A Writer’s Diary # 13: sincerity and realness are not transparent.
Back in the Nineties I wrote – very quickly – three erotic novels. To the extent these had artistic and literary concerns I became intrigued by the idea of using the rhythms of the sentences to reflect and amplify the rhythms and building excitement of the sex-acts I was describing as lividly as possible. I’ve always been impressed by William Faulkner’s flowing, stream-of-consciousness prose: the way he builds up a cumulative power and atmosphere in sentences that can ramble on for over a full book-page – an effect that is almost unbearable but at the same time – if you surrender yourself to it - hypnotic. In my erotica I couldn’t, of course, be so merciless on the reader, but Faulkner’s example liberated me to be daring in what was otherwise a hacky situation.
All prose necessarily has its own rhythms, of course, but in some situations these are more foregrounded than others. In my novel Colour Scheme, Malcolm, a young black gay Londoner, is a jazz trumpeter in love with the stylings of the bebop era. To create his interior voice I aimed for a jazz-poetic sensibility inspired by, among others, Ted Joans and Amiri Baraka, which at certain emotionally-charged moments becomes actual (albeit privately-expressed) poetry – internalised performance-poetry, really - though laid out somewhat experimentally on the page, in a visual echo of the published jazz-bebop poems of the 1950s and ‘60s, of which I myself am a fan.
It was a particularly strange challenge to channel sincere - and therefore ‘real’ - poetry through a fictional character; one that required a certain inhabiting and exploration of his psychology in order to move beyond what would otherwise be nothing but (more or less skilled yet ultimately hollow) pastiche: a reminder that sincerity and realness are not the transparent categories they at first appear to be.
At the same time as making the poetry ‘real’ on its own terms, I had also to express a sensibility that was itself hybrid: one that was the product of Malcolm’s own particular contemporary black British fascination with a certain type of African-American cultural expression that emerged out of a particular historical moment. In other words, at the same time as I, the author, had to avoid phoniness, Malcolm himself had to discover a rhythm that wasn’t merely a pastiche of another culture; that was sincerely his own.
To operate on all these levels at once - and to do so intuitively and aesthetically rather than intellectually and analytically - was, in its small, intimate way, a strange journey in rhythm.
A Writer’s Diary #12: fashion in hell.
It’s a perverse aspect of art that things which remain terrible in real life – rape, child-abuse, genocide - get swallowed & shat out as clichés in films, plays, books, dance and song. The moral hazard for the artist addressing such subjects is that his/her work can render experiences no longer sayable by those who endured them, (or, perhaps more honestly, can make them no longer hearable), because their general lineaments have been repeated to the point of banality. As audiences we roll our eyes because, to our surprise, there is fashion even in trauma, even in hell. Real-life pain and suffering get subsumed, converted to conventions, in the search for mere narrative novelty, an inadvertent immorality.
Yet it’s art that takes the outpourings of raw experience and makes something that transcends any particular confession of suffering; that makes suffering into something of use to humanity: that compels empathy in others rather than merely evoking its ugly twin, pity.
This, it seems to me, is my duty as a writer: to make experience serve and sing.
A Writer’s Diary # 11: because the spirit is in the flesh.
One of the things I most wanted to explore in my novel Colour Scheme was the potential for gay male energies to be healing. In part this was a response to TV shows that were current when I began conceiving the book such as Queer as Folk and Will & Grace, in both of which all meaningful emotional discussions were between the gay male protagonists and their heterosexual female friends. Discussions between the gay men themselves tended to be emotionally stunted. Undoubtedly this did – and does – represent a tranche of gay men and their experiences, but it doesn’t represent mine; and morally and psychologically I felt the predominance of such a trope risked robbing gay men of their own hearts and spirits, displacing them from their own emotional centre and trivialising them. This was something Rikki Beadle-Blair, Patrik Polk and I picked up on when we worked on the TV series Patrik created, Noah’s Arc, which focused on the (mostly) supportive friendships between four black gay best friends; and it was something I wanted to dig into rather more deeply and intensely in Colour Scheme.
