Friday, 15 February 2013

A Tough Week to be Female

I'm not sure if what I'm going to write is really appropriate for my doesn't have an awful lot to do with writing, or children's literature. Well, maybe it does, I don't know.

But on the week that saw a hefty global turnout for One Billion Rising, recent news events, both in the UK and across the world, have highlighted how timely this event was, and demonstrated the importance of this organisation's efforts to end violence against women.

We've seen, in the past few months, horrific accounts of  fatal sexual assaults against two young women, one in Delhi, the other in a village near Cape Town. Here in the UK we've learned about the attacks on girls and young women by celebrities, as well as the grooming and abuse experienced by young music students. What is clear in these UK cases (the Saville attacks, and the abuse at the Chetham's School of Music) is that this abuse leaves emotional scars that last for decades. It's only as middle aged women that the victims felt strong enough to report what happened to them when they were younger.

Yesterday came the news that Reeva Steenkamp in South Africa was apparently shot dead by the athlete Oscar Pistorius. The mainstream media has focused almost exclusively on the alleged killer's "fall from grace" and shown pictures of his tearful court appearance, as if this tragedy was primarily about him, not the innocent victim. Tony Parsons, on Twitter, at least mentioned "the girl", and implied that it was a tragedy for Pistorius' many admirers as much as it was for her. Yeah. Poor "us."

And then, on ITV's This Morning programme, people were asked to consider whether women who got drunk or flirted "deserved to be attacked." The programme makers were rightly condemned for their ludicrous (and allegedly "controversial") question, but I find it amazing that allegedly intelligent people could think, let alone speak, such monstrous bullshit.

However, in incident after incident, crime after crime, there is an attempt to blame women for failing to live up to some standard that makes their attackers or killers less than totally culpable. I don't know whether or not Pistorius did, in fact, mistake Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder, but the initial reaction from mainstream and social media seemed to be a knee-jerk desire to make this tragic killing somehow justifiable. It's as if sportsmen were temporarily deemed incapable of harming or killing their partners. Seems like a weird amnesia, until you consider how many crimes committed by professional sportsmen are quickly glossed over and forgotten.

OK, so does any of this have to writing for young adults?

If we want to write truthfully about the lives of teenagers, we can't ignore the traumas they sometimes face, and sexual abuse and assault (as well as other types of "domestic" abuse) are very real, and far too prevalent. This doesn't mean that we have to write novels that deal explicitly with rape (though several YA contemporary novels do--Jenny Downham's "You Against Me"  is unflinching in its treatment of sexual assualt and of the effect that it has on two young couples and their families.) But I think that those of us who write for this age group need to be aware of both the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse within relationships, and the social stigma that keeps young women from seeking justice, or even help.

The statistics on abuse are mind-numbingly terrifying, and don't seem to be improving even though women's social status continues to rise. The NUS reports that 1 in 7 female university students in Britain have been the victim of sexual violence or assault, and in 60% of cases, the perpetrator was a fellow student. Only 4% of the victims reported the crime to their institutions; only 10% reported it to the police. Their reasons for not reporting are familiar--feelings of shame or embarrassment, and the fear that they would be blamed or held responsible.

Time and time again, young people feel they will not be listened to. Time and time again they fear being blamed for the crimes that have been committed against them. This happens now, and it happened years ago, as we've seen with the Saville and Cheltam's cases. And if we look at the NUS statistics, it's clear that many young men are still internalising this attitude. How many of  these male students considered themselves abusers?  Of course, most female students aren't abused, and the vast majority of male students (or men, for that matter!) aren't abusers, but attitudes seem frustratingly ingrained. It seems we just can't shake the old hypocrisies and double-standards.

Breaking down these psychological and social barriers to justice and sexual equality may not be the job of writers.  But it is our job to keep the tangled, troubling experiences of young people forefront in our mind. It's our job to tell the truth, and not be afraid to tackle subjects that some (OK, all) gatekeepers might (OK, will) squawk at.

Young people have a right to be heard--and believed. It's our job as writers to let them know that we're listening.

