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28 May 2015updated 16 Jun 2015 8:02am

What can’t you say? Stephen Fry, Slavoj Žižek, Elif Shafak and more say the unsayable

Writers, activists and public figures from around the world respond to NS guest editors Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer’s request to reveal the thoughts they leave unspoken.

By New Statesman

Nick Cave by Andre Carrilho

To purchase a copy of the Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer guest edit, visit, download it from the App Store or subscribe on Kindle.


Knowing that I dabbled in directing, the great Arthur Penn told me one of his secrets: “Wait for the moment.” In other words, when you – as director – think you see exactly what an actor should do, you – as director – need to shut up. Shut up and wait. What is “obvious” to you from the outside rarely matches the wondrous progression going on in an actor’s head. Then when the right moment arrives, half the time the actor will ask for suggestions and yours may help. The other half of the time the actor will create something much better than you – as director – could ever dream of. In art (unlike politics), bad ideas die on their own and good ones take flight, as long as one has the wisdom to shut up and wait.

Teller is an American magician, actor, writer and director, and half of Penn & Teller.

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Stephen Fry

Between the intense sanctimonious sensibilities of the left, on the one hand, and the brute moral certainties of the right, on the other, we squeezed liberals find ourselves (as ever) wringing our milk-white hands and wishing it were all otherwise. We don’t want to offend, but we cannot spend our lives walking on eggshells.

An example from each side. The truth has to be told about the genocidal madness of Hamas (read their “covenant” online if you don’t believe me. It’s not just every Jew across the world they want to kill, it’s also – I’m serious – Rotarians).The truth also has to be told about the failure of the west’s “war on drugs”. Not just a tactical failure, but a ­strategic and moral one.

So, from those two, more or less randomly chosen, subjects, here are two things that can’t be said. Israel has every right to resist coming to an accommodation with Palestine while it is led by Hamas. To save lives all over the planet, drugs must be legalised.

I knew I shouldn’t have spoken.

*tiptoes away*

Stephen Fry is an English comedian, actor, writer and activist.


Janey Godley

I spoke the unsayable words aged seven. Since then, I have found it easy to say whatever I feel and somehow relish the shock and obvious discomfort of others when they hear me speak onstage.

Being a stand-up comic, I see it as almost a badge of honour to be able to find the line and cross it, and many do. Comics make headlines by shocking people with jokes about the royal family and a page-three model’s
disabled child. But when you have said at age seven: “Uncle David is making me have sex with him,” and shatter your poor mother’s life and leave her with a horrific dilemma – ­telling jokes later in life about getting that uncle killed for your birthday seems somehow tame. For the record, I never wanted my uncle killed for my birthday, I wanted leather boots, but the men in my family are shit at picking presents.

Janey Godley is the author of “Handstands in the Dark” (Ebury Press)


Slavoj Žižek

In our permissive times, a new form of the unsayable is more and more acquiring a ­central role: it is not only that certain things are prohibited to say – the prohibition itself is prohibited: we are not allowed to say openly what is prohibited.

Already in Stalinism, it was not only prohibited to criticise Stalin and the party publicly, it was even more prohibited to announce this prohibition publicly. If someone were to shout back at a critic of Stalin, “Are you crazy? Don’t you know that we are not allowed to do this?” he would have disappeared into the Gulag even faster than the open critic of Stalin. Unexpectedly, the same holds for the relations of domination in our permissive post-patriarchal societies: a modern boss is tolerant, he behaves like a colleague of ours, sharing dirty jokes, inviting us for a drink, openly displaying his weaknesses, admitting that he is “merely human like us”. He is deeply offended if we remind him that he is our boss – however, it is this very rejection of explicit authority that guarantees his de facto power.

This is why the first gesture of liberation is to force the master to act as one: our only defence is to reject his “warm human” approach and to insist that he should treat us with cold distance. We live in weird times in which we are compelled to behave as if we are free, so that the unsayable is not our freedom but the very fact of our servitude.

