A Literary Elephant in the room?

Do we really know words as well as we think we do?

I have often heard aspiring writers saying how they ‘love words’ or referring to themselves ‘wordsmiths’. What are words, static material we beat into shape to form what we mean to say, or are they rather less like metal, and more like wild natural creatures, slippery as eels? Shape changers even? Researching their ‘meanings’ over time certainly reveals words as living things, capable of evolving and changing beyond recognition. Take the words ‘worry’, ‘why worry’, ‘don’t worry’, ‘no worries’… how many of us today would use ‘worry’ where ‘strangle’ would do? A dog ‘worrying’ sheep isn’t just increasing their anxiety. If a dog worried sheep, our ancestors were finding dead, mangled, sheep among their flock – a very different threat.

Here I need to seize another word and carefully lead it along—beating it with a smith’s hammer and anvil won’t do. Originally used simply to mean ‘relating to the Gospel or Good News’ the word ‘evangelical’ was adopted to describe a particular type of Protestant Christian belief, often including fervent practice and emphasising that faith should always stem from a personal ‘conversion experience’. Here we then have another way words ‘change their meaning’: the ‘meaning’ slithers by contextualisation, by usage, by connotation…  The ‘gospel’ has  been hijacked: as Evan Maloney (Where did all the Christian writers go? Guardian, 31 March 2010) says, ‘The central commandment of Jesus was “Love one another”—it’s not an idea that leverages power for religious brokers. With social power church needs to divide society into good and evil, and to have these divisions recognised as gospel.’  And so instead of ‘bringer of good news’ the word ‘Evangelical’ has become associated in a majority of minds with not bringing good news at all. ‘Evangelical has morphed in common usage from being a reference to a set of primary theological commitments into something akin to a passionately defended, theo-political brand’ says Mark Labberton, president of Fuller seminary, and editor of Still Evangelicals?  (2018).  And, ‘It is now painfully clear that the evangelical world was strategically and politically co-opted—not by more conservative evangelical leaders, but by political operatives from the Republican Party who saw a real opportunity to take over the evangelical world by making particular appeals to “conservative social issues”’ say Jim Wallis and Adam Taylor in Towards a more authentic Evangelicalism (Sojo website 10 March 2018).

So much for words, slipperiness, and hijacking. 

Identity, and Getting inside another pair of shoes

My previous blog, on Authenticity, talked about identity books, the kinds of books which explore in memoir or in fiction the world of a particular culture, and how reading can open up our imagination to understanding people different to us, by culture, life experience, sexual orientation, etc. And how much I have valued several I read recently. The world of Damien La Bas, from a Gypsy background; the world of Vicky Beeching, raised evangelical, working as a singer/songwriter in ‘mega churches’, and battling with how and whether it was safe to ‘come out’ and be her lesbian self; the world of Afua Hirsch, being ‘mixed race’  where neither Britain where you were born and educated, or Ghana, feels like ‘home’. I feel a bit ‘mixed race’ myself sometimes—more of that later on… 

In that blogpost I’ve also pointed out that ‘labels’ can define us: ‘Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity…’ (Three Seek Identity (August 2018)). Our common humanity, sharing our crowded planet, is an important concept: possibly one which might stop the tribalism which threatens to lead us into mutual destruction. If we can all hang on to that. That’s one reason why I value  books by writers who belong to different cultures from the one I was raised in. 

My reading from other cultures began with Jewish novels, but more recently, and against the backdrop of fear created by this century’s wars and terrorism, I’ve read Sudanese Lela Aboulela’s deep thinking stories, particularly The Translator, Minaret, and The Kindness of EnemiesShe paints a picture of Islam as the Western media don’t know it: sensitive, thoughtful. While Afghan Khalid Hosseini shows us another side, in A Thousand Shimmering Sunsnonetheless bringing the novel to a peaceful and happy conclusion, after much suffering. Damian La Bas finds suspicion and rejection from fellow Gypsy Travellers as well as kindness. Kamila Shamsie sums up today’s power hungry politicians and confused young men, and the misunderstanding and the misuse of ‘love’ in Home Fire… 

Are there ‘shoes’ we don’t find in the bookshops?

In all this, where are the serious novels which examine any of this from the viewpoint of the major religion which has become associated with the West over thousands of years, Christianity? English Vicky Beeching, raised in an Evangelical family, growing up surrounded by positive family love, writes in Undivided about the heartbreaking cruelty of Megachurch (and other) leaders and members, who are convinced that being gay is seriously evil, and incompatible with her faith. Despite the fact that Jesus’s teaching omits to pronounce on LBGTQ+ and centres on generosity and acceptance for our neighbour whoever they are: ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave or free…’ writes Paul to the Early Church. Vicky’s book is a memoir, not a novel. The antagonism isn’t a story, it’s real.

