At the New School, where I am a professor, I teach a literature seminar called Girls: Narratives of the Girl Child. Every text we read features a girl. The class seeks to ask questions like, do girls have adventure? Do girls have subjectivity? Do girls have agency? Are girls fundamentally different from boys, from grown-up women? If so, under what circumstances? And if not, what are the barriers in place? And finally, how does literature answer these questions? Though the class might seem narrow given the subject matter, it doesn’t take much to think of numerous stories featuring young people, girls and boys both. Just think about what you read in high school or even later in college.
It turns out that so much of American literature is about youth. Perhaps this is because we are still a relatively young country. Either way, much of American canonical literature reveals that as a culture, we in the U.S. value the lessons taught and the experiences culled from childhood and adolescence. We see this at the formative time for self-discovery and self-making. Just consider The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Or go back further in our literary history and bring in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Even as our literary canon made room for writers of color, queer writers, and immigrant writers we see that the attention to youth remained. Consider Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, or How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. Even if the main character in a novel is a grown-up by the end, her narrative so often starts out in childhood. The examples for this are abundant: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. When weighing this, it does seem that fiction in the U.S. is fiction of the child. The American fiction tradition might just be a bildungsroman tradition. A tradition of self-actualization, of personal agency, of growing up and becoming who you will become.
Which is to say that fiction matters for many reasons. Some of these reasons are particular to one book or even more particular to one private reading experience. But over the life of a book and the life of a reader, it does seem so clearly and so simply that fiction, in this country, has all along been doing something incredibly profound: It has been helping us figure out who we are.
But over the life of a book and the life of a reader, it does seem so clearly and so simply that fiction, in this country, has all along been doing something incredibly profound: It has been helping us figure out who we are.
We sophisticated readers and writers are somewhat ashamed to admit this. We think this reduces fiction to some sort of simple cause and effect, as we might say happens when violent video games make young kids smack each other on the playground. We hate to think that we are so easily manipulated by art. And yet. And yet. This is so much of why we go to fiction. To be manipulated—worked on and worked over—even if just for the duration of the reading. We want to fall in love as the character falls in love. We want to be eighteen and sent off to the war. We want to be sixteen and losing our virginity and our minds. We want to laugh in the middle. To cry at the end. In fact, as both anthropology and neuropsychology seem to admit, fiction is designed to do this work of making us feel and act. This is why humans told stories to begin with. Our intention was to teach and to challenge. To examine and to explore. To say: This is human. This is our humanity. You are human. You are part of this. This is who you are.
Of course, books of fiction have been claiming this all along.
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” So starts Alice Walker’s masterpiece The Color Purple. In Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, a character says: “I’m going to tell you who you are.”
The characters that speak these words, Don’t tell…I will tell you who you are, make clear the importance of storytelling in defining the self. They exclaim what fiction is for in their communities and what fiction can do for the individual. The fact that these characters are the abusive fathers of the novels telling this to the girl children doesn’t lessen the point. It underscores it. All around us, especially around children, perhaps especially around girls, there is a swirl of narrative telling us who to be. Fictions of all kinds are constantly shaping our personhood. Fiction is that vital and powerful. Stories will “kill your mammy” says Alphonso to Celie in The Color Purple. Stories will keep you from killing yourself, as Bone shows us in Bastard Out of Carolina.
Celie is told she’s evil and ugly by her father. This is a fiction to be sure, but one she believes because it is the only story of herself she is offered. It is not until Shug gives Celie another story—that every part of her is pretty and good—that Celie can begin to see herself as pretty and good. Shug’s version of Celie is a story, too (Celie is certainly rather homely in comparison to Shug). But it’s one that Celie can take and place over the other. This latter fiction is the one that gives Celie the confidence to transform her life.
When we experience fiction, we live that fiction.
Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal (we humans are that animal) says this:
“(A)ll of us understand that fiction is about fake people and fake events. But this doesn’t stop the unconscious centers of our brains from processing it like it’s real. When the protagonist of a novel is in a bad fix we know it’s all pretend, but our hearts still race, we breathe faster, and stress hormones spike our blood…FMRI studies show when we experience these things, our brains light up as though that thing were happening to us, not just to the characters. So novels make us feel like we’re experiencing an alternative reality because, from the brain’s perspective, we actually are.”
So reading is about being in a different world and experiencing someone else’s life. Which is to say that reading might be very much about empathy. And when it’s a character who has gone through some shit that you have gone through, reading can also help you empathize with yourself via your own lived experiences.
Writers and writing teachers (I belong to both camps) rarely ever talk about this possibility and when we do it’s not usually to embrace it. Writing can help you know yourself or even love yourself? It sounds hokey. But I think teachers and writers veer away from this tall task of fiction because they are afraid to admit that the work we are doing in writing fiction is that dangerous and vital. It’s too scary to admit. It feels like a shackle—what do you mean, I have to consider that kind of impact? I’m just writing to get my story collection published so I can get an adjunct job! And yet art has always been in the service of building and destroying human beings. That’s why when one wants to erase a people you tear up their art, you burn down their libraries. To admit that fiction does not have this power is to be unaware of the history of fiction.
…when one wants to erase a people you tear up their art, you burn down their libraries. To admit that fiction does not have this power is to be unaware of the history of fiction.
When Daddy Glen in Bastard Out of Carolina tells Bone that he will tell her who she is, he does so to erase the stories her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and mother have been giving her. Her family stories, all of which are full of flat-out fictions (lies, we could call them), have nonetheless been the narratives that communicate to Bone that she belongs to her family. These stories of belonging are especially vital to Bone because she doesn’t look like the rest of her family and because “illegitimate” is stamped on her birth certificate. For Bone those family fictions are how she knows herself. After she suffers abuse from Daddy Glen, the fictions she tells herself are stories of horrific violence; stories about being caught in fire, being buried under hay. In these stories she is still strong and brave. She is the victim who saves herself or is saved by a kind hero. Because she has these stories of her own survival she is able to survive. The stories give her that possibility.
But we know this! Every reading parent knows this and so gives their children books they hope will allow the children to see their beauty or intelligence or bravery. We give our children books about sharing so they will, please, learn to share. We give them books about sleeping in their own beds so they will stay out of ours. About preparing for a new sibling. Watching any child study these books you know, you know, you cannot deny, that the books are giving the child a possibility—a possibility to be that sharing child. To be that child who can sleep all night in her own bed. Psychology makes it so clear that none of us escapes our childhood. But we seem to think that we lose this fundamental purpose of fiction as we age. We don’t.
Which is not to say that grown-ups read for instruction. (Frankly, kids don’t go to fiction for that purpose, either). I am not arguing at all that fiction must seek to instruct. But I am offering the idea that fiction asks the instructive questions. Fiction says, did you know humans could be this way? Could you be this way? Could this be you? Could this be humanity?
Which is also to say that stories don’t always save us. Stories can hurt us, destroy us. Readers who have found their own ethnicity or sexual orientation or able-bodiedness underrepresented in literature or marginalized in literature, have known the serious personal erasure that can occur with reading. It is still refreshing to find a complex character of color in American fiction. This is not to say that we readers can’t imagine ourselves into any character; of course, we can…of course, we must if we are to be good readers. But when the black character is always the uneducated maid or the magical negro, the black reader comes to understand quite quickly that though she may be called upon to have depth of imagination, the writer is often not doing the same. (This is why the current “We Need Diverse Books” campaign is so vital.)
Both The Color Purple and Bastard out of Carolina were banned (and in some cases, continue to be banned). They were banned because someone, many someones, thought these fictions did not present safe stories. Thought they were stories that would hurt girls, especially, because they were stories about girls who were hurt. The powers that be were sure that these books, though fiction, tell a horrible truth girls could not bear. When we ban books it’s often because we know that these books tell us who we are. We ban them because we don’t want to be what the books declare. Though, of course, The Color Purple and Bastard out of Carolina are both about the kinds of horrors young girl often are made to bear.
When we ban books it’s often because we know that these books tell us who we are. We ban them because we don’t want to be what the books declare.
Paradoxically, by not telling those stories, hurt girls, abused girls, bastard girls, black girls, poor girls could too easily come to believe that their personal stories are not only shameful, (never tell nobody but God) but also that their true personal stories made them shameful. Their storied selves were to be censored. Don’t tell. I will tell you who you are.
But fiction tells.
Fiction says every possible story is a human story. Celie and Bone are fully complex humans in their novels. Though banned, these books have been in print since they were published. Read and read, despite anybody saying not to. Though fiction, they tell a truth girls need to know in order to see that their own experiences as victims of abuse do not dehumanize them.
Fiction, too then, can say: Sing! Can say: Here is story like yours. Here is a story like someone you know.
But let us push this further. Perhaps it is not just that fiction can tell you who you are. But it is rather that fiction does tell you who you are. Too much pressure? Too bad. Because, in fact, storytelling is the way we instill cultural and personal identity. Good or bad. We know who we are through the stories we are told about ourselves, about our communities. We read and we place ourselves into the narrative. We can’t help it. It’s the way we are made. Fiction, however it comes, is a necessity in human culture.
In her 2008 TED Talk the neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor reveals her experience of waking up one morning and realizing that she is having a stroke. As she says, her “brain chatter” went silent. The left half of her brain shut down completely and she lost language. Because she lost her language, she also lost her memory. What she says this meant for her (and for all us) is pretty intense: “I lost all definition of myself in relation to everything in the external world.”
