Notes on The Burning Path and El Gouna residency
During my time as Writer-in-Residence at El Gouna I have been working on my desert-based novel, The Burning Path – part of my 5-book cross-genre series, The Windsmith Elegy, which I began in 2002. I wrote the first draft in of this, the fourth volume, in 2008 and here expanded and edited it into a second. I worked on a chapter a day (there’s 23 in total), writing an extra 20,000 words (along with 7 new poems – to date – and this blog). To live in a desert country while working on this has made all the difference – those grains of sand have become grit in the oyster. It has been an intense and sometimes challenging experience – ideal for my novel. It has enabled me to be completely in the ‘zone’, inhabiting a similar space (physical/mental/emotional) to my characters. I find this form of ‘method writing’ most effective, although it might not make me easy to be around. Finding myself staying in an artificial and often stifling cocoon (enforced socialising & unnecessary opulence; when I yearned for solitude & minimalism) I have forged a ‘desert environment’ through an experiment in estrangement – an intentional distancing of myself from those I ‘should’ connect with, to feel ‘other’, to experience the perspective of the outsider, like the boy in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I strived to keep the doors of perception fully open (as William Blake declared: ‘When the doors of perception are cleansed, man will see things as they truly are, infinite,’). Antoine de St Exupery in Wind, Sand and Stars talks of stratascopos, the bird’s eye view he experienced as a pioneering pilot. Only through an intentional disjuncture was this possible (an extreme method for a land of extremes) – life at the edge of the circle, for the littoral is always a creatively fertile place, like the banks of the Nile here in Egypt: a country divided in the Red and Black Lands (as their flag symbolises)
– the red is the ‘barren’ desert (which protects and offers hidden treasures); the black, the fertile soil of the Nile Valley. Life is like this – good and bad mixed together, the bitter and the sweet, light and shadow. Contrast is healthy, essential. In Italian painting its called chiaroscuro. If my time here had been absolutely perfect I wouldn’t have found the necessary edge for my writing. No pain, no gain. And so everything that has happened to me here has been just right. It has enabled me to walk the Burning Path and bring my novel alive. I have worn the mark of Cain and been cast out into the wilderness. Yet despite being in a social desert there have been occasional oases and these have kept me sane and made my stay here far more enjoyable – to all the wonderful people I have met (Egyptians, Gounies, tourists) thank you.
I set off from England with a quote from Helen Keller in the back of my mind: ‘No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.’
I feel my ‘optimism’ has paid off – travel allows for creative possibilities, pushes us out of our comfort zone, expand our world-view, and makes us embrace the other – and find we are brothers. As I wrote in the sample chapter I read out at the final event:
The desert is the last place you expect to encounter the kindness of strangers but it is the place where you need it the most. The more isolated we become, the more hostile the environment, and the more is revealed the cosmic terror behind the frail fabric of reality, the more we need each other.
To write a book about strangers meeting in the desert in a place where … strangers meet in the desert couldn’t have been more perfect. El Gouna is a wonderful international zone where the kindness of strangers can be encountered daily:
Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt (10:19)
The Burning Path plot summary: Three strangers meet in a nameless desert and must come to terms with their past before they can escape it: a First World War airman; an American aviatrix of the Thirties; and a French poet of the skies from the Second World War. They are the lost of history and must go into the desert to find themselves. To find peace they must walk the burning path. Each is forced to confront the question: What are you prepared to sacrifice for the one you love?
Email to Anthony: Anyway, it’s been a really productive time – just got to the end of the 2nd Draft of The Burning Path, and I can’t wait for people to read it. I think its my best yet – but you have to believe that, don’t you! The style is alot more stripped back. I wrote it the year my Dad died and maybe the austere aesthetic reflects that, but there’s is real beauty in the desert vistas and cultures, as I’ve discovered. Ultimately it’s an affirmation of the desert, its ecology and ethos, its abundant ‘nothingness’ – the opposite of Western consumer culture! It cries out Less is More.
Isambard Kerne: Edwardian antiquarian, observer of the Royal Flying Corps, accidental adventurer, windsmith. Born 1869 of Irish and Welsh ancestry. Missing in action at the Battle of Mons, August 1914.
Amelia Earhart: American 30s aviatrix, record-breaking ‘queen of the skies’; Kerne’s ‘angel’ & companion. First woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In 1937 went missing over the Pacific on an attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
Antoine de St-Exupery: French aviator and author of The Little Prince; Wind, Sand and Stars; Southern Mail & Night Flight. Crashed crossing Egypt, attempting the Paris-Saigon record, in the Libyan desert in 1936. Saved by a group of Bedouin. In 1944 went missing on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean.
Leo Africanus, aka Giovanni Leone: famous Moorish explorer and scholar from 15th Century Andulusia. Born El-hassan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati, in Granada 1458. His family emigrated to Fes, where he studied, proving himself a gifted pupil. Became a young official and diplomat. Kidnapped by corsairs, sold to the Pope. Given his freedom. Became renowned scholar. Wrote an important early account of Africa, and a tri-lingual (Arabic/Hebrew/Italian) dictionary. The circumstances of his death are uncertain, but one theory is he disappeared attempting to return to North Africa.
Alexandrine/Alexine Tinne, aka Fraulein Tinne: 19th Century Dutchwoman explorer and early photographer. Born 1835 in The Hague, when her father died at the age of ten, she became the richest heiress in the Netherlands. First European woman to attempt to cross the Sahara. In 1869, while attempting to reach the Upper Nile in caravan, had her arm hacked off and left for dead in the Libyan desert by her Tuareg escorts.
The Blue Man – blind Tuareg holy man. Becomes the guide of Earhart and Kerne.