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.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Launch party photos

One of my old and dear friends nailed it. The launch party for Consequence was like a wedding: people from every corner of my life showed up for the celebration at Diesel Books in Oakland.

Here's what it was like, in pictures (there's video too, but that'll take a bit longer to stitch together and post):

Thanks to everyone who came out for a terrific afternoon!

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Launch Party at Diesel Books Oakland - Sunday 18 Oct at 3pm
Sticking your neck out
CONSEQUENCE has arrived
Hanging friends' art in fiction

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun and Quinn Dombrowski for the terrific photos!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Launch Party at Diesel Books Oakland - Sunday 18 Oct at 3pm

Diesel Books in Oakland is generously hosting a launch party for Consequence this coming Sunday, 18 October 2015, from 3:00 to 4:00 pm.

I'll read, I'll answer questions, I'll sign books (Diesel will have plenty on-hand).

Who will be there? Old friends, new friends, seasoned authors, authors with books coming out this Fall, complete strangers, family, seasoned activists, colleagues, artists, Tai Chi classmates, former housemates, and uncategorizable iconoclasts -- avid readers all. (Well, I don't actually know about the complete strangers, but why else would they show up at a book launch party?)

It would be great to see you at Diesel!!

Feel free to RSVP on the Facebook event page ... but in any case, I hope that if you're in the Bay Area you'll join me.

Need directions? Diesel is at 5433 College Avenue, about four blocks from Rockridge BART, between the station and Broadway. Here's a map:

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Sticking your neck out
CONSEQUENCE has arrived
Hanging friends' art in fiction

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sticking your neck out

I've had some interesting conversations lately about activist fiction. Yes, I have to acknowledge that those who focus on categorizing fiction might assume Consequence is aimed at a narrow demographic, fiction primarily written 'for' people who self-identify as political activists. But that's not how I conceived the novel, and early reviews on Amazon and Goodreads suggest my intention will be realized: that readers with much broader interests will feel rewarded once they find their way into its pages.

Given that the novel orbits a collective household of political activists, I think I ought to explain how and why I see a wider readership taking interest in it.

The thing is, I believe a broad, messy, scrappy variety of all kinds of people are quite a lot 'like' activists ... even though most would never think to call themselves that.

'Activist fiction', the way I read it, is a category of stories about people who are willing to stick their necks out.

Even if you're not that sort yourself, you probably know half a dozen people among family and friends who have stuck their neck out once or twice. Maybe you know people who stick their necks out regularly about some issue or problem or person they care about deeply. People who stick their necks out are legion, a ubiquitous part of our world. And when people stick their necks out, what they're up to is often pretty interesting. Captivating, even.

Here's my take from a 'sample interview' I drafted on the road to bringing out Consequence:
Q: What would somebody who isn’t politically active get from Consequence?

SM: Everybody decides how far to stick their neck out to confront the things they just can’t bear. Maybe you confront a school principal if your kid is getting bullied or shunned, or you go out of your way to buy something from a local business instead of on-line or from a national chain. Maybe you write a letter to the editor, or sign a petition, or support a political candidate who is trying to do something better than business as usual. Maybe you post an article or a meme about an issue you care about on Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter even if you expect it’ll rub some of the people you know the wrong way. Consequence is about people who are willing to stick their necks out regularly, around multiple issues, and to stick their necks out even further when hanging out in their comfort zone doesn’t get the results they’re after. I think most people can identify with that dilemma. Most of us go out on a limb about something we care about at some point in our lives, one way or another.
And another angle:

I swim regularly at the YMCA in Berkeley, and over many years I've met quite a few people outside my usual circles. Gyms are good for that. 'Everybody works out' may overstate the case, but you find a wide range of personalities in a gym that has 15,000 members.

One fellow-swimmer I talk with often is Jon P--, a commercial real estate broker, Rotarian, and grandfather. Recently, when I casually characterized Consequence in conversation as a novel about 'activists', Jon took sharp -- and well-considered -- exception. Not to the novel, which he hadn't read at the time. But to what he took to be my too-narrow definition of 'activist.'

"Look," he said, "everybody's an activist..." And then told me about a retired physician and member of the Berkeley Rotary Club who is in his mid-80s and remains passionate about eradicating polio. Bob, the physician, doesn't consider himself an activist, per se, Jon told me. People who know him don't think: oh, he's an anti-polio activist. People who know Bob see a doctor who has witnessed more than his share of suffering -- nature of the job, right? -- and is driven by empathy and compassion to do something to relieve a measure of that suffering.

So Bob works actively and passionately to accomplish a goal he holds to be a critically important public good.

Isn't that what activists do?

My friend Jon is right: maybe not everybody is an activist, but to draw a border between "activism" and passionate, goal-oriented activity aimed at realizing a public good -- that's not a very helpful or informative distinction. I'd venture the characters in Consequence would agree.

