The Writing Life

By Julia Alvarez
Sunday, September 11, 2005

You've probably noticed it, too. How often a reviewer will allude to a novel as such and such an author's first post Sept. 11 work. Or mention Sept. 11 as an influence on the novel. Or assess the novel in the context of a post Sept. 11 world.

And not just reviewers. As a reader, I am reading in a different way. Just as I am traveling on mass transit and going through airports with a higher level of tension. A picture in my head of what can happen that won't go away.

As a writer, too, I have been struggling with what my writing has to offer in a world where terrors are now color-coded, where the dust from our tumbled-down towers is still floating in the air, where most recently a hurricane has created our very own refugee situation. "It's just not something we're used to," a baffled local official in New Orleans being interviewed on NPR noted. "I mean if we were in a third world country, we'd be used to this." I heard much the same remark about terrorism on our own shores after Sept. 11.

At different points in the writing of my new novel, which has been the hardest for me to write so far, I kept telling a friend who hears about all my writing woes that I didn't think I could finish it. Now, I'm no stranger to the Furies of self-doubt, which have always been after me, and the race is always on as to whether they or I will make it through the next paragraph and the next. But since Sept. 11 these Furies seemed to have multiplied in number. What was my fear exactly? That I couldn't put my arms around the whole thing. That I would yield to the temptation to leave things out, to tidy things up. That I would lower the blinds and write the very same novel I would have written before Sept. 11.

It's not that I felt compelled to write about Sept. 11 or attendant issues. Fiction does not register these shock waves so directly. I'm talking about something harder to measure or pinpoint. A new tone and tension. "Everything has changed, though nothing has," Jay Parini writes in his haunting villanelle "After the Terror."

Perhaps this is a good thing. And potentially dangerous for a novelist. The dangers are obvious. A deadening earnestness and political self-awareness that do not meet the delight component that is a story's bottom line. Too much ideological hand-wringing. We've all sat through readings by authors whose politics we admire but whose prose cannot hold us. We are reminded of the definition of "camp" by Susan Sontag: "a seriousness that fails."

But it is a danger that must be risked -- this attunement to a larger world than the local gated habitation we might be living in. Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz once commented that "poetry below a certain awareness is not good poetry . . . that we move, that mankind moves in time together and there is a certain awareness of a particular moment below which we shouldn't go because then that poetry is no good." The same can be said of fiction.

The need for this level of awareness in our fiction has always been there, of course. And for years there have been writers reminding us that this was so. But now it is the air we are all breathing, regardless of our politics or prose. A sea change has happened, which might explain the current predilection for nonfiction. In an essay last month in the New York Times, "Truth is Stronger Than Fiction," the reporter Rachel Donadio alludes to V.S. Naipaul's belief that fiction is no longer adequate to make sense of the world. Donadio agrees. "No novels have yet engaged with the post-Sept. 11 era in any meaningful way," she writes. But, she adds, "it's still early. Nonfiction can keep up with the instant messenger culture; fiction takes its own sweet time."

Writers from other parts of the world would say that too many United States of American writers (and our British cohorts across the pond) have been taking our own sweet time far too long. We can all think of a dozen exceptions. But I confess that I myself am now much more aware of having to create in an environment that writers of other more politically or socially compromised nations know only too well. Writers in dictatorships. Writers in what the anthropologist-physician Paul Farmer calls the triage nations of the world. Desperate places where desperate things happen right in your face, not just in some "bad neighborhood" or barrio that only ethnic writers, accredited by hard-luck backgrounds, are allowed to write about. I would bet that many of my fellow U.S. writers these days feel the tension raised within the radar level of their own fiction. Raised by none other than their own hands. Even the Harry Potter books are getting darker.

In our defense, it makes sense that a visceral understanding of the world so many people live in did not come to us until Sept. 11. "It is new to Americans," writes Ronald Steel, author of many books about American and world politics, "because nothing is truly real until it happens to us." As we say in Spanish, nadie aprende en cabeza ajena . No one learns in somebody else's head. Or maybe we can, in novels and stories, if those insights are in there, if the fictional world has met Milosz's criteria and does not sink below a certain level of awareness. And yet, and yet. Journalist Salil Tripathi notes in a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal that several novelists have been writing about the turbulence within Britain's Muslim community for many years. (One thinks of Hanif Kureishi or Zadie Smith or Monica Ali.) "But while they have been honored, their warnings have gone unheeded." And then the bombs went off in the London underground . . .

Ian McEwan's Saturday has been touted as one of the few novels to successfully depict a post Sept. 11 world. It opens with an eerily reminiscent scene: Perowne, a surgeon, wakes up early one morning in London and witnesses, or so he believes, a horrid scene, not unlike that of "suicide planes" crashing into the Twin Towers. The surgeon is no fiction reader, "The times are strange enough. Why make things up?" It is a question which I think most writers are asking themselves at least subliminally these days. In a world of such horrors, what does a novel have to offer?

It is a rhetorical question, perhaps, which does not in any way negate its importance. We tell stories and listen to them because that is how we make meaning of reality -- how we while away the time if the fiction is escapist, or redeem it if the fiction in some way leads us through "the horror, the horror" to the other side. Seamus Heaney reminds us that although "history says, don't hope/ On this side of the grave," we must continue to work, to write, to read with the hope that even if only once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

In the midst of my ongoing attacks of writerly self-doubt, an elderly patient of my physician husband sent home a present for me. Periodically, these gifts come my way. A crocheted potholder. Pretty earrings that my husband might have complimented. Jams and jellies and pickled beets, newly canned, at summer's end. (This is Vermont, after all.) They are gifts in character, so to speak, of an older generation living in a quiet, rural Eden-like state. But this latest trinket unsettled me: a glass ball inside which the Twin Towers stand. Instead of shaking the ball and watching snow swirl inside it, one turns on a tiny switch, and the Towers are awash in garish colors. Talk about camp. Why would anyone send me this? My husband shrugged. "She's a fan," he tried. Perhaps he had mentioned my assortment of paperweights, pebbles, magical talismans strewn around my study to protect me from the aforementioned Furies. It struck me that even the least politically motivated person wanted her local bard to remember that the world has changed.

Not that I am likely to forget. Everything has changed, though nothing has. As a writer, I struggle with how to address this different world in my fiction. Perhaps that is all any of us can do with whatever work we do. As Charlie Parker might say, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." We are living it, and how it will play out in our work, we have yet to learn. ยท

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