Engaged and enraged

In October 2014, I rang my mother and declared that I wasn’t going to write any more fiction. The silence that met this assertion was, I assumed, filled with her weighing up a number of possible reactions: a sigh of relief; a protest and bid to get me to change my mind; a quiet ‘I told you so’ that echoed back to the days when she had tried to get me to study law. In the end, I can’t quite remember how my mother responded – I believe it was a combination of all three – but it did end with her offering to help pay for a workshop on writing freelance nonfiction.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write anymore (despite my mother’s glimmer of hope, I wasn’t enrolling in law anytime soon), but rather the gloomy recognition my reasons for writing fiction had become lost after the cold hard reality of publication.

When teaching creative writing, I invariably ask my students why it is they want to write. The answers range from the predictable – ‘to straighten out my thoughts’, ‘to create my own world and escape reality’, ‘to remember and capture memories’ – to the faintly quirky – ‘to reproduce the contours of my mind’, ‘to take ideas out and decide if they are a diamond or a piece of glass’. While these reasons are perfectly valid, I am yet to encounter a student who gives the answer I did when I first began my writing journey: ‘to change the world.’

Back in my postgrad days, I argued with my creative writing lecturer and a fellow student about what they regarded as my naivety. I held to the notion that creating empathy – that is, allowing a reader to enter the mind of someone whose situation is dissimilar to their own – is one of the primary functions of fiction; that through the simple act of stepping into the shoes of another, you, the reader, can experience a fundamental change in yourself as a person. This idea obviously has some moral underpinnings, perhaps linking my view of fiction to the original Pamela-like notion that novels are for teaching. Here, we’re not talking ‘virtue’, but a deep and profound sympathy for other struggling human beings.

So, what kind of books can fulfil this grandiose vision of mine? When I look at the kind of works I most admire – Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Camus’ The Outsider, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Nabokov’s Lolita – I’m struck by the fact they all highlight intense (male) narrators and focus on people who transgress society’s rules. What does this say about what I want to be ‘taught’ in a novel? Kafka said we should read books that are an ‘axe for the frozen sea within us’ – in other words, books that allow us to become more aware of who we are on the inside, by seeing what is supposedly outside of us.

But is any of this really the same as changing the world? What did I mean when I clung, in my cigarette-smoke shroud, to the idea that fiction is important to society? What I meant, I have come to realise, is that fiction has the power to spark larger debate and, even, initiate change.

In ‘Eleventh-Hour Advocacy: Can Fiction Be Used to Elicit Change?’, Antonia Hayes directly dismisses the idea of the novelist as social advocate:

[I]t’s not up to the writer to bring about change. Fiction can sway, suggest, inspire, push back, disgust, magnetise, tempt, or bore. While novels can be a springboard for advocacy and a catalyst for action, they can only indirectly lead to real change. Choosing to take action falls with the reader. Whatever happens after the book is read is out of the writer’s hands.

Such separation between the work of art and the artist seems, to me, to come from an outdated notion of the silent writer unable to speak beyond the page. In a publishing culture that absolutely relies on the writer to be a spokesperson for their work, it is difficult to make such clear distinctions. Furthermore, the social ‘issues’ explored in a book are increasingly used to highlight its relevance to the contemporary reader.

Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books, has argued that ‘as well as categorizing novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular, one could also, and perhaps more usefully, distinguish those that become part of the conversation, and those that do not.’ He goes on:

One could list any number of novels – Hard Times, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son  – that have provoked an intense level of public debate, usually because they combined a seductive plot with issues that mattered deeply to people in that particular time and place.

Parks argues that a deliberate attempt to engage with topical issues can lead to forced or lacklustre fiction, but he does allow space for works that one can only assume were written with the explicit aim of provoking revolution or, more mildly, highlighting the need for social change.

