Hands are like faces, they tell stories, but are maybe not so easy to mask.
Since I began attending the Geneva Writers’ Group I have taken a number of photos in attempts to visually capture the group work. Those photos reflect the frontal nature of conferences and workshops with anywhere between fifty and ninty people aligned in rows in front of the workshop giver. Today, thanks to the capacities of my new iPhone, I tried a different approach at a workshop jointly run by Susan Tiberghien and Jason Donald.
In an article published Oct. 11th entitled Publishing risks ‘becoming irrelevant’, warns Penguin Random House boss, the Guardian quotes Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, as stressing the need for greater diversity in the origins of books being published.
While I hail the call for diversity championed by Penguin Random House in their new #WriteNow project, it seems to put people into recognisable boxes the same way the industry has done with the books it publishes. Just like sci-fi, fantasy, crime, YA, etc are convenient saleable categories, so LGBTQ or BAME (black, Asian, ethnic minorities) or people with disabilities are also marketable packages.
The Guardian article recognises that it is not because you are black or from Scunthorpe that you necessarily have to write in a way that is directly identifiable with your origins or ethnic background. In other words, it is the writer that fits the category and not the writing. Although the journalist does underline that origins will necessarily influence the writing, suggesting a coherence between an author’s books and her origins. In addition, Weldon insists that such a shift in policy will require a change in staff, no longer requiring employees to be university graduates and reflecting the type of authors being targeted.
But what of those who don’t fit into categories? Those whose identity lies in straddling boundaries. Those for whom convenient boxes are a nightmare everyone tries to shoehorn them into. Those who are subsequently rejected because they don’t fit other people’s categories. Those strange people who can’t do otherwise than flirt with limits and often suffer greatly for it. Their necessary fluidity, what is seen as a stubborn refusal to fit, makes others uncomfortable if not angry. Yet it is these misfits, in daring to stray beyond the confines of rigid communities and god-given categories, that afford the possibility of change and innovation for everybody.
The Guardian’s use of FaceBook’s new live video feature in bringing us a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains with a film from Bill Morrison was really refreshing. Apart from individuals broadcasting lengthy snippets of their daily life which are of dubious interest, the use of live video on Facebook has been limited to the tired efforts of some media to imitate talkshows or live reportage. Because of the nature of the set-up, these attempts lack the tension and the rigour that TV can pull off and as a result cannot hold the audience’s attention. The presentation of Reich’s work, in comparison, gives us a privileged place next to the stage during the performance of a key work. The impression of being present, unless of course we cannot stomach Reich’s music or the difficult subject treated, has us captivated. At the same time, the set-up enables us to exchange impressions and ideas with those watching. Despite a lot of self-congratulatory chatter, this exchange contains some intense and meaningful moments both during the performance and the subsequent interview of the composer and filmmaker. This bringing of culture and contemporary music to Facebook in such a striking way is a really promising development.
“There can be no silence in the language of clothes,” said Soline Anthore Baptiste during a conference about the history of clothing at the Club 44 in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland. Her pithy statement came as a challenge for idle minds. What about the absence of clothes? Could nakedness be taken as silence? Socially it is hardly a quiet affaire. Then what about clothes that deny personality, that deny identity, that set out to deny humanness? The sinister uniforms of the emaciated prisoners in the concentration camps whose own clothes had been taken away and burnt. While there is a deathly silence about those uniforms, there is also a penetrating scream that reaches out to each of us.
From being seen to seeing
Soline Anthore Baptiste mentioned the British psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel (1884-1955) who wrote a book entitled The Psychology of Clothes (1930). He postulated that what he called the great renunciation, when men gave up flamboyant clothes in favour of staid grey and austere forms, went hand in hand with a refusal of feelings on the part of men. This ties in with the metaphor of men shielding themselves from attacks that underlies Soline Anthore Baptiste’s explanation of the evolution of men’s everyday clothes. The introduction of armor led to chests being padded against the shocks of battle, a fashion for men (of a certain class) that spilled over into society. According to Flugel, this shift from the colourful and the ostentatious to the dull and uninspiring forms and colours in clothes ultimately led men from a desire to be seen to a desire to see. As I have not read his work, I do not know how he justifies this conclusion. Apart from the suggested mutual exclusiveness of these two which strikes me as dubious, I am reticent about a theory that seeks to shore up what is clearly a stereotype of masculin behaviour.
