In the summer of this year I was working on a novel about assassins and found myself unable to continue with it, putting it aside because the situation in Ferguson hit a little too close to home, and I couldn’t justify working on that book at that time.
I went back to it. I finished the first draft. My NaNo project this year is rewriting it to make it better, but once again, I am faced with a decision about whether or not to continue, or whether to put it aside.
For those who haven’t heard, Darren Wilson was not charged after murdering Mike Brown in August.
These are echoes of previous cases that have gone comparatively unnoticed; the latest symptom in a disease that has been raging for years. It is tragic, it is despicable, it is nauseating — and I’m sitting here, safe and sound in my room at college, reading this stuff on the internet. It doesn’t affect me. I’m British, I’m white, I’m middle-class, I’m small, I’m female. No cop seeing me on the street is going to think I’m a threat.
(Well. The evil looks I get from old ladies because of my undercut and leather jacket may prompt debate there, but let’s face it: no one’s going to shoot me.)
Because even if they did see me as a threat, over here, shooting people is not really something that happens very often. It does happen. When it does, people get angry about it. Riots happen. London is 2011 is proof enough of that; away from the news and the outside world on a boat in Norfolk my only source of information was highly melodramatic and exaggerated text messages from my friend Jacob, but I got the gist. People were angry, and when they’re angry, other people get hurt.
I’ve been reading the news — newspapers, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook. A thousand opinions, many of them alien and terrifying to me. There are people who believe that burning the American flag means you deserve to be shot, that you’re an animal if you do it. Today I learned that you can be punished in private schools if you don’t stand for the pledge of allegiance, even though in public schools you do have the right to peacefully protest.
(What even is America, that the pledge is a thing, and such an important thing?)
Justice, it seems, is absent from this world.
And it’s nothing to do with me. I would be happy to stand back and let the people it affects tell their side of the story, because it’s not my fight and I’m not the one suffering as a result. This is not about me and I shouldn’t be trying to make it so. However, staying silent on the issue seems a lot like ignoring it, and pretending it doesn’t bother me seems wrong. Because it does bother me. It bothers me a lot.
And as a result of it bothering me, there is an important question that does affect me: can I continue working on this novel of mine, where the protagonist is a clear anti-hero who kills people for a living? How? How can I possibly keep writing this? The narrative may underline that her behaviour is wrong, but the reader’s still expected to sympathise with her, if only because the rest of her life is so awful. But that doesn’t excuse it. It can’t and it shouldn’t excuse the things she does.I don’t know how I ever thought I could justify writing a novel where the protagonist kills a twelve-year-old in cold blood (because she does) and expect the readers still to side with her because she is everything that disgusts me in the real world. I cannot justify liking her because I hate myself even for thinking about it.
She is my creation and she fascinates me but I can’t let myself like her. Nor can I write a book that encourages other people to feel the same way because then I’m saying, “Look, you can like people who behave like this, it’s okay.” I can’t give people an excuse to root for the villains and I can’t speak out against injustice when I’m writing something that promotes it.
And yes, this is a dystopia. A messed-up, terrifying city state run by assassins where murder is a viable career choice and there’s no justice; where age isn’t a barrier if someone’s being paid to kill you. It’s not exactly saying, “Come to this city, it’s a wonderful place to live!” But the fact is this fictional place I invented looks a whole lot like the real world and I’m sickened by myself for even trying to write it.
I know that this has the potential to be a good book, but I can’t write it. Not right now. Not without hating myself for it. As writers we have a responsibility to send a certain message with our books and this book is irresponsible.
On the internet this morning I saw people call Mike Brown a criminal who deserved what he got (an eighteen year old boy, who should have been in college, shot while surrendering). I saw people saying that the decision is made and should be accepted. I saw people saying that black people should get over themselves; that the situation is symptomatic of racism against white people; that disrespect for the pledge and the American flag was disgusting.
They would take one look at my protagonist and they would like her. I would be giving them the excuse to side with the villain, to justify her actions, to sympathise with her.
And so I can’t write this novel. Not right now. I’ll find something else to work on until the thought of it stops making me feel sick, and until I can work out how to turn this novel into something slightly less irresponsible and messed up. Because I can’t joke around about how messed up Isabel is and the terrible things she does when they’re happening out on the streets right now.
I can’t, and I shouldn’t.
If you’re not angry about Ferguson, you’re not paying attention. If you’re not angry about Tamir Rice, you’re not paying attention. If you are not angry about injustice and racism inherent in the system, you are not paying attention.
So get angry.