Writing Place Beyond the Binary: a writing workshop
In July I was invited by Women Talk Place and the Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University to run a one-off writing workshop exploring the non-and-beyond-binary parts of place. The gaps in the pavement and cracks in the walls; the ways we move through and talk with our surroundings - especially when they have not been designed with us in mind.
This was an all-genders event, particularly tailored to those of us who have had to navigate this binary-built world from a trans or non-binary or disabled or racialised or undocumented or some-or-all of these and more perspectives.
I hope this is the first of more, as it was clear that this is incredibly rich terrain - for those of us writing place and for place writing as a body.
Two Minute Stories
I spoke with Chris Neilan for the excellent Two Minute Stories podcast and it got quite unexpectedly close to... not the bone but the core, the gut, the gristle. The heart. We talk short fiction and time distortion, aid agencies and war and the ways in which work writes itself on our bodies, the way stories can reach the unspeakable. With Seán Hewitt magic.
If you're in a rush and want a quick link to a spooky poem, it's just after 10min 30 seconds. (This interview was under my old name and pronoun, the multiple language that a non-binary life entails.)
Historian Frank Salt and I talk about women's suffrage, working class activist history, disability rights movement history and his work with the writer Sandra Alland - at the wonderful Working Class Movement Library. We both worked on the acclaimed Comma Press book 'Protest', an anthology of short fiction and essays on British protest movements over the last 650 years.
I loved this event. Listen to it here, and if you've got the coin, buy the book in hardback or paperback here.
Hold a glass to the wall and listen: next door is a world of muffled noise and unknown inhabitants. The occasional crack of laughter but extremely quiet, mostly. You hear it in the evenings when the sky is pink. Sometimes, what sound like spells spoken in a lost language. Incoherent.
‘Ridiculous,’ you mutter in the direction of the wall when you realise how long you’ve been listening (twenty seven minutes today), but the wall is thick and the glass is on the table now and no one replies.
Weeks pass and still there’s no one else in the building, no one you recognise, so you sift through the post on the table in the hall. Among the charity bin bags and pizza flyers, a series of brown envelopes from the DWP (return: Blackpool) all made out to an Mx Green. Typo, obviously, but your neighbour’s address. Scrounger. You turn and see a faint burgundy light glowing through the small still eye of the keyhole. Next door, you decide, must exist at the far red end of the visible spectrum, the barely perceptible realm of the reptiles. Cold blooded Mr or Miss Green.
Back inside, through one end of your empty glass, you hear a faint pattering, the stapedian bones of your middle ear drumming an old tattoo like rain, like a fetal heartbeat. You picture next door clinging to a bookshelf and swivelling their eyes at a passing cricket. Once you’ve tuned into the faint rhythm, you carry it in your chest. It’s permanent. Old knowledge. Well, that’s an uncomfortable thought so you take the glass and turn it on end, press to the wall. Listen. Nothing changes.
Over the months that follow you step up your surveillance, casually interviewing people in the street outside, possible neighbours, trying to learn something about next door, but nothing. You return home each evening and put the glass to the wall, and there is the sound of the lost language and stapedian tattoo and the heartbeat: you recognise it all now, irritatingly, along with a stream of words that sound completely invented.
You could knock at the door of course, introduce yourself, but why should you? You were here first, weren’t you?
It doesn’t matter. Glass to the wall, one end or the other, alternating night by night or sometimes chosen randomly according to whim, one of two, nice and simple as methods go. Straightforward and sensible.
It’s like this throughout the winter and well into spring, glass to the wall, the drumming of tiny bones and then one night, expecting nothing but routine, listen: something’s changed. Something has gained momentum like the swell of a chorus. A tide. A sort of... rushing. Like several tributaries meeting, like rainclouds merging, elementals moving, a deep boom and clap and then like one of those summer storms that sweeps from mountain to prairie in two feral hours it arrives abruptly, smelling of cut grass and blood, of ozone and electricity
and it is us.
