Greta the Great!

Greta

Greta the Great. No irony is meant by the title. Few adults can claim to have been such a powerful advocate for social change confronted with the climate crisis. Few people have been capable of mobilising so many, in particular the young, in such a short time. She has captured people’s minds and hearts and inspired many. The way she cuts through the misleading if not dishonest discourse of many politicians is both admirable and urgently necessary. Her actions move me deeply. Not only because she has pitted herself against the powerful in a struggle that our survival depends on, but also because she reminds me of the girls who are the heroes of my novels, Kate in the Boy & Girl Saga, Annie in Stories People Tell and Local Voices, Sally in The Storyteller’s Quest or Sami in Chimera.

All my books are about the self-empowerment of the young, girls in particular, in a world that tends to curtail their opportunities, belittle their abilities and discourage them from doing great things. My goal in writing fiction is to imagine inspiring ways forward, despite the difficulties thrown in the way of these young people. I began writing these novels long before Greta came on the scene, but to see a young girl manage so much is encouraging and heart-warming.

That said, the treatment of Greta by the media, in particular those that are favorable to her and her cause, raises questions that I evoke in my latest novel Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy. The elevation of a young person to ‘saviour-like’ status is troubling. As Kate suggests in the following extract, the media capitalise on the glorified image they portray of her. What will be the impact on her and the cause she defends? Will Kate’s strategy, just like that of Greta, attempting to deflect media attention to other actors in the struggle, be enough.

Extract from Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy

Twelve year-old Kate – head of the Lost Girls choir, a group of some twenty girls that escaped from dire conditions in a convent-run orphanage – is being questioned by a young journalist about her reactions to the escape of another group of mistreated orphans girls…

“But as leader, surely you have an opinion,”  the journalist asked.

The word ‘leader’ brought Kate up short. She was indeed the leader and it was only right she be recognised as such. Yet she’d already seen how the press singled out an individual as a figurehead and glorified that person, repeatedly talking of her and only her, shaping her public image till she became a currency they could cash in on. That said, there was probably little she could do against it, less it be to push other members of the choir into the spotlight as she planned to do with their pamphlets. Thinking of which, she turned to Suzanne who was busy sorting dried herbs.  “What do you think?”

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Beyond the division between child and adult

Powerful Girl Pretty Boy

I have just completed the first draft of Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy, my 14th novel, the third in the Boy & Girl saga. When I began writing this new novel some five months ago, I was sure it would be all about Peter’s dilemma with gender. After all, he was up against a fast approaching deadline and he’d very soon have no choice but to stop taking the hormones and accept he was a man. Living as he did in the early 60’s, there seemed to be no alternative, especially as circumstances conspired to force that outcome on him. It was a dismal prospect that had me hesitating about writing a follow-up at all. 

Clinging on to that ambiguity in the no-man’s land between boy and girl was like trying to suspend time when Peter’s natural inclination was to intervene in the world, helping and healing others and combatting those who sought to do ill. If he was gifted in any way, it was that treading a delicate line between girl and boy preserved him from the soaring ego that often gets in the way of those who seek to do good.

That tension between a thirst for eternal youth and a drive to intervene in the world to set things right led him to a realisation. The artificial distinction between childhood and adulthood was a major stumbling block to both him and Kate reaching their full potential and doing great things. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they could find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems that adults had turned their backs on.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Kate Tempest on Traps and Lessons

Kate Tempest
Kate Tempest at the Alhambra, Geneva, 2019.

At the Alhambra, Geneva, yesterday evening, Kate Tempest was greeted by a packed, enthusiastic crowd of which I was one. She whipped up a deluge of words and music breaking over us, wave after wave, constantly reminding us, bringing us back to a forgotten fundamental, that language is a union of sounds and sense. Out of the interplay, sounds rubbing against sounds, or clashing in unexpected dissonance, the whole underscored by music, meaning thrust out like leering faces surging from a crowd, unexpected, startling, only to be lost in the next wave of the storm.

