Writing as resistance

International Women’s Day, 2017.

Words matter.

Language matters.

Stories matter.

History matters.

I’ve often said that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction: pirate tales for kids that are really about slavery and rebellion, or adventures for young adults about freedom of the press, refugees, and religious intolerance. Always political. Always diverse. Always driven but never preachy. Or so I hope. Stories about women and girls.

But now, now, the writing and the purpose feels so much more urgent, the need more extreme.

It so happens that in the middle of months of protests and outrage, my little book about a similar time in local history has come out into the world – a book about a previous generation that found itself taking to the streets in huge numbers, compelled to take action by a world, by an idea, that could not be denied.

UK suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Or many ideas. Here in Australia, a hundred years ago, it was the principle that nobody should be compelled to go to war against their will.  That nations should seek options other than military action. The 1916 and 1917 plebiscites on conscription were incredibly divisive and the scars of that debate lasted for generations. In 1917 there was also the Great Strike, food shortage protests, arrests and demonstrations and censorship of the press.

In Russia, of course, the situation was even worse. On International Women’s Day 1917, women protested in the streets of Petrograd about food rationing and the endless war. Factory workers went on strike, and eventually the armed forces mutinied, refusing to shoot protesters. The February Revolution* had begun  but in the meantime it changed the war, changed the country, and changed the world.**

Maybe 2017 doesn’t feel so tumultuous. But I can’t remember too many times like this. Every day more outrages from leaders in various countries. Every day more outrage.

More protests.

There are divisions among us, of course and as always. There is anger about unrecognised privilege, dissent about how best to make our arguments, or even which arguments to make – which battles to fight.

But still, there are millions of feet marching, in cities and sites around the world, in defence of fragile freedoms of all kinds.

Some of us have always had to fight. Some have returned to the fray. Some people find themselves out marching in the streets or arguing online or writing in despair for the first time.

This moment – these dying days, I hope, these death rattles of a panicked privileged few – seems to be one of those moments in time where great change could happen.

And that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.

BOO!

 

*February in the Julian calendar.

** For better or worse or both.

 

A few thoughts on gender in YA

Was it only last week I spent days live-tweeting the 2013 Reading Matters conference? I didn’t have time or head space to add any thoughts of my own at the time, so here are a few now.

A great line-up of authors debated a wide range of issues but there were a couple of thorny topics that just wouldn’t go away – as usual, chief among them was gender.

A few questions almost always come up in conferences, seminars and conversations, especially with school or children’s librarians and teachers, such as:

  • How do we get boys to read?
  • Why don’t boys read books with female protagonists?
  • Why do the book covers aim at readers of particular genders?

I can’t pretend to be able to answer those questions, but I do want to reflect on how and why the questions and answers are framed.

Many times I’ve listened to an author try to answer the question ‘How do we get boys to read?’ I get asked it myself, all the time. I sympathise, I really, do, because I understand that it can be very frustrating for professionals and parents. But…

1. You are asking the wrong person. Just about every author ever asked that question answers something along the lines of: I just write the stories I need to tell. Some are aimed at boys, some are aimed at girls, some are neutral.

2. Some of the gendering is about the package – the cover, the blurb, the author’s gender or name, the marketing, the industry, socialised reader expectations, the context of both reader and book. Sometimes that’s perfectly appropriate. Often it’s not. Take a look at some examples in Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip experiment if you doubt it.

From the Coverflip experiment

3. Boys do read. They read all sorts of stuff. Even those who read according to strict gender stereotypes immerse themselves in narrative through games and movies; they may love non-fiction; they read basketball magazines or music blogs or comics; they read facebook and use the web and their phones; and they do endless amounts of homework. They might not read my books or other books with girls on the cover – which is a different question – but that’s not the same as not reading at all. Not everyone has to read the same thing.

4. There are actually many authors who do consciously write for boys. Without even reaching for names I can think of Keith Gray, Jack Heath, Brian Falkner, Richard Newsome – not to mention the bulk of the Western canon.

So here is the most important thing: The entire world is constructed for boys. Can we stop pretending they are some oppressed minority, stop asking us to arrange the stories we write and publish to their (perceived) narrow interests?

Suck it up, guys. As Gayle Forman asked at Reading Matters: “Why is it acceptable for a girl to enter a male world but not the opposite?”

Why do we accept that world-view so carefully constructed for them by society?

Why is it too much to ask a boy or young man to see through other eyes? Does it mean you can’t ask them to see through anyone else’s eyes – to read about anything outside their own experience? And if so, what does that say about how we are framing the future?

Are you telling me that a fourteen year-old boy can relate readily to a hobbit or an assassin or a forty year-old man, but not a girl?

I don’t believe that.

At Reading Matters, Libba Bray said: “There are not boy books or girl books. There are just books.”

I think that’s true, to an extent, although there are some stories and some authors who do aim their books at one gender or the other, just as we aim our books at certain age groups, quite consciously, depending on the story. Keith Gray writes for boys, hoping, he said at the conference, not to alienate female readers.

As Miffy Farquharson tweeted during the conference: “Teacher-librarians are good at ‘guessing’ what young people would like to read. Often it’s just ‘a good book’.”

Readers are always asked to make imaginative leaps – into fantasy worlds, or along ziplines between buildings, or into the past. We might be asked to read the story of someone we despise or can’t trust. Female readers constantly take the imaginative leap into the minds of male characters.  Kids who are queer may spend their entire lives seeing the world through the eyes of straight characters.  Happily, there is now a greater diversity in stories and characters than ever before, so that young readers from different cultural backgrounds or life experiences can find some stories that reflect their world. But much of the time, they’ll be reading about someone completely Other, and they relate – they find some imaginative or emotional connection with those characters, they see something in those lives that makes sense for them, they read to witness another world, another way of seeing. Vikki Wakefield noted in one panel: “Age and gender do not define a reader.”

The world is filled with different perspectives and readers get to experience those perspectives, to see the world through different eyes – to see new worlds, feel unfamiliar sensations and emotions. If boys don’t get to do that, never make those leaps, they’re missing out dreadfully. They can do it – of course they can. They do it all the time – even the most stereotypical readers or gamers or movie-goers imagine themselves into pirate ships or D-Day or Westeros. “If we do our job properly,” said  Morris Gleitzman on one panel, “boys will read girl characters.”

Calling for narratives that support that limited world view only perpetuates the problem – for the boys, and for the rest of the world. It continues to limit them, reduces their world view and doesn’t even echo back to them the world in which they live. Nor does it recognise the diverse lives and experiences of young males in our world, as if they are never outsiders, as if they are never readers, as if they don’t share the same fears and hopes and emotions as everyone else. It defines them as people who will only read The Guinness Book of Records or short action-driven stories (not that there’s anything wrong with either). But as Gleitzman noted: ‘There’s not a boy on this planet that doesn’t understand love gone wrong”.

And…

Why do we always end up  here? What about discussing the girls who are struggling? The  boys who love to read? The girls who consume books? The girls who love to read adventures and war stories and fight scenes? The readers who read regardless of gendered covers or narratives or protagonists?

Why do we always end up here in spite of the fact that every available piece of research tells us that books featuring female protagonists and/or by women authors are less likely to be in the big prize shortlists; that they are less likely to be reviewed; that women are less likely to be writing the reviews; that in spite of the huge proportion of women authors, publishers, teachers and librarians, the people most often in the positions of decision-making power are men – totally out of proportion to the number of men in the industry (as is the case with most other industries where women are in the majority, such as teaching)?

Why, in spite of all that research, would someone perfectly sensible like Keith Gray suggest at Reading Matters that books for or about boys suffer discrimination due to the “female domination” of the book industry – and why would a whole lot of women in the audience agree? What is that about?

Final word to the brilliant Gayle Forman: “If Harry Potter had been about Hermione, it probably wouldn’t have been such a success.”

Case rests. For now.

 

 

Note: These are my views as a writer and reader, not in my capacity as a Library person.

Classy entertainment

I’ve been thinking lately about the tradition of the working class as entertainment, those fictional and cinematic ventures into the foreign world of the East End or Fountain Gate, where life is hard but people have hearts of gold and everyone has a good belly laugh at everyone else’s expense.

There’s nothing new about this, of course, and the idea of a different class as a foreign country filled with entertaining specimens of The Other is not confined to the downtrodden. You could argue that The Great Gatsby does exactly the same thing, casting an essentially middle-class gaze on the upper echelon, while Captains Courageous teaches a pampered boy rude lessons of life and death through friendship with a poor fisherman. On the long march through the snow Pierre finds the answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything in the form of an old Russian soldier and a little white dog. The Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam switch roles in life (at least economically) with comic and tragic consequences, and the face of conspicuous consumption, Mrs Merdle, learns to live with less (or perhaps not).

