Beyond difference, a fiery oneness

What essential commonness, uniting one to all, lies beyond the differences that distinguish each from all others? 

When you see an apple, the speckled colours around its stalk and the hint of a bruise on one side distinguish it from all other apples. Yet you know it belongs to a category of objects all English-speaking people would recognise as an ‘apple’.

When you look at other people you also see, first and foremost, what sets them apart, what makes them different, the marks of singularity, of individuality, of separateness. A fading tattoo on the woman’s right shoulder that changes form as she swings her arm. The musical lilt of boy’s voice that stumbles and cracks as puberty takes its toll and the blush of embarrassment that colours his cheeks at intimacy revealed. The stubble bristling around a birthmark on the side of a man’s face that he nervously tries to conceal by constantly rubbing his chin. A tiny rent in a girl’s tights just below her left knee, that bobs in and out of view behind her hemline as she skips along the path. Each person a different being.

These individuals are identified by a name, but that name is not the person. It is both a restrictive and restricting label and a convenient receptacle in which we stock all our impressions, our knowledge and our preconceived impressions of that person. A composite picture that can be slow to adapt. Then come all those adjectives that categorise. Male, female, tall, fat, skinny, gay, effeminate, hairy, butch, sexy, black, white, brown, green, lecherous, strange, shy, angry, disgusting,… And combinations of these.

These colourful descriptions coalesce into larger categories that are often linked to whether we value or like or distrust or fear or detest the person in question. Love, trust, community but also racism, sexism and homophobia, amongst others, lie down that road.

But I suspect, and here lies the driving question behind this article, that beyond the multitude of differences that separate us, there is an underlying presence that unites each and every one of us. In other words, we are both separate and one at the same time. Distinct and indivisible.

I have tried, but so far failed, to look beyond the differences that spring to mind at the sight of a person and perceive the commonness that unites that person to every other, including me. Not some banal categorisation like ‘human being’. Rather, a splendid fiery essence that burns in each one of us.

Coming out of the publisher’s closet

Promoting Boy & Girl

I wrote a book called Boy & Girl in which Peter discovers that dressing like a girl is not at all akin to being in a girl’s head. Writing the novel was a real joy. Publishing it was tedious, but not so difficult. However, promoting it was much more of a headache. Till now…

As with all my published books, it is Secret Paths that publishes Boy & Girl, using Createspace to provide on-demand print copies through Amazon, in bookstores as well as from Secret Paths website for those living in Switzerland. Ebook format is provided by Smashwords, Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore.

So what about promotion? Secret Paths has a rich collection of websites covering both my books, but also my short stories, my artwork, book reviews and political and social commentary. There’s also a Secret Paths Facebook page along with accounts on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Despite this web ‘presence’, promoting an English novel when based in Switzerland, with a very tight budget, seems an impossible task. A common reaction here is, When will you translate it into French. Groan.  Yet I am convinced there is a considerable audience for the book. People who have read it are full of praise. One person writes, This book is brilliant. I’ll be thinking about these characters and this plot for a long, long time. Another writes This book was a wonderful read. (…) I read it as a parent of a child who is considered “different” and found it great for many reasons… So how can I reach my audience?

It’s still early days, and time might prove me overenthusiastic, but I may have found a possible solution. Facebook ads. Now I know Facebook is getting a lot of heat at the moment both for the algorithms that drive it and how the data collected and the algorithms used have and can be abused. There is clearly an urgent need to address those issues and the future evolution of the platform. See Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. However, concentrating solely on negative aspects fails to see the advantages the platform offers. 

When trying to reach multiple communities concerned with issues raised by Peter’s story, having a Facebook page is not enough, even if you have a relatively wide circle of acquaintances. Using Facebook ads for my books connects me to those people worldwide in one convenient place. Without it, I would have no feasible way of reaching them. It does so in a way that draws the attention of people potentially interested in my book but leaves them free to move on, should they wish, or buy it and discover the story.

Men writers in women’s shoes

Men writers in women's shoes

In response to the claims of a man on Twitter, a number of women insist male authors can’t create authentic female characters. But is their generalisation right?

Their point of view was echoed in a Huffington Post article quoting a series of Twitter posts in which women authors describe themselves as they imagined a male author would. Here’s an example.

I had big honking teeters, just enormous bosoms, and I thought about them constantly as I walked down the street, using my legs (thick, with big shapely calves), but never not thinking about my enormo honkers,
Talia Lavin on Twitter

For the most part, the examples given appear exaggerated, employing caricature in a desire to drive home a point and get a laugh. So saying doesn’t contradict the fact that a lot of men sadly fit the bill with their limited and limiting depiction of women. Perhaps it is the implicit generalisation that includes all men which needs to be challenged.

