DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?
MGW: That isn’t an easy question to answer.
My initial response was: something that departs from accepted norms.
But the problem then becomes ‘what is the norm?’
I was reading Jon Ronson’s So You've Been Publicly Shamed a while back. There was a neat example in there about Max Mosley’s sexual exploits largely passing with a shrug and a shake of the head, whilst a woman caught in flagrante came under much greater scrutiny. How certain social transgressions are considered de rigueur for rich, white men, whereas others face the firing squad for far less. Ronson explains it much better than I can.
But the more I think on it, the more I wonder if perhaps a better definition of transgression is: honesty.
People think and do all sorts of weird shit. From kinky sex games to fascist worldviews, suicide to narcotics, bestiality through to necromancy.
So long as you pretend you don’t have those thoughts, so long as you can think of the right response in polite conversation, and so long as you don’t act on certain urges, then you’re not transgressing. Give in to what you really want to do, or – just as dangerously – say what you’re really thinking, be honest, and that’s where trouble starts.
I suppose, if the opposite of transgression is social acceptance, anything that doesn’t result in social acceptance is transgression in somebody’s eyes. We are always most shocked by honesty. The transgression between our brains and our mouths.
Perhaps all works of literature are transgressive, because if we could come out and say half these things, we wouldn’t need to write a novel about them or grope for a nom de plume.
DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?
MGW: The first thing I read which made me think wow, this is pushing some major boundaries… I’m not sure I have. The thing is, there isn’t an opinion I can’t believe exists. I was questioning societal norms long before I was old enough to read books of that calibre. I have had experiences in my own life which have pushed boundaries. My parents divorced when I was very young and I lived with my dad for a long time. A single man bringing up a daughter in the early 80s raised some eyebrows. Then moving to a Church of England school whilst professing to be a pagan and refusing to take communion. That opened my eyes to boundaries I never knew existed. For some reason, none of these issues ever headlined in The Village with Three Corners.
I have fond memories of Terry Pratchett. When I was nine years old, I took one of the Discworld novels, The Light Fantastic, into my primary school reading class. Not because I got what it was about, but because there was a Josh Kirby illustration on the front of a woman with large tits. My entire purpose was to shock my teacher with the cover design, then impress her with my ability to read it out loud as though I understood it (which I didn’t).
Still, that doesn’t really count.
I’ve always had the kind of mind that’s been open to new experiences. But I’d say that was curiosity, rather than any desire to be transgressive. When people condemn curiosity, perhaps because they consider it transgressive, I think that’s when curiosity pushes back, and that’s when curiosity sometimes becomes intentionally transgressive. You take away somebody’s right to question, and they question louder. I can’t recall reading a book that’s ever made me think ‘this is transgressive – it’s outside the norm,’ because I’ve never been entirely sure what normal is.
Perhaps the first time I looked up sex in a dictionary with my friends, and the time I got caught looking at The Joy of Sex when I was a kid. Found it by accident and – curiosity again. For all the free love of the 60s and 70s, I still grew up in a society that struggled to talk openly about sex, so there was a huge sense of secrecy around it. I still remember laughing with my friends whilst looking up rude words in the dictionary, but also that real fluster of self-consciousness that came with it. That we were doing something dirty. That we might be found out. That we were transgressing. Like the first time you say ‘fuck’ and you’re not sure if you’ve got the context right. Whether someone’s going to laugh or hit you.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe I can’t remember the first proper book that I felt was transgressive, because transgression is so commonplace in adulthood.
DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.
MGW: Again, in honesty, I struggle to consciously think ‘this is transgressive’ about anything. Things are unusual, they’re strange, intriguing, sometimes a little nauseating – but transgressive? I’m not sure.
I’ve seen a lot of things that would make me wonder if the human race as a whole is transgressive. I’ve visited refugee camps in DRC, slums in Uganda, genocide memorials in Rwanda, and been to Auschwitz. I took a post in Human Rights a couple of years back, and that can really make you question a lot.
Perhaps there is one thing that’s stuck with me in a queasy sense.
