What Not To Read When the World is Falling Apart

Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading recently. First of all, over the past week, I’ve been reading a lot of news about the horrors in El Paso and Dayton. As well as the continuing horrors in Washington, D.C., and most of the rest of the world.

Just before El Paso and Dayton, I had finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a beautifully written dystopia filled with all the horrors that people of color already face in many of our cities every day. It ends on a hopeful note, but on the way takes the reader through a lot of violence and terror and despair.

Last weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, Austin’s convention for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy. One panel was about what has recently been dubbed #hopepunk fiction. Panelists asked whether readers were becoming weary of a steady diet of dystopia. I’m pretty sure our answer was “Yes. Now what?”

At the convention, I bought two books from an up-and-coming Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse, and found myself with plenty of time on my hands to read them this week after I fell victim to the latest virus traveling through the social circles my grandkids travel in.

Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are skillfully crafted stories with larger-than-life characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the gods and heroes of the Diné (Navajo) nation manifest in some stunningly impressive ways. Great stories. Very violent. Every character morally gray (which is fine). Many of them a very dark gray. And of course, since Roanhorse is writing a trilogy, book two ends with some sense of resolution followed by one of those “OH MY GOD, NO!!” moments that are the mark of the great writer who knows how to get you to buy her third book.

So there I am–sick, depressed, steeped in the eerily parallel violence of dystopian fiction and breaking news. What to do? I thought I needed a break, a different book that would pull me out of my funk. Maybe something contemporary. So I went to my bookshelf and found a nice hardback I’d picked up sometime back and carried it upstairs with me last night for a good restorative bedtime read. I was only a few pages into the book when I remembered what it was about. This was Elizabeth Crook’s Monday, Monday, which begins with the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas. Her description is slow-motion and elegant as a dagger. I broke down in tears as I laid the book aside.

I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I woke a bit late and scurried around in order to make my breakfast date with my son and his family. If anything could pull me out of my funk, the grandkids could.

Tacos and donuts and grandbabies. I was definitely feeling better. Well enough to share with my daughter-in-law what I’ve been going through. She confessed that she’d just finished re-reading Pollyanna. Maybe I’d like to borrow it? Tempting, but…no.

You see, I don’t want to just hide from the violence and hatred. I don’t want to cover it over with prettily-painted, trompe-l’oiel wallpaper and pretend it’s not there. I just want to see something in our world, something in us, that can reassure me that we’re more than this, better than this.

Show me some hope.

Driving home I remembered something from my college days that I had worked into the second book of my Recall Chronicles. Malia, the main character in Shadow of the Hare, is alone in a little hotel in India, struggling to cope in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I read for a while, [she says] struggling through a short story in French that Simone had shared with me. It was about a little blind girl whose parents, with collusion from the village priest, had conjured a beautiful and perfect world for her, never let­ting her encounter anything ugly or sad. She was so angry when she discovered what they’d done, what the world was really like. “Je ne veux pas etre heureuse,” she cried. “Je veux savoir!” I liked the story. I don’t want to be happy—I want to know. I made a cup of tea and read it again.”

That story has stayed with me all these years and it has kept me asking questions, never content to rest in my privilege or comfort, always wanting… to know.

Here’s what I know now: I want both. Yes, I want to know. But I also want to be happy. I DO want to be happy, dammit. And I want you to be happy, too.

My job as a writer, especially as a writer of speculative fiction, is not to write #grimdark, violence-filled dystopian and apocalyptic stories devoid of hope; nor is my job to write pretty #noblebright fiction in which saviors magically come to our rescue. No, my job is to face the reality of #grimdark and somehow dig out of it… some shred of hope. Some deeply human determination to hope in spite of everything.

They say we have to write the stories we want to read. Okay, then. If all goes well, my book will be out early next year.

(A version of this essay was read earlier today at Austin Writers’ Roulette, hosted by Teresa Y. Roberson at Malvern Books.)

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“This Changes Everything?” (Updated.)

NOTE: This was originally published in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June of 2016. Today I added a dozen more shootings. How many will it take? 

Aug. 1, 1966: A man with a gun shot and killed 16 people from a university tower at the University of Texas in Austin.

Maybe we should change some things.

July 18, 1984: A man with a gun killed 21 adults and children at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California.

Surely, there are things that should change.

Aug. 20, 1986: A man with a gun killed 14 postal workers in Edmund, Oklahoma.

This should change things.

Oct. 16, 1991: A man with a gun crashed his pickup through the wall of Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and then shot and killed 23 people.

Would this change things?

April 16, 2007: A young man with a gun at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, killed 32 people.

Certainly this will change everything.

Nov. 5, 2009:  A man with a gun killed 13 people and injured 30 others at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas.

Things have to change.

July 20, 2012: A man with a gun killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

This has to change everything.

Dec. 14, 2012: A man with a gun killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now. Now this will change everything.

Sept. 16, 2013: A man with a gun killed 12 people and injured three others at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C.

Will things ever change?

June 18, 2015: A man with a gun killed nine people at a weekly Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

This is it. This is the one that will change everything.

July 16, 2015:  A man with a gun opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing five.

Nothing has changed.

Oct. 1, 2015: A man with a gun killed an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon.

Nothing has changed.

Nov. 27, 2015: A man with a gun attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing a police officer and two civilians.

Nothing has changed.

Dec. 2, 2015: A married couple with guns opened fire at a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party, killing 14 people.

Nothing has changed.

June 12, 2016: A man with a gun killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

ADDENDA (August 5, 2019)

October 1, 2017: One man with a lot of guns opened fire on an outdoor music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from the 32nd floor of a hotel-casino, killing 58 people and wounding more than 500.

This one. So many dead! We talk about bump stocks.

November 5, 2017: A man with a gun shot up a congregation at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing more than two dozen.

At a church? We talk about mental health.

February 14, 2018: A young man with a gun shot and killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Finally, change is coming. Such powerful student leaders will push for change!

May 18, 2018: A young man with a gun killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

Another school, nothing has changed.

June 28, 2018: A man with a gun killed five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

Targeting journalists now.

October 27, 2018: A man with a gun killed 11  worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during Shabbat morning services.

Targeting Jews? What can we do? What can we do?

November 7, 2018: A man with a gun killed 12 people at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California.

Again. And nothing has changed.

February 15, 2019: A man with a gun killed five co-workers at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois.

Nothing changes.

May 31, 2019: A man with a gun opened fire in a building that houses Virginia Beach government offices, killing 12 people.

Nothing changes.

July 28, 2019: A young man with a gun kills three people at an outdoor festival in Gilroy, California.

Now? We talk about children.

August 3, 2019: A man with a gun killed 20 people at a shopping center in El Paso, Texas.

We talk about domestic terrorism.

August 4, 2019: A man with a gun killed nine people in 30 seconds at a popular nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio.

Can we talk about the guns now? Will anything ever change?