Mé·nage à trois: The Writer in Bed with Fiction and Politics
Updated: Sep 13
Graduate Lecture Bennington Writers 2004, Writer in Society Conference 2007.
"Political fiction is a subversive venture, an aesthetic challenge, a historical responsibility, a writer's revenge…a kinky affair."
Nadine Gordimer Writing and Being
All fiction is political, people say. I don't agree, but I will grant that the tilt and pitch of our thoughts and obsessions can give hyper political meaning to a work. After 9/11, America understood something never understood before in an Auden poem. And one may find a parallel to the current misadventure in Iraq in Gulliver's Travels, in which Jonathan Swift describes the waging of war over doctrinal differences as,"the cracking of eggs."
I have often called myself a recovering journalist, and people have asked me if that's the reason I write politically inspired fiction. I think not. My first encounter with the political was when I was six years old, and living in Malaysia. It was Christmas, and my father—manager of British rubber plantations in the region—had been granted a sizeable bonus. He used much of it to buy a new car. My mother, brothers, and I joined my father under the portico to admire it—a Daimler, gently used but more luxurious than anything we had ever seen. We all agreed that it was the last word in elegance. My father's English supervisor, who was walking past our house, summoned my father to the office at once. He ordered my father to return the car to the dealer. "No local may drive a car bigger than mine," he said. My father refused, and came home angry. That anger-red hot, raging, and justified—frightened me.
“There is no people on earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power."
Colonized people with no talent for physical aggression invariably turn to literature as a political act, both as readers and writers."The Empire Reads and Writes Back," if you will. I know that my early lesson in colonialism, as well as living in England and America, first as a sojourner then as a citizen, influenced my writing beyond repair. Perhaps all of this led me to admire a certain kind of writer, the gadfly—a persistent stimulant or irritant, who remains brave and resolute in the face of opposition.
Caravaggio and his painting, The Taking of Christ, hold special meaning for me. He was a confrontational artist who abandoned rules that had guided a century of artists before him. In The Taking of Christ, what is striking is the artist's insertion of himself in the painting.
The Taking of Christ
You see Caravaggio on the right corner of the picture, at the back of the mob. He is holding a lantern, which casts light on the drama unfolding before his eyes. No mere voyeur or observer, Caravaggio, the holder of the lantern, is fully present—a lively participant in the drama.
When I first read reports out of China and India about ultra sound testing and gender selective abortion, I was horrified. By the 20th week of conception, the sonogram of a girl showed 3 or 4 lines, her labia and her vagina. These lines were her death warrant. Lancet, the British medical journal reported that more than 500,000 girls in the womb are killed each year in India, ten million since 1997. This discovery, I felt, might have been what Lady Murasaki, author of The Tale of Genji had in mind, when she wrote:
“Again and again, something in one's own life, or in the life around one, will seem so important that one cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion. There must never come a time, the writer feels, when people do not know about this."
Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Shortly after that, I heard a Jungian analyst discussing the Theory of Synchronicity, Carl Jung's thesis on psychological shifts that bring about perfect resolutions. He presented the case of a young couple awaiting their first child. Throughout the pregnancy, the father, an immigrant from a patriarchical society, referred to the baby as,"him." He chose a boy's name for his unborn child and refused to even discuss the possibility that it might be a girl. The woman went into an intense and complicated life-threatening labor, and as the doctors prepared her for surgery, her frightened husband experienced a revolution in his thinking. He placed his hand on his wife's stomach and said to the baby,"Okay. You can be a girl." And at that moment, the baby birthed herself. It delighted me—this story about a proud, stubborn girl who refused to be born until her father accepted her.
These two stories were drilling a hole in my head, at a time when I was trying to revise my (now happily published) novel, The Edge of the World (Mirare Press). I had to forget journalism and learn how to refract words through the lens of fiction. In writing my story about the girl in the womb, I found Chekov's advise to Maxim Gorky in 1898, very useful:
“I will begin with what in my opinion is your lack of restraint. You are like a spectator in a theatre who expresses his enthusiasm so unrestrainedly that he prevents himself and others from hearing."
