How should we write in a time of unmitigated disaster?
(From the Lit Hub. Link to the complete article given below)
Toni Morrison began her Nobel lecture with a parable:
Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise . . . One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it’s living or dead.” The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter. Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive but what I do know is that it’s in your hands. It’s in your hands.”
The bird in the story represents the vulnerability and precariousness of life, as Morrison herself suggests, but it also stands for language. As writers, language is that thing in our hands. This is all we can be certain of: not whether the way we use language speaks to others or not, nor whether our work is good or necessary, living or dead, but only that we have language, that we hold it. Language is there for us; it’s in our hands.
Late one Sunday in 2014, I was wrapping mugs on my living room floor. I was preparing to move to my tenth share house in as many years when something on the news caught my attention. A young asylum seeker, not yet 30, had set fire to himself in suburban Geelong. His name was Leo Seemanpillai. A nurse described seeing black smoke rising into the air and a pile of clothes next to a mailbox, still on fire.