More or less everybody, sometime, sticks their neck out about something.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Radical conservatism vs the radical left
When authorities equate disobedience with violence
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
The desire to destroy is also a creative desire
Digging deeper holes

Thanks to Greg Willis for the image of giraffes, zebras, and springboks, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Pre-apocalyptic fiction: staving off catastrophe

Stories set in a world that has been ruined by some overwhelming catastrophe are commonly categorized as “post-apocalyptic fiction,” a sub-genre of speculative fiction -- for the time being at least, because the world isn’t ruined yet. Not altogether, anyway.

But what about stories that concern themselves with ruin that might happen, but hasn’t yet? With Apocalypse Brewing, so to speak.

I define “pre-apocalyptic fiction” as stories that aren’t so speculative as their darker, world-gone-kaput cousins. Pre-apocalyptic stories take place in the world that exists, not a world that might come to pass. We recognize the world of these stories as our own. Apocalypse -- an existential threat to all humankind, or to all life on Earth -- is not a foregone conclusion, though threat looms large. In a narrator’s or protagonist’s view, the end might be nigh.

Most importantly, the pre-apocalyptic category is a form of moral fiction. The heroes in these tales are women and men who are doing what they can to turn the apocalyptic tide. If there’s no hope of staving off apocalypse, or if a story’s drama turns on the discovery that apocalypse is inevitable, we’re talking cusp-of-apocalypse fiction … which (in my taxonomy, at least) is a different animal.

Here’s a short list of novels I categorize as pre-apocalyptic:

The Jaguar’s Children by Jack Vaillant (2015). Concealed in a tanker truck welded shut by smugglers, then abandoned with its human cargo in the Arizona desert, a volatile secret unearthed by a scientist named César is making its way northward from Mexico. The biotech company for which César once worked has released a genetically modified variant of corn engineered to wipe out plant diversity that indigenous farmers have depended on for thousands of years, and transform Mexico's self-sufficient agrarian communities into indentured servants of agribusiness. César’s mission to expose and contain the chaos sown by his former employer can succeed only if the signal-starved cell phone into which his story is narrated -- and which also contains documentary evidence of big biotech’s plot -- is rescued along with the few who stand any chance of surviving a slow descent toward death-by-dehydration in the abandoned tanker.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon (2014). In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant burns in the northern Ukraine, as the Soviet Union stumbles toward collapse. A surgeon named Grigory does Sisyphean battle ministering to an endless stream of radiation-sickened victims, in the face of indifference or worse as bloodless bureaucrats attend to controlling information and deflecting blame away from the Soviet state. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Grigory’s estranged wife Maria is drawn into a workers’ plot to weaken the crumbling empire. The apocalypse in this novel is “local” only in the sense that a global cascade of nuclear plant failures -- Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukishima -- has just begun, and the industry that runs the reactors shows little sign of shutting them down. The heroes in McKeon’s novel battle inertia and self-interest that form the poisoned soil in which disaster germinates.

All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki (2003). A tribe of neo-hippie activists roam the rural U.S. in a biodiesel powered RV, then team up with a messianic Christian, seed-banking farmer to resist the incursion of genetically engineered potatoes into Idaho’s farmscape -- and the debt peonage such patented seed crops impose on once-independent growers.

The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon (2003). Radical, Vietnam-era fugitives once associated with an organization not unlike The Weather Underground recount a tangled tale of outrage, despair, responsibility, love, and unlikely loyalties that led antiwar activists to plant bombs, rob banks, abandon children, and spend decades continuing to fight for justice under assumed identities. Gordon’s novel delves deep into the character, motivation, and human flaws of pre-apocalyptic heroes.

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975). In this classic of pre-apocalyptic fiction, four riotously eccentric characters commit acts of ecological sabotage to stymie destructive “development” of wilderness in the southwestern U.S. Their high-spirited acts of environmentalist defense walked out of Abbey’s pages to inspire EarthFirst! and allied bands of loosely-organized monkeywrenchers, who continue to wage asymmetric warfare on behalf of forests, deserts, rivers, exploited animals, oceans, and biodiversity.

So what do readers get from pre-apocalyptic fiction that isn’t on offer from stories set in a future, fully-broken world?


Not hope as a bolted-on, deus ex machina sweetener at the end of a fundamentally bitter tale; but hope as a vision of the qualities a reader might cultivate, and of how she or he might apply those qualities to help pull humankind and our one-and-only biosphere out of a terrifying and deeply consequential nosedive.

This post appeared as a featured blog in The Huffington Post on 1 October 2015: Pre-apocalyptic fiction: staving off catastrophe.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
When tree flakes make governments quake (it's Banned Books Week!)
Pre-apocalyptic fiction: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books