The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Goes To… Bob Dylan

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The literary community was left divided this week after singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the world’s most prestigious literary award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, on Thursday, October 13.

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Dylan has managed to beat a number of notable authors (including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo, Haruki Murakami and Javier Marias) to the top spot, bagging a $900,000 prize in addition to being named this year’s Nobel laureate – a great honour in itself.

Speaking after the announcement, Swedish Academy Secretary Sara Danius said that it had “not been a difficult decision” but acknowledged that some may view the choice as controversial, stating that “we [the Academy] hoped the news would be received with joy, but you never know.”

Although many have questioned whether pop songs should be allowed into the category of poetry (especially given the number of musical accolades available), it is clear that the nature of Dylan’s works has not excluded him from being considered a poet on the greatest stage of all.

Indeed, Danius compares the American songwriter to Homer and Sapphio (on the justification that the works of both are intended to be performed, often which musical accompaniment) and argues that Dylan “is a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. He’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

Many notable writers have come out publicly in favour of the choice: Salman Rushdie has stated that “the frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting the Nobel prize recognises that”, and Billy Bragg said “the first couple of stanzas of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ opened my eyes and ears to the idea that music and poetry could exist together.”

However, not everyone is so keen. Margaret Atwood, upon being informed that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize, responded “for what?” with cool acidity; Natalie Kon-Yu noted with a weary resignation many of us can sympathise with that awarding the prize to “another white male writer” is hardly a break from the norm. Irvine Welsh called the decision a “half-arsed attempt” to honour Dylan and argued that acknowledgement of his works should be restricted to the musical.

Interestingly, Dylan has maintained radio silence since the announcement was made on Thursday evening, failing to comment on the award despite having a readymade audience (as he was playing gigs in Las Vegas and Coachella on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively). Perhaps, like Jean-Paul Sartre before him, he wishes to decline the award on political grounds, or maybe he just doesn’t like the pressure that comes with such praise.

Speaking to The New Yorker back in 1964, Dylan once said that “I fell into a trap once last December when I agreed to accept the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee… I looked down from the platform and saw a bunch of people who had nothing to do with my kind of politics… They had minks and jewels, and it was like they were giving the money out of guilt. I got up to leave, and they followed me and caught me. They told me I had to accept the award.”

So, it is still unclear whether or not Dylan will attend the ceremony. However, Danius has emphasised the fact that Dylan has won the Nobel Prize whether he acknowledges it or not, commenting that “if he doesn’t want to come [to the prize ceremony], he won’t come. It will be a big party in any case and the honour belongs to him.”

Whatever your thoughts are about how ‘literature’ should be classified, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that Dylan is an excellent wordsmith. His gravelly voice and poetic lyrics musing over war, heartbreak, betrayal, death and moral faithlessness have brought beauty to life’s greatest tragedies. I’ve posted one of my favourites below. Why not add your own in the comments?

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(Images: The Guardian, The New York Times)

 

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Tired of Planet Earth? Now You Can Become a Citizen of the First Ever ‘Space Nation,’ Asgardia

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James T. Kirk was right: space really is the final frontier. We may have conquered the highest peaks and furthest reaches of our world, but it’s fair to say that the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere has remained firmly outside our reach, a territory to which no man has ever been able to make a claim… until now.

At a Parisian press conference on October 12, 2016, Igor Ashurbeyli (Chairman of UNESCO’s Science of Space Committee and founder of the Aerospace International Research Centre in Vienna) announced that mankind is now set to establish a sovereign nation amongst the stars. The first ever ‘space nation’ – dubbed ‘Asgardia’ by the project leaders in reference to 1 of the 9 Worlds of Ancient Gods found in Norse mythology – will use an orbiting space station as a base through which to promote peaceful space exploration and prevent the conflicts on Earth making their way into the cosmos.

