Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing the child's voice

Have any of you read Emma Donoghue’s Room?

The difficulty with talking about this book is that there’s almost no way of doing so without giving away key plot points.

Nevertheless, I can say that I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had me so gripped, and affected me so physically! At one stage I was reading in the bath and was so utterly compelled to keep reading, the water went completely cold around me and I didn't even notice.

I had some small misgivings — perhaps only to be discussed with those who have also read the book, in the comments, with a ‘spoiler alert’ — but they didn't take away from its overall impact.

The main reason I am mentioning the book here, though, is because I think it’s a great example of a novel written by someone who has used their access to a child's way of talking and seeing the world as material for writing.

Some of us have more access to our ‘child selves’ than others — or at least memory of what it was like to be young — and I’m not trying to suggest that you cannot understand or write from a child’s perspective unless you have kids… but it sure does help.

The authenticity of this book’s five-year-old narrator’s voice — with it’s cute grammatical errors and limited perspective — suggests close observation of her children.

I also felt great admiration for the 'Ma' character, who shows such remarkable creativity and discipline in raising and educating her child, under the most horrific and potentially damaging circumstances. And at the same time, this focus and need for routine that he requires has been her saviour.

Admittedly there were moments when I felt frustrated by the five-year-old narrative — not the character himself, who remains loveable throughout (quite a feat in itself), but the way his viewpoint kept you at a distance from the central horrors of the story.

But then I realised that this avoids the sensationalism that its theme could easily have exploited, and that this book is much more about the force of the parent–child bond. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of freedom and about a child's needs. Also their capacity for fierce love and courage.

I’m sure many of you have read it, so would love to hear your thoughts...

(And sorry not to respond to the very thoughtful comments on the previous post yet... will get to that ASAP).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Parenting: East versus West

My friend Sally Rippin today sent me this extraordinary article by lawyer and writer Amy Chua, called Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.

This story has attracted more comments (nearing 7,000 at last count!) than any story previously published by the Wall Street Journal, and has set off a fierce debate on so-called Eastern versus Western parenting styles.

It has waded into parenting territory at a time when there are various hot-button debates going on about whether modern kids have too little freedom, too much praise, too little real competition, too much pressure, too little responsibilities and so on, and so on.

Funnily for me, Chua's article is the first thing I've read since returning from a beach holiday (yesterday) where I deliberately focussed on being less controlling and less fearful in how I deal with my kids; to give them more trust, more room to explore their own boundaries and learn from their own mistakes. Holidays are a good time to work on that stuff!

I don't really understand the motivation for the kind of parenting Chua describes. While I sympathise with the need for discipline, and the role parents play in helping their kids to learn the benefits of hard work, her approach seems dangerously extreme to me.

Doubtless her "Eastern model" is a way to create children who have great technical proficiency. But for what? Where is the fun and the joy? And what of the role of creativity and the imagination?

Surely without that, you risk shaping an immature child, confused about their true motivations, who might be able to pay a note-perfect Rachmaninoff but can't invest it with any real emotional sensitivity, let alone create anything original of his or her own.

I'd love to know where you guys sit on this issue... And, while you're at it... on this one too!