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Like but Unlike

23 Apr

Researchers and clever people have just discovered a document which shows that the term “African American” is at least 50 years older than we think, appearing in print in 1782. And, as always, if it appears in print, it’s probably already in general use. This finding fascinated me, as “African American” has always fascinated me linguistically. And remember, I speak as a lover of words and meanings, I am no great academic on the subject.


A brief bit of internet research about 1782 in the United States reveals it to be pretty much a year of business for the country – the start of a new bank, a new mint, oh and smack bang in the middle of the Revolutionary War. Money and war, definitely business as usual. This is a time when America is defining itself. When everyone is an immigrant, and proud of it.  How fascinating that in the midst of this an African American is giving sermons. Back in the 18th Century, anyone giving sermons would need to be pretty educated. Who are you, “The African American”? I want to know your tale.

African American


But I digress, I am here to look at the phrase “African American”. African American is at once inclusive, and exclusive. It simultaneously declares “Yes, American” and “But not American”. That qualifier, that “African”, is an instant othering tool. There was a time when many of these terms abounded – Irish American, Italian American, Asian American. All of them implying, of course, that there is somewhere, probably in Hollywood, or maybe Texas, an American American. The American that needs no adjective.


And see how Irish American and Italian American get countries, while African American and Asian Americans have whole continents attached to them? “Yeah, the Italians aren’t quite white enough for us, but they’re ALMOST white enough”…And while Irish and Italian Americans can trace their roots, can proudly claim their Irishness or Italianness, African Americans aren’t afforded the dignity of classifying themselves as Ghanaian, Senegalese, Nigerian American, because their route to America was not a voluntary one, and no records were kept of their ancestral roots.


Boy, they must have been spinning when South Americans started moving north. “We can’t call ‘em South American Americans, that’s just daft!” “But how will people know they’re not really like us?” I bet the guy who dreamed up Latin American got a raise. Okay, okay, in fact, it was under Napoleon that it was named Latin America, in an attempt to create a bond with continental Europe against Anglo-Saxons. In fact, back then, North Americans were Anglo-Saxon Americans. Even Native American others – and, as was pointed out eloquently in “Inventing the Indian”, is a supremely absurd linguistic construction because the land that they are native to was not called America until someone else called it that.


Although we’re not sure who called it that –  the etymological origin of “America” is unclear. For many years it has been accepted that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer. But there isn’t a lot of evidence, and indeed some evidence suggests that he named himself after America. There’s another theory that it was named after Richard Amerike, a rich chap who sponsored explorations to Newfoundland. Or possibly it derives from a Caribbean language, and was originally Amerrique. Perhaps it’s best to stick to a rather compelling Urban Dictionary definition of America: “A country that claims the name of an entire continent to itself alone for no compelling reason.”


But let’s go back to African American. Isn’t it odd how you don’t hear much about Italian Americans anymore? Or Irish Americans? Isn’t it odd that a search on Google’s amazing N Gram viewer, which looks at the frequency with which words and phrases are used in printed material, shows an increase in usage of the phrase African American by around 130% in the last 20 years? Partly, of course, this is a good thing. That we are talking more about these issues. That there is more being said about African Americans. Especially, I hope, BY African Americans.


But part of me wants to know if, like the Irish and Italians, that African qualifier will ever vanish. 250 years later, black men and women are still not seen as American American. That sucks.


Character Exercise

23 Jan

There’s an exercise I often do at workshops to emphasize the importance of character. I give a few lines of dialogue, and show how drastically the meaning of them can change depending on who is speaking them to whom. A typical example is:

A: Hey

B: Hello

A: What are you doing here?

A could be friendly, happily surprised that B is there. A could be aggressive. A could be scared. I’m simplifying here, but this is the essence of the exercise. I had never really thought about applying this to real life, until this happened:

A: Hey

B: Hey gorgeous, it’s so good to hear your sexy voice

Again, these lines are different depending on who is speaking them. If B is in a relationship with A, this could be a fantastic thing to hear, and make A feel incredible. If B is a friend of A, this could be a friendly exchange, a bit of banter between friends. If B is a colleague of A, however, this becomes uncomfortable. This is not about the words themselves, these are not the lightning bolts of language like bitch, cunt, or whore. This is the insidious acid rain of casual sexism.

