The most powerful line in An Incoming Tide was not there in the initial writing.
It didn’t even appear in the first twenty revisions.
But when I finally wrote that line—and it was just one short, compound sentence—it hit me as the author. It was so obvious, so powerful, but written to hardly be noticed at all.
“He had to do it, and I had to help him do it.”
You probably didn’t make note of the line. It was deeply embedded in Chapter Nine. Protagonist Estelle (a psychologist) didn’t catch the significance of it either as it was spoken by a female client— well, not consciously anyway. Subconsciously, it triggered her. And, the reader doesn’t see why until several chapters later in the novel, an echoing from twenty-five years earlier in Estelle’s life. The line is there too, in Chapter Sixteen as it flashes back to when she was seven—there it’s no longer in the third person but the first, no longer in the past tense but the present.
It is about gender and power.
If you have already read An Incoming Tide, you may want to go back and find those two lines. In Chapter Nine it recounts a male supervisor forcing a female, front-line worker to act contrary to the needs of her clients—he did so to meet his own management goals. In Chapter Sixteen it is about a child forced to be the proxy for another powerful male in abusing a little girl, even begging her cooperation in doing so.
As an author my life experience of gender bubbles up in my characters and plot. Writing is a bit like a Rorschach Test—you know the one, the inkblots. What is within me, what arises from my socialization and lived experience, gets projected into my work of fiction. Truly, it wasn’t the reason I wrote the story. But it’s there when I go back and take a look at how it all unfolds.
I was certainly raised with gender bias—cloaked in religious fervor, preached by suited men holding floppy Bibles while they denied women a voice in the pulpit and at the decision-making church board table. Women could teach children, sing in the choir and make sandwiches for luncheons, of course.
Furthermore, gender bias infects the power structures of my former profession. One horrific example came a few years ago in a meeting to welcome newly registered psychologists, the vast majority of which were female. Only one female spoke from the lectern that night, this in contrast to the several esteemed males. That one female who did speak was a staffer reading the words of yet another older male, a guy unable to attend to receive his award.
I do have hope that this might be changing. Here in Alberta Canada, the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta (PAA) now has a female CEO. The PAA plays a support function province’s psychologists. On the other hand, the Regulatory College for the profession—the body with the power to set the rules, determine membership and discipline—has two males in the top positions. Oh, there is a female psychologist there too, but her role is primarily advice giving on ethical matters.
So even though things might be changing, are you detecting a pattern here? Those who support and help are females, those who have power are males.
Yes, I’ve been immersed in it—gender bias as the water in the fishbowl that I happen to swim in.
So what can I do as an author?
First of all, I can believe in fiction. The most powerful voice, the one that moves us most to respond with passion, is storytelling. And, it is not just the stories we hear, but also the ones that we tell about ourselves, like those two quick anecdotes above.
Storytelling provides a unique and essentially human way of knowing. In contrast to storying, logical thought requires training and discipline. We have to teach it in formal education and consciously practice it when we face life’s complexities. What comes more naturally to us all is the story of our lived experience. We like to think that we are rational, but in reality our experience of the world is how we story what happens.
With all the options of writing, I choose to write a novel—not a self-help book or theoretical text. I can only write as a white male (read “privilege”), but I hope one who is sensitive to what is happening around me, conscious of the water in my fishbowl.
And, so …
The villains of An Incoming Tide are male—Jackson, Pierre and, of course, the murderer (no spoiler alert, eh?). The courageous and constructive characters are female, the strong characters—Estelle, Leanne, Dodi and Nali.
Of course, a novel has more characters than just the heroic, caring ones and the bad guys. In An Incoming Tide, Gordon is an exception to this pattern, but then, he is a jazz musician! I’ve also written in Nate, Nate who has taken responsibility for his own life. And Merrill, who manages to manage in an accommodating sort of way. These healthy males act as foils to the male villains of the piece. But I also hope they give a bit of hope to it all, too. Oh, and by the way, none of them hold positions of power.
And finally, I can be self-reflective. In designing the website I have chosen to post fresh material twice a month—once as fiction, the other time as first-person reflection in this blog. I have three female characters in this month’s Fourth Comings and three male characters in next month’s story. Perhaps you might want to check those out. Do some self-reflection for yourself.
And maybe you might also reflect on what the water is like in your fishbowl—gendered power dynamics are probably there, and likely other toxic stuff too.