I just read this article, and it so beautifully explained something that I’ve been struggling to explain to myself. In it, Sherman Alexie talks about his book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which is a must-read), and how kids repeatedly tell him how important it was for them to read about a teen facing the terrible struggles that the protagonist must face in order to get a high school education and survive. Alexie goes on to critique the recent Wall Street Journal article that suggests YA fiction has grown too dark, and that it will create troubled teens. He points out that most teens are already troubled, and the rhetoric of the Wall Street Journal article is a privileged attempt to shelter kids from darkness they are already living.
My own writing sometimes surprises me with its darkness. I don’t think of myself as a particularly troubled person. I had a somewhat unconventional but pretty awesome childhood, filled with folk music, nature, and art. I had a lot of adults who protected me from hardship and guided me onto safe paths. If there is such a thing as privileged children who can be protected from darkness by literary censorship, I might have been a candidate. Except. Even though my family life was filled with love and my school life was peppered with good grades and enriching extracurricular activities, the darkness crept in. It crept in when I was eight and had a friend whose father abused her. It crept in when I was nine and had a friend whose parents neglected her. It crept in when I was thirteen and had a friend who became anorexic in a bid to feel in control of her life after her father died. In all of these cases, there was not a lot I could do to help my friends. But because I had read books, I knew about monsters. I knew that they could be overcome. I vividly remember lending books to my anorexic friend in particular, and she read them with a sort of desperation. I hope that the things she read helped her to face her monsters. I know they helped me.
A few years ago, I showed someone I love a particularly dark poem I had written. We have a relationship that allows for artistic critique, so when I asked her what she thought, I knew she would be honest. She told me that it was very well written, but wasn’t it a bit dark? Wouldn’t I rather create beautiful things that bring more light into the world? Isn’t the world dark enough?
I had never considered this dilemma before. Maybe she was right. Maybe by creating monsters, I was making the world a worse place. Maybe it would be better to put something more positive out into the world.
I’ve been struggling with this idea ever since, but I keep writing about monsters. Which brings me back to Sherman Alexie’s article. He writes, “I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.”
There, he said it. The monsters are already there, in all of our lives, no matter how loved and sheltered we may be. By writing them, we take away some of their power to hurt us. We use metaphor to cut them off at the knees, and slay them with our words.
Thank you, Mr. Alexie.