Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Writing And Ethics: Silly Horror Stories Are Nothing Compared To Reality

Image courtesy of WernerB via Pixabay

I'm a writer. Writers create characters. Characters that can be believed because they have pasts and needs. Their needs drive them to act and react.

Writers create stories. Stories come from actions and reactions.

Writers are selective. They don't write everything about the world and the character. They choose the elements that are required to imbue the story with meaning. Other elements are severely cut, then thrown away.

Elements are often used as symbols to reinforce that meaning. This makes the work feel rounded and complete and satisfying to a reader, even when the mood is dark. Not all elements are consciously chosen by the author - no human has 100% understanding of themself - but the elements and symbols still appear in the story. It doesn't matter how they got there; just that they exist. The reader sees the symbol, and ponders it, and only fully understands it towards the end.

Writers can use words to experiment and work things out.

I care about all sorts of issues. I'm a vegan, so as well as enjoying chocolate cake and pizza and crunchy fresh salads I also care about the environment and what my species does to the world, to each other, to other species. I care about animals, and that includes humans (humans are a species of animal - mammal, in our case - something that is often forgotten). I want a future with a beautiful world that supports all life, where possessions are less important than happiness, where compassion comes before profit, and where unspoilt wild spaces are not seen as potential sites for "development".

All this inevitably creeps into some of my stories and characters. Note "creeps in" - not replaces. A flavour rather than an overpowering taste.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one of those things that you can be blissfully unaware of, then find out about, and then the world tilts. You wonder if you read it right. Then your perception changes. If you are unaware of what it is then please go and read this Wikipedia article. There is more information on the sites of these organisations, which are all well worth visiting and supporting:
It's no surprise that I don't agree with unnecessary genital mutilation. Sure, if any procedure genuinely needs doing for medical reasons, for the benefit of the person - go ahead, I support it. Or if a consenting adult wants to have a procedure done on themselves, then it's their choice. But don't mutilate children for vague nonsense about "hygiene" or "tradition"; don't pressure people of any age to undergo unnecessary cutting.

I'm not just talking about women here, or "other" cultures. I'm not focussing on one element or application and excusing another. Even the Western medical profession has a lot to answer for. I was circumcised as a child. I had no say in it. There were no health issues calling for it. Back then it was apparently standard practice in some hospitals. Skin was just cut away and incinerated as part of normal procedure. "Alas poor foreskin, I never got to know him well," as Shakespeare might have written.

In my latest collection, They Move Below, many stories have undercurrents, themes that tie in to story via character and symbol. Tales of capture and mistreatment, colonial appropriation, consumerism, advertising, cultural miasma. There is also a story called Web. It's written from the perspective of a Somalian immigrant and victim of FGM. A story of regret and understanding; of victims striking back, both up and down the hierarchy; of guilt; of sympathy; and of trying to understand any form of abuse. Probably more, that I don't want to think about. Just because I class it as horror doesn't mean it involves zombies. In fact, it would have sat just as well in one of my more literary works. Sometimes life is dark. Childhood particularly, because you're more vulnerable and dependent then. Though sometimes children are resilient. They come through.

Note that Web is not _about_ FGM. Like most stories, it has many ingredients. If anything, the story is about a life that has little freedom seeking a way out; the germinating seed trapped under pavement and pushing against it without understanding why it can't reach the light. Here FGM is more a symbol of oppression, or removed choice, of losing the only possessions we have inalienable rights to: freedom, and control of our own bodies.

Consenting adults can choose what they do to themselves. As long as it is a free choice. No force, no coercion, no social pressures. Pressuring people to do things against their will is still a form of force, even if it doesn't involve ropes and locked doors, just as not all injuries leave visible marks.

I mentioned some charities doing good work to raise awareness of the issue through education and advocacy. I support many charities, in different ways; yesterday I offered some of them free use of my story if there was any way it could be used to benefit their cause (e.g. if they compiled an anthology of essays and fiction which could be sold to generate campaign funds). I think writers can do a lot of good work. Many writers do: I'm proud of and admire most of my colleagues. And not just the writers. I've been impressed with OpenBooks, an e-book distributor that began by challenging conventional views and treating the customer with respect - no DRM on books, and the reader pays what they think the book is worth after they have read it, based on the culture of trust. How often have you been persuaded to buy something due to advertising blurb and then found there is no substance to it? How often has an unknown gem touched your heart and stayed with you for life? This is a system that sees justice for both. OpenBooks apparently planning to move even more towards social and ethical issues in an attempt to make sure its business benefits the world. Admirable. We all gain.

Social issues will probably be more overt in my next book. Stories about coming of age and social responsibility; prejudice and conformity; freedom and patriarchy; women's issues; the connection of life; love; commodification of bodies. Hopefully the elements make the stories stronger. Fiction shouldn't shy away from real world issues. Fiction exists to make us think.

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PS In case this worries any of of my existing fans: I still love chainsaws and zombies, so rest assured that my horror stories still involve plenty of classic nastiness, tentacled monsters, and tense chases; while my literary fiction still includes nerdy obsessive blokes, strong women, love, and easter eggs that probably only 1% of readers will ever find. It can't be called fiction unless story comes first.

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