Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.”
What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale.
It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary.
Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family.
Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia.
Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation.
Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations.
Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood.
The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself.
Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child.
None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.”
Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations.
In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.”
As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents.
To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met.
As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda.
For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell.
Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia.
If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared.
But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there.
Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
When you write a book, there are certain questions you can expect: How long did it take you? Will you write a sequel? And—the inevitable—what is it?
What it is: thousands of hours tapping away on a keyboard between swiping student IDs at the Sarah Lawrence gym, months of crippling doubt, dozens of rewrites, maddening rounds of edits, the culmination of years of dreaming and plotting condensed into a 300-page manuscript with which I’ve imbued the emotional vulnerability of a pubescent diary.
No, they will persist. What is it?
I rehearsed this answer in my query letter, tweaked depending on the interest and need of the agent addressed: Complete at 80,000 words, this—
Sometimes it was a literary novel. Sometimes a literary commercial novel. Sometimes a literary novel with commercial appeal. Once, upmarket women’s fiction.
It’s adult literary fiction, I tell people. I think of the many times I’ve been prompted to make such unambiguous designations, usually without issue: I am Female. I am White. But something doesn’t feel right about defining my novel, about giving it a genre (a word that has always conjured for me cover images of bursting corsets and rippled abdominals). Something doesn’t feel right about defining novels at all.
As a bookseller, I compartmentalize novels everyday. If it’s not Science Fiction, Mystery, or Romance, then it falls under the catch-all umbrella of Literature. I watch our erudite Upper West Side clientele squint warily at the shelves. The other day, a man held up a novel with a beach on the cover—a cartoon woman sunning herself on a striped towel pictured—and sniffed distastefully. As though a thought bubble appeared above his head, he tossed the novel back on its stack of identical copies in a way that said, You call this literature?
If prompted, I couldn’t say with any tact what distinguishes literary from commercial fiction. Literary fiction values prose over plot, I might say. Commercial fiction is about the story, whereas literary fiction is about the characters. Like an indie flick verses a Hollywood blockbuster, one novel wears a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and the other mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators. A literary agent I once interned for cut to the chase: “We’re looking for new literary voices,” she told me. “Try to find submissions with a mention of an MFA.”
As reluctant as I am to call my novel commercial, to call it “literary” can feel snobbish in its insistence. Who am I to say that I am more Mary Gaitskill than Mary Kay Andrews? Who am I to say what my novel is at all?
That’s the thing I’ve learned: once you release a novel into the world, you relinquish your control over how it is defined. What my “adult literary fiction” novel has become: Coming of Age. Contemporary Women. Romance. Suspense. Genre Fiction. My novel is amorphous, ready to be whatever it needs to be given the audience. What I can’t decide is whether this ability to sit on many different shelves is a benefit or a hindrance.
Claiming multiple genres feels akin to presenting a business card with the title Artist/Writer/Dancer/Freelance DJ—a worse offense, perhaps, than asserting literary value. But in working in a bookstore, in placing books onto their various shelves and thinking, This doesn’t belong here, I’ve come to appreciate what a misnomer and a crutch a genre can be. When I pressed a copy of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan into a customer’s hand and told her, “It’s a sort of literary science fiction novel,” she stopped me there. “I don’t read science fiction,” she insisted, and I realized not even the modifier of “literary” could combat the negative connotation of genre fiction.
Few books are what they initially appear. I almost didn’t pick up Ben Dolick’s The Ghost Notebooks, put off by the word “supernatural” on its back cover and its placement on the Sci-Fi shelf. When a friend gave me the ARC of Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature that the bookstore had received, he said, “You read thrillers, right? This sounds like a thriller,” and I almost felt insulted. I put off reading the copy of Paullina Simons’s The Bronze Horseman that my coworker lent me, its promise of a “historical romance “ enough to raise my skepticism. “I promise, it has literary merit,” she told me. It took me a while to admit what I always knew: that to me, “literary” is synonymous with “well-written.”
I grew up a competitive dancer. I did jazz and tap. Tap is explicit enough, but when it comes to jazz, people often respond with splaying and wiggling their fingers, evoking John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Jazz is just the name given to quick, upbeat numbers, I would explain. It’s not necessarily to jazz music. One of my dance routines in high school was to an M.I.A. song.
But that’s not jazz, they’ll say.
The question is whether genres need to be abandoned, or if our definitions of genres need to be expanded. Few novels fit snuggly into one category, though there are no doubt novels that do: Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance. It was Octavia Butler and Junot Díaz who allowed me to start to question those classifications in college with Kindred and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, respectively. I hadn’t known that literary novels could have time travel and magic and, knowing this, it didn’t seem fair or even possible that Kindred and Keith Roberts’s The Furies could occupy the same shelf. It only occurred to me then that I’d always thought “literary” also meant taking place in the real world. The Furies is science fiction. Kindred is more complicated than that.
