J K Rowling has spent the past few years becoming a bit of a Twitter hero. Okay, not an unproblematic one. But her tweets denouncing Trump, or Brexit, or selected other cataclysmic news events sort of epitomise what we need and expect from beloved authors. We feel like we own them, and feel betrayed when they turn out to be allegedly heartless mothers (Enid Blyton) or racist (Agatha Christie) or abusive (Roald Dahl). But even then, we can’t quite let them go.
Thomas Eccleshare’s play Heather is an artful, deceptively simple dramatisation of this complex dynamic. The set-up is that Heather, a female author, has written a series of wildly popular Harry Potter-style kids’ books – stories of a girl fighting evil with her magic pen. She and her agent read aloud their email correspondence to each other, wittily charting her journey from her tentative first contact to her increasing incredulity at her worldwide fame. And, through it all, Heather’s increasingly desperate excuses as to why she wants to stay out of the spotlight.
It was obvious to me from pretty early on that Heather wasn’t all she seemed, but I’m not going to write one of those reviews that sort of coyly hints at the play’s secret, because it’s one that merits proper discussion.
Eccleshare’s mumsy, mousy, self-deprecating authoress turns out to be a man with an Arabic name, in prison for a violent murder. This combination is one that baffles me, a bit. It’s clearly a deliberate attempt to pile on all the identities that might horrify book-buying parents. An image that the agent uses, trying to process this shock information, is that of the author, sitting at the foot of the bed as a parent reads bedtime stories to eager children. An invisible presence, mediating the parent-child relationship, colouring it in with stories.
But saying you wouldn’t want a violent murderer of children at the foot of your bed, reading your children stories, is very very different to saying you wouldn’t want someone of Arab heritage (potentially a Muslim) there. One option is sensible, one is downright racist. And Eccleshare’s text doesn’t seem interested in drawing distinctions between the two, or in exploring the real-life context of his story.
Whiteness is still the British literary world’s default setting, and when black and ethnic minority writers are allowed in, it’s on certain terms. Numerous minority writers have spoken of the pressure to tell the ‘right’ stories, not to make white readers uncomfortable. And the brutal, market-enforced pressure to create comforting alignments of story and image leads to uncomfortable deceptions, too.
It’s a depressing truth that 150-odd years since the Bronte sisters wrote under male pseudonyms, J K Rowling wrote Harry Potter cloaked under a reassuring (to boys, presumably) gender neutral alias. And still more recently, she wrote her series of thrillers under the name of Robert Galbraith. I haven’t heard of men having to write under female names just to be taken seriously. And it’s depressingly common for writers of both genders to assume exoticised identities, or to otherwise assert their ‘right’ to present cliched narratives of non-white experience – at the expense of more challenging, less easily categorisable authentic stories. As documented in the New Yorker article When White Poets Pretend to be Asian, a white American poet recently won awards for posing as a Chinese writer, the author of tastefully gnomic poems that seduced readers with repackaged oriental stereotypes.
Eccleshare is touching on something deep, and powerful, here. But his enigmatic author never talks about why he needs to adopt a veneer of white middle-class femininity, or how that feels. He’s just a generic monster, his violent crime an enigma that’s wrapped in layers of effortfully wrought fantasy fiction.
It’s Eccleshare’s reluctance to unpick and engage with the issues of identity politics that his ‘big reveal’ throws up that hampers his play. It feels like he’s more interested into retreating into Potter pastiche, which, admittedly, is something he does very well. From the books, he gleans his central theme: that good and evil are combined in everyone, that the villain is a metaphysical part of the hero, and part of the very thing that marks them out for greatness. And, in another underexplored germ of an idea, the idea that Heather’s genius is inextricable from his/her violent crime – it’s material to draw on, a seed for the darkness that spreads through their books.
There are chuckle-worthy references, too, inspired by the kind of twee, oddly comforting details that fills fantasy novels: child fans turn up at the publishers’ office wearing home-made wooden forcefield hats, or speak of the villainous night ravens in hushed tones. A bravura closing sequence that takes the form of an extended pastiche, a final showdown between good child and evil wizard, set in a shadowy cave. But combined with its unwillingness to engage with thorny issues of identity and prejudice, this tight relationship with its source material limits Heather to an exercise, or a riff. It’s hugely entertaining. But like its central figure, it can never assume a life of its own.