Tourism and Literature: The role of authors in protecting local culture

Since I write novels set on the Canary Islands, here are my thoughts on the role of the author when it comes to travel fiction:

When an author chooses to write unreflectively about a foreign country, one not their own, aren’t they just another kind of tourist?

Tourists arrive at their destination with their suitcases and their sunscreen, wanting warm sunny weather, sandy beaches and a small taste of local culture. They come, they stay, they take, and they rarely understand the land they are visiting, or its people. They are happy to view local culture not as lived reality, but as artefacts incarcerated in museums. The tourism industry doesn’t care about preserving local cultures. Its only care is profit. This toxic combination of indifference has devastated communities and fragile environments the world over. The Canary Islands are just one example of local cultures overridden by this hedonistic juggernaut.

When tourism means constructing vast hotel complexes built on protected land, when tourism means more oil-fired power stations to fuel desalination plants to fill private swimming pools and water golf courses, when tourism means allowing off-road vehicles to churn up fragile soils and destroy local habitats, when tourism turns its back on local people, their culture and traditions, their ancient buildings, their basic needs for good housing and secure employment, then tourism has no conscience. It’s amoral.

Literature, at its best, is not.

Literature has always had an educational part to play in raising awareness, albeit in a limited audience, of critically important issues. At the heart of all good fiction is a deeper morality.  Literature can be a tool for change, affecting the outlook and attitudes of tourists, at the very least, fostering a shift away from shallow consumptions towards a deeper empathy for visited cultures and environments.

Each country produces its own literature. Much of it will celebrate and criticise, in overt or covert ways, the various strengths and weaknesses of its own land. Some works will be translated into other languages. Most will remain obscure, as most writing fails to reach large numbers of readers. From Gabriel García Márquez to Isabel Allende, authors strive to portray insight into the human condition, or in the Canary Islands, Carlos Guillermo Domínguez, Luis León Barreto  and Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa, to name only three.

Resisting the voracious appetite of the tourism industry and trying to instil in holiday makers and tourist operators good ethical habits is difficult, multifaceted and enduring. Local governments may impose restrictions. Activists may campaign to save local sites. Whole communities may rise up in protest, as was seen when the Spanish government awarded oil giant Repsol drilling rights off the coast of Lanzarote. Almost all of these campaigns and policies take place internally, driven by local people, along with a few environmentally aware individuals from other countries, those who have chosen the Canary Islands as their home.

Is it the role of the local author alone to compose works that inform readers, including tourists from other countries, of the issues faced by their community? Can activism ever be that exclusive?

All fiction writers can and must add their weight to the campaign. The foreign author has a moral duty to alert their audience to the complexities of context, not least the setting of their story. Otherwise, the author is appropriating that setting and giving nothing back. They become a kind of literary thief, fulfilling the appetites of the literary marketplace for more crime fiction, more thrillers, more romance, more escapism.

There is a distinct opportunity for fiction writers, whether they are from, or writing about the Canary Islands. Stories set in exotic locations are popular. Readers enjoy stories set where they are spending their holiday. Travel fiction is fast becoming a genre all of its own, ill-defined, a catch all for books with interesting settings. Most of that fiction is pure page-turning fun, but it needn’t be.

It cannot be denied that no matter how much empathy the foreign author may have, their works, inevitably based on limited understandings of local conditions, will always miss the deeper essence and the nuances, the sensibilities of a culture acquired over lifetimes of knowing. For this reason, novels set on the Canary Islands written by foreign authors might be seen as intrusive, appropriating, even insulting, and received with derision over appreciation, rejected as another form of cultural imperialism.

Yet literary activism in the form of raising readers’ awareness has no geographical limits. Works produced in this spirit are driven by passion. Passion is the fire that blazes in the heart of the writer and makes their works vibrant and alive. Passion has no fixed abode.

Literature, like all art, should contribute in raising cultural and environmental awareness in whatever way it can. It has a moral duty to inform and provide insights, challenging stereotypes, educating as it entertains. Otherwise, the author of fiction, even if she is an interloper from another land, is reduced to being an entertainer alone, there to satisfy the same desire for escapism that drives tourists to foreign climes.

 

 

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Kindle special discount of The Drago Tree

I’m delighted to announce that the Kindle edition of The Drago Tree is discounted to only $0.99 cents for a limited time only.

 

“Haunted by demons past and present, geologist Ann Salter seeks sanctuary on the exotic island of Lanzarote. There she meets charismatic author Richard Parry and indigenous potter Domingo and together they explore the island.

Ann’s encounters with the island’s hidden treasures becomes a journey deep inside herself as she struggles to understand who she was, who she is, and who she wants to be.

Set against a panoramic backdrop of dramatic island landscapes and Spanish colonial history, The Drago Tree is an intriguing tale of betrayal, conquest and love, in all its forms.”

“Set on Lanzarote this is a wonderful wonderful book. I honestly do not know why I have left it so long to read but now I have I am glad I did. The relationships of the three main characters will forever stay with me and the descriptive writing is just perfect. I love love loved it and will re-read again again. Stunning” – NetGalley reviewer

https://isobelblackthorn.com/the-drago-tree/

Buy your copy here on Amazon https://amzn.to/2LTA596

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.

 

 

 

The Drago Tree review to make my day!

