Tag: pacifism

20/09, Mensogoj (TBA Readalong)

I’m still having some trouble with WordPress subscriptions, particularly with WP Reader, so do let me know in the comments if you’re successfully receiving this post via subscription so I know it’s less broken than I fear. If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the series, we started on Sunday with 17/09, Eraro. If you’re wondering what this is all about, we’re (re)reading The Butterfly Assassin together in ‘real time’ according to the story’s chronology, and discussing the writing process and worldbuilding and anything else that catches my attention. Grab a copy and join us!

On the 20th September, Ian Crampton is identified and named in the papers. We learn that he was only 21, and the primary carer for his chronically ill sister. Isabel, meanwhile, goes to school, sits through a History lesson about the city’s origins, and has a panic attack, which leads to meeting Emma Westray for the first time.

This chapter might be the first time that the guilds’ true business is explicitly spelled out: the most powerful arms dealers on Earth, answerable to no one but the highest bidder. As I mentioned in a previous post, this crucial piece of worldbuilding was something I didn’t figure out until the fifth draft. And I wish I could tell you how I thought the guilds worked before that, but I’ll be honest: worldbuilding in early drafts, for me, tends to be purely a matter of vibes.

See, in the very first draft of this book, I hadn’t even decided whether Espera was in the real world, or whether it was a completely alternate universe kind of setting. I knew it was ruled by assassins, but that was as far as that went. How two competing guilds would be able to sustain themselves – within a closed city with a finite population – and who was paying them were questions that 2014!me didn’t seem to think were important. It was only in 2018 that the missing pieces started falling into place, and in 2019, during Author Mentor Match, that I really dug down deep into the details.

But the fact that the guilds are arms dealers is crucial, not just to constructing a world that makes economic sense, but also to the point of the book – its themes and metaphors. Anyone who has read the Author’s Note at the end knows that I have some strong opinions about everyday militarism, the normalisation of violence, and the routine military recruitment of teenagers in the UK. And the UK arms industry is a huge part of that, supplying weapons to whoever will pay for them – even regimes accused of human rights abuses – enabling the exacerbation of global conflict.

As I write this, on 9th September, a ‘festival of resistance’ is taking place outside the ExCel centre in London, where one of the largest arms fairs takes place every other September. Were it not for train strikes, injury, and 32℃ heat, I would be there with them. Instead, this book is a small act of resistance. By taking something we’ve normalised into invisibility in everyday life and making it just a little strange, a little different to reality, I’m demanding we ask questions of the violence our society puts into the world.

The guilds don’t train children. But they did. Just as 20% of new recruits into the UK military and 25% in the army specifically are under the age of 18. Just as cadets are taught rifle drills from the age of 12. Just as disadvantaged teenagers are preyed on by military recruiters who tell them the army is a route to a better life. Did you know, you can apply to join the military aged fifteen and seven months? Join properly at sixteen as a “junior soldier”?

Writing a novel isn’t inherently activism. But if by putting these things on the page and demanding people pay attention I make one person question why we think this is okay, then maybe I’ll have made a difference.

I have, in my worldbuilding document from 2019, a short story about the city’s past. It’s not ‘canon’. I don’t know whether I think it actually happened, within the universe of the book. But I wrote it as part of developing Espera’s history and relationship with the outside world, and it directly addresses the DSEI arms fair, and the protests about it – the ones I might be at right now, were I healthier and the trains more cooperative. Here’s a scene from it:

Several decades after Espera’s declaration of independence, both guilds send a representative to a global arms fair taking place in London. They’re met there by protestors, blocking the steps of the convention centre: a group who hold each other’s hands and sing and refuse to be moved, even as the police presence in the area increases. At their feet they have a tapestry, woven from squares contributed by friends and allies not standing with them today.

The representative from Comma is surprisingly young – in his twenties, probably. He has grey eyes like puddles under a sullen sky, and when he sees the demo he steps away from the group before anybody can stop him, away from security, and walks over to the idealists on the steps.

