In 2016, South African writer Kirsten Miller won the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize with her unpublished novel, The Hum of the Sun. With our support, Kirsten has spent the last week in Barcelona, Spain, exploring and researching for her new novel. Kirsten has sent us a few words on her experience so far.
There is a growing nostalgia for time that is already behind me. I waded in cautiously, and quickly became submerged in a sensory and tactile experience of history, art and creative living that filled up the parts of me that had become stale and jaded. Travel, essentially, offers up the opportunity to learn how other people live. Visiting Barcelona, a place with a different culture to my own, offered up a host of perspective-shifting insights, and some amazing opportunities.
Catalonian people are business-like, purposeful and extremely helpful. And there is the joy of simply getting lost in a country that speaks a different language. My nervousness about making myself understood with only a few rudimentary phrases in Catalan persisted – once I purchased a drink not certain if it was whipped cream, strawberry milkshake or a drinking yoghurt. Without adequate language, we are forced to take greater risks with the everyday. Without language, thought processes find the space, uninterrupted, to grow and develop. Fresh sights, smells, tastes and textures pepper extensive notes made at cafes, in parks and on street benches. Catelonian people speak in passionate, haltering English about the struggle for self-determination, and independence from Spain.
I have long wanted to write a novel that expands beyond the physical borders of my own country, but it is difficult to explore the mind-space of a religious and work-obsessed Catalonian if I have never touched the meandering, nature-inspired curves, coils and mystical mosaics embedded in Barcelona’s concrete. Without exposure, we don’t learn that other ways of being exist. Without acknowledging the perspective of others, we begin to lack empathy. It is difficult to inhabit fictional characters honestly and to raise the quality of fiction one has the potential to write without a healthy dose of empathy, and an understanding of the universal elements of the human experience.
I fell in love with Barcelona, as so many people do. The city exceeded my expectations. I walked the length and breadth of Gràcia, L’Eixample, Sant Pere and the Barri Gotic. I committed the art, the beauty, and the pavement patterns to memory. In a world besieged by litter, I found the city spotless. There is pride in the people who work there, no matter the job description, or what they do. Now I know better where my characters might go. I know more about what they will feel, what they will see and smell as they take their own steps in the novel I intend to write. Thanks to the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation’s generous prize, I and my characters are all richer and more deeply nuanced for the opportunity to explore the beautiful complexities of Catalonian identity, and the graceful, timeless streets.
- Kirsten Miller