The project’s 3 primary goals are defined as follows:

  1. To ensure the peaceful use of space
  2. To protect the Earth from space threats
  3. To create a de-militarised and free scientific base of knowledge in space

With this emphasis upon peace, access and protection for all in mind, Asgardia’s founders have opened citizenship up to the entire globe (including under 18s), with the only requirement for entry being the possession of an email address which is needed to complete the sign-up process on their website. However, the website also claims that the first 100,000 people to claim citizenship will be given “special preference” over the rest; to put this in context, almost 500,000 people have already claimed citizenship in the few days that the site has been up and running. Although this makes the whole thing sound a bit gimmicky, the intentions for this project are far from that: indeed, Ashurbeyli claims that his team is determined to build nothing less than a “fully-fledged and independent nation” with the same status as UN-recognised states, complete with its own government, embassies, national anthem and flag.

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You may be wondering how exactly the nation of Asgardia will be able to manifest itself given that its citizens will all be remaining firmly on the ground (well, for the time being at least). Well, it appears that the wheels are already turning in this respect. According to the website, the initial stages of Asgardia’s nationhood will be put into action as early as October 2017 – fittingly enough, on the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik – when they aim to launch the Asgardian nation’s first satellite into orbit. The project leaders also have future plans for the design and implementation of a “protective shield” around the Earth to protect us from asteroids, solar winds and space debris (although the specifics of this are left entirely unexplained) and build a fully-functional space station that will facilitate the conduction of “independent, private and unrestricted research” in orbit.

Is this just the stuff of sci-fi dreams? The bombastic claims being made by Ashurbeyli and his team seem at best rather premature, especially given that the competitions to design the nation’s flag and insignia and compose its national anthem are still pending. The idea that Asgardia can offer an “independent platform free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws” has a certain appeal, but it is not clear how exactly this would be achieved given that claims of sovereignty in space are prohibited by international law. As director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, stated in an interview with the BBC: “the Outer Space Treaty… accepted by everybody says very clearly that no part of outer space can be appropriated by any state.” Although its arguable that the current UN laws and treaties that govern operations in space are in need of revisions to ensure they can account for technological advances in the near future, this does not justify an outright dismissal of the existing framework – especially when a cohesive vision of the new legal system has not been outlined at all. Little is known about the individuals who have already been assigned a position in government (a fact that is worrying in itself), and so it is difficult to gauge their intentions for this brave new world.

The claim that all research will be “independent, unrestricted and private” is also potentially cause for concern, as if Asgardian sovereignty was recognised and Earth law therefore rendered inapplicable, this would create an ethical loophole of sorts that scientists could use to conduct experiments which would never be permitted on Earth. As part of the website’s description of the concept of Asgardia, explicit complaints are made about the fact that “economic and political considerations often take precedence over purely scientific ones” and “ethical boundaries are considered necessary to sustain safety.” Are Ashurbeyli and his team suggesting, then, that these ethical boundaries and economic/political considerations should be removed entirely? Will any Asgardian be free to conduct whatever research they want, so long as they can fund it? History has taught us again and again that the pursuit of pure knowledge can have dangerous and unforeseen consequences. Could history repeat itself in space?

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It the founders of Asgardia have pure intentions, this could be the start of something wonderful that could benefit the whole of mankind… but it’s also possible that it could become a platform for the rich to get richer (farming asteroids for precious metals, perhaps, or developing military-grade technologies?) while the rest of us wait in line for our passports. We will all just have to wait and see…

If you’d like to become a citizen of Asgardia, click here to complete the sign-up process.

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(Images: Asgardia)

5 Reasons to Support Your Local Independent Bookstore

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It’s no secret that in the age of super-fast broadband when every store is online and you can find what you need at the click of a button, online superstores like Amazon are increasingly monopolising the booksellers’ market to the detriment of SME providers. Fewer and fewer of us are actually stepping outside and into our local bookstore to find something new to read, and if we’re not careful, there might not be a lot of places left to do so if the economy continues its downward trend.

In Nottingham (UK) where I live, we are lucky enough to have some really great bookstores, including our very own indie outlet Five Leaves, which follows in the footsteps of Nottingham’s radical bookshop tradition – the very first being opened in 1826 by Susannah Wright – by offering local readers alternative, political, weird, wonderful and often controversial texts they won’t find in mainstream outlets.

