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Lilongwe’s Living Room



The recently-opened Living Room bar is set to become a hipper alternative to the half-baked glory of Harry’s Bar for Lilongwe’s expats and upwardly mobile Malawians. Its philosophy is to take the best of Lilongwe’s subtle diversity and put it all together in a friendly, relaxed café bar atmosphere.

We discovered it thanks to the manager of a small Belgian NGO, Kwasa Kwasa, who had sold his entire supply of homemade papaya jam to the bar, leaving none for us. Moved more by curiosity than our need for jam, we followed his directions and wound up behind an industrial estate. We turned around to leave and nearly missed it, tucked away on an unlit side street.

The jam isn’t the only locally-sourced are on the menu. The manager says that they try to buy as much as they can from the local community. So far, this includes their carrot cake, which is covered in caramel icing and served with fresh mint leaves, and the Malambe Magic: a virgin cocktail made from baobab, ginger and Sprite.

The menu also includes Thai red curry with succulent beef, vegetarian couscous and an eclectic salad bar.


A lot of thought was put into the interior, with its hand-carved wooden window frames, paintings by local artists and a bar made of stacks of old books. It’s this thoughtful design that really contributes to The Living Room’s welcoming vibe. An entire corner of the room invites you to sit in one of the plush armchairs and choose something to read from the adjacent shelf full of used books and African lifestyle magazines. The collection of board games adds a playful dimension to the experience, Scrabble being the most popular game.

Sheesha is available to smoke both inside and out on the roomy front deck.

It’s not unusual to see lone customers enjoying a coffee or gin and tonic, which is a credit to the management’s success in creating a thoroughly chilled out watering hole. 



Writing Exercise #1: Who Am I?


This was the first writing exercise from the creative writing course I just started. The teacher told us to spend 15 minutes writing a piece entitled “Who Am I”, which I thought was boring. But then he gave it a little twist. We had to write it in the third person. Thought I’d share what I wrote:

Exercise #1

The room she lives in now is probably the biggest she’s ever lived in, and it just about contains all the things she takes with her whenever she moves. Just about. These are things that didn’t make the Give to Charity list over the years. They are mainly books. Books stacked high against the wall, haphazard paperback towers leaning crookedly against each other. She finds a secret joy in adding more books to that tower, always placing the new books on top, even if they are bigger than the ones underneath. The possibility of chaos is irresistible. The possibility that one day the towers will topple, making that soft thud paperbacks make when they fall. 

She imagines someday having so many books that she will need no other forms of decoration in her house. If, that is, she ever has a house to herself. All those books would be remnants of countless attempts to escape, piling up and filling shelves and corners and window sills. All those other worlds. All those characters, with their broken hearts, and their thoughts, and their own escapes. Perhaps you are wondering if there is some irony to this: escaping into books because her own life is so empty. That is not the case. There is no such cliche here.

In the room there is also a banjo, which she loves almost as if it were a person. She loves the sound of the banjo and hates when she has to put it down because there are more pressing matters to attend to: lessons to be planned, exams to be marked, bills to be paid, people to be talked to, dishes to be washed, floors to be swept, teeth to be brushed, pyjamas to be put on, alarms to be set…




2 weeks away and I’m back. I meant to come back with less, but I came back with more. I came back with Joan Didion because she saved me from myself once; I came back with David Mamet because everyone needs a dose of true and false from time to time; I came back with David Lodge because I don’t know him yet.

I’m back and I’m happy because my mother’s house is not my home anymore. The rooms are occupied by memories, and cats. The house made me sneeze and my bed gave me nightmares.

I’m back and I’m sad because tomorrow I will wake up at sunrise and get on a train, close-eyed, with all the other robots, and there will be no time for dreaming. I will do this for 7 weeks. Then another 6. It doesn’t seem like much, does it? Somehow it feels like a lifetime.

And I will come home each night and Didion will ask me why I don’t just leave my job and write. Mamet will urge me to stop looking to the future. Lodge will be nonplussed.

Never Judge a Book by Its Cover? Pah!


I have been advised by several people in Malawi to buy a Kindle before moving out there, because books are not readily available and those that are are expensive. I spent a good half hour on Amazon adding and removing, adding and removing the £89 gadget from my basket. In the end I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I resolved to bring a suitcase-full of brand new books to Malawi with me. Foyles will love me; my bank account will not. To me, a book is more than just the story inside. Reading a book is just as much about its visual, tactile beauty. I don’t care how convenient a Kindle is, it is a book without a soul. Or perhaps a soul without a body? You decide.

Here are some of the books I bought mainly for the beauty of their covers:

A darling little Tim Burton-esque story about a boy with a mechanical heart who falls in love with a girl from Andalusia. Makes me smile because I'm in love with a boy from Andalusia.

I bought this in a Cambridge charity shop. It's a thin paperback containing poems by Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

The Qur'an: A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem
I was drawn to Islam for a long time. I read this from time to time but mainly I love looking at the cover art.



A few months ago I visited an amazing jewel of a city on the coast of Chile. Valparaiso is South America’s version of Lisbon, but on even more of an incline. In fact, it’s almost completely vertical. It is a city of poets, where Pablo Neruda, among others, spent many years of his life.



Val wakes up at reality rise

And realises she’s still outside.

The empty bottle of wine beside her

Says What? It wasn’t me.

A black rag dog beelines toward her

Sniffs the ground and goes by

Easy hopping downhill.

Val drags her tired eyes up to where she needs to go

And knows it will take some time.

She re-adjusts her dust-coloured dreadlocks

Bundles in a bunch the rough tendrils

And kicks the mud caked on her shoes.

The vertical city looms like a tsunami

Carrying its ramshackle driftwood wreckage.


This city has stopped in time

Touched by so many

But stands unaffected

Chapped and chafed

And red and raw

Kissed half to death,

This city of poets.

Crumbling and stifling,

Eyes blood-shot and sunk

She dances naked

Mumbling and drunk.

Callused, unpolished

Table for a stage

She dances naked

Unashamed of her age.

Tattooed skin translucent and thin

She dances naked

Glowing from within

She dances and stumbles—

Occasionally tripping—

To music of brass

That pulses and slithers

Sides into hips and rippling breasts

Cradled in the damp warmth of everyone’s sweat

Yes, this is the city that stops in time;

This is the city neglected by time.

This city, that, on the brink of collapse,

Dances for an audience that never ceases to clap.

Why I Will Never Be a Book Snob


Photo credits: matchbookclub, bookshelfbanter, eunhyeseo

I’ve been waiting for a book like The Night Circus since I read The Book of Lost Things. In my happy place I am a child and magic exists.

I cannot clearly describe the longing that sometimes grips me when I read a very good book or have a particularly vivid dream. It is a longing for childhood, which was too short and too fleeting and before I had a chance to make sense of its significance, it was gone. Looking back, it was always books about escaping to other worlds that gripped me the most. The Magic Treehouse series was my first solo venture into chapter books, and I found it hard to tear myself away from them when the bell at the end or recess called me back to the mundane. Later on, it was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The idea of the wardrobe itself still enthralls me when I teach the book to my students. What an ingenious idea! Step into a musty wardrobe smelling of mothballs, walk through fur coats that transform into trees, and step out again into a new land. I always found this particular imagery easy to visualize, maybe because of C.S. Lewis’s masterful manipulation of the imagination, or maybe because we once had such a wardrobe (albeit not a magic one, sadly) in my childhood home in Poland; one full of smelly, heavy brown fur coats, the owners of which still remain a mystery to me.

In high school I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and lost myself in it almost to the point of pathological obsession. Never mind the stereotypes associated with Tolkien. It’s amazing how many sardonic remarks I have heard over the years upon telling people that The Fellowship of the Ring is one of my favourite books. What snobbery. What lack of imagination!

As I got older, the literature that filled up my time became somewhat more “sophisticated”, though I hesitate to use such a word. Kundera, Nabokov, Carter, Conrad, Shakespeare, Chekov, Woolf. Though this was an extremely enriching voyage into the art of fiction, I did not come across a book that really swept me away again until much later, when a friend recommended The Book of Lost Things . Despite all the depth of Kundera’s existentialism, Nabokov’s verbosity, Woolf’s complex feminism, none could capture my imagination the way Connolly did with such childish simplicity. There is something about fairy tales that will never cease to captivate those who don’t object to being captivated. You can choose, for any given fragment of your life, to believe that other, magical worlds can exist. Magic becomes real and it is possible to shut your eyes and be transported to another place.

Lately I find that it’s more difficult to do this. There are too many intrusions on my inner life; too many knocks on the door; too many demanding voices. But at least I can shut out the morning rush hour for 30 minutes every day, as my train leaves the platform and I leave the world behind and disappear into The Night Circus. 

My Orange Prize Top 5


The Orange Prize longlist was announced today. Here are the top five I’m itching to read: