Writing for Minorities

A little while back I decided to critically reread all my own fiction books – most of which were written 5 to 15 years ago – to be able to blog about the topics with a fresh perspective. Despite Soup and Bread being only just over two years old, I decided to include it, not so much to re-evaluate the contents, but the way to approach potential readers, because it deals with a very complex topic.

The ability to grasp that complexity is not age or diploma related, but depends on the personality and personal experience of the reader, and for this book that is important, because the protagonist is only eleven.

9780994107732

Imagine that your child is being bullied at school – and assume you know about it, which is not often the case – and you decide to help them by buying them a children’s book that tells of a child who was bullied, but after an event in which they must stand up for themselves or join in with the action, they suddenly have lots of friends. Almost all books about bullying have that kind of plot.

But what message does such a story give your child, who has no doubt tried to be accepted already. They’ve tried to fit in and join the actions; they’ve probably tried to change their wardrobe or the way they talked or their hobbies. Maybe they’ve even changed schools already and each time they no doubt tried to stand up for themselves. What message does that story tell your child other than that they are not trying hard enough? The same scenario happens in many books (not all) that deal with eating disorders and other mental health problems.

So why buy that book? Why not buy a book that takes the side of the victim; a book that tells them that they have the right to live and be themselves, just like everybody else?

The answer is that the only stories available are those that tell of simple solutions or focus on superficial and observable traits without addressing the real causes, and so for advice books for parents.

My problem, both when writing Soup and Bread and now when trying to market it, is this: The topic is very, very complex, and the message I need to get across to exactly those young people who are struggling with these issues deals with invisible, deeply personal and abstract traits (of which actions and observable things are only the result and not the cause) that are experienced by them but cannot be observed by others. Thus, if the school librarian, the teacher, the parent or the bookshop owner do not experience the same issue, they will not make the book available to these readers; they will stick with superficial stories, based on sales figures, yet the people who can grasp it are in the minority.

So what am I to do? Do I simply change my writing to also pick one superficial trait that subliminally blames the victim, so I can make money?

Should I stop writing for minorities, because most people don’t get it?

Should black writers have stopped writing for black children? Or should other ethnic minorities not be mentioned in fiction? Should women writers have stopped writing for gender equality? Should gay writers have never portrayed homosexuals?

Most readers today will answer “no” to those questions, but will dismiss personality differences as unimportant, for the exact same reason as all other minorities were at one or another time dismissed.

So how do I get through to them?

My solution in the story is to relay these personality differences through the experiences of young people, who are not expected to understand such issues, and which makes it easier to explain them, while emphasizing that understanding them and dealing with them is not something that can be learned, but something that needs to be experienced.

Told in the first person present, which gives the story momentum, the protagonist, Vonnie, is a healthy girl, who is not herself bullied, but only a bystander. With her, the reader meets other children, all with serious problems that are in one way or another related to food or to bullying. Together the children learn to deal with their problems and to stop blaming superficial causes, while relating the abstract emotional complexities through comparisons with more concrete issues. For example, the children play with bubble blowers to explain what interpretation of abstract words or concepts is like and they compare personality traits to the hormones in injections, which cannot be seen from the outside, because the liquid looks like just water. They learn to understand personality needs by comparing them to wearing glasses; a child that does not need glasses cannot see better through the glasses made for someone else.

They also get to do a presentation at school and they use fun fair mirrors to show that the outside (looks) of a person can easily change, but not who they are inside; that the bullies may have pretty faces, but they are ugly inside, and that is what their personality is like.

In short, the book helps make the abstract and very difficult to understand, but nonetheless real and vital aspects of human nature, more palatable and in doing so, hopes to initiate a change of attitude towards those people who are different.

Would I have changed something, if I had written the book today? Only, possibly, the pacing in the first chapter, which was to set the scene and might be going a bit fast for some readers, but the story soon settles in a steady rhythm that mixes the feelings and observations of the protagonist with the actions and words of those she meets.

Although written for 11-15 year olds, the book will touch adults just the same and the characters in the story each represent different personalities, regardless of age and social position.

