A question asked of me by author Jane Davis in a recent interview made me think about what my aims are in writing fiction and what is the purpose of fiction generally. Is it to lull us to sleep or wake us up? To offer an escape from the world or a stimulus to engage more with it, even attempt to change it?
Fiction is about telling stories, so in the first place, it has to entertain and intrigue, to expand and free the imagination. But there are many more things it can do: pass on wisdom and insights, share a vision, explore the ‘what ifs’ in life… On a personal level, reading fiction can provide a means of understanding our own emotions and learning to deal with them better by sharing the inner journey of the protagonists.
The question Jane Davis asked was this: You tackle some meaty ethical issues. How effective do you think fiction is as a bridge between the experts and the public when it comes to stimulating debate? Could it be better employed?
In my answer, I said: Where ‘experts’ are politicians, who always have their own agendas, and the media, who usually have an angle too, I think fiction has the freedom to offer an alternative slant on the issues or just to open the door to debate. In Secrets of the Pomegranate, there is a strong focus on prejudice, particularly against Muslims, and on the preconceptions most of us have – the way we fall back on stereotypes, whether of race, gender, religion or a host of other factors. An example in the novel is the way women are treated in Islam. Deborah’s research throws a different light on the subject. I also said that I wanted my fiction to make readers think and perhaps to examine some of their own beliefs. I want my readers to see connections and consequences, to challenge damaging or dangerous attitudes, to question ways of dealing with problems that only cause more conflict or injustice in the world.
My new novel, The Red Gene, begins in the 1930s when thousands of young people from all over the world volunteered to fight against fascism in Europe by joining the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. They were defending the elected government against rebel troops led by Franco, supported by Nazi Germany and Italy. There are clear parallels between the situation in the period leading up to the Civil War (and Second World War) and the rise of extreme right-wing parties in several European countries today, along with the election in the US of Trump, whose attempts to impose a Muslim travel ban are hardly likely to foster tolerance or peace.
We all know that history repeats itself, giving us an opportunity to learn from the past – if we would only take it. I like to think fiction can aid the process by opening our eyes to different perspectives, making us more tolerant and empathetic with others. When we identify with a character in a novel, we see the world through that person’s eyes – even if s/he is an invention of the author. It’s an ambitious aim, but I do believe that fiction has the potential, by fostering better understanding of others, to help break down barriers between people and cultures. In highlighting past or present cruelties and injustices in the world, I want to make my readers indignant. I want to inspire them by showing courageous characters like Deborah or Rose, those with ideals like Miguel, and in this way encourage them to fight for a more harmonious and peaceful future.
On the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using fiction (or any other of the arts) as an escape from the world. Constant bombardment by the media with the ugliness all around us – war and suffering and cruelty – on top of any troubles and hardships in our personal lives makes a withdrawal necessary sometimes. And losing oneself in a novel has to be healthier than taking to drink or drugs. But I hope to do more when I write than distract from reality.