Originally published in A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN 

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

Women are starting businesses twice as quickly as men. Now, these game-changers are beginning to meet their own needs.

In 2011, independent game developer Brianna Wu faced one of the most terrifying moments in her career that had nothing to do with Gamergate harassment. Her lead animator, Amanda Warner, had just told her that she was pregnant.

Wu, the outspoken founder of indie-game development studio Giant Spacekat was then working on Revolution 60. It was to be the company’s very first game, slated to be released in 2013. Warner was her best employee – they had founded the company together – and this was crunch time. How would they make it?

But when Warner had first sat Wu down to break the news to her, Wu had already braced herself for the worst: was she moving? Quitting? Found a new job? A pregnancy was going to be tough, Wu thought, but they could work with it. They had to. Wu decided to bet the future of the company on it… 

If you liked this article, check out the rest of A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN.


Originally published in A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN 

Illustration by James Harvey

Illustration by James Harvey

When Consentacle was first announced at the Sex Games panel at last year’s Different Games conference, heads turned. Sex and tentacles?! A cooperative card game for two players, Consentacle represents a consensual sexual encounter between a curious human and a tentacled alien. Players have to figure out how to build trust and do sexual things with each other, even if they can’t communicate easily.

What to make of Consentacle? Is it brilliant? Icky? Different? To me, what one of the most fascinating things about Consentacle is how it sets out to quantify the unquantifiable: sex. Actions like winking and penetrating are assigned a certain number of Satisfaction Tokens and totaled up at the end of a game, and players can interpret those numbers using a table provided with the card deck (see: rules.) I talk with Naomi Clark to find out the process behind one of the most original card games currently out there.

A Sex Game Or A Game About Sex?

Krystle: Tell me a secret. How did you decide on the number of Satisfaction Tokens given or taken for each action? Did you have long and, I imagine, fun reflective sessions over how to quantify sexual acts?

Naomi: Hah! Unfortunately it’s not anything particularly exciting. The game has an arc with more tentative actions that tend to happen near the beginning, but also recur throughout, building up towards the more intense and difficult maneuvers to pull off – the things that take more trust. Those actions were always the ones I intended to be more racy and worth blushing about. As for the exact numbers, however – it was a process that involved a lot of math and simulating theoretical games in a spreadsheet. Totally not sexy – which of course is part of the amusing paradox of the whole thing, what makes the game feel like “Love in a Time of Systems” to me.

Krystle: Consentacle is like an entire economic system in and of itself! How did you come up with the mechanics of it all? Why so system-oriented?

Naomi: System is a huge area of interest for me when I design games. Although I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing or even the most important thing, it’s an ingredient in my work that I always want to keep an eye on, or a lens that I always want to make sure that I peer through. So much of our interaction with the world, with other humans, with various constructed experiences is mediated by systems, even if looking at everything that way is far from the whole truth. There was something horribly appealing to me about dealing with the economy of trust, love, and sex; these are sacrosanct facets of life to most of us, things we like to think of as being beyond the influence of economies and numbers and rules – but of course, systems around us are influencing our relationships at a deep level all the time. I don’t just mean through overt economies like money, but also in scarcity and difficult limitations of care, and trust, and affection, of structure-born differences between people and the expectations of society about relationships…


Learn more about how to play Consentacle and get more behind-the-scenes updates from Naomi Clark’s devblog

Originally written for my final project at the Sciences Po Paris School of Journalism, dated 27/05/2013. PDF version here.

Suicides in France: A Public Act?

From subways to self-immolation, public suicides are becoming disturbingly frequent in the country of joie de vivre. That can leave a toll on witnesses and those unwittingly involved in ending a life. Photography by Jérôme Verony.

suicides in france - a public act?

The morning before Valentine’s Day, a dark-haired man in a black coat stood at the far end of a subway platform, counting down until the next train arrived. It was around 9am at Odéon, a busy hour at a centrally located métro station. He wouldn’t have to wait long. As the figures “0:00” started blinking on the overhead clock and the tunnel filled with the roar of an approaching train, the man took a deliberate step towards the platform edge. He bent over, put his hands on the ground, and quickly lowered himself onto the train tracks. The horror of what was about to happen instantly dawned on everyone on the platform. Screams of “Non!” filled the station. The man disappeared as the train slammed into him. It was over in seconds.

Standing two paces away from the suicide, Fanny saw everything. “I saw him go down,” she said. “I had the reflex to turn away. There was a loud thud. Everybody was screaming.” The train screeched to an emergency halt in the middle of the station. On board, people lurched and toppled forward like a line of dominos from the inertia. “The passengers didn’t know what had happened,” said Fanny. “But they saw the faces of the people on the platform and I think they understood.” The 26-year-old marketing manager had been idly watching the man from behind just moments before he ended his life, and the horror hasn’t left her since. In her mind, she still sees the man on the tracks. He had been standing sideways, frozen in a sort of stride. At the time she’d had the wild and absurd thought that he would never cross the tracks on time. “I remember thinking: what is he doing?” she said. “But there was no doubt about it, he wanted to die.”

After the impact, people had quickly made for the stairs, emptying the platform. “There was someone continuously screaming and sobbing,” said Fanny, who believes it might have been the train conductor, a middle-aged woman. “But she couldn’t have done anything. Nobody could have. It happened so fast.”  The indelible memory of how the tunnel went cold like a crypt that morning still gives her the chills. “It was like a place of death,” she said. “It didn’t feel like a place you go to everyday.” Fanny declined to share her full name, saying her experience could not compare to the grief faced by the man and, by now, his family.

