Opinions & Rants


An election approaches in Britain.

The US looks back at its own choices.

Politics and opinions fill papers and posts and ears, some articulate, others mere slogans and gritted teeth. No matter, voters make up their own minds and are entitled to their own perspective.

Regardless of where they live.

A disturbing grumble popped up this week via various sources.

  1. “You don’t live here so shut up.”
  2. “Expats think they are so superior.”
  3. “Why should people living abroad tell us what to do?”

I have a view on every one of these questions, as a tax-paying, voluntary National Insurance contributor, with some family members dependent on the NHS/Social Services and an emotional investment in the country of my birth.

But this is not about me.

Nor is it about the bias peddled by the media.

I want to know why some of the most articulate and passionate perspectives on America I’ve read come from people living in Europe. British foreign and domestic policy is subjected to the sharpest analysis from intelligent minds in Romania, Sweden, Canada, Germany and Scotland.

So here are a few questions:

  1. If someone no longer lives in her/his home country, does that negate that person’s opinion on domestic politics?
  2. Is political opinion the exclusive domain of those who live under its effects?
  3. Should a person committed to living in another country apply for voting rights there and leave the homeland to itself?
  4. Do expatriates have stronger views on how a government might improve having seen other more/less effective examples?
  5. What kind of parallels are there between immigrants and emigrants? Why is there a resentment of both incomers and outgoers?

I’m really curious to hear your thoughts.

Next week, I’ll be back to boring you about my books.

 

 

 

The whole How-Dare-You row kicked off again after Anthony Horowitz revealed he’d been advised against writing a black character in his Alex Rider series.

The BBC story is here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-39988992

This topic both interests me as a reader and a writer. (I’ll spare you the inevitable para where I impress you with all the varied and well-researched perspectives I include in my own books.)

Leaving aside the precise definition of exactly what a ‘black character’ is, why shouldn’t Horowitz dare to inhabit a character other than himself? The Alex Rider series features a junior version of James Bond, aged 14-15.

Taking it to the extreme, all my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men living in London. – Anthony Horowitz

The subject of who has the right to write is on my mind.

I read a Bailey’s Prize shortlister which tells the tale of a privileged white woman and a mixed race man to whom slavery is not just history, but family.

I read a film script written by a man which focuses on female sexuality, sisterhood and what women really think of a penis.

I’m reading a book from the POV of a character who is mentally ill. No, not your average ‘unreliable’ narrator, but someone with an acknowledged, controllable illness.

They’re all fascinating, informative and emotionally engaging. I don’t need the author’s CV or photograph to tell me if their qualifications are sufficient. If they fall into cliché, patronise, mock or don’t do the basic courtesy of attempting to empathise with a character’s external moulding and internal reactions, they have no right.

Last week, Words with JAM published an interview with Jason Donald. How did he approach writing his character of Dalila, a young Kenyan refugee woman, I asked.

I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.

That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.

For her Diversity series in the same magazine, Catriona Troth interviewed Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ 

First of all, caring about Native people is not a condition for getting it right. If you don’t know someone personally, what you hold in your head and heart is more of an abstract than a reality. In the 1990s, illustrator James Ransom was asked why he had not illustrated any books about Native people. His reply was, “because I have not held their babies.” That’s a beautiful metaphor for the relationship of trust you have to have in place before you can do justice to someone’s stories. Once you move from the abstract into the real, you pause to consider what you are going to write or teach.

And Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK.

Do you believe it is ever possible for white writers to write authentically (or at least well) from the point of view BME characters?

I don’t see why not. And yes, it can be done well the other way around too. That’s more of a question of the writer’s ability to do it well enough so it’s believable, than anything else.

When I read Beauty by Raphael Selbourne, I absolutely loved it – and as long as the experiences of BME communities is represented in literature I think that’s more important than the question of who is writing it. Also I’m not sure how we qualify the authenticity – if we live in multicultural cities than surely our experiences are shared and therefore overlapping?

Finally, Christos Tsiolkas, who sums it up perfectly.

http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2012/05/christos-tsiolkas-has-breakfast-with-jj.html

I agree.

We all have the right to write outside our own experience. So long as we understand what that means. We should work harder at getting into other skins, minds, worlds, never forgetting it’s a privilege.

 

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A phenomenon is scaring me.

