2016: Nothing But a Number

The general consensus seems to be that 2016 was a particularly rubbish year. It’s a bit facile, though, to assume recent international disasters sprouted randomly in response to the page-turn of a calendar.

Attack of Trump Man: children's book
Saw this children’s book in a Cardiff shop at the end of 2015. Attack of Trump Man. Was it a sign?

As writers, we tend to reject such premises, and to root around for causes. With minimal detective work we can see that Brexit and the Trump election were a long time coming, thanks to economic disparity, normalising of white supremacist ‘alt-right’ rhetoric, mainstream media obsequiousness, the hubris of established party politicians…I could go on.

The cancer that killed various celebrities was proliferating in their cells before. The citizens of Aleppo have been suffering for years; politically oppressed perhaps for decades. Extrajudicial killings of black people and the militarisation of police was already going on, racial bias and mistrust of law enforcement existing since before the United States signed the Declaration of Independence.

I bear no ill will towards 2016. I’ve watched it be rather kinder than its predecessors to those dearest to me. But I feel trepidation at saying I’ve had a decent year, because who knows what strife or loss germinates as I write this. The same is true for all of us. I only hope the hard work I’ve done this year, particularly in my writing, will later blossom into more success. (Although unfortunately, hard work in actual paying jobs seems to guarantee me very little security, particularly this year.)

Spring leaves and broken windows
Looking from the broken windows of 2016 to the fresh leaves of 2017…Or maybe I just liked this picture.

I’m always fascinated by stories which use the tiniest misstep to accelerate into a wicked tango of tragedy. Stories such as Atonement, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the novel I finished reading the other day, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. These books give me a sense of awe as I contemplate their what-ifs. In my own work, I’ve laid out a similarly inevitable, escalating path in my novel Artefacts, as characters’ niggling insecurities feed off each other until they reach monstrous, crippling stature.

This year I wrote a new novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds, in which a man’s reckless deed becomes a viral video. Disaster ensues—not chaos, because it’s a particularly sequenced chain of events as other characters are drawn in. I’ll be editing my quite rough draft of The Wrong Ten Seconds in spring 2017, aiming to tighten up that chain.

Next year’s other plans—not goals, because I’m actually going to do these things—have their roots in projects from this year. I’ll finish my current novel, Society of the Spurned. I wrote the first half during November for NaNoWriMo. After editing The Wrong Ten Seconds, I’ll research and query agents.

A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division cast
The amazing cast for last September’s production of A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division

Then I’m going to expand my one-act play, A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, to a full-length one. That’s the bit I’m most excited about. Starting to explore playwriting last January and February, developing an unconventional but exciting premise, and then having it performed in September in its current short form, were highlights for me this last year. Reading at the November Stroud Short Stories event was another exciting moment.

Bank Cafe, Dursley
Preferably, I’ll be working relentlessly while sitting on a comfy couch scoffing posh cups of mint tea and the occasional brownie, such as here in Dursley’s Bank Cafe.

There have been plenty of rejections. I will need to work relentlessly, to read and improve and network. I’m fortunate to have support from my extremely discerning brother—my number one reader—plus a warm and talented local writers group, loads of inspiring connections on Twitter, and a husband who knows how to set up websites.

And of course, I have my beloved characters to motivate me. For example, Charlie’s expression of my general philosophy, in The Wrong Ten Seconds: ‘Suffering adds a whole new depth to beauty.’

And the words of Helen’s brother in Artefacts: ‘Sure, we all make our own beds. But we don’t have to lie there forever! If we don’t like the bed we’ve made, we can jump on it. We can throw the covers off and tear up the sheets!’

The possibilities are endless. I just have to keep my eyes and ears open, to gather bits of string until I find myself entangled in the next project. What threads will you be pursuing in the new year?

GCSE Curriculum: Is It Literature?

This Week’s Bit of String: A Student’s Holiday Mix-Up

‘Miss, aren’t you excited about Christmas? Remember, Jesus died then!’

It was one of those teaching moments when you need Rewind and Slow Down buttons. ‘You mean He died just before Easter,’ I said.

‘No, He was born at Easter; that’s why there’s eggs everywhere, and baby animals. We celebrate Him getting killed at Christmas, by hanging stuff on trees.’

