Every year, we ask our five Emerging Voices Fellows to answer the question, "What does Freedom to Write mean to you?" Over the next five weeks, each of our Fellows will talk about the role that freedom of expression, the keystone of PEN Center USA's mission, has played in their lives as writers, readers, and literary citizens.
For me, it started in 1984 at my local library book sale. For $5, I was given a brown paper grocery bag. I was told I could fill it with as many books as would fit. I was 12 years old and I was not a reader. I don’t know what I was doing there, who brought me, or where I got the five bucks. But like any good young consumer, I had a bag and goddammit if it wasn’t gonna get filled.
The only author I recognized was Stephen King. I’d seen the VHS tapes at the video store so I sought out those paperbacks. Carrie and Salem’s Lot, Firestarter, Cujo, The Dead Zone, Gerald’s Game, The Graveyard Shift. I threw in some Anne Rice and Dune too, just because I was greedy and had room left in my bag.
I don’t know when I sat down to read. I was a lonely kid. I didn’t often have much to do, so it could have been right away or weeks later. What I remember is the first book. It was Pet Sematary. It scared the shit out of me. Even though I didn’t sleep well for nights, I read another, and then another. I was hooked.
These books were an escape, a surrogate for real life. As scary as the people and monsters in King's novels were, for a shy and anxious kid like me, the real world was scarier.
There’s nothing like a book. Its value is unique, a prolonged experience of engagement with the imagination. Those ratty paperbacks weren’t just an escape. There was something tying those stories together—underdogs and victims rising up and embracing their power, loyal friends banding together to face a great and terrible evil. Scared people doing things they were scared to do.
It's not that I was transformed into these characters. I wasn’t suddenly able to stand up to bullies or to face the dark corners of my repressed past. I didn’t become brave, smart, and good, but maybe over time, a little braver, a little smarter, a little better. Each step, taking place as part of a long conversation with Mr. King’s universe, his understandings and his beliefs, his ethics and his dreams. His questions: Can good defeat evil? What does it mean to be a friend? Is there bravery in the face of horror? Am I brave like this? Why am I not? It was a years-long conversation in my head. A dozen books. In the end, I didn’t find a definitive answer, but I kept close King’s world of weirdos and the horrible horrors they’re confronted with.
Thirty some years later, I’m thinking again about writing in these same terms. I fear the world is stuck in a tiny-but-overblown conversation of headlines and misquotes. Other types of media—film and television, music and social media—are great but can’t always mediate this smallness. But writing—and by this I mostly mean books—resists the lowest common denominator. In writing, there’s time for a back-and-forth conversation that lasts for days or weeks or years. A lifetime, or generations, instead of the few minutes or seconds of engagement that comes from other forms of media. I like to believe this is because, when you read a book, the totality of that experience is taken into you, into your mind, your imagination, your heart. There’s nothing like a book.
Today, as much as ever, we need to protect and foster this engagement. Dystopic ideas of controlling communication are on the rise, achieved by very small and easily disseminated chunks of misdirections, manipulations, and outright lies, things that trigger our primitive brain structures, our reactive fight-or-flight amygdala. We need something slower and more thoughtful, more evolved and more human, something that might still trigger the amygdala but that has also warmed up the frontal lobe. We need books to be written that engage our imaginations for a good long while, to make us sit with stuff, to think about it. Understand it. Argue with it. Be delighted by it. Angered by it. Saddened by it. Inspired by it.
Peter H.Z. Hsu was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned a master’s degree in psychology. His fiction debuted in March 2016 in The Margins and is included in the Fall 2016 issue of Pinball. Peter is currently working on a short story collection.