Many moons ago, when I first became interested in Middle Eastern writing, Adhaf Soueif was a new kid on the block. Her book Map of Love struck a chord in me at the time and I have never forgotten how magical her writing was. I read some of her other books but none was as austere as the first for me. Soueif is now a name in Egyptian writing circles and although her writing is far less politically contentious as that of Nawal el Saadawi, she nonetheless has a voice which speaks on behalf of a multitude of Egyptians and writers the world over.
Soueif’s latest article in The Guardian claims that in times of crisis there is no room for fiction. I wonder about the validity of Soueif’s position … surely some of the best fiction in the world is born out of times of crisis such as Egypt is now facing? Can writers be activists, asks Soueif? Should their fiction be born for the sake of activism? Is that actually fiction at all? These are all serious questions which no doubt, other writers at other times have asked themselves … According to Soueif, “attempts at fiction now would be too simple” … Perhaps that is true, perhaps the weight of things is too great to be conveyed in words.
I share Soueif’s piece here because she is a great writer, well worth reading and the questions she poses are all worth considering.
“In Times of Crisis, Fiction has to Take a Back Seat”
The writers’ conference held at the Edinburgh festival 50 years ago discussed this proposition: “Many believe that the novelist has the duty to further by his writing the causes in which he believes. Others think that literature must be above the problems of the day.”
The assumption is that the novelist is able to do one or the other. And I’m not sure this assumption is true. Can a novelist deliberately sit down to write a novel that furthers a cause? Well, yes, and it may be a good cause and a just cause, but what you get will not be a novel – it will be a political tract with a veneer of fiction. It’s my experience that even when we think we’re choosing the story, it is the story that chooses us.
George Eliot wrote: “If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Today there is no other side, and there is no silence. The internet, Twitter and YouTube have made sure of that. Yes, the noise may be removed from our immediate circle, but we know that it exists; we know that it will take two taps on the keyboard to bring our screen chiming to life with trafficked women, terrorised children and desperate men. We know men and women brave seas and deserts in search of a livelihood, we know half the world goes hungry and the planet is crazed with man’s excess and that there is, particularly among the young, a great and urgent desire to change the system.
The question is: do you want to engage with this? Or do you want to escape it? Do you want to live your life in a bubble? Or do you want to be part of the great narrative of the world?
Is a novelist a literary activist? An activist is impelled by a cause and adopts it. Most people are content to live their lives within prescribed and personal boundaries. But one of the points of artists surely is that they live outside their skin. That they’re connected. That they hurt with the hurt of their fellow humans. How, then, can they disengage? How can you – if your task, if your gift, is narrative – absent yourself from the great narrative of the world?
Should the novel be political? I don’t believe in “should” anywhere near art. At any moment there are a thousand stories to be told. Do we storytellers choose which one to tell? Or are we chosen and pressed by a story until we sit down and work on it and bring it forth into the world? Does the story come to us when we’re ready to take it on? And isn’t the only “should” then that we should give the story its due?
I believe our duty is to our readers and to the story we’ve agreed to tell. Our duty is to keep our readers reading, to let them into a world they make their own, a world where they recognise their own questions and their own longings, where they find characters who become friends, and they feel such powerful empathy that they want to reach through the print and help or comfort them. That’s the deal: the writer engages the reader’s emotions, makes the reader care what happens next; and the reader engages with the world being presented.
Our duty is to tell the story that’s come to us in the most effective way possible. But we don’t choose the story: we’re drawn in where the feeling is deepest. A work of fiction lives by empathy – the extending of my self into another’s, the willingness to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. This itself is a political act: empathy is at the heart of much revolutionary action.
But the novelist, like the activist, is also a citizen of the world and bears the responsibility of this citizenship. The question is, then, can you honour your responsibility as a citizen of the world and fulfil your responsibility to your art? The question becomes critical in times of crisis.
Mahmoud Darwish, the late, great Palestinian poet, in his address to the opening event of the first Palestine festival of literature in 2008, wrote of the difficulty of being a Palestinian writer who “has to use the word to resist the military occupation, and has to resist – on behalf of the word – the danger of the banal and the repetitive. How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times? The questions are difficult.”
But we tease out answers. Darwish’s answer, perhaps, was to absent himself from the centre of the crisis. That centre was, for him, his hometown of Haifa. So he kept an office in Ramallah but lived mostly in Amman. At that distance he could produce the work that was both true poetry and true to the situation.
But what if you cannot or will not remove yourself from the situation? InEgypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction.
Fiction will come again, I hope. And maybe I’ll tell the story of Boulac sands, less than a kilometre from my home, where the police killed Amre el-Bunni last week and a community is being terrorised out of their homes to make way for a luxury development. Or maybe I’ll tell the story of Samira Ibrahim, who put a stop to the military’s virginity tests; or Ahmad Harara, shot in one eye on 28 January and in the other in December; or Khaled Said’s mother, who has adopted all the young revolutionaries in lieu of her murdered son, or …
Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple. The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form. For reality has to take time to be processed, to transform into fiction. So it’s no use a story presenting itself, tempting, asking to be written, because another story will – in the next minute – come roaring over it, making the same demand. And you, the novelist, can’t grab one of them and run away and lock yourself up with it and surrender to it and wait and work for the transformation to happen – because you, the citizen, need to be present, there, on the ground, marching, supporting, talking, instigating, articulating. Your talent – at the time of crisis – is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality not as fiction.