Greta the Great!

Greta

Greta the Great. No irony is meant by the title. Few adults can claim to have been such a powerful advocate for social change confronted with the climate crisis. Few people have been capable of mobilising so many, in particular the young, in such a short time. She has captured people’s minds and hearts and inspired many. The way she cuts through the misleading if not dishonest discourse of many politicians is both admirable and urgently necessary. Her actions move me deeply. Not only because she has pitted herself against the powerful in a struggle that our survival depends on, but also because she reminds me of the girls who are the heroes of my novels, Kate in the Boy & Girl Saga, Annie in Stories People Tell and Local Voices, Sally in The Storyteller’s Quest or Sami in Chimera.

All my books are about the self-empowerment of the young, girls in particular, in a world that tends to curtail their opportunities, belittle their abilities and discourage them from doing great things. My goal in writing fiction is to imagine inspiring ways forward, despite the difficulties thrown in the way of these young people. I began writing these novels long before Greta came on the scene, but to see a young girl manage so much is encouraging and heart-warming.

That said, the treatment of Greta by the media, in particular those that are favorable to her and her cause, raises questions that I evoke in my latest novel Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy. The elevation of a young person to ‘saviour-like’ status is troubling. As Kate suggests in the following extract, the media capitalise on the glorified image they portray of her. What will be the impact on her and the cause she defends? Will Kate’s strategy, just like that of Greta, attempting to deflect media attention to other actors in the struggle, be enough.

Extract from Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy

Twelve year-old Kate – head of the Lost Girls choir, a group of some twenty girls that escaped from dire conditions in a convent-run orphanage – is being questioned by a young journalist about her reactions to the escape of another group of mistreated orphans girls…

“But as leader, surely you have an opinion,”  the journalist asked.

The word ‘leader’ brought Kate up short. She was indeed the leader and it was only right she be recognised as such. Yet she’d already seen how the press singled out an individual as a figurehead and glorified that person, repeatedly talking of her and only her, shaping her public image till she became a currency they could cash in on. That said, there was probably little she could do against it, less it be to push other members of the choir into the spotlight as she planned to do with their pamphlets. Thinking of which, she turned to Suzanne who was busy sorting dried herbs.  “What do you think?”

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

Powerful Girl – Pretty Boy – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)

Stories people don’t tell

Who is going to speak the names and tell the poignant tales of those that don’t get told? We are! When fiction and reality reach out and link hands.

Naomi Wadler, 11, Virginia, March for Our Lives, Washington

I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.
Naomi Walder, 11, a speech during the March for our Lives.

As an author of stories depicting the awakening and empowerment of young people, it is an immense pleasure to see fiction written over a year ago and today’s reality reach out to each other across time and link hands.

To the seventeen minutes walkout of students across the US to mark the deaths of seventeen students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Naomi and her friend Carter led their elementary school classmates in an additional minute to remember Courtlin Arrington, an African-American girl who died in a school shooting in Alabama. By her act, by her determination, she drew attention to those victims not in the forefront of media coverage. All the speakers at the March for Our Lives in Washington were both victims of gun violence but also chose to be the voice for other victims.

Annie, the main character in Stories People Tell, is driven by a similar motivation to Naomi Walder to name and give voice to those who are not normally heard. In a world where, to quote Annie, “there is a raging battle with each side drumming up the hardest hitting story at the expense of those caught nearby”, the strongest story wins out. But not every group of people make it into the spotlight and even those who are singled out for coverage are often little more than a pretext.

Emma Gonzales, at the March for Our Lives, Washington

Propelled to the forefront of media attention, rather like the astounding Emma Gonzales, Annie becomes a figurehead for a movement. And like Emma, her judgement, her audacity and her courage earn her recognition as the leader she has become.

Unlike a journalist, Annie does not go in search of untold stories. Rather, they come in search of her just as unbidden violence sought out Emma and her fellow students. In Annie’s quest to end violence against girls and women and the adventures that befall her she meets those whom main-stream media have passed over. She listens to those people and, with the help of her friends,  coaxes them to tell their story to the camera.

The Internet is Annie’s main avenue when it comes to making these neglected voices heard. There is also a certain press. Something like The Guardian or DemocracyNow! for the young people of Parkland. These media recognise the promise of the young people and actively support their cause as a positive force for democracy. Annie has struck up a solid friendship with some of the staff and the editor at one of the rare national papers, The Daily, to cover such questions.

Fenchaw, the editor of The Daily in Annie’s story, says “I like the idea of short eyewitness reports. At a time when truth is being challenged, the use of multiple perspectives from people who were at the scene gives solidity to the acts portrayed and enriches the narration without being difficult to read.

To return to the reality a moment, the fact that Emma and her fellow Florida students were in the classroom when the shooter opened fire, who lost dear friends to that violence, makes their story so compelling. It is also their determination and their ability to articulate a coherent vision of the future that gives their stories the hope we yearn for. As Annie says, disagreeing with advice given by an adult about the telling of stories, “Sure, there were necessarily upsets and things didn’t always go as planned, but what readers really wanted was a story that made sense of the world around them and gave hope.”

When Annie’s friend Riya in Stories People Tell suggests setting up a dedicated website to publish these short eyewitness reports, Annie refuses. “I don’t want to be cornered into making more. They are good because the moment was right and people had something to say. But if we feel obliged to continue, we might lose that spontaneity and urgency.” Annie is no doubt right. Herein lies the difficulty of Emma, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and all the others in their nationwide movement as they move forward. How do you pursue the impetus without getting trapped by the routine of ineffective ways and means that adults use?

