Three on writing

Writing in an Age of Silence
Sara Paretsky

The Case for Literature
Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee
Yale University Press

Ralph Ellison: A Biography
Arnold Rampersad

Sara Paretsky shouldn’t be a writer. “In Kansas during the fifties,” writes the best-selling mystery novelist of her home state, “girls often saw limited horizons in their future.” Writing in an Age of Silence is the story of how Paretsky overcame these burdens. It’s a brief but affecting memoir—most notable for the feminist angle with which she approaches her family history.

Paretsky’s parents were educated left-wing descendants of social activists, but they worked hard to reinforce the conservative values of the 1950s at home. Her brothers were sent away to college. She was told she had to pay her own way and that she wasn’t allowed to leave Kansas. Nowhere, according to Paretsky, was the reaction to the women’s movement, the Civil Rights Movement, or the anti-war movement as violent as it was in her hometown of Lawrence.

Growing up bookish and dreamy in this environment, Paretsky began to associate writing with resistance and breaking silence. In this way, she began to feel a kinship with Victorian-era writers. As with Mary Gaskell and Louisa May Alcott, writing was how she broke the code of self-sacrifice that had been drummed into her.

It’s a surprising revelation for a writer of modern-day mysteries to feel such a familial, cross-century connection with highbrow literary writers, but, then again, Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawksi series is much more than blood and entertainment. “I wanted to create a woman who would turn the tables on the dominant views of women in fiction and society,” she said.

“I have no way of knowing whether it was fate that has pushed me onto this dias,” said Chinese dissident playwright Gao Xinjian when he was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize for literature. “But as various lucky coincidences have created this opportunity, I may as well call it fate.”

Gao had reason to be suspicious of grand narratives. After all, in 1983, he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, only to learn shortly thereafter his death sentence was a mistake. He responded to the reprieve by taking a 10,000-mile walk in the southwest of China. After returning, he was arrested and imprisoned, and constantly harassed both for his writing and any plays he attempted to have performed.

This bracing and inspiring book of essays, which contains Gao’s Nobel lecture, presents the opposite of what one might imagine from such a tortured soul. Gao is no joiner of causes, no trumpeter of ideas. All he believes in are truth and authenticity and the writer’s dedication to both. “To be without ‘isms,’” he writes, “is to return to the individual, to return to viewing the world through the eyes of the writer, who relies on his own perceptions and does not act as a spokesman for people.”

Between 1952 and his death in 1994, as he failed to deliver the second novel the public so eagerly wanted, Ralph Ellison slowly became a monument in the public’s mind, less a man than an author preserved in amber.

In this tremendous biography, Rampersad, who has written of both Jackie Robinson and Langston Hughes, brings Ellison back down to human scale, relating the writer’s remarkable, deeply sad life with reportorial flare and unflinching honesty.

Rampersad follows Ellison from his Oklahoma roots to Tuskegee, to New York and to Plainfield, Mass., where in November of 1967 a fire famously destroyed an early draft of Juneteenth, which was probably the most eagerly awaited second novel in American letters (and eventually published in heavily expurgated form after Ellison’s death). Rampersad is a deeply sympathetic biographer, but by no means excessively forgiving. Here is Ellison full of rage, talent, vain and ambitious, but fired by a deep moral clarity.