This past week, I read Gayle Forman’s latest young adult novel, I Have Lost My Way. Like her previous YA novels, it’s a beautifully written and deeply moving work. Three teenagers from markedly different backgrounds are each suffering from devastating losses. Freya, a budding pop star, has lost her voice while recording her debut album, while Harun, a closeted gay Muslim, has lost his lover and is about to be sent to India for an arranged marriage. Meantime, Nathaniel has come to New York City after losing his father and feels he has nothing left to live for. Accidentally drawn together in the course of one tumultuous day, the three teens become a family of choice committed to helping one another cope and heal from their respective losses. As Freya discovers, “To be the holder of other people’s loss is to be the keeper of their love. To share your loss with people is another way of giving your love.”
Forman’s compelling novels are beloved by millions. What particularly resonates for me is her hopeful theme of the redemptive power of love. While the families we are born into may not always be there for us, we can create intentional families of mutual support and caring, as well as work to repair existing relationships. This has also been a major theme in my own work, inspired not only by my own life but by the lives of so many brave teens I’ve worked with.
Beyond her impressive body of work, Forman also inspires me because she has eloquently spoken about the importance of the work we do as writers. In a PBS Books interview with Rich Fahle at the 2018 LA Times Festival of Books, she spoke about how the stories we write not only provide escape and entertainment, but are what she calls “empathy-delivery devices.” When we invite our readers to immerse themselves in the lives of characters and experience their joys and sorrows and pain, we facilitate our readers’ growth in empathy. Imagine how different our world would be if everyone developed this essential quality!
Forman’s perspective on the significance of the work we do as writers has been reassuring to me. Recently, I made a decision to focus on writing my YA novels and step away from teaching, a role I have treasured for decades. Part of me worried that this was a selfish choice. Instead of being in the classroom as encourager-in-chief, I was choosing to spend great chunks of time alone delving deeply into the world of imaginary characters. But if I’m genuinely digging deep and making work that touches readers and fosters empathy, then dedicating myself to my craft is a way for me to make a positive difference in the world, just as my decades of teaching have been.
Another way in which Forman inspires me is that she has been open about her own struggles as a writer. I Have Lost My Way was her first young adult novel to appear in three years. She readily admits that she went through a difficult period in which, like her character Freya, she felt that she had “lost her voice” as a writer. Her perseverance, along with the key support of others, helped her rediscover her voice as well as her confidence. Her refreshing honesty about her challenging journey gives me hope that I too can make it through those inevitable times of discouragement and self-doubt.
Finally, Forman inspires me because she ignored the YA cultural police by including a main character in I Have Lost My Way who is a gay teenager of color from an immigrant family. Good writers like Forman are by nature empathetic folks willing to do the research to create authentic characters. It’s my feeling that to insist that a writer can’t write about a Muslim or a Pakistani or a gay character unless she can check those identity boxes does a great disservice to readers and young adult literature. I am grateful to Forman for choosing to ignore the stultifying message that she has no right to portray characters whose backgrounds diverge from her own.
So there you have it! Forman inspires me not only because of her emotionally powerful work but because of her perspective on the significance of the work we writers do, her openness about her own writing struggles, and her commitment to honoring and portraying the diverse world in which we live. She has millions of fans, and I count myself among her most devoted and admiring ones!