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Maybe it's just me, but I see advocacy in made up stories

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When many people hear the word “advocacy”, it brings to mind going to protests, lobbying for changes you want to see happen, fundraising for causes you care about, and other such activities. And I definitely think those are admirable and absolutely necessary forms of advocacy. They should still be the primary ways we advocate for the ideas and fundamental rights we believe in. However, I also see advocacy in the books that I read, the fictional worlds I inhabit (whether they be intentional or not).

Stories have such a capacity for introducing us to new experiences and considering the perspectives of characters from a completely different background than our own. What one person undergoes in a lifetime, in the grand scheme of things, is very narrow indeed. Reading, however, has allowed me see and experience the world (this one as well as more fantastical ones) through other lenses. Maybe it’s just me, but I see advocacy in the portrayal of protagonists who suffer from depression, who have experienced oppression, who have a physical handicap, who grew up in a food desert, who are "untraditional" college students, who are young divorcees, etc. Stories that feature different experiences like these promote empathy and understanding and consideration for others. As a reader, I’ve benefited so much from such stories and I think there is something to be said for being intentional in trying to feature diverse characters. So as a writer, I strive to write about individuals with identities and experiences that may not have a spotlight in mainstream media. Some of these characters share experiences with me and some do not and I am still learning how to navigate those complexities. But I find inspiration in the stories I read and I want to share some of those with you.

Even beyond stories themselves, advocacy is ever present in the world of literature and publishing through the leveraging of books as products for the benefit of society. Writers often participate in initiatives to raise money for specific causes or donate a portion of their profits to a given charity. This is an admirable way writers can use their creative expression to give back and I want to feature these types of advocacy as well.

I can’t stop thinking about these stories and projects and how to incorporate some of the same elements into my own writing and publishing journey. This is why I started the AiF webpage and writing group in the first place: to try and figure out how to best approach some of the struggles of incorporating advocacy in fiction. Therefore, I thought I’d start off by writing about some examples of advocacy in fiction I’ve noticed recently and explain how they’ve affected me personally. This list is by no means comprehensive; it really consists of the books and projects foremost on my mind though I have tried to feature a combination of various genres as well as both traditional and indie authors. In the future, I plan to write more in-depth reviews of specific books and how they might be a form of AiF.

Note: I want to emphasize that all opinions in this article are my own and may not reflect the original intentions of the author. I can only express how these works have impacted me personally.

Books

All things Kennedy Ryan

For those who aren’t familiar with her work, Kennedy Ryan is a contemporary romance author who writes the most incredible, heart wrenching, and hopeful love stories I’ve read in a long time. I have been completely enthralled by her diverse characters and the authentic, respectful manner in which she portrays survivors of trauma. Her works have featured an African American man who grew up in the inner city, an adopted Asian woman raised in the south, interracial relationships, mixed race men and women, as well as survivors of domestic abuse, rape, emotional neglect, and childhood trauma. Her prose is absolutely beautiful and she manages to portray both unbelievable hardships as well as incredible resilience through her characters. I’ve read all of her books and they have made me feel a whole range of emotions, from bawling my eyes out to laughing hysterically by myself. Grip and Bristol’s story dove deep into the intricacies and obstacles interracial couples might face, both among family or friends and in the wider world –things I had never thought of before. Cam and Jo’s story made me more cognizant of the personal insecurities and societal obstacles two people from different socio-economic backgrounds might face when trying to be together and how childhood abuse can have lasting effects into adulthood.

She has become such a role model for me in terms of writing diverse characters and telling the stories of vulnerable or marginalized populations in a way that elevates and values their experiences rather than merely treating them as victims (which is a hole I think is easy to fall into). If you haven’t read one of Kennedy Ryan’s books, I cannot recommend them enough! More detailed reviews of her novels are to come because I clearly can’t get enough of her writing. She also participates in a variety of other initiatives that inspire me (more on this below).

Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (and all things she has written)

This collection of short stories was the very first exposure I ever got to immigrant narratives in fiction and they made me feel so at home. I don’t know how else to describe it. Even though Lahiri’s stories focus mostly on Indian immigrants and Indian Americans, there was so much about these characters’ experiences that I empathized with, because I had gone through something similar. It’s really an incredible thing to read or watch something that reflects your own experiences for the first time and that was what Lahiri’s novels and short stories were for me. I have since read all of her books and am constantly waiting for her next one. Her prose is absolutely gorgeous and impactful in its simplicity. She covers themes of love, struggles with cultural identity, and family dynamics across language and culture barriers that really speak to me. Lahiri will always be one of my favorites and I have been recommending her works to all my friends since my senior year of high school.

