I, I will be king, and you, you will be queen

 

The metaphor is appealing, if you’re into books and into love: the first kiss of the new idea, the careening, breathless first draft of falling in love. And then the hard part – the commitment, the work of making it work, the attention to detail. (For example: you say ominously, I think we need to talk, and having learned the hard lessons of your plunging blood sugar levels he says, Absolutely, but have a banana first.)

And then sometimes you are committed, you really are; you spend your days untangling the tangles and you can see how great this thing could be if you just knew how to do it, if you were both just a little better. It’s complicated but also joyful and you think that this is all you want. Until! (Dun dun DUN): One day you’re at a party and Someone You’ve Never Seen Before walks in, drink in hand, looks around – looks at you. Your knees go weak. You know you shouldn’t hold his gaze, you shouldn’t think the things you’re thinking, but you can’t look away and everything that could happen is exploding in your mind at once. When he comes over and says hi all you can say is oh fuck because you’re done for. Yes, you’ve got a contract and a deadline, but you have to write this book. You meet furtively, keeping the Book Under Contract open on your screen, telling yourself (and telling the New Idea) that you’re going to go back to the Book Under Contract in ten minutes, fifteen, an hour, tomorrow. But day after day, you can’t stay away from the New Idea.

So, OK, I was going to write about the Brilliant!New!Idea! that sometimes just takes off and takes you with it, and then I was going to write about falling in love, and I was going to say ha ha they’re SORT OF ALIKE, get it? which lots of people have said before, including me, but in the end I seem to have likened it to having an affair, which is maybe less charming. Oh well.

Because when I thought about falling in love, the first thing that came to mind was meeting G when we were seventeen. Immediately the metaphor seemed insufficient and fell apart. Having a new idea for a book is not actually like falling in love.

I don’t want to be confusing: when I talk about falling in love with G, I’m not talking about romance or sex, but I still think falling in love is the best way to put it because that’s how it felt, and more than twenty years later I’m still in free-fall.

First impressions – she had long brown hair and a beautiful voice, whether singing or speaking (although I didn’t know about the singing until later) and everything about her was somehow bigger and brighter than what everyone else had. We batted around her like moths. Her smile was the spotlight we wanted to be in, and her laugh was this unrestrained bright burst that I adored. She was funny in a completely loopy and original way. I – who considered myself at the grand old age of seventeen a sort of master of running away ­– wanted to run away with her.

When she called me on the phone I was so happy. It didn’t occur to me until later that we’d spent half the conversation talking about J., my best friend since childhood. When he told me that she’d asked him on a date, I was crushed. I realized she had called not to talk to me but to talk about him – and maybe to make sure that our relationship was purely platonic, which was something she’d asked about, I now remembered. We weren’t going to be real friends after all, I thought sadly. I would be her boyfriend’s best friend and she would be my best friend’s girlfriend.

(Years later, all of us lying on the floor of his very old house in the south of Japan, they talked through some of what had gone wrong between them and I talked at length about How I Saw It. He laughed dryly and said, If you have so much to say about our relationship, I can’t imagine what you’re like when you’re actually involved. But I’d never cared so much about any of my own love affairs, and I never gave any thought to what had gone wrong there).

They became a couple and I became the firmly affixed third wheel. It felt surprisingly natural, like a tricycle. She would turn up at the café where I worked, hair swishing down her back, talking like a gangster out the side of her mouth and smoking her pen, or pretending to fall down the escalator in slow motion, making me laugh ‘til I cried. She wrote me notes in class. You are the most valiant girl I have ever known. I didn’t want to sleep with her or take her away from J, but it still seems right to say I was in love.

I think of this as the night I knew she was The One: We were all going to go see Interview with a Vampire. I went to her apartment, and J. was late, as usual. G. and I got horribly drunk on Canadian Club Rye Whiskey while we waited for him. New as our friendship was, we opened our pink teenage hearts wide, sharing all our gory secrets, the nearly mirror-image disasters of adolescence. I think there was somebody else there – I have a vague memory of blond hair and a disgusted expression, someone who was not nearly as drunk as we were and was appalled by our confessions – but she went off at some point and it was just me and G. Now I knew for sure I was not going to be just her boyfriend’s best friend but that we were becoming something to each other, beginning something huge and flawless that would last forever. I feel like the drunkenness negates it somehow in the telling, so you’ll just have to believe me that the breathless speed and depth of the connection was tremendous and we both knew it. Twenty plus years later I can say I wasn’t wrong. I’ve had many dear friends and lovers and I eventually married somebody who is not her, but that night was the purest experience I’ve ever had of falling in love, even if it did involve a bottle of whiskey.