The ancient animals you’ve spent your whole life denying and now we are sweeping the floor, rushing from the hall into your room and pooling at the seams of your well-made shoes, your ankles, higher, and without looking down you sense us, you feel us, swimming and crawling and flying and tumbling, rainclouds and tributaries, capillaries and arteries, the deep red end of the visible spectrum spilling a flash flood across ground too hard to drink, and you brace against our current as we arrive, as we have always arrived, with our new words for our old language swallowing your pant leg your belt your shirtsleeves and you set your jaw and you narrow your eye and you press your empty glass to the wall,
Hyperacusis is a debilitating hearing disorder in which sound sensitivity is so heightened as to be physically painful. It can be accompanied by other sensory issues like photophobia - light sensitivity.
Text and image commissioned by The Birley for their newspaper inspired by the working class suffragette newspaper, The Woman's Dreadnought
Majority consensus* marks one day as a 24 hour cycle. Sleep, eat, work, eat, work, eat, rest, play, rest, sleep. Something like that.
My days are different. I live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as M.E.), which means that I live much of my life in small parcels. The rhythm of the majority consensus day is not my terrain. I don’t keep to the clock. Days and nights are fragmented, composed of many more beats than that of the dominant norm. They break down into more numerous parts, a fact my specialist nurse encouraged me to record on sheets of grid paper. First it was hourly slots of activity, then thirty minutes, followed by fifteen, then ten...
The story of my day became a story of stops, of stuttered activity, long stretches of silence and stillness between. The short story, often framed as little sister to the novel and other longer literary forms, became my uneasy ally over recent years as I wrote a collection of short fiction.
With my physical life defined in small packages and sometimes ruthless decisions to cut out anything that wouldn’t easily fit, I heard echoes in the writing of short fiction - in particular the editing, the paring down, and the (perhaps unique) tendency of short stories to not lean towards resolution in the way that novels and scripts sometimes do. While there may be symbiosis between the structural form of short stories and the embodied form of life with CFS, on a practical level it does makes it hard to complete a large project like a collection.
In a capitalist system that allots value to the ability to complete commercially tenable work, I have very little value. I am close to worthless, from this economic perspective. Likewise, short fiction does not value highly in a world where money attaches more readily to screenplays, TV scripts and novels. The short story is a quaint artefact.
From that position, I wonder if there is great potential – perhaps outside of the world of commerce there are fewer expectations, fewer rules to be followed. Perhaps life can be written differently.
A short story can be held in one hand. It can be read in one sitting and it is whole in its own incompleteness – that is to say incomplete only when held against the long form. The ‘incompleteness’ is an illusion because really the short story is moment to moment, it is present, and not one word can be extraneous.
There is no room for long, indulgent description, for diversion, no room for anything that is not absolutely necessary. Every word, every letter counts, as with my life with CFS; I have shed so many luxuries and digressions, have had to whittle my days down to the core of what is first necessary and second important.
First: I must eat, I must drink, I must breathe. I must secure shelter and tend to my body’s demands – pain, exhaustion. Lie down, block out lights and sound.
Second: on good days come the important things, the bedrock of my soul, the pieces that hold me together when my body fragments in pain and numbness – books, music, friends, paint, my family and the crunch of snow that’s melted and then frozen again. These mark the survival of my core self, the me that is more than cells and chemical messages and burning tendons. These are the crucial words that make up myself as story, the pieces that write me.
Before disability, before CFS, there was a sense of continuity, of expectation. My life was lived in long form, much anticipation of future, of plans, and an unbroken thread that stretched through from then to now to what would be.
CFS was the dismantling of that. It was the disruption of that long form through inconsistent hours, days, months, all dancing to a stop/start jerk, and the thread became tangled.
I no longer see in lines. I cannot. It’s too painful. I trick myself into forgetting, again and again, by seeing myself through the eyes of others, those who don’t or can’t see the illness. The ones who still flinch with surprise when I call myself disabled, who ask if I’ve tried exercising more, eating better, taking supplements. The ones who tell me they really know how I feel because they didn’t sleep great last night and are sooooo tired today.
