John Boyne: Pronouns, history, and the need to have strong female literary characters – WORD Christchurch Autumn Season 2019

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, opens a new window, by John Boyne. 

You might have read it. If you're under a certain age you've probably studied it at school. If you've not yet found this book, I recommend you look it up. Because once you find John Boyne's books, opens a new window, you're in for a treat. Among his 11 adult books, six for younger readers, and various short stories, you're bound to find something you like. History, relationships, identity ... there's something there for everyone.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading A Ladder to the Sky, opens a new window and listening to The Heart's Invisible Furies, opens a new window in the space of an hour and a half. These are both quiet decent, hefty tomes ... and I felt completely bereft afterwards. I'd heard of the term 'book hangover' before, but this was the first time I'd actually been aware of having one! 

Because of this, John Boyne: In Conversation (part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, opens a new window) was an absolute treat, and a wonderful way to relive the mysteries, twists and plot and character development he does so well in his books. This was Boyne's third visit to Christchurch, and the audience at the auditorium at The Piano on Monday evening was jam-packed, waiting to hear him talk with UC's Paul Millar, opens a new window about his two most recent works - My Brother's Name is Jessica, opens a new window, about a young teenager growing up with a transgender sibling, and A Ladder to the Sky, about an aspiring writer, and the things we will do to achieve our goals. Although these were the main books under discussion, Invisible Furies and the author's earlier works also got a bit of discussion time, largely because many of them deal with similar themes. 

Introducing the audience to Jessica, Boyne spoke about writing this story - how he was inspired by a trans* friend of his, about why he has chosen to use particular male/female pronouns for Jessica at certain points (the story was inspired by a transwoman and this was the same way she used pronouns to refer to herself throughout her transition journey), and about the response he has received since it was published. Pronouns are a really important part of our identity, opens a new window, and people use 'he', 'she', 'they, opens a new window', or other pronouns to refer to themselves in a way that feels right for them personally. Boyne talked about the bullying and name-calling comments he has received online from people who disagree with the topic of the book, but spoke about the fact that books are windows to other experiences, opens a new window - if we're not exposed to other experiences and knowledge, how will we learn about them? 

My Brother's Name Is Jessica

Moving on from Jessica to his books for adults, we then heard a discussion about writing Irish history, what it was like growing up as an altar boy in the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the importance of writing strong female characters, especially in a world where there is so much toxic masculinity, and where men and women are held to different standards. He gave the example of male versus female authors, when males are referred to as 'the literary greats', and women are 'great storytellers'. Boyne explains that he thinks storytelling is a great skill, and considers himself a storyteller, but says (and I think we could all agree) there is a difference between the amount of respect conveyed in those two terms.

A Ladder to the Sky

The evening ended with a Q&A session covering topics ranging from Boyne's thoughts on Ireland's journey to becoming more accepting and embracing of the rainbow community to his favourite parts of Ladder, and how he decides whether to write for adults or young readers (Spoiler: He doesn't. He writes about adults or younger characters, not for a certain audience).

It was a fantastic evening, with a lot of thought-provoking moments - why do we treat people differently online from how we treat them face to face? Why are novels such a great tool for teaching empathy and compassion? And (perhaps most importantly) who'll be cast for the upcoming tv and movie versions of Invisible Furies and Ladder

I lined up eagerly at the end to get my copies of Ladder and Striped Pyjamas signed, and am looking forward to the next time he comes back out. I thoroughly enjoyed this evening, and will definitely be there for the next one.

John Boyne. Photo credit: Chris Close. Image supplied.