And it brings us neatly to subtext. Again, a vital tool for a writer to consider. When writing a script, we know exactly what the character means – and that what they mean is seldom exactly what they say.  Typically, the argument is that subtext is the realm of drama, and not of real life. But anyone who has stood in a doorway late at night and heard “So…do you want to come up for coffee?” can tell you that this is nonsense. Subtext is a part of everyday life. Nicknames have a subtext – they indicate a level of connection and familiarity, the use of them signals to others that a bond exists.  There’s a subtext in the way adverts are written. We humans go through life seldom, if ever, saying exactly what we mean.

This can of course be exploited. An immediate defence to an accusation of sexism (or racism, or any other ism) is “I didn’t mean it that way”. I would like to argue though that generally, offence is in the eye of the beholder. And this is particularly true for these subtle, everyday forms of sexism. It might not be horrible if your male colleagues call you darling one day. But if it happens every day, and they are all called by their given names, then it starts to get a little odd. And let me tell you that when you spend day after day, year after year, having your gender being responded to as of primary importance, being your most defining attribute, you get a little sick of it. Some people are genuinely surprised when you tell them that you find their behaviour inappropriate, and this has been a huge lesson to me – if you don’t tell people, they may never know. We are too often silent, too often gossiping behind people’s backs rather than confronting them and stating our unhappiness.

A standard suggestion for gauging sexism is “would you say the same thing to a man?”. Can you imagine A and B being male colleagues? This is another writer’s trick: context. There are no rules here. If you work in a context where everyone has a nickname and everyone feels comfortable with it, then all power to you. If you and your colleague have a friendship or rapport then obviously the dynamics change.  Where the problem comes in is when there is an inequality in the equation.  This is why we so seldom confront people, we already feel at a disadvantage, we feel we are taking a risk in speaking. We judge and condemn ourselves based on a lifetime of being judged.

Another question scriptwriters ask time and again is “who has the power in this situation”. There are organisational hierarchies – the boss has power over his or her employee – and then there are societal hierarchies. Traditionally, these favour strong white men. But it is never that simple and neat. And while it is an interesting thing to consider and debate as a writer – who would have power in a situation with a white homosexual male and a white woman, what if one character is black, what if the other character is black, who’s older, who’s stronger, and a hundred more permutations, each of which may add depth or nuance to your writing – it’s achingly difficult to navigate when it is real life.

So…complete this dialogue:

A: Hey

B: Hey gorgeous, it’s so good to hear your sexy voice


What can A say? If B is A’s boss, do they just let it go? Change the subject? Does A reply factually “I’d prefer it if you called me A”? Does A say “please don’t talk to me like that” or “I don’t find your tone appropriate”? What about “grow up” or “hey don’t take that tone with me”? And what if A does say something, and the next day this dialogue happens again? Repetition is powerful in drama, but in drama, there’s the rule of three. The first two times something will happen with a predictable response, the third time we will break that expectation. At what point does A say “fuck off”? Or stop talking to B at all? At what point does this erode you beyond repair?

Only this is not a theoretical exercise. This is life. And while it might seem like a fairly minor example, it may be the straw that breaks my back. And is further proof that in life, as in writing, character is everything.

Do Something FFS

18 Apr
‘I would just delete it.’

‘If it was my friend, ja, I’d tell them.’


A few weeks ago I was part of a process where teenagers were being asked to improvise scenes. The given scenario was that an incident of horrible bullying had been filmed on a cellphone and was being sent around. The response, overwhelmingly, was that the teenagers wouldn’t do anything about it. They would delete it from their phones, they said. No one admitted they might forward it. A few were bolder, stating that it was not their problem, and that getting involved would only cause more problems for them.

Fast forward to this morning and the horror of the rape video. The disgusting calls for a link to it so people could watch it. The litany of excuses for rape. And then the international attention and the onslaught of despicable, racist, phobic comments about South Africans.

I told those teenagers about the bystander effect in that workshop. The theory is that the more people there are, the less the likelihood is that anything will be done. So say you’re home alone and you’re hungry. Chances are high that you’ll eat something – whatever is in the kitchen, or pop out for a snack. But maybe the family is all hungry – getting four people to agree on what to eat might take a bit longer. Inevitably he who whines loudest wins out. Now put eight friends in a room trying to decide what to eat. Your best chance of being fed is to LEAVE IMMEDIATELY and find your nearest cafe.

