By James Cooper (with Catch Tilly)
Catch Tilly describes her latest novel, Otherwise Known as Pig, as “a violent, profane and confrontational book about schoolyard bullying”. In its gritty portrayal of the cruelty that plays out every day in schoolyards across the country, the book is as critical of adults and institutions willing to turn a blind eye as it is of the misguided perpetrators. It’s also a compelling read.
Tempered by a bleak but genuine strain of humour, Otherwise Known as Pig has proved a hit with young and not-so-young adult readers alike, with reviewers describing it variously as “raw and unflinching”, “painful but gripping” and “essential reading” for parents and teachers.
For me, what’s most interesting are the clear Christian images and motifs that surface throughout the book. In some respects, this isn’t surprising, given Tilly’s own profession of faith. However, as a teacher of writing at a Christian tertiary college, I know many who would question her frank portrayal of teen cruelty – supposing instead that writers of faith ought to focus squarely on commending more wholesome patterns of behaviour, or overtly theological solutions to life’s problems. It’s a vexed issue, if and how Christian writers should approach the difficult task of “writing wrongs”, and I don’t intend to propose a final answer here. The success of Tilly’s novel, however, signals the possibility of writing stories in which perennial Christian truths ring true – truths, furthermore, that a mainstream market seems currently willing to entertain.
Right from the opening scene, Tilly sets the reader on edge with this confronting depiction of schoolyard bullying:
They’re laughing now. Some are even applauding and calling out suggestions. It’s like a football match. Except that I can’t play sport and Stormin doesn’t like suggestions. He’s just standing there: over six feet tall, with his fists re-clenching on the end of gorilla arms.
Come on, Stormin, hit him.’
Smack. It’s a single punch and Alex, the kid who’s spoken, is down. Stormin’s clearly pissed and what I should do is keep my already bloodied mouth shut and just back off like everyone else.
‘What’s wrong, Stormin? Don’t you like team games?’ I say instead.
‘Nah, I don’t.’ Then he hits me again. It’s a different shock this time because he gut punches me and I lose breath in a sickening thud before his fist connects with my eye and stars explode.
It’s about now he starts to smile. At about the third or fourth punch, when I’m down and cringing and wishing I could take his stupid face apart and knowing I can’t.
I hate that smile.
‘Still a loser, Pig,’ he says. ‘Guess you haven’t learnt much over the summer.’
‘I don’t know,’ I reply, bloody, bowed and hating his guts. ‘I can read.’
Which is when he kicks me. I really should learn to keep my stupid mouth shut.
Seeing Stormin thoroughly occupied, the rest of Year 9 drift back, although they do wait till he’s left before resuming their commentary.
That’s me: Morgan Patrick Lohdi – otherwise known as Pig.
If we limit what we mean by “Christian fiction” to books written for the niche market of the same name (known for their dutifully censored and inevitably wholesome storylines, and written chiefly for readers largely committed to the basic contours of a Christian outlook), then it’s easy to see why Tilly’s Pig might be labelled “untypically” Christian, or not Christian at all. However, in terms of its underlying spirituality of suffering and the conversion of character experienced by the main protagonist, Morgan Lohdi, the novel might well be described as quintessentially Christian – and unflinchingly so. Add to that the fact that the book has been published by a mainstream publisher and marketed successfully to a general audience, and it seems to me there’s an important lesson for aspiring Christian novelists to be found in Tilly’s approach to storytelling.
Throughout the book we see Morgan trying in vain either to avoid or to stand up to his arch nemesis Stormin. He tries fighting back, both verbally and physically – he even takes boxing lessons. Yet it seems every tactic is doomed to fail. Even Morgan’s acid wit (while keeping him sane and the reader on-side) lands him in trouble time and again. When he mocks Stormin for being unable to read, he gets kicked in the ribs. When he taunts Stormin with the fact that his brother’s in prison, he gets his shoulder broken. And with each grizzly episode we see and feel Morgan’s hatred deepen. Indeed, so far as Morgan can tell, hatred is his only weapon, his only refuge, and his only source of hope in his daily fight against Stormin’s mindless cruelty.
For five years Morgan uses the hatred he feels to try and get through the day, and for a while it gets him by. But when he starts to realise that anger and hatred are not enough, something has to give.
The pivotal point in the story comes when Morgan draws courage and inspiration from a book about Christian martyrs. Only when Morgan manages to let go of hatred (hatred towards Stormin and — just as important — towards himself) does he find the strength to face his enemy in a more meaningful way. This is a fascinating and refreshingly counter-cultural twist, one that sets Tilly’s Pig apart from your average protagonist. Tilly herself admits to being surprised by this turn of events, explaining how Morgan discovered for himself a way out of the wilderness. As she puts it:
“It all started when I was writing two plays. A church piece about Vanya Moiseyev, who was martyred for his faith in 1974; and a play about bullying for a high-school workshop. I’d never intended for the two projects to cross over, but while the play was still only a collection of ideas, Morgan happened to pick up a copy of Jesus Freaks and read it, cover to cover.”
