I sometimes get asked if I am a racist, by people taken aback at the vocabulary that Everyone Brave is Forgiven uses.
I think it’s a reasonable question to ask, and I will give a short and a long answer.
The short answer
Am I a racist? No, I am not a racist.
The long answer
There are two reasons why Everyone Brave is Forgiven uses racist vocabulary, and they are both straightforward. The first is the duty to historical accuracy. Having discovered in my research for Everyone Brave is Forgiven that white people in the 1930s and 1940s used words like “nigger” casually and with abandon, it would have been a racially loaded act on my part to exonerate them by whitewashing their words. Rather, I prefer to use the language of the period with precision, since that is the best way to understand the mind set of the time. The novel’s use of the word “nigger” is reportage, not racism.
The second reason for using historically accurate vocabulary flows from the fact that any historical novel is really a commentary on the time in which the writer is living. I don’t believe that racism crawled away and died sometime between the 1940s and the present day. Rather, I think it is still a deep and divisive evil that continues to harm individual lives and shape national politics. By being upfront about the ubiquity of racism, and not seeking to soften its language or its acts, I hope to show its historic weight and its continuing influence on the way we live now. I write about racism and xenophobia without pulling any punches, because I think we need to talk about it now, and with urgency.
Having explained the use of racial epithets in my novels, I hope I can now make some observations on the context in which my work is presented. Here also, I have two straightforward points to make. The first is that I acknowledge I am a white person, writing about race, and that some people think my identity disqualifies me from using certain vocabulary even in the frame of reportage. Others go further, denying that a person of one heritage has any right to narrate the experiences of those with another.
I have sympathy with this point of view, but I don’t share it and I don’t think it is healthy when followed to its logical conclusion, which is that each of us may only imagine things from our own point of view. I think that leads to self-convinced world views and a Balkanisation of the human experience. I think it leads to fanaticism.
By contrast, I think that the job of researching how others feel is a useful vocation. In trying to understand and narrate the lives of others, artists hope to bring about the small leaps of empathy that allow societies to bridge divides of heritage.
My second observation concerns the vocabulary and semiotics of people who really are racists. White supremacists these days are specifically trained not to use words like “nigger”, which would get their social media accounts shut down automatically. If I may I will give you an example from this morning. This is, I suppose, a vaguely intimidating tweet I received from a person who was taking exception to my support for refugees:
The first thing I would call attention to is this person’s use of reversed triple parentheses around their presumptive pseudonym. This requires a little decoding: in response to an anti-Semitic browser plug-in that automatically placed triple brackets around typically Jewish names, some Jews and gentiles alike last month began voluntarily to place these “echoes” around their own names, to express solidarity with those targeted. By reversing these echoes, “don johnson” signals a polar opposition to Jews and to those who act in solidarity with Jewish people.
This person’s second signifier is their Twitter avatar, of which I can give you a close-up view:
Again, this might require explanation for those not familiar with British political history. As a Conservative MP, Enoch Powell made a divisive speech in 1968 in which he warned, on the subject of black immigration, that he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. To present Powell as a visionary in one’s Twitter avatar is to lionise a figure who is widely considered an apologist for racial hatred, and whose inheritors today find themselves emboldened.
Out of curiosity I looked down this person’s timeline, and found much in this vein:
Again, this person is not using any racially loaded vocabulary that would automatically trigger blocking or police investigation – and yet the intent is clear. (In this case, the unambiguously racist contention that to be non-white is to be non-English.)
That racism is an endemic, root-and-branch evil is shown by the unbroken continuity of the xenophobes’ presentational methods, all the way through from this small time bigotry on Twitter to the populist campaigns that swing a whole nation’s vote. Here, for example, is UKIP’s recent EU referendum poster, using exactly the same technique – the message visually encoded, rather than made explicit in words:
The point I hope to illustrate is that today’s racists and xenophobes are to be recognised not by their public use of racially charged vocabulary as reportage in a curated historical context, but by their use in real time of a rich and shifting symbology that stays ahead of governments’ ability to legislate and service providers’ inclination to filter. In the exploration of society’s values a writer hopes to be a fixed point, while a racist makes themselves a moving target.
This shiftiness extends beyond presentation to the whole issue of truth. A racist seeks to continually revise and rebrand events, twisting words and facts to suit their monomaniacal world view. A writer, by contrast, seeks to present history with precision, both factual and linguistic, because they know it to be the foundation of the present.
I hope this has been a useful explanation and that there is now no confusion about what I stand for. If this piece has made my books sound very stern and serious, I hope they’re not. Rather, I hope that readers can enjoy the immersive experience of my work, including its laughter and emotion, secure in the knowledge that my novels are well researched, truthfully presented and relevant to the world we live in. I have never thought that reading ought to be a punishment, and I hope people will enjoy my books.