Chekov's letter to Gorky
The Prison Letters of Ferdinand D'Souza from my novel, The Edge of the World -- is a series of prison letters, each one building up to a dramatic, damning revelation by the imprisoned dictator of a Third World dystopia to an American journalist. In the story, the dictator, Prime Minister Ferdinand D'Souza, a quantitative analyst and policy wonk who wants the best for his country, has a history of worrying about population and space on his island. In the series of prison letters, this rather despicable, yet dedicated, leader tells the story of the abortions and his regrets that the men in his country, including his own son, were suffering the consequences due to the lack of women. In the end, after the numbers go haywire and the gender ratios are skewed, the dictator is moved to say, "I should have remembered Chairman Mao's words—that women hold up half the sky."
These days, my concerns are geo-political. As an American, I am worried about the terrible, incremental consequences of our foreign policy that gradually turn free people into the disenfranchised, and the aggrieved and oppressed into radical fundamentalists and armed revolutionaries. On the West Bank, farmers cannot lead their sheep to pasture or harvest their olive and guava trees, because Israel has put up a security fence that prevents the Palestinians from reaching their land.
“Can somebody intervene here? We cannot get through the Israeli fence to our land. All the sheep owned by the village are going to starve. Many of our ewes have miscarried. We cannot bear to watch. You know when birds get stuck in oil slicks or whales get beached, everybody rushes to help them. Maybe helping the Palestinians is complicated. But if the world could help the sheep, that should be simple …"
Abdulatif Khalid, Palestinian farmer
What shall I do with these concerns? How shall I write about them? And even— why bother writing about them at all?
“I'm not involved. Not involved. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder. I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action."
Graham Greene, The Quiet American
On days when fiction seems irrelevant, Graham Greene's The Quiet American is a reliable corrective. As a manual and a map, it has much to offer the politically inspired fiction writer. Graham Greene was living in Malaysia, then called Malaya in the 195os. He wasn't too fond of it. It was England on the Equator, crawling with Englishmen, a place he couldn't get lost in. Greene found French-occupied Indochine more to his taste. He fell in love with Vietnam.
The US was then actively working to install pro-American democracies around the globe. In Indochina, it was funding various factions to fight the communists. The war was not going well, and the conservatives in Congress were calling for more US participation. Greene was wintering in Saigon when a series of bombings occurred there. American media showed gruesome photographs of the aftermath blaming the bombings on the Communists. Graham Greene begged to differ. He knew that the CIA was funding a third force in Indochina, to fight both the French and the Communists. His ideas about the conspiracy (which were validated two decades later by the Pentagon Papers), and his opinions on American foreign policy, imperialism, and colonialism, were the organizing principles of The Quiet American.
The Quiet American is often called a prophetic novel, because of the accuracy with which it portrayed the impact of American imperialism in Vietnam. And what a relevant novel it is today, as well. fifty years later. When I first read this book, I saw Pyle in the crew cut diplomats and Peace Corps workers dispatched to South East Asia. Later, I thought of Oliver North. Now I think of the Neo-Cons. But, surely, no American embodies Alden Pyle more completely than President George W. Bush.
“He was determined to do good, not to any individual but to a country, a continent, a world … he was in his element now, with a whole universe to improve."
Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Pyle is such an important American archetype that I resurrected him in my own novel, The Edge of the World, in a chapter called, The Quiet American Speaks.
Why sully literature with politics at all, one may ask. I would say that certain insights can only be gained through literature, that political philosophy and science may simply not be enough. To truly understand apartheid's impact on the lives of South Africans, I reach for Nadine Gordimer, not a history book. To really know about the caste system which rules the lives of a billion Indians, I read Arundathi Roy's, The God of Small Things, in which the heartbreak of Untouchability is reduced to human scale—two people from different castes who are madly in love with each other.
There is an incurable idealism at work in the lives of politically inspired fiction writers. They don't write stories to shock but to give a thing its due, to ask,"Can you imagine?" and to announce a hope that things won't always be that way. I don't think a writer chooses to write political fiction—it is too hard, the last thing anyone wants to read. The political writer is the mad aunt we want to lock up in the basement.
In Amy Bloom's, A Blind Man Can See I Love You, the narrator, a storyteller says:
“I have made the best and happiest ending that I can in this world, … made it to keep the innocent safe and the guilty punished, and I have made it as the world should be and not as I have found it."
To learn somehow to reconcile politics and fiction, art and polemic, ideology and aesthetics, so that one may keep the innocent safe and the guilty punished, so that one may make the world as it should be, and not as one has found it, seems to me, every now and then, a worthwhile proposition. Copyright(c) Gail Vida Hamburg