There are 11,000 suicides in France each year, a fraction of the 195,000 people hospitalised following a suicide attempt annually. According to OECD figures, France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe – twice that of the United Kingdom and 40 percent higher than in Germany and the United States. It is the first cause of mortality for French people in their thirties. A further 2,200 people take their lives each year without making the official lists. Many family members jump on the slightest shadow of doubt and would sooner call a death an accident than a suicide – a possible remnant of French Catholicism, which considers voluntary death a sin. The fact that there is no option to list “suicide” as a cause of mortality in French death certificates and no systematic inquiry into the causes of non-natural deaths – unlike in most European countries – further helps to mask these numbers.

Many different reasons can drive a person to suicide, and it is often a challenge to decipher the motives behind such a final, fatal decision. But in France, suicides tend to be more public in nature than anywhere else, lending a particular authority to what voluntary death means. In the most recent context of the euro-crisis and growing disillusionment with the country’s future, the phenomenon of public suicide is being seen as a sort of protest against society’s failing conditions. Above all, it is sparking a painful and contentious debate over France’s oppressive workplace conditions and its consequences.


Last Tuesday, May 22, a 78-year-old man entered the Notre Dame cathedral amidst a throng of tourists, went up to the altar, stuck a shot-gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Dominique Venner was a far-right award-winning historian who had been campaigning hard against the government’s decision to legalise gay marriage, signed into law last weekend by French president François Hollande. “New spectacular and symbolic actions are needed to wake up the sleep walkers and shake the anaesthetised consciousness,” Venner wrote on his blog, just hours before the act.

On May 16, a 50-year-old man with a history of mental health problems forced his way into a nursing school near the Eiffel Tower and shot himself in front of 12 school children aged six and seven. Later, one boy told a French news channel that he had thought the school had been invaded by terrorists.

On February 13, a jobless man burnt himself to death in front of a public job search agency in Nantes. Frustrated after a long period of futile job-hunting, 33-year-old Djamal Chaar wanted his self-immolation to be a public statement about France’s socio-economic malaise. He hasn’t been the only one. At least a dozen men and women have set themselves on fire since 2011 for similar reasons.

The overall suicide rate, while stable, has actually decreased slightly over the last few years. Yet despite this decline, railway suicide is becoming an increasingly common form of these “spectacular and symbolic” deaths. French transport operators are relatively discreet, referring to railway deaths as accidents graves or serious accidents, but it is no secret that suicides on the rails are a disturbingly frequent phenomenon. France’s national railway SNCF sees up to 400 fatal accidents each year, of which a large majority are voluntary deaths – almost double the annual number of suicides on British railways. The phenomenon is on the rise: according to SNCF president Guillaume Pépy, there were 30 percent more railway suicides in 2012 than in the preceding four years. In the Paris métro, which carries the highest volume of traffic in Europe after Moscow, at least one person kills himself in the subway every three days. Paris transport authority RATP says there were 195 such suicides in 2008. By contrast, the New York subway averages about 26 suicides a year.

“There is a collective dimension to this particular type of suicide,” explained Rébecca Hartmann, a psychologist who has been working for France’s national railway for nine years. Although large French firms have in-house doctors, SNCF went a step further in 1997 to create a specialised department dedicated to providing psychological support for staff, as they kept running into suicide attempts. To die by throwing oneself before a train, according to Hartmann, is a cry to the collective. “It’s not at all like a suicide in one’s room,” she said. “It’s not a private affair. The idea is to shout out to the collective about one’s poor wellbeing. The person knows that this will affect hundreds of people who are stopped in their day, so there is a message somewhere to society.”

Indeed, France’s high suicide rate is being widely seen as a sign of the country’s socio-economic malaise. When Hollande called the self-immolation of Djamal Chaar a “personal drama” in March, he was met with scorn. To the French, public suicides are widely understood not as acts of personal drama but as an outcry against an ailing society. It is not difficult to see where this angst is coming from: France is experiencing its highest unemployment rate in 17 years, leading to increased pressure in the workplace. The country’s waning influence in the European Union has led Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to ask if France is “a peripheral country” – a burning point of shame for the French, who have been eyeing Germany’s stable economic growth and burgeoning political clout following the euro-crisis.


Various studies have sought to capture France’s moody disposition during this time. A 2012 European quality of life survey, commissioned by the European Union, found that the French are the least optimistic about the future after Greece, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. A public opinion survey released by Pew Research Centre this month concluded that the French are becoming dispirited faster than anyone else in Europe. A recent study by sociologist Claudia Senik at the Paris School of Economics went even further: her study, titled “The French Unhappiness Puzzle”, suggests that it’s not the crisis, silly – gloominess just happens to be an integral part of French culture. The consensus is overwhelming: something is rotten in the state of France.

