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.
My Vodou Writer’s Shrine
In the shrine of every writer are his or her lwa, those spirits of the writerly forebears with whom he or she is in rapport, who at times descend and possess or inhabit their literary serviteur. No doubt they’re an ill-assorted crew, my ancestors, my Masks: Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Chester Himes, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), H. P. Lovecraft, J. R. R. Tolkien, Raymond Chandler, Mervyn Peake, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, William Burroughs; the drums behind them Malcolm X, Franz Fanon, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis. Above them, presiding, is James Baldwin. A novelist, essayist, Civil Rights activist; an out gay man at a time when in the West being gay was still an imprisonable offence, a certifiable mental illness, Baldwin was a firebrand with the oratorical style of both a lover and an Old Testament preacher.
From the first I loved the fire and iron of his writing, the King James Bible jazz-rhythmical power of his prose, the raw-nerve-end vulnerability of his self-exposure as he allowed himself to become the lightning-rod, the poteau-mitain post for his generation. For this, as I was to learn later, he was reviled by some members of the following generation - men such as Eldridge Cleaver, who had his own self-hatred to excise, as well as rampant misogyny and homophobia; and the more ambivalent Amiri Baraka, (though Jimmy said of him later, ‘Baraka and I are good friends now’; and at his funeral Baraka said, ‘Jimmy was God’s revolutionary mouthpiece – if there is a God…’)
James Baldwin gave me many sorts of permission. His was the first gay novel I ever read – bar the depressing, whitebread-mired Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White, which only alienated me from myself. Giovanni’s Room, (1957), though a classic gay novel and probably Baldwin’s best-known fictional work, surprises because all the characters are white – and yes, I admit a sting of disappointment at that, though later I understood the need he felt, like his contemporary Chester Himes in his prison novel Cast the First Stone, to address his same-sex attractions through a racially-transvestic shift in which whiteness was a nul category. In any case, Baldwin was to go on to re-inscribe gay love into an African-American sensibility and cultural location in his most brilliant and final novel, Just Above My Head, (1979), set in the Civil Rights era; as he did in its predecessor, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, (1968), which engages passionately with the ecstasy and grief of the Black Power movement that followed its demise. (Mostly white) critics dismissed Baldwin’s late novels as ‘bitter’, yet to me they are searingly compassionate and overflowing with humanity; perhaps the most fully human books ever written. And yes, they are merciless.
James Baldwin gave me a double gift: the freedom to be myself, combined with the liberatory power of cross-identification, which enables me through my own trans-racial manoeuvres to engage as fully as I am capable with the humanity of both myself and others.
‘Who’s that fag?’ a militant youth asked sneeringly, on seeing Baldwin at a cocktail party in the mid-Seventies in a flamboyant floral shirt and tight slacks, twirling his cigarette-holder as he held forth – unable to believe this camp creature could be the unflinching author of the prophetic book-length essay, The Fire Next Time, (1963). And that was part of it, to me: to be short, slight, fey and nervy and still face down the bullies, the oafs, the thugs. To publish Giovanni’s Room after his safe debut novel of life in the black church, Go Tell It On The Mountain, (1954), on the grounds that then he would have ‘nothing to hide’ and therefore ‘nothing to fear’. A personal lesson in courage, and to me the lesson that yes, you can write what you want (what you need to): that approval is not required.
When aged nineteen I read his landmark novel of interracial Greenwich Village life, the bestselling Another Country, (1963), and it was as if for the first time I realised that a book could be about the themes that most compelled me: race and sexuality and their interplay: that that was allowed. Lost in vanilla suburbia I had found the possibility of my subject. It was a profoundly exciting and also rather frightening moment. And too Baldwin revealed to me the possibility of a certain spiritual or mystical engagement through his assertion - his revelation - that behind his acute psycho-social observations of individual human beings and their relationships lay a mystery that both resided in, and transcended, race and love and sexuality; that each state of being could be explored in terms of the other. Or so I understood it.
