Last weekend I volunteered at Wordstock for the first time in almost ten years—in the incarnation I knew it before, it was humbler and more book focused but since then it has been integrated into the Portland Art Museum and its environs, which is suitable hoity-toity for haute literature.
There were a lot of people (I was one of 600 volunteers) and after my shift was done, there weren’t many panels left. The one I got to see was on the verge of being quite fascinating. Here’s the description:
Resistance and Rebellion: Dystopian Fiction.
Omar El Akkad, Benjamin Percy, Lidia Yuknavitch, moderated by Fiona McCann.
First, I haven’t read anything by any of the writers; indeed I had not heard of two of them. But each of them struck me as erudite and thoughtful, almost improbably so. (The talk was reportedly recorded by OPB for the Archive Project, so if that sounds interesting you may be able to check it out at some point.)
“the horror of being surrounded by an electronic wilderness”
Of the three, Benjamin Percy’s book sounded probably most in my wheelhouse; a novel about the dark web, set in Portland, featuring hellhounds wrecking powells, (You may know I wrote a book featuring Cthulhu wrecking Powells) so that’s really close to my heart. However, in terms of the tension between dystopia and resistance, it was kind of miscast.
“There’s no exotic form of injustice”
Omar El Akkad, on the other hand, did something I think quite brilliant in his book American War. Many Americans, even those who identify as liberal or progressive, seem to have vast apathy to the crimes the American government commits abroad. In his book, from what I gathered, El Akkad turns the mirror inward, using the familiar American canvas as the “exotic setting” to really illustrate those horrors.
Again, I haven’t read the book, but that’s what I gathered and it’s a fascinating idea from a person who has first-hand knowledge of the Empire’s misdoings. In talking about why he wrote it, he said something like “you can understand why someone does something without taking their side—I fact, it’s a prerequisite to understanding.”
In these days of instant condemnation and support for physical violence against those we disagree with, wow, what a concept! Disgust and abhorrence aren’t the only possible responses to ideas and behaviors we disagree with, however fundamentally, however vehemently. Continuing the metaphor, and I’m paraphrasing here, he added “We see them [fundamentalists] at the finish line and don’t think to inquire how they got there.” In short, he was fascinating, but I think only tangential to the topic at hand.
“If in the beginning was the word, storytelling is not only a form of resistance, but an essential form of blasphemy.”
Lidia Yuknavitch claimed her book was a love story, and the reading she did referenced neither soma nor clocks striking thirteen. Yet I found her thoughts to be the most cogent to the panels topic, starting with the (heavily paraphrased) quote above.
When asked about Trump making America more of a dystopia, she pointed out what a privileged stance that was. Of course she’s right. Dystopia is found in Aleppo, Syria, not Aleppo, Pennsylvania. (And tying into El Akkad’s book, a great many of the countries in the world with dystopic elements are due entirely to machinations of the American Empire–from Haiti to Iran to Vietnam, and so on, and so on.) This isn’t a super popular opinion in a society as insular as America is (even progressive Portland) and the subject was not delved into any further. Pity.
Is storytelling a form a resistance?
Of course it is, Yuknavitch said, but added little else. I really would have liked to see some examples, or have some conversation on what was one of the crucial questions of the panel. Storytelling as something distinct from Literature? Storytelling as a means to foment rebellion? Is storytelling just the start of PR or is there more to it than that? Is Maus a form of rebellion? Is Roxanne Gay a resistance writer? I greatly would have liked to hear what those wordsmiths had to say about that.
However, Yuknavitch did note that storytelling was probably used against the resistance more frequently than employed for it. Awesome observation and one that again I wish had been explored a little more. Later on, though, Yuknavitch lamented a leftist writer she knew who had stopped watching the news, hinting I think that while the right could retreat into uninformed ignorance the left should be above that. A missed opportunity here, I think, because there’s probably nothing that serves better as the status quo’s story teller than the nightly news. Not just Fox, not just MSNBC and BBC, but even Al Jazeera or Vice, are all a form of storytelling. Again, the panel teetered on the verge of some fascinating conversation, but it was a literature panel, not a political one, and the moderator was Fiona McCann, not Amy Goodman.
For me, the panel was more of a tease than satisfactory, and is it was the only panel I was able to go to that was mildly disappointing. However, there’s a limit to what you can do in an hour and I have some new books on my to-read list.