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.

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.

The politics of elimination

Stories People Tell front cover

A systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving.

According to certain newspapers including CNN, the New York Post and the Washington Post, the use of seven words are to be banned from the budget of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) by the Trump administration. The words are vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, foetus, evidence-based and science-based. The news is so outrageous  and outlandish, it is hard not to suspect it is a fabrication or to shoot back with the suggestion, “Let’s do away with the word trump.” Elimination is an enticing solution when dealing with a man and an administration that further enriches the rich and privileged while wreaking havoc, misery and destruction on everybody else.

But first reactions are not always the best. Talking about doing away with the man would mean aligning our logic on that of Trump. Elimination is the hallmark of his ‘policies’. Eliminate North Korea, ban Muslims, deny climate change, do away with abortion and birth control, ban transgender people from the army, remove funding for social services, repeal net neutrality laws, fix voting laws to exclude those who don’t vote for you, dismantle federal government, disqualify the press, and undermine the notion of truth and, with it, justice.

In the sense of the word used here, the Oxford Dictionary of English says of elimination, the complete removal or destruction of something or the removal of someone or something from consideration or further participation. What the dictionary does not mention is that a systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving. George Orwell’s 1984 was a story about a state that sought to eliminate opposition. Totalitarian states are held up as perpetrators of government by elimination. What is so striking about the Trump administration is that it should systematically apply elimination politics in the heart of a society supposedly based on liberalism and diversity.

To be able to eliminate, or at least try to, Trump and people like him have to undo the links that bind people together so to minimise the backlash from solidarity and natural human concern for others. Isolating segments of society and pitting one group against others as well as fostering rampant individualism are part and parcel of a strategy to eliminate.

The close ties between elimination and the breaking down of social bonds point to an alternative strategy to counter elimination. Rather than responding with further elimination, the only viable way to combat elimination politics is to strengthen grassroots links between people and to nurture a form of solidarity that embraces diversity.

In my forthcoming novel, Stories People Tell, it is by just such a drive to strengthen the bonds between Londoners and to celebrate diversity that Annie Wight and the women’s movement she epitomises seeks to respond to Mayor Nelson Kard who aims to drive the gay community out of the capital and have Annie silenced. 

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Stories to make sense of the world

 Above, the author reads Stories to make sense of the world.

We make sense of the world by continually spinning stories about it. Stories? They are not the kind you would necessarily tell someone. Unvoiced, they are very often little more than fragments but are generally in tune with a larger personal narrative. That overarching narrative may be composed of distinct parts which don’t need to be coherent with each other. It is as if we need to fit events into a coherent narrative, at least ‘locally’, if we don’t want to blow a mental fuse. We are comforted and strengthened by them. These everyday fragments can be so tiny and the making of them so natural, we are often unaware we are drafting them. This narrative sense-making may become abruptly apparent when our stories are at odds with those of others and conflict ensues. Here’s an example.

An old woman sits alone at the dining-room table, the breakfast things arranged neatly in front of her.  “Enjoy your meal,” her long-time companion says as he enters. Glancing at the table, he realizes she has already finished. “Too late,” he adds. Hasty words which don’t quite express what he wants to say. If he had had time to reflect, he would probably have explained his well-wishes arrived too late. “You didn’t make much effort to join me!” she replies testily. He storms off, angry.

When she speaks, her words do not follow from what went before. This sort of discontinuity is a sure sign something is amiss. Just as is an outburst of emotions that doesn’t fit the context.  This rupture, seen from the outside, appears incomprehensible. It reveals that she has quite a different story in mind. It sounds like it has to do with being neglected and the resulting hurt feelings that have been a long time in the making. While he, who was trying to be considerate, is left with a feeling of being misunderstood, unjustly cast in a role he is not currently playing. Of course, there is no guarantee that either of them will become aware that they are spinning stories about each other or that the ill-will between them might have its roots in that. The emotions sparked by the dissonance are generally so strong there is little room for distance or introspection and the opportunity for deeper learning is lost.

We often weave stories not just to make sense of what is happening in the present but also to predict the outcomes and act accordingly. In any given circumstance, there are many possibilities and the one that actually happens may not be what we imagined or what we wanted. Our misjudgement is often due to the influence of a personal narrative that is at odds with reality. Here’s an example.

A young student walks to the building site where he is doing a holiday job. Each day he passes a pretty girl his age waiting for a bus. She is alone at the stop. He has no idea who she is and knows nothing about her. She never looks his way and they do not exchange a single word. Despite this lack of communication, he frequently imagines going to the cinema with her, so much so, it seems a viable possibility. On his last day in the job, he plucks up the courage to talk to her. He is shy and ill at ease but he plants himself in front of her and clumsily invites her out. To his immense surprise, she clutches her bag to her chest and turns away aghast, refusing to reply.

Individuals’ overarching narratives may be little more than a direction, an orientation that colours every story. In the first example above, the woman is so convinced she is being neglected, no amount of solicitous behaviour could change her mind. In the second, the boy’s desire to befriend the girl and his belief in his self-worth, albeit shaky, left no place for the possibility she might be terrified at being accosted by a boy in filthy overalls in such a deserted spot. Rather like being stuck in a rut in the road, we find it hard to shift from an overriding narrative even when events dictate otherwise. In most cases, the result can be troubling but innocuous and might even offer a chance to close the gap between story and reality. Sometimes, however, it can be catastrophic. When the stories people tell themselves are persistently at odds with the world despite repeated warning signals, a line has been crossed and the storytelling has become pathological.

One of the underlying themes of my new novel, Stories People Tell, is the way people fabricate stories about the world around them and how those stories often miss the mark.