Tag Archives: empowerment

Voiceless

The tagline on my blog reads “developing a voice through writing.” The first thing I recognize after five years of blogging is that I have utterly failed.

“Voice” to writers has a unique meaning. It’s the development of a style, a way of using words that stands out and makes a writer or a character recognizable, distinct from the millions of others out there. That is no easy task.

It is not the task to which I refer in my tagline, however. I’m talking about a more fundamental, more primal concept of developing a voice, of being able to speak one’s thoughts, fears, hopes, and core truth. For many, this is the natural course of human development. A child starts speaking with a series of sounds that later become words. Words become sentences, and eventually the sentences deliver whole thoughts, which are used to express that child’s uniqueness. For some children, this process is blocked, disrupted, and they are unable to speak their thoughts or even develop as an individual.

Survivors of abuse know this struggle, recognize how difficult it is to learn to speak one’s truth. Abusers may overtly silence the voices of their victims through threats of what will happen to them, or those they love, if they tell anyone. Or more subtly, through whispers of shared secrets between abuser and victim that others must never know. Then there are oblique ways of silencing victims: family patterns of ignoring bruises, instantly pretending to be a happy family when a visitor shows up, or disallowing the expression of unique thought.

For some, developing a voice, the ability to speak out about one’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, comes much later in life, or sadly, not at all.

One of my motivations in writing my novels and in starting this blog was to give expression to parts of myself that have been silent for far too long. Creativity has breathed life into me. I feel alive when I work on my novels. I particularly love creating worlds: characters, places, languages, and magic. That’s why I am a fantasy writer. To me, it offers the broadest spectrum of creativity.

I also have a social conscience to my creative expression. I have a connection to victims and survivors because of my own history. I want to do something to change the world, at least one little piece at a time, so I talk about and expose modern day slavery. I try to educate others. I give a portion of each book sale to help survivors of domestic sex trafficking.

And yet… and yet… I still feel voiceless, or maybe my voice is just weak and raspy. I write under a pseudonym and have taken pains to be anonymous, and yet I’m still afraid to speak my mind or expose my truest self. Old patterns are hard to break. Survivors of abuse will recognize this truth. In unsafe environments, one learns to never trust. Don’t trust the person who promises to help you—they may betray you. Don’t trust a secret to anyone—they may expose you. Don’t trust that anyone will believe you—the consequences are too great if you are wrong.

Thirty plus years removed from abuse and still these beliefs hold me back. So I ask myself, what would I say if I weren’t afraid?

One of the first things that comes to mind is I want to rattle against labels thrust on me.

I am a person of deep faith writing in a genre where my literary peers tend to think people of faith are ignorant, narrow, and judgmental. I am a member of a religious tradition where my peers tend to think people who write fiction, especially fantasy, are wasting precious time and ought to focus on something of substance.

My husband is a pastor, which doubles the weirdness from both sides. I must really be extra-critical and small-minded in one side’s opinion, and ridiculously errant and missing my calling, which should more appropriately involve writing devotionals or at least inspirational stories, from the other side.

But here’s the rub, I can’t be what either side expects or wants me to be. I’m just me. With my history, I find it downright hilarious sometimes that I carry the label “pastor’s wife.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m a good person. I’m kind, generous, loving, but I’m not who I would have placed in this role. And trust me, there are always people around to make me feel inadequate and less than I ought to be. On the other hand, my faith is profoundly important to me and is at the core of who I am and what I do. I could no more deny the existence of God than I could deny my skin color. I would not be alive if it were not for God’s active presence and intervention in my life–I still don’t know how I got down from the ledge of that building when I was twenty. I also would not have the loving husband, four fine children, and six amazing grandchildren if not for the grace of God.

Am I narrow and judgmental, like the other side assumes? No. I am one of the least judgmental people I know. I would be the first to say that I have no right to throw stones at anyone. I have received mercy from many directions, and I will generously give mercy. I have a deeply compassionate heart and great empathy. How they developed, given my background, is a mystery all its own. I am also a strong advocate for social justice and do my best to be a global thinker. I reject the far-right evangelical political ideology. I don’t recognize the teachings of Jesus anywhere in their rhetoric. I am inclusive in my thinking, an advocate for the poor, empathetic to the plight of refugees, and believe strongly in fighting for racial and gender equality.

