Fiction and Social Responsibility: Where Do They Intersect?

by Naomi Benaron

I recently attended the Third International Conference on Genocide, where I presented a paper on the rights and responsibilities of cultural appropriation. I wrote the paper because, having penned a novel from the point of view of a young Tutsi boy coming of age in the time surrounding the Rwandan genocide, it is a topic with which I frequently wrestle. During the Q&A, a Rwandan man raised his hand. "Don't you feel silly," he asked, "writing fiction about the Rwandan Genocide?"

After my initial shock and a few clarifying words, I realized that the question was not, as I had first thought, flippant but rather a query into the nature of fiction itself and into its ability to engage an event so vast and unspeakable as genocide. I realized, too, that for me, it was actually a conflation of the two central questions that define my writing. Why do I write about social justice? And, given that I am driven to address these issues, why indeed do I use fiction to address them?

Perhaps the answer to both these questions is that in my case, neither of them is a choice. I have written fiction since I was a young child; fiction is in large part the way I organize the confusion of this world in order to make sense of it. I was also raised in an environment that cultivated concern for issues of social responsibility. For me to conflate the two was therefore instinctive and reflexive. I cut my novelistic eyeteeth on the literature of social responsibility—it was much of what my parents gave me to read—so when I began to write as an adult, I naturally gravitated toward similar subjects. Until the gentleman from Rwanda called this conflation into question, I had never given it much thought.

One cannot talk about about the literature of social justice without speaking of social responsibility. The term "social responsibility" means that the awareness of social injustice, from the local to the global, necessitates specific actions to combat those injustices. In other words, social responsibility and social activism are inextricably intertwined; once aware of the injustice, one is morally obliged to act. Taking the logic one step further, fiction, in my case, becomes a form of social activism; it is one of the primary weapons I have chosen as a means to fight injustice.

The relationship between fiction writers and social responsibility is a long one. It began with Don Quixote when he became a knight-errant and set off on his quest to "right all manner of wrongs." It continued with Dickens and Jane Austen, with Elie Wiesel, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Isabel Allende, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. It continues today with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Shahriar Mandanipour, Shahrnush Parsipur and Orhan Pamuk. Social responsibility fuels passion, and passion fuels great writing. What would this world have lost if the great writers of social justice had not chosen to change the world through the written word and specifically through the art of fiction? Many of those writers live or lived in a place where speaking out in public is forbidden. By couching their message in allegory, they could slip their protests into the world.

Writers, to be sure, are not safe from imprisonment, torture and death. Oppressive governments are well aware of the power of the book. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist and writer, was hanged for his social activism against the government's environmental policies. A book burning campaign was one of the first coordinated actions when the Third Reich came to power in 1933.

I am a social activist. I am also a fiction writer. Both are part of my identity as a human being, as a teacher, and as a writer. To take either one away would be like cutting off a limb, and to have one without the other would not be possible. I chose Antioch University for my MFA in large part because it is a school devoted to "a social justice perspective."

Social justice infuses nearly all my fiction, whether directly or indirectly, and I cannot imagine what shape my stories would take if they did not in some manner address this. Issues concerning social justice are most often what first move me to put pen to paper, even if the threads of the injustice are woven into a seemingly unrelated arc. Conversely, my fiction also drives my awareness of social justice. It was the extensive research I undertook to understand the Rwandan genocide that led me to a commitment to the work of ending genocide on a global scale. It was one of the most important decisions I have made in my life, both as a writer and as a human being.

The awareness of social justice causes and the propensity to dwell inside a world of my own fictive creation have been with me since I can remember. I have been a storyteller since I knew how to speak. I was an extremely active child, and inventing stories was how my parents kept me calm and entertained. In the car, my mother and I concocted lives past, present and future for the occupants of every house we passed. At home, my father wrote illustrated stories for all my stuffed animals, and I had quite a few.

One of the first role models my mother gave me was Joan of Arc, and what I loved about her was that she was willing to give up her life to defend her beliefs. Despite my young age, it was a message that went straight to my heart and burrowed in, and it has stuck with me all these years. My mother's choice of heroines was not accidental, even if unconscious. A refugee from the Bukovina region of Eastern Europe, she was born in a horse-drawn wagon while her parents fled WWI. Her great-grandmother, who refused to flee, was murdered with her own Shabbas candlestick. My mother and her parents settled in Zurich, and she came of age during Hitler's rise to power. As was the case with many Jews at that time, she was active in communist youth groups and in anti-Nazi activities. When the German ambassador visited Zurich, my mother climbed on his car and ripped off the Nazi flag. Her actions did not go unnoticed—my mother had flaming red hair—and her family was threatened with deportation. My grandfather, understanding what returning to the Bukovina meant, booked immediate passage on a ship bound for Australia. They never made it beyond Canada, but that is another long tale, the result of which was my birth.

I tell my mother's story for two reasons. The first is because I firmly believe that my own relationship with social activism was passed down to me through her DNA. She fought her way into medical school in Canada when there was a strict quota both for women and for Jews. When she married my father in 1944, she fought to retain her identity by hyphenating her last name. When my parents came to the United States, she fought her way into a professorship in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and fought for the creation of a special department in women's studies at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Later, after I was born, she fought for civil rights and to end the war in Vietnam. I only hope that I have become half the fighter she was.

But I also tell my mother's story because nested in that same sequence of DNA is the need to tell stories. As I have said, the two are paired inside the double helix and cannot be unpaired. The story of Joan of Arc and the issues of justice for which she fought could not be divided in my mind, and so, when I came to understand that I had to tell the story of the Rwandan genocide, fiction was the only way I knew to tell it.

