Jennifer Clement is the author of multiple books, including Widow Basquiat and Gun Love. She was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship and the Sara Curry Humanitarian Award for Prayers for the Stolen. The president of PEN International, she currently lives in Mexico City. Here, she explores the role of literature, in tackling difficult subjects, in empathy.
The novel has always been home to social issues and has had a greater lasting power on readers than journalism. This is because the self-enclosed nature of literature asks for greater exercise in empathy from the reader. Good examples of novels telling difficult stories that create social change are Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Émile Zola’s description on the inhuman conditions of French miners in his novel Germinal.
Novelists like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë told difficult stories that also enlightened society. In the UK, a woman cannot buy a house today without thinking of how Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre exposed the desperate and humiliating search of their protagonists for husbands as well as the patriarchic laws that made everything women owned belong to the men they married. These novels also underscored the lack of protection for unmarried women and how they had to depend on the compassion of relatives.
In the United States, Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, set a moral compass through Atticus Finch’s consistent values and commitment to justice. At this moment in the history of the United States—and the globe—it’s heartening to know that thousands of students are still reading this book as part of the school curriculum.
I’ve written several novels that have to do with social issues. Even my memoir, Widow Basquiat, on New York City in the early 1980s and Jean-Michel Basquiat and his muse (and my muse) Suzanne Mallouk touches on racism in the art world. I have written about the mistreatment of servants and on the stealing of girls in Mexico in A True Story Based on Lies and Prayers for the Stolen.
In my recent novel, Gun Love, I explore gun violence. While fictional, these stories are always supported by many years—and sometimes decades—of research. My first visit to the NRA, for the writing of Gun Love, was in 2009, and my essay “The Church of the Gun” appeared shortly thereafter. However, my impulse to write never comes from a desire to write on difficult subjects that raise social issues, but rather what moves and disturbs me personally. The most central to this is a concern with voice and form.
In Prayers for the Stolen, I wanted to write about the theft of girls into sex trafficking cartels to show how the most depraved exist with the divine, with aspects of humor and enchantment. Charles Dickens—in his brilliant and amusing way—referred to the mix of tragedy and comedy as “streaky bacon.”
With Gun Love I’ve written in a lyrical way about the tragedy of gun violence and have relied strongly on the rhythms of music as a reference throughout the book. For example, when I list the variety of guns, the sound makes me think of a somber, mesmerizing drum beat: “ . . . there was a Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle, DPMS Panther Arms assault rifle, Smith & Wesson handgun, Llama handgun, Glock pistol, Smith & Wesson pistol, Taurus pistol, Del-Ton assault rifle, .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol, .45-caliber Glock, Beretta pistol, Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol, Remington shotgun, Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, .22-caliber Savage Mark II rifle, Springfield Armory semiautomatic handgun, Smith & Wesson semiautomatic rifle, Remington shotgun, Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol, FN Herstal pistol, Beretta 92 FS 9mm pistol, and a Beretta PX4 Storm pistol . . . And I could hear the song like an anthem: I have a hard time missing you baby, with my pistol in your mouth. Just roll your pretty eyes if you intend to stay.”
As the President of PEN, I believe in the power of literature to expand our understanding of what it means to be human. PEN is the world’s oldest and largest international literary organization. We stand for freedom of expression and act as a powerful voice on behalf of writers who are harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes even killed for their work. Since the organization’s founding almost one hundred years ago, PEN has defended the voice of the silenced across the globe. One of the founding values of PEN is that literature can and does play a significant role in creating social change because telling difficult stories so often exposes the truth.