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On writing

Dear Reader,

I’ve spent the afternoon trawling through social media and news reports to find a topic to write about in this week’s letter. One that is unique. That would grab your attention and hold it. Because, unsurprisingly, just like you I get bored reading the same thing over and over again, even if it is merely worded a little bit differently.
And then I read several articles about Lionel Shriver and her keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival with opposing viewpoints. Her speech was fundamentally about cultural appropriation and how anyone can tell anyone’s story. Or as Yassmin Abdel-Magied viewed it, exploiting the stories of ‘others’ so your story was better. Continue reading On writing

Sexism did not have a break

Dear Reader,

How was your summer? For me it was time where although I enjoyed the break from deadlines and pressures, it was one where events around the world made me wish I could write a thousand letters for this column.

The Olympics were, once again, a hugely successful event for British athletes. Note I use the word athlete there and do not precede it with ‘female.’ The media coverage surrounding the athletes who happened to be women was archaic, often putting their success down to who they were married to or fathered by. There were also comments on how theses women looked and on what they were wearing. And this didn’t just happen to the athletes, but the commentators as well and I found myself frustrated by the reporting and belittling of their achievements by journalists needing to link these successful women to men. When their successes have nothing at all to do with men. Sure their husbands/partners must be wonderfully supportive – I’d like to think – in order for them to win a medal at an Olympic games, but that’s not why they’ve won. The men in their lives weren’t the ones training for hours and days and weeks. They weren’t the ones dedicating their whole lives to achieve their dream. No, that was them, the athletes themselves. This girl really can!

 And then over the summer holidays there were horrific murders of women, where newspapers and reports focused on solely their killers, their husbands, portraying them as ‘troubled,’ ‘under pressure,’ and saying their murderous, violent, horrific acts were ‘out of character.’ The women killed vanished and became invisible. We were told nothing about them. There were no column inches dedicated to them. They were purely defined as mothers, or wives, not women. Women whose lives have been cruelly cut short by men they loved and trusted. It’s abhorrent. Continue reading Sexism did not have a break

Radox, why can’t I feel heroic?

Dear Radox,

This letter has been a long time coming, but before we start I’d like to point out that your products have been used by me and my family for many years – they have soothed my muscles and helped me sleep on several occasions – it’s only recently that your packaging has made me angry every time I shower in the morning.

What may seem like good marketing to you, seems to me to be something that perpetuates outdated gender roles – that men like to ‘feel good’ and women like to ‘look good.’ I’d like to ask you why on earth you have packaged your shower gels this way…with taglines claiming that men can ‘rule the world’ and ‘feel heroic’ from showering using your products, whereas women can ‘feel sassy’ and ‘red carpet ready’ or ‘gorgeous with sun-kissed skin.’ And do not get me started on the product that suggests women need to ‘feel calm.’ Slathering that particular shower gel all over my body right now would not calm me down, I can assure you of that.

2945-917985-RangeShots_780x290_Invigorated Continue reading Radox, why can’t I feel heroic?

Gender Pay Gap lessons from 7 year olds

OUR_CLASSThis week I had the privilege of speaking with 7 year olds in Bristol as part of Enterprise week. Of all the meetings and events I had planned, this one was one I was looking forward to most.

There was something warm and fuzzy about that 2 PM slot on a Tuesday afternoon. And then reality hit and the pressure of 30 pairs of eyes piercing me through gave me unexpected heart palpitations.

We spoke about what it means to be an entrepreneur and how my work is around understanding the gender pay gap. The children were astounded. There is a gender pay gap? Why? Here are the three lessons I’ve learned from them while we discussed the issue.

  1. Never underestimate the power of a 7 year old to change a discussion about the gender pay gap into a conversation about fish and chips.
  2. In roles that are visible, gender stereotypes are alive and kicking. (ie. Very few girls thought that when they grow up they could be working in construction.)
  3. Men don’t allow women to work in construction because a brick could hit them on the head.
  4. It is unfair that some roles are valued less while they contribute a lot (ie. mums)
  5. The gender pay gap could be closed through a wrestling game, and may the best one win.
  6. Girls can build airplanes, because when more people – boys and girls – think about something together, they come up with a much better ideas.
  7. These young 7 year olds will live in a world with no pay gap. They will not allow it.

