Authors: Sandra McIntyre
Copyright Â© 2013 Sandra McIntyre
Â© stories, respective authors, 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Editing: Sandra McIntyre
Cover design: ALL CAPS
Printed and bound in Canada
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published in Canada by Roseway Publishing
an imprint of Fernwood Publishing
32 Oceanvista Lane, Black Point, Nova Scotia, B0J 1B0
and 748 Broadway Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3G 0X3
Fernwood Publishing Company Limited gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, the Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, the Manitoba Department of Culture, Heritage and Tourism under the Manitoba Book Publishers Marketing Assistance Program and the Province of Manitoba, through the Book Publishing Tax Credit, for our publishing program.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Everything is so political : a collection of short fiction by
Canadian writers / Sandra McIntyre, editor ; foreword by
1. Political fiction, Canadian (English). 2. Short stories,
Canadian (English). 3. Canadian fiction (English)--21st century.
I. McIntyre, Sandra, 1970-
PS8323.P64E94 2013 C813'.01083581 C2012-908103-5
Thank you to all writers who submitted stories for consideration. And thank you to all those who do political work of any kind, but especially the kind that goes unnoticed.
like it when formula and precision fail to account for somethingâsuch as when the connotations of a word jump far apart from its dictionary meaning. So it is with political. An online dictionary says political means: of or relating to the government of public affairs of a country; of or relating to the ideas of a particular party or group in politics. But that's not it at all, is it? The Concise Oxford gets a bit closer by including the phrase “taking a side.” But there's still a lot of space left unaccounted for.
One can better judge the meaning of political by the content of the stories of this anthology. In these pages, political doesn't just mean taking a side; it more often means taking a risk. Dangerous and political are practically synonymous, so much so that we can be forced to take political risks without being political at all. Two stories in this anthology deal with explosions that kill randomly, and it is significant that the authors have not bothered with who is doing the killing or why. The distillation that is fiction gets quickly to the tedious, repetitive, stillborn nature of the rationalizations for political violence. The person taking no side who is yet destroyed matters more.
The opposite message is to be found in another story whose compelling truth is found in the title “The Extremists.” No matter how many times a day universities tell us that dichotomy is an inferior way of thinking, we remain suckers for it. As soon as we define a dichotomy, we crowd onto its two poles and leave most of the argument's planetary surface uninhabited. This too is what political means, and, again, little of it has to do with official politics or parties. It can mean liberal or conservative, but it more often means something else: players or owners, cats or dogs, meat or vegetables. High science is of late arguing over whether political preference is a matter of nurture or something hardwired into the double-helix. This too is a dichotomy and political, and will be argued thoroughly in Canadian homes and coffee shops before any of the facts are known.
The scope of this book of stories, the variety of it, proves its title: that pretty well everything is political. In these pages, you will find the politics of gender, animals, foods, landscape, poverty, race, drugs, sex, and evil. Past, present, and future are also represented: a story of great thinkers hauled from the past to be made fun of on a talk show in the corporate socialist paradise of 2050; a 1940s policeman risking his job to create a union, while upholding unwritten racial rules whereby Indians can be seen on one side of town but not the other.
Sometimes the political seems so ugly that we would like to take the high road and avoid it. Yet everything is political for a reason. Freedom is never safe from greed, be it for money or power. Democracy exists only in the exercise. Therefore, the more we know, the more we must tussle and spin.
My thanks to these authors for facing up to the politics in our natures, and for not ignoring the death-for-life ironies of political behaviour. We are better off sweeping it bare and staring into its curious heart.
Everything Is So Political
he title of this collection is purposefully, wonderfully ambiguous. Like the Spirit of the West song we sang along to a few decades ago, the phrase “everything is so political” can be interpreted in a number of ways, all of them valid, none of them definitive or even exclusive.
It is a statement of fact, with an emphasis on degreeâthere's nothing that isn't political. Not only is everything political, it is very much so. Not just a little, a lot.
