The UEA’s writing workshop with Amit Chaudhuri: “Un Triste”

By Philly Malicka | 28 February 2016

The University of East Anglia’s (UEA) eight-day writing workshop in India was first held in March 2013, and, since then, has occurred twice a year. There have been workshops in both fiction and non-fiction, and in writing that occupies the boundary between the two. My co-tutors so far have been the novelist Romesh Gunesekera, historian and writer Patrick French, novelist Kirsty Gunn, poet and novelist Jeet Thayil, journalist Ian Jack, and novelist Adam Foulds.

The intent of the workshop was to bring excellent young writers in contact with each other and with well-known and established practitioners so that it could hopefully lead to an opening up of opportunities. This has begun to happen: some of the writers in the first workshops have now signed up with major Indian publishers.

My co-tutors and I have read a lot of outstanding work in the course of the last three years, and this partnership with The Caravan is meant to offer to a wider readership a small fraction of the best output from the workshop.

I’m neither a product of creative writing teaching nor an evangelist for it, and I don’t believe in the usefulness to apprentice writers of writing exercises. And yet I did introduce an exercise in the last two years: of asking writers to respond to, in any way they chose, to a text–an extract from a novel; a story or poem; an essay–from a selection of texts handed out to them.

Philly Malicka was in the July 2015 workshop. Her story, set in Rome, is a response to Susan Sontag’s essay on Walter Benjamin, “Under the Sign of Saturn.” This story is a part of a selection from the workshop that will be featured on The Caravan. Read other stories from the selection here, here and here.

 

I’d been living in my housemate’s spare room for a month when one evening he announced:

“I’m working class.”

It was over a dinner I had guiltily prepared in gratitude for his allowing a friend of mine to visit for the weekend. On the face of it, my housemate could be uncommonly hospitable.

“But you drive a sports car?” I said, flakes of salmon clogging in my mouth, “you grew up on the Papal summer estate.”

“I’m classy.” He continued, oafishly, “and I’m working.”

I ground my molars and gripped hold of my cutlery tightly, reminding myself of the myriad ways I needed him. My guest chuckled in recrimination. With a careful arm she helped herself to more Frascati.

I hated my housemate but I loved his vicinity.

His apartment stood on the Aventine, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, where the grand buildings, coated in crumbly yellow plaster, gently tilt upwards like leaning sunflowers. Though it is listed among the other famous sites, few historians agree on Aventino’s founding significance—its municipal importance has been relatively peripheral; its chief function well within the realm of the residential.

Yet, just below the Aventine was the area of Piramide, a convergent zone, named after its eponymous ancient pyramid, Cestio’s Tomb. Cestio was a magistrate in the third century BC, and though the area seemed to be governed by this landmark, I enjoyed its palpable air of illegality and vice. A great number of midday drinkers gathered together here —hordes of the capital’s native and immigrant unemployed—lying on small patches of lawn and guzzling warm wine from Tetrapak containers.

For me, the points of the square-based pyramid indicated a grittier, more truthful side to my adopted city. It was the gateway to Ostiense, a post-Industrial, socially subdued area of the city, where disused circular gasometers lay as waste as the Colloseum once had been. With its numerous bus stops, the metro station and overland train station, Piramide was a place of transit, to me a fascinating metropolitan experiment which had its roots in Fascist as well as ancient history. The main train station, which today promises day trips to the nearest beach at Civitavecchia, was originally constructed to welcome Adolf Hitler to Rome. Gradually the nearby factories and slaughterhouses were becoming occupied by students, disaffected by soaring unemployment. Soon they would be turned into vast contemporary art galleries—but not for some time. When I lived in the area its greatest attraction was the Protestant graveyard which the pyramid also overlooked. Frequently I lost myself in the lush density of these gardens with their tombs to the aliens and anti-clerical outcasts who had found themselves in Rome and, of course, dead.

***

“I’m just a mover,” my housemate would say, in his best British bin-man accent, disguising the executive reality of his role within his family’s well established and renowned home removals company. I don’t know why he ever made this claim in front of me. It made me acutely aware of his wealth and by extension my enslavement to him for the fifty euros I was paid each week.

My housemate was the chief sponsor of the newspaper for whom I was writing; he was the great enabler of the weekly publication. He wore sharp, shiny suits and kept everything liquid. I think he saw himself, among many other roles, as a Murdochian magnate in the making. When I was caught, for the last time, stealing the aperitivo from the bar beneath my flat I petitioned for a wage increase in order to pay my rent. It was rejected. Deep down I knew the appeal was in vain; our newspaper had defaulted on several generously discounted rent payments owed to the kindly Catholic order that leased us desk space. So, I was in no other position but to accept the alternative. My alimony could be bolstered only by living with our chief sponsor who would cover my bed and board so long as I lived in the city and worked for his paper. The flat was large, with white walls that were stained with nicotine; the rooms furnished with miscellaneous oriental furniture, each chair upholstered in sticky, noisy leather. The only exception to this was my small bedroom which was, for no reason at all, decorated like a cabin on a ship. Through the fog of my PVC bedroom window I could see the grey peak of Cestius’ pyramid.

