Flamenco – the dance, the music, the culture, the artistic duende spirit – is at the heart of my novels Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, which are set in Andalucía, home of flamenco.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘flamenco’? The rousing, rhythmic, raw music, perhaps – the guitars and the hand-clapping and the singer’s cry. Maybe it is the sinuous, sensual movements of the dancers that come to mind. Or perhaps you associate the word with concepts that are inherent in the flamenco art: passion, sexuality, vibrancy, expressiveness…
These concepts are perfectly encapsulated in the costumes that flamenco dancers wear. The dancer’s dress dramatically hugs the silhouette, before giving way to ruffles that cascade romantically down. The more ruffles, the better! The dress is the red of blood or the black of night, and often has polka-dots – in fact, polka-dots originated in flamenco attire.
Until 1929, the traje de flamenco (flamenco dress) was worn solely by women in the south of Spain, who devised their dresses themselves and sewed them at home; but then, in that year, women from the upper echelons of society trialled the new style at the Seville Ibero-American Exposition, where it was well received by Spaniards and foreigners alike. Since then, fashion designers have returned to flamenco time and time again in search of inspiration, and this season is no different.
Visit any fashion store and you’re bound to find ruffles and polka-dots aplenty in the summer range, but this season you’ll also come across a new design: the so-called flamenco flares. Here’s a look at some currently on offer from Spanish high-street brand Zara:
Here are some available from another popular Spanish high-street store, Mango:
When The Times reported on the flamenco flares recently, there was an unmistakable tone of unease in the article, a concern that this style is ‘outlandish’ – ‘comic’, even – and that it ‘may sound alarm bells’.
Of course, everyone has a unique opinion when it comes to fashion, and understated simplicity is always the safest option. But personally, I don’t find fashion inspired by flamenco to be outlandish – I think it’s fabulous. Flamenco is all about authentic expression, about duende, which, as Federico García Lorca, put it, is a question of ‘true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation…’.
The word ‘flamenco’ is thought to derive from ‘fire’ or ‘flame’, which conveys the fury and fervour at the heart of the art. To wear a flamenco-inspired design, then, is to embrace that inner flame. ‘Erupt into style’ begins the Times article; that is exactly what flamenco is all about – erupting, conveying with stark honesty emotion and truth and sexuality.
What do you think of fashion inspired by flamenco? Do you admire a person who wears bold, statement pieces like the flamenco flares? I would love to hear your thoughts.
And if you’d like to explore true flamenco fashion further, the website for the 2017 We Love Flamenco show in Seville is an excellent resource: http://www.weloveflamenco.es. It showcases some spectacular designs that make flamenco flares look extremely tame and conventional in comparison; designs that may just inspire you to be colourful, vibrant and bold in your fashion choices this summer.
I dreamed of being an author from a very young age – from the day I first understood how the many books on my parents’ shelves were created and formed the idea that someday I could do that myself.
In those days, to be an author was to be someone who wrote books. It was that simple. Other than dealing with your publisher and engaging in the occasional marketing activity, such as a book-signing event or penning an article for the press, the author’s job was simple: write the next book.
That was my dream job. All I ever wanted to do was write books, many books!
Fast-forward to 2012, and I finally felt ready to seek a publisher for my debut novel, Burning Embers – a book that in fact I began writing in my twenties, but shelved while raising my children and running my business. I was excited that finally I would be living the long-cherished dream of being an author.
But wait… the author job description had changed! No longer could an author just focus on writing books, it seemed. ‘Facebook,’ said my publisher. ‘A blog. Twitter. Goodreads. Instagram. Tumblr. Pinterest. Google-Plus. You must be out there, all the time, making connections, marketing your fiction.’
There was quite a learning curve for me, as I’m sure you can imagine, but soon I did as all authors today must do: I settled into a way of ‘being out there’ that works for me. I blog regularly on topics that interest me and relate to my fiction, and I post once or twice a day on Facebook and Twitter, where I connect with fellow authors and readers. I limit my ‘out there’ work to this, and am careful to ensure that I spend no more than one hour a day on such activities, because for me my novel writing must always come first.
