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.

Monday, 24 February 2014

On lies, liberation and Liberty

Today, leading human rights group Liberty celebrates its 80th birthday. It has invited over a hundred Writers at Liberty to each contribute a piece of new writing reflecting on the aims, values and actions of the organisation. This was mine. Visit the Liberty80 site to learn more.

"Renaissance Florence was an excellent place for collecting documents. Mainly because they didn’t trust each other.”

I am writing this essay while watching a documentary on Machiavelli. A historian’s walking us through the Florentine state archives, showing the presenter a Medici’s Most Wanted persecution list and pointing out that the individuals on it need not have done anything in particular to have attracted suspicion. The presenter visits the police station where Machiavelli was tortured despite there being no evidence of him being involved in the conspiracy he was accused of.

How wonderful that five hundred years on we live in such different times. These days it would be unthinkable that suspicious and secretive governments might follow, seize and physically brutalise innocent civilians based on little more than mere suspicion. What a relief that we now enjoy enlightened and mutually trustful societies in which authorities have integrity; leaders are honest and accountable; judges provide justice with moral consistency and without cultural bias; the heads of the media, police, politics and big business are not all friends with each other; public bodies are representative of the populace they serve; institutions of power have been washed clean of vested interests; and, as humble but proud citizens, we can truly say that what we see is what we get. How comforting to know that the written and spoken word are enjoined in the furtherance of freedom, truth, justice and progressive harmony instead of being deployed in subterfuge, falsified to justify abuse, misappropriated to bend meaning, exaggerated to support a warlike and crusading atmosphere, worked up to derail arguments or simply logged and aggregated to create a secret archive that can be trawled for incriminating details and useful trivia at any time without our knowledge or consent.

Oh. Aha. I see. And I hear the distant, mocking laughter of Machiavelli as he swigs spectral wine and schmoozes his fellow deceased in the afterlife.

To be fair if not approving, the exercise of power and the methods of that exercise have been employed by those at all points on the political scale for centuries. The Vatican, the Elizabethan court, trafficking rings, the CIA, drugs cartels, the current US Senate, the ancient Roman senate, Interpol, Hollywood studios, the music industry and the mafia all behave in exactly the same way. Their actions are justified by research, which is gained by information-gathering, which includes surveillance, spycraft, infiltration, entrapment, the truth obtained by deceitful means. Those who have power, whether it is legitimate or not, elected or not, formal or not, have always justified their deceitfulness by pointing to the ends, the consequences. Look, they say, we have prevented attacks you never knew about; we have stopped individuals before they committed crimes; we can pre-empt the future because of what we know. They argue that when it comes to the subtlety of government, equivocal definitions of what is right or wrong break down. They argue that it is naïve to talk about what is good and what is bad, which are academic concepts that would disintegrate when the strong light of reality hits them.

They would laugh in my face if I tried to assert that certain actions are simply wrong. Perhaps I should couch the argument in language that wrongdoers would understand: some actions result in no tangible gain, no increase in meaningful intelligence, no advance in strategic position and no overall improvement to justify massive costs in terms of logistics, economics, international standing and public trust. Torture is wrong and does not yield reliable or useful information. Detention without justification, without giving detainees any reason, without charge, without trial, without legal representation, without set duration, is wrong and creates trauma, instability and resentment. Following someone and keeping a record of everything they do, say, write or read is wrong and creates paranoia, alienation and hatred of government.

It is not naive to fight for human rights and civil liberties, it is imperative. Otherwise the future will be one of absolute and mutual mistrust in all directions, between and amongst citizens, countries and world communities. It is obscene that anyone who is a grassroots  activist or a cultural advocate in defence of human rights should be monitored, as many of us are, as though we are perpetrators, abusers or lawbreakers. It is contemptible that petty laws should be invented in order to deter us, vilify us or criminalise us. When accused of flouting human rights, powerful organisations behave in a way that demonstrates that they do indeed routinely and systematically flout the human rights of others while aggressively defending their own interests. Having authority does not mean that you can do anything you want, then close ranks when caught.

The authorities will say that life’s complicated and that we should simply go about our daily business being watched and followed and not bother our little heads about it. If we haven’t done anything wrong, like Google something, go on holiday, go on a march or demonstration, speak at a panel event, sign a petition or have a chat with someone, we won’t have anything to worry about.

