A Writer’s Diary #20: action! (part one)
There’s a really great quote by Truman Capote about how he was constructing his latest book (ironically the never-completed Answered Prayers) like a gun: ‘There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen—wham!’
Increasingly that’s how I try to write, both structurally and at the sentence level. The metaphor particularly suits my current novel, Souljah, about a gay former child soldier caught up in a gang conflict in South London, but I’ve come to believe it stands for most effective story-telling (including the documentary).
The key is that the action must embody the meaning. When it doesn’t, however garish it is, it immediately feels surplus, and the work, however skillfully written, becomes less than the sum of its parts. Another variant of this is the old adage, ‘character is action’. The dynamics between the characters in the now are what draw the reader/audience in, not the backstory. This is why worthy plays where the characters sit there telling us about how awful their lives have been are (to the viewer’s guilty embarrassment) so often uninvolving, even boring: because nothing at all is happening right now. In other words, ‘direct’ can’t simply be, ‘blabbed out directly’.
This is, of course, a huge challenge for the socially-committed artist who is seeking to expose suffering and injustice in as straightforward a way as possible.
It can be extremely difficult for a writer to achieve a dynamic embodiment of meaning through action because his/her motivations for beginning a story are often so scattershot and purely based in an emotional response: a striking image here, a social observation there, the sense of a scene or setting that might be dramatic, the eruption of a haunting memory, a theory about the meaning of life – or its lack of meaning. All these things may refuse to pull together.
In my short asylum-seeker play, Green for the Land Africa, the drama comes not out of a grim, lengthy victim-statement from the protagonist about what happened to him back in Nigeria, but from the desperate interplay between him and the interrogators who want to send him back. His past – in this context – is dramatic first and foremost as a gambling chip that may help his case, not as a heartbreaking bit of speechifying in and of itself (though of course it had to be strongly-written).
A more concrete example of action embodying meaning and theme is one of the core elements of my novel Faggamuffin. Here a macho and extremely closeted Jamaican man is put on trial for the rape of a young woman and is psychologically unable to alibi and exonerate himself by revealing that he is, in fact, gay. Just stating this sequence of events conveys the content and meaning without any internal examination of the character at all.
This crystallization, which I feel I’m now starting to achieve in my writing quite concretely, allows for the deepest and most direct engagement by the writer with his or her themes. It’s a particular sort of work - often rather hard work - that involves honest self-investigation in order to reach clarity. In order to get the bullet in the chamber.
To take off the safety-catch and – wham!
My 2014 Royal College of Art ‘Secrets’ card - a tribute to the martyrs…
'Gishiri Pariah' - a poem for lgbt Nigerians by John R Gordon
Gishiri where they
Drive gay men from their homes
Like the scape-
Goat: ‘Take our sins and go into the wilderness and die’
Gishiri where neighbours once
Tolerated neighbours who had
Too much sugar in the tank;
Tolerated what they didn’t even have to see
In private homes behind closed doors.
Something filled their blind minds’
Cataract-callous Bible declamations
Loud with hate.
Tolerance, such a delicate thread
So easily snapped.
Stripped of everything
Driven out into the wilderness Know
There is no kindness here: the stones
In the wilderness: they lie still
They do not leap
Into neighbours’ hands
And to Christ’s admonition
Love they neighbor as thyself
There comes no answer from Gishiri
Just a fierce and proud
A Writer’s Diary #19: failure is part of the journey.
My new - and longest and I strongly feel best - novel Souljah (currently being prepared for publication) came out of failure: I had tried to turn my (very successful) short film of the same name (viewable on Team Angelica’s website here) into a full-length screenplay, and failed. I’d always felt there was a fuller narrative in there; a further journey to take the characters on, of which the events of the short film would form a rough first act. I wrote various drafts of this full-length screenplay but none of them were satisfactory. There were powerful scenes and images in there, but the whole thing felt somehow pointless, and lacked that odd alchemy which makes the various elements of a story add up to more than a mere functional narrative.
While slumping about in a resentful depression I realised two things. One, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to say. And two, my decisions were being overdetermined by the reality that the film would have to be low-budget, and so I was shutting down in advance all sorts of narrative options - in particular representing highly dramatic events back in the (unnamed) West African country the protagonist came from, where a civil war was happening. I also found myself – entirely unbidden – feeling that I had first and foremost to please my director, as he would be the main motor in getting the film made, rather than myself. These were by no means stupid thoughts, but they weren’t artistically stimulating ones, and my self-esteem caved in.
I needed both to liberate myself from these inadvertent mechanisms of dominance and to take responsibility for realising my vision. And so I turned to prose, in which one is writer, director, producer, designer and all of the cast.
A Writer’s Diary #18: refusing cheap kicks
Recently wrestling with conceptualizing a short play about a gay asylum-seeker I was invited to write for an lgbt theatre event, I was struck by the supreme importance of aiming for truth in both utterance and psychology, as well as, of course its corollary: avoiding merely conventional presentations of motivation and perception.
Whether it’s comedy or drama, theatre, film or prose, interplay between characters is most dynamic when what each person says is true, regardless of the position they’re speaking from. It’s what jolts the viewer/reader out of complacency, and stops him or her from just nodding along with the (usually liberal) line the piece espouses. Whatever politics emerges from it will then reflect the real world, and so be of use, rather than merely representing some ideological position or other - the sort of political theatre people tend to find unsatisfying even when it’s their own viewpoint that is being shown because they know, even if they can’t analyse quite why, that it somehow isn’t real.
My play, Green for the Land Africa, began to lift off when I made a reactionary Christian character also an incisive truth-teller. Interactions between him and the other characters immediately gained far greater weight and complexity, and the piece became honest.
To reach this point I had to excise from myself the desire to create an essentially liberal narrative of reasonable compassionate reassurance, and – while refusing the other cheap kick of treating of despair despairingly – follow human truth wherever it led. To assert the human in all its complexity, which seems to me the proper business of writing.
"You Should Wear Skulls" - a poem about homophobia on the world stage by John R Gordon
To all the real decent people
Of Arizona Nigeria Uganda Jamaica Russia
With your bible tract hearts
Does it feel good
To turn off the feelings?
To flick that switch inside that says
Who is not.
Are you proud
When the mob beats defenceless
Men bloody with spiked clubs
Drags them from their homes strips them
Naked hacks them to death?
This is you.
This is you.
Do your eyes brighten,
Does your pulse race?
Don’t be ashamed of your excitement:
Didn’t you used to go to church on Sundays
After a lynching party the night before?
Didn’t you take photographs
Of charred flesh of bulging
Eyes hacked-off genitals? Make postcards
You real decent people who wouldn’t swear
Before a lady. Who talked of
Soldiers of Christ
Who fight the Good Fight
With dollars and lies
Turn on your Youtube.
Are you proud? It’s your work they’re doing.
You should wear skulls
Around your necks.
A Writer’s Diary # 17: resist all hostile programming.
This is the deep shit, the necessary journey within to set your work free to better serve humanity. This is the way you use your suffering to connect you with other human beings, which is perhaps the only point of suffering, to the extent anything has a point in a universe where we must constantly construct the meanings of our lives.
We all, it is true, receive hostile programming on multiple levels every day, and we are all damaged by it; but the hostility is infinitely more blatant and sharper-edged if you are in any way a minority, more obviously internally devastating.
Hostile programming tells us that if we are gay, of colour, gender-nonconforming, even simply poor, then our stories cannot be universal; that if our narratives matter at all, still we can never hope to stand centre-stage and be applauded.
As is intended, we internalise this programming and become our own jailors. This is the ultimate liberation of those who set oppressive forces in motion, who benefit from them: they no longer even have to be there.
When I was in my late teens I became fascinated by the writers of the U.S. prison movement – ecstatic radicals like George Jackson, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Huey P. Newton, H. Rap Brown, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Geronimo Pratt – and devoured their works, disintegrating copies of which I often had to hunt down in second-hand bookshops, eagerly.
But why? My own circumstances were comfortable: I was receiving a private education in a prosperous suburb that exuded well-to-do conservatism as its default; and yet somehow this model of the world as prison, this disemboweling of the mechanisms of oppression, revealed to me something I instinctively understood was true.
I was responding, I now know, to the weight of hostile programming.
Well. What to do? You can put on a mask and stew and moulder inside as it fuses to your skin. You can Cyberman-like convert your mentality to the dominant mentality, prick out your eyes and erase your own spirit. Or you can try, day by day, to dig the parasites out. This is a life’s work, as they constantly reproduce, down there in the dark, as parasites do.
I believe art – literature - can be a form of resistance, a form of deprogramming, when it models and presents different ways of being. When it offers visions that help open the mind to possibilities that might otherwise remain unseen, unspoken, even unspeakable.
This is the offering I try to make.
"Open Sore On My Conscience" - a poem for LGBT Nigerians by John R Gordon
Beaten by hammers on anvils
Enduring gilt-edged cruelties
Disgorged from throats of Rolls-Royce pastors
Chafing at bonds of British laws
Abandoned in the white grey motherland
Sharpened scrap-iron poison
Imperial rust and dust
Mixed and masked as tradition. Masks for lies
Not spirit representatives. A purged past
Retro-purified by Bible fire
My brothers sisters same-gender-loving others
Suffer manufactured hells
Warped mirrors of what rots inside
Their authors’ minds
Eyes weep bones break beneath the boots
Of those without love
Who hate love
Who hate truth
It takes faith to believe lies.
A Writer’s Diary #16: your desire for their approval is their ultimate weapon.
If you’re a minority writer, or a writer who places minority characters centre-stage, who believes that those who are not white, heterosexual and middle-class are suitable subjects for serious literary endeavour, then you are on a battlefield. It is a battlefield that oftentimes and confusingly is disguised as a support group, members of which will touch you kindly on the arm as they attempt to save you from your bad choices.
These enemy combatants will, with perfect sincerity - because they believe, after all, that their vision is the one true vision - attempt to dominate and restructure your mentality so as to subordinate it to their own. This is natural. This is the battlefield. But your wanting their approval is what gives them the one weapon they need to win. You can withhold that weapon, you can move the battlefield, but it takes strength, perhaps even fanaticism to do so: a preparedness to commit a sort of social suicide. For we are at bottom social animals, and who of us can bear to live without the approval of others, to toil with no hope of acknowledgement from those we respect or admire and remain sane? And that world – in its most seductive guise - presents itself as a transparent meritocracy in which talent, however quirky, however ‘out there’, will always ultimately be recognized.
If there’s one thing the internet shows us, it’s the possibilities of other audiences, other communities than those acknowledged and approved of by dominant culture elements, diffuse, oblique, scattered but nonetheless real: real human beings who can be reached as never before. Allies wait in foxholes scattered across the globe. The battle is to clear one’s mind of the deeply-embedded notion that ‘they’ – the bottle-neck gate-keepers – know best: that the only work that counts is what they deem significant; that the only work that exists is what they allow.
This battle has to be fought every day on multiple levels.
And sometimes I’m tired, and sometimes I cry.