Friday 4 December 2015

We need more writers who can make us cry – David Thorpe

Two days ago Dianne Hofmeyr posted her response to the Paris terrorist attacks with a picture of bicycle locks.

The repercussions of the attacks led to last Sunday's planned marches about climate change in the city being banned.

The organisers of the march instead asked people to place shoes where they would have marched. This led to the following image, one amongst many photographs that were taken on the day.
“The shoes are marching for us” @nicoleghio via Twitter
In the context of the loss of life caused by the terrorist attacks the sight of these empty shoes takes on an added poignancy.

Children and teenagers were either directly or indirectly affected by these attacks. Children and teenagers are also affected by the war conducted by and against ISIL. They are affected by climate change too.

To say that writers and artists cannot address social issues like these in their work is pointless. Social issues affect children in as many ways as they affect adults but children lack the conceptual apparatus to contextualise and understand them.

Both of the above pictures remind me of artwork by Ai Weiwei that I saw at his Royal Academy exhibition, which I visited after the climate change march in London earlier this week.

For example this piece contains hundreds of steel reinforcing bars, straightened after being mangled and twisted in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the number of bars corresponding to the number of victims, whose names are listed on the wall behind.

And, continuing the bicycle theme begun by Dianne Hofmeyr, this is a chandelier made from bicycles:

In all cases, repetition serves to reinforce the message, adding weight to the impact.

There was controversy this week surrounding the choice of David Almond's novel A Song for Ella Grey for the Guardian children's fiction prize, just as there often is for the Carnegie Medal children's book prize, because the winning books frequently address social issues.

Anyone who thinks that books for children that address social issues should not win literary prizes does not appreciate what it is like to be a child these days.

Whether directly – at home, on the streets and in the playground – or indirectly – on their screens – children are exposed to violence, drugs, crime, sex, exploitation, commercial pressures, manipulation, pollution, ugliness, danger and a whole Pandora's box of other pressures.

What should children do?

Most children strive to understand what they are experiencing. Unfortunately they don't always get the opportunity to discuss what is troubling them with either their friends or adults.

At least if they see that writers and artists are addressing these issues, this can help them think about them in new ways. They can find catharsis by empathising with stories that make them cry and laugh. Reading these books can provide a jumping off point for discussion too.

Children, and teenagers especially, worry more than anything else about whether what they are experiencing in their minds is "normal" or if there is somehow something wrong with them.

Again, art and books can help them to find an answer.

Even in fantasy and so-called escapist fiction, true to life characters can be found who struggle with problems that their readers can and do relate to. Often it's easier to relate to characters in fantasy novels or films, because they are removed from close-by reality.

At the rally on Sunday in Westminster at the culmination of the climate change march, the enlightened organisers put poets and singers on the bill. But of course.

It was incredibly moving to see and hear Kate Tempest reading her new poem ‘Europe Is Lost’. Hundreds of young people were there to hear her. It actually made me cry. She is a poet for the new generation.

pic from @KateTempest

Almond's books move me too. His latest is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was the greatest poet of his time who had to suffer enormous loss in order to find poetic truth. It is probably my favourite myth.

Now, more than ever before, we need writers and artists to articulate what we feel.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.


Emma Barnes said...

Often it's easier to relate to characters in fantasy novels or films, because they are removed from close-by reality.

I think that's very true. I also think that in a fantasy setting young protagonists can have the power and autonomy to make a difference, whereas in the contemporary world that's not likely. Harry Potter, Katniss, Frodo et al are liberating to read about, whereas real world problems can feel overwhelming (and not just for children and young people).

I would say, though, re the Carnegie and Guardian prize disputes, that I doubt anyone is saying writers shouldn't address challenging and painful issues. I think it's often more about whether "children's" prizes are increasingly being awarded to novels for older teenagers, rather than younger age-groups. And also, that children do need entertaining, funny books too, and that there is just as much craft and talent that goes into those books.

Ms. Yingling said...

This post might explain why my students ask much more frequently for happy books. If it is that hard to be a child these days, no wonder my readers almost never ask for the sorts of books that come across my desk all the time-- depression, dysfunction and death. It has become difficult to find pleasantly diverting books for middle grade. I know that publishers exist to sell books, but I will not be financially supporting their efforts to produce books that make me cry. I only have to read the news if that's what I want.

DavidKThorpe said...

@Ms Yingling: But they're crying for a different reason. IF you read the news it is for the suffering. If you read/watch a 'weepie' drama it's because you are sharing the emotions.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

David thank you for following up on my post on Paris.You touch on so much in yours. I'm sorry I didn't hear Kate Tempest reading 'Europe is Lost'. And like you I found myself incredibly moved by Ai Weiwei's work and have a similar photograph of those iron rods where they look like waves (or the crumpling of the earth as they were intended) and the viewers next to them like strollers on a beach with the names disappearing into mist behind them. So many names that I found myself frozen in that room.

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks for the post - especially for sending me to Tempest's poem/single. It's jaw-droppingly good. Like Emma, I think fantasy (often unjustly labelled 'escapism') allows children to experience and process many of the same emotions, worries, and senses of helplessness that the realist fiction does, while offering similarly ways to think about the contemporary world through engagement in another. Science fiction has always been about commentary on/reflection of our own mores and social/political tendencies.

DavidKThorpe said...

Yeah Tempest's poem is like a modern day Howl (Ginsberg). She read it with such passion, Dianne follow the link you can watch her. There's also a Youtube video someone took last Sunday. Passion that breaks beyond the selfie-obsessed hall of reflecting mirrors.

Nick Green said...

Simple solution: divide the Carnegie into categories, like the Oscars. Best book for older children. Best book for mid-age children. Etc. Ce n'est pas le science de rockets.