Keep speaking up against the powerful

October 19, 2007

Writing in an Age of Silence

By Sara Paretsky

Verso, 2007

138 pages, $39.95 (hb)

On the day before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sara Paretsky, crime fiction writer, was scheduled to talk to the Toledo public library in Ohio on civil liberties and the library in an age of terrorism, only to be asked by a politically nervous library administration to change her topic to humourous anecdotes from the life of a popular novelist. Paretsky thought about acquiescing — "I don't like hostility. I don't relish confrontation ... I am vulnerable to angry criticism ..." But, knees shaking in fear of a negative reaction from a crowd potentially hyped-up on star-spangled banner patriotism, she delivered her planned talk.

"The five hundred people in the audience who'd come out in a rainstorm to hear me gave me an ovation", writes a heartened and relieved Paretsky in Writing in an Age of Silence, her eloquently pugnacious collection of lectures and essays: "many ... told me afterwards that each thought they were the only person in the community who opposed the invasion, and the sacrifice of civil liberties in the name of public safety". It was a tear-welling revelation and a vindication of the writer's responsibility to not let fear of the patriotic mob or the blare of official outrage lead them into self-censorship.

"We like to think in America we are all four-square for individualism and for individual expression, and that only in totalitarian states do people cave in to threats", writes Paretsky, who knows otherwise, having been raised in a four-square-for-freedom, and deeply racist, Midwestern town in Kansas in the 1950s, "when America was obsessed with the threat of Communism" and teachers were sacked, liberals harassed and vigilante violence incited against "godless atheists" by the daily newspaper.

Four decades later, Paretsky is not surprised by the ease with which "panic-peddling and fear rule us" today, and how censorship, arrests, spying, pernicious laws and manufactured "anti-terrorist" hysteria are directed at approved enemies, from the domestic critics of Bush administration policies or ethnically and religiously "suspicious" foreigners.

1950s Kansas also limited the horizons for girls to marriage and motherhood. Paretsky struggled against the low expectations for girls held by her parents and professors, becoming a feminist in 1971, opposed to the sexist view that saw adult women as children or sexual objects or chattel animals. She enlisted in the front-line of reproductive sexual politics, confronting the "six thousand acts of terror" against legal abortion clinics since 1973 by doing clinic escort duty in Chicago, where she was kicked and spat on, and called a "Christ killer, baby killer".

Whilst growing up, Paretsky had nurtured in secret an imaginary inner life and, whilst working on her PhD on the 19th Century roots of US Christian fundamentalism, had indulged her secret vice of crime fiction. Her illicit literary love of the private detective novel was inspired by Raymond Chandler's critically edgy books. But from 1982 when her novels first appeared, Paretsky subverted the female stereotypes of the traditional private eye novel. Paretsky's private investigator, Victoria Warshawski, is an intelligent, problem-solving, unmarried career woman, neither helpless child, vamp nor sexual monster. Her fictional hero grew up in the same poor southside of Chicago that had "changed my life in almost every important way" in a summer of community service work in 1966 to which Paretsky and her fellow idealistic university students brought "a passion for service and social justice, and the boundless energy and optimism of our generation".

Paretsky, the writer, also capsized another myth besides women's inferiority — the "American mythology which glorifies the individual at the expense of society". Her novels tackle "America's unique contribution to the crime novel" — the "fascination with the loner hero" — through her socially connected private eye who is actively engaged in her community and investigates crimes that affect those communities. "I have often written about corporate corruption, and the cynical indifference of large institutions to the well-being of ordinary citizens", she comments.

Paretsky feels some despondency about the prospects for resisting the right-wing Christian fundamentalist-led backlash against the political and social gains of the '60s. Yet, Paretsky knows,"I can't stand idly by while my beloved country reduces its citizens to speaking in whispers out of fear of what their invisible, invasive government may do" and the "USA Patriot Act" forces people to choose sides (with us or against us, patriot or terrorist).

The criticisms in Paretsky's novels of the way law enforcement agencies try to silence V.I. Warshawski elicit "very strong hate mail, accusing me of hating Jesus and hating America because I question whether the FBI should be able to come into my detective's home and take her files away ('paranoid pinko-liberal trash', wrote one excited fan)". Hate mail, bad laws, censorship by government and the corporate market, all challenge Paretsky to return to "the dominant question of my life — the effort to find a voice, the effort to help others on the margin find a voice, the effort to understand and come to terms with questions of power and powerlessness". In novel and lecture, Paretsky's response — to keep speaking up against the powerful — is one to both enjoy and to emulate.

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