The Premise: a collection of short stories and poems with a focus on the freedoms and rights that can often be taken for granted. Technically YA, I suppose, but very hard-hitting.
Thoughts: I am writing this just after finishing Here I Stand and I’m still feeling quite emotionally affected by it. None of the stories is an easy read: a fact highlighted early on as the first story, ‘Harvester Road’ by John Boyne, focuses on hidden child abuse and its consequences. It’s one of many harrowing stories in the collection, alongside ‘The Colour of Humanity’ by Bali Rai and ‘Love is a Word, Not a Sentence’ by Liz Kessler, both of which centre on the tragic consequences of a dramatic change in a friendship. The stories are superbly written, but upsetting; “but” is an odd word to use, because they’re supposed to be upsetting.
There is hope to be found in other parts of the collection, but it’s often fleeting. ‘Stay Home’ by Sita Brahmachari offers the reader a distressing premise, but a note of optimism later on. It must be said, however, that Here I Stand is more of a rallying call than a message of hope; we should feel enraged by what we read here and motivated to change things, which means the stories can’t make the reader feel comfortable.
Two stories I found particularly compelling were Chibundu Onuzo’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Redemption’ by Ryan Gattis, both of which focus on legal matters. Onuzo focuses her story on a Nigerian barrister working in London, representing a young boy in court for gang-related crime, while Gattis’ story, while set in San Francisco, could almost be a sequel to Onuzo’s, showing us a lawyer’s perspective on his client, a man sentenced to death, recently moved from years in solitary confinement to the general population of San Quentin prison. Both stories address justice systems and their inherent injustices in ways which are hugely effective and thought-provoking.
I also want to mention Matt Haig’s surreal but poignant ‘The Invention of Peanut Butter,’ which seems to take Dr Seuss’ The Lorax as its inspiration for a story in which power can be seen to corrupt. The fairy tale-esque approach is rather lovely, which only makes the darker end to the story all the more unsettling. What many of the stories here do brilliantly is expose the ways in which we as a society allow injustices to happen and continue happening, simply by turning a blind eye or convincing ourselves it isn’t our business. ‘When the Corridors Echo’ by Sabrina Mahfouz is a hugely topical story in light of the way in which Muslims are often discussed in the media, while ‘Bystander’ by Frances Hardinge is a devastating piece of short fiction, perfectly exemplifying the attitude of “it’s not my problem.” These two stories are counterpoints, one exposing hyper-vigilance and intrinsic racism, while the other shows a lack of involvement that is heartbreaking.
In Conclusion: I read this book either side of the terrorist attack in Manchester, and so I did so with a backdrop of media debate about refugees, and religion, and deliberate infringement of our freedoms. Here I Stand seems like a perfect book for these times; it’s not going to make anyone feel better about the state of the world, but it will certainly wake us all up. I’m already planning to use it in teaching next year; I think my students need to hear these stories.