Radicalism is going back to the drawing board. And by drawing board, I mean back to the power of the word. Local Edinburgh publishers and independent bookshop, Word Power, launched its 13th Independent and Radical Book Fair this weekend, which saw authors come together with the public to talk about and inspire political activism. The power of the word is having a comeback.
If you take a quick glance back to revolutionary movements of the past, they all begin at the grassroots; at the opinions of the community. Big ideas like socialism, feminism and the black movement, all started with like-minded people, disgruntled by the status quo, meeting in coffee shops. Just like I am today, with the feminist writer, Ann Rossiter, who is taking part in the Independent and Radical Book Fair. Rossiter is in Edinburgh to talk about her latest book, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: the ‘abortion trail’ and the making of a London-Irish underground, 1980-2000, and inspire political activism around an issue that is being threatened by Parliament and neglected in the community.
Political activism has been under interrogation at the University of Edinburgh recently, with questions being asked about the effectiveness of local activism like the occupation of George Square lecture theatre to fight for the boycott of University ties with Israeli institutions, and the ‘clowning’ around at the Careers Fair. But without this activism, be it spoken, written or direct action, where would we be?
I ask Rossiter whether she believes that the power of the word is still effective in challenging the issues within society. She pauses for thought. Then answers, “I think the way in which it acts on people has that power.” And she is right. Words do not save lives, but the effect they have on people can inspire and motivate action, which is why she got involved in this year’s Independent and Radical Book Fair. Rossiter believes that alternative book fairs are “hugely important, so much now is corporate. Even the academic world is corporate. Students are no longer students. They’re clients. And that level of control can be very serious, especially when it comes to the media. You can say that the internet is kind of without boundaries, but these events are much more tangible than speaking to someone over Twitter or Facebook. They may be old fashioned, but I think that there is a real place for them. People come together.” It is this coming together that makes all the difference to Rossiter. It takes political activism back to its roots in discussion, and it is this dialogue that is so fundamental to Rossiter.
So why did she choose to discuss the issue of abortion in her book? “It is essential to women’s ability to function in the world. It must be an absolute right that they can control their fertility.” Women’s rights have always been intertwined with the right to control one’s own fertility, for instance women only gained a stable position in the workplace once the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1975 Sexual Discrimination Acts were introduced. Rossiter exclaims that “the 67 Act made a huge difference” to women’s lives, and described the “buzz” among the people who attended her event at the Independent and Radical Book Fair. Yet behind the backdrop of this energy, inspiration and discussion, there is a threat. “One never knows what kind of threat there will be to it,” explains a disheartened Rossiter, “there has been so much opposition. Matters of abortion are expected to be devolved to Northern Ireland by the end of the year. This would put an end to any thought about extending the act to Northern Ireland.” She states that this has been what the Pro-choice movement has been struggling for in the past eighteen months, “to try and extend it before this terrible day comes.”
But what can we, in other parts of the U.K., do about it? “We need to broaden out the debate,” is Rossiter’s answer. “There has not been enough publicising” and many people are not aware that abortion in Northern Ireland is still illegal and that Northern Irish women are denied control over their fertility that other women in the U.K. can access. “Women’s fertility” Rossiter states, “and the control there of, is very personal, but it is also a major political issue. It affects people’s lives, and how the state deals with you.” The only way to overcome this violation of human right is to have “a detailed examination of this silence” on the issue of reproductive rights. Rossiter pronounces, “I am one of millions of Irish women, we need to talk about it. It is the secrecy that is feeding in to all of these unfounded fears. She states that “women are the unofficial police” of reproductive freedoms and the only way to resolve this issue is by projecting the debate “into the discourse of society. We must try to take these ideas out there. I am interested in political activism that is the only way that we will change society.”
I ask Rossiter what inspires her to write her books. It’s an easy answer: “From all the activism. The next book I am writing is about the lives of ordinary women who have been involved in community activism, things around the national question, and activism around the Birmingham Six. Women who look ordinary, you would walk past them on the street, yet they are really quite heroic. Let’s do what shouldn’t have to be done; recover history. Look for prototypes from the past. Look at women who have had lives that are less than ordinary.”
It seems that political activism is just as important now, as it was at any other point in history, and the practices have not changed that much either. Rossiter wants to kick-start the revolution using the word: “Let’s tease out the strands and see what the problem is. Have a discussion.” So let’s start talking about it, and re-energise the power of the word.