Monday 26 March 2018

Drag and the Heart of Belfast by Shirley-Anne McMillan

When I'm thinking of The Unknowns I always end up thinking about the political situation here in Northern Ireland. In some ways that's not surprising- I did intend to write a more political novel. But I also never wanted to be one of those people from NI who always ended up talking about NI. I think I'm getting over that now though. I'm from NI, everything here affects my life and my family's lives, and there hasn't been a lot of representation from NI in YA literature. I suppose this is my preamble to yet-another-blog-post-about-NI! But it's not an apology...

Throughout our history there have been artists who did what they could to survive and to project a vital alternative voice into our sometimes death-dealing status quo. Stuart Bailey is about to bring a book out about how music here spoke into and about the conflict (give it a look here- it's going to be great book), and we have had numerous books, fiction and non-fiction, about the conflict. But what about now? Post-conflict NI still has difficulties. Our suicide rates are extremely high, our government has turned its back on LGBT people and women, we are failing to deal adequately with a legacy of clerical child abuse, and Stormont has collapsed yet again, so it looks like none of these issues are going to be resolved very soon. It is easy for people here to feel hopeless, and many do.

Enter the superheroes of this country. The people whose names you might not even know. The ones who keep on plugging away at community projects which bring kids together, or who go to their work as therapists or social workers knowing they're going to hear some pretty awful stuff, or who take their nursing shift when they're already exhausted from the last one. People who don't get paid half as much as they should, and sometimes not at all.

Photo by Outburst Arts

And I think of the artists who are injecting us with hope, sometimes by simply reflecting and amplifying what we all know is going on beneath news headlines and yet another 'shock' talk radio article. Collectives like Queertopia who bring cabaret which soars above the simplistic discussions about gender and sexual orientation that you normally find on social media to bring something truly radical: truth. And human experience.

We need this in NI because all around us it being bulldozed, sometimes literally. Our country is beautiful but it is maddening in its insistence on binary vision in all circumstances. We have replaced truth with a different system - one which is easier to understand, looks cleaner, and is box-tickable in its quest for rightness. You can see it when they raze gorgeous old buildings to the ground to make way for shiny shopping centres, and when they cut arts funding year after year so that many organisations have to give in and shut down. Art makes us afraid because it asks questions and we might not like the answers which arise in us.

Of course, this is why we need it so badly in NI. When we find that we don't fit into those clean shiny boxes, we're absolutely screwed. Unless we can find a way to be OK with it, to entertain the possibility of actually liking ourselves the way that we are.

This is Electra La Cnt.

When I first saw her perform it was to the song Chandelier by Sia. Electra's look is serious and her costumes are big and bright. She looks like a queen who you'd expect to start performing to something bold and brash - something about leaving a terrible lover and feeling fabulous about starting a new life. That's not 'Chandelier' by Sia. By the end of the song I was almost in tears. I'm not even sure what it was about her choreography or the performance- but her interpretation of the song was so moving. It is a song about someone trying to hold everything together, and not quite managing it- someone trying to present themselves in a way which makes other people feel good so that they too will feel good about themselves. But they can't manage it- when they're alone they feel ashamed of themselves. In performing this song in drag, Electra was blowing it open- a drag queen who reveals their own vulnerability in a song about the disguises we all wear.

In The Unknowns I really wanted to write about people who were unafraid to be vulnerable while daring to carry on standing up for the vulnerable, because this is the kind of bravery that saves us. Our government don't understand that, and the people tearing up the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast don't understand it, but our artists really get it. They're not the only ones who do, but we need them as much as we need the therapists and nurses and social workers. They are as vital as that.

Electra and Dick. Photo by Nicky Belton.


Mystica said...

Coming from Sri Lanka I understand. We tend to go back to talk of the civil war. You live through a war of 33 years, this generation who has lived through it tends to go back to it all the time!

shirley said...

Yes, I think that's it. People always think back to their childhoods and it just happens that our childhoods coincide with significant conflict. The post- conflict period is also interesting to be living through- in NI we are not dealing well with the legacy of the conflict. I wonder if it is different in other places. I suppose it probably takes a long time.

Anne Booth said...

I think your comment about artists being necessary is really inspiring. It gives me motivation and encouragement, as sometimes I wish I was someone who did more obvious good. And your book sounds really interesting. I will try and get a copy.

shirley said...

Oh thanks Anne :-)

I know that in my life art is necessary for survival, and so I think it must mean this for others too, and on a societal level- the same. But more than survival- it gives us hope and lends us energy. I do think it's very important. x

Derek McMillan said...

This is very interesting and in parts very moving. I think Milan Kundera had the same problem - he wanted to be a writer not simply a writer about oppression in Czechoslovakia.

shirley said...

Yes. It's hard not to talk about it when you're immersed in it, though. I think I've decided not to worry about it so much. Maybe some day I'll have a book entirely set in historical Czechoslovakia and then I'll immerse myself in Kundera for a while! :-)