There’s a place in the Forest of Dean called Littledean Jail. It’s a museum to the most macabre things you could possibly imagine. I mean, it really goes all out. Ken dressed in a Nazi uniform, fucking Barbie in a model death camp. Letters and artwork given pride of place from infamous murderers. The most horrific news stories plastered like wallpaper everywhere you look. There’s a picture there I’ve never managed to shake, of a kid in the middle of Africa during a killer drought, sucking moisture from inside a cow’s arse in utter desperation. It just articulated something I still can’t articulate, about the very darkest parts of this world. The hopelessness, the meaninglessness and the brutality.
I suppose that’s my definition of transgression – Littledean Jail.
Because it doesn’t just go out of its way to showcase the bottom of the barrel, it actively celebrates it.
DHP: Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.
MGW: Rosa Luxembourg comes to mind. There’s an incredible graphic biography of her life called Red Rosa by Kate Evans. She was just everything she wasn’t meant to be: an outspoken, politically-minded woman with a sex life. One of her most wonderful lines was: Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. I really couldn’t summarise her life better than Evans’s book – it’s a stunner.
But, let’s put it this way, I had to think long and hard about this because there are so very many to choose from. So many women and men throughout history who have shocked and enthralled.
Ask me to name someone who wasn’t transgressive – fuck knows.
Says it all, really.
Might as well leave an ink stain on the pages of history.
DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.
MGW: I’ve just finished reading a book called Antiartists by Ralph Pullins. I absolutely loved it, and I think most people might say it’s transgressive. It’s the honesty angle again. It talks about depression, powerlessness, self-harm, addiction, suicide and destruction. It’s more humorous than it sounds. In its own way, it is an exploration of transgression.
Not fictional, but perhaps one of the most transgressive works that I always keep a copy of is Emergency Sex: True Stories from a War Zone. This did the rounds when I first came to Africa. Fellow volunteers would put their name down on the list to receive the single copy we had. It’s the story of three civilians who joined the UN in the early 90s, when a whole lot of awful was going on: Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia. Again – honesty. It took apart the bureaucracy, the ineffectuality and the disconnect of global powers in relation to human experience on the ground. One of the contributors, Andrew Thomson, was considered to have transgressed so far in his honesty, that he was fired from the UN.
I currently teach fiction in Rwanda, and the publishing industry here is just starting out. I recently received a piece by one of my students which was the first time I’d read a lesbian and an asexual character in local fiction. I’ve also got an anthology by local writers called Versus. Whilst reading it, there were a few things where I felt myself thinking: That’s brave. A few things which are transgressive in the current context, but common themes in western literature. Departing from traditional storytelling and moral folktales to embrace real, gritty, modern life and the struggle for personal identity within strict conformist structures.
DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?
MGW: I’m not. I never try to be transgressive, it just seems I transgress what some people think is acceptable at times. I’ve written about rape, LSD, murder, underage sex, sexuality, suicide, generally weird shit – and I swear a lot. But that’s never really disturbed me, so I’m always interested to discover it disturbs other people. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve found publishers who helped me take my stories far enough to find readers. Does that mean there are transgressive publishers out there, or that I’m not actually transgressive? I’ll try not to lose sleep over it.
What does disturb me is when people suggest I shouldn’t have written something, or that it was somehow wrong of me to do so. In the words of Philip Pullman, when challenged by a Christian over The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: “No one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book,” and, the bottom line: “No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought, or read.” I’ve always felt that way when people get offended about films or television – if you don’t like it, and you don’t have a gun to your head, switch the channel.
I have never set out to write a story thinking I really want to shock people, or I hope this is transgressive. A story is independent of forethought. It tells itself however it wants to, and I feel blessed each time I sit down to type and something comes out.
If somebody finds what I write transgressive, I’ll take that as a compliment. To me, that’s better than forgettable, or run-of-the-mill, or mainstream.
Marion is the author of Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran, published by Ghostwoods Books. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Rwanda, where she teaches fiction and attempts to build pianos.