Memoir: There’s a Volcano Outside my Front Door

 

There’s a volcano outside my front door. I stand on the threshold and there it rises, a perfect cone, decapitated by its own fury. It’s winter, and the euphorbias cling on, smatterings of green against the cinder black. To my right is the volcano’s big sister, La Corona, a monolith, its fractured crest evidence of a day five-thousand years ago, when lava spewed and gushed and tumbled, razing the land.

Back then, there were no human witnesses. Now homo sapiens ramble all over the rock. I’m visiting the island of my memories, my former home, Lanzarote, desert dry and riddled with volcanoes, their offerings of cinder and lava meeting the eye in all directions. An island as commonplace as a tea towel to the British tourist, a place no one has heard of in Australia, where I live now.

I’m a woman in her fifties staring back into her twenties, living on an island continent straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while my soul is shackled to this Atlantic rock.

A benevolent wind whistles through the shutters. Behind me, moving from room to room, Michelle is preparing for the day. We’re staying in an ancient farmhouse with metre-thick stone walls. It’s the northernmost dwelling in Máguez, a tiny village of whitewashed, flat-roofed farmhouses hugging narrow streets, nestling in an elevated valley on a tongue of land about five kilometres wide.

It’s a fine day. Streaks of cloud occupy the sky. I trace an attentive eye along the western ridge, taking in the folds of the mountains, aware that on the other side of their crest, is the cliff. I stare and stare, my soul hungry for what I saw before, as though I could re-capture my past and erase the years between.

There’s a culture of rare ingenuity on this island where it scarcely rains, dry-land farming. Without it, the people could not have existed. For millennia, the farmers have used the cinders for mulch. They call it picón and it renders the fields basalt black. Up here, away from the resorts, the old ways are still lived, evidenced in the small field of maize across the street, in the old farmer bent double, weeding. The farmers make use of the rock too, for wind protection. The result is a tidy arrangement of cinder fields and dry-stone walls.

Our car, a small and white rental, waits beside a small patio. I eye it with trepidation. Michelle is doing the driving. We’ve been all over the island, coursing every major road. We’ve passed low stone walls framing fields of black, where single grape vines or fig trees nestle in neat rows in cinder pits protected by stone wall arcs. We’ve passed low stone walls fronting every terrace rising up the mountain slopes. We’ve passed low stone walls framing every single field, right up to the roadside.

I haven’t seen much beyond those low stone walls. Michelle, a native of Australia’s capital, Canberra, is transfixed by the primordial terrain. I envy her. I have scarcely been able to take it all in. I want to, badly, but when we’re in the car, I can’t seem to peel my eyes from the roadside. It’s a reflex. She finds it hard to centre the car. I’m a reluctant driver turned apprehensive passenger and it’s all I can do not to grip the seat. I don’t think my fear is unfounded. We’ve shaved some roadside weeds and knocked a side vision mirror or two.

Lanzarote, or Titeroyugatra as it is traditionally named, has a colourful history. One of the Fortunate Islands known to Pliny the Elder, the island was given its European name after a Genoese sailor, Lancelotto Malocello, who landed in the 14th century.

By the 15th century, knowledge of the island had grown. There was much to be gained from the lichen and the cochineal, both prized fabric dyes. The island was the subject of numerous piratical attacks, servicing the north African slave trade. Then in 1402, Norman nobleman Jean Béthencourt and his sidekick Gadifer de la Salle conquered Lanzarote, subduing the local tribe, capturing their king, Guadarfía, and securing assistance from King Henry III of Castile.

With conquest came Catholicism, the islanders forced to convert. Up sprung churches, monasteries, convents. Forts were built to protect the island from further attack.

The forts now house art galleries and museums.

From his base on Lanzarote, Béthencourt set off to conquer the rest of the Canary Islands in battle after bloody battle spanning much of the fifteenth century. The islands proved geographically strategic, ocean-faring caravels able to take advantage of the Canary current that made for plain sailing to the Americas. In the centuries that followed, Lanzarote suffered many incursions, its capital razed, all its records destroyed. Once, nine-hundred locals hid in a lava tube in the island’s north, a tube created by La Corona. They were discovered, captured, shipped to the slave markets in Algiers and held to ransom. The then King of Castile paid up and the captives were returned to the island.

The lava tube, Cuevos de los Verdes, is now a tourist site. We visited the caves last week. Down in those caves, imagining close to a thousand terrified souls in amongst all that rock, I was moved by the trauma the islanders have endured.