None of the cameras are close enough to pick up his words, spoken too quietly to be audible, but they catch the impassive steel of his face, the implacable storms of his eyes as he glances back at his companions before speaking to the protestors.

When he’s finished, they sit for a moment in stunned silence, and then one young woman gets to her feet. Her words can barely be heard above the chill autumnal breeze: ‘If it weren’t for the fact that I believe in the inherent light in all people,’ she says, ‘I’d think there was nothing human in you at all. You have buried your light deep.’

The young man, hearing this, smiles. He has a predator’s smile, all teeth and no joy, but she stands firm where others would have retreated. Then he turns, and walks back to the group, rejoining them as though nothing has happened.

Everybody has heard the rumours about Espera. They know Comma’s reputation. It seems inevitable, then, that the girl will be reported dead, her body found precisely murdered – but she isn’t. Although the image of her speaking to the representative makes waves online, she goes about her life untouched and unafraid. After several days with no retaliation, it becomes clear that she will not die for this.

Perhaps that is because, whatever her intention, Ronan Atwood took her words as a compliment.

(The young woman in this scene is not anybody real, or a character I will come back to. But based on her words, she’s a Quaker, and in that regard, she’s inspired by all of the Quakers I’ve met who do attend these protests. This scene probably took place in 2019, since I remember people around me making squares for that tapestry. Ronan would have been 27. My age.)

In this chapter, we’re reminded of the harm Isabel has done – killing a 21-year-old whose sister needed him, a sister whose autoimmune condition foreshadows Isabel’s own illness – at the same time as seeing the harm that has been done to her. Her fear, her bad memories, the story behind the scar on her palm, and finally, her panic attack in the school toilets.

And that’s where we meet Emma Westray.

Emma. Sunshine and colour and hope, Isabel says about her later. For now, we know only that she’s a brown-haired girl wearing glasses and a concerned expression. I love doing this: one abstract noun and one concrete one, with the same verb. I think it’s called a zeugma, and I’m kind of obsessed with them. Unlike Nick and his changeable appearance, Emma has had brown hair and glasses since she first showed up in the first draft, although their first meeting went differently.

Emma was also canonically trans from the first draft through to the fourth. It wasn’t an important part of her character – it was mentioned once in passing, when talking about her childhood, as she thought Isabel already knew that about her. I cut that detail because I wasn’t sure about the dynamics at work, and thought it might play into some harmful tropes: the trans best friend supporting the cis character without a strong plotline of her own… not to mention, of course, how the book ends. If it had been more of a Thing about her, I probably wouldn’t have cut it; since it really was just a single line, I thought the potential for harm outweighed any benefits of that kind of representation.

But in my head, I never really started thinking of Emma as cis. In fact, given that her foster brother, Leo, is canonically trans, I have a vague headcanon that all of Toni Rolleston’s foster kids are trans, and Leo is just the only one Isabel knows about. It is, after all, not the sort of detail she’d be likely to pay attention to.

(You are free to adopt or reject this headcanon as you see fit, since only Leo’s identity is confirmed on page.)

So we have in this chapter the darkness of this story, the reminder that Isabel is a killer and that she has done real harm, as well as been harmed significantly by others, and we also have the first glimpse of its light. Emma, my beloved. Emma teaches Isabel to ground herself amidst a panic attack, focusing on sensory details, and Isabel continues using this technique the entire way through the book.

What struck you about this chapter: the violence, the worldbuilding, the memories, or Emma? Or something else entirely? Were you aware of the UK arms industry and the recruitment of teenagers into the military before you read this book/my author’s note/this blog post, or did that strike you as something unrealistic in the story, exaggerated for the sake of fiction? (I always find this an interesting critique to receive in reviews because I would love for these to be unrealistic details, but unfortunately, reality is terrible.)

