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reflections

Come Hell or High Water

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George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, has experienced a big upsurge in popularity in recent weeks. Obviously its depiction of a culture under surveillance is resonating with contemporary readers. I suspect it’s not only Big Brother that new readers will find relevant to our present landscape, but also the ubiquitous doublespeak, the hyped-up militancy, the pressure toward conformity. A dystopia is most chilling when it is relatable…

But dystopic fiction, by design, includes a counterpressure. In 1984, we cheer for Winston’s determined regard for independent thought, for beauty, for genuine relationship, even though we don’t know if he’s powerful enough to hold up against the machinery of his society.

That tug-of-war powers the novel, but it’s also the thing we carry away from it. As we read, we’re imbedded in a clash of values—we experience, by proxy, a society where the dignity and well-being of the many has been sacrificed for the benefit of a few. When we’re released into our own lives again, it’s up to us to unpack our discoveries.

Artists, no matter what discipline, are speculators. They observe, they imagine, then they work to express their speculations. Sometimes what they have to say is disturbing, and that’s as it should be. Art has a relationship to the world, and it shines a light on what we do—or don’t do—as we live our lives.

Looking right at colliding value systems generates some amazing artistic expressions. I’m thinking about Steve Kirby’s “Telluride,” a high-charge piece that captures not only the inhospitable terrain of mountainous Colorado, but also the clash of indigenous and settler peoples. To hell you ride—the piece places you on that journey.

I’m thinking about the scathing and witty art pieces by Franke James, a woman who calls herself an environmental artist/advocate, and who has been blacklisted by the Canadian government for speaking up about climate change. Banned on the Hill, her recent collection of pictorial essays, is visually delightful and dense with demand. It’s getting attention around the world.

I’m thinking about Swarm, a soon-to-be-released debut novel by Lauren Carter, a writer who now lives in The Pas. Its main characters have become squatters on a remote island, after the implosion of the financial, social, and environmental structures of a city that sounds a lot like Toronto. Could I survive without power or money, scrounging for basic essentials?

In an interview a couple of years back, I asked Margaret Atwood, a master of dystopic fiction—think of The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, After the Flood—how she sustained her own courage when she’s writing about realities that are so devastated and bleak. I admitted that I sometimes feel shut down by the weight of a dystopic vision, paralyzed by the scope and severity of the disasters we humans create.

She looked at me a long minute, smiled a bit, and said, “Telling these stories is my way of being hopeful.”


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