In the early months of 2020, Australia- where I live- experienced its worst ever bush fires. Climate scientists agree that climate change has made the fires more frequent and more intense than they might otherwise have been. Yes, the sunburnt country has always experienced bushfires, but nothing with the ferocity we witnessed this year. I am lucky enough to have escaped direct experience of the fires, but I watched horrified and yet mesmerised- like drivers passing by a motor vehicle accident-at scenes straight of a Science Fiction movie. The red sky, the red clouds, the eerie feeling of apocalypse now!
One potential apocalypse was followed by another: COVID 19. Again, I have been lucky. I have not (as yet) contracted the virus nor, to my knowledge, have any of my friends and family. I reminded though by the daily news (and I feel somehow morally obligated to watch the news) that across the planet millions have been infected, disable and died.
Throughout the bushfires and COVID 19 I have continued to spend at least some of my time writing fiction. But why write fiction when climate change and COVID 19 constitute an existential threat that jeopardises our very continuation?
The first reason I write is because I enjoy it. When I sit down and write I am able, on a good day, to enter the experience of flow. That is to say, I am absorbed in the task, which is challenging but doable, to the extent that time is suspended. While I have always been a political animal in the sense that I think human life is shot through with power relations and that politics matters, we need more than politics to sustain us. I find writing to be a psychologically satisfying practice.
As a young man I was influenced by Sartre and his notion of ‘engaged literature’. Sartre’s staring point is freedom. Thus, a writer exercises h/er freedom and defines h/erself by engaging willingly and consciously in the intentional action of writing. Any individual’s freedom is dependent on the freedom of others and so my freedom is dependent on yours. Engagement is then understood as an individual ethical challenge involving a responsibility of turning freely made choices to socially useful ends.
To me, engaged writing does not mean didactic or overtly political writing. It means writing about the human condition in ways that explore moral dilemmas, our responses and the possibilities that confront us. The best writing explores what it is to be human as we struggle to understand who we are. According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, literature (he cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as an example) is more able to reset our moral and political compass than is philosophy.
Literature is a social phenomenon; it is generated in specific social contexts and meaning is produced in the interaction between text and reader. Reading and writing involves and evokes shared social practices, values and social connection. Writing fiction can both explore the human condition and reaffirm the social. In a cultural world that emphasises the individual achievement as the most important good, constituting and reaffirming the social is of critical significance.
There is a Zen Koan that asks the question ‘who am I?’. We engage in a process of asking ‘who am I?’ and strip away layer after layer of partial answers. Am I my body? Yes, but not only my body. Am I my thoughts? Yes, but not only my thoughts. Am I my social roles? Yes, but not only social roles. And so on. There is never a foundational answer. I feel similarly about writing fiction (or indeed any form of writing). We explore what it is to be human without ever coming to a definitive answer and in doing so affirm our humanity as vulnerable creatures bobbing on the ocean of life.