The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time. It’s a kind of immortality, I suppose, bounded by limits, it’s true, but then so’s everything.”

–Charles de Lint

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how telling stories goes far beyond the entertainment factor—though make no mistake; that’s plenty important. A story’s only as good as its ability to keep the reader/listener engaged—and how we often forget that no stories are told in a vacuum. Those oh, so “original” ideas we have? Our characters’ “obvious” and “realistic” actions and thought patterns? All shaped by the culture we live in. If you’re American, no matter how thoughtful you are, American values are going to come through, from the characters’ decisions to the very structure of the story itself. And of course, in the messages, like the idea that the will of the individual is more important than the will of the many.

Other cultures would lead to other messages and values. It’s inevitable.

Maya Angelou’s album (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Stories, then, are ultimately how we define ourselves and others. And the more exposure we have to experiences outside our own, the more we can figure out who we are apart from the narratives already given to us.

Plus, guys and ladies and those beyond the binary, why do we read? Because it’s just amazing to be able to read books and have adventures in all kinds of situations and through all kinds of eyes.

We all know of (newly deceased) poetess and civil rights visionary Maya Angelou, but how many of us were familiar with her past, including that she used to be a sex worker? Or a nightclub singer? Or even a cable car conductor? Most of have no clue about that, because it doesn’t fit the story people want to tell about her, even though those parts of her life helped shape the person she became. Because our society had decided what is “appropriate” for us to know—based on unquestioned societal values and norms.

YA author Marie Lu with her WNDB button (courtesy of the WNDB Tumblr)

But one thing we can do to honor Maya and ourselves is to start reading books from cultures different from ours—even subcultures within the greater umbrella of our own country, like the African American or Indian American experience—and examine the values we take for granted. It’s a way to better choose what messages we are actually putting into our work—and to choose which version of a story we’re going to accept.

So I want to point you, dear readers, toward a very important and related campaign: #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Spearheaded by Ellen Oh, author of the Korean-inspired YA fantasy trilogy The Dragon King Chronicles, and a group of diverse authors and book bloggers, this campaign has been raising awareness of the different books out there, the ones that rarely get any air time but deserve to be read as much as any other title. WNDB just had a panel at this past weekend’s Book Expo America BookCon in response to all of BookCon’s authors being white. (Oh, and a cat. We can’t forget the cat.) Here’s the panel. Hope you’ll give it a listen.

Then I’d urge all of you to scroll through the WNDB Tumblr and buy or check out books you hadn’t heard of, books about people not just like you. And then consider how the values and actions of those characters might differ from the ones you consider standard/expected. And then see how that affects your writing. I will bet it can only get better.

“That’s nice,” you say, “but I just want a good book. I don’t care about all this do-gooder, eat-your-vegetables stuff. Reading’s supposed to be fun.”

Well, guess what? I totally agree! Don’t forget that reading diversely means you get a whole slew of awesome books to read through—it’s like stumbling upon a candy store full of goodies you’ve never tried, but without the ensuing tummy ache. After all, the best books, no matter who wrote them or who they’re about, are at their heart good stories. So go forth and consume, consume, consume!


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