Symbol of the White Ribbon Campaign. An organisation  of men working to end violence towards women. 


Friday, 8 February 2013

National Libraries Day--Still More Than Just Books

Saturday, 8 February, National Libraries Day in the UK. This wonderful event was set up three years ago to highlight the threat of library closures across the country and to celebrate the amazing work that's done by Britain's trained and dedicated professional librarians.

Last year, I wrote the following post for National Libraries Day. One year on, libraries seem more precious than ever...  

For most of us, libraries are about books. About cultivating the love and joy of reading.

But libraries serve the public, and the public good, in other ways...

My husband grew up in West London. His family was not bookish (and neither was he, for the most part--playing football was his obsession). But he was an intelligent kid who had lost out in the 11+ selection lottery of those days and was sent by the local LEA to a less-than-inspiring or enabling Secondary Modern. 

However, Jim wanted to learn--even though the system had determined that he had no right to--and and he wanted to carry on with his education.

To do that he needed to find things out--information about colleges, about what exams he might need to get to university. His parents, though highly supportive, couldn't really offer him much help in this area and the system, as I said, had already written him off.

So where could he and his family go for guidance? There was no internet in the 1970s, so where could they find the information needed to improve Jim's chances in life?

In the library, of course--his very own search engine, as he once called it.   

The local library provided him with information. and with trained professionals who could help him find it. It  also became the safe, quiet space where, once he began his post-16 education, he could work and study. 

Jim ended up becoming a university lecturer. He's taught thousands of young people throughout his career, and probably values comprehensive education more than anyone I know. He had to fight for his chances-- they certainly weren't handed to him as a matter of course--and he hates to see anyone denied the opportunities he was finally able to take advantage of.  Don't talk to him about how great grammar schools were, OK?  Just don't...

Libraries have changed since those days, of course. But there are still plenty of Jims in the UK. There are still avid readers (more than ever, in these hard times) for whom books are not part of the standard household kit. There are still plenty of students who don't have access to the internet at home, or an adequate study area, or who need a quiet, safe, and free space to linger over an essay or just be alone for awhile. 

If we care about people, young, old or in-between, we must care about these valuable public spaces. Closing libraries--or limiting access hours or the numbers of trained librarians--limits opportunity, diminishes life chances and lessens social mobility.

Libraries are great equalisers, and they are there for us all, regardless of age or ability to pay. We lose more than just books if we let them disappear.  


Saturday, 2 February 2013

My Advice to Debut Writers

Whether or not your debut novel is the first of many published books or a one-hit wonder, whether your books sells 50 copies or 50 million--a publishing debut is a once in a lifetime experience,

My book was published in June, 2012, and I have but one word for those of you whose first books will be coming out this year--or any year. CELEBRATE!

Look elsewhere for tips on promotion, building social media platforms, dealing with criticism or hype. I'm only here to talk about the PARTIES!

There's a famous saying that goes something like, "It's not the things we do that cause regret, but the things that we don't do."

So I'm glad that I did many things to celebrate the launch of At Yellow Lake. I'm glad that my husband took me out to dinner on the day I found that I was offered a deal with Frances Lincoln. I'm glad that, at the end of a long, delicious meal we stopped off at the Grand Hotel for champagne cocktails (thereby drinking up most of my advance..)

I'm glad that we spent my UK launch date in Paris, making a frenzied attempt to put a copy of my book into the hands of every literate-looking Parisian (there are an awful lot of them...)

 in order to take a picture. I'm glad we spent the entire day and night celebrating, because the 7th of June, 2012, will never happen again, and even if it did, I am getting a bit too old for these shenanigans...

I'm glad that I was able to launch my book in both the US and the UK. I'm glad I had cake--sweet,  book-shaped cake--at every event!

There aren't many things in the world of publishing that a writer can control, and very few writers are given an experience as wonderful as having a book published. So when your big day comes, my friends, put on your dancing shoes, crack open the champagne and stuff your cake-hole--that's what it's there for!