Slavoj Žižek is the author of “Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism” (Verso)


Mubarak Bala

“[Renouncing my Muslim faith] has been a rough ride for me for not only the past year, but the three years I have lived as openly atheist. Before then, I confided in close friends and family. When they saw that I was not really “reasoning” with their delusion, many boycotted me, family punished me, the local media censored me; the sharia commission still misrepresents me, by announcing my reconversion to their congregation, apparently to keep the flock in belief. I’m powerless to challenge them and they still have the power to undo my life under the apostasy law. I am, however, active online from my safe place of hiding.

Mubarak Bala is a Nigerian atheist who has faced death threats because of his blogging


Suki Kim

In 2011, during the final six months of Kim Jong-il’s life, I lived undercover in Pyongyang, posing as a teacher and a missionary at an all-male university.

North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, and those 20-year-old students were its future leaders. In that walled compound, soon, I fell in love with them all. I was not allowed to tell them about the outside world, although I always struggled with wanting to. But, for them, the truth was dangerous. By encouraging them to run after it, I could be putting them at risk of persecution, of heartbreak. I often called them “my gentle­men”, but I don’t know if being gentle in Kim Jong-un’s merciless North Korea is a good thing.

I don’t want them to lead a revolution. The rest of the world might casually encourage, or even expect, some sort of North Korean spring. But I would rather that they forget me and whatever I might have inspired in them and instead just become soldiers of their Great Leader and live long, safe lives. The thought of any of my students somewhere cold and dark, in one of many gulags that exist in that country, keeps me awake at night still.

Suki Kim is the author of “Without You, There Is No Us” (Rider), a memoir of her time teaching in North Korea


Nadya Tolokonnikova

The Pussy riot member and conceptual artist reads from Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s moving diary about his incarceration in Guantánamo Bay:


Susan Calman

As a comedian, I’ve been asked the same question hundreds of times: “Susan, are women funny?” I’ve never answered the question the way I want to, because:

1. I used to be a lawyer before I became a comic, and I work on Radio 4. People think I’m intelligent and have a large vocabulary.

2. I’m Scottish and I try to combat the mainstream media’s stereotype of my nationality as one based on aggression and vulgarity.

3. I’m a lesbian and I try to combat the mainstream media’s stereotype of my sexuality as one based on aggression and vulgarity.

But I’m asked the same question again and again, drip-fed into my soul like an insidious blob of doubt designed to reinforce the misogynistic prejudice that I’m genetically unable to do my job. That a female ­comedian’s breasts and ovaries mean that we just can’t get a punchline to land because to do so requires a penis.

I’ve tried to find a better way to say what I think so that I don’t disappoint. So I don’t let people down. So I don’t upset those who have a high opinion of me. But I can’t.

So, here it is. This is what I’ve wanted to say to every journalist who’s ever asked me that question.

Yes. Of course we’re funny. Now piss off.

Susan Calman is a Scottish comedian, actor and writer


Erika Moen

The issue I’m most scared to discuss publicly is the way I see progressives turning the harassment techniques of their persecutors on members of their own community. It’s generally over minor differences or easily correctable moments of ignorance, but one mistake – even if it’s apologised for and used as a catalyst for growth and change – can suddenly justify years of emotional bludgeoning and ostracisation. That’s not productive. That doesn’t make the world a better place. Everyone’s entitled to feel their anger and express themselves when they’re offended, but I don’t see that as a permission slip to become abusive. We can do ­better than that. We are better than that.

Erika Moen is a cartoonist. More details at:


Paul Mason

It’s becoming just about sayable, though to howls of pain, that neoliberal economics is nonsense. And that the neoliberal model is broken. What’s hard for the economics profession to accept is what this means: that capitalism itself could be past its best. The traditional escape mechanism – adaptation through high-value job creation and the creation of new technologies – becomes hard to maintain once information technology pervades everything, tanking production costs. So we are stuck: we fear automating en masse because we can’t imagine what jobs people will do who are displaced. This is the clearest sign that we might be living through a 500-year turning point, not just a 50-year one, with the exhaustion of a model and a financial crash.

