Making Art out of Life - Jenni Fagan on Making the Panopticon


18 Oct 2019

News Story

Working on The Panopticon is not something anyone can do lightly. Yet there is a lot of humour, hope, courage, light and beauty in there. There are many reasons for that but most importantly, I survived the unsurvivable in my childhood because those are the halos I looked for. I actively sought them out. I created them in my own mind when they were absent. I disappeared into books, or music, or art, or rainbows. I watched fashion shows when I had to wear ugly ill-fitting clothes, I bought vintage couture magazines, I imagined not being owned by people who were not good for me. I stared at a flower in a field for a long time, quite high, admiring the sky behind it. I made a point of studying clouds, stars, moons. I dug my heels in. I stood up. I laced up my boots. I walked into 36 different placements with strangers before the age of sixteen. I walked out of all those placements again too. I had four legal names. I lived in every single area of the care system. I was a runaway from the age of twelve. I saw every kind of thing that can happen, and I went through most of them. I always knew the horrors of the world. I carried them in me.

What is it we choose when we react or respond to factors completely out of our control? I had strangers telling me who I was for as long back as I can remember. My sense of identity as a kid was so fragmented. I still got up. I put on a top I thought made me look like a girl from the 1960s. I saved up for a catsuit. I wrote poetry daily from the age of seven for no other reason than I had to and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t. I hated to see anyone bullied. I would only get into a fight if it was in defence of someone else. I was too sensitive by far but I was also pissed off. I did not see why I should have to accept what was expected from me as a child who had always been in the care system. I still don’t. If I have any agency or legacy at all it is to say that you don’t have to constantly be defined by where you come from. You don’t have to spend your entire life only consumed with a system that nearly killed you, repeatedly — and in my case, has left after effects that will be with me until I die.

The performer is leaning against a gargoyle sculpture, wearing a cast on her right arm.

The Panopticon cannot be worked on lightly because it goes soul deep into the places where humans are told they shouldn’t go. While there are unbearable realities there are also hugely inspiring characters, so many of them, with hearts that beat. They too get up, put on their sneakers, face another day. I have found it hard to work on The Panopticon each time I do it. The novel floored me to write. When it first came out I was asked horrible questions by journalists all the time. How does “someone like me …” put a sentence together let alone stand up and look the world in the eye. I am a human being who was always seeking autonomy. I chose to raise myself that way. I did so within a system that told me I would not survive, that I would go to prison, or die young. In an environment where abuse was rife. Where men were actively trying to break girls or boys to put them into the sex trade. A place so complex that drugs, alcohol, violence, offending, destruction of property or self-harming — became a vital part of many wonderful kids lives. Why? What are you meant to do when everyone has a reason to mistrust you — just because of where you are raised? Everywhere you go it is as an other. A thing, a label, a demographic — who you are as an individual is not only often unseen it is impossible for many people to see it at all. Some people have positive experiences of care and I am always relieved to hear of them but I did eighteen years in the system and it is not how it was for me. I meet many others in prison or other tough circumstances who full well know the same side of the care system as I do.

As a child in care I was always a topic of conversation. My case was extreme even by care standards. Kids at school took bets on whether I’d make it to sixteen. The children’s court said I was a considerable danger both to myself and all of society. I was expected to be locked up permanently. I have lost everything a million times but I never expected to have it in the first place so I learnt to travel very lightly. I never met anyone I was related to at any point in my upbringing. I didn’t even see a photograph of anyone related to me. The experiment may as well have made me. I went through so many things in silence. I did so repeatedly. I got up. I went out. I watched the world. I wanted to create literature, great art — uncompromising, magical, beautiful, deadly, clever, challenging characters who respond to the machine and they expose it for exactly what it is.

Three women on a tropical-looking set, one stands inside a rubber dinghy
The cast of The Panopticon is standing in a line, some are wearing inflatable jackets

When society dehumanises individuals we are all on the route to a horrifically dangerous world. Humans are capable of so much more than we are currently seeing in society right now. I left the care system, then homeless accommodation. I kept writing poetry, words, songs, art. I sought beauty in the absolute worst moments of my life. It did not make them any less difficult. I dug my heels in. I kept lacing my boots up. I have rarely spoke candidly about my life but in the current political climate there could be a complicity in my silence. So I am speaking out more. I have no one fixed thing to say. The Panopticon is a personal journey for everyone who passes through it. A vast view reminds of the sound of fields of hay in it, a crescent moon tugged out the sky, a flying cat creates a breeze as it heads for Paris. All the artists I adore work with reality. They challenge the immediate assumptions and limitations of what we are told — makes us helpless. It is what it is. I am still tying on my boots. Making a coffee, creating beauty where a second ago there was nothing, looking quite clearly at the systems we are all raised in. Refusing to look away. I think right now it is vital — that we all choose to do so.

A version of this article can also be read in The Guardian.

'I'm just a girl with a sharks heart' is written on the wall, a woman sits in the bath smoking and bearing her middle finger


Jenni’s debut novel, The Panopticon, received worldwide critical acclaim. It has been published in nine languages and is being adapted for film, for which she has written the screenplay.

In 2013, Jenni was the only Scottish writer to be on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list, a once-in-a-decade accolade. She is a prize-winning poet and has twice been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and has been on lists for The Sunday Times Short Story Award, The Dublin Impac Prize,The James Tait Black Prize, The Desmond Elliott Prize, The Encore Award, The BBC International Short Story Prize, and was named as one of the Waterstones 11 best worldwide debuts in 2012.

Jenni has written for The New York Times, The Independent and Marie Claire among others as well as collaborations with many charities and groups including Norfolk Blind Association, Scottish PEN, Amnesty, Lewisham Hospital neonatal unit, young offenders, women in prison in the UK and the US, and with women at risk. Jenni is a member of Liberty, an organisation which has fought for human rights since 1934.

Jenni has been Writer in Residence at The University of Edinburgh and her second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, was published in 2015 in the UK, US, France, Italy, and Czech. The Sunday Herald Culture Awards selected Jenni as the Scottish Author Of The Year in 2016. The Dead Queen of Bohemia (New & Collected poems) was published in 2016. Jenni’s most recent poetry collection There’s A Witch in the Word Machine was published in 2018.