Alone in Search of a Character
In bed at night with insomnia my companion, I often write stories in my head that seem magical and moving. Come the light of day, the laptop keys beneath my fingertips, the phrases have faded like the ice in white wine on warm summer evenings.
Then, sometimes, like butterflies emerging from their cocoons, those lyrical phrases surface again unplanned in the middle of a page I've written and I think, mmm, not bad. In fact, it's really quite good – and by good, I mean within my own parameters, not compared with other writers, but compared with myself. Writing is a mystery and the best parts of our creativity often appear by accident, almost in spite of ourselves, like gifts falling from the heavens.
Last summer I broke up with my boyfriend, Julian, an actor with floppy hair who liked to dress up in my clothes. I went to Gomera on my own for a week of sun and lay on the sand with a straw hat over my eyes and music from the Alhambra on my iPod. Gomera is one of the Canary Islands; it is closer to Africa than Europe and from its small harbour Columbus sailed that famous day in 1492 into the unknown.
From the beach, I could see on the horizon a strip of rock. I tried to swim out to it, but it was too far. By the time I had struggled back to my towel, I was panting for breath and a novel had come into my head in one gulp like a movie speeded up and condensed into two minutes.
I saw a girl arriving on the island I had been unable to reach and being captured by people smugglers. I saw her being sold to a handsome young sheik (wishful thinking, I suppose) and being taken by sea to his harem where she is inked with the tattoo of the sheik's clan and learns the arts of the concubine. She is kidnapped again, taken by camel traders to the slave market in Timbuktu and sold to a ring of pagans who plan to use her in a human sacrifice. Will her sheik come and save her? That part of the story would come. I don't plan endings. While you are writing, the characters come to life and they chose their own destiny.
I had been looking for a new story and was grateful that, when I had stopped stressing, circumstances contrived to provide me with a character who could evolve on a journey into the unknown while bearing with her strands of my own fears and fantasies. She would borrow my views on boyfriends, relationships, sex in its cloak of many colours, and what it is to be alive today, a city girl with all those pressures on looks, body image, ambitions, career and the eternal search for the perfect mate; even the adequate lay.
The girl becomes known as Chengi (girl in Arabic), this generic name providing distance from the people smugglers and camel herders she meets along the way. Her actual name doesn't appear until the closing pages after she has shed the trappings of the concubine and found herself. Girl Trade, as the novel was finally titled, is an adventure, a projection of my visions and desires on the beach in Gomera, but remains rooted in reality, a dream constantly striving to come true.
Excerpt from Girl Trade
Our brain is a circuit board with neurons and terminals ready to be wired. We are born free, then programmed to obey our parents, to tell the truth, pass exams, pursue and achieve, love and propagate, age and fade unfulfilled and uncertain what it has all been for. We swallow the operating system with our mother's milk and sleepwalk into the forest of consumer illusion craving shoes, houses, cars, magazines, experiences that endorse our preconceived dreams and opinions. We grow into our parents. We becomes clones, robots, matchstick men thinking and saying the same, feeling the same, behaving the same, appreciating in books and films and art shows those things we already recognize and understand.
The swish of the cane and the snap of the whip change all that. The free spirit transmutes physical pain into a mysterious joy so refined the wires fuse and the programme is wiped clean. It is this pleasure that turns on the light and, in those dark places filled with fear and shadows, we see in that moment of brightness the hidden parts of our nature. When you take off all your clothes and swim out to an unknown dot on the horizon, when you have survived being abused and humiliated, you understand what it is to be fully human, animal and divine.
For ten days, two weeks, three weeks, it was hard to know, but on those long hot days and long hot nights, I had become Chengi, a girl with no past and whose one desire was for sex in all its erotic combinations. My short skirts and the sway of my hips as I paraded through the streets of London were a glimpse of what I wanted to become and what I had become. Lead a girl to the erotic well and she will bend over and wiggle her backside. It is the will of our primordial genes. We don't want to be an earth mother, superwoman, the head of the company, we want to lie on our backs with our legs spread and our vacant places filled. I had never known this before. But I knew it now. And I had a suspicion that in those dark places we are afraid to go, all girls have the same yearning, the same driving force, the same secret desire. In the vagina of every girl there is a snake waiting for the magic that will bring the creature to life.
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