I attempted to explore not only the everyday common ground of friendships between gay men, some of whom have been lovers, some of whom have not, but also to reach down to the shamanic aspect of being same-sex attracted. In contemporary Western culture, which disavows identity politics, this is not a fashionable idea, but it’s a fact that many traditional societies have historically accepted a witch-doctorly aspect to men - and women - who step outside norms of gender-presentation and sexual attraction, and this interests me greatly. Homosexual sex is, in such cultures, powerful magic. On a more earthly level I also wanted to show how same-sex bonds of friendship are, literally, life-saving.
More generally, I wanted to work against the diminishing cliché that men (of any sexuality) are emotionally inept, unable to communicate feelings and so on, which again has not been my experience. And so a story came to me where expectations were turned upside-down, and it’s bereaved, heterosexual Leonie and her grieving husband Joe who need a healing and understanding that only this unexpected group of gay men can offer them; that is in part the male healing of doing without talking - the wordless passing of the paint-brush; the shared task - a different sort of human connection: a performance.
They can experience this performative healing precisely because the spirit is within the body, not in opposition to it: the spiritual and the emotional are experienced through the physical. Dance, music, the physiological machinery of movement, of desire, the electrochemical flickering of the cerebral cortex that becomes love: these are the ways the spiritual is really experienced. It is the pretence of opposition, the soul-body divide that poisons; a pretence that seeks to punish and control those who cannot conform to its strictures, its fissuring.
In Colour Scheme I attempt to move past that toxic Judaeo-Christian impasse and get to somewhere freer.
A Writer’s Diary #10: typing, not writing.
Legendary weird writer H.P. Lovecraft hated the typewriter, and averred no-one could compose creatively on it because the mechanical business of wrenching the carriage back manually at the end of each line broke in on the natural rhythms of the lines of the prose; hence he wrote with an exceptionally free-flowing fountain-pen. The word-processor, of course, put an end to that worry, and is a huge enabler and labour-saver but, like most electronic things, in some curious way it lacks romance.
Still, let’s not be sentimental. I remember pecking out my first novel, Black Butterflies, on a rattle-trap typewriter, jamming in carbons, quite often accidentally back to front, to try and generate spare copies, which was an anything-but-empowering slog that nowadays sounds almost ludicrously Edwardian. The typewriter was a second-hand electric one, given me by my mum as a birthday present, and it hummed mutedly and tended to jump every time I hit an ‘e’ or a ‘c’, necessitating many corrections with either a small strip of white-chalk-backed paper or congealing Tipp-Ex dragged with a clogged brush. Despite that, after the experience of using a manual machine with a pounded, dried-out black-and-red cloth ribbon and keys that jammed repeatedly, I was grateful.
What a huge relief my first word-processor was, a greenscreen Amstrad with a large and exhausting machine-gun-volume dot-matrix printer. This printer required special paper, flimsy and on an endless folded roll, with perforated hole-punched strips on either side that then needed to be carefully detached by hand. I was able to afford it as a result of being overtaxed for several months in my job as a shop-assistant, and so one month getting a ‘windfall’ pay-cheque beefed up by what was the then-magical sum of £400.
No, as I sit in a café, my laptop conveniently connected to the world by Wifi, I don’t feel any romantic yearning for any of that. Just as there wasn’t much romance to Tolkien writing chapters of Lord of the Rings on the backs of student exam-papers because of paper shortages, say; nor his writing drafts out over and over by hand because he couldn’t afford a typist (or typewriter). Nor, as I queue for stamps at the post-office, do I feel any nostalgia for the days before email.
And the future bears down on us like an express train…
A Writer’s Diary #9: marks on the spirit-skin.