What essentially happened is that Dr. Bolte Taylor lost her ability to tell herself the story of herself. The narrative that she had built up over her life, how important she is in her field, who she loves, etcetera, was suddenly and completely unavailable to her. We tell ourselves the story of ourselves as we develop language. This story is, of course, a fiction. Someone else might see you as less or more talented than you do. In fact, the whole world might think you are unfair and stingy, whereas your own self-narrative is that you are judicious and generous. For the self, the self-narrative defines you. Language tells us ‘I am.’ When Dr. Bolte Taylor loses language she loses herself. Without this fiction, her own personhood did not exist to herself. The story you tell yourself of who you are is who you are.
Fiction matters because we cannot exist without it.
Did Bastard Out of Carolina or The Color Purple do this for me as a reader? Did they give me my humanity? Fuck yes. Absolutely. I was the bastard girl. The poor girl. The black girl. The girl with the bad daddy. In these novels, I saw that my private narrative wasn’t one that made me such a shameful object that it couldn’t be turned into art. Couldn’t be made into something beautiful.
The story you tell yourself of who you are is who you are.
But also, these fictions told me quite clearly that I also needed other stories. I needed stories, too, about girls and boys. I needed The Woman Warrior. I needed Drown. I needed so much! I needed to know I wasn’t one narrative only. Not just the abused girl. But the warrior girl. All of me could be valid, even when bad, even if a boy, even if Asian or white, for that matter. I could imagine myself into all those possibilities. I also needed to know that I could change that narrative. I needed to know that all the narratives weren’t about me, but were maybe about someone next to me. I needed to know that my stories are part of the community stories, part of the human stories. And that any narrative is possible. Did fiction save my life? Fuck yes. But more. Fiction made my life. Of course fiction matters.
In the season 1, episode 1 podcast of Radiolab called “Who am I” Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich examine this idea of fiction making us who we are. They introduce us to U.C. San Diego Neurologist, V.S. Ramachandran. He says that what is human about us is our ability to construct stories. That storytelling and the self go hand in hand. And he doesn’t just mean nonfiction. He means fiction. He says that because we can formulate inner thoughts (the “brain chatter” that Dr. Bolte Taylor talked about) we can also make stuff up, we can imagine things that do not exist. We can make fiction. His research suggests that the evolution of introspection coincides with our ability to tell a story. Basically, we think, therefore we make fiction. Because we can introspect, we can abstract and tell fictional stories. But also because we tell fictional stories, we can introspect and abstract. It’s not that one comes before the other. They occur as interdependent capabilities.
Dr. Ramachandran and many other prominent neurologists think that being able to tell fictional stories is what makes humans different from other sentient animals. The human being is not a human being just because we have language (dolphins have language, for example) but because we create fiction.
Which is to say that we humans must have fiction in order to be human.
We must have diverse and multiple fictions so we will have multiple versions of our selves and our communities. We must read fiction and write fiction, so that we can release the dangerous stories from their shame and so we can see ourselves in as many versions as possible. We must write diverse stories—stories where characters are rich and poor, and brown and yellow and black and white. Stories where we desire, where we repel. Stories that make us laugh and cry. Stories that piss us off. Stories we know intimately. Stories we didn’t know before at all. Because each narrative, each fiction, becomes our actual truth. Becomes who we are. And the more complex we are the more we are able to tolerate and even celebrate all of humanity in its complexity. This is a tall order for fiction writers.
James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read. It was books that taught me the things that tormented me most, were the very things that connected me, to all the people who were alive or had ever been alive.” Let’s be real: headlines in the newspapers do not do this.
Fiction does this.
I recently had the pleasure of being in the audience when the fiction writer Christopher Castellani accepted his 2015 Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award for the work his organization, Grub Street, does in teaching writing and nurturing emerging writers. In his acceptance speech, Castellani spoke about a novel he is writing about the playwright Tennessee Williams. One of Williams’ most quoted lines is: “Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” Castellani says that he has come to understand that in this quote Tennessee Williams is claiming that writers write “not to escape life, but to reclaim it…Life,” Castellani continues, “is unsatisfactory because it’s a frantic blur; and writers write to put that blur in focus. The best writers do it so well it takes our breath away.”
There are perhaps so many reasons that fiction matters. But I am claiming this one as my own. Fiction writers and readers intentionally seek this meaning that we are all constantly and unconsciously seeking. If we write books of fiction it is because we are joining a special priestess-hood where being “of the cloth” is about putting the blur of the brain chatter into a focused beauty that might take a reader’s breath away. Readers are the believers in that focused beauty. Literary fiction, we call it. But we all believe in fiction, even if we don’t worship at the altar of it as art. It is just that simple and that profound. Fiction can make your life. Fiction is your life.