The last refuge of the gods


Baraki-san Myogyoji

Here is an oasis in time, the last refuge of the gods. They speak in every rustle of leaves, every chitter of insects and squawk of birds, in the steady thrum of crickets. Here, earth surprises you, soft underfoot and clean-scented from yesterday’s rain. Here, and only here, the city is but a dull, distant roar.

In late afternoon, shade reaches long fingers across scrubby grass, yearning to reclaim it from the light. I sit on a hard wooden bench beneath an immense spreading cherry tree, its elderly limbs buoyed up on crutches of mortal construction. Oh, the indignity, it groans, in some realm beyond human hearing.

Two children clatter by on elderly bicycles. Girls, around eleven or twelve. They find a squirrel, but fail to entice it closer. Clap, clap, clap; nature scatters, and the girls ride away. An elderly man, propelled by two wolves on a string, glances up for just long enough to give the world a scowl.

We are alone now, me and the tree, though hemmed in by spirits. The dead abide in neat rows of carved marble, squat and square yet overgrown with jutting wooden votive plaques that chatter like teeth in the wind. Here and there, a thoughtful family member has left the ghost of a favourite thing, and on this hot day the fading flowers and empty sake bottles are baking to a bittersweet haze so sharp you can probably taste it in the afterlife.

My eye is drawn, as always, to the largest of the gravestones. Though seemingly demure in jet-black marble, it’s the only one to depict its inhabitants, an elderly couple frozen in bronze. Seated, stiff, the requisite distance apart, he wears a three-piece suit with a five-button waistcoat, she a kimono that fairly crackles with starch, so tight about the neck you can’t help wondering if that wasn’t what did for her. Cold, inanimate, distant, in death as in life, as they wished to be remembered.

The seven storeys of the pagoda carve triangles of darkness into the light, a stairway to heaven. I shiver a little, as the sun slowly withdraws. It is time to return to my world, and leave the spirits to theirs.

Archive: The third fiction of “women writers”


3. To write women, write people (women are people too)

Women are from Venus, men are from Mars? Sorry mate, but you pulled that from Uranus.

Men and women are biologically different, yes, but women don’t think with their ovaries any more than men think with their… well, you know what I mean. And in a recent poll of a representative group of my friends, equal numbers of men and women had experience with either a) hunting sabre-tooth tigers, or b) using carefully whittled bone chips to sew sabre-tooth tiger pelts into attractive and functional clothing. Which is to say nobody said yes to either, because it’s 2014 and we are not, apparently, hard-wired to live in caves.

Venus and Mars, Botticelli

“I can’t escape the feeling that somewhere far in the future, someone’s using our names to make meaninglessly sweeping generalisations about gender. Sigh…” (Venus and Mars, Botticelli)


So, men, here are two tips for writing female characters from past masters:

1. The Neil Gaiman Infiltration Technique

Why not try getting to know one or more of these women, perhaps by engaging them in conversation at a family or social event? Let’s err on the side of more than one, as women demonstrate a bewildering array of differing wants, ideals, goals and values. But fear not, here’s a fun fact: there are 3.5 billion women in the world – chances are at least one of them was your mother!

So let’s now take this woman – easy tiger, I don’t mean literally. What are her defining characteristics – I’m going to steer you away from breasts and menstruation here, because an excessive focus on them in your prose may detract from your seriousness as a writer (“she opened the door not with her magnificent breasts but with her hand, the hand she always used to buy tampons”). Think about what makes her her. Change some of it, and watch a new person take shape. When creating your character, try mixing and matching the interesting parts from a number of your female acquaintances – again, the key point here is not literally.


2. The Martin One-World Approach

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what about those of us writing in gender-segregated societies, or living under a craggy hunk of hyper-masculine granite-RAWK? How are we to collect enough bits of women to make a character if said women run screaming every time we take out the cleaver of character creation?

Another feted male writer of female characters gives the following advice:

“I’ve always considered women to be people” – George R. R. Martin

And there you have it, really. Write humans, with an eye for what humans do, from walking on the moon to walking their dogs to moonwalking… to just plain walking, because that’s frankly a freak of nature in itself. Write humans as they are, as they think they are and as they wish they were and as they wish they could have been. Write humans as they live and breathe and breathe their last, as they stumble and falter, as they cry and lie and reach out their hands and hearts to others who may or may not reach back.

And do me a favour? There’s room for more than Madonna and whore. No woman is all good. No woman is all bad. True heroines trip up and fall flat and overcome, just as true heroes. Multi-dimensional trumps cookie-cutter strong, every time.

From here on February 11 2014.

