Hairy Podcast Week, Day 2

by stephenpalmersf

It’s a given of writing technique that you should never leave the reader uncertain about the meaning of sentences – words, too. In Hairy London I chose to follow a different technique, inventing words and descriptions that, even in context, the reader could not be expected to understand. I did this because I wanted readers to bring their own concepts to the novel. That enigmatic ambiguity was a large part of the creation of the work, allowing, even forcing the reader to go beyond the rational as they imagined what might be happening – a kind of lexical Zen koan.

Some situations were ambiguous but comprehensible. The language of Velvene Orchardtide’s rooftop escape from his parents’ house suggests he is fleeing in something like a balloon and cow crossed, though, lacking specifics, the reader has to imagine what that might look like. Other situations left 100% room for the imagination. What is a diamond encrusted spigot? Still others could be deduced from linguistic trails: chronoflam, cigaroon and so on. This was all part of the absurdist style of the novel.

The other aspect of the book’s language that I want to explore here is the terminology I used for non-white peoples. It was part of the concept right from the beginning that three chauvinist, racist, entitled, upper-class men would in various ways have the scales removed from their eyes regarding the many iniquities of the British Empire. The best way for me to do that, I thought, was to use a close third person point of view – in other words, to see non-white peoples entirely from their privileged perspective.

As is these days all too clear, British Victorians and Edwardians considered other races inferior, if not actually subhuman, using a wide range of derogative words to describe them. In Hairy London I used those terms in the correct historical context to highlight such iniquities, which were part of the reason I wrote the novel – and many other novels, not least Beautiful Intelligence, No Grave For A Fox and The Autist; but also the Factory Girl trilogy, where at the end of the first volume I wrote:

… whose main character [Kora/Roka] is a fourteen year old of mixed racial descent; technically, a mulatto. This word has its origin somewhere in the sixteenth century and comes from the Spanish mulato. Interestingly, the N-word is not much younger – a few decades perhaps.

You will note I haven’t actually spelled out the N-word here. But I did use it in full in The Girl With Two Souls, to enhance the sensation received by the reader that my main character was being treated with appalling inhumanity. I felt that, because the word was used in an appropriate social context, not to mention an obvious historical context, it was right to use it.

Some people today think the word shouldn’t be used in any context; they say it is always wrong and always inappropriate. I think this is misguided, and often unhelpful. To censor the attitudes of people in the past by not using their dialect is to ignore or conceal their deeds.

To this day, I believe the use in the correct historical context of such language is crucial to exposing the vile reality of racism. If we censor our language we reduce the impact of every past racist iniquity. That, I believe, is a mistake. Racism is alive and well and must be opposed by every means available, including within historical analysis.

Of all the reviews of the novel, I was most taken with Gary Dalkin’s. Though he found the book a tad long (fair point), he grasped the very serious themes amidst the gonzo surreality:

And yet within this Ripping Yarns-on-acid lunacy there is a serious exploration of themes of racism and exploitation, a dissection of attitudes which simply took prejudice as the default. There is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF of the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language, but in the monstrous character of Gandy, Gandhi distorted through the worst fears of white upper-class early 20th century inhabitants of the British Empire.

Cheers, Gary! You got it spot on. They really did see Gandhi that way: a monster. But we know different, and we see from a new, different perspective; the human perspective.