The invisibility is a sneaky trick that plays me again and again. As much as I sometimes rage against the ignorance of others, of what they don’t see, I do it myself. I look away. I trim the corners of my life, bit by bit, until it fits within confines that fool me into believing it is choice, because fuck no, I don’t want to live wanting. I want to live now, to live in my present. The pull of the distant future and past is what hurts, and so when I am at my best and most able, I do live presently. No string. No thread. No straight line.
Here is where my story sits. It is between rests, on the uproad of my energy, or maybe on the down. It is a light switched on in the dim of an evening room and then, suddenly, it is off. The breaker flips, a power outage. Small parcels.
CFS time can be held in one hand. It is an overheard conversation on a bus. It is the wait from the end of the queue to the counter. It is that short space of time that is easily overlooked, the time it takes for a cup of tea to cool to room temperature, the space between lying down and sleeping.
A short story, on the days I can read and write, demands presence. It demands now. Just now. I finish reading, finish writing, and it travels with me into rest and sleep and pain. It stays there, in the gaps in my active life, and it settles.
*Thanks to Manda Scott for this apt phrase
Try to picture it: over a ten year period, all of Greater Manchester is abandoned. Every adult and child is driven from their home, and the doors hang open in Stockport, Salford, Oldham. Broken windows and burnt out flats in Denton, Prestwich, and Hulme. Every single street empty, while the residents run for their lives.
This is roughly 2.7 million people I’m talking about, displaced. This is Darfur, right now.
The population of Darfur is just under nine million, which means almost one in three have been made homeless and are now living in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. All of Greater Manchester forced to run away from home, and that 2.7 million doesn’t include the war dead.
This was the backdrop of the recent conference ‘Darfur at the Crossroads’, an event hosted by the Sudanese Programme at St Antony’s College, Oxford. I was lucky enough to be invited to read from my book and speak about writing fiction from fact, and as the only writer on stage that day I provided a somewhat gentle introduction to a day of political conversation.
As the conference was run under Chatham House Rules, meaning no direct attribution of comments to any one person, I will only talk generally about what was discussed, but I will start by saying it was a fascinating event.
Anyone who’s followed the situation in Darfur will be aware of the danger that many Sudanese and Darfurian people face in speaking out against the government. Here in the UK, many activists and opposition politicians live in exile, having fled threats of jail time and worse. During one of the breaks, one man tells me how he was smuggled to the airport disguised in his most ragged clothes, stolen away at night as the police went door to door, looking for him and other dissidents.
Some of the conference attendees are affiliated with rebel groups, and some are not. Civil society groups are represented, as well as researchers who’ve gathered data on the elements that feed the conflict, like water scarcity. Climate change is named as one of the biggest threats, and among talks about political structuring and negotiation, we hear about fossil water and the annual rainfall that shrinks each year.
Here in the UK, we are told that the war in Darfur is tribal – Arab versus non-Arab – and that story dovetails nicely with the ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric that our leaders have used to describe and justify their own wars, but the thing is, it’s not true. Not really.
As well as environmental pressures, one speaker talks about the social construction of identity in Sudan. He explains the long tribal pedigrees that certain Sudanese groups use to trace their ancestry back to Saudi Arabia, looking to a history and lineage across the Red Sea. These pedigrees – that no serious historian would accept, the speaker adds – are politicised papers that are used to claim ownership of Sudanese identity, laying a mono-culture onto what is actually a deeply multicultural society.
There is talk of secularism and sharia law, of the fact that there is no consensus definition of sharia, and our speaker points out that sharia, in practice, in Sudan, has been used as a tool to suppress poor people.
