Monday, January 8, 2018

Girls' Own Adventure

Mary Kingsley and crew

My current hyperfocus - Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa. OMG.

It reads like a Boys' Own Adventure – only she’s a thirty-year-old woman, striding off, in her long skirts and her corsets, to West Africa in the late years of the nineteenth century. Once there she undertakes multi-day expeditions through trackless jungle, single-handedly fights off crocodiles with the paddle of her canoe, survives falling into pits full of sharpened stakes by merit of her thick wool skirt, and wades chin deep through swamps with leeches attaching themselves around her neck like a ruff.

Maybe you have to take it with a grain of salt. Is it really possible to wade neck deep through swamp in full Victorian women’s garb, I wonder? Wouldn’t your waterlogged skirts slow you down and make the whole thing impossibly exhausting? Or did she, like her native guides, strip off and wade through with her clothes carried above her head? Perhaps she did – you could see why she might not have shared that detail with her readership.

More scepticism-inducing even than the tales of derring-do, though, is her tendency to take credit for every lifesaving decision. It is she who notices that the bush is on fire and rouses her companions from sleep just in time to prevent a fiery death. It is she who realizes that the mangrove swamp through which they are hiking is tidal, and gives the order to retrace their steps before they are drowned by the rising waters. And it is she who takes the tiller of the boat when the crew falls asleep, guiding them safely through the spectacularly starlit African night.

And yet – and yet – the whole book is a lyrical delight. A keen observer with the talent to capture the detail on paper, she brings her adventures to life in a quite addictive fashion, and you want to believe.

She’s a creature of her time, of course. As an Englishwoman and a Victorian she simply assumes that the right to judge is hers. Even the fact that many – if not most – of her judgements are positive (“he is a splendidly built, square-shouldered man, a pure Benga, of the finest type”) does not cancel out the hubris. What does help – somewhat – is that she judges herself with the same wry eye she applies to the rest of the world.

The tension between prejudice and open-mindedness is most noticeable when she is talking about the habits of thought needed to understand the people amongst whom she is living. You need to let go of your preconceptions, she says. She tells the story of the game hunter who cannot understand why, every time he comes within shot, the antelope take fright and run away. He knows he and his party are upwind and have made no sound. Eventually he discovers that his servant is triumphantly flourishing the consular flag behind him every time he has an animal in his sights. This is the key, says Kingsley – “if you go hunting the African idea with the flag of your own religion or opinions floating ostentatiously over you, you will similarly get very poor bag.”

Her choice of metaphor (“hunting the African idea”) is as damning as it is redeeming. She’s still the Victorian hunter-collector, trying to capture what she seeks in order to display it, back at home, fangs and teeth rendered safely impotent. But she does at least try to come at things with an open mind. And that’s the best any of us can hope for, I guess.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

How do you research a character's background if that background never existed?

(1920s jazz singer Esther Jones)

Maybe there’s some wisdom in the often-repeated idea that you should write what you know. At the very least, you minimize the chances of making the kind of ridiculous blooper that comes from inadequate knowledge of your subject, and at best, your writing will hopefully take on the ring of authenticity that is one of the marks of the competent writer.

Unfortunately, I am not a writer ever likely to take this advice because, frankly, it sounds so deathly boring. Why would I want to write what I know, when there is a world out there full of people who differ from me in terms of culture, sexuality, gender, gender identity, nationality, eye color, musical preferences, toenail-cutting habits and a million, million other things that I want to explore (excepting, possibly, the toenail habits) and understand and ultimately capture?

And I think I do mean capture. You can make beautiful speeches about the artistic process all you want, but in the end there’s something unpleasantly rapacious about the writer’s compulsive need to plunder the contents of other people’s brains and display them out in full view for the rest of the world to gawp at. It seems important then, to pay your victims the basic respect of getting it right.
This is fine and dandy if a little research can take you to the point where you know as much as or more about a subject than most of your readers. I can, for example, try to write from the point of view of someone in the Regency period. I’ve been compulsively reading Jane Austen for decades; I’ve gone on to read any number of books about Regency life, costume, manners, etc. The result is that I seem to be able to make a fair-to-middling stab at a background of that era , and getting it onto paper in a form that other people are prepared to deem acceptably authentic.

Slightly harder is getting inside the head of someone about whom some of your readers have far greater personal experience than you. That’s why the fact that Blades of Justice got an honorable mention in this year’s Rainbow Awards is so important to me. Get this: I, as a straight woman, wrote from the point of view of a lesbian woman convincingly enough that the anthology as a whole was described as having “complex characters, wonderfully crafted.” I’m proud of that.

