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!
As I write my way into the home stretch of this book, here's a sneaky peek at what will begin it.
Debrief is the shortest story in the collection and it looks at one of the effects of war, on an outsider. It is coming home and forgetting how to greet loved ones, forgetting social cues, dropping an apple in a supermarket and waiting for the roof to fall. It is the fractured crackle of PTSD and not knowing how to fit back into what came before.
The spiel that comes after the story does contain one inaccuracy: the book is clearly, now, not coming out in 2013. Blame CFS/ME for that one. (In fact, when I watch this video back I can see the illness on my face - but perhaps that is ok. It is what it is. Video goes places that I can't physically reach these days, and so here it is, evident fatigue and all!)
I am writing as fast as my body will allow, and am thrilled to say that I am approaching the edit stage. I won't be doing any live events until I've finished, as I need all available energy for writing, so until that time, let video-me tell you a story.
(My apologies for the lack of youtube window inside this post. For some unknown reason, my host doesn't want to load it, so you WILL have to click out on the link above. Never mind, all you've missed is a frightening still of my face, mid-sentence, where my eyes are neither opened nor closed.
Here - as consolation, have an old, obtuse punching-in clock from Victorian times, now part of the Jeremy Deller exhibition. This one looks lovely and antiquey, doesn't it? Now at the Amazon warehouse they're yellow and grey and strapped to the employee's wrist. Poor bastards. If you're in Manchester, please please go and see that exhibition. This Sunday's the last day, and then it's off to Nottingham. Manchester City Art Gallery, NOW, and the wheelchairs, as with the art, are free.)
I am writing stories set in the midst of a violent conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people have had (and continue to have) their homes and livelihoods destroyed. The scene is one of devastation, and great, sudden need on so many individual and collective levels. As an ex-aid worker, I am bringing some of my own experience into these stories, and with that, my own questions about humanitarian disaster relief.
As I read and talk to others, I’ve come across some confident opinions that roll right over the complexities and assert that aid work is either intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad. The ‘good’ argument tends to rely on the good intentions are what counts (or ‘good intentions = good outcomes’) presumption, while the ‘bad’ argument relies on a reading of aid work as coming from a neo colonialist agenda on the part of rich countries. Between the two simplistic (and unhelpful, IMO) words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are many, many layers of nuance and overlap, and that is where I am trying to aim my understanding, and my writing.
Today I’m reading this: Admitting Failure.
The Admitting Failure project was set up by a Canadian non-governmental organisation, Engineers Without Borders, in an attempt to improve aid work through communicating examples of failure. It invites developmental and non-government organisations to recognise when their work is doing nothing, or even doing harm: to admit when the good intentions have been naive, misguided, blinkered, arrogant, disorganised, or badly realised, and to admit this in a public forum, before an audience of peers.
There have been interesting critiques of the project (and subsequently growing trend), here and here, for example. My sense is that this could be a useful approach if – IF – it then goes beyond an admission of failure, moves into identifying the cause(s) of the failure, and then, most importantly, takes action to change.
Am currently working to deadline for an October launch of the new book (yes!) so am being incredibly stingy about time spent on anything else. In lieu of words, I give you Short Story Bunting:
Each story is now strung across my office, waiting to be polished, tweaked, reassembled or shaken down like an old rug full of cat hair and ground-up biscuits. I may stage a stationery parade later this week. It's all happening.
With the words of Matt Haig ringing in my ears - specifically, those about writers going to book fairs being like chickens going to Nandos – I arrived at the London Book Fair 2013 a little, uh, nervous. Mall face strapped securely on, I dove into the maze of gleaming white publicity stands and within moments was greeted by the lovely Roman Simić, my Tramlines writing partner. Up to the corridor of windows at the top of the conference centre we went, till we had a backstage view of the boxes and pallets and abandoned bits of metal behind the City of Urgent Bookselling that had sprung up in Earl’s Court for the occasion.
The Gimbal app, available soon in the itunes shop.
