Last night at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, during the fantastic Writing Life #2, I was enthralled with the readings of Gale Zoë Garnett and Elizabeth Hay. Then Ahmad Saidullah took the stage and read from his short story collection. I was enjoying his work until he got to the title story “Happiness and Other Disorders.” The book won second prize in the 2005 CBC literary awards. In the story a very heavy woman falls on the main character. The character goes on and on about how huge this woman is, describing her at one point as a “human air bag.”
The night before, at the Secrets of Literary Publishing session with Stan Dragland, Beth Follett and Allan Breismaster, Beth Follet of Pedlar Press talked of how Pedlar didn’t accept hate literature.
Listening to Mr. Saidullah go on and on about how disgusting this obese woman was, describing the bucket of wine she drank and how much food she ate felt very hateful to me. On the other hand, she’s just one character and the role of satire in particular is to play with extremes and to exaggerate and yet...to me this felt like a cheap and easy thing to do. Fat people are easy to make fun of. That and making fun of the aged seem to be the socially acceptable forms of prejudice and stereotyping today. And as a piece of literature it wasn’t particularly original. After all Rabelais wrote of Gargantua in the 16th century so well and yet not cruelly and not without compassion. That’s what was missing here for me; I heard no compassion for the large woman, I just heard the kind of juvenile jokes that children tell in a schoolyard.
I heard only one part of the book, so it is perhaps unfair to focus on this one story and its effect on me. And yet...it was offensive and hurtful and I wasn’t the only one in the audience who found it so.
I am the first to argue that literature should shock us, should wake us up. This story reminded me how cruel some people can be. It made me muse upon what is considered to be hate literature. It made me ask myself about censorship. Would I say that a story such as this shouldn’t be published. Absolutely not. I want prejudice to be out in the open and not hidden. I hope that others at the reading last night thought about this character and her lack of humanity as described by the narrator. I hope that they think about how larger people are treated, how they are dehumanized as the character in this story was, the human airbag.
It also made me muse again about writers’ distance from their narrators. A writer is not a character. If a character in a piece of fiction says vile things and generalizes about a particular group, it is part of the technique of the writer, hopefully to give us insight into that character. And yet in this case, from this particular story, I didn’t get the impression that the reader was meant to see the main character as a cruel person, and I didn’t get the impression that we were supposed to feel compassion for the heavy woman who fell on him. It just felt cruel for the sake of cruelty, for the sake of judgement and belittlement. I didn’t like it and I’m saying so.