I have to admit to having high ambitions for my second novel. Enraged, in the early 2000s, by John Howard’s declaration that the Aboriginal children of the Stolen Generations were taken ‘for their own good’, I embarked on a literary project that sought to expose the strange and sinister motivations of white Australia. The narrator of The Heaven I Swallowed was a war widow whose obsessions with godliness and cleanliness were gradually revealed to be a smoke screen for the lies on which her life was based.

In the exegesis that accompanied the work (as part of my PhD), I admitted my desire for the work to be transformational. I had what Bain Attwood would call ‘the ideal of reconciliation’ in mind for my narrative: ‘the repressed Aboriginal past is released from the national unconscious, its truths uttered, the pain of the dispossessed Aborigines acknowledged, the sins of non-Aboriginal Australians or their forebears confessed, and forgiveness sought.’ Just a small ask, then!

Of course, the reality of publication was very different. The diminished interest in my writing hurt (there is a whole other article to be written on Australia’s obsession with the debut versus the second novel), not only because I had believed in this work on a literary level, but also because the subject matter had felt intensely important. Although the news cycle had moved on to other issues, the damage done – and still being done – to Aboriginal children reverberates. What, then, do you do if your fiction has done nothing to contribute to change?

The arbitrary line between the writer–as-writer and the writer-as-advocate was blurred for me last year when I noticed two very prominent Australian writers, Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan, speaking out against the government’s refugee policies. In an article in The Guardian, Flanagan took the Liberal government to task about its treatment of human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, who had headed the inquiry into the conditions of refugee children in detention. Flanagan referred to the experience of writing The Narrow Road to the Deep North and came to the conclusion that ‘great crimes like the Death Railway did not begin with the first beating or murder on that grim line of horror in 1943. They begin decades before with politicians, public figures, and journalists promoting the idea of some people being less than people.’

A month or so after Flanagan’s article, Winton spoke at a Palm Sunday walk for Justice4Refugees and evoked the power of looking back and seeing the wrongs of the present, through the filter of history:

Prime Minister … Give these people back their faces, their humanity. Don’t avert your gaze and don’t hide them from us. Because the secret won’t hold. It’s out already. There are witnesses. There will be testimony.

Both writers were eloquent and passionate in their pleas, using their position of influence – as respected interpreters of our culture – to try to go beyond government rhetoric.

Interestingly, for me, both were doing it via nonfiction. Although Flanagan referred to the process of writing his own novel, both were providing, essentially, opinion pieces – even though their authority was linked to reputations built on being writers of fiction. In Australia, despite the overall decline in the economic value placed on literary production (anyone for a $1 ebook?), artists are still afforded a certain level of respect; when they speak, many are compelled to listen.

Given this influence and ability, shouldn’t writers of literature be using fiction, as well as nonfiction, to make their point, to bring to life the struggles of refugees in this country? When a writer becomes an advocate for a cause, where does their literary work sit in relation to it?

Australia has a decent tradition of fiction writers whose works delve into questions of social justice. The acclaimed poet Judith Wright (1915–2000) was both an environmentalist and a campaigner for Indigenous land rights, mixing her artistic output with her political views. Many Indigenous artists, such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993), Jack Davis (1917–2000) and Kevin Gilbert (1933–1993), were political activists as well as writers, poets and playwrights. Besides his recent engagement with the refugee issue, Winton has been a strong advocate for the environment: he is currently patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society and was actively involved in the campaign to save Ningaloo Reef. This intersection between political activism and writing stems from the ability writers have to shape words into forceful arguments. But once the writer becomes the advocate, are they obliged to make their fiction ‘work’ for the cause?

Back in the classroom, student writers inevitably worry about not having anything ‘interesting’ to write about. Fixated on the idea of the suffering artist, they tend to look inward – rather than outward – for their inspiration, rarely engaging with the politics of the day, hardly ever exploring ideas beyond the intimate and the local. This feeling extends into broader society: the popular conclusion – shared by Hayes – is that novels that advocate for change run the risk of becoming propaganda. But if fiction consistently fails to engage with the social issues of the day, we are left with works that lack connection to their readers and leave us complacent.

