Slavery

I’m looking forward to watching the new adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family that is being aired on TV soon. So when I was checking this day in history I found it interesting that on 6 Feb 1820 the first organized immigration of freed slaves to Africa from the United States departed New York harbour on a journey to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa. This was largely the work of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 by Robert Finley, to return freed American slaves to Africa after abolition.

Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent and sold into slavery in the US, and later follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley. Boosted by the popular TV adaptation in 1977 it spent months on The New York Times Best Sellers List, including 22 weeks in the top spot. However, it was not without its own controversy. Haley was accused of plagiarism and after a trial and out-of-court settlement Haley admitted that some passages had been copied from Harold Courlander’s work, The African, which was published nine years earlier.

Plagiarism is serious offence as writers hold their intellectual property dear. However, it’s worth noting that “Edward Kosner, reviewing the volume Alex Haley by Robert J. Norrell, said that Haley “could have avoided all the grief if he and his publishers had simply labeled the book [Roots] what it was—a historical novel valid in its essential narrative but informed by the imagination”. Wikipedia

Yet despite all its controversy it remains a powerful piece of work considered to be one of the most important U.S. works of the 20th century and has greatly influenced the interest in genealogy and appreciation for African American history.

A slave is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as :

  1. a person who is the legal property of another and is bound to absolute obedience
  2. a drudge; a person working very hard
  3. a helpless victim of some dominating influence
  4. a machine, or part of one, directly controlled by another

It’s appalling that we still have them today in all these forms, and I think the most common in the western world is the slave to dominating influences.

Published on this day in 1937 was another influential book, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The story of the bond between two itinerant workers, slaves to the dominating influence of  the American Depression, disappointed in the American Dream, who drift from place to place to find work.

“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.” (1.113)

The American Dream, the national ethos of the US, is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” First defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 the American Dream promises “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Yet the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Depression saw that Dream slowly turn to dust, like the dust bowls of the mid-west, and her people blown about like tumbleweed.

But Lennie and George still have their dreams:

Lennie watched him with wide eyes, and old Candy watched him too. Lennie said softly, “We could live offa the fatta the lan’.”

“Sure,” said George. “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunk house.” (3.202-203)

Everyone needs dreams to escape from the drudgery of life, particularly when you’re poor and other people/systems/laws/attitudes seem in control of your life. We’re hearing a lot of talk of ‘Make America Great Again’ which is feeding the dreams of many people disillusioned  by years of being unheard/ignored. But dreams at the expense of others become castles built on sand. They eventually collapse. And if we’re lucky, a boat will come to take us back home, back to our roots.

 

 

Fifty Shades of Power – the responsibility of the writer.

I read 50 Shades of Grey a while ago to see what all the hype was about. As a writer I was disappointed, finding it very poorly written, but what I did find interesting was how popular the subject matter was. Listening to all the debates about it on television and radio, reading about it in newspapers and magazines, what they seemed to be saying was that the book was most popular with financially successful, upwardly mobile, unmarried 30-somethings. Apparently, being successful and having complete control of your life seems to generate fantasies of relinquishing control of your body over to a man who then has carte-blanche to abuse you. Nothing wrong in that, we all have fantasies. The problem starts to occur when we put them into reality.

I’m old enough to have grown up during a time when women had no power or at best it was limited. When women had to give up work when they got married, when marital- and date-rapes weren’t offences, when all boys were given extra marks before they started the 11+ so that more of them were ensured a place at grammar school, when wives couldn’t buy anything on HP without their husband’s signature, or borrow money from the bank, or sometimes even have their own bank accounts. The freedoms that women enjoy today were hard-won and over a long period of time. So how can young people really understand the value of what they have and take for granted, because they’ve had it so relatively easy?

It is hard work being responsible for yourself, for every decision you make, for every aspect of your life. I know, I’ve done for the last 40+ years and being a single parent I also had the responsibility of three other lives as well. But the last thing I would fantasize about is giving away my power to anyone because I’ve had to fight every step of the way to get it and keep it. Even now, when I thought all the battles had been fought and won. Because the pendulum swings back and apathy and fantasies today let power slip out the door tomorrow when no-one’s looking. Already we have a judge blaming young girls for their own rapes because they drank too much. Sound familiar to anyone over 30?

