Category Archives: news

The new feminists

I’ve finished the book! (Cue happy dance with triumphant knee-slide across the living room floor). Yes! I’m taking the time to savour the moment and not entertaining the thought of agent and publisher rejections. No I will not think about that. Bugger, I’m thinking about that. But I’m also celebrating the achievement. It’s only when you reach the end of a book (well the draft that you’re going to send out) that you wonder how on earth you did it.

So here is Soul Sister. I’ve uploaded it on this site, if you want to check it out. It’s about a modern day teenager that meets the woman she was in a past life – the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. It’s about souls clashing in one life and meeting in another to make peace. It’s about first love. It’s about being happy in your own skin, standing up for yourself and having a voice.

In my book, I’m exploring what it is to be a girl today. Girls pick up on society’s expectations of them to be pretty, skinny and sexy. It was what, in part, set me off writing this book because it can lead to body image problems, eating disorders, and low self-esteem and I think it’s terrible that we’re doing that to our daughters.  You only have to look at the Protein World advert of the bikini clad woman and the slogan Are you Beach Body Ready? to get some idea of how blatant that pressure is.

Protein World's beach body ad on the London underground

There’s been a huge backlash in London, with women answering the advert’s question by writing their thoughts on the posters on the tube. This is a watershed moment, I think. The moment when women said: ‘Enough! I’m not interested in how you think I should look on the beach. Or anywhere else. I am proud of the body I have and I will take it anywhere I please.’ The suffragettes would be proud.

Girls and women are kicking, quite literally, against limiting definitions and expectations of who they should be and what they should look like and turning stereotypes upside down. imagesLike the nine-year-old girl on Britain’s Got Talent, Jesse McParland, cute as you like, and launches into an amazing, acrobatic martial arts routine to rival The Karate Kid, Zorro and the Three Musketeers put together. Fierce! And totally expressing who she is. She tried ballet and Irish dancing, she said, but she didn’t like it.

And yesterday I read about Danielle Taylor whose Prom theme was ‘Sweet Dreams’, presumably based on the 80s romance books, but anyway likely to be iUnknownnterpreted in pink with hearts. Yes, a school, basically saying, ‘we’ve given you an education but what is really important is being pretty enough to get a boyfriend’. Deciding the prom theme was a giant let-down, Danielle designed her own spectacular outfit based on the hooded DC Comics super-hero, Green Arrow, which, let’s face it, rocks.

I’m seeing a new wave of feminism and strong female role-models. Since I started writing Soul Sister three years ago, Emma Watson has launched the HeforShe campaign to engage men in the movement for gender equality and 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai has won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an activist for education. She was shot by the Taliban on her way to school because she believed girls had a right to an education and was writing a blog about it. The Taliban tried to silence her, but her voice is now being heard world-wide and she’s speaking for oppressed girls everywhere.

Teenagers are blogging about feminism and there are fabulous magazines for young women like The Feminist Times and Vagenda, set up by two students in 2012 because they were in fits of laughter after reading out loud excerpts from a weekly women’s magazine whose articles were ridiculous and irrelevant. They decided to set up an online magazine to ‘call the bullshit’ on the mainstream women’s press.

Twenty years ago my friend and I had a similar conversation, lamenting all the ‘how to catch your man’ articles and talked about setting up a women’s magazine for real women with interesting news and features but we did nothing about it.

I’m glad someone has. I love the dynamism and self-assured spirit of young women today. Respect.


Aung San Suu Kyi and the hero in us all

I’ve seen a real, live heroine. Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking at the the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay and I was there. Unfortunately, I only listened to her on the video screen because of the huge crush to get in the room in which she was speaking. But, by luck, I saw her through the open window of her car as she left, looking serene with a red flower in her hair. Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson for the National League for Democracy and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Now that is a woman with story. And man, is it epic?

Her father, the de facto Prime Minister who negotiated independence from Britain, was assassinated when she was two. Her mother was Ambassador to India in 1960. After a childhood spent in Burma and India, Suu Kyi went to Oxford University.

At the literary festival, in conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell, she said: ‘I had never voted in a free election and would explain to Oxford intellectuals how precious that is. If you don’t vote, you start to lose your democratic right. Rights entail responsibilities.’

I imagine any apathetic students, cynical about politics and politicians, would have taken note. I can’t imagine anyone not paying attention to Suu Kyi, such is her poise, grace and intellect.

She graduated from Oxford University in 1969 and married fellow student Michael Aris three years later. Before she married, she told her husband-to-be that if her people ever needed her, she would return to Burma. He was, she said, ‘a remarkable man’, because he accepted that. They had two children and the family spent the 70s and 80s in the UK, India and the USA.

In 1988, she went back to Burma to look after her dying mother and found that protestors against the dictator U We Nin were being killed. She started speaking out against him and began a peaceful movement for democratic reform. She spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.

She said that, during those times, she kept up a discipline of rising at 4.30am to ‘meditate then listen to the BBC news’. She spent time brushing up on languages, reading philosophy, politics and biographies, and playing the piano. ‘I was conscious of not wanting to waste time,’ she said.

Between being placed under house arrest in 1989 and the death of her husband in 1999, she only saw him five times. When he was diagnosed with cancer, the government denied him a visa. She was free to go and see him but feared she would not be allowed to return to Burma. She said the decision not to see her husband one last time was made easier because it ‘had already been decided’ before they were married. He knew she wouldn’t go back to see him.

Suu Kyi, now 68, has been free from house arrest since 2010. She won a by-election in 2012 in a landslide and became a member of parliament for the NLD. There is a general election next year but the junta added a clause to Myanmar’s constitution in 2008, which says that the presidency can’t be held by anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals, deliberately thwarting Suu Kyi. Her story continues.

I suppose what sets her story apart is that she followed a higher calling to lead a pro-democracy movement and dedicated herself to it. She put her sense of duty to her nation above that of her family. That’s hard!

She said she has ‘personal regrets’ at not being able to be with her family and would have liked to see her children grow up but, at the same time, she ‘had no doubts’ that she had to stay with the Burmese people.

So, given her own epic story, I was interested to hear, in a session about literary heroes,  that her literary heroine was Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Suu Kyi said: ‘Elizabeth was courageous, wouldn’t stand any nonsense and was not intimidated by rank or money.’ She was not held back by what other people think, ‘that was part of her courage,’ she said.

Ok, so Suu Kyi’s favourite book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. No surprise there. But Elizabeth Bennett? Don’t get me wrong, I love the book and I love the character but somehow Elizabeth Bennett’s courage seems nothing compared to that of Suu Kyi.

Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, did point out that ‘we have a heroine in our midst’ and paid tribute to Suu Kyi’s ‘courage and dedication’. Her own literary hero was the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes who, while everyone else played along pretending the emperor was dressed, said ‘but he isn’t wearing anything at all’. For Chang, the person who states the truth when others won’t is heroic.

Chang has lived through hard times. Another of her literary heroines is Madame Bovary, a copy of which she had when they were burning books during the cultural revolution in China. ‘I felt so much for her. I shared her sense of frustration and claustrophobia.’ It wasn’t the frustration of a bourgeois life, she said, but life under a totalitarian regime.

That is the power of a book, to reach down the ages and for the human truth in it to touch someone in a different time and place.

Louis De Berniere, of Captain Corelli fame, said his favourite hero was D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers, although at the end of the books it was Porthos who was the real hero as he gives his life for the others.

So Aung San Suu Kyi picked her hero for courage, Jung Chang for being truthful and Louis de Berniere for self-sacrifice.

De Berniere mentioned, in a separate session, that his father was always quoting poetry at the dinner table, usually Shakespeare, and Hamlet’s ‘To thine own self be true’ speech was a particular favourite. And it occurred to me that perhaps it is Elizabeth Bennett’s courage to be herself and defy the conventions of her time that resonates with Suu Kyi.

It does take great courage to listen to the inner voice, to reach for the truth and to be our own true selves. Sometimes you have to go against the grain, defy convention and sacrifice an ordinary life to do that. But it’s in living as our own true selves, and answering our calling that we become heroic.

The end of the world and the theory of everything

The world is not going to end on Dec 21st 2012 despite there being over 16 million google entries about it. Let me explain. The fifth cycle of the Mayan long count calendar will come to an end after 5,125 years on this date in 2012. This appears to have triggered speculation, along with prophecies in Revelations and by Nostradamus, about the end of the world and how it will come about.

The net is abound with linked theories of planet alignment, exceptional solar activity, magnetic flips, even a planet named Niburu, spotted in ancient times that, we are told, will collide with the earth in 2012.

This just goes to prove that we love stories of prophecy and doom, disaster stories that scare us and capture our imaginations. The idea that the Mayans might simply have a big party, wake up with the mother of all hangovers and flip over the page of the calendar as we do every Dec 31st and start again, doesn’t grip the imagination in quite the same way.

I came across all this on the net after I mentioned to my husband Rob that I was thinking of exploring the fantasy element of my Inca adventure story. He suggested I look up Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Von Daniken has a theory that much of ancient civilisation – the pyramids, Peru’s Nazca lines (and perhaps Inca cities), the Easter Island stone heads – could be attributed to ancient astronauts / aliens visiting earth. It’s an interesting theory. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and I was at a loss to explain how the Inca’s managed to fit those great stones together so perfectly in their buildings when they had no hard metals and they hadn’t invented the wheel. But with alien technology, all can be explained.

I got sidetracked from this to the Mayan calendar and 2012 and then, looking up parallel worlds, which I’m thinking of introducing in my book, I started looking at M theory. This has developed from Einstein’s Theory of Everything, through the Big Bang and String Theory, with scientists now thinking that there are 11 dimensions plus time and the universe is contained within a membrane. From what I can gather, the thinking is that our universe is in a giant bubble and the big bang could have been a collision with another bubble membrane, ie a parallel universe. This would mean that time existed before the Big Bang and there is, in fact, a multiverse.

Wow! Still trying to get my head around that lot.

I tell you, researching a book can lead you to some interesting places. And when your ear is attuned, you hear connected stuff. So on Radio 4 last week the astrophysicist Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell was talking about none other than 2012 and the end of the world and was giving the Faraday lecture on that subject at the Royal Society later that week. So I went along. And it was she who reassured me that the world is not going to end next year.

There is no alignment of the planets in 2012. The last time that happened was in 2000 (no resulting disaster) and the next one is in 2040. Yes there will be extra solar activity when the sun’s magnetic field field reverses but that happens every 11 years. The earth’s magnetic field also ‘flips’ every 300,000 years and we’re long overdue such an event as it hasn’t flipped for 750,000 years. There are indications that it may have started but a ‘flip’ takes 5,000 years. The world will not stop or start spinning the other way.

All of the disaster scenarios, says Prof Bell Burnell, starts with a grain of scientific truth except the planet known as Niburu colliding with earth. That is a complete fiction. If the Sumerians had seen Niburu with the naked eye it would have to be gigantic and planets just aren’t made that big and, also, if it was on an orbit collision with Earth, Nasa would have spotted it by now.

All this was comforting but somehow disappointing. Not that I want the world to end but I was quite enjoying the stories and science so often pours cold water on the story and the mystery. But it is also comforting that when scientists set out to develop a theory of everything, it actually raises more questions and presents even greater mysteries. That, a writer can work with.

Cuts to free books for children

So let me get this right. A week before Christmas, the British Government decides to completely cut funding to Booktrust, a charity that provides free books to children. And in the same week, figures showed that one in 11 boys start secondary school with a reading age of only seven. Surely that shows that we should invest more in schemes to promote national literacy.

Thank God the cry of ‘Scrooge!’ from the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and other authors has brought the Government to its senses.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has now back-tracked and said the Government will continue to fund book-gifting programmes. He will be talking to Booktrust about ‘how to develop a new programme… ensuring we develop an even more effective way of supporting the most disadvantaged families to read together’.

It’s welcome news that there will be some continued support from Government. But I expect funding will be reduced. And the programmes – which currently see that every child receives books at birth, as they start primary school and at Year 7 – will no longer be universal. They will target only disadvantaged families.

You don’t have to be financially ‘disadvantaged’ to be impoverished of books. I know middle class parents, for instance, with a strong focus on their children’s academic achievement that don’t see the point in novels. The children are encouraged to read non-fiction because it is seen as more educational than story books.

I grew up in a lower middle class family but wasn’t surrounded by books at home because my mum thought they were ‘dust-gatherers’. I was, however, encouraged to go to the library. But local councils are also making cuts to library services, which could lead to a quarter of librarians losing their jobs over the next year. In London alone, 130 libraries are expected to close.

In cutting Booktrust schemes and in closing libraries and generally restricting access to books, we impoverish the minds and imaginations of our children, when we should be enriching them.