The expectation after my post last week was that this would be about some of the rest of my University of Edinburgh trip, but I’ve found myself in the middle of a labour action by the McMaster teaching assistants this week. I’m doing my twenty hours per week on the picket lines, though despite the university administration’s stonewalling, I don’t think the strike will last very long. This is more of a tangent about my art and the ideas that motivate it than the strike itself, which is being covered to death.
When I talk to people in cars giving them news about the negotiations and what our demands are, one piece of information that I’ve found especially compels them is the amount of money that TAs with families of their own have to pay for their family-rate health insurance. It’s too high, and TAs’ pay scales are mediocre enough without having these expenses on top of it. I can afford it, but I have no dependents, cheap rent, and no real expenses other than basic life.
So even though I’m on the picket lines to help the TAs who need help more than I do, I can’t help but feel disingenuous precisely because I’m fine. Who am I to speak for people in genuine financial trouble? Who am I to speak for people who go to sleep every night wondering if they’ll be able to feed their kids the next day, or next week? It’s condescending for a comfortable person to speak for someone in that situation.
Tonight, I’ve been listening to a free mixtape K’Naan (in my view probably the best rapper in Canada) and J.Period made, The Messengers. It’s a series of remixes of songs by Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan, interspersed with K’Naan discussing the role these artists played in his life, and in the political, social, and personal movements they sparked at the height of their careers. I downloaded it a while before I left for Edinburgh, and its music has stuck with me for weeks. K’Naan has crafted these remixes into duets, linking the African democracy movements, global anti-poverty activism, and the civil rights movements of the twentieth century to the political conflicts of the current time.
Among of the most affecting and powerful songs are a duet on “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” where Dylan’s verses alternate with K’Naan’s raps about global poverty, African gangsterism, and endless cycles of violence; and his remix of Bob Marley’s “Jonny Was a Good Man,” where K’Naan creates new verses between Marley’s chorus, describing a traumatized Iraq veteran who refuses to follow his orders and return to yet another tour, including graphic scenes of children mutilated and killed by the bombing raids of the soldier’s own army.
K’Naan grew up in Somalia through the collapse of the government. He fell in with gangster life in Baltimore, and only survived after the American INS chased his family to Toronto, where he discovered his musical talent. He can tell these stories because these are stories of genuine violence and hardship that he overcame. As a novelist, I want to write about these stories: these are the stories that matter today. Just as Bolaño can write about the crimes of the Latin American dictators because he lived there, and fled from there; just as K’Naan can write about the violence of Somalia because he lived that violent life: these are the stories of our era.
Contrast this to me. I’m a white male from an upper middle class background. The only stories that I can legitimately write about are breakups and love stories, tales of other rich white people who don’t get what they want. This is the situation of a great many artists in the West who want to tell important stories about the violence and injustice of our world. But our affluent lives insulate us from this injustice: we don’t have the rights to tell stories that really matter. The only pain in our lives comes from breakups; we know nothing of violence. I would be condescending to try to tell these stories, and I would probably get it all wrong precisely because I haven’t lived it.
I understood my solution as I wrote my first novel, A Small Man’s Town, my book about Newfoundland. My characters, especially in their youth as leftist student activists, interacted with people from genuinely violent regions like Palestine and Colombia. And I worked out how a person like me, who has never known violence or had to overcome it, can write about that violence. The very quest to avoid condescension itself, striving to escape being part of the problem, straining against the indifference that comes with wealth, is the awakening political consciousness of the wealthy.
It’s a kind of political shame that we have lived for so long without knowledge of our luck, and our unwitting roles in the exploitation of others. The political task of the affluent in this world is to become mindful of the suffering of others, and accept that this cannot be our world. I don’t think I’m articulating this concept well, but I want at least to try, to make one first attempt to understand this political consciousness the longs for redemption for his mindlessness to suffering, yet accepts that it is impossible.