When I walked in, I was terrified. When I walked out (besides being thankful for still being alive) I was hopeful. The future is bright – the future has no pay gap.

With Gapsquare, we lead the development of technologies that will close the gender pay gap.

Dear Jeremy Hunt

Dear Jeremy Hunt,

This week has seen the NHS, and the junior doctors who work tirelessly for it, take a much-needed stand against you and your ridiculous policies. And I’m not entirely sure that you care?

On Tuesday, there was the first of three planned strikes. The decision to strike is one that would not have been taken lightly by any of the doctors, but one they deemed so important that operations were cancelled and appointments rescheduled. I don’t work for the NHS, and I am not up to speed with all of the ins and outs of the debate, but as a mum of two sick little boys, I know the NHS and all of those who work within it are vital. And I know that it is at breaking point. Continue reading Dear Jeremy Hunt

Children’s Fiction with Sian Norris author of ‘Greta and Boris’

Sian Norris is a writer, blogger and feminist activist based in Bristol.


me 1


“I used to run the Bristol Feminist Network. I’m the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival which took place in 2013, and then again in 2015. I run the feminist blog as well as writing for numerous other publications including Open Democracy and the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Independent. Right now I’m working on my second novel which is about Gertrude Stein and her circle. I’ve also written a couple of short stories which I self-published on the Kindle – it’s called The Boys on the Bus.”

2.  Tell us a little about Greta and Boris?

Greta and Boris: A daring rescue is my first book, it’s a children’s novel for 7-11 year olds and it was published by Our Street in 2013, around the same time I was running the first Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. So as you can imagine it was a hectic time! It follows the adventure of a young girl called Greta who has a cat called Boris. However, what she doesn’t realise is that Boris is no ordinary cat – he’s the Prince of Cats! And he’s been catnapped by the very evil Rat King. As his human, Greta is the only person who can save him and so with the help of a warrior cat called Kyrie, she sets out on an adventure to rescue Boris. Her quest takes her through many magical lands including Cloud-Top land, the Milky Sea, the warring land of mice, the millpond of truth and then, of course, she must face the Rat King himself. The book is illustrated by Robert Griggs and his gorgeous pen and ink drawings really do bring everything to life. I’m really happy and proud of what the two of us achieved with the book.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed since the book was published is that it has given me the opportunity to visit a few schools in the area and run writing workshops with the kids. It’s really inspiring to see how they respond to the book and to watch them as they come up with their own ideas and use language in new and exciting ways.


book cover


3. What inspired you to write it?

Ooh, good question! I think I was inspired by the kinds of books I read as a child. They mostly involved animals and girls going on adventures. It was really important to me that I wrote a book that had an interesting and active girl hero who got to have her own adventures and was self-determined and independent. I don’t think I started out to write a book where a Prince got kidnapped and rescued, but when I finished I realised I had written an inverse of the traditional fairy tale!

4. What advice would you give to other writers about writing a children’s novel?

I think it’s really important to write a story you believe in – the kind of story you would have wanted to read as a child. Children aren’t stupid, they can tell if you are writing something to patronise them. You have to enjoy the story you are telling, you have to be involved in the story and believe in the characters. Then your audience will feel the same.

For me, as I say, it was really important to write a book that featured girls going on adventures. A lot of people said to me that this would mean boys wouldn’t read it. I don’t think that’s true – I think boys can enjoy books written about girls. And I especially don’t think it’s a reason not to write about girls! We need to be expanding the stories we tell, not constricting them to fit with some poor ideas about gender stereotypes.

5. What advice would you give to other writers about getting a novel published?

My publisher isn’t a very traditional publisher – they are very much focused on bringing new authors in who haven’t been published before. So I was lucky to find them.

So what advice would I give? Read your story out loud. It’s the best way to hear the rhythms. Then keep re-drafting until you know you are no longer able to spot any errors. That’s when it’s time to hand it over to someone else to read, a friend whose opinion on writing and reading you trust, and from there on to an agent.