Serious, thoughtful fiction, examining our present lives, the faith or absence of faith which drives us, underpins decision making, defines our culture, unites or divides us, is hard or impossible to find. In my intended third story in the Mullins Family Saga, Alice, in her mid teens, is going to spend the long, wet, summer of 2007 observing the antics of the adults in her life, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately a tragedy which might have been avoided. It’s a bit like updating I Capture the Castle to early twentyfirst century North Oxford and it should be exciting to write. The ‘saga’ began with what was then a stand-alone novel, Baby, Baby, an attempt to look as objectively as I could at the relationship between two graduate students, powerfully attracted but from entirely hostile family backgrounds. The genre was partially inspired by the works of Shamsie, Aboulela and Hosseini, exploring family, generational, and community relationships in the context of Islam. And by being inside a family which is its extended form includes two ‘world religions’ and none, while also watching and accepting my own children and their friends turning away from following a path of faith, while maintaining a strong, but sometimes different, moral code.

BB: Science, Faith, and Prejudice

In Baby, Baby, Jenny’s secular family, her father a prominent fertility expert, and her mother, a GP, have no use for religion. Max’s father pastors the nearest thing to a ‘megachurch’ in Northumbria, preaching a narrow, patriarchal faith. Here’s my ‘mixed race’ feeling: raised in a birth family very much underpinned by Christian faith (though not at all Evangelical), I grew up very aware that ‘our’ family culture was not shared by, most probably, the majority of those around us.  I happily read children’s science fact books alongside the Bible, but was kind of unable to ‘get’ Narnia. 

So, my ‘mixed-race’, discomforted sense of not belonging to either culture: the ‘religious’ one, or the secular.’God is irrelevant, we don’t need one…’ ‘Are you religious?’ Well, actually, no. I belong to and follow a faith. I can’t identify as ‘religious’, that word which now carries a lot of ‘stuff’ including all those ‘don’ts and ‘do’s’ hedging a person around with a fence that has no door to open and let in compassion, integrity, and inclusiveness. My answer to this question is summed up here: ‘Writers are generally independent thinkers who dislike having their thoughts roped by doctrine’ (Evan Maloney, as above). Maloney’s article was asking ‘Where did all the Christian writers go?’, and he references many who lived, well, a very long time ago, pointing out that there aren’t many, if any, writing today. 

“‘By the time Lewis and Elliott converted to faith in the late 1920s, Christianity was a bete noire of the literary world. Virginia Woolf wrote about Elliott to a friend in 1928 “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Elliott, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”’ (In Evan Maloney, as above).

This about sums it up. Though we can cite Marilynne Robinson and J.R.R. Tolkien, their books are quite hard to read and not perhaps in line with popular taste. In children’s writing, Narnia though loved in the 1960s and 1970s, is now inadequate through much dated language and culture, reflecting the era when Lewis was writing. Most novels from the twentieth century dealing with faith have been critical exposures of the woeful inadequacy of Christianity in various ways—John Updike, Graham Greene. And those whose unhappy brush with it has led to their atheism: Philip Pullman comes to mind—possibly also Patrick Gale (it seems possible, as he attended a Cathedral choir boarding school, and tells the story of the secret life of a priest in his novel A Perfectly Good Man). And I’m not unsympathetic to those who end up rejecting the God they were taught about by words or actions. ‘Modernist and post-modernist literature vivisected the body of Christian orthodoxy,’ (Malone, as above). Maybe that orthodoxy had already wandered far enough from its roots to deserve a radical removal?

Where then are the ‘Christian’ writers – and what does ‘Christian’ imply?

So, is ‘society today prejudiced against Christian writers? Or is Christianity rightly viewed as a faith that deters the freethinking that great literature demands?’ (Maloney, as above). Probably. Are we as a society afraid to discuss the relevance of Christianity, unbelief, ‘the Church’ with its positive and negative sides, its part in colonialism, as a state religion, does it have a future, and other controversial areas?  Is that really boring and passé? Or is it so woven into our past that to banish it entirely threatens our understanding of our history, and our present?

I’d never claim to write anything approaching ‘great’ literature, but aiming for a serious literary handling of faith, in today’s English language milieu, it’s pretty much impossible to be published.

TLY: Art, Science, and Losing your Way

I decided on gong Indie (and joined the Alliance of Independent Authors, link here). There’s otherwise a choice between publishing ‘mainstream’ (do not even hint at spiritual or moral content) or approaching a ‘Christian’ publishing house (though these, even before the ‘Republican’ makeover, definitely debarred the more liberal faithful investigating risky areas, included a list of what not to say (for example, no dialogue with the f-word,) and preferred a happy ending, possibly with conversion though redemption could do.) This makes it hard to enter even a toenail into the water of agents or trade publishers. Authors are resorting, if they can, to writing fantasy, or historical novels set in times when (they claim) ‘everyone believed and it could be talked about’. But has that ever been true?  I very much doubt it. In a hierarchical society, it was simply wise to go along with what everyone did, and keep your doubts or disbeliefs to yourself. 

