World Literacy Canada does some fine work “to promote literacy and foster a culture of global citizenship among Canadians”. I had the opportunity recently to judge stories by students in grades 5 to 8 who entered WLC’s “Write for a Better World” contest.
Reading 20 of the hundreds of entries and narrowing them down to the top 10, I was impressed by the young writers’ use of both language and imagination. Vivid descriptive details helped place readers of the stories in their varied settings. Dialogue helped bring the stories’ characters to life. All of the stories revealed an awareness on the part of the young writers of their position of privilege in relation to many children whose lives face them with incredible challenges — in places like Africa, India, and in Canada too. For all these reasons, these writers are to be commended.
However, as I read the students’ stories, I was reminded of a TED talk I heard some time ago, in which Nigerian writer Chimimanda Adichie spoke of “The Danger of the Single Story”. In her talk she addressed a pitfall that all of us need to guard against: the danger of letting our awareness of one story lead us to believe that is the story.
One thing that called this talk to mind was the prevalence of the association of poverty and filth in the minds of the young writers. Understandably. One is confronted by images in the news and in fiction that suggest that poverty and filth go hand in hand. And sometimes they do. But, my work with writers in Liberia showed me that people can live in extremely trying circumstances and still take pride in maintaining good hygiene. Writers attending workshops in Liberia were often dressed in smartly pressed pants and shirts and dresses, some in vivid colours, others a sparkling white. They maintained these high standards even during their long years of civil war, the writers told me. There was much in their lives they had no control over, but this they did.
Similarly, living in privileged circumstances, it’s easy to imagine that those living in hardship must live with perpetual sadness. But people in the Westpoint slum in Monrovia laugh and sing and play soccer on the beach with as much enthusiasm as middle class inhabitants in Toronto or Vancouver, and possibly more.
One of the things that set the winning entry of this year’s Write for a Better World contest apart for me was the writer’s recognition of a Kenyan child’s ability to be happy despite not having the ‘things’ sometimes coveted by the writer herself, living in Canada. That recognition, combined with the effective use of dialogue, the vivid, carefully chosen setting details, and the concrete evidence of the change in the story’s narrator as a result of his/her experience on the other side of the mirror, helped earn “Story #48” its position as winner. (A number of other entries were close contenders!)
What heartened me most of all, in the reading I did for this contest, was the evidence of a social conscience that I saw emerging in these young writers. But much as I wish to commend them for this and congratulate them for their writerly efforts and achievements, I would like also to urge them — and all young writers — to continue learning all they can about other cultures, other circumstances, to continue broadening their already growing awareness of what it means to be a human being living on this planet — a human being who, as a number of the writers concluded, deserve to enjoy the same rights and freedoms that they enjoy here in Canada. Among those rights and freedoms, I believe at least some of them are aware, are the right to a good and accessible education and the freedom to write about whatever they’d like as long as it doesn’t violate someone else’s rights and freedoms.
My thanks to World Literacy Canada for giving young writers a chance to explore their awareness of other lives through the writing of stories and for giving me the chance to meet some of Canada’s fine young people through the stories they have written. Write on!