J. finally called and told us he was with some other friends and would meet us at the movie theater. G. was angry and I pretended to be angry too but really I was having a wonderful time and am forever grateful to him for not showing up that night. We went to the theater but we couldn’t find J. He confessed later that we were so drunk and loud that he and his friends hid behind the seats so as not to be associated with us. I don’t remember the movie. I think we watched some of it. We ended up throwing up and giggling in unison in the theater restrooms, which is gross, but I can only think back on it fondly.

For a few years the three of us lived together, took classes together, worked at the same restaurant.

She left first.

She cut off her long hair and traveled around the world. We wrote epic love letters. Once, stoned and missing her, I fastened the braids she’d left behind to my own hair and went prancing out into the kitchen, thinking to make J. laugh. He did laugh, in a horrified sort of way, and then one of the braids fell off and came partly undone and we ended up kneeling on the kitchen floor, laughing and crying, our hands in her hair, trying to braid it back together. Is that weird? OK, kind of. But it was love.

The thing with being young is that it comes naturally – that feeling of endless possibility, of being larger than life – but I still associate that feeling with G. more than with youth. In both of our lives, after a whole lot of gallivanting around, sometimes together and sometimes apart, Capital-R-Reality caught up and squeezed out some of that feeling of possibility. Now we are responsible for and to other people, most particularly our children, and we are not on the brink of adulthood anymore but nested in what we can only hope is the middle of it, hemmed in by the choices we’ve made, disappointment and fear and the needs of others taking up so much space. I feel all of this squeezing in on me, and I watch it squeezing her too, more tightly and cruelly than it does me.

But: she is still bigger and brighter somehow than everything around her, I still feel like a moth to her flame, her smile is still the spotlight I want to live in and I love nothing more than her laugh. I still want to run away with her. Maybe what I mean is that she did and does inspire, she makes me feel my life could still be wider, stranger, more thrilling and surprising, everything still possible after all, if she’s there too.

So, fine, the New!Idea! metaphor didn’t really work, because L’Amour is so much bigger than that. If there is a connection in my mind, it’s only that these are the constants in my life: the thrill of thinking up stories and the work of making them work, and a few bright loves that endure, unfading no matter what. I can’t think what else has any real value to me.

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Home

I’ve never been without a home. If I went out into the world it was because I wanted to. Nothing was chasing me, and if sometimes I went looking for danger it’s because I was so spoiled I didn’t really know what danger was. There was always somewhere safe to go back to, for me.

Now I have kids and everything I’ve ever wanted for myself is dwarfed by the need to make them safe. They have always had a home, too. They don’t know much about fear or pain or real hunger. “I’m starving!” they will yell if dinner is half an hour late.

I took them to their nice schools this morning, through our tree-lined neighborhood, riding their bikes and chatting. I came home and made coffee. I’m trying to write a book but I can’t think straight. I can’t think about anything except the photos and videos I’m seeing of Syrian refugees. What it means to be without a home. What it means to be unsafe. What it means to not be able to protect your children.

YA author Patrick Ness (The Knife Of Never Letting Go, among other books) started a fundraiser for the charity Save The Children, an organization with a good reputation for using funds effectively. He promised to match donations up to £10 000. When that goal was met, other authors jumped on board to match donations, including John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Shannon Hale, Gayle Foreman, Ally Carter, Derek Landry, and many more. The fundraiser is still going and has raised a lot of money. If you can spare anything, click here and please consider donating.

There are days when the images wreck me and I want to bury my head in the sand, which is pretty shitty, and anyway the truth is if you keep your head in the sand too long you’re going to choke on it. Take a deep breath and maybe follow this remarkable page.

We’re all doing that thing where we weep in front of our computer screens and then get on with the day, but there are ways of being truly useful. One good list is here. If you’re in Canada, check this out.

I found this poem on The Middle-Eastern Feminist’s facebook page (linked above). It is by a Somali poet, Warsan Shire, and it is called HOME:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

My One Thing

I was at the playground with my kids a couple of years ago and some very toned-looking moms were talking about going to the gym. Finally I said, a bit pathetically, “How do you all manage to exercise?” I myself had not Formally Exercised since my first pregnancy. One of my friends said, “When you’re taking care of little kids all day, you can do one other thing. You can take care of the kids and you can have a clean house. Or you can take care of the kids and you can be fit. But you can’t do two other things, so you have to choose. You’re a writer – that’s your one thing.” It reframed everything for me, and I stopped feeling bad about all the stuff I wasn’t doing. I took her word for it: I could do one thing, and I’d made my choice.

Sometimes I imagine that if I had a little more time I might also clean my filthy apartment and exercise and volunteer and cook fabulous meals and read more non-fiction and study Japanese again. I imagine myself with a better haircut, better fashion sense and excellent posture, all muscly and wide awake and multi-lingual. In this alternate reality, the laundry is folded and put away, the garbage doesn’t smell bad, the children do not eat crackers in the bed, my book is a huge bestseller, and we are planning a totally affordable trip to the Galapagos islands because this perfect version of me is canny and full of know-how and found an awesome deal on the internet and oh yeah also we can afford it because of my huge bestseller.

I read somewhere that nothing actually improves a person’s long-term happiness except nearly dying and then recovering. I can see how nearly dying might shift one’s perspective on what constitutes good enough, but I also think happiness is not necessarily the point of all this living we do.

For a long time I was perpetually dissatisfied with myself and my (lack of) accomplishments. I’d compare myself to people who seemed to me to be Better At Life, and then I’d feel sort of slouchy and glum, or I’d pep-talk myself and pretend I was going to get Better At Life. Life Is Short, I told myself (because I was wildly original) – and I didn’t mean for mine to pass me by in the ordinary way. I was going to have great adventures, write brilliant books, do interesting and noble things with the precious days of my life. I did not imagine children back then. I did not imagine that I might not be all that brilliant, or even all that interesting.

I’m sort of over it – not that I don’t have goals, but the idea of actually being Better At Life. Fuck that imaginary self with her shiny hair and awesome biceps, sneering at me from her chic little flat in Paris. Fuck her folded laundry and her clear conscience and the way she’s got it all worked out. I can’t decide if this late-in-life self-acceptance is a positive thing, maybe a sign of becoming less self-obsessed, or if it signals a sad slackening of ambition – a kind of giving up. The only thing I’m sure of is that things will change again soon, and then change again. There are no do-overs; this cocktail of good luck and mistakes and hope and regret and paralyzing fear is what you get today. If you can stomach it, you’re one of the lucky ones. Life might keep opening up wider for a while, or it might slam shut, because you never know when your luck is going to run out. Not to be overly morbid, but even the best-case-scenario for a life ends with decay and death (and then more serious decay), so, you know – well, I don’t really know where I’m going with that.

I mean that I really will try to stop biting my nails, and I know it’s not healthy or useful to stay up past midnight reading and then panic about what would happen to the kids if I died, and when my friend came over the other day she took one look at the stained, ripped sofa that we still haven’t gotten around to replacing leaking its stuffing everywhere and shouted “SERIOUSLY, CATHERINE? THAT’S YOUR SOFA?” And it is, that really is our sofa, but it’s fine, that’s all I’m trying to say: I’m OK with this. I’m doing fine. I don’t know what to make for dinner but I sent my new book to my editor today because, no matter what else, making up stories and writing them down is the one thing I’ve always been sure I could do.

A trick of the light

We were lying in bed early in the morning, the light coming through the curtains and illuminating a corner of blanket. My four-year-old said, “Look! A ribbon!” He reached for the curling corner of light and at the same moment his brother rolled over, moving the blanket, and that bright loop was gone.

The four-year-old scrambled around the bed looking for it, frantic. “I saw a pink ribbon!” he wept. “It’s in the bed but I can’t find it!”

“There’s no ribbon,” I tried to explain. “It was a trick of the light. Sometimes the light plays tricks on your eyes and you see things that aren’t really there.”

He didn’t believe me. He shouted and raged and kept searching the bed. He sobbed over breakfast: “I want that ribbon! I loved that ribbon!”

It’s easy to forget the first time it happened to you. We get used to it, in a way – reaching for something, and then, poof, it’s gone, or it was never there, we were wrong. We learn that not everything we think we see is real. That we can’t always touch the things we imagine and long for.

