Paper yellow butterflies fly out of book

Time and time again, readers ask me about what themes I choose to write about and the values I stand for.

I haven’t been writing long enough so that an overview of my work could yield a quick answer to that question. And prior to this post, I had not had that conversation with myself. Likewise, I never sat down ahead of a writing project to “stage” the themes I want to broach, or to ram my own values or life views down my readers’ throats. It doesn’t work that way for most writers, certainly not me, mostly because readers are far too smart and will see through anything disingenuous like prefabricated themes.

As a reader and a writer, I believe themes are identified best in literature when they emerge organically from the plot lines and characters occupying the narrative, rather than clumsy overarching edifices introduced by the writer to appease their own ego.

I have been doing some soul searching lately and assessing my writing to date. One major theme stood out as the very essence of what moves me to tell stories.

Reinvention.

Most of my writing includes some element of personal metamorphosis and drastic reinvention. This should not be confused with character growth across their natural arc within the prose – an essential ingredient of compelling fiction. I am referring however to characters who rise from the ashes against incredible odds to reinvent themselves. Whether it’s the burned-out FBI agent who escapes to a remote island seeking redemption, or the Muslim immigrant who breaks out of her cultural shackles and innate intolerance to fall in love with her Jewish neighbor, most of my leading characters settle for nothing less than an all-out reincarnation that often incurs burning all their bridges with past lives.

All around us examples of the determination of the human spirit to adapt to change by shedding our skin abound. Migrant workers and refugees who are forced to integrate and thrive in alien cultures. Celebrities like Robert Downey, Jr who make a complete muck of their lives, only to come back roaring with a second chance.

As a writer, the premise of a fresh start and a blank slate makes me giddy with the endless possibilities for dramatic conflict and satisfying, cathartic finales. And as it happens, it reflects my own life experience, first as a diplomatic brat moving around the world, and then later in my own right resettling in multiple countries across the globe for education and work. I grew up with the seeds of reinvention well entrenched in my psyche.

A clean break with your past life liberates you from your past luggage so you can invent your future.

Perhaps the aspect that draws me most to ‘reinvention’ is how it flies in the face of a counter theme that I find deflating and demoralizing. The idea that our lives are preordained and no matter how hard we try to escape our bleak destinies, we will always end up back in the same place.

It is never too late to start over, and you can take your transformation as far as you want.

You only live once, but everyone deserves a second chance.

The legend of the phoenix is often invoked as the ultimate allegory of human transformation, but I find it unsatisfying in one respect: the phoenix remains a phoenix.

The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly on the other hand is the ultimate poetic transformation: a distinct creature morphing into another patently more beautiful one that flies away, never to be seen again.

Or as Verbal Kint said in the Usual Suspects, “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”