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A heart-breaking work of staggering genius

Activism and fiction

The absurdly handsome activist bit his lip. The Peace News crew were threatening military action if the final extended deadline for a 2,000 word essay on ‘Activism and Fiction’ was missed. The clock was most definitely two minutes to midnight.

He sighed, ran a hand through his thick shoulder-length blond hair, and thought quickly. His hands flew with perfect acuracy across the keyboard. ‘The four books under review, all by women, are useful and...’

beeeep

His fifth-generation phone, full of apps about buying fair trade, challenging climate denialism, and the daily homily on intersectionality, beckoned.

He considered not answering. It was probably just Sven again, pestering him to come to Stockholm in December to accept that stupid prize. Or else Noam wanting more help with his grammar homework.

He picked up the phone and read the text.

‘Why u writing stupid article? Activists shld be out saving world, not reading poxy made-up crap. U enabling their laziness, u moron.’

The deadline be damned! ‘Who is this? How u get this number?!!’

Straight away the reply: ‘Well duh, numbskull. I’m your * conscience *. Call me Jiminy, or Mr Puritan. Or whatevs. U gonna justify yrself? Y u rite abt novels? Real life 2 scary?’

He buried his head in his hands. That’s all he needed – the fourth wall to break down. He’d been warned that if the article wasn’t in the PN inbox by Monday to expect a visit from some very large and short-tempered quakers. Still, he could hardly ignore himself, could he?

He texted back. ‘Switching to email.’ And he wrote: ‘There are at least three excellent reasons we activists should read fiction about activism.

‘First, we need to get ideas and inspiration – and heed warnings – from other people’s struggles. Novels can say things about personal and group experiences that articles and non-fiction can’t.

‘Secondly, you cannot spend your whole life reading local authority plans and corporate responsibility reports and Amnesty International appeals. Or rather, you can, but you’ll burn yourself to a crisp and become so narrow and boring that you are a perfect advert for NOT being an activist.

‘Thirdly, if the novel is good, you can share it not just with your activist mates, but also with other people who don’t understand what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. It might inspire them to get involved.’

The text response was instant. ‘#Yrsofullofit. Take your first choice – Mud by Nicky Edwards. Written almost 30 yrs ago, and full of stuff about World War One! Er, relevant?!’

The activist first thought ‘don’t feed the troll’, then realised he was the troll. He typed:

‘It’s a brilliant novel. A young woman who has fallen out of love with the intense activism of the Greenham Common protests meets an elderly woman called Ada whose life she wants to write about. This allows Edwards to write about so much that matters; suffragettes, the personal politics of meetings and communal living, history, memory, the trouble with the trajectories of protest, class and the scars of war. Because it’s the only British novel in the four I’ve chosen, it’s the one I’d try to get everyone to read first. Catch this bit, in which the activist explains the end of the affair – “OK. Once upon a time there was this big day out at a peace camp, when Janet and Janet and some Johns, but mainly thirty thousand or so Janets went and held hands and sang songs and generally had a good time.... Lots of adventures for the Janets. But time passes, until it’s a year after that first day out in the country, which so many of our heroines found so inspiring. Almost exactly a year to the day.... Well, our particularly Janet is there, of course, older and a bit more battered and generally fed up to the back teeth with being pushed around in the good cause that has brought everyone out in their thermal underwear again. But still she went. “Couldn’t miss it really. Big day out, lots of women there, sense of obligation, not wanting to be left out. All sorts of things.” “And how was it different from the first time?” Ada was really quite good at this cross-examining business.

“In many ways, not at all. Same thousands of women milling around, looking pretty similar, singing the same song. Same mud, same camera crews, same tail-back of coaches with posters in the windows jamming the Basingstoke road. More police helicopters, more barbed wire, more soldiers and watchtowers and floodlights and guns in evidence. More crackle of walkie-talkies filling up every bit of the airwaves, even the ones the Janets were trying to sing in. But a lot of the same looks on their faces. Untroubled.” “And?” “Like I said, our particular Janet was wandering around feeling rather jaded, and wondering why they all thought the nastiness would go away because they’d turned out in such numbers to be nice all round it, when they’d done the same thing last year and not changed it for the better.” Ada tutted gently to herself. Not sure how to interpret the noise, I carried on. “And, of course, Janet felt guilty for being so cynical and making comparisons with the way she always got taken to midnight mass when she went home for Christmas, a pleasant and colourful, but fairly pointless annual ritual.”’

‘Great – so u want people to slag off activism now? That’ll really work! (claps).’

The Brad Pitt-lookalike sighed and typed. ‘No, not slag off, just understand the mechanisms that can lead us astray. It’s easier to do with fiction than impassioned denunciations of the smugosphere. I think. But the other novels are brilliant too! In Vida, Marge Piercy explains the enormous personal and political costs of being underground after the ‘60s. Vida and friends were entrapped by an undercover cop (sounds familiar) but got away. There’s brilliant stuff about the politics of the Vietnam War movement, the radicalism, the tensions within it. This bit, on burnout, is just perfect.

“She was always late now – running, running, but never arriving. She never went to bed before three in the morning, and she was seldom allowed to sleep past eight. From the time she crawled out till she collapsed in her clothes, she no longer had time to read a book, bake a cake, listen to music, talk idly – and everything was empty palaver that was not about liberation, not about imperialism or racism or Third World struggles, about the war, the war, the war. If she went to the country, it was for a secret meeting or for target practice. When she ran into an old friend, she could think only what skills or contacts they had that were needed, what kind of speaking or fund raising or organising or liaison work they could do. Yet she had no feeling of accomplishment, because every morning in The Times, every evening on television, the war was stronger, and she was closer to exhaustion. They had not done enough, they had not risked enough, they had not tried everything, they had not fought hard enough, they had not, because the proof was before her every morning and every evening the war went on. It was raining blood outside whether she looked out the window or not; the blood was splattering down, and the hot wind that blew across the city smelled of ashes, of burning flesh. Obviously they had not tried hard enough if the war still went on.”’

‘So you get vicarious thrills from wannabe revolutionaries? Really? Weak.’

This Mr Puritan guy was getting tiresome. The activist typed: ‘No, but I can learn from them, no? In the same way I learn from corporate literature of team-building and strategy? And from military techniques for tactics and training? Why not learn from things you don’t agree with? And Piercy isn’t saying Vida is a heroine, just that she’s a human, who has made smart and dumb choices, and sometimes not had space to make choices. The final pages of the book leave me breathless every time I read it.’

‘Yeah yeah. What were the other two then?’

Death is part of the process by Hilda Bernstein. Written during the armed struggle against the apartheid regime, covering both the ‘80s but and the ‘60s, it follows the fates of three different activists – one white, one Indian and one black. It looks at how they are treated differently by the state, how they have different options and how they do – or don’t break – under pressure, what they expect of themselves and others. Again, you will tell me this has nothing to teach about activism in the privileged West. But you’re wrong. And it’s wonderfully written. The scene where one activist has to decide if he stays in the struggle or heads for the door, by simply tearing off a button has stayed with me for 20 years. And then there’s the hardest to find, but in some ways the best. Local Deities by Agnes Bushell. Like Vida, it deals with the costs of living underground in the United States, and being hunted by all. It’s excellent on race and class too, full of vivid characters who you want to know more about. And, like Vida, it warns against turning anyone into heroes – thus the title.’

‘Okay, so this last one – how’d you hear about it if it’s so hard to find?’

The activist wondered if he was winning anyone – least of all his conscience – over. And glanced at the clock. He was almost out of time. He typed. ‘Well, I read Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus, about a casualty of the 1960s, and checking the Amazon reviews afterwards

‘Amazon? And you call yourself a...’

‘Chill, I didn’t buy anything! I found mention of Dana Spiotta’s excellent Eat the Document (also on the consequences of violent action for both victims and perpetrators) and a reviewer – rightly – recommended Bushell.’

‘You done preening yet?’

The activist hit the properties function, and wrote ‘Still got 300 words. You gonna help?’

‘U only wanna write about women? Trying 2 prove non-existent feminist credentials? #shallow, dude.’

The activist grinned. ‘Men often more into the whole street-fighting thing. But also excellent stuff too. Zodiac by Neal Stephenson, before his books got enormous. Good on the technicalities of nvda sabotage. Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, if you can cope with the casual misogyny, is full of verve and love.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is excellent on strategy and the need for constant re-invention. Just pretend you don’t know about the author’s horrible homophobia, ‘kay?

Cory Doctorow’s recent Little Brother and Homeland – both set in San Francisco after a terrorist attack, are simply brilliant – great stuff on pleasure, technology, surveillance, courage and politics, with a narrative drive that has you almost devouring the damn books. They deserve a 2,000 word review all of their own.’

‘Sounds a bit sci-fi. I’ll pass’ texted Jiminy, clearly on the back foot.

The activist looked at the clock too. He was winning on both fronts. ‘Your loss. And sci-fi? How is that a dirty word?? Two must-read trouble-in-utopia novels get that slurred as ‘sci-fi’ should be on the national curriculum. Woman on the Edge of Time by the aforementioned Marge Piercy and The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. Nobody can call themselves an informed anarchist without having read both, imho. And Le Guin’s short story ‘The Day before the Revolution’ is a brilliant evocation of the cruelty and pleasure of fighting for justice without expecting the day to come.’

‘Oh just write the damn article and leave me alone.’

The activist checked his phone. Yep, Sven again. And from Noam four more pleading emails. Time to send this off to Peace News. Activism and fiction indeed.

Disclaimer: Marc Hudson has been called absurd, but never absurdly good-looking. All adverbs and adjectives used in this article should be treated as fiction. And some of the facts. But not the assessment of the novels discussed. Those are good old-fashioned opinions.

Topics: Culture | Activism