By Andrew Silagi
When I first saw the Barbie movie this summer, I was expecting the film to have a lot of commentary on women in the United States. After watching the film, I remember wrestling with the film and what it says about the role of fiction. Fiction is not like editorials: it is not meant to outright say the opinions of the author on a particular issue. Instead, through a captivating story, the creator has the ability to challenge the reader or viewer and get him or her to think about the topic in a new way. Lifelike characters and vivid descriptions of conflict and relationships often bring urgent and underrepresented issues to the forefront of society’s discourse because of fiction.
At their best, these stories refrain from telling those who engage with them how or what to think but instead compel them simply to think deeply and uncomfortably about these issues. Barbie, a good example of this, brought debates specifically on the modern feminist movement into conversation in a new way through the tools of humor and satire. Often, the best part of watching films like Barbie for me is the conversation that I can have with my friends about the issues discussed in the movie, which serves as a time to honestly opine and wrestle with our gut reactions and thoughtful observations.
While the video medium has taken over much of the creative appetite for the younger generations, written fiction is a necessity that we continue to try to encourage young people to enjoy. In a country that often struggles with a lack of civil discourse, reading, particularly in community, is a beacon of light.
For the past nine years, the NEA Big Read Lakeshore has realized that this is true not only for the nation, but specifically for West Michigan as well. This year, the selected books press into challenging topics and allow us to come together to deal with these issues together. Despite the ideological tension in West Michigan, the power of reading, especially reading fiction, has the power to bring communities into honest and humble conversation surrounding the powerful stories that are told by humans.
Two of the selected Big Read books for 2023 exemplify this notion masterfully. The Middle Read book, New Kid by Jerry Craft, through colorful and clever illustrations, tells the story of a young black student’s experience transferring to a majority-white private middle school. Craft weaves together universal experiences of struggling to find friends at a new school with specific struggles like being one of the only students from one’s ethnic and economic background there.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, the selected book for the Big Read 2023, does something similar with the issue of the generational trauma and disparity brought about by the trans-atlantic slave trade. The author creates a detailed story of two half-sisters and the way the slave trade completely changed not only their lives, but the trajectory of their entire lineage.
While both of the issues tackled by New Kid and Homegoing are uncomfortable and will garner plenty of different opinions, one must have the humility to dive headfirst into these enriching discussions. Reading these books is beneficial to anyone in West Michigan, and instead of staying isolated by themselves or in their ideological bubbles, the NEA Big Read initiative gives us the unique opportunity to honestly wrestle with these topics in a community that values hard conversations and the sometimes uncomfortable observations about our own biases and shortcomings.
The best art does not necessarily affirm the views we already have but instead challenges us to rethink these perspectives and listen to those of others. Jerry Craft helps us see both the universality and uniqueness of one black boy’s experience with middle school in New Kid in an accessible graphic novel format. In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi does not tell us what to think; rather, she encourages us through the beautiful medium of fiction to think in a new way at a long-examined issue in our nation’s history.
Andrew Silagi is a Senior at Hope College studying Secondary English and History Education. He is a section leader in Chapel Choir, a member of the improv team Vanderprov, and a member of the Emmaus Scholars, among other things. He enjoys rollerblading and asking big questions in his free time. He is also a member of the Big Read team.