I’ve been thinking about possible endings to the book I’m working on. I’ve written an end, but it might not be the right end. At the same time as writing the book, which in part is based on life after being held hostage, I’ve also been reading for research. My first draft complete, and part way into the first rewrite I’ve been studying Some Other Rainbow, the story of John McCarthy and Jill Morrell. This is the first book that I’ve read that equally reflects the experience of the person left behind and the person held hostage, something that I try to do in the book I’m writing.
It was amazing to read this true experience, to see what resonates with what I’ve written and what doesn’t. Jill writes about extensive campaigning, working on the political reasons behind hostage taking at a time when international relations were difficult and dramatic changes were seem in the geopolitical landscape. I hadn’t even considered the political aspects of what happens to my character. I will think about it more, but I suspect that I won’t be trying to expand on that arena.
What did interest me in particular is the experience of both John and Jill after his release. That’s a significant part of my book, and while I knew from the start that it wouldn’t be an easy period for the couple I’m writing about, at first I wasn’t clear what would happen to them. Writing myself into the story it became clear they would separate, the difficulties becoming overwhelming for a while. And depending on how the book ends they may or may not get back together. So it surprised me that I was upset when I followed up Some Other Rainbow by reading a 2009 article from Jill Morrell, in which she explained that she and John broke up four years after his return. She expressed the unresolved feelings that she had about spending five years of her life on the campaign, and the impossibility of attaining the ‘normal’ life they both wanted. I guess when you read a story following a couple through a traumatic experience, when you get to know both of them, there is some sort of unwritten promise, that for resolution, the relationship will survive. Some Other Rainbow ended at a point where John and Jill were together: it is only because they are real people, with real lives, because newspapers continue to be interested in them, that I was able to follow up what happened. I need to think about this more in the context of how I end my own book, and I’ll be revisiting Some Other Rainbow too.
This is a difficult one to write, half resolved thoughts, a tiny idea that hasn’t been fully birthed.
I’ve been writing about sight loss. I take a privileged western man, and strip away his freedom, then to add to his nakedness, I take his sight.
I’ve been reading about post colonialism, because I know that I’m writing a western view on Africa. I need to take Adam from his home, from everything that keeps him safe, in order for him to change as a person. I’m taking him as far as I can out of his comfort zone, into new territory where he isn’t his own person, where he loses his identity, needs to find a new self.
I always consider what it means to write this as a woman, what it means to write about a man.
Somewhere in this I can see a thread linking sightlessness, sight loss, with landlessness, with colonisation, where the country you thought was yours is no longer yours, no longer home. Some place where unclear boundaries, wavering borders cause pain and trauma. Somewhere, land and gender, aid and disability, the relationship between doctor and patient all interlink. In this place, I challenge ‘I know what’s best for you’, in a place of self and other, of subject and object, of having and of loss. What I’m writing observes the shift between observer and observed, between seer and seen.
In the first version of Blindsided, the most experimental format, I wrote,
“See. Seeing: we see without thinking, we ‘look, behold; observe, perceive, understand; experience, visit, inspect’. I see: I follow what you are saying. I see: I have (a) vision. Also, See, ‘throne of a bishop, archbishop, or pope’ from Latin sedem ‘seat, throne, abode, temple,’ related to sedere ‘to sit’. I do not see, I am unseated. “
Going back to the New Immortals, someone used the phrase, ‘The chaos of the indeterminate body’… ‘people don’t know how to die.’ Nothing prepares us for death, nothing prepares us to lose a sense, a limb, an ability. I couldn’t walk age thirty eight. That was a shock. And maybe that’s why everything I read is about death, why I see death in everything I read. This time, I want to be prepared. Or must we always be blindsided by what life throws at us? Are we inevitably unseated? Is the very unpredictability of life, of the human response what makes us want story? Are stories are a way that we can be prepared?
Returning to geography and disability, identity and power phrases that come up in my reading that resonate … unsettled states … nations without borders …missing borders … unclear borders. In writing about a rebel group in West Africa I need a clear strategy for what they are rebelling against. What is the identity that they are seeking to protect? What borders do not match with communities? What power do they lack? In writing about sight loss, I cast Adam into a space where he is seeking boundaries, where there is safety in limits and borders and danger in an unseen edge. He is dragged into a place where he can’t see the boundaries that used to be clear, and those borders he thought were stable, his identity as a man, a doctor, an employee, a volunteer, have all gone. In the last part of the book Adam spends most of his time by the sea, a place where the border between land and water changes constantly. In this place of uncertainty, though, he finds something that he’d lost.
rassembler: to assemble, gather together
rassembler ses idées: to collect one’s thoughts
rassembler ses esprits: to gather one’s wits
rassembler son courage: to screw up one’s courage
Virginia Woolf writes, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” (From Three Guineas, Woolf’s take on Patriarchy and Fascism) Looking up other people who have written about this quote, about the feminist politics of place, I stumbled across Adrienne Rich’s Notes Towards a Politics of Location. Rich expounds on the need to understand your ‘country’ … that she is, that I am writing as a middle class, privileged, white woman. She writes about ‘the body’, ‘my body’ and the difference between the two, the latter plunging her into ‘lived experience’. In writing a world where Adam is pulled from sighted to unsighted, from where he is privileged and in control to a situation where he has no power, where he loses a sense, I want him to be forced into a place of change, where he examines his privilege, that which he takes for granted.
