Fiction Reminds Us That We’re All In This Together
Michel Stone on the Hard Work of Finding a Common Humanity
I suspect most people want their families and friends healthy, well fed, kind, and well educated, living in clean homes, happily going about blissful lives. We desire bright, loving, well-adjusted children with angelic singing voices, pure hearts, sharp minds, sound bodies, and loads of special aptitudes. Charming, successful folks, all, who, after perfect days, slip off to their clean bedrooms to sleep sweet, deep slumbers until the dewy morn, when they wake, clear eyed and rested, eager to face cloudless days with joyful, grateful hearts. Right?
Maybe. But when it comes to our fiction, absolutely not, at least not beyond the first few paragraphs. Because after the initial pages we need fretting to commence, the dark, storm clouds of trouble to gather, and the suffering to kick into gear.
We want our protagonists to writhe a bit, don’t we? They need to face tough, often seemingly insurmountable obstacles so that we, the reader, will want to turn the page. The writer Janet Burroway said, “In literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story.”
I recall when I was about ten years old our family was in the early stages of forging a friendship with another family. My dad and the other dad had met through their mutual interest in training Labrador Retrievers for field trials. That family had five children, my parents had four, and between us we had a multitude of pets. We began getting together on weekends for cookouts and dog training. One evening after such a gathering, I overheard my dear, beleaguered mother say to my father, “I just don’t know how they do it. Their house is always so clean. They’re so organized, and everything’s always immaculate when they have us over. And look at this mess!” Though I was not in the same room I envisioned my mom’s arm shooting out from her side, fanning a sink of dirty dishes.
My dad said in a lowered voice I can only describe as revelatory, “Beth, they’re not always tidy,” as if he had discovered a valuable, protected secret.
“What?” my mother said in wonder.
“It’s true!” Dad said, almost giddily. “I had to drop something off at their house yesterday. The kids were home alone and the place was a wreck! Stuff everywhere!”
“You’re kidding!” My mother said, her voice and mood lifting as if a tremendous weight had been knocked from her thin, tired shoulders.
I understood intuitively my mom’s thoughts at my father’s revelation: Ahhh. . . she was thinking. Now we can really hang out with these people! They’re just like us! They, too, probably shove their stuff in closets, under beds, into cabinets, in back rooms, even in the oven—in a pinch—when company comes!
I’ve come to believe my job as a novelist, aside from spinning an entertaining yarn, is to illuminate the condition we share. I believe powerful, lasting fiction examines the human condition, or, in other words, shows the messiness of everyday living, and in doing so makes “the other folks—whoever they are” relatable and human. I hope to make my readers feel—just like my mother did that day nearly 40 years ago—You mean they’re just like us? in joyous, unadulterated astonishment.
The motivations of a mother in Charleston, South Carolina are not so different from a mother’s motivations in Tegucigalpa, Honduras or in Kyoto, Japan, or in Konongo, Ghana. The difference may be the medium through which that mother moves, but the motivation, regardless of culture or location on a map, varies little. Humans need food, safety, a sense of well-being, and love. We want to provide for our children and we want to belong. When fiction taps into those human motivations and throws an impediment to a character’s access to one of those motivations, we have the makings of a page-turner.
While researching my novel Border Child, I met a teenager named Carlos, an American citizen, whose mother had crossed into the US as a child, undocumented, on her father’s shoulders. Carlos told me his mother’s story as it had clearly been told to him, with an almost mythological importance. He said his mother had been wearing a new pair of white sneakers and she remembers the immigration official’s spotlight scanning the desert and hitting her sneaker, how she looked down from her father’s shoulders and marveled at the way her new shoe glowed in that bright light, how pretty it looked to her. I asked Carlos if his mother and her father were apprehended that night, and he said no. I asked why not, since they were undoubtedly seen. He answered, “My mother says it is because we were meant to be here. Today I am a US citizen because of her and my grandfather.”
Something about Carlos’s sharing of that story, his mother’s memory of her shoes, resonated with me, having two daughters of my own, and having once been a little girl with new shoes myself. Carlos’s mom admired her fancy shoes in the bright light, just like I would have done. Just like my girls would have done. It’s the kind of detail I’d include in a novel. It’s the kind of detail that might make one say, “You mean she’s just like me?”
We see the world through our own unique lenses. Fiction expands one’s lens and helps us empathize with others whose worldview has been shaped by different circumstances and conventions than our own. The struggles of our fictional characters compel us to turn the page to see how protagonists deal with the blows they’re dealt. Why do we care? Why do their struggles and the way they handle them matter to us? We care because the great themes of humanity when illuminated through story connect us and comfort us. They tell us we are all in this life together, and that each of us because of and in spite of the storms we weather, are undeniably human.