Living in modern urban culture, it is easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a world beyond one’s ‘narrow domestic walls’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s pithy phrase). I am intensely interested in the world, but the daily circumlocutions of work and home, the breathless rush from one deadline to another, at times distances me from the wider reality we inhabit. I know full well that the lives we live perpetuate the illusion that the tiny pocket universe of our daily existence is all there is, and all that matters. We read of school shootings, police brutality, war, oil spills, and the heart clenches for a moment, and for that moment we are lifted out of that illusion. We are helpless before the horrors of the world. What’s the point of expending emotional energy on something we can’t change? When there are jobs to do, and children to raise, and bills to pay? It is so much easier to run back into the hidey-holes of our lives, especially if we are privileged enough to be far from the scenes of violence and destruction. Privilege, after all, means we can afford to not think about it.
But I am a writer. And I like to think of a writer – at least the kind I aspire to be – as a student of the world, immersed in the world. I know there are writers who believe in cutting themselves off from the world so they can work on their art. But the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have, in some form or another, been full participant-observers in this world of ours. So when I am tempted to look away from various external horrors to my own concerns, I remember this — and I remember also what I’ve learned through orbiting the sun for over a half-century: that avoiding or denying painful truths has terrible consequences, personal and otherwise.
This is our world:
One hundred and forty one people, mostly children, were killed by Taliban militants at a school in Pakistan on December 16. Their photographs tell a story that will always be incomplete. The account of the massacre is terrifying and utterly heartrending, Words are inadequate.
And this: on December 9, a tanker collision off the coast of Bangladesh released thousands of litres of heavy oil into the pristine waters of the Sundarbans. A World Heritage site, the Sundarbans mangrove forest is home to endangered species, and a million people depend on this coastal ecosystem. Now the state-owned Padma oil company is offering money to villagers to collect the spilled oil. Reports indicate that the cleanup is being done mostly by children from the ages of 10-16 with no protective gear, using their bare hands. More recent reports indicate that children are falling sick.
Children between 10 years and 16 years are working to recover the oil.(Arati Kumar-Rao) from this news report.
What is one to make of such things, as a human being, and as a writer?
What we are passionate about in this world inevitably affects our writing, and our writing, in turn, has the potential to affect the world. The things that enrage and inspire us will inevitably find their way, by osmosis or intent, directly or slant, into what we write, and if we set ourselves free in our writing, even from – especially from our own conscious selves – then the complexity and ambiguity of the world might emerge on the page. To dare to record the inconvenient truth about the world via the elaborate deceits of fiction, to dare to imagine a different way of being, a different world — is surely a revolutionary act. Which is why both Einstein and Shelley have praised the imagination, and why totalitarian regimes attempt to imprison or otherwise silence their writers.
I want to make a very important point about the imagination – how it can be suppressed even more effectively without a central totalitarian authority. Its suppression is evident in the stories that we choose to tell, and in the way we tell our stories. Living in the West as I do at this point, I am finding it increasingly difficult to tolerate the kind of literary creation in which the default (and unexamined, and un-ironic) setting is white and middle-class, and the story self-indulgent, self-absorbed, pathologically solipsistic, divorced from the bewildering diversity of the world. I am not talking about bad or amateurish writing, or realistic fiction alone — the same old multiply regurgitated crud comes up in speculative fiction as well — I am talking about the conscious or unconscious exclusion of most of the rest of the world, as though the protagonists, whoever they are, were immaculately conceived in isolation from it. All writing is political – what we include or leave out is a political choice, whether we are writing about an old man abandoned by his children, or a young man’s sexual fantasies, or a suburban housewife’s frustrations, or, for that matter, dragons. Much of that choice may well be unconscious. If you are a fish in the sea, you don’t see the sea, in a manner of speaking. It’s what you know to take for granted. We absorb assumptions and conventions from society – hell, we even absorb conventions of rebellion without seeing the patterns beneath. So it seems necessary that to be a student of the world immersed in the world, one must to learn to see things beyond the obvious. To question,to study, to discern, to do one’s homework is part of this. But to do this fully, I’ve found, is not possible without the very difficult job of surrendering oneself. I mean, by that, to look at our own unquestioned individuality and separateness and privilege — and interrogate it.
