Children’s and Young Adult Fiction and the ‘war on terror’
In response to the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair launched their ‘war on terror’. Ten years on, how have children’s novelists responded to these political events and the climate they have created? Alan Gibbons explores.
In a recent article in The Observer* novelist Graham Swift argued that ‘the proper medium for what is of now is not the novel but journalism’. Few would argue. A novel that tries too hard to be ‘up to date’ and ‘relevant’ is likely to fail. Particularly in the age of 24 -hour news a novel can never capture day-to-day reality in the same way, nor should it attempt to do so. As Swift himself comments, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was written some fifty years after the conflict it describes. A novel is not reportage. Swift then goes on to qualify his comments:
‘(Novels are) there to take the long view, to show change and evolution, human behaviour worked on by time. But none of this means that novels, which can never be strictly of now, cannot have their own kind of "nowness" or have something which actually out-thrills the thrill of the merely contemporary. They can have immediacy.’
This immediacy is what I intend to explore in my examination of recent responses in children’s literature to the background of the ‘war on terror’ launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in response to the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001.
Dealing directly with terror
Every novelist has a different ‘take’ on the relationship between their narratives and characters and the social and historical context in which they unfold. The echoes of the Napoleonic Wars barely feature in the work of Jane Austen whereas the Luddites form an important part of the backdrop of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley. Neither approach is of itself superior, merely different and difference is one of the positive aspects of literature, the almost limitless interpretations individual writers make of the world around them.
In common with most of my work, my latest novel An Act of Love deals very directly with the events of the war on terror. It opens with eighteen-year-old soldier Chris Hook standing on a parade ground in his native Yorkshire. His phone buzzes and there is a text from his childhood friend Imran Hussain. The message is as simple as it is chilling:
‘There’s a bomb.’
The novel then alternates between the pair’s present day attempts to thwart the suicide bomber who is waiting somewhere in the barracks to detonate an explosive vest and the events from the start of the millennium onwards which brought the two boys to this moment. I hope I have steered well clear of the danger of writing reportage, but the characters do develop in an organic relationship with the epochal events changing the world around them. The events of 9/11, the street riots at the start of the decade, the emergence of far right populism, the appearance of extremist groups on the fringe of the Muslim community and the great march against the war in Iraq all feature prominently as does Chris’s almost accidental decision to join the Army and serve in Afghanistan.
The novel is firmly set in a realistic tradition. There are elements of the thriller and liberal use of flashbacks. The action ranges from Yorkshire to Helmand and back. I employ both the first and third person and I have multiple narrators. Whether by choice or by instinct – and I suspect it was a mixture of the two – I found myself reflecting the almost kaleidoscopic way most of us develop our understanding of the social and political events that contextualise the smaller dramas of our everyday lives. That interrelationship is at the heart of my book.
If the personal dramas of Chris and Imran were to be authentic, the detail had to be accurate. I conducted interviews with young British Muslims, serving soldiers and read numerous books about terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the development of what some people called ‘political Islam’. But, remembering Swift’s warning about reportage, the research had to supplement the narrative and give it authenticity, not overwhelm it. Every writer has their own way of achieving artistic distance from the material with which they are working.
First responses to the ‘war on terror’
Nicky Singer does it with what she calls: ‘maximum suspension of disbelief’. In one of the first responses to the war on terror, The Innocent’s Story, her protagonist Cassina is blown to pieces in a suicide bombing. Singer told me: ‘I thought I was more likely to find a “truth” in a highly fictionalised world than in a naturalistic one.’ This led to another choice – to invent the religion followed by the bombers in the story. Singer said: ‘The other advantage of an invented religion is that you can draw parallels. My religion has an equivalent of “jihad” but only to make it clear that, far from being exclusively associated with “holy war”…the predominant meaning…(is to)…get closer to god by overcoming bad desires.’
The Innocent’s Story was originally judged ‘too political’ for publication in America, but won well-deserved acclaim for, in one critic’s words: ‘raising questions of faith, loyalty and responsibility’. Singer’s treatment of the raw material of the war on terror is about as different to mine as it is possible to imagine. It is also triumphantly successful. She has achieved ‘nowness’, eschewing the naturalistic and concentrating on universal themes.
Mixing it by Rosemary Hayes introduces us to Fatimah, a ‘good girl’, a devout Muslim who is caught in an explosion that kills her best friend Aisha. The second central character Steve is caught up in the same explosion. Hayes tempts the reader with the idea of a Romeo and Juliet treatment that has appeared in several YA treatments of conflict, but does not make it the major focus. It remains no more than a teasing possibility.