Am I missing my religious calling? Should I be writing devotionals and inspirational stories? In my mind, my dark fantasies are inspirational, but not in the way many religious people might use that term. I hope I inspire mercy, compassion, understanding, and action. I hope I encourage people to love each other in word and action. If, through my commitment to donate a dollar from each book sale to the Genesis Project, I can make a difference in one child’s life, to help them find freedom and healing from sex trafficking, I would feel my time and energy well spent.

I’ve been told that the healing journeys of my characters in The Innocence Cycle series have helped readers to find healing in their own lives. That just makes me smile. When I first started writing the series, it was just to put down on paper one scene that kept nagging at me. I had no idea all those words and characters and ideas were just begging to be released. I’ve completed four and am a third of the way through book five—and they are long novels. So many words! It’s hard to believe. The journey has been healing for me as well.

So that is what I would say if I were not afraid. My voice feels stronger already.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Writing

A Girl with a Book: a Powerful Weapon

My two favorite quotes from the article that follows:

Sultana reminds us that the greatest untapped resource around the globe isn’t gold or oil, but the female half of the population.  

and

I wish we understood that sometimes the most effective weapon against terrorists isn’t a drone but a girl with a book.

Sultana picture 2

Meet Sultana, the Taliban’s Worst Fear

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, JUNE 4, 2016

Sultana pursued an education from inside her home in Afghanistan after the Taliban threatened to douse her with acid if she went back to school. Because of the danger to her and a photographer if she was visited there, her picture was taken via Skype. CreditAndrew Quilty for The New York Times

OF all the students preparing to go to college this fall, perhaps none have faced a more hazardous journey than a young woman named Sultana. One measure of the hazard is that I’m not disclosing her last name or hometown for fear that she might be shot.

Sultana lives in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan, and when she was in the fifth grade a delegation visited her home to warn her father to pull her out of school, or else she would have acid flung in her face. Ever since, she has been largely confined to her high-walled family compound — in which she has secretly, and perilously, educated herself.

“I’m unstoppable,” Sultana laughs, and it’s true: She taught herself English from occasional newspapers or magazines that her brothers brought home, in conjunction with a Pashto-English dictionary that she pretty much inhaled. When her businessman father connected the house to the internet, she was able to vault over her compound walls.

“I surrounded myself with English, all day,” she told me by Skype. Today her English is fluent, as good as that of some Afghan interpreters I’ve used.

Once she had mastered English, Sultana says, she tackled algebra, then geometry and trigonometry, and finally calculus BC. She rises about 5 a.m. and proceeds to devour calculus videos from Khan Academy, work out equations, and even read about string theory.

Sultana, now 20, says she leaves her home only about five times a year — each time, she must wear a burqa and be escorted by a close male relative — but online she has been reading books on physics and taking courses on edX and Coursera. I can’t independently verify everything Sultana says, but her story generally checks out. After reading a book on astrophysics by Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, she reached him by Skype, and he says he was blown away when this Afghan elementary school dropout began asking him penetrating questions about astrophysics.

“It was a surreal conversation,” Krauss said. “She asked very intelligent questions about dark matter.”

Krauss has become one of Sultana’s advocates, along with Emily Roberts, an undergraduate at the University of Iowa who signed up for a language program called Conversation Exchange and connected with Sultana.

By Skype, Emily and Sultana became fast friends, and soon they were chatting daily. Moved by Sultana’s seemingly unattainable dream of becoming a physics professor, Emily began exploring what it would take for Sultana to study in the United States.

With Emily’s help, Sultana has been accepted by a community college in Iowa, with a commitment by Arizona State University to take her as a transfer student a year later. Emily started a website to raise money for Sultana’s university education.

Sultana reminds us that the greatest untapped resource around the globe isn’t gold or oil, but the female half of the population. Virginia Woolf wrote that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she never would have been able to flower — and Sultana is Shakespeare’s sister. Yet it’s also clear that internet connections can sometimes be a game changer.

Sultana’s family is wary of her passion for education but surrenders to her determination. “My mom said a lot of mouths will be open, a single girl going to the Christian world,” she said. “But I will die if they stop me.”

