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This blog was featured on 08/09/2018
How Authors Can Approach Difficult Subjects
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

Writing about heated political or cultural subjects can be a challenge, as many important authors can attest. Read on for some excellent advice from those writers who have done so gracefully, and with noted success.

On finding your purpose:

Ji-li Jiang authored Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, the incredible true story of one girl’s courage and determination during one of the most terrifying eras of the 20th century.

In discussing her purpose for writing, Jiang reflects:

"At first, my goal was to make American children appreciate their freedom more, but then I came to understand that "free" children have problems too. They have peer pressure to experiment with sex and drugs, for example. Maybe from my book readers can learn that we all go through suffering for different reasons. Maybe my story can give readers the courage to make right decisions."

This excerpt was originally published in Publisher’s Weekly. Click here to read the full interview.

On presenting an issue with clarity:

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American interfaith activist and author of Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan.

“The use of fiction to tell important – real – stories is close to my heart. The key of course, is to discuss topics as serious and prevalent as extremism and terrorism without resorting to media stereotypes. Research suggests that extremist Muslim men - preferably bearded, extremist, and uncaring - forms the bulk of media portrayals, be they film, television or news. One study found that more than 90% of entertainment media utilize such stereotypes of terrorists, which leads to problematic and over-simplified discussions of this important topic at every level including entertainment, politics and culture.”

“Fiction, then, has a unique advantage to shatter stereotypes about terrorism provided they are written by and about Muslims themselves, or at least writers who are very familiar with the nuances and complexities of the Muslim world. Like Brick Walls, novels and collections can bring us stories that are fictional but based on reality that many Americans don’t know much about.”

This excerpt was originally published in Huffington Post. Read the full interview here.

Aimee Agresti, author of Campaign Widows, speaks here about being clear about what purpose politics serve in your book:

“I knew from the start that I wasn’t writing satire or something dark or dystopian. I wanted my book to be fun and escapist, and the campaign in my book to be its own zany character. I wanted the campaign, essentially, to be the villain: something so wild and over-the-top that it throws all the other characters’ lives into disarray.

Once I sorted out this dynamic, I realized I could get away with a lot. For instance, I didn’t need to identify any political parties, and no one in my book even needed to talk about pesky things like the issues. I was more concerned with the energy and spirit of the candidates in my election and about contrasting their different approaches, attitudes and personalities.”

The above excerpt was originally published in Writer’s Digest. Read the full article here.

On writing with moral authority without becoming preachy:

Lydia Millet, the author of Sweet Lamb of Heaven, used Dr. Seuss’s classic work The Lorax to make the case for fiction that is expressly political – for stories and novels that engage directly with the most pressing issues of the day.

“I’ve had to wrestle, on the technical side, with the trickiness of balancing the aesthetics of contemporary writing (grounded in the subjective and averse to the didactic, committed to the personal and hostile to the general) with what might unfashionably be called a moral vision.

There are a few ways to know whether something I’ve written succeeds in achieving this balance, the tension of being properly subjective yet also conveying a more expansive sense of right and wrong. If I find myself repelled by the text, pulling away from something that’s meant to be read philosophically, that’s a good sign that someone else will feel that way, too. In fiction, philosophical, political, or religious ideas tend to be most convincing when they arise organically out of a character. And the only way I know how to make characters is by voice, the texture of personality inside a narrative. If you can establish a voice that can get away with being somewhat abstract, that’s part of the battle. And part of it is simple charisma.

My feeling is that the struggle to write well is also the struggle to write honestly, even when they seem to be at loggerheads. And that candor – elusive and sometimes rudely naked – shouldn’t be just the easy honesty of me but a more ambitious honesty of us. Not the sole purview of children’s books, but the purview of any book at all. In the end, I think a bit of shamelessness is called for.”

The above excerpt was originally published in The Atlantic. Read the full interview here.

Moral philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, author of The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, speaks here about the right way to demonstrate your passion on a heated topic:

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most profound philosophers about anger, and what he thought is that you need to focus on the dignity of the people who suffered, and the dignity of their complaint and their outrage, but the retributive part is not part of that. He said their anger has to be “purified” and “channelized,” he used those two words – meaning, we keep the outrage and we keep the courage, but the retributive part about causing a lot of pain isn’t very helpful. You have to turn to the future and think which emotions will actually help us solve the problem. I think that’s the test.”

This interview was originally published in Time Magazine. Read the full article here.

On drawing on your own experiences:

Samira Ahmed, author of Love, Hate and Other Filters, has a forthcoming YA novel titled Internment, set in the near future when Muslim Americans are forced into an internment camp. Her heroine, 17-year-old Layla Amin, must find the courage to fight back against Islamophobia, oppression, and complicit silence.

“Love, Hate & Other Filters was a story that was with me for much longer than I realize, I think,” said Ahmed.  “The seeds of inspiration for the story – rooted in my childhood experiences of Islamophobia and growing up in a small Norman Rockwell-esque town – were swirling around in my mind for years, waiting for the right character to join the mix. About eight years ago, Maya, my main character popped into my mind and when I wrote a short story about her, those pieces came together.”

This excerpt was originally published in the Chicago Review of Books. Read the full interview here.

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