January 26, 2015

The Joys of Sisterhood

Photo by Parée

Photo by Parée

I’ve been thinking about the beauty of same sex friendships. For me, there is an emotional security – the German word is ‘Geborgenheit’ and describes this more accurately – about friendships between members of the same sex.

I don’t have any sisters though I always wanted one. The bond between sisters seems a magical one, be it in literature – take Jane Austen novels, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Angela Carter’s Wise Children – or in real life. My mum is one of six siblings, only one of whom is a boy. My husband, an only child, went to a sports school where the fellow pupils became like brothers for him. I’m glad, looking back, that my parents decided to send my brother and me to single sex schools. Along with the rivalries and hurts that go hand in hand with school years, I formed lasting relationships there.

I was spoilt by intimacy growing up. My family on both sides is boisterous. They talk incessantly, a noisy battle of stories and jocularity, of stormy, steadfast affection. Then there was school and the strong friendships built through my parents’ insistence we attend Friday prayers. I was both anonymous and part of the fold. Looking back those relationships were a gift. The boys and girls used to hang out by the radiators at the back of the mosque after prayers, each on their own side of the room until we became old enough for the members of the opposite sex to become interesting.

As I grew and with the advent of mobile technology, my friendships began to develop independently of my parents. I’d spend hours on the phone talking to female friends using the free talk plans that were so generous in the early days of mobile phone companies. Even today I take huge pleasure from throwing on shoes and a coat and heading over to a friend’s for a cup of tea. No frills, no huge planning, just a few minutes of conversation shared over a mug of Tetley or Twinings.

Photo by Neil Krug

Photo by Neil Krug

It’s different here in Geneva, partly because we’ve only been here six months, and well, friendships develop over time. There is a large population turnover here. Ex-pats invariably arrive to take up jobs with international organisations and their cycles seem to be 3-5 years before moving on. So far I have made few good friends, but in a way this is a blessing for my writing. And there’s always visitors, loved faces that Skype does not do justice to. Even so, when the visitors are gone, I struggle with the need to put on my game face for acquaintances, to reply without frustration when asked daily:

“How are you?”
“Well, thanks. You?”
“Yeah, fine.”
“Good weekend.”
“Can’t complain.”

What a polite dance. I get that time is often short, or you don’t fancy delving into your life troubles with strangers at the school gates. I’m just not very good at repeating this script time and again. It is what irks me when I go to the mosque nowadays. The prayers bring me comfort. But afterwards it is like getting through a rugby scrum. Everywhere there is someone making a beeline for you, catching your eye and asking those same stock questions.

What I really want to say is:

Are you seeing the real me?

I love that when good female friends come together, the default mode of conversation is intimate. I thrive on intimate. It’s one of the reasons I like to read and write fiction. I like being catapulted inside a character’s head. It must have been over a decade ago, but I still remember being enthralled by a performance of The Vagina Monologues. The staging was bare, the lights were dimmed and the performers sat on high stools, a spotlight focused on them, as they told their stories in turn. Their stories, yet we were all on the same page.

There’s a strength to friendship between women. Relationships between women past a certain age are often judged to be secondary to heterosexual ones. Too often they are dismissed as gossipy or opportunistic, or recast to be competitive in nature. To me they have a beauty all of their own. The truth is that female friendships are often profound love stories and they can last a lifetime, accompanying us through puberty and into adulthood, through career choices, various relationships, ill health, the birth of children, the breakdown of marriages, the death of parents and the ageing process.

Of course, there are times when friendships between women falter. Sometimes we grow in different directions. Harder still are the times when previously harmonious relationships suddenly jar for no apparent reason. In my own past, two female friendships suddenly combusted without warning. These ones leave behind sadness, a common his(her)story erased over a perceived slight or out of sync expectations. Worst of all is trashing. I’ve never been able to understand why women disparage each other. Personal attacks borne out of petty jealousies, competition and hatred poison everyone involved. There is room for more than one woman at the top, and there is room for differing viewpoints and personalities.

Happily there is no shortage of women (and men) who are able to celebrate other people, who are there with words of encouragement or a funny story, who are successful and not afraid to pay it forward, to share their time and skills with others. I’ve been blown away by the energy and sharing in writing communities on Twitter (#MondayBlogs, @A_WritersStudio, #wwwblogs, #FridayPhrases, #MyWANA) and on Facebook (Write Better Stories, Writers Soapbox, not all encompassing lists).

Blogging Award

sister-hood-awardIt’s been a while since I did a blogging award. They can be time-consuming, but on the upside they are fun and supportive. A big thanks to Jess West for nominating me for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award. I first met Jess on Twitter. She is fearless and inspiring. We have rubbed elbows at Flash! Friday, Prose Before Ho Hos and recently did a story collaboration together. Jess lives in the States; I wish she lived closer. I sent her Maltesers; she sent me a handwritten letter. Now that’s love.

To accept Jess’s nomination, I have to answer ten questions she has devised, nominate seven female bloggers and ask them my own ten questions. So come on into my living room, I’ll turn the lights down, you can tuck your feet up under you and I’ll whisper random somethings into your ear.

