This weekend I was stunned when Emma González read her deeply emotional remembrance of each life taken in the Parkland shooting. After she named each person murdered, she lifted her eyes to crowd, put her speech to the side, and stood in silence for nearly 5 minutes. The effect was devastating.
In a culture accustomed to the increasing noise and fury of media, pundits, and politicians screaming for our attention, her silence stood out as far more effective and powerful than words. It was so intense and so potent that many news outlets mistakenly reported her silence lasted 6 minutes and 20 seconds, but that was the length of both her speech and her silence. She made her point by deliberately timing her speech, and her silence, to the time it took one man with a semi-automatic gun to massacre 17 people. That silence was uncomfortable and profound.
Having written a book in which a 15-year-old Latina heroine stands at a podium, puts her speech aside, and refuses to speak, the moment gave me chills. Both are acts of unprecedented rebellion, born from the frustration of teenagers whose lives are on the line, and whose voices are too often unheard. Also of note: both are intentionally mis-characterized as unpatriotic and ignorant. In my book I wrote villains for this. Real life supplies no shortage on its own.
I was also struck by a contrast. Emma González made a conscious, powerful choice, understanding the impact her silence would have. Speth Jiménez, the protagonist of my book, made a desperate last minute decision, sparking a movement she did not foresee. By many accounts, the teens from Parkland have benefited from a strong education, something many teens in the real world are denied. In my fictional world, the denial of education is deliberate and shattering. The poorly educated are made better consumers and more docile by ignorance. In the real world, decades of withholding money from education works in those same ways. But perhaps those in power failed to anticipate what would happen when the first generations born into the information age gained access to virtually any knowledge. Emma’s uncanny, courageous choice to stand silent before a crowd of nearly a million people reveals a deep understanding of the human condition that could only be born from knowledge and reflection.
Teens have been devouring books for years. Educator Jennifer Ansbach wrote in February, “I’m not sure why people are so surprised that the students are rising up — we’ve been feeding them a steady diet of dystopian literature showing teens leading the charge for years. We have told teen girls they are empowered. What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation.”
While Emma González has stated that she was less moved by dystopian novels than by Harry Potter and Dumbledore’s Army, the same themes appear in both — teens need to take care of themselves in a world adults have abandoned in apathy and despair. Young people will always challenge and attempt to remedy the failures of preceding generations. Her generation has access to an unprecedented bounty of literature to point the way. While I am fairly certain Emma González has never read or been inspired by my specific book, I have been deeply inspired and encouraged by her, and those who stand with her. They give me hope that these dystopic futures we write will never come to pass.