January is the month that women are sent to war with themselves. We’re told that this is the time to take a long hard look at ourselves, and then our self-doubt is commodified into apps, books, gym memberships, shopping sprees and “must-have” superfoods. Because of this, women start the year with a comprehensive list of new projects and habits, seemingly proactive, until you read between the lines and realise it’s actually just a long list of where we feel we are not enough – or, where our bodies are concerned, too much. On the other end of that spectrum, there are just as many articles telling us we should ignore this urging, that if we have succumbed to a diet, an exercise routine or an expensive juicer then we are bad feminists, not woke enough, not in charge of ourselves.
Fucked if we do, fucked if we don’t: welcome to womanhood.
This January, I did not reinvent myself. This January, the only thing I gave up was allowing people who know nothing about me to feel they had the right to tell me their opinions about me and my life.
It was as we entered the “Women, You’re Doing It All Wrong” season, aka January, that I began to observe how many strangers (specifically, men) felt the need to comment on what working-class literature “should be”. How many people (men) had felt the need to correct what I chose to say about my writing and how I define myself as a writer. The academic who, having heard me contribute to a BBC Radio 4 documentary on working-class writers, declared that I “did not sound like a tracksuit” and wondered if “the industry was letting in the really rough ones”.
I have difficulties with low self-esteem and anxiety. Both are symptoms of navigating myself through a world I had to fight my way into, possibly also of doing so as a woman
Then, there were the writers who declared that the act of writing about your own background is a collusion with the bourgeoisie expectation of working-class narratives, another who felt I might be encouraging “poverty voyeurism” and one who felt that to grow up poor is no real trauma, that my life seemed fine. Another, perhaps well intentioned, said I must be careful not to become a token prole, as though I haven’t been working successfully for years to take a seat at the table, that I’d only been invited as a trick.
I’ve written here before about my difficulties with low self-esteem and anxiety. Both are symptoms of navigating myself through a world I had to fight my way into, possibly also of doing so as a woman, issues that I’m working on gradually and kindly with myself. Still, it’s hard for me to hear these strident opinions, delivered with such confidence, and not feel doubt seep in.
After each occurrence, I interrogated my decisions, my motivations, my work. Should I deny my own experience, the urgency I feel to understand my own circumstances and place? Have I allowed myself to be duped by some sort of system? Should I be expected to fit a stereotype, or more forcefully assert my working-class credentials? Refuse invitations, though I’d often be the only working-class person present? Should I actually write about fairies, stockbrokers or spaceships? Should I pretty up the grim brutality of being poor in the UK? Should I, in fact, just be quiet?
I had answers. I was ready to justify myself. But the simple answer is “fuck, no”.
Here are some labels: working class, queer, feminist. Like everyone else, I contain multitudes. Yes, the term working class is problematic; after all, not all “working-class experiences” are the same. Within that definition there exists a wide spectrum of poverty, and a whole range of variable factors that shape an individual life. The way we relate to circumstance is not the same; how we choose to engage with society is not the same. But there is crossover, commonality and shared understanding. There are things that I can say that will only truly resonate with someone from the same background as me. And, dear confident men, if you are curious enough to ask me a question or two before proudly declaring your opinion as fact, I will happily talk to you about how I can both sprawl beyond that binary definition and still exist within it.
Once I recognised that uneasy, disorientated feeling – the feeling that I had to answer for my very existence to other people who I had never met – it was easier to deal with. It was the same way I felt in my early twenties, when I understood that being a woman meant resisting being told, overtly and in more insidious ways, that because of my gender I should behave in a certain way, limit what I should hope to achieve, be careful of how much space I took up. It’s a different framework, but the intention is the same: to control, to “manage”, to push me into a box of someone else’s choosing so as not to disrupt the neat order of their assumptions.
Over the years I have learned to silence these messages, or at least to hear them as the futile noise they are. And, in the same way that, no, I would never let anyone else tell me what size I should be, what job I should be doing or what it is acceptable to say, I won’t be allowing someone to tell me what I should write or what sort of writer I’m permitted to be.
Next January, Lowborn will be published. I’m sure that, for the next 12 months, the opinions will just keep coming. But I’ll tell the story I want, in the way I choose. That is a privilege. I acknowledge that privilege every day, and I’ve no intention of giving it up. My dialogue is with the pages of my book, with the communities I hope to try to represent, with my future readers. Ultimately, the only person I answer to is myself. To quote Shirley Jackson, another female writer good at doing whatever the fuck she pleased, “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree.”
This blog is part of series written by Kerry Hudson as she researches her new book, Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns.