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Amplifying Voices with Jodi Picoult

October 26, 2017

Writer Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper, The Storyteller) is traveling the country on a book tour for her newest novel Small Great Things. Timely and poignant, Picoult’s novel explores issues that demand discussion – ethics, racial conflict, and personal prejudices. More than a signing and promotion tour, Picoult has chosen to use her voice to bring the conversation to even small towns that normally get overlooked and to fans who may not have a broader understanding of social issues that are currently defining the country.

On her website, Picoult posted a transcript of the speech she gave on the 21st of January at the New Hampshire Women’s Day of Action and Unity, an event coinciding with the Women’s March on Washington. In her speech, Picoult stressed the importance of giving a microphone to those whose voices need amplifying. For those who are unfamiliar with her work, it’s evident her skill and passion for telling human stories comes from a person with an empathetic heart who strives to learn outside of her own experience. Seeking out information and education over blissful ignorance (or perhaps, in this age, willful ignorance) has led Picoult to use her intimate storytelling style to raise awareness of social issues through the diversity in perspective within the pages of her books.

It seems Picoult has recognized in her audience the people she still has to reach and in herself an ever-growing need to use her own voice to reach them. Sunday, October 22nd in Greeley, Colorado, Jodi Picoult met with a room full of fans, mostly women, in an event presented by the High Plains Library District. Picoult asked the audience to set aside personal politics and search for the ethical and just by reaching out to those whose experiences are different from our own.

As a young writer, she recognized her limited scope and threw away the literary mantra of write what you know. Instead, she decided to research and speak to people whose experiences were outside of her understanding and over the years has sought to boost those stories. Picoult said she decided to “write what I was willing to learn,” a decidedly important aspect of her character. If you know only one thing about this author, it should be her impressive motivation to put herself in a position in which she can learn about people and cultures to which she had no previous experience. From the Amish to the Lakota-Sioux, the perpetrators of school shootings to the life of a black nurse facing extreme prejudice, Picoult truly puts in the work.

During her talk, Picoult cited some of the statistics she learned from FBI reports on school shootings. She asked what would happen if the media chose to focus on victims instead of analyzing every aspect of the shooter’s life. Speaking about bullying in the era of social media, she reminded us that because of the technological wall, “bullying has become divorced from responsibility.”

In regards to race, a topic in which the author tackles in Small Great Things, Picoult said, “It is my job to talk to white people.” She said in no way did she want to write for the voice of others with this book – instead, she got together with a group of POC women and listened to stories of what their reality is. “Ignorance is a privilege,” she said. When praised by a book club comprised of black women for getting their voices right, Picoult gave all the credit to the women she spoke with who taught her how to capture that voice to do the character of Ruth, and her POC readers, justice.

Before she ended her talk and moved on to questions from the audience, Picoult laid out some truths for her white readers. She gave dos and don’ts on how to approach the discussion of race and asked us to learn what it means for a society to be equal versus equitable. She asked us to take on our relatives who are casually racist at awkward Thanksgiving dinners. She asked us all to do better. As we all should.

Reaching out to people through fiction, Picoult has continued to use her platform to give people who feel invisible the stage and to present the human being, good or bad, rather than a stereotype. Extensively exploring the human aspect of each character she writes, Picoult has raised the bar for writers who are wavering on whether or not they should make the effort to include diverse voices or be willing to make their readers uncomfortable in order to learn how to be mindful of their own prejudices.

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