Stories of Uprising: Ra Page on the Resist anthology

Comma Press have explored stories of protest in a number of anthologies and their newest – Resist – explores stories of uprising through history to the present day. The Skinny talks to editor Ra Page and a number of contributors about resistance

Feature by Heather McDaid | 09 Sep 2019
  • Resist

Resistance is key. From anti-gun rallies in the US, to the March of Return demos in Palestine, protest fills the streets and narratives world over, fighting for accountability and change. This is core for Comma Press, who explore stories of uprising through history in their new Resist anthology. So, why resistance as a theme?

“We’re all fucked, aren’t we?” says the book’s editor Ra Page. “The point of this book, in hindsight, is to look at how we got here. We’ve been systematically taught to distrust history, research, evidence, data, even science, and instead to just follow our basest instincts, our ability to connect with, or be charmed, flattered, entertained by a 'personality'. Distrust is good. Distrust is what all research does; it asks a series of untrusting questions. Now we distrust that process, and prefer to just go with our gut.

“Resistance, as a subject, is vital for understanding the present. It shows the 'now' as both connected to, and indistinguishable from the 'then'. On Comma's podcast, the crowd scientist Stephen Reicher talked recently about the role time plays in how we sympathise with acts of resistance. For instance, if a riot is sufficiently long ago, we forgive the rioters, sympathise with them even. The Brixton and Toxteth riots of the early 80s, that’s now fairly understandable. Notting Hill ('58). Cable Street ('36). We’re 100% on the side of the law breakers. Go all the way back to Peterloo, and the protestors are practically saints.

“But if it happened more recently, like 2011, or God forbid today, then in no uncertain terms everyone is unanimous: these are criminals. But back in 1819, the protestors were just criminals and insurgents too. In a couple of decades, we'll be allowed to view events sympathetically too. But not now, not yet. Not while the context that caused it is still effectively our context.”

Resist aims to connect personal explorations with the reality of their respective situations, pairing each fiction writer with an expert or academic to present the facts to sit in its proper context. The afterwords allow the authors the freedom to concentrate on the story and their research, yet it brings together a greater understanding of the significance and surroundings of each uprising. Context is the key takeaway Page hopes readers take from the collection.

Eley Williams on the 'Rebecca Riots', Lucy Caldwell on Caroline Norton 

This context is offered across centuries. Eley Williams’ story responds to the ‘Rebecca Riots’, a series of events in 19th century rural Wales. Rebeccaism was a movement 'generated by the social and economic changes of the 1840s in Wales, exacerbated by dissatisfaction with a remote and neglectful political establishment’. “A visually striking element of these events centres on the fact that many protestors of all genders dressed as women and assumed the shared identity of a fictional 'Rebecca',” explains Williams, referring to the anonymous figurehead of the movement.

“Blurring lines between identification, anonymity, assumed binaries and the use of shared iconography – the success of Rebecca and her advocates was a piece of British history I felt was underrepresented or commemorated in the public imagination. It was marvellous to work with historian Rhian E. Jones to address the facts and fictions of the Riots and draw upon contemporary accounts of their timeline and context.”

Another act of resistance featured from history is that of Caroline Norton. “When Ra first approached me, he sent a long list of protest movements throughout history,” begins Lucy Caldwell. “The one that caught my eye was the story of Caroline Norton and her one-woman battle to change child custody law in the mid-19th century, after her abusive husband took her own children away from her. I knew next to nothing about her, but I had that frisson of recognition – that hairs-rising-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment.

“Over the summer of 2018, the news was breaking worldwide of the children of asylum seekers and refugees at the US border being taken from their parents, often forcibly. It was hard not to feel utter despair and a sick sort of helplessness at the devastating footage and personal testimony, much of it circulated on social media. Yet at the same time, there was something in the bravery of those attempting to expose and to fight and to change things that made me think of Caroline Norton, of her struggles to fight iniquity and apathy, and she, or her spirit, began to feel very live to me.

“The present day political strand was essential, both in bringing her to life and in questioning what it means or might mean to successfully resist oppression and tyranny today. It can be too easy to feel insignificant, inconsequential, or helpless in the face of raging and institutionally-sanctioned injustices – and Caroline’s one-woman battle, fought purely with words, which succeeded in changing the course of history, is a salutary lesson and inspiration to us all.”

Nikita Lalwani on Mark Duggan and the 2011 riots

Nikita Lalwani's story begins simply: Parsley, cream, potatoes. However, it explores the protests surrounding the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by police in Tottenham, taking place at the start of what became the 2011 England Riots. Working with her academic partner and accessing transcripts from those in the riots was impactful; hearing those voices released something in her. “I allowed myself to imagine that dark tussle of opinion into a domestic space, build the ramifications for a fictional family in Tottenham at the time, one where the disagreement over the protest threatens the foundations of the home they have built together.”

The breadth of the book spans centuries and shows the strength of resisting comes in many forms. But what does the notion mean to contributors? “There’s something active and passive about the feel of the word,” notes Lalwani. “Both at the same time – which makes it feel very solid. You’re standing in a doorway staying firm while something or someone hurls itself against you.”

“To ‘resist’ to me means to keep remembering to question, to not take for granted,” adds Caldwell. “To stay alert to the insidious daily elisions and abuses of language. To try to become aware of my own unconscious biases.  It’s a wiser person than me who first said that being progressive means constantly progressing.”

Williams notes resistance as "a refusal to accept conditions that are meted-out or assumed on your behalf. Resistance is not the same as refusal or inertia. This volume from Comma Press revels that it can involve acts of great bravery, creativity and sacrifice.”

And that’s what makes Resist such a brilliant and important book. It’s historic and new, it reflects while questioning the current day, it offers a fictional exploration and a grounded real world context. It weaves a common thread through history while giving each story its own individual focus. Page sums it up perfectly in his own definition of resistance.

“True resistance these days is saying, ‘No, I’m not going to skim across the surface of this story, or let someone else do the skimming for me: I’m going to immerse myself in the context as far as I can.’ The willingness to re-contextualise ourselves out of our little bubble and into someone else's reality is the single most radical thing any of us can do.”

Resist is available from Comma Press