The same principle applies in times of crisis. How many of us have driven past a fire and thought ‘I’m sure someone else has reported that by now’? Walked past a crying child. Done nothing. This is the bystander effect, and it’s insidious. It tells us that there are “other people” doing what needs to be done. Making the decisions. Making dinner.

A few of the teenagers got to talking about what they perhaps could do if they were sent a video showing some incident of bullying. One angry young woman was full of ideas. The first of which was reply to whoever sent you the video and tell them that they are “a stupid asshole”. The second involved telling authorities. The third involved telling everyone “as loudly as possible” that the bullying, the videoing, and the distribution were all “cruel and dumb”.

Be grateful we have people like her in this world. I am.

We can’t afford to do nothing any longer. We, as a society, have given the okay to bullying, to rape, to abuse of power in all its forms, because we would rather not say no to it. We are sure “someone will do something”. We think we are powerless to effect change. I’ve seen lots of suggestions online today about what should be done. They can be summed up as: castrate the rapists, kill the rapists; women should not be provocative or sexy or beautiful; and a few beautiful voices speaking out  – support Rape Crisis, tackle rape as men and women together, report abuse and seek justice, keep talking about it. For this alone today I am grateful – that we have continued to talk about it.

There was another tweet that got my attention today. It was a call from @squidsquirt for a little kindness. And at the very least, that’s what I would love to see. A little more proactive kindness in the world. And that is something all of us can do.

What have you done?

Yes, I am a reality TV junkie

3 Nov

“I won’t do it,” I told myself. “I won’t mention the Kardashian divorce.”

And for a while, I held firm. I thought I could do it (after all, I managed to get all the way through August without berating the concept of Women’s Month).  But then the comments started getting nasty about Ryan Seacrest, and I knew I could remain silent no longer. Seacrest is, you see, rather a hero of mine, someone who works incredibly hard to achieve what they want, and is jolly successful at it.

I detest writing bios for myself, but one thing that I always tend to add is that I’m a reality TV junkie.  Of all the things I’ve ever said in my bios, this has garnered the most comments. People are scathing, or condescending, or guiltily admit to liking reality TV too. Reality TV is like the You magazine of the television milieu, no one ever admits to buying it, yet everyone seems to have read articles in it, and everyone and their aunt has an opinion about it.

Here, then, are some ideas about reality TV – and the fans thereof – that I’d like to debunk:

  1. Just because I like reality TV doesn’t mean I like every single reality TV show that exists. Saying “I like wine” doesn’t make one an indiscriminate nana, who will happily chug down the chemical tasting red along with the finely aged merlot. Reality TV runs the gamut from the talent related (my all-time favourites Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, and Ru Paul’s Drag U) to the pseudo celebrity (Girls of the Playboy Mansion) to the ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances (Survivor, Amazing Race) to the utterly mundane (Big Brother) to the rather horrific (Toddlers and Tiaras, Bridalplasty) to the endearing (Cake Boss) to the have a good old weep into your tissues (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition). Then there are all the niche special interest shows like Pimp my Ride and Masterchef. A plethora of tasty choices, and a couple of nasty flavours thrown in.
  2. Liking reality TV does not preclude the watching and appreciation of other shows, let alone the watching of films, the reading of books, swimming, or indeed any other activity. Saying “I like wine” doesn’t mean you only ever drink wine and you never eat and all you do is lie about in bed all day drinking wine (except in some cases). I am not a realitytvaholic.
  3. There is nothing “guilty” about entertainment. Fascinatingly, after a day of work and parenting and driving about and, you know, LIFE, I crave some entertainment. Sometimes intelligent entertainment, sometimes good old fashioned mindless entertainment. This does not make me a mindless individual; it makes me an ordinary person in want of a little distraction, a little escapism, a little, oh what was that word again: ENTERTAINMENT.
  4. Voyeurism is a natural human tendency.  There is nothing sinister about being fascinated by gossip. We like to observe the foibles of others. We like to commiserate. We like to gloat. We like to relate. So we’ve moved on from leaning over neighbours’ fences or people gazing at pavement cafes. The good thing about reality TV is that everyone involved has chosen to be there.  Kim Kardashian, bless her cotton socks, decided to put her whole “life” on show. Which brings me neatly to point 5…
  5. Reality TV is some of the best scripted stuff on television. Any of you labouring under the illusion that anything is ‘real’ need, well, a reality check. From the psychological profiling of participants to the careful manufacturing of circumstances to the detailed editing, there is nothing real about these shows. This is what makes reality TV more entertaining than most documentaries. This is what makes reality TV more entertaining than most people’s realities. As a writer, I am fascinated by the creation of tension, dramatic twists, the explorations of people’s psyches under extreme circumstances. Season 22 of Survivor aka Boston Rob’s superlative and award-worthy trouncing of the opposition in a flawless game is one of the clearest demonstrations of how an antihero can make a story a success.