Paul Mason is the economics editor of Channel 4 News.


Inna Shevchenko

About 40 people were in that little Copenhagen café that day, gathering to discuss freedom of speech and blasphemy. I wanted to speak about what I felt was unsayable. I stated that criticising religion, mocking it or not respecting it, is a right that one can enjoy, as religion is simply an idea among many others. I said that blasphemy and criticising religion are celebrations of freedom of speech and that to gain this freedom, there should be more criticisms and more blasphemy.

And then my words were covered by the loud sound of an automatic rifle. I fell to the floor under the stage, hiding behind chairs. What I had prepared to say in that little ­Copenhagen café was unsayable . . .

However, let me confess more. It has ­already been five years since I began to be ­involved in Femen’s activity, which started in Ukraine, and three years since I started to live in exile, leading the movement, with its ten international branches, from France. Our activity could certainly be described as “saying the unsayable” – or, rather, “screaming the unsayable”. We know how it feels to be judged and severely punished.

Nevertheless, I can assure you that the day when what is now unsayable will be said loudly – and heard everywhere – is not that far away. Moreover, it will be said by women’s voices. By making our words unsayable, they made us stronger and angrier. Victory will be ours!

Inna Shevchenko is a Ukrainian activist and leader of the women’s movement Femen. A longer version of her piece is published here

Esha, who faces a blasphemy charge in Pakistan


Three years ago, I met Esha, then 21 years old, at a court in Lahore, Pakistan, where she was defending trumped-up charges of blasphemy brought against her by her best friend after they fell out. She was accused of desecrating the Quran by tearing up its pages and sleeping on them. She has been placed in solitary, by a brutal jail regime, in a cell that was freezing cold in winter and a baking 45°C in summer, despite the fact that she has already attempted suicide twice.

Asma Jahangir, the famous human rights lawyer, has recently agreed to represent her for free in her bail application, but I have no money left for her trial. If found guilty, she faces up to 50 years in prison. Many lawyers have been killed for defending blasphemy cases, so they charge very high fees to get involved. I have had to go into hiding because of the threats against my life.

Names have been changed to protect Mo’s and Esha’s identities. For more information visit:


Frances Ryan

When you’re disabled, “the unsayable” tends to mean the blindingly obvious. The elderly may call you “sweetheart” in the street. Jokers may pat you ironically. (Do not pat me ironically.) Shop assistants – deer caught in the headlights of a wheelchair – talk to whoever is next to us. Do not do this. He or she is an entirely different person and being vertical does not mean they somehow know more about my bra size than me. Random strangers – men who are trying to flirt with us, men who we are trying to work with – should also avoid slowly asking how long we’ve “been like that”. Ironically, some things should be unsayable.

And local authorities – currently forming “independent living” plans in the light of £4bn cuts to social care – stop trying to “put us to bed” at 8pm. The cull of dignified disability in this country is born from this ­unspeakable stigma: the disabled are no more than children.

Frances Ryan is a journalist specialising in equality issues. See:


Roxane Gay

More than anything, I want to say, “No.” I try, but the word “No” never escapes my mouth as emphatically as I would like. I say “No” and people hear “Maybe”, or think: “We’ll approach her again, later.” I want to say, “No.” I want to say, “No means no.” I want to say “No” so forcefully, I make eardrums ache; because, when I say “No”, I mean it. Yet still the word falls on deaf ears.

Roxane Gay is the author of “Bad Feminist” and “An Untamed State” (Corsair)


Elif Shafak

Every writer, journalist or poet in Turkey knows that words can get one in trouble. Because of a novel, an article, a poem or a tweet, one can be put on trial, even imprisoned. When we write, this knowledge keeps tugging at the back of our minds. As a result, there is a lot of self-censorship. But it is hard to admit this as it is embarrassing, unheroic.

When I write non-fiction, especially opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, I can try to be more careful. When I write fiction, however, things are different. Deep inside a novel, the story flows with a force of its own. I am neither the master nor a puppeteer who controls the characters from above. I am inside the flow, not above. All I have to do is to keep writing. Once the book is over and I hand it to my editor, I start to worry. What will people say? But by then the story is out. It is alive, breathing.

