“It’s never the changes we want that change everything.”
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
This was the first quote that I chose for Away From Here, not only because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was never far from me while I was writing over the course of three years, but also because, like so many things in that masterpiece of a book, it’s applicable to so many things in life. In a brief sentence Diaz captures a sentiment that we can all relate to on so many levels. In the context of Wao, it relates to the revelation that one of the main character’s mothers discovers a lump in her breast, and I’ll leave its particular application to your own life to you, but here I’ll speak a little bit about why I chose it as a quotation in Away From Here.
One of the central themes of the book isn’t just the particulars of love, or mental illness, or adolescence itself, but rather that so much of what we have to deal with in life isn’t of our choosing, and, in fact, the circumstances we’re faced with have their origins literal generations into the past. For Logan that is expressed by the Bleh, Annalise’s name for depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues, but it goes far deeper than a whimsical name. Logan is the son of a severely depressed mom, who was herself the daughter of a severely mentally ill mom, who earned her Bleh from a crazy dad who lost his mind at the turn of the century. Now if that isn’t some cosmic bullshit, I certainly don’t know what is, but it doesn’t matter, does it?
What I wanted to capture in the story, and in many ways what I lived myself, is that we’re often the recipients of change that we don’t want, and, as Diaz so perfectly captures, it’s those very things that alter the course of our lives for good or for bad. It’s Logan’s lot in life to deal with the ramifications of his parent’s divorce, which is described in detail in chapter 4. Part of the reason I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of someone who was the age I was when much of that happened in my own life was because teens, maybe more than any other age group, are subject to changes outside of their control that impact their lives. And, unlike small children, they’re mostly cognizant of those forces acting upon them, and aware of the ramifications they can cause. College decisions, parent’s decisions, the decisions of boyfriends or girlfriends - all of these external things can control our fate, determine the next step in our life’s journey, and ultimately shift the entire course of where we’re headed. Logan has a few of these in the book, some of which I’ve already mentioned, but then again, so does Annalise.
We never get to see Annalise on her own terms, and that was by design. It’s the side effect of first person writing, and something that I chose very much on purpose in Away From Here - namely that we get to see all the characters through one character’s eyes. We don’t get to hear Logan’s mom’s interpretation of events, or Pete’s take on the Comic Con thing, and most glaringly perhaps, we never get to hear Anna’s side of the story. To tell you the truth, I’d love to hear it. I’d love to hear how she really felt about the dad who she never knew, or about the drama with her own mother, or about her struggles with her mental health, but we don’t get to have those conversations. But even on the terms we get her in the book, namely Logan’s, Anna’s life has been a series of changes that changed everything, none of which were in her control. She’s the middle daughter of a Peruvian immigrant, has two half siblings, one of whom she fights with and other of whom she’s a second mother to, and she lives in a poor neighborhood in a small apartment that shouldn’t fit so many people. She didn’t choose to never know her dad, or have her mom move from a more prosperous area in Peru to a small apartment in the United States, or to live in poverty, or even to meet Logan. All of those things happened, and she navigates that life with the only tools at her disposal, however rudimentary and screwed up they may be.
The takeaway here is this: this isn’t a story about a bunch of people who are victims to an unknowable universe. It’s a story about people like all of us - flawed, complex, and very human characters who, despite the changes that change everything, try to find a way to live - not survive, as Annalise says, but to live, despite their shortcomings, and using the best tools at their disposal. It’s what we all do. It’s all we can do. But ultimately it isn’t the ‘what’ of the story, but the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ that separate these characters that I love so much: how do they navigate their lives, why do they make the decisions that they make, and where does that lead them in the end, and beyond. And yes, there is a beyond past the closing pages of the book. For some, it’s right where we left them, living Here as best they can. And for others, it’s a place Away From Here that holds the keys to the future.