Sunday, 17 September 2017

Be Brave: Writing the Taboo by Moira McPartlin - introduced by Chitra Soundar

I met Moira McPartlin two years ago at the launch of her first book in the Sun Song Trilogy - Ways of the Doomed and this September, I hosted an interview at Blackwells on the launch of the second book in the series Wants of the Silent. In many ways these two books are brave and prophetic and I worry what realities her third book would augment. No pressure there!

Having read those two books and hearing a lot about The Incomers which was her first book, today's post is an important one in the context of our political climate - especially with the recent parliamentary happenings.

Chitra Soundar


In July this year Liu Xiaobo, Chinese writer, Nobel Laureate and political dissident, died in prison. One of his ‘crimes’ was to use words to show the reality of his world. Last year The Accusation by Bandi (pseudonym of prominent North Korean writer and resident) was published after being smuggled out of that secret State.

In the West we pride ourselves in having freedom of speech, but what of the other constraints that prevent us being brave in our writing?

Early on in my writing career I took an online course. It was tutor led and had ten other participants. We each submitted, then critiqued each other’s work.  One of my stories featured a nasty character and in some dialogue he used the word ‘paki’. The group and the tutor pounced on me, declaring this language unacceptable, even in dialogue.

This censure bothered me because where I was brought up in the 1960s and 1970s this word could be heard regularly especially when the village shop was taken over by Abdul and Kaneez. So where can the line be drawn between unacceptable language and subject matter and writing reality? How brave can we be in our writing?


I believe the best example of a book that pushes the boundary in language is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993). At the time of release it was hailed as ground breaking. It’s a difficult book to tune into both in subject matter (drug abuse) and language (Scots vernacular) and yet it was a best seller even before the 1996 movie elevated it to cult.

When my novel The Incomers was published in 2012 it was described by one literary critic as ‘brave’. The novel describes the trials of a Black woman moving into a small mining village in 1966.

In it I explore racial prejudice and use derogatory words heard at the time, not just towards black characters but also Italians, Chinese and Polish. Before publication the book was read by two black men and they both agreed the language I use is necessary to make the book authentic. One also added that although the novel is set fifty years ago, his family still experience the same treatment today.
Here is a re-enactment of one of the scenes from The Incomers. To hear the words spoken out loud shock even me and I wrote them.


Religion is a touchy subject and many writers steer clear.   Some writers risk death to be brave in their writing.  After the release of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwā against him and he was placed under police protection.  And who can forget the fate of Charlie Hebdo’s writers in Paris 2015.

Bigotry and sectarianism exists in Scotland but it rarely appears in fiction. Des Dillon wrote an excellent play, Singin I'm No a Billy He's a Tim (2005) depicting two teenage football supporters one Celtic (Catholic) the other Glasgow Rangers (Protestant) locked in a cell together and having to come to terms with their differences. It is a great piece of literature and I believe should be taught in school.

I tackle this subject in The Incomers, using derogatory terms to describe both Catholic and Protestant. In one scene the main character criticises the Catholic Church’s use of ‘Black Babies’, a charity programme where children are encouraged to spend their pocket money to buy the right to name a black baby in Africa.  Many readers felt shame at reading this, having being complicit with the scheme at the time, but I received major criticism from devout Christians (including my mum), for including this. Bigotry is alive and kicking still in Scotland and in my view any opportunity to call it out is acceptable.  Although this novel was written for adults many school teachers have read it and champion it for the School Curriculum.

Orange Walk July 2017 – Bigotry is alive and kicking in Scotland

Violence towards children

Unfortunately violence towards children is a fact of life. It’s not nice to read but it needs to be highlighted. Anyone who has read The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini, will remember the violent rape scene of a young boy.

In Say You’re One of Them (2008), Akpan Uwen uses five young African voices to tell stories of poverty, rape, prostitution and slavery. Their innocent voices make their horrors all the more real but hopefully provides the reader with feelings of guilt and a wish to take some action.
In my futuristic Sun Song Trilogy I have hinted at violence towards children but not taken it as far as these two examples.  I have however tackled some other taboo subjects.


History books are filled with stories of genocide, but lessons learned doesn’t prevent it happening today. This is one subject that many writers have used in their novels, particularly Young Adult novels.

In the excellent Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, conquering humans wipe out the native population of the planet they want to colonise. This chilling analogy cannot help but raise parallels in the readers mind about the fate of North American Natives and Aborigines of Australia and many other examples from history.  The very violent and prophetic The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins also uses genocide to show how cruel humans can be towards their fellows. Collins has been criticised more for the use of violent children but the inhumanity towards citizens is, for me, the most chilling and brave aspect of these novels.

