Do I want to be known as a political writer?
Yes – and no.
But aren’t politics and literature two totally different discourses – the first patched together from dodgy rhetoric and convenient lies, the second all about the unpicking of rhetorical clich? and the discovery of hard-won, long-term truths?
You have a point.
And yet, despite all that, I know I am, among other things, a political writer. Why? Because my work is centred on my understanding of the polis – my society and its people – as well as my individual characters. I nearly always write about the present because I like to hazard my best guess about how the real world, the one that is currently in the process of creation, works – something about where the powerful are and how power corrupts and corrodes, something about those who are excluded and those who suffer.
Why should I want to write politically in a culture where ’seriousness’ is faintly embarrassing and the idea of political art makes a lot of people queasy? The answer is certainly not ‘because I feel I ought to’. ‘Oughts’ are no use in literature, only ‘musts’. I do it because questions like those at the end of my second paragraph burn their way into my imagination and must come out somehow. If the same is true of you, you needn’t feel afraid to write politically – which after all only means ‘write about people in context, rather than out of it.’ As long as you’re not preaching or writing propaganda, there is no reason why political writing shouldn’t be both entertaining and, if that’s your ambition, high art.
The briefest look at the British literary tradition reveals a strong line of political writing: Shakespeare and Marlowe (Tamburlaine is a great political tragedy); Aphra Behn’s Oronooko; Fanny Kemble’s Journals with their brilliantly scathing indictment of life on a slave plantation; Charles Dickens, writing with irrepressible glee about cruel educationists and crooked businessmen and legislators; Thackeray satirising all of human life as a great fairground of vanities; Beckett’s comedy of a ‘poor, bare, forked’ man, which subtly calls into question the competitive materialism of post-war life in the West; George Orwell; Henry Green’s great suite of books, including Loving, Living and Partygoing; Sam Selvon; Doris Lessing; and, among my contemporaries, Alastair Gray, JG Ballard, Martin Amis, David Caute, Fay Weldon, Bernardine Evaristo, Diran Adebayo, Hilary Mantel, Jim Crace, Andrea Levy… The political novel is hardly in abeyance here. Yet when I talk to Creative Writing students, they often sound curiously tentative when they talk about wanting to write politically.
I think I felt like that too when I started out. My first novel, Dying in Other Words (1981), was more focused on formal experiment than the society I lived in. I was fresh from two higher degrees in which I had worked on Modernism and on British Surrealism, neither of them movements famed for successful engagement with real life. Yet something happened to me between my first and second books, because The Burning Book, Grace, Where are the Snows, Lost Children, The Ice People, The White Family, The Flood and my two recent comedies starring white British Vanessa Henman and black Ugandan Mary Tendo, My Cleaner and My Driver, are all, in their way, political books. How did the change happen?
The Burning Book, my second novel, was written at a peculiarly fraught historical moment. It’s hard to convey to those who grew up after the collapse of communism how, during the Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s, ordinary contentment was eroded by two apparently ever more opposed political blocs squaring up to each other, backed by the most fearsome weapons of mass destruction (which in this case actually existed.) In 1981-1982, American Cruise missiles with ‘tactical’ nuclear warheads were being readied for deployment to the UK, which marked a significant ratcheting up of the tension. I was a CND member and afraid of nuclear war. Aged 32 I had unexpectedly got on to the Granta ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ list with my first book, so part of me was longing to get on with my writing, but I also felt writing was self-indulgent and trivial when there was a real prospect of everything being destroyed in nuclear war. Impasse. The only way out was to force my writing into a shape that could accommodate the prospect of war and my nuclear fears. Soon I found myself writing a curious novel – a three-generation saga of working-class family life in Britain intercut with first-person accounts of the real-life destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, in the literal time-line of the book, my British characters had their little lives cut across by two world wars and the threat of a third – the threat we were facing in real life. The form of the book was still very important to me, for all my scruples about the idleness of aesthetics, but the review I liked best, from the Sunday Telegraph, said ‘I doubt the reader who listens to The Burning Book will ever again see today’s world in the same way’. That spoke to one of my dearest hopes for the book – that it might turn a few minds and hearts against the idea that nuclear weapons could ever be a rational part of warfare, by showing afresh the horror and pity of the only two occasions when atomic weapons were used. I don’t know how many minds that book ever changed, but for me as an artist it did something important, proving that literature, which I loved above all else, could accommodate some of the most painful tensions of real life. The modernists that I had studied for my doctoral thesis had turned away from the horrors of WW1 and 2, some of them towards the doctrine of art for art’s sake. Now I had found my own way of facing up to life while clinging on to the modernist desire to make something beautiful.
