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)

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.

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)

Out and about: an author’s tale

“…you can’t sit around and wait for someone to discover you…” Olafur Arnalds, composer.

As an independent novelist, one of the major dilemmas – rather like the young Arnalds seeking to get his compositions played having not followed the traditional channels for a would-be composer – was that her novels only made sense if they were (widely) read. An ‘unfortunate’ corollary of which was that she couldn’t just bask in the pleasure of writing, but had to step out and get people to read them.

There were so many novels out there, some brilliant, others less so, begging to be read. She didn’t want to join the hoards clamouring to sell their wares. Not that she thought her novels were unworthy, on the contrary, but mercilessly plugging them would not only belittle her, she reckoned, it would devalue the books she had worked so hard to write and publish.

She had tried several times to court an agent and go down the traditional publishing route, but she’d had no success. So few authors were chosen and the curt replies, if ever she got them, were demoralising. She didn’t want to be discouraged from writing. It was her biggest joy in life. She told herself she’d be better off without an agent. She didn’t want to have to shoe-horn her work into pre-defined formats or toe the line to anticipated market trends. What’s more, she was impatient. Going through an agent and a publisher would mean delaying the release of her books for several years.

She maintained an eager online presence, as all aspiring authors were encouraged to do, and she was proud of what she’d achieved, but it rarely sold any of her books. In reality, she came to realise that platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter were stacked against her. They were only interested in locking users in while garnering as much saleable information about them as possible. Understandably, when every other post was a disguised promotional message, people’s engagement was rarely more than superficial as they shied away from all attempts to sell.

She sighed. The whole prospect was so gloomy. Whichever way she turned, the path was blocked. Suddenly she gasped, slapping the flat of her hand against her forehead with a resounding clack. She’d taken her experience of publishing at face value. What if she were telling herself a story? ‘Just’ a story. The thought had her feeling giddy. If it were a story, that would mean she could rewrite it…

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

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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.