Archive: The second fiction of “women writers”


2. Women can write about whatever they choose

Which brings me neatly to the second thing that gets my she-goat. When men write female characters and get it right, they’re praised for their unique insight (more on this in a second). When women write men and get it right, they’re criticised for selling out the sisterhood. And woe betide those who place those men in positions of power…

Earthsea Trilogy front cover

Earthsea Trilogy front cover (artwork by Leo and Diane Dillon)

As a child I adored the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, mostly because he can do MAGIC but now he’s showing off and eeeek, he’s summoned some kind of shadow thing but he can turn into a BIRD and talk to DRAGONS. Cooooool. Rereading it as an adult, I can see balance and wholeness, rites of passage and the confrontation with the self, Jung and the Norse Gods and the Tao Te Ching, and many of the themes – human psychology, anarchism, structures of power and issues of identity – that inform her science fiction writing.

Not once, either as small me or as tall me, did I find myself thinking “I wish there were more girls in this” – if anything, the series is conspicuously right-on, with a dark-skinned protagonist and a second book focussing primarily on female characters. Nor did I ever think that the saying “as weak as women’s magic” meant anything other than that in the book, men controlled access to magic and scorned women as users of it, just as in the real world, boys sometimes wouldn’t let you near the good Lego. Not ideal, sure, but not unrealistic.

So I was pretty surprised to find that not only has the series been criticised for depicting a patriarchy, but that Le Guin later wrote two further novels focussing on female characters, and women’s magic. They’re fairly overt in their intent, and left me cold. While I hope she sleeps easier at night, no writer should have to write the world as they wish it should be. Saying that a woman who writes about a patriarchal society approves of said patriarchy is like saying that George Orwell wrote 1984 as a manifesto.

Those of us who are compelled to write don’t do it into a void, sure, but we’re also not politicians or ideologues. When I write, I am representative only of me, not of all women, all the time, or of what all those women want. Truth to tell, sometimes I write things even I don’t agree with. That aren’t even true. That’s why I write fiction: you get to lie and call it art.

And that’s why reading a woman won’t necessarily help you understand that woman.

From here on February 11th 2014.

Archive: The first fiction of “women writers”


1. Women writers write women’s writing

Time for a quick pop quiz, kids!

What was the profession of the following people? Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain.

  1. Manwriters
  2. Malewriters
  3. Dick literati
  4. Men with pens
  5. This is ludicrous

And you’re absolutely right, this is ludicrous. These men are simply “writers”, defined by what they accomplish, no prefix needed, no niche occupied, qualified to speak for the human condition (and willies, too).

Gerard ter Borch's Die Briefschreiberin

A lady-writer, lady-writing (Gerard ter Borch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The danger of treating women’s fiction as “women’s fiction”, a sub-category that is far more common and far more natural-sounding than any of those above, is that it pigeonholes women and burdens us with the responsibility to represent our experiences as women in our writing. Thus you freight our work with expectations, denying us creative freedom. Let my soul soar whither it will, and then shall you see the true me. Shackle it to an agenda and it won’t even limp to the starting line.

Besides which, what do I know about every woman who ever lived, or who never lived? All I have to go on when writing about a Mongolian orphan girl, the two crinkly-faced Japanese women making scandalous jokes at the next table, or a Bride-Warg in moon-blood exile off the Rouge Alliance world of Hoth-G’Hah-Aaargh, is my imagination. We all have one of those, whatever other equipment we’ve been given. Despite popular opinion and the continuing efforts of the Bride-Wargs of the Rouge Alliance, there is no oestrogen hivemind.

And that’s why reading one woman won’t help you understand all women, and why you shouldn’t expect it to.

From here on February 11 2014.

Archive: The fiction of “women writers”

A cup of coffee

I am… a coffee-drinker (by Julius Schorzman via Wikimedia)

I am a woman. I write. Like many, I baulk at being called “a writer”, as if that’s a thing that I live and breathe and embody and do with every waking hour. I’m actually much more comfortable being referred to as a sporadically ambulant caffeine repository.

But I do spend a lot of my time reading, and thinking about writing, and reading thinking about writing, and I keep coming up against this same constellation of ideas:
“It’s important to read women’s fiction, to get a different perspective and an insight into how they think.”
“Her book is totally set in a patriarchy! And she calls herself a feminist!”
“Help! I’m a man – how can I write strong female characters?”

And what I read from all this is “women are different from us, and near impossible to understand”.

And, y’know, this bothers me. Not because I don’t believe in women expressing themselves in writing, because, obviously, I do. Not because I don’t believe there’s an imbalance in the publication and review of male and female authors, because, clearly, there is, and there shouldn’t be.

