The Common Good
November 2008

Tall Tales and Tiny Revolutions

by Molly Marsh | November 2008

Politics and storytelling.

Tall Tales and Tiny Revolutions: Politics and fiction have much in common. Imagine that!

The upcoming presidential election wraps up months of campaigning, in which each political party has tried to outdo the other in its public storytelling. The narratives follow familiar terrain: “We are the party of change,” says one. “We will keep America strong,” says another. Each party has spent millions to present its candidate as the true “outsider” to Wash­ington politics, the honest crusader who can fix what’s broken in America. These storylines are carefully crafted to appeal to our ideals and our frustrations—in short, they tell us what we want to hear.

Leaders the world over use their power to shape narratives—to good and bad effect. Under repressive governments, such as in China or under South Africa’s apartheid regime, storytellers of a different kind—writers—are among those who suffer when their work doesn’t conform to prevailing social, political, religious, or cultural narratives. Their work is banned, they are silenced, put in prison, exiled—or worse. Unlike politicians, writers often tell their governments, and us, what we don’t want to hear.

The death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn earlier this year reminds us of the powerful impact of his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This slim volume penetrated the silence of the Stalin-era Soviet Union by telling the story of Ivan Denisovich Shukov, a peasant imprisoned in a Siberian concentration camp. Solzhenitsyn—who spent eight years in similar camps himself—describes Ivan’s day, from morning reveille to evening bedtime, as he follows the petty, arcane rules of staying alive. This tiny revolution of words allowed the world to see what happened to those on the wrong side of Soviet power. For his efforts Solzhenitsyn was exiled, but not stopped; his three-volume indictment of the Gulag system, The Gulag Archipelago, was published about 10 years later.

TONI MORRISON'S Beloved takes aim at another system that dehumanized people, by telling the story of Sethe, a former slave who, 18 years earlier, chose to kill her infant daughter rather than see her become a slave. This daughter, Beloved, comes back to haunt her, and the quality of Morrison’s storytelling is such that Beloved—and what she represents—haunts us, too. It’s impossible to finish Beloved with a superficial understanding of what African Americans lived with—unspeakable horrors that were essentially legal.

South African writer Nadine Gordimer also focuses on the ramifications of government policies on people and their relationships—in this case, under South Africa’s apartheid system. In her novel July’s People, which was banned, the Smales family is forced to flee their home and rely on July, their black servant. He takes the white family to his own family’s village in the bush, where they negotiate their new and complicated relationship. Are July’s people the Smales or his real family? Who are the Smales when they are separated from their privilege? Like South Africa at the time, there aren’t any rules: The former ways of interacting have ended and new territory will have to be forged.

The list of books that have sparked revolutions, small and large, inner and outer, is endless. Fiction can contain far more truth than fact; with our imaginations we can put ourselves into the minds and lives of others and see from different perspectives—perspectives that depart from the usual storylines of our own understanding, and even of our own time.

“Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine,” said Doris Lessing in accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature last December. “Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us—for good and for ill. It is our stories that will re-create us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed.”

Why include a special section on fiction when the nation is glued to the latest election poll? Because politics, for all its promises of change, can’t match the transformative power of empathy.

Molly Marsh is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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