If everybody looked the same…

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…we’d get tired of looking at each other

We all need to have the experience of walking into a room, or a town, or a whole region, and being the one human who looks different to everyone else there. To be the one sticking out like a sore thumb, purely because of the body we’re walking around in.

In Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable Programme for Being A Person, this sore-thumb experience is non-negotiable. (That, and an hour’s exercise EVERY DAY. Miss Bevis, my old P.E. teacher, would be proud. If incredulous).

Every one of us needs to know how it feels to be stared at, commented on, to feel your strangeness made visible. To want to peel off your skin and put on the same one as everyone else. Just to stop it speaking for you, before you get the chance to open your mouth. We need to realise how helpless we all are to the ways in which the world reads us, the meaning that is given to our outsides. The way all our bodies are tangled in webs of caricature and stereotype.

In Nigeria, I used to long to be able to step out of my pointy-nose Oyinbo hide. To walk into the market in Akure, without the handicap of flaming otherness. To be free of the exhausting enterprise of managing what I meant to others. Of the effort to make sense to people: explain myself. Having been sealed up on the inside of my own body, I vowed I’d never read others from the surface again.

White British people, people with skin the same weak-tea colour as mine, can react in funny ways when it’s their turn to become burning beacons of difference. They can get indignant. Feeling seen disrupts their sense of the white self as a transparent window onto the world. Everything they’ve absorbed on this small island from the magazine covers, the cultural establishment, the juggernaut of imperial history, that decrees that beigey people are the invisible, universal norm.

As if, in the UK, people with more melanin in their skin are the only ones whose outsides are dense with meaning. As if their ‘diversity’ lies like a gauze between them and the world. As if there aren’t as many universal norms as there are humans on the planet. In Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable Programme, I’d take anyone spouting racist abuse and put them into the crowds in Karachi, Lagos, Jakarta, Beijing. Let them know what it feels like to be seen purely from the outside.

Ruth’s Entirely Reasonable graduates would know that we need to find less claustrophobic ways of being people in the world. All of us are prisoners of the ridiculous accident of being born who we are. We owe each other the courtesy of really paying each other attention.

Today, Valentine’s Day, when our particular loves are mass-marketed a red sea of tat, I’ll be looking at every face on the tube, on the bus, on the street, with extra care. (Yep. I know. If I don’t get punched, it’s a miracle.) I’ll look at them like I do when I’m drawing. With the gaze of a lover, seeing all the ways the most-loved face is precisely itself.

Because the only way past the inescapable surface is to look at it as closely as possible. To recognize the fact that none of us alive look the same, no matter what our tribe, our type, our tint. We need to be able to see each other as our families see us, how we were looked at when we were newborn. See that we’re nothing but a collection of sore thumbs, each one irreplaceable, sticking out together.

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Beginnings

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In the bleak midwinter…

OK, calendar geeks. This one’s for you.

I know it’s probably got something to do with an old pope called Greg, but why do we start our year today? Where, on my muddy little island at least, we are stranded in the cold, dead heart of winter. In the northern half of the world, everything is stopped. Outside, it’s damp, chill, corpse-grey.

Why doesn’t our new year start when the life rushes back into the world? When sleeping buds wake, and leaves uncurl to taste the light, and the air is alive with zooming things?

Maybe it’s because spring makes beginnings feel too easy. Newness, spilling out everywhere, unstoppable as the dawn, as breathing out.

Beginnings aren’t easy. They can feel like the end of the world. Things only grow when the sun comes back because they refused to die in the dark and the cold. Beginnings happen underground, in the silence, where no-one can see. When everything feels as dead as it could ever be.

When I started wittering online early in 2016, I’d thought that by now I’d look back, from the high-point of my current story, and be able to map how it had begun. But instead, the whole year has been me starting and re-starting, burrowing into it like a spiral, going further back and deeper down, always beginning again, and again, and again. Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself in a forest dark / for the straightforward pathway had been lost. Damn straight, Dante. No way out of the trees but through them.

