Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

Thanks to the awesome of Twitter contests, I recently won an ARC of Catherynne M. Valente’s new book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which officially has the Best Title Ever. Apart from the usual squee that accompanies the acquisition of a new book, I was particularly excited by this one, having been utterly blown away in February by Palimpsest, which makes reference to Fairyland as a sort of book-within-a-book. Let the record also state that any story featuring a wyvern-library hybrid – that is to say, a wyverary – is destined to occupy a special, warm nook in my heart, in much the same way that delicious chocolate placed within easy reach is destined to be nommed. That being said, approaching anything with greater-than-usual expectations always brings with it the proportionate fear of greater-than-usual disappointment. We do not want to be betrayed, and yet we brace for it, just in case, preparing to heal our hurt hopes by denying we ever had them.

Fairyland does not disappoint.

In fact, it is fair to say, it exceeded my expectations so profoundly, so beautifully, that I was left breathless. Here is the thing about fairy tales: you grow up with them, know them and love them, but even when you try to keep them close – even when you endeavour to remember them – somehow they still slip away from you, because childhood is transient. Even its strongest passions fade and splinter with time. The truths we believed in then are like stained glass windows, and as we age, they grow dirty, or break, or are cast in shade; glass falls away from the leading, and brightens only when some stray sunbeam fires the colours again. Adulthood makes us into archaeologists and scientists, probing at the things we used to love, asking what they mean and how they work, and even though such knowledge is worthwhile, it also changes us: we cannot unsee, unfeel, what it makes us recognise.

Or at least, we can – but only when someone like Catherynne Valente gives us a book like Fairyland. Because as much as the story of September, a girl from Omaha picked up by the mischievous Green Wind and taken to Fairyland, is written for children and young adults, it is also written for all of us who grew up – willingly or not, consciously or not, yet always inevitably – and never stopped wondering how it happened. Fairyland is not folklore as we remember it, but rather a successor tale to Alice in Wonderland: a story on the cusp of things, where adult knowledge has taken the simple rhythms of once upon a time and embroidered them into something richer, stranger: an allegory for everything we used to feel intuitively, but now have learned the hard way. Which isn’t to say that folklore itself is devoid of allegory or hard lessons – far from it. Rather, the resonance of those lessons is for other times and other places, cautionary tales about worlds and mores that no longer exist, so that even if we have been lucky or persistent enough to read the unsanitised versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, we take away only a sense of resonant history, and not a warning about the dangers of our own time.

But Fairyland is written now: its dangers apply to our own world, our own time. September faces fairy-perils, yes, but underneath, the real monsters are bureaucracy, fascism, censorship, prejudice, caste systems, detention and fearmongering; and though she wields fairy-weapons and is helped by fairy-friends, September’s real allies are courage, agency, egalitarianism, fairness, feminism, free speech and compassion. Late in the book, when the titular moment – circumnavigating Fairyland in a self-made ship – finally arrives, it is utterly piercing, an act of beautiful bravery. As September builds her raft from every material to hand, she is left, despite all this effort, without a sail; until she remembers that her own skin is nothing to be ashamed of, and gives up her dress to make one. ‘My dress, my sail!’ she declares, and when I read that, I closed the book and cried, because sometimes there is a truth to words that goes beyond their construction. I can count on one hand the number of stories that have had that effect on me. Fairyland is one of them, and I will never forget it.

Reading this book was like wrapping myself in a blanket. I didn’t read the words; they read themselves to me, and the voice in which they spoke was my mother’s, my father’s, my favourite teacher’s – a synthesis of everyone who read me stories at primary school, in class or the library or putting me to bed, and I suspect that I won’t be the only adult reader to have had that experience. Some stories go to the core of you, and this is one of mine.  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an amazing, beautiful, funny, moving, frightening, powerfully imaginative book, and if parents are not reading it to their children five generations from now – or if, at the very least, Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t beg on bended knee for permission to adapt it – then there is no justice in the world.

Back when I was a teenager, the prospect of turning into an adult troubled me. Surely, I thought, it must involve some sort of brainwashing: what else could possibly explain such a drastic shift in priorities? At best, the process seemed to involve forgetting adolescence more than learning adulthood, and what was worse, I couldn’t see an intermediary phase. One minute, you were a normal person, happily making mock of authority and sleeping through class; the next, you had an actual job and a proportionally decreased sense of humour. It seemed like such an unreal metamorphosis that despite all evidence to the contrary, I half-believed it couldn’t happen to me. Though my body might age, inside I would always be the same person I was at nineteen, forever hovering on the cusp of adulthood without ever properly crossing over.

I was wrong, of course, but it’s taken me until now to understand why.

At the time of this writing, I’m twenty-four years old. As a teenager, I never used to think about what being in my twenties would mean beyond the advantages of legalised drinking and enough disposable income to afford it as a passtime. Sure, I had plans for the future, but they were plans for me – for the person I was, a person I couldn’t actually imagine changing – and therefore disconnected from any notions of age. Besides, being in my twenties wasn’t the problem: twentysomethings weren’t old (or at least, not too old) and compared to my parents, teachers and lecturers, they weren’t actually adults, either. Perhaps that’s why I essentially looked forward to my twenties as something of a static state: except for the necessary profusion of twenty-first birthdays I could anticipate attending, nothing of adult significance would actually happen. I would study, socialise and carry on much as I always had, but without the hindrance of parental supervision. If someone had told me then that I’d be engaged at twenty and married the next year, I would have told them they were an idiot. Marriage was something adults did, and therefore high up my list of things I planned to avoid. Happily, it didn’t work out that way.

Near the end of high school, my favourite teacher took it upon himself to try and forewarn our history class about the perils that awaited us in the Real World. Seated on the edge of his desk and smirking only a little, he informed us, as adults seemed wont to do back then, that Life Would Go By Quickly. We might have planned on being young forever, he said, but sooner than any of us expected, we’d be receiving our first wedding invitations, and after that, there’d be christenings to attend. We laughed, but there was a gleam in his eye that put an edge to that laughter. Could he be right? Despite my determination not to grow up, I thought about that moment often in the following years, not least of all before my own wedding. As the first of my friends to tie the knot, I had unexpectedly caused the first half of his prophecy to come true. But that still didn’t make me an adult. Did it?

The truth is, my twenties have proven to be more significant than I ever imagined, not least because my definition of significance itself has changed. Slowly but surely, other friends have gotten married or engaged, announced pregnancies or split up, come out or moved countries or changed jobs. And slowly but surely, I’ve changed, too. I don’t remember the first time I decided to spent a quiet Friday night indoors rather than going out with friends, or what prompted me to start shopping with the intention of keeping a full cupboard rather than only ever buying the ingreedients for specific meals. But now, my end-of-week celebrations are as often held at home as not, and even when I haven’t been to the supermarket, there’s always enough food in the fridge for lunch. After years of being told by my mother to tidy as I go and thinking it a waste of time, suddenly, it’s starting to feel like common sense. The house still exists in a regular state of mess, but a lesser mess than it was even a year ago, and I’ve started cleaning more regularly. Where once I used to put off unpalatable tasks for as long as possible, now I find myself trying to get them out of the way. Friends come over for dinner more often than for parties.

And that’s just the obvious stuff.

There is no brainwashing, flip-switch moment to adulthood. There never was. There never will be. Trying to explain to my teenage self about the satisfcation of cleaning the house on a weekend would inevitably produce as skeptical a response as if she tried to convince an even younger Foz that playing with toy horses could be anything other than fun. No matter how long we’ve been alive or how much the process of living has changed us up to a certain point, somehow, we humans continually manage to convince ourselves that the only the way we feel right now is real: that being happy with ourselves is enough to make any further development impossible. But we are all changing constantly. The fact that I no longer play with my toy horses doesn’t mean that I was wrong ever to do so, or that the rightness I felt as a teenager was illusory: it just means that Foz-Now is different to Foz-Then, despite our being made up of the same essential components. And right now, at the tail end of a week which, for one reason or another, has made me feel that perhaps I am an adult after all, or at least firmly on my way to becoming one, it seems that the greatest threat to people of different ages understanding one another lies in the subconscious assumption that there is such a thing as just the right amount of life experience; and that too little or too much makes us either callow idiots or forgetful fogies.

The paradox of being human is that, once we learn something, we can’t unlearn it; but until we’ve learned it, we can’t imagine what the lesson will feel like. Now that I’m a twentysomething, I can’t go back to what I was before; but until they roll around, I don’t know what further changes my thirties will bring, either. I want to go forwards, but not at the expense of forgetting who I was. Because underneath all my old concerns about brainwashing lurks a deeper fear: that somewhere down the track, I could change into a person of whom my earlier selves would actively disapprove, not just because I was older, and therefore somewhat alien, but because my age had lead me to view my youth – or rather, the motives and passions of my youth – with contempt. Growing up no longer concerns me. Growing ignorant does.

Why do we remember some things, and not others? Mixed in with all the significant moments and epiphanies are any number of mundane recollections, things that stand out now only by dint of how much life has changed since then. I remember running across the tarmac at primary school, my half-empty bag swinging side to side across my shoulders. I remember kissing my first boyfriend by the science block at the end of recess, simultaneously thrilled and embarassed at the intimacy. I remember walking to the train station at the end of innumerable Year 12 days, fantasising about the end of school and the music I’d play to celebrate being free. I remember the first time I saw the man who would one day became my husband, shyly tidying his philosophy books off the dining-room table in a borrowed apartment. Small things. But they matter.

All these moments that make up my life are no less right for having been superseded. The girls I used to be are no less real for having been made to grow up. One day, the same will be true of the woman I am now. But until then, I write this down. I write, so that I might remember. And maybe – just maybe – it will be enough.

Here’s an uncontroversial statement: different people find different things sexy, just as different people find different things repulsive, outrageous, risque or tawdry. This is why so much of the porn industry nowadays is devoted to kink and specialisation. People are weird, and so, quite often, are our fantasies. It’s a thing.

When I walk into a newsagency and glance at the lads’ magazine section – Zoo and Maxim and so on – I’m usually blinded by a sea of very large bosoms in very small bikinis, hoisted proudly on the torsos of half a dozen tanned and pouting women. These mags are sold over the counter, but while I’m not grossly offended by the sight of mostly bare women, I tend to think the content is more pornographic than not. That’s less a moral judgement than it is a statement of fact: no matter how much skin they may or may not be showing compared to their hardcore counterparts, the models are there to be looked at in a lustful context.

When trying to determine whether something is pornographic, it’s certainly logical to consider why it was created in the first place, and for what audience. In many respects, I’d argue, this is actually more important than what is (or isn’t) on display, but there’s always going to be dissonance between the reaction an image is intended to provoke and the reactions is actually provokes. Because people, as has been mentioned, are weird. We get turned on by weird and unexpected and – sometimes – terrible things. And that’s what throws a spanner in the works when it comes to the current debate on child pornography.

Paedophilia is an awful thing, one that leads to awful crimes and ruined lives. It is a violation of trust and a sexual circumstance in which it is actually impossible for one of the parties to consent, meaning that it should never be condoned or legitimised. We have a social responsibility to protect children from sexual predators. And yet, in trying to do this, we have managed to paint ourselves into a legislative corner, one  in which any image of a child becomes pornographic, regardless of the context in which it was taken.

Because children – and children’s bodies – aren’t the problem. Taking a photo of a child is no more synonomous with making child pornography than being a child is synonomous with being a sexual creature. This is an instance where only two things are capable of making an image pornographic: the perspective of the viewer, which is entirely removed from the original context of the photo, and those disgusting occasions on which an abuser has recorded images of their crime. The latter instance is both vile and undeniably sexualised. But the former is where we hit a snag: because it forces people to be concerned, not with the content of a given picture, but the likelihood that someone will view it in a sexual context.

At the moment, in our zeal to protect children, we are dangerously close to smothering them. It is no longer acceptable to show up to your child’s school sports day and take photos: parents are concerned with how the images might be viewed later. But do we stop the sports day entirely for fear of what perverts on the sidelines might take away in their memories? No: and yet, this is exactly the same logic used to justify the current stance on photographing children. The more we behave as though the general populace cannot be trusted to be in the same room with our children on the offchance of what they might be thinking, the more we buy into the mindset that children need to be locked up, protected, sheltered, kept from the public eye.

On the surface, that might not sound so bad. But take that last sentence and replace the word ‘children’ with the ‘women’, and you have a viable description of the logic behind societies whose female populations are required to stay covered up at all times. Men cannot be trusted in the presence of women, this argument goes: it is futile to pretend otherwise, and much easier to make the women invisible than it is to change the attitudes of the men. This is a mentality which ultimately punnishes those whom it claims to protect, by restricting their actions and, by default, assuming that they exist in a constant sexual context. For many reasons, this is not a perfect analogy, but given our current social struggle to decide how much freedom children should have online, outside the home and in their decision-making, it strikes me that our debate over the definition of child pornography stands as a parallel issue.

Ultimately, we live in a changing world. We worry about online predators grooming or luring children away; we worry about the digial distribution of photos of children, and how our knowledge of their possible misuse might taint our perception of their contents; we worry about stranger danger, and whether it’s better to let our kids walk home by themselves and gain a bit of independence, or whether we should constantly be holding their hand. We are making decisions with the best of intentions, but I also worry that we are approaching things the wrong way. Life will always hold dangers, no matter how effectively we seek to curb them: nothing will ever be entirely safe. With new technology opening up the world in an unprecedented way, our instinct has been to clutch tightly at what we hold most dear, trying to protect it from these new, expanded threats. But the more we grip and shelter, the harder it eventually becomes to let go, and the more difficult it is for children to grow up into confident, capable adults. There is both nobility and necessity in our desire to preserve the sanctity of childhood, but in so doing, we should never forget that childhood is something to eventually be outgrown. The real world never goes away, and the more fearful we are of its dangers, the closer we come to never understanding it at all.