I was all set to write a pleasant post about Thanksgiving and other seasonal traditions when information about the terrorist attack in Mumbai hit the news, and I quickly decided it wasn’t the best time for nostalgic walks down memory lane. For the last few days I’ve been wrestling with how to discuss the issue…which, though it didn’t happen in America and isn’t directly related to the state of the economy, is still a big one, regardless of what the media thinks about its relative importance. My problem, of course, is that this isn’t a current news blog, per se, or even an entirely personal site about running errands and taking care of the family (though those things obviously come up from time to time). This is my official author website, where I talk about things related to my writing. And that’s the question: how does this relate?
Because you see, I write academically and creatively. On the academic front, I focus on critical analysis of particular brands of literature–my particular specialty being Renaissance drama–and although I strongly believe in the study of the humanities on both tangible and intangible levels, it’s hard at first to see the way it connects directly to an event like this. If I were an expert on Indian/Pakistani relations, maybe, but not Renaissance literature. On the creative side, of course, I write fantasy, which by definition is not reality. Oh, sure, there are battles, and violence, and death, and even some senseless killing, but that’s a far cry from the real thing. So how do I speak about what impact an event like this–or the terrorist attacks in Madrid a few years ago, or in Indonesia, or during September 11th in the U.S.A., or even natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina–has on my work? I mean, it can’t, right?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that trying to claim I’m not qualified to speak about major real-world events because I write on other topics is a major league cop-out…and one that, sadly, a lot of other authors have tried too. The whole idea that we’re in the world in all ways except the one which we tend to find most, or at least largely, important in our lives–writing–is a joke from the beginning. In fact, it removes the most important component of successful writing: relevancy, the ability for our readers to learn from and relate to what we produce. Renaissance drama is a good example…because you can’t study that subject without recognizing how influenced playwrights of that era were by direct and immediate current events, even if they wrote work which didn’t seem directly connected to the everyday at first glance. Go read The Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil and tell me Webster wasn’t deeply concerned with entanglements of church and state and the corruption of Church officials, or go watch Hamlet and tell me Shakespeare wasn’t bothered by incompetent and immoral government officials. They may have set their plays elsewhere–Italy, Venice, Denmark–but their message was aimed squarely at their English audience’s worldview, and at least some of their English audiences got the message.
And fantasy is no different. For decades fantasy authors have claimed that their work has no specific references to current circumstances, fought vehemently against the idea that readers should even try to make the link. Tolkien claimed until the day he died that there was absolutely no connection between the fantastical forces of Mordor–in the East–and the wars he and his son fought in against Germany in World War I and II, or the rising tide of communism he saw in the fifties and sixties. But every teacher knows that as important as the author’s words are in explaining his or her intentions within his or her work, they’re not the final answer…because they’re sometimes, shocking as it may sound, wrong. Whether he knew it or not, Tolkien couldn’t help being affected by what he experienced (and his writing, right down to its focus on the all-consuming quest for the ultimate power of the Ring not unlike the nuclear weapons with which the twentieth century was perpetually obsessed, proves it). And neither can I. Because my work does deal with questions of security, and whether rules must be maintained or broken in the name of safety and order…and whether the breaking of moral laws to protect the safety of a nation’s citizens, the sacrificing of freedoms to stop terrorism, really does anything but hand terrorists the victory they were searching for in the first place: a frightened, submissive and sedate populace, fearful of anything and everything around them, no matter how unlikely a threat or remote a risk. Orwell talked about this very thing in Animal Farm, which is, after all, described as a fairy tale for grown-ups.
It is time, in other words, to acknowledge that fantasy is a different spin on reality, not an utter departure from it…and to accept that this isn’t a bad thing. I may not be an expert on Indian/Pakistani relations, but I know a thing or two about vengeance, violence and the struggle between security and freedom. And as long as I’m a citizen of the world, I can promise you that you’ll see it in my work, whether I intended it to be there or not.