Is Empowerment Just a Marketing Strategy?
“Radiant Shimmering Light” is a novel for our social media wellness obsessed era
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There were many moments during Radiant Shimmering Light where I wanted to throw the book against a wall. In a good way. The book is narrated by Lillian, a 40-year-old white woman trying to build her brand on social media as a pet-aura portraitist (yes), and her journey into The Ascendency, a Goop-ish MLM scheme run by her estranged cousin.
Lillian is Positive Thinking™ come to life, to the point where she crushes any less-than-perfect thought or impulse. Self-care has a twisted vice grip on her, and more than once I wanted to shake her and scream “YOU’RE ALLOWED TO HAVE A DAMN OREO.”
Sarah Selecky knows what it’s like to be Lillian. She knows what it’s like to want to promote your small business, and to find yourself in the center of a world that insists Instagram is where you find salvation. Her novel is at once a satire of wellness bloggers, Instagram influencers, and self-care capitalism, and a heartfelt look at the things we do to cure loneliness and feel empowered. There are no enemies, only people we could easily become if things had gone differently. If that makes you uncomfortable, that’s the point.
Jaya Saxena: What was your relationship to this world of Instagram influencers and multi-level marketing schemes and wellness culture when you started writing this book?
Sarah Selecky: I’m a writing teacher, and years back before Instagram, before Facebook, I would put little photocopied “Come to my class” posters up at the laundromat. The classes started to grow, Instagram came about, my first book sort of took off in Canada and got some coverage which put me on CBC radio and television, and that was really wonderful and really elevated my classes and the people who wanted to start working with me. So there was this sort of somersaulting into work a work place that I didn’t really know how to manage. I started looking around to see how do you run a business and as soon I opened that portal, as a writer, I was like “Oh! It’s a world, it’s a whole world.”
I’m an outsider, I got into it totally accidentally while just trying to figure out how to build a website and run a newsletter and then I started seeing like how many women were doing this. It’s the women who are involved in this really gendered business approach.The principles are so empowering and women have been so disempowered and left out of independent financial solvency for so long, we are rightly hungry for financial independence and entrepreneurship promises that. And yet can that happen within a capitalist structure? Especially when what you’re selling has a spiritual quality so when something doesn’t actually belong in the market economy what happens when you monetize it? This was the knot that I went into the book trying to explore.
Women have been so disempowered and left out of independent financial solvency for so long, we are rightly hungry for financial independence and entrepreneurship promises that. And yet can that happen within a capitalist structure?
JS: This book is certainly satirical and it’s critical of this world but I also feel like you brought a lot of kindness to it. You’re not here just calling Lillian a dope who’s being swindled. You really care about her and you want to protect her even when you think she’s making terrible choices.
SS: It was really important to me to write that way and it would have been much easier to write a straight up send up, and the temptation certainly was there. I will say when I started the novel years ago before really getting into it, I think that I probably was attempting to write more satire. And then when I really did the work that the novel required of me, which was to really look everybody’s motivations for what they were doing, I couldn’t do it. When satire is funny, it’s funny because you are pointing at someone else and saying “I am better than that,” like I’m not that. You have to disengage from whatever it is you’re laughing at, and that’s what makes it funny when it’s really biting, and it wasn’t the right path for this book. It was more boring, it was more difficult, but also more interesting to me to sit in this really uncomfortable place.You can’t say it’s bad when the intentions are so good and people are so lonely.
JS: But there’s certainly a version of satire where you’re not pointing at someone else that you’re essentially pointing at something that is inside of all of us and and saying you’re part of this.
SS: I’m seeing this now because the book has been out in Canada for some time this year so it’s not in the states yet, but I’ve just been touring in Canada and I see the differences in readership and the people who have read it, who have the most to say about it and who really have engaged on it on a deeper level, are the ones who are willing to see that they’re implicated in it. Then there are readers who are not willing to go there, and they read it really differently.
JS: It’s also never questioned that Lillian can see auras in the book.
SS: My final bottom line on why she sees auras is that she is super sensitive. I wanted to show her sensitivity in a way that you could grasp. She would feel affected by noise and people’s moods and all that stuff. I know people who say they see auras. I mean what if they do? What do we know? Maybe they do, as I get older the less I know for sure, the less certain I am about anything. I love that people see auras. I love that people can hear things, I love that people hear messages from elsewhere. I grew up Catholic, that’s probably why I believe in things that nobody else can see. It was like instilled in me at a very young age that magic happens.
