Activism and government

Fridays For Future press conference on Africa and the climate crisis

In today’s press conference about the climate crisis and Africa organised by Fridays For Future International, one of main concerns was getting the message about climate change across and creating wide-spread awareness. Activists do not seek to govern, especially not the young. They see their role as using actions like strikes and demonstrations to force those who govern to act appropriately. In addition, putting their faith as they do in science, their activism seeks to shift scientific knowledge from the laboratories to the hands of activists and policy makers in a quest for urgently needed solutions. The fact that some elected leaders refuse the idea of climate change and deride science is just a further indication that we need to revise forms of government including the way leaders are chosen, how decisions are reached and how policies are put into practice.

Much was said in the press conference about the way mainstream media sidelines the discourse of all but the few. This raises the question of whether effort should be put into convincing the media to cover such subjects or if other relays might be appropriate. This ties in with a comment by Naomi Klein in a webinar also organised by Fridays For Future about developing multiple channels of communication so as not to be dependant on a limited number of media platforms that don’t always have our interests at heart.

At the same time, the very nature of this multimedia press conference and the discourse of the young people taking part underlines the need to have the best possible narrative. In other words, not only do the neglected stories need to be heard, but also the narrators need to present their stories in a way that can be heard and adhered to.

Both my books, Stories People Tell and the sequel, Local Voices, are traversed by these themes. The following extract from Local Voices illustrates that, even when you’ve got the ear of those in power, many factors conspire to make action difficult. Annie, the young head of a nation-wide movement of girls and women, is talking to Underwood, the Prime Minister, and Dillinger, Deputy Prime Minister. Alice, mentioned at the end of the extract, is a surrogate grandmother, an elderly professor who acts as Annie’s mentor and friend.

Extract

Dillinger took a seat next to Annie and looked expectantly at Underwood who in turn looked at Annie. She took a deep breath. She had started this, so maybe it was up to her to end it. “You want to know how to abandon your healthcare initiative without losing face.”

Underwood winced, saying, “As direct and to the point as ever.”

“I don’t see how we can abandon one of our main manifesto promises without losing face,” Dillinger said. “The opposition will slaughter us.” If the news on TV was anything to go by, the opposition had them backed into a corner and three-quarters done for already.

“Go on TV and announce you have heard the concerns of the healthcare community. Invite the unions to London for talks. Channel their energy into official discussions. At the same time, send all your MPs out to their constituencies and have them talk to the people. Send out civil servants. Send scientists. Send everybody.”

“Hold constituency surgeries, you mean?” Dillinger asked.

“No. That would be too limited. Not just your voters. Everybody. Find out what difficulties people are having with healthcare. Include mental health and social services. Explore local initiatives, collate findings and begin to look for ways to help without necessarily intervening. Leave the initiative to the local community, wherever possible. Talk publicly about your findings, praise what people are doing locally, but promise nothing.” Halting to catch a breath, she added, “And brace yourself to cease your drive for austerity. It’s hurting the poorest and weakest worst of all and will undermine any effort you make to improve local healthcare.”

Underwood looked alarmed. Dillinger whistled between her teeth. “I wonder why we bother. We might as well just hand you the keys and let you get on with it. At least you’d take the brunt of the blame and recriminations from the rich and the conservatives.”

“Even if my replacing you were remotely possible,” Annie replied, remembering a discussion she’d had with Alice, “I wouldn’t be interested. I’m the ideas at the periphery, the person who stands astride worlds, who bridges the gap between widely different communities, not the prime mover at the centre of things who gets things done.”

Learn more about Local Voices

The dangers of contradicting someone’s feelings

Shutting the door

Sarah, Eloise and Peter are lying on Eloise’s bed. Peter is grappling with guilt about having been in Sarah’s arms when his soul-mate, Kate, contacted him. Sarah challenges his words. In this short extract Eloise sets Sarah right.

“Let him speak,” Eloise said. “He’s telling us how he feels. You might see things differently, but you can’t deny his feelings. Only he can know what they are. That’s where my parents got it all wrong. They thought they knew my feelings better than me. They had me doubting myself. There’s nothing worse than being unsure about your own feelings. It’s as if you are cut off from yourself. Their interference left me painfully shy and insecure. Only when I got away from them, did I gradually realise how misguided they were and how damaging their attitude had been.” We Girls Show the Way.

Homelessness

Tiles for the homeless

It’s all very well telling people to stay at home to combat the Corona Virus. But what about those who have no roof over their heads? Those who have no home to return to?

