Friday, 5 September 2014

Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London, out December 15th 2014

Asylum and Exile, my 5th book,
out December 15th 2014
I am delighted to trail ahead to the 15th December release of my fifth book, Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London (Seagull Books/Chicago University Press). The book's based on my outreach work with asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented people and features their testimonies alongside my own account. More details can be found by clicking here and a full press release will be available on this site on 15th December. The Amazon page for the book is here and pre-orders are open. Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London follows the publication, in 2012, of my previous book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine.

I will be doing as much speaking and writing about this issue as I can, both nationally and internationally, in 2015 and 2016. In the meantime I've released two fractions - new fragmented fiction. They are called Moment of Curfew and Those Castles.


Monday, 18 August 2014

Those Castles

One of my fractions: new fragmented fiction.

Those castles were only beautiful from a distance. To a warden tailing above or a courier steering their slicer bike on the ochre track, the blood-veined stone gleamed treacle black, so lustrous it looked wet, and the outlying fields were as combed gold surrounding jet. But close by, the façade was touched all over with cobweb crackles. The fields were dry hay, bled by the sun, so fragile that when I walked through them, the strands disintegrated like a dissolving mirage, like a shredded veil.

There was nothing behind the façade, only the rubble of that place, the fallen marble worked and engraved, gems long thieved from their settings, murals bleached by the centuries, crushed by time, mosaic and thistle intertwined. Miriadh was so large that it encompassed what had once been a dozen countries, five dozen languages, five hundred races, five thousand gods and five infinities of stories mapping and meshing, a lacework of echo-tales. Along the old countries’ borders were forts and temples, castles and keeps once chained together by defensive walls; the amphitheatres and senates, pits and altars, towers and catacombs of great cities once risen, now gone. And so we lived, as all Mirians did, the past crumbling into the present, the transformed and the ordinary woven together like thorns and vines, buds and leaves.

It was the longest day of the summer and we were playing in the debris, recreating the epics that showed all night on State TV and on the garish posters pasted across our village walls. We pretended to be legends and heroes, declaiming barefoot in high language, a stick for a sword, a maize sack for a cloak, ripped open hard at the seam. In the scalding heat we were noontime adventurers, we nobodies, children from the street 

Moment of Curfew

One of my fractions: new fragmented fiction.

At eleven the night city would tense and hush, would flinch silently for a moment. Then the low groan of the curfew siren looped wide, lassoing the skyline. The siren could be heard, like a drunk’s moaning complaint, from end to far end of the city. The power flagged briefly and the high line train screeched and slowed, pinching tight on its electric rail, then picked up again, nosing between skyscrapers. The buildings’ mirrored facets reflected the siren sound, breaking and scattering hard pieces of it, chopped edits. All the TV, video game, phone, cinema and ad screens cut out and the word CURFEW emerged in stocky black from the jittering peppercorn pixels. There was a stiffly braced clang, an industrial shudder. Then corrugated metal shutters descended over each house window and shopfront and ground to the bottom, where they locked with a blunt tchickk. Office buildings were armoured in rusty scales, the lower metres wearing bright graffiti hems, a technicolour lacework of names and expletives.

At the same time, the globe lights in the good neighbourhoods and the stuttering bulbs in the bad, the strings of red chilli-shaped fairy lights in the markets and the fluorescent strips in the nail bars, betting shops and chicken shops snapped on. The city didn’t empty out so much as atomise, split into concentrated pieces: the curfewed streets, haunted by watchmen, crossed warily by odd parties of permit holders; the taxis, trains and buses, the light in them the colour of weak whisky, each commuter gripping their bag tightly; the metal-sealed buildings and the hot, noisy privacy within. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Inside: the power of books in prisons

This is in response to justice secretary Chris Grayling's ban on books and other items being sent to prisoners. This article has also been picked up, here, by the human rights and civil liberties organisation Liberty. For more details on Grayling's measures click here and also here and to sign a petition protesting them please click here. The writer Leah Thorn, who has a decade's experience doing close outreach work in prisons, has granted me an incredibly informative, moving and trenchant interview about prison reform, inequality, incarceration and prison culture here.

I do outreach work in prisons and also in detention centres and I have seen first hand how powerful and important books are to prisoners. Book are vital, not only in providing enrichment for inmates but as a way of connecting with others to talk through, challenge, inspire and provoke debate in a rewarding and constructive way. In all the institutions I have visited, book groups, reading groups and writing groups exert a strong pull on prisoners, who show themselves again and again to be dedicated, committed, passionate and insightful in their work and in their dealings with me and with each other.

A literary culture creates the space for civilised, meaningful relating, for social development, for questioning and self-questioning, learning, self-improvement: all the things a truly constructive prison system should represent. I have seen virtually silent prisoners linger around the edges of a group and then, through a few comments and some close reading, gain confidence, develop their skills and showcase their talent. The books are not just a source of education but also of entertainment of the most enriching and deepening kind. They are, in fact, an essential tool in tackling the poor levels of literacy and the accompanying frustration, low self-expectation, daily obstacles, narrowed opportunities and the intractable economic and social deprivation and desperately limited horizons which contribute to an environment in which petty but repetitively (almost compulsively) committed crimes are almost an inevitability. I am not talking about 'being soft' on rapists, child abusers, batterers, thug murderers, predators and woman-killers but about lifting up and liberating that great miserable body of the prison population: neighbourhood burglars, car thieves, petty hustlers, smalltime crooks, scrappers and scufflers, drug pushers who are addicts, teenage or early twenties wannabe gangsters, holders or passers-off of stolen goods. For these types, prison can be an opportunity either to become grossly influenced by malign individuals even further down the road to moral and economic corruption - or to gain some skills, judgement, backbone (as opposed to bravado) and promise, which can be taken out into the world upon release. Reading skills can contribute to ensuring that, in time, released prisoners might build a stronger and better life for themselves than they had before their sentence, not because of an increase in something nebulous and romantic like dignity but because literacy skills are vital to worldly progress.

As with all teaching, through the collective experience of reading and talking about reading, the prisoners I have worked with have taught me much more than I could teach them or they could teach themselves without the structure and focus of a book to anchor them. Certainly, we all learned a thousand times more in a couple of hours spent together daily than we would have during whole afternoons spent on the landings [where the cells are] watching daytime TV.

Furthermore I have been told directly by women prisoners with initially low literacy skills how fundamental reading has been to them. One woman told me, "My mum didn't know how to read or write, I didn't know how to read or write, that was just the way it was. So I taught myself in prison."

There is a further point, and it is gendered. I am extremely alarmed by the cruelty and punitive malice of Grayling's proposals for women prisoners with children and the suggestion that children cannot send their mothers parcels.

The overwhelming majority of women prisoners are 'inside' for non-violent crimes. The process of incarceration is mentally traumatising in itself and additionally has grave real-world consequences. In virtually all the cases that I have seen, women prisoners had been their children's primary carers and guardians, with secondary care provided by grandmothers and other female relatives. With the central source of stability and care removed and in many cases moved far from families' home towns, if female relatives cannot take on the childcare responsibilities then families are broken up, young children are put in care and a new cycle of deprivation, vulnerability, exploitation, damaging instability, lack of opportunity and circumstantial predisposition to offending begins.

We can see from all this that it is often the supposed cure, not the crime, which creates deep and long term trauma and is a key factor in the pressing issue of women prisoners' mental health and self harm. Incarceration for crimes which are more often than not the result of economic deprivation, abuse, inequality and lack of support inflicts mental wounds, drags an entire family even further down socially and creates the ground for yet more crimes to be committed - out of survival, out of necessity and out of pain.

The sense of isolation in a prison is extreme and is made perversely worse by the sheer numbers of other prisoners, guards and civilian staff. The entire non-prison world is referred to by prisoners as Outside, and the prison described numbly as Inside. Incarcerating people in a way that is mentally violent as a means of punishing non-violent crimes does not work and destroys everything, inside and out, mental and physical. There is little stimulation in a prison except for basic skills learning, a few hours of classes per day, helping out as an orderly, working in various prison areas such as the 'servery' [kitchen and canteen] or packing boxes of goods to go between prisons, sitting in front of daytime TV, idle chat and destructive scheming which is usually the result of boredom and depression. In such a context books are a humane necessity, vital for the intellect, for processing and sublimating the emotions, for socialisation, for education and for development - not a form of empty entertainment to be handed out like sweets to those who behave well. It is a fallacy that prison life is cushy, although the routine and the utter predictability and slow demarcation and regimentation of time may be comforting for those whose outside lives feel insecure, emotionally raw or unsafe. Treats, in the form of everything from letters to books to clothes and sachets of perfume or a nice top, are rare and treasured.

Receiving gifts and messages from their children and having something to talk to them about on visits - something like a story from a book - is many women prisoners' lifeline, their only source of sustained warmth and hope from the outside world. A chat about a book, gifted to a prisoner by her child, may be the only thing which makes a prison visit less frightening for that child. The prisoners pay this token of love and kindness back at Christmas time when they record stories on CDs for their children to listen to.

I will end with that fragile image of reciprocated love, communication and storytelling. I hope that Grayling changes his mind and seeks more effective, more humane, less petty and less malicious ways of reforming the prison system.


For more on my prison work see this report by the Prisoners' Education Trust, this from English PEN, this also from English PEN and Rape, Refusal, Destitution, Denial on my outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom had experienced detention and imprisonment.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Leah Thorn, the poet and activist facing and transforming the lives of women in prison

Further reading: Inside: the power of books in prison, written by me for human rights organisation Liberty and based on my own prison work.

I wanted to highlight the work of a heroine of mine, the poet, activist, performer and prison worker Leah Thorn, who has granted me an exclusive and in-depth interview, below. Given the UK government's latest measures to restrict parcels, including those containing books, going into prisons, we desperately need the action and advocacy of individuals like her to convey and address the reality of life in prison, especially for women. Some of her work with women in prison has been captured by the film-maker Suzanne Cohen in the highly acclaimed documentary Beautiful Sentences, which can be viewed here:



Leah also gave a TEDxWomen talk on incarcerated women and the transformational power of poetry, which can be viewed here:



She is currently making a film of her poem Shhh! which, she tells me, "is about sexism and the continued need for a feminist revolution" and will be submitted to poetry and film festivals upon completion. The film is being made by Second Shot, a production company at the men's prison HMP Doncaster, where Leah spent time filming and talking with the men about issues the poem raises. As I write this, on 4th April 2014, Leah is giving a performance and talk about women in prison and the power of poetry as part of the Wise Words Festival in Canterbury. Later in the year she will be teaching a six week summer course at Canterbury Christchurch University, entitled What Does The F-Word Mean To You?

Leah Thorn photographed by Suzanne Cohen
Image taken from Leah Thorn's site

Following the government's extremely unpopular new measures regarding the prison system - please click here to read the official response to protests against these measures - I asked Leah more about her experience of working in prisons:

How long have you been working with women in prison and how did you get into it?

I've been working in prisons with the Anne Frank Trust for about eight years. My commitment to women’s liberation means I focus a lot, but not exclusively, on the incarceration of women

Do you see the issue of women in prisons as a feminist one?

Completely. Women make up a small, and consequently ignored, minority of the overall prison population: 4.8% in England and Wales. The starkness of women’s imprisonment keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and more aware of the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women.

I am uneasy about quoting statistics that are freely used to designate incarcerated women as 'the most damaged women in society'. Diminishing a woman to a number denies her resilience and ability to survive and serves to distance her from women outside of the Criminal Justice System. However, the figures clearly show how incarcerated women have been targeted and controlled:
  • 53% of incarcerated women have reported emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, with a similar proportion of women having been victims of domestic violence
  • 31% of women prisoners have spent time in care as children
  • 40% of women in prison left school before they were 16
  • 46% say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life
  • 30% of women entering prison require drug detoxification.

Certain populations of women are more vulnerable than others to being criminalised. For example, Black women are four times more likely than white women to be incarcerated and frequently receive longer sentences for similar crimes.

One in five women in prison in England and Wales are Foreign Nationals, technically those who do not have a UK passport. A significant number have been coerced or trafficked into offending. I have worked with women whose only experience of England has been a Customs hall in an airport, a court and a prison. I have witnessed the bewilderment, loneliness and fear of women unable to speak a word of English, who have no-one on their prison wing who can speak their mother tongue. It can take days to find another woman who can interpret and explain what is happening.

Two thirds of women in prison are mothers of young children and many of the women I work with spend their sentence desperately concerned about their children's care and whether they will lose parental rights. In any one year in England and Wales, 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by incarceration. Only 5% will stay in their own home. The others will be cared for by family members or put into foster care.

Despite public outcry, pregnant women are still put into prison and four babies a week are born to women in prison. It is hard to see a woman locked in her cell hours from giving birth, alone and exhausted. Sometimes a prison officer is designated as a woman's birth partner but it often happens that the woman gives birth when that officer is not on shift. Women do not give birth inside jail except in medical emergencies and women are no longer restrained with handcuffs when giving birth, although some women still fear this. However, the women is usually on an open maternity ward with constant bed watch, which means having two officers either side of them for their whole stay. At present there are seven specialised mother and baby units  in England - there may well be fewer by end of the year - and newborn babies can stay with their mothers for between 9 and 18 months.

Older women are the fastest growing age group to be imprisoned. Last year in England and Wales, 368 women aged 50 or over (including 55 pensioners) were jailed, an increase of 139% in that age group. Many are primary carers for disabled or elderly dependants.

Dishonesty is the biggest reason for women's incarceration. More than two thirds serve time for non-violent offences such as shoplifting, welfare benefit fraud, employer fraud and receiving stolen goods. Research on mothers in custody found that over a third said they offended because of ‘a need to support their children’, with single mothers being more likely to identify a lack of money than those who were married.

There is also a strong likelihood that women’s offending is prompted by their relationships with men. Coercion by men can form a route into criminal activity for many women.

Women entering prison are likely to be serving short sentences. In 2012, more than 4,500 women entered prison to serve sentences of 6 months or less. More than half were given sentences of 3 months or less, whilst more than 1 in 10 were sentenced to 4 weeks or less.

Of course there are some women in prison who have committed violent crimes against adults and children and I never dismiss what their early experiences and resultant undealt-with distress have led them to do. Many have committed violence under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol and many perceive their offence as retaliation on a society that has not protected or valued them. However, their treatment in the Criminal Justice System is unlikely to help them face what they have done and move on.

What kind of work do you do with women in prisons?

I am a white older woman, who goes into women's prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women's liberation activist. For two years I was writer-in-residence in a women's prison and I now run poetry-for-empowerment projects across the prison estate, most recently with women who self-harm and with older women. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women's liberation and incarceration.

In my workshops I support women to express their thoughts and experiences through discussion, individual and group writing activities and listening and performance exercises. I encourage the women to share their writing, not for literary critique but for the sense of connection they get from the recognition and appreciation of others.

During my prison residency, we devised poetry performances to mark events such as International Women's Day, Black History Month and Holocaust Memorial Day. Poetry performances were also taken into workplaces like The Cleaning Academy or the crafts workshop or to the Education Department. It was inspiring to see women flourish into powerful performers, whilst their audiences changed from being reluctant and suspicious to being engaged and moved. It was affirming for the poets to experience their work being so well-received and applauded.

Poetry anthologies were compiled and edited to validate the women's creativity and thinking, including the book 'release' which was written by, and for, women in prison who self harm. 'release' contains poetry, women's stories and a feminist exploration of self harm and the book has been circulated by the Ministry of Justice to all women's prisons. One prison returned the books saying they did not have a problem with self-harm and several prisons expressed the view that the women's stories were 'too graphic and potentially upsetting'. This is ironic, given how graphic and upsetting self-harm is for the women who do harm themselves, as well as for the women around them and for the staff who have to deal with the consequences.

Do you feel that this work is effective and why?

The workshop space provides one of the very few safe places in the prison for women to express themselves truthfully and with emotion. The nature of creativity enables women to remember who they are as individuals, not as 'offenders'. And, unsurprisingly, having warm human connection helps raise self-esteem and self-confidence and build trust and openness between the women.

What are some of the personal stories of women you've encountered that stay with you and provide either hope & inspiration or a cautionary tale?

Here are a few things that are firmly in my memory:

A few women who have committed violent crimes will be held in isolation, locked up for 23 hours a day, with the remaining hour spent alone in a high walled courtyard. The isolation can obviously exacerbate feelings, and acts, of rage. So one woman I worked with had been in these conditions for six years, because the prison (with the best will in the world) could find no alternatives. She could only be unlocked if six officers were present and this treatment increased her rage, which in turn 'necessitated' further restrictions of freedom. It was clearly a self-perpetuating cycle. I am not saying that poetry was the answer, but I do know that for the two years we worked together, her levels of self-harm reduced. And as she began to open up about her childhood and teenage years, she began think afresh about herself.

I spent quite a lot of time on Healthcare, connecting with women through locked doors and that is a very strong memory for me. I witnessed a woman being put onto the Healthcare Wing, as she was shaking and crying hard and it was deemed that her mental health was ‘deteriorating’. Here was a woman who was responding in a rational way to incarceration. Yet instead of being offered more human connection, she was restrained and forcibly taken by officers to a bare cell and locked in by herself for 23 hours a day. She could be heard throughout the prison screaming ‘Is there anybody there?’ and ‘Can you help me?’. This of course brought up painful feelings for other women and for staff, as well as being devastating for the woman herself. I do not know how I would cope were that to happen to me.

As a safeguard against accusations of sexual abuse, I was taught in training never to get physically close to a woman and never to touch her. There are times, though, when I decide to put my hand on an arm or even hold a woman and because the outcomes have been positive, [ie she has not harmed herself or she has not need heavy medication], I have never been stopped by officers. In fact, there are some officers who will give physical comfort when it is clearly needed.

Lastly, in order to have access to all areas of the prison without an escort, I carried keys as a writer-in-residence. This meant wearing a heavy black belt at all times, with a pouch attached that contained the keys on a thick metal chain. I was worried initially about the difference this would make to the relationships I could make with the women. I did not want to be identified with the authoritarian aspects of the prison and locking up and unlocking women from their cells or Wings was a hard experience for me, especially when they thanked me for locking them up. However, I soon realised that listening and encouraging and respecting them overruled the strangeness of one of us having the power to incarcerate the other. The women were so ready, and eager, to give and receive warmth.

Why did you choose this issue on which to base your TED talk?

I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women's prisons. And also because TED talks can advocate individualistic solutions, rather than putting forward a wider political perspective on issues. I wanted to make sure there was some good old Second Wave non-liberal analysis on the day!

I explained how the Criminal Justice System plays a key role in framing and sustaining the oppression of women. It is important to acknowledge this form of social control and view it as an issue for women's liberation for several reasons:
  • The Criminal Justice System provides a lens through which to view the many ways women are punished for the impact on them of sexism. Working class women, and particularly Black working class women, are disproportionately represented in the system. The Criminal Justice System is wider than imprisonment, but I focus particularly on the incarceration of women as issues of sexism, male domination, racism and classism are so starkly apparent within the setting of women's prisons.
  • The social conditions that fuel women's routes into prison, such as poverty, isolation, harassment, substance dependency and abuse (along with the emotions and mental health challenges that arise from these conditions) are often intensified by the experience of incarceration. On leaving prison, most women go back to the same conditions as when they entered but with the additional distress of their experience of imprisonment.
  • Ultimately, the threat of containment and restraint gives ALL women the message 'This is what happens to you if you speak out or act out'.
  • Community solutions are more effective than incarceration in helping women turn their lives around and in diverting women, and particularly young women, away from criminal activity before they start offending.

You have now worked in the US and the UK women's prison systems. What are the main differences between them?

I write from the perspective of living in England, the 'lock up capital' of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 people are in prison. Thanks to a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population imprisoned, although these statistics may need revising later in 2014.

Sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women's narratives. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. The stories and poems I heard from incarcerated women in the States were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion with those of women in England. In both countries I have listened to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.

However, there are differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. One example is the Corston Report (PDF), commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody in Styal Prison. The remit of Baroness Corston's investigation was to address the need for 'a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach'.

The report makes a powerful case for diverting women before they get into prison and providing them with support and resources to help them deal with the results of sexism, poverty and racism. It costs £38,000 a year to keep a person in prison in England & Wales. When women are imprisoned, there are the additional costs of ensuring their children’s well being and maintaining family life. For a woman to attend a women’s community centre for one year costs £1,900 a year per woman. These projects will support her to look at her ‘offending behaviour’ in the light of the hurts she has experienced as a woman and give her practical support to deal with financial, legal, relationship, addiction and emotional challenges.

One of the first successes of the Corston Report was to stop the regular strip searching of women - 'Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.' However, strip searching of women prisoners is still common practice in most North American states.

Unlike the United States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women - eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.

Of course this exploration of issues needs to expand to include experiences in countries other than the UK and the US, including those that have a different perspective on incarceration. For example, Scandinavian countries and some indigenous communities in New Zealand and Australia focus increasingly on the social and economic causes of offending rather than on the punishment of the individual. Prisons are being closed and support provided in the community.

Within prisons there is a real need for gender-appropriate training for staff with a particular emphasis on respecting women, understanding abuse and developing awareness of responses to trauma. Well-supported accommodation is needed on release, to break the cycle of repeat offending and custody and through-the-gate services are key. Women may leave the prison clean of drugs after detoxing inside but they come out onto the streets often unmet by anybody, with £40 that the government gives them and a see-through sack with all the possessions that they brought into the prison. Many will have lost their accommodation and many of them will be over 50 miles away from family and friends. They come out and either want to take drugs immediately or despite their best wishes they go back to their previous ‘haunts’ and acquaintances. Many are very vulnerable to men's distress. It was not unusual to say goodbye to a women and hear her say 'This is the last time I’m coming to prison'. Within a month, she would be back in my poetry group, feeling like a failure.

I have read and witnessed you speaking very passionately and knowledgeably about this issue. How did you professional history lead you to this point?

I came to Women’s Liberation through my job in anti-sexist youth work in the early ‘70s. Feminism informs the way I see the world, the way I live, but if I’m honest I did become discouraged seeing the gains of the Second Wave dismantled and appropriated. Working in women’s prisons has completely brought me back to myself, re-fuelled my passion for a feminist revolution.

And of course there is always a personal story behind the action. Everywhere I go, I go with an awareness of being a Jewish woman and with the strengths (and challenges) that arise from my identity as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. In my early twenties, I began to understand the role of by-standing in the death of my German grandparents and I decided I would never willingly be a bystander. My prison work is part of that commitment. In prison, I employ useful skills I learned from being my mother's daughter - like, how to stay calm (or appear calm) in the midst of chaos and panic or how to use humour to lighten potentially dangerous situations. Working in prison means coming face to face with all that is wrong in the world and I want to ‘fix things’, [tikkun olam], with all that is rational about that, as well as all that comes from the urgency and unbearable-ness of seeing suffering up close, stark, stripped bare.


Leah Thorn can be contacted by emailing leah@leahthorn.com







Sunday, 4 May 2014

Patriarchy, we need to talk about vulval itching

Inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s Guardian article, Can You Stop The Menopause?

I am writing this while pissing Samurai swords. When not pissing swords I’m managing to piss shards of broken mirror, whole arrows complete with tips and ends, crumbled chunks of pebbledash and the occasional streak of razor wire. When not doing that I’m taking as many cranberry tablets as I can fit in my mouth and drinking pints of nettle tea, dandelion tea or cold water with bicarbonate of soda mixed in. 

I have cystitis, obviously. Very common, very discomfiting. It occurs, or threatens to, whenever I’m dehydrated. The last serious attack before now was at the end of 2012 when I had a glass of vinegary red wine in a restaurant and went to bed without needing the bathroom. By the next morning my bladder had filled with crunched glass. 

The 2012 cystitis attack and the health issues that followed have made me think about the connection between external events and internal manifestations, mental pain causing physical pain, the mirroring of psychology and physiology. It also shone a light on some GPs’ apparent ignorance of this connection. I had never got cystitis just from one glass of wine and a missed bathroom visit before, but certain events I experienced had clearly weakened me, worsening my susceptibility to illness, the frequency of illness and the severity of illness. They left behind a trace of vulnerability operating at a very deep level. 

I went to the GP to get some antibiotics for the cystitis. She gave me a five day course of something so strong that it gave me thrush. I’d never had thrush before and assumed that the antibiotics hadn’t worked and that my cystitis had worsened. I went back to the clinic and was assigned a (very nice) man I’d never seen before. 

“I was wondering if it might be thrush?” I said in passing.
“Do you have any discharge ‘down there’?” he asked, looking embarrassed.
“No.” There was just an extreme discomfort, tenderness, soreness and swelling and a sense of tingling, weeping, sizzling allergy, as though the skin had suddenly become live.
“Then you don’t,” he said with relief and gave me a further three day course of cystitis antibiotics despite there being “no blood, no proteins,” in my urine.

Secret hint to gentleman GPs: if you’re calling it “down there” while exuding very strong aversion vibes to actually looking “down there”, you may be in the wrong profession. The antibiotics sent the thrush over the edge and led to extreme discomfort and feverishness for six weeks. It was so bad that in the middle of a voiceover recording a colleague said to me in concern, “I can tell that something’s not right.”

Like so many women facing dismissal of our instincts, derision for our opinions, contempt for our knowledge and aversion for our bodies, I got the correct advice from other women. Discharge doesn’t always happen with thrush, which has a range of symptoms. A colleague who’d been hospitalised for long stretches was told privately by her nurse that antibiotics often caused thrush through their brutal destruction of the good bacteria in the gut alongside the bad. She recommended taking probiotics and probiotic yoghurt. Various women’s health forums suggested topical and natural remedies – natural yoghurt again, a heavily diluted tea tree oil solution, garlic or swallowed garlic capsules – all of which worked to ease symptoms. Then there’s the anti-thrush diet which many women said had permanently cured them. Zero sugar, zero carbs, no booze, no caffeine. Booze and caffeine to be reintroduced in small amounts a couple of months later. 

I tried it. It stopped the thrush dead within three hours. 

How can GPs not know about these simple, natural solutions? I’m not talking about flower remedies, homeopathic pills, exotic herb concoctions or casting spells at the full moon, just basic changes to diet and the topical application of ingredients with known antifungal and antibacterial properties. How can GPs not know the full range of symptoms of something as common as thrush? How can they be so cavalier about prescribing antiobitics which have such a strong effect?

The next time I went to the doctors was for a routine smear test and met lovely Dr Newman.

“They really need to redesign these things,” I commented dryly, in so many ways, when it was all going on with the duck (my term for a speculum).
“And it’ll be a woman that does it, I’ll tell you that,” she said.

Love a flash of feminism in a medical professional. I told her about the thrush and instead of throwing pills at me she told me not to take antibiotics as it would just make me resistant and instead to drink as much water as possible to flush it out. Although she did make a little racial error when recommending a follow-up health check to my mother. My mother was about to go to India and suggested that Dr Newman give her a letter to take to a doctor there.
“It does need to be someone who speaks English,” said Dr Newman. 

Dr Newman, some tiny tips. India’s doctors all speak fluent English and usually at least two other languages besides; India’s medical expertise is so great that Indian doctors and surgeons are employed globally and are indeed famous for their skill; and India’s best hospitals and specialist research units are world class. You seem to be under the impression that we are about to go to a village health station under a palm thatch in the middle of nowhere to talk to a shaman holding a feather and a rusty shaving blade. We are not. 

Incidentally the worst/best place I was ever recognised was in the middle of a smear test, by yet another doctor at my local health centre where morale is obviously so low that they change their entire workforce about twice a week.
“Haven’t I seen you on TV?” said the woman.
*Insert duck.*
*Open duck*
“Yup. Maybe,” I stiffly conceded.

Anyway, I sorted it out. But in the long run I’ve found it disturbing that my usually equine constitution has become so sensitised. The thrush flared up again last Christmas after a few mince pies too many. This was exceptional: I don’t usually eat sugar or major carbs but certainly never worried when faced with the odd plate of pasta, a dessert or a cup of coffee.

I am struck by the years of crumbling physical damage caused to me by an injury that was emotional and psychological: the thinning hair (which I write about, with handy remedies, here); the nagging stress acne which never quite goes; the way a simple cold now becomes five days of bed-ridden temperature; the loss of muscle mass; the terrible triggering, which I describe here. I am literally weaker than I was before, unable to run as far, lift as much, build as much bulk or work out as intensely as I used to.

Before, I had never understood people who claimed that non-physical issues like unemployment, over-work, being in the wrong job or experiencing a family dispute had ‘destroyed their health’. I thought the phrase was melodramatic, Western-privileged and narcissistic; people worldwide who survive natural disasters, famine, pandemics and wars do not go on about it ruining their health. They don’t have the luxury.

Having survived the last five years, I see now how it is possible. Instead of following GPs’ concentration on treating symptoms rather than causes, we must embrace an idea of total health, which does not make a stark distinction between the soul and the body and accepts that one affects the other. Emotional pain becomes physical pain while emotional strength boosts physical strength. Happiness, caused by social factors, supports numerous health factors.

I didn’t make the connection between the events and the effects until I went to get a verruca sorted out at the chiropodist.
“I got it from a shared hotel bathroom in New York. You see. Never travel cheap,” I said. I nodded down at my toe. “There’s loads of them. It’s like a mushroom forest.”
“It’s to do with your immune, you know,” said the woman.

That explained it in a flash. The colds, the hives, the zits, the thrush, the fatigue, the muscle turning to flab, the feeling of being dogged by weakness and ill health. It is sad that events from five years ago should have such deep effects as to disrupt and sicken the very fibres of my being so that bacteria, infection, disease and germs can drag me down. I feel defiled by what happened and this feeling is vindicated at an observable, cellular level.

