Just saw a tweet from Salon: “Chris Rock had a chance to make a powerful statement at the Oscars, but blew it.” That address might not have been everyone’s cup of tea – I didn’t watch it – but there does seem something strange about the way that marginalised groups are expected to sing for their supper quite so often, and win the day with soaring rhetoric. It shouldn’t fall to Chris Rock to make the Powerful Statement. Everyone knows the arguments for greater diversity in Hollywood – they are robust whether you make them in moral or economic terms, and they have been the subject of opinion pieces and documentaries for years. So what about the white media executives? When is the last time one of them gave a Powerful Statement in the media saying that this is all a disgrace and has to change? What about the chance they have to make Powerful Statements with fair hiring policies every single week? It is time for them to start talking, and to stop hiding behind whether Chris Rock phrases his jokes perfectly or not. Because, when it truly comes down to it, they are still largely silent.
This morning a friend informed me that 42% of rape crisis organisations in the UK have no Government funding confirmed beyond March 2016. I read this news as I considered that, in the last few days, we have seen the sentencing of people involved in the orchestrated sexual assault of girls in Rotherham, and a release of a report into sexual assault at the BBC. In both cases, institutions funded by the taxpayer emphatically failed to protect young and vulnerable people from rape and its aftermath. In just three weeks, the Government risks making a move that will compound their suffering.
The importance of the proposed discontinuation of funding cannot be overstated. Let us look at the numbers. To quote Rape Crisis England & Wales,
“Last year, our Rape Crisis England & Wales membership answered 165,000 helpline calls and provided ongoing specialist support services to over 50,000 individual sexual violence survivors.
Need and demand for our specialist work is at an unprecedented level and there are 3,500 survivors on our combined waiting lists.
The Istanbul Convention recommends there should be a Rape Crisis centre for every 200,000 women in the population and yet we know that the majority do not have access to one.
It’s estimated that 100,000 survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) will come forward in response to the current Independent Inquiry into CSA.
Our sister organisation Imkaan…[has ]released a report highlighting the critical state into which life-saving specialist black women’s groups have been pushed.“
Much has been written in recent days of how rape victims were abandoned to their fate, either by – among others – the BBC employee who was “obsessed” by his career or the police currently being investigated for 55 separate investigations into allegations of neglect of duty and corruption. The thought that these victims, having suffered such horrific acts, should then be denied access to support services is almost too appalling to contemplate.
Yet contemplate it we must. The infrastructure of support for victims of rape in the UK cannot be weakened any further. If anything, it must become stronger still. When news broke of the sexual assaults in Cologne, there was widespread fury. There should be similar anger at these proposed changes, because the damage they will cause is no less serious than what happened in Germany on New Year’s Eve.
If you would like to read more about the work of Rape Crisis England and Wales, please follow them on Twitter and visit their website.
If you would like to read more about the work of Sisters Uncut, a feminist group taking direct action for domestic and sexual violence services, please follow them on Twitter at @SistersUncut and visit their Facebook page.
President Yoweri Museveni has returned to power in Uganda, the country that he has ruled since 1987. In amongst the statements that he made upon his disputed victory in the election – an election which saw the imprisonment of Kizza Besigye, his leading opponent, and allegations of electoral fraud – there was one comment which risks going mostly unnoticed. He observed that the Acholi people had voted against his party, stating that “I’m happy with Ugandans who came out in big numbers and voted politically. In Acholi they voted against NRM [the National Resistance Movement]”.
Of course the Acholi, a tribe from the North of Uganda, voted against NRM. Of course they did. During Museveni’s three decades in charge, they have seen the life expectancy of their children plummet to some of the world’s lowest levels. In 2006 Olara Otunnu, the former UN Under-Secretary General, referred to their region as “the worst place on earth to be a child today.” Otunnu noted that:
“The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in northern Uganda is a methodical and comprehensive genocide, conceived and being carried out by the government. An entire society is being systematically destroyed — physically, culturally, emotionally, socially, and economically — in full view of the international community…In the sobering words of Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic missionary priest in the region, Everything Acholi is dying. (My emphasis.)”
Of course the Acholi voted against Museveni. As Peter Otika reported in 2009,
“In 1996, Museveni ordered the internment of three million Acholi people in ‘concentration’ camps that he preferred to call internally displaced people’s camps (IDPs). In these camps, a United Nations official reported in 2004 that 1,000 people died every week, women were raped by Ugandan troops and the security of the people was not guaranteed because the LRA rebels would invade the camps, killing people and abducting children.”
Back to Olara Otunnu, who stated that:
“I know of no recent or present situation where all the elements that constitute genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) have been brought together in such a chillingly comprehensive manner, as in northern Uganda today…a whole infrastructure — the concentration camps — has been put in place, as the most efficient locale to prosecute the genocidal project.”
Let’s have some more numbers from his article, which if you have time is worth reading in full. At one point, it took four to six hours for people simply to fetch water. Over one in four children – 276 out of 1000 – were dying before they reached the age of five. HIV infection in those camps was six times the national average.
In fact, please do read Otunni’s article in full, where he refers to what has happened in Northern Uganda as “a slow extinction”, and even share it. Because people either don’t know what has happened to the Acholi, or they have turned a blind eye. So of course the Acholi, the tribe of my heritage, voted against Museveni. You’d sooner expect turkeys to vote for Christmas. Museveni knows this, of course he does; and, who knows, he may actually regard his unpopularity amongst the Acholi as a form of success. After all, he’s been campaigning for their contempt for the last thirty years.
I gave a talk at Conway Hall for the Story Festival 2016, on the subject of writing journalism and social commentary in the social media age. The text of speech, entitled “Writing with an Open Wound”, is below; if of interest, please share.
