From Brixton to Japan and back: Zelda Rhiando and the Brixton Bookjam – BrixtonBuzz

Posted: December 1, 2019 at 4:42 pm

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Phil Ross talks to author Zelda Rhiando, and learns some local history as well as the difference between pavements in Japan and pavements in Brixton.

Ive just spent the morning researching my Aunt Dorrie, who appears to have been a serial killer.

Dublin born Zelda Rhiando, author and founder of Brixton BookJam sits relaxed but upright. Her smile radiates as the magnitude of what she has just said settles in my mind.

She murdered six husbands, Zelda continues, Three in Ireland and three in the USA.

She has been trying to find out about Dorrie (Dorothy), her grandmothers aunt. But there are no family records, they were all destroyed in the Post Office, along with everyone elses. Shes referring to the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule when much of Dublin was destroyed.

Were having coffee in Cafe Tana on Brixton Hill, and although Zelda is sitting perfectly still her eyes and her words bubble with excitement and information. Much of what Ive pieced together comes from stories from my grandmother Kitty, and Dorries letters to her sister, she explains. I was moved around a lot as a small child but I was mostly brought up by Kitty, she says. My interest in literature and philosophy comes from her. She was a great storyteller and a great unpublished writer.

We lived in a six storey Georgian house in Merrion Square, which was a Knightsbridge-type place, it probably still is. Shes describing one of Dublins grandest garden squares, where the distinguished residents have included Barons, politicians, and writers. Number 39 was the site of the British Embassy until it was burned down by a 20,000 strong, angry mob protesting the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972, the year before Zelda was born.

We lived hand to mouth, and I was often sent out to sell marmalade or freshly laid eggs to rich neighbours, she says with a twinkle in her eye. We would buy past-it oranges from the market, and make the marmalade in a bucket. My grandmother taught me that there was always something I could do to get by.

Her hands cup the warm coffee mug as I sit transfixed. We had loads of weird and eclectic tenants: fashion designers, a plastic surgeon, a yacht salesman, she says. And Kitty ran the Dublin branch of The Gurdjieff Society. Like the tip of an iceberg, Zeldas statement indicates an underlying mass of knowledge. This time shes talking about George Gurdjieff, the Armenian Greek philosopher, composer and mystic.

He taught that everything must be questioned and Nothing is to be believed until verified by direct experience. So I was sent several times a year to a spiritual commune in Yorkshire, she says.

Zelda whose mother married Guilford based racing driver and designer Max Rhiando, also spent a great deal of time traveling as an unaccompanied minor from Dublin to London. Later winning a scholarship to a girls school in Baker Street and eventually a place at Clare College, Cambridge.

Whilst at school, a teacher who had links with an Ashram arranged for her to visit India to teach English. It was here, at Full Moon Parties, that she first heard the Goa Sound the music which would draw her to Brixton. I would come every weekend to Goa Trance parties at The Fridge and Club 414, she starts to reminisce. It was the early 90s and we partied hard, but it led me to return to India and travel when I finished Uni. Mostly supporting myself by hair wrapping.

Perhaps its these early experiences, combining self-sufficiency, travel, learning and questioning, that account for the fearless research she undertakes for her writing. Or does it go a little deeper?

Fact-finding for her 2012 debut novel, found her narrowly escaping death after accidentally swimming with piranha fish, while living with headhunters in the Amazon basin. The initial idea for Caposcripti came to me in a dream when my grandmother was visiting me at my flat by The Telegraph in Brixton Hill. She laughs, Mushrooms might have been involved, it was 97-ish. I was doing a lot of raving.

Zelda pivots to allow three ladies to squeeze into the adjacent table. I also spent a lot of time playing pool with ex-convicts, she confides. The Telegraph was the closest pub to Brixton Prison, and the first place many would head to when they got released. Im a pretty good pool player.

Starting off faxing and making coffee in Cyberia, Londons first Internet Cafe, Rhiando would observe customers when they came in with clients to pitch their digital ideas. Gradually, she picked up enough jargon to eventually Jump in at the deep end.

I got my first digital job basically because I could spell better than the creative director. It was an exciting time in digital media, everything was new and everyone was learning. And each night she would slowly work on her book, until at last the first draft was complete.

We decide to leave Cafe Tana and walk up the hill. The story was written but I just couldnt imagine the Amazon. I knew I had to go there, she tells me. I thought who can I approach? So I wrote to the Peruvian Embassy, and the Governor sent me a letter of introduction that I could show people.

Returning to London, Rhiando realized that she had not only avoided the various jungle and mountain perils, but that she had also missed the worst of the dotcom crash. Working as a digital freelancer not only gave her the time and space to rewrite and restructure the book but, after 27 rejections from publishers, she now had the tools and knowledge to self publish.

It seems slightly counter intuitive that after such an arduous and often dangerous journey to complete Caposcripti, that she would have a fear of The whole book launch thing, talking to people, signing and stuff.

But thats exactly why Rhiando decided to set up the first Brixton BookJam, as a means to introduce her debut novel. And its been going ever since, she says slightly incredulously. Weve had about four hundred writers come, give readings and sell their books. We even had a Radio 4 crew come down to do a feature.

Our walk has brought us to Windmill Gardens. And as we sit enjoying the late September sun, Zelda explains how it was winning the Kidwell E-Book Award for Caposcripti and its 10,000 prize, that funded the research trip for her next novel Fukushima Dreams (2017), and took her to Japan.

In March 2011, the Worlds fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded moved the Earths axis by 10cm. It triggered a series of tsunami waves, that in places reached 40m in height and speeds of 700km/hr, killing approximately 19,000 people. Subsequent damage to three of the Fukushima Power Plant reactors resulted in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

There was so much re-construction going on, she recalls, So it was really hard to find accommodation. There was a big exclusion zone around the reactor. Her beaming smile fades to a more sombre expression. I remember walking the streets in Koji, a grim place with cold rain, that Id looked up in an internet cafe. Id arrived by train on a Japanese Rail Pass. I was hand-to-mouthing it and it didnt quite work.

Apart from the language barrier to cross, there was also the spontaneity barrier, as she calls it. Only a year after the disaster it was a very difficult topic for people to discuss, she says. There was lots of Thorntons Tea. And smiles to smooth things over. But Rhiando persevered and in Kagashima for example, she befriended a Japanese guy who made things easier. He had lived in New York and spoke some English. We made a connection playing pool. She laughs. All that pool playing in The Telegraph came in handy, the smile has returned to her face.

The little park has filled with parents and small children so we decide to continue our walk. Agents and publishers were very nervous about the topic, she tells me. But it seems that the meticulous research paid off when a famous Japanese novelist wrote to her after reading Fukushima Dreams. They said they couldnt comment in public. But they were astonished that Japanese literature had birthed a new child overseas and they loved it. Zelda is beaming again.

As we meander up Lyham Road, I wonder how many novelists go to such lengths. What do you think you gained by going to Japan? I ask. The smells, the tastes, she responds immediately. The colours of the pavements, what people say in the morning. The small subtle cultural differences. The pavements? Its my turn to laugh. Tell me about the pavements.

Japanese pavements have a thin yellow brick line for blind people, she replies. And braille outside on the door frames. These are the kind of details you dont notice unless you visit a place. Its a fair point I concede, so how would you describe a Brixton pavement? I ask.

Relishing the challenge, Zelda pauses for the slightest instance that it takes to draw a breath and replies Brixton pavements are streaked with dirt and littered with fragments of chicken bones. Reeking of weed and piss.

We stop walking and we both laugh. Weve come to the part of Lyham Road where the looming walls and windows of Brixton Prison dominate the immediate neighbourhood.

We have found ourselves standing by a blue, spray painted, circular piece of graffiti on the brown bricks of the prison wall. Designed to look like one of Londons famous English Heritage blue plaques, the graffiti is headed Irish Heritage and it reads: Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor & MP, Died on hunger strike in HMP Brixton after 74 days, 25-10-1920.

Oh, theyve put this here, she is surprised. I havent seen this plaque before, she says. He was a writer and a poet, a very sensitive man.

He helped form the Celtic Literary Society, she tells me. And the Cork Dramatic Society, where he put on his plays.

MacSwiney also helped form the Irish Volunteers, and was elected to the first Dil as a Sinn Fin representative for Cork. Shortly before his arrest in 1920, he was elected Lord Mayor.

His death in Brixton Prison shocked the World, particularly in India where both Nehru and Gandhi were influenced by his style of revolution, blending cultural and political with military resistance.

Zelda and I stand respectfully by the plaque for a moment, and I wonder if my silence betrays my embarrassment. I feel ashamed at my lack of Irish history. I find myself saying, Why have I never heard of such an important person?

But how could you, she states. Hes not part of the narrative. Terrence MacSwiney doesnt fit the British version of Irish history.

We walk on, tight-lipped for a while. So, on the subject of Ireland, I say, in a clumsy attempt to resume the conversation. What about Aunt Dorrie and Dublin. Youre writing the book, yes?

Ill definitely write the book, but further down the line. She grins. A fact-finding trip might be necessary. Probably to California, where she killed her last three husbands. It needs a lot more research. Public records, land registries and stuff. From her letters, I think she owned a saloon there.

Of course, I remember, Nothing is to be believed until verified by direct experience.

The next Brixton BookJam is on Monday 2nd December at 8pm At The Hootananny, Brixton, 95 Effra Road, London SW2 1DF The closest tube station is Brixton (Victoria line) Buses 2, 3, 415, 432, 196

Authors reading extracts from their work will be: Gail Thibert, Be Atwell, Martin Millar, Garth Cartwright, Kevin Cummins, Chris Roberts, Eamon Summers and Zelda Rhiando, with more to be announced

If youd like to read or propose a reader please email:

[Zelda portraits by Svenja Block] [Other photos by Phil Ross]

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From Brixton to Japan and back: Zelda Rhiando and the Brixton Bookjam - BrixtonBuzz

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