Friday, August 18, 2017

Writing in the Dark: The Eclipse, Trump, and Fiction

Wikipedia says that on Monday, August 21, 2017, “a total solar eclipse will be visible in totality within a band across the entire contiguous United States. … The last time a total solar eclipse was visible across the entire contiguous United States was during the June 8, 1918 eclipse, and not since the February 1979 eclipse has a total eclipse been visible from the mainland United States.” Fourteen states will experience the total eclipse (Colorado’s not one of the 14) and at least 50 states will have some partial eclipse.

Thousands of Colorado residents are buying eclipse glasses and packing for a long weekend to Wyoming, Nebraska or Kansas. Hundreds, if not thousands, of lectures, parties, viewing events, picnics, and other gatherings will celebrate the heavenly event. The nationwide phenomenon has been in the headlines for weeks, the subject of talk shows and news specials. But not even a total eclipse of the sun can overshadow the Donald Trump crime wave.

The symbolism is too easy. Since January 20, 2017, the United States has already undergone a jarring series of eclipses. Diplomacy to rationality to decency to basic honesty, etc., etc., have been overwhelmed by the darkness of the Donald Trump presidency. The actual eclipse might be anti-climactic since we’ve endured one mind-numbing assault after another on much more than a few minutes of sunshine.

If I came across a Donald Trump character in a story, I’d say the author had ripped off the mad dreams of Edgar Allan Poe, Elmore Leonard or Neil Gaiman, or any other writer known for wild, crazy over-the-top characters caught up in frenetic situations who respond with evil mistakes. Characters who are laughable yet frightening, pitiful yet grotesque.

The cartoonish president trumpets imaginary feats – outright lies – in much the same way that the Dragon Queen of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen, has herself introduced to lesser beings: “Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.” From Trump’s own mouth we hear inflated numbers for his Inauguration Day crowd ("the biggest ever,") and a quote that never happened praising him for "the greatest speech ever made" to the Boy Scouts. He lies about silly things such as how many Time covers he's been on ("the all-time record in the history of Time magazine.) Or, more ominously, he warns about the fire and fury “like the world has never seen” that he will rain down on North Korea. The world laughs at him at the same time that we are shocked by his words and anxious about the power he wields and the actions he may take.

But I’m unfair to the Mother of Dragons. In addition to her quest for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms she is also trying to rid the world of slavery. Trump will never be accused of fighting on the side of slaves.

Trump is all too real, and his reality and the times we live in raise issues for all of us, including fiction writers, a group to which I claim an attachment. Those of us who create stories have to ask, in these days when an eclipse may be an omen of coming disaster, are we necessary or relevant? What is the role for fiction writers when the world has slipped into a nightmare more vivid than any Marvel Universe, bleaker than any noir tragedy?

I’ve been through the spectrum of possible responses. I’m working on a novel that I’ve approached in spurts of ambition and periods of avoidance. I write a few pages but then I am stopped by a smack in the face from the latest Trump apology for Nazis or an off-the-cuff tweet threatening nuclear annihilation.

I always return to writing. I remember that storytellers have existed since we gathered in caves and worshipped the stars; that people with imagination and creativity have sung the praises of heroes and martyrs even when the cause has been lost; that in the whirlpool of despair we turn to storytellers to give us strength, to remind us of our common humanity and our universal needs for community, respect, love, and compassion.

Storytellers preserve history, most especially in fiction. They keep the record intact. Storytellers restore the losers’ versions of what actually happened. And they entertain while doing it.  

Fiction stimulates and agitates. A good plot, intriguing characters, and clean crisp writing can free a mind, set it off on a search for more inspiration, and reveal unknown worlds. A good story grounds us.

And, yes, fiction is escapism – a break from the harsh strobe light of reality. Tales of romance, suspense, action, horror, speculation, human interaction, or detection act as pressure valves offering release. Some may think that in these times such a break is a luxury. I disagree. I have come to believe that a good book not only offers entertainment or relief but also a firmer grasp on the reality of the struggle that life can become and, in that way, arm us with intellectual and emotional weapons that are essential in that struggle.

It's been reported several times over the years that Trump does not read books.  His excuse often is that he doesn't have time. Or there is no need. He once bragged that he makes decisions based on his "knowledge" and common sense, and he denigrated  experts who studied the issues. Yet another reason to keep on writing.

With or without Trump, writers will continue to write. Artists will paint. Musicians will serenade. Some of the art will be political, some will avoid politics, and some simply will be created. Eventually, the present time will be judged, including the art of this time. Hope I’m included.

We will be measured on how we stood together against the encroaching eclipse of Trump and his goons and cronies. We may be acknowledged if we fought against threats to our neighbor’s peace and safety. We will be condemned if we stand back and do nothing.

I hope that in that future someone will say the writers of the United States, particularly writers of color, struck blows against racism and for justice in their own ways with their fantastic, marvelous, inspirational, jubilant tales, books, comics and poems. I also hope, and believe, that the future will say that Trump never could stop the storytellers.



Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles. His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book Award. My Bad: A Mile High Noir was published by Arte Público Press in 2016 and is a finalist for the Shamus Award in the Original Paperback category sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America

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