Girl, Woman, Author

Girl, Woman, Author

            blogger Jessica was first and foremost an author except on imposter syndrome days and ran her blog mainly to keep her writing hand in     

            having admired Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other she decided to try writing an autobiographical blogpost in Evaristo’s style 

            which is harder than it looks, as each sentence in Girl, Woman, Other has its own paragraph with no capital letters to start or full stops, although you can use other punctuation like commas   

from page 10, UK Penguin paperback edition

            so Jessica made each paragraph a separate block and indented first lines as Evaristo does (please excuse inconsistent indents due to sustained opposition from the WordPress Block Editor; also note links to Jessica’s previous blogposts don’t open in a new tab although links to outside sites do and Jessica who is a writer not a coder is flummoxed and frustrated by this as it used to be simple to do)         

            it was a toss-up between trying the Evaristo style and writing another post about mothers and daughters because the first one was four years ago now and she was excited because her own daughter, not seen since before lockdown, was coming to stay

              anyway that’s all some weeks ago now 

              the stay went well and it was lovely to see each other 

              Jessica returned to Girl, Woman, Other and realised how refreshing it is to read so much straightforward back story (memo to any creative writing tutor she’s ever met that she’ll put in as much as she likes from now on)

    it gave her hope for her own future books

             the reading pleasure she had once she’d agreed to Evaristo’s style reminded her of when she stopped fighting Jon McGregor’s narrative terms in Reservoir 13 and just rolled with them

             (although it was restful later to turn to the conventional narrative of The Confessions of Frannie Langton, which along with the Evaristo gives good insight into the experiences of black women in the UK both historically and now)

            Girl, Woman, Other also has a particularly useful section near the end which discusses the pronouns you can now use for variously gendered people in a witty and clear way possibly only a writer who is herself from a minority group could get away with (although what defines a minority when you really think about it?)

              but that section was very helpful as Jessica is now meeting many people who identify as non-binary

              black women of all backgrounds, sexualities, generations and classes feature in each section of Girl, Woman, Other and because Evaristo uses the same neutral style to tell all their stories (unless Jessica has missed something) the novel gives the appearance of comparing their lived experiences objectively

              and those of some black men too 

              it led Jessica to buy another recent bestseller, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No longer Talking to White People about Race although she must admit she hasn’t started reading it yet

             returning to the autobiography, Jessica started writing for pleasure in around 2010 if you don’t count her efforts as a small child and then a teenager

             after university her writing was temporarily submerged under the stress and frustration of her early teaching career as she discovered she really wasn’t cut out for life in schools but soldiered on until maternity leave gave her time to qualify as a freelance translator

             so where many women worry having small children will stunt their creativity in other spheres Jessica found it gave her space to breathe (she was lucky because her children inherited extremely easy behaviour from their father or at least that’s what her mother-in-law put it down to)

             translation didn’t pay the bills so she returned to teaching and this time got a good fit with schools and management, progressing to work in so-called school improvement and teacher training

              in 2008 she started going on holiday to a mad and wonderful place which inspired her first novel The Infinity Pool which was published in 2015

The Infinity Pool on location

              encouraged by success including an Australian no 1 listing she embarked on The Magic Carpet which she hoped would illustrate the multiplicity of different stories any teacher must take into account when responding to the pupils who come through the door of any class anywhere

               it had to have a diverse cast because she had never learnt or taught in any all-white schools or lived in a monocultural neighbourhood and that meant some narration in the voices of characters whose ethnicities Jessica doesn’t share, which seemed more acceptable in 2016 when she started writing it than now

                 she can only say she researched it as thoroughly as she could both formally and informally and if anything is inaccurate please let her know, no offence is intended but Jessica is a white European author so The Magic Carpet must absolutely not be taken as “own voice” except in the sections narrated by Teresa

                   having read Evaristo Jessica also now understands that using third person for the characters whose background she doesn’t share would have lessened the chance of readers thinking they might be written by an “own voice” author