Sometimes reviews are long and detailed and demonstrate a deep engagement with the story. Other times they are short and sweet, but the engagement is still present, in the words the reviewer chooses to convey how they feel. Which is why I am thrilled to share this review, just in via NetGalley, of The Drago Tree, my literary love story set on Lanzarote. Really, reviews don’t come any better than this!

 

 

You will find The Drago Tree in paperback and e-book formats worldwide in both English and Spanish. Here’s one of many bookstores:

https://www.bookdepository.com/The-Drago-Tree/9781922200365

My 1980s Lanzarote journey in pictures

When I left Lanzarote in 1990, I didn’t take my possessions with me. I had every intention of going back. Heaven only knows what happened to all my books, records, photos, mementoes and my clothes! Here is a photo diary of that time.

It all started in 1988, in a basement flat in Exeter. I was Yvonne Rodgers back then. I was 26, studying for my degree, and very much into a hedonistic lifestyle.

In January of that year, I went on holiday with my then partner, Dave, who took this photo. I call it my Marilyn Monroe shot. It was taken on the patio of Winston Churchill’s daughter’s holiday home near Arrieta.

 

While we were there, we both fell in love with this ruin. It’s between 200-300 years old and is situated in Haría, in the island’s north.

We bought it and turned it into this.

It was my idyll, but I didn’t live there long. Just long enough to paint it white, in fact. I moved out and found myself the neighbour of this man.

We’re a bit out of it, on account of the cake I made for his birthday. He’s Domingo Diaz Barrios, an indigenous artist. We became firm friends. He was living in his grandmother’s farmhouse, tucked behind César Manrique’s residence. It didn’t have running water, and the rooms were dark and small.

The place I was living in was a building site, and it wasn’t long before I moved on. Or rather, I was swept off my feet, scooped up and deposited in a fine old house in the same village, owned by the most charismatic man there ever was, the notorious adventurer, Miguel Medina Rodriguez. This is the interior courtyard of his house. Miguel was proud of his plants. Those stairs lead to an upstairs room. In it was a four poster bed, a rocking chair, and a casement window looking out over the village. Towards the end of my stay, I spent three months shut away in that room. Long story.

We used to eat at this woman’s house. Her name was Inez. So her home eatery was known as ‘Casa Inez.’ Her food was delicious.

Because Miguel’s father was a tailor, there was a room in the house devoted to making clothes, with a huge table in its centre. It was in there that I created the pants in the photo above. I hand painted the fabric using sponges and rollers and stencils Domingo made for me. I then sewed the clothes, mostly by hand. I sold my clothes at the market in Teguise. I also made these,

and these.

I had myself a little piece of paradise. I was living in the house rent free. But it was all so bohemian and really rather dangerous. So I left…

I went back in 2016. Miguel’s house in Calle Cruz de Ferrer is currently shut up and uninhabited. Domingo moved out of his grandmother’s farmhouse, buying another house in the same street, where he has a studio and a small shop selling his wares. The ruin can be rented as holiday accommodation.

I keep writing books about the island, because somehow I am still bonded to the place. Maybe my things are still in Miguel’s house. It wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe one day I’ll find out. I’m planning another trip, in March 2019. It feels like an awfully long time to wait. Meanwhile…

The Drago Tree will be released in Spanish this September. Its sequel, La Mareta, comes out in April 2018. 
You can buy my books anywhere on line. Here’s a Book Depository link.

Talking Location on Trip Fiction

Here in Australia it’s Mother’s Day. UK based Trip Fiction would probably not have known that. So when they published on their blog my piece on Lanzarote, they couldn’t have known how significant the timing was for me.

I left Lanzarote in 1990. My daughters were born in 1991. They exist because I left the island that had captured my heart, my mind, my soul in a way nowhere else has. When I left, I had no intention of doing anything other than going back. Then everything went wrong and I ended up in Australia, reuniting with my mum who I hadn’t seen for 9 years. A new chapter of my life began, one centred on my mum, and those two girls of mine.

I’m saving for my next visit to my favourite little island. Meanwhile, a big thank you to Trip Fiction for including my piece on their wonderful innovative site, which is dedicated to travel fiction and stories set in interesting locations. Here’s the link to my piece – http://www.tripfiction.com/chatting-lanzarote-author-isobel-blackthorn/  While you are there, you might want to check out the site.

You can read more about my novel The Drago Tree here

and read a lovely thoughtful review by Nada Adel Sobhi  here

 

The Drago Tree – review by Juliet Butler

It’s getting on for two years since The Drago Tree was released by Odyssey Books. Reviews still trickle in and feedback is always warm, sometimes glowing. My publisher is so passionate about the story they have arranged for it to be translated into Spanish, and are releasing it themselves in Australia and worldwide in August. Bucking the trend to release translations using the same cover, Odyssey Books are also investing in a brand new cover which I’m itching to see. I feel privileged and can’t wait to hold the Spanish version in my hands.

 

Meanwhile, this short and sweet review came in via NetGalley and I thought I would share it here for all to see.

“A beautifully written book. The author managed to capture the essence of Lanzarote, its cafes, markets, and rugged landscape. I thought the characters were well developed and their stories pulled you into the narrative. An engaging and thoughtful read.” – Juliet Butler, NetGalley

Thank you Juliet!

You can read more reviews here.  And you can purchase a copy here on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Drago-Tree-Isobel-Blackthorn/dp/1922200360