Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Importance of Fiction in Social Issue Awareness

One of the most circulated promotions of self-publishing I hear is the variety of voices that can now be heard, without a "gatekeeper" silencing them. This week, that idea finally hit home for me. As a self-published author, I CAN bring awareness to any issue I want. In CANCELLED, I very lightly touched on the joke of fathers' rights in custody fights. The joke is that in practicality, they have no rights, except to pay all of the bills unless, and this is a big unless, the mother is found to be unfit. Do I hit the reader over the head with this fact? No, I slip it in as an accepted reality.

The latest book of a writing colleague, TRAFFICKED, is far more upfront about the social issue she wants the reader to learn about: sex slaves. Sibel Hodge is getting rave reviews on her fictionalized diary of an Eastern European woman caught in a sex slave ring. And if you thought this was a sensationalized issue, think again. This morning the Associated Press ran the following headline: Malaysian Police Rescue 21 Ugandan Sex Slaves.

As an author, the freedom of exposing society ills in the more palatable format of fiction comes with a heavy responsibility as well. How do you know you are giving the issue justice? In my case, I've personally witnessed the prejudice of the family courts against a father. But, I am not a man, and I am not a judge. I could just as easily ruin the good I hope to inspire by messing up factual information, misconstruing circumstances, or even offending my readers.

Right now I am still working on PAST DUE and the book is very much growing each day in clarity and maturity of plot. One of the biggest "chews" I have (aspect of the book or a character that I'm "chewing" on in my mind) is the older sister's functional eating disorder. A functional eating disorder? Yes.

We all have seen the after-school specials and the cautionary tales of the men and women who have died from anorexia and bulimia. Unfortunately, it's been my experience with friends and loved ones with these disorders that they are a little too good at controlling it that they don't qualify for a doctor's or facility's care. That doesn't mean they aren't still hurting their bodies, in irreparable ways sometimes. Or that living with them at they go through this isn't still maddening. You go through stages of feeling sad and wanting to help them, playing that understanding family member, until you get to that point where you feel manipulated and start being ugly because you feel like the person is doing it on purpose. I also have the unique position as someone who HAD a battle with anorexia during one of my husband's deployments. I know what it feels like to play the mind game with myself of "How long can I hold out on food?" because I was so upset about how out of control other aspects of my life were. 6 years later, my husband STILL will ask me what I had to eat today, in a completely caring and non-judgmental way, even though I haven't had such an issue since.

But just because I have oodles and oodles of life experience with the issue, I am still cautious. What if the way I write it comes off as trivializing eating disorders? Or the way I write it lets readers with an eating disorder feel validated? As this moment in time, I don't intend for there to be any massive consequence for the character, other than her infertility is blamed on the years of abuse she put her body through. This is my choice, because in my experience with multiple friends and family members struggling with this condition is that they don't get to the point of a massive consequence. There is no rushing them to the hospital, there is no organ shut down. There is no fainting. There is just the glaring at them and being angry as they sit and eat a bowl of red wine vinegar with a spoon instead of a meal because it's a "great for digestion." Or arguing with them over not eating, constantly.

I am not suggesting we write stories with just the intent of preaching a message. But as writers, how do you take on serious issues affecting your characters? Do you even take the time to consider the ramifications or just let the material develop organically? Would love to hear in the comments section!

A robotics engineer asks his business partner to marry him, but a previous one-night stand is having his baby. CANCELLED is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords WIP: PAST DUE A nurse, crippled by debt, takes a part-time job in medical investigation only to find the man she's dating is a fraud!  (status: outlining)


  1. Thanks so much for featuring Trafficked! :)

    My main aim with the novella was to raise awareness into the sex slave industry, which is too often forgotten about. I didn't think about any ramifications, I just knew that I had to tell people what was going on because it's a subject that is never in the media, and it's going on right under your nose. I wanted to write something that would make people stop and think, and also get angry about it and want to do something. The story is based on research I did into victims' of sex trafficking.

  2. It's been a while since I last visited, but I always enjoy your thought-provoking posts. Some of them would look great on our site. Feel free to have a look there when you have the chance. We'd love to feature you. :)

  3. @Sibel I wanted to tell you on Twitter, but I don't seem to have your twitter handle! I haven't read Trafficked yet, but I thought it was so amazing the day I learned about your book, there was the headline! It's a very hard cause because there aren't many victims willing to speak out, and their families certainly not. Fiction is such a great vehicle to raise awareness as you say, but it's a double edged sword in so many ways.

  4. @David King
    Thanks for the invitation. I checked out inkPageant. I will definitely look into submitting a few posts. I'm working on a series of posts with a technological bent to them for writers. A friend of mine and I are going to work on a Google Plus guide for writers.

  5. This is a subject I've wrestled with a lot. I write humorous books on very serious subjects. Food of Love is about the way women abuse and judge each other. I deal with eating disorders, too. (I'll never forget when I first got to an Ivy League women's college and so many women were bulimic they made me feel wrong because I *didn't* throw up after dinner.)

    So keep it up. I'm a firm believer that "sometimes life's darkest truths need to be told with a punch line."

  6. I haven't taken on what may be considered hot topics in any meaningful way in my writing. Not to say I won't in the future. Gonna check out Trafficked.