Much as I despair of living in a country where the birth of a baby is headline news – ditto his naming the following day – I do try to bear in mind that the extended family I involuntarily support via my taxes is made up of human beings, and therefore worthy of my respect. I sincerely hope I’m incapable of channeling my rage at inequality and unearned privilege into a bizarre racist tweet, as a BBC DJ did recently. How could he not know, as he has claimed, that an image of the latest royal baby as an ape would cause offence? But, in reflecting the world as I see it in my fiction, with darkness as well as light, I do risk inadvertently offending my readership, especially in portraying the isms from which, in my other identities, I’m at pains to distance myself.
My debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity secret for thirty years, features scenes of both trans- and homophobia. Although feeling uncomfortable writing both, I wanted to honestly reflect the world in which my character was living in 2004, prior to the Gender Recognition Act transferring legal status, under certain conditions, from a person’s birth gender to their identified gender. Fortunately, I’ve had nothing but support from the LGBTQ community, and should be on safe ground at the forthcoming festival in Nottingham, where I have slots, along with others, on positive relationships and on adolescence.
Jules stood grinning, arm-in-arm with a woman who had curves in all the wrong places. Liesel hugged them like she’d not seen them for years. I brushed their hands with mine as Jules introduced me to Maddie.
“So, what are you guys up to?” Perhaps Maddie had spoken, or Liesel or Jules. It could even have been me, with my mouth set to automatic. Maddie tossed her mousy hair over her shoulder, like the Before sequence of a shampoo advert.
… I zoned out … until I could slope off to get my paint.
Sheltered by stacks of tins and roller-ready plastic boxes, the relief was like crossing the border into another country where twelve hours of solid sunshine was written into the constitution. As I pondered the relative merits of pink splash and raspberry rush, the lumberyard smell gave way to sweet patchouli.
“I don’t know what you’ve got against them,” said Liesel.
“I haven’t got anything against them. I just thought I’d leave you to chat.”
“It looks like you’re threatened by them.”
“Why would I feel threatened by those two?”
“Maybe because they’re not interested in your prick.”
I hate Jaswinder and his daddy and his granny and the baby that doesn’t do anything except throw her toys away. I hate their smelly greasy food that burns the back of my throat and their gabble-gabble language that doesn’t make sense. I hate the cloth picture of the golden palace above the fireplace, the jewelled cushions and the brightly coloured walls. As for that stupid girls’ game, Home from India, I hate that most in the whole world.
In these two novels, I’m exploring the roots of prejudice. For Steve in Underneath, it’s an unconscious attempt to plug the hole left by his absent father; in Sugar and Snails it stems more from ignorance, especially in the form of the forthright character, Venus, who flips from criticism to defence of the transgender character, Susan Marlow, within a few chapters. We need to feel free to look directly at difference to embrace diversity, but I still worry that some readers might equate the isms in my fiction with the isms in me.
But that doesn’t prevent the themes cropping up again in my short story collection, Becoming Someone. How can they not, when my elixir is truth? The racism in a couple of stories heightens my anxiety at readings, as does the transphobia in my prize-winning short story, “Tobacco and Testosterone”, although the opening here in the video is safe enough:
I’m now old enough to be subjected to ageism, but I’m not sure how much I’ll notice when being sixty feels so much better than being sixteen or six. But it’s also the case that sixty is much younger nowadays than when I was growing up, although, much to my delight and amusement, I had occasion to see myself perceived as old and doddery a few years before I crossed that line. When I shared the opening of my possibly third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, about a brother and sister separated for fifty years, with my critique group, I was questioned about a reference to Matty as a “septuagenarian”, but I feel it’s justified by the 1990s setting, when seventy was old, and that’s from the point of view of a woman in her early 20s. And, to give Janice her due, she’s a staunch defender of Matty’s rights to a better life, despite her advanced age.
While there are other isms in that novel, especially in the parts set in the 1930s and around one of the main themes, mental health, I’ll put them aside until further along the road to publication, and saddle up for the latest flash fiction challenge.
“Did you hear the one about the Japanese Emperor, Mamma? He ab-ab-ab …”
”Abrogated his responsibilities? Abandoned his subjects to his imbecile son?”
“Don’t you get tired, Mamma? All that travelling. Dressing up in your gladrags. Smiling at proles waving silly flags.”
“Of course I get tired. I’m ninety-three. But duty must trump human frailties. That’s what monarchy means.”
“Talking of The Donald, how can you …”
“There’s a man who tears up the rulebook …”
“As you could too, Mamma.”
“You know what I’d really like, Charles? If I could skip a generation. Give my grandson a turn.”