Thursday, 24 July 2014

Wielding the Double-Edged Sword: The Novelist as Activist by Sarah Bower

The writing (and reading) of a novel can take us on unexpected journeys. The research which goes into any novel is in more ways than one like an iceberg. All good writers know that their research must scarcely show in their fiction. There’s nothing worse, as a reader, than finding yourself dragged unceremoniously out of the fictional universe by a passage of ‘info dumping’ that reminds you the world which has so engaged your real emotions is a mere fabrication, flimsy and evanescent. What we writers also know in our bones, but generally try to forget between novels because it might stop us ever starting again, is that the research we think we shall need for any new project always turns out to be a fraction of what we actually end up doing. However meticulously we plan a novel in advance, the work in progress has an organic property and tends to grow in unexpected directions, to lead us down paths we neither anticipated nor even suspected the existence of.

The novel I am currently writing began with a baker in Yorkshire. By some process which I’m not even going to begin to try to explain, a Palestinian refugee, a fisherman, has since entered the story. I am not uninformed about Palestine. In fact, I would describe myself as engaged both historically and morally with the vexed question of who is entitled to what in that much-abused part of the Middle East. But the creation of fiction demands far more of us than reading history books and keeping up to date with the news. For me, the most important aspect of research is that which relates to place. I never really grasp my characters or their stories until I know where they are. Maps and photographs are useful, of course, but they give you no sense of how a place feels or smells, no real concept of the quality of its light or the sounds that characterise the hours of its days or the taste of its food. I remember when I was writing The Book of Love (aka Sins of the House of Borgia), even though the facts of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia’s lives were possibly more familiar to me than the facts of my own at that point, I couldn’t bring the story together until I had spent some time in Ferrara, where most of the novel takes place, walking around its streets, eating pumpkin ravioli, listening to the way people speak, seeing how the buildings and spaces relate to one another in a concrete, physical way, how shadows are cast and light plays. Only once I had done this did any of what I was trying to achieve make sense.

So, Palestine. My character comes from Gaza. How on earth does one visit Gaza, even in quieter times than those which prevail as I write this? I’m not by nature any kind of activist. I write novels. My engagement with the real world is tangential at best. I’m not afraid of physical danger (as those who followed my circus escapade will know) but have a profound aversion to public displays of my own opinions, in however worthy a cause. I don’t get involved, and if you don’t get involved – even if you do, in fact – it’s virtually impossible to get into Gaza. As for getting out again, well, that’s a whole other story. It is almost impossible to avoid casting oneself in the role of bull in china shop if one attempts a visit to Gaza.

Having concluded, reluctantly but inevitably, that visiting Palestine at all seemed impossible, I began a programme of reading and hoped my imagination would do the rest. Then I met a woman I shall call Caroline. Caroline is a Quaker, and for the past fifteen years, this quiet, elegant woman of a certain age has been going to Palestine every autumn to help farmers near Nablus with their olive harvest. The work done by her group and others is necessary because the farms where they work are on land which is under Israeli control. The Israelis only grant the farmers permits for a few days each year to harvest their olives, so they need as many hands as they can muster to complete the work within the permitted period. If they fail to complete the harvest for three years in a row, the Israelis accuse them of neglecting their land and can requisition it. The presence of Caroline’s group and others like it is also necessary in order to witness and record instances of obstruction of farmers going to their fields and clashes between the Palestinians and settlers from nearby Israeli settlements; while there can be aggression on both sides, it tends to be the Palestinians who get arrested and thrown into what is known as administrative detention, or imprisonment without trial. It tends to be the Israelis who carry guns and the Palestinians slingshots.

I asked Caroline if she thought her group would allow me to accompany them on their next trip, even though I’m not an activist, just a novelist undertaking research. I would, she said, have to have an interview and attend a weekend of training, and, if I passed muster, they would be happy to let me join them. As I write this, I have just returned from the training weekend. In deepest Bloomsbury I learnt how to lie to the immigration authorities at Ben Gurion Airport and what gifts to take when invited to dinner in a Palestinian household. I learned that the bus from Jerusalem to Nablus leaves by the Damascus Gate and that the best antidote to tear gas is to hold a cut onion over your mouth and nose. Most of all I learned what some modest and very brave people will do to protect the freedoms of those who have insufficient resources to protect themselves, and felt somewhat ashamed of myself.

Can the novelist be only a novelist? If her engagement with the world is, as I have suggested, a bit semi-detached, can she write with the passion necessary to fire up her readers? Perhaps this depends on how good a writer she is. If she can manipulate words with sufficient skill, she can surely make readers believe in her commitment to a cause through creating characters who live and breathe with all the depth and complexity of real people. Novelists are, when all’s said and done, liars and good novelists are more accomplished liars than bad ones. Regimes which fear their people certainly take novelists seriously. They lock them up or send them into exile. Sometimes they execute them, as happened to the Nigerian writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Norwich, where I live, is part of the international network of Cities of Refuge, and offers sanctuary to writers in exile, most recently China’s Jiao Guobiao. Vassily Grossman’s wonderful novel, Life and Fate, was seen by the Soviet authorities as such a threat they even confiscated the typewriter ribbon which carried impressions of the writer’s words.

Is fictional truth, then, as powerful as ‘actual’ truth? I think it can be.  Readers tend to engage with fiction far more strongly than with factual writing, and characters and their stories lodge in their minds with greater solidity and permanence. Charlotte Bronte was not merely a story teller but a social campaigner, and how much more effectively does her portrayal of Jane Eyre’s schooldays lodge in the mind than some dry factual report on conditions in girls’ boarding schools in the first half of the nineteenth century. Likewise Anna Sewell, who wrote Black Beauty not to reduce generations of little girls to delicious tears but to draw attention to the mistreatment of working horses. If she had merely sat on committees or written letters to the newspapers, her campaign would have merged with other similar campaigns years ago. What most of us know about working conditions for horses in the Victorian era is entirely due to her skill in fictionalising their lives in the characters of Beauty, Ginger et al.

As novelists, therefore, we have power, and with power comes responsibility. Yet what is that responsibility? It would be easy to assert that any novelist whose fiction supported social or political positions opposed to our own is using her power irresponsibly. Indeed, we do demonise artists who ally themselves with the unacceptable. The American government interned Ezra Pound in an asylum because he supported Mussolini. That most English of English writers, P. G. Wodehouse, never felt able to return to England after his internment by the Nazis and a series of radio broadcasts from Germany that suggested he was a collaborator, even though his name was officially cleared after the war. Surely these writers paid the price of expressing their opinions just as much as others who are exiled, imprisoned or otherwise reviled for views which most of us find more acceptable.

Freedom is a double-edged sword, which the writer must wield with conviction, honesty and courage.

Sarah Bower’s most recent publication is a short story for the Hong Kong based magazine, Asian Cha. You can read it here


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