Apparently, it’s Alice Mattison week on the Debutante Ball. Like Heather, I also worked with her as an MFA writing teacher, and she was amazing. Even decades later, I can still hear what she said to me in our conference:
“Aya, we don’t want our protagonists to suffer because we love our protagonists. But they must suffer, because otherwise there’s no story.”
Like Jennifer said earlier this week about “torture,” that word choice doesn’t sit quite right, but the meaning does. So although suffering isn’t the exact language I would use, what stuck with me was the important idea that we need conflict, difficulties and obstacles to make a good book.
Over the years with that first novel I worked on with Alice, I was able to increase the challenges that my protagonist faced, and the emotional depth of her journey. Yet in UPTOWN THIEF, the third novel I’ve worked on (fourth, if you count the mystery that will never see the light of day), I seem to have found my personal balance in terms of fearlessly letting my protagonist face big challenges, but thoughtfully crafting them for readers.
In UPTOWN THIEF, my protagonist, Marisol Rivera, is a survivor of profound violence and abuse. However, I always want to be mindful of my audience when sharing difficult material. Beyond just the controversial “trigger warning,” I take very seriously the question of whether or not a work is bearing witness to violence, acknowledging the reality of violence, or glorifying violence. Recent years have brought us books like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which have been criticized for what some writers consider to be a fascination with the sexual violence against women. My own commitment as a writer is to find language that conveys the experience of the survivor without engaging an explicit, emotionally disconnected description of abuse and cruelty.
When the book opens, Marisol is at a stuck place in her journey of healing from the abuse she’s experienced. But she doesn’t know it, because in the kind of work she does, she’s always in a state of emergency, always taking dangerous risks to rescue her community. She views herself as responding to the external pressures in her life, and doesn’t see that it’s actually a combination of the external situation, and her internal experience as a trauma survivor. Some part of her needs to maintain a high drama environment that mirrors the one she grew up in. Her co-founder at the women’s health clinic, and unofficial sometime shrink, Dr. Eva Feldman, can see the pattern, but Marisol can’t. Eva can also see that Marisol is stuck in terms of her relationships, as well. Not only in her avoidance of romantic love, but in her overall emotional isolation. On the surface, Marisol has many connections, but there’s a layer of underlying disconnection.
For whatever reason, I am more interested in writing about people who have experienced significant trauma, and to watch them fight through it much later in life, than to write the childhood or teen years, the actual era of them experiencing the trauma. I prefer adult protagonists who need to return and work through some of their early hurts. Yet, I find myself frequently dissatisfied with these stories. Many of the fictional depictions of healing from abuse, particularly sexual abuse. seem to oversimplify the experience. For example, the protagonist finally remembering or putting together what happened to her and having a good cry or a long talk with a loved one isn’t a complete depiction of healing. It’s just a promising start. Like if you went to get a massage and you went into the massage room, you undressed, slid between comfy sheets on the massage table and listened to a moment of soothing music. Then the masseuse came in and said “I hope you enjoyed your experience.” What experience? Just like the massage, the cathartic moment sets the stage, but then it’s time to do the work.
Back when I was working on that first novel with Alice Mattison, I used to say that I was writing a novel about black women and emotional and spiritual transformation, but I could only write it as quickly as I could transform and write about the experience. While my background in no way resembles my protagonist’s I have had my own shadows of abuse and addiction in my family to confront. I ran a alcohol and drug program for many years in which I learned a great deal about how people heal and transform themselves.
So I would edit Alice’s words a bit and put it this way: “We don’t want our protagonists to struggle because we love our protagonists. But they must struggle, because otherwise there’s no story.” And since I believe ultimately in the triumph of the human spirit, I would add the following: “And they must transform, because without the transformation, what would be the point?”