Multiple Matters: Twins in Fiction

Watson: Sherlock, could it be…

Sherlock: It’s never twins.

I wrote a very short piece for Multiple Matters, the official magazine of TAMBA.


Twins are a irresistible plot device, particularly for science fiction and fantasy writers who can have their characters appear to be omnipresent, to teleport, or even return to life. The ploy works for the same reason that random people obsess over the multiples they meet at school or in a buggy at the shopping centre: twins are are part of our natural world, but they are also somehow magical. Continue reading “Multiple Matters: Twins in Fiction”

How Do We Make Diversity Scale?

Naomi Harris in 'Moonlight'

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?”

The Corruption of the Victim: Şafak and Koestler on Censorship

Elif Shafak

Writing in the New Yorker about Turkey, the novelist Elif Şafak begins thus:

The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest at the turn of the last century, became, over the course of his life, intimately familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. It was the corroding effects of such rule on the human soul that preoccupied him as much as the unbridled concentration of power. “If power corrupts,” he wrote, “the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

This is, I think, an under-explored aspect of human rights… or rather, human rights violations.

When one is in the business of defending human rights and free speech in other parts of the world, it’s easy to slip into a simple dichotomy:  The censorious government is bad and corrupt; the dissidents are noble and good.

In reality, things are far more complicated.  Not all activists, journalists and writers have the courage or even the means to fight back. Those outliers who continue to write what they think—and damn the consequences—are few and far between. This makes it easy for the Government to identify them and pick them off.

Most people aren’t that brave and instead find themselves corrupted in some way: As Şafak explains later in her essay, this might be through direct complicity with the regime; silence (a sort of sin of omission); or else a corruption of their literary output as it flees into metaphor and ambiguity.

My interview with Anjan Sundaram about what he saw happen to journalists in Rwanda is relevant to Elif’s analysis: he saw the full spectrum of reactions to authoritarianism, from cringing complicity to outright defiance.

More generally, the corruption of the person and the state that comes when human rights are denied is a crucial argument against any weakening of rights protections.  As we prepare for a battle against a British Prime Minister intent on destroying our hard-won protections against state power, this is one of the arguments we must marshal: when the rights of some are abused, we are all diminished.

How to say this in a way that persuades?

The Mammoth Book of the Mummy available in January

The Mammoth Book of the Mummy

Zoinks! Look what appeared on the mat this morning: my contributor copies of The Mammoth Book of the Mummy.

19 Tales of the Immortal Dead by Kage Baker, Gail Carriger, Karen Joy Fowler, Joe R. Landsdale, Kim Newman and many more. …

Including Robert Sharp.  My novella The Good Shabti is in the anthology and I’m very proud.

The Good Shabti was, you will recall, launched in January 2015 and was, you will also recall, nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. Continue reading “The Mammoth Book of the Mummy available in January”

Empathising With Trump Voters

Trump supporters

On 9th November, the morning after the U.S. Presidential election, my friend Mark posted this to Facebook.

This morning makes me understand what it must feel like for those people who look at the political landscape, look at the establishment, look at the leader and say, ‘I don’t recognise this; it doesn’t speak to me; it doesn’t represent my situation. It doesn’t represent anyone I know.’ It’s a feeling of despair and dislocation. It’s the same feeling that makes people crave something different. Choose anything that’s different. Even a man like Donald Trump.

In the week since the election there have been thousands of op-eds and ‘hot-takes’ published on why Trump won the electoral college and the mindset of his voters.  But surprisingly, I have not seen this particular sentiment—empathising directly with how such people are feeling—anywhere else.  At least, not expressed so clearly. Continue reading “Empathising With Trump Voters”

The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech

La Frantumaglia cover detail

The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante.  Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1

Anonymity and pseudonymity are often a pre-requisite for freedom of expression.  Whistle-blowers usually need to keep their names away from whatever they have told journalists, lest they lose their jobs or even their liberty.  This is the main reason why English PEN, for whom I work, campaigns so vigorously against draconian surveillance laws and for better protections for those handling journalistic material. Continue reading “The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech”

59 Productions to produce City of Glass for the stage

This week 59 Productions (the radical design and production company than I had a hand in setting up) announced their latest project.  Its an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by Duncan Macmillian, the acclaimed writer of People Places Things.  The show is directed by my friend Leo Warner and is a co-production with Home and the Lyric Hammersmith.

City of Glass (part of Auster’s New York Triology) is an intriguing post-modern detective story that plays with ideas of reality, identity and imagination.  I think its a perfect fit for the kind of art that Warner and the remarkable 59 Productions team create.  In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he outlines their approach. Continue reading “59 Productions to produce City of Glass for the stage”

Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry

My colleague Cat Lucas and I sat down with Paul McMenemy, editor of the Lunar Poetry Magazine, to tell their podcast listeners about the work of English PEN. We discussed imprisoned Saudi poet Ashraf Fayad, how blogging is the 21st century version of pamphleteering, and how British poets might show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice at the same time.

You can listen on the Lunar Poetry website, via YouTube or judt hit the play button on the embedded podcast below. Continue reading “Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry”

Literary Campaigning at its Best

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

Tsegi Canyon Navajo National Monument Arizona. By ROSHAAN Tahir

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”