As I closed the first published book of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I thought about its appeal. Learning about her homeland, Nigeria, was a key to its charm: the customs, political turmoil, disparities in lifestyles of the rich and poor captured my attention. Then there was that which is not unique to Nigeria—the secrecy cloaking abusiveness within a family.
It is easier to write about what we know than that which we have never experienced—until we get to the secrets. When I wanted to discuss my protagonist’s experiences in the Vietnam War, I had to do considerable secondary research, scouring books by people with direct knowledge and photos of the landscape and war’s devastation. People I knew who fought there were unhelpful, closely guarding their secrets. A scene in my novel (a true account) illustrates this:
The movie we watched that evening was a story of the horrors of World War II. We talked about how people could survive when torture and death were only a breath or step away, and a friendly face could mask a dreadful foe.
“That is the précis of every war. To survive you carry out your orders and walk away before the enemy starts to take on human form.” The look in Kirk’s eyes brought out the protective instinct innate in mothers, and I held him tight.
“Will you tell me some of your experiences during your tours of duty in Vietnam?”
He responded immediately and emphatically, “You wouldn’t want to know.”
But our tragedies and faults bind us to other humans so the stories, even the secrets need to be told. Adichie chose to let readers penetrate the mind of her protagonist to reveal the conflict within Kambili over being abused by a father she admired. Although my Kirk doesn’t tell his own story, he is guided to unpack his secrets, especially those whose existence he protects behind a wall of denial.
Do you have secrets that would make a good story? I do, too, but I am reversing my position and admitting it’s easier to write about what I don’t know (e.g., speculating about the future) or what does not implicate me as another broken person. I think I’ll let my characters do the nasty work of exposing secrets—after all, they’re not me…