One obvious fact for me, speaking as someone who both loves to read and who writes fiction, is that fiction should not be expected to play any sort of “role” for anyone, any more than a film — unless perhaps it is a propaganda film — should play a “role” for its viewers. Rather, the ways in which we respond to the work of art in question — interact with it, live with it, and weave it into our lives, memory and even rituals — will determine the work’s ultimate “role” for us, subject to change over time. The profundity and duration of these interactions will depend on whether we felt accompanied by the author on a journey where our imagination achieved a confluence with the author’s. These journeys are invariably fiction’s greatest gift to us: sojourns through which the work not only touched something within us, but may even have reached the “frozen sea within us” that Kafka so yearned to chop open with an axe.
The ways in which we respond to the work of art in question will determine its ultimate ‘role’ for us, subject to change over time.
But in reflecting on fiction’s presence within and relevance to a specific society, I look toward a warmer, more primeval sea, the Caribbean, and think again of Jamaica, the country most crucial to me and utterly vital to much of my thought and imagination. In Jamaica, and in the Caribbean region as a whole, the presence and possibility of fiction’s existence and production cannot be taken for granted as they are in the enormous, wealthy United States. Yet, perhaps precisely because books are such precious and not-guaranteed presences in Jamaica, many people there hunger passionately for fiction, and appreciate it in resounding ways, as the past successes of the Jamaica-based Calabash Literary Festival have shown. In the Caribbean, where literacy and poverty abide as harsh concerns, it may be even more critical that we become more aware of each other’s stories: Jamaicans sojourning the fiction of Martinicans and Barbadians, for example, and Trinidadians the works of Cubans and Curaçaoans, and all possible combinations. For it is at last undeniable that for all of us, wherever we may be, the opportunity to experience other people’s stories — their fiction — is a powerfully human one, that requires the uncommon and invaluable skills of careful listening and the ability to enter the lives of people different from ourselves.
If the question of fiction’s “role” again arises, we and those who craft the stories can identify ourselves as the players; we may discern that it is in fact the vast realm of the imagination and all of its characters, ourselves included, who time and again both describe and delineate the limitless boundaries of the stage.