10.ilb - 15.09 bis 26.10.10 - Focus Osteuropa
You are here: Home / Children´s and Young Adult Program / Archive / Opening Speeches 2014-2017 / PATRICK NESS: »EVERY AGE I EVER WAS«

PATRICK NESS: »EVERY AGE I EVER WAS«

14th ILB - SECTION INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN´S AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE - OPENING SPEECH


The opening speech was held by Patrick Ness on September 10, 2014, 9.30 a. m. on the main stage at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

 

Live recording of the speech















Intro

When I was 8 years old, I was told I would be dead before the year was out.                            

I lived in a tiny town called Puyallup, Washington, about 35 miles south of Seattle.  Though my home state is one of the country’s most literate and progressive –we voted to legalise both gay marriage and pot – America is nothing if not varied, and Puyallup was – and remains – the home of several enormous evangelical mega-churches.

My family, at the time, attended the Puyallup Nazarene Church, which was Pentecostal and evangelical, and on December 31st, 1979, we attended a midnight New Year’s Eve service. 

During the sermon, the Pastor told us that he believed, in his heart, that 1980 was the year that the Lord was going to come back to Earth.  That the Rapture would happen, and the End Times begin.  Before the end of the next year, we would all either be called up to Heaven for eternity or dead under the heel of an Antichrist. 

Now that…  that is fucked up.  I’m not going to defend it or try to explain it, but I will say this – and this is important.  This was a church attended by some truly lovely, kind people, some of whom I still know and cherish.  I’m not out to bash anyone tonight, I’m really not.

Regardless, I was eight years old.  Crucially, I had just turned eight two months before, and I say crucially because, in my church, the general accepted age of moral responsibility – which is to say, the age after which you could choose to be baptised – was seven.  If the Rapture had come before I turned seven, I’d have nothing to worry about; I’d have been an innocent child and zipped right up to Heaven.

But I was now eight and responsible for my soul. 

Even then, though, even at eight, I knew I wasn’t up to it.  In my child head, I knew that wasn’t good enough, that I’d never be good enough for a God whose demands seemed, even then, capricious and unreliable.

Now, I’m not asking for sympathy.  We get the lives we get, and mine was a lot easier than many people.

But I do ask for empathy.  Because I truly believe that – though your circumstances were probably different – I doubt what you felt aged eight was actually all that dissimilar.

Aged eight, I was faced with my mortality.  But:  I was expected to cope.  And I did cope.

 

Why On Earth Write Books For Children?

The title of this speech is, roughly, “Why on earth write books for young people?” but I suppose better questions are, “Who are young people?” and “What is childhood?”

Truly, what is childhood?  We all think it’s freedom from responsibility, constant laughs, tantrums, just the most brilliant bloody time ever.

But I don’t think so.  I think it’s partially those things.  But I think it’s also being told when you’re eight that the world will be ending soon and there’s a good chance you won’t make it. I think we’ve all got something like that.

I’ve got a theory of personality.  Or rather, let’s call it the metaphor I use to explain my own personality to myself.  I think I’m every age I ever was.  I don’t think I stop being 8 or 22 or 17.  It’s all there.  I see myself as a big warehouse that contains every single thing that’s ever happened to me.  And who I am and how I feel on a particular day is where I’m standing in that warehouse and what I’ve decided to pick up and hang on to.

So when I write for teenagers, I’m not writing for a nebulous “them”.  I’m writing for the teenager I was, the teenager I still am.

I’m writing, in fact, for that 8 year old, in Puyallup, Washington, wondering how he’s going to die sometime in 1980.

But a story comes from who you are and what you care about.  And I look at that 8-year-old boy on New Year’s Eve and I have such compassion for him.

- I know he’s going to make it and I know that maybe it even needed to be as hard as it was to become the person I am today

- But I wish – I wish with all my heart - that I could have told him he wasn’t alone.

Because that’s one of the amazing things that books do.  They show you that you’re not alone

The difference for me is that teen books didn’t really exist when I was a teenager.  I didn’t have books that told me I wasn’t alone.

I was a gay teen, as I said, but I was a gay teen in 1986, 87, 88.  There were no books by Tim Federle, there were no books by David Levithan.  And this was years before the internet and finding other people on the planet who might know what you’re going through.

There were no other gay kids at my high school that I knew of – and as far as I know 25 years later, none of them have come out either, which seems statistically improbable, but there you go, bless their closeted Republican little hearts. 