This is what works for me, but all authors are different, and it strikes me that ‘being out there’ is a source of friction for writers. Last week, for example, British writer Joanna Trollope whipped up something of a frenzy by criticising JK Rowling’s ‘insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time… that’s entirely driven by [her] ego’. She was referring to Rowling creating a mass following on Twitter and tweeting several times a day.
People were quick to jump to JK Rowling’s defence and point out that she is a writer who has adapted very well to modern means of marketing and communication. A Radio Times reaction piece praised Rowling for having ‘truly discovered how to make her newest content sing’ on the internet.
While I do admire JK Rowling’s ability to be ‘out there’ so much, I wonder how that affects her ability to write the next book – which, to my mind, is still the author’s job.
In addition, I think Joanna Trollope made some points that are worth consideration. She said ‘she deliberately chose to stay away from social media because she expressed everything she wanted to in her books’ (source: the Guardian). I have a lot of respect for this approach. It reminds me of Italian author Elena Ferrante, who was determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’ (For more on this story, see my article ‘Thoughts on the exposure of Elena Ferrante’). I am also reminded of novelist Jean Rhys, who wrote: ‘All of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person.’
Joanna Trollope also expressed concern over the future of the author profession: ‘It’s so depressing to think that aspiring authors will look at famous writers with millions of followers, and think that that is how you have to operate.’ I agree that is not how you have to operate as an author. You may do; you may not – but it is a choice, and you are perfectly entitled to make it for yourself.
The key, I think, is to be careful not to stray far from your own definition of ‘author’. For me, being an author means always writing the next book, and so that is what I choose to do with the majority of my time. But in today’s world, no writer need be isolated, and that is where I find this new world of social media really comes into its own. It’s wonderful to connect to like-minded people – such as yourself. So thank you for reading my post today. Now, I had better get on with my novel-in-progress…
Whenever someone asks me what my latest book is about, I am tempted to give a one-word answer: people.
Yes, Legacy is about Andalucía, the region’s stunning scenery and long-held customs, and in the book you’ll read about things like gypsy medicine and art and philosophy. But fundamentally, the book is about a woman and a man falling in love, and the complex relationships that define them: their relationship with each other, and their relationships with their family members, past and present. It is through those relationships – not the setting or the story – that the central themes of the book are established: passion, betrayal, intrigue.
Put simply, people are at the heart of all fiction: how people think and feel and act as individuals, and, more intestestingly, how they interact with one another. When you read a novel, then, you are making a decision to engage with people, to be open to empathising.
The empathy engendered by reading is so powerful. Though we read alone, we are not alone; we become connected to others. James Baldwin wrote:
‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.’
This connection is a means of understanding others. ‘You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself,’ wrote John Steinbeck. Reading allows us to feel other people in ourselves, so that we may understand them – but also, crucially, so that we may understand ourselves better.
Recently, the Guardian ran an article entitled ‘Frequent readers make the best lovers, say dating-app users’. It reported that the dating website eHarmony has found that both women and men are more likely to be approached on the site if they list reading as a hobby on their profile. Why? The Guardian article suggests it comes down to empathy. Readers are widely known to be more empathetic than non-readers, and empathy is, of course, a desirable quality in a partner.
Apparently, women who list The Hunger Games among their favourite books are most popular on eHarmony, while men looking for a date are best listing a Richard Branson book. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is popular for both genders. I wonder what this says about empathy. Does business non-fiction count for building empathy? Are women less interested in empathy in a partner than men? Why are the most popular fiction reads both dark, gritty novels full of death and drama?
What kinds of books do you think best build empathy? Do you connect better to characters in certain genres? When you read, do you seek books that will, as Steinbeck put it, enable you to ‘feel other people in yourself’? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Have you ever thought about the nationality of the authors whose books you read? Do you read books by writers from all different countries, or do you find you’re often lost in a story dreamt up by a British or North American author?
I was very inspired by a recent story in the news about a thirteen-year-old Pakistani girl who, having realised most of the books on her shelf were published by British or US publishers, has set herself a challenge: to read a book from every country in the world. Aisha Esbhani sent out an appeal on Facebook for recommendations, and she has received them from all corners of the globe.
Just imagine all that Aisha will learn, how these 197 books will educate her and inspire her, how enriching this multicultural journey will be. To quote George R.R. Martin: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’
Aisha will have such a broad knowledge of literature; the kind of knowledge, I think, to which we should all aspire. ‘Write about what you know’ is a common adage. But I don’t think it should follow that we read only about what we know. We need to read books that transport us to foreign places and make us think and feel; books that can change us.
I believe that we should read books set in all different countries. Take my own fiction, for example. When you read one of my books, you’ll be whisked away to Kenya (Burning Embers) or Italy (The Echoes of Love) or Spain (the Andalucían Nights trilogy) or, later this year, to Greece (the forthcoming Aphrodite’s Tears).
I also believe that we should read books by writers from all different nationalities. Perspective, depth and writing style are very much rooted in one’s nationality. I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, speaking Arabic, English and French, and at university there I studied French literature. Certainly, my writing is influenced by my education; by the rhythms and poeticism of the languages in which I think and daydream; by the importance of history and mythology in Egypt; and especially by the beautiful and colourful scenery of that country.
But I no longer live in Egypt. After leaving the country in my early twenties, I travelled widely, before finally settling in Kent, England. My husband and I subsequently bought a mas (farmhouse) in the South of France and renovated it, and for many years that has been our summer home, and then in recent years we have lived part of the year in Ireland as well. So, as you can see, I really do ‘write around the world’, and my books are not only set in different countries, but they are written in them too.
If this article has inspired you to ‘read around the world’, a great starting point for your journey is Goodreads, where you can find groups devoted to recommendations on this theme. I have also found it helpful to use ‘translated fiction’ as a search term – you unearth a veritable treasure trove of books (sadly, often overlooked). In addition, you can support Aisha at https://www.facebook.com/reading197countries, and see which books she has picked to read and her thoughts on them.
‘Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.’ So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, prolific writer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. After all, isn’t the point of writing to express oneself? Whatever you write, it is infused with your essence, your particular take on life, your experiences and wisdom and longings and desires.
Certainly, my own fiction takes readers on journeys to places I have myself visited; read The Echoes of Love and you get a sense of how I see Venice, Italy; read my Andalucían Nights trilogy and you see why I love this region of Spain and its fiery, vibrant spirit.
You also come to know, through my writing, that I have a passion for music and drama and literature, for philosophy and mythology, for architecture and for beautiful scenery; and of course that I am a dreamer, a romantic, and eternally hopeful in the power of love to be restorative, binding and inspiring.
But what of my heroines? Are they in fact me? When I look in the mirror, do I see not only Hannah but also Coral of Burning Embers, Venetia of The Echoes of Love, and Alexandra, Luz and Luna of Andalucían Nights?
In the spring edition of The Author (the magazine for members of the British Society of Authors), writer Amanda Craig considers this question in an article entitled ‘Not I?’. She opens by considering the case last year of a journalist revealing the identity of the writer behind the pen name Elena Ferrante (see my article on the issue). The journalist in question felt there was a story to be told because the writer isn’t of the same background as her heroine. But why assume that would even be the case?
As Amanda Craig explains in the article, the assumption that a writer somehow is their hero/heroine is common. She relates stories of writers, herself included, facing personal judgment because of flaws and traits in characters, not themselves.
This is a very real issue for writers, and it’s one I face myself every time I write a new novel. I devise a heroine, making her real in my imagination, with a detailed backstory; but as I do so, I am always aware that she is tied to me, that my readers may assume she is me. That is not so difficult when you come to write of a character’s strengths – her intelligence, for example, or hardworking nature – but it can be more challenging when you are exploring her weaknesses, such as naivety or a tendency to react emotionally without thinking.
Are my heroines reflections of me? No. I don’t write autobiographies; I write novels. But as the Author article puts it: ‘… if the facts of our own lives are different, the feelings are less likely to be.’ Were I to meet each of my heroines in real life, we would connect to each other on an emotional level. I understand their feelings; I have experienced their feelings.
To return to Goethe’s quotation, we could say that every author in some way portrays his feelings in his works. To write a book with emotional resonance, you must be prepared to share something of your own experience of pain, of grief, of fear – and also of passion, of love, and of hope. In that sense, you have to be prepared to look in the mirror – which, as Sylvia Plath wrote, will ‘see [you] back, and reflect it faithfully’ – but look past the physical, right into the eyes: the windows of the soul.