It is unsurprising then that in such a context, public suicides are being seen as cries of protest. Sociologists say these are emanating from “the most vulnerable” in society. Typically, suicide is considered an act of desperation for those who are unable to accept or deny their social circumstances. But in France, the public aspect of suicide gives the act a particularly vindictive tone. It is a ghastlier version of the child in tears throwing a fit, whose intuition is: “One day I’ll die and you’ll be sorry.” Each public suicide is – so goes the reasoning – akin to holding a mirror to the face of society. The idea is that this will force society to examine itself for having created the hopeless conditions for such wasted lives. The message is being delivered in collective overtones, and increasingly, it is being heard. In an op-ed for leading newspaper Le Monde, French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg proclaimed that “today…individual suffering is a declaration that has value for acting on a common problem.” But what is the common problem?

For the past three years, Fabienne Leonhart has been working at Suicide Écoute, a 24-hour hotline that receives 22,000 calls a year. Over the telephone, Leonhart’s grandmotherly voice has a calming and non-judgmental tone – an important quality that has played a part in pulling hundreds away from the brink of death. According to the 43-year-old, it is too simplistic to single out a factor as the main cause of suicidal depression. The answers could be a conflation of anything ranging from mental health issues to workplace stress. “Which caused what? It’s impossible to say! It can all be related,” said Leonhart, who has fielded crisis after crisis from callers with obvious mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The conundrum, she says, is whether to read depression as a cause or as a symptom: is something caused by depression or the other way around?

Since the economic crisis, however, Leonhart admits the hotline has been receiving an increasing number of calls from people who have unemployment or work-related issues. “We are in a difficult economic climate,” she said. “There’s no denying that there is an enormous amount of pressure in companies. It is a phenomenon of the crisis.” When asked how she went about convincing these people not to kill themselves, Leonhart swiftly corrected the question. ”It’s not that they want to die,” she said, sounding a bit pained. “They want to stop suffering.”

Involuntary killers

Suicide always leaves behind the indelible aspect of trauma. And in the case of a public suicide, this trauma extends beyond the circle of family and friends to complete strangers. Few experience this as frequently and as intimately as train conductors, who are the first to see the silhouette of a person on the tracks, the last to see him or her alive, and the ones who are directly implicated in the destruction of a life. It is a peculiar and rather grotesque hostage situation. “Although railway suicide is a violent decision,” explained French national railway psychologist Hartmann, “it is also an act of passivity”, since it transfers the act of killing to someone else. In this case, a train conductor and his train unwittingly become the agents of destruction. “The train conductors are thus taken hostage,” writes Éric Fottorino, former editor of Le Monde, in his latest book Suite à un accident grave de voyageur. “Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill. He kills, despite himself.”


“When it happens, there is practically nothing we can do,” said Cédric Gentil, a train conductor who blogs for French newspaper Liberation and author of Mesdames et messieurs, votre attention s’il vous plaît. “By the time you understand what is going on, it’s too late. The distance needed to bring the train to a stop is too long.” The 33-year-old still vividly recalls the woman who had leapt in front of his train a few years ago. Horrified, he had acted instantly. He pulled the emergency brakes, hit a switch that released sand onto the tracks, and cut off the electric current in the rails. These gestures would later be extremely important, not only for the woman, but for Gentil himself.

Then he waited helplessly until the train came to a halt. “When you’re in that situation, the wait is endless,” said the tall, brown-haired man. “I felt as though time was passing in slow-motion.” Once the train finally stopped, he could no longer see the woman from his window. Heart in his shoes, Gentil came out of his cabin and looked in front of his train. He had stopped just 40cm in front of the woman. She was dazed but completely unharmed.

Most of Gentil’s colleagues have not been so fortunate. According to Hartmann, every train conductor experiences on average one railway suicide attempt during his career. Many risk prolonged psychological trauma and some enter depression, often replaying the death in their minds. In 2012, SNCF’s team of psychologists made 50 emergency on-site visits to the scene of the suicide in order to quickly stem the overwhelming sense of shock and guilt. “Even though they know in theory that they couldn’t do anything to prevent it, they go through the ‘what ifs’,” said Hartmann. “It is a feeling of total helplessness, to have been active in the death of someone.”

One of Gentil’s female colleagues struggled from crippling guilt after running into two suicides. “She took a long time to get over the first one,” said Gentil. “She was really traumatised. Then it happened again. It’s like all the work that she’d had gone through to recover, it’s as though it’s for nothing.” For Gentil’s friend, the memory of the man’s face is particularly horrifying. The person killing himself had stood on the tracks and stared directly into her face, as though to “defy her”, until her train rammed into him.

“I’ve asked myself many times why people choose to die this way,” said Gentil. “We talk about it a lot amongst us. I don’t think it’s an innocent act.” Amongst train conductors, there is a flash of anger against railway suicides that appear premeditated. Gentil remembers being confused by the simultaneous relief and rage he felt when he was speaking to the woman who had tried to kill herself. “I was facing her alone, nobody else would have heard me if I had said how I felt to her,” said Gentil, suddenly looking very tired. “But out of respect for the woman, I could never have done it.” Instead, he said to her: “Don’t worry, you’re safe now. Help is coming.”

Gentil has no illusions about how lucky he had been this time. “I don’t ask if it’ll ever happen to me,” he said of the possibility of killing someone who jumps in front of his train. “I ask when. It’s like having the sword of Damocles hanging above my head. I know it’s going to fall on me someday, I just don’t know when or where.”

