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The Power of Fiction

Directly impacted people can and should share their stories through fiction—and in the process change minds and public policy.


Fiction is magic. Someone creates a story out of nothing but words on a page, based on images and thoughts from their head. They share it. That story that has been shared now inhabits the head of the person who reads it. It will look different to them in their minds, they will interpret it differently, interact with it differently, and react to it differently. But they will connect with the story, the ideas contained in it, and the person who shared it. A figment of one person’s imagination creates a connection with a totally different person, usually without the two ever meeting or directly communicating. Something beautiful is born from nothing.

Using fiction, we can create the world we want to see and characters who experience it. The reader then inhabits their lives and histories, and experiences an entirely new world. Fiction can also subtly educate and change the mind of the person reading it. Unlike the way we consume other forms of entertainment, books require active participation on behalf of the reader. When you read, you create the images of the story in your head as you go. You are reading the character’s thoughts and feelings, experiencing the world through the character’s senses of sight, sound, taste, and touch, all of which gives you a much more intimate relationship with the character than is afforded by watching a dramatization. In other words, when you’re caught up with a character in a story, you’re living their experience. You become the character. You are in the story. You are fighting the dragon, you are falling in love, you are on the quest. And that creates an opportunity for empathy and education unmatched by just about any other experience. Reading is one of the few ways we can inhabit the life of someone else.

What better way to help people empathize with the plight of incarcerated people, and of families left destroyed in the criminal legal system’s wake, than to put them in the heads of characters experiencing these harms? It’s something countless writers have done over the centuries: Give your trauma to the characters and let them help others share in it. What better way to share my own experiences with the wider world without getting too personal?

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Prison reform is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. My father was incarcerated during my childhood; one of my most vivid memories is of the police coming to my house to arrest him and Child Protective Services (CPS) taking me and my younger sister away. This experience changed our lives. My father was in prison for close to three years, then moved to a halfway house. He never lived with us again, and my parents split up. My mom, sister, and I moved 500 miles away. I spent the next twenty years hiding my father’s history from everyone in my life. We never spoke about it at home. It was a shadow that hung over us all, a shame no one ever addressed.

The prison population, and their families who are left behind, are not typically objects of empathy or sympathy. This is because, by virtue of being in prison or associated with someone who is or has been to prison, you have been judged as guilty, culpable, a menace to society, dangerous and in need of being locked away. It’s not a perspective that can often be understood until it is lived, and it requires overcoming a significant amount of prejudice.

Nonfiction books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) touch on the shame that families carry following a prison sentence. So many people have experienced it and continue to experience it. And fiction books do address it, but I can usually tell that they are written by people who have not experienced this firsthand. They are too open about it. They don’t understand that shame is part of the sentence, and that unlike most prison sentences, it can last a lifetime.

This is where fiction can work its magic.

It’s 2020 in a North America that was never colonized. There is no pandemic, no Supreme Court, no police force that kills unarmed Black men, and no Donald Trump. The United States and Canada don’t exist. The Great Lakes are surrounded by an independent Anishinaabe nation. Chibenashi’s surrogate mother has just been murdered.

This is the setting of my debut novel, The Peacekeeper, which was published in June 2022. The story follows Chibenashi, a broken man whose mother’s murder and father’s subsequent imprisonment for it has derailed and molded his entire life. He’s been caretaker for his sister, who was traumatized by the event, and become a Peacekeeper (police officer) in his home village Baawitigong (known in our world as the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario). Chibenashi’s entire life was changed by his family tragedy. The shame of it casts a long shadow over his life. When his mother’s best friend is murdered twenty years later, Chibenashi’s investigation takes him to the major city of Shikaakwa, which appears on our maps as Chicago. Shikaakwa is home to the prison that houses Chibenashi’s father, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in years, and forces Chibenashi to confront his past.

I spent a long time—years—developing the world of The Peacekeeper. In creating a never-colonized North America, I considered everything from technology to international relations to religion to transportation to architecture. But the foundation for all of these ancillary details was the society’s core values:

  • Community: Seeing yourself as part of a greater whole
  • Sustainability: Seven generations
  • Responsibility: Taking ownership of your actions and how they affect others

In particular, I focused extensively on developing a criminal justice system in which these three values govern everything. When you build your society on the foundations of community, sustainability, and responsibility, a restorative justice system, rather than a punitive justice system, is the only one that makes sense.

The criminal justice system in The Peacekeeper focuses on promoting those core values to make people whole, rather than simply finding a vehicle to punish the accused. I think of the criminal justice system as a stage in a darkened room. In our world, the spotlight shines unforgivingly on the accused, with a relentless focus on how to punish them. In a restorative justice system, the spotlight shifts to the victim, and the focus is on how to make them whole, which is done in a collaborative manner that brings a variety of stakeholders into the proceeding: the victim, the accused, their families, and the broader community.

Under the system developed in the book, when adjudicating a criminal matter, the parties approach it as equals, rather than an individual versus the power of the state. Instead of a prosecutor and defendant sitting before a judge and being observed by a jury of peers, the parties sit in a circle: they are not there to pass judgment, they are there to find a resolution. There is no judge, no prosecutor. Instead, there is a Mediator, who resolves the dispute, and the representatives for both the victim and the accused. A resolution is negotiated and agreed upon by all, and any punishment or further action is only what is necessary to restore the victim to their prior status before the wrong was committed. The accused, if responsible, is encouraged to take ownership of a solution to help make the victim whole. A failure of this resolution is a failure of the whole community. Imprisonment is a last resort—but it does still exist.

