Stories are at the forefront of activism. As voices by and of the oppressed reach larger audiences, as they pierce what’s called ‘the national conversation’, stories become actionable through protests, policies, subtle changes in everyday decisions. But what if underlying events are complex or resistant to naming, manifest in polyphonous narratives, almost reaching the point of noise?
It had been done before. Peter Weiss used the form of cantos, collages of voices, in his 1965 play The Investigation, depicting the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. In it, nameless participants from both sides of the trial interchangeably streamline their experiences, alternating horror upon horror of concentration camps. Most recently, the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich used a similar approach as she put together Voices from Chornobyl and most of her other recent works. The Ukrainian-born Belarussian writer describes the realities immediately preceding and following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, war in Afghanistan and Chechnya, economic crises. She uses her past experiences as a journalist, ‘documenting’ what she allegedly heard and recorded from individuals she had known.
Recent questioning of Alexievich’s approach inspired me to write this post. Sophie Pinkham just published an article about Alexievich’s work, suggesting that the Nobel laureate rose to acclaim by evading both the truth and the myth in her nonfiction. Pinkham writes that Alexievich had reworked the facts and narratives for dramatic effects. She had altered some stories to reach a deep emotional resonance, adding or removing what she deemed necessary in the construction of dramatically powerful pieces. The dates and facts of the transition to the post-Soviet are recorded, but the human, visceral grappling with broken lives and loves is too intimate to enter history books. For this fact-based fictionalized nonfiction, can we blame Alexievich?
In my new assignment as a St. Joseph Worker at Mary’s Pence, I am learning that writing about social justice issues entails a similar transformation of stories into the personal, almost intimate language of values. My coworkers advised me to watch a practical tutorial on ‘vision, values, and voice’ from opportunityagenda.org. I was surprised to find the striking similarities between literary nonfiction and this approach to writing for social justice causes. Here, the emphasis on values, on the converging stories of individuals. Specifics can be up to debate and disagreement. Values and emotions, however, are more universally shared. One can reach an opponent by an appeal to values rather than the contestable givens.
This appeal is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is necessary to frame stories of injustice into discourse that is familiar with everyone. On the other, this very framing actually distances one from the subject of the narrative. The familiarity of values and discourse becomes soothing, turning audiences complacent. Values can be appropriated by different sides of discourse, re-modeled.
There is a danger in a discourse-laden appeal in terms of values. Specifics, albeit contestable, can be more emotionally brutal than the value-speak floating about on social media. That same social media, glossed-over with sleepy eyes. I’m setting this as a reminder to myself as I work on communications at Mary’s Pence.
Paradoxically, fiction is more direct than reality. It strikes directly into the mindset, using storylines and carcasses long familiar. It is a fascinating idea, to borrow from fiction to reach audiences otherwise uninterested in social justice.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter how journalistically correct Svetlana Alexievich was in her collages of voices. Her prose is necessarily fictionalized, necessarily powerful.
This guest contribution was written by Svitlana Iukhymovych. Svitlana is a recent graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where she studied literature and psychology. She works in communications and development at Mary’s Pence as the 2016-2017 St. Joseph Worker. Svitlana is from Shepetivka, Ukraine and previously worked with the Center for Victims of Torture and Open Farms-Open Arms, MN.