It is never a clean death. Gentil says it can take firemen at least three hours to recover the grisly remains of a body. “They have to look for pieces of the corpse under the train or in the tunnel where it’s very dark and difficult to see,” he explained. “Sometimes someone will have to move the train a bit backwards in order to remove the body.” Only half of the suicide attempts are successful and survivors are never quite whole again. “A train weighs hundreds of tons,” said Gentil, who drives the RER A, a suburban train with one of the highest volumes in the world at 1.2 million passengers a day. “If people do survive, they are mutilated for life.”


The ramifications of each railway suicide touch thousands. It takes seconds for a suicide to throw a line into complete bedlam, and hours before things go back to normal. Traffic is disrupted for at least three hours, a halt that snowballs into more cancelled trains and delayed schedules. This knock-on disruption is likely the point of such a public death. Yet for the most part, passengers who are not privy to this cinema of horror react either with indifference or simple irritation. “It’s sad but true,” said Gentil. “When most passengers realise there’s been another serious accident, they roll their eyes and go: ‘Pfffff’!” In his book, Fottorino points out the irony of this final failure: “Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras,” he writes. Despite their public act of desperation, “nobody will try to remember them…the ones who try to shake up the very society that rejects its most vulnerable.”

But it’s not entirely true. First-hand witnesses like Fanny are often stirred by what they have seen. The trouble is finding the company they crave. In the virtual world, many witnesses eventually find their way to public transport forum They anonymously share their experiences in comments threads so they can feel less alone in their shock and grief; there is a certain comfort in the familiarity of the reactions of other witnesses. For days after the métro suicide, Wolf hungrily scoured the internet for something, anything, to lace a human feeling around what she had seen. It was on this forum that she found some solace and my request for an interview. Wolf needed to talk about it. It helped her feel better.

A form of protest against the workplace? 

The growing drama of suicides in France is putting the focus on large firms, many of which shed thousands of employees through ‘voluntary’ departures between 2006 and 2008. In 2008, the media spotlight fell on France Télécom for its wave of 30 suicides each year. Although this number is in line with the French national average of suicides and thus not especially high, some of these acts were especially dramatic. One man allegedly stabbed himself – harakiri-style – in the middle of a meeting. A woman leapt from a fifth-floor office window. Another employee jumped off a highway bridge. Similar stories abound from La Poste and Renault. Perhaps because some work-related suicides have been particularly imaginative and perhaps because they are the simplest to identify and control for, they have become a frequent headline in French media. In March, Le Monde dedicated a spread to la souffrance au travail, where a series of articles analysed French suffering in the context of high workplace stress, unemployment, social tensions, and suicides.

Side-by-side, the numbers and commentary are compelling. According to the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (Cese), at least 400 suicides each year are directly related to work dissatisfaction. In a 2008 survey of 1,210 employees, Etienne Wasmer, a labour economist at Sciences Po, found that many experienced work-related disorders (mood 72%, sleep 70%, psychological disorder 52%), anxiety (60%), and abnormal fatigue. According to the OECD, the French incidence of depression was about twice that of Germany’s in the mid-2000s. One governmental study found that French consumption of anti-depressants amounted to 543 billion euros in 2000. At France Télécom, some employees keep anti-depressants on their desks, out in the open.


“For too long, mental suffering at work has been considered as the exclusive result of the personality of the employee,” wrote Michel Debout, a prominent doctor and one of the founders of the National Union for Prevention of Suicide, in one of the articles published by Le Monde. “Managers try to make this a medical problem: they speak of ‘fragile people’ and rarely of ‘people made fragile’.”

Indeed, the French are increasingly outraged at the capitalist ills of large private firms. Last year, former France Télécom CEO Didier Lombard was probed for the firm’s many suicides in 2008, the result of harsh and surreal administration that placed unnecessary pressure on workers in order to get them to voluntarily resign. On May 7, a leaked internal document dated 2006 reveals how Lombard had spearheaded the aggressive shedding of 22,000 workers by 2008. In the document, Lombard declared: “We need to stop being the mother hen…In 2007, I will make these departures happen one way or another, by the window or by the door.”

To explain the particularly violent case of France Télécom and the country’s persistently high levels of workplace dissatisfaction overall, some economists have pointed fingers at France’s rigid labour regulation. According to a 2012 study by Wasmer, high levels of stress are typical in countries with a lot of job protection. Indeed, with its generous employment protection, France has one of the worst levels of workplace stress amongst OECD countries. It is an ironic proposition about the perverse effect of “too much” job security: when labour regulation makes it too difficult and costly to fire employees, managers resort to piling pressure onto workers or neglecting them until they resign. According to Wasmer, firing someone can be as personal and formalised as “filing for a divorce”. The result is varying levels of workplace harassment, known in France by the more profound term harcèlement moral. And with the current economic climate, more employees are willing to suffer workplace harassment than to look for a new job. The price of job security becomes their mental and emotional wellbeing. “Employees initially feel that they are doing this for their family, their children, so they are capable of accepting a lot,” said Jean-Louis Bally, a member of the Observatoire de stress, an independent organisation composed of academics and labour activists and whose main purpose is to monitor and lobby against large firms that create risques psycho-sociaux – occupational stress and suicide risks. “But when it becomes personal, when the management starts to disdain them, they become unhappy,” said the 69-year-old. “They take more sick leave, they fall into depression, and eventually you get suicides.”

The former France Télécom employee has strong views on whether enough prevention is being done in large firms. “It depends how you view prevention,” said the white-haired, bespectacled man contemptuously. “If you view it the way big companies do, then prevention is just about hiring psychologists to help depressed people. But that’s just treating the consequence, not the cause.” In truth, there may be no better way to do it. Most outreach programmes, including the French government’s national strategy for tackling suicides, are also based on identifying and providing psychological support to those at suicidal risk.

Venner, Chaar, and hundreds of other unknown suicide victims appear to grasp intuitively the social implications of self-destruction. Unhappy with their lives and with the societal conditions that made this unhappiness possible, they lashed out at the world by choosing violent and public deaths. It is their final act of vindication, the ultimate protest. In France, voluntary deaths like theirs are laden with social value, intended by the suicidal and interpreted as such by the living. The collective unity of this understanding is perhaps unsurprising, given the country’s particular cultural and intellectual authorities. Although he argued against the act himself, philosopher Albert Camus, whose works are taught in many French high schools, famously declared that suicide was the only serious philosophical question: it represented the rejection of an absurd life in a mute world. France also gave us Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, who in 1897 presented the world’s first monograph on none other than the topic of suicides. In his seminal work, Durkheim stripped away the moral overtones of the church, presenting suicide for the first time as an explicable social phenomenon. Voluntary death is an act of choice, he reasoned, the terms of which are entirely those of this world: it is a rejection of life by those who are poorly integrated in society and morally confused.


But it may be the French Revolution that best explains the sentiment behind France’s public suicides. According to Patrice Higonnet, professor of French history at Harvard University, voluntary death was seen as a libertarian and individualised gesture. Suicide – l’acte le plus libre – was just one more facet of man’s right to be free. During the French Revolution, Jacobins and Montagnards alike saw communitarian value in public self-destruction. Voluntary death would “shame their enemies and serve as a pedagogical example” for their peers. These suicides were, Higonnet explained in a 1989 conference, assertions of martial dignity and political high-ground.

With a background like France’s, suicide turns – perversely – into an index of high civilisation. As in “tell me your suicide rate and I will tell you your cultural sophistication,” explains Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God. Richard Brody, a Francophone film critic at the New Yorker and one of several commentators who criticised Senik’s happiness study, believes so too. A “self-consciously intellectual” society like the French, he wrote in March, may just be less willing to say they are happy. The unfortunate price of this sophistication, of course, may be the country’s high suicide rate.


But for all the grandiose intellectual overtures and thoughtful academic studies surrounding suicide in France, too much scrutiny is still considered taboo. Most studies tiptoe around meaningful details such as linking demographics and causes to modes of suicide. For example, SNCF’s department of psychological support may specialise in railway suicides, but they have yet to compile data on what sort of people throw themselves in front of trains. “It’s a taboo subject,” said Hartmann carefully. “We don’t have any study on the profile – so to speak – of people who kill themselves. Why choose a train over overdose? It is delicate to interpret this. We should avoid hasty interpretations.” The SNCF psychologist is not the only one to use such cautious language; although suicide is a trending point of discussion in France, talk of the phenomenon often takes on a tone of clinical reverence, inevitably creating distance from the subject itself.

It raises a troubling question: is it possible to understand the motives of suicide from a perspective so rationalised and formal that we use language the suicidal does not? Camus himself declared that not naming things properly adds to the misfortune of the world. Perhaps, suggests Fottorino in his book, it is impossible to understand something well without being tempted by it too, thus the reluctance to tread the murky waters of a suicidal mind. The problem is contagion: talking about suicide “can give ideas, like dangling fire before a pyromaniac.” It is amongst the reasons for which French transport operators prefer to call suicides “serious accidents”, explained Gentil. First, “it’s a legal thing.” You can’t call a suicide a suicide unless a formal police investigation concludes as such. Second, “the word suicide is too strong,” he said. “It would make people uncomfortable.”

These euphemisms no longer soften the blow for certain métro users like Fanny. More than ever, the term brings her back to that cold morning when she watched the man disappear under a train. Although she was badly shaken by the incident, she forced herself to go back the next day. “You have to resume your journey, your life, your day,” she said. “I knew I had to face it sometime, so it was better to do it as soon as possible.” Standing where she had last seen the man alive, she gingerly checked the railway tracks for any sign of his suicide from the day before. There wasn’t a trace. Around her, people behaved as though nothing had ever happened. This time, the train docked normally, and people got on and off. Like so many others before this one, the loss of a life had made but a fleeting dent in the clockwork of Paris. But some things will never change for those involuntarily involved in a public suicide. A couple of paces away from Fanny, a woman stood a little too close to the edge of platform. The sight made her go cold.

On the night of May 5th, just as the results of Malaysia’s general election were becoming apparent, signalling yet another five-year rule for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), pleas for foreign intervention started going viral on social media. Petitions to the White House as well as to the United Nations were created on Sunday night, with hundreds of thousands of Malaysians sharing and signing them within hours. Memes such as this one were created, urging Queen Elizabeth to take over Malaysia because “I don’t want it independent this way.” Hundreds switched their profile picture to black, mourning what they called the “death of democracy”.

Opposition Pakatan Rakyat supporters cheer on for candidate Hannah Yeoh, defending her seat in Subang Jaya. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

These have been some of the more extreme reactions amidst the collective despair of Malaysians who had voted for the opposition party and who were highly anticipating the end of BN’s 56-year rule. It was crushing for me personally to hear the results, but simultaneously shocking to see how Malaysians were reacting to them. I stayed glued to my laptop that day, watching my Facebook and Twitter feeds refresh with growing wrath in response to the flickering numbers of the election results.