As always, leave your answers or any other comments or questions in the comments below and I will be delighted to read them :)

Questions Without Answers

I’ve been thinking recently about relatability, moral ambiguity, and the way that misunderstanding how these two concepts can work together in a book is part of what feeds a lot of online morality policing and accusations of Being Problematic.

(Warning: there might be some mild spoilers for The Butterfly Assassin in this post. If you haven’t read it yet, now’s a great time; it’s only 99p on Kindle!)

There is a tendency, in this day and age, for the main metric by which characters are scored to be how ‘relatable’ they are. “I couldn’t relate to them” is sometimes presented as the start and end of criticism. This is understandable. We want stories where we can see ourselves, and which tap into emotions we ourselves have felt: if we relate, we feel all of it more strongly, because it has resonances with our own lives.

Of course, this has also historically limited the variety of books on the shelves, since cishet white abled stories are seen as a ‘default’ template onto which all others should find a way to project themselves, while stories featuring marginalised characters are seen as ‘niche’, only appealing to those who resemble the characters, and thus hard to market. This has started to change, but there are still those who see it as a fundamentally political decision to include women in a book, let alone any other groups, so it’s an ongoing process.

But more and more people are a) finding stories with characters who look like them (yay!) and to whom they can relate, and b) realising that they don’t need to look like the characters to relate to their experiences, because many emotions are universal.

The trouble comes, however, when those ‘relatable’ characters make morally questionable or outright bad choices. We don’t want to relate to the character who did the evil thing, because what does that say about us? And this, in turn, leads to two phenomena: the purity policing of media consumption (“if you like X, you must condone Y, which makes you a Bad Person”), or the refusal to allow fictional characters ever to be truly morally complex (leading to ‘morally grey’ characters who are honestly just vaguely off-white, and anything actually bad that they do has to be strictly off-screen).

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to The Butterfly Assassin and its sequels. This is an unabashedly political series (I am certainly making a point about societal cycles of violence and what happens to vulnerable young people when a society decides war and weapons are more important than their lives), but that doesn’t mean the characters act in ways that reflect my political beliefs. In fact, they very often do the opposite of what you’d expect someone with my values to do, and aren’t ‘punished’ by the narrative because of it. And while certain aspects of the characterisation draw directly on my own experiences and are very relatable to me, in other regards I have very little in common with my own characters.

I don’t see this as a contradiction at all, in part because I think the purpose of fiction is to give us questions, not answers — and because I think what makes a character relatable is their traits, and not their circumstances.

Let’s start with that second point there.

Isabel, the protagonist of The Butterfly Assassin, is a survivor of an illegal training programme for child assassins, and she first killed somebody when she was twelve years old. I very much hope this is not a relatable circumstance — ideally, nobody who reads this book is thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened to me!” True, as the story continues and she’s manipulated into signing her future away in service to a murderous organisation, the parallels with real-world military recruitment of teenagers become stronger (see my very angry author’s note about that), but generally speaking, the reader is not expected to relate to her circumstances.

Furthermore, the choices that Isabel has to make are a direct result of those circumstances, which frequently results in her choosing to hurt others in order to save herself. These are also hopefully not choices that readers will face on a regular basis — at least not with such high stakes. Most of us will never be put in a position of feeling like we need to kill our classmate to protect ourselves (thankfully!), so again: not relatable.

At the same time, Isabel has character traits that are deeply relatable. She’s a teenager who feels like she doesn’t have control over her life, because everybody is trying to make her decisions for her. She feels trapped by other people’s expectations, and doesn’t want to spend her life doing what her parents want her to do. What teenager hasn’t felt that, to some extent? Isn’t that just fundamentally what being a teenager is like?

(I often say that the popularity of dystopian YA may well be because being a teenager is one of the most fundamentally dystopian experiences there is: constantly feeling the weight of the future while being given no autonomy over the present, your experiences and activities curtailed by higher authorities, a life ruled by exams and grades and league tables, a body that doesn’t feel like yours, etc.)

