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Review: The Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern Potentate

The Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern PotentateThe Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern Potentate by Anonymous

The Review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was first published in 1828, but only became popular when it was republished in 1893.

Emily, who is in love with Henry (Sylvia’s brother), gets sent off to India for reasons that are never made clear, and don’t matter because she never arrives. Instead, she and her maid, Eliza, end up getting kidnapped by pirates and sold as harem slaves. Emily ends up with the Dey of Algiers, and Eliza with the Dey of Tunis. Since this is erotica, what happens next is entirely predictable. Emily is raped by the Dey, but pretty soon realises that (after the whole messy, painful deflowering is over) sex is great, and the Dey is really good at it, so she’s entirely happy with the situation.

Emily gets to hear the stories of two other harem slaves – an Italian woman and a Greek girl. The Italian woman was captured on the way to Corsica with her new husband (she is so modest that she is still a virgin); the Greek girl is sold by a corrupt official after her father and fiancé are murdered. The story is pretty much the same in all cases, with only the names changed. Additionally, there is a sideways move into the adventures of a pair of Catholic priests, who have a similar line in forcing young women to have sex with them, then selling them to the Turks – including a young novice nun who is faced with being buried alive after trying to escape her convent (after her brothers refused to testify that they forced her to enter it in the first place).

Meanwhile, Emily has been describing her new life as a harem slave in her letters to Sylvia, who is shocked and rather insulting about the Dey when she writes back. Since has been reading the letters, the Dey determines to kidnap Sylvia to punish her – as you do. He manages this, and embarks on a complex charade involving himself pretending to be a French physician and a fake marriage conducted by an English Jew pretending to be a priest. Sylvia, of course, also follows the pattern and becomes quite happy in her new life.

So far, so unoriginal, so distasteful. However, before we mount our 21st century politically-correct high horse and ride madly off in all directions, we should consider that “woman who gets blackmailed/threatened/bribed into a relationship with the hero” is still a staple plot device – in women’s fiction, written by women, for women. Whilst this does not make rape any more acceptable, it does mean that we should consider that it isn’t limited to nineteenth-century erotica written by men [although, see below for a further thought on this]. It’s alive and well and living in formula romances written by 21st-century women, although in slightly less blatant form. Likewise, the enduring popularity of “the sheikh”, “the Greek”, “the Italian” and more recently “the Russian mafia boss” in women’s fiction: are we talking racism and stereotype, or are we talking “exciting and exotic”? Whichever it is – and it could be both – modern romances, written by women for women, have the same issues as The Lustful Turk, and you can’t logically censure the one without applying the same standards to the other.

Anyway, moving back to the adventures of the Lustful Turk, all of this bedroom activity is brought to a sudden end by a new slave, who cuts off the Dey’s penis. The Dey then orders his physician to also cut off his testicles, since without the penis they are useless, and has the amputated parts preserved in jars of spirits of wine – one of which he gives to Emily, and the other to Sylvia. After which, the two girls are sent back to England.

Once back in England, the last letter discloses that the jars of wine spirits (and contents) have been donated to Sylvia’s friend who runs an expensive girls’ school; Sylvia’s friend shows them to her students, as a reward for good behaviour. Furthermore, Sylvia has married (a baronet, who has apparently not noticed that she is not the virgin he expected), but Emily is determined not to do so until she can find a man who is sufficiently charming and skilled to replace the Dey in her affections and her bed. She has a “young willing maid” who “auditions” all of her suitors – of whom seven out of ten have been found wanting. Emily discloses that she has hopes that the current one, an Irish earl, will pass the test.

This conclusion to the tale is somewhat unexpected. The “bad guys” – the Turks and the Catholic priests – are portrayed as lovers with great skill as well as stamina and charm (we don’t know about the Jew), able to secure any woman’s love and devotion. Whereas of the “good guys”, Henry is portrayed as a wet blanket who goes into a decline when Emily leaves for India and thereafter does nothing; the Italian woman’s husband is so unmanly that a month after the wedding he still hasn’t consummated the marriage; the Greek girl’s fiance gets stupidly and uselessly murdered (though it’s in her defence, and it’s notable that she’s the only one who doesn’t completely fall for the Dey’s charms); the Italian novice nun’s brothers would rather leave her to be buried alive than admit that they forced her into the convent in the first place; Sylvia’s baronet husband is too stupid to notice he hasn’t married a virgin; and as for seven out of ten of Emily’s suitors – they’re just not worthy of her consideration.

Furthermore, the story ends not with the Dey going merrily on with his career of lasciviousness, but instead unable to have sex with anyone – a sort of enforced faithfulness to Emily and Sylvia. Meanwhile, far from being fallen women whose marriage prospects have been destroyed and now face a lifetime of misery and shame, Sylvia has married up (she is now a baronet’s wife) and Emily is determined not to marry at all until she can find a man who meets her high standards – hence the maid (not Emily!) auditioning the candidates. The current candidate is an earl, representing a huge leap in social status for Emily if she deems him worthy of her.

In short, the “foreigners” are consistently portrayed as more “manly” than the women’s male relatives and conventional lovers/husbands, and the two girls – far from being ruined by their experiences – return to England to social success. And the Dey’s parts have been handed off to Sylvia’s friend, not even kept as mementos – and how’s that for crushing to a man’s ego: you give a girl your genitals and she hands them off (like an unwanted birthday present) to be displayed to schoolgirls as a reward for learning their French verbs properly!

The book ends not with, as might be assumed, the men in control but with the various men dead, mutilated, deceived, or discarded, and Emily and Sylvia in control.

Commentary

This book was far more interesting than I expected – although the interest lay mostly in how it ends. One might have expected the girls to stay in the harem as happy slaves, or, if they returned to England, to be either disgraced (morality tale) or indiscriminately exercising their new skills with anyone and everyone (erotica). As it is, they “get away with it” – their families pretend that they’ve been away at boarding school the whole time, and all is as it was, except that they now have higher standards in men. It’s explicit that Emily isn’t going to marry until she can find a man who meets her requirements, but I detected an implication that Sylvia was quite satisfied to have a husband who was rather stupid – presumably stupid enough to let her run her life the way she wanted.

This reminded me, a little, of Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre we also have a relatively defenceless woman (economically this time) in the power of a man, or men; yet Jane eventually comes out on top. At the end of the book, Jane says, of Rochester, “Reader, I married him.” She marries him – not the other way around. Throughout the book, Rochester is portrayed as morally weak (thinking he can buy Jane’s affection with gifts, and attempting to commit bigamy) despite his appearance of power; at the end, he is physically broken too. Jane, on the other hand, has inherited a fortune and has decided, after all, to marry him – even though she is now a woman of independent means who could walk away if she wanted to.

This similarity – of women who appear to be be weak but actually come out on top – makes me wonder whether The Lustful Turk was actually written by a woman. I find it difficult to believe that a man, writing for men, would cut off the Dey’s penis (the correct functioning of which many men feel is inextricably linked to their own self-worth) and have Sylvia’s husband deceived and Emily rejecting seven out of ten suitors for not being good enough in bed to satisfy her maid. Emily doesn’t even conduct the auditions herself: the men are treated like domestic servants being interviewed by the housekeeper before the mistress selects the best of the short-list.

It’s also noteworthy that although the women are raped, the men who do it are not only skilled lovers but also personally charming, and find it easy to win the women’s devotion. Society expects women to be chaste, and to refuse sex when it’s offered: to say yes immediately marks you as a slut. So in the nineteenth century, and although this attitude is supposed to be gone, it’s not, and it’s perpetuated by women:  you can see it in the plots of contemporary romances. Why does the heroine have to be bribed, tricked, threatened or blackmailed into a relationship with a hero who has all the hallmarks of (according to the author) a desirable partner?  Because nice girls don’t say yes. In The Lustful Turk, the rape is a necessary device to allow the girls to have sex without being married, and while still keeping their character as “nice girls”; it’s glossed over very quickly and the description passes on to how great the sex is. Much of the description is, of course, from the girls’ point of view (though Sylvia’s tale is told from the Dey’s point of view), and one does wonder whether this also signals that it was written by a woman, possibly for a female audience. We should not forget that women read erotica – they just don’t talk about it as much as men do, and I should think that held true in the nineteenth century just as much as the twenty-first.

