Here I am. That’s my short answer to the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s rhetorical question the other day in The Guardian. Here I am, an American, living in America, writing about America’s involvement – as well as my own – in Pakistan, and trying to catch the passing attention of some measurable fraction of the great distracted American public.
Shamsie’s words, at the tail end of a profile pegged on the release of her latest novel, were understandably exasperated. But they were also exasperating, because her question was used as the article’s attention-grabbing headline – it certainly grabbed my attention – and because, well, here I am.
It’s not about me, of course; I’m not saying that Kamila Shamsie should promote or even necessarily notice my writing in particular. But if someone like her is going to say things like what she said to The Guardian, then it’s both fair and, I hope, helpful for someone like me to point out that for her to paint with such a broad brush is both unfair and unhelpful.
What she said was: “I am deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It’s a completely shocking failure, not of any individual writer … but it’s the strangest thing to look around and say, ‘Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?’ At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.”
The phrase “not of any individual writer” functions as a caveat, but otherwise her claims are un-nuanced to the point of being aggressively unequivocal: “total failure to engage … completely shocking failure.” I share Shamsie’s dismay, but I think it’s important to retort to her that it’s easier for a Pakistani writer living in London on a British passport to prescribe engagement with the American empire, than it is for an American writer living in America to practice it.
I’m not excusing anyone’s failure to engage, but several points need to be made. One is that America’s empire is not only global but also internal, and there are many examples of heroic American writers engaging with that, from Larry McMurtry to Octavia Butler to the great Peter Matthiessen, who just passed away at age 86. Two of Matthiessen’s most powerful testaments are the great Shadow Country trilogy, about the colonization of Florida, and the nonfiction feat of literary courage In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the notorious persecution of the Native American activist Leonard Peltier, the publication of which was suppressed for some years by legal action.
Another point is that the American public is supremely difficult to interest in anything, much less to mobilize. This profoundly frustrating phenomenon is easy to disdain or rage against, less easy to engage or challenge in any sustained or effective way. It’s like wrestling with a giant ameba. In fairness to Shamsie, this might be what she was getting at in saying that “At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.” It’s like the proverbial tree falling in a forest: If an American writer engages with the American empire, but no American readers read it, is the writer still engaging with the empire?
The American public’s chronic disengagement is a big part of what any American writer is up against. I deal with it myself, from the woman in the back of the room at a church in Seattle who – bless her heart – raised her hand to ask, “What’s a drone attack?” to some guy named Earl who, reviewing my book Home Free: An American Road Trip on Goodreads, quite inaccurately complained that I did not seek out white people and/or Americans with right-wing views: “the people that Mr. Casey talks to are either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” It’s apparent from internal evidence that Earl did actually read my book, which I appreciate, but his review is a telling confirmation of George Orwell’s observation that reviewers will find bogus literary excuses to dismiss books that challenge their ideological predilections.
But it’s important for us pointy-headed coastal and transatlantic types not simply to write off Middle America as a lost cause. This is personal to me, because Middle America (small-town Wisconsin) is where I come from. It’s also a big part of the reason that, having engaged at book length with the American empire in Pakistan and Haiti, I left the comfy liberal enclave of Seattle, where I live, to spend 3 1/2 months driving all around Middle America during the 2012 election season.
Finally, Shamsie’s privileging of fiction over nonfiction needs to be challenged. “I don’t think there’s anything like the novel for empathy,” she told The Guardian. “… If you write non-fiction it’s as though you are from the outside looking at something. But if you write fiction, you are behind someone’s eyes looking out, and that’s the difference.” Shamsie is a veteran novelist, and I’ve never seriously attempted to write fiction, but I don’t buy it. There’s a whiff of condescension in the claim, as if by definition nonfiction cannot be as serious or deeply engaged as fiction. As a veteran traveler, reporter, and writer of engaged nonfiction, I endorse Norman Mailer’s much subtler and truer claim that “there’s no clear dividing-line between experience and imagination.” For proof, and indeed for a supreme instance of an American writer’s engagement with the American empire, one need look no further than Mailer’s own nonfiction masterpiece The Armies of the Night.
Granted, that book was published 46 years and several wars ago. Which supports the point of Shamsie’s question: Where are the equivalent American books today? My point is that such books do exist, but it’s perpetually difficult for any writer to slip any message or story that Americans don’t already want to hear past the cacophony of American culture and through the fetid miasma of American nationalist pieties. And browbeating doesn’t work; I’ve tried it.
And “rage” – admittedly not Shamsie’s word but interviewer Natalie Hanman’s – is less useful than candor. It’s both possible and desirable, even necessary, to be at once candid and calm. This is why – if I may end as I began, on a self-congratulatory note – The Daily Telegraph‘s Alex Spillius identified the true subversive quality of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan (which I’m just now republishing in an updated 10th-anniversary edition): “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.”
Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004; updated 10th-anniversary edition 2014), Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012).