What speed does history travel at? What is the rhythm of humanity? What sort of chapters best capture the pace of life? What types of stories are most suited to a world where a quarter of the world seems to live on the Internet, and three-quarters are struggling with food and shelter? We’re told it’s the height of literary crime to break a reader’s absorption, but what if we want to convey an unpeaceful reality? What if we want to provoke thought rather than entertain?
Life was smithereens of decisions and constant problems and challenges. And so were her stories. She stuck the smithereens of stories together with home-made glue, with the cracks between them still visible and the glue all pungent, and made a novel.
People wrote smithereen-ed stories because their reckless, tedious, abusive, surprising, contradictory and hypocritical lives usually weren’t sequential, seamless novels. And neither was history. Watch the revolutions fail, die, then re-surge again in new forms. Watch the social struggles win equality and then watch those gains be distorted and dirtied by those with more power. Map out the victories, the failures, the steps forward and back, the surprising twists of history and the long uneventful bits, and notice how non-compliant and inconvenient it all is.
That was part of the magic. Another part though was the way people’s stories touched each other, interacted and contrasted. They mixed, like honey and soy and lemon – maintaining their flavor but also creating something new. She sat in Mexico City’s huge Zocalo square and watched the walking stories hurry past the giant flag, or wait for friends, or paint clown onto their faces so that they could beg with more efficiency. Those people – the little stories – formed part of a bigger picture; the story of a city that sat right on the edge of barely-alive, a city that was physically sinking, a city whose struggle against sell-and-buy defining life was being lost.
In school and the media, history is presented as an abstract thing, disconnected from our own lives. Politics is presented as being about politicians, maneuvers, and dates and policies. But social change is something lived, breathed, and artful. Little stories and big stories can counter that disconnect and engage people. They aren’t above life, or detached from it, they can be a force within it. They can walk among us.
Excerpt from my longer article at Red Wedge – Vignettes and stories that get involved in life