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Writing the world you wish you lived in: Why I write children’s books

Co-author of the children’s book Promised Land, Chaz Harris is ‘resisting with love’ by creating fairytales for all children. He shares a personal essay about why he writes the world he wishes we lived in.

If you’re anything like me, the past year or so has felt like living in a terrible alternate timeline. It feels as though Biff from Back to the Future found the sports almanac and nobody stopped him…then he became President of the free world. Where are you Doc Brown? Marty? Anyone?

I don’t remember who I was this time last year, all I do know is I really miss that person. I used to wake up and achieve so much more with my days. Now I wake up bracing for what might go wrong in the world by the time each one is over. My sources of sanity have become Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar on The View, Trevor Noah on The Daily Show and the occasional dose of Samantha Bee. Some friends started calling me ‘woke’, but I just call it paying attention.

What I certainly didn’t have a year ago is this ever-present feeling the world might be about to end, that nothing really matters anymore. I tell myself I’m just being dramatic and try to shake it off, but the feeling still lingers and keeps whispering like Pennywise over my shoulder. Am I alone in this?

When the world is telling you that you aren’t equal and you don’t belong here on almost a daily basis, you start to absorb that message – you start to believe it. Even in a country where LGBTQ people are mostly treated equally under the law, a barrage of news to the contrary still chips away at a person’s soul. I say mostly equal, because even in New Zealand my friends in the LGBTQ community still face inequality and have to fundraise for vital and lifesaving healthcare. The battle is definitely still ongoing.

However, if it isn’t America electing a President and a Vice President who believes I should be hung or ‘shocked’ into being straight, it’s the violent public debate in Australia over marriage equality after MPs failed to do their jobs. If it’s not Chechnya exterminating gay men and the world taking too long to react, it’s Egypt or Indonesia committing similar atrocities.

If it’s not the overwhelming number of trans women, especially trans women of colour, being murdered in America so far this year, it’s transgender people being told they cannot protect and serve their country simply for being who they are. If it’s not extremists and evangelists blaming earthquakes and hurricanes on us, it’s the UK election leading to a deal with the homophobic DUP party to remain in power. If it’s not Nazis marching in the streets of America, it’s them being called ‘very fine people’ by the leader of the free world.

THERE ARE NAZIS MARCHING IN THE STREETS YOU GUYS! Indiana Jones punched Nazis. #ImWithIndy

I. Am. Exhausted.

I’m a white gay man, considered the most privileged in the LGBTQ community. However, that doesn’t make my pain and anxiety about all of this any less real. If this is how I’ve felt though, it makes me want to hug everyone else if they’ve been feeling it (or worse). You don’t have to be LGBTQ to feel it either, plenty of others are having their rights attacked or stripped away.

I think all most of us want is to live our lives in peace, have a stable job, a roof over our heads and (if we so choose) someone to love and be loved in return – in any case, to live happily ever after, whatever that might mean for each of us.

For almost everyone right now, that’s not possible when insults are being thrown around on Twitter by a man-child and self-confessed sexual predator raising tensions about nuclear war. To live happily ever after, the world must still be here to live in it. I’m hoping a lot if it is just bluster from both sides and it doesn’t lead to anything catastrophic, but that does feel strangely like wishful thinking.

Just over a week ago, it all looked very bleak as I sat in front of the TV at 7pm and Winston Peters revealed Jacinda Ardern was going to be Prime Minister of New Zealand. At precisely 7.01pm my face started leaking. Like, a LOT.

I soon realised I was crying happy tears.

I was crying them for the first time in over a year.

On 8 November 2016, the day of the US election, I remember feeling like hope died. However, in that moment, just over a week ago, I felt a sudden rush of hope rise again. This wasn’t so much about hope for New Zealand, it was the message I knew it would send around the world.

After a few weeks of terrible news and painful experiences for women, and arguably a year full of them, I was crying because New Zealand once again became the country I’ve believed it to be. A place where women were first to get the vote, that isn’t afraid to stand up to bullies and say “No to Nuclear”, a place that’s in many cases of social progress ahead of the rest of the world.

Although America may not have been able to put a woman in power, New Zealand has in the past and now we’ve done it again. For the young women and girls who see inexperienced men being given more power or getting rewarded over a smarter, more qualified woman, this was surely encouraging. Almost a year to the day from a sheet of toughened glass extending over America, New Zealand got to remind everyone that the same ceiling (at least in regard to leading the country) is long gone.

We became the change I desperately wanted to see in the world.

I’ve also seen a lot of reasons for hope coming from our young people, particularly the lines at universities around the country as they waited to vote. Studies have repeatedly shown younger generations are increasingly open-minded, that they’re willing to embrace their own identities and appreciate each other’s differences. LGBTQ young people are in a much better world than I grew up in, with more support networks, role models and media representation than I had.

The characters from the author’s books Promised Land and Maiden Voyage

Perhaps that’s why I’ve found some comfort and escape in writing fairytales, because in hopeless times we need hopeful messages more than ever. Or maybe it’s just because my love life swings wildly between the attention of a white crayon and the messy scribbles of a child on a piece of paper? It’s all about hope either way though, right? That question was rhetorical. I’ll marry wine. Can we make that legal?

But seriously. Particularly if you’re an artist and are part of a minority right now, writing becomes a form of protest. To write about a better place, a world where we do belong, that’s a way we can fight back in positive ways that might be able to move the needle a little. To ‘resist with love’, so to speak.

I often tell myself it will take more than a few children’s books to change the world, but also that it’s worth a try. It’s not nothing. To quote one of my favourite lines from Wonder Woman: “If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do something or do nothing – and I’ve already tried nothing.”

So we do what we can with what we have. We might not be able to make older hearts and minds grow or learn to accept us, but we can show those growing up now and in the future that love is love, and that everyone deserves to live happily ever after.

I want to live in a world where boys and young men are taught that feelings are nothing to be ashamed of, that they should treat women as equals and always respect consent.

I want to live in a world that remembers what empathy was, for us all to become less selfish and think about how we can help the person to the left or right of us, instead of just ourselves.

I want to live in a world where black lives matter, because they do.

We need to be kinder to one another.

We need to do what we can in our own lives to try and move the needle – to create a better and more accepting world for everyone.

We need to resist with love.

Along with Adam Reynolds, Chaz Harris is the Wellington-based co-author of acclaimed LGBTQ themed fairytale Promised Land and its follow-up, Maiden Voyage, which is currently fundraising on Kickstarter.

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