Being Authentic: Three seek Identity

identity books 1
My pile of recently read books 

Summer reading: mine has been ‘serious books’ so far: all very recently published, each has a very 2018 feel.  The only novel is Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fires, a sobering take on today’s culture and politics. But here I’m concerned with three non-fictions on the theme of being authentic: not ‘who do we think we are?’ but ‘who do we know we are – and will our society allow us to be this?’

Afua Hirsch has written an extensively, carefully researched book on the hows and whys of being Black and a Brit. Significantly, it’s called Brit (-ish). Damien Le Bas decided to take to the road in a Ford Transit van (visiting all the places where his Gypsy ancestors probably stopped in their travelling days). His book, The Stopping Places, is an account of his physical and emotional journey, packed with reflections on the Gypsy lifestyle. Vicky Beeching’s book, Undivided, a memoir, tells of the pain of growing up and becoming. All three have been students at Oxford University: Hirsch and Le Bas among the few of ‘minority’ background, Beeching outwardly ‘mainstream’.

The problem of ‘labels’

A quest for ‘authenticity’, alongside the chaotic state of our world, is a defining aspect of life in the 21st-century. Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, gave some cultural stability, each culture led by generally acknowledged and imposed beliefs. But in reality, to think that it created a happier, more stable life is to ignore history and the contributions of those often intelligent and thoughtful individuals whom traditional ways have set outside the boundaries of the culture’s rules, labelling them as less than ‘us’.

Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity – Black people can be seen as slave material, Travellers and Gypsies as trash. Traditional societies can lull anyone into accepting that the ‘other’ is harmful, not truly human, worthy only of servant status, marginalisation or even  death.

Afua Hirsch’s book carefully traces the history of Black people in Britain, revealing that their position worsened once this country was involved in the slave trade. And that in the 1920s ‘mixed race’ children were regarded by official bodies as less intelligent by nature and unable to benefit from education. ‘Liverpool’s “half-castes”…were pronounced to be…intellectually inferior, with intelligence “below the average”’, (Hirsch, page 148). Labelling the children of parents with different skin colours as morally inferior perhaps reflected an idea that a Black person ‘having sex with’ a white person was wrong and disgusting. This idea was repeated in a report on East London children in 1944. And Apartheid was alive and well in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s (see Enoch Powell’s speech 1968, Hirsch page 149).

Crossing boundaries

What is true of Black Britons is in its own way true of Gypsies. Le Bas’s book includes research into his people’s history alongside reminiscences from his amazing Nan and his own experiences both growing up and on the road. Like Hirsch, Le Bas studied at Oxford (after first gaining one at an independent school, at the instigation of his parents, the Romany artists Damien and Delaine Le Bas). And like Hirsch he has become an outsider both to his own community and to the surrounding culture.

Knowledge and inheritance from two communities carries both useful understanding and painful awareness. It is far more difficult to bridge two cultures than to entrench yourself in the tradition of one. Hirsch, well aware of her Black heritage as she went through first a highly academic independent girls’ school, and then her university life, felt that she belonged more to Africa than to Britain. She tried emigration to Ghana, her maternal grandparents’ country, but found that as a ‘mixed race Brit’ there was as much ‘you don’t fit’ in the attitude of West Africans as there had been in the white culture of Wimbledon. Before, as a teenager, she had learned that African hair cannot be straightened with the products which her European friends used; now, that her skin was too pale in Africa just as it was too dark in Britain, and her accent was wrong. But the experience of the inner person was neither African nor European. She now lives and works in London, which is of course a cosmopolitan city.

Hidden ‘Difference’

Vicky Beeching’s Undivided, tells of how, while appearing to be just another white woman from the mainstream, she ‘wore a mask’ for the first 35 years of her life. Vicky is neither Black British nor Gypsy British, but Evangelical Christian British. Yes, it’s another tribe – a tribe in the white, ‘respectable’ community, and a tribe with firm traditions, beliefs, and rules. They mightn’t like it, but Le Bas’s comments on his people, apply equally to Vicky’s birth and faith families. He says (page 265) ‘Gypsy culture can be stifling in its demands for living in line with its hidden rules’.

