Creative writing's (new?) political imperatives
Michael Silverblatt: In America... during the Civil War, an abolitionist could appear in public and debate with a slaveholder. Now we've come to the point where we no longer believe that we can convince one another of anything. And it's made public discussion much more limited... opposition is seen as confrontation, confrontation as aggression, aggression as a will to suppress. Is that similar to Israel now?
Etgar Keret: It's very similar in Israel, and I must say that, if I have any pride, it's in the fact that I'm able to engage in dialogue with all the groups in Israeli society. I get fanmail from settlers, from ultra-orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs... Just a few months ago, a guy who was apparently a settler—he had a yarmulke and a big gun, which was a clear sign that he was a settler—he ran after me in the street, and I was very scared, you know, I'm known as a liberal Leftist. He ran to me and said, "Are you Etgar Keret?" And I said to him, "Yes." And he said, "I wanna shake your hand." And I shook his hand. And he said to me, "I've read everything you've written, and I don't agree with a word you're saying." So I said to him, "So why did you run all this way to shake my hand?" And he said, "Because I feel you respect me." And I think maybe it's all about that. ... there is something that goes beyond ideology. [–KCRW's Bookworm, 2012]
Q: What role do you feel fiction writers, poets, essayists, in general (or yourself in particular), are called to play in terms of affecting the political weather, this moment? Does writing seem politically pointless? Or do you feel called to action? If the latter, is there an urge to write in service of amplifying a particular voice or agenda? Or to try and diagnose the confusion overall—respecting even the "villains"?
I was seventeen in 2004 so I couldn't vote, but some of my friends could so I remember that election as if it was my first. Thinking back to it now, the atmosphere and way the two sides interacted with one another was so drastically different than it is today; it makes 2004 feel much further away. Now both sides seem unwilling to engage with one another: from the Right, a disturbing trend to dismiss the existence of factual information, from the Left, as Zadie Smith sums up in her NYRB essay about Brexit, the desire “to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of things. More so than even doing anything.” And even though I align with the Left in my own beliefs and feel strongly about the moral problems in the current political and sociological state of the Union, I still don’t think we can afford to stop communicating with one another. The question, though, is how.
I want to say the answer is in our creative work, that we can craft protagonists so full and real and complex that readers have no choice but to feel empathy for them and learn from that. But I think we’re in an historical moment where we artists can no longer afford to be only that; we must also be activists in the traditional sense—speak out against corruption and oppression directly, write to our representatives, organize our communities, become our protagonists, if that makes sense. “Generous and assertive,” a phrase coined by English professor Joseph Harris, is a concept I use with my composition students when determining the best way to engage with a text, but I think it’s probably also the best way to engage with our fellow humans, especially in this new aggressive socio-political climate.
It’s very overwhelming. When I feel useless, I look to people much braver than I in much worse circumstances. I think, for example, of the Bosnian poet Izet Sarajlić, whose work I’ve been translating, particularly his poems from the first month of the siege of Sarajevo (his hometown) in 1991. As is to be expected his thoughts about the importance of art in a time of war oscillate from day to day, but his poem “The Disassociation Theory” ends this way:
It’s difficult, of course, in the basement
and with shells flying overhead
to write poems.
The only thing harder
is not to write them.
First, I don't think I owe white supremacists and hate groups and fascists any respect. I don't think I should be polite when people promote / enact racist violence and oppression. In the quotation you’ve provided, from the conversation between Keret and Silverblatt, well, it’s interesting that Silverblatt brings up slavery and the Civil War. By interesting, I mean it’s bizarre how Silverblatt seems to focus on how the abolitionist and the slaveholder could debate in public, could hold a discussion… but the Civil War was a war. The country was not just debating slavery. The country was engaged in armed conflict. How is this an example of successful dialoguing or of a time when people here were capable of dialogue?
Basically, I think we need to quit this false equivalences game. The KKK is not the same as Black Lives Matter. The former is a white supremacist terrorist group. The latter is a movement for justice. The slaveholder’s views are not in any way equal to the abolitionist’s. The slaveholder wants to perpetuate brutal domination over Black bodies. The abolitionist supports emancipation.
