Tuesday, November 30, 2010

All over the world

It's Monday (vaguely) and so, time to treat you guys to a piece of my mind. Consider yourselves warned.

Before I'd been in Japan for a year, I wondered past this house. Even without anybody telling me, I knew they were in mourning.


When someone dies in Japan, they post a sign like this outside the house. Remember, you read traditional Japanese from the upper right hand corner. You go down the column and then you move left to the next column.

The first and biggest column says 'mourning' along with the name of the person. The next column announces when and where the Cremation Ceremony will be. The next column, I think, means, Bhuddist wake. And the final column is the funeral.


I was walking past a funeral house one day, just as they were coming out to go to one of the ceremonies. There was an older lady and she was bawling. I mean, screaming for all the world. And a younger lady was supporting her, because she looked like without support her face might be tempted to make an urgent visit to the floor.

It really touched me. I felt like crying. And I don't know the woman. I don't even know who died.

And it occured to me that, living on the other side of the world, I often notice the differences.

Japanese are so skinny.
People take so long to become your friends.
Kanji is hell to learn.
What's with this food?

But there are so many similarities.

Because that woman? She was Japanese. But I guarantee that the pain she felt was, in essence, the same as the pain my cousin felt when her grandmother died and she shrieked the same way and they had to hold her back from jumping into the grave.

It's the same in writing.

When I first got serious about novelling, I badgered myself about setting. Setting stories in Barbados, I thought, would automatically lose those not interested in multiculturalism. And setting stories in the US, wouldn't feel authentic, because I write YA, and while I lived there for 2 years, I didn't got to middle or high school there.

I struggled with this for a long time.

In fact, I think I've only finally resolved (most of) my setting issues this month.

But in the end, I realise that's not what's important. Millions have read Harry Potter. Many of them I'm sure have no interest in leaving their country, or in living in England or London. But they love the story.

And look at Stephanie Perkins, author of the upcoming ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS. She doesn't live in France. As far as I know, she never did. But everyone who's been lucky enough to get their hands on an advance copy of the book seems to love it.

When we write and when we read, we get all caught up in the differences.

This one's about a sparkly vampire. (TWILIGHT)
This one is about children fighting to the death. (THE HUNGER GAMES)
This is about a high school girl who takes down her best friend because of a rumour. (SOME GIRLS ARE)
This is about a girl who thinks she's fat and ugly. (THE DUFF)
This is about a girl who's determined to spend her last days alive trying new things. (BEFORE I DIE)

Those are big differences. We can't ignore them.

But we shouldn't ignore the similarities either. Because many books have, at their hearts, the same big concepts. Especially in Young Adult, which I write, and other children's literature.

These books are about love. And friendship. And testing boundaries. And standing up to evil. And appreciating yourself.

When I saw that lady bawling, shrieking in Japanese, I could not understand her language. I didn't even know enough Japanese to offer her my condolences back then. But I understood her. Because that essence is universal.

When you write, flesh out your characters, delineate your plot, paint your settings, but don't forget the essence. That thing inside the story that someone else will feel, miles away on the other side of the world. That thing that will make them want to bawl even though they don't know the character. That will make them laugh with them and cheer when they overcome an obstacle. That will make them imagine themselves in every plot twist.

Write the differences, but don't forget the similarities.

Because people can not live without a heart.

And neither can your book.

4 comments:

Joanna St. James said...

You are so right, regardless of setting the emotions on the pages have to jump out and grip the reader.

E.J. Wesley said...

Lovely post, Claire.

beth said...

This is a beautiful, amazing post.

Colene Murphy said...

Wow. What an amazing post!! I loved it! Great points. Things I need to remember more often.