                 The Magic Carpet was published in 2019 by which time Jessica had been retired two years or is it three, amazing how the years start to blur

                  Jessica’s agent is now submitting a third novel to publishers which is based on women’s voices in a small village

                 while Jessica tries to summon up inspiration for a fourth novel

                 her respect has soared for Evaristo whose style appeared easy to imitate but is actually very difficult because not only do you have to pick out the salient facts and a few intriguing details to encapsulate an entire life past present and potential future but you have to do it in one sentence paragraphs that flow, retain the readers’ interest and win major prizes

                Jessica’s life isn’t as interesting as the lives of the characters in Girl, Woman, Other but it’s been a worthwhile experiment (the life and this blogpost) and of course it isn’t finished yet (the life)

                  it has been what it’s been

                  it is what it is

©Jessica Norrie 2020 in homage to Bernadine Evaristo and defiance of the WordPress Block Editor

The right to write

My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:

Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?

There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).

1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.

2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.

3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.

46195759Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of  what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.

I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.

The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban,  African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:

The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”. 

We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.

When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.

Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.

I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.

Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. 3711Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English  mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.

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Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared,  the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.

What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.

© Jessica Norrie 2020

Child’s play? Writing a child narrator

I started jotting down ideas for The Magic Carpet during my last few years of teaching. After retirement, it became therapy, to get teaching out of my system – the lessons I’d learnt, the people I’d met, the “all human life is there” reality of any school community. It threatened to be heavy going for its future readers, as it turned into a teacher’s sour rant against the government.

School signFortunately, the words of a wise headteacher came to mind: “Jessica, always remember the only people with an unarguable right to be in this school are the children. Not the head, the staff or the caretaker, not the parents – just the children.” She was right, so I decided to tell my story – of diversity and language, of education gone wrong and going right, of friendships, tiffs and damaged and happy families surviving, imploding or just plodding on in an increasingly intolerant London – through the eyes of the children.

The Magic Carpet starts in September with a new Year Three class (pupils between seven and eight years old). I’ve worked with learners from three to adult in my career, but my most recent classes were Year 2 up to July, the very same age group. I wasn’t just familiar with the voice, I’d been surrounded by thirty examples of it daily. Up shot several imaginary hands: “Miss! Choose me!” I imagined thirty children, sitting cross-legged on an imaginary carpet in front of me as I took an imaginary register. “I can only choose – let me see – five at most,” I said. The hands stretched higher; the pleading volunteer groans got louder: “Me! No, choose me! I’ll be really good!”

My story involves the relationship between home and school. I was looking for a quiet, perceptive, articulate narrator, who’d know when to stand back and observe and when to express their feelings. Alka and Nathan, a girl and a boy, fitted the bill. Then someone a bit clumsy to add humour, like in a pantomime. That was Sky. As I wrote this self-centred child I softened towards her; she had her own problems. Remember the class excitement when a new pupil arrived? I’d introduce Xoriyo. She’d see what was really going on and be an agent for change. Finally, I chose Mandeep, for likeability. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites but in retirement with a fictional class, you can do as you like.

Henry M 3
Assembly at my children’s school, 2000

Now I found a new problem. I’d describe something, then realise even the brightest Year Three child wouldn’t know that concept or vocabulary. Nathan’s father goes online dating, but Nathan would hardly be tagging along, reporting back. Sky’s mother, despite her self-doubt, is a good mother, and would hide her mild depression from Sky. Several elements of my story took place after the children’s bedtimes, or in areas of experience they wouldn’t yet have. But after I’d simplified the language and ideas to account for all that, the voices of Alka, Nathan, Sky, Xoriyo and Mandeep sounded indistinguishable.

A more sensible writer would therefore concentrate on one child narrator, as in Stephen Kelman’s brilliant Pigeon English or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I wanted to reflect the variety of personalities, backgrounds, and abilities in a typical class. When I’d nearly finished The Magic Carpet, Guy Gunaratne published In Our Mad and Furious City, also juggling five diverse points of view. He does it very well, but his youngest narrator is already a streetwise teenager, out and about by himself. If my seven-year-olds did that, they’d come to the attention of social services – or not  – and I’d be back to ranting.

