Literary Hub

How Should We Write in a Time of Unmitigated Disaster?

Toni Morrison began her Nobel lecture with a parable:

Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise . . . One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it’s living or dead.” The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter. Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive but what I do know is that it’s in your hands. It’s in your hands.”

The bird in the story represents the vulnerability and precariousness of life, as Morrison herself suggests, but it also stands for language. As writers, language is that thing in our hands. This is all we can be certain of: not whether the way we use language speaks to others or not, nor whether our work is good or necessary, living or dead, but only that we have language, that we hold it. Language is there for us; it’s in our hands.

Late one Sunday in 2014, I was wrapping mugs on my living room floor. I was preparing to move to my tenth share house in as many years when something on the news caught my attention. A young asylum seeker, not yet 30, had set fire to himself in suburban Geelong. His name was Leo Seemanpillai. A nurse described seeing black smoke rising into the air and a pile of clothes next to a mailbox, still on fire.

“All his skin was peeling off his limbs and he was really distressed,” Esther Merrett told the ABC. She continued: “The fact that someone would rather do that to themselves than live probably means that there is something very, very wrong with what is going on with asylum seekers.”

Watching the report, I felt an immediate urge to react. I was compelled to find what Judith Butler describes as “… a mode of response that follows upon having been addressed, a comportment toward the Other only after the Other has made a demand upon me, accused me of a failing, or asked me to assume a responsibility.” But what made this story special? Perhaps it was the particular violence of a death of that kind. Maybe it was the violence of the language used: the description of the man on fire, yes, but also the affectless cadences of the newsreader and reporter. For all the horror of this news story, there was also something so rudimentary, so familiar, so everyday, about another asylum seeker hurting himself. Another refugee, another act of desperation. All these things disturbed me. I was moved, but not just in the emotional sense—I was moved to respond.

My first idea was to write a profile piece on the man who had died. I wanted to do something with words. I thought I could write about Mr. Seemanpillai’s life and childhood, perhaps give a sense of the person, not the stereotype. In media reports following Mr. Seemanpillai’s death, his friend and pastor Tom Pietsch described the man he knew well. I decided to write him a letter—could he help me with some contacts? The pastor responded right away. He was happy to talk, but worried that seeing Mr. Seemanpillai’s life through the “prism of politics” was “ultimately limiting and dehumanizing.”

“You’ll find the more politicized people happy to talk,” he wrote. “The Tamil community themselves are more circumspect, and know that Mr. Seemanpillai’s life was complex.” I did not pursue the story. For one thing, I had no idea what the story was. I didn’t know what I wanted to write, or for what purpose, and yet there it was: the moment of address.

Fiction writers, no matter how good our intentions, are not absolved of responsibility when it comes to representation. Every time we depict a person or group, we run the risk of dehumanizing them. The fear of misappropriation can be paralyzing.

In 2016, concerns about cultural appropriation—concerns that had been gathering force since the 1980s—emerged explosively. In her keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver told her audience:

Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.

The speech caused outrage in some audience members, and prompted Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied to walk out. The following weeks saw an escalation of public debate about the role and rights of the writer, exposing many tensions and sensitivities around questions of art and representation. In the Los Angeles Times, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen provided a context for the debate by highlighting the material realities of those whose lives and cultures are appropriated. He concluded that “[i]t’s possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.” While I will veer away from this specific debate, I nevertheless acknowledge the risk.

Not long before I heard of Mr. Seemanpillai’s death, I had written a short story called “Not the Sea.” Set in a small fishing village in Sri Lanka, the story follows a young boy’s experience of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Embedded in this story are themes of exile, displacement, war and identity, and the last line hints at the protagonist’s arrival in Australia as a refugee. As often happens, I wrote first and thought later. After hearing of Mr. Seemanpillai’s life and death, my thoughts returned to “Not the Sea.” I began writing other stories in the same vein, but quickly encountered two major ethical dilemmas. First, I was at risk of using the lives and suffering of others to serve my own creative purposes. Second, I was in effect becoming a writer who writes about “issues”—an idea that was suffocating because it goes against the grain of my every creative instinct.

“For all the horror of this news story, there was also something so rudimentary, so familiar, so everyday, about another asylum seeker hurting himself. Another refugee, another act of desperation. All these things disturbed me.”

I was also struck by a sense of helplessness. I began to question the effectiveness of writing, especially in a global context of displacement and disaster. Similar doubts were expressed by Australian writer James Bradley in a paper delivered at the 2016 Global Ecologies–Local Impacts Conference in Sydney. Responding to that year’s Living Planet Report—which declared that, between 1970 and 2012, close to 60 percent of the world’s wildlife had disappeared—Bradley said, “There are moments when our stories fail us, moments when the world’s complexities exceed their power.” He talked about a sense of the futility of words—”a feeling one’s tools are not fit for the purpose”—and wondered about the role and power of stories at a time when climate change, habitat destruction, extinction and pollution are “transforming our world in ways that would have seemed unimaginable only a generation or two ago.”