Being seen or not seen
That Flugel should think of men in terms of a drive to see (women) in terms of that which is concealed is not surprising. Psychoanalysis, and Flugel in particular, put much emphasis on clothing, on the part of women, as a tool to attract men by alternately concealing and revealing that which is seen as erogenous. This psychoanalytical obsession with the erotic and the belief that women exploit it as their chief commerce fails to see the importance of other major factors such as gender, identity and well-being, not to mention belonging or its counterpart, rebellion. In comparison, men’s clothes were seen by Flugel more as an expression of hierarchy and social status. So men are not interested in being attractive, what Flugel called ‘being seen’, but only in power and recognition. While this might be true of some men, it is a blatant charicature when applied to all of them.
Along with other colleagues, Flugel created the Men’s Dress Reform Party which was active from 1929 to 1940. In their attempts to liberate men’s fashions they failed to realise that, in part at least, clothing is a language, and as such its unwritten rules are determined by social convention not by the dictates of a small political group. Yet at the same time, history illustrates that, unlike our spoken and written language, the way people dress can be influenced by various external forces. A powerful institution such as a hospital regime or education authorities, for example. But above all, the powerful persuasion of the fashion industry backed by a successful advertising campaign, coupled with the complicity of the media.
Piecing together the past
Flugel’s interpretation conveniently fits the stereotypes of what is man and what is woman. Such far-reaching interpretations leave me sceptical, especially when they lean heavily on a binary vision of gender that constantly opposes and contrasts fixed ideas of male and female, forgetting that these too are changing social constructs. There are many ways to weave together fragmentary evidence from the past to form a narrative that has a smattering of coherence and a zest of seduction. Both Flugel’s, but also Anthore Baptiste’s narrations are just a couple of plausible examples amongst many.
Postscript: Clothes and transgender
What clothes have to say about gender is one of the key variables in the life of transgender people along with bodily appearance, behaviour, sexuality and ultimately a feeling/idea of self in relation to gender and the acceptance of that vision by others. For everyone, their choice of clothes makes a statement about who they are or are not, often unwittingly so. But for those who are transgender it is what clothing explicitly or implicitly says about gender that is central to their choices. At any give period, items of clothing carry ‘gender markers’ that are interpreted as masculin or feminin. These markers are composed by transgender people to display (and also feel) an image of themselves which situates them with respect to gender.
Paradoxically, and no criticism is meant here, only surprise, clothes and the related identity are thus defined in terms of that very binary division that the non-binary seek to transgress. These individual markers, rooted in a binary lOvid of gender, are then mixed and re-mixed like a pallette of colours in an overall tableau that ventures beyond binary divisions. Confronted with this way of painting an identity, the central difficulty of mainstream society lies in a desperate, if not fearful, need for coherence and unicity in line with a rigid division between two monolithic genders as enshrined in our language: he or she, and never the twain shall meet.
See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who wanted to dress as a girl and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity of gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.
It’s all about learning, but don’t let that distract you from the story.
The Starless Square, Book 3 of The Storyteller’s Quest opens with a policeman challenging An, who, unbeknown to him, hails from another world, “Shouldn’t you be in school, Miss?” An laughs, thinking that ‘school’ is the last place she’d go to learn. Later, teasing the policewoman who is interrogating her, she asks why they keep harping on about school, to which the woman replies, “Because school is compulsory.” With all the naivety she can muster, An asks, “Why go to a place to learn when you can learn everywhere?” knowing full well that the woman, along with most of the inhabitants of this world, would be stumped by such a question. So saying, she expresses one of the unwritten tenets of the group she belongs to, The Dream Class. Learning can and does takes place everywhere and not just in a privileged building with privileged teachers.
The term ‘The Dream Class’, was first coined by Professor Rafter at the end of The Reaches, Book 1 of The Storyteller’s Quest when Sally suggested teaching her friends the ground-breaking skills she had learnt in her travels to another world. Here then is a second tenet of the Dream Class. Learning is best propagated by sharing what you have experienced with your peers and others.
