For the first time in a while, I have a new writing project.
Okay, perhaps that’s not the most accurate way of describing it. I’ve got another project on the go, known to my Twitter and Tumblr followers as #secretthing, but that’s something a bit different. I’ve also been writing poetry, blog posts, and book reviews in varying quantities for the last few months. Every now and again, when I have ideas, I write random scenes for Death & Fairies or other long-term projects.
But for the first time in literally months, I’m working on a novel. A first draft, so it genuinely is new. The idea isn’t. I came up with it in the summer of 2014, then spent some time in summer 2015 working on the characters and developing some ideas, and then a couple of days ago figured, “What the hell, I’m going to write it.”
It’s called Bard. I’m posting it on Wattpad as I go, which is probably a terrible mistake because it’s a first draft and I have no plot beyond the barest bones of a middle (I really don’t know how it’s going to end) and thus might be a total shambles. But. It is a thing I’m writing.
Bard is a science-fiction novel, at least as far as I’m capable of writing science-fiction given my complete lack of knowledge about science. It’s set on another planet, and there are wormholes and spaceships and things, but that’s really just the setting for a novel that’s much more grounded in reality. So I guess it’s a drama, in a SF background.
It’s also an Arthurian story. Not precisely a retelling, but it features versions of your favourite Arthurian characters (Arthur himself, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, and so on and so forth), in situations you may recognise from Arthurian literature of various ages and origins (fighting against invaders being the main one).
And it’s about racism. Which is … a little scary for me to write, since I’m white. I know that in setting it on another planet I’m making things slightly easier for myself, because culture will be different and I have more leeway to create it, but I’m still painfully aware that I do not belong to the group I’m trying to write about. The characters came into my mind after the events in Ferguson in August 2014. That’s when I met Ross/Arturius, and realised I wanted to tell his story.
In Bard, Camelot is basically Australia in space: it was a prison colony, where Earth sent its criminals to get them out of the way. But a solar storm caused Earth to lose all contact with this prison planet, and for a hundred years they’ve been ruling themselves. Now populated by the descendants of the original prisoners, who are understandably fed up of being punished for crimes they weren’t born in time to commit, it’s gone from a prison into a home, albeit one made mostly of junk.
The story opens the day our narrator Lynn loses her job at the media centre because they’ve just found out she’s trans and think it’s a security breach for her not to have declared this earlier. Getting fired means she misses out on a major scoop: today’s the day Earth comes back, and from now on, Camelot’s not as independent as it wants to be.
I won’t go further into the plot, because I don’t want to give you too many spoilers, but what I’m trying to do here is tell a difficult story, although hopefully in a not-too-angsty way. I write angsty books all the time, but this one’s not meant to be about suffering and pain in the way Death & Fairies is. It’s about young people from marginalised groups getting the chance to be leaders and heroes in their community, and to take back the world they claim as their own.
I guess you could draw parallels between it and Hamilton: Arthurian characters are the pinnacle of pseudohistorical Britishness. They’re a part of our (fictional) past. They’ve caught the attention of writers throughout the middle ages and into more recent times, and you can’t throw a rock in a bookshop without knocking down a sword in the stone retelling. They’re also pretty much always white in any portrayals you’ll find. And that’s why the characters I’m using to tell their story aren’t.
I’ve read some interesting Arthurian stories in terms of gender, but they’ve all played it a little too safe in terms of setting for me. What I’m trying to do (and I hope I succeed) is to write a version of our quintessential British hero who is a young black man, fed up and angry with a system that’s built so that he always loses. And his wise mentor/best friend/that one magical dude who turned into a tree is a trans girl who tells stories for a living.
I don’t know if I can tell this story. I’m aware that I have a huge amount of privilege, and while everyone should work towards making fiction a more diverse and representative place, that doesn’t necessarily mean writing books about issues one doesn’t understand or experience. That’s why the whole “Own Voices” thing, which my friend Engie talked about recently, is so important. As a white British person living in England, my stories about race are way less important than those told by people who actually experience racism on a daily basis.
However, I’m going to do my best to use my knowledge of Arthurian literature (from studying ASNaC) and my experiences in a multicultural society (from living in London) to tell as honest a story as I can. How it’ll end, I have no idea. I don’t even know how I’m going to get to the middle, and if I haven’t got a grasp of the plot how can I ever hope to get the rest of it right?
(Honestly, I really don’t know. I’m trying my best. Hopefully that’ll be good enough.)
If you’d like to find out with me, you can read the story on Wattpad as it goes along. If you’re interested in Arthurian lit, or trans protagonists, or racism, or space!Australia, there might be something in there for you. I welcome all your feedback!