How literature tackles big social issues

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Cover of Picoult’s new book

“We are all drowning slowly in the tide of our opinions, oblivious that we are taking on water every time we open our mouths.”

The words of Jodi Picoult in her latest novel, A Spark of Light, ring true. Deep down all of us have a wealth of opinions, regardless of topic, circumstances and person, even if we don’t always want to share them.

Each of us goes through our own version of reality, moulded by our mistakes, beliefs and past experiences. Some people instinctively follow their own beliefs, some people falter if they hear a compelling argument, and others still might even border on hypocrisy. Whichever category you fall into, A Spark of Light is a deeply influential piece of literature. On the book’s subject, the debate surrounding abortion, it will most definitely make you question where you stand.

Before you prepare to defend your stance on abortion, just know, that that’s not really what this book is about. Rather, what one should take from the book is that there are always multiple points of view in every argument. Regardless of what side you find yourself on, this story will expose you to both.

By presenting multiple sides of the argument, what Picoult cleverly manages to do is show that we, as a society, will never agree on the issue. The stakes are too high, and both sides operate from a place of unshakeable belief. But she acknowledges that the first step is talking to each other and, more importantly, to listen to each other. We may not all see eye to eye but we can respect each other’s opinions and find the truth in them. And perhaps, in those honest conversations, instead of demonising each other, we might see each other as what we are: imperfect human beings simply doing our best. The truth is that no matter what side of the argument we’re on, where we draw the line shifts – not just between those who are pro-life and pro-choice, but in each individual woman, depending on her current circumstances.

This piece of work is thought-provoking and feels incredibly important; even more so given our current political climate where this topic is involved in a heavily political debate.

Over the past few years, many writers have given us books that open a narrative to some big, social issues. One novel that was released last year, and hit the cinemas this summer, was Angie Thomas’ bestseller The Hate U Give. The story focuses on race issues in the US, as a young black school girl, Starr Carter, witnesses a white police officer shoot her unarmed friend Khalil dead at point-blank range.

The Hate U Give is fictional, but only just. Starr’s emotions explode onto the page, and we feel what she’s feeling – or at the very least, we sympathise with her. The story is based on real events and the Black Lives Matter movement is very real. At the end of the book, Starr lists names of those who have had the same fate as Khalil; lives that have been shortened by law enforcement which should have been avoided: Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland…

The Hate U Give is just one example of how we are starting to see the social issues of today reflected in literature, and it has been a publishing phenomenon.

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Cover of Angie Thomas’ new book

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed does this in a similar way. This novel, published in January this year, focuses on a young Indian-American Muslim teen called Maya Aziz as she confronts Islamophobia. Hundreds of miles away, a horrific crime takes place that makes those who Maya has known the longest look at her differently and her whole world shifts. People are consumed with fear, bigotry and hatred, and Maya has it thrown her way, for no reason other than her heritage.

Another novel about social issues from this year is Tommy Orange’s There There. This debut novel confronts the painful Native American history, and has an air of profound spirituality about it. It looks at addiction of all kinds, the hardships of abuse and the reality of suicide. Orange writes about what he calls ‘Indian’ and its incredible, messed up complexity. There is a fair amount of compassion in the story, but not so much with the first character, Tony Loneman. He is intent to rob at gun point, but we can see his ending becoming a violent one as his story reflects how exchanging bullets has continued to be a part of American life.

These are just a small handful of popular novels this year that open a narrative on current topics and issues. These novels give us other points of view, a glimpse into other realities and a chance to get rid of our prejudices on hard hitting, topical issues that surround ideals, society, race, religion and class. They’re not there to change our minds, but rather to open ourselves up to the notion that there are more sides to the story than the side we’re standing on.

Afternoon story round up

Some members of the EN4 News and ENG4GE team discuss some of the stories up online and in our new magazine on its launch day. Join Paige Beresford, Rachel Lee, Paul Sinclair and Olivia Hill as they run through some of the days talking points.

Are we living in a “Peter Pan Generation”?

Every year I would get excited about my birthday. When I was 12, I couldn’t wait to turn 13 so I could class myself a teenager. When I was 15, I counted down to my 16th birthday because 16 sounded so grown up. I wanted to get a job, earn money, and be able to vote; I was in a rush to get on with my life. I was excited to turn 17 so I could learn to drive and then, finally, to be 18 so I could go out for drinks, leave school and go to university.

However, that changed the year I was turning 22.

As a teenager, I looked at people in their twenties and thought of them as adults, who had everything figured out and knew what they wanted in life. I was dreading turning 22 because I knew I didn’t exactly have a “life plan” – I didn’t know what I wanted to be doing at 40, and although I had my stuff together, it wasn’t a fit “long-term” solution.