As writers from lands where democracy is still an unattained dream, we do not have the luxury of being apolitical. We ought to ask questions. We need to give a voice to the silences and the silenced. Hence I do and I don’t censor myself. In my daily life, I am an anxious, perplexed soul. But stories change storytellers. When I am writing fiction, I am wiser and calmer and I know that the art of storytelling is stronger than my fears.

Elif Shafak is the author of “The Architect’s Apprentice” (Penguin).


Kate Bornstein

The Top Five Absolutely True Things I Had to Cut Out of My Memoir Because My Publisher’s Lawyers Said Scientology Would Sue My Ass Off:

5. We all thought L Ron Hubbard looked like Jabba the Hutt.

4. Yep, Scientology really is all about the money and the power.

3. David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology, is a short little guy with bad hair and a raging Napoleon complex.

2. Scientologists are dour killjoys who make Puritans look like happy-go-lucky partygoers.

1. L Ron Hubbard was afraid of dentists, so he had yellow, rotting teeth and breath that could kill.

Wow, it feels SO GOOD to finally say all that. Thanks, New Statesman. And good luck with all the lawsuits.

Kate Bornstein is an American writer, performance artist and gender theorist.


Rose George

A hundred and seven litres, give or take. That is how much menstrual blood I’ve discharged over the 32 years I’ve been having periods. I’ve never done that calculation before now, because why would I? I’m not supposed to celebrate, calculate or in any way highlight the monthly discharge of my uterus’s endometrial lining.

Some other things I’m not supposed to confess: the time in an Indian restaurant in Paris when I went to the toilet and came back to find I’d bled all over the silk cushion. The time when I had no sanitary products and resorted to wads of toilet roll in my pants. The time when a schoolfriend had started her period and none of us told her she had bled through her pale-blue summer uniform. For something so red and vivid as menstrual blood, it is very, very quiet.

Behind the silence where menstruation lives are some other figures: the 23 per cent of girls in India who leave school at puberty because they have no toilet or privacy; the countless rags, newspapers, straw, dried leaves, ash or old socks that girls use because they can’t afford sanitary pads; the girls who prostitute themselves for sanitary protection (it’s called “sex for pads”); the many schoolgirls who start bleeding and think they are dying because they have been told no differently.

Menstrual Hygiene Day is 28 May: laugh at that, by all means. At least laughter is noise. The quiet has gone on too long.

Rose George is the author of “The Big Necessity” and “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello Books).



Dave McKean

In the spirit of contrariness, I’d like to offer a healthy criticism of the great god “Choice”. The internet has made choice our default setting for anything and everything. And now that we’re 20-odd years into this vast human experiment, I’m curious about the results. I’m old enough to remember when British TV had only three channels, then four. I watched more TV then than I do now, when there are hundreds. I also remember watching, and learning to appreciate, all sorts of things I would never have ordinarily chosen – odd documentaries, sports events, all manner of films – and, most importantly, the chances were good that some of my friends had seen the same programmes. They were part of the social glue, the self-defining reference points that shaped us.

In a world of infinite choice, do we search out new things to broaden our lives? Or do we just keep going back to the things we know and that make us feel comfortable? What is this strange, slippery relationship to “truth” that we now hold on to, this suspicion of science, of actually listening to experts in their chosen fields, and making our choices based on that hard-
won research? Does “choice” mean avoiding ­facing up to sharp reality, replacing it with a sort of diffuse fragmentation?

Dave McKean works across several artforms but is best known as a comic-book artist.


Rachael Jolley

When the Berlin Wall fell, some leaders in the global fight against censorship thought the battle was over. How wrong they were. Authoritarian censorship is on the rise in Russia. Journalists who have reported there for 20 years or longer are under enormous pressure to shut up and, in the case of foreign correspondents, to get out. Media outlets that carry any critique of Vladimir Putin are on the verge of closing down.

In Azerbaijan, the past 25 years have not brought a new era of democracy. In the past few months, democracy activists, lawyers and writers, including Rasul Jafarov, have been imprisoned. In the upcoming edition of Index on Censorship, Professor Anton Harber says South African journalists are facing the worst era of pressure since apartheid ended, as President Jacob Zuma scolds the media for being “unpatriotic” for using stories he doesn’t approve of. The fight is far from over.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of “Index on Censorship” magazine.


Hossein Derakhshan

In Iran, like in many other places, what you can or cannot say depends on who you are and where you say it.

Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian-Canadian blogger who spent six years in prison in Tehran for his work.


Dr Margaret McCartney

For all the inevitabilty of death, we tread rather too softly around it, meaning that important things keep going unsaid. People don’t often ask, straight out, “am I dying”? but I wish more did. People usually want to prioritise quality of life over quantity. So many will want to trade fewer days in hospital having debilitating chemotherapy for more days at home drinking beer and watching football. Others want to get their affairs in order, have a last big party, or have the conversations that have taken a lifetime to instigate. Dying at peace with yourself is one of the last and greatest gifts one can give to family and friends. When my grandparents died I was heartbroken, but also consoled by the manner of their deaths. They died surrounded by the people they loved.

In the meantime, I sometimes say: “I’m worried about how you are doing”, or “do you ever think of what lies ahead?” I’m really asking if you are ready to talk about the death which will come no matter how good the medicine or treatments. If you are one of the 90 per cent of people who don’t want to die in hospital, let your doctor, family and friends know. Talking about death is OK. Good deaths also mean good living.

Margaret McCartney is a GP and the author of “Living With Dying” (Pinter & Martin, £11.99)


Henry Marsh

Our ancestors had good reason to fear death – both for the pain and suffering that so often came with dying, unrelieved by analgesic drugs and sedatives, and for fear of what might come after death. In a modern, secular age, we need fear neither.

Our fear of death, our longing to go on living, like the leaves of a tree reaching for the sun, has instead condemned us to a new fear – that of infirmity and dementia, as so many of us now will live into old age. If you have worked, as I did many years ago, as a psycho-geriatric nursing assistant, and if you have watched the sad decline of an ageing parent with dementia, as so many of us now have, you can have few illusions as to what awaits many of us – close on 50 per cent by the age of 85 is the current estimate. Should not euthanasia be freely available once one has reached a certain age?

Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon and author of “Do No Harm” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).


Zia Chaudhry

The thing is, these Muslims expect preferential treatment. They get so offended at the slightest thing that, even in our liberal societies, we end up having to censor ourselves and curtail our hard-won freedoms just to avoid upsetting them. We bite our tongue, not daring to utter an ever-lengthening list of words and phrases.

I mean, when were we last permitted to use any of the following in relation to a Muslim: “mortgage”, “childcare issues”, “nine-to-five”, “rat race”, “tuition fees”,
“pensions” or “care for the elderly”? Exactly! The Muslims have been setting the media agenda for far too long, what with their Isis this and jihad that.

To be serious – words play a significant role in a community’s integration so it seems ironic to constantly debate whether or not a group is “British” enough and then wonder why some of the said group do not feel particularly British.

Of course, there is a corresponding, arguably greater, duty on that community to play its part in integrating but, if we truly desire a cohesive society, then reciprocity is crucial, not entrenched positions on the right to offend or be offended.

Zia Chaudhry is the author of “Just Your Average Muslim” (Short Books).

A Femen protest in Milan against Vladimir Putin in October 2014. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Laurell K Hamilton

I could make my girlfriend my legal wife. Bondage and submission is so hot right now it’s almost mainstream. What’s left? Non-monogamy is making the news and big names are admitting they have open marriages. A lot of people assume it’s just adding extra sex partners, or that it’s cheating, but that’s not it. Polyamory means to love more people; it’s a relationship with multiple partners. No lies, no cheating.

