This past semester, I took an amazing class called Disaster Literature that, yes, was as depressing as it sounds. We read a number of novels that dealt with life amid disaster, whether it was realistic or fantastical, in the past or in the future. Titles included The Wild Palms by William Faulkner, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, White Noise by Don DeLillo, Paradise by Toni Morrison and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. One of the central questions we discussed throughout the semester was about the role of fiction in questioning and possibly changing modern, political control over such things as geography, human biology, immigration and agriculture.
I am a sucker for books like these, generally. After all, I often joke that reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a welcome respite from togetherness-time on a recent family vacation. Having the novels put into conversation with one another and with larger socio-political questions really helped illuminate their importance in how we, as citizens, build narrative about our current situations, whatever they may be, and how we relate to citizens elsewhere, whether they are in the same country as us or across the globe.
Given my research in West Africa about underrepresented writers, it makes sense that I am always on the lookout for what’s going on elsewhere, what people are writing in far-flung places, languages I can’t read, etc. Words without Borders and Brittle Paper are two great resources for discovering new writing from underrepresented voices. So, I am thrilled to see the New York Times writing about authors from the Middle East that may not reach a Western audience without this type of coverage.
The article, “Middle Eastern Writers Find Refuge in the Dystopian Novel,” by Alexandra Alter, highlights dystopian novels that are being written by authors as a way to talk about taboo and outlawed topics. She brings us into the struggle of publishing as a commercial endeavor in the face of the disdain and anger of those in power. As with the writers in Mali, who had to think about publishing avenues when selecting the language in which they would write, publishing houses in these precariously governed countries must consider the consequences of publishing work in totalitarian regimes. This quote, from Alter’s article, demonstrates their strife: “We are concerned now with what we publish,” said Sherif-Joseph Rizk, director of Dar al-Tanweer Egypt, an Arabic publishing house. “If something is banned, it does create commercial problems.”
But as one of the writers says in the article, dystopian fiction can provide an outlet to say what is not possible to say. Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue, explains: “Fiction gave me a very wide space to say what I wanted to say about totalitarian authority.”
Similarly, the writers we read over the course of the semester in Disaster Lit were doing the same, using fiction to express the hard realities and truths about the society in which they were trying to live. I will have to add these names to my summer reading list!