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The Politics of Fiction


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I’ll start this post with a disclaimer. As a fiction writer, I am drawn to writing stories that work within the realities we exist in. I’ve rarely worked with magic, fantasy, alternate world histories, or creating imaginary worlds.

Primarily, I enjoy stories of humans living in contemporary urban realities. I wanted to expand the way I wrote, but it always seemed like a struggle. Over time I made peace with it and plunged further into the kind of writer I wanted to be. I wondered why I related to books that told stories about our times, struggles, pop culture, gender roles, and other political realities.

My upbringing between two countries (U.S and India) possibly shaped how I read. The sense of displacement and mixed ideas of identity had imprinted a curiosity for people and how they could adapt to very different realities depending on circumstances. The idea that the world we relate to can be so stunningly different for another person in another country or even another city or village in the same world compelled me.

Writing in real life meant a lot of my work started to blend into prominent political stories that pointed to the limitations of colonized worldviews. The most important revelation in my writing was the understanding that all writing (whether you mean to or not) is political.

Our writing points to our worldview; who published what, and what gets published? It demonstrates our cultural imaginations, both in their glory and limitations. When I talk about this, a lot of people get uncomfortable. The idea that one is bringing ‘politics’ into writing is something only some types of writers desire. I think this discomfort exists because the concept of politics has been largely misconstrued. We believe ‘political writing’ takes a particular stance and label. It is motivated by fear that certain writing will offend some people.

To me, politics means growing awareness of how humans experience and construct cyclical systems of oppression. Why are some stories boring to us and others amazing? For example, in a western mainstream imagination of books, main characters living in a country we know little about can be boring or not relatable unless it caters to a sense of exoticness that satisfies the way we imagine alien life to be. Indian diasporic writing was limited to only first-generation struggles for a long time. In contrast, stories set in India were limited to exotic ideas of clothing and food.

Books written from a non-first-world perspective have only a few readers who praise them for their international qualities.

Most of the world has set American pop culture and markers of the ‘good life’ as the gold standard. Most of the world is familiar with American books, movies, and music, and many know more about American politics than their own countries (and in many cases, more than Americans). Globally, there is already a pre-existing bias for us to relate to the features and realities of this culture. This isn’t so much a problem; it is a loss for us to examine the world from perspectives and storytelling styles that might take more adjustment to enjoy. I believe that reading and writing things that might seem unfamiliar to us can broaden the way we understand humanity.

I remember reading excerpts for Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in grad school. I remember the density of the text that talked about the ramifications of imperialism and the loss of home and language. The text was purposefully inaccessible in parts, yet the number of discussions we had around it was vast, nuanced, and vulnerable. Even though the reading of it wasn’t enjoyable in parts, it remains an impressionable text in my mind.

I have come to understand that fiction can illustrate how we oppress ourselves through our feelings and how those oppressions are linked to cultures, families, and communities as a reflection of institutional and cultural norms. I have learnt to enjoy sitting with discomfort through fiction. Over time, it has eroded my need to have a stance or a dogmatic idea of right and wrong. Instead, it’s opened me to imagining new ways of thinking about old things. It has recreated my assumptions of humanity and its possibilities.

Writers can show us a mirror in diverse forms of countries, places, and identities. In a way, I think fiction has a better chance of showing how we are connected in collective violence, shame, joy, and the hopes we all carry in life. The didactic reporting of histories can seem more threatening for people to sit with because it demands you take a pro or anti stance. Fiction merges into the grey; it wraps around the flaws of our characters and allows a new way of looking at things without feeling the need to label a political stance. Fiction remains one of the gentlest ways to negotiate our larger world with its powerful ability to let us see how we’re all connected.

How do you look at your writing? Have you considered that our words are always political, no matter the type of fiction we write? Does this idea liberate you or make you comfortably uncomfortable?

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About Rheea Mukherjee

Rheea Mukherjee is the author of  The Body Myth, (February 2019/ Unnamed Press).  Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in several publications including Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Out of Print, QLRS, and Anti Serious among others.  She is the co-founder of Write Leela Write, a design and content laboratory in Bangalore, India. She spends most of her spare time eating and making vegan hipster things. Learn more at www.rheeamukherjee.com, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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