Sometimes I just have to get away from the laptop: in my head it gets so associated with work at one end of the day and distraction at the other that it makes me slightly hysterical; and its electronic nature sometimes feels at odds with the scrawl and spill and physical urgency of putting words down, scratching them out when they’re rubbish and putting in hopefully better new words above the crossings-out. I need to make physical marks, leave physical traces: to do a sort of labour.
Writing is ultimately as low-fi as drumming or singing, and there’s a liberation in being returned to that; in remembering, for example, that the imprisoned Jean Genet wrote his now-classic novels of crime and homosexuality with pencil-stubs on toilet-paper, and how when the guards found and destroyed them, he shrugged and began again: to reconnect oneself with that base, heroically human compulsion to express both one’s innermost self and the tensions of the society that surrounds one - a need, a duty, an activity that doesn’t require an iPad or laptop or desktop computer to make it happen.
With my pen/pencil/biro I make marks on the world’s spirit-skin.
Variant cover art for my novel ‘Colour Scheme’.
(Luke and Malcolm; George and Ziggy)
A Writer’s Diary #8: the characters tell you.
My favourite writer James Baldwin once said of his writing process, ‘The characters arrive, and they take you on a journey.’ I agree. So often puzzles within a story can be solved by sitting quietly and letting the characters tell you their truth.
Reworking Colour Scheme I became embarrassedly aware that one character, Ziggy, who has intense feelings about pretty much everything, nonetheless had next to no feelings about the recent death of his mother. On one level this was just bad writing, but instead of thinking technically I tried to listen for the truths such information as was already there in the text were telling me. I came to see that his mother was a hard and unloving woman – a tough Yoruba businesswoman with little time for the arts, and a middle-class Christian woman who had discarded her roots. Who toughed it out even when dying of cancer, and had no time for sympathy, either offered or needed: for whom he could ultimately feel little – or at least little that was apparent even to himself – when she finally died.
By way of another example: in All Tyrants Die, the novel I’m currently working on, I was suddenly struck by the fact that my young protagonist, former child soldier and South-London-marooned refugee Stanlake, is an only child. This is very unAfrican, the more so given that his family are, before the novel begins and war comes, living a fairly traditional rural life. Yet it didn’t seem wrong. And then I saw that his mother Poppy had had a difficult labour, and as a result couldn’t have any more children. And because he loved her, and because she’d given birth to a son, her husband Pacific didn’t take another wife. And Poppy grew in her Christian faith (a key plot-point) because it gave her protection from being accused by the other villagers of bewitching Pacific in order to prevent him marrying again.
These things came to me as if revealed: there was no sense of consciously imposing ideas on a situation to sort out a plot. This is what I call being in rapport with your material. It is the world and it is in the world. And it is you and it is in you.
Being in rapport with your material is better than almost anything.
A Writer’s Diary # 7: black men and schizophrenia.
In my novel Colour Scheme the character who perhaps compels me most is Ziggy, a black British gay man born of Nigerian parents, an avant-garde artist and bohemian who at the book’s beginning has just been released from a mental hospital following an episode of psychotic self-harming and a diagnosis – perhaps misdiagnosis - of schizophrenia.
I wrote Ziggy – who in a sense wrote himself, as all characters who live tend to do – as a response to – or in a sense a meditation on - the intensely disturbing fact that so many black men in the West are diagnosed as schizophrenic. Black men are roughly seven times as likely to be so diagnosed schizophrenic as white men, and there is no clear reason why. To put it vulgarly, does racism drive black men in particular a particular kind of crazy? Or to cut a little deeper: does the persistent legacy of slavery and colonialism, with its necessary underpinning, the centuries-long devaluation of black lives and perhaps in particular black minds, live on in black men’s (and of course black women’s) psyches, buried within corrosive internal mechanisms that do persistent secret damage? On some level it seems to me this must be true, for, as Faulkner wrote, ‘The past isn’t even past,’ and deep-seated racism, as we see all around us, persists to this allegedly post-racial day. Yet such an argument carries its own dangers: to assert that one is irreparably damaged is to give power to one’s enemies; and after all, most black men do not become schizophrenic.
