Monday, August 15, 2011

Social Justice Stories: Good Idea? Bad Idea?

I don't like social justice stories.  You know the kind--stories that are all about publicizing an issue or gaining sympathy for a particular group, like single mothers or veterans or refugees from the Sudan.  I'm all for helping whoever needs it, but I just don't think short stories are the vehicle for helping with these kinds of issues.  I've always thought these kinds of stories come off as preachy and message-driven (as opposed to character- or even plot-driven).

In fact, I'm reading the 2009 Best American Short Stories compilation, and the social justice themes are starting to get a bit on my nerves.  I'm less than a quarter of the way through the book, and I've already encountered a wounded veteran trapped during Hurricane Katrina, a little boy who died of AIDS because of a botched transfusion, a Chinese man jailed because he followed his own career path, a Jewish widow who will do anything to see her husband's works edited and published. The first two stories in the collection were great--filled with normal, identifiable people making choices that define their lives.  And then wham, bam, nearly every story after these played the social justice card.  It makes me want to pull out my hair.  It's like the literary version of Oscar bait.  Want a crapload of Oscars?  Cast Daniel Day-Lewis as a paraplegic transvestite who was abused as a child.  Want to get published in a prestigious anthology?  Write a social justice story.    

So...given all this...why in the hell did I start writing a social justice story yesterday?

It started with Vanity Fair.  If you subscribe to the magazine, flip back to your August issue (the one with Emma Stone on the cover).  If you don't subscribe, just click here.  Alex Shoumatoff's "Agony and Ivory" is the easily the best piece of journalism I've ever read.  I've never been moved to tears by a magazine article before.

The article details the recent rise in African elephant poaching, fueled largely by a resurgent demand for ivory in Asia.  The ignorance and stupidity and greed on all sides breaks my heart.  Apparently, a large percentage of wealthy elderly Chinese believe an elephant's ivory tusks fall out, like baby teeth.  They don't know that the animals need to be killed to retrieve the ivory they pay thousands of dollars for.  The Muslim youth brigade Al-Shabbab (yeah, that's them on the news refusing to allow aid workers into Somalia to help with the famine) is also involved in the ivory trade.

The poachers are going after mating bulls and matriarchs--the exact elephants needed to keep herds alive and full of genetic diversity.  If the words "extinction vortex" mean anything to you, that's what's going to be happening pretty darn soon in terms of Africa's elephant population.  The article describes Kuku ranch group rangers finding a dead elephant.  Its face was hacked off to get at the ivory.  The body was still kneeling on the ground, decaying in an upright position, exactly where it had fallen.

Sometimes poachers shoot the elephants.  Sometimes they stab them dozens of times.  Sometimes they poison them.  Sometimes they do some or all of these things.  It is absolutely cruel the way these poachers go after these creatures.  Occasionally, the elephants don't die--they bleed and limp across borders or national park lines, searching for sanctuary.

The kicker is that I've been to one of the Kenyan parks mentioned in the article.  I spent one amazing weekend on safari at Intrepids Samburu (northern Kenya) in...good grief, could it be as long ago as 2003?  While I was there, I saw an elephant skull resting on the ground.  I took a picture of it because it was so creepy looking (at right). I have no way of knowing whether the elephant died a natural death--even though all I saw was the skull, it could easily have come apart from the rest of the skeleton.  Note, however, that there's absolutely no ivory present.

Anyway, in the VF article, Shoumatoff speaks with Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder and director of a Kenyan NGO, Save the Elephants.  STE monitors the elephant population in Samburu from their headquarters in Nairobi.  I sat next to Mrs. Douglas-Hamilton on the plane back to Nairobi from Samburu.  We talked the whole way about their foundation and what it does and the very small connection my employer at the time had to them.

For me, this made the article hit a little too close to home.  I might have seen some of the elephants they mentioned as being murdered recently.  I just can't imagine any ivory trinket being worth the life of one of these amazing creatures.  It boggles the mind, as they say.  Who would want this little guy to die?  (My boss snapped him in the Masai Mara.)


So, yesterday, I sat down to write and came up with an idea for a six- or seven-part story that gives the reader a glimpse into the entire disastrous cycle, from the buyers to the poachers.  I'm hoping I can avoid the trap that most social justice stories fall into--that they're boring and predictable.  I'm treating each small mini-chapter as a complete story in and of itself.  Hopefully, I can keep the characters and the conflicts interesting enough to hold a reader's interest.  I'm not planning on demonizing anyone, either.  Every story has two sides, and to keep the story interesting, it's my job to find out what those two sides are, even if I obviously don't agree with them.

I'll keep you all updated on how the story turns out.  In the meantime, if you read the article and happen to be moved, please consider donating anything you can spare to Save the Elephants here.