When describing The Dream Class to another girl in the heat of action in Forget Me Not, Book 5 of The Storyteller’s Quest (currently being written), Sarah says succinctly, “We learn to do weird and wonderful things thanks to our adventures.” That adventures are potentially an ideal context in which to develop outstanding new skills and abilities in difficult situations is another of the tenets of the Dream Class.
As Sally puts it, talking to new students at the beginning of Forget Me Not, “Unlike the university with its set curricula and predetermined ways of working, we adopt a more experimental approach. Our experience has been that the best way to learn is by adventure.” Of course, the original members didn’t create adventures but stumbled into them. The challenge in extending the Dream Class to outside participants is to create the conditions in which an adventure might take place even if there is no guarantee anything will be learnt. Gauging risk is important.
Later in Forget Me Not, confronted with the enthusiasm of new students gathered on a deserted island off the coast of Scotland, Jenny tells them that they should “learn one thing at a time”, adding as an afterthought “if possible”. Learning through adventures means that learning cannot be served up in convenient, pre-digested packages. It’s messy, sometimes chaotic, often dangerous. Circumstances invariably require mastering several new things at once and the skills to be learnt can’t be decided in advance.
Although writing The Storyteller’s Quest has been an adventure in itself, the outcomes of which were not predetermined and often surprised me, certain ideas expressed here find an echo in my earlier writings about education on Connected Magazine, in particular an article entitled, Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is. Note that much of what I wrote at that time on Connected was constrained by the need to work from within the school system. Of course, that limit no longer applies in the world of the Storyteller’s Quest.
It seems so strange to our eyes, but at the time they couldn’t see things otherwise (…) They came at the body from the outside. It wasn’t simply that they didn’t have our techniques to enter the body with their minds. All their knowledge was buried in books, in scientific papers and in data gathered by machines. They kept new healers away from people in need of healing. They would have been horrified if anyone had tried to heal others without all that knowledge, whereas, in reality, it blocked access to what they really needed to know. Inside out, Alan McCluskey, April 2012.
One of the greatest difficulties with improving long-established systems, like the one we call Health Care, is being able to step outside the system and, from that unaccustomed vantage point, explore new possibilities that go beyond what is currently thinkable. Freeing ourselves from familiar logic is hard to achieve, rather like stepping through the mirror for Alice. It can be liberating, but more often than not, it is a frightening and disorienting experience.
What’s more, the moment you venture out, a chorus of expert voices intones from the safety of comfy armchairs, You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, in their logic. If we listened to them there would never be any major breakthroughs. Transgressing social norms and the fixed mind-sets of our institutions can be explored in inspiring ways through fiction, especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy. All that is demanded of the author is plausibility, a quality that can be built up over time as a novel moves forward.
In writing Boy & Girl, speaking mind-to-mind was a first step in creating a bridge between two worlds, between two people, Peter and Kaitlin. Travelling mind-to-mind followed on quite logically, making it possible for my young protagonists to lodge in each other’s minds and to see and feel the world through their eyes and their senses. What I did not anticipate, as I began writing, was that being able to travel to the body and mind of another had deep-seated implications for health care. That healing could better be assured from within than without, that the body knew exactly what it needed to be healthy, that healing could use this knowledge to counter illness and accident. All this became apparent as my characters affronted challenging situations.
These perspectives struck me as so important, I wrote a separate short story called Inside out that explored, under the guise of fiction, what might be possible in health care from such a standpoint.
Had Peter, the main character in Boy & Girl, been a girl, wearing a dress or a skirt and top, with those new-fangled tights that were all the rage at the beginning of the 60’s, would not have been such a big deal, either for her or for those around her. Doing so might have made her feel pretty or attractive or happy, but no more than the girl she was. That he was born in a boy’s body made all the difference. For dressing up in girls’ clothes had an allure he couldn’t resist, yet, despite the hold it had over him, he did not understand the driving force behind it. One thing was clear, it wasn’t that he wanted to be a girl. As he explained to his best friend Fi, he would never give up that part of him that singled him out as a boy rather than a girl. Yet in dressing like a girl, he relished the feeling of girlishness, the curves and colours that only girls could wear and the acute sense of his own legs, his chest, his shoulders, his whole body that he’d never been aware of before. Not to mention the fact that the cut of girls’ clothes, like the way blouses pulled in tight around his waist, flattered his body in ways that boys’ clothes never did.
