About a month ago I attended my 15-year school reunion. I hadn’t planned to go – it just so happened I was back in my hometown for work the weekend it was on, and one of my best friends was going, so I figured there’d be safety in numbers. I was actually surprised by how nervous I was, because high school for me was a complicated mix of emotions (as it probably is for everyone), which shaped my character in both good and not-so-good ways, and I wasn’t all that keen to revisit it. It was also the first reunion I’d been to – I’d been out of town for the others – so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I pictured all the worst sorts of high-school reunion tropes, where everyone is just as cliquey and bitchy as you remember, and it becomes a pissing contest over who’s the most ‘successful’. The fact that I was going to be one of the few there without kids was also a bit of a worry – I envisioned being bored to death by a host of yummy mummies (it was a girls school). My friend and I reassured each other that we only needed to stay an hour, then we could bunk off and go shopping.

To say I was pleasantly surprised, however, was an understatement. When we arrived at the pub where it was being held there was only a small group there – all girls I remembered as being ‘cool’ and having it totally together (while my friend and I were paid-up members of Club Nerd) -and my heart sank a little. Then I started talking to them, and all my misconceptions got blown away.

There are many debates about the merits (or otherwise) of single-sex education, but two things stood out very strongly to me – our year group has produced a lot of kick-ass women who are doing amazing things, and most of us credit this to the fact that we were never given the impression at school that we couldn’t do something just because we were girls. If your passion was maths or physics or agriculture you could go right ahead (the creative fields were a bit more problematic, because although it had a fabulous art program, it was still a hothouse private school that wasn’t terribly tolerant of the more eccentric aspects of creative personalities, especially when it came to dress). We left there believing we could do anything – and although for some of us, me included, this put us on a bit of a crash-course with the reality of workplace sexism down the track, it also gave us the tools to fight it.

The other thing that struck me about the gathering was how interesting and diverse the stories were. There were health issues, religion found and lost, creativity discovered, identities established in myriad different ways. A number had gone on to become teachers themselves after initially pursuing other careers, and many more had had a variety of career and life changes. Motherhood was part of this for many of them, but it wasn’t the sole part, and we had far more in common than I’d thought. I also realised how little I’d known about these women when we were at school. Some had been facing various upheavals at home; others had struggled with learning difficulties or other things that made life harder. And the greatest revelation was that those same ‘cool’ girls whom I’d envied in high school had felt just as dislocated as me all along. Turns out we were all faking it, but none of us dared admit it.

The school years are a relatively short time of your life – I’ve now been out of school longer than I was there – but they seem to have a disproportionately large impact, coming as they do at such a seminal stage. Before the reunion I hadn’t seen the point in revisiting a time when, for large chunks of it, I’d been quite unhappy. But afterwards I realised how important it can be to revisit your perceptions, the stories you tell yourself about a particular time or people, and to sometimes have those turned on their head. In the end, I didn’t just stay for an hour and then go shopping – I spent six hours talking to these funny, smart, amazing women and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll be at the 20-year reunion with bells on.

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Click image to view full photo essay

Last week I had the privilege of being part of an amazing art exhibition at the Annandale Creative Arts Centre in Sydney, called Creative Conversations with Women of the World: Access Denied. Artists and performers were invited to respond to the theme of women’s inequality globally, in whichever way they chose. Many of the pieces focused on issues such as child marriage and sex trafficking, but I chose to look at something a bit closer to home – the narratives of safety that we expect women to adhere to but which are not part of men’s consciousness.

Obviously it’s pretty unusual for a writer to take part in an art exhibition, and this was the first time I’d done anything like this. I decided to produce an interactive photo essay using Adobe Spark Page (which I wrote about here, back when it was called Adobe Slate) and display it on an iPad.

The story, called The Stories We Tell Ourselves, combines pictures of young men on a night out with the narrative that would be going through a young woman’s head if she were doing the same things: Does this outfit make me look like a slut? Can I run in these shoes? How will I get home? My aim was to create cognitive dissonance in the viewer to highlight how society’s expectations of girls and women when it comes to safety differ so significantly from our expectations of men and boys. This narrative has serious implications for how women and girls view their access to public space – although a woman is still most likely to be assaulted in her home, this narrative of being unsafe in public is so pervasive that many women (especially young women) choose to curtail their public activities. This is supported by evidence, which is cited at the end of the essay. You can click on the image at the top to view it in full.

I wish I could say this was hard to write, but it wasn’t. Every one of the situations in the essay is something I’ve either personally experienced or thought about as a distinct possibility. I imagine most women have, and that’s the tragedy of it.

It was an amazing experience being part of the exhibition and it’s reaffirmed my love for interactive storytelling and new technology. It’s really exciting as a writer to be able to bring my stories to audiences that I wouldn’t normally reach, and I’m grateful to the Annandale Creative Arts Centre for the opportunity.

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I recently came across this article in The Atlantic, entitled ‘Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories‘. Its main premise is that classic British children’s books are almost all fantasies – such as The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – while American children’s classics, like Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are much more about realistic, moralistic portrayals of day-to-day life on the frontier. The British stories, the author contends, by their very nature stretch children’s imaginations further, while even American fantasies like The Wizard of Oz are rooted in realism and often have a moral message at the end.

“If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.”

One of the things about growing up in Australia (and I suspect the same is true for Canada) is that you often get a mix of both British and American culture without really realising it. Up until the twentieth century, Australians still generally saw themselves as resolutely British, and this was reflected in much of the culture and literature, although a sense of ‘Australian-ness’ began to develop in the late 1800s. After World War II, not only did the American cultural influence begin to grow, but Australia also began to develop a rich children’s literary culture of its own.

So I was raised on all the British kids’ books listed above (plus The Famous Five, Beatrix Potter’s animal stories and Arthur Ransome’s brilliant Swallows and Amazons series), as well as a fair few of the American ones (most notably Charlotte’s Web and Little Women).  Australian classic children’s literature tends to be a mixture of styles, like Seven Little Australians (about a family of prankster children in 1880s Sydney), which is much closer to an American-style frontier story than a British fantasy, or, on the other end of the spectrum, The Magic Pudding, Blinky Bill, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie or The Muddle-Headed Wombat which are straight-up bush fantasies.

It’s probably no coincidence that, although I still love reading children’s and young adult books, I prefer the fantasy over the ‘moral’ stories. That said, one of my all-time favourite children’s books is Anne of Green Gables, by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery. Although it’s not a fantasy – in fact it’s very much in the ‘chronicles of day-to-day life’ mould – its heroine, Anne Shirley, indulges in flights of whimsy and imagination that I find delightful and enchanting . There is a moral element to it, but only in as much as Anne’s imaginings frequently get her into trouble and she learns her lesson. In contrast, I found its American equivalent, Pollyanna, to be so righteously insufferable that I couldn’t bear to finish it.

The comparison between Anne of Green Gables (or Seven Little Australians) and Pollyanna seems to me to reflect cultural differences in worldview and especially in humour. Australians and Canadians, for the most part, have inherited our British forefathers’ ironic, absurdist, self-deprecating humour, while American humour, in my experience, tends to be more literal (that’s not to say one culture or country is funnier than another, but just that they’re quite different). Australians in particular also love an underdog story and get suspicious of people who appear too perfect (the downside of which is the infamous tall-poppy syndrome), which stands in stark contrast to the ideals of the American Dream. The Atlantic article also goes into quite a bit of depth about the effect of landscape and mythology on the development of the different literary canons, which I won’t rehash here, but which is also rather fascinating.

I’m very thankful that I was brought up on such a breadth of literature (for which I can thank my mum), and I find it sad and rather irritating that the current publishing trend is to tailor all non-American books to fit American cultural norms (the changes made to Harry Potter being perhaps the most notorious in recent years), because how can kids be expected to develop an awareness of other countries and cultures if all the defining features of ‘foreign’ literature are sanitised? That’s an argument for another day; all I know is that if and when I have kids of my own I intend to expose them to literature from all over – and not just the Anglosphere.

I’m really interested to hear about your favourite children’s stories, especially if you grew up in a non-English speaking country. Why did they resonate with you and how do they reflect the culture in which they’re written? Please let me know in the comments.

 

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As I may have mentioned before, I love storytelling. And one of the most exciting things for me about the way technology is currently evolving is the proliferation of new storytelling tools. I’ve recently started playing around with two of these: Twine and Adobe Slate. They do very different things but are both very cool in their own ways.

Twine is open-source software that’s been around for a few years (it was first developed in 2009) but a major upgrade, Version 2.0, was released fairly recently. It’s part-video game, part-storytelling device: basically it allows you to develop non-linear ‘choose your own adventure’-style stories.  You design your story as a flowchart with a series of linking passages, so that the choices a player makes send them down different paths (see the screenshot below). It’s essentially a digital version of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were really popular when I was a kid.

Twine screenshot
From here.

You can make a basic story in Twine without any coding knowledge (although it’ll look pretty boring – just black text on a white background) but even a basic understanding of HTML and CSS (and JavaScript if that’s your thing) will let you pretty it up considerably. I’m very new to the whole coding thing and I’m finding it a great way to learn (with the assistance of HTML tutorials like this one).

I’m currently using Twine to develop a supplementary story and teaching resource for Greythorne – if you’d like to know more about it and get the chance to play it before it goes live please subscribe to my newsletter.

Adobe Slate is a visual storytelling program for desktop and iPad that allows you to create photo essays, newsletters, albums etc by combining text and photos. It’s very slick and the results are lovely – I haven’t had the chance to play much with it yet but it also seems to be quite straightforward to use. The downside is that your stories are stored on Adobe’s servers so you have to link back to them rather than having direct control over the files (unlike Twine, which allows you to export an HTML file that you can embed anywhere) and you need a (free) Adobe account to use it. So basically they’re giving you a funky tool in exchange for your data and pushing traffic to their website, but that’s a deal I’m personally happy to make for now. I don’t know how much I’ll use Slate in relation to Greythorne, but I can think of some applications for it in some of my other ventures, so I have a feeling it’ll come in handy.

What are some of your favourite digital storytelling tools?