It is an argument in the affirmativeâeverything is definitely political. Is not! Is so! After all, is there anything more dialectical, debatable (rhetorical, conversationalâ¦) than politics?
And it is, of course, a complaintâwhy does everything have to be so political? why do people have to go on about the election, the poor, the environment? It's so humid, you're so unfair, everything is so political. Why can't we all just get along? Why can't we just write stories for the joy of it, or for the difficulty of it, for that matter? Surely everything isn't always political.
This multi-valence, this abundance of interpretation, is exactly the arena, the playing field, of fictionâshort fiction especially.
In choosing stories for this collection, I have taken a broad and open definition of what constitutes the political. In my opinion, it is very difficult, impossible perhaps, for fiction writers not to âwrite political.' They, like everyone else, can stand for or against the status quo, but not outside or beyond it. No art has any special claim in this regard. Artists might try to make art apolitically, but in the most avant garde art piece, the most vacuous pop song, or the most personal short storyâyes, in everythingâthere is something political, something of how the artist sees the world and how the world affects the artist materially, some connection with “the public sphere.” In receiving the work, the audience may have some foreknowledge of the conditions of production or of biography, or both. (Knowing that a writer is in prison, for example, alters how certain themes will be understood and politicizes them.) Plus, in our postmodern world, for better or for worse, even an absence or lack of something will invariably be viewed as a statement about the very thing that is missing. (So it can be argued that a historical novel in which very few women characters appear calls attention to the erasure of women from mainstream history.) In this way, it is very difficult to conceive of anything that is truly apolitical.
When asked in an interview
if he would like to write an apolitical novel, Salman Rushdie responded that he had “great interest in it,” citing Jane Austen as an example of a writer who accomplished this feat in that she could “fully and profoundly explain the lives of her characters without a reference to the public sphere.” We don't talk about public and private spheres much these days, not because, as Rushdie argues, “the events of the world have great bearing on our daily lives” today any more so than they did in Austen's time; this is to take a too-narrow and so literal view of what constitutes the “political” or the “public sphere” (which it has to be said is an odd thing for a writer to do). In Austen's novels the “outside” world certainly had a bearing on the lives of her characters: take the laws of primogeniture that forced the Bennet girls to rely on the goodwill of their brother after the death of their father intestate, or the laws of property that saw Lady Catherine de Bourgh the owner of a large estate, which she used to control those dependent on her, often to their detriment, or the same property laws that decreed that all women must forfeit ownership of property upon marrying.
No, I think the separation of the spheres doesn't hold anymore because we know that everything is political and that political means and has always meant much more than “government, politicians, and the state”: it means who we know, who we have sex with, what we eat or how hungry we are, where we shop, even what words we useâthese are all markers of our political selves and our place in the world. In some cases these things reveal our political leanings or our partisanship. In others they reveal our place in the political systemâwhether we're among the 1% or the 99%, for example. Rushdie comes close to making this point himself when later in the same interview he says, “The larger world gets into the story not because I want to write about politics, but because I want to write about people.” People
political. (And if people make
political, why don't they make
Pride and Prejudice
political?) Instead of not having written an apolitical novel, despite his interest, because he hasn't gotten around to it, I would suggest Salman Rushdie hasn't done it because it can't be done.
Obviously, Rushdie is not alone. A few writers I approached about this anthology declined to participate, citing lack of a suitably “political” short story to submit. What I wouldn't give to read some of those “other” stories! What on earth are they about, I wonder? Part of it, I suspect was a resistance to being included with and labelled a political writer, despite the fact that the finest writers in the world have written unapologetically political fictionâDickens, Orwell, Steinbeck, Bradbury, de Beauvoir, Stowe, Lessing, Vonnegut, Llosa, Achebe, Morrison, to name just a fewâwith no apparent sacrifice to literary quality. This resistance is not confined to the literary arts, either. As I write, I'm listening to “Q with Jian Gomeshi” on CBC. He is interviewing American comedian W. Kamau Bell. When Gomeshi remarks that what Bell does “seems somewhere between activism and comedy,” Bell baulks at the activist label, saying, “I just find that I like to do comedy about things I care aboutâ¦” But “you're doing jokes that have a social conscience to themâ¦” Gomeshi counters. Still Bell resists being called a political artist.
