I haven’t written a decent word of prose since March 4. I just can’t. My mind’s not there. I’ve been lucky to have been writing other stuff, but nothing new. We live in ding-ding times. But let’s not speak of that today. Because today is one of those special days in the life of an author when a brand new book reaches readers. Today is the release day for Matt–More Than Words. I’ve spoken before about how Matt first appeared to me, more than a year ago, on one of my walks, and just this morning I read an article in the Guardian about authors and their “relationships” to their characters. Interesting reading.
The cover of Matt–More Than Words
In this context, you may wonder how a character unable to communicate spoke to me…
Well, first and foremost, it may be worth pointing out that Matt is a literary character. I often have to remind myself of this distinction, as my characters feel so real to me, I see them out in the world and they really take on a life of their own. However, their world is physically contained within the confines of my skull (and that of other readers.) In a way, Matt finally gets to move out of my mind and inhabit others. But his conversations with me were more of a metaphysical kind, empathy mixed with telepathy if you will. But unlike many other characters, Matt didn’t speak to me in words, which made writing him more challenging than others, finding the right words tricky even.
Matt isn’t the only character in that book…
There is not a huge array of characters in this novel. Matt lives in a very, almost corona-adapted, world. He has his mother and his assistants, s’it. The biggest change comes from the constant change in assistants, and most of them are painted in sketchy colors because they come and go in a steady stream. There are two exceptions, Timmy and Colin. Timmy is also one of the people from whose point-of-view the story is told. There is so much going on in and around Matt that not everything can be told from his perspective. His mother’s and Timmy’s perspective were important from a narrative perspective. Both Timmy and Matt’s mother go through major changes in their lives and their journeys are supported by tertiary characters, the owner of a restaurant, parents, and friends. You’ll see.
When I last wrote a release day post, I promised an epic ending. I do no such thing today. I could tell you how the book ends. It is not the point of the book. So, yes, Matt will eventually find a way to communicate. The point of this story is a completely different one: it’s to highlight the plight of some of our siblings in society who are in Matt’s shoes, and how society is getting better at helping them to live life to the fullest. We have amazing tools at our disposal to enable help and assistance, if only we give them a chance. Matt–More Than Words is an exercise in empathy, to spend a few hours in the shoes of someone so very much unlike us, someone unable to tell his own story. I hope you will give Matt a chance. The eBook and paperback are available starting today, the audiobook will be coming shortly, narrated by the amazing Michael Bakkensen.
If you’ve read this post, and it’s 4/30, why don’t you join us today for a small release day party on Zoom? 11 am PST, 2 pm EST, 8 pm CET.
Eleven months ago, today, I embarked on an incredible journey…
Just around the corner from here, shortly after I took this picture, Matt appeared to me for the first time. Taken March 28, 2019. Photo: private
Two months from now, the book will see the light of day. It’s funny to go back and look at the date a file was created. Thursday, March 28, 2019, at 15:46. I remember it well because the circumstances of Matt’s appearance in my life were unusual. He suddenly popped up as I was out and about walking across the island, as I did every Thursday back then. I vividly remember the spot, an area carved out by ice age glaciers just before you climb up a small hill, trees all around the path. After returning home from that walk, I began writing. A lot has happened since then, one of which is that I’ve barely blogged in recent months. My apologies. I’ve recently taken up a small consulting gig for an IT firm in town and I’m working more than 50% there, which takes two valuable days out of my schedule for writing. On the other hand, my bank account is looking more pleased than in a long time.
Matt: from hereon in
I finished the manuscript in January and have since been working on covers. it depicts a lighthouse in the fog, but unlike the white light of a regular lighthouse, the one on Matt’s cover is green, which is eventually how Matt will learn to communicate. With a green light, not a lighthouse. 😉 The next step on getting the book out include, of course, typesetting, editing, and proofing, but also the recording of the audio version. I can’t wait to hear the magic Vance will bring to this story.
To write about someone who’s “unlike” the author is always tricky. Last summer, I attended an LGBT event in the US where someone from the disability community quite vocally accused me of not knowing wtf I was doing because the back matter of my novel Spanish Bay used the word “wheelchair-bound” instead of “user” as the current nomenclature recommends. It was a harrowing experience because said person had neither read the book nor considered that the US isn’t the only place where people speak and use English. Don’t get me wrong. My publisher and I immediately updated the cover to reflect the updated language and I am well aware that language is a living matter that changes and evolves. And I am happy to learn about such changes. It wasn’t the message per se that shocked me, more how it was presented with the explicit accusation of not caring, of attention-seeking, of appropriation.
At the time I had already begun work on Matt, and I was deep in research about his capacity, physically, mentally and emotionally. Matt suffers from cerebral palsy and while I have close friends who live with this affliction, none of them are as impaired by it as Matt. My research had to go deeper and so I reached out to people in the field who work with people like Matt. While they may not have the same diagnosis, the effects of how their body responds are similar: lack of movement, lack of the ability to communicate freely. All the while writing and changing, with the fear of getting it wrong in the back of my mind.
We live in a day and age where minorities have more voice than ever before, which is a great thing. And unfortunately, some people tend to take (still) advantage of others, for personal gain, for political reasons or as the pun of a joke. When you write about a character for the sake of checking a box, I can understand that people might react. I sometimes feel the same when I watch movies or a TV show that highlights LGBTQ characters. Are they in there to tick off that box or do the creators genuinely wish to reflect the fact that we are everywhere in society? Not always easy to answer.
My characters pop up, out of the blue, but they obviously don’t do so without some sort of context. I have a very good friend to whom I speak almost daily, and as she is differently-abled herself, the topic of disabled characters in books comes up every now and then. I should probably write “the lack thereof”, as there are few books who showcase differently-abled characters in the main role. I was very proud of having written Spanish Bay, with the main character a wheelchair user (see, I learn), and I stand by my book, the story, and the cover. I guess Matt is born of the many conversations with Tracy, my upbringing around people with mental impairments (my mother’s best friend’s daughter, probably fifteen years my senior, was severely impaired, but that didn’t hinder us kids from playing together just fine.) As a father, I think it’s important to teach my son that the value of a living being is constant regardless of their physical appearance or mental capacity, whether we are talking about animals or human beings. At the core, I believe that this is what humanity is all about.
A fictional character, but
I have read many posts, comments, and reviews of books where people comment that the character “isn’t like me” and therefore cannot be realistic. Well, here’s my take on this: it doesn’t matter if a character isn’t like you, isn’t a mirror image of what you are like. That is true for many reasons. I don’t disavow Romeo and Juliet because they’re not like me (gay.) I don’t toss Harry Potter aside because he’s got dark hair where mine’s dark blonde. The problem is labeling books as being of a certain “kind”: this is a gay book (which kind of turns away straight readers) or this is a “disability book” as if it’s only meant to be read by people with disabilities. We have a tendency to box ourselves in so much that we expect to read fictional stories about ourselves rather than trusting various authors’ capacity to create stories that speak to the human condition.
I’m always saddened when people say “I can’t read your books, I’m not gay.” Well, my books are hopefully good enough to appeal to every kind of person interested in a certain topic, and hopefully, I’m a good enough author to bring people of different backgrounds closer to whomever, regardless. Empathy. That’s what this is all about. On the flip-side, labeling helps authors and publishers to market books. If you want to read about a gay character, you will find my books that way, even though the story may be about Alzheimer’s, or being of old age or, as in Matt’s case, being unable to communicate with your surroundings. But most importantly, if there is any message that spans across all my books, it’s that we are all human beings, regardless of who we are and the things we go through. You could say that I write about the human condition but from the point of view of a very specific subset of people.
Coming April 30, 2020
Matt-More Than Words is coming April 30 from my publisher, Beaten Track. And as with each and every one of my novels, I’m really looking forward to this one. It is an important story for a great many reasons, and I hope it will find a home in many readers’ hearts. Matt will also find another way to express himself. I am part of a write dance project and in May we’ll go on tour with our work. I am working on a poem about Matt, and together with an amazing dancer, we’ll perform a piece. I was intrigued by the challenge to put in words (poetry) Matt’s predicament of being unable to communicate, and almost more so about dancing the inability to move voluntarily. Izabell, an insanely talented dancer has taken early drafts of my poem and sent me a recording of an improv dance she’d created. Based on her dance, I went back and re-wrote the poem. We bounce off of each other to create a piece that hopefully will hold up and can be displayed to an audience here in West Sweden and Oslo, as we go on tour in May. Stay tuned, either here or on my Facebook page, for updates.
With declining visitor numbers, fewer books sold, and with rising cost, where’s the ROI for attending authors?
I just returned from my second trip to the US this year, to attend the largest LGBT book event in the world, or so they advertise it, the Rainbow Book Fair. This was the third time I attended after 2016 & 2017. Last year the event was canceled. Now, before you read on, sharpen your pen and reply, let me say this: my “data” is hardly conclusive and entirely anecdotal, yet it shows a trend in many of the shows that at least I have attended, a trend so to speak: fewer people attending, fewer books (paperbacks) being bought.
Different venus, organizational styles/capabilities, etc.
When I first came to RBF, back in 2016, the number of people attending was stunning, at least to someone like me. The place was packed all afternoon. This year, the room we were in was deserted most of the time. Is that because people no longer buy books or because of the venue? The date? The weather? The organizers? You see, it isn’t easy to pin down exactly what is what in these instances. All you can do is try to eliminate that which is constant and somehow make your best determination on the data available.
Personally, I don’t think the venues play a major role. We were at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice twice and yet there was a drop in attendance the second time around. And I hear from friends who attended more than one event down in DC that even though the venue is the same year after year, attendance changes. The weather? Time of year? I’m sure that can play a role, and I know organizers are quick to point to that. Unfortunately, I think the overall organization of an event (and particularly how it is marketed) is much more important, but that’s another story entirely.
So why do I believe it’s the readers’ “fault”?
