Where Are the West’s Political Novelists?
Aminatta Forna On the False Binary of Art and Politics
The following was given as the keynote speech at The Muse and The Marketplace event on May 3rd in Boston.
A year or so ago as Visiting Professor to Williams College in Massachusetts I taught a course on ‘witness’ literature. Among those novels we studied was Oil on Water, set in the conflict-beset Niger Delta and written by the Nigerian author Helon Habila. Habila agreed to talk to my class. I remember he told them a story. He said that when he first broke the news to his mother that he wanted to be a writer, she burst into tears. Not because she thought he was going to be broke, mind you, or bitter or frustrated by life, or forego healthcare provision, or never give her grandchildren. It was because she thought he was going to end up in jail. Those were the Abacha years in Nigeria. Dissent was met with fury, many writers were imprisoned. Indeed Habila’s very first novel, Waiting for an Angel, told the story of the relationship between an imprisoned writer and his jailer. My students were young. I’m guessing the writer’s life they envisaged looked something much more like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Last summer another Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, found himself in an unexpected scrap in the literary pages of the British newspapers and on Twitter. Okri had published a piece claiming writers from the African countries were trapped by subject matter. “The black and African writer is expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t they are seen as irrelevant,” he wrote. I think writers should write what they want, and so I was first to applaud. But then he went on: “This gives their literature weight but dooms it with monotony. Who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness?” African writers were dancing to the tune of Western publishers, warned Okri. “We must not let anyone define what we write.”
Okri’s words brought to mind an interview I’d given a couple of years before to a BBC arts correspondent. In writing The Memory of Love, set in Sierra Leone during the civil conflict, was I not, he posited, pandering to a Western view of Africa as beset by violence? I really had a struggle to get my head around this kind of doublethink. A continent and its inhabitants are constantly stereotyped by Westerners. In time a generation of writers of that continent respond by questioning those assumptions to claim their stories, tell them in their own voices and to reverse the gaze. Now here were those same writers being told we were somehow puppets. I took a deep breath. I asked the interviewer whether he thought I, as a writer, should ignore the most important thing to happen in a country’s history. I told him that to me it was privilege to find myself in a place where I could write about events of such significance.
Several writers replied to Okri with much the same thought, that they wrote what they wanted, they wrote it because it mattered. Several tweets pointed to the South African writers of the mid- to late-20th century. What would the future of that nation have been without Coetzee, Gordimer, Brink, Can Themba? Those writers challenged the apartheid regime because they felt compelled to. By describing the gross injustices and placing them in the living rooms of the Western world beyond South Africa’s borders, they changed history. As Alan Paton did in 1948 with Cry, the Beloved Country and Coetzee’s re-imagined South Africa was still doing in 1981, nine years before Nelson Mandela was freed.
In 2013 I came to the end of a two-year stint judging the International Booker, during which time I read the work of several dozen writers from around the world. I loved Yan Lianke’s Serve the People, about a love affair between the wife of a military commander and a young peasant soldier. I was moved by Josip Novakovich’s bittersweet stories set during the Bosnian conflict. I was shocked by Vladimir Sorokin’s scathing post-Putin vision Day of the Oprichnik. I was astounded by Alain Mabanckou’s scatological Congolese satires. At the same time, during my 24 months of reading, one could not help but notice how comparatively few Western authors of the same generation were so directly politically engaged.
Last month, the day after the announcement of his death, The Guardian newspaper carried a photograph of Günter Grass standing alongside Salman Rushdie and Nadine Gordimer. I thought, who will that be in 30 years time, who are the heirs to these most political of writers? In the accompanying obituary, Grass was quoted as having once said: “If I had been a Swedish or a Swiss author I might have played around much more, told a few jokes and all that… That hasn’t been possible; given my background, I have had no other choice.”
Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist once prosecuted for insulting Turkishness, says that for her, being political is not a choice. “Non-Western authors have a different relationship with politics from their Western colleagues. Writers from lands where democracy is still an unfulfilled dream, such as Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Egypt, do not have the luxury of being apolitical.” She talks about her experience at literary festivals where, sometimes to our frustration, we writers who represent places beyond the West tend to be treated as spokespeople rather than artists. What Shafak says is true, but my experience of international literary festivals tells me something more, it tells me about how people in different countries relate to my work and how they view literature.
In Sri Lanka, in Cartagena, in Pakistan, in Mexico when I talk about my books, which are set in civil conflicts, I find audiences who all speak the same language. They do not see my books as being “about” Africa, or Sierra Leone or Croatia, they relate them to their own experience. A few years back I gave a talk in Sri Lanka. There had been several calls for writers to boycott the festival beforehand to which I had given much thought. Journalists were being routinely harassed and threatened over the reporting of the civil war. In 2009, a well known newspaper editor had been murdered, a year later another editor fled into exile for her own protection. In light of all of this, it seemed to me that the right thing to do was, in fact, to go, and I was glad I did. My events were sold out. Standing in front of a hall of 600 people, with a view of a sea which reminded me very much of the coast of West Africa, we talked for an hour about what was happening inside Sri Lanka, only the entire time we used the name of another country with the same initials. Sierra Leone.
