‘Politicians beg for satire. All you have to do is be militantly realistic’

Authors Jessica Anthony and Deb Olin Unferth discuss writing political satire

Jessica Anthony: Both of us have written novels through the Trump administration, and both can be considered "political". In 1962 James Baldwin gave a lecture called The Artist's Struggle for Integrity, in which he said: "The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don't. Statesmen don't. Priests don't. Union leaders don't. Only poets."

No novelist wants to be a didact and polemical fiction fails for all kinds of reasons. There is something subversive and radical, it seems, about the nature of the poetic truth, in that it has to live beneath the fiction, and can never be stated outright.

I know that you’ve written deeply in nonfiction about the myriad offences of egg production, which is extremely tough to read; your new novel, Barn 8, feels even more political in that we as readers recognise these truths in it, and are forced to examine the fact that the novel so deeply entertains us. It’s political because it’s emotional.

Deb Olin Unferth: It does seem that artists and writers have a closer chance at grasping at some kind of truth, since artists are beholden to no one, unlike statesmen and union leaders, all of whom have constituents depending on them is told.


Barn 8 is told from many points of view, all circling around one event-the attempted theft of one million chickens. That structure made it feel democratic somehow, the web of all these connected people and animals headed toward this single moment. And the question was: Would they make it? I was rooting for them, I can tell you.

When I was reading your book, Enter the Aardvark, I was struck by how much our novels have in common because yours also features a disrespected creature – an aardvark – as totem and star and centre of the show. Were you surprised by that?

JA: I knew that I wanted to write about a politician, but when I began, I didn't expect the stuffed aardvark to take over in the way that it did! I knew this politician would find his entire career obliterated in roughly 24 hours, but thought the aardvark would sort of disappear and make room for other disasters. But I quickly realised that the aardvark, stuffed in a taxidermist's shop in Leamington Spa, England in 1875, could sort of move through time, and was amused by the fact that this innocuous stuffed beast could, 150 years later, offer some illumination about the hypocrisy and intransigence of your modern day right winger.

DOU: Which goes back to the point James Baldwin made about poetic truth. I think that writers can be as subversive as they like with very little consequence, if they are good enough at what they do and can be funny. Irish writers have long shown us how to be radical and political, without skimping on the philosophical, emotional, and hilarious. It's hard to imagine contemporary literature existing without their influence.

JA: Flann O'Brien is the perfect writer for right now. We need a mischievous rogue in our ranks. I wonder what Samuel Beckett would have made out of Donald Trump? I can't see Beckett being beholden to constituents. He would probably transport them all to a pig farm. There was always some lightness and humour in Obama, and obviously in Bill Clinton. Trump is too mean to be funny. Watching ancient Joe Biden rise up from the ashes makes me wonder what kind of truth you might tell if you wrote about a character like him nowadays.

DOU: The politicians of today are easy targets, begging for satire and fiction is absolutely the place to describe where we are now in terms of the absurd. All you have to do is be militantly realistic. The more carefully and precisely you describe what you see, the more the craziness of the situation lays itself bare. For me the place where comedy or satire becomes art is when it makes you laugh, but then crosses for a moment into grief or pain or revelation: Molloy dragging that bicycle across the countryside. The sermon in Portrait of the Artist.

JA: Militant realism is right. I keep hearing everyone saying "it's so surreal" – whether they're talking about the virus or the political situation – but there is nothing surreal about this moment. This is hard core rationalism. Of course you have to laugh at all the excess, or you're doomed. I feel like I'm constantly watching America trip, and take a nasty tumble down the stairs.

DOU: There is nothing surreal about this moment, except perhaps this one thing: doesn't it seem eerie that in this time of extreme partisanship all over the world, that we are suddenly faced with this global crisis that is going to require multi-level unity for us all to get through it?

That is the sort of plot move we love in fiction – bring the whole set of characters to the edge of a cliff, push them off, and then pull them back with a rope in such a way that they all get tangled and injured as they crawl their way back to solid ground.

And isn’t it a relief and a shock to watch the internet turn from the villian-pest it has been for the past five years into this loving space where we are all cooking dinners together, having virtual cocktail hours, and talking to our parents more than we have in the past decade?

