Pathi and I

All I Know about Film

by Sumathy Sivamohan

PART I

A long journey from 1989 to 2018 unravels like the slow beginning of a film with its titles rolling; one sits back in a near empty theatre, waiting in open expectation, for the unmade film to unfold. That moment arrives, not in a slow dissolve, not in a precise cut, but as a plunge. When Jeanne Moreau jumped off the high banks of the Seine into the river below, my heart broke out in joy.

*

The rain fell in constant swoops, a haze of water, a river flowing down. Rain had occurred before and will occur again, but in that single moment, I felt that I had never seen anything like it before. It is a cold, dim lit night and only a scatter of persons outside. I would not look at Rajani’s body and I shut my eyes. My body was drenched with the sleeting rain, and I shivered. Army trucks, heavy with black, brown, orange and green clad men, some barely out of their mother’s arms, held weapons and dotted the path from Jaffna in the north to Colombo in the South; their cold circling wrapped me in its long arm.

On that chilly night, through the rain that is now a drizzle, I look for you, for the love you bear me and for the film you will offer me. The armoured trucks, and tired youth, old in their youth, ragged and, now, cruel, go round and round the dead city, like dark rings round the eyes. The JVP, and its insurgency, challenged the state and its associations but is already on the way out, after creating its own mayhem, abandoning left politics, hunting down criminals and the left all alike. The butchery of the government, with its long paramilitary arm, set about making the land clear for all and sundry, a happy place, a place of jollity, goods, and coming things. Both in the north and the south, and all round, the quest for pure places, by the LTTE, the JVP and the state leaves a long list of dead people. ‘89 is momentous; my body is drenched with blood, and I shut my eyes.[1]

Everybody filed in, young and old. The first rows had celebrities and I followed you there, nonchalantly. A darkened hall and a large audience watching Jules et Jim, in a Truffaut retrospective. The music came on and the flags unfurled so that we could stand up, majestically and a little grumpily, for the long singing of ‘Sri Lanka Maatha’, an anthem I could not join in, though as children we had to sing it in Tamil at school functions and learn it by heart. When the ringing sounds of La Marseillaise came on soon after, nobody knew what to do: some stood, others half stood, half sat, looked around at each other. The only one who seemed sure of himself was the French Ambassador, who sat through it all. You looked at me and I back to you, remembering to cherish the little joke in our hearts, which would be buried and forgotten, but never gone from memory.

’89 is momentous for then I met you and I knew our lives would be twined in the reels of a film. In the rain, I begin to look for you, for the distant light that would give you shape, in the knowledge that we would be together on the long road. Even in the rain, the memory of the war we left behind in the theatre does not leave me. We are also in a holocaust, another war, much like the war in Jules et Jim, in the north and the south, brothers against sister, cousins against cousins. In the north rages the civil war, the IPKF has come and almost gone, defeated, and the Tigers have taken command. I am fleeing them all, IPKF, LTTE and I am losing them all, one by one, sisters, pals, students, comrades, known and unknown.

And then, that life breaking dive, the long jump down. The moment held my gaze, fixed the present moment and the presence of that incredible act. It echoed the spirit of freedom and rebellion singing in my heart: an act of pure joy. I knew then I had discovered meaning, meaning of our life together.

 

PART II

Villimbuhal, the edges of a frame

Our history begins from even before we met. In 1905 the first train set out from Colombo Fort to Jaffna, after a long and arduous struggle for territory by loud mouthed voices in the parliament. The long road, from north to south unravels, slowly, tortuously, as we have bound ourselves together.

It was like coming home, to know life through the edges of a frame. Our first meeting is about film. I walk up the steps of the studio in Borella, with apprehension, but confidently.[2].

I have to meet him for a film on Rajani. He listened to my criticism of a film he had made on Vijaya Kumaratunga. He put up no defence and I was a wee bit disappointed. He said ‘you are the viewer’. This was many words from Pathi, the filmmaker, but I did not know it then. Years later, I stood by him at the Goethe, when a young and budding filmmaker unleashed a torrent of words, questioning Pathi’s politics. He accused him of disregarding the Sinhala community’s anxieties and sentiments at the expense of the Tamils’ in the film[3].