New writers are often told to write what they know. I tell my students something different. I say write not what you know, but what you want to understand.
At the Lahore Literature Festival an audience member asked me: “What are the lessons for Pakistan in your work, Ms. Forna?” The typical questioner perceives me, the writer, as possessed of an outward-looking, social duty.
By contrast, questions from Western readers are far more likely to be personal. In Oxford, I am more likely to be asked if I find writing cathartic. In Britain, interviewers in particular are always keen to seek autobiographical connections between me and my work. In other words, a Western readership tends to be far more interested in the interior worlds of writing and reading. Writing is perceived as a private battle with the individual consciousness.
Last February, Guernica published a conversation between the Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie and Indian writer Pankaj Mishra in which they asked why Anglo-American literature appeared so politically unengaged. Mishra had earlier published a newspaper opinion piece in which he defended Mo Yan, the Chinese Nobel laureate, against attacks by Western writers on his apparent political conservatism in not standing up more forcefully to the the government in China. Referring to this Mishra asked: “How many writers in Anglo-America who, unlike Mo Yan, enjoy untrammeled liberty to say whatever they want on political issues, have actually made use of their privileges during the last decades of violence and mayhem unleashed by their governments?” He argued that political activism was expected of the Chinese writer but not of Western writers.
Writing in The New Yorker three months before, Tim Kreider wrote of this country and its writers: “If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal relationships were issues with our parents, bad relationships and death.” Kreider goes on to argue that, in the sphere of American letters at least, the big political themes are in the main being left to writers of speculative fiction and science fiction to tackle.
There are, of course, authors living and working in this country today who are producing realist fiction which examines how the larger structure of the economy and the actions of the state, both at home and abroad, can circumscribe—even determine—the social, the personal. Junot Diaz, Joan Didion, Edwidge Danticat, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Lionel Shriver (who now lives and works in London). Also the poets Carolyn Forche, Claudia Rankine, and Lawrence Joseph. Their work examines themes of witness, imperialism, displacement, identity, race, the environment, gender. You will be able to name others I am sure. At the same time, the literary traveler cannot help but notice how—both internationally and nationally—political writing mainly emerges from the margins, at the very least from beyond the centre.
I agree with Elif Shafak, that living in a more or less functioning democracy—especially if that democracy appears to function in your interests—might blunt the imperative to engage directly with politics when those politics do not, at least do not appear to, invade your personal realm. Global geo-politics are felt most strongly where the drones are overhead. It is unsurprising then that the narratives that most directly deal with the 25 years of conflict that began with the Iraq War of 1990 have been soldier narratives, such as Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds. In Western nations, soldiers and their families are, by and large, those who feel most strongly the impact of a war being fought thousands of miles away.
But I do believe there is more to the answer of why there is a lack of political novels coming from Western writers relative to other parts of the world—more I mean than the excessive comfort of the Western writer. The answer, or part of the answer, concerns not politics but aesthetics, and that’s really what I want to talk about.
Not long ago I asked an American publisher at the London Book Festival whether she received many manuscripts for political novels. She said no. Aloud I wondered why. “There is an idea that a political novel…” she hesitated, disinclined, I think to be undiplomatic, and so I supplied the answer: “Undermines the literary aesthetic?” “Yes,” she nodded.
Now, this is an idea that has been around a long time. And it has given political fiction a bad name. But who said it? To tell writers not to tackle political themes because it will spoil the beauty of their work sounds very much to me like telling an attractive woman she is far prettier when she keeps her mouth shut.
In 1980, the poet Carolyn Forche returned to the US from El Salvador where she had been working as a human rights activist. Over the years her activist work had taken her to the West Bank, Lebanon, and South Africa. Her experiences found their way into her writing, and she began to write what she eventually called “witness” poetry. In Against Forgetting, an anthology of witness poetry she later edited, Forche writes of that time: “My new work seemed controversial to my American contemporaries, who argued against its ‘subject matter,’ or against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political.”
Forche’s experience makes an interesting counterpoint to Okri’s assertion. Okri says African writers are too deeply wedded to “subject” often at the insistence of their publishers, and here is Forche detailing the opposite experience, of attempts to deter her from “subject” of being told she must avoid the political, partly for reasons of ownership of those subjects, but also because they were considered contrary to poetry’s aesthetic. Neither writer is free, the African (and Indian and Pakistani and what have you) writer is in danger of being bound by place, by circumstance, by obligation. The Western writer is in danger of being bound by notions of aesthetics.