In Ways of The Doomed, the first novel in my Sun Song Trilogy, I have used DNA selection to divide populations into two classes, Privileged and native. If citizens don’t fit these categories they are either deported back to their land of origin or are ‘destroyed’. At the time of release I was heavily criticised for suggesting such a thing but the book was written in 2012 (published 2015) and the political and technological landscape of our world has changed dramatically since then. It does not seem so far-fetched now.

I continue this theme in book two of the trilogy, Wants of the Silent but take it one step further by suggesting ‘specials’ and old people are destroyed. I have been ambiguous in my definition of the ‘specials’ for fear of offending so maybe I’m not so brave after all.

Watch a trailer of Wants of the Silent here.

All the above examples are a fear of censure from certain groups in society. At the moment we are relatively free to write what we want, but what if that changes?  What is next?

Artificial Intelligence

In (1950) Isaac Asimov published short story collection, I Robot, which includes the now famous The Three Laws of Robotics

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

At the time these stories were considered science fiction but in August 2017 Tesla’s Elon Musk called for laws to prevent the development of killer robots. Today we live in a world where Artificial Intelligence is moving faster than governments can regulate the industry. Google and Facebook know more about us than we do ourselves.  Google can predict a flu epidemic ten days faster than the NHS. I believe that as time goes on this will be the greatest danger to our freedom of speech as we know it today. Big Brother is here and growing.

In future we might not have the opportunity to be brave...
Amazon’s algorithms already control how and when books are promoted and the predictive text for ‘apple’ on my android phone has a capital A. How long will it be before blog posts like this are written by algorithms and any criticism of governments or the tech industry will be deleted before it reaches its readers? In future would we have the opportunity to be brave?

Moira McPartlin (@moiramcpartlin) was born in the Scottish Borders but grew up in a small Fife mining village. She has led an interesting life as a mother and successful business woman and now lives in Stirlingshire. She is a hill walker/runner and mountaineer and also enjoys gardening, playing guitar and whistle. The Incomers was shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and was a critical success. Moira is also a prolific writer of short stories and poetry, which have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines.


Rowena House said...

What an excellent post. I'd like to give it serious thought and comment again. But for now I just wonder how much commercial pressures are making writers self-censor too. In optimistic mode, I would say technology could free authors from the constraints of profitability, but these are just initial thoughts. This blog deserves a more considered reply.

Moira said...

Thanks Rowena, I think commercial pressures are a consideration. My publisher, who is small, never pushed back on content. In fact they took a huge risk in allowing my choice of cover for The Incomers. We now know it is taboo to have a black face on a book cover. Booksellers hate the cover. I love it. Most of my sales come from word of mouth. Artificial Intelligence is a subjct we will return to I'm sure. I am by nature an optimist but I'd like to see government show more understanding of the threats. D

Andrew Preston said...

I was raised in Scotland during the 40 - 50 year ago span mentioned. School in East Glasgow, later suburban Milngavie, and Galloway. Then university, and an 18 month stint driving buses in Glasgow.

From school through to and including university, I cannot recall a single non-white face/face of colour.

A number of little corner, and especially the open late, shops were Pakistani run.

Very, very few non-white faces were bus passengers. 4 or 5 Pakistani drivers at a depot with around 60 or 70 drivers. On reflection, they may only have been there because it was a job few people wanted to do.

I left Scotland in 1974. On BBC1 in 1975 there was a depiction of Orange sectarianism in Glasgow, and the drinking culture, in the BBC1 'Play for Today'.., Just Another Saturday which featured Jon Morrison, and Billy Connolly. I remember watching it, and thinking that I was really glad to be away from that.

These days, my connection to Scotland is maintained through long distance support of Stranraer, my former local football club. And an active use of the main Scottish football internet forum, Pie and Bovril. In the club forums that I use, racism has just about zero presence, and is leapt on when it does occasionally show up. Also very little of what might be called racism by sideways allusion.

The football clubs, Rangers and Celtic, are routinely referred to as the Bigot Brothers by supporters of other clubs. In my view, the managers and owners of these two Glasgow clubs have been dismal in their attitudes to sectariansism.
Always just reactive.

Overall, what really left an impression on me was the scale of the drinking. Centre of Glasgow 10 minutes after pub closing time on a Friday or Saturday night. Bus would fill up with 79 passengers. All drunk, and many with no money left. No one ever gave official instructions to drivers, but the unofficlal advice from inspectors was... "Just pick them up, and drive...".
10 miles almost non-stop, bus flat to its springs, out to Castlemilk, one of the big housing schemes.