In that novel there is a primal trauma from which I never really recovered: the suicide early on in the narrative, (memorialising the real-life suicide of a young friend of Baldwin’s) of the young, sexually-confused black protagonist, Rufus, who jumps from a bridge into the Hudson. It is a trauma I found myself trying, both consciously and not, to repair in my novel Colour Scheme, (2013), a book it has taken me a decade to satisfactorily resolve. My protagonist Malcolm, a depressive jazz musician, goes to commit suicide in the exact same manner as Rufus, but is challenged in his desire for self-extinction first by racist thugs, (who in attacking him defy him to choose to die); and then because he is rescued by a group of passers-by, one of whom, a white Afrocentric youth, goes on to become his closest friend. This seemed to me an act of repair, a reparation.
In Vodoun it is believed that the living are in constant rapport with the dead. Everything I write is in dialogue not only with the world around me now but also with those great artists who went on before, the spirits who relentlessly ride me, of whom the greatest and most present is the mighty James Arthur Baldwin.
(A version of this essay appeared in Scarf magazine in 2013)
Joe Can’t Sleep…
Listen to me read this poignant extract from my novel Colour Scheme here. Joe is the straight best friend of protagonist George, and the tragic death of his baby leads Joe to reflect on the ways he’d taken certain things for granted as a ‘natural’ man.
(an essay I was commissioned to write for a magazine that wasn’t used)
In my current novel Colour Scheme two characters, Malcolm, a Black Nationalist jazz trumpeter, and his lover Ziggy, a Nigerian artist who is endeavouring to use the ‘good’ voices in his head (those of his ancestors) to combat the ‘bad’ voices (of state-diagnosed schizophrenia), are arguing about the nature of freedom. At one point Ziggy says apropos Western individualism,
‘Madness and sanity, they are a matter of where you are speaking from. Who in the rest of the world defines freedom as we define and desire it? We want freedom from systems of belief, systems of authority, systems of morality, obligations to family, to custom, to God: we long to be free of all the things that to a billion other human beings make all the sense of life there is to be made of it. To them we are mad. Intriguing, exciting, but mad. And therefore dangerous.’
Ziggy sees all group claims on his individuality as hostile assaults. Malcolm believes in a romantic black solidarity that is painfully cross-cut and ruptured by his identity as a gay man. His radical heart addresses the question of who he ‘really’ is in combative terms: he is
‘Black to the racists; gay to the homophobes. But you’ve always known that.’
This debate comes out of the identity politics of the 1980s and 90s, which relocated ‘the struggle’ to focus on reclaiming core essences from the distortions of hostile programming by dominant hegemonies. In the case of black gay men, African-American film-makers like Marlon Riggs and poet-activists like Essex Hemphill challenged and critiqued not only constraining black heteronormativity (and outright homophobia),but also white gay racism (briefly, the ‘black buck’ stereotype) and, beyond that, the racism of the larger society.
At the same time a countervailing tendency challenged the existence of essences in the first place, asserting that race, sexuality and even gender were social constructions: there was no pure, untainted essence to get back to – or go forward to, or otherwise reveal. Many of these debates were – and are – exceedingly high-flown and abstruse, so it’s debatable how far they penetrate beyond the academy; and I would argue that the reality is that the lives of most of us are lived in broadly concrete categories in respect of gender, race and sexuality.
When white American gay poet and activist Allen Ginsberg went to Cuba to support Castro’s revolution in the 1950s he (rather gustily, given the laws of the time) proselytised on behalf of sexual freedoms. He found his audience unreceptive, however. In the main desperately poor and in need of the basics that make life liveable, they couldn’t assign such a freedom any priority – and in any case it went against the moral upbringing of many, if not most, of them. Bottom-line freedoms, they felt, had to come first.
It seems at first glance a compelling argument. However, there is a lesson to be learned from the American Civil Rights movement, which tended, for obvious reasons, to put race first, and put other forms of progress – for instance towards gender or broad economic equality – on the back-burner. However, even on a pragmatic level, without women being free from the burden of reactionary sexism, society simply can’t be free, even if racism is ameliorated. More profoundly, I think it’s ultimately a category error to imagine freedom is divisible: it requires a kind of willed blindness. (How truly free am I, for instance, as I buy my sweat-shop-manufactured sneakers? How can I not feel a certain dreadful hollowness of the spirit if I am a thinking and feeling person?).