So what do writers have to do with all this? Do they have the responsibility of being the mouthpiece of society? Of a generation? I suppose that depends on what kind of writer you are/want to be, but then that kind of responsibility is assumed by the individual; it’s not God-given. I believe that as writers our responsibility is to the truth of what we’re writing, however uncomfortable that might be for some readers. After all, they still have the power to close the book if they don’t like it. It’s not our job to police society’s morals, it’s our job to hold a mirror up to them and present their truth even when writing about how much we dislike them. Despite all my personal views and fears about women today, as a writer I have to put them aside if I am to portray contemporary society because I believe the only responsibility the writer has beyond her/himself is to the reader.

E L James has tapped into a lucrative market and the publicity machine is doing the rest. The fact so many people want to ban the film, or persuade people not to go to see it, is only fuelling the hype. However, I don’t believe in censorship unless it involves unwilling and/or illegal participation, like child pornography, and looking back through history I see that it only does society ill when you start banning ideas.

Writers are by nature and inclination creative creatures so by definition anything and everything is possible. I may not like 50 Shades of Grey, I may be envious of its success and deplore standards readers are willing to accept, I may despair of young women dreaming that being abused is erotic, but I defend everyone’s right to think, read, watch and believe what they want as long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s rights to do the same and all actions undertaken are within the law and between consenting adults.

With all the wonders of social media writers can reach millions more people than they ever envisaged possible twenty or thirty years ago. Never have we had so much power but with all power comes responsibility and I mourn the fact that today that seems to be eroding, that subject matter and celebrity seems to over-ride good writing and it is as much an indictment of our society as the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey.

From page to screen

I went to the cinema last night to see The Railway Man and was once again disappointed that the film lacked integrity or any loyalty to the book. It’s bad enough when film-makers change endings and characters of novels, but when they do it to autobiographies it’s somehow shameful, as if they’ve set themselves up as God and decided what someone’s life story should have been like. I know it coverd itself by having Based on a true story under the title, I think Eric Lomax, who died in 2012, would have been very unhappy with their version.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer attached to the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, who was caught up in the war at the time of the surrender of Singapore. He was marched to the infamous Changi Prison, along with the rest of the soldiers captured. From there he was sent to Thailand to work on the infamous Burma-Siam railway. As an engineer he escaped the crippling jobs of digging out of rocks and laying tracks that ended the lifes of thousands and thousands soldiers and captive Indonesians, but life for him was not easy. He was tortured and humiliated by his Japanese captors and after his liberation he suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of his guards, Takashi Nagase, acted as interpreter for his torturers and this man is the one that Lomax focussed all his hatred upon. He was the one constant in his life, the voice that spoke to him during the torture, the voice and face that stayed with him in his nightmares. But what the film fails to do it to show that Nagase was also troubled by his memories of the war and the Imperial Army’s treatment of prisoners. His disturbing memories featured a young British officer whom he helped interrogate and whose bravery and refusal to break haunted him.

After the end of World War II, Nagase became a devout buddhist priest and tried to atone for the treatment of prisoners of war. Takashi has made more than 100 missions of atonement to the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand, which was also built by prisoner-of-war labour. Nagase, like Lomax, also wrote a book of his own experiences during and after the war entitled Crosses and Tigers, and he financed a buddhist temple at the bridge to atone for his actions during the war.

The reconciliation of the men did not occur when Lomax went to Thailand to kill Nagase following the suicide of a friend. For years Lomax had dreamt of ways of killing his tormentor, to end his nightmares and to lay the war and all its horrors to rest. But PTSD is not something that easily goes away by itself and eventually Lomax sought help from The Medical Foundation (now entitled Freedom from Torture). He was the first British citizen to receive their help and it was through their support and the admisitrations of his second wife, Patti, that he was able to make the journey to Thailand and meet his old nemesis. The men became friends and died within a year of each other.

I think what I dislike most about the film, apart from re-writing Lomax’s life, is the complete denial of the intervention of The Medical Foundation, as if to seek help from an organization is somehow less worthy, less manly, than struggling through your demons on your own. Just look at how we have historically treated soldiers with PTSD, most notably during WW1 when we shot them for cowardice, but each generation up to modern-day has abused its victims by denying the condition exists or witholding treatment. It has been seen as a sign of weakness or cowardice to ask for help but slowly the army is recognizing that it owes its soldiers this help and support. Then along comes this film which ignores the valuable help Lomax was given in favour of providing the audience with the gung-ho image of a tortured man who heals himself. Yes, he was tortured, yes he healed himself, but he was enough of a hero to recognize when he needed help and asked for it, despite the stigma attached to this. He also recognized and showed us that war damages people on both sides. And that, to me, is the unltimate heroic act.