Mid dilemma, the children took over again. Xoriyo opted for a silent protest – a period of selective mutism, not uncommon when a child wants to stay in control of things. Mandeep ran off to play football; Nathan was absorbed in computer games and Sky was moody. That left Alka, a beautiful, bright, shy child who is bewildered and distressed when her secure world is turned upside down by an incident at home. With just one child voice, it became simpler. If she doesn’t know the name of something, I make an adult tell her – “Mum says that plant’s a buddleia.” If she overhears part of a phone conversation, she interprets what she hears literally. She tries to make sense of events in her life by drawing parallels with fairy stories, as all children do (which is why traditional stories remain universally popular). She thinks of law enforcement in terms of school rules. Parents keep her quiet by telling her off or other children bully her or once literally gag her. Once, she tries screaming to get her way. Sometimes she thinks problems through to terrifying logical conclusions because her seven-year-old self can’t get them in proportion.

With Alka in place, four adult narrators flocked to stand guard. Sky’s mother, downbeat but dogged; Nathan’s father, gradually remembering the power of the imagination; Xoriyo’s mother, speaking on her daughter’s behalf for as long as necessary, and Mandeep’s grandmother who has never lost her original childish joy. I hope you enjoy meeting them all in The Magic Carpet – as one Amazon review says: “It is a lovely novel and will resonate with all parents and teachers. Recommended.”

Jessica Norrie ©2019

 

You say what you have to say; it takes as long as it takes.

Sometimes a high quality experience crops up unexpectedly to enhance my life. One afternoon last week, when I was wasting time or so I thought on Facebook, up popped an advert. Julian Barnes would be in conversation with Hermione Lee, starting in four hours.

(Lucky me, to live in London and be free at short notice, with £11.50 to spare for a ticket plus the fare into Piccadilly. This is the sort of event many writers and would be writers are not able to attend. See Kit de Waal on the subject, here.)

I’ve always admired Julian Barnes’ writing. It was inspiring to see him in the flesh. Tall, spare, sardonic, dignified. He can do a lot with one raised eyebrow or a glance along his nose (not down his nose, I think). The hour began with Barnes reading from The Only Story, published on 1st February. (A similar reading is available here.) I’d read the first pages before the talk, and if I’m honest been underwhelmed by comparison with the opening to his last book, The Noise of Time. Now here were the necessary cadences to bring the prose alive, a helpful oral guide to approaching the text.

 

I’ve not been to many such events. I once saw Fay Weldon taking questions after a play at the Rosemary Branch in Islington. She was rumbustious, hearty and undeterred by whatever was thrown at her but I remember little of what she said.Then, not long before she died, I saw Doris Lessing take sole command of the wide National Theatre stage, unexpectedly elegiac and mild, reflecting with conviction and humour on a life interestingly lived. The Barnes event was more elegant, in the pretty little lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. It seemed more scripted, fittingly for Barnes who famously considers his choice of words so carefully and takes Flaubert as a model. There were no questions. Professor Hermione Lee has worked extensively with Barnes before. Even so, some of the observations she made took bravery, as this patrician man makes it clear when he doesn’t agree. His joke about a young man who for some reason had to walk out mid talk caused laughter that must have rung loud in the embarrassed departing ears.

Barnes lecture 1
Before the event

The Only Story is about love going right and love going wrong. The epigraph is Dr Johnson’s definition in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. “A novel: a small tale, normally of love.” The beginning poses the question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less?” As Barnes said “The first love becomes a template for all subsequent loves – either as what not to do, or as an ideal.”

Barnes spoke of memory, age, time, and autobiography in his fiction. Memory becomes less reliable as you age, more dependent on the imagination. He can’t use his own memories in his writing for at least five or six years after the event; they have to undergo some sort of internal process first, which he likened to composting. Some memories beg to be used in fiction, but the writer must shoehorn them in carefully or they’ll jar. He asks academics who study his books to alert him if he’s used an anecdote before.