JA: It is extraordinary to watch how people are coping or not coping. It is good to see people being kind to one another but as a novelist, I can't help but wonder what awaits us when the novelty dries out.

Two main revelations from the virus so far: 1) Soulless politicians are really shit at handling a global pandemic, and 2) the everyday, mundane life of the novelist – staying in, writing, cooking, reading, going online – is not all that different from living through a pandemic. Still, there is as much to learn, I have to believe, in the lovely way a person walking their dog skirts six feet around you and glances at you apologetically. Maybe the coronavirus will bring back basic politeness? An era of new civility?

DOU: And there is something to be said – for all of us – for making space for quieting the mind and pondering deep thoughts. I don't meditate but reading and writing quiet my mind. I do think that that practice, of sustained concentration, essential to clear thinking, is the only thing that can save us at this point.

JA: What you say about slowing down resonates: speed and habits of consumption keep us from each other and from the natural world. It's about the fight for a reasonable speed, so there's room for a least the tiniest bit of empathy. I think this is what I was getting at earlier. It's vital that our leaders possess thriving imaginations, so they can put themselves in the position of the people they represent.

I’ve been reading a lot of Grace Paley lately. She said way back in 1982: “We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and the imagination. We are right to be afraid.” And for that, as you say, we need to quiet the mind. My novel began back in 2012 when the phrase “enter the aardvark” appeared in my mind, a little scrap of poetry that I sat with for three years.

DOU: I love that your book came from three words. Isn't it crazy that something so small as an image or a few words can blow up into a long project that tries to bring together everything we've ever thought about?

I feel like the novel, the novel form, is precisely that: a snapshot of the author’s mind, but in such a way that all that is contained in the millisecond of the snapshot is spread out over pages and pages, explaining every connection, every side alley, every philosophical belief, every political rant, every fist-banging or head-smacking or drowning-love revelation that the author has.

Complexity: that’s what we need. No more simply signalling approval or disapproval by a smiley face or a frown. Life is so much more.

JA: That's one of the real privations of social distancing. I rely on observing the complicated ways people interact every day, and never feel nourished going online--human behavior online is typically born out of vanity or politeness. Like the way a child behaves when she knows she is being watched. Maybe forced isolation will thicken fiction.

DOU: I have been using social media for many years now, since the earliest days it existed, and still I feel as you do, that it is mostly just vanity and politeness. When I try to express complexity, empathy, intimacy, it feels essentially empty.

JA: Something I've found simultaneously hilarious and terrifying is how powerfully Donald Trump uses Twitter. The more reductive we allow our politicians to become, the worse off we'll be. One of the reasons right-wing ideology and nationalism has become so globally rampant is that we're now regularly communicating through such bytes. Somehow this was all made okay – campaigning online – without any examination for what it does to ideas, the complexity of policy.

Obama is famous for his defense of the scalpel, not the machete. The less space we make to speak to one another, the more we have to simply pick a side and dig in our heels. All of us could stand to be a little more wrong. What frightens me, and has always frightened me, is that so many people are drawn to binary thinking, and genuinely believe that the lack of complexity is a sign of strength or decisiveness.

DOU: People are drawn to binary thinking, yes. You capture that in your novel with your right-wing politician, who is constantly thinking about what "plays". One of my favourite details in your book is when he is watching, with increasing anxiety, the number of emails and texts he is receiving. The number rises and rises and rises. It is hilarious and tension-inducing, all that cyberjunk scrolling and scrolling, so representative of our time. There is no way to stop it, it doesn't even really exist, its accumulation is in our brain, not in space. In a novel there is an end point: the author must stop the book at some point, one way or another. But in the world it doesn't have to end, the scrolling keeps going, infinitely, madly, wretchedly.

JA: Yes, it's in your novel, too – in the minds of the men behind the chicken barns. Think about the kinds of emotion you have to block out to be even remotely okay with piling cage upon cage of birds, making them live in a stinking din, watching what happens to their minds and bodies as they are deprived: in a particularly twisted revelation, we learn that these binary thinkers figured out that hens lay eggs only in light, and so constant light is shone upon them. Maybe calling the public's attention to the dangers of this way of thinking – not only the actions, but the thoughts behind the actions – is part of the answer.
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony is published by Doubleday. Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth is published by And Other Stories and is reviewed in The Irish Times tomorrow