The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival and Aye Write have teamed up to present an exciting two-day literary programme at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library this weekend. Featuring talks from the likes of Alasdair Gray, Don Paterson, Denise Mina and Sophie Hannah, the discussions will focus on reality, mental health, reading and writing, demonstrating the power of words to convey our ideas and emotions.
It has been a big year for Jenni Fagan, whose debut novel The Panopticon earned her a place in the 2013 Granta Best of Young British Novelists and a nomination for the prestigious James Tait Black Prize. It has also received high praise from critics and peers, including Ali Smith and Irvine Welsh, who described it as an ‘utterly magnificent achievement‘. Festival reporter Rob Dickie caught up with her ahead of the event to ask about her inspiration for the novel and how its success has affected her life.
The protagonist is 15-year-old Anais Hendricks, who, at the beginning of the novel, finds herself accused of leaving a policewoman in a coma and transported to the eponymous Panopticon, a former prison converted into a social care unit. Anais has never met anybody she is related to and her experiences are partly based on Fagan’s own upbringing. ‘I grew up in local authority care for sixteen years, which inspired the foundations of The Panopticon‘.
The institution is not quite as severe as the title suggests – the residents are not locked in and are given spending money whenever they go out – but the pressures of being continually observed does take its toll. And this situation is increasingly a reality for people, not just in social care, but in society as a whole.
‘We all live in a modern panopticon,’ says Fagan. ‘We observe each other constantly through social media, CCTV. Workplaces are open plan, our homes are often more open plan, people in health industries or social care are constantly having to write reports accounting for what has gone on each day. It seems being observed and accounting for who you are has become the norm.‘
‘Is it healthy? I don’t know. I think it might be nice if ordinary people enjoyed these same rights when it comes to the organisations who make social legislations, but they do not. Nobody questions these things anymore as they are seen to be normal; I don’t know where it will end up.‘
Fagan’s novel also explores mental health issues in a number of different ways, without it ever becoming the focus. In this environment, they are normalised to a great extent and Anais has enough problems of her own to worry about. When asked if her own mental health influences her writing, Fagan says, ‘I don’t know if [it] does…I don’t think about it too much. My writing often comes from ideas and emotions and somewhere between the two a piece of work will emerge.‘
Fagan has also done creative writing work with the Norwich Blind Association, hospital patients, young offenders and prisoners. ‘I am aware of what it is like being considered part of a peripheral demographic by society,‘ she says. ‘I am also aware of what it feels like to be made voiceless because of this and sometimes people find it hard to separate you as an individual from labels society uses to define and classify human beings. We all have voices. Writing is a great outlet whatever your life circumstances.‘
When asked how her recent success has changed her life, she says, ‘It hasn’t changed my life massively on a day to day basis. Perhaps it can change the way some other people see you, that can feel a bit weird sometimes. I am offered a wider variety of opportunities as a writer, that’s probably the biggest difference.‘
One of these opportunities was being appointed Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University, home of the oldest literature department in the word. ‘It’s great to be part of the literary heritage at Edinburgh and I am really happy to be following on from Alan Warner, who was in the post for the last two years. Edinburgh is a great city for writing and studying; I’ve always found it an inspiring place to be.‘
Speaking about her upcoming work, she has various different projects on the go and it looks like it will be an exciting few years ahead. ‘I have completed the first draft of my current novel The Sunlight Pilgrims. Also, a short story collection and a new poetry collection. I have just started writing the film script for The Panopticon, which is due to begin being filmed next autumn. I’ve also been asked about potentially writing an opera for teenagers; I like the process of challenging the way I use words, so I think that would be a fun thing to work on.‘
Interview by Rob Dickie