It’s baffling and enraging, how this “two sides to every issue” narrative has taken over mainstream as well as certain strands of alternative political discourse. The argument that we progressives need to “persuade the other side” disturbs me. Look, I can persuade white folks who can care even just a little about folks who don’t look like them. How am I supposed to persuade someone whose entire value system is steeped in violent racial hierarchy? Also, this “people just need to talk to each other” narrative conveniently ignores the institutions that continue to uphold racial hierarchy, whether actively or through complacency.
So, to answer the actual questions of this forum… I think as writers we need to keep insisting on precision and rigor in the ways we reshape language. We cannot allow ourselves to fall for some uncritical and unimaginative “humanize everybody!” demand. People who invest in domination over other people have lost a crucial piece of their humanity. They need to work to redeem themselves, somehow. I’m not going to hold hands with white supremacists. I’m going to write and I’m going to fuck shit up. Theorist Avital Ronell talks about wanting to make certain people—the corrupt, the complacent, the oppressors—throw up when they read her work. That is my goal as a writer right now.
I don’t think writing is ever politically pointless and I’d argue that to write is a political act for many, if not all, people. I’m not sure if it’s my parents’ liberal politics, my Jewishness, my dad’s service in the Vietnam War, my introduction to poetry through slam, or some combination of all of the aforementioned influences (and others), but I’ve experienced the personal as political, especially in writing, for as long as I can remember.
As a white Jewish man in America right now, I think at least some of the work my writing must do is point its finger at, and attempt to deconstruct, whiteness and white supremacy, among other oppressive systems. That doesn’t mean that’s all my writing should do, especially because I feel it’s far less moving when writing is one-dimensional, but white supremacy affects all Americans (whether they admit it or not) and to not write against it is to ignore my own culpability.
With that said, I’m hesitant to say that I write to amplify the voices of people less privileged than myself (even if my writing does that) because it feels self-congratulatory, especially when there are writers who might reasonably argue that I would do far more good by starting a press that publishes black / queer / female / muslim / trans / disabled / etc. writers instead of focusing on my own writing. But I do hope that my writing offers empathy toward people who are vulnerable within oppressive systems, as well as challenges people with / in power to (re)evaluate their privilege and positionality. And, in order to do that effectively, I think a level of empathy—I’m hesitant to say “respect”—toward people who say and do terrible things (which we all do if we’re being honest, just some more than others) is necessary. I often cringe when people are represented as their actions (someone who has dealt drugs as a drug dealer, committed robbery as a robber, killed as a killer, etc.) because it reduces a person’s humanity and potential for rehabilitation and, historically, has been used to criminalize black people, poor people, etc. far more often than to critique white people and other people in power.
I'm Black. I don't like politics. The very idea creeps me out, to be honest. It's strange that we, as adults, require a third party to tell us how to live our lives collectively. However, as a Black man I have a requirement to be VERY abreast to whatever is going on in the political sphere only because, if I don't, me and the rest of my people will be steamrolled into a position of second class citizenship.
People like Ta-Nehisi Coates help inspire me and remind me that it is possible to write and create in such a way that even people who are opposed to your point of view can understand and respect it. It is the job of our creatives and celebrities and politicians to lead the charge about these issues. Writers are an interesting group simply because they can fall into all of three of those categories simultaneously.
For a writer to ignore politics or present day issues of any kind, is for a writer to become a passive consumer. Writers cannot be consumers. They have to be taste-makers because so much hinges on them guiding . If a man like George Orwell didn't write 1984, what would our political climate look like? If Ayn Rand didn't write Atlas Shrugged or We The Living, how would people's concept of socialism look today? If Karl Marx never penned his books, what would our global political partners look like? If Harriet Beecher Stowe didn't write Uncle Tom's Cabin what the fuck would America look like?
If writers are too scared to comment on what's going on around them, in my opinion, they're simply trying to nickle and dime society with some cute story to earn a pay check. If that's the case, I want all of those writers to drop their pencils, pens, and laptops and proceed to pick up a desk job at a regular nine-to-five. Scratch that, I want them to go out and work along side actual people struggling. I want them to go work at McDonald's and pretend like the mom with a GED and four kids, who's now forced to pay additional taxes, doesn't care about politics.
Politics were never meant for me because they were never made for me. With that said, I can still write about how they make me feel. I can talk mad noise about whatever person is in the White House because it's my duty as a person on this planet to keep everyone else honest. Likewise, I expect everyone else to keep me honest. That's how we progress as a people.