As I go on starting again, I think about my grandmother’s oil paints, bright under clingfilm on the palette, how it felt to squidge them with my finger. I think about my grandfather, writing as his seven kids tumbled about him: how though I never met him, I hear his voice telling me about a two-day walk to London, looking for work. I think of my little, kind Nanna, the expert small-child-wrangler, always only ever two heartbeats away from spinning us a yarn. About my other granddad, who laced wide ribbons around the globe as a naval engineer, all the places he set his face to, far from home.

And I think about how everything I begin had its seeds planted long ago. How so much of our stories start before we are even born. All we get to do, if we get enough new years of our own, is carry them on.

So today, as the rain falls into another dull morning, we start again. It looks as if nothing much is different, but everything has changed. It’s 2017. Time to begin.

 

 

Tribes

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Hands up who loves notebooks?

I’ve been lucky enough to have had many tribes over the years. A fair few more than the ones I was born into, clan Grearson and the Poole horde.

There’s my Schoolgirl Six. My jaeger-fuelled Queens’ lot, and their counterpart, my adoptive SPC massive. My volunteering gang. My Nigerian family. My VSO vintage workmates. The huge web of love drawn tight around my little girl.

So many of my facebook photos are of my pea-head cheesing out of group shots, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But lately, for work, I’ve been a lone wolf. Obsessively drawn to stuff that can’t be delegated, that no-one else can do. My paintbrush, my business. My words.

So it felt brilliant to find my latest tribe, two weekends ago, at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference: story-telling nerds like me, all of us gathered in suspiciously beautiful Winchester. (I talk a bit more about it for their online magazine, Words and Pictures, here.) There were talks, workshops, critiques. There was a book launch. And fancy dress. But better than that, there were so many friendly faces. Everyone I spoke to was warm, kind, and hugely passionate.

My personal highlight had to be David Almond, author of the aching Skellig and one of my top five Geordies, talking to us about the uncertain adventure of making books, in his words, those ‘half-real, half imaginary’ things.

A life spent writing and illustrating can feel half-real, half-imaginary. Us fabricants make things exist that weren’t there before. We spend a lot of time hearing voices in our heads, seeing things that aren’t there. And for everyone still to get their words or pictures out into the world, you can’t help feeling a bit fictional yourself. Sometimes I feel like the tiny people living on a speck of dust in Dr Seuss’s story, who must yell out to prove they exist, or they’ll get boiled in Beezle-Oil. I AM HERE, outside world, honest.

Part of it is having the swagger to own a label. Like Ashley and Jerwayne say in Phone Shop: ‘If man say ‘im a ting, ‘im a ting.’ You write? You’re a writer. For me, one of the best gifts of the SCBWI conference was simply being able to be there. To feel seen. And to get in another group photo, obvs.

Before something can be real in the world, it must be imagined. David Almond talked about his boy self, going into Felling library in Newcastle, and picturing the day when he’d take down a book from the shelves and see the words ‘by David Almond’ on the cover. Today he can do just that.

Writing a book is an act of optimism, he told us. An act of love. As I stagger on with my current story, getting ever deeper into the woods, I know what he means. So do many of the people I met in Winchester, the other lone wolves of my pack.

Like love, a story is a gift that gives itself because it must. Your whole world, laid in a basket of bulrushes, and pushed out into the reeds.

Winchester

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Yay! (Image: SCBWI BI)

There’s only one thing more pretentious than a comedian explaining why things are funny. And that’s a writer, wanging on about writing.

It’s deeply interesting to a tiny handful of people and dull as frick to everyone else. Like the average Oscars acceptance speech, or those interminable wedding thank yous. (NO ONE CARES who made your cake. Is it time for dancing yet?)

But you’ll have to allow me this nerdy work post. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be writing it, but the truth is, I’ve got a debt of honour to repay. To the memory of a lady called Margaret Carey, a lifelong volunteer for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, otherwise know as SCBWI. I won an award in her honour to go to SCBWI’s annual conference tomorrow, and without that, it would be impossible for me to be there. So, thank you again, SCBWI.

Last time I was more than one night away for work, it was 2007. I spent 15 days interviewing health professionals volunteering with VSO in remote Indonesian islands. This weekend, I get to meet fellow story junkies, children’s writers and illustrators, in Winchester. I’m possibly more excited now than I was then.