My table at RBF last week
Okay, maybe not the best term because it’s not a matter of being at fault. I think that several things seem to coalesce into the trend we see: fewer people read. Period. Sadly that is a global trend that is well documented. We prefer Netflix to sitting alone in the darkness with a book in our hands. Those of us who still love to read are increasingly turning to ebooks. They’re not interested in shlepping home twenty pounds of brand new hardcover and paperbacks from a book event. No, they’ll likely buy it on Amazon, the behemoth in the ebook industry, or on Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, or another site. Last, but far from least, audiobooks are increasing dramatically, and since most audiobooks are produced exclusively for either Audible or whatever other regional platforms you may use, the author can’t just make it available to readers.
Trust me, we’ve tried this approach with ebooks. I carry with me a beautiful stone pine rack where I can display each and every one of my ebooks to sell (and even sign), but I typically never sell more than one. Most people don’t trust that it works I guess. They’d rather just get the info and buy it from Amazon (regardless of how much less revenue I make) than risk buying something that might not work. Can I blame them? Probably not.
“My husband’s telling me to buy fewer books!”
WTF are you doing at a book event then? And why did you bring your husband along? Huh? Those were thoughts running through my mind as one of the visitors last weekend told me this. Why go to a book event in the first place if not to buy books? One of my neighbors at the Rainbow Book Fair suggested that quite a few of the visitors did not seem to have the means to buy books. I’d like to clarify that they meant no disrespect to the visitors in any way. But quite a few merely collected information, e.g. postcards, business cards, or leaflets. Whether that actually leads to a sale down the line is impossible to track.
Let me be frank: it is idiotic for someone like me to travel to New York or Washington all the way from Europe for a six-hour event. Regardless. I barely sell enough to cover the cost of the table (around $100.) If I were to factor in book shipments, hotel, flight, and food, any sane business manager would dismiss such a proposal for the insanity it is. I’ve done these events for different reasons and have been able to use air miles, collected over years and years, to pay for the trip. Still, I also visit with friends and try to do other publicity while stateside, e.g. this time, going up to New Haven to be live with my friends on the GayTalk 2.0 podcast. Mind you, I could’ve done that remotely, too, as I have in the past. But on the other hand, had I not met the hosts in New York a couple of years ago, had we not subsequently become friends, I might not have been welcomed back onto the show as often as I have.
The author and the cast of GayTalk 2.0
And yes, physical appearances in your main markets are not unimportant, to reach out to new audiences, people you might otherwise not reach. Yet I wonder if maybe there is another, a better way to reach readers in 2020 and onward, rather than an event where we sell books? Allow me to contrast that with my most recent trip to Liverpool to launch Reckoning. Eight people in the bookstore, 107 watching live on the Internet. Three weeks later, almost 250 people have seen it. The latter had not been possible without the physical event, but do we need to travel for it?
I have ideas, but I’m also curious to hear what others think
I think the book launch is worth exploring further, I think podcasts are another option. It’s something I’m looking into as well, somehow. Personally, I also believe that physical meetings between authors and readers are still going to be important, but how? Will readers be willing to pay to meet authors they might not like? Will authors be willing to pay with no guarantee of sales? What incentives will need to be put in place? As the LGBT events are largely organized by volunteers, there is a certain charm to them, but also a lack of professionalism seen in larger events, both with regards to PR and the actual organization. The former is critical in attracting the public.
Maybe it’s as simple as just giving books away. I recall that is how the Millennium trilogy was first advertised in the UK, with the publisher distributing thousands of copies of the first book on the subway to riders. Compared to the cost of flight, hotel, etc.? But you’d still need a local presence to do it, not to mention it IS costly, and for many indie authors, the cost is prohibiting regardless. What is your take? If you are a reader, why do you attend book events? Why do you not? What would it take for you to attend an author/book event? As an author, what is your view on what works, what does not?
Most people are sexual beings, everybody is capable of love
An article in yesterday’s Guardian about a legal case in England caught my eye. A man, thirty-six years of age, on the autism spectrum, was given permission by a judge to pursue sexual and romantic relationships even though he cannot intellectually grasp the ever-important concept of consent. I do not envy any judge who has to look at conundrums lite this. And it is not made easier by the fact that we tend to confuse love and sex (even JB primarily wants to, and I quote “he desperately wants to find a girlfriend with whom he can develop and maintain a relationship.”) and while the two are related for most people, there is no automatism between the two. We can love without having sex and we can have sex without loving our partners.
The complexities of the issue
I’ve grappled with this question in the past and I remember writing a beautiful sex scene between Neil and Chris. Sadly, as this is a YA novel, it had to go (American Victorian morals, don’t blame me…)
When it comes to people with functional impairments (or variations if you prefer, the terminologies keep changing) it becomes even more difficult than it is with people who are “fully functional”. Consent, rape, abuse are daily news items between adults with no intellectual impairments. But when it comes to people who are intellectually challenged, two issues arise. You have the challenge above, that the person doesn’t understand the challenges involved, starting with consent. On the flip side, what about giving consent? We have very clear laws saying that children must, under all circumstances, be kept away from sex with adults because (I presume) we assume they do not understand consent and the potential harm of having sexual relations before their time. Different societies place the “age of consent” differently. It’s fifteen years here in Sweden but varies from “no age at all” to eighteen. There is no right answer, of course. But what about grown-ups who do not understand consent? What if JB ends up in a situation with someone who might consent to be with him and takes advantage of that? #mindboggling
The other side of this is even more difficult and I would beg for your indulgement if I say things that might be taboo, things some might find offensive even. Let’s talk about “market value” (a crass term) or “attractiveness”. We all know that there are things considered beautiful and things considered “not so beautiful” in our societies. There was a time when obesity was considered attractive. Judging from today’s catwalks, that is no longer the case. Now, having said that, I’m not going to discuss whether that is “right” or “wrong” (that would be a very different post) and I am well aware that what society at large feels is far from what you or I or anyone else may feel, believe. I think we can agree on this much. That our beauty ideals are warped may be another thing we might agree upon. In our age, disabilities, lack of limbs, tetraplegia, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, you name it, are not considered very attractive. And when you watch the weird TV shows about sexual deviations, you might have people who fall in love with cars and who ejaculate on the hood of their loved one, portrayed alongside people with a thing for amputees, gerontophiles, etc.
My current WIP
When I first read the article about JB, I immediately thought of the main protagonist of my current work in progress, Matt. Matt is afflicted with cerebral palsy. He doesn’t communicate as his condition is quite severe. The actual story is primarily about his journey to breaking down the walls and finding ways to communicate. A twenty-something male, Matt has no formal education. He’s gay and he’s in love with his personal assistant. You can see where this is going, and the challenges I’m facing. The book, the story isn’t about the two becoming a couple. It’s not that sort of novel. But Matt is a normal human being with desires, a sex drive and a healthy heart with great empathy. But to what degree does he ‘understand’ love, does he realize that the emotions raging through him, are love? How does someone who’s never had sex, who’s never had sex ed understand a sexual drive? Babies, toddlers, have erections, it doesn’t mean they are horny. It’s just a physical reaction. But Matt thinks, he feels, and when his assistant massages his sore and tight muscles, he feels great, and things happen in his body.
The questions I’m grappling with right now, and I have time to figure it out, is how to put it onto the page, or not. What do I leave to the readers, what issues do I raise to do Matt justice? He is a human being, an amazing person, and he deserves nothing but the best treatment by his author. I hope to be done by Christmas. This is an important debate, a very complex one and not one that has easy answers. I’ve already discussed this online, on Facebook and seen some very helpful comments. Wish to contribute here? You’re most welcome to.
Crimea, 9/11, Hong Kong, racism, mass migration, global warming, etc.
The world is going down the drain
We live in troublesome times. The Internet’s profound impact on our lives, the individualization of society, the increasing divide between the haves and have nots. As a consequence of previous generations’ ravaging of the planet, global warming is about to wreck the world as we know it, leading to mass migration and human-induced mass extinction. On the other hand, family ties, social bonds are deteriorating rapidly, and we care less and less about those around us. It’s definitely the age of entitlement but the freedom we seek, yearn for, is in many aspects smaller than in previous decades. This might be a long post, so hang in as I try to look at the reasons why, various aspects of it, and what you and I can do to make a difference.
From individualization to entitlement, or how western societal control disappeared
Entitlement takes many forms…
It often amazes me how things have changed since I was a child. Mostly for the better, let me say that before I move on. However, when we abandoned our traditional “family values” and pretty much everything associated with it, we didn’t just rid ourselves of the “bad stuff”, such as control, that sons had to walk in their father’s shoes, that we weren’t allowed to marry whom we loved (some of us no one at all), honor killings, the honor system in the first place, etc. Unfortunately, we also rid ourselves of the positive aspects of familial/societal cohesion: people are lonelier than ever before, mental illness is galloping, grandparents no longer feel obligated to look after their grandkids while their parents work as they, too, are still finding themselves, children no longer care for ailing and/or aging parents, etc. Some of that is remedied by social and health services, but (and I could write a book about this, and I might…) at what cost?
No, I don’t think grandparents ‘have’ to look after their grandkids, but on the other hand, given increasing workloads and career expectations on parents, where’s the relief system? And while it’s a boon that we no longer have to live under the same roof with our elder generations, the lack of social cohesion in society is palpable. There are two sides to every coin, and when I look at my own society, I can see how many immigrant families have maintained that cohesion. Sadly, they also kept the negative aspects, such as honor concepts, non-acceptance of LGBTQ family members, traditional gender expectations, etc.
The extreme individualization we see in our society is visible everywhere: from traffic where everyone feels entitled to go first (regardless of what the law says), to the workplace where people tell their managers that they don’t “feel like” doing certain aspects of their jobs, despite the job description they once signed off on. We all want to be “influencers”, we expect our dream jobs to just fall in our laps regardless of qualifications, we are offended by everybody and everything, and rather than forgiving or giving people the benefit of the doubt, we cry racist, homophobe, islamophobe, etc. We react long before our neurons have had a chance to reflect on the situation to warrant if our reaction is a) warranted and b) appropriate/adequate for the situation. I sometimes wonder: do I have to let people know every single time they say something stupid? Why have we become so confrontational? We are, after all, humans and are prone to making mistakes. Unfortunately, this extreme individualization has dire consequences for our societies, few of which are positive… I’ll explore that in the rest of this post.
The Internet: from freedom of speech to mind control and indoctrination
One of the advantages of being “old” is that I remember the age before the Internet, albeit barely. When the Internet first became a thing, in the early nineties, we all saw it as this amazing thing that would help us become freer, liberated in ways never before possible. We imagined how the “unfree” around the world would be able to access information freely and how the masses would rise in China and elsewhere to demand freedom and democracy. Swell! Too bad it didn’t really work out that way. In an almost Orwellian way, the Internet has instead become a tool to control the masses. China’s great wall isn’t visible from the moon, but it certainly makes sure that the people of China only read and see what the party wants them to see. And while we, in the west, still have access to (mostly) everything, we have become so fat and complacent that we sit in our comfy reclining chairs, pizza slice in one hand, beer in the other, and happily allow us to be manipulated to believe exactly what we always wanted to believe. This bias, this preference to read/watch/hear that which we expect to hear is bad enough when the news/information is unbiased, but in a world where algorithms map our preferences to the t, we are easy targets for all kinds of misinformation and propaganda. Cambridge Analytica and their role in the 2016 US elections and Brexit are bad enough, but with recent advances in technology, so-called “deep fakes” will make your mother tell you in a facetime call that she’s really a mass murderer and by the way never gave birth to you. And since it’s your mother on the line you’ll never know the difference. Already, researchers have put the words of Hitler into the mouth of Obama. We are doomed! And we won’t even know it.
Is it hopeless? I’m not optimistic, but when we see something, hear something that is completely “out there”, it begs to check the source. Call your mom, make sure it was actually her placing the call. Visit her face to face. This is an extreme and unlikely example, but in politics, we’ll see this happen, sooner rather than later. Make sure you double-check and triple-check the source, their bias. Because, and this is crucial, there are always two sides to every story. Before you jump to conclusions, before you make up your mind, make sure you’ve heard at least two sides of it. Actively force your mind to weigh the pros and cons before you decide to cry foul.
Education, the key to a better future
We once understood the need for a good education. Today we need to know and understand things more than ever. Some people don’t want that.
The above is easier said than done. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, our cable news, heck even our favorite department stores all show us what they believe we want to see, hear, buy. Republicans tune into Fox, Democrats into MSNBC, safe to only hear good things about their own. Never to have their values and convictions challenged. To second-guess, to question is hard work, and it requires a basic level of education many of us don’t possess and even more can’t be bothered with.
For decades, school systems have been allowed to deteriorate around the world, at the same time as we know infinitely more now than when I went to school. Just last week, the Swedish school department suggested scrapping any and all history prior to 1700 to make room for contemporary history. People are up in arms. Imagine a child growing up with no basic concept of ancient Athens (cradle of democracy), Rome (basis to much of our legislative traditions, still, not to mention politics, philosophy, etc.), the dark ages, etc. With no understanding of the many wars that plagued us through the eons. How are we to understand contemporary history with not even a hint of ancient history (which goes further back and includes other cultures as well, mind you?)
There is a reason why some don’t want the broad masses to have access to education, to keep them malleable. I’ll use the Romans as an example: “bread and games” Look at a country like Singapore. People are generally content, even though the country doesn’t really know the freedom of speech or real democracy. But as long as people find employment and fun (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) they’re content. However, as soon as the subway stops working, the government faces riots. There are advantages for a system like Singapore’s: it’s extremely efficient and works, but at the expense of minorities. You’re fine if you’re a straight Chinese, but if you’re Malay or, worse, Indian, your choices in life are limited. And other minorities, like the LGBT community, are oppressed. All the while, the richest are getting richer and the poorest lag behind. Never before in human society has the gap between the most fortunate and those least fortunate been greater. And it’s all happened in the past forty years, give or take.
To limit access to education is a tool for the “haves”, of course. Keep the have nots docile. Those of us who want a better future for humanity need to counter that. We need to fight for the best possible education for everybody, regardless. No exception. Nobody gets to be left behind. A comprehensive, free education. We also need to teach our children the consequences of NOT having an education, and I think we need to broaden that discussion from mere career choices to include our civic duties. Education is, of course, not the only factor. Voting is another. And they’re correlated: the more we know, the more likely we are to vote! Gerrymandering, voter registration, and voter restrictions are other tools used to make sure fewer people vote, and again, education and the ability to navigate the shoals of bureaucracy greatly impact those least educated. The reasons why are glaringly obvious as they usually do not vote for those who steal from you.