But here’s another true story about one of my best friends in high school – let’s call him Craig, not his real name.  We were quite different people, he was very sporty and into school politics, but we were both in all the honours classes and were alphabetically close in name, so we’d sat next to each other for years and become good friends.

When I was 17, a mutual friend told me that fictional Craig had grown uncomfortable going out to the cinema or parties or whatever with me because he was afraid that I was treating the evenings we went out as dates.

Now, two things quite quick this, and I’m serious here, couldn’t have been further from the truth.  Fictional Craig I’m sure had his admirers, but I wasn’t one of them in that way.  My crushes were entirely elsewhere.  I just preferred going out one-on-one because it was easier to talk.  I still do!

The second thing, Fictional Craig was and remains a really good guy.  This was 1988/89.  The world was not as it is now.  I wasn’t out, but I’m sure he suspected and, among what were probably panicky reasons about guilt by association, was probably also a decent wish not to hurt my feelings.

But of course, that didn’t matter at the time.  I was unbelievably embarrassed and ashamed and worried about what other people might think and worried that my whole teenage life – which I already knew was precariously perched – was about to topple over.

And I had absolutely no one to discuss the experience with.  No one.  I had no idea that anyone anywhere might going through the same experience. 

And importantly, neither did Fictional Craig.

A book, any book, which showed either of us that we weren’t alone could have changed our world.  Could have changed the world.

What does a book do?  It shows you you’re not alone.

 

Now, I’m Lucky

Now, I’m lucky.  I’m very lucky.  I survived anyway.  Not everyone does.

I didn’t kill myself.  Many do.  I didn’t fight my identity – or at least, I didn’t fight it very hard – as many also do to their harm.

Even luckier, all this time I kept writing.  I had no encouragement, no dreams that it would ever work, no thought I might ever actually publish a book.

But I kept on anyway.

 

So why do I write for young people?

I wonder, sometimes, if it’s as easy as that I write for the kid I was who needed to be told he wasn’t alone, because I know he’s still out there.

That’s not quite the right answer, of course, the right answer is that I write because I’m a writer.  I write for the same reasons singers sing and sculptors sculpt. The world isn’t asking me to.  It certainly doesn’t need any more writers.

But why does a writer write?  Why does any artist do anything?  I don’t know.

Why especially write for young people?  I don’t know, except that those are stories I feel drawn to tell.

I don’t write as a crusader or a teacher or, god help us, as a saviour.  I know writers who do, and I can’t really read a word of them.

But some part of me – my soul, my heart, my personality, my flaws – who knows?  Some part of me responds to stories.  And I think I respond – I think all artists respond – to stories that they needed.  Stories that they need.

Again, I believe we carry all of ourselves around at all times.  I’m 42 now, but I’m also 26 (which, frankly, stinks) and I’m also 19 and truly free for the first time (which is awesome) and I’m 14 which was horrible and physically almost constantly painful, and I’m still 8 and it’s still New Year’s Eve and I am still going to die before the year is out-

But I am not just that.  Because that’s what growing up is.  That’s what growing older is.  I am all those ages, but I am also the man who knows he survived.  And so implicit in every story that I write for 14 year olds, is the grown-up man who made it and who knows that you can make it, too.

Despite embarrassment, despite pain, despite how every day feels like the end of the world.

I’m not writing for young people.  I’m trying to write for anyone who ever was a young person.

So why on earth write for young people?  Well, I don’t know, I can’t answer for you.  I can only ask myself and search and try to guess at an answer that might shift and change and grow while still remaining true.

But in the end, maybe my answer to that question is this:

A book, any book, is a cry in the wilderness.  It’s a cry that says, This is the world I recognise, do you recognise it, too?

And for children’s books, I’d say that we issue that cry on behalf of the voiceless, on behalf, too, of that voiceless part of ourselves.

- It’s not a wounded cry, but it recognises wounds.

- It’s not a lonely cry (quite the opposite), but it is a cry that recognises loneliness.

- It’s not an angry cry, but oh my, is it a cry that knows anger.

It’s a cry, to my ears, of compassion, of empathy, of – yes – love.  Not a comfortable word, maybe, but a true one.

When I was 8 years old, I had no voice and I needed one.  When I was 17 years old, I had no voice and I needed one.  I’m 42, I still need a voice, but now I have one.

Why do I write for young people?  Simple.  It’s because I once was one.  And young people need stories to make sense of the world just as badly as the rest of us.  Stories told with truth, stories told with empathy, stories that recognise we’re all part of the same human narrative.  All of us. 

There’s only us.  There is no them.

Thank you very much.