There are other things I love about reality TV – that it has a clear beginning middle and end, for instance. That it provides an opportunity for narcissistic twats to reveal their true colours. That it gives us non sporty types things to get worked up about. That it sometimes truly does have the power to make someone’s dreams come true. There are other things I hate about it, but I’ll leave the hating to the many, many people out there who are so good at it.

Returning to Ms (safest title) Kardashian, and Mr Seacrest. Arguments about how the money would be better spent building schools or saving the planet are, to my mind, rather specious. Spending large sums of money on the making of these shows (and in this case, apparently, a faux wedding) doesn’t automatically mean that the people involved don’t give any money to charity, or do any good deeds. Or that they had an either or option, and chose MAKING MONEY MWAHAHAHAHA. And as they are private entities, what they do with their money is really no one else’s business. Unlike, you know, Greece, for example.


Dirty Tango

25 Oct

I always write my best work when I have a soundtrack playing in my head. In fact, I once wrote a play listening only to Jack Johnson, and despite my never mentioning this to the director of its first production, she chose Jack Johnson as the soundtrack. The music oozes into the words, somehow.

I have found the soundtrack to my next play. I found it in a 14o year old theatre in Stockholm, and it is Dirty Argentine Tango music. This is music that rips your heart out, slaps you around the face with it, and screams “ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION YET?”

This is the Orquesta Tipica Fernandez Fierro, and I am in love with them. It’s not so much the bad boy dreadlocked drama queen accordion player who is incapable of sitting still, or the violinist with Jesus hair who holds his violin up above his head after a good song, or the sunglassed cellist and bassist who aren’t shy to use their instruments for percussion, or the pianist who looks like he’s been living in a cave for a few years, or even the lead singer who had more costume changes than Lady Gaga, including singing two songs with his hoodie and shades fully on and another entirely offstage, and even made use of a microphone. It’s not the fact that these guys in their grungy jeans and t shirts look like they could just as easily be a skateboarding crew. It wasn’t the crazy insane stage lighting which threw in every colour of the rainbow, as much backlighting as the theatre could handle, and the occasional strobe.

What it is, is that these men are committed to their music and their performance with every cell in their body, every atom of their soul, and every breath they take. This is live performance. This is art. This is passion. They loved what they were doing so much the audience were incapable of not loving it too.

And this is tango like I’ve never heard it. I’ll admit I’ve probably had cliched, clean, romanticised notions of tango. This was dark, and passionate, and alive, and it wept stories of lust and devastation and elation and suffering and succor.

This is the soundtrack to my next play.

A Simple Answer

2 Aug

This blog is mostly about words. The power of words to shape the way we think. Without us even realising it.

Democracy. It’s one of those deceptively simple words. And it’s one we like to spout, right up til the second it stops working in our favour. Here are a few definitions of it:

  1. government by the people or their elected representatives by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
  2. a state having such a form of government
  3. a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.
  4. a political or social unit governed ultimately by all its members
  5. the practice or spirit of social equality
  6. a social condition of classlessness and equality
  7. the common people, esp as a political force

A black friend of mine (@TOMolefe, for those of you on Twitter) asked me a “simple question” last night. Yeah right, Osiame. His question was, to paraphrase, “why do you not get sucked into the ‘making the issue the issue without bringing race into it’ thing that many  white people do?” My response was: I really don’t see what’s so earth shattering about the way I think. To me, what I’m about to say is just plain sensible – and is my interpretation of democracy, as above.

