Why are some readers and writers drawn to the fantastic? Is any work of fiction, even “realistic” fiction, truly realistic – and if not, then where and why do we draw boundaries between speculative and non-speculative stories?
I’ve been thinking about these questions lately, and I found some unexpected answers last week as I listened to author NoViolet Bulawayo speak about her new novel, Glory–a book that reimagines the 2017 ouster of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe using a cast of talking farm animals.
Aside from the obvious Orwellian influences in the book, I was surprised at Bulawayo’s fantastic choice, given the realistic slum settings depicted in her previous novel, the Booker Prize finalist We Need New Names. And I wasn’t alone, as one of the first questions posed to her during the talk was how she decided upon her unconventional approach.
“Animals promised a fresh and exciting way for me to take ownership of a story that was very public, that everyone else seemed to have taken ownership of,” Bulawayo replied. “They also gave me the distance from the story, room to create my own story and take it wherever I wanted.”
She added that although most people recognize the references to Orwell’s Animal Farm in her novel, it was just as deeply influenced by the traditional oral storytelling of her grandmother, who often used animals in her tales. Fittingly, Glory highlights the role of women who hold a society together during times of extreme violence and hardship despite their simultaneous devaluation or public erasure by that society.
Bulawayo’s words stuck with me for days after the talk (which you can view in its entirety here) because they can be applied not only to the realm of anthropomorphic animals as satire, but also to speculative fiction as a whole.
Let’s break down Bulawayo’s use of the word “distance.” She’s employing it on multiple levels, suggesting that a fantastic approach can be used to:
- Create a retelling of a known narrative from a different, under-represented point of view;
- Create space for an author to explore an event or problem free from the constraints of certain facts or a predetermined ending;
- Create a world that allows readers (and writers) to examine difficult subjects without the usual pain or baggage those subjects often bring with them.
“I tend to be drawn to depressing subjects, so humor is necessary for my work to be approachable even for me,” Bulawayo explained. “I insist on finding pleasure and joy when I write.”
Given the current state of the world—from the still-simmering pandemic to the recently ignited war in Ukraine, from longstanding racial injustice in the United States to worldwide environmental degradation — any method that can extend our emotional bandwidth seems like a good idea to me. Like the proverbial fist clad in velvet, speculative stories can help readers embrace tough subjects they might otherwise tune out. Or better yet, help us ponder important problems without the usual preconceptions.
I can’t think of anything more important for any work of fiction, speculative or otherwise, to accomplish than that.