“I think it’s almost impossible to write without being political” — Kit de Waal
On Sunday the 6th of October, the Manchester Literature Festival welcomed Manchester’s very own activist and actress, Maxine Peake, to The Dancehouse; as the Patron for Comma Press, where she presented a new collection of short stories aptly named Protest: Stories of Resistance.
The book contains fictional accounts of individuals involved in, or affected by, protests in the UK, whilst remaining true to the history of democratic statements between 1381 and 2003. The stories range from accounts based on the Suffragettes on hunger strike to mixed race couples and their inspirations from Malcolm X’s visit to Smethwick in 1965.
The anthology heavily focuses on the emotional impact that politics and protest has had on the lives of those that history has seemingly chosen to forget.
Peake introduced herself and the collection, describing its focus as one that is “re-imagining the history of British protest through fiction,” and the blurred lines between riot and revolution. The collection touched upon the Suffrage movement, beginning at home in Manchester and how it was initially being treated as radical and delusional.
We were often reminded of how attempts to make political, social, and even humanitarian progress through acts of protest are received with dismissal throughout the afternoon, and it became very apparent that the speakers’ pieces were very emotionally charged.
Guest speakers Michelle Green, Kit de Waal, and Courttia Newland read extracts from the short stories that they had submitted to the collection. The group stressed the way that the different relationships of their characters were affected either by their inspiration from or involvement in protests.
Newland focused upon the poll tax riot that occurred in March 1990 — specifically the way in which the relationship between the two central characters is shifted due to their involvement in the riot — when it begins to become physical, rather than peaceful. Newland himself recounted how he was tempted to get involved in the march when attending University and hearing of it, but concluded against going.
Michelle Green’s piece focused on the Suffrage movement, but I found it interesting that she commented on how, very often in history we only remember the figure heads of movements, such as Pankhurst or Davison, rather than the thousands of working class women that upheld the cause and fought for their rights with desperation and vigour.
It made me question whether the way in which we are taught history is still relevant. The things that are overlooked, more often than not, are incidents that are deeply controversial, painful, and clearly adhere to less commonly held views.
Titled ‘There Are Five Ways Out of this Room,’ Green’s short story draws a lens on the practice of force feeding imprisoned activists due to their going on hunger strikes, and exposes in graphic detail the brutality of the practice. Green confirmed that the narrator of her short story was initially based on Annie Kenny, but wanted to give a voice to the unsung heroes of the Suffrage movement — Green’s passion for the forgotten women of the Suffragette movement and the gravity of their ordeals was very moving.
In the Q&A session after the readings of all three authors, the expression of concern and hesitancy when embarking upon the task of fictionalising history became apparent.
I suppose one way of approaching the issue is that, where acts of protest and resistance have been rendered ‘radical’ and have been largely opposed, it is no wonder that throughout history they themselves are suspended and become a sort of fiction. Consequently, these lessons were not taught for a while.
Tales of irrevocable trauma and heavily scarred personal narratives are at times so unsettling that it is no wonder that history can become fictionalised.
As part of the project the writers worked with historical experts in order to ensure the accuracy and attention to detail of their piece. Those covering more recent protests managed to talk to individuals who had either attended or been affected by the protests. Waal commented on the difficulty in trying to balance fiction with fact, ensuring that critical details weren’t “glossed over” or dismissed as to remain true to history.
Waal’s contribution to the anthology documents the struggle of a mixed-race couple living in the West Midlands during 1965, surrounded by conservative opinion towards people of colour and keeping their affair secret as to avoid the public scandal that they knew it would inevitably evoke.
Speaking of her own experience as a child, Waal recounted how she had awareness of her “difference” in coming from a mixed-race family, disclosing how her and her mother would frequently be spat at on the street, and that “there are still lots of brick walls that have to come down”.
Newland also discussed his experiences with racism as a child, facing slurs and hurtful comments at school and his mother facing the same harassment when she would come to pick him up. The visit of Malcolm X in Smethwick was seen as a bold statement at the time. Walking through the predominantly white areas and receiving verbal abuse from the inhabitants. The outward presence of activism against this vicious hatred was inspiring to many. “I think it’s almost impossible to write without being political,” Waal says.
In her closing speech, Peake recited Carl Sandburg’s ‘I Am the People, the Mob’, a poem that perfectly summed up the topics discussed throughout the afternoon and the aim of the open discussion following the Q&A session.
I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
I am the audience that witnesses history. – Carl Sandburg
With a strong message of revolution and rising against injustice, the crowd’s applause and hum of feet pounding the floor shook The Dancehouse.
The power of the people was a prominent theme throughout the afternoon, we have the power to make our voices heard and impose real change on the issues that we are concerned with. Literature forever remains a strong medium for political and social commentary and forever remains a vehicle for change.
Peake and her guests highlighted to me both the progress that we have made as a society to get to where we are, but also how much more needs to be done to achieve equality for all regardless of gender, religion, sexuality, or race.
So what’s stopping us? As the next generation, we can make the biggest difference of all. Never settle. Never endure. Protest.