It is very difficult to talk about evolution—or rather, going on upward—when, even before I've begun, someone hands me their mission statement on inclusion, a truly well-meant but monochrome ideal that exists in a far-off present. I know this is done out of benevolence. But the processes of living are not benevolent. Benevolence is a messy practice less about restraint and more about listening. I myself am just trying to come to terms with what listening is. I'm coming to terms with the fact that perhaps this idea of going on upward is not meant for humankind, that we are meant to play a supporting role in another species' evolution, something beyond our idea of politics, our ideas of borders and laws and tomorrows. It's not so much our work would go on in vain as writers and artists, but that the texts and images we leave behind will serve even greater purposes.
But how can I even speak of this when we are brought in front of a circus of a political arena, where nothing means anything and anything means nothing? Think about all the time wasted on Trump's meaninglessness. He means nothing, his whole team means nothing. Sounds bites that the media eats up, and of course for good reason, because they will determine the politics, the borders and laws and tomorrows of which we live in this country. It's astounding to think that a man who's really contributed nothing to advancing our species has amassed wealth and now political clout. And it's astounding to think that he is far from the first. How many other men have advanced their own agendas rather than our species? I think when people say, "it's just human nature," they are also telling me who and what I am. Don't tell me of my nature, and I won't deem to know yours.
All this is not to say I don't have hope for us. But since I learned to speak, my heart has had to shrink in order to survive, and I can practice a fair amount of benevolence up to a point, but I won't offer up my neck to those who want to take us backward.
As a Jew, as a Latina, as a bisexual woman, I've addressed these kind of questions for some time, in various genres and themes.
Should art be political? I’ve always felt that the answer to this question is contained within it. The word political comes from the Greek root meaning of or relating to the state, the citizenry. If art relates to the human experience, to our relationships with ourselves and each other, then for the artist living as a subject in relation to the state—citizen or not—all art is inherently political. Even the attempt to create apolitical art is a political choice.
It seems to me that this question of whether or not art should be political is a way of holding at arm’s length the question behind it: how should art be political? In other words, how should we write, photograph, paint, sing, act, and dance about our experiences as subjects of the state?
I believe that when people balk at the idea that art can or should be political, they are questioning the notion that all experiences are valid and deserving of attention. For how could a black woman writer possibly write in a way that is not informed by her experience as a black woman? Or how could a white man writer, or an undocumented queer writer, or a trans immigrant writer, or a poor rural writer write in any way divorced from their experiences in their respective bodies in the state where they live?
To imagine that there is some pure, apolitical way of describing our experiences devoid of context is foolish at best and dangerous at worst. Recent discussion about “identity politics” often fails to acknowledge that certain groups of people are systematically deprived of civil rights and liberties by the state, such that these groups’ identities become inherently political.
Our agenda as artists should be about getting at the truth of the thing, the question behind the question, and possibly its answer. In this society in which certain voices are marginalized or oppressed, then our job as an artistic community should be to center those voices and the truths they have to offer. In my work as a physician I’ve found that people ultimately want to be heard and seen (medicine, as I’ve written, must also be political), and communication is at the core of healing. You can call it political or you can call it an attempt to move the state as close as possible toward a state of grace.
As a poet who sees language as a tool of knowledge (and was brought up in the school of thought that allows for knowledge as having some relationship to power in society), I think it's unavoidable to regard all writers as propagandists in one way or another. That is to say, every word has potential to wield tremendous cultural influence. To me it makes little difference whether you're an MSNBC journalist or a farmer observing seasonal changes on a typewriter in rural Indiana. I see every thought as a form of prayer and the commitment of that thought to writing as a crucial and life-altering event.
Why bother to write in these times? Speaking personally it’s always had something to do with connection. We live in one of the most overweight, drugged-up, addicted and disunited countries in the world, and it's hard not to wonder if our problems have some origin in the stories we live by. Our media is doing a spectacular job of fueling our alienation with loads of comforting but simplistic or deceiving messages, the most dangerous of them being the idea that “we’re in the right.” I'm speaking here of people at every point in the political spectrum. Most of them, when a belief is challenged, cleave to it as though it were a life vest on a boat that's sinking. The problem is that most of the time, our unexamined ideologies are the boat that's sinking.
One thing I’ve learned is that there's value in sniffing out the absolutes we each hold, then inhabiting their opposites for a while. The philosopher Jacob Needleman was right in saying that if you do that for long enough, you start to see that there are more than two opposing truths. The third is the ability to be curious and listen towards a recognition of the other. This is not the same as giving up one’s ideals.
We've long been fed the lie that America can only prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism. It’s a small wonder then that we find ourselves in our current predicament. At the end of the day we all want the same things: livable wages, a comfortable existence; a future for our children that we can be proud of. We have more in common than we think. I love that tale of Etgar Keret because it points us away from easy dualisms. The job of writing as I see it is to complicate them. It becomes a device by which we ask questions and are given the rare opportunity to make sense of another's experience.
On one hand, since the election I’ve felt scared, very scared, for what’s happening and what’s to come for the vulnerable and marginalized people in America. I’m afraid to walk down the street as a non-white woman, to voice my opinion as a queer artist, and to create any art that might be seen as political. But I’ve been having so many private conversations with friends and family, and it’s only a matter of time before these thoughts, once they’re gathered in my head, will burst forth into something creative. To me, art is a conversation, expression, and sometimes a compulsion. When the need to express myself and converse with people outside my comfort zone overcomes my fear, that’s when the art will happen.
I don’t consider any art or writing pointless. At the very least, it’s cathartic to create. At best, it creates or adds to a conversation, lets like-minded folk know they’re not alone, and opens up minds.
As far as writing in a particular voice or agenda, all I feel I can do (in this particular scenario) is write from the heart. I always aim to write with compassion. Unfortunately, compassion is something I’ve struggled with in the face of so much hatred—how can I love people who wish me harm? Maybe once I’ve jumped that hurdle, the words will flow out of me.
The Oxford Dictionary’s much-publicized word of the year, “post-truth,” encapsulates our collective despair. But in a world where emotional appeals outstrip rationality, where narratives are more important than facts, there is a greater role for fiction in public discourse. We need fiction more than ever because politics has led to a conversation so retrograde it would make the debutante-come-matrons of my 20th century South Carolina childhood blush. Frequently asked questions filling our Facebook news feeds (because, apparently, no one reads newspapers) include: Do Black lives matter? Should women have access to birth control? Are we really sure about this whole gay marriage thing?
Novelists must turn their pens to stories that compel good—to win hearts and minds, as Lyndon Johnson would say. I’m currently buried in texts from and about the late 1960s as I draft a Young Adult novel centered around the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the parallels in the political maelstrom are overwhelming. The way Wolfe, Vonnegut and others filtered that chaos to create politically urgent yet accessible stories should serve as a template for contemporary novelists.
Young Adult fiction has a unique role to play. The best YA writing rejects the notion that teens’ interests are limited to whom they’re going to shag at the prom and embraces emotional complexity. YA should channel the passion of teens walking out of high schools across the country in protest of the new administration. It should illuminate political issues that infuriate them and become a tool with which they can challenge the naysayers in their worlds. Maybe instead of arguing with her Great Aunt about protecting young immigrants under the Dream Act, a teen can hand her a copy of Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. When her father shakes his head over footage of Standing Rock protesters, she can slip Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian onto his nightstand. I challenge even the coldest homophobic heart in her History class not to warm to the tandem straight / gay love stories of Jandy Nelson’s I'll Give You the Sun.
Writers, we know words matter. But don’t forget about the generation whose political consciousness is germinating under a President who figuratively or perhaps literally cannot read. Teens are smart. They are angry. They are listening. Give them the stories they want to hear.
When certain groups are targeted as “the enemy,” it is easier to strip them of their nuance, silence their voices and ensure that the narrative of their experiences fits into a specific political agenda. Dehumanizing people makes it easier to kill them.
Creative writing, in all of its forms and genres, has the potential to counter this. When readers engage with stories and poetry, they are entering into a dialogue, one that has the power to connect people with a greater sense of truth and humanity. Language is the bridge to compassion. One of my biggest challenges as an educator is how to deepen my students’ critical thinking abilities through reading and writing. Critical thinking is not valued in American culture, nor is our sense of history. This fosters a dangerous ignorance that prevents people from questioning why or how oppressive, abusive ideas and practices become normalized in society. My forthcoming historical novella The Hunger Saint questions how economic and social conditions became desperate enough to normalize child labor abuse in Sicily for countless years.