This resistance, I suspect, has also to do with an old dichotomy: message versus story, or art versus politics, as though the two cannot exist side by side. As though caring about one negates the other. Rohinton Mistry's novel
A Fine Balance
is about how the lives of four characters are connected and how they are affected by India's 1975 state of emergency, when the prime minister, Indira Ghandi
, suspended certain constitutional rights. Interestingly, Mistry himself claims the novel is not “a political story,” stressing the importance of the characters and their stories. Again, if people are political it is difficult to imagine how
A Fine Balance
is not also political.
What is at stake, or what is lost, when a writer takes on the “political” tag? What are people afraid of? Is there something distasteful, unsophisticated, juvenile, or offensive about the marriage of art and politics? Some argue that writing with a political agenda makes for bad writing, but writing with any sort of agendaâaesthetic, personal, spiritualâcan weaken a work, and yet writers do it successfully all the time. Sometimes even the idea of the story itself gets in the way. I find the fear doubly puzzling when I'm quite certain I'm not alone in having become politically aware just as I was beginning to understand the power and the beauty of literature. Like a lot of teenagers, my first literary loves were novels and stories that were unabashedly political: Kerouac and Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson and other Beat Generation writers; Sartre and de Beauvoir; Hemingway and Stein and Steinbeck and other Lost Generation writers; William Golding and John Wyndham and Madeleine l'Engle and Aldous Huxley. While I may not have read some of these books or writers in a long time, the feeling they gave meâthat literature can express strong political convictions and still be goodâis something that has outlived all my reading phases and fads.
All this is not to say I haven't included stories that are about politics in the concrete senseâthe political process, government, politicians, resistance movements, and specific issues. Indeed you'll find in this collection stories that feature leaders, dictators, strike action, political imprisonment, war, freedom, resistance efforts, terrorism, vote stacking, para-militarism, protest, obedience and disobedience, indoctrination and belief, individual rights, poverty and wealth, reproductive health, end of life care, social work, homelessness, animal rights, development work and more.
But I've included fiction that is political in a softer sense, too: the small âp' political of relationships and interaction and personal choice. In the Spirit of the West song, the personal relationship is stressed in the lyrics: everything
between you and me
was so political. (The âwas' is telling, too, isn't it? It seems the relationship didn't survive the “so political.”) The stories in the collection are very much about relationships between people and the ways in which our interactions become complicated, troubled, nuanced, textured by being in the worldâparent and child, lovers, the privileged and the disenfranchised, those helping and those being helped, those who are different, those who are part of a community, those on the border, those at home and those away, those who act with integrity and those who don't.
And, thankfully, there is in these stories the political in the unexpected senseâthe politics of time travel, of geography, of graffiti, of talking to child-poets, of acceptance, of caring, of sacrifice, of being alone.
These are not tight lines, of course. Themes overlap. The concrete mixes with the oblique to create the unexpected in what we recognize as the hallmark of style.
Not surprisingly, many of the writers included here are looking to the future, although the past, particularly where the literary past intersects with politics, is strongly felt. Kafka's ghost is here. Orwell is alive and well. I'm not sure short fiction has any special claim to political themes or to being the best form for political expression through story. A strong voice, concentration of ideas, good plotting, lively pacing, smooth dialogue and interesting ideas are still all-important. The writers gathered here write very well while writing politically. Stories that had their politics showing at the expense of story did not make the cut. Some of the stories in this collection wear their politics loudly and proudly, like a big election button or a Don Cherry suit, while others go about dressed in quieter colours and sensible shoes. In whatever way they are political, I do hope you enjoy them.
The Paris Review
, “Salman Rushdie, The Art of Fiction,” No. 186, interviewed by Jack Livings.