My housemate was prematurely bald which made him seem ancient; in fact, he was only five years older than me. I moved in. I was hard up and exhausted from the strain of going hungry in one of the world’s choicest restaurant quarters. It didn’t seem to matter that my housemate was obsessed with hat stands or that he didn’t own a single book. Rome, with all its vogue and splendour and marvellous decay, lay just outside my front door. Yet still I found myself keeping the arrangement in secret from my family and, for a number of months, from my boyfriend in Berlin.

My housemate relocated people all over the world, but to me he seemed suspended in formaldehyde between England, where he had been privately educated, and Italy where he felt he had been yoked to work for the family business. Some time before I moved in I received a PDF file of house rules which included this extract:

“Rule number 18: Sometimes I get up early (5ish) and I listen to BBC news podcasts. Get over it.”

This was exactly my housemate’s style; needlessly defensive, laying claim to eccentricity through habits which, quite simply, were not unique. Apparently he missed speaking English. “No Italian at home,” he boomed, swaggering into the kitchen, drinking a French beer, his bare chest shaved. As a keen apprentice of Italian, I resented him and this language dictat deeply. The mistakes of formality into which he lapsed during our monthly business meetings with the rest of the newspaper team only made things worse. My housemate worshipped the mellifluous cadence and glorious flexibility of uninflected English. His British accent was faultless and regionally neutral; yet he could not see the problem with addressing me as ‘gorgeous’ in work environments—a direct translation of bella—a far more commonly accepted moniker in Italian.

I was a recent graduate. I was plucky and loud-voiced and steeped in righteous gender equality; totally unused to being spoken to as if from a building site. Each day, I faced the indignity of being indebted to someone I despised. My arm hair would prickle; hot, shameful lumps would form in my throat and the editorial meeting became blurred in front of me. Then, once the gathering was over, he would click his fingers in front of my Italian colleagues and loudly announce in English that it was “time to go home.” In a matter of weeks I was starting to feel like a kept woman. On many evenings I would return back to the flat and hear his music playing from the bottom of the Aventine. My housemate favoured screaming electro-swing and bellicose rap singers. Opening the door, outraged by the teenage disturbance, I would find him slumped on the sofa, bathed in the blue light of the television in a vest and baggy jeans like a strung out boyband member. Then I’d see my dinner prepared on the hob. I never once heard him listen to the news.

Yet, amongst all this, it is important to stress that, however erratic, my housemate was never libidinous; he crept around me in a strangely respectful way, hyper-cautious, calling out in corridors so as never to catch me in my towel. He wanted me to know that he was committed to my privacy. So the rule book listed further squirming oddities such as:

“When you have a male guest around please be considerate and put a sock on your door handle”. Or: “While being intimate with said male guest please be considerate and put some music on.”

I think my housemate planned for us to share tales of our conquests as if we were platonic friends in a nineties sitcom. I now realise now how much my sworn monogamy to a far-off boyfriend must have disappointed him. Looking back, I see how desperately he wanted to do the right thing; how much he needed a mate.

Before long, I was teaching English alongside my work for the paper, and I used the relative surge in my disposable income to escape my housemate whenever possible. Somehow, I became quite friendly with the Tetrapak-tramps in the surrounding area, though this never prevented their attempts to pickpocket me at the Porta Portese flea market every Sunday. “Cosa fai?!” I would shout in outcry, as I felt my watch loosening or my pockets invaded by light fingers. My hard-up friend would move on, without so much as a mi dispace. Outside of Piramide, our curious common ground, I was fair game.

My housemate had no interest in my unlikely friendship circle or my growing interest in the neighbourhood. Aside from his commute, which involved a drive to the suburbs, or occasional visits to the newspaper office, he ventured out only monthly. I only knew him to visit the Irish bar—a tourist hotspot in the city centre. For almost a decade he had lived in the area without making any friends. In our one year of cohabitation, I never once saw him out in our neighbourhood, ordering cornetti or buying cigarettes. I don’t think I will ever recover from his admission that, despite living alongside it for over a decade, he knew nothing of the existence of the Protestant cemetery.

“But it’s full of Brits, and cats,” I cried, “surely this is just your thing?”

Incredulous, I told him about the graves of the young Romantic poets and the epitaph for sickly, spluttering Keats:

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

My housemate liked to collect quotes and Maxims—perhaps this habit betrayed some weak lineage to his home city after all. Impressed, he wrote the phrase down in a book and stared at it with a lunatic’s glare. Then he laughed as he always did, a little too loudly, before lurching into a smoker’s cough.

Perhaps now is an apt moment to mention that my housemate kept chinchillas as pets. I see it now, but back then I couldn’t have appreciated quite how unwell he was. He owned six of them; they slept in a separate bedroom which was far bigger than mine. I discovered this fact on the evening I moved in, when I mistook their fetid chamber for my bathroom. In the darkness their little wheels spun like verminous wheels of fortune.

“So you found the chins!”

My housemate was behind me, He was holding one trembling creature in his strong hands. He was still wearing his work suit, though his belt was unbuckled.

“You wanna know why I have them right?”

I must have stammered some dismayed agreement.

“Well the ex brought one, then two, then four more.” He took a dramatic pause. He grew doleful, “and then she left us.”

 

Philly Malicka read English at Oxford, is a freelance writer about to complete her first novel, and was in the July 2015 workshop.

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