There’s nothing I can do
It’s easy to feel hopeless these days…
Last Sunday I traveled from Liverpool to Manchester after a book launch. The direct train I was on, to avoid the worst of the traffic from the ongoing Tory party conference in Manchester, had no first-class seats. Suddenly I found myself in an environment I usually avoid. Minutes after boarding the train, two young men came in and sat down in front of me, loud music blaring from their phones. Their voices carried and they talked about stuff I didn’t really care about and most certainly didn’t want to listen to. I put on my earphones and zoned out, too. They quickly fell asleep, heads on the table, with no regard for the third passenger sitting with them. After a while, the conductor came to check our tickets and after having checked everyone else’s, he tried to wake those two. They didn’t respond for the longest time, and I’m unsure if by design or as a result of being drugged (they seemed fine when they boarded the train, but what do I know about drugs…) Police were called and I got to witness just how the world of the disenfranchised looks like. It was painful. And it got me thinking, a lot. What can I do to change their lives? How can I help people care about their lives? Worry about the climate when their only focus is the next fix? The next meal? Clothing their kids?
Can I blame the mom who buys the cheapest eggs, produced by hens in miserable conditions, while I soothe my conscience with organic ones? Can I blame the Appalachian miner who sports a MAGA hat, not realizing that his president’s “clean coal” is as likely to get him a job as the presidents ties ever being in fashion again? Can I blame the South Africans who decry immigration from other countries in the region because they can’t find work back home? Can I blame the illiteral Hindi farmer who kills his newborn daughter because he knows full well that he will barely be able to feed her, but never, ever have the money to marry her off?
We look at the world around us and it feels not only like an uphill, but an insurmountable task. At the same time storms become more deadly, temperatures increase and sea levels rise. It’s easy to get the impression that we are doomed! Yet giving up isn’t really an option, is it? We have to fight, for our own children and grandchildren, for our nieces and nephews, for our neighborhood children.
So, what can I do?
As long as the sun rises in the East, there is hope!
If ever there was a $64,000 dollar question, eh? I think the first thing is to not give up, not give in to the overwhelming feeling “we’re soo screwed!” Because there are plenty of things you and I can do. A change in attitude is the first thing. History teaches us that we can change our fortune. Just look at the American Revolution, the French one. While there were setbacks, in the end, democracy prevailed, and little by little, things got better. The civil rights movement, the 68-movement, and right now, the Friday school strikes are already making a difference.
But you don’t have to go on strike. There are other things you can do. Talk to your Representative, your MP, whoever represents you in your country’s parliament. There is a website listing their name, email and postal address. They might even have a phone. Their job is to represent you, even if you’ve never voted or if you voted for the other candidate(s) in the election. Talk to them, tell them about your concerns, your worries. Tell them what you expect from them. Believe me, it’s easier than you think. Do the same on your regional level, in your city. Talk about your schools, the retirement home your parents are in or let them know what isn’t working in your health care system. It is my experience that most parliamentarians (regardless of what level) welcome the contact to their constituents.
There’s so much more. Recycle. Such a simple thing. Don’t litter in nature. Eat less meat. Believe me, every little makes a difference. I recently read an article about how much microplastic ends up in our waters due to laundry cycles. The longer you wash, the worse it is. I had always flushed down the fibers stuck in my dryer in the toilet. OOPS! Not doing that again. A tiny change for me, walking the twenty extra steps to the trash can, but if we all do that? Imagine how grateful sealife will be for the difference we make. We are, after all, almost 10 billion people. Even if we all ate one less beef burger a week, replace it by something else, better, times billions… Suddenly you can see how even the smallest thing makes a difference.
But what changes to make?
That is where education comes in. Never stop learning. Read the papers, science section. Trust me, those journalists are trained to present difficult academic subjects so we, you and I, can understand. If a source is unknown, is known to be biased (your way or another way), make sure you double-check the article is credible. Google it. Find other sources to confirm. It’s not that hard and after a while, it’ll become second nature.
You can also engage those less fortunate. This is probably the most important, the single most difficult thing we will need to do. We can’t wait for politics to introduce great education for everyone. There was a reason why we once said that everyone should be able to read, write and do math. Duh! But so many still can’t. More now than decades ago, right here in the west. But what good does it do to read if you don’t do so? Our kids brains yearn for the stimuli from their phones and pads, rather than stimulate them with a good book. You can change that. Read aloud! Insist! Really, I mean it. Read for fifteen minutes every day until your child is old enough to read on their own. Then make sure they read a book for a half-hour every day. Soon they’ll be so engrossed in the story they’ll ask you to stay up just a little longer… I know, author optimism here, but I can see how children’s minds are wide open to embrace the imagination books spark. So much more than adults.
But it’s not just kids, is it? It’s our neighbors, our friends. If they give voice to uneducated views, if they speak up against science, engage them. Not aggressively, don’t be condescending, judgemental. Try to understand WHY they feel like they do. Don’t tell them “you’re wrong…” (that’ll only make them reinforce that view), but listen. Then try to offer an alternative view, how their lives can improve, what they can do themselves, without scapegoating, hating, blaming. Possibly help them take the first baby step.
