Monday, November 14, 2011

The Freedom That Awaits Us

(Note: Ammi-Joan Paquette is my literary agent. She's a fabulous agent AND she is a remarkable, fascinating, stunning writer.)

The odd thing about reading a book in which a teenage girl escapes the Thai prison where she was born and where she has lived her entire life: it’s you.

Even though she speaks Thai, gets stuck in the prison bars when she’s little, finds a gruff mentor in the Warden, and has a veritable treasure trove of secrets concealed from her like good counsel from George W.—it’s still you.

A.J. Paquette’s mesmerizing story of Luchi Ann—a blonde American girl born in Khon Mueang Women’s Prison—is a vivid novel that offers one journey towards an openness that is more real and more filling than all the certainty we’ve ever before known. Nowhere Girl speaks to us in powerful, profound ways. Once Paquette’s protagonist is released from prison at age 13, we read:

Emptiness, that’s all I can see right now. Roads that lead to the mountains, mountains that scrape the sky. It’s all strange and huge and wild. Of course, I have seen it all before, but that wasn’t me; that was a girl with my same name, some creature of mud and bone who had never felt the lick of true freedom on her skin.

When she shares that she has “seen it all before,” she refers to the television which she is allowed to watch in the prison—the dead colors of recorded life. But seeing life firsthand, along with the terrifying sense of freedom that accompanies Luchi Ann’s view, aptly defines our own existence, too. The bars behind which we often wait, thinking we are held beyond our own power, resemble a kind of pre-existence that we accept. The television occupies us and shows us any color we wish to find. Our lives can be full in prison: there is plenty to eat, stability, organization, clarity.

Once Luchi Ann is released—after her mother’s death—a new emptiness affords a different kind of food, however. So it is with us.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave helps to make the case. Essentially, Plato (really Socrates talking through him) claims that we’re all in prison. We’re trapped there because we grow up seeing the world a certain way, and when some new person or perspective or event comes along to try and dissuade us of our loyalty to what we’ve always known, we freak out. Plato (Socrates) goes so far as to say we attempt to kill whoever’s is trying to break us out of the prison from which we’ve come to view the world, but I’m not sure I’d go that far—perhaps we just go to the mall and buy a latte and a new shirt to forget about the encounter?

Maybe Plato (Socrates) is on to something: the vision we learn to cling to desperately is often the same one that drags us blindly past any kind of authentic freedom. By walking outside and allowing the sky to lick us a bit, we find that a different kind of living waits. The kind that has loads of space, little certainty, but fills us nonetheless.

The kind of living that Paquette's gloriously courageous and admirable Luchi Ann learns to find.

When I was seven years old, I was terrified of vans. Any van came down Alcott Drive, and I would run, screaming wildly, back inside to my mom, claiming that the killers had come to get me. That year of my life, I watched the movie Cobra with my two older brothers. Cobra in brief: Sylvester Stallone plays a cop who must find a group of men who drive a van around town finding people, kidnapping them, then killing them up in the back of the van, then finding more people and killing them as well. In a sense, I had power as a seven year old—I had my fear. When I saw a van, I knew exactly what the people inside were going to do: kidnap me and kill me. So I ran from the vans. My running from the vans gave me a certain ability to order my life—the fear helped to provide some sense of safety.

When we cling to our fear, we feel safe. But this kind of safety is not much different than a kid who hasn’t turned in his homework claiming that the salmon took it upstream. As a thirty year old man, I am no longer afraid of vans. But I am terrified of leaving my three-year old son in the hands of a babysitter. New fears replace the old; new prisons replace the ones we’ve worn out; new visions to which we adhere loyalty rise up in the place of those we’ve outgrown.

What A.J. Paquette reveals so wonderfully in her lyrical novel, Nowhere Girl, is this: they don’t have to. Following the journey of Luchi Ann, we experience that cathartic passage from a familiarity of fear and organization to a foundation of emptiness and freedom. Safety exists, too, where colors are alive—where the sky reaches down to touch us, and we feel it fully for the very first time. Paquette’s remarkable novel shows us the freedom we long for ourselves, and which we too may find if we are willing to courageously leave the prisons we’ve so long inhabited.

Read this book, and be inspired to find your freedom as Luchi Ann finds hers.