Some of Isabel’s other ‘relatable’ traits are more specific, but even if they’re minority experiences, they’re not rare. Pain and illness have left her feeling like she has no control over her body. She craves interpersonal connection, but feels like an outsider and doesn’t know how to make friends. She’s prone to sabotaging the good things in her life, because past trauma has taught her that she won’t be able to keep them, and she doesn’t know how to trust that they’ll stick around. All of these are things that real people experience (ask me how I know).

The reason that readers can engage, emotionally, with Isabel’s unrelatable circumstances is because these universal, or at least real, aspects of her character function as a window. No, we don’t know what it’s like to be trained as a killer from childhood. Yes, we do know how it feels to struggle with other people’s expectations of us. No, we’ve never killed a burglar who broke into our house. Yes, we’ve made a social interaction weird because we didn’t know how to respond to somebody’s friendly overtures.

But if somebody whose base-level traits, freed from their circumstances, are similar to ours can do the terrible things that Isabel does… what does that mean for us?

And that’s where we get to the issue of questions and answers.

When we start relating to a character who does terrible things, we are being asked a question: in their place, would you make the same choice? The story has given us the pieces we need to understand why that character made the choice they did, but only we, the reader, have the necessary information about our own lives to know if we would do the same.

There isn’t necessarily a right answer to this question. Which is to say: there might (or might not) be a morally right answer, but this is fiction, not a court of law or a moment of divine judgment. There isn’t a right answer in the sense that a story isn’t better or worse as a result of whether you’d make the same choice as the character. Probably, a story is better or worse if you cannot understand why the character, in their circumstances and with their traits, made that choice — but you can say, “No, I wouldn’t have done that,” and it doesn’t make it less appropriate for the story that they did.

Sometimes, as per the morality policing of problematic media, it can seem like there’s an expectation for the story to give you the answer: you should do this. you should not do that. this is correct. this is incorrect. Characters who make ‘morally wrong’ choices should be Punished By The Narrative, so that the reader understands that this was the wrong thing to do. Characters who make ‘morally right’ choices may be Permitted A Happy Ending.

But I don’t think we should be asking stories for answers. I think stories are supposed to give us the questions, and we are supposed to answer them ourselves. And often, the answers aren’t that simple.

Isabel interests me to write because her story asks, “If the only way you could survive was to kill others, would you do it?” and I don’t know the answer. I value life. I think death is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person, because almost anything else still carries the potential for improvement, but death is an ending. Death means nothing can ever get better, ever again. It terrifies me, and the idea of taking life from somebody else is absolutely horrifying.

Which is why I don’t have an answer. Death terrifies me, so I would do many things to avoid it. But it’s so horrifying to me that I can’t imagine being able to live with the knowledge that I’d caused it, either. What would I do? I have no idea. I have no idea because I have never been put in that situation; because my imagination cannot decide what level of guilt is livable; because I have never truly been forced to confront the question of how badly I want to survive.

But Isabel has.

Isabel, in her circumstances, with her training and her trauma, is not me. Some of her underlying personality comes from me, and some of her traits are relatable to me; other aspects of her personality and nature are wildly unlike mine. (She’s good at science. I haven’t done a STEM subject since 2012. We are not the same.) Her circumstances, though, are what make the difference, and for her, the choice is clearer. Would it be clear for me, if I were in her place?

These questions mean that when I write Isabel, or when I read her, I do so with the knowledge in the back of my mind that I cannot guarantee I would do any differently in her place. I like to think I would. In fact, I like to think I’d magically find a third option where everything would be okay for everybody. But the story gives me a question I can’t answer: who am I, when it boils down to it? Whose life do I value more: mine, or others’?

Now, The Butterfly Assassin is making a point about violence. It is not morally neutral. The entire trilogy is underpinned by the idea that violence begets violence: further violence can’t break the cycle, only perpetuate it. But it’s also saying that those trapped within that cycle don’t necessarily have a choice. Kill or die is a question where the answer is always a dead body, and the only question is whose; there is no solution. The only solution is to destroy the very system asking that question in the first place, and that is not something you can do as a powerless seventeen-year-old suffering from severe pain.

