The literate is the political? - Jo Carroll

     As some of you know, I'm just back from Cuba. I've never been so aware of catching just a snippet of a country. I can (and probably will) write about the Cuba I met, but cannot extrapolate to assume it's the Cuba anyone else might meet, or make any assumptions about the lives of the Cubans themselves.

     Which is unusual. And why? One reason (among many) is the complex political situation in Cuba, with a socialist government firmly in control but the teeth of capitalism are gnawing away at the edges of society - and ready to take great bites should America lift the trade embargo. As a result some people are already looking forward to the possibility of being able to buy bread without queueing, while others will continue to live on farms and eat what they grow.

     Just in case you need a picture to make the point, here is a crooked picture of Che Guevara - on the wall in a bus station:

     I cannot write about Cuba without grappling with that. Which set me thinking: I've also played with a novel set in the nineteenth century, with a backdrop of the famine in Ireland and deportations to Australia. I've written short stories with a modern setting, with its flexible family ties and instant messaging systems. I take for granted that context is part of the writing.

     Many years ago, in the early days of feminism, there was a saying that, 'The personal is political.' It brought the domesticity of many women's lives into the political arena, making it part of our discourse to discuss the roles of women and how they may or may not change.

     Can we, as writers, escape the same construct? Is it possible to ignore political contexts in our writing? I know we get into definitions here - where does politics end and culture begin? I'd argue that the line is too indefinite to be useful. That one feeds and nurtures (and occasionally overfeeds) the other.

     As a travel writer I cannot escape the politics - nor the history that has shaped it. And as a fiction writer? Here I'll be interested to see what you think. I would argue that any piece with a defined and recognised historical context (which includes the present day) cannot ignore cultural and political realities, even though this may not be explicit in the writing. And that this is as important for those writing for children as for adults.

     But does that change for fantasy writers? Do vampires need to nod in the direction of David Cameron? Or can they sail blissfully into the blue without paying any attention to the preoccupations of those with our feet on the ground? Is the whole point of fantasy that it can, and does, transcend culture and politics?

     (If you want to see how I tackled this in other countries, there are links on my website, here.)


cally phillips said…
I have some understanding of what you're going through Jo. After my first visit to Cuba in 1999 I couldn't even talk to people about it for months, never mind write about it. My first written project was a commissioned screenplay biopic of Che Guevara in 2000 (before Motorcycle Diaries) and I never actually wrote fiction about it until after I'd been back there again the second time in 2006 (by which time many things were different) But 'Another World is Possible' I hope shows something of the 'personal is political' I have other works about Cuba in draft form but they are difficult to 'get out' for many of the reasons you say. My life has been hugely influenced by both Che Guevara and Cuba and I guess one of the lessons it all does teach us is that politics isn't something far away (unless we deny our responsibilities) it's at the very core of what we do and who we are. It's easy to forget that in the comfortable west (less easy to forget it in Scotland at this time) and perhaps its something we should grapple with more closely. I think that when people go to Cuba (may be the same with all 'travel') they tend to find what they are looking for. Unless one 'embeds' into a country and culture for quite some time, one is always a 'tourist' in some respects. And my experience of 'tourists' is that they think normal life rules don't apply. They walk down the middle of the road hand in hand oblivious to the fact that others are living their lives, not on holiday and might need to drive down that road! Literally and metaphorically. I'll be interested to see what you think when the dust has settled, because it's always interesting for me to see what someone else makes of one of my great life influences!
Carol Hedges said…
The inescapabliltyof politics: (well, that's if you are a sentient being). Writing Diamonds&Dust made me so aware of the way class is factored into every part of our lives and thinking. The parallels with the Victorian era with its scorn for working people and its cruel treatment of the old and impoverished was too apparent not to include. There is even a vile character called George Osborne...
Anonymous said…
As George Orwell says in his essay, Why I Write" - "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."
Vallypee said…
An interesting debate here. I recently watched a talk given by Geert Hofstede, the cultural analysis expert, and his research has found that culture is deeper than politics, and in fact that the culture of the people is what shapes their politics much more than the other way round. I have not made a study of this myself, so cannot say, but Hofstede also claims that although superficially cultures shift and change with the times, their underlying features remain the same.

