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In Our Own Words Sept 2020

In Our Own Words: Daren Wang of AIR Serenbe, founder of Decatur Book Fest

Daren Wang is the author of the novel The Hidden Light of Northern Fires, the founder and former executive director of the Decatur Book Festival and now the executive director of AIR Serenbe. Wang lives in Decatur with his wife, Eva, and occasionally donates convalescent plasma for Covid-19 patients, though he really wishes he didn’t need to. (Photo by Tom Meyer)


Like any true art, the act of writing is an act of exploration. A writer builds worlds, brings characters to life and imagines the challenges, the pain, the losses and the triumphs that inform them. To do it well is an act of empathy. I wrote my novel The Hidden Light of Northern Fires because I couldn’t not write it. I discovered that my tiny hometown, and indeed the house that I grew up in in western New York, had weird, conflicting Civil War histories, and I was compelled to tell my imagining of how they intertwined. Writing it had a profound effect on me and how I see the world. As a half-Chinese 21st-century man, I had to imagine myself as these people I found in my research — a 19th-century fugitive in a strange land, a frustrated abolitionist, a drug-addled soldier, a wounded old man and an enslaved Black woman. Other than growing up in this place, I had no special right to tell these people’s story. I tried my best to understand the things that changed each of these people, the things that drove them, the things that pained them. I like to think it was a worthy effort.

The writing changed me too — I’d like to think for the better. I hope it made me kinder, more understanding. I’d like to think that the reader gained some understanding as well. More than anything I have ever done, this act of imagination helped me see the world through different eyes. If we limit the territories that artists are allowed to explore, we deny them the chance to expand their understanding of the world. This limitation does not further the goals of dialogue, learning or understanding. At the same time, it is an injustice when a writer of privilege gains stature, wealth and fame telling a story that others can tell with more verisimilitude but don’t have the marketing and publicity mechanisms behind them. It is easy to catalog the ways that the publishing industry fails both the reader and writer. We have seen the beginnings of a reckoning in 2020. There is still much work to do, but the way forward is not to limit the horizons of any artists but to expand the support for the voices that matter.

As a reader, the single most important thing you can do is to find the books that are worthy but have sat ignored on reviewers’ piles. It’s hard work. But a curious, adventurous readership will lead the industry out of the wastelands. Talk to good booksellers and readers. Buy a copy of a small-press book for yourself and a friend. Explore the dusty shelves and find a new, undiscovered land.


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