Fiction and Politics

It sounds like the stuff of political fiction – something along the lines of Philip Roth’s alternative history novel The Plot Against America, in which Hitler-admirer Charles Lindbergh wins the US elections instead of Roosevelt – a pussy-grabbing, Muslim and Mexican-hating demagogue as President of the US. Yet this is now the reality we all – inside and outside America – have to face.

However, this isn’t a blog about Trump or the dangers of a demagogue as president but about the concept of political fiction in general and where my own writing fits into that genre. The action of a novel happens in a political and historical context even though story and characters and domestic setting are imagined rather than real. Within that context, the politics of the time are going to impinge on the characters to a greater or lesser degree, a choice made by the author. Politics is part of life – it affects all of us regardless of whether we take an interest in the actions of our or other governments. The fiction I write (and much of the fiction I read) is political in the sense that it carries some kind of message. I feel passionate about certain issues. Social justice, for example, has always concerned me, and this is reflected in the underlying themes of my novels. I’m not talking diatribes, just stories that make readers think as well as feel. One thing I have learnt over many years of novel-writing is that the story must come first. If readers aren’t involved in the characters and their lives, (rather than abstract issues), it fails as a novel.

In the 1980s, immersed in the anti-nuclear movement, I wrote a novel addressing that issue, with the then terrifyingly possible scenario of a nuclear war started by mistake as a result of the Launch-on-Warning system and how it impacted on the lives of my four main characters. In the early 90s, working for Age Concern, I was inspired by the stories, shocked by the many hardships, of those I came into contact with. I put my indignation about the treatment of older people into a novel about a feisty, spirited eighty year-old overcoming the obstacles placed in her way and the indignities of failing health and lack of resources.

Secrets of the Pomegranate explores the consequences of secrets and lies, both personal and political, the effects of prejudice and stereotyping, Islamophobia… But what keeps readers turning the pages is the secret between the two sisters and the ambiguous role of Deborah’s ex-lover Hassan.

My current work-in-progress The Red Gene deals with the suffering in Spain during the civil war and dictatorship, the terrible wrongs and injustices of the Franco era – executions, disappearances, slave labour, stolen babies – with a legacy that still haunts present-day Spain. The story, however, is intensely personal.

My political views have been partly shaped by some of the novels I read earlier in my life: The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the novels of James Baldwin and George Orwell, some of the feminist writers such as Doris Lessing, Marge Piercy and Marilyn French. Like them (but please don’t think I’m comparing myself in any literary sense), I transmit my ideals, my indignation, my passion through characters I hope readers will care about. Do I seek to change opinions? If that were my primary aim, I’d have put my efforts into journalism rather than fiction. Far more important to me is that my novels are enjoyed. The story must always overshadow the politics. But if even one or two of my readers are prompted to confront their prejudices or think about things in a slightly different way, I will be satisfied.

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