I don’t get out much. I’ve never been much of a gig-goer (gigger? Giggist?) so when I do it’s a bit of an adventure for me. On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to get to a book launch for an anthology of short stories called ‘Ten-Word Tragedies’ inspired by the lyrics of a song by Frank Turner, who was there to sing a few songs and sign copies of the book. It was a fun event, quite a small audience, I bopped a bit, yelled the words (often wrong) to the songs I knew, and got to meet an artist I admire who signed some of his work for me.
Anyway, the stories in the anthology are based on the lyrics of a song called ‘Mittens’, in which the narrator discovers a box of old postcards where he reads the stories of long-dead strangers and reflects on his own broken love affair. So far, so break-up song. The twist here is that Turner did actually have such a box of postcards and when he was approached about the anthology he sent some of them to the editors who in turn sent them out to the writers for inspiration for the stories.
Now Turner’s latest project is an album called ‘No Man’s Land’ on which the tracks are all true stories of historical women, and he’s getting some grief about it (which you are more than welcome to read if you want to delve into the cesspool of carefully curated outrage that is Twitter), because how dare he, a white dude fronting a band made up of other white dudes, presume to appropriate the stories of marginalised women? How dare he, especially without having first apologised for writing break-up songs in which hurt men say Hurtful Things, because of course we all know that everything a writer puts down on the page is exactly and precisely what they really agree with, and the only way forward is for everyone to continually apologise to each other for having written Hurtful Things and abase ourselves until we’re all crawling around in the mud like worms because then we’ll all be equal, just all in the shit.
It makes me question my own creative decisions – as it should – because I wrote a book called The Hollow Tree (no, this isn’t a stealth promo) about a murdered woman known only as Bella in the Wych Elm. I questioned at the time, and still do now to an extent, what my position was as a white dude trying to write the story of a female victim of male violence. Did I have that right? In the end, the fact that my editor was woman who was not telling me ‘James, you’re a misogynistic bastard, stop it’ made me think that it was probably okay.
Because it’s about ownership. When you start to make pronouncements about who has the ‘right’ to tell another person’s story, you’re making a statement about ownership. You are saying ‘this subject’s story belongs not to your group, but to our group’, and when you start to talk about people as things to be owned you’re on very dodgy moral ground. Surely, isn’t the whole purpose of what we’re trying to do here to stop treating people like objects? Cultural territory to be fought over?
One of my favourite Frank Turner songs is called ‘Rivers’. It’s a lovely celebration of the beauty of the English countryside, but I must confess that I have never once called into question his credentials as a geographer.
The stories in ‘Ten-Word Tragedies’ are also based on fragments of the lives of real people, taken from those postcards. I haven’t seen them, I don’t know what they look like, but presumably there isn’t any information about who the original owners were. What if one of the white male writers inadvertently ended up basing his story on a postcard written by a black woman? Should he have checked? Should a rigorous process of historical research been undertaken to ascertain, as far as possible, the correct ‘ownership’ of that story? If you’re going with the idea of ‘owning’ a story, why do any of those writers have the right to appropriate the fragmentary detail of a real person’s life?
My father-in-law died in March and I’ve been doing my best to support my wife as she has dealt with not just the emotional fallout but also the mountain of legal and bureaucratic practicalities surrounding his death. I’ve only read the first story in the anthology so far, but it’s called ‘I Am Here’, by Michael Marshall Smith, and it’s about a woman dealing with not just the emotional fallout but also the mountain of legal and bureaucratic practicalities surrounding the death of her mother. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s beautiful and haunting, and it’s gone straight to the heart of a grief which has touched my family closely. If anybody had said ‘No, Mr Marshall Smith, you may not write that story for it does not belong to you’, then it wouldn’t exist, and that small piece of haunting beauty would not be in my world, and my world would be the lesser for it.
I understand the imperative to give marginalised people their voices, but at the end of the day a world with fewer stories in it cannot be a good thing.
(Honestly, I had nothing to do with this project, but it's really good!)