Thursday, October 22, 2015

Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue

Mysteries are about solving fictionalized real-world puzzles, most often crimes. In fiction categorized as "romance" characters seek, find, lose, and rediscover fulfillment through relationships with an often-idealized other. "Christian fiction" aims to promote behavior, ethics, and beliefs that align with the author's concept of Christianity. "Cli fi" (climate fiction) portrays a world as the author perceives it has been or or anticipates it will be affected by climate change / global warming. Eco-fiction prominently features any of a range of environmental or ecological issues -- recently, I've become interested in a Google+ Group that exchanges posts on these topics; Eco-themes in literature and the arts.

These are all helpful categories. People who want to explore characters and situations that orbit crime, romantic love, Christianity, climate change, or environmental themes can more easily find books they want to read by sifting through their category of choice, as opposed to slogging through the vast and chaotic universe of 129,864,880 books (as of ~5 years ago) from which one could conceivably choose reading material.

But "activist fiction" is an ill-defined category with an unfocused and prejudicially skewed reputation.

Some might say a story whose characters are political activists is "activist fiction" (think Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, or Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation). Others might assert that if a novel's theme is politically charged and the characters, narrator, and/or author more-or-less take a position, it's "activist fiction" (think Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, George Orwell's 1984, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, or Darragh McKeon's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air). Perhaps the narrowest and least helpful definition of the category is one that casts any novel written by an author who is also a political activist as "activist fiction" (think James Baldwin, Jean Genet, or Nadine Gordimer).

To me, "activist fiction" tells stories about people who engage with the world from a point of view that seeks to understand (and often influence) its political dimensions.

Of course, "about people who engage with the world" is a generic definition of almost any story with a character and a setting. And my definition isn't very helpful until the word "political" is unpacked a bit. What I mean by it, in this context, is close to how Merriam Webster defines politics in the word's broadest senses and as it is least closely bound to formal government:
2: political actions, practices, or policies
5a: the total complex of relations between people living in society
The key for me: "activist fiction" is about a type of person and a range of modes of engaging with the world, rather than about any particular issue. It's about the human experience of those engagements ... not the war, environmental disaster, or draconian government that provides a situation or setting that anchors the fiction.

To give illustrative examples, I'm going to use three books published or scheduled for publication this Fall ... the authors, not coincidentally, are three of four panelists slated to discuss Radical Storytelling: Writing Activism Into Fiction at this year's Howard Zinn Book Fair in San Francisco. One of those authors is yours truly.

Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History, by Diana Block, describes pivotal relationships and dramatic decisions taken by women who support the Puerto Rican independence movement and those imprisoned for their part in it. Love, loyalty, risk, succor, abandonment, fear, betrayal, and forgiveness are the human dimensions of stories that play out in interlinked episodes over the course of forty years. The novel's drama revolves around and is propelled by the characters' involvement in a political struggle, but commitment to an independent Puerto Rico is the ocean Block's characters swim in -- they don't spend a great many pages explaining that the ocean is wet.

Murder under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery, by Kate Raphael, is a straight-up detective story set in one of the most contested social and political environments on the planet: the Palestinian West Bank overlaid by Israel's occupation. The bones of Raphael's story follow the contour of most any detective story: a body is found; police go about discovering who murdered the victim. What makes her novel different from any murder mystery you're likely to have read is that the detective is Rania, a Palestinian woman with a young son and a life dedicated to building her people's governing institutions as a member of Fatah (the party of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas). Rania teams up with Chloe, a Jewish-American lesbian activist, to discover who done it. Grassroots activism occurs at the edges of the novel: a confrontation with bulldozers, for example, when Israelis are dispatched to uproot a grove of olive trees that belong to Palestinian farmers; or Chloe's attempts to ward off Israeli soldiers' attacks on unarmed Palestinian boys through her witnessing presence as "an international." But the real political power and fascination of Murder Under the Bridge occurs in its nuanced portrayal of daily routines and relationships among family members and villagers in the West Bank -- a view of everyday life that is hard to find in polarized media portrayals of occupied Palestine. Perhaps most gripping of all, readers are introduced to the sordid underbelly of human trafficking that satisfies Israeli appetites for service workers, nannies, and prostitutes, same old horrifying same old across continents and millennia; and the similarly familiar and discomfiting intimacy between war criminals and peace activists. Murder Under the Bridge is activist fiction because it portrays regular people butting their heads against social constraint, military control, and political power in pursuit of justice.

Consequence, by Steve Masover (a.k.a. moi), portrays a collective household of friends and political activists who engage in nonviolent "direct action" protest. The collective, dubbed the Triangle, engages in a diverse range of progressive political issues; in the novel's timeframe they are preparing to protest genetic engineering's environmental dangers, at an international meeting of biotech companies and scientists taking place at San Francisco's convention center. One member of the Triangle is drawn into a clandestine plot to destroy a agricultural biotech research facility under construction in the midwest. In Consequence, the issue (genetic engineering) is not nearly so central as the question of how grassroots activists can and should balance commitment to nonviolent tactics with actions that call dramatic attention to issues that won't get media attention unless and until protest escalates. As Oscar-nominated director Sam Green put it, "Consequence asks thorny, essential questions about personal responsibility and the role of violence in movements for social change."


To hear more from Diana, Kate, prolific author and celebrated activist-pagan Starhawk, and me about how books portray the engaged and engaging lives of activists please join us at our November 15th panel Radical Storytelling: Writing Activism Into Fiction at this year's Howard Zinn Book Fair at the City College Mission Campus in San Francisco (1125 Valencia St, near 24th St. BART; map).

Radical Storytelling: Writing Activism Into Fiction kicks off at 11:00 am on November 15th. I'll be tabling at the fair as well, so if you're in the Bay Area come by, say hello, and check out some of the other excellent books and panels on offer!

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Launch party photos
Sticking your neck out
Pre-apocalyptic fiction: staving off catastrophe
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the public domain image of the painting La liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix.


  1. Hi, Steve, thanks for the shout out for Murder Under the Bridge. I have two quibbles with this very thought-provoking post: (1) I don't think you can say something is activist simply because it "engage(s) with the world from a point of view that seeks to understand (and often influence) its political dimensions." To be "activist" requires that its protagonists are _actively_ doing something to pursue the change they are seeking. Your parenthetical "often influence" is, in my opinion, too much of a hedge on that critical dimension.
    (2) Mystery readers are not, in my experience or perception, primary drawn to the genre because we like to read about crime. Part of the appeal is the challenge of solving a puzzle that you reference in your first paragraph. But the people I know who read mysteries are drawn to them partly because they often have social issues at their core. "Crime fiction" is often tied up with issues of power and its abuses in a way that appeals to political people.

    1. Thanks, Kate! Your point about mystery readers rings true to me, and I'd certainly defer to your better-informed understanding of the genre. But what I wrote about activist fiction is awfully close to what you called out: to engage is an active verb; and to influence is about pursuing change. Engaging in influence seems a lot like pursuing change to me; though I can accept that my formulation would be stronger (and more descriptive) if the and often qualifier were omitted.