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Olive Senior: 'Literature is political because we are political animals'


Should literature be political? Politics shapes us all, but creative writers must transform the world around them, argues Olive Senior in a speech delivered at the Bocas Literature Festival in Trinidad

First, I have to take issue with the question "Should literature be political?" which has the fussiness of Granny about it. It suggests an anxiety about written literature, the notion that literary production is something precious and should be protected somehow from the unwashed hordes who are political animals because they foment revolutions and overturn thrones. Mark you, the unwashed hordes have created literature too, though it's been called folklore and folksongs. And now, woe, technology has opened the door to everyone calling him or herself a "writer".

Okay, the question has been asked so let's try to be serious about it, especially since it is asked in the context of literary festivals such as this one, which is celebrating the literature that is confined within the pages of a book. Let us start by defining what is meant by our use of "literature" here and – even more important – what we mean by "politics".

I will use literature here NOT in its broadest sense of embracing all literary production. I am using it in reference to works of the creative imagination – fiction, poetry, drama, in whatever form these are expressed since technology now opens up so many worlds beyond the artefact we normally call a book. So our concern here is with content.

We should treat works of the creative imagination as different from other forms of literary production. This distinction enables us to see and acknowledge that the writer who wants to make a statement has a wide choice of genres and that each genre has its place. Many writers like myself have engaged in a variety of these genres. But we must be clear in our own minds as to what we are doing. Non-creative literature operates according to a conscious mandate. Creative literature does not. Fabrication by a journalist is regarded as betrayal. Fabrication is what a fiction writer does.

Politics. Anxiety arises from our narrow use of the term. We tend to think of politics exclusively in terms of partisan politics, electoral politics, political leadership and so on, with strife and confrontation implied, so a lot of people will try to disengage by saying: "I am not concerned with politics." The bottom line is that the word "politics" conjures up partisanship, divisiveness and a low threshold of scoring dirty points against an opponent.

But politics in its very first definition relates to the art of government. We might refer to that as "Big P", because I want to make the case that Big P, the larger politics of the nation, inescapably shapes us in a trickle-down effect from the cradle to the grave. Politics determines the price of bread or the availability of guns or whether one lives in splendour or the squalor of a refugee camp. Closer to home, it might be a Caribbean mother having to choose between bread today and school fees tomorrow. Big P shapes the world into which we are born, our daily environment, and leads to what we might call "small p" politics; that is, all those decisions of personal governance that we are forced to make, both externally and unconsciously, every moment of our lives.

We are all enmeshed in politics because we are all citizens of somewhere – even writers – and we cannot escape being shaped by political decisions, big and small. So instead of asking the question "Should literature be political?", I would rephrase it as a statement: Literature is political because we, the creators of literature, are political animals; it is part of accepting our responsibility of being human, of being citizens of the world.

Does this mean that I am advocating that literature as I have narrowly defined it should be in the service of Politics? Absolutely not. This is where creative writers must part company with those writers who operate out of a mandate that is overt and prescriptive. Consumers of each genre usually know what to expect. And "creative literature" works best if we do NOT know what to expect. Literature in this narrow sense is, above all, a product of imagination. The gift of the creative industries is to present the unexpected, to show the world in a different light.

Every author has a world view which reflects a political stance and shapes what we do, even unconsciously. For example, as a child, I grew up in a world where I never saw myself or the people around me visually portrayed in the children's books I read (though I took great pleasure in reading them). As a writer of children's books now, I would say that I am simply concerned with telling a story that a child anywhere in the world that might want to read. But, I have to confess, I am very much concerned that the illustrations should reflect and express a multicultural world, for that is what I live in. Is that political? Can any of us escape the political? I would say no. Even romantic literature plunges us into the realm of political economy: does the potential suitor have a job?

The raw material of writers is the entire world that we live in; a world that continuously shapes us as we in turn shape it, through our poetry or fiction. The writer is someone who has no choice but to be engaged with society, which means political engagement. Nothing escapes the snare of the political, big P or small p – it is about the price of bread, the paycheck you bring home, how you interact with neighbours or whom you choose to romance. You can rebel against the latter or hew your own path, but your choice will be shaped by political concerns, and those have always included religion, race or ethnicity, sex and gender. Today, perhaps, more than ever.

So what makes literature different then from the other arts of writing – journalism, history, political science, advertising or party propaganda? To me, that is the crux of the matter. The difference lies not in what we write but in the how. It is the difference between a journalist writing a story about, say, the shortage of public housing and the novelist inventing a character and a credible situation to demonstrate the impact of that situation perhaps down several generations, or how it leads ultimately to a revolution, or a suicide. It is taking the facts of the matter and then stitching them into a plot or a poem that illuminates it beyond the everyday experience.

The good thing is that in doing so, the creative writer has enormous resources that the fact-based writer has not. Literature is an art. It is about transformation. It is about taking one thing and making something else of it, changed but recognisable. So, politics might be the subject matter, but only as raw material. Literature does not need to employ polemics or confrontation. Nor is it about telling readers what they already know, but enabling them to contemplate what they didn't know they knew. It is not a question of avoiding issues but of being crafty in portraying them.

Literature is above all, storytelling. And, as Chinua Achebe has said, storytelling is a threat. Storytellers, poets, writers, have always found ways of confronting tyranny, especially in spaces where such actions are dangerous and deadly. Throughout the ages, writers have developed and employed myriad literary devices and explored the fullest limits of language through satire, magical realism, fantasy, fable and so on. Writers over the ages have found ways of talking about issues – like politics – without seeming to talk about them. The function is not to present the world as it is, but to present it in a new light through the narrative power of art. Literature does not ask "What is it about?" It asks "How do we tell it to make it real?"

So, since I have to answer the question: "Should literature be political?" I will say, yes, but not in an explicit way. The purpose of literature is not to represent but to re-present, to hold up that mirror in a light that enables us to see reality both reflected and refracted. And that applies to politics or any subject that we choose, or in the best case scenario, in the subject that chooses us. As writers we live lives that are not navel-gazing but conscious, fully engaged with the world.

My favourite quotation is Gauguin's statement: "Art is either plagiarism or revolution." So let me end by taking issue with the title of this debate, especially with the prescriptive should. Should the subject matter of literature be prescribed by anyone? I say no. So let's end by revolting against those who would apply the word "should" to art. Even in a question. To young writers I say, ignore prescriptions. Don't be left behind. Write on!


• This is an edited version of the keynote speech delivered by Olive Senior at the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference: Trinidad, presented by the Bocas Literature Festival in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council

• Next Etonnants Voyageurs festival from Saint-Malo, France

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