Write What You Know: Punk Culture and Vicious is My Middle Name (Guest Post by Kevin Dunn)
When my youngest child was 12 years-old, they were a voracious reader, but rarely saw themselves in the books they were reading. When they came across a character that had similar interests, they would excitedly tell me all about the character and the book. It happened so rarely, that I decided to write a MG novel that my child could relate to. The result is Vicious is My Middle Name.
In that novel, the protagonist, Sydney Vicious Talcott, is named after the bass player of the Sex Pistols by her punk-loving father. My own child is named Strummer, after the lead singer of The Clash. Sydney is a 13-year-old girl who is transplanted from Rochester, NY to the fictional town of Beaver Dam in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Because my children are forced to follow their parents’ work schedule, they split their time between western NY and western NC and have had to spend several academic semesters abroad. So dealing with transitions and navigating new social dynamics is something very familiar to them. But more than that sense of dislocation, Strummer and Sydney share a strong affinity to punk rock music and culture.
Interestingly, after the novel was going into production, Strummer expanded their identity beyond being a young feminist punk to rejecting the gender binaries dominant in society. Their pronouns changed and they now regard themselves as non-binary. If I were to write Vicious is My Middle Name now, these issues would undoubtedly be incorporated into the storyline.
Granted, my kids have absorbed a great deal of their interest in music and punk from me. I’ve been an active part of punk communities since the 1980s. After all these years, I still play in various bands, run a small record label, write and publish zines, and organize shows. Strummer has been surrounded by the independent, do-it-yourself punk ethos all of their life. So imbuing Sydney with many of those characteristics and interests was a way of creating a character that Strummer could relate to.
I am not just a practitioner of punk’s DIY ethos, but also an academic who regularly writes on punk culture. In 2016, I published the book Global Punk: Rebellion and Resistance in Everyday Life (Bloomsbury) in which I explore the ways punk has empowered individuals and communities around the world over the past several decades. When it came time to write Vicious is My Middle Name, I didn’t want to simply make Sydney someone who listened to punk music. I wanted her to embody the ways in which punk culture can lead to self-empowerment and political engagement. So, in the novel, Sydney’s affinity to punk makes her an outcast and misfit in her school (yet finding common cause with other outcasts and misfits), but it also provides her the tools to fight against an environmentally threatening corporation and their political allies.
For me, Vicious is My Middle Name is a clear example of the old truism “write what you know.” The novel was heavily informed by own engagement and scholarship with punk over the past four decades. It also reflects my understanding, love and appreciation of Appalachia, not just the mountains, but the communities and cultures of the region. There are characters and events in the novel that are drawn from real-life people and events.
Sydney develops a pen-pal relationship with the lead singer of her favorite band just as the real-life singer of the band Jabber became pen-pals with my kids, becoming a feminist punk inspiration as a result. Sydney befriends a young black Appalachian resident, whose background is rooted in the real-life community of the historic African American community of Junaluska in Western North Carolina. This was one of the many moves in the novel to reflect and celebrate the demographic diversity and rich cultural legacy of Appalachia.
Significantly, Sydney’s fight against a proposed asphalt plant mirrors a similar fight my in-laws have been engaging with in their own little corner of the Appalachian Mountains. My in-laws, just like Sydney, became reluctant environmental activists after realizing that no one is going to do that work for them; they have to do it themselves. For Sydney, it is the do-it-yourself ethos of punk that animates the shape her activism takes. But I wanted to reference the grassroots struggles taking place every day because protecting Appalachia – from mountain top removal, pipelines, clear cutting and even asphalt plants – is done by (extra-) ordinary Appalachians every day.
I drew on these real-life situations when writing Vicious is My Middle Name, in part to give the novel an air of authenticity, at least to me. As a musician, I don’t worry about authenticity, and I never think about the audience when I am writing a new song. But when writing Vicious is My Middle Name, I wasn’t just writing “what I knew,” but also what I thought my intended audience – an audience initially of one – would want to read.
Kevin C. Dunn is a Professor at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. He is author and editor of almost a dozen academic books on topics ranging from African politics, international relations, and global punk culture. He is also a novelist, a musician, and a documentary film-maker. He’s a community activist and cultural producer. Ultimately, he is a lifelong contributor and defender of DIY punk culture. He can be reached at DUNN at HWS dot EDU.