Well, the holidays are over and I'm back at work. Now first things first: this article appeared right before Christmas and several people asked me to post it here, so here it is. It basically describes the whys and wherefores of what I've been doing the past couple of years. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it:
Literature: a voice of influence
(Published in The Author, the journal of the Society of
Authors, winter 2012.)
It happened quite by surprise – I fell in love with a place I knew nothing about. In 2006, we went on a family trip to Cambodia. We did volunteer work for ten days, criss-crossing the country’s dirt roads by bus, building houses in poor villages and working with children. It was meant to be one of those ‘learning experiences’ for our teenage son, but I was the one whose life was changed.
I was writing my first novel, Tangled Roots, and had no idea that I would ever want to write anything about Cambodia. But after that book was published and I was thinking about what to write next, the idea for A Clash of Innocents popped into my head. Fast forward to 2010 and you will see that novel being published by Ward Wood Publishing. I am a writer. I write stories about people I make up. So that should have been the end of it, right? Wrong, because the best part of the story was yet to come.
Many of us are lucky enough to go off and be inspired. Some of us can then create something out of that inspiration. But I realised I was one of the happy few who could bring the fruit of that inspiration back to the people who inspired me in the first place. And so I connected with a shelter in Siem Reap called Anjali House, which provides support for street kids and their families, and through them I founded a writing workshop for their teenagers. There I teach them to write poetry and stories in English, we publish a literary magazine, and then we hold a party where the kids stand up in front of a room of supporters and read from their work. I am now committed to running this programme three times a year, once on-site in Siem Reap, the other times via the internet.
To put this into some perspective, Cambodia is a country still scarred by the 1970s self-inflicted genocide led by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Fifty percent of the population is under the age of twenty-five; 32% under fifteen. Imagine taking the characters from The Lord of the Flies and asking them to create a country – that would be Cambodia today and that is what my novels are now about. That is also what my workshop aims to address. Through writing, I am helping the children of Cambodia find their places in the future, find a future for their country, find their own self esteem, and exercise their otherwise untapped abilities in conceptual thinking. I believe these are the antidotes to poverty and corruption. And that is the real story here.
When I came back to London from Cambodia after first setting up the workshop, everyone congratulated me. ‘What an incredible thing you’ve done!’ they all said. ‘How did you ever think of it?’ Everyone was amazed. But I was amazed by their reaction. I didn’t do anything special. I didn’t believe there was anything unusual about me that led to this attempt at social change. So I started to ask myself some hard questions – Do I see things differently? Am I more open to serendipity? Why me?
I believe I found my answers in an investigation into what makes an artist. I now believe that those of us who are writers do see the world differently. We interact with our surroundings differently than others do, and there is a good reason for that. We are different because we have been trained to be different.
Over the past five years, there has been a great deal of research into the brain and the arts. Studies, such as the one published by the Dana Foundation in 2008, have pinpointed skills developed when working creatively. Arts training improves cognition, improves attention span, teaches how to learn from mistakes, teaches perseverance, and teaches how to envision.
This last skill – how to envision – is, I believe, key to what is different about writers. We have been trained by the very work we do not only to see the world as it is, but to see it as it could be.
Let me give you an example. Although writers claim to create their characters as entities separate from themselves, sometimes, just for fun, we put our own words into the mouths of our characters. In A Clash of Innocents I put my own vision of Phnom Penh into my character’s description of Cambodia’s capital city, her adopted home:
‘It is very easy, and I must admit understandable, to have a negative view of this place... only see the corrupted remains of a traumatic past. Yes, there is often garbage in the streets. There are rats living with riverside views that would make a wealthy Parisian envious. The pavements are so full of ramshackle shops you can barely squeeze past – auto parts, household supplies, black market pharmaceuticals, trays and trays of ripped off sunglasses and T-shirts... Many people come to Phnom Penh and see only these things, and those are the ones I feel sorry for. But there are others – visitors and residents alike – who walk these streets and see them the way I do. First, we see the colours… each store has umbrellas sparked with blues, whites, reds. Their windows, if they have them, are lined with goods arranged for symmetry of hue. Greens are stacked together next to yellows next to pinks... Monks in saffron robes rustle like whispers against yellow-orange walls. Temples gleaming white with golden roofs and red awnings hide around corners... You reflect the colours. You inhabit the aromas of jasmine, incense, tamarind. Whose eyes and hearts can be so closed that they don’t feel embraced, engulfed and reborn by this living place? By this Phnom Penh?’
Needless to say, this is not the view held by, for example, civil servants. The 2012 US Department of State Travel Information Service, as written on its website, sees the city in a very different way. A place where you need to ‘exercise caution’, where there is a high degree of ‘politically motivated violence’, where ‘medical facilities and services do not meet international standards’. Well, yes. Some of that is true. That is my point. One perception is not more correct than another. But the training of writers changes their vision and so they are keenly situated to create change.
When people think of the confluence of art and politics, they think of politically inspired artworks, e.g. Guernica or the plays of the Brechtian Epic Theatre movement. But some very political artists write about… bunnies. Beatrix Potter, for example, kept her politics out of her books, but her vision of what her world could be became an integral part of her life’s work, as she used that vision to begin a conservation movement in the Lake District. The poet and playwright Catherine Amy Dawson Scott saw a world at war and created a place where writers from around the globe could come together and support their right to freedom of expression – International PEN.
My efforts in Cambodia fall within a tradition of writers taking their training off the page and into the world. I believe, given the dangerous times we live in, we writers now more than ever need to step away from our desks and spend time focusing on what is around us. There is a great deal of talk about the importance of social networking and personal appearances as marketing tools. The business of writing is now as much a part of the writer’s job as the creation of the text itself. But beyond selling and promoting is the opportunity to use our art for change. The skills which we spend our lives honing are transferable. They are precisely the skills that allow us to see the world not as it is, but as it could be. We have the abilities. All we need to do is use them. So the answer to that original question, ‘Why me?’ The answer is, quite simply, ‘Because I am a writer.’