Barnes lecture 7

He thought (though didn’t specifically advise) younger writers need to write chronologically at first, within a short time frame, or much of their narrative can only be guesswork. The writer over seventy has the privileged capacity to handle extended time periods. But, although Barnes often sets his fiction in the “neutral” suburbia of his youth, and prefers to write about inner emotions, the reader shouldn’t assume everything is autobiographical. A reader of The Only Story had cast him as the hero, and written: “I didn’t know you had two hip replacements!” His reply, eyebrow raised, sardonic smile: “One can make things up, you know. This is fiction.”

Many in the audience nodded vigorously at the points he made, but they were mostly much younger. Some took frantic notes and others were recording Barnes on their phones – was I mistaken or was he not wholly pleased? If they were creative writing students looking for specific recipes for planning novels, his answers were slippery but amusing. I think I’ve deciphered these quotes correctly from my jottings on the Evening Standard in the tube – I was less well equipped than the creative writing students and wanted simply to listen.

Lee: Why are your books so short?

Barnes: (purses lips, picks up book and leafs through): 213 pages? Then he quoted a favourite of his, the French writer Jules Renard who in a journal of some 1000 pages said: “All novels are too long”.

Lee: Well, I mean, “compressed”, then.

Barnes: Well, you say what you have to say, and it takes as long as it takes.

(Although I wondered if some of his writing is “compressed” because he’s been honing his craft for so long he now needs fewer words to express what he means.)

45369He sidestepped a question about planning with an anecdote about his friend Michèle Roberts and how she develops a novel. For his part, he strolls about until ideas come (“mooching and mulching”.) But he did discuss taking care with “balance”. For example, in Arthur and George, Arthur (Conan Doyle) could have become weighted down with research material whereas George ( a young man he championed in a court case) had only an ephemeral presence in the archives. It was a challenge not to reflect this contrast in how the text showed the characters.

Lee asked how he felt about the use of his name as an adjective “Barnesian”. He said he didn’t know what it meant, partly because he doesn’t read reviews. He doesn’t object to “Dickensian” or “Larkinesque” but wouldn’t want to explore such an interpretation of his own work because it might make his writing “self conscious and limited”. Then she approached writing in the first, second or third person, but again Barnes signposted books other than his own. All I can tell you is Julian Barnes recommends Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney as the best example of second person narration he knows. Here’s The Only Story‘s narrator (possibly a mouthpiece for JB, more probably not) on settings: “The time, the place, the social milieu. I’m not sure how important they are, in stories about love…and one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather.

Barnes lecture 4If I am making Barnes sound ungenerous or exclusive, I don’t mean to. He must enjoy talking about his work because there are several interviews available online for anyone not lucky enough to be able to attend such events. But his presentation finds a subtle, precise middle ground between publicity and dignity – much like his writing style – not giving too much away, tickling the audience’s interest, retaining his own privacy. Diffidence, form, subtlety are underrated in our screeching age, and this compressed event was perfect in its understatement.

There’s been much recent discussion of diversity in publishing. Here was a white, middle class, able bodied (the hips, anyway) European male in amusing conversation, before a mainly white audience of (presumably) Londoners. No barricades will be stormed by audiences attending events like this. Yet the decorous dialogue between two establishment figures reflected the style, wit, poignancy and insight into the human condition of Barnes’ writing, with lessons for all. I enjoyed it immensely.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

How well do you know your characters?

An author of fiction must inhabit the world of their characters convincingly. But how far may they travel from their own experience to do so?