The day after my 22nd birthday – after celebrating, of course – I was thinking to myself “Right, you need to get your life together now.” I made a list in my head of all the things I felt like I needed to do as a woman in her twenties. That list included things like saving money, enough to look at moving out; decide if I wanted to have kids and start a family or not; make a plan on finding a career job after graduating university;…

In short: I was thinking of everything that I considered proper-grown-up decisions that would set the course for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t until I was talking to my friend about it, and she told me I was acting like a 35-year-old, not like a girl aged 22, and that I should enjoy being young while I am.

I instantly felt better and assured, so I relaxed. But I did remind her that when my parents were in their early-to-mid twenties, they were married, living in a house and paying a mortgage with a one-year-old and another baby on the way.

“Relax,” she said. “That was a totally different era.”

That could not have been a truer statement – enter the Peter Pan Generation.

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Do we live in a Peter Pan Generation? Credits to Lalelu2000

The Peter Pan Generation is how people label today’s society and its millennials and tricenarians. It argues that people are in denial about their age and, as a result, behave in much the same way as they did ten years ago, like spending money today rather than putting it aside for the future.

This may sound reckless, irresponsible and even immature, but also very recognisable. It represents a group of 25-to-40-year-olds, who exist in a state of extended adolescence and avoid the trappings of responsibility — marriage, mortgage, children — for as long as possible.

Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent, who has been studying this phenomenon, said: “Our society is full of lost boys and girls hanging out at the edge of adulthood.”

Currently, the average age at which people marry is 30 for women and 32 for men, whereas back in in the 1970s, women typically married at 22 and men at 24.

Rather than starting a family at 23 (as it was in the 1970s), women are now starting a family at 34, and more than ever at 40 because of fertility treatments and IVF.

As for taking on the commitment of buying a house, the age of first-time buyers has gone from an average of 29-years-old in the 1980s to on average, 38, before they buy their first home. A report from LV Insurers suggests that by 2025, the average age of a first-time home-buyer will be 41.

Three million people aged 20 to 34 still live with their parents, and many others still rely on their parents. According to a report earlier this year, more than 13 million parents paid out over £34 billion in loans to their children who were well into their forties.

So you could say our parents’ generation is a totally different era. But why?

Today’s economy could be to blame. Moving out and buying your own place are considered the first steps of growing up, but in today’s society, that is harder than ever. We constantly hear stories of those who need to move back home just to save for the insurmountable deposits needed to buy a property.

People growing up in our generation can be afraid to do these things — scared to think of themselves as proper adults. Or it could simply be that people in their twenties and thirties feel like they don’t need to grow up (or settle down) just yet.

Some people of our generation don’t feel they need to start work and start a family as soon as they hit their twenties the way previous generations used to. That little window of opportunity means we can play around with our youth a little longer.

 

Preserving Scottish Gaelic heritage and culture through the Royal National Mòd

Culture and history are two of the key motivators for visits to Scotland and the Highlands and Islands, and they play an important part of the visitor experience. Scotland is rich in history and archaeology — from World Heritage Sites to ancient monuments, listed buildings to historic battlefields, cultural traditions to our myths, stories and legends.

However, there is a fear that Scotland is risking the irrecoverable loss of its heritage by abandoning the use of its native language — Scottish Gaelic. Only 57,375 people which is the equivalent of 1.1% of the Scottish population aged over three years old, are reported as able to speak Gaelic.

Luckily, the Gaelic community is actively trying to preserve its culture and traditions, and the Royal National Mòd is one of them.

The Royal National Mòd is the main music festival of Scottish Gaelic literature, songs, arts and culture and is one of the more notable peripatetic cultural festivals in Scotland. It is the most important of several other Mòds that are held annually. This year it was held in Dunoon and was organised by An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Highland Association).

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The Royal National Mòd 2018 programme

The festival ran from October 12 to 20 and included many competitions and awards for people as young as seven years old. Whether you are fluent in Gaelic or still learning the language, everyone was welcomed to take part.

Ricky Hannaway, an Assistant Floor Manager and Runner Co-ordinator working on the Mòd, spoke about what impact festivals like this one has on the Gaelic community.

“There are only about 60 thousand Gaelic speakers,” Ricky explained. “So, to have a situation where you can put more emphasis on the culture, where people learn old songs, where people learn old arrangements of things when they learn instruments to go do musical events, it’s really good.

“Our culture is an oral tradition where we pass everything on, all the information, through word of mouth, spoken stories and songs. So now that we’ve got a place and a platform to do that it’s really good.”

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Dunoon presents… The Royal National Mòd 2018

During the Mòd festival, people celebrate old traditions of the Gaelic culture. But some believe this isn’t the best approach to keep the language alive, Ricky said.

“Some people don’t have an opinion of the Mòd of something that’s good, they think it’s a bit detrimental to the culture, thinking we’re always looking backwards. But I think it’s something that can preserve what we’ve got but has a forwarding outlook as well.”

Not only does Ricky work in the festival, but he also competes in it.

“It’s an absolute experience to be a part of the Mòd,” he said. “For years I sang in the Mod and I never knew anything about the media side of things. Now doing the media side of things, it’s great and it’s adventitious because I know the people involved in putting the Mòd together.”

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