Thursday, March 26, 2015

Words of Power #opinion

Who among us hasn’t dreamt of what we could do were we in charge of things? A cursory glance at my Twitter and Facebook feeds is a clear indication of a whole number of blood-boiling things that are wrong with the world, from the destruction of priceless artefacts in the Middle East thanks to a bunch of religious fundamentalist cockwombles to the small, everyday issues women face (like a friend of mine who recently took a bunch of wolf-whistling yobbos to task for being, well, yobbos).

Be it issues such as women’s reproductive rights in the United States or the rights of Muslim women to wear their headgear in Europe, or philandering presidents who “unknowingly” misappropriate government funding, there’s a wealth of douchebaggery happening every day that makes me want to maim.

But if I think how it is that I came to my admittedly rather liberal worldview, and my natural inclination to question (and doubt) everything, I lay the blame for that firmly with the books that helped shape me during my formative years. For instance, the first time I encountered LGBTI characters was when I read Mercedes Lackey, Poppy Z Brite and Anne McCaffrey, in settings where sexual orientation simply did not matter, and no matter who you loved, this was perfectly fine.

The moment someone starts using the term “gay” as an insult, I take them to task without blinking. This is despite having grown up in a highly conservative culture where anyone who was “different” was considered wrong, if not the Devil.

Fantasy, SF or horror fiction to varying degrees, create an environment where I could suspend disbelief and let anything happen. Though the worlds were vastly removed from my reality (and I willingly fled into Middle-Earth or Pern, let me assure you); there was sufficient resonance to ground me and empathise with the challenges heroes faced, that were sometimes so close to the issues in our own world.

Speculative fiction opened my mind to the fact that other other cultures, in their own right, are perfectly valid according to their socio-cultural norms. Reading about heroes who go on quests to fight a demon or save a kingdom, I have a well-developed sense of ethics having learnt, by proxy, that all actions have consequences. There have been times when I saw what the protagonist didn’t. Lessons my heroes learnt are lessons that I, by default, learnt too.

Which brings me to the role of the author, as an agent of change in the world. We are often accused of being introverts, who spend more time in our fantasy worlds than real life. And, while it’s good for us to step away from the computer or the book from time to time, we must never underestimate the power our words may have on others.

There are times, in real life, when I’d love to engage with militants who think it’s okay to kidnap young girls and lock them into a life of slavery. There are moments, when I wish I could engage with political leaders who think it’s okay to have a journalist flogged because he dared to question the status quo. Or men who think it's acceptable to beat a woman author because she expressed admiration for Salman Rushdie, FFS.

But, face it, who am I in the bigger schemes of things? Yeah, just a 30-something South African media hack who uses public transport and spends far too much time getting my knickers in a twist about the atrocity of the week. I don’t have the physical power to hop on a plane and talk sense into the idiots. And, even if I could, chances are high that I wouldn’t be able to change their minds (and those of many others) anyway.

However, I can channel all my thoughts and feelings into writing a story. There is a reason religious fundamentalists burn books and persecute writers. The pen is mightier than the sword because words can reach deeper than bullets or blades, and change hearts and minds. Regimes can be overthrown when the people stand up and say, “Hey, this is bull, and we don’t agree with it.”

If my stories can reach even a dozen people and make them think about issues, such as women’s rights, racism or cruelty to animals, then I will have succeeded as an author, to change the world in small, meaningful ways. My words can stir an avalanche. I can spark the empathy that begins to cast those tiny ripples that will eventually become a tsunami.

So, basically what I’m trying to say is your stories of magic, wonder or horror, create a safe place where readers can engage with your ideas without feeling like you are directly attacking their thoughts and beliefs. By creating empathy between your readers and the subject matter, you can add your voice to thousands of others that call for change.

I’ll leave you with this challenge. As a human being, what issues truly gnaw at your sense of injustice? Can you infuse your next story with this same passion? Can you imagine a world that overcomes its greatest issues? Who are the heroes?

Now, go out and write stories that will change the world.

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If you liked this piece, and you feel like paying it forward and contributing to the starving artist who made these words, do consider picking up my short story collection over at Smashwords. Let me know when you've read it, and I may be able to sneak you another little bit of something special extra.

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