Jonathan Falla, born in 1954 in Jamaica, former nurse and charity worker and author of his first published novel, ‘Blue Poppies’, plus many more since, graced the first Borders Writers’ Forum meeting of the new 2016/2017 programme, with his distinctive and flamboyant presence on 15th September 2016. It was also the first BWF meeting at the St. Boswells Village Hall in The Lesser Room, the new venue for monthly meetings where all members are welcome.
It was a fiction workshop considering how the senses are used in different settings to drive a story with the focus on Flaubert, Hardy and Jo’s own work.
After a brief introduction of his background, more of which was shared intermittently throughout the session, Jo invited the attendees, of which there was a high turnout with regards numbers, to read silently and then a few members were asked to read aloud, a couple of extracts from some recognised novels where the setting was of prominent focus. The idea was to look for words, underlining them during reading, which depicted feelings and senses, atmosphere and to observe the use of adjectives to describe these.
A key point to note was that of the sheer abundance of use of words by the author to express the senses and sentiments and the atmosphere created by these from the characters.
The group looked at all the senses which can encapsulate the focus of moments in a scene within a chapter, with regards to: sight (what is seen by the character/s); smell (what is/are the odours within the setting and/or emanating from the character/s); touch (what or whom the character/s may come into physical contact with); hearing (what sounds the character/s may hear or choose to hear or not to hear); and feelings described in detail as to what the character/s may be feeling in any moment in the scene.
The importance of the energy and power behind the words, often each word and its full meaning engaging the reader fully, was discussed and led to an informal linguistic, verging on intellectual and philosophical at times, discussion yet was not overly critical nor analytical, with much exuberance and laughter at times, and of course healthy sarcasm.
Jo Falla was a master of recital, performing extracts from a couple of his own novels with professional gusto, expression and personality. His abundance of historical work tends to be based on experiences abroad including drama productions, script writing, short stories both published and broadcast, essays, a musical libretto, ethnography, book reviews history, poetry translation and five novels. He has endured vast travelling to Java, Indonesia, Nicaragua, West Sudan, El Salvador, Brazil, Nepal, Chile, India, West Africa and much of Europe. Jo now teaches Arts for the Open University and is Director of the Creative Writing Summer School at St Andrews University. His awards have included a Fulbright Fellowship to the USC film school (Los Angeles), a Creative Scotland Award in 2007, a PEN fiction prize and the short list for the National Short Story Prize.
The session ended with a group left fulfilled, inspired, informed, excited and with plenty to think about. Personally, I left with a signed copy of his novel ‘The White Porcupine’, set during the Indonesian War of Independence and in Holland in the 1970s, one of 150 limited edition copies numbered and signed by Jo himself. Another member has since commented positively about how much she enjoyed reading his ‘Poor Mercy’ novel, set in Darfur, the novel is a dramatic and tragic story of an improbable love between two people caught up in an African famine. Mogga and Leila, a black and an Arab, who should supposedly not even like each other.
For the next BWF meeting in October, the content of the session with Jo Falla was then used as the foundation, where members were invited to write and present their own 3-5 minute readings with the ‘setting’ as an important feature (non compulsory). This proved very popular and led onto further discussions on writing techniques, use of words and humour with constructive, positive feedback from other members.
Hayley M. Emberey