The answer to ‘why?’ is WHY NOT?

Here’s that post I wrote for the Jo Fletcher Books blog, reposted here:

WHY NOT? Crossing Cultures and Shifting Perspectives | Jo Fletcher Books

‘Why?’ The interviewer asked me, sounding intrigued but baffled. ‘Why, why did you want to write a book like this?’

I was appearing on Smile Jamaica, TVJ’s morning television show (think BBC Breakfast format), to talk about Gemsigns a day ahead of its Caribbean launch. What had started out as a much needed and long overdue two-week break to see family and friends was turning into something approaching a promotional tour; and this, or some version of it, was turning out to be the most commonly asked question.

Why do you write science fiction? people wanted to know. You’re from Jamaica – what does that kind of literature have to do with you? With us? Isn’t it a bit – well – odd for you to be writing about things like genetic engineering and social media and the future of humanity?

It wasn’t a negative reaction, exactly; people were genuinely perplexed. And once I explained why it’s my vehicle of choice, what it has to do with the kinds of stories I want to tell, and most importantly that while my Caribbean heritage hugely informs my thinking on issues of ethics, equality and access, I do not and will not consider it a constraint on the breadth of my interests or the extent of my ambition, they got it. And they got behind it. The support and pride were overwhelming. But the fact that so much explanation was so frequently needed really made me think about expectation, and limitation, and how severe the subtle, subconscious constraints we put upon ourselves can be.

I pointed out to another interviewer that no one expects a writer who is from, say, New York or London to write only about New York or London. Natives of the developed world – especially those who are most representative of its dominant hegemony, which is to say white, straight, well-educated and male – are granted automatic licence to think and write about whatever they damn well please. Their horizons are expected to be broad. It’s a telling irony that, even while celebrating the emergence of those from more marginalised backgrounds onto the same stage, the reflexive assumption is that their interests, their imagination, their sense of expertise and entitlement, ought somehow to stay confined within those narrower margins. That they – we – will be less capable of, and less interested in, exploring the same terrain.

But give credit to my people – put it to them in those terms, and boy does that worm turn. I could almost see the lightbulb going on over the heads of my questioners. They understood that not treating where you come from as a constraint is the difference between declaring equality, and practising it. So I’ve been thinking about perspective, about how even small shifts can completely alter the way the same events are perceived.

This is something I already knew, of course – I even talk about it in the opening paragraphs of Gemsigns – but this trip brought it home to me again. And not least for the vastly greater amount of attention, the huge difference in profile, that I enjoyed launching Gemsigns in Jamaica.

Can you imagine an unknown author, devoid of celebrity associations or the frisson of scandal, being interviewed about her debut novel on BBC Breakfast? Having the press release for its London launch event featured in the entertainment section of the Guardian or the Times? No, me neither. By contrast, the level of interest and passion and genuine excitement that Gemsigns generated in Jamaica was truly humbling. Their view was: this woman has already accomplished something amazing, something we can all be proud of. She already deserves our attention, our admiration, our support.

There’s perspective for you. Same event, different perception. Is one more correct than the other? I don’t think so. The Jamaican perception is as true for Jamaica as the UK perception is true for the UK. I’ve been privileged to experience them both, and to learn from them both. And what I’ve learned (again) is this: crossing boundaries, confounding expectations, is mind-expanding in and of itself. We who go from the small to the large and back again, from the margins to the centre of the page, cover more ground than those who sit within the borders of their inherited territory. The need to speak to and for different audiences makes us think about the nature of communication itself; makes us adept at telling our stories in ways that connect.

That may not explain why I wanted to write a book like this. But it explains – to me at least – how I was able to.

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  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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