lunedì 4 agosto 2014

A zoo in Berlin

I’ve never taken drugs and never smoked, not even one ciggie, even though I started clubbing age 14 at one of those Sunday afternoon discos for teenagers so popular in Italy back in the 90s. Acid was popular too, but I knew better: I had a clear picture of what can happen to you if you are not in control of your mind. How? Well, thanks to Christiane F., the German girl who started on dope when she was 12, ended up prostituting herself, hit rock-bottom and then decided to write a memoir which was a cult when I was a teenager.
In her book nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. You can see this 11-year-old girl lost in Berlin, and all the details of her miserable life that she shares with you are implanted in your mind forever. That’s what I call the power of the written word. I had the opportunity to be Christiane F., feeling her despair, hitting bottom with her, but staying safely at home. As a teenager, I believed that books told the truth: that was the very reason of their existence, and the prize for any reader brave enough to get to the end. So I assimilated Christiane’s experience and I always said NO to drugs.
Yesterday I read about the new edition of Christiane F.’s memoir, "Zoo Station". It has been reprinted as part of the True Stories series by Zest Books, but all the reviews on are by adult readers who cry scandal about this dumbed-down version. Having read the old translation more than twenty years ago, they find changes in the new one unjustified. First of all, the characters talk like Americans and they’ve lost their ‘Germanity’ – they have lost their authenticity in the name of a more global approach to literature (i.e. anything non-English needs to be made suitable for English-speaking readers; i.e. English-speaking readers are too self-centred to identify with people from other countries or to imagine different locations and habits. Is that really true?). Secondly, the editor added notes to this edition. A YA novel with notes to explain things like “Thrombosis is a coagulation (clumping or curdling) of the blood” or “Kojak was an American television series starring Telly Savalas...”. As if teenagers weren’t clever enough to find the information they need. As if a teenage reader could dump a book because he doesn’t understand a word... and if he does that, what has caused this lack of reading skills? Finally, cuts were made to the strongest scenes, within a book which aims at being a True Story.
I’m really uncomfortable. If literature is not going to tell the truth any more, what will be its role? And who has the right to change the meanings and settings and language of a book in order to favour a passive reader who isn’t able to decode what they read? Is political correcteness a reason for censorship? Are we going to cut Shakespeare’s works in order to make them more understandable for an illiterate (or young) reader, so that illiteracy becomes a value and not something to overcome through reading?
Honestly, if I was still a teenager, I wouldn’t want my intelligence be handled like a lion in a cage, like something to control, to enfeeble, to benumb. And as an adult, I don’t want to pay for a bunch of lies packaged as something which resembles a book but is not a book, it’s just a commodity. So I join Amazon’s reviewers in their protests and say, find the original version if you really want to be Christiane F.

domenica 27 luglio 2014

Power sockets and tips for writing a children’s story

What I’ve just realized is that pre-censorship can modify a writer’s approach in more than one way. On a superficial level, the main concern seems to be the topic of the story. An experienced writer will know that dealing with themes such as death, violence, sex, drug use is likely to lead to rejection. Quality and marketability are intertwined in contemporary literature, and sometimes the latter alone is enough to invest in the production of a “mass-market” book. On the contrary, quality that may not sell tends to be problematic. So the children’s author needs to identify her own position in the “literary economy”. The more awarness of that, the better.

However, it’s been really interesting for me to find out yet more ways in which a children’s writer can be influenced when confronting the blank page. My research highlights how the publishing market, as a part of the culture industry, establishes different boundaries in order to favour marketability. Even the very existence of age groups can be seen as one of these boundaries, since Young Adult means “suitable for 13 upwards” but also “we’re defining reading as an age-controlled activity, therefore we are enabled to decide what a teeanger is capable of reading and the target of the books we are producing”. And that’s eerie, if I think that I read “Anna Karenina” when I was 15.
Moreover, when a writer begins a story, besides considering theme and age group, she’s aware – or she should be – that production costs can sway a publisher’s final decision. Books like “Cathy’s book” or “Building Stories” by Chris Ware are really rare, and the main boundary to creativity can actually be the budget. As I assemble my fake dossier for the MA dissertation, I feel it works well because it engages the reader in reordering the story, an activity teenagers enjoy*. But I also know that it would never be published in the real world. A fake dossier made up of loose sheets, pictures, letters and cds, would cost a fortune to produce and, with no guarantee of reader response – since it is a new form – it simply wouldn’t be worth the trouble.
We could add language, setting and conventions (what is a children’s book?) to the list of boundaries a children’s writer must face. You are usually not allowed to employ strong or difficult language, for example, or locations that appear too “exotic”. It must be said that for English-speaking people “exotic” seems to mean anything coming from outside of their geographical borders. I once heard a British editor talk about picture books in England and she was very concerned about the representation of power sockets on walls. “What if an American illustrator includes an American power socket in the image? How are British children going to understand that it’s a power socket?”. Honestly, I laughed. I really think that adults can sometimes underestimate children’s ability to decode the world. Also, I’m not sure how limiting the range of children's experience will help them improve their skills.

