American author William Faulkner famously said that fiction is a better conduit to conveying a truth than journalism. Faulkner’s adage has been confirmed time and time again through literary history where stories such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando have told us more about political and sexual oppression than any journalistic piece ever could.
Because fiction is such a powerful way of revealing the truth, the author as activist is arguably the most dangerous person to an oppressive regime. Just look at José Rizal (1861–1896) whose novel Filibusterismo was crucial to the Filipino independence struggle against Spain. Or the importance of Vaslav Havel’s (1936–2011) work to the fall of Communism in what is today the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Or the very latest example, Svetlana Aleksievich’s hybrid style of fiction and journalism that made the Lukashenko regime of Belarus label her as a non-existing individual and which earned her the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Rizal, Havel, and Aleksievich have in common that they are authors writing as activists against an oppressive society within which they themselves live their lives. Their work resonates because the experience they share is their own. This is the reason, I believe, why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me made such an impact when it was published last year. Coates writes from personal experience and the reader feels this in the prose. There is no other option but to take him seriously and listen to him because there is no denying that—like Rizal, Havel, and Aleksievich—the experience he shares with us is his own.
But what about when the author as activist adopts the cause of a group to which he or she does not belong? When the author as activist speaks on behalf of someone else’s experience?
An example of this type of activism is the authors’ protest letter and boycott of PEN America’s decision to award French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in 2015. The reason given for the protest and boycott was that Charlie Hebdo targets a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.” This in referral to France’s Muslim population. In other words, according to the protesters, Charlie Hedbo‘s work is not reprehensible for its crude satire, but because it targets Muslims.
However, as I expressed several times on twitter while this controversy was going on, the authors that were involved in this protest made no mention of the fact that Charlie Hebdo‘s main target for their satirist cartoons is not Islam, but the Catholic Church. Neither did anyone seem to have a problem with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that targeted Jews.
I cannot speak for any of the authors involved in the protest but novelist Jennifer Coden Epstein’s request to have her name removed from the letter and the reasons stated by her for this request show the perils of becoming an activist for a cause that is not your own. In what I would refer to as a courageous statement, Epstein admits that she was misinformed and wrong about Charlie Hebdo‘s work and her assessment of the cartoons. Salman Rushdie tweeted that he hoped that other signees would follow in Epstein’s footsteps. Unfortunately, that seems not to have happened.
Making sure that you are fully informed of all the aspects and nuances is only one important aspect when you decide to fight for a cause which is not yours. Another important aspect is to be aware of the historical background of that cause and to know how to interpret a historical process in comparison to other processes.
An example of how an author undermines him- or herself as an activist when not understanding how to analyze history has been made evident in a round-table conversation published by Electric Literature. The round-table discussion concerned the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine where comparisons were made between the origins of the United States and Israel, making the argument that the two countries shared an origin as colonial settler states.
As far as the United States are concerned, there is an origin story of colonial settlement. From the first lasting settlement at Jamestown in 1607 until 1776 when the United Colonies declared independence from the British Empire, a colonial project of gigantic proportions, controlled and instigated by the British government, took place on the east coast of North America. Land was cleared for farming by European settlers, Native Americans were displaced, and Africans were brought in as slaves.
When it comes to Israel, until the end of World War I, the area that is now Israel and the PA was under the colonial rule of the Ottoman Empire. From the collapse of the Ottomans and until 1948, the region was under the colonial rule of the British Empire. During the decades leading up to 1948, this region saw an influx of Jewish immigrants. In 1947, the United Nations general assembly voted to partition the region between a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. On May 14, 1948 the British empire left the region for good and the UN resolution came into force.
When comparing origin stories, the only way for Israel to have a colonial settler origin such as the United States would be if the Jewish immigration prior to 1948 had been orchestrated by either the Ottomans or the British for their own gain. Or if a large immigration of one particular group to an area would constitute as colonization. If so, then consequently Europe is currently being colonized by Syrian refugees. Which, of course, it is not.
The author as activist is, arguably, one of the most important aspects of being an author. The author as activist has the opportunity and the ability to highlight and bring forward issues in a way that journalists and historians simply cannot. However, the fact that the author as activist is writing fiction does not give the author the liberty to disrespect facts or historical processes. When this happens, fiction no longer tells the truth better than journalism. Rather, it becomes the harbinger of untruths.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Karen Ordahl Kupperman The Jamestown Project (Harvard University Press, 2007).
The Guardian, “Two Dozen Writers Join Charlie Hebdo PEN Protest.”
The Guardian, “Novelist Says She was Wrong to Oppose Charle Hebdo PEN Award.”
Electric Literature, “A Conversation about American Writers and Palestine.”
Britannica Online, search term “Israel.”