“Because of its place in our psychic life, a remembered adventure tends to take on the quality of a dream.”
True was born out of a nightmare which was born out of a dream. All the attempts to write about her falsify the truth about who she is. And yet, she needs to be written about and allowed to walk into the dreams of others.
For a long time I’ve thought about True and what type of a character she should be. She’s been growing inside me for about 7 years now and has been desperate to get out. But creating a fictional character is no easy matter for anyone and most certainly not for an anthropologist who has dedicated her professional life to the study of real people. Inhibited by the fear of misrepresentation or manipulation of reality, the only way I could ever write True was to first let her become real and assume a life of her own. Little did I know how dangerous and painful it was – for all involved – to release incomplete characters into this world, with no clue as to who they were or were meant to be.
At first, True was a cynical detective – disillusioned, broken and angry as fuck. On top of that, I put her into a fragile female body with genius brains. She was intense, dark and negative, but also charming, funny and vulnerable. I knew there was a lot of potential in a character who felt and said things that a female character has never felt or said before. So I gave her social media accounts and even dating app accounts. It became clear very soon, however, that the world just wasn’t ready for this gorgeous young female detective who felt no shame telling people about her inner misanthropic man in mid-life crisis and with an alcohol problem.
Some of True’s first sentences, published on Twitter, were: “I’ve got gum and I’m not afraid to use it.” “I keep my friends close and my cases closed.” “After my phone died, I charged it with conspiracy” “I made a polygraph become a monograph.” “I miss the bullets and the bullets miss me.” “I’ve crossed a black cat’s path.” “I’m fit enough to chase bad guys but need to get unfit to let the good ones catch up.” “I’m more committed than any crime could ever be.” And of course: “I’m too True to be good.”
In these early days, True wanted to throw truth in people’s faces and get away with it, like Rust Cohle did in True Detective. “I don’t sleep, I dream” was supposed to be her line! But no matter how hard she tried to be true to herself and to her inner man, whatever she said came out as a bad Dad joke.
When I moved from Prague to London in 2016, I took True with me. I will forever be grateful for her stubbornness and ballsiness. Her desire for truth helped me survive in a city that felt unreal and in times that soon turned out to be the beginnings of the so-called “Post-Truth era.”
But immigrant life was hard on the True Detective. A female detective with an inner misanthrope inside her now had to take on new roles – the role of a foreigner, an immigrant and an Eastern European woman. In the country which has produced Sherlock Holmes (the original and the new), James Bond and Luther, True felt small, unappreciated and misunderstood.*
(* Luckily, by the time the show Killing Eve came out, True has moved on. She would have hated it.)
To bring her back to life, I thought I’d give her a world.
The idea was to place her in a capitalist dystopia. In the story (which I imagined would become the first novel in a new genre called gastro science fiction, gas-sci-fi for short), consumers in the Western world get obsessed with sustainability but are not willing to forgo consumerism and capitalism. This leads to a new ethics of ownership and consumption: people only own what they can consume by eating. Initially, this gets people very excited and leads to new research and innovation, especially in the area of enzymes that enable people to digest all sorts of natural and artificial materials, including wood and plastics. Everything becomes organic and natural and digestible.
However, as it is a dystopia, this also creates new inequalities. There are people who own more than they can eat because they can hire others to eat their things for them. It’s basically capitalism based not on accumulation and alienation from the means of production, but on recycling and alienation from the means of recycling, i.e. human bodies.
The system relies mostly on bodies of foreigners to recycle what others produce. True is a foreign body but she is not an “eater”. Her job is to help companies find new ways to recycle more and faster. True, of course, does not believe in the system and hates the fact that everything she earns she spends on things she needs which she then has to eat, and then buy new things. She is lost and caught up in the vicious cycle of ‘recycle capitalism’ and knows that in order to get out, she needs to find ways of purifying herself from the shit that goes through her body and her mind every day. This becomes particularly urgent once she realises that she’s so exhausted and alienated from her body that she can no longer feel physical joy and the desire to reproduce. She isn’t sure if she’s even able to reproduce anymore.
Although this story would allow me to write about real stuff using metaphors, I’ve ditched the idea for two reasons: First, I don’t like science fiction because it’s too removed from reality. Second, I don’t think I’d be able to give both True and the idea what they deserve. True is true and she’s from this world, albeit not of this world. She can’t be put into a dystopia.
The first paragraph ever written about True was really weird:
True walked down the stairs on a rare sunny morning in January. She might have been sleepy and depressed but when she saw how the sun lit up the living room, she sniffed a sun ray into both nostrils and as soon as all that sunshine hit her head, she was ready to work hard and pray hard again.
That was in January 2017. Then, in May 2017, this was written:
It was not a sniff of a gentle woman…. it was a sniff of a desperada. Punched by the city life, hit by experience and destined not to belong anywhere, she had nothing else to get high on, other than the ray of sun. She did not belong physically, nor emotionally, nor experientially, nor class-wise, nor in any other way that people belong. She lived here because she was driven by some kind of a new American dream. But even for that, she was in a wrong country and in a wrong century.
Around 2018, True stopped being angry and realised that she was a survivor so I thought maybe True would make a great motivational character. She could help readers feel good about life – either because they’d be inspired by True’s positive attitude towards life, or by realizing how much better their lives were compered to hers.
Dreaming in her sleep was her favourite way to die and be born again. “The art of living is to learn how to die” was a line she once heard from Dr Cornel West, and it stayed with her. Every night, when she lied down to sleep, she grieved over the failures, struggles and loneliness of her everyday life. She lied in bed and let the failures die so she could be reborn again – hopeful, optimistic, vital. Constantly pregnant with herself, delivering a new, better, wiser, stronger and more successful version of herself, she wondered, if she was ever going to break and if so, what would that feel like? Or was she broken already and in need of constant repair?
In the end, I realised this would make True untrue to herself and to the world because motivation is only half-true and so is brokenness. Let me talk about motivation for a little bit:
It’s been a prominent genre of social media posts, popular literature and personal narratives of entrepreneurs, celebrities and ordinary social media users. They often use the Hero’s Journey story structure, an almost universal formula for a story about a transformation of a character through struggle, adventure and learning. The power of Hero’s Journey is in making us relate to the hero and feel positive about life and the challenges it presents.
However, in popular culture, stories about struggle are often used as currency that adds value and authenticity to success stories. This sometimes leads to the misconception that the only thing that stands between a struggling person and their success, is hard work and time. As if nothing else shaped our lives – not even history or social injustice. I often think of John Steinbeck who (allegedly) said: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
What is motivation anyway? Me telling you that if you try hard enough and long enough, you’ll get there? That if you spend 20,000 hours doing something, you’ll master it? That the only thing that stands between you and a successful version of yourself, is hard work and time? That you should live your life faking it until you make it?
Isn’t it blasphemous to think of time as the enemy? Often it seems to me that the power of motivational “wisdom” is to manipulate time and make someone feel like they’re already succeeding when they’re actually still struggling. This probably half-works, but it devalues struggle and it devalues the present experience in the name of success – as if success was, in the end, the main goal in life. Social media feeds into this because it allows us to present this aspiration to others in the hope that we can “fake it till we make it.”
Having said that – noone, unless they’re extremely lucky, gets anything for free and without doing anything. It’s definitely more likely to succeed if you try than if you don’t and being motivated is key to pursuing dreams and maintaining vitality. And that is why, I too, motivate myself.
So why did I not want True to be a motivational character? Because True wants to speak the truth and her truth is both optimistic and tragic at the same time. Her struggles and her darkness are not to be regarded as temporal embarrassments, but as her access to truth, to the present, the past and the future, and to others… whatever that means.
Over time, as I’ve been becoming True and True has been becoming me, I had an outrageous idea of throwing poor True into a stream of my life, into a TrueWoman Show. In that story, True is funny, and a good role model for all brave women, especially immigrant women. She has weird nightmares about English people, dating makes no sense to her and she suspects she might be going slightly insane. The insanity comes from the fact that she is trying to adapt and adjust to her life in London and to English people but it’s just not working. She believes she should be real and truthful but that only gets her into trouble and extremely awkward situations. She overcomes all obstacles with humour and decides to accept she’ll always be foreign and strange to people, so she might as well have fun doing it and using all the embarrassing situations to gain insight into a truly puzzling culture. Embarrassment becomes her pleasure and empowerment tool.
I ditched the TrueWoman show idea because it was making my life and True’s life silly – entertaining to others but unsatisfying to us.
Then there was True, the Warrior Woman: She’s funny and dark and always comfortable in her own skin. She’s an adventurer who relies on her own luck and her own inner strength – neither of which she knows she has or where she’s hiding them. In that, she’s pure, unreflective, proactive, spontaneous, childish, direct and unrestrained, and committed to truth. She has an instinct for what is true and what is not, and because of that sweet innocence, she often gets things slightly wrong but, even when she’s wrong, she’s always kind of right.
I loved this wild warrior woman and very much enjoyed seeing her in the Wonder Woman film. At the same time, I realised how terribly constrained the character would have to be. Given True’s passion for the truth, her depth, wittiness and, above all, her brokenness, she’d outgrow the character before I would write the first sentence.
I’ve lived all these characters to find out who True really was and who she wanted to be. Having a character gave me an aesthetic and logic for action and for narratives about the outcomes of that action. But in order to make True strong enough to go on her own Heroine’s journey and do the dangerous detective work of uncovering truth, True had to be more than any of these characters.
In reality, True is all those characters and more and less. As she’s been growing in me, she’s become grounded and real. She’s started believing in herself to the point that even fictional events bend around her and become real. Incredible adventures happen to her, both good and bad. Life is not easy or comfortable but she is determined to go through it guided by the belief that her life matters, that she has the right and the obligation to pursue what she believes to be true and that there’s a bigger truth about life. She may never fully uncover the big Truth – she may also find out she herself is not real – but she keeps searching. So far it seems that truth is indeed like Baubo – when she lifts her skirt up, goddesses laugh.
In the end, I realised that the only narrative that could carry the truth of True is adventure. True is curious about life and wastes no time on things that are not true to her or to life. She doesn’t hesitate to take risks and to commit to what feels true. She fails all the time and she fails beautifully because, after all, she is the daughter of a previous character, Babraque, the noble loser.
“The adventurer relies to some extent on
his HER own strength, but above all on his HER own luck; more properly, on a peculiarly undifferentiated unity of the two. Strength, of which h e SHE is certain, and luck, of which h e SHE is uncertain, subjectively combine into a sense of certainty.”