That moment just before I press “publish” on my latest blogpost is often my loneliest as a writer. I say that because, each time that I write a particularly impassioned opinion piece, the three-stage process is always the same. First, I see a story in the media that attracts my fury enough to make me take to my laptop. Secondly, I sit in furious isolation for a few hours, tapping away frantically at my keyboard. Thirdly, finally, I look at what I have produced, and the question is always the same: “Are you seriously going to post this?”
This talk is about precisely that scenario – about writing with an open wound, of putting your honest view out into the world in the full knowledge that it may respond with a storm. Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Only a few years ago, you could file a weekly column in a national newspaper and you might never hear from those who loved it or hated it, since the replies would be first be picked up and filtered by a discerning editor. Now, though, anything opinionated that you post on social media can be met with the angriest of comments. In fact, there is a growing likelihood that it will be. How, in such an environment, can journalists say what they feel needs to be said?
Well, I have no simple answers: I can only say how I do it, and how I will continue to. On the morning of the 6th of December 2013, I posted perhaps my most-widely shared article. I say “perhaps” because I still don’t have software on my website which tells me how many people have read my work – this might seem naive, but there is something I quite like about knowing that a piece of writing is simply out there by itself, getting shared and hopefully not only resonating but also changing minds. I was inspired to write the article by the events of the night before, when I had come home from teaching a group of students to see that Nelson Mandela had passed away. As is the case with all public figures when they pass away, a conversation immediately began on Twitter about what their legacy might be.
Of course, Mandela was a controversial person to many, at least in those stages of his career when polite society was far more comfortable with the concept of apartheid than it is today. Towards the end of his days, though, Mandela was regarded much more by many people as little more than a cuddly uncle, and I saw much of this kind of analysis spilling out onto Twitter that evening. I saw prominent right-wing journalists commenting that, in fact, Mandela had not been motivated by politics or race, but rather by a conveniently nebulous search for a better humanity. This commentary, as I saw it, sought to downplay the role that the right-wing had played in perpetuating apartheid, much in the way that you might see a certain section of the left-wing downplaying the crimes of Chairman Mao. I was watching history being revised in real time; and, as soon as I woke the next morning, I decided to do something about it.
In a state of barely controlled anger, I wrote a piece entitled “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel” and then I read it. I was so taken aback by the starkness of what I had written that I actually got up and took a shower, in some sort of attempt to calm myself down. And then I did what I usually do when I am concerned about receiving a negative reaction to an article of mine: which is to behave as if I would do if I were not worried about any response at all. And so I pressed publish.
The thing about Twitter, of course, is that you know very quickly whether or not a post of yours has resonated. It is probably a little like being on the X-Factor, awaiting the decision of the judges. If all goes well, there is euphoria that you have made an intervention that matters, that illuminates a vital aspect of the story. There is also the odd knowledge that, for the briefest moment, you have earned the gratitude or hatred of many thousands of strangers, the equivalent of having one of your hands warmly shaken whilst passing the other one through flame. Most of all, though, there is relief.
The reaction to my Mandela article was overwhelming: and, in another sense, it was no problem at all. I received a torrent of tweets and emails, and they were almost entirely positive. I don’t think that was all down to the quality of the article, though. Recently, I wrote another article for my blog, about the sexual assault of German women in Cologne. On this occasion, my subject was misogyny. Again, most of my replies were positive, but – even though this article, in my view, was much less controversial than the Mandela piece – many of the negative replies were extremely hostile. I am making an educated guess here, but I suspect that it makes people far more angry online when you speak out about misogyny than about racism. I will be honest, and say that there were moments during the next few days, as I saw my work and my name attacked on social media, that I wondered whether it had been worth it. I was reminded then what it must be like online for my female friends who are social and political commentators.
That’s not to say that I have not had racist abuse, or homophobic abuse for that matter (given that, on the spectrum of LGBT, I identify as B). But if I look at the only death threat that I have knowingly received, it came after I posted an article asserting that men who made jokes about violence towards women were either enabling further acts of that nature, or had possibly been violent towards women themselves. Having been on Twitter for over five years, and also being a football writer, I am no stranger to waking up to insults, and am quite good now at deflecting or ignoring them. (For example, I haven’t read a comment under one of my articles since 2010.) But the anger I get whenever I write anything, no matter how mild, in defence of women’s rights is very startling.
These experiences have made me realise the very different consequences faced by different groups of people when they publish their work online. On one occasion, I saw a female friend post an innocuous tweet. I then looked beneath her post to find that someone had sent her a photograph of a woman’s dismembered body, stuffed into an open suitcase. Fury against women is too often the lava that runs just under the surface of social media.
I mention this only because, when talking about the difficulty of putting my views into the public domain, I would like it to be known that – in relative terms – I am fortunate. Yes, I am black, and openly LGBT – whatever that means – which does leave me open to a certain amount of abuse. But I am living in Berlin, the most progressive city in one of Western Europe’s most progressive democracies, where I am free to write whatever I like. And on those days when I might face an online onslaught, it truly feels like a safe haven.
If anything, I should feel emboldened by this position – and I absolutely do. Because this is a worrying time for writers and artists who are trying to deal as fearlessly as possible with the pressing issues of our time. In Mexico, in retaliation for their coverage of the drugs war, bloggers have been disembowelled and hung from bridges. The world knows what happened in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In Taijkistan, journalists are being tortured. In Bangladesh, atheist bloggers and publishers of secular writing have been hacked to death in the street. Last year, Egypt and China imprisoned record numbers of journalists.
Of course, the global opposition to a free media is not new; my great-uncle, Apollo Lawoko, was a producer for Radio Uganda in the 1970s, before being thrown into Idi Amin’s jail for several months. But it does feel like we are in a moment where many hard-won gains are at risk of being lost, or even squandered.
