This week, I experienced a familiar feeling. Awkward, a little sweaty, over-exposed and defensive. This wasn’t a first date, or a public presentation, but a lesson on the novel Noughts and Crosses.
In the incredibly diverse secondary schools I’ve worked in all over London, it always feels a little disappointing to answer, ‘here,’ to the inevitable question; “Miss, where are you from?” While I’ve been told I sound Australian and look French (?!) there is nothing particularly exotic in my ancestry. Which, when talking about a book that subverts the expectations of racial prejudice in modern society, makes me feel very white. So this time, rather than shying away from it, I stood up in front of them and told them that we were about to talk about very awkward things, and that was ok.
I experienced a similar feeling while reading Jack by A.M. Holmes on the train not long ago. When the phrase “your dad’s a faggot,” was uttered by one of the characters, I found myself glancing furtively around the carriage, wondering if anyone was reading over my shoulder and judging me for being homophobic. That novel brilliantly explores the dreadful rhetoric of abuse and marginalisation of homosexuals, especially males, in the 1980s in the UK. And it’s uncomfortable.
Malorie Blackman’s novel turns history on its head, leaving the characters with a legacy of black oppression over white people, a history of slavery, along with all the inherent prejudices that go with it, such as not being able to find a white face in a fashion magazine, and only being able to buy plasters or makeup that are dark and don’t match your skin colour. Which forces us to acknowledge that this is still the experience for many people in the modern world. And it’s uncomfortable.
Whenever writers uncover the unpleasant and prejudiced sides of society, it forces us to examine the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narratives that we immerse ourselves in all the time, and that are simply accepted as being the ‘way things are.’ If we had been studying A Handmaid’s Tale, the boys in the class might start to feel a little awkward about all the oppressive things done to women by men over the years. If we were examining Animal Farm, those who come from more privileged backgrounds might start to feel defensive about the things they have been afforded in their life that their peers have not. The important distinction here, is that rather than making the debate personal, literature allows us to examine these prejudices, better understand the plight of those personally involved, and have a more objective view of not just the society we live in, but the way we operate within it.
So, I said to the class, let’s acknowledge that we do not live in a perfect world, but appreciate how wonderful it is that such a diverse group of people have been afforded the chance to read, debate and discuss such issues in a classroom, together. Without books that make us squirm, we would not have reached a point where this lesson were possible.
Here’s to books that make us uncomfortable.