Recently, after reading one of my books, No Guns At My Son’s Funeral, about a young boy’s introduction to terrorism in Kashmir, a girl said to me, “I had always heard of people dying in Kashmir, never thought that there were people living there too.” Death was not the stranger to this young girl, it was life in this case.
When you fracture your arm, you set it back with plaster. When you cut yourself, you put a bandage on it. When your stomach hurts, you take a painkiller. But when your heart hurts, your emotions rage, you are supposed to look the other way. You are supposed to tie your hurt with a pretty pink bow and pretend that the hurt never happened.
This is what I am finding in the field of children’s literature. I am constantly asked why I would write such dark stories for young people. Why not let them live happily in the world of make believe?
My answer to those people is, “Because the monsters are already here. And they are real.” I am not introducing young people to the horrors of terrorism, marginalisation, violence, bullying, death, divorce or abuse. They already know this. They know that a young girl was raped, they know that Kashmir is wracked with conflict. They know that people can die, that parents can and do get divorced.
The monsters already exist
After the story of a 10-year-old girl who became pregnant after repeated rape broke, I wrote an article in a magazine on the need for writing about rape, especially for young people. A story that empowers a young person to take positive action. I was inundated by responses after that story. Total strangers and very dear friends wrote and said they wished that they had read such a story when they were growing up. Many of these women admitted to me that they were rape victims and had been totally helpless. “Bebas”, as one said.
Just yesterday, I met a young musician who said that he was recently walking along a street when it suddenly struck him that he had been a victim of sexual abuse. Repeatedly. At the time, he hadn’t had a name for it. He hadn’t even realised that what was happening to him should not be happening. He only realised it when the prevalence of sexual abuse became part of open discussion in the world around him as an adult. I was so moved by what he had said because here was another instance that convinced me that we need stories like these.
Yet writers like me, like Ranjit Lal (author of Smitten and Faces in the Water which tackle sexual abuse and female foeticide), Payal Dhar (author of Slightly Burnt, which speaks about sexuality), Ruksana Khan (author of Wanting Mor, the story of a girl in Afghanistan who loses a parent) are constantly questioned about the subject choices of our books.
Trust the wisdom of children
Are we really saying that our young people are too brittle and fragile to deal with these subjects? But aren’t they dealing with them in any case and in any way they can? I know for a fact that much of these subjects are a part of their conversations in one way or another. Instead of throwing a shroud over it, it is better to expose the wound, treat it and make it whole rather than let the maggots of hatred, suspicion and helplessness fester in them.
I was recently part of a book discussion at the Singapore Writer’s Festival with a part Maori writer Whiti Heraka titled “How dark is too dark for children’s literature?” Whiti’s writing pushed boundaries far beyond those that Indian books are used to, talking about violence and drugs in what can only be described as a truthful manner. Similarly, at another conference, I was confronted with a very graphic description of the aftermath of rape in a Swedish novel for teens. Both times, I thought – maybe this is too dark for younger readers. But then, the more I interact with young people, the more I am convinced that we need to trust them to make their choices when it comes to the books they read.
I myself grew up in a house that had open shelves. We were free to pick up any one of the thousands of books in the house and we were never asked to choose what is “age appropriate”. As a result, I read Bertolt Brecht and Jean Paul Satre along with Winnie the Pooh and took what I could from all of them. I was certainly not impacted negatively by any of it. That is because there was nothing really known as Young Adult literature then. There were kids’ books and then those for grown-ups.
But I am glad that Young Adult literature has come about. I think in today’s confusing world where young people have all the access to information, but no real way to process that knowledge, a really good story that deals with the issue in their language, putting a person like them in a particular situation, is a powerful, empowering tool.
Light at the end of the tunnel
I don’t necessarily offer an answer through my own writing. What I want is for my reader to start thinking for themselves. To try and find their own answers. So I just want to let them know that the answer is right there, that they do not have to feel like helpless beings with no way out of a dark situation. When telling a story about domestic violence to young people, I always find some of them who turn chalk-white and teary while listening. It is obvious that they are witnessing violence in their own lives. By the end of the story, I see them engaged and listening carefully when my character finds a recourse out of this horrible situation.
Time and time again, I have had young children come up and tell me that the stories showed them that there is a way out. Had someone asked them in class if there was domestic violence in their own homes, they would not have been able to come forward. But because it came through the safety net of a story, one that they could identify with, they were able to open up.
This is what stories can do. They can, at the very least, show that there is light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The wounds are already there but stories can heal.