After the bombing the press frames the story in a way that makes it look as if Fatimah had a white, non Muslim boyfriend and tended to him in preference to her Muslim friend, Aisha. This leads to both Fatimah and Steve finding themselves the victims of verbal abuse and worse. The novel, more naturalistic in its treatment of the material than Singer’s, is a convincing, honest and satisfying read. It is very carefully plotted, driving towards a conclusion that genuinely takes the reader by surprise.
Annabel Pitcher’s first novel My sister lives on the mantelpiece has been longlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize. It has a stunning opening: ‘My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London.’
Pitcher told me that the subject matter, a child killed in a bombing reminiscent of July 7th, caused the first agent to call the novel ‘commercially disastrous’. Fortunately, the second agent showed a better appreciation of the book’s value. Pitcher’s main character Jamie starts a new school where he has to sit next to Sunya, a Muslim girl. Because of what happened to his sister he feels very uncomfortable.
I asked Pitcher why she set the book in the Lake District. She told me: ‘I wanted to create the sense that Jamie is cut off from any source of support, both physically and emotionally. Second, I wanted to create a sense of irony: the father leaves London to get away from Muslims but ends up more personally affected by a Muslim family in an area that has one of the smallest Islamic populations in the UK. Finally, it was essential that Sunya and her family were different and individual. I didn’t want to create a stereotype. That’s why Sunya’s mother is a vet and the family owns a dog. Both are traditionally frowned upon in the Islamic faith.’
This is a story on an intimate human scale, affected by the war on terror but not trying to delineate it in any historical form. What attracts Pitcher is the detail of every day life and she communicates it beautifully.
The impact of wider forces
Anna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy is faster-paced and more directly concerned with the impact of wider forces on her protagonist Khalid’s life. Perera told me: ‘After 9/11 the world seemed out of control.’ She drew on her own mixed-race background to understand Khalid: ‘The fact he’s a Muslim is both relevant and irrelevant at the same time’, relevant in that he is drawn into the nightmare of Guantanamo in spite of his innocence, irrelevant in that he is an everyman character with whom we can easily empathise. In dealing with such controversial material Perera found that ‘the artistic pressure came first. I did masses of research but my main objective was to create believable characters and dramatic scenes’. She manages it with panache, exposing great injustice through the prism of one young man’s experiences.
Two debut novels complete my selection. Trent Reedy’s Words in the Dust, published in the UK this autumn, tells the story of Zulaikha growing up in Afghanistan. She has a cleft lip. The village boys mock her cruelly and call her Donkeyface. Her mother is dead, executed by the Taliban for possessing books. Her beloved sister is married off with catastrophic consequences. This is a harrowing tale of adversity and aspiration.
Trent Reedy found himself in Afghanistan as a member of the Iowa National Guard and the novel emerged from his experiences guarding reconstruction efforts. This is a very accomplished piece of work, poetic and emotive, with a considerable empathy for the female characters who are realised with great delicacy.
Catherine Bruton’s We Can Be Heroes is an astonishing, inventive, almost playful treatment of a blizzard of issues: honour killing, terrorism, far right extremism, racism, forced marriage, a race riot, a child disappearance. It is a mark of the author’s skill that they never become a morass of issues. They never overwhelm the story. The protagonist Ben’s father was killed in the 9/11 attacks. He meets Priti, a Muslim girl with a Hindu name. Employing a faux naïf tone, Bruton tells a big story with astonishing gusto and control. It is structured around a series of questions posed by Ben at the end of each section, reflecting on what has happened. In a way Bruton uses some of the techniques you might expect from a Paula Danziger or a Louise Rennison to frame her responses to a frightening world. I felt there was occasional inconsistency in the narrative voice, but that is a very minor criticism. This is a book that deals with serious issues in an endearing, humorous way. It is a remarkable piece of work.
All the writers discussed have tried to give imaginative coherence to the swirling unrealities and deceptions of the war on terror. It is for our readers to decide whether we have succeeded.
*June 5th, 2011
Twice shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Alan Gibbons is the winner of The Blue Peter Book Award 2000 ‘the book I couldn’t put down’ for Shadow of the Minotaur. He is the founder of the Campaign for the Book.
An Act of Love by Alan Gibbons (Orion, 978 1 8425 5782 2, £8.99 pbk)
The Innocent’s Story by Nicky Singer (Oxford, 978 0 1927 2617 9, £5.99 pbk)
Mixing it by Rosemary Hayes (Frances Lincoln, 978 1 8450 7495 1, £5.99 pbk)
My sister lives on the mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Indigo, 978 1 7806 2029 9, £6.99 pbk)
Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera (Puffin, 978 0 1413 2607 8, £6.99 pbk)
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy (Frances Lincoln, 978 1 8478 0271 2, £6.99 pbk)
We Can Be Heroes by Catherine Bruton (Egmont, 978 1 4052 5652 0, £6.99 pbk)