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Original Essays

Fiction in the Age of Poverty

by Laila Lalami
  1. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
    $5.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Lalami's story lines are evocative, her characters arresting, the settings vivid, and her voice pure and penetrating..." Booklist

    "With spare prose and superb characterization, these tales of determined struggle command fierce credibility and irresistible empathy....This is an unexpected and enthralling read from a promising new voice." Boldtype

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, there's been much talk in the literary community about the state of the novel. Some, like Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul, simply declared it dead, incapable of addressing our new concerns in the age of terrorism. Others, like critic Jason Cowley, argued that it was as vital now, "in this time of profound political crisis," as it has ever been. Still others spoke of ways in which novelists could help us make sense of a "new reality." When Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was published earlier this year, it was greeted with great fanfare as the first American novel to deal with this new reality. A few weeks later, Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days was released. It's a triptych of a novel and it devotes a full section to a twenty-first century forensic psychologist who identifies potential terrorists. No doubt other works of fiction that similarly engage this altered country will follow.

So there is a prevailing sense that there are two kinds of fiction, written before and after 9/11. Four years after the terrorist attacks, we are awakening to a new kind of tragedy: Hurricane Katrina, which so devastated the city of New Orleans. And while the reaction to the attacks was one of unity, both in horror at the act and in sorrow for the victims, Katrina gave rise to surprising reactions. The Bush Administration's ineffectual response to the disaster is certainly one of them, but the other, more shocking response was the chorus of people who asked of the thousands stranded in New Orleans' Convention Center: "Why didn't they leave?" To these armchair inquisitors, it seemed to come as news that there are people in America who do not own cars or cannot afford a tank of gas on the 28th of the month; that a quarter of New Orleans' residents, and half of its children, live below the poverty line; and that, left with no other choices, the poor had to do as they were told — wait for help.

The reasons for this blame-the-victim mentality are no doubt varied, but among them one must surely acknowledge that American culture has become obsessed with the rich. Tabloids hound celebrity debutantes and teenyboppers as they shop for clothes on Rodeo Drive or Park Avenue. Radio commentators wonder whether a millionaire baseball player will take a competing team's offer or show loyalty to his fans by staying. Some of the most popular websites on the Internet are gossip blogs that closely track the love life of leading actors, the wives they left, and the girlfriends they're currently courting. MTV has a new show solely devoted to spoiled teenagers throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars on their "sweet sixteen" parties. (And, Lord help me, why do I even know about this?)

Our government — President, Vice President, House Majority and Minority leaders, and a great many Senators and Representatives — is made up of rich people. Unsurprisingly, one of the Bush administration's biggest concerns appears to be the repeal of the estate tax, a levy that affects only 1.2% of the richest Americans. The 12% of Americans who live below the poverty line, however, are not so high on the agenda. They can't afford the right lobbyists.

For those who are not rich, the media offer the option of focusing on becoming rich. Reality TV gives contestants the chance to become millionaires by answering trivia questions, singing songs, dating someone, doing standup, losing weight, or performing acts of increasingly difficult or humiliating physical prowess. Lulled by dreams of fat bank accounts and thirty-foot yachts, the country is falling asleep.

All the while, poverty remains unspoken. That is, until something as horrific as Hurricane Katrina makes it news. But poverty is more than just news — it's a fact of life. Of the seventeen leading industrial nations, the United States has the largest percentage of its population in poverty. Even more troubling is the fact that the number of poor people in America has risen steadily for the last four years.

Like terror, poverty is a global phenomenon. According to the United Nations, one out of every six human beings lives on less than a dollar per day. Nearly half the world's population lacks basic sanitation, and malnutrition remains a leading cause of death for six million children every year. In Morocco, where I was born and raised, poverty affects 20% of the population. Unemployment is very high and it disproportionately affects the young, regardless of education level. It is an all too common experience in cities like Casablanca or Rabat or Marrakech to walk down the street and see cafés packed with jobless university graduates. The solution? Increasingly it seems to be immigration. A favorite joke among school kids in Morocco is this: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" "An immigrant." Yet for every immigrant, legal or illegal, who makes it, a hundred others stay home, making do with whatever they have.

There can be no doubt that terrorism is a threat to Americans as well as to millions around the world. But, as Hurricane Katrina has shown, poverty is as much, if not a greater threat. And yet, despite the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots that affects the entire world, where is the talk of the state of fiction in the age of poverty? Where are the novels that address class divides? Why aren't people wondering whether fiction can truly reflect a reality where the richest monopolize media attention while the poorest are seen only in times of crises?

Poverty has receded from the list of popular themes of the American novel. No longer do we have a John Steinbeck, a Richard Wright, a Theodore Dreiser, or a Zora Neale Hurston writing about the working poor. Who today would write that "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage"? It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in the last decade, American fiction has been fixated on the middle and upper classes. The suburban novel dramatized their love affairs, their existential crises, and their boredom with a life of carpools. (The Ice Storm, Little Children.) The chick-lit novel enjoyed tremendous popularity by featuring women who worry about their weight, their shoes, and dating the right man. (The Devil Wears Prada, Bergdorf Blondes.) The campus novel brought us academics' anxieties over racial discrimination or tenure or old age. (The Human Stain, Wonder Boys.) Meanwhile, the poor were stuck with silent or supporting roles. Something very tangible happened to American protagonists in the last ten years. Unlike a great many of their fellow countrymen, they stopped worrying about making rent.

I should make it clear that I do not mean to disparage any of these novels, which, for the most part, are fine works of literature. Nor am I suggesting that novels should be turned into political tracts. No one is interested in reading books that are merely didactic pieces of fiction. Rather, I'm simply curious about the kinds of characters novelists use to populate their novels and the kinds of dilemmas with which they are faced, and I wonder why there has been such a shift in fiction over the last decade.

Maybe publishers are so busy churning out biographies and children's books "written" by celebrities that they have no time for books that address as unpopular a subject as the poor. Or maybe, just as America has undoubtedly changed over the last decade, so have its writers. The much-maligned MFA programs, which graduate many of this country's writers, can cost as much as $70,000 for a two-year course of study. One wonders how many of the poor can afford to spend that kind of money in writing school. Or maybe the trouble is that America sees itself as a classless society. We enjoy being able to shoot off an email to the President, we like seeing rich people walk around in dirty cutoff jeans, we love seeing millionaires struggling to lose weight. To paraphrase a popular tabloid, we have come to believe that "the rich, they're just like us!" And yet, with so many people living in poverty, this simply isn't the case.

This isn't to say that one can't find contemporary American novels that openly dramatize the lives of the poor. Writers of color, in particular, have created enduring characters who also happen to live in poverty. (The works of Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, and others are some examples.) But, despite these successes, poverty has curiously disappeared from the literary conversation. Now, after Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the time has come to engage it again. spacer

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