6. Are there any techniques or exercises that proved invaluable in helping to shape your ideas?

I never really had any creative writing training – I didn’t do an MA or a course or anything like that. However, I went on a Write like a Grrl day workshop earlier this year and learnt some really valuable things. The first is to try and spend at least 15 minutes a day working on your writing project. For years I’ve been in the trap of waiting for the ‘perfect time’ to sit down and write – which ended up putting all the pressure on getting up on a Saturday and then feeling stuck! But we all have 15 minutes in a day and it’s amazing what you can get done in that space. The 15-minute method meant I finally finished my latest novel – as well as a short story. If you have a chance to go on a Write like a Grrl course then I would urge you to – they’re brilliant.

7. What authors inspired you / what were you reading when writing Greta and Boris?

I found myself re-reading a lot of my favourite children’s books. Most of them feature girls going on adventures – so The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry. I love these books so much – they both feature amazing heroines who go out and get stuff done! They’re the stars of the story and overcome huge odds in order to save the lives of those they love.

8. If you could sit down with any author and have a one to one over tea and cake, who would that be?

Living or dead? Gertrude Stein. She was such an inspiring woman – she was a pivotal force in modernism both as a writer and a salon hostess. I’ve been researching her a lot for my new novel and I’m just fascinated by her. There are so many records of people talking about her conversation and her genius – there’s a great interview with Janet Flanner saying how when Stein laughed, everyone in the room laughed. That her laugh was like a signal. Stein was a modernist genius, her writing is as experimental and interesting as anything produced by James Joyce or TS Eliot, and yet she’s not widely read now. She’s seen more as a historical curiosity it seems to me, than as a genius in her own right. She’s better known for supporting the careers of men like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald – she mentored male writers and then their reputations took over hers.

Plus her ‘wife’ Alice B Toklas made the best cakes! So it would definitely be those two. For the cake, the conversation and the chance to meet everyone else who flocked to her salons.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet two of the writers who have inspired me and continue to inspire me throughout my life – Ali Smith and Margaret Atwood.

9. What other projects do you balance with your novel writing career?

I’m the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. I started it in 2012 and we had our first programme of events in 2013, featuring writers as diverse as Bidisha, Helen Dunmore, Stella Duffy, Professor Helen Taylor, Emilia di Girolamo, Dr Kristin Aune…oh there were loads of women all talking about literature and writing and feminism to a packed audience. I did it again this year, in March 2015, and had Finn Mackay, Helen Lewis, Beatrix Campbell, Emma Rees, Professor Helen Hackett, Selma Dabbagh, Michele Roberts, Amy Mason, Helen Mort and Samantha Ellis speaking.

This year I also screened the film Paris was a Woman which is all about women creating literature and art in 1920s Paris.

The festival aims to celebrate the creative diversity of women writers and to try and provide a balance to the male-dominated literary scene. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of energy but I love it. I’m now starting to think about 2017 so watch this space…

I also write for various news sites and I run my blog, Sian and Crooked Rib, which is a space where I can write about feminism and politics.

And I work full time! So pretty busy!

10. What’s next for you?

I’ve finished drafting my new novel. It’s a grown up one this time! It’s set in Paris in the 1920s and tells the story of Leonie Lennox who, determined to escape her fate as a ‘surplus woman’ moves to the Left Bank to try and become a writer. Once there, she befriends everyone from Stein to Sylvia Beach to Hemingway. However, when she meets a young British writer and falls in love, she finds herself having to decide how it is she wants to live, and what it is that matters to her. The novel explores all sorts of issues including female friendship, class and reproductive rights. But most importantly, it’s a novel about a woman coming to find herself and becoming the woman she wants to be.

I love it! I’m now looking for an agent…so if anyone is reading this…!

11. Where can we find out more/ purchase your book from?

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and is available on Amazon and other places.

