A little while back, I was invited to speak at the BareLit Festival on the subject of morality in Y.A. Now I remember sitting down and wondering what I would say. What did morality even mean in that context? Did it mean knowing the difference between good and bad, and choosing the good? And if so, how or who determined what was good? Was it society, or faith or self? What if they also clashed somewhere? Because there are so many different versions of each of those.
I wondered how I could even begin to address such a question without being biased to my own personal sense of morality, which could be different from the next person’s. And if I’m being quite honest, I’m partly still wondering this now. But I think to some extent, even though it’s absolutely true that the finer details of what we individually call moral differ, we all share a universal bigger picture. As Confucius put it, ‘…wisdom, compassion and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men’.
And so I will use the qualities mentioned by Confucius as my as my reference point to morality, as I attempt to respond to the questions asked by Darren Chetty during the BareLit panel discussion.
British kids lit grew out of a desire to educate and moralise. How do these factors impact your writing?
During the discussion, Candy Gourlay mentioned that all authors write with an agenda, whatever it might be, and I agree with that. I know that I certainly do.
There’s something about a character who goes through difficulties but chooses to do the right thing at the end that entices the reader. I think it’s even safe to say that we all love brave and wise characters. We celebrate characters who at the end of their story show us that they’ve grown and learnt from their experiences. Characters who in spite of all that happened to them did the right thing or remained brave. It’s human I think, because life is like that; and we love to see that if we struggle we can still grow from all the dirt. Now, I don’t know that I can say that when I write, I seek to educate and moralize, because to be honest I really still feel that I’m in need of a lot of educating and moralizing myself. But when I do write, I find it important to share with the reader, characters that grow, especially if in the beginning it seemed unlikely that they would. I love writing stories that have positive messages, and which can maybe even a little, inspire the reader to keep going or to show that they’re not alone. This is something I did particularly in my debut, Hope is Our Only Wing. I wanted to show the reader that life can sometimes really be ugly and it’s dreadful when things are that way, but it isn’t the end of the world. So I guess if that is in any form educating and moralizing then I can say that those factors definitely drive my writing
Given the history of erasure and distortion of people of colour in kids lit, there are strong calls for positive representations of POC. There is also the need to tell great stories with morally complex characters. How do you work with these pressures? I think one of the things that has always frustrated me about literature, (and not just Y.A lit), is that there never were enough stories that positively reflected POC; not even to mention that there remains a void even now of POC writers.
As Candy mentioned on her blog, most books about POC in the past were written with a ‘racist colonial intent’. Precisely, just like she mentioned, POC characters were always portrayed as unintelligent, savage, lazy … the list goes on. And of course if someone has already made up their mind about you, and intends to tell your story, it can not even remotely represent you can it? This is where particularly you see the power books have. Without having met a particular group of people, it’s easy to accept a stereotype because it’s written in a book, especially for kids.
Currently there’s a huge movement to reverse this. A lot more stories are being written by POC. We still have a long way to go of course but we’ve been seeing some progress. I particularly feel the need to shatter stereotypes. But then there’s that question again of whether this means that all POCs must always be good and can do no wrong; and I think perhaps there might be a little bit of pressure here. This is especially because POC are usually viewed as a unit. We unfortunately don’t really enjoy the advantage of being viewed as individuals. So if one is lazy, we’re all lazy. But then even in light of this, when I think of shattering these stereotypes, I think the best way to do it is to show a spectrum of characters. Because really aren’t all people different regardless of being POC or not? In my opinion what readers need to see to know that people can not really be boxed together simply because they share the same skin color or geographical location. Samantha Williams was right to call books weapons of mass destruction. Books can help us to shatter these stereotypes and perhaps even help us to understand each other better.
What, if anything, can children NOT cope with in fiction? For example, must stories have a happy ending?
I think we are too afraid for children sometimes, particularly concerning books. We underestimate what children can really cope with. This is not to say we should write recklessly about anything. I do believe that some stories must be sensitized, but I also think it’s quite unhelpful to try and pretend that the world is always a magical place. Children know it’s not true. Children watch the news and they deal with difficult situations at school. In fact, it might even help if those difficult issues are discussed in a responsible way where they can see characters who deal with similar issues and make it through. In a way, it helps reduce whatever fears there are, because then kids know they’re not alone. I think that is really why books like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (among many others of course) have been quite popular. These books really address difficult subjects like police brutality, racism, drug abuse, bullying, gun violence etc… and these are things that exist in the world we live in today unfortunately.
However, with that in mind, I think that when the
difficult subjects are tackled in Y.A, the trick is delivery and obviously also
the author’s sense of awareness of the particular age group s/he is writing
for. This goes back to the issue of morality. For example, I particularly
enjoyed reading Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why but one
of the reasons it has been controversial has been because of the way it seems
to present suicide as a solution to pain. So with such a book of course, I
would be quite careful of whom I recommend it to, especially if a child is
going through a similar situation. But at the same time, perhaps to some extent
such books give children a chance to question things that are immoral, and
disagree with the characters who make immoral decisions. And perhaps also open
up dialogue between adults and children about difficult topics such as suicide.
Noone wants to be told all the time. As Candy Gourlay put brilliantly,
sometimes kids must read stories and find all the questions there.