This is not a perfect justice system. No system is. In the book, it fails more than once. With a new system comes new issues. All criminal justice systems must balance the rights of the accused with the rights of the victims—and when the balance is recalibrated, it is uneven in other ways. Prison sentences exist, but are imposed only after all else has failed. In the book, Chibenashi’s father is sentenced to prison in large part because he refused to participate in the restorative justice process and instead asked to be imprisoned.

Specifics of the book aside, none of these ideas are revolutionary, nor are they mine. Restorative justice is a longstanding Indigenous value, including among the Anishinaabe, which are my people. Any sort of crime is viewed as not a failure of the individual, but the failure of the community. If something goes so horribly awry as to get to this point, this is not the failure of one person. Many things had to go wrong. So there is no point in finding a guilty party, or sitting in judgment. Everyone shares the blame. Everyone bears the responsibility.

I also took specific pieces from other justice systems. The idea of the parties sitting in a circle while an Elder finds a solution is taken from modern Navajo Peacemaker courts. The idea of restitution as a remedy comes from the modern U.S. civil law system, in which I have practiced for over a decade. (In law school, I also assisted my Contracts professor, Andrew Kull, in developing the Third Restatement of the Law of Restitution, a treatise articulating the principles and rules on the subject for practicing lawyers and academics.) The idea of emphasizing the need for people accused of crimes to take responsibility for their actions is taken from the Japanese legal system.

The book revolves around one family’s trauma, and where such a justice system both succeeds and fails. It is by no means a perfect system; it fails people, just as the one in the real world does. By going through one family’s experience with the system, readers can consider how different it is from the system we are more familiar with, and consider whether and how it is better. They can imagine the possibilities.

I remember exactly where I was on the day my father was arrested: in the upstairs playroom of the house we rented. My friend Lindsay was playing with me and my sister. I remember two uniformed police officers coming into the room, my parents telling Lindsay to go home RIGHT NOW. I remember a middle-aged woman from CPS helping my sister and me pack our clothes into paper grocery bags. I don’t know why they made us pack our things in paper bags; we were a middle-class family, and we owned luggage. I remember being allowed to bring one toy with me and I chose a stuffed Collie dog; I don’t remember if it ever came home with me. I have no memories of that toy from afterward. My sister and I were interviewed separately by CPS. I was six, which means that my sister would have just turned three. I was asked if our parents ever hit us. If so, with what? How often? I don’t know what they asked my sister. We’ve never talked about it.

I remember we were taken to the county’s group home for children. I can’t remember if we were there for one night or two, but I’ll never forget that first night. A bunch of us kids on cots in a room. There was a small tube TV on the wall high up on a shelf. We had one pillow and one blanket each. My sister was used to sleeping with two pillows, as was I, and she was crying because she couldn’t sleep. So I gave her my pillow.

It’s been thirty-two years since that happened. It’s affected me ever since.

Even though my dad pled out and went to prison and served his time and got out, the whole incident has followed us ever since. We didn’t get to leave it behind. It’s followed my father around every time he tries to find a job, find a date, find a house. It chased my mother out of her marriage and she had to move us hundreds of miles away to live near her parents. It sent me to three schools by the time I was in third grade. And the shame that you carry around . . . that never goes away. I was told never to tell anyone because people would look at me differently. So I didn’t. For twenty years I was silent about what happened to my dad. I didn’t tell my friends, my teachers, my coworkers, people I dated. In twenty years, I told only two people: my first serious boyfriend, and my husband.

Writing is vulnerability. It’s taking your most secret, tormenting thoughts and feelings, putting it on a page, and then holding it out for people to look at, pick apart, analyze, debate, and then tell you it was the worst thing they ever read and they’re mad because they’re never getting that time back. It’s raw, it’s terrifying, it’s scary. Telling someone about your interactions with the criminal legal system feels much the same way. There’s no taking it back, no un-ringing that bell. After my father went into the criminal legal system again just shy of my thirtieth birthday, when I was a newly admitted lawyer and had to fly halfway across the country—from San Diego to the Upper Peninsula in the wintertime, no less—so that I could be present at his sentencing, I couldn’t carry the secret anymore. I had to share this. I had to let go of the shame.

Eventually, I took a deep breath, put pen to paper, and told the whole damn planet about what happened. But I did it via fiction. I had to share this experience via fiction. Otherwise, it was too personal. This is the most I’ve ever written about it, and it’s extremely difficult to do.

I’m one person, nobody of note. There is no reason for anyone to listen to my experience. But if that experience is told via a fictional character, it becomes universal. The reader can identify with Chibenashi far more than they can with me, a real person. And I believe that by sharing my perspective via fiction, it has the potential to change minds.

Fiction has a long history of making people think differently and inspiring real change. It has the ability to educate (think about how much you learned about U.S. history by watching Hamilton) as well as inspire critical thought. The regulatory scheme for food safety came about after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Oliver Twist brought the plight of the poor to the attention of the wealthy and well-connected in Britain, leading to improved conditions in workhouses. And the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for all of its issues, demonstrably impacted and fueled the growth of the abolitionist cause in the 1850s.

This is certainly not to say that I expect my book to spur a revolution in the criminal legal system to focus on restorative, rather than punitive, justice. However, it does speak to the power of fiction to change perspectives and, with those changed perspectives, change policy. The Peacekeeper is just one book, and I am just one author. My hope is that more people impacted by the U.S. criminal legal system, either as the accused or a family member, will share their stories through fiction, and through those stories inspire other ideas about alternative forms of justice that are more humane and effective. I chose alternate history as the vehicle to share my experience, and I chose restorative justice as my system, but there are so many others that can be used. There are so many important stories out there waiting to be told. I can’t wait to read them.

Image: Jackie Alexander/Unsplash