Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.
“Reading Lolita in Teheran”, Azar Nafisi
Literature has always been more than entertainment. Through novels, authors can criticize the status quo, argue against hegemonic forces in society, and resist power. Metaphors and fiction often help writers criticize society in nuanced and subtle ways. Alessandro Manzoni, the famous Italian writer from the 19th Century, centered his historical novel, The Betrothed, around the tyranny of a local lord against two young peasants. A famous passage of the book sees Renzo, the main character, carrying four chickens for a lawyer that might help him. Instead of rebelling against Renzo, who holds them by the paws, the chickens fight and peck each other. The image conceals a social critique: instead of collectively fighting against the oppressor, disadvantaged people often argue with each other. The passage implicitly calls for Italians to rebel against the Austrians, who ruled North Italy at the time.
Manzoni’s novel is just one example of how literature can, implicitly or explicitly, advocate for social change. Nick Couldry, in his book Why Voice Matters (2010), says that articulating narratives is part of human experience. Certain voices in neoliberal societies are privileged over others. Voices have the potential of becoming resistive and challenge the status quo. Literature is a powerful way to articulate voices, make social commentaries, and advocate for change through personal narratives. In the last decades, the Internet enhanced this potential of literature, letting authors use the digital space to engage with their readers. Some authors are able, in this way, to blur the boundaries between literature, journalism and academia. They articulate powerful opinions about the role of religion in society, both resisting or promoting certain types of spirituality.
A famous literary voice is that of the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi. Her autobiographical novel Reading Lolita in Teheran (1997) is a commentary on Iranian society during the Revolution. Nafisi uses literature to challenge the religious and political impositions of the Islamic Republic. Refusing to wear a veil, Nafisi is banned from the university but continues to hold seminars in her apartment with a group of female students. Through the study of Western novels that the state censored, such as Nabokov’s Lolita, the group articulates resistive practices and discusses feminism, freedom and democracy. The book underlines the power of literature for human liberation. Religion is an important, implicit element of the book: Nafisi does not critique Islam per se, but rather a political use of religion that oppresses citizens, specifically women.
Another important literary voice is that of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her first novel Purple Hibiscus (2003), the Nigerian author describes the life of a wealthy family in her country. The book operates as a commentary on post colonialism, especially in relation to Catholicism. The abusive father of the family rejects the traditions of his country after being educated by Western missionaries. Adichie does not criticize Catholicism per se, but rather a type of religious fanatism that leads to physical and physiological violence. Adichie implicitly criticizes the forced adaptation of a Western religion to Africa, but she also portrays positive Catholic figures, such as the Nigerian priest Father Amadi, who are able to adapt spiritual precepts to the local culture.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Turkish author Elif Shafak’s novels are another examples of how literature can articulate voices of social critique. The book The Bastard of Istanbul (2006), describes the friendship between two teenage girls, a Turkish and an Armenian-American, and comments on the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian genocide. While the book is fictional, the social commentary it encloses is so powerful that Shafak was sued for “Insulting Turkishness” through the words of some of her characters. In this novel, religion is important, as well. The Turkish family described in the novel, interestingly composed exclusively by women, includes different types of spirituality. From the refusal of Islam of certain characters, to the devotion to Islam of certain others, and the intertwinement between institutional and traditional religious practices, religion is a constant theme of the book.
There are many other authors that through their novels articulate portrayals of society and make readers reflect on certain social aspects of a given context. Among others, Jhumpa Lahiri describes the life in-between the Indian and the American culture in her novel The Namesake (2003); Khaled Hosseini describes the Afghanistan society through the war in The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007); Jung Chang, in Wild Swans (1991), narrates the lives of three generations of women in China before and during Mao’s regime. These are only some examples, as in Manzoni’s passage above, of how voices of critique can be found in literature.
Novels have always been remediated, through plays, movies and also the engagement of readers . Through book clubs, people are able to discuss literature and put it in connection with the society they know, as Nafisi did in Teheran with her students. This character of literature is enhanced through the Internet, a space for literature’s remediation and for readers to express their creativity and ideas. The digital space allows for interactions with readers, and authors can become more engaged as commentators of their society. The Internet is central to articulating the role of the writer as an intellectual.
Nafisi, Adichie and Shafak all write newspapers articles and online commentaries on a number of social issues, which are not necessarily linked to their novels. All the three authors, for example, have Twitter accounts that they use to retweet and to comment on news (here: Azar Nafisi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elif Shafak), as well as websites or blogs. In doing so, they implicitly define the role of the Internet to disseminate ideas and articulate cultural identities. Nafisi, for example, describes the role of literature as entertainment and a resistive practice in her blog and employs novels to critique certain aspects of the U.S., where she currently lives and teaches. The commentary on the U.S. is found in her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination (2014). Adichie often comments on religion, politics and society on a number of Internet outlets. In one article, published in The Atlantic, she expresses her admiration for Pope Francis because he had “changed the tone of the Church.” Adichie describes Catholicism in Nigeria as a religion that lost some of its spiritual character and focuses only on practices and duties, but she welcomes the new attitude of Pope Francis. The centrality of the Internet for Adichie is described in the novel Americanah (2013), where Ifemelu, a Nigerian who lives in the U.S., elaborates her cultural identity as black woman in a blog. The fictional character gave birth to a real blog, “The Small Redemptions of Lagos,” where Adichie discusses a number of political and religious issues. In Shafak’s novels, Internet has an important role, as well. The Armenian-American character of The Bastard of Istanbul, Armanoush, finds in the Internet the only space where she can connect with other people with her same background and discuss her cultural in-between-ness. Similar to the other authors, Shafak is active in writing articles about religion, politics and society, commenting for example on the recent Turkish bombing.
These three women, while very different for their backgrounds and writing styles, have some traits in common. They all live in-between Western and non-Western countries, and they all have working experience in academia in the U.S. Therefore, they comment on their own countries and they articulate resistive identities that are in-between different cultures. While writing mainly fiction, they reveal a deep knowledge of socio-political global issues, especially in regards to gender, race, and social justice. Religion is a prominent topic of the novels, seen as either a form of institutional oppression or a liberating force that enables the characters to better articulate their culture. Religion is a fundamental characteristic of identities in a global perspective. Through the Internet, Nafisi, Adichie and Shafak articulate voices of critique and resistance in a powerful and straightforward way. They are complex and engaged intellectuals, because of their ideas and the way they express them: literature. In a Ted Talk, Adichie says that “Stories can be used to empower and humanize.” The Internet has become a space where writers can tell more stories, and use these stories to describe and comment on the societies in which they live.
Elif Shafak sums up this potential of resistance, remediation and social critique of literature even more potently:
We tend to form clusters based on similarity, and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people. In my opinion, one way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see.