Coming back for seconds

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What happens when you realise you may have written the “wrong” first draft of your novel? 

Here’s the thing about writing a novel: once you’ve done it, you think you can do it again. It won’t be easy, of course, but it will be easier. You now understand the skeleton of a novel. You have already answered ‘but good god, how does it all come together?’ in your moments of bright panic. You’ve done it. You’re out – on the other side.

So when I sat down to write my second novel, I was clear that I would be experimental. I understood how the novel worked, and now wanted to push boundaries with language and style. I spent two years working on the first draft. I did my research, including visiting the personal library of the Maharana of Udaipur and reading some incredible books, developed a complex plot and wove synaesthesia into the voice.

“A well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess”

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“My novel’s skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck”

And when I was done, I found I had done everything I set out to do: good language and great research. Except, you know, my skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck, bony toes wriggling in the air. It was a well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess.

They talk a lot about first drafts in creative writing classes. Or blogs. Or Twitter. With good reason, I suppose. Getting your first draft out is difficult and the fear of not being perfect paralyses most writers. A first draft is hope. It tells you: this idea has a life beyond your mind or that this idea can find a home in language. It says: you can do it.

And it’s not lying. But very few people talk about the wrong first draft. The draft that is born but is dead. The draft that has the idea you think is the centre of your novel, but is nothing but a decoy. No one tells you about the novel that should be perfect, cherub cheeks and curly brown hair, but who is laughing at you from behind a tree – mischievous and mocking – because you’ve got it wrong, very wrong, and you can’t see it.

Emergency surgery

Because no one told me about the wrong first draft (or maybe because I was too attached to see it), I decided that what my perfect mess needed was a surgeon. Leg rising out of the neck? No problem – give it some surgery. Knee on skull? No problem – just remove it and put in the right place. An arm out of a ribcage can actually be quite useful, a bit like an elephant’s trunk but lower… It’s fine. It’s all there. Of course it’s all there. It’s the first draft, isn’t it? Rewriting is hard work, but it is re-writing; you work with what’s there. So that’s what I did. I sat down and performed surgery.

Except the more I cut and arranged, the more everything fell apart. Sections didn’t want to be moved up. Characters weren’t happy with debuting later in the story. Perfectly good conflict scenes crumbled on themselves when removed from what came before and after – in protest, I am convinced. The harder I tried, the more it became apparent that I wasn’t operating on a skeletal structure at all. The bones turned to mush when removed from their original positions and then into dust. My mess didn’t want to be perfected; it could only exist as the mess.

On the 52nd attempt to write the novel’s first paragraph, I gave up.

“Like being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook” 

I wish I could I could tell you this was a peaceful letting go – like releasing your pet sparrow into the wild or some similar poetic image that comes to mind. It wasn’t. It was falling down a cliff face because you’ve lost your grip. Being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook, blood gathering in your mouth and the world turning black. Curling up on your bed in a foetal position because you don’t want to uncurl anymore – because you’re not sure you even could.

And it was there – falling, blacked-out on the mat, in that foetal position – that I had to accept I knew nothing at all. I had learnt a whole collection of lessons from the first book and none of them were applicable for this one. I had learnt a collection of lessons in writing this first draft – and none of them were applicable for fixing it. I was lost and I didn’t know how to find my way. I didn’t even know where I wanted to go.

The rescue

I was rescued on a flight back from Delhi. It was on Diwali, so the plane was near empty, which is the closest I have come to experiencing a private jet. I drank rum, played sad Andrea Bocelli songs and accepted that this couldn’t go on; I couldn’t come close to tears every time someone asked so, how’s the writing going? I had to tell my publisher the book was unfeasible.

And, like a moody lover who has realised their playing-hard-to-get may lead to them being abandoned, the writing came. Whole paragraphs wrote themselves in my mind, then whole pages, then the story. It wasn’t the novel, of course; writing is still a moody lover, even when it is giving. But it was a new work and it was alive. I didn’t care about skeletons anymore. I didn’t think, where does this leg go or is this arm functioning? I went straight to creating the heart.

I want to be clear: writing is incredibly hard work. Even with moments like these, there is still structuring, planning, moments of heart-breaking doubt and pruning the whole. But this time it was different. I wasn’t writing for the novel’s structure, I wasn’t looking at how plot unfolded, I wasn’t thinking about story. I kept my eyes on the landscape of feeling beneath the book, the nebulous thing that quivers under the surface of the words, and I listened. I looked at the text, actually looked, and went where it wanted to go. I let it become, even if it wanted to become a mess.

Two months later and the draft is done. It’s a first draft like they always talk about – it’s all there, but will need more work. But it lives.

Hope

And somewhere in those two months, this second novel I’ve been talking about, this second draft that broke me, arrived as well. I woke up to find the first paragraph in my mind, along with the story’s shape and heart. A character was sitting on the edge of my bed and staring at me admonishingly. She was a side character – but, apparently, she wasn’t. She was the book.

So, technically – and I’m aware I contradicting myself but writing is a hard business, okay? – it was all there in the first draft. It was just the wrong story. The real story was sitting behind my choice of voice, perspective and plot, waiting for me to pay attention. I should say that I don’t actually begin this rewrite for a couple of months. So I may be wrong and this book may slip through my fingers again. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.

But in those ‘maybes’, there is hope.

About the author

dRcLjbx7Tashan Mehta is a novelist based in Mumbai. Above all, her interest lies in form: the shape of a letter, the construction of a sentence, the meeting and parting of two plot threads, or the novel as a whole as it tries to capture and tack onto the mindscape. Or how it fails.

Her debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, has been published by Juggernaut Books in 2017. She is currently working on the second. She was part of the 2015 Sangam House Writers’ Residency and studied at the universities of Warwick and Cambridge, an education that allowed her to prise open and play with language. It also gave her an abiding love for tea.

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This is the place to be, by Lara Pawson – book review

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Human beings have been reporting on wars and battles almost as long as there have been wars and battles (which may mean they have always been, if you are to accept the idea that mankind has an innate inclination toward violence). The earliest cave paintings depicted our forebears on great hunts; and oral histories of all early human civilisations recount battles and wars in their various bloody guises. Shakespeare, of course, deserves mention here for the means with which he memorialised England’s dynastic wars in his plays.

