Sunday Musings: The Power of Words

So, years ago I read a very powerful article over at the Rejectionist written by the amazing author Neesha Meminger. It’s about the power of words.

Peanut Gallery: “The power of words? What you mean like saying Bloody Mary in the mirror three times? XD XD XD”

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Nope! What I’m more talking about is the way in which the stories we write help to directly shape how people see the world. I’m not talking about good or bad stories here. I’m talking about social hierarchies, power and ideology.

Books are never just entertainment. Stories are never neutral.

To get a sense for what I’m saying, I’ll give you some bites from Neesha’s article. Take a look see!

So, in essence, it seems to go something like this: mythology shapes psychology which then shapes reality. Stories/mythology/archetypes → psychology → reality. This means that stories have tremendous power. Now, think of the stories around you – told in film, television, books, music videos, fairy tales, religious texts, magazines, commercials, billboards, etc. What are the mythologies being created? What are the *realities* being created?

It’s important for us writers to realize that, while it’s not like one book has the power to brainwash people, words are powerful. Narratives are powerful. Narratives are always inherently infused with ideology (belief systems about gender, race etc.) because WE are infused with ideology. Some of these ideologies/belief systems/ways-of-thinking have been reinforced for centuries. So when we write…what are we saying? What does our text imply, even when we don’t even realize it?

I think that may be part of the reason behind the Book Smuggler’s reaction about one particular YA book that they felt contained some rather unfortunate implications about rape culture. Sometimes, it’s not about the author wanting to throw negative stuff in there to brainwash the masses into doing or thinking something horrible. It’s not about conscious, willful intent. But it’s about people being taught certain things about life, about relationships, about people’s place in society based on gender, sexuality, race, class etc. and then writing a book and having all that subconscious ideology just sort of leak into their work. We all do it. It’s almost unavoidable.

Along the same lines, people of colour, LGBTQ folk, the working class, and other marginalized voices are often squeezed out of the narrative—lightened, white-washed, dismissed (as in “they don’t buy books”, “there is no market”, “these types of books don’t sell”), diluted, homogenized, etc. when it comes to creating the myths, legends, and archetypes of our time. And it absolutely has an impact on the psychology of our young people.

Ibi Zoboi, a Haitian writer of fantasy and sci-fi, recently blogged this: “I [try] to keep back the tears ’cause I get all emotional when I’m hit with the reality that my kinfolk and their stories are not valued, are not deemed marketable or profitable, or readable, or relatable.”

Hiromi Goto, Japanese-Canadian author of the young adult novel Half World, notes that, “To my mind, stories are not ‘just entertainment’ (although I believe that in order to function they must, on a certain level, entertain successfully). Stories become part of our thinking, our learning, our knowing. […] How much more necessary, then, that children and youth find their diverse subjectivities reflected in the characters that they read, how much more necessary that dreams, myths, the magical depict children of colour, aboriginal children, metis children.”

And this is something that I’m really passionate about – and also something that terrifies me. I want so badly to be a fantasy author. I love fantasy. It’s in my blood. And yet, growing up I never once was able to find a book about a girl like me – a young black girl – just going on an adventure. Narratives taught me – narratives from books, from movies, from all forms of media – that only white people were heroes. Only white people saved the day, only white girls were the princesses, the chosen ones, the goddesses. The rest of us just kind of stood around supporting, or antagonizing said heroes – if we were even seen at all.

At my weakest, one thing that used to terrify me (and, at times, still does), no matter how realistic or ridiculous you might think the notion, is that the race of my characters might stand in the way of my publication. I believe that the merit of the work should stand on its own, and I believe that ultimately it does. But there’s no denying that some in the industry adhere to the idea of marketability – to be marketable, successful, to sell the most, you must market to the ‘dominant audience’ and any story that doesn’t readily reflect the identities of the target audience can’t be as successful as those who do. Basically: if you’re going to write about teens, write about white, heterosexual American teens, because they’re the audience that matters…

…an idea I find unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, it automatically assumes the ignorance of this particular audience (and there are many who’d be very insulted by the idea), and second it seeks to reinforce this ignorance rather than challenge it. Why is it so difficult for someone who isn’t Chinese to believe that a regular girl (who happens to be Chinese) from, say, Jersey can go on a magical adventure? A magical adventure that may or may not be centered around her being Chinese? Why must we continue to marginalize narratives for the sake of profit? Why must we continue to base our profit-making scenarios on out-dated ideas that only reward and perpetuate various social hierarchies?

But then, the first book I ever published has a white female on the cover.

feather bound coverI didn’t specify the race – purposefully – for fear that maybe it would become an excuse for an editor or a marketing department to say “sorry, it’s not for us.” That’s the conundrum a lot of POC writers face. Do we take the risk and explicitly write about ourselves even if it means our books may never see the light of day? Or do we play the game for the first few books in hopes that we can make a name for ourselves and establish ourselves first before taking the risk? Either choice is understandable. But either way there are potential material – and psychic – consequences that each action will bring. Neither choice is a simple one to make.

Maybe I’m getting a bit too serious bzns for a lot of people. But this is something that a lot of people, regardless of who they are or where they come from, have to face if they choose to write someone of a non-dominant identity – non-white, non-straight, someone with a mental disability, someone with a non-Christian religion (who isn’t an atheist/who’s religion isn’t unspecified). “Will my work be picked up?” “Will I be asked to make changes to my heroine’s identity?” “If I don’t, will people still read it?”

Ultimately, however, I believe it’s of the utmost importance to write what you love, what’s real to you, what you’re passionate about, and to always stay true to yourself. Words are powerful. Narratives are powerful. And thus, our words and narratives have the power to create an environment of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness in the bookstore. The power to give people insight into people who may not exactly be like them while also revealing those common threads that make us more similar than we realize.

And, of course, in the end, if you don’t love and believe in what you write, then what’s the point?

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