A couple days ago, Contributoria announced the site would be closing after the September issue was published, becoming an archive for existing articles but no longer offering a platform for journalists to fund their work. I was sad to hear it -- I enjoyed Contributoria, and found it useful as a way to fund stories outside of pitching. But in the final weeks, as I worked on what I didn't know would be my last piece, I have to say I was disheartened by my experience. Emails bounced back as I tried to ask questions and there was a total lack of communication, which had not been the norm up until that point. And then, this morning, I learned that my last piece was no included in the final issue, which means I am not being paid for my work. It's a sad ending to what was a very positive experience up until this point. But since so many were so helpful in helping me reach backing, I've decided to publish the essay here instead.
A Better World in Prose
The idea of a “better world” is at best nebulous, begging the question of what defines better. Is it a world without inequality? A world in which opportunity and resources are shared across country borders, with regard to need rather than greed? Or is better less about all the pieces coming together and more about setting on a path that can lead to, perhaps, the best world? In relation to where we are now, what counts as better?
Part of the allure of literature is the ability to imagine worlds outside of our own. Whether they are slightly altered iterations of our own reality, fantasy realms of magic and beasts, or simply a deep reflection on the world we live in today, through literature we’re able to pause and think critically about the world as we know it and as we wish to see it. In the three books that follow, the environment, reason, religion, and war come together to bring the past forward, bring the future closer, and ultimately ask us all what progress looks like.
Published earlier this year, Catherine Chanter’s The Well pits religion, loss, authority, and the environment together in a deep meditation on the power of place and fear to push people towards extremes. In the novel, Ruth Ardingly reflects on the turbulent few years that have culminated in her being under house arrest, suspected of murdering her grandson. Through flashbacks, Ardingly takes the reader through the purchase of The Well, a farm she and her husband found and idyllic place to escape London and a scandal that plagued his reputation. But The Well is the only farm in the country not beset by catastrophic drought, and soon religious cults and public outrage, as well as government researchers and ultimately tragedy, descend on the mysteriously green isolated farm.
The story shines in taking a realistic environmental disaster and making it both personal and sweeping in impact. The pressure of The Well’s constant attention from outsiders pushes the Ardinglys apart, while the outside world looks to the farm for both hope and a target to blame. The fanaticism that grows around the farm, particularly through on religious sect that believes it to be a holy site, takes on a mysterious, almost supernatural feeling as belief and reality collide around the idyllic green fields and full ponds. Ruth herself finds comfort in the community provided by the sect, which she allows to stay on the property even as her husband has doubts, until tragedy strikes and she finds herself at odds with who she thought were her “sisters.”
The willingness to embrace faith in the face of inexplicable circumstances and in times of fear, the human instinct to seek the comfort of others and a sense of belonging, and the appeal sorting the world by any means necessary rings strikingly true throughout the story. What’s more, the linkages between climate change, desperation, and civil rights brings to the fore the deeply intertwined nature of the world around us. It’s a complex story told in microcosm, begging the question of what we would do when reason feels fleeting.
In his upcoming book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie explores the role of reason through a mythic lens. The story centers on Geronimo Manezes, a gardener who wakes up following a catastrophic storm to find he is levitating just above the ground. This discovery is just one of many “strangenesses” that begin appearing around the world, signifying a coming war between the world of men and the world of the jinn. Along with other descendants of a great jinnia princess, Dunia, and a philosopher she loved, Manezes must fight back against the dark jinn working to erode the human world through tyranny and violence.
Although the magic and supernatural elements make up the crux of the story, the interplay between the extreme changes the world undergoes and reality as we know it today underlines the less reasonable elements of our society. Told as a fable by a mysterious narrator in the future, fear’s relationship with violence and religious extremism is set alongside giant sea monsters eating the Staten Island Ferry. Literal disconnection with the earth is linked to disconnection from culture, history, and place in the world, while jinn possess Wall Street big wigs and force them to spill the secrets that have brought about social and wealth inequality.
This blending of myth, fantasy, and reality creates a unique window through which the reader can view the world as it is. As seen from the future, the sheer lack of reason at play in so many ways around the world becomes strikingly clear. The past and present slam against one another as Manezes and other characters confront their own personal histories, and simultaneously the world confronts what they had long assumed to be myths cooked up by superstitious ancestors. Most striking, however, is the narrator’s pointing out of the human ability to ignore warning signs, look the other way, and refuse to see patterns that point at coming peril. Even in the face of unreason, we find comfort in the myth of the status quo’s permanence, failing to see a way to change course before it’s too late.
History colliding with past is a recurring theme in 1914 — Goodbye to All That, as well. The collection of short essays and stories from writers around the world reflects on the impact of World War I not just on art, but on society and personal history. The short vignettes, each written by a writer from a country that played a role in the First World War, paint a striking picture of the ways history informs us, obscures truth, and repeats.
In a Daniel Kehlmann’s “A Visit to the Magician”, friends attend a hypnotist performance in hopes of being pulled on stage. But when the time comes to be hypnotised as part of the audience, the narrator finds he can’t overcome the sense of pretending. Is it worth it to fake hypnotism just to get on stage? To give up his own autonomy and follow the instructions of the man claiming magical powers? At the same time, he begins reflecting on the Admiralpalast, and the role of willingness and desire to fit in with the masses in war. Proximity in space eases the distance in time that he feels to both World Wars, creating a bridge to the past that allows him to link the innocent fun of hypnotism to national rallying that had lead to war in the 20th century.
In other stories, such as Erwin Mortier’s “The Community of Sealed Lips” and Elif Shafak’s “In Search of Untold Stories,” the nature of personal silence and the role it plays in the unfolding of the future highlights the need for communication in order to impart the lessons of the past. Silence here is not a lack of love or warmth, but a willingness to allow history to remain isolated from the present, be it for personal reasons such as trauma or a desire to leave unconfronted the harder truths, such as personal proximity to wrongdoing. In “Goodbye to Some of That”, by Kamila Shamsie, dominance of narrative becomes a force that shapes the view of the present through literature, another form of silencing that indirectly impacts those living in the shadow of history.
The vignettes cast a broad net around the impact of war on culture and society, weaving together stories and personal reflections in a way that shrinks distance. At its heart lies the sense of questioning, the importance of looking back in order to look forward and to understand the role of events that, in some ways, can become common place in textbooks but continue to impact us to this day. There’s no magic or fantasy in these stories, but the role of time and space in both 1914 — Goodbye to All That and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights feels similar. They are walls that can be brought down quickly, easily, and necessarily in order to facilitate critical thought about the present — how we got here from there, and where we are going.
Bridey is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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