It is a thick wave of disappointment that is being further fuelled by allegations of electoral fraud and sour, divisive remarks by BN politicians. Bersih, a local NGO that campaigns for electoral reform, is withholding recognition of the election’s results as they claim it was “marred with violations of election laws, code of conduct and endless political violence from the beginning to the end”. In response to BN’s worst election showing in history, its politicians have been blaming ungrateful Chinese voters and the Chinese “tsunami“.

Yet these are not new problems. Highly racialised politics and vote manipulation have been around since the country’s independence. Throughout the 60s and 70s, my parents watched their parents and the rest of the neighbourhood’s first-generation Chinese migrants – who barely spoke any Malay – coerced into buses that would take them into the next village. There, they casted their ballots in a process they did not understand and for parties they did not even recognise. They were told that if they didn’t do so, they would be sent back to China.

Malaysians are reclaiming political agency

“Kami mahu ubah” was a key slogan in this year’s election. It translates as “We want change”. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

The real novelty of this year’s election is the startling level of engagement of Malaysian civil society. Voter turnout was pegged at 80 percent, highest in the country’s history. The scale of anticipation leading up to Sunday and the overwhelming displays of collective disappointment following the results that night are unprecedented. Before 2008, the predominant sentiment was “anyone but BN” and then a resigned shrug at the announcement of BN’s expected victory. When BN first lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 most voters were overwhelmingly surprised, almost in jubilant disbelief at the change they brought with their votes.

Expectations have grown exponentially since then. It suggests that the Malaysian electorate is regaining its agency in a political process that was once frozen by soft authoritarianism – a term used by political scientists to describe a system that “softens” authoritarian rule with selected democratic features. Since the previous election people have become more personally invested in nation-building than ever, aligning themselves to movements that purport to oust a corrupt incumbent government. Former colleagues of mine and previously apolitical friends volunteered to be polling agents and independent observers. Many more participated in the huge Bersih rallies leading up to the election and in yesterday night’s post-election rally to protest the results.

Indeed, the despair and extreme disappointment that many felt on Sunday night was the strongest show of solidarity in the country that I have ever witnessed. To me, the extreme and far-ranging reactions towards BN’s latest victory are evidence of Malaysia’s growth pains at experiencing the first election that has ever felt this “real”. By believing in and anticipating ‘ubah’, the Malay word for change, opposition coalition Pakatan’s defeat felt like the first real loss for an electorate that is not traditionally accustomed to political engagement. This is especially true for those in their early to mid-20s, like myself, who anticipated change with their very first vote.

Xenophobia during the elections

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to "prove" he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to “prove” he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

But the freshness of the experience is creating a feverishness that cuts both ways. The fervent political mobilisation across the board is also causing a paranoid wave of xenophobia and fear-mongering amongst voters. Malaysians urged each other all weekend to bust phantom voters or what many were calling “hantu”, which means ghost in Malay and carries derogatory connotations – all in an effort to counter electoral fraud following allegations that Prime Minister Najib Razak had paid for flights to move tens of thousands of voters into marginal constituencies for Sunday’s election.

Individuals were singled out and harassed based on their appearance, with vigilante “ghost-busters” circulating videos and photographs of them and their identity cards widely online. In one viral video (pictured above), a suspected fraud voter was forced to sing the national anthem in front of a crowd of Chinese voters to “prove” he was Malaysian. He slipped up on one word, causing a man to jump belligerently on the mistake and a whole group of people to roar at him to get lost. He is one of many alleged Bangladeshis, referred to derogatorily as “Banglas” by many Malaysians, who became a victim of discrimination and harassment on Sunday.

In the heat of the moment, the irony of trying to oust incumbent BN with its race-based policies while hunting down Bangladeshis appear to have been lost on many over-enthusiastic voters. Part of the reason was the spread of unverified information and fear-mongering claims through social media and mobile technologies, causing paranoia and fear amongst many voters. These messages fuelled public insecurity and motivated excessively aggressive behaviour towards the ‘other’ – i.e. non-Malaysians.

Lack of reliable information


Indeed, reliable and level-headed information was a rare thing on Sunday. A stampede of alarmist pictures and messages claiming all sorts of things including the arrival of buses of Bangladeshis at various voting stations, suspicious blackouts across the country, and the “magical” appearance of ballot boxes were viralised online as well as through texting and Whatsapp, fanning public rage. Most of this information continues to be unverified and a concrete link to the doctoring of election results has yet to be proven.

Even the numbers of the election results were disputed across different sources throughout the night, creating confusion amongst the electorate. Suspicious of mainstream media, some did not know where else to go to consult live updates of the election results. Facebook user Jason Lim wrote on Sunday: “This election is so freaking confusing and non-transparent. I can’t find impartial information anywhere, even if I were trying to just find the facts. How come the Counting Agents are silent? Why are numbers different depending on the sources I visit?”

A handful of websites such as MalaysiaKini and the Democratic Action Party‘s (DAP) provided live coverage of the results, but these were reportedly too slow and inconsistent. No organisation managed to pick up on and address the tide of rumours spreading online.