The car yelps and Michelle is behind me, her sandaled feet crunching on the gravel drive. In the car, she fiddles with the GoPro before slinging the gear stick into reverse for the five-point turn.

The GoPro forces us both into silence. After weeks of site-seeing, we’re heading north for a short excursion round La Corona, the volcano that gave birth to the world’s longest lava tube.

This time, I’m determined to take in my surroundings. It’s nonsensical to travel halfway round the world only to stare down at the nose of the car and a single white line. Besides, my companion’s driving is improving every day. Nice pep talk, but I’ve become so nervous all I can do is glimpse snatches, while the better part of me lives out its terror.

I manage to look for long enough to notice nothing appears the same as it did before, despite the fact that it is exactly as it was and my mind the distorter. Lacking depth of field, my imagination has flattened the landscape, memories reduced to a Google maps’ street view version of what I am beholding.

We pass through the village of Yé and the farmed fields give way to the lava, a violent tumble of basalt, shards like standing stones, the whole blanketed in euphorbias and lichens, at this time of year a patchwork of whites, greens and oranges.

Michelle pulls up at the intersection. I point to my right. Left is the cliff road, which might possibly be fine on the way to the lookout, but on the way back the sheer drop to the ocean would be on my side. I hadn’t realised my fear of heights was so intense until I found myself back in this barren landscape.

I’ve become phobic and I’m not happy about it. Even on the relatively tame road that curves round the base of La Corona, I’m on fire, my palms hot and damp.

The land descends to the ocean. We corner a bend and then another. There’s a low stone wall beside the road. Eyeing the speedometer, I find we’re doing sixty.

‘Slow down.’

‘Why?’ she says, taking no notice.

‘It must have been right here,’ I murmur to myself.

Things look different in the dark. Twenty-six years ago, that wall would have been exactly that height. No one had come along and removed the stones. The road is narrow too, with little space between the tarmac and the wall.

I couldn’t have been driving any faster than Michelle. I couldn’t have been hurtling headlong into that wall, as memory tells me I had. I would have been coming at the wall at a glancing angle.

Another driver would have steered and braked her way to safety.

I blacked out.

Two in the morning on a lonely stretch of road, and when I came to the engine was still running and I was upside down with petrol dripping on me. My first thought was, I’ve woken up to die.

Vivid as yesterday, I scramble from the car. I’ve no torch and there’s no moon to light my way. I head back to the village of Yé. I walk up and down the streets pounding on one door then another, calling for help. For what feels like hours I try.

I discover, later, the villagers were as frightened as me, terrified if they opened the door I’d barrel in with a gang of marauding no-gooders in tow. It has me thinking traumatic memories are stored in our genes.

At last a door opens. Inside, I see my student. I sit in a chair in the centre of a bare room with her family hovering around me. Someone hands me brandy. I drink it down, welcoming the burn in my throat. It does nothing to quell the shaking.

That was no ordinary car accident. The setting alone was and is extraordinary.

I left the island for Australia soon after and over the years that accident has taken on gargantuan proportions, crippling my confidence, filling my life with fears. All that time lost to an inner vice-like grip.

The road snakes along and I see a road sign.

‘Make a left up ahead.’

The road down to the small fishing village of Órzola and the island’s northern tip is little more than a lane carved into the lava. We crawl along. Cars approach and we have to squeeze by each other.

I leave that manoeuvre to my companion and look at the landscape. For me, the decision isn’t easy. Every cell of my being is on high alert. But some other part of me takes control. After all, there is nowhere on the planet to compare to here.

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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.

 

 

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

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

Special announcement – Mawson bear reads The Drago Tree!

“Mawson: Lanzarote sounds like a magical place, Captain Angus.
Captain Angus: It’s real, Mawson. Look, pirates went there.”

I am truly honoured that Mawson bear has picked up a copy of The Drago Tree, and he seems to be enjoying it too! Never underestimate the intelligence of a bear! Here’s what he has to say about my book:

“For readers who love layered levels of feeling and thought expressed in fine language, this is your novel.”

Aw, what a kind and thoughtful bear! You can read all of Mawson’s review here on Goodreads

Mawson is so bright, he even manages his own website. It is filled with his ponderings – https://baffledbearbooks.com/home/mawsonbowtie5-for-b3/

Thank you Mawson, for your kinds words. You have made my day.

Both The Drago Tree and Mawson’s book, It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In are available at all good booksellers.

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