But where it gets really tricky, I’m finding, is where you are trying to get into the head of a character who has never existed, even though you are placing that character in a background that does (or rather did) exist. So, for reasons only known to my muse (who, it’s fair to say, has a… quirky sense of humor) I chose to invent an African-born, mixed-race woman in British aristocratic society in the 1920s.

I’ve done my research – this never happened. There were certainly many people living in 1920s Britain who would have been considered black, and a not insignificant number managed, against the odds, to reach the ranks of the professional middle classes as doctors and lawyers. Black musicians and actors would certainly have mixed with the upper classes. Queen Victoria had an African goddaughter. And there was even a case of a mixed-race African man who only missed inheriting an Earldom by the fact that his parents married after his birth rather than before. But, as far as I can tell, there were no card-carrying British aristocrats in the UK at that time who would have been made, for example, to sit at the back of the bus in Alabama by merit of the color of their skin.

Now, I can research what it was like to be a British aristocrat the 1920s. I can research the experience of black people living in Britain in the 1920s. I can research what it was like to be a British girl growing up in Africa in the early 1900s and then moving to Britain. I can research the contemporary experience of people who experience racism – and I have tried hard to do all these things. But to put them altogether to create an account of a mixed-race woman who is the granddaughter of an earl in 1920s London that feels authentic – that’s a challenge, and one I’m far from certain I’ve risen to.

Enter racial politics. Is it even acceptable for a white woman to appropriate this woman’s story (imaginary as it is) given the long history of exploitation of black people by white people? As I said above, there is always something a little exploitative about the writer’s need to plunder other people’s brains. Does the power balance in this instance make it a little bit worse? Is it worse, for example, than a man writing from a woman’s point of view, given the traditional power imbalance between the sexes?

Certainly, it makes the need to get it right - to make the account feel authentic – more pressing than ever. In the end, rightly or wrongly, I went for it, and the novel I wrote is now being considered by agents. It is, if that’s worth anything, an honest attempt.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Why I Salute Donald Trump as a Prophet

If you actually look at the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, prophecy is not really about telling the future. It’s about telling the present. A prophet is someone who tells it like it is, who says the things others won’t say and gives no thought to whom they might offend.

Trump actually says nothing that other Republican candidates haven’t already implicitly said. He might say it more outrageously, in a manner that grabs the attention of the media more forcibly, but there’s essentially nothing in his rhetoric that wasn’t there already.

In other words Trump’s dogma, with all its bigotry and selfishness and cruelty, is all already there, latent, in the kind of right wing ideology many in the GOP espouse. But it’s Trump who puts the writing on the wall (that’s imagery borrowed from the Old Testament too – see Daniel 5) for everyone to see. Trump’s rants are simply what extreme right-wing principles look like when they’re not dressed up all pretty with euphemisms and clever speech writing.

So let us give thanks for Trump. He’s the prophet who is making explicit what we’re really dealing with here. It’s ugly, but it’s not hidden any more, and if it’s not hidden then it will hopefully be easier to fight.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Parting Gifts from Extraordinary Humans

Earlier this week I read The Shepherd’s Crown, the last novel Terry Pratchett wrote before he died. And then this morning I am listening to David Bowie’s new album Blackstar. Two artists making art out of their own deaths.

In the video of Lazarus, Bowie lets us see him looking wasted and frail, lying on a bed, his veined hands clutching at the covers. He must have known it was only a matter of time before he’d be playing out that scene for real. Pratchett’s work is in some ways even more poignant, because while Bowie gives us permission to see the degeneration of his body, Pratchett gives us permission to see the degeneration of his mind. Every word of Shepherd’s Crown is a painful reminder that an extraordinary intellect was fading fast, and I’d be prepared to bet that Sir Terry knew that, and just bloody well wrote it anyway. The humility of both artists is astonishing. They are showing us what it is like to die.

I don’t have any comforting answers to the questions raised by death. Mostly I deal with the idea of dying by trying to ignore it. It’s painful and grotesquely lacking in dignity, and it never ends well. But one way of dealing with things that scare us is to try and understand them better, and Bowie and Pratchett have helped us a little with that. Godspeed, gentlemen. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In which I venture into murky waters

Explanatory note: Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but Harper Lee’s editor felt the stories of Scout’s childhood were the most engaging parts of the novel, and encouraged Lee to concentrate on those. Thus Go Set a Watchman eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, and the original manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was put aside. Thus while Watchman predates Mockingbird it describes events set chronologically after Mockingbird. Got that? Good. 