Jess’s Questions

▪ Of the five senses, if you absolutely had to lose one, which would you prefer to be without?

My sense of smell is the weakest of all my senses I think. There are men in my life who let off some pretty rotten smells but thankfully I tend to get the hit quite late, just before it evaporates. Powerful scents tend to give me a headache. Some writers I know would balk at not being able to smell their coffee, but I’ve always been more of a tea drinker anyway. I’d miss the smell of the sea and freshly baked cakes. I’d miss the smell of my mum’s home cooking and knowing when my son needs a nappy change. Still, if I had to choose it would still be scent. I’d struggle more losing one of the others.

▪ Which is your favourite meal, breakfast, lunch, or supper?

Lunch is out, that’s usually rushed for me. I try and maximise writing time while the kids are at school and nursery and often skip it. There’s nothing quite like soggy Cornflakes for breakfast and slurping the remaining milk from the bowl afterwards. But my favourite meal of the day is supper. It’s cooked leisurely with my favourite tracks or BBC Radio 4 on in the background. When it’s time to eat, we take turns telling each other about what has happened that day and playing silly games with the kids. At the moment it’s animal noises. I do a pretty mean eagle.

▪ When is the best time of day to get something accomplished?

First thing in the morning straight after a shower. I find that if I start early, I can keep up my motivation. If I dawdle or get waylaid by chores, then I just don’t end up hitting fifth gear. Last thing at night works well too, when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. That was my favourite time of day to write when I was still working in regional government.

▪ What’s your stance on tattoos located on the lower back, just above the tailbone?

I thought about getting one when I was seventeen. Back then in Croydon it was all about black cherry lipstick, poker straight hair and lower back tattoos. I thought they were sexy. Now I think that stretch of skin is beautiful bare. I never managed the poker straight hair (thank you Dad) and in the end I went for a tattoo on my left hip. It’s a butterfly – rock and roll! – and when I was pregnant one of its wings stretched out towards my belly. After the children were born it returned to its usual place. I still like it and sometimes think about getting another.

▪ If you could stop time and become a fictional character for the duration of a book, who would you be and from which book?

That’s a toughie. My favourite characters have been put through the mill. I might admire them, but would I want to go through their trials? I’ve always wanted to do magic though, so possibly Molly Weasley from Harry Potter. She has integrity, passion and is made of love. It pours from her. And that is one hell of a moment when she duels with Bellatrix Lestrange in the final book. Although her son dies, doesn’t he? I think it might mean something that I identified with the mum figure and not Hermione Granger. It just occurred to me I’m no longer a spring chicken. But I have depth, baby.

▪ With regard to the previous question, how would your time as that fictional character change how you live your life when you get back?

I’d get more frustrated with housework. Molly uses a fair amount of magic shortcuts in the home. I’d be fiercer in my courage and love, and be more comfortable in my own skin. I would hold my children close.

▪ What’s your favourite TV show and why?

I’m loyal to books but I am flighty with TV. At the moment I’m really enjoying Broadchurch. Great performances and beautiful landscape shots in romantic hues that contrast with the difficult subject matter. But then equally I love the cleverness and directing of Sherlock, the chemistry between the central characters there, and Strikeback, for its dialogue and crowd-pleasing action scenes. Past favourites have been Spooks, Merlin and The Sopranos. There was a time when only Friends could make me laugh out loud at the screen. Any or all of the above hit the spot depending on my mood.

▪ If money were of no concern and you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

I’d go to Belize for the Maya architecture, caves and beaches. Australia and New Zealand would be a close second, for the landscape, wildlife and because growing up watching Neighbours and Home and Away make me think it’d be a lot of fun. In third place would be Russia for its literary and political history. I can imagine it so well. I’d love to see how my constructions match up to reality.

▪ If you won a million dollars tomorrow, how would you spend it?

I’d pay off the outstanding mortgage on our house and put aside money for the children’s education. I’d buy a flat and split the rental income between my gran and our parents. I’d take a holiday (I lost a bet a long time ago and am supposed to be taking my husband to Budapest) and if there was still enough in the pot I’d buy a Mini Cooper: five doors, in a bright colour, leather seats and wooden finishing inside. The rest I’d save for a rainy day.

▪ What are your plans for 2015?

To keep writing and learning; to try my hand at poetry more often; to learn to play a few songs on the guitar, which is gathering dust in the corner of our living room; to pay 100% attention to the people and things that matter, without a phone in my hand or my thoughts elsewhere. To find a yoga or a zumba class somewhere (I miss my old ones in London and have yet to find somewhere in Geneva). They’re not big plans, just small steps, repeated every day. It’s the repetition that matters I think.

***

We are all trying to steal pockets of writing time for ourselves. If I’ve nominated you for this award and you are unable to accept, just take this as a public declaration of appreciation for your words and your support for other writers. My nominees are:

My questions are:

  • What was the first book you got lost in?
  • Which animal would you like to be and why?
  • What and where is your favourite restaurant?
  • Where is your safe place?
  • Describe a moment from your childhood which makes you smile.
  • Which of your own creations has meant the most to you and why?
  • If you could spend the day with anyone from history, who would you choose and what would you do?
  • Name a song which would get you on the dance floor or which you sing to lift your mood.
  • Which one book would you recommend to your friends and why?
  • Which three places in the world have you really enjoyed being?