Yet the idea of professionalising this war reportage into something an individual person sets out to specifically do has perhaps more recent historical trappings. From Henry Crabb Robinson’s early reports of battles against Napoleon for the London Times, through to coverage of the D-Day landings; the French and subsequent American wars in Vietnam; through to coverage of both Gulf Wars; the Troubles in Ireland and Northern Ireland and indeed, conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world – the human desire to seek first-hand accounts of the multiple ways we can find means of killing one another has shifted in tone through our most recent generations.

As times change, war correspondence has changed, also – from the first wide-use of video clips to bring wars into our living rooms, through to the advent of social media, which pummels our pockets with updates from global conflicts.

The sole constant here is perhaps the war correspondent themselves. That person who witnesses war and tells, shows, or tweets their experiences to others.

What does it mean to be an observer to war? Is it possible to retain any semblance of independence as a ‘neutral’ party when one sees what war is so closely? And what do war correspondents do when there is no war to report on? How do people who derive and depict meaning from mass human violence – and how do people who earn a living through their involvement with this – respond when faced with the relative peace of society?

Answers to these questions are hard to come by and are, by their very nature, complex. Yet there is fascinating and powerful insight provided by the exceptional book This is the place to be by Lara Pawson.

Pawson, who worked as a journalist for the BBC in several African countries between 1996 and 2007, grapples with such themes – among many others (including women’s rights, the intrinsic value of language to a person’s identity, and what it means to form relationships with people who exist in a quasi-state of acquaintance; from youths in your neighbourhood to stall owners in your local market).

Reflecting on her time covering the Angolan Civil War, she writes:

“It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs.”

In the clearest of ways, This is the place to be is in essence a written attempt at self-evaluation and rigorous self-critique. Described ostensibly as a memoir, this seems appropriate – given that, as David Sheilds notes in Reality Hunger, “For centuries, the memoir was, by definition: prayerful entreaty and inventory of sins.” Yet Pawson’s novel is not concerned with human sin, per se – there is no attempt to moralise human behavior; instead, the focus is on trying to dissect it. This refers not only to the dissection of human behavior on a societal scale – as a sociologist might – but rather, also on an intensely personal level.

Indeed, the inquisitiveness of Pawson’s prose creates an existential inquisitiveness that balances finely with the author’s inclination toward more descriptive journalistic reportage. Consider, for instance, the scene in which the narrator sees a “woman cut in half by an articulated lorry”:

“I was in my car and as I drove around the roundabout, I saw the head and bust and waist of a woman and then, a few feet away, her lower half: wearing a skirt, her ankles and feet still sticking out at the bottom. At least, that’s what I believe I saw and what I remember I saw. And it’s what I have told many people I saw. But considering the binding problem, I wonder if what I say I saw was in fact fill-in created by my brain. Which bit was real – the upper part of her body, or the lower part?”

Moving from the simple precise description of the scene, the sudden reflection and of questioning one’s own experiences – one’s own sight and memories – opens possibilities for the reader in a way simple reportage of fact fails to do. And it engages with interesting concepts and themes – not least of the which is that of the fallibility of memory.

Nothing, after all, is as unreliable as our recollections of events. We know that our brains reconstruct fragments of things we perceive to recreate wholes; meaning that what we think we saw may not be verified by CCTV cameras (if there are CCTV cameras to counterbalance against our memories). As Patrick Duff, from The Brink of Oblivion, notes: “Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.”

The fragmentary and selective nature of memory is itself reflected in the very structure of Pawson’s book.

Of course, fragmentation as a structural form within literature is not new, yet Pawson builds on its modernist origins and takes it to somewhere new and unique (and, as she does so, skillfully avoiding becoming simply “post-modern” or unduly self-referential about it all, as other writers sometimes tend to do).

Indeed, while fragmentation was employed by some of the modernist writers of the 20th century to help them capture how the (then) modern world overloaded the human mind (think of Dubliners, by Joyce, for instance); Pawson’s This is the place to be also helps create this sense of sensory overload caused by our ‘modern’ existences – and how it can lead to fragmentation of thought and feeling. But it goes a step further because it does not seek to necessarily imply that the world is fragmenting the mind; but rather that the mind (being fragmented itself) seeks to make sense of the world through analysis of fragmented episodes, which, though they may seem unconnected and disassociated from one another at first glance, in fact share a much greater commonality.

To dwell on this for a moment longer: what is interesting about the use of fragmentation in Pawson’s book is the careful balance between unity and disunity that comes from structuring the memoir in this way. On the one hand, the chosen form enables the reader to starkly experience the horrors – and mundanity – of war, and also the mundanity – and horrors – of modern, perhaps sedentary, ‘western’ life. The disunity between, say, the tension of the author finding herself in rebel held territory, arriving at a scene of an ambush moments after a massacre, are fraught with such tension that it is a genuinely affecting experience to read. Yet contrast this with a friendly relationship with a market stall owner in Walthamstow and at first glance the impression is one of a real disconnect. However, explore the text as a whole and suddenly contrasts become comparisons and quickly similarities – jokes shared with market stall owners transpose themselves as jokes shared with the pilots of old airplanes and army vehicles, even high ranking government officials or colonels. This fragmentary sense of broken unity, or conversely, of united disunity, is surely in its own way so recognisable to ourselves as readers, because one of the fundamental truths about the human condition – of human life – is how full of simultaneous contradictions and similarities it is and can be. We are defined in so many ways by the united, harmonised parts of ourselves, even when those parts, when looked at individually and of themselves, can seem so at odds with one another under the microscope.

Speaking of microscopes can invoke a sense of forensic exploration and what This is the place to be does well is avoid any sense of intense introspection. The reader is never told what to think or how to feel, simply shown and left to bring their own meaning to the scenes they are presented with.

This style of writing is ultimately a true indication of Pawson’s great ability as a writer. After all, to write about subjects as intense as war carries with it a weight of expectation. Think, for instance, of Vonnegut’s quasi-autobiographical narrator in Slaughterhouse 5, who remarks he “thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden, because all I would have to do would be to write what I saw” – yet finds quickly that this is impossible, because the subject is “too big”. Simply writing about war is not simple at all, it seems.

