The Indypendent spoke with novelist and social critic Francine Prose this week. Amid airport protests against the president’s executive order that barred U.S. entry to travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations, Prose penned an op-ed in the U.K. Guardian on Jan. 30 calling for a general strike against the Trump administration. It has since been shared on social media over 120,000 times.
We discussed her reading recommendations for our new political era, the role literature and history play in social resistance, Kafka, Saturday Night Live and her call to action. Since her op-ed appeared numerous calls for a general strike have gone out; for February 17, for May Day, and for a Women’s Strike on March 8.
The Indypendent: Your opinion piece in the Guardian has received a lot of attention. What inspired you to write it?
Francine Prose: The same thing that inspired so many people to do what they are doing, which is that I’ve been thinking about how best to stop the government's policies and so forth. I mean, I wrote the piece right after the immigration ban and the fantastic response, with people going to airports. Everyone is just searching for various ways, for the widest range of ways to resist.
The last time you caused a stir was after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Your comments drew a lot of criticism and sparked controversy. But you pointed out a narrative at play in the coverage of the attack that went something like, "savage Islam is invading the West.” Do you see that as a narrative that played out with Trump's election, as well?
I never questioned Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of speech. I never questioned their right to publish what they published, nor did I, obviously, support the attack on their offices. All I was trying to say was that I didn't think they deserved an award because of the quality of the publication.
But I do think there's a great deal of Islamophobia out there. Trump’s executive order is a Muslim ban. Whether or not the president and Bannon and so forth choose to call it a Muslim ban, that’s in fact what it is.
Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cartoons were rather Islamophobic. Perhaps it’s about time writers and artists direct their satire at the powerful again. Trump seems to be pretty ripe for satire. Can you see that being a weapon that artists and writers can use in this new age?
Sure! Saturday Night Live has just been thrilling. I can think of a lot of people who haven’t watched SNL for a long time who are watching it whenever they can again; because of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression, because of Melissa McCarthy's brilliant version of Sean Spicer. Satire has always been a weapon, and a very useful one, especially in this case, since apparently our president elect is so sensitive to personal slights, and has no sense of humor insofar as we can tell.
Your works Lovers at the Chameleon Club and Mister Monkey take on fascism and imperialism respectively. How do politics factor into your thought process when you approach your fiction?
Writing fiction doesn't start that way for me. With Chameleon Club I wanted to tell a story about something that happened in France in the 1930's and 1940's, and of course that wound up being about why someone — a character, in this case, based on a real person — goes to work for the Gestapo. That's what it wound up being about, but I can't say that I started off saying that I'm going to write a novel about the rise of fascism.
I've noticed a lot of calls for general strikes. Are you worried that calling for a general strike might seem flippant, ignorant of all the work that goes into organizing one? There's never been a general strike in this country. Occupy called for a general strike, although it didn't really pan out that way. What's a responsible way of going about this?
Well look, the resistance has to be defined as broadly as possible. If there's a demonstration on February 17, which I've been reading about, call it a strike, call it a mass protest, call it a boycott, call it a walkout. That would be great. I've been hearing about a women's strike on March 8, and that would be good. I've been hearing about a strike on May Day. It's not as if there's going to be one defining event. Every single person in this country could not go to work on a single day and it wouldn't force Donald Trump out of office, but I think that everything that everybody does helps. The Yemeni grocery shut-down the other day was brilliant, brilliant! Whether people call in to their congressmen, or they go to a protest, or whatever they do, all that is important. The important thing is to just keep doing it and not stop.
There is a great quote from the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg where she defined the mass strike as "a perpetually moving and changing sea of phenomena." Do you see that as what's necessary?
Sounds like a great idea! Excellent!
What role can writers play in a general strike? We're not bodega owners. Our labor seems to be slightly removed from the flow of commerce.
Everyone, writers included, can do what they can do. If you own a bodega, shut it down. If you write, write an essay for somewhere. Every single person who wants to become involved can become involved. If you have a telephone you can call your congressman. Every single person can use their skills and gifts and job and whatever they have to resist.
What books would you recommend that people read in this new Trump era? What are you reading? And specifically, do you have any recommendation for those who are going out there and organizing a general strike?
There are two sides to it. For one, books on nonviolence, books on the history of nonviolence; but also any of the texts that were written under Stalin or under Hitler, and so forth. Those are very helpful to look at why people resist, or why people support fascism or totalitarianism of every sort — just to begin to think about these things, to look critically in a kind of holistic way at what's happening, what can be done, what has been done and what hasn't.
History books are extremely important. The fact that our president didn't seem to know that Frederick Douglass was dead would seem to imply that he doesn't know very much about history. The more we know about history — that of our country and everyone else's — the better off we are.
How do you feel about Kafka? In a way, in this world of alternative facts, maybe he was our prophet.
He was. I mean we've known this for a long time. You know, various totalitarian movements have followed after he wrote The Trial and so on. Certain writers have had a kind of prescient view of what was going to happen.