Kariima Ali, a PhD student at the University of Roehampton exploring Black women’s mental health campaigning and social movements since the 1970s, interviews author Jacqueline Roy.
I first came across Jacqueline Roy’s writing early last summer. The Fat Lady Sings quickly became one of my favourite reads of the year. Roy’s debut novel, first published in 2000 and republished in 2021 in Bernadine Evaristo’s ‘Black Britain, Writing Back’ series for Penguin Books, follows the lives of Gloria and Merle in a London psychiatric ward. Amidst the pain and trauma of navigating the institution they find space for each other; singing, dancing and journaling their way through. At its heart, the novel is about the possibilities for cultivating a politics of care and love amidst the violence of Britain’s psychiatric system. Roy’s most recent novel The Gosling Girl, published earlier this year, takes a different approach to interrogating those same questions of identity, belonging and most importantly, the politics of care. Genre-bending in its nature, the novel follows Michelle Cameron as she comes to terms with her new life after being imprisoned as a child for the crime of killing a peer. We delve into her struggles with belonging to a community at large, and finally living as an adult. Then, all of a sudden another murder happens that puts her in the spotlight all over again. As we discuss throughout the interview, The Gosling Girl interrogates the power of institutional racism, the effects of childhood trauma and considers how we treat those we discard as criminals.
I could not have anticipated that weeks after I had found The Fat Lady Sings, a book that spoke to me so vividly, I would be sharing space and communion with its author. It was fitting that we had a session with Roy as part of the Black Health and the Humanities network; it felt like fate. It was such an intimate space to revel in the creativity and honesty of those around me, and to simultaneously pour back into them. It had me thinking about what care looks like in the presence of other researchers, and ask myself: how do I practise self-care within in the four walls of the room I have spent the last two years writing in? I had the wonderful opportunity to interrogate these questions, and many others, with Roy herself.
Kariima Ali If we start with The Gosling Girl—first, it’s fantastic. How did you come to the narrative of the book itself?
Jacqueline Roy You’re probably too young to remember, but there were two cases that emerged. One was in the late ’60s, and it was Mary Bell, a ten-year-old child who killed two younger children. And then, of course, in the ’90s, there was the Thompson and Venables case, where again, two ten-year-olds killed another child. And one of the things that really struck me about both of those cases was the media frenzy that was associated with them. It raised a lot of questions for me about how culpable a ten-year-old child actually is, and also why they become the focus of such incredible hostility. That hostility is so prolonged. It’s been twenty…thirty years, almost, since the last of the incidents, and yet it is still so much in the public consciousness. I really wanted to interrogate the way that the media addresses things like that, and how we’re positioned as members of the public in relation to it.
And it also seems to me that it threw up a lot of questions around identity, because one of the things that happened to both sets of children was that their names had to be changed, because they’d been named by judges. And judges very, very rarely name children. So for them to have done that, knowing the sort of hostility that would be meted out on those children, seemed to me to be quite an astonishing thing for them to have done. There’s since been inquiries that have said that this shouldn’t happen again, which is one of the reasons why I set the book in the ’90s. But once your name is removed from you, and you can’t talk about your past, what happens to your sense of self? What happens to your identity? And the whole issue of identity and how we come by the identities that we have is very important to me as a writer; it’s something that I explore in The Fat Lady Sings and I explore it differently, and perhaps more intensively with The Gosling Girl, because the material was a gift for explorations of identity. What do you do when you have to start from scratch, but you’re an adult? How do you remake yourself? So that was what interested me, and I think it also it raises questions about marginalisation, and that’s something else that really interests me. And difference-how difference is perceived, how it’s pathologised. Also, how we so often as a society, let down children.
I don’t know if you saw it, but there was a recent report about children in care which said how horrendously let down such children are and have been historically. And I can’t see that changing. I don’t think there’s a will to change it, really. One of the things that was said in the report was that these children are victims, but they’re seen as a social threat and very much in need of containment, rather than help and support. And the whole issue of containment is one that’s really important to me as well. And of course, the psychiatric system is very much about containment, particularly in relation to the Black population. So those are the kinds of things that I wanted to explore in The Gosling Girl.
Kariima I mean, it’s a heavy book. I remember when I was reading it I had to put it down a few times, especially since it’s so cleverly constructed in the way that we get a chance to experience the different narratives. I saw the characters of Zoe and Tyler as not only representing their own complex relationships to Michelle, but also the respective institutions they’re a part of. Could you talk a bit more to kind of cultivating the connection between those three characters? Because when we first dive into the story, we have no clue about the character of Zoe and the importance of her role in the narrative.