It bothers me because I don’t think any of this is helping women to write, with freedom and confidence, and promote their work, and have it published. I don’t think that treating females as uniquely difficult to understand is helping us out with the whole empathy/ shared human experience thing either. In fact, I think it’s holding us back.

And here’s why, in three fluffy little mini-rants (to be continued…)

From here on February 11 2014.

Archive: The sea


There are many things that people think they know about the sea. They are all wrong.

The sea is big and deep and scary. The sea clings to people, and because our fins have become fingers we can’t escape.

The sea goes on forever, until it becomes the sky. Sometimes, when the sky is really close to the sea, everything is bright and warm and you have to screw up your eyes until the sun goes blood red. Sometimes, if you squint hard enough at the sea, you can see islands with secret coves and pirate galleys. They are too far away for anyone to ever go to.

If you close your eyes and just lie there, the waves start to jump and crackle, and then if you try to listen to each wave move one by one you feel scared and small and queasy, because you know that the sea is big and lonely and always searching for things to pull in.

When I feel like that, I bury my feet and my legs deep in the sand like a crab. The sea slurps and sucks at the sand, but the sand is always moving, always dancing out of reach, carrying with it the sun that shines from white, to yellow, then orange, before it falls into the sea.

When the light is gone, the sea will get ahold of me for good.

A storm at sea

By Steve (originally posted to Flickr as Storm Comin) via Wikimedia Commons

From here on November 8th 2013.

Archive: She left a note


She left a note
Saying not where she was going
But where she had been
And what she had seen
And why, why she must go.

He read her note
And wept,
Tears etching age around eyes
And face, and falling
Upon paper, upon ink.

And as he wept, ink wept,
Reaching jagged spiderlegs
To paper, to fingers,
Blackness into skin,
An indelible taint.

A fountain pen

via Wikipedia

From here on September 16 2013.

Archive: Walking in darkness


By ’87, we’d had enough of London. Its streets had turned out to be paved with just enough gold to take out a mortgage on a small house at a substantial remove from work, from where it was at, and from the kind of green fields that somewhat older children would probably want to frolic in one day if they weren’t to eventually succumb to a life of dissolution and hard drugs. We felt hemmed in, and worried that one day, my brother would bounce himself out the window of his tiny bedroom. And so, with a cunning little manoeuvre that saw us kids stay with relatives before arriving at a miraculously-furnished new house, we moved.

Perhaps this clever ploy explains why, for many years, I had dreams of hidden trapdoors and mysterious tunnels, Narnia-esque wardrobes and loose bricks into underground caverns. Or perhaps, given that I thought I knew how to think myself into flight and could hardly sleep for fear of the cybermen hiding under my bed, I just had an over-active imagination. Goodness knows we needed one, in those heady days of two-colour text adventures and Sylvester McCoy as Doctor Who.


My home, in the dark

Or perhaps the house itself inspired such thoughts. I wasn’t the only one to have them. It was bigger and older than the London house, and while publicly I scoffed at my brother’s unwillingness to go up the stairs alone after dark, I did so myself with some trepidation. There was a haunting aspect to the way the shadows clung at the walls, a solidity and an age to the darkness that may not exactly have menaced, but boy did it know how to loom. It was a darkness that demanded to be taken seriously.

But I was not easily cowed as a child, and over time I came to an arrangement with the dark. What made it mad, I figured, is that although it had been there first, it was still forced to flee on a regular basis by these four persistent, fidgety beings on their meaningless nocturnal perambulations. Pretty unfair really, a concept that the young me understood all too well. So rather than shoo the darkness away with my blundering invasive presence, I swam through it, my hands learning to follow the wooden detail on the wall that started out at head height and sank over time to my waist.

Even now, I still prefer to walk the house in darkness. Sometimes, because I’m grown-up and sensible now, I tell myself that it’s because I don’t want to wake anyone. But the house and I, we know different.

From here on September 9th 2013.

Archive: There stands a tree


There stands a tree.
Tall, slender, unbowed,
Trunk liquid smooth,
Luring of touch.

Boughs upflung,
Tangled, chaotic, unashamed.
A reverie, a revelry.

Roots that yearn deep
To tickle at dinosaurs,
And all that soil has seen.

With my leaves shall I
Reach ever to the sun.
As my trunk gnarls and twists,
so shall I stand slender and unbowed.
With my boughs shall I dance,
In reverie, in revelry,
In time to the death rattle
Of curling leaves.

And when there stands a tree no longer,
So shall my roots remain.

From here on June 1st 2013.

A tree

Milo44, via Wikimedia Commons