Two weeks ago I met an artist who hadn’t produced any work since Trump’s election in November. She was in shock, felt helpless and bereft. ‘I just want things to go back to normal,’ she said, ‘and then I can make art again.’ By ‘normal,’ I suspect she meant a return to the Obama years, before Brexit, before the resurgence of the far right in Europe. There must be thousands like her, liberals frozen in headlights, experiencing not so much a political shock as a reality shock.
I suspect this reality shock is far weaker for people of colour for whom, metaphorically speaking, Trump has always been there. He was there during the slave trade and during the years of colonial occupation; he was there whenever a western military bombed or invaded a third world country for its resources; he was there in the nineties, the heyday of neoliberalism, standing behind the Clintons and their grey-suited technocrats; and he was even there in the Obama years, in the murder of black people by policemen, in the stop searches, the profiling in airports, the day to day racist discrimination. People of colour have rarely been under the illusion that the body politic was healthy, knowing full well that western liberal democracies were built on racism, that ‘normality’ is not something to crave but a state of sickness that requires healing.
But today, that sickness is being revealed as never before since the thirties and forties. Our rulers have been forced to lower their masks and so the reality of racism, as experienced for years by people of colour, has been revealed to majority white populations. Many have reacted with indignation or rage, fighting to screw the mask back on, though others have begun to seek out new ways of adjusting, hungry for dialogue and understanding. This is why writers of colour are of such value to the body politic today, and why we always were. We who know how old the sickness is have been forced to adapt over years to ensure our survival, developing qualities, in the process, that can be summed up by a single word – faith.
Faith is different to hope. Hope is the feeling that things will get better. For people of colour, hope has not always been an affordable luxury: we know things can always get worse, or else stay the same for devastatingly long periods of time. Faith, on the other hand, is an acceptance of reality as it is, a feeling that whatever we have now is fundamentally okay. This may often seem irrational, if not insane, but without it many of us would not have made it through, would not be here. Faith does not mean giving up hope – we must still try to affect change – but even a small measure of faith can enable us to resist the hysteria and paralysis all around us, the rage-filled arguments on social media, the one-dimensional thinking, the rhetoric of revenge that owes more to despair than a true desire for justice.
Writing that draws on faith can help a body politic to heal. When I look for faith in literature, I find it as much in explicitly political works as in those that merely hint at the political. This is something that Arundhati Roy has stated repeatedly in response to critics who, ignoring her output as a political essayist, claim she did not write anything new in the twenty years between The God of Small Things and her newest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
“I don’t see a great difference between The God of Small Things and my works of nonfiction,” she told Progressive.org. “As I keep saying, fiction is truth… It’s very important for me to tell politics like a story, to make it real, to draw a link between a man with his child and what fruit he had in the village he lived in before he was kicked out, and how that relates to Mr. Wolfensohn at the World Bank… The God of Small Things is a book where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it’s the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom.”
This distinction, or lack of distinction, is equally true of the oeuvres of Alice Walker, or Junot Diaz, or James Baldwin, all of which read as if rooted in faith, which means rooted in values that constitute an opposition to fascism in themselves. These values are the ones you might expect: empathy, love, kindness, intimacy, honestly, vulnerability, compassion; values that not only transcend the political moment but inform it, and have the potential to transform it.
Faith is our ability to practise these values even while we are sick, to take time out from activism or simple day to day living in order to allow ourselves time for indecision and contemplation, to hold contradictory positions, to see situations from the ‘enemy’s’ point of view, to find the enemy within and accept him.
It’s something Roxanne Gay talks about frequently, this state of mortal imperfection from which we make our art. This, she explains, is the reason she called her book of essays, Bad Feminist. “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human,” she writes. “I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself… I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikeable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things – human.”
The Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong expressed similar sentiments to PBS NewsHour when he said, “’The reading of poetry is in itself an act of political resistance to the mainstream… particularly in this election cycle, where there is this great anxiety for certainty. What is your position? What is your stance? Why are you flip-flopping? There’s an anxiety of certainty and power and boldness… but poetry acknowledges the true complexity of what it means to be human, which that nothing is ever certain.””
The artist of faith is able not only to live inside of this uncertainty, but to create from it, to surrender to the unknown and, by doing so, to make peace with it. This is a political act not least because it is the one thing that fundamentalists of every hue will always oppose. Fundamentalists seek to erase uncertainty, to replace the unknown with crass, bludgeoning answers, but the writer of faith gazes into this void with open eyes, even, or perhaps particularly, when she is afraid, seeking to share what she sees with others in who find themselves in similar situations. We do not need to provide a single solution to the political problem of our age, something which, in any case, probably isn’t possible. But we do need to protect that fragile space of uncertainty from which we make our art, for it’s in this apparently gentle and benign act that we can find ourselves fighting fascism on a daily basis.
Dr. Rajeev Balasubramanyam is a novelist whose awards include the Betty Trask Prize and the Clarissa Luard Prize for the best British writer under 35. The first chapter of his latest novel, PROFESSOR CHANDRA FOLLOWS HIS BLISS, will be published in the Missouri Review in April. He writes for VICE, the New Statesman, the Washington Post, and the London Review of Books, and is a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He was recently writer in residence at the Zen Center of New York City.