And of course, the very fact that Isabel isn’t in a position to dismantle the system she’s living within is asking other questions: who is in a position to change it? What would it take to create a society that is safe, and where people can thrive, and where an economy of violence doesn’t take priority over people’s lives? (And is that something we should be doing closer to home?) But spelling out those questions too explicitly runs the risk of presenting the whole series as a didactic parable, and that’s never been my intention. Sure, I’m making a point, but I want readers to be asking themselves those questions, not trying to answer me.

Maybe we’ll see the answers to some of these questions as the series goes on. Plot, of course, requires a certain amount of answers, others you end up with an unresolved mess and a lot of disappointed readers. But characters, and morality, and just how far we’d need to be pushed before we’d snap in the same way that they’d snap… that’s not necessarily something an author can or should be trying to answer. That one’s for the readers.

So, yes, I think it’s valuable when a character is relatable. There’s also a lot to be said for the questions asked by a character we can’t relate to at all, but that’s a different blog post. But when we relate to a character, it makes the story’s moral questions feel real. When we understand a character as somebody we could, in the right circumstances, become, the questions become harder and the answers ever more slippery. But a character’s relatability should not lure us into thinking the author wants us to do what the character is doing, and by extension, condones what the character is doing.

No — the character does what they do because that’s what’s most interesting for the story, and sometimes (often!), the interesting option is not the most morally correct option. It’s the one that raises more questions, that perpetuates the state of crisis, that forces us to confront something about the assumptions we make. The ones that leave us without answers, because it’s by not being given them that we start to find them for ourselves.

If you would like to see a potentially relatable teenager making truly terrible choices amidst an array of bad options, The Butterfly Assassin is out now and The Hummingbird Killer is available to pre-order, or to request on NetGalley!

Memory, Peace, and New Paths

This Remembrance Sunday marks two years since I attended my first Quaker meeting at Friends’ House, in London.

It wasn’t an entirely typical meeting. There were a number of people there specifically to mark Remembrance, among them several members of Veterans for Peace. While my own attendance was triggered by an interest in Quakerism that had been growing for about six weeks at that point, my choice to attend on that date specifically was related to a growing discomfort with how Remembrance was being celebrated in mainstream society, and a desire to mark the day in a way that centred peace.

Quaker meetings, for those who aren’t aware, are primarily silent, but if people feel moved to speak (‘give ministry’), they stand up and do so. I’ve attended meetings that have had seven pieces of spoken ministry over the course of an hour, but those were definitely the outliers; most I’ve attended have had one or two. This meeting was a particularly quiet one, with no spoken ministry until close to the end, when a visitor stood up to express the peacefulness he’d felt throughout the meeting.

But after the meeting had been brought to a close, visitors were invited to stand up and introduce themselves, and one by one they did. There were conscientious objectors and veterans with stories of how they had stood up for their pacifist ideals. People who had been in prison, or lost their jobs, or otherwise demonstrated their commitment to peace even at personal cost.

When it came to me, I stood up and very quickly said, “Hi. I’m Finn. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.” And sat back down.

It’s the most and least honest I’ve ever been. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.

We all have a story – my journey to Quakers and interest in pacifism didn’t spring spontaneously from nowhere – but in that moment I was struck by a peculiar impostor syndrome about the fact that at the age of twenty-two, as I was then, I had nothing to show for my ideals, no demonstration of what it meant that I was a pacifist.

I still don’t. My pacifism is frequently an academic one: I’ve read books, written blog posts, thought about it a lot, but sometimes I feel calling myself a pacifist, while ideologically true, is a little bit like calling yourself a queer ally just because you don’t call people by homophobic slurs. It’s a title I’ve done nothing to earn.