Write on, sisters.

Join the conversation! 11 Comments

  1. Is it possible to fall in love with someone in a strictly platonic way? After reading your answers, and your thoughts on same-sex friendships, I’m gonna go with yes. <3

    Reply
  2. What a beautiful post about friendship and an absolute honor to be nominated by you among fabulous sisters, several of who I already admire for their literary contributions. My purpose for creating a literary community at Carrot Ranch is so that writers could pass through and get fueled for the writing that drives their purposes. Like you have so eloquently stated, friendships are important and feeling a sense of camaraderie in what can be an isolating profession is vital to crafting words that have greater meaning among people. It takes community; it takes a sisterhood. I’ll humbly accept your acknowledgement, yet I will not be able to pay forward the compliment as I’m focused on the Rough Writers and juggling multiple manuscripts this year. Please know that I’m very grateful and am reminded why I enjoy your writing and your voice. You are an amazing woman and writer!

    Reply
    • Thanks Charli. I love the image of Carrot Ranch being a safe place for writers to reenergise. I have writer friends, who I think would really benefit from writing communities, but who are reluctant to take the first scary step towards talking to strangers online. I was astounded by how quickly friendships develop in cyberspace, and how, as you say, it can have real benefits for lonely writers…also pitfalls (you have to be careful about how much time you are investing online as we all do need to shut the door sometimes and be with our families and own thoughts). Good luck with the juggling act and thank you, Nillu

      Reply
  3. I’ve come across the word sisterhood twice now as I was browsing my Reader feed. The first blog post had the logo of the award, so I had an idea what it was about. On the other hand, in the summary of your post, it wasn’t visible. But I got curious so I checked your blog post. I am glad I did, because you’d shown your appreciation by writing a sincere tribute. Cheers!

    Reply
  4. I completely agree with your feelings about same-sex friendships. I’ve had only a small handful of really good female friends in my life, usually no more than one or two at a time, but each one has enriched my life immensely and given me the gift of that sweet fellowship that, yes, writers like Jane Austen portray so well. (I liken my relationship with my current best friend to Elizabeth and Jane Bennet—she’s Eliza, I’m Jane. Alternatively, re: your mention of the show _Sherlock_, which we both also love, we call ourselves Sherlock and John—she’s Sherlock, I’m John.) And the periods in my life when I didn’t have such a confidant were starkly lonely by comparison. Soul-sharing sisterhood is truly a rare and priceless gift. Thank you for celebrating it!

    I also agree that there’s a freedom and safety in a likeminded, same-sex friendship that one simply can’t get in friendships where there’s the barrier of potential romantic involvement, however off-limits that potential might seem on the surface. (I guess the parallel for homosexual people would be opposite-sex friendships. I don’t know how this concept applies for those of bisexual orientation, though.)

    I’m also glad to know about that German word. Words in other languages that don’t fully translate are always interesting to learn about.

    And I’m excited to visit your other nominees and see what they’re up to. Thanks again for the nomination!

    P.S. Molly Weasley—great answer!

    P.P.S. I’m always on the lookout for new snail-mail pen pals, if you’re interested! Letter writing is leisurely and fun to me…and even more so lately, since I’ve discovered the joys of fountain pens!

    Reply
    • I think it’s lovely that you’ve focussed on one or two deep friendships at a time. Sometimes I wonder if I spread myself too thin. There was a time when I decided that you couldn’t possibly have more than 100 Facebook friends and I pruned my friends list :/. It took me a while to realise you it’s fine to have different levels of friendship, but that making time for one-on-one interaction with a couple of friends brings a lot of joy. I love that you and your bestie have nicknames for each other – John Watson is super cool :).

      Although I’ve always been in hetero relationships, I have at times felt that it would make a lot of sense if we were attracted to people, the essence of them, rather than the default of mating (for obvious reasons) with members of the opposite sex.

      My husband is German, and I’ve spoken German since my school days, so often I’ll grasp at the word that fits best and sometimes it’s not English.

      Pleasure to read your words and thanks for your support for this blog too. Molly Weasley rocks, doesn’t she? Let’s definitely small mail. I’ll DM you on Twitter x

      Reply
  5. Lovely, thoughtful answers – I feel I got to see straight into your soul.
    By the way, I live in the Geneva area too. Have been for three years. And still struggle with school-gate conversations and the typical expat discussion topics. If you ever want a more in-depth discussion of books and writing, let me know.

    Reply
    • What a wonderful thing to say, thank you! And great that you are so close by. I’d really like that. We’re all full of cold at the moment but I’ll contact you through your blog when I’m back on my feet, Nillu

      Reply
  6. When you’re born with sisters, it can be a mixed blessing. Sister-friends take time and mutual desire to grow and thrive, but are very rewarding, albeit in different ways.

    Reply

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About Nillu Nasser

Writer of literary fiction. Book hoarder, barefoot blogger, tea drinker.

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