How literature tackles big social issues

ASOL

Cover of Picoult’s new book

“We are all drowning slowly in the tide of our opinions, oblivious that we are taking on water every time we open our mouths.”

The words of Jodi Picoult in her latest novel, A Spark of Light, ring true. Deep down all of us have a wealth of opinions, regardless of topic, circumstances and person, even if we don’t always want to share them.

Each of us goes through our own version of reality, moulded by our mistakes, beliefs and past experiences. Some people instinctively follow their own beliefs, some people falter if they hear a compelling argument, and others still might even border on hypocrisy. Whichever category you fall into, A Spark of Light is a deeply influential piece of literature. On the book’s subject, the debate surrounding abortion, it will most definitely make you question where you stand.

Before you prepare to defend your stance on abortion, just know, that that’s not really what this book is about. Rather, what one should take from the book is that there are always multiple points of view in every argument. Regardless of what side you find yourself on, this story will expose you to both.

By presenting multiple sides of the argument, what Picoult cleverly manages to do is show that we, as a society, will never agree on the issue. The stakes are too high, and both sides operate from a place of unshakeable belief. But she acknowledges that the first step is talking to each other and, more importantly, to listen to each other. We may not all see eye to eye but we can respect each other’s opinions and find the truth in them. And perhaps, in those honest conversations, instead of demonising each other, we might see each other as what we are: imperfect human beings simply doing our best. The truth is that no matter what side of the argument we’re on, where we draw the line shifts – not just between those who are pro-life and pro-choice, but in each individual woman, depending on her current circumstances.

This piece of work is thought-provoking and feels incredibly important; even more so given our current political climate where this topic is involved in a heavily political debate.

Over the past few years, many writers have given us books that open a narrative to some big, social issues. One novel that was released last year, and hit the cinemas this summer, was Angie Thomas’ bestseller The Hate U Give. The story focuses on race issues in the US, as a young black school girl, Starr Carter, witnesses a white police officer shoot her unarmed friend Khalil dead at point-blank range.

The Hate U Give is fictional, but only just. Starr’s emotions explode onto the page, and we feel what she’s feeling – or at the very least, we sympathise with her. The story is based on real events and the Black Lives Matter movement is very real. At the end of the book, Starr lists names of those who have had the same fate as Khalil; lives that have been shortened by law enforcement which should have been avoided: Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland…

The Hate U Give is just one example of how we are starting to see the social issues of today reflected in literature, and it has been a publishing phenomenon.

THUG

Cover of Angie Thomas’ new book

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed does this in a similar way. This novel, published in January this year, focuses on a young Indian-American Muslim teen called Maya Aziz as she confronts Islamophobia. Hundreds of miles away, a horrific crime takes place that makes those who Maya has known the longest look at her differently and her whole world shifts. People are consumed with fear, bigotry and hatred, and Maya has it thrown her way, for no reason other than her heritage.

Another novel about social issues from this year is Tommy Orange’s There There. This debut novel confronts the painful Native American history, and has an air of profound spirituality about it. It looks at addiction of all kinds, the hardships of abuse and the reality of suicide. Orange writes about what he calls ‘Indian’ and its incredible, messed up complexity. There is a fair amount of compassion in the story, but not so much with the first character, Tony Loneman. He is intent to rob at gun point, but we can see his ending becoming a violent one as his story reflects how exchanging bullets has continued to be a part of American life.

These are just a small handful of popular novels this year that open a narrative on current topics and issues. These novels give us other points of view, a glimpse into other realities and a chance to get rid of our prejudices on hard hitting, topical issues that surround ideals, society, race, religion and class. They’re not there to change our minds, but rather to open ourselves up to the notion that there are more sides to the story than the side we’re standing on.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: