Dave Wakely discusses his short story ‘Chestnuts’, featured in Issue Thirteen.
Like many of my stories, ‘Chestnuts’, had many parallel inspirations. The initial impetus to write it came from conversations with a former colleague whose family had fled Mostar at the start of hostilities in the 1990s, and with an old friend who’d worked leading an entirely Bosniak crew while running a catering facility for the UN peacekeeping forces. If these dialogues were the kindling, the spark came from Ed Vuillamy’s journalism and watching the BBC TV documentary, The Death of Yugoslavia, which showed how the warning signals were visible long before the fighting started. Yugoslavia had been a socio-political earthquake zone criss-crossed by deep fault lines.
To mangle an analogy, in the wonky kiln of my head this burning kindling fired not so much a finished pot as a bag of mosaic pieces: images, phrases, small moments, and the kernels of running metaphors. Writing, for me, is more akin to editing: an attempt to massage source material into something more coherent. This approach to process probably reflects my writing backstory. I spent many years as an editor, frequently working on open learning materials where there is a balance to be struck between affording clarity and leaving some of the work for the reader to do.
This led into further work as a copywriter, often magazine articles written to a brief. To this day, I mentally set myself a brief for each story that turns its writing into a ‘challenge to self’: the challenge helps me defeat that ceaseless inner critic. Editing – polishing, buffing, reworking, improving – is my comfort zone, and I often wait until I’m confident there are enough fragments for the whole mosaic in my head before I put pen to paper.
I also have no qualms about fiction being what it says on the tin: fictional. There are fragments of ‘lived experience’ here – a visit to Mostar after the end of the Bosnian War, memories of Balkan xenophobia and hostility to neighbouring identities from working in Romania, Bulgaria and Albania – but this is fiction. I took it as a moment of small pride when, after reading this story at an open mic night, someone told me how much they’d enjoyed it and asked me if it was autobiographical. (I do have a husband, but am not young, female, Bosniak or a parent.) If fiction is a way of making up the truth, perhaps I’ve had a small success.
As far as I remember, my principle self-defined challenge in writing ‘Chestnuts’ was to withhold its real subject – the coming of a brutal civil war – while making the reader (and, for that matter, the narrator) recognise its arrival as what might be called an inevitable surprise. Throughout the telling, I attempted to drip-feed small portents: little hints that all is not going to end well. While the reference to the iconic Old Bridge and the demarcation of the river as a divide between religions and cultures are probably clues, I never actually explicitly state that we are in the Bosnian town of Mostar in the spring of 1992. In truth – a phrase we shouldn’t toss around so glibly, of course – it probably doesn’t matter exactly where the story is set or when. Uncomfortable as the thought is to type, this could equally be many other places at many other times.
Accordingly, the story dwells almost entirely in the metaphorical shade of foreshadowing, to coin a pretentious phrase. The titular chestnuts begin as a shield from scorching summer suns but, like formerly friendly neighbours, they turn hostile as the story progresses and it becomes increasingly undeniable that ‘we weren’t in Tito’s days any longer.’ After the trees have been subjected to brutal removal by a work-gang who work bare-chested and drink in the street, displaying their crucifixes, the salvaged wood spits in fireplaces, scorching the bodies and clothes of those who have to burn it to cook and stay warm. Even the fallen conkers are likened to grenades.
This sub-text of violence and hostility runs throughout the story, from the blood-red of the pomegranate juice staining neighbours’ hand as they share a meal in a garden to the conker dust that gets into eyes like ‘shrapnel from an exploding shell.’ The language of war arrives in the story before the bullet, just as the other-ing rhetoric of conflict and difference arrives in communities before fists and bullets. Even the jocularity comes with a threat: ‘The way Adrijan hugged him and laughed, spilling his wine, I thought he’d break my father’s ribs.’
The guest editor of this edition of The Lonely Crowd has called this story ‘unsentimental’, and I hope that it deserves the adjective. I’ve long loved a quote from my favourite poet, Thom Gunn: ‘Deep feeling doesn’t make for good poetry. A way with language would be a bit of help.’ It serves as a mantra for me in the way that the ever-elegant jazz guitarist Jim Hall kept a quotation on the inside of his guitar case lid: ‘Make poetry.’ ‘Chestnuts’ would be an easy story to tell in a shocking, melodramatic way, but that wasn’t my intention. I wanted the story to build with the slow, natural momentum of passing details whose real implications are only evident in hindsight. In life, we are too busy living to measure every moment: I’m not convinced that presenting fictional characters as a different, infinitely sentient species enhances their credibility.
The story also has, I suspect, something of the air of a parable. This is at least partly knowing, given that it is set in a region of Europe hardy alien to myths, legends, superstitions and usually highly partisan oral histories. (When the Romanian revolution was unstoppably underway in Timisoara, the rumour was spread in Bucharest that the Hungarians had invaded.) But if it’s a parable, I hope it can also serve as a warning. Firstly, that the descent into war or conflict is usually slower than we like to tell ourselves. Most human catastrophes are not sudden tsunamis but long, slow incremental waves that might have been repelled if we had acted sooner. And we often don’t act as we don’t want to fully acknowledge what we are witnessing, preferring to tell ourselves that everything will be fine. And secondly, as a warning that storytelling is dangerous. I hope that ‘Chestnuts’ shows that we are sometimes quicker to believe stories told against our neighbours than we are to acknowledge the darkness that we might all be travelling toward. We love a good yarn so much, we can easily give ourselves just a little too much rope.
Raised in South London, Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, poetry librarian, and editor in locations as disparate as Bucharest, Notting Hill and Milton Keynes. His writing has been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction and Bath Short Story awards, and appeared in Ambit, Best Gay Stories 2017, Chelsea Station, Fictive Dream, Glitterwolf, Holdfast, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Phare, Prole, Shooter, Token and Truffle Mag, amongst others. A poetry salon MC for Lodestone Poets and one of the organisers of Milton Keynes Literature Festival, he lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband and too many books, CDs and guitars. He tweets as @theverbalist
Image by Jo Mazelis