*caveat – I do quite a bit of thinking out loud in this post and don’t arrive anywhere elegant*
Out for dinner recently the table got to discussing the merits of fiction and nonfiction. I was (surprise) defending fiction for its imaginative invitation to empathy; my companion argued all fiction was telling the same story and that nonfiction did far better to educate. Our two friends weighed in on both sides. We started talking about Annabel by Kathleen Winter and the misrepresentation of intersexed people and their experiences. I suggested, naively, ‘but surely the character is meant to be a metaphor,’ to which my companion noted that surely individual lives ought not be used for literary purpose. The conversation moved elsewhere. I haven’t stopped thinking about the question.
It’s certainly a question I’ve considered in memoir and biography: what are the ethics of using the living in stories and in fiction? Of course in the case of Annabel, or the broader question we were discussing, it’s not a particular or ‘true’ individual being used for literary purpose, so much as an identity being used. In the case of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread it’s not an identity, but an illness: anorexia.
The novel follows two orphaned sisters Sadhana and Beena as they grow up in Montreal. Sadhana’s experience with an eating disorder shapes the sisters’ relationship as much as their loss of parents. Except the part I’m trying to figure out is the eating disorder functions both as a plot and character device, but also with thematic intent: what are we starving ourselves of when we live alone? (how) does art demand the diminishment of the self? how do we respond to circumstances beyond our control? The illness is misrepresented, even as it ‘gets right’ some aspects of the disease. But does it matter what it gets right (or not) about the real life illness? It’s not meant to be an educational, nonfiction exploration of the experience of an eating disorder; it’s meant to be an exploration of sibling love, control, secrecy and the limits of care. And it uses an eating disorder as a means to explore those questions. Perhaps the better question isn’t whether such representation and use should be allowed, but questions about how effectively and to what end.
As someone who experienced an eating disorder do I get to weigh in (ha) on these questions differently? (probably not) We should question how identities and experiences are being represented in fiction. These are not neutral activities; these representations shape how we understand and interact with others and our world. Where I think I come down is that the responsibility isn’t on the novel to get it right, so much as it is on us as readers to get the reading right. We need to read attuned to the fabrication, manipulation and use that character, plot and setting are being put. We need to be prompted to read a description of an eating disordered behaviour and ask ourselves (or others! or research!) whether such a behaviour might be ‘true,’ and if so, what does that mean to us? and if not, what does that mean to us (and the novel)?
There are many, many terrible novels that are terrible because they get so much of representing life, people and their experiences so incredibly wrong. Bone and Bread is not one of these novels. (I suppose I should actually comment on this book!). [The novel has strong and evocative description, a Can Lit insistence on its importance and Literary Merit (and this insistence has paid off: it is a contender for Canada Reads 2016!), a compelling family-drama plot. Its characters are a bit shallow and surprising in their actions. The Can Lit insistence is grating for the first forty page until you accept what’s happening to you and move on. Or perhaps the author relaxes and eases up on the similes (questions for another day).]
So yeah. I haven’t cracked this one. The novel I’ve figured out. Not so much these questions of the liberty afforded in fiction, the responsibility of readers and the literary consequences of misusing that freedom to invent, misrepresent or attempt to capture accurately. Good thing I have a book club tomorrow with my former students to figure this one out. Or you could tell me. Let me know your thoughts (as always).