In conclusion, being a children’s writer means coming up with a good story, writing it with competence, trying to be original while avoiding all the obstacles to marketability, and considering children’s abilities as perceived by adults. An interesting lesson for whoever thinks that writing for children is a stroll in Wonderland...

*Heath and Wolf, 2012

martedì 22 luglio 2014

It's all about trust

Having spent 10 years trying to guess the needs of the publishing market, and fulfill its expectations rather than my own, I'm feeling over-inspired for perhaps the first time in my working life. Writing a creative dissertation requires you to be... well, creative! Not creative in that I'm-trying-to-fool-the-marketing-office way, but creative like a person (an artist?) who doesn’t need to sell her work to survive. Wooooo! How liberating (and ephemeral).

I decided to make the adaptation of my banned novel more interesting than a plain novella, because I didn’t like the idea of summarising the story just to fit it into the word-count. I wanted a new life for Aleksandra and the other characters, a life with fewer boundaries. I remembered what Noga, the marker on my Creative Writing course, said about my short story: you didn’t trust the reader enough. Trust is a word I’ve come across so many times during these two academic years at Roehampton. Trust the reader. Trust the author. It's so true. Trust is the secret.
Perhaps I didn’t trust my readers enough because I’m an Italian children’s writer. I don’t know about other countries, but in Italy the age group is often artificially raised. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness? In the UK it is marketed as +11, in Italy it’s a YA. The curious incident of the dog in the nightime? In the UK it’s a classic of children’s literature, in Italy (drum roll) it’s in the adult list. So maybe we get  accustomed to dumbing down stories for children. But this time, I decided, I will trust my readers. Who in this case are also my markers.

So I’m composing a fake dossier of both real and fictional material: pictures, videos, fake police investigative interviews, real articles, fake articles, letters, emails, a song in mp3, and much more. In this way the writer (me) becomes one of the characters, the one who’s collecting evidence for the fictional story (Aleksandra’s) using also non-fictional elements. Sound complicated? It’s not! It’s just exciting, and the characters feel much more alive. Because I blurred the boundaries between real and not real. Could this be defined as literary “docufiction”?

Today I also tried to jot down some poems. As if I were Aleksandra, after the trial, sharing my thoughts with Manuela the writer. Manuela had contacted Aleksandra suggesting she write something herself and here it is, a sixteen-year-old girl’s poems:
I am the ghost you never see,
I walk, I eat, I breathe,
one in a million girls like me.
When the judge stared at me
What did she see?
A whore,
a moth, a wasted being?
I stared back at her, though.
What did I see?
An adult who’s never been naked
In front of a crowd
Who’s never been branded
Like a fucking cow.

The first kiss was on my boob.
The second, on my butt.
The third, on my vag.
This is the fairy tale of sleeping beauties
Who’ll never wake up.

martedì 15 luglio 2014

David and Melvin

When it comes to names and titles, British etiquette can be extremely familiar, and that’s taken some getting used to.
I had to call the director of the NCRCL at Roehampton “Lisa”. My lecturers were Alison, Jane, Clementine, rather than professor Surname. At first it was distressing. Weren’t British people supposed to be big fans of class distinction? So how come they won’t have a title before their names? Or are titles a prerogative of Lords and Ladies? Oh, hi Lisa (sweating).
Then I enrolled on a workshop taught by David Almond. I want to write that again: David Almond. The great children’s writer who won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2010. My knees were like pizza dough when I took my place with a dozen other students round a table with him. Showing up at a creative writing course when you are not a native-speaker comes across as either very brave or very presumptuous, depending on how the native participants like foreigners worming their way into the British cultural system. So you are really excited but tense. And on top of that, you’re expected to say David to the writer you would naturally address as Master, with a bow, like in Star Wars or some fantasy saga. It sounded so wrong to me. Like calling the Pope Frank.
Of course it’s not the British who are to blame. Italians seem so easy-going until you find out they have a weakness for the feudal system and the more titles you can add to your name, the bigger the reverence other people will show you. A degree in something or other is enough to be called “dottore” (doctor). All teachers are professors. And if you are an engineer, nobody will ever call you by your first name again: you will be “ingegner”+Surname. Despite 3,3 million unemployed, we have a great many titles to indicate different professionals.
After a while, though, I thought I was beginning to relax about all this. Until I had to speak to Melvin Burgess on Skype. Hi, Melvin.
In the selfie below, you can see my face 4 seconds before he called.

BTW, thank you to Roehampton University for
that amazing opportunity ! I love (Mr) Melvin (Burgess)!