Saturday 14 December 2019

The song of the immigrant

With the politics off my chest (#NotMyPrimeMinister), and having spent three years in an anxious  stupor (plus my stressful day job, but that could have been more manageable if I had had more surety about my status), it's enough. I've had enough.

One of my first responses after the referendum was shock and horror as a human being, as an immigrant, and as an artist. See, I came to the UK almost 14 years ago. I intended to stay. I had a lump in my throat during the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.

I'm not going to talk about how all that has shifted - it's summed up best as an overwhelming sense of alienation.

When the referendum was announced, I was halfway through Witches of London: Lars. If you're perceptive, you can feel the tonal shift of the book between the bit written pre-referendum, and the bit written post-referendum. I've done everything I could to even the caesura out, but I can definitely feel the rift like a scar when I re-read the text. In fact I almost lost that novel because I felt so much horror at Brexit that I could barely bring myself to continue writing about English people - who've been my material and personnel ever since I came over.

But I'm nothing if not stubborn, so I muscled through. I loved the Witches of London premise very much and willfully pushed through both Eagle's Shadow, and Shadow's Watching with Jordan Taylor. Both of those novels found a way around the wound in my mind - the first has a huge hopeful message about how nationalities are constructs and how we're all just humans, and we moved the second novel outside of London and into Switzerland - literally "neutral territory".

But WoL has always been multiple books. It could easily have sustained me for a few years and 7-10 novels. I don't often get a premise that is so flexible and that I care about enough to keep going for so long (I admire authors who can stay in love with long-running series after long-running series and keep pushing forward with those). Lars was easy to write until June 2016.

You might have noticed that I haven't been writing much recently. I'm fed up and disgusted with so many aspects - the rise of UK*P and other authoritiarians, the complete shitshow that is the press, and the political establishment, the cowardly, brazen, nasty, corrupt and frankly incompetent main actors - the daily outrages, the race-baiting, the constant shitting on immigrants, the slander, the childishness and spinelessness.

I know in my mind that lots of British people are still doing the right thing, alas, I've lost all faith in this "mature democracy" on the collective level. All those WWII jokes are getting very old (yes, you bombed my grandparents, turned the city of my birth to rubble, and it's still godawful ugly because of that, well done you, I hope you enjoy). If somebody gave me British citizenship for free, right now, I wouldn't take it. I've been called a "citizen of nowhere" too many times and used too often for target practice. I'm not going to bend the knee to the people who've used me as a pawn and continue to do so. Let me be a citizen of nowhere, then. I have a golden eagle on a burgundy passport that says I belong somewhere at least, if all else fails.

And if the alienation and anger weren't enough, all those small and large insults, fears and horrors have had another effect on a much more insidious and painful level (because writing and stories are my refuge from the world, where truth is still true, where spine and conviction will win out, where determination, faith, and love always win), is it put a glass wall between me and my British characters.

(I dodged all that with Exile by moving things back into space - a book basically nobody has read but it gave me time to come to terms with some stuff, so I had to write it, but yeah, the title is meaningful and telling.)

This year, I managed to write Brook in a new version of Counterpunch, because let's face it, I've known that guy for nine years and he came back to me the moment I told him I was interested, and besides, his story is now very much about Brexit and the pain of alienation, so that fit me nicely. The very diverse cast also helped. Moving the story a few years into the future and half a step to the side from the timeline we're currently on helped me write about the UK, though I was relieved when I could move the story to New York/Vegas - it was respite from the current shitshow. It's also an angry and political book now and should come out as Mean Machine next year.

But I had to come to terms with the fact that the referendum, and the aftermath, have broken my link to my characters. I could have happily written the four or five Market Garden stories that were always planned (even without my ex-co-writer, because she would not have been involved), but the problem is, I can't write about British people boinking happily ever after anymore and the tone would now be so gritty and dark that readers would be unlikely to enjoy the shift from what's largely guilt-free rentboy porn to "sexual exploitation and immigrant bashing with explicit sex". I wouldn't be able to keep my anger out of it - so better not ruin a good thing.

Ultimately, I can no longer inhibit these characters naturally - the same way I feel unnatural and alienated in the UK. In the "real world" I can go through my day - every day - as a "guest worker", knowing I'm here at the sufferance of a government for which I'm just a cost/profit item and barely a human being. But I can't live like that inside my characters.

I can't count how often I've told myself, "Oh, get over yourself", and I've struggled along, stared owlishly at fragments I wrote when I hadn't yet lost my faith in this country. I can't continue. I need to believe in my characters and I have to live inside them, and that means inhabiting their cultures. In many ways, writing about a character who's from a culture that's not my own is a bit of a love song to that same culture (Nightingale has given me a deeper love for the French, for example). I have not enough love or faith left to sing that particular song now. Maybe as a person I'm not strong enough to see beyond that pain.

In many ways it's funny, one of the reviews I'm most proud of, went along the lines of: "Aleksandr Voinov writes alienation like no other". Well, that got dialled up to 11 in 2016 and I've struggled against that since then, and even my stubbornness hasn't helped me win the day - I have to admit that the weight has proven too hard to lift or carry. Time hasn't healed the pain - it has only turned my anger cold - I still don't want to write about those people anymore. I can't. And that's the reason why there haven't been more Market Garden books, even though they were easy money - or more Witches of London books, even though I love that premise and those characters so much.

I've questioned pretty much everything - should I maybe write German fantasy again? I used to love fantasy. Maybe focus on just translating my work into German. Both would help getting my mother tongue fluent again. Allegedly, you can still make a bit of money from books in Germany, which is less competitive. I could team up with my old friends and build something totally new.

If I can't inhabit English characters anymore, maybe write about continental Europeans. I've entertained the thought of writing a very large novel cycle based on German history (I was aiming for one novel per century and then, from 1910 onwards, one every 10-25 years because history feels like it's speeding up there), following one or two families or building a city as a setting and show how it changed. Those would be very much focused on how German history is very much European history (multi-national cast, with "nationhood" something that is being negotiated and may change). There's so much material here that nobody has really touched, especially from a LGBTQ+ perspective. So that's something like 20-30 novels - easily a life's work.

I've thought about writing about the Great Northern War, about August the Strong, Duke of Saxony and King of Poland (and, according to family myth, one of our ancestors because "the Strong" was a monicker about his sexual prowess and he sowed his oats very generously among his subjects - and one branch of my family is from Saxony). I've thought about writing about a wandering alchemist/astrologer travelling Europe during the Enlightenment (the main attraction is certainly the clothes - I can't understand why we ever moved away from tricorne hats). I've also thought about returning to sci-fi and fantasy and write sexy stories about virtual reality (I have a concept and everything). There's a book about a Nazi hunter, and about a guy or two re-building his life among the rubble post-1945. There's a story about a German Afghanistan vet, too, current day, who's rebuilding himself and coming to terms.

I keep circling back to WoL, though, trying to somehow adjust the premise to my changed inner life and structures. I want to finish the series, which has always been about chosen family, but my feeling is that the characters will eventually leave London. Don't worry - they'll be fine. I'm not sure how they can stay together, so the "coven" will get destroyed - it has to if I stay true to the setting - as the witches are scattered to the wind.

Maybe that's the way to finish the series. If Brexit had been called off, I could just have pretended 2016-2019 had never happened on that timeline and continued with a pre-Brexit London, or, more accurately, a no-Brexit London. I could have blithely continued on that path. Well, reality has destroyed that option. The setting those books were set in no longer exists, and I can't pretend that it does.

But maybe that's a good story, too. I will try to finish the stories I have half-written, but I can't promise I can keep my anger out of them, or Brexit, or alienation. I'll finish the fragments mostly because they're really good, and then find a way to write about Europe instead of the UK. That's the song I've been given to sing, the material I have to work with. The only thing I can do is honour that and speak my truth, as always. 


  1. Hugs. The referendum horrified me. The election was worse. I feel so very disappointed by it all and ashamed to be British.

  2. From afar, the referendum and the recent election were both incomprehensible. I've been slapped down for commenting that Labor lost an unloseable election on the back of an extremely unpopular leader with muddled messages.

    The same thing happened here. Too much fear within the party of changing the man at the helm.

    I sincerely hope you find your muse; perhaps she'll come knocking at your door when you least expect it, hand you a note on which will be the way to go forward.

    Love to you A. ♥