Talking Bodies 2017- The Post That Inspired My Paper on the Gendered Politics of Women’s Hair

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This post is just a quick thank you to everyone who came to see my talk at The University of Chester’s Talking Bodies conference, run by the fabulous Emma Rees. I was lucky enough to perform a talk earlier today about entitled The Gendered Objectification of Women’s Hair and its Correlation with Sexuality. I was overwhelmed by the enlightening comments and kind praise which I received from my talk, and I just wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who came and who contributed to the fascinating discourse around hair and its correlation with sexuality. I wanted to share the blog post that inspired this discussion, first published on this very blog in October 2015. Although the ideas articulated in my paper have moved away from this gendered reading of hair in Adichie’s Americanah, the core argument around the gendered politicalisation of women’s hair, particularly with regards to sexuality and race, remains the same. 

‘Hair is political.’ I don’t think I truly understood what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie meant by this until I had my head shaved for charity.

There was literally no other reason for my head shaving except that I hadn’t had a new experience in a few weeks. When work suggested someone do it to raise money for charity I jumped at the chance.

Even just a few days afterwards people started staring and making strange comments. I was oblivious until someone came out with it and asked if I was a lesbian. It was then that I realized that my hair was more than just the stuff that grew out of my head- it was part of my identity. By shaving my head but not altering my identity to suit social stereotypes I messed with people’s view on the world, and it angered some people (a woman in a nightclub actually told me it should be illegal to have a shaved head and Doc Martins and not be gay).

It is worse for women than for men. A friend of mine had his head shaved for a part as an extra in a BBC drama a few years ago in order to preserve historical accuracy, and the only comment he ever has on the subject is that it “was the easiest 15 quid I ever earned”. The reason for this is fairly obvious- the reduced judgment on men for their appearance- however it is still confusing that a man with such an openly extreme haircut receives less social backlash than a woman.

However it wasn’t until my recent reading of Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, that I began to fully understand the politics of hair, particularly in relation to black people’s hair. The first time the reader meets the protagonist, Ifemelu, at the start of the novel she is travelling to have her hair braided. Throughout the novel the subject of hair, and how it shapes our identity, is called into question, as Ifemelu struggles to adjust to her new life in America and the specter of race, something she had never considered when she lived in Nigeria.

Her hair is a key part of her identity that Ifemelu decides to reclaim when she realizes that she is being changed by America, as she realizes that she is changing herself to suit the views of others. It is the realization that damaging her hair to achieve an ideal created by someone else was not worth it which causes her epiphany;

At night she struggled to find a comfortable position on her pillow. Two days later there were scabs on her scalp. Three days later, they oozed pus. Curt wanted her to see a doctor and she laughed at him. It would heal, she told him, and it did. Later, after she breezed through the job interview, and the woman shook her hand and said she would be a ‘wonderful fit’ in the company, she wondered if the woman would have felt the same way had she walked into that office wearing her thick, kinky, God-given halo of hair, the Afro. (p204).

So does this mean that hair is definitely the reason people judge us? Is it simply a small, intrinsic part of a wider social judgment or something much more?

Whilst Americanah does not answer these questions- indeed no novel could without being incredibly long and dense- what it does do is change the space hair takes up in literature. Although other novels have touched on the issue of hair and identity, for the most part hair is merely a descriptive device, used in characterisation in the same way that a handbag or a pair of shoes is- to provide an overall view of the character. Stiff hair makes the character uptight; hippies always have dreadlocks; pretentious types have perfectly coiffured up dos, etc. But in Americanah, hair becomes something more; here hair is a political issue, a social problem, a construct to be overcome. The same goes in real life, as emphasised by the people who told me off for being a straight girl with a shaved head, the people who claim that braids and afros are not professional hairstyles and try to have them banned from schools in order to intimidate and control black children. The fact that this has worked its way into mainstream literature shows that we are opening up to the idea that judging someone based on their hair is both wrong and abhorrent, and this can only be a good thing.