No, not just SCROTUS, although he’s a big part of it.

There’s a peculiar anti-word, anti-thought movement spreading through our societies, which opposes reason and embraces slogan. Nothing new there, a blunt cudgel of opinion-bashing has its historical precedents.

Which should be terrifying by example. I’m not telling you where to look. I don’t need to.

Go check a random oppressive regime. How far down the list do you find ‘silence the thinkers’?

Here’s a mini test:

Name three regimes whose policy was to slaughter intellectuals.

Name three governments who imprison opponents without trial.

Name three countries which spread misinformation and propaganda to sway their population into supporting their own agenda.

(Hint: you probably live in one and this is why we need a free press, even if some of them are gits.)

One of the scariest phrases I heard was Michael Gove’s comment during the Brexit campaign: “Oh I think people have had enough of experts”.

These inexpert, self-interested campaigners for anything that will get them up the career ladder speak for ‘The People’. One of their base tools is arguing against argument. It’s the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting your own position over and over until ‘The People’ (or ‘Folks’ if you want the current Imbecile-in-the-White-House version) can repeat it verbatim.

This is a crass, patronising assumption on every level.

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Firstly, ‘The People’ enjoy argument, rationale or reason. Engaging and discussing issues in person often leads to a less fossilised position. Online is a different matter. Comment is as dehumanising, reductive and debasing as a scrawled cartoon of a bear shitting in the woods. But it still works. Make us yell at each other and we take our eye off the argument. Sit us in a bar to chat and it’s a whole different game.

Secondly, simple words – make, great, take, ours, us, we, sad, bigly(?), danger, wall – is a reductive and banal way to communicate. Joined-up thinking requires a sense of cause and effect. People – yes, even ‘The People’ – are aware the credit crunch and subsequent drain on the working and middle-class was not due to immigration, fake news or or the liberal elite, but rampant pocket-lining by the very same people who tell you ‘You Ne-ver Had It So Good’. (One syllable at a time, folks.)

Thirdly, attacking people who dare to show some more articulacy than bellowing ‘Lock her up!” are derided for being elitist, intellectual and not of ‘The People’. It’s much more difficult to reduce the problems inherent in destabilising the EU to a tidy ALL CAPS phrase on a banner.

Lastly, how highly do you rate your supporters when you stand up in front of them and lie? Lie loudly, repeatedly and with bombast in the conviction they will believe it. If this is your methodology, your rationale must be that ‘The People’ are truly stupid.

We are not. You, me, all of us will be remembered by our thoughts, our words and our actions.

In a time like this, words are the bridge between thought and action.

They could not be more vital.

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“He lives in a world where the highest compliment you can give a woman — even your own daughter — is that you would sleep with her.” Alexandra Petri, Washington Post

The usual news and politics interest took a back seat this past fortnight, as I had other things on my mind. Since my mother died two weeks ago, I’m having trouble understanding how everyone is still going about their business. I stop and stare at people catching trains, buying grapefruits or commenting on news, wondering how they can just carry on.

But today, and her behalf, I have to re-engage. Because I am raging.

I am a feminist. So was my mother. She taught me my body and mind are my own, and no one takes advantage of either. She taught me to respect other people’s views, religions, cultures and sexuality, but most of all to respect myself.

Perhaps because my friends and loved ones are of the same opinion and my selective news sources reflect my own views, I got complacent. I assumed the sexism thing was on the way out.

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Mum and her grandaughter, Ellie.

Scenario A:

Well-known friend and I attend an awards ceremony. Two magazine editors approach and ask if my friend would do a centrefold for their magazine.

She: “Sorry, not my kind of thing.”

He: “Why not? Seriously? Because I’d do you. Really, I would.”

Scenario B:

I interview a writer I admire. I share a clip with my writers’ forum.

Female #1: Good interview! I think he fancied you.

Male: Course he did. She’s well fit.

Female #2: (Quotes male) Nice!

Male: (To Female #2) Oh, you’re well fit too.

Scenario C:

Friend posts on Facebook:

95% of women have intelligent DNA in them. Unfortunately most of them spit it out.