You are so devious, you let me defend your film, caring about every little note struck against you, while you, Pathi, stoic in the pose of suffering fools, stood silent. I knew you had moved on, bored by the audience and their quarrelsome intensity, determined to find meaning and answers in fixities. Looking back, I think about the immense generosity of your words, ‘you are the viewer’. When I look back at my own temerity at that first meeting (I quickly realised I was speaking of the wrong film) I can only laugh. As years rolled by, I would challenge you again and again, differently, as though my life depended on it. I quarrelled, wept, fought bitterly, tooth and nail, for every line in my script, and every shot, every thought, every scene of my film, until you said yes. We did not agree, and we did not agree to disagree, that bland space of ungenerous debate. We knew no compromise.

In mid-1990 we decided to go to Jaffna, home for both of us, in the middle of a tense ceasefire, the LTTE overrunning the place with the terrible, terrible, cold-blooded, blood curdling machismo it could muster during the Premadasa years. Clouds rumbled. The central command of the LTTE was preparing for the long takeover of the north. But we packed up, booked tickets and set out. I wore a demure polka dotted dress, knee length, not wanting to draw attention to myself, resolved to merge with a struggling people who did not seek dissent but were desperate to live, walk through the middle passage and survive. For me too, survival loomed large. The LTTE had a system of widespread reconnaissance and for protecting its boundaries in those intervening years. Every single person in the long snake-like train, a multitude of living organisms, stepped out of the carriages in the dead of night and walked along a brightly lit corridor, at the footlights of the stage. Nameless shadows looked on them in the dark and pointed out to nameless executioners in the deeper recesses of those shadows, the informer and the traitor. I stepped out of the carriage, alongside Pathi and Piyasiri, his associate, on this brief and long journey. Walking down the lit corridor, a cat walk reversed, not wishing to stand out, I could only think about the middle passage, the double burden of being a woman and a traitor, of being a woman and being in love, crossing boundaries, breaking norms and being joyful in a vale of tears. Vallu was in Jaffna with Amma and Appa.

I am going home, to Jaffna, to LTTE land. Vallu is a five year old now[4], learning childhood by keeping quiet when the LTTE raids our house in Jaffna. Sivaramani, Selvi, Manoharan, Thillai are still alive. Seated side by side, in that compartment, keeping our hands apart, I sit quiet most of the time, holding my tongue, not talking about film, not talking about politics, a good Tamil woman, eager to see her home. We pass station after station, a familiar experience for Pathi who recounts his Jaffna days at Jaffna University, travelling on the self-same train, in happier times, before the war, sitting on the doorstep of the carriage, watching the passing trees and the passing days. The train shuttling back and forth, in the single frame; we are back in Jules et Jim. He recalls the days when as a child he went back and forth on the train from Colombo to Kankesanthurai with his father who worked on the railways. Pathi and I speak into the night about going home. He is going home too. Eelam War II has not begun, the incessant shelling of our houses, our neighbours’ houses razed to the ground, grass sprouting through the cracks in years to come and the raids of the LTTE on our several houses, as my parents move from house to house. The LTTE is rifling through reports, and documents, looking for tell-tale signs of the UTHR, Sivaramani’s stories and Selvi’s politics. Eelam War II has not begun but is only days away.

When we set down at Jaffna Railway station, quite unexpectedly, the porter cum tuk tuk driver, greets us in Sinhala. Astute and determined to make money, he senses the foreign and makes himself foreign too. Life is irreverent like a film nobody understands. Pathi wants to meet AJ and I set out to find his whereabouts, locating him in the end at Krishnakumar and Somes’s house. I dump Pathi there. It is fasting day for Somes, there is only vegetarian fare in the house, not fit for guests returning home. While pondering questions of life and death, bombs and no bombs, I set out again, on a quest to find chicken curry, for Somes insists. At Jaffna University, Parathan, Anton Balasingham and the LTTE establishment are full of radical zest, on high speeding motorbikes, without helmets. I stay back, distant, in the dark shadows. Pathi and I greet each other as strangers along the corridors of Jaffna University, that strange place, the place where they shot Rajani.[5]

