We live in a time of conflict, but then, we have always lived in a time of conflict.
Worldwide, there are 57 wars of conflicts currently happening, as of September 2019 (1). These range from wars between nations, and internal armed conflicts, to minor conflicts and clashes. Four wars in the past year have each caused at least 10, 000 lives to be lost due to direct violence. The known deaths in the past twelve months because of armed conflicts totals almost 100, 000. These numbers of course don’t include those permanently physically injured, mentally scarred, or displaced.
On a domestic level in the UK, we have been experiencing years of political conflict, campaigning, and referendums. The population argue over differences of opinion regarding Scottish independence, leaving the European Union, and ten years of austerity under the Tory government.
In real terms, this causes conflict on a societal level, as the right-leaning media backs austerity and blames faceless “benefits scroungers” and “floods of illegal migrants” for the country’s woes. And while we’re distracted, behind the scenes they dismantle the NHS [National Health Service], part by part, and squirrel away their tax-free cash in offshore bank accounts. Addicted to the perpetual accumulation of wealth.
We find clashes of opinion within families, workplaces, and friendship groups. Rather than working together against a common enemy (the powerful ultra-rich), we are tricked into living in exhausting, ongoing, low-level conflict. Classic divide and rule.
And, so how does this affect our storytelling?
Since the early 2010s, there has been a proliferation of dystopian novels and films, particularly in the YA [Young Adult] genre. Often, a young person shoulders the responsibility of saving all humanity. Some well-known examples include The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, and Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. We are now seeing post-apocalyptic YA novels published, such as War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi and London Shah’s The Light at the Bottom of the World – directly influence by climate change (2).
With the recent dismissive and inappropriate comments from old, white, rich, privileged men such as Donald Trump and Piers Morgan towards young climate activist Greta Thunberg, it seems like life reflecting art. They dismiss her to try and maintain the power imbalance, skewed in their favour. Why are they so fearful of a powerful young woman? We know we cannot rely on the empty promises from these ‘leaders’ to address global conflicts and issues.
More books which focus on climate change are being published for younger readers – from lift-the-flap picture books for toddlers, through to primary school age children (3). Examples include Saving Species by Jess French, and Planet Full of Plastic by Neal Layton. For animated stories suitable for toddlers and pre-schoolers, the Go Jetters (CBeebies) team travel around the globe, addressing environmental issues. These stories manage to be uplifting and thought-provoking, and are embroidered into our children’s world now, in a way they were not for us.
Parents constantly question how to find the best balance between allowing young children to feel informed about important issues, versus causing them undue anxiety and feelings of responsibility. We can encourage our children to consume less, recycle, support them to attend climate strikes, and so on. But we know that this micro-level of change doesn’t make a significant impact against petrochemical giants. How do we avoid our children feeling their actions are futile at such a young age? We have to empower them – especially girls, children of colour, those with additional needs, and young people from other historically marginalised groups. And storytelling helps immensely with this.
We can teach our children about people who have come before us who have defeated the odds; who have made incredible discoveries in science and green technology; and who have helped others. Books such as Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst, the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series by Elena Favilli, and Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks are at once timely and timeless, readdressing gender expectations. For younger children, Andrea Beaty’s rhyming picture books (Rosie Revere Engineer, Ada Twist Scientist, Iggy Peck Architect) are fun to read, and plant the idea early on that women and girls can achieve great things. They spark the imagination; they empower young readers. And they help parents discuss important issues with them.
Although it has fallen from mainstream media coverage, the Amazon Rainforest is still burning as of October 2019 (4). There are also countless news reports from different countries of indigenous people losing lands, and often their lives. We know that in many regions, indigenous people continue to be exploited and wronged.
At the same time, in some places, there appears to be a slow resurgence of support for indigenous language, art, and storytelling. In New Zealand, Māori language has been undergoing a revival within state education and popular music (5). Disney’s hit Moana featured Polynesian animated characters and voice actors. In Peru, a court issued its first ruling in their indigenous Quechua language in July (6) and the country has selected Retablo by Alvaro Delgado Aparicio, a Quechua-language film, to submit to the international film feature category at the 2020 Oscars.
In Scotland, our official recognised languages are (Scottish) English, Scots, and (Scots) Gaelic. Whereas it used to only happen in rural highland and island communities, we now have Scots Gaelic-medium schooling at primary and secondary level in the capital city of Edinburgh and our largest city, Glasgow. Further to that, there is increasing academic and mainstream recognition of Scots as its own language, rather than a marginalised (and historically outlawed) dialect of English (7). The Scots Language Centre website is fully translatable from English into Scots as the click of a button – something that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago. The Scottish Book Trust hold regular competitions for creative writing in English, Scots, and Gaelic – we all have different stories to tell, and if we are bilingual or multilingual, we will tell it differently in one of our languages. Picture books in Scots for children include Ye Canne Shove Yer Granny Aff a Bus by Katheryn Selbert , Katie’s Coo by Karen Sutherland, and The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson translated into Scots (by James Robertson) and Glaswegian Scots (by Elaine C. Smith).
So, here we have a process of reduction of conflict (accepting Scots as a language and promoting its usage rather than outlawing or dismissing it) leading to an increase in sharing, storytelling and publications. If a minority language or dialect is not recognised and legitimised, it lurks in the margins and stories go untold.
Here – ye cannae do nu’hin yersel
Against this burning
We melt in a puddle
Sea watter risin’
But if we rise
Diffrin’ herts, an’ mooths ae wurds
To see the light, unite, and be the difference
(Amy B. Moreno, 2019)
We know that we are living in a time of conflict – violent, economic, political, and environmental. All of these factors shape the stories we tell and share. But along with the darkness, in times of conflict we may see unexpected collaborations and developments which support different kinds of storytelling, hopefully giving a voice to those previously marginalised and silenced: women, children, people of colour, minority language speakers, and other groups. We need to share our stories, and embrace the differences. Following recent scientific reports on plastic pollution, and rising temperatures and sea levels, it may be our only hope. The story of conflict we are living right now is certainly worth writing and reading about it, but – alane – it is increasingly terrifying to be living.
(2) ‘So you want to bring back dystopian YA? Here’s why it never left’ by Nadia Ali: https://bookriot.com/2019/07/02/bring-back-dystopian-ya/
(3) Newsletter (20.9.19) by Picture Book Post by Hachette Children’s Group
(4) ‘Photos Show ‘Fire Warriors’ are still Fighting Fires in the Ravaged Amazon Rainforest’ by James Pasley, Business Insider 9.10.19: https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-rainforest-fire-fighting-photos-brazil-bolivia-2019-10?r=US&IR=T
(5)‘Maori has gone mainstream: the resurgence of New Zealand’s te reo language’ by Eleanor Ainge Roy in The Guardian 28.7.18: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/28/google-disney-maori-new-zealand
(6) ‘Peruvian court rules in language of the Incas’ by Martin Morgan 19.9.19 on BBC news: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-49046742
(7) Scots Language Centre – Centre for the Scots Leid: https://www.scotslanguage.com/