Unfortunately, the United States isn’t helping. Last month, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul rejected her application for a student visa. That happens all the time: Brilliant young men and women are accepted by American universities and then denied visas because, under U.S. law, they are seen as immigration risks.

(As a Muslim, Sultana would also be barred by Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims. I asked her what she thought of Trump, and all she would say, with quiet dignity, was: “He thinks all Muslims are bad. It’s painful.”)

Michelle Obama has pushed an impressive campaign called Let Girls Learn, yet her husband’s administration has never seemed as enthusiastic, and America routinely denies visas that would actually let girls learn. The United States spends billions of dollars fighting terrorism by blowing things up; I wish we understood that sometimes the most effective weapon against terrorists isn’t a drone but a girl with a book.

The Taliban understand this: That’s why their fighters shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. If only we were as cleareyed as the Taliban about the power of girls’ education to transform societies.

Sultana now spends her days working on calculus equations, listening to Bon Jovi and doing household chores while listening to the BBC or self-help audiobooks. It also turns out that she is a longtime Times reader and gets my email newsletter. She’s now working her way through more serious reading: Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”

Sultana has set up another appointment for a visa, for June 13. It won’t be Sultana who is tested but American policy itself. I’ll let you know what happens.

Leave a comment

Filed under International Issues

Survivor’s Poem

This is a powerful visual presentation of a poem written and performed by a survivor of domestic sex trafficking. Not for the faint of heart.

And I would add: not only are America’s daughters at risk, but our sons as well.

Leave a comment

Filed under Human Trafficking

I feel little, broken, invisible, lost…

I found myself saying those words this morning, over and over—in truth, sobbing them. hiding child BWAnd at the very time I need to be the opposite of those things, or so I tell myself. I wanted to hurry past the feelings, push them away, like I have been doing for weeks. I know better. I spent years in therapy trying to expose the buried emotions that kept me from functioning at my fullest. I also spent years as a counselor encouraging clients to “embrace their brokenness” rather than push it away or bury it. And yet, here I am.

As the release of my first book approaches, the turmoil has increased. Rationally, it is not surprising. As a survivor of severe abuse, one of my strongest defenses has been to be invisible, blend into the woodwork, never draw attention, and now I am asking myself to do the opposite: be visible, expose myself, my thoughts, my very heart. And the broken part of me says that is dangerous, deadly. I can argue with the thoughts, but changing the feelings is near impossible. My counselor self says, don’t change the feelings, embrace them.

So I allow myself to feel what I have been pushing away. It’s ugly, painful, terrifying. This world seems huge, unfriendly, just looking for a way to crush me. I am not wanted here.

Oh, I hit a core belief. I am not wanted. Who I am is a mistake. My thoughts are not wanted, my feelings are not wanted. I should never have been born. Ouch. My heart twists with the pain. It is so deep, so fathomless.

I want to rush to counter the belief. I am loved by many people. I am wanted now. I have gifts, thoughts, skills that are valuable and needed. But to rush to that argument diminishes the value of that broken part of me and confirms her beliefs: nobody wants to hear that negative talk, nobody likes a loser—just ask Donald Trump. The world wants to see confidence, power, strength, not ugly, self-pitying weakness.

I have learned over the years, however, that I make truer, deeper connections with others in and through my brokenness. A huge percentage (don’t ask me for numbers; I have no idea) of this world’s population is more familiar with brokenness than power and “success.” Exposing my broken places, being honest about who I am and what I feel, has built more bridges to others than my façade of confidence ever has or will.

My entire novel series, in fact all I’ve ever written, has come out of my brokenness, not my learned skills or my inner power.

The reason I am a modern day abolitionist, the reason I fight for the rights and dignity of all people comes out of my brokenness. moderndayslaveryWhat I’m feeling today—little, broken, invisible, lost—those trapped in slavery, those being trafficked, those being abused, feel every day. I don’t want to shove away my feelings because they keep me connected to 27-30 million slaves around the world and  uncalculated numbers of survivors of abuse.

And so, I embrace my brokenness, and I embrace our broken world. If you are one of the  broken, I hope you feel my heart reaching toward you. And if you should choose to reach back,  my heart is open.