Hurled so loud, the amplified beats replaced the racing heart in our chest. The words blurred in our ears such was the volume. Was the loudness a gain? Maybe. Force fused words till at moments all was but music. The sheer mass of words itself made music out of them. However does she remember so much? The blurring between words and music was reinforced as her voice slipped and slid between the two, bending the spoken word to a rythme that was not its, the stream of words, sometimes suspended, sometimes almost bursting into song, was like a jogger walking fast who breaks into a run only to slow to a walk again.

Was the excessive volume a loss? Surely! Much of the beauty of the play on words and sounds was drowned out. That it could be listened to otherwise was evidenced by her latest album, A Land of Traps and Lessons. Every word of grim reality and of heart-rending visions, every clash of sound and meaning can be heard and appreciated. Whatever. I don’t regret having been present.

As the initial applause died down at her entry, Kate Tempest walked to the edge of the stage and peered out through the spotlights, saying, “Let me see your faces. I like to see your faces.” It made her feel less strange doing what she was about to do she said. Her concert ended with People’s Faces, a heart-wrenching battle-cry, at least I imagine it did, I had to rush off to catch the last train. In that final track of her new album, she says, “There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces” and concludes, “… the current’s fast but the river moves slow and I can feel things changing, even when I’m weak and I’m breaking and I stand weeping at the train station ‘cause I can see your faces. I love people’s faces.”

The choir – a flight of the soul

The centenary Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, 2018

During the later part of his life, my grandfather was organist and choirmaster at St Mary’s, Wareham. As a child, whenever I visited my grandparents I would sing in St Mary’s choir. At home, not far from Windsor, I sang as a treble in the local choir till, sadly, my voice broke. Every Christmas, my mother would tune into the BBC to listen to Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge. Those carols, old and new, have remained with me all this time and move me every time I hear them. No wonder then that, when I came to write Boy & Girl, Peter, the boy in the story, was head chorister in the choir of his local church. Here’s an extract about Peter and the choir. I originally included the video on YouTube of the 2018 Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, the last such broadcast in which the choir was directed by the late Stephen Cleobury who was born in the same year as myself. Unfortunately that video has subsequently been removed. I have added a gallery of screenshots. The BBC thoughtfully avoided filming Stephen Cleobury close up. Only once at the end of the broadcast when the Dean Revd Dr Stephen Cherry mentioned that it was to be Cleobury’s last Nine Lessons and Carols did the camera linger briefly on the choirmaster. I have included that image in the gallery. The last of the series.

Extract: Boy & Girl – The choir sings

He got off his bike at the back door to the church just as the ringers reached the end of a series of changes and began ringing rounds. He was late, but there would be just enough time if he hurried. He shrugged off his jacket as he entered the vestry where the other boys were already lined up for the procession into the nave. Peter hastily donned his cassock, fixed the ruff around his neck and pulled his surplice over his head, straightening it till it was just right. Taking the medal of St. Nicholas, patron saint of choirboys, from his cassock pocket, he hung it around his neck and made his way to the head of the line of boys, nodding to the others as he did so. Just then, the organ struck up the first notes of the introit, time to open the door and lead the choir into the sunlit nave.

It was one of his favourite moments. All heads turned in their direction as the congregation stood. He walked, his head held high, swinging his hips slightly in time with the music so his cassock swayed from side to side as he walked. He let himself be absorbed by the music till it buoyed him up. Behind him he could just make out the footfalls of the other choirboys when the organ played pianissimo. Above, light was streaming in through the stained glass windows, flooding the church with warmth and colour. 

His soul fluttered into wakefulness and flew up to join those of all the others flirting with the rays of light as they floated on the organ music. What better moment to burst into song as he sang solo the first verse of the opening hymn. The notes of the organ softened to give his voice the room to soar and join his soul. A solitary tear of relief and gratitude rolled down his cheek and it was time for the others to join him and his voice could once again take refuge in the body of the choir.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Gallery: Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s

Click on a screenshot to see the full picture and access the gallery.

