How should controversial issues be presented in fiction ?
Our event at the Book and Kitchen in All Saints Road Notting Hill on November 22nd was one of those warm, feel-good affairs, in Muna Khogali’s home-from-home bookshop/café with its softly lit lamps, its bright cushions and squashy armchairs that make you forget it’s drizzling outside. Muna somehow juggles greeting customers, cooking in her café/kitchen downstairs, waiting tables, organizing events, keeping up with the authors whose books she sells, with being one of the most engaging and energetic people you could meet.
For our event, she made jeweled couscous –the name alone conjures for me medinas, dark cedar-scented alleyways, tiled cafes- and served it in an assortment of bone china tea cups, a modern twist on a dish that in Morocco traditionally comes in towering cone-shaped mountains. This, along with the honey and almond filled pastries, the wine, and the nostalgic sound of Carol King from Muna’s old turntable, gave a quietly exotic glow to the whole evening.
The event- in a strange case of truth imitating fiction -fell on the very day the news broke about three women released from thirty years of slavery in an ‘ordinary home’ in South London.
We had already arranged to combine this reading from The Darkening Hour with a discussion on the problem of domestic servitude and modern day slavery in Britain, and had invited along Kate Roberts from Kalayaan ( who support domestic workers from overseas as well as finding employees for those looking for home help) as well as Khadija, a Moroccan domestic worker, in order to present the issues and instigate a lively debate- which it certainly did, thanks to our audience who all participated enthusiastically.
But the fact news of such a horrific case of slavery had broken on this very day was also rather uncomfortable. Here was I, reading a fictional account of the power struggle between two women where one was in the subordinate role as carer and cleaner, and was becoming enslaved, while out there a real case was unfolding which sounded scarily similar, but was now looking increasingly sinister, grotesque, and shocking.
How could I square my being here to sell a novel about modern day slavery with the reality for the women who had just been released after thirty years in this situation?
The whole evening made me wonder about the role of fiction- where its purpose is to tell a good story that simply makes us want to read on, and where it has a moral function or duty to raise awareness.
Can it ever do the two things at the same time without beginning to seem as if it’s simply polemic in disguise?
And when we retrieve ideas from reality for our fiction (although in my case this particular real life story came out after my fictional account ) are we exploiting the very genuine real suffering of the people we write about, unless we justify it by arguing that we’re raising awareness?
Does fiction have a special place in our lives- nothing to do with the more didactic or consciousness -raising role journalism plays- which is instead to engage us in alternative human experience, offer us the chance to empathise with other peoples’ psyches, and their motivations, both good and bad, both acceptable and misguided, and then to reflect on ourselves and our own experiences and to ask the question perhaps- ‘what if I found myself in that situation?’
I struggled with these questions during the writing of The Darkening Hour, because while I was keen not to revert to a journalistic exploration of domestic servitude, the issues I uncovered during my research did make me feel I had a duty to speak up for women who had suffered in their role as domestic workers in this country. I found myself wanting to highlight the conditions and lack of rights domestic workers from outside the EU experience and to show the trap they sometimes walk into when they leave their own families believing they are coming to jobs that will enable them to provide basic health and education back home.
Yet my role as a fiction writer is to tell a good story, one that makes the reader want to turn the page. It was a challenge to make sure that neither of the women in the book come across as obviously the victim/ perpetrator of the crime that is committed at the beginning of the novel; that both had flaws and encountered temptations that were not always morally sound and that could potentially lead them to step over a line.
I wanted to look as much at the relationship between two women from different social, cultural, and class backgrounds who have to share a home and a family between them, and where and why conflicts might arise as at the underlying social reasons for one ending up subordinate to the other.
But how to do all this without losing the reader? How to make sure they keep on wanting to turn the page?
I would welcome comments on these questions
– does fiction have a moral duty to raise awareness?
– is it OK for us to use other people’s harrowing real life experiences we hear about in the media as inspiration for stories, simply in order to provide a good read?
– What do we want from novels that we don’t want from journalism and vice versa?
-Is Stephen King right when he says ‘you are writing a novel not a research paper. The story always comes first.’
No matter what dark places it takes you to in your soul?