Sometimes the light makes a pretty ribbon in the bed, but sometimes it makes things that are terrible, too. When I was a little girl, shadows became monsters on the wall with awful frequency. I remember one particular occasion so clearly because real terror stays with us – the car pulling into the driveway, the headlights coming in my bedroom window, casting moving shadows across the wall and ceiling. One shadow on the wall had eyes, a mouth, reaching arms that lengthened and lengthened. It grinned at me as it moved across the wall, arms stretching out, and then it vanished. I screamed until my mother came. She probably told me it was a trick of the light, but I knew she was wrong. I knew what I’d seen: the sly treachery of the mouth, the hungry eyes. Just wait, it said, just wait. And then: poof. Gone. The car parked in the driveway. The engine shut off. My mother sat on the edge of my bed, but I was only safe as long as she was there. That shadow was still hiding somewhere. I’d seen it.

Another time I looked up and there was a woman standing at the foot of my bed. She was wearing the same dress as my doll and holding an open book, which she appeared to be reading. She didn’t look scary but all the same I hid under the covers, paralyzed with fear, because what was a strange woman doing standing by my bed reading a book? I have never in my life felt such a rush of adrenaline and terror. I hid until I couldn’t bear it. Then I rocketed out of the bed, out of the room, screaming, for my parents’ room, cannon-balling into their bed and waking them.

It might have been a dream. If I believed in ghosts, I might say it was a ghost. Our eyes and minds are easier to trick when we are younger because we aren’t used to their tricks, to the way light and dark and half-awake moments and our own brains all play together. I used to see strange things, inexplicable things, all the time. Now I can’t remember the last time I saw something that didn’t look right, something I couldn’t explain. Still, when I saw my son’s hand groping for that lit corner of blanket, the urgency of his movement, I knew exactly what was happening. I remembered how it felt – your hand closing on nothing.

We got through a weepy breakfast and went to the beach in boots and coats. It was windy and beautiful. The sea shimmered in the sun and white clouds streaked across the sky. We ate sandwiches on the rocks and my son said “The water is beautiful,” and I said, “Yes, it is,” and then his voice cracked and he said, “Is this a trick of the light?”

“No,” I said, with the kind of certainty and authority I can command only as a parent. “This is real.”

But of course, we can’t really touch the golden light on the water. We can’t hold on to any of this, and I used to wonder all the time as a small child if what I saw was the same thing that other people saw. Who could say?

“I wish I had that ribbon,” he whispered.

It took a few days for him to really accept that it was gone, that maybe it had never been there at all. Just this morning he said, without crying about it: “Remember that ribbon I saw that was a trick of the light?”

After I pick him up from preschool, I give him some play-doh so I can read over the chapter I wrote in the morning. He makes ribbons with the play-doh – a departure for him, since generally he shares my interest in monsters.

“This is not the same color,” he says, eyeing his play-doh ribbons critically. “This is not like the ribbon I saw.”

I say, “but it’s a very nice ribbon.” And I keep tinkering with my chapter – the burning shore, the uneven light, monsters multiplying around my heroine. We spend a quiet hour together, working with what we thought we saw, what wasn’t there, until it is time to go get his brother from school.

Kissing & Fireballs: the complexities of co-authorship

My kids, J (5) & K (almost 4), have a friend over, a 6-year-old boy I’ll call A. I told them I was going to try and do some writing while they played, but our apartment isn’t very big and it’s sort of impossible to focus while they are crashing about. As far as I can tell, the game they are playing is like a fanfic mish-mash of Tolkien and Harry Potter, with just a touch of Sweet Valley High or something (kissing comes up at random moments).

The props: J. clutches a tattered copy of The Silmarillion and wields a foam sword. A. has constructed a sword out of cardboard and has taped various other toy weapons to his body and has a loop of rope slung over his shoulder. K. is wearing a cape and superhero mask and has a lightsaber, but he is currently sitting at my feet drawing dinosaurs.

J: We have to cross the Mountains of Terror, where there are…

A: Zombies!

J: No… well, OK. Well, there aren’t zombies, there are giant spiders.

A: Pretend I know all about the Grim.

J: Pretend I do, too!

A: Yeah.

J: Hey, A…

A: Call me Harry.

J: But I like calling you A.

A: OK, let’s pretend Harry is my real name but A. is my nickname.

