Thursday, 19 November 2009

Doing Moral Outrage - Meg Harper

When I was young and dreamt of being a children’s writer, I never imagined it would take me to China but that’s where I have recently been, invited by the British Schools of Beijing and Guangzhou to do my author/drama practitioner stuff for 3.5 days. Of course, by the time I’d added a couple of days sight-seeing in both Beijing and Hong Kong plus my time in transit, the whole trip took 11 days and I doubt if I’ll have made much profit but I have had an amazing, mind-expanding trip, moments of which I’ll never forget (especially three of us crammed into a motorised rick-shaw built for two, being driven down three lanes of heavy traffic in the Beijing rush-hour. Or my encounter with a taxi driver who, quite typically in Beijing taxi drivers doesn’t know where anywhere is but isn’t going to lose face by admitting it!)
This, however, is not the place for a travel blog. What of all of this, is relevant to children’s writing? Well....possibly the books I read. Late at night and on journeys, there was the luxury of time to read. On the flight out, I sweated my way through ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Very gripping. I would like to write gripping books for children, but without making readers nauseous with terror, without depicting scenes of violence degrading to women, without having a mind which pictures these things. I see from the sequel sample that the opening chapter is more of the same. Thanks but I think I’ve got the message!
With some relief I turned ot ‘The Roar’, the summer choice of my children’s book group by newcomer Emma Clayton. I enjoyed it. I had issues with the structure and the ending, all too frustratingly set up for what I expect will be a trilogy, but there was much to admire, not least the terrifyingly convincing picture of another world where the rich have quite literally built on top of the poor, condemning them to a life in the dreadful ‘Shadows’, a subterranean world of mould and darkness and squalor.
And then there was Leslie Wilson’s ‘Saving Rafael’, a refreshing spin on the holocaust novel – which I dropped in the bath! Really sorry, Leslie, but at least I was so gripped that I carried on reading and kept it in a plastic bag!
What connects there 3 books? Well...moral outrage, I think. It’s there in all of them. Steig Larsson, though I question his methods, is quietly ranting about violence against women and fraud, the strong terrorising those they perceive as weak. Emma Clayton is outraged by what we are doing to our world, both physically and socially. And Leslie, of course, is outraged by the holocaust – by our inhumanity.
We bloggers are all creators of story. We are all entertainers. But so many of us are also something else. Reflectors. Commentators. Prophets. Preachers. Voices crying in the wilderness?
So what, as I turn to story making again, be it on page or stage, should I be writing about? I could do moral outrage a-plenty after this trip. I have been treated with the utmost respect and courtesy throughout my stay in China – but supposing I had been a Chinese writer during the cultural revolution? Hmm. And Chairman Mao is still hugely honoured as a great hero by the ordinary Chinese. In Hong Kong I found a market full of stunning tropical fish, hung up in plastic bags, terrapins and turtles in tiny crates and puppies for sale in Perspex boxes measuring about 60cm beneath little dog jackets bearing the words. ‘We love all pets.’ Not far away, another market sold caged birds by the hundred.
A couple of weeks before I left, I stopped a child from kicking a plastic water bottle around during our break at Youth Theatre.
‘You need to look after that,’ I said. ‘When the oil runs out, we won’t have any more.’
The child looked at me, bewildered. She is eight and I am sure is re-cycling with the best of them. But she didn’t know about the oil running out. Nor did most of the others. Nor did they know where plastic comes from. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a plastic water bottle, discarded on a less well-trodden part of the Great Wall of China. In my hotels, I was given two water bottles a day. The teachers I was mixing with told me how bad they felt that their drinking water all comes in plastic bottles as the tap water is not safe. That’s right across China and Hong Kong. I don’t want to think about all those water bottles – nor the idea that you can see the Great Wall from the moon but not vice versa because of the pollution – which was certainly very evident in smoggy Beijing.
I am not surprised that Steig, Emma and Leslie are doing moral outrage. More power to their elbows. I have done it myself in the past. But after this trip – well – where do I even begin to start?


Nick Green said...

Rage is a wonderful muse, indeed. Sometimes I think I only write well when I'm furiously angry about something and taking it out on the page.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes... but in that same city alongside the caged songbirds I saw a man doing caligraphy... huge beautiful characters. And because I can't speak Mandarin, I wasn't sure what his message told. But I stood and watched mesmerized by the huge powerful sureness of his strokes as he dipped his brush and applied it again and again to the pavement stones. And then I watched equally mesmerized as the characters all evaporated and disappeared. He was painting with water. Perhaps all writing is like that. You put it out into the world with painstaking care... and whether emphemeral as water-words, or in hard black print, you hope the message floats somewhere in people's consciousness.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Actually was I was trying to say is that China is such a contradiction. But then I got side-tracked!!! And one of my favourite authors is Ma Jian who wrote 'Beijing Coma'.

Meg Harper said...

Yes, I too was enchanted by the water calligraphy in Beijing. Though I love the permanence of our ordinarily written word, I also love the ephemeral nature of theatre and performance art - so water calligraphy certainly has its appeal, especially as I watched an elderly gentleman allow a child to take up the brush. And I have always admired the Chinese penchant for writing their frustration out on public posters - and wish we would do the same. And yet, as you say, Diana, there is such massive contradiction - but then maybe others would see that here too.

Yes, Nick, I too wonder if I can write well without being fuelled by rage. Certainly my most successful books have been the outworking of fury!