Heading to an event called ghouls, goblins and fantasmagoricals was always bound to stir the imagination, and I have to say I feel like taking a walk on the dark side after spending the afternoon in the company of some of the most hilarious writers I’ve ever listened to.
Sharon Bakar took to the chair today in the Left Bank Lounge here at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, accompanied by authors Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Paul Collins and Nury Vitachi, all of whom are plundering their own imaginations for the monsters that lie beneath.
“Let’s look at Disney,” says Vitachi (author of the hilarious Feng Shui Detective series in which a young woman joins a feng shui agency expecting to spend her time arranging furniture and discovers Mr Wong specialises in examining the harmony or lack of it, at scenes of crime). “In Disney movies there’s rarely a mother figure. Finding Nemo begins with the mother fish dying. In Tarzan, his parents get eaten by a leopard. In the Jungle Book, Mowgli’s parents are eaten by a tiger. Look at Hannah Montana… she’s the biggest pop star on TV but she doesn’t have a mum. Death is everywhere!”
Vitachi looks at his daughter sitting in the corner of the room: “What would you say if I told you your mother was going to die one day? Probably nothing. You’d put your iPod on. But I don’t have to tell you things like that. The purpose of children’s stories is to teach kids lessons about life… it’s like, take me to see Hannah Montana but don’t literally tell me that one day my mum will be dead! It’s dark. Disney is dark.”
Linda Watanabe McFerrin, author of the new book ‘Dead Love’ about a “live dead girl and a set of brand new rules for ghouls” got her own inspiration for her part zombie part human novel from a plate of Fugu/Blowfish: “When people eat blowfish that hasn’t been prepared properly, they fall over and appear to be dead. But some people have actually woken up at a later stage on the slab and I’m sure some have even been buried alive! You think about things like this and you realise, there really are zombies out there!”
“People are obsessed with zombies too. There are zombie walks in Michigan and Russia where families dress up. Everyone’s allowed and accepted because you can’t judge a zombie… no one’s going to say: “oh, your clothes aren’t dirty enough.” Watanabe McFerrin reads a raunchy section of ‘Dead Love’ but stops before getting to the really good part. “You’ll have to buy it,” she tells us, before announcing she’d actually rather it was banned, because when books are banned, you know they’re good.
Vitachi follows this by mentioning a famous book in Asia called ‘Ghost Blows Out The Light’ which was downloaded over 6 million times as an e-book in 2008. It was so popular that it was printed in China, but was considered so dark that they took the ghost out.
Paul Collins, best known for The Quentaris Chronicles (Swords of Quentaris, Slaves of Quentaris, Dragonlords of Quentaris, Princess of Shadows and The Forgotten Prince) explains the efforts behind creating a shared world, including mapping out an entire fictional universe, complete with dark and light, in order for other writers to work within the same fictional universe. “You have know the limits,” he says.
The general consensus here is that dark themes and sadness, monsters, ghosts and ghouls, both real and metaphorical in literature are always going to be an important part in teaching kids and perhaps adults, indirectly, the ways of the world. “Even Roald Dahl was dark,” says Vitachi “George’s Marvellous Medicine is basically a book of instructions on how to kill your grandmother.”
Scary… but true.