In his essay, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explores how we react when “the unimaginable impossible happen[s]”. To many (most?) of Pawson’s readers, the thought of finding ourselves in the midst of a civil war is just that: unimaginable. Yet by balancing the unimaginable with the extremely relatable (Angola vs Walthamstow, etc.), Pawson counterpoints two very real – but very different – realities in such a way that the world we cannot picture becomes more accessible; while the world we perhaps think we know becomes that little bit more strange and alien.

We live in a time when so many people now express the sentiment of “not recognising” the country or people they live with. This is true in the UK, from hard-right brexiteers who complain of non-white people working and living in their towns; through to liberal and metropolitan ‘remain’ voters, as well as left-wingers, who can’t believe hard-right brexiteers and racists seem to be in control of the UK government. And it is true of the USA, where Donald Trump was able to re-use Reagan’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan to such affect precisely because it tapped into a sentiment raging across America’s deep (but superficially hidden) divides of people who felt that ‘their’ country somehow wasn’t “great”. Similarly to the UK, Trump’s election has also shaken the self-belief of the USA’s ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, who thought that Obama’s election may have finally signalled a key change in direction for the country. That they now, in their eyes, have a misogynistic, self-proclaimed sexual harasser, blustering bigot, egregious egomaniac and would-be demonic despot for a president is, to use Žižek’s expression, “unimaginable [and] impossible”. Yet here we are.

In a world that seems so unrecognisable to so many – we need books like Pawson’s This is the place to be that shows us how to recognise things we think we cannot imagine; and reflects our feelings of uncertainty about the world and things we think we know and understand. Our worlds can so easily become so small and narrow and defined; This is the place to be helps bridge the divide between our social bubbles and the rest of the planet and reminds us, ultimately, of our place within it.

 

To purchase a copy of Lara Pawson’s This is the place to be, visit CB Editions – http://www.cbeditions.com/pawson.html 

If language is a drug, Sci-Fi is crack-cocaine

 

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Peacock IV (2016), by Victoria Stothard – cover designer of new speculative fiction project, ‘The 8th Emotion’ 

“Science-fiction [is] the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.”

            — Arthur C. Clarke, “Of Sand and Stars”, 1983

First off, apologies for the title. It’s a shameless piece of provocation. Obviously, crack destroys lives, and I wouldn’t want to equate it – in all seriousness – with an addiction to spaceships, lasers, and aliens. Nonetheless, the title sounded good, and it does get at what I want to discuss.

Sci-fi is not as narrow a set of parameters as perhaps many believe. It is not really just “lasers, spaceships, and aliens”, although I imagine this is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the term.

Culture shock

Sci-fi, if anything, is about culture shock. It’s a form that implicitly dictates that something new be brought to the table, whether it’s a new world, a new species, a new technology, a new psychology… you get my drift. Some sort of breach with our everyday reality, our everyday culture, is required. Therefore, it is a form which, at its core, is built on the notion of a culture shock.

At this point, I’d like to make a distinction between the Arthur C. Clarke quote with which I began this article, and my own belief (although his wording is probably just a by-product of his time). I believe ‘speculative fiction’, though a tad clunky to say, is a better term to use when considering the most potent type of mind-altering fiction, encompassing as it does science-fiction, fantasy, and everything in-between. ‘Science-fiction’ – to me at least – has a degree of prescriptiveness: it’s exotic worlds, final frontiers, and advanced technology. ‘Speculative fiction’, as long as it’s a break from our current world, can be anything. It has a less restricted sense of what a story can be. And as the most drug-like, visionary fiction can come in a variety of guises, that seems like the safest term to use here.

So, to my original point, now amended – speculative fiction relies on culture shock. It can incorporate any genre within it (see the beautiful romantic plot thread in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise) but it must always, even in a very watered-down form, contain this key ingredient.

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Speculative fiction can incorporate any genre within it – including the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise. 

However, this isn’t quite the culture shock we get when we go on holiday and think, “oh, so here the steering wheel’s on the other side”, profound though that is. Culture shocks in the real world occur in a state of flux: we’re being bombarded with from all sides by ever-changing, multi-sensory stimuli; incessant distractions that diminish each other and compete for our attention. Prose is very different: it’s a very controlled reality, experienced moment by moment, word by word. With a painting, you can look around the canvas, your eye roving across the detail in whatever order it pleases; an order that is unlikely to be the same from one person to the next. Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality I can think of. As a writer, it lets you specify the exact stimulus for a brain at any given moment (through a word-form), and precisely how that flow of impressions should be arranged. It’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.

“Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality […] it’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.”

On a broader level, purely verbal communication is as close to telepathy as we’ve got. It’s mind communing with mind, the whole material world stripped away, leaving just information: the best rendering of our thoughts that we have. And in my opinion, the better the thoughts, the better their drug-like effect when expressed. Trite thoughts, captured in words, dull the mind. Numb your senses. High-grade thoughts can excite and elevate you, sharpen your mind, make you see the world in a whole different light. This is euphoria. And, at an extreme end, they can even produce physiological side-effects – but I’ll come to that in a second.

Really, it’s the thought, conveyed from one person to another, that is the drug. The language is just the necessary packaging; the means of transmission.

The power of language

There are two stand-out instances in my life that drove home how powerful language can be. The first was the most physiologically striking: it was after I’d been to see a live performance of Alan Moore’s spoken-word piece Unearthing, which was accompanied by music and a photographic slideshow. All these components worked in synchronicity, informing each other, vying for pole-position in your awareness, impossible to follow in their totality. I had to leave the event two-thirds of the way through, rushing to get my coach home. I remember sitting on it, staring at the passing traffic lights: they were glowing slightly but distinctively brighter than usual, like psychedelic blurs of luminosity. I felt stoned. And exactly like someone in that condition, I barely blinked for the first forty minutes of that trip.

(Later, when Unearthing was available to download, I listened to it again, this time the entire way through. Again, I felt stoned, unblinking, although here the effect lasted for more like three minutes. I imagine familiarity wore away some of its impact, as did the lack of a multi-sensory presentation.)

This is probably the peak version of language-as-drug: when it works in tandem with other art forms (like henchmen backing up a criminal mastermind) to overload your senses and mind.

The other stand-out instance utilised words alone. I was in a café, above a bookshop, in a busy central area of London. A long-term friend and I had been talking, for a couple of hours or so, about concepts like time and the quantum world. Then, in the space of a few seconds, reality got strange. I felt light-headed, trippy, as if I could happily stare at any part of the world; as if it was all full of fascinating detail. It also felt like I could sense the atoms that made up the table we were sat at, their energy; and consequently, I had the bizarre impression – while knowing it was false – that I should be able to pass my hand, ghost-like, through that solid block of wood. Between its atoms.

