Another quantum post! As you read this, I’m on a 9-hour trek across the country to World Fantasy Con. If you’ll be there or in the San Jose area, I’ll be reading from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on Saturday at 3 p.m. Come listen and say hello!
Two things I’ve seen this week triggered today’s post. The first was this news article, about a young woman recently found wandering and amnesiac here in New York city. She’d forgotten her name, how she got here, or what had happened to her. What she could remember, however, were lines from a fantasy novel by Robin Hobb. Now, the important and tragic part of this story is that this young woman has probably been through some major physical or psychological (or both) trauma; I don’t want to gloss over that. She’s been identified, and is hopefully now being treated. But the part that caught my attention, given my professions — not just fantasy writer, but psychologist — was that she remembered the Hobb book. She also remembered that she herself is a fantasy writer, working on a novel; she can apparently remember what her story is about, too. So hold those thoughts for a minute.
The other thing that triggered today’s post was seeing a video featuring Nigerian author (and MacArthur “Genius” Grant award winner) Chimamanda Adichie, in which she talks about the dangers of a single story. Watch it for yourself:
My favorite part is the anecdote she starts about about the 10:55 mark:
“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho, and it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”
Adichie says it herself: stories matter. Not only because too few stories can create stereotypes or incomplete understandings of the world, but also because all stories lodge in our minds so powerfully, influencing our thinking at such a deep and often subconscious level, that even when our identities are stripped away, the stories remain. In fact, there are psychological theories which posit that human consciousness is nothing but stories — that aside from our most simplistic instincts, all of our ability to reason consists of chains of interlinking narratives, from the simplest to the most complex, that we form and associate in order to understand the world.
I think of things like this whenever I hear people dismiss fantasy, and fiction in general (but especially genre fiction), as “just a story.” This seems to happen frequently in any serious conversation which attempts to deconstruct the stories we tell — like in this conversation that’s taking place in the romance end of the genresphere, about race and cultural appropriation. A number of respondents in the comment thread seem upset at being asked to think about real-world issues because they just want a story to enjoy — by which they seem to mean the same kinds of stories they’ve always read, however singular and incomplete those are. But how much more enjoyable might those stories be if they were made more complete? How many fresh, complex, new stories might appear if there were more tellers, different tellers, and if the old incomplete stories were retired instead of rehashed?
Think about it: if the world’s six billion people knew of Americans only through that Bret Easton Ellis novel, what would they think of us? What if the world only expected Ellis-ish stories from American authors, and refused to publish anything different on the assumption that stories about non-murderous Americans were somehow “inauthentic”? What if the authors of other nations, when they deigned to include Americans in their fiction, only wrote of Americans as narcissistic serial killers? What if the readers in those other nations got upset whenever Americans asked for more and varied representations of themselves? And worse, what if the governments of other nations started building their policies around such stories, requiring that all Americans be frisked and held for psychiatric observation on entering the country?
Would American Psycho be “just a story” then? Could any story written by or about Americans be “just a story”, in that climate?
So I don’t buy the idea that what we’re doing, as writers and as readers, is “just a story”. The stories I write have a powerful impact on the consciousness of every person who reads them, whether I intend to have that effect or not. The stories I read have a powerful impact on my own consciousness — and subconsciousness, whether I’m aware of that impact or not. It seems disingenuous at best, irresponsible at worst, to pretend that neither of these facts are true.
Here’s an idea: just imagine yourself as that young amnesiac woman. Ask yourself: what stories would be foremost in your mind, helping to shape your remaining identity? Because there would be some stories left in you. There always are.