As a writer, I am aware of the raw power of my tool. As a linguist, I am also aware of how many of the world’s languages have evolved from common ancestors, how they are related and how the meaning of the same word can differ from one sister language to another. Language is extremely complex, and the more you learn, the more you know, the easier it becomes to get lost in language, to make mistakes and realizing just how little you actually know.
Just last week I was made aware, in a most humiliating way, that an expression used in the blurbs of one of my books had offended a group of people. I was given a proper dress-down, in public, which led me to withdraw that particular book from the table where I was selling it along with my other work. Seems that both the sensitivity readers (which we’d used, despite the accuser’s assumption of the contrary), the publisher, editor, and this author had completely missed it. I won’t go into details here, but oddly, when discussing this with fellow authors and members of the affected group/minority, everyone was puzzled and wondered how else to express oneself today, to be politically correct and not offending anyone.
Languages evolve, all the time. There are many examples in history and from literature where the most highly acclaimed books include wording that is no longer considered okay. We no longer use “nigger” or “negro” to describe blacks or Africans, which is a good thing. African American is the term used if you’re in the US but is of little help to describe black people from other parts of the world. But when Astrid Lindgren wrote her Pippi books back in the 1960s, it was perfectly okay to write that Pippi’s father was “negerkung” (negro king.) In recent editions, the term has been replaced. This is probably the most famous example in terms of language evolving, but there are literally thousands of expressions that have changed, be it for people with disabilities (or function variations as may be more modern), people from within the LGBTQ community, etc.
Lost in translation: politics, philosophy, religion & culture make things complex
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I am a member of a minority, and I’ve always been acutely aware of how I’m labeled by society. Often times words also carry a political notion, a belief held by the speaker. After Chernobyl, people who were fighting against the use of this particular way to generate power were, in German anyway, always speaking of atomic power, and the slogan “Atomkraft, Nein Danke!” became a household term. The proponents of nuclear power did not use atomic power. They call it nuclear power. Neither terms were “offensive” to anyone. They simply indicated a political belief. There are many similar examples of words and expressions who carry a philosophical belief within the word: capitalism vs. free enterprise, sexual orientation vs sexual preference, etc.
Words carry political beliefs
Then there are differences across cultures, which make many of the words which are used across languages dangerous pitfalls. Even within a given language family, a word that carries a connotation in one country may not be viewed the same way elsewhere. The word black is one such example, where it may be deemed acceptable in some flavors of English, but might get you stares if you use it in the U.S.
You might also remember the time when the Swedish chairman of BP was criticized for using the term “little people” in a White House press conference. While a perfectly acceptable term in Swedish, translated ad verbatim to English it becomes offensive. What he meant was “ordinary, regular people like you and I.”
How we view history changes
To make matters even more complex, we are, as a people, really bad at looking at history through the lens of the time. I’ve just returned from Washington, DC, where I also visited the National Archives Museum where the original Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution are on display. When you read these documents and you read things like “We the people…” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” yet are aware that this did not apply to everybody. “People” and “all men” did not include Native Americans, Africans or Asians. Because if you believe in slavery it makes no sense to assume that Africans were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” because clearly, they were not. Men, back then, obviously also did not apply to women.
Did not apply to blacks, women, Asians or Natives.
However, today, we look at these words and we can feel pride in the accomplishment of the founding fathers, even if we’re Korean, Sudanese or German, and decisions rendered by the Supreme Court of the U.S. has updated the interpretation of the meaning of these words over time. It just so happens that the probably biggest struggle within said court these days is in the interpretation of the constitution: as a document in time, or to read it literally, or if you prefer, a liberal or a conservative interpretation.
Labeling a group of people, labeling “me”
Language evolves, all the time. Would it not, we’d all still be speaking a proto-human language we don’t even remember. Latin would not have evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, etc., and Germanic into German, Scandinavian and English. So that’s a good thing. We also introduce new words, we share them across languages and cultures and make new words our own.
It’s a good thing that we no longer use words like “nigger”, “cripple” or “faggot”, as the negative connotations are painful reminders to members of said communities of a painful past. And language continues to evolve: it’s better to say transgender than transsexual, as the trans experience isn’t primarily about people’s sexuality but more about their gender, we talk about marriage equality rather than “gay marriage” because a marriage is a marriage, it has no sexual/romantic orientation.
