Early observations on identity, ethics, and Zambia

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My mother and I, outside Lusaka, Zambia

It may seem odd to be beginning a blog post exploring Canadian identity through illustrated children’s books with a photo of my mother and I taking the family car for a drive in the countryside outside Lusaka, Zambia, the warm African country where I lived as a child. Zambia is not far off the equator, and most likely very far off what one might consider while contemplating the Canadian environment and culture. I begin this post in Zambia as one of the first thoughts I had regarding my research, was that in order to define what might make a children’s book distinctly Canadian, there would be merit in exploring imagery and culture that would be considered decidedly non-Canadian.

This was the train of thought I had when I sought to reconnect with Zambia and my past, after all, what better place to start exploring children’s books than in your own childhood memories. My initial thought was to explore the hot and cold dynamic from a visual standpoint. But I had forgotten about Zambia and Canada having a shared post-colonial British past which made them much more similar than at first glance.

With that in mind I decided to switch gears in my research to explore the ethics surrounding children’s books in societies that share post-colonial ties. My reasoning was that as an aspiring children’s book illustrator it would be more valuable to first try and gain an understanding of the ethical challenges that relate to the industry, so that I can hopefully move forward in a responsible manner. This seemed like it should be more pressing than comparing the visual attributes of a zebra to a moose, or the landscape of the Serengeti to the Rockies, but I do hope to come back to that at some point.

This avenue of research led me to Mem Fox, a name I was familiar with having read a number of her children’s books to my son. I was not however aware she also had an academic background relating to children’s books in post-colonial societies and had lived in Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) as a child. Zimbabwe’s neighbour to the north is Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). Her family later moved to Australia where she went on to become one of Australia’s most successful children’s book authors. For those of you interested in children’s books, if you’re not familiar with Mem Fox, you should really go check out her blog. (http://memfox.com/). It has some great stuff on it and useful tips too.

This got me thinking that while exploring cultural differences was one way to go with my research, it would certainly be worthwhile to also investigate ways in which the children of the world are similar and united. Fox’s “Ten Little Fingers and Ten little Toes” (2008) is a good example of the exploration of this theme.

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I went on to read an article Fox wrote in 1993 for The Reading Teacher titled “Politics and Literature: Chasing the “isms” from Children’s Books”.  I stumbled upon this early on in my research as it referred to Zimbabwe, and had caught my attention with references to Victoria Falls ( the waterfall which my father had introduced me to as Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders – when I was a child) and to Livingston, which was the former name of the town of Victoria Falls which we visited. The dual names of the references speak volumes about the society and has parallels which can be seen throughout Canada and other post-colonial societies. This article goes on to address these issues and other biases relating to race, gender, age and religion as well. The article is a great read and raises many ethical questions surrounding the children’s book industry.

One of the key arguments Fox makes is that indigenous children can be left wondering “where am I?” in post-colonial literature, possibly causing them to question their self-worth. This point she made back in 1993 was sadly reaffirmed in an article I read last week in the British newspaper, the Guardian, entitled “Why South African students have turned on their parents’ generation”. This article relates how Chumani Maxwele a political activist made headlines by flinging excrement at a statue, in the University of Capetown campus, of Cecil Rhodes, one of the architects of South Africa’s apartheid system (and after whom Rhodesia was named). This kicked off student protests across the country and a debate as to how the country views its past, and the current state of post-apartheid society there today. Among other things, students at Rhodes University demanded that the name of their university be changed.

In the article there is a chilling quote which resonates Fox’s fear of lost identity:

“We think we’re trying to protect our kids,” Mangcu said. “But our children are starting to deal with what we haven’t dealt with.” He gave an example from his own family. “My nephew went to all these posh schools. He started to see, over time, how differently his white friends were treated. He became very, very angry. This happens a lot. Sometimes people even drop out of society.” At the age of 29, his nephew committed suicide. Mangcu couldn’t help blaming a society that hadn’t given him a sense of who he was.”

This sad case supports the notion that the role writers and illustrators play in shaping identity must be taken seriously. It could be argued that this is particularly true for those creating children’s literature.

In her previously mentioned article Fox goes on to provide insight into dealing with biases and the general burden children’s books authors face in shaping the minds of young readers. Fox also suggests that if all literature is indeed biased, it is counterproductive for children’s book authors to be over-concerned with remaining impartial, as this can lead to boring literature. Rather authors should put their energy into producing great stories in an ethical and inclusive manner, and focus on inspiring a life-long love of reading.

Resources

Fox, Mem (2015) Mem Fox writing, teaching, learning, loving, living. Available at: http://memfox.com/all-about-mem/too-much-information/  [accessed 13 November 2015]

Fox, Mem (1993)”Politics and Literature: Chasing the “isms” from Children’s Books”, The Reading Teacher, vol. 46, no. 8, pp. 654-658.

Fox, Mem (2008) Ten little fingers and ten little toes, Boston:  HMH Books for Young Readers;

Fairbanks, Eve (2015) “Why South African students have turned on their parents’ generation” Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/nov/18/why-south-african-students-have-turned-on-their-parents-generation [accessed 28 November 2015]

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