I got into a fascinating discussion on Twitter the other day, courtesy of Women’s Web, with Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, speaking about her book The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, which has now made its way onto my TBR.
We were speaking about Margaret Atwood, and what made her characters so powerful (I’d been watching The Handmaid’s Tale for the past few months and women’s bodies and the violence inflicted on them were top of mind).
It was then that I understood, what was so appealing about June Osborn, the main character in The Handmaid’s Tale: her agency.
As a result, in my own small way, I could finally put my finger on what I wanted for Mrinalini, the protagonist of my story Solitary Confinement (published as a part of the collection The Boundaries of Sanity last month).
I wanted her to have control over her own life. A character that could make mistakes and own up to them, confront them and try to move past them.
In my own, albeit inexperienced, way, I wanted to give her that power, that she was a master of her own circumstances, and not just a poor victim of cheating, a husband that left, and broken friendships. I wanted to give her the power to see it and understand it.
In the story, Mrinalini finds herself in an abandoned house in what seems to be an isolated island. Where she is, really isn’t important. But what is important is the mix of sorrow, grief and indignation she feels at all the people around her.
Over the course of the story this evolves, and she starts to see her story in a drastically different way than she did before.
To change the angle of our story and our role in it as being an active agent, is not as easy as it sounds. Accepting responsibility in something that had severe negative consequences in your life is uncomfortable, and not always possible.
For me, this was something I started to practice in the last decade or so – not to focus on what is being done to me. When I started owning the things that happened to me (though as it turns out you can also take that to an extreme!) I felt much more in control and happier about the things in my life.
While I found temporary comfort in blaming another for doing something to me, I didn’t want to let someone else’s actions define who I was. The best way for me to move past this was not to let it become who I was, but in fact to seize a role in it. It was taking my own space and agency back.
My turning point came during an innocuous conversation with a classmate – it was when I had moved away from my college town, Montreal. I can’t remember where I was, but I had moved to pursue additional studies in New York first, then Italy.
I had told her all about my college boyfriend, how he had been so mean to me, explaining how I had been justified in doing everything I had done. What a horrible person to cause me so much pain, right?
Finishing up with a flourish, I waited for the sympathy I was sure would come my way. Instead the girl looked at me, raised her eyebrows and said:
“Wow, you’re really bitter.”
That stung. Up until that point I had seen myself as the injured party and him as the instigator, and a horrible person. Because I was in my mid-twenties and things were black and white, good and evil. One person was wrong, and another right.
But after I soothed my ego, I started thinking about what she had said. Yes, I’ll admit here, I cared that she thought I was bitter – I cared what she thought. Of course, the fact that I have no recollection of who this is, means that I obviously couldn’t have cared that much.
However, in addition to that, I started to think about the way I looked at this story. I had always assumed that I was right, and he was wrong. Yet I had tolerated the behavior I disliked; I had allowed everything that happened to happen. Was I not also responsible for what had happened?
I could have left at any time, but I didn’t. Yes, yes, I had reasons – and I am not totally to blame. But I did stay for 3 years, and then felt indignant enough to be bitter about it. I wanted him to be someone he was not, which was extremely unfair to him.
My unrealistic and unreasonable expectations apart, I realized also how that bitterness was poisoning my insides. Everywhere I went, I carried this label of injured party. Did I want that to define me?
No, I decided. That would give him too much power over me. And it would be a poor reflection of the reality of the situation, from a purely objective standpoint.
None of us are entirely responsible for all of the things that happen to us. We can’t control or plan everything. But there’s that little piece of it that is there for the taking, that can be ours.
I wanted that piece. For me. For Mrinalini.
My first protagonist isn’t wholly responsible for everything that happens to her. But she is responsible for some of it, and this becomes a turning point for her, and a chance at second chances.
She could carry that burden of injured party for months or years, but it was already drowning her in toxicity – and that too all self-imposed.
If she could claim responsibility for what she has done, she can re-write her story on her own terms.
And that, will change it forever.
The Boundaries of Sanity is available on Kindle, or Kindle app (downloadable on any device).