Like I say, this only took a moment to kick in. I asked my friend if he felt it, without specifying what ‘it’ was. He said he did. Switching back and forth, without – as far as I can recall – any leading comments, we described what we were feeling. It seemed to be identical; more than that, it had been induced synchronistically during our conversation.

Obviously, this may all sound crazy. And although, certainly on that latter occasion, it felt like I was in a heightened state, I’m not saying there was any objective validity in my sensations. But you can’t deny that’s pretty trippy.

(And no, smart-arse, I hadn’t taken any drugs that day, or even that week, and at neither event was I sat in a fug of second-hand marijuana smoke. Otherwise, these anecdotes would be rubbish).

As I mentioned, similar effects have happened to me at other times after some sort of intense interaction with language; but these are the two most pronounced cases. And what’s great when this state hits is, unlike with conventional drugs, you retain full cognitive and motor facilities. It feels like you can put the energy you have to much better use.

So if language operates exactly like, or at least has the capacity to be a drug, as these experiences have pretty firmly led me to believe, then there’s an immediate implication for prose. Seen as a psychedelic chemical compound, with words forming the atoms of the overall substance (work with me here) then the less extraneous words there are to dilute the compound, the purer and more intoxicating the final result will be. Think of it as an alcohol with a higher proof. This would fit in with the Hemingway school of writing, where you pare away every unnecessary word until the minimalism almost drives you mad (there is a daily holocaust of adverbs in his name).

Where this perspective cleaves away from that orthodoxy is in the potential of chemicals, mixed correctly, to trigger fizzing and spectacular reactions in each other. So while the spare approach of Hemingway may state that sentences should be short and sharp like a gun report, with all floridity excised, this drug metaphor would argue – and I’d agree – that words can have some of their most exciting effects when the unfamiliar collide. Three adjectives where one would do? Yes, cut that down. But three adjectives that you’ve never seen together before, which spark off one another in interesting ways, like James Joyce’s description of a woman’s body in his short story The Dead as “musical and strange and perfumed”? Keep it. That’s up there with the best of literature.

What this means is that the dictums ascribed to Hemingway and Orwell aren’t the be-all and end-all of prose style. There’s a wider palette of possibilities on offer.

However, what I’ve just said applies to all writing. And I know what you’re thinking: I began this essay in good faith expecting to learn about sci-fi and where I can get a fix of crack cocaine before midnight. Cut to the chase already!

Okay. Geez. I was just about to get there.

The other key thing that the conversation in the café above the bookshop implies is that, for language to get you into a trippy, altered mind-state, this comes easiest when you’re discussing big ideas. Ideas that feel bigger than your brain; like it can’t contain their magnitude. The concepts of time and the quantum world were the examples in that instance, but there are plenty of alternatives: space; the ancestral path and all the DNA matches that, after millennia, led to the creation of you; parallel universes; how different the universe would be if light only travelled at 30 mph; what the psychology of a deity would be; what the ramifications would have been, big and small, if that pivotal historical event had never happened/gone the other way.

All of these notions involve a large sense of scale regarding either time or space, so maybe that’s the key to spinning out your own mind with concepts alone. What they also have in common is that, though such ideas could appear in any genre, they are very much the province of speculative fiction, with them and their ilk having formed the basis for countless stories in that ideas-obsessed narrative field.

A genuine, mind-altering drug on the page

Speculative fiction is where such concepts are literalised, are given concrete form so that the reader can have – on an imaginary level – a visceral engagement with them. It is where such abstract, mind-altering notions are brought to life.

Although most speculative fiction may not reach the giddy, psyche-warping heights I’ve expounded upon here (perhaps a lack of finesse in the prose; perhaps a failure of sustained intensity of imagination) I believe this area of literature, more than any other, has the potential to do so. And the evidence is plentiful and wonderful.

There is the cosmic, puzzle-like world building of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, whose grandeur and intricacy dawns on you like a creeping madness; the fecund neologisms and innovative typography of China Miéville’s Embassytown; the screaming, horror-drenched, pioneering and unmistakable purple prose of Lovecraft; the magisterial and idiosyncratic visions of William Blake. And hopefully, in a hundred years, these authors will be seen as the mere vanguard of what was to come.

Speculative fiction is where you can unite the experimentalism of the modernists (form, language, story content, narratorial and character voices, imagery, setting, etc.) but justify it for narrative reasons, and tie it into a ripping yarn. It can be a genuine, mind-altering drug on the page.

It is, I believe, where the next level of literature lies.

About the author of this post

FullSizeRenderAttempting to practice what he preaches, Josh Spiller has written his own speculative fiction novel, entitled ‘The 8th Emotion’. He is currently trying to fund it through Kickstarter, and you can check it out – as well as get your own signed first edition – here.

 

 

 

 

 

The changing language of nature

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Is the language of the countryside is being replaced by that of the digital era? Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Over the last decade, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has cut a suite of words from the natural world, including “buttercup”, “acorn”, and “mistletoe”. They have been replaced by the language of the digital age – “broadband”, “cut-and-paste”, and “blog”. A question that surely arises from this is what effect such subtle changes in our curation of language will have on our future writing – and even the way future generations perceive the world, and interact with it.

If it is the priority of a dictionary to state the obvious rather than to encourage learning, then it may be argued that something has gone drastically wrong with our approach to life and – even more worryingly – with our relationship to the countryside.

In an open letter to Oxford University Press, 28 leading writers, including Margaret Atwood, penned an open letter urging the publisher to reinstate the words of nature. They wrote:

“We base this plea on two considerations […] Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.

Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.”

They add:

“All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines in determining which words [can] be included in each dictionary, based on several criteria: acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children of that age; corpus analysis; acknowledging commonly misspelled or misused words; and taking curriculum requirements into account.”

[…]

We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered. We find the explanations issued recently too narrowly focussed on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.”

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

In riposte to digital language

How might we counter the encroachment of the digital era on the language we use to describe the world – particularly the natural, ‘real’, world?

For decades the leading nature writer Robert Macfarlane has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena – from aquabob to zawn. His curation of such natural lexicons pulls together nine glossaries of terms taken from 30 languages, dialects and sub-dialects around Britain and Ireland. They all describe aspects of weather, nature and terrain.

Many of these words are dying out, slipping out of conversation and forgotten by those who once spoke them freely. They are being – and in some cases have already been – lost. By rediscovering them, Macfarlane offers a clear riposte to the move by Oxford University Press to replace words of the natural world with those of the digital one.

In an excellent interview with the brilliant Rowena Macdonald – whose book, The Threat Level Remains Severe, has been longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize – Macfarlane describes two of his favourite rediscovered words:

“One is this lovely Cornish word ‘zawn’, which means a wave-smashed chasm in a sea cliff – it’s so evocative of that gaping mouth, and the power of those places,” he says. “Another is this soft, Gaelic phrase ‘rionnach maoim’, the shadows that clouds cast on moorland on a windy day. There’s something about the poetry of that, the precision and the need to compress that phenomenon down into that gorgeous soft phrase.”

Macfarlane is convinced the importance of words that describe or engage with the natural world extend beyond being simply of interest. By enriching our vocabularies, Macfarlane believes, we can change the way we interact with our landscape:

“We increasingly make do with an impoverished language for nature, a generic language: ‘field’, and ‘wood’, and ‘hill’, and ‘countryside’. It’s a very basic way of denoting, and that’s fine, and sometimes we need to speak generally,” he says. “We can’t always speak absolutely precisely. But I’m fascinated by details and by the specifics of nature, and its particularities – and language helps us to see those.”

Why should the loss of such words matter? And why should we be so enthused by Macfarlane’s work? Simply, it matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” Or as the author Mark Cocker puts it, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.”

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Chasing the sublime

The Victorian and Romantic poets found in nature something beyond superficial human understanding or meaning: that sense of the sublime. In Peri Hypsous or On the Sublime, a work of literary criticism by the Greek author pseudo-Longinus (1st century BCE), sublimity refers to ‘excellence’ in language and to whatever is elevated or noble in the human spirit. That it has been so intrinsically bound in nature – and some of our finest examples of writing and usage of language tied in turn to this – speaks to the enormous importance of the natural world to inspire our creative minds in myriad unexpected and beautiful ways. Standing beneath Mont Blanc, Percy Bysshe Shelley found “the everlasting universe of things” and “the source of human thought”.  If we are to begin eradicating the language of nature – however slowly, or by however small degrees – we also begin to eradicate our ability to see, through nature, something that exists beyond our superficial and tenuous experiences and understanding of reality and human knowledge.

Perhaps it will one day be possible to encounter the sublime within blogs, emails, and social media. But for now it seems the likeliest way of elevating our consciousness remains in the countryside, surrounded by the beauty of the natural world.

Writing vs self-doubt

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For writers, artists and creative spirits alike, the issue of confidence – or lack thereof is as important as it is complicated. The way in which creatives align their relationship with their own work, and whether they feel confident in it or doubting, can be said in many ways to define any successful creative endeavor.

Reflecting on his poem, friendly advice to a lot of young men, Charles Bukowski explains the issue adroitly:

“The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime. The feeling at these readings is murderous, airless, anti-life. When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leads to a deeper and more, abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act.”

In a way, then, self-doubt offers an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art. And this is perhaps a good thing, too, since self-doubt is likely a familiar state to many who attempt to create artistic representations of their inner lives into the outside world.

Of course, to be aware of the propensity to feel doubting in ones work is relatively healthy, as it requires a level of self-awareness and consciousness necessary to keep oneself grounded in that unique space between reality and creativity. Though of course, to be too keenly aware of it, or feel too great a sense of self-doubt, can paralyse any artistic work, as the late, great, David Foster Wallace explains:

“There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.”

The inherent problems with self-doubt means it isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we often run from it; we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. This is to be avoided: “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules for writing.

Few people have captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt better than Virgina Woolf. In Orlando: A Biography, Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process:

“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

How many of us have similarly spent entire nights awake at keyboards or notebooks, frantically writing word after word in what seems such an intense creative burst that everything that is put to the page must be worth something, only to look at it once the ink has dried, and we have slept a touch, to find ourselves left cold by the words on the page, and feeling a strange sense of disappointment that even in the most intense creative moments we create something that feels lacking in substance or truth?

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We doubt ourselves because it is natural to do so; yet while awareness of an artist’s tendency to doubt themselves is healthy, it must always be balanced with a dose of self-esteem.

This is not to encourage over confidence in one’s ability, or to suggest it valuable to ignore feelings of self-doubt in one’s work. Nobody should seek to become one of the boring, over confident writers reading to each other in lonely bookstores as Bukowski warned. Yet Self-esteem for creative people is important because it helps you organise yourself and others around an idea, so that you can take it from just that – an ephemeral thought – into something real and actualised. Human beings have more ideas than we often know what to do with; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is the foundation from which this persistent application, this driving force, can emerge.

In the constant battle between writing – and re-writing (which requires an ability to revisit work you may find lacking and empty) – the crucial antidote, then, is determination. Just as the long-distance runner must repeat the same process of exercise again and again, we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

The writer and artist Anna Deavere Smith captures the importance of determination exquisitely in a section of her fantastic Letters to a Young Artist – a compendium of counsel addressed to all of us seeking to engage with the world through art and creativity. On the subject of creative endeavour vs self-doubt, and the importance of determination built on solid foundations of self-esteem, she writes:

“Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.

Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.”

 

 

 

An ancestral yearning: why do writers love the ocean?

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“I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world,” Herman Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, explains in the opening chapter of Moby Dick. “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation.”

There is, undeniably, something about the ocean and the sea – the “watery part of the world” – which draws human beings toward it. For millennia, we have found an affinity in these places, with their sense of the sublime – as Melville writes, we are enraptured by “times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin.” Creation myths across history and spanning a multitude of different faiths begin in the sea – as though our ancestors somehow knew, inherently, of our origins as single-celled amoebas drifting in the primordial soup of the earth’s first ever oceans.

So it is perhaps understandable that this natural human connection with the oceans can transform into something of an obsession among writers and artists. The beguiling, ever-changing nature of the sea moved TS Eliot to write: “The sea has many voices / Many gods and many voices […] we cannot think of a time that is oceanless.” Michel Foucault, meanwhile, observed that “In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up.”

