In a 2005 interview with Salman Rushdie, interviewer Jack Livings of The Paris Review asked a seemingly simple question of the author: “Could you possibly write an apolitical book?” Rushdie, known for his novels with overtly political themes, replied that he had “great interest in it,” using the example of Jane Austen, whom he said could “explain the lives of her characters without a reference to the public sphere.”
Rushdie’s answer, of course, begs the following question: What makes something political? In the introduction of her recent anthology, Everything Is So Political: A Collection of a Short Fiction by Canadian Writers, editor Sandra McIntyre argues that everything is political. In fact, everything isn’t just political; it’s so political, she says, borrowing lyrics from a Spirit of the West song.
Considering only the public sphere to be political is a “too-narrow and so literal view,” writes McIntyre in the book’s introduction. Using the works of Jane Austen as an example, she responds to Rushdie’s comments, reminding readers that the role of women and the property laws that discriminated against them were crucial, and very political, parts of Austen’s novels.
“We know that everything is political and that political means and has always meant more than ‘government, politicians, and the state:’ it means who we know, who we have sex with, what we eat or how hungry we are, where we shop, even what words we use,” writes McIntyre. This belief was the catalyst for Everything Is So Political, a collection of 20 contemporary short fiction stories by writers from all over Canada.
Each of the stories gathered by McIntyre for this collection is thought provoking and unique, taking readers across the country, around the world and even forward and back in time. The anthology tackles many topics, among them, environmentalism, Aboriginal rights, terrorism and war.
Some of the collection’s stories are overtly political, such as Matthew R. Loney’s “From the Lookout There Are Trees,” which is set against unrest in Myanmar. But others, such as “Lost-wax Casting” by Newfoundland’s Michelle Butler Hallett, are subtly political, bringing readers inside grimy bars or modern homes, proving that the personal can be just as political.
The breadth of topics, and the various interpretations of what constitutes political, results in a diverse collection that keeps readers on their toes.
Among the anthology’s most memorable stories are those set against the backdrop of politically turbulent times, particularly Sherveen Ashtari’s “Above Her Shook the Starry Lights,” in which an Iranian prisoner, who was “born a captive,” reflects on her life and finds peace, while awaiting the death penalty.
However, equally as memorable, other stories, such as Ethan Canter’s “The Briefcase,” are set outside the public sphere, and it is the relationship between characters, and the often-complex choices they make, that are political.
When selecting stories for the anthology, McIntyre noted reluctance from some authors to be labelled as a political writer, proving that the marriage between politics and art can be a turbulent one. While some writers embrace the moniker, others worry that narrative and character must suffer in order for a story to be political.
“Is there something distasteful, unsophisticated, juvenile or offensive about the marriage of art and politics?” asks McIntyre rhetorically. “Some argue that writing with a political agenda makes for bad writing, but writing with any sort of agenda — aesthetic, personal, spiritual — can weaken a work and yet writers do it successfully all the time,” she continues.
The greatest achievement of Everything Is So Political is proving that the marriage of art and politics can be anything but distasteful, unsophisticated, juvenile or offensive. In fact, rather than seeming to boast an agenda, these stories are harrowing, challenging, intelligent and, at times, even entertaining.
It is the stories that at first glance seem the simplest — such as “Star Spinning” by high-school teacher Catherine Brunet, which explores the relationships between a teacher and her First Nations students — that especially shine, proving that even the tiniest decisions we make and the relationships we form are all, in their own way, so political.
Jessica is a graduate from Carleton University’s School of Journalism, where she fell in love with feature writing and independent media. She joined rabble as an intern in 2006 and she has also been published in newspapers and magazines in Ottawa and across the GTA. She edits children’s books by day and enjoys live music, good books and cozy restaurants by night.