Subscriberthon: Occupy the story

jenjeninchinaWhen I ran away from activism to be a writer about ten years ago, I did so with a degree of guilt. I was in need of consolation, and the imagination has always been my strongest fortress, my best escape. I felt exhausted by the anti-globalisation and squatting movements I was intensely involved in, bruised by the mode of pressing bodies against barricades, fighting for inches of territory.

My focus as an activist was not just physical space; I was interested in making imaginative spaces, social and democratic spaces where grassroots democracy might flourish. I was a facilitator as well as a breaker-and-enterer. The huge groundswell of anti-capitalist protest that surged forth in the late 1990s, in answer to movements which began in the global south, following the lead of the poor, was a romantic time, but it was also serious. I was passionate about a movement which held itself accountable, which sought to find better decision-making structures than had got us into this global mess.

Watching the ways that the various Occupations have been organising, I am heartened that this part of the struggle continues to be taken very seriously.

Occupy Wall Street rally

But watching the police violence around the world over the last fortnight I was reminded forcefully of Carlo Giuliani, the young man who was killed by police in Genoa in July 2001. His death broke all our hearts, somehow snapped us out of our hope. And then September 11 stunned the USA for ten years. Well, it looks like that country has just woken up, again following other, more urgent voices, this time in the Arab world.

Perhaps because I am older than I was, perhaps because I am not in the city fighting, I have been thinking less about this specific movement and more about what kind of story it is telling; and I have been considering what the work of storytellers might be, what our responsibilities could be to such a movement.

The problem with using stories to escape is that everything is story. I bounce between retreating into my work – in several stages of a book, that retreat is absolutely necessary – and sinking up to my elbows in present politics and meaning. Sometimes I am caught up in journalism and commentary, current reading and research; sometimes it becomes essential to burrow. It doesn’t help that I am trying to write fiction about capitalism as it shifts and falls around me, as I do battle with poverty and privilege, aware of the luxury of writing as much as I am aware of its necessity.

It is a truism perhaps that fiction does the empathic work of allowing us to imagine another’s life, without which cruelty is so much more possible. I have written before that writing can be a form of political action. I don’t mean that we should write from a place of ideology, which fixity would deaden the imaginative impulse, but that it is political to write fiction: to write from a place of figuring-out, a place of listening and witness. That through books we are able to imagine others, but also other relationships with the world. Our own lives changing, our escape from absurd circumstances, the possibility of working together. I don’t mean we should all write revolutionary utopias. I simply think that revisioning the world must be a matter for constant, conscious work.

But an interest in narrative also frames the world in a very persistent and patterned way. Narrative becomes a lens to everything. And seen through that lens, the Arab Spring and now the Occupy movement have given me more optimism than anything in the last ten years.

The funniest part of all of this Occupy business is its ability to flummox idiots who own newspapers. The sites where meaning is made have very visibly shifted away from old, centralised media. The hollowed-out Murdoch empire, having shattered its readers’ trust, hears noise in the street, having never noticed peoples voices before. The newspapers glance down at young people gathering to protest glaring poverty and the imminent ruin of the planet, and miss the message. For days and days all we heard in the mainstream press was ‘we don’t understand it; we don’t know what it means’. That wasn’t just lazy journalism (see this Slate article). It was centralised media throwing up its hands and admitting it is out of the meaning-making business. It is lost. And the rest of us, give or take a few clicks and a few conversations, are not. We knew fairly quickly what was going on; were even able to interact with it, challenge its shortcomings, educate ourselves and others, plan our roles in determining its future.

Democracy, the revolution, whatever you want to call it, isn’t formed in institutions; it breaks out in our relationships. It is in the patterns we live, which are in turn determined by the narratives we choose. If we permit corporations to control our narratives – be they of progress, superiority, border security, or terror – then we are lost.

I am watching from a distance, but with much pleasure, as democracy goes viral. Social meanings, which grow and fester over networks, prove themselves stronger than centralised ones. I am watching the large-scale refusal of a story. People are no longer buying the narrative that capitalism benefits democracy. We are active, not passive; creators, not consumers. We are no longer surrendering to controlled meaning, to the performance of mock-dissent which happens daily in the mainstream media, where childish taunting and fake arguments attempt to distract us from the real potential of democratic engagement and enforce a culture of exhaustion and indifference.

Fiction is no escape at all, because we are living in a world of fictions: the delusions that sustain the dominance of financial capitalism. Fictions like the gambling of imaginary money being progress, the necessity of war, the laziness of the poor, the idea that we might be consoled with flat-screen TVs and football matches funded by the poker machine losses of people fuelled by another story, the story that they can win in this system.

General strike Oakland

The media, the two-party system, with its performance of fake democracy, is a trap as Kafkaesque as the Queen of Hearts’ court in Alice in Wonderland. A children’s story, a work of pure fiction, which ends with its heroine declaring as she wakes that her oppressors are nothing but a pack of cards. A great story can be a form of refusal.

We won’t put up with vested interests hijacking our narratives any longer. We are too interconnected to be fooled by that mass-media message. We know by practice how meanings and ideas grow through networks. We do the work of making them ourselves. And we make mistakes, and argue, and say things we regret, but despite that I think we already have the structures at our fingertips by which we might reclaim our democracies.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the proliferation of voices, of stories, of people trying to make themselves heard, and wonder how on earth you might manage to write. But I would rather all these voices than just one. I’d rather hear seven billion stories than only the story of the 1%. So this week, as more and more workers are striking, I’ll be taking up my tools, and adding my voice.

And I’ll be supporting this fine journal. Because more than ever, we need places, real and imaginative places, which bring these voices together.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by


  1. Brilliant Jennifer – you put so well things I think about all the time, esp as fiction editor of Overland. This is spot on:
    ‘I don’t mean that we should write from a place of ideology, which fixity would deaden the imaginative impulse, but that it is political to write fiction: to write from a place of figuring-out, a place of listening and witness.’

    And I think (and HOPE) you’re so right here: ‘I am watching the large-scale refusal of a story. People are no longer buying the narrative that capitalism benefits democracy. We are active, not passive; creators, not consumers.’ I think stories – 7 billion of them – are absolutely essential to change. I look forward to more of yours. Yes to your ‘Occupy the story’!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.