Article by Barbara Radecki on writing M93: The White Saviour and Saving the World in Messenger 93

Posted July 16, 2020 at

This article, written by Barbara Radecki on her book Messenger 93, is presented in partnership with moorehype.

I got the idea for Messenger 93, my second novel, years before I began to write it. It came soon after a teenager told me that her white boyfriend believed he was Jesus reincarnated. From what I could tell, there was no manifestation of Jesus-hood in this boy’s day-to-day life. But that revelation—that here was someone certain he’d come from extraordinary lineage despite any hard evidence, and that he was maybe destined to save the world—became the seed for my next story. I knew that I wanted to explore saviour syndrome. 

Portrait of author Barbara Radecki outdoors, smiling, from shoulders up.
Author Barbara Radecki

I sent my protagonist, M, an alienated teen, a message that she must “save her” in order to “save us all.” As M grapples to figure out what the message means, she becomes convinced of a destiny: she must save someone. She runs away from home to search for another runaway, a white girl, her high school enemy. 

As I was writing my first draft, I was also following the news about Tina Fontaine’s murder, which was in turn amplifying the tragedy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People across the country, and how governmental and societal systems are failing them. The discussions around her murder also amplified the disconnect between how many Canadians see themselves, and how this country and its governments are structured, and to whose advantage. Tina Fontaine—how she was abandoned by the system when she was alive, then abandoned by the justice system when her murder was brought to trial—exposed the lack of meaningful action in this country when it comes to Indigenous peoples, on whose stolen lands we live. And by “exposed,” of course I mean that it was news to various intersections of privileged Canadians who had never had to question these failings before.

I introduced a Cree (nêhiyaw) character into Messenger 93. M meets him on her journey because he’s also searching for someone—a missing nêhiyaw girl. When M chooses to follow this boy, my saviour syndrome theme became one of white saviour syndrome. 

In storytelling, the writer is not obligated to answer the questions at its centre. But if I was going to keep writing this story, I had to answer some foundational ethical questions. Because I inhabit several aspects of unearned privilege (first-gen white settler, middle class, able-bodied, cishet woman), could I write characters who live outside my socialized experience? And if it was possible, how did I go about it without causing further harm? How could I reflect aspects of the ongoing MMIWG2S+ tragedy without appropriating the voices of the people directly in it?

Stories tell us who we are, but they also tell us who others are. For all their glory and worth and delight, stories are also responsible for our stereotypes. We invent stories to uplift ourselves and each other, and also to justify our violence. 

Writers are, by our very act of writing, literally centering our own voices

I decided to find my way through the novel with these characters—along with the promise that I would ask permissions of at every step. I pledged to withdraw the book if any one of them felt I should. (There isn’t space enough to list all of my educators here, but they are listed in my acknowledgements with their permission.) I kept fumbling on because I rebelled against the idea of continuing to create fictional worlds where all the characters are white, default-white, or mirrored-white. I wanted to learn where the various lines were that I could and could not cross—at the time of writing, and to the best of my personal and our collective knowledge. I clung to those learnings to resist the fall into white saviourism myself (for example, consider nuances within words like “save” and “help,” and “support” and “accountability”).

Writing Messenger 93 became hard, mucky work. Not hard in the way that living with injustice and oppression are hard. Not hard to find resources and educators and guidelines. It was hard in the way it is for many creators. Where you question your purpose. You question the worthiness of the work you create. The integrity and honesty of your voice. It’s hard because your inner core is required to upheave and realign. It’s hard because how do you decentralize your own voice when it is trying so hard to get your attention?

If you’re white, white saviourism is a quick and easy route to feeling good about yourself. That’s why it’s so insidious and so prevalent. If you’re a writer, appropriation of voice is a (comparatively) quick and easy way to write. That’s why it has created so many problems in our stories. Untangling deep-rooted biases and relearning your art and craft and then inviting criticism is tough. 

Even if we all have different reactions and different strategies within our different environments, I think we can all viscerally feel that there is something wrong with the systems built around us. No wonder so many of us want to be bigger, greater, more impactful than our ordinary selves. 

I don’t want to give away the ending of my novel, but it’s probably no surprise that I’m still asking its central question: how do we actually change the world? How do we save us all?  

Barbara Radecki started her career as an actor, and is probably best known for voicing Sailor Neptune in the original English dub of the popular Sailor Moon series. She has transitioned to writing, with a focus on full-length fiction and screenplays. She co-wrote a modern adaptation screenplay of Jane Austen’s Persuasion due out in 2020, starring Alicia Witt and Bebe Neuwirth. Her debut novel, The Darkhouse, came out to acclaim in 2016/17, including a Kirkus star and a spot on CBC’s 15 Great Reads for Young Readers (1 of 5 for YA). In 2017, she was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. Her second novel, Messenger 93, came out April 2020.