Friday, 6 February 2015

The Rewards of Risk

State of Emergency from Stew Magazine Issue 7
Illustration by Amberin Huq
Stories aren’t just background noise, they’re a vital way of making sense of the world. This is as true for writers as it is for readers, perhaps more so. I remember sitting in front of my web browser late last year, unable to stop myself from reading the horrifying reports from West Africa about the unfolding Ebola crisis. Meanwhile, in Ferguson Missouri, a different group of underprivileged black people were rioting against what they saw as a repressive and unfair system of government.

As ever happens, the two stories began to intertwine in my imagination. But then I pulled myself up short – was I, a white middle-class English man, in any position to engage with this narrative? What insight could I possibly add that those on the ground in Liberia or Missouri had not already contributed?

Yet, something prevented me from stepping away from this contentious territory, as I so often had in the past. Part of that reason was a third idea, which gave me a strong fictional framework in which to explore the issues I was seeing. And another part was my own fear about the threat of Ebola, which was at that time being screamed from the front pages of every tabloid newspaper. I knew in my rational brain that the risk of disease was exceedingly low for those of us in the privileged West, but on an emotional level it was hard to shake a feeling of doom that came from the media coverage.

So, I channelled my fears into the character of Kayla, a young black girl from Louisiana who finds herself in the middle of a terrifying virus outbreak. I took the familiar iconography of the Ebola epidemic (hazmat suits, decontamination, tent hospitals) and fed it directly into the narrative, drawing the long shadow of Hurricane Katrina over the whole story. Of course, most of this detail is subtextual, and a child doesn’t need a grounding in U.S. racial politics to enjoy this dark and twisty conspiracy tale.

On finishing State of Emergency in November last year, I took advantage of the short publication timescales that Stew Magazine offers me. I’m also very grateful for the bravery of editor Ali Fraser, who accepted (without change) a story that many magazines would have rejected as being too edgy. I’ve tried, as carefully as I can, to authentically capture the dialogue and thought processes of my young protagonist, but I’m sure there are faults if you look for them. Ultimately, the story may upset as many people as it finds favour with, but that’s exactly what made it worth writing.


If you'd like to read State of Emergency, you can buy a copy of Stew Magazine issue 7 for £3.99 by clicking here.