What Words Can You Use?

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I’m connecting a few dots here.

1. When I ran a workshop on the Four Elements at York last year, a few writers in the audience at one talk seemed a bit surprised when, in discussing ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché, I asked them how their work was political. Because, I said, just about all writing has a political dimension. Even if it is ignoring the world around us, that could make it prop up the status quo.

2. On Wednesday morning, I read this news report about Chelsea fans indulging in racial aggression on the Paris métro last night. I know these thugs have nothing in common with me really, but it FILLS ME WITH SHAME. SHAME TO BE ENGLISH. SHAME TO BE WHITE. I know it’s not my fault. I know I am not the person standing on a train hectoring strangers, but. This is little short of monstrous. And it FILLS ME WITH SHAME to see these white English pigs abusing a black man on public transport in the capital city of another European country.

3. I hate the witless (straight male?) cult of banter. (I just realised: I don’t feel the shame of being male, as I really don’t relate to many of what might be regarded as conventions of being male.) I imagine Chelsea fans, at least some of them, must feel VERY VERY ashamed to be associated with such louts.

4. I tend to shy away from such overt opinions on this blog (though not in other places). ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’ – David Malouf. I don’t like to risk offence. This goes beyond opinion into passion (and fire, that element prompting discussion in the workshop of Carolyn Forché’s politics). But sometimes you cannot be silent. Sometimes you have to stop being a pussy.

5. I’ve just finally started reading Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, subtitled ‘An African Childhood’. It is FANTASTIC, and I’m only a fraction of the way in. Early on we get a potted history of Rhodesia, where Fuller grew up:

Between 1889 and 1893, British settlers moving up from South Africa, under the steely, acquiring eye of Cecil John Rhodes, had been … What word can I use? I suppose it depends on who you are. I could say: Taking? Stealing? Settling? Homesteading? Appropriating? Whatever the word is, they had been doing it to a swath of country they now called Rhodesia. Before that, the land had been movable, shifting under the feet of whatever victorious tribe now danced on its soil, taking on new names and freshly stolen cattle, absorbing the blood and bodies of whoever was living, breathing, birthing, dying upon it. The land itself, of course, was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man’s blood and the blood of African men, it will absorb blood from slaughtered cattle and the blood from a woman’s birthing with equal thirst. It doesn’t care.

6. I am taken back to a mobile classroom at King Edward VI College in Stourbridge in the early 1980s. A-level history with Mr Peacock. Grey skies, blusters of rain, half a dozen pastel shades of chalk outlining battlefields and tactics. The Falklands War was taking place as we sat lower-sixth exams, writing essays about the Boer Wars and William Gladstone. I learned facts in those two years – facts about the Scramble for Africa, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s, the birth of the welfare state, the Spanish Civil War. A-level history (British and European, 1870-1945) probably forged my political awareness more than anything else. You can interpret, but some of these facts are inarguable.

7. As a sixth-former, I remembered the death of Franco in a headline in the News of the World a few years before. This wasn’t just history.

8. Not all history is well taught. Not all facts are respected. Classrooms should be free of politicians, such as Republicans in Oklahoma, who want to prevent what’s bad about America being taught in advanced-placement classes. Politicians are not often good at nuance in the UK either.

8. Other (nuanced, thoughtful) reads of influence: Exterminate All The Brutes! and Desert Divers by Sven Lindqvist. The Rings Of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Ban En Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil (more on that another time). The Secret River and Searching For The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

9. Yes, the EU might need reforming, and yes, this is a small island, and yes, resources are limited.

But. But but but. It is election season, and there is a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the air. A lot of anti-other, a lot of bullshit, a lot of populist dribble that lacks compassion and is unable to listen or engage, and seems to love to play the victim and talk over and talk down, rather than find complex solutions to complex problems.

I do think it is important to find ways to talk about race, and gender, and sexuality, and many other issues – and ways that don’t just get contrary positions dismissed as racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or rely too much on terms such as ‘micro-aggressions’, which can feel aggressive in their own accusation and create unhelpful victimologies. Because things are rarely black and white, and knee-jerk claims can be just as unlistening or disengaged. Sometimes we really do have to locate our senses of humour, or not let ourselves be offended. Dwelling on ‘micro-aggressions’ really can feel like engaging with excuses for resentment. Sometimes it is better to laugh things off, don’t you think?

10. But but but. History lessons. Consequences. Do As You Would Be Done By. This post was written in a state of emotion, or passion, and our old English teacher Mrs Blakemore always told us never to post letters written in emotion or passion. Leave it overnight. So I shall. (And I did. And I didn’t change anything.)

11. How can writing make us listen? Make us think? Again, David Malouf: ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’. One of my favourite aphorisms.

12. Too much of the way we are taught writing forces us to value opining. Thesis statements in freshman compositions and positions defended in debate club are just a hop from columns written by hacks in tabloid newspapers. And slagging off immigrants in one of those columns is just a skip from proudly announcing your own racism as you push a man off a train on the métro in Paris.

13. The Buddhist idea of Right Speech.

14. Frank Bruni’s column this week, which makes a case for studying poetry as a bulwark against ‘rushed thinking and glibness’. Let’s devote ourselves to developing the ‘muscle of thoughtfulness’.

15. How will you use your own muscle of thoughtfulness to remove the shame, and restore pride in yourself? How are you going to find ways to write about things that matter to you?

16. What does matter to you?

17. Poetry, fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, biography: these are forms that often embrace and explore complexities, and in doing so help to make the world a better place.

18. What word can I use? asks Alexandra Fuller before naming colonialism for what it is. Taking. Stealing.

19. What words can you use?

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