Should Literature Be Personal or Political?

Bob Shacochis confronts the tension between exploring the everyday "frivolity" of our private worlds and making broad statements about the one we share.
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

Is a writer obligated to address the way that powerful institutions affect how we live and what we feel? Or is it enough to conjure life on the scale of garden, bed, and kitchen table?

Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, is more qualified than most to answer these questions, to sort out the relationship between what he calls “the literature of political experience” versus “the literature of domestic experience.” For years, he wrote the “Dining In” column for GQ—short, wistful celebrations of the meals prepared and shared with a beloved woman. (He collected these essays, which include recipes, in a book aptly titled Domesticity.) But Shacochis’s fiction, and his globe-trotting work as a New Journalism-influenced reporter and war correspondent, focus on the way large political, economic, and social forces can shape human relationships. In a recent interview with NPR, Shacochis said that his primary goal as a novelist—besides writing good sentences—was to “to try to make Americans have a more visceral feeling about how America impacts everybody in the world.”

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, Shacochis’s latest novel, does exactly this. Opening in 1990s Haiti—a period he chronicled in The Immaculate Invasion, about the seventh-month American intervention, “Operation Uphold Democracy”—the book traces U.S. operations abroad in the decades leading up to the War on Terror. The novel’s titular (and fallen) heroine is an American spy whose history, a tale of great promise and compromised ideals, reflects the troubled legacy of our country’s operations abroad. Shacochis also authored Easy in the Islands, which won the National Book Award for first fiction, and other books; he teaches in the MFA program at Florida State University.


Shacochis: Except for a few indelible memories, my influences are not on the tip of my tongue–rather, I’m rediscovering them as I move through the process of my own writing and reading. My boyhood fascination with John Le Carré happens to be one of those buried influences. Sometimes the recognition of what inspires us awaits us, an unanticipated gift, a serendipity that resonates backwards and tells us we had once boarded the same train with a mentor, and ridden to the same destination, and roomed at the same lodging, without ever knowing it to be so. Often my influences are recovered, not conscious, attachments, and I nourish only a sensation that they exist, spirits in the room, until they spring forth out of the blue.

Like, for instance, my favorite le Carréism, an aphorism I had forgotten for 20 years, until I found myself half-way through the writing of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, and suddenly recalling the passage held such significance for me that I pasted it into an exchange between two of my own characters:

How’s the future looking these days, she said cheerily.
Much like the past, he said. New forms for old misery.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, she said in a rush, recognizing the quote.

And now doors are opening and it seems inevitable, the next connection I make in my mind’s unwanted nocturnal seminar, a Jim Harrison maxim that I never fail to repeat, emphatically, whenever I teach a writing workshop:

There are no old myths, only new people.

Empires rise, empires fall, the barbarians are at the gates. Toynbee, Santayana, the recycling bin of history, the lessons unlearned, et cetera.

Then there’s Doctorow’s assertion, “The ultimate responsibility of the writer is to witness,” but this duty presents us with a question, not an answer–What is it exactly that the writer is obligated to witness?

Shouldn’t every writer ask herself, Which stories are most worth telling, whether you’re a fiction writer, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright? Which is most worth telling, War and Peace or Anna Karenina? Both, of course. Both define in a singular and enduring fashion a time and a place and a nation and its culture. If you had to exile one from your library shelf, which one would it be? That’s an impossible question, but forced to answer, you’d perhaps answer predictably, based on your own bias toward the Literature of Political Experience (or in the case of Le Carré and myself and all the colonial and post-colonial writers, the Literature of Empire), or the Literature of Domestic Experience. The Napoleonic wars are boring, you might say, or conversely, the melodrama of adultery is so tedious. (Yeah, right.)

These questions about what’s worth writing never seem to have good answers, especially at the cultural moment in the journey of our nation, where the common response seems to be, Who cares? Awhile back, when V.S. Naipaul dismissed literary fiction as inferior to reportage, archaic, irrelevant and unable to engage with the 21st century, Salman Rushdie responded, “The art of the novel, I think, is to open up worlds to you, and it seems to me we live in a time when that’s of desperate importance. So why would that be the time when you declared the novel dead?” Indeed, and amen, and is it too extravagant to suggest that if the novel is dead or dying then the future is dead or dying as well? 

Similarly, there’s this fundamental tension between the domestic and the political that I’m always turning back to, this dichotomy of existence, and how we approach it as writers. Listen for a moment to this character in Chilean author Jose Donoso’s novel Curfew:

“I’d like to talk about music,” says the privileged girl turned guerrilla fighter, “but in my heart I’m afraid it would be frivolous.” 

Curfew is a story about life in Pinochet’s Chile 12 years after the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. The woman drags her ex-lover through Santiago’s deserted streets after the midnight curfew, searching for the army officer who years ago made her pretend to scream in pain during a mock interrogation, a pretense that ultimately crippled the psyche and self-identity of this woman far more artfully than the rapes inflicted on her revolutionary sisters.      

In Chile, Mr. Donoso has said, “all personal pain had to have at least a political subtext,” a sentiment we mostly assign to the fringe in the United States. When I read this character’s chilling remark about the frivolity of music, I was reminded of the first time, back in 1981, that I heard Carolyn Forche read from her book of poetry, The Country Between Us, and withered under her soul-sickening descriptions: the Colonel’s burlap sack of human ears, cut like bullring trophies from the corpses of Salvadoran citizens caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, which often as not was a victim’s own house and own bed, in the middle of the night. I listened to the images of the disappeared, of poetry set to ashes in the public square, and then Forche told the audience what all of us know but so few of us Americans have believed up until 9/11:

There is nothing one man will not do to another.

The burden of that truth, expressed with the force of such simplicity, is crushing, almost guaranteeing a built-in shelf-life to all human endeavor and progress, all noble ideas and grand systems. Beware, warns Forche.  “There is nothing one man will not do to another."      

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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