Clearly, authors of fantasy and science fiction have the most leeway. Nobody can know what it’s really like to be an imaginary creature, an alien or someone/something from the future. Authors of historical novels must make an imaginative leap fuelled by as much accurate research as possible. But how about those of us writing contemporary fiction? Can men write as women, gay people as heterosexuals, white people as Asians or Africans, the British as Poles or able bodied writers as those with a disability? Can Ian McKewan write as an unborn child? (Of course that is an experience we’ve all had, and it seems from the reviews  that he can.)

globe-2

A fellow author recently posted in an online forum that she had been taken to task in an Amazon review thus: “You are unbelievable as an adolescent black girl from the South“. It’s one of only 2 poor reviews out of 66 excellent ones for a prize winning book that involved many years of research, but it concerned her. It’s clear from her Amazon page and other reviews that she had thought deeply about her right to tell the story, but the reviewer’s complaint worried me too, as I’m currently writing my second novel set in East London (UK). It would hardly reflect the location if I didn’t include many different ethnicities, so I have to speak in their voices. Previously, in The Infinity Pool, I didn’t find the voice of a young girl from a rural Mediterranean community a problem and no one (yet) has suggested I’ve got it wrong. But are a Punjabi grandmother who grew up in India, a Hong Kong Chinese father and a Somali single mother who came to the UK as a toddler steps too far for this middle class, solvent white woman? Having taught in multicultural schools for 33 years, I thought I knew their user groups well, but now I’m stepping inside their homes and their heads, and there is a scary amount of scope for accidentally giving offence, misrepresenting or simply promulgating stereotypes. At times I think I’ll give up, but I have my story, and my teaching experience, and I don’t want to waste either of them.

In one area I looked at, I found at least two YA authors who’d overcome my reservations. Here’s a 51ch1bjotslmale author in the voice of a Somali girl who is about to be cut, and a white female author in the voice of one who manages to avoid it. Do they sound authentic? It would take a Somali woman to tell you, but the stories were vivid, compelling and exciting. Cutting is not a major theme in my novel, but in the course of checking assumptions about my own Somali character, I did background research and found UNICEF reports showing the almost universal prevalence of FGM in Somalia has only dropped by 2% in recent years despite all the efforts to oppose it. (In other countries campaigns have been more successful, as they have among Somali families in the UK.) I asked one such campaigner whether white western authors should attempt to speak in the voice of somebody whose experience is so far removed from their own. Her reply was that given the lack of success on the ground her colleagues now look to writing and journalism to change hearts and minds. Fiction may put the case where other means have failed. But of course, the fiction must be well written, well researched (and available, but that’s another story).51mrzlcrrml-_sy346_

So why have doubts? Let’s consider these scenarios: men writing as women and vice versa; parents writing as childless adults and the other way round; adults writing as or for children; social drinkers writing as alcoholics, healthy people as invalids; vegetarians writing as meat eaters; humans (well obviously) writing as animals? Some of these sound ridiculous: of course writers should tackle such challenges. If we only write about ourselves, there would be even more navel gazing white dinner party novels than the indigestible number there already are. But may I, a solvent, educated white middle class woman write in the voice of a refugee on an overloaded boat somewhere off the coast of Greece? May I write in the voice of a prisoner despite a parking ticket being my biggest ever brush with authority, or in the voice of a doctor even though I failed chemistry O level? I think I’ve decided yes, if I write convincingly, do my research, avoid stereotypes and above all if those people are necessary to my story. (Although they could also be bystanders, mentioned just to acknowledge they exist, so the default model for fictional characters isn’t white, middle class, able bodied, hetero…) There, problem solved. I’ll get on with it.

But then I read The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by BAME writers in the UK, recently featured on BBC Radio 4. This is timely, entertaining, angry and should be compulsory reading for…everyone. Do you get stopped at airports? Searched when waiting at a bus stop? Have you had a headscarf ripped from your head as you go to buy a sandwich? Won all the school prizes, graduated with first class honours, and still not been shortlisted for a job unless you change your name? Do you never see yourself reflected on a screen or in a book, or if you are, only as a stereotype (minicab driver, terrorist, arranged bride)? You probably know actors no longer “black up” to play Othello nowadays, but did you know “yellowface” is still in common use? These writers are angry with reason. They want to be portrayed in all kinds of media, but they don’t want to be portrayed as stereotypes (I must take very good care) or with tokenism (I mustn’t use “namaste” as a shortcut to showing how well I understand people of Indian ethnic origin). Above all they want to be portrayed as everyday characters whose ethnicity is incidental and who do not have to win Olympic gold medals or have their skins lit like Beyoncé’s to be an acceptable part of UK society.