And Evangelical rules are not hidden. They are taught in church, in families, and in the very air they breathe.

As a young child, Vicky became aware of her attraction to girls. Becoming a teenager she was being taught that this was a sinful lifestyle choice. From then onwards she donned a ‘mask’, denying herself any close romantic relationships, terrified that to be gay and remain Christian was impossible. Didn’t God hate gay people? She believed that this ‘choice’ (or ‘demon’) could be ‘cured’ by ‘prayer ministry’. When this did not work she continued with her studies and the songwriting she had begun as a pre-teen, took a degree at Oxford, and became a very popular and successful singer-songwriter on the Evangelical church circuit. Until, while working in the USA, singing in mega churches, the stress of hiding her true self caused a breakdown in her health. She wrote Undivided in the strong conviction, and after much thoughtful research, that the Bible does not teach that being born gay is incompatible with being a Christian (unless you can be cured or remain celibate). Like Hirsch studying racial history, Vicky carefully studied the evangelical ‘proof texts’ and became convinced that their interpretation of these Scriptures is flawed.

Where ‘tradition’ comes in

Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, may have given cultural stability in the past, but looking into the sources we can see that these are based on fear of otherness rather than ‘God’s commands for living’. All three books speak of the writer’s longing to fit into the surrounding society, to have a place of acceptance rather than to be treated as a misfit and an outsider.

Is outsider status perhaps one reason why both Le Bas and Beeching chose to study Theology? A search for meaning? Would Social and Political Science or Philosophy have served them better? Both used the resources of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, as did Hirsch, searching for answers.

Whatever, there appears to be a human need to keep our cultures safe by shutting out minorities and those who pose questions by their very existence. In its extreme form we see this need functioning within nations, causing wars, genocide, and suffering. Opening our minds to look at the world through the eyes of the outsider is discouraged. Those of us who do this are likely to join them.

An elderly Traveller man whom La Bas met on the borders of Wales said, ‘The thing is, you say the border…But let me tell you something. I’m living here now, and I’ve lived over there, and my people is all here and there. And let me tell you something about that border. That ain’t no border to us, boy. And never has been. I am a Travelling man, that’s what I am. And ain’t no border stopped my people making their way.’ As the writer thinks in response ‘whether he knows it or not, he’s just struck a heavy blow against my lifelong need to know if I’m one thing or another’  (page 220).

And knowing who we are, accepting who we are, and being accepted as who we are is what we humans  want and need …

‘Reading and writing: what do writers do all day?’

Good question. From a series, asking ‘What do Artists do all day?

In my writing – well, what do I do all day? 

Is it ‘writing’?  Actually, unwinding the story thread onto the page/screen? In reality: it’s housework, on-line-admin (dreary but dreary!), keep the fridge stocked, keep the garden from becoming a wilderness, keep in touch on-line to maintain a ‘platform’ (!), research for writing, planning for writing, thinking for writing, actual writing …

Trying to reach the point where you can enter the zone and work … without interruptions from real life, on-line life, or the cats … While lots of writing happens in my head, where it queues for the opportunity to hit the keys …

Reading is absolutely essential for writing.

Writers don’t only write reviews of other writers’ books,  and whiter about sales, marketing, and the Amazon algorithms (we do all of that): they exchange gossipy stuff like ‘what are you reading?’ (we’re hoping the others will respond ‘Your book, of course!’)

Today I found this note (to one of my on-line groups), sitting on my desktop:

“You asked the group what we’re reading. I’m reading Jessica Bell’s memoir ‘I Didn’t Mean to be a Rebel’ and Jodi Picoult’s ‘Great Small Things’. In tandem. Alternately. Together. And when I have time! Both insightful and both recommended. I’ve just finished Francis Guenette’s ‘No Compass to Right’ and am writing up a review of this lovely compassionate character-driven fourth novel in her Crater Lake series. (Yes, it’s all the heavy brigade story-wise: thoughtful, thought-provoking, and somewhat sociological … but never ever boring …) Well, you did ask …!”

Reading, like writing, is time-consuming.

