In her essay “Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics,” Nadine Gordimer reflects on the role of the writer, a relevant reflection for us, especially now, at the beginning of a new year. Who hasn’t asked what is the purpose of my story? Why write?
If you’ve never read Gordimer, you should know she took on a fight that wasn’t hers. She was white, Jewish, and South-African. She could have chosen a subject that circumvented controversy. Instead she wrote about apartheid without standing on a soapbox wagging her finger at racists and without reducing the brutality of white supremacy to a factoid, a matter of background or setting.
Gordimer did what was difficult, focusing on the distinction between what a writer sees and what she is told she sees; between “the real meaning of words” and “ready-made concepts.” As she explains in “Three in a Bed,” the first essay in Writing in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century, “[a]n accurate and vital correspondence between what is and the perception of the writer is what the fiction writer has to seek, finding the real meaning of words …, shedding the ready-made concepts smuggled into language by politics.”
She reminds us that journalists report facts. And fiction writers? Fiction writers “expose” and “discard” the language, the packaging of those facts. Then she presents an example as real and provocative as any cited by Orwell in “Politics and the English Language.” She asks how, in practice, a fiction writer would address the similarity among the terms “final solution,” “Bantustans,” and “constructive engagement”:
…[H]ow would you refer, in a novel, to the term ‘final solution,’ coined by the Nazis; the term ‘Bantustans,’ coined by the South African government in the sixties to disguise the dispossession of blacks of their citizenship rights and land; the term ‘constructive engagement’ coined by the government of the U.S.A. in the seventies in its foreign policy that evaded outright rejection of apartheid–how would you do this without paragraphs of explanation (which have no place in a novel) of what their counterfeits of reality actually were?
Answer? Fiction writers, while neither polemical nor didactic, tell the schism between what is happening around us and the language used to describe it. We do so because we are living cramped “three in a bed”; because we are “living in hope and history.”
In one of the essays near the end of the collection, “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State,” Gordimer returns to the choice fiction writers have of challenging how facts are packaged. As she puts it, “[t]he State wants from the Writer reinforcement of the type of consciousness it imposes on its citizens, not the discovery of the actual conditions of life beneath it, which may give the lie to it” (italics original).
It’s the first month of the New Year, and I want to be hopeful–not by devising a list of impossible resolutions, but by centering down on my own sense of purpose and craft. As a Latina and a writer, I begin to wonder: who challenges the way the story of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez was packaged for our consumption?
In June of 2019, Martínez Ramírez was found lying face-down in a riverbank, his 23-month old daughter Valeria dead, still tucked under his tee-shirt. He was 25. According to the headlines, the image of their bodies is memorable, disturbing, and horrific. According to the headlines, more than 500 people died trying to cross into the US last year, so it turns out father and daughter were two out of many, many people who died on that border, many children who have been detained, separated from their parents, traumatized.
Journalists inform us of these facts. The language they use reinforces our own way of seeing. It does not help us remember Martínez Ramírez and his family, and the families of every soul who dies crossing the border. It packages Latin-American migration northward as something without history, economic or military.
The situation demands the presence of a fiction writer willing to point to the terms “final solution,” “Bantustans,” and “constructive engagement” and tell the story of their equivalence. Luis Alberto Urrea takes on the task in The Devil’s Highway, the factual story of the Yuma 14–the men who died crossing the border in May 2001
To repeat, the narrative is both fact and story. Urrea offers us the map of the terrain those men crossed. He also explains how even maps lie. On the border, a “sign” is evidence that someone or something has disturbed the terrain. And “sign cutting” is the act of detecting these signs. In the desert, Urrea tells us, “[t]here is room . . . for scholarship as well as sport”:
“Cutters read the land like a text. They search the manuscript of the ground for irregularities in its narration. They know the plots and the images by heart. They can see where the punctuation goes. They are landscape grammarians, got the Ph.D. in reading dirt.”
Urrea tells us the facts. He also points out that facts are based on interpretation. The imagination can help us close the open loops of what we think we know.
Here, for example, is Urrea describing the bodies of the 14 men, “dense and dark,” inside zippered bags, waiting to be transported to a lab in Tucson before returning home:
“The cost of using the vehicles, the drivers, the crews, the gas, was more than they could have earned in a month. But there was no worry now, no thought. Just rest. … Sewage treatment ponds cast up brown shit-fountains as if they were saluting them.”
The State of Arizona spent more in the transportation and analysis of the men’s bodies than the dead men would have ever considered possible. Urrea dwells on the irony of those numbers. He places those numbers in proximity to a fountain of sewage.
He also reanimates their bodies, giving them in death their humanity, projecting through them the wishes and preferences that made these men human beings and not numbers or destitute brown bodies. Reymundo Sr. loved his son, Urrea insists:
“Reymundo Sr. would likely have preferred to have been in the same bag as his boy, but they were kept apart. Reymundo Jr. was alone, lost and small inside the bag, almost swimming in all that black rubber space, sliding around as they drove, and now on the icy metal table. They could have torn the rubber and held hands, but they were resigned to their fates.”
What Urrea accomplishes in The Devil’s Highway is neither polemical nor didactic. He is as respectful of the members of the Border Patrol as he is of the 14 men who died. He is factual. He uses his imagination. And he drives a wedge between what is happening on the border and the language used to describe it. He gives me hope.
How do you see your role as a writer? Why do you write?