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On Writing a Novel that People Call Political

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

I’ve been getting some interesting questions while on book tour.

1 – Do you plan on all on your novels being so political?

And

2 – How come your novel doesn’t get more political?

The funny thing is, these questions actually don’t contradict one another other. In fact, they reveal a lot about how we think of art and politics. They are what happen when we think of art and politics as being two wholly separate things. Rather than seeing them as being organically intertwined, we like to think one can be applied to another in increments or measurements, as if making a novel political is as simple as baking: mix in X or Y amount of Issue A to a plot and you get a novel that is either somewhat or very political.

My life experience does not allow me to see—or even experience—things quite so simply. As an immigrant and a Latina whose recent novel deals with family sacrifice, love, generational trauma, secrets, marriage, adolescence, borders, and immigration, I’m often told things like my novel is very timely, or that the topic of immigration is very relevant right now. [1] I’ve lived my whole life as an immigrant; to me and millions like me, immigration is not a “topic” but a lived experience. We cannot separate politics from our lives because our whole lives there have been policies in place that affect us.

Which is why question #1 (do you plan on all your novels being political?) so often creeps up. What a question like this fails to acknowledge is that all stories are political—the only difference among them is the role those politics play. If they are unperceived in a story, it is only because the people in it are lucky enough to have politics working in their favor: unfelt and unintrusive.

In stories like mine, in a time and setting where the current (and historical) politics obstruct and oppress the lives of the Latinx immigrant communities I’m writing about, the political becomes more visible. It is a force that we do not have the privilege, as much as we’d want to, of ignoring. Even if I were to write a fun, “non-political” story that makes for an escapist read, it’d be difficult to do so authentically because my existence as a woman of color and immigrant is politicized in the world we live in. The example I often give is this:

Imagine I want to write about a Latina woman who just moved into her dream home and wants to remodel her kitchen. She lives a happy life as a writer and is happily married to her husband and best friend of 6 years. I would draw from personal experience here because that woman was me 4 years ago, when we moved into our first home. Back then, I scoured the internet, got referrals off of Angies List, and set up appointments with contractors to get a quote. I love these kinds of projects and my husband is more of the tech guy in our relationship.

Still, without fail, even though I was the one who contacted and emailed them, each contractor that came into our home walked in, ignored me, addressed mainly my husband, assumed he was the decision-maker and the one who’d be paying for his services, and put his name on the quote. They wrote me off because I was a woman and deferred to my husband as an authority figure. One contractor, after I expressed that we’d be looking at other quotes because his was above our budget, commented that sure, I would probably find cheaper labor because there are “a bunch of illegals who’ll do it for less.” Standing inside my home, he used slurs against Mexicans and immigrants.

I’m sure this may be uncomfortable for some to read. I know because it is uncomfortable for me to have lived it, and it’s minor compared to so many far harsher realities. I also know that many may wonder: where is the writing advice in all this, where is the craft, where is the publishing industry know-how in this post?

It’s in all of it, because again, these things do not exist separately.

Politics, power, and identity dynamics are always present in life as they are in stories. Some people and characters feel them more than others. Some are lucky enough to not perceive them at all. Do you know what role these things play in your characters’ stories?

Which brings me to question #2 (how come your novel doesn’t get more political?). My novel does not actually get very political at all, if by “political” you mean the way many perceive politics today: through headlines, think-pieces, pundits from opposite ends of the political spectrum shouting at one another, and conflicting opinions that we end up agreeing to disagree on.

It is not a reaction to any one political moment; it is simply an honest retelling of whole lives. There’s a lot of joy in it, a lot of triumph and love, amidst the hardships my characters go through. There is so much more to their stories than their suffering. There is so much more worth knowing about them than only the ways that policy hurts them. I choose not to allow my acknowledgment of their struggles to erase the beauty of their lives.

Consider the ways we view the news, the photos of children and parents being separated at the border. Why must we only care when they are in tears? What if we’d cared starting before then, in their daily lives? What if we knew the story of the drawing a little girl made for her mother at school one day, or the words to the song they sing together as she’s tucked into bed at night? What if we were as invested in their joy as we are in their pain? What if the fullness of their narratives were being told and amplified all along? What if the craft of storytelling were more humane?

These same questions must be asked of the book industry as a whole. Until they’re addressed honestly, we’ll continue perpetuating the lie that stories about marginalized people are “issue stories,” only important as tools for understanding our hurt, when the truth is they’re important because we’re human.

I see my characters as real because they represent real people to me. I see fiction as an honest way of telling the truth. By this same token, the way we write is a reflection of how we view the world. The way we write is the way we live.

Have you thought about the role politics, power, and identity play in your characters’ stories?

About Natalia Sylvester [2]

Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester [3] came to the U.S. at age four. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. She is the author of Chasing the Sun, named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad and chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.