The Sahara arrives in Fuerteventura

A Calima hits the Canary Islands

The Calima: I knew it would happen if I stayed here long enough. Maybe that is why I choose to be here for a whole month. I wanted to test how I would handle it.

Periodically, the Canary Islands get choked in Saharan dust that wafts over the ocean from Morocco. Hot dry winds tend to come with it, although today there is a temperature inversion, the dust acting as a shield from the sun. There is little wind at present. And the dust is thick, although not so thick as to blacken the sky. I watched the calima approach from the east this morning. In a few hours it had smothered the island. This is one of the worst I have experienced. You can feel it in your mouth. Can I endure it? Yes, but only by staying inside and closing the windows. It doesn’t sting the nose like bushfire smoke. But it isn’t healthy. Traditionally, I guess  this is why those living in desert climes wear scarves over their faces. I would do the same, living here on days like this.

I knew the calima was coming as I have taken to watching Canarian news in an effort to drench myself in Spanish.

About mid-morning, I decided I had to go out, even though I didn’t feel like it. After depositing my recycling in the communal bin on the corner of my street, I wandered back towards the park I can see from my apartment. I found Calle Lanzarote and thought it was quite lovely, even though the photo does not reveal its charm. You can see the haze making the sky dull.

Escaping into a Bookstore

Determined to explore more of the city – I have an awful habit of finding preferred routes and sticking to them, a habit I am determined to break – I stumbled on the island’s main bookstore, Tagaror. Downstairs was filled with children’s books and all sorts of items for school. Stairs led to another floor but there was no sign and I wasn’t that sure if it was private. I was about to leave when I summoned the courage to ask and was directed up to the main bookstore. I entered a large room that Oxford itself would be proud of, one half given over to fiction. I went to the non-fiction section and browsed the shelves. There was an Esoteric section, appropriately named for what it is, and not New Age or some other euphemism.

No Alice Bailey, the subject of my doctorate and mother of the New Age movement.

I did find probably the only book written in the English language in the store.

I felt embarrassed paying for it, especially when the assistant spoke to me in English. I have become awfully shy speaking Spanish. I need to take a bold pill. When I do summon the courage, the response is very positive, especially when I announce I am Australian.

While in the bookstore I made an important assessment. Tagoror is a bookstore for the local Spanish-speaking population. The two tables containing books of the Canary Islands featured two fiction authors, one who lives in Lanzarote and another who used to live in Fuerteventura and is now based in Gran Canaria. I doubt either sell many copies, but what was obvious was my books, written in English, would have no place there in that bookstore. Few English browsers would venture up the stairs. If my books were translated into Spanish and published locally then they might stand a chance of doing okay, but only if I lived here. And even then, I would have to find a way of gaining acceptance as a British-Australian, when culturally, the islands will rightly champion their own. I would have to navigate the terrain of cultural appropriation, not in the content of my fiction, but in my very presence as a non-Canarian author on the island. It seems an awful lot of effort to sell a few books. But is that what my role here, if I had a role here, would really be about?

Understanding Fuerteventura

My stay in Puerto del Rosario, as distinct from any of the many tourist towns on the island, has left me in no doubt that there are two Fuerteventuras. One comprises the tourism and the migrants (perhaps including the Spanish from the mainland), the other is made up of the local population, those born in the Canary Islands, and they live a life as much as possible entirely separate from the tourism they can scarcely avoid. It is as though, in Puerto del Rosario, through their determination not to cater for tourists, especially in the way they fashion their shops and cafes for themselves, they are making it clear they do not want to invite in outsiders. It’s a silent statement and it is very obvious. They don’t want to make it all that easy, not because they are hostile, but rather because they are holding on to their own cultural identity. And if Tagoror is anything to go by, there is a large educated reading public in this town, which serves to strengthen cultural identity and pride.

Of course, these are only my observations and speculations. I am going on brief impressions. But I am observant. And I am trying to imagine myself living here. How would I fit in?

Australia shares with the Canary Islands a love affair with all things local and as an author, I have come up against this many times. Local sells, because people love to read about their own place and tourists love to read about places they’ve visited. Hence travel fiction. Local also sells in cultures that feel invaded or vulnerable in some way, which applies to both the Canary Islands and Australia.

My problem is the only place that inspires me to write over and again is this island Fuerteventura, and it feels weird continuing in this vein when I live in Australia. I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. Should I relocate? I have been considering the possibility for three years. I only have a few months to make up my mind thanks to Brexit.

Alas my walk about town was curtailed by the thickening dust. I can still feel it in my mouth writing this. Normally, you can see the ocean in the first photo below.

Making a life-changing choice is never easy. Right now, my mind is as dusty as the horizon.

Incidentally, while in Tagoror I browsed a glossy hardback explaining how climate change would affect the Canary Islands. From what I could gather examining the various charts, the average temperatures here should remain reasonably stable. But the prevailing wind is shifting to the east and bringing with it more calima days, more days of Saharan dust.

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You can read my other blog posts of my February 2020 Fuerteventura holiday here https://isobelblackthorn.com/fuerteventura-travel-diary/

Isobel Blackthorn is an award-winning author of unique and engaging fiction. She writes gripping mysteries, dark psychological thrillers and historical fiction. She is the author of two novels set in FuerteventuraClarissa’s Warning and A Prison in the Sun.

Finding my Author Identity: A Story of Alienation and Belonging

How many authors struggle with finding their literary identity? Some know exactly who they are and what they want to write and it never enters their mind to deviate. Others struggle to find their way. My story should be a warning to budding writers. It’s far better to have things all figured out in advance. Here’s my story.