J: OK. So, we have to cross the mountains, and this is our map. (shows map from the Silmarillion and they examine it together)

A: (picking up stuffed cheetah) Let’s pretend that this is a Baby Grim we caught to be our pet.

J: Yeah!

A: And we need climbing ropes.

J: This is going to be a very tough journey. (sighs heavily)

A: Uh oh. I think the Grim are coming.

J: And Shelob is their leader!

A: Run! There’s more coming!

(They run back and forth. K looks up from his dinosaur picture to watch them) 

J: Here, put on this armor, it’s Mithril.

A: Fireball! Fireball!

J: Fireball! Aaargh!

(K stops drawing dinosaurs and joins the game) 

K: I have mifril armor too.

A: Who are you?

K: I’m Darth Vader. (breathes like Darth Vader) 

A & J exchange a look.

A: We’re not playing Star Wars.

K: I WANT TO BE DARTH VADER!

J: Well… are you good or bad?

K: Good.

A & J exchange another look and silently decide to drop it.

A: (picks up stuffed dragon) I found an animagus!

J: Is he wounded?

A: No. Look, these two are kissing on the lips. (makes cheetah and stuffed dragon kiss) 

J&K gape, amazed. A. makes kissing sounds and keeps mashing the stuffed animals’ faces together.

J: (tiring of the kissing scene) Oh no! Look out, they’re coming!

A: (dropping stuffed animals) Fireballs! Run!! It’s The Grim!!!

Everybody screams and runs. 

I am transcribing this because I find it hilarious but I’m also vaguely unsettled at how closely their game mirrors my own inner monologue when I’m writing.

*Adds more kissing*

*Adds more fireballs*

The world has always been this way

Instead of working, I’m checking the news from Paris every few minutes like me sitting here and freaking out is going to help anybody anywhere.

The world has always been terrible / wonderful. This isn’t new news, it’s old news. It’s pretty much the oldest news there is. I’m trying to remember when I first found out the kinds of things that people do to each other – because my kids don’t know yet. They have no idea. I took them to school this morning – nice schools with big windows and caring teachers – through beautiful snowfall, bundled in their snowsuits, laughing and falling in the snow and catching flakes on their tongues. They are so happy, and they just have no idea, because they are so, so lucky. And eventually (soon? I don’t know) I have to start telling them about the Terrible World, and then we have to have conversations about how to live in it.

Lately I’ve been reading the news and feeling like I don’t know how to swallow the terrible stuff and keep my chin up anymore. That’s ridiculous, of course, what with me being officially the Luckiest Person Alive. But then nobody said anybody had to swallow anything, and nobody really cares whether my chin is up or down. There are homicidal maniacs out there, rampaging around as usual – in Paris, and that’s in the news, but elsewhere too – these men who once upon a time were each somebody’s little sweet-cheeked boy, and who knows what happened to them after that? What went wrong? Now they are out for blood, like they always are.

I don’t have anything to say about it. There was this article that I thought was beautiful and which made me cry and cry. And the incredible Christine Gilbert posted a good piece too, about the Parisian police officer Ahmed Merabet, who died defending the right of Charlie Hebdo to make a mockery of his religion. I’m glad there are articulate and compassionate people talking in nuanced ways about all this but I am getting more pessimistic as I get older and I don’t have any hope of such voices drowning out the angry din.

I live in this bright bubble and it looks so dark and grim outside. But that’s not really true either. Because the world has always been terrible, but it’s always been wonderful too, and it’s not hard to find the bright spots when you find you can’t swallow.

I guess that whenever I tell my kids the story of Hate and Rage and Blind Righteousness, I will try to suggest that we not only live in a bright spot, but we can be a bright spot. We are part of the world, and we can try to give off light. There are a lot of ways to do this – big ways and small ways. Today I am trying to dial back my own rage, and live with my horror and fear, and be kinder. I’m thinking of the victims in Paris, and even those little boys who turned into raving monsters with guns, and while praying is not something I do in general, today I wish that I knew how. If I did, I’d be on my knees, praying for peace and light, the ability to know the world and still be joyful in it, and the strength to spread that joy.

Here:

http://www.dose.com/lists/3414/This-Couple-Dancing-To-Bob-Marley-Will-Actually-Definitely-Make-Your-Day

The Mirror, the Window, the Axe: thoughts on love & books

My favorite writers are mostly (but not exclusively) women. When I was a kid, I wanted stories with girls in them. It was always all about the girl, for me. I loved the Prydain Chronicles for Eilonwy, not Taran. I loved Princess Leia, not Luke. As I see it now, I was hungry for girl heroes and, lucky me, I found them easily: Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy, Meg Wallace, my books were full of them.