When I think about what happened one image comes to mind: that of being struck at the core with an iron bar, straight through with one strike, of a strong and elegant column being broken into pieces by a stranger who came out of nowhere. And then being torn open, gutted, eviscerated, thrown away and left to die.

You cannot put a shattered column back together. You must accept its destruction, accept your own annihilation and the success of the destroyer. You must walk away from the debris and start again. It is sad that the rebuilding process is not just professional, not just emotional, not just social but must also be physical and carried out in the most gratingly basic way. And it bothers me that a person is able to do this to other human beings and thrive in success, social regard and happiness while his victims are demolished publicly, privately, psychologically and physically.



Wednesday, 9 April 2014

“Never forgive. Never forget.” 80+ homespun mottos for a wholesome existence.

Lucrezia Borgia meets Mother Teresa? Gandhi meets Machiavelli? A Chinese restaurant fortune cookie automated fortune printing machine meets the Ten Commandments? Here are my guides to life, inspired by Regina Brett, Oprah and Harper’s Bazaar magazine’s Words of Wisdom page.

  1. Listen to what your body’s telling you. It’ll save your life. 
  2. Judge people by what they do, not what they say. 
  3. Natural justice always prevails in the end. It takes a long time but it’s evisceratingly, disembowellingly thorough. Don’t bother with revenge if anyone’s deliberately hurt you. Never forgive. Never forget. Mentally, take out a contract on their life. Then forget about it. Concentrate on healing and being happy. When the karma happens, you’ll know. It will be permanent. It will be annihilating. And yea verily, you will be satisfied. 
  4. Never judge by appearances. You can’t tell a single thing about a person’s character, background, mood, values, opinions or history from their appearance. Not a thing. 
  5. If it feels good, in a calm and happy and at-peace way, it is good. 
  6. If it feels bad, or intense, or charged, or extreme, or agonising, or ambiguous, or so exhilarating that you’re on the brink of total insanity, that’s because it’s wrong. 
  7. Be friendly to everyone once. How they react after that will give you the measure of them. 
  8. Do what you love. You don’t have to turn it into your main career, but keep it in your life whatever else happens. Try to get a career which is roughly in the same area as what you love: either a different job in the same industry, or a different industry but using the same skills, or a different role with the same outlook, or something totally contrasting but attracting the same general type of person. Then, one side of your life with stimulate and inspire the other. 
  9. Never lie, never play games, never pretend, never deceive. Deception tears something fundamental in the fabric of the universe. 
  10. Being picky about food as a grown-up is a sign of ego, not healthiness. 
  11. Never knock the pleasures of a regular pay cheque. 
  12. If your life’s reached an impasse, learn something new and substantial. I mean like mastering a new language or getting a motorcycle licence. Not learning fantasy 1950s housewife cupcake crafting skills. 
  13. You will never regret doing a job that makes things better for people in general rather than making money for your bosses. 
  14. Don’t be a martyr. Remember that 90% of all charity volunteers are women of all colours and backgrounds working themselves to the bone for free and 90% of all charity bosses are white men paying themselves a businessman’s salary. Labour should be paid. Don’t act like some drivelling female masochist and say it’s fine. There’s doing good, then there’s good old fashioned sexist labour exploitation. 
  15. If you can, save half of everything you earn. Divide these savings into three. One third is for long term life savings. One third is for paying tax if you’re self-employed. The other third is a travel treat fund for you to see the world in style and comfort. 
  16. Everything in life is dominated by vested interests so maintain a healthy scepticism about your bosses, authorities, heads, management and other ruler types. Be polite whenever they address you, but don’t believe anything they say. 
  17. The corporation’s always bigger than the individual. If you try to take on a corporation by yourself, it’ll crush you. Even if you win a moral victory at a tribunal stage, you will lose your career. Line up a Plan B that doesn’t feel like a consolation prize, then try to change the system to make things better for everyone else. 
  18. Exercise a little bit every day, doing something you enjoy. It feels great and you’ll sleep really well. 
  19. Support groups are very nice but directly exposing, fighting and challenging inequality are fantastic. 
  20. Your pet cat is nowhere near as interesting as you think. I don’t care what it did/ate/caught/sicked up today. The shifty way it slinks about makes my skin crawl. 
  21. Don’t surf the Net, it’ll dissolve your brain. Log on twice a day, at noon and four, for half an hour each time, to check your emails, look up specific things and go over the headlines of whatever newspaper you prefer to read. If you need to be email-responsive for work, set up your iPad or iPhone in a far corner of your study or your desk and glance at it once an hour. 
  22. Graphic novels are not the Messiah. 
  23. If there’s a story you’re burning to write or any other creative project you’re desperate to pursue, do it. In the evenings. Don’t give up your day job to do it. 
  24. Don’t self-publish your junk or put your crap iPhone film on the free Net for everyone (ie. no-one) to see. That’s for losers, freaks and desperados and the people who’ve made it that way are a tiny proportion of all the ones that tried. If you want to be a book writer with a longstanding career you need a proper agent, a proper publisher/crew/distributor, proper deals and proper marketing. 
  25. You can use Amazon. You can complain about Amazon. But you can’t do both. 
  26. Just surviving long term in the arts, culture or media is an achievement in itself. 
  27. It’s great to be freelance but it’s also good to be in part-time regular professional alliance with major institutions whether they be companies, universities or the BBC. So if you can get yourself a regular gig, do so. 
  28. In work and life and love and creativity, don’t be influenced by passing trends or swayed by what other people are doing. By the time you’ve worked up a passable imitation the moment will have passed. 
  29. Don’t talk about yourself all the time. It’s not interesting. Ask other people about themselves. 
  30. Trust the universe generally. But more specifically, especially if you work in my field: don’t trust anyone. 
  31. It’s not gossip. It’s passing on important news. 
  32. It’s hard to be instinctive or predictive about situations, but trust your instincts about people you're dealing with in the medium term. If something strikes you as odd, it’s because it is. Listen to alarm bells and heed your red flags. 
  33. Don’t give attitude to B because you’re upset about A. If you’re upset about A, do what any decent normal person does and cry in the toilet. You’ll feel better. 
  34. Don’t flirtybanter with people whose job is to serve you in shops, restaurants or bars. At best it’s tacky, objectifying, patronising, arrogant and exploitative. At worst it’s sexual harassment. And it’s something they have to put up with all day, every day, in addition to their work duties. 
  35. Don’t sext or go back and forth on the text with people you’re ‘dating.’ It’s not sexy. It’s cheap, it’s tacky and if they’re doing it with you they’re doing it with a dozen others. Show a little bit of class and self-respect if you can. 
  36. Bullies aren’t cowards, they’re deliberate, simultaneous and serial abusers who are brave, confident, entitled, experienced and have massive egos. Don’t turn yourself inside out trying to explain away or come to terms with the actions of bad people you’ve encountered. They’re just arseholes. 
  37. Accept that in every year you’ll waste £1,000 on something or other, usually a non-refundable booking, a lost deposit or a big-ticket item you’re not allowed to return. I call it my Annual Idiot Tax. 
  38. If you think you’re being paid less than your peers, ask them straight-up what they earn. It’s very hard to not answer a direct question. Even if they don’t really want to tell you, they will. You’ll lose friends but you’ll gain the bitter knowledge that you’re being paid less than everyone else because you have a filthy taint in your pants. Call it the Woman Tax. 
  39. Never argue back and forth with chippy strangers on the street, in shops, in queues or in businesses. It’s a waste of time. Take the high and humorous road instead, it’s a truly snooty mindgame that’ll leave you feeling fantastic. 
  40. When sexually harassed, always look delighted, immediately go right up close to the perpetrator, invade their personal space, put your arm around them, stroke their face and engage them in bright and intimate conversation at the very top of your voice, asking them if they want to be your friend, where do they live, what’s their name, where they work, how old they are and any question you can think of. Draw in anyone else who may be nearby. Then tell them all about yourself, your hobbies and your family. Invite yourself to Sunday lunch at theirs, perhaps. It’s always hilarious when you finally break it to them: “You know why I’m talking to you so much? It’s so that when I call the police I can give them a really, really good description of you. And I now have your DNA on me, from where I patted you on the head, so I can give them that too, and they can keep it on record. Although I have to say, you see up there? You’ve been standing in front of a CCTV camera all this time and I’m sure it’s got a lock on you by now. And now if it’s all right I’m going to take a photograph of you because you’re so lovely and friendly and I’m going to remember you for a long time and show it to the police and put it up on the Internet.” Turns out they never wanted to be friends in the first place, at all! 
  41. When I gave up make-up and alcohol I suddenly noticeably had a load more money in my wallet to be spent on food and travel and fashion magazine subscriptions. Just saying. 
  42. Skincare products give you acne. Acne treatments give you acne. Face flannels and exfoliating brushes give you acne. I had total red onion, chilli beef and pepperoni pizza sore purple acne all over my face and got rid of it by splashing it twice a day with warm water and taking a good multivitamin. No scrubbing with the towel either. It calmed down within a month and I had glowing, perfect, balanced skin within two months. 
  43. Once you start wearing designer clothes you’ll never go back. 
  44. Rich people, of either sex, never have cheap shoes or cheap luggage, ever. 
  45. If you’re going to whistle-blow, tell the hidden truth about something or expose a network, be ready to leave it permanently and say goodbye to that phase of your life or career and everyone in it. Even if people agree with you privately, they’re not going to stand up and take the bullet with you. 
  46. Even so, never protect wrongdoers. The silence of witnesses actively supports perpetrators and enables abuse. When someone breaks the silence, eventually all the toxic matter comes out. Always out the abusers you know. 
  47. If you notice something as a passer-by in daily life that strikes you as unjust or unequal, always make a complaint, write about it or flag it up in some way. At the bottom of the complaint, write, “I am going to publicise this even in the case of non-response.” You’ll feel better, and eventually complaints do add up and shift things. 
  48. Never do anything when you’re angry. Don’t confront anyone, don’t fire off an email. 
  49. That said, if you’re not the panicking type, sometimes when you’re angry, you say exactly the right thing. 
  50. If you can’t decide what to do about something, go for a long walk and the answer’ll come to you. 
  51. If someone at work says something a bit insulting or ‘off’ and you immediately want to answer back, instead say and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just look at them gently. Perhaps raise an eyebrow. Merely wait. The situation will magically reverse itself in your favour. Then, if you can, gather your things and leave in silence. This will become a cherished memory. 
  52. Don’t grovel, apologise for yourself, downplay your work or behave submissively, it’s nauseating. 
  53. Don’t be a man-worshipper or -enabler, it’s pathetic. It’s toxic. And it’s not mutual. 
  54. If any girlfriend tells you they suffered abuse, believe them. Survivors don’t lie. In fact they usually downplay what happened. 
  55. After your two years of work experience, shadowing, body-of-work building or interning, don’t do routine everyday or regular work for free. If you do, you’re telling the world you think you’re worthless. Sometimes however, unpaid one-off appearances at public events are worthwhile. Be strategic in choosing which ones. 
  56. Study what fascinates and challenges you, not the subject you’re easily good at. 
  57. Be friendly, it makes life interesting and joyful. 
  58. Bad people are brilliant actors and fantastic liars. But they always drop hints about themselves. If something strikes you as odd, ask a direct question. 
  59. Never get involved in interpersonal bickering, petty politics or in-fighting. Especially not online. It’s a waste of time. 
  60. Don’t mess people around by making appointments and then cancelling or continually changing them. Not at work. Not in your personal life. It’ll mark you out as a skeevy, unreliable two-face. 
  61. Don’t go on about how stressed or how busy you are. You’re not. 
  62. Carbs, sugar and caffeine give you thrush. Antibiotics also give you thrush. Alcohol, sugar and caffeine give you cystitis. And then there are those times when it’s clearly God’s punishment for having sex. 
  63. Cranberry tablets, gallons of water and nettle, lemon and ginger, dandelion or fennel tea are all miracle cures for cystitis. At the same time, a standard brand painkiller takes the edge off while you sort it out. 
  64. One and a half glasses of rosé. Or two glasses of champagne. Or one Martini. All with food. That’s enough for a lovely buzz and not so much that you’ll end up with your head down a toilet, your stomach in your mouth, your lipstick on your chin and a little bit of squirted out pee on your skirt. 
  65. If you’re hosting a party and you want to take it to another level just go around with a tray of tequila shots, salt and cut limes. 
  66. When you learn a new language you wake up your brain, unlock a new part of the world and discover a new culture, history, landscape and an entire population of potential friends. 
  67. Enjoy, learn, grow, earn, survive and be practical, but forget about bogus concepts like career and success. Life isn’t a game that you can win. Nobody’s following or cares about your individual career trajectory, which is an illusion. 
  68. Power relationships are obvious. Look at who’s doing the drudge work and who’s having long lunches and casual meetings, who looks tired and who looks breezy, who’s being paid more and who’s being paid less, who’s taking the credit, who has room to manoeuvre, who gets the perks and who doesn’t, who’s being promoted and who isn’t. It’ll all be clear as day, right in front of your face. Analyse any situation by interpreting what you witness. 
  69. Celibacy feels completely and utterly fantastic. 
  70. Romance, sexuality and sexual love are not that important or interesting. Friendships, colleagues, artistic collaboration and parental love are richer. 
  71. Do what you enjoy, pay attention to what’s around you and relax in the moment. 
  72. You can become friends with colleagues but you can’t become colleagues with your friends. 
  73. Give money if you want. But never lend money. You won’t get it back. Asking for it back’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth, perversely. 
  74. You’re never going to be rich and famous. 0.00000001% of people on the planet are rich and famous. They may not be nice. They may not be good. They may well not be happy. So don’t torment yourself about ‘making it’ in your industry. 
  75. Liars and cheats don’t change. They’re nasty people of bad character. Everything they say is a lie, everything they do is part of a game. 
  76. Know that your sin will find you out. Luckily that goes for everyone else too. 
  77. Change with the times. You can’t live at 35 as you did at 25. There comes a point when you have to stop hanging out, shape up and get your life together, whatever that means for you. For some people it’s settling down, for others it’s travelling the world, commencing the big project, getting the PhD or making a career change. But you have to change because nobody wants to be the oldest swinger in town. 
  78. There are those  people who, like me, don't particularly want children or mind the prospect of never having children. Then there are those people who are absolutely hotly 100% adamant that they will not have children and who actually hate and, weirdly, fear children. These people had miserable childhoods, hate and feel anger towards their parents and are terrified of replicating their own history. Don't let them put you off if you're undecided.
  79. Agonising relationship drama is a sign of toxicity, not passion, whatever the relationship. 
  80. Marriage is a nasty trap and the nuclear family was the world’s shortest lived social experiment. 
  81. Don’t splurge out huge amounts of career or general life information to people you’ve just met. It’s cheap and unwittingly backfiringly revealing, and you don’t know what they’re going to do with the info you just gabbled out of your mouth in a desperate bid to please. 
  82. It’s true that your real friends reveal themselves in a crisis and fair-weather friends disappear. But fair-weather friends are great to take to parties. Think of them as party pals. Not everyone has to be gathered around your bedside when you discover you’re dying of herpes or whatever. 
  83. Self-hatred is a boring, destructive, curiously narcissistic waste of time. Do something for or with others instead of constantly thinking about yourself. 
  84. Home is the place you heal, replenish, create and feel completely safe, completely yourself, joyful, permanent and replete with promise. Even if you never had that or don’t have it now, you can create it. 

