Any kind of art that seems to be just about normal people, it’s judged less by how good of a work of art it is, and more by how much the critic thinks that that is true to life. Which, you know, I think might be why something like Boyhood was so hugely praised, whereas something like Margaret was a little unfairly marginalized. There were people who said, “OK, well, I don’t relate to these characters,” or, “I think the way they speak is off from real-life” as opposed to saying, “Is what’s being expressed in it—is the emotional content true to life?” You can just look on Youtube and see clips into people’s real life very easily, so I’m actually more excited by that feeling of, I’m being immersed completely in this one guy’s view of the world. But, obviously, I get more excited talking about other people’s work than my own.
In Uganda, I wrote a questionaire that I had my research assistants give; on it, I asked about the embalasassa, a speckled lizard said to be poisonous and to have been sent by Prime minsister Milton Obote to kill Baganda in the late 1960s. It is not poisonous and was no more common in the 1960s than it had been in previous decades, as Makerere University science professors announced on the radio and stated in print… I wrote the question, What is the difference between basimamoto and embalasassa? Anyone who knows anything about the Bantu language—myself included—would know the answer was contained in the question: humans and reptiles are different living things and belong to different noun classes… A few of my informants corrected my ignorance… but many, many more ignored the translation in my question and moved beyond it to address the history of the constructs of firemen and poisonous lizards without the slightest hesitation. They disregarded language to engage in a discussion of events… My point is not about the truth of the embalasassa story… but rather that the labeling of one thing as ‘true’ and the other as ‘fictive’ or ‘metaphorical’—all the usual polite academic terms for false—may eclipse all the intricate ways in which people use social truths to talk about the past. Moreover, chronological contradictions may foreground the fuzziness of certain ideas and policies, and that fuzziness may be more accurate than any exact historical reconstruction… Whether the story of the poisionous embalasassa was real was hardly the issue; there was a real, harmless lizard and there was a real time when people in and around Kampala feared the embalasassa. They feared it in part because of beliefs about lizards, but mainly what frightened people was their fear of their government and the lengths to which it would go to harm them. The confusions and the misunderstandings show what is important; knowledge about the actual lizard would not.
You don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life. The opposite. I mean, you’d be foolish to. Now, some American poets present the reader with a slice of life, saying, I went to the store today, and I saw a man, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew we were … thieves. And aren’t we all thieves? You know, this is extracting from everyday experience a statement about life, or a moral.
I happen to believe that the deepest value of fiction is that, in its very fictiveness, it is the one arena where we can, at least temporarily, take apart and refuse to compete within the terms that the rest of existence insists on. Market value may come to drive out all other human values, except, perhaps, in the country of invented currency, the completely barter-driven economy of the imagination. Fiction, when it remembers its innate priority over other human transactions, can deal not in price but in worth. And that seems to me an act filled with political potential, as well as with pleasure.