X Marks The Spot

As a special “Talk Like A Pirate Day” treat, here’s an article about Treasure Island, which we wrote some years ago for the Books for Keeps website.

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Long Shadow of John Silver

For those wanting something different for Christmas than the usual panto fayre, the National Theatre stages a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Children and adults will be familiar with its sunny climes and dark hearts, hidden loot, one-legged sea dogs with a parrot on one shoulder, walking the plank and hoisting the Jolly Roger. 

Without Treasure Island’s Long John Silver we wouldn’t have Captain Hook in panto, and certainly no Jack Sparrow! But the original Seven Seas bad boy was no pantomime villain like his offspring; Stevenson looked for inspiration not to the Caribbean, but to wet and draughty Edinburgh. 

Stevenson was born in 1850, into a devout Edinburgh household. He was a sickly but precocious child who possessed the spirit of adventure – adventures that mostly played out in his head. Later, when not absent due to tuberculosis, he only attended his University lectures when the weather was bad: like other students from Edinburgh’s modern, spacious New Town, Stevenson spent plenty of time in the crowded slums. 

But where most of his well-heeled schoolfellows used and abused Old Town and its residents for their drunken gambling forays, Stevenson was considerate towards people of all classes, realising that an invalid beggar he encountered on the street was once a young man like himself, with hopes and dreams. He mingled with chimney sweeps, seamen and thieves and became well-liked by them.  

Though he passed the Bar in 1875, he’d never practice law: it was literature that obsessed Stevenson. His first published works were travelogues documenting the trips he took for his health. They are full of anecdotes from various journeys, even to America. On one of these trips he met his future wife, Fanny Osbourne, and her children Belle and Lloyd.  

It was for his stepson Lloyd that Stevenson drew the map of an imaginary island that was the genesis of Treasure Island. The book is dedicated to Lloyd, but could equally have been written for the sick child that Stevenson himself once was. All young readers can identify with Jim Hawkins who encounters an old sea-dog on a mysterious errand and finds himself on a treasure hunt.

Stevenson knew the value of terseness and economy of style and wrote in a persuasive, journalistic style mixing fact and fiction. His characters reflections of people Stevenson knew in both Old Town and New Town. When he describes “A blind man, with a voice so cruel, cold and ugly,” it is not a caricature but drawn from life. 

Treasure Island first appeared as a serial in the magazine “Young Folks”, but it is with its 1883 publication in book form that Stevenson became a celebrated author. While it offers a rollicking adventure, the book has a surprisingly dark core: it’s about going from civilisation to barbarism, and whether one can survive. Young Jim Hawkins does, and grows up in the process. 

Treasure Island is so embedded in our culture and has inspired so many imitators, that what many hold for a traditional sea shanty is Stevenson’s invention: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” Yet for all the vistas of foaming sea, creaking masts and tropical islands these lines conjure, they underline an intentionally sober message: Stevenson had witnessed drunks in Old Town, old before their time, destitute and degraded, but he didn’t denounce them from the literary pulpit. Blind Billy Bones from Treasure Island may be a drunk and a rabble rouser, but we still feel some sympathy for him. 

Stevenson shows an endless fascination with characters who are morally dubious, with both pirates and good guys motivated by greed for the buried treasure. Focal point of the book is the ship’s hearty cook, who reveals himself as Long John Silver, the bloodthirsty mutineer. Loyalties are tested and betrayed throughout the story, but trough his friendship with Jim and the courage he displays, Silver earns our respect, and he is allowed to escape at the end of the book.

Stevenson found his very own Treasure Island when he travelled to the Tropics at the insistence of his doctors. He spent the last half-decade of his life on the Samoan island of Upolu with his family, taking an active interest in the indigenous people: he assisted in their politics and in fought for their civil rights. Among them, he found affection and esteem, and they called him Tusi-Tala, Teller of Tales. 

Robert Louis Stevenson passed away in 1894 at the age of 44, having been dying most of his life. He was buried on the very top of the Vaea Mountain, overlooking the sea. 

X marks the spot. 

The Old Rectory

Place of loneliness
and calm
A place to think
in silence

A place to sleep

Forever
is just one night

Ol’ Weem

Ploats van aanzoamhaid
en kaalmte
Ploats om ien stilte
te prakkezaaiern

Aain stee om te sloapen

Veur altied
is moar aain nacht

Ol’Ween, the Old Rectory, is the graveyard of the lost village of Vliedorp, between Ulrum and Houwerzijl.

(RvS)

Kismet

Fiyah Magazine posted a challenge on Twitter: “Your protagonist lifts the chin of the character they just realized they’ll end the whole world for. What song sets the mood?” We’d been thinking what Kaila’s song for Ymke would be, then found it listening to Jocelyn Pook’s 2001 album Untold Things.