What can be done to embolden journalists, at times such as these? Well, one solution is financial. These last few years have seen the media suffer eye-watering losses, with papers towards the more progressive end of the spectrum being hardest hit. There is no shortage of journalists jumping ship for a more stable career in the PR industry. Having worked in that world for several years, it is a move with which I sympathise. But the danger comes when progressive media platforms are so poorly funded that they cannot consistently produce vital responses to social events. The danger is that in-depth investigative journalism will continue to go without the funds that it needs.
If I have any request on behalf of the next generation of journalists, it is that we try to see their work as an essential public good, and that funders recognise it as such – and it looks as though that might be partly on a non-profit basis. I see no reason why more charitable trusts for journalism cannot be set up, using the many billions of pounds that are currently sitting dormant in large estates.
Having broadened the scope of this talk, I would now like to narrow its focus again – to consider how to write with an open wound, and why I think that it is important to do so. If I look back at my career so far, the articles that have had the greatest positive impact have had one common feature: they have been written with a blend of cold reason and almost volcanic anger. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it is what I call “moral fury” – where I not only feel rage at the perceived injustice, but am able to locate and expose the source of it. I think that this style of writing has worked for me because it conveys a sense of urgency – a sense that I have not merely covered an area of human rights because I find it of passing intellectual interest, but because it needs genuine attention.
People who write with open wounds are often accused of being “bleeding-heart liberals”, as if compassion were a bad thing. As it stands, though, there aren’t nearly enough of us – and maybe our hearts still don’t bleed enough. After all, we are in a time of increasingly horrific and complex conflicts, with the migration of many millions due to climate change to come. So maybe it’s time for some of us to expose those wounds yet further, and write even more.
Leone Ross, the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, editor and lecturer in fiction, has a very busy few months ahead of her. She has just had two short stories published – The Woman Who Lived in A Restaurant, by Nightjar Press, and The Mullerian Eminence, in Closure: Black British Contemporary Writing. She has also contributed an essay, How To Write Weird Shit/Magic Realism, to The Art of the Novel (Salt Publishing), and has just completed her third novel, One Sky Day, following the success of All The Blood Is Red (1997, nominated for the Orange Prize) and Orange Laughter (1999).
I spoke with Leone about her new story for Nightjar Press, where she beautifully brings together magic realism and erotic fiction. It’s the tale of an unusual love triangle, where a woman falls for a man so deeply that she vows never to leave the restaurant where he works; and, where over time, the restaurant falls for both of them too. It’s a superb story of passion, magic and food, the execution of which is beyond most writers. Below is an edited version of our conversation, where we discussed prose style, politics, Leone’s career to date and her plans for the future.
When I first got this story, I read it as a piece of erotic fiction; but what’s very interesting with this work is that it’s very restrained.
In this case, yes.
Looking at the technique of writing erotic fiction, what are the challenges in this artform?
Well, I suppose I can start off with a little anecdote. What occurs to me is that there is a small story around this story. I was asked to write just a small piece of erotica for a collection – this is years ago now. So I wrote this. And I was told by the editor at the time that it wasn’t explicit enough. So he wanted more sex in it, and he wanted more explicit sex. And the problem is that stories do tell you what kind of stories they need to be. And it occurred to me that putting one more ounce of sexuality into this story would have been exactly the wrong thing for it. So I then had to hurry and write another story. Essentially, the editor was saying, “just have two people fuck and put it on a piece of paper, please”. In his defence, we understood each other, and I had written for him before. He certainly wasn’t suggesting that that’s the way you write erotica. So for a while I thought “this is not a piece of erotica at all”, and I just thought of it as essentially a very painful love story.
What’s interesting to me is that of the women who have read this, every single one thinks that it is absolutely sexy and totally horny. Then I was like, “oh, so this is erotica”. And I was reminded again that erotica does not need to be explicit. And, of course, what is erotic and what we find sexy and will respond to viscerally in that way is entirely subjective.
What I loved about it was that there was so much build. There was so much narrative and so much context, so when you had a sex scene it was the culmination – it didn’t feel bolted on. It didn’t come a moment too early in this story, and the characters were so fully realised by the time the sex happened that the sex wasn’t a way to explain the characters. Sometimes you get these stories where the sex is the part of the exposition. But I don’t feel that in this story.
I suppose I tend to do that. I realised this recently as well. Erotica, as you know, is not primarily what I do; but I suppose, when I do do it, I feel like it’s a slow build. Often the sexuality – be it a kiss, or full-blown sex – happens structurally towards the end of the story. That may just be because I’m a limited kind of writer, I’ve no idea; but therefore you do have that sense of building up to it, because sex is just part of the rest of it rather than the point of the story. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, absolutely. It’s almost limiting to call it an erotic story, because it’s a story about how human character is expressed through eroticism. That just happens to be the prism through which they express it.
Yes. Or, in this particular story, I am trying to express humanity through sex and other things.
Yes, there’s so much else going on.
We pay attention to sex because it’s sex. But actually I’m trying to say something about humanity through emotion, through food, through architecture. So we pay attention to the sex because it’s sex, do you see what I mean? I don’t start out saying “I’m going to write a story about this”. At some point in the creation and the drafting, I will decide what it’s about. But ultimately – and much more with short stories, I’m particularly self-conscious with novels – but with short stories, I often let them become what they are.
I won’t be coy – this is, in some ways, based on a real experience. And if I was aware of anything at all, I was aware of wanting to explore sacrifice – the erotic nature of sacrifice, and the ways [in which] people, particularly women, can do this. We can make these oddly intricate decisions about our emotional lives and not have very much fun in the process, and yet there’s a multitude of experiences even in painful things. So this woman loves this man. And also, I think she’s become used to this life, of living in this restaurant, of absence – because they don’t ever actually have sex, that’s the point, they only kiss each other, they’re not allowed to have sex. They’re not having sex in that moment in the kitchen, they’re just kissing. And they’re checking very carefully in the restaurant around them if they’ve done the right thing – because the restaurant is jealous, and won’t let them, but allows a certain amount of intimacy, because [the woman] lives there.
So they are being controlled by the restaurant. And the suggestion is also that they are being controlled by his ambitions, because he is very much in charge; but at the same time she is also in charge. Other people come and beg him to let her free, but ultimately he says “she won’t go! So what do you want me to do?”
That’s what amazes me about this story – she really gives herself over to this dynamic, and embraces it by the end. And, actually, maybe there’s something comforting in that.
There may be elements of BDSM in here as well, in that she has given over the control. Essentially a version of this happened to me – I won’t go into it, but a lot of people around me wanted to characterise me as the victim in this dynamic. But there were periods of time in which my patience for the dynamic felt empowering.
I want to talk more about you, actually. Because the story’s great, but you’ve written a lot of other work too. One thing you do is that you blend magic realism and erotic fiction –
And those to me are two distinct disciplines, with their own sets of rules. They require two sets of expertise. How easy, or how difficult, have you found it to blend the two?
I don’t know that I have found it easy. I think that this feels like evolution.
So it feels like an intellectual and creative evolution. My first novel was extremely realistic: it was was about three women living in London, and one of them gets raped, and the fallout of that. It was an answer to Mike Tyson, who had raped Desiree Washington. And my second novel, Orange Laughter, had elements of oddness because apart from anything else, although it talked about the Civil Rights movement, it talks about memory and it involves a ghost. So I was getting there.
Not having published a novel for many, many years now – for complicated reasons – in the meantime I was publishing relatively consistent amounts of short fiction. So that’s where I began the journey. I began to ask myself serious questions about what pleased me on the page the most. I began to feel less like I was doing my political duty.
That’s interesting. I think it was Junot Diaz who said, in an interview that I read quite recently, about writers of colour feeling deep down that they would have to be the voice of a community.
As a football writer, I think I’ve been lucky. Because I write about football, I never had that challenge of being “the black football writer”. It was just down to writing about the analytics of football. It was almost like football was a bit of a meritocracy in that sense. So I escaped having to fly the flag for black people, if you will.
I know what you mean, and I know what Diaz means. Because at twenty-odd years old – what age was I when I published my first novel, twenty-four or twenty-five – I felt like I should, like I had to, and I also wanted to [write about political issues]. I thought, “this is a tremendous responsibility, and also a kind of power. My family is politicised, my community is politicised, and it needs me”. And I was also working at The Voice newspaper; so there were all these ideas around what I should do. But I also wanted to, and I still want to. I’m not saying that I’m not a political animal. But I’ll tell you something. You write about politics a thousand times better than I ever did, even as a journalist. And I make this point importantly, not just to praise you. It is in watching a younger generation speak of politics, and find impassioned, beautiful language for politics, that has made me in the last ten years realise: “that’s not my inclination. I don’t do that very well”. I become so enraged that I can’t express myself effectively in that way. So actually, increasingly, I want to look at the human condition – and social justice, of course, because the patriarchy is always going to pop up.
Yes, of course.
But I realise that what I’m good at, what I’m getting better at, is combining this sense of oddness, which is magic realism, with – and I think this is still political, even [now] – for a woman writer to write of sex.
When you talk about politics, I find that interesting, because – to me – the human condition is inherently political.
Quite, I agree.
And in my non-fiction I love writing about politics, but in my fiction I think I reject politics explicitly, because I think that those novels are too didactic. So, for example, I was working on a novel a year and a half ago, and I got thirteen thousand words into it, and I stopped writing it; and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
Because it was a novel about immigration.
But I would love a novel by you about immigration.
But here’s the problem I had with it. It was not a novel that I consciously felt I had to write, but subconsciously I felt I had to write it – I didn’t realise that at the time. I realised that because I went away for a month, and when I came back here’s the thing – the characters had not been talking to each other in my absence.
That realisation to me was so powerful. And when I read your work – The Mullerian Eminence, or anything else – the characters are so alive. What I think is so powerful about your writing is that the author is completely absent.
Yes. You combine these two ethereal forms – magic realism and erotic fiction – and, as a result, whenever I read your work I find it completely immersive. There are many strengths to your work, but to me this is the abiding one – that it transports the reader.
Well, I’ll take that! And yet it is still political. I suppose I can’t get away from a sense of what is to be addressed and spoken of in the world; what is to be uncovered and explored in the world. And it still remains ironic that [even now], many young women are called upon to be more sexual than they ever have been, and yet are not free.
I still have never done a reading of erotic fiction that has not involved some fool man – and they are young, admittedly – coming to me at the end of the reading and saying “Hi! How are you doing?” And I’m thinking, yeah, you know I didn’t write erotica for you to come and chat me up afterwards?
I’m writing magic realism for a simple reason. It’s this: it’s fun. I was the kid who loved Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, who always loved weird crap, and so it took time for me to give myself permission to write weird crap. It took [reading] Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at university for me to think, ‘oh my God, the adult version of weird crap, that’s so cool!’.
Magic realism is just freakin’ fun. I feel like me when I am writing magic realism. The idea that I should walk into a room, and make a cup of coffee, and the cat should just conversationally turn itself inside out – it amuses me. It appeals to my sense of mischief, and I love that, and I feel like a kid when I do it. The reason I write erotica is because I live in a world where people still have a problem when a woman uses the word “fuck”.
You’ve just finished writing a new novel, One Sky Day – I’m intrigued by that. Can you give us a taste of what it’s about, and what inspired it?
