Other stories to tell    
    
    
Hullabaloo and Secret Pianos, David Grubb (12, Leaf Books)    
    

In his poetry David Grubb often returns again and again to a certain number of themes: his childhood, his family, certain locations (including Cornwall, where he grew up), faith & doubt, madness and dispossession. Although these obsessions are often voiced by the narrator/author there is sometimes an attempt to give voice more to his subject, so we may meet a kind of ghost of his mother, listen to a babble of speech from patients in a psychiatric ward, or the broken cries of a war victim.    
    
In Hullabaloo and Secret Pianos, Grubb uses a similar technique to tell stories from his time working in refugee camps and war zones: a clear, straightforward voice (that of an observer or narrator, sometimes children or refugees themselves) that informs and describes for the reader what is going on. Much of the horror and violence is inferred or described quite matter-of-factly, by those not only worn out by violence and war, but also all too accustomed to it.    
    
'The Silence of Children' takes place in a refugee camp. Here is the beginning of the story:    
    
        We are in Rwanda. It is late in the evening. We are waiting for the      
     trucks to arrive. The truck will not be filled with food or medicine or     
     tents or water containers. They will drive into the place that was once     
     a school carrying hundreds of silent children.    
        We know they will come but we don't know when. We have water     
     and biscuits for them. We have tents ready. We have a medical     
     team waiting.    
        There are already hundreds of other children here. Most are asleep     
     in the tens but some of them cannot find sleep. Sometimes a child     
     suddenly starts screaming and an adult will rush to calm them, to     
     help, to listen. That is easy. It is when a child is convulsed in silent     
     screaming that one feels so helpless, so guilty, so utterly useless.    
    
Despite the waiting aid, the food and shelter, which is clearly desperately needed, Grubb feels useless, describing a kind of impotence, an inabilty to cure the silent screaming of traumatised children he witnesses. It is the silence which particularly appals him, 'the silent children who have simply become lost, out of their minds, terror-chilled; human fragments'. Although 'some have names', and 'some know who they are and where they came from', 'others are stuck in a nowhere'.    
    
As a writer, this silence, this inability to use language or words to articulate is appalling. 'The silence is like fear itself' says Grubb in another story, 'I Can Do Miracles'. This is a fear he has spoken about, a fear he has had to face and deal with himself, as he struggles to respond to some of the horrors he has seen. How, for instance, to even think about, let alone write about, a mother crucified with scissors on her garden fence? Her children can take water to her, but if an adult goes near, snipers will kill them. Is it worth prolonging her life with the water? Should he or others get shot in an attempt to save her? Should someone kill her out of compassion? And who will look after the children? Or explain to them what is going on?    
    
Maybe he should shut up and hand out the water and biscuits? Or maybe he can help facilitate memory and healing?     
    
The first stage is to encourage the telling of the stories that have rendered these people silent. The silence remains, but there are other ways to tell stories:    
    
     Here is a boy drawing his house that had been set alight. Here is a     
     girl using dolls to show a doctor what some men did to her.    
    
     In another area there are girls who dance and there are children who    
     have found old friends. [...] And there are classes: reading, writing,     
     chanting.    
    
Here is one child's story, set as a discreet paragraph of speech within 'I Can Do Miracles':    
    
     'When we had been running from the soldiers for days we hid in     
     the trees and when we saw men hunting for us we went deeper     
     and deeper. At night we could hear animals making their noises     
     and sometimes we could hear screaming and when it rained the     
     trees grew taller and taller and they were speaking to each other.     
     And we went deeper and deeper and stayed there until we began     
     to starve. And when we left the trees we could see at once that     
     men had been waiting for us and they rounded us up and did things     
     to us and some of the girls we never saw again and they said what     
     they were going to do to us and some of us got away and returned     
     to the trees and I was suddenly along and went deeper and deeper     
     and began to live in another way.'    
    
Having told these stories - and Grubb suggests that these stories are told 'to prove they are still alive' -  it is time to remind the children that there are other stories to tell:    
    
     There are ways to remember life as it once was. There are dances     
     and small plays to bring back the colours [...]    
    
     And the moon comes here. And colours. And names. And toys. And    
     games. And when it rains they all run out into the central yard as if     
     it was a miracle. Even some of the silent ones, because the rain     
     brings back memories.    
        And the singing is about who they are. And there are moments
    when there might be more to come.    
    
For Grubb these stories are both observed personal experience and experienced personal experience, changed into words. His stories are how he has dealt with the world around him, what he has made in response to his personal experience, how he has balanced ideas of authority, truth, confession, response, reportage, commentary and storytelling.     
    
Good writers can take what they know and draw the reader in. We do not need to be told by Grubb what he thinks and feels about war and madness, his writing tells us for him. His writing also tells us what those involved - the refugees and psychiatric  patients - feel too.    
    
We may not have physically experienced war or poverty or death in exactly the same way as Grubb, but in a way after reading this book, we have. Good writing involves us, translates personal experience for us, to become through the medium of language
our personal experience. By using what he or she knows, by selecting, editing and re-presenting memory, a writer can transform not only personal experience, not only words and language, but readers' lives too. I have to confess I initially resisted being drawn into the emotional and unsettling world Grubb's stories inhabit, but in the end I gave in and am very glad I did. These are brave, unsettling and well-written stories that are 'true' in the most real sense of the world.    
    
    Rupert Loydell 2011