Friday, 29 October 2010

Shock, Stories and Statistics: Gillian Philip

All the fretting I do about what is 'appropriate' in a teenage novel was put into some perspective on Saturday as I listened to Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. There was a report from Uganda by Anna Cavell about children's literature in Uganda:

The book How Kwezi Got Into Trouble has a picture on the cover of a girl sobbing into a tissue at a school desk.
So when I saw it, I thought Kwezi might have got into trouble for handing her homework in late, or perhaps she had been copying somebody else's exam paper.
Then I looked at the text on the back cover and got quite a shock. It read: "At her mother's funeral, Kwezi is raped by her late father's best friend.
"Kwezi has no-one to tell but her mother lying in the grave. Though she gets Aids, Kwezi is determined to let other pupils know how dangerous Aids is."
It is a surprising storyline for a book aimed at eight-to-10-year-olds.

Uganda once had the highest HIV infection rate in Africa, and that's saying something. There have been some strange and frightening responses to the epidemic, from the assertion that condoms are a western plot to spread AIDS, to Thabo Mbeki's bizarre herbal prescriptions, right up to the rumour that sex with a virgin will cure HIV.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni's response has been very different. 'When a lion enters your village,' he declared, 'you must raise the alarm loudly.'
Anna Cavell, surprised by the subject matter available in a children's bookshop, spoke to a mother of two, who was more than happy to use the stories to stimulate discussion with her 11-year-old daughter. She also spoke to older ladies who disapproved of such reading matter, and longed for the days when people 'behaved decently'.
The whole story, here, mentions some of the other books on offer - subject matter which would be challenging for adult books in the UK, never mind teenage lit. In Uganda, the books are for younger children.
A few years ago the HIV infection rate in Uganda was over 20%. Today it's down to 6.7%.


Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

I often think, when I consider how people respond to some of what I write, how removed the developed world is from the developing world. Violence abounds across Africa in ways that shocks the rest of the world when they hear of it. Children in Africa deal with AIDS, rape, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, violence crime, opportunistic crime, poverty, hunger... This is the reality and so books that deal with this reality can do a lot to teach and to heal. That's not to say that hope is dead, it never dies and stories that offer hope and dreams count for a lot - provided they're appropriately contextualised. Sometimes when I read what is appropriate for teens in the UK, I want to laugh - but not in a happy way.

Becky said...

I can't even begin to express how I feel about this. What a great post!

Elaine AM Smith said...

I cannot agree more, that fiction has a place in rehabilitation and education but I hope that the "education" is not one sided. As well as enabelling girls to recover it books must be used to speak to boys and men about abuse of power.

Katherine Langrish said...

Fantastic post, Gillian. And very thought-provoking.

Penny Dolan said...

Excellent post, Gillian, and thought-provoking.

At Delhi Bookaroo Literature Festival last year, I heard very young teens talk in a matter-of-fact way about their fear of being killed by terrorist violence.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...


For a UK-published novel aimed at a similar reading age to slightly older, and about a similar range of African subjects (with the vilence only threatened rather than carried out), there is Torn Pages by Sally Grindley.

Elaine, I agree with your comment, although I have no idea how that might be done.

Kate said...

What a fascinating insight. Thankyou for that.

Meg Harper said...

I agree with Sarah, especially given the difficulties we seem to have in encouraging boys to read.

One of my 8-11 year old youth theatre companies recently created a play on people traffiking. They followed the stories of four children, one of whom was kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army whilst weeping at his mother's grave - she had died from AIDS. All the stories were based on true material from Stop the Traffik. The children had no problems discussing the issues and felt strongly that we must not have a happy ending for all the children as the reality was that for many there isn't one - so one was killed, another went missing and only two were rescued by a charity. They felt strongly that this was appropriate material for them to be working with as it affected children of their own age elsewhere in the world. But inevitably perhaps, we had a complaint from an audience memember who was upset by the scene at the mother's funeral and felt forced to talk to her children about matters she would prefer not to discuss with them. I cannot help but feel the irony.

Thank you, Gillian - excellent post.

Savita Kalhan said...

A good post, Gillian, and food for thought. Nicky's right - the developed world is a totally different place to the developing world, and that is reflected in what is considered appropriate in terms of publishing in children's and teen fiction.
My second novel, about an Asian girl who is raped, is considered risky not because of the terrible central theme which they think has been dealt with sensitively, but because the Asians in the story are not painted in a positive light and publishers have felt strongly that they should be...(hangs head in disbelief)
Lots of attitudes have to change before we're allowed to write about 'real' issues.

Bill Kirton said...

Horrible, sobering stuff, Gillian. Great post.