That said, the underlying statement that many male authors can’t write from a female perspective had me doubting. I hurried to check my own books and how I wrote from a female point of view. Here’s an example of a seventeen-year-old character in my latest novel, Stories People Tell, describing herself shortly after escaping from a well-known politician who tried to force her to kiss him.

Standing in her bra, pants and socks, she stared at herself in the tiny mirror inside her wardrobe. What could any man see in her? She was neither tall nor short. Ayana, her best friend, told her she was model-size which was probably Ayana’s way of saying she was too skinny and looked odd. She was a late developer she told herself. Her breasts were barely formed and her hips had not filled out like all the other girls in her class. Ayana, in comparison, with her unblemished chocolate-brown skin, her deep brown eyes and her long pitch-black hair, was all curves and didn’t hesitate to flout it,…
Annie looking at herself in the mirror in her bedroom in Stories People Tell.

I had an opportunity to explore the challenge of a man speaking ‘as’ a woman when writing my novel Boy & Girl. In it, a boy, who enjoys dressing in secret as a girl, is startled to find himself in the mind of girl (in another world). He is aware of her thoughts and feelings but has no control over her body. Below is his description of how he experiences her body as she runs through exercises in preparation for combat training.

Her body felt different from his in many ways. He hadn’t noticed before. There was an unfamiliar tension between her feet that were firmly planted on the ground as if they were about to grow roots and the crown of her head that pushed upwards trying to reach the ceiling. When she moved her hips, tracing circular patterns in the air, he felt a freedom of movement that he had never known himself. It filled him with joy, her joy, no doubt, but his too. There were also her breasts, bared now, that had her balancing differently as she stretched up on tiptoes. Even her shoulders moved in ways he had never experienced as she raised her arms sideways and turned her palms upwards…
Peter in Kaitlin’s mind in Boy & Girl

The underlying premise in the criticism levelled at male authors by these women is that men can’t think and feel themselves into the body and mind of a woman. Such a claim is troubling for someone who spends much of his time as an author seeking to do just that. It is as if inherent maleness would irremediably taint the thoughts of any man who attempted to imagine how a woman feels and thinks. And that the male mind is itself tainted by a caricatural vision of women. Such a charge ignores genuine empathy and careful observation, insisting that the very nature of being male overrides any such sensitivity, stamping a sexist male mark on everything. Although many men deserve to be taxed for their stereotyped visions of women, these criticisms, in their generalisation, smack of a similar sexist vision, but of men.

That this ‘fun’ exercise was not quite so innocent is laid bare if you consider the thoughts and feelings of those who were born in a male body but who feel themselves part – if not wholly – female. Of course, for reasons of their own, some men play out a caricature of women in their behaviour and their attire. That is their choice, but it is not the case of most gender fluid people. Are they to be deemed incapable of feeling like a woman and describing those feelings?

My thanks to Joy Manne for pointing to the article on Facebook.

Stories people don’t tell

Who is going to speak the names and tell the poignant tales of those that don’t get told? We are! When fiction and reality reach out and link hands.

Naomi Wadler, 11, Virginia, March for Our Lives, Washington

I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.
Naomi Walder, 11, a speech during the March for our Lives.

As an author of stories depicting the awakening and empowerment of young people, it is an immense pleasure to see fiction written over a year ago and today’s reality reach out to each other across time and link hands.

To the seventeen minutes walkout of students across the US to mark the deaths of seventeen students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Naomi and her friend Carter led their elementary school classmates in an additional minute to remember Courtlin Arrington, an African-American girl who died in a school shooting in Alabama. By her act, by her determination, she drew attention to those victims not in the forefront of media coverage. All the speakers at the March for Our Lives in Washington were both victims of gun violence but also chose to be the voice for other victims.

Annie, the main character in Stories People Tell, is driven by a similar motivation to Naomi Walder to name and give voice to those who are not normally heard. In a world where, to quote Annie, “there is a raging battle with each side drumming up the hardest hitting story at the expense of those caught nearby”, the strongest story wins out. But not every group of people make it into the spotlight and even those who are singled out for coverage are often little more than a pretext.

Emma Gonzales, at the March for Our Lives, Washington

Propelled to the forefront of media attention, rather like the astounding Emma Gonzales, Annie becomes a figurehead for a movement. And like Emma, her judgement, her audacity and her courage earn her recognition as the leader she has become.

