Friday, 17 February 2012

Vampires and Zombies and Homeless Teens

This week I've watched a documentary on the homeless and hungry kids in the US, and this morning I've been reading an article about the way the new housing benefit caps are forcing young British kids (primarily those who live inner London) out of the neighbourhoods where they've grown up and into areas where housing is cheaper.

Desperation. Dislocation. Despair. Perfect fodder for a YA novelist who fancies herself a bit "gritty", right?
You'd think so. Then why is my heart sinking, not soaring?

Because I'm a writer of fiction, and these stories are all too real. That's one thing. This week's episode of Panorama highlighted an American family who lived in a cheap roadside motel. No feckless sponging workshy types in this story--when Dad lost the good job that kept the family in a comfortable house, he wasn't eligible for unemployment so he took another job. That, unfortunately,  paid too little for them to pay rent for anywhere larger than a motel room, so that's where the family now lives. The accommodation is cramped, the area is crime-ridden, the kids are stressed and have worries that are blighting their childhoods.

In the UK, the situation is slightly different, of course. There is something called housing benefit, which helps support needy individuals and families to pay their rent. The problems is, according to the Government, that too may families are living in high priced housing areas and it is "unfair" that that should be the case. If you can't afford to live in Westminster, you should live somewhere cheaper. Not a motel, necessarily, but a cheaper London borough, or another part of the country altogether, where your capped benefit will be enough to keep a roof over your head.  And, I suppose, there is a point of "fairness." When housing is so expensive for everyone, many people, even those with relatively steady and secure incomes, struggle to find an affordable house or flat, and have to compromise on location.

I get that.

But, as I said, as a writer there are certain elements that I'm forced to consider. The first thing, of course, is some sort of "agency" for a main character, some way for this boy or girl to find a solution, defeat the bad guys, slay the monster, get out of the mess they've found themselves in. How's the girl who lives in Marylebone and is about to be moved to another school, another borough to do her GCSEs going to find a solution for herself? The answer is, of course, that she isn't. So, the story would have to be about how she copes at her new school, how, with the help of some new friends, she succeeds against the odds, raising the hopes of her family in the bargain. OK. I can do that. And the boy living in the American motel? He, too, can find a way to rise above his circumstances, stand up to the drug-dealing monsters.

So that's encouraging. In fiction, as in reality, many young people are required to rise above the circumstances they find themselves in. Every day,  ordinary kids cope with serious issues such as bullying, bereavement, family breakup, crime. As I said before, poverty and homelessness are real--and have been treated sensitively and bravely by many writers for children and young adults.

But there's another story element that any writer has to consider--the villain. A good villain or nemesis is essential for any novel, regardless of genre. There must be a wicked witch or a big bad wolf or a troll under the bridge or, at the very least, an evil stepmother.

So, in the story of the homeless children in America or the young people whose education and stability is being disregarded and disturbed in the UK, who's the monster? Who do those kids need to slay in order to succeed in their real-life narrative? Is it their parents, who at some point might have made a wrong decision or run into a patch of bad luck--such as needing to flee from a war, perhaps?  Is it the government? A decent liberal is the President of the USA, and a seemingly benign coalition is in charge in the UK. Cameron and Clegg present themselves as "fair" and reasonable--hey we're all in this together, right?

As villains go, neither Barack Obama nor the Cameron/Clegg clones seem meaty enough. Where's the venom? Where's the mwah-hah-ha cackle? In short, where's Thatcher when you bloody need her? A proper villain--big bad wolf, wicked witch and evil stepmother all rolled into one?

So, the most demoralising thing about these stories is that there aren't any real bad guys here--there's only us.  There's only the society that we've willingly created, one that accepts that it's "fair" that the poor get dislocated or demonised while the rich can avoid or escape taxation.

Finally, the other thing a good story needs is a sense of hope. A sense that things will get better, or that people will find away to thrive--or at last survive-- in spite of terrible obstacles. As people, we have the responsibility to raise our voices against government actions that we find unjust or unfair. We may not agree on politics or on what constitutes "fairness", but if we have both a voice and the right to speak, we should use them both to put our points of views across.

 And as writers, we have a responsibility to stay aware of the demons and dragons that are out there for young people. It's not all doom and gloom, of course, and the best writers, in my opinion, are the funny ones. But let's never forget that some vampires and werewolves and ghosts and zombies have human faces and look an awful lot like us.


  1. One of the things that impressed me about your book was how many shades of gray you found in painting your characters. There is only us, indeed. The devil is not in the detail but in all the happenstance we find ourselves in. Nice one!

  2. Great post, I watched that programme too and it was heartrending as these people were not there through laziness. You raise some very important points that have made me think a lot.You are right there is only us but maybe we can write the books that give these kids the hope that they can get out of this alive and with a future. Thank you

  3. I hope so too, Ness. Thanks for your comment...

  4. So perhaps the villain is despair? Or even complicity and complacency? I see interesting parallels in the Arab Spring, but a year on it's easy to see all of the flaws and unanswered questions that revolution leaves in its wake.

    I've been trying the opposite approach and imagining worlds where these problems have been solved. I hope that by reflecting such a fantastical world onto ours, I can help young people to see the possibilities in the future as well as the pitfalls.

    Or maybe I'm just in denial ;-)

  5. Good point, Nick. Despair certainly is one villain...and one that has to be overcome. You're right that we need present an optimistic view of the future, as long as we're aware of the obstacles that keep the fantastical from becoming reality. Excellent comment, Nick. Thanks!