That the aesthetic and the political, or the aesthetic and “subject,” are at odds with each other is to my mind a false opposition. Novels are artificial constructs, they are birthed in blood. Poems, too. Writing is a process of synthesis, the taking of strands from one place and another, the deployment of subject, form and language to fashion something entirely new. All of that doing must be carefully disguised or the illusion is broken. The aesthetic must be honoured above all else, but not to the exclusion of all else. A political novel can fail as a work of art as much as any other novel, but the fact that it is political does not sentence it to failure.
“Witness: The Inward Testimony” is an essay based on a PEN lecture given by the Nobel Prize-winning Nadine Gordimer for International Writers’ Day in 2002. Gordimer argued that the political act of bearing witness is one of the foremost obligations of the writer and comes with, “the awesome responsibility of their endowment of the seventh sense of the imagination.” It is, she said, “the transformation of events, motives, emotions, reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that has meaning.” For her “witness” was an aesthetic quest. Here she turns to Picasso. “‘What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter and ears if he is a musician… quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world… and he cannot help being shaped by it.’ And there emerges Guernica.”
In my conversation with the American publisher she used the term “soapboxing.” Writers should not be partisan. But to bear witness is not partisan, nor is it partisan to offer an alternative narrative, a different way of seeing—this is surely what writers do best.
New writers are often told to write what they know. I tell my students something different. I say write not what you know, but what you want to understand, for it is that enquiry which has sustained me through the years it takes to write a book. The artist Paul Klee described drawing a picture as “taking a line for a walk.” I have often borrowed his words to explain my approach to writing, when I write a novel it is like I am taking a thought for a walk. In each of my books I have tried to answer a question. Typically when I begin a work the question is not fully formed—it takes me most of the writing to figure out exactly what it is. If I am lucky I will have the question and some of the answer by the end. I call myself a political novelist. By political I mean that I examine the world for how events at a macro, the big ‘P’ level, affect ordinary folk at the personal level, the level of the small ‘p.’ Also how choices at the small ‘p’ level can end up changing the big ‘P’ in ways that may be desirable or undesirable.
When I sat down to write my first book, a memoir, the question I wanted to answer was this: How does a country implode? The book covered the years of my childhood, which almost exactly corresponded with Sierra Leone’s birth and evolution into a newly independent state, and the years of my adulthood which witnessed the horror and descent into civil war. At one point in the research I made three chronologies. One of the country’s history, one of my father’s life—he had been a political activist and prisoner—and one of my own life. I superimposed them one on the other, and I saw how every major event in my father’s life came as a result of political decisions or actions at a national level, and so as a consequence did every major event in my childhood.
“Non-fiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth.” I decided to become a writer of fiction for the greater possibilities afforded by the imagination. My first novel, Ancestor Stones, told how the lives and even the minds of four women were affected by big ‘P’ political shifts in ways in which they were not necessarily aware. The Memory of Love attempted to trace the overlapping lines of inaction, complicity and responsibility. Where does one become the other? The Hired Man examined the echoes of war, and asked: What remains when the fighting is over? Underlying all my works has been an examination of how conflict begins.
Let me tell you what happened when I went back to Sierra Leone in 2002, the year when the war was slowly coming to an end, also the year I published my memoir. The first talk I gave was at the main university. When I arrived forty minutes early, the auditorium was full, an earlier lecture must have been in progress still. When I came back for the start of my talk the hall still hadn’t cleared, people were waiting outside. Then I saw a couple of guys climbing in through a window and realized all these people had, in fact, come to hear me speak. It happened everywhere I went. Hundred and hundreds of people all wanting to understand how our country had lost its way. A young man wrote to me some months later: “I went to my parents and asked them if these things you said were true. Had these things really happened in our country? They said that they were. I asked them why they had never told me when I was growing up. They replied that they had been too afraid.” And there came the seed of the idea that would grow and mutate into The Memory of Love, a book about two types of silence, that of oppression and that of complicity.
There are so many reasons to write and to read. For the humor, the thrill, the opportunity to escape. All have their value. Write what you want, I say. But big ‘P’ politics is standing outside the door. A good friend of mine who has been a war correspondent for 30 years told me recently: “I have never seen the world as bad as this. Something big is coming.” For writers living in more immediately beleaguered nations that “something” is already inside the house. Here is my plea. Those of us [at this conference] are, as Gordimer so eloquently put it, gifted with the “seventh sense of the imagination.” Who is better placed in this era of extremist and reductionist ideologies, narrated on the Internet and through social media, who better to challenge self-serving versions of the human story, than we writers, whose work it is to understand and convey nuance and complexity, who can offer a different way of seeing, one which challenges prevailing rhetoric with an alternative vision?
Novels help people figure out how the world works. I am increasingly convinced this is the way for writers to remain relevant in a world in which information abounds, but understanding remains elusive. My friend the war correspondent can’t figure out what’s going on, or at least—can only figure out part of what’s going on. It takes a writer to look beyond the headlines, the campaigns, the rhetoric and to see what is really there.
And what if we refuse the task? Will future generations, students of literature, aspiring writers, our own descendants, children and grandchildren, one day turn to us and ask the question: “What did you do in the war?”