by Ewa Giera
Content warning: xenophobia, discrimination
The Day of the Duck, by Helen Stratford and Lawrence Bradby, takes form of neither a scripted play, nor a novel: intertwined with visual diagrams, elements of script and a simple, character-driven narrative, the book is a unique experience as opposed to a traditional novel. The story revolves around a Muscovy duck, the last of its species in a town heavily based on Ely in Cambridgeshire, whose goal is to discover why its brethren have all disappeared. The book is framed as a noir detective-style plot – the Muscovy duck takes on the role of the detective and asks all the uncomfortable questions to people whose names it’s not concerned with, which serves the aim of having the characters translate as everymen.
The characters in the book are simple, there to serve an ideological function rather than existing as rounded characters on their own. As the book advertises itself as exploring how British life deals with the idea of ‘those perceived as different or un-deserving or non-English’, its aim is to explore and present a political view, therefore the characters are more or less just a mechanism to get this point across. As a result, the local, British people, most of them arguably working class, grow noticeably more cartoonish and one-dimensional as the plot advances. The dialects and modes of speech directly influence this point: local council and business owners talk almost exclusively in incomprehensible business talk, they’re self-centered and isolationist. The workmen, older people and other characters speak in distinct local dialects which initially sound genuine and lifelike, but there is never a change in character – the characters are not self-aware. I assume here that the book is not aimed at Leave voters – since it doesn’t address or sympathise why these people voted the way they did. Alienating them with a two dimensional caricature of themselves doesn’t offer anything that’s not already being said – their concerns about immigration are not actually being addressed. They’re being mocked.
I assume here that the book is not aimed at Leave voters – since it doesn’t address or sympathise why these people voted the way they did.
Then we have the character of the Muscovy duck. I do have to admit, that in the same way that some of the human characters are really brought to life through realistic dialogue and dialects at the beginning, the duck is purposefully doing the exact opposite, through formal, distinguished use of English. This is intended here to emphasise the narrative of otherness, through stating that they [migrants] don’t speak like us, they aren’t like us. It is executed very well, and every now and again the Muscovy duck’s dialogue spills almost into poetry to a beautiful effect. I do think this is one of the clearest strengths of the book and the emphasis and lonely plea of someone completely shunned out of the community really drives this effect home.
Although I appreciate the introduction of Donna Haraway’s work into the political element of the book, the duck metaphor as a whole works only to some extent. Some elements of the dialogue draw many similarities between how ducks and migrants are treated – this is especially seen through lines such as “I have three dogs, for heaven’s sake. I’m an animal lover”. There are moments of brilliance like this scattered throughout the script, and they shine once stumbled upon. However, the metaphor has some shortcomings that impact the experience of the book as a whole. Throughout the book, various human characters speak about Eastern European migration in addition to the duck metaphor – something that I personally found myself at a loss with. Additionally, the Eastern European migrants almost never speak themselves throughout the book, our only information comes from British characters who openly express xenophobic views. The effect of this is that the duck metaphor, whilst handled relatively well, becomes confusing. Why do we have both? Through deliberately picking the duck storyline over the existing migrants who are never given a voice, it seems like the actual migration is being sidestepped in order to make it easier to detach from as the reader. This removes the aspect of holding the reader accountable for whatever behaviour they might have exhibited throughout the referendum campaigns – the criticism of the Leave voters is not constructive.
The otherness of the duck, although fully embraced and meant to be sympathised with, after a while begins to feel really alienating. Whilst I’m aware that this is intended- migrants often feel isolated within their communities and from the general British public – the animalisation of the migrant begins to feel insensitive and hurtful. From a migrant perspective, seeing oneself as a duck in a society full of humans does nothing to empower them, or help change the perspective that Leave voters in the countryside might have about the minorities settled in the country. This, combined with the unfolding of the plot all the way to the end makes the narrative extremely depressing.
The Day of the Duck also addresses how the conventions of public space in Britain are always changing. This is an exciting concept, especially as minorities are always depicted in current media with much hesitation: depictions of Eastern Europeans in British media in anything other than negative news can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The duck metaphor here is used to its biggest advantage, as the ducks’ environment keeps shrinking through a business process not dissimilar to the way gentrification takes place in deprived areas. The ducks are seen as nothing more than a hindrance, something that makes mess the humans take upon themselves to cull from the community. Commercial initiatives that are meant to make the town more appealing to potential visitors are put in place of the natural habitat by the riverside. The conflict between the two opposing forces, the council and the Muscovy duck, is something that can be easily felt in our everyday lives, whether it’s through the gentrification of naturally migrant communities, or the policies and initiatives that Norwich City Council among others have put across in order to deter the homeless from the city centre.
The break between walls of small letters is also a really welcoming addition, allowing to drive every scene home and emphasise the effect of microaggressions that migrants face almost every day.
I think that the best executed part of the book were the plates included between every scene. Ranging from signs forbidding to cohabit with ducks, through statistical data, to scientific diagrams illustrating why ducks ruin everything, they work really well alongside the narrative of the scripted scenes. The break between walls of small letters is also a really welcoming addition, allowing to drive every scene home and emphasise the effect of microaggressions that migrants face almost every day.
The Day of the Duck is a book that is clearly not set in a vacuum. As Brexit-related literature and poetry begins to emerge in the run up to March 2019, the book has a clear political agenda, and the exploration of otherness and drawing attention to xenophobia in the face of the current political climate is useful and important. However, the target audience is crucial to how the book will be perceived. In this case, it’s a great effort, but it seems to be targeted mainly at the British Remain scene, or the general arts scene in Britain, as opposed to the general public it’s writing about. This is not a book created for the Leave voter, it’s not a book created for the migrant. It doesn’t spark a change in attitude, and instead it seems to trivialise the issues Leave voters did have about migration instead of actually challenging and addressing them, which means that if a Leave voter read the book, they would be more offended by their own portrayal than feel sympathy for the Muscovy duck.
All images via Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory
The Norwich Radical is non-profit and run by volunteers. All funds raised help cover the maintenance costs of our website, as well as contributing towards future projects and events. Please consider making a small contribution to fund a better media future.