Since Juliet first told Romeo: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite,” Shakespeare’s lines have been whispered for centuries by star-crossed lovers stealing his words. And the bard’s love for the sea is almost as infinite as Juliet’s for Romeo – the word ocean appears well over 200 times in his plays.

From birth to life

The Australian novelist Tim Winton has nearly drowned several times; yet he, too, comes back again and again to the ocean, both in his writing, and in his general pursuits (he plays a key role in the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s campaign to protect the ocean from overfishing and pollution). The reason for this obsession, Winton believes, is simple:

“Let’s face it, you do nine months as a free diver in your mother’s womb; you belong to a planet that’s mostly water; your body is mostly water,” Winton says.

“I don’t think there’s any mystery why we would be drawn to it – I think there’s some kind of ancestral yearning. We all came from water. It feels like home.”

Perhaps this sense of homecoming was what English poet Percy Bysshe Shelly was searching for during his days with his piratical friend Edward Trelawny, who recalled Shelley jumping into a river and sinking to the bottom, as if seeking his amniotic origins – once again returning to the womb as an unplugged foetus.

Shelley, of course, would drown before his 30th birthday. And while his death was an accident, there is a connection here that spans the centuries between both himself and another literary giant – Virginia Woolf.

That Woolf would commit suicide by drowning mirrors a deep connection with water and the sea found in her writing. In her most elegiac work, The Waves, the sea is fundamental both to the structure and themes of the book, and also to the characters themselves.  In a passage auguring her author’s own fate, Rhoda imagines launching a garland of flowers over a cliff, to “sink and settle on the waves” and her body with it, like the suicidal Ophelia. “The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.”

A scientific hypothesis

Such intense connections – or obsessions, depending on your point of view – with the earth’s watery bodies, can possibly be explained scientifically.

In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist, naturalist, and entomologist, coined the term “biophilia” to describe his hypothesis that humans have “ingrained” in our genes an instinctive bond with nature. He theorised that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history—three million years and 100,000 generations or more — in nature (before we started forming communities or building cities), we have an innate love of natural settings. Before that, our biological connection to water (human foetuses still have “gill-slit” structures in their early stages of development) extended for millions of years as our early ancestors evolved in the earth’s oceans. Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended upon nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature and water physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

This, perhaps, is the reason that human beings simply like to see the sea. If you hand photographs and paintings of natural landscapes to people and ask them to rate the ones they find most attractive, and which they felt more positive towards, respondents gave the highest ratings to the pictures containing water.

While humans were developing an evolutionary preference for a certain type of water-containing landscape, the human brain was also being shaped by environmental demands. Indeed, according to molecular biologist John Medina, the human brain evolved to “solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion.” Because water has been crucial for our survival – both as source of food, and in more recent years as a source of money through trade and maritime industries – our brains have become neurologically wired to seek out the sea.

Waves of inspiration

Perhaps, however, writers are drawn to the sea because it possesses the same infinite and impossible qualities of the imagination – and of the task of writing, or creating any form of art. Just as the sea exists in a state of constant change, can lie tranquil and calm for a seeming age before suddenly erupting into the most enraged and energetic storm, and has the power to both lift you up and drag you under to dark and fathomless depths, so too must the writer grapple with the instantaneous changes that take place within the mind and imagination; and struggle with the challenge of putting word after word to paper consistently, fighting the various afflictions of writers’ block, distraction, and self-doubt. Writing, when the words are flowing freely, has the ability to lift you up and make you soar – the adrenaline rushing in your bloodstream. But it also has the ability to make you weak, and take you down some twisting rabbit holes as you uncover the secrets of your heart.

Joseph Conrad wrote that “the sea has never adopted the cause of its masters.” Neither has the act of creative writing, which is no formulaic act that can be mastered in totality. It is perhaps this enigmatic and uncontrollable quality that so enamours writers – and human beings – and also brings them back time and time again to stand at the shore of the sea, and sit before the typewriter, blank page, or computer screen, and grapple with the frightening and exciting infinite possibilities of both the sea, and of artistic endeavour.

For UK writers and artists, the only choice at this election is Labour

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On Thursday 8th June, UK citizens will go to the polling booths for the third time in three years to vote in an election they did not ask for, called by a Government that has systematically eroded public services, damaged the country’s creative and artistic industries, caused the stagnation of wages for all but the top 5% of earners, and ground the national economy to a standstill through an economically illiterate policy of austerity and a complete overreliance on an unsustainable housing bubble to artificially inflate GDP.

Nothing in the Rulebook has made no apology for positing that the greatest support for creatives – be they writers, artists, photographers, comedians, film makers or sculptors – comes from, and has always come from, political parties on the progressive ‘left’. At this critical juncture, this is a message that bears repeating: another five years of conservative rule would be disastrous for the UK’s creatives (be they aspiring writers and artists or established professionals).

The evidence for this is clear. If you compare and contrast the manifestos for the Conservative and Labour parties, on the subject of arts and culture, there is only one party striving to support and protect such a vital industry.

As this guide demonstrates, while Labour promises investment in arts funding, support for students, protection of UK heritage, culture and media institutions, the Conservatives on the other hand offer only further cuts to arts budgets already slashed to breaking point.

Labour vs Conservatives art funding

That the Conservatives should seek to attack the UK’s creative sector is perhaps unsurprising. Such parties rely on suppressing individual thought and creative expression for their existence, as for these parties, the ignorance of the population is the source of their strength. Free thinking, enlightened individuals are much harder to control.

Few examples illustrate how badly the Conservatives seek to suppress the artistic inclinations of the UK population than their cynical attacks on British libraries. In the name of austerity, UK libraries have closed at a dramatic rate, even as the relatively small costs of running these great institutions (and perfect sanctuary’s for human knowledge) goes solely to fund tax breaks for billionaires.

The reason for these attacks is simple: reading is one of the most usefully mischievous, secretly rebellious acts that there is. Libraries are often said to be fusty and staid — it might be true of the buildings, but it’s not true of the books that await teenagers there. Indeed, as Neil Armstrong once said, the knowledge contained within library books “is fundamental to all human achievement and progress”.

The ideas contained within these books – these works of literature available to every man, woman and child, entirely free of charge – thus have the potential to be revolutionary. In this way, library books are dangerous; and perhaps more dangerous are the librarians that dare to give books out to children too poor and uncultured to know not to take them seriously. Libraries make people powerful — people who shouldn’t be powerful — and we are weaker in untold ways without them.