Unlike a journalist, Annie does not go in search of untold stories. Rather, they come in search of her just as unbidden violence sought out Emma and her fellow students. In Annie’s quest to end violence against girls and women and the adventures that befall her she meets those whom main-stream media have passed over. She listens to those people and, with the help of her friends,  coaxes them to tell their story to the camera.

The Internet is Annie’s main avenue when it comes to making these neglected voices heard. There is also a certain press. Something like The Guardian or DemocracyNow! for the young people of Parkland. These media recognise the promise of the young people and actively support their cause as a positive force for democracy. Annie has struck up a solid friendship with some of the staff and the editor at one of the rare national papers, The Daily, to cover such questions.

Fenchaw, the editor of The Daily in Annie’s story, says “I like the idea of short eyewitness reports. At a time when truth is being challenged, the use of multiple perspectives from people who were at the scene gives solidity to the acts portrayed and enriches the narration without being difficult to read.

To return to the reality a moment, the fact that Emma and her fellow Florida students were in the classroom when the shooter opened fire, who lost dear friends to that violence, makes their story so compelling. It is also their determination and their ability to articulate a coherent vision of the future that gives their stories the hope we yearn for. As Annie says, disagreeing with advice given by an adult about the telling of stories, “Sure, there were necessarily upsets and things didn’t always go as planned, but what readers really wanted was a story that made sense of the world around them and gave hope.”

When Annie’s friend Riya in Stories People Tell suggests setting up a dedicated website to publish these short eyewitness reports, Annie refuses. “I don’t want to be cornered into making more. They are good because the moment was right and people had something to say. But if we feel obliged to continue, we might lose that spontaneity and urgency.” Annie is no doubt right. Herein lies the difficulty of Emma, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and all the others in their nationwide movement as they move forward. How do you pursue the impetus without getting trapped by the routine of ineffective ways and means that adults use?

Stories People Tell
Order it. Read it. Talk about it.

Musical awakenings

Got woken at six by the incessant round of a snow plough. There was me imagining the workers of the municipality were doing needless overtime to annoy us, till I pulled aside the curtains and looked out… I suppose I should be thankful. I managed to finish another chapter of my book People of the Forest. Now back to sleep and the sound of quiet snoring against the backdrop of snow falling…

You wish! It’s the anniversary of the Neuchatel revolution, March 1st. So we are treated to a brass band celebrating the occasion. Exceptionally, due to the snow, the musicians were bussed in this time.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Order Stories People Tell now

You can now order your copy of Stories People Tell either in print or ebook format. For more details including sample chapters go here.

Stories People Tell is a tale about Annie Wight, a shy schoolgirl who, despite sustained, cruel treatment and personal doubts, blossoms into a major voice in the grassroots movement ‘London Whatever’ celebrating gender diversity while struggling to end violence against women and care for the weak and marginalised.

Annie wasn’t expecting to stumble on love or notoriety when she got swept up in ‘London Whatever’. Nor could she have known that, right from the outset, she would become the number one target of Nolan Kard, the homophobic Lord Mayor of London. who was campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. She bore the brunt of attacks from his rogue police, not to mention from a sinister gang of ghostwriters, the nightmare of all Kard’s enemies.

  Check it out, buy a copy, read the book and talk about it to others.

Hymn to the power of girls

Why do I find the performance of Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus by the Carmina Slovenica girls choir and the Chorus Instrumentalis Orchestra under the direction of Karmina Šilec so deeply moving? Why does the sight and sound of these girls fill me with such joy? Probably for the same reason that I was moved to write my novel Stories People Tell about Annie, a shy schoolgirl who, despite sustained, cruel treatment and personal doubts, blossoms into a major voice in a London-based movement celebrating gender diversity while struggling to end violence against women and care for the weak and marginalised. The power of these girls lies in their potential and their sheer beauty striding forward into adulthood as expressed in their movements, in their voices, in their very being both individually and as a group united.

The dresses of the Slovenian girls are not fanciful, just a sober blue that leaves their forearms and calves uncovered. Their bare feet are firmly planted on the floor, their heads held high, their hair pinned up to reveal the lines of their faces, etched with determination and lit with joy. The word sensual would be misleading. Yet these girls inhabit their bodies in a way that is both earthy, spiritual and true. This worldly and ethereal presence echoes the force of their voices which come to us directly, as Karl Jenkins’ music requires, without all the cultural artefacts that have hemmed in much of western singing. Directness but also sensitivity are the hallmarks of my character Annie. She stands behind her words in much the same way this girls’ choir invests its music and movement. Beyond Jenkins’ music, the ritualised gestures of the girls’ hands, their feet and their heads, while remaining seated throughout, evoke age-old ceremonies that stir the forgotten depths of our memories. There is something truly beautiful and uplifting in these girls who reach out to embrace their full potential.