Through all of this, one phrase keeps emerging: the Centre. No one names the capital, Khartoum, as the power base, or North Sudan – they say ‘the Centre’, again and again, and it is clear that at this event, people are speaking from the margins. During the afternoon, another question on marginalisation is raised: where are the Darfurian women? (I am the only woman on stage, and I’m white, British-Canadian.) From the audience, we hear from a Darfurian woman who runs a civil society organisation in the UK – we hear her ideas for representation, for future discussions. There are margins within margins.
‘What we need at our next event,’ one of the organisers says, ‘is a stage of Darfurian women speakers addressing women’s issues and women’s part in this struggle, and the men in the audience, listening.’
For more information on the Sudanese Programme at St Antony’s College, as well as upcoming events, please visit http://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/research-centres/sudanese-programme
I've finally come to the end of writing the Darfur stories that have dominated the last five years of my life, or at least I've come to the end of what I am able to write right now. Abandoned, rather than finished, as da Vinci allegedly said.
The drive to write these stories came from a desire to start conversations, to step into the booming silence on Darfur (on these shores at least) with questions and questions and more. It came from frustration at a hungry media cycle that forgot as it consumed, and it also came from a commission of sorts.
'Go home and tell people,' she said; my colleague, one of many Darfurians I worked with in the six months I spent there.
I had no intention of writing, not then and not for a long time after, but that was before I noticed the compulsion building, before I realised I'd lost interest in all other writing. I started with questions. Questions about half-snatched moments and events that hung loose at one end, that never really concluded, not in a story way, a familiar narrative way. There are no neat endings, not in a war, and what I discovered in writing this book is that short stories love uncertainty. Maybe novels love it too, in the right hands, certainly, but short stories... they hold space for the fractured pieces, for the broken bits of something that once made sense.
In order to write I did a lot of remembering, a lot of imagining, and a lot of digging, and here, pulled from the ground by an old Victorian, are some of the pieces that ended up in the book. The good folk at Comma Press have written about some of the artifacts found at the Jebel Moya archaeological site, the one that I explored in the story of the same name - follow this link for more on those, and for the collection of short stories and broken bits, please check back here, soon.
Nine days ago, the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) posted an opinion piece on their website about an ethical issue facing organisations like itself: at what point does the work of treating the wounds and injuries of war become complicity in that war?
On their work right now in Gaza, Jonathan Whittall writes:
An entire population is trapped in what is essentially an open-air prison. They can’t leave and only the most limited supplies – essential for basic survival – are allowed to enter. The population of the prison have elected representatives and organised social services. Some of the prisoners have organised into armed groups and resist their indefinite detention by firing rockets over the prison wall. However, the prison guards are the ones who have the capacity to launch large scale and highly destructive attacks on the open-air prison.
At what point does MSF’s repeated medical action in an unacceptable situation become complicity to aggression and oppression?
While the blockade on Gaza remains firmly in place, MSF is continuing to work in an open-air prison to patch up prisoners in between their torture sessions.
Another MSF worker, Michaël Neuman, responds below Whittall’s piece, highlighting the crucial issue of consent, and I highly recommend that you read them both.
I don’t feel I can add anything to either of these excellent articles at this point, but reading them brought to mind another element of this, and its implications for humanitarian work: that of silence.
When I worked for a humanitarian relief agency in Darfur in 2005, not long after the peak of the violence that continues to this day, I was informed in no uncertain terms that I could not use the word ‘rape’ in any public communications. If we used that word in public, in relation to what was happening in Darfur, our international staff would be kicked out and our programme shut down. I was told this many times. This is what we had to do to maintain our neutrality, and thus, our ability to work in Darfur. As public communication wasn’t part of my job, this wasn’t something that particularly affected my ability to work day to day, but it was something that stuck.
We could never forget that we were able to provide life-saving interventions in Darfur only by permission of the Government of Sudan, and the array of permits and visas required were always at the government’s right of refusal. Always. One thing the government did not tolerate was any acknowledgement of the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war.
Here in the U.K, rape carries one of the lowest conviction rates of any violent crime. I have no idea what the actual stats on rape convictions are in Sudan, but I do know that for a rape charge to be legally accepted, the victim needs to have three adult male witnesses to verify the rape, and THEN it can go to court where it may or may not result in conviction. I also remember reading a copy of the English language newspaper Sudan Vision in which a victim’s name, photograph and address were published as part of a story about her ‘alleged rape’ as they kept calling it – so I think it’s fair to assume based on these that the rate of conviction for rape in Sudan rounds very easily to zero.
All of the humanitarian workers in Darfur knew that sexual assault was one of the primary strategies of the janjaweed militias, the government-backed proxy troops that burnt and slaughtered their way through the Darfur states. It traumatised individuals, and destroyed communities - all part of the goal. Everyone we knew in the medical clinics talked about the numerous injuries they treated relating to sexual assault. One time, my colleague spoke to fifteen women in one camp about buckets and soap and sanitary towels, and every woman without exception told her that she had been raped. Another time, I was stopped in a camp by a woman who wanted to know if I could help her and her baby, because he had no father, because his father was janjaweed. The evidence was everywhere. Women and girls were often disowned by their families following an assault. Babies were born under horrific circumstances. School-aged boys and girls suddenly forgot how to talk, how to walk, how to control their bladders. It was everywhere.
But we couldn’t talk about it. We’d get kicked out, and the programme would be shut down. I’d go to meetings with government officials and listen to them tell me how we – the humanitarian agencies - were here as invited guests of the government, to help the government, all while the government was supplying logistical and military support to the janjaweed.
Remember: don’t say rape. They’ll kick us out, and if they kick us out, we can’t provide emergency assistance to those who need it. More people will die. Don’t say rape.
In March 2005, MSF published a report called ‘The Crushing Burden of Rape’, detailing the epidemic of sexual violence that was sweeping Darfur. It was drawn from a survey of their patient records at their clinics in Darfur, and was intended to highlight the epidemic.
At the end of May, the MSF head of mission in Sudan and the Darfur regional coordinator were charged with espionage, publishing false information, and undermining Sudanese society. Authorities demanded that they hand over identifying details of their anonymised sources, and when they refused, they were arrested.
After an outcry from the UN, the charges were dropped, and nine years later the whole incident is a footnote in a devastating war that still rolls on.
But I remember that report. I remember reading about it and the statement that the MSF Director made about how it was their duty as medics and as humans to speak up when they witnessed abuses. They spoke out. They said it.
Humanitarian relief – emergency relief in particular - can often require calculated choices about explicitly speaking out against injustice, or staying quietly ‘neutral’ in order to be able to continue helping those who desperately need it. I understand pragmatism and the thinking behind it, I do, but with silence comes the risk of complicity, and right now, I have nothing but absolute admiration for the doctors of MSF who are publicly asking hard questions of themselves and other humanitarian workers, and unwaveringly saying not only what they are witnessing, but what they may be part of.
I spent this past weekend at a Trans Bare All retreat – the fifth birthday celebration of an organisation dedicated first and foremost to helping trans people to accept their bodies. TBA works mostly with people on the trans masculine spectrum (see below for a link to definitions), and alongside consultancy, training and education work, TBA also holds regular retreats for trans people looking for community. In a world that so often pushes narrow definitions of beauty, of masculinity and femininity, TBA’s seemingly simple mission is huge.
Even the words I have available to me now show up the yawning gaps in how our culture understands gender and bodies. There is a growing set of words (what is the collective noun for words? A library of words?) that challenges this, such as gender neutral pronouns, but they’re not yet common outside trans and LGBTQ communities, and so speech often pulls back into binary – to women and men and rigid ideas about who gets to claim those limited titles. As soon as that happens, it lays the ground for binary-style assumptions.
Here’s one place where these assumptions show up: voice.
