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election anxiety countdown

84 Days: Poetry

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. 

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election anxiety countdown

87 Days: Nonfiction

This week, I’ve been working my way from fiction to fact in this exploration of how a writer should write in the 100 days leading up to the 2020 election. Having covered fictional, false and dishonest writing, today we cross safely in to the true end of the spectrum, or at least the end that aspires toward truth. Truth-ier.

Nonfiction concerns the real world, the series of historical events that you and me and almost everyone we’ve ever met can agree took place: dinosaurs roamed the earth; 230 million years later, humans in Mesopotamia built giant ziggurats; a short 4,000 years later after that, Patti Smith left Philadelphia on a bus for New York with little more to her name than a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations

For the first two, we have generations of research from archeologists, anthropologists and other scientists. For the third, we have only Patti Smith’s word in her beautiful memoir Just Kids.  

Likewise, these posts are closer to memoir than science writing. I’ve told stories of relationships, jobs, friends, and old art projects that coincided with — or were tied to — elections gone by. I’m doing my best to stick to facts as I remember them. But just as in yesterday’s post about spin, there are bound to be omissions and carefully crafted truths. I hope they are in service of narrative rather than misdirection or half-truth.

The alternative is to recap news from the campaign trail, analyze the positions of the candidates, and discuss the latest opinion polls. But nobody needs more of that. Certianly not from me.

Instead, I’m beginning to realize the subject all of this is about is anxiety. Anxiety about the election, the pandemic, and the future. My anxiety. Everyone else’s anxiety. As well as how to do something productive with it in the 100 — now 86 days — remaining before the election. 

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election anxiety countdown

91 Days: Fiction

I’ve spent much of the past few years working on fiction: a novel and short stories. Would I be better off spending these hundred days staying in that mode? Would a serialized novel of life in a dystopian 18th year of Trump’s regime be more effective than whatever this series turns out to be? In a recent profile of novelist and contrarian Lionel Shriver I stumbled upon last night by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker, Shriver compared writing fiction to her opinion essays: 

“Fiction is much more subtle,” she replied. “It’s more evasive, it’s more circuitous, it should be a little harder to discern what the message is—not that it shouldn’t have a message, but that message is usually complex and sometimes contradictory.” Asked which was more likely to change people’s minds, she answered immediately, “Fiction.”

I agree. For one, works of fiction — especially if we include screenplays — have a much wider audience, and are more likely to reach people who disagree with you. I read Shriver’s dystopian novel The Mandibles in 2016, knowing nothing about her politics (I was on the futurism kick that led to Future Cartographic). The book describes the economic collapse of the U.S. because of debt and devaluation of the dollar. I recall feeling uncomfortable with some implications of the scenario and questioning some characters’ takes on their newfound difficulties. But the challenge was provocative, not unpleasant. Levy’s profile made me curious to go back to Shriver’s fiction, but her overview of Shriver’s takes on politics and culture (pro-Brexit, she is a Democrat who is outraged that race and gender issues get so much attention) were less interesting. Perhaps relying on a second-hand account is unfair. I do at enjoy an original and creative contrarian. What’s the point of reading a writer who restates things one already believes, or a writer who parrots predictable opposition? Reading ought to be a search for additions, complications, or poetry that expands the known. Bookmark Shriver for later. 

Before media fragmented in to the ten thousand niche channels we have today, fiction on network T.V. played a huge role in building understanding across difference: Black life in a housing project (Good Times); life with a hippie child or a racist father (All in the Family); life as a single woman in an old school, male-dominated workplace (The Mary Tyler Moore Show); life with gay friends; life as an LGBTQ person in love (Ellen, Will and Grace, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Some of these shows might not have aged well, but putting their contemporary viewers in a position of empathy for people who didn’t represent the dominant point of view was groundbreaking. They also gave many people their first evidence that their lives were being seen, that other people like themselves existed and their lives mattered. But does media on such a scale — with millions of viewers and advertising dollars at stake — lead culture change or follow only when a critical mass, an untapped audience, is already there to be tipped over the edge? 

T.V. comedies may be the most accessible form of fiction, but I haven’t watched one in years, so I’m unlikely to start writing one now. Coming up with eight jokes per page as a response to a Trump’s campaign to cement his authoritarianism in place seems like a mismatch of tactics. He satirizes himself and seems not to care.

Upton Sinclair famously attempted to use fiction to rally Americans to the cause of labor rights. The Jungle, which portrays brutal conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, instead resulted in a drop in sales of meat followed by significant regulations to create food safety standards. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he famously said. I know Sinclair mainly through Chris Bachelder’s satirical 2006 novel U.S.! in which Sinclair is assassinated and resurrected repeatedly as the leader of generation after generation of struggling progressive movements. Fictionalized Sinclair looming larger than fact.

Most of the fiction I read is neither comedy nor satire. Many are close to the lived experience of the author. Often with protagonists who share their name and lifestyle with the author. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, for example, which in-part addresses the issue of immigrant children and families separated at the border — material she covered in a previous nonfiction work. But this heart-rending issue is just one element of a story that centers on a scholarly couple’s relationship falling apart as they travel from New York to the southwest to pursue separate research projects. The books they travel, the fragments of their research become minor characters in their journey. 

Luiselli’s is the more likely path I’ll take to November 3. Some nonfiction. Some fiction. A journey in time rather than across geography. As I write these day by day, serendipitous passages from the rotating pile of readings next to me will continue to tag along and redirect us as well.