“Fiction’s about what it means to be a fucking human being.” –David Foster Wallace
At the same time my good friend was sentenced to three years in a penitentiary, I moved off the North American road system, to Unalakleet, AK. This is similar to the plight of the narrator in my novel Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same, and yet, I hardly made the personal connection when writing it. I thought I was writing the book to better understand the humanity behind imprisonment—how it affects the inmate and his/her family. And I was. But recently, while flipping the pages to find something to read at upcoming events, I saw another reason for writing the novel. I think I was trying to save my friend, using a pen instead of a megaphone. And by leaving Minneapolis I felt like I failed him.
Angela Y. Davis, in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? argues that “Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.” It’s important that we question everything, (right?) politically and socially, including prisons. But how often do you hear a guy on the street corner with a megaphone yelling “Close the prisons!”? It seems we generally don’t question things until they are personal. I didn’t question prisons until I was passing my ID through a slot and walking through magnetically sealed doors and sitting at a booth to talk to the same person I had shared nachos with a few weeks earlier. We see this every day. We see authors write the same memoir over and over, and authors write the same characters over and over. And then I wondered if I was doing the same. Was I only expressing an interest in issues that I had experienced firsthand? It seemed to be the case with my novel. Prison, personal. Spirituality, personal. Mental illness, personal. Rural Alaska, personal.
But when I think about it, I hope that’s not the case. I don’t think it is. Not for most of us, anyway. Of course nobody is perfectly compassionate, but many of us have baked bread for a friend who lost her job, or driven an extra hour to give a family member a ride, or threw in fifty bucks to a local youth group fundraiser. Even if we had never lost a job or waited for a bus or went to church, we felt empathy for those who had.
And I look at some of the best-selling contemporary novels lined up on my bookshelf—Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich, What is the What by Dave Eggers, Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips. These all, in a way, personalized an issue or two for me that I hadn’t experienced. These novels, in a way, changed my life. So maybe the easy answer is that stories, explicitly and implicitly, transform the personal into the communal.
So by writing about an ex-gangbanger whose older brother is locked up for life, maybe I was, on some level, trying to save my friend. And sure, maybe I was trying to convince the reader to care. But I didn’t write the story with the same motivation that I have for reading stories. I wrote the novel to convince myself to care, over and over, edit after edit. I wrote it to feel this life more fully. I wrote it, standing in front of a mirror with a megaphone, paraphrasing David Foster Wallace, “This is what it’s like to be a fucking human being.”
"Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same" by Mattox Roesch is available at the Bookmark at the U and at our online fulfillment partner, Powell's Books, and wherever great books are sold.