Heart-breaking and Tender, Maggie Harris Uses Her Powerful Voice to Explore Hidden Experiences

Given the unbearable heat and insufferable wave of BBQ’s and rowdy pub gardens endured this week, I was more than ready to escape from the outside world for a while. Managing to find a couple of stolen hours to curl up in delightfully antisocial solitude, my reverie was temporarily broken by a thunderstorm of epic proportions, full of lashing rain and rolling thunder. Very atmospheric and very appropriate given the nature of the slender volume I was cradling in my slightly sweaty grasp. 

The book I was reading as the sky started falling was Writing on Water, a collection of eleven short stories by Maggie Harris, published by Seren Books, Wales’ leading independent publisher. As the title suggests water is the main theme which draws together each story in this collection. Harris has drawn not only from physical landscapes bound by water, including her native Guyana and the UK where she currently lives, but has also used water as a metaphor, from the ‘flow of speech’ denied to characters, either through trauma or the weight of secrets, to the ‘urban lives of the dispossessed’ which are ‘turbulent and subject to change’. 

As well as Writing on Water, Maggie Harris has also published two other collections of short stories; Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning and In Margate by Lunchtime. Harris is also a poet and has published four collections so far; Limbolands, From Berbice to Broadstairs, After a Visit to the Botanical Gardens and Sixty Years of Loving. She has also written a memoir entitled Kiskadee Girl. Harris won the Guyana Prize for Literature 2000 and was the 2014 Regional Winner of The Commonwealth Short Story Prize for ‘Sending for Chantal’, one of the stories included in this collection.

Although I could wax lyrical about every story here, I am also always cautious in my reviews not to spoil the beauty of reading a book by giving too much away. This is difficult to do because each story sings its own song and draws you into the narrative so deeply that it is hard to single out examples. 

Harris has managed to deal sensitively and eloquently with the very real face of the human tragedy so often played out across our TV screens

“Before mix up with morning and sunshine… After was me hollering and not eating and vomiting and kicking Granny.”

Writing on Water opens with ‘Sending for Chantal’, a moving story about a girl raised by her grandmother desperately seeking a connection with the mother who left her behind. It is a story filled with yearning and desire, longing and heartache. In this story, it is clear to see the poet in Harris and the story flows with the lyricism of an epic poem.

“Sacrificial bundles. Bundles born of blood and tears, dust and hope.”

In Like Lizards Ride Water, Harris has vividly brought to life the experience of migrants forced to cross treacherous seas under the almost unbearable weight of an expectation of the tangible promise of a new and better life. Whilst this story was one of the most heart-wrenching in this collection, Harris has managed to deal sensitively and eloquently with the very real face of the human tragedy so often played out across our TV screens, and breathe life into those one-dimensional images of horror whilst encouraging the reader to consider the gut-wrenching choices made by those who have to leave behind their home for uncertainty and danger on the open sea.

In this collection, it appears that Harris, who frequently returns to the theme of migration and transition between cultures, is trying to give voice to the often hidden experiences of those who have to leave behind their home and culture and find themselves anew in foreign lands. Many of the stories in Writing on Water also focus on the experiences of women at varying stages of their life, from childhood in Telling Barbie, to the difficult choices faced by mothers becoming grandmothers in Mouth. In the telling of these tales, Harris highlights the strength and vulnerability of women. She also makes a powerful commentary on the nature of female sexuality and the consumption of female bodies in Breast, vividly highlighting how, from childbirth to Page 3, we are incessantly bombarded with sex and female objectification.

 A journey across landscapes and cultures, from heartbreak to tenderness

This is a moving collection of stories which touches on some serious themes, including migration, neglect and loss. This collection would appeal to anyone with a love of lyrical language, it is clear to see Harris’ strength as a writer of prose as well as fiction. At just over one hundred pages this is an accessible introduction to Harris as a fiction writer and would be an easy book to devour in one sitting. It is not for the faint of heart, as many stories do focus on themes which may be unsettling to some, however, Harris deals with tragedy and heartbreak in a delicate, beautiful way which allows the reader to empathise with the characters.

Writing on Water takes the reader on a journey across landscapes and cultures, from heartbreak to tenderness, all linked by water- be that the sea, merciless in Like Lizards Ride Water or the tears of the characters in Sleeping Beauty. The commonality between all Harris’s stories is the process of transition, the death of expectation and the way life forces us to reconcile our dreams with our reality. 

Writing on Water by Maggie Harris is published by Seren Press and is available now.

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