If we do focus on refugee policy – this being one of the most pertinent crises today – why do the detention camps still seem so far away? Are they so easily dismissed from our national consciousness because we don’t currently have novels that give fulsome voice to the incarcerated? Where is the fiction that exposes our present humanitarian failings, that pushes us to engage fully with the reality of detention? Only three fiction books for adults are listed on the Refugee Council of Australia website: A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Kite Runner (both by Khaled Hosseini) and Under the Persimmon Tree (by Suzanne Fisher Staples). All three are by American writers (while from Afghanistan originally, Hosseini’s family sought political asylum in the US when he was a teenager).

This is not to say that Australian writers have not engaged with the issue. Works like Nam Le’s The Boat, Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil all include refugee characters. Both Le and Clarke explicitly re-create the experience of the fleeing refugee in their short stories. In ‘The Boat’, Le draws on the Vietnamese escapes of the 1970s, though its evocative description of the horror trip surely serves to be a modern counterpoint to the ongoing demonisation of those who ‘jump the queues’ by coming by boat. In ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’, Clarke interweaves the story of a Tamil child, Asanka, with that of an Anglo-Australian, Loretta, who forces herself to visit the Villawood Detention Centre after resigning from her job at the Asylum Seekers’ Support Centre. Again, the reality of what the refugee has gone through to be in Australia is powerfully rendered. Clarke is also brave enough to portray the attitude of many Australians when her character enacts the moment of turning away: ‘Loretta rolls up her window again, blocks out the muddle of raised voices. She doesn’t want to know. She just doesn’t want to know.’

While these works have garnered critical acclaim and impressive sales, they have not, in Parks’ terms, entered ‘the conversation’. When searching around for Australian novels that have fulfilled this measure, I could think of only two in recent memory: Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (both popular in their own right and then further buoyed by adaptations into television miniseries). The Slap, in particular, which circles around issues of parenting and violence, became a water-cooler topic, perhaps because it tapped into various recognisable strata within the middle class. Or, to put it more simply, it asked Australians to take a side.

But to return to the original question: would reading a fictional account of life in the detention centres, or – as in The Slap – seeing your own narcissistic behaviour rendered on the page, ever lead to real societal change? Do books that enter the national conversation really shift perspectives in the long run?

There are a couple of ways in which this could happen. On the one hand, there is the spurring to action that may come from a more sympathetic view of the experience of seeking asylum – for example, joining a support organisation or attending a protest. On the other, there is the more complex reaction of being drawn to examine your own relationship to the power systems in which we live and operate.

Kevin Brophy claims that, in teaching creative writing, ‘literature is revealed, not as a site for self-expression or as the exercise of genius, or as a history of great books, but as a process close to the flow of power relations in a modern society, a process central to our experience and construction of our selves’. This wonderful revelation signals the obligation of the writer to engage with power, to question the levels at which we might situate ourselves in society and to interrogate current systems of the self-and-other division. For readers to be aware of how their empathic selves might be manipulated or not.

In this way, I have come to realise, fiction can change the world, small adjustment by small adjustment. With this view, I can renew the hope that my novel may have shifted at least one reader’s attitudes and, in a largely intangible way, made some kind of incremental change.

After a year away from the beast – twelve months in which I wrote and published ten nonfiction articles – I sheepishly returned to the fiction fold. Having adjusted my beliefs when it comes to what writing can do, I feel a certain sense of liberation. No longer caught up in the need for my work to transform the world, I returned to the simple pleasure of making something from nothing.

This is not to say I’ve given up on my still shimmering belief in fiction’s power. If I can teach my students one thing, it will be the ongoing need to question why we are doing what we do, and to remain engaged – and enraged – with life beyond the page.


Artwork by Brent Stegeman.



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Rachel Hennessy

Rachel Hennessy’s novels are The Quakers (Wakefield Press, 2008) and The Heaven I Swallowed (Wakefield Press, 2013). She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

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