In writing about the young, embrace complexity: what we learn from Per Petterson in Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My dear friend Alyson Hagy sends gems through the mail. All kinds of art I would never otherwise see. Stories and poems and images that elevate my trust in this world, our capacity, as humans, to transcend ourselves.

Alyson also knows of my great passion for Per Petterson and not long ago sent me Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a story collection Petterson wrote early in his career—and has recently been released by Graywolf.

A young boy named Arvid who lives just outside Oslo stands at the heart of these linked interludes. Petterson rushes and hushes us into his world with language that splits seams. He is too young to understand and filter at first. We watch him want, concede, defy, question, and finally grow from childhood into manhood through an act of singular compassion. Arvid's childhood is a most remarkable transformation built of most ordinary moments. It's an astonishing trick, this tiny book. A master class in writing from a child's perspective, a book for adults, certainly, in the same way that Joyce's Portrait of the Artist is for adults. But it is also a book for anyone working within the middle grade/young adult realm.

This is character development.

This is knowing.

This is art.

This is what the brains of the young are capable of seeing, feeling, thinking, and this is what we must aspire to as writers, no matter what age we think we are writing for. The minds and lives of children and young people are complex. They cannot be realistically distilled into issues. They don't organize neatly around obvious plots. They are the last thing in the world from nuance-free one-liners.

One passage of many. He is speaking of his mother.
She'd looked the way she always had for as far back as he could remember, and she still did right up until the day he happened to see a photograph of her from before he was born, and the difference floored him. He tried to work out what could have happened to her, and then he realised it was time that had happened and it was happening to him too, every second of the day. He held his hands to his face as if to keep his skin in place and for many nights he lay clutching his body, feeling time sweeping through it like little explosions. The palms of his hands were quivering and he tried to resist time and hold it back. But nothing helped, and with every pop he felt himself getting older.

He cried, and said to his mother:

'I don't want to get older. I want to stay like I am now! Six and a half, that's enough, isn't it?' But she smiled sadly and said, to every age its charm. And time withdrew to the large clock on the wall in the living room and went round alone in there, like a tiger in a cage, he thought, just waiting, and Mum became Mum again, almost like before.

It is not, contrary to the opinion of some, easier to write for younger readers. It should not be. Our job, I think, is to keep on seeking ways to embrace and elevate the complexity that makes us true and hurt and human.


Cleo from Jersey said...

This excerpt from Petterson's writing brought to mind an incident some twenty-one years ago, when my seven year old niece looked at my friend, who was 67 years old at the time, and asked, "What did you look like when you were young?"

Katrina said...

Beth, Thank you for this. An excerpt that makes me buy a book. How many times have you done that in this space?? More than I can count. And I'm always grateful to you, both for writing and for being a writer who celebrates writers.

Victoria Marie Lees said...

Well said, Katrina. I agree, Beth. You can always help me to understand the complexities of writing for the young or writing in general. For that I will be forever grateful. Thank you for being who you are and helping those around you.

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