For most people, all of this is way above their heads, and they’re not really affected by the terminology used within a certain community, and how groups try to improve on language to make it more inclusive and less offensive, divisive. For older generations, much of this may pass them by. However, when words and expressions are used that are hurtful, the consequences can be dire, and we can observe this in our everyday lives. Ten years ago, gender fluidity and trans people were not discussed in mainstream society. The language was very CIS, except for the affected people. Therefore, for most people, meeting members of the trans community can be an interesting and frightful experience, as it not only challenges the language they speak but also some of the very fundamental core foundations of their education and the two sexes: male and female. Migration challenges other long-held beliefs.
Political correctness and the backlash of the Trumpian era
For some, things have clearly gone too far and they push back. Migration is used as a term to lump together people who come to our countries for very different reasons. No longer is a distinction made between refugees and economic immigrants, it’s all equally bad. And in our strive to create a label that fits just us, we make it a perfect pitfall to be offended, for how is a stranger to know if you want to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss. Or something else entirely? How are we to know if you are bisexual or pansexual? Oftentimes, terms are used interchangeably and what means something to one person, has different connotations to someone else.
This may be controversial but sometimes I feel we have gone too far. We are too easily offended. And some people have begun to push back. To mislabel something doesn’t necessarily make a person a “bigot” or “racist” or whatever. They may simply not be familiar with the latest developments in the language. Trust me, it’s easy to get things wrong. When I first moved to the US in the eighties we used a “bathroom” to go potty, these days it’s “restroom” (although given American toilets, they’re anything but restful with their lack of privacy, but that’s another story.) In India, people still go to the toilet, in English.
The drive for political correctness sometimes feels like a provocation. And we are quick to accuse, prosecute and judge people for using the wrong words. The judgment can be harsh, particularly in this social media day and age where the action often precedes contemplation and thought. And I feel that some people have begun to push back. And as I’ve mentioned above, language is becoming political, but not always. But when someone talks about “gay marriage”, I for one assume they’re not supportive of the concept of marriage equality. But an I be certain?
The benefit of the doubt
Here’s the thing. Our societies have become very black and white in our political discourse, and we seem to have a hard time to accept dissenting views and opinions. There is less and less discourse in society about where we should head, how to overcome the challenges of our time. Instead, driven by 140 characters, we simplify and shorten. It’s not necessarily beneficial to being respectful to one another. Trying to do the right thing can be frightening and intimidating and a friend of mine recently said that the fear of saying the wrong thing has led him to avoid public discussions/settings. That’s a shame.
What about we give each other the benefit of the doubt? What if we were to assume that most people are NOT trying to offend us, denigrate us, insult us. So when they use a term we find offensive, don’t lash out, forgive and educate. Tell them how you’d like to be addressed, politely. Chances are, they’ll be grateful, i.e. if you do it with a smile and non-judgemental way. I often feel that we usually use the opposite approach: we’re offended, we judge and keep a grudge and the message gets lost, simply because the wrong word was used. I think we could all be helped if we calmed things down a bit, in the interest of communication and understanding.
I know that my own language is far from perfect, regardless of which one I use. I’m also aware that being multilingual increases my potential for making mistakes. I beg your forgiveness and oversight for any words used mistakenly.
Remember: you may not have the power to choose the words used to describe you, but you have the power to choose how to respond.
What is your take? Do you think we should tackle this dilemma? What is the best way to help people use the least offensive and most inclusive language? Feel free to use the comment section.
It’s happening right now, in a way we never thought possible…
I read the strangest article (in Swedish) in one of my regular newspapers, about pop stars, models and social media influencers that don’t exist. Think about that for a moment. There are artificially created people on Instagram and elsewhere, with photorealistic imagery that do not exist. Yet they have millions and millions of followers, some of them even publish songs. And at the same time, we have politicians all over the globe who lie more frequently than they tell the truth and accuse everybody who doesn’t agree with them to lie and label any news outlet who disagrees with them as fake news. And no, Donald Trump isn’t the only one. “Fake news” has become a thing for far too many politicians in every corner of the world. He simply “perfected” the act. Fake news is no longer about news which is incorrect, fake news is news you don’t like. What a fundamental shift in connotation, in just three years.
Fake people, fake lives, lies, and truth interchangeable, how are we as ordinary human beings going to survive this? How will we, as humanity, be able to overcome the threats to the very core of our society if we keep blurring the lines between reality and fiction, imagination and deception?
Not a new idea, or concept
I’m not the first person to think about this. And smarter people than I have been trying to show us possible outcomes for decades. Picture the Terminator and the threat of what AI could do to humanity. Or worse, The Matrix. These movies were all pre-Internet, and pre-virtual/augmented reality. I saw another flick called Player One a few months ago, which is a movie that actually does take place knowing where we are today, and it painted a bleak picture, too, albeit with a happy ending.
