Do you have one of those authors whose words give shape to the ideas that have knocked around your head for years? Who helps you vocalize what you could not say exactly right, to the point where people ask “Where did this come from? How long have you thought this?” You’ve wanted to tell them for ages, but you couldn’t. What can be said about that author, about your feelings for that author, your respect for that author? What can you say about the author who inspired you to write, even as the words you write fail to express yourself?
What can I say about Sir Terry Pratchett without shaping my focus back to me? Well, I did not know him, I can’t speak to who he truly was. But I can write about his impact on me. I ask for forgiveness if my words bend toward my ego or away from proprietary. I’ve been crying all day.
What can I say about my hero?
When I was a kid, I was weird because I saw the world in a weird way. I had gender assignment surgery, which meant I walked through the hormonally charged world of young boys feeling like a fake, believing that I had been born sub-human. I felt society was a prison of expectations from which I would be painfully ejected if anyone found out that I was not like anyone else. Then, when I was 12 or 13, my best friend Byron gave me a book called “Feet of Clay”, written by Sir Pratchett (just Mister Pratchett at the time). In this book Pratchett introduced the plight of Golems, magical robots programmed by magical words in their heads, who were treated worse than slaves, told themselves they weren’t good enough to be on humanity’s level, and desperately wanted to feel self-valued, to feel….free. In the same book, Pratchett introduced a Dwarven character who, in a society of Dwarves who all have beards and must all act manly and gruff, was a woman. Female Dwarves were a secret that Dwarves kept from themselves, and that secret required shame and judgment on any dwarf that strayed from “traditional dwarven culture”. Subtly, this dwarf’s human friends encourage her to go by “her”, wear dresses, act girly. To be no less awesome and no less dwarfish, but to be herself. Less subtly, another human character attempts to “free” a golem by putting that golem’s writ of ownership in its own head. The Golem wrestles with its identity and its sense of self value and determines that being a person is a choice, is all about making choices, and being responsible for those choices. The Golem decides to live free of the expectations that society has on it as an “object” and joins the other characters in their on going story.
And after reading that book I knew that someone out there, who did not know me, who didn’t know what I had experienced, understood.
A lot changed for me after that book. I decided to look, really, look, in to myself and who I was. I decided to be very aware of how I think and why. What I believe and what that leads to. I couldn’t put words to it, but I some how knew that beliefs controlled how we thought, determined our actions and speech, and we could only be free of them when we were aware of our beliefs…and responsible for how meaningful and defining those beliefs are to our identity and experience. Especially our beliefs about ourselves. I couldn’t put words to this, but Sir Pratchett could. My friend Byron next gave me a book called “Small Gods”, a book that criticizes religion, not for being illogical or full of beliefs, but for holding tradition above morality and not being aware of those beliefs. Sir Pratchett gave form to what I had been trying to say for years: What we believe is important, but it should never inform your decisions without your awareness. We are all responsible. Beliefs are important, sacred…but not as sacred as people. The believers in this book wore a turtle on a chain around their neck to represent their shift from a more oppressive religion to one that celebrated debate, awareness, and ….most of all…the moral value of altruism.
So meaningful were these ideas to me that I have worn such a turtle around my neck every day since I was 15. When people ask me “Is that religious?” I honestly say, “Yes”. Sir Pratchett didn’t put these ideas in my mouth, but he taught me how to voice them. How very fitting that, when teenage me me was lucky enough to meet Sir Pratchett, when I tried to tell him what “Feet of Clay” meant to me, he wrote in my copy “To Jarys, a Word in Your Head”. I am sure that I was one face of thousands, but I appreciated those short words.
Later, in Unseen Academicals, Sir Pratchett introduced a character with a secret so shameful it was kept from him. This character, Mister Nutt, struggled with his own value and was alienated by a society he loved. When he is later celebrated by his community, he struggles with this acceptance and almost rejects it. In the dark chapter of that denial of social acceptance, Mister Nutt delves deeply in to his own unconscious and history. He struggles and realizes the truth; he is something everyone is afraid of. He carries a legacy that once threatened society. But he ultimately has the choice of how he expresses himself and how he relates to society. Nutt choose community and the kind and gentle personality that drew that drew his loved ones to him in the first place.
I cry every time I read that section. I do not know what inspired Sir Pratchett to write it or who he meant to move, but Nutt’s experience with his self discovery mirrors my discovery that I was intersex perfectly. The story mirrors the social pressure and dynamic extremely closely, mirrors the emotional struggle with self-value exactly. I read it and was moved. Over a decade after reading “Feet of Clay”, Sir Pratchett unknowingly showed me that he understood once again. He constantly changed my life, for the better. He helped me feel accepted.
Though he was sadly taken from his readership, our thoughts turn to his family most of all. We all knew, Sir Pratchett was very open with the fact that he was dying. I hope they were able to say goodbye, and I know that no preparation can truly be adequate for losing someone. It is the temptation of every writer in my position to “own” the figure they loved, connecting themselves unduly, which was never my intention. I hope that Sir Terry’s family members are given the full respect (and space) of the fans. They are in my thoughts.
As a fan, especially so is Rhianna Pratchett, Sir Terry’s extremely talented daughter. He bequeathed his famous Discworld series to her control and I have full faith in her. She has said she will not try to fill her father’s shoes by writing new books, but will shepherd his stories in to other mediums. I am grateful.
Sir Pratchett taught us that the struggle of identity, any struggle, is cheapened by zealotry, and that the self-awareness and humility of humor is the best counterweight to the ego that culture could ever provide. He wrote incredible thoughts on the human condition, on gender and sexual struggles, on poverty and class, on race and religion, on life and on death and he made every heavy word fall neatly into place with the gentle application of humor. Not everything Sir Pratchett wrote was light. He did, after all, make a character of Death itself. Showed us the sorrow of a being who is instinctually feared by the humanity he loves so much, beings he meets only briefly and in the worst part of their, as it were, lives. He gave Death a dark yet sympathetic drive to be close to humanity. He showed us the humor and friendship of Death.
So, as I say goodbye to Sir Terry Pratchett, I do so with a smile. He taught me that Death is a friend, not one to fear, and when things are at their worse, or when a life is full and done, that friend will be there for you. I know Sir Terry Pratchett is in good hands.
Jarys Maragopoulos is one of the hosts of the Ace of Geeks Podcast. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a very talented writer and two cats.