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Allied Arts & Media

How To Navigate a World Designed To Fail You

Screenshot via The FOLD’s Instagram.

Imagine being saddled at birth with a debt you must repay to gain your freedom? That question fired up the imagination of author and activist Jael Richardson as she created the dystopian world in the novel, Gutter Child, where a nation is divided into communities of the privileged Mainland and the policed Gutter. Is it a metaphor for racism?

As a recent guest on The Fine Print, a conversation series with contemporary feminist authors, Richardson teased out this interpretation with attendees, reminding them that while she mentions the skin colour of her characters, no one is labelled Black or white. There are Olo people and Sossi people in this world, and readers project the systemic oppression on her disadvantaged young protagonist, Elimina Dubois, and other students who attend an Academy where they train and learn how to work off their debts to society. Elimina was taken from the Gutter at birth and raised in the Mainland as part of a social experiment initiated by the Mainland government. But when her mother dies (on page five) she ends up at the Academy, alone and afraid.

“I started thinking about laws and constitutions and how they’re designed,” Richardson told the attentive audience when asked about the catalyst for the book. “How systems are built, and who builds them and who they’re built for.”

Richardson admits she had endless discussions with her editor as she worked out the logistics of her imagined have- and have-not world. What did the geographical landscape look like? How many socio-economic classes were there? What resources did they have? What opportunities or employment options were available to some and not others? Why?

Though fictional, the world is remarkably recognizable as any society where race and class determine who is privileged and who is disadvantaged. The book adds gender to that mix — women struggle against harsh and unjust situations and are forced to make hard choices. “What happens to women and their children in any world says a lot about the conditions of that world,” Richardson said in the interview. The difficult circumstances in which she placed her characters compelled her to add a disclaimer at the beginning of the book:

“This book is a work of fiction that explores a perilous world rooted in injustice. As in life, the effects of injustice impact many of the characters. Take care with your heart and your mind as you read. Pause and rest as required. These are difficult times.”

As in the real world, Gutter Child offers no quick fix to systemic racism. Systems protect the people who created them. And Richardson isn’t optimistic of that changing anytime soon. “People at the top would have to be willing to acknowledge that they [systems] are built on lies and falsehoods, and be willing humbly to take it all apart and give it to all of us to help build them.”

To avoid being overwhelmed by what isn’t changing, Richardson focussed on how people create bonds and community, even when forced into disadvantaged spaces. “Why do people make choices? And why do other people make different choices? And what makes each of those things different or important to pay attention to?”

Ultimately, Richardson hopes to get people reading and that Gutter Child can start conversations about oppression and how to break down unjust systems. The book certainly got the conversation flowing after the formal interview on The Fine Print as guests lingered to chat to the author about how the book jolted them into seeing and thinking in new ways about systemic oppression. One person said she was reading it with her twelve-year old son; another planned to do so with their young niece.

Richardson is considering a sequel to Gutter Child, which has become a national best seller since its publication in January 2021 and is a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award that will be announced May 27, 2021. The follow up book promises to be another dystopian tale – set in a nowhere land that could be anywhere. “As a Black woman who has sort of only lived in one place, but also felt like I belong to no place…dystopia is my favourite place to play.”

You can “play” more with Jael Richardson, who founded and serves as the Artistic Director, at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which runs until May 15, 2021. If you’re late to sign up, recordings of author interviews, workshops and readings are available to watch and re-watch until May 31, 2021.

The Fine Print is hosted and produced by Liisbeth Media and Lana Pesch in the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC).

Watch the video highlights of the conversation here on YouTube.

Read an excerpt from Gutter Child (Harper Collins, 2020) © Jael Richardson 2021.

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Allied Arts & Media

The Forgotten Feminist

Petra Kelly circa 1985.

To round our women’s history month in March 2021, a group of feminists gathered for the season finale of The Fine Print, an online conversation series with contemporary feminist authors. Topic of discussion? A novel inspired by one of the original founding members of the German Green Party, a revolutionary activist who fought for human rights, peace and environmental justice. The brilliant young political firebrand espoused ideas so far ahead of her time in the 1980s, we could easily imagine her in a national leadership role today, along with the likes of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Finland’s Sanna Marin, Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

So why don’t people know more about Petra Kelly?

For author Shaena Lambert, the answer is all too familiar and tragic – history erases female leaders and their accomplishments. The Canadian author set out to resurrect the life of Petra Kelly who transformed global and environmental politics in the 1980s before she was murdered at the age of 44. Police reported that while she was asleep, Kelly was shot in the temple by her lover and ex-NATO General Gert Bastien, who then turned the gun on himself. Their bodies were not found for an estimated eighteen days – Kelly, still an elected Green politician at the time, was already in the process of being forgotten.

Lambert, also an environmental activist, met Kelly at a peace demonstration she helped organize in Vancouver, B.C. in 1986 and was transfixed by her charisma and inclusive vision. “I met her personally. I met the general and I was swept up by her vision,” Lambert said during her interview on The Fine Print. “It was so much larger than the vision we had in our peace movement out here in Vancouver. The interconnections that she made between peace and ecology and human rights and Tibet and sexual freedom.”

Decades after that event, Lambert saw Petra Kelly’s photograph in a museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the famed crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. It was the same photo that Kelly had sent to Lambert all those years ago.

In that moment, Lambert felt a zing and knew she had to write about Kelly. “I just walked out of that museum changed, with that sort of electric feeling the hairs on my arms were all lit up,” Lambert told The Fine Print guests.

To answer the question of why Petra Kelly slipped so quickly from memory, Lambert wrote the novel primarily from the point of view of Manfred Schwartz, a composite of several Green activists who were close to Kelly. In the novel, he is also an ex-lover (she had many) who struggles to understand her legacy and her often contradictory choices. Did she give up on the Greens? Did they give up on her? How could a peace activist fall in love with a Nazi officer?

“You’ve been the corpse for too long,” Manfred Schwartz narrates in the novel. “I’ve let your final identity define you, your murder turn you into a murder victim, as though that’s who you were, your meaning, your self. As a feminist, how you would have hated that! All your complexity, your laughter, your fears, reduced to a body in a bed.”

Giller-award winning author Madeleine Thien hailed Petra as “a tour de force” and “a masterpiece – a fierce, humane and powerful novel for our times…the story of generations reckoning with history, sex, the land, guilt, and our troubled future, is at every moment personal and political.”

Cover of novel, Petra by Shaena Lambert
Petra, a novel by Shaena Lambert

After the formal interview on The Fine Print, guests engaged with Lambert in a lively informal conversation. The author shared her thoughts from Cortez Island in B.C.: “I’m feeling an intersection more between activism and my work as a writer than I ever have before.”

Many at the online event voiced their astonishment at how Petra Kelly’s feminism addresses the issues of today—climate crisis, economic uncertainty, land sovereignty—nearly 40 years after her death.

As Petra narrator Manfred Schwartz puts it: “And now, in 1980, the only sane way forward, for so many of our generation—the way to channel both our love and our fury—was the new Green Party.”

If Petra Kelly were alive today, she would be 74 years old.

Petra is Lambert’s fourth book. She was the featured guest in March 2021, on The Fine Print, a conversation series with contemporary feminist authors hosted and produced by Lana Pesch in the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC). Watch the video highlights of the conversation here on YouTube. 

Read an excerpt from Petra (Penguin Random House Canada, 2020) © Shaena Lambert 2020