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Finding Lit’s Political Potentials

Every once in a while we fall into a book. Like Alice falling into the rabbit hole. A whole world unfurls around us, and engulfs us. A good book is almost always familiar enough for us to relate to, and yet in allowing us to enter a world that is even just a little different, it opens us to new experiences, new histories and new ways of relating to our world. And perhaps to new political possibilities. In this article, I try to think of reading as a way of exploring new modes of engaging with the politics of gender, sexuality and intersectionality. But can a new politics – a politics that isn’t already around – emerge from fiction? Books, particularly in postcolonial contexts, are read as discourses entangled in complex politics. The politics that produces them, and the politics that they get mired in are only too obvious. Here, I want us to think of a different kind of politics. In being able to talk about reality a little differently from other genres of writing, or in being able to write about things that aren’t real, what political politics emerge from the genre of fiction?

The word “fiction” either reminds us of literature or of lies. In a world, where fake news, alternative facts, and other dangerous pieces of misinformation circulate easily through the Internet, it is inevitable that we have become a little defensive of facts. But what does this attitude to fact do with our attitude to fiction? As Amitav Ghosh underlines in the Great Derangement, sometimes this love of facts, makes fiction, look like something of a lesser truth – a possible lie, if not an explicit one. It is not uncommon to hear comments like “literature is great but it is not real.” Or “there is no point to poetry.” Or “it is just a story.” While reading non-fiction is associated with a love of facts, accuracy and information, reading fiction becomes a whimsical act. This binary is perhaps most evident in the way science is valued over fiction.

This is also a gendered sentiment. It is not uncommon to hear men dismiss what women have to say as a lesser truth, as fiction. In fact, if you peruse colonial texts, it is easy to find references to women whose “heads are full of stories”, whereas men seem to be actors in a “real” world, a world of fact. Even older is the idiom “old wives’ tales”. If not with women, then stories are associated with children, with minds that are supposedly still inchoate and unfinished. In all these cases, the association of women and children to fiction is often used as a way of disregarding what women and children have to say as lesser truths. In other words, it is used to infantilise them. By such patriarchal and imperialist association, then fiction is also treated as a lesser truth, and infantilised in comparison to fact.

There are of course two kinds of feminist responses to this sentiment: one is for the silenced subject to learn to speak like the speaking subject. Women and children show men that they can also speak the language of facts and information. The other response is of course, for all speaking subjects – men, women, and children – to learn to listen to the silenced and develop a ear for the “lesser truth,” and not to conflate it with outrageous and dangerous lies. This is perhaps what Gayatri Spivak has to say in her now canonical essay, Can the subaltern speak? Do we know how to listen to subaltern voices, she asks? Or do we hear speech only when it imitates the forms of speech that already have an audience. Extending this logic to my comparison between fact and fiction, I would ask if we know how to read fiction and treat it as yet another window to truth? Not one that is carefully built by stacking facts like the genre of non-fiction.  But one that in imagining the world not as it is, but as it could be, allows us to reimagine our politics in a way a work of non-fiction cannot? I do not mean to posit here that fiction is better, but only that it is different, and in being different, opens different doors to politics.

In this article, I explore three genres ­– children’s fiction, sci-fi, literature “from the margins” – as places where we can learn to open our world to political possibilities that seem to lie outside of the horizon of our ‘real’ lives.

Part I

Long before, I read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, I met George Kirrin. Georgina who wanted to be called George. She was quick to temper and unapologetic about it. She loved her dog fiercely. She kept a boat on the beach and rode it to ‘her’ island. She kept her dark hair short and refused to wear dresses. If you ever crossed her, she never forgave you. If she decided to like you, then she had your back. This image of George has stuck with me since I first came across her in the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. I was probably eight or nine when I devoured those books. At eight, I knew gender to be simple: there were girls and there were boys. At eight, I was also not sure how I felt about this definition of gender. George changed this. Now there was a girl who scoffed at the boys she knew and yet yearned to be one. She walked me past the binary into something more complex. Even as she solved the mundane mysteries around her, she chased after yet another mystery – a complex articulation of her gendered self.

I haven’t thought about George in a long time, but today, as I sit down to write this article, I find her coming back to me. Today, kids have storybooks that intentionally address the politics of gender. But Famous Five was not intended to be an exploration of gender. If it was, it isn’t explicit. It positioned itself as a book of adventures for children. But as it invited readers to solve puzzles, it also introduced them to a forceful and inspiring young child. And this child teaches young readers, beyond parental imagination and possibly even beyond the imagination of the author, that there is something queer-able about gender. Put another way, in writing Famous Five Enid Blyton was not participating in a politics that opened up gender deliberately. Yet in offering her young readers a character who “did” gender differently and “troubled” gender with all her mis-doings and non-doings of gender-appropriate behaviour, she opened the door to a different political possibility, long before the complex vocabulary around it became more easily available.