Everyone knows that governing is complex and involves subtle negotiation between multiple parties with widely differing views. But when it comes to the fundamentals, some principles are inviolable. I would even go one further and say that there is no difference between the rights and freedoms I expect personally and within personal relationships and those I expect politically and within a public, cultural, legal and social context. They are one and the same. Every human being has the right to live free of physical violation, mental torture, domination, abuse, stalking, surveillance and control. Every human being has the right to live free of fear, acting from their own will and physical and mental self-determination, not because they have been threatened, coerced or blackmailed. Every human being’s sense of dignity is intimately connected with their sense of privacy and their positive assumption of freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of expression. These are not political values, subject to change according to who is in power. They are human values.

It is tempting to be blasé and say that the ruled have always been spied on by rulers, that it was ever thus and will always be thus. But it is not true that the present is exactly like the past only with different clothes, or that history is cyclical, or that you can’t stop Them and shouldn’t try to stand up to Them because They always get Their way in the end.

We have arrived at a unique time culturally and technologically. The authorities’ combination of deceit, control, watchfulness, duplicity and cruelty, masked with outward civility and outright lies, is now played out on a global scale, abetted by ever more efficient means of gathering, storing and sorting information. Many international governments’ covert political alliances and commercial deals for information sharing, the transportation and torture of suspected individuals, the sale of armaments, the levying of wars and exploitation of natural resources and emerging markets run counter to their publicly stated interests, values and allegiances.

This goes far beyond language, although I like a good political euphemism as much as anyone. Rendition means torture and extraordinary rendition means a lot of torture. Waterboarding – which sounds like a delightful low-impact sport that one might enjoy on Brighton’s seafront – is a euphemism for drowning someone. A resistance safe-zone is a rebel stronghold. A defence of privacy for privacy’s sake can be an admission of guilt inviting further investigation. The axis of evil is a mythical land where the US sacrificed soldiers for oil. Security means control. Arming in self defence is incitement to attack. A demonstration can be disorder, resistance can be rebellion, organising resistance means planning insurgency. Companies axing thousands of jobs say they are rationalising, harmonising or recalibrating. Swingeing cuts which put families below the poverty line are rebranded as thrifty, vintage-chic austerity measures. In the Big Society you do everything as before only for free and without state assistance. A ‘terrorist’ can be anything from a civil disrupter to a threat to national security and being accused of being one, even without a shred of proof, can justify any mistreatment whatsoever.

As the world becomes smaller, it is becoming more divided. Just when communication becomes more convenient, it is polluted by wariness and suspicion. Just when we have an opportunity to globalise in thought and intention as well as business, we take up a defensive stance and cling to divisive rhetoric, ignorant stereotypes and mistrustful attitudes.

What I seek is not just liberty but liberation.  Liberation from a mindset of mistrust and demonisation, the vilification of otherness and the paternalistic condoning of all surveillance, detention and physical abuse on the grounds of security. Liberation from the fear that someone is always following us or watching us. Liberation from our entrenchment in a cruel, self-justifying system of control which can be brought down on us at any moment, for any reason. And liberation from the aggressive, combative, violating machismo which argues disingenuously that violence is sometimes okay.

The only weapons ordinary citizens have against these trends are our actions and our words, although journalists are in a trickier position than ever. We are either violating the human rights of celebrities and relatives of murder victims or campaigning for truth and justice or accidentally leaving state secrets on the bus and being hauled up in front of political investigations committees or ethics boards or national security tribunals or international courts, depending on how our actions are interpreted and by whom. We are either peddling damaging lies or damaging truths. We are influential and dangerous, mistrusted because our behaviour is risky and independent. When we try to whistleblow we are accused of jeopardising structures that we could never possibly understand. When we try to investigate those structures and hit upon sensitive material we are scapegoated publicly as troublemakers.

Either way, the ferocity of the reaction to journalists’ endeavours indicates something about the impact of the word. UK and US governments are just as frightened of journalists as governments in Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and Mexico are. They fear the word because it’s powerful. Indeed they use that wordpower themselves, negatively, to stir up tactically useful prejudices, plant slanderous lies, maintain myths which work in their favour and gloss their own violence. Those of us on the other side use our position to create space for a truth denied, a suffering voiced, a protest lodged, a testimony revealed, a campaign launched. This is why I am a part of Writers at Liberty.

