Award Lecture - ALMA
 

Award Lecture

Katherine Paterson gave the traditional award lecture to a spellbound audience. She began by introducing her family: she has four children and seven grandchildren, the entire Paterson clan comprising 18 people, all of whom were in attendance for the event.

Ulla Lundqvist provided a brief introduction to her works, describing how the twelve members of the award jury had been living with her books for four years – and would continue to do so for the rest of their lives. The books function on so many levels that they can be enjoyed many times over.

Katherine said that ever since she had received the news of the award, she had been asking herself: why me? She then went on to describe certain key things in her life that have influenced her writing. She does not recall many of the actual events of her childhood, but she has clear memories of how it felt emotionally to live in a loving family among caring Chinese neighbours. She herself was born in China, where her parents were missionaries. She also recalls how it felt to be pushed off her mother's knee by a younger sibling who was soon followed by yet another younger sibling.

War broke out between China and Japan when she was five, and her family moved to Hong Kong, making the journey in an overcrowded railway sleeper carriage. They had nowhere to live, and despite her tender years at the time, Katherine has never forgotten how it felt to be a refugee, with people laughing at how dirty and vulnerable they were.

When she eventually arrived in America, she still didn't feel at home, despite what she had fondly imagined. She spoke in a strange way, had strange clothes and nobody wanted to be with her. She found solace at the library: in books she could find friends from all over the world.

Although Katherine had been a reader all her life she never had any ambition to become an author, not wanting to be someone who wrote mediocre books. Astrid Lindgren, apparently, had felt exactly the same.
But as a housewife with four children, she needed something of her own to do, something that wasn't constantly getting eaten or torn up, so she started writing in the evenings after the children had gone to bed.

But it was to take many years and many refusals before her first book got published. And she had to wait until she was 45 for her major breakthrough. That came with Bridge to Terabithia, a book which came from her own grieving. Her son David's best friend Lisa had been killed by a lightning strike, and she felt unable to do anything to assuage his sorrow. She wrote in order to sort out her own feelings, to impose order on chaos, and the result was a book not only about death but about friendship, too.

In the spring of 1975 America withdrew from Vietnam, and refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia came in droves to the US. Katherine was persuaded to take care of two refugee boys for a while, discovering in the process that she was not really a good foster mother. She drew on that experience in The Great Gilly Hopkins, a book about a girl who is sent from one foster home to another. She is expendable, just as Katherine felt her own foster children were.

–"I hope," she remarked, "that children who feel expendable like Gilly Hopkins will find much to laugh at in the book, but that the adults who are responsible for them will find much to cry at."

After the lecture Katherine was asked about her forthcoming book, Bread and Roses, Too, which is due to be published in America this autumn. It is based on an actual event that took place close to her home. A textiles factory had brought in labour from various European countries, so that the workers spoke a mixture of 44 different languages. The owners thought that this was a sound guarantee that they would not go on strike, but go on strike they did. The year was 1912, but the story is of equal relevance today.

Katherine rounded off by mentioning the fact that people often come to her complaining that nobody does anything about the unsatisfactory state of affairs in the world today. Why is there no Martin Luther King today?
"I refer them to the Bible," she says. "We're the ones who have to put the flesh on the bones. We shouldn't rely on a new Martin Luther King: we're the ones we've all been waiting for."