I think it’s a spiritual book, even though it’s a satire and even though it’s a cultural criticism. It was important to me to write a book, or create a world that was not science fiction where magic happened and wasn’t questioned as crazy. That’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is what do we do when we make our intimate relationships transactional and let’s just assume that magic happens.
JS: You wrote this book first person from Lillian’s perspective which means that you’re getting 400 pages in the head of someone who is in this lifestyle and buying into a lot of the stuff and talking the way wellness Instagram sounds. Why that choice?
SS: I wanted to go there. I wanted to make it all present tense, and I wanted to make it first person because of the intensity. It wasn’t easy. I’m really, really … like I love Lillian, I loved writing the book, but I was in it for a long time and I’m really relieved to let go of that voice now. People always project the character onto the author. So I’d been hearing things from people, like someone I work with said ‘you know my friend read your book and said oh god, Lillian is so neurotic, Sarah must be such a hard person to work with’. I’m very happy to be out of her head. I wanted to be in it, because I really wanted to understand her choices. At one point she’s feeling panicked she like stands up her friend, Yumi, who has just told her this very important thing. Lillian like freaks out and doesn’t have the awareness at all to breathe and stay with it and be there for her friend. And a scene like that, where we see her make bad choices, it’s awful. And I needed to be inside her to be able to feel empathy even when she does these things.
JS: This book deals a lot with manipulation and addiction, and the scene with Yumi really illustrates that. Here is this friend who has really been there for Lillian, and when they need her she runs away. For all this talk about self care and connection, these characters become even more isolated.
SS: Yeah, you put the “self care” together with “keep your frequency high!” and then moments like that become … like Lillian just short circuited. She doesn’t actually have the tools for real connection. She is looking at her screen more and thinking about her screen more than she is thinking about being who she is. Her brain has been rewired over the years of trying to market herself and trying to connect to people but she is actually not okay with the feelings required. She’s out of practice, and some of it’s her fault and some of it isn’t her fault, and that is what I hope that is coming through in the book. I think if we don’t practice empathy we can lose the skill.
I think if we don’t practice empathy we can lose the skill.
JS: And everything that is going on at Ascendency seems to be saying “hey we are teaching you to be more thoughtful, empathetic connected person” and yet she loses these skills.
SS: And it sounds so good. I mean Ascendency sounds great. What they’re saying, the content sounds good, and yet, where is it? Where is that, what they promised?
JS: This gets back to your point about capitalism. Once it turns into a business and once you monetize these things, it really changes. Do you think wellness can ever really exist under capitalism?
SS: The million dollar question. I’m leading some writing workshops at a feminist, entrepreneurial conference next weekend in Toronto and they gave me a T-shirt that says “feminist entrepreneur.” That’s such an oxymoron! That can’t happen!
No, I don’t think so, no actually. I think that we live in capitalism so we are here, the market economy has taken over all the other economies. I believe that there are things like art and things of the spirit that don’t belong in the market economy. They belong in the gift economy, and the sharing economy, but not in the market economy, not in the way this one’s set up. And yet what are we going to do, if that’s the case then what? This is not a new question. But I don’t know if we translate it to the capitalist system that I see going on right now and the money mindset stuff when you link that to prayer, I think something’s wrong.
JS: With podcasts like The Dream, there’s been a lot more things popping up that are turning the critical eye toward these sort of spaces. Do you think that the wellness world, or the multi-level marketing world or any of this are like changing in the face of this increased scrutiny?
SS: I feel like people are talking about it and there’s a part of my heart that’s like okay, but all the women who are involved, I don’t want to hate on these people. I tread lightly because there are dreams and vulnerability there. I feel like some education needs to happen basically, a gentle criticism that doesn’t scare the people who have spent their money and their time to go to these conferences in Las Vegas to learn how to believe in themselves, or because they need money to bring into their household income because their families need it. I do think something’s shifting, I do think the conversation is changing, I think there’s like this big rumble which I really love to see happening. And I think that just boycotting all the Avon sales people you know, it’s more tricky than that.
JS: What do you hope people take away from the book?
SS: I want to invite people to be uncomfortable with the book. The book kind of makes you squirm. It made me squirm while writing it. It was this squirmy procedure and I really tried in every scene, I tried to not make it easy. That was intentional, to never let it be an easy out. I wanted to mess with what we think an antagonist is and what we think a protagonist is and the concept of a hero getting over all these obstacles and then winning. I know that’s really uncomfortable because it’s not, it doesn’t let us out easy. I just want to invite people to sit in that uncomfortable place with me before we take any more steps in this world.