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Big Issues. Small Stories.

[1]Our social media feeds are cluttered with the significant yet chaotic issues of the day. Either we’re resisting or resisting the resistance. I’ve engaged in a war of words on occasion via Facebook and Twitter, trying to convince someone I can’t recall ever meeting in real life to consider my point of view. Did we meet at a writing conference or in fourth grade? When we want to be part of the larger conversation and extend our voices beyond 280 characters, many of us turn to the power of our prose.

Writing an issues book feels like the world’s on fire and we’re trying to snuff out the flames with a garden hose. Our stories and characters seem too small to carry such big topics. But they aren’t.

No one is looking for a didactic text or a sermon or an edict from on high. We want to understand the heart of these charged issues through human experience. That’s where we come in as storytellers.

I can’t stop raving about An American Marriage by Tayari Jones [2] because that novel tackles the lasting ramifications of wrongful incarceration on families without preaching to the reader. In media interviews, Jones explains that she received a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University to study this weighty topic. However, she got nervous when she didn’t have much to show after a year of research. Soon, she realized that the best way to tell this story was not with statistics and data points but through the lens of one marriage.

At the start of Roy and Celestial’s young marriage, he’s imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. He asks the ultimate question of his wife: Will she wait more than a decade for him, for his release? In letters they write to each other during his time behind bars, they say:

“Dear Celestial, I am innocent.”

“Dear Roy, I am innocent, too.”

At its heart, this is a love story. At its heart, this is also a human story about impossible choices and the devastating impact of wrongful incarceration.

To tell the story of war is not to write about nukes and napalm. Every war has its people and their stories, as the author Tim O’Brien discovered when he served in the Vietnam War. I read The Things They Carried [3] often just to immerse myself in the rhythm of the language he uses. That collection of linked stories makes you feel but doesn’t tell you what to feel about the Vietnam War. There’s no running tally of battles and body counts or discussion of whether the conflict was justified. Instead, O’Brien writes about a world where there are no winners and no one is right or wrong. They just are.

He writes about First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and the letters he carried from a college girl named Martha.

In the late afternoon after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

Grief, love, and terror have faces through O’Brien’s stories. We understand war as much as we ever can through these soldiers and the things they carried like rifles and chewing gum, brass knuckles and bibles, condoms and comic books.

It’s a delicate balance to strike as we explore complex issues without being heavy-handed and polarizing. Young adult literature is leading the way in tackling real-life issues that are making headlines right now. In The Hate U Give [4], Angie Thomas wades into the long-simmering tensions surrounding police shootings of unarmed black men.

Her novel follows Starr, a sixteen-year-old girl who sees Khalil, her childhood best friend, gunned down by a cop. To add further complexity, Starr’s uncle is a police officer. In a country deeply divided by black and white, Thomas shows the gray areas where answers aren’t easy but people are desperate for change. This is the scene right after Khalil is killed.

“No, no, no.”

Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.

Someone else screams.

I blink through my tears. Officer One-Fifteen yells at me, pointing the same gun he killed my friend with.

I put my hands up.

As I brainstorm topics for my next novel, I’m considering a few societal issues I’d love to unpack through characters in a novel. The first question I ask myself is why.

For me, it’s about my purpose as a writer. Do I want to spark an important conversation through the prism of one person’s story? Will I feel fulfilled even if no one is persuaded to adopt a certain perspective on the issue? My answer to both questions is yes. When I explore an issue in my fiction, it will always be centered on people first and the stories they have to tell.

What big issues have you addressed in your books and how you did you do it? Have you seen other fiction writers tackle this successfully? If so, what worked well? How do you stay off your soapbox and effectively tell a story with an issue at its core? Or maybe you avoid writing about issues. Why?

About Nancy Johnson [5]

Nancy Johnson [6] (she/her) is the debut author of THE KINDEST LIE, forthcoming February 2 from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Her novel has been named a most anticipated book of 2021 by Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Woman's Day, and PopSugar. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nancy lives in downtown Chicago. Find her online at https://nancyjohnson.net/ [6].