People complain about spending too much time online but one of the distinct advantages is that it does put you in touch with others who become genuine (i.e. not just virtual) friends. My guest this week, Mary Smith, is one such person. We met in a Scottish writers’ group which gets together occasionally for entertaining lunches, usually in Edinburgh or Glasgow. The subject matter of Mary’s writing has, at least thus far, singled her out as being a little different. But I’ll let her explain.
First of all, Mary, it’s your connection with Afghanistan that’s intriguing. Tell us a bit about how you came to be working there.
I was working for the Pakistan leprosy programme in Karachi (how that came about is too long a story for this blog but it involved a spur of the moment decision and a certain amount of whisky). While there, I met lots of young Afghans, some of whom were studying to become paramedics before returning to their country to run health clinics. They talked endlessly – and very emotionally – about their country and by the time my three-year contract ended it was almost inevitable I signed up for another three across the border. I helped set up the clinics and later established a mother and child care project training village women to become health volunteers.
And what made you decide to write a book about it all?
Not many have the opportunity to live in Afghanistan for such an extended period of time. I still feel incredibly privileged to have had those years there and I wanted to share my experiences with others. I wanted to introduce people to my Afghan friends, even if only through the pages of a book. I particularly wanted to provide a different perspective from the one the media presents which tends to portray Afghanistan and her people negatively; to show it isn’t all fighting and the repression of women.
Well, as you know better than I do, there are plenty of books on Afghanistan already. Is yours different?
I think so, yes. I’ve read and enjoyed dozens of excellent books about Afghanistan but what makes mine different is the women and the insight into their lives. Of course, Western men are unlikely to be able to mix freely with Afghan women so I was in a privileged position.
Life is tough, especially for women living in remote rural areas. Most of the ones I met had had a miscarriage or lost an infant. But they don’t go around feeling sorry for themselves; they work hard but they find time to gossip with friends, to make jokes, to laugh, to fall in love. These women deserve more than to be consigned to a few brief mentions or, worse, portrayed as hapless victims.
It sounds as if you felt sort of compelled to write about them. Had you written much before you went to Afghanistan?
I wasn’t a published writer but I always wrote. I used to write stories when I was growing up – heavily plagiarising Enid Blyton. I’ve kept a diary since I was in my teens and wrote quite a lot for my work with Oxfam and, of course, report writing for donors. While I was in Afghanistan I began writing articles which were published in The Herald and in The Guardian Weekly and it sort of grew from there.
So the time you spent there must have influenced your writing quite a lot?
Oh yes, it’s had a huge influence. As well as articles, I’ve written a novel, No More Mulberries, set in Afghanistan and my poetry collection, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, contains a section of poems about Afghanistan. I think it’s time to move on, though, and my next project will be another non-fiction work but about a woman car manufacturer.
That’s certainly a change of pace or direction but it’s for the future. I’m interested in hearing a bit more about the fact that your book, Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni is a finalist for The People’s Book Prize. That’s some achievement. How does it feel?
Very exciting. When it was first nominated and I looked on the website my heart sank when I saw it was up against books by Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace, Roger Moore and others brought out by the big publishers. When I was told I was through to the finals I was over the moon and feel very happy for Indigo Dreams, which is a small independent publisher. There’s no panel of judges; the winner’s chosen by public vote using an online voting system so the awards are very much about what the public wants to read rather than what publishers decide they should read.
Ah, in that case, you give me and my blog a chance to get involved. How can we vote for the book?
From the home page you choose finalists from the menu along the top and choose the Non-Fiction category or you can go straight to this link http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/finalist.php#nonfictionFinalists_829 which goes directly to the book.
I’m afraid then it becomes more complicated and apologise (but I didn’t make the system). To vote click on the box on the right and then click on word “Vote” beneath it and you will be taken to the form to complete your vote.
If you were one of those who kindly voted in a previous round you just need to enter the letters shown on the coloured background, your email address (twice!) and the password you used when you voted before. If you can’t remember the password, guess it and if you’re wrong it’ll give you the option of having it emailed to you.
If you didn’t vote before click on the word “register” and you’ll find a short form to fill in after which they’ll immediately send you a password and then you can vote as in the paragraph above.
Mary, I suspect your final words are a barely veiled allusion to my own incompetence in matters technological, but I’ll shoot across to the site and cast my vote right away. Many thanks for that chat and good luck with the award.
Thank you, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.
Please read Mary’s book and vote. You can read more about her on her website at www.marysmith.co.uk.