Author and friend Melissa Banigan is creating an amazing anthology called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self. I’ve invited her to talk about it here, and at the end is information about how you can contribute.–A.B.
For many months, I’ve veered away from writing adult and middle grade fiction dystopian and fantasy novels to focus on editing an anthology of non-fiction advice letters for teen girls called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self. Written by fifty women of different cultures living in countries around the world, the collection of letters, once completed and published, will serve as a guidebook for young women entering womanhood.
Fellow writers have been asking: why edit a non-fiction anthology by women for girls? Why not stick to fiction? The answer is simple: I see a lot of parallels between the poverty, suffering and inequality found in dystopian fiction and the real-life stories of women living right here in our world.
Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, tells of a future North America in which women have been stripped of their rights by a totalitarian Christian theocracy. After a revolution in which a movement called the “Sons of Jacob” takes power, the novel’s main protagonist, a woman named Offred, is forbidden to read, no longer allowed governance of her own finances, and is taken from her family to be given as a concubine (“handmaid”) for reproductive purposes to a commander of the movement.
Unfortunately, real-life North America, despite making long, feminist strides, also allows woman to be oppressed. Economically, women still make much less than men, and are discriminated against daily in both their professional and personal lives. Women and family health is not supported by all government health programs and insurance companies, the media sexualizes rather than empowers females, rapists and sexual offenders are often punished less than criminals who harm animals, and beauty has become so wrapped up with many girls’ notions of self-worth that diseases such as anorexia have become almost normalized.
Gender inequality isn’t just a North American problem, but global. In many nations, females are subjected to genital mutilation, are forced to marry while still young girls, and are sold in the sex trade. Poverty disproportionally affects women and children, and war and genocide, while equally affecting men, women and children, leaves more women than men to pick up the pieces, often with no governmental or societal support.
Fortunately, where there are victims, there are heroes. I’m finding more and more women who are showing society how true heroes are formed. In both fiction and real life, the formula is this: heroes don’t singlehandedly save the world by welding weapons and winning wars, but on their keen empathetic abilities and willingness to nurture as they collaborate with others.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, a totally badass, bow and arrow-toting teenage girl, gets thrown into a horrific, bloody game, but survives because rather than only looking out for her own interests, she forms alliances with other young people. Indeed, because of the partnership she forms with one of these people, she is later shown mercy by a boy who, inspired by her compassion, saves her life. The lesson? Compassion and empathy are contagious. People who embody these ideals, even when faced with adversity, can, and will, change the world. Recently, through my work on the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology, I’ve met many such individuals.
Ponheary Ly, for example, a Cambodian woman who survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, submitted a letter to Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self about how she’s since created a foundation that helps thousands of Cambodian children return to school. And Terri O’Connell, a woman born with gender identity disorder who, even while facing discrimination, has become a motorcar racing champion with over 500 races and NASCAR experience under her belt, has done tremendous work in leading the charge against bullying, domestic and gender violence. Jennifer Tress, an author who was told by her husband that the reason he cheated on her was because she “wasn’t pretty enough,” started an entire movement questioning what it means to be beautiful. None of these women did it alone: they shared their vision with others.
My vision for the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology is that by having teen girls and young women around the world learn how fifty women have overcome adversity, that they will then be inspired to fight the good fight – not with steel, but with words and by forming strong, empathetic relationships.
Help support Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self! Read more about the project and contribute to a time-sensitive crowdsourcing campaign that will enable the anthology to be finished by April. Even a dollar helps!