I suppose what I'm getting at here is that Cuba's culture may well be revealed in its politics more than we realise and it's not something that is just superimposed on the people. It seems that political constructs vary according to the culture of the people. As I said, I don't know. I am not the expert here, but I find it interesting as an idea to explore. I also find it interesting that Cally found it difficult to write about Cuba. I can't help noticing that you wrote about Thailand and Laos very soon after you returned, but you also seem to be having some reticence about Cuba, Jo.
CallyPhillips said…
Val, I found my experience of Cuba so profound that I struggled to think how to communicate it to people who I knew would struggle to understand. Being in a country where 1 st world people just like me were being forced to live a 3 rd world existence because of our neglect and ignorance was really difficult. Ilets put it this way, if it was possible to emigrate to Cuba I would have done it! Some of what I feel has come out in my fiction but I've never managed to do it full justice yet. Cuba does challenge on's mindset on a basic level, unless of course you just go for a resort holiday and experience the mcdonaldisation of the world that we mistake for globalization. We need, I think, to learn about Cuba, not to impose our ideology onto it. I don't know that I'll ever get back there, so I'll be interested to hear Jo's experiences. For me, Cuba gave me a big sense of personal responsibility about the world I live in and for people I met who gave me much more than I could give them!
Dennis Hamley said…
First of all, I don't think writers can separate themselves from politics. My Out of the Mouths of Babes is, in the final analysis, a heavily political novel even though I have made a probably pusillanimous attempt at evenhandedness. There's a similar attitude to society in everything I write, though it's not always overt: it's just the way I am, through both upbringing and conscious thought.

To me, a fantasy which is not in some way an allegorical societal and political construct is hardly worth the paper it's written on. To soften that point, most fantasies are set in the author's imaginary world which surely means they have roots in a world view which, simply by being a world view, can't help having a version of reality and therefore cannot escape being political in some way. No fantasy can be purely escapist, however much the author wants it to be. Perhaps it's an inbuilt quality in the genre that most fantasies are conservative, where the characters 'fight the long fight' to go back to the past and restore the old order. If that's not political, I don't know what is.

And, Cally, you are so right about the difference between mere tourism and becoming embedded. In a small way I've experienced the same. Having spent two months each year in New Zealand for the last eight years I find myself an interested - indeed, involved - part of the present struggle of the people of Christchurch against the post-earthquake bureaucracy, negligence and corporate greed which is turning a once fine city into a pit of rebellious misery. So, though my visits have their elements of tourism, when back in Christchurch I feel I have dual citizenship and am part of the place, because their struggle not only affects us personally but is a microcosm of the world we now live in. And that experience, while often upsetting, can in the end, only be good.
Jenny Woolf said…
You've raised a lot of points here, but I'll just comment with regard to travel writing. I feel we can only do what we're actually CAPABLE of doing.So I can write knowledgably about London because I live there and I understand (and am part of) its culture. But since I live there, it's not exactly travel writing, is it? *(Or is it, given that my readers probably don't live there?) And of course I am bound to lack objectivity, simply because I do live there.
OTOH if I go to somewhere that is really alien to me, I will, like you, talk to people, look around and do what I can to understand the context in which to put all the strange things that I see. I try never to forget that my comments may seem naive or misguided to those who actually know the place, I bear in mind that I'm probably seen as a tourist to be fed opinions in a biased way, however much I might feel I've settled in and been accepted.
So the bottom line is that I feel I have just as much right as anyone else to have my own reactions to the place, whether I understand the context or not - and in truth, I value my own impressions more than anything else.
Dan Holloway said…
Incredibly thought-provoking. I absolutely think we can never escape politics. Everything we do is political - no more so than to declare our writing above politics. I don't think that has to mean a direct entanglement in "big issues" - it's more about the way we frame our scenes, the aspirations we give to our characters and so on - things we may not even be aware of.
Vallypee said…
Thanks for your reply Cally! I failed to mention here that I've long wanted to go to Cuba. After reading your comments, I want to go even more! I have a feeling I might find some parallels with my experiences of living in South Africa. For a start, the very complexity of which you and Jo speak - that sounds familiar…and yes, the politics and how it impacts every day life.

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