Available as eBook from meBooks and in paperback from The Copy Press and from my website.

Thank you for reading.

Advertisements

War OR Peace

Readers and writers each have their preferred genre and their own way of experiencing the world and two people with opposing personalities seldom take the same viewpoint. Consequently, readers and writers must be somewhat compatible to get a message across and to appreciate a book. Of course, the beauty of fiction is that by using different characters, the writer can represent more than one point of view.

Like in real life, so subliminal interactions between characters and interpersonal relationships tend to be very complex and multi-layered in my books, and I do not use stereotypes or ‘a bad guy’, but rather a multitude of well-intended people getting into conflict.

Like all my books, In the Real World is likely to anger or frustrate some people, especially those who tend to take their moral values from their environment, and who might not see the relationships presented or the behaviour of certain characters as appropriate. Others might accept the story, even if they do not agree with all the characters.

 

cover-RealWorld

Originally written in 2005 and first published in 2008 – second edit 2012 – the book is not meant for young readers only, despite the protagonists being 16 years old. It is written for any person above that age; any person who can think about ethical values, about parenting and about war, and it is not in any way simplistic.

Nor is it a ‘nice’ book with heroes and big win; it is not a fantasy story where the only danger comes from some evil overlord. This story is set in “the real world” and the conflicts are between people’s beliefs and the accepted norms that keep them apart. Through the eyes of the two protagonists, the reader is shown many other characters – grandparents, parents, teachers and students – of whom some agree and others disagree with these norms.

War is the main topic, but the story is not set in a time of war; it is set today, in an Australian high school. It begins during a family reunion on Anzac Day – the Australian memorial day – when a group of cousins are having a boy-girl prank ‘war’ that gets totally out of hand. It is the emotions that are evoked during that exchange that are responsible for all the actions that follow and it is those actions and emotions that reflect conflict on an international scale in the real world, and in the history lessons and family stories that relate what happens with the kids to the events of the two world wars.

Apart from that, there are complex and very real interpersonal relationships evolving between characters, some of which touch the line of what is considered decent in our western society. For example, the question of how friendly teachers and students are allowed to be with each other and whether parents should stand behind their kids or behind the school when conflict arises.

The book does not glance over those moral boundaries, but addresses them, with the characters being very aware, and, like the readers, some are more accepting of those than others. But the reader does not have to worry about In the Real World, for all interactions are between personalities and there is no implicit or explicit sex between students or between students and teachers, and no scenes that are not suitable for young adult readers. In short, showing the emotions of war in a time of peace, the issue is human nature and our ability to solve conflicts.

The book is currently on sale. The eBook is available from meBooks (both Epub and Kindle) and printed copies can be bought via The Copy Press or my website.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

Lohland needs an Uplift

 

It was 2004 when I wrote my first book. Although I had been writing stories my entire life, Lohland was the first completed novel. But I didn’t publish it until 2009, after having written and published two other books.

Lohland - cover

I recently reread the book and decided it needs a new edit. Apart from some grammatical errors I missed then, it is clearly written by an inexperienced writer. Nevertheless, apart from wanting to write a stronger start, I still like the story in general.

Of course, since 2004, certain things have changed, especially in the way people communicate. The idea of teens with mobile phones was only just emerging, for example, and following directions on Google during a trip was less common. Today’s young readers – only just over a decade later – might wonder why Kaie does not use his mobile more often, but those are changes I cannot make, since the story revolves around celestial and calendar events that are correct for 2006, and so are the factual aspects of the story: the engineering projects that specifically deal with global warming.

Written with a young adult protagonist, Lohland was created less for the sake of the story than for the sake of presenting an alternative view of social life and education. That might not be the best approach to writing a story, but at that point, I had my design ready and that was my motivation.

However, I was also already aware that what one personality type considers a utopia, may be the complete opposite for another type of person. Being only thirteen years old at the start of the story, the protagonist, Kaie, has no say in the decision to move away from his home – the location of which could be most any Australian or New Zealand town – where he and his siblings each have their own bedroom with plenty of space to play loud music, a big garden, a swimming pool and many other luxuries. He resents the idea of exchanging all that for Lohland, not only because its non-traditional lifestyle does not suit his personality, but he questions the sanity of moving to a country that lies below sea level in a time when “global warming is real”.

