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)

Peter forced to see a shrink

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

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

Extract: Peter at the shrink’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boy & Girl Saga

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

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

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

Out of chaos, a new gender paradigm?

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

From waking to sleep

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

Multiple forms of gender?

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

Mind over matter

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

Switching forms of gender

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

Gender as a social phenomenon

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

Pandora’s box?

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

The Boy & Girl Saga

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

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

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

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)

Review of Boy & Girl

Go over to Amazon and read Ginger Dawn’s review of Boy & Girl on Amazon. Here’s a snippet from the end of that.

… Boy & Girl is an entertaining and intricate novel. It offers a message about interpersonal relationships and importance of free will/choice. However, it never overwhelms the characters or the story. I understood this very well when I was shocked and screaming “No!” at the end. The epilogue is a wonderful gift from an author who truly understands his relationship with his readers….

Unfortunately, in the mean time, Ginger has decided to delete all her reviews.

Healing in Boy & Girl

art

An important aspect of Boy & Girl is the ability Peter and Kaitling develop to heal people from within. I wrote a short story based on that idea, called Inside Out. Here is the beginning:

It seems so strange to our eyes, but at the time they couldn’t see things otherwise, the healer explained, talking mind-to-mind to a handful of apprentice healers around the world. In those days, they came at the body from the outside. It wasn’t simply that they didn’t have our techniques to enter the body with their minds. Their whole attitude was extrinsic. All their knowledge about the body resided outside of it, buried in books, in scientific papers and in data gathered by machines. They only dimly grasped what was going on. They kept new healers away from people in need of healing. Instead, they had them study books and photos and films. They would have been horrified if anyone had tried to heal others without all that knowledge. For them, it made medicine legitimate and efficient. In reality, the accumulated knowledge blocked access to what they really needed to know… (Read on)

50’000 words and still writing …

I have just passed to 50’000 word mark on the follow up novel to Boy & Girl, that’s just under half way through the book. Here’s a short extract from around the fifty thousand mark:

Andrew did not immediately reply. He seemed caught up in his own thoughts. “It is only appropriate that I should go to say my last words to him dressed as a girl. He hardly knew me any other way.” Andrew turned to Peter. “Would you agree to sing if I play piano?” he asked, adding as an after thought: “I’d very much like you to be dressed as a girl like me.”

Peter was hesitant. The idea of appearing as a girl in front of a larger number of people many of whom might well know him was worrying. But his main concern was his voice. He wasn’t sure it would hold out.

Ambiguity on Pinterest

Ella
Ella from Becoming Ella

As part of preparation for my novel Boy & Girl I collected photos related to gender ambiguity on a Pinterest board (*). It was not easy to find suitable material. For some reason, many males who dress as females feel a need to exhibit their masculinity in a way that is not suitable for the wider audience. Some commentators maintain that photos of ‘traps’ (crossdressers who could pass as female) are only valid if there is a photo proving they have a penis (**). Others go in for derision which doesn’t fit with the preoccupations of Boy & Girl either. Peter, one of the main characters in the story, wanted to look like a girl not parody them.

In Boy & Girl, Peter struggles with his desire to dress as a girl, at a time when such behaviour was seen as homosexual which in turn was illegal in Britain. Both in Boy & Girl and in the subsequent In Search of Lost Girls, Peter tries to come to terms with what cross-dressing means for him with the help of some extraordinary people he meets.

For sample chapters from Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls, click on the titles.

The photo above is of Ella who went to great lengths to look like a girl and was very successful at it. She wrote extensively about her situation and about her desire to transition to being a girl. Her blog, Becoming Ella, was last updated in 2018 with a description of the difficult choices she was facing.

(*) Note that Pinterest (subsequently) deleted all my content and my account without the slightest explanation.

(**) This choice of posting photos of a man/boy dressed in female clothes while unambiguously displaying male genitals raises some interesting questions. As it was not the subject of the Boy & Girl series, I did not explore it further.

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)

Pre-order Boy & Girl now

Girl & Boy Front cover

Peter glanced at the date pinned to the school notice board: Friday, May 13th 1960. For a Friday 13th, he’d managed to escape the worst so far, but who knew what catastrophe might be waiting in ambush…

Read the 1st chapter of Boy & Girl.

Pre-order Boy &  Girl

You can now pre-order Boy & Girl which will be published in September 2012. Go to the online shop.

Boys and reading

A report out today, quoted by the BBC, underlines the difficulties boys have with reading. It notes however: “…there is evidence that the literacy gender gap has been around for some time, with girls outperforming boys for perhaps as long as 60 years.

Back in 1960, Peter, in Boy & Girl, also had problems with reading. Here’s a glimpse at his thoughts as he entered his English classroom only to discover he had forgotten his homework.

It wasn’t that he disliked English, it was one of his least boring subjects, apart from maths that is. Rather, it was English that disliked him. How many times had his teachers told him he was clueless? His spelling was atrocious, they moaned, his compositions wild and incoherent and when he tried to read out loud, he stumbled over even the most common words. At such times his guts shrunk to half their size in humiliation.

And here is a short conversation with his English reacher, after class is over.

“How often do you read?” she asked.
“From time to time.” Rarely would have been a more honest answer. He liked stories, didn’t he tell himself stacks of them, but reading books wasn’t the same.
“Do you have any books at home?” she asked.
“Two,” he replied.
“Apart from Shadow the Sheepdog, what’s the other one?” she asked with a tired smile.
“Peter Pan,” he replied, blushing.
“You could go to the library,” she suggested, sounding sceptical about her own idea.
He shrugged. How could he tell her it wasn’t personal? He just didn’t enjoy reading.
Extracts from Boy & Girl, Chapter 1.