Stories People Tell
Order it. Read it. Talk about it.

The politics of elimination

Stories People Tell front cover

A systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving.

According to certain newspapers including CNN, the New York Post and the Washington Post, the use of seven words are to be banned from the budget of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) by the Trump administration. The words are vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, foetus, evidence-based and science-based. The news is so outrageous  and outlandish, it is hard not to suspect it is a fabrication or to shoot back with the suggestion, “Let’s do away with the word trump.” Elimination is an enticing solution when dealing with a man and an administration that further enriches the rich and privileged while wreaking havoc, misery and destruction on everybody else.

But first reactions are not always the best. Talking about doing away with the man would mean aligning our logic on that of Trump. Elimination is the hallmark of his ‘policies’. Eliminate North Korea, ban Muslims, deny climate change, do away with abortion and birth control, ban transgender people from the army, remove funding for social services, repeal net neutrality laws, fix voting laws to exclude those who don’t vote for you, dismantle federal government, disqualify the press, and undermine the notion of truth and, with it, justice.

In the sense of the word used here, the Oxford Dictionary of English says of elimination, the complete removal or destruction of something or the removal of someone or something from consideration or further participation. What the dictionary does not mention is that a systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving. George Orwell’s 1984 was a story about a state that sought to eliminate opposition. Totalitarian states are held up as perpetrators of government by elimination. What is so striking about the Trump administration is that it should systematically apply elimination politics in the heart of a society supposedly based on liberalism and diversity.

To be able to eliminate, or at least try to, Trump and people like him have to undo the links that bind people together so to minimise the backlash from solidarity and natural human concern for others. Isolating segments of society and pitting one group against others as well as fostering rampant individualism are part and parcel of a strategy to eliminate.

The close ties between elimination and the breaking down of social bonds point to an alternative strategy to counter elimination. Rather than responding with further elimination, the only viable way to combat elimination politics is to strengthen grassroots links between people and to nurture a form of solidarity that embraces diversity.

In my forthcoming novel, Stories People Tell, it is by just such a drive to strengthen the bonds between Londoners and to celebrate diversity that Annie Wight and the women’s movement she epitomises seeks to respond to Mayor Nelson Kard who aims to drive the gay community out of the capital and have Annie silenced. 

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Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust and more

Philip Pullman on Book of Dust

I have just finished listening to the audiobook of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. Having been a fervent reader of the stories about Lyra, I was delighted to hear Pulman was to write a trilogy set in Lyra’s world. I will probably write more about La Belle Sauvage but in the meantime let me say that I was carried away by the story and couldn’t put it down.

To mark the launch of La Belle Sauvage, the first book of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Book of Dust, Pullman answers questions of readers and famous fans for the Observer.

Read also an extract from La Belle Sauvage published by the Guardian. See A foretaste of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust.

Photo: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

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Kazuo Ishiguro awarded the Nobel for literature

In its reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro being awarded this year’s Nobel prize for literature, The Guardian writes: The author is a worthy recipient of the Nobel prize for continually finding his voice – and discarding it for a new one.

Photo source:  Ben Stansall/The Guardian/AFP/Getty Images

The Remains of the Day

I have written reviews of two of Ishiguro’s books. On The Remains of the Day, I wrote:

It is those very words, used by the butler to reflect on his life and his work and to perform his duties to their utmost despite the extreme circumstances that assail him, that both convey the intimate fabric of the world at that time, and reveal by omission that which is steadfastly left unstated by Stevens, the underlying emotions that animate the staff and visitors in this stately hub of English society. ()

The Buried Giant

Writing about The Buried Giant, I said:

By a cunning use of repetition and returns to the past, Ishiguro, weaves a mist around the reader who, at the slightest moment of inattention, loses track of where she is and flounders in an undivided sea of impressions. It is in those moments, cut loose from time, that a panic seizes the reader leaving her grasping for familiar landmarks. ()

The Guardian | The Guardian view on Kazuo Ishiguro: self-restrained force

Secret Paths – Thoughts on Books | The Remains of the Day (a review)

Secret Paths – Thoughts on Books | The Buried Giant (a review)

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, Faber & Faber, 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, Faber & Faber, London, 2015

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Protect Net Neutrality

Wednesday July 12th 2017 has been singled out in the States and elsewhere as a day of action in favour of Net Neutrality. If the Trump administration through the FCC reverses earlier decisions and gives the right to Internet access providers to pick and chose how they grant access to the Internet it opens the door to partitioning the Net between haves and have-nots, with ultra high-speed broadband services for the rich and pitifully slow Internet, if any access at all, for the poor and marginalised. In terms of content and content providers, it would give access providers the right to decide what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘unacceptable’, where acceptability may depend on the company’s commercial or political interests rather than any concern for the public good or for the underlying democratic nature of the Internet. To learn more about the question see (amongst many others);

A foretaste of the Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust

The Guardian has just published a short teaser from Philip Pullman’s forthcoming book, La Belle Sauvage, the first of the Trilogy, The Book of Dust. In an interview posted by Random House Kids on YouTube  (see below), Pullman calls the new book a companion to the earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials. This first volume is to be published on October 19th, 2017 in print form, electronically, but also as an audiobook.

What appeals to me in this short extract, apart from the evident air of family with the earlier trilogy which I immensely enjoyed, is the unassuming language. No fancy frills. Just words in the service of a story.