Here is the best part about George Kirrin: she never grows up. We don’t know what she will do with herself. Will she want to be addressed with the plural pronoun? Will she want to become a man? Will she become a woman who always troubled gender binaries? Would she identify as queer? We won’t know. She is bequeathed to us as an open-ended possibility – a bookmark for everyone who wants to dream an alternative politics of the body, even before they learn a language for it. She is a political possibility, waiting to grow into a more understanding politics of the body.

Part II

There is an eerie familiarity about Nnedi Okarafor’s Lagoon. Ayodele, is an alien, visiting from outer space with a message for the beings of Earth. Her people choose to land in Nigeria in order to avoid an armed retaliation by an imperialist force like the United States. Ayodele, as their spokesperson, makes it to the city of Lagos looking for a peaceful dialogue with humans. But except for very few, who are able to reach across the difference and hold her hand in friendship, others retaliate with suspicion. As Lagos resounds with cries of misogyny and xenophobia, you begin to wonder if Okarafor is writing fiction at all. It all seems only a little too much like what one gets to see on the news every day. 

Lagoon is an ode to a world in which the very institutions that exist to “protect” you are slowly undermining your sense of security and certainty. Okarafor critiques many such institutions – the family, the church, the state, the nation, the military, the market. The Nigeria she writes about is strikingly real, and also strikingly similar to many a postcolonial place – the military industrial complex runs the nation, the church is an extension of an imperialist institution, the family is the smallest unit of patriarchal control. Not only do these institutions make it impossible for humans to thrive, but they also hurt nonhuman life. The lagoon outside of Lagos has petroleum spills, and marine life, like human life, is on the brink of catastrophe.

This is when the aliens arrive. Okarafor is in no hurry to tell you why they have come or what they have planned for Earth. She lets the tension between the aliens and the humans play out instead. Each attempt at dialogue turns into mayhem: an army chief wants to classify the alien arrival as an “invasion” and declare that Nigeria is at war, the head of a church wants to convert the aliens and prove to his parish that he is a very powerful messenger of god, other people begin to believe it is time for all to repent because the promised rapture is upon Nigeria, petty thieves want to loot the aliens and sell their wares in the international markets. These interactions reach bizarre and even ridiculous proportions as all these forces come marching at the same time to the home where the alien woman, Ayodele waits for a dialogue. Okarafor pulls this off, because her sci-fi mirrors our actual lives in the most eerie ways. You even wonder if she needed a sci-fi plot including aliens at all.

But then, she does something marvellous, by asking us to wonder who indeed “aliens” are. As the news of Ayodele spreads around the city, you see some people developing a sense of hope, among them a young group of queer individuals, whose sexuality is criminalised. For them, the arrival of aliens opens up new possibilities – in a world where extra-terrestrial “others” can co-exist with humans, can they as queer humans perhaps be more open about their sexualities without fearing persecution? Okarafor isn’t saying something new here. In several postcolonial places with colonial laws criminalising a category offensively called “unnatural sex,” people find themselves asking if they can ever co-exist without being “othered,” and particularly without being penalised for their difference. But in showing how young queer individuals attach hopes to an alien also being subject to xenophobia and misogyny, Okarafor makes us question who belongs and who is an “alien” in our society. She allows us to see several patterns of hatred at the same time – hatred for foreigners, hatred for women, hatred for queerness. And in allowing these forms of hate as well as hope to overlap, she shows how a politics of solidarity can emerge among the excluded. Sci-fi is a great genre for showing stories of solidarity, precisely because the genre of sci-fi, particularly movies, has been elemental in promoting the notion that “aliens” are a threat to the social order of nations. But in asking us to look within our own world to identify people we treat as “alien” she uses her sci-fi to throw open new ways of addressing the threat posed by laws criminalising non-heteronormative sexualities with non-reproductive ends.

