I thought of my posts on truth and fiction last week initially as organized in a straight line, a spectrum from false to true. But as I went along, it turned out that each has some element of its opposite.
Lies and fiction must be grounded in some believable truth, must be anchored to reality or they are just nonsense. The lies that Trump used to use to steal the attention of the press in his early days have lost their anchor to reality. He still uses them, and they are still recorded and reported, but they have little power. They drift off as though they were gibberish.
Nonfiction tells a truth that is crafted to tell a story, to prove a point, or to be concise. The alternative, a book that contained every bit of information about a topic, would be as unwieldy and unreadable as a dictionary. The stories of Jorge Luis Borges come to mind: a map so detailed it is the same size as the empire it represents; or a library with every possible arrangement of words and letters.
Borges’ stories are works of fiction. But I go to them to understand reality. I have been feeling I was unfair to fiction when I put it at one extreme of my true-false spectrum last week. Fiction is often truer than the translation of our experience that appears in newspapers. It would be wrong for a fact-checker or scientist to cite Borges’ story of an infinite library as fact. But it remains an accurate expression of human experience. All possible books exist in our minds. We construct meaning from the books and information we have access to. We discard the ones filled with gibberish. But one person’s gibberish may be another’s critical text. Is this the case with Trump’s lies? “You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?” Borges’ narrator asks in The Library of Babel.
Poetry, too, is a heightened form of truth. I’ve been reading Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz. Several of her poems build a relationship between river and body. They are the same. She is an indigenous writer. Her ancestors taught her this truth. And it is true. Our body is as alive with water as a river is. We come from water, our bodies flow back in to water as we live and die. In a time when environmental protections are being discarded by Trump, the truth of our being one and the same with water, is essential. Clean water is not something that happens apart from us, it is us.
Four years ago I took part in a reading of two versions of the poem I Want A President in front of the White House just a few weeks before Trump’s election. Artist/curators Saisha Grayson-Knoth and Natalie Campbell worked with communities around D.C. to update Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem. I have kept the flyer up since moving in to my apartment just after Trump’s win, the 2016 version of the poem facing out. It begins, “I want a Native American for president. I want a Muslim refugee for president…” (Leonard’s original began, “I want a dyke for president”). In 2020, I’ll take the upgrade on offer. But really, I want a poet for president.