 

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Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham City Centre

 

 

As a recipient of the Five Leaves Prize for creative writing in my Uni days, I admit I may be somewhat biased on the subject, but I fiercely believe that we need our local independent bookstores just as much as they need us: it’s important that we offer them both our patronage and our coverage to make sure that these treasure troves of creativity, diversity and inclusivity survive.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of five reasons you should be doing all you can (if you’re not already!) to support your local bookstore.

 

 1. Supporting Local, Diverse and/or Upcoming Writers

Most of the big names in publishing prioritise selling potential and profits above all else, which is understandable, but it also means they’re less likely to take a chance with a new author or text if they’re not ‘mainstream’ enough to guarantee big sales for the company. That can only be bad for readers and writers everywhere. Literature needs diversity, but the only way to ensure that it can thrive is to give all sorts of people a voice.

That’s where independent publishers and bookstores come in. Not only do they publish and sell great texts that would be turned down by big publishers that are used to playing it safe, they are also far more likely to champion home-grown writers and help them build their fanbase at a grassroots level.

I happen to live in a city that has long since proven its literary pedigree – Nottingham has strong links to prestigious authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Lord Byron, and Allan Sillitoe, amongst others – but the truth is that every region has something unique to offer its readers, and it’s well worth visiting your local indie bookstore to find out what writers from your locality and/or culture have to say about life, love and everything in between.

 

 2. They Might Be Stocking Your Book Someday

There are many people out there who, like me, would love to be published but know the chances of getting in with a well-known publisher like Random House or Faber & Faber are pretty darn low, no matter how good the writing.

The other side of supporting new and upcoming writers is that one day you might be the one selling the books instead of buying them, in which case you will find that small independent bookshops are quite literally a godsend (or some other sort of lifeline not granted by a religious deity, depending on your preferences).

They’re far more likely to agree to stock smaller numbers of your book and give you a chance to prove yourself, whereas the big names will have millions of writers jostling for space (most of them with agents to fight their corner) and don’t have any real incentive to give you a shot. Fact is, without independent bookstores, there are far fewer chances for writers to get the leg-up they need to make it big. If you foster hopes of seeing your name in print one day, supporting indie outlets is a wise move.

 

3. Finding Gems the Big Publishers May Have Missed

This might sound counter-intuitive, but you’re actually far more likely to discover your new favourite book or writer by shopping independently than you are relying on Amazon’s automated recommendations and lists of top sellers in each genre.

Why? It’s simple – small, curated bookstores are usually staffed by well-read and enthusiastic booksellers who are far more likely to want to engage with you and help you find something perfectly suited to your taste.

Yes, the big bookshops usually have titled and organised sections, but their employees cannot be expected to have knowledge of every book stocked, nor are they necessarily going to have the time or energy to offer you their expertise. Recommendation cards can only go so far, and are only usually provided for big sellers, which means you could easily walk past the perfect book without ever knowing it was there. Plus, let’s face it, talking about books with someone who can ask questions, knows the stock well and will easily be able to tailor choices to your personal preferences is a lot more rewarding and likely to succeed than defaulting to “customers who bought items in your recent history also bought… [x, y and z].”

The likelihood that you’ll find the right book without hassle increases exponentially if you visit an independent bookstore that specialises in your areas of interest and employs people who have actually read and care about the subject matter. Five Leaves, for example, have particular interests in lesbian/gay counterculture, alternative politics and regional fiction/poetry (amongst other areas), which is why their staff are well-versed in these topics and can offer friendly advice on what to read next based on likes and dislikes, favourite authors, and niche subjects.

In fact, their store has become a local hub for writers, artists, left-wingers and misfits to come together, share experiences and recommendations, and generally have a good ol’ literary-themed chinwag… which brings me to my next point rather nicely.

