What's The Point Of Fiction?
THIS MONTH'S THEME
As I write these words, Macedonia’s feuding leaders are gathering at the beautiful and historic lakeside resort of Ohrid, on the border with Albania, for last-ditch peace talks. By the time this magazine is printed and published – and depending, of course, on whether the negotiations have halted this fragile republic’s slide towards civil war – another less heralded assembly will be taking place in Macedonia. The 68th Congress of the international organization of writers, World PEN, is scheduled to convene in Ohrid from 25 September to 5 October.
The two meetings could hardly be more different: one a summit between the political and military powers of the region, occasioned by conflict; the other a gathering of writers assembled to discuss social and literary matters. One thing seems certain though. The PEN congress will have received a fraction of the media attention and analysis devoted to the Ohrid peace talks or, to remember a recent farce from the theatre of world leaders’ meetings, the G8 Summit in Genoa. The PEN gathering and many more like it, large and small, across the world have an importance far beyond the tiny amount of publicity they receive from an inattentive media focused on the celebrity of our ‘democratic’ leaders and the potential for photogenic violence.1
In this month’s NI we have approached our subject in a slightly different way. Usually, having chosen our theme – whether it be the juggernaut of globalization, the aids crisis in Africa or sustainability – we try to paint the full picture by sifting facts from opinions and listening to the voices of those at the sharp end of the fight for global justice. This month, we are just as interested in what those same voices have to say, but we aren’t really after facts. Instead, we have been visiting the worldwide ‘Republic of Letters’ to take a look at some of the stories the South is telling itself and the world.
That splendid agitator Percy Bysshe Shelley, in response to Thomas Love Peacock’s sneering description of the author as ‘a semi-barbarian in a civilized community’, called writers ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. This month, we focus on just a few of the many writers who so richly deserve this description. Reading them, one realizes the truth of what one of our featured authors, Okey Ndibe from Nigeria, has said: ‘A story that must be told never forgives silence.’
There is a case to be made – and I am I hope about to make it – that reading is one of the most radical things you can do. It is no surprise that autocrats, from the destroyers of the Library at Alexandria to the Nazis and the Taliban, make a habit of burning books. Books give us access to knowledge, opinion and debate. They open up all the possibilities that those who wish to control and oppress would deny us. In far too many areas of the planet, writers are subject to what Nadine Gordimer calls ‘the double demand’: the first from the oppressed, to act as spokesperson for them; the second from the state, to take punishment for being that spokesperson. One has only to remember the fate of Ken Saro Wiwa to realize how heavy such a responsibility can be. 2,3
There is a chilling line in Ian McEwan’s novel The Innocent: ‘secrecy made us possible’. The point being that with the growth of language comes the increasing ability to lie, dissemble and withhold vital information. It is a sort of lowest-common-denominator view of cultural development in which communication is one more weapon in the scramble to survive.4 To dispute with this viewpoint is one of the motivations behind this issue of the New Internationalist. For, if books in general are tools in our progress towards justice and true humanity, then fiction or story-telling is where we began to forge such tools. Standard Western histories credit Miguel Cervantes with ‘inventing’ the modern novel and we treasure epic stories that have come down to us from antiquity such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata. But these are merely elaborations of the basic human need to tell stories, to invent and convey to others the lived truth and learned experience through the medium of fiction. Storytelling has always been with us. Equally, our swapping of stories is an implicit subversion of official channels of communication and control. There is an unbroken line of descent and fellowship between tales told around a campfire as the darkness gathered and the wolves howled, the circulation of samizdat pamphlets, and a book borrowed from a public library. At a time when the barriers are going up all over fortress Europe and ‘asylum-seeker’ has become a term of abuse, there is an urgent need for the malign effects of economic and political globalization to be countered by a ‘free-trade area of thought’; a people’s globalization of communication in an international exchange of culture and ideas.
Of course, there is a debate to be had – sometimes reasoned, sometimes heated in the extreme – over the position of the writer in society and his or her relationship to the authorities. As George Orwell points out in his essay Writers and Leviathan, engaging with the political realities of the time is both a challenge and a dilemma for writers.5 Is it possible for authors to be ‘merely’ writers or must they grapple directly with the political verities of their society? Do they, in the process, become ‘more than a writer’, a writer in tune with the currents of the time or a tub-thumping proselytiser, a crude propagandist? There are no easy answers here but if literature is to be something more than a neutral bystander in the struggle between oppressed and oppressor, then it is not only legitimate but also necessary that authors consider it carefully. How creative writers behave when they arrive at the ‘bloody crossroads’ where literature and politics meet depends greatly on the particular circumstances and the individual character and commitments of the writer. Perhaps the most graphic example of a writer confronting this particular dilemma from recent times is the use to which the novelist Arundhati Roy has put her fame. After the worldwide success of The God of Small Things Roy could have joined the circuit and been fêted in literary festivals and book launches from Hay-on-Wye to Seattle. Instead, she invested all her celebrity and threw all her energies into campaigning – by deed and word – against the devastating Narmada dams in India. As Salman Rushdie, another writer with more cause than most to appreciate the thorny interfaces between politics and literature, freedom and censorship, has said, the proper function of the writer is to: ‘Go for broke. Always try to do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you start talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world.’6
A further question is whether fiction – its making and its consumption – is a luxury when there are so many more pressing and urgent needs. When there are wells to be dug, demonstrations to be attended, so many manifest injustices in the world to be fought, why should the inventing of fiction have any sort of importance? This is a valid question, to which I would make the following responses. Firstly, as we have seen, the powers-that-be in the world certainly think literature is important enough to ban, suppress and censor. From the banning of Boris Pasternak to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and the recent persecution of Taslima Nasrin and Nawal el-Sadaawi, they seem in no doubt that the free thought engendered by literature is sufficiently dangerous to be in need of severe control. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, to say that there are needs beyond the immediate is to extend the scope of what we should demand, rather than dilute it. In the words of the old union song, the cry of the striking women textile workers was: ‘It is bread that we fight for, but we fight for roses too.’ Culture, including the transformation of experience and the communication of made-up stories is what makes us human, what gives meaning and resonance to our lives.
A recent remark by the social commentator Christopher Hitchens on the limits and the powers of the written word may serve as a closing thought on the vitality of literature: ‘The sword, as we have reason to know, is often much mightier than the pen. However, there are things that pens can do and swords cannot. And every tank, as Brecht said, has a crucial flaw. Its driver. Suppose that driver has read something good lately, or has a decent song or poem in his head…’7
Which brings us to a final word on the extracts and recommendations which you will read in the following pages. They are a personal selection from the many fine and committed Southern writers currently at work. Although I have tried to get a fair balance of the different regions and styles of writing, the authors between these pages are not ‘representative’ of anything beyond themselves; but what they share is a dedication to telling their own distinctive stories in the best way possible. The task of finding and selecting these extracts, poems and stories has been both stimulating and inspiring. May they give you pause for thought and reasons for hope.
1 PEN website: www.pen.org.mk/