Yesterday was Wednesday, so I of course read the NYT Dining section. I generally read it online, but since I was Long Island-bound, I got myself a copy for the train ride. Eventually I found myself at Section A, with the International, National, and Local stories, followed by the Op-Ed pieces. I always read this section from back to front, and once I passed the Op-Eds the last page of local news contained 2 articles. Above the fold a sad girl, seemingly in her late teens, stared out at me, and below the fold was a photo of three 30-something people standing around a turntable.
The Article up top was about how kids age out of the foster system. With unemployment climbing in the city, many of their advocates are concerned they are now effectively on the fast-track towards homelessness. They are the forgotten children, bounced around their entire lives and then cast off to fend for themselves.
The other article was about a bunch of recently unemployed people who have decided to become DJs, and who have gone to school to learn how to spin records and mix music digitally. The undercurrent has a whiff of people becoming unbound by the falling economy: with little left to lose, they can now pursue their youthful dreams. The top note, however, was about the rise of enrollment in DJ schools and the semi-lucrative opportunity DJing affords people who are slowly whittling away their severance packages.
At first I was taken aback at how the foster youth article was essentially buried in the paper, hidden. They are the forgotten ones, indeed. I am aware of the hierarchy of newspapers, the way stories are prioritized based on what sells the most papers—but still. This story made it sound as if foster kids definitely don’t have the dollar and change to spare for their daily NYT.
But what the page really made me think of is the characters we give voice to in fiction and the worlds we illuminate in our stories, and if in shedding that light we create portals of opportunity for our readers. When we write about marginalized people, or show a kaleidoscopic (and often grim) view of humanity, are we in effect helping to make the marginalized more mainstream? Should that be the duty of a writer? Or should we avoid such subjects at all costs? If so, are we then effectively marginalizing ourselves as authors?
But to come back to my trip to Long Island: I was headed there to visit my Grandma and spend the day making gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup for the Passover meal. Over the course of the day somehow my uncle’s dog came up in conversation. That dog has been dead at least 20 years, but Grandma’s stream of consciousness can wind in unexpected ways. She asked me if I knew the dog was born a hermaphrodite. I said that perhaps I did, but who could really say whether or not that was true?
While I don’t mean to place aspiring DJs, foster children and hermaphroditic dogs all on the same plane, maybe it is important to create pointed characters. Perhaps we should make an effort to carve out places in literature for those who cannot afford to buy the books written about them.
All this is by way of me asking: Where do your characters come from? What do you ask them as you write their stories? Is literature salvation for “lost” peoples?