But is the way you learn to write. (I happen to think it is one of the very best ways, and am grateful after nearly 50 years (gosh, it really is!) that we read Dickens at school. I never thought I’d be a writer … but looking back, reading Dickens wasn’t a waste of time in a past era where people thought differently, but a wonderful example of how to create and keep up dramatic tension! (Yes, I’d read them straight through, to find out what happened, not chapter by chapter as homework…)

books read June-August 2017
Books I’ve read over the summer …

Have you, reading this, read any of these?

(You can find reviews of some the books I’ve recently read, here on the Hodgepublishing website … shall be adding more reviews, including of the Picoult and Jessica Bell’s, soon… You can also read about, or purchase my books Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, on the website …)

Hearing or seeing

Do you hear or see words on a page? Does it make a difference to your reading? In my family, the creative arts are represented by music and visual arts: people don’t write, or at least, they don’t write for a living, or write fiction. Very interesting. I realise that I hear what I read, and when I write, I see it like a movie, and I hear the words as the file out onto the page. There’s the musical ear, then. Despite I don’t play an instrument or sing.

As a writer, it’s almost impossible not to read ‘critically’, studying the style without really wanting to. Cliches can’t not jump out, and slow passages beg to be edited. Authors divide into two groups: let’s call them ‘raconteurs’] and ‘experiencers’. Raconteurs take the reader to a cafe, and having ordered two coffees (let’s say), and palate of delicious cakes, proceed to tell the tale. Or maybe it’s the pub, a pint, and sandwich.

Experiencers take the reader by the hand, and draw them right inside the story. ‘Here we are, step into my book: we’ll share the lives of the characters, we’ll feel what they feel as they feel it, see what they see when they see it, run from it if it’s scary, be embraced by it if it’s friendly, scent it, taste it, live it …’ You are inside, not noticing the story arc, not stopping long enough for a character to ‘tell herself …’ anything, because she has thought it, in the instant it took:  ‘Courage! Take care! Trembling at the roaring of the dragon in the mouth of the cave, I seize my magic sword. Excalibur! I’m charging towards the beast, lungs painfully gulping breaths, legs shaking, as the sweat rolls down my back..’

I love those writers who draw you into the book. I learn from them. A good story, with a great plot, can always be a page-turner as it unfolds. But when are you inside one which gives you the all-round experience … you stop reading, to study how this works … It’s one of the things which writers do – work to improve our writing. Edit and re-write, edit and re-write…

For this of course it’s preferable to be a person who loves solitude, which I am not. To write, I must climb inside my own work in progress, meet my characters once again, and fully engage …

You can find a good article on the process of writing here: (I agree with a lot of it, but not all (for example, I definitely don’t go for the arse on your chair whatever bit (unhealthy, and battering the  brain when it’s empty and needs to relax a while doesn’t work for all of us!… but, it’s comprehensive, lively and entertaining …)

Mari’s reading Life: Four Books from my Kindle

Wrote this in the Summer House office: beautiful sunny day!

Are you a Kindle or a paperback fan? I admit to preferring paperback (easier to underline, and flip back or even forwards …). But, the Kindle’s useful: to buy and read books which aren’t stocked in our local Independent Bookstore (tiny, and very exclusive) or our large but tourist-oriented emporia – Waterstones and Blackwell’s.

So, Four books from my Kindle…

My books featured on postcards - a touch of publicity
My books featured on postcards – a touch of me-publicity

I write books about women’s lives … (Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year …)

I read books about women’s lives (though not exclusively – I just read one (by a man) about Mindfulness …)

But it’s a paperback, back to the Kindle…

Two are Austen re-writes: the Austen Project rolls on …

I read Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (updated Pride and Prejudice) with interest. Northanger Abbey was a set text at school. (Ever noticed that name – North Anger Abbey?)  We were set to read, alongside Jane’s ‘spoof’, The Mysteries of Udolpho (published 1794) by Ann Radcliffe, to appreciate the irony of her take on women’s popular literature of her time. Girls back then were in a Gothic Novel phase: sound familiar?