Image of Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit at the gate of the Marshalsea

In all of those examples class conflict or difference is intrinsic to the story and its characters. You’d think we might be over that whole storyline by now, but no.

In Call the Midwife, a British TV series set in the East End in the 1950s,  we see the world through the eyes of the middle-class Jenny Lee. There is great poverty, cockroaches and preventable illness in the tenements (unchanged from Dickens’ day), prostitution and violence, huge families living on nothing but love, washing lines everywhere, screaming babies, lessons for young Jenny at every turn. The show (and presumably the memoir by Jennifer Worth on which it is based, which I haven’t read) has an equal amount of fun at the expense of Chummy, the plummy hyphenated do-gooder who grew up in India and can ride a horse to hounds but not a bicycle. Jenny Lee learns about friendship, love, hardship, courage and loss from people she would normally never meet. She comes to see the women as “heroines” not “slatterns”. But she is essentially on a visit to another world.

Image of Call the Midwife

Jenny Lee confronted with family life in the East End

Then there’s Downton Abbey, which I love, but which on one hand paints a world where immense privilege is only sustained by the hard work and moral fibre of those who pour the claret and polish the silver; and on the other hand tries to blur those class lines through dialogue and plot points which any real earl’s family would never have considered. Involve the housemaid in your affairs? Only as an accessory. Vice versa? Don’t be absurd.

In the revisionist world of Downton, we want to believe that the upstairs family members are so fundamentally good that they care deeply about the lives of those downstairs, that the household is enmeshed in one narrative, not two. Not even Tolstoy would have argued such a thing. Sure, no earl wants his daughter becoming a suffragette and running off with the chauffeur. But no earl would involve himself in the affairs of those below stairs, and nor would his family. They’d hardly have noticed the servants at all. Still, we can’t have that in Downton, can we?

Image of Downton Abbey

Her Ladyship dancing with Carson the butler

Closer to home, in every way, is Kath and Kim, the comedy series now become a movie. This focuses on the lives of the second- and third-generation post-war working class: as if the babies born in Call the Midwife and their kids all migrated to suburban Melbourne and got a perm. Which is not unlikely.

I never laugh at Kath and Kim. I tried to watch it in the early days, because I enjoy the work of the three comediennes behind it. But many of the jokes at the expense of the characters simply aren’t funny to me: when I was growing up everyone pronounced film as fillum, after all, so what’s hilarious about that? I just don’t get the jokes because they are about my generation, the people who migrated from Port Melbourne (our local equivalent of the East End) to Springvale or Mitcham or Sunshine, and from there to Berwick or Deer Park or – yes, Fountain Gate.

This has been playing on my mind over the last few weeks, and this morning I read this from Nigel Bowen in The Age:

Over the last decade and a half, the educated have had to make the painful adjustment to living in a society where aspirationals often out-earn them and largely determine the political agenda. Like galled aristocrats confronted by a rising merchant class, their typical response has been to snigger at the tastelessness of the newly affluent. Kath & Kim does this more gently than much of the “cashed-up bogan” comedy but it still does it. The malapropisms, mispronunciations and mixed metaphors of the characters allow the university-educated to chuckle at those who don’t understand the hilarious implications of wanting to be effluent rather than affluent. Many of them would see Kim – bloated by junk food, addicted to tabloid media, bedazzled by hyper-consumerism, utterly self-absorbed – as a portrayal rather than a grotesque caricature.

Bowen divides us between educated and aspirational, and it makes sense now our class sensibilities are less finely-tuned than they were a generation ago. But the cultural division runs deeper than that, and many of the university-educated people of my age are only able to be so due to that one brief shining moment of free tertiary education that jump-started a generation of kids (like me and our Prime Minister) into the professional class. Those who went before us never had the chance to finish school. Those who came after are still paying off their HECS debts. (God knows what will happen to those wanting a TAFE or university education in the next few years.)

There is inherent goodwill in Little Dorrit and in Call the Midwife. The reader or viewer in a comfortable armchair can engage at a safe distance with the lives of such exotic creatures as East End warfies or the inmates of the Marshalsea Prison, just as you might watch Michael Palin visiting the Bedouin or a David Attenborough doco. There is warmth, understanding, respect and as much likelihood of tragedy as comedy. Even in the long-running British series Keeping Up Appearances, one character’s snobbery was comic but everyone else was relatively normal.

Is one of the issues with Kath and Kim that aspiration isn’t a joke unless you are looking down on it from above?

Remember that Pulp song?

Sing along with the common people,
sing along and it might just get you thru’
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you
and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.

Image of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim and conspicuous consumption

I see it through a slightly different lens. It’s a grand thing that my generation can watch Kath and Kim on their enormous plasma TVs in their McMansions in Cranbourne or Templestowe. Our grandparents would be so proud that all those hours in factories and on the wharf or on dusty Greek farms have meant that later generations can buy a house, have a car or two or three, a lawn to mow.

The conspicuous consumption lampooned in Kath and Kim is, in part, a way of staving off future fear, of saying “Look how far we’ve come – we made it into the lower-middle class!”, of celebrating the fruits of the labours of many generations. But clearly being lower-middle class isn’t good enough. It’s almost white trash, but with al fresco dining.

In a very silly book called How to be Inimitable, George Mikes wrote (in 1960):

The one class you do not belong to and are not proud of at all is the lower-middle class. No one ever describes himself as belonging to the lower-middle class. Working class, yes; upper-middle class: most certainly; lower-middle class: never! Lower-middle class is, indeed, per definitionem, the class to which the majority of the population belongs with the exception of the few thousand people you know.

(As an aside, lower-middle class is probably what the ALP means when it bangs on about working families. But the global financial crisis has meant that plenty of people who thought they had “risen” to be middle-class have found that their footing there is tenuous. That’s why Obama is readjusting the American Dream so that people aspire not to be Donald Trump but to be, more realistically, middle-class, as it was after the Depression and as it is now in countries such as India and China. That’s partly why the Republicans can’t quite figure out how to respond – they’re still stuck on the Trump narrative. And it’s unsettling for those of us whose youth was spent resisting becoming bourgeois.)

The characters in Kath and Kim aren’t on the bread line: they go to the mall and buy dreadful clothes and drink middling wine. Kath doesn’t have to take her father’s good pair of trousers down to the pawnbroker every second Friday to get a couple of shillings to see the family through to pay day. The telly can be bought from a store, rather than the local fence. Nobody need be in jail for running a bookie outfit on the side, or run from the coppers down the back lanes, or do a midnight flit because the rent’s due. That wasn’t true for their parents and grandparents.

The real Kaths of this world know what it was like, even if their kids don’t: they’ve been told the stories, perhaps lived the reality and they never want to be in that situation again. They don’t need to watch Call the Midwife to know how poverty looks. Many people in Australian suburbs know exactly how it feels – if only poverty had vanished along with the perm.

Sure, I’m as ridiculously susceptible to unrealistic nostalgia about the East End or Station Pier as the next person. One day I might even write about it. I loved the vaudeville singalongs of my childhood, and all the stories about uncles fighting bare knuckle bouts in someone’s front parlour, about the brawls at the cinema on Saturday nights, the black market deals, the SP bookies and two-up games in the alley behind our house. I love how my grandmother made everyone’s wedding dresses by hand and the women always tried to look like fillum stars when they were going out on the town.

But I also know that Uncle Phil lived on rabbits and little else up country in the Depression, that our family’s name was written in the pawn shop register every fortnight (‘one good tablecloth – linen’), that my grandfather had no proper boots until he went to work at 13.

I bet that was just hilarious.

An Australian literary voice?

Attended a panel this morning at the always excellent Emerging Writers’ Festival on the idea of an Australian literary voice: “Does one exist? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative…?” Panellists were Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Stephanie Convery, Bruce Pascoe and Lily Yulanti Farid.

First, the panellists all argued that the idea of AN Australian voice is problematic, that the prevalent voices aren’t representative, and some questioned the very notion of a nationalist voice or the need for one.

The speakers were all great and came at the topic from different perspectives – no consensus as such, just lots of unpacking, because it’s all too much to fit into an hour’s discussion. I think it’s fair to say there’s pain around this issue, and Mohammed hinted that he gets a bit of grief for raising the issue in some forums – which I can well imagine.

I’ve been thinking about all that since, so here are a few thoughts and questions.

What we often think of as national literature is about place, right? Mohammed used the example of Irish literature: we know what that means,  we know more or less who it includes.

