Channelling our greater good

Mandy Hager

*Extract from a lecture delivered at the Margaret Mahy Awards, 31 March 2019.

Words hold the greatest power

[T]he words I am driven to write express the values that were so nurtured in my childhood. As I wrote in Heloise, referring to her love of literature and language (while also mirroring my most deeply held belief): never since her childhood has she changed in her belief that words hold the greatest power: they can harangue men into war, seduce another’s wife or landlord’s daughter, break open a heart or have capacity to mend one. It is this idea that sits at the centre of this talk today and of everything I write.

One of the other great gifts I’ve been given since I started writing comes from my role as a writing tutor. Not only does it give me great joy to help those who have secretly gestated a book inside them for years to give it birth but, as a consequence of trying to articulate the process, it has forced me to think incredibly hard about what constitutes good writing and how to give writing the kind of power I aspire to write. This exploration, of course, is driven by my own preoccupations, and another writer would no doubt come up with a whole different set of answers and ways to describe it. But in trying to give my process voice, it has deepened my practice and more firmly focused me.

Every year I ask my students to name a book that has not only stayed with them, but also changed them at a fundamental level in some way. They always can, as I’m sure you can too. This, to me, is the definition of a great book: words that implant themselves in the heart of the recipient and become part of them. Stories with power, be that the power to move, to challenge, to console, to excite, to anger, to motivate, to laugh, to cry. To really truly think. Barbara Kingsolver (one of my literary heroes) put it beautifully in her recent interview with Kim Hill: a book can rearrange the furniture of your heart.

There is a magic to the writing process – a serendipitous delivery of ideas and connections that is hard to voice without coming across all new-agey. There is a sense of channelling the character; of being ‘given’ words and thoughts beyond usual consciousness. And there is a bigger magic at play: a psychic exchange, if you like, where I download the sensory, technicolour and surround-sound movie in my imagination into words on a page, which in turn are decoded by the reader to re-form into a sensory, technicolour and surround-sound movie in their imagination, further enhanced by everything they know and have experienced in their unique past. It’s not solely an exchange of information, then, but a shared spark, one that fires each reader differently. And if it is a powerful experience, the underlying meaning and emotion stays seared on the reader’s heart, changing its structure forever. Note that I say heart, not mind. As script-writing guru Robert McKee advises: encase an idea in an emotion. Only through the experience of feeling something does the abstract become tangible; thought embodied.

This powerful stimulation of the imagination is perhaps the biggest gift (besides modelling lived values) we can give to any young person. An imagination enables us to picture alternative worlds and ways of being, to empathise, to postulate, to question, to dream. To escape.

Touched by the predominant politics of the day

George Orwell said, in his essay ‘Why I write’:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

The more I’ve written, the more I see that the politics of any given situation – fictional or real – drive and/or impact each character’s world, just as our own lives are intrinsically linked to the politics of the day. We may choose to ignore it, but that in itself is a political decision, conscious or not.

Once I realised that every facet of our lives is controlled by the political decisions of those who lead us, my brain couldn’t stop churning over all the consequences and permutations. You may think this statement extreme, but consider this: from where we can go to school (and if we can go to school) to what we’re taught, what we’re allowed to eat, who we can marry, whether we can afford a roof over our heads, who gets to live here, who profits and who loses, which members of our community we choose to support, who gets to tell the dominant story, what we’re free to do and say, how much control we have over our own bodies, who is allowed to vote and even whether we live in a true democracy or not; every aspect of our lives is touched by the predominant politics of the day. Politics are how we organise and structure nearly all our systems and groups. It’s how we choose collective ways to behave and engage.

Therefore, if we can take as a given that those of us who write for young people feel some sense of responsibility for our readers, some duty of care, which I think, overall, we can, then shouldn’t one of the fundamental services we provide be to help them navigate these structures they must live within? I personally feel it behoves us all to consider the values that guide our stories’ way.

James Baldwin, in a 1979 interview in the New York Times, said:

It is part of the business of the writer – as I see it – to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source … If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write. I am an old-fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world. What do I hope to convey? Well, joy, love, the passion to feel how our choices affect the world.

He goes on to say:

The bottom line is this: you write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimetre, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you change it.

I’m well aware there is resistance within some groups of the writing and reading community to the idea that books should be about something – have some underlying moral imperative that the writer feels is important to explore. Such people bandy around words like ‘issues-driven’ and ‘didacticism’, rolling them off the tongue as if they taste of earwax. Of course, it’s true that, if delivered heavy-handedly, such writing is tone-deaf and often bludgeons the reader to death – and I’m sure some people feel my books fit into this category.

