In his book, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, liberation and the stories that make us, Cole Arthur Riley writes: “Place is the only thing that always is. We are always somewhere. I have been without anyone but never without a place. And the place, for me, is always important. In my favorite books, he’s a character in himself; it shapes interactions; it forces people to come together or separate; it carries within it an atmosphere, an ideology, a behavior that imprints itself on the people who live there.
In my first novel, Hope and Glory, this place is Peckham, an area in South East London famous for many things, not all of them good. Like everywhere, Peckham changes in quick bursts and a slow, gradual creep. Gentrification sounds so cliché to type – it gives me goosebumps – but it’s happening and that’s why I can’t afford to live there anymore.
But “gentrification” does not explain what happens specifically to a place. It’s a flat term that speaks of boxy rooms in new apartments and no-name hipsters and craft beer. It is a blind brush – a whitening in itself. It does not pay homage to the idiosyncrasies of a place, the specific imprint of a fading community. I wanted to keep this version of Peckham on the page, beyond a snapshot of how things look. I wanted to capture how Peckham feels volume.
The beginning of my novel begins with a return home – Glory returns from Los Angeles to London because her father has died – but what does a return home look like? What are the surfaces on which a finger is drawn? What are the sounds and smells that a nostalgic mind didn’t realize it had missed? What are the personal monuments that stand in relief and remind us that this is not a dream or a hallucination, you are indeed embodied here, in the flesh?
I think these personal monuments are the most important. They immediately transfer authenticity and dimension, because what is a place without the memories of the people who live there? Without the wear and tear of bodies and lives rubbing against stone, concrete and glass, a city doesn’t seem real. It becomes a model village, photographed with shallow focus to make it appear more dimensional than it actually is, but we can feel its strangeness, our eyes searching for gaps in plausibility.
Memories are also geographical landmarks, as real as the physical place that becomes their stage. The place is not just a coincidence or an accessory, it is part of the memory itself. A conversation takes place in a particular way due to the position of the participants in relation to each other. It matters that one of them is sitting on the red plastic bench at the bus stop, her knees bouncing in irritation as she listens to her partner’s complaint (her knee can only bounce this way because what it is sitting on, its height and the shallowness of the seat).
I think these personal monuments are the most important. They immediately transfer authenticity and dimension, because what is a place without the memories of the people who live there?
This is important because it is when the other participant sees the bouncing knee, that the tone of his voice changes because he is irritated that she is irritated. But as they stand at a bus stop, there are others nearby who overhear, inserting themselves into the narrative because it seems like one person is dominating the other.
If this argument were to occur elsewhere, the physical dynamics could entirely change the atmosphere, the events, and the outcome. But it happens there, and the details of that place become embedded in the DNA of all memory – or for our purposes, of the whole scene, chapter or book.
It is important to remember that memories are physical experiences as well as emotional ones. A friend was admitted to a mental hospital a few years ago and I remember going to visit them on a dark, damp evening. The shadows at the entrance to the hospital and the feeling of raindrops falling on my collar heightened the emotional strangeness of going to visit a friend in a psychiatric ward. When Celeste, Glory’s mother, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital at the beginning of my novel, it was the memory of these feelings that helped me build the hospital environment and plan Glory’s visit with her mother, even if the story differed from reality. events of my memories.
Worldbuilding is often an exercise associated with fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian literature. When the author creates a world or environment from scratch, it makes sense that early in the writing process, significant time is spent mapping out and planning the environment in which the book exists, and one s ‘would expect some level of research for existing environments which an unknown author. But when we write about places we “know”, this kind of knowledge should not be taken for granted. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least lack of awareness. Some things become invisible to the willing eye, and to intimately familiarize a reader with a place, even the most innocuous details count.
Saying all this, however, is it possible to crush a place? Absolutely. But that’s what the editing process is for. Like anything else, the way you write should ultimately serve the narrative you’re shaping. In a particularly moving reunion scene at Hope and Glory, my proofreader notes said too much description slowed the pace. I cut paragraphs reluctantly, but afterwards I realized that the extra words had already served their purpose. Thanks to the crush, I had completely situated myself in the scene, and now I was able to cut through the overconfidence, to decide on relevant details that would effectively transport the reader to a place that I already felt was real.
Hope and Glory by Jendella Benson is due out April 2022 via William Morrow.