Lohland is a fictional city state, but set in the real environment of the “low lands” of Western Europe, in an area that has significance, both historically and climatologically. The family’s emigration back to this part of Europe is set against a visit to the highlands of Scotland, as well as against the original discovery of New Zealand during The Golden Age of the Dutch Republic – Zeeland being the Dutch province New Zealand derived its name from – and the way each country remembers the significance of these events differently.

Thus, the somewhat utopian aspect of the story comes with the organization of its fictional city state, its calendar, living communities, celebrations and education system, but the environmental aspects, the engineering projects that are described and the architectural and historical information, is non-fiction.

The book was written to give teens and young adults an alternative to the doom and gloom they have to grow up with today, and the message reflected in the story is that there is more than one way to live a rich and rewarding life, that freedom is not about the space one lives in, but about not being judged or imposed on by others, and that global warming is not the end of the world; that young people can get involved in building a new future.

Until I have the time and money to publish a new edition, I have dropped the price of the eBook. Printed copies are still available via the printer’s website and my own, but they reflect the cost of shipping from New Zealand, which lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and is therefore far away from everything.

Thank you for reading.

The Art of Begging

What do you first think of when you hear the word “begging”?

For me, growing up in The Netherlands where there was social security, it used to be the hungry children in developing countries I saw on TV.

It wasn’t until I started travelling abroad that I noticed people at night checking garbage bins for something worthwhile. Of course, it is perfectly possible that this also happened in the big cities in The Netherlands, but I had never seen it and being confronted with it in Athens, Brussels and New York – places I had considered rich and therefore capable of providing their citizens with at least enough to eat and a place to live – shocked me.

Since then I’ve learned that the wealth of a country that calls itself democratic is not a reflection of the wealth of its citizens (its voting population) and I have become somewhat used to seeing people sit on the pavement in a busy shopping area with a sign and a pot asking for money – even though it makes me uncomfortable.

But this post is not intended as a discussion of the rights and wrongs of western economy and politics or the poverty of a large part of the world population.

I want to discuss the act of begging itself.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “to beg” means “to ask for as a charity”, “to entreat” (plead urgently) or “to require as necessary or appropriate”.

Considering these definitions, the child begging on the street corner for a bit of money to pay for food, clothing or school books is asking for charity for himself as a necessity – not just in his own eyes, but in those of most people – and this requirement is urgent, so that it can be considered appropriate. Though it makes me sad that it is necessary for many people to beg for their basic needs of life, I have no ethical issue with the act of begging for this purpose.

What I do have an issue with is the begging that is required of western children (often those of well-off parents) in order to help pay for a communal project or a larger charity in which the interest for the involved children is only that of being the beggar – not the beneficiary or the organizer. In other words, it is not their project but a project that is imposed upon them and which they may not even know the details of or agree with. They are not asking for themselves but for a third party.

Thus,  they may be asking for a charity and this may even be an urgent need, but the individual beggar has no necessity and my issue here is to question its appropriateness.

Now there are different angles to approach this topic with and it depends on the personality type of each person how they will feel about it.

There are those who consider it a good way to instil in children a sense of community and responsibility and to create awareness of how good they have it if compared to those the charity is for – it can be a larger project like “feed the world”, an awareness project to support a minority group, a project for research (cancer charities) or a project that has to do with raising money for a local club or hospital.

The other view – and the population is roughly 50:50 divided according to personality type theory – considers this manner of begging an ethical insult on their autonomy for two reasons: firstly, the being forced to participate because it is expected (the sense of making the act of begging into a moral obligation) and secondly, the act of begging itself being presented as a legitimate way to get to your funds rather than to work for the money.

Note that (despite my own preference) I do not say that either view – “group-responsibility” or “self-accountability” – is right or wrong, since these differences are directly related to a person’s psychological type and thus to one’s inborn perspective of life.