4. Meeting Interesting and Likeminded People

I once heard a joke that went something along the lines of “I’d be far more likely to consider a date with someone who bought me a book in a bookshop than someone who bought me a drink in a bar.” I’m missing the punchline, but you get the general idea: book choices tell you an awful lot more about a person than their ability to guess what kind of drink you like, and establishing shared interests makes for good, long-lasting relationships.

Not that you have to be on the look-out for love to benefit from the social aspect of a bookstore. Bookshops, particularly small and/or quirky independent ones, are a great place to start a conversation with someone new, because there’s a pretty good chance that the person standing next to you either shares some of your likes/dislikes or can offer you an interesting new opinion on a topic you can both approach with genuine interest.

Indie bookshops tend to attract certain subcultural groups, thus bringing together people with shared experiences and interests that extend beyond a love of all things paperback. This excerpt from the Five Leaves website is an excellent example of what I mean:

“If there was any doubt that Five Leaves is a radical bookshop it was dispelled the day after the General Election when a stream of Labour voters, Greens and assorted lefties drifted into the shop seeking comfort after the storm. We found ourselves providing an open therapy group for the forlorn (as we were ourselves). We printed up some badges – ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Labour/Green/I’m an Anarchist’, as well as a set carrying the Joe Hill slogan, ‘Don’t Mourn, Organise’…

All in all, it’s fair to say that your new best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/ranting partner/book club invitee could be browsing the next shelf over from you!

 

5. Promoting the Local and National Economy

Most people are aware by now (as it’s been all over the news in recent years) that many of the big name booksellers like Amazon actually pay either little to no tax at all, despite making billions in profits from their annual sales. This hurts the local and national economy in two main ways.

Firstly, tax avoidance tactics allow Amazon and their ilk to offer books at prices which smaller retailers can’t match, meaning many smaller outlets are either having to sell exclusively online to reduce overhead costs and/or shut down completely because they cannot maintain sufficient profits. Sure, you might have an extra £3 in your pocket, but at what cost?

The small, independent booksellers are paying taxes which the government uses to pay for education, infrastructure, healthcare services, and all the other things we pretty much rely on to live our lives. So spend £10 on a new book in an indie bookstore, and you know a significant proportion of that money is going to be fed back into keeping the country running. As such, you can bask in the warm glow of knowing you’ve made the ethical choice.

Secondly, having a quirky little bookstore in your local area has benefits for the entire community. They almost always hire local people, which means an increase in jobs (always a good thing). ‘Destination’ shops like this are proven to help maintain local property prices by giving the impression it’s a rather nice place to live (and why wouldn’t it be, with books on the doorstep?). They hold regular events such as poetry readings, book clubs, discussion groups, and even the occasional afternoon tea to promote local writers and engage more fully with the people who buy, read and have things to say about the books being sold. All this means they are far better placed to cater to local interests and cultures than your big-brand bookstore.

Plus, as places to read are becoming fewer and farther between as libraries are forced to close, not everyone wants to spend £4 on a sticky-swishy-latte-chino in Starbucks and waste time finding a good seat only to have some idiot with a mobile phone stuck to his face sit down somewhere close by and ruin the ambience. Many indie bookstores actively encourage in-store reading and will even provide comfy seating fit for purpose.

In short: indie bookshops can actually make your city, and your country, a better place to be.

(Image: Five Leaves Books)

Arundhati Roy’s Back with a New Novel, 20 Years After The God of Small Things

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The literary world rejoiced this week as Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, announced she will publish a new piece of fiction in 2017 entitled The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Speaking in a Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India press release, Arundhati expressed her joy that “the mad souls (even the wicked ones) in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have found a way into the world, and that I have found my publishers.”

Although little is known about the novel as of yet, its editors Simon Prosser (Hamish Hamilton) and Meru Gokhale (Penguin India) have been generous with their praise, calling their association with the book “both a pleasure and an honour” and stating the text is “one of the finest we have read in recent times.” David Godwin, the agent managing the acquisition of rights to the book, added that “only Arundhati could have written this novel. Utterly original. It has been 20 years in the making, and [is] well worth the wait.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Arundhati Roy’s work, then The God of Small Things is well worth a read. It tells the story of Rahel and Esthappen, fraternal twins full of secrets whose varying experiences of the laws of Love – that is, “who should be loved, and how… and how much” – have left them damaged and traumatised, with one sibling living in silence and the other being left in a state of insatiable emptiness. The end result is somewhat difficult to describe: the novel functions as both political fable and psychological family drama, yet its overall effect is more akin to that of a fairytale, or perhaps a half-forgotten dream.