Besides the interest of the consumers, another thing that cannot be controlled is the age. I struggled to decide the age of my potential audience in the query process, again modifying how I framed the novel depending on the person I was trying to please. This is an adult novel with young adult appeal. This is a young adult/adult crossover novel. Some editors suggested that I needed to decide. My thought: couldn’t it be for both?
I’d like to think that by resisting definition, I’ve opened my novel to the possibility of universal appeal. But there is no shelf for YA/Adult coming-of-age literary commercial women’s novels, no reader seeking this niche market. By being perceived by different audiences and consumers as so many different things, I worry that my novel isn’t really anything at all.
Categories are needed to an extent. Not all dances at a competition can be entered into the “open” category. Not all novels belong under the literature umbrella. Some designation is needed to direct consumers toward what they like, what they want.
But there’s no formula to say what sends a novel to the Romance or the Literature shelf. Who can put a value on prose? Who determines what is plot-driven and what is a character study? Perhaps all booksellers and publishers and marketing teams can do is find the closest fit, categorizing by the predominant quality of the novel, and what consumers need to learn to do is keep an open mind. Not all science fiction involves alien invaders. Not all YA novels are strictly for young adults.
When I recommended Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles to a customer at the bookstore, I emphasized its complexity. “It’s a near-future apocalyptic coming-of-age novel,” I told her. “It has sci-fi devices but is distinctly literary, and it has a young narrator but she has an adult disposition.”
I expected a “I don’t read science fiction.” Instead I was told, “That sounds interesting.”
In any case, let’s stop using Women’s Fiction. The idea that there are books written solely for women is a fiction itself.
Image Credit: Blue Diamond Gallery.
I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously.
This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said:
My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me…is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating…a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity.
Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage.
Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range — subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests — over a long career. The earlier novels — The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star — form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga:
I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly…even if The Exquisite wouldn’t, I imagine, be caught dead with it.
The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One — inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south — a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female — a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts — by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry — of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel.
What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret:
He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road.
Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing — and too familiar — in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions.
Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge — whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included — criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology — “cornflower” — for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice — acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people — has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts.
Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background — stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life — amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels.
Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed.
The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested — as have you — that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc?
Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America.
At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published.
TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you — professionally, creatively — if anything?
LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit.
TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization — are we doing better? Worse? Both?
LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually — with care and determination — we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction.
Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.”
TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring?
LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels.
TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear.
LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear.
Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear.
TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular — not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns?
LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right.
In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same.
All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at.
TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one?
LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation.
I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it.
TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors — trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from — is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy.
LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good?
Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions.
TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?”
LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did.
I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
In my eighth-grade U.S. History class, each student read a novel written by an African-American writer, about African-Americans. There were a few books to choose from, but the only ones I remember are Native Son by Richard Wright and Roots by Alex Haley. Because the latter was so long, no one chose it. No one but me, that is. I had never heard of it, nor the adapted mini-series, but the book was big and intimidating, and I was nothing if not a nerd and a show-off. In my certainly-revised memory, I pick up a copy from the pile, and the class gasps with admiration and foreboding. I carry it back to my desk, head held high.
A little background. I’m white (shocking, I know), and I went to a mostly white, public elementary school in Laurel Canyon, that rock ‘n roll, bohemian enclave in Los Angeles with its bungalows and crumbling mountain-sides. (In recent years, it’s gotten much fancier.) Back then, I felt left out that my parents weren’t British, or former addicts, or ostrich-owners (don’t ask), or screenwriters. If you think my name is odd–well, you didn’t know Chantilly, or Swan, or America, or Ole, a kid who was only there for a few months before disappearing to who-knows-where. In the sixth-grade, Spike Lee’s X came out, and a couple of students wore those baseball caps with the letter X on the front–I’m not sure they knew what it meant. A few had that shirt that read, “Love knows no color.” This was the same year as the L.A. riots. Our graduation dance theme was “Rebuilding the Peace.” The teachers decorated the tables with tiny wooden hammers.
Around that same time, my father got a subscription to The New Yorker. (For the cartoons. I’m serious.) I remember one cover had something to do with Malcolm X, and there were these small illustrations of white faces on it, with the words “white devil” floating around them. I saw this magazine in the bathroom a few times a day for a week, and it stung and confused me every time. I didn’t understand it. Why were they devils? Was that even okay to say? Was I a white devil? What the hell did I do?
The next year, I went to junior high in west L.A., a bigger and far more racially diverse school than the one I had graduated from. Because everyone was different at this school, because I was different, I began to truly understand what difference meant. People sometimes identified me as “white girl” in the hallways, and it made sense. After all, I was white. Really white: I burned easily, I wore Converse and shorts from the Gap, and my parents listened to The Grateful Dead. Twice I was asked, snickering, if my name was Becky. I learned some Spanish slang. I learned that some kids went to school on Saturday, to master their parents’ native tongues. A boy in English class pointed out that Black History month was the shortest month of the year–and that blew my mind. It had never occurred to me.
It was at this school, with my sense of self and the world all shook up, that I read Roots. Haley called his book “faction”–fiction mixed with fact, and later genealogists debunked his claim that the book told his actual family history. None of that mattered to me then–or matters now. My teacher had assigned it as a novel, and like all good fiction, it felt authentic. I devoured the book, and I couldn’t get it off my mind. I can still remember how I felt reading the section on the slave ship, Kunta Kinte packed in with hundreds of other slaves: the darkness, the suffering, the stench of bodies. I had learned about the Middle Passage in school, but it wasn’t until it was translated into narrative that it affected me so. I was appalled and frightened by a history I already knew, for the story of slavery is far more powerful than a “unit” on it.
In the eighth grade, I began to understand that I, and every American, had inherited something shameful. I began to connect race to history to power, and it was all because of a book.
Reading narrative requires empathy. The character’s perspective becomes your own, and through this relationship you begin to feel as another person would. As I read Roots, I felt what Kunta Kinte felt, saw what he saw, and by becoming him, I understood intimately the horrors of slavery. It’s why nonfiction slave narratives, like those of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, were so important to the abolitionist movement, and why fictional slave narratives persist today.
But stories also require complicity: the reader participates in the action of the story simply by imagining and interpreting it. As Zadie Smith points out in this short interview:
Fiction is like a hypothetical area in which to act. That’s what Aristotle thought—that fictional narrative was a place to imagine what you would do in this, that, or the other situation. I believe that, and it’s what I love most about fiction.
I agree with Smith here, and it’s why I don’t like books that make that arena of ethics too simplistic. I don’t need my characters to be heroic; in fact, I prefer them not to be. Their choices should be difficult, their situations complicated, and if they emerge from events unaffected or unscathed, then they do not seem authentic. They stop mattering to me.
But what if a novel’s “hypothetical area in which to act” is a historical landscape that places pressures on its characters that we haven’t experienced ourselves? What if that landscape is the antebellum South? My empathy is immediately ignited by these stories, but so too is my complicity. As a white reader, I’m simultaneously made to understand the experience of slavery, and I also must wrestle with how I’m implicated in that past. For although I identify with the book’s main characters, there’s another part of my brain that knows I can’t. If this book were made into a movie, I think, I’d look more like the overseer’s wife than the protagonist. I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced that awful feeling. On goodreads a few months ago, some dolt wrote that he hated books about slavery because, and I paraphrase: “I wasn’t the one to rape your great, great, great grandmother!” In other words, it wasn’t his fault slavery happened, he didn’t want to hear any more about it. And that’s the thing: slave narratives keep us hearing about it, they keep that chain between the past and the present alive. For me, reading one can be complicated and uncomfortable business, and it’s partly why I continue to seek them out.
But only partly. In Victor La Valle’s Year in Reading post, he wrote:
I don’t know about you, but when I read that book takes place during slavery my defenses go up immediately. It’s going to be “serious” and “important” and “teach us something” and….oh, I’m sorry, I almost fell asleep.
He’s right–“serious” and “important” are sometimes just synonyms for “boring.” But good books about slavery are readable, very much so. Is it wrong to say they’re entertaining? Well, they can be. This isn’t “tea towel” fiction, it’s fiction where the stakes are high, and people’s lives are at risk. There are secrets. There is real fear. The power dynamics between characters are complicated and fascinating, or they should be. People are fighting for a sliver of self that isn’t owned and denigrated by another person, and that makes me care and keeps me turning the pages.
One novel for which this is especially true is The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, the very book that LaValle recommended in his post. James’s novel takes place not in America, but Jamaica, at the turn of the 19th century. Told in dialect, it’s about a young female slave named Lilith who participates in a plot to overthrow her plantation master. Though it takes some time to get used to this voice and particular syntax, it’s wholly absorbing once you do, perhaps because the language is a kind of bridge into this past. The prose pulls you into Lilith’s consciousness, which reflects the violent and brutal world in which she lives.
And let me tell you: The Book of Night Women is one of the most violent and brutal books I have ever read. One day I read it for four hours straight, and the world was all wobbly and terrible after I put it down. Its unflinching depiction of slavery reminded me of something from Wyatt Mason’s profile of Edward P. Jones, whose novel The Known World, about black slaveholders in antebellum Virginia, explores the tangled, contradictory ways that slavery can involve and affect an entire community. In that novel, which I (and many others) consider a masterpiece, Jones quotes census numbers and scholarly texts–all of them made up. Mason writes:
What research on the subject Jones undertook was, in fact, quickly derailed after he happened upon an account of a white slave owner who spent her days abusing one of her black slaves, a little girl, by beating her head against a wall. “If I had wanted to tell the whole story of slavery, Americans couldn’t have taken that,” Jones told an interviewer. “People want to think that there was slavery, and then we got beyond it. People don’t want to hear that a woman would take a child and bang her head against the wall day after day. It’s nice that I didn’t read all those books. What I would have had to put down is far, far harsher and bleaker.
Marlon James, on the other hand, did seem to read all of those books, and his novel faces those harsh realities head on. But Jones and James’ books are similar in that their characters are multidimensional, no matter their race, and the smallest dramas are specific and deeply felt, which makes these historical backdrops all the more real for a contemporary reader. In the Book of Night Women, for instance, Lilith becomes romantically involved with her Irish overseer, Quinn. He believes, as an Irishman, that he understands oppression as she does, but she knows that can’t be (and we, as readers of this narrative, know it, too). Their relationship is tender and sexy at times, and weird and upsetting at others. And usually it’s all of those qualities simultaneously, and you feel at once turned on, repelled, skeptical, nervous, grateful and vulnerable.
Kindred by Octavia Butler asks the reader to feel myriad emotions, too, and it proves literally that a character cannot emerge from important events unscathed. Butler’s book is not only about slavery, it’s about time travel. That’s right: its main character, a black woman named Dana (actually her full name is Edana–which I loved), is again and again sent against her will to nineteenth-century Maryland to keep her white ancestor, Rufus, safe. If he dies too soon, she will never be born. The book’s premise reminds me of the comedian Louis CK’s routine about being white. (“Black people can’t fuck with time machines!” he jokes. “A black guy with a time machine is like, “Hey, nothing before 1980, thank you, I don’t want to go.”) Every time Dana returns from these trips as a slave, only a few minutes or a few hours have passed in her real life in 1970’s L.A. Nevertheless, she carries her experience of slavery on her body–she returns injured, scarred, and by the end of the book (it’s also where the book opens), she returns to the present without an arm. In other words, the past will always interfere with the present. She can’t fully understand this history without it damaging her.
Dana’s white husband Kevin is also taken into the past with her, and it’s here that the book is most compelling and thought-provoking to me. In Maryland, Dana and Kevin must play slave and master in order to spend the night together, and after Kevin’s trapped in the past for years, he takes on the same speech patterns as the whites during that time. The couple want to believe that their personal relationship can remain pure, that the political and social climate of slavery won’t infect their interactions, but that’s impossible. The very first time Dana returns from Maryland, she momentarily mistakes Kevin for a white southerner, out to hurt her, and she is frightened of him. The past has already trespassed onto the present, where she is supposed to feel safe and equal. It happens quickly.
With Kindred, I identified with Dana, even if, were I to time travel back to antebellum Maryland, my problems would probably be more similar to Kevin’s. But like Dana, I’m a woman who lives in Los Angeles. Like Dana, I’m a writer. And like Dana before she time travels, I’ve read about slavery, and so I can only approach it as a reader. Because Dana is a modern woman, she is wearing pants when she is transported, and in antebellum Maryland, characters ask her why she’s dressed as a man. They want to know why she talks as she does. And how she learned to write. They wonder aloud if she thinks she’s white–she sure does carry herself that way. Maybe Dana’s belief in her own equality ties her more strongly to me, a contemporary female reader, than race ties her to the black slaves in antebellum Maryland. Or it only does, until a point. Or it does and it doesn’t, at the same time. Either way, Butler has performed a kind of identity magic trick with her novel. By experiencing this world as Dana does, as any contemporary person would, I too must suffer at the hands of slavery.
When we’re younger, it feels like the only books we’re given about black people are about slavery, just as the only books we’re given about Jewish people are about the holocaust. There’s a danger there, as we might be led to believe these are the only stories such writers are allowed to tell. Not at all. As many contemporary black authors have proven, there are a zillion ways to write the black experience, and using slavery as a subject is just one of them. But writers like Marlon James, Edward P. Jones and Octavia Butler (and others, like the inimitable Toni Morrison–my God, have you read A Mercy?) prove that the fact of slavery is still upon us, it still haunts us, and that it can be told and retold in powerful, surprising and evocative ways that engage a reader. Or this reader, at least.