These are just some of the myriad number of contemporary reasons UK creatives should cast their votes against the Conservative Party and in favour of Labour at the 2017 General Election.

Yet, it is also important here to remember the historical actions of the Conservative Party. While their election campaign strategy has focused a great deal on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s role in facilitating the peace process in Northern Ireland, almost no comment has been passed on the Conservative Party’s support for pro-apartheid regimes in South Africa and Angola; or for their unrelenting support of fascist dictators and regimes in South America. They call Jeremy Corbyn a terrorist sympathiser for attempting to broker peace with the IRA; yet they also called Nelson Mandela a terrorist – and called for him to be hanged. In the 20th Century alone, the Conservatives have done nothing but damage the UK, its citizens, and its economy. From Winston Churchill’s disastrous decision to return the country to the Gold Standard, through the laissez-faire policies of Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin, and onto the imposition of neoliberal economics by Margaret Thatcher (which laid the foundations for the global economic crash in 2007), the party has pursued with unrelenting vigour policies that favour only the richest and most powerful, and help strangle the money available for creatives and artists – cultivating a culture in which artistic work is increasingly difficult to pursue; preventing people from less-wealthy backgrounds from becoming artists in their own right, and thereby reducing the number of new and unique voices operating within the creative sphere – leading to the homogenisation of UK culture.

Theresa May’s Conservative party will be no different. The weak and wobbly Prime Minister has put no thought into ways to make the UK a better place for the country’s writers and artists – let alone the ordinary citizen – beyond promising to bring back fox hunting and steadfastly continue the failed policies of the past. Her zeal for attacking our European allies and her penchant for u-turns mean Brexit negotiations with EU leaders will likely turn into a farce of epic proportions. Should the UK leave Europe with no deal, not only will the economy suffer, so too will universities, students, artists and creatives who rely on strong relationships with partners across the continent.

On the other hand, under Jeremy Corbyn the UK Labour Party has become a genuine party of hope and change. Firmly on the right side of history for decades – like his counterpart Bernie Sanders in the US – Corbyn has transformed Labour from a conservative-lite neoliberal party under Tony Blair into an organisation focused intently on making the UK a better place for all citizens. That he and his party have caught the attention and support of so many, particularly young people, despite the almost consistently negative coverage of his performance in a media controlled by 8 tax dodging billionaires speaks of the resonance of his message. As the rapper, artist, Shakespearean producer and intellectual Akala notes: “For the first time in my adult life someone I consider to be fundamentally decent has a chance of being elected.”

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Photo credit: PA

The opportunity to vote for an honest and decent human being, and for a political party that truly seeks to support the many, rather than the few, while championing the arts and creative industries does not come along often in politics. And it is for this reason – more so than the terrible record of the Conservatives – that voters should mark their ballot papers in favour of the Labour Party at this year’s General Election.

Of course this endorsement comes with caveats. The inherent problems with the First Past the Post system means in certain seats, hard decisions must be made to ensure progressive candidates return to Parliament at the expense of Conservative MPs. Voters in Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat, for instance, should cast their ballots for one of the genuine leading lights in British politics and long-standing supporter of the arts. Meanwhile, on the Isle of White, constituents have the opportunity to elect the Green Party’s Vix Lowthon – who has championed calls for investment in the islands creative sector – at the expense of the Conservatives.

These minor intricacies of democracy aside, it is hard not to feel that the 2017 General Election carries with it a sense of importance. For the first time since the 1980s, people have the opportunity to vote for a genuinely progressive mainstream political party that has broken with the broken neoliberal consensus that has led so many of the world economies to ruin, and has also placed the arts and creative industries at the heart of their manifesto – along with policies that will provide the support UK citizens need to be able to pursue their dreams, unhindered by low wages and mountains of debt. The odds are – and always have been – stacked against those on the progressive left; yet there is now real cause for optimism among UK creatives. Writers and artists so often love creating works based on such underdog stories; but now we have the chance to participate in a true example of one ourselves.

On Thursday 8th June, vote with hope; vote for hope. Vote Labour.

Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

We need to write about climate change

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Can we imagine the end of the world? Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published the most meticulous report and scientific peer-reviewed report on climate change and global warming in decades. Despite being viewed as a generally conservative association, the IPCC report describes, in dry, detailed language, the complete collapse of the benign climate in which humans evolved and have prospers, and the loss of the conditions upon which many other life forms and organisms depend.

What the report details, in other words, is the story of catastrophic climate breakdown – a story of such complete disaster and ill-consequence that climate change and global warming are entirely inadequate descriptive terms here.

As activist and writer George Monbiot notes, “this is a catastrophe we are capable of forseeing but incapable of imagining. It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent.”

A problem of imagination

A key problem facing us, then, is that the stakes – while they couldn’t be higher – do not seem tangible enough to focus our attentions on the reality facing our species and the planet. While theorists such as Slavoj Zizek have argued it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, what we may in fact just be realising is that we aren’t even able to imagine the end of the world, either.

So, may all writers the world over step in at this moment. For, if it is a crisis of imagination we face, surely there are few warriors out there equipped with the skills and ability necessary to render this reality in ways that people can understand, comprehend, and realise in their own minds.

No time to lose

The urgency with which we must, as writers, act, is extreme. Donald Trump has, since his inauguration as the President of the Untied States, made persistent moves to attack what minimal environmental protection regulations and safety nets were in place, and the climate change denial he and his Republican administration advocate threatens our entire planet. We cannot deny or ignore the stakes at play here – we must move quickly to dispel any doubt over the future facing us if we do nothing.

However, such is the difficulty in imagining the potential future of our broken planet, there are precious few writers out there who are drawing attention to this most vital of causes.

As Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, writes in a Guardian article:

“It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel. is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.”

So what writers are out there who are currently writing about – or who have written about – climate change, and the consequences of ignoring it?

In a masterful letter to the future, Kurt Vonnegut puts the stakes pretty clearly as he tells us in no uncertain terms to “stop poisoning the air, water and topsoil.” Yet, as any writer knows, there is a difference between telling and showing: and while telling us to change our ways is one thing; what is needed now is for writers to show us what our future holds.

We need fiction, in other words.