Winchester is a venerable old place that, somehow, I’ve never been to before. So, like the conference itself, I’m hoping that it will feel like discovery and homecoming at the same time.

I’ll be posting about the conference again afterwards, to share with everyone like me, who had that nose-pressed-to-the-sweet-shop feeling watching the line up take shape. For those folk currently writing alone behind a laptop, who’d love to hear David Almond talk, or get the chance to shake up their characters, or hear some good advice on getting published and staying published.

I must be a pretty unoriginal kind of soul. The things I’ve loved, that have drawn me to do them, have drawn thousands of others too. You want to study what, where? You fancy working in that, do you? You want to write for who now? Join the queue, pal. But if it feels like you don’t have a choice, you have to do it or you’ll burst, well, what’s life but one big queue anyway?

I think writers shouldn’t waste their energies seeing each other as the competition. (Easy for you to say, scholarship winner, you may well think). The only competition a writer should feel is with themselves. To strive to tell the best story they can. Children’s writers most of all, because their readers have to make so much more effort. Young readers deserve the funniest, wisest, most exciting, most valuable, most beautiful ideas we’ve got. If those ideas are good enough, they’ll inform the minds that build our future. And right now, that feels more important than ever.

Arguments

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Hands off my Furby, Donald!

Remember those arguments you used to get trapped in as a kid?

The ones that you had to keep going at, like picking a scab, even though it hurt and it was making everything worse, and you were going to end up with a horrible weeping mess afterwards.

 

Arguments about property. ‘That’s MY Furby!”

About boundaries. ‘No girls in this den!’

About truth. ‘Your Dad’s not really a racing driver.’

About honour. ‘But you promised!’

Right now it feels a little like the world is watching one of those arguments. Instead of two six-year-olds in a primary school playground, it’s the presidential candidates of the United States of America.

If he loses, Donald’ll be turning to the appeal courts, all: ‘Moh-oh-ohm. They didn’t vote for me. TELL them!’

Like the time Laura Watts put Jackie Noonan in the big bin outside Mrs Turner’s class, there’s no way this argument can end well. Never before has the debate felt so claustrophobic, nor the two sides so close, in being so bitterly divided. Never have such unpopular, imperfect candidates been so inflated by the anger of the people they seek to lead. Anger poured into binaries: truth and lies, black and white, for us, against us.

Anger is necessary. There is a lot to be angry about in America right now. But just shouting louder at each other achieves nothing. Like the EU referendum, the way people will vote depends on what’s real for them. What they, through their lived experiences, hold to be true, and how that fits with the pictures in their mind of the US and its future.

So much of the way we see the world, our self-evident truths, are sculpted from the place and time in which we’re born. You feel it best if you’ve ever gone somewhere new to live, felt out of place. Made the effort it takes to make sense to people, to explain yourself. You see that values come from a tapestry of experience only possible in one particular place, at one particular time. How meaning is sliced differently, even if you’re using the same words. Something I encountered working in Ibadan years ago.

‘Open-minded’, the way many of my Nigerian friends and colleagues used it, meant ‘outspoken’: sharing what’s on your mind, giving your opinion. Whereas most British people would use it to mean ‘trying to see both sides of an argument’: not making up your mind, listening to a different point of view.

The same phrase. Two different meanings. Crossed wires. Confusion. Incomprehension. But you can’t know what you don’t know, until you talk about it. (And boy, did we.)

‘The trouble with having an open mind, of course,’ said Terry Pratchett, working in the British idiom, ‘is that other people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.’

Anger deserves open-mindedness, in both Nigerian and British senses. People need to speak up: people need to listen. Anger needs more than infantile argument. It needs to tell its story.

Stories are the opposite of arguments. They keep us grazing the edges of our own beliefs and assumptions. To help us see what’s already in our so-called open mind. And to check whether it really ought to be there.

When we’re sucked into a story, we see through someone else’s eyes. We make the leap into another person’s skin, their world. We get to feel it from the inside. We get another reality to the one we’ve just so happened to be born into. We get practise at seeing things from another point of view. I think this makes us better people.