I’ve also read articles littered with examples of so-called “deep fakes”, of YouTube or news cast-style videos that were completely fake, with “real” people saying things they’ve never said. With our current level of technology, you can interchange Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler, although that doesn’t really achieve much for anybody. However, what if say you could have a candidate for the 2020 Presidential campaign say something untoward? And what about someone who’s actually said something untoward being able to completely deny it? Even though the latter happens already.
It’s on the radio, it’s got to be true!
Many years ago, I was actively engaged in public access radio, which is a great way for ordinary people to express their opinions on FM-radio. More than once I encountered people who would complain about things said there, particularly if it was from someone who was from a rival political party or ethnic groups. Oddly, when I reminded them that it was our remit to transmit our own opinions, not state facts, I would often hear “but it’s on the radio!” as if the mere fact that they heard in through an FM-receiver somehow made whatever statement be the truth. I am afraid that we all suffer from that mentality, a little, and it’s enhanced when we hear it on TV, or from one of our elected officials, even though, these days, we can’t really trust anything we hear. We all have to double-check the facts.
Add to this the fact that more and more of us live our lives on social media, that people mourn the deception of so-called “friends” online, people they’ve never even met. How can anyone trust a complete stranger whose words you read on your computer screen, without the infliction of the tone of voice? Need I remind you of how quickly we descend into trolling when we think we’re alone and anonymous? It’s so easy to hurt people online, and it’s so simple to create misunderstandings when you don’t really know the person on the other end, do not understand what personality they have. Suddenly, the most innocent joke turns into the vilest of offenses and we “block” that someone, never to speak to them again. Virtually anything can create an online shitstorm. All among people who don’t know each other, not really.
Forget to like a friend’s post and you’ve begun your journey to forget them…
Then you have the algorithms of the various social media engines who ruthlessly serve you what is in their best interest, not what is in yours. Forget to like your friends umpteenth cat meme and they will slowly but surely wither away from your stream (and–sadly–your consciousness) replaced by advertisements for things you incidentally said to Alexa, Cordana or whatever other assistants you’re using or searches made or click-bait you couldn’t resist. We are manipulated online and it’s getting almost impossible to resist the allure of the almighty algorithm. Don’t believe me? Go have a look at what your interests are on Facebook, based on the site’s ad-settings on your profile. It’s not only a good idea to detox those hundreds (!) of “interests” every now and then, but some also provide a clue as to how the algorithms work and more than a handful of headshakes as to how stupid they actually are. No AI out there, yet!
Combine all of the above and you have a toxic cocktail. And as an author and creator of fiction, I wonder. Will I still be needed in the future? Will anyone still read my stories? My books? I do not know. If we start to live the fiction and use our personal lives to escape the harsh reality of this world, will fiction be there to bring us back to reality, after a long hard day in Escapia? Or will we become completely superfluous, no longer necessary since our own chosen realities surpass anything fiction could ever hope to offer? A world where every human is the main character in their own story, and we all walk through the streets with our 3D goggles on, eating at Klingon restaurants, being served by people we don’t look at, servers who think they’re serving us to the Minotaur of their own reality. Meanwhile, the puppet masters sit in their mansions enjoying the spectacle we’re making of ourselves.
Where will we be in a few years?
I don’t have the answer to any of my questions, but I worry. I wonder if humanity is equipped for the future we’re setting ourselves up for, or will we, given climate change and the potential for human conflict inherently part of it, be the end of ourselves long before we reach the full potential of that future?
What do you think? Feel free to comment and discuss.
Words can be so hurtful, as they reveal what people believe, deep down
“He starts to look like a real boy…”
It was meant as a compliment. A new haircut, short in the back. I love my son’s hair, regardless whether it’s shorter or longer. I think he looks amazing in long hair. However, he’s only six years old and keeping long hair looking good requires more work than your average six-year-old is willing to put in. Plus his hair is dark, thick and hot in the summer. He eagerly accepted my suggestion to cut it shorter as we’re about to head out on a vacation to a warmer climate. The response above from a family member floored me. It was so hurtful. Is short hair really the trademark of a “real” boy, masculinity? And what did this family member think of Sascha before? That he was girly? Did they not respect my son’s choice? A gazillion questions running through my mind, none very pleasant.
