April 30, 2009

La Literatura es Fuego

“La Literatura es Fuego” (“Literature is Fire”) – Mario Vargas Llosa

Writing and reading activism

by Isobel Tarr

We’ve all been told that there are certain books we have to read before we can hope to be fully politically and socially aware. Ten pages in and you are dying to know what the big secret is, and why this writer is shrouding it in metaphors, imagined places and esoteric language. When you manage to piece together the writer’s political message from behind the book’s literary facade, it’s hard not to reflect that you could easily have written an article on the subject in the time it took you to figure out that novel. So if writers of politically and socially concerned fiction are so eager to incite their readers into action, why don‘t they stop stroking their artistic egos and come to the point? There is a tendency to divide people into either ‘intellectuals’ or ‘activists’ within a movement, but forms of culture are important for reconciling these roles, and for breeding both political thought and decisive action.

Creative writing is a highly effective medium for inspiring activism, because most modern writers of fiction rely on the very things that writers of non-fiction claim to avoid; contradiction, ambiguity, and lies. The argument that literature is “all just about interpretation anyway” is only half the point; a reader of fiction will inevitably try to apply some meaning to an ambiguous or difficult work of fiction, or try to imagine possible endings if the end is left open. In doing so, the reader is becoming the writer. By giving the text a direction and a purpose, a reader is becoming an active participant in a social discourse instead of being encouraged to accept an opinion which claims authority. They are contributing to, changing, and challenging the writers’ work rather than merely accepting it.

It may be argued that the same can be said for other forms of writing, but a non-fictional or academic article inevitably forces an issue in a certain direction, and claims to have a certain authority over the reader, thus limiting the scope for dissent and discussion. Fiction, on the other hand, can be more honest, because it demonstrates to the reader that it is fantasy, about imagined places and people created by the writer, and therefore it is highly conscious of its own subjectivity. This invites readers to interpret what they are presented with in terms of their own experience of the social world, allowing for a greater diversity of social experiences to engage in political discourse.

Latin American fiction has engaged in a discourse with the political world perhaps more than any other genre, and in truly bizarre ways. Gabriel García Marquez’s groundbreaking One Hundred Years of Solitude relates fantastical and magical events in a real historical context, encouraging the reader to question what they are being told instead of accepting the written word as incontestable fact. The novel ends as Aureliano reads the last page of the manuscript prophesising the end of the town of Macondo, and as he does so, the world he knows collapses around him “as if he were speaking into a mirror”. Marquez wants us to consider that the world can be read, as well as written, into existence.

One Hundred Years demonstrated the potential of writing to influence change; it began the 1960’s “Boom” in Latin American writing. Writers forged new techniques such as magic realism, whereby the fantastical was related in a realist context, which invites the reader to question what they are being told, and emulates the myths and contradictions of the Latin American political and social world. The “Boom” engaged a whole generation in reading, writing and action. Mario Vargas Llosa, first published in 1962, became embroilled in Peruvian politics as a consequence of becoming a writer, and is a controversial political figure to this day. He declared “Literature is fire”, and it literally was, as thousands of copies of his book, The Time of The Hero, were publicly burned by the Peruvian military for the threat that it posed to hierarchical structures. In 1978, Sandinista sympathiser Gioconda Belli published a collection of poems called “In the Line of Fire”; a year later she was an active participnat in the revolution, with a price on her head.

Creative reading and writing can help inform and fuel social and political movements; James Conolly, Irish playwright and songwriter was one of Ireland’s greatest revolutionaries. He notably said; “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression”. Direct action can be at its most effective when it incorporates forms of public theatre, poetry readings, live music and art which are not merely educational and didactic, but actively engage people. Activism and political movements must take a more creative approach towards the communication of political ideas, by exploring issues through creative mediums which invite people to question, participate and act.

Suggested reading (Latin American Literature and social movements):

The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel García Márquez
I, the Supreme – Roa Bastos
The Death of Artemio Cruz – Carlos Fuentes
Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar
Tinísima – Elena Poniatowska
The Kiss of the Spider Woman – Manuel Puig
The Country Under my Skin – Gioconda Belli


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