My student, in his first GCSE year at the time, had misinterpreted these symbols and traditions. But he legitimised it with evidence.

The real reason dinosaurs went extinct...
There’s a sign like this in our school library.

These days we hear of fake news, false equivalency, and other such ‘post-truth’ terms. Dangerous as those are in the political realm, the literary world has operated on a somewhat post-truth basis for some time—with the essential caveat that you cite passages to support your claims.

Evidence-gathering and interpretation are essential skills we get from studying literature. Interpreting characters’ motives, which builds empathy and social skills; plus interpreting the culture and time period the author belongs to.

In the UK, Year 10 and 11 students (aged 14-16) must earn a General Certificate of Secondary Education in Literature. The national exam board offers a limited range of literary works for students to be tested on: one of six selected Shakespeare plays, one of seven nineteenth century novels, one of twelve dramas or novels written since 1914 (by British authors only), and one themed ‘cluster’ of fifteen poems. Adolescents spend two years studying these four works, and then take the exam.

The list of literature options changed controversially two years ago, dropping American classics such as Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird. After the fuss kicked up over the changes, do the remaining options qualify as literature?

Interpreting Characters
school-bathroom-graffiti-spoilers
Found in the girls’ toilet in the Art/English corridor. ‘George shoots Lennie.’ ‘Piggy and Simon die…’

To me, several of the GCSE offerings lack character depth. I haven’t read all of them, and I don’t dislike any of them. I’m just not sure they’re literature. An Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers share upper class villains, while several other books such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have quite clear-cut ones as well. Scrooge and Mr. Darcy undergo transformations, but their paths are quite obvious. There’s not a lot of mystery on why they change; students need do no serious detective work to examine it.

The most interesting characters are probably the plethora of bystanders and enablers in these tales: Mr. Bennett neither humouring nor challenging his wife’s ridiculous behaviour and Mrs. Lintott apparently looking the other way regarding her beloved co-worker’s paedophilic tendencies; the animal subjects of Animal Farm and the other boys on the Lord of the Flies Island.

Probing the motives of those who get caught in the action and end up almost unwittingly serving as catalysts is particularly relevant today, as far-right factions take hold in more governments. What drives a Macbeth and a Dr. Frankenstein? Let’s hope the exam board will encourage that sort of discussion.

Interpreting Culture and History

I don’t think Americans are going to suffer for no longer being represented in the GCSE curriculum; we’re not exactly a silent, repressed minority. The requirements for modern literature include stories by second-generation immigrants, and some about immigrants, too, plus Curious Incident, about a boy on the autism spectrum. And there are plenty of plots that highlight (sometimes glaringly, as in the aforementioned Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers) issues surrounding class and socioeconomic status.

It’s a decent start. Each one has its own argument to pick with the world, as I previously noted Salmon Rushdie said books must do. Each one attempts to harrow us a little bit, with various degrees of effectiveness.

books-fight
Spotted in an alley in Lewes. That’s right: books fight.

Teacher Tom Payne, writing in The Telegraph (which also, being The Telegraph, gave Conservative then-Minister of Education an opportunity to defend the changes in literature choices), raised this concern: ‘does this [rule that post-1914 literature studied must originate from the British Isles] mean that the question of Britain and its former empire has to be examined from the perspective of these islands? After all, much of the best literature on the subject comes from the lands Britain colonised: the Empire writes back.’
This is a good point. The removal of OMAM and TKAM disappointed me because I’d seen white students infatuated with the ‘n-word.’ Often, their perspectives matured after reading Of Mice and Men, as they realised the actual conditions from which the word derived its power; the threat and malice behind it. It’s important to keep those issues present in the literature we teach adolescents, because recognising others’ suffering, often at the hands of our own governments and even at benefit to ourselves, is an essential argument to keep putting before the world. And as fake news proliferates, the classics set a standard for us that’s not easily misinterpreted.

Let There Be Dark

This week’s bit of string: Fourteenth century ploughing techniques

Stories are like a box of chocolates; some of us can’t resist the dark ones. I don’t mean dark as in using horror elements, but rather the darker aspects of real life, from brutal struggles and current events.