Peter forced to see a shrink

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy is the third in the Boy & Girl series. It returns to Peter as he nears the age when maintaining gender ambiguity entails serious choices. Kate’s destiny seems more easy-going as she leads the successful Lost Girls choir. But circumstances are going to force both their hands.

The novel is currently being written. I have just passed the eighty-thousand-word mark or about two thirds of the final book. Below is a brief extract relating the discussion between Peter, who has been forced to attend a girls’ boarding school run by the church, and the psychiatrist whom the headmistress has obliged him to see.

Extract: Peter at the shrink’s

The man let out a weary sigh, as if Peter were the last of a long line of difficult cases he’d been lumbered with that day. “If you unbuttoned that,” he pointed at Peter’s duffle-coat, “your problem would be visible for all to see.”

“Is what I’m wearing a problem for you or for me?” Peter asked.

The man shook his head as if Peter were beyond hope.

“Answer my question,” Peter insisted. “Where does the problem lie? With me? With you? With the headmistress? With the church? With society at large?”

“Clearly the problem lies with you,” he said, peering over his spectacles at Peter. “You are the one pretending to be a girl.”

At last the reason for their encounter was out in the open. Relieved, Peter burst out laughing, causing the man to jerk back in alarm. “I have no problem being dressed as I am,” Peter said unbuttoning his coat to reveal his girl’s uniform. “In fact, I feel much better like that. The only problem I have is with people like you,”  he pointed a finger at the man whose face was a picture of disgust, “or the headmistress, people who try to force me to dress the way they think I should. What is wrong with you all that you are prepared to resort to violence to impose your will? Why do you feel threatened by my clothes? Maybe you should analyse your own feelings of insecurity about gender before questioning mine.”

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Jean-Luc Godard remade

Version française plus bas.

Don’t let an assistant enthusiastically tell everybody how you work, especially if you are a well-known artist like Jean-Luc Godard, who has a reputation for forging new and difficult paths. It might unwittingly give an impression you don’t want given.

A revealing chat about a great man

Yesterday evening, having seen a screening of Godard’s Livre d’image organised by the ABC Cultural Centre at the Temple Allemand in a rainy Chaux-de-Fonds, I attended a conference organised by the Club 44 at which Jean-Luc Godard was to discuss his work with long-time assistant, Fabrice Aragno. Not unexpectedly, Godard was unable to attend leaving the floor free for Aragno to take us through Godard’s creative process in making his latest work. This relaxed, illustrated chat gave us a glimpse into the world of Godard that initially seduced. “So that’s why and how he did it!” It made many of the aesthetic choices comprehensible and as such was reassuring, especially for someone, like myself that had been inspired by Godard’s previous work but was perplexed if not disappointed by this latest collage.

The advantage of constraints

In a creative process, the unforeseen and the unintended can open up new avenues that can prove fruitful. What’s more, initial constraints like limits fixed by the scenario, by the process or even the equipment used, can force the creator to excel and discover new paths and move artistic expression forward. But in terms of creativity, limits are only productive if they lead to an artist breaking new ground rather than being hobbled by them.

From handicap to scratch videos

Severely limited by the technology he had available, Godard had to resort to hit and miss methods that resembled editing procedures from the early days of video art before technology made outcomes more predictable and intentions easier to comply with. Those pioneer times came to be known for their ‘scratch’ videos. The question that emerges concerning the Livre d’image is whether the resulting collage of texts read by the author and short sequences from films with abrupt changes, over-saturated images and blank holes is the work of a genius or not. Are we being subjected to a remake of the Emperor’s new clothes, or is this brilliant and moving as the woman sitting next to me at the screening insisted?

Downward money slope

Seen over a longer period, is it not possible this decline in the technological means available is due to a dilemma in money management? To finance his next film Godard sells off all the rights to his previous film, trading hypothetic on-going income for an immediately available lump sum. He also auctions his filming and editing equipment. This approach might drum up immediate funds but, given the nature of his work – the experimental approach of which limits popular appeal and consequently income – resources, including technical material, are likely to follow a longterm downward curve. Of course, poverty of means may be an artistic choice, but, given the complexity and necessary precision of Godard’s discourse, the inevitable stutters and splutters of the editing end up taking centre stage and get in the way of the work and its message. My hypothesis is that, beyond a certain point, a valiant and defiant artistic discourse cannot conceal the fact that insufficient means have a detrimental effect on the artistic quality no mater how much of a genius the artist is.