  • Read more about the genesis of the project in this brief write-up in Five Dials magazine.
  • If you would like to join Liberty and speak up for civil liberties and in defence of human rights, click here now.
  • To find out more about the many events and initiatives surrounding Liberty's 80th anniversary, please click here.
  • Some of the other writers involved in Writers at Liberty include Naomi Alderman, Yasmin Alhibai-Brown, Tariq Ali, Anthony Anaxagorou, Hephzibah Anderson, Lisa Appighanesi, Chloe Aridjis, Tash Aw, Damian Barr, Alex Bellos, John Berger, Eleanor Birne, Terence Blacker, Malorie Blackman, Rosie Boycott, William Boyd, Margaret Busby, Antonia Byatt, Georgia Byng, Shami Chakrabarti, Tracy Chevalier, Ian Cobain, Edmund De Waal, Jenny Diski, Anne Donovan, Tishani Doshi, Stella Duffy, Ian Dunt, Joe Dunthorne, Geoff Dyer, Fernanda Eberstadt, Lauren Elkin, Bernadine Evaristo, Michel Faber, Jenni Fagan, William Fiennes, Judith Flanders, Ken Follett, Hadley Freeman, Patrick French, Esther Freud, Janice Galloway, Misha Glenny, Niven Govinden, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jay Griffiths, Niall Griffiths, Mark Haddon, Sarah Hall, Mohsin Hamid, Peter Hobbs, Tom Hodgkinson, Marina Hyde, M. J Hyland, Rhian Jones, Sadie Jones, Jackie Kay, Emily King, Nick Laird, Nikita Lalwani, Darian Leader, Ann Leslie, Kathy Lette, Deborah Levy, Richard Mabey, AlisonMacLeod, Sabrina Mahfouz, Hisham Matar, Lise Mayer, Sophie Mayer, Hollie McNish, Michael Morpurgo, Blake Morrison, Tiffany Murray, Daljit Nagra, Patrick Ness, Lawrence Norfolk, Rachel North, Richard Norton-Taylor, Maggie O’Farrell, Catherine O’Flynn, Ben Okri, Don Paterson, Shyama Perera, Adam Phillips, Hannah Pool, Philip Pullman, Ross Raisin, Alice Rawsthorn, Philip Ridley, James Robertson, Michael Rosen, Hannah Rothschild, Elif Şafak, Taiye Selasi, Kamila Shamsie, Jo Shapcott, Nikesh Shukla,  Ali Smith, Daniel Soar, Ahdaf Soueif, Craig Taylor, Barbara Taylor, Kate Tempest, Colin Thubron, Salley Vickers, Erica Wagner, Helen Walsh, Marina Warner and Sarah Waters.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Second chance to catch some Speed: a sharp new play about sex, sexuality, race, class and - scariest of all - contemporary dating

I first met Iman Qureshi when she compered a night of lesbian and gay literature at the Vauxhall Tavern, where I was speaking at a panel event, alongside Paul Burston, founder of the Polari Prize. Charismatic and witty, Iman not only talked on and talked off all the acts, she also wrote the evening up for Diva magazine (warning: contains an ancient, sunbleached image of me looking like an eight year old alien who was brought up by wolves in a forest). The previous day she'd been at Wormwood Scrubs prison, "talking to the offenders about being gay." As someone who does prison work let me just say: that's a tough gig.

Having worked around the media since moving to London after her postgrad a few years ago, Qureshi has now turned playwright. She premiered her first play, Speed, at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden from 3rd - 7th December 2013. It had a sold out run and is now back on again for two weeks, from Tuesday 25th February until Saturday 8th March 2014.

A scene from Speed, the new play be Iman Qureshi

Produced by Kali Theatre, who develop thrilling new plays by women writers of a South Asian background - National Theatre, are you listening? Women's work is to be showcased, not aggressively ignored - Speed was originally part of the 2013 Talkback Festival,. No surprise to discover that Speed combines the topicality, wit and political freshness of its author. 

Another scene from Speed
As Iman Qureshi describes it herself, 
It's a bittersweet comedy set at a speed dating event, and deals with deeper issues of race, sexuality, class and gender. Speed was born of my experience of leaving the safe, artificial confines of university and moving out into the real world. Suddenly all the theories I read about – class privilege, male privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege – became actual, lived struggles.

My naive bubble of belief that women can do anything men can do, deflated with every cat call, every tired cliche about lifting the veil and every statistic and experience which indicated the existence of a glass ceiling. It slowly became quite apparent that who you knew meant everything. What you knew meant very little. My hope that racial equality had been achieved was promptly destroyed when it was once suggested that my name was too unusual to sign off with when sending out emails to strangers.

Speed is a play of people railing against the cages that society constructs for them. Whether it’s an intelligent woman exhausted by a world which reduces her to an object, or a person who rejects the gender role they are assigned at birth, or someone whose heritage leaves deep scars upon their sense of self worth, the characters in Speed are united by the common struggle of identity in a world which loves to box people in. 
Speed dating seemed to be the perfect mechanism to tell these stories. What is less reductive that five minutes to sell yourself to a prospective partner? Five minutes to decide whether to invest in the stranger sitting across from you when all you have is essentially a CV - age, job, hobbies, religion. Speed dating is also a microcosm of a world where love is just another commodity. Where finding a partner becomes yet another box to tick on our ‘To Do’ list of life. Where real human connections often lose out to the pursuit of contrived fairy tale endings.

I was also eager to give brown people the dignity of being represented without tired cliches or cultural stereotypes. Speed, I hope, is light years apart from narratives of extremism or arranged marriage. It is a play about Asians not thinking of themselves as Asian and of their place in modern Britain, but rather thinking of themselves as people.

Speed will be on at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden from Tuesday 25th February until Saturday 8th March 2014 . Click here to book.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

“Women have gone from being considered inferior to men and viewed as property, to being considered inferior and viewed as objects.” Persephone Speaks director Ivana Ivkovic Kelley on justice for survivors of rape in war.

A few months ago I covered the Kickstarter fundraising campaign for the documentary Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia, directed by filmmaker Ivana Ivkovic Kelley. Kelley and her team followed one woman, Bakira, through Bosnia to expose the systematic rape of countless thousands of women during the war and try to bring the men who authorised, organised and perpetrated these rapes to justice. A survivor of the mass rapes herself, Bakira has become a campaigner for other victims, despite receiving death threats and being subject to harassment and intimidation by those who wish to silence her and sabotage her work.

The first campaign for Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia was successful. Filming has been completed. Kelley has now launched a second campaign, to finish post production on the film, and there are only four days left to support this. Update, on 10th Feb 2014: you did it! The campaign is succeeding, meeting and exceeding its target.

At the heart of Bakira’s work and Ivana Ivkovic Kelley’s film is a challenge to the international community to open its eyes, acknowledge and address the use of rape as a concerted strategy in war; the particular sickness, destructiveness and cruelty of rape as a type of violence; the support of rapists’ actions by a wider macho, misogynist rape culture which operates in all societies globally even in peacetime; the devastating years-long psychological, physical, cultural and social effects of rape on survivors; and the stigmatisation, punishing, abuse, denial and silencing of survivors, often by their own societies and even their own families.

As Kelley stated in the original fundraising campaign,
Females are nonstop targets during wartime, as demonstrated by the mass rapes implemented as a policy of genocide during the Bosnian war.  Because this atrocity is grossly ignored by the international community and international tribunals, this film revisits one survivor who continues to fight for justice on behalf of others all over the world.  ... The continued treatment of women around the world, especially during times of conflict, needs to be heard through as many channels as possible.  Unfortunately, war rape survivors are often seen as a problem, a by-product of war that needs to be swept under the rug.
However, the fight for justice is a hard won, waged by those who carry not just psychological and physical trauma but who have the least in terms of power, money, mobility and status. Both individually and at a mass scale, within families and within governments, within cultures and within whole societies, the trend is to punish victims and protect perpetrators, to silence victims and give perpetrators a platform, to abuse the abused and assist the abusers, to expose the victims and cover for perpetrators, to expose and question the behaviour and words of victims and condone and gloss those of the perpetrators. It is the victims who must do all the hard work, in addition to recovering personally, to gain justice – or even to be heard – while the perpetrators sit back, enjoying the victims’ torment and their own impunity. This is the case in all instances of male sexual violence, in wartime and peacetime alike.

The perpetrators and those who authorised them are fully entrenched in and enfranchised by established networks of patriarchal force. They are well-connected, well-resourced and mutually supportive. They are interested in power, not justice, and cannot be shamed morally because they are proud of what they did. If rapists did not love raping, they wouldn’t do it. If their apologists did not love rape, they would not assist and cover for rapists. Perpetrators and their apologists alike are enraged which victims of male violence speak up. However, despite their sadism and lack of shame – indeed, the shame and guilt which perpetrators should feel is transferred onto the victims – they can and must be brought publicly to justice through established international legal channels.

Persephone Speaks follows Bakira as she collects other survivors’ testimonies are seeks to have them heard in the courts in Sarajevo or the Hague. She also tracks down where some of the perpetrators live and presents this information to the courts. Commenting on the rewarding of perpetrators, Kelley wrote in the original fundraising campaign:
In many cases, the perpetrators are either awaiting trial or have been rewarded by the Serbian government for successfully running a "camp", often in the form of a promotion within the local police force.  We have witnessed incidents of this same "reward" behavior in similar conflicts around the world.  In situations such as these, many survivors have expressed anger, fear, and shock, especially when they see their attacker, years later, in high level positions or vacationing beside them on the Adriatic coast, which numerous victims have witnessed. 
The first campaign for Persephone Speaks:The Forgotten Women of Bosnia was successful. Filming has been completed. Ivana Kelly has now launched a second campaign, to finish post production on the film.

The context has obviously not changed. It beggars belief that the world community and people in general live not just in denial of this but are actively antagonistic and punitive towards survivors. One of many shocking moments during Kelley’s research has been the conversion of a rape camp into a luxury spa and hotel, whose manager dismisses survivors’ testimonies as “lies, lies, all lies.”

This is a film which must be completed and shown to the world. In the new campaign for post production funding, Kelley states,
We saw the same thing occur in Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Uganda, Bangladesh, Haiti, Cambodia, Cyprus, Darfur, and now in Syria... all in devastating numbers.  How survivors are treated post-conflict in one region of the world, regardless of whether it is in the heart of Europe, or the heart of Africa, and whether perpetrators continue to be brought to justice, has a huge  impact on how survivors will be treated going forward, regardless of geographical location.  The sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can.  Rape's damage can be devastating because of the strong communal reaction to the violation and the pain stamped on entire families. 
The campaign for post-production seeks to raise $16,000, but ideally $22,000 and is partway there. Every time I and my colleagues cover the issue of rape in war the kickback is so interesting: in amongst the perpetrator excusal, hate mail (“You wouldn’t write about rape so much if it didn’t make your cunt tingle” is one choice line from the messages I receive) and victim-blaming there is a strong seam of positive passion and support, of other victims and survivors worldwide who are determined that this story be made loud instead of being silenced. Each film or article is a door opening onto millions of untold testimonies. Whenever I write about male violence against women and girls I uncover the immense trauma and pain of survivors, and their rage. These are a form of energy in themselves, which far outshout the bleating of apologists. We do not have the hatred, violating malice and anger of perpetrators and their friends but pain, determination, truthfulness and the desire for justice are far worthier substitutes.

To support this second and final phase of the Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia campaign, I contacted Ivana Ivkovic Kelley. She very kindly gave her time to answer my questions.

Why is it so important to make Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia?

I have been haunted by the reality women and girls seem to be increasingly facing during wartime. Women and girls have transitioned from being “the spoils” of war, to part of an operational military doctrine to ruin a community, a culture, a country: they have gone from being spoils to being used as actual weapons with which to conduct genocide in some cases. This is how we know we continue to live in an extremely unjust, unfair global society in which women have gone from being considered inferior to men and viewed as property, to being considered inferior and viewed as objects.

We really should not be measuring how much things have changed for women by the number of successful women that exist in our world today, but rather by how little has changed when there are parts of our world where it is legal to commit femicide if a woman simply looks at another man, rides a bicycle, leaves an abusive husband, gives birth to a girl child; or in wartime is used as the cheapest, most destructive weapon around. It is the most destructive because raping a woman or girl is not just an attempt to kill her spirit, it is the attempt to kill the spirit of her loved ones. In turn, multiplied, this has the ability to destroy entire communities at their core. The woman, after all, is the heart of a community.

What is your particular reason for wanting to make Persephone Speaks?

I have been haunted by the stories and testimonies I translated during the last years of the war in Bosnia. I was in college in the US at the time but  knew I had to be “in it” to help in some way, so I wrote my thesis on systematic rape used as a tool of genocide, that it was the first time in history that it’s been documented as part of a plan to wipe out a people. I travelled there while the war was still going on and connected with a group in Zagreb that was assisting the [mostly] Bosnian Muslim survivors of the rape camps, travelling to refugee camps often across enemy lines, providing them with food, clothes and medical aid as well collecting testimonies for eventual use in the Hague and local criminal courts. I knew that one day I would return to document where these women are now, and what has changed, both judicially and whether those who were vocal before have given up their fight for justice.

Has it been risky to make Persephone Speaks?

Yes. From the onset we have been receiving hateful, oftentimes degrading, comments on our Facebook page as well as individual emails through our project page on Kickstarter…sometimes an individual will send me a tweet saying they would like to interview me for a story they’re doing, only to end up shouting on the other end of the phone that I better watch myself because I don’t know what I’m talking about, that it was only Serbian women who were in the camps and that they were raped by Bosnian Muslim soldiers wearing Serb uniforms…or if I knew better, I’d keep my mouth shut or the same thing will happen to me.

It hasn’t happened as often as I would expect, but I feel that it’s pretty horrible for even one person to come forward and completely deny the reality of that war, the reality of photographs by such courageous photojournalists as Andree Kaiser and Ron Haviv, the reality of testimonies and the reality of what you feel when you look into a survivor’s eyes. There’s absolutely no denying the blanket atrocities that were done by a distinct, very clear perpetrator, especially when there is documentation and there are testimonies by individual perpetrators who have been brought to justice at the Hague that yes, this is what happened.

It is so important, I feel, for a particular government to confront its past, acknowledge and apologise to the victims, survivors, their families and communities, in order for healing to work. This is what human rights champions and survivors such as Bakira will publicly state when she holds forth, risking her life, in front of a memorial at a mass grave, as the local Serb officials in what is now an ethnically cleansed town attempt to erase the word “genocide” from said memorial.

This is a pretty big problem. As certain countries attempt to enter the EU, there needs to be outside pressure from Belgium to first recognise genocide happened and for the said government to formally acknowledge and apologise. Instead, those Serb politicians in the minority who have spoken out and have acknowledged genocide and mass rape are not only the least favourite but they are, oftentimes, placed on a death list. When we were shooting footage in the ethnically cleansed town of Visegrad (now part of Republika Srpska), we were met with our own share of passive hostility: asked to shut our camera off and leave the premises as soon as we entered the lobby of Vilina Vlas (a former rape camp now spa hotel); confronted on a tour bus led by a Serbian Orthodox priest denying the genocide; even in talking to local Serbs saying that they’ve always lived here and no, there was never any massacre of hundreds on the bridge and no, there was never any rape camp here. It all ended with me having my picture taken by a local Serbian man sitting on a bench with his friends, holding up his cell phone and menacingly telling me “now we have your picture too.”

Back in the States, I’ve received hate mail from Serbian Americans, some who are successful, running such things as a publishing company. I keep stressing that this film is about what happens to women throughout the world, during times of conflict, yet it is very hard to ignore the geopolitical reality of what happened in Bosnia. When discussing what happened to the women and girls there, there is simply no escaping the military doctrine put in place by one country to ethnically cleanse the other. There are risks that simply come with the territory and I'm certainly not the first documentary filmmaker to encounter it, nor will I be the last.

What exact work remains to be done on Persephone Speaks?

We completed production in October 2013 and are now in post-production. We are having the material transcribed, then any dialogue in Bosnian translated, then we get to the heavy duty editing. We have about 40-50 hours of footage from time spent in Bosnia in 2010 and 2011 and our first meeting with Bakira, to our time there this past summer and autumn.

We are in dire need of assistance to help us cover our costly post production costs. During the editing process, we will cover archived footage, music composition, sound and eventually the transition from a rough cut to a polished cut that we will be submitting to film festivals. Our hope is for this film to have its premiere at the Sarajevo International Film Festival this coming August, 2014, as we couldn't think of a more appropriate venue.

Is there anything like else like Persephone Speaks: Forgotten Women of Bosnia?

There are similar documentary films that have come out, such as Calling the Ghosts (1996) by Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelincic Ross and the brilliant documentary series Women, War & Peace (2013) produced by Abigail Disney. Part One of that, I Came To Testify, is about war rape in Bosnia.

What sets mine apart is seeing the day to day struggles that a survivor and activist encounters both on a professional and personal front. Showing a woman like Bakira not just fighting the good fight but reminding an audience that these are women who love to play with their grandchildren and find a meditative, healing solace getting their hands dirty in a garden. That regardless of ethnicity, culture, language, these women are our sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and friends. When an atrocity on such a grand scale happens to women anywhere in the world, we need to help spread their call for justice. Hopefully one day, women will not be viewed as property to be killed legally or sexually trafficked en masse, we won’t be viewed as weapons of war. Until that happens, in some ways, the work will never be done.

Further articles:

Disclosure: I was one of the many funders in the first campaign, donating $1000 to support it. Ivana Ivkovic Kelley is a stranger to me. She is not a friend of mine. I had never heard of her before I became aware of the campaign and I have never met or spoken with her, except to ask her via email for some comments for this feature. I have no role in the making of the film and am not invested in any way in its outcome, except as a human rights journalist who cares about the issues.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

India: is it safe? A question answered

Calcutta, 2013. Image (c) Bidisha

I was born in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in India. I grew up there, went to university there, spent many charming evenings with friends there and worked there until I emigrated to the UK 40 years ago. Despite the dust and the chaos, being myself among people who are generally open, genuine, courteous and uncomplicated is something I long to go back to year after year.

Not long before I made my most recent trip back, two of my longstanding friends in England - both academics who, like me, have worked in the field of technology all their lives - were at my house having lunch. I was telling them about a previous trip and how impressed my daughter and I were by the progress the younger generation of Indian women have made. This was the same time that the news of the gang rape, torture and murder of a woman on a bus in Delhi was spreading worldwide. To this, one of my friends kept asking, "But is India safe?" I told her that for a long time Delhi had had a bad reputation for sexual violence, but those were isolated incidents, occurring late at night, in certain areas, committed by a certain type of people. Then I added, "Let's face it, sexual abuse of women happens everywhere in the world, doesn't it? And, in any case, Calcutta is much safer."

Having thought it over, I have a better answer to my friend's question.

Indian women have made enormous leaps. They are ambitious, proud, independent, uncaring of prejudicial criticisms and forward looking. They care less about what men think of their looks and behaviour and are more focussed on their own aspirations and achievements. This is true of women of all social and economic classes - within their own contexts.

In the past, educated and ambitious women went into careers such as teaching, academic research and medicine. They very rarely made the top ranks but, within a certain confinement, they earned respect and authority as long as they maintained the code of conduct expected of their gender and class. Poorer women worked all day, at home, in the fields and in rich peoples' houses to feed their children and do their best to give them a better life. Middle class men had always been ambitious and high achieving. They took jobs wherever they got the best opportunity, within India or abroad. Poorer men had little or no money but they were hard working, God fearing and simple minded. At the risk of sounding patronising, they were happy and busy trying to feed their families.

With India's economic progress, things have changed a great deal. Men are enjoying even more privilege and opportunities than before. Women are getting into careers monopolised by men in the past and they are progressing much further up their career ladders. Those people now have better spending power than non-resident Indians like me who, in the past, used to enjoy the privilege of spending foreign money in a land with a low cost of living. However, although there has been a significant trickledown effect towards the poorer classes, the difference between the rich and the poor is now enormous because of the phenomenal rise of the middle classes.

The daily papers in India are littered with reports of rapes and murders of women. We have all read about the Danish woman who has recently been gang raped in Delhi. As in every country in the world, sexual abuse and rape always existed but were not reported because of the stigma attached for the women survivors. Today, Indian women are ready to report such crimes. Most of those are committed by the lower economic and social classes. It goes without saying that middle class men commit sexual crimes also, but that happens in India the same way it does in every country in the world and the perpetrators get away with it the same way everywhere.

Having thought about the rise in sexual violence in India, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the side effects of the country's growth in economic power and, more significantly, the progress women have made. Since everyone has more, people - both rich and poor - have become greedy. Men who have not made much progress but whose greed has increased with the increasing aspirations in the country have lost all sense of reality, fear, civility and self-respect. These are not starving or destitute people; they have access to TV and mobile phones, they walk around the shopping malls and can see how much they still cannot afford. They grow increasingly jealous and desperate, full of vengeance for those who are moving ahead and they want what is not theirs. They are angry with the women who they could command before and can't anymore and they want those women too. So they grab by force what they cannot get legitimately - they steal, rape and rob. The rape of foreigners is a bigger achievement: the more unavailable the target, the better the fulfilment.

The answer to my friend's question is No, India is not so safe anymore. Calcutta was once safer than Delhi but, since the rape case last year, there has been a rapid increase in rape in my home city too - almost like a war. It's the same old story: men using physical violence against women as a weapon to gain an upper hand.