There is a very particular story that goes with this novel. The first thing to say is that I have no publisher for it. I have a couple of people sniffing around, but I have no publisher. So it’s probably important to say that, because I want a publisher, please! So, it’s been a long time coming – and yes, you’re right, it’s a culmination of trying to work out what my style is. But also, it’s the culmination of many years of being blocked. So I’ve probably been writing it for the best part of ten years. I couldn’t write for a long time. I couldn’t write because I thought, in the way that young writers do who know nothing, I thought that Orange Laughter – which was published at the very end of 1999 – was going to make me rich and famous. And of course I did, because I was still in my late twenties, and had that kind of ignorance.
But you also had a track record. You were in the ascendancy.
Well, yes, and I hoped this would be the one that hit. And don’t get me wrong, Orange Laughter did very well. Things all looked good. At one stage, it was even in Oprah Winfrey’s hands. And I think I felt like I had worked very hard – and I worry that this sounds very entitled –
No, it doesn’t. Being a writer, being an artist, is often all about momentum.
Right. I felt I had momentum. But it certainly didn’t give me any kind of great financial remuneration, and things began to die off a little bit; and, in one way, I became frightened, that maybe I was not very good. And Orange Laughter took up a lot of emotional space – it remains a very intense novel – and I became immersed in it myself. And one of its characters kept talking to me. He wouldn’t stop talking to me. In the end, Xavier, the protagonist of my latest novel, came from me asking myself how he differed from this [particular] character in Orange Laughter.
Before you go, please tell me some more about One Sky Day, and about Xavier.
Xavier is a thirty-nine year old masterchef, living on an island called Popisho. “Poppy Show” is a Jamaican expression – it means “to be foolish”. So if I’m making a poppy show out of you, I’m making a fool of you. So that’s a kind of in-joke for the Jamaicans. Xavier’s wife wife died a year ago, and he is still depressed about her death; and he has basically been forced by the governor of the island to do a very particular thing. The governor’s daughter is about to be married, and he’s running for election again, and he’s decided to have this day of feasting and rejoicing during his daughter’s nuptials. And he wants Xavier to help him and join in with this poppy show, with this foolishness. It’s almost like when the royals got married recently, and there was a holiday; what made me laugh about that is that it is the spirit of my novel, that idea of distracting the masses while Rome burns. So that’s what’s happening; this governor has called my main character to help him and to distract people from the fact that they don’t have running water, and that there’s a huge amount of money being siphoned off from the country. Basically, he’s corrupt.
And Xavier hates that he’s corrupt, and he’s pretty pissed to have been pressed into this thing, but he’s busy being depressed in his house, and being addicted to moths. In this society, moths are like heroin.
What’s he doing with the moths?
He’s eating them. So the book covers one day in his life, in which he has been forced to leave the safety of his home – he’s become practically agoraphobic in his grief – and cross the country, looking for items for the wedding feast. He’s been asked by the governor to cook the most romantic meal in the world for these nuptials, so he’s forced to be part of this farce. But really it’s also a day’s journey in which he wakes up, he realises what’s important, he fights the moth addiction. He has a moth in his pocket for the entire day – someone’s given him a quality moth and he’s trying not to eat it for the whole day.
Sounds terrific. This sounds like something Guillermo Del Toro would direct.
It sounds so visual.
I suppose our generation of writers writes in a very visual way. And he’s living in an island where strange things happen; where everybody has magical powers. They’re almost bored with this crap. You’re born with very long legs, or the speed of a cheetah, or whatever. And people get irritated with it – it can cause all kinds of problems in your life. And what you do for your profession is associated with your magic as well. So, when you’re born, the midwives look for the magic; if you’ve got speed, then you’ll end up as a messenger boy. And his magical power is that he can season things with his hands. So he doesn’t need pepper and he doesn’t need salt or spices, he can just touch the meat and it’s done.
The only other element to it is that it is a love story. You know that principle of “the one that got away”?
Haha, we all know that.
There is a woman who he loved a long time ago, who was engaged to be married when they met, so she was unavailable. And she is also crossing this same island at the same time as him. So it really is the story of two people crossing the island, who both love each other still.
If you would like to buy Leone’s short story, “The Woman Who Lived In a Restaurant”, you can do so here. If you would like to know more about her work and her upcoming readings, you can visit her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Another excellent short story of hers, “The Mullerian Eminence”, has recently been published in this anthology.
Für jede Frau muss ein solcher Moment im höchsten Maße furchterregend sein. In Köln haben in der Silvesternacht betrunkene, agressive Männer im Stadtzentrum Frauen eingekreist und diese angegriffen und begrapscht. Die Zahl der Männer wird hierbei auf 500 bis zu 1000 geschätzt, und ersten Einschätzungen zufolge waren die Angriffe koodiniert. Ein Minister beschrieb die Ereignisse als eine “vollkommen neue Dimension von Verbrechen”. Wolfgang Albers zufolge, dem Polizeipräsidenten, fand hier ein sexuelles Verbrechen besonderen Ausmaßes statt. Er gab an: “Die Taten wurden von einer Gruppe von Personen verübt, die dem Anschein nach zu großen Teilen aus Nordafrika und der arabischen Welt stammen.”
Das Ausmaß sexueller Gewalt gegen Frauen weltweit ist überwältigend: Es ist grauenerregend, herzzerreißend und letztendlich macht es wütend. Ob in der Öffentlichkeit oder innerhalb der vermeintlich sicheren eigenen vier Wände, die Angriffe gegen Frauen kennen keine Grenzen. Um die Vereinten Nationen zu zitieren: “Es wird angenommen, dass 35% aller Frauen weltweit im Laufe ihres Lebens entweder körperliche und/oder sexuelle Gewalt eines Intimpartners oder sexuelle Gewalt eines nicht-Partners erfahren. Manche nationalen Studien zeigen, dass bis zu 70% der Frauen im Laufe ihres Lebens körperliche und/oder sexuelle Gewalt eines Intimpartners erfahren.”
Die Übergriffe in Köln sind also nicht im luftleeren Raum entstanden, sondern vielmehr Ausdruck einer ernstzunehmenden, globalen Situation. Das mag sich dramatisch anhören, aber die Zahlen und Augenzeugenberichte sprechen für sich. Die Zeitung The Guardian berichtet: Eines der Opfer, Katja L., sagte gegenüber dem Kölner Express: “Als wir aus der U-Bahn Station kamen, waren wir von der Gruppe ausschließlich ausländischer Männer, auf die wir trafen, total überrascht… Wir sind durch die Gruppe gelaufen, es gab einen Tunnel durch sie hindurch. Ich wurde überall angefasst. Es war ein Alptraum. Obwohl wir schrien und um uns schlugen, haben die Männer nicht aufgehört. Es war entsetzlich, und ich glaube ich bin auf den 200 Metern Fußweg bestimmt 100 Mal angefasst worden.” Einer der Ermittler sagte gegenüber dem Kölner Express: “Die weiblichen Opfer wurden so schlimm herumgeschubst, dass sie heftige blaue Flecken an Brüsten und Hinterteilen hatten.”
The Guardian berichtete weiterhin: “Die Angriffe waren zentraler Diskussionspunkt auf Twitter, wo manche den Medien Vertuschung unterstellten und die Besorgnis, die Vorfälle könnten von Anti-Flüchtlingsgruppierungen für sich genutzt werden, Ausdruck fand.”
Innerhalb der Auseinandersetzung besteht die tatsächliche Gefahr, dass die angegriffenen Frauen aus dem Blick verschwinden, begraben unter einer Debatte zwischen Links und Rechts. Genaugenommen passiert das bereits. Bleiben wir daher bei den Fakten.
Zahlreiche Frauen wurden auf einem öffentlichen Platz von bis zu eintausend Männern in eine Falle gelockt. Neunzig Opfer haben gegenüber der Polizei ausgesagt. Es gab darüber hinaus ähnliche sexuelle Übergriffe in der selben Nacht in Hamburg. Die Selbstverständlichkeit, mit welcher die Männer hierbei über die Körper der Frauen verfügten, ist entsetzlich.
Die Vorfälle sind dabei durchaus kontrovers zu verstehen, hat doch Kanzlerin Angela Merkel im Verlauf der letzten 12 Monate um die 1 Million Geflüchtete aus Afrika und der arabischen Welt ins Land gelassen – dieselbe demographisch dominante Gruppe unter den jungen Männern, die diese Angriffe ausführten. Merkels Politik wird nun von vielen für den Anstieg von Sex-Attacken verantwortlich gemacht.
Dennoch wird dies keinen Einfluss darauf haben, dass sich die laufende Debatte um das Thema “Rasse” dreht. Also können wir uns auch damit beschäftigen. Deutschland ist nicht gerade divers und die Mehrheit der Schwarzen und arabischen Menschen scheinen der Arbeiterschaft anzugehören. Dafür gibt es alle möglichen wirtschaftlichen Gründe, zum Beispiel die Tatsache, dass Menschen aus Afrika und dem Nahen Osten es durchaus schwer haben, Papiere zu bekommen und Arbeit aufzunehmen, wenn sie erst einmal hier sind.
In Berlin, wo ich lebe, ist die überwältigende Mehrheit Schwarzer, im Alltag sichtbarer Männer arm, obdachlos oder im Drogenverkauf auf der Warschauer Straße oder am Görlitzer Park, zwei der belebteren Bahnhöfe der Stadt, involviert. Und mit überwältigender Mehrheit meine ich so um die 80%, wenn nicht noch mehr. Und auch wenn es provokant klingt, ich denke die sozio-ökonomischen Umstände und die Frage, weshalb diese Schwarzen Männer eigentlich so arm sind, interessieren einfach auch nicht genügend Menschen hier vor Ort. Ich denke es gibt vielmehr eine weit verbreitete Tendenz, die größer ist als so manche hier anerkennen mögen, zu glauben, Schwarze Männer seien grundsätzlich weniger vertrauenswürdig oder eben kriminell.
Ich behaupte dies teilweise auch aufgrund meiner eigenen Erfahrungen in der Stadt und von Berichten mehrerer meiner nicht-weißen Freunde. Ein Freund aus Westafrika fand es bei einem Besuch der Stadt so schwierig eine AirB&B Wohnung zu finden, dass er jemand Dritten für sich buchen lassen musste. Berichte von Schwarzen, die versuchen in der eh schon schwierigen Wohnsituation in Berlin Zimmer oder Appartments zu finden, lassen ein Gesamtbild von Diskriminierung ziemlich deutlich zu Tage treten. Ziemlich alltäglich bin ich immer wieder überrascht, wie oft es passiert, dass weiße Berliner – auch in voll besetzten Zügen – den Platz neben mir verlassen, allem Anschein nach wenig angetan von der Aussicht neben einem Mann mit afrikanisch anmutendem Äußeren zu sitzen. Und sollte sich das paranoid anhören, dann muss gesagt werden, dass mir dies erst auffiel, als ich von einem weißen, kopfschüttelnden Mann amüsiert darauf hingewiesen wurde. Für jene, die denken, ich sei übersensibel, möchte ich ein paar Fakten herausstellen. Ich liebe diese Stadt und hier zu leben ist es wert auch mit solchen Unannehmlichkeiten zurecht zu kommen. Aber diese Dinge haben mir vor Augen geführt, dass die kulturellen Erwartungen an Schwarze Männer in manchen Gegenden Deutschlands bereits erschreckend niedrig sind. Und jetzt haben wir also auch noch solche Angriffe wie in Köln, einer der schlimmsten seiner Sorte, an die ich mich überhaupt erinnern kann.