The Emperor is not without clothes but he suffers from neglect

This film raised a personal question. Could I be sure of my assessment and had I the courage to call out the Emperor in front of his court of admirers? Or would my fear of discovering I was the one without a fig leaf to my name cower me into silence? On careful reflection, however, the problem lies elsewhere. Here is a man who has devoted his life to breaking boundaries in cinema and video. His work has often been challenging but he has produced some most striking and beautiful creations. Yet he has been condemned to a slow decline as witnessed by the shrinking means he has at his disposition. I can imagine him shaking his head in denial. Some will blame him for his situation. Whereas, for all his apparent rough nature, I suspect he is victim of a larger neglect of art and artistic creation in our society. It is sad, if not enraging, to see someone of his stature obliged to jam his fingers on the play and record buttons to edit the films he desperately needs to make. Where are the Pierre Bingellis or the Jean-Pierre Beauvialas of this world to provide the necessary technical support? In other art forms funds exist to offer residencies to artist whose value is widely recognised but who otherwise could not make their art. Is it not time to recognise Jean-Luc Godard’s contribution and offer him, at least, the modern technical means necessary to continue making his films?

Jean-Luc Godard, un remake

Ne laissez pas un assistant raconter à tout le monde votre façon de travailler, surtout si vous êtes un artiste connu comme Jean-Luc Godard, qui a la réputation de forger des chemins nouveaux et difficiles. Cela peut donner involontairement une impression que vous ne voulez pas donner.

Un discours révélateur sur un grand homme

Hier soir, après avoir assisté à la projection du Livre d’image de Godard organisée par le Centre culturel ABC au Temple Allemand dans une Chaux-de-Fonds pluvieuse, j’ai assisté à une conférence organisée par le Club 44 au cours de laquelle Jean-Luc Godard devait discuter son travail avec son assistant de longue date, Fabrice Aragno. Comme on pouvait s’y attendre, Godard n’a pas pu assister à la conférence, laissant la parole libre à Aragno pour nous guider à travers le processus créatif de Godard dans la réalisation de son dernier ouvrage. Cette discussion illustrée et détendue nous a donné un aperçu du monde de Godard qui a tout d’abord séduit. “C’est donc pour ça qu’il l’a fait!” Cela a rendu compréhensible une grande partie des choix esthétiques et était donc rassurant, en particulier pour quelqu’un, comme moi, inspiré par le travail précédent de Godard mais troublé sinon déçu par ce dernier collage.

L’avantage des contraintes

Dans un processus créatif, l’imprévu peut ouvrir de nouvelles voies qui peuvent s’avérer fructueuses. De plus, les contraintes initiales, telles que les limites fixées par le scénario, le processus ou même l’équipement utilisé, peuvent obliger le créateur à exceller, à découvrir de nouvelles voies et à faire avancer l’expression artistique. Mais en termes de créativité, les limites ne sont productives que si elles conduisent l’artiste à innover plutôt qu’à entraver son travail.

De l’handicap à des vidéos ‘raturées’

Gravement limité par la technologie dont il disposait, Godard dut recourir à des méthodes aléatoires ressemblant aux procédures de montage des débuts de l’art vidéo, avant que la technologie ne rende les résultats plus prévisibles et les intentions plus faciles à respecter. Ces temps pionniers ont fini par être connus pour leurs vidéos ‘raturées’. La question qui se pose à propos du Livre d’image est de savoir si le collage résultant de textes lus par l’auteur et de courtes séquences de films aux changements brusques, aux images sursaturées et aux trous noirs est l’œuvre d’un génie ou non. Sommes-nous en train de refaire Les nouveaux vêtements du roi ou est-ce brillant et émouvant selon les dires de la femme assise à côté de moi lors de la projection?

