Sometimes, it seems to me like we are living in a nightmare alternate reality – the real me is living in a world where the American President doesn’t brag about dropping bombs while eating dessert (“most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen”) and here in Canada, incidents of racism aren’t skyrocketing, fuelled by the same President’s hateful, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Unfortunately, I suspect this “real world” is here to stay, complete with trash-filled oceans, threat of nuclear war, and rising temperatures.
Enter the novel; a potentially potent weapon against the threats coming from every direction.
The novel’s strength is not purely as an article of escapism; after all, humanity has plenty of levers for escape. Television, sex, drugs, religion – take your pick if you really want to shut off reality for a while. Instead, novels can show us the reality that could be, both positive and negative.
What if misogyny hadn’t trumped Clinton’s run for President? What if Nazi Germany had won WWII? What if Canada chose a king (and he let Quebec leave, already)? What would happen if the internet disappeared? What if the Confederates had won the Civil War?
Idle speculation can answer these questions, but novels and stories dive into the potential ramifications beyond the theoretical. Novels can show us the worst side of human nature and its best possibilities for transformation and change, and novels that show both real and theoretical situations can change the world.
I’ve mentioned this before: readers are particularly empathetic because they live in other people’s skin every time they enter a book. Because of the novel’s tendency to focus on the micro rather than the broad strokes of history, novels share lived experiences rather than the cold facts of history. Every time you read a novel, you are experimenting with living a different type of life than the one you live at the moment. That experience can inspire you to change – your focus, your job, your relationship, your goals – and that change can sweep across your community. Reading about the plight of people who experience extreme hardship, especially in contemporary settings, can change attitudes towards an entire group of people. And aren’t those kinds of changes exactly what we need as a society right now?
As a reader AND as a writer, we can all do good by reading and sharing stories that humanize those who are different than we are. BookRiot has a great list of 20 Book Challenges for 2017 that give you the opportunity to read more diversely, or you can try out #DiversityBingo2017 – reading at least one book from every category on the board below within one year.
As a writer, share your voice! If there is a social justice topic that interests you, research it and write a novel about the experiences people have around it. Ask yourself questions: What if the amount of plastic in the ocean grows enough to kill most of the creatures? What is global warming continues unchecked? What if Donald Trump gets more extreme? Dive into the theoretical and show the world a scenario. You never know who you could inspire to change and grow.