Ben Winters is the author of nine novels, including most recently the New York Times bestselling Underground Airlines. He recently edited Slate’s Trump Story Project. Maverick blog talked to him about writing and #resisting.
Why did you coordinate Slate’s Trump Story anthology?
I was very struck, in the immediate aftermath of the election, not just by how distressing and scary I found the result, but also how surreal it seemed. As someone who has read a good deal of “alternate history” novels, and recently written one, it seemed as if we had entered the plot of one of these novels: a pretend-rich cartoon blowhard with no political experience and authoritarian tendencies is elected president of the world’s oldest democracy. How could this be? And what would happen next?
I had an urge to write about it, and I imagined a lot of other writers did too. So I reached out to Slate and basically pitched them this idea: let’s gather up some authors, especially folks who specialise in imagining strange and unusual worlds, and see what light they might be able to shed on what happens next.
What’s the role of fiction, and art more generally, in the current political climate?
Well, you know, it’s vital. When we read a great book, or poem, or (yes) watch a great TV show, or stand in the presence of a great painting or sculpture, the power we feel is the power of empathy; of connection with another person’s humanity; of our connection to other people, far away in space and time. The current political climate is one of fear and anger and intimidation; art, good art, real art, reminds us of the value of trying to understand other people, instead of fearing them.
Where do you come down on the own voice Vs cultural appropriation debate?
I can summarise my POV on this matter thusly: write what you want, but don’t be an asshole.
Every author has the right to create whatever characters and whatever stories they are moved to create. However! Along with that right comes a responsibility to do so with respect and understanding; a responsibility to tread carefully, and do your research, and be honest with yourself about what you don’t know; a responsibility to learn as you write, and be thoughtful as you write, and to put all of that learning and thoughtfulness into your world and your characters.
How can the political trend of populism co-exist with creative, independent thinking?
I think the political trend of populism (and its even uglier cousins, nationalism and anti-globalism) will encourage, as it always does, a counter-trend of fierce and independent antiauthoritarian political and artistic expression. Already, the administration a couple months old, we are seeing aggressive independent journalism that refuses to accept brute statements of false facts; we are seeing unrelenting satire on SNL and the nightly talk shows; and (humbly) we are seeing fiction of the sort I’ve collected for Slate. And there will be more—much more, I’m sure.
How can we separate genuine concerns (about terrorism, for example) from humanitarian issues like the refugee crisis?
The same way that thoughtful politicians and citizens have always done so: by actually looking to facts and reasoned argument, instead of relying on base instincts to justify stupid, inhumane policies. To take your example, zero percent of terrorist attacks on American soil have been committed by refugees. Any possible justification for slashing the already-small numbers of refugees let into the US annually must begin from that fact. And that’s the key word: facts. My realm is fiction, but I know—as all thoughtful people know—that when we allow our political (and personal) decision making to be governed by emotions and “feelings” rather than by facts and objective truth, we’re sunk.
Andrea Jones is a British journalist and author. Her novel Offshore is available on Amazon from April 24th. Read, review, and #resist.