Une pente descendante

Vu sur une période plus longue, n’est-il pas possible que ce déclin des moyens technologiques disponibles soit dû à un dilemme dans la gestion de l’argent? Pour financer son prochain film, Godard vend tous les droits du film précédent, en échangeant un revenu hypothétique à long terme contre une somme forfaitaire immédiatement disponible. Il met également aux enchères son matériel de tournage et de montage. Cette approche peut générer des fonds immédiats mais, étant donné la nature de son travail – l’approche expérimentale limitant l’attrait au public et, par conséquent, le revenu – les ressources, y compris le matériel technique, suivront probablement une courbe descendante à long terme. Bien sûr, la pauvreté des moyens peut être un choix artistique, mais compte tenu de la complexité et de la précision nécessaire du discours de Godard, les inévitables bégaiements du montage finissent par prendre le devant de la scène et entravent l’oeuvre et son message. Mon hypothèse est qu’au-delà d’un certain point, un discours artistique aussi vaillant et provocant soit-il ne peut dissimuler le fait que des moyens insuffisants ont un effet néfaste sur la qualité artistique, peu importe le génie de l’artiste.

Le roi n’est pas sans vêtements, mais il souffre de néglecte

Ce film a soulevé une question personnelle. Pourrais-je être sûr de mon évaluation et aurais-je le courage de mettre en cause le Roi devant sa cour d’admirateurs? Ou est-ce que ma peur de découvrir que je suis celui qui n’a pas de feuille de vigne allait me faire taire? Après mûre réflexion, le problème est ailleurs. Voici un homme qui a consacré sa vie à repousser les frontières du cinéma et de la vidéo. Son travail a souvent été difficile, mais il a réalisé des créations les plus frappantes et les plus belles. Pourtant, il a été condamné à un lent déclin, comme en témoigne la diminution des moyens dont il dispose. Je peux l’imaginer en train de secouer la tête en signe de déni. Certains vont le blâmer pour sa situation. Alors que, malgré son air inabordable, je le soupçonne d’être victime d’une négligence plus large de l’art et de la création artistique dans notre société. Il est triste, sinon enrageant, de voir quelqu’un de sa stature obligé de presser simultanément les boutons ‘play’ et ‘enregistrer’ pour éditer les films qu’il a désespérément besoin de faire. Où sont les Pierre Bingellis ou les Jean-Pierre Beauvialas de ce monde pour fournir le support technique nécessaire? Dans d’autres formes d’art, des fonds existent pour offrir des résidences à des artistes dont la valeur est largement reconnue mais qui, autrement, ne pourraient pas créer leur art. N’est-il pas temps de reconnaître la contribution de Jean-Luc Godard et de lui offrir, au moins, les moyens techniques modernes nécessaires pour continuer à faire ses films?

On the wings of fantasy

(Traduction française plus bas)

I chose to use the above photo as the new header for my Author’s Notes blog because it fills me with an immense joy but also a great sadness. It is a photo I snapped during the 2019 Fête des Vignerons in Vevey. Julie, the young girl who threads her way through the many musical tableaux that make up the festivities, is initiated into flying by a fairy godmother. At least, that is how I interpret what I saw. A benevolent young woman who takes a girl under her wing and encourages her to launch into the air, into an imaginary world where everything is possible and in so doing become a magical fairy herself. I relish the sheer joy of flying as the girl soars over a make-believe world, her dress fluttering about her like the plumage of a beautiful bird. As I watch, it is as if my soul soars with her. In that youthful flight lies my joy. But that joy goes hand in hand with a heart-felt yearning tinged with sadness, for deep down I long to be young again, to soar high above the world, to experience the impossible, to be her. 

