Literary Hub

How We Fictionalize Anger to Understand the World

In 2015, a thoughtful anesthesiologist knocked me unconscious. My terror over the idea of having the wires in my brain disconnected for surgery was almost equivalent to the fear I felt over both my body’s sudden frailty and the procedure itself, which everyone (including the anesthesiologist) kept reassuring me was “well tolerated.” As for the underlying issue, that was something I couldn’t think about, and can still only think about by way of fiction. The real me kept asking whether being blacked out medically might dim the lights in my brain, not just during the surgery, but forever after. And the truth, which my surgeon rightly and un-patronizingly acknowledged to me, was something along the lines of: “There have been many studies of this question,” and, “We don’t know.” He even said, in what I considered to be a gentle and funny response, one that indicated he knew me fairly well: “I think for you, this [medically induced unconsciousness] may be restorative.”

It wasn’t exactly a spa, but my body did well. I returned to my mind, and my mind (mostly) to me. Happily, that meant I was lucid enough to spend the three years that followed grappling with questions of unconsciousness and consciousness. Because I’m a writer, fretting over the following issues was not uncharted terrain for me, just intensified by factors having to do with the fear and then some rage that followed it: at what should I be looking directly? From which horrors (my own and/or the world’s) is it ethical for me to avert my eyes? Any? Who am I, both in terms of myself and in the context of those around me, and to what extent is it possible to keep my POV always gracious, always relative? Finally, how can I express what I see and wonder, and does my expression, particular as it is, even matter anyway?

On the rage: the fear of that tricky medical year was followed by months of recovery spent watching the political news of 2016. The world was spinning on an axis so fast and ugly it was dizzying, sickening, and enraging. That these twin forces of mortal dread and corrosive anger in my marrow were new for me (following decades of good cheer and a general optimistic idea that we were healthily bending toward progress and justice), was of course the outcome of a lifetime of a kind of privilege I’d sensed I had but hadn’t known how to name. In any case, combined with a vivid sense of the world’s larger context getting hideously worse right as my own personal situation improved, this alchemy calcified in me a desire to write something uncharacteristically brutal.

This kind of intentional anti-truth is a poisonous side dish to tyranny. And literature, fiction in particular, can be an antidote.

Maybe it’s simple: I was trying to stay anchored, focused, and productive; trying to understand what was happening in America, how such things could be happening, and what I, from the position of my small, singular and slightly diminished self, could do to help stop them. I was reading, of course, returning to my favorites, Baldwin, Beard, Brooks, Carson, Wharton, Rankine. I was watching, as knowledge itself became more threatened and contentious than I’d seen it in my lifetime, and as facts, clarity, and the very notion of truth were intentionally cluttered, garbled, and challenged. I wanted to see what the literary world would make in response and opposition to our era’s historical and now fresh atrocities.

The work has been reassuring, an avalanche of powerful thinking, organizing and asking. Many of the writers I read and know have doubled efforts to put radical truth and meaning sustainably into the global conversation. Which is what writing is meant to do, of course, so maybe we just feel the necessity of its purpose more intensely than usual as we watch propagandists perform their dares. I’ve come to think that the goal of propaganda isn’t about persuasion; it’s about bravado, a show of corrupt power. A kind of, “look at how preposterous a line officialdom can propose, what are you going to do about it?” It’s “I’m standing in the pouring rain—which you can see—telling you it’s not raining; I’m on an empty mall telling you I’m surrounded by crowds of thousands. I challenge you to contradict this official line.” This kind of intentional anti-truth is a poisonous side dish to tyranny. And literature, fiction in particular, can be an antidote. Its twin purpose is to discover and convey knowledge of others, and therefore also of ourselves. This can be catharsis, maybe, understanding certainly, and if it works, then it’s knowledge at once intimate, private, and universal. 

