Thursday, June 3, 2010

Just a quick note

About two books.

One is the novel I'm currently reading, Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I can barely put it down. It's engrossing. For more commentary on this book, you can start with Tayari Jones' blog post about it earlier this year. All I want to say about it at the moment regards its value for the struggle.

I still have some money on one of my Xmas bookstore gift certificates -- I know! Have I been unbelievably disciplined or what! -- and I'm thinking I'm going to go use it tomorrow to buy the book that will be next in line after I finish Wench. It is Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. This is a graphic novel, a form that unfortunately has not won me over but that I want to love, so what better time, with what better book, to give it a try than this. From what I've read about it, Sacco's book illustrates the current awful situation for the Palestinians of Gaza, blockaded by Israel for over three years now, and delves into history as well.

So what links these two books?

Well, what I want to say about Wench is that it's the latest living example of what Toni Morrison told an interviewer a couple years ago, that "slavery can never be exhausted as a narrative." And especially that "to say slavery is over is to be ridiculous." Slavery is a mere moment ago, if that. It informs nearly everything about present-day U.S. society, political events and struggle. I think that a novel like Wench that forces the reader to engage once again with the realities of that history, the reality of what the system of chattel slavery meant to the human beings who were enslaved, is always timely.

Similarly, a book like what I hope Footnotes in Gaza turns out to be, that delves into the background of current events and lays out some of the history of the Palestinian struggle, can never be unwelcome. If books can inform, open minds, raise consciousness, build solidarity -- and you know I believe they can, though I know I have yet to lay out a good clear case to prove that claim -- then we badly need more books on Palestine.

Some say, however, that historical fiction is dead, deadly, deadening, that it contributes nothing to the current living struggle. That what's needed is fiction about the here and now. Not about the period of chattel slavery but about the present-day rotten racist system, not about the Balfour Declaration or the Zionist terrorist Haganah death squads but about the people starving in Gaza now.

My view is that, first, this view relies on a false dichotomy, as if there is or can be some clear line of demarcation between present and past, as if the past isn't alive in every present moment, and, more important, as if the present can be understood without unearthing its roots. And second, my view is that it's just a mistaken notion, this idea that historical fiction is irrelevant, superfluous. I've been wanting for some time to address this specific issue, the uses of historical fiction, the contributions it can make to the current class struggle. Stick with me, we'll get there soon.