Minding Our Language

This Week’s Bit of String: Favourite swears

When I was thirteen and my youngest sister eight, she asked me, her eyes alight and eager, ‘What’s your favourite swear? Is it the f…u…c…k one?’

Even during a slightly rebellious phase, I didn’t swear for fun. I tend to swear when events leave me little recourse. Like when an amazing piece doesn’t make a competition longlist.

Back when I fielded my sister’s question, NYPD Blue was newish on the air. Blazing TV Guide editorials argued whether its use of the f-word was an appropriate reflection of the setting, or a symptom of the nation’s damnation. One letter compared the language on NYPD Blue to the moment in Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler used the d-word.

Now GWTW is controversial for glossing over slavery, normalising marital rape, and glorifying the roots of the KKK. Not because a protagonist commented that he didn’t ‘give a damn.’ To me, this discloses a long habit of obsessing over language when the actual subject matter should be the issue.

A Tale of Two Comedians

Fast forward about 25 years (sheesh, 25 years!) and comedian Samantha Bee uses the c-word on cable TV. Is this just the progression of opening language barriers, from d- to f- to c-words? Is this one truly more grievous than other oft-used derogatory names for women that reduce us to a single body part?

Many have highlighted false equivalencies between this incident and Roseanne Barr’s recent racist tweet–the one about Valerie Jarrett, as there seem to be a few to choose from. It’s quite partisan. For every Roseanne I name, you can accuse a Samantha Bee. For every time I want to call out Ted Nugent or Scott Biao, right wingers may cite a rapper or pop star who bad-mouthed conservatives.

Large letters spelling out Woman, above a label: The Word.
The Word, Stroud: Right up one of our main streets, it changes regularly. Last week it was fuck. Before that it was suck. I’m not sure the significance of the teapots, either.

Trump—Weinstein. Deplorable—Libtard. It’s like tennis, but (to borrow a phrase from Four Weddings and a Funeral) with much smaller balls.

Let’s call the whole thing off. We can’t call it even, because having someone who says a bad word on one side isn’t the same as having a number of white supremacists on the other. Still, can’t we admit human beings are prone to loss of temper and excesses of vulgarity? It’s not about saying there are ‘good people on both sides,’ but we need to remember there are, in fact, people on both sides and stop reducing political opponents to animals or lady parts. We need to weigh the substance of those people’s message rather than the language it’s couched in.

What’s in a [Rude] Name

It’s perhaps unexpected, a writer’s blog suggesting we ignore words. Of course we spend a lot of time finding the exact right ones, and I get quite dorky about which are correct and preferable.

For example, I checked out some of these terms on EtymOnline (oh, my poor browser history…) In the 1300s, the c-word was a medical term for female anatomy, thought to come from pre-Latin words meaning hollow place, slit, or sheath. Not very flattering, but I’m unconvinced it’s more insulting than less reviled terms.

What about the relatively uncensored word whore, you ask? Its roots are early German, meaning ‘one who desires.’ This jolted me when I read it, because I’m working on a novel about Eve. Part of her curse was to desire her husband, who would then have dominion over her. Eve is basically characterised in the Bible as One Who Desires, and as Western religion assumes all women inherit Eve’s curse, all women are whores. How convenient.

It gets worse, too. The word seems to have sharpened its meaning by taking in a later German masculine term for adultery, and then a middle English word for filth. If all that injustice makes you want to swear, I won’t judge.

These aren’t the only words people haven’t delved fully into. Idiot used to be a disparaging clinical term for the mentally challenged, and berk is short for the Cockney rhyming slang equating to the c-word itself—yet it’s used in completely different contexts, even popping up in the Harry Potter series.

Unless we all want to look properly at the words we use, there’s not much point assigning a random few so much importance in the media.

