“Who could have imagined this” we say, as we realise we won’t be hugging our fathers on Father’s Day. But isn’t it striking how badly we failed to imagine everything about the world of Covid-19? Even in February, as the news was filled with reports that thousands of people were falling sick and dying in China and in Northern Italy and that this new virus was so contagious that people were being asked not to travel outside of their homes and villages, much of book publishing still thought we might be attending the London Book Fair and shaking hands across small tables, as if we thought we would be immune.
We weren’t alone: our government thought Britain would stay open. My kids’ headteacher said the school would ‘never close’ about two weeks before it did. There are some people living in Florida right now who still can’t imagine that they may be responsible for the death of others unless they put on a face mask. Apparently scientific evidence and the daily news are no match for our stubborn belief that our future experiences will somehow closely relate to the experiences we have personally had to date. I’m sure if Florida Guy had personally killed someone with an asymptomatic virus before, he’d be more likely to wear a mask this time.
Climate change activists have long understood that most people don’t take steps to save our environment because they literally can’t integrate compelling scientific evidence unless it tallies with their own experiences. It’s ok: once we have experienced a summer without water, or in which we are banned from going outside, I think we’ll get it.
But for most of us, envisioning any real major change from the life we know is embarrassingly daunting and difficult. Unfortunately, whether our personal experiences have been good or bad, we instinctively anticipate them to persist again and again and again. In fact, even if those experiences are painful or inadequate, sometimes it’s more comforting to seek out the familiar than to try to feel something new. Convincing ourselves that our lives could, should and indeed will be different from the lives we have led before is wrenching and hard. The new feels unreal, and major life changes only seem possible once we have imagined a new world for ourselves and projected ourselves into it.
Fiction can help immeasurably here of course. As Milly Johnson recognised last year as she accepted her Outstanding Achievement Award from the RNA, romance authors “…show women templates of healthy loving relationships that they might never have seen before. We give people hope that happy endings are not just restricted to fiction. And we know we do this because readers write to tell us that we have. They walk in the skins of our characters. Our stories have helped them leave dysfunctional relationships and inspired them to start up businesses, find new jobs, find themselves, stretch the walls of their comfort zones.”
When people describe the surreal events of Spring 2020 as “the stuff of fiction”, they’re acknowledging how much better than most of us writers are at imagining whole new worlds and ways of being. Writers had foretold fatal viral contagions like Covid-19; and also used disasters like this one as metaphor. Now they reach for a new metaphoric language as the strange becomes the new ‘normal’.
For the rest of us, our colossal failures of imagination are human, but they are also terrifying and destructive. And they aren’t just frightening because in 2020 they’re deadly. They’re also frightening because they limit our ability to empathise with people whose experiences don’t somehow map closely to our own. Good people want to be empathetic but are boundaried by their immediate histories. We need our imaginations and our fictions in order to be prepared; to be generous; to be progressive; to be the people we aspire to be.
And I’m worried that our failure of imagination continues to cripple our progress towards equality. A year ago, I sat in a room with 200 influential publishing executives and the evening’s speaker warned us not to press too hard for diversity in publishing “in case of push back” because “change has to take time”.
I understand why anyone observing publishing’s false starts towards being representational would think that “change takes time” – you’re still waiting, right? That’s probably why no one – including me – stood up and argued, or walked out to demonstrate their frustration and disappointment at the idea that change had to be organic and creepingly incremental, even though I know I wasn’t the only one who felt it.
But it isn’t true, and the truth is worse. The idea that “change takes time” is a lie planted and watered by people who wouldn’t know how to get change unless they were standing in a shop with a twenty pound note. What it takes is for a person, then a group of people, then a huge ton of other people to have imagination and a vision for change; to enact change themselves; and to insistently press for change from others.
I have a fantastic example of how to imagine, commit to and enact change in my life in the form of my father, Tony, who I perceive isn’t as boundaried by his experiences as many. I have lost count of the number of projects, initiatives, community groups, fundraising causes and political campaigns my father has imagined, enacted and recruited for – usually in the face of people telling him “change takes time” and “you’ll get push back”. He has stood in the street and argued insistently for urgent causes and for people in need. He has called town hall meetings and lost his shit with The Man his whole adult life. Even now, under house arrest due to underlying health vulnerabilities, my dad isn’t just jig-sawing and cutting the hedge (although he is doing that too, or my mother would have Serious Words for him). He is also spearheading major changes to the design, accessibility, safety and beauty of the community in which he lives and being told “your plans are too ambitious”. They won’t be. They are always realisable.
I am fiercely proud of my father’s achievements and on Father’s Day my pride is fuel and these words my metaphorical hug. Our community of book lovers counts thousands of visionaries and dream-tellers amongst us. We need to write stories together that can serve us well outside of the pages of novels – we need to imagine, ‘make real’ and build a publishing industry that is fully representational. We can pledge commitment to that change and enact it, because even important and drastic change is made possible if a lot of people stretch their imaginations together, talk openly about their belief in the achievability of change; and undefensively demand change from themselves and from others.
Happy Father’s Day, dad.