Great writing fosters larger conversations that might be impossible to have otherwise. In an interview with NPR about her collection Citizen, the poet Claudia Rankine states that “there are two worlds out there; two America's out there. If you're a white person, there's one way of being a citizen in our country; and if you're a brown or a black body, there's another way of being a citizen and that way is very close to death. It's very close to the loss of your life. It's very close to the loss of your liberties at any random moment. And so I wanted that to be considered.” We cannot know those worlds without engaging in those stories first. Writing that has a social consciousness, that fosters a greater sense of compassion and awareness—that is what we need more of right now.
Journalism seems inherently important (the thoughtful kind, not the fake kind), and American poets have always been political, from Walt Whitman to Claudia Rankine. Even theater seems important in times of political strife, but fiction? It takes so long to write and requires so much subtlety to work well, otherwise it comes across as didactic.
But at the same time, as a developing adult, my ethics and ideas about how the world should work were predominately shaped by fiction. 1984 guided my thoughts on totalitarianism. The Cider House Rules shaped some of my earlier ideas on abortion. Essays, too, have helped form my philosophies. Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss impacted how I view whiteness in America, and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay clarified my thoughts on feminism. So no, in no way does writing seem politically pointless. There are intellectually curious readers out there who have not yet thought of everything there is to think, and so there are minds to be won.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t suggest that all worthy writing must now be political. There is still a need for entertainment and catharsis and, frankly, joy if we are to get through this period of turmoil with our humanity intact. I think it’s fair, though, for writers to ask themselves if their writing matters in any historical moment, not just a crisis. A lot of contemporary writing can be self-aggrandizing or masturbatory, and so maybe we can do without some of the navel-gazing that has made its way into print or online in recent years. For my own part, I’m writing a novel about wildfire in the West, but now I’m finding it more crucial to aggressively confront the land-use policies, arcane water rights, and denial of climate change that got us into this mess. But my duty as a fiction writer will always be to the characters, and to that end I will continue to make them bleed. Writing and direct action aren’t mutually exclusive. We can do both.
It’s hard not to be political these days. It seems like politics are all around, all the time, the veritable cares of the world choking off the spirit. It’s certainly what editors are looking for right now. Identity politics, in particular, are dominating the literary landscape on every front. It’s all a little exhausting. I suppose I am called to writing about politics, because I have already done so with an op-ed in Vice and have other irons in the fire.
Writing about politics is powerful. It can change minds, make a writer’s name, and gain respect and followers, as well as detractors and trolls. But I’m interested in reading work that has deeper emotional impact than that, work that inspires empathy or increases understanding. When you look back on literary history, the political works that last deal with humanity in the greater sense. George Orwell’s 1984, an extremely political novel, could have gone the way of pretty much everything Sinclair Lewis wrote, for example, if it hadn’t been for Winston Smith’s humanity. His tiny rebellions against the fascist state are the essence of what makes us free as people, and the reason that the end of the book, where he learns to love Big Brother, has such impact on the reader. We understand the danger of having those flames of humanity put out by a political machine because we feel that humanity in ourselves. Through empathy with the character, we understand the wider issue, not the other way around. For me, work that doesn’t have something to say about being human is just political griping, fleeting and didactic. I want to see and write work that gets below politics and pushes up from underneath.
"Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology...
because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. ...
A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that... What I tried to do, or to interpret and make clear was... No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.
... one of the hazards of being an American writer, and I'm well placed to know it, is that eventually you have nothing to write about. ... It's as though you're living in an echo chamber. You hear only your own voice. And, when you become a celebrity, that voice is magnified by multitudes and you begin to drown in this endless duplication of what looks like yourself. You have to be really very lucky, and very stubborn, not to let that happen to you. ... On the public platform... I have to sound as if I know what I'm talking about. It's antithetical to the effort you make at the typewriter, where you don't know a damned thing. And you have to know you don't know it. The moment you carry the persona to the typewriter, you are finished. Does that answer your question?"
from "Reflections of a Maverick" (interview), Sunday NYT, May 27, 1984