Growth pains of moving away from soft authoritarianism

These are growth pains of Malaysia’s slowly maturing civil society. After 56 years of BN’s rule, people are emerging from the trappings of soft authoritarianism to increasingly participate in the political process, whereby people mobilise, express political beliefs, and protest for positive change. From the many comments on social media, it was clear that many still do not fully grasp the concept of democracy as their own, calling it a “first world mentality”, and misunderstanding it as a status that could be earned by a country’s economic and social merit.

In view of the xenophobic and often racist comments flooding online feeds, some claimed despairingly that Malaysia did not “deserve” democracy. In view of what many saw as unfavourable election results, some claimed melodramatically that democracy was “dead”. For outsiders to Malaysian politics who were seeing such exchanges online (like the viral pleas for Queen Elizabeth to reclaim her colony) for the first time, most Malaysians must have appeared desperately passionate and simple.

Yet there is a lot to commend in terms of how far Malaysian civil society has come. The swift outcry and mobilisation in response to the election results is yet another sign of the increasing progressiveness of the electorate. Just five years ago, I could not comment publicly on Malaysian politics without my parents hushing me, saying that I was asking for trouble. This cautiousness has since evaporated. My father was one of the most active Facebook users on Sunday, spreading and sharing any information related to the election (yes, even the rumours).

Democracy is far from dead in Malaysia. In fact, it is more alive than ever. Certainly more is happening on the ground than ever before. Malaysians were hoping for a change in government, but this is ‘ubah’ too. And it is coming from the bottom-up. Can BN, the longest ruling coalition in the world, meet them halfway?

Note: Originally posted here.

It took a month to get back into the rhythm of working on my long-form on suicides in France. Partly because I’ve had a mountain of work at the school of international affairs. Partly because this is a topic I find myself avoiding once I’m out of the correct frame of mind. I’m reminded of what suicide hotline volunteer Fabienne Leonhart said about needing a “solid psychological state”. I certainly didn’t sense it was wise to get into the thick of it while warring through papers and finals, in despair over the long Parisian winter.

April hasn’t been a complete loss, however. I touched base with blogger and train conductor Cédric Gentil (more on my project blog) and on his recommendation, I picked up a new read called Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino, a well-known French journalist and former editor of Le Monde. “It’s about his encounters with suicides on the RER A, which runs just behind his house,” said Gentil, who himself operates the RER A. “I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Here’s my two cents on the book:

Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino

« Suite à un accident grave de voyageur »

By: Éric Fottorino
Collection Blanche, Gallimard
Published : 28-02-2013

At 63 pages, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur is a slim but incredibly dense read. The title takes after the detached and euphemistic announcement issued by French transport authorities when a suicide attempt has occurred on the tracks: “Following the serious accident of a passenger…”. The book begins with Fottorino’s shocking discovery that three suicide attempts occurred on the RER A within a month. The RER A is a subway line linking Paris into the suburbs and carries one the world’s highest volume of passengers at 1.2 million a day. As a resident in the suburbs of Yvelines, Fottorino takes the train to Paris nearly everyday and lives close enough to the station that he can hear the rumble of the tracks and the muffled blare of announcements.

En septembre 2012, à quelques jours de distance, trois personnes se sont jetées sur les voies du RER, derrière chez moi, dans les Yvelines. Un vieillard, une mère de famille, un homme qui n’a pu être identifié. À la violence de leur mort a répondu le silence. Il ne s’est rien passé. Nul n’a désigné la souffrance par son nom. Une voix neutre a seulement résonné dans les haut-parleurs de la gare : “Suite à un accident grave de voyageur…” Nos vies ont pris un peu de retard. À cause de trois détresses qui n’ont jamais existé.

(my amateur translation) In September 2012, within days of each other, three people threw themselves onto the tracks of the RER behind my house in the Yvelines. An old man, a mother, and an unidentified man. In response to the violence of their death was silence. Nothing happened. Nothing called out suffering by its name. Only a neutral voice resonating from the speakers of the train station : “Following the serious accident of a passenger…” Our lives took a brief delay. As a result of three incidents of distress that never existed.

A strong bout of curiosity driven by what I suspect was a mix of good journalistic sense and literary compassion sent him on an investigation into the identities of these suicides, spurring a thoughtful essay on what their deaths and collective indifference towards them are saying about modern French society. It is a deeply localised perspective, and seems less intended for the general franco-français than the Parisian urbanite who is already well-acquainted with metaphors of the subway and the city. It is, to some extent, navel-gazing, and I’m not sure if the publishing equivalent of Gallimard in the anglophone world would have taken on a book like this. A highbrow indie mag like n+1, perhaps.

Yet the introspection is well done. What follows is a poetic, despairing exposition of what Fottorino describes as modern isolation and the unwillingness to acknowledge suffering for what it is. Gentil was one of the people contacted by Fottorino in the research for his book, but the prevailing voice is Fottorino’s. His words have an expressive authority, and with his sober and compassionate tone, the result is a beautiful and pained meditation on society’s reaction towards these suicides.

For example, Fottorino laments the clinical neutrality and austere word-limit devoted to suicides in French newspapers. After all, if a person chooses to end his life publicly, perhaps the least we can do is acknowledge him beyond the number of trains he delayed and the number of hours he threw off schedule?