Jacqueline Well, perhaps I’ll start with Natalie Tyler, because she’s a black police officer within an institution that has been found, historically, to be institutionally racist. And I think for black people, it’s very difficult to trust the police because of that history. The book is difficult to categorise, but I think it’s been quite neatly categorised as a psychological thriller. But I’m not sure that it fits that genre and I deliberately tried to avoid completely fitting it, because that genre doesn’t serve black people very well. It’s a genre in which usually, the police are seen as good, if flawed. So the police officer is certainly on the side of what is right and the perpetrator is usually seen as intrinsically evil. Their motives for committing a crime almost always compound the sense of somebody who’s evil and irredeemable. And one of the things that concerns me is that if we see prison, not just as punishment, but as trying to rehabilitate and alter people, then we have to allow people to come through the system reformed in some way, and I think reformed is a really interesting word: re-formed. And of course, Michelle is massively reformed; she doesn’t have a choice in that she’s completely rebuilt through the narrative that is associated with her.
So with Natalie Tyler, I wanted to present somebody who wasn’t comfortable in her role. And that I think, is quite unusual in fiction. I think what happens is, you get police officers in fiction who aren’t comfortable with their role, but that’s because they’re mavericks and they’re super clever; in a way, they transcend the role. But for Tyler, the role is a really repressive one. And it constantly pits her against Black communities. And I wanted to explore the discomfort of that for her, and the way that she, in some respects—although not nearly as much as Michelle—is also marginalised because of her role. She’s used to uphold racism. She recognises this at various points, and ultimately, she has to make a choice about whether she’s okay with that, or whether she actually has to get out. So I wanted to present her as quite a complex character.
And similarly, Zoe represents a whole set of things: she represents the possibility of support for Michelle. I certainly didn’t want to make her just a bad character. I wanted her to help Michelle at times, but very much in her own interest. And I think the psychiatric system works like that; it purports to be benevolent, but it’s all the time working within its own interest in terms of the way that it presents what is normative behaviour. It seems to me that psychiatry, broadly speaking—of course this is a generalisation and there are individuals who work within it who are very caring, and very skilled—but as a discipline, I think it’s very much about containment and containment is also about control. It’s about power. So, Zoe also represents those aspects of the system and that was something I wanted to bring out in the book. And she needed to be a white character, because I really do see the institution of psychiatry and the containment primarily as white. People who work within it are very often people of colour, but they are regulated by the institution.
So, I really wanted to explore that, and to think about what Zoe’s motives might be. And it’s very much to do with advancing herself professionally and personally. And I sometimes feel quite uncomfortable with the way, for example, case studies are used in psychiatry—because I’m sure that researchers ask the permission of the subjects, but how far are people in a position to give genuine permission, when they’re dependent on these people for support, and for help? So, it seems to me that ethically, it raises quite a lot of questions about how somebody’s data and their information are used. And even if subjects are told that it’s going into the public domain, what might the consequences of that be? So that was really what I wanted to do with Zoe, to explore those questions. And one of the things both about The Fat Lady Sings and The Gosling Girl was that I didn’t want to provide answers for readers, I wanted to invite readers to come to conclusions for themselves. Because that seems to me to be the most interesting way that fiction works, and works well, where it poses a lot of questions; and most things aren’t answerable, but the questions are really important.
Kariima That is one of the reasons why I think this particular book is such a subversion of that genre. Because we don’t get that pretty little neat ‘bow’, we actually get a police officer who’s critical about the position that they play in their community. So the character of Tyler was really one of the more stand-out characters for me, especially in the current landscape, wherein the last few years people are really questioning the role of police. I wanted to talk a bit more about the ways that the politics of care play out in both The Fat Lady Sings and The Gosling Girl—especially considering they’re all, mostly, Black women who are either taking care of each other or looking to one another for support.
Jacqueline Well in The Fat Lady Sings, it’s not the institution, ultimately, that provides the kind of escape route from their emotional entanglements for Gloria and Merle: it’s their relationship with each other. Gloria is a very nurturing person and she, I think more than anybody else in the novel, helps and supports Merle through the crisis that she’s going through. She’s also positioned so that she constantly questions and challenges the institution, through the recordings that she makes. So she keeps trying to call people to account. And she does it often with humour. But she’s very direct, too, she doesn’t let them off the hook, and that seemed important in the narrative.
