A Train of Thoughts: Car 3

This incredible TED / Elif Shafak: The Politics of Fiction

A few questions/topics of special interest to me that this talk touches on:

  • the difference between art (esp. literature) and politics (propaganda)
  • and the intersection/overlap of these two (which thematically hearkens back to Car 1, too) – and what is appropriate
  • artists’ responsibility
  • “good” literature vs. not-so-good…or “crap” lit.
  • “cultural ghettos”
  • the power of stories/the power of fiction

Some excerpts from the talk:

On function assigned to fiction…

We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also say how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read, and reviewed. … Multi-cultural writers are expected to tell ‘real’ stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger. But I must quickly add that this tendency to see a story as more than a story does not only come from the West; it comes from everywhere.

Sometimes a story is just a story…

And when I say ‘just a story,’ I’m not trying to belittle my work. I want to love and celebrate fiction for what it is, not as a means to an end. Writers are entitled to their political opinions, and there are good political novels out there. But, the language of fiction is not the language of daily politics.

Quoting Chekov – An artist’s responsibility…

Chekov said, ‘The solution to a problem, and the correct way of posing that question, were two completely separate things, and only the latter is an artist’s responsibility.‘ Identity politics divides us, fiction connects. One is interested in sweeping generalizations, the other in nuances. One draws boundaries, the other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks; fiction, flowing water.

Stories taking us beyond…

When Palestinian and Israeli politicians ‘talk,’ they usually don’t listen to each other. But a Palestinian reader still reads a novel by a Jewish author, and visa versa, connecting and empathizing with the narrator. Literature has to take us beyond. If it cannot take us there, it is not good literature.

Quoting Audrey Lorde – Paradigm shifts…

Audrey Lorde once said, ‘The white fathers taught us to say, “I think, therefore I am.”’ She suggested, ‘I feel, therefore I am free.’ …a wonderful paradigm shift. And yet, why is it that, in creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is ‘Write what you know.’ Perhaps that’s not the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are, or what we know, or what our identity is about. We should teach young people, and ourselves, to expand our hearts, and write what we can feel. We should get out of our cultural ghettos, and go visit the next one, and the next one. …[Stories] connect all of humanity, and that is the good news.

And, finally, to connect back to that first car in the train, Shafak’s talk reminded me of these words of Philip Metres from that P.F. podcast on William Stafford’s poem, “Peace Walk”:

There is a sense that I think damns so many poems — political poems: that they’ve decided what the truth is before they’ve begun.



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