Writing darkness

In a somewhat stinging review of my novel, Satya, one reader complains, ‘Everyone, everyone in this book is unlikable and spiteful.’ Personally, I wouldn’t that far—for I’m quite fond of some of the characters—but she has a point: many of them are not exactly genial. But that’s really the point. What else would cause a bright, confident student who thinks she knows everything to embark on an alien journey? We live in a world which is quick to blame particular types of behaviour on a person’s culture, religion or upbringing. I wanted to explore what other kinds of pressures can carry individuals along one path or another.

In the earliest draft of this novel—The Beauty of the Lion—the characters of Satya and Ben were models of perfection: pure victims of the ill intent of others. In Satya they have their flaws—just like we all do—and those nasty characters have a few redeeming qualities too. Perhaps I have just taken too long to discover them through my writing: this is where I beg for the editor’s sheers. Still, I like to think that far from owning its characters, Satya provides a relevant critique of their behaviour.

Where I disagree with the reviewer is in the notion that some of the things described don’t happen. The reader believes I took some major liberties: when tales of bullying are narrated, it is deemed unrealistic, while the idea that a teacher could be a bully in incomprehensible. For me such disbelief is incomprehensible.

Although I attended a well-respected, successful secondary school, I still witnessed a teacher pinning a fellow pupil to the ground on a number of occasions in the name of entertainment, while another was known to whack misbehaving students across the back of their heads with a large dictionary. In our Games lessons we were sometimes subjected to some quite humiliating and boorish behaviour.  Meanwhile, non-white students quite often found themselves on the receiving end of abusive tirades from teachers.

I recall a story reported to me by my music teacher when I was at school, as she lamented the loss of a talented bassoonist to another school after a particularly vicious verbal assault from a rugby teacher; in the face of ineffective complaints to the headmaster, the boy’s only redress was to change schools. I am sure things are different today, but at that time—the early 1990s—a number of teachers described themselves as ‘proudly racist’ and would take much delight in advertising this. Alas, I may have internalised what I saw at school and regurgitated it on the page.

Satya deals with some unpalatable subjects—bullying, hypocrisy, domestic violence—but these are realities for many, many young people. I don’t know how to write about those subjects without entering that world. In real life sometimes a knight in shining armour—an inspiring teacher, a social worker, a college counsellor—rides into town to give rays of hope. But often young people just slip through the net—whether to join a gang, become a drug dealer or a young single mother. Do students who are bullied complain? Often they don’t. And if they do, are they always listened to? Often not.

My novel—I believe—asks questions. Like what choices does an intelligent white teenager raised on a dead-end estate with expectations of a particular kind of masculinity have if he doesn’t want to be hard? What thoughts go through the mind of siblings when they see one of them getting apparently favourable treatment? How do children feel when they never see their dad because he is always working? What impact do the trials of life have on a young person’s faith? What decisions will a young Asian woman make if she can find no respect amongst those nearest and dearest to her?

Perhaps Satya is a dark, miserable tale in places, but I hope there is redemption, even for some of those horrible characters. I hope it provides some sense of optimism even in a cruel world. Writing darkness is difficult when you reside in the light; reading darkness is just as awkward. Perhaps this is why I shunned this novel for a decade: because I thought it had no place in my life any more. But in truth, we live in a world where terrible things happen. Our job is to decide how we react to them.

2 thoughts on “Writing darkness

  1. I liked how ‘Satya’ dealt with bullying, hypocrisy and violence. Of course teachers or other people can be bullies, the issue of power is central to how people may choose to behave.

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  2. I have read this review; while the reader may have legitimate gripes about your book, the point about bullying by teachers couldn’t possibly be one of them.

    On all accounts, your descriptions are mild to some of the horrific abuses that we now know occurred in schools in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

    Has nobody heard the names of schools such as Kesgrave Hall School or Duncroft Approved School where teacher collusion in abuse against students has been widely reported?

    Around 200 teachers are struck off the teaching register each year, for a variety of reasons: theft, gambling, drug use, drunkenness, involvement in child abuse, bullying and criminal convictions. In other words, not all teachers are paradigms of virtue.

    We read a lot of media coverage of teachers that are bullied by students and parents, and by other teachers and their superiors, but sometimes it is the other way round.

    Here’s some food for thought from The Independent: Education: When the bully making your child’s life hell is his teacher

    Also this from The Evening Standard, which rather reflects the advice given to Satya to act less “posh”: Being bullied? Just act less gay, advise teachers

    And finally, http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/bullying-teachers.html:

    Teacher bullying may go unreported for several reasons. The victim may not trust the system to support or believe him or her, especially if there are any instances in which the victim had infringed school behavior rules. The victim may also fear retribution by the teacher in the form of a lowered grade or more teacher bullying behavior. The victim may also fear retribution by students who are in good standing with the teacher.

    Of course most teachers act professionally and are good at their jobs, but that doesn’t mean we have to paper over the cracks. Bullying by teachers is a reality, just as it is in just about every other walk of life.

    Don’t be cowed by those who don’t want to acknowledge this. Your book deals with important issues. Most people don’t want to hear that there are almost 70,000 children in the care of the state in the UK due to abuse and neglect. They don’t want to hear about violent parents, mental health disorders or ingrained racism.

    Believe me, there was deep-seated racism in schools in the ’80s and ’90s. In fact it’s still there in society, it’s just that now Sikh have to accept being attacked because they thought we were Muslim, instead of just because we’re brown. Same cause and effect, just different justifications.

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