Extract about homelessness

In Stories People Tell, amongst other things, Annie sets out to publish the stories of those whose voices don’t get heard, using video and the Internet to enable people to bear witness. In this extract she is listening to a homeless grandmother forced to look after her granddaughter, Pet, who has ceased to talk since her mother died.

“My daughter had a flat and a job. It wasn’t well paid. The place was a dump. But we got by. The three of us. The father was supposed to pay. But he never did. Then my daughter lost her job. Cutting back on cleaners the supermarket said. We got benefit for a while. Then that ran out. Some hitch in the system. They have no money either. The landlord threatened eviction. My daughter took to the street. She was desperate. The money was good. Sometimes. It paid the rent. And we had something to eat. But one of the blokes got violent. Exploded in a frenzy. Roughed her up. Couldn’t stop punching and kicking. The ambulance arrived too late. Pet was there when her mother died. Saw it all. I remember it so well. She sat there like a doll, frozen, her eyes blank, not understanding. How could she? It was too much. She was just five. That’s when she stopped talking. Hasn’t spoken a word since. The police never caught the guy. If ever they tried. The landlord kicked me and Pet out. Didn’t want such sordid people in his house. Folks give us food. From time to time. Or a bit of money. Like this afternoon. I was to get a fiver. For taking part in the demonstration. We muddled by. Then Pet got ill. There was nothing I could do. Doctors don’t want to treat homeless beggars. The hospital wouldn’t have us. Thank heavens she recovered. On her own. Sometimes I wonder why. But the worst is not having a place to go. When evening comes. People are hurrying home to a good meal. And we have nowhere. And nothing to eat. It kills you in the end. I’ve seen loads of people give up. They find a quiet corner. So as not to disturb. Then just lie down and never get up.” 

Find out more about the novel Stories People Tell.

Silence is more than the absence of sound…

Silence of snow

Silence had fallen, a thick blanket of snow masking all sound. Snow had been extremely rare in her world, so the texture of silence that accompanied heavy snow was new. Rather like wading through snow, silence resisted movement. Her meditation master had taught her the value of silence, but never had she had such tangible proof that there was so much more to silence than the absence of sound… Kate in We Girls Show the Way.

30% Discount on Smashwords

Alan McCliskey's novels

Get any of Alan McCluskey’s novels in ebook format for 30% off as part of Smashwords Authors Give Back Sale. The sale lasts till April 20th 2020.

Authors Give Back Sale

In recent days as the global Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, several Smashwords authors reached out to Smashword’s founder Mark Coker, asking him to run a special sale for readers. The idea being to use books to help mitigate the emotional and economic hardship faced by citizens of every country, many of whom are now forced to stay home and self-isolate. The hope is that you, your friends, and your family might find redemptive strength, comfort, and enjoyment from these books. (Adapted from the Smashwords Newsletter)

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 We Girls Show the Way. 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 We Girls Show the Way

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.

We Girls Show the Way – 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

We Girls Show the Way

I have just completed the first draft of We Girls Show the Way, 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.

We Girls Show the Way – 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)

Peter forced to see a shrink

We Girls Show the Way 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.

We Girls Show the Way – 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)

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.

We Girls Show the Way – 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)

Shhhhh! Writing. Local voices.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book. Follow-up to Stories People Tell. Annie promoting local voices. Seventy-five chapters so far. Eighty thousand words. Coming soon.

Writing local voices. Sneek peek!

A feral chant greeted Annie as she threaded between the barriers separating the platform from the concourse. A pack of guttural voices growled “Witch!” or was it “Bitch!” repeated over and over. Alarmed, she dropped Kevin’s hand and squeezed in front of her girlfriend, her eyes darting this way and that in search of trouble. The train had been packed and a throng of panicked commuters elbowed their way forward as if the station were on fire. Borne by the flow bursting from the gates, there was no turning back. If only her bodyguard, Xenia, had been there. 

Annie spotted a dense knot of women brandishing placards some yards away when something hard struck her in the face just below her eye. Smashing as it did, a viscous liquid trickled down her cheek, letting off a foul smell of rotten eggs. She sank to her knees, instinctively putting up her hands to protect her head. Kevin screamed and ducked, cowering behind her.

Sensing danger, the crowd stampeded, bowling over the two crouched figures and would have trampled them to death had not firm hands grasped the girls and heaved them to their feet. Xenia. Thank heavens. No one would dare jostle her. All the same, Annie couldn’t stop trembling as the woman summarily wiped the mess from her face before wrapping her in a strong embrace. Nearby, Kevin was blotted in the arms of Leonor, sobbing. “…like animals…” Annie heard her mutter. (…)