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.)

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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

I browse eyebrows: adventures with voice recognition software

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Once upon a time a poor author decided she was tired of typing so she thought she’d try out the word recognition software on her iPad. She wanted to write a blog post about fairy tales BUT the elves and the shoemaker became the show emailer. Fairies were various, Rapunzel became rap ur seal. The Arabian Nights turned into Radiance Nights (rather lovely, actually), and she has a rather Sheherezade. So the poor author went to bed in a huff.

One stormy evening the poor author tried again.

Maybe it was just her voice wasn’t clear enough. Maybe her ideas needed editing, but somehow or other it didn’t seem to make much sense when she read it back. Then someone suggested making a virtue of necessity: she would write a blog post through voice mail with no corrections and see if anyone could tell what it was about.

So she wrote about reading books instead, and this time she realised you have to say the punctuation. Full stop. Please read on:

Eyebrows. No, I love to 1st books on the wet autumn afternoon, lying on the sofa in my pyjamas without a care in the world. That sounds a bit dubious velocity

Of course what I really meant was biologically. But the timer runs out very quickly with the voice recognition is it software. Someone that means you have to have your ideas more quickly they need to be more six synced and no I meant succinct. Well done softwar

Let’s return to the paragraph for last what I said was I love to browse books on the wet autumn afternoon a wet awesome afternoon no a wet autumn afternoon. But first it came out as I love to pass books on an autumn afternoon no and autumn aftern. Interesting to see what happens when the timer runs out Medford meet word no meat word no mate word no mate M I D word. I don’t know what this voice recognition softt gets the word mate.

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Anyway, if we were talking about passing books on a wet autumn afternoon, that was what I thought would be a bit do you BS know do you BS, no NO, do you PS, do you PSPS, do you B. Well what I was trying to say and will go off voice recognition software and I’ll type it was: “Dubious”. Biologically. Do you BS (dubious) to pass books biologically even if you are a bookworm!

Strangely, the software sometimes correct its own mistakes. But then sometimes it makes them worse. That’s how do you BS became do you pierce azin as in earrings or piercings and that’s how past books which was meant to be browns books, no, arouse books, NO, “browse” books became first books. (I don’t know what the word recognition software thought I was trying to say but I reckon some whole new positions for things to do with books have been invented inadvertently. Arouse books, anyone?)

The author gave up! she thought, it may be that even though I suffer from incipient RSI I should go back to typing my next novel. Oddly enough apart from the capital letter at the beginning, that sentence came out perfectly.

See you more clearly next week back here on the block!

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© Jessica Norrie 2016 (although who would want to pinch this?)

Narratives from the riverbank.

592657Of all landscape features, it seems to me a river is the one that lends itself best to carrying a narrative, either the whole story (Three Men in a Boat or Deliverance), or departures and episodes that hook the reader like a helpless fish. Think how Dickens starts Our Mutual Friend with Lizzie Hexham and her father rowing along looking for dead bodies in the Thames, and how in Oliver Twist the events leading to Bill Sykes murdering Nancy begin at London Bridge. (The Victorian Web has a fascinating discussion of the setting.) Alice in Wonderland begins on the banks of the river Isis, which is where the real Alice and Lewis Carroll sat as he told the original tales, fortunately over a century before Inspector Morse started fishing bodies out of it. Mole starts the The Wind in the Willows  by falling in, Ratty saves him, and then they just go with the flow.

More grimly The Bridge over the River Kwai was a bestseller, about POWs in the Far East, and competing for grimness is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo. Surely it’s no accident that these settings have inspired such successful films.

More books set on or by rivers are discussed here, and picture books here. For older children I’d add two favourites. Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken is the second in a long series of wonderful adventures.The rightful heir to the throne is rescued from a sinking barge on the Thames by art students in a hot air balloon! Only Joan Aiken could fit so much drama into one chapter – and that isn’t really a spoiler, as there is so much else in the story both before and after that episode.

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“Battersea Castle”  from “Black Hearts in Battersea”, 1992 Red Fox edition

The second is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Her family have to cross a river on a hastily made raft of wooden logs, in their covered wagon drawn by ponies. (Memory says it was the Mississippi, but the book’s gone on a journey of its own so I can’t check.) During the crossing the river rises in a flash flood and the ponies must swim for it. On another occasion the horses pull the wagon across an apparently ice bound lake. Half way across the ice begins to give way…These stories were based on true events of her pioneer childhood.

Unless there’s a drought, a river flows along episodically, with a start and an end (an open end, as it flows into the sea), changing as it moves along, a place of work and pleasure, danger and refreshment. The river at Hiroshima represented salvation to victims of the A Bomb: For my burning body the cold water of the river was as precious as the treasure. Now it’s a calm, serene and beautiful place, with cranes (birds not machines!) and riverside walks.

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The Map that came to Life sends two children on a walk with a large scale Ordnance Survey map. On the way they cross, encounter, climb and wade through various landscape features and pass significant and domestic buildings. Similarly, in Kyoto, Japan the Kamogawa River came to life as we walked along it and I tell the story in the photos below. It flows between wide sloping green banks. We descended steps to the path beside it, and immediately the roaring traffic was quieter, the air cleaner, and the sky wider. It’s too shallow for boats, but stepping stones led across and we saw them in use. We met a man walking his dog who was delighted I wanted a photo (I think they both were).

There is only one wooden bridge left among the stone ones, but there were rows of old wooden teahouses, bars and homes, and because Kyoto has  a “no high rise” policy the modern flats were not (too) intrusive. After bowing our thanks to the man with the dog we came to another man doing T’ai Chi, echoing the serenity with his controlled, beautiful movement. By the next bridge a flautist trilled on one bank, playing call and response with a violinist opposite. Herons, very close, swooped to pull gleaming fish from the water and there were butterflies with huge orange wings. A volunteer (I presume) group of elderly Japanese were out weeding and picking up the rare litter, too busy to greet us. On the far bank we saw an artist painting the riverside buildings, his back turned to a second artist… who had set up his easel in the water itself, the bottom edge of the canvas barely above the surface.

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And then we came up the steps, past the tramp with a huge pile of bags in a trolley at the top, and back into the heat and traffic above. We’d been offered an oasis full of characters. Long may their stories continue, and may the river add new ones every day.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

On packing for a novel

Although I love trips away and I’ve chosen to be a writer, packing a case and planning a novel both fill me with dread. But I’m not one to waste a good analogy.

I don’t know what to include. I’m worried I may end up marooned without something crucial, or humping around a dead weight of miscellaneous junk. Will my choices complement each other, or will they be out of place and pointless? What mood will I be in – light, careless, stressed, excited, energetic?
hat-and-umbrellaWill I stride up mountains and pen epic passages? If so I’d better take my strongest boots and most heroic thoughts. Or will I get stuck at some bureaucratic roadblock, with no way through from one chapter to the next without endless examination of my narrator’s identity and reasons for passing through? Will my inner critic let me vault such hurdles, only to shrug her shoulders and say, I’m lost?

For realism and to set the scene, a writer can note the climate. But how will the weather behave? Will my characters and I need rain coats or diaphanous gowns? How will I fare when the pests of the air sting on the long itchy nights / typos adn infelicities infest my exiled prose? I can pack mosquito repellent but I can’t pack my editor.

Who and where are my secondary characters? Will they just happen along, or have I planned to meet them? It’s the author’s privilege to ditch the Brexit bores, if that’s who the company turns out to be, but they can be tenacious chaps who hang around dulling my polished prose. A good guide book may help me avoid them, so in it goes.

How quickly will time pass? Do I need books, sketching materials, puzzles – aka subplots, illustrations, and red herrings? Or will my trip and my story be entertaining enough alone? Would such distractions impede or embellish?

I dither and wander and find displacement activities. Make a trifle, sand the kitchen counter, catch up with the book reviews I promised months ago. Anything but commit to what is going in that case/novel. (Tracy Chevalier describes this well in the Guardian.) In the end I wildly throw everything, essential or not, on the bed. I hurl more on top, chuck it out, bung it in again.. It’s a depressing muddle that will never fit and I sleep in the spare room that night.

Anyway, what case? I forgot I’d thrown it out as it was splitting. Ditto what flight bag? What about those transparent moments when everyone can see my intimate creams and ointments as I go through security? Am I writing a novel at all, or is the idea just too leaky and revealing? Would it be wiser not even to embark ?

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Departure day arrives. I must commit. I have a list on the computer, some of it out of date (cassette tapes? Trainer cups?) Likewise there’s a list of requirements for a novel: genre, characters (all grown ups now), setting, inciting incidents, five acts, themes, and – when I can finally leave the house – resolution. Nothing must be left behind.

At the airport I’m anxious and buy more paracetamol, forgetting I already have enough to kill off a whole series of victims.

Let’s cut to the last day of the trip/the end of my current writing journey. I’m pleased! I vow to visit again, spending more time in one place, paying more careful attention. I’ve acquired so much I have to force the case shut and buy a strong strap to keep everything together. The paraphernalia I added early in my stay are still protected by tissue wrappings: I’ve forgotten what these items are and they’ll take me by surprise when I unpack back home. Most are no good: what I thought an ideal Christmas present is actually tacky; that poignant incident I wrote the night we drank cocktails is schmaltz. The volatile scene created on the flight out will work, with some of the turbulence tamed; but the meandering chapter of the thirty-two hour Friday you live through when you get on a plane at midday in Tokyo and disembark at 3pm in London is too long and tired.There’s dirty washing to be done and careless prose to clean up and the only thing that will help is a cup of tea that tastes of home. My analogy has been baggage handled to breaking point, but souvenirs survive: a fine wine, a garment of exquisite comfort to be worn until it falls apart, photographs of beautiful, strange people and places. Enough to frame the rest of the story. Welcome to the start of making sense.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016