In my second novel, Shine, a girl hides away in a tall house on the edge of the sea. She suffers from a condition called the Calm that renders her mute, immediately identifiable by marks on her neck that look like burns from a noose.
People on her island believe that victims of the Calm are cursed. She cannot live a normal life. She must stay inside because if she shows herself to the outside world, she risks being attacked and possibly killed.
The answer is no, I made it up.
What I did not make up was my character's experience of rejection and isolation, through no fault of her own.
You don't have to have a disfiguring disease to feel rejected and isolated. Anybody who's been to school will have seen or experienced this. Anybody who was not picked to play on a side, or left to eat by himself in the corner of the school lunchroom would know what it's like.
Recently, I watched an episode of the BBC documentary Hunters of the South Seas, which follows amiable explorer Will Millard as he spends three weeks with the Bajaus of Indonesia, a people who have always lived on the sea and only under government pressure have begun to settle in stilt houses still miles from land.
It's a moving essay on how the modern world is engulfing a traditional way of life, do watch it if you can find it.
Will develops a close bond with a little boy named Lobu.
|Will and Lobu, screenshot from Hunters of the South Seas|
The boy suffers from some kind of muscular dystrophy and slowly, Will realises that the rest of the village looks down on Lobu for having a disability, that Lobu is the butt of jokes and regarded as useless. Even worse, they think he is cursed.
When Will asks Kabei, Lobu's father, what happened to his son, Kabei tells him that Lobu is paying for an unkindness that his mother's grandfather had committed a long time ago.
I wondered, throughout the film, what was going to happen to Lobu. Was Millard going to adopt him, take him away, save him from a terrible fate? But wouldn't it be wrong to take him away from the only life he's ever known?
Before Will leaves, he puts an arm around Lobu.
"Lobu, there are lots of people who are just like you," he says in Indonesian. "You're not stupid. if you want to work, you can. If you want children, you can. If you want a wife or girlfriend, you can. You're clever, you're friendly, you're funny. You're an amazing person, don't forget it."
In the end, as Millard boards his boat, Kabei grabs his arm and says, "Do not worry about Lobu. He is my son and I love him. I would never abandon him, no matter what happens."
OUTSIDERS IN CHILDREN'S FICTION
In Shine, Rosa's future is blighted by a curse that turns everyone against her. Her recourse? She lives an alternative life on the Internet ... something so many of us are doing right now, and sometimes for similar reasons. You can be anybody you like on the Internet, and not the person everybody dislikes.
In Tall Story, Bernardo too is struck by a curse. But his version of difference -- becoming a giant -- makes people love him too much to let him leave. All he wants is to be reunited with his family, but an entire village wants him to stay and save them from an earthquake.
My storytelling is deeply influenced by growing up in the Philippines where, like Millard's Bajau story, so much belief emerges from the mystical and spiritual and my books' locations suffer incessant rain and natural disaster.
I guess this is because trying to belong is a journey that everybody has to take. We love these stories because they remind us that despite everything, like Lobu, we are each amazing in our own way.
We love stories about outsiders because they remind us that despite everything, like Lobu, we are each amazing in our own way.
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