Sur les ailes de la fantasie

J’ai choisi d’utiliser la photo ci-dessus comme nouvel en-tête du blog Notes d’un auteur car elle me remplit d’une joie immense mais aussi d’une grande tristesse. C’est une photo que j’ai prise lors de la Fête des Vignerons 2019 à Vevey. Julie, la jeune fille qui se fraye un chemin à travers les nombreux tableaux musicaux qui composent les festivités, est initiée au vol par une fée marraine. Au moins, c’est comme cela que j’interprète ce que j’ai vu. Une jeune femme bienveillante qui prend une fille sous son aile et l’encourage à se lancer dans les airs, dans un monde imaginaire où tout est possible et ainsi devenir une fée magique elle-même. Je savoure la joie de voler alors que la fille survole un monde imaginaire, sa robe flottant autour d’elle comme le plumage d’un bel oiseau. Pendant que je regarde, c’est comme si mon âme s’envolait avec elle. Ma joie réside dans ce vol de jeunesse. Mais cette joie va de pair avec un désir ardent empreint de nostalgie, teint de tristesse, car au fond de moi, je désire être jeune à nouveau, planer au-dessus du monde, faire l’expérience de l’impossible, être elle.

Out of chaos, a new gender paradigm?

I am currently half way through writing a new novel in the Boy & Girl Saga entitled Girl, Boy or Whatever. The following article inspired by Chaos Theory takes a different look at gender and healing as part of the reflection behind the new book.

From waking to sleep

Let’s begin with sleeping and waking. It is relatively easy to wake a sleeping person. Moving the other way is less easy. How do you fall asleep? If you are wide awake, sleep seems almost unattainable. If you are tired or drowsy, sleep is much easier to reach. In fact it calls to you and the closer you get the more irresistible it becomes. Till finally you have to fight not to drift off. It is almost as if sleep were like a magnet. So you have two very different but related states, both anchored in tangible bodily reactions, which draw you all the more strongly the closer you get. If you get too close, you are pulled in and held captive by that state until something happens to jolt you out of it. Looking at the phenomenon in more abstract terms, you are continually in a delicate state of equilibrium (whether awake or asleep) that could swing to the other state but doesn’t immediately do so because the current state exerts an attraction holding you in place. However that attraction rapidly diminishes the further you move away.

Multiple forms of gender?

Now here’s the major question. Given the licence that fiction allows, what if gender as laid out in the blueprint of each cell and expressed in the form of our bodies and the perceptions we have of ourselves were a similar phenomenon? What if the current binary gender set-up were only one of many possible forms? What if, given the right conditions, we could switch from one gender form to another, without the aid of drugs or the surgeon’s scalpel? Admittedly it would seem that the attraction of the rigid binary form we are familiar with is particularly strong, giving the impression it is the (only) natural state of affairs.  However, in an increasing number of cases the human body has adopted more flexible forms. This variation is all the more pronounced if we consider only people’s perceptions of their gender rather than their physical attributes.

Mind over matter

Why does our current dominant form of binary gender seem ineluctable? It is tempting to reply, because it is inscribed in the blueprint of our cells and consequently in the physical form we take. But if we examine the question more closely, this argument hinges on the primacy we grant to matter over mind. What if mind could shape matter? What if our perception of gender, seen as a far more fluid way of being, could have an influence on the blueprint itself and bring about changes in our bodies to align them to the way we perceive ourselves?

Switching forms of gender

In my series of novels Boy & Girl, the whole system of healing developed by the young protagonists is founded on the premise that mind can influence matter, that a healer can intervene to encourage the body to return to a healthy equilibrium by favouring the natural harmony and balance reflected in the cell’s blueprint rather than intervening from the outside, as modern medicine does, with drugs, rays and a scalpel. In other words, healing is achieved by strengthening the attraction of a natural healthy state as expressed in that underlying blueprint. Having ventured so far, the inevitable next step is to ask if mind can shift the body from one blueprint to another, from one relatively stable state of gender to a different one? Although such a move also relies on the primacy of mind over mater, doing so is not at all identical to the young people’s healing method. It requires changing the blueprint rather than strengthening it. Being able to do so would solve Peter’s dilemma of how to hold on to the apparent androgyny of prepubescence without suffering the long-term undesirable effects of blocking puberty or needing a surgical intervention. It could potentially do much more. It could enable his body to align with that wished-for, in-between state by being both boy and girl.

Gender as a social phenomenon

By concentrating on the cell’s blueprint and implicitly the primacy of matter over mind, we fail to take into consideration a major factor. Gender is very much a social phenomenon. The binary gender system we are familiar with is firmly anchored not just in a biological reality, but also in a web of social interactions and shared perceptions. If Peter were to manage to shift to a different gender configuration by changing the form of his body, growing breasts for example while retaining his penis, he would find himself at odds with the dominant social perception of gender as a rigid binary division. He would likely be the target of violent rejection if not outright attempts at eliminating him as an aberration. Attempts to modify the underlying blueprint for gender and its impact on the body would have to go hand-in-hand with efforts to transform the social perception of gender. The novels are set in 1960 when ideas of sex and gender were even more rigid than today. Nowadays, considerable advances have been made in a number of countries towards a more fluid vision of gender.

Pandora’s box?

Whatever the outcome of Peter’s fictional endeavours, a major ethical and practical preoccupation remains. His strivings are centred on the transformation of gender by intervening on the body’s blueprint. But there is nothing to stop those discoveries being used to modify other bodily features, opening the way to eugenics. That spectre alone and society’s likely abhorrence might well put an end to experiments like those of Peter and like-minded people, if ever they became known. Of course, aware that these different ‘sets’ of instructions dictating the form of life in a human body are the result of a delicate equilibrium, it is possible that many of the nightmares that fans of eugenics might dream up would not be stable and their corresponding life-forms unviable. Such a reliance on a higher force, embedded as it were in a ‘code’ of life that rules out aberrations, although appealing, is probably over-naive.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Still life – what an odd expression

Still Life

Still life, what an odd expression. Life is constant movement. We cannot escape it, even if we sometimes long for peace and quiet when the agitation becomes too much. Stillness, the absence of movement, comes only when life is no more, when our heart ceases to beat.

Symbolically this dried-up bouquet, its desiccated flowers falling to the floor as the water that maintains a semblance of life evaporates, really is a ‘still life’, an incarnation of death in life. Even the colours are washed out and fading fast. What more appropriate place than (the hotel) Eden, the paradise outside life with its once untapped potential waiting to be released now in the last throes of decay, to house such a paradoxical work of art.

Despite knowing there can be no life without death, we cling to life in our fear of death. The final moment when we pass from one to the other is a line our current consciousness cannot cross. For all our imaginings, both reassuring and terrifying, the other side must remain unknown till we traverse that frontier. Maybe that if why this still life, for all its beauty, is so terrifying.

The inseparable pair

woman-man

“When I look at a girl, all the girl’s in the choir, for example, what strikes me is that being a girl comes natural to them. They don’t have to think about it. It’s what they are. If I were a girl like them there would be nothing special in dressing or acting as one. But for me there is something special about being a boy who dresses as a girl. I’m attracted to girls, I identify as a girl, I feel like a girl, especially when I’m dressed as one, but I am not prepared to go the whole road and become a girl. In a strange way, that ambivalence is an important part of who I am.” – Peter talking to Kate in the first chapter of Girl, Boy, Whatever!

As I embark on a third book in the Boy & Girl series, Girl, Boy, Whatever! I cannot help but revisit the way the ineluctable pair boy-girl or male-female necessarily orients all questions of gender, even for those who refuse the division. I hesitated a long time about writing a follow-up to In Search of Lost Girls. Why? Because the older Peter gets, the greater the pressure on him to chose between girl or boy when in fact he would prefer to put off that choice for ever. Unlike his namesake, Peter Pan, he has no NeverNever Land to fly away to, outside time, where he can remain eternally young, basking in the gender ambiguity that pre-adolescence affords. He has bought some time by living with the Lost Girls in Lucern and by the use of experimental hormones, like magical fairy dust that spares him from becoming a man. But that borrowed time cannot last. Especially as other forces conspire to oblige him to return to England, to cease using hormones and to conform to the male body he was born with. In 1960, when the story takes place, people were even less tolerant than today. A boy became a man. That was that. A boy who dressed as a girl was not only an ‘aberration’, but a threat to the unchallenged certitude of every man about his gender.

