Writing Fiction to Write the World Right

I’ve always lived in other worlds. As soon as I learned to read, I began devouring books. If I could understand most of the words, I read it. I was always asking Mom what this word and that word meant, and as a result, Mom soon taught me how to use a dictionary. I was in glasses by the time I was ten. There is no proof, but I think because I read so much, my eyes didn’t think there was anything beyond the length of my arm (or the tip of my nose for that matter). By the time I finished sixth grade, I had read the Little House on the Prairie books, A Wrinkle in Time trilogy (back then it was a trilogy), The Chronicles of Narnia, every Judy Blume book, and too many Nancy Drew books to count. In fact, I would sit down after breakfast on Saturdays with a Nancy Drew mystery and have it finished by supper. Of course, writing stories did not lag far behind learning how to read them.

The first time I saw the power and potential of a girl, and later a woman, was in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time books. Meg was strong and held her own ground. She did not have special powers and she was not a super-hero, but she did what was right. Her love for her family always compelled her to do the right thing, no matter what it cost her personally. Meg showed me that regardless of your age, you could change the world for the better.

I lived in books filled with girls and women with whom I could relate. I grew up with a conservative, traditional view of of what a woman was supposed to be: submissive, quiet, and obedient. But I never fit in that mold. I was neither quiet nor submissive, and I was not very proper. I was competitive, opinionated, aggressive, and willing to defend my beliefs. In books I found woman like me, women I wanted to be like.

I will never forget meeting Eowyn in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers and journeying with her through The Return of the King. She was the first woman I met who was also a warrior. She defied the customs of her time, went into battle, and fought for what she believed in. She was the one who destroyed the King of the Nazguls. In Eowyn, I found a sister.

But fiction has done more than just show me what women can do. The genres of science fiction and fantasy also help me to understand what it means to be human. There is a great potential for truth-telling in these genres. I think that is because the worlds in science fiction and fantasy are not “our” world. Because it’s not “us,” “our” culture, “our” world, we can say things that are not readily received in other forums. Over the years, these genres have confronted the prejudices of our world, battling discrimination based on sex, religion, and ethnicity, and going even further to ask, “What does it mean to be human?”

In Children of God, Mary Doria Russell weaves the stories of human and alien through religion. On the world of Rakhat, there are two species: the Jana’ata and the Runa. The Jana’ata will eat the Runa for survival and to maintain the population. Two of the human characters in the book are a Jewish woman, Sofia Mendes, and her autistic son, Isaac. Joining them is Ha’anala, a member of the Jana’ata. Sofia teaches them the Jewish faith. The biblical views begin to change the way Ha’anala looks at her world, and the way she sees the Runa. She realizes all of them are created by God. When she is older, she forms a group where the Runa are treated as equals, which becomes a catalyst for starting change in her world. Meanwhile, Isaac has limited speech and dislikes noise. He wants silence and clarity. He works continually on a hand-held computer, looking for what he calls clarity. At the end of the book we find out what he was working on: a symphony. John Clute noted that Isaac “understands the world solely through song, memorizes the genetic codes of the three races into three intercalating tone-rows, and harmonizes them” (Excessive Candour, issue 63). He calls his composition “The Children of God.” The humans, the Runa, and the Jana’ata are all God’s children. The book ends with a question: Where will these three races—all children of God—go from here? Children of God makes us think: what does it mean to be made in the image of God? To be God’s children? Do we really consider those who are “other” (different races, cultures, religions, or ethnicities) as God’s children? Would we use and exploit other people if we saw them as children of God, or would we radically change the way live as Jana’ata did?

Neil Gaiman creates London Below in Neverwhere: A Novel. A whole world lives beneath the streets of London in old tunnels long forgotten. London Below is populated by those who are considered misfits by the inhabitants of London Above. The residents of London Below are seen as homeless, dirty, and destitute. The people of London Above do not even see them; they look right past them. The dwellers of London Below have to talk to them to be seen, but once the conversation is over, the London Abovers forget the encounters. Those who reside in London Below are unseen and forgotten people. This challenges the reader to examine how we see people. How do we view those who are considered “misfits”? Do we look past them? Do we see them at all?

Both of these books remind me of a core teaching of my Christian faith: that every single human being on the face of this planet is made in God’s image. What do we do with this doctrine, once it is truly realized? Are we able to handle the responsibility this places upon us? What about those we take advantage of, simply because we can? Are there certain people who are invisible to us, who we look through on the street? Fiction has challenged me, throughout my life, to encounter these hard questions, and ask what it means to be human. God not only created every human being, but God created them in God’s own image. I must constantly remind myself to remember this, to live out what I believe.

This is why I’m compelled to write fiction. Although I am a theologian who also writes non-fiction, fiction is my home. I believe fiction is a better vehicle for sharing my beliefs about who God is, who humans are, and how we have relationships with both each other and with God than non-fiction forms of writing. Madeline L’Engle believed the same thing. She wrote that “Faith is best expressed in story.” Fiction—narrative—gives us that safe distance so we can ask these hard questions and grapple with them. I believe that I am being faithful to my training as a theologian and as a Christian in sharing my beliefs about God, life, death, and other people in fiction.

Neil Gaiman reminds writers that we “have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” Or as Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” It’s easier to hear and think about hard truths if they come to us from the side, out of the corners of our eyes; if they’re told slant.

There is something about a good story that can make us think about life and all of its big questions without freaking us out as much as a news story or a sermon would. It gives us the needed distance and breathing room to look at these big questions, and fiction encourages us to think creatively about new answers to these questions, instead of falling back on the rote answers that non-fiction tends to encourage. I like the ability of using my words to create new worlds where we can look at old problems in new ways and with new eyes, and hopefully in that creative act, I will help others to see new ways of living their own lives in this world.

(This essay was originally written for E-Quality, Winter 2008.)

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2 thoughts on “Writing Fiction to Write the World Right

    1. Yes Catherine I took the picture. It’s the buildings along Wacker Driver on the south side of the Chicago River. My Hubby works in the IBM building downtown, and I took it from there. Thank you for stopping by!

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