Three points:

  1. Trump’s comments about ‘grabbing pussy’ and ‘do whatever you want’ are not an archaeological find from 1975. It’s typical of a certain kind of contemporary discourse which MAKES WOMEN’S LIVES SHITTIER. Including those of the daughters and wives quoted above.
  2. Not all men talk and think this way.  See Jackson Katz. Many men are angered and offended by this casual demeaning of half the population, who call out this kind of attitude and reject ‘easy’ sexism.
  3. Trump should be allowed to make a total arse of himself. Exposure works two ways and some volunteer personal embarrassment daily. Go right ahead, Donald the Dickhead.

Trump and his ilk want us to go backwards – knuckle-dragging, hair-pulling, tribal-warring, meaningless grunting – so I’m sticking my not-very-high heels in on behalf of my mother and all my sisters and saying NO.

The women (and men) in my family, my friends and associates are all brilliant, talented, funny, capable, nurturing, articulate, powerful, self-defining, imaginative, strong, sensitive and a million other things. The last thing on our minds is whether Trump and his locker-room boys consider us fuckable.

Not in a million years, Donald.

So you and the lads can lock yourselves in and fuck off.

PS: Sorry for swearing, Cooty, but I think you’d understand.

 

 

 

 

A rant-ette.

On patronising readers.

This summer, I read a lot of crime and ‘psychological drama’. Some good, some not so much. But something bugged me. Like summer flip-flops, one minor irritation rubbed a soft spot and grew into a big fat blister.

Here is where it bursts.

Surely…

Author: Surely she wouldn’t have walked out on him without even leaving a note?

Reader: Well, that’s what it looks like.

Author: Surely he’s just being friendly and has no designs on my nubile body?

Reader: Are you really that naïve?

Author: Surely these teethmarks can’t possibly mean he bit the victims?

Reader: Yawn. What’s on telly?

DO NOT TELL THE READER WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK!!!

mini snail

Look! Can it really be? Not a mini snail? Surely?

Readers actually like trying to work things out for themselves. Those who enjoy crime (and this year’s irritating umbrella term ‘psychological’ drama) read such things to analyse the information given and come to their own conclusions.

‘Surely’ has the same effect of someone behind you in the cinema saying, ‘Did you see that bangle/photograph/cricket box? That will be significant later’ or ‘I hope you noticed Simon’s unhealthy interest in hedgehogs’. All in an annoyingly smug voice.

Variants on Surely…

Had he really emptied their joint account and fled the country?

How could she lie to her sister, our mother and her own children?

If they really had killed before, what was to stop it happening again?

Did three brutal and spookily similar murders indicate a serial killer?

Deduction allows your reader to take all the clues and knot them into an explanation, theory or wild goose chase. Then after the author’s cunning denouement, compare their map-reading, character-comprehension and familiarity with the genre to see how your theories (mis)matched.

Induction beats them around the head and face with blunt signposts until they accept the fact your naïve protagonist would accompany the psychopath to a deserted castle to be sacrificed to the God of Unlikely Coincidence, who happens to be called Shirley.

When we (and here I speak for readers) put the book down and do something which allows cogitative thought, such as dog-walking, lawn-mowing or glass-blowing, we are perfectly capable of conjuring questions of our own.

Why did s/he do that? I reckon it’s because…

Just as you leave a party and reflect on your new acquaintances, you add all the signifiers together and form a subjective opinion. That person is funny/needy/weird/sexy/dodgy/sociopathic. This game becomes far less fun if each party guest has a Post-It on their forehead saying, ‘Slimy Womaniser’, ‘Gold-digging Divorcee’, or ‘I Hurt Gerbils’.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a reader, writer, or someone like my mum, who does both. So here’s some knuckle-bloodied advice for free.

Write your first draft as a writer, then change in a phonebox and read it as a reader.

If Reader You wants to punch Writer You in the face and shout ‘Don’t patronise me. Who do you think you are?’ something may need to change.

Surely.

 

 

 

Back in February, tramping through knee-deep snow, a friend said something which surprised me.

Nationalism is a force of destruction.

No, I argued. Nationalism is a force for unity and joy.

Love, loyalty and celebration.

Admittedly, I was only thinking of the streets of Cardiff outside the Millennium Stadium after Wales had just won. The joy, the laughter, the hugs and happiness at what our tiny, brave, beautiful country just achieved. “Way-els, Way-els, Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi…”

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Wales won last night.

Normally I’d be waving flags and cheering and gently teasing all my non-Welsh friends. But yesterday, displays of nationalism left a very bad taste.

