From the suffering of the Kurds to the situation in present day Ramallah, Elizabeth Laird’s novels engage powerfully with the complexities of the world we live in, its history and its contemporary injustices. Elizabeth Laird explains what inspires her to write for young readers and how she responds to ‘running into flak’.
We are living through a time of rapidly changing social norms, and a writer has to have her wits about her or she’ll stir up a hornet’s nest. When attempts to be politically correct are based on empathy, fairness and the desire not to degrade other groups of people, I fully approve of them. When such decisions are taken out of fear, or a desire to appear progressive, I don’t approve of them.
My first novel, Red Sky in the Morning, published in 1988, was inspired by my little brother Alistair, who had multiple disabilities and died at the age of 3. His life and death had a profound influence on my childhood and I wrote about it as honestly as I could.
In 1995, the Integration Alliance organised a conference with the aim of bringing to the attention of all in the book trade the portrayal of disabled children in children’s books. I was shocked when I realised how bad the situation was. In classic tales, good characters are usually handsome and able-bodied, while bad characters are disfigured and disabled. Just think of Rumpelstiltskin, Long John Silver and Captain Hook. In other stories, disabled people are pitiable, like Tiny Tim, or spoilt, like Colin in The Secret Garden. They often die, they’re excluded from mainstream life, and the focus of a book is often on a self-sacrificing carer.
To my dismay, Red Sky in the Morning was held up as an example of bad practice by some members of the Alliance. Attempts were made to have it banned from school libraries. All these years later, I see that it was necessary for the Integration Alliance to take no prisoners in their battle to improve a bad situation. The good thing, from my point of view, was that my eyes were opened to a real problem. I have included characters with disabilities in several of my books since then. In The Listener, for example, the plot turns on the ability of a deaf girl to lip-read. As a direct result of the controversy, I worked with disabled children partnered by authors on a book of short stories. Called Me and my Electric it went out of print almost immediately. However, I stand by Red Sky in the Morning and do not apologise for it.
Forays into international politics
My next novel, Kiss the Dust, was my first foray into international politics. I wrote it with trepidation, expecting brick bats. Set in Iraq, it was written in 1990. The characters are Kurds, who are forced to flee Iraq because of Saddam Hussein’s repression, and seek asylum first in Iran, and then in Britain. My editor suggested that I should soften my criticism of the Iraqi government, but I’d lived in Iraq and met many Kurdish people, so I stood my ground, and events soon made her realise that if anything I hadn’t been critical enough. I’m still waiting for a Kurd to reproach me for stealing their stories, but this has never happened. In fact, I learned that efforts were being made to discover the true identity of the Kurdish author masquerading under the name Elizabeth Laird.
It’s always been a puzzle to me why so many first class children’s writers (and indeed adult writers) are still writing about the first and second world wars. The old tectonic plates grinding against each other in Europe have long settled into immobility, and we focus on them at the expense of trying to understand the hugely important forces at play in the 21st century of which many people are woefully ignorant and ill-informed.
Which brings me to A Little Piece of Ground, a novel for young teens set in present-day Ramallah. It’s written from the point of view of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, who is living under Israeli military occupation, subject to frequent curfew. In writing this novel I knew I was courting controversy. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank is a running sore that is having a seriously destabilizing effect on the Middle East and indeed on the whole world. Many people have a life-long emotional investment in one side or the other, and feelings run high. I’m not surprised that some people found the book offensive. If everyone had approved of it, it could not have been truthful.
The decision to write A Little Piece of Ground was not taken lightly. Its background was a summer I spent with an Israeli family in Jerusalem in 1968, a year living in Beirut during the civil war in the 1970s, when I got to know many Palestinian refugees, and visits in 2002 to Gaza and Ramallah to run workshops for Palestinian writers, when I was extremely shocked by the conditions I found there. It was then that I met Sonia Nimr, and the germ of the novel was planted. We agreed to collaborate. I went back to Ramallah, stayed with her, and we planned the book together.
In A Little Piece of Ground I chose to speak with the voice of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy. People will have different views on whether this is a voice that has a right to be heard. But a consequence of my decision was that the boy’s hostility to the Israeli occupiers would inevitably be strongly felt and expressed, and that looking out through his eyes would diminish any chance of seeing the conflict from the other side.