Once upon a time, a lawyer named Atticus Finch represented a young black man named Tom Robinson, who had been accused of rape of a white woman. The interesting thing is this; in order for Lee’s narrative to be convincing in that time and place, it is necessary for the accused man to be almost utterly powerless – crippled both financially and physically. The dramatic tension of the novel depends on there being plausible doubt about the outcome of the case. And in Lee’s Maycomb it seems pretty clear to me that the word of a black man being believed over that of a white woman would have been such a challenge to the established order of things that it would never have been allowed to happen. It only even comes close to happening because Tom Robinson is such an entirely and visibly powerless person that – in the eyes of Maycomb’s white society – he doesn’t really matter.

Jump forward 20 years. The political climate has changed. Separate schools for black and white pupils have been declared unconstitutional. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has got a political voice. The black population is no longer so wholly without power. Maycomb is being forced to change, and doesn’t like it.

Now we have left To Kill a Mockingbird and entered the world of Go Set a Watchman. Scout – Jean Louise Finch – is an adult. She has been to college, and lived in New York for several years. And Atticus, although still a lawyer, is a crippled shadow of his former self. The balance of power in Maycomb is different now.

Is the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird the same Atticus Finch of Watchman? The principled lawyer in the first sits uneasily with the worried old man of the second, who fears that the rapid change of the society he lives in will lead to chaos, if not armed revolt, and who, by reading the racist literature of the anti-integration movement and going to their meetings – and apparently failing to speak out against what he hears – appears to collude with that movement. Scout’s idolization of her father is shattered.

Go Set a Watchman has not been well received by the critics – and there is some justification for that. Lee devotes over a hundred pages to a portrait of Maycomb before we come to any kind of plot, and that’s so antithetical to the structure of the contemporary novel it’s almost blasphemy. Scout’s Uncle’s description of what is going on in Maycomb by analogy with the lives of Victorian literary figures is bewilderingly obscure. To Kill a Mockingbird is what Watchman became after two years of re-writing and editing, and it shows.

Even so, I loved it. It was glorious to meet Scout again as an adult. I love Harper Lee’s writing enough that I could read her anecdotes about Maycomb all day and not care if there was plot development or not. And actually, while the novel may seem meandering, none of it is gratuitous. We need all those descriptions of Maycomb and of Scout’s alienation from it if we are to fully understand what is happening later on. The book may not be the literary masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s readable and subtle and meaningful and in no way does its publication represent an exploitation of Harper Lee in her old age. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to read it.

Which brings me back to Atticus, and the question of whether the Atticus of Mockingbird is the same man as the Atticus of Watchman; and I really don’t see why he shouldn’t be. If anything, if we allow the two Atticuses to be the same principled person, Watchman asks important questions: To oppose a movement, is it always necessary to protest against it from the outside? Or is it morally acceptable also to work from within, to attempt to quietly and patiently guide it along more ethical lines? Scout’s passionate response to the second question is “no!” and it is this disagreement with her father that allows her to finally cast off her hero worship and grow up. Nevertheless, she reconciles with Atticus in the end, recognizing that running back to New York to condemn Maycomb from afar is also a flawed response. However much of a misfit Scout may be, she is part of Maycomb society and perhaps has an obligation to engage with it to help it to change.

So I do not agree with those who condemn Watchman because Watchman gives us a different understanding of Atticus’s character. Do we so desperately need Atticus Finch to be the great white hero of the racial equality movement that we cannot stand to discover that he might have feet of clay?

Mockingbird presents us with the viewpoint of a child, and it is perhaps what makes the novel great that we are forced to see the ugliness of racism through the black-and-white filter of a child’s vision. Watchman is told from the point of view of an adult, and is correspondingly more complex and has many shades of gray. Even Scout herself does not wholly embrace our twenty-first century ideal of racial equality – for all her claims to be colorblind, she still feels uncomfortable with the idea of interracial marriage. Lee’s heroine is a person of her own time and place.

The Wikipedia article on Mockingbird notes that it tends to be more popular among white readers than among black readers. I can guess at why. The black characters tend to be powerless, stereotyped and marginalized – the only developed black character in Mockingbird is Calpurnia, and for all her strength and grace it’s been suggested that she’s merely the stereotype of the “contented slave.” At least in Watchman she is allowed to break out of that role and express somewhat the conflict of her position. Is it possible that part of the appeal of Mockingbird is that it – through our identification with Atticus and Scout – allows white, middle class liberals like me to feel good about themselves?

So the racial equality movement has lost a great white hero, and Watchman doesn’t let people like me feel as good about themselves as Mockingbird does. Tell me again why this makes it a bad novel?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Jeremy Clarkson's "Mistake"

So Jeremy Clarkson, apparently, made a “mistake.” I’m kind of interested in the use of the word; even articles and comments that think the BBC made the right decision are using it. And I can see the reasoning; he may have technically committed a crime but he’s not been charged with anything so that word doesn’t quite fit, “sin” just has too many religious overtones, and “misdeed” sounds archaic. 

