Monday, 26 February 2018

Anarchy and The Unknowns by Shirley-Anne McMillan

Anarchy gets a bad rap, sometimes deservedly. To some people it means riots and chaos (although those things need not be synonymous). To others it means a way to do things- a way to be a society which is outside what we currently refer to as ‘democracy’. I don’t want to make this blog post a discussion about those things, but I can’t write about The Unknowns, my novel about a gang in Belfast who inhabit derelict spaces and disrupt violence, without thinking about anarchy, because anarchy was one of my main inspirations when writing it.

A few years ago I was part of a group or collective called Ikon. We put on regular performance art events which were often based around a philosophical or religious idea. We would meet regularly to plan those events and we were a fairly diverse group of people so the discussions which led to the events were sometimes even more enlightening (and fun) than the events themselves. 

We had an open structure which meant that we didn’t have a leader. Someone did start the group and we did end up having agreed roles and taking responsibility for different bits. But everything was always up for discussion about the way things would work. We made decisions based on consensus rather than majority vote. This made making decisions difficult sometimes, but I think we were all the better off for it.
There were people who really disliked the way we did things. Some people thought we were trying to be a church or maybe even a cult. It’s hard for people to get how a group like that can work without a leader. People would say things like ‘If you don’t have a leader you won’t have a direction. You’ll die out. It can’t last’. But we were OK with that. Our aim was never to last forever. And we did stop doing events eventually. And that was OK.

We never wanted to be an institution- where the point of the group would become about protecting the group. So although our group stopped doing events the individuals in the group went on to do other things, form other cooperatives, do different art. My first published book, A Good Hiding, owes a lot to Ikon.

In The Unknowns I wanted to see if I could imagine a group of people who got together in utter frustration at the lack of progress that the government in Northern Ireland has made in defending and protecting the marginalised and sorting out our sectarian problems. Would a group of mainly young people, most of whom had very little money and no power, be able to change things? 

We can do whatever we need to do- we just have to want to do it and we have to be willing to organise to do it. That takes a lot of work sometimes, and a lot questioning, but it’s possible. I wanted to imagine a group which wasn’t willing to wait around for someone else to rescue them. The Unknowns are invested in rescuing one another, and then using that energy to stand up for strangers. And they also like to party, because that’s important too. Through music and art they refresh their energy.

The gang in The Unknowns is anarchist in the sense that I like best- they decide things for themselves. They don’t have a leader- they make decisions by consensus. They share things- if one has money and the other needs guitar strings they offer to help. It doesn’t mean they aren’t beholden to the society which is around them- of course they are- but they recognise that they have more power than most people realise they have, and in their own way they intervene and use their creativity to make things more bearable for themselves and other people. We can all do that. We don’t have to live in a squat or take our spray cans down to the local park, but we can notice the things around us that we find unacceptable and ask ourselves if there’s a way to change it - even in a very small way.

Clever creative action- the use of art and music and writing to express what is suppressed, or to resist categorisation-  has been used time and again to bolster support for campaigns and keep people feeling hopeful in the face of mass discrimination and government indifference. And somehow, these small acts will change us as we patiently resist. That is what I hope The Unknowns is about.

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