Also was schließen wir jetzt aus dieser Analyse? Eigentlich simpel. Stehen wir den Frauen bei. Als Schwarze Männer mit afrikanischen Wurzeln hassen uns die Rassisten in Deutschland sowieso. Sie dachten schon beim ersten Anblick wir seien Vergewaltiger und Perverse und jede sonstige Form von Sexualverbrechern. Ihnen sind die Frauen, die in Köln und Hamburg angegriffen wurden egal jenseits der Möglichkeit hier die vermeintlichen Beweise dafür zu finden, dass wir genauso animalisch sind, wie sie es immer schon befürchtet – oder gehofft – hatten. Deswegen sind mir diese Leute eigentlich egal. Es stört mich auch nicht wirklich, wenn irgendjemand eben nicht neben mir im Zug sitzen will. Die Angst vor dem Unbekannten ist schwierig abzugewöhnen. Mich interessieren vielmehr die Frauen, welche sich jetzt in der Öffentlichkeit mehr denn je unsicher und ängstlich fühlen müssen. Ich denke nicht, dass Frauen sich jemals wirklich wohl gefühlt haben, bei Nacht durch Ansammlungen betrunkener, agressiver Männer gehen zu müssen, egal welche Herkunft diese haben. Aber Männer afrikanischer oder arabischer Herkunft werden zukünftig mit noch mehr vorsichtiger Zurückhaltung und Mißtrauen von Frauen zu tun haben.
Hier ist also was ich denke, was getan werden sollte. Wieso fangen wir nicht bei dem prinzipiellen Grundrecht der Frau an, sich, wo immer sie sich auch auf der Welt befindet, frei auf der Straße bewegen zu können, ohne dabei angegrabscht zu werden.
Und wieso sehen wir dies nicht als perfekten Moment für den Mann an, egal welchen Hintergrunds, ernsthaft wütend darüber zu werden, wie Frauen im öffentlichen Raum behandelt werden und sich dem Glauben, es sei irgendwie sozial anerzogen und Teil unseres unkontrollierbaren sexuellen Drangs, Frauen zu objektifizieren und zu belästigen, wenn sie vorbeilaufen, mit Nachdruck zu widersetzen. Lasst uns unser Bestes tun, der global schon viel zu lange vorherrschenden Frauenfeindlichkeit entgegenzutreten und den wie auch immer gearteten sexistischen Lehren der Unterdrückung zu entsagen. Weil Frauen es leid sind uns darüber zu berichten und einen Kampf zu kämpfen, der viel zu lange schon viel zu wenig Aufmerksamkeit erfahren hat.
For any woman, the sight must have been terrifying. On New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne, groups of drunk and aggressive men surrounded them in the town centre, groping and mugging them. The estimates are that there were between 500 to 1000 attackers, and the early indications are that their efforts were co-ordinated. A minister described these events as a “completely new dimension of crime”. According to Wolfgang Albers, the police president, “sexual crimes took place on a huge scale.” He continued: “The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the north African or Arab world.”
The volume of sexual violence against women worldwide is extraordinary: it is horrifying, heartbreaking, and finally it is enraging. Whether women are in public or in the supposed safety of their own homes, the offences committed against them are off the scale. To quote the United Nations, “It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime“. (My italics.) The Cologne assaults, then, did not occur in isolation, but as a particularly severe eruption of a situation which, in global terms, has always been volcanic.
If that sounds dramatic, then so be it: after all, the statistics and the eye-witness accounts are stark enough. As the Guardian reports:
One of the victims, identified only as Katja L, told the Kölner Express: “When we came out of the station, we were very surprised by the group we met, which was made up only of foreign men…We walked through the group of men, there was a tunnel through them, we walked through…I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and hit them, they men didn’t stop. I was horrified and I think I was touched around 100 times over the 200 metres.” One investigator told the Kölner Express: “The female victims were so badly pushed about, they had heavy bruises on their breasts and behinds.”
The Guardian continues:
“The attacks have been the main talking point on Twitter in Germany, with some people accusing the media of a cover-up and others expressing their concern that the incident would be seized on by anti-refugee groups.”
In the ensuing conversation, there is a very real danger that the women assaulted will disappear from view, quickly buried beneath a tug-of-words between the Right and the Left. In fact, it has already happening. So let us reiterate the facts. Scores of women were set upon by up to a thousand men in a public place. Ninety of them made complaints to police. There were also sexual assaults of a similar fashion in Hamburg on the same night. The level of entitlement that these men felt towards the bodies of their victims is appalling.
These events are proving particularly controversial because the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has within the last twelve months admitted something like a million refugees from Africa and the Arab world – the same demographic dominant among the young men who carried out these assaults. Merkel’s policy is therefore being blamed by many for the influx of sex attackers. On a point of accuracy, it must be noted that many of these attackers were already known to the police, and were not drawn from the recently-arrived refugees. (UPDATE: The Cologne police, in a fresh report issued a few hours ago, have stated that the majority of the attackers comprised freshly-arrived refugees. The link is here.)
This conversation will inevitably be dominated by the issue of race, so we may as well go there. In racial terms, Germany is not particularly diverse, and the majority of the black and Arab people you see tend to be working-class. There are all sorts of economic reasons for that, one being that those arriving from Africa and the Middle East find it very difficult to get papers or work once they are here. In Berlin, where I live, the overwhelming majority of black men you see every day are poor, homeless, or selling drugs by Görlitzer Bahnhof or Warschauer Strasse, two of the city’s busier train stations. And when I say the overwhelming majority, I would say something like eighty per cent, if not more. And, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, I don’t think that as many people as I would like are concerned with the socio-economic nuances of why these black men are so poor. I think that there is instead a tendency, more widespread that many people might like to acknowledge, to regard black men as inherently untrustworthy or criminal.
