LIBRARIES and WORKING CLASS VOICES
For my turn on the fabulous YAShot Tour 2016, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing with writer and poet Steve Tasane why he is campaigning for libraries and how he brings a working class voice to YA.
Steve, your poem Save the Libraries (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oo-9H_eutbU) shows your passion for libraries and I know you are determined for them to remain open for all despite funding cuts. Tell us a little about your involvement/campaigning.
Libraries are a resource for working class communities; books are essential items that are increasingly becoming a luxury for families that struggle to afford groceries. At the end of the last library event I ran, the pupils were told they had five minutes to choose one book each, and there was a stampede. It was like ‘kids in a sweetshop’. Except it wasn’t sweets they wanted to stuff themselves with, but stories.
School libraries are being similarly squeezed by spending cuts. Working class children are being denied quality education, and the other end of this is that funding for the underprivileged to go to university has also just been cut. Now, the main supplier of fairy tales is the Murdoch press. Keep us ignorant, so we’ll keep believing that their kick in the face is actually a kiss. That’s why I’ll be attending the Save The Libraries National Demonstration on November 5th.
Your two novels, ‘Blood Donors’ and ‘Nobody Saw No One’ have urban working class settings and issues. Why do you see this as important in YA fiction?
That’s a good question, but ironically because it’s such a stupid one. Why would an artist use the colour blue in a painting? Why would a musician write a song in the Key of C? If there was one word I would choose to become redundant in the English language it would be ‘inclusivity’. There are millions of us out there. So why does the YA universe so often refuse to acknowledge us? Or – more to the point – if we write about the millions of kids in urban settings, why does this become ‘issue-based’? It’s just normal life.
Too many YA publishers say there is no ‘market’ for working class stories, which is beyond crass; it is insulting, and political too. But if we write about our own lives and communities, it is we who are labelled as ‘political’. Working class kids have always read fabulous books about the adventures of middle class kids, without anybody questioning it, but if today’s middle class kids are offered stories about working class kids, this is too often seen as radical or difficult. Great stories allow the reader to go on an imaginative journey into unknown experiences. Isn’t that the point?
I’m with you there, Steve. And the characters in your books are exciting and the stories gritty.
I’d like to ask you about male readership as I feel the majority of YA books have more appeal to a female audience.
When I do readings, boys love my books (Killer Bugs!!!). But, yes, most bloggers/reviewers seem to be female. I love the fact that Sis in Blood Donors is twice as tough as Marshall, but tender too, and the fact that Marshall learns that ultimately his muscle-power won’t help him anywhere near as much as friendship and family will; and that the boss of the towerblock, Big Auntie, wields a terrifying chainsaw. I love it that one of the heroes of Nobody saw No One – Alfi – is a ‘wimp’ despite being totally fearless. I’d love more young women to read my books, and enjoy them the same as I enjoyed reading Little Women or Matilda or Catherine Johnson’s excellent The Curious Tale Of The Lady Caraboo. A wonderful story has no gender divide.
You’ve also been writer-in-residence for the Charles Dickens bicentennial celebrations. Dickens portrayed the working class life of his day, how did you bring your modern YA twist to this?
Dickens was a brilliant storyteller and social reformer. Today, he’d probably be dismissed as “issues-based” and the Daily Mail would call for him to be banned. He wrote about characters from all walks of life, but he’s harder to read in 2016 because most of his books were originally designed to be serialized and weren’t therefore tightly edited, language constantly evolves (making much older books more of a reading challenge), and his female characters have dated badly as they tended to be typified as doomed floozies or doomed angels or doomed wives, very much reflecting the social attitudes of his times. I’m sure he would represent female characters very differently if he were writing today. He’d be standing up for refugees and for the NHS and for the Human Rights Act, and be utterly eviscerated for it.
On the other hand, you can’t put a good book down, and I enjoyed taking a similarly colourful approach to Dickens, whether writing about the dynamic cultural hubbub of Seven Sisters Road, the over-the-top villainy of Jackson Banks, or the linguistic gymnastics of Citizen Digit. Dickens could really make words dance, and I hope I succeeded in dancing similarly in his footsteps.
Steve, you are also a poet, with a published collection (for adults), Bleeding Heart. Can you tell me anything about your poetry?
Poetry is absolutely integral to my work as a novelist. Without my passion for performance poetry, I wouldn’t be a writer of YA/children’s fiction. For starters, it was my poetry that first took me back into schools – writers needing to run workshops in order to pay the rent. And it was the children – of all ages – in the schools who inspired me to write for a younger audience. And it was my poet-in-residence status that really allowed me to expand my repertoire – particularly as official poet for Battersea Dogs Home (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyDgNAG5Bqo), and as writer-in-residence for the Dickens Bicentennial Celebrations – during which I wrote a ballad poem adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. This was a wonderful trip inside Dickens’ working mind, with regard to his structure, themes, imagery, pacing; and of course Oliver Twist was the main inspiration for my book Nobody Saw No One. I write all my books to be read aloud, so you can really be convinced by and enjoy the characters’ voices. Most recently of all, I’ve written a tribute to one of the great masters – Roald Dahl – with this Gobblefunk Rap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEm2lzLCFGM“
Steve Tasane will be at YAShot 2016 in Uxbridge on Saturday 22nd October. He will be part of a fabulous panel with Michael Byrne, Patrice Lawrence chaired by Polly Ho Yen. Their panel, To Have and Have Not: exploring poverty, privilege and class through YA will run from 17.50 – 18.45 in The Golden Hall at Uxbridge Civic Centre.