Turtles All the Way Down, John Green

I doubt John Green needs any introduction nowadays but in case you’ve been sequestered somewhere without Internet for the past decade, he is a prominent young adult author of Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars, and other awesome books. He is also a famous Youtuber and half of the vlogbrothers channel. This book follows the attempts of Aza Holmes, a young woman struggling with anxiety, to solve the mystery of a vanishing billionaire. I personally don’t have anxiety and have never experienced thought spirals of the kind described in this novel but through Aza’s story, I feel like I have a better idea of what people with anxiety deal with on a daily basis. I don’t have much more to say besides, “it’s an incredible book. Go read it.”

The Fifth Season (Broken Earth Series), N.K. Jemisin

A speculative fiction book about the end of the world? Yes please! For those of you who follow me on Instagram, you know how much I’ve fallen in love with N.K. Jemisin. N.K. Jemisin writes fantasy that features diverse worlds, cultural conflict, oppression, experiences of being de-humanized by society at large, and challenges to the status quo. It made me think so much about who has the power to inscribe meaning, to establish what is normal, and who has the right to be angry or crave vengeance. This series in particular takes place in a world called The Stillness with people who have different colored skin, height, hair color, hair texture, eye color, and facial features associated with what region they’re from. This was spelled out in an explicit way I hadn’t seen (or at least noticed) before in other fantasy novels and I think she does it so well. Because again, human experience is diverse and it makes sense for speculative worlds to reflect that. Jemisin is another absolute inspiration for me.

Projects/Initiatives

Donating a portion of profits to a cause

In addition to stories themselves, books as products can be used to promote awareness or raise money for a particular cause. A recent example that comes to mind is the Cock Tales Anthology. In response to the recent “Cocky Gate” controversy, a group of romance writers have come together to produce a limited edition anthology in order to combat the trade marking of common words for titles of creative works. Many of the stories in this anthology have a variation of the word “cock” or “cocky” in their titles.  All of the net proceeds from this book will be donated: 10% of profits will go to authors already impacted by creative obstruction and 90% of profits will go toward the Romance Writers of America (RWA)’s advocacy fund. I think this is a great example of how writers can use their writing to advocate for causes and ideas they believe in! Kennedy Ryan is one of the authors features in this anthology (Grip and Bristol’s journey continues?!).

Charity critique auctions

Something else I’ve seen that I find fascinating is the idea of charity critique auctions. Some authors, literary agents, or editors will auction off manuscript critiques and then donate all of the money they’ve raised from the auction to a particular charity. Obviously this would only work for individuals who may already be known for their manuscript critiques and therefore, this would be seen as a valuable service. But I still think it’s a great way that writers may be able to raise money for a cause they believe in! Here is an example of such a critique auction.

Signed book packages and book merchandise auctions

Another great way to raise money for charity is to hold an auction for signed book packages and book merchandise. I think this is fairly self-explanatory but a recent example of this is the LIFT for Autism Auction. Kennedy Ryan also participated in this and has been a major proponent of using her writing to raise awareness about autism (are we seeing a pattern here?).

Free book charity promotions

A few months ago, I stumbled upon Concord Free Press, a publication company that operates largely on donations and gives away books for free, literally promoting the ideal of a free press. With every free book, they encourage readers to donate to a charity of their choosing and then pass the book on once they were done reading it (since they print a limited number of each book). While it wouldn’t be sustainable for an author to offer all of their books to readers for free, I think it would be very interesting to conduct a free promotion where readers are able to download a book for free for a limited amount of time and are encouraged to donate to a charity of their choice in return. Again, this could be an interesting avenue for leveraging books as a product to give back.

All of this is not to say that every writer needs to write multiple main characters who each embody every type of social position and identity possible in a single novel. Or that all writing endeavors should be tied to some charity. Neither of these would be very realistic. However, I do think telling diverse stories and thinking about how to represent marginalized groups or groups otherwise obscured in mainstream media in a sensitive manner is a worthy endeavor and it is what I am currently striving toward/struggling with. It is particularly meaningful if the perspectives you feature are important to you personally. For instance, in my WIP, I have characters who 1) are immigrants, 2) experience overt racism even as a native citizen, 3) deal with chronic illness, and 4) have experienced childhood trauma associated with poverty. Clearly, not all of these experiences are my own. I have not experienced trauma, overt racism, nor do I have a chronic illness. But I have close friends who do deal with these things in their everyday lives and I want to do my best to incorporate these struggles and their resilience into the stories I tell. I also am very interested in exploring the idea of immigration in a speculative fiction or science fiction context because I haven’t read a lot of immigrant stories in this space (if you have recommendations for such stories, please let me know!). In addition, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways I can embed monetary advocacy initiatives into my publication plan.

What books have introduced you to new perspectives and experiences? What perspectives do you wish there were more of in mainstream media? What identities/groups do you wish to feature in your stories?  Are there any ways you would want to incorporate donations into your authorpreneur business model? If so, which ways speak to you the most? I would love to know. Tell me in the comments below!

Keep reading to open your minds, keep writing to open your hearts! <3