In fact, books can honour both creative imagination and big ideas; these things are not mutually exclusive. Or they can do one or the other; there’s no law or lore that dictates how a writer tackles their chosen project. We each write the book we want to write, to our own specific audience, and that’s okay. No book is universally liked, nor do all readers, as one homogenous group, have a single universal criterion for what they deem as good.

A cast-into-the desert initiation moment

The reason I so love young adult (YA) fiction is that, almost universally, our protagonists are young people in the process of some kind of growing up moment – a ‘coming of age’. It is the time in every human’s life when they discard the inward-facing focus of childhood and start to look out into the world and question the status quo, trying to find their unique place in it; their unique identity. It is a time of vivid realisations, of the shift from believing everything an adult says, to discovering that adults are flawed and often hypocritical, working to their own agenda. It’s also a time when young people feel peak moral certainty, without the edges rubbed off from more years of real life. A time when some of the values we, as parents and teachers, have shoe-horned into them (like the concept of ‘fairness’) are suddenly revealed as mythical in the adult world.

The literary editor and poet Charles Brasch said of this age group that by:

Coming fresh from homes and schools into the world, they can see clearly what older eyes have grown half-blind to. They see injustice, hatred and violence everywhere: the stark contrast of riches and poverty; the lies told so blandly in high places; the gulf between what men profess and what they do.

It throws everything up in the air, destabilising and challenging each young person to recalibrate every single thing they hold as true. It’s an intellectual and emotional rollercoaster, a cast-into-the desert initiation moment, and it allows the world to be viewed with fresh and youthfully passionate eyes. I love placing myself inside the head of someone going through this, refreshing my own vision of the world and all its workings. It’s a wonderful antidote for weary cynicism and lack of hope.

Safe models of resilience

As writers for younger readers, we’re under a lot of pressure to write ‘appropriately’ for our audience. There are many adults who feel the need to ‘police’ what young people read and either promote or exclude material based on their own values. Those of you who have published in the United States will have experienced the often bizarre rules that accompany the publishing of anything for school-age readers. With debates heating up about freedom of speech versus censorship, I’d like to commend New Zealand publishers for taking a more broadminded approach. It’s my personal belief that all of us, young people included, should have the right to read whatever we like, so long as its intent isn’t predatory, gratuitous, corrupt, inciting or harmful. With these exceptions in mind, I personally believe swearing, sexual content, contextualised violence and self-harm should not be excluded: our young people are exposed to these things in the real world; a good book can help to give them the context and tools to assess and judge each issue for themselves.

The ability to read widely, from a diverse range of points of view and voices, can only nourish us as human beings and help to create empathy and understanding.

Writer Tatty Hennessy puts it well, in her recent post ‘Why should we care about stories?’:

It’s easy to look at the structural, systemic, global nature of the issues we face and feel tired or baffled or even apathetic. It’s not that we don’t know what’s going on – we’re more informed than we’ve ever been. The problem is that it can be hard to care about things that feel so much bigger than ourselves. It’s hard to care about a concept, but it’s easy to care about a person. We’re wired to do it, and stories run on people. A story can put a unique, individual, human face to nebulous ideas, bypassing our intellect and getting right to the heart of the matter. It can make us care, and caring is the root of action.

To shelter young people today is doing them a grave disservice. At no other time in human history has our species been under such immediate global threat – from the lethal trident prongs of climate change, greed and extremism. While it can be argued that young people’s fiction should allow them respite from these issues – to ‘protect’ them – and, that fiction’s main job is to feed imaginations, I would argue that not to engage in such huge issues is failing in our duty of care as guides and fellow human beings. What our young people need are safe models of resilience, first and foremost. And stories of hope.

In my work with youth at risk, the question is often asked: when two people endure the same damaging factors and difficulties in their lives, what enables one to rise above it and the other to sink? The answer is simply this: those who rise above it have had at least one healthy and positive role model – and been on the receiving end of one significant act of kindness and respect that lets them know they count for something; that they have agency in their world.

As writers we can provide this. An inspiring fictional character, who speaks to the heart of the reader and fully engages them in the story world, can be just as empowering as any ‘real’ human act. In this time of impending global catastrophe and factionalised hate, I believe it should be incumbent on us all to step up and use our writing as channels for the greater good. For our readers’ wellbeing. For their futures. Anything less is a dereliction of our duty. As my character Ash says in Ash Arising : ‘It’s our democracy. We all have to own it … It’s about making decisions based on caring for each other, and for those who are different, and for the most in need, and for the planet.’

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