Batya Swift Yasgur’s first fiction, “Me and Mr. Harry,” appeared in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in Mid-December 1994, and went on to win that year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a new American author. Like her most recent tale for EQMM, “Poof” (January/February 2019), the story’s viewpoint character is a young child. It’s only rarely that we find in our submissions stories that ring true when told from this difficult viewpoint. It takes a writer who hasn’t lost touch with the distant world of childhood. In this post, Batya explains some of what moves her to write from a child’s perspective. —Janet Hutchings
I am haunted by children who suffer. From within the print of newspapers and the screens of news feeds I see their eyes pleading or glaring, averted or staring, blank or tormented, moist with tears or resolutely dry, some oppressed by regimes, others bullied in their schools, others homeless in the streets.
Someone once pointed out to me that many of my short stories are told from the perspective of tormented children, in their words, through their eyes, in present tense—for example, “Me and Mister Harry,” which appeared in EQMM in 1995, “Poof,” which was published in the January/February 2019 issue of EQMM, or “Spearmint,” which was published in Science Fiction Age in the 1990s.
I realize that there have been some formative literary influences that propelled me in the direction of this type of writing.
Two classics that jump to mind are To Kill a Mockingbird—an iconic novel if ever there was one. The novel was told retrospectively—Scout is looking back at the events of her childhood, although effectively evoking the sense of being a child through her use of language and perspective and thereby bringing the reader into a child’s psyche.
Catcher in the Rye—also iconic, of course—was told in even more colloquial “slangy” language, exactly the sort a teenager would use—I guess I would say it was told more from within the mindset of the teenager he was rather than the adult looking back, almost as if you’re reading it in the present tense.
(I only recently realized, based on my clinical experience, that the entire book depicts a manic episode from within, right down to Holden’s hospitalization at the end. Realizing this gave me an entirely new angle on his story. But I digress.)
Flowers for Algernon also had an enormous impact on me, not only in its content but also in its style. The novel, which takes the form of diary entries, cuts between past and present tense as Charlie describes what he is feeling and experiencing now, in the present moment, while writing, but also what happened earlier in the day or yesterday or decades ago. Even his childhood memories cut between present-day style and past tense, in which Charlie is looking back and recounting some incident with his parents or sister.
Although Charlie is not chronologically a child when he writes his journals, the thread of childhood runs through Flowers, with the adult Charlie and the child Charlie simultaneously occupying the space of present and past, as Charlie moves into his glittering, tragic future.
So, as I think about it, there are two features that stand out from these novels: one is present-tense writing—that immediate, intimate, in-the-moment recounting that allows the reader to share the narrator’s experience in real time, while it is happening. The other is the voicing—the child’s voice being that of a child—spelling, diction, grammatical errors, idioms—rather than the voice of the adult retrospectively describing the events.
If I dig further, I realize that even a much older novel, which I read in high school, had moments of present-day writing. I loved David Copperfield, and reread it umpteen times, often seeing my teen crushes and disappointments through the eyes of David (another tormented child). I recall that the entire table of contents was written in the present tense, although this was not uncommon in that era. But in a moment of trauma (at his mother’s funeral), he slips into the present tense:
If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room, and comes to speak to me.
“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.
I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.
Considering how much I loved that novel, perhaps even small snippets like this might have become embedded in my mind, only to resurface later in my writing.
In the therapeutic and self-help world, the concept of the “inner child” or the “wounded child” has become a cliche. Despite its overuse, the concept is helpful, maybe even profound. Not that we have a little homunculus inside us, a miniature of our baby pictures (or whatever age we were when our traumas took place) but rather that our cells and nervous system retain the imprint, the memory of the trauma and, when evoked, our reactions can be as real and visceral as they would be if the trauma were happening now.
PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a classic example. A soldier returns from war and when he hears a truck backfiring, he become terrified. The present-day noise evokes all the reactions he had hearing guns in the jungle.
Freud thought that free-associating would allow traumas buried in the unconscious to be brought to the surface, expressed, and (perhaps) discharged. More modern approaches are less verbal (and perhaps more optimistic about releasing trauma). Somatic experiencing, for example, is a body-based approach that seeks to release ancient (or recent) traumas that have become lodged and “stuck” in the nervous system.
Childhood trauma can take on a life of its own, reverberating through the adult corridors with echoes that can’t be silenced—at least not without an extensive healing journey. And the echoes can take unexpected forms, shape shifting, morphing into plot, dialogue, image, climax . . . and a story emerges.
That story, perhaps, is itself the healing journey.