In a sense that’s true: I immediately pictured Irish literature and it looked a bit like an old postcard of Galway Bay.

But I bet that there are a whole lot of Irish writers who feel excluded from the idea of Irish literature.

Surely the same discussions go on in Ireland and England and France and a whole range of other countries too.  Don’t you reckon? Remember when the Zadie Smith or Monica Ali generation of young British writers exploded on to the scene? English literature was not just Dorset or the Lakes District any more –  or even Bloomsbury – it was also the East End and North London. Wow. Mind-blowing. But the post-war novelists got the same reaction.

So is ours a different thing because it’s much more exclusive? Could be. Or is there a fundamental question in there for us about the Australian sense of place and the way in which that comes through in the books we prize (not necessarily the books we write)?

This country most prizes – awards, discusses, reviews, quotes, studies, canonises – writing about the mythical place of the colonial or post-colonial bush. (Though it should also be said we don’t necessarily buy the most awarded books  in great numbers, if at all – but the books sold in the millions are often concerned with the colonial past or the bush too.)

That obsession won’t go away, I think, until there is a genuine and deep reconciliation with the truth of dispossession. We have a long way to go before that permeates enough to change the way non-Indigenous Australians see and mythologise and engage creatively with the land.

The people writing about place differently include Kim Scott, of whom Alison Ravenscroft wrote recently:

In his hands, even the country—the mountain itself—is differently shaped: it is a different thing. In That Deadman Dance we are told of the mountain that sheltered Wabalanginy: ‘like an insect among the fallen bodies of ancestors, he huddled in the eye sockets of a mountainous skull and became part of its vision, was one of its thoughts’ (52). Rocks are fallen ancestors, country is a body, to travel is to journey beside animated ancestors. Scott is not telling the same old story, populated with men and women who are remarkably recognisable to white readers as a version of ourselves, or familiar from our fantasies of our others. His writing calls his white readers to suspend our belief in our own knowledge of the smell, shape and sound of the world; he calls readers like myself into stories that are unbelievable (to me), impossible, implausible, even as they are ‘true story’ for his Indigenous protagonists. He invites us to bear the unbelievable, to stay with it until it morphs into another shape.

The good news is that sometimes when a beautifully written perspective like  That Deadman Dance or Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria comes along, it is embraced. That’s not true for all or even many writers – no matter how good their work – who are marginalised or excluded by that nationalist myth, or who simply chose to write about something completely different or in a completely different style.

The other most significant place is suburbia or the bourgeois world – that’s a subversion of the bush myth in one way, but it’s also traditional in our literature (Patrick White, for instance, or Christina Stead) and also in realist  writing generally.

Others have written and spoken about the issues involved with the supposed national identity and gender, especially lately. It appears that male writers focused on suburbia are in the Best in Show literary category, while women writers who focus on suburbia are doing Women’s Writing, and the writing  that is most often awarded is predominately written by straight white men about the outback. There are statistics, there are arguments, there’ll be a little bit of movement here and there. That sound you hear is heads banging against brick walls.

So there are simple answers to the questions raised for this morning’s panel. No, there is not AN Australian voice, it’s just that some voices are prized over others. Those that are most prized fit into a certain canon and that canon will have to change if only so we don’t get bored to death. The other voices (which is, let’s face it, just about everyone) are sometimes in danger of being drowned out, and we have to do a whole lot more to support them.

But I feel optimistic that there are enough people who want to hear them, and that when they do, they will realise how much more interesting and glorious a choir can be instead of that guy on the street corner singing Eagles covers.

Because when you think about it, Irish literature includes as diverse a range of writers as Childers, Stoker, Somerville & Martin, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw,  O’Casey, Beckett, Wilde, O’Brien, Heaney,  Enright, Binchy, Trevor, Banville and Tóibín. You don’t see all of them banging on about Galway Bay.

Every day is women’s day

Another International Women’s Day.

First, let’s celebrate all the astonishing change that has happened in the last few decades with a little Aretha.

I remember when that song came out. If you ever doubt that art can change the world, remember that song.

