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What we’re willing to die for

The Paris massacre has left me badly shaken and asking myself some difficult questions – if art has the power to incite violence and even murder, where does the artist’s responsibility lie? If we know the pursuit of our art could lead to the death of innocents, are we honour-bound to self-censor? If we’re among the few who know what they were put on this planet to do, and we don’t do it because someone might get hurt, are we noble or cowards? And if we tame down our art, keep it safe, inoffensive, what are the consequences for our world and our souls?

In the middle of a vigorous discussion yesterday, my husband asked, “Why do you write such controversial stuff? What good does it do?”

That took me aback.

“I don’t know that it does any good,” I replied. “It’s just what I do.”

“Does it do any harm?” he asked.

“Don’t know that either. But now I’m wondering.”

I’ve been writing dark since grade school. Not all the time, of course. In fact, I like to think of myself as quite an amusing storyteller upon occasion. But in the main, my writing comes from a dark place full of dark characters. And I love them – the broken, the lost, the terrified – all my shadow children. Up ’til now the struggle has been to be true to my inspiration and write it as I see it regardless of what anyone thinks. Damn the torpedoes! Buckle up! And if you can’t stand the heat, well…

But now it’s something more. Now it’s life or death. And I’m not sure I’m up to the responsibility.

“holy cards: dead women talking” was angry and gritty. The Magdalene Poems is not so angry (I’ve worked out a few of my issues since then) but gritty times a hundred, even shocking in places. My Christ is a man replete with weaknesses, doubts and fears, who finds redemption in the powerful, passionate love and faithfulness of the Magdalene. The characters of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Peter are given free rein to show their humanity, and Judas is not the Judas you’ll find in the Scriptures. Do I want readers to believe that these characters were like this in real life? Uh, no. I don’t believe it. I’m not out to convert or convince anyone. Neither am I trying to portray the historical Jesus. I’m telling a story. A story I made up.

That many wouldn’t like this type of book never bothered me…until now. What if someone finds it such a desecration they feel they must defend God’s honour by killing me? I’m not the bravest person in the world, but I might be able to risk it if it were just me. But what if they go after my husband, or some poor schmo who happened to have the book under their arm when they left the bookstore or showed up at a reading? “Not your fault,” you say. “You didn’t pull the trigger. You’re not to blame for someone else’s actions.” But what if my writing so incensed them, or maybe just gave them that last little nudge over the edge? Am I not in some way responsible for what happens?

The Magdalene Poems is nearly done. Three years of my life. And I’m seriously thinking of chucking it. Not taking the risk. Someone suggested I finish it but not publish. That would be the safest avenue, I think. I can give free expression to my creative impulses, and no one gets hurt.

Never had to think about this before, but then, it’s never been a matter of life or death.

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