The people are always hopeful, but the telling signs are bad. We were to return South two days later, but there are no reservations on the night mail train. I want to get seats in the ever-faithful ever-growing line of private buses, when Kugamoorthy reports to us in haste, ‘there is trouble on the way, there have been clashes, between the LTTE and the army. Don’t take the bus.’ How could one not read the signs of tension in the air throughout? How could the people miss it? How did we hope against it? We return by night mail, without reservations, the three of us taking turns to share two seats among us in that overflowing compartment of people just beginning to get a whiff of the long years of Eelam War II, Eelam War III and the final Eelam War IV; the long shadow of the war that is remembered, and yet to come.[6]

We were on the very last train from Kankesanthurai to Colombo, the last train on those rails for more than 20 years. Kugamoorthy disappears a few months later, when the war breaks out, spilling into our lives once more. Paramilitary forces take him into a numberless truck in front of SLBC, watched by a sole witness, Tilak Jayaratne from SLBC, who saw it all happen. He was also Pathi’s friend and I hear it all from him. Years later, Pathi will make In Search of a Road, as a homage to his years in Jaffna, to his childhood and to that final visit to meet AJ, Krishnakumar, Somes, Sithra, Maunaguru at Jaffna University, returning on that last train to pull out of Jaffna for more than 20 years. Once again he cast Prof. Nandi and Kuzhanthai Shanmugalingam in the film, his friends and actors, from a more youthful time in Jaffna, when he made Ponmani. In In Search of a Road he tracks the path of the mail train in detail, lines disappearing into the earth, lost, lost, lost, like its people, while crowds gather outside it and set off a howl, walk miles and miles, cross seas, and survive. In In Search of a Road, he sought out to track the voices of a people who set down that day at the railway station, the shady green of their hope turning red, slowly, slowly.[7]

I was already writing scripts for Pathi, for educational projects, political shorts and spots. Sarath Kellepotha, Pathi and I huddle together, Pathi insistent all the time to get it right. I write again and again, multiple times. Pathi and Sarath venture into LTTE land, while I stay back, jealous and annoyed. The two of them put together the script of the LTTE story they had heard, of the illegal routes, dotting their paths. I question him about accommodating the LTTE too much. They come back with a bagful of exotic LTTE stories, making me laugh again. We quarrel, we fight, I leave the studio once in frustration, for I do not seem to get it right any time. I insist on having the reference to the eviction of Muslims in there, working on a narrative thread of the bare Muslim quarters in Jaffna. He edits again and again, following my narration, until he gets it right and I am exhausted. Until we make our road, hard, soft, beautiful and poignant, a hard road to renewal among our own struggling spirits.

Many years after that Truffaut film, when we did not know what La Marseillaise was, I forgot to stand up for our national anthem again; again at the Elphinstone and was ticked off by the festival manager there. When I told you of this, you made me go back the next day too, this time with you and Somachandra Wijyasuriya, the author of First Rising, a forgotten work. We all sat through the national anthem in a silent compact, a conspiracy, daring them all to tell us off. Nobody did. Small things happen, in the shape of a small bird left for dead along a high speeding road, cared back to life, sometimes, in an act of love.

 

PART III: I will pick you up for the studio at 12 o’clock,

Your voice, unwavering and knowing, a remembered line, shakes me up this morning. No longer your voice. It is his voice. A voice too far and yet, so near; a hand holding the receiver in command, yet a request. The studio has been booked. I hear you, banishing dark shadows, shadows of history, our own and the country’s. What does he want now? For me to look at the rough cut? Re-do the narration? Subtitles put right? Work on the trailer? Startled, I stare into emptiness. Every touch speaks of a memory and every thought fills out a screenplay. How do I know where to go? I propose a film, a thought that somebody had offered me. You can make the film now, he says, confidently, making space for me, who never asked for space. I only asked for joy.

I can point to the precise moment when I wanted to make a film. You will not remember it now, Pathi, for there are too many memories and only some will be borne by thought. We were working on a television spot on a child soldier. I lived that film, working with that little boy, crafting his talent, as he ran from the side of a school into the classroom. I had a fascination with kites and I had the best student draw a kite on the blackboard. I cried out for that child, in that film, who had been bearing arms for a cause as he says, when the palmyrah tree was cleft in two right behind him by a travelling shell. When the boy burst into the classroom, the children ran out, in fear, abandoning their class. He was alone. When you walked out of the studio, seeking another shot, I reached out to you with excitement, ‘I’ve found the third space, I’ve found the shot you were looking for.’ The empty classroom, with a kite flying on the blackboard, with words of freedom and hope written on it by a childish hand.

