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The Big Idea: Sunyi Dean

What is fiction good for, anyway? Sunyi Dean has an idea, and in this Big Idea for The Book Eaters, she delves into it, and how our stories can cause us to change our lives.

SUNYI DEAN:

Back in August 2012, I was attending a teacher training course and got talking to a fellow trainee. We drifted into discussing linguistics and literature. He loved reading, which we could agree on, but only nonfiction. I liked nonfiction, too, but was surprised by the vehemence of his distaste for novels.

“There is nothing in fiction which can surpass the complexity and beauty of real life,” he said. “What even is the point of stories?”

The kind of question that book-nerds dream of being asked.

“Stories aren’t in competition with reality,” I told him. “They’re a framework for making sense of reality.”

Everything in life is a story. Including this essay. Conducting a science experiment? Data is just a set of numbers until you draft a narrative to explain their relevance. Trying to win votes? Create a political yarn that frames your ‘vision’ of the future. Advocating for rights? Proselytizing for religion? All of that is crafting a narrative about the world and how it works, ordering pieces of the universe into a shape that makes sense to the human psyche.

We need stories to understand ourselves, as individuals. Share your story, social media begs—and we oblige, weaving narratives about our lives in which we are important, interesting, unique. Our species is adept at the self-made myth.

That’s not an indictment of humanity; we’re just doing what is necessary. Without those narratives, humans would be adrift in a sea of sensory input and chaotic data, struggling to impose order on existence. But with them, we can key into the universe.

Stories aren’t pointless; they’re powerful.

That power also makes them dangerous.

I grew up watching Star Trek, and it changed my life. The ST universe  portrayed an inclusive, socialist, and largely secular society. In other words, it was an antithesis to the conservative, suspicious, and theocratic culture that I’d been raised in. While the adults around me were busy insisting the world had to be a certain, fixed way, Star Trek cheerfully but adamantly assured me that it did not. 

That is where stories veer into being dangerous. Data can be skewed. So can politics. Advocacy can be subverted. Religion can be controlling. All of those negative aspects can be effected with a sufficiently skilled narrative. Stories can ruin us.

In writing, authors will say that villains are always the heroes of their own legend. This is equally true in real life, and not limited to fiction. Abusers tell themselves that their actions are justified. The wealthy elite spin stories where their wealth was deserved and earned. Dictators, criminals, and killers all have stories to shore up their actions.

Many people consider the human race to be bad, yet most people also don’t consider themselves to be bad humans. For better or worse, that cognitive dissonance is down to stories.

The question then becomes: how do we separate good stories from bad, or skewed stories from truthful ones? How do we frame the story of our lives in a way that is empowering for ourselves, without doing harm to others?


My debut novel, The Book Eaters, is about stories and their power—both good and bad—and navigating those tricky issues. 

The book eaters are a race of paper-eating humanoids who are dying out. Infertility is reducing their numbers, and an increasingly technologized world makes it harder to remain hidden and safe. To stay alive, they rely on an archaic system of arranged marriages and forced births to keep their dying species limping along, and live under a veil of strict secrecy.

In order to maintain their system of control, the family patriarchs have laid down strict rules about what books their children are allowed to eat. Girls are fed fairytales and taught to be ‘princesses’ who think only of marriage. Boys are given adventure stories and raised as ‘knights’ who enforce laws, or else patriarchs who rule houses.

In short, book eaters have crafted a very specific narrative about their society, one which keeps its members alive and safe even as it oppresses and warps them.

Enter Devon Fairweather, a book eater woman and the main character. As a woman, Devon is forced to comply with the system of arranged marriages, and produce children with different husbands. She desperately wishes things were different, but like the rest of her people, she suffers from a critical lack of imagination. Her worldview has been moulded by her family’s selective diet of fiction, and she struggles to imagine her life outside of the ‘story’ the patriarchs have framed.

Ironically, I also suffered from this failure of imagination.

In my early thirties, I thought my life was ‘over’ in the ways that mattered. I thought I had no path out of my marriage, or back into work. I had spent so long chasing happiness and being disappointed I could no longer imagine what it would be like to find it.

Writing salvaged me.

I began drafting The Book Eaters in 2018—my third novel, since the first two had failed to sell or attract interest. While grappling with Devon’s arc, I examined my life and really thought about who was telling my story. I realised that if I wanted things to change, I would need to relearn how to craft my own narrative; I would have to trust that the future could be different, even when I lacked the ability to envision that new path.

Long story short, I ended my marriage in the spring of 2020 and moved out, mid-lockdown. Starting over is hard; financial free-fall is terrifying. Covid was everywhere and the kids were miserable. I don’t miss those days.

But making drastic changes in my life became the catalyst I needed for understanding how Devon could make drastic changes in hers. A few months after separation, I finally had the clarity to type up an ending for The Book Eaters that did both of us justice, and set a new path.

Stories have power, especially the ones we tell about ourselves. What is your story, and what is it saying?


The Book Eaters: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

3 replies on “The Big Idea: Sunyi Dean”

A former acquaintance read only nonfiction, and made disparaging remarks about anyone who would read fiction for entertainment. He considered it a big waste of time, something for lesser minds.

This same person was a big fan of movies and TV shows. I was always tempted to say “I only watch documentaries” but I didn’t think he would catch my drift.

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