Time is splintered and disordered meaning Roy’s text constantly meanders, but these tangents and side-steps can be easily forgiven as readers are kept well-entertained along the way. Revelations are staggered between sentences that are repeated like mantras, giving the narrative a sure and steady rhythm not unlike poetry, and although there are times at which the author’s rich and evocative language can become somewhat overwhelming, one cannot help but become completely immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that Roy so adeptly describes.

If this doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, it’s worth noting that Roy is also a prolific political and cultural writer – her non-fiction works, tackling everything from Gandhi’s racism and freedom of the press to femininity and India’s nuclear program, are available in most good bookstores.

(Image: Penguin Random House UK)

Modern Heroes: Why Confirmation of Wonder Woman’s Bisexuality is a Win for the LGBTQ+ Community 

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Greg Rucka caused a stir in the comic book community this week after revealing that Diana of Themyscira, aka everyone’s favourite corset-wearing, truth-lassoing superhero Wonder Woman, is in fact queer.

Speaking to Comicosity’s Matt Santori-Griffith, Rucka confirmed that as part of the Year One narrative arc currently unfolding in Wonder Woman: Rebirth, Diana will be shown to be romantically and/or sexually attracted to members of the same gender as well as those of the opposite sex. Speaking plainly on the subject for the first time, Rucka says, “Are we saying Diana has been in love and had relationships with other women? As Nicola [Scott] and I approach it, the answer is obviously yes.”

Rucka’s affirmation of the status of Diana’s sexuality simply confirms what many of those already familiar with canon have long since reasoned: that the Amazonian society in which Diana grows up is exclusively composed of women, and so it naturally follows that the vast majority of the romantic and/or sexual feelings Diana and her fellow Amazonian women experience will be about other women. “When you start to think about giving the concept of Themyscira its due,” Rucka states, “the answer is, ‘how can they not all be in same sex relationships?’ Right? It makes no logical sense otherwise.”

As Rucka notes in his interview, the concepts of gender and gender-specific behaviour are “very different” in Themyscira, a society exclusively composed of one gender in which hunting, fighting and strategy are taught from a young age and women are raised to be warriors and philosophers (all of which your garden-variety misogynist would argue are ‘male’ pursuits).

However, rather than falling into the trap of inverted heteronormativity – making gay the new straight, and female the new male – Rucka and Scott have thus far managed not to turn Wonder Woman’s sexual identity into her defining narrative quality; instead, her queerness is not treated as any bigger a deal than a heteronormative character’s inclinations would be. In fact, it’s arguably even less of a deal, as homosexuality and polygamy are so normalised that the Amazonians don’t even have words to describe them! As Rucka puts it, “an Amazon doesn’t look at another Amazon and say, ‘You’re gay.’ They don’t. The concept doesn’t exist.”

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So why is it so important to point out something which was already pretty obvious, and which has little impact on the story itself? Firstly, in the canonical sea of superheroes and villains, it is far more difficult than it should be to pick out characters which represent marginalised groups within our society. Sure, there are a fair number of female superheroes/villains, but very few occupy the spotlight and so are often reduced to attractive sidekicks, dangerous but well-dressed distractions, or straight-up booty calls for the white cis males of DC and Marvel. When was the last time we had a disabled superhero, or a Muslim one, or someone identifying as transgender take the lead?

It’s been 10 years since Batwoman’s alter-ego, Kate Kane, came out of the bat-closet, and apart from Sara Lance (Arrow/Legends of Tomorrow), there aren’t really any other LGBTQ+ superheroes out there at the moment. Even where fan followings plead for greater diversity, these calls are often ignored – the recent debacle with Captain America becoming a Nazi rather than admitting to his Bucky crush left shippers wondering just how far writers are willing to go to avoid the obvious.

