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History, Magic and Resistance: In Conversation with Rosanne Rabinowitz

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

Resonance and Revolt is a collection of short stories written by Rosanne Rabinowitz over the past 11 years, and published by Eibonvale Press. They combine the interpersonal with the magical; reflecting the author's life as an activist while engaging with transcendental questions of love, consciousness and connectivity. It has just been shortlisted for the Best Collection Award by the British Fantasy Society. Niall Walker finished his copy before asking Rosanne a few questions...

"I often imagine that we're walking with the ghosts of those who lived and struggled before us"

The first half of your collection takes the reader through a range of historical moments and places, from Tsarist Russia to 60s America. What draws you to a particular time or event as a writer?

Sometimes the connection is personal. For example, my grandparents emigrated from Tsarist Russia in the early 1900s so that's part of my family history. I grew up hearing Yiddish though I don't speak it.

I'm also drawn to writing about places where I've lived or spent time. I visited the Czech Republic – Tabor in particular – in the 90s and later the early 2000s and I met a partner there. So that’s reflected in stories like 'Return of the Pikart Posse' and partly in 'The Bells of the Harelle'.

I get passionate about digging up forgotten and overlooked history and bringing it to light in fiction. I've been influenced by historians like EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and later Silvia Federici. They look at events from the viewpoint of those who've been marginalised in the mainstream accounts, and I seek out stories between the lines.

This was why the 1918 uprising in Munich caught my imagination. It's often dismissed as the ‘coffee house republic’ because so many poets and artists were involved. Yet the question of imagining and remaking an environment from the wreckage of a world war and the system that spawned it is a totally valid and practical one, so why all the piss-taking? It was a popular uprising against the monarchy and militarism and privation; it wasn't decreed from above but people took their lives into their own hands. History could have taken a very different turn if the workers' and soldiers' councils – and don't forget the artists' councils – had prevailed. In fact, I've started an alternate history novella that bounces off that idea.

For the same reason I got caught up in writing about the Hussite era in 15th century Bohemia and particularly the more anarchistic wing of the Hussites. They stood for all-out warfare against the church and feudal order and were later dubbed Adamites in the 18th century. They got very bad press from the likes of Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium, who regarded them simply as thugs. Then I read that one of their leaders was a woman called Maria and nothing is known about her. You might say 'Bells of the Harelle' is a prequel to a longer work about Maria and 'Return of the Pikart Posse' something of a tentative time-slipping sequel.

Helen's Story was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award

I love to walk around an area and investigate its history and discover a story taking wing from that. 'Lambeth North” is an example of that – a local story for local people and hopefully some folks who aren't so local! I always learn a lot in the process.

The area around Millbank, just the other side of the Thames, had also interested me for a long time. I knew about the prison after reading Sarah Waters' Affinity and I understood a bit about the panopticon regime. Then the occupation in 2010 inspired me to investigate more. Eventually I learned about the prison's historical relationship to the Tate Britain as well as the practice of masking prisoners and putting them 'in the Darks' for discipline.

Your stories identify with a wide range of characters and experiences, yet a running theme in your work is one of political dissent and activism. How important is it for art to engage politically?

A politically engaged piece of art gives me the biggest charge as a reader or viewer. But that can mean a lot of things. A work doesn’t need to be overtly polemical to engage with questions of power or lack of power and deep and personal desires for a different or better life.

In my own life questions about art and politics are often very practical: do I finish this story or do I go to this meeting or go to this demo?

It's ironic that Oscar Wilde is so associated with 'arts for art's sake' yet his work has proven to be profoundly political. Given that he was a gay/bisexual man pursuing beauty in a repressive Victorian society, how could it not? That comes to mind after I had a story published in an anthology dedicated to Wilde and Dorian Gray at the end of 2017, which deals with the racist fall-out from Brexit. Would Oscar take a few turns around the coffin over that or not? In any case, it will be reprinted as a chapbook by Eibonvale Press in time for the next Brexit date – for more about this story see this blog post by a writer called Tom Johnstone.


Context also makes all the difference. I've been chuckling over the news that an old song by a Dutch pop group called Vengaboys has been revived in Austria as an antifascist anthem to celebrate the fall of the right-wing party in power.

So a Balearic-based scandal turns a cheesy tune about partying in Ibiza into something a lot more! This touches on a few ongoing arguments about art, politics, pop and authorial intent and it makes me smile every time I read about it.

Alongside this backdrop of historic political events is the appearance of the magical and mythological, often at moments of longing or desperation for the protagonists. What does the supernatural represent in your stories?

I often imagine that we're walking with the ghosts of those who lived and struggled before us, and whether these ghosts exist in the mind or make a physical appearance depends on the story I'm writing. I'm fascinated by the forms haunting can take – not only are we haunted by the past but we can find ourselves haunted by all the futures that could happen.

The supernatural or the magical can provide a prism for reflecting and heightening experience… for fracturing time or creating links in time. It can be used to distil and intensify experience and help us reflect on it.

I find that quantum physics can do similar things. However, I'm aware that the debased and vague form they take in my work would have Brian Cox tearing his hair out and aggravate Michiu Kaku as well. My SF is soft as shite! Yet I love the idea of quantum entanglement – or "entwinement" as Seraphine in 'Bells of the Harelle' describes it. All that spooky action over distance lends itself to stories that invoke and explore hidden connections. Are we talking about science or the supernatural now? Or both? Having the opportunity to mess with that great big toolbox is part of the joy of speculative fiction.

You juxtapose rebellion and dissent in your stories with a sense of interconnectivity: characters feel connection across time, as if entwined in similar experiences. Which is more important to you: resonance or revolution?

Ha! It's not an ‘either’ or an ‘or’, is it? Maybe this interconnectivity can be seen as spooky solidarity at a distance. The process of locating and evoking such connections over time expands the imagination – and that's a vital part of any revolution.

It's a major theme in Resonance & Revolt, and I dare say it'll crop up again in other forms and other fiction.

In my own life questions about art and politics are often very practical: do I finish this story or do I go to this meeting or go to this demo?

The latter half of your collection moves from historical dramas to modern settings of political activism, like Millbank and the anti-austerity demonstrations. What have the successes been of recent street movements, and do you see hope for the future?

Now that’s a question! Responses are likely to change from day to day or perhaps hour to hour… And like many of the characters in R&R I've had periods of self-doubt and inactivity or immersion in hedonism and the more abstract forms of nerdery. That's how it goes. So while I've taken part in these struggles I'm no expert or super-activist of any sort. I'm just your average geeky writer type.

I find it hard to say whether a series of actions has been successful or not, because we don't know what our terrain would be like if these events hadn't happened. We’ve been going through a hard time when the right has been on the rise and I definitely get that beleaguered batten-down-the-hatches kind of feeling. But things could be even worse if no one ever took action. Through the years people have successfully forced through concessions and brought about better conditions. And taking part in struggle can also bring us joy, friendship and solidarity and enrich our lives – even when we don’t entirely ‘win’.

I think resistance to austerity will continue to bubble, perhaps under different names. We face threats to health services and the NHS, threats to benefit under the Universal Credit system of sanctions. Everything from schools and youth provision and to pensions face cuts and destruction. Brexit will make it worst. The need to fight back is greater than ever and most of us have no choice but to try.

Just before I wrote this cleaners at Chanel won the London Living Wage after months of campaigning. I certainly think we can find hope with the gains won by precarious workers in unions like United Voices of the World. Younger workers have been given a load of lemons with the gig economy, increasing insecurity and the destruction of social housing and housing alternatives – but I suspect we might be seeing some tsunamis of lemonade in the near future.

I also see hope in over the growing actions over the environment. The climate strike movement started by school kids is important, and perhaps it's not receiving as much as attention as Extinction Rebellion – though the two are not unrelated. Some of this activity reminds me of Reclaim of the Streets in the late 1990s and early 2000s, occupations of the streets against 'car culture' turned into carnivals against capitalism on an international scale. Meanwhile, positive initiatives addressing the roots of the crisis like the Green Anticapitalist Front are springing up.

When we see echoes in movements that are decades apart two things are said: first, the struggle continues. But sometimes a more conservative view also rears its head – 'nothing new under the sun' as if we're trapped in some kind of historical Groundhog Day. But if we're talking burrowing rodents, I think more of the mole. As Old Beardy Karl put it: "We recognize our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution."


You can follow Rosanne's work on her blog or via Twitter

You can order her book, 'Resonance & Revolt' via Eibonvale Press


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