Is there hope for humankind?
Do we have a choice? Can we let things go to hell? If we don’t act, things will get worse. The dark forces that divide us for short-term profit mustn’t be allowed to win. We have enough food to feed all of humankind. There is enough creativity to solve climate change challenges, to slow global warming, halt the mass extinciton of plant and animal species. But we all need to act, beginning with ourselves. Don’t be complacent, don’t give up.
When I began to write my latest books about The Golden One, I knew little about how dire things really are out there. I say that despite having a post graduate education, despite reading several newspapers every single day, despite considering myself engaged in current events around the world. But immersing myself into the animal world, to hear my hero Jason speak to animals, widened my understanding for our planet, our ecosystems. It widened my empathic senses.
A tick. A nuisance, but do you understand it’s place in Mother Nature’s pyramid?
When I saw that spider trapped in my bathtub I wasn’t just sensing disgust and fear of the animal, I was also able to understand how it must feel, the panic of being trapped, unable to escape the white hell of my tub. Rescuing it made me a better human being. Just a couple of days ago I removed a tick who’d been sucking blood from one of our cats. The poor creature began to crawl away on the bathroom floor, probably in a panic, dragging her heavy, bloodfilled body alog the smooth surface. Rather than flushing her down the toilet, like I had done countless times before, I picked her up and released her outdoors. I know that ticks, too, have a role to play in Mother’s great pyramid. Just because I don’t understand that role doesn’t mean I get to play God. Silly, you say? Stupid even, given the diseases ticks carry? Possibly, but even viruses and bacteria play important roles in culling populations, making sure that the fittest survive. Humanity has long ago stepped away from that pyramid, and we control it. But that doesn’t mean we understand it, treat it with respect. The current extinction event points to the contrary.
Is there hope? As bleak as things may look right now, I emphatically maintain that we have no choice. We must remain optimistic. I for one will struggle to the bitter end to make sure my son has a bright future, but not only he, but every living thing on this planet. We are all connected to each other and only together can we thrive.
“To write dance, to dance writing” or how one author was in for a huge surprise!
Cyprus, 1977, a Sunwing resort, lots of Swedish families vacationing, lots of partner swapping going on. My memories of the vacation are sketchy, but a few things are still clearly in my mind: all the empty bottles of booze and wine neatly (sic!) lined up outside hotel rooms and all the angry stares from women at each other at the breakfast buffet as they returned to their own partners after a night away in someone else’s room. As a Swiss, I had never experienced anything like it. The other memory is still etched into every fiber of my body and always will be “bada-bum-bada-ba, bada-bum-bada-bada-bada-bum, bada-bum-bada-bum, ba, ba, ba!” The opening beats of my all-time favorite song: Gimme, gimme, gimme by, yeah, you’re right, very Swedish ABBA. Every night at the hotel’s disco, I’d ask the DJ to play an ABBA song, and every night he’d look at me as if I’d just requested a song only known in the most obscure outskirts of another galaxy.
Until one night, I had already given up hope to ever hear Waterloo, Ring Ring or any other of their early hits, I suddenly hear these beats, for the very first time (the song had just been released) and my body involuntarily began to move itself to the dance floor. I couldn’t help it. I was dancing, ten-year-old Hansli was dancing and crying and felt happier than ever before in his life. Elated, in extasy. Today we’d say “on a trip”, but it was simply induced by the beats of my favorite band. I vowed that night, that no matter where, no matter when, if ever there was to an ABBA tune played on a dance floor, I’d get up and dance along. Forty-two years later, I’m happy to report that I’ve kept that solemn promise to myself. And yeah, no song will ever be able to replace this one as my number one.
You’ve seen nothing yet
Fast-forward to 2019 and a gray half-cold September day in Gothenburg, where now graying me walks into a workshop for a project that I had recently been accepted to participate in. Let me cut and paste the description to give you the same info that I had at the time:
“To write dance and to dance writing is a project that transcends genres through the exploration of the choreography of text, with dance and the written word as starting points. The project has an overall LGBTQI theme, focusing on relationships between people of all ages, gender identities, and functional capacities.”
I’m a prosaist, not a lyricist, not a choreographer. I’ve barely begun this post and I’m already some four-hundred-thirty words into it. Being wordy is a novelist’s blessing. I know from writing children’s books just how much more difficult it is to write concise, precise. I admire the great lyricists of the world, people whose poetry has been moving us ever since the dawn of time. Consider this example from around 1180 AD:
Dû bist mîn, ich bin dîn.
des solt dû gewis sîn.
dû bist beslozzen
in mînem herzen,
verlorn ist das sluzzelîn:
dû muost ouch immêr darinne sîn.
It’s one of the oldest love poems known in Germany, yet the imagery it evokes is so strong. To get an opportunity to actually write with real dancers performing those words, and to be inspired by the dance I behold to write more? What a rare opportunity. I had to try to be a part of it. Luckily, I managed to get accepted and today we embarked on a journey, unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before.
I inspire you to be inspired to inspire me so that I may be inspired by you.
