TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION
I have rented a book on tape from the library. I thought it would be nice, since I had a lot of housework to do, to listen to a story. I found one by Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth. It is a really good recording; they even gave a little introduction to the book before they started.
It turns out that Ellison had been working on this book for 40 years, and had not finished it at the time of his death. I read his fabulous novel, The Invisible Man. If you haven’t read it, it is a really good treatment of race relations and experience in the 60s.
I wondered about why he would have taken 40 years, and not finished Juneteenth. It seemed like he might have finished it a long time ago, and published it during his lifetime.
But then I began to think about what The Invisible Man was about, and I thought…Hmm…It could be scary to write a book that other people don’t like.
I remembered Martin Luther King Jr. I remembered Malcolm X. They were killed for talking about things that other people didn’t like. And they are not the only examples.
But this is only a book. Why would anyone be scared of a book?
Here is something Joseph Conrad wrote:
Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on the second-hand impression. Thus, fiction is nearer truth. But let that pass. A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.
Books can be more powerful than real life, sometimes. They focus your attention on the details that are important, at least, the ones deemed important to the message.
Stories, writing, is powerful, and can move people and shape culture. What if some of those people are extremely unwilling to be moved? Books can be revolutionary, and in revolution, there are casualties.
I remember the stories of Salman Rushdie, after he wrote the Satanic Verses. It was a book that raised a question about Islamic doctrine, and he suffered for it. His life was threatened; he had to go into hiding. He survived all the threats, but his wife couldn’t take it anymore and left him.
What about Galileo? He wrote a revolutionary book about science, and was imprisoned.
I don’t know why Ralph Ellison waited to publish Juneteenth. Maybe he just was being a perfectionist. But just thinking about it, makes me realize again that the power of a book, to change the life of many people or just one, is not insignificant.