Fictitious facts and factual fictions
When some people find out that I write fiction as well as social commentary, they tend to say something like, “I knew that! You are just writing lies!
To equate “fiction” with “lies” is a cry echoing in a canyon of irony. Yes, non-fiction focuses on “facts” while fiction can spring from “the imagination”, but the two are not mutually exclusive.
Franco-Algerian author Albert Camus wrote: “Fiction is the lie through which we speak the truth. Camus’ 1947 novel “La Peste” explores the truth of too fallible human responses to the onset of a fatal disease.
Camus’s fiction reminds us of our recent plague-enlightened truth: healthcare workers risked themselves to save others. Service professionals have moved our world forward despite exposure to infections and inadequate pay. Parents have restructured their lives to guide children through the crisis.
We have also seen unfortunate truths: the former president abused his power as people suffered and died because of his lies. The so-called adults carried guns in state houses and plotted to kidnap governors just because they didn’t want to wear masks. An entire political party has played down the importance of a pandemic.
Much of the recent heroism and much of the cowardice would cause a novel to be rejected because it was not believable.
My most recent book is a collection of fictional stories called “Stumbling Through Adulthood”. Many of these stories explore political issues to mimic the theme of truth through Camus’ fiction.
The first story centers on a chance meeting between two strangers. It is not “political” per se, but the stranger in need is a white woman while the stranger offering help is a black man who risks potential violence just to help someone he wants. never met.
Giving readers the chance to sympathize with someone whose public safety is filtered by their skin color adds a political element to the fundamental human bond between these two characters.
One story immerses readers in the thoughts of a man whose frustration with politics spills over as he jogs in a sudden thunderstorm. Another story speculates on a social media expert kidnapped to serve a presidential candidate determined to win by cheating. Fiction, yes, but it’s easy to see the “truth” in this story.
The twin brothers in Another Story debate their political views and contrasting life experiences while shoveling the driveway after a snowstorm in their childhood home.
Other stories focus on characters who see themselves as apolitical. But they come to realize that political forces affect them more than they thought. Some are able to redeem themselves, but one faces a tragedy that could ruin their life.
Just for fun, one story follows the perception of the aliens among us who must decide whether the humans who let a madman become president deserve to continue to exist on this planet. You will have to read the story to find out our fate.
The most rewarding aspect of political issues fiction is that a writer can explore the forces that created each character’s political views. In everyday life, we may hear someone say something offensive or ignorant and ask, “My God, what happened to him? Usually you never know. But fiction allows for a backstory. We always abhor objectionable opinions, but we might find empathy for the character trapped in life who created those opinions.
Real life rarely provides flashbacks or omniscient narrators to contextualize a person’s motivation. For example, there is a guy who trolls the columns of this newspaper with outrageous, insulting, immature, petty, ignorant, misinformed, and grammar-challenged online comments. I can only guess at its history, but here is a possible fragment:
Back in grade 10, this guy maybe went to his guidance counselor and said, “I’m supposed to ask him what to do when I grow up. “
Counselor: “Tell me about yourself.”
Guy: “Well I’m rude, I hate doing research and I think conspiracy theories are great. “
Counselor, typing on the computer keyboard: “Okay. He says here that you are 97% right-wing internet troll. “
Guy: “Cool! “
Counselor, studying the fine print: “And you’ll never really grow up.” “
Of course, that scene probably never happened, and it’s not in my book. But sometimes the fiction emphasizes the sad truth that some bad assholes have always been mean assholes.
“Stumbling Through Adulthood” contains many non-political stories which also reveal the truth. As important as politics is in our world, it is often productive to step back and write or read about people who live their ordinary lives in extraordinary ways.
A man in a story shows himself eating a whole donut filled with jelly in one bite. Siblings sharing a hiking joke on what to do if they find themselves on life support. A woman with a bad flu fears that she has something much more serious. Writer meets Amazon.com secret agents. A guy at the gym can be the worst flirt ever. An elderly woman makes a connection with a telephone voice on the other side of the planet. A man finds a teddy bear in a filing cabinet at work.
Yes, you read that right. I invite you to read the book to see what truth it discovers within this fictitious office!
John Sheirer is an author and teacher who lives in Florence. His new collection of stories, “Stumbling Through Adulthood”, is now available. He will have a public reading of the book at the Forbes Library on Tuesday, August 10 at 6 p.m. (rain date: Thursday, August 12 at 6 p.m.). Find it on JohnSheirer.com.