When the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag started trending on twitter, it offered a vivid picture of what it would be like if you were a kid with that hunger to see yourself in books but couldn’t find anybody like you. What if you are a girl who loves other girls but there are no stories about that at all in the library? What if you are a black kid who loves sci fi and every hero in every book you read is white? I don’t know what that feels like, but I can imagine. Junot Diaz has written about it, talking about how vampires don’t have any reflection in the mirror: “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. …Part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

We want and need to see ourselves in stories, of course, and at the same time reading gives us access to other selves and other lives. George Orwell had the great line (though he was talking about style, mainly) that “good prose is like a windowpane.” Not only a mirror reflecting ourselves, but each book a window with a view outside ourselves. A great writer lets us in, and if we as readers do our part and enter the story with our whole hearts, that is as close to being someone else as we will ever get.

But sometimes people really, really don’t want to understand what it might be like to be somebody else or to lead another life. For example: a lot of white people are getting really angry that black people are angry about Ferguson. Maybe we can never know exactly what happened leading up to the moment when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death, but we can and should know the America in which it happened, where young black men (or boys, like Tamir Rice) are getting shot (or choked, like Eric Garner) with terrifying frequency for doing not much of anything. If you really don’t understand the anger in Ferguson, you aren’t following the plot.

I understand the default white person position where racism doesn’t really seem like a thing, because that is the starting point for all white people. Maybe in school we learn about slavery in the United States, or the residential school system in Canada, or the Holocaust in Europe – an assortment of unthinkable atrocities dished out in history class – and everybody says how bad it was and it feels like the Terrible Past but we’re all cool now thank goodness. That’s a comfortable way to feel, and nobody living in the world today should feel that comfortable about the way things are. Since I’m throwing quotations around, here’s one from David Foster Wallace: “I had a teacher once who used to say good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

I can’t get over that line. I think it’s so true. If you were following the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag, you could see over and over people talking about how books saved their lives – the books that reflected them, the books that comforted them. But if you are, say, a white girl with every kind of good fortune growing up on the west coast of Canada, then you don’t need books to comfort or reflect you. I needed them to disturb me, to unsettle me, to offer windows into other selves and other lives and other realities. I needed them to wake me up and show me the world.

Junot Diaz talks about mirrors, George Orwell talks about windowpanes, and Kafka famously offers that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Honestly, I read mainly for fun. I don’t think to myself, “hmm, I need an axe for the frozen sea within me” – I just want to be drawn in and entertained. But if I had to list the books that have stayed with me the most, they would be the books that have disturbed me, that changed my thinking – the books that acted like an axe on my consciousness.

The truth is that we can’t ever know what it is like to be somebody else, to live another life outside our own skin. We can’t know anybody and we can’t truly be known – that’s just the way it is, being human in the world. When I hear white people shouting all this angry defensive stuff that boils down to the laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-horrible “no, YOU’RE racist!” I think that this stupid shit is what happens when white people refuse to believe that we don’t know, can’t know, and insist on the primacy and rightness and universality of our own narrow perspective. That insistence, that knee-jerk refusal to enter someone else’s story, to turn away from the lying mirror and look out the window, is where bigotry and hatred and resentment all begin. I think, probably naively, that these people need to sit down and read, just read about lives that are not theirs, written by authors who know differently.

It’s lonely and scary – not knowing and not being known. Empathy is knowing we can’t know, but trying anyway to share ourselves and to know others as well as we can. For me, this basic striving to know and be known has always come down to love and books. I’m sure there are other ways, but those are my particular fixes.

We Need Diverse Books has gone from a hashtag born of deep frustration to an incorporated passion-driven non-profit that I dearly hope is going to change the (white) face of publishing, and which you can check out (and support) here.

A story is a changeable thing and can be what you need it to be – whether a mirror, a window, an axe. It can show you yourself in the way that only those who love and know you best can ever show you yourself, and it can pry your heart wide open, let in the air and the world outside, shatter you, if you need to be shattered. Sometimes we do need to be shattered.

http://blogthisrock.blogspot.ca/2014/08/poem-of-week-danez-smith.html