I looked up the name of the track; Upon This Rock. “Well, that makes sense. That’d be the Otasfaust, that giant rock on which the city of Otasring perches.” It’s where Kaila and Ymke first meet, in the story The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, in The Red Man and Others. They’re both strangers there. Ymke is the scribe who comes from the wet north, and Kaila earns a living with her sword. She’s from further away; transposed to our own world it’d be somewhere in the Middle East.

The fictional world of our Sword & Sorcery stories is freely based on our own earth, which allows us to take shortcuts in our worldbuilding, much like Robert E Howard did in his Conan stories: he’d use existing geography and history as a template, so he didn’t have to spend too much time setting the scene, and could get on with the story. We figure that Kaila would’ve come from something like the Assyrian empire, and roughly the area between the Mediterranean, Black and Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf.

Kaila is fiery and physical, brave and -at times- brutal. Like so many immigrants and refugees, she’s left behind her previous existence, and has to fight hard to become who she is destined to be. Currently I’m writing about the journey she took in her teens through the mountain range that separated her old life from her new one, and which eventually brough her to the Otasfaust, upon this rock, and to Ymke. And when Kaila lifts the chin of Ymke, realising she’ll end the world for her, I have no doubt the music she hears is the music from her childhood.

Upon This Rock is a fusion of Jocelyn Pook’s string instruments with the Eastern kanoun and Persian lyrics. First we hear Bahram Sadeghian’s Avaz-e Nahoft, as sampled from his 1995 album Dastgah Nava. Then Parvin Cox sings, and her lyrics are from the 10th century Persian Sufi and poet Abu Saeed Abu al-Khair:
ای شاه، درویشت منم، درویش دل ریشت منم
بیگانه  و  خویشت  منم،  دارم  هوای عاشقی

Loosely translated:
“Oh King, I am your dervish, your fragile Dervish
I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.”

Without calling Ymke her King, Kaila could well have whispered the rest of these words, deep in the night. It’d be quite a confession for her, and opening a door that could not be closed again.

Kismet.

(RvS)

On Representation

Discussions about representation in speculative fiction are as frequent as our heads of state lying. To those on the inside it appears that for each two steps forward, there is another step backwards. At least. With each new group of readers, which each new media interest, the same questions about legitimacy crop up. Minorities within fandom still have to consistently argue for their turf, which takes away energy that could be used to create, and enjoy. There are inroads being made – Fiyah is doing pretty well, and bringing a spark of hope and positivity to Black spec-fic. On the other hand, Sword & Soul founding father George R. Saunders passed away without fandom noticing for months.

There’s still work to be done. It’s even more difficult when the undermining of representation, the questioning of own voices’ legitimacy, come from the inside: gatekeeping is is done by those within the POC, queer, disabled, etc communities, and while you can understand the motives, the effects of it are devastating. Own voices are silenced, and may not dare speak again.

Firstly, there’s that word ‘Problematic’. Your work being deemed Problematic, or yourself being labelled so, can get you ‘cancelled’ when it’s attached to you by the community’s taste makers. Of course, the use of ‘Problematic’ is problematic. It takes all nuance out of any argument. The label ‘Problematic’ can (and will) be applied to anyone from Marion Zimmer Bradley to someone who made a clumsy remark. The same goes for representation: between “perfect representation” and “bad representation” there are various shades of grey. Too often, anything not perfect is deemed ‘Problematic’, the perfect is made the enemy of the good. This comes, like so much else, from a place of real hurt. As marginalised readers, we’ve had a lifetime of not seeing ourselves much, or at all, in the fiction we love. This can lead us to place outsized expectations on any one work, so that a single author writing about one facet of experience is crucified for the fact it does not, and cannot, be all things to all readers.

Then, of course, there’s the word ‘Community’ itself. It’s become clearer that there’s no such thing as a homogenous spec-fic community. At best, it’s a large collection of overlapping clusters, cliques, special interests and alliances. When you talk about disability representation, the scope of what we understand as ‘disability’ is vast. Someone who is paraplegic may not recognise themselves in a story in which the protagonist has a personality disorder. And even when narrowing it down, one person’s experience with autism, for example is not the same as another person’s. Representation can’t be ‘one size fits all’, and this unfortunately isn’t always acknowledged or accepted. So, while ‘Community’ may be a useful shorthand, its limitations need to be understood.

There have been instances of autistic people castigating “autism moms” for both actual and perceived instances of them speaking over autistics, within and outside of the community. Yet, middle-aged women with autistic children are a huge, growing category of people being diagnosed themselves. Also, it has been noticed that people who have a real affinity with autistic people turn out to have that affinity for a reason. Many autistic people go most of a lifetime without our autism being recognised. This plays really messily with the anti-self-diagnosis movement, as you can imagine, though the waiting list for getting a diagnosis is up to 4 years. That is, if you can get yourself onto that waiting list.