When No Other Word Will Do

I turned to Twitter to see if other writers might disagree and assign swears more power than I do. But like me, whether for or against using them, no one had feelings so pervasive they wished to convert anyone else. Here are a few answers:

If I believe the character would swear, the character swears. I like to think my characters dictate their language to me.—historian, writer and actor Christine Caccipuoti

Painted on a wall beneath tall office buildings
Deeds not Words, at the Bearpit in Bristol

Some characters would sound false (to me!) if they said ‘oh dear’ or ‘oh god’ or anything else… Who decided these words were bad anyway?Jennifer Riddalls, copywriter and Writers Forum Flash Fiction winner 2017

What comes out of your mouth reveals what’s inside your heart / mind / soul, but I’m currently writing a story in which characters swear (a bit) because of who they are and the extremity of the situations.—Fantasy writer Marcus Bines, published in the Shadows of the Sea anthology

Even if I didn’t write YA I wouldn’t swear in my writing. I think it’s unnecessary but doesn’t bother me to read swear words in books. There are plenty of synonyms that work just fineKelsey Atkins, author of the YA fantasy series Finding the Light

I try to choose stronger words and rely on physical descriptions and reactions to convey strong emotions. —Literary fiction writer and Insecure Writers’ Supporter George R McNeese

I go by the same rule as I do for similes and metaphors. Once a page, tops, and only if you must. personally I find similes and metaphors far more offensive than a good swear…! —short story phenomenon and photographer Jason Jackson

In my current piece on William Morris in Iceland, the decision was already made for me: Morris was well known for his temper and swearing.Laurie Garrison, Founder of the vital Women Writers School

I enjoy a well-timed swear myself. It’s part of the joy of language.Alex Clark, Writers HQ rep and Cheltenham Flashers Club founder

Sometimes it’s more like a spoken punctuation rather than actual words —scifi and fantasy writer Mark Huntley-James

All words are permitted in proper context. Trust your reader.—Stephen Hines

Words are words and they are there to be used. However, on the page they can be a distraction and too many can ruin a good piece of writing. So I am selective but I use ALL of them.–Stephen Tuffin,  flash fiction author and writing lecturer who’s been known to give students a class on ‘Choosing Your Fucks Carefully.’

I respect writers who try to use words other than curses. It sometimes feels like a cheat, doesn’t it, to use a single, often body function-related word to encompass a grave situation? On the other hand, there are a lot of characters who will swear. And to all of us, the characters are paramount, not the language they happen to use.

In the end, words are just tools to chisel our characters. They’re the clothes we dress a story in to send it out to the world. We mustn’t get distracted by them. Let’s mind immigrant children alone in detention centres, plastics going in our oceans, racism in our institutions, intolerance in universities, hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, social anxiety in our kids, and guns going into our schools. Let’s mind all that, and let the language go where it must.

 

Playing God

This Week’s Bit of String: Tidying up the building materials

Once when my son was about six years old, I looked in on him during his evening tidy-up to see him gloomily tossing his Lego into their bucket, punctuating their impact with sighs. ‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I’m just…angry at God.’

He explained his grievance to me: ‘While we were eating dinner, I asked God really nicely if he would please tidy up my room for me.’ Another sigh. ‘But He didn’t.’

I’d seen him in a similar predicament with the magic wand he’d received for his birthday. And when he was a toddler, just learning his manners, there were those agonised epiphanies that saying please—‘the magic word’—won’t get you extra sweets or a later bedtime.

So it didn’t seem the time to put God’s existence under review, anymore than I would tell him there’s no such thing as magic. ‘Sorry, mate. I don’t think He works that way; He likes to make sure we know how to do things for ourselves.’

Losing My (Bias Against) Religion

Religion—and, well, not relying too exclusively on it—has enmeshed itself into a few of my stories. In Artefacts, the first novel I wrote, talking about God embarrasses the protagonist, ‘like talking about someone and suddenly realising they stood behind you.’

I feel that way, a bit, penning scenes with God in my current novel. As it’s Eve’s story, though, and her family’s, He plays a prominent role. I guess it’s the first time I’ve written about a recognisable figure, an entity Who might (who knows?) actually exist. That changes things, doesn’t it?

Carvings of God on His throne
Above the door at Notre Dame Cathedral. Can omnipotence and love really go hand in hand?

Last week I wrote about reimagining the first humans in the Bible, as well as the angels, trying to de-stigmatise as far as possible. These days, at least in our fast-paced, ‘enlightened’ society, it seems God too has become somewhat stigmatised, the focus of blame and skepticism rather than adoration. I don’t want to get caught up in that, even while sympathising with Eve and other characters He punished.

One has to wonder, if God does exist, and is by definition omnipotent and eternal, do all our pleas and tirades sound to Him like a child not wanting to pick up his own toys? I’m trying not to be restricted by pro-human bias in my view.

He’s Got the Look

So far I’ve not gone into great detail about God’s appearance. That’s not the done thing, is it? In our art we tend to come at physical description obliquely, if at all. Likewise with my re-invented angels, apart from the odd mention of their scales, wings, and fire. The humans in the story accept these beings and have no reason to overtly describe them.

Flaming orange sunrise over a hilltop
Like this, maybe. I’m just throwing around ideas here.

There’s mention of God’s immense size, and lack of clear outline. I mean, He’s God. We can be justified in thinking he has humanoid aspects (or commonly manifests them), because He does say He’s made people in His image. But I don’t think He’s just a muscly older man with a flowing white beard, the way Michelangelo depicted Him.

For one thing, He’s not going to have a corporeal body. He’s energy, and why He would choose to generally have a human form, I don’t know. I suppose it has its uses, a certain organisation and compactness. But in my work there’s a glow to Him and a deep, shifting substance that defies boundary. His eyes can turn into oceans, His smile into sunrise.

The King (of King)’s Speech

What I have God say in the book is far more important than how He looks. And I haven’t a whole lot of source material to base it on. I’m not on board with the whole divine scriptures idea. Sorry, I’m a writer myself. I know how easy it is to make stuff up and then it feels like canon in my mind. That doesn’t mean it is. That’s possibly my human bias talking, but for the purposes of this project, I’m going with it.

I’m drawing the line at accepting God’s actual words as relayed in Genesis—but weeding out ideas that are merely imputed to Him.

For example, when He punishes Cain for killing Abel, He says Cain is exiled and will lose his knack for growing crops. He never says Cain is banished from His presence (that would be admitting some limitation to His power). It’s Cain who moans that he’ll be out of God’s sight, and then the narrative picks it up.

Granted, He issues curses at key moments, but He doesn’t just pronounce judgment. He questions those involved, giving them a chance to explain themselves or at least ‘fess up—all the while opening Himself to even more disappointment as they flounder around pretending they didn’t do that thing they really weren’t supposed to do.

He strikes me as part Albus Dumbledore, part Atticus Finch, giving people space and a bit of prodding to see if they’ll figure things out for themselves. Here, Eve’s daughter Ana recounts to Cain how God encouraged her to start her own family, while admitting she too would carry her mother’s curse.

So I told Him: “I think You are a brutal Master.”’
Cain gave me one of his rare, full-on looks, allowing me to see the Mark. ‘Then what?’
‘He said, “Well, at least you believe I’m your Master.”
“What choice do I have?” I asked. ‘You gave my parents life out of dust and bone.’
“You have every choice, Ana. You and all your future children and grandchildren, you have a choice.” And His glow seemed to dim slightly. I almost felt sorry for him.

After all, I feel a certain sympathy with Him, too. Creating people, letting them bumble off on their way doing what they like, forcing You to spring up obstacles in their path to slow them down and get them to look about themselves for once…Ahem. Yes. Perhaps God and us writers have a thing or two in common. What do you think?

 

Liberal Arts: Where Do All the Bleeding Hearts Go?

This Week’s Bit of String: Crosses made of sliced cheese

For Easter when I was in kindergarten, my mother cut slices of processed cheese and bologna into crosses, chicks, and egg shapes to share with my class. The school found this contribution offensive. I remember her crying over it, as she hung up laundry. We lived in a very small, seemingly homogenous New England town, but it couldn’t accommodate her humble gesture of religious expression.

As writers, we hate feeling voiceless, we hate for minorities to feel voiceless, and we should hate for religious communities to feel voiceless. I’m not endorsing the narrative of the American ‘War on Christianity.’ There’s no comparison to what a lot of BAME or LGBT people have suffered. But have you noticed a dearth of well-rounded religious characters in literature? Could this absence be feeding the fear we ‘liberals’ have of conservatives? Could it be curtailing our empathy?