In some ways, I feel mean giving this only two stars. Nearly 2000 words of review should signal something a bit better than two-out-of-five. However, most of the book is pretty standard stuff – it’s only the last few pages, where the Dey’s bits get cut off and we find out what happens to Emily and Sylvia, that the whole book suddenly looks different, as if a different set of lights have been switched on. And the writing just isn’t good enough to lift it above two stars.

But this is a two-star book that anyone who’s interested in nineteenth century erotica, or women’s writing, might well want to give a try. It might not hit the spot as erotica, as such, but that twist at the end makes it a thought-provoking read.

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Review: Spell Blind

Spell Blind
Spell Blind by David B. Coe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I was going to enjoy this book within the first couple of pages; with a hiatus for doing work, I stayed up late to finish it.

Justis (Jay) Fearsson is an ex-cop turned PI, and his ability to do magic is not only an advantage in his line of work, but also the reason why he’s ex-, rather than just cop. Magic has a pretty steep price, but Fearsson is willing to pay it, and keep paying. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book – the ability to do magic was almost an addiction. Fearsson pursues magic even though he knows what it will do to him eventually – but, to him (though not to some others) it’s worth the price.

A serial killer who is also a powerful weremyste (sorcerer) is on the loose, killing a person every moon. Fearsson worked the case while he was a cop; his ex-partner, still on the case, needs his input when there is a new murder.

The action plays out over a few days, with much excitement and danger, and an increasing awareness that Fearsson is in way over his head (of course, it wouldn’t be a very exciting novel if he wasn’t).

Fearsson’s love interest, I liked. Other reviewer(s) didn’t, but I found her to be exactly the sort of woman who would do well with him: smart, driven, honourable, and not willing to take any crap from him or anyone else, but also capable of having fun. She’s got her own priorities, and (thank you, David B. Coe) she doesn’t gratuitously interfere in Fearsson’s investigation or put herself or him in danger through being an idiot.

For that matter, Fearsson’s ex-partner, Kona (nicknamed after the coffee, because that’s what she always drinks) Shaw, was another great character. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Coe has a gay black policewoman without waving a big flag saying “Hey! Diversity credentials!” Kona is who she is, and the most important thing about her is that she’s a really good policewoman and a really good friend to Fearsson – not her race or her sexuality, which are very much in the background. She’s in the book to do her job, not to be a representative character.

Coe also managed the ending very well. I was wondering how he would do it, given how deep the doo-doo was in which Fearsson was swimming/drowning. Since there’s a second book in the series, it’s obvious that he must survive – but how? The way Coe did it, in the end, I found was very satisfying – no massive stroke of luck, no sudden wild inspiration, “It’s a million-to-one chance but it might just work…” Just… a good way of doing it.

So, all in all, an excellent start to a series. I’m going to start reading the second book, His Father’s Eyes, which just came out recently. I want to know what happens next…

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Character connections

I haven’t had much time lately for either reading or writing – I’ve quit one job with long hours and low pay, and got a better one with less work, more money, and a better doughnut quotient. Hence lack of blog, complete lack of any writing, and hardly any reading.

One book I have been reading, though, has made me think about connecting with characters – both the connection between the character and the reader, and between the characters in the book.

I was really looking forward to reading this book: it seemed like a really interesting premise. The main character is a prostitute in a sort of alternative steampunk 19th-century America, and – as was pointed out in another blog – that’s the kind of character who generally exists as wallpaper. Prostitutes tend to either get walk-on roles for local colour, or get killed. They don’t really appear in many books as characters in their own right (although there are some: J.D. Robb’s Charles Monroe, a male “licensed companion” in her Dallas books, for one). So I was looking forward to reading one as a main character. When I got into the book, I also discovered that she was a lesbian. Also unusual – although getting less so nowadays – unless you deliberately go looking.

However, I didn’t find myself getting really into the story, to the extent that I kept putting it down. I still haven’t finished it – I moved on to reading something else instead. Now, when a book really grabs me, I tend to devour it in one sitting (with an ebook reader, eating isn’t an obstacle at all, and sleeping takes second place). But not this one: it just didn’t grab me. So I wondered why not.

Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care enough about the main character to keep reading. I just didn’t feel that connection to her. To take an example at the opposite end of the scale, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books are one-sitting reads. I also have them all as audiobooks. Harry Dresden can be a bit annoying at times, but I do kind of like him. Even if I sometimes want to smack him, I care what happens to him. He’s also an interesting enough narrator that he keeps the story going at a cracking pace (Butcher’s habit of ending every chapter on a cliffhanger probably doesn’t hurt, either). Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books also have protagonists that keep me reading: the world-weary and wounded Cazaril in Curse of Chalion and the embittered Ista in Paladin of Souls.

If I look at the protagonists who did make me care, they are not limited by gender, age, or sexual orientation. Harry is – at the beginning of the series – a young, male, white heterosexual wizard. Ista is in her forties, a white widow and mother. In Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, the main character (Peter Grant) is young, male, heterosexual and mixed race. Vanyel in Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage books was white, very young, gay, and male. I didn’t particularly like him, but he was a compelling enough protagonist for me to read all three books straight, one after the other.

So why didn’t the character in the book I haven’t finished grab me? Thinking about it, I think it was because the author just didn’t tell me – or show me – enough about her to let me get to know her as a person. I know she’s a prostitute because it was pretty much the only career option open to her, but I don’t know how she really feels about it. I don’t know what the life involves. I know she’s a lesbian (or bisexual), but I don’t know whether the girl she falls in love with in the book is her first, or whether she’s always been attracted to girls. I don’t know whether homosexuality is acceptable in her world, or whether she’s taking a big risk if she lets her sexuality be known. She’s sixteen in the book, but to me she came across as older – in her twenties, at least. Is that because of the life she’s led, or is it just that the author didn’t make her voice young enough?

It’s one thing to make a character’s background mysterious, or to drip-feed the details to the reader to avoid an information-dump, but if you go too far the other way, you risk not giving the reader enough information about the character to make the reader care. A major way of letting the reader get to know the character seems to be to let the reader know what the character is thinking; after all, if you’re inside someone’s head, you’re going to get to know them pretty quick. However, if you can’t do that, another way is to show the reader how the character interacts with the other characters in the book. In the book I’m reading at the moment, there’s a lot of action, but not a great deal of people just interacting on a day-to-day basis: “Look out! He’s got a gun!” really doesn’t tell you much about anyone. However, “Hey, he’s got a Purdey side-by-side – get a load of that!” conveys a lot more (principally that the speaker can identify a Purdey side-by-side, assumes the listener knows what one is, and thinks that a Purdey side-by-side is the shotgun equivalent of Colin Firth. And how the other character responds tells you even more: “Yeah, whatever,” or “What? Where? Get out of the way and let me look!”

And if I don’t know much about a character, I can’t connect to them, and I’m not going to care what happens to them enough to spend precious minutes of my life reading about it. I’m going to do something I care about more, like the washing up, or the ironing.

So I’ll go back to the book – eventually. It’s got enough of my interest that I’ll devote a few more minutes to it. Just… not right now. And, having been disappointed once, I’m less likely to read any more of that author’s work in future.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Lend me your ears…

…and I will use them for hearing with, because mine currently aren’t working.

I don’t know what I’ve got, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, and it involves my ears being blocked. From the inside. No making an appointment to get my ears syringed and coming home with everything in Dolby surround-sound.

Currently, I’m existing on decongestants and painkillers, and generally being miserable.

It’s quite weird, not being able to hear properly (or chew food properly). I have to look at people directly in order to hear them; I wonder if I’m speaking too loudly (because I can’t hear myself very well). My balance is slightly off, and I feel like my mind is wrapped in a big pillow. I’m slightly disconnected from the world, as if there’s a barrier between me and it.

It’s been going on for several days, and it’s getting to the point where if you don’t lend me your ears, I will come and take them because I’m just that sick of not being able to hear.

Is this what it’s like to be really deaf? I mean, permanently.

In my last job, my second-in-department wore hearing-aids. She didn’t at first, and we started to suspect that she was a bit deaf when we had to yell two or three times to get her attention if she wasn’t facing us. Eventually, she went to get her ears tested and came back with two hearing aids. When she first wore them, she said that on the one hand (ear?) she hadn’t realised how many sounds she had been missing. Related to this, at first when she got the hearing aids, she found it difficult to pay attention to people, or to hold a conversation in a crowded room, because she would get distracted by background noise. I think this was because she had just lost the skill of listening to important sounds and tuning the rest out, so she had to relearn it. On the other hand, she said that sound through the hearing-aid sounded ‘artificial’, and she wasn’t sure that she liked it.

Then there’s Beethoven; deaf as a post. I’ve heard the joke that going deaf didn’t stop him hearing the music – it just stopped him hearing the distractions. But I wonder how he felt about it? Was the music in his head enough, or did he miss ‘real’ music?

What’s bothering me most is the feeling of not being quite connected to the world (although the rest of it isn’t much fun either). It’s playing Hob with my ability to concentrate. Do deaf people feel disconnected? Or is it the kind of problem you don’t have if you go gradually deaf, so you don’t realise you’re losing your hearing until you’re significantly deaf? If you’re deaf, what do you miss the most? How do you feel about it? Is it different for people who were born deaf, and if so, how?

A couple of my friends – a married couple – are disabled. The male half finds it difficult to accept that I can lift and carry stuff better than him. He’s an unreconstructed working class male, and my ability to pick up and carry heavy furniture hits him right in the manhood (even if I am careful with both ends of the bench). Intellectually, he knows it’s not his fault, but emotionally, he still feels shamed and frustrated by it. None of the rest of us resent having to do his share of the lifting and carrying, but he resents it enough for all of us.

It gets me thinking about disability… what does it mean, really? The word itself – ‘disabled’ – means ‘made-not-able’, as in, not able to do something. But then consider Douglas Bader – after losing both lower legs (one amputated above the knee, one below) he went on to become a World War II fighter ace. He could fly, drive, and dance (of which skills I possess only one out of three). Does he count as disabled? According to his biography, Reach for the Sky, Bader was certified – simultaneously – 100% disabled and 100% fit.

It makes me think, is it right to attach the ‘disabled’ label to someone just because they happen to have fewer legs than are issued as standard? Or because they are mildly dyslexic? Everybody with that label gets put in the same box, and once in the box, they’re not allowed to escape. Douglas Bader had to campaign hard to be allowed back into the RAF, despite the fact that he was capable of doing the job. Is a person still disabled if they overcome their disadvantage to be able to do everything any average person can do? If a person with no lower legs can do everything I can do, and can additionally do something I can’t, then who is disabled? Me or him?

In the UK, we have something called ‘positive about disabled people’. This means that, for companies subscribing to this, if you are disabled, you automatically get an interview for the job, if you fulfil the basic qualification requirements. This is supposedly because a disabled person might be disadvantaged somehow by being judged only on their application form. I fail to be able to get my head around this. Being in a wheelchair makes a person unable to complete an application form correctly? For dyslexia, yes, I could understand it, or any other disability that makes filling in forms difficult. But for all disabilities?

I wonder how disabled people feel about it? I’ve never had the opportunity to ask. I wonder if they feel the same way as I would if I found out I’d only got an interview because I was female? Under those circumstances, my first thought would be to tell the panel where they could stuff their job, and their obviously low opinion of women, if they thought I wasn’t capable of getting a job without special treatment. My second would be, if they give me the job, can I be sure that it was because I was the best candidate? Or was it because they needed a ‘token female’, or because their recruiting department had told them they needed more women so they’d better appoint the next one that applied for a job? What would my potential colleagues think? Would they resent me? Would they think I’d only been appointed because of my gender? How would that affect my ability to do the job?

Positive discrimination is a difficult area. On the one hand, one might say that it’s necessary in order to get minority ‘representation’ in under-diversified areas. But on the other hand… what if minority groups don’t want to be part of that particular area and that’s why they aren’t there? I mean, an extreme example would be the severe lack of diversity shown by the low level of Muslim participation in the pork-butchering trade. They aren’t there because they don’t want to be there. And if they don’t want to be there, it would be wrong to force them to participate, and a waste of time and effort to try to persuade them, no matter what we think about ‘diversity’.

This leads me to think of communism. It may be apocryphal (and probably is), but I heard the following story:

A group of Westerners is on a guided tour of a Russian factory (during the communist era). Of course, all the factory people speak Russian, and the Westerners have an official interpreter with them so that they can understand what the workers say. They are introduced to one chap, and when asked what he thinks of communism, his words are translated by the official interpreter as: “Even though I have won a Nobel prize, I still work in this factory under the same conditions as everyone else and I am given no unfair advantages.” However, unknown to the official interpreter, one of the Westerners speaks Russian, and later on, in their hotel, he tells the others that what the Nobel prize-winner actually said was, “I won the Nobel prize, and I still have to work in this crappy factory for the same crappy wage. What do you think I think about it?”

Equality is important, but equality of outcome is impossible. People are not equal; we have to admit it. There are people cleverer than me (not many, obviously), more beautiful than me, more graceful than me, more likeable than me. Our gifts are not all the same. To enforce equality of outcome by artificial means – by steering people into places they don’t want to go, or preventing from them achieving things they could be capable of – is to destroy freedom.

The only equality we can assure is equality of opportunity, so that everyone has the opportunity to be free to make of themselves what they choose.

Equality of opportunity, however, is much harder to do than a top-down imposition of equality of outcome. It means that we can’t just say ‘we need more women; if a woman applies for the job, you have to appoint her’. It means we have to actively engage the female population and locate those women who want the job, and encourage them to apply on equal terms with the men. And then, if not many women apply for the job, then we have to accept that it’s probably because it’s not intrinsically attractive to most women and they’d rather be doing something else. The same applies to other minority groups; true equality means allowing everyone to be self-selecting, but making sure that the opportunities are there to be selected. No wonder it’s easier to enforce positive discrimination than to make sure that discrimination of any kind isn’t necessary and doesn’t happen.

Equality means treating people as people, not as the contents of boxes marked ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’ and so forth.

It matters in writing, too. How many times have we seen either the book or film where every single character is white, in defiance of probability? (ThirtySomethingBride talks about that on her blog.) Or, just as bad, the ‘token black guy’, or the ‘token disabled person’? But how do you manage to get it right? Do you have to do some kind of mathematical analysis of the characteristics of your characters’ social group and work out what proportion should be from which ethnic group, and whether you’ve got enough people that you need to make someone disabled (and if so, what disability should they have)?

Taking myself as an example, since I’ve admitted that I’m writing the world’s slowest-developing novel, one of my main characters is black. I don’t know why he is, but he is. He came into my mind that way, and I knew his history practically from birth. I don’t think I could make him not-black if I tried. I’d have to delete him entirely and start again. So I’ve got five main characters, of which one is female, one is a black male, and the other three are white males. According to Wikipedia’s article, the 2001 census said that 90% of the population of Britain identifies as white. So does that mean I have to make my black guy into a white guy because black people are now over-represented? (Women are different: there’s a reason why the team is only 20% female.) Does this mean that I now can’t add an Asian guy, because even if I upped the team to six, this would mean that ethnic minorities would constitute 33% of the team instead of the correct 10%? Does this count as positive discrimination, and/or unrealistic, and can I be criticised for that?

Sometimes, I think I should stick to something safe and simple, like alligator dentistry. This author lark seems to have more hidden dangers than the Australian Outback.

How do you deal with it? Do you ignore it? Do you consciously add in characters to make sure that your book has all the right ethnic/gender/sexuality/etc groups? Or are you in the happy position that it all comes naturally to you?

If you’re weird… act normal

Today, Dr Una Coales is facing an unexpected media storm.

She wrote a book, three years ago, advising doctors who wished to pass their Royal College of General Practitioners exams (the ones you pass after you’re a real doctor, but before you can be a GP – which is a family doctor in the UK) that if they’re having trouble passing their oral/roleplay exams, something other than their medical knowledge might be the trouble.

She advised:
Gay students: act straight.
Women students: don’t wear a floral print dress – people will think you’re a nurse.
Ethnic minorities: if you’re in Scotland or Wales, try to sound Scottish or Welsh.
Fat people (male, presumably): acquire a ‘Santa Claus’ persona.

And for this, she appears to be being witch-hunted through the halls of the Royal College of GPs.

I wonder if this is because it’s very, very embarrassing for the RCGP to have it revealed that a) someone thinks that they don’t assess students wholly on competence and b) it has taken them three years (and someone posting on Twitter) to notice?

Dr Coales is being portrayed as racist, discriminatory, demeaning, and a whole lot of other nasty things. But let’s actually take a look at this.

Gay students – act straight
OK, do we think that there is no prejudice against gay men? Let’s all think about our acquaintances, shall we, particularly those with a Y chromosome. Do we think those possessors of a penis will be more comfortable talking to a straight or a gay GP? Ideally, it should make no difference – doctors aren’t supposed to make the moves on patients, and that’s the only time someone’s sexuality should matter – but I don’t think we’re quite at that Utopian state of tolerance yet.

So we if acknowledge that some patients might be happier (and some examiners, says Dr Coales) with a straight-seeming doctor, surely amending his body language is something our aspiring GP ought to at least consider? And, of course, this also applies to those chaps who will chase anything in a skirt but just act camp.

Women students – don’t wear a floral print dress or they’ll think you’re a nurse
OK, we’re in the twenty-first century here. Girls are allowed to be doctors, and it’s been that way for more than a hundred years. But while less than half of junior doctors are women, more than 90% of nurses are. The statistics are against us, ladies.

Also, nursing is traditionally ‘girly’, and if you wear a girly dress, people will think you have a girly job. Doctoring is more traditionally male, is certainly seen as a higher class of job (something to do with not having to take people to the loo, I think) and is more traditionally linked with ‘power’ dressing. Dr Coales may have overstated things slightly, but she does have a point.

Your clothes say something about you, people. Make sure what your clothes are saying is what you want them people to hear.

Ethnic minorities, if you’re in Scotland or Wales, try to sound Scottish or Welsh
Well, duh.
This also applies to everyone else. Your voice says all sorts of things other than words. Just you look at the internet pages on ‘most trusted accents’. Some accents, which I shall not name for fear of having my windows broken, sound like they’d steal the wheels off your car as soon as look at you. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find my voice changes depending on circumstances. Normally I don’t have much of a regional accent, but if I’m faced with a difficult conversation, my old accent comes out. And you know what? It works. I’m one of the lucky people with a ‘trustworthy’ regional accent, and I find that people calm down and are more likely to listen when I use it.

But this was not what Dr Coales was on about. Although she is being vilified for being against ethnic minorities’ accents, and for telling them to talk with a Scottish or Welsh accent, she actually only says to do this if practising in those areas. Presumably, she would also advise an Indian student practising in Liverpool to try to develop a Liverpudlian accent.

This is nothing to do with the desirability, or otherwise, of having an Indian (or other) accent, and everything to do with your voice saying I am someone like you; I am someone you can trust. It also aids understanding. I can’t imagine a consultation getting very far if neither understands the other’s accent. I used to work up in the North East of England, and I’ve encountered accents up there that were impenetrable even to me, and I used to have family up there so I was used to that particular accent. I’ve also got an elderly aunt (possessor of a strong regional accent) who changed her doctor partly because she couldn’t understand anything he said.

Fat people – develop a Santa Claus persona
This plays right into our expectations. It’s OK for Santa to be fat (in fact, can you imagine a thin Santa?) but it’s not OK for anyone else to be fat because it’s unhealthy. We are happy with fat-and-jolly because it’s a stereotype we know and with which we are familiar. Once we’ve stereotyped someone, we can stop thinking about them and get down to business. Probably quite important if you’ve got to sort out someone’s health in whatever the standard consultation length is.

Maybe we shouldn’t be vilifying Dr Coales. Maybe we should be thinking about what she’s actually saying, and why she’s saying it. We need to accept that people are different, yes. We need to not discriminate against people who are different in whatever way. But those of us who are different also need to acknowledge the effect our differences have on others.

Yes, you have a right to be yourself. But equally, you need to realise that if you do not fit the box marked ‘normal’ you will pay a price for it – justly or unjustly.

You can either be different and damn the consequences, or you can consider whether there might be any little changes that you could make without compromising your identity and individuality that might make your life easier. Also, if you are in a position of trust and responsibility, dealing with the vulnerable (and also the ignorant, and the stupid) – such as a doctor – you need to consider that some people are just not as enlightened as you are. If you’re going to deal with them profitably, and if you are going to be able to give them the help that they need, then you need to not scare them.

We find strange things frightening; and to some people, gay, ethnic minorities, even women in positions of authority, are all strange and therefore frightening. There is a time and a place for campaigning for the rights of oppressed minorities, but while dealing with someone who is only reacting badly to you because you’re just outside their comfort zone, rather than because of anything specific, is not it.