With gatekeeping usually comes authenticity-policing in fiction: is the author writing from their own experience? Are they themselves queer or disabled? Are they disabled enough? There are reasons why seemingly straight authors write queer fiction. They may be in a happy straight relationship but bisexual, or they may not be ready to be out, or to be out may be compromise their safety or wellbeing. It’s not the reader’s prerogative to demand the author share their sexual resume or their inner thoughts. Neither is it up to the reader to demand details about an author’s disability. We ourselves wouldn’t want to tell any non-disabled person that they can’t write about disabled characters.

We’ve made a point of writing Ymke, in The Red Man and Others, as a disabled young woman. The stories are not about her disability, but are subtly informed by it. Would someone come up to us and ask: “Well, Ymke’s got hip dysplasia. Does either of you have it?” Then, well, no. Does this automatically make us and the stories inauthentic? Angeline sometimes uses a wheelchair, and some of her experience has been useful in writing Ymke. But does the writer need to know this? We decided to make Ymke and Kaila a couple; how far should we justify this with our own dance card?

You want to have characters that are disabled (or queer, or POC, or…) without this automatically shunting your book to the disabled (or queer, POC, etc) shelf, only visited by disabled (queer, POC, etc) folk. We believe that they should be recognised as part of the fabric of society, not merely its margins. Diversity should be the norm instead of an exception. For that, writers in general need to populate their stories with a diverse cast, on all levels, from protagonists to bit players.

That undoubtedly will lead to a lot of bad representation, and we’re sure that there’ll be harmful stuff. That’s a given; the communities (such as they are) work all the time to counteract the fall-out of bad representation and the distorted image it gives of disability, queerness or POC. This, however, is because there’s just not enough of it, or not enough of it is visible. If the one big book from a big publisher with a trans character is written from a place of ignorance or prejudice, then that’s colouring the audience’s view on transgender issues. If it’s one of several books with trans protagonists, then its harmful impact will be reduced by context, and more importantly, those other books will shine a more insightful light on the subject.

What we usually get though is mixed representation: things that work in some ways but not in others. The TV series Atypical is a great example of this. A recent Guardian review highlights that Sam is less a fully-realised character than “a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments”, compared to how engaging and individual his sister Casey is. Yet, it manages to put across a lot of ideas about what the neurodiversity movement is trying to achieve. We are going through such a shift at the moment in the way that autism is portrayed, that good representation often by necessity builds on bad and mixed representation. It would be nice to leapfrog straight to the good stuff, but that’s apparently not how it works.

We feel one of the goals in campaigning for better representation actually is to get to an environment in which people who aren’t like you can write about people like you, without fucking it up. We, disabled writers for example, are never going to be able to be the only storytellers about ourselves. Of course, where we are now, the immediate need is for agents and publishers to prioritise own voices, which is long due. That’s one step that shouldn’t be leapfrogged, lest you end up with the entirely ignorant writer who becomes an authority by default.

In our book, and the stories we’re currently writing, Ymke falls in love with the fighter Kaila. Kaila has been inspired by a woman Remco worked with, who came from Turkey, was very short, but had been in the army and could take care of herself. But here is where representation becomes a really fine line. We don’t have personal experience with racism, as Kaila would have. However, Remco is an immigrant in a country increasingly hostile, and has his fair share of xenophobic violence, ‘othering’, micro-aggression. These adjacent experiences are very useful in writing about Kaila.

There should be some kind of balance between encouraging more and better representation, giving authors room to grow, and acknowledging that we often do not know the full truths of people’s identities and how they relate to their own work. So,

let’s get off the hamster wheel of policing authenticity. We end up shining a bigger spotlight on the bad stuff than it deserves, and the good stuff deserves the bulk of our energy.

Underneath The Tree

Today we saw the cover for the Christmas anthology in which one of our stories will appear, and we’re really happy with it! It’s atmospheric, yet modern and fresh looking. A good job by Design For Writers!

Underneath The Tree will be published by the community organisation Sesheta and funded by the Arts Council NI. The other Northern Ireland-based writers appearing are: Gary McKay, Stacie Davis, Samuel Poots, Eddy Baker, Simon Maltman, Stuart Wilson, Sharon Dempsey, Morna Sullivan and last but not least Jo Zebedee. It’s edited by Claire Savage and Kelly Creighton.

All proceeds from the anthology go towards the Simon Community NI, Northern Ireland’s leading homeless charity, and the World of Owls NI, who do more than protect owls alone. Both are charities that do very different but important work.

We hope that you will help us support them; we’ll keep you updated!

REVIEW: CAPTAIN AMERICA (2011)

Our original review of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger. “Want to kill Nazis?” is one of the central questions in the movie. In 2020, we no longer do that sort of thing (lest one is called a ‘domestic terrorist’ who ‘murdered in cold blood’ someone ‘who came to maintain order’. No, we don’t kill Nazis. Be careful with punching them. But make very sure to vote the Nazis out!