It was early in 2009 when I first thought to write creatively. I’d already composed a memoir of the life I was leading then, a work since shelved. When that little seed of inspiration germinated in my awareness I was transported instantly to one of my former homes: The Canary Islands, Spain. A powerful, all-consuming energy filled me. I didn’t know what to make of it, other than that I knew it would radically change my life. By July that same year I’d left my home, my broken marriage, my friends, my whole life to chase this dream, this insatiable desire. I fled to Melbourne. It took many months to orient myself. I had no idea what I wanted to write.

In 2010, under the intensive gaze of my literary mentor, I wrote another memoir, Lovesick, which I self-published in 2011. Lovesick captures a decade of my life spent as one of Thatcher’s have-nots. Sex, drugs and rock and roll in the 1980s with about a third of the story set in the Canary Islands. With Lovesick written I turned my hand to short stories. An independent student for many decades (I even undertook my PhD by distance ed) I gleaned what I needed online, read Alice Munro and slaved over every word. When ready, I submitted to literary journals. Only one was published, in the USA. Two were shortlisted and I received some very nice rejections along the way. Eventually Ginninderra Press published all eight in 2012. It felt like progress.

#TheDragoTree - a tragi-comic love story set on the island idyll of Lanzarote. Literary fiction at it's most entertaining. "Held together with a mouth watering descriptions of the landscape and history."

At the end of 2012 I embarked on my first novel, The Drago Tree, a literary love story set in the Canary Islands. I drew on every skill I had. It was then that I realised my literary voice was distinctly British or European. I began to feel uneasy. Voice is everything. How would a British voice be received by the Australian publishing industry? In 2014, I submitted The Drago Tree to every publisher in Australia. It was demoralising. Most didn’t reply. I was thinking, should I emigrate? Then, in January 2015, Odyssey Books made me an offer. They were a tiny small press back then but what did I care? I leapt at the chance. It was my big break. Luck, at last! I was set.

Meanwhile, I’d already begun another three novels, each distinct. Little did I know the crisis that loomed as a result. For me, back then, all my stories were literary fiction or general fiction. It was only after The Drago Tree was published and book reviewers were asking me what genre it fell into that I started to cotton on to the importance of these literary categories. Until then, I thought I could bypass the genres and exist in a literary fiction bubble. Not, it turns out, if I wanted to sell more than a handful of copies of my books. Suddenly, writing became all about genres and markets. An author needs to be a social media wiz, have a strong online presence, and preferably write a series in a single genre. It’s Creative Writing 101. But I’m self-taught, and this was the gap in my knowledge.

A Perfect Square - a dark mystery, literary fiction style. Where art and creativity meets the occult and conspiracy theories. When synaesthesia becomes clairvoyant. A must read for all lovers of rich and complex fiction

My aspirations came crashing down in August 2016 when I launched my little literary masterpiece, A Perfect Square, a work I’d poured my heart and soul into, actioning a huge amount of pre-release promotion, including co-opting my musical genius daughter to write the music to go with it. see https://isobelblackthorn.com/a-perfect-square/  We launched the book and music together at a café in Melbourne. That day, the city suffered a tempest. Almost no one ventured out. Only ten people made it to the launch, with a few stragglers arriving at the end of the event because they got the time wrong. I went home demoralised. Reality soccer punched me and I landed on the harsh, immutable  concrete of the modern fiction scene with a thump.

That’s when I started to take the genres seriously. I was already at work on a mystery set in my beloved Canary Islands, a work that was giving me gip. All the while I kept asking, what sort of author am I? Where do I belong?

 

In 2017, I had another lucky break when a small press, based in the USA, offered to published my dark psychological thriller, The Cabin Sessions, which I’d written thinking it was horror. On the strength of that delusion and that offer, I thought horror was my thing and proceeded to write a second novel, The Legacy of Old Gran Parks. HellBound Books have since released both titles and I’ve been networking in the horror scene ever since. But through HellBound Books, I have come to realise my writing is not horror. It’s more Noir, or dark fiction, but definitely not horror. Yikes!

So where does that leave me? I need an author identity to hold all my writing together. I can’t keep starting afresh with each new book, hoping it will attract readers. Like all authors, I need a following of loyal readers. That same year, I started shooting arrows into the dark, trying out different pathways trying to build a career. Drawing on my past life as a teacher, I delivered a creative writing course for domestic violence survivors. I applied for a creative writing fellowship with the National Library of Australia, for which I was shortlisted. I applied for, and secured, a mentorship to co-edit the Australasian Horror Writers Association magazine. I applied for travel funding for a new work, which I didn’t get. I thought if I shook the door hard enough, someone would let me in and then I would know who I was as an author. JK Rowling never had this trouble. It all seemed horribly unfair. Was I, am I, my own worst enemy?

Now, in 2018, it feels as though the forces of progress are against me, as though I’ve entered a dark phase, one of retreat and incubation. I have eight works in progress on my desk. There’s a noir thriller, the mystery set in the Canary Islands two and a half years in the making, a fictional biography of an occultist which I regard as my opus (it’s based on my PhD), and various other works, many gothic, most literary. What do all these works say about me? Should I answer in the negative and say I’m not a horror writer, I’m not a crime writer … How bleak! I want to say I won’t be pigeonholed. But I also want to say finding my author identity has proven astonishingly difficult and has evoked deep feelings of alienation. If I can’t find my literary home here in Australia, then do I even belong here at all?

I’ll end on a positive. There are two essentials readers can expect from me: I write about the occult and my favourite setting is the Canary Islands. The two are not mutually exclusive.