By writing stories about “issues,” I was trying to respond to what I saw as urgent social and moral crises. The problem was that the more I wrote, the less satisfied I felt with my mode of response, the less confident I was about fiction’s capacity to do the job. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly concerned that I was using other people’s trauma for my own benefit. I was aware of Australian writers who had produced collections exploring specific issues, such as exile and war—for example, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, Nam Le’s The Boat and Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals. While I respected this approach, I was wary of attempting to place what literary scholar Adam Kelly calls a “totalizing schema” over the events and scenarios to which I was trying to respond. I needed a new way of seeing and understanding what I was doing—as a writer and as a social actor.

Pursuing this question of responsibility, I tried to find a way to write that would help me minimize the risk of cultural trespass. I read Edward Said, who discusses the ethics of writing about a trauma one has not experienced firsthand. I read Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster and The Space of Literature, which debate whether it’s possible to address the unspeakable (the Holocaust, for example) through language. I read “The Essential Gesture: Writers and Responsibility,” a 1984 speech by Nadine Gordimer in which she explores the role of the artist in accepting social responsibility. I also read with interest American literary scholar Nicholas Birns, who recognizes the limitations of using “concern” as a strategy to write about the lives of others: “the same social concern that animates the altruistic thrust we so often value in fiction might also impede our awareness.” In other words, I turned to these thinkers for a sense of how to write about disaster in a way that minimized the “terrible risk,” as Edward Said puts it, “of banalizing exile’s humiliations and the horrendous losses it inflicts on those who suffer them.”

This theoretical exploration was certainly generative and helped develop my thinking about the act of writing, writing itself, and the role of the writer as a socially responsible actor. It had a role to play. Ultimately, however, it missed the mark. Or, rather, I came all too soon, particularly through Blanchot, to what I think I had known from the beginning: that writing is “the most extreme” risk, an “errant migration” that “expresses nothing,” and that a book is only a “mute collection of sterile words, the most insignificant thing in the world,” yet writers must “just write, in uncertainty and in necessity.” I began to see that mine was a question of reframing.

At this point, I came across the concept of precarity, a concept that seemed to offer a way not out of my ethical anxieties, but through them. By exploring how this term could be applied to questions of ethics and literature, I began to shift the lens through which I was viewing the problem, as opposed to trying to solve the problem itself. Perhaps, I wondered, the concept of precarity could hold within its scope the disparate ideas, concerns and interests with which I was thinking about. Rather than seeing my writing as being about an issue, such as asylum seekers or the experience of exile, I wondered if I could explore the imaginative and structural possibilities of writing about this increasingly shared condition.

The idea of precarity approaches a sense of the danger, violence and uncertainty that runs through people’s lives—a sense that is not necessarily exclusive to people directly affected by global catastrophes, such as war, natural disasters or forced migrations. It seemed to me that precarity offered broader potential as a way of seeing: my research investigation became an inquiry into the intersection of the theory of precarity with creative practice.

The concept of precarity—from the French précarité—has been used by sociologists since the late 1970s, but in the last decade has gained currency in literary theory. The term “refers to all possible shapes of the unsure, not guaranteed, flexible, exploitation,” as Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt defined it in an essay in Japan Forum in 2010. This explanation captures the sense I had of the word initially. I was drawn to precarity because it seemed to speak to, and extend, some sense of placelessness, mobility, insecurity and unpredictability that was so preoccupying me in my writing.

The definition of precarity has changed over time. It was originally associated with the conversion of permanent employment into uncertain, lower-paid jobs, essentially describing the loss of stability and predictability enjoyed by earlier generations under the Fordist mode of production. While the notion emerged from changes in the workforce, it has become understood and applied much more broadly.

“The idea of precarity approaches a sense of the danger, violence and uncertainty that runs through people’s lives—a sense that is not necessarily exclusive to people directly affected by global catastrophes, such as war, natural disasters or forced migrations.”

Simon During, for instance, refers to the precariat as a class within a first-world nation. He claims that neoliberalism has produced a new social group that does not fit the class-based analysis applied to industrial and social capitalism. One major reason for this move towards a more inclusive application of the concept is the way that neoliberalist ideologies have prompted a reconfiguration of the very value of human life.

This is explored, albeit in a more expansive and integrated way, in Birns’ Contemporary Australian Literature. Nestled within Birns’ critique of the Australian literary landscape is a fascinating discussion on how neoliberalism has revalued human life. As well as promoting the belief that one can improve one’s lot through hard work and saving, neoliberalism has rendered morally worthless those to whom no financial worth is attached, and thus amounts to “a financialization of all human life.” What, then, becomes of those for whom financialization is out of the question, those for whom money is unavailable or inaccessible? These people, During argues, fall outside “totality”they fall outside citizenship, stable employment and state support, relegated to a position of permanent precarity.

In Precarious Life, American philosopher Judith Butler expands the idea of precarity as a framework for thinking about how we value and express human life. That we are vulnerable to injuryfrom both other humans and forces of natureis a shared human experience from birth. Butler suggests we must take this vulnerability, this precariousness, as a point of departure for political life, if we are to ever formulate an ethics of non-violence in responding to grief and loss.