On Wednesday, the anger won’t be going anywhere. But the argument has to end, and the hard work of understanding begin, for the sake of the story every American is living. No matter how hateful their words, pages that get ripped out can never be rewritten.

When it hurts

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When it hurts: apply notebooks.

I had a brilliant surprise last week. I won a scholarship to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in November. I sent them a chapter of my story about Petrel, the girl with a deeply weird problem: spiders keep talking to her. And SCBWI liked it. Enough to get me along to a weekend of invaluable professional learning: character workshops, critiques, talks by heroes of mine like David Almond. (Oh, and a fancy dress party.)

I’m glowing with this investment. Thank you, SCBWI. You better be sure I’ll graft as hard as I can to honour it.

As Haiti picks itself up after Hurricane Matthew, as Syria continues to collapse in on itself, as the world waits to see whether a cartoon character will become US President, I can see how a weekend talking children’s fiction could seem cosy. Self-indulgent.

But when the darkness gathers, when the storm looms: that’s when we need stories the most. We need voices raised against the howling wind. They give us different worlds to the one we’ve been handed, more ways to imagine other, better futures. They can keep our dreams safe until the world is ready to see them built.

This is all the more important for children, whose minds will shape the tomorrows I’ll never see. They deserve not to feel trapped in the story they’ve arrived in, not to feel like there’s no way out. They deserve to know that when you feel like you have no choices, you can always choose your words.

An organisation who knows the power of this for young people is First Story. They help school kids, those who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance, to get writing. To see the value of their own experiences, find their own voices. I’m really proud to be working with them over the next few weeks, getting secondary schools involved in their National Writing Competition.

And today, World Mental Health Day, this work feels more important than ever. Especially given recent findings that mental health problems among teenage girls are on the rise.

Teenage girls are close to my heart. I’ve been one. Still am in many ways. I know about wordless compulsions, how it feels to etch your self-hatred on your surfaces. How it feels to be constantly losing the unspoken wars of purity and disgust. I know the silent girls, who say nothing, and the gobby girls, who say everything except what really matters.

One article suggested that by talking about young women’s mental illhealth we normalise it. I don’t know about that. When silence reinforces suffering, it must be broken. And since when is happiness the norm of human experience?

What I do know is that we should talk more with young women and men about the art of facing each day. Surviving life, when it hurts. Because it will. Where there is happiness, there is nothing to say. Joy is mute. But pain sings. It must have a voice.

I didn’t realise, when I was younger, that thin paper and cheap biro were not only getting me through the aching business of life. The sentences scribbled in the margins of my life, on trains, sitting in stairwells, jolting on buses, would keep carrying me through, long after the crises had passed. I had to weave with the threads I’d been handed, but the pattern was mine.

So I would say, to souls younger than mine: look for your words to bear life. They won’t make it hurt any less. They won’t diminish your struggles. They will be words of love and pain, braided together, as love and pain always are.

Those words. At first they feel heavy, dragging like chains. But they grow lighter, the more you carry them.

You’ll need them again and again. Bind them bright over your brow; sling them over your shoulders. They’ll be your chainmail, your armour. Your whole life you’ll be making more.

Wear them all, and it won’t matter that the night draws closer, that your story must end. You’ll step bright as steel into the evening, and go golden into the dark.

Daddy’s girls

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Dad. Me. Horrific carpet.

‘Who’s the boss in your house?’ asked James Blay, when we were playing football in his garden.

‘Mum,’ I said. This was a fact, like the sky being blue, the grass being green.

‘No, she’s not,’ he told me. ‘It’s your Dad. Because he’s a man.’

I looked at him, my brow all wrinkly. Then I laughed.

‘Nah,’  I said. ‘It’s definitely Mum.’

James knew Dad. He wasn’t like other people’s dads. Other people’s dads were sometimes scary. They could shout. They didn’t play for hours on Saturday mornings, turning the living room upside down while they made you fly on their feet. They didn’t make you cars from cardboard boxes. Or take all the cushions off the sofa and make a square egg you could hide inside, while they pretended to be a chicken sitting on top. Most other dads didn’t like watching ‘Dogtanian’ and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ just as much as you did.

