Tag: politics

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 :)

Fear and the Future

In the aftermath of the election, it’s hard to know what to say.

Maybe it’s easier to say nothing, to let it pass unremarked as so many things do on this blog these days, but that feels dishonest. I have so much I want to say; it’s articulating it that’s the hard part. I’ve started writing this post three times already. Everything I say sounds either melodramatic or untrue, and I can’t get past that.

How about this:

I didn’t think I had been allowing myself to hope for a different result, until the exit poll was announced and I found myself sobbing.

Or what about:

Ever since I started hanging out with Quakers, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about ‘God’ as meaning ‘the innate goodness of people’, but sometimes it feels like that’s as hard to believe in as a childhood conception of God as a bearded man in the sky.

Maybe just:

I’m scared.

I’m scared about what this means for the future. I’m scared of the country I live in, where I cannot trust people to look out for their vulnerable neighbours, where xenophobia and racism are on the rise, where racist rhetoric wins hearts and votes. I’m scared of the inevitable fallout when Brexit happens — a fear I’ve been living for three years already and will continue to live with until the worst happens and there is nothing left to be afraid of because it has already happened.

A blue IKEA shark propped up in a chair holds a Labour Party election pamphlet. It is wearing two red badges. One reads, "Kick out the Tories". The other has a heart with the EU flag and Union flag on it, and says "Better Together".
Láeg mac Blåhaj may be blue but his heart is not. He couldn’t drag himself out of bed yesterday to face reality, but today his expression says it all…

I’m young. I’m trans. I’m disabled. This government doesn’t care about me. It has already killed disabled people with cuts to benefits and the NHS, and it will kill more of us. If the NHS goes under, I have friends who will die. You see what I mean about the melodrama? I try and state it like the bald fact that it is, try not to let the emotions creep in, but it still sounds dramatic: this is a matter of life and death.

But it is. I don’t know how else to say it.

I wouldn’t think of myself as a single issue voter — I care about so many things. I care about the environment, I care about peace, I care about equality, I care about creating a system that doesn’t work people into the ground just so that they can survive. I care about education and the arts and the idea that everyone should have the chance to thrive, not merely to keep breathing. There are dozens of things that matter to me.

If there were to be a single issue, though, it would be the NHS.

I’m lucky, so far, in that none of my lifelong health conditions are the variety that have to be continuously medicated or they become fatal. I rely on the NHS for those frequent blood tests, the B12 injections, the extra vaccinations to support my immunocompromised system. Without them I would suffer. Without low-cost access to medication I would struggle. But others? Others would die.

Others have already died, abandoned by a benefits system that will leave them with an unplugged fridge and no insulin, or declared fit to work while terminally ill.

And yes, I have complained about NHS waiting lists and I will probably complain again. I’m currently on three, the longest of which is approximately two years, the shortest of which was a minimum of three months and I’ve yet to hear from them. But I know that those waiting lists are the result of cuts and deficits and strain imposed by the quiet privatisation of different services. By the lack of proper governmental support for mental health services. By this country’s rampant and growing transphobia, and the lack of funding for healthcare to support trans people.

(The rise in vocal, vicious transphobia in this country is another fear I live with constantly, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I suspect it will get worse. I can’t do anything about that, either.)

A black satchel covered in pin badges. Slogans include "trans rights are human rights", "avenge Oscar Wilde", "kick out the Tories" and "Quakers oppose all wars".
Books and politics — and a little bit of Ogham. Perhaps this bag is meant to symbolise this blog.

I see my friends in the US crowdfunding to afford medication they need to live. I see people bankrupted by medical debt while dealing with the grief of losing family members. And I can’t fathom how anybody could look at that and think it was something to emulate, but I’m afraid that some of the politicians our country has just elected think exactly that.

I hope that my fear is unfounded. I hope that the people who say, “They’re not going to sell off the NHS,” are right, just as I hope their promises to fund it aren’t yet more lies spouted by spineless, heartless cowards who will say whatever they have to say to convince people.

I hope that I am wrong.

I can’t express how much I hope that.

I hope that Brexit doesn’t destroy this country. I hope that it doesn’t send food prices through the roof, make it impossible to obtain certain medications, or result in a huge deficit of medical professionals. I hope that it doesn’t destroy our relationship with Ireland. I hope that those who have made their home in Britain are allowed to stay, made welcome rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucracy.

I hope all of these things. That doesn’t mean I believe in them. Hope can be a ruinous thing. We cling to it until it shatters and the shards of it slice our hands to pieces. Hope isn’t enough; to thrive in the face of something like this takes work.

I wish I could promise to put that work in, to fight for all of us, to agitate for change, to be an activist and a pillar of the community and a support to those around me… but I’m so tired. Some days it takes all of my energy just to get out of bed. Fatigue is a full-time job, and that scares me, too: the knowledge that I don’t have the strength to stand up for myself and my friends. I admire those who have it in them to be an activist, but I know that I’m not one of them. Not at the moment. Not when I’m barely coping as it is.

My method instead is avoidance, and perhaps that’s cowardly, to pretend none of it is happening, but sometimes all you can do is distract yourself as a way of barricading your mind against the constant fear. Yesterday, I finally finished writing the gay werewolf novel I was working on for NaNoWriMo, because it was a distraction that I needed. I’m not sure what I will work on next, but I have a dozen small projects that I can lose myself in. Perhaps that’s the easy way out, to refuse to face up to reality until it forces itself on me, but I know that my powerlessness and anxiety will break me if I allow them to be my focus, so I have to look elsewhere.

I have to find peace where I can.

Yesterday, I spent half of my lunch hour in the college chapel, seeking silence, somewhere to hide from the world and the screaming headlines and the fear burning electric through the inside of my head. I found a kind of peace there that quieted my mind a little. Oh still small voice of calm. This world is so loud, especially at the moment. It seems harder and harder to seek that quietness, and part of me feels guilty for trying, when it feels like I should be out on the streets with a placard and a chant.

But all of us can only do what we can, and for me, at the moment, it feels as though existing is all the resistance I can offer. Continuing to be me, refusing to apologise for all the things that I am: queer, nonbinary, pacifist, creative, exhausted, loving, helpless, disabled. Continuing to exist in a world that only offers boxes I don’t fit in. Allowing myself the shocking luxury of unapologetic rest.

I am afraid of what the next five years will bring. I’m afraid of my own helplessness. I’m afraid of my country and I’m afraid for my country and I’m afraid for myself and I’m afraid for everyone more vulnerable than me, who don’t have the privilege of safety nets.

But I hope — desperately — that I’m wrong.