I never know what to say when I’m asked where I’m from. So much is wrapped inside that question, like where were you born, where did you grow up, where do you live now? What passports do you hold? What citizenship? How can I locate you based on your skin tone and accent – or let me put it another way: who do you cheer for in the World Cup, Eurovision, the Olympics? What about parents? Grandparents? Where is your home? My voice is a map to a few of those answers, but voices change, as does citizenship, as does home, and a single heart can live in many places at once because hearts, like the sea, have currents, and they’re always moving.
My history with Hayling Island starts before I was born. My grandparents were incomers from Liverpool and Glasgow following work, and the sun, south. My grandmothers worked together in an arcade on Sandy Point. They became fast friends, and then their kids met, and their kids married, and their kids moved into an upside down house that faced the sea.
I don’t remember living there. I have what I think of as borrowed memories that I’ve been told again and again until they feel like mine. An inheritance of stories. This is some of what I know: Mum had plans to spend relaxing days on the beach with her toddler, building sandcastles that would wash out with the tide, but all I wanted to do was walk straight into the sea until the water lapped up against my face and over my head. Beach time became a stressful circular routine of her repeatedly preventing me from drowning while I did my best to head for the deep.
More details: Grandma opened a club in the basement of her house on the crescent, and refused entry to anyone she didn’t like the look of, meaning the rich guy with the big car and the name that usually opened any door. She befriended a gang of bikers who were allowed in the café early morning and late afternoon only: they made a deal.
Dad worked the bingo until midnight each night of the summer, and cheated it so that the kids from the disabled school would win.
Now that I am creating a collection of fictional stories set on Hayling, I am returning to these ‘memories’ and talking with those who have much more of a connection to the island than I do – those who have not only lived there but grown there, those who remember.
As well as writing short stories, I am working with a literary geographer – Dr David Cooper – to co-author creative non-fiction pieces looking at mapping, time, and Hayling. This is his first introduction to the island. We make a research visit with our two other collaborators, and David talks with me about the problematic history of place writing and travel writing, about how often it features lone men who breeze through a place with an air of authority and the pretence of objectivity, never questioning their positions and the baggage they carry. He talks about his sense that he must earn the right to write about Hayling, earn the right to use ‘I’ and place himself there. He tells me that my familial connections feel more legitimate, but with my complete lack of memory I feel a similar kind of tension. How do I earn the right to talk about a place I don’t remember? Is it part of my inheritance? Something that predates my memory? Or is it the conversations I have with the people who stayed, the reading of local histories, the catalogue of backdated newspapers, the poring over maps on the library floor, and interviewing my family one by one? What about the pull I’ve always felt and the fact that part of my heart lives on Hayling, still walking out into the sea? How is it that I love a place that I don’t remember? Is that enough?
This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the creation of a collection of audio digital short stories – Hayling Island: stories at sea level. Michelle Green is a short story writer collaborating with Maya Chowdhry on digital design, Caro C on sound design, and Dr David Cooper on non-fiction and literary mapping. The project is funded by Arts Council England and New Writing North, in collaboration with Comma Press. More info at http://www.michellegreen.co.uk/press
Michelle’s short story collection Jebel Marra is available in e-book and paperback from the Comma Press website.