Sunday, 5 February 2017

Dystopia - Our New Reality? by Savita Kalhan

The past decade has seen a resurgence in the popularity of dystopian novels amongst teens and young adults. They include the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner series by James Dashner, The Last Wild series by Piers Torday, Uglies by Scott Westerfield, and my personal favourite - Julie Bertagna's brilliant Exodus trilogy. The teens in my library reading group devour dystopian novels.

 Last summer I wrote a short story called The Death of Princess. It was about a fifteen year old boy called Manny, struggling to survive in the bombed-out shell of his family home with his mother and younger sister, Sumi. The story was to be the focus for the Paris Erasmus Plus creative writing workshops I was running for English Language school kids who had come from eight countries across Europe.

The teachers and kids had access to the story before they arrived in Paris for the workshops. They had all read and translated the story, and analysed it before attending the workshops. The kids had also drawn or painted illustrations of the scenes in the story that had impacted them most. And they pretty much universally thought it was a dystopian story. 

I had prepared slides and showed them images from The Hunger Games and other dystopian films, which re-affirmed their view that my story was definitely dystopian. But then I showed them photos of what real wars do to a city. 

I showed them photos of Aleppo and Homs. The images could have come from a dystopian film. The boundary between an imagined fictional dystopian future and present day reality became blurred.
              It was an eye-opener for the kids.

              The Death of Princess is not really a dystopian story, but a story sadly of our times. Manny and his mother and little sister are forced to flee from the Firemakers, who have been sent by the new regime to all the towns and villages to enforce a new kind of rule, a rule where books are burned, people go missing; where life itself is threatened. Their flight in search of safety takes them to the sea where they have to make another choice: whether to return to what they have left behind, or carry on to find freedom. They choose freedom, they choose to travel towards and across the sea.
              Manny wakes up alone on a beach.
              Where is the rest of his family?

              Working in groups which consisted of a mix of French, Portuguese, Latvian, Polish, Turkish, Lithuanian, Spanish and Italian kids with mixed ability English, the kids were great at working together to answer questions on the themes of the story and discussing them.
              One of the writing exercises the kids had to do was to rewrite the ending of the story in English.
              The new endings didn't have Manny waking up on the beach alone.
              Almost unanimously, the kids wanted to save the rest of his family.
              They all wanted an unambiguous happy ending. 

Dystopian themes might make good fiction. But who really wants to live in a dystopian reality? No one. Especially not the kids I was teaching. 

The next generation wants to keep dystopia on the book shelves, where it belongs, and this gives me hope. Like Joanne Harris, it keeps me wanting to write. 


Penny Dolan said...

Thank you, Savita, for stressing the optimism and hope of your young writers. Your workshops sound very thoughtfully designed and inspiring. Admirable work!

Savita Kalhan said...

Thanks, Penny. The kids were great to work with, and very inspiring!