The only Israelis seen by children in Occupied Palestine are soldiers staring at them down the barrels of their guns, holding them up at checkpoints, or breaking in to search their houses. I wanted to include a sympathetic Israeli character. Regretfully, I realised that this would be sentimental and untruthful. Some Israelis are making heroic efforts to end the occupation or at least to control its most harmful effects. Sadly, there are very, very few within the Occupied Territories. But in spite of the glimpses I have tried to give of the humanity of the occupying soldiers, it is true that the reader’s sympathy is engaged on the side of the occupied.
An inevitable controversy followed the publication of A Little Piece of Ground. There were some good reviews and some critical reviews. Some friends signalled that they would prefer not to talk about it. Macmillan received some abusive emails. American publishers avoided it, until, after vociferous lobbying in California, a small left-wing publisher took it on. The real fall-out for the book has been the timidity of teachers and librarians to read it and recommend it in case they are accused of anti-Semitism. This is the kind of political correctness of which I don’t approve. I think we should encourage children to look at the difficult stuff. Lynne Reid Banks’s books, Broken Bridge and One More River, give an alternative view.
Understand different ideas and points of view
Crusade, an historical novel, rose out of my fury at the folly of the west in invading Iraq in the name of freedom and democracy, repeating the arrogance of the Crusaders a thousand years ago. The novel features two main characters: an English Christian boy, and a Muslim Saracen boy. We follow their lives during the course of the Crusade, and hopefully empathize with both. This seemed a fairly uncontroversial approach, but I received a reproachful email from a gentleman in Cheshire. The book, he said, ‘was yet another example of the prevailing fashion of denigrating Christianity and extolling Islam’.
The next story I embarked upon concerned one of the great issues of our day: people trafficking, a horrible trade which affects children from all over the world in many different ways. There are literally thousands of trafficked children living in the UK. Through a contact in Save the Children, I went off to Pakistan to find out about the little boys, some as young as four years old, who are trafficked to the Gulf to ride camels in races. On the way back from Pakistan I stopped off in Dubai, went to the races and met the head of the camel racing association. The novel that came out of that experience is called Lost Riders. I’ve been bracing myself for a reaction, both from Pakistanis, who might object to my bleak portrayal of rural life and poverty in their country, and from Gulf Arabs, who would certainly dislike my description of the horrors of life for the little jockeys. So far, nothing has happened. But I fear this is simply that the book hasn’t crossed the radar of either Pakistan or the UAE.
My latest novel, The Witching Hour, is set in 17th-century Scotland, but is in fact an attempt to look at fundamentalist religion working within and against the state: a serious contemporary problem. I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a good experience on the whole, and though I no longer adhere to a closed system of beliefs, I do feel a sympathy with those who need such a creed, so I wanted to look at the problem, as it were, from somewhere near the inside. The Witching Hour was inspired by various ancestors: a young woman called Margaret Laird who was arraigned as a witch in 1698, but mercifully was not executed, and several Covenanters – Presbyterians who preferred death, torture and imprisonment at the hands of Charles II’s troops, to submission to the king’s will in matters connected to the church. I was surprised to learn that an American publisher is keen to do the book in the USA. I shan’t be at all surprised if I get some outraged fundamentalist reaction.
In a sense, all this reaction and counter reaction to the situations I explore in my books is frothy stuff. It’s the inner conflict within and between the characters that counts.
The impact of fiction on young readers is incalculable. Older children and young adolescents are starting to position themselves vis-a-vis the world they live in, to try to understand different ideas and points of view, to know what underlies the news that bombards them every time they turn on their computers. I feel a sort of compulsion to weigh in and tackle some old prejudices and modern ignorance. But oh dear, how horribly worthy that sounds! The truth is that I don’t know why I write what I write. I just do it. Stuff bubbles up inside me and wants to come out. When outraged of Tunbridge Wells responds, I have to listen and either say, ‘It’s a fair point, and I’ll learn from what you say,’ or ‘Sorry, mate. I stand by what I’ve written. If you don’t like it, write a book yourself.’
This article is a shortened version of a paper given at the UK Section IBBY conference on 13 November 2010.
Details of books mentioned
(published by Macmillan unless otherwise listed)
Crusade, 978 0 330 45699 9, £6.99 pbk
Kiss the Dust, 978 0 230 01431 2, £5.99 pbk
The Listener, A & C Black ‘Colour Graffix’, 978 1 4081 2235 8, £4.99 pbk
A Little Piece of Ground, 978 0 330 43743 1, £5.99 pbk
Lost Riders, 978 0 330 45209 0, £5.99 pbk
Red Sky in the Morning, 978 0 330 44290 9, £4.99 pbk
The Witching Hour, 978 0 330 47210 4, £6.99 pbk