Activism and literature

This week we have an interview with author Winnie M Li, writer of the novel Dark Chapter which was described by the Guardian as “a defiant retelling of personal trauma.” Winnie also wrote an article for us about activism and literature – keep scrolling to read it!

Please note that this episode discusses assault, which some listeners may find distressing.

Asking the questions this week is Elspeth Latimer, a UEA postgraduate researcher in crime fiction who worked on the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival with us, courtesy of a CHASE (Consortium of the Humanities and Arts South-East England) placement.

Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.

Activism and literature

Winnie M Li discusses whether novels can be a creative and effective way of exploring and drawing attention to important issues – and is fiction better at doing this than non-fiction?

When you live through a trauma, and that trauma changes your life — And when you realise that trauma is actually part of a much larger societal problem, then as a writer, it becomes vital to write about it. Or at least that’s how it was for me.

My debut novel Dark Chapter is a fictional retelling of something that happened to me ten years ago: I was followed by a stranger in a park outside of Belfast, and I was violently assaulted and raped. At the time, it was very much a matter of survival for me — not just during the attack itself, but in the months and years that followed. I felt isolated, cast adrift, often hopeless I would ever recover.

Along the way, I learned that sexual violence is actually something many people suffer: approximately one in five women become victims. And as I gradually became an activist around this issue, I realised how much readers need a novel that truly testifies to the survivor’s experience — the horror and the injustice of it all — while also showing a path towards recovery. I wanted to show how ill-equipped the criminal justice system can be for victims.  And If I could tell this story in the form of a compelling crime novel, then I could not only engage readers through the twists and turns of a plot, but also place them in the shoes of both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime. Through my characters, I could do justice to the experience of injustice.

Writing as a means of demonstrating injustice has long been an impetus for many a novelist. From Charles Dickens’ exposé of debtors’ prisons and the urban poor in Victorian London, to Harper Lee’s child-framed view of racism in the American South, novels have always been an important way of exploring societal inequalities.  Would we call this writing a form of activism? I suppose it’s up to the individual writer which word they want to use. But I’d say yes, these types of novels very much have activism at their root.

However, we often picture activism as being very in-your-face: protestors brandishing signs, shouting collective chants, chaining themselves to gates. Novels are more subtle. Instead of yelling angrily at you, novels win you over by investing you emotionally into the life of a character who might be suffering through injustice. They dramatise the human experience behind a larger problem, render that experience lived-in and relatable for readers.

This is why fiction, with its immersion into the mind of a character, can have an edge over non-fiction, which carries a duty to presenting actual, proven fact. Fiction also has a plot which can keep readers riveted. And it’s more likely to appeal to the general public. Not many people would want to pick up a treatise about squalor in Victorian debtors’ prisons. But peopled with Dickens’ colourful characters and an intriguing plot, that unjust, dangerous world can come alive in a novel. So by writing fiction around a form of injustice, we can reach a wider audience, and raise a greater awareness about what needs to change.

I’m really looking forward to discussing this in greater depth with two fantastic crime writers Eva Dolan and Mari Hannah at Noirwich this year. Through our novels, we all touch on ways in which society could be better at handling issues like violence, mental health, inequality, gender. Come along on September 15th to ‘Writing Wrongs’ and join in the conversation — after all, change can’t happen without a dialogue first.

Matt Wesolowski is the author of Six Stories and was at Noirwich 2018 on the Books, Box Sets, Big Screens panel alongside Jane Lythell and Nicola Upson. Here he discusses the term ‘hybrid writer’ and how he incorporates new forms into his storytelling.

I often get described as a hybrid writer. That’s an apt description; stylistically I’m like any writer. I’m a semblance of bits, a crucible of influences. I’m more jumble sale in a village hall than high end fusion cookery but there you have it. I’m not really a crime writer. Not a proper horror writer either. I’m a hybrid.

When I was young I read everything and anything I liked the look of. I remember feeling bemused by a girl in school who asked me (rather witheringly) why I always read ‘girls’ books’. We were in year eight. I never understood what she meant; I still don’t. Mind you, she was the same girl who wished me a ‘terrible future’ in my end of year book. I get the feeling she’s probably not a fan.

Limiting yourself to books that are only of a certain label or genre makes little sense. I often hear people say they like to read ‘trash’ on holiday. I don’t know what that means either. Why would you go and read a book that isn’t good? That didn’t do something to you emotionally? I don’t get it.

It’s the same with the ways of storytelling. I’ve always loved the idea of different formats within the same book. That’s when hybrids start to form; odd shapes shambling out of our brains and into the world. I studied Linguistics at university and have always been fascinated by how our language evolves; how patois and dialect find their way into our lexicon, become standard, forcing older words into archaisms. I feel that fiction does the same thing. I love it when an author slips in some form from the modern era. It feels almost taboo; a strange hybrid brought to life. I remember seeing Lauren Beukes use Reddit threads in Broken Monsters, Paul Tremblay using blogs in A Head Full of Ghosts – the thrill it gave me, how relevant it was. How perfect. I loved it.

Technology gives us new ways to tell stories. As a species, we have always told stories. Podcasts are a new way we tell stories and that’s why I wanted to use this form, to make this hybrid of audio and literature. Writing a book in the form of a podcast wasn’t difficult, it felt new, it felt exciting, it felt taboo. I didn’t even know if it would work. My own hybrid creature unleashed from the lab.

I’m sure there are some who hate literature being tainted by new formats, who see fiction as a sacred cow, an untouchable art form that should not be sullied by the frivolity of modernity. I feel like the emergence of new ways of storytelling will always play a huge part in what I write. So long as a story is being told effectively, so long as it’s relevant, for me it’s valid.

But there will always be people who will shun a hybrid, will drive the monster from their village. I imagine they’re the same types that tell boys they can’t read ‘girls’ books’ and read ‘trash’ on holiday.

Or maybe I’m a weird creature with a terrible future…

On episode 18 of the National Centre for Writing’s podcast, crime writer Nicola Upson discusses the history of crime fiction and writing a historical detective series without it being old fashioned.

Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing, and recorded at Noirwich 2018.

Val McDermid delivered the annual lecture at the 2018 Noirwich Crime Writing Festival, on the subject of “What we really talk about when we talk about crime fiction”.

As well as being a legendary crime author, Val is also one of this year’s Man Booker Prize judges, and her lecture examines where crime fiction sits in the wider literature scene and how it relates to society and the real world.

The Noirwich Lecture is presented by The Times and Sunday Times Crime Club.

Hosted by Simon Jones, writer and Digital Marketing Manager at the National Centre for Writing.

Leo Benedictus was at the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival in 2018 to talk about breaking rules and pushing boundaries alongside Jacob Ross and Louise Welsh. Here he muses on the importance of genre definitions – or the lack thereof.

There is a little speech I find myself giving, when someone asks what kind of books I write. “Publishers call it literary fiction,” I say. “It basically means novels that aren’t thrillers, or romances, or sci-fi, or something else. It’s the stuff that doesn’t sell.” I spare us both the embarrassment of what “literary fiction” really means. It means I think I’m an artist.

So when my second novel, Consent, went out to publishers, I was surprised that people started calling it “a thriller”. In retrospect, I am surprised I was surprised. The book tells the story of a stalker and his victim. I meant it to be very frightening. I’ve not read many thrillers, but the resemblance should not have been hard to see. Nor was it unwelcome, altogether. If Consent could be called a thriller, it seemed I might be better paid for it, so I kept my surprise to myself. Now I’m booked to speak at a crime writing festival. These things get quickly out of hand.

Some people say that only snobbery preserves a distinction between literary fiction and the rest. I don’t agree. I think the distinction is clear. It just isn’t very useful – and is frequently misused – because it describes something you can’t see on the page. Literariness is an intention. It exists only in the minds of authors, a mysterious place, especially for authors themselves.

Because when writing a novel, you face one question above all others. Why am I doing this? Is it for readers, or for myself? Both, may be the answer you want to give. But in practice, over and over, you are forced to decide. Do you use an unusual word that delights you, or find a better known alternative? Do you want people to consider your ideas and admire your craftsmanship, or would you rather not distract them from the story? Should the book be easy to read, with a hook at the beginning, a twist in the middle, and a satisfying end? Or can it have longueurs, moments of strangeness, that release their pleasures slowly, if at all?

Every novel is made from choices like these, and if it were possible to list and study them, we would see whether most faced out or in. If you write mainly for yourself, it is a literary novel. It may please others, but that isn’t what you wrote it for. Novels written to please other people are non-literary. They naturally tend to repeat what has been popular before, and as a result they mingle into streams, which we call “thrillers”, “romances”, “space operas” and so on.

In practice, the distinction muddies easily. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy uses the pattern of detective fiction, but was made with literary choices, it seems to me. And let’s not kid ourselves. It is more prestigious to be an artist than an artisan, and some novelists write with that in mind. Their books resemble literary novels, but aren’t, because of course they too are trying to please an audience. As a result, their novels often form new streams. Right now, quasi-memoirs, some of them excellent, are enjoying much commercial and critical success. But if you write one because you know this, it isn’t literary. You are not writing for yourself.

At first glance, challenging avant-garde novels seem to guarantee their author’s literary intentions, because nobody would write one to be popular. On the other hand, for the same reason, this is the genre you would expect to attract people who yearn for literary prestige. Not caring what readers think and trying to look that way are – obviously – quite hard to tell apart.

Which is why it’s best not to worry about the word literary. Yes, it is a badge that means something, but we can’t pin it anywhere. Not even on ourselves.

Cathi Unsworth introduces the real-life people and events behind her latest novel, That Old Black Magic. As Cathi reveals, the truth can be strange indeed, and very inspiring…


Portrait of Helen Duncan

When it comes to writing noir fiction, I have found that the most bizarre characters and plotlines are ones you just couldn’t invent. Which is why my books are based on real cases that have either remained unresolved or contentious to this day. In That Old Black Magic I combine one of each, intertwining stories of witchcraft from the darkest days of World War II, with a cast drawn from reality that even the most imaginative of scribes would be hard-pressed to invent. Mediums, Ghost Hunters, music hall managers, Suffragettes-turned-Fascists and the corporeal spooks of British Intelligence haunt these pages. Please allow me to introduce you to some of them.

I first wrote about HELEN DUNCAN, the Highland-born medium who was the last woman to be prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in March 1944, in my last novel Without The Moon. My interest piqued about this still-controversial case by Tony Robinson’s BBC documentary The Blitz Witch, in the course of research, I discovered two more fascinating characters. Her ally, HANNEN SWAFFER was Britain’s most popular and trusted journalist – despite being a self-professed Spiritualist and Socialist, neither of which would gain you much Fleet Street traction now. Her nemesis, HARRY PRICE was the founder of the National Laboratory for Psychical Research, who investigated the phenomena of mediumship as Spiritualism reached its peak of popularity between the Wars, was a member of the Magic Circle and President of The Ghost Club. While Swaffer, along with scores of distinguished witnesses, testified to Helen’s veracity at The Old Bailey, Price provided the prosecution with photographs of the medium projecting ectoplasm that looked suspiciously similar to cheesecloth.


Portrait of Hannen Swaffer

Price, alongside the remarkable MI5 spymaster MAXWELL KNIGHT weave together my two central stories. Knight ran a circle of agents throughout WWII who infiltrated the many strange, mystic cults with allegiances to the Nazis. His most infamous recruit was the traitor propagandist William Joyce, aka LORD HAW HAW, and his most famous friend the novelist DENNIS WHEATLEY, who also worked in Wartime counter-intelligence. In my fiction, Knight assumes the enigmatic form of The Chief. The case that binds them harks back to the April of 1943, when four young boys illicitly foraging in the grounds of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire made a grisly discovery inside a tree. Itself resembling a thing of nightmare, ‘the Wych Elm’, as it was locally known, was acting as coffin for the body of a woman, apparently ritually murdered and hidden there two years previously. Though no one came forward to identify her, graffiti started appearing across the region, asking: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM? Is she the woman that my fictional detective, Ross Spooner, has been seeking since, on hearing the confession of a German spy captured in the Fens, The Chief sent him to the Midlands to find the elusive Agent Belladonna?


Graffiti, sprayed in August 1999, on plinth of obelisk on Wychbury Hill, Worcestershire

It is certainly the most intriguing mystery I have ever had the fortune to pursue. The many links between spies, Spiritualists, stage magicians and witchcraft covens, coupled with a breathtaking real life backdrop, might at first seem a little far-fetched. But I can promise you that all the weirdest details and strangest characters in this book are those I haven’t made up. And that’s… magic.

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The Noirwich Crime Writing Festival returns this September with a new line-up of astonishing crime writers. A limited number of Season Passes are now available!

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Looking back at Noirwich 2018

Now that Noirwich 2019 has been revealed, we thought we'd take a retrospective look back at last year's festival. If you've never been to Noirwich before this will give you a taste of what to expect in September.

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Activism and literature

This week we have an interview with author Winnie M Li, writer of the novel Dark Chapter which was described by the Guardian as “a defiant retelling of personal trauma.”

Read more

Hybrid writing

Matt Wesolowski is the author of Six Stories and here discusses the term 'hybrid writer' and how he incorporates new forms into his storytelling.

Read more
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