Being a pretentious student, I often like to start my pretentious student essays with a quote. I read this one for the first time just a few days ago:
A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting – Henry David Thoreau
When I started this blog, it was supposed to be solely about books – my own and other people’s. However, as anyone who’s been following for more than five minutes knows, other things have crept in, from reminiscences about housemates to an ever-growing number of explosions about people treating other people like dirt.
I live and breathe young adult books, which is why I both study and write them. Because they’re so important to me, I can’t separate them from any other aspect of my life. Young adult fiction, like any other kind of fiction, is never just a story – it covers the personal and the political and everything else that makes us human.
It doesn’t make sense to me to separate my blog, either, so I decided to just roll with it. This post is the start of what will probably be a long and meandering series about books that have become, to me, even less of ‘just a story’ than usual. I have no idea if it’ll be of interest to anyone else, but hey, personal blog and all that.
One of the books that’s had a huge impact on me, encouraging me to ‘live on its hint’, is one that’s had a lot of attention recently – Veronica Roth’s novel Divergent.
I first read Divergent as part of a YA book group, and it was one of the few books that the group unanimously adored.I loved Tris, I loved her strength and her way of looking at the world, and her relationship with Four. I particularly loved that Roth hadn’t followed a recent trend in YA literature and shoehorned in a Mandatory Love Triangle. (I blimmin’ hate love triangles – they’re so overdone).
The faction system was one of the most interesting parts of Divergent. I’ve read a lot of YA novels in the ‘dystopian future’ genre which is so popular at the moment, and Divergent’s Chicago seemed to be the only setting where you could see what the novel’s powers that be were getting at. Yes, the faction system is very flawed and soon revealed to be corrupt, but it’s clear that it was put in place as an attempt to make society better. Too many dystopian YA novels feature social structures that are Obviously Evil from the outset, which makes them about as convincing as a version of Harry Potter where Voldemort is voted into power. (Actually, considering the recent EU elections…no, let’s not go into that here).
The faction system isn’t about deliberately tormenting 90% of society until they rise up and crush those in power (honestly, Capitol citizens, what were you thinking?). Instead, it encourages people to identify and eliminate their worst flaws. The Dauntless faction fights to overcome cowardice; Amity, unkindness; Candor, dishonesty; Erudite, ignorance. Abnegation, the faction where the heroine Tris grew up, fights against selfishness.
In my reading group, we talked about what faction we’d choose. Most people said Dauntless. I was tempted, but, being a massive bookworm, I eventually went for Erudite. Only one person in the group chose Abnegation.
When I first read the book, Abnegation seemed a bit of a boring faction – wearing nothing but grey, doing the dullest jobs in the city, staying serene and detached from the rest of society. They didn’t have adventures like Dauntless, or play in the sunshine like Amity, or even have good old arguments like Candor. Instead, life in Abnegation is sedate, every day and every person exactly the same. At one point, Tris tells us:
The uniform pounding of feet in my ears and the homogeneity of the people around me makes me believe that I could choose this. I could be subsumed into Abnegation’s hive mind, projecting always outward.
Not exactly a thrill a minute, you have to admit.
But those last three words, words repeated throughout the story, kept turning over and over in my mind. ‘Project always outwards’. This is the centre of Abnegation’s philosophy. Turn your thoughts outwards instead of inwards, focusing on others instead of yourself.
As I’ve written before, I’ve lived with depression for several years. One of the worst things about my experience of depression – I don’t claim to speak for anyone else – is that it turns my thoughts inwards, makes me focus on how I look, how I act, how I might be being perceived by other people, how everything I’m experiencing relates back to me. In short, depression has made me pretty damn selfish. Or, to be more accurate, it’s exacerbated the selfishness that was already there. When I’m being totally honest, I know that even without the depression, I’d focus far too much on myself.
Selfishness exists for strange reasons and comes out in strange ways. It’s not just about wanting the biggest slice of cake (although, I have to admit, I do like having a really big slice of cake). My selfishness is overwhelmingly caused by insecurity. I have to prove I’m smart – because I don’t want anyone to think I’m stupid. I have to do well – because if I don’t, I feel like I’m a waste of space. I need to be reassured that people like me – because, much of the time, I really don’t understand why they would.
This has often made me a pretty crappy friend, and a pretty crappy attempted-helper-outer on social justice issues (the general term is ally, but I don’t want to use that because 1. it’s not up to me to decide if I’m an ally, and 2. it’s kind of confusing, considering my name). And the ultimate in crappiness occurs when I screw up, as I often do. Because, when I screw up and feel guilty and awful, my first instinct is to want the other person – the friend I’ve wronged, the marginalised person I’ve hurt – to reassure me that it’s okay.
Blabbed out a secret? Made a mean joke? Accidentally used a slur or acted entitled? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please tell me it’s okay. Please tell me you still like me. Please tell me I’m good.
Divergent shook up this pattern of thinking, and changed the way I thought about guilt. In Abnegation, guilt is a tool. Screwed up? Feeling guilty? Good. Use that feeling. Remember it. Project outwards, and use your guilt as a spur to change your behaviour, so you don’t screw up again. Don’t turn it inwards and make it all about you.
This is what I try to do now. If I’ve let someone down, hurt them or lost their trust, I take that guilt and point it outwards, use it as a spur to do better. Because it’s not up to the other person to reassure me that my screw-up doesn’t matter. It’s not up to them to do anything at all. It’s up to me to be better. If I win back their trust in doing so – great. If I don’t – well, it’s not about me.
Abnegation folks may not lead very exciting lives, but they know how to behave towards others. And, as Tris often reflects, there’s a strange sort of freedom in taking the focus off of yourself. When I manage to project outwards, my own insecurities fade away, because I’m just not giving them the attention they need to thrive. And believe me, when you’ve spent years and years rattling around inside your own mind like a hamster on a wheel, this is a wonderful feeling.
Of course, as Divergent later reveals, Abnegation itself is far from perfect. ‘Projecting always outwards’, never focusing on oneself, means that this particular faction has a pretty awful attitude to mental illness and similar problems. Projecting always outwards – well, that’s near-impossible, and can be harmful. But projecting mostly outwards – that’s a good goal to aim for.
Alice Nuttall is the author of Spider Circus, which is not dystopian, but does contain magic, dragons, carnivorous horses, and a badass engineer heroine. Her free short stories are available from Smashwords, writing news can be found on Facebook, and her never-ending stream of consciousness is located at her Twitter account.