Curiously, a few years later I’d make my first film, Piralayam, Upheaval, about a child soldier, a girl this time, for I had known her story intimately. But you knew me intimately, for when we stood together in the vast expanse of sand in Komari, amid the debris of the tsunami and the debris of war, it was a film taking shape in your mind too. The sea keeps lashing at our side when, floundering with my shots, I start filming. You leave me alone, after a brief hug; ‘Watch for the edges of the frame,’ was your singular advice before you abandoned me to my filmmaking destiny. The high rising tide, exactly a month after the tsunami, teases me with renewed vigour and I feel my feet sinking into the earth and my actress disappearing into the sea. Later, my unadulterated delight, when you look at the soundless film, my rough cut, and give me a brief nod of appreciation and approval.

A long hard day in Chennai at Gemini Studio. We put the finishing touches to Ingirunthu, my first long film, and returned late into the night to our lodgings in Kodambakkam, tired and hungry, longing for sleep. Just as we settled down, he started off with, ‘watching your film today’ and then paused. My heart sank; he is going to say something critical. I waited silently, half expectant, half afraid, and he began again, ‘watching your film today, I thought you had achieved what Brecht wanted to in Kuhle Wampe.’ I did not need any other word of praise, award or recognition after that. It is a world of our own, he and me, talking about film, and, and just perhaps, ever so casually and coincidentally, talking about people.

Talking about Ingirunthu, I talk about Ghatak and the Tree of the wooden clogs, which Pathi wanted me to watch before making Ingirunthu. I also talk about Moby Dick and Beloved as my inspirations. I talk of a cinema of conversation. This was public bravura. In our private thoughts, we have a different conversation, for he looks at me keenly to say ‘you may talk of all these influences, but you know, your real influence is In Search of a Road.’ I look back at him, embracing him with a smile, yes, we are complicit in this knowledge. How well he knew me. I had to laugh then, for he knew I knew and I knew he knew and I am glad we acknowledged it.

But long before that I did a performance for you in Melbourne at La Mama – In the Shadow of the Gun. How immensely grateful I am for that moment. I delved deep into the interior, talking about Savithri for Rajani, Sivaramani and Selvi and many others, women and men, who would be pulled into the war. In the Shadow of the Gun would be my international solo performance. You were at every rehearsal, every line missed and delivered. We make lifelong friends with Channa, who played the tabla at the performance and would go onto write novels and plays. He would be a comrade for you in Melbourne, standing up to political adversaries. Memorable moments.

On the morning of the performance, Channa comes to the small apartment I shared with Pathi in Melbourne. Our front door and walls are plastered with some Sri Lankan male’s excreta-shit. It is a shocking moment which we will soon forget in the excitement and anxiety brought on by the first day of a performance. Later, we will laugh and sing, turning pain and displeasure into parody and pastiche. A red spot is marked sexy, which sends Vallu into giggles. Pathi, I will write about this and more and I will turn our anguish into images, that speak of our solidarity with each other and our pledge to each other. You were my comrade and my guide, but also the one by my side.

On the day of our performance at Vibhavi, my first ever performance, you stayed with me, and traced the contours of my face with a light brush, putting on make-up, grumbling all the time you had never done make-up before. You made tea for more than 25 people hanging around there, all crew, and later said, ‘I know how you want your tea and so made it myself.’ You have forgotten it all, but I have treasured it, and as the narrator said, when Jeanne Moreau sprang into the water, ‘love struck Jim like Lightening.’ [8] Even as I write these words, I know something has changed irrevocably. I will not be able to hear that praise or criticism again. Nor that affirmation of what I might be doing. No editing advice; no more reading through scripts, no more quibbling over my poor taste in shoes or my careless ways with money. No more disagreements about films, plays, novels or even our personal conduct.

 

PART IV: Deluge

The rain sleets again, as we make our escape after the film, the wipers on the screen slashing the water. Like an aside, a truck load of armed men pull in ahead of us heaving a reluctant young man roughly into the back of the truck. Your eyes look straight ahead, unflinching as I clutch myself. Deluge.

I step out of the cinema hall, knowing you exist somewhere on this planet, close to me. I see you as a remembered thought, as life itself, as you and as only I could remember you. I set out in the dark, you are not there. You will not be there, not even in the distance. Time stands still, unpenetrating, knocking on the inside of our histories.

