A month or so ago, I entered two of my unpublished books into the Half the World Global Literati Award competition: a novella, “Dating Superman” and a young adult fantasy novel, “The Talkers”. This competition aims to “give voice to the inner lives of women” and sought rounded female protagonists, with a grand prize of $50,000 for the winning entry.
My novella, “Dating Superman”, was based on a true story told to me by an ex-colleague, about her life as a child in Brooklyn, New York. Over a dodgy sandwich and even dodgier cup of library coffee, she told me about her neighbour: a man who only lived in her area on the weekends, and he dressed as Superman. Whilst the locals thought he was a bit eccentric, they didn’t think much else about it. Years later, they saw him on the cover of a magazine, out of the blue and red spandex – he was some big CEO of a major US company. It turned out he’d been sneaking away from his usual life to escape the pressures of big business, and to date women. I had to write about it.
I’ve never been to Brooklyn, so I set the story in Birmingham (England) during the early 1990’s, when I was a kid. I wrote it from the perspective of a young girl (8.5-years to be precise, and at that age, you ARE precise about your age) who desperately wanted her mum and Superman (aka: Ken, their neighbour) to fall in love and live happily ever after.
The story was really about creating illusions. Sophie, the protagonist, didn’t really truly believe that the neighbour was Superman, but it offered her a way of creating a world she could invest in, a way of sanctioning the boredom of her real life and potentially coping with her mother’s depression. Meanwhile, her mum was stealing to provide for the family, then stealing for the sake of it – a way of adding a level of control and rebellion, a middle finger up to the world which gave her little and owed her less. Their neighbour wore a costume and moved cities to live in his self made world, one he preferred to his other life but that was, in some senses, no less real.
That’s a somewhat longwinded set up for my main point in this blogpost: I believe that we all live in imaginary worlds of our own creation, as a means of coping with or substituting the less desirable elements of our “realities”. This interests me as a creative function and as a driving force for my writing. When I come to the blank page (or Word Document, as is the truth of it) I have to ask “what do they want, and what are they trying to escape?”
The act of writing, I believe, is a form of world making, not only literally (we might add magical forests or war torn cities which do not exist) but an intrinsic desire to experience another life, to create a place we are allowed to reside in, a place where we understand the rules, because sometimes the “real world” feels totally alien. This is why I feel a reader can connect with Sophie in “Dating Superman”, and why her desire to make a new reality feels so close to the bone. It turns a real story into something unreal, and that fantasy makes the reality of her situation all the more hitting.
For the most part, I write young adult fiction and I think this idea of creating and dismantling worlds is even more important for young people. For me, fantasy and science fiction are genres where these imaginative sanctuaries can be taken to the extreme – a near total separation, through which the writer’s present can be extrapolated and broken apart, pieced back together with threads of the imagination. They allow us to project our concerns into far distant futures, through time and space, into entirely different worlds to our own. It is this extremification (I realise that’s not a real word, but I’m going with it) which most unsettles the status quo and releases the imaginative impulse to distort and rewire reality.
Young people are, in some near future, going to lead the world. We need them to be able to consider alternatives, to think about ways of living which differ from how they are now. Progress was never made by sticking to a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Fictions, particularly those taken to more of an extreme than “Dating Superman”, force readers into that mindset of refusing to accept what is expected, to imagine better futures and how they might come about. CHANGE is absolutely vital to our progress, not only as individuals and communities, but as a species, and our literature must respond.
Whilst “Dating Superman” hasn’t been shortlisted for the award, my fantasy novel “The Talkers” has been…
“The Talkers” is about a teenage girl, Chris, who is seeking her parents’ killers in a matriarchal land ruled over by Talkers: powerful individuals who can psychically control and talk to animals. Each Talker (or family of Talkers) has a psychic connection to a different breed of animal. For example, Chris’ friend can talk to Capuchin monkeys, another can talk to highland cows, and her mother and father can talk to sea eagles. Chris faces a lot of difficulties during the course of the novel, including torture, bigotry, and deciding whether to join a powerful religious group or to fight against them.
During recent interviews about “The Talkers” I’ve been asked whether it was difficult to write from the perspective of a female protagonist. I’ve now written two novels and a novella, and all of my protagonists have been female. “I just write about a character I want to follow”, was my reply, “their gender, or sex, doesn’t really make all that much difference to how I write them.” Perhaps I’m subconsciously drawn to writing from this not-my-gender perspective as part of that world disruption I’ve just been talking about, but I think that female-voice decision was more consciously about a ‘need’ for rounded female voices (disrupting the male-centric voice which has dominated literature) for young readers in particular, who are tasked with furthering the position of women in our societies. Systematic inequality is the key villain in “The Talkers”, it is a monster which many people (particularly women) face in our modern societies.
In “The Talkers”, I have described a powerful matriarchal society as a way of critiquing and criticising the gender-based social constructs of our current societies. Boys aren’t given the same opportunities as girls, women are considered better leaders, given more senior jobs, told that the male body is something to be possessed and fought over. The protagonist, Chris, reaps the rewards of this inequality despite being comparatively less capable than many of the men and boys around her, simply because she is a girl and happens to be from a wealthy family. She is ignorant (at least to begin with) of her privilege, and happy to benefit from it. This unbalance seems patently clear and unjust to readers, and yet our cultures and (supposedly civilised) societies accept much of it without question. Through fantasy, the bizarre and unfair nature of our own structurally (and self) imposed conditions, are stripped and revealed for what they really are.
The creation of fictitious worlds and monsters is, then, more important to the future of our young people than the world we’ve built for them. Far from simple wish fulfilment or escapism, fiction allows us to name our monsters and to imagine change, and change must be imagined before it can be made real.
“The Talkers” is shortlisted to win the $50,000 Half the World Global Literati Award. Vote for “The Talkers” in the people’s choice award by 13th July.
Russell Jones is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor. He has published 4 collections of poetry, the most recent being “The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping” (Freight Books, 2015). He is the deputy editor of “Shoreline of Infinity”, a science fiction magazine, and is the editor of “Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK”. Russell has a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh. He enjoys White Russians, Twiglets and karaoke.
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