(Just a quick note: there will be some spoilers for Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel In Other Lands in this letter.)
I finished reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands last night, a novel that made me just radiantly happy. That was not, however, the reaction I expected when I started the book.
About twenty pages in, I took to Twitter to ask the two friends who’d recommended the book to me whether the protagonist would get less obnoxious, or whether I’d be stuck for the entire story reading about a character I hated. Said character, Elliot, is a snide, condescending teen boy, instantly and needlessly cruel to those around him, constantly pitying himself while simultaneously telling himself (and others) how much better he is than everyone else. Both of them told me that his arc would wind up being satisfying, so I stuck with it. I was skeptical, though, because I was fairly certain by that point that I already knew what his arc would be—Elliot would be shown to harbor a deep pain, his abrasive behavior would turn out to be a defense mechanism, and he would ultimately be redeemed, learning to become vulnerable and to be a good friend. And that is, indeed, more or less what happens.
Thinking about that character arc made me viscerally uncomfortable there at the beginning of the story. I wanted to put it down and go read something else. The thing is, we've had so many stories about the inner struggle and ultimate redemption of misunderstood young men. Misunderstood men of all ages, really. And this is both a consequence and a reinforcement of how privilege and power work. Through the choices of which stories we tell and which perspectives we tell them from, we are given every opportunity to empathize with and understand characters who represent the mainstream, the privileged, the default. The people who most need more empathy, those who are kept at the margins of our society, are the people whose stories are less often told, and certainly not in their own voices.
Do we really need another story about a shitty boy? I asked myself. Yes, he has his pain, but so does everyone, and not everyone chooses to deal with their pain by inflicting it on those around them. I didn't want to empathize with this kid. I just wanted to read about somebody else.
I'm glad I didn't, though. In Other Lands turned out to be a sweet and tender story, one that surprised me in how maturely it presented sexuality and boundaries and consent and violence, all while being fun and funny, too. The day before I started reading In Other Lands I tweeted “I want to read something happy. Or beautiful in a way that isn't painful. Or at least in a way in which the pain is not enraging or despairing.” And it was that. And I was happy reading it.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, it occurred to me to look at my initial reaction more closely. Not because the reasons for my discomfort were invalid, but I wondered if they were incomplete. I wondered if it might have to do not only with my desire for justice in the world and in art, but also for my unwillingness to let my younger self off the hook. At the beginning of the book, Elliot is thirteen years old. At thirteen, he is wounded and sad, and he hurts the people around him in order not to let them hurt him. He treats everyone like they're stupid, all the while also telling himself that he is fundamentally unlovable. It's not too far off from how I was at thirteen.
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is my relationship to success and ambition. Over the past couple of years of therapy, I've come to realize that being of service is one of the most important things to me, that I want to be able to help others. And in the past month or so I've had the thought that if I had a bigger platform, I'd be able to do more for more people. But this is a thought that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
It's not that I think that in a fair world, no straight, cisgender, able-bodied men would be successful or powerful. It's just that in the real world, such men have had such a disproportionately large share of success and power that any time a man says “Yes, but I'm different,” I become skeptical. And that includes myself. The privileged classes take up so much room in the world, and maybe the best or even the only way to make more space for marginalized people is for those who have privilege to choose to step aside.
I think this is all valid reasoning. Yet, here again, I have to pause and wonder how much of my feelings are driven by a positive desire for justice and how much is just sublimated self-loathing. I think it's important and necessary to be willing to look at oneself honestly and critically. But it's also worth considering that beating yourself up can also be a form of narcissism.
Here's where I'm trying to get toward: that I can make room for others and lift them up and be helpful and useful, and I can do that while also pursuing my own successes. That I can recognize and atone for past mistakes without letting those mistakes define who I am and who I will be. That it's good for me to remember I don't deserve more than anyone else, but that's not the same as saying that I deserve less. That everyone can have their needs met, including me. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.