Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tragedy and Fiction -LeAnne Hardy

For 45 seconds the earth shakes, half a city collapses, and 200,000 people die.  If it came out of Hollywood, we would say it was one of those ridiculous Apocalyptic movies with no plot but great special effects—except that this is real.  As real as a huge wave of water overwhelming coastal communities and sweeping away life as they knew it.  As real as airplanes flying into buildings that collapse on thousands.   Even as I write we are following news of another earthquake in Chile.  Thanks to the Internet and satellite TV, these images flash around the world instantly.  They make a dramatic background for fiction. 

But do we trivialize when we base fiction on such realities?

I have been reading Scared by Tom Davis, a novel about HIV in Swaziland that I first heard about on this blog.  It’s strong stuff.  The opening scene describes a 1998 raid by rebels on a town in Congo (formerly Zaire) where they murder the men, rape and kill the women, and pile the bodies to burn, desecrating them before they do.  Gruesome stuff, but, as a foreword from the publishers warns, this is reality.  Scared also describes scenes of child rape and near-rape.  I have worked with children affected by HIV in Africa, and I assure you that Davis describes nothing that is not true to life.

We often choose Christian fiction because we are sick of secular writers using gratuitous violence and explicit sex to sell books.  We want to be protected from all that.  But is there such a thing as being too protected—so protected that we lose our passion for justice and righteousness, that we forget how evil sin is—because we have glossed over unpleasant realities? 

I have been following The Livesay [Haiti] Weblog, the account of Troy and Tara Livesay, missionaries in Haiti.  (One of his beautiful photos opens this blog.) Tara ran the Disney Marathon with my daughter two days before the earth shook although the she and my daughter never met among the thousands running through the Magic Kingdom and around the lake at Epcot.  I have never met her family.  I knew nothing of their ministry before a friend passed on the link on Facebook.  But for me, reading their blog puts humanity on the things I see on TV and places my God firmly in the midst.  As a parent, one of the most poignant entries was when they took their six younger children (three of Haitian nationality) to the American Embassy to send them off with strangers on a cargo plane to the U.S.  I felt Tara’s relief when they got the message that the children were safe with family in New Jersey.  The Livesays have now gone to Texas for a time of healing with their children, but the blog continues to give me specifics to pray that will aid not just the general population of the country, but specific people who can be touched with the love of God.

Fiction can make us identify with realistic characters and so empathize with a situation beyond our comprehension.  The Livesay’s blog is not fiction.  It is current events.  Is it appropriate to use these huge tragedies in our fiction, or are we guilty of exploiting the suffering of others to sell books?  What limitations or qualifications would you put on fiction that uses tragedies like the Haiti earthquake as background?  Or are non-fiction accounts the only appropriate way to convey what happened?  Comment below and tell us what you think. 
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books for young people come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will impact lives. Visit her at .


  1. LeAnne, great post! You raise some big questions. I think fiction can offer unique insights into tragic situations in a way non-fiction can't, because we walk in the viewpoint character's shoes.

  2. I think rooting our fiction in real events is a great way to draw attention to those events and perhaps do some good. What i object to is long graphic descriptions of carnage or cruelty used to shock and horrify the reader merely for the sake of shock and horror. Sometimes a very simple statement of fact is all that's required to set the scene. The fictional character's emotional reaction to that scene is what makes the historic event relevant.

  3. I think you are right, Alice, that it is the character's emotional reaction we are looking for rather than graphic carnage.

  4. A very thought provoking post, LeAnne. Just before reading it I had read a post on a loop from a mother whose son has just returned from Haiti. She shared some of the horrors he saw in a medical clinic and had to deal with. It wasn't graphic writing by any means, but the pictures in my mind are still vivid of the dreadful suffering there. We do need to show these in our books and our example - as always - has to be the way the scriptures show as well as tell the affects of horror. Of course, the 'trick' is just how we can do that without being graphic but still have enough to bring the emotion needed from the reader of the written page.