A brief detour via China

The left hand is cupped, palm upwards. At a casual glance it appears empty, neglected, insignificant even, yet, rather like the silence that whispers all secrets, it is full to the brim, pregnant with energy. The right hand is raised, in motion, slicing through the air, powerful, dynamic, determined, the fruit of intention. It attracts attention. It makes a statement that forces admiration. Yet, paradoxically, in that assertion it is spent and in need of replenishment. In Chinese lore, the former is yin, the latter yang. Female and male. Neither can exist separately. Without the overflowing energy of stillness, the arrow of movement cannot fly. Returning to the Western world, the vision is different. Male and female lead no such inseparable coexistence. On the contrary, they are distinct if not antagonistic.

The words we use

Female and male. The two permeate our way of seeing the world. They underlie our language, our thoughts, our being. In Western thinking, we see them as separate, distinct. She or he. Certain religions make a doctrine of what they see as the god-given distinction between the two. They even go so far as to use brute force or torture to ‘rectify’ any confusion or ambiguity.

Language gives us only ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’. However, the word ‘it’ conjures up not so much the ‘in between’ or ‘indeterminate’, an alternate, multiple gender, rather the inanimate, the neutral, the neuter, the genderless. Various recent linguistic constructs seek to propose alternatives, but they lack the adhesion and ease of use of the existing personal pronouns. Like water, language invariably flows in beds born out of long use and as such work against change and transformation. In addition, the paths followed often depend on the language spoken.

The other side of the Channel

In French, every object, every noun is either masculine or feminine. A dress is feminine, ‘sa robe’, whether it is worn by a boy or a girl. The gender of the object masks the gender of the wearer. In English, the word dress is associated with the gender of the wearer, ‘his dress’ or ‘her dress’. However, the word ‘dress’, despite the absence of an article to flag the gender, is associated with girls and women. This is also the case in French, although the gender ascribed to words is often arbitrary.

Contrary to what one crossdresser said, many clothes have gender. It is the inherent feminine nature, culturally speaking, of certain clothes that makes them attractive to the crossdresser. ‘His dress’, as Peter calls it in Boy & Girl when he dons his sister’s clothes, immediately signifies a transgression which if translated into French would require a circumlocution to express. To what extent do these differences in language colour our attitude and understanding of gender? More generally, how does the deep-seated division perceived between what it means to be a man or a woman influence our perception of the world? Does it not engender an either-or, black-white logic that carves a hard and fast line through a world that, in reality, is a multitude of shades of grey or rather a rainbow of brilliant colours? Much of the confusion lies in mistakenly thinking that gender is synonymous with sex as defined by genitalia.

A binary strike

I can’t help feeling uneasy about the idea of a women’s strike, like the one that took place recently in Switzerland. Not that I question the need for political action to redress the balance between women and men. There is an absurdity if not a violence in the feeling of superiority that many men bask in and the advantages they take for granted. Yet all those for whom the clear-cut division between male and female is problematic must necessarily feel uncomfortable with a women’s movement that gets its identity from that very division. One of the participants at the demonstration had put on his best dress, high heels and makeup to support the cause. What better way to show your solidarity than by dressing to celebrate your womanhood? Yet, in reality, her presence was frowned upon by a number of women present, or at best ignored as an unfortunate embarrassment. Why? Because that ambiguity is seen to challenge the clear-cut division between man and woman on which the movement is founded. When you are trying to make a point, as the women’s strike was seeking to do, clear-cut arguments and easily identified divisions are more readily communicated and defended. Nuance and ambiguity are necessarily weaknesses in a polarised political landscape. The would-be woman completely misjudged the situation. What she saw as an occasion to proclaim her attachment to femininity, was in fact a political movement opposing men and women in a struggle for domination which had no time and place for expressions of gender ambiguity.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)