When I ask her if that means Morgan is a real person, Tilly answers:
“Not as the world reads it, no. It’s just that when I’m developing a character, I will take on their identity sometimes and do things as them. I will walk around the block seeing the street through their eyes, go into McDonalds and pick out a drink (Morgan likes coke, I don’t), listen to music, watch TV and, of course, read books. Normally it will just be a page or two, but as soon as we started to read Jesus Freaks Morgan was hooked. And I was fascinated by his response.”
It’s not uncommon for characters to take on a life of their own and to start to shape their own stories.
In Morgan’s case, what’s fascinating is the way a book about Christian martyrs should speak clearly into his situation despite his not being a Christian character. Tilly finds this fascinating too, musing:
“Morgan’s got no religious background. He misses half the point of the book, but the stories about martyrs resonate with him. As he would say later in the book, the people in these stories couldn’t fight any more than me and yet they managed to win. I know I don’t have their courage—but I can pretend I do. Once that happened, I had to put it in.”
Morgan’s awakening to an alternative outlook is gradual, and only partial – there’s no soapy-clean resolution to the story. And whatever fundamental difference Morgan’s encounter with the martyrs of old stands to make is left unexplored. Nevertheless, the vision and example of those who suffered and died for their faith – a faith which extols us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us – clearly makes a difference for Morgan, as this pivotal scene illustrates [spoiler alert!]:
Another punch drops me to my knees. ‘Come on, Pig, lie down and take it.’
‘No.’ The word shocks me because I thought I was too scared to speak. Pull myself up. ‘I won’t lie down.’
‘But that’s what martyrs do.’
‘No, they don’t.’ I’m hanging between courage and fear with a mental balance as shaky as my feet. ‘Martyrs aren’t losers.’
He kicks me, and I drop to my knees. ‘But you’re a loser, Pig. And you’re the snivelling martyr.’
‘Not yet.’ My breath saws through my chest as I try to stand. ‘I’m not a martyr yet.’
He punches me, and I go down again. ‘You gotta act like a martyr, Pig. It’s the story.’
‘Yeah, I do.’ I close my eyes and drag up the last of my hope. Let it pull me to my feet. ‘But martyrs never lie down and take it, Stormin, they just turn the other cheek.’ I lift my face to the angry violence in his expression and turn my head.
Christ, that hurt. I meet his eyes again. Stormin who likes drama and can’t read. That must suck.
There’s pain and a flash of stars across my vision but I’m not afraid. I can’t remember not being afraid. The lack of fear lodges under my chest as firmly as the terror did. I think I’m smiling when I meet his eyes again.
He’s hitting my ribs again and I’m still not afraid. I don’t even know if that’s why the pain seems bearable, as if he’s punching me through water.
‘Martyrs never give up.’ I tell him again. ‘They just turn the other cheek.’
He raises his fists and I meet his glare with a crazy grin that doesn’t need to hate him because for the first time in forever I can face his rage.
‘This story sucks,’ he pushes me back into the wall. ‘I’m doing something else.’
‘Turning the other cheek’ is not put forward by Tilly as a pat solution to the problem of bullying, nor as a sufficient way to deal with its underlying causes. But it is portrayed as a distinctively Christian alternative to fighting fire with fire, of defusing the cycle of violence by recognising the underlying (albeit fractured) humanity of the perpetrator, and the fact that violence only begets more violence. Indeed, Tilly also explores this important spiritual and psychological truth in some detail throughout the book.
Otherwise Known as Pig is, as Tilly admits, a profane, violent book about bullying. In that sense, it’s a book that breaks many of the rules of “Christian publishing” even as it pivots around a scene in which a fourteen-year-old boy finds hope in the holy suffering of Christian martyrs. Most remarkably, it’s a book that has been widely read and critically acclaimed in the mainstream market – a fact that signals a real opportunity and a compelling challenge for every Christian fiction writer. How did all that come about? Tilly reflects:
“First my workshop on bullying and then my novel contained that pivotal scene of martyrdom. Not as a theological statement but as a heartfelt response to stories of forgiveness, courage and love. And I think that’s why I haven’t had any negative feedback about it. Writers are often given the advice to write from the heart and that’s good advice. But to write from your character’s heart, well that’s gold. Morgan wrote his own story, allowing God’s strength and love to shape his response to helplessness and suffering.”
James Cooper is Senior Editor at inScribe and also coordinates the Creative Writing and Communication program at Tabor College, Adelaide.
Otherwise Known as Pig was written by Catch Tilly as part of her Master of Creative Writing at Tabor Adelaide. It was published in 2019 by Wakefield Press and is available for sale online and at most local bookstores.
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