Searching for ‘climate fiction’ on Amazon returns just over 1000 results – although the search algorithms mean that many self-published and a large quantity of non-fiction books also appear in this list. Yet there are “big-name” literary authors among them. Think, for instance of Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Barbar Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle.

There are other great books written by brilliant authors, too – such as The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, or Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich.

We have compiled a list of some of the most important – and best examples of – books about climate change here at Nothing in the Rulebook. And it’s vital we are able to read these and see what has been done – and is being done – in the world of ‘climate fiction’ (cli-fi, if you will). Because it is by reading the works of others that our own writing, and our own understanding of what writing works well, improves. And this knowledge will prove most critical as a new generation of aspiring writers finally starts to address the startling gap in our cultural narrative, and help make the “unimaginable” consequences of climate breakdown real.

 

 

 

Poetry as protest

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We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery.

The cries against this state of affairs are often silenced or minimised precisely because there is a lack of available tools to articulate an effective challenge. Beyond the obvious decline of trade unions and collective action, there is also a lack of control over language itself; we are unable to change the terms of argument because we are not in control of the narrative or discourse in which we find ourselves.

The reason for this is two-fold.

Firstly, the mainstream media is controlled by elite corporate power – 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the USA, and just 3 corporations control 70% of the media in the UK. The media therefore has none of the independence or freedom that is supposed to make it a tool of the people to challenge power. Noam Chomsky explains this problem pretty succinctly:

“The media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”

Secondly, the rise of social media – which was trumpeted by many as a means of empowering the people and removing the power of corporatized media – has not delivered an age of enlightened thought. In fact, the opposite has occurred; with a rise of misinformation, and the creation of siloed communities of likeminds who more often than not confirm, rather than challenge, existing biases held by individuals. Rather than open people’s minds to new ways of thinking, social media reduces our willingness to be open minded and reinforces our entrenched opinions. Recent studies have shown that documentary maker, Adam Curtis, was perhaps right when he claimed the internet and social media were doing the opposite of what they were created to do:

 “[They] facilitate communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each other’s assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits.”

If the problem lies within articulation of thought, therefore, the solution must be one which enables effective expression of ideas just as effectively as the political language of our current demagogues currently delivers a succession of political victories for neo-fascists like Donald Trump and the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party that currently finds itself leading the UK with an unelected Prime Minister.

And so this leads us to poetry – which perhaps may be surprising, given we live in a time when poetry is so often dismissed as being irrelevant.

Yet while poetry may now be found on the margins of public discourse, it is no less important. This is because poetry, like political language, is rarely spoken without intention. Furthermore, poetry has advantages and intrinsic attributes that political language and rhetoric lacks: including – but not limited to – a drive towards articulating a truth that is universal. Consider the words of the brilliant activist and poet Audre Lorde:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Rather than seek to confuse the listener and disguise meaning in order to achieve malicious objectives, in the way politicians so frequently use ‘triangulation’ and jargon to cover their true intentions; poetry by contrast seeks to make clear that which was uncertain or hidden.

Unlike political speech, poetry cannot afford to misuse language. Should a poet do otherwise, they sacrifice the very reason for a poem’s existence. Because above all else the language used in a poem must be precise and accurate. Every word must be chosen with the utmost care. Every word must count towards an ultimate goal – which is the delivery of meaning to the reader or listener of the poem. Above all, this goal must be towards truth – as Wilfred Owen wrote: “true poets, must be truthful”.

The poet must therefore labour over exact, precise articulation – since the poet understands that every word used creates a world, creates a meaning (to follow Derrida and Lacan), and that each word added or removed alters this meaning, and alters the world.

This touches upon what makes poetry so powerful as a tool of protest – as a weapon we can use to challenge the malicious powers that have risen to prominence in this age. Because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.

Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

Of course, the idea of poetry as protest is not new. In 1819, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

More recently, the swinging sixties and the Vietnam war also saw protest poetry emerge and blossom. See, for instance, Adrian Mitchell’s Tell me lies about Vietnam (available for free via The Guardian), a few lines of which are printed below:

“Every time I shut my eyes, all I see is flames
I made a marble phone-book, and I carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam”

Then you have the searing, satirical masterpiece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, featuring lines that simultaneously call for change while comically critiquing the current state of affairs:

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

Scott-Heron’s lines work on the page; but they are also made more powerful by his own incantatory delivery of them. His voice electrifies the poem and gives it new meaning, and – for some – makes the possibility of revolution and protest more real.

Yet the performative element of spoken word poetry perhaps is also one of the charges sometimes levied against it. Scott-Heron’s poem even serves as an example here: precisely because his call for the revolution not to be televised will for most people be watched on television screens (or, in this age, on computer screens). There is a touch of cynicism to Scott-Heron’s poem, too – an acknowledgement that his poetry lives in a world in which a protest against mainstream media is the exact sort of thing that will be broadcast across mainstream media.

This, of course, is a paradox of modern capitalism, touched upon by the late, great political theorist and writer Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, who uses the example of Kurt Cobain to illustrate the point:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to have give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.”

Fisher’s outlook on our future hinges on our ability to effect radical social change. Yet he is pessimistic mainly because he does not identify a clear tool or solution to help us achieve this. He does, however, hint at what any theoretical tool must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

The final sentence is crucial, here – because it highlights the way forward. In order to overcome the capitalist system that has produced the age of Donald Trump and ‘alt-facts’, it must be shown to be unreal – it must be shown to be false.

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Will writers lead the next revolution against the world of alt-facts? Photo credit: Ed Lederman/PEN America

Once again, poetry appears as a real solution – for it is perhaps only poetry that has the ability to reveal this reality effectively. To return once more to Lorde, by revealing those in power for what they really are, poetry can become more than protest – it can incite the radical change needed for revolution:

“I want my poems–I want all of my work–to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can’t separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I’m paraphrasing her–that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That’s what I want to do with all of my writing.”

Regardless of whether the revolution is televised or not, if it is poetically led, it will become irresistible; and if it becomes irresistible, then perhaps it will also become inevitable.

So, where is this poet-warrior-led revolution going to start? And where are the poems to inspire it? Well, we’ve launched our Haikus for the NHS’ poetry project to – hopefully – ignite the initial revolutionary flames. Why not let the spirit of poetry as protest burn in your inkwells and get involved ahead of the national demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service on 4 March?