When I returned home, exhausted, after months of packed intensity in my heart and in your body, with little peace for me anywhere, I opened the long, locked doors of our house, to slowly put my life and yours back together, knowing the walls would not ring out with your forceful voice. I found among the books and papers, what I had stored carefully among all other secrets, the gift you brought me on the eve of the performance at La Mama, In the Shadow of the Gun, a gift you had scoured from a second hand book store on the streets of Melbourne, under a disappearing sky. An interloping squirrel had chewed on its pages, but had left your pledge intact, a living testimony of our destinies twined together, in the shadow of the gun.[9]

We made the trip to Jaffna all over again, even when I remonstrated, you were too ill I said. But you were determined and attended a seminar on your films. I am glad you went and I am glad I was with you. I spoke at the seminar and I questioned the linearity of Sinhala film history, the first paradigm marked by Lester James Pieris’ films and the second paradigm shaped by your films. Then a third and a fourth and a fifth and sixth? Untrendy and unfashionable, you always asked difficult questions. Do you remember, you told me one day in Pune, when together we watched film after film of Indian Parallel cinema, that Sri Lankan cinema was just like any other regional cinema of the Indian film industry? Do you remember? Do you still say that?

 

The seminar in Jaffna would be one of our last public appearances together, for soon after you’d fall more ill, but we were there at the opening of Swaroopa, your most searing film, of birth, death and infinite loss. Why is it your last film? But it is not of Swaroopa you speak, but of Ponmani, your Tamil film and your Jaffna film. It’s not even your best, as critics say. Why? You are inscrutable to the very last, insisting on hearing the song from Ponmani, even when you know I am no singer. You wanted to relive your life all over again, or was it me? Is it me who wanted to relive it all over again, differently, in a different tenor, not being able to part? Why did you hold my hand when I sang that old love song you had heard over and over, me humming it in a careless fashion around the house? We recovered some lost time, Pathi, when we went up and down Kandy road, to and from the hospital, me holding your hand, you narrating me new stories, new discoveries. Why and how? You wanted me to sing the third song in Ponmani, a song I barely recalled, but could hum a few phrases from. I could not ask you but then suddenly you said, even in your weak state to the visiting guests seated around us, ‘language has no meaning’.

I see you walk away, away from me, somewhere lost in the thin crowd of fellow travellers. In the dark, a light shines somewhere, somewhere else, some other place; when I lost you forever, that too I remember. Away, in the distance, but it is still there; only the rain battering down and a haze enveloping us. I shiver, I am bound to shiver. I have lost you and will lose you again and again, daily. Yet, my heart leaps in joyful expectation, for I know as we sit together in the dark, and as we lie together in the light, we will talk about Truffaut, Wajda, Ghatak Paradige, Ponmani, Tarkovsky and the meaning of truth as we discover it today.

It is a hot dry day, when our clothes cling to our skin, like life and soul, like life and death, inscrutable and inseparable. We want to escape, run away on a road that winds slowly, steadily yet, unknowingly. We negotiate the traffic with care, careless drivers toot at our backs. We want to run away from life itself, all other loves and fears and we reach the top, with a sudden awe, for down below, a sheen of water, glimmering in the white heat, looks back at us. A church yawns ahead of us, its doors open, and we walk in, like in a torpor, filled with the dry heat of the times. I strike a few notes on the organ and the music rises, twangy and out of tune. The shadows bend in the approaching afternoon light and we see the graveyard stretch ahead. Tombstones stand erect, with names of our comrades engraved. Rajani, her eyes gouged out by six bullets pumped into her head, when she cried out at her assailant, why are you killing me, ‘like a lioness’ in the murderer’s words. Kugamoorthy is the first to go after that, paramilitary squads of the state abducting him in front of SLBC, vanishing him with a will into oblivion. We never found him again, no evidence, no body, no account, fortunately an eye witness elaborating on him being abducted in a numberless vehicle. We will lose them all one by one.

I know Sivaramani is no more. Caught napping between death and other deaths, suicides and murders, she takes her own life in sorrow. Selvi too is there, the pain of her long captivity in an LTTE dug-out eased, and she is an angel now, carrying flowers in her hand, as she did in my first play in Jaffna.[10] Manoharan, Thillai, Anton, Maheswari, countless others and 300,000 in Mullivaikal kept captive. Amma, her body shrunk with ill ease and Appa, funny and humorous to the last.[11]  Halang, your friend, dearer than all, died and I saw you cry. We watched the story unfold in those grave stones. Pathi, we make that story up, of our love, undying, joyous, and raucous, also at times, painful.

 

PART V:

Dharmasena Patiraja <d_pathiraja@hotmail.com>

Thu, 29 Sep 2011, 19:13

to me

last night I got up suddenly in the middle of the sleep. Thought that you were there in the bed next to me.

I touched

 

Jeanne Moreau dives into the cold water of the river, and ‘her jump strikes Jim like lightening.’ The lightening cleft me in two. We have gone long past Jeanne Moreau and all of the waves cast by that joy and I long for another dare, a plunge and a baptismal birth.

Your limp hand enclosed in mine, I hear the heavy breath. Film, politics, humour and argument dot our path in illness, and even as I feel your life slipping away from mine, I see your mind exploring, narrating dreams, stories of the past and a time to come. What is to be done? Anxious for the Institute and anxious for the state of politics, anxious about film, our films. I care not for the world outside, our only world, encased and enclosed in a memory.

I want to be reborn, in a hope that it could be otherwise, we could live again; that I did not have to watch the tubes going in and out of your body and see you lying still, your lips moving, mouthing words I cannot hear, beloved. I cannot hear the music, even when you asked me to sing, incessantly, one love song, you had heard again and again. Life held very little for us then, and death courted us, together and everything, even the chatter, the haters, the lovers, the emptiness of a TV blaring the news or a cricket commentary, the cackle of visiting hordes, the verdicts of doctors, the pricking of your body by smiling nurses, could not touch the chord of love between us, what he held in his arms.

I keep watch by the hospital bed overlooking the lake in Kandy. I know I see and learn and see and know what I felt and what you told me, and what I always knew and what I should know, for now and the future, when Jeanne Moreau crashed her car down in the Seine, taking herself and her lover Jim down with it.

In the still bright sky, laced with dark forebodings, the birds gather, hundreds and thousands of them, black and white, swoop down, and hover over the water, a spreading carpet of flying wings. The waters, splashing with swooping bodies. In the long distance, he takes his plunge, swimming against the tide, with powerful strokes of the hand, free of all the ailing tubes, the IV drip torn off his limb, the water swirls and swirls, eddies rippling in ever widening circles. I see him, triumphant, by my side, never to go, never to leave me, never to disappear and vanish as memory one day does. He raises his head, looks up at the sky, at all others, you look at me, a single sole figure triumphing against the water, the waves arising.

 

 

[1] The brutal war between the JVP and the state draws to a bloody close. The brutal war between the LTTE and the State, Eelam war II is poised to begin. Burning bodies,floating bodies, and vanishing bodies. In ’89, Rajani was shot dead. I met Pathi in ’89.

[2] Dharmasena Pathiraja film maker, dramatist, producer, poet and researcher, hailed as the ‘enfant terrible’ of Sri lankan cinema in the ‘70s and ‘80s; my long-time companion, collaborator, comrade and love.

[3] In, In Search of a road.

[4] Vallu or Valluvan, my son, fellow traveller, who also lived in the thick of the war

[5] Rajani Thiranagama, Head of Anatomy at Jaffna University, gunned down by Tamil militants in the middle of a war; also, my sister.

[6] The Eelam wars, the war between the state and Tamil rebels and the war between the state and the LTTE lasts for 25 odd years, from 1984-2009, or so

[7] ‘The multitudinous seas incarnadine/turning the green one red’ Macbeth II.ii.59-60

[8] Narrator in Jules et Jim

[9] Julian Beck, Living Theatre, by Malina Beck

[10] An Old Wives’ Tale

[11] Amma – mother; Appa – father.

 

 

About the Author

Sumathy Sivamohan

Sumathy Sivamohan is an award winning film maker, performer, poet and academic. Professor in English at the Department of English, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Her films, Ingirunthu (Here and Now), Sons and Fathers, Oranges and Upheaval have won international acclaim and her set of two plays Thin Veils was awarded the Gratiaen Prize for Best of Literature in English in 2001. […]

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