If it isn’t so, still we wouldn’t deny that being black in a majority-white country exerts a pressure on the psyche, as, in another way, does being gay in a straight world. This is born out by differential rates of suicide and attempted suicide for black and gay men and women vis-à-vis the straight population.
Another line of approach to understanding the phenomenon is cultural, and this interests me deeply. I was once working with comedienne Sandra Bee on a one-woman show, and at one point her elderly mother wandered into the room searching about for something. ‘Where has Satan put my gloves?’ she asked herself. We smiled at this rhetorical phrasing, yet had she been living alone and a little more vague and fragile, might a well-meaning social worker not have marked her down as borderline delusional? A British-Nigerian friend’s mother would hang clothes in the garden and flick water over them and beat them ‘to drive out the spirits’ – again the sort of enculturated activity that could, in the wrong context, result in a person being labeled as schizophrenic – a diagnosis that same friend’s father had already been given.
I combined the two parents’ mental environments in Ziggy, who became, as the novel progressed, a kind of shamanic figure and truth-teller. One analysis of possession cultures such as the Vodoun religion of Haiti holds that in them there is no such thing as schizophrenia, because hearing voices can be incorporated into a ritual/cosmological framework that has meaning for, and brings benefit to, the community: this person hears the voices of the dead, of spirits. That is an ability of spiritual value.
And yet science shows us that the brain like any other organ can go wrong, (this is demonstrably true, for example, in the case of car-crash victims who, having had their frontal lobes damaged in the accident, manifest extreme personality changes); and that mental illness is illness (rather than, from the Western viewpoint, merely a failure to take a robust approach to things that indicates weakness of character). Ziggy, who has reached back past his parents’ robust but homophobic Christianity to improvise his own gay-positive version of traditional West African spiritual beliefs, tries to use, to put it simply, the ‘good voices’ of the ancestors and spirits to combat and control the ‘bad voices’ (that is, delusions that are the product of electrochemical misfires in the machinery of the brain).
Years after writing much of Colour Scheme I had a lover, an African man who had been diagnosed – as we went along it seemed misdiagnosed – with schizophrenia, a curious convergence that fed into my ultimate reworking of the novel. In a reversal of what one would perhaps have expected, he made me less sceptical than I had previously been about the use and value of psychiatric drugs, which, for all their pitfalls, enabled him to lead a high-functioning life that he would otherwise (as I saw when he went off-medication) have been almost totally unable to.
A Writer’s Diary #6: the beginning of a modest theory of theatre
I never used to have any theories about theatre, (beyond ‘let’s try not to be boring’), but after working with so many playwrights developing their visions, as well as writing plays myself, I’ve come to a certain viewpoint. If theatre has a unique strength, it’s that the performers are right there in front of you. The playwright should make the most of this, create vivid and dynamic conflictual situations, and play these out as directly and viscerally as possible in front of the audience. This, almost invariably, is theatre at its most exciting.
A key part of my understanding of this, and one that playwrights often find most difficult to accept, is to embrace the fact that physical action is as much part of the fabric of the play as dialogue. Even modest acts of violence are shocking on stage: a slap can make an audience jump; and acts of intimacy – a kiss, a fondle – can move and involve onlookers more than a monologue, however well-written. Shakespeare wrote the most famous speeches and monologues of all time, but his plays are also full of action: poisonings, apparitions, blindings, sword-fights and so on.
The challenge for the playwright who takes the view I do, that theatre should be direct and present, is to inhabit the situations being acted out in front of the audience in a way that gets past the seeming naturalism of soap-opera, with its conventional motivations and taken-for-granted commonplace assumptions about human nature. To be more insightful; to wield a sharper scalpel in order to get to some deeper human truth. To cut deep enough to justify asking an audience to leave its couch and computer and HD TV, schlep to the theatre and pay money to watch your work.