You may not have heard about the UK referendum. Perhaps you’ve got a few problems in your own backyard and couldn’t give a toss how the British government’s petty in-fighting gambled with the future of the country and lost.

There’s a stupid six-letter word to describe this, but made-up, fallacious, simplistic, emotion-over-logic, reductionist bullshit is what got us thus far so I refuse to use it.

Let’s leave aside the likely break-up of the (dis)United Kingdom, campaign promises which were nothing more than empty slogans, the collapse of both leading governmental parties, international economic consequences, the impact on the EU’s geo-political security and the immediate uncertainty around who is responsible for clearing up this pile of political vomit.

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The fact is the damage is done.

The British public is polarised, enraged, divided and shocked by its own behaviour. Much like the Scottish independence referendum, the hate and vitriol stirred up did not disappear after the decision.

The fury at ‘the other side’ continues with ever more extremist and personal attacks, retreating into its own media outlets and sticking its fingers into its ears as to anything which puts a balanced view.

Political parties practise self-defense/immolation while the electorate, whichever way they may have voted, says…

Oh Holy Shit.

At the heart of this is nationalism.

A deluded belief: absolutely fine on our own, thanks very much, never needed anyone’s help before, you need us more than we need you, our superiority complex has never let us down yet.

Nationalism is not a force solely of destruction or unity. It can be both. But it is certainly emotional and heartfelt, which can be used for positive, inclusive, joyous means or the exact opposite.

Much as I am grieving over Britain’s colossal political cock-up, I still have faith in (most of) its people. Our language, our culture, our cuisine, our infrastructure, our openness and our economy depend on the ability to absorb and embrace the rest of the world.

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Britain is not the sum of its politicians.

It’s the sum of its people.

And we are so much better than this.

So, anyone got a plan?

 

Thanks to JD Lewis for all these beautiful images. Check out more of her work here.

 

So things are happening…

Triskele Lit Fest: Sept 17, London

Pop-up bookshop, genre panels, Preserving the Unicorn, Human Library, goodie bags and non-stop booktalk.

This is not ‘talking about diversity’. This is being diverse.

Authors are invited to talk about their work – regardless of publishing route or ethnicity – readers are invited to add their opinions. This is for writers and readers, publishers and booksellers.

Rumour is, there’ll be a party too.

 

Creative Spark

Photo0030Sharpen your pencils, writerly sorts.

We have TEN weeks of creative writing exercises from expert tutors at your disposal.

Free. Yes, seriously free. No sign-up, no cash, no email address, this is open access.

And it is an imagination workout from some of the best international tutors there are. Drum roll…

Emma Darwin, Tracey Warr, Roz Morris, Jo Furniss, Amanda Hodgkinson, Lindsey Grant, Jessica Bell, Karen Pegg, Laurence O’Bryan and Triskele Books on all aspects of writing technique.

Starts July 1st and subsequent Fridays.

Join in, comment, share your results (if you like) and flex those writerly muscles.

 

The Woolf

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Zürich’s cultural quarterly changes with the seasons.

Our next issue is themed Beginnings.

Have a look at our last issue – Borders.

And if you’d like to contribute something thinky and artistic, bring it on.

 

Unity

Can’t sign off this week’s blog without a comment. (It’s my blogpost and I’ll rant if I want to.)

All the above and more – Triskele Books, TLF, Creative Spark, The Woolf, WriteCon, Words with JAM and Bookmuse  – are the result of creative collaboration.

Collaboration is bloody hard work, often boring and frustrating, with as much energy devoted to peace-keeping as to creativity.

Sure, each of us could vote out and go it alone.

We could drop the whole thing and pursue our own egotistical agendas. Wear fake tan, go blond and thump our individual tubs.

But we don’t. We argue and discuss and get pissed/pissed off and laugh and agree and remind each of why we wanted to do this.

Every single project needs the hard slog of negotiation and commitment to the end result.

It works. It really does.

Generosity and openness, concessions and compromise lead to fabulous things, which sometimes involve Prosecco.

Teamwork, togetherness and the daily niggles of trying to do stuff with other people is damn good shit, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

The EU is hard work. But that is what democracy means. It cannot be summed up in a slogan, an image or a chant.

But I will quote my university professor: Go the bloody hard way. Don’t give up.

For me, that means Remain.

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