Four years ago, after a long day of teaching kindergarten, I sat down, opened my laptop, and wrote the words, “Bristol Ray did not exist.”
In a few weeks, those words will be printed in a book—my book—called Unregistered.
Although I never really intended to flesh those words out the complete dystopian novel it eventually became, writing was nothing new to me. I’m a serial journaler, so thousands of starts to unfinished stories, poems, and raw ideas live in the safety of my notebooks. That, I guessed, would be the eventual fate of Bristol and the other characters I compulsively created to live this story. As I grew increasingly frustrated at the injustice of our world on both large and small scales, I kept coming back to my laptop to include lessons I’d learned that day.
In the fictional world of Unregistered, citizens are assigned a life, so they don’t worry about finding schools, jobs, or spouses for themselves. They’re even allowed to have one child, enabling them to focus on raising an ideal son or daughter and experience an optimally satisfying family life. The only people left out are the unlucky accidental second children, called the Unregistered. When one of them, a street artist named Bristol, discovers the dark truth behind the government’s plan to relocate the Unregistered, he and his friends must work together to escape the clutches of their motherland and survive long enough to discover an unknown world.
The world and the story within it were inspired by some influential experiences in my life: I taught English in China from 2008-2010, and I was struck then by the affect that government policy and culture had on each other. For example, people are willing to sacrifice, both personally and on a larger scale, for the greater good of the group. You see this play out a family’s dinner table and in international politics. One of the stand-out experiences was when one of my friends, who was my age, came to me in tears and asked if the Tiananmen Square Massacre really happened. She had never heard of it, despite having grown up in Beijing in the nineties, because the government and the whole of society around her had decided it was information she was better off not knowing. Seeing the connection between government policy and culture in another country helped me see it in my own, and then throughout history. It became clear to me that throughout space and time, humans aren’t so different; we make the same mistakes over and over, and often find misguided ways to address them.
This story was also inspired by my time teaching in a no-nonsense charter school, where all children were judged on very specific criteria. Any gifts or abilities that did not fit into our system were ignored, or worse, discouraged. Every day, I left wondering what kind of world these children would create as they grew up.
I consider Unregistered to be a book for readers in today’s America, as there are some pronounced similarities between the fictional United States in the book and the one we live in. It’s an old cliche, but so true: those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. The characters learn this in their world just as we are currently learning it in ours. In Unregistered, the government tries to solve the problem of racism by matching skin tones to create a uniform race, but since they have a tiered class system, the real root of the problem is still rampant. Groups still feel the need to elevate themselves above others.
Throughout the years, working on this book in all aspects (writing, editing, preparing it for the world) has been a kind of therapy for me. Marching, making phone calls, and even SHEETCAKING are all important aspects of the lives of those who care about our hurting world. For writers and readers, we have another tool at our disposal: books.