The first chair belongs to Teju Cole, whose recent series of tweets, “Seven Short Stories about Drones,” prompted all the talking. Cole altered the first lines of seven famous novels—Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Wolf, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ulysses by James Joyce, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellision, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and The Stranger by Albert Camus—to involve drones. Second goes to Zach Beachamp, whose response to Cole questioned the usefulness of fiction for understanding drones, or “argument about politics and philosophy” at all, for that matter. Third, of course, goes to Adam, who made the point—and it’s a good one—that the drone is already a fictional construct:
“We have yet to fully deal with our present concept drones as fiction, and therefore we are unable to deal with the present and future of UAVs in the world as fact.”
Yes, and we need fiction to deal with something else: not only the reality of UAVs, but the reality of their consequences. The reality of the lives they destroy.
It might sound strange to turn to fiction for the sake of reality, but fiction isn’t only, as Beachamp claims, “about creating a new [world]”. J. K. Rowling, who should know a thing or two about created worlds and harsh realities, had this to say, and as both a fiction fanatic and an ardent leftist, it strikes me as very true:
Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
Reading novels is what taught me, more than any political argument or journalistic observation, that the world was just as alive for other people as it was for me. As a teen, I could not know what even my dearest loved ones were feeling, but I could pick up The Stranger and follow every twist of Meursault’s mental journey. If the characters on the pages we read in high school had inner lives as rich as mine, and they were themselves the creations of another person, then all the people in the world—whose lives I could not read—must also be thinking wonders.
The political implications of this fictive lesson are perfectly descripted in—what else?—a novel by Chris Bachelder called U.S.! In his story, a young boy named Stephen volunteers to organize the Greenville Anti-Socialist League Fourth of July Book Burning. The night before the event, Stephen gets a hold of one of the books he is supposed to burn, which happens to be a social-realist novel about outsourcing, and stays up all night reading it. The book upends his life. Not even the box fan in the window looks the same to him the next day:
If someone had asked him yesterday who made that box fan, he would have said that a person made it. Of course a person made it. It was not harvested from the earth; it was not born of another box fan. And yet he hadn’t understood the answer—a person—as he understood it today. […] A person with secret things hidden in the small room he shared with all the other persons, and whose life—whose capacity for joy and pain—was fully as large and wondrous as Stephen’s. A person made that box fan, even though he would rather not have made that box fan.
It is this full understanding of personhood that only fiction can provide, and that is why we need fiction about the drone strikes. We need fiction so haunting that we cannot hear a news report without thinking, “A person died in that drone strike, even though he would rather not have died in that drone strike.”
This was the genius of Teju Cole’s drone stories. By ending some of the most complex fictional lives in our collective consciousness with drone strikes, he is signaling to us that these strikes are ending lives as “large and wondrous” as Meursault’s and Mrs. Dalloway’s and Ishmael’s, and before they’ve even made it through the first lines of their stories.
Beachamp, to be fair, does credit Cole with “draw[ing] the public’s attention onto the all-too-often invisible foreign victims of our counterterrorism policies.” But he then goes on to say fiction is limited politically because it is not “about making an argument with facts.” No, it isn’t. It is, or can be when done right, about something more important. It is about freeing the reader’s empathetic imagination from the rationale of argument. U.S. citizens will need such radical empathy if we are to challenge a remote-controlled policy done to invisible others in the name of our safety.
Currently, most of our sense of the impact of drone strikes is numerical, abstract. Akin, in Adam’s words, “to a report by Amnesty International.” We read it in the NYU/Stanford study “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan.” We follow it in @dronestream, which is tweeting out “every reported US drone strike, from 2002-2012.” Teju Cole’s “seven Short Stories” are an important intervention here, but they are not enough. They help us to feel the drone’s impact as metaphor, not as imagined experience. A drone strike is like ending Moby Dick before it begins, but how does it feel for the citizens of Pakistan? @dronestream is an interesting case in this regard because while it is mostly a growing list of names and dates and numbers, every so often a little detail of humanity slips in. Take today’s entry: “Mar 17, 2011: 42 people, mostly civilians, sat near a bus depot, talking. A drone ended their conversation (Pakistan)” Or this one from December 31: “Nov 26, 2010: Sanaullah Jan, a college student, was killed in his car with 3 others. His student ID remained (Pakistan)”
These entries read like short stories. They read, in fact, like another Teju Cole Twitter project, his “small fates,” tweets based on the crime and metro stories from Nigerian newspapers. “Who’s the witch in your family? The Igwes in Benue decided theirs was Vincent, and his nine brothers bashed him to death while he slept.” Or “In Abeokuta, Olubanke was finally learning how to drive. Crossing the road ahead, Ogbu checked his BlackBerry for the last time.” Both feeds share a staccato rhythm, enforced by commas or short sentences, and they end on brutal punch lines. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Josh Begley, the grad student behind @dronestream, told New York Magazine that he was partly inspired by “small fates,” and how it was “beautiful and devastating at the same time.” Teju Cole, in his turn, has praised @dronestream, so from “small fates” to @dronestream to “Seven Short Stories About Drones,” you can almost trace a circle of inspiration.
But I think “small fates,” and the few bits of humanity in @dronestream, are closer to the type of fiction we need about our drone program. We need fiction that helps us imagine the lives and inner lives behind the names and numbers. We need “beautiful and devastating at the same time,” which is, after all, what the best fiction shows life to be.
Images via justseeds