Quite simply: I find it crass to force my assumptions and opinions on others. And I find it dangerous to dismiss theirs without truly hearing them. It’s about a letting go of ego, and the desire to constantly whine “but I’M not like that” – and to look at the bigger picture. There’s that democracy thing. Elected leaders. Mass opinion. Hello white people: you are the minority. Just because you don’t like the elected leaders, doesn’t make them wrong. And here’s where the danger comes in. We can’t dismiss Malema and his opinions any more than we can dismiss the concerns of the disenfranchised poor white Afrikaners. To focus on the bombast, and the “cheap” issues like trust funds, is to ignore the very relevant concerns Malema raises, and the vast numbers of people who share those concerns. The majority of smug white people, as my last post indicated, piss the hell out of me. I can fully understand him being angrier than I am. Furthermore, even if you do choose to consider Malema a twat, it does get rather tedious using that as your go to response as to why you’d never vote ANC. Please don’t let Malemaitis blind you to reality. Let the issue be the issue, but realise that here and now, in this country, the colour of your skin is, well, as obvious as the nose on your face.

I am perplexed by white people who live in big cities, have never been to a township, let alone a rural village, and haven’t spent time getting to know or understand anyone else’s culture believing they have the right to cast judgement on others. Where do you live? What makes you think you think you know better than everyone else? Democracy not looking so pretty to you after all, is it, when the majority is “wrong”. Oops. Apparently, this makes me a #badwhite. If so, it’s a label I’ll wear with pride. All I’m asking is that you get off your hobbyhorses long enough to actually, truthfully, listen. To me, that just seems like common sense. “A social condition of classlessness and equality” – a little scary, isn’t it?

I stand by my words. Democracy. Crust and all.


19 Jul

This morning, in an attempt to chase the blues away, I went in search of #happysongs, and boy did Twitter provide! Here, in no order whatsoever, are some songs to put a smile on your face – with huge thanks to my tweeps, especially @tobiased, @gennacide, and @eeshthedish. Oh, and if you’re so inclined, I made a YouTube playlist with a lot of these. Feel free to recommend more in the comments.


Iko Iko - Belle Stars
Eye of the Tiger - Survivor
Holding out for a Hero - Jennifer Saunders
Yes sir, I can boogie - Baccara
Walk like an Egyptian - The Bangles
Daydream Believer - Shonen Knife
99 Red Balloons - Nena (in German)
Bad Romance - Lady Gaga
I wanna dance with somebody - Whitney Houston
Wake me up (before you Go Go) - Wham!
Benny and the Jets - Elton John
Dry the Rain - The Beta Band
The Lovecats -The Cure
She's Got That Vibe - Public Announcement
Loveshack - B52s
Good morning starshine - Orignal Cast Recording
Never Gonna give You Up - Rick Astley
Walking on Sunshine vs Halo - Glee
Nothing on You - BOB feat Bruno Mars
Billionaire - Travis McCoy
Nellie the Elephant - Toy Dolls
Birdhouse in Your Soul - There Might be Giants
Days like this - Shaun Escoffrey
Don't Marry Her - The Beautiful South
Dr Feel good - Travis McCoy
Harder, Faster, Stronger - Daft Punk
Tightrope - Janelle Monae
Stone Cold Sober - Paloma Faith
Hong Kong Garden - Siouxsie and the Banshee's
It's not just for gays anymore - NPH
Fame! - Orignal Cast Recording
Tenderoni - Chromeo
Girl they won't believe it - Joss Stone
I want Candy - Bow Wow Wow
Gloria - Laura Branigan
Proud Mary - Glee
Pop Culture - Madeon
Judas - Drew Tabor
Sweet Caroline - Neil Diamond
Lights - Ellie Goulding
Bathtime in Clerkenwell - The Real Tuesday Weld
Vertigogo - Combustible Edison
Bright Side of Life - Monty Python
Big in Japan - Ane Brun
The Mambo Craze - De Phazz
Daydream in Blue - I Monster
People Should Smile More - Newton Faulkner
mmm Bop - Hanson
Have it all - Jeremy Kay
Spirit in the Sky - Kumars at 42 and Gareth Gates
5 Years Time - Noah and the Whale
Happy days are here again (get happy) - Glee
Tu Vuo Fa l'Americano - Talented Mr Ripley
Pata Pata - Miriam Makeba