My paper took this argument, which you see here in the early stages (this blog post was the precursor to my paper), and concluded by articulating my belief that women, although outwardly seen to express their individuality through their hair, are actually pandering to male notions of normativity whether they are consciously making a stand against convention or adhering to it. Personally, I feel that the only way to combat this is to address the gender imbalance throughout corporate and artist worlds to provide women and minorities with a greater say in their own aesthetic choices and give them the agency to shape wider perceptions of their aesthetic choices. Please feel free to comment or message me- I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. 

The Top Five Adam Dalgliesh Novels to Enthral P.D. James Fans

Cover Her Face

Unchallenging yet intensely interesting, unoriginal yet delightfully twisted, I have enjoyed almost every novel by P.D James, particularly those featuring her detective Adam Dalgliesh. Her work was closely modelled on the Golden Age novelists and I found myself linking it to modern greats such as the wonderful Colin Dexter and Ruth Rendell.

It was her intense characterisation that set James apart from many of her contemporaries; her novels were innovative in having intense descriptions of horrific violence but evoking a cerebral detective whose methods were genteel and leisurely in comparison to the devious and vicious criminals he sought. Adam Dalgliesh is an intensely sensitive soul whose penchant for writing poetry when not solving crimes is often remarked upon. Starting out as a Detective Chief Inspector, Dalgliesh progresses steadily through the ranks to reach Commissioner by the later novels, whilst still retaining his personal involvement in cases. Although at times highly unbelievable (the latter fact alone being a case in point) James’ books offer interesting insight into the human condition and are a great read. Here I showcase my favourite five.

5. Cover Her Face: The first book in a series is always a great place to start, and I absolutely adore this innovative and fast paced novel. Both the victim and the majority of the suspects are exceptionally shady and the victim herself is incredibly malicious and manipulative, creating a great space for James to offer numerous red herrings and options for the reader to puzzle over. Readers will be hooked by this cracking opener which is the ideal introduction for the educated and methodical Adam Dalgliesh.

4. Death in Holy Orders: Like a number of James’ novels, this book offers a creative spin on the traditional ‘locked room mystery’ by offering a select number of suspects in the form of a coastal Church of England theological school. Dalgliesh originally arrives in to explore the suspicious death of a student, operating outside of his official capacity until the body count begins to rise. As the pressure rises and the killer remains ever vigilant the detective involves members of his team from London to help him solve this fiendishly difficult case and uncover a number of shocking truths which threaten the peace and tranquility of this otherwise exquisite retreat.

3. The Lighthouse: Set off the coast of Cornwall, this exhilarating novel is both a human drama and a stunning piece of Crime Fiction as Dalgliesh and his team battle against deadly diseases and a devious criminal. This book also puts across a fantastic representation of the detective himself as Dalgliesh battles his own demons and faces a number of tough decisions.

the lighthouse

2. Unnatural Causes: P.D James has a bit of an obsession with murdering or suspecting writers, whether they be novelists, as in this particular case, or journalists, for whom she reserves a particular ire. In this book a novelist is found murdered in a similar manner to the plot of his latest thriller whilst Dalgliesh is enjoying a rural holiday. The coast is another key feature in James’ novels and she loves to incorporate it into her books, making the setting an integral part of every novel.

1. The Private Patient: Set in Dorset, this exhilarating novel encapsulates the very best of James’ talents and offers readers a great insight into the seedy and secretive world of private cosmetic surgery. Incorporating Dalgliesh into a team was a stroke of genius on the author’s part as it allows him to become more of a rounded character as readers see him interact with a diverse group of people whilst at the same time work to solve a puzzling murder.

Revisiting Hercule Poirot: Did We Really Need To?

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Happy Easter!! On this fine Easter Sunday, which sees me returning to the shire for some much needed R&R, I explore the need to revive existing, popular characters such as Poirot and whether this adds anything to the canon of excellent literature already produced by creator Agatha Christie.

As a huge fan of Christie’s seminal Golden Age detective, I was both pleased and surprised when I encountered Sophie Hannah’s reinvention of the pernickety and fastidious Belgium detective in The Monogram Murders (check out my review HERE).

The book is a triumph, as is the follow up, Closed Casket, which I have just devoured in practically one sitting. However, whilst I acknowledge them as being excellent in their own way, it rather got me thinking about whether it was the plot or the reincarnation of Poirot himself that was so special about the books. The answer is the former.

Taken together with the recent reincarnations of Dorothy L Sayers’s excellent Lord Peter Wimsey by Jill Paton Walsh (read my thoughts HERE) and the many reinventions of other famed detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, this can be seen as the age of revival. Hollywood is constantly remaking movies, often shot for shot, and the literature world is no different, with these new versions of classic characters reappearing regularly. But are they worth it?

With the new Poirot novels, it is the differences from the originals that stand out almost as much as the similarities. In an effort not to borrow too heavily from the original Walsh invented her own sidekick, Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard detective with a limited imagination but an eye for detail. Catchpool is supposed to be the stand in for Christie’s brilliant Captain Hastings.

A note for those who have never read Christie’s works; Hastings is not the man you have seen on screen. I have never seen him portrayed properly. Whilst Poirot himself has been well done on a number of occasions, including Peter Ustinov’s measured version and the recent seminal portrayal of the character by David Suchet, Hastings always comes across wrong. From Jonathan Cecil’s incredibly upper class outing to the Hugh Fraser’s bumbling oaf, each of which are good characters in their own right, every on screen version of Hastings fails to take into account Christie’s writing, which showcased a brave and loyal man who was astute and intelligent, although occasionally lacking a little in common sense.

Creating a new sidekick in the form of Catchpool does allow Hannah to distance herself just enough from the Queen of Crime’s work and highlight her own talent for character creation, but what I cannot understand is the need to use Poirot to achieve this. Hannah’s other novels have all been huge successes, with the spectacular Little Face being one of the creepiest and most engaging books that I have ever read. Whilst I understand the value of wanting to reimagine a highly popular character such as Poirot, these novels would be even better if they instead introduced a new character that readers could enjoy without the burden of prior knowledge and high expectations.

The plots are a key area that are constantly compared to Christie’s original books, and whilst they are intriguing and inventive there are, in my opinion, too many twists to Hannah’s revised Poirot novels, reducing the impact and lessening the tension in the narrative. Christie was a master at creating taunt, tight stories that crackled with atmosphere; whilst they are great books in their own rights, neither The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket are both lackluster in comparison.

At the end of the day it is this constant commitment to reviving old characters and stories in an attempt to reinvigorate past success that is killing creativity across the media industry, and whilst I enjoy Hannah’s new Poirot novels it is my sincere wish that writers create new and exciting books which will one day become classics in their own rights, rather than constantly looking to prolong past appreciation.

John Moralee Interview: “It’s my job as a writer to make my writing fun to read”

 

author picture cropped 2Crime, horror and science fiction writer John Moralee discusses his work and talks me through the importance of his readers. 

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style.

My writing style developed as a result of studying what I liked reading and figuring out what worked for me. My favourite authors were always the most readable authors – the ones who didn’t show off their literary skills with convoluted sentences, thesaurus-busting words and obscure references to other literary works.

When I’m reading for pleasure, I like exciting storytelling. If a reader can’t follow a story without stopping to thumb through a dictionary, I think the writer should have done a rewrite, making everything clearer. That doesn’t mean I don’t like complex sentences and evocative metaphors, but they have to be carefully done.

It’s my job as a writer to make my writing fun to read, so I ruthlessly “murder my darlings” during editing.

Readability is my number one priority – always.

What drew you towards crime fiction, mystery and science fiction writing?

Growing up, I visited my local library at least once a week, taking out the maximum six books each time. The children’s section had loads of Agatha Christie books and Doctor Who ones, which is probably why I like crime as well as science fiction, horror and other genres.

How did you get into writing professionally?

Writing was the safest option for me and everyone else. I’m terribly dangerous if I try to do practical things. Somehow, I break anything I touch. Maybe I should have become a demolition expert.

Please tell me about your books. What do you believe draws readers to them?

I’ve written four novels and roughly two hundred short stories. My début crime novel was Acting Dead, a mystery set in Rhode Island about a famous actor investigating the disappearance of an old friend. I loved writing that book, but it took years to finish. The research and rewriting was mentally exhausting.

I find it much easier to complete shorter stories, like the ones collected in Edge of Crime, which includes several stories first published in Crimewave and other British magazines. My other short story collections are The Bone Yard and Other Stories (horror), Bloodways (more horror), Blue Ice (more crime), The Tomorrow Tower (science fiction) and The Good Soldier (general fiction) – all available on Amazon.