For a more extensive selection of screenshots visit Secret Paths Artworks.

SaveSave

Stories People Tell – Galley proof

Stories People Tell

Just received the galley proof of Stories People Tell. This is the sixth of my novels to be published. In the next few days the new novel will be available on Amazon around the world and the electronic version will be posted to Smashwords, Apple, Kindle etc…. Four sample chapters and more details can be found here: stories-people-tell.com

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

I am an alien and proud to be one


 “We raise our fists in salute, not in threat but as a sign of solidarity. In those fingers held tight we embrace everyone however different they may be. Gay. Trans. Straight. Black. Brown. Yellow. White. All colours of the rainbow. All are welcome in our London.”
Annie Wight, London Whatever


Do you ever feel like an alien, a stranger in your own body? The sensation of being different, of being at odds with yourself, of being out of sync with the daily routine. For many, it has little to do with where we hail from. It’s about how we experience life, how we approach the world. Rather than berating ourselves for our foreignness and suffering at being different or worrying we are going crazy, why not relish the strength and the heightened discernment that feeling alien brings.

See that cat over there as it rolls on its back flexing its legs in the air. Can you feel the tautness of the skin around its jaw as it yawns or its joy at being free and able to move? Listen to that thrush half-concealed in the foliage driven to ceaselessly chirp an ever-changing song. Watch those rooks zigzagging across the sky and marvel at how they know where to fly. Take root like a tree and feel the earth rich beneath your feet and the ever-shifting wind ruffling your hair. Let a burgeoning flower or a sustained note make tears spring to your eyes. Lay a hand on your chest and unknot tensed muscles or soothe a suffering liver. Listen to the unspoken thoughts of little children who have yet to find the words to voice their mind. Savour the conviction that you are being watched although no one is there to do the watching. Marvel that you know how most drivers are going to react even before they do, while a stubborn few remain impenetrable and unpredictable. Stand still as scenes surge from the past with all the potency of memories that you can’t possibly have had, not in this life at least. Relish the attraction of a person you’ve never met, someone who inexplicably has your pulse racing at the very sight of her. Delight in the quizzical smile of a pretty boy or the hop and skip of a handsome girl that summons your own ambiguity and leaves you yearning for another world, for a past that could only have blossomed elsewhere.

Feel your way tentatively through those upside-down answers that spring to mind in response to the unrelenting shocks of politics and big money. Like staking out common ground with longtime rivals who were hitherto locked in a bitter fight for territory. Or nurturing local bonds and encouraging the out-held, helping hand when communities harden identities and table on exclusion as they scramble to ward off rampant globalisation. Or agreeing on the meaning of keywords with opposing parties who were stuck in slinging swearwords at each other. Or reshuffling the cards when past options appear immutable and people cry out, “Impossible!”. Raise your clenched fist, not as a mark of defiance or hostility but, like Annie the unexpected hero of my new novel, Stories People Tell, as a sign of solidarity and the will to embrace diversity. I am an alien and proud to be one.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

Being English

Me!

England for me is singing as a boy in the church choir in cassock, surplice and ruff. It is the treble descant rising in the nave and the hiss of the organ as the stops are pulled out. It is the clang of bells ringing changes and the rise and fall of colourful sallies in bellringers’ hands. It’s the dread of returning to school after the holidays as announced by the smell of a newly bought uniform. Cap, tie, blazer and pressed trousers, all dull grey contrasted with the stirring bottle green of the girls’ pleated skirts. It is the trembling excitement of first light as the sun rises over the moors on midsummer’s day. It is the surge of joy as waves break on a shingle beach and wind-borne cries of gulls fill the salt-ridden air. It’s a thrush greeting dawn at the turn of a mist-shroud lane. It’s being enveloped in smoke on a bridge across the rails as a train chugs to a halt or the tantalising hint of a coal fire carried by a cutting wind on a cold winter’s night. It’s baked beans on toast and crumpets and chocolate flake. It’s a puddle of melted butter in the middle of steaming porridge or warm scones with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream. It’s the dreaded spotted dick of school dinners and the headmaster’s vengeful cane. It’s my tears of shame and rage as I am forced to stand head-bowed before my fellow pupils. It’s roaming the countryside alone on my bike, dreaming up worlds that forty years later will people my books. It’s the timid uncertainty of being that threatens to flicker out at the slightest breeze and the unstoppable force of creation that bowls me over and lifts me up.