The phrase ‘No Nation’ keeps recurring in my research – Robert J C Young uses it to paraphrase Woolf, and I’ve written about the film, Beasts of No Nation, based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala. I’ve not yet found the source for Iweala’s title. In what I’m writing I’m aspiring to see what happens to a man when he loses his nation, his privilege, his seat, his sight. Rich writes, “We… often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.” I guess I’m tying into knots the threads of white privilege and ability. I’m not sure about the final part of the book where Adam, sightless, returns to the home where he grew up. It is the easiest thing for him to do, in some ways the only choice he has as he struggles with his new self, but it is a choice of the privileged. He has a home to go to. And perhaps I need to change that, or maybe he needs to prove that he has changed against his former background. I don’t know.
There’s a lot of things I don’t know. Yet. This is a rough cascade of thoughts which I will return to.
To be continued …
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.
Writing is often hard. Right now I’m going through a difficult patch. I completed a first draft at the end of last year, and now I’m moving towards a second draft, as I mentioned last week. I have the story outline, and I’m listing scenes and working on what key actions happen in them: do they move the story on and do they really need to be there. I’m also reading for research (on being held hostage, in Africa, AND on the politics of aid and disability, if you have any recommendations.) But it’s strange. I like research, but I’m finding this intangible background searching a struggle. I want to be writing, making visible progress. So I’ve decided I’ll carry on like this through February and March, then in April I will push everything aside and start with my scene guide and a blank page and go for a second draft. In the past I’ve tweaked first drafts, made copious notes, and then stopped, but this will before the first total rewrite. I’m looking forwards to seeing what happens.
I don’t generally review YA, but I’m writing about sight loss so couldn’t miss out on the chance to see how another author has dealt with this. Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom tells the story of Parker, a fifteen year old, and her journey as she comes to terms with the loss of her father. So far, so conventional in the genre. The twist is that Parker is blind.
I know something about sight loss, probably more than most people, but it’s because I’ve studied it rather than experienced it. I’ve written a book about it, in fact, Sight Loss: The Essential Guide. I’ve worked with people with sight loss from the age of 15, but I still am not entirely qualified to determine if Lindstrom has created an authentic piece, I don’t think anyone can truly understand sight loss without personal experience. Parker is, unlike most ‘blind’ people, entirely without sight: her optic nerves were severed in an accident when she was seven. The experience has left her spiky and defensive: she holds her close friends close, but has rules that she, and anyone who wants to be with her, have to live by. The rules run from one to eleven, plus there’s rule infinity.
Rule #1: Don’t deceive me. Especially using my blindness. Especially in public.
Rule #2 explains how not to touch Parker without warning, rule #3 highlights not to move her stuff, because she needs to be able to find it, rule #4 says, ‘Don’t help me unless I ask.’ and so on. Rule infinity is slightly different: ‘there are NO second chances… betrayal is unforgiveable.’ And this is where things get interesting. Parker’s high school has recently combined forces with another school, throwing her back into contact with kids she hasn’t seen since middle school, including one, Scott, who broke rule #1, and in doing so, smashed rule infinity too. Parker hasn’t spoken to him since.
Parker is quirky, and she’d rather attack than defend: she uses words like weapons, and throughout the book she begins to realise how this can keep more people at arms length than she might intend. She meets a nice guy, Jason, goes on a first date, and rows with her best friend when she starts to doubt how much Sarah is sharing with her. Lindstrom does a good job of tapping into the teenage mind with all its insecurities, adding in a heaping of extra worries that surface when you can’t see what’s going on and rely on other people to fill you in.
The characters are authentic – new girl Molly who buddies with Parker as she shares the same classes, Parker’s cousins Sheila and Petey who have been moved from their home town as Parker’s aunt and uncle move to take care of her. The plot speeds along at the perfect pace as we watch her deal with tensions with Scott, and decide that maybe she had been harsh in cutting him out of her life all together back when they were thirteen.
So, I’d say that this is a good read, with a twist of something different. It could certainly get teen readers to think a bit more about sight loss, while being carried along by a good story. Not If I See You First costs from £7.99 at time of writing.
PS. Braille! Eric Lindstrom has liaised with the American Braille society in writing this book. There is Braille on the cover and in an end note. I reviewed the eBook, and I suspect that there may be a reason to get the print copy for the full experience. If you have the print copy and have checked out the Braille sections, let me know.
tiny bite through skin and bone meet brain
excavate the tumour centre until it collapses in on itself,
then draw it out
A shiver runs me through
I try to stop thinking about death, but what else do you do, stripped naked, inadequate pastel gown, cold plastic under me, knife poised above.
i can’t look up the risks again, scant reassurance, my phone and watch locked away, my clothes and shoes taken. No escape.
cover one eye, then the other. when it’s done, whenif I wake, will i see the same? dead nerves, or merely crushed for time. will i bounce back?
Permanent damage Permanent damage Permanent damage Permanent damage Permanent damage
Permanent damage Permanent damage Permanent damage Permanent damage
Permanent damage Permanent damage Permanent damage
Permanent damage Permanent damage
a blade through my nose, cutting into my brain.
so easy not to wake from that knife.
a wire in my arm now,
‘count back from 10’
10 my heart is breaking out of my chest
9 i don’t want to do this
8 air tears through my face
7 it will go wrong
6 leaded limbs won’t …
5 stop this please i want to get off
4 i’m going to die
3 i …
‘we’re looking at a fairly large tumour’
most likely benign
surgery is successful in…
you may not get your vision back