“These days, all stories need to be adventure stories.”
Priyanka wrote this line, and she immediately hated it. The premise she was trying to convey was clear. She was primarily a writer of domestic fictions, heavy on the intricacies of relationships—about the flow of friendship and affection and jealousy and longing amongst small groups of affluent teenagers and twentysomethings. These were the stories she liked to read, and they were the stories she liked to write.
But, growing up, she’d been a boy, and that boy had mostly read adventure stories: books about heroes solving galactic-scale problems, usually through cunning and violence. She had for years, both before and after transitioning, tried to write these kinds of stories, and since becoming an adult, they’d always seemed a bit, well, pointless. They contained literally no reality, and they were honestly a bit of a bore.
With this line, however, she wanted to thread that needle. She had noticed, these days, that adventure story plots were creeping into her friends’ real lives. One friend broke up with her boyfriend because he wasn’t willing to get a second passport and potentially flee to Israel with her. Another’s marriage suffered because the in-laws were unhoused by a riot and lived with them for three months.
A third couple experienced significant domestic conflict over whether their child would be allowed to join a government-sponsored fascist youth group. One parent was adamantly against it. The other felt, well, at least it’ll give him some structure, and he’s really interested in it, and nothing’s ever interested him before.
Some had their immigration plans disrupted and were trapped in countries they hadn’t chosen. One friend was a half-white woman who was married to a closeted fascist, whose racist leanings only came out under pressure, and she had to decide if that was worth leaving him over.
Increasingly, to write domestic fiction without some adventure story component seemed pointless.
Moreover, Priyanka was a new mother, and they’d hired an expensive nanny, just so Priyanka could work. She felt some responsibility to come up with salable story concepts—big, flashy adventure stories that would get a big advance and sell really well. People would eat up something about a group of upper-class teens who were riven by, like, fascism or something.
So Priyanka wrote that first line. And she tried to think of another. These days the process of writing, more and more, involved coming back to the boy she’d been: fat, with narrow pig-like eyes and untidy hair, untucked shirt protruding over a huge belly and pants sagging down over a big bottom. She honestly hated that kid, and she hated everything he wanted or liked. If she could fire a bullet into his heart, she would.
That kid was the source of the world’s problems. Inept, self-absorbed, and lazy, he’d nonetheless always considered himself superior to others, merely by virtue of a strong memory and a lively sense of curiosity, and he felt himself owed a sort of heroism.
But okay, that kid was her audience. She imagined him in a fascist dystopia. He’d gone to Catholic school, so it wouldn’t be too difficult. The Benedictine monks were good people, they resisted fascism, failing to do the required obeisance to the leader or to teach the required doctrines. Private schools were allowed this wink-wink nod-nod. But some kids at the school were bullies, they threatened to rat out the teachers to the police, and the monks, old and frail, were losing control of the school.
But she simply could not imagine that child—herself as a youth—taking a heroic stand against those bullies. More likely, he’d remain immersed in stories of dragons and elves and be totally ignorant to what was going on around him. Nor was it entirely unlikely that he’d be one of the bullies himself—he’d never liked nor been popular with the majority of his teachers.
The adventure story was nonsense. It was no more complicated than that. Adventure stories were pernicious and awful.
Through the open window, Priyanka heard shouts and a quick bang-bang. Checking Twitter, she saw that the protests on Mission Street were being tear-gassed again. Smoke rose in front of the evening sun. Her secret truth was that she thought the protests were useless. She was supposed to toe the party line and say, “Get out there and fight for your rights,” and she supposed if you were truly frustrated, it was a way to blow off steam, but she didn’t believe in the individual’s ability to affect history at all. History was the product of much bigger factors. Fascism was an inevitable result of the slowing of economic growth, and of capital’s increasing power over labor, and these in turn were the inevitable result of social and economic factors that Priyanka didn’t really understand but was sure existed.
The problem she faced now was, “How do I tell lies for fun and profit? How do I tell people that they matter when they don’t? That heroism is real when it isn’t? How do I tell them that they are courageous and right-thinking and will take a stand, when, honestly, people somewhere within ten miles of them are being hustled into a secret prison”—Priyanka had friends who were immigration lawyers, so she knew all about secret prisons—”and they’re most likely doing nothing about it?”
Priyanka wrote a full chapter about her heroic Catholic school kid, but nothing would make it ring true. Why would this kid stand up for what was right? And if it did, would it even matter? She could make him come out victorious, but it would require absurd contortions. Frustrated, in the next chapter, the bullies cornered him and beat him to a pulp. She had them smash his face in. Then she had them strip him naked and torment him. The scene was surprisingly erotic, and she enjoyed the orgy of violence being unleashed, at least rhetorically, against her own past.
From that point, the writing was pleasant. It took about ninety days to finish a draft of the book. In each chapter, her protagonist was subjected to worse and worse tortures, and in the end he was beaten and subjugated and forced to run errands for the older boys, like the fag at an English public school. With each torment, his anger grew, and so did his determination to resist.
The only part that was difficult was the piece at the end, where he uses cunning to ambush and kill the bullies in an extended locked-house sequence. Priyanka didn’t believe a word of this stuff, and it was physically painful to write. In real life, she knew, he’d be broken by his trials. Maybe somebody else wouldn’t be, but this protagonist was based on herself as a child, and she knew that kid didn’t have the strength to hold out for long in adversity.
The book sold unexpectedly well, and people called her brave for writing it. To her surprise, she got a few death threats. It seemed absurd to get worked up over her little book. People asked if she was afraid, and she said, ‘No.’ Books didn’t have the power to change anyone’s life, she was pretty sure; not even the life of the person who wrote them.
Naomi Kanakia is author of the novels Enter Title Here (Little, Brown, 2016) and We Are Totally Normal (Harper, 2020). Kanakia’s stories and poetry appear in The Indiana Review, Birkensnake, Soundings East, and Antigonish.