Lucy English: Poet and Professor on Studying Creative Writing

Lucy English

Photo from Bath Spa University Website
Lucy English.  Bath Spa University Website

Born in Sri Lanka. Grew up in London. Went to Uni in East Anglia to do English and American Literature and Fine Art. Had kids. Kept writing. Did an MA in Creative Writing in 1996. First book published 1998. Started doing performance poetry in 1996. Started teaching. Further novels published in 1999 and 2001. Kept doing poetry. First collection published by Burning Eye 2014.

I started working at Bath Spa as an hourly paid lecturer in 1998. I got a permanent post in 2001. I became a Reader in 2013.

My latest project is for my PhD. It’s a contemporary reimagining of a Book of Hours, which were originally religious texts containing a selection of readings and pictures. My version is going to secular and digital. It consists of 48 poetry films which will reflect the month and time of day. As well as the creative project I will be examining audiences for poetry films. I have become fascinated in the poetry film genre recently and I run a small poetry film festival in Bristol and Bath. Poetry films have a small but intense following and I would like to explore ways of expanding this. The Book of Hours is a collaborative project, as film makers will be making the films and an interaction designer will be creating the site. It’s all in the early stages right now but the first batch of films have been made in collaborations with Marc Neys. I adore his work. It’s moody and reflective. Just what I want for The Book of Hours. Continue reading Lucy English: Poet and Professor on Studying Creative Writing

To The One That Got Away

Letters section lead by Jen Faulkner

This week’s letter needs no introduction, its writer simply said it’s best enjoyed with a glass of Pinot in hand, and Adele’s ‘Someone like you’ playing in the background…

To The One That Got Away,

You found me in the most unromantic of places: a dating app for gay men predominantly used for late-night hook-ups. Yet, against the odds, there we were instantly building a rapport. Messages bounced back and forth over an entire day before you asked me for my number, to which I happily obliged with a Cheshire cat grin.

The ensuing days were a stream of texted conversation. We learned the fundamental basics about each other. You learned I love the colour green, prefer dogs to cats, coffee to tea, and that my favourite food is pasta with an ample dose of grated parmesan. I learned that you love the colour orange, drink herbal teas and have an unfounded adoration of all kinds of bears, whilst your favourite food is salmon in a coconut and lime marinade. Most importantly, in those infant messages, we shared personal truths about our difficulties with self-esteem, and in trusting others and letting them in. We made promises to always treat each other with respect and care; being upfront and honest so as to never hurt one another.

Our messaging went on for days; it was surely some kind of world record! Then, after a week, I inadvertently called you whilst unlocking my front door. Knowing you hated telephone conversations, I promised I’d only stay on the line for a few minutes. That turned into eight hours. I cooked dinner; you did laundry, while we enjoyed a non-stop conversation telling stories of our lives. There were things I shared that night which haven’t left my head in years; stories not even my best friends know. You told me tales of life in your homeland, about heartbreak and your family’s discomfort of your sexual orientation. In between those truths, I learned so many other things; little, humanising things which made me fall for you even harder; like the way I heard the smile in your voice when you talked about your Mum and the way you got adorably sarcastic when embarrassed. Continue reading To The One That Got Away

Dear Nicky Morgan – a letter to the Secretary of State for Education

by Jen Faulkner

I’m  sure everyone has an opinion on our current education system. We all know a teacher, or a parent, or a child who attends a primary school and are not immune to opinions and concerns. This week the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, outlined new plans to test primary school children more rigorously. One reader does not think this is in anyway a good idea, and I have to say, I totally agree.

Dear Nicky Morgan,

NickyH&SJan10I’ve been watching the news recently and listening to how you believe that more rigorous testing for children in primary schools is the way forward, and I had to write to you to let you know that I wholeheartedly disagree with you.

One of the key points you have made is that the testing will be discrete and fun for each child. This is naive and giving children no credit. They are inherently aware of the hierarchy of ability within a classroom. They know when they are not as bright as their peers and making them compulsively re-sit the test when they have failed it (even using the word failed when talking about children angers me) will compound their feelings of low self worth. You say tests help children learn to recall facts better, but you’re wrong. Some children struggle with tests and recall no matter how many times they have to do it and, once again, this makes them feel even more of a failure. Continue reading Dear Nicky Morgan – a letter to the Secretary of State for Education

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