The last four weeks have seen me cradling a canned G&T on many, many trains as I shuttled up and down the UK. First, down south, to talk on literary festival panels about working-class writing. Then, north, up to Airdrie, where I stood outside the tenement I turned eight in, watching children running around my old primary-school playground in the distance, while a photographer took my picture in the blustery summer wind for the cover of Lowborn. It was a surreal, magical thing and, as I tweeted afterwards, I wished I could have gone back and told that anxious wee girl that one day she’d be outside that damp flat, grown, happy, shooting her third book cover.
At one point, I joked with the art director and photographer that, when I became a published author, I never imagined I’d spend so much time having pictures taken down alleys or being subtly angled towards the end of the street littered with crisp packets and broken glass. I was grateful to them for wanting to tell a story that transcended those usual clichés. Grateful to them, instead, for trying to capture the image of a strong woman in the environment that had made her strong.
Earlier in the month, during the literary festival panels, I sat on stage with other working-class writers (whatever that broad term means) and much of the conversation centred around the ghettoising of our work – the not-inaccurate belief that writers “like us” are expected to write only “authentic gritty realism”.
Ultimately, the consensus of those panels was that, as working-class writers, we have an artistic and moral responsibility to push against being defined simply by our background, rather than the scope of our imagination and the quality of our words.
As the week, and those conversations, progressed, I began to feel uneasy about my own work. For, while I feel strongly that this is a pervasive problem, wasn’t I doing the opposite in writing a book based wholly on my “gritty” upbringing? Wasn’t I writing entirely to “type”?
After those events, I found I was interrogating my choices again. In writing Lowborn, was I simply perpetuating the writing and consumption of a “poverty narrative”?
I had thought long and hard before deciding to write Lowborn. I was concerned about the exposure involved, the digging up of feelings long buried, of knowing that, once it was published, people could pay a few pounds and know me as well as my closest friends, maybe even better. I know it’s a particular sort of choice, deciding to write about your own life, and I have since wondered why I decided to do this when, having already written two well-received novels, I could have chosen to write about food, art, womanhood or, well, whatever the fuck I wanted.
But writing whatever the fuck I want is perhaps exactly the point. It’s that choice and freedom I’ve been given that is at the heart of this matter. As a girl born into poverty, I was told in all the ways, both silent and very loud indeed, that what I had to say was not worth listening to. And if I spoke up, I risked being punished. Now, I’ve the freedom not just to write – a huge privilege in itself – but to write and be read by people who generously let me converse with them through the intimate medium of those turning pages.
I have the choice to write something that might invoke insight and empathy, the freedom to say, ‘This was once me. It could happen to you. Or your child. Or your neighbour’
Someone who understands and believes in the transformative power of stories told by those who’ve experienced poverty directly is award-winning journalist and author of Austerity Bites, Mary O’Hara. On Friday, Mary launches her response to the usual “knee-jerk” portrayal of poverty, Project Twist-IT, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Project Twist-IT will feature stories by writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians exploring what poverty means today. The aim is to create a nuanced portrayal of its effects that “build empathy, rather than relying on statistics”. Because people do need those stories to “open up a different conversation about poverty” and “begin to shift a little bit the perception about what it means to live in poverty”.
With my own doubts still fresh in my mind, I asked Mary why she felt it was an important time to tell these stories. She replied that there’s “a sense that to be in poverty is an individual flaw. It’s become a narrative that’s so entrenched. We need to find ways to change that because if we don’t change that we’ll never change the underlying problems.”
It’s that simple. People need stories to understand. Knowledge is how we form the judgements we make, inform how we wish to live our lives, decide what sort of society we want to live in.
“Mary,” I told her, “you can’t see this, but I’m nodding along to everything you say.”
The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the idea that I should be expected to paint poverty in anything other than truthful colours – both the strength it can give and the bruises it leaves on the adult self – was both patronising and invalidating.
To suggest that writing about those hardships is somehow “shaming” to me and those like me implies that somehow poverty is a situation created by individuals, rather than by a structural inequality that keeps poor people struggling and offers a vast inequality of opportunities and power to those born in better circumstance. It insinuates that the blame lies with me or others from the communities I grew up in, rather than with a society that is fundamentally broken.
Of course, there can be hundreds of different tellings and retellings of the same story and certainly I could edit, contract, expand and conflate my own childhood to make it of the “poor but happy” variety. But that isn’t my real story and I have been given the freedom to tell the truth. No one would ever tell a middle-class person they should not write about the hardships they’ve endured. My story is mine. It is human and real and my refusal to sugarcoat it shouldn’t be seen as a betrayal of my community. Quite the opposite – it is an expression of agency I’ve earned.
My conversation with Mary reminded me that, in writing Lowborn, I’ve been given the opportunity to reach those who might dismiss people from a world they cannot comprehend. I have the choice to write something that might invoke insight and empathy, the freedom to say, “This was once me. It could happen to you. Or your child. Or your neighbour.”
I have the freedom to write a book that will sit on a library shelf, waiting to be discovered by a girl like I was, searching for books to see her life, her dreams, her very real struggles with the world reflected on the page so she might understand them.
When I stop and ask myself why this book, why take my own life and present it as truthfully as I can on the page, I tell myself because of that girl looking for the book on the library shelf, because perhaps someone else might be more decent to that girl if they read that book, too. I tell myself I’m writing for that eight-year-old in that tenement in Airdrie. Because she has earned that freedom and deserves a voice that is louder the usual poverty clichés.