We were there to Gimbal. Not a new internet dance meme, not a 25p candy, the Gimbal is named after an old sea-faring navigational device (the one that kept the compass level while the boat pitched around) and this Gimbal is the coolest little storytelling app I’ve seen.
The culmination of the Tramlines writer residency project that took me to the trams of Zagreb last year, the Gimbal app collects the resulting stories of those six residencies, as well as a whole load more stand-alone shorts from Comma Press authors, and plots their journeys on maps that move as you listen to or read the story. Along the way landmarks pop up, sidetracks for you to follow, markers that hold the edges of the story as it moves through its city and – AND - all of this also comes in more than one language, both spoken and text: English, and the language of the city in which the story is set.
I *loved* being involved in this project and so it was a thrill to launch the app to an enthusiastic audience on Tuesday alongside authors Alison MacLeod and the aforementioned Roman, as well as Jim Hinks from Comma and Alexandra Büchler of Literature Across Frontiers. The Gimbal app will be available in the itunes store next week, though sadly us androids will have to wait a little while for our own version. I believe it will also exist online as a website, so I’ll post the relevant links and whatnot up here as soon as it’s all live.
The highlights of the Book Fair for me were all about translation and so, appropriately, I leave you with a link to Transfiction translation collective’s take on what they called ‘a beautifully intuitive app'.
Most of what I do is pretty focused: small group workshops with the same people for months, making things, knocking the edges off of poems and stories and the fear, the fear that keeps that one woman's mouth shut for a whole five sessions, that keeps that one guy watching his trainers. We chip away, build things. Books and blog and performances. We take it slow. Listen. Laugh.
Then I go home and I write: also focused, also chipping, painfully slow some days.
I think I'm getting good at focused.
So, next month I am taking that careful little bubble down south to the London Book Fair. The Book Fair. It sounds cute, right? Full of twinkly eyed people who smell of paper and old leather bindings, maybe a coconut shy of encyclopaedias, typographic lollipops and a librarian love-in.
I imagine it as a bigger version of one of those incredible libraries/bookstores whose aisles I want to live in, whose shelves I want to bite down on, like that amazing bookshop that contains a writing shed full of pencils/paper/fairy lights, a reading room, floor to ceiling books across two floors and a little place upstairs in which to have a bit of a lie down, if you need it, nestled in beside the kids books:
Instead, an image search for London Book Fair reveals this:
Most attendees are publishers or agents or booksellers, there to do business, to hustle. I have no problem with hustling. I want people to read my book. I do. And yes, I know I am writing a book of short fiction, about war, with not a lot of laughs. Shut up, I know.
But I'm a little terrified of the book fair. I'm bracing myself for the sharp slap across the face that will be seeing the whole thing in all its shouty glossy books-as-widgets glory.
Everyone should see it once, he says, and I say OK, sure, I'll go. I will be leaving my ego at home, in the writing shed.
There is a small patch of overlap between the time my brain keeps and that of the rest of my body. It shifts constantly, and sometimes gets lost. There are spoonie* days where the two never meet. My brain leaves messages on the paper beside my bed, scrawled out, ideas that the fingers didn't manage to transcribe. My body performs day, performs movement and function, left, right, wears headphones so the brain won't be required to recognise faces, make nice. Autonomic, back of the head lizard stuff is preferable. Wires in my ears, the sign is up: do not engage.
A meeting can be forced, adrenaline called into service. My cheeks burn. It's a short-term solution with payday loan interest rates. Doorstep lenders with asshole enforcement thugs in cheap suits, they always come back. So it is.
The no-sleep exhaustion of CFS is not creative. It is not inspiring. But. But in the small patch of overlap where they cross, body and brain, I write. Lying down, not-sleeping, not-thinking, the words are there, and I write. There is something magic in the few moments after I've left almost-sleep and tuned in just enough to hold a pen, to focus my eyes. Sometimes. Not always. But sometimes, I can step into that overlap where insomnia and exhaustion can't yet reach, and I can stretch it for long enough to start something. Something worth coming back to**.
*spoonie definition here. Capsule def: person with long term illness/disability
**the prison. I will come back, as will the overlap.