Growing up, my parents encouraged me to read. I have memories of my parents working with me through Polish workbooks. I have memories of my parents reading, and reading to me. One of my fondest memories is working my way through the Hobbit with my dad. He would read one page and I would read the other.
Years later, on very lucky evenings, my father would read from the tales of Sinbad the Sailor as our family sat around in rapt attention.
When we moved to Ontario, it was one of the hottest summers on record at the time. Our new home didn’t have air conditioning, which my elderly grandmother couldn’t handle very well. We would walk to the library just a short distance from our house. Gran would peruse through the small stock of Polish books, while I explored.
I think my real obsession with books started that summer.
As I got older, books became a lifeline. I didn’t have a lot of friends at school. I spend many recesses bored and lonely, until I discovered that I could bring my own books to read outside. When things got difficult to handle, I would escape to books. When I was exhausted from my busy schedule, I would relax by reading. When I was finished with school work ahead of the rest of the class, I could read secretly under my desk.
Eventually, the same people who encouraged me to read voraciously started despairing of my choice of literature. I was encouraged to read Shakespeare, Joyce, Homer, basically anything deemed to be “the classics”. The fantasy I was reading was called worthless by people who themselves enjoyed reading.
What benefit is there to stories that are made up, which take place in a purely imaginary world? On the surface fiction might appear to be nothing more than entertainment. After all, how can stories that have no facts be of any use?
It’s never been difficult for me to see the benefits of reading even the most fantastical of stories. Books of seemingly little value have had varied essential roles in my life.
Some were very practical.
As a young girl growing up in an immigrant family and community, where everyone around me spoke a language different than that of the country we lived in, books were essential in helping me learn to speak English. When my parents enrolled me in a French school, books helped me develop enough language skills in English to communicate with people in the English city I lived in.
Some roles were more therapeutic in nature.
It helped alleviate loneliness, and later, helped me maintain some sense of balance and composure when I was overwhelmed. They gave me a place to escape to mentally when I couldn’t escape physically. They kept me grounded until I could change my circumstances. Books helped me maintain hope that someday I would feel less alone, that I would find “my people”. It would just have to wait till I went out into the world, just like it often did for many heroes.
Eventually reading in itself became a way to meet people. What better way to start off a new friendship or relationship than bonding over stories that had a profound impact on your life. “What are you reading?” is a great ice breaker.
Reading helped me develop more social skills. I always had a hard time relating to my peers, but books provided me with social scripts for different situations. Stories helped me understand human nature and human psychology. Different books, different characters, different situations, they all provide different insights into the human psyche. You learn about the author through their voice, looking at exaggerated situations in a fantastical setting can help you recognize patterns and apply them to your own life.
Even in worlds with magic, there are often parallels to our own world we can relate to: corrupt politicians, family drama and misunderstandings, abusive dynamics and their possible consequences. Books teach us to think more about the shades of grey to help us see the whole picture and not just the black and white outlines. They teach us not to take things at face value and look below the surface. They teach can teach us that villains can be victims too, and that not all heroes are heroes. They teach us that everyone has worth.
Fantasy stories, those that featured magic and real gods and goddesses, are actually what made me start to question religion. Not because the stories were atheist, many of them were quite the opposite in fact, but rather because the stories encouraged critical thinking. In stories, the skeptic almost always ended the story by being “proved wrong to not have believed”. Interestingly enough however, a lot of the questions asked by those self-same characters informed my own questioning. Unlike in those stories, including those in the bible, the proof never came. In fact questions only seemed to spark more questions.
Teaching through narrative is a tradition whose origin is lost in the annals of history. The mythology of religions is a prime example of that, where magical creatures are used to gain some understanding of the world around us. In many religious texts, the prophet or savior teaches using parables or stories. Regardless of their veracity, they served as instruction.
Many cultures feature an oral tradition of sharing stories
Stories allow us to demonstrate difficult concepts, in a way that is easier to grasp. Take the Hunger Games and the ways many people have begun viewing current events through the lens of this trilogy to notice the same oppressive patterns being repeated in our own societies. Stories allow us to present the realities of privilege and oppression in a way that generates less defensiveness but still encourages the reader to draw those parallels.
Stories are a force for social change and our society knows this. Why else have totalitarian governments and organizations banned books throughout the years?
Books like Shadowshaper, where author Daniel Jose Older weaves discussions and examples of racism, sexism, gentrifications, seamlessly into a compelling urban fantasy.
Books like 1984 that warn us of the problems of sanctioned government spying for the sake of “security”.
Books like Harry Potter that discuss the importance of combating evil and the pervasiveness of xenophobia.
Reading is also what started me writing. So often I would find myself reimagining a story and modifying a character, or some part of a story would set my imagination soaring. Sometimes, I was out of new stories or told to take a break from reading. When that happened, I entertained myself by writing me own.
Writing fiction helped me explore facets of my own personality and identity in a safe way. Writing a bisexual character helped me discover my own queerness. Writing about gender non-conforming heroines helped me process how I experience my own gender. In the same way that stories featuring characters with similar struggles also helped me work through those issues.
Fiction might be nominally made up stories, but they contain a different sort a truth. One which is less about when things happened, but rather about why they may have happened and how.