The Freedom Papers: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Four people seated in leather chairs on the stage. From left to right, Lloyd Jones, Yaba Badoe, Juno Dawson, and Nick Barley.

Nick Barley – Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival – introduces the topic by sharing a story of how he came to commission authors to write essays on what freedom means to them. The essence of this captured in his state that the purpose of this is “to think about not only a word, freedom… and why literary conversations matter”. From here, the three authors on stage with Barley speak in turn about what freedom means to them.

Yaba Badoe, Lloyd Jones, and Juno Dawson. Image supplied.

Yaba Badoe spoke first. She spoke about a kind of national freedom drawing on the independence of Ghana as her example. But within this, she discussed the challenges that such national freedom brings. She spoke about how there were all these grand ideas as to what a new Ghana was going to look like and how independence in Ghana would lead to the creation of a “heaven on Earth” free from British colonial rule. However, in this instance, reality did no meet the expectations and she warned about the challenges associated with dreams of freedom and the reality of these desires.

Juno Dawson spoke next. Dawson spoke about freedom of speech. However, she was more interested in the consequences that can result from freedom of speech. Simply put by herself:

“Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”

To her, freedom of speech does not protect people from the fallout or consequences of the “stupid things” that they say, and that people have a right to react. She drew on her own personal experience with transphobic remarks in regards to her transitioning in the public eye. The issue here was with the way people expressed surprise or derision in the way she did not accept such abuse but instead chose to protect herself through various means leading to some people claiming that she, herself, was against free speech. This is of course not the case, simply that people need to be aware that people should expect consequences for the things that they say.

Dawson also talked about how freedoms that have already been acquired should not be taken for granted: 

“Freedoms can be rolled back… often hard won, and can be taken away”. 

Most notably, the ongoing issues with reproductive rights in the United States is an issue where this can be seen.

Last to speak was New Zealand’s own Lloyd Jones. Jones took a much more skeptical approach to freedom. He talked about how it has become a politically loaded term, often used to justify certain actions that would appear to be in contradiction with freedom as a concept – he spoke here of how ‘freedom’ is used within the context of American politics, most notably American foreign policy – and how the “word has been debased” due to this. He painted a rather graphic image of what he thinks when he hears the word freedom:

When you say freedom, I just see a pile of bodies with an American flag waving on top”.

Jones used this to launch into a conversation about “the freedom to do the wrong thing” and how we see this freedom practices all to often. An example he used in the New Zealand context is the continued pollution of the waterways that occurs due the ever expanding industrial agriculture we have in New Zealand. He summed up his ideas through this statement:

The freedom to do the wrong thing is not a freedom worth having”.

Jones provided a timely and skeptical engagement with a concept so often taken for granted as being unequivocally positive.

Following this, there was a brief conversation discussing the way that freedom as a concept is present within the authors’ works.

Barley, Badoe, Dawson, and Jones all had dynamic personalities that bounced off each other in an entertaining manner. Often humorously as the four speakers engaged in conversation with each other. It was an entertaining and informative event with three different and, at times, contradictory ideas pertaining to freedom discussed. All the while, the conversation was very well facilitated by the eloquent Nick Barley.

A pleasure of an event that provided much to think about within literature and more.

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Juno Dawson: Gender Games: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverMuch like Juno Dawson’s fiction, this talk covered a wide range of topics, from her latest novel Clean — a realistic look at heroin addiction and withdrawal through the lens of its socialite heroine, Lexi Volkov — to her shared love of the Spice Girls with interviewer and fellow Young Adult author Karen Healey, to Doctor Who and Juno’s upcoming tie-in novel featuring the new reincarnation of the Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker.

Juno Dawson. Image supplied.
Juno Dawson. Image supplied.

Asked about the genesis of Clean, Juno talked about her own experience with drug education as a teen (similar to the sex education talk in Mean Girls), her stint travelling around teaching teachers how to deliver sex and drugs education, and her research into what leads people into addiction. From speaking to a range of participants in the 12 steps programme she found that what they all had in common was that they could trace the seeds of their addiction back to when they were in their early teens.

When I was a teenager people we knew were starting to experiment with drugs, and we couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t die. You take drugs and nothing happens, you don’t take them and immediately end up on the streets. That’s how you become addicted: it’s a slow process, addiction creeps up on you and you have this constant sense of unrealistic optimism, that you’re in control. You’ll think it’s fine until three or four years down the line when it’s not.

From drugs to girl power: What made the Spice Girls such a revelation for so many young people? “They were five ordinary girls who got out.” Rather than the refined, polished pop stars of today, the Spice Girls looked like the local girl gang scrounging for cigarettes outside the fish and chip shop. Aspirational but in a relatable way. Identifying as a presenting male fan of the Spice Girls wasn’t easy, however, and it was then that Juno began to opt out of the mainstream and gave up on the notion of being a boy.

What about the phenomenon of male authors being praised for writing about teen girls while female authors get sidelined? Juno had two responses, one being support for more platforms and publishing deals for authors from minority groups – “we need those voices, those are the people who’ll do it the best, who’ll have that authenticity” — but also as a writer the job is literally to imagine what it’s like to be other people. “Otherwise we’ll all be writing memoirs until the end of time.” A lot of the praise for male authors writing female protagonists also stems from the idea that those experiences are difficult for someone else to imagine, as opposed to the default of straight boyhood which anyone could identify with. “It’s frustrating when male authors are disproportionately praised… That said, a lot of the big names in YA are people like Judy Blume. I feel very privileged to write under the legacy of women like her.”

Speaking of identifying with the other, what’s it like writing about the alien, two-hearted traveller in a magic police box?

I always imagined myself (and still imagine myself) as the companion. The companions are the audience discovering the universe, the Doctor is actually the sidekick. The Doctor should always be a slightly unknown quantity. Fans [reading my book] will quickly recognise that Jodie Whittaker is still the Doctor, there’s no difference — it’s the same character as the thirteen men who have played this alien. If you can’t handle her being the Doctor then you’re going to struggle with the notion of fantasy as a genre.

Is it a Young Adult author’s responsibility to provide hope in their books?

Sometimes we react to triggers, but is it fear of tackling something, fear you might need to change something in your life? Or is it putting you in danger? Is reading this book going to damage you? You need to decide for yourself whether you’re just scared (in which case the book might help) or you’re in trouble and aren’t in a place to read it.

That said, Karen posited that addressing difficult topics in fiction can make it easier to discuss, Juno agreeing:

It provides just two of three degrees of separation so you can deal with real things in a safe space.