4 Comments

Filed under Human Trafficking, Writing

Inspired Courage

I think of those who are still enslaved… and surviving–even though many times they may want to succumb, to give up, they do not. They are my heroes–innumerable, faceless heroes. They are my definition of courage. I think of them, and I’m inspired to work harder, to live better. It requires little courage to live a privileged life, a safe life. Though if one has ever been enslaved, even living in freedom–and relative safety–requires daily courage: to not forget, to not disconnect, to not be tempted to eradicate the scars, to not get lost in the tenebrious labyrinth of regret. Today, I am brave too. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Human Trafficking

Developing a Voice

What does it mean to have a voice, other than in strictly physiological terms? In counseling, we use this phrase, or a near cousin, quite often in abuse recovery work. We speak of finding your voice, using your voice.

In writing, we talk about voice in the sense of having a unique tone or style that distinguishes it from other writers or one project from another. If everyone had to write in a flippant, smart-alecky voice or a somber, morose tone then soon all books would merge into one indistinguishable blob, and the art of the writing would be lost. It would be like every painter being forced to use only shades of blue.

I’ve pondered this idea of voice a great deal since I started thinking about constructing a blog. Developing a voice, and a unique one at that, is about learning to express yourself, finding what it is you want to/need to say, and speaking it as authentically as you can. Part of the process is getting over the fear of speaking and/or writing.

So what is the fear—or more accurately, what is MY fear? (Or fears…mine are numerous.) The biggest fear is that there is nothing inside me worth saying or that others would find worth listening to. I think for those of us raised in abusive homes or who have been tormented or tortured, we come to believe this is the truth because we are told it is so—if not in direct terms then in indirect ways. Our words, our objections, our cries are ignored as if we weren’t even speaking. Or we are told we are stupid or worthless. If I am stupid or worthless, then my thoughts are stupid or worthless, so what would be the point of speaking them except to prove it?

Another fear is making a mistake or lots of them. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “In a multitude of words, transgression is unavoidable.” So if I write, it’s going to happen, but making mistakes is a frightening thing to those raised in abuse. A wrong word, a wrong look can bring punishment, swift and painful. So why risk it? Because it is one way of taking back control of our lives, something we lose in abuse. For me, a way of safely flipping off my abusers. I can make mistakes now, and it won’t end me. In fact, every mistake I make is one more piece of evidence that I have my life back. I can screw up and survive. I can say stupid things and correct them later or apologize. I can learn from mistakes and grow.

The third fear is breaking the rule of “Don’t tell.” Or else. I’m still a little shaky on this one. This is the “irrational” fear I mentioned a few blogs ago. It seems to me almost all abuse carries this edict. If the threats are not explicit, they are there in the body language, the brute force, the hiding behind closed doors, “this is our secret”. Abuse thrives in such secrecy, “telling” exposes it. I’m taking the risk and standing up to this fear, partly to prove to myself that the oppression has ended. I am free. As free as I will allow myself to be.

The last fear I’ll mention is the vulnerability of using my voice. It’s vulnerable because it exposes my inner self, and what if I lay my true self out there and I get rejected? Having a persona rejected is not nearly so painful because, well, it’s not really me. Ironically, I’m writing under a pseudonym, which is kind of like hiding behind a false self, but the truth is, I’m more honest here than in most of my life where people can see my face.

In writing novels or stories, vulnerability is essential. I’ve had to push myself in my novels not to use the “safe” terms or edge around an issue. If I’m going to write, I want to write honestly, authentically. I don’t expose everything, that would be unwise, but I push myself as close to the edge as I can. This is another part of taking my life back.

One last thing. Part of using my voice is speaking for those who do not yet have one or who are not in a safe place to use it. When I wrote my Azora’s Castle novella, it really connected with some people in Egypt. The story is about a little girl’s isolation. I had no idea when I wrote it that it would speak to a culture where many live in fear and isolation due to an oppressive social structure. In exposing my feelings through this character, it exposed the feelings in others, and then offered hope as Azora overcame her fears and learned to connect. My writing is not only life-giving and cathartic for me, it can be for others as well. At least, that is my hope.

So I’m testing my voice here, strengthening those vocal chords. And I invite you, if it is safe for you to do so, to join me. If it is not yet safe, I pray I may speak words on your behalf that bring life to your soul.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing