In her introduction to Power Politics (2001), a slim volume of essays that documents the privatization of India’s power supply by global energy conglomerates, internationally-acclaimed author Arundhati Roy explains why she objects to being called a “writer-activist.” Such a hyphenated appellation, Roy argues, implies a facile divide between her reputation as a Booker-Prize-winning novelist and her efforts as an essayist to expose the connections between the privatization of India’s local waterways and the insidious violence of globalization. She wonders, for example, “why it should be that the person who wrote The God of Small Things is called a writer,” when this work of fiction is “no less political” than any of her essays (10-11). Likewise, she questions why her politically-charged essays should not be considered works of literature: “since when,” she asks, “did writers forgo the right to write non-fiction?” (11). To this end, she maintains, her popular and critical designation as a “writer-activist”—however positively it may have been intended—significantly neglects the intellectual, political, and aesthetic complexity of her entire oeuvre. More generally, she insists, the term “writer-activist” is “strategically positioned to diminish both writers and activists” insofar as it creates a reductive binary between, on the one hand, writers who ostensibly lack the “reasoning, the passion, [and] the grit” of world-worn advocates and, on the other, activists whose rhetorical interventions apparently want the “complexity and intellectual sophistication” demonstrated by their writerly brethren (23).
Ultimately, Roy insists that all writers—whether they produce novels, essays, poetry, or song-lyrics (32)--are inherently activists once they “snatch” the instrumentalizing jargon used by institutionally-sanctioned “experts” and critically translate it in order to place into stark relief “matters that vitally affect the lives of ordinary people” (24). According to Roy, it is writers and other creative producers who:
“can make the connections, who can find ways of bringing [the world] into the realm of common understanding. Who can translate cash-flow charts and scintillating boardroom speeches into real stories about real people with real lives. Stories about what it’s like to lose your home, your land, your job, your dignity, your past, and your future to an invisible force. To someone or something you can’t see. You can’t hate. You can’t even imagine.” (32, emphasis added).
Crucially, Roy’s reference here to authors’ “real” stories about “real” people with “real” lives does not imply that comparatively more technical and abstruse discourses—for example, “cash-flow charts” and “board room discussions”—are any less grounded in reality. On the contrary, she insists that the specialized and purposefully inscrutable language wielded by such experts as NGO leaders, policy makers, and World Bank officials radically affects the material and affective conditions in which the world’s most vulnerable people live. Nor, for that matter, does Roy suggest that writers’ attempts to “translate” the intentionally depersonalized language of expertise into stories of “real lives” render them objective or otherwise uncompromised by partisanship: after all, as the title of her volume implies, any attempt to document conflicts of power is already, by definition, political. Rather, she maintains, writers most generatively speak to the reality of individual lives within complex material conditions when—paradoxically, or at least counterintuitively—they invigorate the imagination.
Indeed, Roy’s strategic deployment of second-person address—to a “you” who might lose “your” home, land, job, dignity, past, and future to “someone or something you can’t see”—is itself a demonstration of her deft correlation between reality and the imagination. In the immediate logic of the above passage, this “you” refers to subjects living in the Global South who are excluded not only from corporate decisions about their traditionally and collectively shared land but also from the very language used in such decision-making. Thus, by demystifying language whose “whole purpose” is “to mask intent” (42)—and by rendering into narrative “secret[s]” kept “even (especially) from the people they’re written for” (43)—writers have the potential to make legible a network of global predatory forces this “you” previously could not even have imagined. Ultimately, it is the act of imagining such forces—of placing “someone or something you can’t see” into a cognitive framework—that informs resistance to, and transformation of, radically real material conditions.
But Roy’s use of the second-person address here is strategically slippery, not least because her essay is not ultimately addressed to, say, dispossessed Indian farmers living within the flood-plains of newly created, World Bank-subsidized dams but rather to comparatively well-heeled citizens of the Global North. Indeed, her piece was initially delivered in February, 2001 as an address to students and faculty at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts— months before the events of September 11 forced American citizens to reckon with the long-standing consequences of US imperialism and approximately seven years before the financial crash of 2008 rendered the American working- and middle-classes vulnerable to loss of homes, jobs, and dignity. Such second-person address, then, situates First World audiences in the uneasy position of, on the one hand, attempting to imagine themselves in the place of, pace Fanon, the wretched of the earth, and on the other hand, recognizing that their ultimate complicity in the exploitation of marginalized people has been abetted by, as it were, a poverty of imagination.
In the course of his masterful study, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), Rob Nixon draws precisely on this moment of Roy’s essay in order to argue that corporate ransacking of natural resources and the resultant forced displacement of local communities has been sustained through the production of “unimagined communities” (150). Unlike the “imagined community” of the nation initially posited by Benedict Anderson in 1983—in which media technologies promote sympathetic bonds amongst diverse and far-flung demographics—“unimagined communities” are those “internal to the space of the nation-state” whose disturbance of “the implied trajectory of unitary national ascent” prompts their exclusion from national narratives and in turn the globalized economy into which so-called developing nations have been inducted (150). In the final analysis, Nixon contends, such unimagined communities are the effect of a “spatial amnesia,” since “communities, under the banner of development, are physically unsettled and imaginatively removed, evacuated from place and time and thus uncoupled from the idea of both a national future and a national memory” (151). Drawing as he does on Roy’s damning polemic against the World Bank-funded damming of India’s Narmada River, Nixon is particularly attentive to how spectacular efforts of state resource engineering (for example, the US’s Nevada Test Site, Guatemala’s Chixoy Dam, and Soviet nuclear test sites) necessitated the collective national disavowal, or “imaginative evacuation,” of the indigenous people they displaced (the Shoshone, the Maya, and the nomads of Kazakhstan/Semi-Palatinsk, respectively). More generally, however, Nixon—like Roy—is alarmed by the failure of so-called First World citizens to imagine how their privilege and pleasure is radically tethered to the displacement and exploited labor of “invisible others” excluded by, and for the benefit of, reigning state narratives. Such failure, he contends, is not so much the consequence of a passive insouciance than it is the effect of a willed effort on the part of citizens of the Global North to engage in the “un-imagining” of the real, material conditions negotiated by their Southern brethren.
Not insignificantly, Nixon concludes that works of non-fiction—rather than those of fiction alone—might most effectively permit the re-imagination of previously disavowed or otherwise “unimagined” communities. Certainly, he does not deny role that fiction plays in such cognitive and epistemological re-mapping: indeed, he addresses at length the “dead aquatic metaphor” of the “bank” (e.g., polluted riverside bank, World Bank) in Roy’s tide-shifting novel, The God of Small Things. Even so, he maintains that it was Roy’s “turn to the essay as a small, nimble form that allowed her to take on the weighty, leaden genres that gave ballast to the culture of the megadam and, beyond that, the culture of developmental gigantism” (168). As Nixon contends in a subsequently published essay, “Non-Fiction Booms: North and South: A Transatlantic Perspective,” (2012) works of non-fiction—and particularly memoirs—“may help build imaginative community among the afflicted and break through traumatic solitudes. In the process, such memoirs may play a radical role in disturbing social conventions of silence by catalyzing public engagements with taboos, not least taboos around the body” (35).
Ultimately, the complex interdependence of such conventionally opposed categories as “reality” and “imagination,” as so richly plumbed by intellectuals such as Roy and Nixon, constitutes the underlying theme of this special issue of Assay. Although the essays included in this issue initially appear to be preoccupied with specific theoretical or professional concerns—for example, the role of literary non-fiction in generatively deconstructing hegemonic narratives of history and memory, or the unsettling outcomes of writers’ intergenerational conversations with their authorial muses (including their own previous voices), or the improvisation of claims to “truth” and “reality” in classroom writing exercises—they all, in effect, bid us to reimagine the category of the real. Indeed, they all implicitly concur with Roy’s contention that language is the “skin of […] thought” and thus trace the contours of this skin across an unwieldy and ever-transforming body of nonfiction. What, they ask, constitutes the relationship between “reality” and “truth” in nonfiction—and what ethical and political commitments influence writers’ negotiation of these two categories? How is the writer/speaker intimately bound up with their audience, and what local and global relations of power mediate this relationship? Specifically, what historical, cultural, and political institutions inform or otherwise adjudicate a given writer’s claim to the real—and to what extent may works of nonfiction illuminate, challenge, or even transform entrenched such systems of apprehending reality? How do we account for specific forms of nonfiction in relation to what author and filmmaker David Shields prognosticates as the “reality hunger” of the late twentieth- and early-twenty-first century and what Nixon, for his part, terms the “cultural industrialization of the real”? If, as Shields reminds us, the very term “fiction” is derived from the Latin fingere, meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold” (10), then what qualitatively distinguishes fiction from nonfiction—the latter of which is just as implicated in the “shaping” and “molding” of reality through lyrical prose as the former? Finally, what insights might intersections amongst different aesthetic forms (for example, essays, poetry, and film) or practices (for instance, writing and university-level instruction) offer us with regard to what Nixon, following such scholars as Hedley Twidle, David Shields, and Walter Benn Michaels, has identified as a turn-of-the-century “boom” in nonfiction?