61twx2rf9vlI saw what they meant about stereotypes and authenticity when I looked at the time scale for my novel. A digression will illustrate the point. I do not follow any religion (an idea the children I taught almost unanimously found appalling). But my family celebrate Christmas, in that we eat special food and drink a lot, buy presents, spend £35+ on a pot plant that we throw away two weeks later, and give more money to charity than at other times of year. Now imagine a novel with my family in it, set in December, that didn’t mention Christmas. Or imagine one that does, but gets fundamentals slightly wrong: Midnight Mass on Boxing Day, for example, or Father Christmas driving a sleigh pulled by ponies. These are the pitfalls I face if I write about “other” cultures – which I have been conditioned to think of as “other” even when I mean third, fourth generation “immigrants” who speak English better than I do. Mistakes that wouldn’t be noticed by some readers could well be offensive to others, and add to the pile of examples of “host country” ignorance. For that reason I’ve moved my six week long story to a year when it doesn’t fall during either the important Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha or the important Hindu festival of Diwali (and yes, I do know Eid moves around the year). That way it makes sense that I barely mention them AND I avoid the pitfalls of getting details wrong. Of course, much other daily background detail remains and must be researched and referred to, both in the sense that it’s the same as for the majority community and for where it differs. But what do I mean, majority community? The parents of over 90% of children I taught in East London ticked a box other than White UK on their entry forms, and among that 90% around 25 different languages were spoken. There was no clear majority.

What if I get something as fundamental as names wrong? Somali women do not take their husband’s surnames (although now, in the UK, some do). Bhangra is not the only music Sikhs enjoy (and maybe some Sikhs don’t). Hong Kong has rural areas as well as the twinkling skyscrapers we all associate with it. Is Gulab Jamun a Bengali sweet or a Gujarati one? (Perhaps it’s both.) And the grandmother – what will her grandchildren call her?

Will every moment of every day be informed for my characters by their ethnicity? Here’s Bim Adewunmi In The Good Immigrant: “Here’s what black people do: we breathe air, we drink water and we fart noxious gasses, just like other people. Our hopes and dreams are similar, and alongside the various hardships we may suffer because of the way we look or where we come from, we largely do the same things – and that includes all the frivolous things too.” On the other hand will it not be? Himesh Patel writes: “In discovering so much about how my family arrived here in the UK, I discovered how rich their story is with the culture and traditions of their homeland, but at its core it’s a universal story about love and life.” In the shoes of my characters, would I be in fear of racism, or hate and despise it, or fight back against it, or not actually experience it much? globe-1There is one way I can respond. It’s true I’ve never experienced racism, but, having lived and travelled abroad, I have come across xenophobia – not so serious, but it may give an inkling. And there’s a better parallel. I am female, so I do know what it’s like to walk into a public social place and not see anyone else like me there (less so nowadays but that used to be true of all pubs and bars, and it was very intimidating). I do know how it feels to walk down a dark street and hear footsteps behind and think they may be those of an attacker. I have been on the receiving end of hatred and aggression, derision and disgust, purely because of the body I was born with.

And so I’m going to take the plunge, and write my Somali single mum, my Punjabi grandmother and my father born in Hong Kong. They will, after all, only be characters in fiction. They will not represent the entirety of their culture, any more than I represent the entirety of mine. The story is about family relationships and relationships with the school the children go to, before it’s about ethnicity. It’s just that – hooray! – I can’t write a London based story nowadays, with an all white cast, or even with a white majority. (I wonder what Dickens would have made of it?) I’ll give Himesh Patel the last word: “My heritage, while inherently linked to my ethnicity, only makes up part of the role I play in society – day to day I’m just another face in the multicultural population of twenty-first century Britain.”

©Jessica Norrie 2016