A feminist guide to beauty and aesthetics

Last year I cured my stress related female baldness using castor oil and a shampoo designed for horses. It’s called Mane N Tail. As I smoothed out the gummy strands it struck me like an acidic splash of perming solution that I should return to my roots – cultural roots, not follicular ones – in the style press and flash my beauty expertise.

Every style icon from Coco “Elegance is refusal” Chanel to Diana “What was I going to do – retire? I was only seventy!” Vreeland to Isabella “totally tradge” Blow has a line, a story, a strong personal brand. They don’t just pronounce on aesthetics, they embody them. My own line is this: I am an unemployed, celibate, 35 year old spinster who never grew up, never got her life together and who lives with her mother. Beauty-wise I want to be the best unemployed celibate nearly 40 year old spinster I can possibly be. And I probably I want my mum to watch me.

Actual beauty has never been my goal as it makes no difference to anything apart from a little bit of surface tingling when you first meet someone. If beauty counted for anything all the world’s leaders, the UN security council, FTSE 100 company bosses, Davos delegates and all industry high-ups in technology, every branch of entertainment from novels to films, science, politics, charities, the media, academia and sport would be beautiful women. So would the most revered cultural figures. They are not. They are plain men. Their uniform appearance rightly conveys the message that their words, experience and decisions matter and their beauty does not.

Men actually police their own and other men’s appearance very carefully: they rarely stray from the same few shapes, fabrics, silhouettes, colours; to keep their hair short and neat, men must visit a hairdresser far more frequently than women do. They regard the possibility of cosmetics use not with neutrality but with defensiveness and abhorrence. Even young actors who first became famous for their looks later work hard to shed the ‘pretty boy’ tag which they correctly find to be patronising, superficial, limiting and demeaning. They do not want to be seen as pretty, or boys, but as talented men. Meanwhile women are routinely referred to as girls and being both youthful-looking and pretty is meant to be our one and only goal, so much so that women visit untold nastiness, punishment, labour and judgement on themselves and on other women. It is shallow and irrelevant to call a little boy pretty but calling a little girl pretty is seen as the best compliment you can give.

It is easy to point to modelling, advertising, the backgrounds of music videos and acting and say that beautiful women are ‘everywhere’ and are ‘making a lot of money from their looks’. Beautiful women in these industries are used as ornamental objects to make money for other people who are working behind the scenes in companies ultimately controlled by majority-male boards. This goes just as much for fashion conglomerates as it does for other areas of business from concrete road resurfacing to new technology. The presentational women are exploited for the physical labour and sexualised tinge they provide but have no say in anything concerning the process, their representation or the products they are being used to sell. They are constantly sexually harassed as objects in work and beyond work. They are patronised, intimidated, bullied, ignored, demeaned and degraded by their colleagues during the work process and also within the narrative or message of the images, scripts, songs, advertising copy or products they are used for. They are thrown away after a few years. The industry men who degrade them, from the men behind Lululemon and American Apparel (and here) to photographer Terry Richardson (also see here for latest testimonies) are rewarded and aided by their industries, which also contain a high proportion of colluding female misogynists. An infinitesimal proportion of the beautiful women in modelling and acting make a lot of money by being used, before being thrown away and replaced. The overwhelming majority are used up and thrown away too quickly to establish any longstanding career identity or financial power while the companies and individuals around them continue to draw income, gain a strong name and develop their careers in the long term.

I was stunningly beautiful for about two months in my teens – everyone has their moment – and it was constant in-work and on-street sexual harassment all the way, coupled with deep career patronage and a disturbing personal sense that who I appeared to be on the outside in no way matched who I was. My appearance felt like a thick shell, not fragile but bluntly confining, the surface powdery like plaster of Paris, in which I was trapped. I had long hair for a very brief period in my teens, cut it off when I was 19 and breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

That was a while after I tried to bleach it at home, a month before my 18th birthday (dinner at the River Café, very nice), using two full boxes of shop-bought peroxide. It was naturally a very dark red, black in shadow, ruby in light, the exact shade many dark-haired women try to dye their hair. It was straight and swingy and hung down past my shoulder blades. After my bleachy intervention it went white at the roots, neon yellow further down, ginger for a few inches, then gerbil coloured, then a stretch of sandalwoody tint, darkening to mahogany, while the ends remained black but acquired a singed, fried seaweed quality. Its texture went from silk to parched hessian, with a massed, fibrous, netted appearance. It lay in weedlike lumps along my back. I covered it over with two more boxes of solid black dye. Every time I washed it I needed half a bottle of cheap Asda conditioner to make it look okay. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any more and went for a total crop, just as I’d had until I was thirteen, and it felt great. You don’t need a brush or comb. You rub it with a towel and it’s dry. It always looks cool.

