The F Words: The Gift of Fire

After the 5,000-year-old body of the Iceman (later named Otzi) was discovered preserved in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, scientists began examining  everything they could about this person — in order to better understand the past and its importance to the present. Among the many things they discovered about the Iceman was this: he carried with him fire-lighting tools which included tinder fungus, flint, and pyrite. Fire enabled him to cook food, to stay warm, and to ward off wolves and other predators. It was a life-saving gift.

What does this have to do with today’s struggles for social justice and my current-day YA novel, The F Words?

Everything.

During the Sixties and Seventies I participated in and helped build demonstrations for social justice: calling for an end to the war in Vietnam and demanding equal rights for Black Americans, Latinos, women, and other oppressed groups. Although the majority of us demonstrating then, as now, were young people (in their teens and twenties), there were many, many older adults present. Some in their forties, some in their eighties. And every age in between.

Many of these adults had fought in and built massive demonstrations and strikes during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and even into the McCarthyite Fifties. They fought against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. They helped build important strikes led by the industrial unions: Auto Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, and others. These adults were heartened by the student radicalization of the Sixties — and they were eager to impart their knowledge of how to organize and how to protest. They carried with them the gift of fire and knew they had to share it.

Those adults are no longer with us. But we who were students during the Sixties are now adults, and so many of us are eager to share our gift of fire — the lessons we learned from those who came before us, and the lessons we learned on our own as we built mass demonstrations for social justice in the Sixties and Seventies.

And that is what The F Words has to do with the Iceman and his gift of fire. The F Words, set totally in the present, nonetheless has gifts from the past imbedded in it. When teen Cole Renner is unjustly suspended because he fights back against a bully, he, with the help of his friends, comes up with slogans; constructs protest signs with those slogans; prepares a sign-up list; contacts the media; and divvies who-does-what tasks with his friends. Although this all takes place in the present, it is based on the lessons of the past. Constructing picket signs today (2×4’s, poster paper, liquid marker, staples) is not very different from constructing them during the Sixties. Or, for that matter, the Thirties. 

Cole’s father is in Cook County Jail for supposedly inciting-to-violence. While serving his 120-day sentence he leaves his new bullhorn at home, where Cole decides it’s just what he needs to talk to fellow students. And in talking to them, Cole relates his problem of being unjustly suspended to the fact that all students face suspension, just or unjust, while having no say whatsoever in their fate. Cole moves the struggle forward (as we did in the Sixties) by demanding student control over suspensions. If he had simply demanded his own reinstatement, he would have been fighting for social justice, yes. But only in that one spot, for that one thing: his suspension. But Cole and his friends Felipe and Treva discuss the things that affect all students, not just Cole. They come up with demands that benefit all students.

And just as we learned in the Sixties, so Cole learns in the present — social justice  needs to include everyone. In order for there to be social justice for, say, working class kids (the students in The F Words), there must be justice for Black Americans. For Latino/Latina, Native, Asian-Americans, and Arab-Americans.  For  gays and lesbians and trans. In The F Words Cole and his friends understand the oppression of others (immigrants being deported, hijabs being snatched off the heads of Muslim girls and women) and support the struggles against those injustices.

Did I ever think, back in the Sixties, that I would write a novel about students who protest social injustice? No: the thought never crossed my mind. But the experiences I had and the valuable lessons I learned never left my mind. They were always there: part of the events and beliefs that shaped me. It stands to reason that, even though I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel, my most deeply-held principles and most vivid experiences would eventually come to the fore — that the fire that shaped me would also help shape a novel.

Fire, when kept alive, does not die out. It lives to be rekindled by others.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Thinking of F Words

In an earlier blog, The F Words: A Writing Coach, I mentioned that Esther Hershenhorn (the writing coach!) gave me a list of six “threads” to follow throughout my novel, making certain that I didn’t drop any of those threads for too long. One of those six threads was “Cole thinking about F words.” 

As I mentioned, this thread surprised me. I would not, I think, have come up with it on my own. Cole’s actually writing F-word poems: Yes, that I would have listed as an important thread. But his thinking about words that start with the letter F? No. I would not have come up with that as a thread.

And yet.

As soon as Esther said this, I became aware of two things: (1) Cole does think about F words throughout the novel. (2) When a person thinks about something he is doing, or will be doing, he or she is most likely analyzing the subject. And, I realized, a person capable of thinking about and analyzing a subject is a person of greater-than-average intelligence. Possibly a person with leadership skills.

This ability to think about and analyze a subject is not confined to intellectual matter such as, say, language. The ability can be used to further understand and influence any human activity. Take sports, for example. Cole and some of his fellow students run cross-country. In writing the running scenes, I realized that a person could approach the task of running in two different ways. He could just get out there and run as fast as he could, hoping nobody else was able to run faster. 

Or, he could think about what was happening in any given race. He could evaluate the other teams of runners, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, develop (on the spot, even, while running) a strategy for dealing with this. He could also, as Cole and his teammates do, look ahead (as far as possible on any given course) and think about any obstacles, hills, dips, trees, etc.: think about them in terms of being prepared for them, and, again, of maybe using them somehow. And all but the most obtuse cross-country runner would be thinking of openings as they . . . well, opened in front of him.

Being able to think about and analyze a subject or activity aids a person tremendously: it makes him or her more knowledgeable, and more capable of acting not only now, but in the future.

Once I thought about this (no irony intended), I realized that every time Cole thought about an F word, he not only revealed part of his personality, but he moved forward — forward through the mass of F words toward the ones he chose. The ones that meant something to him.

In The F Words Cole encounters many obstacles, ranging from the City of Chicago putting his father in jail, to his best friend Felipe running for class president, to the cross-country races he runs, to the principal being eager to expel Cole from August Mersy High. These problems aren’t somewhere on the periphery of Cole’s daily life: they are at the core of it. And so, as he chooses F words and thinks about them, Cole is subconsciously choosing  words that will move him toward solutions to his problems. (I should say words which express the concepts that will move him toward solutions.)

In thinking about and choosing these words, Cole is on his way to becoming a leader of the fight for social and political justice.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.