Captain America may not have the same popularity over here as Spiderman or Batman, but he’ll have to win over audiences worldwide, because next year he’ll play a big part in the superhero team-up movie The Avengers.

While comic book giant DC puts the occasional Batman movie out, launched a disappointing Green Lantern and has been dithering over a new Superman, Marvel keeps the superhero movies coming thick and fast. Most of these feel like all the Saturday morning cartoons from your childhood rolled into one, and you might expect its newest offering also to be a big, fun and dumb film. If so, you’d be in for a surprise: Captain America: the First Avenger is big and fun, it is also surprisingly subtle. Not bad for one of the oldest superheroes around, who has been killed off, resurrected and mothballed repeatedly during his 70-year long career.

After a prologue in the present, the movie quickly goes back in time, to the early ‘40ties. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a typical little guy like those who appeared in the Charles Atlas weightlifting cartoons in comics of yore. He’s bullied, probably gets sand kicked in his face too, but is determined to join the army and do his bit. But he is rejected time and time again, until he’s taken under the wing of refugee scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and military officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Against all odds, they feel Steve is perfect for the top-secret Super Soldier program that is engineered by inventor/aviator Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, and lead by gruff Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones).

Fan service: Absolute unit!

“Want to kill Nazis?” asks Dr. Erskine. But instead of the expected anti-German sentiments, Steve answers that he doesn’t want to kill anyone, just wants to stand up to bullies, no matter where they’re from. If it’s true that WWII was the last morally unambiguous war of the 20th century, then Steve’s character embodies this idea: he wants to fight not for glory, but because it’s the right thing to do.

All actors have choice parts written for them and convince as people from the 1940s; a time which may not necessarily have been better than our own, but certainly wasn’t any worse. Even quickly sketched characters are believably human, and they’re far more than the boring bits between the explosions. We care for them and feel their pain – of which there is plenty; no character makes it out of this war unscathed.

One hideously painful dose of serum later, Steve finds himself – even quicker than Charles Atlas could promise – of beefcake proportions. However, the Super Soldier project gets cancelled by Colonel Philips, and the now somewhat redundant Steve finds himself on a tour of propaganda, not duty, shilling for war bonds. The film’s production design soars as the bemused Steve takes stages across the US as “Captain America”, complete with a hokey costume, a groan-worthy spiel and a musical number with feathered dancing girls and an irritatingly catchy tune.

This reinvention makes it possible for the filmmakers to play with Captain America’s history in the comic books, the first of which was published in March 1941: the USA was just preparing to enter the fray of World War II and Captain America was designed, by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, to be its number one patriot. Captain America even gets to sock Adolf Hitler in the jaw, as on the star-spangled cover of the first issue of the comic. For obvious reasons, this doesn’t quite happen in the movie, but it’s alluded to in a very clever way.

Just as Steve gets comfortable, and starts to believe that he is the People’s Hero he portrays, he is sent to entertain the troops in Europe. There he encounters real soldiers, and they are not impressed with him. Steve realises he’s merely gone from lab rat to performing monkey. However, there’s no time for self-pity: He learns that his pal Bucky is among a platoon feared captive or dead, and goes to the rescue. Can Captain America prevail?

Proceedings take an explosive turn due to the Red Skull, a rogue Nazi general who wants to put Hitler in his shadow, and won’t let a Super Soldier get in his way. He too was injected with Dr. Erskine’s serum, but it magnified his evil, just as it did Steve’s goodness. “We have left humanity behind,” he tells Captain America on their first encounter. As comic villains go, he’s more intriguing than many of the traditional variety, because the genesis of his powers makes him more than just a foil to our hero: in a way the Red Skull and Captain America are brothers, and such familial rivalry is the stuff legends are made of.

All in all, this is a movie with heart, sincerely approached 1940s values, and a production designer to watch. Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to period fantasy; in 1991 he directed The Rocketeer, which made him a favourite for this gig. Historical war movies such as Doctor Strangelove and A Matter of Life and Death get apt, unforced references, and there are enough allusions to the comic book history to keep fans happy.

The film alternates action sequences with slow-burning romance, and 21st century effects with mid-20th century aesthetics. Most importantly, Captain America is played straight and avoids the irony and jokeyness that would ruin it as a period movie. Real emotion is chosen over stock 1940s characters, and incorporating details like the Teutonic myth and occultism that fascinated the Nazis also helps to ground the film in real history, however fantastical its premise.

The film may be a tad long, and flags a bit after a climax halfway in, but ultimately keeps its end up through sheer charm, and the well-handled surprises and shifts in tone that keep it from getting predictable.

Yes, we can!