Inconnus jusqu’au bout, ils sont des etc. Personne n’a cherché à les retenir, à s’en souvenir…certains ont sûrement voulu secouer la société qui rejette les plus vulnérables. Il me semble percevoir autre chose. Ces solitaires nous renvoient à notre solitude. La plus profonde des solitudes. Celle qui naît d’un accord tacite, d’une conspiration du silence…  

(translation) Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras. Nobody tries to retain them, to remember them… They surely wanted to shake up the society that rejects the most vulnerable. But there is something else. These solitary individuals are returning us to our own solitude. The most profound of solitudes. That which is born of a tacit agreement, of a conspiracy of silence…

Fottorino obviously has strong literary ambitions and a lot of muscle to exercise it with. For a non-native French speaker, his writing often strained beyond my grasp. For French readers, I suspect his acrobatics could cut both ways: literary snob and/or compassionate genius. In line with his distaste for the clinical narrative around suicides, Fottorino does away with the usual association between grief and austerity. Instead, the text is rich, almost laboured, with metaphor, turns-of-phrase and many clever literary devices. It is an exhibition of prowess and it hints at a writer’s self-indulgence at the expense – or the benefit – of the sobering quality of the subject.

At the same time, and as Fottorino would probably argue, his treatment is perhaps necessary. In the way that French newspapers have dealt with suicides in the métro, Fottorino has done the opposite. The book is, I imagine, his antidote. It could be read as an apology for the media industry, the disaffectedness of society, and at the same time as a sort of homage to those who are entangled in a person’s final departure. And it is a pretty good one. There are poignant and beautifully constructed passages that capture that grotesque tensing when a suicidal interacts with the living:

Les conducteurs sont alors pris en otage. Leur machine se fait machination. Une personne veut mourir. Une autre ne veut surtout pas tuer. Elle tue pourtant, malgré elle. 

(translation) The conductors are thus taken hostage. Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill him. He kills nonetheless, despite himself.

Fottorino comes back to the big picture in the final pages, concluding with strong sentiments on social suffering, a theme that is increasingly batted around in French media and academia. He takes to task not only modern society’s indifference to suicides, but the institutional inability of investigating the correlation between structural problems and individual despair.

Les mots parlent malgré eux. France et souffrance, France sous-France. Le suicide interroge les fondements de notre condition humaine. Notre société du chiffre triomphant et des records insignificants ne sait pas relier chômage et suicide, précarité et suicide, harcèlement et suicide, perte de l’estime de soi et acte désespéré

(translation) The words speak despite the [silence of society]. France and suffering. France and under-France. Suicide is interrogating the fundaments of the human condition. Our society of the triomphant numbers and insignificant records does not know how to linkunemployment and suicide, precarity and suicide, harassment and suicide, the loss of self-esteem and the act of desperation. 

With its heavy criticism of modern isolation and French society, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur may be less ideal for the suicidal than for the living. I’m not sure what sort of comfort can be taken from the book for someone in the dark woods, except for the fact that it is beautifully written and a worthy attempt at returning some dignity to lost and lonely lives. Ultimately, it doesn’t get into the frame of understanding the suicidal as much as Al Alvarez’s The Savage God does, but it offers a satisfying philosophical and literary exploration into the archness of modern society.

So it doesn’t go into the suburbs of depression, it stays with the journey of the living: train conductors, the people on board, the people who miss their trains, the ones who bitch about that brief delay in their lives, the ones who mourn that permanent loss of a stranger’s life. And perhaps it is what is needed to break the silence.

About two months ago, G volunteered me for an illustration project. A writer in her Facebook group was looking for someone who could illustrate, and G sent her a link to my blog. I’d never done a collaboration before, what more an illustrated story, but I decided to go for it. I wrote to the writer, told her I’d never done a comic before but that I’d love to try. I saw on the forum that someone had volunteered their friend for her project too. I never knew if they were in touch, but I ended up with the project – a four-page graphic memoir.

"I was afraid that she'd forgotten me forever."

“I was afraid that she’d forgotten me forever.”

So this week I finally finished Grand Mal, a sad and surreal account by Jane Hawley seeing her mother fall into an epileptic fit for the first time. The story is intended for Memoir Journal, a literary journal that promotes the art of memoir: that sacred act of remembering and re-telling.

This project meant a great deal of things to me. It was my first ever attempt at telling a story in an illustrative/graphic novel form, one of my favourite genres. More than that, it was the first time I was telling a true story in comic form. If J-school has done anything for me, it has been that training in journalism for two years opened me up to the art of non-fiction – a genre I’d always thought flat and un-literary before. But many books (Behind the Beautiful Forevers, A Beautiful Mind) and graphic memoirs (Maus, Persepolis, L’Ascension du Haut Mal) and one comic journalist (Joe Sacco) later, I’m recognising that quick and painful thrill in the heart. I’ve fallen in love with non-fiction.

I’m graduating in a few weeks and that heady time of self-questioning is now. Working on Grand Mal has helped pull together the threads of all these past years’ self-searching, and it feels great. Many, many thanks to G and to Jane for all their kind words of encouragement. More updates on when the complete graphic memoir will be out shortly.

"I wonder what she can see"

“I wonder what she can see”

[Update, 2 November 2013] Grand Mal is now out in Memoir Journal’s latest Invisible Memoirs anthology. Jane even got a personal note from the editor saying all sorts of nice things about it, encouraging us to expand it into a novel-length piece. If that intrigues you at all, get your copy of the anthology today!