Perpetuating Literary Stereotypes
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral, October 2015

I’d like to see characters like my mother in literature. Someone with unparalleled patience, raising the four children she gave birth to in five years, and working for over two decades with special needs students, often at least sixty hours a week—while dutifully living out beliefs some might view as intolerant. Someone who believes abortion is murder but who was devastated by Christian leaders’ support of a racist President who condoned sexual assault.

Instead, it feels as if religious characters in fiction are generally incarnations of Archdeacon Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo’s villain, tormented by hidden lusts, was probably a shocking revelation at the time. I’m not sure the prototype still is. In films and books, do we not at this point expect the Republicans and evangelicals to be baddies?

Admittedly, there have been appalling religious figures throughout history. One can understand the rage against clergy in, for example, Irish fiction such as The Glorious Heresies, or The Secret Scriptures. And in America especially, Christian culture, perhaps partly out of a sense it’s not welcome in the mainstream, has isolated itself to produce its own books on its own presses.

This isolation becomes cyclic. The church is the kid on the playground who has to keep his clothes clean, so he doesn’t join in football. The other kids assume he doesn’t want to play anyway—especially if he tells them they’re getting too dirty—and he resents them carrying on without him, and the gulf widens. So mainstream literature and heavily conservative, Christian literature may seem to prefer the separation. But if we consider ourselves liberal, should we ignore a whole subset of our culture?

Studies on Liberalism Versus Conservatism

Before justifying the alienation by saying Republicans are ignorant, are overly attached to their beliefs, and probably hate us too much to engage, consider these intriguing studies.

Research shows that conservative minds are more attuned to fear. Is this a cause or a symptom of conservatism? Scientific American describes how mounting scientific evidence of conservative risk awareness could explain their stereotypical attachment to rules and even nationalism.

St. Cyr's Church on Stroudwater Canal
St. Cyr’s Church on Stroudwater Canal, Palm Sunday 2017

It also explains their tendency toward idea-driven storytelling. While some conservative commentators like this one on The American Conservative website remind their fellows that using literature to mould public morals ‘leads to art becoming a mere tool, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself,’ a group will find that irrelevant when they perceive themselves under threat. Republicans (who got eighty percent of evangelical support in the presidential election) are completely in control of the American government, but fundamentalist Christians believe in Heaven and Hell. The majority of people they meet are eternally damned. If they have any compassion, they’ll try and save them with everything they do, every word they write. How could they care about trivial things like character development and artistic expression?

Here’s another surprise from a wonderful study described in The Guardian, in which literature professors researched thousands of Goodreads profiles and found over four hundred books which conservative and liberal readers frequently liked in common. Encouraging, but when they looked at the reviews, they found conservative readers were ‘more generous’ and used ‘less negative or hateful language’ than many of the liberal reviewers. We liberals can be snobby and cynical—who would have thought?

In Twitter discussion, science fiction writer Grace Crandall observes that we tend to detect biases against us: liberals see conservative bias, while conservatives see liberal bias. We’d all rather be wronged than in the wrong. But we have to rise above that as artists, and try to understand each other, as she suggests.

What is Conservatism, Really?
Church and phone booth
Juxtaposition in Dursley, Christmas 2016

Everyone’s conservative about some things, and liberal about others. We all have things we don’t want to change, and things we seek to explore and improve. Micah Mattix, in the American Conservative article, reminds us genuine conservatism is ‘deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved.’ Skepticism of contemporary culture is not exclusive to Republican-leaning authors.

Indeed, when we write we should examine any stereotype, even the idea that Republicans are always grouchy old white men. We write to conquer fear, perhaps our own fear of being voiceless, and it’s always worth finding characters to give voice to. There are Republicans and/ or evangelicals who strive valiantly to live up to their own standards, even if these standards manifest themselves in ways that look strange to us. In my book Artefacts, two of the protagonists are Christians, trying to establish friendships outside the church despite being convinced their acquaintances are hellbound. Religious characters don’t always have to be so dramatic; I liked the pastor and the churchgoing protagonist in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. They were portrayed as normal people, with normal family and livelihood struggles, who happened to have a bit of faith. That’s incredibly rare in a current book, and why should it be? We’re writers. We can take on anything.

