This is a guest post from Nandi Taylor. Nandi is a Canadian writer of Caribbean descent based in Toronto, Canada. Nandi grew up devouring sci-fi and fantasy novels, and from a young age, started writing books of her own. Her books are an expression of what she’d always wanted more of growing up—protagonists of African descent in speculative settings. Common themes she writes about are growth, courage, and finding one’s place in the world. When not writing, Nandi is reading about folklore from all over the globe or planning her next vacation/research trip. Given is her debut novel. Find her on Twitter @Nandi_Taylor.
Good fiction can do a lot of things. It can entertain us, inspire us, comfort and delight us. But most importantly, a fiction story can simultaneously reflect and shape what we believe.
I’ll let you in on a trade secret: the subconscious mind can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not, and as storytellers we’re counting on that. It’s how we make you love and hurt for characters that ultimately don’t exist. It’s how we make you wish you could visit Hogwarts or Wakanda. Cultures the world over have used folktales to pass along social norms, warnings, and morals. There are books, comics, and movies with fandoms bigger than the population of small countries.
See, we authors know that a really good book will wrap you up inside it, make you feel warm and cocooned, lower your defenses and, while you’re in that soft and vulnerable state, it will seep like melted chocolate into the recesses of your mind.
Now this can be a wonderful thing. In fact, one of the greatest virtues of stories is how they can reassure us, pat us soothingly on the hand and say, “You thought you were bad? Just look at this guy.” Think of your favorite book or movie, the one that you can quote almost line for line. What makes you love it so much? Chances are it speaks to something deep within you, possibly something you didn’t even know existed. If Hiccup can fumble and bumble his way into leading an army of dragon riders, maybe it’s OK that you can’t keep a white shirt stainless for longer than the time it takes to unwrap a black bean burrito.
We use stories to feel alright. At times it can seem like the only person who understands us is the one dealing with an absentee mother while living in a dystopian regime, or learning the importance of friendship while on a quest to destroy the One Ring. But what happens when someone hardly or never sees themselves on page or screen?
Ah, well here comes that well-meaning yet simple-minded friend of ours again, the subconscious. The one who loves to jump to conclusions. When none of the characters in the stories we adore look like us, think like us, move like us or love who we love, our subconscious minds receive the message that maybe we’re not so alright after all.
But most dangerous of all are the stories that grab lazily at half-truths and stereotypes. These stories paint ugly, clumsy portraits, wrap their arms around our necks and draw us close, pointing and whispering, “You see? You are in fact the abominable freak of nature you always feared.”
In her famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie says: “Stories can break the dignity of a people, but they can also repair that broken dignity.” There’s a reason everyone loves a good underdog story. To our subconscious minds, the triumphs of our characters become our triumphs, their redemption our redemption. And it’s no coincidence that with the rise in diverse representation in the last decade we’ve seen leaps and bounds as a society in our tolerance for those who don’t fit the dominant paradigm—people who are not straight, cisgender, white, or neurotypical.
The relationship between art and life is symbiotic: one feeds the other. As representation of marginalized segments of our society has increased, so has respect and tolerance for those segments of society, which has led more accurate and nuanced portrayals of marginalized people, and today we find ourselves with a wealth of diverse mainstream media and heartening advances in human rights.
We live in an age where anyone with a computer can reach a global audience, and this makes stories exponentially more powerful than ever before. So it is vital as authors and storytellers that we strive to tell stories that reflect truth and foster dignity, and it is imperative for readers to enjoy these stories to their heart’s content.