The process of creating stories or narrative frameworks for what would otherwise be the chaos of our lived and imagined experiences corrects for ignorance and builds shared knowledge. It lets us narrativize our days, in the way we all do, writers and non-writers alike, and therefore make sense of our lives, cities, and histories, for ourselves and for each other. It may be obvious enough that times of social and political chaos are often the most productive for the arts. And the notion that we are asking rather than answering has freed me to consider my own projects ways to follow wonder, rather than narrow routes to and from what I “know” already. James Baldwin spoke beautifully in an interview with The Paris Review for the magazine’s “Art of Fiction” series once about the difference as he saw it between preaching and writing: “When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”

Fiction allows us to be multiple versions of ourselves, rather than encouraging us to double down or shrink. This is good news for truth, since no simplified version of the truth can be either interesting or true.  It’s also part of the reason that books offer us a way to connect to all the people, over both our similarities and our differences, what Baldwin describes brilliantly when he says in a 1963 interview with a reporter from Life Magazine: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” 

I created a woman who is angry and afraid, and who uses her fury and fear as fuel for terrible behavior. This is not what I did, but to make the fiction work, I made her both me and not me.

I wondered, with a tyrant in office, with babies forcibly taken from their parents at our borders, human beings dying in cages, women’s rights being ripped back, and racist rallies on the rise, how to write into this fire? Why did I want, suddenly, to make a character who behaved appallingly? A woman who refused to be blameless or even good?  Though my own anger was derived from a visceral understanding of my powerlessness, it empowered me to take a new tone (at least in my work), one of un-apology. I began to write a book called Banshee, lit by a furious wick I hadn’t known was sparking inside me.

I created a woman who is angry and afraid, and who uses her fury and fear as fuel for terrible behavior. This is not what I did, but to make the fiction work, I made her both me and not me. She is first person because I need her confined, made claustrophobic by fear and her/my own limited (unreliable) POV. She must narrate, filling my pages with sometimes wild vacillations between hope and dread, power and powerlessness, chattering terror, and an almost pathological bravado. She goes to extremes I wouldn’t touch, but fiction let me stay close enough in on her that I couldn’t avert my eyes or let readers avert theirs. I gave my anti-hero worse versions of everything: a worse betrayal by the body, worse surgeries, and a significantly worse response. I wanted to watch: would she cope? Could she make it? She was borne out of my own desire to escape not just fear and anger, but also a polite lifetime of avoiding expressing either.

A need to please has manifested in me (as it has in so many of us) as an almost involuntary twitch toward apologizing, making nice, saying (and in some regrettable cases doing) whatever might repair even the slightest beat of social awkwardness. Maybe once I heard myself explaining to my small daughters over breakfast what “grab her by the pussy” means, it suddenly seemed like a good moment to create a template for what it might look like if a woman behaved horrifically and unapologetically, without a comeuppance.

Had my mortal dread in the OR made me peel myself free of every nicety, would I have emerged no longer myself? Or the truest version of myself I’d ever been? Once we begin to contain all the experiences we live, read, dream, and imagine, are we better, fuller versions of ourselves? Or closer to falling off the edges of our own lives? Both? I’ve stayed sane while the woman in my novel burns her life to the baseboards. She behaves terribly partly as a dare to herself, and partly out of anger and horror at having been forever more polite than just, more pleasing than honest, truer to others than to herself. In the wake of my own fright and the world’s terrible trajectory, I keep landing safely back on the fact myself: fiction gives us ways to work out questions better worked out on pages than, say, on ourselves or on other people.

Among its grace and magic is that fiction lets us, as readers and writers, have most things both ways. It gives us the opportunity (and thus the responsibility) to line words up precisely as we need them, to ask the questions we wanted asked directly, to free ourselves from an adherence to actual facts, a freedom that is as important as ever, even in this moment when facts are under siege. To get at truth of the poetic and philosophical sort, we concern ourselves with why characters do what they do. Again, it’s Aristotle’s idea that “we think that knowledge and understanding belong to art rather than to experience, and we suppose artists to be wiser” than historians, for example, and this is because artists concern themselves with causes. Writers are tasked with investigating the whys, the causal relationships between who we are and what must have happened because we are who we are. And this can give us some insight, hopefully, into what must happen from here on out.

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Banshee by Rachel DeWoskin is out now via Dottir Press.

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