Peter could be forgiven for thinking that girls’ clothes were somehow bewitching in that they had a power over him that he could not resist. Just the thought of them sent his pulse racing. His whole body became alive as he dressed up in clothes filtched from Sis. Concealed in her room, surrounded by drawers and drawers of her clothes, enveloped in her perfume, the world around him was daubed with vibrant colours. In comparison, his grey shorts and school uniform jacket abandoned on his bed were dull and lifeless, offering not the slightest promise of magic.
Peter was at that age when some boys could be mistaken for girls and some girls for boys, the ambiguous age of androgyny, suspended in a moment of grace before hormones drive them out of paradise. It was that angel-like, undecided state which many older boys, those who stood uncertain on the threshold of manhood, derided if not feared. The thugs of the rugby team were the worst, making a sport of bating Peter and Fi for refusing to take sides between boys and girls. They were the rowdy flag-bearers of a society that violently opposed what Peter was try to express, condemning those that did not fit binary norms and heterosexual behaviour, with a fanaticism and a bloodthirstiness akin to earlier witch hunts. Such a society, in 1960, felt it had every right to respond to difference and non-conformity with punishments like chemical castration.
Like his namesake, Peter Pan, Peter escaped an ugly, hostile world, by mentally flying off to a Nevernever Land in which no one aged. Could that be why he found his way to Kaitlin’s world so easily and took comfort in her company? She never judged him, but accepted him as he was. Meanwhile, back at home, alone, then encouraged by Fi, the right clothes, a little of Sis’s lipstick and a dash of powder to conceal his freckles, were enough to make him believe he was a girl. In a few years, however, it would take much more than makeup to hide the emerging angles of a masculin form. The thought revolted him. For even if he did not want to physically become a girl, he didn’t want to be a boy either, even less a man. If only he could stay eternally in between.
Well before Andrew stumbled across his path in In Search of Lost Girls – the sequel to Boy & Girl – it did cross Peter’s mind that he might enjoy dressing as a girl because deep down he was attracted to boys. But he wasn’t. He found them uninteresting, if not repulsive, especially that hoard from the school rugby team who gave him and Fi so much trouble. All his interest centred on the delicious Fi with her brightly coloured clothes and her vivacity and then, later, on Kaitlin who was like a part of himself. True. Andrew was a fellow soul. He too dressed up as a girl, but for completely different reasons. Yes despite this affinity, Peter felt no attraction for Andrew, much to the boy’s chagrin.
Peter, who relished being a girl amongst girls, was delighted to find the Lost Girls and to be able to live and sing with them. They accepted him as he was and were happy to embrace him as a fellow girl. But, even had it been surgically possible in the early 1960s, he had no wish to become a girl for real. All he wanted was to put off the inevitable choice, delighting in a girlish ambiguity as long as possible.
Both Boy & Girl and its sequel, In Search of Lost Girls, have snappy new ebook covers. You can order copies from Smashwords, Apple’s iBooks and Kindle amongst others. For links and further information as well as free extracts, click on the cover of the book.
Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries – J.B. Priestley, quoted by Donnalane Nelson.
Difficult births seem to be the hallmark of a certain breed of author for whom creation is akin to intense suffering and writing is a pain they relish but constantly complain of. Then there are those authors for whom writing is a joy and creativeness a pleasure, akin to beholding the starlit sky at night, uplifting and inspiring. For them words just flow. Not that they don’t need to labour over their drafts to ready them for print, but the underlying feeling is delight. Neither group has the monopoly on good writing, although the first look with much suspicion and doubt on the second whereas the second gaze on the first with incomprehension if not sadness at their suffering.
The photo: JB Priestley in 1931. MI5 called him ‘an independent leftwing liberal whose conscience seems to be answerable not to any political party’. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty. Source:The Guardian.