I remember the International Year of Women in 1975. I was in high school (yes, I’m rather old) and it had a huge effect on me, and on the world. I remember televised debates featuring Eve Mahlab. I remember the badges and t-shirts and rallies, and also the backlash.  I remember reading The Female Eunuch – God knows what I made of some of it, since I was 15 or so. I remember reading the poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Judith Wright and Audre Lorde. I remember feeling like my life – the whole world – was shifting, and it was. I remember my great aunt Madge, a veteran of the women’s peace movements in World War One, telling me: You’re just like we were.

I remember so many IWD rallies of the 80s, remember speaking at one (it must have been 1983) in the pouring rain, and I remember our current Prime Minister in attendance. I remember being abused by bystanders as we walked down Swanston Street with our banners. I remember fighting with countless numbers of men in suits in boardrooms about childcare, about discrimination, about at least keeping their stupid bosom jokes to themselves.

And now look. So much has changed. Yet so much hasn’t. So far.

(Here’s Kirsten Tranter on Why Women Writers Get a Smaller Slice of Pie, for example.)

I feel like every day we need to focus on what more needs to be done, and that’s just as it should be. But maybe we should keep this one day for celebrating and reflecting.

So today I’m remembering Madge and her sisters and my great-grandmother and her friend Vida Goldstein and that whole stroppy generation. I’m remembering the generations of strong women in my own family who  didn’t want to make a fuss about it, but did change the world anyway – just by example. I’m remembering the women who marched beside me, then and always. I’m remembering the poets and the visionaries.

And I’m grateful.

Freedom of the press

Sometimes things happen in the real world that are so weird, you really wouldn’t write about it. Because who would believe you?

It’s been a bit like that lately. Here are just a few wild media events:

  • Wikileaks.
  • News of the World.
  • Social media supporting protests in countries everywhere – especially the Middle East.

All quite bizarre at times and terribly, terribly modern.

Or not. These are extensions of activities that have been central to the life of a great deal of the world for centuries – millennia.

Granted, there weren’t too many bloggers in Damascus in the seventeenth century, but there have always been rabble-rousers, trouble-makers, idealists and writers whose words have spread far and wide, whose ideas and discussions have ignited unrest or provocative debates or even revolutions.

Socrates. Luther. Spinoza. Galileo. Jefferson. Those kinds of ratbags.

You know where I’m going with this. People have always dreamed and written and published their thoughts and beliefs and aspirations, whether on clay tablets or parchment or – in recent centuries – in mass media such as the pamphlets that swirled around London in the 1640s or Paris before the Terror.

For everyone one of those ratbags, there’s someone trying to shut them up – or down: authorities burning books or burning authors, excommunicating or exiling people, throwing authors and teachers into prison or camps or dungeons, banning books and media outlets.

In many of the countries in the world today, the situation is not so extreme. But let me just unpack that: I was going to write “most countries” but then realised, I don’t even know if that’s true, numerically. There are writers, journalists, artists, bloggers, whistle-blowers and teachers in prison or exiled or in danger in dozens of countries around the world right now.

Even in the liberal democracies, the immediate political response to a Wikileaks or a controversial artist is banning. Often it’s just a play to the tabloids which, as we know, are peerless upholders of intellectual integrity. Even in the liberal democracy in which I live, Australia, there’s no constitutional right to free speech.

In the media, slippery slopes head off in all directions. Anyone, like me, who has spent any time in commercial media – print or online – can tell you that every day, every week, is a battle between editorial and sales/marketing teams about what messages are acceptable, from the annoying pop-up ad campaigns on your website to the pressure not to report on certain issues, or not to publish letters critical of advertisers.

In too many countries, that pressure is about not being critical of authorities or political movements or organised crime or businesses or religious leaders – and in far too many places, you ignore that pressure at your peril. Yet people still do. And many still die.

Yes, this is what my novel Act of Faith is all about. It’s set in the 1640s, when the Parliament in England and the Catholic Church in Rome were as keen on burning or jailing dissidents as each other. When I wrote it, I knew there were parallels happening around the world – what’s fascinating is how many of the debates are now at the forefront of public discourse. Or they should be.

  • What does freedom of the press really mean?
  • How do we ensure freedom of expression, and of belief, in a multicultural/transnational publishing world?
  • What freedoms should be embedded in the fabric of a free and independent nation?
  • (Is ‘nation’ itself an outdated concept when it comes to information?)

And why, oh why, do we seem to be moving backwards? In 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the frenzy that destroyed so many great thinkers, writers, artists, activists and musicians along with millions of other souls, the United Nations declared:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

– Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

It really is that simple.