20 Jun

A voice from the Islands: Stephanie Saulter talks about her novel Gemsigns

Gemsigns 12 9 133

Stephanie Saulter‘s first book, Gemsigns, is available in the UK and Commonwealth and in the US from Jo Fletcher Books. It arrived not too long ago on my doorstep, and I asked Stephanie if she’d like to post on this blog because I thought my readers might be interested in her work (see Boing Boing’s excerpt of the novel here).

Stephanie has a Caribbean connection, like me. And has had some very similar experiences visiting the US.

Read on:

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Gemsigns has made it to America, almost thirty years after I did. I’ve been contemplating that fact a lot lately. Although it’s been well received everywhere, I’ve observed with interest the way reactions to the book differ between the United Kingdom, where I’ve lived for over a decade now and where the story is set, and the United States, where I went to university and lived and worked for many years. Above all it’s been a revelation to discover just how much of what I ended up embedding in the novel can be traced in a straight line back to what was embedded into me, when I came to America all those years ago.

One of the things that every incoming freshman in 1988 received was a work of fiction: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to be precise (it wasn’t my year but I somehow ended up with a copy anyway). It was part of a program to try to encourage a broader range of interests, and in particular an appreciation for the arts and humanities, amongst a resolutely nerdy student body who tended to focus exclusively on their core math, science and engineering subjects. The initiative aimed to develop social and political awareness, alongside scientific and technological expertise. There were concerns about what I remember being called ‘the arrogance of intellect’ – the sense that exceptional academic ability confers a kind of entitlement to do whatever you like, to follow the threads of your curiosity and ambition wherever they may take you, regardless of the impact on others; indeed, the feeling that consequences are for other people.

The university’s response? A recognition of fiction’s ability to provoke the imagination; to unsettle and challenge; to ask difficult questions about the consequences of wealth, and arrogance, and entitlement. To engage instead of harangue, persuade instead of criticise. To speak truth to power.

It was one of the most potent lessons I learned as a college student. It’s stayed with me.

Another lesson soon learned was about race, and appearance, and expectation. I’m from Jamaica, and one of the most common refrains I heard back then (and to this day) was, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there were white Jamaicans!’ – Uttered always by some white person, regarding me as though I were a pleasingly exotic discovery.
‘There are, but I’m not one,’ I would (and still do) reply. ‘My family is mixed race. I just happen to be on the vanilla end.’ This would be greeted, more often than not, by a stunned silence. I had no idea why anyone found it so shocking, until an African-American friend explained things to me.

‘You could pass,’ she said bluntly (and then had to explain what ‘passing’ meant). ‘No one would know if you didn’t tell them. In this country, having even the smallest amount of black ancestry means you are black. Period. You’re choosing that.’

Given that the majority of people reading this post will likely be Americans, I don’t imagine I have to explain the significance of that apparent choice. What was a simple matter of fact for me – like having brown eyes not green – was in the minds of others a hugely impactful decision to reject privilege. It gave me a strangely honorary status. It opened my eyes. Although Jamaica is also a country of great and grave inequalities, it was in America that I really learnt about the politics of race.

That lesson’s stayed with me too.

So, on to the ®Evolution. When I set out to write the story that would end up being Gemsigns, I knew that every aspect of the plot would turn on how people dealt with difference. In my near-future, post-apocalyptic scenario, genetically modified humans – ‘gems’ – have only recently been emancipated from a system euphemistically referred to as indenture but in truth little different from slavery; they’d been the property of the biotech corporations that created them. These pillars of industry have now, essentially, been asset-stripped. The gems have received their liberty, but little else. The norm population is facing an influx of people into their communities whom they’ve mostly only dealt with at arms length, if at all, and have been brought up to think of as other, alien, inferior, and often dangerous.

The result is massive social and economic upheaval, public unrest, and general uncertainty. Emancipation is all well and good, but what form should freedom take? What’s the best course for the gems – to assimilate, slip into the norm population and hide the truth of their origins? For some, whose visible differences amount to no more than their glowing, jewel-coloured hair, this may be possible – though not necessarily agreeable. For others, whose anatomy has been more radically altered or whose minds have been too terribly damaged, it isn’t an option. And what about the norm majority? Public sentiment may have turned against the indenture system, but that doesn’t mean there’s any kind of consensus about what should replace it. Should gems continue to live and work separately? Should integration be encouraged? What about the threat from gems harbouring deep resentments, and possibly even deeper psychosis? Might norm fears not be justified?

It sounds like I must have mapped it out, doesn’t it? Drawn up a chart of the politics and prejudices of the real world, and then ticked them off as I created equivalent scenarios in my invented one. I swear to you I did not do that. It wasn’t until quite late on in the editing process that it even began to dawn on me just how much this tale of a possible future drew on the realities of the present, and the past. And in fact I’ve heard from many readers who’ve enjoyed the book without noticing any parallels with the history of the Caribbean or the American South; or who, if they relate the gem/norm dynamic to contemporary events at all, see connections with local controversies around European immigration or economic inequality.

Of course those parallels are just as accurate as any other, but I suspect it was what bled into my awareness back in the 1980s that led, a generation later, to my imagined tale of the 22nd century. Because what I learned then, and what I know now, is this: We tell stories in order to understand the world. Stories are where we replay past events, and test future possibilities. They give us a way to examine our prejudices, our fears, our hopes and our dreams. They are how we map uncharted territory to the terrain we know, and thereby find a safer path. They’re where we can tell each other, and ourselves, the truths that are sometimes too hard to speak. They are the sleeper agents of the unconscious.

Hello, America. I’m back. I wrote a story. I hope you like it.

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AUTHOR BIO

Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she earned her degree at MIT and spent fifteen years in the USA before moving to the UK in 2003. Her first novel, Gemsigns, was published there in 2013 and released in the US in 2014. The second, Binary, is already out in the UK and will be released in the US next spring. Gemsigns and Binary are the first two books of the ®Evolution trilogy, and are set in a near future London, in the aftermath of a pandemic which required human genetic modification in order to prevent extinction. The novels take a look at the conflicts, compromises and relationships between the different types of human that result.