The question, then, seems to me to be: is it possible to envision a revolution that can encompass simultaneously both the mass of people and the individual? And is it possible to move towards making that vision a reality?
Historically, revolutionaries have tended to have hard-edged philosophies that identify group enemies in absolute terms and espouse extreme ruthlessness of approach. Alas, this very ruthlessness tends to result in Stalins, Maos and, (somewhat more debatably), Castros, rising to power, leaving the people all the more powerless and oppressed. If there is a lesson here, it is that a revolutionary mentality that has no concern for the individual human being as an individual will almost by design turn repressive if it gains power.
It seems to me necessary, therefore, to resist all absolutisms; to resist, as Ziggy does, all systems of thought and control, and to risk chaos and contradiction in the search for what really gives people, individually and collectively, freedom.
I was debating with a socialist friend recently who said that state control and centralisation were essential for African states to succeed, and that socialism was essential for social justice. I’m broadly in favour of redistributive government and a wide range of tax-funded state services to the people myself, but replied that it had been clearly shown that micro-capitalist ventures by African women had, in fact, done a lot more to raise living-standards for poor communities in general than any number of ‘big government’ schemes - while also freeing women from excessive subordination to patriarchal customs that limited their life-opportunities. Changing his position with whiplash-inducing speed, my friend at once agreed that that was so. I don’t think he was being a hypocrite: just, he understood and was prepared to embrace the contradiction in service of genuine uplift.
To work on all these different, seemingly-incoherent fronts is less romantic, less sexy than making a single grand gesture, but it seems to me the best way of moving towards a better world. One can invert a lot of the tortured debates about all this quite simply anyway. For instance, it is perfectly possible for a parliament to prioritise providing clean water supplies for slum-dwellers (thus saving lives and adding to the happiness and productivity of the population) while at the same time decriminalising homosexuality (thus putting a stop to blackmail, deterring homophobic violence, adding to the happiness and productivity of same-gender-loving citizens, and freeing up police and court time for things that matter). What’s conceptually difficult about that? There just doesn’t need to be a problem if freedom is your focus.
Perhaps one key is to accept that freedom is fluid and multivalent as well as interconnected and mutually interdependent. The most traditional life imaginable can be a free life if it is freely chosen. What matters is that the choice is truly free. To live in freedom does require a certain toughness of spirit, however. To not require that your personal choices be validated by forcing others to do what you want to do is frightening for some. But finding that courage seems to me a small price to pay in order to live in a world with the widest possible horizons.
A Writer’s Diary #15: that awful extra something.
We all know this: a story can make sense and be fairly true to life but who cares? We need it to have that elusive extra something for it to matter. Style is a part of it – a curiously large part – but style is ultimately only the byproduct of putting words down according to the writer’s own feeling for language in an attempt to convey the meaning he or she is trying to convey.
This ultimately lays bare that cruel quality Truman Capote called ‘lift’: the awful extra something a writer either has - or hasn’t.
The other extra something that makes a piece of writing worthwhile is meaning, but the nature of ‘meaning that matters’ isn’t as obvious as it seems. It isn’t, certainly, to be achieved by trowelling some big theme (say the Holocaust, or slavery) over your narrative and characters in hopes of inflating them and their struggles with specious, hollow significance.
What, then, is meaning that matters? H. P. Lovecraft was in many respects a bad writer, garish and pulpish, but he had an originality of vision that transcended his prose, so much so that we now speak of the ‘Lovecraftian’: somehow his work meant something. And perhaps it’s unjust to say that Lovecraft succeeded despite his ‘bad’ style, as it’s only through his choice and combination of words that his vision was presented to his readers.
Does any given story amount to more than the sum of its parts? The pitiless, if circular, answer at first seems to be: only if the author is talented. But I would say: only if the writer has found his/her true subject. All the rest, it seems to me, necessarily follows from that. Every writer must find the subject that compels him or her most. Life’s too short, and energy too limited, for anything else.