Until the thinning happened and, just before my 35th birthday, I had to take action. Now I’ve turned into an evangelical hair hippy: don’t dye it, don’t put chemicals on it, don’t put heat including hairdryers near it, if it’s long put it in a plait when you go to bed or it’ll be rubbed to jute. Use organic shampoo from Neal’s Yard or, if you can stand the sugary stench of the shops and the patronisingly chipper dolly-fembot staff, Lush. Shampoo it as little as possible, easily 50% less than you usually do. If you want a conditioner use three drops of rosemary oil rubbed into the ends when wet. If you want a leave-in wash-off conditioning treatment, dilute castor oil with rosemary, jasmine and lavender oils and leave on for as long as possible before washing out. Don’t sleep in it or it’ll give you zits. After all this I don’t know if it’ll look good but trust me, it’ll be good, like, good within itself, in accordance with Gaia.

Even growing my hair one inch beyond its usual has triggered a gender identity crisis so huge that it completely swamps the factual reality of what’s going on. I’m realising just how culturally encoded hair is. Why does everyone now call me Madam? Why do people keep asking where my husband (as if! no thanks) and kids (rapidly missing the boat on that one) are? Why do people talk to me like I’m some kind of responsible, civilised lady they can trust? What are all those guys looking at when they walk past, giving my face and tits and legs a quick scope and then turning back when they’ve passed, to scope the arse? Let me make it clear: these men hate women. They think that we are objects and not human beings. If they didn’t hate us, they would not see us and treat us as things to be looked over and assessed on the street for their own enjoyment. They would see us as people. They would not cause us discomfort by their deliberate and repeated actions. They would not make going for a walk a trial of objectification and repulsive, sexualised assessment rather than the pleasure it should be.

So I’m walking a tricky line in reinventing myself as a style maven. In the dramatic psychological and physical journey from having slightly less hair than usual to having just about the normal amount, give or take a few thousand strands, I’ve learned a lot. Not about myself. Not about the world. But about the thin layer separating one from the other: my epidermis. It’s best to do as little with it as possible: I wash it with warm water; use no products except Boots Soltan sunblock when I go out; almost never wear make-up (maybe 3 days a year) out of a contradictory combination of laziness, cheapness, militant feminism and outright vanity. I look…fine. OK. Wearing make-up makes me feel like a liar, like a dolly, like someone who is trying a bit too hard to win some kind of pageant where the prize is nothing. I can feel it on my face and I can smell it too. 

It also bothers me when I wear make-up and get compliments off people. No wonder some women who wear it habitually feel reliant on it, feel ashen and plain and invisible without it, feel like they can’t go out without ‘putting on their face.’ The idea of calling a time-consuming and probably bacteria laden collection of paints in jars made by brands ‘my face’ shows just how falsified, damaged and weak women’s sense of identity is. They think that paint is them and they are nothing without paint.

I am also suspicious of mincing little doll apologists who insist that ‘a tiny bit’ of highlighter or under-eye concealer makes ‘an enormous difference’. The chances are that the amount of paint to be applied is tiny because the perceived problem is tiny in the first place and therefore invisible to others.

You may need concealer to cover your spots but it’s make-up that gives you spots. If you gave up all make-up and all products and only used warm water you would have glowing, perfect skin within six weeks. I know because I tried it. From drag queen dolly to blah in just six weeks! I may be plain but I feel liberated and when you feel liberated you don’t fuss about plainness or not-plainness and other boring junk like that.

Funnily enough it was actually racist Western patriarchy that originally made me allergic to makeup: Lancome’s Geisha collection of red and black lacquered eye makeup, when I was 19 or 20. Lancome, do you think that being a young girl groomed into servitude and compliance in the brutal, ancient Japanese sex exploitation industry was really cool and fun? Do the fans, wigs, silks, powdered cheeks, tea cups and tiny little steps taken on wood block shoes make you think that it’s not an aspect of violence against women, because the aesthetics are so cute and un-violent? Did you want to take these Orientalist, racist, sexist cliches and flog centuries of women's sexual abuse for your profit? Well I fell for it, put on the lacquer and the goddess of rightful vengeance, Feminista Karma Maxima, punished me for it. My face swelled up until it looked like a pink, oozing rugby ball. My eyes looked like lizards’ eyes, inflamed, weeping and red rimmed, and I could barely see out of them. My skin’s been allergic to everything, except one brand of sun block, ever since.

I got cellulite recently – it’s like being hit on the arse with a very soft, wobbly thunderbolt – and it has nothing to do with how much exercise I do (a lot, every day), or how much body fat I’ve got (not a lot). I asked Quack Doctor Google for solutions but nothing useful came up that I’m not already doing. Cosmetic, surgical and superficial devices/creams/procedures are a boring waste of money. I already eat no sugar, processed food, starchy carbs or junk.

For non celibate ladies who might be worried about cellulite in the bedroom, I must say I have a feeling that it’s rather nice to squeeze amorously as it’s very soft. Definitely softer than a blow-up doll or, say, your partner’s own wanking hand. So I wouldn’t worry about it.

Next, caffeine. I don’t drink caffeinated coffee but I did have about four cups of proper loose leaf Darjeeling every day, brewed for exactly five minutes – we use a timer – we’re Indian, tea’s our thing – and gave that up, just to see what would happen. Worst headaches ever for ten days. If only they could invent a bike helmet that fitted as tightly and reached as far around as a caffeine withdrawal headache, road deaths would be halved within days. I cut down on the caffeine because I read that it inhibits vitamin absorption in the bloodstream, thereby negating three and a half decades of healthy eating.

Within hours of giving up caffeine my cellulite disappeared. But I’d rather have caffeine and cellulite than no caffeine and no cellulite. My ultimate view is that there’s a reason cellulite is behind you: you’re not supposed to think about it. There’s only one real cure for cellulite, it’s free and it’s called denial.

I think what I really aim for on my beauty journey is to be recognised as a bipedal humanoid; to have skin which doesn’t itch, weep, crust over or come up in pus-filled lumps; and not to smell too bad. If you follow my advice you will wind up (a) with hair that looks like hair, (b) skin that looks like skin and (c) a bottom that looks like a bottom. It’s the best I can offer. You will also have a lot more money in your pocket while the fitness, beauty and diet industries will lose billions of pounds in profit.

These industries create, foster and use female guilt, shame and self-hatred to make money.  They spark up and simmer these emotions gently, reduce them into a gunk serum, a pot of paint or powder that cost 60p to make and sells for £6, a new fitness fad to burn fat and improve circulation and oxygenation (which is what all effective exercise does, fad or no fad) or a new way of limiting over-eating and improving nutrition, which they repackage as a thrilling new approach to food. Then they sell them back to us, wrapped in inspirational and expansive sloganeering. They survive by constantly moving. First, it was important to be thin. Then bigger and sportier, yet somehow still thin. It was once elegant to have thin brows, then blows got stronger and more blocked out. If you have straight hair you’re meant to tong it into Barbie waves; if you have wavy hair you’re supposed to iron it straight. If you’re dark skinned you’re meant to lighten your skin; if you’re pale you need a fake tan. And all for absolutely nothing.

And you’re not meant to have any pubic hair because porn says so. How pathetic. A large and toxic industry run by men splaying and trading female flesh for other men to jerk off their dicks to in front of a screen, telling women how to look. And women comply, quickly, unquestioning. What do these women think will happen if they don’t shave everything? Men won’t like us? They don’t like us anyway. They’ll reveal their repulsion for our bodies? They already have, through their globally endemic harassment, stalking and following, bullying, marginalisation, objectification, assault, groping, rape, labour exploitation, beating and murder of us.

Nobody told women outright to remove all their pubic hair (you realise how weird and random that sounds?) or threatened them if they didn’t do it. But they got the message anyway, and they complied. I was going to say that women who submit in this manner, passively and repeatedly, are slaves. But women and men in slavery have always resisted, fought, despised their masters and known utterly the nastiness, objectification, exploitation, violation and brutal dehumanisation of slavery.

Female beauty slaves are completely different. They are participatory, colluding, obedient, fervent when following, passive when urged to resist. They hate themselves, not their oppressors. It’s so clever: get a woman’s energy used up in self-hatred, narcissism and other self-focused, self-conscious, self-absorbed attentions. Get her to fight herself and other women. Then she won’t have any energy left over to fight misogyny.

Women have internalised patriarchal oppression so deeply and corrosively that they judge, police and punish themselves, and other women, according to patriarchal norms. They are so well trained, so intensely brainwashed from birth, that they do it automatically and without noticing. These women react so negatively towards emancipation movements like feminism because feminism would cause them to question every single thing about themselves, their lives, their values and their beliefs. Emancipation would cause the total examination and destruction of everything they are; the brutal stripping away of everything they have believed; and a critical look at the men they worship, the family they are in and the society that underpins, defines, decides and contextualises their existence. They would have to face the reality and depth of their own oppression and perhaps even recognise that some of the men they love hate them and that the respect and deference they feel for men-in-general is not mutual but quite the opposite. This prospect, the complete breaking down of the self, is naturally terrifying.

At the end of the day, cosmetics are just cheap chemicals in little pots, carrying an inordinate amount of symbolic cultural weight. The beauty industries’ power is shored up by mystique: modelised marketing images, all of which are airbrushed, set in Paris, or New York, or a nightclub; using models who are teenagers to sell to women in their thirties and above; resorting to meaningless, faux scientific jargon which implies that products do much more than is possible; and concealment of what really goes into them. Most skincare and cosmetics products are full of chemicals which are so numerous, so unfamiliar by name and whose properties and risks are so unwillingly disclosed that we do not really know what we are putting into our system. The power of the industries and companies behind the products is so immense that their advertising keeps women’s magazines and other media outlets afloat. Without L’Oreal’s (and everyone else’s) ads, the mags would fold. But such a stake gives them great power over the magazines’ editorial pages. Beauty journalists are not really free to investigate ingredients, where they come from, whether they are allergenic or outright carcinogenic,  even if they want to.