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 3: Goodbye, Post Office

This Week’s Bit of String: Letters to Putin

If you were a cultivator of stories, working in a post office, would you find yourself quite curious about what you were helping people send? I’ve always been quite numb to the letters and parcels—professional or perhaps just zombified—but sometimes my curiosity is truly piqued.

‘I need to send this letter to Russia.’ The soft-spoken piano teacher puts the envelope on my weighing scales. His thick, square glasses glint in the fluorescent lights.

I stamp the letter. It’s meticulously addressed to the Minister of Justice in Moscow. ‘I keep seeing these today,’ I tell the piano teacher. ‘What’s going on?’

Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud
Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud

He informs me Russia has begun proceedings to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists. So the steady stream of polite, earnest customers posting letters to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Justice Minister, and even President Putin himself—are attempts to reason with the enormous state.

I had no idea. And that’s just one thing I’ve learned working at the post office. I shall take my leave with a little mess of weird but possible story threads.

Grief, Observed

A pale old man collects his pension from the post office every Monday, his fingers trembling as he tries to remember his PIN. One week he told me his wife had cardiopulmonary disease, and a bad car accident a couple months before while returning from a hospital appointment certainly didn’t help. But he smiled as he said, ‘I know all about being a woman now, since my wife’s laid up. Running about doing all the work! Tell you what, if I have to come back as something when I die, I hope it’s not a woman.’

Monday comes around again. ‘It’s beautiful out today.’ The man says as his fingers jitter, uncertain, an inch above the card reader’s keypad. ‘The sun was so warm in our garden.’

I ask how his wife is doing.

‘She passed away yesterday morning. Sixty-three years we were together. I used to call her my little ray of sunshine…’ His voice is hoarse.

I’m nearly moved to tears myself. I’ve worked in a nursing home; I’ve seen bereavement and death before. But it’s different seeing it ‘in the real world,’ watching someone stricken so recently go through the necessary motions. At the post office, I’ve had to tell relatives we can’t ship human ashes to distant loved ones (apparently it’s a fire hazard). I’ve certified copies of death certificates, and helped bereaved parents close their late daughter’s bank account—the mother quietly explaining what she needed, the father sitting in the waiting area staring straight ahead.

Stories aren’t just big moments; they’re little ones. They’re how we drag huge burdens through each tiny step.

Beyond School Doors

Likewise, I’ve seen disability before. I’ve supported secondary school students with all kinds of difficulties, who worked tremendously hard to get through the schoolday. Once again, the post office showed me a different perspective.

Village Post Office and shop
This is not the Post Office I worked in. But I wonder if their mini-dramas would be so different from ours.

A girl in her late teens or early twenties comes to my counter, taps her ear, and utters ‘Deaf.’ She slips a note under the heavy glass partition of my ‘Fortress’ (that’s literally the Post Office terminology for the secure cubicle). She needs a box for posting a jacket to the USA, the note explains. I take her to the stationery and show her what the shop offers for packaging. We communicate with hand motions and the odd inarticulate noise. She seems pleased with the selection.

I think about how it must feel, forced to introduce oneself in such a way; to be immediately distinguished by what some might perceive as a deficiency. What bravery and resourcefulness surround us, and we barely even realise.

My previous jobs have inspired a great deal in my stories, as I’ve gotten to know students, colleagues, and nursing home residents very well. In the post office, interactions are fleeting, but still colourful and informative. It’s a lesson in efficiency. If my imagination can be so fuelled by a two-minute encounter, maybe I could shoehorn my observations into a flash fiction piece. My notebooks bristle with label-backs and till roll fragments scrawled with funny place names: Bald Knob Ridge, North Carolina. Thistley Hey Road, Liverpool. Runaway Heights, Jamaica. Thanks to these, I could still feel, despite being locked alone in a ‘Fortress’ at the back of a perishing shop in a town classed as a ‘Rural Area of Deprivation,’ that the world was at my fingertips. Not just geography, but the realm of words, with its truly infinite possibilities.

What windows does your job allow on the wider world?