What I’m reading, what I’m writing #whatimwriting #amwriting


I’ve been reading A House in the Sky: A Memoir of a Kidnapping That Changed Everything for more in depth research on being a hostage. In many ways this is one of the best books written (ghostwritten) that I’ve read on the subject so far, because Amanda Lindhout goes in more deeply to the felt experience of being kept prisoner. I don’t know if this difference is something to do with gender – the other books I’ve read so far are written by men, but I have more idea now about the parts that she found truly degrading: the dirt, the hunger, the chain pressing into her ankles, having to ask permission to go to the toilet, the lack of privacy. Her hostage experience starts off in a situation where she has a dialogue with her captors, where she still has some power, where there are boundaries, but by the end of her time in captivity it seems like she has become a thing to them, an object. I’ve written about this before in the context of doctors and patients: I think at some point during a doctors training they have to make the leap where they can regard the patient as ‘other’ in order to protect their own psyche. That’s where you end up with damaging beliefs for the health professional, like ‘doctors don’t get sick’. (And a better, more experienced doctor can cross the divide in both ways, empathising with the patient when needed, treating them as an object when slicing into them, perhaps.) And I can see how this objectification (?) can be necessary for a hostage taker in order to mete out the brutal treatment that Amanda Lindhout received. The challenge as a writer is in capturing the humanity and personhood of the person who is doing terrible things. The second draft of my book is going to have to go deeper, darker into Adam’s experience: at the same time I have to make his captors more human, more multifaceted.

Other things that came out of reading the House in the Sky were details of re-entry into normal life. Amanda’s teeth were damaged, she experienced stomach cramps when trying to eat after months with little food. She describes the feeling of the soft bed, her first night in a hotel after months on a mattress on the floor. And she touches on uncovering just what had been done to free her. I also looked at some videos from Nigel Brennan, her fellow captive, where he talks about what his family had to do to get him back. It is interesting that some parts of what was happening to them in captivity did get back to their families, small details that the families had no way of verifying at the time.

Reading other people’s written experiences is good, but I do wonder whether I should also be out interviewing people. I’d have no qualms doing this for non fiction, but I feel more hesitant about doing it for fiction and I’m not sure why. Part of it might be the long, indefinite process. I have no contract for this book, so no publication date, and I have no intention of being tied to any sort of deadline before I’m a lot further into the process! I also have qualms about seeking out people who have been through trauma, so it was interesting to read this account, where the author Holly Muller speaks about her experience of interviewing Austrians about their experiences during WW2. She suggests that people were keen to talk to her, and I agree that people can find speaking about trauma therapeutic.

 

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Event: the New Immortals

Last week, I went to an event based on The New Immortals exhibition, an exhibition exploring ideas about immortality in an age of scientific miracles, curated by Judith Alder. The display brings together the work of ten artists, and the event drew in scientists, medics and artists to respond to the work. It was really interesting to be in a room full of people committed to the crossover between art and science, and great to get a range of views on the exhibition. It made me think about the module I did last year on utopian fiction, and the idea that utopia is in many ways an impossibility: one person’s utopia imposes unliveable rules on another. The idea of immortality, whether living forever, or living for two hundred years or a thousand, as experts quoted at the event suggested might become possible, all come with downsides. If you think globally, the planet couldn’t sustain a population where no-one dies: would we have to stop having children too? On an individual basis, at what point would life become dull, or can we continue to have new experiences, new challenges and enthusiasms forever? What would be the challenges of living with a body that was existing way beyond its sell by date? One speaker asked, ‘What would tiredness fell like when you are 200?’.

The older  get, the more willing I am to consider death as a welcome ending. As a teenager it seemed terrifying, now, midway through life, I can envisage the need for everything to stop. As another speaker said, ‘I don’t want to be here when the sun explodes, so I must want to die, but I just don’t know when’.

There was some interesting art on display, and I’m going back this weekend for another look if everything goes to plan!

The New Immortals runs until 20th March at the Phoenix, Brighton. Find out more: http://www.phoenixbrighton.org/events/the-new-immortals/