I sometimes fear that writing ‘dark’ stories may put off readers who seek literary escapism. How do we justify putting serious issues into our work?

Dark stories need tough heroes/heroines to blaze through them. After all, fiction is only as sad as its characters, just as life is only as sad as we feel.

Utilising Juxtaposition

There are so many elements to a story: plot, setting, characters, tone, dialogue… And there can be different degrees of darkness to each element. For example, Catch-22 has a horrific wartime plot, but the tone is humourous. Cruel deeds may unfold against a bright summer setting, as in L’Etranger (one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read).

We don’t use these contrasts to dilute the message. Rather, the idea is to illuminate and emphasise it. Interweaving tragedy with comedy can sharpen it with the shock of the unexpected.

Church steeple glowing at the end of a dark alley
I don’t think this church steeple would have looked nearly as impressive if I hadn’t approached it through an abandoned dark alley.

We can create characters that suffer terribly, but perhaps they have a sense of humour about it. We all know people like that in real life.

My first published story, ‘The Meek Inherit,’ portrayed a small snapshot of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. But I used a fiercely imaginative, independent Haitian girl’s point of view, which imbued it with a sense of hope. Through her, I could bring attention to Haiti’s misfortunes, but also to the resourcefulness of its people. ‘How dull reading would be,’ Robert Burdock commented in his review, ‘if every story had a Disney ending.’

Instigating Change

After I read my story The Apocalypse Alphabet at Stroud Short Stories’ event recently, a couple of very talented writers spoke to me afterwards and described the story as harrowing. I began to apologise, but they said, ‘No, no, it’s important to be harrowed sometimes. If that’s a word!’

Harrowed is a word, as it turns out. The word harrow comes from a medieval Dutch word for rake, and a harrow, thusly, is a spiky tool that pulverises soil before planting. A painful process, no doubt—which then contributes to yielding useful crops.

Good fiction has the power to shake us up, jolt us awake, and change our habits. I can think of two books I’ve read in recent years that have altered my thought patterns. Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans honestly and wittily brings attention to the plight of migrant workers in the UK, including some working under dreadful conditions at a chicken packaging plant. Since reading this novel, I only use free-range chicken products, because it made me realise: companies that mistreat animals for profit will most likely mistreat human workers, as well.

The second book was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. This tormented, semi-autobiographical book about an adolescent boy desperate to win his religious father’s approval honed my awareness about the legacy of slavery for generation after generation of African Americans. I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s grandmother had been a slave, and her first children had been taken from her and sold. His writing made me consider the devastating impact this would have on a person’s ability to love and form familial bonds later on—and this would then impact her children, and their children, and so forth.

Lamppost illuminated in wooded park
Let there be dark, that the light may show up against it. Stratford Park, Stroud

It’s not easy to be shown the dark underbelly of the bloated, overfed privilege some of us enjoy. But I believe we can learn from it. And fiction is particularly placed to do that, because it opens up our imaginations. Imagination doesn’t merely lead to escapism, it can lead to empathy as well, which as I’ve previously discussed, is the key to changing the world.

So, what books have harrowed you to the point of growing new crops, so to speak? How much dark reality do you find acceptable in a story?  Personally, I’m a realist. I like any happy endings to come out of a recognisable version of the world. I love Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, in which a man tells his mistress a tale with various dark twists involving slavery and sacrifice, but sets it against a dazzling background of an ancient city on a distant planet.

His lover whispers, ‘”Why are you telling me such a sad story?”’

‘”I tell you the stories I’m good at,” he says. “Also the ones you’ll believe. You wouldn’t believe sweet nothings, would you?”’

The Borders of Sympathy

This week’s bit of string: That person you disagree with, maybe even deplore: What’s their story?

Quite rightfully, we’re hearing a lot now about tolerance and empathy. It’s not easy to strive for these things. One may well deplore people from the opposing political camp. As I watch events unfold, I sympathise with people in the LGBT community or in immigrant populations and other minorities, who fear losing their rights. However, seeing footage of protesters cheering in LA while burning an effigy of the new President-Elect and holding signs saying, ‘We want an inclusive America—’ that gives me some pause. I don’t think of effigies as being inclusive. Can’t we muster up some sympathy for the other side?