These are weighty questions indeed. And as Roy and Nixon make clear, although such questions may immediately address local regions and literatures, they are ultimately imbricated in larger, global, networks of power. To that end, this special issue features essays that examine works of nonfiction produced in, across, and about, Southwest and Southeast Asia, regions of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Indeed, their transnational scope places into relief Nixon’s contention that the “best memoirs”—and certainly works of non-fiction considered more broadly—“can probe in expansive yet intimate detail the emotional life of the body without compromising a writer’s engagement with an issue of world-historical import (“Non-Fiction Booms,” 36).
The first section of this special issue is dedicated to theoretical engagements with works of non-fiction that interrogate collective constructions of the real. In her essay, “Regimes of Reality: Of Contemporary Indian Nonfiction and its Free Men,” Manisha Basu immediately dismantles the facile opposition between reality and imagination by positing that reality is “an artifice that acquires and directs the effects of power, rather than an objective essence located outside power.” Drawing on Michel Foucault’s theorization of “regimes of truth,” which are constituted by discourses that (de)legitimize narrative claims to truth and techniques of power that adjudicate who may or may not lay claim to truth, Basu proposes the category of “regimes of reality” as one through which to examine the complex and dynamic ways that contingent practices of articulating and interpreting reality blend and clash. In order to develop her concept of “regimes of reality,” Basu engages in a deft analysis of Aman Sethi’s critically acclaimed work of narrative reportage, A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi (2013), in which she demonstrates how the journalist’s negotiation of narrative power with his indigent subjects signals a “heterogeneity of coexisting realities” that has the potential to shape “a new political reality.” Basu’s examination of “colliding and colluding” realities gives way to Maral Aktokmakyan’s essay, “Revisioning Gendered Reality in Armenian Women’s Life-Writing of the Post-Genocidal Era: Zaruhi Kalemkearian’s From the Path of My Life.” Here, Aktokmakyan, like Basu, appeals to Foucault. Specifically, she argues that Armenian feminist testimonies to the Turkish genocide of Armenian minorities in 1915—the inaugural event of what Samantha Power has called the twentieth-century “age of genocide”—should not be regarded as mere documents that potentially reinforce state narratives, but rather should be apprehended, pace Foucault, as monuments that “call back silenced and fragmented realities so as to put them together for a different narrative of the past.” Aktokmakyan’s attention to women’s bodies as the “fields” in which larger contestations of power take place resonates in Stefanie El Madawi’s essay, “Telling Tales: Bearing Witness in Jennifer Fox’s The Tale,” in which El Madawi calls attention to the influence of a childhood essay on filmmaker Jennifer Fox’s narrative of the sexual abuse she experienced as a (pre-)teenager. As El Madawi maintains, the personal essay—whether it is a mere scholastic exercise or a piece published in a literary journal—has the potential to trace “first-hand experience within a progressive and evaluative framework.” Such re-evaluation of claims to experience, truth, and reality in turn informs the final contribution to this scholarly section, “Narrative, Non-Fiction, and the Nuclear Other: Western Representations of Chernobyl in the Works of Adam Higginbotham, Serhii Plokhy, and Kate Brown.” In this essay, Inna Sukhenko and I study narratives of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster produced by three Western public intellectuals—an internationally-renowned British journalist, a Ukrainian expatriate now established as a professor of Eastern European history at Harvard, and an American MIT professor of the history of science, respectively—in order to account for their discrete but intersecting interpretations of Chernobyl as a turning-point in the Soviet-American Cold War.
The next section of our special issue, “Conversations,” observes Assay’s tradition of informal analysis of nonfiction texts and ideas. Certainly, this section is conducive to the theme of this special issue, not least because it places into relief the ways in which contemporary writers of non-fiction on the one hand advance their own representations and interpretations of reality and on the other hand confess their indebtedness to previous writers and traditions that ultimately mediate their perspectives. To that end, in her essay, “Daughter(s) of Rubanga: An Author, A Student and Other Stories in Between,” Leonora Anyango-Kivuva accounts for how a serendipitous meeting in the halls of a Pittsburgh public elementary school ultimately led to her a rapprochement with her literary hero, the Kenyan feminist author Grace Ogot, and in turn the political realities that Ogot strived to address in works that overrode boundaries between oral storytelling and national histories. Likewise, in her piece, “How We Write When We Write About Life: Caribbean Non-fiction Resisting the Voyeur,” Victoria Brown places her own writing into conversation with the works of three influential Caribbean writers —Jamaica Kincaid, Claudia Rankine, and Krystal Sital—in order to question how they respond to, and challenge, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s “call to poets and writers against producing art which only memorializes loss and appeases the ‘masochistic critic by the required attack on his values’—that is, the voyeur.” If Brown’s essay is concerned with the writer’s ethical obligations to self, family, and audience, Stacey Waite’s piece “Coming Out With the Truth” offers an additional perspectives on such demands faced by writers poised at the intersection of confessional poetry and memoir. Here, Waite guides her reader through the process by which she composed her poem, “Coming Out in Porch Light,” noting the deliberate choices and compromises she made in order to capture the affective truth of revealing her queer identity to a recalcitrant parent. Like Waite, David Griffith offers a critical retrospective of his own work in “Wrecking the Disimagination Machine: How Essays Can Dismantle Regimes of Reality.” In this account, he reflects on how both the insights and critical gaps that constitute his Bush-era critical memoir, A Good War Is Hard To Find: The Art of Violence in America (2006), illuminate crises of representation in the era of Trump, and posits the essay as a potentially potent form of resistance.
Significantly, many of the essays anthologized in the “Articles” and “Conversations” sections of this special issue reflect on the reception of specific texts by readers in the classroom and the public sphere. The third “Pedagogy” section, however, is explicitly concerned with how the teaching of nonfiction might extend and complicate conventionally received concepts of truth and permit the (re-) imagination of “real people with real lives.” Jens Lloyd’s essay, “Truthful Inadequacies: Teaching the Rhetorical Spark of Bashō’s Travel Sketches” accounts for how the author used the hybrid prose and haiku travel sketches of the seventeenth-century Japanese writer Matsuo Bashō in order to introduce his students to travel writing’s “ambiguous relationship with truth.” Ultimately, Lloyd argues, the “rhetorical spark for travel writing—what makes a particular narrative work and what makes it appealing or persuasive for readers—is closely associated with how creatively a writer skirts” the line between fact and fiction. Such a carefully negotiated “skirting” between fact and fiction is of especial concern to George H. Jensen’s essay, “Situating Scenes: Cheryl Strayed’s ‘The Love of My Life’.” Calling for an “expanded terminology more suited to the kinds of moves that writers of nonfiction make and a theory that helps students to explain where such moves might make them,” Jensen engages in a close reading of Strayed’s acclaimed essay in order to account for its strategic uses of such fictional elements as recursive time, back-story, counter-narrative, and metanarrative. In their essay, “Footnotes from the ‘Margins’: Outcomes-based Literacy and Nonfiction Pedagogy in Puerto Rico,” Gregory Stephens, Christian Fernández, Andrés Padró, and Gabriela Ruiz examine the possibilities of teaching nonfiction in international contexts, especially in courses that observe institutionally-sanctioned “learning outcomes.” Like Brown, they are particularly invested in the ways that Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place might challenge (or in effect displace) students’ preconceived notions of their subject positions; here, specifically, they examine how Kincaid’s text might address such “learning outcomes” as “listening to the voices of the other” and “addressing the audience through a second-person point of view.” Like all of the pieces that comprise this special issue, these have the potential to enrich and transform the ways we interact ethically and politically with real people, real lives, and realities we can (yet) hardly imagine.
––Anastasia Ulanowicz, Manisha Basu, and Brenda Glascott