Most recently, I’ve had some science-fiction stories published in the Visions series of SF anthologies by Lillicat Publishers and ATZ’s horror collection Tricks, Treats and Zombies.

My other novels are Journal of the Living (a zombie apocalypse thriller), The House on Willow Lane (dark fantasy), and The Legend of King Arthur (comic fantasy.)

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I’d choose Iain M. Banks. His novels were beautifully written. He wrote superb literary/mainstream fiction and science fiction. His Culture books were a revelation, because they were not set in a grim future dystopian society. They had optimism and hope. I liked the way he was successful at writing under two separate genres, using the “M” in his name to mark the difference. The Wasp Factory is one of my favourite books for the incredible denouement. His early death was a huge shock.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

On May 28th I have a story called Imhotep’s Dog published in an anthology of steampunk stories called Clockwork Cairo. The other writers include Gail Carriger, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. There are twenty stories by steampunk authors in the book, published by Two Penny Books. I’m really looking forward to that.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

Yes – too many. I have a massive collection of books that I haven’t got around to reading yet – hundreds and hundreds of books stored in boxes because I don’t have the shelf space – so I really should read those books first. Unfortunately, I can’t resist buying more books by my favourite crime writers, like Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver and Jo Nesbo. They are so prolific that I’m never going to catch up!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes – thanks for interviewing me!

Thanks to John for answering my questions, it’s been fascinating. You can find out more about John and his work HERE.

The Gift Maker Review: A Thought Provoking Human Drama

the gift maker

Hot on the heels of my interview with the author, the fabulous Mark Mayes (check it out HERE) I review his stunning debut novel The Gift Maker. Unlike many of my usual go-tos this is not Crime Fiction or a rip roaring thriller; in fact, it is tough to place this extraordinary novel in any genre at all.

If I had to pick one, I would say this is a human drama. The novel follows a group of people, some of whom are connected and some who are complete strangers, who are given unexpected gifts, which come with a cost that changes their lives forever. Drawn into the life of the titular gift maker himself, the group is pushed to its limits as they explore the nature of relationships and the importance of their own identities.

If you’re a fan of this blog then as you’ll already know, I’m a big fan of strong, idiosyncratic dialogue in novels, as both a part of the narrative in itself and a method of characterisation, and I very much enjoyed the dialogue in The Gift Maker. The expression’ old fruit’ is a particular favourite of mine and seeing it appear here really endeared me to this fascinating and thought-provoking novel.

Characterisation is also vital in a novel such as this, and Mayes is particularly good at creating characters with real depth and versatility, allowing the reader to become interested in their fate whilst remaining detached thanks to his at times almost clinical narrative style, which lends the novel an almost surreal edge.

Whilst I don’t normally enjoy novels which focus too much around the human condition, I found myself strangely hooked by this addictive and riveting novel. From its characters to its tantalising plot, every element is at its best as Mayes crafts an intriguing and rich narrative around this seemingly simple plot, which quickly becomes deeply interesting.

Adam Croft Interview: “I’m not sure I have defined my writing style”

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Bestselling author of Only the Truth and In Her Image Adam Croft talks me through his work and how he constantly tries to hone his craft as he prepares to launch a new novel which is sure to be just as riveting as the previous. 

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards thriller and mystery writing?

I’m not sure I have defined my writing style. Not deliberately, anyway. The general rule is to just write, and to write however comes naturally to you. That’ll be your voice.

Mine tends to be quite casual, much of it in the vernacular. Readers seem to enjoy it — it makes the books easier to read and allows them to lose themselves in the story instead of grappling with unnecessarily convoluted prose. They’re the sorts of books and stories I prefer myself, so they’re what I write.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?

I had a number of jobs before I started writing. I’ve been an actor, delivery driver, small business owner and probably a few more occupations that I’ve deliberately erased from my memory. I don’t recall drawing on any of them when writing, though. Not extensively.

Generally speaking I think I’m actually quite a boring person with quite a boring life, so I make it my mission to invent characters that are far more colourful!