Hair is fashion, at best
Manly? I’m sure he thought so…
The Vikings had long hair, men and women, so did many other peoples, including native Americans. Samurai kept their hair long, too, so did many other Asian cultures. Are Vikings unmanly? Samurai? #facepalm Even in Europe, long hair was a thing for men for the longest of times. Just look at the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Picture Louis XIV of France with his wigs. Was he unmanly? No, of course not. There is nothing that says that a hairstyle would be indicative of one’s masculinity or how we fit into a gender.
Hair was even once considered so manly that Samson believed his masculine strength resided there. What a twat!
At fifty-two, I’ve had long hair, short hair, I’ve even colored my hair, but I’m still exactly the same person I’ve always been. Yet somehow, some people still believe that short hair is for boys and long hair is for girls. And they rejoice when a boy cuts his hair or a girl lets it grow out. No longer do they have to have their disgusting preconceptions challenged every time they see that person.
Sex, gender is a social construct
I strongly believe that sex and gender are social constructs. And I believe that most educated people will believe me with regards to gender. Sex? Not so much. And here’s the thing: if you’re born with a vagina, chances are you’re a woman. If you’re born with a penis, chances are you’re a man. However, nature is tricky and chromosomal anomalies, intersex, etc. exemplify this. Hormonal influences during the pregnancy will also affect the brain and how we come to identify, regardless of our genitals. That’s as far as nature goes. The rest is society. How we’re raised, the experiences we make, how we view our bodies, etc. However, the traits we attribute to “humans with vaginas” and “humans with penises” are entirely social constructs. And it is entirely society which attaches a value to a specific trait. The fact that vaginas are considered inferior to penises, for whatever reason. That’s beyond my comprehension, but it’s a fact nonetheless.
Therefore, every trait commonly associated with “vaginas” is considered of less value: long hair, be in touch with emotions, empathy, caring, you name it. And penis values are considered high value, e.g. short hair. No wonder my relative was so thrilled to see Sascha’s new haircut.
What about trans people, gender fluidity?
As a gay man, I had to accept that many of the traits I cherish are considered “feminine” and that I’m not only considered a traitor to my sex but also of less value than a straight man. Oh well. Lesbians are considered traitors to their sex because they refuse to let themselves be subjugated by men, hence a certain aura of “mystery” (=value) but also an almost unstoppable desire from straight men to subjugate them, break them. This incident in London is a great example of that.
Our trans siblings are those suffering the most. How dare one abdicate the genitals given to us by God? Yet even with trans people, society’s outlook differs. Trans men are considered a tad more valuable than trans women because at least they strive toward masculinity, want to be of more value. But trans women? Those traitors! To abandon the mighty penis! How dare they? The number of trans women murdered is among the highest in the world. They are a threat to straight men and there are a lot of feminists who do not accept them either. The absence of ovaries and the experience of “growing up oppressed” means that there are many women out there who refuse to accept trans women as sisters in their struggle for equality. They don’t realize that they’re doing ruling men’s bidding.
It goes without saying that gender fluid humans are enigmas. People generally don’t really know how to react to them, how to interpret them. Androgyny is sexy, we are mysteriously attracted to it, because they combine the best from both worlds, and that is somehow oddly attractive.
Is androgyny the key to the future?
I’ve always maintained that just like most people are bisexual (it’s a spectrum and very few people are stuck in the extremes) and the way younger generations are more open to being pansexual than strictly gay/straight is a sign that things are changing. The same is true for gender identity. While most of us are born with cis-genitalia our gender markers are very much on a spectrum, wildly combining “male” and “female” traits. And I would hope that someday we get to the point when those traits are valued equally, or at least valued how they help us build a successful society, not just the simplistic and ignorant “vagina < penis” formula. It’s just not helpful.
And who knows, we might even get to the point where gender reassignment surgeries and hormone treatments become less important as we can live and express ourselves the way we want to regardless of the physical traits of our genitalia and bodies. More gender fluidity for the people! This is not to say that some people won’t always feel the need to switch sexes, but the less important ‘sex’ is in a society, the lower the need to change, don’t you think?
We’re in this for the long haul…
My son comes home all the time with new things he’s heard in school, questions on his mind: “are boys better than girls?” only to state the next day that “girls are better than boys”. Statements like “girls can’t do this or that” or “boys can do whatever they want…” are tiring, but society is tirelessly at work to shape our children into the cis-minded drones we’ve been raised as. We take the debate every time, showing him that no, girls are just like boys, and they can both be whatever they set their minds to. I know of course that in reality, it’s more complicated but who am I to ruin a six-year-old’s life dreams? He’ll learn soon enough. He’s even come home a couple of times saying “I want to be a girl.” and I guess that’s fine, too. I have to walk my own talk and let him discover his body, his identity in his own pace. He’s only now discovering the differences between girls and boys. I wish they never would, that all of us could see each other as just “friends”. To get there requires us, parents, to pull the heavy duty, against all those who think that a boy in a short haircut is “real”…
No, it’s not because I write beautiful prose, capturing my audience from the first paragraph. Nor do I write tart poetry that puts readers in touch with their innermost emotions. I wish. Instead, it’s my personal life that resembles that of the stereotypical author: I’ve become a recluse. A hermit. I readily admit that I’m most comfortable in my own company. I wrap my loneliness around myself like a blanket on a cold winter’s day. It’s comforting, it’s mine.
