Our Chosen Stories: Reflections on Four Years of Empire of the Waves

Australian Children’s Laureate Morris Gleitzman recently told a packed audience in Sydney that everywhere he travels in Australia he hears young people express bewilderment that adults keep electing to high office men and women whose behaviour, should they – the children – emulate it, would see them sent to their rooms. They are not wrong. Our children witness an unabated climate crisis, raids upon the press, asylum seekers criminalized and pitilessly detained, rising homelessness and hatred of the poor. Meanwhile, online bile poisons discourse and even our politicians give license to racism, sexism and homophobia, their words ever more vulgar, shameless and profane. It is a well-worn diagnosis now, but our democracies are ailing. Not dead yet, but ailing. When I devoured dystopian literature in the 1990s it felt offbeat with the “end of history” optimism in the air. Today dystopia is – quite literally – the air our children breathe.

Australian Children’s Laureate Morris Gleitzman at the Happiness & Its Causes conference in Sydney, 2019.

Four years ago, Empire of the Waves sailed onto the high seas. I feared that it would sink without a trace. And yet, to my surprise and delight, I am still being invited to schools and libraries to talk about Anni Tidechild and her world. It was ambitious, hubristic even, but I yearned to write a novel that unshackled minds, that brought politics, metaphysics, history and debates about war and military ethics into the minds of young readers (whilst also telling a cracking tale, if possible). The Manichaeism of so many children’s tales and vile Hollywood confections had paved the way to a West at endless war since 9/11, whilst the mind-numbing compromise of so many children’s books with the excesses of capitalism had eroded civic virtue, whilst filling the hollows with mass consumption and environmental degradation.

Talking about North Korea and dystopian literature at Santa Sabina College in Strathfield

As Socrates tells Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic, “We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mould their minds and characters which are more important than their bodies.” At the most extreme end of the spectrum, I knew from my doctoral research of North Korean children’s culture that our stories shape the world. I have little patience for the mantra that all reading is good reading, as it reduces literacy to the technology of neoliberalism, just as reading is reduced in North Korea to the technology of the totalitarian. Stories liberate or shackle. Ideology is just another name for story. The durability of religion lies in the power of myth.

Illustration from a North Korean children’s comic of American invaders
Talking about North Korean children’s books at International Grammar School in Sydney

Yet I do not believe the answer to our democratic malaise is didactic or proscriptive literature, rather a literature of questions, even in our fantasy adventures and myths. The Head of English at a Sydney school told me last week that her students are tiring of dystopian novels that promise bands of plucky teenagers with perfect teeth and preternatural martial arts abilities will save us. They know too that prophetically elected Chosen Ones will not save us. These also are a form of delusion, after all, one that reinforces the status quo, by displacing responsibility for change onto someone else’s shoulders. I had noticed something similar emerging at a school visit last year to discuss dystopias with a small group of sixteen-year-old girls. The book that most energized them was The Handmaid’s Tale. In 2000, I had studied Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece for Year 12 as a 3 Unit English Text alongside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and More’s Utopia. I loved all three books, but in 2000 they felt like an intellectual exercise. Students today are devouring Atwood, not because The Handmaid’s Tale is a set text, but because it speaks to them more urgently and truthfully than many of the cozy fables that they have been sold.    

Over the last four years, Empire of the Waves has afforded me the honour of visiting many schools and libraries to meet thousands of such enquiring minds. Currently I am working on two writing projects that I hope will showcase much of what I have learned from them: the first is a novel set in North Korea. Most of our narratives about the DPRK are – for obvious reasons – tales of those who have escaped. My new novel is about a thirteen year old girl who cannot leave and so must find a way to live well in that totalitarian land. My second project is a thriller set in a future Australia divided into two competing Occupation Zones: one American, the other Chinese. Yet this future USA has become a fascist empire, whilst China has democratized and is now governed from Taipei. In the aftermath of the collapse of a US-backed Australian dictatorship, one half of the country languishes under American military occupation, whilst the other struggles to find its feet again with the support of the new democratic Chinese superpower. I wanted to invert the Tomorrow, When the War Began vision of “Asian invaders”. Meanwhile, the protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl named Mirren Tran, is not the chosen one. At least not in the way we might expect…

If anybody in the world today gives hope for a renewed vision of democracy, it is the youth of Hong Kong (and their many older supporters too). The people of Hong Kong are giving the world a civics lesson like no other in recent years. Here is an uprising, not in the name of nationalism or tribalism, but rather in the name of civic principles, the desire to build a place where we may live with one another in deep concord, not in a winner-takes-all battle for dominion, whether physical or ideological. For me, the light of democratic Chinese culture today glitters like a vision of a better future, the dream of an active and engaged citizenry that reconciles local and global multitudes in a world where globalisation will not be reversed, whatever fantasies our nationalists may try to sell us.

It is not surprising that many of the students I work with in Australian schools are taking notice and talking about Hong Kong. Yet they also sense the dangers here as well, of backlash and of even greater violence. For now, though, this seems clear: our democracies will be healed, if healed they can be, by listening and thinking, and by telling tales that engage the civic yearnings of young minds.

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