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? [Read more…]