I recently met a woman who conducts clinical trials for the beauty industry. She told me that when there’s a line in a major skincare advert saying “78 out of 90 women agree that…”, usually “there’s not much in it. You phone them up five weeks after the trial and say, ‘Would you use this product again?’ and they say ‘Nyeah, sure, might as well’ and you put that down as a yes.” I said, “So it’s all crap?” and she assented. When I asked her what her colleagues and the people who actually work for the companies she researches for use, her response was immediate: “E45 cream. It’s got everything.” They are also all agreed on the basics of beauty: sunblock, daily exercise, healthy food, low booze, no smoking, low caffeine, probably no crystal meth.


Further reading:



Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine


"An unflinching portrait of life in the West Bank in the 21st Century."

Andrew Kelly, The Observer

I am delighted to celebrate the publication of my fourth book, Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine (Seagull Books/Chicago University Press),which I discuss in a long interview with For Books' Sake. Read Part One here, read Part Two here and Part Three here. There's also a long interview on TYCI and another, by Julie Tomlin, on Digital Women, and another which I did for Time Out Beijing. Further press mentions, hat-tips and interviews have included The New Statesman, World Literature Today, The Mancunion, The List, Platform 51, La Carpa del Feo, Book Elf, The Boar, Time Out Bejing, film-maker and writer Simon Guerrier's site, New Humanist, an interview in Ideas Tap, a long interview in The Asian Writer, Variety, a long interview in The Student Journals, Spiked, Newsclick India, Women's Views on News and The Observer.

Beyond the Wall was launched with a panel event at The Mosaic Rooms, entitled Writing A Path Through International Affairs. Journalist Susannah Tarbush has written an excellent report on the event, here. I was joined by Anna Blundy, former Times Moscow correspondent and author of a series of novels about war correspondent Faith Zanetti, inspired by Marie Colvin; poet, economist and novelist Nitasha Kaul, whose debut novel ‘Residue’ was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and who has written extensively about global economics, Kashmir, India and Bhutan; and Rosie Garthwaite, who began her reporting career straight out of university and the army in Basra, Iraq, and has worked as a reporter and producer for the BBC, Reuters and Al-Jazeera. Her book How to Avoid Being Killed in a Warzone is a survivors’ guide to staying alive in combat territory.

Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine is a sharp, immediate reportage published by Seagull Books/Chicago University Press on 15th May 2012. It is the latest release in Seagull’s series of short Manifestos for the Twenty-First Century, which tackle current issues in international political affairs. The publisher’s page can be found here and the Amazon UK page, which has a little bit more blurb, is here.

Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine is "an unflinching portrait of life in the West Bank in the 21st Century" (The Observer), seen through the eyes of its activists, its ordinary citizens, its children, its population of international aid workers, reporters and foreign visitors. From my first experience of the caprices and cruelties of checkpoint culture upon entering the West Bank to a final confrontation with the army in Silwan I report, reflect upon and analyse multiple aspects of life in an occupied territory. Covering Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus and Nazareth, speaking to children in the refugee camps at Balata and degree students in the lecture halls of Birzeit University, I share observations of Palestinians from all walks of life. I was both shocked by the behaviour of the military and circumspect about many aspects of Palestinian culture. My final vision balances faith in the vigour of the country's young activists, shock at the perverse effects of military occupation on the mentality of the occupied and the occupiers alike and sorrow at seeing the frustration and anger of the country's youngest citizens.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

"This is an issue at every level of publishing." The S I Leeds Literary Prize tackles race, sex, diversity and literary fiction.


In April 2011 I was a panellist at a London Book Fair event on racial diversity in publishing, chaired by Shreela Ghosh, the former director of the Free Word Centre and current Director of Arts in South Asia for the British Council. The audience was very international, as befits a major publishing event (though not as major as Frankfurt in October), but 99% white. Still, by their presence in the large hall, they had shown their interest and concern about this issue. The panel was all non-white and made up of literary scouts, journalists, novelists, arts leaders, literary magazine editors and commentators. All of us described that moment when, feeling successful in our individual careers and thinking that things must be taking a turn for the better, we looked around a high profile event we were participating in and realised that we were the only non-white people in the room.

What emerged from the discussion was not a catalogue of outright racist incidents, insults or openly discriminatory and prejudicial events. It was more a question of types and stereotypes, of individual industry success stories like those of the major US publisher Sonny Mehta against a general backdrop of homogeneity in terms of race, class and educational background. At the same time, however, there has been a rise in acclaim for truly global authorial voices from Arundhati Roy to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kerry Young to Chibundu Onuzo, Ruth Ozeki to Xialuo Guo, Nadifa Mohamed to Chika Unigwe, Yiyun Li to NoViolet Bulawayo. The 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist was hailed for its diversity and variety and said to be the best in the prize’s history. From this year forward, the rules of this defining English-language prize have been widened in order to be as inclusive as possible. I am a trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation and have written in full support of this widening here.

Resistance against this inclusiveness and globalisation has come from some unexpected quarters, and has been amazingly transparent. I was shocked when, after the announcement of the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist and the new eligibility guidelines, Philip Hensher wrote a Guardian article isolating the three non-white women on the list, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Ozeki and NoViolet Bulawayo, and systematically, casually and gratuitously trashed them. He later picked another non-white woman, Xialuo Guo, who commented at the Jaipur festival this year that the worshipping of the English language (and, specifically, American literature) should not dominate the world literary scene. Hensher wrote, personally, nastily and incorrectly, “by the conventional standards of the English-language novel, Xiaolu Guo's work in English is poor” and that “it would take some nerve... if she were implying that what is needed is an entire change of critical standards in order to recognise her own work as a masterpiece.” He added, creepily and threateningly, “I saw Guo in the green room, looking jolly pleased with herself.”

At the same time there is a much broader cultural trend happening not only across literature but also theatre, television and film, of non-white talent achieving a certain level of success before colliding with the racial bar, hitting the glass ceiling, sliding off it and leaving the UK to seek opportunities elsewhere, often in America. This has been most obviously apparent if we look at the careers of TV and film performers like Idris Elba, Archie Panjabi, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Yet it’s also happening behind the scenes. The internationally acclaimed film-maker Pratibha Parmar, whose latest work, the documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, has been winning awards at film festivals all over the world, has also relocated to America, where her career has exploded. Several weeks ago the British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, now the artistic director of Baltimore’s Centre Stage theatre, gave an excellent interview in the Guardian, in which he spelled out the process of steady loss of faith and pointed out how much talent the UK had let go of because of it. I Tweeted him that day, “I too am contemplating leaving the UK permanently. #glassceiling.” I added, “This is not about failing but about flatlining, despite all one’s talent, shrewdness, strength and application.”

I stand by those words and by the article I wrote a few years ago about hitting the glass ceilingI am excellent at my job. Either I am offered a regular post, with a title, with a role, in an institution, with a contract, with a salary, commensurate with my expertise and experience, within the next 18 months, or I am permanently leaving the UK to join any society that is looking forward and outwards, not inwards and backwards.

After 21 years of an enjoyable and diverse freelance career, many small opportunities, a lot of working for free and a lot of running around town being delighted and delightful, there comes a time when you have to sit down, do the maths and do some counting. Who is getting the big jobs, the permanent jobs, and what are they being paid? Am I running as hard as I can, just to stay in the same place? Why am I the only woman/non-white person/both on the panel? Why did Mumsnet ask me so warmly and kindly to join their bloggers network, then produce Blogfest events in 2012 and 2013, each of which featured more than 50 writers, journalists, presenters, commentators, critics, experts and bloggers, of both sexes, which were 100% white both years? Do they think non-white people can’t write, speak or think? Look at the recent lineup - it just beggars belief.

It is easy to enjoy your daily life so much, and be swayed by people being nice to your face, that you lose sight of the reality of who is being given the opportunities, respect, representation, remuneration, payment, platform and permanence, and who is used casually, tokenistically, without tenure, without assurances, paid a token amount, kept at the margins and strung along insincerely without gaining any traction. 

It bothered all of us on the publishing panel that the globalisation among creators and audiences, voices and debates, was not reflected within British publishing itself. We advocated the mainstreaming of real diversity within publishing as an industry, so that the future body of professionals from agents and editors to publishers and PRs would look a lot more varied than the large audience we saw before us and comprise individuals of promise and passion from all backgrounds, not just those who attended elite universities, had the family funds to sustain unpaid internships or the social connections to gain casual appointments to the industry.

When we returned to the question of non-white authors’ narratives, a story emerged of fixed set-ups, stereotypes, expectations and assumptions. We all knew what the cliché narratives were: forbidden love among the lotus blossoms at monsoon time; how I became a terrorist; how I almost became a terrorist but not quite; my arranged marriage wasn’t all that bad; seduced and betrayed in a veil; I’m British and my parents don’t understand me; people of different classes fall in love; I was a geisha/concubine in the Forbidden City/floating world/jade palace and it wasn’t that bad at all; I was a geisha and it was very bad; I want to do this but my parents want me to do that; people of different religions fall in love; British multiculturalism is a tricky thing but still really interesting; look at all the different kinds of people you can get in London; I’m British and I don’t quite feel at home here, there or anywhere; I’m British and I’m really learning to appreciate my parents’ heritage; moving across hemispheres is hard and weird; non-white people take drugs too; brown cities are just as exciting as white cities; I was kidnapped as a child and forced to see a foreign city from the bottom up; foreign food is a metaphor for family, heritage, life, love and everything. 

