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Laurie Penny on the feminist writer's dilemma: how to write about the personal, without becoming the story

In five years as a columnist and com­mentator who also happens to be young and female, I have lost count of the times I have been encouraged by editors to write about being a woman, in a way that is “provocative” without really challenging sexism.

Why is women’s writing invariably reduced to the personal, or dismissed as “confessional”? This week, my book Unspeakable Things is published in the UK and in the standard set of interviews you do when you have a book out – in which you turn up in a clean T-shirt and try not to sound stupid – that’s the one question that has come up every time. Why do you write about “personal issues”? Why do you include your own experiences when you speak about sex, power and politics – and such intimate experiences, too? Why do you talk about addiction and date rape and television? Aren’t you being too “provocative”? Aren’t you being too “confessional”, as women always are?

The first point is that when men write about their experiences in a political context, it’s never called “confessional” – it’s just “literature”, or a “memoir”. The second is that male political experience is never coded as male – it’s just universal truth.

In five years as a columnist and com­mentator who also happens to be young and female, I have lost count of the times I have been encouraged by editors to write about being a woman, in a way that is “provocative” without really challenging sexism. I have been encouraged to be a “voice” for young women – to draw attention away from how most newspapers’ political pages are still dominated by men’s words, men’s agendas.

Now that I’m lucky enough to be able to pick and choose, I often hear the same thing from younger women writers: that they can pay their rent, or have their pitches listened to, only if they write about fashion or diets or dating in a way that is modestly feminist but still fluffy enough to sit within the “women’s pages”, which are usually part of a paper’s lifestyle section by virtue of not being considered serious politics.

It was in reaction to that pressure that I drafted an early version of the book with almost no personal content at all. I took inspiration from the dry, academic manifestos of many radical groups I had known and was careful to write from the head, not the heart. Those who saw those early chapters told me that although the argument was fine, something was missing. Courage was missing. I had spent so much time working and writing in a world where women’s experience was treated as trivial – the same car-crash stories of silly, suffering girls – that I assumed my own was trivial, too.

The political writers who have inspired me most throughout my life – from James Baldwin and Alice Walker to Allen Ginsberg, Germaine Greer and Leslie Feinberg – have always been the ones who told their own stories with power and passion but without letting their politics collapse into their experience. (Obviously, just because you’re inspired by Baldwin and Walker and Greer doesn’t mean you can write like them, but trying is always good.) In the middle of putting together my book, I reread Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an uncompromising essay on racial injustice in America interwoven with the story of the author’s own youth and early adulthood in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s. When Baldwin describes his violent rage towards a racist restaurant worker, how he had to run away because he knew that if he expressed that rage he could be arrested, beaten or killed, the open hands of his polemic close their fingers around your heart. Reading that passage, I found my own courage. The political had to be personal – not exclusively but without compromise.

Slowly, I began to weave intimate narrative back into my own writing. I wasn’t telling the story of my life, or my friends’ lives as angry young radicals – I was telling the story of our politics, piece by piece. I learned to pare down the unnecessary gossip. I took out most of the sex scenes, lest they became the story. I sent chapters again and again to friends I thought would understand, asking what could be improved, expanded. I’ve grown up writing online, where you can respond to comments and change your mind, so producing a single finished draft was a daunting prospect.

Where I wrote about issues that I had not been at the heart of – sex work, for example – I turned to people who knew about those worlds from the inside. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the danger of the “single story”, warning that the attempt to make any narrative universal undermines not just collective struggle but ignores the breadth of human experience. There is always pressure to construct a single story of what young womanhood in the 21st century is, what girls are and what they do, stripped of any uncomfortable anger about class and race and economic injustice, tied off with a happy ending: I got better, I got married, I had children and a makeover. There is such a temptation, particularly when writing for a mass market, to reassure readers that everything will be OK.

In the end, I stopped worrying and just wrote the book I needed to read when I was 17. What I most wanted to say, to all the messed-up teenagers and angry adults out there, is that the fight for your survival is political. The fight to own your emotions, your rage and pain and lust and fear, all those unspeakable secrets that we do not share because we worry that we will be hurt or shunned, is deeply political. That fight matters and you can make it through, like so many others before you.

Those are the secrets that are written off as “confessional” when anyone who isn’t a white, straight man speaks them. Balancing the personal and the political without being dismissed is an almost impossible project. However, in times like these I think of James Baldwin: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.” 

Laurie Penny’s “Unspeakable Things” is out now (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.