I am moved to blog this weekend following a Twitter conversation with some amazing and inspiring people working to improve the lives of women and families and the experiences of midwives. As my followers will know, I wear many hats, and there is a beautiful confluence of the streams of thought that inspire me, such that my creative writing and knowledge feeds into my academic work, and my academic work spills over into my creative writing, and both are fed by the streams of passion, the melting icebergs of old fears, and the equinoctial storm of anger that stirs inside me.
This week, my next novel Ash will be released. It is a work of dedication and fuelled by my passion to interrogate and explore the lived experience of womanhood. I was further inspired by the work of Virginie Despentes https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/05/for-the-ugly-ones-the-spiky-feminist-anger-of-virginie-despentes/. This author creates characters who are unattractive in the conventional sense. And the reader is often left uncomfortable and disturbed by this. Yet to me, this work is more powerful because it represents the messy and untrammelled reality of womanhood.
Ash, my next novel, is about unlovable characters. Amanda, the narrator of my first novel, Inshallah, makes inexplicable choices and is an unlikeable character. When it was first published, I was apologetic to the reviewers and readers who struggled to care about her. But the consensus was that her narrative was compelling and they were affected by it. Why was it, I asked myself, that people struggled with a woman making real choices, however strange, in the way that women do? We perhaps are uncomfortable when a character exposes the best-kept secrets of womanhood – that we are unhappy in our relationships, that we struggle to make deep connections, that we feel at odds with our own bodies, that the constant dissatisfaction bred by media and culture leads us to feel unable to make effective choices until we liberate ourselves of any desire to conform.
It seems to me that in fiction as in my academic work, we need to resist the conventions that continue to define what women ‘should’ be. For a long time the messy, everyday realities of womanhood have been ignored and suppressed. Our bodies are more regulated than men’s, the expectations of us to present a controlled version of ourselves to the world continue to grow. Our emotions, our wildness, have been pathologised as hysterical. Shrill. The deep raw power of our essential bodily experience is marginalised and oppressed.
I was talking today on Twitter about resistance. Resisting a culture of oppression. And I realised that that is what I am trying to do in my writing. By naming it, by framing it, I am saying to the world that there is a narrative, a story of ‘us’ that serves the systems of oppression. Novels about women and what we experience are too often dismissed. Research about women is confined to the margins, dismissed as extreme, as alternative. Alternative to what? We are 50% of the population. We are everyone’s mothers.
Ash (www.honno.co.uk) deals with more of the difficulties experienced by women when trying to live in a world that simply does not hold a space for them to be free. My characters’ actions and choices may be difficult to understand, but they are real, and human, and not everything can be packaged neatly into a three-act-play for easier consumption. Perhaps that is our problem. Perhaps we need to challenge ourselves further to break the mould. Perhaps we need to be uncomfortable in order to change.
Writing this novel was a labour of …. not love, exactly, but determination. I wanted to tell a tale, get inside of it, to feel again the incomprehensible complexity of mind, thought, feeling and desire that creates my self and the selves of my characters. But I will no longer apologise for the unconventionality of my narrative or my characters. I will no longer apologise for breaking the mould. Only by shattering our constraints, can we hope to show the true strength within, and use that to reshape the expectations of us as women.
I am a woman, writing women.
I am changing the world, one word at a time.