Consider these two tragedies: the massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan, and the oil spill in Bangladesh. I will not compare them – not just because comparisons are odious, but because they are not always helpful. In one tragedy, children died relatively quickly and horribly. In the other, children (and adults, and sentient wild beings) will mostly suffer slowly, and many will die. What is more useful than comparing these two horrific events is to look beneath the surface and see if and how they may be connected. For this we must be able to look beyond individual events (without at all dismissing the gruesome and terrible details – localness matters) – to structures. What do I mean by ‘structure?’ Consider an example. Let’s say you are an able-bodied person. Let’s also assume you are nice to people, including people in wheelchairs. The truth is that you, the able-bodied person, and the person in the wheelchair, inhabit different worlds. Every building, city plan and transport system is planned and constructed with the able-bodied person as default. It is true that after the American With Disabilities Act, accessibility became easier – but talk to a disabled person and they will tell you that even with access ramps they have to plan their routes to the lecture hall or the office, or the bathroom. You, as the able-bodied person, don’t even have to think about the privilege you have, waltzing up and down the stairways. You could, despite being a person who is nice to the person in the wheelchair, still be part of a system that discriminates. To change things for the disabled requires not only a change in attitude but also a system change, a structural change, which was hard fought and hard won by disabled people (and their allies) and is by no means over — for this, or other kinds of oppression.
I am writing from the Eastern shore of the US, a place apparently remote from these two recent tragedies. In all humility and honesty, I am not any kind of political or other expert, merely a learner trying earnestly to scratch below the surface – so my statements are necessarily tentative. Various sources seem to agree that extremist Islamic terrorism is largely fueled by oil money, particularly from Saudi Arabia, an ally of the U.S. If one looks at the world from the perspective of energy flow, we see some states and corporations holding in their hands the cheapest and most energy intensive fuels known to humankind – fossil fuels – the bedrock of modern civilization. Almost all our energy comes from them, and therefore those who control these resources amass great wealth and power. Wars have been fought over these resources, and atrocities committed in their name. Drone attacks in Pakistan (no less acts of terrorism) have killed innocent people even though they are intended as a response to terrorism. (If you have a paradigm that is based on the murder of innocents, you will murder innocents no matter which side you claim to be on). Fossil fuels are a cheap source of energy, enabling some of us to live in suburbs and drive gas-guzzlers, to build cities in deserts, to fly thousands of miles for vacations. The pocket-universes of the privileged are made possible by the misery of masses of human beings, the mass-extinctions of species, and the degradation of the world on which we depend to survive.
The power structure that wields such destruction also prevents us from seeing these patterns and structures of injustice. We are appalled at police brutality here, terrorist acts there, an environmental disaster somewhere else. But our middle-class grief is disjointed, episodic, infused with helplessness, barely punctuating the treadmill rhythm of our modern-urban existence. An individualistic worldview In which we are constantly distracted by ‘entertainment’ and the ‘pursuit of happiness’ not only prevents us from seeing systems of oppression but also prevents us from imagining alternative systems, because we can only see things in separate, atomistic, individual terms. Our imagination falters at the notion of groups of people, communities working for change. As individuals, how can we not feel alone and powerless in the face of looming problems on a global scale?
I must make clear here that I am not saying individuals who commit heinous acts should not be held responsible for them. Perpetrators of crimes must be brought to justice, fair trials and all. But we can’t pretend the problem is solved because the bin Laden-du-jour has been captured. There will be another one by and by. Why are they springing up in such numbers? What is the history of Wahabbi Islam, and how does that relate to the history of the West in the Middle East, and the struggle over fuel resources like oil? To understand the ways of the world we have to think in terms of systems ans much as individual players and forces. It is perhaps a peculiarly Western dualism that sets individuals against systems, as though one is not entangled in the other. The individual, that nexus of genetic material and social-economic-environmental interactions, is surely an evolving, contingent, contextual entity, changer and changed, ever-interacting, defining and defined by its interactions with something larger. How foolish to pretend that there is a clean division between the individual and society! Under some circumstances and contexts the line is clear; under others, it may be blurred or non-existent. Similarly there are no distinct a priori dividing lines between the local and the general, the nodes and the net. Local events and large-scale systems inform each other, depend on each other, define and are defined by the other – thus both are important. (False dichotomies will be the death of us). Thus by merely scratching at the surface, as I have done, we discover something simultaneously interesting and terrible – connect the dots between a terrorist act and an oil spill in two different parts of the world, and the lines lead right back to us. This is not new or surprising, but it bears repeating. We are complicit in the sins of the world.
I am not saying we are guilty, per se, but we do benefit from the same structure of power and destruction, that world-eating monster that begets such horrors. In any case guilt is not a very useful emotion. But can we at least feel responsible? Responsibility – informed by knowledge, separate from condescension or charity, may well be something else.
Responsibility does not let us off the hook. It also drives us to delve deeper. I spoke a few paragraphs ago about the complexity and ambiguity of the world. I am aware that even as I talk about systems, I am over-simplifying, making broad-brush strokes — and that the devil is in the details. It is easy, in the context of the global energy structure, to see fossil fuels as the enemy and stop there. But the great global fossil fuel power nexus is only a symptom of a deeper issue. Will wind turbines and solar panels save us? They will stop carbon emissions if deployed on a large enough scale, something we desperately need to do to slow and hopefully avoid catastrophic climate change. And yet such solutions are no panacea. Purely technological solutions to problems always create more problems. I just read a short story by Sherman Alexie in his collection “Blasphemy,” called Green World. It’s about an Indian man with a shotgun, and it is also about wind turbines and the horrible destruction they wreak on birds. It is a great story – it connects different kinds of injustice, and it is a punch-in-the-gut reminder of what oppressive systems do to marginalized people – make them agents in their own destruction. By referring to this story I am not implying that we shouldn’t switch to green energy – we may already have passed some crucial climatic tipping points, and we need green energy infrastructure urgently. But can’t we simultaneously tackle the real problem, the existential one — our greed, our loneliness, our fear of death, our desperation? If we are as informed of our true human needs as we are of the technological imperative, if we acknowledge that our fate is entwined with that of other beings, perhaps we will kill fewer birds or bats, or even none at all. Perhaps we will be content with less energy, or go for small, local, distributed power sources instead of huge central ones, or change wind turbine design by studying how Nature does it. Perhaps we will turn off the lights early and look at stars, and remember that we are part of something larger, and that we are not, in fact, alone. What’s the point of changing the energy infrastructure if we don’t change ourselves? That would be rather like a drug addict substituting one drug for another. It is hard to get off drugs alone, and it is hard to get off the fossil-fuel mega-machine alone. We need each other.
In one of her most famous stories, James Tiptree Jr. has her protagonist say of women: “we live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” A system of oppression is also unforgettably rendered in Ursula Le Guin’s classic story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In an opinion piece, George Monbiot writes of the “world-eating, flesh-eating system that has brought us our Age of Loneliness”. How many writers who write about loneliness fail to make the connection between the man or woman in isolation and the systems that undermine meaningful human connection! There are more sorrows in the world than love, writes the poet Faiz, but even love cannot exist in isolation, without history, without context. He reminds us that if we are to truly live in this world, we must also engage with its horrors. The world-machine, that complex superstructure that has birthed modern civilization, is based on premises that are surely insane. We accept the idea of unlimited growth on a finite world, when a child could tell you that such arithmetic doesn’t work. We warm the planet by burning fossil fuels and, on the brink of disaster, frack and drill and blow- up mountain-tops so we can burn more. We go on insane buying sprees ostensibly to celebrate the life of a man who had no possessions. We seek material comfort well beyond our needs and wonder why we keep wanting more when it doesn’t make us happy. Can we say without doubt that modern civilization is, at its foundation, utterly deranged?
My kind of writer is the one who, like the child in the story, points out that the Emperor is naked. Such a writer opens our eyes to structures of oppression – and in doing so, exposes its struts and gantries, its back-alleys and underpasses, so we may, in our imagination, deconstruct the world machine, piece by piece. Sometimes one can do that through an explicitly political piece of fiction; at other times, the details of a single human being’s life can hint at something larger, like a piece of thread in a tapestry that, when traced, suggests a greater pattern. To care deeply about the world, to act in it as well as to write about it, to face oneself and to interrogate oneself , to surrender the ego, the familiar paradigm, so that one might see more deeply – that is the challenge of the writer immersed in the world.
It is not enough to feel the pain of the world, or even to write about it. But it is a beginning. Perhaps words, if they are the right words, can lead us back to ourselves. The poet Sahir reminds us that “in a world of hatred we must build settlements of love.” The imagination is the true artist’s greatest instrument – it builds, it tears down, it exposes, it creates. It invites us to look at the world differently, to see things we didn’t see before, to recognize that we are never separate from it. It compels us to work harder to understand. Through story we make connections across space and time, from here to there, from me to you, diminishing, for a few moments, the illusion that we are strangers.