I Is Another
I agree with Richard Russo [“The Lives of Others,” Essay, June] when he says that “writers use people.” Writers of imaginative prose must be skilled at verisimilitude, not only in terms of social or political context but of human psychology, which they master by means of close observation. Russo gives examples from his own work of those he has used—a Belgian nun, his friend Jenny Boylan, even his own mother, whose secrets he revealed in his book Elsewhere.
Writers are always pushing the boundaries of this arrangement. And they do not always do so skillfully. The term “cultural appropriation” can be understood as a kind of defense mechanism employed by people tired of seeing their cultures inappropriately handled, unsubtly observed. The term was popularized in the academy as part of a postcolonial critique of Western expansionism, and the critique has often been a necessary one.
But writing fiction is an act of presumption. And as in all such matters, it’s the reader (any reader) who ultimately decides whether the writer has succeeded.
As Russo acknowledges, the voices and perspectives of minorities have historically been marginalized, considered not only less accessible but less interesting. White men’s stories, including those about others, are demonstrably more likely to be heard. (In Hollywood, it was until recently an unspoken rule that for a story of “the other” to gain mainstream traction, it needed a white interlocutor.)
Yet in considering this dilemma, Russo doesn’t have much to say about the obstacles presented by the literary marketplace for marginalized people who want to transcend their own identities on the page. The further a writer is from the center, the less imaginative license they tend to be granted. The irony is that we spend most of our lives looking to the center—learning the dominant class’s norms, practicing its values, reading its canon, speaking its idiom. These things are, for us, a second skin, not one we have to conjure only when we sit at our desks to write fiction.
Forest for the Trees
As a forester, I greatly admired Drew Pendergrass’s examination of Harvard Forest [“Ground Control,” Letter from Massachusetts, June]. But, like most climate-change narratives, it doesn’t quite put its finger on the root cause of the problem it describes. Pendergrass quotes someone as saying, “We knew that humans were in a major way disrupting the carbon cycle,” but he leaves the issue there. The explosion of the human population, and all it has meant, isn’t a subsidiary problem but the primary one.
Thomas J. Straka
I read with interest Pendergrass’s article about Harvard Forest, especially its consideration of the fate of the hemlock tree. For more than twenty years, I have done conservation work in upstate New York, where I have seen the near-total demise of the hemlock because of the invasive woolly adelgid (which hitchhikes on birds) and other insect infestations.
I have also seen the loss of 90 percent of our bats in under ten years, and the now likely extirpation of ash trees. I have seen novel fungi attack our snakes, amphibians, and turtles. The forest canopy and floor, the wetlands, and the lakes are all under attack largely because of human intervention. Many incredibly nuanced and utterly vital ecological interactions are put at risk—often before we fully understand or are even aware of them. Add to this the pressures of climate change and we face a profoundly uncertain future.
An Irrelevant Holiday
I was moved by Thomas Chatterton Williams’s harrowing coronavirus ordeal [“A Malevolent Holiday,” Easy Chair, June]. You can imagine my alarm when it seemed for a moment that the pandemic might prevent him from enjoying a bottle of wine over lunch with friends in Paris. Fortunately this did not turn out to be the case.
It was a breath of fresh air to hear the pandemic story of someone who does not need to go to work, who has a “nascent stockpile” of wine, and who has so many friends in such high places (he “texted another friend who had worked for President Emmanuel Macron” to get the early warning he needed to escape Paris before it was shut down). Nonetheless, the horror of Williams’s story was palpable. He describes the “overbooked compartment” aboard the train to join his friends for what must have been an excruciating banishment to the French seaside.
As if this suffering were not enough, he realizes on the train that his elegant “fourteen-year-old ficus tree,” known for its ability to spread “beautifully dappled light,” might not survive.
Williams beautifully weaves his experience of France’s quarantine into a reading of Camus’s novel The Plague. He concludes that the book provides “a considerable number of lessons,” one of which is “the permanence of our predicament.” I’m curious to know why Williams closes on such a pessimistic note.
“In order to understand the world,” Camus wrote elsewhere, “one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time.” We face a choice about how to perceive the despair with which we’ve been presented. We can be overcome by boredom and hopelessness; we can become “sleepwalkers,” in Camus’s phrase. Or we can elect to make this moment one of service.