One of the most rewarding things about the release of my romantic thriller, Heart of Diamonds, has been the way it draws attention to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis occurring right now in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At one presentation on a college campus recently, I noticed tears on the cheeks of a young lady in the audience as I finished reading from a particularly moving scene near the end of the book. Her tears weren’t for my writing; they were for the real people in the Congo who are suffering from violence I portrayed.
It was a moving moment for me, too, but it helped to answer a question that followed: why write fiction when there is a real, non-fiction story to be told?
As I explained to the audience member who posed that question, I am a journalist by trade. Event though I write novels like Heart of Diamonds, I also report on social issues like the contributions of illegal immigrants to our economy and the battle between real estate developers and environmentalists. Those are the kinds of magazine features I write-fact-based, dependent on solid research from confirmed sources, and balanced in presentation. I strive to make my blogs about the Congo meet those same standards.
But there are some truths that are most strongly expressed by having them play out in the reader’s imagination. Like what do people do when forced to choose between intervening in a fight to punish the villain or letting the bad guy get away so they can tend to the victim? Or the choice Valerie Grey, the heroine in Heart of Diamonds, has to make between giving the bad guys what they want so the children she is protecting can go free or sticking with her resolve to expose the scandal to the world to stop a war that might kills thousands?
I suppose you can answer questions like that with scientific psychoanalysis and discussions with experts in the study of ethics, but I think they resonate more with the reader who vicariously experience the same dilemmas through a fictional character in a fictional situation. One approach explains the facts to the rational mind; the other touches the heart.
That’s not to say that “reality” has no place in fiction. Heart of Diamonds is based on the very real and very smarmy relationship between Mobutu Sese-Seko, the brutal dictator who raped the Congo for thirty years, and Pat Robertson, the famous American televangelist, founder of the 700 Club, one-time Presidential candidate, and spiritual leader of millions of Christians around the world. When I found out that Robertson owned a diamond mine in the Congo (as well as gold mines, timber concessions, and other businesses given to him by his buddy Mobutu), I simply had to tell that story. The facts were already known; fiction allowed me to explore all the emotion-laden ironies of them.
The events of the Second Congo War, where nearly six million people have died in the last ten years to make it the deadliest conflict since World War II, found their way into Heart of Diamonds as well. My portrayals of gang rape as a weapon of terror, the abduction of children to turn them into soldiers and sex slaves, the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees who can’t be reached by well-meaning but under-supported aid groups, all of these play an important place in the novel. My fictional accounts are no more horrifying than the news reports that spawned them.
And that was the aspect of Heart of Diamonds that moved that young lady to tears. It wasn’t the fiction, it was the reality it conveyed.