Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Watsonworks Blog 17


November 2010


Part 2 of a piece based on an article published in The Best of Books for Keeps (Bodley Head, ed. Chris Powling) on writing fiction for Young Adults. Blog 16 focused on why a sense of history is well worth encouraging in young readers; but understanding only comes when it is linked with politics.

Whoever believes that that history does not repeat itself is absolutely right if he or she sticks to the pedantry of detail. Hitler was unique; Franco was unique; the bombing of Guernica was unique, and President Pinochet of Chile was unique.

Tyranny, however, is not unique; nor are poverty, racism, sexism or exploitation. That much we can learn from history, though the root causes of such phenomena are admittedly less the task of the novelist to explain than that of philosophers, historians, sociologists and political scientists.

In tandem
If history is to be effectively learnt and taught it needs to be examined within political frameworks, very specifically the exercise of power. My own take on this, bearing in mind that stories only kick in when disequilibrium occurs (something dramatic happens), is to focus on the abuse of power.

The Freedom Tree follows certain events during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the action, which climaxes during the bombing by German war planes of the Basque market town of Guernica in 1936, the young actors both struggle to survive and search for answers to the questions how and why horrors such as these come about.

The reader sees history through the subjective experience of the characters and along with them shares that experience and, hopefully, asks the same questions why. In Talking in Whispers a story following the seizure of power by the generals in Chile, the event that sets the hares running for Andres is when his father, a nationally popular folk singer, is arrested and imprisoned, along with thousands of others, in the Santiago football stadium.

Response to crisis
Our interest is in how Andres and his new friends, the twins, Isa and Beto, react to the predicament they finds himself in; and here we are addressing wider questions – what can be done in the teeth of oppression, especially what can be done by young people caught in the eye of the storm?

I’m intrigued by the staying power that I believe young people are capable of in crisis, a staying power driven by certain fundamental values; in short a commitment to justice, what is fair, what is a human right. In Whispers 16-year old Andres falls into the hands of torturers. Partly through his courage, party through fortuitous circumstance, the torturers fail to extract the information they require from him about his father and his father’s friends. Most importantly, they fail to destroy his spirit.

One of the interrogators, the Hog, flings off all control:

He seized Andres. He roared not as the hog, not as the hyena but as the bull. He seized Andres as if suddenly he were all prisoners, as if he represented every wrong answer, every defiant spirit, every act of simple courage, every refusal to betray a loved one, every resistance to tyranny. He beat him. He dragged him. And yet it was his own cries which were loudest, his own wailing: his boundless despair.

That is arguably the testament of humanity’s faith in the triumph of good over evil. Yet it might be asked – for the young reader? If it were a universally observed right that children were protected from the realities of the adult world, privileged to escape the hardships suffered by their parents, then caution about putting too much ‘realism’ into stories for the young might be justifiable.

Sympathetic sharing
Children, though, are and always have been among history’s victims. Those of El Salvador, Eritrea, Brazil, Indonesia, Haiti or the Congo know that well enough. Our own children have generally been more fortunate: all the more reason for them, I believe, to at least know the plight of their peers; to sympathise, to empathise, eventually to understand the connection between the happiness of some and the misery of others; to feel a sense of solidarity – if that is not too emotively political a term – with others.

It is that which makes The Freedom Tree, Talking in Whispers, No Surrender, Ticket to Prague, Justice of the Dagger and Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa political. They are about uniqueness but they are concerned with universals: of justice and commonality. There is the danger of young people being swamped by the seemingly universal obsession with celebrity while education has constantly been at risk of being defined as job preparation, an instrumental activity, a galaxy of mission objectives, targets and league tables, bounded by the ever-presence of financial justification and regulation: does it pay; is it value for money?

No hiding place
The context in which we live, write and read is dominated by paradoxes – we are a rich nation, but ‘we’ are prepared to throw people out of work, deny young people the promise of a free education; and every day we hear how ‘our boys’, as the Sun has always likes to describe British armed forces, are doing such a noble job in Afghanistan, while simultaneously we are hearing (thanks to Wikileaks) about coalition troops handing over suspects to the notorious Iraqi Wolf Brigade.

Read further and we encounter official and British military instructions on approaches to interrogation which, with no exercise of imagination, amount to guidelines for torture. As for Britain’s part in Rendition, the full facts will come out sooner or later.

What are young people to make of all this? Surely not to write politically at such times is, on the part of the storyteller, something of a dereliction of duty? I think it is more important now than even in the past, because we have experienced a generation of near silence on the part of young people, crippled as they are by obsessions with measurement, diminishing work prospects and future landscapes overshadowed by debt.

‘Liberal’ claptrap?
In a companion piece to my article in The Best of Books for Keeps, Jan Needle takes the view that too many English novels for young readers are political; this I take it to mean in the sense that they reflect socio-cultural situations which are the product of centuries of political ‘management’ (or class cultivation). True, and he is also right in suggesting that ‘liberals’ are preaching to would-be liberals in secure ‘liberal’ contexts. That’s cosy, not convincingly real and scarcely to be commended.

I would guess, however, that Jan would not baulk at stories exploring the nature of justice, not only in our own, but other societies and also in other times. This I confess, though I hope it will not be held against me: my heroes and heroines (sorry for the stereotypical language, but would ‘protagonists’ be any better?) are generally articulate, thoughtful, serious and curious about where they find themselves in the world.

Words, dammit
That, I hope, does not make the stories unduly earnest, preachy or didactic, but it does acknowledge and affirm the critical role of language, its power of words to clarify, mystify, inspire, deceive, mislead, prompt hope and aspiration, nurture prejudice, hatred and bigotry; words that constitute the channel through which meaning is explored.

Much of the language of narrative finds expression in action, events, dramatic situations, conflicts, decision-making, but all the while it is what we say and how we say it, and what we don’t say, which does the defining. Too often, if not always, those who wield power in society are also the key operators of language, defining situation and meaning, selecting and deselecting according to vested interest.

Thus in George Orwell’s 1984, the meaning of ‘freedom’ is narrowed down to denote being free of fleas. That’s politics. In the stories I’ve been talking about, the purpose has in part been to recognise how the defining power of language is a terrain of constant conflict; and this reflects my own lifetime’s interest in the baleful tyranny of censorship in all its manifestations.

‘Other’ is ‘Us’
These days there is no such place as ‘elsewhere’, no such persons as ‘other’ (though many would persuade us that there are). We may, as the Con-Dem Cuts Coalition would have us believe, all in it together – but only in theory: in practice we have a hare and tortoise situation, and only in fairy stories does the tortoise reach the winning tape first.

Writers are in no position to redress the balance but they have the possibility of articulating in narrative values that address such problems as systemic inequality, the nurture of prejudice, the arguments that ‘There Is No Alternative’.

In Talking in Whispers Andres witnesses the burning of his father’s and his own books. The flames lick indiscriminately at philosophical tomes and children’s books alike. Today’s writer is faced with the challenge of producing stories riveting enough to hold attention in face of mass media competition and the allure of Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and the kind of role-modelling exemplified by TV programmes such as The Apprentice.

Among the difficulties facing writers today is not the risk of having their books condemned and burnt, for that would be an acknowledgment of their purpose and value; rather, in the maelstrom of current message systems, all competing for attention, the writer’s voice risks being ignored, if it is heard at all.


From Anna Perera
First many thanks for sending the blog. Yours are so refreshing to read. I admire the way you’re able to pinpoint and classify my own hazy, unregulated thoughts on fiction and history for Young Adults and can’t help remembering my own experience of school where I longed for unabridged versions and a variety of texts, as well as stories that brought the past to life as a result of writers like you. It was far back but the novelist Anya Seton taught me more about John of Gaunt than Mrs. Whatever-her-name-was, ever did.

As for the snippet of Besieged: The Coils of the Viper, it’s brilliant and I’m intrigued to read more. I can see why you advised me to give away a few morsels of the next book, though which ones is something I’ll have to think about. I agree writers should help each other…It’s the least we can do in this increasingly tough market.

Anna is the author Guantanamo Boy (Puffin), which was winner of the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Book Award (2010) and shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Award and the Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year Award. Her next novel for Young Adults is due out in the New Year.


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