Because pacifism isn’t opting out of conflict. Pacifism is working to resolve it through transformation, not violence. Pacifism is a commitment, a requirement to work actively to dismantle violence in ourselves, our communities, and our society more broadly. Pacifism requires action. Pacifism can be forceful, defiant, even aggressive.

Pacifism means addressing the roots of conflict: inequality and poverty and greed. It isn’t enough to passively oppose violence – we have to dig down to the roots of what makes people feel it’s necessary, and cut away the rot. We have to create alternatives and empower people to turn to those.

Sometimes it feels I falter at the first hurdle, though – addressing my own instinctual violence. Peace doesn’t come naturally to me; my first instinct is always to lash out when I feel threatened. I’ve struggled a lot with feeling like I’m faking my pacifism, the same way I feel like I’m pretending to be a better person than I am because being kind doesn’t always feel natural either, and has to be a conscious effort.

I believe that good is something you do, that peace is something you choose, that kindness is a decision you make. But that doesn’t free me from the impostor syndrome that I feel. One day, I think, I’ll make my peace with that, too.

I don’t have a story. I’m just here. But one piece of the story I don’t have is that my maternal great-grandfather was a conscientious objector, who spent the First World War imprisoned for his stance. Although many conchies were religious, my understanding is that my great-grandfather’s position was a political one, because of his socialist values. It affected the rest of his life: his educational opportunities, the jobs he could get. It wasn’t about a few years of labour in Dartmoor, but his entire future.

I guess he figured that was a reasonable sacrifice.

It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my family history (although this may be because most of my family history is a mystery to me beyond the vaguest of details), and it’s part of what drew me to the Quakers, when I encountered historical accounts of their involvement with conscientious objectors. The more I learned about my great-grandfather and conscientious objectors, the more I kept stumbling on the Religious Society of Friends, in novels as well as historical material.

Always history, though. Most people’s mental image of Quakers seems to be a 17th century one, but mine was an early 20th century one, caught up with the war and all the political struggles around it. I knew they were still around, in theory, but I had no idea what they were up to these days.

So I googled it, and the next day I was at Friends’ House, trying to learn more.

My relationship with faith is a complicated one. I would be hard pushed to say for sure what I believe, and I’m constantly unlearning and re-evaluating inherited ideas about God. These days, I learn more theology from Twitter than from sermons (and I’ve deeply appreciated the opportunity to hear Jewish perspectives on Biblical stories from the various rabbis I follow).

But when it comes to religion, in the sense of a corporate body of people… I’m glad I found Quakers. Whatever I do or don’t know about my spiritual beliefs, I can find a kind of stability in those testimonies: peace, equality, simplicity, truth, sustainability.

PESTS. Because historically, that’s what Quakers have been, and that’s what we still aim to be – speaking truth to power, making good trouble, and refusing to go with the flow. I’ve got a long way to go before I can count myself as an active contributor to that tradition, just as my pacifism could serve to step out of the moral philosophy section of the library and into the world, but now I’ve got people around me bearing witness to those ideas every day. Though it’s been hard, in lockdown, to feel that connection to others I used to feel in silent meetings (Zoom is not cutting it for me, I’ll be honest), I’m still profoundly grateful to have those threads drawing us together.

My Quaker friends inspire me every time I see them lighting a candle against the vast darkness of the world, making things brighter one small light at a time. And if two years haven’t brought me certainty or peace, at least they’ve brought me a path to follow, to see where it takes me.

So. Two years since I first crept nervously into a meeting with my white poppy on my coat. London and Edinburgh and Cambridge and Liverpool and Cork and Zoom. Thanks for being there, Quakers.

A photo of a light-coloured building with a flat roof. Metallic letters spell out 'Quakers'.
Cork Quaker Meeting House, October 2020

If you enjoy my blog, please consider donating to my tip jar on Ko-Fi.

Alternatively, you may wish to donate to the Peace Pledge Union or the Alternatives To Violence Project.