I want to write a blog post about Everything. The blog post to end all blog posts, the blog post that will unify all the properties of blog posts. It seems, at a time like now, not only necessary but unavoidable, or at least the attempt seems unavoidable. At a time like now, any attempt to draw conclusions about — no, even to describe — one small corner of the world feels shockingly self-absorbed. I am supposedly in the business of telling small truths, of bringing to life tiny corners of the world and the mind. We writers of fiction are always reassuring each other that this is sufficient, that the specific is universal, the personal is political, the greatest truths are in the littlest details. So we carve out small sacred spaces for ourselves, quiet spaces in the middle of the world’s clamour, and some of us find ways to seal these spaces hermetically, so that for the two or three or eight hours of the day that we spend with imaginary people, the rest of the world disappears. But if you are one of those who has not learned such tricks — if you let the world into that space, even a whisper of it, a breath, a glimpse of the front page of a newspaper, a quick before-I-start-work glance at your Facebook feed — then you know what it is to doubt.
I feel this way only partly because I have not written in this space for a year and a half. Yes, there is that pressure — this had better be good enough to compensate for my long absence, if not to justify it — but mostly I feel this way because of how much has happened, how much is happening around us, how much will continue to happen as I write this. Because of Everything, as I announced in my first sentence, even if you chose to read it with a grain of salt.
In the time since my last post, I have gone off Facebook, expertly exercising my right to believe almost everything and its opposite. I’ve changed my mind! as my older daughter likes to announce, although in my case I don’t know what exactly I’ve changed it to.
(Great, this is yet another blog post about social media?)
In the time since my last post, that daughter has turned four. It is astonishing to me that you can birth a child, and in just four years — this person did not exist five years ago! — that child can look at you one morning and gravely declare: “Almost every night I dream of Brazil.” (We have never been to Brazil.)
In the time since my last post, I had another baby, who turned one year old last week. It is equally astonishing to me that a child pulled, blurry-eyed and squishy, from my body just one year ago will now point at a thing with both index fingers to show how much she wants it, and when that thing is handed to her, will tremble, open-mouthed and breathless and frowning, overcome by the sheer Thingness of things, avid for the world and all it has to offer.
(Ah, this must be a blog post about Motherhood.)
What is also astonishing to me is this: you can birth a child, and after eighteen or twenty years, that child will be out in the world, riding on underground trains impossible to protect from suicide bombers or nerve gas attacks, moving to countries at war, shopping in malls that can be stormed, in an instant, by bands of gunmen.
(Oh, so it’s a blog post about Fear?)
Last week, at least three hundred and fifty people died in — what shall I call them? Terrorist attacks? But depending on who is doing the reporting, a lot more people than that died in terrorist attacks last week. Let’s call them violent attacks that made it onto the front pages of major Western newspapers. Let’s say — for the sake of putting numbers to this madness, because words fail us — at least two hundred in Nairobi; eighty-five in Peshawar (where, as of this morning, a bomb on a bus has killed another thirteen people); at least seventy-two at a funeral in Baghdad.
My mother, unable to face this deluge of horrors, shut it all out in favour of the Discovery Channel, but this strategy failed her when she chanced upon footage of a leopard seal devouring a penguin. “Can’t the bloody seals eat fish?” she complained to me on the phone.
(It is, as is all my non-fiction — overtly or secretly — about My Mother.)
I, on the other hand, could not turn away from the front-page news, though I don’t think I believe that this makes me a better person. I wanted all the week’s tragedies to receive equal attention in the Western media, attention and sympathy and outrage that would be judiciously doled out, measured in word counts and sizes of headlines — but I wasn’t surprised when that didn’t happen. There will always be reasons why some tragedies receive more attention than others, and I will always be uncomfortable and unsatisfied with those reasons.
(No, wait, it’s a blog post about Attention.)
