Remembering: Narratives as Social Justice

Monday, June 10, 2013

There have been dozens of endings happening as of late. I graduated college, won a few writing prizes, met some unforgettable people, and settled into my first post-grad apartment. I launched an Asian American social justice online magazine called As[I]Am (check it out!). So many congratulations and thanks are in order! But for now, a quick "state of the nation."

Writers with stories feel like they're itching to get words on the page - even if they're the wrong words in the wrong places. Blocked writers, on the other hand, are too terrified even to set their fingers in motion to pound out those missteps. I've been oscillating between the two lately, thinking more than writing.

In the month preceding my graduation, a factory collapsed in Bangladesh. It was mentioned by the president of our university at commencement - a lamentable political one-liner that was meant to encourage us to change our world for the better, but to me fell short. It holds true that the media attention to this tragedy is important for activists to organize and for stories to be remembered. It is true also that for things to change, they must be challenged. But I saw in every piece of news coverage a new spin on something that made me incredibly sad. I sat uncomfortably with my privilege as a college graduate and watched the numbers of dead rise into the thousands.

There was the story of one woman who survived for more than two weeks. There was the story of the jailed local boss who was a pawn in the hands of larger corporations. And the question of why the government didn't request foreign aid. And the resulting benefits for garment workers worldwide. Stories and stories and stories, each new one drying up ink in my own pens.

I've been working for months now on a novel about Bangladesh and the United States and the complex ways in which they are interwoven through personal connections, not just politics and economics. Something about the factory collapse shook me. Whose stories are being told? How are we using them? What are they covering up?

I was stopped up for other reasons as well, of course. Art is not the same thing as news, and even if I were on some kind of deadline, it would have been pushed out by all the noise of my final month at college, the launch of my online magazine, or some other event. Thoughts and lost sleep may pave the way for good dreams, but maybe not good work.

As the media winds down about the factory collapse, I am interested to see how it will resurface again in my own stories. My empathetic heart won't release them. I know that they are only the most public part of a hundred other undeserved tragedies; in some ways, the novel I am writing is also a lament for them as well as a remembrance. And even though our stories' effects aren't tangible, like a donation or direct aid, I'd like to think that pounding out the words will honor the nameless victims beyond just a line in a commencement speech. They will tell us a little more about ourselves as media consumers, just as much as they will tell about the people involved. And they will make people like me a little more uncomfortable - so uncomfortable, in fact, that they find it not only encouraged, but necessary to act.