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Post-Mortem: A Person Shaped Thing

Cards on the table: I like this piece of fiction.

It’s unusual writing for me as it’s essentially realist fiction and features no genre elements whatsoever. I’ve dabbled with this before but it’s not something I do regularly, and I enjoyed the challenge of writing a series of vignettes featuring vulnerable people living and working in Britain today.

As is probably quite obvious, this is a post-Brexit story. It was conceived and written not long after the EU Referendum vote, following the deeply problematic narratives of the preceding debate’s official campaigns and the subsequent uptick in racist abuse and violence.

It also owes other debts. The opening vignette owes itself almost entirely to the work of Taiwanese-British journalist Hsiao Hung-Pai, particularly her book Chinese Whispers. The third is a speculative attempt to peer inside the mind of a teenage interviewee on a Novara Media video concerning the EU Referendum. The sixth is a composite of six years of government policy regarding disability support allowance and related benefits and the activism that has opposed it.

My objective was to write something that was inherently political but non-didactic. All the subjects experience varying degrees of precarity, a political and media narrative that continues to emerge as we analyse the anti-EU blowback and its proximate causes. I wanted to portray a range of British or British-resident characters who all exhibited some degree of economic, social or political precarity, and represent their diversity in a non-superficial manner. The theme, which I hope emerged clearly, was empathy.

There are some significant problems with the story as written. It’s obvious that some narrative tissue connecting the vignettes is missing, leaving the fourth through sixth isolated. This was partly a result of running out of time, but it’s also a result of a lack of advance planning – I was still developing and discarding characters throughout writing – and insufficient consideration of, well, geography.

I intended to keep each vignette’s location fairly vague, partly to let readers do that work. Five of the stories are fairly ambiguous, but the detained asylum seeker I explicitly situated in Yarl’s Wood. I can no longer recall exactly why I did this, but I’d guess it was simply a choice made in the moment that subsequently went unchallenged. This vignette has also been described as the weakest and “not necessary” by one reader.

Writing all six vignettes in the second person was a decision I’m still happy with. I think that it helps get inside the characters’ headspace much more quickly than using third person, focusing in on their internal thoughts and emotions in a way that would have been trickier with omniscient narration in the third person, and has the fringe benefit of being memorable as it’s not commonly used in non-interactive fiction. However, a problem I didn’t anticipate is just how easy it is to read from the first vignette to the second and to experience some dislocation. Several readers fed back that they initially just regarded the break as a scene transition rather than a complete perspective shift.

I’m not sure how I might have preemptively addressed this, but making the first paragraph of the second vignette more striking might have helped. The existing paragraph also in some respects mirrors the first vignette in that it opens with the viewpoint character noting another character’s ethnicity, but nothing is subsequently made of this – unlike the Han character of the first vignette reflecting on what they had been taught about Yi people. This is food for thought; the similarity was unintentional. Would it have been better to simply not mention Tom being Jamaican? Or is there something to the fact that his ethnicity is noted but not remarked upon – is that in itself suggestive? I do not know what the ‘right’ approach might be.

Probably the biggest criticism I would make of this piece of fiction is that six vignettes does not a traditional story make, but on this occasion I’m prepared to say “fuck the traditional story” and stand by it. To try and build a traditional narrative around all of this would’ve either required a novel or some heavy-handed tubthumping; I had a 3,000 word limit to stick to, and the former I was unwilling to allow – although I concede the final character does a little themselves.

[‘A Person-Shaped Thing is a Person’ on]

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