Opinions, Column

The Power of Fiction

Some people have asked me why I write about pop culture instead of something more substantive, like politics or history. It is to those people that I dedicate this column.

I’m a fiction writer. I write fiction. I’ve done this since fifth grade, when my short-story assignment was three times longer than everyone else’s, and in high school, when I won a flash-fiction contest under a fake name and didn’t tell anyone about it. I’m doing it now still, in the form of an in-progress novel slowly being molded in the gaps of time between sleeps, with its contents kept under lock and key and a personal vow to complete it. This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to all of you, but it is my most tightly kept secret, one kept namely from my parents (who see it as a waste of time) and my friends (who I just … haven’t gotten around to telling, mostly out of awkwardness). But here I am, broadcasting this secret to all you kind souls who have decided to read my column, because I think you deserve to know it: Fiction is where I find truth.

In my mind, writing is first and foremost how I identify myself. It’s what I do in my spare time, and sometimes, stupidly, in my not-spare time. To others, I describe myself as everything besides that: I am an economics major and environmental sciences minor. I am Korean-American, and I speak four languages, all of them poorly. I’m a cinema fanatic, and I am disorganized. I am 19 years old. But to myself, in my own mind, I am really that one thing: a writer. I write about my sweet, overworked mother and clear Boston skies and the things I am scared about losing one day. I write about crumbling concrete buildings and white uniforms and the perverse tranquility I feel in their walled-in-ness. I write about trains and time and liminal spaces. I write about myself.

Why? Because I am 19 years old, and I am confused. Life doesn’t make sense to me, not yet. It is chaos and disorder even among its routine, from day that dissolves into night and back into day again. There is no justice in history—things happen because they happen, not because the “narrative” requires it. Most of the time, there is no confirmed answer for anything that ever happens. The world does not tell you when you’re right or wrong, because the “truth” you learn is completely molded to who you are as a person. But it remains that we as a species approach this truth, whatever it may be, in many different ways. And this is mine: Fiction is the only way to make sense of the chaos of our human existence.

Last week in my western culture and tradition seminar, we wrapped up Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it hit oddly close to home. I say “odd” because the issues Dostoevsky addresses—religion and spirituality, family and financial struggle, murder and the morality of guilt—are not all that relevant in my life. In fact, the Karamazovs of 19th-century Russia deal with a bevy of problems that I will never face here in 21st-century Chestnut Hill. I am a 19-year-old girl with un-callused hands, writing in a plush window seat in the corner of O’Neill Library. Dmitri Karamazov, the eldest Karamazov brother, is a 30-some-year-old military ex-officer balancing money, women, and guilt with spiritual enlightenment and redemption. And yet I understood. I felt, somewhere in my soul, Dmitri’s struggle and wished for him to find his answer, if only for the rest of us.

Dostoevsky, somehow, understood the human condition this stunningly deeply, and was noble enough to share this private, raw moment with us. In return, people all over the world in dozens of translated languages, through centuries of reading and loving, felt and shared the same electric reminder of their unresolved humanity. All good fiction does this. Fiction hides within itself truth that is supremely real, precisely because it is fictional, precisely because it is invented by another human being. To capture the most essential, the truest, the most human parts of life, we have to build the window through which to view it.

Writing and understanding pop culture is just as great an endeavor as my other interests: climate justice, prison reform, education reform. I want to be a human for others, just like the rest of us who go here. For me, fiction is my avenue to that noble goal. And while there are no narrative arcs in real life, as long as I’m looking for the truth—or at least a truth—I can create one that will explain life as I know it.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Staff

April 10, 2016

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