Since then, most of the times I have written politically I have had a similar sense of urgency. In The White Family (2002), shortlisted for the Orange and International Impac prizes, I was driven to write about racial prejudice and violence by shame and sorrow about the murder of Stephen Lawrence by a band of white thugs. Once again I thought, in effect, what was the point of writing if I couldn’t use it to grieve, to protest, and most of all to try to understand? (Although, after the emotion, the work and the craft have to come in: the writing and re-writing, and the waiting between them: the necessary reflection.) When I wrote The Flood, in 2004, the people of these islands were living through the long-drawn-out horror of knowing what our government denied, that a tactical war on Iraq had become as inevitable as it was senseless. In my book I conveyed this by the metaphor of rising flood-waters in the streets of an unnamed European city through which the citizens struggle to carry on with their ordinary lives, while a grinning President Bliss plans war side-by-side with President Bare of Hesperica.
Each time it was not so much a case of consciously choosing to write politically as a sense that things happening in the real world were forcing me either to write or be muted and destroyed by them. If that sounds overly dramatic, maybe only that kind of head of steam is enough to force the intractable materials of recent history and contemporary opinion into literary tropes: tragedy and comedy, observation and grotesquerie, and a narrative arc capable of holding the reader to the end.
For the expectations placed upon political fiction and drama are no different to any other kind of fiction or drama. The characters can’t be mouth-pieces, the plot can’t be an object-lesson. If anything you must have more humour and indirection than in other kind of novels, to deflect the readers’ suspicions that you have designs on them. In particular, the more a character’s opinions align with the author’s, the more thoroughly they must be satirised and separated from yourself.
This brings me to my last two novels, which are also the first political comedies I have written (though there is always some comedy in my work, because life, however dire, however political, is always touched with absurdity.) My Cleaner and My Driver are a pair of novels centred around mis-steps and misunderstandings in the awkward friendship-cum-rivalry between a white British middle-aged writer, Vanessa Henman, and a black Ugandan writer, Mary Tendo, who once, as a young women doing an MA in London, worked as Vanessa’s cleaner and looked after her young son Justin. During the time-frame of the first novel, Justin, now in his early 20s, has sunk into depression, and when he asks to see Mary Tendo, Vanessa begs her to come back from Uganda. She does – but on her own terms and as a different person, revolutionising both the household and Justin’s life. In the sequel, My Driver, there is a kind of mirror-image narrative: this time it is Vanessa on a quest in Uganda, off her ground there as Mary Tendo was off her ground in the UK.
Yes, I was writing a comedy, but I was also writing about the relationship between Britain and Uganda after the end of empire, about the struggle to make something new and how that breaks down, then stutters on; I was writing about how power shifts hands and how people try to cope with being newly powerless; and I was talking about politics in the home more generally – for many, many women either have cleaners or are cleaners. And lastly, I was laughing at myself, big-time. Vanessa Henman is a fitness fanatic, a desperately literary novelist of about my age and complexion who clings to her (selective) memory of her few good reviews, a worthy liberal and creative writing teacher to a cast of neurotics, a woman who, in theory, is firmly opposed to racism but in practice constantly gets things wrong with Mary Tendo. There is a lot of me in Vanessa. And by stepping back and letting laughter take over from passion, I had found a new way of writing politically.
Political writers have to find their own ways of doing it, for in the end writing politically is about imagination, just like every other kind of writing. And it’s not surprising that when writers re-imagine the world, it focuses their discontent with the world as it is. Then it’s time either to dramatise what’s wrong with it, in tragedy, or remake it as we would like it to be, in comedy – more likely, to mix the two and feel confident, as so many good political writers before us have, that the whole dark and glittering array of literary pitchforks and paint-brushes is ready for our use.
Maggie Gee’s novels, including most recently My Cleaner and My Driver (2010) are published by Telegram. Her new memoir is My Animal Life (Telegram, ?16.99)