That’s why Rucka and Scott’s reimagining of Diana’s origin story is a breath of fresh air. Not only does it clear up the ambiguity surrounding Wonder Woman’s sexuality once and for all, it also takes steps towards normalising her same-sex relationships and manages to complicate a few gender binaries, something which the LGBTQ+ community sorely needs right now.

Furthermore, by creating a dynamic in which Diana is not motivated by heterosexual desire, her decision to leave with Steve Trevor cannot be reduced to a longing to initiate a romantic relationship with him. As Rucka rightly says in his interview, this would only “hurt the character and take away her heroism.” Her romantic relationship with Steve is thus portrayed as merely a consequence of, rather than the motivation for, leaving paradise – a move I thoroughly applaud.

So what does this mean for the DCEU? We already know that the Wonder Woman movie scheduled for released sometime in 2017 will feature Steve Trevor as Diana’s love interest, but it is unclear as of yet whether or not her bisexuality will be referenced.

It’s likely the writers will pillage Diana’s new origin story (if only to avoid the whole bizarre virgin-birth, made-of-clay-and-then-magically-brought-to-life-by-Athena thing), but they may avoid explicit references to her queerness for fear of provoking the trolls. Worse still, her sexuality could just as easily be reduced to a few half-hearted one-liners about her past experience with women -which is the last thing anyone needs. I for one will be keeping my fingers, toes and other extremities crossed in the hope that this doesn’t happen (and, of course, listening at least once a day to that badass theme song).

So that are your thoughts on the Year One narrative arc of Rucka and Scott’s Rebirth series? Do you agree that it’s high time that the wielder of the Lasso of Truth finally came clean about her sexuality, or did you prefer it when Diana’s sexuality was still a bit of a mystery? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

(Images: Comic Alliance)

We Need to Talk About Lionel Shriver

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On 8th September 2016 the American author Lionel Shriver, best known for fictionalising a school massacre in her 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, took to the stage at the Brisbane Writers Festival to give a speech about “fiction and identity politics.”

Anyone familiar with the previous controversy surrounding Shriver’s works (particularly The Mandibles, which was accused by numerous critics of depicting Latino and African-American characters in a manner that was both racist and critically misguided) would feel somewhat anxious about the author speaking on this subject, particularly given that she approached the microphone with her face set like a warrior contemplating battle, wearing a sombrero in an act of childish defiance (see image below). It could not have been clearer from the moment she opened her mouth that Shriver was not there to make amends for past misdeeds. She was, in fact, gearing up for a no-holds-barred attack.

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Shriver began her speech with the bombastic claim that concepts such as cultural appropriation and identity politics “challenge our right to write fiction at all,” and that telling people which types of fiction they are and are not “allowed to write,” when followed to its natural conclusion, can only lead to the death of fiction writing itself, or at least would make the art “so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”

Right, let’s get one thing straight from the outset. As a budding fiction writer who often feels frustrated by the lack of non-Westernised, non-white, non-cis characters, particularly in male-dominated genres such as science-fiction, I can – to a degree – understand Shriver’s point and would argue that restricting one’s creative process to only include personal identities and experiences would make for dull fiction. Part of creating a feasible new reality in a novel is creating a society populated by a range of characters, and in many cases, it may be entirely appropriate to assign different genders, races, nationalities, etc. to those characters in order to make them more believable and, frankly, more interesting. In fact, I would openly welcome more female, black, queer, transgender and/or disabled characters onto the fictional stage and would celebrate their inclusion in fiction of all genres.

There is, however, an almighty but which needs to be inserted into the above proclamation – in fact, there are several, and so I will try and address each of them in turn.

Firstly, it’s important to really understand who Shriver is referring to when she says “our right to write fiction [is being challenged].” She is, of course, referring to her own right to play around with whatever identity she likes in her fiction, but not only that, she is defending the right of all white, cis, hetero mainstream writers to pick and choose who they want their characters to be today. This is, she reasons, no less shameful than a child playing dress-up with a sombrero, or someone who doesn’t share her “genetic pedigree” deciding to don “a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.”

The problem with such an assertion is so glaringly obvious that it seems bizarre that in the 21st Century, this great era of information and sociocultural awareness, someone still needs to point it out. Put simply, not everyone benefits from occupying the same position of privilege that Shriver does. ‘Playing’ Mexican is not the same as being Mexican, because those with a Mexican heritage cannot remove their skin colour and culture once they’ve had their fun and ‘play at’ being, say, a white female American author with an inflated sense of purpose. Most people with any sort of cultural sensitivity would agree that putting on a pair of lederhosen for the local Oktoberfest for a bit of fun is very different to donning black-face to openly mock the #blacklivesmatter movement (a recent college incident which Shriver resolutely ignores when ranting about tequila parties being investigated for potential racist behaviour).

The reason? The Germans are not a marginalised group of people whose entire history was once (and still is to an extent) narrated for them by people who do not understand what they have been through, and are not prepared to make any efforts to learn. The cultural exchange is therefore reasonably equal. However, the idea that Mexicans and BME groups are on an equal footing with white Americans such as Shriver is laughable… or it would be, if it weren’t so heart-breakingly and infuriatingly misinformed.

Just pick up a random newspaper and you’ll find pictures of Presidential candidate Donald Trump being greeted at full rallies and having his hateful plans to build a wall of ever-increasing height to stop Mexicans crossing the border cheered and applauded, or reports of yet another police officer shooting a black man for no reason (there have been more than 173 fatalities so far in America this year), or reports of another senseless attack motivated by the victim’s religion, or race, or sexual orientation. For these people, race and culture is not a costume – it is an unavoidable element of themselves which is under constant attack, something which they must constantly justify and defend.

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A white person playing around with these cultures does not suffer from the same oppressions: they can put on a sombrero, or dreadlock their hair, or emulate the appearance of their favourite rapper. Thus, when people talk about ‘cultural appropriation,’ what they are really referring to is an unequal exchange: one in which the privileged pick and choose the elements they like from other cultures and use them for their own personal profit/benefit, without acknowledgement or appreciation of where these concepts and ideas originally came from.

Shriver might like to pretend that cultural appropriation is little more than harmless borrowing, but the primary thread of her argument – that accusations of racism are tantamount to censorship, and that all writers ought to be entitled to write from any perspective, race, gender or background that they wish – is one that can only really be made from a position of privilege. It reveals Shriver’s underlying assumption that her rights to use other cultures as inspiration (and a source of personal profit, as her eventual goal is book sales) being threatened is a more important issue than the fact that many other writers may not be getting a fair chance at self-representation. Such an argument is positively dripping with arrogance, running a similar ethical gauntlet as other privileged protests such as #alllivesmatter.

It all comes down to this: no one is saying that white writers cannot write about black characters, or that heterosexual writers cannot write about LGBTQ+ characters, or that able-bodied writers cannot write about the disabled, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. In fact, there are readers who would greatly appreciate the chance to read about people like themselves, even if the author of said book is not writing from personal experience. However, that doesn’t mean that a writer wanting to take on a topic or culture that they are not personally familiar with does not have a responsibility to make their representations as authentic as possible. Shriver’s main failing is her inability to recognise that her “genetic pedigree” does not give her an Access All Areas pass to browse and pillage the experiences of others without reactions or consequences.

If you want to write about another person’s struggles, at least have the decency to take the time to try and understand them. Respect that they understand themselves better than you ever will. Be a good ally; get involved in the causes of the culture you wish to represent… and most of all, don’t mistake a demand for authenticity and due diligence for the cultures of others as a personal affront. Despite what you’ve been led to believe, the world does not revolve around you and your kind.

Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival can be viewed in full here.

(Images: The Guardian, and The Influence)

‘The Calm After the Storm’ (an article)

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The Calm After the Storm

 

After the bone-crushing pressure of the exams and the exhilarated relief of graduation, the dust is finally starting to settle upon the past academic year.

Unfortunately, the work is far from over. Many graduates are finding that competition in the working world is greater than ever, and that a decent degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee you work.

If job applications have you feeling like you’re swimming against the proverbial tide, never fear! If you’re smart, there are ways to distinguish yourself from the masses. However, there are a few things you’re going to need in order to get ahead.

Patience

Even though you’re eager to show off your newly-acquired skills in a brand new job, it’s worth noting that few people manage to secure something right away. That doesn’t mean that your perfect job isn’t out there – just that you might have to wait a little while for it.

Even if you do get accepted onto a company’s graduate scheme, be prepared for quite a lengthy application process. Many companies administer numeracy, literacy, accuracy and reasoning tests in addition to forms and CVs to ensure they find the best candidates possible.

If the idea of this makes you nervous, practice tests are available free online – why not try one and see how your skills match up?

Perseverance

Some students with more generalised degrees (like my own BA in English with Creative Writing) may be experiencing a sinking sensation right about now. The truth is, unless you have undertaken a specialist subject with a definite career in mind, you may find your employment casting-net is wide but full of holes. There are employers out there who will require your unique set of skills. However, to find them you may have to persevere and play the long game.

Try to provide yourself with as many reference points as possible. You could, for example, register yourself with all the graduate websites and employment agencies covering your area. Universities, too, often provide career development services and advice for their alumni, and will bend over backwards to help you find work (for if nothing else, it makes their stats look good).

LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are also great avenues to explore. The majority of companies nowadays are making the most of social media to extend both their client and employment bases, regardless of their size.  There’s no reason why you can’t do the same!

Positivity

Ever heard the expression ‘first impressions count’? Well, it’s never been more relevant than when establishing your career. That’s because prospective employers rely upon the candidate’s descriptions of their own abilities, and only meet face-to-face with you once they’re convinced. If executed correctly, your curriculum vitae is arguably the most powerful weapon in your arsenal – and be assured, the fight to gain employment is a battle royale.

You will have limited space available upon CVs and applications to sell yourself, so make each word count. Try to view yourself objectively: what are your strengths and most impressive achievements? What skills and experience did you gain during your time at University? Which of your personal traits compliment the role(s) you are applying for?

Bear in mind that even a potential weakness can be viewed as a strength, if it’s given the right spin. For example, an individual could be a painstaking perfectionist (a negative viewpoint), or alternatively, they could be determined, accurate and hold themselves to very high standards (a positive perspective).

Passion

Whatever industry you’re trying to break into, your potential employers will all have one thing in common: they’ll want to hire someone who’s excited about the job they’re offering! Though this may seem like common sense, many people overlook enthusiasm for the role or company entirely and focus on their professional credentials. Big mistake! No matter how well qualified you are, it’s important to let the company know that you’re genuinely interested in the role.

Try being proactive and finding out a little about how the business operates. You may find there’s more to it than meets the eye, and it never hurts to be well-informed! Having a clearer idea of how you would like to progress within the company shows forward-thinking and a genuine desire to join their fold – and when you’re asking someone to invest in your future, passion for their cause is an absolute must.

Prowess

Like it or not, the time may come when you have to go back to studying of some kind to secure the job you want. Unless your degree specialises in computing, for example, you may find employers need some form of official certification as evidence of your IT skills. Though you will probably have used some (if not all) of the basic programmes you will need, you need to prove you are able to do so in a professional capacity.

This doesn’t necessarily mean months of study – many courses (particularly those covering MS Office) are free and can be completed in a matter of hours. However, this isn’t always the case, as I’ve found whilst trying to teach myself how to use Adobe Creative Suite (don’t laugh, I know I’m a little behind the times). Sometimes a little more elbow grease is what’s required… and after all the hard work you’ve already put in, what’s a little more?

 


 

Joanne’s new eBook, ‘Never Too Late – A Mature Student’s Guide to Going to University’, is available for purchase now! Click here for Amazon, here for Smashwords, and here for CreateSpace

This article is also available to view via http://blog.grads.co.uk