This brings us to the second part of the question, the part the gentleman from Rwanda directly addressed. Is fiction indeed an appropriate modality when dealing with atrocity and injustice on the scale of genocide, or does it somehow demean the topic? In the case of the Holocaust, this question has long been settled. During the symposia to honor the centennial celebration of the Nobel Prize, the literary symposium concentrated on the genre of "Witness Literature." As Michael Bachmann states in his paper, "Life, Writing, and the Problems of Genre in Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertesz," the literature of witness is "the formative genre of the 20th century." Today's literary canon is replete with examples that extend witness literature to apartheid in South Africa, slavery and racism in the US, and dystopian societies that symbolize governmental injustices, to name a few.

What is it specifically about fiction that justifies its use as a weapon against social injustice on a massive scale? I believe it has to do with the empathy that the world of a novel creates. In her recent New York Times op-ed, "And the Winner Isn't," which addresses the failure of the fiction judges to pick a winner for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, Ann Patchett states,

“Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”

I believe there is a second reason that is related to the specific craft of fiction. Although one is certainly constrained by the holistic sense of facts when writing a novel meant to represent historical events—surely one does not have the freedom to reinvent that history—as a fictional accounting, the writer does have the liberty to shape those truths into a broader "story truth," as Tim O'Brien puts it. In painting "story truth," the writer can add a little lightness here, cast a shadow there, in order to heighten emotion and empathy, to guide the reader toward one certain picture of the world and away from another.

That I would tell the story of the Rwandan genocide through fiction was never a question for me. I returned to writing fiction, after a long hiatus, at the same time that I became involved with the local African refugee community. I returned to writing because after my father's death, I knew it would make me feel alive again. I decided to work with the local refugee community because the Lost Boys of Sudan were much in the news, and there was a large community of refugees from Darfur in Tucson, where I live. I knew I had to do something more than wear a green wristband and send thirty dollars to the Save Darfur Coalition, as worthy as those actions might be. Through a series of serendipitous events, I ended up working with the Somali Bantu community in Tucson as a volunteer with Jewish Family and Children's Services. Their personal stories broke my heart and took my breath, but what stayed with me was the spirit and determination of the people. Soon, fictional stories started to grow in my mind, seeded by the experiences of these quietly courageous human beings.

I decided to focus on the Rwandan genocide when I visited Rawanda in 2002. While walking on the beach at Lake Kivu, I discovered human bones in the sand. I got down on my hands and knees and gathered some of the bones together and held them in my palms. It was a seminal moment. I realized that what I cradled were not just bones but stories. I realized, too, that if someone did not tell the stories of the bones, those stories would be lost forever. That was the moment I decided to write a novel about Rwanda.

As much as I fought that decision (who was I to tell the stories?), it would not leave my mind or my heart. Before going to Rwanda, I knew a little bit about the genocide, but not much beyond the fact that it had happened, and that a lot of people were killed. The story resonated with me because I grew up with the ghosts of the Holocaust wandering around my house. Hardly anyone in my mother's extended family survived; her side of the family is a black hole around which a few old photographs orbit. The words never again formed the core of my mother's being; they lit the flame of her social activism, and she passed the flame on to me.

When I came back from Rwanda and began to talk about my experiences, I realized how little people in the West knew about what had happened there. I had made friends during that first trip, and their stories had become important to me. I wanted those stories to become important to others as well. I began the long process of researching the genocide. I read every book on Rwanda I could get my hands on. I went back to Rwanda for three more extended visits, staying with Rwandans who had become my friends, interviewing survivors, standing in the sites where genocide had occurred, and listening to testimonies given during the memorial services that mark the annual April commemoration of the onset of the event. I wanted Westerners to understand that the genocide was more than a few seconds of news footage to turn away from during dinner; it was an unspeakable event that changed the lives of everyone in the country forever. Its ripples spread out across the continent, and its effects are still felt today, far beyond the borders of Rwanda.

I also wanted Westerners to understand that the genocide was not just a fight that spontaneously erupted between two tribes. It was meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated, and in the case of Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi are not really two separate tribes; they are one people whose imposed permanent division was largely the result of colonial intervention. I wanted Westerners to understand that genocide could happen anywhere. It could happen here, in the United States. It could happen to us.

The only way I knew to tell this story was through fiction. I needed to create characters that lived and breathed as they moved through a world in which the noose of genocide slowly tightened around their necks. I needed human beings whom the reader would come not only to believe in but also to love. I needed the reader to come to understand the insidious beast of genocide by letting those human beings I created, partly from my own imagination and partly from the melting pot of my friends and their stories, into their hearts.

As a teenager, I chose to change the world by marching and sleeping on the steps of the Pentagon, but those days for me—at least for the moment—are over. Now I fight with the word. Just as I believed then that I could reach a wide audience by adding my voice and my footsteps to the crowd, I believe now that the power of the written word will effect change. I believe that someone can read a novel and be moved to say, "There must be something I can do," and beyond that, to do it.

The literature of social justice changes the world one reader at a time. Sometimes, the enormity of injustice can seem overwhelming. Rather than demean its scope, I believe fiction has the power to shape events so that the reader can grasp them rather than turn away. It has the power to shine a focused beam by actually deflecting it. I understood this when as a child I recreated the story of Joan of Arc in my head. My mother understood it when she first told it to me. At the time, I had no idea that the story that lay beneath the surface of this telling was of the near-annihilation of a people. Our people. But so it is with fiction. We fall in love with a world and the characters that populate it, and so, despite the unspoken horror, we keep reading.

Originally published by Lunch Ticket (the literary journal of Antioch University Los Angeles).