The organizing organization
Makes total sense, right? For today’s workshop, the three Swedish participants were paired with an author offsite, one in Iceland, one in Norway and one in England. I was paired with English writer Claire Carter, who is a writer, dancer, and choreographer in her own right. We began to talk and I sent her a couple of items that I hoped might inspire her. In return, she sent me a poem and the amazing text she’d crafted based on my cue. It came very late yesterday, after a typical “parent of small child” day, but I had already begun to work on a text in case I’d not get anything from Claire in time. However, based on the two texts (I was unable to completely disregard hers) I rewrote mine almost completely, and by eight am this morning, I felt I had something good enough to send back and to forward to the project team.
Everyone local to Gothenburg met at ten this morning: three curious writers, three professional dancers and three more people from the project team. First, we participated in a workshop with Norwegian choreographer Marie Bergby Hegeland. She had done a project with Norwegian authors who volunteered to dance their books. After seeing some of that work and getting to understand the process involved, it was time for us to get dirty, aka get down on the floor and dance. Mind you, it’s intimidating enough to have four pros around you, plus a well-known choreographer, but to simply get up and start to move to Marie’s instructions was somehow beyond words. It all happened so fast, it came so unexpected that I simply didn’t have time to react, physically or emotionally. The entire workshop was filmed and will be made available as in excerpts to the other participants, along the lines of “what happens in the studio stays in the studio… and online!”
Go with the flow
I closed my eyes mostly and stayed away, in a corner, at first. We began shaking hands, then shaking arms, heads, shoulders, chests, hips, legs and knees. For a good fifteen minutes, we simply moved, shaking like leaves. Initially, I was feeling very self-conscious, stupid even (Marie asked us to internalize the first word that came to mind. The prosaist had to double the dosage…) But after a while, as we moved on to other movements, and even began to interact with others, the weirdest thing happened. While I had to consciously control with of my extremities to shake, after a while of moving about and going with the flow, even interacting with two of the others around me, I simply moved, to Marie’s voice and the music, and strangely enough, pictures began to pop up in my head, like a feedback loop of sorts. Quite extraordinary. The entire exercise of us dancing lasted a good hour and a half. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so much, so erratically, for such a long time. Extraordinary. Scary. Delightful.
After lunch, we began to read the texts that the authors had prepared. I was floored by the quality of the writing. Excellent pieces, each one (well, I can’t really say that about mine, but yeah, the others are really good.) We tested a bunch of different approaches, reading and moving straight away, having different people read each text, reading and then moving, etc. Some of the texts were very physical in nature, others were more emotional to their form. It was exhilarating.
Literal, performance, duet, what will it be?
After a short coffee break, we were paired with a dancer each and Izabell, my dance partner, and I sat down in the studio’s kitchen to chat about mine and Claire’s texts, and how we might morph them from text to dance. With Claire’s text, I could see (from my cues) where she’d taken inspiration from, and it is a very physical text, inviting to move to it. I tried to do the same, but I have to say that I am so “stuck” in the history of how the text came to be, its inspiration, that anything I do, will be quite literal. At first, I refused to tell Izabell where my text comes from and what it ‘means’. I wanted her to think and associate freely, Interestingly, she’d come up with quite an interesting take, death, which will provide my friends at my publisher’s a chuckle. I can see her point though, even though I might word it more as a metamorphosis than actual death (which it isn’t btw.)
We began to move around each other at the kitchen table and test out different things before we moved back into the studio where we tried out both texts in motion. Quite intriguing. We finished off our session by me reading both texts, very slowly, and Izabell improvising a dance. She’s very good at it, and quite non-literal. I did discover, however, that by splitting each row of our texts differently, in segments of two to four words, I was able to direct Izabell, to cue her. This would also involve my intonation, enunciation, etc. That experience inspired me, of course, to think ahead, and be mindful (or not) about how I assemble sentences, words, how I deconstruct meaning and put it back together, differently, to get the dance to go off elsewhere.
There is so much more
I could go on, and on, and on. I could talk about a discussion Claire and I had about the most difficult aspect of dance, how the dancer can get in the way of the dance, and how anything, from music to clothing and the stage can interfere, underline or contradict the message of the dance itself. But alas, you don’t have eight hours, you don’t need to either. I’m sure I’ll be able to report back as this project evolves. The culmination will be next spring with a series of concerts/performances across West Sweden and Oslo. And as scary as the thought might be right now, you might just end up seeing me dance on stage. I choose not to ponder on that aspect quite yet. Yet part of me wishes to be back tomorrow and dance. Instead, I will board a plane toward Liverpool to attend the launch of my latest book. It almost seems like a different life now. Almost.
Before I let you go, here’s the text I had written up for today. I can’t share the others for copyright purposes.
Cowering in the dark, alone
A chameleon, hiding in plain sight
At first, you can’t see it, the light
It cuts through cracks in the dark
Extending toward you, caressing you
Dare you reach out? Dare you touch it?
In time you step out from that dark
and as you spread your delicate wings
Your soul takes flight, at last.