The Role Of The Novelist In Trump's America

Shanthi Sekaran is the author of Lucky Boy, a novel about motherhood, immigration and America.

Donald Trump won the American presidency by telling a powerful story. Once upon a time, it went, in a land not-so-far away, there lived an honest and hard-working man. The man fell asleep one day, and when he woke, he found himself in a strange land. The story went on to tell of the man’s slow discovery that his home had been taken, his values trampled, his security washed away with the tides of change. As he’d slept, civil rights and new technologies had taken hold and manufacturing migrated. Foreigners immigrated and transformed the economic dynamic, the physical landscape and the colour palette of his great nation.

The story continues with a lamp which emitted, when rubbed, a raving and flame-haired genie. I’ll give you back your home, the genie promised the man. All you have to do is set me free. The man rejoiced and set him free.

The tale Trump spun wasn’t a popular one. Its appeal wasn’t wide, but it ran deep. It reached right into the throat of forgotten America and pulled from it xenophobia, isolationist simplification and a blind hope that this man, this genie, could resurrect a country they recognised.

Four weeks into the new administration, as dissonance becomes the norm and every day a new battle, the writers around me have begun to question their purpose. Journalists, of course, are quite certain: their purpose is to report, question and not back down in their pursuit of honest and rational answers. Trump’s attempts to vilify the media only strengthen their resolve.

But fiction writers? Before Lucky Boy came out, my two most recent stories were about dogs in space and Heathcliff Earnshaw on a date. Fiction writers are used to following their aesthetic whims, not news trends. What, then, is the role of fiction when it’s nonfiction that demands our incessant attention? When a Trump press conference is in itself an act of post-modern absurdity, what more can fiction offer? Ron Currie writes about the escapist value of fiction, and yes, there are times when escape is needed. There are times I can’t bring myself to listen to another calm radio voice detailing the slow rise of an authoritarian state.

But what if I don’t want to escape? What if I want to stay and engage? What does fiction offer the contemporary reader and writer?

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Photo via Shanthi Sekaran/Facebook.
Shanthi Sekaran
Fiction’s most important offering lies in its very structure. Rising action, crisis, climax, resolution. As I write this, the morning news tells of new plans for aggressive deportation, of media figures conflating hate speech with free speech, of the dismantling of our public school system. And tomorrow? What next? Every morning, Americans wake up to a stream of rhetorical drivel and troubling news. Worries pile on worries. It won’t be long before the nonsense tips into danger. Reality starts to feel like a dark and bottomless well.

But every well has a bottom, every story an end. Fiction teaches us this. When we think of the American moment for its beginning-middle-end, it starts to feel like something digestible, perhaps even tractable.

I have friends—a few sheepish friends—who like to look ahead to the end of every novel they pick up. Just to make sure the ending’s okay. To be comforted even before they know what to worry about. Americans don’t have that luxury. We don’t have an end to flip to yet.

What we do have is the power of authorship. Every story has an author. Every reader has a writer inside. Every American holds a pen. Who will write this chapter of the American story? Will we hand our pens to Donald Trump? Will we let a man who doesn’t read write our future? And how will we contribute to that story? Authorship lies in action. “Showing up to the page” takes on new meaning.

As I write this, I think back to last week’s widely shared Trumpism: “The leaks are absolutely real, the news is fake, because so much of the news is fake.” To borrow from Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif, Trump’s statement is an act of violence against language. He takes meaning and suffocates it. He takes language and throws it into an icy lake of denial and illogical discourse.

In the face of such violence, what’s left? Care. Care for language. And joy in language. And the soothing protein of logic. Fiction, with its rise and fall, its cause and effect, can swaddle language back to life. In the face of violence and absurdity, fiction can remind us of who we are and what we value.
Still, I have my doubts. My most recent novel speaks directly to the immigration crisis. But what will it do for the immigrants being rounded up this very moment by ICE officers? What can I do for people dying in the Sonoran Desert? Hand them a copy of my book? The only answer I can fathom is this: reading is an act of witness. When we read fiction about timely characters—undocumented immigrants, refugees, transgender teenagers—we witness their humanity. When we read fiction about untimely characters—the Bennett sisters, Gregor Samsa, Willy Loman—we witness our own humanity. Both endeavours are worthwhile.

Reading won’t solve our dilemmas. Stories won’t write bills and get them passed. Novels won’t de-gerrymander voting districts. Fiction reminds us that this era of American history is its own story, to be outlined and written by those willing to take up a pen. And fiction gives us hope, no small task in a time like this, if only for a few hours, if only for a happy ending.
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