Pankhearst: pixels into knives

Evangeline Jennings Pankhearst CollectiveA while ago I came across a collection of stories called Cars and Girls, published by indie writing collective Pankhearst.

The thing that struck me about Cars and Girls was the overarching theme: women out to get their own justice in a supposedly post-patriarchal society. The characters know the consequences of how their gender/s limit protection and leniency from the legal system, yet there is nowhere else for them to go. These characters have bent so much they have snapped — and they have access to to a gun cabinet…

I suppose you could call the the genre ‘femme-noir’, but this wouldn’t do justice to the breadth of themes throughout the collection, or indeed any other title released by Pankhearst.

Pankhearst originally started out as a group web forum and grew from there. It’s now a collective with authors from around the world, releasing a short story or ‘single’ every month, plus novels, poetry, anthologies and even webisodes. With the affordability of the singles (99p on Kindle) I find myself waiting every month for what will be released. I’m rarely disappointed.

A standout story from the singles collection is ‘No Christmas’ by Evangeline Jennings (pictured), a story about a young woman in an increasingly anti-abortion America. Jennings’ writing is exposed as feminist, furious and foreboding.

With a back catalogue of literature piling up, what makes this collective tick? Why did The Guardian’s Alan Skinner name check them in an article about innovative self publishers? I decided to ask Jennings, who also happens to be a founding member of the collective.

AB: Why write about the themes you do?
EJ: I’ve never sat down and said I’m going to write a story about, say, abortion. But I am who I am and my characters are pieces of myself. So the issues that dominate my life — inequality, sexuality, gender, disability, violence against women and children — they rear their heads inevitably in my characters’ lives. My fears, frustrations, and fury become theirs. Take, for example, ‘No Christmas’. That story was driven entirely by my hatred — there is no other word — for the religious right. In England as in Saudi Arabia. In America as in the Islamic Caliphate. I frequently feel helpless in the face of their obsessional delusions and contempt.

The continuing war on women in the United States is not about religion or conscience… It’s about the exercise of control over the lives of others

Scratch any theocrat — whatever their God — and you will find a fascist. It’s a simple truth. The continuing war on women in the United States is not about religion or conscience. It’s nothing to do with beautiful unborn babies. You only have to see how these same politicians treat their poor to understand their contempt for life. It’s about the exercise of control over the lives of others. It’s about power and abuse. And it won’t stop with abortion. Or marriage rights. Or legislating in favour of homophobic discrimination. We’re heading straight back to the Middle Ages and it’s all going to end with a Holy War.

Here’s another way of looking at it. I come from Liverpool. I live in Texas now. It’s a big state. You may have heard. Roughly the size of France and Switzerland combined. In 2013, we had 41 licensed abortion clinics. Now there are 19 because of laws passed by the religious right explicitly designed to deny women their freedom of choice. Another law passed by Texas Republicans would drop that number to nine but very recently the US Supreme Court put a stop on that until they can rule on that law’s constitutionality. Four of the nine justices voted against this. The same four who opposed marriage equality. One vote out of nine. That’s how close we are to a Holy American Empire. Elect a Republican President, put another right wing bigot on the Supreme Court and everyone I love in America is fucked.

And don’t think it won’t happen in the UK.

AB: Do you think you’ve built a community of like-minded writers or was it just a happy accident?
EJ: I’ve had to think long and hard about this. And I think we’ve done two things. We’ve developed a collective of very like minded people that serves a wider and more diverse community of writers and — hopefully — readers.

How? Well, there’s been a touch or two of intelligent-ish design, but mostly it’s been a combination of instinct and evolution. When I first tried to do this whole collective thing, it didn’t work at all because I was stupid and thought we could operate as some sort of commune, with all the writers pitching in and helping each other out and everybody getting along. Surprisingly, that didn’t work. There were too many egos and agendas and as a result our first book, Cars and Girls, was a long painful slog and I binned off our second book altogether when I saw a bloodbath of backbiting and bitching going on.

I was tempted to stop then, but Cars and Girls was a good book, I thought, and I wanted to do more. So I went out recruiting. I brought in two friends – Lucy (who lives in Nottingham) and Ellie (Alice Springs), both talented writers and editors — and we got organized. I got organized, I suppose. The Pankhearst collective became the three of us — with help from Tee who suffered through the pain of Cars and Girls — and we invited submissions for a YA anthology called Heathers. If Cars and Girls got us some attention and taught me how not to do things, Heathers was the book that proved Pankhearst could work and sowed the seeds for growth.

While we were taking submissions for Heathers, I stumbled across the Sheffield-based poet Kate Garrett on Twitter of all places — we shared an interest in the Lemonheads — and on a whim I asked if she’d contribute a couple of poems to Heathers. She said yes. And that act of pure instinct on both our parts has led to Pankhearst developing a completely new poetry and flash fiction side. Because Kate, who is now one of our senior editors, fits like a glove.

And that’s how it goes. Anyone is welcome to work with us — there are writers who submit every time we announce a new project — but at the core, there is a definite shared culture or attitude. I say it’s punk rock queer feminist at heart. And it’s people who relate to that — generally emerging feminist writers — who become more deeply involved.

AB: Why do you write YA (Young Adult fiction)?
EJ: I don’t write exclusively YA. I’d guess it’s 50-50, but I am drawn to the genre. First, I like to read YA so why not write it? Second and more importantly, the teenage years are probably the most interesting. It’s a time of critical transition. We’re learning our world and reacting to it. Discovering how and where we fit. The things we’ve learned as children, the things that have happened to us are becoming evident and, as a writer, it’s an opportunity to investigate and say things you think are important.

Most of us never grow up; we only get old… I do believe that, in a way, most of us never grow out of YA

An astute critic once pointed out that I often start my stories at a point where other writers might be winding down. In the parlance of hacks and manuals, the Triggering Event has already happened and what you’re reading now is the aftermath. It’s often a kind of double mystery. What will the outcome of this story be? And why is this character acting the way she is — what was the actual triggering event? Teenage life is full of triggering events.

I also think that YA stories have a life beyond those teenage years. We never stop struggling with change and we never free ourselves from the traumas that made us who we are. Occasionally, when I’m drunk or with someone I trust, I explain one of my theories of life which is that most of us never grow up; we only get old. And its corollary: the people who end up running the world are sociopaths who are not haunted by their youth and their insecurities. I have no idea if that’s true but I do believe that, in a way, most of us never grow out of YA.

Pankhearst are always looking for new voices and have a rolling submission call. The Pankhearst catalogue can be found here.

The image is a black-and-white headshot of Evangeline Jennings in half-profile.