My plus one needs to be a plus three: my husband, our girlfriend, and her husband. We’re still searching for that perfect bed that sleeps four comfortably. We take turns shopping, cooking, doing dishes, just like other couples, but we’re a fourple. More adults to help run the household, yay! A kitchen remodel meant we all had to agree on every­thing, not so yay. But we did agree and we love it, from the handmade tiles to the Viking stove.

What? Did you think it was all orgies and that the household ran on magic, where everything is always clean, and clothes never wrinkle, they only tear off in moments of passion, buttons zinging across the marble countertops?

Laurell K Hamilton is an American fantasy and romance writer.


Nalo Hopkinson

People don’t speak the unspeakable because they know it’s not safe. So, if you were to live your life so that people at risk knew they were safe confiding in you – truly safe – what would that look like?

What would you do? What principles would you live by? And, if you aren’t already
living that way, why not?

Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican science-fiction and fantasy writer and editor.


Alina Simone

Last Friday, I went to the nail salon across the street, had my fingers and toes painted an invigorating “Chinchilly Grey” and rushed off to catch a $23 Lucky Star bus from New York to Boston.  Then I settled into my seat, pulled out my phone, and read Sarah Maslin Nir’s damning investistigion of slave-labour conditions at New York City’s mani-pedi salons. Horrified, I gazed down at my hands, glistening with the grey tears of indentured serfs stacked four-high into horrific one-bedroom flats in Queens. Subtly, I tried to fold my fingers into themselves, like origami crabs.

The answer, op-editorialisers quickly decided, was that manicure-loving women would have to pay more —much more — for what was described as an affordable luxury.

But for certain working women, having your nails done feels more like a requirement.

I was sitting on that bus to Boston because twice a year I have to pry myself out of my girl-cave for a sit-down with my bosses. This time I was making a pitch to take on a big project, which meant I couldn’t look like a woman who sits in front of a laptop eating Thai food with her fingers all day. It’s been drummed into many of us that in order to look like a woman who men take seriously, we must shellac over every vestige of our humanity. Legs, pits and upper lips must be smooth as heat-molded plastic. Skin blotches should be plastered over. Hair, Jennifer Aniston’d into submission. And nails?

They should preferably resemble Tic-Tacs.

The level of grooming required of frontline, client-facing staff at many white-collar establishments is both time-consuming and onerously expensive. And the truth is, many can’t afford the cost of a pricier manicure; they are simply a different class of wage slave. So prices will rise, working conditions will improve and a lot of salons will shut down. Many undocumented immigrants will be left without jobs and many female professionals, as one commenter who can’t afford to pay more put it, will have to “make do with clear polish.”

I hope the jobs that replace those lost are better, high-paying ones that don’t expose poor immigrant women to finger fungus and silicosis. But I also hope that in the long run, as more women boldly reveal they didn’t emerge from the womb with nails of Chinchilly Grey, feminism might just be served.


Chris Paterson

In a speech-chilling climate, where journalists think twice about communicating with sources given the risk of messages read in real time by GCHQ and NSA spooks, early May saw a victory for privacy when a US district court declared that the mass gathering of phone records has been illegal all along. But it remains to be seen if Edward Snowden’s spanner in the US security works will curtail the “unsaid” US threat to expression: death by reporting. In parallel to the post-9/11 construction of a global surveillance apparatus, Washington has routinely decried assaults on expression around the world while allowing its own military to grow more deadly to media.

The 1999 NATO attack on Serbia’s public broadcaster marked the point when the killing of civilian media workers by US weapons became normal. By 2011 the US was linked to more than 40 media deaths, the torture of journalists, and countless detentions without charge (mostly in Iraq, and lasting from months to seven years). Every attempt at legal challenge has led to a dead end. This impunity of the powerful is possible within a US-inflected hegemony which can only accept black-robed ideologues with machetes as the single threat to media freedom.

Chris Paterson is the author of “War Reporters Under Threat” (Pluto Press, £16)

Jamy Ian Swiss

What is unsayable is what must be said: we all die, get over it. Because the sooner you do, the sooner you will be free to celebrate that life, of a lover or friend or relative, who was once here and is now gone for ever, the better to cherish the real experiences you shared and genuine memories. These constitute the one true relic we have and should be treated as the rare and precious gems they are.