Part III

Recently, I did a lot of my fieldwork in Assam. But during this whole time, I found it very difficult to speak about Assam to my friends back home. In the “mainland” as the Assamese call most of India, Assam is either still that “exotic” frontier province with rhinos and tribes, or that “part of India” that can be entirely explained in terms of its awkward relationship with India. So I got weird questions about “the dangerous tribes,” “the wonderful tea,” ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam), separatism. Two themes emerged continuous in these conversations: inexplicable beauty and inscrutable danger. I was uncomfortable particularly because these reminded me of questions I am often asked about all of India in the United States, where I get my PhD. Yes, in spite, of the “Desi” turn across the globe, South Asia is either an exotic locale or a dangerous place. It is either the land of beautiful Bollywood or a land of dangerous religious fanatics and lecherous men. Colonialism is well and alive in these conversations.

The above is only an example of such imperialist relations between places – “the centres” and “their peripheries.” I put them in quotes because I do not mean to say that Assam is marginal, or that all of India is marginal. What I do mean to say is that some places become peripheral in the way conversations interpolate them as remote locations that seem to have no histories or stories of their own except in relation to this “centre.”

But again, fiction does the work here of decentralising places and decolonising relations between places. I picked up Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth during a week when I was particularly annoyed at my own incompetency at addressing these problematic questions about Assam. Rebirth tells the story of a young Assamese woman negotiating the death of a close friend, an unplanned pregnancy, and her abusive marriage, while making home in the city of Bangalore. She tries to make Bangalore her own, and Bangalore tries to make her its own – her dialogue with the city is friendly, and pleasurable. Yet in the interstices of this pleasure are subtle forms of everyday racism – why are her clothes different? Is she from a different place? Is that place beautiful? Dangerous? These questions, on their own, seem innocuous. Can we not ask after a place or a form of clothing? But it wears you, the reader, down just as it wears down the female protagonist. When she goes back to Guwahati for a short interlude, and experiences a sense of freedom because she does not have to constantly satisfy other people’s sense of curiosity about her, it is not only she who breathes in relief. You do too.

Being “woke” is in vogue now. But I also hear fatigue among those who have to do the job of educating so that others can be woke. Fiction to me is perhaps the only space where you hear both sides to this story side by side. The world in fiction can be imagined from anywhere – in fiction, Assam can be central in a way our mainstream non-fiction hasn’t learned to become yet. And this is where, I would say fiction paves the way to a politics not from where “the world” is reimagined “from the margins,” but one in which a place doesn’t have to imagine itself as the “margin” of another in order to make itself prominent.

If Rebirth shows just how tiring it is to constantly push back against this centre-margin arrangement, other works imagine what mainstream politics would recognise as “marginal” worlds without re-inscribing this marginality. Toni Morrison’s entire body of work is testament to such political imagination; the stories she writes about are products of imperialism and racism and yet they are marginal to none. Each of her characters emerges at the centre of their own stories. Perumal Murugan’s fiction captures rural Tamil Nadu with the same kind of passion. He writes with and for a particular people, situating himself within a particular politics. While their stories are deeply shaped by imperialist processes, he does not depart from the stories he has to tell to show how these places and people stand in relation to more privileged lives. In other words, he does not accord recognition to the privileged.  This omission opens up political possibilities – a world in which one doesn’t have to explain oneself to those in whose lives one will always be marginal. It teaches one to be unapologetic within the imperialist and colonial framework and to stop educating the more privileged. Of course, who the privileged are can vary from situation to situation, but in a way, this form of fiction allows women to write without wondering how men will read their work; allows queer voices to talk to other queer voices and ignore cis and heteronormative frameworks; and black voices, dalit voices and rural voices to write despite the “slots” in which imperialist frameworks place them.

As I said earlier, fiction is often relegated to a secondary stow because fact-based forms of knowledge are becoming more and more valued. To be informed is to stay with the facts. Yet I think fiction allows us to stay just about as informed. To understand how people around us feel, how they experience life differently from us, how they learn to cope, we often need stories. And fiction, by being able to imagine dimensions different from the real world, often makes possible stories that allow us to reimagine the world in which we live, and our ways of engaging with it.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Shweta's life is a little bit like a patchwork quilt. She started her career as a medical doctor, and then worked as a medical writer, producing multimedia content on sexual and reproductive health for several NGOs. Currently, she is a student of sociocultural anthropology, discovering the pleasures of being entangled with transnational and queer feminist scholarship and activism. She is grateful to the many people she has met in her life—family, friends, co-workers and mentors—who constantly push her to made her political views more and more nuanced. She hopes her writing reflects her openness to new modes of engaging with the world, and her curiosity about life. She writes about gender and sexuality both from her personal experiences, and from the academic interest she takes in the subtle textures of human experiences. She has called many places home in her life. Currently, she resides in Washington DC, USA and Chennai, India.

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