I say this partly because of my own experiences in the city, and from speaking to several other friends who are non-white. A friend from West Africa, when visiting the city, found it so difficult to secure an AirB&B apartment that he had to ask someone to do it on his behalf. The stories of black people struggling to find rooms and flats in the city are legion – not that it is easy to rent in Berlin anyway, given the popularity of this place, but the tales of discrimination do all start to stack up after a while. More mundanely, I am struck by how often – even on the most crowded of trains – white Berliners will leave a space next to me, somehow fearing the prospect of sitting next to a male of African appearance. And if that sounds paranoid, then it was only something I first noticed when a sympathetic white man, shaking his head with bemused laughter, pointed it out to me.
For those who might think that I am being overly sensitive, I will say that I am merely stating facts. I love this city, and life here is well worth dealing with these inconveniences. But these instances have made me realise that the cultural expectations of black men in some parts of Germany are already dangerously low. And now we have these attacks in Cologne, one of the worst incidents of its nature that I can recall.
So, what to do with all of this analysis? Well, it is actually simple. Let’s just keep sticking up for the women. As far as being a black man of African descent goes, the racists in Germany and elsewhere hate us anyway. They thought we were rapists and perverts and other assorted forms of sex attacker the second they set eyes on us. They don’t care about the women who were attacked in Cologne and Hamburg, except to prove the point that we are the animals that they always thought – or hoped – we were. In return, I don’t care about them. Nor am I too bothered by the people who don’t want to sit next to me on the train. Fear of the unknown is a hard thing to unlearn. I am most concerned, by far, with the safety of the women who may now be more frightened than ever to enter public spaces. I don’t think that women have ever felt particularly comfortable walking through crowds of drunk and aggressive men at night, regardless of the race of those men. But groups of young men of North African and Arab origin, whatever their intentions, will most likely endure more trepidation from women than before.
So here’s what I propose we do. Why don’t we just start with the premise that it is a woman’s fundamental right, wherever she is in the world, to walk the streets and not be groped. And why don’t we see this as a perfect moment for men, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces: to reject with fury the suggestion that we are somehow conditioned by society forever to treat women as objects, condemned by our uncontrollable sexual desires to lunge at them as they walk past. Let’s do our best to challenge the rampant misogyny which has gone on worldwide for far too long, and reject whatever lessons of sexist repression we may have been taught. Because women are tired of telling us about this, and exhausted of fighting a battle that for too long has gone overlooked.
Late last year, I was commissioned by The Economist to write some articles on innovation and the future. I thought I would put them in one place, in case you’d like to read them in a spare moment or two. I hope you have time to take a look, and that you enjoy them.
- A wider cast: the ethics (and economics) of diversity in film
- Time over money: Wandering the world with the New Rich
- Holograms and the democratisation of modern football
- Softly, softly: the future of impact investing
- Spontaneity and the modern office
- In praise of “techno-optimists”
- The rise of the countryside
Right, since it’s International Men’s Day, I thought I would write something quick. I would simply like to say that I think that role models for men are underrated. I remember watching a popular Charles Barkley advert for Nike, in which he said that he was not a role model, and that parents should be role models. I understood the sentiment – that it should not be the job of a total stranger to raise or inspire your child – but I disagreed with it then, and I disagree with it even more now. If you grow up without parents, or without attentive ones, then you often look for those figures elsewhere – and, at the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I do think that we have a responsibility for how we conduct ourselves, particularly when it comes to the next generation and the examples they take from us. It is remarkable how many men will adopt without question the behaviour of men they admire. This is why men like Sonny Bill Williams, Hakeem Olajuwon and Andres Iniesta are important – because even at the peak of their fame, they show compassion, humility and warmth, qualities not readily enough associated with being a man. This is why men like Adel Termos, Captain Mbaye Diagne, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Janusz Bardach should have statues in their honour.
And manhood, being a man, are things we frequently take for granted, but I don’t think being a man is particularly easy. I don’t mean that in some sob-story kind of way, but more strategically: as in how, in a world which is weighted so much in favour of men, I can usefully act to make a positive difference. And I don’t claim to have any particularly enlightened status here – at the age of thirty-six, I am still watching, and learning, and listening. Because I definitely won’t always get it right, but that is never an excuse for not trying.
In a few hours I’ll meet up with my local football team, SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, to play football. I’m not sure if I’ll get a game, as my first touch seems to have regressed as quickly as my hairline in recent years, but I am so proud just to be part of the squad. I think that there is something very special about my club’s ethos: to quote, “SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale is an international ‘freizeit’ football team based in Berlin which stands against sexism, racism, fascism and homophobia.”
What a beautiful, noble aim. Just last night, when news of the Paris attacks first broke, I and some fellow team-mates had been watching a friend – one of our first-choice centre-backs – launching his new single. (He’s a singer-songwriter in that late-Sixties style, really good actually. He is definitely a case of “you should probably give up the day job”.
This weekend I am indulging in two of my favourite things: watching football, and playing live music. Of course, these are two of the things that Parisians were so enjoying just before the horror. And there was something so overwhelming, so jarring, so futile about watching the news develop on our smartphones, knowing that the innocence of a night out just like ours was being torn away forever.
So, at a time like this, how can we respond? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I will try to respond in two ways. First of all, with bravery. And by bravery I don’t mean lust for retribution – for any response obviously needs to be considered calmly and carefully. By bravery I mean trying to be more kind and compassionate than ever; by critiquing and rejecting extremism wherever I can. And secondly, wherever possible, I will try to respond with gratefulness. My world was not broken apart last night, nor has it been touched by the desperation faced by so many refugees. And so, in that spirit of gratefulness, I will try to be that little bit better a son, brother, and human being; and, maybe, even that little bit better a footballer. Because this brief, gentle, fragile life is all that we have, and I will set forward to live it with as open a heart and with as much optimism as I can. And so, now all that’s said: Go Inter.