All empires eventually fall, don’t they? Forgive me, I wished yours upon you.
For the past decade, I have written your demise, speculating in a long work of fiction the future that might unfold if you fell to your knees. I mean really fell to your knees. Stripped of economic supremacy with which to manipulate the rest of the world. Spent of cheap oil to light your lamps and run your engines.
My speculation began in the years after we (you? they? what is the proper pronoun?) started bombing Baghdad. I’d been struggling to write essays about your hubris and imperialism, about the hypocrisy of your empire. An empire built with disregard for the traditions of those who’d stewarded your land the longest and on the backs of those you welcomed to your shores but rarely unconditionally.
The essays were an attempt at reconciling my disdain for your superpower status with the reality of the privileges it has afforded me. The essays were big and unwieldy and mired in shame.
Then one day, while waiting on my bicycle for a train loud with graffiti to pass, I decided to hand over the mess to fictional characters and see what happened.
What if someone or something unplugged you? What would resurrect you? Who would survive and how?
It wasn’t the most original exercise. Hundreds of writers have asked, “What if?” and spun tales about your unraveling. Cyborgs and aliens have infiltrated your systems; nuclear holocausts have left lone men (and less often, lone women) to search your desiccated landscape for survivors and seeds; cataclysmic natural events have suffocated you in ice, tidal waves, bees, or black blobs.
Perhaps imagining disaster beyond the scale of anything real and then imagining a way out is in itself a kind of hubris.
Or is it a kind of devotion?
Because when I lost you, America, is when I began to love you.
Your adaptive spirit. Your desire to do the right thing. Your willingness to roll up your sleeves. Your generosity.
Throughout the horrors of the Iraq war and the 2008 financial collapse and rising sea levels and Trayvon and Ferguson and the extinction of the Bramble Cays melomys and Standing Rock and the tragic election of 2016—the only thing that could fortify me against despair was envisioning how you might rise, America, if you truly fell.
When I wrote your unraveling, onto the page came violence, of course, along with illness and grief and marauders and gangs of orphans made vicious by desperation and a disappeared future. But also came egg-laying chickens. And low-power radio, gardens, and rainwater harvesting. And more kindness than I thought possible.
In imagining your ruin, America, I discovered your resilience.
And so now, amidst what feels like a true unraveling—at the precipice of actual, incomprehensible loss (health insurance, arts and humanities funding, clean air and water, public lands, racial justice, reproductive choice, non-discrimination, free speech, a free press) with a mad, swaggering charlatan at the helm—I’m thinking a lot about fiction.
Not “fake news” or the stream of lies told by the double-dealer and his counselors and secretaries. But the grave and tender act of world-building.
Beyond your policies and your bravado, America, I found your people. Your irrepressible and generous people. A history teacher knowledgeable about the collapse of empires. A fair trade activist whose global cause becomes radically circumscribed. A plucky teenaged girl with a love for the terse lines of Emily Dickinson. A brigade of bicycle superheroes.
All their hope and secrets. All their love for you.
I wrote villains, too. But the more I got to know them the more I could see their motivations. One was driven by deep, blue pain. The same pain I know inside myself and in those I love. It was your pain, America. And that also made me love you.
Your warblers and chickens and goats. Your deserts and dark forests. Your blue mountains and golden fields. Your playwrights and midwives. Your carpenters and librarians. Your neighborhood meetings and community gardens. Your survivalists and tinkerers. Your deejays and soapmakers and street vendors. Your fruit trees, your rain, your railroads.
In fiction I found an opening, a way to carry present particulars into plausible futures. It wasn’t a turn away from reality, but a revolution towards the possible, a reach beyond the real. If the truth kept me in shame, the make-believe gave me opportunity. There was a way out—I could invent it.
Stephen King calls fiction the truth inside the lie. George Saunders calls it a compassion-generating machine. Susan Sontag said we need it in order to stretch our world.
For me, fiction is a kind of faith. An invitation to keep going. A blueprint for beauty and adaptation. A reminder of where to look for hope.
A month after I sold my novel (an indication that readers never really tire of reading about your fall), I traveled to your westernmost state—that “island in the Pacific.” I walked for miles over some of the newest earth on the planet, across acres of cooled ropy lava recently spilled from the active volcano Kilauea. Where rain and condensate gathered in lava cracks, incandescent green ferns rose up. Older lava flows supported ohi’a lehua trees, an evergreen native to Hawai’i with signature red flowers, like beacons across the charred landscape.
Destruction begets creation. These are your micro-spaces of regeneration, America. Reinvention is your birthright.
I bless the journalists of the hour, working late in the darkness to illuminate the truths of your current nightmare. But I wonder if the wake-up bell might already be ringing.
Everyday someone utters, You can’t make this shit up.
But maybe we can. Maybe we must.
Header photo lava flowing on Hawaiian beach by skeeze, courtesy Pixabay.