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Review | ‘Chav Solidarity’ by D. Hunter Books

"A guide and a balm, a meditation on the politics of survival and an appeal to extend our arms towards each other". Chav Solidarity, by D. Hunter, is a book that must be read, writes Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi.

Arts & Culture, Books, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 26, 2020 11:31 - 0 Comments


It is hard to slot Chav Solidarity into a genre; it is a collection of essays, a memoir, a treatise on radical social change, a manifesto, a confession, a protest, a guide. It is all these things, and also not, so deftly does the book evade categorization, moralism, or the black-and-white.

The writer, D. Hunter, describes himself as ‘an ageing chav, whose first twenty five years depended upon the informal economy, including sex work, robbing, and dealing.’ With insight, wisdom, and depth, he takes us though his experiences of poverty and destitution, of homelessness and physical abuse, starting with his early years in Young Offenders Institutes, and the violence that he encountered at home and on the streets, all the way up to his present-day life as a writer, an activist and, sometimes, a reluctant and critical member of the middle-class.

The book is, in many ways, a protest against the dehumanization of poor and working-class communities. In one of the early scenes, Hunter describes how his family made money outside of the capitalist system, through hijacking lorries or organizing dog fights, and how, although his grandfather reserved the largest share of the proceeds for himself, the money was distributed amongst the family based on need, with an uncle being placed in a top-notch care facility, and the needs of children being considered. The scene, along with countless others he describes, embodies contradiction, in that it contains both violence and love, solidarity and injustice. Through this opening up of contradiction and complexity, Hunter humanises the dehumanised. ‘My people,’ he writes, ‘are carers and warriors. They carry fierceness and tenderness in equal measure. They are exploited and ignored … each one of them would take a bat to the head of someone who hurt those they love.’

Hunter’s intended reader, it seems in such moments, is the middle-class one. Reading, after all, is rooted in privilege, connected to access to time, space, resources, and education, and so inevitably, the vast majority of his readers will be of a different socio-economic background from the people whose story he tells. Sometimes, he makes overt references to this disruption, this gap; in a scene where two homeless women who survived as heroin addicts and pickpockets help him out without any motive or result in mind other than care, he says, ‘they didn’t expect me to get clean, or find work, or any of the things that you might have wanted me to do.’ The ‘you’ here, is the middle-class reader, and the writer holds a mirror up at this point, reflecting the judgments, the superiority, the moralism and expectation, that accompany charitable acts.

The writing is nuanced and incisive, and the reflection he provides clear and unflinching. Yet, I wonder what it means to have to argue for one’s own humanity. As a writer myself, a Muslim writer, a woman of colour, I am sometimes called upon to do the same, and the idea of having to prove one’s humanity, to show white people, for instance, ‘we are just as human as you,’ leaves me cold. Toni Morrison addresses this when she says, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Parallels can be drawn here, I think, with Hunter’s work, even though it is about class and not race. ‘I shouldn’t have to point these things out,’ he says, of his laying out before us the ways in which the mental health of the wealthy is privileged over that of the poor, ‘but I do’.

I, of course, am grateful for the intervention. I think it is absolutely necessary. But I can also see ways in which it may be frustrating, futile, and distracting. Perhaps, however, the nuance and skill he does the work with, the radical politics, the unapologetic nature of it, renders questions around his intended audience irrelevant. Perhaps a kind of healing and validation can come from this kind of work, even for the writers themselves, that can challenge the process of societal hierarchies becoming internalised, and challenge the process through which we begin to measure our worth on the basis of parameters set out for us.

These days, conversations around trauma and healing have become commonplace, but more often than not, the discourse is superficial, ignoring larger questions of structural inequality (there are of course, many exceptions to this: Mia Mingus and Sara Ahmed, to name just two writers, constantly connect the two). The reason Chav Solidarity is so valuable is because of its depth, its insistence on holding the layers – it shows us how limited contemporary talk around ‘self-care’ can be, that self-care cannot be separated from mutual care; it shows us that healing is a privilege, that access to therapy, and to friends with resources, or even to the knowledge and understanding of what one’s pain is, is undeniably linked to class, and that if your overwhelming priority is getting through the day, then wounds will inevitably fester.

Another reason for the privileging of middle-class mental health, Hunter articulates powerfully, is that ‘the ways in which the depression and anxiety of working class people manifests itself is considered unpalatable and difficult, and is therefore more prone to being characterized and minimised as individual failings’. These truths are so obvious, so true, and yet so invisibilised, unarticulated, and disregarded, that we can’t help but feel the ignorance is willful. Hunter carries an embodied understanding of structural inequality, and transmits it through writing that is both crisp and beautiful, as he unpicks the contradictions and traumas of living as a marginalized and vulnerable member of our capitalist, hetero-normative, classist patriarchy. He continually contextualises his experiences within a system that does not care for people of his class background, where trauma perpetuates trauma, and where there is little recourse to health and healing for anyone but those who can afford it.

In this, Hunter provides a strong, grounded critique of the world in which we live. He insists on the humanity of all people, and does not overlook his own complicity in this system, foregrounding his own whiteness and maleness, and the privileges they have afforded him. In fact, never before have I seen this depth of self-interrogation around matters of race and gender in the writings of a white man – it is not performative, and it is not the kind of apologetic hand-wringing guilt that becomes just another thing that PoC and women have to hold, to cater to. No, it is accountability; it is a striving towards justice, and truth. It is reparative.

As I read the book, I found myself wondering whether Hunter is sometimes too quick to forgive. His parents and his grandfather, for example, have inflicted terrible pain upon him, and by refusing to judge them, I wonder if he, on some level, excuses them. Ultimately, we free ourselves when we forgive, and the kind of deep contextual understanding that he has can lead to that kind of freedom, but there is layer upon layer, surely, of grief and anger that needs to be waded through before reaching that forgiveness? Hunter speaks about battles with anger at several points but none of this appears to be directed at the family members who caused him, arguably, the most deeply-rooted of his pain.

I’m left with a curiosity as to how he reached this degree of compassion, whether the difficult journey has been made, or whether there is a step that has been bypassed. At the same time, it is precisely this complex balance that makes up the beauty of the book, as the author manages to do two things at the same time: he constantly undoes the binary between victim and perpetrator by reminding us, again and again, of the circumstances of the people who inflicted abuse upon him, while at the same time, insisting upon recognising one’s agency, reflecting on one’s privilege, and taking responsibility for how we live in the world.

Most ‘trauma memoirs’ that I’ve come across consist of an individual breaking out of, and leaving behind, their painful situations, finding ‘freedom’ in the arms of a white (or – these days – nominally ‘diverse’) middle-class utopia. These stories – the ones I’m thinking of are mostly about race and religion – inevitably frame the original communities as oppressive or backward, offering a simplistic, aspirational story. Hunter refuses such a narrative. He is not interested in an ‘overcoming your circumstances’ story. In fact, the hierarchies that are assumed to be true in that kind of story are exactly what he opposes. He interrogates the idea of the white middle-class utopia, exposing the toxicities on which it is built, the marginalized upon whose labour it stands. His interest lies with the pain and isolation of the overlooked, and with a system that benefits from their marginalization.

Hunter also focuses on the things left behind when one makes what appear to be upward-transitions. For instance, he says, of his movement within middle-class circles, ‘I have performed different forms of middle-class behaviour and in doing so have eradicated parts of my identity so thoroughly I am unable to bring them back … being myself is no longer possible.’ These are the sacrifices of moving into the middle class: the shame, the covering-up of one’s past, the internalisation of the condescending middle-class gaze, the desire to perform, to ‘pass’, and so on. There are reflections here of the stories of PoC in white spaces, and of immigrants in their new countries. In questioning the hierarchy that so many of us have internalised, in considering what is lost, what is left behind, on the many compromises that need to be made in order to survive in this distorted world, Chav Solidarity offers a kind of consolation and strength.

Another strong section of the text is the chapter titled ‘Feral Love’, where Hunter writes about an early relationship that he had, along with observations on the relationships around him. With extraordinary psychological acuity, Hunter here examines the nature of love altogether, and how the pursuit of love and the struggle for survival can interact in ways both profound and destructive. Of his relationship, he writes,

‘The more we were together, the more I cared about myself, because more of me was her, and I lost any sense of where I ended and she began. When we hit each other and she stopped cutting herself and cut me, it was all about allowing each other to take one another’s pain … all we wanted to do was pour into each other. Of course it ended badly.’

Hunter’s critique of the radical left is similarly powerful. Without generalizing, nor separating himself from them, he is critical of the strategies of many activist groups he has associated with, of the way social justice activists move carelessly from one cause to another, with little embodied investment, and of the attachment of capital-heavy activists to their comfort. He also has an astute understanding of the limitations of the acceptance that his activist comrades offer him, asking,

‘If I was unable to pay my rent or feed myself in a socially acceptable fashion, … would I be treated in comradely fashion? Perhaps. But if I lived with the stress of going day to day without knowing where my next meal would come from or where I would sleep, would I behave in ways that would be acceptable? If I was still being told I was worthless, would I be able to interact with the social movements, filled with those who look, move and sound just like the social workers, judges and those whose houses I robbed?’

It is in these types of psychological dissections that the prose is at its most engaging. This is a book that must be read. It is a guide and a balm, a meditation on the politics of survival and an appeal to extend our arms towards each other. At the same time, it is a slap across the face, an unflinching exhortation to open our eyes. Ultimately, it is a call for justice.

Chav Solidarity
D. Hunter
133 pages
Publication: January 2019

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Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi is a London-based writer, editor, and translator who has published essays, book reviews, poetry, short stories, and monologues. She has also written regularly for the stage. She’s from Karachi, and she’s interested in intersectional politics and structural oppressions. You can find her on twitter at  @tweetingayesha

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