A Conversation: Why Fiction Matters in an Unjust World

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July 30, 2014


This month at ZEEK we’ll be showcasing spare prose poetry, magical realist and fabulist tales, and family histories. These pieces show just a few place where Jewish fiction, and Jewish fiction with a social conscience, can journey. Please email fiction@zeek.net with feedback and ideas for more fiction features.

I thought I’d launch the series by having a conversation with Chanel Dubofsky, a fellow Jewish social justice writer who, like me, is honing her fiction-writing craft, about something that’s making us both neurotic these days: why we activist-minded folks have to engage with art and stories, even if, at moments of roiling political debate, they may seem frivolous.

SMS: When the world is in a particularly broken, or breaking, phase, it can be hard to stand up for the importance of fiction, of art. Today, people are dying in Gaza and children arriving desperate and unwelcome at our Southern borders. New kinds of hatred and extremism manifest around the globe (Jewish neo-Nazis? Really?) and women’s rights are eroding at home thanks to Hobby Lobby and co. If we’re going to do something as frivolous as WRITING, shouldn’t we be at least writing about these disturbing facts, not making up stories?

CD: I was in a lecture at my MFA program and realized that the Hobby Lobby decision was about to come in. As soon as we found out that it had gone the way of Alito, I was so totally consumed by rage that it was hard for me to focus on why I was so devoted to learning about and making fiction in the first place. It seemed indulgent. If I think about how fiction has saved me, how writing has saved me, the worlds I’ve created in the name of escape, it might be.

SMS: I felt similarly when Occupy erupted while I was getting my own MFA — that fiction was indulgent. But then when the movement disappointed, or I had a rage headache because of the crackdowns, it was so healing to return to my craft and the act of making something. And to be reminded through fiction that everyone is human, even the person on the other side of a border fence, a propaganda war, a culture war.

I forever seek that balance between my occasional mindset of “politics is everything” and my occasional attitude of “art is everything.” That’s why I’m so excited that ZEEK, a social justice magazine, is returning to its roots and publishing stories.

CD: When I do things like write criticism about Occupy Wall Street and fiction, while writing fiction about Israel and secular Jews, and also pondering how race, class, gender manifest themselves in a writing workshop, I wonder: am I trying to have it all — politics and fiction?

I think reading carves out a space in the world you can go to when you’re scared, or tired, or bored, or when you want to see a different reality, which might be a reality where someone like you runs the world, or is in the world, even if it’s just a tiny corner of it. When I think about it like that, I know fiction matters, because it transforms reality. BUT.

SMS: But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our world has structures of oppression, and hierarchies. Writing and reading can be part of our social responsibility — like Miss Rumphius in the children’s book, our way of making the world more beautiful. Yet the higher calling is to attempt both: creation of beauty and meaning AND also the pursuit of justice.

CD: What do you think are some ways that fiction writers can be socially responsible in their fiction? I think some of it has to do with being a good literary citizen, and in that context, making sure that we’re reading widely (not just white dudes, not just Jews), and pushing our own boundaries of what we believe about writing. Manifesting feminist, anti-racist politics in our reading — going wide and broad and knowing that it matters — not theoretically, but actually.

SMS: Yes. Educating ourselves outside the fiction-writing context (by reading articles in places like ZEEK) and letting these ideas about how the world functions — patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism — sit in our subconscious. I think it’s mostly crucial to use that information to “do no harm” and actively not to perpetuate stereotypes. This is more important than it is to be didactic or have a positive agenda.

CD: Our job as writers is to imagine our way into other people’s lives, but I think as social justice folks, it’s important to understand that there are power and privilege issues that come with doing that, and to handle those with care.

SMS: Thank you, Chanel, for being part of this initial conversation with me. I’m so excited to bring summer fiction to ZEEK.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com