Writing the Other, Becoming the Other

My grandmother was a devout Catholic. Each morning, she celebrated Mass at her local church. Each evening, she whispered prayers to her God. She kept a rosary in her pocket. Since I was the first grandchild she had, the name I gave her when I couldn’t pronounce grandma stuck with her until her death: Mumma. As a child, I loved visiting her. She was kindness and love wrapped in a ball of sunlight. She is much of the reason I became so involved in the church as a teenager. In my family, it was expected for one to become a confirmed Catholic. Perhaps it’s the Irish upbringing, eh?

But, when I grew into who I was, and my lifestyle became that of a sinner’s, I wasn’t permitted to see my grandmother, not without changing who I was. I have no way of knowing if she would have accepted me; thinking back on it, I doubt it. Rather than cause angst and a rift between my mother and her mother to find out, I stayed away. My grandmother died a few years after the last time I saw her. I did not attend her funeral. The things we do to stay true to ourselves.

It is my grandmother’s undying love for God, her unfailing devotion to the sacred laws, that fuels a few of the characters I am currently working on. For me, I try not to judge someone based on my own values or rules (hey, who the hell am I to impose what I think on you? Do you know how often I change my mind?!). We each come to the spot we are at, right now, through different experiences. And those experiences define how we view and interpret the world. With the experiences I have had, though, I find it hard not to feel certain ways about the Catholic church or judge them.

I grew up in the church. Mass every Sunday, catechism each week, reading one of the first or second readings at Mass. I became involved in the youth group and went on one religious retreat after another, proclaiming the word of God. I’m not sure how much I believed in it all, but my worldview had been handed to me, which as a lost teenager was a welcome reprieve from trying to navigate the world. The Catholic church gave me a framework from which to interpret the events and people around me. The church gave me rules by which to live life. Thank God and praise the Almighty!

Yet, as I grew and learned more and had friends that did not fit into that worldview, I realized this framework was built with rotten timber. God’s rules didn’t allow for anything that wasn’t in His image. Or, at least in the image portrayed in the book that had survived almost 2,000 years. I knew that I was different. I knew that God would not love me for being different. My God doesn’t judge, doesn’t value one life over the other. So, I left the church, haven’t been to a Mass in decades (I do, however, think of attending the Saturday Mass at the local Catholic church in the center of town; I miss feeling the comfort of God’s love and belief that He was always there).

I don’t know the extent to which my grandmother felt this way, felt that anyone outside the box of Catholicism was a sin. But I do know her God and her religion are deadset against anything progressive. Women are still second-class citizens in the church. LGBT people are a blight on the human race. Abortion is a slap in God’s face and having one is a great, big ol’ Fuck you! to the big man. At this point in my life, the Catholic religion stands in opposition to almost everything I believe in.

Using that, knowing there is a dissonance between two sides, is what creates conflict in my novel. There is no right and wrong. In real life, there are many things we can agree on. How to get there though, that is where the opposition comes in. I’m looking forward to writing characters that are different from me. Peri, my main character…she’s been reasonably easy to write so far. I know where she’s coming from. I know what she feels and cares about because there is a lot of me in her. When I get to the point of writing my _villian_—a loose term here—and I get to think in the opposite direction, that is an exciting challenge.

This is the great equalizer of fiction, is it not? We are given the opportunity to see other’s viewpoints, whether reading or writing. Fiction is empathy embodied in book form. The sign of a good book is one where a reader can still feel the feels for a character that they couldn’t relate to at the beginning of the book. The book is successful when we, the reader, can recognize the motives of a character and empathize with them while still disagreeing with their premise.

Like my grandmother, I go to mass every morning. Except my church is my desk and the gospel is my notebooks. This is my worship. In a way, I am following her devotion and partaking in the same rituals she did. Instead of an external God and prayer, I talk to myself and write. We both believed in something greater than ourselves, which created these rituals to get us closer to our respective gods.

I keep this in mind when writing about why the opposing side did what they did or the motives of individual characters. I remember Mumma and her smile, a white crown of hair, and her fingering the rosary beads in her pocket when she became anxious. I remember her love for her grandchildren, Christmas’s at her house, and the adoration we all had for her. And I place that inside characters that think differently from me. I make them human. I learn to love those who think differently of me, those who actively want to take away my rights, those who think of me as inhuman. I remember that we are all fallible and history will prove that restricting freedoms always ends badly*.

*How do I know this? Much of my novel’s world is based on the history of the Berlin Wall and how that came to be. The restrictions the Soviets and German Democratic Republic (East Germany) placed on its citizens, the amount of pain and suffering they caused, all in the name of Communism and an egalitarian society, is just absurd. Do you know the GDR actually sold political prisoners to the West to save themselves from financial ruin?! Learning about the history of that time is fascinating. And I even remember the day the wall came down so it’s not like it’s ancient history.