Kari Sperring (la_marquise_de_) wrote,
Kari Sperring

Writing and silence: under the skin.

I had a lovely time at Picocon last weekend. It really is an excellent convention: enthusiastic, lively and full of energy and imagination. I'm very grateful to the committee for having me back. I enjoyed talking to them, too, and the joint panel I did with Ian MacDonald.

Even so, I came away anxious. Here's why: in the questions part of the panel, someone asked us both about gender and power and external pressures and how that intersects with writing. And I found myself saying, "I let them silence me. I let them cut off my hands."

This is the language that Requires Hate used regularly about writers, particularly white women, that our hands should be cut off or broken. And I understand where that comes from, I really do. The damage done by cultural appropriation and misrepresentation is incalculable. I believe to the core of my being that writers -- and especially white writers -- have an absolute responsibility *not* to appropriate, to misrepresent and distort and abuse the culture and lives of others. I do not believe I as a writer have any right whatsoever to help myself to the cultural property of others. It's wrong.

But when I answered that question at Picocon, I wasn't thinking specifically about cultural appropriation. I was reacting out of instinct and fear. Because what my 6 years as a published novelist have taught me above all else is to be frightened. There are those out there who will consider this a good thing, for good reason (there are too many white writers already, and the British have too much space). I was reacting to the internalised voices that tell me I have no right to write. But suddenly I was using the language of violence in this context.

Those voices have been with me a long time. Many writers are riddled with doubt about their writing. It seems to go with the territory, as well as being a product of each writer's particular experiences. They began, as far as I can remember, at university, when I first met the concept of the Important Unpublished Male Writer. Up to then, I'd written in mainly female space and felt safe enough -- I was young in my fanfic circles and the women in their 40s upwards who populated it were wonderfully kind and supportive. My mother was enthusiastic and always encouraged me to write. I had a couple of supportive English teachers, too (thank you, Mrs Parnham and Mr Buck). It was something I did, something that was mine, something I enjoyed and valued.

My Cambridge writing group contained some lovely people, but it was structured around the talent of men. I learnt fairly fast that I would never quite be good enough, because no woman could be. The published writers who were discussed and approved were all men: the women writers were spoken of with a faintly patronising air. They were a bit.... soft, weak, lesser. My boyfriend of the time all but patted me on the head and told me it was sweet I tried to write. I learnt to be silent about writing. When I found wider sf fandom, the atmosphere was exactly the same. Women were not expected to write, and if they did, they should be quiet about it. Selected women were okay: Bujold, McAvoy, Cherryh, but they weren't quite.... There was always a knot of men who were loud and ready to explain why a man would have been better.

I was born before the 1973 Equal Opportunities act. My formative years were in a context in which I officially inferior. My education continued that, even after the law changed. My experiences in employment continued it. As an academic -- and I am a good scholar -- I was nevertheless Not As Good As A Man. And writing.... Everyone knew what my writing was like, without reading a line. Syrupy, conservative, romantic, weak, slush. By 25 I knew I wasn't good enough and never could be.

I learnt to keep quiet. To this day, I hate to talk about my writing and feel deeply unsafe doing it. And then the internet got involved.

I have a bad habit of recalling and internalising negative comments. Fan space and university space had enough of those already. The net.... The second I was published, my writing became public space. Now, there are good things and bad to that. Published books belong to their readers and I am fine with that. The inside of my head, though... I wasn't ready to have that handed over to the world. I'm not talking here about regular reviews. Those are part of the profession, and academic reviews can be much harsher than fiction ones. I've had years of dealing with those. No, the problem was the people who demanded access to my thoughts or told me they knew them better than me, for all sorts of reasons. Some meant well. Most, however, spoke out of existing social and cultural assumptions.

Women aren't quite the same as people.
Women are inherently dangerous.
Women's thoughts, like their bodies, must and should be policed for deviance, and wrong thinking.
Women are public property.
Women have no right at all to any space that is not accessible to anyone at all who wants to see inside there.

I've learnt that, as an Anglo-Welsh woman, I have no right whatsoever over my native cultures -- they belong to the higher social classes, to men, and, alas, to many Americans and I have no right to mind. because that minding is in itself inherently evil.
I've learnt that even as an adult, I must never, ever, speak back to those who are more important than me, because they have more rights than I do.
I've learnt that every word I write is simultaneously both utterly worthless (because female and older female to boot, urgh, disgusting) and subject to complete and utter policing, because without having read a line (sometimes) complete strangers can judge me just because they want to.
I've learnt that it's true, I have no right to write, because I might be in someone else's way.
I've learnt that I should cut off my own hands. As far as RH is concerned -- and as I've said before, I bear her no animus at all in respect of myself, though I am very unhappy about how she has acted to others -- she doesn't need to police me. I've internalised the message. I need to be silenced.

Which leaves me precisely where? I don't know. There are days and weeks on end when I feel like I should stop writing altogether. There's hardly a day at all on which I feel safe to write. I used to feel it was okay to write just for myself, that I could if necessary go back to that private space and give up trying to be published. Now, I don't know. A Fire of Bones is under contract. I'm struggling to get a 100 words a day and I feel the book is worthless. This blogpost feels to me like the unsafest thing I can say, and yet I feel obliged to say it.

And the language I use of my writing has been turned against me. I am sitting here waiting to cut off my hands..


Edited to add: FFA, if you see this, there have been weeks when your comments have been one of the few things holding me together as a writer.

Skirt of the day: denim.
Tags: writing
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