Hello, dear readers and writers. There is a literature related issue about which I’ve had strong convictions for a long time, so I thought I’d raise it here.
When you write or read a novel, do you prefer character-based stories devoid of politics or social problems, or do you enjoy reading/writing books where the characters and plot are engaged with socio-political topics?
I prefer reading and writing the latter and I attribute my preference to experiences I had a long time ago during my college years. The first experience’s setting was in a Spanish literature class taught by an instructor who delighted in showing us the personal and political messages concealed in Federico Garcia Lorca’s lyrical but mournful poetry. Like a brand new sponge, I absorbed the instructor’s excitement as he drew the lines connecting Lorca’s symbolic imagery to the events of the Spanish Civil War and the oppression of certain of Spain’s citizenry.
My second experience occurred when I made the acquaintance of the poetry of the Negritude Movement and immediately saw its parallels to the poetry and prose of the 1960’s-early 1970’s Black Arts Movement.
Most of the writers whose work filled both of those movements rejected the classic art-for-art’s-sake credo. They grabbed the belief that literature (as well as painting and the other plastic arts) needed to be functional. The written word had to fulfill a purpose beyond entertainment. It needed to be a tool. Leopold S. Senghor and Rene Depestre (Negritude poets,) Gwendolyn Brooks (whose work preceded the Black Arts Movement, but whose later poems embraced it,) Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn Rodgers, and Sonia Sanchez adhered to the premise that literature had the power to inspire change. Their poetry and prose was dynamic. It danced and jumped off the page. Their lesbian heirs, Audre Lorde, Alexis De Veaux, Jewelle Gomez, Cheryl Clarke, and many others have continued the tradition of writing “engaged literature.”
Does my advocacy of functional literature mean I’m campaigning for most novels to stimulate change or force feed readers certain political messages? No, I am not doing that. I am saying it’s difficult for me to write romance or mystery or general dramatic fiction without creating characters who wrestle with any number of real life’s social issues, like aging, racial discrimination, the inequities of health care, mental illness, homophobia. I’m saying also that it’s possible to write about these issues AND create stories with pleasant endings.
I want my fiction to serve a purpose. I want my readers to enjoy the stories, but I also want them to think about issues with which possibly they’ve not had to contend.
Two topics I explored in my last book, The Rules, were racial identity and the conflicts caused by colorism and class differences. These are well known issues in the African American community, but they are painful problems which we tend to hold close to ourselves and not often commit to the pages of our books. With few exceptions, (Michelle Cliff’s “Abeng,”) black lesbian writers rarely include these problems in our stories. Let’s face it, for those of us who are black and of a certain age, proclaiming one’s sexuality and writing about characters who also own theirs is a political act in itself.
We writers and our publishers have to be concerned about book sales. It follows that we want our books to be enjoyable. Can we create characters and plots that deal with social issues and still offer our readers the sweet combo of entertainment and brain food they seek? Yes, we can. We can offer stories with plot twists and turns, finely drawn characters with flaws as well as sterling traits, who in the course of living their lives are forced to encounter some of the aforementioned issues.
I want to write books that will serve a function other than decorate an end table for a short while. I seek to create books that will entice readers to ponder socio-political situations in general and the issues which affect them in particular. My books might not make my readers dance, but I hope they will encourage them to think beyond the books’ covers.
S. Renee Bess has written five novels: LEAVE OF ABSENCE; BREAKING JAIE; RE:BUILDING SASHA; THE BUTTERFLY MOMENTS; and THE RULES. Her website is: http://www.reneebess.com