No, Dad was definitely not like other dads. For a start, he said ‘barth’ instead of ‘bath’. His job was an unpronounceable mystery. (Metallurgist, specialising in tungsten carbide. Yep.) He sang in the cathedral choir, and his music filled the house. Where other dads played the Beatles, the Dubliners, Bowie, Dad was always tuned to Radio 3.

From the Roberts radio in the kitchen poured old, twiddly music that came from another time. I’d feel lost in it, like I was wandering in a strange forest, getting the odd glimpse of home through the trees.

Today I’m being my father’s daughter, and I’m listening to exactly this music while I work. Everyone who knows me will be shocked I’ve turned my back on Radio 1. (This is because  I still have the musical taste of a teenager from the Midlands.) My father’s music plays now, colouring the air like stained glass windows: complex and peculiar. I have stumbled over its beautiful corners, and I’ve felt like I’m little again, falling asleep to the weird warbles of opera coming from downstairs.

It occurs to me as I’m working, that so many of my story ideas are about daughters, fighting for their fathers. There’s Petrel, whose Dad is badly hurt, and whose only hope of recovery lies with her. There’s my current heroine, whose father is powerless to help her outwit her enemies. The first story I ever wanted to write was that of Ismene, the daughter of ancient Greek incest, and her struggle against her father’s fate. I’m drawn to daughters who battle, whose stories have slipped through the cracks.

‘The wonderful thing about having children,’ Dad told me once, as we sat side-by-side driving back from Scotland, ‘is that it teaches you so much.’

He is so right. One of the things it teaches you is just how much you learned from your own parents, your own early world.

I watch him play with my little girl, pretending to dance a tango together à la Strictly, or carrying her around the house in a plastic storage box. Building huge towers of megabloks and roaring with laughter at ‘Gigglebiz’. And I realise I’ve soaked up all my patience from him. All my flashes of silly fun are entirely his.

I don’t have a son, but if I did, this is what I’d want him to know: the noblest quality in a man is the depth of his kindness. A father’s gentleness shows his children how to be strong.

Us daughters, we’re tough, in any case. We’ll take up our arms and stand our ground. We’re fighting for us all. No matter what tomorrow throws at us, we’re ready.

Roots

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Memorial Park, Coventry, by Peter Crowley.

One sunny Saturday when I was seven, a completely new feeling hit me, right in the middle of going downstairs. I was so full of it I had to sit down. Mum found me and wondered what was wrong.

‘I’ve got a funny feeling,’ I told her.

‘What kind of funny feeling?’ she asked.

‘A sad one,’ I said, hands pressed to my chest. ‘Like I miss something.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mum. ‘Sounds a bit like homesickness.’

I was puzzled. How could I be homesick? I was home.

But the longing was there all the same. It had found me, in the middle of that sunshine, that no-school freedom, that afternoon playing Lego with my sister. I realise now that feeling was of loss-to-come. Some moments mean so much that you miss them, even while they’re happening.

I felt the opposite feeling this week. Homesickness doesn’t really have an antonym. Home-wellness? You know, the feeling you have when you’re in a place that’s really yours.  It’s nothing to do with deeds or mortgages, that feeling. It’s more about places that have held you, that know you.

I was running under the beeches in the park at the end of the street I grew up on. I felt lighter and stronger, each step faster, just because I was there, passing the trees that are wardens of my childhood. Trees that watched me ride my first bike, push my little cousin in her pram, sit with my sketchpad. We have grown taller and thicker together, me and these trees. It probably looks nothing special to anyone else, these few green acres of Coventry park, but this is my place. It is a place that breathes into me.

Coventry is a hard place to be from. It’s not just that it doesn’t like to let you leave. Maybe it’s because it’s right in the navel of the country, but it seems to have a weirdly strong gravity. Coventry throws ‘em out for a while, but its kids tend to boomerang back home.

Coventry is hard, at least to me, probably its sappiest daughter. It’s hard to look at, in places. It’s had hard times. At school, if people called you ‘hard’, you’d made it. It’s hard for strangers to drive around its bonkers ring road. But there’s something to be proud of in its hardness. The blitz hit out its front teeth. Macroeconomics made it the Specials’ ghost town. Now, the cranes are busy again on that old skyline with its three spires. Coventry is a place that has had to get back up, time and again.