Once upon a time…
Johnny Begood, up to no good
There was a young man who thought himself to be an extrovert, a man who loved crowded cities and to meet new people. All the time. What the young man failed to realize (or admit to himself?) was the fact that those interactions were costly. Afterward, he’d feel exhausted and he would often slump into a what might best be described as a depression, or at least a “low”. It would take days to get out from under the rocks.
But he loved to slip into characters, to play someone else (safe, right?) and be outgoing, entertaining, the proverbial “life of the party”. Here (to the left) is a photo from one such event about fourteen years ago, happy times in Budapest, before the country descended into near-fascism under the rule of Victor Orbán. Here we have our author playing his evil (heterosexual) punk-rock twin.
I still remember it all, vividly, the things I did in character, things which would probably be considered sexual harassment in these post-#MeToo days, and I guess I’d have been slapped across the face more than once had it not been for the fact that my co-workers knew that it was all an act and that underneath the mask of that crazy punk rocker was an innocent gay boy, happily married. I even joined and sang (sic!) with a band that night, even though I had no idea what they were playing and despite the fact that I had never sung before and without a clue what the lyrics were. But we seemed to be quite the hit with the crowd, probably buoyed by the copious amounts of alcohol flowing all evening.
Her Majesty took the prize
Her Majesty’s groupies. My feigned disinterest was actually fatigue and a splitting headache.
Since then, I’ve only been “out” in character one more time, four years ago, and I will be honest and say that the price was far too high. As successful as the performance was (from a strict marketing point of view), the cost was crushing, mentally and emotionally. From the near-constant sexual assault by the many females in the crowd, and the neverending onslaught of people on my persona, I was barely able to keep a straight face and had it not been for my character, I would’ve fled the scene long before the two-hour mark after which I returned to my room utterly exhausted.
It must’ve been then that I “relabeled” myself, into an ambivert, someone who is a bit of both, extrovert and introvert, stuck in the middle, outgoing at times, but in desperate need to recharge the batteries in between.
From extro- to ambi- to introvert
I must have been fooling myself, like the little gay boy who feels safer coming out as bisexual rather than gay right away, failing to see that he’s thus only hurting those who really are bisexual. But that’s another story. I think it is high time that I admit that I’m a full-fledged introvert. But how did that happen? Has it been these past nine years of working alone from home? The lack of people to socialize with on a daily basis?
Alone. This is how I feel best right now.
Or is it because I’ve just spent ten days in the company of guests? Literally 24×7 with no privacy? I don’t know, but when I left the gym yesterday, after spending the first two hours alone in almost two weeks,
I felt this overwhelming sense of relief, of finally being able to breathe again, and then it struck me that I was about to head into the worst day of my year, as a friend reminded me of having to call me tomorrow. Given how much I hate attention, my mood quickly spiraled downward.
Suddenly, I felt like I was choking. I couldn’t breathe and I was panicking. How would I get out of all this? So today I’ve been offline. My phone’s been disconnected, and I’ve refused to check certain social media, particularly messaging apps. I. just. need. to. be. alone. On the upside, I wrote several thousand words today. That was nice. And I had a great walk into the forest.
Obviously, I know I can’t. My husband will be home in an hour. So will my son. They don’t count, quite the contrary. Their daily homecoming is most welcome and I feel that I can be myself in their company. But everyone else better stay away or things could get nasty. I’m like the evil version of Annie Wilkes. I can be very protective of myself…
On the other hand, I still look forward to meeting people, and there is still part of me who longs to be social, to be out there, particularly when I guide guests and show them my town. Not sure what role I slip into, but that has never been a problem. At the end of the day, I can always take off the Hans-suit and be myself again. Strange, but I’m sure Paul Sheldon would be proud of me.
