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

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.