In The Gosling Girl it’s different because Michelle doesn’t really have support. And she certainly doesn’t, through most of her life, have the support of other black people. She’s very much on her own; she functions in isolation. But what really helps her is her relationship with Ryan. And I didn’t want to make it a conventional romantic relationship where she’s saved by a man or anything like that. There are lots of question marks over their relationship. And she gives as much to Ryan as he gives to her. Ultimately, what Michelle does, albeit not in awareness, but what she ends up doing is bringing Natalie Tyler back to community. Because Natalie Tyler is isolated through her role in the police, in very similar ways to the way Michelle is isolated from her sense of community. So, the two women don’t ever really come together fully as community, apart from when they go to the café in Brixton; that’s the moment when they do come together. But they come together in brief moments, rather than anything sustained, whereas there is a more sustained relationship between Gloria and Merle and it’s more overtly nurturing, I think, for them.
Kariima What I loved about that scene when they’re in Brixton Market where that connection happens, is that it’s one of the few times Natalie is out of uniform, and that’s an important aspect to the story. One thing I felt both of the books had in common was the strong narrative voice, with Gloria in The Fat Lady Sings and Michelle in The Gosling Girl. Could you speak a bit more to your process for developing those voices?
Jacqueline So, in The Fat Lady Sings, it wasn’t really until the second draft that it started to come together. One of the difficulties I had with writing it was that I wanted to have first person narrative voices, because one of the things that happens when people are within the psychiatric system is that they tend to be silenced. So, it seemed really important to use first person narrative voices to break that silencing and also to draw attention to the silencing process. But then the difficulty I had was, how do you produce a coherent narrative if (particularly in Merle’s case) the character is experiencing a lot of confusion? So, that was a real dilemma for me, and I just couldn’t resolve it first time around. But there was a program about disability and the Hearing Voices Network came on and they were talking about the function that voices have for people experiencing severe mental illness. The example they gave was of a young man who heard voices that told him the police were going to come and get him and kill him. And it turned out that his history was of being abused as a child by a police officer, who said to him that if he told anybody the police would come and get him and kill him. The hearing voices network then explained that this was very often how people’s voices worked, that they worked subconsciously to tell people, if you like, truths about their experiences that were too hard for them to process consciously. And that seemed to me to be a way into the book, and it was a real moment of revelation for me. I thought, yes, that’s how I can present Merle, through the voices that she hears. And they can be telling her things that she cannot process consciously because they’re too painful.
And both Merle and Gloria are also required to write diaries of their experiences and that’s another form of narrative voice within the novel. In Gloria’s case, it’s an oral representation, because she’s not particularly comfortable writing and that was deliberate on my part, because one of the things that happens with Western thought is that writing is what’s valued. The oral tradition, the oral culture, is seen as marginal or secondary. So, I wanted to explore that by having Gloria reject the written word in favour of the oral, so she makes recordings. As I said earlier, she uses these recordings to call the staff to account and to tell them where they’re going wrong. I think, generally if you’re asked to do something like that and you’re in a psychiatric unit, it’s meant to take you through your own mental processes. But what Gloria is doing is saying, actually, unless you sort yourselves out, I can’t sort myself out because you’re not doing what you need to be doing as an institution. So I thought that was a way of exploring the failings of the psychiatric system, and I had Gloria adopt quite a powerful position in relation to the institution, because she is calling them to account and that doesn’t usually happen for psychiatric patients. They’re usually stripped of power. So, I wanted to keep giving back Gloria her power in some way. So that was how she came about.
Gloria was the basis of the novel; I had the character of Gloria before I had anything else, she was very, very vibrant for me. She was also funny. I mean, it’s comedy and that was important. I didn’t set out to make her funny, she just appeared that way. That was important on a number of levels. I think it relieved some of the potential grimness of the novel. There are quite a lot of funny moments in the book and that makes it easier for the reader to process events, I think. The other thing about her humour is that it gives her a way of being subversive through that humour, which I think is really important.
With The Gosling Girl, it was different because it’s written in the third person and I played around with lots of different narrative voices for that. What I found was when I was using the first person narrative voice in that novel, because Michelle’s experiences were so intense, and so dramatic in a way, I couldn’t do it in the first person. It just kept overwhelming the narrative, it became very unwieldy. So, I thought I needed to step back as a writer in order to produce something that was readable, and something which readers could engage with continuously rather than having to keep stopping. I know you said you kept stopping, but I think you would have kept stopping even more if it would have been in first person! I needed that distance to produce something that wasn’t too horrendous. There are three kinds of third person narration going on; in one of them, everything is presented from Michelle’s point of view; in another part, it’s from Natalie Tyler’s point of view, and some parts are narrated from Zoe’s perspective. That seemed important as well; I wanted not just to have Michelle’s perspective, but that created other difficulties. If I’d written each perspective in the first person, there was a danger that Natalie Tyler’s voice, and in particular, Zoe’s voice would become the dominant voices in the narrative. I didn’t want that to happen, and it was easier to stop that happening if I opted to write in the third person.
Kariima One of the things that stood out to me especially about The Fat Lady Sings was the journal writing. As someone who religiously keeps a journal now, there was a point in the past where I was very resistant to the idea of letting go of my thoughts in that way. The Fat Lady Sings was one of my favourite reading experiences of the last year; it was so cathartic because you really captured an experience that I think a lot of people have but are unable to articulate. Especially considering there is a stark lack of compassion when we encounter narratives about people who are going through those experiences. In academia, in what we call Mad Studies, even thinking about the word ‘mad’ and its historical connotations is a lot, and so much of my project has been about navigating what happens when madness and Blackness interact. So many things come up about history and psychiatry, and the way that we have been pathologised as people and as a community just for existing. I think The Fat Lady Sings is a real testament to our continued resistance of that, because it brings us to a place of being critical of all those questions. As a reader, you get to then navigate that and, especially with Michelle in The Gosling Girl, you end up having a sense of never feeling safe even in your own body, and never feeling like you have a space that that you can even belong. Could we talk a bit more about how the theme of belonging was important for you to explore?
Jacqueline Yes, I think the things that you were saying about Black people being pathologised are hugely important and relate to the issue of belonging as well, because belonging, identities, and pathologisation, they’re all linked areas. And for me, one of the things that was going on for Michelle was the things that made her who she was were seen as so bad that they had to be completely excised from her: her name, her background, everything got taken out. Once that happens, where on earth do you belong? A whole new life had to be constructed for her, which was based on a lie, even though she’d been told that one of her problems was that she was a liar. Lies are thought to have led to her committing the crime, but then then a whole set of lies are imposed on her and these are meant to comprise her new identity.
I think that whole issue of black people being pathologised really impacts on our sense of belonging, because in a way, we’re being told that as people we’re ‘not right’, there’s something wrong with us, there’s something intrinsically flawed in our personalities and in the ways that we relate to the world. And once you’re told that it becomes incredibly difficult to see yourself in the world, to feel that you have a place in it. I went through the psychiatric system myself, and I was told I’d never be able to hold down a job. I worked for 24 years as a lecturer. And we’re told a lot of things, as Black people, that are absolute nonsense and if we reject them, it’s seen as a sign of illness; we’re pathologised further. So that seemed really important to address this, perhaps not overtly in the novels, but certainly in a kind of subversive way as a subtext. So, the books are very much about how damaged we are, not through ourselves and not through the fact that we’re Black, but through the way that we’re treated as Black people.
Jacqueline And that treatment is so damaging. I don’t just mean psychiatric treatment, I mean the way society treats us; and we’re pathologised, even if we don’t end up in the psychiatric system.
Kariima That is central to one of the questions I am tackling in my PhD project; whether you even need to be identified as ‘mad’ to be pathologised if you’re a Black person. You still get the violence—you don’t need the diagnosis label. The violence happens with or without the diagnosis anyway. So the pathology is always present, and it was not that long ago that Black activism was pathologised as a type of mental illness. So now there must be something wrong with you, because you’re standing up for yourself. As I was reading The Gosling Girl I found so many moments where I related deeply to Michelle and her experience trying to find herself. That is relatable across the board, I think, especially as Black women. Do you ever find yourself? Do you ever find belonging? Or are you always searching for that? The character of Michelle is one that will stay with me for a long time.
Jacqueline Well, I remember one of the things that I tried to do in the novel was to present Zoe as not feeling the need to question herself. She really didn’t, every time she started to move towards questioning herself, she shut it down and was saying to herself: I’m doing the right thing, I’m behaving as I should and no one needs to question me, and I don’t need to question myself. Whereas both Natalie Tyler and Michelle Cameron were constantly positioned so that they had to keep questioning themselves. Zoe was always validated because of her white middle classness. She didn’t need to interrogate the way that she was, whereas if you’re outside of that in any way, you’re constantly forced to keep thinking about who you are because you’re so criticised by the rest of society, and made to feel that you’re in the wrong.
Kariima Absolutely. I have these conversations with my friends all the time, where we’re all of a sudden now in this position in your life where you’re re-parenting yourself; you do all of the things that maybe you weren’t able to have done for you as a kid. But imagine life if you had been validated from the moment you had been born? You had been told, that you have value in this life. How would you be living? And you experience that difference very starkly, especially in academia.
Jacqueline But the trouble is if we don’t question ourselves, we have to accept the ‘white version’ of who and what we are and that’s the dilemma always. I think academia is a really harsh world in the sense that the white staff in academia hardly ever need to question themselves. But what’s far worse than that is that if we start questioning them implicitly, or explicitly because of racism, we are even more of a problem, because they’re so afraid of that questioning and they see it as hitting at the very heart of who they are. I once had a struggle with a white ‘postcolonialist’ scholar in the department I was working in and I challenged them. I was very, very careful, I played down the challenge if anything because I knew how it would be received, so I did it as gently as I could. I did it without using any inflammatory language, it was all very strategic on my part. But just the nature of the questioning, the fact that I was questioning her at all meant that she said, “you’re taking away my humanity”. And I thought, does your humanity really rest in not being perceived as having said something wrong in relation to race? Is it so fragile?
Kariima Right. I mean the humanity also rests in being the anthropologist to everyone else, because that’s the thing, if we really got to the heart of it and what academia is, and really question what it means to be an academic, then would the whole thing crumble? Because ultimately, what it is, is that you get to study everyone else and in that process everyone else always turns out to be the ‘other’.
Jacqueline Yes, and it reinforces you as an ‘other ‘in the process. I remember thinking when she said that, that her humanity resided in her being able to think about race without being challenged. So, Black people reinforced her sense of her own humanity, and when that was challenged, all of a sudden Black people were taking away her humanity.
Kariima I remember reading a lot of Alice Miller in my early twenties—the theoretician who really foregrounded in the ’80s that as a society we need to take the abuse of children seriously. She was adamant about making people believe that children are beings that deserve rights. I kept thinking about her work while reading The Gosling Girl, that it’s interesting that children are the ones that are completely let down in our society, but at the same time, the ultimate crime is hurting a child.
Jacqueline Yes. Well, in terms of research, I read a lot about the cases that I’ve that I’ve mentioned, the Mary Bell case, the Thompson-Venables case and one of the things that, in some respects was understandable, but also quite shocking to me was how much has been written about them, and how much people are still fascinated by them—myself included, because I’ve used all of that to write a novel. One of the things that came out in the research for The Gosling Girl was that children who kill are invariably very damaged, and they’re damaged by experiences of abuse of some kind, whether it’s physical, sexual, emotional, or all of those. So those crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. One of the really awful things about those children being tried in adult courts was that the reasons why the crimes had occurred can’t be explored in an adult court, but it can be explored in a children’s court. So straight away those ten-year-olds were at a huge disadvantage by being tried in an adult court. One of the things that also came out of the research was that they really didn’t have a clear understanding of what was going on. They were children from environments where education wasn’t really valued. So, if anything they were undereducated at the time of the crime, although they did have much more access to education once they were taken away from those environments. But how on earth were they supposed to process the events? For an adult tried in a court, it’s traumatic enough, but the children really didn’t know what was going on.
One of the things that I really wanted to explore was how culpable we are when we do things at the age of ten. It made me think back to how I was at ten years old. And I remember that the big thing for me was not understanding consequences, and of course, what holds most of us back from doing unthinkable things is that we have a sense of what will happen if we do so. So I wanted to open questions up for the reader in The Gosling Girl: at what age are we really responsible? And one of the examples I used in the book was when Natalie Tyler remembers being bullied at school. She loses her temper and attacks one of the bullies and knocks him to the ground. And she thinks, what if he had hit his head in a particular way and had died as a result of that? I’d have been in the same position as Michelle Cameron. So the question of what separates us from an action like that was also one of the things that I wanted to explore in the novel; we, any of us really, are capable of one of those moments where we do something terrible. In the right circumstances—without support and without any sort of nurturing—any of us are capable of doing terrible things. So it doesn’t make sense to me that we turn on children who’ve done terrible things, and see them as the epitome of evil. It just does not make sense.
Kariima Right, absolutely. I’m going to end it here Jacqueline. Thank you so much for giving me your time and allowing for this amazing conversation to happen. And I hope that we cross paths again at some point.
Jacqueline I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, you’ve asked me some brilliant questions. So, it’s been a really easy interview to do. Thank you.