There is no single female experience. Photo: Getty
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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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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder