Thursday, February 02, 2012

Passionate Engagement

I have enjoyed novelist Caryl Phillips’ work since I was first introduced to it when I was doing my MFA in fiction. So I was very excited when I saw his new collection of non-fiction pieces, Colour Me English. This book is worth reading for lots of the pieces (the piece on James Baldwin was really sad and touching; Mr. Phillips’ remembrances of September 11 were likewise moving; his discussions about what it means to be English are thought-provoking), but I especially liked a section early on in the book:


I believe passionately in the moral capacity of fiction to wrench us out of our ideological burrows and force us to engage with a world that is clumsily transforming itself, a world that is peopled with individuals we might otherwise never meet in our daily lives. As long as we have literature as a bulwark again intolerance, and as a force for change, then we have a chance. Europe needs writers to explicate this transition, for literature is plurality in action; it embraces and celebrates a place of no truths, it relishes ambiguity, and it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood, both the thirteen-year-old boy whose books are thrown out of a bus window, and the boys who are throwing the books, and it judges neither party in the hope that by some often painfully slow process of imaginative osmosis one might finally recognise what passed before one’s eyes today, what occurred yesterday, and what will happen tomorrow, and it implores us to act with a compassion born of familiarity towards our fellow human beings, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, black, brown, or white. This truly is my hope for Europe, and I know that the writer has a crucial part to play in this. I believe this. And this only.


I confess that I’m rather idealistic about fiction, the way Mr. Phillips is (and I’d expand his description above to include the whole world, not just Europe), and this sometimes make me feel like I don’t belong in my literature department at the university. There, people talk about theory and about authors being dead and about the intricacies of metaphor, and while these things are indeed important to discuss (I’m not so keen on the idea of authors being dead, myself, but that’s a different story), they aren’t all there is. I’m interested in how literature affects readers and how it can change people, and ultimately change the world. People tell me I’m silly, but like Mr. Phillips, “I believe passionately in the moral capacity of fiction to wrench us out of our ideological burrows and force us to engage with” the world and with other people.

Read Caryl Phillips’ book, and read his novels, and engage with the world around you.


phoenixrisesagain said...

Didn't they say somewhere something like "words are stronger than a sword". So many changes have been provoked and supported by written word that your opinion is not only idealistic in my opinion.

For me literature was a means of survival a childhood of abuse. Literature was my escape, my teacher of survival, my friend, my parent, my mentor..... sounds a bit kitsch or stereotypical but I would not have made it without it. If it has such an impact on one person it can also have such an impact on many people. And thank goodness not all authors are dead ;-)

EP said...

I certainly agree with that line about "literature as a bulwark again intolerance." I think we tend to underestimate the importance of that. Sounds like an interesting read.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you both for your comments! I agree with you.

Best wishes,