Do you have a favourite book autographed by the author?
No, not that one. This one. Queen Emily has called upon me and thus, as a loyal subject, I must respond forthwith.
I give you Emily’s Eleven Questions Meme:
My literary crush on Lionel Shriver resurfaced with a vengeance this week when BBC Radio 4 broadcast its excellent adaption of We Need to Talk About Kevin, followed by an interview with the author. This book is a favourite of mine, and I’ve not been swayed by the complaints I’ve heard from almost everyone I know that its subject matter is “too hard”. For those of you who haven’t read or heard of it, Kevin tells the chilling story of a woman who has failed, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child. The vile Kevin takes a crossbow to school and massacres his schoolmates, and society blames his mother. The reason I remain in awe of Shriver’s achievement is the fact that the subject matter is hard, and that it is a remarkable imaginative feat to conjure up a Kevin and the family that made him. Imagine spending so many creative hours, months and years in the company of a monster. Imagine spending so much creative time painstakingly detailing the hideously ambivalent feelings of his mother despite not being a parent yourself. I stand in awe.
Aspiring writers are frequently fed the homily to “write what you know”. Shriver patently ignored this to write her novel. She admits in the interview that she did some research, but quickly grew bored with it, and just got on with the actual writing project. The essence of the broadcast interview is that psychoanalysts and therapists are using Shriver’s book to understand better relationships of abuse between children and parents. While this is a huge compliment for the author, and she is gracious about it, she is at pains to reiterate that the book is a work of fiction and not an academic text. She recalls a psychologist using the fact that Eva’s father has died to analyse her inability to relate to Kevin, and laughs, “She doesn’t have a father because I killed him off so I didn’t have another character to write about”.
While I find it inspiring that a novel can be so true, can pierce so accurately to the heart of things, that it can become a kind of handbook for practitioners, the main inspiration I take from Shriver’s writing is her fearless imagining of the dark side, her refusal to shun repellent characters and her imaginative leap into things unknown to her.
The novel I am writing is set in South Africa, because that is what I know, but also because my heart has a story to tell there. One of things that has been holding me back is my fear of writing a black protagonist. Now call me a product of apartheid, or call me what you will, but to me that seemed such a presumptuous act: assuming that I might have an inkling of what black experience in South Africa has been like, assuming that I have the right to try to write that. During my years at UCT, where I studied African Literature, we were taught by some that it is an act of colonialism to try appropriate someone’s experience. Each time I started this novel, I faltered because how could I write a novel set in South Africa without black characters? Was it not even more patronising to only represent black people from the white prism? How could I even begin to represent multiplicity if my novel’s perspective was white-only? Was that not racist in itself?
Those of you who read my last post will know that I have started the first few steps towards writing a black protagonist. It’s simultaneously terrifying and thrilling, and I am already more than a little in love with Lindiwe. Luckily for her and me it is not her job alone to hold up the foundations of the story; there are others. Listening to the adaption of Shriver’s book, however, reminded me that writing can be a bold act, and that’s what I aspire to: daring and fearless feats of imagination. I don’t have to write what I know.
I’ve just finished reading Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult’s version of the American school shooting phenomenon, in which she attributes the shooter’s act of vengeance to years of systematic bullying. Picoult spins a good tale, broad, encompassing, but never deep. Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, deals with the same subject matter – what makes a teenage murderer, how a community responds, how parents of a murderer feel – but far more provocatively and urgently. Her tale of a mother who fails, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child, is chilling. If I had to choose between the two, I would recommend the latter. I admire Shriver’s brutal honesty and her determination to tackle deeply unpleasant topics.
Shriver’s story posits that Kevin, the teenage murderer, arrives on the planet evil. This alone, without the story’s horrific denouement, is hard to digest. We want to believe that babies are innocent, until we slowly imprint our weaknesses on them. We want to believe that the parents of an amoral child did their best to teach him. And we certainly want to believe that such a child might take revenge his schoolmates but never on his own family.
The murderer in Picoult’s tale starts out as an ordinary child, perhaps one who is more sensitive than most. On his first day of kindergarten, the bullying begins and it never stops. Each day at school is one of humiliation, shame and beatings. One part of the story I found hard to accept is that the adults around him, his parents and his teachers, are never aware of the extent of the bullying. His parents try to make him more acceptable to his peers by forcing him to play soccer, but continually compare him to his brother Josh who is socially competent, academic and sporty. Josh also teases his brother at school, calling him a “freak”, and how this fails to pan out in the family is never addressed.
In comparison to Shriver’s meaty broth, Picoult’s novel is a thin gruel, competent but never entirely satisfying. However, it did make me think a little more about bullying and how children loathe difference. When Lily arrived in her little German school class last year, she was swiftly dumped by the one child from her own kindergarten (they have since reconciled) and was left to face the hordes on her own. After two weeks of hearing that no-one wanted to play with her at break-time, I went on a playdate offensive, inviting children round, baking welcoming muffins and letting them see that while Lily may be a little different from the German norm in that she comes from an English/South African background, she is loved and cherished just like they are. Now she has lovely little friends, from whom she remains slightly independent, as is her way. Had I left it, perhaps she would have managed on her own, but perhaps she would not have. I’m just glad I acted swiftly.
However, with bullying on my mind, it was interesting that she came home today with list of rules for good behaviour at school. The children have cut them out and stuck them in their work books, and they are discussing them in class with their teacher. The rules are:
We listen to each other, and to the teacher
We don’t laugh at anyone when they make a mistake
We don’t blame each other
We help each other
We don’t run in the classroom, only in the playground
We speak politely to each other
We let each other finish our sentences
We keep our desks tidy
We work quietly, so as not to disturb each other
We solve our conflicts without violence
We wait our turn quietly
We put up our hands when we want to speak
I don’t know if this is school policy, or just the policy of Lily’s teacher, but I think they are a great set of principles, ones according to which I’d be happy to raise my children.