We’re back with Big Ideas for 2018! And to kick us off, author Marieke Nijkamp talks to us of her new novel Before I Let Go, and takes us below the cold surface of a community that holds its secrets close.
“Lost has created new legends since you left. It’s such a human thing to do. We tell stories about what we don’t understand.”
That is what Kyra, one of the main characters in Before I Let Go, writes to her best friend Corey. She never sends that letter, but Corey finds it, eventually, when she investigates Kyra’s death. She finds it along with Kyra’s other letters and other stories—and her hometown’s belief that it lost a prophet.
Stories and storytelling are at the very core of Before I Let Go. The stories we tell about the world, about each other, about ourselves. The stories others tell about us. And the tortured truth that exists somewhere in between.
We tell stories about what we don’t understand. For me, when I was growing up: the world. I was a physically disabled, autistic kid in pre-internet days. I didn’t have a clue how the neurotypical world functioned. So I bonded with fictional characters. I dove deep into their psyches and followed them on their emotional journeys. I would ask myself, unironically, What Would [insert character] Do? if I wasn’t sure about the correct response to a situation.
It was a flawed method of learning. Not in the least because I grew up a fantasy reader. And because I—disabled and queer and strange—didn’t exist with any likeness in those books, and I only learned to be other people, not myself. Still, I had entire worlds at my fingertips to study. It helped me pass as neurotypical magnificently, for as much as that’s a flawed concept too.
(I began to swap out passing as different for embracing who I am when, as a teen, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and role play. when I discovered creating and testing different characters, when I started to write like my life depended on it. And slowly, I learned that understanding is a quest, not a goal.)
We tell stories about what we don’t understand. It was my core tenet at college and grad school, where I spent my time with medieval manuscripts and the history (and politics) of ideas. I learned to ask questions: which narratives were we reading? Where did they come from? What were they trying to achieve? Which narratives survived the ages? Why did they survive the ages? Who tells a story? Why do they tell a story? What is the purpose of a word, a scene, the whole work, of its existence?
Who does a story belong to anyway? Both? Who do we listen to? Who do we trust? What was said in the tales that don’t exist any longer? What stories have we silenced? And whose voices do we silence still?
They’re good questions outside the realm of medieval manuscripts too.
We tell stories about what we don’t understand. That’s how Kyra went through life, and there is a personal truth to it too. That quest for understanding is why I’m a writer. All my books and short fiction start with questions, even those so deceptively simple as how, why, what if.
The answers are far more complex—and always purposeful. I manipulate narrative threads. I make decisions about what details to keep out and what to leave in. Every word, every scene is a conscious choice. Every silence, too. After all, sometimes the most important stories exist between the lines of what is told and untold.
The truth can appear malleable, even though facts are still facts. Manipulation influences interpretation. And stories are both the most wondrous type of magic and the most dangerous things in the world.
“We tell stories about what we don’t understand,” Kyra writes, before she dies, lost and lonely. “I just never considered what it would be like to be at the heart of one of those stories. I want to study myths, not star in one.”
And that’s the heart of it: the spark for this book. From there, Kyra’s legends, Corey’s storytelling, and the tales others weave around them never quite line up. At the start of her investigation, all Corey knows for a fact is that her best friend is dead. And the truth to why, how is yet to be uncovered.
Some might say that stories killed Kyra; others that they saved her. I say Before I Let Go is a love letter to storytelling—but maybe it’s a warning too. In truth, it may be all of the above. Let’s just say, it depends quite a bit on which side of the story you take.