Appropriateness… Such a potentially damning word. How many parents, teachers, Christian conservatives and librarians read of Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels and censored it from inquisitive readers on the grounds it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ for younger readers — many before they even bothered reading it? Quite a few, judging from the rollercoaster range of shocked and outraged reviews.
I concede that rape, incest, forced abortions, murder, and witchcraft are powerful themes, but what is at the core of the book beneath its extraordinary inventiveness? It speaks of how a lonely, damaged young woman builds fences in her mind to block out pain — an act of survival as brave and perilous as any great hero’s quest (and similar, in this aspect, to The Life of Pi). And it reminds us of the journey each of us must take to discover our own unique identity — our life purpose; our home and hearth — that leap of faith into the void, which opens up the door to what the great Joseph Campbell called our ‘bliss’. Our individuation. Our struggle to bring meaning to this thing called ‘life’.
Is this not, in fact, what all good fiction does? Our whole understanding of the world is brought to us via observation, exploration, integration — and the most powerful means, since human beings first expressed their thoughts in pictures, gestures, words, is through the medium of story. It’s hard-wired into us. It is, perhaps, the greatest treasure our complex brains have gifted us: that with our imaginative capacity for story we can enter other lives and worlds, in order to find the innate ‘human-ness’ of our own.
And if this, indeed, is the secret power of story, then to give the up-and-coming generation the opportunity to broaden their emotional, moral and ethical horizons through story must surely be the goal? It’s not enough to amuse or entertain with self-centred, mindless pap when the very basis of our existence on this planet is at risk. At a time when so-called ‘news’ and media is in the strangle-hold of neo-liberal ideologies and corporations — and where that word ‘appropriateness’ is merely code for ‘censorship’ — it’s more important than ever that alternative narratives are made available out in there in the real world.
Okay, so if I’m going to sanction an author taking on the gritty realism and consequences of rape and incest etc., what then do I deem as ‘inappropriate’? As with any commentator, I guess, it comes down to a question of morals and values. Mine are not driven by any religious or ideological imperative other than wanting to uphold basic human rights, and to underline the consequences of each chosen behaviour, good or bad. It pains me to see books that glamorise casual cruelty, the cult of meanness, glorification of war and senseless, gratuitous violence. I’m pretty anti many of the ambiguous messages about sex too: that coupling is somehow dirty and unnatural — and that a woman who says ‘no’ really means ‘yes’, so long as she is pressured long and hard enough. Like the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath, I believe a writer’s starting point should be the maxim: first, do no harm.
To me, the best, most memorable literature shines a light into the dark recesses of the human condition, in order that we can challenge preconceptions (and misconceptions) and provoke deeper, more compassionate thought.
In every life there are pivotal moments, both big and small, that takes our accumulated understanding at that point and spins it on its head. Fiction has the power to do this: to outrage us, frighten us, teach us, move us. To allow us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. And this last, perhaps, of all fiction’s powers, is the most important. For if we can find empathy and compassion for others — that explosive moment when the ‘I’ world-view becomes a ‘we’ — it opens up our hearts and minds.
This is what reading Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels has the force to do. To help us understand that the only way to survive in this difficult, complicated, brutal world is to embrace the beautiful alongside the ugly — and to succumb to the simple, universal power of love.