Unless, that is, a scum-of-the-earth ­fakir, some “talk to the dead” psychic TV star wannabe comes along and pisses on your pure and beautiful memories so that you can never again know the difference between what was real and what was made up. False hope is no hope. Pretending that your dead relatives can talk to you just helps you to pretend that you might be able to do the same after you’re dead. But you’ll be dead. And think now of all the time you’ve squandered when you could have been spending your time and money on something real, something to change your life and someone else’s life for the better.

Jamy Ian Swiss is a magician and sceptic.


Kathy Lette

Ageing is to women what kryptonite is to Superman. Show me a woman who is ­happy about her age, and I’ll show you the electroconvulsive-therapy scorch marks. For females, turning 40 is more danger­ous than wearing a bikini thong in big surf. Why? Because women suffer from facial prejudice – we get judged on our looks in a way that men don’t. Men must learn to read between our lines. On British television, the vast majority of presenters over 50 are male. It’s time that broadcasters allowed women to come of age in the public arena with wrinkles and self-esteem intact.

Kathy Lette is an Australian-British author. She tweets at: @KathyLette.


Geeta Dayal

I worked as a staff writer for a well-known publication (rhymes with “tired”) where I was constantly monitored based on how many hits my articles generated. While I tapped away madly, writing articles as fast as I could on one screen, another showed a red line that jumped up and down, terrify­ingly and unpredictably, showing how many people on the internet were reading my articles in real time. If something I wrote got above 200,000 page views, I received a small bonus, like a dog that had just won a treat. It felt like a journalism sweatshop – and, indeed, someone told me that our building had once housed an actual sweatshop, with underpaid immigrant labourers humming away on sewing machines, cranking out cheap clothes at breakneck speed. Now the sewing machines were Macs, but the concept was essentially the same.

One day, while finishing an article on robots, I was escorted to a cold office and told by a stern man who looked like an ­accountant that my articles, while “critically acclaim­ed”, were not getting enough hits. He pointed to a spreadsheet that showed I was near the bottom of the list in terms of page views. My articles were too long and well researched; I should have written more about cat videos, or live-blogged Apple product announcements. I left that day and never went back.

Geeta Dayal is a journalist and critic based in California.


Nick Cave

The lovely thing about the unsayable is that it is unsaid. As soon as it is said, it is sayable and loses all its mystery and ambiguity. Art exists so that the unsayable can be said without having to actually say it. We cloud it in secrecy and obfuscation. The mind is free to roam and all things can be imagined, under the cover of darkness. How nice that is. The unsayable. How tired we are of having things explained to us. Having things said. How nice it is, when people just shut the fuck up.

Nick Cave is an Australian musician and author. His most recent book is “The Sick Bag Song” (Canongate).


Rahila Gupta

In the continuing furore surrounding the Charlie Hebdo affair and American PEN’s Freedom of Expression Courage award to the magazine, there appears to be a strand of liberal left opinion that will not extend the right to free speech to Charlie Hebdo because lampooning religious figures like Muhammad is seen as racist. This conflation of race with religion is a tactic used to shut down debate at least since the Rushdie affair in the 90s although it was much harder to make the charge of racism stick against someone who was speaking from within the community.

Those who accept that the cartoons target religion then go on to argue that it is wrong to target the faith of a demonised minority, that the real function of freedom of speech is to speak truth to power and to challenge tyranny. However, tyranny is seen as an attribute of state power; non-state actors such as religious leaders who oppress women and LGBT communities fall outside these parameters. Besides, Muslim communities are not only demonised by western states but by the complicity enforced by self-appointed representatives such as al-Qaeda or ISIS who purport to be avenging insults against Islam – using a religious cover for unjustifiably violent political acts. Thus what should be sayable has become increasingly unsayable.


Now listen to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer discuss censorship and creativity on the NS podcast: