with. I never figured out her toothless smile. It made her look either shy or smart. She hated commotion and conflict, and she read he Qur’an deep into the night and early in the morning and on hot afternoons in her cool corner where the light was good and where her eye-drops had their proper place and where she hid her blood-pressure pills. She was quite blind, and deaf. She would sit ten inches from the TV-set, watch it from it side with her good eye, and with her good ear turned to the left speaker. She had broken her left hip some twenty years earlier and now that she was living in modern Sweden since the outbreak of the Balkan war, she still refused to have it fixed, properly this time. Needless, you know. Her name is Sena Mahmutović, and I had no idea how much she loved me.

In Spring 2008, while my American colleagues at the Department of English, Stockholm University worried who would be the democratic candidate – Obama or Clinton) – and whether or not either stood a fair chance in the upcoming elections, I walked about thinking how to ask my grandma to fake death.

Why?

For a film.

I always wanted to make a film. I tried pulling together a project a few years earlier, but no Swedish producer wanted to risk being ripped off by those Balkan types, by which they did not necessarily mean me, but the people in Bosnia where I wanted to shoot it. And the story I had in mind was too … outrageous, I suppose.

Now I had a much simpler story I called “Gusul” which was about two Bosnian immigrants in Sweden, a sick mother and her only daughter, living alone after the father/husband was killed in the war, which reduced the old woman to a silent, supine body. Then, the only time the daughter hears her mother speak, is when the mothers asks her for some traditional plum pie, a very curious kind of dish that is really nothing like a pie. This seems to be a sign of recovery, but then the mother dies, and the daughter decides to perform the Muslim ritual washing, gusul. One last touch, one last intimacy.

An old friend of mine, Armin Osmancević, who ran an advertising agency WERK and a small film company called ARTWERK, proposed that he produce it. The story conveyed an immense intimacy between the women, and Islamic sentimentality quite uncommon in contemporary fiction and film, far removed from controversial and hyped-up bullshit.

Armin put together a team of people as diverse and culturally unconnected to some elements of the film as possible, but each cared about the kernel story. They all worked for crumbs. Our budget was small and meant to cover the equipment, and the lead actress Aida Gordon, who would come to give an amazing performance for half her usual rate. But we still needed to cast the mother character.

I could not imagine anyone more perfect than my own grandma, but how to ask. She was a traditional woman, wearing a hijab even though she had been in menopause since time immemorial and did not have to. I did not only need her to fake death but also to strip naked to get the ritual washing.

I could not do it, so naturally I told my mother, who told my grandma, who in turn said, Yes.

No hesitation. Just a Yes. Plain and uncanny.

I got this feeling of electricity crackling on the surface of my skin, and my lungs heating up. Yet, I still had my doubts whether or not she could really make it happen. Did she really understand what she signed up for? Again, I told my mother, and she asked her, and she came back with the best answer.

The shooting was postponed from June to September.

When we finally had a date that suited everyone, 12-14 September, it coincided with Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, when Muslims skip eating from sunrise to sunset. September days in Northern Sweden are long, 4am-8pm. I told Grandma she was old and weak, not in her best health, so she should not be fasting. I said, “You’ve done your share of fasting and it’s plain irresponsible to put such a strain on yourself.” But no, she had done it since a young girl, and she was determined to keep fasting Ramadan until she died. She would not stand us up, nor would she stand God up. It was her first role. She was curious.

I do not want to complain about the ordeals of preproduction, and as an afterthought I do not care about the Hell of postproduction with burnt hard drives and mission-impossible rescues of the material, and the CGI of grandma’s twitching eyes while dead. It is the three perfect days of shooting that are the best days of my life.

Grandma lived with my parents in a city some 200 miles south of Stockholm. I asked her to bring all the pajamas or whatever she used to sleep in, so we could see what color was most suitable. She said she had nothing new and fancy and she feared everyone would laugh at her for that. That was not exactly what I imagined she would be worried about. She had further worries her hair would be messy and unmanageable, that she would forget her cues, nothing unorthodox for any actress.

On Friday 12, we hired the equipment, and my parents brought grandma in the evening. After dinner, I walked her through the script, and was quite hoarse afterwards. She was deafer than six months earlier. She did not show a trace of doubt that the film should be made and that she was the one to do the “dying” job.

On Saturday, the first day of shooting, I forgot the keys to the apartment we would be using, so the crew had the breakfast meeting on the sidewalk waiting for me to fetch the keys. The apartment was my mother-in-law’s, a simple immigrant abode, run-down just enough for the pathos of the story, but it had big windows and we wanted a lot of natural light flooding the stage. My father-in-law, who was cancer sick, spent the weekend at my place.

Aida Gordon, the actress playing the daughter took time talking with Grandma, and making a great first impression. They charmed everyone, and created the perfect atmosphere of warmth on a cold Swedish morning.

Grandma spent twelve hours in bed, getting up for occasional visits to the bathroom. The make-up, camera adjustments, lights, props, all that took an awful long time. The shooting was quite quick. Grandma was anxious about wearing make-up, because she had never used any such thing. The Swedish make-up artists, who were paid in movie-tickets for the film festival, explained to her it was not really a whole lot of mascara, eye shadow, lipstick and all that jazz that she needed. She only needed some cover that killed the sweat flow, and consumed light rather than reflected it.

Grandma’s lines were the funniest. I lied on the floor, out of sight, and prompt her, and sometimes when I tugged her sleeve or something, she’d say, What do you want? Although she knew she was only acting, she took everything literally. When we practiced, I told her she should say, My feet are cold.

She got serious and said, Yes, that’s true, they are cold, all the time.

Then, when we the camera was rolling, and I prompted her to repeat the words, she said, Now they feel warmer.

She did not quite understand why she had to repeat the same words over and again as we were shooting the same scene from different angles, or when Aida did not get the scene just right.

In another scene, we wanted her to drink water, or just pretend to take a sip, and say that she wanted some traditional Bosnian plum pie.

She said, I’m fasting.

I said, You won’t eat it, just say you desire some.

But, I don’t want any.

Just say it.

All right.

Now, she knew that first thing that morning we had already filmed the scene when the daughter makes the pie. She said, But she already made the pie, she doesn’t have to bother making another one.

We wanted the actress to prepare for the scenes where she is immensely sad and tearful, but Grandma kept saying things that made everyone laugh, and as the shooting went on there was an expectancy that she would keep delivering these lines that would do well in behind the scenes footage. There was none such footage, of course.

On Sunday 14, the fake death day, when we planned on filming the scenes of ritual washing, I only slept a few hours. I got up at 4 a.m., drank a lot of water and carrot juice, but I could not eat. I too would be fasting. I sat scribbling on my laptop, and watched the sun play with old roofs of Stockholm churches across the narrow strip of sea between Skanstull and Hammarby Sjöstad, waiting for Grandma to wake. I could not stand waiting so I went out for a run, imagining I fell into the cold, harbor water, getting out all cool and fresh, between boats and wild-duck droppings, the drowsy seagulls, swans and those red-beaked black birds I never cared to find the names for. I kept thinking about Grandma and what she was doing for me.

Grandma was tired, and hoped we could finish her scenes quickly so she could go home. I did promise her she would not have to work more than one day, but I underestimated the need for rearrangements, rehearsals and retakes.

She had trouble mastering the art of keeping still when she faked death, but otherwise she expressed no anxiety. I so wished to know what was going on in her mind, and yet not. I kept at her side as Armin was directing. She had no more lines to say, which meant she would not make any funny mistakes, and that made the washing scene even heavier, but at the same time she did peek or wink or sneeze or sniff or lick her lips or asked questions about the guys hiding behind lenses or microphones or lights. Ergo: many retakes.

She was done by 4 p.m. dressed up and eager to go home.

I wanted to buy her something, a small token, anything.

She refused.

I insisted.

She laughed at me and slapped my on the chin.

I told my wife to find her some nice clothes, a new skirt, pajamas, blouse, anything. My wife thought Grandma had trouble walking in long skirts, which got tangled up all the time with her walking aid, or when she sat in narrow cars. She bought her a pair of really nice, soft, and comfortable pants. She refused to even try them on. She said, I’ve never worn pants in my life and I sure am not going to start now.

Then she left. I went back to the set, thinking of her.

We had a telephone scene left to shoot, when the daughter squabbles with the imam about doing the washing at home. I could not focus. I ate the rests of the plum pie.

(The official website Washing).

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