Fear, prejudice, or whatever makes a book unacceptable to either side if it discusses the definitely off-topic subject of faith or unbelief, without advocating or demonising one or the other, has now made ‘Christian’ literature an ‘elephant in the room’ best avoided. Like ‘evangelical’, discussed above, the label ‘Christian’ has now been shape-shifted, by usage, association, and connotation, into something aggressively opposed to the radical teaching of its founder, a man of integrity, inclusive of women, foreigners, outcasts, and passionate for the poor and dispossessed. 

 Labels. Connotations. The power of words …

 

HULF & to Pay or not to Pay? Author Pages …

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.56.30Here’s a very brief post on the  blog!  Here’s wondering if any of you nice followers have discovered my Author Page … or investigated what I wrote when I’m not writing the blog or doing one of a hundred thousand other things?

For example, this weekend, promoting my work (and hopefully entertaining an audience) at a book festival along with other authors, many of them, like me, members of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

On Saturday (23rd, Shakespeare’s Birthday …) the Hawkesbury LitFest will be taking place – all day from 10.00am to 5.30pm … a great  gathering of authors in the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton. H.U. is a friendly place – especially friendly to Books and  Reading … (Also to Italian food at the Fox restaurant, and to cakes, coffee and tea at the festival Cafe).  It’s friendly to authors and a crowd of us will be going along to read, discuss, promote, hopefully sell our work, and to meet other authors and our readers …

me reading at Hawkesbury 23 APril 2015
me at HULF 2015 (copyright Clint Randall)

You may live far away, in South Africa, Canada, or the USA – but have a look at the Mari Howard Author Page on Facebook anyway … have a look at the LitFest adverts to see what we’re (I’m) doing this weekend, and let me know, via blog comments (if you have an opinion: should Facebook ask authors to pay to promote their pages? I am undecided – this is not a rant either way – I am just wondering, would the promotion be worth the cost?  At $10 a day?)

And thanks for following .. welcome to several new readers …

HULF poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People-Watching: so what would an alien conclude?

Random jottings for the blog – which then became the blog …

Not being Moleskine-notebook person, I scribbled these in a very small, uncharacteristic notebook late at night, a notebook for shopping and to-do lists

I have begun: the first three pages of novel No. 3 (theme: What is Love?) exist outside of my brain. I’ve re-engaged with the characters. So, thinking about what we mean by love, and how is it shown, encourages me to look even more at how human beings think, behave, function towards each other, under a virtual microscope.

Of course, thinking about people is what fiction writers do all the time: we do it by nature, we are amazed, frustrated, delighted, appalled, by people … Observation presents random thoughts all the time: but now, how do they add up ?

Some Examples: is the other person ‘real with needs like me’?
Are you real like me?
Are you real like me?

1. People are weird. No doubt about it. For example, how does another person hear what we say? Through a filter of past experiences. A straight remark can be heard as sarcasm, a word of praise taken as ironic, an enquiry about whether a person is free on a certain day or has a certain skill as the precursor to a demand for that they should help or be available to the speaker. We are afraid each other!

2. People, after what seemed like period of historical peace, are on the move again. Vast numbers of people, displaced and driven out from countries where life is becoming unliveable are taking almost unbelievable risks rather than remain where they were. We joined our local demonstration.

Oxford Demo 'Refugees Welcome' September 2015
Oxford Demo ‘Refugees Welcome’ September 2015

It was maybe March when we  began to increasingly hear about  ‘migrants’ on the News. It wasn’t until late summer, and finally until someone published a photo of a drowned toddler, that the international community began to talk loudly enough to be heard. Yes, these people did indeed need somewhere to be. They were after all ‘refugees’: fleeing for refuge.  Were the demonstrators serious? Or will it soon look like emotion, the sunshine, and a Sunday afternoon out with a banner? I hope not.

A parallel: last year, in about March, supporters of aid organisations, especially of MSF, were made aware of the crisis in West Africa caused by a massive outbreak of Ebola. It wasn’t until  August that the WHO ‘declared the emergency of international concern.’ At last the whole thing sounded as urgent as it had always been. And then, development of possible vaccines and treatments was stepped up … a shocking  example of how tropical illnesses don’t usually receive the same interest and research grants that typically Western disease does.

It’s not a global village: there’s little care or knowledge about people in really troubled places. It is however, very definitely a global village: infection can travel faster than ever. So can terrorists and weapons of war.

How Rules are Applied … is this compassionate?

3. Another scenario: health and safety. So, a patient is admitted to an acute ward in a mental hospital – disturbed, frightened, maybe aggressive, panicking … their cigarettes, on which they depend for comfort, are taken away,  …Basically, smoking is harmful … But, a baby is being left at nursery for the first time: would we snatch away a pacifier or favourite toy, right away?  It’s possible to argue for the protection of the staff from passive smoking: but shouldn’t this ban be explained, later, to the patient, when they are feeling calmer, and able to understand? (My info. source: mental health nurse on acute ward)

We implement rules without applying sensible, but pragmatic, thought to individual situations. It’s so much easier to treat people as things, as a mass to be processed.

Is nothing special now …

or I thought going out was the now way to meet with friends? 

A coffee too ordinary
A coffee too ordinary

4.  Coffee comes in many forms: cappuccinos, lattes, flavoured coffees… we used to get these when we’re out. They were special. Do we really need a coffee machine in the home, which performs all the same tricks? Beans to cup? Steam heated milk included? Going out and staying in are getting so samey? What happened to treats?

What happens to people who have, in material terms, everything? What actually is ‘love’?

The Kindness of Friends

Before the old blog collapsed, I was thinking about the kindness of  friends.

It all began with someone else’s blog (as it often does), posted on a Facebook site I belong to, where authors share about writing. The blog piece had all of us rather quirky writers sharing how it is for us who don’t fit the standard ‘genres’. I was still working on my Charlie Hebdo response (I may bring that over here later, or I may decide too much time has gone by and reactions have become old news).  But I think the discussion was kicked off by this  a guest post by Vivienne Tufnell on Philippa’s Rees’s blog ‘Involution’  (http://bit.ly/1DTFgfJ).

Since when the phrase The Kindness of Friends has stuck around in my head like a catchy title for Alexander McCall Smith, something to partner  The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, and The Lost Art of Gratitude. An introduction to McCall Smith’s lighthearted wisdom was the kindness of a friend during a time of loss and sadness,  and now we have a whole host of them  in our bookcase.   McCall Smith books

Without the kindness of friends, I’d probably not have moved from writing articles to writing novels: way back when a friend gave me that push of confidence, and showed real interest in what I wrote, books began appearing on my doorstep. Slightly unusual books, books which made you laugh or smile but carried deep and honest assessments of human nature and human predicaments. Books which encouraged my sort of writing, the kind I wanted to do.

Years before, the kindness of friends had assisted my flight from a perfectly frightful flat-share at Uni. Details apart, one of the horrible things was, the flat was in somebody’s attic, which three of us shared, and we had no front door. The landlady’s cats had a nasty habit of coming upstairs to poo underneath the furniture in our rooms … and once the dog came and deposited a present on one of the beds (not mine).  Friends, once they heard, came with a car (rare for students to own one back then),  we bundled my possessions into it in plastic carrier bags, paid the rent up and did a flit. That of course has nothing to do with  writing, though it may get into a story one day.

spike on bookcase
Spike files himself on the bookcase, among the research

Not that I don’t love cats: cats with clean habits and outdoor toilet ideas. Spike is a close friend: a ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ and  possibly has a story in him too.

 

j,n, & Dad
Our twins, long ago

Then there’s the kindness of friends who love to push a pram with your twins in it when they go to collect their kiddies from school: my New Zealand friend got to revisit her maternal baby-instincts and I got an hour off in the afternoon. Mummy-stuff indeed. And my more recent Hong Kong friend, who lived next door for a year with her family, and was always up for a mug of tea and a chat. The weary writer and the weary, breast-feeding mummy ‘chewing the fat’ in her rather chilly, rented house. The kindness going both ways.

So when creation’s by the mind, and the book’s our baby, is there a kindness of fellow-author ‘friends’?

Despite talk about jealousy and competitiveness of authors, about ‘trolling reviews’ on Amazon, our discussions around  reaching readers with books that defy genre-typing engendered posts written with enthusiasm and encouragement. Comparing our experiences, sharing what works.  A counterbalance to the thriller/crime/sci-fi mystery guys’n’gals whose sales top the lists. ANd followed by a rather splendid review of my first novel, Baby, Baby (Hodge 2010, available from the website (http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/home/) (or Amazon, p/b or Kindle).

Technology is neutral: how we use it is not.  The Alli site members’ group  (allianceindependentauthors.org/) proves the kindness of friends can exist across the net : sharing ideas at every level from newbies starting out to experienced authors who sell in large numbers. Even support themselves by writing. Sharing advice, frustrations, thoughts, guest posts.

Virginia Woolf 1937
Virginia Woolf 1937

(I wonder if Virginia Woolf would have lived longer if she had had a virtual band of fellow-writers displaying the kindness of  e-friends?)

A friend closer than a brother...
A friend closer than a brother…