We live in a time when history is made by Tweets, when what happens there can instantly be known here. A time when anyone with a digital device can express views, publish opinions, or comment on news within moments of it unfolding, making the (somewhat dated) concept of “information superhighway” never more accurate…or glutted. 

We want to be informed, we want to keep our awareness sharp, or maybe we just want some good old chatty entertainment, but given the sheer volume of what comes at us daily, it seems truth—and its ripple effects of impact, inspiration and illumination—often gets lost in the shuffle.

Yet truth is conveyed in many more ways than just news and social media, in just non-fiction tomes and memoirs of note. In fact, some of our most poignant cultural truths have been discovered and disseminated through stories, through imagination…through fiction.

Most famously, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird illuminated issues of race and disparate justice at a time when such topics were infrequently discussed, considered controversial and incendiary. The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré deftly explored the many polarizing angles of the Middle East crisis in a story that was viewed as provocative and explosive when it was published.

More recently, Naima Coster’s Halsey Street takes on the emotional debate of Brooklyn’s gentrification in all its racial and cultural disruption, Laura Nicole Diamond digs deep into the conundrum of homelessness in Shelter Uswhile Lauren Groff’s Arcadia poetically analyzes the impact of commune life on the development of a sensitive boy; and Tayari Jones dissects An American Marriage in ways that shine light on both relationships universally and racism specifically.

In each case, the cohesive whole of these books achieves a powerful collaboration–the delivery of a profound message in page-turning, emotionaly stirring, narratively captivating fiction.

I can thoroughly enjoy a good biography or non-fiction work, but I’ve noticed over the years that my initial “reader’s impulse” still tilts toward fiction. I want to be swept up by imagination. I want story and creative license. I want a book that takes me on an emotional, physical, and mental journey unbeholden to known facts, that transforms me through the sheer creativity of an author’s mind. I want to be illuminated and informed about the details, quirks, dramas and delights of the world through imagined stories well told by inspired storytellers.

I also want to be that writer. 

Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That became my mantra…the driving force behind every book I’ve written. And as my writing career took me into the arena of op-eds and journalism, and I began covering contemporary issues of race, privilege, disparate justice, police profiling, and the state of bigotry in our roiling country, I began envisioning the next novel I wanted to read.

Early in my young adult life, I spent six years in an interracial relationship. Whatever I thought I knew about racism and privilege, and despite an upbringing mentored by liberal open-mindedness, I was stunned to discover just how little I really understood about “life as a person of color in America.”

My limited thinking had concluded that the worst of it was “out there” somewhere, in areas blighted by crime, gangs and poverty. Somehow it missed my awareness that the caustic microaggressions, the drip-drip-drip of systemic racism, the “million little cuts” of privileged ignorance, existed everywhere, without boundary or parameter.

The casual racism of friends and colleagues, the hurt of insensitive comments, rude merchants, or car doors locked as we passed, and, most traumatically, the violent and pervasive impact of police profiling, all are painfully prevalent.

It was as if the curtain of my white privilege—that convenient, cultural disconnect that buffers white people from the day-to-day experience of race—was pulled away, forcing me to not only view, but actually feel racism’s corrosiveness by virtue of my proximity and personal involvement with a man of color. It was a cold-water dip that was life-changing and deeply disturbing, and it forever altered my perceptions and reactions related to issues of race, particularly those involving law enforcement and the justice system.  

It took decades after the conclusion of that relationship to fully organize and collate my thoughts about what I’d witnessed and experienced in those years, to interpret and assimilate what I’d learned. I knew I would someday write about it, and often did tangentially when covering various hot-button news events while writing for HuffPost and other online media. And when it became patently clear that time and distance from that era of my life had not softened or substantially mitigated the acrid effects of American racism—which had, in fact, only heightened in this particularly mordant political moment—I knew it was time.

Not every novel needs to make a point, share a moral, illuminate a message. Not every reader of fiction wants to be illuminated. There’s much to be said for immersing oneself in a romance novel, a spy thriller, a good murder mystery, for the simple pleasure of reading. One can learn something new, “travel” to new places, and experience uplifting emotions without committing to a narrative that provokes thought or asks readers to bandy uncomfortable truths. Sometimes you just want the damn frosting! 

But for those who do want and appreciate a deeper dive, who revel in the grit and gravitas of imagined stories of literary relevance, there’s something about that kind of fiction that leaves readers feeling as if they’ve been through a profound event, experienced an epiphanous journey; learned a new truth, while walking side-by-side with characters they’ve grown attached to. That emotional ride can be both exhausting and exhilarating, but it is always a sustaining adventure. 

Want to read more from Lorraine Devon Wilke? Her upcoming book The Alchemy of Noise will be available to purchase April 9, 2019.