Travel, they say, broadens minds. Unfortunately, travel isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do right now - except, perhaps, in our imaginations. That’s where award-winning writer Graham Mort, Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University in the UK and an Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape, can help.
Professor Mort loves music (he’s in a band), travel and writing, and he combined all three in Like Fado and Other Stories, a new collection of music-themed tales set around the world, from England to Kurdistan, Spain and South Africa.
“A sense of place is very important to me,” Prof Mort noted. “I did a lot of work on this collection when living in Cape Town and working at UWC. Being away from home is always a stimulus to write about home - wherever that may be. That distance always seems to put things into perspective. So I wrote about South Africa when in England and England when in South Africa, but there are other locations, too - Italy, France, Spain, and Kurdistan. Wherever I go, I have my camera and laptop with me.”
The Portuguese musical form of fado, infused with a sense of sadness, lost love and nostalgia, features in the title story, “Like Fado”, and sets the mood for many others.
“I made a visit to Lisbon a few years ago and became interested in the musical form of Fado,” Prof Mort explained. “The music seems to communicate its emotions so powerfully. And the emotional state of saudade that underpins fado music is hard to translate, but it stands for nostalgia, sadness and lost love. There is a sense of loss in many of the stories, of 'the road not taken', as the poet Robert Frost put it. But there is a prevailing sense of unreliability too – that the stories people tell are not always truthful or reliable, that we make memories in our own self-image.”
Speaking of self-image...Here’s what Prof Mort had to say about his writing, his influences, and why music is such a big part of his life.
What made you decide to become a writer?
My brother was the first person in our family to go to university. He studied literature and came home with a box of books - poetry, novels, short fiction. My father was a carpenter and my mother made a lot of our clothes. I grew up with the idea that if you wanted something, you could make it yourself. I fell in love with books and I travelled through them before I ever travelled in reality. So I’ve wanted to write ever since I was a teenager. I love engineering a story or a poem, making the intricate parts work together. So it was an urge to make something out of nothing, to use language in a constructive way.
Who are your biggest writing influences?
My writing influences go back a long way now. I started with stories written by Dylan Thomas and DH Lawrence, but everything I read goes into the mix – Katherine Mansfield, Al Kennedy, Doreen Baingana, Raymond Carver, Alan Silltioe, Alice Munro, Alex La Guma. I really like the work of Meg Vandermerwe and Kobus Moolman, too – short story writers who work at UWC, and who’ve also written amazing poetry and novels.
What is it like teaching creative writing?
I’ve always loved teaching. Some writers feel that it drains them (and it can), but at its best it’s a way of extending your own ideas and widening the franchise for writers. Working in Africa has always been inspiring for me, because you’re often working with young writers who’re getting their first opportunity to write and communicate their experience, language and culture. They have a lot to say - and it’s very rewarding to be able to help them learn to say it.
What do you do to relax?
I relax by listening to music and cooking, and I like to walk on the hills here. The scenery is really beautiful and walking is a great way to work. Weekends I can often be found in a local pub playing in a four-piece blues band, Chicago style, coming together with people from different backgrounds creatively (well, on a good night!). I’m really looking forward to getting back to that when the COVID-19 lockdown is finally over. Oh, and I like restoring guitars, too, so I’ve inherited some of my father’s interest there. I like that sense of restoration - and maybe that’s what my stories are about.
Any advice for would-be writers out there?
My advice is to believe in yourself and your own experience – to live as vividly as possible, to pay attention to the world. And then to keep at it, even when the going seems really tough, as it is for many writers.
Graham Mort’s Like Fado and Other Stories will be published on 15 February 2021 by Salt Publishing.