My subconscious, asking the questions no one else could think of…
Over the years, I’ve given a great many interviews, and I’ve answered a lot of questions. Most were predictable, kind, polite, some were naughty, some did catch me off guard. Some interviewers send questions ahead of time, to make sure you have the opportunity to think about a good response. Today, I’d like to try something else, asking myself questions, just like that, what comes to mind. Not sure this is going to work, but I hope it’ll be an honest interview because if I lie, I’ll know. LOL
Going straight for the jugular, are we? Yikes. Well, I did write a few hundred words earlier today, but to be honest, my mind wasn’t in it today. Not sure why. There’s a certain amount of procrastination involved. I was also preoccupied with some personal, financial stuff, and my guiding business which I spent some time on.
Just an example of how alternative communication can look like. I’ll need to incorporate some form of that into the book.
But the real truth is that I’m scared. Afraid I won’t do Matt justice, and he’s not been talking to me, really. Not for a few days. I had this amazing meeting last week, where I was learning about alternative forms of communication, and walking away from it, I was super inspired, but then I got scared. Scared to screw things up, scared to write poorly. I always endeavor to improve my game, for the next book to be better than the previous one, and I feel it’s becoming increasingly difficult, mentally. The more critical I am of myself, the bigger the hurdles to open the file and write. I’ll get there. Just give me a few days.
You have no deadline for this. Does it affect you?
Not sure. Could be. Then again, I’ve hardly ever had to write toward a deadline. I’ve never participated in something like NaNo. Just not my thing. Then again, I want the book to be out next spring which means it’ll have to be done and with my publisher before the end of the year. Having so much time is unusual. So yes, maybe that helps with the procrastination. You know the aegis, right: “That which you can do today, postpone right away!”
How does the public debate on various topics influence you?
It depends on what the subject is. Let’s say “Brexit”… That has no influence on my writing at all. But there are things in politics around the world that might find their way onto the pages of my books, e.g. the environment, global warming (The Golden One.) Sometimes it can be a discussion on Facebook (here’s one example), e.g. there has been a debate in the past year or so about bi-visibility in books, TV, and films which have been on my mind.
Lucifer Morningstar, the devil himself (which incidentally makes hell look like a much nicer place than heaven), is portrayed as very bisexual in the series with the same name, or should I say pansexual, given his inclusion of non-human lovers? Labels, another post entirely! In any case, I find it highly refreshing that he also has sex with men, even though the show focuses on his relationships with the “detective” and lately, Eve.
I think about how my characters (I’ve only ever had one character who’s openly bi in one of my books) and what I can do to help the community to feel more included. It’s also had me think a lot about how I interpret bi characters when I read/watch. Am I disappointed when a male bi character suddenly hooks up/ends up with a woman? Why? Do I gay-wash him when he’s with a guy? What are my feelings about bi people in general? Should I include one (and the debate) in one of my books? I just had this idea to let one of my characters in my new book be openly and unabashedly bi (and have it out with an ex.) That could be a cool scene if it works with the rest of the book.
Visibility, the true representation of all kinds of diversity are important in books.
Any other topics that influence you?
Of course. Mostly topics that somehow have a bearing on my personal life, my relationships, my family. Feminism is always on my mind, women’s rights in general. Voting, representation, discussions about abortion, women’s control over their own lives, their bodies, how women themselves often seem to have opinions about what other women can/should/cannot/shouldn’t do. #MeToo is often on my mind, too, not just because I’m a rape victim myself, but because I often see how women react to me, a middle-aged man, when we meet in a solitary situation, the fear, the momentary stop in their walk, and I can virtually read the look in their eyes “is he a rapist, or not?”
Children are also something I think about, a lot. My son, his development. The differences between my upbringing and his. The fact that he already reads, is good at (simple) math, all the things he knows about the world, cultures, etc. A full year before I even started school. But I also worry, about his chances in life, given how the labor market changes, the global competition these days, how global warming may threaten his future and that of all of humanity. To name a few things constantly on my mind.
You’ve thought a lot about Haakon recently, and his time in Paris. Do you know why?
This is one of my favorite sights in Paris. Why? Hard to explain, but this is the spot of a key scene in “The Fallen Angels of Karnataka”
Is it presumptuous to say that The Fallen Angels of Karnataka is my most important work to date? I like to tell myself it is. I remember so well how long it took me to get back into the “zone” after The Opera House. Then I read a book by Larry Benjamin, who’s also published by Beaten Track, and I got this idea to write about travel, a classic travel novel, you know like Jules Verne, minus the Nautilus. But then, Michel happened, and after that, I was emotionally drained, and it was downhill from there.