My park is Coventry’s memorial to the Great War, planted in a softer time, when the city took loss and death, and turned it into grace, creating a place that grows and breathes. At the foot of each tree is a plaque, which bears the name of a fallen son of the city. A hundred years ago right now, numberless young lives were forever lost in the trenches of France. In their memory, there is a place for families to potter and dogs to race in the sun, where you can swing a golf club or play five-a-side. A place that watches its people grow up, safe in the privilege of peace: to forget.

As ceasefire teeters in Syria, I hope that in a hundred years there will be a war memorial park in Aleppo, a far older and grander city being torn further apart every day. And that there, people will know what it is to have got back up again, to have rebuilt everything they lost in 2016. There will be somewhere to fall quiet under the cedars, crickets singing as the heat fades. Where children play in the shade, instead of being pulled from the rubble.

In 2116, who knows what will be left of my place. Maybe nothing but more clay brick houses pulled from the heart of the country. Or maybe the trees run wild, and stumbling into the forest one day, an intrepid kid sees the stone square the oldest beech has grown around, and wonders what it is for.

In these places, there is bliss in forgetting. Feeling the ache of loss-to-come and letting it go. Over us all, the leaves shiver in the sunlight. Underneath our feet, the roots run deep, knitting together the broken ground.

Blind

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Dear Fairy Godmother…

This summer was supposed to be the first in a long time that I felt ok about wearing a bikini.

Didn’t quite happen. Because, like many a girl from my part of the world, I wear my burkha on the inside.

We all know how we’re supposed to look. Stomach: a taut stretch from rippling ribs to jutting hip bones. Breasts: high and proud. Limbs: long, strong and smooth as butter.

That wasn’t what I saw in the mirror. So, back into the old black swimming costume.

Sometimes, it would be a relief to cover myself from head to toe. To hide from the bullying gaze of my inner Heat magazine, that only ever sees all the ways my lived-in body invites contempt. As if loathing could lazer away your physical flaws, when all it does is uglify your mind.

My insecurities are my own, but they’re far from unique. I’m sure hardly anyone looks at themselves in beachwear and truly loves what they see.

The question is, why need such bulletproof self-regard, just to feel the sun on your skin?

In the UK, we may throw our hands up at the French police, making Muslim women strip at gunpoint on the beach. Showing the same kind of force as the Iranian religious authorities when they arrest women for immodest dress.

But in our gawping society, female bodies exist on the same axis of desire or revulsion. They are never just the way we are anchored in the world.

We’re long used to the idea that women dress for a reaction. Take Cinderella. The original makeover story. Cinders is transformed by a magic frock: a frock so damn fine the Prince is helpless, overwhelmed with attraction. It’s not a million miles away from the queasy old argument that a girl wearing a certain kind of clothes is to blame for someone else’s lustful violence. That she was ‘asking for it’.

There’s a story that’s been floating after me for the better part of two years. I feel it calling when I walk along the Uxbridge Road, passing the local masjid with bare arms. I feel it when I cross the school playground with my daughter, and wonder what the Somali mums think of me with my hair blowing madly in the wind.

It’s a what-if tale. Aimed at anyone that’s telling anyone else what and how they should put over their body.

What if the rules didn’t apply to the looked-at?

What they were only for the looker?

My story’s set in an alternative present, in a religious society which tells people the old story about the danger of bodies. Women can’t be looked upon by men: men can’t be trusted to control their lust. But in this world, power is split differently, and there’s only one logical solution.

If they’re going beyond the family compound, men must cover their eyes.

For, after all, if your right eye causes you to sin, it is better to pluck it out…

My story is about a girl whose father is blinded in a fundamentalist attack, and her fight for justice. For a world in which people see each other as human beings.

When we’re policed as prisoners of the flesh, we lose the ability to look each other in the eye. To see past the marvelous, ridiculous, flawed and brilliant bodies we are accidentally moored within. To the life that leaves everyone in the end.

When we lose sight of that, we’re all blind.