But am I alone in feeling that “mistake,” just doesn’t quite do it? A “mistake” is an error, a lapse in judgement. Mr. Clarkson’s action was definitely that, but doesn’t verbally abusing and punching one of your co-workers in the face deserve a word that’s a little more, I don’t know, judgy?

Then there’s Monica Lewinski. Who also made a “mistake.” Now, please understand that I was very impressed by her TED talk, I do not think she deserved what happened to her in the least, there are a number of things I did at the age of around twenty-two that I am now ashamed of, and if we are going to apportion blame then frankly the power inequality demands that Clinton takes 99.9% of it. 

However, if we take the definition of a wrong action as being something that hurts someone, then her affair with Clinton probably qualifies. If I was married to someone who “did not have sexual relations” with another party in so spectacular a fashion I’d be extremely upset with them but I also think I'd feel I'd been wronged by the other party. So am I wrong in feeling that ”mistake” just isn’t quite the right word?

Now, I and my Facebook friends are hugely judgmental about a whole range of different kinds of people all the time, including, but not limited to, homophobes, Republicans, racists, and people with a shaky grasp of science. So clearly, in some circumstances, we feel that being judgmental – laying blame – is just fine. But in other circumstances we feel it isn’t. And while the position of the boundary between the two is a very personal thing, what seems to be intolerable is the possibility of a gray area.

I am anticipating that there might be people that take exception to my claim that Lewinski did something wrong. (There may also be people who take exception to my claim that Clarkson did something wrong, but I shan’t lose sleep over them.) It almost seems that what we have here is an idea that once someone has done something wrong, they’re irrevocably stained. It’s apparently ok to be judgmental about, say, racists because they are so close to irredeemable that there’s no real possibility of them being admitted back into the ranks of decent human beings; but it’s not ok to admit the possibility that someone might have once done something a bit wrong but that it merits understanding and forgiveness. So we use the word “mistake” instead of “wrong,” even about ourselves, because otherwise we are condemning the perpetrator (or ourselves) to something that begins to sound like eternal damnation.

Have we lost the idea of forgiveness? Not necessarily the explicitly Christian idea of repentance washing away sin, but the idea that the legal system allows a way of paying one’s debt to society, or that rehabilitation and restoration are possible, or the idea that some behaviors can be wrong but also understandable?

I hope not. As I say, there’s a few things I did at around the age of twenty-two, not to mention other ages, that I’d prefer to think merit forgiveness.

Friday, March 13, 2015

So why do I do this writing stuff anyway?

Let me give you some context. For the last four years I’ve been writing dramatic sketches for the annual All Saints Church parish camp. It’s a regular gig for which I get to write stuff, see it performed by a bunch of bloody brilliant professional/semi-professional actors, and show it off to a small but appreciative audience. From the British perspective Americans are very good at overblown compliments, and actors who are also Americans are even better at them, and I drink it all down like champagne. Actually that’s not a good simile because I don’t actually like champagne. So I drink it all down like, I don’t know, craft IPA. I love actors. They get it.

Now, I grant you, what I write for this event is not always super original. It’s usually pastiche (aka fanfic) of some kind of another: we’ve done Pirates of the Caribbean, Dr. Seuss, Where the Wild Things Are, and Dr. Who. But it’s my annual five minutes of fame. I get applause.

I’ve been writing in one way or another for most of my adult life and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of me stopping any time soon. I’ve sent many manuscripts to many agents and publishers and, apart from a handful of published articles and short stories, all I’ve gotten back is no-thank-yous—if I get anything back at all; and yet I keep writing. My point is, it doesn’t seem to be just the desire for recognition and an audience that prompts me to keep writing; if it was I’d have given up a long time ago. I just write. My writing may not be outstandingly good or original but it sure ain’t going away.

But that annual five minutes of parish camp fame is incredibly important to me. From the initial planning stages to the event itself I’m in a state of suppressed anticipation. The weekend itself is spent in a haze of nervous energy which I have to work to hide from my fellow campers. And then the comedown is kind of brutal. I struggle to settle back to everyday life. I trawl social media for photos. I act like a junkie needing a fix. OK, so my coping mechanisms don’t actually involve hitting the bottle or scoring crack or picking up strangers in bars, but it is definitely a bit rough.

So there is something addictive, and not especially mentally healthy, about getting recognition for something creative I’ve done. I wonder if it’s really a good idea to subject my not-always-super-robust sense of self-worth to this miniature roller-coaster, year after year.

Is that going to stop me? Um, no.