So when the cathedral burned a while ago, I began to remember all the scenes of Michel and Haakon in Paris, the romance, the discussions, the illness and–last not least–Michel’s passing, which still is my all-time favorite scene in any of my books. And still, even after all these years, I can’t read it without crying. Michel died too soon. Plus there have been articles recently about the first ever HIV patient in the west, possible cures and what not, plus Norway’s national holiday last week. There have been a lot of reminders. It doesn’t take a lot to get this brain going…
So it seems. Even the tiniest little bit gets you to think about “stuff” you’ve experienced?
Yes. Literally. Anything. I can listen to my favorite podcasts and suddenly my mind wanders. I honestly don’t know how other people tick, but my mind is triggered by any- and everything. Not always, of course. But a lot of things. One shiny object leads to the next.
How do you focus?
That’s not fair. I can’t even answer that question. It is really difficult to quiet my mind, to get you to shut up for a while. I’ve recently discovered that not drinking coffee in the afternoon helps, at night anyway. When I wake up because of a noise or old-man-issues, I can fall back asleep quickly. But during the day, in order to write, I really need to be in the zone, to hear the characters talk to me from the depth of “you”. That way the rest sort of fades into the background.
Research is valuable, it helps me focus, having a task to complete. That sort of stuff usually keeps me single-minded. At least for a little while. I can be extremely productive and I work very fast…
And I guess it helps if I don’t have any other stuff going on that I need to worry about. Sadly that doesn’t happen all too often.
Willem has also been on your mind recently. How come?
Elections in South Africa, lots of articles and features on the country, putting things back on my mind. Plus I wonder at times if my “dystopian” predictions of how WWIII comes to pass are true if it really is global warming and the displacement of large segments of the global population that trigger it all. S’all. Just crazy me. Plus I really like Willem. He’s a bit of a role model. The perfect human. I wish I were more like him.
What about Jason. Why are you still thinking about him?
Okay, that’s not fair. I could just say that it’s because the final book isn’t out yet. But that’s not the only reason. The whole picture is a bit more complex. When I began writing about Jason, I had this notion of a movie in the back of my mind, and I can’t shake the feeling (and I’m probably jinxing it this very moment) about how cinematic the story feels. Maybe I suffer from megalomania (and I’m being way too open and honest right now), but I’d love to see it turned into a movie. I see all those fantasy books turned into movies and I wonder if The Golden One would work, too, or if there isn’t enough blood and gore in it. But I also wonder what would happen if a movie would be tremendously successful. JK Rowling wasn’t done with Harry Potter when she finished the series, yet she still ads new books to the “universe”, these weird prequels. Game of Thrones simply continued where the books left off. I guess that is where I’m at right now with Jason. Preposterous, right? I just see him where he is at the end of book three and (I can’t say anything) I wonder about the ending. How open is it?
Are you open to writing a fourth book? A fifth?
See, I can’t answer that question without giving away something that shouldn’t be out there. Yet. So no comment. For now.
But you’re thinking about it? Would you be open to re-writing the ending to make it happen?
*poker face* I, uh, okay, yes. I’ve been thinking about writing more. No, I would never rewrite the ending. It’s perfect as it is.
Okay, let me ask you about Matt… I sense a close relationship with his personal assistant. Where’s this going?
Not sure I can answer this yet. Matt certainly has feelings for Timmy. But I’m not sure those are answered. Certainly not in a romantic way. But I’m not finished yet, or let’s say you and I aren’t finished thinking about it yet. There are things to consider, such as how appropriate it is for a personal assistant to have a relationship with a patient/client. Besides, would Timmy fall for Matt? I have my own set of preconceptions and prejudice against people with severe disabilities that I’m working through. What makes someone attractive? To whom? Why? And how credible would that be? Let’s just say this is contributing to my procrastinating. This is one of the most difficult aspects to work through for me because I know that Matt loves Timmy. But yeah, the rest is up in the air. I have a lot of issues to work through.
So you’re being an asshole?
*blushes* I guess?
How do you envision this working out?
You’ll be the first to know when the words begin to appear on the screen. I really can’t say if they end up as friends or a couple. I honestly don’t know. But whatever happens between them will be a good thing because it’ll be the end of the book. It’ll be realistic, believable and relatable. Hopefully, I’ll have my shit sorted in time.
Any final thoughts?
Do I really want to publish this? Think this might backfire? Does anyone care about my ramblings with myself, basically?
Nice deflection, answering a question with questions. I guess we can call it a day…
Thanks for keeping me honest. Still not sure if this is such a good idea.
Off to an interesting meeting today, to learn more about alternative communication
Matt, the main character in my new novel (Opus XIII) is suffering from cerebral palsy. This is a condition that comes in many “flavors”. You may have seen characters with CP on TV, e.g. the teacher’s son, Walter Jr., in Breaking Bad or the main character in the new Netflix show Special. Not unlike autism, CP comes on a spectrum and in recent years, thanks to advances in medicine, we are able to help people with CP to live much fuller lives than in the past. For some, the damage from CP is so big that they are almost completely disabled, in some cases, they can’t communicate verbally. This is where alternative communication comes in.
I’m about to learn more about alternative communication
I’m sure you’ve seen how Stephen Hawking used a synthesized voice to communicate with the outside world. Mr. Hawking didn’t suffer from CP, he had MND. Over the years, you can read it in the Wikipedia article, he used different forms of alternative communication. Here’s a snippet from his appearance on Star Trek TNG:
Today, I have a meeting I’m really looking forward to. It’s with an expert on alternative communication at Dart, which is our local West Swedish center for alternative communication here in Gothenburg. I can’t wait to learn about how methods are developed and to see how I might be able to help Matt to break out of his shell.
(Almost) every case is different
You see, each person with a severe communicative disability is different. Okay, they all can’t speak, some might even be deaf, which makes things even more difficult. As babies and toddlers, our brains quickly learn. We recognize our names, realize who’s a mom and who’s dad, recognize them by putting a face next to a name repeated. My six-year-old son just recently entered a phase where he’s fascinated to learn that pappa and daddy not only have “titles” but names, too. He finds it titillating to call us Alex and Hans. Endlessly amusing.
We also learn to recognize objects, as they’re shown to us: forks, teddy bears, spoons, cups. You get the gist. And a healthy baby will repeat those words and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives as they learn new words. Now imagine if you can’t speak. You can’t repeat what your parents are telling you to. You just can’t get those words over your lips. In time people will realize that something is wrong, and they might take you to a doctor to learn more.
In time, with a lot of research, specialists at places like Dart will be able to find a way to help you break through that barrier. But how?
Not reinventing the wheel
I won’t spoil the story for you, but Matt is particularly challenged. There are a great many ways to help patients with communication challenges. Some might be able to use their hands to move a device that looks similar to a computer mouse to point to objects or letters and make words. Others use an eye tracker to see what the individual is looking at. However, not every method works for every patient and to make voluntary movements (rather than erratic ones which are common in CP patients), it will take a lot of time to determine what might work and what might not.
Unfortunately, not every patient with CP gets help. A while ago a friend told me about someone they met out and about with their parents, a young woman, severely physically disabled, unable to communicate. Just imagine the horror of being trapped inside your body, unable to speak, unable to communicate, make yourself heard, tell the world about your desires, your dreams, your hopes. Would you go crazy? In a way, this is what interests me the most about Matt’s journey.
For me, as an author, I’m not up to the task of inventing a communicative method of my own. Hence my meeting today. I have realized, thanks to Matt, what works for him. Now I need to find out just how I can use that to help him communicate, for the first time in his life. I can’t wait for that day when I get to write those chapters. I’m not quite there yet.
Realistic, believable, credible
At the end of the day, I need the story to be realistic enough to be credible to the audience, believable. Unlike the snippet from StarTrek above, this isn’t science-fiction. I can’t just “pretend” this or that, can’t simply attach a diode to Matt’s head which allows him to communicate freely. We’re just not there (yet?) The story I write is about Matt, it’s about someone who–for now–is relying on me to speak on his behalf. I want to write a story about a human being with a particular set of challenges and it won’t be until the end of the book that Matt gets to speak within quotation marks with his own words. Until then, he relies on me, on the things he tells me.
Books are important. The stories we tell are about seeing ourselves through the eyes of someone else. We want to read about “ourselves”. We crave to have our own life validated through the characters in the books we read. We need to see that we are not alone, the only one in the village. This is particularly important for minorities. And in a way, we’re all part of a minority, some may just be smaller than others. Sex, gender, age, creed, skin color, ethnicity, hair color, glasses, LGBTQ, disabilities, etc. All of these in infinite combinations. We’re all some of that, somewhere, somehow.
So is Matt. This may be his story, but it has to be relatable enough for abled people to maybe learn something and for people with disabilities to feel validated, seen. Maybe that’s a tall order. Maybe I’m not the right person to write about this (I’ve had this argument before), but I am an author. It’s my job to tell other people’s stories. Research helps me make sure I get it right.
I can’t wait to present you with this story, eventually, when it’s done. I expect it to be released next spring. Until then, we have the finale of The Golden One to look forward to.