I like to think that we writers are in the sympathy-mustering business. We’re the ones who witness a street scene, walk away heavier under the burdens of every single person involved, then transfer that burden into a story. Just last week I walked past a multigenerational family having a cup of tea outside a cafe. The mother was berating a small boy, shouting, ‘You’re stressing Granny out! Remember what happens then? Do you want Granny to have an accident?’ It was hard not to feel sorry for the Granny whose difficulties were being broadcast to half the street, the small boy who was probably rather confused at being blamed for his grandmother’s issues, and even the shouting mum, with her straggly peroxide hair and haggard eyes, who looked pretty stressed herself.

Abandoned high-heeled shoes on front garden wall in Cheltenham
Like these shoes I spotted walking to the Cheltenham Literature Festival. What miles had they walked?

Naturally, I didn’t agree with how the situation was handled. Nor do I agree with people supporting a candidate who mocks prisoners of war and disabled persons, and boasts about forcing himself on women. But I ask myself why they’re handling things this way, and my mind is whisked down a different path. I believe writing is the process of planting yourself and your reader sometimes quite mercilessly in someone else’s shoes.

Rebecca Mead wrote an exceptional New Yorker article a couple years ago, encouraging readers not to shy away from characters different from themselves. “To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”

Still, people don’t always want to acknowledge that stupid or unpleasant acts have motivations. They might feel victimised by the very people who commit those acts. How do we elicit sympathy for our characters, whoever they may be?

First, let’s consider the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can be defined as a tendency to feel alike, whereas the definition of empathy goes so far as to ‘vicariously experienc[e] the feelings’ of others (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Maybe empathy is what we should strive for as writers. Instead of searching for sympathetic characters to portray (those with similarities to potential readers), we can create empathetic characters—depicting a diverse range of people so realistically that readers can’t help but feel the story.

I think the key here to reveal our characters’ pain. Most of us, when we see another human being suffer, will recognise that. That was my experience working in health and social care. I’d go about doing my job for all sorts of people who weren’t always sympathetic types. Some made racist or sexist remarks, or were unkind to their families. But when they were afraid or in pain, and said things like, ‘I wish my mum was here,’ the differences fell away and I was fighting back empathetic tears.

It’s not just bits of string we gather as writers; sometimes we feel with particular strength the heavy ropes of understanding that bind us to the rest of humanity.

Many of us writers want to aide the voiceless through our work. But it’s not just the blameless who feel voiceless. After all, if pain is what most draws our sympathy—what’s more painful than guilt? In his epic Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote not just about the heroic Jean Valjean, but also about an abandoned unwed mother, and even delved into the background of the brutally strict Javert. By exposing each character’s background, he made all of them sympathetic, allowed none to stay voiceless, and more fully exposed the effects of poverty and oppression.

In my own work, I’ve given voice to a young Haitian earthquake survivor, a mother who’s left her family to live with her girlfriend, an Evangelical teacher desperate to convey his faith to his students, and so many others. (See more about my work here.) Sometimes, my characters hurt each other, and they pay the consequences as the plot advances. I can’t protect them even when I wish I could, but I ache on their behalf, no matter what wrongs they’ve done, because I know their story. By conveying that story, hopefully I pass that empathy on to my readers as well.

Abandoned mill building with waterfall
Abandoned mill in my hometown.

So, what’s the background of the people who aligned themselves with the KKK-endorsed presidential candidate? David Wong has written a very insightful, if saddening, article for Cracked about what many Trump voters, often from depressed rural areas, have gone through. As it happens, my stories often take place in similar depressed rural areas. And it’s worth remembering that people can feel voiceless or victimised, even when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs and someone else might be cowering in fear at their feet.

I’m not saying we don’t hold people accountable for how they vote, just as we hold politicians accountable for how they respond to the vote. And you may be feeling so frightened, so scarred by what’s happened in your own life, that you don’t wish to look at the horrors in anyone else’s. But if you can find the strength, let’s not tune in just at the end of their story; let’s walk the full miles with them. After all, these are people who were desperate enough to elect a man most accurately described on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe as ‘a sort of guinea pig staring at you through the porthole on a washing machine.’

Doesn’t it almost make you feel sorry for them?