Elizabeth Braithwaite on Guilt and Responsibility in young adult texts

I was interested to read Elizabeth Braithwaite’s recent paper on the complex issues of guilt and responsibility in young adult texts that deal with environmental disaster.

The paper, published in Barnboken Journal of Children’s Literature Research Volume 35 (2012) and titled “The hope – the one hope – is that your generation will prove wiser and more responsible than mine” examines the concept of guilt in a selection of texts. The texts include Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells, The Last Children by Gudrun Pausewang, Nuclear War Diary by James E. Sanford, The Carbon Diaries 2015 and The Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd and my own Days Like This.

The first three texts, published in the 1980s deal with nuclear disaster while the last three, published in 2008, 2009 and 2011, deal with climate change.

Elizabeth Braithwaite argues that in post-nuclear texts for young adults, the emphasis tends to be on the perceived responsibility of the young adult reader’s generation to work towards preventing the disaster from becoming reality, rather than on the guilt of the adult generation that caused the disaster.

It is encouraging to read a serious discussion dealing with possible responses to my book and others. While I appreciate that writers write primarily to create a vibrant environment with an absorbing plot, it is also gratifying when a critical reader also understands and initiates a discussion about writers’ intentions.  Days Like This, and the deliberate choice of the dystopian genre (when my other young adult books are firmly realistic) sprang from my real concerns about the state of our world, rather than merely the desire to write a plot-driven and sensational story. 

One of my most critical concerns has been the rise of the individual, combined with the collapse of community from which all manner of ills arise. In Days Like This, people’s dismissal of global warming leads to dramatically diminished resources and a deeply selfish world. This savage individuality finds form in the pursuit of power at the expense of community and is taken to extremes in the manipulation of people to serve the desires of a few.   

As Elizabeth Braithwaite discusses, while there is some focus on the guilt of adults who might have contributed to the reality of the disaster, the book hopes to encourage its young adult readers to examine confronting issues like individualism over community and the neglect of climate change to mention two, and then to work through what they really do value. Because in the end, it is this generation, these young adults, who are on the cusp of having the power to make the important decisions. And how better to capture their imagination than to try and write a disaster novel that allows its readers to look outside their world into a future whose course they do indeed have the power to influence. The intention is to challenge readers to examine what they really value. Do they value a sense of historic and literal place, the natural environment and the dignity of the individual or would they prefer a world that satisfies them only materially?

Writes Braithwaite: “Rather than the opposition between young adult and adult, as in the nuclear texts, or between the responsible young adult who relates to those around her and the selfish adult or other young adult, Days Like This sets up an opposition between present and past: the past of the text being, as Stephens explains above, the reader’s present. Days Like This also puts forward compassion for others as the way towards the best kind of society:

Let us put that bad time behind us and look to the future. Let us never return to a world that forgot its people. Let us try to respect and value one another, even those who forgot how to do this.

(Stewart 2011, 284)

I encourage people to read Elizabeth Braithwaite’s paper. You can find it here: http://www.barnboken.net/index.php/clr/article/view/15316/22276

Elizabeth Braithwaite is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Memory, Imagination and Invention at Deakin University.

About alisonstewartwriter

Alison is a writer, journalist and travel writer, born in South Africa, now living in Australia. She has had nine books published - two books for adults and seven for young people. Four of them have been translated into Italian, Danish, Dutch and Thai. Her latest project, Cold Stone Soup, an unpublished memoir about growing up under apartheid and migrating to Australia has won the FAW 2013 National Literary Awards (Jim Hamilton Award for a non-fiction manuscript). Cold Stone Soup was also runner-up in the 2010 Penguin/Varuna Scholarship. Her first book for adults, Born Into the Country (Justified Press 1988, South Africa) was shortlisted for the 1987 AA Mutual Life Vita Young Writers’ Award. Heinemann Australia published her next adult novel, Bitterbloom in 1991. Her YA novel, The Wishing Moon was shortlisted for the 1995 Australian Multicultural Children’s Award and was a 1995 Children’s Book Council Notable book. Her YA dystopia, Days Like This, published by Penguin Australia was a finalist in the inaugural 2010 Amazon/Penguin Breakthrough Novel Award in the YA category. Alison worked for years as a news and feature journalist. She is now a regular travel writer for The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age and online Fairfax Media publications.
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