The panel also discussed the issue of tokenism, of the maintenance of the appearance of diversity by having a stock amount of ‘international’ writers producing established and clichéd narratives for essentially bigoted audiences who wanted their prejudices, ignorance and stereotypes confirmed rather than destroyed. “I was working as a literary scout and I found an amazing novelist who happened to be from Antigua,” said one panellist. “I mentioned them to an editor at a publishing house, who said, ‘Oh, sorry, we already have one of those.'” I remember having brunch in 2011 with a highly impressive, vivacious, cool editor at a major publishing house. We were getting on like a house of fire and suddenly she burst out, “I love you! You tick so many boxes!”

In a must-read article about whether the Western publishing industry is institutionally racist, PP Wong, editor in chief of Banana Writers, describes a South Pacific Asian writer being rejected by a major publishing house despite impressing the editors there, because “the novel does not seem to fit into the genre of our current Asian authors”, as if race is a genre in itself and all writers of that race/genre must obey its racial/generic rules. The gaucheness, stereotyping and casual, unthinking racism of the editor’s comment makes me cringe. PP Wong adds in her report,
According to Creative Skillset ... just 4% of people in the publishing industry in England and Wales are Black/Asian/Minority/Ethnic.
Some commentators are also wary of the triumphalist celebration of British authorial diversity as being insincere, trend led and transient. The Guardian recently featured a nuanced essay by novelist Bernardine Evaristo, one of Britain’s finest and most distinctive voices, whose most recent novel Mr Loverman was one of the strongest fiction publications of 2013. The title of the essay was Why Is It Still Rare To See A Black British Woman With Literary Influence? Evaristo pointed out that while a few years ago there was a strong move towards a celebration of politicised, race-aware work by Zadie Smith, Diane Evans, Andrea Levy, Monica Ali and others, this had now been replaced by “polite acceptance”, despite exceptional and successful women like children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, author of the stunning speculative series Noughts and Crosses. And – as an aside – while every other Young Adult literary hit from The Hunger Games to Twilight to I Am Number Four to The Spiderwick Chronicles to The Dark is Rising to Divergent to Ender's Game to the Inkspell books to Beautiful Creatures to Mortal Instruments to the Bone Season series has been put into development with major film studios, the completely mixed cast of Noughts and Crosses still awaits its screen life. Meanwhile, even a cursory look at the books pages of The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Financial Times and the London Men’s Review of Men’s Books shows that despite one or two respectful mentions, the general demographic of representation is still extremely homogeneous. This is in addition to the extreme misogynistic discrimination perpetrated against women writers by the editors of major books pages, many of whom are themselves women.

I marvel at the countless insults which have been used over the years to justify the trashing, ignoring, undermining, exclusion and marginalisation of our work not only as authors in all genres, disciplines, styles and approaches but also as critics, reviewers and contributors. 

The insults used to justify cultural discrimination against us often contradict each other. We are slandered as shy, unambitious, narrow, nebulous, generic, unoriginal, too mainstream to be exciting or too niche to be broadly interesting. If we excel at romance, it is because we are pathetically limited by masochistic and unoriginal gender cliches. If we excel at history, it is because we are daftly sentimental. If we excel at science, it is only because we are exceptional, unlike the majority of women. If we excel at fiction, it is because fiction is easier to magic up at the kitchen table in our pretty little heads than the hard, confronting truths of non-fiction. If we sell a lot of copies it's because we flog undemanding trash to other women just as stupid as us. If we don't sell much it's because we don't have what it takes. If we excel at non-fiction it is because we lack the imagination, genius and creative spark necessary for fiction.

Obviously that's all bunk. Where women are undermined and excluded, misogyny and man-worshipping are the reasons. All the slanders thrown into women writers' faces are lies propelled by malice.  To ignore us is to ignore half the population, the half that sees beyond surface appearances, experiences the truth and dares to speak it. And it is women writers of colour who are able to cut through, describe and express the intricacies of the world we live in, because we exist at the intersection of the sexism and racism which have (in part) produced the power structures that dominate and destroy that world. We suffer it and are subject to it, even as we observe it. These things are the source both of our pain and our insight.

Despite flashpoints like the 2013 Man Booker shortlist and the trendiness of the multi-culti moment, overall trends still work against us: prospective works will be subject to narrow and stereotyped judgements; the people championing our work within the industry if it does get taken on will be operating in a virtually all-white environment; when it enters the market the Western cultural tendency will be to favour familiar Orientalist, exoticised, sexist narratives about suffering, oppression and dislocation; and as women (let alone women of colour) we have far less chance than male writers of receiving reviews, interviews, coverage or invitations to major book festivals to discuss our work. Although one book of ours might be published, the chance to create a career, build a lifelong body of work which is acknowledged, made part of the canon, taken seriously by the broader culture and incorporated into established literary history is far less than male and white peers.

It is for all these reasons that Bernardine Evaristo and I, along with Bonnie Greer, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and others patronise the S I Leeds Literary Prize for unpublished fiction by black and Asian women writers in the UK.


The prize is awarded every two years. The first award was made in October 2012 to Minoli Salgado for A Little Dust on the Eyes, and presented the Ilkley Literature Festival. Every year, three prize winners receive £2,000, £750 and £250 for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, as well as support through Peepal Tree Press's Inscribe programme for writer development. The first prize entry receives serious consideration for publication by Peepal Tree Press.

I was lucky to be granted an exclusive interview by writer and arts project co-ordinator Irenosen Okojie, the S I Leeds Literary Prize advocate, who told me more.

What inspired the formation of the prize?

There’s a big disparity between what we see reflected on the shelves and the wonderful diverse voices that are out there. The prize aims to address that imbalance somewhat and to provide a platform for marginalized voices that are largely ignored. Walk into your local bookshop and it’s glaring. It’s as if female writers of colour are invisible bar a few exceptions. As for the amount of black and Asian male writers published these days, the situation is even more dire. This is an issue at every level in publishing. There are also very few black and Asian professionals working within the industry which has an impact in terms of who the gatekeepers are. Who gets to decide what voices should be heard and which stories are worth publishing? I know of only two black literary agents, Elise Dillsworth and Susan Yearwood and five independent publishers that publish inclusively; Peepal Tree Press, Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books, Bobby Nayyar (Equip and Limehouse), Rosemarie Hudson (HopeRoad Publishing) and Smash & Grab. If we have more diversity within the infrastructure, that might filter through to work that gets commissioned. A national prize like the SI Leeds Literary Prize is about celebrating the voices of black and Asian women.

 Do you feel the current publishing scene lags behind what is really happening in terms of what writers are doing?

Yes I do. Publishing is often slow to change. I remember when the digital explosion first happened. Publishers seemed sceptical at first but slowly came round, now you have a few of the bigger houses with digital imprints such as Bloomsbury’s global digital imprint Spark and Little Brown’s digital imprint Blackfriars. Also, self publishing no longer has the stigma it once did; many writers are finding ways to get their voices out there with several being picked up after finding self publishing success. There are more independent publishing houses cropping up, taking risks mainstream houses won’t and publishing daring, innovative writing like the brilliant And Other Stories and Galley Beggar Press. Many writers are taking ownership of their careers and not just leaving everything to the publishing houses. They’re on twitter, facebook, making book trailers and maximising digital opportunities. They’re connecting with other writers internationally and tapping into opportunities. Equally, publishers could create more accessible pathways for aspiring authors. The industry seems to mostly care about authors who are brands. They’re used to doing things in a traditional way. Nobody’s saying they should get rid of traditional methods entirely but why not explore other ways of sourcing new writing? Like partnering with any of the writing development agencies and running a programme or Editors getting out to literary nights such as the Brixton BookJam which does a great job showcasing a wealth of talent. Writers are getting out there; they’re at festivals, spoken word nights, setting up online hubs, finding creative ways of reaching audiences.

Why are prizes important? Aren’t there too many prizes?

Prizes are important because they profile books that may otherwise struggle to reach a bigger audience. For example, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize highlights some of the brilliant translated works of fiction many book lovers may be unaware of, unless you’re somebody who actively seeks translated foreign works. There are several prizes but I don’t think there are too many and there certainly isn’t one like the SI Leeds Literary Prize. It’s uniquely positioned and the only one of it’s kind. I’m sure there’ll be some grumblings that it’s a prize which favours writers of colour. The reality is, it’s absolutely necessary. If publishing were a level playing field, there wouldn’t be a need for it. We’re thrilled to be able create opportunities for writers we engage with through the prize. It’s not just about giving cash awards but the developmental support they receive.  

What are the barriers to women of black and Asian origin in beginning and maintaining their writing careers?

It’s a complex issue on several levels. Some editors will say they don’t receive many submissions from black and Asian women which may or may not be true. From a writer’s perspective, not only is publishing very difficult to break into but throw in race and it feels like an even steeper climb. It doesn’t seem like the industry is very receptive bar some exceptions. Also, there is the risk factor. Certain editors may not necessarily think about commissioning diversely, they just commission writing to their taste. Others might do, but they limit the amount of black and Asian writers because they may see it as a risk. We’re all human beings and good stories transcend so I think there needs to be some myth busting done at both ends of the spectrum. There are editors who have commissioned black and Asian female writers in the past and now. The issue is that it doesn’t happen often enough and there are authors of colour whose books have sold very well. There’s also an element of things aligning at the right time; getting the right agent, the right editor and a publishing house invested in the career of the writer.

 How many years has the prize been going and who were the women winners?

It’s a biannual prize which has been running since 2012. The first winner was Minoli Salgado for her novel A Little Dust on the Eyes. It’s due out later this year so people should keep an eye out for it. The prize has stayed connected to previous short listed writers and is passionate about creating opportunities for them. We’re also open for submissions for this year’s prize so I’d really encourage people to submit!

 What does the prize aim to achieve for individual writers?

To build their confidence, to let them know there’s a space out there for their work, encourage them to keep working on their craft, to produce opportunities connecting them with audiences, to create pathways and support networks that take them through the tricky transitions of realising their publishing dream.

Finally, how would you like the prize to develop?

I’d like it to continue to grow in terms of profile and what it does for writers. Maybe have a short story prize as well and to keep forming strong, strategic partnerships with organizations and sponsors who are on the same page and keen to see more diversity in publishing.