Penman No. 57: On Politics in Fiction

BaldwinPenman for Monday, July 29, 2013

I WAS in Hong Kong last weekend to talk to an international group of graduate writing students about a subject that, I proposed, we were all acutely aware of and very likely had done something in, but rarely dwelt on in creative writing class (although we do discuss it a lot in a reading or critical context): the relationship between literature and politics, or self and society. I’d put together a module that explored the way various authors from different environments have dealt with political subjects, primarily in fiction.

The selections I chose—15 short stories and three novels from all over—covered a range of specific issues from race to sexuality, and also a range of approaches and techniques. We discussed these examples, paying close attention to how the authors drew attention to their causes and concerns in an aesthetically satisfying and politically effective manner.

My students came from the UK, the US, India, New Zealand, and Singapore, and many lived in Hong Kong or mainland China. Therefore, they represented a broad range of social and political experiences, which also informed their responses to the fiction we took up. (We Pinoys—at least the older ones among us—are relatively immersed in political literature and discourse, given our history and our circumstances; whether as readers or writers, we can’t avoid Rizal, and why should we? Despite more recent forays into postmodernism, speculative fiction, and other fresher approaches, our fiction remains stolidly realist in the mainstream, compelled to account for the harrowing truths that drip from our headlines.)

We opened by discussing three stories that dealt with the thorny issue of race—thornier, of course, in some countries and societies than others. Race may not be as visible and as contentious a political factor with us Filipinos as it is in, say, Singapore or Malaysia, not to mention the US and the UK, if only because we have assimilated the Chinese, for example, so well into our bodies and body politic that it will be nigh impossible to mount anything anti-Chinese without cutting off our own noses. That doesn’t mean that we’re above or beyond racism, regionalism, and ethnic bias; this will raise some hackles, but I suspect that we Pinoys practice a benign racism in insisting that all our PBA imports should be black. It’s for this reason, among others, that I make sure I cover African-American material in my classes.

The three race-related stories that I chose were James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man,” Nadine Gordimer’s “Six Feet of the Country,” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Baldwin and Walker dealt with the African-American experience, and Gordimer with apartheid in South Africa. (I wish I’d found a Chinese or Malaysian story dealing with race issues, and will do that the next time I do this module.)

Not only were the Baldwin, Gordimer, and Walker stories gut-wrenchingly powerful pieces of prose. They also represented different approaches to the same presumptive subject of the search for racial equality and self-realization, and this was what I wanted my students to see: how you could be so potently political, so committed to your cause, and yet also so level-headed and so composed that you never lose control of your material, or otherwise strangle it with heavy-handedness.

“Going to Meet the Man” was published in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights campaign in the US, and Baldwin—one of America’s most prominent black writers—could have written a typical story featuring a black character struggling against injustice and racial oppression at the hands of the white majority. All these elements are in the story, but James Baldwin does the daringly unexpected: for his narrator, he assumes the voice of Jesse, a white sheriff. The mild-mannered Jesse is a patronizing racist who can’t understand how blacks could be so upset with their lot that they would march in the open and disturb the peace, forcing him to take punitive action. Jesse also has a far more domestic problem: he can’t get it up for his wife, and the only way he can solve that is to pretend, strangely enough, that she’s black. But the story’s most horrifying moment comes from Jesse’s past, from his recollection of a childhood “picnic” that turns out to be the brutal lynching of a black man.

Nadine Gordimer’s story, first published in 1953—four decades before the formal abolition of apartheid in South Africa—is also told from the point of view of a white man, a landowner who albeit reluctantly takes up the cudgels for his black workers when the white authorities make a ghastly administrative mistake and return the wrong corpse for the man’s relatives to bury. (“There are so many black faces—surely one will do?”) The white protagonist here acts not out of politically enlightened outrage, but rather out of a deep annoyance with the bureaucracy, as if he himself had been personally offended. (And yes, before you ask, the tragicomic mix-up of bodies here would inspire my own Soledad’s Sister many years later.)

Alice Walker would gain fame for The Color Purple, a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters, but before that she wrote the story “Everyday Use,” which focuses on the home visit of a young, college-educated black woman to her poor mother and sister. Told from the mother’s point of view, the story shows how differently the educated and politically empowered daughter Dee now acts from those she left behind—she wants her mother to give her a precious quilt, a family heirloom, that she plans to use as a piece of décor, and can’t understand when her mother refuses to give it to her, since the quilt has been promised to her sister Maggie, who’ll be putting it to everyday use. Thus, no matter how much Dee may have gained in the city in political and cultural sophistication (she has even changed her name to “Wangero” in her own affirmation of black power), she has clearly lost touch with her own roots, no longer able to recognize the truly authentic and truly valuable.

What’s there to learn for writers from these three examples?

First, that good, sharp authors reject the obvious, and are willing to take risks with their material and their treatment. For his central character, Baldwin chose the antagonist, the one more difficult to portray with fidelity, if you’re on the other side; rather than demonize Jesse, Baldwin presents him with not a little sympathy, making him even more alarming. Rather than the victim, Gordimer chose to focus on the man in the middle, the individual caught in a moral dilemma; the man’s bravado is ultimately ineffectual, but his decision to act challenges the reader more likely to fence-sit in the same circumstances. Walker takes on the natural protagonist with her all-black cast, but also highlights the important differences between them, reminding us that “race” comprises individuals and great divergences of experience and belief.

Second, that they don’t come to easy conclusions, and allow for the complexity and even the complicity of their characters to come through. You don’t do characters and their readers a favor by creating flawless heroes and thoroughly hateful villains. Real life very often lies somewhere in between.

In other stories by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, and our own Merlinda Bobis, my students and I also saw how authors with very strong political messages to convey did so, more effectively, by employing restraint and ambiguity, rather than excess and unyielding certainty. In other words, the best writers trust the intelligence and the natural humanity of their readers to lead them to what is reasonable and just. If you want to write good political fiction, first create good art, and leave the sloganeering to the editorial writers.

(Photo from time.com)

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