The binary (and cis-sexist) assumption is that men have deep voices and women have high voices, and that these are fixed and ‘natural’. The vocal training that has been part of my theatre and performance background has shown me that while hormonal influence certainly does have a big impact – high levels of testosterone generally deepening the voice, while lower amounts of it tend to leave the voice in a higher range – there is a lot more to our voices than that.
As well as the hormonal influences in our bodies – both glandular and medically administered - we all have socialisation, habituation, physiology, diet, intent and cultural influence weighing in. Girls (and people who have been socialised as girls, such as trans men) are often taught from an early age to use the upper part of their range - to speak softly, or at least to not put too much power behind their voice – and so of course for many this is the part that becomes the strongest. With the repetition of higher pitched speech comes habituation in the vocal cords; muscles adjust and become adept at producing those sounds at the top end of the range. Muscle patterns in the rest of the body affect the voice too. Try walking around with your stomach held in all day, as many young women are subtly trained to, and just see how powerful your voice sounds. It’s hard to speak when you’re not really breathing.
Most people – possibly all of us – start as unselfconscious little toddlers who don’t know about holding our stomachs in and using an inside voice, but eventually we become adults with a long list of cultural and social rules written deep into our bodies. We hold tension in our neck, our back, our jaw, or we stop breathing when we’re stressed, holding our breath until our lungs force a gasp, or we sit hunched to make ourselves smaller, we grind our teeth, we throw and strain our voice to sound tougher, to make ourselves feel less vulnerable. We all put our bodies and our voices through many kinds of things in the name of comfort and safety and habit. Some of us bind our chests so that our masculine selves will be more easily seen. Some of us try to avoid speaking, so that our voices won’t betray us to an often hostile binary world. Everyone’s voice is molded by their social and cultural environment, but for so many of the trans people I know there is often a particular gendered layer to that.
These are some of the things I’ve been thinking and talking through since offering to lead a vocal workshop at the TBA birthday retreat, and now that I’m back at my desk after what turned out to be one of those stand out life-affirming weekends, I’m so glad that I did it. We didn’t have much time, but in an hour and a half in a room with a range of mostly trans masculine people we did manage to make a little start. We managed to start breathing, to start finding the place where each person’s voice sits. We managed to talk a little about second puberty and the rapidly changing voice that comes with it. We managed to begin a conversation about trans voices – pre-transition, post-transition, no-transition, with binders and without - and it’s a conversation I would really love to continue.
Here’s the link for more info on some of the terms I’ve used:
My huge thanks and gratitude to the TBA organising committee for opening and holding such a beautiful space for the weekend, and for inviting friends, family, partners and allies such as myself to join you. If you’re interested in finding out more about TBA, have a look at their website and give them a (carefully pitched and breath-supported) shout!
Short Fiction, as published annually by the University of Plymouth Press, is billed as a visual literary journal. For each piece of new writing published in the journal, a bespoke illustration is commissioned alongside. My copy of issue 7 arrived late last year, and oh my, it is a thing of beauty!
As well as including new writing from the likes of Jenn Ashworth, she of the finely calibrated and compelling dark humour, it features the winning story from the 2013 Short Fiction competition - by Rachel Fenton - and lots of excellent artwork, including a series from agitprop artist of the upfront double-barrel, Bob and Roberta Smith. (That's his cover there, on the left.)
Rachel's winning story, While Women Rage In Winter, is a brilliant piece of writing that hinges around that which is not spoken. It holds its tension, the past and the present, right through to the last image. Please read. It's well worth it.
This year's competition is now accepting entries until March 31st, and is open internationally. Check out the details here.
I entered the competition last year, and was thrilled to be included on the short list. First time ever! My story Panic Room is in there, illustrated by Tommy Parker with the kind of graphic novel panache that I love. This is a beautiful book (It feels like a book to me. It smells good, it has heft, the pages are silky and gorgeously produced, and so, journal, book, whichever.) and I'm still buzzed to have been included next to so many skilled writers and artists. Thank you Short Fiction; I look forward to the next!