Butler’s formulation draws principally on the US experience of the war on terror. The display of mourning, grief and loss following 9/11, she says, is “the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.” The cycle of war and violence is well known to usbut what, Butler asks, might be made of grief, besides a cry for war? This question runs through Butler’s mediation on how we see, hear and narrate the lives of others. Butler offers a new way of approaching the ethical and moral complexities of writing about the other through her theory of how to live, act and relate.

Literature and language academic Heather Sullivan offers another perspective on precarity, drawing on Timothy Clark’s description of the Anthropocene as the epoch in which human impacts on the planet’s ecological systems have reached a dangerous limit. Sullivan’s paper, “Dirty Traffic and the Dark Pastoral in the Anthropocene: Narrating Refugees, Deforestation, Radiation and Melting Ice,” positions precarity within the ebbs and flows of a world in crisis. These escalating flows produce unstable places, environments and experiences. She writes: “The Anthropocene is delineated not by stable places, but rather by escalated flows across land, time and bodies at an ever-faster pace, producing refugees, stolen timber, traffic jams, radioactive rain and melting glaciers in the fast-forwarding of the biospheric cycles.” She then evokes Nancy Ettlinger’s point that such uncertainty inhabits the micro-spaces of all life: “Precarity crosscuts spheres of life; it infuses life.”

The idea that precarity is both produced by and the producer of uncertaintyand that the Anthropocene’s features make the condition virtually inescapableis also taken up by Emma Jacobs in relation to what she terms “pseudo-apocalypse”: a “deeply ingrained and often unconscious ontological insecurity at the heart of the neoliberal psyche.” Applying precarity as a “cultural theory” to two graphic novelsCharles Burns’ Black Hole and Daniel Clowes’ David Boring—Jacobs argues that the characters’ experience of pseudo-apocalyptic scenarios (in which the threat of catastrophe is strongly felt but no disastrous moment is ever reached) reflects the everyday precarity of the neoliberal condition. In discussing the changing nature of precarity over time, Jacobs points to the simultaneous emergence of new media and technology. Drawing on Zygmunt Bauman’s work, Jacobs suggests that, due to the globalization of information and culture, and the growing ubiquity of television, mobile phones and the internet, “social interactions [are] rapidly becoming disembodied encounters.” In Liquid Fear, Bauman argues that such fluidity, while it promises to make life easier and safer, cannot live up to its goal, and actually destabilizes experience. He coins the term “the liquid modern world” to describe a state in which lifestyles are continuously changing and the pool of experience is relentlessly expanding. Within this state, suggests Jacobs, the individual develops an underlying and perpetual uncertaintywhat Bauman describes as liquid fear, or “the sentiment of being susceptible to danger.”

It’s not only theorists who are discussing precarity discursively. Writers, such as Butler, Jago Morrison and Joseph Darda, are also moving towards an apprehension of the term’s usefulness as a frame, a way of seeing, a point of departure. In deploying her notion of the “dark pastoral” to discuss how stories are told about seismically shifting phenomenaboth natural and human-madeSullivan suggests such narratives should be aware of “the frames that continue to shape our practices, including our own pastoral impulses, but combine them with some doses of skepticism, science and narratives of dirty traffic in order to engage but not capitulate to the dirty flows in which we all participate.” In a similar way, then, I make use of the term precarity with an awareness of the economic and neoliberalist frames that have dominated the term’s use, but I also have an interest in expanding it, as other writers and theorists have, beyond literary studies and into everyday life.

As a writer of fiction, I’m curious about how precarity can be used as a way to understand broad shifts in how humans live with fear, behave towards one another when in heightened states of vulnerability, and respond to chaos. The term’s affective potential is what energises methe possibilities it lends to those thinking about how to make sense of the extraordinary cultural, social, political and environmental shifts taking place. Although I am approaching a less tangible, more imaginative application of precarity, I nevertheless proceed with a strong sense that I am moving along that same liquid and twisted path of Sullivan’s Anthropocene in the broadest sense: the landscape of this iridescent place is defined by absence, by not-knowing, by terrific instability, by the threat of theft, by the nearness of loss, by the endlessness of grief and by the possibility of violence.


From Overland (#232, Spring 2018). Used with permission of Overland. Copyright © 2018 by Ashleigh Synnott. 

More from Literary Hub

Literary Hub7 min read
Binyavanga Wainaina On His Childhood In The Infancy Of The Kenyan Republic
It is Saturday. I fake a nosebleed, and Mum lets me go to work with her. I don’t want to see Sophia Mwela. I know she will come to the hedge between our houses and call out for Ciru and ask her where her American cousin is. She will be laughing. I am
Literary Hub6 min read
5 Reasons a Writer Should Move to Baltimore
I. You Have to Trust a City That Can Make “Ain’t it Hard Just to Live?” Sound Beautiful I came to Baltimore almost a year ago, happily, but with half a lifetime’s worth of suspicion: I grew up in and outside of D.C., where our nearest neighbor city w
Literary Hub3 min read
Kevin Powers on an Unsung Classic of American Nature Writing
A few years ago when I lived in Texas a friend asked me if I had a favorite place. Without reflecting I said, “The James River,”  to which she replied, “The whole thing? Is a river a place?” I saw right away what a curious answer it was, though I had