It’s not surprising that in oppressive societies it’s the writers and artists who are the first to be silenced or ‘disappeared’.
To be an artist of any description you need to be an acute observer of people and societies — and you need, on some level, to want to express your thoughts to others. To engage in a dialogue. To challenge lazy thinking. To open doors to other thoughts, possibilities and systems.
And if you’re a natural observer you find you become fascinated with human behaviour, and start to ask yourself why people behave (or don’t behave) the way they do. This leads to the discovery that human beings are capable of both extreme compassion and kindness, and the most incomprehensible lust for power and control. Violence too. And greed. Indeed, it really all comes down to greed.
Story has always been the most powerful way to engage another human being on all levels: intellectual, emotional and spiritual. We’re virtually hard-wired to respond to story — if you think about it, every interaction we have with someone else takes the form of narrative to a greater or lesser degree.
So if you put a concerned, cynicalobserver together with the desire to engage in a discussion with the reader through story, it makes sense to tell stories that try to illuminate the best and worst of human behaviour, in the hope the reader will think on it.
That’s my theory, anyway. It’s taken me a while to figure this all out and get myself to a position to practice it, but I’m ready now — and I’m worried enough about the state of the world and the direction we are currently heading, to start to speak out.
One of the fantastic things about writing is the opportunity to research and, in my capacity as both a fiction writer and a non-fiction writer, I’ve researched a significant number of the big issues facing the world today: climate change and the politics surrounding it; globalisation; violence against women; illegal trafficking (of people, wildlife, plants and drugs); Big Business and Big Pharma; free vs fair trade; over-fishing; mining; money systems; indigenous issues and colonisation; the Irish ‘Troubles’; passive resistance; whaling; youth at risk; suicide; survivor guilt; childhood trauma… just to name a few!
Of course, I get to research nice things too (like Vincent Van Gogh), but my point is that I now have a fairly informed view on what is going on in the world, and what is happening locally in this unclean, ungreen land of ours.
Things are bad. I fear for my children’s futures. They certainly will have challenges we can’t even yet imagine (and the ones I can imagine are bad enough!) It makes me angry. I can’t understand why more of us don’t speak out. It makes me think of the graffiti left on the old Whanganui computer centre by anarchist Neil Roberts in 1982:
“We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.”
Here in NZ, we are sitting by while the organisations that support the most vulnerable people in our community are closing for lack of funds, while our government leads the charge in undermining this good work (see some examples at: Women going backwards.)
We obsess about a team of men using an oval ball as an excuse to beat the crap out of each other, yet say nothing while our privacy, our sovereignty and our well-being are being bled dry (and a tiny percentage of people at the top of the food chain do very, very well.) I find this obscene. Just like it’s obscene eroding labour laws for giant corporations, mining our conservation land, and plundering our seas, etc., etc.
When did it become acceptable to no longer consider anybody but oneself? Or to prosper at the expense of everybody else? I know it’s common to blame this selfishness on the up-and-coming generations, but we need to look more deeply at who they learnt such beliefs from. Kids learn their values from the families and societies they grow up in – which means it’s us, folks, who made them what they are. We must take responsibility and start to put things right.
As a writer I feel impelled to use my
writing for the greater good. It’s a hard slog writing a novel, so I figure that I may as well make it multi-task: an engaging story, characters that will elicit compassion and empathy, and an underlying message that will build bridges between people and offer insights into the lives of those who often don’t have a voice. I’m not afraid to take a stand. I don’t believe this undermines the creativity of the work, merely enhances it with greater depth.
When I think about the books that stay with me they are all books that engaged me at every level (emotion, intellect, spirit). They didn’t whitewash the world; they actively interrogated the important issues of the time. And they challenged me to think harder; to look below the surface in order to understand what’s really going on. In a world today where ‘news’ is mediated by corporate agendas and the cult of celebrity, it makes it even more important that those of us in a position to speak truthfully should do so. Not pushing our own barrows, but opening the door to deeper understanding, where a reader can then make up their own mind given the opportunity to view any given situation presented through fresh eyes.
All of us have the capacity to make a difference just by speaking out, and not allowing ‘spin’ to blind us to what’s going on. It’s time to stop acting from self-interest and realise that by helping the most vulnerable in our society (and putting in robust measures to protect our environment and the other creatures that share this planet), we create a better world for all.
I dare you to join me. Go on, get stroppy! Make each word count.