Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Writing the Wrongs - Liz Kessler

Last month, something rather horrible happened. The elections for members of the European parliament led to a widespread vote for far right parties, fuelled by a wave of anti-immigrant feeling.

The day the results came out, I could barely bring myself to get out of bed. I felt depressed, disappointed and quite hopeless. In fact, it started before that. In the voting booth, faced with a ballot paper that seemed to list one far right organisation after another, I felt ashamed and perplexed. Was this really where we were? Was this honestly what people wanted? 

Then the results came out, and I felt much, much worse. Was this the best that we, as a society, could do? Had we learned nothing from the lessons that history has taught us? It seemed not.

So what could I do? I spent the day asking myself this question, over and over again. In the morning, the only thing I could think to do was pull the quilt back over my head and hide away from the world until I felt I could face it again. In the afternoon, I decided I would become an MP – despite never having been a member of any political party in my whole life. By the evening, thanks to one of my lovely writer friends, Elen Caldecott, I realised that neither of these options was really credible, but there was a third.

‘We’re writers, we’re artists,’ Elen said. ‘We have a voice. We have our books. That’s where we can make the change. That’s where we argue for a better world. That’s where we have power.’

She was right, of course, and she was the first person to say anything that actually started to pull me out of my slump.

I thought about her words all day, all week in fact. I thought about how privileged we are to do what we do, to have a job that means our words, our thoughts, our beliefs can find their way into the hands and thoughts of a generation of children: the people who will create the future. Could there really be a more powerful idea than this?

But how to go about it? You can’t exactly write a book that says, ‘Hey kids, here’s what you have to do. Treat everyone nicely; go about your dealings in life with fairness; accept others even if they are different from you; and please don’t ever vote for UKIP or the BNP.’ For one thing, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting read, and for another, no one likes to be lectured – especially whilst they’re doing something that is meant to be fun.

So then I thought about it a bit more, and realised that actually I already do say all those things. I say them all the time. I never intend to, but they always find their way into my books. I think I’m writing about mermaids or fairies or time travel, but time and again, I’m writing about social injustice, about standing up for what you believe in, about accepting yourself and others.

My Emily Windsnap books are at their heart a series about two very different societies who have every reason to mistrust and dislike each other, but who learn to coexist. Emily Windsnap’s family is put in charge of making sure this happens. Emily herself stands up in a court and demands that people are legally allowed to love and marry who they want.

My other books have a habit of doing this, too. Readers quite often write to me and say things like, ‘Your book told me it was OK to be me,’ or ‘Your book gave me the courage to stand up to bullies.’

Really? Did it? I thought it was just about a girl and her fairy godsister.

I honestly have no idea that I am writing about these things at the time, but perhaps it is inevitable that they will be at the heart of my books, when they are at the core of who I am and have been ever since I was a teenager. I’m not really that different now. I just do it more quietly than I did in my twenties.

Yep, that really was me. And yes, Mum and Dad, I really am smoking. Sorry!

Back then I protested against injustice by going on marches and getting people to sign petitions. Now I do it, mostly without even realising it, in my books. But whichever route it is, fighting for a better world, a fairer society and a place where people learn to be confident about who they are and accepting of others are the things that I care about.

So, in fact, all I have to do is carry on doing what I’m doing. One day I might write a book that deals with these themes more explicitly. In fact, I already have an idea brewing for such a book, and am quite excited by it. But till then, what an amazing honour and privilege it is to be able to simply write stories that I love and feel passionate about, and know that as I do so, I am sharing the ideas and beliefs that are at the heart of who I am. To know that every time a child enjoys one of my books, there is a small possibility that they may in fact take its message to their heart – perhaps without realising that they have done so, just as I don’t realise I’m putting the message there in the first place.

This whole idea feels revolutionary. It doesn’t mean that from now on I’m going to pile a load of messages into my books. I believe that this is the quickest way to kill a story flat dead and I would never do it. For me, books have to be first and foremost about the story and the characters. If you approach it from any other angle than this, I think it shows. But the exciting thing is that, as long as I continue to do this, I can trust that the rest will follow.

What a privilege. What a gift.

So no, I’m not about to seek election as an MP. I’m not going to pull the covers over my head in despair in the mornings, either. I’m just going to carry on doing what I love. I’m going to trust that as I do it, I’m gently, quietly and unobtrusively saying what I need to say. And I’m going to hope, hope, hope that if enough of us are doing the same thing, a whole generation of children will grow up with love, acceptance and equality being the values that rule their world, rather than xenophobia, hatred and fear.

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Mystica said...

Thank you for a very informative post.

Elen C said...

I'm glad you found a way out of the slump - though I would totally have voted for you.
I've reached a similar conclusion. I'll tell you all about it I'm sure. But I feel this has been a kick up the bum to make me finally write a book I've been thinking about for years. Odd outcomes of painful situations!

Julia Green said...

I love what you say here, Liz. It's so true, about what we can do/say/ show through our words, and the truth that we do this by being ourselves in everything we write.
Julia x

Nick Green said...

Quite right, you don't need messages, you just need... people. People that readers can identify with, and then feel outraged that anyone would discriminate against this person who has become their friend... or anyone like them.

Russel T Davies made a conscious effort to combat homophobia simply by putting gay characters into his Doctor Who stories. He believes visibility is the key to acceptance. He made it hard for kids to be homophobic when the second-coolest character in their favourite TV show (Captain Jack) was an openly gay character played by a gay actor. It was a game-changer.

C.J.Busby said...

I know how you feel, Liz. I've got a few photos like yours too. And I also felt bewildered by the variant right wing parties on my South-West ballot paper. But we voted in a Green MEP! And the number of UKIP MEPs (two) didn't rise. I don't think England is an intolerant country at heart - people have been misled by hugely biased media stories focusing on untrue or exaggerated one-off incidents/examples. But that in itself shows you the power of stories - and the more of us writing ones that combat those sorry tales, the better! Whether it's about mermaids, magic or time travel, the heart of the best kids books is about being open to others and standing up against injustice. Long may you and others continue to write about those things!

Jenny Alexander said...

Yes, what a privilege it is to have a voice and speak up for positive inclusive values in a world lurching towards intolerance and extremism.

A Wilson said...

What a lovely, heartfelt, honest post. You are absolutely right to say that you are already sending out the messages the next generation wants to and needs to hear. And it is all about people. Keep on doing what you do best and good luck! (And yes, I know I promised to get off the internet this morning, but I just remembered I have my own blogpost to write too;)...) x

lily said...

Thank you Liz - inspiring for all of us wondering how to possibly begin to right (or fight) all the wrongs. Although I would have voted for you too...

Sita Brahmachari said...

I was fuelled by the same feeling Liz. The books that emerge in moments like this are written from the gut.