I think a lot about attention, as any parent of small children must. How much attention is just enough to build confidence without inflating egos? Why do we speak despairingly or derisively of children’s various ploys to get attention when, in fact, all of us want attention in some ways, from some people, and so many of us have the same relationship with it: wanting it, trying to win it, and then when we do get it, suddenly uncomfortable with it, feeling that it’s the wrong kind, or the wrong quantity, or the wrong time, or undeserved? Would it really make me happy if the developed world paid all its available attention to the disasters and tragedies of the developing world? Wouldn’t I then say, as others have said: But that isn’t all that’s happening there, it isn’t just poverty and famine and child brides and rape and infanticide! It’s also all these other stories, the human stories, the small stories that are so much like your own small stories!
Last week, as hundreds of people were being held hostage in a Nairobi mall, and tiny little coffins were lined up outside a Peshawar church, the Man Booker Prize Foundation announced that the prize would be open to US authors from next year. I may not have anything to say about the announcement itself that hasn’t been said better elsewhere, but the point is this: attention is limited. It isn’t just that the American novel will dominate because the playing field is not, has never been, level; it’s that American tastes will dominate even more than they already do, as Philip Hensher so eloquently argues, and this is the far more insidious danger. If you live in America — and quite possibly even if you don’t — you cannot see this phenomenon clearly. You cannot be aware of it while immersed in it, but it is there. It is in the fact that already, before this Booker Prize announcement, the non-American novels that were most successful in the West were the ones that conformed to American tastes: in other words, the ones that told and retold the stories Americans have wanted to hear about other countries, the stories that do not make Americans uncomfortable, or that demand only the types and quantities of discomfort with which Americans are already familiar. (We should recognise this sham multiculturalism from fashion marketing, where — look at the catalogue of any popular clothing brand — the models, child or adult, are either white or just mixed-race enough to appear diverse without challenging Western standards of beauty.) It is in the fact that people in countries most Americans have never heard of not only know the names of American celebrities and TV shows, but, more crucially, defend the idea of American exceptionalism, and along with it, American foreign policy, America’s right to a greater share of the attention, and the myth of the American Dream. It is in the fact that American humour, American causes, American domestic policy, American disappointments, and American tragedies are slowly occupying all the available space, drowning out the thoughts people don’t realise they’re not having anymore.
As a mother, I fight this battle in my own small way: by refusing to live in America, choosing instead to raise my half-American children on neutral territory, as Third Culture Kids. I wonder, sometimes, why I have to be one of the ones who worries about America eating everything alive, rather than one of those other ones, those ones who seem to be able to raise their children so blithely in a culture not their own, who are at worst resigned to change, because don’t all things change over time? Does the distance between immigrant parents and their native-born children have to be so keenly felt as a loss? As a writer, I’ve already lost the battle against the Americanisation of the world. If “the sort of English novelists who speak to an English readership about English matters, however refined or profound their technique and subject, is gone” — then what of Malaysian novelists who speak to a Malaysian readership about Malaysian matters?
(It turns out to be a blog post all about Me.)
It’s too easy — and tempting — to shrug and give up, and I don’t just mean give up on writing fiction. It’s easy and tempting to give up on each other, on our civilisation, on the future of our children. But just as many of us will find reasons to keep writing even as our audiences shrink before our eyes, we must also find reasons to keep living. To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes, Kurosawa said. To live as he describes, facing all of the world each day, eyes wide open, is exhausting, but there is no other way to make sense of ourselves — to make sense of the fact that we are all here together, on this planet, at this moment in time — than to believe that Everything that rises must converge.
*with thanks and apologies to Liz Garton Scanlon.
(Image credits: Drawing by Peter McMullen; photo of Rio from the Bauer Global Studies Undergraduate Business Journal (Americas, Volume II — Spring 2013); “Surprised Baby” from www.likefacebooks.com; Otto Dix, Le Soldat Blessé, 1924; Crowd at Abengorou — Ivory Coast, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand; Norman Rockwell, Thanksgiving; In My Eyes by Irinova, at http://iwebask.com/blog/55-inspiring-photo-manipulations-featuring-eyes/)