Let There Be Dark

This week’s bit of string: Fourteenth century ploughing techniques

Stories are like a box of chocolates; some of us can’t resist the dark ones. I don’t mean dark as in using horror elements, but rather the darker aspects of real life, from brutal struggles and current events.

I sometimes fear that writing ‘dark’ stories may put off readers who seek literary escapism. How do we justify putting serious issues into our work?

Dark stories need tough heroes/heroines to blaze through them. After all, fiction is only as sad as its characters, just as life is only as sad as we feel.

Utilising Juxtaposition

There are so many elements to a story: plot, setting, characters, tone, dialogue… And there can be different degrees of darkness to each element. For example, Catch-22 has a horrific wartime plot, but the tone is humourous. Cruel deeds may unfold against a bright summer setting, as in L’Etranger (one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read).

We don’t use these contrasts to dilute the message. Rather, the idea is to illuminate and emphasise it. Interweaving tragedy with comedy can sharpen it with the shock of the unexpected.

Church steeple glowing at the end of a dark alley
I don’t think this church steeple would have looked nearly as impressive if I hadn’t approached it through an abandoned dark alley.

We can create characters that suffer terribly, but perhaps they have a sense of humour about it. We all know people like that in real life.

My first published story, ‘The Meek Inherit,’ portrayed a small snapshot of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. But I used a fiercely imaginative, independent Haitian girl’s point of view, which imbued it with a sense of hope. Through her, I could bring attention to Haiti’s misfortunes, but also to the resourcefulness of its people. ‘How dull reading would be,’ Robert Burdock commented in his review, ‘if every story had a Disney ending.’

Instigating Change

After I read my story The Apocalypse Alphabet at Stroud Short Stories’ event recently, a couple of very talented writers spoke to me afterwards and described the story as harrowing. I began to apologise, but they said, ‘No, no, it’s important to be harrowed sometimes. If that’s a word!’

Harrowed is a word, as it turns out. The word harrow comes from a medieval Dutch word for rake, and a harrow, thusly, is a spiky tool that pulverises soil before planting. A painful process, no doubt—which then contributes to yielding useful crops.

Good fiction has the power to shake us up, jolt us awake, and change our habits. I can think of two books I’ve read in recent years that have altered my thought patterns. Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans honestly and wittily brings attention to the plight of migrant workers in the UK, including some working under dreadful conditions at a chicken packaging plant. Since reading this novel, I only use free-range chicken products, because it made me realise: companies that mistreat animals for profit will most likely mistreat human workers, as well.

The second book was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. This tormented, semi-autobiographical book about an adolescent boy desperate to win his religious father’s approval honed my awareness about the legacy of slavery for generation after generation of African Americans. I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s grandmother had been a slave, and her first children had been taken from her and sold. His writing made me consider the devastating impact this would have on a person’s ability to love and form familial bonds later on—and this would then impact her children, and their children, and so forth.

Lamppost illuminated in wooded park
Let there be dark, that the light may show up against it. Stratford Park, Stroud

It’s not easy to be shown the dark underbelly of the bloated, overfed privilege some of us enjoy. But I believe we can learn from it. And fiction is particularly placed to do that, because it opens up our imaginations. Imagination doesn’t merely lead to escapism, it can lead to empathy as well, which as I’ve previously discussed, is the key to changing the world.

So, what books have harrowed you to the point of growing new crops, so to speak? How much dark reality do you find acceptable in a story?  Personally, I’m a realist. I like any happy endings to come out of a recognisable version of the world. I love Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, in which a man tells his mistress a tale with various dark twists involving slavery and sacrifice, but sets it against a dazzling background of an ancient city on a distant planet.

His lover whispers, ‘”Why are you telling me such a sad story?”’

‘”I tell you the stories I’m good at,” he says. “Also the ones you’ll believe. You wouldn’t believe sweet nothings, would you?”’

Why We Write

This Week’s Bits of String: An unknown 14-year-old’s thoughts on street art

Having established that both art and the empathy it enables can be excruciating processes, the next question is: What do we get out of it? This question reminds me of Dulcinea begging Don Quixote to explain himself in The Man of La Mancha. And the analogy makes sense. Writers and artists tilt at windmills when we try to draw beauty and order from the sticky marrow of reality. It’s a difficult job. Why do we insist on dreaming this impossible dream?

A Noble Reason: Resounding Into the Chaos
Spotted in Stroud: Lamppost stump repainted as Crayola crayon
Transforming blank space in Stratford Park, Stroud: this stump of a lamppost becomes a giant crayon.

Julia Bell, in a piece for The Guardian about the ability of books to change the world, quotes Salmon Rushdie: “If literature is not an argument with the world then it is nothing.”

Arguments aren’t pretty things. But sometimes, making art or writing literature doesn’t mean inserting beauty onto a blank page or canvas. Instead, it can mean creating depth, and to accomplish this, we must guide readers through dark places, and alert them to some ugly monsters.

Working as a teaching assistant, I once found a scrap of paper in an Art classroom. It was a copy of a questionnaire assignment Year 9s devised on the ethics of street art. One of the questions was: ‘Do you think Banksy is doing the right thing?’ and the anonymous respondent had scrawled, ‘Absolutely not! But neither is anyone else!’

These kids are on to us.

In other words, even with the edgiest art forms, we aim to project intent into a seemingly cruel, random world. Sometimes the intent, as with post-modern authors like Kafka, is to expose the chaos by reflecting it. Other writers, from Charles Dickens to Alice Walker, reminded society to uplift those being trampled in the disorder. The current ‘Own Voices’ books campaign continues this quest today, as more people seek out stories from LGBTQ authors, ethnic and racial minorities, and people with disabilities. Support this exciting movement by checking out this list on Goodreads and choosing a few books for your Christmas list.

A Possibly Less Noble Reason: Grabbing Attention
Puddle full of colourful leaves
We write because we are like leaves cast too soon from the tree, left with no choice but to brighten puddles instead.

We also do it because we want to be heard, even those of us with the privilege not to be in a minority or disenfranchised group. Stories may be fictionalised, often wildly, but the emotions they draw on are real, and perhaps, in our humble opinions, heretofore neglected. I love Esther’s thought in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel. That would fix a lot of people.”

We tell ourselves that our acts of creation will at least avenge, at most remedy, the ways in which the world tries to destroy our spirit.

One of my favourite motivations for writing is to resuscitate memories of people and places I no longer get to see. Putting versions of them in stories allows me to keep hold of what time snatches away. As the protagonist, Helen, exhorts her students in my novel Artefacts:

‘Let’s write, and mine the glimmers inside that might turn out to be gems. Whether it’s people we love, or the feeling of playing a sport really well, or a place we visit that makes us feel free, let’s use those to defend ourselves.’