Please tell me about your books. Why do you believe they have become so popular?

I think they’re popular because people can relate to the characters. They’re all flawed, some of them incredibly so.

I think the age of the infinitely likeable protagonist has probably been over for a little while — certainly on this side of the pond. In the US they’re still after the moral hero in their books, which is perhaps why my books are more popular in the UK, Australia and Canada than they are in the States.

People’s reading tastes across the world change at different times. I just keep writing what I like writing (which is generally the same as I like reading) and my readers seem to enjoy it.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

I don’t really believe in inspiration, and I certainly don’t believe in writer’s block — not as an ailment in itself, anyway.

Writer’s block is a catch-all term that can be used to explain any number of problems, usually one of: not having planned properly; not having a good enough story or characters; or not having enough inner motivation to get the work done.

In terms of what inspires my books, it’s the planning process. It’s having studied the craft and knowing what sorts of things readers like. It’s understanding my characters and plots and knowing where they need to go next. With regards to what inspires me to write in the first place, a succession of bills landing on my doormat tends to help.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of collaboration when it comes to writing fiction, but maybe that’s just because I’ve not really tried it. I think rather than trying to piggy-back off a more well-known writer’s name I’d actually like to work with a writer who didn’t have a big name. Perhaps a brand new writer who has an innate talent for telling story and creating compelling characters. That’d mean a lot more to me, I think. 

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

Yes, my third psychological thriller In Her Image is out on 1 May 2017. It follows hot on the heels of Only the Truth and Her Last Tomorrow and is, I’m told, even better than they were. Her Last Tomorrow was a huge success and completely changed my career, and Only the Truth topped the Amazon storewide charts all over the world, so I’ve got very high hopes for this one.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

I’m actually really bad at keeping up with what other writers are doing. I know it sounds dreadful, but I mostly spend my time holed up working on new books and improving my craft. I’m really not very good at networking, going to events or any of that. I’d like to be better at it, but my readers and my books always have to come first.

Thanks ever so much to Adam for taking the time, you can find out more about him and his work HERE.

Dystopia Novels: Are They More Relevant Now Than Ever?

the handmaid's tale

The world can feel like a scary place to be in 2017. With the rise of U.S President Donald Trump, a man whose foreign policy, immigration tactics and stance on woman’s rights all suggest that he is determined to undermine the basic human rights of everyone who is not a white male for the foreseeable future, coupled with the global refugee crisis and the continued issues around global warming, the world can seem truly frightening right now.

With this in mind, are dystopia novels the answer? Recently online streaming service Hulu showcased its trailer for its TV series version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the ultimate dystopia novel, showing perhaps a renewed interested in such books among both readers and the viewing public.

Dystopia fiction has been in the public eye for a while now, particularly in young adult fiction, where cult series such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games novels, (which are basically a cross between Battle Royale and The Running Man), Veronica Roth’s Divergent series and The Maze Runner books by James Dashner all focus on young characters working with resistance groups against corrupt governments who mistreat them under the guise of supporting the greater good.

the hunger games

Within adult fiction the focus is more on nostalgia than on creating a legacy of new dystopia novels, (although there are a few notable exceptions nothing has really made a massive splash in the literary market in recent years) with the film and TV market in particular keen to rehash old dystopian classics, such as the new Blade Runner and the reimagining of The Handmaid’s Tale. Such a strong appetite highlights, in my opinion, the growing dissatisfaction of readers and viewers alike as we all strive to understand the madness that is Trump’s America and the confusion we see in our lives as a result of some, frankly bizarre political decisions that have taken place over the past five years.

Whilst in times of great unrest and confusion, such as now, it might be considered more prudent to reach for something fluffy and distracting, the drive towards more dystopia fiction showcases a need for resistance and an interest, perhaps, in convincing ourselves that our politicians, for all their corruption and poor decisions, are at least not as bad as they could be.

For anyone seeking to explore the dystopia genre, re-reading old favourites is a great place to go, and everyone should read 1984 at least once; for those seeking something more modern, there are still a number of writers, such as Margret Atwood and Dave Eggers, whose phenomenal novel The Circle is, coincidently, due to be released as a film shortly, are still writing really relevant and interesting dystopia novels.