McDermid moves further into ironic observations of teenage girls obsessed with boys, and with reading scary tales of vampires and mysterious discoveries, in this amusing story. Reviews on Amazon vary, some even in the ‘I threw the book across the room’  style. Some reviewers had not read Austen’s original.  Unless you have read Austen’s novel, how can anyone fully appreciate this clever update? McDermid exploits both the Austen writing style and the recent teenage/YA fascination with Gothic themes. Moving the action from fashionable 18th century Bath to the contemporary Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story is a silly riot just as it should be. A fun read, well written and well observed.

The Sittenfeld, (which I read second) is set in Middle America, Cincinnati, Sittenfeld’s family home. I noticed, after I’d read it, that Amazon advertises the book as ‘humour’. Humour it may be, but satire is more like it. With far too much about specific Cincinnati eating places, roads, neighbourhoods. Sittenfeld’s Prep I enjoyed, but in her Sisters I found a sleazy and uninteresting slightly satirical take on the foibles of humanity. So how does Eligible do Pride and Prejudice?

The updated characters – Elizabeth is a thirty-something magazine journalist with a selfish married boyfriend, who on fancying Darcy indulges with him in ‘hate sex’ left a nasty taste, because it didn’t capture and update Austen.  Sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy in P and P expresses itself cleverly in witty dialogue, not in simple lust. The fact that this is how a 30-something might behave today doesn’t justify substituting foreplay for that Austen’s stylish sharp amusing verbal interplay. Which credits her Elizabeth with a self-confident intelligence and ability not usually allowed a woman of her time. And Austen’s subtle irony doesn’t imply contempt for those she depicts as ridiculous (Mr Collins in P and P). Darcy is attractive, yes, but in Eligible we have the updated Colin Firth in wet shirt, not the Darcy of Jane’s novel. Sittenfeld’s writing lacks stylishness. And she’s lost the plot, updating with no more reference to Austen than writing a loosely based ‘comedy of manners’ which picks out social types and holds them up for our prejudice and amusement. Austen uses wit: Sittenfeld relies on curled lip contempt.

That said, some of it is indeed quite funny, especially the lampoon of a wedding (Jane Bennett the pregnant bride) on reality TV, which brings the story pretty much to a close. But no, I wouldn’t call this, as it is advertised, The Summer Book’. Plenty more out there to choose from for beach reading. Or is it simply that I don’t go for this writer’s work?

Two by One

My other two latest reads in the ‘women’s novels’ genre are delightful books by an unknown, compared to McDermid and Sittenfeld: Vivienne Tufnell’s Square Peg and Strangers and Pilgrims. Tufnell is a fellow member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors).

These are straight novels, placed in unusual settings and displaying a deep observation of nature (as in human) and nature (as in the wilderness around us). They are pleasure to read, as Tufnell writes well about what she knows, displaying a real eye for compassion and acute observation/insight.

Square Peg tells the story of a young woman whose husband is studying to be a Vicar. Without satire or lampooning, but with incredible insight, she accurately captivates the culture of a residential College. The men study, while wives languish producing endless babies or darting into the outside world to work in the real world of contrasting environment. It didn’t have to be a Vicar-factory of course: any residential College would do, but an extra spin comes from the religious angle.  Group hysteria among the wives with their inward looking lives, deprived of a wider community or a job, creates the crisis, for the main character, Chloe, (a civil engineer by training, but raised by a sensible, but hippy-type, Gran) is so ‘different’ in so many ways that they spook themselves she’s some kind witch. Okay, today such colleges are mixed: but it totally captures when they weren’t…

Strangers and Pilgrims explores another assorted group, who gather at a remote venue in hope of healing from emotional pain. Cleverly Tufnell weaves her story to demonstrate of how the healing takes place: not by the miracle workings of the mysterious Warden or the holy Well, but by the relating, co-operating, living together, of the six lonely and hurt individuals, over about a week. It is realistic, and down to earth, and the surprise at the end gathers up the meaning: who is this Warden, who nobody has seen?  Does s/he exist? (And it is not a predictable solution, nor is it a spirit or God …)

Tufnell deserves a wider audience. Her books are delightful: great reading on the beach, or anywhere that a person can curl up, undisturbed, with a glass of wine or a mug of tea.

And the Mindfulness book?   That’s for another time!