Fighting the Fundamentalists: More Books Please

Let’s lob literary ordinance into Iran

In a report about Ayatollah Khameni’s regressive and anti-Semitic views on feminism, this nugget:

Earlier this month, Khamenei issued a speech warning that “cultural attacks by the enemy are more dangerous than military attacks”, hitting out at human rights groups and think tanks.

The speech itself concerns the Iran-Iraq war. Khameni believes that intensive discussion and celebration of the ‘Sacred Defence Era’ will culturally fortify Iranians against the pernicious influence of Iran’s enemies. His definition of ‘culture’ is of course extremely narrow. But there is nevertheless something refreshing about the idea that cultural influence is more important and effective than military force! Continue reading “Fighting the Fundamentalists: More Books Please”

How Do We Make Diversity Scale?

How does the great work done by indies to platform more diverse voices scale to the larger publishing and production companies?

It is the Oscar’s this weekend and La La Land is favoured to win Best Picture.

In this op-ed piece for the Independent, Amrou Al-Kadhi laments the way Arab characters exist on the periphery of most Western cinema.

Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging. With masterful directors, sublime works like Moonlight happen; now the story of gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto has become that much more relatable and mainstream. It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.

Reading this challenge to the film industry, I naturally began to think of how the literary community measures up on the same issue. Although I don’t exactly work in the publishing industry, English PEN works closely with publishers and writers, and the debate over who gets published and what gets published is always close and loud. Continue reading “How Do We Make Diversity Scale?”

Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May

Our constant call-outs of sexism in the media are slowly having an effect

Societal progress moves at a glacial pace. Sexism didn’t go away when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and it’s still with us even though Teresa May now occupies Number 10 Downing Street.

Still, it’s interesting (to me, at least) to watch our societal attitudes change, even at the quantum level.  In fact, I think it is particularly worthwhile to note the most granular changes in our discourse: in this case, how we talk about women and men.

Many people have shared this article by Nicole Morely in the Metro: ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man‘.

Continue reading “Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May”

How Margaret Thatcher Hacked My Brain And Made Me Slightly Less Sexist

“My nephew Luke has no memory of a white male president” says Melissa Ryan.  “Hillary Clinton just made history but for millions of children she won’t be the first woman president. She’ll just be the president.”

This is exactly right, I responded.

I was born right before Margaret Thatcher became the British Prime Minister and she remained so until I was nearly 11 years old. In my head, the word ‘Prime Minister’ was inherently gendered female and whenever, in fiction or historical context, the Prime Minister was referred to with the male pronouns he/him, it felt odd. Continue reading “How Margaret Thatcher Hacked My Brain And Made Me Slightly Less Sexist”

Adinkra Symbols

In the local church hall, the Girl Guides have put up a display of strange symbols.

In the local church hall, the Girl Guides have put up a display of strange symbols.  A short tour of Google reveals them to be Adinkra Symbols from West Africa – specifically Ghana.

I’ve pasted some images below, but there are more on www.adinkra.org. My favourite is WO NSA DA MU A “If your hands are in the dish”, a symbol of participatory government, democracy and pluralism. Continue reading “Adinkra Symbols”

Literary Campaigning at its Best

Solidarity and activism is not the only outcome of this writing—the cultural conversation is being advanced too

During my time working for English PEN I’ve often used the phrase ‘literary campaigning’ to describe our particular style of activism.  Its a term that probably seems self evident: we use literature to draw attention to the situation of writers at risk.  For example, we might read the writing of an imprisoned poet outside an embassy, or stage a world-wide reading at multiple locations around the world.

Its an approach that has value for several reasons.  Not only is it non-violent, but it is also not particularly hostile or antagonistic to those who have imprisoned the writer or who are responsible for their persecution.  So it has a diplomatic quality.

It also a fantastic act of solidarity for the embattled writer.  Where they have been entirely censored through imprisonment (or even death) it is a way to give them a voice and restore to them some sort of expression. Continue reading “Literary Campaigning at its Best”

Harry Potter and the Ethnographic Refusal

To what extent should people explain their culture to outsiders?

JK Rowling periodically releases short pieces of writing on her Pottermore site that build upon the Harry Potter world.  She has recently published information on wizarding schools around the world, such as Uagadou in Uganda or Mahoutokoro in Japan.  Its a clever way to engage fans from all over the world, bringing a little bit of the magic to those who might not readily see themselves reflected in Ron, Hermione and Harry.

But with her ‘History of Magic in North America‘ JK Rowling appears to have become unstuck.  Her attempt to integrate the Native American community into her world building has drawn criticism… not least because she lumps the myriad tribes and Nations together under one ‘Native American community’ catch-all.   Continue reading “Harry Potter and the Ethnographic Refusal”

Photography Imbued with Sadness

photographs of human rights defenders which are taken and the person knows that this photo might be used at a later point in time to raise awareness, when he or she is in prison or vanished.

A while ago I posted on The Darker Side of Selfies, and the way in which the mainstream media illustrate the news of tragic young deaths with images from the victims’ social media accounts.

Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. … Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note.  The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death.

The death of Terrie Lynch and Alexandra Binns this week is a good example. Continue reading “Photography Imbued with Sadness”

We should rethink ‘NSFW’

We should label sporting images NSFW

Here’s a timeline of Facebook censorship of breasts and other anatomical parts.

When I posted this to Facebook just now, I was going to add the abbreviation ‘NSFW’, Not Safe For Work. But that prompts two thoughts. The first is that my work actually involves looking at links and images like those displayed here! I often wonder if I have inadvertently shocked my colleagues who have accidentally wandered past my screen while I was reading some link about porn or violence or racism or something.

Second, its surely a problem that our culture, as reflected in the Facebook image usage policies, deems images such as masectomies, nude drawings, and breastfeeding as “NSFW” regardless of context. Why shouldn’t these images, undeniably in the public interest, be viewed at work?

I reckon we should start labelling images and GIFs from sporting events as ‘NSFW’ because surely that’s the number one content that should not be viewed at work, damging as it is to productivity.

Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’

An extremely odd and disconcerting story was reported in the Guardian this week, regarding a National Youth Theatre play that has abruptly cancelled, just two weeks before its opening night. There are fears that ‘Homegrown’ was pulled due to the sensitive subject matter: young people drawn to ISIS.

I spoke to the Huffington Post about the issues raised for English PEN: Continue reading “Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’”