I have defined “group responsibility” as “the sense of belonging to the community one lives in and the duty of every member to partake in what needs to be done” (Concerto for Mankind: 351). In other words, the community is expected to take priority over the individual; the responsibility to obey the moral values of the group and to do one’s duty comes with being a member of the group, regardless of whether that membership was a choice. Thus being born in a certain country or being legally obliged to attend school makes one a member with obligations.

I have defined “self-accountability” as “the expectation that a person actively chooses his membership in groups and is fully accountable for the obligations that follow from this choice” (Concerto for Mankind: 372). Thus the group is expected to allow for the views of each individual and being born in a place or a legal requirement to attend school does not make one morally responsible for participating in that group since it was not an autonomous decision.

Again, this is an inborn perspective difference that cannot be changed. Western society currently supports the first perspective and thus believes that all citizens should share this view or else be considered undemocratic, selfish, manipulative, psychopathic, antisocial and so on. Today, with the risk of pre-emptive justice based on such labels greater than ever, it is extremely important that people become aware of these different perspectives as being different expressions of normal human psychology.

Allow me some personal examples.

When I was young all the fifth and sixth graders of both public and religious primary schools were supposed to go door to door to sell “children’s stamps” – specially printed sets of postage stamps and postcards of which the proceeds went to a nationwide charity – once a year. Not only was each child expected to participate, but between schools it was a competition with some schools allowing their students to leave fifteen minutes early so as to get a head start.

I absolutely detested that project because it is not in my nature to go and ring the doorbell of a stranger to try and sell them something and because asking for money (regardless of whether it is in exchange for goods) is something I don’t like doing. Today, knowing personality type theory, I know why that is and I know that I’m not alone in this view, but when I was ten and eleven I felt forced to go to a few neighbours I knew and have my family buy the rest to prevent being berated at school by teachers saying I was antisocial, did not care for the poor people and was not helping the school win the most points.

Later, when I had my own family in the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, I have had children ringing my doorbell asking for money (usually in exchange for chocolate bars) for their local scout group, their local netball team or their school. My daughters have occasionally been given boxes of chocolate with the expectation they sell them – by the same schools that lecture these children about how bad chocolate is for your health.

If the child at the door was one I knew I’d usually buy something – so as not to burden them with my political views and for that same reason I gave my children the choice whether they wanted to participate – otherwise I turned those children away, especially those that wore some kind of uniform (scouts or school).

In New Zealand they regularly have high school children (in uniform) standing at street corners or in supermarkets trying to get shoppers to part with their money before buying their groceries – yet those same schools complain that parents are not giving their children proper lunches or enough milk. And as far as I know, scouts are supposed to help people in need not exploit others by putting children out to beg.

My policy with any charity is that you can send me things in my mailbox to make me aware of your existence, but if I want to donate I will come to you. The moment somebody accosts me, I feel that my privacy is invaded and turn them down on principle, regardless if what the cause is.

If a charity uses school children (during school hours), then in my view they are using class time to teach them how to beg. The key of the art involved is the use of the innocent looking and the obedient (in uniform) and the objective is to make the public feel guilty or ashamed and so entice them to donate.

This appeal to shame or guilt – if you don’t give your neighbours may see you – I consider totally unethical. Besides it being emotional blackmail, they are teaching children that it is okay to beg and that peer pressure is an acceptable tactic to force people into compliance.

Even more unethical I consider the begging we start seeing more and more on “reality TV”, where some so-called charity is offering to change somebody’s home (usually with a sob story as an excuse) but without the budget (from the TV producer or network) to actually pull it off, so they invade a local store (usually a small business trying to make ends meet) and literally ask them for free donations of material. The store owner has no choice but to say yes – after all there is a guy with a camera standing behind them, while the presenter of these programmes is no doubt getting a fat salary out of the deal, as is the producer.

This attitude, in which school children and viewers are made to believe that begging is a moral good, equates the sad truth that some people do not have enough to eat with the moral choice of asking for favours using guilt and shame induction.

To me, begging is a desperate last resort for people who have nothing and it should not be made into a moral obligation.