Scoop Review of Books

Kim Scott, Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Social and Political Histories

Writers and Readers 2012
Kim Scott, Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Social and Political Histories

Reviewed by Pip Adam

I’ve often contemplated the idea of imaginative or creative writing as political act. With this set of glasses on I’ve been interested to hear Denise Mina’s description of her move from academic feminist to crime writer and challenged by Jo Nesbo’s declaration that he has no political agenda.

This session explores the work of Kim Scott and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, or perhaps the writers themselves and their process, in relation to political and social histories. Tina Makereti begins her discussion with a question about how the writers see the relationship between their work and politics and social history. Vásquez says he has been obsessed with the place where individual destiny intersects with events. Traditionally this has been the place of capital ‘H’ history but he explains that it is different when a writer writes fiction. He says the sole reason for a novel is to tell the things that only that novel can tell. For a novel to be worthwhile, he believes, it must tell the reader things that can only thereafter be found in that novel. He says this is what makes the intersect between politics and fiction tricky to navigate because political diction is as opposed as you can get from the purpose of a novel. Political diction is incapable of illuminating because its sole aim is to tell you what you already know or to simplify what you don’t. There are no lessons in political language only a motivation to convince you – that is all that matters in political language.

Makereti turns the question over to Kim Scott who starts by saying, “Well put Juan”. He reminds Makereti of what he said in his last session with her, that he is a defensive and prickly person and his automatic response is to say, throw that question away don’t ask me. But he says, he is reminded of Nabokov’s idea of enchantment, that this is the key ingredient in the relationship between the writer and the reader. He says we are inevitably political people and people are keen to put writers in political camps and quick to tell them if they feel they are not accurate to that camp. But he is more interested in the project of enchanting, without becoming soft. He feels in this way his work can provoke people to find their own position or to find out more information so they can take a position. He says he often finds juice in a political situation. He refers to his novel Benang which has its genesis in the experience he had of reading official documents about ‘biological absorption’ and the concept of being ‘the first white man born’ He said that statement had such political energy and the impact of that political energy interested him and prompted him to share what was inside – the interiority of that moment.

Makereti turns to historical accuracy, have either of them been challenged or even attacked for changing known facts? Scott says he has definitely been attacked and, he smiles, it led him to lure out these readers with deliberately placed inaccuracies.

Vásquez suggests that perhaps their task is not only to represent things as they happened but also as they might have happened. He points out that democracies are stronger the more versions of their history they are willing to accept.

Scott says bringing out new histories is part of the pleasure. Especially if you identify with a people or group whose words have not been included in the official history. He says, you can feel the absence, then collaborate with those people and give a reality to them. He explains that the Noongar people contributed enormously to society but they were disenfranchised and it suited the dominant culture to rationalise them out of history. It is a political gesture to reclaim these histories to the mainstream and perhaps one’s writing comes from being at an intersection of political grouping. Perhaps also it is about putting words to that political energy. At this point Makereti asks Scott to read. He reads an excerpt from That Deadman Dance, explaining the section takes place on a boat. He says it is interesting because someone told him that the ship is a trope of the language of empire because his people were deft at appropriating any new culture object they came in contact with.

After Scott reads Makereti asks about terrorism particularly state terrorism and asks if this is a motivating factor in both writers work.

Vásquez says he sees two reasons for writing against dominant political and social histories: one philosophical and one literary. He says the first is that we all carry an essential question, ‘ Who has the right to tell our story?’ Many groups – government, state, church, media – impose narratives on us which tell us what our past was like. History is a tale and therefore always has a narrator with a prejudice and an agenda. In this process things are suppressed in order to create an official version of our history. In Totalitarianism history is not something taught or remembered it is something created. This still applies, he says. Totalitarianism is not limited to a particular time in the twentieth century. He says, the novelist’s job is to raise a hand and say, “You’re not telling the truth, You forgot some things”. He uses the example of Primo Levi explaining that a Nazi soldier told Jewish people, “We know we have lost the war but the war against the Jew we have won because no one will believe this”. But, Vásquez says, they did not win this war either because people like Levi and other writers went on to write about it. The literary reason is a worship of your own tradition. The feeling that all the writers are looking over your shoulder.

Scott says, statements like ‘no one will believe this’ create energy in him and explains that his interest in writing in this sort of space is not to create a counter truth but to answer the feeling that what I’m being offered doesn’t fit with the sense I have of myself. He says he wants in reaction to these discourses, to write a story where he fits better. He says to begin with people questioned the idea of writing for the conquerors and wanted to create work that marginalised the dominant culture back and away. However, he is more interested in finding a space where ‘us and them’ is less obvious, he is interested in creating a world of words where ‘we’ might fit better.

Vásquez says that words not only build a place in the world but also build a place where you are free from certain pressures. “They build a place where no one will try to convince me of anything.” He says that part of the cause of Colombia’s amnesia is that there is no time to think about one murder when the next one comes along. A novel gives you time to think. Makereti asks him to read, and he reads from The Informers a novel about a journalist who writes a book about a German Jewish woman and the consequences of this act. When the floor is opened for questions Vásquez explains the background of the book, how during the Second World War in Colombia there was a crackdown on everything German and Jewish escapees were persecuted because they had German passports. He said that while researching the work he discovered this part of history was so buried that even witnesses resisted remembering these events.

Another audience member asks if there is a cathartic effect of writing about these political and social events. Scott agrees that perhaps he has mellowed but that this mellowing may be partly a strategy against polemic contestation and the binary form of the dominant discourse. He says he senses in Noongar history there is something other than that. Possibly storytelling is not so reliant on contestation and binary thinking. He says where once he felt angry about arrogance and blind spots that could be offered as the history of his place and who he was he now tries to move toward things that nurture him. He says fiction does that but so does working for ancestral language reclamation and he is interested in how this work might inform the English language.

Vásquez says he not sure he has mellowed; he gets into more trouble now than he used to, but that is reassuring. He calls on the idea of the novelist as party spoiler. He says if you are not making readers feel uncomfortable you’re doing something wrong. The novels he likes keep his eyes open to see things that he would normally close his eyes to.